Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rosanne Cash, The Wheel (Columbia Records, 1993)

Ever since I heard Rosanne Cash in concert for the first time last month in the Berkshires, I’ve been returning to my favorite of her albums, 1993’s The Wheel. It’s obvious to me why I like this album the most out of all the superb records from Cash’s thirty-year catalog: The Wheel is the closest she’s ever come to recording a pure pop album. With a career that began deeply steeped in country music — partly through association with her legendary father, the late Johnny Cash — Rosanne first made her name in that particular genre, though the majority of her songs lean more in the direction of folk. One listen through the selections included on The Essential Rosanne Cash, her excellent two-disc career retrospective released back in May, makes that distinction fairly clear.

The Wheel arrived at an important turning point not just in Rosanne Cash’s career, but in her personal and romantic life as well. As she chronicles in her recently published memoir Composed, she met her future husband and musical collaborator John Leventhal just as she’d begun recording the album, and the two ended up co-producing its eleven songs together. The sonic result is appropriately buoyant, filled with the bliss and adrenaline of newly falling in love, both with a person and with a place. Cash had relocated with her daughters from Nashville to Manhattan just prior to writing the first songs on The Wheel, having divorced her husband of a decade, country musician Rodney Crowell. The album is imbued with the vibrant atmosphere of New York, while the City of Light makes a shimmering appearance on the song “Sleeping in Paris” as well (“I thought I knew which way the wind blows / But now it’s blowing me back to you / And the wind speaks French too”).

Cash’s previous release — 1990’s moody, self-produced, and Grammy-nominated Interiors — had closely explored her divorce, and it also marked her commercial crossover from country singer to mainstream artist. The Wheel was clearly intended, from an industry standpoint, to cement that status. It’s a transition that a number of other female folk/country songwriters and performers had successfully made at right around that time: Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega. Chapman’s runaway 1988 hit “Fast Car” is especially useful to consider in this context; in addition to the song’s brilliant, enduring appeal both lyrically and musically, “Fast Car” found an audience largely because of how unusual a fit it was for standard Top 40 pop fare. The very unexpectedness of such a song at the top of the pop charts helped to make it, like Vega’s “Luka” not too long before, an authentic novelty record.

Although the three singles from Cash’s The Wheel — “Seventh Avenue,” “You Won’t Let Me In,” and the album’s title track — didn’t experience similar chart runs, they were all equally worthy of doing so. In fact, The Wheel is one of those rare albums that doesn’t include a single mediocre song. Cash infuses it with a thematic and sonic integrity from beginning to end, endowing the album with the unassuming sweep of an internalized musical, one that’s meant to play on a solitary Broadway in the mind of each individual listener. In Composed, she describes the overarching concept of the album as elemental, featuring “recurring themes . . . of fire and water, wind and moon.” Along with its distinctive pop veneer, this thematic continuity is largely why the album appealed to me so much from my very first listen.

The elemental, earthly through-line of The Wheel, ironically, carries an almost cosmic scope. Love, heartbreak, and rejuvenation are all set against the vast machinery of the universe itself. The central image of the title song is equal parts zodiac, prayer wheel, and celestial pocket-watch. This is best expressed by how Cash chooses to open the album with a series of questions that feel down-to-earth and mythical at once, counterpointing Sleeping Beauty with Persephone:

“How long was I asleep?

When did we plan to meet?

Have you been waiting long for me?

When did the sky turn black?

Do you still want me back?

I’ll pick it all up piece by piece.”

It’s no coincidence that the highlight of Cash’s concert last month for me was her encore of “The Wheel,” performed solo and acoustic. Even without the driving, jubilant rhythms of John Leventhal’s electric guitar from the album version, she managed to give the song its widescreen, propulsive thrust: “And the wheel goes round and round / And the flame in our souls / It will never burn out.”

“Seventh Avenue,” the album’s second track, is my very favorite of Rosanne Cash’s songs, full-stop. I admire how quiet and introspective it feels, an open declaration and a private musing, just like all the best works of art. Anybody who’s spent a night in New York City, or even just a night alone anywhere, can relate to the intimate, emotional scene that she paints:

“The world keeps getting smaller

’Til it closes ’round my room

And everything I feel now

Is hard and fast and true

My window is a spotlight

On the madness down below

It takes a silent figure

To make this place a home.”

