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Entries in durga chew-bose (44)

Tuesday
May292012

In Which We Meet In The Meadow

The Kids Table

by DURGA CHEW-BOSE

Moonrise Kingdom
dir. Wes Anderson
94 minutes

From above, it’s easy to imagine Wes Anderson’s production of Moonrise Kingdom resembling a fine scale model railroad: coastal New England homes landscaped with ferns and red cedars, with nearby inlets and a pebble beach, and flanked of course by a series of rails for tracking shots. As per Anderson’s request, trailers were not allowed on set and actors were expected to show up camera-ready. The effect? Dioramic. The opening sequence? A dolly shot through a dollhouse. And the director? In a manner, Gulliver-sized. Picture Anderson poking one eye through a window as his finger pokes through another, readjusting the needle on a miniature record player or using tweezers to fill a runaway girl’s picnic basket with books. His airtight world shaped by the romance of expressing first-time feelings with a hobbyist’s delicate, near-crazed hand.

Set in 1965, Moonrise Kingdom is the boy meets girl, girl meets boy, both meet world, story of Sam and Suzy, played by newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. Together they hatch a plan to flee their respective families and summer camp, and be together. Suzy leaves behind her brothers and her parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) while Sam escapes his Khaki scout troop led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton).

Upon discovering both of their disappearances, a search team is organized — a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Search Team or something from an Hergé comic. Sam’s foster parents are quick to tell local sheriff, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), that they no longer want Sam back. An epic storm begins to brew and Social Services shows up, played by caped-crusader Tilda Swinton. Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel (written perhaps with Seymour Cassel in mind?) make appearances. Bob Balaban narrates. Meanwhile, Sam and Suzy play house, in a tent. Like Pierrot and Marianne without the primary colors. Like Kit and Holly without the killing.

Suzy is the sum of her parts — which at twelve consists of prized possessions, her imagination, growing suspicions about her parents and parenting, and a preoccupation with love. Her nose, slightly turned, gives the impression that if she tried, like Samantha in Bewitched, could twitch and perform a spell.

In the company of boys — her three little brothers or the Khaki scouts — Suzy becomes Wendy. Her inexperience more elegant and less brooding than theirs. We learn that she has an aunt who brought her back a Françoise Hardy record from Paris. Suzy hugs it because it is foreign, feminine, and free; her expression of early onset desire. She will move on to Anna Karina and eventually, Anaïs Nin.

Hayward, who has been a member of Mensa since she was nine, will likely be courted by Miu Miu and invited to audition for Mad Men. Coincidently, time wise, Moonrise occurs almost in tandem with Mad Men’s current season: Suzy Bishop, Sally Draper’s freewheeling, blue eye-shadowed foil. Go-go boots vs. Saddle shoes. Running away to her father vs. Running away from her father (among others). In this way, Hayward could play Sally’s first real best friend. They could pass notes to each other in their shared copy of The Bell Jar. Or ditch class and wander to Tompkins Square Park where someone will offer them mescaline.

In one of Moonrise’s scenes, after setting up camp, Sam proposes they list an inventory of everything the two have brought; standard scout practice. As Suzy catalogs her books, three cans of cat food for her cat, her binoculars, no brush (she’ll use her fingers to comb through knots, no big), I was reminded of Joan Didion’s essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.”

She writes: “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentment of loss.” Sam, an orphan runaway whose foster parents have disinvited him back home, is exactly that. And while his impulse to account for their belongings is due in part to his scouts training, it also seems deeply necessary to Sam. A brief moment in which he can list what is his, and hers, and theirs to share.

Time and again our childhood presents itself as a tribute to past events rather than a remembrance of them. We bestow it with our present day’s understanding of how things work. I do not recall once using the word ‘adventure’ as a kid, but I certainly went on a few. Imagination, fictional heroes, a sense of enterprise, and an older brother reluctant to play — indispensable.

But to try and congeal our childhood, to make it exact, is much like staring at one’s reflection for too long. The familiar grows unfamiliar. It is best, I imagine, to keep the blur. As a kid, the Pulitzer seemed far more praiseful when I thought it was the “Pulitz Surprise!” As though a man in a suit knocked at Philip Roth’s door with balloons and a giant check. The alphabet too, enjoyably sped up and somehow richer when perceived as Elemeno-P! Still, I am forever envious of anyone who can identify his or her first memory with clarity.

