No heart

A few grace notes aside — Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) emptying an orange juice carton of his own urine; the scarily accurate fourth-rate bowling alley updated with an incongruously garish, modern bar; the way Robert Duvall handles a fishing pole; the relief that floods over Bridges when he meets a keyboardist with real promise  — Crazy Heart feels too familiar, too slack, too earnest about Bridges’ down and out country singer’s “journey.” The AA colony Bridges joins looks like a ski lodge, and when Duvall picks him up at the end of his stay I thought he’d dropped him last Friday. I’m also pretty tired of using kids as cute ol’ things who exist solely as objects of suspense. While Maggie Gyllenhaal has never been better lit or been shrewder about deploying her habit of spacing out words when given a line requiring some complexity, I didn’t believe her for a second as a “reporter” or a critic; and while I know guys have written and directed most screenplays since D.W. Griffith, you’d think they’d realize eventually that no one believes a beautiful woman like Gyllenhaal would fuck, much less love, a man as scuzzy — twenty years (at least) her senior! — as Blake. Finally, the country soundtrack sounds like someone’s idea of country. I believed Gyllenhaal when she remarked, awestruck, that it took Bad Blake a few minutes to compose what it took other songwriters years; co-film producer/composer T-Bone Burnett’s assembly-line rhymes and boring chord changes probably took him a few minutes too, and wouldn’t have gotten him a ticket out of the bowling alley circuit.

I’ve a habit when watching a boring movie: I switch actors and points of emphases. If Crazy Heart really sought a heart, it would have concentrated on Colin Farrell’s glib but thoroughly decent hotshot star (I took him to be a Tim McGraw or Rodney Crowell type), honest about his debt to Bad Blake and generous about sharing the spotlight, but tired too of having to bail out his sorry ass with second-rate bourbon and publishing royalties. A concert scene in which Farrell insists that Bridgers share his mic generates real tension; the camera, taking its cue from Bridges’ wary, begrudging focus on Farrell,  circles the actors tentatively. Still, if Jeff Bridges — one of three or four most consistently interesting actors of both sexes of the last forty years — is gonna get his Oscar, he can do worse than pretend he’s in The Wrestler II: Mickey Goes West. His Dude from The Big Lebowski is a funnier scuzzball, but you know, the Academy doesn’t “do” comedy. The best performance in Crazy Heart, actually, is Duvall’s. In a few economical strokes he creates a man who’s put up with a lot of shit and will cheerfully put up with more for a friend’s sake, but try to take his bar — his livelihood — away and he’ll tear your ass open. It takes Duvall seconds. Think Bad Blake’s got that kind of talent?

2009: Best Films

Rather late, but I needed to catch up on a couple more films; in the case of Bright Star, I’m very glad I did. I’m not comfortable with the results, particularly the high showing for Inglorious Basterds, but my ambivalences aside, I can’t shake how well its good sequences play, and how audacious and stupid (stupidly audacious?) the rest is. Nick Davis said it best:  it’s a moviee whose barely tempered sadism, its uneven performances and compositional rigor, and its alternations between taut and slack montage” make your teeth grind. “Now, faced with how indelible the best parts of this movie are by the end of 2009, when the best sequences of so many movies I roundly preferred have already started to fade, it became even harder to square my begrudging esteem from my visceral dislike of the movie and its politics.”

As for my two favorite love stories of the year, they underscore the importance of gesture, restraint, and silence in framing: Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow in Two Lovers, and Abbie Cornish and Billy Whishaw in Bright Star (the camera catching Cornish regarding Whishaw’s ink-stained hand in the dusty light is the erotic moment of the year).

I’ve reviewed most of these films, so use the search entry.

1. The Hurt Locker

2. Summer Hours

3. Inglorious Basterds

4. Drag Me to Hell

5. Fantastic Mr. Fox

6. The Class

7. A Serious Man

8. Two Lovers

9. Bright Star

10. The Girlfriend Experience

A man of letters: Louis Auchincloss R.I.P.

He was so compulsive a writer that after completing the Roosevelt book, he showed up unannounced at the offices of his publisher with a finished text for Calvin Coolidge, only to be told the president’s life had been assigned to someone else.

Pace the AP’s obituary on Louis Auchincloss, dead at ninety-two. Gore Vidal’s appraisal, written in the mid seventies, piqued my interest a few years ago, sending me towards his Collected Stories, still the best introduction to his work; you’ll know whether to keep going. Complaints about novelists and musicians “repeating themselves” puzzle me. Upon discovering their metier, good writers refine, excise, experiment. Great writers, like Auchincloss’ beloved Edith Wharton (with whom he shared a passion for delineating the exploits of rich, horrible northeasterners), discover new shades, change sympathy, modulate their attitude towards the material. Auchincloss wasn’t a great writer though. The Rector of Julian is justly acclaimed, but the likes of East Side Story and The Education of Oscar Fairfax boast fusty plots, failed attempts at witty dialogue (great writers listen closely to how people of their class talk; good ones too), and misshapen forms. Auchincloss admires brevity; from what I know his oeuvre hides no four hundred-page monsters. But brevity without insight looks an awful lot like languor. Many times he can’t be bothered with fruitfully developing a situation he’s created. I’ll gladly take recommendations from his (vast) catalogue.

But what a life though: he published when he wanted and, apparently, whatever he wanted. Essay collections (consistently elegant and sharply observed), biographies of presidents and writers, including an excellent and very useful one on Wharton, casual observations, history — Auchincloss may have been the last genuine American man of letters. He wrote because he felt like it, and because his class and education imposed a duty, much like other men with his background — the Stimsons, Harrimans, and Bohlens of the world — entered diplomacy.

Whew.

