Lars Trier’s Five Obstructions

Lars von Trier – take him or leave him. Love him or loathe him: Whichever way you look at him, he’s a one-off. A talented filmmaker, his stubborn refusal to play by conventional rules led him to dismiss what had been and set up a new set of rules, the Dogme manifesto – to ensure “complete film” or some such nonsense. Ironically, and most likely fully intentional, The Dogme rules were more inhibiting than anything else, but made for a few good films until the novelty wore off.

The Five Obstructions is basically about Trier challenging fellow Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth to remake his own 1967 short film The Perfect Human – a dull-looking exercise and incidentally Trier’s favourite short film. Trier sets up a set of rules – the titular obstructions – for Leth; in one film, for example, no shot may be longer than 12 frames (Michael Bay, eat your heart out!) and it has to be shot in a place Leth has never been and so on; in other attempts, Leth must star, has to deal with no set of rules whatsoever and it goes on and on. Trier tries to come up with challenges for Leth; the purpose of this is ostensibly to expose Leth’s humanity, Leth being considered a distant observer by Trier. This distance, Trier says, hinders Leth in his work and life. He babbles on about this being therapy rather than filmmaking; he wants there to be dirt in Leth’s work, as he himself loves it when actors do a crap job within the same parameters as they do good work. This is human. (Anyone familiar with Trier’s work can attest to his films being very human.)

There are certain laughs to be had, such as when Trier calls out to his assistant and asks whether they can afford to send Leth to Cuba. “Is it in the budget? He has to go to Cuba” – as Leth sits there, looking baffled.

Leth circumnavigates Trier’s obstructions deftly; each movie looks better and more compelling than the original. I realize I am probably being seduced by window dressing here – an inexcusable sin for a graphic designer – but the simple fact is that incomprehensibility in technicolour garb is still more enjoyable than in monochromatic. Compare Last Year at Marienbad to Donnie Darko, for example.

Trier loses, of course. Leth remains unfazed and unflappable, rising to the challenge every time. And, this “distant” human comes over as a rather affable person, quick to a smile and thoroughly enthusiastic about the work. The only times he seems worried is before the first obstruction, before he really knows what he’s doing, and before the fourth – and that’s mostly because he’s pissed off at having to make a cartoon, a style of filmmaking he hates. (He eventually goes to Bob Sabiston, the man behind the animations in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life for this)

The joke, of course, is that Trier ultimately shifts the focus of the film from Leth and onto himself with his final obstruction. Leth must agree to be credited as director as well as read a voice-over text that Trier has written for him. About Leth and Trier. Thus it is that at the end of the movie, we are left with a crap joke, a visual pun based on the original short and can only wonder whether Trier planned the whole thing like that. So the joke is on Leth. Or Trier. Or us. Frankly, who cares?

Did anyone really doubt it was Trier’s project? After all, the title is Lars von Trier’s Five Obstructions. Sure, you say: the obstructions were Trier’s, but the work was Leth’s. Or was it? Trier can be an enthralling director when he stops and remembers to remove his head from his ass. Witness Zentropia for a compelling example – and downright exciting – art film; claustrophobic and mysterious. See The Kingdom for the laughs and chills that Stephen King’s insipid remake failed to provide at all; also note how it is possible to sustain a confusing storyline by having fun. (Trier lucked out with Ernst-Hugo Järegård’s death, though – now he doesn’t have to finish it) and lastly, The Idiots, a study in weirding and creeping the audience, pushing boundaries and reveling in filth and taboos. Not to mention full frontal nudity and penetration.

Trier can also be an infuriating director, weird for weird’s sake. A veritable ball of (affected?) neurotic beahaviour, Trier is apparently afraid of flying, an agoraphobic, a claustrophobic and so on. Not even Woody Allen makes so much of his state of mental health. But it’s also readily apparent that Trier also has a large, large ego, and this movie is a very effective example of that; after all, who else would challenge his own idol to remake his best effort in order to make it less perfect?

Lars von Trier’s Five Obstructions is mostly for completists and students of the medium. The movie doesn’t give enough of anything. As a documentary, it fails, providing too little insight into the creative process, the technical aspect and the incentive to create in the first place. It also gives too little of the actual finished results, leaving us with short glimpses of the movie. In my case, I can appreciate that: I thought the original short version was a bore, so seeing the same thing five times in a row…well. Perhaps the DVD will give us more, perhaps not. Either way, Trier will soon start shooting the follow-up to Dogville. In the meantime, he has reminded us that, yes, he’s still here. And Leth? Probably back in his villa in Haiti, smoking his stogie and enjoying the café life…

  • Director: Lars von Trier & Jørgen Leth
  • Cast: Jørgen Leth, Lars von Trier
01.02.2004 • Permalink

On the Wings of Song

2003 was certainly an awfully eventful year and it’s probably fair to say it has more to condemn it than not, but at the very least, Britney Spears is losing popularity, for which we can all be thankful.

So with the year winding down, and me bored and having nothing better to do, I decided to write about 2003. As a reasonably and averagely intelligent – if hopelessly immature – person, I thought I could perhaps say something enlightening and entertaining about the year that was, war(t)s and all, but I was wrong. I wrote this piece instead, for you to peruse, should you be so inclined. (Funny, isn’t it, how I actually think anybody actually reads this?) This list, like all such lists, has about as much to do with my life in 2003 as it does with music. Quel surpris. Or quelle. Whatever. You have been warned.

Anyway, dear (non-)reader, I dutifully sat down and went through my CD collection to pick and choose, but since I’ve been pretty much broke the whole damn year, there wasn’t really too much to pick from. Of the tiny handful of albums I bought, I found only a few from 2003. Thankfully, they were all pretty good. Easiest list I ever made.

