Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Music of Scritti Politti

My favorite album of all time is Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85, and my favorite band of all time is Scritti Politti. Because of that, I’ve wanted to write about Scritti Politti’s music (and the man behind the band, Green Gartside) for a very long time now, but for some reason, I found that I could never quite bring myself to do so. It’s like my love for Scritti Politti’s music runs so deep that my mind was unwilling or unable to process that admiration in writing, or to make my affection for their music a more public declaration. So rather than writing the kind of detailed post that I usually write, I figured I’ll try instead to write about finding myself unable to write about Scritti Politti, which will really end up being a meditation on how I came to love the kind of music that I do, along with a few of the reasons why I love it.

I first heard Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85 thirty years ago now in 1986, at the age of thirteen, when I was on vacation with my family at a hotel in Florida, on a beach somewhere near St. Petersburg. Also staying at our hotel were two long-haired sisters, about three or four years older than I was, who kept Cupid & Psyche 85 and one other album on constant rotation while sunning themselves beside the hotel swimming pool. (The other album was Robbie Nevil’s 1986 self-titled debut, another record that I still love today.)

From that very first listen — I think the first track I heard on Cupid & Psyche 85 was either “Perfect Way” or “Hypnotize” — I was totally mesmerized by the songs, by their deft beats, sophisticated lyrics, and a sonic sweetness that lingered somewhere between musical generations. I’d been raised on late ’70s and early ’80s pop radio in Cincinnati, Ohio, but the songs I heard those two sisters playing poolside on their boombox changed everything for me. The world in that sunlit Florida air tilted and shimmered a bit, then shifted gradually back into focus.

This happened at a very particular moment in the history of popular music. The playful sounds of synthesizers had recently begun to liberate the idea of who could make music professionally and how. The same young people who’d discovered that loophole then mastered what exactly they could do with those sounds and ventured to see just how far they could carry them. Also, the technological innovation of digitizing music and distributing it widely on compact discs had started to completely revolutionize the music industry and change its game rules for good.

It helped that Green Gartside, the founding force (and voice) of Scritti Politti, was quietly taking stock of all this from across the Atlantic. Sure, the ’80s pop music scene in central London was already off and running, but Green was in love with the innovations of American R&B, a love that explains the reggae-influenced slinkiness of “The Word Girl,” the laidback propulsion of “Absolute,” and the blazing danceclub-on-fire velocity of “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin).” By the time he arrived at 1988’s equally fantastic album Provision, both Miles Davis and Roger Troutman would also be in the mix on a pair of unforgettable collaborations.



I don’t want to dwell on Green’s go-rounds with the major-label music business or his ensuing semi-reclusiveness, because he’s stayed around, as smart as ever, and made five albums the way that he wanted to make them. (I have a good feeling that a sixth album might be on the way soon, too.) I do want to dwell for just a moment, however, on one of my favorite live concert memories ever, when I got to see Scritti Politti perform here in Boston ten years ago, in November of 2006. I never thought that would happen, especially not after two decades of loving a band who’d remained so low profile. But when a shy Welsh white guy can have a dance floor full of black women over 50 getting down to the bass beats of “Wood Beez,” you know that he’s doing something right.

Monday, June 20, 2016

18th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 15th - 19th, 2016)

Before a film screening halfway through this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival, one of the festival’s programmers who was introducing the film was happy to let the audience know that it would be a light movie, and she also mentioned that filmgoers at the festival sometimes ask why so many movies in the festival feel sad or dark. I thought it was great to hear this acknowledged, and I’m also someone who’s quite glad that the films in the festival are often sad and dark because the world itself is often sad and dark. While escapism at the cinema clearly has its advantages, good films tend to reflect our culture and society directly, facing difficult truths head-on and bravely exploring the more intractable or mysterious aspects of human experience. Almost all of the seventeen films that I saw in this year’s festival fit that description, and I’m grateful for it.

I was fortunate to have already seen my favorite film from this year’s festival, Aaron Brookner’s moving documentary Uncle Howard, at the Wicked Queer film festival in Boston just a few months ago. I absolutely loved the movie then, and it definitely rewarded me further on a second viewing, giving me a chance to notice lots of clever interconnections that hadn’t been apparent to me during my first viewing. Last summer here on my blog, I reviewed Smash Cut, Brad Gooch’s terrific memoir about the same subject, the late filmmaker Howard Brookner, Gooch’s boyfriend of ten years who died of AIDS in 1989, just before his 35th birthday. This documentary about Howard’s life and times was produced by Jim Jarmusch, a film school classmate of Howard’s at NYU and the cameraman on Brookner’s first film, a mid-’80s documentary about William Burroughs. But what makes Uncle Howard so special is the personal perspective bestowed upon the film’s subject by its director, Howard Brookner’s nephew Aaron.

We see plenty of footage of Aaron as a little boy in the film, growing up with his uncle Howard and beginning to idolize him over time. Howard’s early death made him enigmatic to Aaron, understandably, a huge loss to be pursued and a kind of puzzle to be solved. One striking image late in the film shows the adult Aaron pacing around a large circle of all of the archival artifacts that he’s collected from his uncle’s life: photographs, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, reels of film. The movie’s ultimate message is that memory is the only thing that really makes our stories, along with someone’s willingness either to preserve the memories or piece them back together again. Uncle Howard is pretty much the most gorgeous re-assemblage imaginable, and its closing scene, composed of perfectly selected and placed found footage, is my favorite ending of any movie so far this year.

