Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wonder, Hope, and Love: Further thoughts on The Tree of Life

[Read my initial thoughts here] 

The Tree of Life is a film that elevates the soul. It reminds me of Whitman, Thoreau’s “Walden,” Faulkner’s “The Bear,” Rick Bass’ short stories, and Fellini’s 8 ½ (especially with the obvious hattip Malick gives the great Italian filmmaker at the end); all of these are works of art that are, in some way, about nostalgia, how we remember things, and how we can try to make sense of God and the world we live in through our connection to nature. I greatly admire these works of art for more than just their literary importance, brilliance, and amazing display of aesthetic; they all affect in me in the same way: I feel I see the world I live in differently after spending time with them.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Record Club #2 -- Brand New

Understanding my love for The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me (the album name was based on the troubled singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston and the well-known psychological problems he faced/s) might be a little clearer when studied in the larger Brand New context. It’s also going to be a bit of a journey so hang with me. When I was in college, emo was all the rage. Now, one of the most criminal misnomers in all of music was labeling things emo that didn’t truly represent emo. There was, I assure you, some genuine emo music out there that sounds nothing like the bands that get labeled emo today. So, Brand New was pretty emo. Their first record, Your Favorite Weapon, contained all of the usual elements – pithy song titles (“Jude Law and a Semester Abroad”), “woe is me” pity songs, and “girls are evil” revenge songs – that you would come to expect from a run-of-the-mill emo band. However, there was something different buried beneath Brand New’s banal sound: the lyrics. Frontman Jesse Lacey and guitar player Vin Acardi (the latter who had a much reduced role until The Devil and God…but more on that later) weren’t content with being run-of-the-mill, so they peppered their songs with some honest lyrics that made the ho-hum sound of the songs stand out because you wanted to belt out these odd words.

After Your Favorite Weapon put Brand New on the map, they began work on their second album, Deja Entendu. Deja Entendu was an interesting attempt to reinvent themselves after just one album. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. Lacey and co. show on their sophomore album great maturity musically (even if it still is pretty basic, not lending itself to many repeat listens, and still containing those long, pithy song titles like “I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don’t”), but it’s, again, in the lyrics that make the album seem a lot better than it is. Lacey’s words are so self-reflexive and self-deprecating on the album that it’s no wonder on the next album we find him at his nadir. Consider these words from “I Will Play My Game Beneath the Spin Light,” probably the best song on Deja Entendu:

I write more postcards than hooks/I read more maps than books/I feel like every chance to leave is another chance I should have took/ Every minute is a mile/I’ve never felt so hollow/I’m an old, abandoned church with broken pews and empty aisles/My secrets for a buck/Watch me as I cut myself wide open on this stage, oh I am paid to spill my guts/I won’t see home ‘till Spring/Oh, I would kill for the Atlantic, but I am paid to make girls panic while I sing.

All throughout their sophomore album, Brand New reflect on what it is to be popular in “the scene.” They admit to loving it (from the same song: “Know we do this ‘cause we care not for the thrill.”), but one gets the sense while listening to Deja Entendu that they weren’t doing it on their terms; that they wanted to be more than just people who make girls scream. You got the sense that they weren’t satisfied with how people viewed them as musicians. Lacey literally warns us of the change to come with the final song “Play Crack the Sky” where he sings “this is the end…” as a final nail in the Deja Entendu coffin. Things are going to be different.

And even though Deja Entendu was light years better musically than Your Favorite Weapon, they still had work to do and something to prove. This reflection and overall dissatisfaction with the process and workings of the music machine (and the inadequacies that the creators of that work feel during the process) would be fine-tuned during the next evolutionary step for the band – a three year-plus process of writing, recording, scrapping songs, and starting over anew – allowing them to come to terms with their imperfection and finally complete and release their magnum opus.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Initial Reaction: The Tree of Life

"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes."

-- Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
"That very day two of them were going to a village named Emma'us, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him[...]So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, "Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?""

-- The Gospel of Luke

(Note: A full review is forthcoming once I have a few more days to think about things; however, you still may encounter some spoilery things in here. There's your warning.)

I wasn't sure what I wanted to do in regards to my review of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, so while I figure that out, I thought I would just post a quick thought or two. The above passages swam through my head as I exited the theater this afternoon and walked around downtown Portland. I didn't want to go home, so I did what Malick's characters spend a good chunk of the film doing: I wandered around and collected my thoughts and tried (oh, I tried) to keep it together and get my bearings.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

I Saw the Devil

My first piece for Edward Copeland on Film is up now. It's on the fantastic South Korean film I Saw the Devil. Here's the first paragraph:

For my money, some of the best films being released today are those coming out of Korea. And one of the very best at making those films is Kim Ji-woon. Whether it’s the ghost story (A Tale of Two Sisters), the mob flick (A Bittersweet Life), or the adventure picture (The Good the Bad and the Weird), Kim is always taking clichés from American genre pictures and making them more interesting than they have any right to be. With his A Tale of Two Sisters (one of my favorite films of the past decade), he turned an average ghost tale into a poignant story about sisterhood, memories, and things lost. It was deeper and more heartfelt than it had any right to be. Not to mention the thing looked really damn good. Then there was his war picture, The Good the Bad and the Weird, which again took all of the clichés we Americans come to expect in an action/adventure picture and puts his twist on them so that without realizing it we’re giving ourselves completely over to the material despite being so familiar with the beats. It is this visceral energy and the fact that there’s always something deeper beneath the familiar surface of Kim’s films that makes them so hypnotic.

Friday, June 17, 2011

New Music!

Since the Record Club #2 is coming up in a couple weeks, I wanted to get warmed up by reviewing some new music (and by new I mean albums released so far this year). Don't forget about June 27; you should make sure you've listened to Brand New's The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, and then come back here for what I hope will be a spirited discussion. Anyone can join, all you have to do is click the little banner on the right and email Ed that you want to be included in the email list for reminders about future Record Clubs. Anywho, onto the new music...