Monthly Archives: November 2013

The politics of sex: Blue is the Warmest Color

I haven’t seen a movie in my lifetime that captures the sensuousness of eating spaghetti like Blue is the Warmest Color does. Adèle’s parents specialize in the sauce-heavy pepper-studded kind that we’ve all made in a hurry after getting home from work. When she brings her secret girlfriend Emma (Lea Seydoux) home the steaming bowl at the center of the table stands for the day laborer habits of her father, whose eyes darken at the thought of Emma pursuing a career in painting without another job to back her up (“An artistic sense is a fine thing,” he assures her). Spaghetti makes a final appearance at a backyard party that serves as Emma and Adèle’s coming-out party. In this intimate, casual setting at which the guests include homosexuals of every gender, color and taste in studs and conversation reflects the engagé spirit of this artistic community, Adèle’s spaghetti is a hit even if storm clouds of doom rumble across her face. She feels like a rube. She doesn’t understand why Emma is so insistent about Adele making a go of her writing. Is Adèle slipping too easily into the role of feminine support?

As played by Cannes Award-winning Adèle Exarchopoulos, she is a familiar type: the young person whose life at work and school is a mystery to coworkers and herself; she comes alive first writing in her journal and more devastatingly after meeting Emma. This portrait of a lady (the French title is La vie d’Adèle, Chapitre 1 & 2, and I prefer it) forms the basis of Blue is the Warmest Color, which despite the Cannes buzz is about what Elizabeth Bishop called the art of losing — parents, friends, lovers. Years pass in this film, handled without fuss, and I see the weight of them on the actors. It’s got good bon mots (“Are there arts that are ugly?”). It’s got the best outdoor buss I’ve ever seen, a kind of threesome starring the two actors and the intruding camera on a hill; the natural light gives a new meaning to “sun-kissed.”

When the film opens Adèle sits in a classroom, alert but hiding from something, herself most likely. Pressure from friends compels her to flirt with a boy. The cherub-faced high school senior with whom she has an aborted affair tries to impress the literate Adele by saying his favorite book is Les liasions dangereux. Appropriate: when passion hits Exarchopoulos it overpowers her. Red-tinged and sweat-moistened cheeks, bangs falling into her open mouth, no filter separates her from expressing abandon. Filming his characters in fullscreen smothering closeups as if to suggest the insularity of their passions makes formal if not quite aesthetic sense for writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche; the licks, sighs, slurps, and slaps are as loud as a 747 landing. He understands the isolation of high schoolers who can’t discuss sexual positions because their friends still see pussy-eating as threatening; also, the rush of fear and exhilaration of visiting your first gay bar and becoming in seconds an object of desire. It’s where Adèle meets Emma, a couple years older and sporting blue hair and sleepy eyes that don’t stop inspecting Adèle.

Anthony Lane was right to compare Blue is the Warmest Color to 1999’s The Dream Life of Angels — and both are set in Lille. What impressed itself on me about both films is its depiction of loneliness: how Adele and The Dream Life‘s Natacha Régnier have barely emerged from an experience so vastating that they can’t locate themselves again in normal life. The much-hyped sex scenes, as bombastically explicit as Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s reunion kiss in Brokeback Mountain, are its weakest moments, useful as demonstrations of one of the things Adèle does become good at. Scenes in which she marches in rallies against school privatization and at gay pride don’t ring true either. If Kechiche intends a demonstration of a young woman experimenting with selves it doesn’t quite come off; these scenes are as discrete as Emma and Adèle’s couplings. As a teacher she’s competent but unexciting. Adele in her twenties is essentially a boring person because in many ways she still has unfurling to do. It’s not clear she’s gay; it’s clear it doesn’t matter. To foil the Emma clique’s chatter about Schiele, Kechiche includes a conversation between Adèle and Samir, a Saudi who looks “Middle Eastern” enough to get cast by American producers as a bearded terrorist in action films. Bestirred by the absurd pronouncements made by a male guest (“Insofar as I’m a man, everything I’ve glimpsed is frustrated by the limits of male sexuality”), Samir nudges Adèle with questions of his own. By the end of Blue is the Warmest Color she has changed her hair, mode of dress, wears earrings. When she meets Samir again she learns he’s changed too. Whether this matters to either is for another director to plot.

