High Rise

Loving “Young Turks” isn’t revisionist in 2013. For the generation which knew Rod Stewart as the spandex-clad raspy wonder with the grasshopper legs prancing through video after video, it’s considered as indelible as “Maggie May.” I’d rescue quite a few of eighties Rod singles: “Tonight I’m Yours”; the Jeff Beck collaboration “People Get Ready” in which he gamely fails to outsing the gale force guitar noise; the oh-god-I-wish-I-was-still-a-folkie-tonight “Oh God I Wish I Was Home Tonight”; the Out of Order‘s “Crazy About You” and “Lost In You” (A-minus sleaze but the latter cowritten, of course, with Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor). I even treasure “This Old Heart of Mine” — better Christmas music than the competition.

“Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” still needs modest defenses. Eerily mimicking the feel of the Stones’ “Miss You,” Stewart’s band plays every extant disco signifier: four on the floor drums, locked-down bass, guitar fills too groove-conscious to do anything besides stay out of the way, sax solo. The key, though, is the amazing synth line, lumbering across the track, suggesting a scenario much colder and sleek than the one written by Stewart (noting the synth is one of my earliest memories). This is the second curious thing about “Sexy”: it’s a singer-songwriter narrative bedecked in polyester, which, thanks to the synth and rhythm section, intensifies the comedy. It boasts a handful of sharp lines too, with “She sits alone waiting for suggestions” and “Give me a dime so I can phone my mother” funnier than whatever singles bar denizen Bryan Ferry was yodeling that year. No wonder so many critics thought Stewart a joke: he’s so committed to the situation that they couldn’t help but see him as the loser in the high rise apartment. I wish the rest of the track measured up to the synth, or Rod wasn’t faffing around in a boa as if killing time for the limo to take him to Studio 54.

Rural life done right: The Southerner

What a disappointment to learn that, no, I hadn’t rented a new print of The Southerner but merely a transfer as crapulous as what I watched on VHS in 1997. Considered Jean Renoir’s best American film by the fortunate who’ve seen the others, The Southerner follows the Tucker family as they start a farm with nothing than a couple mules and scraggly crops. A warm and unaffected Zachary Scott plays patriarch Sam, so determined to succeed that we watch (and, on the soundtrack, listen) to his boy cry to himself to death thanks to a case of pellagra because Sam won’t accept a $7 a day factory job to pay for the required milk and vegetables. Renoir is alert to these unpleasantries. Plagues too common to be Biblical afflict the Tuckers: a grotty neighbor reluctant to share his well; the fallow soil; a flood that wipes out their cotton and vegetables. Renoir and cameraman Lucien Andriot show a remarkable empathy for the cruelties of rural life, as well as an eye for spontaneous poetry like a chicken perched on floating furniture after the deluge. With the exception of Betty Field as Nona Tucker, bedecked like a finishing school ingenue, the cast looks like they really leaned into their plows (Beulah Bondi as nasty Granny is a bit much too). Film lovers for whom La Bête Humaine, The Rules of the Game, and Diary of a Chambermaid represent an unsurpassed hybrid of improvisation and affectation will find much to savor in a wedding party, where Renoir catches an aborted love roundelay (Sam and the daughter of that grotty neighbor) or just lets his camera watch as the cast dances to jug music. Although Renoir gets full script credit, William Faulkner appears as a consultant, and it’s impossible to imagine he didn’t rural-lize the dialogue and scenario. Astonishingly, Renoir received a Best Director nomination from the Motion Picture Academy — his only one.

Abolish the Senate

Alex Pareene on the DC Court of Appeal’s decision finding recess appointments unconstitutional:

But, you know, in another, more important sense, who gives a shit what the Founders intended with their vaguely written delineation of the separation of powers, because half the point of their system was to create an undemocratic government unresponsive to the will of the people, which is why they invented the Senate. If you take this court’s side, that the Constitution doesn’t give the president the power to hire the people he wants to run the regulatory state, then the Constitution is broken, and the last century of apparently invalid recess appointments were an example of the sort of constitutional end-arounds that are the only thing keeping this nation manageable at all. The Constitution was written for a tiny, agrarian pre-industrial slave state. The only good bits, for real, are the amendments, and the amendment process no longer functions as a means of fixing the document because we have 50 states instead of 13. (And even the Bill of Rights, the one cool thing in our Constitution, has the weirdo Second Amendment, which made some sort of sense at the time but which was written in a fashion that ensures that we’re the only advanced nation incapable of passing a handgun ban.) The French Constitution of 1793 is way better, and even the Canadians got a better one than us in the 1980s.

