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Thursday, Nov 15, 2007


When it was first announced that Todd Haynes, the idiosyncratic mind behind the deconstructionist dramas Safe and Far from Heaven, was tackling the life and times of one Bob “Zimmerman” Dylan, few balked. Sure the protest poet laureate and last legitimate link to the more idealistic and inventive elements of the ‘60s seemed like an unusual choice for the filmmaker, but this was a man who had previously tackled the days and death of Karen Carpenter, and a revisionist view of Iggy/Bowie glam rock. So a musician, even one of his import, wasn’t out of the question. No, what raised many eyebrows was Haynes’ decision to cast five different actors as Dylan, including a young black boy and a woman (actress Cate Blanchett). Again, few should have stirred. This is the man, after all, who used Barbie dolls to tell the tragic story of the anorexic AOR star. A little invention should have been anticipated.


What couldn’t have been predicted is how brilliant the end result would be. I’m Not There, a vignette oriented tale of the folk singing troubadour told in distinct personality ‘acts’ is wildly over the top and often too enraptured by its own chutzpah. It shouts when it should whisper and defies when it should redefine. But when it’s wrapped up in a visual grace this astounding, and populated with performances that actually boggle the mind, we can forgive the loftier, sometimes loony ambitions. Breaking down Dylan’s personality into his roots (African American adolescent Marcus Carl Franklin), his workingman blues (a fierce Christian Bale), his poetic side (Ben Whishaw), his superstar sizzle (the magnificent Ms. Blanchett), his personal life struggles (Heath Ledger), and his old age iconography (Richard Gere), we get biography as ballyhoo, the truth tempered by the surrounding myths, folklore, rumors and innuendos that tend to make up a legend’s aura.


It all takes a bit of getting used to at first. While Haynes tosses in enough asides, in-jokes, and visual cues to keep us connected, seeing a small boy of color mimic Dylan’s earliest poses is just flat out puzzling. As he makes his way from locale to locale, hoping trains and trading war stories with his fellow hobos, we see the dream being formed in a young Minnesota child’s head. But that doesn’t explain the weird, almost off kilter design. Dylan’s youth wasn’t factually similar to the events that happen here. Instead, Haynes appears to be reaching across a more metaphysical interpretation of the man’s make-up. He may have been an old soul at a very young age, but there was much more calculation in the musician’s career arc than how it’s portrayed in this section.


Once we get to Bale, however, the cinematic stars literally align. Frankly, had Haynes decided to make a straightforward biopic with the superb UK young gun as his muse, no one would have complained. He’s got the Greenwich glower of the coffee house Dylan down pat, and when he lip syncs to versions of the bard’s best songs, he really does capture the subject’s stern determinism. Granted, Bale is a little too hunky to play the whisper thin folkie (all that Batman bulk just can’t be hidden), but from an inner angst standpoint, he’s amazing. So is Heath Ledger, as long as we’re talking about enigmatic men. Alongside Gere (who we’ll get to in a moment), the too pretty Aussie performer has a very odd chapter to deliver. He’s the private Dylan – married man, cheat, father, deadbeat – and it’s often not a pretty picture. Indeed, there are times when we think we’ve stumbled into a classic kitchen sinker, not some manner of musician overview.


And then Cate Blanchett arrives. To call her work here magnificent is too undeserving an understatement. She is regal, almost unrecognizable. She masterfully morphs into the pot-scented genius who ruled his world with a typewriter and a six string. She is I’m Not There’s trump card, its piecemeal paradigm of fame, disillusion, influence, and flaws. If there is any justice in the award season shuffle (and Lord knows there usually isn’t) she’d win the Oscar as both Best Actress and Actor. Again, Haynes could have simply hired the Australian beauty and built an entire narrative around her pre-electrified edifice. During a fictional recreation of Dylan’s disastrous Newport Jazz Festival plug-in, Blanchett is so callous and cool we can feel the vibe resonating off the screen. If she manages to go unrecognized throughout the year end Best Ofs, it’s a critical crime.


This just leaves Whishaw and Gere. Of the two, the Perfume: Story of a Murderer star comes off best. He’s not given much to do. He simply stares at the camera and reads off a list of inspired Dylan witticisms. He definitely looks the part – naïve wordsmith playing with his philosophies – but his purpose is much harder to define. Things are even worse for Gere. Clearly the weakest link in this material, his Dylan as resident of a surreal turn of the century backwater burg is supposed to be referencing a combination of the artist’s ‘70s stigma (aging rock act) with dribs and drabs of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. The Wild West inferences seem especially odd, particularly when the midsection of his career is so intriguing (we do see Bale, momentarily reprising his role, during Dylan’s conversion to Christianity).