Singles 11/29 – Thanksgiving edition

I have older friends who admit to shock when they learn I like post-Gabriel Genesis, so when I became aware of Mariah Carey fandom in 2005 or so I figured turnaround was fair play. No sense in hating her, not when she boasted songs as fabulous as “Someday,” “Emotions,” “Fantasy,” “My All,” “We Belong Together,” and about five or six others. But with her Miguel collaboration released in late spring and “The Art of Letting Go” she’s released two consecutive excellent singles for the first time since “We Belong Together” and “Shake It Off.” Sounding neither scratchy nor amateurish, Carey has found songs that exploit her girlishness for the sake of expressing sensual truths in plain English, even studded with adverbs. I’ll admit this development isn’t as exciting as Mogwai recording a good song.

Click on links for full reviews.

Mariah Carey – The Art of Letting Go (7)
Tegan & Sara – Goodbye, Goodbye (7)
Future & Miley Cyrus ft. Mr Hudson – Real and True (6)
T.O.P. – Doom Dada (6)
Disclosure, Sam Smith, Nile Rodgers & Jimmy Napes – Together (6)
Marc Anthony – Cambio de Piel (6)
Mogwai – Remurdered (6)
Hospitality – I Miss Your Bones (6)
Kanye West – Bound 2 (4)
Inna ft. Yandel – In Your Eyes (3)
Metronomy – I’m Aquarius (3)
AJR – I’m Ready (2)

When Black Friday comes I’m gonna dig myself a hole

Well, gee, this is no surprise:

Black Friday doesn’t even necessarily offer the best discounts, contrary to what retailers want their customers to believe. Rather than selling most merchandise at full price and marking down what doesn’t sell, stores now engineer their prices, so that the “discounted” prices are actually at the level they had wanted all along. Some “door-buster” items, in limited quantities, lure people into stores. Many gifts, though, have lower price tags at other times. The consumer-price research firm Decide Inc. analyzed data for the Wall Street Journal last year and found that Elmo dolls, Ugg boots, Samsung TVs, and KitchenAid stand mixers were less expensive on other days. (Decide closed its services in September, after being purchased by eBay.) Consumer Reports indicates that many home appliances and small consumer electronics are cheapest in December.

Thanksgiving Friday sales have been with us forever, but the ritualizing of the shopping experience I date from the late nineties boom; in later years when it became a sign of our recovering economic health this or that percentage of sales assumed totemic properties.

So you’ll find me here.

Pope Francis: ‘You can sell your desk. You don’t need it. You need to get out of the Vatican.’


When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis was known to sneak out at night and break bread with the homeless, sit with them literally on the street and eat with them, as part of his aim to share the plight of the poor and let them know someone cared.

That’s not so easy to do now that he’s pope. But Francis is still providing one-on-one doses of emergency assistance to the poor, sick and aged through a trusted archbishop. Konrad Krajewski is the Vatican Almoner, a centuries-old job of handing out alms — and Francis has ramped up the job to make it a hands-on extension of his own personal charity.

As Americans gathered for Thanksgiving on Thursday, Krajewski described how Francis has redefined the little known office of papal almoner and explained the true meaning of giving during a chat with journalists over coffee and pastries a few steps from the Vatican gates.

“The Holy Father told me at the beginning: ‘You can sell your desk. You don’t need it. You need to get out of the Vatican. Don’t wait for people to come ringing. You need to go out and look for the poor,'” Krajewski said.

Krajewski gets his marching orders each morning: A Vatican gendarme goes from the Vatican hotel where Francis lives to Krajewski’s office across the Vatican gardens, bringing a bundle of letters that the pope has received from the faithful asking for help. On the top of each letter, Francis might write “You know what to do” or “Go find them” or “Go talk to them.”

Keeping in mind that the anonymous act of charity is the most Christian, Francis charges his almoner to go further than alms giving:

You might be able to sleep at night, but being an almoner has to cost you. Two euros is nothing for you. Take this poor person, bring him to your big apartment that has three bathrooms, let him take a shower — and your bathroom will stink for three days — and while he’s showering make him a coffee and serve it to him, and maybe give him your sweater. This is being an almoner.”