Because we cannot re-learn newness or re-experience the seconds before our first kiss or first cruelty, we keep kernels. That’s what Moonrise does. While the conversation might be lost, we do remember where we were sitting when an adult, perhaps feeling especially vulnerable, spoke to us for the first time as if we were one too. Or how during that one summer, there was a bad lighting storm and a girl named Suzy who wore her mother’s perfume. Or the way our parents looked on especially hot days in various states of undress.

In Didion’s essay, she refers to her childhood note-keeping as a “predilection for the extreme,” spinning stories not from “accurate, factual record,” but from some intersection of what is familiar with what is unknown— perhaps the writer’s truest romance. I imagine Laura Bishop speaking to her family through a megaphone as Anderson’s exaggeration, his “predilection for the extreme,” of parents and their sometimes yielding, droopy effort. But also, of those widening gaps that exist between some parents — a love that knows no better than to wear itself out. Halfway through the film I imagined down and out dads, Walt Bishop and Royal Tenenbaum, at a nearby dive bar, while Frances, Bruce, Angelica, and Danny Glover, dine and gab at the Bishop house. Both parties, bittersweet.

In his 1962 manifesto, “White Elephant Art Vs. Termite Art,” Manny Farber reproves Truffaut’s  “reversal of growth” in his films, stating that the filmmaker’s passage, “back into childhood,” depicts youth in a false, insincere manner. It’s feasible that Farber on Anderson would sound much like Farber on Truffaut: “…the critic-devouring virtue of filling every pore of work with glinting, darting Style and creative Vivacity.” After all, Moonrise does shy from momentum. At its most violent — emotionally and physically — naïveté emerges unbreakable. At their most desperate, characters remain taut.

Similar to an aerial view of Anderson’s set resembling a model railroad (which incidentally reminds me of Farber’s painting, entitled “My Buddy”), Moonrise Kingdom adapts the real into curio-type make-believe. Pinocchio storytelling, reversed. The world and its troubles, as Farber notes about Truffaut, are shrunken. “Suicide becomes a game, the houses look like toy boxes — laughter, death, putting out a fire — all seem reduced to some unreal innocence of childhood myths.”

However, there is absurdity and a fondness for the silly in Anderson’s portrayal of childhood. It’s of another world entirely. A group of Khaki scouts build their tree house a few stories too high. Like something from a Shel Silverstein illustration. Wobbly it soars and yet, the scouts see no problem with it. Some embellishments are more subtle. Suzy, an avid reader, sits with her back straight, rarely slouching, and with her book held upright directly in front of her face. Only cartoons, spies, and kids who are pretending to read, read like that. In Wes Anderson’s world, unnatural posture comes off as whimsy. 

During production, Billy Murray taught Gilman how to tie a tie and McDormand showed Hayward what a real typewriter looks like. Both images could pass as scenes in the film. Both images, a child’s first. Casting two kids whose faces and voices we’ve never seen or heard before, who were suddenly sharing scenes with legendary actors, certainly adds to the film’s offbeat charm. While his films have many clear influences, Gilman and Hayward are brand new, imperfect and not yet easy to place. Without his scout uniform, glasses, and Davy Crockett hat, I can’t be sure what Gilman even looks like.

Owing to Anderson’s penchant for trinkets, Moonrise appears too dear in parts. One “Jiminy Cricket!” comes very close to being one Jiminy Cricket too many. But there is comedy and tragedy, and parents who fail. There are gestures that declare love and choices that are brave. Ear piercing in the wilderness accounts for both. In some scenes and in small portions, the dialogue is wonderfully defenseless. In this way, Anderson, who co-wrote the script with Roman Coppola, expresses feelings as if they were an English translation of a foreign proverb: clumsy, a bit chunky, but just right. A brand new way of saying something tired but heartfelt.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Seventeen. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"Call Me Maybe" - Carly Rae Jepsen (mp3)

"Talk To Me" - Carly Rae Jepsen (mp3)


Friday
Apr202012

In Which We Went Out On Him All The Time

A Certain Age

by DURGA CHEW-BOSE

Seventeen
dir. Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines
120 minutes

"You need a half-a-cup of white sugar and half-a-cup of brown,” instructs Mrs. Hartling, Southside High School’s Home Economics teacher. In Seventeen, the documentary by Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines, Mrs. Hartling’s class is in the final lap of their senior year. They are loud and unimpressed, near delirious. Sitting on a counter, one boy casually beats batter with one hand while resting his head on the other. Another student, Lynn Massie, is taking a nap. When questioned about skipping class, one girl quips, “So?” Her parting shot, “Kiss my ass.”

