Film

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Cynthia Fuchs

In straining to make its spaces and secrets 'scary', Da Vinci literalizes thoughts and dreams, and abandons mystery and nuance.


Director: Ron Howard
MPAA rating: PG-13
US Release Date: 2006-05-19

The Da Vinci Code
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tatou, Paul Bettany, Ian McKellan, Alfred Molina, Jean Reno
(Columbia, 2006) Rated: PG-13
Release date: 19 May 2006

by Cynthia Fuchs
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
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Not Theology

This can't be this!
-- Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks)

Where's Ed Harris when you need him? Though The Da Vinci Code has enough plot for two movies, it also spends a lot of time inside its protagonist's mind. As world-renowned symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) sets about solving a murder mystery, and oh yes, unraveling "the greatest secret in history," he appears to be a very bright, thoughtful guy. Solemn and rigorous, he would seem an ideal object of aesthetic and intellectual scrutiny.

But when the movie looks inside Robert's psyche -- as when, for instance, he's using his near-photographic memory to figure a piece of the puzzle before him -- the imagery turns not sharp, but soupy and ridiculous. As he explains to his partner in pursuit, the French police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), he has a nearly photographic memory, represented in this too-literal film as what he sees, for instance, bits of art or text floating and reassembling in some vaguely ooky head-space. The subjective imagery is corny (the FX frankly unconvincing), but what's missing most painfully here is Ed Harris as Parcher, the grim-but-wry agent who showed up inside John Nash's beautiful mind.

Parcher embodied for that Ron Howard movie its light touch and dark humor, its righteous suspicion of authority and sense that you couldn't believe everything you saw. Through Parcher, and for all its solemn melodrama, A Beautiful Mind maintained a peculiar, edgy appeal. Da Vinci manages no such appeal.

Instead, adhering to the many plot events of the popular novel, the film is unwieldy and conventional, even ponderous, despite and because of the controversy surrounding it. The first glimpse into Robert suggests the problem: he stands at a lectern in Paris, speaking on the "sacred feminine," the subject of his latest book. After baiting his audience to label a Klu Klux Klan robe a sign of "racism!" or a pitchfork the emblem of the "devil!", he enlarges the frame on the slides behind him, to demonstrate that changing contexts will change meaning (his listeners appear especially eager to shout out their narrow judgments, which appears a device to show his open-mindedness, or maybe just his superiority). The performance -- which closes with Robert's admonition that decipherers of symbols must "penetrate" to find an "original truth" -- is intercut with images of the corpse that will draw him into a life-altering adventure, a Louvre curator whom you've seen shot by a crazy-scary albino monk named Silas (Paul Bettany, who also had a better time in Beautiful Mind).

That the curator, Jacques Saunière (Jean-Pierre Marielle) happens to be Sophie's estranged grandfather brings her to the murder scene, which is lucky for Robert, also called to the scene by the low-talking Captain Bezu Fache (Jean Reno), to... consult. The scholar, summoned during a post-lecture book-signing that demonstrates his popularity and wit, is briefly flattered, then daunted when he learns he is a suspect, owing to a note left by the victim. Sophie, however, warns Robert, and within minutes, they've run off into the Parisian night, eluding dumber-than-bags-of-hammers cops and tracking down the clues they've started to decipher in Da Vinci's paintings. That is, the paintings indicated in Saunière's hypercryptic scribblings and the fact that before his death, he arranged his own bloody, naked body to resemble Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. Talk about elaborate.

"Symbols," says Robert early on, "are a language that can help us understand our past." Indeed. The film belabors this point, laying out a series of symbols and pasts, rejiggering artworks so they appear (at least in Robert's mind) in nefarious or maybe mystical designs. The pasts are various and mostly tedious, offered in washed-out colors to denote their pastness and including Silas' (he stabs his abusive father), Sophie's (she cries at something her grandfather does and survives the horrific car crash that kills her parents and brother), Robert's (he falls down a well), and oh yes, the planet's (flashbacks introduced by narrated expositions show bits of the Crusades, witch hunts/burnings, religious wars, and vast conspiracies).

Incredibly, give the sheer numbers of digital and actual bodies amassed for the "historical" bits, the personal pasts tend to trump them, at least in terms of effects. For all the chatter about the Catholic Church's cover-up regarding that big secret (it has to do with Jesus and Mary Magdalene), the action is predominantly instigated by characters overwhelmed by individual pathologies. Any potential institutional critique is lost in the rush of flashy neuroses, invidious iniquities (especially visible in the Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina), and abject miseries (see: the oddly accented Silas, who skitters between seeing himself as an angel and a ghost).

You know Silas is miserable because, as he says upfront and repeatedly, he is prone to "chastise my body." That he likes to do this naked in his monkish cell (he is, by the way and irrelevantly, a member of the sect Opus Dei, which apparently has no monks as such) and in front of his mirror suggests an inexplicable layering of transgressions: he's vain, he's damaged, he's bloody (his instruments of self-torture are ingenious and painful), and he's driven. He should be working for Dr. Evil rather than the Bishop, but after having saved Aringarosa from murderers (this also revealed in a grainy flashback), he's been the man's appointed assassin, killing off all who have access to even the most tangential knowledge of the secret.

Robert and Sophie's route to such knowledge is circuitous, owing to the scavenger-huntish plot structure and the unbelievable complications of the "conspiracy" (and yet, Robert intones, "We've been dropped into a world where people think this stuff is real"). Eventually they come to a crotchety expert on the Holy Grail, Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen). Clever and self-congratulatory, Teabing appears a decent match for Robert, except that he is Ian McKellan on a pair of canes, and liable to see through the dreariness of the proceedings (on their arrival at the stately Chateau Villette, Teabing rejoices, "You travel with a maiden!"). He reveals to Robert and Sophie, using visual aids to lead the rest of us along, an intricate fabric of lies involving Christian theology, paganism, the papacy, Constantine, Da Vinci's Last Supper, and Sir Isaac Newton's funeral, not to mention a mini-lecture on the meanings of Vs and inverted Vs in paintings (Teabing reminds his rapt listeners, "The more penises you have, the higher you rank" -- he does bring welcome humor to the proceedings).

As they peer into dark corners and sift through dusty tomes, Robert and company spend lots of time in high-ceilinged cathedrals. Sophie, who has her own difficult past with Catholicism, looks up into one such structure and wonders, "Why do they make them so scary?" This does seem a key question, having to do with myths and faiths. But the film seems only to accept the practice rather than addressing the question. In straining to make its spaces and secrets "scary," Da Vinci literalizes thoughts and dreams, and abandons mystery and nuance.

4

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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Music

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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