Tagged: Dark Room

Why I’m excited that Grass Widow and STLS are releasing new music and playing together

Last night, Tobi Vail shared wonderful news with the Typical Girls listserv: Kill Rock Stars’ acts Grass Widow and STLS were releasing new music today and playing a few gigs together. You can even listen to Grass Widow’s new album, Past Time, through Spinner. STLS’s Drumcore doesn’t officially come out until September 7th, but I’m already excited.

Past Time (KRS, 2010); image courtesy of buyolympia.com

Drumcore (KRS, 2010); image courtesy of buyolympia.com

I’ve been following Grass Widow‘s mumbled surf rock since Carrie Brownstein highlighted them on NPR’s All Songs Considered SXSW preview. STLS’s new work also comes as good news. One half of this percussive duo is Lisa Schonberg, erstwhile member of the now-defunct Explode Into Colors, who I luckily got to see once before they disbanded. In sum, the two bands abide by two tenets I’ve since added to my list of biases in a recent post decrying the work of Ke$ha and Katy Perry, whose sophomore effort Teenage Dream also comes out today.

1. Eschew conventional rock outfit line-ups. Don’t clamor for a bassist or two guitarists if the music doesn’t call for it or if you can’t find instrumentalists willing to commit or with whom you gel. If your instrument is the accordion or you and a friend both want to play drums, let it happen.
2. Women picking up guitars and playing together will always excite me, especially if they’re interested in odd tunings or angular melodies.

Unfortunately, these acts will not be making it to Austin on their dates together. Hopefully they’ll change their minds and add a few dates. But if they’re coming to a venue near you — especially if you’re a blogger named Caitlin who is relocating to Portland — I do hope you check them out.

Inception regrets nothing

Inception poster; image courtesy of tripwire-magazine.com

I finally saw Christopher Nolan’s Inception at the Drafthouse last weekend. I intended to view it at the IMAX where I caught a midnight screening of The Dark Knight, which preceded an ill-timed traffic jam on the upper deck of I-35. Fresh from witnessing Heath Ledger’s terrifying performance as the Joker, I feared imminent doom. Luckily, the bottleneck was caused by a minor car accident that left both parties unharmed.

But as I filed in for Friday’s 10:30 showing, I wondered if the movie would live up to its colossal hype. Nolan’s reputation looms over each of his productions, and his mastery of filmic slight of hand promised that, if Inception wasn’t in Memento‘s league, it might still keep good company with The Prestige. A month following its auspicious box office debut, I had my suspicions. The movie is about extractor Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) leading a team who implant the idea that heir Robert Michael Fischer (Cillian Murphy) cede from the empire built by his mogul father Maurice (Pete Postlethwaite). The squad is employed by businessman Saito (Ken Wantanabe), who represents its chief competitor. Dana Stevens’s tentative write-up was my first alarm, as was the Oscar buzz generated amongst fanboys that Snarky’s Machine noted in her review.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued. Caitlin at Dark Room raved about it, arguing that it bested The Matrix. Pioneer film theorists David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson cataloged many of the movie’s intriguing ideas. Capitalizing on the fervent anticipation of Mad Men‘s fourth season, Pop Watch noted that Inception is essentially telling the same story as AMC’s flagship melodrama (the post also linked to Michael Newman’s blog entry about how the series functions as an allegory for Matthew Weiner’s anxieties over the creative process).

But after all that chatter, what did I think about Inception? Eh. It was okay. The visuals were captivating and the storyline was relatively accessible. I think it’s more of an interesting movie to talk about than watch, though the 140 minutes flew by more briskly than I had anticipated.

I had reservations about Ellen Page playing an architect named Ariadne, but I bought her as a grad student whose speech never overshadows her fancy kerchiefs. Her scenes with mastermind Cobb lack air, but that’s just as much DiCaprio’s fault. Their characters display an intimate connection. Ariande feels comfortable enough with Cobb to utter the movie’s most overtly feminist line when asking of his inability to let go of his wife’s death “Do you think you can create a prison of memories to lock her in? Do you think that’s going to contain her?” But both overuse a knit brow to connote a wellspring of emotion while conveying very little. Though I concur with Stevens on preferring DiCaprio in lighter fare over attempts at Serious Acting, a Nolan picture tends to ensure labored acting.

If only we were this fun and easy-going in our movie; image courtesy of socialitelife.celebuzz.com

Joseph Gordon Levitt has moments as point man Arthur, particularly in the breath-taking zero gravity sequence. Saito and chemist Yusef (Dileep Rao) are given little to do beyond step out of the spotlight for the all-white principal cast. The only person clearly having a good time is forger Eames, who extracts information by convincingly becoming other people, including a flirty blonde who chats up Fischer. Tom Hardy mines the role’s seductive and queer camp potential, purring like a naughty cat who licked up all the cream.