The documentary that I’d been anticipating most in the festival, David Farrier’s and Dylan Reeve’s Tickled, certainly did not disappoint. Farrier, a bisexual journalist in New Zealand, has made a career of finding offbeat slice-of-life and human interest stories, and Tickled began when he came across “competitive endurance tickling” fetish videos online, which feature cute athletic guys tickling each other fully or partially clothed. Of course, these videos have a massive following among tickling enthusiasts as a kind of very soft-core pornography. Though it seems like those videos will be the focus of the movie, the tickle torture turns out to be just a lure into a much deeper exploration of power, money, and control, all via harassment and humiliation of the videos’ participants at the distant hands of a manipulative quasi-genius whose identity remains a secret until nearly the end of the film. Farrier’s masterful shift of tone into truly suspenseful territory is what makes this film so watchable.

Farrier himself quickly becomes the target of homophobic taunting and harassment just after he discovers and contacts the makers of the tickling videos, produced by a nebulous entity called Jane O’Brien Media. The documentary’s filmmakers gradually learn that Jane herself doesn’t exist at all but is merely an avatar in a long line of assumed identities for a mastermind with an addiction to hot (and financially vulnerable) young guys tickling each other, as well as a relentlessly vindictive streak whenever he’s even slightly crossed by anyone in his path. The psychological motivations behind these behaviors surface briefly late in the movie, and its one weakness might be that Farrier gives us only a sad glimpse into our antagonist’s childhood, yet isn’t really able to explore it further. Nevertheless, the rest of the film gathers its suspenseful energy from delving as deep as it does into the darker side of human (or inhuman) nature. Farrier’s courage and tenacity in pursuing the story to its twisted end are highly commendable.

Another film that I was quite excited to see in the festival was Tim Kirkman’s Lazy Eye, my favorite narrative feature in this year’s festival. I reviewed Kirkman’s earlier film Loggerheads here on my blog several years ago, and that film remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Like Loggerheads, Lazy Eye also quietly follows a gay storyline, this time in a finely crafted two-hander that’s solidly built from its resonant screenplay and dialogue. Dean, an artist turned graphic designer, lives in Los Angeles and owns a weekend home in the desert near Joshua Tree. One night he receives an out-of-the-blue email from Alex, with whom he was romantically involved 15 years earlier when both men were living in New York City, until Alex disappeared from Dean’s life without a single word of explanation.

Reluctantly (and not so reluctantly from a sexual standpoint), Dean invites Alex to join him for a reunion weekend out in the desert. The tension escalates and wanes in ways that I won’t divulge here, though I can say that I related to the two men’s situation on an immediate and sometimes heartbreaking level. I think most gay men have lived through the kind of relationship and loss of a relationship that Dean and Alex share; Kirkman’s ear and eye are attuned to every small detail, in a way that’s reminiscent of Andrew Haigh’s wonderful film Weekend from a few years ago. I think Lazy Eye speaks to my own generation of gay men just as well as Weekend did, perhaps even more fittingly in our current era of gay marriage. What do we lose if we opt out of that new social privilege? Will our memories of former boyfriends and potential husbands transform over time into a long line of regrets, and if so, then what should we do with those regrets?

Long Way North, an animated feature film by Rémi Chayé, was just as emotionally affecting as Lazy Eye, but in completely different ways. The movie, voiced in English, has the look of beautifully hand-drawn Japanese anime in the tradition of Studio Ghibli. Set in the late 19th-century, the story follows a 15-year-old Russian girl, Sasha, whose grandfather is an Arctic explorer who doesn’t return home from his latest expedition. His great ambition was to plant the first Russian flag at the North Pole, so Sasha is able to figure out by studying Arctic maps that he left behind what her grandfather’s approximate location might have been when he went missing.

The rest of the film is a gripping adventure tale, one that could convincingly be told only through the medium of animation. The climate of the Arctic is too inhospitable and treacherous for a live-action film crew to take on, and since CGI is basically animation anyway, why not just go with a full-on animated feature? The film’s payoff is in its extended action sequences: the Russian ship breaking its way through Arctic ice, nearly running aground, the sailors digging and blasting through the entrapping sheets of the frozen sea with dynamite, triggering an avalanche that even further endangers their ship. These scenes and images escalate the genre of animated film to a new and different level. I found myself anxiously shouting “No!” aloud at least twice during that segment of the movie, something I’m certain that I’ve never done before while viewing a cartoon. It’s best to leave the film’s ending undescribed here; I will say, however, that the movie’s climax and resolution are elegantly conveyed, while also remaining understated and Zen-like, despite Sasha’s intensely dramatic circumstances.

One of the documentaries that tied for the HBO Audience Award at this year’s festival, Jonah Markowitz’s and Tracy Wares’ Political Animals, is also well-worth mentioning. The film traces the careers of four lesbian legislators in the state of California: Sheila Kuehl, Carole Midgen, Christine Kehoe, and Jackie Goldberg. Collectively, these women were on the vanguard of gay rights and totally ahead of their time, boldly and tirelessly advocating for legal protections for LGBTQ students in public schools, as well as passing early domestic partnership bills. It addition to compiling compelling footage of their impassioned and movingly personal arguments presented before often homophobic and pro-religion fellow legislators, the film is also an informative vehicle for demonstrating how the legislative process actually works. We watch as bills fail to pass by being as little as one vote short of a majority, and then we see how these women change their uncooperative colleagues’ minds by presenting skillful logic in the context of our evolving culture, just as leaders of the civil rights movement courageously did in previous decades. I teach a course called Sexuality and Social Change at the university where I work, and I will definitely plan to show this film in class when I offer the course in future semesters.

