I've been to Heaven, you've only read about it.

From the opening seconds of Quills, it's obvious that this is not the work of the Philip Kaufman his fans had come to love. It moves with the feverish pace of quickened breathe. The film has a sense of humour so dark you need first to excavate, sift and polish it, and this becomes evident within seconds. It has the same perplexing mix of murky color palette and silky lighting that characterizes the work of Aleksandr Sokurov and the immediacy and the youthful mobility of something shot on digital. The faces have the same chiseled strangeness and fill the frame with the same aggression as those of Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and Michael Powell before them. Some might call it a perverse experiment from a man who'd forgotten how to make the sturdy, contemplative genre exercise in favor of a style as garish as his subject, the Marquis De Sade. Another way of seeing it (and as I'm championing it, I'll call it the right way) is that Kaufman had conquered slow-burning eroticism and was after a thrill much more imperative. The camera feels rooted to the spot, like it had grown out of a tree, in much of the director's oeuvre. There's a preternatural stillness to his take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the camera and the man behind it apparently aware of something that eluded so many of his peers. And the camera moves with the confidence of a master fencing champion in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. There is a studied quality in his work that until Quills had never given way to the excesses of his frenzied subject matter. Despite having traveled from inhibited bedrooms to the very edge of space, he was ever a patient and forgiving spectator, letting us in on the secrets of people we could only dream of becoming, and that most of us were quite content only to fantasize about. With Quills, he took on the characteristics of his subject, he aligned himself stylistically with the man who sits at its core. Having come off his first major assignment that truly watches like one (Rising Sun) he was as aware of the barb of the critic and apparently sought to lash out in full force, giving the despotic artist the most sympathy despite tyrannical moods no less pointlessly vindictive than Napoleon's. Kaufman stomps as angrily as the Marquis, letting a cacophonous Stephen Warbeck score leave us little doubt as to who's suffering we're meant to empathize with. The public may not understand him and he may be a bit of a shit, but he's an artist and Kaufman knows a thing or two about people comparing his work to Pornography (he's seen the business end of an NC-17 rating in his day - Henry & June's reception still stinging as if they were the lashes endured by Kate Winslet's laundry maid). The marquis' tormentor and Priestly minder are over his shoulder forbidding his work from taking shape unencumbered (or at all). They're the producer and the critic, waiting on either side of the finished product with reasons why and why not. There's even a scene dictating the journey from idea to script to screen, with all the hands the words pass through, likening those who purport to understand and help the process to jabbering, inarticulate lunatics. And his final statement: when the words of artists are not allowed to reach the ears of the public, all hell will truly break loose. Kaufman punishes those who believe that his work would do so much harm as to warrant keeping it out of the reach of children - the words of the Marquis whip the maniacs into a murderous frenzy that sets about destroying many lives. He's ready with a response to this, as well, cruel though it may seem when he hear it. The bible is just as fanciful, the same passion and violence and filth broiling beneath the pious surface. No, there is no keeping art from the masses, try as you might, it will out.

Why am I offering a defense of a mostly well regarded movie over ten years old? Well, first of all there's been a lot of attention circling Kaufman lately. Annette Insdorf just wrote a book about him, retrospectives are popping up all over the place and his new movie, Hemingway & Gelhorn, is going to play Cannes out of competition. The reason I find him so fascinating is because despite having one of the most mature and dependable bodies of work of any American filmmaker working today, critics are always guarded in their defense of him. The Right Stuff was the subject of a BFI Modern Classic, but then again so was goddamn Star Wars and The Matrix. I've never once read a defense of his early works, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is often unjustly overlooked in favor of the original, The Criterion edition of Unbearable has gone out of print, I heard none of his titles mentioned in four years of film school, and he hasn't worked in almost ten years. Why the relative silence? Sex. Just as the works regarded as Kubrickian and Hitchcockian are the product of their namesakes' later work, the films most closely associated with Kaufman, what we might call Kaufmanesque, are those films of his that deal with sexuality in the frankest manner imaginable. Which for Americans, is too frank. Henry & June, Unbearable and Quills, too, are all about the many aspects of sexual attraction; glorifying its intricacies and removing the mystery, making sex plain for all to see. America has a hard time with this most European of attitudes. Perhaps why until lately, his latest works were studio commissions; Quills just happened to come form minds a little more creative than those who handed him the script for Twisted. Kaufman was handed Quills no doubt because he had uncovered all the angles of quiet eroticism. He explored sensuality with the careful eye the subject deserves. For the realm of pornography, he directed with the intensity of a man half his age, eager to get his message to the people with the irreverence and ferocity it deserved. And it's not as though the movie is a screed, either. It's riveting, funny, thrilling, incredibly sexy and terrifying in turn and unless you were someone as in tune with the endless push and pull between executives, filmmakers and critics as I like to keep myself, there's a good chance you could watch the film and simply admire the crazed battle of wits between three kinds of lunatic. In the process of crafting this, his most uncharacteristic movie, he also captured some of the best work his actors have ever done. Geoffrey Rush is of course marvelously out of control, using physicality in a way he doesn't always get to; the whole frame is utilized to accommodate his luxurious body language and never once does he seem overwrought. Michael Caine doesn't often play a villain and here he shows what a shame that is. Joaquin Phoenix is no slouch, but his intensity is especially electrifying. In the flurry of reviews that followed the 3D re-release of Titanic, a critic lamented that in his haste to distance himself from the film, Leonardo DiCaprio has since rarely used his gift as an actor to convey happiness. One could argue that Kate Winslet's been a victim of the same choices in the wake of her breakthrough (though I wouldn't argue that in either case their decision to get serious was a misstep); indeed she and DiCaprio seem to be competing for who can choose the most punishing, austere arthouse drama, which coalesced in their both appearing in the needlessly punishing and austere Revolutionary Road. Let me reiterate, I'm glad they've done this. Anyone sorry that we have The Aviator, Mildred Pierce, Inception, Shutter Island, Contagion and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind doesn't have cinema's best interest at heart. But Kaufman does something that I call fucking magic: he elicits the same girlish charm and gorgeous smile from Winslet that anyone will tell you Cameron did in the bigger budgeted movie, although in Quills it feels genuine. And furthermore it's wrapped in passion for two diametrically opposed ends, instead of one cartoonish evil and one cartoonish good; freedom of expression drives her laundry maid, but she cannot have both the words of the Marquis and the love of her priest. It's a tug of war you can see her struggling to grasp the depth of (and how beautiful that she manages to communicate that she is struggling with the implications of this knowledge!) and in the meantime she lets her whims run away with her, throwing herself into the pursuit of pleasure with gusto. It's a splendid performance and to cap it off she's rarely looked more beautiful.