Most art that’s created, ideally, comes from within this same space, the silent, darkened room above a street, and certainly, that’s where most songs begin and take shape. This particular song is also born out of pain to some extent, as its gorgeous and plainspoken chorus makes clear: “Now the candles burn all night / Without you / And the moon hangs out of sight / So blue / On Seventh Avenue.” To telescope from a small room out into the heavens seems like exactly the right move to me, the way that gazing up at a star-filled sky feels like looking at everything and nothing at the same time. The great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges wrote a wonderful prose-poem about Shakespeare titled “Everything and Nothing.” Likewise, saying that “Seventh Avenue” captures everything and nothing is one of the best compliments that I can give it.

The album continues to balance intensity and ease on “Change Partners,” a soaring mediation on shifting gears to the “new dance” of a different and better relationship (“I’m purified by fire / Renewed by my desire”), via the uplift of a swooning piano refrain. “From the Ashes” takes the rising phoenix metaphor, as well as the sense of euphoria and reawakening, a few steps further, as does a later track, “Fire of the Newly Alive.”

But even love’s new dance has its moments of struggle, as on the melancholy, percussive “You Won’t Let Me In,” which Cash sings “like a girl / On the threshold of her life / In love with the whole world / But staring down each night,” sentiments that are again contemplated on “The Truth About You” and “Tears Falling Down” (“In the cradle of our fears / We sleep without tears”). These darker shades of feeling culminate on “Roses in the Fire,” Cash’s affecting look back at her former relationship, especially potent during an impassioned, point-blank lyrical bridge that’s the emotional vortex of the album: “Oh I’ll kill you if we can’t be friends / I’ll bleed like diamonds running through your hands / I’ll be a bitter taste you can’t forget / And I won’t leave this world until you relent.”

Redemption, however, is the main focus of the album. As Cash famously sings on “Sleeping in Paris,” “A lonely road is a bodyguard / If we really want it to be,” a lyric that she had originally jotted down in a notebook back when she was 17 and revived at just the right moment many years later. A bent for solitude can prevent us from connecting with others, yet it can also protect us until we’re truly ready to do so. The album’s spiritually inclined, ethereal closing number, “If There’s a God on My Side,” returns to a litany of questions that’s similar in tone to the ones that opened the record:

“If there’s a God on my side

Why don’t she show me her face?

If there’s a God on my side

Could she live in this place?

If there’s a God on my side

Is she inside these walls?

If there’s a God on my side

Could she not hear me call?”

The final impression is one of hope and earnest inquiry, but Cash’s obvious mood of uncertainty throughout these lyrics is equally significant and profound. In the context of her life as a whole, I find that element to be quite inspiring. As the daughter of one of the most celebrated figures in the history of American popular music, she was clearly in a privileged position both materially and in terms of preparation for a future career in music herself. But throughout that career, her search through the realm of art and expression has remained resolutely inconclusive, calmly unsure of what exactly she’ll find and how she might grow and change over time. Her willingness to accept the mysterious and the unknown as vital to the act of creating has made her a singer and songwriter of the highest caliber.

Perhaps the finest quality on The Wheel is the sense of immediacy and distillation it conveys from song to song. Cash’s lyrical approach is direct in style and in spirit, maybe because the album is about attempting to shed complexity in the midst of potentially overwhelming emotional complications. The idea that the universe is constantly moving, as a way of keeping our everyday selves unstuck in time, is somehow reassuring and also unsettling. That delicate tension, and the magical energy that’s produced by it, has kept me listening to the sounds of The Wheel nearly twenty years on.

Friday, June 24, 2011

13th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 15th - 19th, 2011)

Having attended the annual film festival in Provincetown since 2005, I found the roster of films at the latest festival in its thirteenth year to be as solid as previous years. In the spirit of this blog, I’ll focus my comments on the handful of films that I enjoyed the most at last week’s festival, all of which I very highly recommend seeing when they arrive at your local cinemas over the coming months.

The documentaries are almost always a bit more satisfying for me than the narrative features. This could be due to the whole “truth is stranger than fiction” phenomenon, or more likely, it’s because telling a fictional narrative in an engaging way is a more difficult task these days. Most stories have already been repeatedly rehashed from many possible angles, but even more problematically, a narrative feature film needs to present itself with a distinctive storytelling style that also doesn’t seem false to the viewer. Finding an individual style or voice is perhaps the hardest element for any artist to achieve, film directors included.

