Monthly Archives: January 2015

Citizenfour: We Are Not Alone

About three-quarters of the audience at the Walker Art Center’s free screening of Citizenfour was older than me, often by decades. The woman who senior-whispered for her companion to explain “POTUS” must have been in her late 80s (I envied her ignorance) and I can’t imagine what she made of all the talk of encryption and SD cards. Not that Laura Poitras’ film is at all opaque. But as NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden demonstrates to Poitras and her fellow middle-aged media collaborator Glenn Greenwald the precautions necessary to communicate electronically with even a slim hope of privacy, the film captures just how daunting the level of technological competence necessary to protest government overreach in the 21st century might feel to the pre-millennial left.

With its cool transitional shots (silent night driving, sterile cityscapes) set to a dark-ambient Trent Reznor soundtrack, Citizenfour inhabits this sleek, moody future, acknowledging the real-life spy-thriller aspects of its subject matter without ratcheting up the melodrama,.With suspense an impossibility — anyone bothering to watch already knows the beans Snowden will spill — Poitras summons foreboding. Commentary from those who have glimpsed U.S. government surveillance from within (most prominently NSA cryptologist-turned-critic William Binney) or have been its targets (including Occupy activists subjected to retina scans, and Poitras herself, who fled from fed scrutiny to Berlin) hints at something big and bad. By the time Booz Allen Hamilton loaner Ed Snowden meets with Greenwald and Poltras to share information he pilfered from an NSA temp gig, the breadth and scope of the program he reveals feels both as inevitable and momentous as the mothership descending over Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters.

There’s an uneasy humor to the scenes with Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel, the mundane institutional blandness of the setting at odds with the significance of his actions. When Snowden drapes himself in a red cloth to hide his laptop work, his precautions feel both exaggerated and useless, the level of surveillance he’s uncovered feels both impossible and painstakingly documented. And though Snowden worries from the start that easy issues of personality will overwhelm the substance of his revelations, Poitras’ film understands how essential his homey drawl is to his message, how unavoidably his face will come to represent the larger issues in play.

Really, you couldn’t cast the guy better — from his first interview with Poitras and Greenwald, he’s remarkably prepossessed but not smug, articulate but not glib, bright but not show-offy. A brief appearance from Julian Assange, attempting unsuccessfully to arrange a flight to a safe country for Snowden after a cancelled passport strands him in Moscow, quietly underscores the contrast between the Wikileaks editor’s anarchic Euro-sinister demeanor and Snowden’s earnest American law-and-order libertarianism.

Dana Goldstein: Study War No More

In America, when someone tells you how much they respect your work, they’re trying to get out of paying you. No matter what you love to do, somebody is determined to exploit your basic desire to wring meaning from a useful task. But the teaching profession has been particularly bedeviled by the high-minded assertion that the only effective practitioners are people who don’t need the money. And as Dana Goldstein argues in The Teacher Wars, from Catharine Beecher to the Talented Tenth to Teach for America, an elitist missionary impulse has undermined the efforts of professionals seeking to establish a middle-class career in education even (or especially) when the reformers’ intentions were pure.

That’s just one of a handful of themes forming the skeleton of Goldstein’s history, which covers almost exactly two hundred years of public education in the United States. But it’s maybe the most important. It’s the reason why Goldstein, in her conclusion, which outlines some suggestions for reform, has to actually make the argument that pay affects the quality of teaching, which you’d think all parties would be willing to stipulate.

Goldstein’s modest tone here is a healthy counterbalance to America’s incessant drive toward the broad-scale solutioneering that, despite its progressive roots, has been co-opted by corporate disruption fetishists. There is only so much that teachers can do, only so much that students can do, only so much that the federal government can do — reasonable. Abandon the language of crisis so that public education becomes is not a problem perpetually to be solved, but an existing system to be fine-tuned for best results by listening to teachers — modest. “Only then will we end the teacher wars,” Goldstein concludes — ah, now that’s something else altogether.

