Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Modern Film Classics: “2046”

All memories are traces of tears. 

If you were to dance to the end of love, what would it look like? 

Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 is the sequel to his celebrated 2000 masterpiece In the Mood for Love. In that classic, two neighbours in 1960s Hong Kong discover that their spouses are cuckolding them with each other. The man (Chow Mo-wan, played by Tony Leung) and woman (Su Li-Zhen, played by Maggie Cheung) confide in one another and form an unusual bond. Against their better judgment, they fall in love, their sorrow tethering their wasted souls to one another. In the end they part, never to reunite.

2046 picks up on the action a few yeaas later, in the late 1960s. The film takes on multiple stories within the space of just two hours, but they are all intertwined with one another on an emotional, if not necessarily logical narrative, level. Chow has become a successful science fiction writer, fulfilling the potential Li-Zhen saw in him during their time in the summer of 1962. Chow’s also become a bon vivant and career lothario, living in room #2047. In a coincidence, he and Li-zhen went to discuss their marital troubles (although they never consummated their love) in room #2046 in a different hotel. It's enough for him to take up residence there. The emotional damage has scarred him, as he acts out of character contrary to how he was in the previous film by bedding a series of women (played by an outstanding cast of Chinese stars such as Carina Lau, Gong Li, Faye Wong and Zhang Ziyi in her career performance) who occupy room #2046. The key is that each of these women reminds him of aspects of Li-zhen’s personality, but their totality never recreates or conjures the memory of the woman he loves. Nat King Cole invades the soundtrack, singing of happy memories but lacing them with a slight melancholy, for Chow cannot find joy despite going through the motions of lovemaking. 

At another narrative level is the dramatization of Tak (Tayuka Kimura), a lonely Japanese man who travels in the figment of Chow’s imagination to a destination called 2046. It’s never made clear if it’s the year before Hong Kong returns to China, or if it’s a fictional destination, or perhaps a secular Asian version of a Judeo-Christian purgatory. They say in 2046 that those who venture there find their happiest memories, never to return. Only Tak attempts to, but why? Tak falls in love with a female android, but which does not leave with him. Why?

It’s clear that Tak’s narrative is an extension of Chow’s misery and mourning for Li-zhen (who only appears in one flashback in 2046). Chow inhabits the film, occupying psychic and physical space, never registering emotionally to those around him. In the aftermath of the loss of his great love, he engaged in love only on a superficial level, disengaging himself from the proceedings and disregarding the emotional needs of his lovers while never dropping the veneer of his charm (is he a sociopath in disguise?). Zhang’s character is a high-class escort whose persona may be closest to his, as she understands his love in transactional terms. They share the same detachment, but because neither will let the other see what’s behind the mask, the connection remains shallow and functional.

While critics understood the more emotionally accessible In the Mood for Love as a denial of passion and the heart’s deepest desire, 2046 left audiences and critics cold upon its opening at Cannes 2004. There’s a common perception that the sequel is a misbegotten venture. However, if we understand Chow’s journey in 2046 as an elongated mourning period, a cinematic treatment of Albinoni’s Adagio in G, then we can view the film as the long numbing and dulling of the senses in the aftermath of lost love. Chow isn’t sad or angry that he lost Li-zhen, but he’s caught somewhere in between in a long-term (if impermanent) emotional holding station, and Tak’s journey represents his exploration of what never was and will be. If room 2046 stood for all of the memories he remembers he holds most dear, but can no longer have, his approximated habituation of 2047 is the closest thing to it, but he could never return. It’s small comfort that he will one day cease mortality with memories, and not dreams.

(As a side note, it’s no accident that the years 2046 and 2047 also correspond with the events of Hong Kong, and pure coincidence that pro-democracy protests are taking place in Hong Kong as I write this, with the handover taking place exactly 33 years into the future. There’s an entire treatise waiting to be written on the themes of China-Hong Kong politics with this film, but that is best left as the subject of another essay.)

Although initially misunderstood as a jumbled, frantic work with a famously ill-fated shooting schedule that included a complete overhaul and re-draft of the script over three years, 2046 remains the great divisive work of Wong’s career. It is not meant to be a self-contained film, but as part of a greater work on lost love. Whereas its companion piece In the Mood for Love is a meditation on denial of physical passion and the nature of great love, 2046 is an examination of the grieving process. In the end, Chow may be ready to move on, but where shall he go?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Master Class: Beyoncé’s “Visual Album”

It was the mic drop heard ‘round the world.

Beyoncé’s sudden, stunning announcement that she had not only recorded an entire new album while on tour, but released it at the exact moment it was announced, in the absence of any advance publicity and nary a clue of its existence, made the news rounds late last night and into this morning. As expected, social media exploded in mass hysteria. For music lovers, this was the equivalent of an atomic bomb, consuming and destroying everything in its path. Imagine if the Beatles went on the news unannounced in 1968, carted in a crate of LPs, said “this is Abbey Road. It’s available as of right now. Enjoy,” then left.

