Asceticism, angst, and ennui – with Alain Delon!

I’m gone four days and hell breaks loose…

As Stephen Holden wrote today, Ingmar Bergman, and now Michaelangelo Antonioni, belong to cinema’s past, of a time when going to the(ir) movies was a ritual akin to attending high Mass: attending was soul-cleansing. Their asceticism, while often overwrought (and cramped compared to their contemporary Luis Bunuel’s work), scrubbed off the excesses of American and British film, the former of which was going through one of its periodic fallow seasons. I liked a lot of Bergman, with special praise due to Shame, which was long out of print until Criterion did its usual exemplary re-issue in 2004: a spare, savage tone poem on war and marriage; a rare moment in which Bergman refrained from pinning down ambiguities, as was his wont. Too often, though, the rigor with which Bergman solved his psychosexual dilemmas produced inflexible, stitled films. Almost everyone likes Fanny & Alexander more than I do: the first third – an extended, plush sequence at a holiday party – tries too hard to suffuse the audience in the glow of love, proving that Bergman could overdo hearth fires as he could angst; besides, the film should really have been called Alexander and Alexander, as this director obsessed with the mystery of the feminine (a more accurate phrase than the worn, quite condescending moniker “woman’s director”) seems for once interested in his male protagonist. The Silence, Winter Light, and The Hour of the Wolf feel like Woody Allen source material waiting to be exploited (if Woody writes dialogue for films like Interiors that sounds like Swedish subtitles, so does Bergman).

The lacuna at the heart of Antonioni’s L’Avventura, deepened by characters whose sexual needs outstrip their intellectual resources, tantalizes and perplexes like Shame‘s, and screening the scratchy university library’s copy in 1994 remains one of my seminal experiences. But he was about as uneven as Bergman; the disjunction between form and subject produced sometimes laughable films (like most of La Notte, Red Desert and Zabriskie Point, some of Blow-Up). Antonioni stayed a one-hit wonder until (once again) Criterion released The Passenger last year, one of the seventies’ best films, as I wrote here. Eclipse, starring a feral Alain Delon, is almost as good.

Of cigar stands and incandescent guillotines

I envy anyone who gets to hear Pavement for the first time. This reminds me, despite Mallory’s claims, that they were a lot like their detractors said they were, and a great deal more besides. Warming to them around the time of Brighten The Corners — whose title remains the straightest joke Stephen Malkmus has ever told — I situated them in the tradition of Tom Verlaine, the Go-Betweens, Al Green, David Byrne, and Bryan Ferry as another group of wise-ass young men, reeling from the impact of feminism, using their instruments and dubious poetry to figure out that sex = confusion = sex. In an era when Liz Phair and Amy Rigby were reclaiming the tradition of demotic speech to illumine their own experiences dealing with guys less smart and minty-fresh than Malkmus, Pavement seemed a throwback, almost Joni Mitchell-esque in their commitment to gelded lyricism and full-throated, luverly singing (Malkmus was actually funnier than Joni and seemed as incapable of self-importance as he was to wearing Timbalands). Writing those lines about cigar stands and lovely blue incandescent guillotines distanced Malkmus from the sex wars by making a quasi-symbolist joke of them, yet, in their one-of-a-kind spontaneity delivered by a frontman who’s clearly having a great time singing them, reaffirmed his commitment to fighting those wars anyway. Malkmus, like Bernard Sumner, was my kind of guitar hero: too knowing to ever that last noun without scare quotes, capable of self-abasement when he got up to the mic and saw all those people.

The Evolution of Ciara

The chart success of blank R&B songstresses like Rihanna and the newly Timbalanded Nelly Furtado makes me appreciate Ciara’s achievements all the more. If their producers hired them as one more sound in a package that’s increasingly rococo, then at worst they can just stand there and wail. Ciara has the rare talent, last seen in Aaliyah, for making her stillness signify. The tracks I like best on The Evolution (“Get In, Fit In,” “C.R.U.S.H.”) regard love as an protean object that’s stretched and pulled like the sonics surrounding her. Like Mary J. Blige, she’s infatuated with self-help twaddle, but unlike Blige she keeps her distance; there’s a hint of skepticism in her voice even when the songs support the interludes instead of the other way around. The Evolution isn’t about discovery so much as self-realization; she has to get the interludes out of the way so that she can flesh them out in song. There’s still a sense in which Ciara would rather observe a situation than participate, like the chorus of “Like A Boy,” which is a long rhetorical question she neglects to answer.

