Archives for October 2011

M83 — “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”

This is the sixth album from LA based French hip­ster Antho­ny Gon­za­lez’s M83, after 2008’s break­through album Saturdays=Youth. Pre­dictably, it got a rev­er­en­tial nod from the boys at Prav­da, as did the equal­ly laud­ed Destroy­er album, Kaputt, released ear­li­er this year, and it’s very much in the same vein.

Both are sat­u­rat­ed in that lost decade, the 1980s, which they mine exhaus­tive­ly. But that alas is all Hur­ry Up, We’re Dream­ing does. There’s the twee gui­tar twang of The Thomp­son Twins, those Sim­ple Minds pow­er chords, some pro­to-processed vocals á la Thomas Dol­by, a stray, nasaled wail that echoes some­where between a Simon Le Bon whine and a David Syl­vian lament, twixt the ridicu­lous and the sub­lime, and all of it drowned in a sea of Casio synths.

It’s like the dif­fer­ence between a sci­en­tist with a broad under­stand­ing of the world around him who hap­pens to be a bit of a Star Trek buff, and one of those insuf­fer­able crea­tures whose entire life revolves around a tacky TV rel­ic. It’s one thing dip­ping in and out of your musi­cal her­itage and using what you find to fash­ion some­thing new, as Dan Bejar most­ly man­ages to do with Kaputt, but it’s quite anoth­er to have your head buried so far up an era’s ori­fice that you seem to be inca­pable of see­ing any­thing else besides.

There are one or two shafts of light, such as Wait, from the first disc, and Splen­dor and Echoes Of Mine from the sec­ond, where he tran­scends his source mate­r­i­al to pro­duce ethe­re­al moments of radi­ant beau­ty. But there’s real­ly no excuse to release this as a dou­ble album. You feel like you’re being forcibly edu­cat­ed rather than plea­sur­ably nourished.

This is the sort of thing you’ll find in about ten years’ time some­where in a for­got­ten cor­ner of a back-up hard-dri­ve (remem­ber those…). You’ll access it, imme­di­ate­ly remem­ber what it is, and put it straight back again where you found it. Some­how, it’s not the kind of thing you’ll actu­al­ly delete. But nei­ther, those three or four tracks aside, will you ever want to lis­ten to it again.

The Skin I Live In” – Pedro Almodóvar

The Skin I Live In.

The Skin I Live In.

The lat­est Almod­ó­var, The Skin I Live In, has just opened in the States and is reviewed in the New York Times by its chief film crit­ic, Manohla Dar­gis here  I can only assume that her Chris­t­ian name is evi­dence of His­pan­ic blood, and it is this that has result­ed in the clog­ging up of her crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties, caus­ing some­thing of a block­age there.

I’m loath to say that this is the worst film that Almod­ó­var has made to date. The truth of the mat­ter is, he is con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly inca­pable of mak­ing a bad film. Now that the anar­chic, prodi­gal excess of his spring has set­tled down into the stud­ied, lan­guid calm of his late sum­mer, all of his films are impec­ca­bly craft­ed and exquis­ite­ly fashioned.

What you tend to get instead is some­thing of a yin and yang. For every Mata­dor (’86), Law Of Desire (’87) and The Flower Of My Secret (’95), there’s a Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (’90) a High Heels (‘91) and a Kika (’93). All of them are sump­tu­ous to look at, but some, as that lat­ter trio illus­trate, are very, very thin. And this is the least sub­stan­tial of all. Nobody expects him to repro­duce the dizzy heights of 1999’s majes­tic All About My Moth­er, but it’s hard not to feel pro­found­ly dis­ap­point­ed by his lat­est effort.

A young Antonio Banderas in The Law Of Desire.

A young Anto­nio Ban­deras in The Law Of Desire.

It’s impos­si­ble to watch The Skin I live In with­out view­ing it as some sort of Frankenstein’s mon­ster. The script takes a bit of Vic­to­ri­an goth­ic, a touch of sci­ence fic­tion, some Sirkian melo­dra­ma, the odd flash of farce, and bits and pieces of his cus­tom­ary sex and vio­lence, for­mi­da­ble females and trade­mark tran­sex­u­als and tries to patch them all togeth­er. Like all such cre­ations, it’s an uned­i­fy­ing mess to behold, and you only wish that the bril­liant cre­ator had made more valu­able use of his pre­cious time.

