Last thoughts…

Rather than yield to the temptation of posting resolutions for which I’ll be accountable in public, and inspired by Mark Richardson and Eric Harvey‘s own remarks about originality and its discontents let me add a shibboleth to the short list couple of points I made a few months ago: confusing press releases for criticism, or more generally, confusing description for criticism.

How many times did we learn this year how mixtape phenom The Weeknd evokes a bad trip at a house party or being left alone at said party scratching your nose after snorting too much blow? We often appreciate a work of art for precisely these mimetic qualities, but it’s incumbent on the critic to explain the value of these qualities and why the feelings invoked by said qualities deserve a closer look. In other words: why is an album that evokes a 3 a.m. coke hangover worth listening to? The most flippant response came from another critic, who despises The Weeknd: “If the house party was bad wouldn’t you have bounced long before the end?”

The embrace of Destroyer and Bon Iver couldn’t obviate a holding-your-nose attitude towards the eighties acts to which these acts purportedly alluded. If contempt towards a precursor is going to be the line, we owe it our readers to explain how Dan Bejar and Justin Vernon transpose these influences; we must examine the paradox whereby Chicago, Bruce Hornsby, Howard Jones, and The Blow Monkeys, to name a few artists cited all year by critics (including yours truly), suck but Destroyer and Bon Iver don’t. To be honest, I don’t think anyone came close this year — including yours truly.

I’ll see you on the other side.

Divorce, Romanian style: Tuesday, After Christmas

The pillow talk, tangle of limbs, reveling in a lover’s nudity for its own sake — what distinguishes Tuesday, After Christmas from other films about infidelity is the way in which Romanian director-cowriter Radu Muntean allows his characters to enjoy themselves before rushing to judgment; he is not one of those scolds for whom the sin exists for the condemnation or, worse, the redemption afterwards. In long, rich, takes that maintain their interest (as in a Hou Hsiao-Hsien film there might be less than a dozen cuts here), his actors hit surprising grace notes; my sympathies kept shifting as Muntean delivered information.

Paul (Mimi Brănescu), a bourgeois down to his sweater, ski equipment, and the Barbie boat bought for his daughter, must decide whether to ‘fess up to wife, so-tense-she-vibrating brunette Adriana (Mirela Oprişor) about his affair with dentist Raluca (Maria Popistaşu), a blonde with a sneaky grin and an impressive sensual abandon. Raluca’s job matters because the film’s second most intense scene occurs in her office: the parents must decide whether to inflict braces on their indifferent daughter; Raluca insists they’re important but not lifesaving. A viewer who stumbled into this scene after missing the first half hour would notice the tension, sustained by Muntain by placing Paul and Raluca in opposite corners and Adriana in the middle. Because no cutting interrupts the rhythm of the banal dialogue, we must ask ourselves whether Adriana notices something is awry.

The scene most fraught with emotion is the one in which Paul, motivated by the kind of guilt which allows the confessor to bask in his smug good intentions, admits to the dalliance. Cigarettes are lit, puffed on, extinguished. Paul offers cliches, Adriana a wounded obstinacy. What remains is the playlet for which the couple have rehearsed for weeks: Christmas dinner at Paul’s parents to exchange presents and pretend for their daughter one last time. Muntain’s invisible technique materializes when one line, given its due weight by the avoidance of close-ups, cuts through the recriminations and smoke: “You are the biggest disappointment of my life.”

Melancholy, Xmas edition: Metropolitan

Although the formal evening wear look rented from a costume shop and scenes aren’t so much photographed as stumbled upon, Metropolitan is a minor masterpiece. Rare is the movie that attempts a tone and style and achieves it. James Wolcott:

The poignance of the film–akin to the poignance of Barry Levinson’s Diner–is our understanding that this is the last time the gang will be together before the diaspora of adulthood, and that they are already nostalgic for what they haven’t quite left behind. A cloud of reminiscence hangs over the characters as they’re starting to miss something that hasn’t yet gone.

Fewer movies better evoke the vague melancholy and tonic anticipation of that interregnum of being home between semesters, suspended between graduation and grownup-hood, that unhurried pause at the station-stop before the next stage of your life begins; a melancholy that suits the Christmas season, where the holiday lights and decorations accent the darkness of winter deep backgrounding everything. Christmas always seems slightly elegiac. The streets are cold, it’s hard to get a cab, and your jacket isn’t warm enough–Metropolitan captures that chill discomfort and how the conversations that string between two people walking from one bleak stretch of the block to the corner are part of the invisible wiring of the city, the connective tissue through which memories, memoirs, novels, and, yes, movies are eventually made.

Hot and cold: Young Adult

The first half hour is the best work of Jason Reitman’s career: taut and mordant. Concluding that she needs her high school flame Buddy (Patrick Wilson, in one of the more compelling impersonations of defeated suburban blankness in recent years) back in her life, ghost writer of young adult fiction and dipsomaniac Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) returns to her home town, a concrete interstice at which the opening of a snazzy sports bar represents progress of a sort. Wearing giant sunglasses, Mavis looks indestructible even when nursing a hangover. She gives a Hampton Inn clerk lip. She gets trashed at a local dive. When Buddy decides to meet her for a drink she affects surprise.

If Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody had kept the ninety-seven-minute film at this pace it might have been a small classic: a Pretty Poison for Generation X. Then the movie succumbs to tonal imbalance and the Cody-Reitman ethos of going for the throat, in every sense. At this point Theron loses her grip on Mavis. Of course she’s in the midst of a nervous breakdown, but it’s Reitman and Theron’s achievement that Mavis keeps her poise and intelligence. As they did for the George Clooney and Ellen Page characters in Up in the Air and Juno respectively, Reitman and Cody insist on a comeuppance; their idea of truth telling is to embarrass Theron the actress with the kind of drunken monologue in front of several dozen people that never happens in life. Buddy’s wife (an effective Elizabeth Reaser) and Buddy himself are reduced to gawking. The ambivalence with which Cody and Reitman had regarded Mavis curdles into confusion. Does she deserve her fate? Are we supposed to believe she cleans up? Ultimately Young Adult, like its Reitmanitized predecessors, wants to play it every way and make judgments under the carapace of “open-endedness.” Still, it’s less noxious than Juno and the truly evil Up in the Air, and Charlize Theron, clopping up asphalt sidewalks in heels and swinging her purse, gives the performance of her career. Mavis is too cool for these people.

The one percenters

Our legislative satraps:

While the median net worth of members of Congress jumped 15 percent from 2004 to 2010, the net worth of the richest 10 percent of Americans remained essentially flat. For all Americans, median net worth dropped 8 percent, based on inflation-adjusted data from Moody’s Analytics.

Going back further, the median wealth of House members grew some two and a half times between 1984 and 2009 in inflation-adjusted dollars, while the wealth of the average American family has actually declined slightly in that same time period, according to data cited by The Washington Post in an article published Monday on its Web site.

With millionaire status now the norm, the rarefied air in the Capitol these days is $100 million. That lofty level appears to have been surpassed by at least 10 members, led by Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican and former auto alarm magnate who is worth somewhere between $195 million and $700 million. (Because federal law requires lawmakers to disclose their assets only in broad dollar ranges, more precise estimates are impossible.)

Lest I be accused of concentrating on the GOP:

Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, was challenged about her wealth, as much as $196 million, by a member of her own party a few weeks ago. Representative Laura Richardson, a California Democrat who is among the poorest members of Congress with as much as $464,000 in debt, attacked Ms. Pelosi at a closed-door Democratic caucus meeting for endorsing a Congressional pay freeze, according to a report in Politico that was confirmed by other members.

Ms. Richardson angrily told Ms. Pelosi that, unlike her, some members needed the raise. Members now make a base pay of $174,000 and would automatically get a cost-of-living adjustment unless they were to decide, for a third straight year, to pass it up. Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said the rising Congressional wealth fuels public doubts about whether members are more focused on their constituents’ interests or their own investment portfolios.

Too cute for words: The Artist

Silent movies aren’t a genre, they’re a method. All the genres we recognize — westerns, sci-fi, crime pictures, comedies, melodrama — existed in 1927. The Artist gets this wrong from the beginning: it doesn’t know what it is except a brilliantined nod of the head whose novelty dissipates after a hundred long minutes. Writer-director Michael Hazanavicius recreates the art direction and wardrobe of movies in the late twenties but misses their madcap pace, their surrealism, their eroticism. The wisp of a plot — the decline of the silent career of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) before The Love of a Good Woman (Berenice Bejo)dusts him off — he purloins from Singin’ in the Rain; with his pencil mustache and panderer’s grin, Valentin is a waxen Gene Kelly, and Bejo an unsinkable Debbie Reynolds. The movie has one lyrical moment: Bejo, alone in Valentin’s dressing room, carried away by lust, puts her arm through his tuxedo jacket sleeve and caresses herself; it’s worthy of G. W. Pabst (I think it’s lust: Bejo’s motivations for anything remain opaque). I got very bored with these people and movie quickly. Why The Artist is an Oscar frontrunner is obvious: it flatters the ahistorical imaginations of Academy voters.

“What anonymous sludge lurks underneath the nice people I see and talk to every day”

Maura in the weeklong Village Voice roundtable on the year in music:

I grew up listening to and loving music that was vicious to women, to the point where I would often sublimate my femininity and identify with the dudes singing, and then I had my feminist awakening but still listened to the Afghan Whigs (and still do), and as I got older I got more dismayed for reasons personal and political and started wondering about what stories would be told in answer songs to some of my favorite tracks that had been penned and sung by men. (In this respect, “My Curse” was probably the most brilliant move Greg Dulli could have pulled; this year he got Ani DiFranco to back him up on the new Twilight Singers album, too.) There are also the professional hazards entwined with reading pick-a-little gossip blogs and their attendant hatefuck-ready comment sections, which will probably tell you more about the ugliness of the current moment’s throbbing id better than any sociological survey ever could, and which in my darker moments leave me wondering what anonymous sludge lurks underneath the nice people I see and talk to every day.