North. West.

Right, what she said.

With this blog as my witness, I'm never living in the flat, dull, humid southern midwest again. Ever.


Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

For my birthday (well, two days prior, but close enough), we went to see Stephen Patrick Morrissey on what was, coincidentally, his birthday ("This is how 48 looks," he warned the sell-out St. Louis crowd). Moz walked out and sang-spoke into the mic, "I've come to wish me a very unhappy birthday." Then he and his excellent back-up band launched into a thrilling rendition of "The Queen Is Dead." Somehow, things hardly let up from there.

Morrissey is, to be sure, a larger than life popcult figure; watching him perform in the flesh (literally--he twice removed his shirt) remarkably managed to live up to my heightened expectations. All the famous fixations--David Johanssen and the New York Dolls, James Dean, gladiolas--showed up, and he still knows as well as anyone ever (not just pop or rock stars, but stage actors or stand-up comedians) how to work an audience, simultaneously projecting his signature brands of world-weary vulnerability and irresistible arrogance. You feel privileged to be in this man's company.

Sure, I could've gone for some "Big Mouth Strikes Again" or "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out," but the setlist included an unimpeachable mix of Smiths classics and solo cuts. Hearing decades-old songs like "Girlfriend in a Coma" and "Panic" played alongside recent numbers presents a clearer-than-ever portrait of the evolution of this notoriously private icon. Eighteen years separate "Between the hatred there lies / a murderous desire for love" and "my heart is open / my heart is open to you," but don't call it mellowing nor, for that matter, mere maturation. The coif remains the same, but the songs don't necessarily, even when you've heard them hundreds of times, and man certainly hasn't.

Morrissey is one of the most gifted of all songwriters when it comes to capturing the specific--but not in the John Darnielle/Lucinda Williams places-names-anecdotes sense. He's a masterful poet of the ephemeral, with as much in common with John Ashbery as John Lennon. "And in the darkened underpass / I thought, oh god, my chance has come at last / but then a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn't ask" doesn't sound at all the same to me now as it did when I was fifteen. It's still a devastating turn of phrase, but rather than a general observation of unrequited love, it now registers more as a significant, slyly calculated clue into Moz's sexual identity.

I really believe that it's easier to "appreciate" and "understand" great art when you yourself are basically happy and content, whereas you're more apt to connect deeply with it when you need it the most. Morrissey's saved more lives than the Shins could ever hope to change, and it sure seemed like plenty of them--a nice mix of 15 and 50-- made it to down to the Wash U Loop for the show. Of course, when a keyboard solo of "Auld Lange Syne" suddenly morphed into a venue-shaking "How Soon Is Now?" such semantic points mattered very little. The encore, featuring "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" and "You're Gonna Need Someone on Your Side," was, at that point, icing on the (birthday) cake.
Journeys to the Center of the Mind

Two of the strongest films of 2007 thus far cast front and center the more elusive nooks and crannies of the human psyche. Each, in their own way, deals thoughtfully and even sensitively with the nature of insanity. The question of what exactly it means to "lose" one's mind is something that clearly fascinates both William Friedkin and Satoshi Kon. They take entirely different routes to not entirely dissimilar ends, in the process harnessing distinct national mythologies to make universal points about the mysteries of that strange space between our ears.

Friedkin's most famous film, at once sacreligious and enamored with Catholic ritual, is about the demonic (or Satanic) possession of an innocent little girl in the Washington D.C. area. Bug, essentially a five-character chamber drama (adapted by Tracy Letts from his play), is a mediation on desperation and paranoia that spirals off in unexpected directions, even as its Oklahoma motel room location remains a constant. Ashley Judd, in a career-redefining performance, plays a hard-luck divorcee, frightened of her abusive ex-con ex-husband, shattered from the disappearance of her young son, and dependent on drugs and liquor just to cope.

She finds a sense of comfort in the company of an enigmatic ex-military drifter (played with slithery charisma by Michael Shannon, in the sort of double-edged turn that will likely make a name for the actor while typecasting him as a weirdo or creep). Together, they feed off the other's insecurity and uneasiness, forging a harrowing, claustrophobic fantasy universe, and retreating deeper and deeper into uncharted psychosexual territory. The shocking final moments affirm that this is, in fact, a romance of sorts--that is, insofar as Vertigo and Mulholland Drive and Crash are romances. There are echoes of Cronenbergian body horror here, and of post-Vietnam efforts like Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July, but Bug is ultimately a singular moviegoing experience. It's a masterpiece, locked into the zeitgeist and as refreshingly radical as 21st Century American cinema gets.

Satoshi Kon's Paprika, possibly the most stunning example of Japanese animation I've seen to date, is vastly more enjoyable to look at than Bug's purposefully austere hotel room. But it's no less disturbing in its implications--about film, psychotherapy, and the state of modern living. Kon's narrative, however, is a hell of a lot harder to synopsize than Letts and Friedkin's. This is sci-fi noir so convoluted as to make the Matrix movies look downright simplistic by comparison.

And it works. Paprika is about dreams, and the line between the conscious and unconscious becomes increasingly ambiguous. Near the end of Bug, there's a shot that should more or less clarify the preceding events for confused audience members. Kon's movie grows progressively more difficult to follow over its final third, a breathlessly sustained series of would-be climactic showdowns. When the denouement finally arrives, you're mostly just impressed that this hallucinatory train of thought hasn't jumped the tracks. While things ostensibly end happily enough, don't mistake this for an optimistic film--you have to sleep sometime.