In the liberal version of utopia, differences are set aside so that effective public policy can operate in a space outside of politics. But public policy is always a site of conflict, with disparate interests vying for control of resources. If you see that conflict as a “war,” you yearn for an apolitical state of peace. If you see it as democracy, the question becomes how to  manage that conflict so as to cause the fewest casualties.

Chart for Charts’ Sake: Hot Country Songs

Liberals are ANGRY about Carrie Underwood’s new song, a link a conservative relative posted to Facebook tells me. Now maybe I luckily dodged some snitty Bill Maher tweet, but I’ve yet to hear any reaction from my Obamaoist friends to “Something in the Water.” In fact, Underwood bleats about washing her sins in the blood of the Lamb with such featureless immensity that if you tune out every lyric except “must have been something the water” she could just as well be rallying anti-fluoridation activists, decrying how teen vandals roofied the baptismal font, or recalling that time a case of the runs spoiled a Cancun getaway.

Underwood is the only solo woman in this week’s country top ten, which seems like bad news till you realize that means RaeLynn’s cornpone creation myth “God Made Girls” has sugar ‘n’ spiced off to a better place. The great Ashley Monroe does get to slum alongside the good Blake Shelton on the dour booty call “Lonely Tonight” (“Nothing on TV” — oh Blake, you charmer), but as sex duets go, an uncredited Faith Hill saddling Tim McGraw and giddyupping into the sunrise on “Shotgun Rider” leaves ’em in the dust.

Elsewhere, the dudes ain’t partying like they used to. Sure there are the usual harmless, manipulative fibs about the-way-you-look-at-me-baby like Thomas Rhett’s “Make We Wanna” and small-town life like Zac Brown Band’s “Homegrown” (not to be confused with “Homegrown Honey,” in which Darius Rucker sings “You’re so money” because he has even more reason to miss the ’90s than most of us). But on “I See You,” Luke Bryan fends off advances from “a thousand girls” (one by one, I hope) to moon over one who got away, while Eric Church wistfully recalls a bromantic getaway to “Talladega”  (I always hear the opening line as  “It was the summer before The Real World started.”)

Lee Bice’s “Drinking Class” throws its broad shoulders back with the stolid commitment of later Springsteen, though I’d prefer he “get rowdy … get wild and loud” rather than just celebrate people who do (and who would never be prissy enough to false-rhyme the title with “bust our backs). As for the always sluggish-pulsed Kenny Chesney, he struggles to get the weekend started with “Til It’s Gone”; it’s bizarre and a little disturbing even to hear his constitutional blandness degenerate into a kind of reluctant anhedonia. I hope he’s all right.

Which brings us to Florida Georgia Line, who elicit the sort of intense rage you might expect from serious music fans if it turned out Bieber did 9/11. If the two dumbest members of Alabama performed botched mutual lobotomies on each other, the FGL dudes would still be asking for their help answering Jeff Foxworthy’s questions. Sure their lite-beer skank makes Magic! sound like Sly & Robbie. (OK, the Police.) (OK, the guys in your dorm who do a halfway decent  cover of “Message in a Bottle.”) And they dictate their Spotify playlists (“hip-hop and Haggard and Jagger” — big “Let’s Work” fans, these guys) like some dim OKCupider out to prove the breadth of his taste. (Bros: My new song “The Six Things I Could Never Do Without” is a sure-fire hit. DM me.). But every Line has a hook at the end, and the whistle on “Sun Daze” is one splashy lure. Definitely nothing to get ANGRY about.

Selma: Politics by Other Means

Selma is a war movie, except only one of the two armies has all the guns. Ava DuVernay stages the two brutal mass assaults by the Alabama state troopers — at the night march in Marion, and on the first day at the Edmund Pettus Bridge — as horrifying military routs. But David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King Jr. is a master tactician, surrounding himself with brilliant generals but keeping his own counsel. Like any field marshal, he debates which of his (civilian) troops to sacrifice, rallies them for battle, and plots to capture territory — the bridge and beyond, to Montgomery — with the weapons at hand, particularly the media.

