Monthly Archives: July 2010

A boy’s best friend: Mother

A few years ago Korean director Bong Joon-Ho released The Host, about a sea creature who takes out his aggression, as the phrase goes, on a little girl and her family. Mother, his latest, is about the most frightening creature of all: a boy’s mother. When this mother (played by Kim Hye-ja) finds out that her son has been arrested for the murder of a teenage girl, she’s willing to cut all kinds of corners, especially after her lawyer turns out to be a shyster with execrable taste in karaoke but a somewhat sharper eye for the ladies.

Most of the reviews have cited mother-love as a motivator. It wasn’t much in evidence to my eyes, even with the unexpected twist that Bong inserts in the last third. Hye-ja’s performance is sentimental and steely; her son may share her bed but she feels his absence as a disruption in routine, not as the cutting of an umbilical cord. While I’ve seen little evidence of an interesting compositional sense, Bong’s rhythms compensate: he understand when to linger (the scenes between mother and son in jail) and assemble for impact (a protracted sequence in which a repelled, fascinated Hye-ja watches a hired gun and his girlfriend make love). The dance sequences with which Bong bookends the picture are misfires, all too easily summoning David Lynch. The rest is expert pulp.

The politics of dancing: M.I.A.’s M^Y^

I’m going to act as if The New York Times Magazine story and Ann Powers‘ and Christgau’s reviews didn’t exist. Impossible to review M.I.A.’s MAYA in a vacuum, though. For one, vacuums trap light and emit no sound, and MAYA does no such thing. Her loudest, splashiest album, M.I.A. absents herself from agitprop a while to concentrate on felicity. Take “XXXO,” a mangled, stuttering cousin to a Debbie Deb or Lisa Lisa freestyle hit, no more or less “meaningful’ than Kala‘s “Jimmy,” yet its density suggests otherwise. The lyrical semaphore here adduces a surrender to the noise-making possibilities of collaborators Blaqstarr, Rusko, and Derek E. Miller, a move which in turn liberates her from expectations she couldn’t possibly meet. MAYA plays like an album full of “Bird Flu”s and “Bamboo Banga”s strung giddily together. The heart of the album is the middle stretch between “Lovealot” and “It Iz What It Iz” — fuzzy, loping variants on Arular‘s “Pull Up the People” in which the bustle of the arrangements mitigates the fuzzy, loping banality of one of her guiding principles (“All I ever wanted was my story to be told” ) but reinforces the strength of another (“I fight the ones that fight me”). Her voice is indistinguishable from scratches, distorted guitar peals, vocoders, effects pedals, and other synthesized doohickeys, the culmination of which is “Teqkilla,” M.I.A.’s “The Great Curve,” the thick, surging Talking Heads song climaxing with David Byrne’s strangled admission, “The world moves on a woman’s hips!” M.I.A. offers “He got 99 bananas but he ain’t my boo.” The closet she comes to a manifesto is the Suicide-sampling “Born Free.” She’ll throw this shit in our faces cuz she’s got something to say. You know the old joke: that’s what SHE SAID. And the subtext was S-E-X.

“An empire within a republic”

Writing about Jay Gould and James Fisk’s fixing of the gold market in the late 1860’s — a level of corruption heretofore unknown in the young Republic — Henry Adams wrote:

This property was, in effect, like all the great railway corporations, an empire within a republic. Over all this wealth and influence, greater than that directly swayed by any private citizen, greater than is absolutely and personally controlled by most kings, and far too great for the public safety either in a democracy or i any other form of society, the vicissitudes of a troubled time placed two men in irresponsible authority…Even the most dramatic of modern authors, even Balzac himself, who so loved and to deal with similar violent alternations of fortune, or Alexandre Dumas, with all his extravagance of imagination, never have reached a conception bolder or more melodramatic than this, nor have they ever ventured to conceive a plot so enormous, or catastrophe so original as was now to be developed.

The Washington Post has published the first salvo in Dana Priest’s weeklong series on the shadow government — which Priest and co-writer William Arkin argue exploded in response to 9-11 but really got its start, as readers of American history will recognize, after President Harry Truman authorized the National Security Act of 1947 — and it’s riveting. An octopus with a reach so vast, no matter its ostensibly benign purpose, is a menace. It consumes itself. Statesman of both parties feed it.