"Yes, yes," I hear you saying "you've stood on your goddamn soapbox for X directed by Y in the past." Yes, I know, quite enough of that. My reasons, finally: I do all this not simply because I adore Quills and its director, but because I do firmly believe that no one can judge the work of a filmmaker until you have seen everything they have ever done. Just as a plant is never simply a seed, evolution, growth, development, all of these are beautiful and necessary steps to witness. And is there anything more exciting than discovering something in progress, a life not yet at its potential, about to reach it? Ti West is currently one of the most incredible talents working today, but I don't think I'd appreciate that quite so much if I didn't join him on the climb up. The Roost had rough edges, but it was more than enough fun for me to look past them. Triggerman could have used a touch more weight, but I was gripped the whole time and thrilled that West had done so much with so little. If we go chronilogically we then see his first studio assignment, Cabin Fever 2, a movie taken from him in post. The Kaufman Kinship begins. It's far from good, but it's also far from the movie West envisioned. Years ago, I fear he would have been written off for a misstep such as this, despite it being out of his control. Fortunately he got to the history books first and released The House of the Devil and there stood an artist in such breathtaking control of his form that nothing can now undo his legacy. A film three times as mangled as Cabin Fever 2 would not unseat him; he's in the filmmaking unconscious. He's an auteur. And then, despite some middling reviews, came The Innkeepers, a film that is at once terrifying and heartbreaking, and once again shows growth, as if he's started climbing again. He's even had time to examine his career by playing himself in Joe Swanberg's fantastic arthouse faux-Roman à clef Silver Bullets. And he does it with humility and a self-deprecating sense of humour. Good god! Just imagine what he'll make once he reaches the next peak! This is my point. The Philip Kaufman who released Invasion of the Body Snatchers was, outwardly, simply a man inordinately (I would say overly if I didn't so enjoy these films) qualified to direct genre films. Two unconventional westerns, two widgety low-budget comedies of form and one of the best sci-fi films of all time. Nothing in that, on paper, said that he'd produce such staggering works as The Right Stuff, Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry & June or Quills. I've seen people written off, I see it everyday in the MUBI daily round-up. A retrospective here or there, an article or dissertation on some filmmaker that was forgotten, unappreciated or hated in their time. It's a goddamned tragedy. Manohla Dargis shouldn't be the only person going to bat for Shirley Clarke, especially because she seems to miss the point of her films. We need to appreciate every corner of our artform - how many millions of dollars would we save every year if we didn't need to restore films long thought lost, or worse, unworthy of keeping. But more to the point, who could have watched the work Luis Buñuel did in Mexico and guessed at the surrealist heights he'd once again reach when he returned to France in the 60s? David Fincher's career could have ended with the botched studio cut of Alien³. We'd be quite a few Best Picture nominees short, wouldn't we? It took this long for Kaufman to be thought of (at least so far as I can see from my admittedly limited vantage point) as an auteur to be considered as thoughtfully as Welles or Fellini, and that's goddamned criminal because I have the full story in my head. I see now that he shines a light on the things we hide in darkness, the parts of ourselves too weird and dirty to show off in polite company; he holds them up to the light for us to reconsider, whether we want to or not. To him our sexual 'depravity' is effervescent and rare and should be revered as much as a passionate kiss or a triumph of justice in the storytelling toolkit. Sex is one thing we don't need society to enjoy, and yet we allow the one to intrude upon and make shameful the other. Kaufman does everything in his power to undo this thinking, to pull our puritanical urges away from us like so many garments until we stand naked and see how splendid we are without them. The human body and the sexual acts his characters engage in is more beautiful than any line of dialogue. And there's a heartbreaking conviction that runs through Quills underlining this point: take away the Marquis' pen and he'll write in blood or wine or shit. He needs to write just as he needs us to feel everything we're capable of. When the Marquis weeps upon hearing that a close friend died a virgin, crying over everything she never got to experience, I was reminded of a story I was recently told that may just have been apocryphal; when missionaries explained to South American Indians about heaven, they wept on the christians behalf. They could get to 'heaven' everyday through hallucinogenic drugs and meditation. How sad that we close ourselves off from it as a society. Kaufman is that proverbial native, his characters attempting to never let the confines of society prevent them from achieving their own heaven even if their place in the 'real' one is taken away. The artist must create and Kaufman's work is a testament to this devotion. Missteps or not, the man has made too many irreplaceable works of art, films that show complete command of the form, films well ahead of their time, to have been left off the cultural radar for as long as he has. It's easier to summarize, to write off, to turn the movie off before it's over and get on with our lives. Nothing makes me sadder than great artists being written off while they still have life in them, still have stories left to tell. If for no other reason than you simply have no authority to judge their work with any maturity or comprehension beyond the standalone artifact without having seen all that surrounds it, without understanding where they've come from, see everything because there's something beautiful in all of them - the journey from the start to the finish.

Better Late Than Never: A Latecomer's Season by Season Look at The Sopranos

Season 5

The main excitement I had going into the fifth season of The Sopranos came solely from looking ahead at the writer's who'd be running the show. Matthew Weiner was my prime choice but Terence Winter was getting some more weight to throw around as well. But most importantly of all, none of the episodes were written by Michael Imperioli who is famous as far as I'm concerned for writing the worst episodes the series has had so far. So starting with that brief but important list of good news, I headed into the fifth season with a fair amount of hope.

Oddly enough, Hope is the very thing that this season tends to be about. Not in the sense that a bunch of Italian immigrants are finally seeing the Statue of Liberty after weeks on a cramped ship, and can't wait to get off and start their new life in a golden land of opportunity. No that's not it. The hope comes from people this season who only want to better themselves, and simply can't do it. The Sopranos' writers work incredibly hard this season to reinforce a universal truth: Nobody really changes. At all. Ever. 

The season uses three characters to really hammer that point home. Carmella, who begins the season on her own since kicking Tony out, Adriana who is Tony's cousin and Christopher's wife, and who is beginning what looks to be a long standing relationship as an informant for the FBI and finally Tony's cousin Tony Blundetto, who is released from prison early in the season and wants nothing more than to be a massage therapist.

Carmella finds herself trapped under Tony's weight all season. She wants only to be on her own and free of her old life, but her son AJ begins to resent her for kicking his father out, and Tony more or less always shows up at the house even when he's not wanted. In some great animal symbolism, Carmella is suddenly threatened by a bear that seems to have taken residence in The Soprano backyard. Tony is that bear. Its not very thinly masked but that's fine. Watching Carm deal with the bear is funny every single time it happens but more importantly it gives you an insight as to how the writers think of Tony. Sure he's threatening but there's more. He comes, he takes what he wants, and he'll probably leave you alone in your fear and insecurity to go off to sleep. Feel free to expand that metaphor a little bit but I think you get the idea. The point is, even though Tony is doing all of these bad things to people he can't really help it. He's an animal and he behaves almost entirely on instinct. His behavior shouldn't be condoned but it should be understood that he doesn't think like the rest of us.

Adriana's storyline is the most heart breaking the show has done so far. As a C.I. she spends most of her time in season five with FBI agents, telling them the goings on of the Soprano family (the mob one). She has no real friends because her situation has isolated her from anyone she really spent time with besides Christopher who she is obviously to afraid to tell whats going on. So she suffers in silence for the entirety of the season. Its really terrible because Drea de Matteo does some career making acting this season. The key scene I'll point to is in the season's penultimate episode. She's finally told the truth to Chris. And Chris tells Tony. So Adriana is taken for a ride. She's crying her head off but all of a sudden you see realization come across her face as to her impending death and her tears actually change to fit the new feelings.  I kid you not. Its fucking incredible.

Tony Blundetto has a hard job to do. We, as an audience have never met him before but we're assured from the premiere that he's a really important guy to all the mobsters in the show. TV series pull this shit a lot and it usually goes badly because they try to cram emotional connection into some dialogue rather than letting it grow with the audience because they don't have time. Luckily casting made the right choice and got Steve Buscemi to play Tony B. Now I care and I have no idea who this guy is. Tony is actually a man who the prison system worked for. He's out and he wants to go straight. He takes a beating from everyone in his former life when he tells them is future goals but he sticks with it, admirably I might add. The trouble is that being a criminal is like being a drug addict. You're never really over it. So when a challenge comes that Tony can't seem to overcome he falls back into his old way of doing things. He rejoins the mob, and not really on Tony Soprano's side, and returns to the life he tried so desperately to escape. And almost as a lesson to viewers from the writers, Tony too is executed in the season finale. By Tony Soprano of all people. The series wants you to know that if you turn to a life of crime you have two choices. You can succeed in getting out but it will be the hardest thing you've ever done. Or you'll die. That's it.

Now Carmella is the only person who tries to change and doesn't die for it this season. Why? Because she doesn't change. She tells herself that she's changing and she definitely does make the attempt but at the end of the day, she's still comfortable living off of Tony's money. She's too comfortable with his presence to even kick him out anymore and by the end of the season she allows Tony back into her home. I don't know how other viewers of the show felt when this occurred but I'll say that I was furious. Carm is your idiot friend who's been with the same dickhead for years. They break up, they get back together, seemingly endlessly. The worst part of it all is there's potential for Carmella. If she could break the very minimal chains that are around her she could definitely get by. She just refuses to and teamed with Adriana and Tony B.'s stories they make this season the most Shakespearean of the show's arcs (at least so far).

So where does Tony enter into all this? He's everywhere actually. None of these storylines would occur without direct involvement from Tony Soprano. This season you really learn that the writers don't want anyone to like him all that much. This season you learn that Tony is a black hole. He sucks in anyone close to him and unless they're incredibly lucky they'll be trapped there. Tony's personal story takes a backseat this season to the three characters I previously mentioned but he's still got plenty of great sequences. Namely the entire episode "The Test Dream" where we spend almost an hour exclusively with Tony as he drifts in and out of some insane and incredibly telling dreams. Tony's biggest growth this season comes from him learning that his mother Livia wasn't inherently evil. She was awful for sure, but a lot of her nature came from spending time with Tony's father. The two of them wore each other down.