I’m so happy Fred Kaplan is listening to me, as I made this argument last week to a couple of students: the health care bill in its current reform reminds me a lot of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. To get the full story of how Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson cajoled and threatened senators for their votes, read Robert Caro’s fantastic Master of the Senate (to which Kaplan also alludes).

Like the future was supposed to be: Vampire Weekend and the state of pop

A quick relisten, then I voted to reaffirm: Vampire Weekend’s eponymous debut “is as good as it’s supposed to be and not one note more.” Contra is what I expect from a damn good second album: it consolidates and clarifies. The musical and conceptual vaporousness of “Oxford Comma” is replaced by the fully formed “Run,” “Cousins” is a faster, crunchier romp than “Cape Cod Kwasa Kwasa,” and “Holiday” condenses the band’s ethos into a two-minute whirl. Although I still wish Chrisopher Tomson brought more presence to his drumkit, I’m infatuated with how supple a sonic technician/MVP Rostam Batmanglij has become, an arranger whose pizzicattos, synthetic arpeggios, and manipulation of several generations of Afro-pop crossover cliches project the lightness that is this band’s m.o., and never more so than when Ezra Koenig gets wistful and angry, sometimes in the same song. I didn’t notice the M.I.A. sample in “Diplomat’s Son” until I read it somewhere, not that it matters: obviously VW intend a conceptual kinship between M.I.A.’s conflicted consumer and the mixed romantic signals sent by Koenig’s best friend (who’s himself distanced from his diplomat father’s globetrotting), but it’s the bulk of the skittering, restless electronic soundscape interrupting Koenig’s reverie like a cloud of ugly memories that really impresses (how telling that Koenig’s guitar credits get reduced to just four tracks). I count only one real failure here: the Auto-tuned-to-death “California English,” and in the wrong mood Koenig’s voice isn’t up to the key changes in “I Think Ur a Contra.”

This is why Vampire Weekend confuse people: the band doesn’t hide the psychic churn beneath the Day-Glo Izod shirts. Like a lot of putative pop acts from Pet Shop Boys to Kylie and Ciara, what joy I hear in VM is strictly formalist and dialectical; the surfaces reward attention if you want them to. Even on the first album their hooks sounded more hysterical than insistent (“lots of hooks” is supposedly a compliment, right?), and if you still had doubts Koenig would yelp his “class signifiers” or whatever in your ear. I kinda hated “Horchata” when The Singles Jukebox reviewed it late last year. Waaaaay too easy, I thought. A few plays later, the nostalgia in which it traffics and which at first repelled me is subtly inflected with the strong hint that reflection is also recognition: life was pretty good for the narrator once, so pretending — slumming, let’s say — was a waste of time (“You understood so you shouldn’t have fought it,” Koenig says in a sad whisper). Reactionary, exhausted, dessicated — well, maybe, if you’re hostile to VW’s aesthetic. Their songs about taxi cabs, houses that modern art built, futures that were supposed to be, and sex with the diplomat’s son still confuse me with mismatched couplets, changes in point of view, and trying to pack too much evocation in one pithy line (e.g. “If your art life is gritty you’ll be toasting my health” from “Cousins”). But the fumbling with their own fecundity gets to the heart of why they divide so many listeners. There’s nothing “putative” about them. Vampire Weekend are pop in 2010: pop like the Tommy Hilfiger oxfords and white Pumas I saw at Macy’s yesterday; pop like the Gucci Mane track in the shoe department that a middle-aged gay couple was grooving to. “Popular” depends on incongruity, and a certain amount of condescension from its consumers, most of which is healthy. In this Vampire Weekend are like the rest of us, although my hair’s in better shape these days than Koenig’s.

Message to Democrats: Don’t turn America into Sweden

Margaret Coakley lost because she was a liberal, and the grand liberal experiment of the last twelve months has failed. Let’s see. Obama is a liberal because he:

(a) hired Rahm Emmanuel as chief of staff?

(b) filled his Cabinet with former Wall Street and New York Fed scions like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner?

(c) endorsed a health care reform bill that eschews a public option for mandatory coverage that effectively fattens the pockets of the insurance lobby?

(d) has expanded the war in Afghanistan beyond the Bush administration’s dreams?

(e) implicitly endorses indefinite detention of terrorism suspects?

(f)  kept Bush’s defense secretary, a colorless hack whose most notable achievement was letting the press forget he was involved in Iran-Contra?

(g) encouraged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to court Maine senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins?

(h) has not proposed a second stimulus?

Or, as Andrew Sullivan concluded:

But if one had traveled to Mars and back this past year and read this statement, what would you assume had happened? I would assume that the banks had been nationalized, the stimulus was twice as large, that single-payer healthcare had been pushed through on narrow majority votes, that card-check had passed, that an immigration amnesty had been legislated, that prosecutions of Bush and Cheney for war crimes would be underway, that withdrawal from Afghanistan would be commencing, that no troops would be left in Iraq, that Larry Tribe was on the Supreme Court, that DADT and DOMA would be repealed, and so on.

I defy a self-professed Republican to refute any of these charges; the first one to use the phrase “perception of liberalism” gets my collected Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. tossed at his pharynx. What the American public rightly perceives is Barack Obama’s reluctance to choose the difficult, politically perilous choices that would at least earn their respect. Remembering the midterm rout of 2006, it’s amazing to think that George W. Bush, after listening to the “message” voters that “sent,” ignored the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations (remember that farrago?) and sent more troops to Iraq. Hubris, naturally. Almost admirable.

I’d also issuing an open call to Democrats: what does liberalism look like? After living in an era of conservatism regnant since 1980 (arguably 1974, but we can discuss that too) I don’t know what “LBJ-style” liberalism means.