Reviews

'The Happy Poet': An Indie Comedy About Building Community

This is a fitting tale for Austin, a city known for attracting entrepreneurs eager to create the next big product or service.


The Happy Poet

Director: Paul Gordon
Cast: Paul Gordon, Liz Fisher, Jonny Mars, Chris Doubek
Rated: NR
Studio: St. Chris Film
Year: 2010
US date: 2013-06-25 (VOD)
Website
Trailer

The Happy Poet uses a vegetarian food cart and a soft-spoken protagonist to reimagine the hunt for the American Dream. A nerd in his late 20s, Bill (played by writer-director-editor Paul Gordon) thinks he's found the perfect way to get out of debt and make a meaningful life for himself when he buys a used hotdog stand. Setting up in tranquil Austin, Texas park, he determines to sell healthy, homemade food.

He's inspired by a first shopping trip to his local market, where he's awed by the abundance and we share his view, the camera panning over ripe greens, tomatoes, and oranges. Of course, his first day out in the park doesn't go as smoothly as he hopes. Customer after customer approaches his stand and asks for a hot dog, an item that Bill doesn't sell. He quickly grows discouraged when he realizes that no one is all that interested in buying his eggless egg salad sandwich and other healthy selections.

The Happy Poet's slow going to this point isn't exactly alleviated when Curtis (Chris Doubek) glides into the scene on his bicycle. Still, it's a relief that he offers Bill some positive reinforcement, raving about his food. When he returns to the park the next day, Bill is further encouraged when he meets Donnie (Jonny Mars), who arrives at the stand on a motorcycle. Their lively conversation is a welcome respite, as is Donnie's low-key energy, encapsulated in his repeated advice, "Carpe diem, dude!" Always in motion, Donnie offers to help promote the food stand. With input from Curtis, who is lingering in the background, Donnie names the food stand "The Happy Poet."

As Bill works the stand in the park, Donnie takes to the streets, the camera following his motorcycle as he whizzes around Austin, making food deliveries and handing out flyers. The quick editing in these scenes lends an element of visual excitement to the film, and helps to maintain viewer interest during those long, single-shot scenes in the park, focused on a series of quiet, personal conversations.

Some of the slowest of these scenes feature Bill alone with his new love interest, Agnes (Liz Fisher). They first meet when she stops by his food cart and falls in love with that eggless egg salad. On their first date, they sit in a quiet spot outside a bar and engage in philosophical discussion of the meaning of relationships and work. Essentially one long take that's occasionally interrupted by brief shots of a band inside the bar, the scene emphasizes Bill's reserved manner and deadpan humor.

Indeed, the humor in this "all-organic, mostly vegetarian comedy" emerges not so much in the assorted anecdotes about a vegetarian food cart, but in Bill's deadpan banter with his friends. The food stand itself becomes a beacon for these witty folks, who gather around it to talk, eat, and fall in love. Even on tough days, the glint of the stainless steel cart sitting outside his house is more than Bill can resist. The cart represents his persistent optimism, his desire to pay off his debts and also, to leave behind a dull and unhappy routine and instead look forward to a more energetic, more fulfilling future.

As such a symbol, the cart changes each day, its exterior increasingly impressive and eye-catching. The stainless steel is buffed to a high shine and the hokey, hand-made "The Happy Poet" sign is replaced by a new, professionally made signboard. With every improvement to the cart, the humans who gather around it also evolve. Bill grows into a bona fide businessman, while Agnes, Donnie and Curtis all mature in their own ways.

The Happy Poet shows that this change is realized through economic achievement. It's a fitting tale for Austin, a city known for attracting entrepreneurs eager to create the next big product or service. Gordon updates the classic story of a hardworking individual who makes his own way in the world. In the process, he makes the argument that getting ahead need not only be a matter of making money, but can also be a socially responsible and emotionally gratifying enterprise.

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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta



19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller



18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr


17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr



16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

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Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

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There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

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