Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Marley & Me.


Marley & Me (David Frankel, 2008)

Category: Sad movie about dogs. “Man’s best friend” has been depicted on the silver screen nearly from the beginning of the medium itself, famously in the Rin Tin Tin and Lassie films. I feel like these heroic cinematic dogs have given people an inflated sense of dogs’ worth. It’s not like Fluffy, your two-year-old Maltese, would be able to save little Timmy if he fell down the well. Chances are you don’t even live near a well. But so yeah people love dogs, and they love movies about dogs, and the reason why these movies are sad is not because the dogs are useless and a waste of money, but because they eventually die. Which I guess makes sense. The most famous example of this genre is Old Yeller, when the dog doesn’t even die of old age. They take him out back and shoot him. (Spoiler alert.)

Other than Cujo, I can’t think of one movie that portrays dogs in an unsympathetic light. They are depicted more positively in movies than literally any other group/species. And not just positively; literally rapturously. There is a movie that exists called All Dogs Go to Heaven. All of them! Even those vicious pit bulls that bite and kill people! They get to go to heaven. There is no such thing as morality in the world of dogs. When dogs are young, they say to their dads, “Dad, I really want to go bite that mailman. Is that wrong?” And their dads say, “What does 'wrong' mean?”

My familiarity with this issue: It should be clear to all of you by now that my relationship with dogs can be charitably described as “problematic.” I think it’s important for me to clarify this, though: I do not hate dogs. I can remember being chased around by a dog when I was five, and so my first major emotion towards dogs was probably fear. The fear is largely gone now, except for enormous horse-dogs who knock off my glasses while I’m watching Lost  (AHHHHHHHH.) At this point I’m just annoyed more than anything else. I generally don’t like being licked (helloooo ladies), I don’t like being sniffed (helloooo ladies?), and I don’t like holding leashes or picking up poop or things that chew my slippers. I’m a fairly neurotic person, but I can’t see how this is that out of the mainstream. The whole experience just seems very unpleasant to me. And yet there are people I know who would be sadder if their dog died than if their grandpa died.

But the thing is that I know that I'm being silly about all this. There must be something nice about having a cute, loyal, furry and occasionally actually helpful friend around all the time. Everyone wouldn’t be this dog-crazy if there weren’t. It's just not for me. I don't really begrudge people having dogs and enjoying them on their own. I can even stomach people showing me pictures of their cute dogs. I'd just really rather not be around them, ever. Live and let live, folks. Also, they smell terrible.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: "After their wedding, newspaper writers John and Jennifer Grogan move to Florida. In an attempt to stall Jennifer's "biological clock", John gives her a puppy. While the puppy Marley grows into a 100 pound dog, he loses none of his puppy energy or rambunctiousness. Meanwhile, Marley gains no self-discipline. Marley's antics give John rich material for his newspaper column. As the Grogans mature and have children of their own, Marley continues to test everyone's patience by acting like the world's most impulsive dog." (Let's not forget how terrible these plot summaries are, by the way. This one may have actually been written by a dog.)

What I thought of the movie: It’s pretty conventional, and it’s pretty boring, but it’s not completely objectionable. I say “completely” because I objected to a good many dog-related things that I will get to later. The issue with writing about this movie for the blog is that it’s obviously only sad for one stupid reason that everyone knows about and so I’m not even going to bother with the spoiler alert in all caps: the dog dies at the end. THE DOG DIES AT THE END. I said it. And so it’s not your standard “sad movie.” So the first hour and a half is a fun carefree family comedy, with the standard issues that young couples with young kids and huge psychotic destructive dogs face. As mentioned, I had some issues with this part of the film. Pretty much from the first annoying, banal, dog-deifying line: “You know there’s nothing like the experience of raising your first dog.” I can think of a few things:
1) Raising your first cat.
2) Having a little brother.
3) Eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream.
4) Any other mildly pleasant experience.

So Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston are reporters living in Florida, and they get a cute dog. It’s very cute, I’ll admit that. But “it’s a cute dog” only goes so far. For me, it goes about as far as “walking past it on the street and saying ‘aww.’” It doesn’t excuse multiple acts of dog-terrorism. So Marley destroys the furniture a bunch of times, runs rampant through the town, costs them untold amounts of money, and so on and so on, for two hours, and we’re supposed to say, “oh that scamp.” The phrase “oh that scamp” is not in my vocabulary. I have no patience for scamps.

I guess it wouldn’t be that terrible if the dog stuff was the only problem I had with the movie. But it’s just lazy. At a certain point, Owen Wilson just narrates over a montage of the stuff he’s doing. For like three minutes. I couldn’t believe it. They quarrel over diaper-changing and fabric swatches and the color of the curtains and everything you’ve seen in a hundred movies before. And then they add a giant dog and say, voila. Here’s the movie, America. Hope you like buying 143 MILLION DOLLARS WORTH OF MOVIE TICKETS to see it.

How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: I think reasonable dog-loving viewers might have the same concerns that I did about the dog. The characters themselves even voice them at certain points, only to have those opinions disregarded or forgotten. Twenty-two minutes into the movie, Owen Wilson, remarking on the fact that the dog has grown to horse-like size in a fairly small house, says, “I say we give him away to a farm.” That could have been a movie-ending statement if Jennifer Aniston had said “yes.” (I wouldn’t have minded.) The main concern, however, was when they had kids. The scene where they bring the first kid home for the first time and “introduce” him to Marley, which has been established throughout the movie as a giant slobbering hurricane of annihilation, actually made me uncomfortable! Not just for the characters, but for the baby actor. Listen, I know these animals are highly trained, but they are ANIMALS. They are not people. Accidents happen! The dog KNOCKS THE KID OVER at one point. And at no point in the movie does Marley bite anyone (a careful choice by the filmmakers, no doubt), of course, but come on. It is dangerous and irresponsible to have an enormous insane dog in the house with a baby. I see no way around that.

I wanted to yell at the movie many, many times, but the worst may have been during a scene where Aniston gets fed up with the dog and tells Wilson to get rid of it. I was cheering. And then Wilson goes, “well obviously that’s not gonna happen,” and I shook my head. She says, “Everyone gets rid of their dogs at some point, it’s just a dog,” which just makes so much sense! And he says, I can’t believe I’m reenacting this conversation for you like I witnessed it at the mall or something, he says, “I’m just a husband, are you gonna get rid of me when I start misbehaving?” To which I yelled, “YES, IF YOU KNOCK OVER YOUR KID AND DESTROY THE FURNITURE AND SHIT ALL OVER THE PLACE, YES, THAT IS GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE.” 