The more I listen, the more I’m convinced that Ciara’s roots aren’t in R&B; the diva with whom she has most in common is Annie Lennox. Check out that album cover. “Like A Boy” bears a faint similarity — listen to those strings and Ciara’s harmonies — to “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” No one but deluded homos (of whom I’ve met a few) ever praised Lennox for passion. Her commitment was in her predilection for camp (until she started taking her success seriously and actually recorded albums called, of course, Diva). But Ciara remains too evanescent; her blankness keeps her airborne. If there’s camp in her act, it will be of the literal kind: failed seriousness. She’s not guilty of that either.

The screwball of our discontent, Pt. II

James Wolcott’s noticed the sheer looniness of that David Denby jeremiad published in last week’s New Yorker on the condition of modern romantic comedy. Denby writes:

Romantic comedy is entertainment in the service of the biological imperative. The world must be peopled. Even if the lovers are past child-rearing age or, as in recent years, don’t want children, the biological imperative survives, as any evolutionary psychologist will tell you, in the flourishes of courtship behavior.

Wolcott counters:

I haven’t run into any evolutionary psychologists lately but the go-forth-and-multiply edict from The Taming of the Shrew that Denby puts in patriarchal italics doesn’t seem to me to explain in the tiniest bit the appeal or urgency of classic romantic comedies, where if anything the biological imperative seemed to have been suspended, put on hold, magically arrested. Does watching Astaire and Rogers swan together across the dance floor make anyone think of replenishing the species? Does anyone think of Hepburn’s tremulous antics with Cary Grant as a preliminary stage to motherhood? It ruined the fun–the floating illusion–of The Thin Man series once Nick and Nora produced offspring. The world has managed to repopulate for millennia without recourse to Hollywood-style romance or wisecracking comedy (though these obviously make life and civilization more bearable), so maybe the underlying DNA for the genre isn’t as universalist as Denby believes

When I wrote my own demurral last week, I ignored the objectionable passage, thinking it was too easy to tear it apart, especially since as a practicing homosexual who’s befriended plenty of hetero couples for whom children are an irritation I don’t trust the biological imperative (“the world must be peopled”). But Wolcott is right: those romantic comedies of the thirties showed plenty of intercourse, but no sex. I can think of nothing more incongruous than imagining Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers arguing about kids. Well, Rogers maybe; Astaire’s bones were too fine, his presence too ghostly, for living in the material world.

Act Your Age

Trashing a former wise ass is no fun, especially when the rock and roll plains are strewn with the corpses of ironists who renounced their winning ways for a notion of sincerity that doesn’t reckon with the rhythms of biology: a calcifying body needs constant amusement. Senescence without wit is suicide. Nick Lowe won a few admirers for a trio of sincere roots-rock albums released after 1990’s Party of One, a half-sincere attempt at roots-rock. The tune most adduced by critics as a sign that the songwriter responsible for “Marie Prevost” and “(I Love The Sound Of) Breaking Glass” still functioned contained a leaden Rick Astley joke. As for The Impossible Bird and Dig My Mood, I only heard them last year, nodded politely, and filed them in my archives. Since I never had much invested in Lowe anyway – he who lives by pub-rock shall die by pub-rock – I didn’t begrudge him making inoffensive albums brokered by the most generous thing that Whitney Houston’s ever been responsible for, even if it was unintentional.

It would be easy to claim that At My Age is Lowe’s “Love & Theft” – the guy was due, right? Features like this hint that a Lowe revival is in the works (if so, let’s hope that those long out-of-print eighties album you can find easily in used record stores get remastered). But At My Age got more in common with Modern Times; it’s droll and crinkly, with Lowe sounding confident and a backing band to match. Lowe’s persona, however, is too self-effacing, his attention span too short, to transform homespun Farfisa-fueled ditties into anything other than good-to-excellent pub-rock; he has no patience for myth anyway. Ah, but girls – girls inspire him. “I Trained Her To Love Me” and “Rome Wasn’t Built In a Day” are sharp, shapely, and tuneful enough to hope that Bryan Ferry gets around to applying his own considerable persona to songwriting again.

