Tagged: Dawson’s Creek

Notes on Movie Music: The Film Reader

Cover of Movie Music: The Film Reader; image courtesy of routledge.com

Cover of Movie Music: The Film Reader; image courtesy of routledge.com

So, one thing I didn’t mention in my indictment of (500) Days of Summer is the soundtrack. While I may have mentioned my thoughts on how music culture is configured in the movie, I didn’t discuss the soundtrack itself: how it serves to bolster the narrative, enforce the movie’s indie-ness, or its commercial success as an ancillary product.

I didn’t discuss it because I don’t really have any opinion on it. I wasn’t particularly familiar with or blown away by the songs in the movie — I thought the music was pleasant. I’d imagine it’s doing a respectable job as its own product and as an extension of the movie’s marketing campaign, though say this while qualifying that running the numbers is now a completely different game than it was, say, in the 1990s, when soundtracks were big business that could easily be reflected by a quick glance at the Billboard charts. Now, we have iTunes, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook groups, online ad campaigns, innumerable blogs, and several other outlets fragmenting the marketplace. But I’d imagine the soundtrack is doing well.

All this is to say that I wondered what the scholars who contributed to Movie Music: The Film Reader would make of the movie’s soundtrack. The anthology is a slim collection of essays edited by Kay Dickenson that was published in 2002 but primarily feature pieces from the 1990s, a decade that I’ve already defined (along with many others) as a peak time for soundtracks, which is reflected in some of the scholars’ inquiries. Perhaps it drove home for me just how temporal the objects of analysis in media studies can be, particularly music. A good reminder, if still a frustrating dillemma.

With that said, I thought I’d briefly highlight some essays that I found useful.

Jeff Smith’s “Structural interactions of the film and record industries” is a fascinating and concise industrial history of the relationship between record labels and film studios from the 1950s on. Starting out as a mutual-benefit relationship, film studios tried to form their own record labels with the intent to fashion albums and recording talent in-house, which was met with little success. As a result, record labels kept the upper-hand from the 1970s on, but left movie studios the opportunity to further develop cross-promotional and synergistic strategies without having to worry about A and R. 

This is interesting to read alongside romanticized notions that the 1970s was a renaissance period for maverick filmmaking that eschewed studio control (I specifically like to think of this story while working out the bureaucratic steps that may have been taken in order for Martin Scorsese to get the rights for The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby” for Mean Streets).

And, as Smith’s piece was originally published in 1998, I also think of it as a harbinger of deregulation measures and conglomeration to that defined the culture industry at the end of the 20th century.  

Lawrence Grossberg’s “Cinema, Postmodernity, and Authenticity” gives a cursory glance at the importance of rock music in teen pics from the 1950s on, but pays particular attention to movies from the 1980s (specifically the ones aligned with the Brat Pack). He argues that while rock music is meant to indicate an intergenerational upheaval of value systems between establishment parents and rebel kids, movies from the 1980s actually saw teen protagonists questioning and grappling with identity politics while ultimately (or presumably) toeing the line, doing very little to break down gender norms, class divides, racist ideologies, and heterosexist agendas. At the same time, these movies incorporating more a post-modern political sensibility through irony, parody, and reference.

I wonder what Grossberg would say about how French electronic act M83 hails the 1980s, specifically in 2008’s Saturdays = Youth, an album heavily indebted to both the sound and style of the Brat Pack movies and soundtracks. I’m sure he’d get a chuckle out of learning that Anthony Gonzalez, the man behind M83, is in his mid-20s and too young to remember these movies “authentically.”

Kay Dickinson’s “Pop, Speed, Teenagers, and the ‘MTV Aesthetic'” is an interesting look into how teen movies and their soundtracks incorporate the look and sound of MTV, specifically looking at Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes (a movie dear to my heart — I still have a copy of the soundtrack and nursed a brief crush on DiCaprio when he was at his most androgynous). Dickenson is particularly interested in three aspects:
1) The symbiotic relationship between the highly stylized movie, its soundtrack, and the music videos that accompany both.               
2) The deliberate uniformity of each text’s aesthetic and how they maximize youth-oriented marketing potential for what was widely regarded as a teen movie.
3) How the fast editing style of the movie and music videos popularized by MTV result in visual imperceptability (i.e., that the eye cannot keep up with the images); while a bit of a tangent, this phenomenon reminded me of John Cline’s Flow column about the increasing incomprehensibility of many segments in action films shot on digital camera.

I think there are limits to Dickenson’s argument — the Brat Pack movies or the Hughes-influenced teen pics from the late 1990s, which were not so reliant on fast editing as they were on soundtracks, trendy clothes, slang, and photogenic young actors, talking about their feelings still uphold the MTV aesthetic in my mind, perhaps suggesting that the network did not have a uniform visual style.  