Am I insane? Is that poor writing, or is that true to how most thirtysomething men with arrested development feel about their dogs? And THEN she RELENTS and lets him keep the dog: “getting rid of Marley is not gonna fix anything.” Other than all the furniture that would remain unbroken if it were gone, but I digress. And then, pretty much immediately after this scene, the dog starts getting sick. They spend the last half hour of the movie trying to make you forget about the first hour and a half, so that you will only be sad when the dog dies, and not be like, well, it was essentially a tornado of fur and slobber and excrement and teeth and dangerous household mishaps, so maybe society is better off with it being dead. Not that I'm saying that or anything.

How I felt after the movie ended: I understand what they’re getting at, honestly I do. The dog is loyal, it’s the constant that sticks with Owen Wilson through thick and thin, etc. That's the thing that the dog-lovers cling to, the loyalty angle, as if that’s something that’s exceptional or unique to dogs. (I have plenty of possessions that have stuck by my side through thick and thin. In the case of my insulin pump, quite literally.) And people are loyal too! Aniston stuck with him even when he was being an irrational tit. So yes, the dog dying is sad, of course it is. I’m not totally heartless here. There’s a touching scene where they go for a walk (this is when they live outside of Philadelphia, apparently, but good Lord it’s like a beautiful windswept golden meadow! I had no idea the Shire was right outside Philadelphia) and it’s obvious the dog is getting older and is near the end, and Wilson says some lovely heartfelt things to the dog. It’s quite nice. I did notice, however, that the dog didn’t say anything back.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My Girl.


My Girl (Howard Zieff, 1991)

Category: Sad coming of age film. Childhood can be quite a nice time. Going to elementary school is kind of a drag, I suppose, but you get to do a lot of coloring and arts and crafts, and there’s generally more homework in high school and college. You don’t have to worry about getting jobs or paying bills or doing anything useful in the summertime. And while elementary school is the time when you start noticing members of the opposite sex and it gets awkward, if you were anything like I was back then you wouldn’t have had to worry about them talking to you. So it works out. There have been plenty of artistic meditations on returning to one’s youth (the movies Big and 13 Going on 30, the Taylor Swift song “Never Grow Up” and the Toys ‘R Us theme song, to name a few awesome ones). I think it would be fun to go back and spend a few days as my younger self, knowing what I know now, especially with regard to “talking to girls” and “winning spelling bees.”

But coming of age is something that we all have to do on our own, more or less. It’s obviously easier for those of us with nice families and money, but it’s a bumpy road for everyone. Some people, like the protagonist of My Girl, have more issues than others, which are depicted in sad movies about people whose mothers died in childbirth and feel guilty about that because they think they killed their mothers and sad movies about allergies. We’ll discuss both of these in greater depth later, but it’s important to note that the first one can be particularly upsetting, and even cause someone so much psychological damage that, as an adult, he leads a mass purge of an entire group of people on a mysterious Island. 

My familiarity with this issue: At some point in my life, I came of age. I can’t recall exactly when it happened; in fact, I think it was a pretty gradual process. All I know is that now, it is more socially acceptable to call me a “man” than a “boy.” It’s probably been the case for the past few years. When I was younger, I used to think that this transformation would be much more dramatic and sudden, as if I’d wake up one morning and suddenly be a man. Like a bar mitzvah, but real. I guess it doesn’t really happen like that, at least not in the suburbs. I still think that it happens like this for people who live on farms or some such. Like when Pa throws his back out and can’t go out and chop the wood or milk the cows or whatever, and he says, “Jem, you’re the man of the house now,” and Jem, probably like fourteen years old, stands there looking solemn and in that moment understands all of his manly responsibilities. Boom. Man. The coming of age process did not happen that way for me. In many ways, it’s still going on. (I have never milked a cow.)

On the allergy front, while all the other bugs (diabetes, asthma, weak facial hair growth) were feasting on my pale, sickly flesh, the allergy bug instead attacked brother of the blog Tony Krizel. He is allergic to nuts and poppy seeds. My mother often informs waiters of this fact. Tony is 26 years old. The coming of age process continues.

(Let’s also note the top three billed actors in this movie: Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Macaulay Culkin. Wow! It’s gonna be a laugh riot! Ghostbusters meets A Fish Called Wanda meets Home Alone. I’m seeing boffo box office! Boffo, I say!)

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: Vada Sultenfuss is obsessed with death. Her mother is dead, and her father runs a funeral parlor. She is also in love with her English teacher, and joins a poetry class over the summer just to impress him. Thomas J., her best friend, is 'allergic to everything,' and sticks with Vada despite her hangups. When Vada's father hires Shelly, a makeup expert, in his funeral parlor, and begins to fall in love with her, Vada is outraged and does everything in her power to split them up.”

What I thought of the movie: I think I liked it in spite of itself. There really were very few things in the movie that were original. Which didn’t make it bad, per se, just less interesting than it could have been. And there were a few things about the story that kind of bothered me. A lot of stuff that could have easily been sorted out with any kind of father-daughter communication, but had to be saved until the end of the movie for the maximum catharsis. Curtis plays a Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Groovy 70s Edition, and gets together with mortician Aykroyd because… well the story says they have to. There’s really no other reason why she would fall in love with him, as not only does he look like a big lumpy blob of Aykroyd, but he just mopes around throughout pretty much the entire movie. And he’s not even a good father. But I guess standards were lower in the 70s.

And yeah speaking of the 70s, the movie really hits you over the head with all the references. (Although the song “My Girl” is only played once, at the end. Which was lame, because that’s the best song ever. I expected that to be playing every five minutes like in That Thing You Do!) There’s even a kid wearing a Nixon/Agnew button. (If I was around back then, I’d have smacked that kid right in the face.) The movie is chock full of your stereotypical growing up stuff: they go fishing, she sings to a picture of the teacher she has a crush on, some mean girls sing the K-I-S-S-I-N-G song, etc. Like I said, nothing heckas original. This all sounds like I hated it, when it’s more like I recognized it, and acknowledged it was kinda lame, and still managed to be somewhat moved by it at the end. And there were some things that were really nice. The performance by Anna Chlumsky (who has the best last name since “Rusesabagina,” and grew up to be the PWIP PIP girl in In The Loop) is very sweet and believable. And the scene where she and Macaulay Culkin have their first kiss, and then recite the Pledge of Allegiance to detract from the awkwardness, is great. I’m going to try that on some girl one day.

