Saturday, November 29, 2008

Ordinary Extraordinaire

I first heard about Daniel Johnston from my friend Stacey who has impeccable musical taste. Almost every band that I have come to love over the past ten years or so was introduced to me by Stacey. She put a song by Daniel Johnston on one of the mix tapes she made for me, and I don’t think I really paid it much attention except thinking it was weird.
But the first time I heard Daniel Johnston was in Empire Records. His is the music you hear when that dude eats the hash brownies and has that hallucination. Daniel Johnston is the guy who is not Gwar.
I don’t know how many people who have seen Empire Records ever went on to discover Daniel Johnston. I guess I was just lucky.
Johnston is a phenomenon. To throw an overused word around, he is underappreciated. But at the same time he is probably overrated amongst a certain type. I think I love him just right.

But I didn’t really experience Daniel Johnston until they made a documentary about him called The Devil and Daniel Johnston. The movie is as difficult and amazing to watch as his music is to listen to. It gives you an insight into what makes this broken-hearted, falsetto-voiced poet tick. Or it comes about as close as anything outside of his own lyrics is going to get.
It’s not as if Johnston is enigma; he wears his heart on his sleeves and his vocal chords. But it’s just that he is so raw and his talent is superficially questionable that poses the problems of his genius. Or his nongenius.
Daniel Johnston has only released one album on a major label [“Fun”: Atlantic Records] even though fame drove him about as much as his obsessive infatuation with a girl who barely knew he existed.
But all of this has more to do with the documentary and not the cd I just bought of his, “Welcome to My World.” It’s an appropriately named cd as it gives samples from his enormous body of work that for a long time were only available on hand-copied cassette tapes. When you listen to those songs you are taken to another world, perhaps a better world, where the lack of fame and love and happiness do not hinder success. Because what happens when the boy gets everything he ever wanted? Sorry, Wonka, but he doesn’t live happily ever after. Instead, he has nothing to talk about, no art to make, and nothing of significance to contribute to a world where dreams don’t come true. Daniel Johnston makes heartache and anguish ok.

None of the tracks are highly produced. They are rough. The twenty-one tracks total just under an hour total running time (58:32).
Because this album is a sampler and was not intended by Daniel to be listened to in the order in which the songs are presented, it is hard to observe any kind of structure of design as far as composition of a whole album. The larger picture is missing. But what we actually can see is an even wider, zoomed-out pan of multiple albums, over an almost entire body of work.

The first song is “Peek A Boo” from “The What of Whom” and we hear the basic tenets of everything that Daniel will ever want to express:
“Please hear my cry for help and save me from myself.” (His obsession with Christianity and salvation).
“It’s been a struggle trying to make sense out of scrambled eggs.” (His bouts with schizophrenia).
“I’m a man who needs you.” (His desire for love and the lack thereof).

All the other songs are riffs on the same themes but they all seem fresh, original.
Some songs, such as “Never Relaxed,” have a story-telling approach like a Joni Mitchell song that doesn’t suck.
Other songs are more poetic, like Leonard Cohen’s. In “I’m Nervous,” he gives us pure poetry with the line, “Saw a million lonely orphans licking blood from a spoon.”
Track 17 is called “Lennon Song” and in it he says, “The Beatles brought me out of the darkness.” In The Devil and Daniel Johnston you get to see to what an extent The Beatles influenced him. But his music doesn’t really sound like The Beatles. It doesn’t really sound like anything else except itself. The closest thing I can hear in Johnston’s music is the blues (cf: track 10: “Chord Organ Blues”).

“Story of an Artist” is probably the song I identify with most. It basically sums up who Daniel Johnston is. He does something that is true to himself and people don’t like it because it doesn’t fit in neatly with their idea of the world.
It sort of reminds me of a movie I watched recently called Martian Child, starring John Cusack. In the movie, Cusack adopts a boy who thinks he’s a Martian. And to a certain degree, Cusack tries to allow the boy to be himself and to think he’s a Martian. But in the end Cusack just wants the boy to fit in and be like everybody else. Because that’s what everybody wants from Cusack’s character as well.
The movie tries to walk the line between the ability to fit in and the ideal of being yourself. It seems like the only way that society accepts unusual people is if they become famous. But what if you don’t become Mozart or Andy Warhol (two “geniuses” whom the Martian boy was likened to)? What if you just become Daniel Johnston? Or what if you become no one? Daniel Johnston says in “Living Life,” “I’m learning to cope with meaningless mediocricy [sic].” What if fame and fortune and having movies made about you aren’t the receipt of having a meaningful life?
I don’t know if anyone else would accept that kind of “success,” but I’m sure that Daniel Johnston would be the first to welcome you to a world he has long inhabited and made his own.

Chris Ware – Champion of the Failure-Chic!