In fact, anyone coming to I’m Not There hoping to see a realistic, fact-based overview of the seminal pop culture figure’s life will be antsy within the first five minutes. This is not Walk the Line, or even Ray. It’s more like Lisztomania, and other outrageous biographical freak shows created by that cinematic savant Ken Russell. In fact, with a few more bloody crucifixes and a rasher of naked girls, this could be a hidden gem from the now 80 year old English oddball. Haynes treats his creative canvas like a slightly less sloppy Pollack, infusing his images with a contrasting color/black and white visual friction that breeds both contemplation and contempt. Even more confusing, we get actual Dylan recordings juxtaposed against obvious imitators. It’s as if Haynes decided to throw out the motion picture playbook this time and simply go on instinct. Luckily, most of his impulses are dead on.


Of course, none of this addresses I’m Not There’s lingering question – will anyone outside the Dylan devotees and fans of aesthetically challenging cinema find this film entertaining. It does occasionally feel like a work of wounded art that experts stand around and shame you into enjoying. For every life affirming sequence of Blanchett paling around with a cartoonish bunch of Beatles (or the time when she calls the Rolling Stones “that cover band”), there are instances when you wonder what the positively 4th street is going on. Then, just as Gere is dragging down the entire experience, Haynes interjects one of Whishaw’s rants, or puts Ledger back into failed family man mode, and all is forgiven.


If you want a realistic recreation of Dylan’s cultural impact, of how he turned a love of Woody Guthrie and traditional music into a significant social stance, grab a copy of Martin Scorsese’s magnificent documentary No Direction Home and enjoy. If, on the other hand, you don’t mind a wonderful, if slightly uneven, look at how one man becomes many, figuratively redefining his art along the way, stick with I’m Not There. It’s a daring, difficult masterwork. 



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Thursday, Nov 15, 2007


Somehow, you get the impression they are doing it on purpose. After a pair of underperforming efforts (the tame Intolerable Cruelty and the way too reverent remake of The Ladykillers) Joel and Ethan Coen are back – and they’re trading on their unmitigated masterpieces from the past to achieve something quite startling. As with any great artist, the threads of their genius are laced throughout all facets of their work. And in the case of the majestic No Country for Old Men, the brothers have fashioned a clever combination of everything they’ve tackled before – the Southwestern dread of Blood Simple, the cruel criminality of Miller’s Crossing, etc. – and wound it up into a tight little ball of cinematic razor wire. And as viewers, we are lucky enough to traipse through the stealthy steel death trappings of what is instantly 2007’s best film.


While on a hunting trip, Llewelyn Moss stumbles across a massacre. Bodies are strewn across the desert, cars and trucks riddled with hundreds of bullet holes. Following a trail of blood to a nearby tree, he discovers another corpse – and a case containing over $2 million. Wise enough to realize someone will come looking for the cash, he sends his wife off to her mother’s and prepares to make off with the loot. Unfortunately, insane hitman Anton Chigurh is instantly on his scent. Armed with a pneumatic bolt gun, the kind used by butchers in the slaughter house, he is making a murderous bee line to Moss and the money. The only thing standing in his way – aside from various criminal types and innocent victims – is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Grizzled and wise, he’s seen it all. But with blood flowing this freely and no end to the carnage in sight, he may have finally met his metaphysical match.


Shockingly effective and incomprehensibly great, No Country for Old Men proves that the Coen Brothers are America’s reigning motion picture Gods. Looking over their creative canon, a body of work that includes Oscar nods, a single win, several career defining films and more than a couple cult classics (“We want the money, Lebowski!”), they argue for their place among the artform’s true greats. Sure, some find them unusually quirky and lost in their own insular world of homages, references, and crudely hidden in-jokes, and in the past, all of those caveats would be concerning. Fact is, they are painted over every frame of their consistently fascinating flights of fancy. But No Country for Old Men is different. Instead of going outside their sphere of influence to the cinematic stalwarts that defined the medium, the Coen’s are riffing on themselves – and by doing so, they forge a near flawless filmic experience.


