Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Favorite Moments of 2011

It’s impossible to distil life. It’s why The Tree of Life is ultimately a failure. Still many (including myself) admire it for trying. Here are some of my favorite moments from 2011 that I just now brought to memory (in no particular order (really- I mixed them up on purpose (which I guess puts them in a particular order (crap)))).

1. Writing these two sentimental and honest essays about September 11 and the death of a friend that tried not to be gross.

2. Seeing Arcade Fire and the National live with Katie Alex Kacie dancing how I do way too much. I made a list of albums I liked this year, but none of it compares to the experience I had with this song that I daresay is life-affirming. I would throw everything I heard this past year in memory-trash just so I could cherish this song of profound cherishment.

3. Leaving my night class this past semester, speeding my bike downhill through the heart of campus, smelling the water of Showalter Fountain while passing the cascading lights of the art museum. It’s a scene plucked out of a Teen Vogue essay contest entry and it’s magnificent.

4. TV- All of Friday Night Lights, season 4 finale of Breaking Bad (the moment I realized what the ENTIRE SHOW WAS DOING), season 4 of The Wire

5. Seeing a picture of Kinsey petting a goat. I won’t post it here out of respect, but I look at it regularly. It’s beauty.

6. Going to the Museum of The Moving Image in Brooklyn with Eric (really this whole vacation with my family). There are mind-blowing film artifacts, like huge miniature pieces from Blade Runner and Chewbacca’s costume and pages from the Network and Citizen Kane screenplays and so much more than there’s room to mention (this isn’t true). However, the only reason I went there was because it’s the only place in New York they have a functional, public 1981 Donkey Kong machine. Played for around 35 minutes and got all the top scores. Donkey Kong is a beautiful game.

7. Undeservedly earning my EGOT on Videogum, joining a group of funny people I admire and respect / making Gumby tell dick jokes.

8. Pounding a little girl in Pokemon at the Pokemon Nationals with Mike and Alec. I made this thing. It isn’t that good.

9. The Tree of Life - I usually don’t like talking about movies with other people studying film. Often I’ll get the sense that they’ve boiled their opinion of an entire piece, however extensive, down to a damning sentence blowing up a single complaint that they wouldn’t even have if they took more than five seconds of reflection in their brilliant evaluation outside of whatever blog they took their opinion from. “It’s ambitious but it’s preachy and pretentious” is an unfair assessment of a work as dense as The Tree of Life. I think criticism can be much more discursive and evaluative than that while still not having PhDs in talking about movies. This movie in particular has become the biggest recipient of this damnation, and is the same reason it’s my favorite movie of the year. This movie is dense and requires viewing upon viewing and background knowledge and self-reflection and profound empathy, and that is merely what is required for internalizing the thematic elements. These kinds of things are what I look for in a movie (although not all) and something I realize isn’t for everyone. At the very least, this is one of the most beautiful movies you’ll see with your eyeballs. I also had nice experiences watching Warrior, Moneyball, Tabloid, Super 8, Certified Copy, Drive, Win Win, 50/50 and Winnie The Pooh. Also, Meek’s Cutoff is up there with Elephant as most chilling movie I’ve ever seen (meaning I’ll never ever watch it again despite its greatness).

10. Hank.

11. Watching Children of Paradise for the first time. I’ve watched it five times this year. More here if ya want.

12. Couchception – We put a couch on top of another couch.

13. Jamie and I put on a fancy dinner party.

14. Talking with Hannibal Buress after a show he did in Bloomington. He’s just a great, hard-working comedian and I really look forward to what he does.

15. Finishing a book freshman year that was harder to type than it was to write/learning from and completely moving past all of that.

16. Gettin some of my shit shown at the cinema on campus. Am not all that crazy about some of my stuff, but still pretty cool! It seems like everything I’ve done and seen at the cinema has been cool, like talking to the producer of every Batman movie ever. You should all go sometime.

17. Skyrim is such a beautiful and full game that requires a certain transported state. It’s the Star Trek reboot of RPGs- the people who don’t like it are PC gamers who like things to be boring and terrible.