(SPOILERS from now on, I guess; I mean this is stuff I knew was going to happen, and it’s the only real reason why this is considered a sad movie.) The sad stuff is decently effective, if pretty unoriginal, too. This seems to be a theme in sad movies about kids who die: the moment after they experience the bliss of young love, they’re goners. It happened to the murdered girl after that dreamboat professed his love to her in a completely unrealistic fashion in The Lovely Bones, and it happened to poor Macaulay Culkin after his aforementioned very sweet first kiss in this one. I guess the filmmakers want to dampen the effect of killing off a child, and so they let the kid experience true happiness first. A sort of, better to have loved and then gotten killed off than never to have loved at all, type deal. In any case, it worked better in this one, even though I saw it coming. I still felt sad for everyone involved.

How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: The filmmakers really chose to play up the nostalgia of youth thing. It’s aimed towards a pretty wide demographic, and thus can’t get too specific. That’s why all the period choices and familiar songs make it feel kind of anodyne. But that’s also how movies sell lots and lots of tickets. I, of course, did not grow up during the 70s, and thus the movie isn’t exactly aimed at me. But there are general childhood things here that I could relate to. What I could not relate to, however, was the whole single parent thing, and also the whole not strict, let your kids play out all day and night thing. My mother watched me like a hawk every second I was out of the house. When I was eight, I crossed the street in front of our house on my bike without looking both ways first, and a car almost hit me. I don’t remember it being that close, but of course that’s not the point. I was confined to the sidewalk for much of the next several years. When I was sixteen and wanted to go take the test to get my learner’s permit, she suggested that we wait a little while, because I still might not have learned my lesson from EIGHT YEARS EARLIER. And so when Dan Aykroyd doesn’t chase after the girl when she runs away from the funeral, I was bewildered.

The main thing that really hit home in this movie was the fear of bees. I had never seen this movie before (it came out when I was five), and so I know that my fear has its genesis elsewhere. (It may have been a movie about killer bees that I remember being on at my cousin’s house once. The Swarm, I think it was. I just looked it up. Michael Caine was in it!) The point is that I have been terrified of bees for as long as I can remember. I was stung once when I was a kid, and I had what at the time I considered to be an allergic reaction, but was probably just me being hysterical for a while. (Like how I used to tell my mom I was allergic to apple juice, when in fact I just didn’t like the way it tasted. I did not know what the word "allergic" meant for an embarrassingly long time.) So in this movie Macaulay Culkin, whose Chekhovian gun was placed on stage in act one with the phrase “he’s allergic to EVERYTHING,” shot himself in the face with it in act three when he OPENLY ANTAGONIZES a swarm of bees FOR THE SECOND TIME. Whyyyyyyyy would you do that. How is that fun! I submit to you that the sound of a bee buzzing past your ear is the most frightening sound that exists. AND THAT’S JUST THE SOUND. What’s even worse is a bunch of bees stinging you to death with their stingy stingers. TO DEATH. Imagine!

How I felt after the movie ended: I guess I had a lot of negative stuff to say about My Girl, but in the end I don’t think I disliked it. In fact, I’d probably recommend it to people. It got me thinking about all kinds of things, not just related to bees or The Temptations. As clichéd as the relationships in the movie were, it did make me think about what it would be like to be a single father, and the difficulties of raising a spirited, precocious 11-year-old girl alone. (It would probably help if some braless biddy showed up at my door in a camper and just decided to fall in love with me for no reason. But I digress.)

ALSO, there is a sequel to this movie that I obviously have not seen and don’t really know anything about. (I think friend of the blog Allie Hagan mentioned that My Girl 2 is actually much more of a coming-of-age film, which makes sense, as the girl pretty much remains the same age throughout this one.) Should I seek this out? Is it as sad? Are there as many bees? I’m relying on you, people.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I Am Sam.


I Am Sam (Jessie Nelson, 2001)

Category: Sad movie about mentally challenged people. We’ve covered this before. In the interest of not horribly offending more people than I already have, I’ll just let you discuss this category on your own for a minute. Here’s an icebreaker

Alright now that you’ve gotten that out of your system, you big jerks, let’s talk about the other major category for this movie: sad movie with Sean Penn. A two-time Oscar winner (for Mystic River and Milk), Sean Penn is widely regarded as one of the great actors of our time. And I don’t necessarily disagree with that, it’s just… well let’s play a game. It’s called Sad or Not Sad. We will play this game with the films that Sean Penn has starred in in the last decade.

1.  Fair Game (2010): NOT SAD, per se. It’s a dramatization of the Valerie Plame affair, so it’s Important, if not sad.
2.  Milk (2008): SAD. A biopic about Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco politician who was murdered in 1978. Way sad, what with the murder and all.
3.  All the King’s Men (2006): KIND OF SAD. But more just terrible, I hear. A remake of the 1949 Oscar-winning film about a fictionalized version of Louisiana governor Huey Long, who was also murdered (bit of a trend here). I haven’t seen it, but the fact that he’s murdered must be kinda sad.
4.  The Interpreter (2005): NOT SAD. Political thriller that I remember being kind of bored by.
5.  The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004): SAD. No one saw this movie, about the life of Samuel Byck, who attempted to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House in order to kill Nixon in 1974. Oof. He did not succeed and committed suicide. It’s really quite a crazy story. But again, Sean Penn dies at the end of the movie. Jeez.
6.  21 Grams (2003): SAD. Like, oppressively sad. He plays a guy who receives a heart transplant from a man who was killed in a car accident. And it gets all crazy and interconnected and oh my God just so depressing from there.
7.  Mystic River (2003): SAD. So good, but oh so sad. He’s the father of a girl who’s murdered. So many deaths in these films!
8.  It’s All About Love (2003): I DUNNO. I had never heard of this movie, but its Wikipedia page is full of great stuff about it, if not the actual plot. It was the first English-language movie from this weird Danish dude named Thomas Vinterberg, and was called all kinds of great things by various critics, including “a colossal folly.” Look for my review of this film in my new blog, Taste My Colossal Folly.
9.   I Am Sam (2001): SAD. Ahem.

So they’re not all sad, but they’re all pretty heavy. And this doesn’t include Dead Man Walking or The Thin Red Line or others. The man knows how to get sad. And, not coincidentally, how to win awards. Lest we forget

My familiarity with this issue: Oddly, I own the soundtrack to this movie, even though I had never seen it before today. That’s because the soundtrack famously features a bunch of covers of Beatles songs by modern artists, as the rights to the original songs were unobtainable at the time. I quite enjoy the versions of “Two of Us” by Aimee Mann and her husband/Sean's brother Michael Penn, and “Golden Slumbers” by Ben Folds. I am less into Grandaddy’s version of “Revolution.” I’m just kind of in awe that they were able to get Grandaddy to do a song for the album. Also, we haven’t yet discussed that this movie is also about a child custody battle. I have not personally been involved in one of these (yet), but I know from movies such as Big Daddy and Over the Top that they are often amusing and/or feature arm wrestling. I’ve got my fingers crossed. (Srsly, watch that video. It is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in a Stallone picture. And that’s a high bar.) 

