Vicky Cristina Barcelona

I know that this is an unpopular opinion, but I generally don't like Woody Allen. His dialogue, as I find it, is awkward, the delivery more akin to the re-telling of a story in another person's words than to the natural flow of speech from the mouth of a person intending to say them. This isn't always the case--Annie Hall, for instance, is one of my favorite movies, but it only lacked the awkwardness of delivery because it starred two people who really do talk like that. Most situations, though, however much crafted by the mind of Woody Allen, are not appropriate circumstances in which to use another actor/ess as a vehicle for the expression of things that only he himself would ever say. For some reason, this bothers me tremendously. I don't find it cute. In fact, it reminds me of why I usually hate performances of Shakespeare--few actors seem to understand how to deliver the lines without moments of pause that make the dialogue awkward and unnatural. It isn't some innovative narrative structure, in which the ongoing monologue of the film slips in and out of the voices of a narrator and whatever character is speaking, though it tries hard to be.

All of that said, Vicky Cristina Barcelona was fantastic, though not for reasons that you would assume from watching the trailer (Scar Jo, murder drama, jealousy, etc.) In fact, the characters of Vicky and Cristina are the least striking or interesting. Penelope Cruz delivers a stunning performance, as the deranged ex-wife of a big hot burly Spanish man (Javier Bardem), whose marriage ended in her stabbing him because their love was missing an unexplained element. She is dramatic and dynamic--her hair always perfectly dissheveled, the anger and heat of her voice spewing fire somehow so precisely that everything around her seems to light up and cast shadows on the rest of the cast. If she was deliberately trying to show how boring and naive white American tourists can be by comparison, she hit the nail on the head.

Rebecca Hall, as Vicky, is bland, except for in a few moments in which Juan Antonio (played by Javier Bardem) charms her into smiling, showing emotion, or not reacting to something with trepidation. Her performance is too deliberate, too acting-school-y in the extremes it attempts to demonstrate. In fact, her conversations with Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are the only ones that I would describe as Woody Allen-esque (in the unbelievable way that I indicated in the first paragraph). The Cristina character is a caricature of the purportedly cultural, bohemian, experimental, polyamorous, and open minded artist seeking interesting friends and lovers to admire her attempts at poetry, photography, blah blah blah, who rides her bike with her boyfriend down rustic trails to the countryside and fancies herself a "European soul," as the film puts it. The character itself is genius because it plays on the stereotype of this type of person so well. Unfortunately, there is not much acting that really happens. One consequence of being Woody Allen's muse is that there are just these long scenes showing Scarlett sitting in some beautiful nature setting with the wind blowing through her hair, the camera panning in and out from her lips and eyes, and the narrator saying for her what she feels. I suppose that it must be this way, because the narrator's observations are much more intelligent and interesting than anything Cristina could generate on her own, though she is at the center of her own universe. I ultimately do not find her great or magnificent or even remotely interesting because she does not play the part of Cristina, she merely sits by while Cristina happens through the eyes of others. There is no torment or longing in the way that Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) experiences it. She's just along for the ride.

One scene in which her wide eyed naivete does succeed, though, is when Juan Antonio's character is introduced, though not shown for a few moments, as there is a flurry and muted conversation about who the handsome man in the red shirt standing by the pillar could be. Her face displays intrigue and adds drama to the moment in which he, a perfect specimen of manhood, appears on the screen. From there, his performance is pretty much seamless, and intensely natural in a way that is only matched by Maria Elena. It is a little too convenient, in a Woody Allen kind of way, that he introduces himself by declaring that he finds life meaningless and love inevitably painful, a sentiment that appeals to Cristina's own perspective on relationships, but he plays out this sentiment by subtly demonstrating his sentimentality and emotional attachment to being a protector (of both his new girlfriend and his ex-wife) when Maria Elena returns. Juan Antonio becomes the center of a deep entanglement. He draws others to him by his heat and passion. The sad, tortured, complicated and hot artist is somewhat of a cliche, but Javier Bardem plays the character as if he is the only man in the world worthy of it.

My biggest criticism is that, ultimately, a film so much about raw emotion did not need beautiful people to sustain it. The attractiveness of the cast kind of cheapens it--I'd much rather see something in which the two American tourists are more ordinary, making their seduction by an enigmatic Spanish artist even more compelling and romantic.

It felt like a lot of the personal details about Vicky and Cristina had been edited out. Why do we never see either woman's life in the U.S.? Why do all of the vestiges of Vicky's (eventually hated) old lifestyle appear in Barcelona when a flashback to a company Christmas party would have displayed the normalcy characterizing life in New York with her boring fiance. Honestly, why would someone interesting enough to pursue a graduate degree in "Catalan identity" want a house in the Hamptons? This is why I find these sorts of characters boring and unbelievable--their choices and aspects of their identity are too deliberate, too conveniently chosen to make the story work. The extraordinary nature of accidental events should provide enough interest and spontaneity without having to doctor plot elements.


Where do they go, graceful in the morning light?