My favorite movie in the festival was We Were Here, a powerful documentary about the early AIDS years in San Francisco. The film had played at the gay film festival here in Boston last month, and since I missed it then, I was glad to have a chance to see it in Provincetown. The movie delicately intersplices memories and anecdotes of five finely selected interviewees: four gay men and one female nurse. The four gay men, some HIV-positive and some negative, have all done important work as activists and otherwise in San Francisco over time: a visual artist, a street-corner flower vendor, an AIDS hospice volunteer, and the executive director of the GLBT Historical Society. They all speak with candor and quiet wisdom about witnessing first-hand, and from the epicenter, one of the most devastating (and ironically uniting) medical crises in American history, during which nearly 20,000 men in San Francisco lost their lives, the population size of many small cities.

I was most struck by the film’s seamless tone; the carefully interwoven interviews all felt contemplative, direct, and untampered with. The hospice volunteer movingly recounts how he never fit into the landscape of anonymous gay sex in San Francisco at the time, and once he began doing work as a caretaker, he realized that was how he could become close with other gay men. The visual artist tells a heartbreaking story of rushing his partner who was living with AIDS to the hospital, only to have him die before they arrived there. And the flower vendor recalls watching one man progress from riding around on his bike, to becoming ill and walking with a cane, to being very ill in a wheelchair; then, as new drug treatments were introduced, the man went back to walking with a cane, to walking past without the cane, and he finally returned to riding by on his bike again, older than before but back to his previously healthy self. That image is both instructive and life-affirming, just one of many moving examples from this profound and humane documentary.

Equally moving and profound is Buck, a documentary about Buck Brannaman, the real-life “horse whisperer,” who trained the actor Robert Redford for his role in the film of that title. While the documentary does explore Brannaman’s unique methods for taming and training difficult and unwieldy horses, it’s also concerned with the people who own those horses, and the people are often more in need of assistance than the animals to whom Brannaman so caringly attends.

Mainly, however, the film focuses on Brannaman’s own personal history and the reasons why he ended up in this unusual line of work. The scenes of Brannaman painfully remembering his early childhood he and his older brother were violently abused by their alcoholic father are deeply sad but ultimately redemptive. His memories of the foster parents who showed him the meaning of family and unconditional love after his mother’s death provide ample explanation of how he learned to have such insight into the horses’ behavior and his own. A frightening segment near the end of the film, when a wild horse that Buck is training brutally attacks its owners, culminates in a lesson which could describe both the vicious horse and Buck himself: “You can’t hold it against him for how his life has been.”

Errol Morris’s latest documentary Tabloid is also worth mentioning here. Far more offbeat than the other two documentaries that I enjoyed in the festival, it’s also original, bizarre, and hilarious enough that I was in tears laughing at several points during the film. It’s the story of former teenage Wyoming beauty queen Joyce McKinney and her alleged late-’70s “kidnapping” of the young Mormon boyfriend with whom she eloped to London. Morris pieces together the tale and so skillfully arranges its manic details that the effect becomes nearly hallucinatory. I’ve never been on a drug trip, but about halfway through the film, I was sure that it must be similar to what one would feel like.

From a cultural standpoint, Morris is invested in examining how any story becomes “the truth,” since Joyce McKinney’s "manacled Mormon" jaunt-gone-awry was sliced up, devoured, and dramatically reconstructed by the British tabloid press. Her own retelling of the situation is enthusiastically counterpointed with memories of the dueling tabloid editors who greedily bought and sold her story to a public hungry for vicarious thrills and sordid revelations, a predilection which our culture has obviously never outgrown. And neither has Joyce McKinney. She returned to the United States with thirteen suitcases filled with tabloid clippings of her own story, and today she’s still obsessed over the man she fell madly in love with so many years ago.

Keeping with the theme of crazy love, the narrative feature that I enjoyed most in the festival was Weekend, a downbeat gay romantic film from the UK. Two young guys in Nottingham, Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New), meet at a club and get to know each other over the course of a couple of lazy weekend days. Drinks, drugs, intense dialogue, and frequent sex are all involved, and it doesn’t hurt that both men are gorgeous in an unassuming hipster way. The film is at its most authentic when it delves into issues that resonate with many young gay men today: questions of dating, relationships, monogamy, marriage, loneliness, and self-fulfillment.