How can the hand that penned the mag­nif­i­cent script for All About My Moth­er have sim­i­lar­ly con­trived to pro­duce this? All writ­ers should watch the for­mer at least once, espe­cial­ly the open­ing four min­utes, which is as lean and eco­nom­i­cal an open­ing to a sto­ry as you could ever wish to find. And all of what fol­lows is equal­ly as impres­sive. There is an inter­est­ing sto­ry point buried in the mid­dle here, when The Skin I Live In asks whether or not rape can ever be in some way mitigated.

All About My Mother.

All About My Mother.

If she says No, but he goes ahead any­way, then his actions are unfor­giv­able. If they both con­sent, but she “realis­es” months lat­er that actu­al­ly she was “raped”, then hers are inex­cus­able. But what if, for what­ev­er rea­sons, he gen­uine­ly believes that she has con­sent­ed, and she is cer­tain that she hasn’t? Is that still rape, pure and sim­ple? But rather than allow this in any way devel­op, it imme­di­ate­ly gets lost in all the com­pet­ing genre con­ven­tions and plot contrivances.

It’s wrong to describe this as his worst film. Despite being a com­par­a­tive term, that some­how seems to denote an absence of worth. It is still an Amod­ó­var film with all the sen­so­ry grat­i­fi­ca­tion that that always promis­es. But it’s an extreme­ly dis­ap­point­ing one.

Melancholia” – Lars Von Trier

When NASA launched the first of its Voy­ager mis­sions in 1977 they sent it into space with a vinyl record pro­duced to give alien life an idea of what man was capa­ble of in the 20th cen­tu­ry. The music they chose stretched from Bach and Beethoven to John­ny B Goode, and offered a cross sec­tion of world music that ranged from Aus­tralia to Zaire. There was no need of course. If you want to demon­strate the depth of feel­ing and sheer vis­cer­al force that music is capa­ble of gen­er­at­ing and offer it up to the heav­ens as evi­dence for what life is capa­ble of, there is only one piece of music you need ever con­ceiv­ably con­sid­er. Wagner’s Tris­tan.

The music that Lars Von Tri­er drowns his lat­est offer­ing Melan­cho­lia in, is quite the best thing about it. It’s drenched in the pre­lude to Tris­tan. And in fair­ness to Tri­er, he makes con­sid­er­ably bet­ter use of Wag­n­er than Ter­rence Mal­ick did in The New World, which the lat­ter made before the sim­i­lar­ly apoc­a­lyp­tic The Tree of Life (see below), both of which screened at Cannes last year. Tri­er though is an infi­nite­ly supe­ri­or crafts­man. And for the open­ing ten min­utes or so, he treats us to the same daz­zling tech­ni­cal bril­liance that he gave us at the begin­ning of Antichrist in 2009, and through­out much of Europa in 1994 and Break­ing The Waves in 1996.

As with Antichrist though, what fol­lows is two hours of un-remit­ting tedi­um. This time around we get to spend them in the com­pa­ny of two neu­rot­ic women who have their own par­tic­u­lar melt-downs, as once again Tri­er resorts to that twitchy, hand-held mode that was so invig­o­rat­ing in The King­dom in 1994, but feels so tired near­ly two decades on. The first half sees Kirsten Dun­st gen­tly implode at her own wed­ding, the sec­ond has her sis­ter, Char­lotte Gains­bourg slow­ly fall to pieces as the plan­et Melan­cho­lia hur­tles inex­orably into our own.

The prob­lem is, the peo­ple who inhab­it the world that Tri­er looks down on are all so thor­ough­ly un-lik­able. He sees the world through the same misog­y­nis­tic spec­ta­cles that his fel­low Scan­di­na­vian Lukas Moodys­son views them through. And although the guests at the wed­ding that Tri­er gives us are none of them quite as plain­ly unpleas­ant as the char­ac­ters who inhab­it, say, Lilya 4‑Ever, nei­ther is there any of the joy or mis­chief you get in Altman’s A Wed­ding.

Trier’s defence is both gen­uine and disin­gen­u­ous. What­ev­er you might think about my atti­tude toward my char­ac­ters, it’s noth­ing com­pared to the loathing I feel for myself. So all of his pro­tag­o­nists are female to give him the dis­tance he needs to be able to vent what he sees as self-crit­i­cism. Hence the appalling treat­ment of all of his lead­ing actress­es. But you can’t excuse your treat­ment of oth­ers on the basis that you’re even harsh­er on your­self. That’s not a con­di­tion. That’s just wil­ful myopia.