Finally, I really enjoyed one short film in the festival, which screened alongside Uncle Howard, Brandon Cordeiro’s poignantly nostalgic ribbons. Cordeiro is a young filmmaker who was raised in Provincetown, so watching his 8-minute short at this particular film festival, in a town that I’ve visited frequently for many years, made it even more special. Based on one of Brandon’s own memories of his mother taking him to an oceanside AIDS memorial at the beach in Provincetown back in 1997, the short sweetly recreates a young boy’s (and future gay man’s) entirely innocent response to the social tragedy of the AIDS crisis, while also providing a snapshot of the LGBTQ community’s wide-ranging strength at a particularly painful and devastating point in our history. The title image of long, colorful ribbons streaming in the wind on the beach, inscribed with handwritten tributes to loved ones lost to AIDS, has been a feature of the annual Swim for Life fundraising event in Provincetown since its inception; just as memorable is Cordeiro’s luminous rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” at the end of the film, sung by the director himself.


At the ceremony for honorees, Excellence in Acting Award recipient (and lesbian icon) Cynthia Nixon gave a heartfelt acceptance speech, in which she spoke of how much she’d loved her first visit to Provincetown to attend this year’s festival. She also mentioned what a relief it was to be in such a peaceful, accepting place after last week’s tragic shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, and lamented that such a catastrophe could still befall us now. Her closing words about Provincetown and this pivotal moment in LGBTQ history will be my closing words, too, because they’re abundantly evident in the films that I’ve chosen to review: “How good it is to be here, and to see how far we’ve come.”

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Music of Prince and Paisley Park (Warner Bros. Records, 1985 - 1993)

Like many other pop music fans worldwide, I’ve been listening to the songs of Prince a lot since his sudden death earlier this month. From some of my earliest childhood memories onward, I have so many strong associations with the music that he tirelessly recorded and produced throughout the 1980s. Among my first memories of having fun on my own as a kid are my totally vivid recollections of skating to “1999,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Raspberry Beret,” and “When Doves Cry” at a roller rink in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, the same roller rink where I’d later land my first job as a DJ at age 16. The DJ booth at the far corner of the skating rink was completely covered in royal blue shag carpet. Because I was younger than the other DJs, I worked just the Saturday afternoon shift, and I always included Prince’s hits in my mix, while projecting his music videos on the opposite wall. Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” remains one of my favorite songs of all time to this day, the only song that I ever sing at karaoke.

Prince’s own albums, an awesome trove of music that people will be studying for many decades to come, are easiest to focus on, but I’ve long been more interested in his side projects and the more obscure songs that he wrote and produced for other artists on his Paisley Park label over roughly eight years, beginning in 1985 and continuing through 1993, just prior to the label’s closure due to disputes with Warner Bros. Records. Although some of the songs recorded by those other Paisley Park artists were second-tier numbers that Prince had recorded as rough demos himself in his younger years (or failed to shop out to big-name acts like Michael Jackson and Madonna), they provide an important key to understanding his overall aesthetic, both from a musical and business standpoint.


The self-titled album by The Family, one of the first releases on Paisley Park in 1985, was Prince’s early experiment in jazz/funk fusion, the musical style to which he’d return in earnest on the Madhouse 8 and Madhouse 16 albums a couple of years later. The Family was led by Paul Peterson, who closely approximated Prince’s vocals and later released solo albums as St. Paul, and Susannah Melvoin, the twin sister of Wendy Melvoin of the duo Wendy & Lisa, Prince’s longtime backup singers. Other members of The Family included frequent Prince collaborators Jellybean Johnson on drums and Eric Leeds on saxophone and flute. With the exception of the fantastically moody track “River Run Dry,” which was written by drummer Bobby Z of Prince’s band The Revolution, Prince composed all of the other songs on the album.

The Family’s biggest claim to fame, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” would go on to become an international phenomenon for Sinéad O’Connor in 1990. As sung by St. Paul Peterson, the song is a soulful New Wave-influenced ballad, a synthpop hymn to independence in the wake of heartbreak. Several other cuts on The Family are equally notable, especially the outstandingly funky opener “High Fashion” and the pulsating ode to eroticism “Screams of Passion.” The album and its two singles failed to attract much commercial attention at the time of their release, but The Family is now a highly sought-after rarity for collectors of Prince’s catalog.


Another highly sought-after Paisley Park rarity is Jill Jones’ self-titled 1987 debut album, which Prince wrote and produced nearly in its entirety. Jones got her start in the music business as a backup vocalist for the late Teena Marie, who was her cousin, and whose career also happened to be managed by Jones’ mother. Jones later appeared in the music videos for “1999” and “Little Red Corvette,” as well as Prince’s feature-length films Purple Rain and Graffiti Bridge. Her debut album is endowed with a spiky funk edge that’s as convincing as anything else Prince recorded, with lyrics and a vocal delivery as sensual as later Prince hits like “Diamonds and Pearls” and “Pink Cashmere.”