Today, the “normal” process of promoting music these days is for artists to Tweet the existence of a single, whether or not it was already sent to radio or made available. Publicists work overtime to ensure maximal exposure for their client. In the late twentieth century, we waited with bated breath for the radio to play a newly-announced song, or hope and pray that a bootleg would make the rounds and we’d pass them around on cassettes or white-label CDs. I remember the promotion behind Madonna’s radio premiere of “You Must Love Me” from the then-to-be-released Evita, which was met with a collective shrug from the record-buying public. People waited for the product from the superstar. It was expected that we would accord it respect. Nowadays, artists are at the mercy of the public, each trying to command attention over the sound and fury until such time that everyone was talking over one another, and the audience stops caring. Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga did this more than once this year, and both attracted negative publicity (in Justin’s case, it didn’t hurt his album sales, but in Gaga’s situation it was decidedly more detrimental). The artists didn’t let their music speak.

Beyoncé’s masterstroke is that she pushed the entire work directly into the marketplace. Why just Tweet that there’s a song available in advance of an album and making videos in a rush after the singles were pushed out? Here are some ways in which the new album has radically subverted the rules of the game, and reflects how we consume and discuss music. This is not an evaluation of the disc’s artistic merits (lack thereof), but an exploration of how we regard this particular artist in the celebrity ecosystem.

Go directly to the marketplace. There’s this terrific article in The Guardian explaining that Bey went directly to the audience. It’s the equivalent of her showing up in the middle of a crowded mall, setting up a kiosk, and quietly waiting for people to appear and buy out her stock. There was no advance publicity, no built-up anticipation. One could argue that Beyoncé’s been on tour for most of the year and that would be publicity enough, but she never betrayed the fact that this album was being made at that time, let alone released. We would have expected an album at some point in the future, but traditionally it would not be in the middle of the tour, and certainly not while she’s still promoting material from her last album two years ago. It’s even more rare that she chose to do so during the all-important fourth quarter of the year, when people buy music in greater numbers than the rest of the year due to the holiday rush.

Silence = respect. Consider the multitude of artists who contributed to this album: Frank Ocean, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, Timbaland, Sia (the most unexpected collaborator of all) and her mercurial husband Jay-Z. She’s stacked the deck with tremendous talent and not a single one of them have breathed a word. It’s a testament to how she is so respected that she commands such respect. Virtually every other artist has had a track “leaked” (intentionally or not), but nothing was said here to anyone. Perhaps they didn’t even know, and assumed it would be released a year from now, after the tour? This release was so sudden and unexpected that for once, Wikipedia didn’t have any information on the album – not even a page – within an hour of the disc’s release. Given how so many celebrities plead for “privacy” and yet are photographed leaving their yoga class, here is a request truly met and accorded respect.

Silence is louder than Tweets. While the likes of Madonna, Gaga and Miley madly try to get people to pay attention by espousing on everything and nothing at once, we hear relatively little from Beyoncé. Even her self-directed (and deceptively “intimate”) documentary Life is But a Dream conveys little substance of her private life. Contrast this with Mariah Carey, who has been on TV almost every day this week broadcasting from her well-appointed Manhattan home. What has Bey said about this? Absolutely nothing, other than a Facebook post, and singular pictures on Instagram and her Tumblr. She’s busy with her tour, you see, and tending to motherhood. For someone everyone talks about, it’s curious that Beyoncé herself says so little, yet what she did with the stealth album drop said a lot.

The single does not command the marketplace. It’s no secret that there’s not much money in purchasing music. The public buys the singles they want at a fraction of the entire album cost. Single purchases far outweigh album sales, and committing to downloading a full disc is a greater commitment from the public. (The real money is in tours, anyway.) By dropping the album with no advance publicity and not identifying one particular song as “the lead single”, the sudden onslaught of new music is too much for her public. We can’t just buy the one single and wait two months for her to announce the next one: there is no single. This way, we have no choice but to listen to the entire work and determine for ourselves what the standout tracks – should there be any – truly are. Consider that Lady Gaga’s “Applause” was met with derision and relatively mixed reviews in advance of her latest work. Despite being a hit single, her latest disc artPOP is selling respectable but hardly spectacular numbers, by superstar standards. For the press surrounding her Vegas show, the once-indomitable Britney Spears’s new platter has anemic sales. It can be argued that the lead single hurt the album by tainting its image prior to release. Beyoncé went through a similar situation when “Run the World (Girls)” was met with a relatively soft commercial reception prior to the release of her 2011 album 4. By dropping the entire disc at once, she neatly sidesteps this negative publicity, and compels us to return to old patterns of buying entire albums.