The year is 1982. The town is Muncie, Indiana. And the kitchen classroom, like Mrs. Hartling’s shrill and grinding voice, her tunic apron and Estelle Getty glasses, is a time capsule dressed in blue checkerboard curtains, fluorescent lights, plywood cupboards, and beige stoves. Today, pie: “Never re-roll a pie crust! Ever!” Tomorrow, citizenship, and “how to be a good person, to be honest.”

Conceived and produced by Peter Davis for PBS, Middletown was a six-part television documentary inspired by the sociological studies of Robert and Helen Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (1929) and Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts (1937). Divided into categories — religion, work, politics, play, marriage, and education — the series is a close and critical meditation on everyday working class American life in the early 1980s.

Reminiscent of Robert Drew and D.A. Pennebaker, Middletown is a slow moving train, slackening its pace in Muncie. Happenings, whatever they may be, are coeval. The mayoral election no more important than the pizza parlor facing foreclosure or a couple’s second go at love.

But Seventeen, the sixth in the series, never made it to television. Scheduled to air nearly thirty years ago on April 28th, 1982, the film was deemed too controversial and ran into what Davis calls, “an institutional buzzsaw.” While it eventually went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, hailed as “without a doubt one of the greatest movies, perhaps the greatest, about teenage life ever made,” PBS’s decision to cut it from the series resembles an adult dismissing his or her adolescent years. A shame, because more so than revolt or hotheaded choices, a “me too” moment in high school is closest to windfall.

Teenagers being teenagers, the plenary account — smoking pot, “getting good and drunk,” merrily swearing, giving birth while the baby’s father is at “the Boy’s Club playing basketball,” being angry and scrappy and rude, partying and getting sad, reading “dirty books” out loud in the library, disrespecting teachers, crudely talking about sex — was simply too hot for TV. Like the girl in Mrs. Hartling’s class, whose duelling “So?” is nasty but also bankrupt and idle, Seventeen is a portrait of what it is to be young, pivoting from stitch to sweet spot, stitch to sweet spot.

Perhaps most decisive was the subject of interracial dating: “White girls don’t mess with black guys but we swallow our pride for you guys because we care for you guys,” Tink and Massie inform their dates at the fair. When a cross is burned on Lynn parents’ lawn, she challenges the taboo and continues to see John. Harassing phone calls result; threats are made — parent to classmate, classmate to classmate. “My mom carries a gun and she ain't afraid to use it. Neither am I,” Lynn barks into the receiver.

In his 1985 review of the film, Vincent Canby likened Lynn to Belle Starr. One, a high school senior with Kristy McNichol hair, nervy swagger, and a slight squawk when she yells. The other, a 19th century Oklahoma outlaw. While the comparison is dreamy, it does appreciate the fugitive quality of adolescence, that roaming fidget and fixed urge to not give a damn.  “Get me the hell outta here,” Lynn mumbles in monotone one day. She’s referring to Muncie. But without much of a plan, the here is more immediate: that day, that week, her house, a dip in her after school plans, her bad mood. Lynn's solution? “Gonna get bombed outta my head."

Although those rarely seen on screen bits are true (and do wonder what would happen if Albert Maysles, Larry Clark and Joey Jeremiah were to toss around a few ideas), Seventeen does enjoy the airier side of high school: the boys, the girls, the feelings, the prom, the epistolary mechanics of it all. In one scene, Lynn, who emerges as one of the Seventeen's main faces, sits in her car with her girlfriend and reads a note from a boy. She’s already read it, chances are more than once, and skips over words feverishly only to jump back and enjoy them for what feels like the first time. As if running her eyes up and down a BINGO card, anticipating a win, she holds the crumpled piece of paper breathlessly. Moments later, dulled by after school boredom, Lynn coolly admits to cheating on him multiple times. She chucks his note on the dashboard and smiles, “I went out on him all the time.” The girls laugh, roll down the windows, turn up the radio, and sing off-tune.

