Always Past, Always Present, Never the Moment: 'Palo Alto'

Gia Coppola's film illustrates the paradox of the young and the old: each want wants what the other has. Neither can ever live in the moment.

Palo Alto

Director: Gia Coppola
Cast: Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, James Franco
Distributor: Metrodome
Rated: 15
Extra: N/A
US Release Date: 2015-02-09

We breathe because it is instinctive, but why do we make art? The answer to this question ranges from art as a business to art as personal expression, through which a communal and individual experience is created, similarly co-existing like the conscious and the unconscious mind. On occasion, as a film unfolds itself, I ask myself a silent question: are films made as an impulsive act or as an instinctive reaction? If so, the follow-up question is invariably whether or not there was any need to make the particular film that in that moment of that reaction, other than as an activity that defines the period of time it takes for the filmmaker to make it? Is making a film is an egotistical act that staves off existential crisis?

Regardless of the answers to these questions, this silent stream of thought thought that ran through my mind as Palo Alto neared its conclusion.

For her debut feature, Gia Coppola chooses a familiar walking route through the filmic landscape. The film's theme of drifting characters lost in the experience of life’s void, in addition to its dreamy, voyeuristic camera, both serve to connect Palo Alto to both Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Somewhere. The work of aunt and niece conveniently merge to form a trilogy of films on the subject of adult and adolescent characters dealing with their own existential crises.

Palo Alto represents yet another collaboration in what has been a long and fruitful relationship between literature and film. In contrast to a novel, a short story collection is generally conceptual by nature, with each individual story pumping blood to the beating heart that is the core theme. With this film, Coppola takes actor and aspiring polymath James Franco’s interconnected short story volume of the same name and extends it into a feature length coming-of-age tale. She infuses the movie with the innocuous, nonchalant, and self-contained charm of the short story format.

The camera appears to float by as Coppola eavesdrops and captures a snapshot of her characters in this momentary adolescent chapter of their lives. The apparent freedom that fills these years infers a liberty from responsibility, a liberty to live and experience life with no pre-conditions. But the portrait she paints of parties, drink, drugs, sex, and hypothetical conversations is laced with the awkward trials and tribulations of being young: those first sexual, emotional and career steps. The importance of this central preoccupation of liberty from responsibility cannot be overstated; lingering throughout the film is the framing device of the end of a chapter and the start of a new one. Adolescence and adulthood cannot be separated, as liberty from responsibility directly leads into ultimately being held to account for said freedom.

The time of play, which is seemingly unshackled from responsibility, is not the dream it appears to be. It is a time when the adolescent are expected to know with little to no life experience what path they want to take in life. Perhaps Coppola is opening up a discourse on the crippling social tendencies to define the individual according to their occupation, and more importantly how the education system stalks our adolescent youth by forcing them to paint on their life canvas without actually having any feeling or reliable instinct to guide their brush. This uncertainty towards the subject of a future career, vocation, or university to attend is represented with humor by Teddy’s (Jack Kilmer) art teacher's philosophical speeches about finding oneself. Even with its thematic dissection of the transition out of adolescence, Palo Alto remains connected to art and creativity by using another visual art form to metaphorically reflect upon this preoccupation.

These characters must move forward, which they must do under their own steam. They must learn from their mistakes and embrace the value of experience, therein understanding that they are part of something bigger. One of the integral reflections of the film is that one must adapt and move forward to remain on the shore, or risk the tide carrying her out to sea. These characters are no longer looking towards experience but rather learning from their adolescent years to propel them forward. As one leaves adolescence, life becomes increasingly less about looking towards the future and more about learning from the immediate circumstances of one's life, allowing them to shape us and form memories which are the building blocks we use, consciously and unconsciously, to construct our identity.

One of Palo Alto’s intriguing narrative threads is the relationship between young and old, specifically how each has what the other desires: the latter, youth; the former, age. This alone is one of the great contradictions that eludes to the significance of the past and future over the present. The present is never good enough; ultimately, satisfaction is to be found in the past or the future.

This story is one in which the boys are the central protagonists. They represent youth either left on the shore or carried out to sea, while femininity is represented by the sexualized woman. Knowingly or unknowingly, she allows herself to be used, presenting herself as a sexual object and desiring the sexual act. Within the film’s narrative, one could interpret that one’s virginity is an embarrassment, something to be shed rather than to be kept intact. It could even be perceived as being symbolic of the urgent desire to advance into adulthood, physically if not emotionally. If the representation of women is an issue within the original source material as has been suggested, then it is not possible to excuse Coppola for this characterization. As the film’s writer-director, she had an opportunity to rework the source material according to her own artistic vision. The source material is Franco’s creative voice; the film is Coppola’s.

Coppola’s first step into feature filmmaking suggests an obsession with the image. Yes, there is an emphasis on dialogue, mostly the ridiculous hypothetical or just non-hypothetical mumblings of youth. First and foremost, however, her director’s eye is pictorially influenced. Together, Gia and Sophia Coppola possess a strong affection for the filmic image, through which one can sense that they do not desire to suspend our disbelief, but instead prefer that we maintain our conscious awareness of the image and therein our spectatorial position. To encounter their films is to remain consciously aware of the creative process and our interaction within it.

There is an inescapable impression that Coppola aspires to create interesting movies, but as we know the desire does not account for much. Ultimately, one must go out and create these kinds of films. This reflection of youth seen through Franco’s eyes and filtered through her own creative voice is a welcome addition to cinema’s interest in the anxiety of youth.

Similarly to how her characters look back on these experiences, Palo Alto is a film that we too should look back on as a memory rather than as a possible recurring encounter. In this vein, Coppola has created a film of sensual power that makes a home within our consciousness, one that embraces the art form's reliance on dream logic.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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