None of the three singles released from Jill Jones, the driving “Mia Bocca,” clever “G-Spot,” or jazzy “For Love,” gained any sort of foothold on the charts, the kind of expenditure without profit that began to cause a rift to develop in Warner Bros. Records’ relationship with Prince and Paisley Park. Tellingly, the songs all still sound amazing today, regardless of their lack of mainstream success in the late 1980s, when the volume of records being released worldwide was far too high for anybody to keep up with. Interestingly, the songwriting on two of the album’s best tracks — the pensive “Violet Blue” (dedicated to Elizabeth Taylor and titled for the color of her eyes) and the uptempo “My Man,” both intended to be sung from a woman’s perspective — is credited solely to Jill Jones in the liner notes, although Prince wrote all eight of the album’s songs himself.


Prince contributed only two songs to Taja Sevelle’s self-titled 1987 debut album on Paisley Park, which was distributed by Warner Bros. imprint Reprise Records. A more pop-oriented affair than much of Prince’s other output for Paisley Park, Taja Sevelle was also a departure commercially, competing with the likes of Madonna and Stacey Q during the year of its release. The singer whom Taja Sevelle (born Nancy Richardson) most resembled and carved out a path for was Mariah Carey, perhaps, though without the towering vocal prowess that Carey displayed on her first two albums.

The two tracks that Prince offered to Taja’s debut project (otherwise produced by Chico Bennett) were “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” and “If I Could Get Your Attention,” both of which he’d recorded earlier versions of himself; each Prince demo is easy enough to find with a quick search online. If Taja Sevelle and its four singles yet again failed to find a widespread audience either on radio or on dance floors of the era, the album nonetheless meshes well with the rest of Paisley Park’s diverse roster, striking an appealing balance between R&B, funk, and mainstream crossover pop.


For a fairly radical departure in 1988, Paisley Park released Los Angeles-based band The Three O’Clock’s Vermillion, featuring just one song penned by Prince, the whimsically catchy “Neon Telephone.” No doubt, Prince had caught wind of the band because of their pivotal role in founding L.A.’s punk-lite music scene that was known as the Paisley Underground. This similar naming was only a coincidence, but I can imagine that Prince didn’t want anybody else infringing on his trademark, so he sent his entourage out to investigate. Fortunately, he liked what he heard and then signed the band for one album. I would also guess that another Paisley Underground-related act, The Bangles, scored their massive hit “Manic Monday” due to this coincidence; Prince wrote that song for The Bangles under the pseudonym Christopher. (His birth name was Prince Rogers Nelson.)

Fronted by singer Michael Quercio and guitarist Jason Falkner, The Three O’Clock made for an unusual but not entirely unexpected fit in the Paisley Park oeuvre. The songs’ instrumentation is playful and grandiose at once, suggesting an alternative to most of the plinking ’80s keyboard fare that was on heavy rotation back in those days. The album’s diverse styles traverse all eras of music in which Prince himself was interested. “When She Becomes My Girl” harkens back to ’50s doo-wop groups; “Love Explosion” sounds like an updated version of a ’60s surfing beach bash; “Through the Sleepy Town” floats through a ’70s hallucination-induced haze; and “Ways of Magic” is still waiting to be the soundtrack centerpiece of an ’80s John Hughes movie revival.


Prince decided on a perfectly sensible return to R&B form in 1989 when he wrote and produced the majority of the songs on gospel legend Mavis Staples’ Paisley Park debut, Time Waits for No One, as well as on her 1993 Paisley Park follow-up, The Voice. Staples’ vocal texture and range gave Prince an entirely different palette to work with, and her inspirational reputation also liberated him to write about subject matter that was noticeably distinct from his previous records. Time Waits for No One maintains a clear sonic through-line from his earlier work, with songs crafted from electronically derived funk and sly dance-club beats. The themes are alternately dark (as on the title track and “20th Century Express”) and light (“Interesting,” “Jaguar,” and “The Old Songs”); there's a contemporaneous quiet-storm groove bestowed on the album’s ballads. The Voice, while more gospel-inflected overall, also integrates elements of New Jack Swing, a style popular on R&B songs in the early ’90s, notably on a cut like the upbeat “Melody Cool.”

The most astonishing aspect of all this: the albums that I’ve written about here represent only a small fraction of the total amount of music that Prince created for Paisley Park, and he created all of it within the span of a single decade. That must mean his life was nothing but wall-to-wall music, all day long, every single day, for the whole duration of that period in time, the same way that the most highly revered classical musicians like Mozart must have lived.



Prince’s prolific body of work for Paisley Park also doesn’t include the many songs that he wrote for artists on other labels during the same timeframe. One particular Prince song that comes poignantly to mind at this sad point in time is “With This Tear,” a moving ballad that Celine Dion recorded for her self-titled 1992 sophomore album, with a passionate vocal crescendo that’s ripped straight out of the stratosphere.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Garth Greenwell, What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)

What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell’s powerful and heart-rending debut novel, often seems to inhabit an earlier era. Take out the cell phones and laptop Skype sessions, and this story of an American expatriate teacher and his ongoing, tumultuous encounters with a Bulgarian hustler named Mitko would feel like something that Rimbaud and Verlaine might have experienced in their own place and time. While there’s plenty of redemption to be found in the book, it’s also relentlessly and unapologetically austere in stretches, both in its intentionally spare narrative movement and its explorations of the cities and landscapes of Bulgaria.

But overall, What Belongs to You is far more dedicated to exploring the inner lives of its characters, which is to say that it’s a novel about human relationships, about our troubling, visceral connections and inevitable disconnections. So much of the book depends on Mitko’s magnetism — for the novel to succeed, we have to feel as compelled by him as the narrator is — and Greenwell draws him as an enticing and ultimately unforgettable personality. This is not an easy task for any writer to accomplish. The author honed the first of the novel’s three sections from his 2011 novella that focused on the same two characters; from the moment Mitko first appears, cruising alongside the narrator in the basement bathroom of Sofia’s National Palace of Culture, his aura is equally riveting in this longer book.