(If you are from New Brunswick, NJ, and happy about that fact, you may want to skip the first paragraph, the last one and the ones in between.)

The Best Albums of 2003, In My Humble Opinion

Welcome Interstate Managers | Fountains of Wayne
The finest two popsmiths currently working in the US, Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger, do it again. After two sublime efforts, their eponymous debut and the follow-up, Utopia Parkway, comes this wonder. Both a love song and a lament to New Jersey, it deals with lives being lived in all their grey and dreary glory. I remember sitting alone in a mostly empty room in New fucking Brunswick, NJ, drinking beer and listening to this, recognizing myself in too many of the scenarios. The Fountains are always being referred to as smug and ironic, but I never found that in their music: Adding humour and/or a twist doesn’t in fact mean youre taking the piss out of anything, it just means you’re adding humour and/or a twist. Some would even call it colour. Creating characters and telling stories is becoming a lost art in contemporary music, and I can relate a lot more to the lovelorn losers and desolate deadbeats slouching in the grooves of this disc, than to the impotent fury and immaculate angst you find on most introspective modern rock albums. On Welcome…, you realize both that you know some of these people, and also that you are some of these people. This is almost tantamount to the blues: To think, just to think, that anything this sweet-sounding can be so heartbreaking. It’s like love: It might be designed for pleasure, but it can break your heart so terribly bad if and when you let it. I’ve rarely felt sadder or more lost than when I listened to this, but at least I didn’t feel so alone. Whoever would have thought New Jersey is the place the blues lives? (Well…). The Fountains are not virtuosi, but thanks to some clever orchestration, their sound is fresh and snappy; it may also help that these timeless tunes all stand out in your head. But songs without lyrics are just songs without lyrics, and these puppies are abetted by some truly well-spun lines: Not one single word is out of place and I can happily claim that almost every rhyme is sublime. (To wit: Valley Winter Song’s downright Scandinavian description of winterish melancholy: “And Late December/Can drag a man down/You feel it deep in your gut/Short days and afternoons/Spent puttering around/In a dark house with the windows painted shut”) New Jersey is a state of mind, it seems, and I dig this a lot more than I ever did Bruce Springsteen. Also, this album was one of the things that made me leave the US (New Jersey being generally helpful in that respect): I just woke up one day and realized that, frankly, I didn’t want to end up as a Fountains of Wayne B-side. (New Brunswick Nobody, anyone?) Can I just repeat how much I dig this CD? Granted, there are a few duds here and there, but considering that neither The Beatles, The Stones, or even the Bay City Rollers ever managed to release a completely dross-free album, I can cope.

Poetry & Airplanes | Teitur
Danish singer-songwriter, sounding as sweet and sad as Elliot Smith (R.I.P.), although his melancholy bent is of a more Scandinavian nature. Not quite as druggy as Smith, and with fewer self-inflicted scars, this is oftentimes lonely and fragile music from a cold place where winter nights are long and attempted suicide is an option when there’s nothing on TV and you have nothing better to do. It’s also often sweetly orchestrated and performed, lush and warm, like a kiss before a fireplace when the snow lays heavy outside. Poetry & Airplanes contains one of the most intimate and plaintive childhood portraits set to music in Sweet Josephine (imagine Nick Drake channeling Ray Bradbury, circaa Dandelion Vine); furthermore, one of the loneliest musical postcards I’ve heard in a while is quietly strummed out on I Was Just Thinking. (I had that song on repeat for a week or so and it still breaks my heart to the tiniest fractions of atoms.) Being the soft sounds of a sensitive soul, Lester Bangs would really, truly, absolutely, completely, utterly and indiscriminately hate this album with a total, furious passion and complete conviction. But then again, Lester’s dead.

Scandinavian Leather | Turbonegro

Announcing the triumphant return of the world’s greatest homoerotic death punk band, this effort sees the Norwegian yahoos take to the airwaves yet again with ditties like Fuck the World, Sell Your Body (To The Night) and Wipe It ‘Till It Bleeds. Losing vocalist Hank von Helvete to mental instability and heroin addiction in Italy a few years back, they regrouped after he was released from the psych ward (I swear I’m not even making this up) and invoked the Denim Demon once again. Scandinavian Leather may lack an insta-anthem like Erection, but makes up for it with a fuller, beefier sound and better songs overall. The sound of chunder in the distance.

Absolution | Muse
Queen meets Metallica. Bombastic and histrionic, bordering on hysterical, but never over the top. Absolution may best be described as a Punk Metal Opera, all jagged guitars and high-pitched vocals, but that would be selling it short. Is to 2003 what Songs For the Deaf was to 2002, but better.

So Much For The City | The Thrills
Dublin band makes Wish-This-Were-California album. Warm and timeless; think Teenage Fanclub, the Byrds (country years) and the Wondermints.


Let It Be…Naked | The Beatles

Not really sure why I put this on here: It’s not that great. Paul McCartney finally –Finally!– gets to redo Let It Be in his image and thus show the world what a good songwriter he is. This sounds a bit like the Let It Be outtakes on the Anthology 3 set. No huge surprises, then. To be honest, Let It Be was always a bit of a clunker and changing arrangements on the songs doesn’t change that too much. If Margaret Cho took her clothes off, she would still be funny, but she’d also be stark naked, and I’m not sure there’s really much call for that.