Image control. Beyoncé is not the first artist to release an entire video album accompanying each track (including non-singles) with a clip. That would be Annie Lennox, who did so for 1992’s landmark Diva album (for which she won the Grammy for Best Long-Form Music Video). However, the release of the disc as a concept “visual album” with bonus videos, feeds into our fascination with Mrs. Carter. To keep herself in the conversation by saying so little, we then look into her Tumblr and Instagram to determine if any of the images in the videos were silently released in her sites. Did she leave clues? Was she hiding a secret in plain sight, and nobody caught on? And therein continues the virtuous cycle: Bey’s killer instinct and business sense helps her understand when people are weary of celebrity, and when to back off. The combination of the album and video compilation maximal release is both manifestation of ego and maximal output all at once, forcing the viewer and listener to judge the work on its own. Not for nothing is she supreme in imagecontrol.

Confirmation of iconic status. Beyoncé is also not the first artist this year to do the stealth album drop. That would be David Bowie, whose The Next Day turned out to be one of the year’s very best discs. The difference is that Bowie preceded the disc by shipping a single to radio, then released the album a few months later, with little to no other publicity accompanying it. It still hewed more closely to the "traditional" publicity pattern than what Bey did. Only an artist with a captive audience would dare try it. There are a few who may pull off this trick, and Bey proved she is one of them. What's breathtaking about her strategy, more so than Bowie's, is that she dropped in the midst of her tour, a time that is so exhaustive and all-consuming for her professionally that one would not imagine she would have the time or energy to create an entire new work that some artists take an entire year off to produce. True to form, the album crashed on iTunes several times due to the overwhelming sudden demand.

The music itself. Is it any good? Is it bad? Is it great, or both? At this point it becomes a moot point. All the emotion surrounding anticipated new music and its actual release have been truncated and amalgamated overnight into the span of just a few short hours. The stealth drop of the album has neatly sidestepped all of the discussion by presenting the music as-is, compelling fans to buy it and completely avoiding the tide of potentially negative publicity (and yes, it’s pretty damn good). The videos clearly have ambition, scope, scale and budget to carry out her vision. It is a celebration of the artist and her life, confessional and dramatic. Perhaps this is the wave of the future, pop music as grand opera?

In any event, I’ll be spending copious amounts of time studying this work, deciphering clues and gaining insight into at once the most public and yet enigmatic musical artist working today.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Cinematically Inclined: “The Great Gatsby”

Who knew an old high school English class chestnut would be one of the main cultural events of the summer movie season?

It’s been over a decade since Baz Luhrmann made his signature film and masterpiece, 2001’s experimental, infuriating, over-the-top Moulin Rouge!, an MTV-influenced musical pastiche whose anachronistic spiritual twin was the Bollywood musical. In a similar vein, Luhrmann’s more straight-forward dramatization of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby draws the source novel into the long-held discussion on New York high society. Whereas we start the discussion with Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and then posit Gatsby as both the beginning and end of turn-of-the-century Manhattan social circles, Luhrmann’s film seems more apt to reference Gossip Girl by way of its themes of belonging, its dissection of old money and new money, and acceptable forms of desire.

The story is familiar and part of the canon of great American literature. Aspiring stockbroker Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) arrives in New York to make his fortune in the summer of 1922, when the alcohol was free-flowing, the flapper girls were cooing siren-like calls to the lovelorn, and many were awash in unprecedented wealth. The 1920s were the first half of the twentieth century’s counterpart to the 1980s. Nick visits his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her brutish old-money husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) on Long Island, and becomes not so much friends with them as thrown together in common circumstances. New York was in thrall to the wild, weekend-long parties of Nick’s neighbor, the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). These gatherings at his sprawling, Citizen Kane-like estate were so lavish that no one was ever invited, but anyone and everyone simply showed up in droves to bathe in the overindulgence and drink the champagne that flowed like water. (It is no coincidence that The Great Gatsby is also opening this year’s Cannes Film Festival.) It turns out that Jay and Daisy were once in love, and he’s returned from obscurity with obscene wealth and the single-minded goal to rekindle their romance.

While most critics have laid waste to Luhrmann’s aesthetic choices, with some of the worst reviews likening this film to a sorority or frat house party, I posit that Luhrmann’s aesthetic is exactly right for this story. If you wanted a slavish recreation of the era and to render it delicately, see the somnambulistic 1974 film version that had Robert Redford and Mia Farrow wandering about languidly in delicate drawing rooms like they were in the world’s most tedious, but well-dressed zombie flick. Gatsby was always a garish, larger-than-life character, and his ambitions and passions were as wide as the boundless Midwestern sky from which he emerged. The film’s extravagant set pieces vividly soar with the giddy contact high from his parties, the promise of youth, beauty and wealth on grandiose display. Oscar-winning designer Catherine Martin (Mrs. Baz Luhrmann) has outdone herself with the period production and costume designs. One wants to buy everything on screen. Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby brings to mind the extravagance of large-scale opera like the Bregenz Festival. Like in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, nothing draws derision and criticism quite like audacity and sheer nerve. The film has strong promotional tie-ins with such luxury brands as Moet & Chandon, Tiffany & Co., and Brooks Brothers, exploring and showcasing the film’s exploration of conspicuous consumption while at the same time teasing audiences with the promise of happiness through the acquisition of those goods. Is this a comment on consumerist culture in a time of global economic crisis?