Greenwell’s prose is long-limbed and ambitious. His paragraphs span two or three pages at times, and the novel’s experimental second section is a single paragraph that unwinds for over forty pages. It’s not only a way of immersing the reader in the narrator’s thoughts and descriptions, but also of leveling down the high-risk subject matter. As long as we’re caught up in the writing itself, then there’s no chance to judge or second-guess the action. We’re implicated in what’s happening as much as the narrator is himself, as the sporadic storms of Mitko’s attention drift (or jolt) in and out of the narrator’s daily world.

Part of what makes Mitko’s mystery lodge in the reader’s mind is how little of his past we’re shown. Early in the novel, when the narrator invites Mitko back to his apartment, Mitko scrolls through photographs of his younger self on a website. Although the pictures were taken only a couple of years earlier, “I was shocked by the difference in their faces, the man in the image and the man beside me,” the narrator thinks; “he looked like a nice kid, a kid I might have had in class at the prestigious school where I teach.” How far Mitko had fallen after turning to a life of drinking, prostitution, and homelessness pulls the narrator closer to his dangerous orbit, deepening the desire to possess and understand him, and creating a divide that will become impossible for Mitko to cross. After tagging along with the narrator and one of his friends for dinner, Mitko says, “I want to live a normal life,” before holding out his hand for money as they part ways.

What exactly makes a normal life? For most people, it’s money and routine work, which Mitko never has and seemed destined not to have. Love is a key ingredient, too, for those who are lucky enough to find it, or have it bestowed upon them by their families. “Normal” might also mean “moral” in this instance. Yet one of the great strengths of Greenwell’s book is its lack of judgment where morality is concerned. In the universe of his novel, it’s more important to document whatever occurs, to show the way the world is, which grants his writing a kind of lapidary realism as well as psychological intensity.

The best and most realistic moments in Greenwell’s novel are those when lives and relationships suddenly pivot and change irreversibly: a violent backhand across the narrator’s face, an innocent boyhood erection deeply unwanted by the person who prompted it, a father’s blunt homophobic rejection of his son. These moments of cruelty arise in the narrative like punches or shocks, fittingly, with a language of precision that re-creates exactly what it feels like to live through such experiences.

Although I’ll avoid giving away any plot details, I will say that the final fifty pages of the book, which I’d saved until I was ready to read them, are pure art, a feat made possible by the careful intricacy of everything that’s come before. I read them straight through to the end. The words were often blurred with tears, and I was grateful to be moved.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Five Favorite Films of 2015

Judging from my five favorite movies of 2015, or the five films that stayed with me the most, this has clearly been a somewhat unusual year for cinema. Genres like animation and outer space adventure tales, which I’ve previously enjoyed but never taken too seriously, suddenly offered films that left me thinking more deeply than they had before. Two of my favorite movies of the past twelve months were box office hits, rare for the films that appeal to me the most during any given year. It makes sense in a way, as global capitalism marches on, that there’s a gratifying balance to be found between the blockbusters and the small independent movies; some talents will trickle up, while others will trickle down.

Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, which was booed by the audience and trashed by critics when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, is a film that almost nobody saw this year for that reason. Its cinematic release was extremely limited. The movie showed in only three theaters in New York and Los Angeles and grossed just over $45,000 in the US. Fortunately, I happened to be in New York the one week that the movie screened at the Angelika Film Center there. Although many have accused Gosling of ripping off David Lynch (and yes, Lynch’s films obviously influenced the movie’s elliptical style), Gosling’s shy brand of coolness is stamped all over the movie.

The narrative of Lost River is intentionally slim: a young man named Bones (Iain De Caestecker, handsomely approximating Gosling himself) strips copper from abandoned urban buildings and sells it to help support his kid brother and his mother (Christina Hendricks), who ends up in a rather interesting line of work herself. They’re trying to save the house that they’re about to lose. Several subplots emerge: Bones has a quasi-romance with a neighbor (Saoirse Ronan), gets pursued by a towering, brutal bully (Matt Smith), and discovers a flooded town that explains the movie’s title. The scrappy characters and dreamlike, frequently transfixing images, underscored by Johnny Jewel’s pulsating electronic soundtrack, mean more than the sum of those storylines.

The result is a very American product (by a Canadian-born director) that’s both contemplative and phantasmagoric, combining the grotesque surrealism of writers like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor with the hypervisual verve of a graphic novel. Coincidentally, I watched the film immediately after I saw the fun and riveting horror flick It Follows at the same theater. Both movies were filmed in Detroit, and both use that legendary location’s current decrepitude and ruined grandeur to sad and exhilarating effect, another element that makes Lost River feel distinctly American to me.

The most important film of 2015 is Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. I saw it when I was at a conference in Chicago, but it’s set here in my home city of Boston. Following a team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe who won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the tragic breadth of the Catholic church’s cover-up of the city’s decades-long priest sex abuse scandal, the impeccable ensemble cast (especially Mark Ruffalo as the film’s ethical backbone) and the cumulative emotional impact work with devastating precision. What impresses me even more in retrospect is how carefully such explosive subject matter is handled in the film. Never once does the material tip in the direction of the sensational, rooting the movie in genuinely moral territory from start to finish.

Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out, directed by Pete Docter, is perhaps the only cartoon that will ever appear on a list of my favorite films. It’s often as profound in its ideas as Spotlight, and that’s really saying something. The movie takes place mostly inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, who’s recently relocated with her parents from the midwest to San Francisco. As Riley starts to grow homesick, missing her former town and her friends there, the emotions in her head, voiced by an array of comedians and TV personalities, begin to wrestle it out with one another: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader).

The inside of Riley’s mind, wide and sprawling as a world of its own, comes to life in a way that couldn’t be conveyed in any other medium. The film is mostly about memory, and the sorrow inherent in the notion that some of our memories, notably those from childhood, will simply be lost over time. In the film, memories are represented by colorful spheres; as Riley’s memories rack up, workers keep them safely shelved, plucking out the ones that have turned gray. The wasteland of forgotten memories where Joy finds herself later in the movie, an endless slope of darkened, discarded spheres, is an image that hasn’t left me since I saw the film several months ago. Neither has the movie’s central message: sometimes Sadness has to be allowed to take control.

Ridley Scott’s latest venture, The Martian, I saw at a beautifully restored art deco theater in Brattleboro, Vermont. The packed Saturday night audience was easily the most subdued and well-behaved I’ve had the pleasure of viewing a movie with in years, reminding me of just how important that aspect of moviegoing can be, and how much it can affect our enjoyment of a film. The crowded house also provided a nice counterpoint to the on-screen desolation; an American astronaut, played with equal parts humor and gravitas by Matt Damon, gets stranded alone on Mars after a storm separates him from the rest of his mission crew. What follows is high and gripping entertainment, as Damon’s character engineers ways to grow food and survive on an inhospitable planet, while we await his rescue by the NASA folks down on Earth.

Of course, recent hits such as Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar could easily have made The Martian seem like a copycat film. And as much as I loved Gravity, I think there’s a bit more humanity in The Martian overall. The science of Ridley Scott’s movie also feels more thought-out and authentic, perhaps because of its fictional source material, the eponymous 2011 novel by Andy Weir on which the film is based. It’s refreshing to see a scientific film that seems both accurate and respectful of its audience’s intelligence.

Finally, another movie that I saw in New York over Thanksgiving, Josh Mond’s James White, is a little film that I’m very glad I had a chance to watch. A family drama set in Manhattan, just after the death of the protagonist’s somewhat absent father, it comes complete with a boost of adrenaline, thanks to the energetic performance of Christopher Abbott in the title role, an aspiring magazine writer who’s trying to find his path and seriously flailing. Cynthia Nixon’s fierce and soulful portrayal of his mother, a cancer patient nearing the end of her life, is award-worthy, masterfully evoking her character’s delicate strength. A heartbreaking dialogue between the two in their apartment’s bathroom contains the finest writing and delivery of any scene that I saw this year.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Brad Gooch, Smash Cut (HarperCollins, 2015)

I had to read Brad Gooch’s Smash Cut: A Memoir of Howard & Art & the ’70s & the ’80s over a period of about two months in gradual increments, stopping and starting, to give myself time to process what I was feeling. As excited as I was throughout the book, I knew from the beginning how emotionally demanding it would be for me, a memoir about a talented artist and filmmaker, Howard Brookner, a handsome young gay man in New York City, who died of AIDS and was buried on his 35th birthday. I was right on the edge of tears in every paragraph of the prologue, so I allowed myself a couple of weeks after that to feel prepared enough to continue reading.

Brad Gooch, a biographer, novelist, and poet, was Howard Brookner’s boyfriend for a decade, from the time they met at a gay bar called the Ninth Circle in 1978 — as Howard gazed directly at Brad from a pastel haze of flashing jukebox lights — until Howard’s death in 1989. The Dantesque allusion of the bar’s name carries a sharp resonance from the outset. By its end the book documents a hellish descent into illness and loss, but only after ascending in its first half through an intimate, lovingly troubled relationship and into the initial levels of bohemian artistic ambition. “If I were forced to choose one trait that defined us, and our generation, and those times,” Gooch recalls, “I’d have to say that we were romantics. It was a romantic time.”

Being a gay man myself and single at 41, I felt sure that the book’s romantic focus would present a steep but worthwhile challenge. Coincidentally, in the midst of my reading the book, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. When I first moved to Boston from Ohio in 1993, I thought for certain that by making such a move, I’d soon find a long-term boyfriend, someone not so different from the two young men depicted in this book. That’s not how things turned out for me. But something else the book makes clear is that even if two people find each other and commit themselves to staying together, the world may have very different plans.

Howard Brookner is about as likeable a figure any memoirist (or reader) could hope for, and the author’s continued affection for him is apparent on every page. When the pair met in 1978, Howard was just starting work on a documentary about the Beat Generation fixture William Burroughs (the film was completed five years later in 1983), embedding himself in the downtown Manhattan art scene, along with his film school classmates like Jim Jarmusch. The middle son of a Jewish family from Long Island, Howard made an attractive fit for Brad, who had moved to New York from his WASPy roots in Pennsylvania. Remembering their first night spent together in Howard’s loft in the East Village, Brad describes “a sensation of being a mere composite of iron filings pulled in by the life-size magnet of Howard’s body.”