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: "Sam Dawson has the mental capacity of a 7-year-old. He works at a Starbucks and is obsessed with the Beatles. He has a daughter with a homeless woman; she abandons them as soon as they leave the hospital. He names his daughter Lucy Diamond (after the Beatles song), and raises her. But as she reaches age 7 herself, Sam's limitations start to become a problem at school; she's intentionally holding back to avoid looking smarter than him. The authorities take her away, and Sam shames high-priced lawyer Rita Harrison into taking his case pro bono."

What I thought of the movie: Well. I have a fundamental problem with the premise of the movie, which is, I suppose, fairly important. And so I felt the movie was, in a way, offensively bad, as a result of that. But the thing is that I feel really guilty for feeling that way. I don’t mean to be unfeeling or rude or whatever, and I know that the character is meant to be a loving, nice, wonderful person, despite his challenges. But from the beginning of the movie, the idea of Sam raising Lucy on his own (he does have help, yes, but he is essentially raising her on his own) was kind of frightening. I don’t know if that’s insensitive or offensive of me to feel that way, but the movie tells us that Sam has the mental capabilities of a seven-year-old. What are we supposed to do with that information? Conveniently forget about it? The movie wants us to remember it sometimes and forget it at other times. For example, Sam causes a scene in a restaurant because they don’t have his favorite food, and instead of seeing the upshot of this scene, we cut away to Sam and Lucy dancing at the school Halloween party while the Wallflowers sing “I’m Looking Through You." That’s not cool! You really can’t do that.

Whatever realism or truth or honesty the film had to begin with is further squandered by the choices that director Jessie Nelson makes: a ton of montages intended to endear us to Sam and convince us that he’s capable of being a father, the use of those ever-present Beatles covers to gloss over the harsh realities of what Sam and Lucy’s world would actually be like, the atrociously designed scene at Lucy’s birthday party, and on and on. The whole thing just made me extremely uncomfortable, because I didn't want to swallow what the movie was trying to force me to swallow. (I really apologize for that last sentence.) And this was all apparent to me before Michelle Pfeiffer, the stock overburdened bigshot lawyer who secretly has a heart of gold and comes to believe that Sam is the best person to take care of Lucy, even shows up and we go through that thing where getting to know Sam sorts her #whitegirlproblems out. Ugh.

How I, John Krizel, related to this movie: Well I loved all the Beatles songs! No srsly, as much as I poked fun at Sean Penn earlier, it’s impressive to see him become the character of Sam. He assimilates perfectly in the scenes where he appears alongside actors with actual mental difficulties. It’s a performance that I admired while still not buying the movie that it anchored. Let me note for the record that I didn't hate all of it. For a while there, namely the parts with Laura Dern as the prospective foster mother, it looks like the movie might become more even-handed, offering the opposing viewpoint that Sam maybe really is unfit to be Lucy’s father. But then that doesn’t really happen. Look. I feel bad not liking this movie. It’s not like The Lovely Bones where I so clearly relished it. But I’m sorry. What the movie tries to do and the terribly mawkish way it tries to do it just weren’t OK with me. This kind of sums it up: the tagline of the movie is, "Love is all you need." And I'm sitting here feeling like Ebenezer Scrooge, the Grinch and Bill Belichick all rolled into one because I'm trying to figure out how to say something like: when it comes to being a parent, I have to disagree.

How I felt after the movie ended: Uncomfortable is the word of choice here. It kind of made me think about Sean Penn’s whole image, as one of those stereotypical loud Hollywood liberal activists that are demonized by the likes of Bill O’Reilly and co. (He doesn’t do himself any good by hanging out with Hugo Chavez, by the way.) They’re an easy target, because they have lots of money and they usually come off as really pedantic and self-centered. It’s as if they believe that the views they express in their movies are vital and should have a really profound effect on the public discourse. And I guess sometimes movies do do that. But a “message movie” like I Am Sam, which so relentlessly shoves its viewpoint down our throats, does nothing in the end except contribute to that negative stereotype. So I guess I’m saying that this movie emboldens Bill O’Reilly. I’m sorry. I REALLY didn’t want to hate on it. I promise.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Hotel Rwanda.

Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, 2004)

Category: Sad film about genocide. (It’s rare that you see a happy/funny film on this subject. Sort it out, Apatow.) We’ve tackled the Holocaust in this blog (I didn’t literally tackle any Nazis, but rest assured that I would do so, with Justin Tuck-ian ferocity, if there were any in the area), and it’s about time that we do the same with other genocides. Here are three famous genocides from history, why they were sad, and whether or not any movies were made about them. (Hey, this can be a running feature on the blog! Genocide Watch. This is up there with the March Madness of diseases among the great ideas that I’ve had on the blog.)

1.  Native Americans (1492-1890) – The slow eradication of most of the indigenous people in the Americas mainly occurred over a four-hundred year period, due largely to epidemics and shooting them with guns. The culmination of this period was the famous “Trail of Tears,” which I just now realize would totally be a good name for a Splash Mountain-type ride, with people riding log flumes out of a sad-looking Native American’s man eyes on a wave of his “tears” and such. Look for that at my new theme park, RacistLand. But srsly, this is all especially sad because of how conveniently we Americans forget about all this nowadays even as we racistly name sports teams after them and gamble at their casinos. Movies about the Native American genocide include Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas and Avatar.
2.    Armenia (1915-1917) – In an effort to peer pressure the more reluctant Nazis in his inner circle to just go along with this whole Holocaust plan, Hitler famously said, “who remembers the Armenians?” By which he meant that history had already forgotten about the mass slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during World War I (an event which caused the invention of the term “genocide” itself, in fact). Hitler was wrong, of course; history totally remembers both. In fact, it's still super-awkward between Armenians and Turks, especially because the Turkish government denies that the word "genocide" is an accurate description of the event. (They prefer the term "deathapalooza.") Ararat is the most prominent film on the subject.
3.    Cambodia (1975-1979) -- Unlike the other genocides we've discussed, the genocide in Cambodia was not entirely based on ethnicity. The Khmer Rouge government targeted various groups that they considered to be enemies of the government, including intellectuals/glasses-wearers. Pol Pot, the dictator at the time, was a real terrible dude, and was responsible for deaths of somewhere in between one and two million people during his rule. The Killing Fields, starring Sam Waterston, is the most prominent film on the subject, and makes it clear that even killer robots are preferable to the Khmer Rouge. (Warning: people denying the existence of robots may be robots themselves.)