The cast, as one would expect, steps up to these iconic characters with vigor and the requisite energy. DiCaprio makes a vibrant, arrogant Gatsby and brings out the truth behind the façade: not Gatsby’s humble beginning, but his social awkwardness that makes him try just a little too hard. The challenge of playing Daisy has always been alluring given that she’s such a thinly-written character. Daisy has always been more a promise and not a fully-realized woman, a sign, signifier and symbol of desire, fantasy and unfulfilled dreams. Mulligan’s vibrancy makes her more than just a projection of fantasy made flesh in Gatsby’s mind. Joel Edgerton’s raw anger is what we need for the jealous, puerile Tom Buchanan, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Armie Hammer would have made the part his signature role. Australian newcomer Elizabeth Debicki is delicious as Jordan, the famed golfer and teller of tall tales. While Jordan’s penchant for duplicity is almost completely gone from the film, Debicki makes us want to see more of her. The key role and film’s best performance belongs to Tobey Maguire, whose Nick Carraway is the narrative counterpart to Ewan McGregor’s Christian in Moulin Rouge!.

And what of the film’s celebrated and already notorious soundtrack? Working again with Craig Pearce and this time with the emperor of the music world, Jay-Z (with his empress dowager Beyoncé in tow), the film’s sound is more contemporary than Moulin Rouge!. With the latter, the re-mixing and re-working of recognizable pop songs mixed in with Bollywood dance beats, house and Broadway made the soundtrack almost defy every era, and inadvertently rendering it timeless. My concern is if the same could be said for The Great Gatsby’s soundtrack. Nevertheless, it is itself full of gems and curiosities. While Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” and Florence + the Machine’s “Over the Love” soar on the proverbial wings of love, the Andre 3000 / Mrs. Z collaboration on Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” feels a shade extraneous. It works well as a call-and-answer, but it can’t improve on the original’s emotional bloodletting. Ironically enough, Emeli Sandé’s version of Mrs. Carter’s “Crazy in Love” as a sped-up flapper jazz suite is better than the latter’s own contribution. Still, it is entirely appropriate for the most ostentatiously wealthy of today’s musical royalty to contribute to the sounds of arguably the most over-the-top film of the year. (If anyone else tops Luhrmann in cinematic excess in 2013 he may be out of a job.)

The film is not itself perfect. There is a coda tacked on where Nick is narrating the events from a rehabilitation facility that is an exercise in directorial vanity. The lovely and talented Isla Fisher is underused as Tom’s mistress Myrtle Wilson, there are too many uses of the same matte drawing to signify the commute between Long Island and Manhattan, and some of the more intimate gatherings run on too long, making some want to leave the party early. But then again, the film’s aesthetic is that more is more, so it is fitting even when the films needs to be more heavily edited. 

If nothing else, The Great Gatsby is on all levels a visual essay on the fluid nature of dreams, and an inadvertent criticism of conspicuous consumption, even as it is itself seems complicit in its encouragement. (If anyone needs me, I’ll be at Brooks Brothers.)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: “Anna Karenina”

“I thank God that the curse of love has been lifted from me.”

I first studied Leo Tolstoy’s mammoth Anna Karenina in my senior year of high school, writing several essays and a journal on the work. I still have that journal. I was assigned the novel again in my sophomore year of college, tearing through the book with a keener, more critical eye in a Russian literature class. Having seen numerous film versions of the classic novel, I had been waiting for a cinematic adaptation that would at once heighten the book’s social criticism, moral relativism and artifice, while paying more than scant attention to the book’s other main character, Constantine Levin. It was as if Joe Wright, in his first period piece since the masterful Atonement, heard my plea, and presented me with his accomplished new version of Anna Karenina.

For the uninitiated, this is one of the most famous love stories of all. Published in 1876, the central story follows socialite Anna Karenina. She is bored in her marriage to her officious husband and falls madly in lust, then love with the charming Count Vronsky. As imperialist Russian high society watches, she learns the social mores and cruel double standards where men’s indiscretions are permitted but women must remain virtuous, without free will. Things do not end well, to say the least, as Anna unravels in a long chronicle of a social suicide. Anna’s plight is contrasted with young Constantine “Kostya” Levin, an idealist from the same circles who flees its rigid confines to scythe fields with the peasants, slowly adopting what would become Communist ideals. Of course, he must learn to curb his romanticised political leanings with romantic love for Ekaterina, or “Kitty”, who was originally meant to be Vronsky’s intended. High society, like pop, will eat itself.