Oyelowo never lets King’s public mask slip, remaining enigmatic even in his private moments. But as my friend Peter Scholtes noted, any movie about King will hinge much less on how the man himself acts (a matter of historical record) than on the film’s ability to dramatize how others respond to his presence. And so the key scene here is King’s late night drive with Stephan James’s John Lewis (whose dogged earnestness is the heart of the movie). Lewis tells King how a previous speech sparked the younger man’s burgeoning activism, creating a feedback loop of inspiration that consoles and heartens King in a way Ralph Abernathy’s earlier jail-cell scripture-quoting couldn’t.

There are slip-ups here. Tom Wilkinson’s hangdog LBJ lacks the cajoling physical dominance that would make him a worthy foil to King – the shifty bluster of a more lifelike Lyndon would have defused any petty op/ed cavils about historical accuracy. And like all biopics, which highlight by their comparison to news footage how much clumsy artifice purely fictional movies can get away with, there are moments of bald exposition (it’s not DuVernay’s fault she has to teach your kids history), musical overkill (Jason Moran is smarter than this soundtrack), and easy emotional manipulation (even when Oprah isn’t onscreen). But if Martin Luther King deserves his big Hollywood Oscar biopic just as surely as he deserves a national holiday, Selma is as much as we could ask for and then some.

Chart for Charts’ Sake: Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs

I turned 45 today, and between an early morning dental cleaning and an early evening birthday party, I listened to the R&B/Hip-Hop Top Ten. As routine check-ups go, my listening session caused a lot less spitting. But if we’re talking parties, mine wins: There were more women, nobody gratuitously trashed Naya Rivera (at least not that I heard), and Chris Brown wasn’t invited.

Breezy continues to misunderstand the phrase “charm offensive” with the week’s biggest new hit, “Ayo,” a hot track from “Loyal” producer Nic Nac that allows the singer to vent a snide “Don’t be actin’ like I need you” — in case you ever doubted that “These hoes ain’t loyal” was self-referential. At a different point along the “ugh, men” spectrum, Usher thoughtfully informs a stripper that she is not necessarily a hoe on “I Don’t Mind,” though he doesn’t tell us what dancing shirtless for women for two decades makes Usher. (Besides, you know, o-l-d.). (These hits feature raps by Tyga and Juicy J, respectively, though passing along that info increasingly feels like ID’ing which session man played the generic guitar solo on some bro-country hit or other.)

I’m a belated semi-convert to the woozy mid-week party vibe of ILoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday” — rare is the track that Drake can drag down by bringing too much energy. On the other hand, if O.T. Genasis’s why-they-call-it-dope drug-entendre “CoCo” ever finally goes away, I expect the follow-up will just be him shouting “Crack! Crack! Crack!” for three minutes over an 808 preset.

I still hear Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Boy” (as the charts list it officially) as a dance craze in search of a track and Jeremih’s “Don’t Tell ‘Em” as a great track in search of a non-Jeremih. As for “No Type,” since I don’t want to turn this blog into Rae Sremmurd Daily, I’ll just say this: Yes you do have a type, it’s “bad bitches,” you just told us, stop sending mixed signals.

The offhand “7/11” nicely counterbalances the increased air of significance Beyonce’s hits have come to exhale. She vamps as though improv’ing instructions, appropriating rap’s Simon Says strip club drill sergeantry for a girl’s dorm impromptu dance party before drifting away on a boastful cloud of celestial freshness. (And for sure she knows what “my hands up” means in 2015.) In contrast to Bey, Nicki Minaj has to hold her own with the men. All (occasionally amazing) content aside, “Only” is a vehicle for three pros to revel in the nuances of their flow and flaunt their vocal control and range. Also, all songs really should contain disclaimers clarifying all past sexual relations between the performers.

Speaking of fucking, Big Sean speaks “fuck” a lot on “I Don’t Fuck With You,” which, all “stupid little bitch” spittle aside, is recommended to wronged humans of all genders stuck in the “spiteful and unfair ranting” phase of a break-up. You’d expect the far superior rhymer E-40 to upstage Sean here, in the same way Nicki did on “Dance (A$$)” and Kendrick did on “Control” (that would be an actual “trilogy,” Sean), but for once the kid’s petulant blurt wins out. Sean repeats “I don’t give a fuck” so often it’s like he’s hoarding fucks, like he dreams of becoming Scrooge McFuck and cornering the fuck market. But at nearly five minutes, maybe the lad doth not give a fuck too much. He ain’t missin’ you at all, Naya — though you’re probably still making more money than him and shit.

