Thursday, April 23, 2009

Review: Rachel Getting Married

I am not an expert on weddings, but I have more experience than many people I know: I have planned and had my own, have been a part of 11 more (6 as emcee, 3 as a groomsman or best man, and 2 as an usher), and attended another 25 or so on top of those, mostly in the past six years. Granted, most of those have been fairly similar-style weddings (young couples getting married in Saskatchewan), but I have a large enough sample to know about the experience of having a wedding. (Oddly enough, I do not think I will make it to any weddings this summer because of our location, which would be the first time in seven years that I do not attend multiple weddings in a summer. But I digress.) Weddings are a unique experience, particularly from the perspective of being involved: people, often complete strangers, are thrown together in a high-pressure situation in which they have to work together for the good of someone they mutually love, all the while putting their own biases and baggage to the side for the good of the group. They can be a lot of fun, but they can also be a lot of work, and making a wedding work together is a very satisfying feeling.
The recently released film Rachel Getting Married is not so much a film that you watch, but one that you experience. It details the days before Rachel's wedding and how her dysfunctional younger sister Kym, released from rehab for the weekend, deals with the situation. But it's also about how weddings work, and family, and our baggage, and relationships. One of the main reasons the film works so well is because it simulates so strongly the feel of making a wedding happen. As viewers, we feel like we are part of the craziness, and director Jonathan Demme sweeps us along as if we were a distant cousin of the bride - not fully part of things, but still involved.
Demme's directing style for this film helps bring that experience to life. He films it like a documentary, with the actors never sure of where the camera is or what's happening. As a result of his cinema vérité direction, he captures many unscripted moments, and the entire experience feels almost uncomfortably intimate and authentic.
The film is empowered by some amazing performances. Anne Hathaway was justifiably Oscar-nominated for her role as Kym, the belaguered protagonist of the story. She is the vehicle through which the viewer experiences much of the events of the wedding, and she is masterful in this performance. Rosemarie Dewitt is excellent as the titular Rachel, and Bill Irwin and Debra Winger bring wisdom, weariness, and a wealth of experience to the role of the estranged parents. One of the more surprisingly entertaining and understated performances comes from the groom, played by Tunde Adebimpe, the lead singer of TV on the Radio. He is appropriately compassionate toward and bewildered by his soon-to-be-family, and brings a steadiness to the events that is welcomed by the similarly confused viewer.
The reason the film works is because all of these characters, as well as everyone attending the wedding, seem real. It doesn't seem like a group of people who have no common background or history together; it seems and feels like a real wedding. It is a wacky and dysfunctional wedding, but it feels like something has been accomplished through even experiencing the film. Many of the actors commented that it felt like they actually were at a wedding, and that they experienced many of the same emotions. The same goes for the viewers: we go through the ups and downs of these few days with Kym and Rachel and everyone else. We understand them better through it and we feel the same sense of completion before we return to our lives. We fondly remember the memorable events of the weekend, and perhaps we can share that with others who also took part in the experience. The unique feature of this experience being captured so convincingly on film is that, unlike the memories of our own experiences that fade with time, we can return to this experience repeatedly and appreciate it anew; that, in turn, will likely spur our memories and help us live our lives. In lieu of not attending a wedding, seeing Rachel Getting Married is the next best thing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Everything Bad Is Good For You

"I hope for many of you the argument here will resonate with a feeling you've had in the past, even if you may have suppressed it at the time - a feeling that the popular culture isn't locked in a spiral dive of deteriorating standards. Next time you hear someone complain about violent TV mobsters, or accidental onscreen nudity, or the inanity of reality programming, or the dull stares of Nintendo addicts, you should think of the Sleeper Curve that is steadily rising beneath all that superficial chaos. The sky is not falling. In many ways, the weather has never been better. It just takes a new barometer to tell the difference."

