The second music video for the second single from the Pet Shop Boys’ latest album Yes. Electro bands are a dime a dozen these days but Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe continue to show they’re still the best at what they do.
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The romantic effort - literary, cinematic, or otherwise - typically gets a raw deal, and with good reason. The story of boy meeting girl, boy wooing girl, girl accepting boy, boy and girl having fun (and perhaps something more), boy and girl breaking it off and then attempting some kind of reconciliation has been the bread and butter for filmmakers, songwriters, and novelists alike. No matter the twists and turns in the paradigm, the formula stays pretty much the same - and that’s part of the problem. Decades of derivative, similarly styled offerings have taken all the heart out of the genre. Even with the occasional narrative twist, the same old stuff happens to a very familiar group of people. Not in Giuseppe Andrews world, of course. The provocateur of the impoverished has taken the moldy old format and shown all wannabe auteurs how to bring the heart - and the humanity - back to the typical couples skate. In Our Garden is the amazing result.
Daisy is devastated. Her boyfriend recently committed suicide in their “garden” - a loving reference to the beach volleyball court where they first met. Unable to find happiness, she’s lost in a world of borderline insanity. One day, police officer Rick stops by her trailer. He is the one who found her dead lover, and hopes he can make a connection with the grieving gal. Sure enough, they become an item, which irks toupee-wearing Bill to no end. He’s the father of the man who killed himself, and he wants Daisy as well. As the suitors maneuver for her affections, our heroine is confused. She has strong feelings for both of them. Then Rick drops a personal bombshell which violates her ever-present trust issues. As Bill moves in, our former cop turns to the bottle, and then crack cocaine. All he wants is a chance to get back into Daisy’s good graces. But unless something happens to Bill, that seems unlikely.
Leave it to the man who singlehandedly rewrote the rulebook on homemade cinema as art to take one of the most tired, derivative narrative archetypes in all of prose and punk it past the point of recognition. Long rumored to be an unflappable masterpiece, In Our Garden is all that - and much, much more. It’s an elegy to love lost, a sonnet to the simple pleasures of finding someone to share your life with. It’s not afraid of the physical and clearly in touch with the spiritual. With a limited cast that includes the sensational Gayle Wells, the brilliant Bill Nowlin, and the always engaging Walt Dongo, Andrews narrows his scope, the result being something overflowing with universal truths and wholly unique insights. Though his actors frequently do little more than read off intricate litanies to scatology and sin, the words paint painful pictures we usually don’t see in such Moon/June sputum.
For Andrews, the entire process of film is about realism - and not just because he uses the actual residents of a trailer park as his creative company. No, what fuels this fascinating artist is his direct connection to what makes people truly what they are. When Daisy explains what the word “crabs” means to her, we initially balk at the disgusting sexual sleaze. But as the monologue continues, we forget the freak show sentiments and start to see the accurate feelings beneath. Andrews is truly a genius of the written word, his scripts like beat poetry set to the tune of scandalous toilet humor frat rap. He’s dirty, but outwardly so, never avoiding a random call out of body parts and positions to keep his audience engaged and entertained. Then, just as we think he can’t get any more revolting, he twists the material to expose the real human emotions underneath.
It helps that In Our Garden offers three of his best double wide DeNiros. Dongo is always reliable, his hound dog haplessness covered nicely by a desire to be direct and honest. Similarly, Nowlin (even in an obviously inebriated state) spits out his anger in tiny little balls of bristling bile. As the man who helped Andrews become the living legend he is, his presence today is sorely missed. But it’s Ms. Wells who steps up and becomes this film’s levelheaded foundation. Having to carry most of the dialogue herself (especially when her co-stars are too tanked up to talk) and also hampered with carrying the conventional parts of the narrative, she delivers a turn so devastating in its poignancy that it’s hard to believe she is merely mimicking Andrews oddball screenplay. There is real genuineness in her elf-eared effigy, something that many Hollywood romances clearly lack.