Also, there’s minimal discussion of how Luhrmann’s kinetic style heightened the story’s romantic elements and how this might have played into its intense popularity among teenagers (seriously, I saw this movie dozens of times during my junior high and high school days; I also assume that DiCaprio’s vaunted teen idol status as a result of the movie led him to be cast in Titanic, a movie beloved by kids of my generation, including my friend Brandi, who saw the movie at least sixteen times in theaters and taped the ticket stubs to the wall by her bed). I’d be very curious how Dickenson reads Luhrmann’s visual style against Hughes’s (and Dawson’s Creek creator-wordsmith Kevin Williamson’s) use of dialogue, particularly regarding matters of the heart. 

Lisa A. Lewis’s “A Madonna ‘Wanna-Be’ Story on Film” is a piece I was already familiar with because, as I’ve mentioned numerous times on here, Gender Politics and MTV: Voicing the Difference, from which the essay originally emerged, was a formative text for me as a media studies scholar. 

In this piece, Lewis does a formidable job mapping out a multitude of texts surrounding Madonna in the mid-1980s. There’s star text (Madonna). There’s film text (Susan Seidelman’s 1984 classic Desperately Seeking Susan, starring Rosanna Arquette, who plays a young suburban housewife who becomes obsessed with and later develops a liberating friendship with Susan, a mysterious club denizen, played by Madonna). There’s soundtrack analysis (Lewis particularly pays attention to the club scene where Susan dances to Madonna’s song “Into the Groove”). There’s fan discourse (teen girls and young women — maybe unmentioned young men as well — appropriating the Material Girl’s iconic look, while mutating and individuating it; this development is read alongside the movie, which shows Rosanna’s Roberta becoming Susan, as well as behind-the-scenes goings-on, as Rosanna and Madonna became friends off-camera). There’s even consideration made for how corporate culture feeds into all this, coming to a head when MTV and ABC document a Madonna lookalike fashion show at Macy’s to coincide with the film’s release. In short, a dizzying but lucidly plotted out argument about the power female artists (and their fans) can exert within and outside of an increasingly synergistic media culture. 

Hmmm. Also a reminder of how much I love Desperately Seeking Susan, which I would catch on Comedy Central from time to time when I had cable. I haven’t watched it in a while. May warrant a repeat viewing ASAP.

‘Found pieces of “Jennifer’s Body”‘: Diablo Cody and Megan Fox team up

So, you may have seen yesterday’s Vulture post on the trailer for Jennifer’s Body, screenwriter Diablo Cody’s anticipated follow-up to Juno. If not, you can view it here.

Some thoughts:
1. I haven’t seen Megan Fox in anything. I’ve kind of avoided the Transformers franchise because, eh, well, let someone else do it. I’ll definitely see this, though. I wonder how this movie and this role will evolve Fox’s Jolie 2.0 bombshell persona. I’d be curious what my friend Annie has to say about it.

Film still of Megan Fox in Jennifers Body; image courtesy of weblogs.variety.com

Film still of Megan Fox in Jennifer's Body; image courtesy of weblogs.variety.com

2. I do kinda wish Jennifer was being played by Kat Dennings (Norah from Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist). I feel like Fox is ripping her off. That and I just want to see Dennings in more movies.
3. I like that the popular girl is a demon. Making the normatively feminine monstrous? Yes. “No, I’m killing boys” might be my favorite line in the trailer (the “Am I too big?” line is a close second). I see some potential feminist commentary.
4. Fox’s “I swing both ways” line to Amands Seyfried suggests one step forward, two steps back. I’d pair this with the shot of panty-clad Jennifer leering at Seyfried’s character and saying “we always share your bed when we have slumber parties.” Hello, boys. I’m sure having Jennifer play for both teams also builds up Fox’s star persona as a lipstick bisexual.
5. Why is Jennifer friends with the nerdy girl? Is it some kind of psychological “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” thing? We know that Veronica Sawyer couldn’t stay friends with Betty Finn to be one of the cool girls in Heathers. I’m intrigued.
6. It’s interesting to me that Cody’s is doing horror (albeit decidedly of the black comic variety). This suggests the influence of movies like Heathers and Scream on Cody as a screenwriter in ways more pronounced than Juno, which was cultivated and marketed as a prestige picture.