So late in the season, we learn that the only real way people can change comes from being married to someone. And even then the change only really occurs between the two people. Its a horrible notion but I think that they're right.

The mob story line takes a major backseat this season. Almost nothing occurs in terms of the war between New Jersey and New York. I'd be mad but honestly who gives a shit? The non mob stuff has always been the core of the series for me and in a season with so much incredible drama occurring why would I really care about some tacky ass mob violence? The war ultimately does get resolved but not at all in a climactic fashion. Johnny Sack who seemed to be the most antagonistic player in the war game is sent off to prison and that really puts an end to it.

The show has gotten increasingly prettier as its gone on. The first season is a pretty ugly show by today's standards. Luckily that changed quickly. But in the season 5 the show really got a facelift (in one episode in particular). In episode 10 "Cold Cuts" Mike Figgis comes on to direct. He leaves such a great visual stamp on the episode that despite its more standalone plot arc, its one of the best episodes of the season. I wish Sopranos employed more outside directors. HBO's team is incredible for sure but its always nice to see a new take on something.

So where does season five leave us? I'm not really sure. There's obviously more weight put on the fact that the upcoming season is the last but I think that viewers who were paying attention knew this when the show was originally airing. This was probably the best season the show has had so far. I definitely get why The Sopranos is so legendary but the legend is coming to an end. Next season is 21 episodes long so I probably won't be back for a while so I hope this was engaging.

See you around the bend.....

Look Out Hollywood....

Compulsive listmaker that I am, I keep a running tab on the best releases of the year, every year. I hear something good, it goes on there. My thinking is that if I write it down, I'll have more time to live with the albums and sort out my feelings about them by the time I have to share the list with you fine people. Though, it must be said that occasionally something gets a touch more consideration than anything else. When I found out that Chromatics had put their latest, the moody Kill For Love, on Soundcloud, that was all I listened to for several days. When one day my friend Joe Montone sent me a text asking what I thought of Father John Misty, it set off a chain of events, the latest of which is this post and which won't conclude until well after the first of May. Not only had I not listened to it, I had no idea what it was. Which made me feel rather silly because it was only the nom de plume of J. Tillman, the man whose music litters my film I Need You and who provides one fourth of the harmony voices of Fleet Foxes as well as playing their drums. He'd quit the band with the promise of new music, but how was I supposed to know that he'd be this quick about starting his third life? The album promised by the little I could find to read on the subject suggested something bigger and more open than his beautiful, sparse early efforts. Something that dripped with the ethos of its California spawning location. No familiar names in the liner notes, no familiar notes in the music. I was intrigued, if unnecessarily. The man could cough into a mic with the flu and I'd pay twice what it was worth to hear it. So when the promo showed up at Siren the other day, I threw it on so fast everyone's goddamn head spun.
 I played it twice in a row and then left it there. I talked it up with my friend/co-worker Ash, who, it should be said, is maybe the most picky human being alive when it comes to music. She digs old folk, blues and country, but draws lines even there that I often strain to fathom. She hears the new releases week after week of new artists yet only seems to enjoy the band Pontiak. I recommend music sparingly; I've been burned before. So it wasn't lightly that I offered the incredibly light seeming: "You might not hate it." The following afternoon I was at home when she asked me over the phone who this guy was. "He seems very nice from what little interaction we've had." "There are references to ethnobotany all over this record." I came in to the store to hear her namecheck somethings I recognized but couldn't put any meaning to, but evidently he was speaking her language. She caught the namechecking of Joseph Campbell, Cosmic Serpent, Ayahuasca, and heard what she thought might be references to Daniel Pinchbeck. She's an aspiring ethnobotanist and as such seemed to hear things in this album that I wouldn't. I caught his musical influences and all the references to the post-60s view of Hollywood, when they finally sat about discussing what they had just started to call the Golden Age. To me, the songs have the second-hand smoke of Jim/Brian Jones, Charlie Manson, Sharon Tate and Bob Rafelson about them. She heard something else entirely, but we'd both heard it loud and clear. That is the mark of a great work of art.
When I heard the opening minute and a half of School of Seven Bells' Ghostory I called it the best album of the year, half-jokingly, but half-seriously because I could tell that they'd filled out their sound in a way that was logical given the . By one minute twenty one seconds it had been dethroned by Fear Fun by Father John Misty. The first song encapsulates the whole album pretty squarely, but it doesn't quite give you the whole picture. Listen to "Funtimes in Babylon" and you'll know that all of Fear Fun, due on the first of May, is unpretentious, just as expansive and gorgeous as he's ever been (though the mud covered forest floors and mist-shrouded barren landscapes of his earlier efforts have been replaced with flourishing farms and hills so green they're almost golden), and rounded out by orchestration that runs into every corner of the space, making sure that his voice is backed at every turn as if laying on a sea of hands carrying him from one end of a concert hall to another. Of course, what it doesn't tell you is how fun the record is in the meantime. You'll miss the hallucinogenic Van Morrison vibe of "I'm Writing A Novel," the honky-tonk revivalist pop of "Tee Pees 1-12," the acidic slow-burning waves of "This is Sally Hatchet" which features the greatest instrumental closing of any song this year (and that includes "Rodent" by Pharoah Overlord, but just barely). The album's influences are borderless, but also exactly late 60s California on the nose. It's a little overwhelming at first, but that feeling goes away when you realize how perfectly considered every song is, independently and in the context of the album. Tillman comes across as both disheveled truth-seeker, small before creation and ever eager to have his mind expanded and bed-hopping wise-ass lucky but not precisely grateful about not having been killed by his lifestyle. I'm not sure which I like better. The man with the shit-eating grin wearing a full beard and yesterday's clothes at the banquet gives us "Only Son of the Ladies Man" and "Well, You Can Do It Without Me," and truly sets the record apart from the first five Tillman records. But the man frightened and humbled by not understanding his place in the universe is the one whose voice goes to the most stirring and resonant places, as on "Now I'm Learning To Love The War," and stunning album closer "Everyman Needs A Companion," which is the most confessional song on a very personal record, and features maybe my favourite lyric he's ever sung: "I got hung up on Religion, though I know it's a waste. I Never Liked The Name Joshua. I Got Tired of J." How do you not fall in love with a crisis so identifiable which is yet the definition of exclusive? Everyone has to live with their name; you can change it, but who are you trying to convince ultimately? Tillman has thus explained the reason for his new moniker and closed out a completely shattering collection of sun-dried chamber pop right where we started, but infinitely better off. He still stands tiny in the face of the mysteries of the universe, every blade of grass, folk song and drunken evening a new universe to be contemplated, but we've got this record, and that, as he well knows, will last forever.

Jack White comes in from the Musical Cold

So the other night I found myself in a dilemma. Spend the last few hours with my girlfriend Emily before she left for Las Vegas for a week, or listen to Jack White's new record Blunderbuss. Well she didn't take me with her to Sin City so I chose the album. I made the right choice.

I've been waiting on this puppy for some time. I'm as big a White Stripes fan as they come and I adore The Raconteurs but The Dead Weather was a bit of a tough sell. The songs just didn't come together the way that Jack White III's other groups songs did.

Jack also went out of his way to torture White Stripes fans by releasing a great little documentary and the first official White Stripes live records ever while he was off dicking around with The Dead Weather and all it did was make fans clamor for more of the musical duo. Jack and Meg put out a press release not long after that officially stated the band was finally kaput. Though it was all but said already, I'm sure I shed a few tears when I actually read the notice.

We got a brief glimpse at what Jack was up to when the documentary It Might Get Loud came out in 2008. A pretty rad single was actually cut from the film and released as Jack White's first official solo release, Fly Farm Blues.

The song was killer and its got Jack's style all over it. But after that all to brief sample of Jack's solo work he went silent for four years.

The first sample I got of Blunderbuss was when he played to tracks from it on SNL a few weeks back.

The first was a mellow ballad which we've seen Jack do before but not quite in this vain. Its a lovely little song with some nice harmonies. (and who could say no to an all girl band?)

His second performance sounded like a track from any Stripes record. Its hard. Its fast. And its great. A solid rocker.

So from that performance, I still really had no idea what to expect from Jack's upcoming record. The result is...well......everything I couldn've wanted from it.