So there's that. This film, of course, deals with the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which 800,000 people (mostly members of the Tutsi ethnic group) were killed. I think a major reason that the Rwandan genocide is so sad is because it happened so recently. I'd much rather think of the world that I have inhabited in my lifetime as being free from fits of widespread mass insanity. But Rwanda, and Darfur, and loads of other events in recent history, prove that fits of widespread mass insanity are occasionally still in vogue.

My familiarity with this issue: Well I know that the movie itself is quite historically accurate, because father of the blog Mr. Krizel used to show it in his world history class. Personally, I can't say I've ever had any exceptionally epic explorations in Rwanda, or any post-genocidal country for that matter. However, the first class I ever attended in college was partially devoted to the Rwandan genocide. It was a writing class entitled "Testimony, Truth, Justice and the Nation" (I just looked it up), and like most of my college classes I don't remember that much about it. I do remember, however, watching a documentary on the aftermath of the genocide that was pretty intense, and underscored the difficulty of continuing to exist as a nation after one major ethnic group has spent several months killing and raping the members of the other. So I’ve got some background here. (Also, I LOVE staying in hotels.)

What I thought of the movie: It’s incredibly good. I think it’s the best movie I’ve watched for the blog so far. It’s straightforward and honest and so intensely gripping, and while I was really moved by the story, I was not distracted by any of the artifice inherent in its status as a Hollywood movie. Many critics pointed out the film’s similarity to Schindler’s List, and I feel that’s an apt and worthy comparison (maybe it’s not as artful or elegiac as Schindler’s List, but it had the added difficulty of being about an event with which many people are not as familiar). It’s based on the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who uses his status as a Hutu in much the same way as Oskar Schindler used his Nazi connections: to gladhand and smile and keep his fellow Hutus/Nazis from murdering hundreds of people (1,268 people were sheltered at the hotel, according to a graphic at the end of the film). Don Cheadle is really awesome at conveying Rusesabagina’s professional, calm demeanor, barely hiding his anguish at what is happening in his country, in the face of such madness, as his quick thinking and compassion is directly responsible for saving so many lives.

I’d imagine it would be easy to make this movie a didactic condemnation of the West’s lack of response to the genocide. But while this is touched upon, most memorably in a scene where Joaquin Phoenix’s photojournalist describes the typical reaction of an American to seeing footage of the atrocities on the evening news (“they'll say Oh, my God, that's horrible. And then they'll go on eating their dinners”), it’s done entirely in service to the story of Paul and his family and his hotel. The movie is about a lot of things, but it is first and foremost about a man trying to do five or six impossible things at once (keep the soldiers away, protect his family, maintain the image of the hotel, appeal to whoever he can for help, etc). That’s the thing about these movies about terrible huge events: it’s impossible to convey the enormity of the Rwandan genocide as a whole in a two-hour movie, but using the story of Paul Rusesabagina as a prism allows us to understand it much better.

How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: We’ve talked about my cowardice on the blog before. I feel like I’m in the majority here, though, in saying that I do not possess the skills necessary to do what Paul Rusesabagina did. He cajoles and bribes, subtly manipulating and outright lying when he needs to, in order to keep people safe. I’ve done all of those things in my day, except maybe bribing, and I’m not that great at them. In general, people can read my, can read my, yeah they can read my poker face. And when I cajole, I usually open with a whiney “C’monnnnnnnnnn.” Paul Rusesabagina never said “C’monnnnnnnnnn.”

For serious though, there are things in this movie that are unimaginable, and not just the parts that focus on the atrocities themselves. Cheadle is so good and so human that it’s impossible for us not to empathize with him, a peaceful man, whose wife is a Tutsi and thus in tremendous danger, who not only tries to survive but to maintain his dignity, even as the soldiers are pointing guns at him and threatening his family. There’s a scene early in the film, when the genocide was just beginning and Paul has allowed the first refugees into his hotel, where he says, “I might lose my job.” This coming a few minutes after a gun was pointed at his head, and he had to literally pay someone not to kill his wife and kids. I’m not saying that it’s unrealistic or that it rings false (quite the contrary, it fits exactly with how we already view him as the consummate professional); I’m just saying that if anything remotely resembling this had happened to me, keeping my job might not be the first thing on my mind. I’d be more concerned about buying toilet paper. And also insulin.

How I felt after the movie ended: I guess it’s kind of a SPOILER, but c’mon not really, that he survives and saves a whole lot of people, and so that was nice. But there were still so many who were left in that refugee camp when Paul and his family left. There were times in the movie where I was nearly moved to tears, but at the end I was more in awe of how good the movie was. And also still excited about what a fun name “Rusesabagina” is.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Revolutionary Road.


Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, 2008)

Category: Sad movie about suburban angst. Suburbs have technically been around for a while; in fact, originally the term was primarily used to describe the residential areas within cities themselves. But they really blew up in America in the 1950s, thanks to the Federal Housing Authority and the Interstate Highway System and all that modern stuff. Long Island (or as it is frequently called by the guido types, Strong Island) was “the first large-scale suburban area in the world to develop” (this isn’t me just reppin’ Strong Island here, this is Wikipedia talking), thanks largely to Levittown and its mass-produced cheap cookie-cutter houses. Well, it’s good to be at the forefront of something. Even if that something is “the banal corruption of the American Dream.”

So what’s there to do in the suburbs, you ask? Not as much as in the urbs, to be honest. There’s generally a lot of mowing the lawn and taking the kids to soccer practice and going to PTA meetings and not fulfilling your dreams. And this causes a lot of issues, especially for the type of people who aspire to be interesting city folk. Now granted, this sort of ennui is among the more #whitegirlproblem-y issues we’ll tackle here in the blog. But that doesn’t make it any more or less important than, say, genocide. OK that’s ridiculous. It’s way less important than genocide. Get a hobby, for Christ’s sake. Knitting, or golf, or paint-by-numbers, or ANYTHING. Just for the love of God stop complaining.

My familiarity with this issue: As I alluded to earlier, I spent my formative years in the heart of the original suburban paradise, Long Island. We get a bad rap, the Long Island kids do, and it’s not entirely justified. Alright it is often very justified. Good Lord. This video is very accurate. I think a major issue is the fact that so many Long Island kids are very rich, and very bored, and so they develop real Neanderthal personalities. It’s not true of everyone though. It’s really a good place to grow up: safe, with good schools and stuff to do on the weekends. And you know, I could've been born somewhere else that was much worse, like Africa. Or Jersey.