Acting has never been a problem for the boys. They consistently cast people clued into their eccentric, distinctive style and watch as they deliver performances of stunning depth and clarity. It’s the same here. Josh Brolin moves instantly into the A-list with his turn as Llewelyn, a man just smart enough to stay one step ahead of a psychopath, but too brazen and bullish to see the fatality of such a decision. He’s not really a tragic character in the traditional sense – his smugness is not a flaw so much as the main facet of his personality. But when he finds himself in harm’s way, we do sympathize. That’s because Javier Bardem’s Anton is so horrific. The man is literally evil incarnate. He is instantly one of the top five movie villains of all time.


From the opening sequence where he’s handcuffed and wide-eyed, strangling a police officer with a glee that’s almost erotic, we sense something unhinged about this hired killer. Bardem plays him stealthy and closed-off, trapped in his own realm of murderous intent. When he asks a passing motorist to stand still, bolt gun poised precariously on the forehead of said intended victim, we wince at the proposed slaughter. With his bad Beatle haircut, matinee idol glare, and dogged determination, he electrifies every moment in the movie, even when he’s not onscreen. Like the Terminator (except far more lethal) or a mindless disease, he is terror brought home, an interpersonal plague that has no intention of stopping.


Acting as equalizer between the two is the magnificent Tommy Lee Jones. Completely in his element here and given loads of well written bon mots by the brothers, it’s an Oscar caliber turn by the Academy recognized star. Unlike other small town lawmen that the Coens have focused on (Marge Gunderson in Fargo), Jones is a more seasoned, less naïve peacemaker. He recognizes the inherent wickedness in man, and doesn’t deny it within himself. During No Country for Old Men’s last act, when faced with a particularly difficult decision regarding Llewelyn, the look on his craggy, character-riddled face is almost priceless. It argues for his brilliance as an actor, and the boys’ decision as directors.


Indeed, the Coens typical cinematic fluidity and love of the camera is in full effect here. No Country for Old Men may play out in places that are dry as a dead coyote’s coat and as tumble down as a collection of knotted sagebrush, but these are filmmakers who understand the natural beauty in a desolate landscape, the innate malevolence in a roadside motel. Aside from their typically brilliant compositions and framing, they fill the image with depth and deliver astoundingly pristine tableaus. Forget Grant Wood – this is the real American Gothic. Like the best kind of fright film, No Country for Old Men doesn’t give its characters – or the audience – a break. It’s relentless in its pursuit of pure, unadulterated thrills.


And don’t let others sell this movie short. Some have argued that the ending lacks the vigilante snap we’ve come to expect from our crime genre. Without giving much away, the Coens track the conventional confrontations that should come with this type of material and then throw said motion picture principles right out the door. Things happen to characters that we don’t expect, action plays out in the moments before we, the audience, arrive on the scene. Playing with time and frequently fooling the viewer with the actual continuum of events, such a narrative strategy leaves a lot of air in No Country for Old Men. But when a movie is this tightly wound, when the open prairies of Texas feel as claustrophobic as a locked vehicle on a scorching summer’s day, we’ll gladly take the space.


Lacking anything remotely resembling a weak link and populated by supporting players – Barry Corbin, Woody Harrelson, an almost unrecognizable Kelly Macdonald – that illuminate the screen with their talent, No Country for Old Men feels like the culmination of something significant for the Coens. Maybe it was the need to shake off the criticism of their previous passable misfires and find a way back to their almost universally acclaimed past. It could be a simple case of cause and effect – a great project produced an equally stellar film. Perhaps the boys work best when they’re the underdog, shaking off commercial success and mainstream popularity to worm their way along the fringes once again. Whatever the case, they’ve created one of their finest films ever. No Country for Old Men is indeed masterful. That will teach us to doubt Joel and Ethan Coen ever again.



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Thursday, Nov 15, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Here’s the brand new Talib Kweli video, “Everything Man”, the first track off the PopMatters Pick, Ear Drum.


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Thursday, Nov 15, 2007

First is a Wall Street Journal story about the cleverly named “Rcrd Lbl” (get it) which is looking to give away music free and without DRM on its own blog.  As always, money is the sticking point and in this example, the company looks to get their money from advertising and then to pay off the participating bands a percentage of their take from that.  Even the label itself admits that this ain’t the ultimate solution to the music biz’s woes but expect to see other experiments like this in a post-Radiohead (expect to hear that term a lot) world where the industry is getting more and more interested in finding new models.  It’s gotten to the point where the head of Warner Bros has gone from damning to praising iTunes, even though you know that he’s still cursing Steve Jobs under his breath, especially since Apple’s still makes its profits selling iPods and not music per se.