Chris Ware is a Chicagoan graphic artist/cartoonist. He stands foremost in the pantheon of artists who are raising the form of what has been called “funnies” or “comics.” And part of his method is in the pursuit of the unfunny and the tragic.

Ware’s heroes are pathetic, frail, fat, cripple, wretched losers. His heroes, even in the garb of the superhero, are prone to all of the foibles and pratfalls of human misery. His heroes are mice.

Why does he allow so much suffering to parade itself before us and masquerade itself as humor? Is it because of his own self-pitying and -loathing? Is it out of masochistic disbelief in anything good or beautiful or salvific?

Ware’s glorification of the mundane, his beautification of the quotidian (and his skill does evoke beauty), is a much better role model and spiritual booster than to set some sort of immaculate unattainable bar.

His characters are much like Charlie Brown, the quintessential lovable loser. You commiserate with their woes, you laugh at their shortcomings. There is hope that if failure can be justified then our sometimes seemingly meaningless lives can be justified as well.

Chris Ware knows that the funniest thing on earth is a kick in the balls.

Granted, his art doesn’t always make you laugh out loud or not want to kill yourself. But in the end, it lifts you up; it fills you with the knowledge that this is it. This is the real stuff that comprises the comedy of errors which is modern life.

Monsters, Inc.

Imagine it’s 1983 and you go to your local mall. You walk past those organs that play themselves to the Record Town or Tape World. You’re looking for something new and the pale clerk with the Dungeons and Dragons t-shirt shows you the debut album of a band whose cassette cover displays a hammer and a pool of blood with the title “Kill ’Em All.”
You purchase the tape and bring it home, cracking open the plastic wrapping, and slide it into your tape deck. You push play and the first thing you hear is an electric guitar getting its neck strangled. “We are gonna kick some ass tonight!” “Hit the Lights” starts out and goes on to tell you that you are going to have your brain ripped out. “It is causing you sweet pain.” And it is. It is Metallica.
Now, regardless of how you feel about Metallica and what they have evolved into, imagine watching them sit around on couches discussing their feelings for two hours and twenty minutes. Because that’s basically what Some Kind of Monster is.

The title of the documentary comes from a conversation early in the movie where they’re kicking around ideas for lyrics about Frankenstein’s monster. You’re not really sure how overtly aware they are of its metaphor for the band. But over the course of the movie we get to see how a doctor (therapist Phil Towle) tries to cobble together autonomous parts into a synergistic whole, a monster that has been functioning but has gotten ill and is threatening to fall apart.
The film is directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the dudes who directed Brother’s Keeper. What Brother’s Keeper did for fratricide and bluegrass music, Some Kind of Monster does for rock stars and heavy metal. They both show taken-for-granted stereotypes and bust them wide open.

I don’t care if you don’t like speed metal. You still don’t want to see the lead singer of such a band throw around such clichéd phrases as: “My wanting to keep everything under control, and, you know… It’s out of a fear of my abandonment issues.” You don’t want to hear the Danishly cool drummer say things like “I’ve always felt that James was a softer, more caring, compassionate person than he allowed himself to be to most people.” What you expect from heavy metal rockers is the kind of stuff Metallica has served up for so many years. Angst, anger, bat-head biting (ok, so that was Ozzy Osbourne), drunkenness, and the occasional meditation on Armageddon.
It’s like they want to be two things at the same time. They want the hardened sound that prompts them to title the album they’re working on “St. Anger.” But they also want to make a documentary that records their pathos-laden mission statement:
“We come now to create our album of life. Throughout our individual and collective journeys, sometimes through pain and conflict, we’ve discovered the true meaning of family. As we accomplish ultimate togetherness, we become healers of ourselves and the countless who embrace us and our message. We have learned and we understand; now we must share.” At least lead singer, James Hetfield, gives away his feelings with a shit-eating grin, knowing how corny that mission statement sounds.
“I think this is really fucking lame,” ex-bass-guitarist, Jason Newsted, says. But maybe he’s just jealous because no one is making a documentary about him.
Dave Mustaine, another ex-member of Metallica and frontman of rival band Megadeth, gets to sit down with drummer Lars Ulrich and hash out his feelings of betrayal and always being the underdog.
If the documentary wasn’t saturated with staccato guitar riffs and machine gun drumming, you would have a feature-length Dr. Phil show.
About half way through, it gets very meta when the band sits down with the filmmakers and discuss whether or not there even is going to be a film. It could almost have been directed by Lars von Trier.

