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.