Heathers; the legacy continues

Heathers; the legacy continues

7. It’s a little annoying that the screenplay comes from “the mind of Diablo Cody.” Um. Karyn Kusmana directed it too. Plus I’m ambivalent about Cody’s writing style. Kids just aren’t that slick. And even with Daniel Waters’s super-heightened Heathers screenplay, a lot of the banter was slang-based. Or it was gross, which teenagers definitely are. I have an easier time believing a teenager would ask someone if they had a tumor for breakfast than telling a grubby-fingered peer to have a Chinese nail technician “buff your situation.” Plus, points off for reusing the fuck/Phuk Thailand joke.
7A. But the Buffy the Vampire Slayer dialogue didn’t bother me, in part because it seemed to be making a commentary on other network teen dramas like Dawson’s Creek. We shall see.
8. It seems that the soundtrack may play an important part for the movie’s burgeoning franchise. In the trailer, the soundtrack’s featured artists appear before the production credits and boasts hot acts like Little Boots and Panic at the Disco. Pair this with the prominent use of bad girl hits like The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” and The Waitresses’ “I Know What Boys Like” and you have a potential Billboard contender. This is important. Apart from the Disney machine, I can’t think of a teen movie with a soundtrack so at the fore of its marketing strategy since the mid- to late 90s (ex: She’s All That, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Cruel Intentions, Ten Things I Hate About You, and Clueless). I’ll be listening as well as watching.

Humming along: Issues of score in “Wendy and Lucy”

Wendy and Lucy

Wendy and Lucy

I wanted to see Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy since I first heard mention of it (I wanna say in the AV Club’s 2008 Oscar-O-Meter).

Lots of things caught my attention about this one. Independent female director. Neo-realist aesthetics. Financially hard-luck woman and her dog en route with the promise of a job in Alaska while stranded in Oregon. Exchanges that heighten the subtextual sexism between a stranded woman with a broken-down car and a mechanic who thinks he can swindle her out of some money just because she’s poor, female, and out of options. And, by the time I saw it, a recession had eclipsed the ongoing struggles from survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, making movies like this one and the fantastic Frozen River all the more poignant.

And surely, by now, we all know how I feel about female interactions with the street and the road.

I was also sold by Michelle Williams in the starring role. I thought Williams was great in Brokeback Mountain and Synecdoche, New York. I even found her adorable and charming in The Baxter, an otherwise airless rip-off of The Apartment. I’ve been a fan since Dawson’s Creek and feel that her emergent success in the American indie/prestige/smart wave film scene is vindication for all the punishment she had to endure on the WB teen soap as the tragic bad girl Jen Lindley who withered away while the two boys who really loved each other fought over the self-righteous good girl who bit her lip and tucked her hair behind her ears while America briefly considered it acting. I know now that many think of her as Heath Ledger’s pseudo-widow or Spike Jonze’s perhaps-girlfriend or a TV actress who lucked into some hipster cache, but I think Williams is great in her own right. I think Wendy and Lucy is the first time we really get to see what she can do.

Williams tremendously underplays Wendy, making her at once vulnerable and unmoved; a real survivor who occasionally loses her patience with cruel, illogical systems of power (for example, the cost of throwing her in jail for shoplifting a can of dog food exceeds the retail value of said dog food), but never loses her grace, resourcefulness, willingness to connect with others, or sense of moral decency.

Also, as my friend Curran pointed out, there’s an ambiguity to Wendy that is interesting — we know very little about her, including her orientation, which is never made explicit. In the context of Reichardt’s body of work, a queer reading seems possible. For example, Old Joy is an achingly romantic story about two male friends, one of whom is assuredly in love with the other, the other ambivalent of his feelings. And, in the context of Wendy’s plight, her emotionally distant family members (who we never see) may speak to the larger problem of homeless and drifting LGBT youth cast out by their families.

But the thing that made me really want to see the movie, and that stayed in my ears long after the screening, was the music. And God no, not this.

I’m referring to the “score.” I put the word in quotes because it consists of a few bars of a melancholic, unresolved tune, hummed periodically by the protagonist. The piece was written by singer-songwriter Will Oldham. Unfortunately, I can’t find a clip for you dear readers, but I encourage you to see and hear it for yourself.

What made me want to see a movie based on its score was the response it got from some cinephile friends. They hated it, considered it pretentious. I think it caused them to dismiss the film outright.

However, I love the score. For one, I think it makes sense — the movie’s commitment to realism is reflected in its strict use of diegetic sound (fancy term for sounds organic to the narrative environment). Thus, if Wendy’s car breaks down (and with it, her car radio), it makes sense that she’d hum something to herself, if only to break up the tension of being stranded in an unfamiliar place.

