Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"And Images So Strange and Foreign Came Flooding In Like Raging Waters"

I didn't want to see my grandfather die. Watching the process, such as it was, happen slowly, and from a distance, was hard enough. This was May 2005. I had just returned from studying abroad, and the still undiagnosed illness that led to my paternal grandfather's death finally overwhelmed him. The great Robert Abrams, a WW2 vet and the founder of the Levvittown Tribune, died of complications from dementia-like symptoms. Bruce Abrams, my father, told me that the immediate cause of death was pneumonia. I still remember the impatient, distracted way he said, "pneumonia."

Prior to his death, Robert suffered from memory loss for months. It wasn't Alzheimer's, but it might as well have been. Eleanor Abrams, my grandmother and his wife, lived and took care of him. But Robert was also cared for by his two children, Bruce and Beth. They put up with his mood swings, helped Robert when his body failed him, and doted on him with all the love and attention he deserved.

I was not there. There were several times when I could have been, but I wasn't. When he was rushed to the hospital for the last time, my dad offered me the chance to go (he didn't really ask). But I didn't want to go, and said as much. It hurt too much to see my grandfather in pain, confused, angry, helpless.

A year after that, my maternal grandmother, Ellie Moschou, died. Again, I didn't want to be there. I had lived with that stubborn 95 year-old Greek woman for a couple of years, though some of those years were predominantly spent at college dormitories in Manhattan. Again, nobody expected  me to help in an extraordinary way. My mother, Catherine Abrams, constantly cared for Ellie, especially when the caretakers she hired couldn't do everything she needed them to. But again, while I did as much as I could bear to, I regret not having been more present, nor more patient.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Up Jumped the Devil: In Praise of Nicolas Winding Refn's "Only God Forgives"


To begin: yes, I know this blog has become the lawn that I never mow. But I have been keeping track of everything I see. With a little luck, I'll soon get back to updating Extended Cut...but only after I finish the latest phase of an ongoing project. Thanks for your...well, I don't know what.

Also: there are lots of spoilers ahead. Lots.


Only God Forgives reminds me of a Nick Cave song. It's full of pompous swagger because it's an expression of the artist's fascination with preening machismo. Think of Cave's version of "Stagger Lee." That song ends with "the bad motherfucker called Stagger Lee" getting a blow job, and blowing a rival suitor's brains out. The song's excesses are pointed. It's a half-sneering, half-celebratory destruction of the chauvnism inherent in Cave's persona. It's about a badass that is so desperate, and so unhinged that he'll make good on all of his delirious threats (50 good pussies just to get to one fat boy's asshole? You don't say...). The main difference between a Cave song and a Nicolas Winding Refn film is that Cave performs as himself. He is Mistah Staggah Lee, his own best joke. The same cannot be said about Refn's recent films. He is their primary author, but he's not immediately dabbling with his own image. Still, both artists deal in excess, and love to explore the hetero male id at its most reptilian.

Refn's latest is, to some extent, of a piece with both Valhalla Rising and Drive. As in both of those films, Refn represents the world in Only God Forgives as a surreal mix of dream, and reality. You can see that when Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) sings karaoke. Chang's singing establishes two things. The first karaoke scene suggests that the film's Bangkok is a world that exists independently of Julian's (Ryan Gosling) story. But the second scene, when Chang sings a song called "You Are My Dream" on the film's soundtrack, complicates that notion. It's the film's concluding sequence, the kind of scene a dreamer sees just before waking up. In a moment of panic, Julian's imagines/sees life without himself. Julian's dream Bangkok, a city that Chang comfortably navigates, and disappears into as if he were its avatar, has rejected him. In this case, the nightmare outlives its creator/main subject.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"There's Nothing You Can Say, You Can't Wish Me Away:" Something About Like Clockwork

For a few weeks now, I've wanted to write something about Like Clockwork, the Queens of the Stone Age's long-awaited sixth album. Despite minor reservations, I can't stop listening to it. But when I tried to write something about Like Clockwork, it sucked. It was four or five grafs of throat-clearing, "Your shoes are untied," cack. It was heavily annotated, and full of quotes from other critics. I ultimately scrapped that piece simply because I am not a music critic. The closest I've come to writing a music review is this. Not a terrible piece, really, but I think it's terrible, if that makes sense.

Which leads me to this piece. It's not a review, because who wants a review for an album that came out weeks ago? And it's not supposed to be a deeply personal cri di coeur, though it will be that. Rather, I want to relate what it's like to listen to Like Clockwork's three-hit punch of "If I Had a Tail," "My God is the Sun," and "Kalopsia." So I'll circle around something I can't bring myself to directly write about. Like the persona that Queens frontman Josh Homme presents in his music, I'm an emotional exhibitionist. I also don't like being completely transparent. In his music, Homme presents himself as a sarcastic bully, a submissive pervert, and an egocentric depressive. I like his music a lot.