On a happier note, there’s this inspiring article about music therapy and one its greatest practitioners, Clive Robbins.  Along with the important work of Oliver Sacks, this is more proof of what a strong, stirring effect music has our bodies and souls.


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Wednesday, Nov 14, 2007


Move over f**k – there’s a new expletive in town, and it’s taking over the R-rated motion picture dialogue domain as never before. Where once it was merely a scandalous bit of European slang, a way for one Brit to put down another with sexuality free cheek, it’s now morphed into the mainstream cinema’s number one epithet. Over the last six months alone, it’s been heard in comedies (Knocked Up, The Heartbreak Kid), dramas (Feast of Love, The Brave One), genre efforts (Hostel Part II), and able action fare (Shoot ‘Em Up). Applied to both male and female characters, used as both a humorous and hateful retort, it argues for the desperation of screenwriters eager for another explanatory extreme, and the changing social sentiments toward the acceptability (or lack thereof) of language.


Back in the pre-MPAA days, before David Mamet received his four letter thesaurus, dialogue was almost always mannered. This didn’t mean that people spoke in elaborate Elizabethan couplets laced with poetic pentameters. It simply meant that certain unmentionable words were never considered part of proper human interaction. Adults spoke in carefully peppered bon mots, while kids gave the ‘golly gees’ a run for their money. Even criminals and lowlifes spoke in a guttural jargon that indicated their intrinsic illiteracy while showcasing an inventive use of street slang by the individual at the typewriter. For decades, cursing was considered uncouth, ill-mannered, and a sure sign of a person’s passé moral compass.


All of that changed with the neo-neorealism of ‘60s/’70s Hollywood. When film decided that mimicking real life was a valid artistic approach, it brought along with it all the flaws and foibles that made up the human condition – including the potty mouth. From the introduction of such previously unheard of horrors as s**t, and g*****n, to far more frank allusions toward sex and the reproductive organs, movies started “talking like regular people”. The collective sigh from the critical community (which saw such a brashness as some manner of cinematic sacrilege) was quickly replaced by a heralding of the newer, bolder breed. Suddenly, ‘working blue’ was no longer a taboo. It was a proletariat response to the blatant bourgeois nature of Tinsel Town’s Golden Age.


According to motion picture lore, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H may be the first feature film ever to use the heretofore unmentionable F-bomb. The potent anti-war missive didn’t necessarily popularize the use of the bump and grind euphemism, but as with any cultural dam, once the flood gates were open, the trash talk breached all linguistic levees. Throughout the Me Decade, the infamous FCC terms that were verboten over public airwaves (made infamous by George Carlin’s classic satiric slam on censorship, the “Seven Words”) slowly crept into the lexicon of big screen legitimacy. Thanks to the pulse pounding efforts of blaxploitation, which strove to incorporate the feel of its inner city demographic streets, and equally reflective works by future auteur Martin Scorsese, the medium couldn’t ignore the message. It was right there, up in its m****f***ing face!


Yet it was comedy that probably fueled the final ascent of swearing’s universal acceptability. Humor has an amazing ability to soften even the most miscreant subject. With masters of the foul mouthed art like Richard Pryor suddenly turning superstar, language was no longer seen as a limit. In fact, for someone like the masterful stand-up, the ‘colorful’ conceits of the words he choose made the brutality – and the brilliance – of what he was riffing on that much more pointed, and realistic. Naturally, there were people who took sailor speak to all manner of ridiculous heights (Andrew Dice Clay, anyone?), but for the most part, profanity was excused as a way of masking individual pain with an universal human expression of same.


None of this really excuses or explains the sudden fascination with the ‘C’ word, however. Some would argue that, as with any aspect of film, the overuse of certain stalwarts in combination with the loosening standards concerning same results in artists seeking new or unused ways of courting creativity. When Oliver Stone laced his sensational script for Scarface with as many four, ten, and twelve letter quips as Al Pacino’s quasi-Cuban accent could handle, audiences thought they were experiencing the first of the four horsemen of the cinematic apocalypse. Today, Tony Montana’s trenchant take on his non-mother tongue is viewed as pure screenwriting poetry.


