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Entries in kara vanderbijl (74)

Tuesday
May062014

In Which This All Seems Vaguely Familiar

Minnesota Mean

by KARA VANDERBIJL

Fargo
creator Noah Hawley

This is a true story.

So claim the opening credits of Noah Hawley’s Fargo, a television spin-off of the Coen brothers’ 1996 film of the same name. The original Fargo made a similar claim, and we wonder now, as we did then, how true what we are about to see will be. More importantly, we wonder how true this 10-episode miniseries will be to its predecessor, and we (rightly) begin to fear the worst.

It is tempting for any artist to mimic a master. You get the heady sense of power that’s inherent to any artistic endeavor, without doing any of the hard work. Essentially, it’s creative suicide. Or creative murder, if you take into consideration how your interpretation of a beloved work will reflect on the original. All too often, a remake turns a good story into something that looks like it’s been through the wood chipper.

Not so with Hawley’s show — it is more like the original story simply went in another direction, as if it turned onto a different dark, snowy road in the middle of the night and ended up in one of many other sleepy Minnesotan towns.

There’s a certain delicate science to this imitation, in which everything feels a little bit like déjà vu. To achieve it, Hawley got the Coen brothers to produce the series, then spends the pilot episode giving a slow wink to everything beloved about the movie. Fargo opens where the film hit one of its first, and finest, climaxes: with a car accident. One man escapes the wreck and begins running frantically across a frozen field. In the Coens’ world, this man gets shot in the back. In Hawley’s, he disappears into a fringe of forest, while his kidnapper, who was driving the car, watches him. From here, the show and film’s narratives split, mirror, and foil one another like Schrodinger’s cat.

So innstead of Jerry Lundegaard, the mediocre car salesman who really wants a piece of his father-in-law’s fortune, we meet a henpecked insurance salesman, Lester Nygaard, who is played by Martin Freeman of Sherlock and Hobbit fame. Lester is as blond and stammery as his forebear, except he doesn't plan to cause trouble; he sort of falls into it by ending up in the emergency room next to a psychopathic killer, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton). Malvo offers to pick off the bully who landed Lester in the hospital, and when Lester doesn’t explicitly disagree, pandemonium strikes Bemidji, Minnesota.

Like other Coen villains — think Anton Chigurh — Malvo is a soft-spoken devil, a hired gun who seems to do plenty of pro bono work since he enjoys watching people destroy one another almost as much as he enjoys destroying them himself. Thornton thrives in this role with a weird priestly haircut, a fur collar on his coat and an only slightly suppressed Arkansan accent. Like every other Coen character, he isn’t spared moments of humor, however dark. 

Besides Lorne and Lester, there is a comedic pair of miscreants, “Mr. Numbers” and “Mr. Wrench” (Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard). There’s a heavily pregnant woman. There’s a man who likes ducks and ice fishing. There are bland, hotdish-loving townspeople who exhibit surprisingly morbid penchants, disquieting hobbies, and scandalous secret lives. There is a group of well-worn cops, including a plucky deputy, Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) who, like Marge before her, is the story’s bulwark of sanity and decency.

Molly is like Marge in the same way that Hawley’s Fargo is like the Coens’ Fargo: the way a stranger can resemble a friend from afar. Unlike Marge, whose position as chief of police sets her apart from the very beginning, before we even see her prowess as a detective, Molly must prove her mettle — not only to the show’s motley crew of mostly oblivious males, but also to the audience, who will look at her and miss Frances McDormand. Molly is brilliant; she's a diamond in the rough, sweet and sharp and persistent as hell, but she can’t hold a candle to Marge. She tries her hardest, though, and we can’t help but root for her, mainly because it becomes very apparent as the show progresses that she holds her own, and that there’s really no need to compare the two. Minnesota is, after all, where all the women are strong.

Where this Fargo really surpasses the original is in exposing the dark underbelly of the legendary “Minnesota nice.” The Coen brothers hinted at it — often cheekily — but always deferred to a dichotomized world in which the bad guys engaged in bad things, and the good guys talked about the weather or dipped a spoon into Jell-O salad. But Hawley throws shadows even on the good folk; Duluth cop Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) is a devoted father, but he can be a bit of a pushover… also, he wants to bang his married neighbor. Lester Nygaard’s brother is a successful salesman and family man… and owns illegal firearms.