More importantly, I think we have another site through which to interrogate the notion of sole authorship. The score was written by Will Oldham. However, it is performed by Williams as Wendy within the movie, thus blurring the boundaries of writer, performer, and instrumentalist and demonstrating the true collaborative nature of filmmaking. By making it less apparent who is actually responsible for providing its musical accompaniment, perhaps there is room to consider both Williams and Oldham (along with Reichardt) as authors of the movie’s sound.

Hit and miss: Rockville CA

Deb and Hunter, meeting cute (naturally); image taken from the WB

Deb and Hunter, meeting cute (naturally); image taken from the WB

Sigh. The things I do in the name of research.

I finished watching the first season of Rockville CA, an irritating Web show brought to the masses via Josh Schwartz, the wunderkind behind The O.C., Chuck, and Gossip Girl. Who knew 20 six-minute Webisodes would weigh down on me like a lead balloon?

Note: After hearing lead fanboy Hunter crack whip-smart for about two hours, I will resist all urges to make a Led Zeppelin reference.

My friend Kristen brought the show to my attention, as she does with many things, after sending me this interesting New York Times piece on it.

So, I’ll be honest. I kind of have an axe to grind with the Schwartz empire anyway. Mainly because it has commodified music geekery in the most generic, bland, pretend-smart, pretend-cool way possible (shooting daggers at you, Seth Cohen).

It could be a knee-jerk reaction. Schwartz’s right-hand lady, music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas, who co-produced Rockville CA and, like me, also got her start in college radio, has a job I’d kill for and know I could do so much better if I wanted to use my record collection to underscore beautifully-lit, woodenly-acted scenes of teen angst and lust. In short, my irritation could be simply reduced to “bitch took my job.”

But it’s never that simple.

Or is it? Christ, the things that are wrong with this show are so by-the-book.

1. The set-up. Oh, you know this one. If you’re seen any romantic comedy, ever, you’ve got this one down. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets . . . you know what? Not even gonna finish the sentence. You’ve got it.

2. You know the couple — Deb and Hunter — are in love because they hate each other instantly and start arguing. I don’t know where this narrative contrivance began, but this has never happened to me. Usually, if I like someone, the attraction has nothing to do with wanting to rip the person’s face off until enough people are like “hey, you two would make a cute couple” that I think “you know what, you’re right! This annoying person who I cannot stand is actually pumping my ‘nads.” No, when I purport to not find you appealing, I don’t actually want to go on a date and kiss in the rain or whatever. I actually don’t want to be seen with you socially at all.

3. Perhaps I’m being unfair about my next point in conjunction with point #2, as many romantic comedies hinge on adult couples not meeting cute, but this premise seems very high school. Especially for men, as Hunter sweats and stammers immature misogyny. Through 17 of the 20 episodes, his actions and banter seem to say, “I don’t like her, she has cooties! She scares me . . . I think my body is changing. I’m compelled to her, but I don’t know why. Foul temptress! I was much safer with my comic books, G.I. Joe figurines, and Ramones records!”

In fact, perhaps unsurprisingly given Schwartz’s involvement, this show reads like a high school melodrama. The nerdy hot girl with glasses. The pretty blonde girl who is friends with the nerdy hot girl with glasses that the male lead originally finds attractive (there’s a bit of The Truth About Cats and Dogs in there too). The unattainable hunk that the nerdy hot girl with glasses likes (at school it’d be a football player; here, it’s a bassist). The wise elder who is charmed nostalgic by all the angst and endearing awkwardness. And even though the show takes place at a venue (where the show gets its name), it could just as easily take place in in the high school gym, made all glittery for prom, or in the library, during weekend detention. I’ve been to Southern California. It’s a little dangerous and a little seedy. That’s part of its charm. This show turns it into an American Eagle ad. Or a womb. Whatever.

4. If this is what music geeks are really like, we are insufferable. By that, I mean, if we are, in fact, indexical, socially-inept, commodity fetishists. If all we do is make snide comments, droll asides, and catalogical recitations of bands and their output, we are lame. The show would also suggest that we are completely beholden to capitalism and instant gratification, blind to corporate enterprising’s hold on us, what with the show’s incessant plugging of Heineken. In short, if we are what this show suggests we are, we are sheep.

5. Goddamn, is the music awful. A perhaps promising trapping of the show is that each episode takes place during a different concert. However, almost everyone sounds like a reduced, flattened, laminated version of some pre-existing band (usually Joy Division or U2).

And, as you can imagine, almost all these bands are comprised of white dudes. Earlimart, The Duke Spirit, and a couple others are exceptions, but I’ll bet you know what position most of the women (who are the lone female in each band) occupy. Also, Lykke Li is in an episode, which kinda bums me out, as I like Lykke Li. But I already heard “Dance Dance Dance” at a Victoria’s Secret and “I’m Good, I’m Gone” on American Idol, so she’s already been co-opted.