Smash Cut is equally a memoir of its era. As was standard for the age, casual sex and drug addictions underscore the surface action, tampering with the stability of our central couple. The segue from the days of glam rock into the harder edge of punk always lingers at the scene’s periphery, as does a figure like Andy Warhol, who appears in person halfway through the memoir, “with an intelligence that transcended gender and sexuality.” I worried that the pace might slow down when the author detours to Milan and Paris to try out a less than fulfilling stint in modeling, but Gooch’s storytelling and knack for detailing the characters he met in Europe keep the tempo of the book in line with the previous chapters in New York.

Upon his return to Manhattan, Brad relocates with Howard to share an apartment on the fifth floor of the legendary Chelsea Hotel, a building the author mentions that he still passes every day in his current neighborhood, bringing on a cascade of memories, which was the real catalyst for writing this book. Within a few pages of their move to the Chelsea, in early July of 1981, Brad reads the now infamous article from the New York Times, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” the ominous beginning of what would later become the AIDS epidemic. “A chasm opened up in front of me,” the author writes.

Gooch’s description of the overarching feeling throughout the early years of the AIDS epidemic is among the most powerful I’ve encountered. The passage is prompted by a hard rain on the streets of New York and worth quoting here in its entirety: “It was a dark afternoon in the spring of 1987. So many memories of those last few years of the eighties are like that: rainy, bleak. It’s not possible that the weather was dismal for years on end, the same throughout all four seasons. But those years, taken together, were like one of those mornings when you wake up, the clouds are dense, the barometric pressure low, and no one calls. You feel as if your legs are a little heavy because the weather is creating a low-level system of depression throughout the city. That years-long day just went on and on and on.”

While he was finishing his work as director of the feature film Bloodhounds of Broadway, a send-up of 1920s New York with a cast of Hollywood actors, including a young Madonna, Howard Brookner’s rapidly declining health landed him in St. Vincent’s hospital. During those years, even some medical professionals were still afraid to have physical contact with AIDS patients. Providing one reason why she’s historically been such an icon for the gay community, Madonna visits Howard at the hospital, climbs right onto the hospital bed with him, and kisses him on the lips. When Howard asks Brad why so many visitors are stopping by, Brad replies, “Because something about you makes people feel good when they come to see you ... because you give something to people.”


On the day of his funeral, Howard Brookner departed from Brad Gooch’s life in the same way he first appeared, in a hazy halo of light, “a very strong bright light in an oval shape that was suspended high in the skeletal branches of a nearby tree.” Smash Cut is a beautiful, generous tribute to Howard’s life and memory, as well as a loving recollection of the time in which he lived.

Monday, June 22, 2015

17th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 17th - 21st, 2015)

If someone was new to our planet, the annual film festival in Provincetown would be an excellent introduction. Seeing nineteen movies over five days is kind of like a primer for life on earth. The diversity of subjects in the films that I watched spanned from a son visiting his elderly parents in the English countryside (Tom Browne’s contemplative Radiator) to documentaries about Marlon Brando, Tab Hunter, Peggy Guggenheim, and pioneering punk promoter Danny Fields, from playful criss-crossing of gender lines (François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend) to the somber tale of an ex-gay publisher turned pastor (Justin Kelly’s I Am Michael).

Having known relatively little about the subject of The End of the Tour, the late novelist David Foster Wallace, I’m somewhat surprised that it turned out to be my favorite film in this year’s festival. Featuring a career-changing performance by comedic actor Jason Segel as Wallace, the film recounts the handful of days that David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) spent staying and traveling on a promotional book tour with Wallace while interviewing him for a Rolling Stone article. The visit later resulted in a memoir by Lipsky, which was the source material for the movie’s screenplay, adapted by playwright Donald Margulies. It makes sense, therefore, that The End of the Tour is totally a writer’s movie, in the guise of a road movie with lots of intellectual sparring.

In this case the sparring partners could not be more suitably matched. Segel captures Wallace’s brooding yet laidback nature in a way that seems genuine and likeable. Even Wallace’s diehard fans who are most protective of his legacy should be pleased by Segel’s tightrope walk of a portrayal, although it’s the kind of understated performance that deserves much more attention than it will probably receive. Eisenberg’s Lipsky is an ideal geeky foil to Wallace’s hulking nerdiness. The scenario of the Rolling Stone piece gave both men plenty to mistrust about each other, yet as the director James Ponsoldt worded it during the post-screening Q&A, the film is “an unrequited Platonic love story.”

Lipsky’s last-chance, whirlwind list of details as he describes the interior of Wallace’s rural Illinois home to his handheld tape recorder (with some expert help from Danny Elfman’s subtle electronic score) was the most moving moment from any film that I saw at the festival. And despite Wallace’s ongoing resistance to “selling out” to such a mainstream publication like Rolling Stone, the Alanis Morissette poster on his living room wall — along with his boyish crush on her — is evidence that he didn’t have too much of an objection to becoming a sort of rock star himself. The film doesn’t dwell on Wallace’s suicide but instead lets the fact of it linger quietly in the framework of the movie, a decision that seems right to me.

The most outright entertaining film that I saw in the festival was Paul Weitz’s Grandma, starring Lily Tomlin as a fabulously blunt lesbian poet, a character that’s slightly inspired by my writer friend Eileen Myles. Another road movie of a kind, though the trip doesn’t stray too far from the character’s California town during the course of a day, it’s the sort of crowd-pleasing film that filled every single seat in Town Hall, the festival’s largest venue. Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a former academic who’s gone broke just as she’s broken up with her much younger girlfriend, in the wake of Elle’s longtime partner Violet’s death from a costly cancer. Elle’s granddaughter, Sage, shows up right when Elle’s edge is sharpest, asking her grandma for money so that she can pay to have an abortion.