Honourable Mention

Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon| Warren Zevon
Having been a passionate Zevon fan for at least several months since he was first diagnosed with terminal cancer, this should be on here. His last release, the posthumous The Wind, may be more appropriate, but I haven’t had the guts to listen to it yet: A friend described that album with tears in his eyes, and I don’t think I can deal with it yet. It’s stupid to let oneself be so easily manipulated by music, but since it took me months to listen to Queen’s The Show Must Go On without hiding in a cupboard and covering my ears with bagels, I figure I may as well be on the safe side. Still, I really do want to send a shout-out to Warren, but I’ll do it by putting down Genius, Rhino’s 2002 compilation instead. A good career overview of the laconic smart-ass, it mixes oddness, beauty and wit in equal doses. Affectionate farewells like Hasten Down the Wind or weird war tale Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner, stand side by side, making Genius consistently entertaining. To me, though, it’s the sound of going from New fucking Brunswick, NJ, to Cooperstown, NY, to visit my close friend Kris. It will be the sound of that for a long time, and it’s a pretty good sound to me.

Songs That Meant A Lot

Valley Winter Song | Fountains of Wayne

Warm, wistful and wonderful, like candy canes for your ears, and unbearably sad, like getting a toothache from a kiss. Sounds like being lost at sea, sinking, and hearing something in the distance that can maybe –and maybe not– save you. It’s not much, it’s everything, but at the very least, there”s a brief comfort to be had there. Perhaps I’m trying too hard to be clever here. Either way, it’s my favourite track from my favourite album this year.

Fuglen | DeLillos

This number got me through the odd bad day. Frankly, the world needs more songs with bears (that aren’t Vinnie the Pooh or Fozzie) and sparrows in them. And fish. (Dave McKean could do the cover.) Pepe the Rabbit approves of this song.

American Jesus | Bad Religion

“I don’t need to be a global citizen/’cuz I got my nationality/I’m a member of a growing populace/We enforce our popularity” American Jesus was written in 1993, but you’d never know it. Sounds pretty relevant right about now.

Don’t Let It Bring You Down | Annie Lennox

The album itself, Medusa, isn’t up to much, but I kept cranking this song during my not-nearly-brief-enough stint in New fucking Brunswick, NJ.

I left My Heart In San Francisco | Tony Bennett

…and my liver in New Jersey. Not entirely sure which side of the Bay; I may even have lost it on the BART somewhere. Stupidly, I tend to carry it on my sleeve. If you see it, please try not to step on it.

Ain’t That Enough | Teenage Fanclub

“Here is a sunrise” goes the chorus of this charmer, in harmonies almost too sweet for words, “ain’t that enough?” Not if you live in New Brunswick, no.

Album Most Needed To be Reborn In 2003

Never Mind The Bollocks | Sex Pistols

Nevermind Y2K: Set your clocks to 1984! In a few paltry years, George Bush steals an election, fucks the environment gleefully, pisses on the concept of privacy and invades Iraq, causing Rage Against The Machine to go into sulk overload and BREAK UP, reforming as Audioslave with the former Soundgarden vocalist and a hitherto unknown Grand Funk fetish. As for Bollocks; back in ’77, Queen Elisabeth got this for her anniversary: I could honestly give a shit about the Brit class system, but no matter: Despite the protestations of Korn and Limp Bizkit fans, this is what angry music sounds like. (It’s also a total pose, but that’s besides the point. Or maybe it is the point.) That nobody has recorded anything that even attempts a sociopopcultural catharrsis like Bollocks in this day and age, is almost too sad a thought to contemplate. Michael Moore’s everlasting crusade against the Republicans can frankly get grating at times, but I think it’s high time he put the camera down and bought himself a guitar and a Marshall stack. If Tom Morello can’t get time out from remaking Vanishing Point for MTV, I’ll even show Mike a few chords myself. Then all he’ll need is a shocking name, like The Gay Socialists and The Limited Oil Supply (too psychedelic?) or maybe something really outrageous like The Welfare State.
Still, with Saddam’s capture by US troops, the somewhat surreal thought of US gunships in the Baghdad sunset, blasting We Are The Champions or possibly The Yellow Rose Of Texas is oddly amusing, in a Stanley Kubrick sort of way.

Best Live Performance

A tie, sorta: It’s either Justin taking me to see M. Ward in San Francisco this August, or walking into the Court Tavern in New fucking Brunswick, NJ, for a beer or six to anaesthesise the pain of living in New fucking Brunswick, NJ and then finding Jonathan Richman playing a gig downstairs. Both gigs were great, but as Richman alleviated the trauma of having to wake up for two consecutive months in New fucking Brunswick, NJ, he wins this one hands down. Neil Finn at the Warfield and Richard Thompson at the Fillmore were both pretty damn good too. Tom Paxton, that old fixture from the Gaslight and Cafe Wha?, is still going strong, and dropped by the Freight & Salvage in late January. Suffering under the yoke of a Republican administration must obviously agree with him: He was funny as hell, warm and wise in the way we want our elders to be and put on a really smoking show, but since I also missed out on Jessica’s birthday and seeing Oakland Raiders fans torch cars because of him, I am forced to subtract some points. Still, I got to pretend I was in the 60s and that the Man was still a force that could be opposed, or even that the Man actually gave two shits about us. I’d also say Ween put on a pretty awesome show in Oslo in early December, but as I was seeing double by the time they got around to performing, I’m not entirely certain.

Best Live Performance featuring Yours Truly

After enjoying the Starry Plough Irish Session most Sundays of the year, Christina held me to my cocksure promise of singing before BRT’s 2002-03 season was over. I held my word as the good boy I mostly am, and, after a feeble, near inaudible intro that had the MC looking worried (“He’ll be goin’ down in flames”, said his eyes), I belted out a Norwegian folk tune that they could most likely hear well across the street. (Thanks to the Speech and Voice class at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre: You rock, Domenique!) The tune was short and sweet and also a far more personal choice than I let on to my friends. For my troubles, I received a big round of applause and was actually asked to sing again the week after. (I declined) Much to everybody’s surprise, I didn’t touch a drop before singing.