6. The “clever” banter. Puns are the lowest form of comedy, and any punchline based on making a play on Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is lower still. Hunter is the worst perpetrator, but Deb slings her share of barbs as well. Plus, people are never that funny and quick. It was unbelievable in the first half of Juno, when all the characters were always so damn quippy. Like Dawson’s Creek before it, the dialogue is completely fictive in Rockville CA.

Kristen’s big question at the time she sent it was “Web series that codes the music geek as male maybe?” And one thing that is good about the show is that I can say “No, not exclusively.” However, I must qualify . . .

It’s true, Deb is a confirmed music geek. And a music professional as well (fresh out of college, she works in A and R; I hope she finds a nobler calling in the biz soon). Thus, in many ways, Rockville CA is a workplace comedy for her (not so much for Hunter — he basically, and appropriately, sells digital ad space).

Unfortunately, Deb’s not very discriminating, stating that almost every band playing at Rockville is “major” (a doubly-unfortunate connotation, bringing to mind both Victoria Beckham and the corporate label system; indeed, any time she says a band is “major,” she may as well be saying “ready for the majors!”).

Also, while she does get to exhibit geek savvy, like correcting her crush (Syd, the elusive bass player for Australia) when he says Ian Brown was the frontman for Teenage Fanclub (he actually sang for The Stone Roses), she is given the cold shoulder and reminded by Callie, Rockville’s leggy waitress, that guys, um, like, like to be right sometimes and, like, don’t like to be proven wrong. And while Deb vocally rejects Callie’s advice, it doesn’t keep her from looking in the mirror and taking her hair out of its ponytail at the end of the episode (I think the black-out came just before she took off her glasses).

Thankfully, Deb is not alone as a music geek, a fact that Shaun is happy to exclaim. Though Callie and Isabel, Deb’s needy friend who wears stripper heels “ironically” to seduce a musician she hooked up with previously, are a bit regressive — though both seem like true friends to Deb — Shaun has potential. For Shaun, who owns Rockville, the show may also be considered a workplace comedy. Shaun’s presence is heartening; she’s tough, smart and also a hot, older single lady (picture Allison Janey playing Kim Gordon — not the worst, right?).

However, she ends up selling out, signing her bar over to Chambers, a tow-headed poser, and his business partner, who wants to phase out the bands and bring in more DJs. This happened in the finale. I’m hoping that if the show gets a second season (and I can bear to watch it), Shaun becomes a tough entrepreneuse and fights it. I sense a benefit on the way.

By the way, while I love deejays, I take the new (evil, soulless) owners’ hope to maximize profits by bringing deejays in as a way to suggest that the artform (and its raced, classed implications) as being denigrated alongside of the show’s clear investment in rock, perhaps aligning with Lisa Lewis’s assertion that early MTV catered to “rock’s white-male bias” (see “The Making of a Preferred Address” in Lisa A. Lewis’s Gender Politics and MTV: Voicing the Difference). There’s several mentions throughout the show that rock is the supreme genre in popular music, suggesting that it is pure and authentic and ignoring the ways in which rock steals from other genres, and the white-washing that occurs in the process.

Which brings me to race. If you’re picturing a bunch of white people bickering with one another when they aren’t kissing or playing, you’d be right. There are two people of color on the show (three if you count Isabel, who is played by Natalie Morales).

One is the doorman, Hugh, who is African American. He kinda had a promising bit at the beginning of the first few episodes where he’d freeze Hunter out of the club because he didn’t like him. This would create moments where Hunter would exhibit painful displays of white guilt by trying to seem down and then fearful that he accidentally said something racist. Deb, who is Hugh’s friend, would get him in as her plus-one. In these episodes, Hugh would be reading a different book, like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. In other words, a smart guy with layers who wasn’t charmed by Hunter. More Hugh, please.

The other character is Annie, the Asian photographer who never speaks (the actress, Chris Yen, is Chinese American). SHE NEVER SPEAKS. In all 20 episodes, not a line of dialogue. While it’s interesting that she’s a photographer, and is always snapping shots of the bands and the venue’s denizens, having her be a silent outsider distanced by the camera kinda, you know, others her. Let’s get her to strike up a conversation with somebody. A great instance would be when Shaun threatens to set her on fire if she takes any pictures of her. Kind of an unfortunate line, as I tend to think of this image. Anyway, Annie could totally put down her camera and call Shaun out. But she doesn’t.

And that, in its way, encapsulates Rockville CA. A fair amount of promise, a lot of missed opportunities.