By following a recognizable story structure (there is none of the William Burroughs inspired cut and paste editing from previous outings here) and letting the characters develop organically, Andrews turns the maudlin and mushy into something quite meaningful. Even a last act rape-reenactment - a bizarre attempt by Bill to win Daisy’s affections - has a symbolic statement to make. In essence, In Our Garden is about the lasting memories of love lost, love found, and love never meant to be. Daisy is clearly longing for some companionship, but it’s unclear if either Rick or Bill can provide it. They both seem so selfish, so insular in their affections that it’s hard to balance their profane poetics with the truth. It’s only after the inevitable break-up, where Rick descends into a horrific drug-fueled Hell (including a surreal stretch with a couple of friendly dealers) that we can see who truly carried the torch.
By including moments of sexual openness, including full frontal nudity and frank reproductive discussions, In Our Garden becomes a complete deconstruction of the foibles present in interpersonal relationships. It doesn’t shy away from the dealing with all aspects of affairs - the joy and the sorrow, the tenderness and the jealousy. By taking a well honed formula and tweaking its tired tenets, he creates yet another amazing statement in his considered creative canon. For someone so prolific to be so diverse in his talent targets speaks volumes for his continued relevance within the medium. Movies about love are a dime a dozen. In Our Garden takes those sentimentalized coins and actually buys something brave and unique. It’s a great, great film.
Sex in the cinema is always so clean. Even when it’s given a patina of perversion, it’s still played mostly for mild mainstream enjoyment. No film wants to show the truth about interpersonal pyrotechnics, especially in a wholly realistic and authentic manner. Even XXX pornography cleans up the copulation with actors and actresses who fuel the fantasy of, not the facts about, f*cking. But not Giuseppe Andrews. As the king of uber-contemporary cinema, the man who has made the trailer park the last bastion for true motion picture art, screwing around needs to be dirty, disquieting, uncomfortable, and most of all, hilarious. As part of his Bathrobe Homeschool Box Set, The Date Movie delivers on such soiled, sullied dispositions. It proves that physical contact between human beings is not always pretty. In fact, most of the time, it’s downright disgusting.
Two wannabe ‘gansta’ white boys share a trailer - and a case of squirrel-influenced stomach flu. An old man channels the spirit of a horse known as Mr. Ted and writes a hate-filled tome in the steed’s name. Two meth dealers discover a rat in their lab and one adopts it as his very own pet. A young man must face the fact that his mother is a whore and his father is her pimp. A middle aged man must face the fact that his mother is dying of emphysema and losing her marbles. And what do they all have in common, aside from an addictive need to drink the latest alcohol-laced specialty beverage, Pussy Juice? Why, it’s the unending craving for sex and/or sexual fulfillment - and sometimes, not in the way “normal” people view such biological and physiological desires.
Here it is - the Giuseppe Andrews we’ve all grown to love, the Giuseppe Andrews with a pixie like spring in his cinematic step and a thesaurus of lickety lewd crude talk. This ADD inspired journey into the heart of human darkness, a Eisenstein edited romp across shit, piss, and any other bodily fluid you can think of has little or no narrative logic. As he does with his frequently feverish dream, Andrews sets up a group of compelling creeps and lets us watch as they interact, interject, and interfere with each others battered lives. Every once in a while, the implied action will stop so that someone can go off on a several page rant, complete with risqué commandments and horndog demands. Andrews is best known for these dirty word dialectics, juvenile jousts at reproductive served up as satiric stand-up riffs. That they always work is a testament to his talent both behind the camera and in front of the typewriter.
The main theme here is one of longing and desire. Indeed, what The Date Movie seems to be saying about people is that when they aren’t having sex (and there is little actual aardvarking presented here), they’re thinking about it. They’re obsessed with it, allowing its pleasures and pains to influence their entire life. If you look closely, you can see it in the hip hop hokum of the wannabes, trading barbs with ventriloquist dummies as substitutes for actual conversation. You can definitely see it in the meth heads, a lifetime of cooking and snorting drugs leading them to channel their needs elsewhere. And as usual, a very brave (and very naked) Tyree takes us through the daily ritual of a lonely lunatic who doesn’t mind pleasuring himself to anything (and EVERYTHING) he has around the house.