18. I chased Dobby around the movie theater at the premiere of the last Harry Potter movie dressed as the ghost of Harry Potter.

19. Walking around Half Price Books. I just like the smell.

20. In Moneyball – There’s a great montage showing how Billy Beane plans to reconstruct his team with quick cutting shots of statistics and graphs flying around, the voice over changing the way you think about how professional sports work. This then cuts to Jonah Hill’s character sitting alone in his silent office, printing out the final roster.

21. Watching The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Pt. 1 and then writing about it.

5 Worst Memories of 2011

1. Learning to exist in a community I often do not respect nor have the same interests and motivations and the pains of having that attitude.

2. Writing an impossible 12-page paper about the depiction of race on the first season of The Hills (a show only featuring white people), getting a 93 on it because of bullshit non-reasons.

3. Spanish with Shades.

4. General sadness at the beginning of the year, related to 1.

5. Realizing this year is going to end.


Well that ended kind of flowery.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

My Favorite Albums of 2011

Music is important to me, and I feel I listen to a good deal of it, although I don't think my tastes are that far out there. These are mostly popular bands that are sure to be on many year end lists. I'll say that these are ordered by how much I enjoyed and responded to them- that's all.

(If you listen to any of these, make sure you up the quality on the video so you don't listen to the songs at the worst quality. All you have to do is fullscreen.)

1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver / The Roots - undun

These are two incredibly powerful albums that are masterpieces in storytelling, both magnificently arranged, are both beautiful and tragic. This music makes you feel something profound and recognizable, one whispered, the other shouted, both with their hearts and lyrics in the right place. The fact that "undun" does the whole Memento thing is also really effective.

2. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

My favorite video/song of the year.

3. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

4. The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient

First time I heard this band was live. Hash tag humble brag. This band cuts through the sonic like none other. It's no coincidence that the guys from The National love these guys.

5. Radiohead – The King Of Limbs (with Supercollider EP)

At first I thought it was way too short, then I was reminded of how long Hail to the Thief was, but then I heard the songs they cut, and was like, "Why did you cut these." Also, this is by far the best rhythmic album of the year.

6. Cut Copy – Zonoscope

7. Holy Ghost! – Holy Ghost!

This is likely the next LCD Soundsystem.

8. Neon Indian – Era Extraña

9. Justice – Audio, Video, Disco

10. The Black Keys – El Camino (of what I’ve heard so far)

11. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto

This album is in one key, and that is the key of "Ooooooooooooh."

12. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne

13. Washed Out – Within And Without

This song isn't on this album, but I really only gave them a fair chance this year so I caught up.

14. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light

I think a lot of music videos that are clearly storyboarded tend to be tacky and dumb. Yet, this one just gets at me even though I can see right through it.

15. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l

I can't listen to a lot of popular music because I can't escape the thought, "Goddamn, I am listening to the same shit time and time over. This is just boring." It's because it is and people who only follow the radio have short attention spans and little knowledge of the past. For people like me who think this, a band like tUnE-yArDs comes around and all you can do is smile. Like, how often do you listen to something and say, "This is actually interesting."? Merrill also has a tremendous respect for rhythm. I feel she would get along with the folks from Efterklang.

16. The Weeknd – House Of Balloons
17. Real Estate – Days
18. Black Lips – Arabia Mountain
19. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
20. Lady Gaga - Born This Way
21. The Vaccines, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?
22. Feist – Metals
23. Beyoncé – 4
24. Panda Bear - Tomboy
25. Atlas Sound – Parallax
26. Wilco – The Whole Love
27. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
28. Beirut – The Rip Tide
29. Childish Gambino – Camp
30. The Strokes - Angles

Albums I Don’t Care That Much For (worst are at the top)

• Lou Reed & Metallica - Lulu
This is garbage. Suffer yourself through 30 seconds of this.

• Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday
She's annoying.

• Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More
They're fluffy.