- Steven B. Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You (xiv)

Steven Johnson does not believe in the dumbing-down of popular culture; he believes in the "Sleeper Curve", an effect that underlies all forms of common media that points to the fact that our forms of media are actually improving in intelligence, rather than regressing. He immediately - and appropriately - disregards moral dissension from his thesis, stating that moral arguments are irrelevant to measuring the intelligence of media. He examines video games and television in detail, followed by a brief discussion of film, and he focusses on the development of the form as much as the content. Through analyzing the skills that video games develop, as well as the complexity of skills required and of games themselves, he shows that video games are subject to the Sleeper Curve. Think of the original Legend of Zelda, which was an advanced game in 1987, as compared to the recent entry in the series, Twilight Princess, which is almost immeasurably more complex than the original. Johnson then goes on to discuss three aspects of television (and film) that show the effect of the Sleeper Curve. Multi-threading is the incorporation of multiple storylines into one overall narrative, which has increased from single strings (Dragnet) into very complex multi-strings (The Sopranos). He states that most television programs incorporate fewer "flashing arrows" - the overly obvious cues that point to certain truths and reduce the work of the viewer, and without the presence of which the viewer is required to "fill in" more information. And in defense of reality television programs, he asserts that television now incorporates more complex social networks and requires more investment to keep track of relationships between characters and plotlines. He demonstrates how these factors are affecting film - particularly the relatively recent introduction of the "mind-bending" film (Memento, Charlie Kaufman's work, Fight Club, etc.) - as an example of this trend. He discusses how the Sleeper Curve correlates with the Flynn Effect, the observed trend of increases in IQ, and how the two both show that media and people are getting smarter. He makes sure that the reader understands the Sleeper Curve does not mean that all media is intelligent, but only that all forms of media - even the more insipid forms of entertainment - have improved. (He cites the difference between The Apprentice and Battle of the Network Stars as a prime example.) I'm inclined to believe Johnson's argument about the Sleeper Curve: it is well-argued, coherent, extensive, and it reaches a reasonable conclusion with the available data. I would have appreciated if he had discussed the moral ramifications of the Sleeper Curve on a deeper level, particularly whether the presence of more dubious morality in media actually supports his thesis because people have to use more moral intelligence to work through issues (think: Dexter, The Shield), but perhaps that was for another discussion entirely. I do find it interesting that popular music is omitted from his discussion; whether that is from a lack of data to discuss the medium, or the fact that music may not obey the Sleeper Curve, I am unsure. I am inclined to believe that, despite the desparately pathetic state of pop music, that pop music - as well as most other genres - obey the Curve, as music is more texturally and rhythmically (and sometimes lyrically) complex, and genres are often blurred even in simple songs. But back to Johnson: his argument is sound, his methods are accountable, and I believe his thesis is correct, which makes his point of view one of the most necessary for anyone engaging in media studies to hear. It also helped me make sense of why I watch what I watch, and why Heroes has gone so far down: the multi-threading is too disparate; the social network became overly complex and ingenuine as well as not rewarding the knowledge of the viewers; and the show began featuring far too many "flashing arrows." I also appreciate that Johnson's view still allows for an elitist view of pop culture (one I commonly espouse) - the fact that everything has gotten better does not mean that everything is "good", and I can still work at consuming only the most meaningful entries into the popular discourse.

Pixar going Up!, not down

There has been some ink in recent months discussing the downfall of Pixar and the impending possible commercial failure of the film Up, which features the adventures of a world-travelling crotchety 78-year-old man and a boy scout. Critics point to the fact that Pixar has not duplicated the commercial success of 2003's Finding Nemo with their subsequent four films, and that theatrical revenues generated by Pixar films are on a downward trend - even though they still earn $200 million guaranteed (a huge commercial success in any estimation). But here's the unpublished part of the story: Pixar has had unparalleled critical success. Since the introduction of the Academy Award for Best Animated Film in 2001, all 6 Pixar films have been nominated, with 4 winning; Pixar has won all three Golden Globes for Best Animated Feature. In addition, five of the nine Pixar films have been nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. That's incredible for any studio, especially a studio that focusses on animation! It's a level of success that Dreamworks and Fox - the other two major Hollywood animation studios - could only dream of. Pixar's films are timeless in a way that few Dreamworks or Fox films are.
Their films tend to centre on gross-out jokes, pop-culture shout-outs, and sequel opportunities, rather than intelligent scripts and subtly comic moments. I would contend that of the computer-animated films released by these two studios, only Shrek is on par with Pixar's films. I watched Monsters Vs. Aliens last week, and although it might have staying power for sci-fi fans, it's not an instant classic like Pixar's Wall-E. We did really enjoy a lot of the pop-cultural references - particularly President "Papa Bear", voiced by Stephen Colbert - but the movie is indicative of most of Dreamworks' films: initially enjoyable, but with little return on future viewings. I make a point of seeing each new Pixar film, but perhaps only one-fourth of the other animated films interest me. And that's why I'm up on Up!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Albums in 2009 Quarter 2