Mayhem and dark humor ensue, of course, as Elle and Sage go door-to-door in search of a handout. Along the way we meet tattoo artist Deathy (a wonderful Laverne Cox), café owner Carla (the late Elizabeth Peña in one of her final roles), Elle’s long-ago husband Karl (Sam Elliott, still sexy at seventy), and Marcia Gay Harden having a riotous time as Sage’s no-nonsense, business executive mother. Some might complain that the storyline feels a bit too thin, but the film is more focused on developing its characters than the action of the plot. Tomlin has waited forever to play a role like this, one that’s probably closest to who she is in everyday life.

Among the documentaries that I saw, Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack was easily the most thought-provoking. In fact, I found it impossible to stop thinking about the film in the days following the screening, mainly because the story itself is so bizarre and the territory is so unfamiliar. The six teenage Angulo brothers were raised and home-schooled in their apartment at a public housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Throughout their childhood, they almost never left the apartment. Their mother, who grew up on a farm in the Midwest, met their Peruvian father, a Hare Krishna, when she was hiking a trail to Machu Picchu on which he was a tour guide. Their goal for the Angulo tribe was ten children, far more than their apartment could accommodate, so they only made it to seven kids. The brothers’ younger sister is rarely seen on screen. Their father’s entrance is also intelligently delayed. As the story unfolds, we imagine him to be a frightening figure, and he’s definitely scary when he eventually surfaces, but he’s also quite cowardly in the way that he’s sequestered his children and his wife away from the world.

The reasons for trapping the family indoors are specious, a combination of quasi-religious and philosophical beliefs and a general fear of New York City and the dangers of American culture. What the boys lacked in social interaction, they made up for through watching movies. Their favorites are all manner of horror films and anything directed by Quentin Tarantino; they are, after all, a gang of teenage boys. Just watching the films repeatedly, however, was never enough. They re-enacted their favorite scenes on video camera for years, transcribing the scripts on a word processor, designing their own costumes, and hand-crafting weaponry with pieces of cardboard cut from empty cereal boxes and painted black. (An intricately assembled Batman suit is especially impressive and looks nearly authentic.)

After one of their makeshift guns caught the eye of a neighbor in their building, an entire SWAT team busted through their door, handcuffing every member of the family and pinning them up against a wall. Finding nothing but toy guns in the apartment, the cops congratulated the boys on their craftsmanship and left them alone, until the oldest brother decided to venture outside wearing a homemade Michael Myers mask while their father was out buying groceries. That episode ended with an arrest and a stay in a mental institution, but the barrier between their claustrophobic apartment and the world outside had been breached at long last. Running up an avenue on their first day out of the apartment together, the Angulo brothers met the film’s director. She followed them with her camera from that point onward.

Their mother mentions being happy that now the boys can finally learn how movies “are both real and not real” in the context of the actual world, a phrase that could also describe the surreal qualities of The Wolfpack itself. Although the almost identical members of the clan, after years of being kept indoors together, are bound to be visibly awkward on the subway and on an excursion to the beach at Coney Island, the film suggests that movies, at least when they’re the sole outlet for the intense imaginations of young male siblings, might provide just enough socialization to build a bridge to the culture-at-large.

Bao Nguyen’s Live From New York! is about as different from The Wolfpack as two documentaries can get, but I found this overview of Saturday Night Live’s forty-year history to be equally as interesting on other levels. While I’ve never been a massive fan of the show, I’ve followed it sporadically and sometimes more faithfully over time, depending on the individual cast and the quality of the writing team. To keep a weekly live show going for so long is a tremendous accomplishment in itself, and it’s one that deserves this type of closer examination.

The film’s overview is mostly chronological. Because there’s so much to cover, everyone who sees it will feel like something was left out. The cast members’ commentaries offer the most useful insights because they’re inside views from the people who actually made the show, or as Will Ferrell calls it, “a living, breathing time capsule.” Original cast member Laraine Newman mentions that what sets the show apart is that it’s a meritocracy: “If a sketch is good enough, then it runs.” More recent cast member Andy Samberg remarks that it’s the perfect show for the Internet generation because everything’s done in short clips. Head honcho Lorne Michaels draws on the controversial examples of Andrew Dice Clay, who was thought to be too crude to host the show, and Sinead O’Connor, who tore up a photo of the pope on the air, to explore the show’s tension between censorship and freedom of expression. Other examples highlight how issues of race and gender have proven to be challenging in the studio, just as they are in American society. The documentary’s director wisely chose to take a serious approach, one that investigates how Saturday Night Live has both reflected and influenced the climate of our culture.

Speaking of culture, I want to close by considering a shift that I’ve noticed in many facets of American life lately. In the aftermath of the (so-called) Great Recession, there’s a desire to appease the masses that’s gradually seeping into all aspects of art and commerce. The anxieties are understandable as the global economy continues to get a foothold and gain traction. A certain sense of tameness and safety is widening its reach, nevertheless, affecting even my college teaching, a job that was once about challenging students to think but is now being forced into the mold of customer service representative.


This shouldn’t be happening to art and film as well. Sure, it’s commercially important to have popular movies that are created for the mainstream. But it’s artistically important for films and other art forms to incite discomfort, bend the boundaries of genre, and propel their creators and their audiences toward the edge, both aesthetically and emotionally. The annual film festival in Provincetown showcases a variety of films each year that satisfy the need for edginess and experimentation, and I hope this trend continues in future years of the festival.