Best Compilation Album 0f 2003

Again, like the best gig, it’s sort of a tie: It’s either the freebie that came with the November ish of Q, which has Thoughts of A Dying Atheist by Muse (“It scares the hell out of meeeee/The end is all I can seeeee”), or the birthday disc somone burned for us spring chickens. I’d probably go with the latter, as much for sentimental reasons as for containing the punk version of Cabaret, but since I lost the damn thing in New fucking Brunswick, NJ, it doesn’t much matter.

Best Music Writing

Mainlines, Blood Feasts And Bad Taste | Lester Bangs

Since Bangs died in in 1982, before MTV ruled the Earth, this is hardly current stuff. Still, the re-release of Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung a few years ago found enough interest to justify yet another anthology. Like Reactions, Mainlines is chock full of acerbic wit and opinionated bile, funny as all hell. Some of it rings true, even if it’s a joke, such as his claim that I Will Survive will hold up better than anything by Throbbing Gristle, which is true (Unless Fatboy Slim gets around to some remixing), and some is so wrong it’s funny anyway. Some longer pieces, like his travelogue from Jamaica, shows what a fine writer he really was. It’s not as good as Reactions, which has more of his mature writing, and more Lou Reed rants, thus making it better, but it’s still a hell of a read. Like for most amateur critics and writers, Bangs holds a special place in my heart. He’s not the best American writer of the century by far, no matter what Greil Marcus might claim, (My money’s on V.A. Andrews) but he’s damn good and often even great, and should have done far more than just music reviews (Frankly, his writing is better than the subject often deserves), had he gotten his act together. And those are words to live by, aren’t they?

Most Useless Single To Get Needlessly Pissed Off About

Changes | Kelly & Ozzy Osbourne

I don’t much like Christina Aguilera, but at least she can sing. And when an annoying, no-talent brat like Kelly Osbourne disses her, well, I must concede Ms. Aguilera some grudging kudos. Changes is an old Black Sabbath number, from Vol. 4, a monster album (just listen to opener Wheels Of Confusion) in its own right. I never thought Changes quite fit in on it, but many people think it’s a rather loveley piece of fluff. However twee the original Changes seemed, it doesn’t hold a candle to this insipid remake. Kelly (Kellie? Who gives a shit anyway?) warbles away in her tuneless moan, Ozzy following suit, his vocals echoing the guitar/piano lines as they have since the dawn of time. The difference is that Ozzy’s vocals, limited that they may be, still have soul. Now that Ozzy lies in the hospital, banged up after pulling a Zimmermann 66 on his motorcycle, this has become his very first number one single in the UK. If anyone deserves one of those, it’s him. But what price, Ozzy, what price? If this single were a place, it’d be New Brunswick, NJ

15.01.2004 • Permalink

Until it Sleeps

When Metallica finally recorded and released the follow-up to Metallica (aka “the black album”), it was deemed a disappointment by many. Some cried sell-out and it’s almost easy to understand why when you hear the finished result.

The Metallica of Master of Puppets, one of — if not the — best metal albums ever, had taken their leave. In their wake they left slower songs, discernible lyrics, not to mention a beefed-up production and a cry went out into the land and it was that producer Bob Rock hath made Metallica sound like ye olde Bon Jovi! Far from it. But as the opening riff pounds you to the wall and Hetfield shrieks “Outta my way!”, you find that you’ll do well to obey.

The runaway success of Metallica must have left the band in a quandary. Many long-time fans felt they had sold out when they streamlined their sound; some of us, newer to the scene, welcomed the advent of heavier music to the mainstream. But when the dust settled, it’s difficult to see Metallica as the pinnacle of the second part of their career. Yes, it’s a good metal record overall, containing a few classic tracks, ie. the singles Enter SandmanThe Unforgiven and the balls-out monster track Wherever I may roam.

Load is the album Metallica could have been. It’s a logical progression. It must have been a difficult choice for them: what direction to pursue? The trash metal that made their name or the slower grind that broke them to the masses? I for one can’t help but be pleased that they decided to go for broke and try on a new sound.

The simple fact is that while Load doesn’t measure up to the brutal, velocity-crazed brilliance of Master of Puppets, it really shouldn’t have to: They are two entirely different kinds of beasts. Make no mistake about it: Load is a gem. It is the sound of a band growing up; Metallica are in fact facing middle age; is it such a surprise that their outlook on things would change or that their sound would mellow somewhat with the advent of children and families?

Image-wise, they took the make-over too far; the Anton Korbijn Gen X photos that adorn the cover grate. Especially since the music contained on the disc is far removed from designer angst in vogue then as now. (Still, Lars Ulrich getting a haircut was surely not so bad: It looked pretty thin on top.)

Load shows a more melodic Metallica than before: Slower, and even “groove-oriented”, many simply felt this was an excuse for the band to play sloppily. They’re wrong. Load is the sound of a tight, confident band open to change. They even introduce pedal steel guitar, for the love of Gawd. This momentary lapse of heaviosity aside, I dare you not to be blown away by the rest: The riffs to Ain’t my bitch and 2×4 are gleefully malevolent and überheavy. Hetfield’s growl has never contained more malice, nor more authority, than here; He sounds more confident than ever, barking and spitting forth the lyrics with the confident swagger of a man on top of the world.