Glen is the more “out” guy in the pair, and also the one who’s more willing to interrogate social norms, while Russell is comfortably open but enjoys hanging out with his straight friends more. Who are we in relation to those around us, and how does intimacy with another person affect all of that? Wisely, Weekend avoids providing any clear-cut answers, but instead presents a genuinely intriguing and open-ended double-portrait. The cinéma vérité style of the film brings us in closer proximity to the characters and their situation, making the entire experiment feel naturalistic and true. The movie also demonstrates how gay couples all have to deal with problems that are both similar to those faced by heterosexual couples and different from them in key ways at the same time. Growing up with a sense of ourselves as “outsiders” gives gay men a greater need to connect, and it also often prevents us from being fully able to do so.

A straight and even younger outsider, Oliver Tate, has an equally tricky time connecting with those around him in Submarine, another UK romantic flick that’s set in Wales. The debut feature by director Richard Ayoade, Submarine puts a fresh and vibrant spin on the misfit’s coming-of-age tale. Craig Roberts is pitch-perfect in his performance as Oliver; he sustains the audience’s interest as thoroughly and intently as Holden Caulfield did in Catcher in the Rye. The lovelorn Oliver pursues his sullen classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige) throughout the film, catching her but then losing her to a less frenetic sort of guy.

Visually and structurally innovative, the film goes a little over the top with a revenge subplot involving an affair between Oliver’s mother (Sally Hawkins) and a quirky New Age motivational guru (Paddy Considine). Yet we never really lose sight of Oliver’s hilarious and tortured journey into early manhood, which manages to be both wrenching and endearing. There’s more than a dash of Bud Cort’s title misfit from Harold and Maude laced throughout Roberts’ portrayal of Oliver, and the cinematic appeal of his character shows the potential for having a similar endurance. At one point late in the movie, Oliver muses that every person has a “sub-aquatic” mental and emotional life that makes it impossible for us ever truly to know what somebody else is thinking. The stunning fantasy sequence that follows Oliver’s break-up with Jordana, during which he curls up on his bed and literally floats away on the ocean, is alone worth the price of admission.

Perhaps the most exciting moment of the festival for me came when director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan) gave a brilliant answer to a question of mine at the festival awards ceremony. Aronofsky was the recipient of this year’s Filmmaker on the Edge award, so during his Q&A session with the audience, I asked him about an interesting comment that Natalie Portman had made when accepting her Golden Globe for Best Actress in Black Swan earlier this year. Portman remarked that she appreciated how, after pushing her through many exhausting takes for a scene, Aronofsky would tell her, “Now do this next take for yourself.” I asked Aronofsky how he knows, as a film director, when it’s the right moment to offer that to an actor. He responded that it’s like deciding whether or not to go for the fourth blue ghost when playing the Pac-Man arcade game! I’ll plan to see any future movie that’s directed by someone who can offer such a flawless ’80s video-game metaphor right off the top of his head.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Junebug (dir. Phil Morrison, 2005)

As I do each year in mid-June, I’m looking forward to attending the annual Provincetown Film Festival next week. One of the early reviews that I posted on this blog last June was my critique of Loggerheads, which I saw at the festival back in 2005. That same year, I also saw the movie Junebug at the festival, and now that we’re back in the month of June again, my thoughts have been returning to that film a lot recently.

The word “original” gets tossed around often when discussing films or any art form, but I find that it rarely truly applies whenever it’s used. Phil Morrison’s Junebug is an original American film that deserves the description. It’s easy to forget the somewhat startling series of images that open the movie, since they don’t seem to connect immediately to the rest of its narrative. We first see some vintage footage of individual, middle-aged men singing, or doing something in between yelling and yodeling (the end-credits acknowledge a national “hollerin’” competition). It’s almost like the southern version of trumpeters who introduced the start of a stage-play in the Elizabethan era. Then the movie’s title is suddenly superimposed over a haunting shot of a thicket of trees at night, an image that will recur at a very strategic point much later in the film.

It's just as easy to forget how happy the earliest scenes of the story are, given the amount of tension and tragedy that follow in the course of the film. We meet George (Alessandro Nivola) as he falls believably in love-at-first-sight with Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz). He attends a benefit auction at the gallery in Chicago where she curates “outsider” art by self-taught painters. The close-up, blissful, headlong rush into their relationship — we’ll soon discover that they married each other only one week later — is necessary for the rest of the film to work. The couple heads south to George’s hometown in North Carolina for two reasons: so that George’s new wife can meet his family (and hopefully be embraced by them), and so that Madeleine can try to recruit the reclusive artist David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor) to the roster of painters whom she represents.