Fleet Foxes is really the only new band I've heard on Left of Center that I wanted to hear again. They immediately reminded me of one of my childhood favorites, Seals and Crofts, juxtaposed with the more gentle sounds of Espers, Will Oldham, and Band of Horses. There seem to be quite a few bands like this in the last few years, that manage to capture really old sounds and aesthetics in a way that doesn't feel dated or excessively faux-vintage (Yeasayer is probably the best example of this, though there are surely others).

Their S/T album primarily deals with nature/mountains/the woods/morning light as representations of human moral conflicts and emotions. "Your Protector" is definitely my favorite song because it conjures the image of a lone classical guitar player strumming quietly in a grove of trees while falling raindrops and rustling leaves serve as percussion, and the sound is carried away by the wind. "White Winter Hymnal" creates a similar mental image, while the echo of overlapping choruses expodes in a really stunning way before it fades . The album collectively recalls the Appalachian folk music tradition, no doubt due to its woodsy aesthetic, though ironic given that the band is from Seattle. If I were to produce a video for any of these songs, it would include lumberjacks and dryads and cute forest animals.

Listen to some songs on their Myspace.


nothing is right in the world

I came all the way out to Athens and MISSED JEFF MAGNUM.



This Saturday: Daniel Johnston at the Slotin Folk Art Festival

If you aren't at the Athens Popfest this Saturday, you may want to make the trip to Norcross to see Daniel Johnston at the Slotin Folk Art Fest. He'll have some work for sale there, as will other folks, according to Creative Loafing. Admission is $15 for the whole weekend.


Okkervil River: Lost Coastlines

Almost as good as a Take-Away Show. Almost.*

*Isn't the internet grand, producing new styles of almost everything and naming them/giving conversation a common referent by which to describe things that were both never before possible and never before existed? Or maybe just presenting the possibility of possibility through the creation of new forms of media? There was nothing to be described as "Take-Away Show"-esque until the advent of the Take-Away Show, but, yet, here it is, with commonly recognizable form and function.


Mad Men

I've been meaning to write about the AMC original series, Mad Men for a few weeks. If you haven't seen it, it is a period piece about an advertising agency in the late '50's/early '60's that highlights how different life in the U.S. was not so long ago. There isn't a lot in the way of music to write about, but Mad Men is as culturally significant as any of the political music that I write about, and probably the smartest show I've seen in awhile (which is saying a lot given how much television I watch).

There is a lot of buzz about the show's mid-century aesthetic in the blogosphere. While that particular style of furniture is still very much present in modern homes and offices, finding sofas in the proper colors, countertops with the retro metal siding (like mine, in my 1950's kitchen), and other various room details must have been quite an endeavor. The show demonstrates the tension and transition between an era of more classical, even Baroque design (especially in shots of upper east side Manhattan apartments) and a new mid-century modernism based on cleaner lines and geometric shapes. The clothing is also genius, but that is a discussion for another day.

Most of what I'd otherwise like to say in the way of synopsis or social analysis has already been said, and I'd recommend Alex Carnavale and Molly Lambert's analyses at This Recording. I will say a few things, though. While the social cues are subtle, the characters' behavior toward women and minorities is stark. Women seem to balance the opposing drives of absolute submission to their husbands and being on the cusp of resistance. As Lambert puts it, the show demonstrates "why the fifties were an era that begged to be rebelled against later on in the sixties." Attitudes toward race were also much more complex than many of our generation can even begin to understand. In a time in which Jewish or Italian Americans were considered non-White, the world of White privileged society was exclusive in ways that are very foreign to us now. Most people do not know that there was a long period of struggle and assimilation that led White Americans to socially think of Jewish and Italian immigrants as members of "their race." I won't get into the history of that now, but it is worth mentioning that the show captures this dynamic perfectly, especially in Don Draeper's affair with Rachel Menken.

In season two, we learn that Paul Kinsey, one of the advertising execs, has an African American girlfriend. He is accused by an ex-girlfriend of using her to demonstrate that he is "cultured" and "interesting." The girlfriend's character (I wish I remembered her name--they barely mention it) is significantly one of few African Americans present on the show. Of these few, most are men who work in the office building as elevator controllers or janitors. The only other African American women on the show are hired domestic workers (referred to as "the girl" by Draeper) and friends of characters with "fringe" behavior, such as Kinsey and Draeper's mistress, Midge. The show attempts to demonstrate the careful relations between White Americans who relate to racial minorities in unorthodox ways (for the time) and does it quite brilliantly, with each interaction causing the slight discomfort of some of the characters and causing cognitive dissonance.

I was really afraid that the show would focus too much on the valorization of the period (Pleasantville, anyone?), but it is, instead, like a careful eye watching the mundane actions of privileged people, watching them flinch as the times are changing. It is incredibly successful in its silent observation, allowing the stark difference of the era to speak for itself. There are a lot of other things that I could say, and probably will write about as the second season unfolds, but for now, if you have not seen it, rent it immediately.