Ambition ill-suits Lowe anyway, and he was quick to make fun of others for being conscious strivers (for all his Americana leanings, this attitude towards ambition revealed his innate Englishness). That’s why “(I Love The Sound Of) Breaking Glass” remains not just the funniest, truest Bowie parody ever recorded, but an excellent dismissal of the social value of alienation. Not to mention the aesthetic value. A listen to those eighties records suggests that Lowe took his own avowals too seriously (Nick the Knife excepted, my favorite Lowe). He confused facility with ease. At My Age is a step towards negotiating a truce between the two. Maybe hooking up with some hotshot guitar slinger – Charlie Sexton, Brad Paisley [!] – would show him how. Youthful facility, meet aging ease.

Temptation in Technicolor

Having survived second-album-syndrome, Dizzee Rascal delivers his most confident release to date. It’s almost silly to write excitedly about Maths + English now that whatever NPR-created aura of exoticism has dissipated, but the indifference with which this has been greeted offends me a bit. We do things a bit differently in America, unlike the British music press’ fervent devotion to one-album ephemerality; I expect a bit more. The most depressing concert I’ve attended in my life was Dizzee’s Miami show in April 2006. In a club with a dancefloor capacity of 250 I counted – no joke – 16 fellow revelers.

Anyway, M+E shows a Dizzee whose at last found a musical correlative for his swollen paranoia, which remains his great subject (accusing him of being repetitive on this count is like accusing Jay-Z of egomania). His flow relaxed, syllables enunciated, he’s more approachable, as if resolved to say his peace and let the arrangements rough you up for a change. Sound effects, like the knives-as-percussion on opener “World Outside,” remind him and us that he needs this world as much as the rest of us, even if it’s closing in. On a purely musical level, it’s my favorite album of the year; Dizzee’s evolved from the spartan ethos of, say, Eric B & Rakim’s Paid in Full to the multi-colored approach of Let The Rhythm Hit’Em. As Marcello remarks, “Da Feelin'” practically begs to be a summer anthem (indeed, it’s Dizzee’s version of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s immortal “Summertime”), and beside the rush of “Flex,” a hybrid of “Britfunk, electro, and purple Unique 3” that Marcello is right to say is a complete success, the album’s middle stretch begs the question of what this guy can do for an encore.

Well, not much. The “industry” serves as target and inspiration: it fucks him over (“Hardback”), threatens his identity (“Where’s Da G’s”), or fattens him to the point of satiety (“Wanna Be”). For the first time the duds – retreads like “Hardback (Industry)” and “U Can’t Tell Me Nuffin'” – represent scantily developed ideas unsalvaged by Dizzee’s enthusiasm. I cringed when I saw a song titled “Suk My Dik,” then relaxed when I realized that this was funnier and faster than anything he’d previously attempted (“Bubbles” does the same trick with Boy in Da Corner‘s “What U On”). Once in a while we hear the Sega/Nintendo beeps on which his first two albums relied, but they serve as reminders of troubles he can’t forget, habits he can’t break. Speaking of the industry, two tracks demonstrate that if he can’t beat them, he’ll join them. The presence of Arctic Monkey leader Alex Turner on “Temptation” is crucial; here’s another young guy who can’t sort out his girl problems and whose own group’s popularity has ebbed back home (not so’s you’d notice though). But Turner’s chorus adds aphoristic emphasis (“Temptation leads like your naughty mate/The one that used to get you in bother/The one you can never bring yourself to hate”) to Dizzee’s grim accounting of sin and forebearance (“Temptation” is Biggie Smalls’ “Juicy” told from the point of view of a friend who failed to benefit from Biggie’s sudden largesse). As for all-around gadfly Lily Allen’s cameo on “Wanna Be,” she mocks Dizzee exactly as you’d expect – she’d giggle at his obsession with size if she’d let him. Comfortable with conflict, ever smutty, ever present, he mocks his manhood with more swagger than his American counterparts.

(crosslisted with A Grand Illusion)