Monthly Archives: July 2010

Don’t Let the Chlorine in Your Eyes

I recently netflixed the 1991 Gus Van Sant film My Own Private Idaho, starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. The story centers on Mike (Phoenix), a young gay Portland street hustler who suffers jarring narcoleptic episodes. He’s in love with Scott (Reeves), the wealthy mayor’s son who turns to the hustling life out of a sense of defiance and restlessness. Scott takes care of Mike when he suffers his stress-related sleepy breakdowns, and the two eventually embark on a quest to locate Mike’s mother, a figment from the pastoral Idaho childhood he frequently dreams of. Thanks to a large tip from a kinky German patron (Udo Kier), they make it all the way to Italy. Mike’s mother eludes them, but Scott falls in love with an Italian woman, later marrying her and gravitating back to straight society and the success that awaits him. Mike, more lost than ever, returns alone to the Portland squatter’s den where Bob, his mentor, and his fellow street kid hustlers await.

The film has its flaws, the most glaring of which is Van Sant’s attempt to incorporate Shakespearean dialogue from Henry IV, especially early in the film in a drawn-out sequence detailing Bob’s mentorship of Scott and the rest of the hustlers. Once that pretension drops away, however, Phoenix’s delicate performance (James Dean updated and therefore, more subtle) and the beauty of the framing and cinematography make My Own Private Idaho incredibly memorable. Even Reeves is well suited to the role; Scott is fickle and distracted, but feels compelled to protect Mike. The touching campfire scene in which Mike professes his love is at once exhilarating and heartbreaking.

The film opens and closes with Phoenix narrating in the middle of an empty Idaho highway, and these and other scenes in the film are occasionally interrupted with Mike’s home-movie style memories: a distant view of a modest house, a woman, a child.

The shots in Italy emphasizing Mike’s loneliness are simlarly affecting (and roads continue to be a theme):

The funeral scene toward the end is one of the most memorable. Newly reformed Scott attends his father’s funeral, while at the same time a makeshift “funeral party” for mentor Bob rages just down the hill. For some reason, the exuberance of this scene reminded me of the end of Richard Linklater’s Slacker, which is pretty impossible to describe in words. Mike still has conflicted feelings towards Scott, as we see in his sidelong glances across the cemetary.

Despite its flaws, this film to me represents Van Sant’s particular visual genius at its best.

On a side note, this film visually reminded me of another I enjoyed recently, Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise, from 1998. The film stars Vincent Kartheiser (of Mad Men) and Natasha Gregson Wagner as Bobbie and Rosie, dirt poor teenage delinquents recruited by a big-time crime couple (James Woods and Melanie Griffith) for a job that goes horribly awry. Similar to My Own Private Idaho, lost kids in search of parental figures are the focus, but instead of the delusional ramblings of Bob, we have sweating, swearing, homocidal maniac James Woods. They get deeper into drugs and violence, Rosie ODs, and Bobbie must escape the wrath of Woods in a nail-biting finale at an isolated rest stop.

What’s striking about the film is the way, similar to My Own Private Idaho, that it juxtaposes a gritty city landscape with a pastoral country one. Later in the film, the characters must relocate to what’s basically the middle of nowhere in the western plains. Where the city was visually cluttered and grimy, the rural locations are shot through a lens of perpetual dusk, dim but sharp and occasionally bathed in an orange glow.

The final scene, of which I cannot find an image or video anywhere, sticks with me as a higher-stakes reimagining of Truffaut’s final tracking shot of Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows. Bobbie runs for his life through a field of corn just barely high enough to conceal him, accompanied by the aformentioned orange glow and Dylan’s hymn “Every Grain of Sand.” 

I’ve always been a sucker for endings, and what these two films lack in plot and character they more than make up for through the sheer power of images.

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Girls! Girls! Girls!