Even on the first listen Blunderbuss sounds a lot like Bad as Me by Tom Waits did when I first gave that a listen last year. It felt familiar. It felt warm. It felt good. Nothing on the album is stale or rehashed. It just feels like you've known these songs all your life. Like they were recorded out of time like only the greatest artists seem to be able to do. I watched a radio interview (yes, watched) today with Jack White and the reviewer ended up saying the same thing so I know I'm not nuts.

I think the reason is that we've all been listening to Jack for so long that even though he continues to wow us with what he can do we've grown to know him like a lover. We know his ticks. We know what gets him off. And as far as I'm concerned, I've got a lot of the same feelings Jack's got.

The songs are mainly riff based which is typical for Mr. White. But he pulls away to allow some killer piano and organ driven tracks. There's some great harmonies and backing vocals. Jack explained in the radio interview that he managed to record almost every song with a different set of people just to keep the energy moving throughout the recording process. I think it was a good move.

Jack's lyrics are right where we want them too. Songs about love that leave a sinister grin on your face when you actually pay attention to the words. Songs about being young, being in school, and having the worst crush possible. Jack also manages to really keep his songs very catchy. Even the deeper cuts on the record had me snapping my fingers and bobbing my head. Being catchy is far from the sure sign of a good record but here its just another pro on a long list that's fairly devoid of cons.

In fact the more I think about it, theres nothing on this record that I'd even call a con. Sure, I'm not madly in love with every track but so rarely does that actually happen on a record. Even the bands that put out these albums don't absolutely love every song (though this is actually a problem since they should. It'd probably make the damn thing more listenable).

I'll stop harping on over here and just say that when this record comes out, I advise you to go out and buy it. I will as well and I'll be doing so at the tiniest record store I can find. Digital albums are a wonderful convenience and an eventuality these days but knowing Jack, I think that having this record to hold will be worth your while.

See what I did there? I snuck in a "support record stores" thing right at the end. Do it. It'll make you a better person.

Better Late Than Never: A Latecomer's Season by Season look at The Sopranos

Season 4
Fans of the series find season 4 to be incredibly uneventful. While it is a slow season, so is every other season of this show so far. What Sopranos does right this time is it puts the comedy in the back seat and really makes you care about the drama unfolding instead. They put most of the pain in the ass characters in the back seat as well. The 4th season manages to plant a lot of seeds early on and then very VERY, almost achingly slowly grow them into living things.
You spend A LOT of time with Carmella this season which pissed people off, but her arc is so tragic that you simply can't turn away.
Carmella truly proves herself as the first real “anti hero's wife”. Even though their husbands are off committing atrocities in one way or another the fans of the show often end up placing hatred and frustration on them. See Betty Draper from Mad Men, Skyler White from Breaking Bad, or Anna Gunn's other less detested wife character, Martha Bullock from Deadwood.
Carmella has spend the last two seasons in love with Tony's soldier Furio and Furio loves her back. But tragically they never even get to tell one another. Furio is forced to leave for Italy and Carmella is left totally alone as far as her love life is concerned. Its a terrible truth that in life so many potentially wonderful things just end and its awesome to see The Sopranos embrace this hard fact.
Tony and Carmella finally have it out in a series of fights that put their marriage on the line in biblical fashion. Especially now that Furio is out of the picture. They have 3 huge fight scenes in the finale and even though they're all short as far as run time is concerned, they leave you thinking they lasted for hours. They pack so much history, rage, and catharsis into them and they leave only destruction in their wake.
Whitecaps, the season 4 finale, is the definition of a slow burn series episode. So many things are said and happen that only work because you've got 4 seasons of history to back them up. Its brilliant.
The reason this is my favorite season so far is because they finally just come out and say that the mob story is a distraction to Tony's home life. All of season 4 prepares the viewer for the final showdown between Tony's crime family and a New York based one. Right up until seemingly the last minute you expect blood to fill the streets or at the very least for certain key players to get whacked. And none of it occurs. The matter is resolved (almost peacefully). What the season was actually ramping up to the entire time was Carmella and Tony's showdown. And its more hard hitting then any mob execution could be. And when its all over Carmella does the unthinkable. She kicks Tony the fuck out.
The true beauty of the finale comes from the the titular sequence. Even with all the awful shit slinging that occurs between Tony and Carm, there is a truly beautiful sequence in which the two dance in from of white caps on the water. In one episode we see a couple at their best and their worst. Thats good writing.
As silly at it might be to compare all this to a later piece of work I can't help but think of a wonderful sequence in the first season of Game of Thrones where Cersei and her husband Robert have what might be the only honest conversation they ever have. No matter how much two people hate each other they'll still have a bedrock that relates them, even if that bedrock is mutual resentment. It powers their scenes together and makes for some beautiful set pieces.
Chris has gone through a lot this season as well. His heroin addiction led to an intervention and rehab. I still really don't care for his character much but he seems to finally have made some progress and is clean as the season concludes.
Above all, Season 4 plays with every expectation an fan of the show could ever have. Carmella and Tony separate. The big mob violence comes two thirds of the way through the season where Tony kills a man on his own team over the death of Pie-o-My the race horse that Tony had fallen in love with. Tony's relationship with the horse is one of the most moving arcs the show ever managed to pull off. Like the ducks that Tony love so much in the first season, the show relies on the power and innocence of animals to show who a person as troubled and conflicted as Tony Soprano really is. And the biggest one of all. Tony fires Dr. Melfi. And not at the end of the season either. After all the fallout with Carmella he gives her a call but doesn't have the courage to speak and quickly hangs up the phone.
Tony also suffers some very intense dream sequences that I hear pay off in the final season so I won't go into them here. Needless to say thats great forward thinking so I hope it pays off well.
In a dark and twisted word this could actually be the end of The Sopranos. Its not. And thats great. I've never been more ready to delve back into the world this show has created than I am with the 4th season under my belt. Its powerful stuff and I can't wait for more.

Andrew Stanton of Earth: A Plea for Cinema's Future

There's a very specific reason I'm writing this. I'm angry. I'm angry because I believe that people are making gigantic cultural mistakes that are dooming our cultural future. I'm writing in defense of John Carter. I know there are better films, less well-known films, and films far more deserving of my time and attention but I have a tremendous bone to pick with everyone who didn't see it or doesn't like it because by rejecting this movie, you're fucking directors everywhere out of a future in creative control of works that truly do need studio money. I know, I know, I know. I know Andrew Stanton isn't exactly Nuri Bilge Ceylan. I know this sounds melodramatic. I know you don't care because you probably didn't care enough to see the movie. Which is why we're here in the first place. I know the fault lies partially with Disney's marketing people who failed to make the film appealing. Which...fucking, really? You've been at this how long and you can't make people want to see a movie that does the Star Wars thing better than Star Wars? You fucked up and I hope you're apologizing to Stanton profusely everytime you fucking see him. But that's not what you're doing, is it?

