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.

Tellin’ stories: Patriotic Gore

Slate’s highly variable arts coverage gets a lift from David Blight’s excellent reevaluation of Edmund Wilson’s magisterial Patriotic Gore, his 1962 study of Civil War literature and personages. Besides an incisive chapter on Lincoln’s prose style which proved educational for me a decade ago, Wilson includes a meditation on the forgotten figure of Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s vice president and author of one of the few manifestos of racism and separatism published by a statesman of the first rank. Like admirer Gore Vidal, Wilson in the early sixties was so disgusted by the ways in which the United States used his tax dollars to fund a national security state that this distemper sometimes led him to entertain muddled crushes on men who, as he wrote, “”will not accept domination.” Thus, despite Blight’s emphasis on Patriotic Gore‘s willingness both to dispel cliches about the Civil War and to embrace how myths — what Wallace Stevens would call supreme fictions — sustain us, Wilson’s admiration for Stephens leads him to accept that the war’s casus belli was “states rights.” Never mind the Confederate “constitution” — here’s Stephens himself: “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Patriotic Gore matters most as a barometer monitoring the dips and erratic swells of concision and pungency that are Edmund Wilson’s hallmarks as a critic. If his prose is less lyrical than Alfred Kazin’s or his intelligence evinces less of a philosophical bent than Lionel Trilling’s (although the first third of To The Finland Station suffers most from this failing), it has some of the virtues that Wilson saw in U.S. Grant’s own style: impassivity, imperturbability, “his persistence in a prosaic tone combined with a certain abstractness.” This observation on the trouble with Henry Adams is right on, the kind of shrewdness for which I’ve strived as a writer:

You feel that he is constantly shifting between a mood of ironic malice at the expense of the sordid era to which Grant’s presidency has given free rein and the consciousness of a personal inadequacy that he fears is his own fault. His writing looks clear on the page, but when we begin to read one of his books, we soon realize how sinuous his style is and how uncertain are the ideas it conveys, how treacherous its irony becomes…

This is my kind of pith.

Happy Sunday

Too much work-related twaddle kept me from attending this year’s EMP Music Conference in New York, the biggest and best pop music convention extant. But I played James Stewart and aimed my wheelchair and broken leg at tweets and posts. Scott Seward’s paper “Puerto Ricans, Black Men, and No Less Than One Dominican: Slammin’ the Rock with Todd Terry, Chep Nuñez , Blade Runners, and The Blue Jean Regime – An Exegesis of 1990’s Warlock Records War Party Compilation Sliced and Edited in the Style Of Omar Santana,” besides being a terrific read, boasts an awesome playlist. Here’s a track I didn’t know. Perfect Sunday afternoon listening:

State of shock

Max Read instructs us on how to get away with murder in Sanford, Florida. The Trayvon Martin case is moving people, even unexpected ones. GOP strategist Matthew Dowd and Beltway pundit emeritus George Will wondered how Florida’s Stand Your Ground policy and its imitators had made such a hash out of the criminal justice system.

All in a month’s work in the Sunshine State, whose legislature just passed the most draconian budget in memory. Don’t count on Governor Rick Scott calling for repeal:

The 2012 Florida budget is a perfect example of this overarching strategy. On its own terms, it is a document of frightening severity, inflicted on a state with little risk of popular backlash. Scott and the Republican leadership may be widely despised, but the Sunshine State lacks the formations capable of challenging the imposition of austerity, such as what we’ve seen in Madison and Zucotti Park. I don’t want to downplay the noble efforts of the Floridian Occupiers (yes, they exist) but the state’s overwhelmingly suburban geography, its lack of density and dearth of prominent public space, prevents the sort of spectacular urban reclamation that made Occupy so compelling. And unionized public workers, the warp and woof of the Madison eruption, are a tiny minority of Florida’s total employed. Fittingly, the 2012 budget disproportionately harms university students and state workers, the two groups actively resisting the descent into austerity.

A little bromance: 21 Jump Street

I laughed a few times through the amiable 21 Jump Street. As Jenko, the ostensible jock cop, that huge, awkward palooka “Channing Tatum” (it can’t be his name), who moves like he can’t believe God gave him this body, proves himself master of fifty ways to act dumb while playing smart (life is a long double take for Tatum). Jonah Hill, leaner and as a result looking as if wrapped in sausage casing, plays a variant on his vulgar motormouth archetype, less successfully; I don’t know whether Moneyball encouraged him To Play It Subtle. There’s even a party scene better than the one in Project X!

The worn conceit of this post-Apatow buddy movie is that the characters make no pretense about hiding how much they prefer each other’s company to anyone else’s. Women are discussed — like sports or Fred Savage in “The Wonder Years” — not pursued. When Jonah Hill asks Tatum to the prom the packed audience murmured “Aww…” Most American film comedy depends on tonal imbalance but it’s more obvious these days as previous targets of ridicule — gays, blacks, the handicapped — become the subjects of movies, an idea that 21 Jump Street plays with: for example Tatum has no clue how to navigate through a teenage world in which a gay black guy is one of the cool kids (and the genuinely weird Dave Franco, brother of James, as ringleader); or the presence of a glowering Ice Cube playing Ice Cube in N.W.A. Despite validating their interests, the filmmakers still use the Asian kid and black girl as comic semaphore; we’re supposed to think they’re funny because they are, that’s all. Filled with harmless dick jokes and not-quite-uneasy fag baiting, 21 Jump Street depicts a seminal moment in male sexual politics. It might even be the next moment.

3/23 singles reviews

Or: the eclectic edition.

All scores based on a ten-point system. Click on links for full reviews.

Exo-M – History (7)
Rye Rye – Boom Boom (6)
MIA. – Fallschirm (6)
Lee Brice – A Woman Like You (6)
Gossip – Perfect World (6)
Bobby Womack – Please Forgive My Heart (5)
m-flo ft. 2NE1 – She’s So (Outta Control) (5)
Norah Jones – Happy Pills (5)
Regina Spektor – All The Rowboats (4)
Garbage – Blood For Poppies (4)
Rita Ora ft. Tinie Tempah – R.I.P. (3)
Smiler ft. Lana Del Rey – Spender (3)
Simple Plan ft. Sean Paul – Summer Paradise (1)