Eimear McBride: Impulse Control

Two strains of fiction manhandle syntax for opposing goals — one method represents, supposedly mimicking consciousness with an accuracy inaccessible to proper prose, the other debunks, purportedly defying the possibility of mimetic accuracy. (I know I’m simplifying — it’s a blog, sheesh.) Working primarily in the former tradition, Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is the latest exercise in how to represent a non-writer’s experience using a very writerly fragmentation. And. So. Many. Periods.

McBride prevents her novel from devolving into just a belated modernist exercise by fitting her style to the biological limitations upon coherence that each stage of human development imposes. Her experimentation is always age-appropriate. To start, childhood is an time of grasping for words, the meaningful sounds we’ve accumulated never quite enough to capture the sense of thoughts just beyond saying. The narrator (“I” throughout the novel) knows a terrible thing is happening to her brother (who is “you” throughout) but she can’t express it (it’s a brain tumor, we learn).

In adolescence, chemicals overwhelm the brain’s ability to think straight, and here the narrator’s mental spluttering temporarily turns the book into A Portrait of the What-Ever as an I Can’t Even. Then the narrative takes another dark turn. You might think that a childhood brain tumor is enough trauma for one slim novel, but sex at thirteen with a visiting uncle transforms the narrator into a creature of only impulse and sensation. Smugly seeing through the romantic illusions of her fellow girls, she becomes addicted to the power she can exert over dumb horny boys by adopting a pose of sexual nihilism.

Then comes the narrator’s move to the city — the liberating climax in many a coming of age novel — but as she enters that post-adolescent stage it’s a mistake to call “young adulthood,” she indulges only the freedom to deaden perception through overstimulation, leading to a suitably blurred prose. Her brother, the mother, the uncle — all pull her back into the past, as does the half-remembered cant of her childhood Catholicism, which further diffuses her already scattering thoughts in ways that only increase her frustration.

Many more awful things happen to the narrator before we reach a conclusion that feels inevitable but also ineffective. McBride tries to mirror the breakdown of consciousness through the breakdown of language, but the wires are showing and the illusion is dispelled. No shame in that: Geniuser writers than McBride have failed to eff the ineffable. It’s achievement enough to craft a compelling voice that tells it to eff off.

True Detective: Only Time Will Tell If We Stand the Test of Time

It’s 2015 and I’m watching True Detective for the first time but (fittingly enough, I know) it feels like it already happened. It’s like I’m just getting around to a DVR’d Super Bowl in March, or I’m Chief Justice Bart Simpson finally watching The Itchy & Scratchy Movie. Any spoilers that wouldn’t have made sense to me beforehand — something-something-Yellow-King, “time is a flat circle” of course — have been washed away by the flood of “True Detective Season 2” tweets. There’s a lot that irritates me about the online ritual of week-to-week TV dissection. But taking in a past-due subcultural moment, alone, in the course of a single week, outside of the sustaining atmosphere of hype … well, it’s lonely.

Funny thing about the Test of Time is that the sort of serious-minded bores who invoke that flawed standard are prone to bet on losing horses. Time has told that most pop ages better than most “art” does. Pop sponges up personal and social and cultural meanings, while the faddish whims of critical esteem date amusingly. Sometimes I wonder what artistic medium suffers most from this phenomenon. Novels are a likely candidate — not many readers getting around to Freedom or Netherland in 2015. (Which, I know, they’re fine.) But I suspect Quality Television will soon be even more affected. The Sopranos or The Wire we may always have with us, but what will today’s eight-year-olds make of Mad Men in 2025?