Like most albums these days, Load outstays its welcome, being simply too long. It could easily be trimmed by a few tracks with no major loss of quality. Some songs don’t really gel either: Poor Twisted Me feels more like a parody of Metallica than the real thing. But whatever…

Looking back, now given the perspective of a few more years, it’s far easier to look at Load as its own entity and simply listen to the music. In short, Load rocks like a motherfucker. And it’s certainly the only album of theirs that can be described as “groovy”. The Bon Jovi charges sound particularly groundless when Metallica even in mellower moments sound as if they could rip the New Jerseyites in half with little effort.

By way of a final complaint, or perhaps lament, I must admit I find it unfortunate that opening track of the following year’s Reload, Fuel, was not included here: It certainly would have done a bit to silence the album’s detractors. It is classic Metallica, balls, attitude and muscles: the sound of a 747 landing right on your nose.

They should have called it Loaded

12.10.2003 • Permalink

Autumn Sonata

The Creative Process
He sat with his journals in front of him, trying to find the opening line, trying to find the elusive words that would somehow catapult him into story. But nothing manifested itself. It seemed the pages laughed at him. What’s the matter? they would say, in their smug and complacent voices, Cat got your tongue? It went on for days. Then weeks. Every day a new sequence of letters, words, none that moved him, none that made him smile or frown or anything. The hell with it, he finally thought and snapped the journal shut. It’s just not time yet, he thought glumly. I suppose, he told himself, that one could use the brewing of beer as a metaphor, the fermenting process that needs to take place before the product is ready. (He also supposed that it might be too apt a metaphor, but shushed himself.) He went out for coffee. He had the street mostly to himself: Other people worked.

That evening found him screaming. He hadn’t meant to, but now it was necessary, had in fact gone beyond necessary, to simply primal. They were not screams of pain. They were screams of frustration, and powerlessness. Screams of despair. They were the screams of a man watching his brother drown. His retarded brother, true, but his brother nonetheless. But it was useless, like trying to stop an approaching tidal wave by pissing at it. What the fuck were they thinking? Playing 4-5-1 against Luxembourg? Playing Luxembourg with only a sole striker? The referee’s whistle sounded and the game was over. The room was hushed and funereal. Another round? said someone. Hell, yeah! muttered another. It was two beers before the hush left the room. After a few more, it was more like a wake.

After he went to bed, he tossed and turned. At long last, he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep, carried on wings of sighs. He woke with a start, something he thought only happened in movies. He’d been awakened by a familiar voice, his bleary eyes making out a face in the dark. Happy, and not yet rid of the dream logic that told him the impossible was not only possible but highly probable, he reached out for her, waking himself up completely in the process. The remnants of the dream went the same way as his whispered I’ve missed you; into night and silence. Falling asleep the second time was even harder.

The Passing of Time
One morning, he peeked outside. There was ice on the ground. Ice! It was only mid-October. But the sun set early and the nights were longer than days and had been for weeks already. Where had time gone? Wasn’t he supposed to move somewhere? No, he had moved already. And returned. Time had passed. A whole year. Jesus, he thought, as the magnitude of it hit him. (Too dramatic, wasn’t it, to think of mortality over something as simple as frozen water and some dead leaves, but then again, wasn’t that just like him? And hell, it was the season for it. Who was he to deny his cultural heritage?) Jesus, he thought again. Fucking ice.

01.10.2003 • Permalink

The Sugarland Express

Nevermind Duel; The Sugarland Express is Steven Spielberg’s actual cinematic debut. (Duel was a TV movie, remember?) It was released in 1974 and was well received, although I don’t know about box offic performance. Later, I read in Empire how one critic commented that “watching (Malick’s) Badlands vs. Sugarland Express was seeing the difference between the artist and the smartass” or words to that effect. But Terence Malick has made three movies in 25 years (he’s currently working on a new project; its estimated opening should be no later than autumn of 2017) and Steven Spielberg is…well, Steven Spielberg.

Interestingly, few people I know have ever seen Sugarland Express, or are at all aware that it exists. A shame, as it’s quite a little corker. But then, it did well upon its release, I understand, so what do I know? I wasn’t even born then!

Goldie Hawn stars as Luann and Willam Atherton as her hubby, Clovis; Clovis is in jail. Luann has just been in jail (we don’t know what for) but has been released. The movie opens with her visiting Clovis in prison to tell him that she considers their marriage over. Unless he’s willing to escape with her; Their baby has been placed in a foster home and custody’s about to become permanent. Luann wants Clovis to come with and convince the foster parents to let them keep the baby. They escape (it’s a very minimum security prison, it seems) and catch a ride with a fellow inmate’s parents. At first Clovis doesn’t want to – quite reasonably, too: he only has four months left to serve; he only comes along because of Luann. As we learn throughout the movie, he is willing to let the baby go, as long as he can be with Luann. They get pulled over and before you can say “Hal Needham”, a chase ensues, cars are wrecked and they have kidnapped officer Slide, a highway patrolman. The race is on.