In other words, nobody could have been more wrong than Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times, who claimed that “Fargo finds humor in the stunning ordinariness of Midwestern small towns, where people are uniformly even-tempered and mild, bringing Jell-O salads to potlucks and saying ‘aw jeez’ and ‘heck’ when bad things happen.” Instead, it finds humor where humor has lived all along: in the disconnect between what appears to be true in the living room and what is being hidden in the basement — a body, or a stolen car, or a psychopath. What we’ve grown to recognize as Minnesota nice is just the same as every other culture in this country and the world: an attempt to handle what can’t be controlled, like chaos, death, and unhappiness.

It’s possible that we need to tell ourselves the same stories over and over in order to deal with chaos. Didn’t we spend our childhood asking our parents to read us the same bedtime stories, so that for at least a few minutes after the light had been turned off and they had left the room, we’d forget about the monsters lying in wait under our beds? It’d be easier if we could just kill them, of course, but you can’t put chaos to sleep with more chaos. You have to tell it a better, truer story.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about Jeff Buckley. She tumbls here and twitters here

"Bullet in the Brain" - The Black Keys (mp3)

"Waiting on Words" - The Black Keys (mp3)


Thursday
Mar272014

In Which We Were Born Like Jeff Buckley

Creative Inertia

by KARA VANDERBIJL

Jeff Buckley’s brief intro before launching into a cover of “Dido’s Lament” is murmured in a ghost’s timbre, barely outdoing the white noise on the recording even at highest volume. His audience laughs, spooked, then the piano opens. “Thy hand, Belinda,” Jeff sings.

His is a freakish voice, made all the more odd by the grainy quality of the recording; a high falsetto mimicking the dramatic mezzo-soprano for which Purcell wrote the aria. He wails — his voice almost breaks, but doesn’t. Listening, we want it to break; the melody is too pure, its perfect desperation too stringent for this wild, unpredictable thing. Remember me, forget my fate.

It is this drama, the constant rediscovery and redelivery of a familiar, worked-over, oft-repeated tune that defines Jeff Buckley’s work. Like his voice, each song defies an original genre or mood, turning back to a more primal source. Is it a lament? A mockery? A strange self-issued prophecy from a man who, two years later, would walk into the Wolf River in Memphis, TN and drown?

Like many of his other performances, this one (a set at the 1995 Meltdown Festival in the UK) now only exists on the web, maybe even on fragments of a video somewhere. Had Jeff Buckley lived past the age of 30, it might have remained among the other, less-than-perfect detritus of a long and successful career. But when the talented die young, we like to watch their home videos. Their unprotected moments. Their failures, blow-ups, fuck-ups. Anything that might give us clarity about their end: what “brought them to this point.” Short of simply accepting that it was death that did Buckley in, we might say it was the success that got him.

Only four years earlier, Jeff had sung in public for the first time, at a tribute concert for his estranged father Tim Buckley. They had met once, when Jeff was eight, after one of Tim’s shows; two months later, Tim overdosed on heroin. Neither Jeff nor his mother Mary Guibert were invited to the funeral. When Jeff stepped onto the stage at Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn to sing Tim’s “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain”, most people weren’t aware that Tim had a son, and most people who knew Jeff didn’t know he could sing — he’d patented himself, stubbornly, as a guitarist — so the evening unveiled not only Jeff’s vocal talent but also exactly where it had come from. This pissed Jeff off. If anything, he had hoped to use the brief set as his way of paying his respects, of breaking away from Buckley senior.

Years later, when a fan shouted a request for one of Tim’s songs, Jeff looked her straight in the eye and said, “I don’t play that hippie shit.”

Jeff escaped his hometown of Anaheim, leaving behind what he described as a “rootless trailer trash” existence. He’d been struck by New York fever. Over the next year and a half, he played at coffee shops and nightclubs in Lower Manhattan, and eventually earned a regular Monday night slot at Sin-é in the East Village, accompanying himself on the guitar. He covered Bob Dylan. Nina Simone. Van Morrison. Once, singing “Sweet Thing” with Glen Hansard, the still-obscure Buckley drew a crowd by taking the second verse through a series of vocal gymnastics that lasted fifteen minutes. People outside the club began pressing up against the window to hear him perform.