It is not all therapeutic expurgation of feelings, however. They do try to get some work done. We already know they’re going to release “St. Anger” by the end of the film. But they are trying to do things differently on so many levels. They are attempting to collaborate for the first time. Their method has always been that each member was responsible to bring certain things to the table and no one could challenge the other’s input. But now each member would have equal say. This leads to problems. When Lars wants to push for innovation in drumming style he accuses the guitar riffing as sounding stock. Lead guitarist, Kirk Hammett, doesn’t want to be stymied by what Metallica has always done nor does he want to serve trends. And Hetfield takes everything personally and storms out of the studio.
“This is a fucking rock and roll band. I don’t want fucking rules,” Ulrich complains.
Another first for the band has come about through the therapy documented in the film and Hetfield’s rehabilitation process. It is an unorthodox concept that Ulrich summarizes succinctly: “You can make aggressive music without negative energy.”

Despite being together for over two decades and becoming more and more mainstream, Hetfield shows an unbelievable amount of naiveté re: “the business.”
Q Prime, Metallica’s management team, is trying to convince them to do awful radio promos to protect them from being blacklisted.
“People would do that?” Hetfield asks as if he doesn’t know the answer. “Because you didn’t give us something we’re going to fuck you?” And the representative for Q Prime says without pause, “Yes, James. They would.”
It provides good lyrics: “I’ll wash your back so you won’t stab mine” and it segues into Hammett reading a copy of Fortune magazine with The Rolling Stones on the cover.

It’s hard to tell what kind of monster Metallica has accepted itself to be. They clearly understand themselves as a concept.
“There is almost nothing there that can’t be turned into something better than it is, or something that could probably get pretty fuckin’ close to being something on a Metallica record.”
They accept their nomination by MTV as icons of rock and roll. They know that Metallica is a monstrous force that even they as frail human individuals can’t completely destroy.
It isn’t exactly surprising that despite all the time that has passed since their first insistence of “lethal power” and their claims against negative energy, the last forty words on “St. Anger” are “kill.”
But you can’t kill the monster.

Just Burn

The Coen Brothers have always seemed like they have a multiple personality disorder to me. Maybe it’s because there are two of them.
Take their last two offerings. No Country for Old Men was a pitch-perfect novel treatment. It held the darkness in itself until it bursts its seams.
And then there is Burn After Reading, an example of the Bros.’ delve into humor. I’ve always found their funny stuff to be less satisfying than their dark stuff.
Blood Simple, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There I loved. Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou, The Big Lebowski I struggled through. I don’t mind being the only guy in a movie theater who doesn’t laugh.
And that was the position I found myself in watching Burn After Reading. The first shot is a nice zoom-in of the entire Earth. From there it only gets complicated. The plot has enough twists and turns to satisfy Lady Winchester.
John Malkovich has still failed to find a suitable role after Being John Malkovich. He plays a fired CIA twit whose creepy-looking wife is cheating on him with the twitchy George Clooney who also has an affair with Frances McDormand. Brad Pitt is a surprise playing McDormand’s ambiguously gay gym coworker. And the plot hasn’t even gotten its sleeves wet yet.
There are guns, mistaken identities, Russians, a bicycle, and a dildo. Gee, when I put it like that, I don’t know why I didn’t like the movie.
Well, it’s not so much that I didn’t like it. It’s just that I didn’t find it as funny as everyone else in the theater seemed to. So I guess, if you go out and watch it, you will laugh too.