In lieu of a new Constitutional Convention (which would probably just conclude with a Constitution written entirely by finance, energy and agriculture industry lobbyists), the solution is still, now and forever, to abolish the Senate. It’s awful. I realize that the Constitution says there is supposed to be a Senate, but if we could manage to get direct election of senators, we could surely manage to strip the Senate of most of its authority.

I must remind myself: should my students need an example of the importance of accurate grammar, look to the slovenly way in which — even by the standards of the eighteenth century — the Framers wrote the Second Amendment.

As for using filibusters for judicial nominees:

Admittedly, the filibuster, as a last-ditch option to be used only in extreme cases, makes a great deal more sense with judicial nominations — which are, after all, effectively for life — than for political appointments or even legislation, which can be vetoed or repealed fairly easily. A judge can serve for a half-century after his initial confirmation, and should therefore be held to a higher standard. (The judges who decided the recess appointment decision were of course appointed by Republican presidents, and the one Reagan put on the court is a lifelong movement conservative. As has been the case since Reagan, Republicans appoint revolutionary conservatives and Democrats appoint mainstream liberals. Or they appoint no one at all, like Obama.) But that power goes both ways, and it’s worth asking if the ability to block particularly vile judicial nominations is worth the price of all reasonable judicial nominations being blocked forever for no reason. I say no, but I also say “abolish the Senate,” and it’s clear that no one is listening to me.

Jeffrey Toobin with more context on the DC court’s decision.

Weightless in your eyes: Dawn Richard

Ambition she’s got, and her talent will keep apace. Take the aptly named “’86,” the unstable nucleus of Dawn Richard’s Goldenheart. A three-note synth hook evoking So-era Peter Gabriel shimmers while Richard performs like a woman confronted in a hall of mirrors by her multitracked, distorted longings. A disembodied male voice tries and fails to distract her. Finger snaps and what might be a Linn drum add pinpricks of tension. When she sings “It’s ’86 all the time,” she also dips the madeleine into her tea. The persistence of memory is Goldenheart‘s thematic obsession. Memories of a love affair reduce Richard into an ignis fatuus of allusions and metaphors: Peter Gabriel again (“In Your Eyes”), Thermopylae, or the film version thereof (“300”). In “Northern Lights” she inverts notions of chivalry: she‘s the knight. Then she rematerializes in the present day. She doesn’t hide in the technology she celebrates in “Frequency” — it amplifies her desire.

This reads better than it plays — like a war narrative. Since it’s the singer’s job to define and own songs, Richard’s incorporeality also coincides with her weaknesses as a presence. The so-called “interludes” drift. A track called “Tug of War” kills the second half’s momentum (“’86” and “In Your Eyes” enliven things). Sometime there are fits of interpolation so novel — the hip-hop breakdown in “Northern Lights” — that I longed for, shall we say, synergy between them and Richard. The conventional tracks better exploit Richard’s ethereal qualities: “Riot,” her attempt to score a Rihanna-type jam complete with dreaded sawtooth synths and stuttered “eh’s,” marches onto the club dance floor spears up and mail glittering. The title track “outro” plays with the “Clair de Lune” melody, and the tension between the classical piano melody and Richard’s pitch-bent vocal is a gorgeous correlative for Richard’s time-past/time-future games.

Flirting with vaporousness in a way that confounds expectations, Goldenheart is an album to return to periodically and in excerpts (the ten-song EP Armor On, which barely missed my top ten last year, boasted similar virtues but wasn’t this wearying). Like the will o’ the wisp I mentioned above, Richard will tease all year.

Lady Antebellum – “Downtown”


Inspiration and lightness of being all but dissipated since the deserved smash “Need You Now,” the boys and girl return with a slinky, sly number about city kids who work among “storefront mannequins sleepin’ in lights” but sneak into clubs cuz they know the band and — guess what — grow up to be Grammy winners. Thanks to unexpected fills, aggressive guitar picking, and those dusky male harmonies, it’s best in years. Whether by Petula Clark or Lloyd Cole, no song named “Downtown” has ever failed. Miranda Lambert apparently had first dibs, but for Lady A the marriage of material and persona deserved a triumphant ending.