I can’t give too much credit for the man doing what he was elected to do: clean the fuck out of a stable so filthy that it deserved obliteration. Whoever the College of Cardinals chose as pope had this mission. But I can’t imagine Benedict XVI or John Paul II expressing such devotion to the poor and a loathing of capitalism . No other world leader this week has exhibited comparable moral force.

Ice Ice baby: Frozen

Princesses still dream of true love in Disney films, and I don’t blame them when the objects of true love sport floppy bangs and aquiline noses that could dice carrots. In Frozen two sisters in a Scandinavian kingdom are shut off from the world and separated after the eldest and heir to the throne Elsa, underestimating her magic, almost kills the youngest. Years pass and so do their parents. On coronation day the palace gates, flung open for the first time since the accident, welcome the court, ambassadors, and Prince Hans of the Southern Islands. A bit like Princess Fergie, Anna wants to let her hair down and party and hang out with Duran Duran, whereupon she and Prince Hans get engaged within minutes of meeting. But Anna can’t forget how close she and now Queen Elsa were as girls; during a moment when she makes like Judd Hirsch and Elsa like Timothy Hutton the latter’s paroxysm of rage freezes the kingdom. Because she used magic the weaselly Duke of Weselton, who looks like Kaiser Wilhem, condemns her publicly as a witch. Elsa flees to North Mountain, which she transforms into a four-star resort complete with ice fountains and discotheque, in which she belts a Tina Turner-style showstopper (called “Let It Go,” of course) as if she were at the Cow Palace. She even conjures herself a swanky gown and Jimmy Choo pumps.

Anna’s attempt to persuade her sister to descend and save the kingdom and mend their relationship forms the crux of Frozen. With the help of Kristof the iceman — floppy-haired and blond too but rounder of chin, like The Karate Kid‘s Johnny Lawrence — and his reindeer Sven and a bucktoothed and possibly queer snowman named Olaf, Anna thaws her sister’s heart at the moment hers begins to freeze. This entertaining Pixar release gets by on energy and pace. To mention that it softens the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale on which it’s based is like asking if animated trolls sing, but it’s not a point I can dismiss. Surely kids raised on their older siblings’ copies of The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Lord of the Rings can handle the beauty and terror of the original story? Do we need more future princess gowns on sale at the Magic Kingdom? The songs are bleh too; imagine Diane Warren writing as an analysand. As Elsa realizes the extent of her powers the script isn’t imaginative enough to conceive of new shapes, monsters, and things she can conjure; she’s no more daring than Marvel’s Ice Man creating chutes. A twist in the last fifteen minutes has the disadvantage of coming too quickly yet being predictable. Thank then these same scriptwriters for another twist — a welcome surprise to those schooled in the usual Disney climaxes. The conclusion offers ambiguities that aren’t resolved either, bless them. The ice queen doesn’t melt and her subjects still regard her as if she were about to raise their capital gains taxes.

Dance dance dance! – Best singles of 1978

Disco here, disco there, disco everywhere in 1978. These days I’m not fond of the Bee Gees’ golden run, but I couldn’t resist the ballad and “If I Can’t Have You,” which sounds better and better. I’m happy with my top ten: the Stone using the excuse of “listening to disco” to remember the guitar raunch they forgot and remind Jagger and Richards that Bill Wyman is a damn fine bassist. Speaking of bass lines, the one propelling John Lydon’s first post-Sex Pistols project is just as insistent. Also:

* Yes, “Right Down the Line” not “Baker Street.” I love both but the former, a perennial in supermarkets and CVS stores across the land, gets me in the way “Baker Street” did boomers crossing thirty in 1978.

* The vote for “Wuthering Heights” is a cheat: the 1986 remix helped me appreciate the ear-popping original.