The first quarter of 2009 has been unremarkable for my music collection aside from the addition of U2's No Line on the Horizon. Fiction Family (Jon Foreman side project) was decent, Franz Ferdinand's Tonight was average, Thursday's Common Existence was a drastic turn away from their previous albums, and Chris Cornell's Scream was catchy, though it tired on repeated listenings. I'm still figuring out what I think of The Decemberists' The Hazards of Love (initial impressions are very good) and The Tragically Hip's We Are The Same.
But I suppose that the next few months might make up for the dearth of good music over the last three. Here are the discs that I am tuning into from now until June.

Matisyahu – Light (April 21) - The Hasidic emcee always brings an interesting perspective rhythmically and ideologically.
As Cities Burn – Hell or High Water (April 21) - The formerly post-hardcore band turns a more introspective eye toward themselves and their music with their third effort. Early songs sound even more stripped bare than 2007's Come Now, Sleep, which may mean the songs are as strong as that album.
Jars of Clay – The Long Fall Back To Earth (April 21) - Dan Haseltine and company are still going strong after fifteen years and ten studio albums. This album is supposed to sound like 80s acts like Tears for Fears and The Cure. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not, but if anyone can do it well, it's Jars.
Bob Dylan – Together Through Life (April 28) - Bob still sounds great, and it seems like his late-career renaissance is going strong.
Patrick Watson – Wooden Arms (April 28) - The long-awaited follow-up album to the 2006 Polaris-Prize-winning Closer to Paradise might be just as dreamy and etherally seductive as its predecessor.
MewithoutYou – It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream! It’s Alright (May 19) - Aaron Weiss might just be one of the weirdest people in rock music today, so how can you not want to hear the music he makes?
Mat Kearney – City of Black and White (May 19) - 2007's Nothing Left To Lose brought Kearney into the public eye; I have a feeling this sophomore album will keep him there. His unique vocal delivery sounds as polished as his first album.
Iron & Wine – Around the Well (May 19) - A collection of previously unreleased songs from Sam Beam, the king of the folk EP.
Dave Matthews Band – Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King (June 2) - It's been awhile since we've heard from Dave and company, and I'm interested to know where he's at now.
Emery – In Shallow Seas We Sail (June 2) - The 2008 EP While Broken Hearts Prevail indicated a move back toward the initial post-hardcore sounds of their first album. I'm really excited for that.

So, those are the albums I'll be listening to in the next couple of months. The rest of the year promises to be fulfilling, with new releases from The Dear Hunter, Killswitch Engage, Project 86, Mute Math, Switchfoot, and Muse all just waiting for final release dates.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

High School Confidential

It's strange being a high school teacher most days because of the nature of the job, but what has struck me recently as being more strange is how normal the idea of high school is for me because it is part of my daily experience. I often have to remind myself in conversation with non-teaching folk that (high) school is a reasonably distant experience for most people, and that remembering life between the ages of 14 and 18 is not common behaviour outside of our walls or high school reunions. It's strange being in a profession in which my past constantly informs and affects my future, and in which I recall some facet of my high school experience because of something I encounter. I'm glad that I had a good experience in high school, so it's not a painful process. But I remember the weirdest things, like how my Social Studies 9 teacher was obsessed with Ivanhoe, or how my Grade 12 math teacher wore Sorel boots all the time. And then I wonder what my students will remember of me in ten years...puns, Hawaiian shirts, some of the crazy things I say...I'm just glad that I'm not too concerned about my image. "When I look back on all the crap I learned in high school" (thank you, Paul Simon's "Kodachrome"), I know I remember more than most, and I remember little. So while it's a bit of a relief to know that even if I teach something incorrectly, the students won't remember in a few months anyway, it is slightly disheartening to think that rather than remembering my amazing teaching methods that they will remember how I stumbled over my podium (which happens almost daily). But I can take solace in the realization that, regardless of my particular quirks and foibles, that they will remember that I had a relationship with them, and I hope that they remember me fondly, with all of my peculiarities - even if they don't remember anything about the Rebellions of 1837.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Review: U2, No Line on the Horizon