A brief writing streak with Gary Lucas resulted in two original songs, “Mojo Pin” and “Grace”, that Jeff nevertheless rarely played in his set. Lucas also invited Buckley to perform in his band, Gods and Monsters, early in 1992. By that time, however, the streets outside Sin-é were lined with record label executives hoping to snag Buckley for a solo album. That October, Buckley signed with Columbia, hired a drummer and bassist, and recording for what would be his first and only studio album, Grace, began the next summer. A quick EP, Live at Sin-é was released in November ‘93, documenting Jeff’s coffee-shop years, a time he’d long for intensely almost as soon as he left it.

Jeff was not prolific; of the ten songs on Grace, he penned only three on his own. Lee Underwood, Tim Buckley’s guitarist, said once that Jeff suffered from an all too-relatable sort of creative inertia. “[He] felt uncertain of his musical direction, not only after signing with Columbia, but before signing, and all the way to the end. He did not know himself — which musical direction he might want to commit himself to, because taking a stand, making a commitment to a direction, or even to composing and then successfully completing the recording of a single song, was extremely difficult for him. One the one hand, creativity was his calling. On the other hand, any creative gesture that offered the possibility of success terrified him.” To speak nothing of the looming shadow of a father he never spoke of, to whom he was inevitably compared, as well as a sort of dogged perfectionism that plagued his studio sessions.

Spending hours, as he did, overdubbing the vocals until he had reached what he felt was the optimal delivery, Jeff seemed reluctant to pin any one mood onto his work. Andy Wallace, Grace’s producer, had to piece several of the songs together from dozens of takes. The music was in constant metamorphosis, to the point where later, live renditions of the songs sounded different, singular, wed to whatever Buckley had learned or felt or needed in between one performance and the next. He seemed to rewrite them each time.

Grace is disparate, wavering between the almost cacophonous landscapes of “Mojo Pin”, “Grace”, “Last Goodbye”, and “Eternal Life”, the hushed, sacramental “Corpus Christi Carol”, and the desperate “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”. Buckley alternately whispers or wails, seems to laugh and growl, shreds remarkably. The music is a story as emotionally complex as its author — calling it simply brooding or romantic minimizes its scope. In reality it is confused, mystifying, indecisive.

The album, like the EP preceding it, sold in a slow trickle. Jeff’s songs rarely made it to the airwaves. Critics were either charmed by its triumph or turned off by what, altogether, seemed to be a confusing melange of emotions and genres. The French loved it, though, and in 1995 awarded Jeff with the Grand Prix International du Disque, an honor he shared with the likes of Edith Piaf, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan. David Bowie claimed that Grace was the one album he’d want with him on a desert island. Meanwhile, Jeff silenced restless crowds in concert halls across the globe with a few strums of his guitar, with a Buddhist-like opening chant called “Chocolate” that hushed chatter until you could hear a pin drop. Only then would he break into “Mojo Pin”.

Putting Buckley’s cover of the Cohen song in a separate category — as I undoubtedly must — “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” is Grace’s masterpiece. Jeff introduced it first at Sin-é when he signed with Columbia, luring listeners who had previously doubted his ability to produce a decent song of his own. Back then it was just Jeff and his guitar, sans the divine harmonium intro, the swelling gospel choir, absolutely pure. Lyrically, it’s as seductive as it is sad — as Jeff escalates to “It’s never over/my kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder,” a tingle begins deep down. It’s as much the power of his voice as the power of his poetry. He chokes it out, like an old love letter he’s been forced to read aloud.

I will say this about “Hallelujah” — everything blooms from the single, conquered breath that opens it.

Buckley is remembered for these quieter contributions, and appropriately so; in a way they serve as auto-epitaphs. An incredible mimic, he nails Nina’s voice during brief moments in “Lilac Wine” and rivals any choir boy with Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol”, which had been introduced to him by a friend in high school. But it’s palpable anger that colors the rest of Grace, anger that Jeff would take with him on tour and into the beginnings of his second album, My Sweetheart, The Drunk. He butted heads with the bigwigs at Columbia when he refused to make a music video. He alienated friends, his photographer Merri Cyr, and some of his strongest supporters with careless words. Seamlessly integrated into his public image were frequent moments of conflict, uncertainty, and stubbornness, most of them related to his burgeoning fame, and almost always triggered by casual comparisons with the late Tim Buckley.

