Monthly Archives: March 2012

Singles reviews 3/29

El-P – The Full Retard (7)
Wiley – Evolve or Be Extinct (7)
Miranda Lambert ft. Pistol Annies – Run Daddy Run (6)
Simian Mobile Disco – Seraphim (6)
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – Candy Candy (5)
Alphabeat – Vacation (5)
Cloud Nothings – No Future/No Past (4)
Swedish House Mafia – Greyhound (4)
Marian and the Diamonds – Primadonna (4)
John Mayer – Shadow Days (3)
Cascada – Summer of Love (3)
Dexys – Nowhere Is Home (3)
Sean Paul – She Doesn’t Mind (3)
Marilyn Manson – No Reflection (2)
Timbaland ft. Dev – Break Ya Back (2)

Repression chic: The Deep Blue Sea

It could be a Carol Burnett skit. Dark, alert Hester (Rachel Weisz), accepting that the lover (Tom Hiddleston) for whom she left her stout whitebearded dull husband (Simon Russell Beale) is too shallow to return her ardor, attempts to gas herself. In deft flashback and the present the affair unfurls. Writer-director Terence Davies tarts up Terence Rattigan’s play, as if to prove that in his first non-documentary film since the marvelous The House of Mirth he hasn’t lost his skills: patient tracking shots that scale the exteriors of flats and the nude flesh of exhausted lovers, chiaroscuro that makes the most of gaslight and sunshine, classical music at ear-splitting volume. Rachel Weisz at times evokes the high-toned suffering of Brief Encounter‘s Celia Johnson but instead of confining her thoughts to crisp voice-over Davies hurls insults at her prune-faced dowager mother in law and cries enough to sink a battleship. She’s best when she and the fine-boned Hiddleston generate the kind of intellectual body heat not seen since The English Patient. The most moving portions of The Deep Blue Sea hardly concern the pair: working class Londoners, rosy with drink, singing patriotic anthems in pubs. One portion does: Freddy coaxing Hester into singing “You Belong to Me” – and succeeding. For a couple of minutes we think they’re going to make it.

Adrienne Rich – RIP

Eighty-two. She published a lot of drivel in her last twenty years. If you’d accused her of using poetry as a platform on which to educate the general public about patriarchal heterosexist injustice, she would have happily agreed. I have no idea how she responded to Harold Bloom’s dismissal of her guest editing of The Best American Poetry’s 1996 edition – “a badness not to be believed,” he actually wrote, “a Stuffed Owl of bad verse, and of much badness that is neither verse nor prose.” At twenty-two, beguiled by formalism (I chose James Merrill as the subject of my first masters thesis idea), I agreed. In the chiseled iambics of Roethke and Plath, or the looser rhythms and enjambments of H.D. it’s still possible to see the blood seeping through the clenched knuckles. “Form’s what affirms,” Merrill once wrote.

That was then. While still treasuring the tension between formalism and hysteria in the pre-Diving Into The Wreck work, I can savor the way in which a poem like 1987’s “Dreamwood” sees alternative histories in the palimpsests of what our predecessors bequeath us:

It would be the map by which
she could see the end of touristic choices,
of distances blued and purpled by romance,
by which she would recognize that poetry
isn’t revolution but a way of knowing
why it must come.

In a few marvelous essays Rich also articulated the frustrations of unrealized wives and mothers who can’t see beyond the clichés of lesbianism; these clichés, she argues, originate in centuries of male perversion of their definitions. There had to be other terms for the cords of intimacy that bind women. There had to be other ways of thinking about the destinies of women:

We need a far more exhaustive account of the forms the double-life has assumed. Historians need to ask at every point how heterosexuality as institution has been organized and maintained through the female wage scale, the enforcement of middle-class women’s “leisure, ” the glamorization of so-called sexual liberation the withholding of education from women, the imagery of “high art’ and popular culture, the mystification of the “personal” sphere, and much else. We need an economics that comprehends the institution of heterosexuality, with its doubled workload for women and its sexual divisions of labor, as the most idealized of economic relations.

This excerpt from “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” defined how the future of womanhood looked in 1980: battered by the Carter years’ retreat on feminism, afraid of what the eighties would bring. I doubt Rich knew – did anyone? How would Rich have responded to this?

It’s a credit to Rich’s far-reaching influence that according to The New York Times obit cited above, she sold almost a million books! At least a million people reeled on first reading not just “Compulsory Heterosexuality” but “When We Dead Awaken” and the other essays in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. Or “Vesuvius at Home,” her essential guide to understanding the convulsions at work in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The work – the struggle – continues.

Why the SCOTUS hearings have worked

For my part the hearings have been edifying. Apart from appreciating the thoughtfulness with which Sonia Sotomayor framed questions, wearying of Stephen Breyer’s singsong college professor intonations, and noting again John Roberts’ courtesy, I finally understand that health insurance and care are two different things. In this economy, you get healthcare through health insurance. That’s why the broccoli analogy is all wet.

Vaporizing insurance companies as middle men was never seriously considered by Obama and his claque; that’s why I at least have blamed him for from the beginning. I also worry that AHCA may inadvertently — if I’m not being cynical — lead us in a few years to Paul Ryan-style atomization whereby, as Claire McCaskill noted two weeks ago:

“The irony of this situation is that these are private insurance companies people will shop to buy their insurance. It’s not the government,” she told KMOX of St. Louis on Wednesday. “It’s exactly what Paul Ryan wants to do for Medicare.”

