Creation Myths

In a key scene from Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, Anna Paquin's Lisa, a teenager who has witnessed (and is partly responsible for) the death of a stranger, confesses to Emily (Jeannie Berlin), the dead woman's closest friend that, in her final moments, the woman may have believed Lisa to be her deceased daughter and that this mistaken identity may have provided the woman some comfort. This line of thought, however, is vitriolically severed when Emily snaps at Lisa for cheapening her friend's death (and, more importantly, her life) by projecting onto it what Emily terms a self-important, juvenile fantasy. In calling bullshit on Lisa's semi-mystical musings (and kicking the stunned teenager out of her apartment), Emily delivers one of the few moments of lucid, forceful articulation in a film that's very much about the difficulty to articulate anything in a way that makes sense or means something to someone else. Emily is right, of course, that most people (and perhaps young adults most of all) tend to reduce the complexity of other lives in the creation of their own (inevitably solipsistic) personal narratives. Yet, reflecting back on the unforgettable death scene that comes near the beginning of Lonergan's film, Lisa isn't necessarily, or wholly, wrong.

Narratives of creation (including but not limited to an artist or artists' career trajectory, issues of authorship and "authenticity", financial constraints, technical elements of production, and the other artists or works that have served as an influence) almost invariably color and inform the way we experience art of all mediums. This is partly because we are taught (by implied example or in academic or professional settings) to ask these sorts of questions of art and partly because we don't interact with art in a vacuum and these narratives seem like natural ways of better "understanding" the work in question (e.g. "what it's doing" or alternately, "what it's trying to do"). This impulse to throw information at art and see what sticks has, if not necessarily intensified in itself, certainly been encouraged and exacerbated by the sheer amount of facts and "facts" accessible online.

Margaret and Lana Del Rey's song "Video Games" are fascinating cases of works that are especially inextricable from their available (recovered or constructed) narratives of creation. The back-stories of both are well-known (at least among those concerned), at this point. (In the interests of not simply embellishing readily available information here, a quick skim of the Wikipedia pages--where else?--and footnoted links for Margaret and Del Rey will catch up the unfamiliar.) Regarding Lonergan's film, Mike D'Angelo (who wrote about, and played a key role in organizing, the "#teammargaret" movement) observes of its belatedly released form and contentious editing process that "now people are having trouble distinguishing (or are just not bothering to distinguish) the ways in which the film is kind of a mess from the ways in which it deliberately employs messiness as a worldview." Margaret presents a unique case in this respect: some scenes, for instance, are so brief and abruptly cut away from that the viewer knows (or at least assumes) that Longergan was forced to slice them into slivers. And yet these scenes, through the few lines of dialogue or expressive notes of body language or facial gesture that remain, always suggest larger, deeper moments in a way that feels curiously intuitive. They also serve to really punctuate the dramatic resonance of lengthier scenes, such as the aforementioned death scene or the intense argument between Lisa and Emily.

That is to say, the fundamental power and brilliance of Margaret remains intact, even if Lonergan's full "vision" for the film does not. If, per the script of devout auteurism, we must class it as a "flawed masterpiece," then so be it. The Magnificent Ambersons and Eyes Wide Shut, to cite two famous examples from this category, are superior to most else in cinema, "fully-realized" or otherwise; if Lonergan's film isn't quite on the level of Welles' and Kubrick's, it is still more interesting and more accomplished than almost any other film released in theaters last year. Filmed more than half a decade ago, it's the only American movie besides Spike Lee's great 25th Hour to truly capture the damaged, confused, and volatile state of post-9/11 America (and in both cases, specifically New York City). It's an allegory that draws its power from pin-point specificity; a work of indelible prose that draws its title from a poem and in which the fragility and impermanence of steel buildings and of human lives are movingly rhymed on screen.

Margaret is also a classic coming-of-age study, examining the various roles that a girl like Lisa is made to pass through or awkwardly shift between as she becomes an adult (like her stage actress mother? her well-meaning math teacher? the bluntly assertive Emily?). In this respect, Lonergan's film has a lot to do with Del Rey. Not so much with her song, "Video Games", which is an exquisite piece of sultry-sad pop that's just about perfect, and maybe more remarkably, comes from what sounds like a fully-formed voice. Rather, Lisa's turbulent process of "becoming"--as well as the lingering question of how authentically representative Margaret is of its writer-director's intentions--intersect tellingly with the exhaustive online detective-work and backlash that shortly proceeded the arrival of Del Rey (whom any music blogger worth his weight in adjectives can tell you is "really" Lizzy Grant) and her superb song.

