Best new stuff – April 2018

What up what up, we’re back at the end of another month! Let’s get some of the more important visuals from this past month out of the way:

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BEYONCE AT COACHELLA

It was so momentous that during my mid-month check in, wherein I take notes about what I watched in the first fortnight of the month so that the end-of-month Zosha has more memory, Beychella was the only thing I managed to write down.

Anyway, suffice it to say this was a month, and now we’re on to May. But before we do that, let’s review some other stuff:

Solaris

There’s a lot I sort of wish I could change about Solaris, but I’m so immensely grateful for it. I love finally getting around to bigger names like this and seeing all the ways it shaped and informed a genre, like slotting in a puzzle piece — a middle one, not even a perimeter. Solaris is so raw for such a structured film, a perfect balance of wearing its ideas on its sleeve while also being a deep well to mine for philosophy.

Dirty Computer

Janelle’s new album is here! And guys, it’s good. At parts it feels not quite as good as the sum of its parts, but between the call to arms that double as bops, and the stunning visuals of her accompanying “emotion picture” there’s no reason to not be listening to Janelle right now. Seriously what are you doing? (Unless it’s Beychella; then you get a pass for whatever.)

Punch Drunk Love

After having heard people talk about this (as Adam Sandler’s best performance ever) for years, I finally took the plunge for a forthcoming essay I edited at BW/DR. And wow. Wow! So enchanted with Paul Thomas Anderson as an auteur so preoccupied with the alchemic magic that happens within relationships, and how beautiful—and challenging—it can be to find someone whose weird matches your weird. This film shared so much DNA with Phantom Thread, I can’t wait to watch them together.

Jane the Virgin

Well the latest (and, apparently, penultimate!) season has wrapped and dAMN WHAT A TWIST. But leading up to the twist the show managed to do something truly remarkable: Ground itself utterly and completely. Every move felt right, every pain cut deep, and every smile was like that first day of 60 degree sunny weather in Seattle after winter. So in awe of how much this show does while making it all look easy.

“How Riverdale Turned Archie Into a Facist”

This essay is exactly the kind of thing I want to do with all of my time. Focused, yet flexible enough to envelop broader criticisms and insights about the show, this piece grabs you with its title and earns its keep by tracing a path so eloquently I ended up thinking I hadn’t given the show enough credit for what it did. 👏🏻 👏🏻 👏🏻

Call Me By Your Name

As part of my reading books that movies I loved recently were based on, I reached for this one. So much more urgent than the movie, yet still just as sticky with heat. Spent a week after reading this thinking that I had already been through a week of summer weather, but realized it was just André Aciman’s feverish prose that painted such a vivid picture it was like I was right there in Italy with Oliver and Elio. Perhaps not quite as sophisticated as its cinematic counterpart, a bit less interested (and thus, neglectful) of the age difference at its core. But invigorating nonetheless.

“A Love Profane”

Two years of Lemonade, looking back at Deaux St. Felix’s stunner of a review from back then.

 

Honorable mentions: 

Death of Stalin

A Quiet Place

Bob’s Burgers

Superstore

 

And now to leave you with a distinct Youtube mood of the month: 

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Are Modern Artists More Like Modern Politicians?

No, this won’t be another post telling you why you should turn to your favorite celebrities for advice on politicking.

When we think of the modern artist we think of them in multitude: They are sharp, savvy, and successful in all areas of fame, from social media to performance. They bring an energy that only they can bring, and they make it all look so good. Increasingly there also seems to be an outcry when the layers are peeled back and—lo and behold—they weren’t behind every single element of their production.

It’s that auteur theory, popularized in France during the 1940s, that a director or creator was responsible for every little piece of their art, that grinds people’s gears. It’s given us some fascinating artists, and even more fascinating works of art; Cronenberg, Wilson, Truffaut, to name a few. But I think the auteur theory would be more successful if it functioned more like modern politicians—who, in turn, are functioning more like modern artists anyway.

Principally that we expect artists to represent themselves with a team, not as the sole engine of these works alone. The idea that Obama would have personally drafted any of the hundreds of executive orders his administration has released is laughable. So why do we hold modern artists to be failures unless they are the (largely) sole creator listed on their works? When’s the last time someone made sure we credited Michaelangelo’s 13 assistants on the Sistine Chapel?