Singles 7/15

This week: Eminem continues his descent, Wavves show I’m over post-adolescent misery even when the guitars yell louder, and I learn what “dougie” means (I think).

Songs are rated on a ten-point scale. Click for the review.

Cali Swag District – Teach Me How To Dougie (8)

Laura Bell Brundy – Giddy On Up (7)

Natasha Bedingfield – Touch (5)

Keith Urban – I’m In (6)

Wavves – Post-Acid (6)

Skepta – Rescue Me (4)

Eminem ft. Rihanna – Love The Way You Lie (3)

Colbie Caillatt – I Never Told You (2)

I Am Love: The aphids swarm up in the drifting haze

If you can get over the image of Tilda Swinton reeling from sexually liberated bliss to the accompaniment of wasps and aphids, then I Am Love has plenty to offer. As in 2001’s The Deep End and last year’s Julia,  Swinton gravitates to melodrama because it’s the one genre that warms her open-mouthed, pale-skinned hauteur. You look at Swinton and expect Isabelle Huppert, but she acts like Joan Crawford — a Joan Crawford with acting chops. As Emma Recchi, a Russian transplanted to Italy so thoroughly that she forgets her real name, Swinton is so overwhelmed by feeling that when she suffers and longs it’s got an extra kick.

A beautifully lit (Milan is shot as if the entire city is swathed in pollen and gold) and somewhat cumbersome homage to Luchino Visconti pasta fazoola like Senso and Rocco & His Brothers, I Am Love follows the fortunes of an immensely wealthy textile dynasty whose members slowly elude the destinies for which they were slotted. After the sly patriarch (played by Gabrielle Ferzetti in Burl Ives mode) cedes, with the foresight of King Lear, operating control of the industry to his son Tancredi (Pippi Delbono) and grandson Edo (Flavio Parenti), Tancredi realizes he’d rather sell the industry to a sinister-looking Sikh’s multinational investment firm, and Edo prefers to help his new best friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a chef of awesome talent, open a Sanreno restaurant specializing in extracting the “essences” of vegetables. Youngest daughter Elizabetta meanwhile moves to London to study art and commit to her lesbianism.

Writer-director Luca Guadagnino is alert to sensual nuance; his characters are nerve endings. Although it takes about an hour to understand who’s who and their relations to one another, Guadagnino throws enough red herrings and delicious clues to suggest the movie could have been three hours longer (and probably should have been). Erotic subcurrents run in every direction. The way he shoots Antonio and lingers over Edo’s prolonged caresses and how he chirps to family, “I’m totally in love with Antonio,” you’d think the two men would hook up eventually. Similarly, Guadagnino stages a wonderful scene between Elizabetta and Swinton by the villa swimming pool in which the mother accepts her daughter’s sexuality with a mixture of pain, rue, and empathy; when Swinton later appears with trimmed hair in the same room as Elizabetta, Guadagnino teases out the lesbian and incestual underpinnings without making too fine a point of it.

So rich is I Am Love that I wish Guadagnino had treated the Swinton-Antonio fuck sessions as peripheral, or as one more iteration of this family’s libidinous drives (their lavish dinners, taste in jewelry, and fiscal ruthlessness are manifestations of their lust). The sex scene I mentioned upthread takes place on a remote hillside, and while it’s satisfying to populate D.H. Lawrence’s travelogue classic Etruscan Places with human beings,  all this Lawrentian liberation is a bit much, especially when Guadagnino lingers on Gabbriellini’s scruffy beard and long fingers (the erotic bliss also called to mind another screen classic). Swinton’s mother-in-law — a dowager with a stiletto smile and thick bracelets — gets enough screen time to register as a cool and potentially dangerous force but no more. Mattia Zaccaro sulks and pouts as the middle child Gianluca, perhaps disappointed that the screenwriters gave him nothing else to do. These are performers and performances worth following; instead we get a recreation of Vertigo and Douglags Sirk weepers even more florid than Far From Heaven.

One huge minus: John Adams’ oppressive score dares you to run screaming from the theater.