I admit that it is difficult to objectively evaluate any new material that U2 puts out. That is why I have waited a month to write my review of the new album; I thought that this would be enough time to sort out whether I was listening to the album with altered perceptions, and whether my early track-by-track commentary stands up to the scrutiny of repeated playings. I'm pleased to report that it does, and that after twenty (or more?) times through the full album, that I can write that this is not only one of U2's best albums, but that it's a great album, period, and the best album that U2 has released since Achtung Baby.
The main reason I think this album succeeds is because of a renewed sense of purpose and vision. On the previous two albums (All That You Can't Leave Behind and How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb), there was a sense of purpose on most of the tracks, but there was also a tenderness that came across through the songs, like the band was not quite sure of themselves or where they were going. It's understandable, considering the post-modern deconstructionalism of Zooropa and Pop, but it still left me wondering if they would ever fully recapture the bravado and of the 1987-1992 era. The resounding theme of this album left little doubt in my mind that they have. From "Unknown Caller" claiming "Restart and reboot yourself" to "Get on your Boots" pleading to "let me in the sound" to "Breathe" stating that "I've found grace inside a sound", the album is peppered with tidbits of self-assurance and confidence.
Bono's lyricism has often been criticized, but his use of imagery and clever wordplay has grown over time. Whether it's creating a bridge between the dichotomy of secular and holy ("riding on the subway through the stations of the Cross" from the gospel-esque "Moment of Surrender"), yearning for a deeper relationship with the eternal ("Magnificent"), or discussing his own fallability ("The right to be ridiculous is something I hold dear", "Stand up to rock stars, Napoleon is in high heels; Josephine, be careful of small men with big ideas), it's clear that Bono and company are focussing on one thing: the music. This time, when he states that "I don't want to talk about wars between nations", we are inclined to believe him.
Of course, all of Bono's claims about focussing on the music would be less trustworthy if the music did not back it up, but it does. Larry's drumming is as good as it has ever been, Adam lays some wicked grooves out, and Edge pushes himself with some great riffs and a lot of unexpected finishing touches that add that extra sense of confidence to a song. As usual, the group experiments with several different genres (traditional hymn, gospel, psychedelic groove-rock, pop, funk/disco, 70s' rock) that somehow still feel connected and authentic. They emulate different artists - on this album, they evoke memories of late Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Al Green - while still remaining faithful to their history and creating something fresh. Considering the breadth of their catalog (12 studio albums including over 120 songs, plus a wide selection of b-sides, covers, and revisions of those songs), the fact that U2 can create an album like this speaks to their artistic abilities and their self-awareness. They know who they are, and they are doing it well. But they're also creating something new, and something that should be noticed by more than fans of U2. No Line on the Horizon is a fresh, raw, powerful album, and it deserves a few good listens, even if you did not really like "Get on your Boots".

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Intimacy isn't easy

I don't know what I expected when I got married: I knew it would be tough, but I'm constantly surprised at the things with which I struggle. Over the past nine months, my biggest struggle has been intimacy. I'm not talking about physical intimacy, but emotional and spiritual intimacy; the fact that there is someone else who shares and is affected by almost everything I do and say. It is not easy to live in this kind of a constant intimacy; I imagine that the failure of most marriages is due to giving up in maintaining it. I have trouble in expressing - and sometimes experiencing - feelings, and this all seems new...but it isn't. This has been a struggle for as long as I can remember in my relationship with God: relating to Him in an intimate manner has always been difficult. I had difficulty identifying my struggle because I could easily discount God, and most of my friends are at an appropriate level of intimacy, and they will not be able to shift to a new level (the kind reserved for family, and close friends). I know it's part of being a man that I struggle with intimacy, but I don't want to use that as an excuse. So why am I writing this? Perhaps I needed it as a method of self-analysis; perhaps I subconsciously want others to know because I might help them or receive help. Maybe just writing this helps me overcome, in a small way, my difficulty with intimacy. Or maybe I just need to keep spending quality time with the people with whom I want intimacy.

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