But Andrews also goes for the throat, showing how sex can ruin relationships and compromise trust. One of the first scenes shows a wannabe arguing with a one night stand over their child producing consummation. Later, a son argues frantically with his father over his mother’s profession. In a classic bit of toilet humor burlesque, Walt Dongo plays a husband who can’t get his wife in the sack. Of course, his nonstop flatulence doesn’t help matters much. And then there are moments of sheer heartbreak, as when Tyree picks up a photo of himself from World War II (an actual image, by the way) and the camera stares endlessly at the young face, fresh and ready to take on the world. The Date Movie is indeed centered on sex, but there are also keen insights into aging, mental wellness, and death to be discovered.
Of course, there are also controversial elements that might make the uninitiated cringe. Andrews loves to provoke, and nothing will get the dander up of pro-PC complainers quicker than his use of the N-word. While never aimed at a minority, there are plenty of times in Date Movie when the epithet is spoken - in jest, in anger, for random reactionary shock value. Similarly, full frontal nudity is present and accounted for, and Tyree is the beneficiary of Andrews imposing lens. Watching a naked octogenarian slap his inert “member” with a sticky toy will not be everyone’s cup of cinematic tea, and even for a seasoned Andrews aficionado, the fetish can be much. But this is moviemaking as reality, authentic glimpses of life along the fringes. If you can’t stand the vile visual heat, then perhaps you should get out of this auteur’s soul kitchen ASAP.
This doesn’t infer, however, that everything in Date Movie is magic. Sometimes, Andrews indulges his muse to the point where it pukes up on everything he is trying to accomplish, and as with many of his more surreal outings, a certain scatological wavelength must be maintained less you find yourself feeling filthy - and completely lost - afterward. But if you peer in between the sleazy seams, if you read between the ludicrous lines of halting human misery, you will discover a film of breathtaking insight and wit. As a roadmap to where he would eventually take his incredible talent, The Date Movie is a Hellsapoppin’ journey along life’s many perverted pathways and over its many diseased potholes. Take it for what it’s worth, and you probably will be offended. Look closer and you might just see the sickening truth staring right back at you. Sex is not all rose petals and orgasms. It’s a horrific human endeavor, and only Giuseppe Andrews has the courage to call it out and complain.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher,
or the Murder at Road Hill House
by Kate Summerscale
I blogged a few months back about this book’s taking out of the Samuel Johnson Prize and have been desperate to read it since. The handful of bookstores in my region either didn’t have it or wanted to charge me $30 for it in times of financial drought. The other day, however, on a giant book-buying road trip for which I saved mucho dollars, I found it, stuffed haphazardly in the true crime section at Bendigo’s old fire station-turned-secondhand bookstore.
I believe I may have squealed.
Kate Summerscale’s book is exactly what you might call “my thing”. It’s crime in the Capote style, a rich, true account written in the form of a novel, with revelations plotted throughout to create storytelling over basic retelling. Not only that, as the detective investigating the crime at hand was the inspiration for characters in the works of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and others, it’s also a history of English literature. True crime and a lesson in literary history—what could be more perfect?
And it was just as I suspected—educational and utterly thrilling. I knew very little about the murder at Road Hill House going in, so the twists and turns gripped me exactly as they should have. I read compulsively, especially the second half as the mystery began to unravel.
It begins, in 1860, with the murder of Saville Kent, the four-year-old son of Samuel and Mary Kent in their home at Road, Wiltshire. As Kent is a private man with an unpopular profession, his home and family, including maids, nurses, and the children of his former marriage, are securely locked up at night in their large home. The security assumes the murderer resides within. Celebrated detective Jack Whicher is brought in to find the culprit. Yet with so many suspects and a range of plausible motives and means, Whicher’s job is difficult. The call he eventually makes as to the perpetrator of the crime is unpopular and costs him his reputation (in the US, the book is subtitled, A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective).
But Jack Whicher has a reputation for a reason, and he stands by his suspicions as the crime goes unsolved for a number of years. When the answers finally come, most everyone is surprised. I was, too. My keen eye and marked understanding of the personalities involved proved entirely, wholeheartedly wrong. (But I was so sure!)