Let me offer my defense of the film itself. It's a blast. It's a lot of fun, it's thrilling, it's kinda sexy and it's beautiful. Stanton created a film with a visual language at once distinct and rich in history. The thing I like most about it is that it's rich in cinema grammar from many different ages. It's got the feel of an old fashioned victorian sci-fi adventure, and I don't just mean because it's written by someone who was Jules Verne and H.G. Wells most prominent pulp successor, along with Robert E. Howard. I mean that it approaches an alien civilization with the same pedantic eye, but never feels like it's talking down to anyone and never feels less than exciting. George Pal's The Time Machine, the films of Byron Haskins and Ray Harryhausen films like First Men In The Moon and The Three Worlds of Gulliver. Working for Disney, Stanton is the latest in a long line of craftsmen out to sketch adventure that will age gracefully and he's more than achieved that. He's got a firm grasp on comedy, action and sci-fi conventions, he's a skilled director of actors and a confident world-builder. And I hate that so much of the criticism I read about this film was about A. How much money was spent and B. plot elements taken from the source novel, which for once, no one bothered to read. Everyone's read Dragon Tattoo and Hunger Games, but if the jacket collects dust, nobody wants it, evidently. Yeah, I sound like a petulant asshole, but I don't have time for populism when it's fucking us this badly. But back to it's critical reception; people seemed offended at the notion that 120 million dollars was spent on a movie. You know what? Doesn't matter. It's good, so, to me, the money's worth it. It's all on screen and not in a "let's explore Rivendell for a few pointless minutes" kinda way. There are no moneyshots, it's all about the moment and moving the plot along, so the film doesn't have the endlessly proud of itself feel of something like Avatar. Which was far and away the masturbatory film among the two. Money not an issue. I get that we're in a recession, but if you all constantly talk about the money spent on a movie, and refuse to talk about the cash forked over to movies that are actively bad. How much did American Reunion cost? Does that explain why it's pathetically written and indifferent directed? So get off that particular high horse, because it carries no water when you whip it out selectively and not for bullshit like Avatar. A diversion: someone look me in the face and tell me that John Carter isn't better than Avatar or any of the last four Star Wars films or the remake of Clash of the Titans or Ghost Rider or Green Lantern or any of the Avengers prequels (which are films I enjoy) or even The Hunger Games or The Adventures of Tintin, films I liked. And tell me so reasonably, don't give me a fanboy/girl grunt in the direction of this setpiece or that. Or for that matter, illustrate what about Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, another spectacle driven action film made by a former pixar animator makes it a better film than John Carter. And don't tell me about the individual set pieces, don't simply draw me the building. I can understand that Brad Bird does a dazzling job with suspense and highwire theatrics and I admit to being really very impressed with a lot of what I saw in Ghost Protocol. One thing I didn't do was care about anyone beyond what their cultural baggage brought with them. I liked Simon Pegg because I like Simon Pegg, not because he was delivering the most sparkling dialogue ever written. Frankly, I didn't even really enjoy Paula Patton's performance/character and Jeremy Renner, one of the most talented actors working today, has been a whole hell of a lot better. Bird didn't know what to do with his actors. Stanton does. No one phones it in, no one looks lost, no one strikes a false note. And if it needed saying, Mission is a sequel we didn't need. As for the other criticism, I've read reviews by people who don't like that the story starts in the old west or incorporates Victorian England into its backstory. Well guess the fuck what? It's in the book. Read it and shut the fuck up. I read a review in which someone complained that the man who reads the story-within-the-story's name is Edgar Rice Burroughs. He actually wrote the phrase "Eye roll." Like he's some goddamned unprofessional punkass blogger. I could write Eye Roll cause no one gives a tinker's damn about me. I can swear up and down and no one cares because It doesn't say Film Critic under my name. I don't write Eye Roll because I'm not an adolescent jagoff. If you're being paid to write film criticism, try not to act like a stupid motherfucker, do your fucking research, don't be obnoxious and don't be such a tremendous fucking knowitall.

I could say this about a lot of people, so why is it important that people recognize Stanton and John Carter? Because of the amount of money he was handed to make this thoroughly entertaining film. My issue isn't that I like something and other people don't; I'm not just a professional sore loser. My issue is that viewers are writing cinema history for the next ten years. By not seeing John Carter, what viewers are saying is that they don't want people with vision great enough to take this much time and resources that came from a childhood desire to see a beloved story come to life in the best fashion possible to do it. Because Stanton made Carter into the best possible film imaginable. Projects of larger scope and more complex narrative have derailed more talented filmmakers than Stanton and that the movie not only makes sense but soars in its best moments, is a true feet. The film defeated the likes of Robert Clampett and Ray Harryhausen, but he goddamn did it. Read the book and then watch the movie and tell me he didn't. So what people are saying is that they don't care when an artist wants to tell a story in the most amazing way he can. They'd rather have Hollywood remake whatever the fuck they want, James Cameron mercilessly steal from every third film ever made and Michael Bay jerk off all over our knees while making films about kid's toys that apparently suffered from a dearth of fake tan and women bending over. John Carter isn't objectionable, it didn't steal from anything but it's source novel, and it's not a remake. Everyone complaining about John Carter, especially those who didn't see it or are judging it based on a book they didn't read, are casting a vote for Transformers 4 and Avatar 2. Films that had no heart or soul to begin with. You're giving Hollywood the power to say "people don't want to watch movies like this, with ambition. They want
Transformers. Let's just make that."

I had the same set of complaints with a different slant when everyone gave Anonymous a critical blanket party last year. Most of those fucking people were judging it based on a hypothesis they found offensive because they felt that it was a classist statement, that someone who was poor and illiterate couldn't have written something so brilliant. Granted, if I thought Roland Emmerich was paying to have schools tell us that poor people can't be geniuses, I'd have been concerned. But it was fiction and no one buys history lessons from the man who made 2012. But the thing is, Anonymous is one of the most beautifully made films in recent memory. I goddamned loved it and I could find no one (but Tucker) to judge it on its own terms instead of letting bias dictate a pre-judgment and then writing off the rest. And I saw better films last year than Anonymous, but I'd still go to bat for it. It's fucking poetry, as much a living painting as Lech Majewski's The Mill & The Cross. I've seen better films than John Carter this year. To return to Ceylan, his Once Upon A Time in Anatolia may be a career high for a truly unique artist. Terrence Davies has made his best film since The Long Day Closes, which is perfect, so it's not exactly small praise to say it's almost as good. Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights does an admirable job returning a classic to the earth that spawned it, besting Cary Fukunaga's excellent Jane Eyre. Rafi Pitts' The Hunter gets under your skin and stays there. And Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness only lost the oscar to A Separation because that film is a fucking miracle and Iran's political cinema needs the spotlight desperately (FREE JAFAR PANAHI!!!). The difference is that films of quality will always be made outside the mainstream. They are not guaranteed when they're made by a major studio. I want to enjoy big budget spectacle as much as I do introverted arthouse masterworks. I know that a film like John Carter will be a little too busy building worlds and swashbuckling to tug at my heartstrings with the efficacy of a film by someone like Terence Davies, who has made efficacious heartstring tugging his goal in life, but goddamnit all it tries and it works, if not as well. I want quality from the mainstream and by voting with your wallets for movies without heart, then you fuck us all. You doom us to decades of movies with no emotional center and no concern for your intelligence or empathy. I don't want to look at the nearest marquee and notice that it's half-full of shit I don't fucking care about and that doesn't fucking care about me. Because Michael Bay and James Cameron don't care about you. They care about your money and about expanding their sandbox and recycling ideas. I resent that attitude, I resent their indifferently made tripe, I resent their fake concern for the artform, I resent the fact that they work in the medium I love. Please consider the future of the art before you pay to watch just whatever's out there. I'd recommend you buy or download a film in a language you don't speak before I'd tell you to watch something produced by Adam Sandler or Michael Bay. These people and their horrible ideas will never die if we don't kill them. Speak before your voice is taken.

Better Late Than Never: A Latecomer's Season by Season look at The Sopranos

Season 3

I got really busy over the Easter weekend. I finished two seasons of this show in a matter of days. Season 2 was a bit of a push for me but as you'll read in this article, season 3 really gave me something to enjoy watching.

Season 3 begins about as strangely as possible. The entire premiere is told from the FBI's perspective. The full hour shows the feds attempting to bug Tony Soprano's basement since they know that he occasionally talks business down there. The Feds are fairly caught up on the comings and goings of Tony and his crew so right from the get go you know how much they know about the deaths at the end of last season. Tony's daughter Meadow is in college and is dealing with roommate issues but apart from these scenes the episode is almost entirely comedy. A major bummer is that Tony brought back a new enforcer named Furio from his trip to Italy last season and the man has accomplished nothing of note yet. As of now he's basically T Dog from The Walking Dead, though considerably less annoying. Tony's son AJ is a skateboard punk and an incredible dumb ass but thats really nothing new either. The Feds finally manage to secure a wire tap in the basement but all they manage to hear is Tony discussing his water heater with his Polish housekeeper's husband. Ultimately a complete waste of 49 minutes.

The 2nd episode of the season seems like the “real” premiere. Tony's mother dies rather unceremoniously and that gives way to the rest of the episode focusing on the funeral and the after party. But once the episode is over, Livia Soprano is forgotten and as far as I'm concerned, it's a great decision.

Joe Pantoliano shows up this season playing a new antagonist named Ralph Cifaretto. He's a great villain character because unlike the other evils the show has portrayed, Ralph is far more driven by ambition than by hatred for Tony. He doesn't even want Tony removed. He just wants to have his own place in Tony's crime family. Ralph also ends up being connected to the real troublemaker of the third season, Jackie Aprile Jr.. The now-dead mob boss' son wants to make a name for himself and in what seems to be a trend for the youthful characters of the series, goes about it the stupidest ways possible. And though Ralph is very tightly connected to Jackie's mother, decides he's too much of a problem and has Jackie Jr. killed. It was a big season of me throwing my hands in the air in triumph as awful characters were forcibly removed from Tony's plate.