• Tyler, The Creator - Goblin
He's mean.

• Lil’ Wayne – Tha Carter IV
He's dumb.

• James Blake – James Blake
He's boring.

• Florence & The Machine – Ceremonials
She's whiney.

(After this point, this list consists of much more respectable artists, I understand.)

• The Horrors – Skying
• Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
• Paul Simon - So Beautiful Or So What
• Adele – 21
• Drake – Take Care
• Wild Flag – Wild Flag
• The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

This is great, though.

• Bright Eyes, The People’s Key

My favorite Bright Eyes song of all time comes from this, though.

• I also hate LMFAO more than most things on this Earth.

(If I could give #1 to Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" again, I would.)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Of Children of Paradise and Freedom

I love Children of Paradise for the same reasons I love The Tree of Life- its beauty and impenetrability. Here's my attempt to in the only way an undergrad knows how- clumsily making love to it.

"Triumph of The Free"

Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise is not commonly regarded as the greatest French film of all time for its gargantuan, lavish sets, poetic realism, metatextual narrative blurring between cinema and theatre, obvious influence on modern cinema, whimsical soundtrack, poetic dialogue, historical accuracy, groundbreaking acting, nor it’s disciplined and stylized cinematography, but under the conditions that it was first made. The filming of the picture took place during the Nazi occupation of France. It was released shortly after the end of the occupation and shortly before the end of the war. Due to the funding the film received by the Nazis, who effectively reformed the studio Pathé, the Jewish set designer and composer both worked in clandestine. Several Nazi extras were hired, unknowingly working alongside resistance fighters. Reels of the film were hidden before its completion. Despite these circumstances, the film can be read as an anti-occupation film, an allegorical piece of film history that works to boldly assert France’s freedom.

Children of Paradise operates differently from many films following it that similarly use the past to talk about the present in that its allegorical devices work at multiple levels. This essay will deconstruct these messages from the top down.

Children of Paradise is framed as a story of four men who all love the same woman, but differently. Baptiste the pantomime loves romantically with the heart, Frederick the actor with the body, Lacenaire the thief with the intellect, and Count Eduard with the purse. Early in the film the audience is led to side with Baptiste, but as the story progresses, the well-intentioned love for Garance leads each of the men to a certain demise. Baptiste ignores his family and abandons his stable life, his poor wife Natalie believing he is merely suffering from a dream state. The Count owns Garance, his love knowingly unreciprocated. Frederick’s jealousy actualizes his Othello role (on stage and off), pushing him to duel the Count. Lacenaire satisfies his pride by murdering the Count. Garance doesn’t foresee these destructive effects of love, interacting with each character gaily, becoming more restricted of her freedom with each of her interactions, just as was the case of Paris during the occupation. Under the hold of the Count, Garance, while beautiful, is fully clothed, hidden behind a veil, claiming to be “not sad, but not cheerful,” resembling the paralyzed state of Paris during the occupation. This sordid sequence of events culminating in tragedy for many characters begins with the best intentions, and the film does not initially damn these intentions as wrong. With this in mind, the film doesn’t merely exist to damn the Nazi occupation as a wrongful act, but empathizes, working to lead the audience to understand how an undesirable state of living comes to be.
The message of freedom is implied throughout. Early in the film, Garance is first presented on display in a sideshow attraction, sitting naked in a bath holding a mirror. Right from the start, she is presented as “truth,” a truth that is desired and fought for throughout the film and eventually set free. Yet, the film is told from the perspectives of the men who are ultimately at fault and made fools and cuckolds of. By doing this, the film doesn’t simply damn the oppressors, but presents their points of view while also making the case for Garance’s freedom. Despite each having fundamental psychological faults, there is no clear antagonist in Children of Paradise, but the audience is led to love Garance and her admiration for the poor French people (referred to as “the Gods”). The only individual we are led to love is the one who rejects her individuality and reserves her love for Paris alone. As she says, “I adore freedom,” which is later satiated with her solitary carriage ride away from the Boulevard of Crime, through a sea of her people, towards freedom.