And what do I make of True Detective in 2015? Flash and craft yearning for unearned pathos.There are worse ways to start a story than “We found a dead nude woman.” But there are also other ways to start a story. It’s fun to watch McConaughey, sure, in the same way it’s fun to watch a BMX competition or a really good juggler. His aged Cohle has dead eyes deserving of a Robert Shaw monologue; his younger self revels in high school philosophication with the smugness of the smartest guy in a exceptionally dumb room. Woody Harrelson yet again proves himself one of our most adequate actors as he fucks several attractive women, only one of whom is his wife, and then has feelings. And of course this show’s most celebrated moment is an extended tracking shot — the visual equivalent of a guitar solo, if not a drum solo, for quantity fans.

But the worst part about writing about True Detective in 2015? I just knew someone had used “time is a flat circlejerk” before I even Googled.

Mr. Turner: Also Lesley Manville Is Never Not Great

Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy is the smartest tweaking of the Important Artist Biopic I’ve ever seen, ticking off all the standard, requisite plot points while undercutting the dull myth of the inspired solitary magical creator, hewing to each convention only to ever so slightly undermine it. So I had to promise myself not to draw comparisons on my way in to see Mr. Turner, which reworks that awful genre in its own quiet, devastating way.

Mr. Turner is a movie about work, centered on a man whose job is to look at things, and it’s a movie about the many human lives sacrificed to enable that work. Turner’s father (Paul Jesson) dotes like a comic servant, literally dying in his son’s service; Turner uses his maid, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), for the occasional impersonal release of sexual energy until an autumnal stumble into domestic contentment with his landlady (Marion Booth) makes Hannah redundant. (One of the film’s subtlest, most affecting moments: After a quick, standing rut from behind, Danby stretches her head back to kiss Turner’s face, which has already pulled away.) And Martin Savage’s impoverished and frustrated Benjamin Haydon frets and fumes his way periodically into Turner’s life to remind the successful genius that had he not cruelly cut off his family, he too might be an outcast debtor.

Timothy Small’s pursed, fleshy face is both ichthyoid and porcine and calls out for just such fancified classically derived descriptors. Its impassivity invites close study, a search for the slightest ripple of emotion across that rubber mask. He and Leigh make the most of the fact that Turner’s heroic artistic vision emanates from a squat Dickensian lump whose vocabulary of grunts is narrower than Chewbacca’s, though no less expressive. (The scene where Turner croaks a Purcell duet is highly recommended to fans of later Scott Walker.)

Leigh’s choices chafe my admittedly bio-picky sensibilities in the home stretch, starting right around the time Joshua McGuire’s effete John Ruskin flits on-screen. Ruskin’s rep can fend for itself, but the caricature’s used to make cheap shots against critics (what’d we ever do to you, Mike?) and leads to a few stagy scenes where Turner finds his increased abstraction questioned by aesthetes and philistines alike. As Turner persists, experiments, and declines, Leigh leaves us waiting for some dramatic turnaround that never comes, some late-life revelation that’s wisely withheld. Instead Turner paints. He ages. He dies.

Inherent Vice: Cartoons, Networked

As Inherent Vice begins, it’s 1970 and California is at that awkward age. The utopian ecstasies of hippie excess will flatten into a lifestyle of socially manageable hedonism; state, corporate, and criminal interests will cooperate to integrate both upscale libertinism and gutter-level addiction into a sleekly cohesive narco-therapeutic industrial complex. This world could use a fall guy like Doc Sportello.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s fascination with Joaquin Phoenix is corporeal and infectious. In The Master, the camera spelunked the shadowed crags of the actor’s face. Here, closeups lovingly exaggerate the sculptural mass of his head, weighted with the proud mane and mutton chops of a congressman about to take the floor debate the merits of the Kansas-Nebraska act. Forever jolting himself into alertness and thrusting back his shoulders to feign authority, Phoenix-as-Doc is a slapstick clown repeatedly shoehorning himself into the role of straight man to the noir cartoons he investigates.

As in all the best animation, most of the supporting characters are drawn boldly enough that two dimensions are all you need. But there are two nuanced exceptions. Katherine Waterston’s sad eyes reveal Shasta Fay as more than the surf-toned naif her willowy, bikini-bottomed appearance suggests, hinting at a life arc beyond her plot-spurring uses. This independence is erotic, dramatized when an exhibitionist monologue of her time away from Doc (and us) becomes an elaborate kind of foreplay. And Anderson finds in Pynchon’s text one of those clashes between symbiotic male antagonists he so loves, setting John Brolin loose to stomp across the film as a brutal shell of deep-crammed neuroses that surface whenever a choco-dipped ice cream phallus nears his mouth.