The other real difference that Ralph has to contend with, versus what other villains have to, is that he survives the season. And he gets promoted to the position he wanted despite a lot of bad blood between himself and Tony Soprano. This leaves me really wondering where their relationship will go in the next season and that's probably the first time I've really wanted something out of carry over from a previous season.

Tony remains very much Tony in this season which isn't a bad thing. In the back third of the season he begins an affair with one of Dr. Melfi's patients. Its a pretty insane affair but doesn't really change much. Tony continue's his sessions with Melfi regularly until out of nowhere, she is raped while leaving her office late one evening. This is easily the most serious moment on the show so far and they do an incredible job of portraying the event in as horrifying a way as possible. There aren't any cut aways. You're there for everything.

Tony sees Dr. Melfi soon after and the show defies all expectation. Melfi doesn't ask Tony for revenge. She keeps it to herself and lives with the horror of the act.

This is a shorter one but I've got a lot less complaints about this season. The show seems to have finally found a groove. Not necessarily their groove, but a groove nonetheless. For the first time I'm left eagerly awaiting the next season. I'm beginning to see why The Sopranos is so revered. I just hope they don't drop the ball.

Better Late Than Never: A Latecomer's Season by Season look at The Sopranos

Season 2

Season 2 marks a serious step down for The Soprano's. David and I were just talking about the reworking that Game of Thrones is going through in it's second season. The Soprano's managed to do something similar but has failed where GoT seems to be succeeding.
With a new season of a show to work with, writers have a whole new list of opportunities. They've got new story lines to work with. They've got new characters to introduce. They have a chance to expand the world that they spent the entire first season setting up. They fail on almost all of these in the second season of this series.
The story follows a logical progression. Tony is now running the show as far as the crime element is concerned. These sequences are some of the best of the season. James Gandolfini is incredibly watchable as the central anti hero of the series. In the second season we finally manage to see him take control of something he's been vying for his whole life. And he's a solid leader. Very rarely does he make a bad decision and a viewer can take pride in watching this man (even if he is a magnificent dirt bag much of the time) run his crew. One of the best episodes of the season has Tony travel to Italy to meet up with the homeland leaders of La Cosa Nostra. In a great curve ball, the acting organization leader is woman and a powerful one at that. Though the show is filled with strong female characters, the majority of them are strong in their homes and no where else. It was nice to see a woman truly wearing the pants even if it was only for an episode. Its actually funny how similar to Game of Thrones' second outing this season is. The brother of the deceased mob boss from the first season appears in the second season's premiere and causes problems for Tony the whole way through. Though there aren't as many men struggling to take the crown in The Soprano's as there are in GoT, there is still a great little war going on within this second season that makes for some great television.
The trouble though is that it really doesn't come to a head. Several episodes of the season veer off from Tony Soprano's operatic reign of his crew and instead focus on Tony's idiot nephew Christopher who spends his time this season doing heroin and trying to write a mob movie screenplay. The sequences end up going for funny but don't really pay off. Instead I just found myself wishing I was watching Tony keep things together. There are plenty of serious scenes involving Chris too but because he's such a jag wagon I just never cared.
The violence that does occur in the story arc is much more necessary this season than the last. Tony doesn't send gun men after trouble makers this season. Instead he finds himself trapped. The violence happens to those he truly cares about and carries a lot more weight and consequence.
Tony's mother ends up pretty out of the picture this season since she's stuck in the hospital for most of it. This is good. She's a terrific villain for Tony but I think the writers lost control of her in season 1 and I think it was the right idea to tone her down a tad. But out with the old and in with the new. Richie Aprile the new man trying for Tony's crown plays one villain, and Tony's sister Janice plays another. There are now villains in both sides of Tony's life and they definitely give Tony's mother a run for her antagonistic money. The trouble is both these new villains' are basically unwatchable. They're annoying. They're schemers. They're liars. The Soprano's initial success came from how grounded in reality the series was. Unfortunately this creates a problem for this season's arc. The two new villains are definitely a problem but because they aren't super genius' they really don't cause super serious problems for Tony. They really just boil down to being a pain in both my and Tony's ass. If you don't care about the villain you don't care about the conflict.
The season begins without any real interaction between Tony and Dr. Melfi. Luckily this is fixed quickly and they do see each other enough to keep things going across the season. They still end up being the best scenes in the show. The intelligence in the writing really comes out here and Tony's true self is able to be glimpsed if not fully seen.
The season wraps itself up pretty well. All the main story arcs are covered and the show could end there though it'd be in the running for one of the worst series endings in history. Luckily the show's got 4 more seasons to work with.
Season 2 left me almost totally unimpressed. The dialogue is still great. The acting is still killer. But the production value hasn't gone up and I find myself watching almost every sequence with violence through gritted teeth because it ends up looking terrible.
I think the show has plenty to work on for season 3.
  • A stronger over arching plot with Tony as a central focus. If they build up new characters it'd be fine to bring them in but as of now Tony is the only really interesting person on the show as far as the mob is concerned.
  • More scenes with Carmella Soprano. Edie Falco does an inhumanly great job of playing Tony's wife and I'm always psyched when she comes on screen.
  • Less comedy more drama. Life is funny. Okay I get it. That doesn't mean this show needs to be. Mainly because all the humor is really simple and doesn't at all match up with the rest of the intelligence inherent in the show's writing. All the humor ends up doing is underselling characters and turning them into parodies.
  • A better antagonist. They really need to create a scary villain. Someone who's threatening and not just annoying. They could also go the GoT's route and show the bad guy's home life so they seem like more of a character rather than just somebody who appears once an episode as a reminder that Tony Soprano has problems.

This show still has a lot of work to do to live up to the legend. I'll be back for season 3 and I hope that I'll have better news.

Blinded with Science

I'd like very much to go around calling myself a director, but the sad, shameful truth is that I work at a record store. Which is just as well because even if I were a rich and famous anything, I'd still be a record store geek. I'd debate the merits of proper hip-hop production (as I did just hours ago on Facebook with a friend who was bringing up a very funny point, not trying to start a fucking debate about goddamn hip-hop integrity), I'd sneer when people explained why I need to make room in my brain for whatever dubstep is (ed: this piece will be obsolete in six months. See, I'm doing it again!). If I discover something, I want it to be a proper discovery, not something some of my equally unhip friends know about and passed to me as cultural shrapnel, because if there's something worth knowing, no one will tell you about it. That's the Catch 22 of doing what I do. Incidentally, I'm not unhappy about working at a record store, but I did undergo a process of curbing my contempt for mass, split second culture. If someone asks if you like Amos Lee, I merely smile and admit that he's not for me. That's what a polite person does, or anyway, I think that's what a polite person might do. I have colleagues who'd do a little more or a little less. If I snorted derisively and rolled my eyes, I'd run the risk of being a giant, jobless asshole. So, instead I simply try to see things their way and ignore that my brain is a voracious knowledge monster with an impossibly fierce, snide and picky doorman. It's not fair to everyone else if I stand behind the counter and impose my tastes on customers for the seven seconds I have to perform a service for them that though I'm uniquely qualified for, can easily be taught to someone who is less mean-spirited and impatient than I am. I try to tell myself that in my defense I do seriously believe that consuming mediocre culture because it's around results in more of it. But I can't tell myself that people honestly don't like the music they buy, even if I try to justify that. We sell a lot of Gotye here. I don't know what he sounds like, but the bigger he gets the harder it is to convince myself it's worth listening to because the general impression I get from people buying it is that they have other places to be and this is something that has become mandatory to own and be able to talk about, so just sell it to me, already. But this is wildly unfair to the artist and his fanbase. I'm so far inside the world of labels and side projects and distribution and bands that broke up after one album released before I was conceived, that it's tough to remember that normal people don't care about that and just want to hear songs they like. They don't want to hear that the other side of me not liking something because it's famous is critics and listeners patting themselves on the back for choosing to ignore a band until a particular moment, before which they'd entertained me immensely.