I think my relationship with the suburbs is particularly complicated because of my class warrior impulses, first written about on this blog in the previous post. My natural inclination to dislike people who make money a) for the sake of making money and b) without contributing anything of value to society meant I had a lot of people to dislike among the adults in my area. But obviously the suburbs are also full of people like my parents, who taught the other adults’ spoiled brat kids and didn’t whine about how they felt unfulfilled or whatever. I feel like this group is actually the majority. But for the time being, it’s fun to enjoy my city lifestyle and sit back and make fun of the 2030 version of me in a blog post.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “It's 1955. Frank and April Wheeler, in the seventh year of their marriage, have fallen into a life that appears to most as being perfect. They live in the Connecticut suburbs with two young children. Frank commutes to New York City where he works in an office job while April stays at home as a housewife. But they're not happy. April has forgone her dream of becoming an actress, and Frank hates his job – one where he places little effort – although he has never figured out what his passion in life is.”

What I thought of the movie: Eh. I appreciate that the movie was well-made, directed and acted nicely and such. But for the most part, except for a twist at the end that I was unaware of and will not reveal here, it left me cold. (I’m doing really well at avoiding spoilers for these movies, by the way. It’s surprising that that’s the case, based on the amount of time I spend on the Wikipedias.) I’d be willing to chalk this non-reaction up to the subject matter, but I’ve read books and seen movies that were about similar things, angst and repression and all that, and that resonated a lot more than this movie did with me (The Age of Innocence and The Remains of the Day, to name two). I do love Leo and Kate, and the costumes and sets and stuff were Mad Men-esque. I just didn’t really care about the characters and their problems, and I think that has to do with the source material (the book by Richard Yates, and the screenplay by Justin Haythe).

Leo and Kate both play really shallow, selfish characters, rarely bothering to address the welfare of their kids, whose names I significantly can’t recall. They are characters that are supposed to be sympathetic, but admittedly do not understand the sacrifices and challenges inherent in being parents. We’re kind of supposed to forget about the kids during the movie (won't someone please etc.), particularly their conspicuous absences during the huge fights that Leo and Kate have. And so we sit there and watch as Kate does community theater, and apparently it sucks, which causes a huge fight of its own. (I really wanted to throw up during that part. Sure, sometimes community theater isn’t that great. But you move on! Maybe the next show they’ll do Gypsy and everyone will have a good time.) And then they talk on and on about how they need to escape the soul-crushing sameness of the suburbs in order to express their true selves, hatching a plan to up and move to Paris (with their two young children) so that Leo can “express himself” or some bullshit. I’m sorry, but no amount of great acting or writing or directing can make that not annoying to me. It was impossible.

How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: I recognized the lawns and the cars and the consumerism. The suburbia of 1955 is very different from the suburbia I inhabited as a child, of course. Neighbors stopped by more often to borrow cups of sugar, mentally challenged people were described as being “not right,” people probably put razor blades in candy apples on Halloween. And that’s all well and good. I acknowledge that people were more repressed and stuff back then. But then there’s this character, played by Michael Shannon, who is awesome, but he’s one of those “not right”/autistic people that is conveniently here in this movie to say what the audience is thinking out loud. I don’t mean to imply that this is some sort of anachronism; I’m sure that character was in the original book, which was published in 1962. But it’s still lazy. The other thing I couldn’t help but think about during the movie was: thank God my parents weren’t like these people. I don’t think I would’ve done well in Paris when I was five. I doubt they had a lot of macaroni and cheese there at the time.

How I felt after the movie ended: It is possible that, at last, I’m being affected by the environment that I have created for myself. That is, I can’t help but wonder if I would have had a different reaction to the film if I hadn’t spent the last two months watching sad movies, many of which were about subjects far more serious and life-altering than this one. Yes, it’s ultimately a tragic film, and the tragedy that occurs is avoidable, which often makes things all the more tragic. But it’s avoidable in a way that makes you want to punch someone in the face for being so selfish. Anyway. A lot of people whose opinions I respect liked this movie a lot. And for me to do that, I would have had to accept it on its own terms to a degree with which I was uncomfortable for several reasons. But today I got Hotel Rwanda from Netflix, so now I'm back in my comfort zone.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Beaches.

Beaches (Garry Marshall, 1988)

Category: Tearjerker. Beaches is a prime example of the tearjerker genre. These are films that are apparently designed to literally jerk tears from your lachrymal glands, a process which sounds both gross and unnecessary. I prefer not to use the equally popular term “chick flick” for this kind of movie, because it is sexist. (Also, it would no doubt cause an increase in humiliating comments about how I am essentially a woman. To wit: I mentioned that I was watching this movie to the husband of the boss of a friend of the blog, and he replied, and I quote, “Don’t watch that! You’ll get a yeast infection.”)

We’ve talked at length on the blog about movies that are sad for the sake of being sad, and how I think that those movies are generally “lame,” or “manipulative,” or in the case of The Lovely Bones, “so infuriating it made me want to punch Peter Jackson in his fat stupid face.” That said, the whole ethos of the tearjerker genre is not necessarily or intrinsically bad. People do really get sick and die. It happens a lot more than you’d think, actually. And the quotidian dramas that actual human beings go through when they’re in those situations are definitely worthy of being depicted in movies. If the characters in these movies are realistic and treated with empathy by the filmmakers, then we shouldn’t have a problem here. It’s when the characters are merely pawns in the filmmakers’ game of manipulation that I start getting mad.

More specifically, Beaches is also a sad movie about friendship, oddly enough. The actual act of being friends with someone, while it’s happening, is pretty sweet. (Here is a list of reasons why.) The sadness often comes in when you used to be friends with someone, but then end up losing touch with that person. This can happen for any number of reasons, some small and insignificant (she forgot my half-birthday, he chews too loudly), and some larger and more significant (she slept with my husband, he killed my cat). It’s kind of worth looking at these things on a case-by-case basis. You should always weigh the reason for losing touch with someone with the benefits that this friend has brought to your life. For example, if you have a friend whose father owns the Arizona iced tea company, and thus has an unlimited supply of 24-ounce Arizona iced tea cans in his (no doubt palatial) apartment, you should remain friends with this person for the rest of your life. Even if he kills your cat.

My familiarity with this issue: We used to go to Cape Cod every summer when I was a kid, and I loved the beach then. But now I kind of hate it. I don't like sand. It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. And I’m afraid of the ocean, so no dice there either. I don’t really know how much of this movie has to do with actual beaches. If it’s about sitting with your mom under the umbrella with like three sweaters on while playing Uno, then I will totally be able to relate to it. Tearjerker-wise, we discussed my crying habits in the first post of the blog. (I put myself out there for you people, and you responded with massive ridicule. But I stand by it. Watch the end of You’ve Got Mail again and try not to cry, shopgirl. And THEN go and ridicule me for having a HEART.) It’s interesting that I’ve cried only once in the course of writing this blog. I intend to watch some future films while eating onions to see if I can accelerate this process.