As every par­ent knows, that’s just the way I am is not an expla­na­tion, it’s just an excuse. Ulti­mate­ly, Tri­er real­ly is the enfant ter­ri­ble of Dan­ish cin­e­ma, and lit­tle else beside. He’s a daz­zling­ly bright child, and the idea of express­ing the state of melan­cho­lia imag­is­ti­cal­ly, as a near­by plan­et hurtling head­long towards us real­ly is a bril­liant one. But he ruins it all by refus­ing to look up and around him to see any­one else in the room.

DJ Shadow — “The Less You Know, The Better”

Josh Davies burst onto the scene as DJ Shad­ow in 1996 with his sem­i­nal Endtro­duc­ing…., which was, offi­cial­ly, the world’s first ever album made up entire­ly of sam­ples. Sur­pris­ing­ly, this cut and paste method works every bit as impres­sive­ly live as it does on disc.

What he does is to take sam­ples from six or sev­en wild­ly dif­fer­ent albums and super­im­pose each sec­tion one on top of the oth­er. He might take the beat from one disc, the bass line from anoth­er, the lead vocal from one more and, giv­ing them each their own loop he’ll then drop in, say, a screech­ing gui­tar solo from anoth­er, bits of a string and horn sec­tion from anoth­er, and a Motown back­ing vocal from one more, before drop­ping in a cou­ple of lines of dia­logue from a 50s hor­ror flick to gen­tly under­cut the sen­ti­ments expressed in the main lyric. It’s an extra­or­di­nary jug­gling act to behold live, and the results are improb­a­bly pre­cise and majes­ti­cal­ly coher­ent, both on a track by track basis, and as a whole.

Endtro­duc­ing…. is just­ly regard­ed as one of the great albums, full stop. And there­in lies the rub. It’s the Orson Welles effect. “I start­ed at the top”, Welles remarked wry­ly, many years after Cit­i­zen Kane, “and have been mak­ing my way steadi­ly down ever since.” This, just as unfair­ly, is how many have come to view Shadow.

Both his sec­ond album, The Pri­vate Press from ’02 and his third The Out­sider from ’06 were greet­ed by crit­ics and pub­lic alike with decid­ed indif­fer­ence. The lat­ter par­tic­u­lar­ly was sniffed at for delv­ing so deeply into the Bay Area Hyphy (as in Hi-Fee, for “hyper­ac­tive”) scene, with its heavy reliance on hard­core hip hop, and of the decid­ed­ly heav­ier variety.

What seems to have irked peo­ple par­tic­u­lar­ly, and they are mak­ing exact­ly the same nois­es about the cur­rent album The Less You Know, The Bet­ter, is his refusal to stay in any one place. One minute they com­plain, it’s indi­etron­i­ca laced with death met­al gui­tar riffs, the next it’s ghet­to scratch­es with Tal­ib Kweli guest­ing on vocals, and fol­low­ing on from which it’s a plain­tive piano paired with a for­lorn lament from a for­got­ten 70s folkie. The indi­vid­ual tracks are fine, but there’s no over­all vision for the work as a whole, they moan.

But sure­ly it was that fear­less eclec­ti­cism, cin­e­mas­cop­ic range and unre­lent­ing inven­tive­ness that made Endtro­duc­ing…. so excit­ing in the first place? More to the point, both The Pri­vate Press and The Out­sider have com­fort­ably stood the test of time, and have proved every bit as durable as their illus­tri­ous pre­de­ces­sor. The ear­ly indi­ca­tions are that, if any­thing, The Less You Know is an even more impres­sive addi­tion to an increas­ing­ly impos­ing body of work. This is a seri­ous artist pro­duc­ing sig­nif­i­cant music.

Today, we look back in won­der at how inex­plic­a­bly the lat­er films of Orson Welles were over­looked when first they sur­faced. The Lady From Shang­hai (47) is a Hol­ly­wood clas­sic, Touch of Evil (’58) and The Tri­al (’62) are mas­ter­pieces, and F For Fake (73) invent­ed a whole new genre in the filmic essay (see below). In years to come, there’ll be some very red faces when those last three DJ Shad­ow albums come to be re-assessed. For once, the com­par­isons with Welles are apt.