All this brings me to a days-long project where I was asked to alphabetize our DVDs. For the sake of the children, I put the horror, cult and sexploitation films in one section high above the ground because I wanted it that way, and also because I didn't want kids to be able to look at the lurid covers of Suspiria and Friday The 13th, Part V and be scarred for life. Ok, maybe I do want that, but I also want to preserve some of the mystery. Plus, kids don't buy that shit. Next to horror is my newly minted Nicholas Cage section; small but growing. I put the TV and classics at a little below eye level so senior citizens have neither to crane their necks or bend over to reach it. Our meager Criterion section shares a shelf with the few foreign films we've accrued. Children's films are at kid height near the floor. Sports, exercise and documentary come after the large TV section stops. And then the other rack has everything else. I was going to put drama and comedy in separate sections, but why bother? They're utilitarian genres and if you put the comedy together, the combination of pinks and whites and sparkles hurts your eyes. Plus, how many of those films are actually funny? See why I keep all this to myself? Anyway, I didn't care about mixing drama with action or comedy because they all have mass appeal and it's easier to have them together where I can easily keep track of what we don't have. These used to be sections, but putting cards in to delineate doesn't make as much sense as we don't have the shelf space for it anymore. The one thing that gave me pause was Sci-fi.

What I discovered was that my definition of Sci-Fi clearly didn't match the store's previous definition based on everything that used to go in that section. I, Robot, Dark City, Aliens, Star Wars, The Matrix, etc. Ask anyone and they'll probably agree that this is normal, and as a blanket term, I took for granted that these films, whose DVD cases share dark background colors, sleek fonts and people striking fierce poses, earned the distinction of being called Science Fiction. And then I took the phrase apart. What exactly was the science in Aliens? Now, I love Aliens, but beyond the technology, which no one explains except where fire power is concerned, there's no science in this film. All of James Cameron's best known entrees into the genre are all noticably lacking in hard science. The Terminator writes it off with a line of dialogue. Avatar, which would probably be saved in most stores by the fact that Sci-Fi often shares a backslash with the word fantasy, is based in a scientific principle that no one bothers explaining except to say it's too technical and don't fucking worry about it, dipshit, just enjoy the scenery. Well, fine, but you don't deserve the Science Fiction mantle.

Science Fiction got the name because there used to be people with something like an understanding of the way the world worked. Granted there was far less to know back then, but you get my meaning. Paul F. Tompkins likes to joke that Jules Verne's writing is 99% science and 1% fiction. Fair point. The point is that the science needs to drive your plot, not simply inform it. H.G. Wells explains the mechanics behind his time machine, then fuses its inherent moral conundrums to the protagonist as he uses the device to learn things about himself and the way the world works. Verne's science is window-dressing; he's asking moral questions. The technology of the Nautilus or the fact that the center of the earth holds many wonders doesn't really do much more than give his characters something to bicker over. But it's fanciful, anyway, and one could and I assume that people frequently do argue that without a submarine capable of doing what no craft could do at the time could, the stories wouldn't have been written. My qualm with Sci-fi starts, but doesn't end, here.

To call Verne science fiction, nine times out of ten, is being rather more generous than I'm willing to be. If 20,000 Leagues was about specifically which mad scientist had been splicing genes to create the giant squid, and the lifelong process by which he achieved his goal, I doubt we'd be here. Not only because that wouldn't have entertained victorians worth a goddamn, but it would have been scientific. Nemo may be a scientist in Verne's backstory, but he's little more than Robin Hood with the power of a modern army at his command in action. Look at the many different cinematic interpretations of the character and you see what people remember; a sort of hard-nosed adventurer. His research is a means, not an end. Which is much more in line with the mad science that would reign supreme in horror films post-Frankenstein. Everyone had their reasons (ending world hunger, world domination), but the point was they'd used science to create a giant-ass insect or an astro zombie. Or invert that. An alien visits and it's sci-fi because there's a scientist present who pleads of the men of action to "Think of what we could learn!" before they destroy it. Could being the operative word. And that's science as most screenwriters know it. But eventually the science was overwhelmed. The Invisible Man the Wells story is called sci-fi. But there's a reason you could only find the DVD as part of the Universal Monster collection for many years. It was a horror film, or anyway, it was treated like one. The question I have is what criteria are people using to categorize something as Science Fiction? Because in the film adaptation of The Invisible Man, science takes a goddamn hike in favor of Claude Rains' world domination plot. He derails trains, robs people, and behaves rudely. We don't learn a single goddamn ingredient of his invisibility serum, do we? It might as well be The Horrors of Spider Island (a sleazy, sleazy film rightly placed in Horror, that nevertheless is fueled by scientific anomaly) for all the attention it pays to the details of its implausible plot. To further extrapolate; make your protagonist visible and what do you have? Basically The Public Enemy or White Heat. Take a look at The Amazing Transparent Man, which is a way-late-in-the-game Invisible Man rip-off, which is nothing more than a dime store heist movie with sci-fi trappings, placed there with contempt by ever-slumming genius Edgar Ulmer. It's a crime film by any other name, radium or not. The science is bullshit, and furthermore it's borrowed, and never leaves the lab, and could have been replaced with document forging. The point of the movie is to be a potboiler, and to warn about the dangers of fascism (long story). And there's the problem. Take the "science" away from so many of these films and you find another genre film is cheap masquerade. Star Wars was in the science fiction section of every video store I've ever gone into (sadly they've all but vanished), but where the fuck is the science? Put it on Earth and it's Kurosawa's shallowest post-war film in English, if you're feeling generous. If Lucas had an explanation for what makes up the fuel of an X Wing, that can propel a craft so small through the atmosphere of a planet... I assume the planets in those galaxies have atmospheres? Again, all questions we could have been addressing instead of trade routes and taxes. Take out space travel and I imagine you have something very much like Red Tails, a poorly written action-adventure movie with a facile understanding of history that Lucas produced to middling reviews earlier this year. Star Wars has zero interest in what makes it possible for these people to go from Hoth to Endor. Again, I get that that doesn't make for the most interesting viewing. What they used to call Hard Sci-Fi died because once you've been to space and dealt with the mundane truth of the matter, there isn't much left to do. Hence why films like Destination Moon and Riders to the Stars were replaced with The Angry Red Planet and Red Planet Mars, but even creature features and space operas eventually gave way to soberer fare like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien because of the infinite possibilities space travel presents for looking at the human condition under an advanced microscope. Leave it to the makers of Hard Sci-fi to tell us the how and the why, Ib Melchior and Sid Pink were going to show us fucking monsters and explore ideological problems. So, there's nothing like fact in Lucas' films (he can't even get the whole space is a vacuum thing right), but we forgive it because we want to. The spectacle is doubled (not only explosions, but on another planet) and so people get much more willing to forgive a film's core emptiness. It's so shallow it doesn't even match the philosophical content of something like Journey to the Seventh Planet, which is largely a vessel for blonde women and brain monsters. It is entirely what's in front of your face and there's nothing beneath it, at least nothing you couldn't get from a Commando Cody serial, which flies in the face of the idea of Science or Speculative Fiction. There ain't a fucking question when you leave Star Wars. Or I, Robot. Or Journey to the Center of the Earth. At least none that it's creators felt the need to pose themselves. James Mason or Will Smith will make some offhand comment about why X is Y, but it's an excuse to watch robots fight people or lizards fight each other. Speculative fiction is a much better term for the genre because a good 50% of the major films called Science Fiction don't have a care in the goddamn world for science, hard or otherwise.