How prescient that Tom Stoppard wrote this film’s screenplay. Stoppard’s seminal work Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead won the Tony Award forty-five years ago and remains one of the authoritative works on challenging a fictional medium’s confines. It was not just breaking down the fourth wall that made that play work so well: its knowing air and self-awareness made the work break new ground. The idea of having a character address an audience directly is not new, but it's used here as a deviated narrative conceit. By staging Anna’s story entirely within a theatre, Shakespeare’s point that “all the world’s a stage, and we are but players upon it” is laid bare. The theatre is used as signifiers and symbols to abstractly represent the physical, drawing attention to its own artifice (insert Bertolt Brecht reference here). The stage is where the main characters play out their actions, while high society fills the audience and boxes watching and judging, and the indifferent population traipses around backstage, supporting the upper echelons unnoticed. Stoppard’s use of theatre as society is microcosm, lending the film a higher concept that we have seen thus far from other film adaptations of the same source material. Detractors have, however, found the conceit to be tiresome and distracting, so either you’re along for the ride or you aren’t.

Beyond its utility as a narrative conceit, Stoppard’s screenplay draws heightened attention to the fact that high society’s actions are consequential only to its own self. Considering the double standards that drive Anna away and allows her brother Stiva’s flagrantly public infidelity, the moral relativism is thrown into stark relief. It is no accident that Levin’s struggle, while merely a subplot in the film, is set in naturalist settings outside of the theatre. The filmmakers use verisimilitude for his story to contrast the artifice of Anna’s opulent but empty existence.

This adaptation also captures smaller points that may have been lost upon the casual viewer or those only familiar with the previous adaptations starring Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh and Sophie Marceau. The dialogue is so often focused on the love triangle that the subtler social criticisms are lost, but not so here. An overarching theme almost left unnoticed is the historical attributes given to Moscow and St. Petersburg (or “Peterhof” as it was known then). Peterhof was the seat of high society, culture and government, while Moscow was then considered a backwater. This further stresses Anna’s infidelity as improper, as it seemed to take place in the then-equivalent of a lesser place.

As usual, all players fare well in Wright’s film. Although somewhat miscast as Anna, Keira Knightley attacks the role with finesse and enthusiasm. Ms. Knightley may be a shade too youthful to play the weathered Anna, but she excels when the despair unravels the once-poised Anna. As Vronsky, Aaron Taylor-Johnson has every element correct, capturing the youthfulness that betrays the proper man, knowing in the very bottom of his soul that it has little consequence to him. Anna knows what she’s talking about when she says he knows nothing of the cross she bears for them both. To complete the triangle, Jude Law embodies the long-suffering Karenin, leveraging his brittle voice and measured cadence to capture the broken heart of Anna’s ineffectual husband. There is also ample support from Alicia Vikander as Kitty (she can also be seen in the wonderful A Royal Affair), Emily Watson, Matthew McFadyen, Kelly Macdonald and Domhnall Gleeson, as Levin.

Visually, this is one of the most striking pictures of the year. Its aesthetic extravagance suggests Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence by way of Synecdoche, New York. As with his previous collaborations with Knightley on Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, all technical details are exquisitely rendered, from Sarah Greenwood’s production design, to Seamus McGarvey’s sumptuous lens, to Jacqueline Durran’s sartorial excesses. The sound recording complements the score, which is almost continuously played and rendered beautifully by Oscar winner Dario Marianelli. As with Atonement, sound plays an important role in isolating and heightening for emphasis in seemingly benign but effective manners.

Treatment of a revered literary classic is not, as a matter of due course, without its faults. It is a daunting task to condense a 900-page text that sometimes moves at a glacial pace into a film that seems all too short. Another fault is that Karenin has been homogenized in this version, with his misogyny (or is that misanthropy, given how self-contained he is) removed almost entirely from the film. This oversight should not, however, be attributed to Mr. Law. It makes Anna’s betrayal somewhat baffling and driven not by a need for escape or loathing, but a moment of uncontrolled passion run amok. The film’s numerous players are not well-established as characters on their own, and are more often signified by little traits and virtues. Nevertheless, the film’s bravura acting, inventive but elegant script, and technical excellence more than make up for the film’s shortcomings.

Anna Karenina opened in the United Kingdom in September, following a high-profile opening at the Toronto International Film Festival, and is now playing in select cities throughout Europe and North America.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Open Letter: Why Eduard Khil’s “Trololo” Should Be the Christmas #1

Every so often, a wondrous Internet meme of a non-lexical, nonsense song becomes earworm. A prime example is Adriano Celentano’s “Prisencolinensinainciusol”, a gibberish tune that topped the Italian charts in 1972 and has garnered millions of views on YouTube. That was my nonsensical pop music obsession of 2011. For 2012, there is no better candidate than Russian crooner Eduard Khil’s “Trololo”.