Others will argue that popular culture dictates the dialogue. After almost two decades with rap dominating the First Amendment format, it was only a matter of time before such extremes became commonplace. Heck, even cartoons say s**t now. Yet a scan of lyrical content fails to reveal a general reliance on such specific sexual slang. Even more telling, the use of c**t seems particularly Caucasian. With its continental rooting (a film like Hot Fuzz, from English eccentrics Simon Pegg and Edward Wright, drops the C-bomb dozens of times) and suburban shock value, the application outside a specific demographic seems rather farfetched. Honestly, it’s easier to see Seth Rogen working the vaginal quip than, say, members of the Wu-Tang Clan.


Perhaps the most perplexing element of the across the pond translation is the gender element. In almost every film listed at the top of this piece, c**t is used exclusively as a means of undermining women – and almost always in situations where the female is being victimized or violated. In Hostel Part II, it’s the ‘magic word’ that drives our heroine to acts of castration. Of course, she needs to be beaten and almost-raped before a mere word triggers her ire. Similarly, Jodie Foster’s New Age vigilante is haunted by her acts of murderous desperation, crimes so heinous that no further justification for her gun-based payback seems necessary. And yet she must be referred by the aforementioned derogation before popping her caps in gang member asses.


Even in a sappy, maudlin disease of the week styled film like Feast of Love, the C word shows up to belittle a woman. Granted, the character in this case is an unusually cold and calculating slag who is using her newfound husband as a cash-flow cushion until her married boy toy gets that long promised divorce, but in a movie overloaded with less than likeable characters, our insidious ice queen needs an additional dressing down. So out comes the crudity. And for the most part, it works. Since it’s so new, so untapped as a source of strongly worded disparagement, it’s jarring. It gets the listener’s attention, and changes the entire course of an onscreen discussion. Where f**k has gone from incendiary to inevitable, c**t remains the conversational neutron bomb.


The sudden influx of this heretofore unapproachable word may have some link back to the previous mention of hip-hop after all. Thanks in large part to the ‘b*tches and hos’ stereotyping of the genre, there’s been a decided backlash against the use of that particular canine curse. Indeed, over the decades, the previously impotent b*tch has become fuel for lawsuits, boycotts, and pundit pronouncements. Indeed, when you think about it, the forbidden status of the formerly lax putdown (you can find examples of its casual use in family oriented sitcoms from the ‘80s and ‘90s) required a new, nasty anti-lady remark. But c**t seems much worse than anything an MC can concoct. Film makes it unfathomable.


Indeed, in the context of a UK jive, characters calling each other all manner of acceptable accented atrocities, it tends not to resonate. It seems silly, slightly foolish even. But when an angry male, staring down his opposite with implied hatred, lets fly with such blatant vitriol, the effect is seismic. It stops the story dead, and focuses every element of the narrative on the word itself. Even multi-syllable mouthfuls loose their largeness in comparison. Where once it was unthinkable in even the most adult of companies, the C word has become the exclamation point on a sentence no one ever thought of saying out loud.


Naturally, overuse will deaden its impact. Already, with just a handful of films crass or crafty enough to feature this newfound verbal violation, c**t is becoming cliché. You can almost predict the moment when a fed up individual, incapable of rationally expressing their disapproval or disgust, let’s out a long tirade. After being rebuffed by the smug, seemingly superior female, out comes the reproductive putdown. If feminists had a field day with the chauvinism of the ‘70s, the misogyny of the ‘80s, and the disrespect of the ‘90s, what will the embracing of the C-word bring? Already, performance artists are trying to take back the term, that old standby of empowerment via encroachment. Perhaps they should ask the African American how successfully they’ve been re: the N-word, huh?


While it’s hard to tell if c**t is here to stay, it’s clear that screenwriters feel it’s somehow necessary. In a vocal sparing match, where words replace stylized fisticuffs, it’s apparently the finesse free finishing move that ends discussion and mandates action. Oddly enough, there’s been little fuss over the C-word’s commonplace application. Back in the ‘30s, when a smarting Rhett Butler told a desperate Scarlett O’Hara that he couldn’t give a good “damn”, viewers practically swooned at the vulgarity. Today, our Southern dandy would pull out the C-word. Our spunky heroine would slap his face – or worse, open up a can of semi-automatic whoop-ass on his foul mouthed butt. And audiences would sit back and accept it. Hard to tell what’s worse, when you think about it.


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