Writing eloquently about Del Rey's critical reception, Tom Ewing notes, "This fear of being fooled is hardly a new phenomenon, but it's one of many things that Web discourse amplifies and accelerates. The same networks that let crowds celebrate and create around what they love also empower them to strip new culture down, probe it for weaknesses, and demand to know everything about it." Reflecting on discourses surrounding authenticity and performance, Ewing wonders how the blogosphere would have reacted to the constructed persona of a pre-Internet artist like David Bowie. The more recent case of Lady Gaga, reduced from Warholian enigma to tabloid ordinariness, seems somewhat comparable and instructive. I wrote an article five years ago about Britney Spears, upon the release of Blackout and the nadir of her rough patch, and some of the misogynistic hostility I addressed there seems to apply to the narrative of Del Rey's prefab inauthenticity (especially for those who focus on Del Rey's supposed cosmetic surgery). But Bowie, Gaga, and Britney are full-fledged pop stars, and must be considered as such.

Del Rey may yet be (her major label debut, Born to Die, is due out at the end of the month), but for now, she should instead be considered under the Christgau-coined heading of "semi-pop," or else its Internet Era variant, "blog pop." This is not because "Video Games" is a less full-fledged pop song in any generic sense than Adele's "Rolling than Deep," but because YouTube views are not the same thing as units moved. Her peers are M.I.A., Janelle Monae, Azalia Banks, even Lily Allen who "came up" through the music blogs before becoming a bona fide celebrity (at least in her native Britain). And if the mainstream and tabloid media are tough on (seemingly) wayward mega-stars, the professional or semi-pro critics and enthusiastic amateurs that make up the music blogs and webzines are, in their own obtuse way, just as vicious and far more impatient with the artists they cover-- especially female artists, who are categorized as much in terms of their sex appeal or lack thereof as are mainstream celebs by the taboid press. Perhaps this is because, within the echo chamber that is this corner of the Internet, the illusion that artists like Del Rey and Banks are household names like Spears and Gaga implies the subsequent obligation to subject these "viral" up-and-comers to the kind of scrutiny to which Us Weekly and Perez Hilton hold the mega-stars.

It should also be kept in mind, however, that many if not most of the writers in question "came up" (how, where, and by what means one "came up" are always key considerations in narratives of authenticity) on '80's and '90's indie rock, and an ideology of DIY authenticity as religious as cinema's auteur theory. When, in the wake of music's supposed digital democratization, these writers profess devotion to the eccentric pop of Robyn and Janelle Monae, they do so under essentially the same contract terms as stipulated in their bootleg cassette-sharing formative years. This concept of what is or is not "authentic" is then coupled with the notion that music bloggers "made," or created, such artists (as opposed to generally admired major stars like Beyonce, Rihanna, and Justin Timberlake, in whose career trajectories and origin stories music writers have less of a personal stake). Hence, the bitchy reaction against someone like Del Rey, when it is discovered that Lizzy Grant and various industry professionals created Lana Del Rey before "Video Games" went viral.

Ironically, the greatest artist of the '90's and the artist behind last year's finest album, Polly Jean Harvey, has for two decades rejected attempts to "understand" her music through neat conceptions of authenticity and biographical exposition. Shifting ever between voices, roles, and musical styles, Harvey has produced art as (seemingly) personal as it is consciously performative, while blurring such distinctions as if they're beside the point. Judging from "Video Games" (and, to a lesser extent, her other early tracks), Del Rey seems also to be aware of where the boundaries lie and how to fuck with them--a promising sign for her chances of surviving, and maybe transcending, Web stardom.

The hypnotic video for "Video Games," directed and edited by Del Rey herself (!), certainly suggests as much. The clip weaves together disparate archival and contemporary video footage: Hollywood red carpets past and present; palm trees against the California sky; skateboarders navigating empty urban spaces; POV driving shots across bridges and down freeways; an American flag swaying in the breeze; and Del Rey herself, who dangles an unlit cigarette like the kind of Old Hollywood femme fatale her pseudonym suggests as she affectedly delivers the kicker: "I heard that you like the bad girls, honey / Is that true?" Soundtracked by Del Rey's haunting part-Chan Marshall, part-Patsy Cline, part-something-else-altogether croon, the video constructs "real" footage into a dreamy mytho-mosaic of California (made, quite appropriately, by an artist from back East). Lonergan's film, meanwhile, is a work of scripted fiction that captures the essential reality of post-9/11 New York. Both Margaret and "Video Games" are, finally, the real deal: works of art that exist within tangled webs of discourse, and yet transcend the noise of information through something like profundity.