Initially titled “Я очень рад, ведь я, наконец, возвращаюсь домой”, the late Khil’s non-lexical Soviet pop sensation gained notoriety when it became an Internet meme in 2009. The title translated into English means “I Am Glad, ‘Cause I’m Finally Going Home”. How it came to become known as “Trololo” was because of the way it sounds. Here’s what the original sounds like:

Note that the song has, at the time of this writing, fifteen million views to date.

It garnered a minor cult following, including a joke on Family Guy:

There’s even a continuous ten-hour – yes, ten hour – loop of the song in a single YouTube clip, which you can see here:

It is in fact the only song by Khil available for purchase at the (non-Russian / Eastern European) iTunes store, where for 99 cents once can have the pleasure of listening to this musical nonsense nonstop.
We are about six weeks out from the infamous chase for the Christmas Number One on the UK music charts. Past winners of this title include vaunted pop classics by Paul McCartney, the Spice Girls, Whitney Houston and Pink Floyd. For those readers unfamiliar with the concept, this is a cultural phenomenon in Britain, a time when a mad crush of artists releases Christmas-themed songs and sing-song-y power ballads in a bid to see who will end up on top of the musical pile during the biggest sales period in the music industry for the entire year. Only sales in the week leading immediately up to Christmas Day counted towards the total, so timing is crucial.

In the last decade, the Christmas Number One single has been dominated by reality singing competition winners, such as Girls Aloud (who saw “Sound of the Underground” launch their successful career in 2002), Alexandra Burke and Leona Lewis. There have on occasion been songs that were released as explicit cash grabs that have nothing to do with the holiday, such as the Teletubbies’ theme song and Bob the Builder, some of which top the chart but often came up just short. Then there was the successful 2009 Facebook-enhanced campaign to get Rage Against the Machine’s anything-but-Christmas-y “Killing in the Name” to the top, which was started as a joke to counter the commerciality of the whole enterprise but actually became the Christmas Number One (I may or may not have purchased a copy).

True to the whole enterprise, there’s a huge Novelty Factor. Like comically ironic candidates like Rage Against the Machine and the insipid Teletubbies theme song (which was an unconsciously ironic choice), it’s the idea of taking the piss out of the whole occasion, with its seriousness and sentimentality, that makes it such a great idea.

It kinda sounds like a Christmas song. Sing “Trololo lolo” and what does it sound like? “Falalalala”. Reader, the gibberish rhythm makes it, combined with the instrumentation, almost sound like a forgotten Christmas classic, complete with orchestral sweep and chimes that make this sound like a Russian Bing Crosby. Okay maybe not that far, but it’s a musical facsimile, nyet?

It would be really, really funny. Having seen the Christmas Number One parody storyline in Love, Actually many, many times, I have been waiting for a blatant attempt at the coveted title with a song that mocks the insincere warbling of pretty young pop stars. Plus, an added bonus would be that the idea of having this top the chart would make musical executives rip out their hair in frustration. Can you see Simon Cowell having a fit that a decades-old record beats out his latest X-Factor investment, the one that was going to buy him a private island next to Beyoncé’s and Jay-Z’s?

Universal appeal. It’s the kind of “universal” record that the record companies try to get to appeal to everyone with the Christmas Number One releases. While the Spice Girls had three back-to-back-to-back titles from 1996 to 1998, non-English speakers would not be able to fully appreciate their singles. “Trololo”, however, is perfect in that anyone anywhere can sing along and enjoy it. Plus, it offends absolutely nobody (except aforementioned record company executives) and language is not a factor. You could play this to anyone of any race, age, religion, gender, political affiliation, sexual orientation, nationality or ethnicity and they would get it. I always wondered: in that old 1972 commercial “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”, what song would the singer like to teach to sing? It sure isn’t Michael Jackson or “Express Yourself”, because it’d be too tough with the language barrier. Just throw “Trololo” on and have everyone sing, and you could bring about world peace. Heck, for those opposed to pop music as being “too westernized”, let me remind you: this is a pop record from Soviet Russia. (This also explains Eurovision.)

If you can buy “Gangnam Style”, you can buy this as your next earworm. Self-explanatory.

So if you’d like to teach the world to sing, have a laugh and get a perfect score at karaoke while getting caned at your parents’ place, get “Trololo” to the Christmas Number One! And remember: you can only buy it during the week leading up to Christmas in the UK, so that the sales count.

With thanks to our friends at Gay French Riviera for the tip!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: on Michael Haneke’s “Amour”

“Dance me to the end of love” – Madeleine Peyroux

What happens when happily ever after ends? Michael Haneke, the distinguished Austrian filmmaker whose credits include realist horror stories such as Funny Games, Caché and the 2009 Cannes Palme d’Or winner The White Ribbon, makes a radical departure from his usual oeuvre to answer the question.