“It’s subsidized by the government — premium subsidies — which is exactly, this is the irony,” continued McCaskill, who faces a tough reelection battle this fall. “You think what Paul Ryan wants to do for seniors, you think it’s terrific. But when we want to provide private health insurance for people who don’t have insurance with subsidies from the government, you think it’s terrible.”

Even Ezra Klein, who crunches on economic data like peanuts, can’t see the millimeters that separate the AHCA and Paul Ryan’s plan:

Republicans’ long-term interests are probably best served by Democratic success. If the Affordable Care Act is repealed by the next president or rejected by the Supreme Court, Democrats will probably retrench, pursuing a strategy to expand Medicare and Medicaid on the way toward a single-payer system. That approach has, for them, two advantages that will loom quite large after the experience of the Affordable Care Act: It can be passed with 51 votes in the Senate through the budget reconciliation process, and it’s indisputably constitutional.

Conversely, if the Affordable Care Act not only survives but also succeeds, then Republicans have a good chance of exporting its private-insurers-and-exchanges model to Medicare and Medicaid, which would entrench the private health-insurance system in America.

That’s not the strategy Republicans are pursuing. Instead, they’re stuck fighting a war against a plan that they helped to conceive and, on a philosophical level, still believe in. No one has been more confounded by this turn of events than Alice Rivlin, the former White House budget director who supports the Affordable Care Act and helped Ryan design an early version of his Medicare premium-support proposal.

“I could never understand why Ryan didn’t support the exchanges in the Affordable Care Act,” Rivlin says. “In fact, I think he does, and he just doesn’t want to say so.”

But, no, I have no interest in supporting the rescinding of court decisions that keep people with preexisting medical conditions and poor twentysomethings from the rolls.

Sex you up: Jean Vigo

Appreciating Criterion’s release last year of L’Atalante, among other goodies, I felt surprising undertones rumbling beneath the 1934 film’s talkiest, longest sequence: a conversation between boat captain Pere Jules (Michel Simon) and Juliette (Dita Parlo). This scene, just under ten minutes, unfolds, if you’re feeling pedantic, so that director Jean Vigo can eliminate several pages of expository dialogue that completes the portrait of Jules; he isn’t merely a dirty sea dog, he’s a man who has experienced pain but smart enough to regard it with salty irony. Although the scene plays as a gentle flirtation between a man and a woman — and, to be clear, it remains one — the ease with which Pere Jules admits that he can work a sewing machine struck me as odd until Pere Jules actually put on a skirt.

Now you can argue that, like Jean Renoir did in a sequence in Grand Illusion where the prisoners danced in woman’s clothes, it’s an unhurried bit of subversive fun; Vigo after all has set up Pere Jules as being eccentric. But Jonathan Rosenbaum, in an masterful essay published to herald the definitive restored cut out in the early nineties, drew a different conclusion from this scene and a similar one a few minutes later:

In his cabin — where he introduces her to the exotic trinkets he has collected from all over the world on his sea travels –- she comes upon a pair of human hands pickled in a jar. Jules indicates that they belonged to a friend who died three years ago (we see his photo) and that they’re all he has left of him — a piquant line that suggests that the friend may also have been a lover. (Just before this, to demonstrate the sharpness of his stiletto, Jules deliberately cuts his knuckle and then licks the wound — at which point Juliette instinctively licks her lips.)

Those pickled hands, shot from the audience’s POV inside the chest, are framed like a silent film joke; the audience gasps and laughs before Juliette.

Careful not to ally himself with the surrealists, Vigo’s work is suffused with their anarchic spirit — spiritual, sexual. The greatness of L’Atalante rests in part on Vigo’s generosity towards impulses: it includes the greatest erotic dream in film history. Try to imagine your favorite actors playing it. Imagine your favorite director staging it. How many of them would get that sex is often funny — that sex is best when it is funny? From him Renoir learned how the gratification of these impulses can lead to a kind of well-meaning thoughtlessness. We don’t have to read the paper to understand how well-meaning and tragic are blood brothers.

Stuff and nonsense: The Shins’ Port of Morrow

Artists resort to tape sounds, filters, and feedback when they’ve replaced everyone in the band or it’s time to release the third album. Here’s a point in The Shins’ favor: since Port of Morrow is their/his fourth album you can scratch the last argument. Writing songs in which he/they tries and fails to fit his voice around the guitars and drums, James Mercer/they has/have never courted obscurantism so deliberately. The music, as Greil Marcus said about Elvis Costello’s Goodbye Cruel World, settles on the tables and chairs like dust. I’ll embrace “Fall of ’82” the fullest because it boasts the dumbest chord sequence: remove the production syrup and gewgaws and I swear it sounds like Third Eye Blind.

Assuming that the Shins’ reluctance to change my life was my fault, I relistened to the first three records this weekend, and, yes, Chutes Too Narrow is the best although not by much. When he’s on Mercer can do winsome and oblique as well as any songwriter this side of Colin Newman; the pretty hooks and punked-up tempos beguiled everyone involved. Wincing The Night Away isn’t much worse, in the same way that the contemporaneous Modest Mouse’s We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank embarrasses its 2004 breakthrough not a bit (how fitting that Johnny Marr plays on both). Port of Morrow is a bad album, a dead end about which its few supporters will clear their throats and change the subject in a couple of years, but it codifies Mercer’s problem with sense. This dude needs an editor.