I’ve been interested in seeing this movie for a long time, and I wasn’t disapppointed, even if my roomate said “blah” after it was over. Like Badlands, the movie also looks at the American cult of outlaws; as they get closer to Sugarland, more and more people show up to cheer them on; one town even has a parade for them, and the fugitives find themselves as heroes, almost. Spielberg is, no matter what one says, not a stupid director. Yes, he’s fucked up along the way, and he’s boringly PC these days (although Minority Report, for all its obvious flaws, was the best future noir since Blade Runner, in my humble opinion), but when he’s on, he’s on. Sugarland Express is obviously a smaller movie than what we’re used to from him now: He was just a hungry young director then, Jaws and superstardom yet to happen. But his trademwarks are there: The sheer technical skill and the obvious confidence on display, the swift direction and expert pacing. And, like in so many of Spielberg’s movies, the protagonists are not really adults. They are (both are 25), but they are cut from the same cloth as Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters. Luann is somewhat child-like and doesn’t quite fathom that jailbreak and kidnapping probably won’t be points in their favour to get their baby back. Clovis knows this, but can’t quite bring himself to stop Luann either; he loves her. The point is rammed home by the captain himself: “Dammit, they’re just kids”, he says at one point. I have a thought that Luann’s child-mind might be further caused from the stress of having lost her baby –that in fact, she’s on the border of LaLa-land the whole time. It would explain some things about her behaviour and somewhat tenuous grip on reality.

The tentative friendship they strike up with their hostage, officer Slide, is handled very believingly. Moments such as when Clovis asks Slide if he could get a job as a patrolman and Slide stutters “With a record, you can’t. I think it’s againt the law” are genuine and often moving. In another scene, for example, Slide is handcuffed in the back seat of the car while they sleep: listening to the police radio, he hears Luann’s father (he’s been brought in to try and talk her out of it) putting her down and calling her names. When Luann returns, Slide asks her if she could turn off the radio, in order to spare her feelings. Their friendship, such as it is, is driven part by getting to know each other, part from pitying them. These are fine moments that show Spielberg is, in fact, not just a smartass hack, but a fine director fully capable of real emotion, rather than ersatz ones. Seen opposite Malick’s Badlands, its immediate parallel, I frankly like the characters in Sugarland Express better. Martin Sheen was a psycho, pure and simple, and it’s difficult to sympathise with that, no matter is he has a James Dean fixation or no. I’m not saying Badlands isn’t a terrific movie which everyone should run and see pronto, because it is. It’s just that Clovis and Luann are a lot more likable.

I also like the fact that the police for once are sympathetic: They do their damndest to stop the fugitives, but also don’t really want to hurt them. (“I’ve been on the force for 18 years, and I haven’t killed anyone yet…I aim to keep it that way” says the captain) This is one of the things that give the movies its emotional impact: we like all the main players and we want them to just get along; to sit down and have a drink in the end. The fact that we know there must be the inevitable showdown makes it all the more tense. And isn’t it weird that once upon a time, policemen were portrayed as dedicated and honest, you know, as good guys? In the end, Clovis has his gun returned to him by his captain: “I expect you’ll want this back” says the captain and walks away. Slide calls after him “They weren’t ever going to use it” but gets no reply. It’s a sad moment, and we all know that nobody really won. I dowish the media/fame aspect had been developed a bit more, but at the same time, I see why it wasn’t. This is a character study, not a media satire, so it’s wisely kept in the background.

Goldie Hawn liked the script enough to break her sabbatical following her Academy Award nomination. It was based on a real event, though I don’t know how much of it has been altered. Still, in real life, Luann served 15 months, but convinced the state that she was a fit mother and was granted custody after she was released. William Atherton, probably most known as the creep who tried to shut down Ghostbusters and the smarmy reporter in the first two Die Hard movies, plays Clovis very well; he’s the perfect mix of nervous and reckless. Kudos also to John Williams (of course) for a different musical score: no huge symphonic movements, just some twangy and dusty harmonica tones with some oddly modern-sounding backbeats; a bit like Ry Cooder, but not as familiarly dull, if that makes sense.

Spielberg went on to make Jaws after this; nothing else needs to be said about his career, except that it would be wonderful to see him do another movie like this, where people are the special effects. Barring his two amazing war movies, this (and I guess Jaws) might just be his most human movie. There are none of the overwrought and often misplaced histrionics that mars even his best work, such as Schindler’s List. (Partly, I think, because he doesn’t quite trust the audience to be moved sufficiently on their own –strange, given his skill, but perhaps stemming from the belated artistic recognition.) It’s not perfect, but it’s the sort of movie rarely seen these days; an action drama with actual heart and real characters. It’s also very ’70s American auteur, kissing cousins with Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde et al. So give it a spin.

  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Cast: Goldie Hawn, William Atherton,
22.09.2003 • Permalink

New Jersey Moments

The Salon
I pop my head into the salon; a fey-looking guy wielding a pair of scissors turns around. “Do you do guys?” I ask, innocently. He looks at me, shock and some embarrassment in his eyes. Perhaps I phrased it badly; this is New Jersey, after all, not San Francisco. “I need a trim” I hasten to add. Relief on his face? “Sure, my friend” he says, motioning to the chair; “sit down, sit down.” I explain how I want it, in very simple terms. It’s a cut I’ve had many, many times before. He nods briskly, as if I insult him by explaining, and gets to work. Cutters used liberally, buzzing in my ears like angry bees, I realize it all went wrong from the beginning. After he’s done, he says “Take a look. Handsome guy, eh?” It’s awful. Buzzcut on the sides, with just a bit left on top; nowhere enough to style, plus, it’s cut too close to the middle, accentuating the roundness of my head even more. My ears stick out like Dumbo’s, seemingly trying to flee this embarrassment. My God, I gasp inside as I realize; I have a reverse mullet! Fearing further follicular damage, I pay up and leave. Seems I was correct after all. He did do guys.

The Laundromat
“I need to make a phone call” he says, “can you help me with a quarter?” The laundromat is empty, save for an Asian guy at the back, folding his sheets with the care of someone a few of the same to the wind ; I have a couple of quarters in my pocket.”“Sorry” I reply. “I need to make a phone call” he repeats, as if that would sway me. I shrug and return to my book. He looks at me with anger, as if I owed him a quarter, for some reason. He moves on to the other guy, who gives him a quarter to make him leave. As he heads for the door, he glowers at me, accusation written all over him. “He helped” he says, before he exits. I suppose I could point out that he tried getting money from me the day before, but what’s the point? At least he didn’t yell at me this time. I see him begging from other people; they all give him something. All of a sudden, I feel like a hard man. Perversely appealing it is, too.