Right off the bat, cineastes note that this film’s subject matter is not something expected of the director. His films appear at first blush to have an accessible theme, but are often about something else altogether. His Caché started off with a couple attempting to find out who’s been sending them videotapes of themselves carrying on in their daily lives, but is a meditation on the legacy of the Franco-Algerian War. La Pianiste appears to be about a forbidden sexual affair, but actually explores misanthropy and sexual alienation. And The White Ribbon might seem like a riff on Children of the Corn, but things take a more darkly realistic turn when you realize this was in the years just before WWI and who the young citizens of that small German grew up to be in the 1930s … and into this mix comes Amour.

Set in contemporary Paris, we meet an elegant retired couple in their 80s who were once great piano teachers. They attend recitals, they debate interpretations and they mentor dazzling pianists who still look to them for their opinions on the latest attempt at perfecting Handel’s Sarabande. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) now live in an elegant Parisian apartment, enjoying their retirement. One day, Anne has a stroke at breakfast, but doesn’t know it. A series of increasingly debilitating strokes weaken her and rob her of her motor coordination, until she is all but confined to her bed and barely able to receive the occasional visitor. Their estranged daughter (Isabelle Huppert) drops by every once in awhile to express her annoyance at their care of treatment plan, and is exasperated by Georges’s measures to prevent her from even seeing her mother in such a state. Georges, suspicious of nursing homes, refuses to let Anne be looked after outside the apartment: soon, we notice that we haven’t left the apartment, either.

If this story sounds familiar, it is thematically similar to Sarah Polley’s acclaimed 2007 film Away From Her, which explores a husband watching helplessly as his wife drifts away into the abyss of Alzheimer’s. Unlike Polley’s film, however, Haneke’s story doesn’t take place in a nursing home, and instead explores the ever-increasing, possibly inescapable indignities that arrive in old age. Anne falls out of bed in an attempt to be mobile. An unfeeling home-care nurse treats her roughly and, when fired by Georges, gives him a terse “go fuck yourself, you dirty old man”. Eventually, pained by her inability to express herself through music any longer, Anne orders Georges to stop playing recordings of their favourite piano pieces. All that is left is the couple, the silence, and the long torturous wait for The End. And in the end, is that all there is? Is this what happens at the end of love? Haneke posits that the title is a bitter test at the end of a long and happy marriage, as if the universe tauntingly asks, “do you love your spouse this much?”

Haneke, with the Palme d'Or, Cannes 2012
I was reminded recently of the beloved American sitcom The Golden Girls, a long-running smash about four senior women living in a shared Miami home, enjoying life to the hilt. The gut-busting laughter in that show was always informed by the ever-present specter of death looming about, and how the women respond to changing times and attitudes with perspective and good humour. The show regularly made fun of Alzheimer’s and did not shy away from jokes about adult diapers. Its insight was informed by the idea of a blended biological and adopted family that kept the demons at bay, even in the face of impending mortality. Georges and Anne, however, have all but locked themselves into their well-appointed home that serves as a de facto sarcophagus. Haneke’s vision is grim and sobering.

This is not, however, a damnation of Amour. On the contrary, it is one of the most penetrating and emotionally devastating films in recent years. Trintignant, the handsome 1960s leading man of A Man and a Woman and the great Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs: Rouge, came out of retirement to play Georges. His quiet dignity must be enough for two, as he hides his suffering in plain sight of his wife while she is betrayed by the confines of her now-feeble body. Riva, the ravishing star of Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour, bottles the last of Anne’s great beauty and cages it within the prison of her mind, looking out onto Georges from within. It’s as if she were suffering death by a thousand cuts, all of them bleeding internally and, most poisonously, emotionally. Providing able support is another French acting national treasure, Huppert, packing her brief appearances here memorably with years of untold frustration. She’s long past the point in life where she knows better than her parents, but helplessly finding their situation increasingly untenable. That Haneke’s story was strong enough to draw two top-drawer veterans out of hibernation and one of the country’s preeminent stars proves that it is a worthy project of the highest order. As he gives the story the gravity it deserves, these three inhabit their performances with nuance and skill that could only have been gained through experience, and cannot be taught in acting class.

While I have painted a story about mortality and decay, I must emphasize that this is a film that fully embodies its title. Haneke’s film says that love reaches beyond platitudes, song and passion, well into the unknown and emphasizes “for worse”, whatever that might be. It is at times unbearably painful. Those who only fathom true cinematic romance in vampire movies and that “notebook” will not be prepared for what lies beyond fantasy and the promise of eternal youth, and posits that only the eternal aspect of love survives, long after the point of no return.