Like Clockwork doesn't begin with "If I Had a Tail," but it should. My biggest problem with the album is that Homme bleeds all over the tracks. This guy has made of a career of jamming tongue into cheek. He sings about suicidal thoughts, bad trips, and strip club daymares so well that he doesn't need to make his music more overtly "personal." But still, Homme knew what he was doing when he wrote the music for Like Clockwork. On Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque piano ballad "Vampyre of Time and Memory," Homme sings, "To be vulnerable is needed most of all, if you intend to truly fall apart." By contrast, "If I Had a Tail" is a chilly, synth-heavy track with an echo chamber disco beat. It, like many of Homme's best tracks, makes you think you're riding shotgun in Homme's car while he makes donuts all over his id. "See me dance," he moans like a ghost, confirming in "If I Had a Tail," we are inside Homme's head. Maybe this is what you dream of when you're laid up in a hospital, wondering if you have the stamina to recover. It isn't a wake-up call, but a nose-dive into Nod, the land of cold sweats, and bad dreams.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

There and Back Again: A Nerd's Half-Assed Journey

RV!: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) Dir: Peter Jackson Date Released: December 19, 2001 Date Seen: December 2, 2012 Rating: 3.75/5

407) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) Dir: Peter Jackson Date Released: December 14, 2012 Date Seen: December 11, 2012 Rating: 3/5

I meant to rewatch all three of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings adaptations before seeing The Hobbit. But uh, I got caught up in Godard fever. Still, I don't regret having given up on that project after rewatching the extended cut of The Fellowship of the Ring since Jackson slavishly traces over the narrative beats of that earlier film throughout The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

So: the first installment in Jackson's Hobbit trilogy is supposed to mirror the first film in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. That's annoying, and distracting, but not inexplicable. The Hobbit is a much gentler adventure than The Fellowship of the Ring: singing, and riddles are just as, if not more important than dragons and wizards. So Jackson tried to simultaneously make his Hobbit just as dynamic as his earlier film while fostering a sense of continuity between his two trilogies. 

Bilbo's earlier adventure in The Hobbit now mirrors Frodo's in Fellowship: the council of wizards looks like (and scored the same as?) the Council of Elrond; the flight from the Troll King is like the Balrog chase; and Bilbo's exit from the Shire looks like Frodo's. This narrative tracing is usually more annoying than it is thoughtful, though I did like the way Jackson made the cliff-side fight in The Hobbit correspond with the Fellowship scene where Aragorn rescues Frodo from the Ringwraiths. But that's mostly because the juxtaposition of these two scenes is a lil counterpuntal: Aragorn rescues Frodo, while Bilbo has to actively help his rescuers. These two scenes confirm the differences between the two trilogies while also uniting the two films: in both movies, this is the moment where the Fellowship really becomes a group.

That's the thing I most liked about The Hobbit: as Gandalf says, Bilbo is the most important member of his group because he is naturally more fearful and anxious than any dwarf or wizard. He is literally a smaller person than everyone else, and therefore has to try harder to be a hero. Even when he's only trying to save himself, like when he tells riddles to Smeagol (best scene in the film), or distracts some trolls before Gandalf saves him and his friends, Bilbo stumbles into heroism. It doesn't come naturally to him, and he's no Errol Flynn (he gets some good licks in during the cliff-side fight, but he doesn't single-handedly win the fight for his group). But Bilbo is inspiring, and I greatly appreciated the lengths Jackson went to to establish that conceit.

That having been said, the leering, Raimi-esque canted angles that Jackson uses throughout Fellowship also made me realize that it wasn't just the 48 FPS camerawork that made The Hobbit look ass-ugly: it was the way the film was shot. Jackson cut too many corners, and tried too hard to do too many things in An Unexpected Journey. I'm consequently not surprised that he felt he could/should make The Hobbit into another trilogy. Still, I am really not looking forward to Jackson's spin on Tom Bombadil...

Monday, May 20, 2013

Their Eyes Were Watching Max Von Sydow, I mean Romy Schneider, Shit.

389) Death Watch (1980) Dir: Bertrand Tavernier Date Released: April XX, 1982 Date Seen: November 30, 2012 Rating: 3/5

I'm not wild about this contemplative science fiction film, but I did write about it for the L Magazine. You're welcome.

Capsule Fevah, Part 2

386) Talaash (2012) Dir: Reema Kagti Date Released: November 30, 2012 Date Seen: November 28, 2012 Rating: 2.5/5

387) Deadfall (2012) Dir: Stefan Ruzowitzky Date Released: December 7, 2012 Date Seen: November 28, 2012 Rating: 2/5

388) Happy New Year (2011) Dir: K. Lorrel Manning Date Released: December 7, 2012 Date Seen: November 30, 2012 Rating: 1.5/5

Some capsule reviews for the Village Voice review can be found here, here, and here. You can read them!


Ray Liotta Doesn't Do Method

RV!: Revolver (2005) Dir: Guy Ritchie Date Released: December 7, 2007 Date Seen: November 25, 2012 Rating: 4/5

382) Article 99 (1992) Dir: Howard Deutch Date Released: March 13, 1992 Date Seen: November 25, 2012 Rating: 1.75/5

Ray Liotta is a wonderful interview, no joke. I talk-ed to him for Esquire.