Music

Aimee Mann: Charmers

It’s her first new album in four years. She uses elements from her past and shapes it into new material. The record reveals she’s up to her same old tricks. She’s not crazy. She’s back!


Aimee Mann

Charmer

Label: Superego
US Release Date: 2012-09-18
UK Release Date: 2012-09-17
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It was Leonard Cohen who famously wrote, “And you know that she's half crazy / But that's why you want to be there” about his title character “Suzanne”. The appeal of crazy women to apparently sane men is a common phenomenon. In fact it is almost a male rite of passage. Now this is not meant to demean mental and emotional illness. This is a serious topic worthy of sober discussion. However, this is a rock and roll record review and not the place for such a conversation.

And the artist at hand is Aimee Mann, who has written more than a few songs on this topic. In fact, her best known track as a solo artist, “Save Me”, begins with the dramatic line “You look like a perfect fit / For a girl in need of a tourniquet”. The girl in the song is suffering from mental and emotional anguish, not physical bleeding. It is no surprise that Mann revisits this topic again on her latest album with the catchy and clever tune, “Crazytown”.

Now men are attracted to crazy women for a number of reasons. Most crazy women are sane the majority of the time and can be quite enjoyable to be with. The sex is usually good, and the person is grateful for the positive attention. However, when the person goes off the deep end and this occurs regularly, one questions whether the relationship is worth it. Let’s be clear here, I am not talking about the manic pixie girl of film who cutely takes a straight man out of his comfort zone and lets him experience the happy pleasures of the world. I mean the woman whose suicide threats and interactions with the police due to bad behavior cause one to lose sleep, fail at work, and avoid other friends.

Mann portrays this woman in bold strokes, from the lies and danger she presents to what it costs a man to stay with her. No one wants to be the bad person and ruthlessly drop the person who needs help with her life. One gets caught in a web of wanting to help while knowing the cost is too high for the long term.

However, Mann understands no one starts out crazy in life. It is the stuff that happens to us that can makes us that way. She delineates the three steps in another song, “Labrador”. She sings, “You get bored, you got mad, then you went crazy." Think of the character in that other song from the MTV-era Mann is known for as part of ‘Til Tuesday, “Voices Carry”. She sits in the audience at the fancy concert hall bored by the proceedings, gets mad at the way she’s ignored by her companion, then loses it and acts inappropriately in a way that can best be defined as crazy. The video is true to the song, which manifests itself as a feminist parable, but now Mann sees the incident from the other side; if a man tells you to shut up during a performance, he’s not squelching you because you are a woman but because you are acting improperly.

Speaking of characters from the past, Mann resurrects the former child prodigy, now an alcoholic queen played by Henry Gibson in Magnolia, a movie written around her songs, in “Living a Lie”. She’s joined by James Mercer from The Shins. “No one bears a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime / Gilding his cage one bar at a time”, Mann croons with a wink. The emphasis on the dual meaning of “bar” works beautifully to nail the prison of lies and drink that has taken over the person’s identity

The other eight cuts on the album likewise deal with people using their personal behavior to control other people. Mann understands the irony. On the title song she admits that the scheming person finds oneself manipulated by his or her own actions out of insecurity. The person feels like a fraud because one cannot be oneself, one always has to be the charmer. Like The Marvelettes used to sing, “Things just ain’t the same any time the hunter gets captured by the game.” Indeed.

The music on Charmer could be classified as pop psychedelica (think of The Beatles circa 1965 with modern synths and production). The instrumentation is always bright, even when the lyrics get dark. This sheen makes the unpleasant characters seem not so bad. But Mann is also a maven of the one-liner. She can hook you instrumentally into following along and then provide a telling detail or two that lets you know what the deeper lesson is. Saying someone is “the master of the thankless task” or “feeding blue jays at the wrong address” conveys much more than the innocent lines initially suggest. Not to get too lit crit heavy here, but the connotations of self-effacement in the first line and the fact that blue jays always nest at some other bird’s nest reveal there is more going on then initially suggested.

It’s tempting to play psychoanalyst and see Mann as the crazy girl of her songs, the once 20-something propelled to stardom whose career seems to have veered off course from stardom like a young genius who didn’t live up to her promise. After all, she named her record label Superego. But that’s too easy an interpretation. Mann likes to play with theses suggestions here. It’s her first new album in four years. She uses elements from her past and shapes it into new material. The record reveals she’s up to her same old tricks. She’s not crazy. She’s back!

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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