Amour won the coveted Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It has been a sensation at film festivals the world over and is the Austrian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards (which I predict it will likely win, or be at least nominated). I would argue that all three performers – Trintignant, Riva and Huppert – also deserve nominations for their challenging work. Amour has been opening slowly throughout Europe, and is set for limited release in North America on December 19, 2012. It will be one of the most haunting films on pure, unadulterated love you will ever see.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The German Opera Project: “Wagner’s Dream” (VIFF 2012)

It’s nice to know that in parts of North America, high culture can still be a big deal. In the fall of 2010, New York was in a furor when the legendary Metropolitan Opera debuted Robert LePage’s staging of Wagner’s Der Ring das Nibelungen. Opening night drew out high society, in addition to the notorious “Ring nuts”, and luminaries such as André Leon Talley attended. Outside Lincoln Center, hundreds sat on plastic chairs in the rain to watch the opening performance for free in as it was projected on giant screens, which was also simulcast in Times Square. Despite being so close to the Jersey “shore”, high culture can still command an audience.

The production of the most noteworthy Ring Cycle in recent years is the subject of Wagner’s Dream. Directed by noted Quebecois stage and film director Robert LePage, the massive undertaking involved a 90,000 pound (45 ton) stage, hydraulics, zip lines, a frequent fear that the stage would injure the performers, and assembled talent such as famed conductor James Levine. Director Susan Froemke had free rein to follow every aspect of the production, much like last year’s little-seen Wagner documentary The Singing City, a document on the staging of Parsifal in Stuttgart at around the same time.

LePage is known for unconventional productions. He staged Peter Gabriel’s masterful Secret World Tour from 1994, made the award-winning film Le Confessionnel in 1995, directed numerous operas and oversaw the Cirque du Soleil shows Ka and Totem. The Met had wanted to instill new life into a shrinking subscriber base as opera was becoming more expensive, and their prior productions had not been well-received. A production of the Ring Cycle in LA in the spring of 2010 cost an astounding $31 million and failed to turn a profit, not to mention having been criticized for its avant-garde staging, and with lawsuits stemming from workplace injuries. Taking a chance on LePage meant they wanted something fresh and exciting, and potentially ground-breaking. And they got it in spades.

The Rhine maidens, suspended in performance
LePage’s stage for the Met’s Ring Cycle consisted of one giant piece. It is a set of overwhelmingly large planks spinning 360 degrees on a long rod that ran the length of the stage. The planks moved independently of each other and, with the right lighting, were able to stand in for the River Rhine, the forests, the great palace of Valhalla, underworld caves and all manner of hinterlands in between. The Rhine maidens were lifted on harnesses and sang the challenging libretto while suspended in mid-air, adjusting so that the safety wear did not prevent their diaphragms from being able to fully project. We see the initial rehearsals where the sopranos worked with technicians to ensure that they were positioned so that they could sing, and learning how not to get caught in the set or plunge below should a harness snap. (And you thought you had occupational hazards.)

Voigt, as Brunnhilde 
We follow LePage and other production heads as they negotiate the set and reassure the performers that they will be safe. We meet charming Deborah Voigt, the dazzling soprano who was famously dismissed from a 2004 production of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Royal Opera House for being too fat for the title role, as she prepares mightily, only to suffer an embarrassing fall on the set on opening night of Die Walküre. Brünnhilde is considered the ultimate test for sopranos and for many is the role of a lifetime. We also learn that famed tenor Gary Lehrman bowed out of the production four days before opening night of Siegfried and was replaced by Jay Hunter Morris on short notice. And then there is the sudden exit of conductor James Levine due to ongoing health issues. On top of this, that darn stage appears to have a mind of its own and continues to be a potential safety hazard.

Nevertheless, Froemke’s assured hand as a director ensures that we see the top players in the industry work their way through the difficult material, breathing new life and vision into the work. This is a film not just for Ring nuts or classical music lovers, it is an accessible story of collaboration on a project everyone believes in. You will not find any diva tantrums, All About Eve-style backstage back-stabbing or petty squabbles here. We also see the perspective of the New York Wagner Society, who traverse the world seeing different versions of the Ring Cycle and warn the opera directors that the production should not overwhelm or get in the way of the score. An usher tells us that purists want to see the same play performed in the same way, time after time, without deviation or. That Froemke’s camera is able to get behind the scenes and capture the perspective of the vanguard who is the gatekeeper of the canonical work shows that she understands the cultural value and interest in getting the Ring Cycle done just right. (Those purists would no doubt have hated last year’s San Francisco production, which combined industrial art deco production design with Jay Gatsby’s wardrobe.) They all know they’re embarking on a daunting and slightly mad venture, but everyone respects the journey and take it seriously.

Wagner’s original composition in the 1870s could not have been staged the way he wanted it, and he expressed unhappiness with the original production at Bayreuth, declaring “next year we’ll do it differently”. In an age when technology has finally caught up with the infinity of imagination, LePage was able to realize Wagner’s dream.

Wagner’s Dream played at the Vancouver International Film Festival and enjoyed a successful art house run in Los Angeles and New York. The entire Metropolitan 2010-2012 Ring Cycle played on PBS and screened in cinemas in HD. For more information on Metropolitan Opera productions in HD, head over to their site.