Once the film and its central characters arrive at George’s childhood home, we gradually realize that every member of the family wants something in particular. Madeleine wants to sign her painter before a New York art dealer signs him first. George, the silent, smiling golden boy, wants his family to get along comfortably, without disturbing the usual proceedings. His mother, Peg (Celia Weston), despite her occasionally up-front demeanor, wants her children to be happy, a wish that may not include the worldly, elegant Madeleine. George’s frustrated, jealous younger brother, Johnny (Ben McKenzie), seems to want to be left alone, though through his angry outbursts, we also glimpse flashes of his desire to connect with the other members of his family, if he can manage to do so on his own sullen terms. He’s equally disconnected from and disdainful of his overly cheerful and very pregnant wife, Ashley (Amy Adams), who wants Johnny to be as in love with her as he was back when they were in high school.

The family’s quietly supportive father, Eugene (Scott Wilson), holds the whole clan together, as unlikely as it seems for such a reticent, soft-spoken character. He intuits both the genuine love and the various levels of pain in those who surround him, and his gentle quietude is his way of both respecting and enduring that knowledge. He, too, works toward a single goal throughout the duration of the movie; just prior to Madeleine’s arrival, we overhear him whisper to himself, “I’m gonna make her a bird.” The product of his careful woodworking during the film, nevertheless, isn’t presented to her in the end. He pockets the tiny bird instead, knowing that the act of creating something out of love for someone is more important than the gratification of offering the gift itself, and knowing that he will see her in the future and it can wait until later.

Much of Junebug, in fact, is spent waiting: waiting for an air mattress to inflate itself on the floor of the guest bedroom, waiting for George and Madeleine to arrive, waiting for Johnny’s ride to his warehouse job to show up, waiting for David Wark to make his decision about Madeleine’s proposed contract, waiting for characters to show what they feel, waiting for them not to show what they feel. Some of the film’s key scenes unfold in complete silence, simple jump-cut still shots of the empty rooms in the family’s two-story, suburban house, which becomes just as much of a character as those who reside inside of it, shaping their personalities and the way we perceive them. We also see numerous shots of the family’s three couples nestled separately in their beds, suggesting that the film is to some degree a study in the mechanisms and nuances of intimacy.

Several film reviewers have criticized the movie’s male characters for coming off as too underdeveloped, but I find them to be just as complex as the movie’s spunkier female characters. The men simply express their emotions in ways other than language, with their eyes and gestures of consent or dismissal, just as many of the men did during my own childhood in rural Ohio, and more recently throughout my adult life in metropolitan areas along the East Coast. This quality makes one of the film’s most pivotal moments all the more profound, when George sings a hymn about coming home, a cappella, at a church potluck, and gives Madeleine a new and richer understanding of the place where he was raised.

Of course, we also wait for the imminent arrival of Ashley’s baby, whose pre-birth nickname we learn is shared with the film’s title. It’s better if I don’t explain anything more about that here, except to mention that Amy Adams’ inspired, career-making performance is entirely worthy of the Academy Award nomination that she received for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. I recall watching a few lone men sitting in the theater at the festival screening of the film that I attended, and they responded with openly visible feeling to the scene that surely secured Adams her Oscar nod.

Phil Morrison’s direction is nothing short of extraordinary, and I anxiously await another feature film from him in the future. A native of Winston-Salem, he shows his roots faithfully and abundantly in the movie’s details, from the characters’ recognizable, no-nonsense attitudes to his affinity for the area’s vibrantly green landscape. There’s a deliberate quirkiness to the film’s style (accompanied by Yo La Tengo’s offbeat musical score) that’s analogous to David Wark’s bizarrely visionary paintings, partly comical and partly disturbing. It’s in this liminal zone and mixture of conflicting tones thanks largely to Angus MacLachlan’s textured screenplay and regionally precise dialogue — where the characters’ truthfulness manifests most clearly, making us both laugh and flinch at the emotional situations in which they find themselves. I’m reminded of what I like to call the “deep caricatures” portrayed in Mike Leigh’s finest films. We feel as if we know these characters because their idiosyncrasies make them so accurately honest, yet that same cartoonishness distances us from them and reminds us that what we’re viewing is not actual life, but a work of art.