Tweaked genre convention or no, Joanna Newsom’s kewpie-gravel voice-overs are a gratuitous device to shoehorn extra Pynchon prose into a film that doesn’t need the help — it finds its way from A to B with an effectiveness that never degrades into mere efficiency. Though Doc brushes briefly up against peripheral plots (in the politically sinister as well as merely narrative sense) that may continue to unfold off camera, the detective and the film alike stagger forward with a befogged determination, and so both find a pleasant enough place to rest temporarily that’s as happy and as much an ending as Anderson can get away with.

Chart for Charts’ Sake: The Hot 100

Say what you will (and I’m sure you already have) about Iggy Azalea’s mushmouf Amy & Andrea who-dat’s and post-Fergie asswagg, but at least it takes some effort to wrest a living cultural form from your betters. Far simpler, much of this week’s top ten shows, to claim as your inheritance a musical legacy so thoroughly disseminated over time into the pop vernacular you don’t even have to acknowledge.race. So many songs without soul that couldn’t exist without Soul.

Sometimes this is done winningly: Over a NiN-funk beat, Nick Jonas cutely pretends there’s such a thing as a tough-guy falsetto on “Jealous,” wriggling his foxy way into that Timberlake-sized hole that Robin Thicke was so quickly thinkpieced out of. Sometimes it’s done respectfully: The sulky cuck of Sobbin’ Sam Smith’s  “I’m Not the Only One” is as one-dimensional as the clingy pump-and-dump who sang “Stay With Me,” but the newer hit’s more supple musically than the earlier let-the-choir-sing smash. Sometimes it’s done sanctimoniously: Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” is a monument to the pious blasphemies of a drip who thinks Bernie Taupin is John Donne, maybe even the reverse. And sometimes it’s done edsheeraningly: The best thing I can say about “Talking Out Loud” is that Adam Levine would sound even ickier asking “Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love?” — when Levine, who has belatedly and inevitably gotten in touch with his inner Sting, unclinches his climactic howl on on “Animals,” he answers the musical question “What Does the Douche Say?” and I think terrifying thoughts about an alternate universe where Kanye hadn’t bonded with Justin Vernon over Avatar.

There are also four songs in the top ten by two women. “Shake It Off” riled some folks who act like Toni Basil never happened and Max Martin doesn’t have sick beats. (Whether this is one of those is another argument.) And after hearing my 8-year old niece hum it for two hours straight over Christmas, I can report that “Blank Space” remains an exhaustible pleasure. As for Meghan Trainor’s one-girl-group sass, it’s hopelessly retrograde tween-fodder, and it’s just too bad “All About That Bass” and “Your Lips Are Movin’” didn’t stay off my radio the way past children’s music like “Let It Go” and so many of the early Bieber hits did, I may be cutting her just the slightest bit of slack because the truly gross “Dear Future Husband” has apparently stiffed.

Bruno Mars may not be white, but that’s more than you can say for Mark Ronson, the latest practitioner of what Dave Marsh once identified as the longstanding British colonial tradition of selling American raw cultural materials back to us in inferior versions. Like so many of Mars’ hits, except more so, the new chart-topper “Uptown Funk!” isn’t just less than the sum of its influences — each additional influence is divided into the last until the final quotient can be rounded down to zero. He struts like the guy Jerome hands Morris’s mirror off to after the show. Too bad Bruno got to play the Super Bowl halftime show so early in his career – has he any countries left to conquer? (Well, there’s always the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. I see a lot of Dave Grohl all-star jams in this young man’s future.) My 40-ish friends giddy at the how “Uptown Funk!” smooshes up the black music of our tender years are basically (pun intended) Boomers grooving to “Roll With It.” And that’s not the kind of bringin’ ’88 back that anybody really wants.