Jean-Louis Trintignant: “His lack of apparent definition”

I missed this Terrence Rafferty appreciation of Jean-Louis Trintignant — “a hard actor to get a fix on, though, because he never really had a type, and he didn’t take especially flamboyant, awards-ready roles, either — published in December:

Mr. Trintignant appears to have realized early on that he was, in the usual terms of movie stardom, only an average specimen of homo cinematicus: of modest height, medium good looking, possessed of a pleasant, expressive, but not terribly memorable voice. And he wasn’t distinctive enough to settle into a particular character type, either: not a working-class hero like Jean Gabin, or an aristocrat like Pierre Fresnay, or a wise guy like Jean-Paul Belmondo, or an existentialist heartthrob like his “Z” co-star Yves Montand.

. He overstates the actor’s ordinariness though; the will and intelligence always shone.

What he chose to do was amazing. He emphasized his averageness, turned his lack of apparent definition into a weird kind of strength. In movie after movie he presents himself as a man so unremarkable that you have to wonder if anything at all is going on underneath that opaque surface. And then slowly, painstakingly, he unwraps the package and shows you what’s inside. He always seems cautious and watchful, waiting for the moment when he can (or must) reveal himself.

The Trintignant moment I treasure most: offering Irène Jacob pear brandy in Red.

Amour: The cinema of expiation

Enhanced by some of the sharpest high definition imaging I’ve seen, the first scenes of Amour had me in knots anticipating to what enhanced interrogation techniques writer-director Michael Hanenke would subject Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant. The septuagenarians, former music teachers, watch a Schubert concert performed by a talented pupil. In the sea of faces we can pick the leads out of a lineup: Riva’s brittle, bland beauty and the skeptical cut-this-crap restlessness of Trintignant are identifiable. The pristine images and distrust in the quotidian prime us for horror, but Haneke for once in his career abjures the rather Calvinist preoccupation with purity for materialism.

In his review, Nick Pinkerton accuses Amour of being yet another assortment of pumped up kicks:

Endemic to Haneke’s dry, ratchet-turning movies is the anticipation of an Inevitable Awful Event — let’s call it the “IAE” — an event in which the incipient horror of the human condition pops out from behind the veneer of civilization, an event that the veteran Haneke viewer understands, upon going in, is part of the contract. The IAE breaks the brittle surface of Haneke’s style, and the bracing plunge after the crack of the ice delivers a harsh lesson. His pedantic, castigating filmmaking is a vehicle for these lessons, which have never yet confirmed man’s high opinion of himself.

Now this is true of The Piano Teacher, Cache, and the other examples of Haneke’s cinema of expiation. How fortunate that The Incipient Horror of the Human Condition happens to take place early in the film when Riva refuses to join Trintignant for a nightcap. Who wouldn’t accept a second drink with him? A moment of catatonia spooks him enough to take Riva to the hospital, where the diagnosis is a stroke. Emergency surgery with a 95 percent full recovery rate fails (“We were in the five percent,” Trintignant mordantly observes), and now the couple must cope with a wheelchair-bound Riva paralyzed on her right side. She’s agile enough to keep up with the latest fiction, self-conscious enough to cast off other fictions: the deterioration of their matrimonial state into a parental one.

The next event is inevitable but not awful: another stroke, as science confirms the likelihood of others. With his duckfooted gait and penetrating intelligence, Trintignant suggests the frustration of a man not for a moment conned by the nobility of the responsibilities he accepts (he won’t put his wife in hospice). Riva has garnered the acclaim and the Oscar nod, but Trintignant has the more difficult part. He’s not an amiable chap; for all the erotic charge between he and Riva there’s the suggestion that she endured years of quiet verbal cruelty. With his daughter (Isabelle Huppert, extroverted for the first time in years) he’s terse and unyielding, mocking her sincere attempt at having a “serious talk” about her mother. The disgraced judge in Red, the doubting Jansenist in My Night at Maud’s, and the fascista wannabe in The Conformist add up to portraits of will at war with instinct; in Amour, will and instinct are indivisible. No other 2012 film depends as much on successful casting.

Acknowledging the audience’s complicity, Haneke’s camera lets actors enter rooms without following them. In an hour’s time we memorize every square foot of the Riva-Trintignant apartment: the toilet with the antiquarian WC, the living room strewn with books, an ever-present tea kettle and ashtray on the table, the unexpectedly bare foyer. The ending is a muddle. The second time the damn pigeon gets trapped in the apartment I thought Haneke had lost his mind, and he’s not up to the ambiguity of the ending (expecting ambiguity from Haneke is like expecting pratfalls in a Bresson film), but these are flyspecks on the only honest film he’s made. Don’t call it a horror film though. Yeats and the inexorable accumulation of years tell us that aging isn’t horrible so much as stupid.