When People Magazine nominated Jeff as one of their “50 Most Beautiful People” in 1995, something snapped. He dyed his hair black and stopped washing it. He wallowed, thin, in giant thrift-store plaid shirts and Doc Martens. On stage, Grace changed: “Buckley and the band were now playing harder, faster, and louder than ever before, transforming slow-burning epics — ‘Last Goodbye’, ‘So Real’, ‘Eternal Life’ and the title track — into rock and roll firestorms that bordered on the metallic. ‘Mojo Pin’ circa 1996 was almost unrecognizable: Buckley screamed so hard as the song built to its thunderous climax that you feared he’d cough up a vocal cord,” wrote Jeff Apter, one of Buckley’s biographers.

Touring took its toll on Jeff; he needed peace and quiet to work things out, to create, but the frenzy of the road worked up a hysteria in him. Once, in Ireland, he disappeared for a few hours in the afternoon and walked around singing and playing guitar in the pouring rain, skipping interviews and a sound check. Another time he arrived so drunk on stage he broke into a rendition of one of his father’s songs. Yet another time, wasted, he fell asleep underneath a table at a show in Manhattan. Another musician would have been thinking of giving the public a second album to chew on; Jeff was just trying to stay alive. Returning to New York in 1996 after two years on the road, he found the Village, which had once afforded him the comfortable hum of cappuccino machines, the safety of coffee shop anonymity, completely transformed. Sin-é had closed its doors. What few shows he did play, he had to advertise under pseudonyms. He needed a quiet spot, a shrine. So, in early ‘97, he went to Memphis.

During the last few months of his life, Jeff Buckley lived in a shotgun house which he rented for a paltry $450 a month. He owned little more than a couch, a telephone, and a telephone book. What time he did not spend cycling back and forth from a Vietnamese restaurant he spent lying in the grass in his backyard, or at the butterfly exhibit at the Memphis Zoo. He played at a beer joint called Barrister’s, quietly. He recorded sketches of new songs on Michael Bolton cassettes that he’d picked up for pennies and sent them to his band in New York. My Sweetheart, The Drunk tremulously came together. On May 29th, the band flew into Memphis to begin recording.

That night, Jeff sang Led Zeppelin as he waded into the river.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Call the Midwife.

with chrissie hynde

"Ghost in the Room" - Numbers (mp3)

"Shortly Broken" - Numbers (mp3)

Wednesday
Mar122014

In Which We Are In The Breach Position

Deliver Us

by KARA VANDERBIJL

Call the Midwife
creator Heidi Thomas

The year is 1957. It will be another four years before Britain’s Family Planning Association adds the pill to its list of approved contraceptives, and fifteen years before all women in all U.S. states will have access to it, thanks to Eisenstadt vs. Baird. Commercial ultrasound machines won’t be available for another twenty years. If you’re lucky, you might get a gulp of laughing gas to manage the pain, but on a normal day in the impoverished East End of London, giving birth looks a lot like lying on a rubber mat in your own bed, hoping that you and your baby will come out of it relatively unscarred. If not, it’s just as well—you probably have four or five others to feed, anyways, and without contraception, it won’t be long before you’re back on that rubber mat.

Enter the midwife: your best friend, your lord and savior, your own personal Florence Nightingale.

Directed by Heidi Thomas, Call the Midwife follows nurse Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) as she disembarks from a life of relative comfort into London’s rough-and-tumble Poplar neighborhood. She, along with three other RNs — Trixie, Cynthia, and Chummy — live and work at Nonnatus House, an Anglican nursing convent which provides medical care of all sorts for the community. 

When the phone at Nonnatus House isn't ringing in some new crisis, the nurses navigate their life in Poplar as any young woman in the late 1950s would: making friends, listening to records, smoking, and going to dances. But with the post-WWII baby boom still in full throttle, the nuns and nurses spend most of their time staring down a birth canal.

The BBC drama is based on Jennifer Worth's bestselling memoirs, and has proved to be a runaway hit in both the United Kingdom and the United States, its number of viewers surpassing even that of Downton Abbey. Since I started watching it several weeks ago, I’ve been trying to put my finger on what makes the show so very appealing (besides the British accents). I must admit that I was also looking for something to assuage my massive guilt, as I gave up television for Lent and still returned home every night to watch Call the Midwife.