The Office

“How do you measure things?”
“What do you mean?” I ‘m confused; the two look at me with anticipation.
“Well, how do you measure stuff?” Oh, I get it. Something slithers across the dirtier crevices of my brain and it blurts out, though with the slightly hesistant air of a question, lacking somewhat in conviction and authority: “With my dick!”
They look at me, uncertain of what to say, what to do. Laughter lurks somewhere beneath those faces, but shock too; well, perhaps not shock, merely distaste.
“Where you’re from…in feet…or in metric?” he finally says, holding up a ruler to illustrate his point, but it’s too late by far; the words are out there, irretrievable.
“Jesus, it’s been a long week.” he mumbles, sounding tired and somewhat despondent. She just leaves, laughing, of sorts, without much mirth. New fucking Jersey.

Today marks three straight weeks of rain, a near-constant downpour, relentless and utterly unsympathetic to the plight of the sun-starved soul. Today is officially the first day of summer. Somebody fucked up somewhere.

09.06.2003 • Permalink

And never the twain…

My trip to California was a marvel: I spent three full days on the train, from coast to coast, Boston to Emeryville, MA to CA, seeing some of what lies between. The rails lay across the country like tiny sketch marks on a piece a paper, through valleys and over peaks and there was such a solidity to the emptiness, a vastness so crushing and humbling as to make me feel tinier than ever. There were scenes of weathered decay, like the sad-eyed hunching cowboys of legend staring at the passing train with the moribund melancholy of an ant stuck on glue paper; windswept hamlets where prairie dust ghosted the air and the only whispers were those of the wind through deserted shacks. Especially one sight I remember so clearly in its bizarreness: a field of rusting yellow school buses, some covered by sand, as if being reclaimed by the earth, so to speak, most of them without wheels, their windows and lights broken; eyes bereft of life and soul. It was like a graveyard for elephants, a bone-dry beach covered with metallic beached whales. I saw it, as did everyone else who on the train who peeked out the window at that time, so it was certainly not an experience I can smugly call my own, but still…there it was. Closing in on the final destination, the train came in over the Sierras and even though the sun was setting and much was lost, I still saw enough to whet my appetite for a return; another journey for another year. That is how it must be.

The trip, though smooth, was not entirely without incident: Halfway between Chicago and Emeryville, the train had to stop and was delayed for hours, thanks to a mudslide that required the tracks to be cleared. It was during the night, and most of us were asleep, but I woke up, as is my wont, just in time to catch a glimpse of the thunderstorm outside. A bolt of lightning lit up the horizon and it was like staring into a nightmare, indecipherable shapes and forms reaching out for us, moving threateningly in the wind, with the rain whipping the windows, as if in a terrified frenzy to get inside. The moment passed and I went back to sleep, but the moment lingered, even if the next day was all sun and light. The second occurred when we were almost in Emeryville. The train took off from a station and the conductor apologized again for the delays. “But at the very least, nothing else can happen to make us later. The nest stop is the second to last, and we should be in Emeryville in about 45 minutes.” she said cheerfully. The train rolled into Emeryville about an hour and a half later, having spent about an hour at the second to last stop; it took time getting the dead guy off the train.

The point is: It was a bit of a journey, a journey that itself was a destination. I spoke to some people, watched the scenery, wrote some notes, read my book and stood cramped in the “bar” while Morris, the very entertaining bartender-cum-chef, failed to notice the smokers exhaling forcefully out the window, cradling their cigarettes close to their chest as inconspicuously as they could. Then again, I suppose the smoke from Morris’ unfiltered Lucky Strikes got in his eyes and blinded him temporarily. I felt fulfilled after it, replenished, as if I had done something worthwhile. One more thing to cross off the to-do-list. And one more to add: The return trip from LA goes through the deep south. And that, y’all, was my plan for the return trip.

Alas, it was not to be. I am writing this on the floor of my summer abode in New Jersey; Apart from an inflatable mattress and an armoire that I am convinced will topple and fall on me one night, killing me instantly, leaving me to be found by whatever new tenant in a few months. I do have a computer, though. An odd combination, but hey, we’re all post-modern people here, so we can deal.

My trip to Jersey was sudden, to say the least. I got a job and had about one month to get prepared, wrap up at the Rep, pack and move. As always, there was so much going on and it simply snuck up on me. I cleaned out my desk on Thursday, an oddly emotional experience (a week and a day after seeing “The Guys”, an oddly unemotional experience), then flew from Oakland to JFK the next day. Saturday would be spent looking for housing; two sublets had at that point fallen through my fingers, the second one just the day before, causing me no small grief. You can put the boy in California, but you can’t put California in the boy: “Chill out” never figured in my vocabulary too much, as my friends and acquaintances can attest to. In my view, the glass is often half full…draining away, drop by drop, just as the well of life inorexably moves towards that final emptiness… Erm…life as a pint glass, anyone? But hey: Resurrection in a refill! (If I’d only drink slower, eh?) That said, I had a brief period after experiencing Australia when I existed in a blissful state and “no worries”, the Aussie national motto, became my personal mantra as well. It lasted for a while, longer than I expected it to, but ultimately, I sobered up. To get around to the point: I arrived at JFK without the usual serenity this tends to instill in me: Weirdly enough, I go to New York to relax. Put me in an aggressive crowd of people, nasty bag ladies and profligate cabbies and I’m a happy guy. If I have problems, New York solves them; I walk down the streets, skyscrapers surrounding me, looking down the avenues, those corridor of steel and glass and reflected light, feeling dwarfed by the immensity of it all. Here, I am insignificant, a tiny speck of no importance, and consequently my problems are as insignificant as I am, even less so. It’s a fairly simple process, but it works. Plus, New York is a fun place to be. Good pizza, fashionable ladies and Coyote Ugly over on 1st Ave…hey, if it ain’t broke…