As for the friends thing, a quick consultation of my Facebook page will prove that I have many. The blog has many friends as well, as you may have noticed. I asked some of them a question that is rather pertinent to this film: “did you ever know that you’re my hero?”
  • Ellen Barr: “sha up”
  • Jill Plevinsky: “are you crying yet?”
  • Micah Lubens: “well you are certainly not mine”
  • Melissa Passarelli: “you're everythingggg i wish i could bee. that was my favorite movie when I was a 5 year old girl. boom roasted.”
  • Joe Kirkwood: “i don’t understand the question”
It’s good to have friends.

(It’s also important to note that this is a Bette Midler film. She’s been one of my favorite actresses since I saw her in Rochelle Rochelle: The Musical.)

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “When the New York child performer CC Bloom and San Fransisco (sic) rich kid Hillary meet in a holiday resort in Atlantic City, it marks the start of a lifetime friendship between them. The two keep in touch through letters for a number of years until Hillary, now a successful lawyer moves to New York to stay with struggling singer CC. The movie shows the various stages of their friendship and their romances including their love for the same man.”

What I thought of the movie: You know what? Call me a woman or make yeast infection jokes all you want, world, but I liked this movie. I really did! It was nice. It’s about simple nice things, and it doesn’t really try to manipulate us too much. Maybe the ending does a little bit, when they’re sitting on the beach and “Wind Beneath My Wings” (which is really a great song but my Lord does it sound dated; man the 80s sucked) is playing, but whatever, by that point I was already sold. Yes, it’s got its share of clichés and the dialogue is occasionally clunky, but those things weren’t too distracting.

I think what was most responsible for my enjoyment of the film was the performance of Bette Midler. She’s great! I can tell why so many ladies and gays love her. Srsly though, she’s funny and she sings well and her serious acting isn’t terrible either. It’s not much of a SPOILER to note that one of the two aforementioned friends gets real sick and dies at the end of the movie. That’s why it’s sad. And I feel like going into it, I had this notion that the film would mostly be about the sickness and the dying. But it’s really not. She gets sick with about a half hour left in the movie, they go to the beach, it’s nice, they come back, then she gets real sick, they go to the beach one last time, did you ever know that you’re my etc. End of film. It’s not that bad. The hour-and-a-half before that part is (obviously) the bulk of the movie, and that’s just a nice story about two very different people sharing a special bond and all that. Midler and Barbara Hershey made me believe the scenes when they were BFFs, as well as the ones when they fought openly in department stores. And that’s why it worked. Man, that Bette Midler. If I went to see a Broadway show that she was starring in, only to find that her role would be played by the understudy, I would be quite displeased.

How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: The movie is about two lifelong friends, one a brassy redheaded Jewess and one a privileged brunette Gentile. While from a demographic standpoint, I fall more into the latter category, I can definitely relate more to the former. (In fact, I’ve often been described as “brassy.”) There are a lot of fun scenes that take place in the theater world, a world with which I am reasonably familiar. These scenes were generally populated with fun recognizable stereotypes (the crazy Jewish stage mother, the old talent scout, the pretentious small-time avant-garde director, etc.), which was actually kind of awesome.

The conflicts that the two friends have throughout the film often have a hint of class warfare in them, as Barbara Hershey’s character fumfers through a bunch of #whitegirlproblems as poor hardscrabble Bette Midler quips caustically in the background. As a longtime class warrior, I could really get behind this. In fact, some of my best class warfare was conducted at the beach. Brother of the blog Tony Krizel and I worked for two summers in the snack bar of a beach club in Atlantic Beach, NY. The club was mainly populated by a bunch of rich spoiled wives (whose husbands were absent because they were in Manhattan causing the financial crisis) and their young children, all of whom seemed to be named Connor. If they made a sequel to this movie based on those summers (Beaches 2: Kosher Pizza), I would clearly be Bette Midler.

How I felt after the movie ended: I watched all but the last twenty minutes of Beaches in the same room as roommate of the blog Ted Lynch, and then retired to my room for the last twenty, stating, “I might cry and I don’t want you to see that.” (I'll leave to your imagination his response to that comment.) But I didn’t. It was sad, and I guess I almost cried. I think it was just that, overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. I was fully prepared to hate it and make fun of it incessantly on this blog, but right away I got the feeling that I would like it, and I did. I liked Beaches. I expect to see some really good insults in the comments section, people.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Elliott Smith. (Part 2)

Hi all. I’m taking advantage of the slow workday/traveling I’m about to do today, the day before Thanksgiving, to try to finish this Elliott Smith plan. As you know, I spent Sunday in a football-induced daze, and then Monday and Tuesday listening to Kanye West’s new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as many times as humanly possible. Both of these things were absolutely necessary. But now I’m back at it.

XO (1998)

What I thought of the album: Alright now this one sounds more different. I’m told (by Wikipedia) that this is almost assuredly the result of Smith’s signing to a major label (DreamWorks Records) and enlisting the aid of a bunch of other musicians (including the awesome Jon Brion). So we’ve got some rockin’ pianos and electric guitars and drums and such, on most of the songs. But Smith’s voice is still the same, double-tracked and whispery as ever. It’s an interesting combination. I probably didn’t like this as much as Either/Or, but he’s certainly spreading his wings a little here.

Maybe this is a function of how expanded the sound is on this album, but it doesn’t feel nearly as sad as the first three. The affable “Waltz No. 2 (XO)” features this positively swingin’ chorus, by Smith standards: “I’m never gonna know you now / but I’m gonna love you anyhow.” (I guess it’s sad that he’s never going to know her, but aww! Love! That’s nice.) And the jaunty “Independence Day” appears to be about a butterfly! WHAT.

Wikipedia tells me that around this time is when Smith began exhibiting signs of depression that would only worsen in the next five years. But man some of these songs are upbeat! “Baby Britain” is way poppier than anything I’d expected to hear from Elliott Smith, that’s for sure. So if the narrative I’ve picked up on in my cursory research is to be trusted, with a major label deal and a bunch of other cool musicians at his side, Elliott Smith made a kind-of pop album. Not bad for a guy who would eventually kill himself!

Saddest lyrics: From “Pitseleh:” “The first time I saw you I knew it would never last / I'm not half what I wish I was / I'm so angry / I don't think it'll ever pass / and I was bad news for you just because / I never meant to hurt you”

From “A Question Mark:” “Don't know what you mean / said your final word, but honesty and love could've kept us together / one day you'll see it's worth it after all / if you ever want to say you're sorry you can give me a call”

From “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands:” “You say you mean well, you don't know what you mean / fucking ought to stay the hell away from things you know nothing about”

And then all of “I Didn’t Understand” is actually pretty bitter for an album closer. Also see what he did there, calling the next-to-last song “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands,” and then the last one “I Didn’t Understand.” Tricky one, that Elliott Smith.