Oh, darling -- it is all about Tom Hardy; image courtesy of nydailynews.com

Caitlin believed the main plot of engineering familial and corporate breach to be predictable, but I found its B-story to be its most obvious flaw. Cobb cannot shake the spectre of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose name literally means “bad” in her native French. Mal isn’t so much a psychologically damaged woman whose destructive actions in Cobb’s unconscious contrast with her sweet nature in life. Rather, she plays as a manifestation of feminist film theory’s complaints against cinema’s conception of women and its applications of psychoanalytic thought via the scopophilic gaze. Cotillard does what she can with the role, but it feels like she’s representing, say, Tania Modeleski’s criticisms in The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. This may have been Nolan’s intention, but by rendering Mal as an archetypical femme fatale who Cobb must overcome, he only enforces the notion that female movie characters are not fully realized as complex people but instead mere ideations from the auteur’s mind.

That said, I do find the employment of Édith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” to be particularly fascinating. It remains one of Piaf’s best-known tunes. Though she reportedly dedicated her 1960 recording to the French Foreign Legion during the Algerian War, the song is now thought of as a reflection on the singer’s dramatic biography, akin to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”  It is also Inception‘s unofficial theme. Nolan continually referred to it when writing the script and hoped to put it in the movie. It serves as the squad’s alarm clock, bringing them back to consciousness following a mission and implying the emotional objectivity required in the work of hampering with other people’s dreams. Composer Hans Zimmer also threaded the song’s cadence throughout his overbearing score.

Cotillard as Piaf; image courtesy of guardian.co.uk

For me, it is also evidence that Cobb is still haunted by his wife. The song hails Mal’s French heritage, as well as her fearless break with reality. The song’s literal meaning can be read against Cobb’s feelings of regret and culpability toward the death of his wife. It also telegraphs Cotillard. In 2008, Cotillard won the Academy Award for Best Actress. She portrayed Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s La vie en rose, beating out Ellen Page in her titular performance in Juno and putting her in America’s A-list. Apparently Cotillard’s involvement in Inception was a happy accident. Initially after the actress was cast, Nolan intended to pick another song but Zimmer convinced him that the connection wouldn’t distract viewers. In doing so, however, it provided this viewer an infinite loop of interpretation.

Musical Cameos: The in Kill Bill, Volume 1

The (from left): Drummer Sachiko Fujiyama, bassist Yoshiko Yamaguchi, and guitarist Yoshiko "Ronnie" Fujiyama who has a tattoo on her arm that says "Teenage Queen Delinquent"; image courtesy of sushibandit.com

Today’s post is dedicated to Caitlin, a friend of mine from graduate school who runs the blog Dark Room. After living in College Station for a couple of years, she and her husband are moving back to the Pacific Northwest. Caitlin taught me quite a few things as a friend and colleague. Perhaps her largest contribution is my appreciation of horror film, which I didn’t have when we first met. Going into our master’s program, I was strongly of the mind that horror is resistant, if not entirely antithetical, toward feminism. But Caitlin, who is both a feminist and horror aficionado, taught me the power of looking and interpreting the genre from a feminist perspective. Like me, she’s a huge music fan and champions the work of independent female musicians. Thus, it seems fitting that the last time we’ll see each other for the immediate future is at the Girls Rock Camp Austin showcase (tomorrow at the HighBall — doors open at noon). In tribute, I thought I’d do a brief write-up on The’ cameo in Kill Bill, Volume One. Grrrl rock and Quentin Tarantino? I can’t think of a better pairing to honor her.

The story goes that director Tarantino was introduced to the band while frequenting a Japanese clothing store and had to track them down. Eventually, he put them in the first installment of his two-part revenge epic about a bride (Uma Thurman) wronged by her groom (David Carradine), with whom she used to work for as a member of his crime syndicate, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. In order to seek justice, the bride must slaughter the entire organization. While the second volume is more meditative in its focus on the couple’s final showdown, the first half depicts her picking off her former work associates, employing a myriad of genres for each vignette. It culminates in a battle between the Bride and former DIVA O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), who runs a criminal organization in Tokyo. But in order to battle O-Ren, the Bride must first take out her crew in a bar where The are playing.