Despite my last post on the sorry state of music television today, I spent my weekend surprisingly entertained and fulfilled by that very thing (or, at least, its Internet approximation). Hipster music behemoth Pitchfork answered my prayers by livestreaming their annual 3-day festival from Chicago. While there were quite a few bands I was indifferent to, I was pretty thrilled to see the likes of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (fresh from their Pittsburgh show, which I attended) and Girls up close and personal, far from Union Park’s 90-degree temperatures. The only flaw in the broadcast was that Sunday night’s final show, a reunited Pavement, did not stream as advertised, sparking the ire of many indie rock fans (myself included) who planned their Sundays in anticipation. As it turns out, we didn’t miss much. Though I would’ve preferred to watch the festival on my TV screen (and I know I could have with the right set up), it was great to be able to watch the festival online. While I’ve watched the occasional youtube concert bootleg, it was a treat to see a festival professionally shot, capturing the mood of the crowd and the sweat of the performers.

And now for a digression unrelated to television. One performance I really looked forward to was Girls, the sun-soaked Cali project of Christopher Owens and JR White. 2009’s shimmering, simmering Album combined 60’s-style hooks with an intense shoegaze buzz. When I caught them live in April, their sound translated effortlessly, guitars building to a deafening hiss as Owens stood meekly at the mike, rocking a tangled mass of hair flipped over a deep side part. Owens always seemed to me somewhat off-kilter as a frontman: oversized 90s clothes (with the occasional zany baseball cap) and a vocal delivery that walks the line between innocence and a self-mocking, pseudo-toughness. After the show, I looked up Owens and discovered that he spent his first 16 years traveling Europe as a prisoner of the Children of God cult (of River/Joaquin Phoenix fame), playing “safe” music like the Everly Brothers on street corners for money and clinging to bootleg Michael Jackson tapes as proof an outside world existed. So how’s that for a goddamn backstory?

A full interview from FAQ Magazine is here, and shares fascinating tidbits involving Owens’s early cult-free days in Amarillo, TX, working invisible jobs like overnight stocking and dishwashing, desperately clinging to the local punk scene as a lifeline. Needless to say, it confirms his status as weirdest guy in the room. And here I thought he was just on drugs!  It’s true that an interesting biography does not a good musician make. Owens’s natural talent and pure passion for music shine through on Album, but what could easily be dismissed as a bunch of throwback love songs just makes so much more sense if you know where Owens is coming from.

One of the great rock ‘n roll themes of all is longing. Longing for the girl, the recognition, the lost youth. Springsteen build a career on longing, but the dingy confines of Asbury Park have got nothing on the Children of God. Christopher Owens knows real longing, and it comes through on Album, both in the lyrics and the sound–that repetition, those guitars crying out, louder and louder still. There are few traditional love songs on this record. The opening track “Lust for Life” is an anthem of longing, written by someone who has a vague idea of what’s out there to make life worth living. A boyfriend. A father. A pizza. A beach house. Owens ticks down the list of what makes people happy and normal, lamenting “But now I’m just crazy/and fucked in the head.” “Laura” is about lost friendship and “Big Bad Mean Motherfucker” seems like a nod to his days emulating punk rock heros, trying desperately to be someone new.

The record’s opus is “Hellhole Ratrace,” a song that seems to directly reference Owens’s upbringing and subsequent purgatory in Amarillo. The song centers on a few lines: “I don’t want to cry my whole life through/I want to do some laughing too/So c’mon and laugh with me” and “Sometimes you’ve just got to make it for yourself/but sometimes, honey, you just need someone else.” These lyrics repeat over and over until the song kicks into overdrive and the messy, buzzing guitars stifle the delicate vocals. Owens may be an unusual person, but his sentiment here is universal: the sense that we all want to be out there, living life the best way we can, and we’re all trying to reach out and get what we want before it’s too late.

Girls’ performance at Pitchfork was nothing that would blow anyone’s mind: delicate melodies, some incredibly loud noise, and a lead singer clad in what can only be described as something Judith Light probably wore on a Hawaiian themed episode of Who’s the Boss. But Owens has crafted an immensely personal record that, despite being a year old, is a worthy soundtrack to a weary, sun-stoned August.