Silence...We're Rolling

Good indicator that I was probably out of step with music culture in 2011: I haven't even heard of the album that won this year's Pazz and Jop poll! Then again, I slotted the poll's runner-up first on my ballot and got my two cents printed on P&J's single of the year. So, maybe I wasn't that out of step?
40 Performances: 2011

01. Anna Paquin - Margaret
02. Kirsten Dunst - Melancholia
03. Michelle Williams - Meek's Cutoff
04. Deannie Yip - A Simple Life
05. Kristen Wiig - Bridesmaids
06. Brad Pitt - Moneyball
07. Brad Pitt - The Tree of Life
08. Jessica Chastain - The Tree of Life
09. Peyman Maadi - A Separation
10. John Hawkes - Martha Marcy May Marlene
[see 11-40 here]


Nature. Grace. Etc.

I'd really hoped to have this up before the end of the year. Ah, well--better late than never. [Thanks to Teresa for the lovely image-work.]

Let's cut to the chase:

20. Dreileben: Beats Being Dead, Immmature (from A Time to Love), and Open Verdict (from Quattro Hong Kong 2) [tie] The MVP's of three omnibuses: Christian Petzold opens the German triptych Dreileben with a quiet bang, charting the development of young romance against the backdrop of a Twin Peaks-esque murder mystery and the lush Thuringian forest. But where Petzold's film shifts from sweet to unsettling, Yang Ikjune's contribution to the Korean medium-length double-bill A Time for Love spins its icky premise--an "accidental" affair between a schoolgirl and a twentysomething guy--into something poignant and irresistibly charming. With Open Verdict, meanwhile, Ho Yuhang outshines Apichatpong's memorably odd M Hotel as the best entry in the Pan-Asian collection Quattro Hong Kong 4.

19. The Skin I Live In The peculiar brilliance of Almodovar's latest is that the moral of its story is fairy-tale simple: that gender, quite apart from biological sexuality, is personally defined. It's a vital message at a time when sex and gender are still typically considered as synonymous, and Almodovar flips the script toward the horrifically absurd to make sure we get his point. The result is one of his nuttiest films, and also one of his best, as formally assured as it is thematically potent.

18. Two in the Wave Emmanuel Laurent's documentary details the "bromance"-gone-sour that has, in many ways, served the shape the past half-century of French cinema--that of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, heroes of the Nouvelle Vague who eventually went their very separate ways. Combining archival footage, old Cahiers du Cinema articles, and film clips, Laurent paints Truffaut as the rags-to-riches charmer and Godard as the mercurial iconoclast. If the former inevitably comes across as the more sympathetic figure, it's not just because he died relatively young, while the latter is still making films (see below). It's because the amiable talent will always be easier to like than the cantankerous genius calling bullshit on the whole state-of-affairs.

17. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia I still prefer 2002's more modest-in-scope Distant, but I can't disagree too much with those hailing Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest as a masterwork. The strange, nocturnal rhythms of this (anti-)crime procedural stuck with me long after the credits rolled. It would make for a great, languorous (five and a half-hour) double-bill with Cristi Puiu's Aurora; both are the near the top of my list of festival films that I hope to watch again soon.

16. Bridesmaids and 15. Moneyball A couple terrific Hollywood movies: Bridesmaids is the funniest film in years, featuring classic comedic turns from Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy; if they were baseball players, their VORP would be through the roof. Speaking of which, the oft-repeated line that Bennett Miller's adaptation of the Michael Lewis book about Billy Beane and the rise of sabermetrics is "not really a sports film" is fine for people who don't much like sports; for me, it's the best baseball movie since Bull Durham. It's an underdog story that explains how baseball underdog stories are statistically possible, while simultaneously stripping away the layers of romantic myth that typically mark such stories. The final scene--a moment as tender and moving as anything in movies this year--is, however, a reminder that, behind the computers, math, and cash, real humans with complex problems remain--and they don't always make the most statistically logical decisions.