1. Sylvester – You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)
2. Rolling Stones – Miss You
3. Chic – I Want Your Love
4. Public Image Ltd – Public Image
5. ABBA – Take a Chance on Me
6. Earth Wind & Fire – Serpentine Fire
7. Evelyn “Champagne” King – Shame
8. Steely Dan – Deacon Blues
9. Parliament – Flashlight
10. Chaka Khan – I’m Every Woman
11. The Clash – Safe European Homes
12. Bill Withers – Lovely Day
13. Tom Petty and the Heartbrekers – Listen To Her Heart
14. Blondie – Picture This
15. Bruce Springsteen – Badlands
16. Warren Zevon – Werewolves in London
17. Talking Heads – Take Me to the River
18. Funkadelic – One Nation Under a Groove (Part 1)
19. The Bee Gees – How Deep is Your Love?
20. Jackson Browne – Running on Empty
21. Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights
22. Kenny Loggins – Whenever I Call You “Friend”
23. Joe Walsh – Life’s Been Good
24. Yvonne Elliman – If I Can’t Have You
25. Linda Ronstadt – Tumbling Dice
26. Willie Nelson – Blue Skies
27. Nick Gilder – Hot Child in the City
28. The Cars – My Best Friend’s Girl
29. Paul Simon – Slip Slidin’ Away
30. L.T.D. – (Every Time I Turn Around) Back in Love Again
31. Carly Simon – You Belong To Me
32. X-Ray Spex – The Day the World Turned Day-Glo
33. Buzzcocks – I Don’t Mind
34. Donna Summer – Last Dance
35. Devo – Satisfaction
36. The Ramones – I Wanna Be Sedated
37. Gerry Rafferty – Right Down the Line
38. Rod Stewart – I Was Only Joking
39. Dolly Parton – Here You Come Again
40. Eddie Money – Baby Hold On

December boys got it bad: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Like a lot of eighties kids, my first acquaintance with Alex Chilton happened when I fast forwarded around The Bangles’ cover of “September Gurls” on Different Light. A decent cover — sung by (I think) bassist Michael Steele, with the right amount of rue. Most importantly, the album’s multiplatinum sales garnered Chilton maybe the decent royalties of his long post-Box Tops career. I never loved Big Star, but I play the butchered Third/Sister Lover copy bought at a Barnes and Noble superstore in 1999: the Rykodisc edition released in the early nineties. My reluctance stems from a suspicion of jangle pop. An education whose material included Matthew Sweet, R.E.M., and Robyn Hitchcock meant classics one respected but at some point required distance from. As much as I revere harmony I can’t get past the mush (an experiment: to hear Big Star and their progeny for the first time in my thirties instead of the early nineties).

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me adores this music. The story unfolds with the crispness of a profile familiar to readers of Revolver and Magnet and other mausoleums of arrested careers; directors Olivia Mori and Drew DeNicola know how to frame the conventional. The singer of a million-selling single returns to Memphis, assembles a band, and records twelve-string anthems whose drumming thanks to Jody Stephens was louder than their heirs would emulate, Cheap Trick excepted. Interviews with Jim Dickinson, Stephens, and Ardent Records founder and house producer John Fry among others have the shellshocked quality of people grateful to have survived a holocaust. To create #1 Record and Radio City, according to Mori and DeNicola, and watch as the label couldn’t take advantage of their fabulous reviews to distribute them in the bigger markets they deserve soured Chilton (“They were used to dealing with tonnage” is Fry’s pithy explanation). So poisoned that Third is practically a solo album. He produced the Cramps. The albums under his own name suffered the same fate as Big Star, only in the eighties there were fifty thousand college students ready to put you on a CMJ chart. Again and again Chilton’s friends remind us — themselves — of his intransigence. “I don’t think it always served him well,” one says cautioiusly. Like Dylan and Jagger of all people Chilton’s contempt for his past — his impatience with the next generation of discovering Third — curdled his attitude to the present and hobbled prospects, whether these were record label or Paul Westerberg.

Lovingly crafted, Nothing Can Hurt Me suffers from a credulity about rock myths. One more time The Bloated Seventies become the scapegoat (seriously: it’s time somebody directed a 120-minute documentary on Emerson Lake & Palmer and Yes). When a local says Big Star were “too Memphis” I envisaged a different movie, alert to how topography alchemizes Beatles guitars and soul rhythms, aware of how the discontents of being “too Memphis” proved lethal for Big Star co-founder Chris Bell, dead at 28 from a car crash after years of destroying probable homosexual longings with heroin and Christianity. For Bell no other outcome was possible.