At the championship basketball game, angst fades and the gym’s yellow lights, the pompoms, the players, all burnish the crowd’s faces with what PBS originally had in mind. A row of high school seniors watching their last basketball game is a conceit often used in movies because it’s so easy to pretend the entire world exists in those minutes. Even Lynn lets loose a keenness she would never reveal to her teachers or parents.

Later that week Lynn invites everyone over for a party. Her parents, Jim and Shari, are present but not as chaperones. They drink with her friends, even making breakfast late into the night, drunkenly frying eggs and flipping pancakes. One boy chews on a piece of bacon, catching it before it falls out of his mouth. He can barely stand up. Nearby, an off-duty soldier shares his story about being “15 or 20 miles from the warzone,” as a crowd hangs on his every word. The Four Tops, “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” plays.

The house is chaotic but grows drowsy, and gets at why this, the documentary, is the best way to portray a teenager. Those moments on the weekend when the party starts to die down and boys get hungry and girls are told not to be shy, and unfailingly, someone is trying to revive the affair with music or booze, is specific to that time in life because later on, though the same nights recur over and over, “passing the time” is no longer a valid activity. Even the expression expires.

In the film’s most moving scene, a group gathers in a bedroom listening to the radio. Their friend, Church Mouse, has just died in a car accident and they’ve dedicated a song to him at the local station. “Crank it!” one boy shouts as Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” begins. It plays in its entirety. The lyrics resonate sincerely — a perfect send-off. You realize early on that nobody will cry, and briefly, you half expect the friends to grow up before your very eyes. Never have you seen them so thoughtful at school. As the song fades, so do those sober minutes. Somebody mentions how Church Mouse was buried in his tennis shoes. He pauses and continues, “I wanna be buried face down so the world can kiss my ass.” And just like that, the kids are back. Gloriously so.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She last wrote in these pages about Rachel McAdams. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Out on the Road" - Norah Jones (mp3)

"After the Fall" - Norah Jones (mp3)

joel demott

Friday
Feb242012

In Which We Are Simply A Natural At This

Piece of Cake

by DURGA CHEW-BOSE

Rachel McAdams has Olympic caliber poise. Somewhat jelled, her smile is red-lettered, her jaw, prominent, and her body, sprightly. It's as if she just landed a double axel or performed a clean dismount from the balance beam, no sweat. In romantic roles her male co-stars regularly lift her, carry her, or nimbly swing her, but I suspect it’s McAdams who supplies any, if not all, cantilevered grace.

What lends most to screen is her strikingly nostalgic features. Owing perhaps to the alien twinkle in her eyes, her dimples, or her downy skin, McAdams appears especially saturated on celluloid; especially Sirk. Like Jane Wyman she is puckish and beautiful, and at times lost in thought. Both women look buffed — a near satin sheen. Both women have incredibly expressive foreheads.

In The Vow she plays Paige, a woman who after emerging from a car accident induced coma, suffers from amnesia. She cannot remember the last four years of her life which include an artsy, permissive turn — sculpting, air-dried hair, loft living — and more importantly includes her marriage to Leo played by Channing Tatum. As a result she wakes confused and returns to her old life: estranged parents, law school, quotidian suburban customs, blueberry mojitos, a sister’s wedding, sweater sets, and Scott Speedman. Unfortunately, not much happens. Despite the potential for something far creepier, sadder, syrupy and even peculiar, the film bops from scene to scene as if dispirited and mooney, much like Tatum-speak and Tatum-mien.

Ironically, it’s McAdams’ performance as a character whose life has been erased, that provides the most vitality. She has filmic gumption and a bounty of grins and laughs that rescue stale moments. (Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock pioneered that particular bail out; McAdams and Anne Hathaway have revived it). Moreover, Paige has whims. She resists but ultimately surrenders to tickling, she feeds a stray cat, she buries herself in an oversized sweatshirt, and offers plump strawberries to Leo’s friends at breakfast. Her wedding dress was pink and her vows were written on a coffee shop menu.