Summerscale is just a dream to read. She sticks to the fact, digressing into detail only at key moments. Her insight into the players and the era is convincing. And her conclusions are shocking—Summerscale admits that in her verve to tell her story, she lost sight of its centre: a dead child. Funny, too, that in my race to read the book and the joy I received while doing so, deep in the shadows of Victorian England, peeping through the keyholes into the lives of this private family, I, too, lost sight of little Saville and the horrors that occurred to create this entertaining, spellbinding read.
I don’t really know how to reconcile that thought, actually. Might delve into that another time.
Still, it’s a marvellous, historical tale with great insights into the origins of detection and detective novels. It’s also the story of upheaval in the lives of the Kent family, and just how they deal with the everlong aftermath of one horrible event.
Dom’s wife, Maria, represents a unique kind of storytelling for games. She represents a story in which we don’t play as the main character, in which we’re just an observer even though we still get to participate in all the major events of the story.
But let me back up a bit.
A player’s relationship with his avatar presents us with an interesting paradox. When I play Gears of War 2, I’m Marcus Fenix and yet I’m not Marcus Fenix. I’m also myself playing as Marcus Fenix. Unlike an actor in a movie, a player doesn’t become the character when starting a game but rather the character becomes an extension of the player. We’re both at the same time; it feels just as natural to say “I fought the Locust” as it is to say “Marcus fought the Locust.” This ever-present dichotomy is a major obstacle for any game that wants to connect with the player on an emotional level.
There will always be a disconnect between us and the characters, making certain kinds of emotional involvement difficult. We have an instant affection with our avatar because this character is us; we care about ourselves, so we care about him or her as well. But this favoritism doesn’t necessarily translate into an emotional connection. Since we’re essentially the same person we should have the same reaction to events in the game, but this rarely happens. How many times in how many games has some dramatic twist left the main character devastated and you shrugging your shoulders? The event doesn’t hold the same emotional impact for players because they don’t always see it as happening to them directly. It’s happening to the character not to me, and I know we’re not the same person…even though we are.
Gear of War 2 took a unique approach to this dilemma by not making the main character the emotional center of the game. Marcus is a stereotypical buff, gruff, badass. He’s a cliché, but he’s the very cliché that we want to play. He’s the perfect avatar, but as a character he’s very bland and uninteresting. If we didn’t play as him chances are we wouldn’t care about him. That’s fine though, because we’re not meant to care about Marcus, we’re meant to care about Dom.
Dom is by far the more interesting character of the two because he’s personally involved in the conflict. His wife is missing, and as we travel deeper into Locust territory, he hopes to find her and rescue her. Unlike Marcus, this character is not a shell that we can easily project ourselves into, from the outset he’s motivated by emotions the player could never be expected to share. Gears of War 2 realizes this, so when playing a single-player game we don\‘t play as Dom. Instead we watch him though the eyes of another, and watching his increasingly desperate attempts to find his wife is like watching a character in a movie. Since we’re not being asked to feel the same emotions, it’s easier to empathize with him, or not care at all, without breaking the fourth wall of the game.
Unfortunately, Gears of War 2 completely backtracks on this idea by making Dom a playable character in co-op. When the second player is suddenly asked to care about some woman not even mentioned in the first game, we’re immediately distanced from the character and any emotional resonance he might bring to the story. When Dom finally does find Maria, it is a powerful scene, but more so because of its shock value than as the emotional climax of the story. Gears of War 2 had a good idea, but ultimately failed to follow though on it.
If the story of Gears of War 2 was told in any other medium, Dom would be the main character because he’s the only one with an emotional arc, and arc driven by his lost wife. We only think of Marcus as the main character because he’s our avatar, but he’s a static character with no development over the course of the game. By putting us in the shoes of a supporting character, Gears of War 2 gives us a unique perspective on the story: We’re able to watch a Dom go though a dramatic arc, thereby experiencing that drama vicariously through him instead of our own avatar. I realize that this is not exactly the best use of the medium since it relies on us watching a character instead of being a character, turning the game into a literal interactive movie, but it’s still a unique idea and one I think is worth attempting again. Preferably without the co-op.