Broken Arrow

Forty years before Kevin Costner danced with wolves and Mary McDonnell, James Stewart also danced with a white woman posing as a Native American. Although in the case of Broken Arrow, she’s actually supposed to be an Apache. They used to do that a lot back then. Jeff Chandler played Cochise. At least it wasn’t Rock Hudson (who played a Native American in Winchester ’73).
I’ve never really bought James Stewart as a cowboy. I mean, he plays the kind of cowboy you would expect, one that stands up against intolerance and injustice. It doesn’t usually go over very well in the rough and tumble world of machismo and gun fights. What Stewart does is basically Mr. Smith Goes to the Wild West. He doesn’t look natural in jeans and a handkerchief tied around his neck.
When the opening credits started rolling, I rubbed my hands together thinking: “Oh, this ought to be good.” Because it had all the earmarks of a stereotypical Cowboys and Indians exploitation movie.
And for all intents and purposes, that’s what it was. You have blaxploitation movies like Shaft and Super Fly and sexploitation movies like Thelma and Louise and Fatal Attraction. But what do you call Native American exploitation movies? Mohawxploitation? Siouxploitation?
“It is good to understand the ways of others,” Stewart says at one point in this Technicolor think piece. And he’s right.
The one thing that I kept thinking about the entire time I was watching this movie was how well it relates to current events. I won’t enumerate all of the plot points that match up with America’s war on Iraq (no matter how much I’m itching to do so), but let’s just say they are enumerable.
I especially felt it when there’s this big talk-out in the bar and it reminded me of what would happen if you got a bunch of Republicans and Democrats together in a bar and let them talk about immigration or terrorism. The conservatives talk about capitalism, culture and civilization (i.e.: white people) whereas liberals only discuss human rights (i.e.: freedom in various guises).
I’m not trying to make a political point here. I’m neither liberal nor conservative. But I did notice that James Stewart’s motives were a little tainted. He said himself that he was influenced by his love for a girl (Debra Paget). It always seems that passion and pleasure are at the core of liberals’ pursuit of happiness that they equate with freedom (kind of like the Star Wars’ Sith).
The best scene in the movie is at its climax when everything comes together. It is the first time where you experience a real depth and it comes about in an intricate dialogue between Cochise and Stewart. Stewart’s convictions are being tested with the loss of his motives. But Cochise’s convictions are stronger than ever despite the fact that he has been given a very plausible out to a treaty he has every reason to believe will not be upheld by the white man.
All this, with the slapped-on happy ending of Stewart riding off into the mountains (the sun is most likely setting behind them), seems to intentionally ignore the fact that we all know there is no Apache State. Three years after this movie takes place, the Apache get to experience their own trail of tears when the treaty is reneged. Oh, the U.S. will make it up to the Apaches later and let them have a million acres of land. But that won’t happen for another fifty years or so, thirty years before Broken Arrow is made.
It’s not the intent of this review to exposit about the state of the Native American or their fate. It is the intent of the movie to show a point in our history where things worked out peacefully for a time despite factors on both sides that perpetuated war.
I suppose this brings me back to why I watched the movie in the first place. I started working at a music and dvd store last week and one of my first customers bought Broken Arrow. I noticed that James Stewart was in it and because I like him I thought I would try to find the movie at the library. I also thought it would be kind of funny to watch every movie customers bought. So if they ever came back I could say, “Hey, I watched that movie you bought last time. My favorite scene was when Cochise shot that guy and there is that long pan of him floating down the river.”
Because I’m less concerned with the plight of Native Americans or the war in Iraq and more concerned with making myself look like a pedantic know-it-all.


In Bill Maher’s movie, Religulous, he aims his agnostic skepticism, cutting humor and unwaveringly bad hairstyle at the subject of religion.
More precisely, Maher focuses his ire at the Judeo-Christian-Islam extraction of organized religion.
As a documentarian he makes the mistake that is so tempting to make: he uses extremists as indicative of the whole. It’s sort of like making a documentary about comedians and only interviewing Robin Williams and Steven Wright (actually, that sounds like a pretty good idea). Although it may be funny, it doesn’t represent the vast religious practitioners whose faith is simple and healthy.
Actually, as documentary, Religulous makes about the same statement as Supersize Me. They both show what happens when you do too much of a thing that should probably only be done once a week.
But that doesn’t make Religulous a bad movie. It’s funny and entertaining but it also poses an important question: why believe when belief seems to be so harmful? And: is it possible that we are beyond the usefulness of religion?
Maher offers the haven of doubt as a luxury to practice in opposition to faiths that seem only to lead to destruction. He plays fast and loose with his ability to question those who claim to have all the answers and his vision is refreshing.
It’s a totally post-modern thing to do: not to have answers.

Rachel Gets Married – Audience Gets Bored

Watching Rachel Getting Married is like being forced to watch the home movie of someone you barely know with the added irritation of also falling into the traditional language of film school.
As I was watching Rachel, I knew that film critics were going to just eat it up. Why is it that they love poorly-made movies? Like it is somehow the height of filmmaking to dispense with steady cam shots and original plot? I once heard a quote about foreign films that said that people only think they are interesting because they are boring. And the same can be said for this Indie film.
Anne Hathaway has gotten a day pass out of rehab to go to her sister’s wedding and while she is there what do you think might happen? Family dynamics are explored and old wounds have their band-aids ripped off.
Hathaway behaves like a drug addict and expects to be treated like a normal person. Her behavior makes everyone feel awkward and I don’t see how sitting and watching it won’t make you want to make some excuse to use the bathroom.
It isn’t so much that the acting is nonexistent and the script, if there was one, is unoriginal – it’s just so boring and mundane and pretends to be dealing with this deep and affecting pathos of family.

Synechdoche NY

Synecdoche NY is Charlie Kaufman’s new movie about puns, self-analysis, the homunculus, and what it means to be alive in the anguish of self-awareness. So although it is his first time in the director’s chair it’s no stretch.
Caden Cotard is a theater director who does lavish productions of "Death of a Salesman." He is besotted by an assortment of diseases and array of disenfranchised lovers.
He wants to express himself meaningfully and produce something real but in order to do so, he must capture all of life’s essence, reproducing every facet of reality. And so his art becomes self-reflexive. There are multiple expressions of himself and actors who understand him better than he understands himself.
The movie gets a little long and down on itself as it grinds to the innermost nesting doll of its existence.
I think, ultimately, this film will be relegated to being “smart,” which is unfortunate. Because although it is smart, it is not pretentious. It is only pretending to be pretentious.