Either/Or (1997)

What I thought of the album: This is generally regarded to be Elliott Smith’s best album. In 2003, Pitchfork called it the 59th best album of the 1990s, and wrote of it, “Achingly spare, these songs were hushed and intimate…” (The kind of talk I mocked like three posts ago. Boom.) (Also, they ranked Pinkerton as the 53rd best album of the 90s. Which makes me want to throw up all over the place. I promise not to mention Pitchfork any more in this blog.)

But yes so I liked it very much. The three days I just spent listening to the new Kanye West album over and over again makes it more difficult for me to compare it to Roman Candle and Elliott Smith, but I’m pretty sure they’re fairly similar, all things considered. More drums on this album (Smith played all the instruments himself, which is pretty baller), and some of the songs are bigger, louder (“Cupid’s Trick”). I don’t mean to be a Philistine about this stuff, but they do kind of all run together at a certain point. I don’t know if this is a natural part of listening to an album once or twice and then writing about it, or if it’s a defect of Smith’s songwriting or whatever. Some songs do stand out, I suppose; “Say Yes” is obviously quite lovely, and I’ve always liked “Angeles.” I guess on the whole it’s probably the best of the three so far.

At the end of the day it almost feels like a chore though to get through some of these songs (not all of them). It’s like a lot of the movies I’ve watched, in that regard. Like taking your medicine. It’s good, I know it’s good, I appreciate the artistry here. But I wouldn’t want to live there.

Saddest lyrics: From “Alameda:” “And now you see your first mistake was thinking that you could relate / for one or two minutes she liked you / but the fix is in/ you're all pretension / I never pay attention / nobody broke your heart / you broke your own because you can't finish what you start”

From “Ballad of Big Nothing:” “Now you can do what you want to whenever you want to / do what you want to whenever you want to / do what you want to whenever you want to though it doesn't mean a thing / big nothing”

From "No Name No. 5:" "Well I hope you're not waiting / waiting around for me / because I'm not going anywhere / obviously got a broken heart and your name on my cast / and everybody's gone at last"

From "Rose Parade:" "I used to like it here / it just bums me out to remember / can't you ever treat anyone nice? / I think I'm gonna make the same mistake twice"

From “2:45 AM:” "I'm walking out on center circle / the both of you can just fade to black / I'm walking out on center circle / been pushed away and I'll never go back"



Elliott Smith (1995)

What I thought of the album: Really good. Similar in style to the first album, but it seems more polished, or professional, or whatever. Maybe because it was not recorded in a basement. The songs are a bit more varied on this album; I had this notion that Smith has a very monolithic sound, where all the songs kind of run together, and that’s less true on this album as it was on the first. The extra instrumentation that pops up here and there (drums on “Christian Brothers” and “Coming Up Roses,” harmonica on “Alphabet Town”) helps break up the relative monotony. I also got a better sense of what a skillful guitarist Smith is on this album; he can make the guitar whatever he needs it to in each of the songs.

But what’s really striking on this album are the lyrics. Frequently bitter, accusatory, and angry, Smith’s lyrics are really dark here, and tackle some deep shit (alcoholism on “Clementine,” other drug abuse on “Needle in the Hay” and “St. Ides Heaven”). Sometimes the music reflects this darkness, and other times it kind of acts as a counterpoint to it (like with the pretty harmonies with Rebecca Gates on “St. Ides Heaven”). It’s often quite unnerving. On the whole, I definitely preferred it to Roman Candle. I might actually listen to this album fairly regularly now. It’s also getting pretty sad in here.

Saddest lyrics: From “Needle in the Hay:” “Strung out and thin / calling some friend trying to cash some check / he's acting dumb / that's what you've come to expect”

From “Clementine:” “They're waking you up to close the bar / the street's wet you can tell by the sound of the cars / the bartender's singing Clementine / while he's turning around the open sign / dreadful sorry Clementine”

From “Coming Up Roses:” “I'm a junkyard full of false starts / and I don't need your permission / to bury my love under this bare light bulb / the moon is a sickle cell / it'll kill you in time”

From “St. Ides Heaven:” “Cos everyone is a fucking pro / and they all got answers from trouble they've known / and they all got to say what you should and shouldn't do / though they don't have a clue”

From “Good to Go:” “I wouldn't need a hero if I wasn't such a zero / if I wasn't such a zero / good to go / all I ever see around here is things of hers that you left lying around / it's all I ever see around here”

From “The Biggest Lie:” “Oh we're so very precious, you and I / and everything that you do makes me want to die”


Roman Candle (1994)

What I thought of the album: It's good. Not overwhelmingly depressing, but certainly still pretty rough at times. Smith recorded this album pretty much by himself, in his girlfriend's basement with a four-track recorder. Just typing those words made me feel impossibly hip. I kind of expected each song to be terribly bleak, but that wasn’t the case. I think the issue is that, while the lyrics are occasionally terribly bleak (examples to come), the music isn’t as forbidding in that way. It’s even bouncy at times (“Condor Ave” and “No Name #2” in particular). “Last Call” features an electric guitar and something approaching a full-band sound, and the instrumental final track, “Kiwi Maddog 2020” actually features a semi-full-band. So it’s not completely spare and bleak and other adjectives that music critics use when they really mean “unlistenable.” It is decently listenable.

Smith’s distinctive vocal style (kind of whispery and like he’s kind of sick, or something like that), and the double-tracked vocals that dominate each track are what linger after listening to this album. Plus the whole lo-fi thing. I’m interested to see how things change once he gets into a real studio and stuff. Plus, while this album probably sets the tone for the rest of his output (by which I mean, pretty much all of the stereotypical Elliott Smith-type stuff is present here), it is almost certainly not as dark as the albums he would make as he sank deeper into depression and such (if you’ll allow me to apply a VH1 “Behind the Music” type approach to psychology here). We’ll see.

Saddest lyrics, yoinked from the official Elliott Smith fansite, Sweet Adeline: From “Roman Candle:” “I hear you cry / your tears are cheap / wet hot red swollen cheeks / fall asleep / I want to hurt him / I want to give him pain”

From “Condor Ave:” “Now I'm picking up to put away anything of yours that's still around / I don't know what to do with your clothes or your letters”

From “No Name #1:” “Leave alone 'cos you know you don't belong / you don't belong here / slip out quiet / nobody's looking / leave alone / you don't belong here”

From “No Name #4:” “For a change she got out before he hurt her bad / took her records and clothes / and pictures of her boy / it really made her sad”

And pretty much everything in the song “Last Call.” Oof! Bitter. I particularly like the line repeated several times at the end: “I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me.” Not very happy.