As you can tell from the band’s sound, cultural references, and performance of The Ikettes’ “I’m Blue,” the Japanese outfit is heavily influenced by 60s Americana, particularly girl groups and surf rock. As I’ve discussed in previous entries, similar interests are shared with Japanese characters in movies like Mystery Train and Linda Linda Linda. But I wonder about the feedback loop between Japan’s cultural fascination with American rock music and 20th century youth culture and Americans’ interest in some of their pop culture being appropriated and reinterpreted by members of an Eastern nation.

Obviously, this exchange can sometimes perpetuate Western assumptions of a cutesy, monolithic Japanese culture heavily rooted in American narcissism. So I feel a bit uneasy when interpreting the band’s appearance in the movie. It could easily be argued that they’re window-dressing, as well as means of authenticating an outsider’s conceptualization of what a “real” izakaya must be like. Yet I still feel that their sound is interpreting American rock music in a way analogous to Tarantino’s celebration of Japanese popular culture, particularly martial arts movies and anime. It may not be an easy pairing, but The rock it out.

Florence Marr, a singer and personal assistant in need of feminism

Florence Marr, played by Greta Gerwig, another woman who should not be dating Roger Greenberg; image courtesy of collider.com (click on the image for Gerwig's interview)

This weekend was unexpectedly packed. Two friends came in from out of town, another turned 29, two more went on a 100-mile bike tour to Shiner, and Karaoke Underground continued to give folks something to do in Austin on the first Saturday of each month. On Friday, Kristen at Act Your Age and I accompanied Caitlin from Dark Room to a screening of Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg

I had many reservations going in. Despite being a fan of Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, and Margot at the Wedding, I wasn’t sure how game I’d be for a movie about Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a once-promising musician who now does little beyond carpentry and a stint at a mental hospital. He turns 41 while house-sitting in Los Angeles for his more successful brother, who is on vacation with his family in Vietnam. He also meets his brother’s 25-year-old assistant, Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), a driftless young woman with whom he shares a regrettable dalliance.

The Science of Sleep came to mind as I read about the movie around this manipulative narcissist who is too blind to realize that his supposed honesty toward others prevents him from any acknowledgement of his considerable flaws and attaining actual intimacy with anyone. In short, Roger Greenberg’s fixation on his own neuroses keep him from actually getting to know who he or anyone else is. He’s a terrible human being. To make matters worse for this feminist music geek, he uses mixes and obscure pop songs like Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains in Southern California” as tools of seduction. He also probably wears his Steve Winwood “Back In the High Life” t-shirt with a sense of unironic irony, which further pisses me off. I wasn’t sure if I could watch a movie about him (Jessica Grose’s assessment didn’t help matters). What’s more, I don’t know if I could forgive a movie that made him likeable or redeemable.

Which is to say that I’m not sure I can forgive this movie. I did like James Murphy’s score, which sounds more like the now-fashionable hypnagogic pop of LA acts like Ariel Pink and Nite Jewel (whose members made a cameo in the climactic party scene) than anything LCD Sounsystem has done and is assuredly a way to orient the distinctly East Coast Baumbach within a West Coast context. On the one hand, the movie takes great pains to make Greenberg appear to be a monster (it is a Baumbach movie, after all). Friends (usually erstwhile) constantly voice how despicable and impossible he is.

Yet the movie centers around Greenberg’s actions and ridiculous, hateful monologues. It also suggests that comely young women, including his neice, find his misanthropy somehow attractive even as he continues to dismiss them. Furthering concern, I was disheartened that some dudes in the audience were charmed by Greenberg, especially the stocky hipster seated the row in front of us who habitually twirled his moustache.

What do you see in this guy?; image courtesy of eastbayexpress.com

In addition, the movie does suggest in its final shot that he’s capable of change — in this case, the ability to love. Kristen made an interesting comparison to Punch-Drunk Love, a movie about an angry and depressed man unexpectedly finding love with a shy woman who pursues him, which she felt Greenberg was something of an inversion. For me, I had a hard time understanding why anyone would feel this way about the protagonist, though mumblecore Gerwig does an exceptional job rendering Marr as a sad young woman with no direction, few financial prospects, and little self-confidence.

As Natasha Vargas-Cooper and Julie Klausner discussed in their conversation about the movie, Marr seems like a woman many of us know. She’s sweet and funny, but places no value in herself. She constantly apologizes for everything, starting every sentence with “I’m sorry.” Like the protagonist in Liz Phair’s “Fuck and Run,” she sleeps with guys simply because they ask her to and she’s too weak to decline. She discredits every personal project and refuses to voice an opinion on anything. She always says “okay” and “you’re right,” even when people (re: Greenberg) are clearly being mean or taking advantage. She’s the kind of girl you have to drive to get an abortion after she lets the wrong guy knock her up. Actually, the movie reveals (spoiler alert) that she’s the kind of girl who gets talked into having a different wrong guy and his college buddy escort her to the clinic. Like her friend Gina (Merritt Wever), Marr frustrates me but also gets my sympathy. Like so many women, she needs feminism.