“We’re on the right side of history”

Republicans be meetin’ to change their “strategy.” No more lousy Tea Party candidates:

For the past four years, Republicans have faced a series of disappointing setbacks after mediocre candidates—often tea party favorites—have gone on to lose very winnable elections.

They include Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin, who lost a Missouri Senate race last year and forced Romney and other Republicans on the defensive over women’s issues.

In 2010, Nevada’s Sharron “Second Amendment Remedies” Angle and Delaware’s Christine “I’m Not A Witch” O’Donnell lost Senate races Republicans had been expected to win.

The party hopes to take steps to avoid such catastrophes.

Republicans say if that means supporting a moderate candidate who can actually win over a hardline conservative who doesn’t stand a chance, so be it. (You may have noticed that among the names that make up The Bobs, there isn’t anyone who might be considered a “tea party leader.”)

“If we’re not nominating candidates that can win in the general election, what business are we in?” Barbour said. “We are in the business of winning elections.”

Surely this means accepting realities — that a majority of the public supports gay marriage and the welfare state?

There is one thing, however, that no one—not the committee members, elected officials or even The Bobs—seem interested in addressing, and that’s whether core Republican ideas need to change.

Most here said they don’t.

“The conservative message sells,” said Saul Anuzis, the former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. “We’re on the right side of history, on the right side of the issues. We just haven’t done a very good job on articulating the issues.


Singles 1/25

Carrie Underwood’s work could stand a shrewd compilation. “Two Black Cadillacs,” Dust Bowl corn complete with preachers and the Other Woman, is as histrionic as “Blown Away” and more fun. Speaking of, Eve is always fun but never compelling (did anyone notice she was gone?). In the never-fun pile, Dido yearns, Thom Yorke’s side project moans, and Hurts preens. The week’s question: how much dough did Fiddy cough up to get Adam Levine and Slim Shady on his record, or did Em make him promise to finish The Four Agreements?

Click on links for full reviews.

Lindstrøm & Todd Terje – Lanzarote (7)
Carrie Underwood – Two Black Cadillacs (7)
Charli XCX – You (Ha Ha Ha) (7)
Bastille – Pompeii (6)
Atoms for Peace – Judge Jury and Executioner (6)
Super Junior M – Break Down (6)
Santigold – Girls (5)
Eve – She Bad Bad (5)
Dido – No Freedom (4)
How to Destroy Angels – The Loop Closes (4)
Hurts – Miracle (4)
Brianna Perry ft. T-Pain – Mascara Tears (3)
50 Cent ft. Eminem & Adam Levine – My Life (3)

The other Wilder

thornton-wilder-CU01_330-verticalUndergraduates looking for witticisms on Kafka, Shakespeare, Tarkington, Cervantes, among others, are advised to check Orson Welles’ collected conversations with Peter Bogdanovich out of the library. The polymath was a hell of a critic. A passing reference to the author of Our Town prompted the puppyish Bogdanovich to inquire about his relationship to Welles. “The Eighth Day is marvelous,” Welles said about Thornton Wilder’s 1967 novel. I’d no idea the author of that sentimental warhorse of the American theater wrote novels one should read.

The attention, mostly negative, paid to Penelope Niven’s biography made me wonder, particularly this review. In a week I’ve devoured three Thornton Wilder novels trying to understand the praise he elicits in some quarters (Gore Vidal, J.D. McClatchy, the Library of America edition he helped curate). The Bridge Over San Luis Rey is Wilder’s “Yesterday” — a small, perfect, dull masterpiece. It’s written in prose any middle schooler can parse and a framing device whose didacticism is most useful to their teachers. The Eighth Day dissipates in its crawl towards a conclusion but the boarding house and “Trent” sections are first-rate. I can’t explain its best-seller status: it’s a weird book for the late sixties, out of time beside Roth and Barthelme and the other experimentalists, pointing towards a picaresque-realism hybrid that hasn’t been realized. Precious and camp, The Cabala boasts a sententious cardinal and hard gem-like sentences lingering over Romanist kitsch; without knowing a jot about Wilder’s life it codes as a closet narrative, a travelogue in which a first-person narrator concentrates on the lurid rich to distract from his own nullity.