But now I found myself with no place to stay after the first two nights at the hotel, my job to start on Monday. I sighed, dragged my luggage onto the bus and set off for Grand Central Station. Once there, I collected my stuff from the milling people, waved off the hustlers, and waited for the hotel shuttle to arrive. It didn’t, so I hailed a cab instead. At the hotel, I was going to pay the cabbie: I had no money, I found. The 50 dollars that had until recently been in my pocket was gone. The bustle and scuffing of retrieving the luggage outside the bus was where it happened. It had to be. Great: I’d been in New York for about half an hour and my pocket got picked. For the first time. Luckily, my wallet and passport were still in my inner pocket, it was just the loose cash in my pocket. I travel with a large wallet and sometimes keep my cash in my pocket, so I don’t have to drag the thing out. Thank God. The cabbie was nice enough to believe me; after all, I had rather a lot to carry, so I couldn’t run off in the first place. The receptionist paid the cabbie with no fuzz and charged it to my bill. I was there, at least.

I could barely fit my stuff in my room, but I did, somehow, and sat there wondering what to do. I had planned a nice steak and a beer or two with my money. Fuck it, I thought, and went out anyway; the beer flowed, not too much of it, as I was tired and it hit me right away, but enough. The bartender, seeing me unable to concentrate on my book and generally looking miserable, leaned over and asked in a soft Irish accent if there was anythin’ wrong, like. It was a slow night and I was a long way from home and frustrated and somewhat lonely and I was suitably lubricated, so I started speaking, veering off the immediate problems at hand almost instantly. Having made some insightful and, for a serving establishment, original points about people (we’re idiots) and the world at large (it’s all fucked), I left with another beer, this one on the house, under my belt.

The day after, I went out to New Jersey, having but a tiny hope and a guy to see about a sublet. It worked out, as simple as that. I could collect the keys the next day in Manhattan, as the guy was moving to the city so nice they named it twice for the summer months. I subsequently spent a day meandering about Manhattan, which is always nice, but I was still antsy; I rented a car to get my stuff to New Brunswick, as there was no way in hell I was getting on the train with all of it. It would have been a nightmare, no doubt about it. So my driving debut on a Sunday on the East Coast of the United States of America took place in Manhattan; it was a grey day, the sidewalks filled with joyless faces trudging away like a thousand lonely funeral processions while the cabbies’ plaintive cries of “fuck you” and car horns ghosted the muggy air. It was grand. I went through the Holland tunnel and then I was in New Jersey, on that famous turnpike; the metal frames of the industrial plants all around me, smokestacks rising from the ground like parodies of flower stems, clouds of acrid smoke the petals to crown them; bony, arthritic fingers pointing skywards. I happily missed my exit and turned a 50-minute drive into a three-hour long adventure. I’m not sure, but I think I swung by Philadelphia: I have flashbacks of cheese steak and cracked bells. As I said, it was grand. The return trip the next day was even better, as I got to ride in genuine Manhattan rush traffic, but I digress.

New Brunswick is not much on first sight, nor on second, nor indeed, the third: Somebody said I’d love it, after all, I enjoyed Providence. New Brunswick is not Providence; for all its flaws, Providence has an actual city scene, you just have to get used to it. I guess the same goes for here, but I was hoping there would be something that leapt at me right away. But the sunset was lovely today, perhaps from all the smog, who knows? I wandered around, hoping to find some pub not milling with drunken fratboys. I was not successful. It’s out there somewhere, but the search goes on for the time being. There is something unsettling about streets full of young people and nothing but: It’s somewhat like walking into your own personal Stepford or something. Not a wrinkle in sight, nor a grey hair, just surrounded by one large, singular demographic. And yet, as I rounded a corner, glumly thinking about already missing Berkeley (if not the bums), which I’d sworn not to, at least not at first, I came upon something that made me giggle like an idiot. Rising from the ground, tall as two men, stood a silver tuning-fork. Did it hum to the vibrations of Mother Earth? Fuck knows. But there it was, some sort of sign.

I’ve only been here one week and a day now. My head is still reeling and will be for quite some time; I need to sit down and breathe, methinks. The other day, I woke up, thinking I was still in Berkeley; what the hell happened to my bed? I thought, before realizing where I was: New Brunswick, New Jersey. Alleged Armpit of America (the shaved part, thankfully) A most strange sensation, I must say. I can’t quite escape feeling somehow like a conqueror vanquished, or at the very least like an unsuccessful explorer; wasn’t I supposed to have left more of a mark or come across some profound, life-altering insight or something? Is it enough to simply say “I made some friends; I laughed and I cried. I rolled a strike and a spare and I sang a sad song and maybe, traveling through those months, I learned something on the way.” Is it really enough? Of course it is.

The itinerant soul has a nasty habit of constantly running after that greener grass, never quite stopping to compare the local greens with those in the Pantone book. Then you stop and look back over your shoulder and think “Hey, what’s that emerald sheen back there?” Hey…the show must go on, as they say in theatre and thus begins another chapter. There will be more, as always.

07.06.2003 • Permalink