Marr comes close to asserting herself a few times in the movie, suggesting that she could find the strength to be more than just a doormat. She also suggests, however timidly, that she has talent worth sharing with others. One such instance is her musical performance at a local bar. While she shrugs off the event to Greenberg after their first failed sexual encounter, she sings on stage to her friends, accompanied by another male friend on guitar (who Greenberg assumes she’s fucking). Her music recalls the plaintiveness of Judee Sill, and suggests briefly that perhaps — through music — she might find her voice. Just don’t accept the opportunity to get your boss’s creep brother back in the music business.

Sing it, Florence; image courtesy of jake-weird.blogspot.com

Check out “Times Square”

Promo for Times Square; image courtesy of theauteurs.com

A few years back, I became interested in Allan Moyle’s 1980 feature debut. Times Square stars Robin Johnson and Trini Alvarado as two teenage girls who escape from a mental institution, live on the streets, form a punk band called The Sleez Sisters, drop televisions off buildings, occasionally rule local station WJAD, and creates some underground infamy that anticipates the groundswell Corrine Burns and The Stains would cause two years later.  While Moyle was fired by producer Robert Stigwood fired so he could remove explicit lesbian content and include more musical sequences in the film, the director later went on to make music geek teen pics like Pump Up the Volume and Empire Records. But his first movie was praised by Kathleen Hanna. While Hanna and I disagree on the quality of Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways, I’m always willing to give the riot grrrl pioneer the benefit of the doubt. Plus, that soundtrack is a beast.

I saw Times Square two summers ago with a bunch of friends, including Caitlin at Dark Room and Kristen at Act Your Age. I remember a few things surprised me upon initial viewing.

1) Despite cuts, this movie is still explicitly queer. It centers on a female friendship that is romantic and liberating for both parties. And drifter Nicky Marotta, wonderfully rendered by Johnson, is assuredly a young lesbian who is starting to formulate how her sexuality shapes her identity. She often does this alone and with Patti Smith’s “Pissing in the River” rumbling in her broken heart, but sometimes with enough room to let in Pamela Pearl (Alvarado), the daughter of a politician she meets in a mental institution and creates a life with on the mean streets.

2) Girls like Johnson don’t star in movies much anymore, which is a shame. Little Darlings came out the same year. Kristy McNichol’s Angel Bright may have been looking to get laid by a boy in the movie, but she reads to me as a baby butch.

3) New York City doesn’t look like this anymore, and I’d love to read a history of how the city and mediated representations of it changed from the 1960s to the 2000s. In the 1980s, the city continued to endure escalating crime and drug rates from the decade before, as the area had not yet been gentrified and “cleaned up” to attract tourists. This is something Taxi Driver made central to Travis Bickle’s mental decline and that I hope Mad Men incorporates into the series.

By the time Sex and the City became part of the lexicon, it had. Now teenage characters in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and New York Minute gallivant around the Big Apple. When at the time of Times Square‘s location shoot and subsequent release, the city was far from being the tween amusement park it would later seem to be. As a matter of fact, Pearl’s father is running on a platform to clean up New York City. Thus, you really get a feel for the danger, vastness, and anonymity of the big city that informs the girls’ existence.

But you also get a sense of solidarity amongst them and other street denizens. While the movie could perpetuate racist stereotypes of predatory people of color serving as crack addicts, pimps, and whores, most of the folks the girls encounter are nice. When Pearl applies for a dancing job at a dive cabaret and refuses to perform topless, the owner (who appears to be Hispanic) praises her on being classy and holding on to some mystery.

However, I don’t want to overemphasize the treatment of race in the movie. For the most part, people of color are depicted as supportive, but they are usually without names and relegated to the background. In the rare instances that they aren’t, they can sometimes be viewed as siding with the establishment. Hence how I read Anna Maria Horsford’s Rosie Washington, who is Marotta’s case worker. While Washington understands that Marotta, whose parents are M.I.A., has been failed by the system, she’s still in cahoots with Pearl’s father and writes a letter to his daughter urging her to part ways with her “unstable” new friend.