14. Martha Marcy May Marlene, 13. Year without a Summer, and 12. A Simple Life The first two are lyrical films that weave elliptically around their respective thematic centers, and maximize the atmospheric potential of their lush natural settings; the third is ostensibly more prosaic, yet lent a kind of quotidian beauty through Nelson Yu Lik-wai's expert cinematography. Sean Durkin's debut feature is a study of cult indoctrination and de-programming that never utters the 'c'-word, and in which John Hawkes' unmistakably Manson-inspired leader exudes exactly the right combination of charisma and menace. Tan Chui Mui's follow-up to her impressive debut feature, 2007's Love Conquers All, is even more restrained, drawing fruitfully on the Apichatpong playbook as the realm of myth hovers just beyond the edges of Tan's casually gorgeous compositions of Malaysian village life. Where Durkin and Tan are relative newcomers displaying remarkable control, Ann Hui evinces the seemingly effortless formal command of a seasoned veteran in her heartfelt account of the bond between an elderly housekeeper and her long-time employer; favorable comparisons to the domestic dramas of Ozu are not unwarranted.

11. Drive and 10. A Separation Nicholas Winding Refn's movie is so immersed in layer upon layer of film style, and so intoxicated by its own celluloid ambiance, that it is, more than anything else, about said style. Ashgar Farhadi's uses its spare, verite aesthetic as a means to comment on the the Iranian family in a way that extends tellingly to Iranian society more broadly and from there, to the dynamics of family and society elsewhere in the world. Both films feature a slew of performances that rank amongst the year's finest.

09. Of Gods and Men and 08. Film Socialisme Two meditations on the complex residual effects of Western force on the developing world. In terms of narrative, Xavier Beauvois' film is decidedly the more conventional, but the ideas it generates about post-colonial strife, the contemporary relationship of Europe to its former colonies, and the convictions of faith are as discursively loaded as anything in Godard's most recent opus. Which is saying something: before all is said and done, Godard's "late-career" phase may well be the richest, if not the most broadly iconic, chapter of his oeuvre.

07. Melancholia and 06. The Turin Horse In contrast to the innumerable versions of the world's (usually narrowly averted) end that we've seen on screen, in which world capitals crumble, erupt, freeze over (etc.) while their inhabitants scramble to survive amidst the wreckage, Lars von Trier and Bela Tarr craft apocalyptic visions that are all the more chilling for their narrow, claustrophobic viewpoint: Armageddon as chamber drama, or as a terrible, poisonous secret. Von Trier uses the earth's final days as a method by which to explore, and communicate, the debilitating effects of depression. In his self-professed swan-song, Tarr forges a rhythm of seemingly mundane repetitions with slight, ominously suggestive variations as the grim world of his film moves inexorably toward some unhappy end.

05. Almayer's Folly and 04. Meek's Cutoff Chantal Akerman and Kelly Reichardt thoughtfully reexamine the nature of female agency--and its relation to the racialized Other--at key moments in history. With Almayer's Folly, Akerman reduces Jospeph Conrad's first novel to a heightened drama of colonial and familial scars blurring together in a vivid, dream-like tableau reminiscent of Murnau. Reichardt, for her part, problematizes both the form of the Hollywood Western and the experience of the female pioneer as a minimalist Manifest Destiny account in which the unseen and unintelligible are nearly as important as what we--and our distaff on-screen surrogates--do see and hear.

03. This Is Not a Film, 02. Margaret, and 01. The Tree of Life At once, intimate and expansive, these three excellent films work from, and within, sets of limitations that they ultimately transcend. For Jafar Panahi, those limitations are political and personal, yet from the extreme circumstances of his specific situation, he crafts a necessarily sui generis film-object reflecting on the nature of making movies and on the artist's relationship to the art that he creates. Kenneth Lonergan's long-delayed follow-up to his superb You Can Count on Me, meanwhile, has finally overcome its technical and legal difficulties to stand alongside Spike Lee's 25th Hour as cinema's other great examination of the deep psychic wounds of post-9/11 New York-- and the best coming-of-age film since Ghost World. Margaret is a profoundly moving snapshot of inarticulation, frustration, and finally, the possibility of connection. Terrence Malick's constraints, on the other hand, are purposefully established within his narrative scheme: Rather than The Total History of The Universe, Malick--slightly less ambitiously than he has sometimes been credited with being--is after the idea of a cosmic history as imagined by, or stored within, human memory; his limitations, then, are those of an individual frame-of-reference and catalog of knowledge and experience. Each of these three films is, above all, uncommonly humane. In their own distinct ways, they seek out and perhaps discover the unique value of individual human life and expression in a world more conducive to "nature" than to "grace."