Of our modern politicians we expect talent, but that talent extends to who they choose to surround themselves with. President Obama has a fleet of staff members all working towards his vision (which, is not even solely his vision). Hillary Clinton has proved (despite whatever other controversies have dogged her along the way) to be an effective leader because she chooses to listen to input. Similarly, animators at Laika create stunning stop-motion animation because they work as a team, and Beyonce rocked the world with Lemonade, and her subsequent Formation World Tour because she sought out the best people to help her create her vision. Prince wrote The Bangles’ “Manic Monday,” but that song would’ve sounded much different in his hands versus their own. Toy Story passed through more than a few hands, including Joss Whedon, but is much different than the original treatment from John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter.

Obviously some of these carry a different weight than others—a studio implicitly represents a team effort, where a writing credit on a script or a lyric does not—but the truth is no artist can be the best they can be without a team. Nathaniel Hawthorne didn’t think he could. Why should Beyonce? As Fusion writes:

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Photo Credit: Daniela Vesco

Having more voices and more brains on an album gives it the opportunity to reach greater depth, achieve better sound, and draw from more varied experience than one person alone could ever bring to the table. Not only do the collaborators who helped create Lemonade lend the album more nuance, but this process allows Beyoncé to promote lesser-known artists through her work.

Think about Beyoncé (or any pop star, really, from Kanye West to Taylor Swift) not as a musician working alone in a dark studio with only her own thoughts for company, but as a conductor in front of an orchestra, a curator filling a museum, a director blocking a scene. Pop music is a kind of auteurism.

Where some see a yielding of control, or a lack of creativity, I see a larger scope of that same auteurism. Artists like Beck, Bob Dylan, and Prince have upheld that loner artist archetype despite being the exception not the rule, but I’m not even sure how much credence to even give arguments that they are implicitly better artists because they were a human swiss army knife. The theory holds that a piece of work represents an artists’ personal creative vision, and I think a resulting album’s ingenuity and creative force. To me Lemonade‘s is undeniable.

So the next time someone argues that an artist should be the sole mind behind any one work, remind them that we don’t hold our politicians to any such notions. Remind them that it takes a village to make stunning art—and sometimes it takes a credit to avoid IP litigation.

Life, Death, and Biopics

Last night when I finally got to see “Straight Outta Compton,” I found myself suddenly seeing a theme—and it wasn’t just Paul Giamatti playing a voice of demented reason to a breakout star musician. Rather, it was the fresh voice that music biopics were getting.

imrsZosha-circa-mid-2000s could’ve been convinced that avenue was done to death. Between “Ray” and “Walk the Line” it seemed like I could line up everything in the (seeming) boom of musician biopics and they’d hit all the same notes at the same time.

Which is why when “Jimi: All is By My Side” came out last year I didn’t expect much. A fictionalization of the year between when Jimi Hendrix got discovered and when he would release “Are You Experienced,” I didn’t find the film itself all that great. It was messy, tonally, and lacked the psychedelic oomph that its hero had. But since the Hendrix estate had denied the rights to any Hendrix songs, the filmmakers were a bit boxed in how they could portray Hendrix, leading to a biography that erred away from mythologizing its subject, and instead felt like a series of candid snapshots. At the time I felt that—though this film had let me down—there was hope for music biopics after all, if someone could improve upon the concept.

Which they did. This year’s “Love and Mercy,” and “Straight Outta Compton” show (in different ways) a new life in the biopic genre. love-mercyTheir artistry, each tailored to the tone of their subject, creates two dynamic films that sprawl but don’t bore. They introduce hardships without harping on a message. We followed their musicians far beyond a encapsulated period in their life (the other pillar I had found strong biopics to stand on; see “Good Night and Good Luck”) and wound through events big and small.

Music biopics are hardly a new invention, nor are they likely done forever. But this summer has really thrown a wrench in any idea I may have had that any one genre, focus, or technique is “dead.”

Another example would be when I walked out of “The Gallows”—not because it raised the hand-held horror genre to new heights, but because somewhere in the B-string summer scare movie was a good idea; a fresh take. Oddly, the film being essentially an echo of better flicks that came before it felt less like a nail in the coffin of the hand-held camera genre and more like an example of what not to do.