The girls also have a troubling relationship with people of color. At the beginning of the movie, Marotta rehearses guitar. She sets her amp on the hood of a night club owner’s car. When a Latina matron complains of the noise Marotta’s making, she responds by smashing in the owner’s headlights. She’s also rude to Washington. And perhaps most disconcerting, Marotta and Pearl associate Washington with voodoo and proclaim themselves to align with various homophobic and racial epithets in their song “Your Daughter Is One.” Good that they’re pushing back against the systemic oppression they’ve endured. Bad how they’re using language to express it.

I also find Tim Curry’s role as DJ Johnny LaGuardia, who documents the girls’ story and later becomes something of an ally to them. Both girls are fans of his radio program on WJAD. Pearl actually wrote to him about her unhappy home life prior to being institutionalized, signing the letter as “Zombie Girl.” Pointedly, he insinuates himself as their ally. At first, I thought I was projecting those feelings onto LaGuardia because Curry has one of the most sinister voices I’ve ever heard. But when LaGuardia shows up at the girls’ flat with a bottle of vodka for Pearl and an interest in how “wild” Marotta is, his cover’s blown.

Upon review, I’m basically of the same opinion of it as I was before. This movie is poignant, though I do wish the original footage that documented the girls’ romance was kept intact. I also wish Marotta wasn’t depicted as crazy and escorted off at the end, while Pearl watches the mob disperse with her father. But I also have no doubt Marotta will escape once more, perhaps with Pearl by her side. She may prompt dozens of other girls to follow in her path and pen their own rock anthems.

April, music journalist

Lizzy Caplan, Hot Tub Time Machine's manic pixie dream girl; image courtesy of tv.yahoo.com

Last week, Caitlin at Dark Room sent me an e-mail about how Lizzy Caplan plays a music journalist in Hot Tub Time Machine. As the subject header referred to her as a manic pixie dream girl, I didn’t hold out much hope for any development of her character. Caitlin had earlier mentioned on her blog that she was planning on seeing Hot Tub Time Machine despite being pretty positive that it was just another dudes night out picture because Crispin Glover is in it.

I was planning on seeing it because it’s called Hot Tub Time Machine. It’s the best genius-stoopid movie title I’ve heard since Snakes on a Plane, which I also saw during it’s theatrical run. Matter of fact, I was in Raccoons on Space Shuttle, one of Mascot Wedding‘s very funny shorts. See if you can spot me. I’ll help you out: I’m wearing a wig and I’m “acting.”

As for the movie itself, it brings time travel into another jerky bro movie, with all of its anxieties about homosexuality, women, and race where a bunch of sad sacks somehow (undeservedly) come out ahead in the end. I won’t defend my viewing of it apart from it was a dumb comedy with some silly moments that was fun to watch while drinking a beer and eating a burger with my friends.

Except there is the music geek aspect of it, which I actually wasn’t aware of until Caitlin told me. And Lizzy Caplan played one of my favorite characters in Mean Girls and I wish I saw her in more things.

Lizzy Caplan as Janice Ian in Mean Girls; image courtesy of fanpop.com

Caplan plays April, a journalist for Spin Magazine, once the cooler alternative to the more established Rolling Stone, as well as an up-start by the movie’s timeline, which flashes back from the present to 1986, a year after the publication’s founding. She’s on assignment covering Poison, who are headlining a music festival at the ski lodge where the group of friends are staying. You know she’s cool because she clearly hates Poison, sneaks into unoccupied cabins, and is wearing a floppy hat with a flower cut-out.

But mainly, she’s just the wacky love interest for John Cusack’s Adam. She’s on board with this stranger’s story about being transported to the past, despite appearing at once too old for her to the audience and too young for her in the story’s timeline. She also refuses to give Adam her number in hopes that their paths will cross someday, which is basically the plot to Serendipity, a romantic comedy Cusack starred in with Kate Beckinsale.

Which brings us to Cusack’s function in the movie. While Rob Corddry steals the show as insufferable cad Lou and Craig Robinson winningly underplays Nick, it’s really Cusack’s movie. In addition to serving as one of the movie’s producers, long-time friend and co-writer Steve Pink directs what is ultimately an homage to Cusack’s Better Off Dead.

Plus, having Cusack play a character who falls in love with a music geek really only serves to bolster his own on-screen persona as a music-savvy underdog. This is an image that’s been perpetuated at least as far back as when Lloyd Dobler lifted a boombox blaring Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” to win back Diane Court in Say Anything . . .

John Cusack in Say Anything. . .; image courtesy of accesshollywood.com

While this image has carried on into movies like Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity, at least his love interests in those movies were peer music geeks and interesting women. We get a female music geek in Hot Tub Time Machine. Pity we don’t actually find out anything about her.