And I can be forgiving up to a point. 2001: A Space Odyssey isn't really science fiction, when you get right down to it. It's much more interested in the idea of the coldness of space and of what technology affords rather than how that technology operates. When Keir Dullea disarms Hal, what exactly is he turning off? We get that there's memory in there, but what the hell are all of those things he's pulling out of the computer's hard-drive? No, Kubrick is much more interested in the chicken and egg question of inspiration and our never ending quest for technological advancement. It starts with a tool for hunting, but when we put our lives in the hands of machines, have we gone too far? Machines aren't programmed to reason like humans are. This is fascinating, even if its philosophical first and only scientific to a point. And furthermore I give him a pass because he gets the minutiae of space travel so perfectly. Look at the rules for the zero gravity toilet and tell me he doesn't have the makers of Destination Moon in his heart. He's using space travel to get at enormous philosophical questions, but at least he's not ignoring the facts. Ridley Scott's Alien gets the same pass. It asks so many questions in simply setting up the fact of interplanetary travel that I don't mind that it's a proto-slasher film at heart, Halloween or Jaws with a built in phallic death implement on the face of its killer. Alien makes you think without ever stopping you and asking you to do so. It's also one of the best films ever made, so don't think I'm setting the bar here simply to qualify as Sci-Fi. Though, frankly, look at The Day the Earth Stood Still; it's just The Next Voice You Hear inside out. Robert Wise is excused because, again, the ideas are there and it doesn't matter that this is basically a movie about a dictator holding the world hostage, and also he made one of the last hard sci-fi movies, The Andromeda Strain. But my point is, you don't have to be the most tactful or subtle artist to make what I'd call Science Fiction. Doug Trumbull's Silent Running or Saul Bass' Phase IV (both imperfect films) may be about fusing a hippie mentality to space travel and the mutant insect and asking whether one can actually live and let live when life has lost most of its meaning, but they at least try to get the facts straight. But does entry into the mean bug or space territory automatically grant you entry into the genre? What about The Beginning of the End or Assault on Dome 4? The former has large bugs and the latter is set in space and if you learned anything, you were paying much more careful attention than me. Why can't we see past generic trappings and see genre conventions? I don't think that simply happening in space means that a film should be called goddamn Science, especially because, in case you've forgotten, we haven't really made a lot of headway up there. Anyone living on fucking mars, yet? Anyone smoking a cigarette in a button down shirt up there, or polishing a shotgun or whatever the fuck? I didn't think so. If anything, they want audiences to take all of it for granted because not only do they not care about explaining it to you, but once you figure out that it has nothing to do with the plot, you're going to realize they took a boilerplate action movie and just threw it in space to get more money out of your wallet. And furthermore, it sells some films short. Dune is thought of as sci-fi, but that's more poly-sci. John Carter is a topnotch adventure yarn. Where exactly is the science in a man touching a magic stone and winding up on Mars? Calling it such cripples everyone's understanding of the film, which is based on a novel by someone who was much more interested in anthropology anyway (you don't write Tarzan without at least a passing interest in it), and whose grammar is much more aligned with the silly Verne and Wells adaptations from the 50s and 60s. Logic is gleefully thrown aside so that the film can soar on its own terms. Scientific this is not.

So what about Solaris? Or the films of Duncan Jones? Films that are grounded in scientifically sound situations (Space station? Legit. Human life support in whole buildings on the moon? Not impossible.) and use them to ask questions about our humanity. I have no problem with a film like Moon because though the science is fanciful and largely unexplained, it uses the cushion provided by the trappings of sci-fi to examine humanity in a way you can't down here, today, right now. Cloning and robots are funhouse mirrors, and if we have to define ourselves based on what we're not, then what are we left with? That's where the meat is. That's something you can sink your goddamn teeth into. Is it science? Only faintly. The science got us into the room and while there's no way a screenwriter in the early 70s or even now is going to have anything like the technical know-how to explain cloning or space travel, they don't push the boundaries of existing scientific knowledge any more than their predecessors. Other films and books have asked us to buy clones, so there's no need to do it in Moon. But that really only makes them heirs to the mantle of sci-fi in as much as the films that established the conventions deserved it. Moon leans on 2001, it becomes Science Fiction, so we don't look at the fact that the science, such as it is, isn't even remotely important to the questions posed. Yet, it takes place in space, so it's Science. I call bullshit. What the best science fiction comes down to, based on both my definition and the mainstream acceptance of the genre is whether it makes you think or whether it entertains you with spectacle not possible in the realms of the real. To put this in microcosm: A lot of people called Another Earth sci-fi, but no one calls Melancholia sci-fi. Another Earth is a widgety, twee nightmare over which hangs the idea of an idea. No one speaks for ten seconds about the mathematical probability of a planet that mirrors ours existing, let alone entering our fucking orbit (yeah, that's what I want to know about, how in Christ's Dick does a planet that's EXACTLY LIKE OURS just leave it's fucking orbit when our planet has never done that? Did they all goddamn panic when their planet just leapt out of its galaxy and ambled on over here? Screenwriters? Nothing?). Melancholia uses the same idea in a way that cuts down on improbability and amps ups its metaphor, by making its rogue planet an almost malevolent, empty rock, a much more potent reflection of earth, if you ask me. But the movie itself is about depression. The thing I love about Melancholia is that Lars Von Trier (who, in case you don't know, don't give a fuck) fills his film with scientific speculation, it just all happens to be wrong. And it's probably going to wind up in the drama section of the imaginary video store in my head because it's about people first and gets those details 100% right (this is if said fake video store doesn't have a Lars Von Trier section). Like Kubrick and Tarkovsky before him, he had other shit on his mind than what goes on in space, but paid lip service to actual fact, anyway. This is what real filmmakers do.

Look at any major publication's list of the best science fiction films of all time (fuck it, any blogger) and you'll probably run into a lot of the same titles. Total Film's list makes me furious not only because they consistently put terrible films above great ones but because there's nothing remotely scientific about the worst of them. First of all, don't tell me that
Robocop is a better film than Solaris (scratch that; first of all, don't compare them), and do not tell me Robocop's about the fucking science. It's called cocksucking ROBOCOP!!! It's about spectacle, and if you're a Verhoeven apologist, it's about satirically skewering corporate greed and the line between the public's approval of violence and its understanding of violence. If you want to be generous, it's dumbly violent because it's "about" dumb violence. I'd buy that if Verhoeven hadn't made Total Recall, which strips the science out of its source story by Philip K. Dick, to make one of the dumbest, most violent movies ever made (which, incidentally, also called sci-fi despite someone surviving on Mars despite having no helmet for...what, a minute and a half? Two minutes? I forget, because it's one of many scientific snafus in that very stupid movie still called Science Fiction). But anyway, the point of Verhoeven's films, at least his so called Sci-fi films, isn't the science, but the opportunity it grants him to poke fun at some aspect of American culture (and Fuck you, by the way, man; we've got problems but we don't need advice from the guy who made Showgirls, thanks. You contribute to the problem, you don't get to point fingers). Ditto The Matrix. There's only the dimmest scientific thought at work in that obscenely violent film. It's all about world-building and asking if...like...this is the real world...and shit. I'm being condescending because I hate that movie and don't find it entertaining or morally sound, but, anyone can tell you it's about consciousness, not physics, even if its the film's bending of physical reality that grants it its visual potency. The problem with arguing over its scientific relevance is that it ditches reality almost immediately. And yet there it is on the Science Fiction films list, next to 2001 and The Fly. Most of the films generally called great sci-fi, in fact, don't really belong here. Empire Strikes Back? Nope. Inception? Fucking hardly. Aliens? Would you stop. Entertaining films that can't exist in our modern reality, yes. Scientific? In what sense, I'd like to know. And I'd like to make it abundantly clear that I like those three films a good deal, Inception especially, but not because of the way they use the scientific method. Speculative Fiction is the better term for films like this, but we also need a corrective for a film like Aliens or The Deadly Mantis. You could call them horror films, but they want to be war films. Godzilla is a science fiction film. Its sequels are just monster movies. In the meantime we need a term that covers everything from Arnold Schwarzenegger tearing people's arms off on Mars to Mothra destroying Tokyo, because simply going to or coming from space does not qualify as scientific. It's just lazy writing. Furthermore, they're only scientific as long as the equation is new. An alien gets here, and yeah we'd study their anatomy, but then it becomes about anthropology. What is their culture like, how they perceive our lifestyles, etc. And after that, it's just Star Trek. Other planets exist and we can visit them, but soon it's just going to be about interstellar warfare.

I sincerely don't think this is a question of my being too inside of a particular argument. It's simple enough. If you watch a film and goddamn learned something scientific, I'd hear arguments for it being considered Sci-Fi. But my problem is that I think people think they're learning more than they are, which means they're being denied something more than what's out there. And this takes me back to working at the record store. Yeah, it's pretentious and mean-spirited of me to make fun of someone in my head when they ask if we carry One Direction, but only because I've seen just how truly brilliant music can be, and I know that it can be the most profound art and can alter your perception of what's possible in the medium and if you settle for what's on the radio or television, you are denying yourself the pleasure that can come from the greatest music and letting a few people decide your preferences for you. You aren't questioning, you aren't learning, and to my way of thinking, you're limiting how happy you can be. We can call any film that takes place in space Science, but we're limiting ourselves hugely. Break the limit, ask questions, don't believe something just because it's been told to you. It could just be fiction.