If you want to expand the genre you’re going to have to do a bit more than call it in. And if this summer’s run of music biopics have taught us anything, it’s that you may have to sing for it.

Beyond the Grammys

I casually checked in with the Grammy’s Sunday, and for some reason could only find a livestream of the audience, not of the stage. But my choice just happened to coincide with Kanye West once again bursting onto the stage to defend Beyonce, in another “slight.”

The part I didn't see
The part I didn’t see

At the time, I saw the faces of horror change to definite laughter, and decided it must’ve been a joke. Since then the media has had another field day, building up the “diss” between Beck and Kanye. Luckily both Beck and Kanye have refused to play ball–now if only their fans could as well.

Reading any article on the subject, you’ll find opinions littered like fall leaves, which is to say almost unavoidable and eventually whatever beauty they had turns to rot. Beck fans maintain the artistry of the singer-songwriter: we know he writes all his own songs, he played 5 million instruments and poured his soul into the record. Beyonce fans lament that she wrote and produced all her own tracks, changed the world with her digital drop, and filmed an entire feature film to go with it.

What I did see
What I did see

It was probably easy for the media to paint his post-Grammy interviews where he stuck to his guns as Kanye being classic Kanye, causin’ a fuss and making not apologies. But what’s interesting is that he’s probably providing one of the most level-headed voices to this conversation. He’s made it clear that his was not a diss on Beck, but the Grammy’s themselves.

For myself, I can see how Beyonce lost due to voting problems (Beck’s was the only rock album, whereas Beyonce had R&B competition that could’ve Nader’d the vote), but there’s not much more I can offer to the conversation beyond that, because the Grammy’s won’t let me. They have a shadowy voting process that then moves onto the recording academy vote, and there’s really little insight into how they function, what their criteria is, or where our differences lie. They are as open as you can come about a sort of formal rigging system.

They may be called out, frequently, for being their own brand of racist, sexist, etc., but what more can we do? We’ve got nothing else we can do, because we have absolutely no idea what they are about.

tumblr_njimhsrubz1qchwcho4_250So let’s all stop reducing Kanye to an angry black man, Beck to a folksy scene-stealer, and Beyonce to a jilted artist, and start focusing our thoughts and most importantly concerns towards the shadow organization that needs it. Because while people mock Yeezus for speaking out against institutions and systems it’s getting boiled down to a celebrity feud, which is more of the same bullshit.

I’ve got 1989 problems but T. Swift ain’t one

With Fall there is always a rush of fabulous movies, new and returning TV, and album releases out the ying-yang. So imagine my surprise that one of the ones I’m most excited about is Taylor Swift’s.

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I’m always excited by female artists, but T. Swizzle has always given me reason to doubt her. From her slut-shaming lyrics to her romantic country vibe I just couldn’t get onboard. But since I don’t live under a rock I wasn’t afforded the luxury of escaping the unnecessary criticism surrounding her: namely her relationship history.

But my interest was piqued when I started seeing Swift’s presence on Tumblr (both in the form of blogging and also gifsets) where she discussed feminism, her then-upcoming album, and her new outlook on life. She said she’d spent a while establishing a relationship with herself, and she was proud to put that newfound voice into her latest record.

So I picked it up…and was pleasantly surprised. Elated. Enthralled. Enchanted, by the ballad of a young woman going through elegant, if sometimes painful, growth. Though the musical style reminded me of Tegan and Sara meets Lorde, with a hint of Lana Del Rey and a distinct Swift-spin to it all, the raw emotion and demonstration of independence was more akin to Beyonce, particularly on her latest record. There’s definitely still the sense of romanticism that built up Swift’s fan base to begin with, but there’s a new feel to it. It’s grown; it’s more jaded but also more free to speak out against injustices against her. It feels simultaneously like she’s found her voice, while still seeking it–an embrace, perhaps, that she is a work in progress. She’s not done, not by a long shot. And if her video drop for “Blank Space” yesterday is any indication, this album won’t be her last big fuck you to the media and naysayers.

We’re seeing a whole new Taylor and I hope it stays. That’s a message I can get behind.