Never Can Say Goodbye

Michael Jackson--arguably music's most broadly significant figure since the Beatles and, for better or worse, one of American culture's most singular personalities--is gone, and what are we left with? Well, first and foremost, the music. That's not all, of course--how could it possibly be with a man as complex and unrelentingly scrutinized as MJ?--but, more than autopsy results or family feuds or Michael's countless eccentricities, it's really what we should be collectively focusing on right now in order to best appreciate the hugeness of Michael's talent and impact. It's a body of work as accomplished and inexhaustible as nearly any in popular music--and, to my mind, it's also finally the best way to "know" this supremely enigmatic entertainer.

From "Ben" to "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" to "The Way You Make Me Feel" to "You Are Not Alone," his music seemed to be the one place (along with perhaps the notorious Neverland Ranch) where Michael felt at ease, where he was able to find real, if ephemeral, refuge from the pressures of fame and the critical, unblinking eyes of the media and public. Even his most vicious critics can hardly deny that Michael was nothing if not an uncommonly gentle spirit (and, almost certainly, an uncommonly naive adult). That's why relatively dark expressions of stored frustration like "Smooth Criminal" and "Scream" register more profoundly than they might've from, say, Prince or Madonna--mega stars more clearly in tune with extremes in mood and emotion.

That's the irony of Michael Jackson: His music was by and large as unambiguous and effortlessly pleasurable as his deeply private yet, inadvertently, messily public life was controversial, pained, and often puzzling. That doesn't matter, though. Not now anyway--the music does. Turn on "Rock With You" right now and listen to the warmth and affection with which every note sparkles. Then bid Michael goodbye with an equal measure of both. It's a tremendous loss.


Dog Days

Last fall, I very nearly got to see Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy at VIFF '08. Alas, we couldn't quite squeeze it into our schedule; we still lived on the Island then and we had a ferry to catch. If I had been able to see the film--which I've only now caught up with--it would've placed at or near the top of my subsequent year-end list. My esteemed viewing-partner-for-life thinks the film has suffered from over-hype. I say the consensus was right on the money.

If Clint Eastwood's Changeling (my pre-W&L #1 for '08) was the closest thing last year to The Passion of Joan of Arc, then Reichardt's film is its Au hasard Balthazar--formally spare, austerely beautiful, thoroughly naturalistic yet shot through with reserves of grace and stillness, and, finally, devastating. The most remarkable (and admirable) thing about Michelle Williams' tremendous lead turn is that, while a seasoned veteran of soapy tv and Oscar-oriented cinema, she "acts" here only a little bit more than Anne Wiazemsky did in Bresson's masterpiece. It's a performance as perfectly suited to the film's aesthetic as Angelina Jolie's more dramatic (and actorly) work in Changeling (expressive and cathartic, not unlike Falconetti for Dreyer).

As in Balthazar, the end results are happy for neither woman nor beast: Williams' Wendy finds her missing canine companion, but with her '88 Accord bound for the junkyard, she's left to train hop it solo the rest of the way (to Alaska, in theory). What we're left with instead is real tragedy--earned, timeless, and nothing if not timely. There's a scene early on where we see Wendy counting her remaining cash, presumably savings from a good long while: a modest stack of twenties plus some smaller bills. As her luck turns from bad to worse, we can do the math ourselves, and if the helpless feeling of a finite amount of money rapidly dwindling away doesn't feel queasily familiar, the film's impact may register as less immediate. But in this moment of widespread economic uncertainty, Reichardt seems to have netted the zeitgeist with a deceptively simple movie about a woman looking for her lost dog.

Another major-keeper that I only recently got around to is Sam Fuller's 1982 White Dog, a problematic look at a woman and her dog. That most basic description is enough to tie it to Wendy and Lucy for the purposes of a blog post, but it's also just about where the similarities between these two films end. Where Reichardt's film is understated, with a plot that could essentially be playing out in any number of dead-end American towns as I type this, Fuller's is a visceral, purposefully specific--a Los Angeles woman adopts a dog that she only later learns has been trained to attack black people, then desperately attempts to have it re-programmed by an African American animal instructor--parable that seems only mildly dated. Unless you believe the election of a black U.S. president equals the end of racism, Fuller's polemic remains vital; his singularly confrontational approach is as heroic in its way as Bresson's transcendental poetry.