Regardless of these parts, Leo and Paige’s love story plays out like a music video. Or the music video for a song on The Vow’s original soundtrack. Or something Josh Hartnett may have done in 2004. In many ways, its finest function is as a catalog of required proportions: McAdams’ hands are the size of Tatum’s neck and when he scoops her up, she screeches. He is shirtless for nearly forty percent of the film. She wears a classic rotation of outfits: pajamas (his), pajamas (hers), formal wedding attire, messy studio clothes, lace underwear. She has a six-to-one, charismatic to gross, ratio of habits. Even so, they are never that gross.

The camera loves McAdams. It is her moon. Tina Fey admits learning from her throughout Mean Girls. "That was the first movie that I had ever been on. And I would watch – I would stand with the director sometimes and watch her scenes. And I would say to the director: Like, that’s really small. Is she doing it? And then watching her on film, watching the dailies, I’m like: Oh, yes, she’s amazing. She’s a film actor. She’s not pushing. And so I kind of learned that lesson from watching her…"

What Fey recalls, those "small", minor mannerisms are McAdams’ register of finely controlled facial muscles. She can call upon each one as if summoning an invisible series of nylon strings secured to her cheekbones, chin, temples, ears. The slightest twitch or eye roll, easy! The faintest pout or cartoonish gaze, done! A toothy hee-haw, no problem! A single, bulging vein, why not! She is a natural. She knows when to elongate her neck, how to scurry in heels, how far to dip back when laughing, how to kiss passionately and dispassionately, and how to eat cake as if it were more satisfying than the man sharing the slice with her.

McAdams’ performances are truly athletic. And unlike Keira Knightley or Scarlett Johansson, whose acting we often watch as curious spectators, (anthropological!), too far removed from their traits to relate, wondering perhaps how they will pull it off, McAdams, we simply cheer.

There’s a moment near the end of The Family Stone, where McAdams — who plays Amy, the cranky and defensive, but ultimately very loving "mean sister" — is sitting in an ambulance on Christmas day with the guy who "popped her cherry” years ago. His name is Brad Stevenson (Paul Schneider). He is shy, mumbles and has a slight swallow. He’s an EMT who wrapped her present in a clock radio box. "Don’t worry, it’s not a clock radio." She’s gruff and impatient but appreciates the gesture, and perhaps even him, once more. Inside the box is a snow globe that McAdams cups in her hands as if it were hidden treasure. As if she was a child. As if she might, in that moment, be living inside the stillness of a snow globe. She smiles and quietly exclaims, "Wow, Brad.” The scene is interrupted by yet another madcap Stone family moment, but the peaceful way Amy appreciates Brad, the way McAdams says "Wow" as if it were her first word, chimes until the end of the film

As Diane Keaton, who starred with McAdams in both The Family Stone and Morning Glory, remarked, "She's like a violin. She can do anything, and she can play anything. She's a dynamo, but she's also soft. She can be bitchy but also light. She can do serious drama; she can do comedy. She has a lot of things going on, which makes her absolutely captivating.”

At the 2005 MTV Movie Awards, McAdams and Gosling won the award for Best Kiss. She in a bustier and jeans and he chewing gum and wearing a white Darfur t-shirt, the then couple reenacted their Notebook kiss as Maroon 5’s "She Will be Loved” played. The crowd went crazy, Lindsay Lohan screamed "Oh my God!” and Hillary Duff giggled with her sister. The entire two minutes are a pop culture capsule and emphasize McAdams’ irrefutable appeal. As she walks off the stage with Gosling, who picks up her blazer and coolly throws it over his shoulder, McAdams looks flush, a little embarrassed, but triumphant with her Golden Popcorn, silly sure, nevertheless, a medal.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She last wrote in these pages about Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Mad Mad Me" - Bonnie Prince Billy & Mariee Sioux (mp3)

"Bird Child" - Bonnie Prince Billy & Mariee Sioux (mp3)

"Loveskulls" - Bonnie Prince Billy & Mariee Sioux (mp3)

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