The obvious parallel between the theatre and reality in the film comments on the purpose of roles in the film, and how each character fulfills their role. Acting is in no way confined to the stage, permeating in nearly every character, as is seen with the blind man who certifies diamonds. Baptiste is proficient in making the visual understood without the aid of dialogue. His voice is muted, just as dissenting voices of the occupation were muted at this time. The film acts as a strong voice for these many silenced Parisians, all the while concealed from oppressors. Allegory here provides social criticism from a distance, which amazes considering much quieter criticism at the time often resulted in death.

The authority figures in the film are brash and error-ridden, such as Baptiste’s father and the police. Jerico, an enemy to many characters, collaborates, informs, and spies on several of the characters, “selling friends” for personal gain. These figures can be read as a critique of Nazi informants in Paris at the time. These characters are despised for their parasitic nature and are given no explanation for their dubious actions, unlike others. In doing this Carne does not ignore the existence of pure evil, although none of these characters cause the main conflict. Rather, they work to complicate the story and direct the characters towards crisis, which is a unique, more realistic approach of representing evil, let alone Nazi informants.

Film scholar Brian Stonewall notes in an audio commentary of the film that the cast of extras, filled with Nazis and resistance fighters, was a model of the French nation at the time. Much of his oral essay is devoted to Carne’s use of poetic realism as a stylistic representation of allegory, of “illuminating the invisible with the visible” (Stonewell). When talking of the film’s message of setting truth free, he claims that “skillful allegory could keep it hidden but hint at its shape,” which is just the case when reading the story arguing against the occupation (Stonewell). The use of allegory is more than mere concealment or subtlety, but of embodying an idea, in this case a temporal, political one, through filmic creation. This is further hinted at when commenting on Baptiste’s mimed performance of Lacenaire stealing the pocket watch and freeing Garance from judicial error, saying, “Art can liberate a captive from tyranny” (Stonewell). Tyranny is used in this quote broadly, as is seen in Garance’s various forms of captivity. Yet, the specific idea rings true throughout the piece despite its variances, and this is accomplished through Carne’s poetic realism. Poetic realism is the stylistic lens of history Carne chooses to construct the film’s world through. Carne uses history (19th century Paris as well as historically famous actors who lived then) in order to write his own of Paris in 1945. That Carne stylizes the past to critique the present speaks to the communicative quality of not only the staged performances of the stage actors in the film, but also of the film itself as a staged performance.

In another commentary track, film scholar Charles Affron notes the importance of setting the film in 19th century France, as he claims distance from the present allows it to be critiqued. This statement serves as an interesting assessment of the use of allegory as critique, and is especially applicable considering the heavy censors the Nazis placed on films at the time. This does, however, render the film illegible to those who it critiques, which initially appears self-defeating. Only does this distance become understood when considering Children of Paradise a film not for a Nazi audience or even for the casual viewer today unaware of its history, but for “the Gods,” the actual children of Paradise. Thus, the film itself is not an agent of change, but a beautiful love letter to the common Parisian, to those who let the work of change begin. However, Affron does not read the film as chiefly anti-occupation, but rather as a reflection of the film medium and the boundary between life and art, emphasizing the film as a work of metafiction, also mentioned by Stonewell.

With all this said, to say that Children of Paradise is merely an anti-occupation film is to greatly disrespect the multitudinous and at times ambiguous messages. While arguments can be made (as one just has) about the film’s central theme, whether it is calling for 1945 Nazi-occupied France to be free, commenting on the boundary between life and art, warning against the dangers of unbridled love, or nostalgically recreating a Shakespearean narrative in the context of the lost 19th century France, the use of characters, dialogue, props, settings, theatre, and cinematography as allegorical instruments permit the simultaneity of these ideas and require the film be viewed repeatedly and analytically essayed to reach its meaning. Children of Paradise is still a relevant piece of film and history because it is not a one-sided recounting of a right that is wronged by evil, but an empathetic meditation of why freedom must triumph.