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Heyday of the VJ: why real music television should come back

I’ve made my peace with MTV, for the most part. As a preteen and young teen, I enjoyed what I consider to be its finest hour (lots of videos, weird VJs, House of Style, Unplugged, Rock ‘n’ Jock, 120 Minutes). I was stricken when this format began to dissolve in the late 90s and videos were largely replaced with extended screaming teen segments (TRL, Fanatic) and money-grubbing contortions of the Real World/Road Rules franchise (bungee-jumping challenges! Road Rules on a boat!).  Instead of a channel featuring new and interesting music alongside improvised shenanigans, MTV became the channel of the rerun and the retread. Every day was the same. I watch a lot of TV, but it was rare then (as it is still) for me to turn on MTV and see something I’ve never seen. Shows seemed to be rerun over and over on loop, TRL featured the same daily videos, and VJs had largely disappeared. Beginning in the late 90’s, MTV shifted to the same haunting, dystopic trajectory as Clear Channel’s radio takeover: that spontaneous, dorm room hijinks feeling it was once known for is gone. What remains, in my imagination at least, are some unmanned production booths in the depths of the Viacom headquarters, running automatic programming loops of ANTM and The City.

But look, as I said, I’ve made my peace. MTV is not for me anymore; I’m 27, and their demographic, though ostensibly 18-49, is actually more like 12-22. But here we are in the crux of a nineties nostalgia wave, and I’d like to make a suggestion: bring back music video on TV. Now I know there are plenty of places to see music videos nowadays. Youtube, Pitchfork, MySpace, facebook, band websites, dvd, and probably other places I’m not cool enough to know about. And yes, I know Lady Gaga blah blah blah, Beyonce etc. Indeed, some music videos are still getting popular play. And the great thing here is that artists are still making interesting and kick-ass videos because of this Internet audience. But much like the death of radio, the death of music television has largely forced us to sacrifice the art of spontaneity. Despite access to way more music videos, each individual’s musical universe is arguably smaller. This is because now (with the exception of popular sites like Pandora) we are almost always the authors of our own playlists.

Even in the early days of MTV, of course, most VJs were not curators of music video. They were, like most DJs, personalities instructed to play what record company muscle was already pushing. But there were moments, and segments (like those on 120 Minutes, or any celebrity-choice marathon) that featured unexpected and even magical juxtapositions of artists and styles. After MTV started to get a little stale, the 1996 birth of MTV2 (then M2) was a dream for music lovers: a perpetual stream of commercial-free music videos curated by three music-geek VJs (Matt Pinfield, Jancee Dunn, Kris Kosach). Too bad one needed a satellite dish to see it. I still remember one of the few times I was able to catch a glimpse of M2. I was at the house of some random kid my friend was dating, or thinking about dating. They could care less about the magic of M2, but he had a satellite dish and graciously put it on for me. I saw videos I was sure were never shown on MTV, videos I didn’t even know had been made. It’s funny how the pleasure of seeing indie music videos that day has stuck with me. I still associate Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger” with They Might Be Giants’ “Ana Ng” after seeing their videos back to back; somehow those shots of Stephen Malkmus frolicking in some shrubbery transition beautifully to the two spastic Johns in an industrial office park.

Music videos had and still have the potential to present us with some of the most joyful, frightening, confusing, and generally batshit imagery ever allowed on TV. As a child and preteen, I was deeply unsettled by the likes of “Closer,” “Paranoid Android,” “More Human Than Human” and “Jeremy” (particularly Eddie Vedder’s demented facial contortions). As they aired more often, some began to seem comedic and others more enthralling. I’ve been moved by music videos for both songs I like and those I could care less about, from the overwrought (Radiohead’s “Just“, R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts“) to the simple/silly (Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today,” Beck’s “Loser“).

What I miss perhaps the most of all about music television is the juxtaposition of imagery. Hours of music videos create a more complex and interesting montage than most film is capable of. While any unit of television viewing is, if you’re of the Raymond Williams school of thought, montage-like, there was something so satisfyingly smooth about earlier MTV’s (and especially M2’s) programming blocks of videos, whose nonsensical imagery swirls around in a viewer’s head, combining with unconventional promos and VJ non-sequiturs. In my heavy MTV-viewing days, I even remember this format penetrating my dreams: my head was full of blue-toned shadows, neon technicolor, the occasional fish-eye lens. Some might find that alarming, but I thought it was pretty cool.

Perhaps I’m romanticizing a bit. But if we’re always on the Internet anyway, and television is just background noise, music television is the ideal format. Television, especially HDTV, has a lot to gain by returning that most surprising and hypnotic form of cable-approved art.

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