For starters, it’s a medical drama, which people love, and it's a drama set in the late 1950s, which is terribly in vogue right now. However, as it's set in a poor neighborhood, there's very little of the glamour we associate with the time period; instead, it only serves to remind us of all the medical problems that had not yet been solved, and the comforts that were not yet available to expectant mothers. For example, let's all be grateful that hot soap and water enemas are no longer de rigueur before childbirth.

And for a medical drama, Call the Midwife isn't very dramatic. There are no mystery illnesses to solve, no adrenaline needles being shoved into the nearest unsuspecting patient's heart. In fact, the show relies on the same plot device over and over to keep it going: some poor woman goes into labor and phones Nonnatus House to send over a midwife. The midwife spirits away on her bicycle in the dead of night, arrives at the scene, and delivers the baby with or without incident. Crying ensues on everyone’s part. Even the lack of modern technology, which does add to the suspense, cannot conceal the fact that the show revolves around a process with limited outcomes that is as old as the world.

Childbirth. Do you remember that episode of Friends where Chandler finds a tape of what he thinks is lesbian porn, but what is in fact a video of a woman giving birth? His reaction to it is basically how I imagine every human has been conditioned to react to childbirth: disgust, horror, pity, and fear. Childbirth is violent and should be hidden; childbirth is shameful, and it should belong to women, and women only, and even women should only be allowed to talk about in terms of pain, and fear, and horror, especially to one another. As soon as a woman gets pregnant, she should know immediately what she’s in for: hell. With a pink bow on it.

Maybe this reaction to childbirth is relatively young itself, born along with the generation that is being born in Call the Midwife, once contraceptives became widely and legally available and childbirth became a choice, not a consequence. So much good has been gained from the introduction of the pill that it’s hard to see what we lost with its arrival: namely, the knowledge that women are strong, that women shelter and give life, that childbirth is a raw, mysterious, beautiful thing that belongs only to women in the sense that women, and only women, will ever be able to do it.

Granted, the women of Poplar do it because they have no choice; that’s the sad irony, one that Call the Midwife examines with grace. The forty-two year-old mother of eight who simply can't have any more children, yet finds herself pregnant despite all her precautions; the fifteen-year-old prostitute who will get kicked to the street if her condition is discovered, and who will lose her baby as soon as it's born because she is considered unfit to raise a child; the two women who deliver black babies, because they had an affair, and will do anything to keep their jubilant husbands out of the room; the many twentysomething women who are already on their third or fourth pregnancies, aged beyond their years, and now destined to spend the rest of their lives in an endless cycle of washing, cleaning, drying, soothing, and cooking. Each woman is different, but when they are in labor or holding their babies for the first time, they are all the same. They are universally and absolutely Woman; they have accomplished a terrible, wonderful thing and they know it. It's nothing short of mesmerizing.

When the pill was introduced, Jennifer Worth writes that childbirths in Poplar went from somewhere around 80 to 100 babies born each month to 4 or 5. "Now that," she writes, "is some social change!" Women were not only able to choose when they'd have their families, but they were also able to begin pursuing the things that society frowned upon once they'd become mothers: careers, or further education. The fabric of the neighborhood began to change. 

When babies aren't being born, the rest of Call the Midwife is full of what you'd more readily expect to see on television: romance, friendship, and copious amounts of tea-drinking. But the female friendships are anomalies as well: they're completely natural, and provide the foundation for a show that is as much about the community of women as it is about womanhood in general.  Jenny, Trixie, Cynthia and Chummy form a solid bond despite their differences in personality and taste, which may seem like the most rudimentary definition of friendship you've ever heard until you think of all the friendships that have dissolved, or have never happened, for much less. 

This may have happened because, as Jennifer Worth writes, the world of men was still very closed off to women, and there was nothing else for them to do but band together. But who would accept such an explanation? Throughout history midwives were often the community eccentrics, trained only by experience, and the bringing of life into the world happened behind shut doors, underneath the gentle ministrations of sisters, mothers, and aunts. Women banded together because they knew what they were doing, who they were, had the power to change everything.

You’d be hard-pressed to find another show on television right now that celebrates women from all stages, walks and choices of life with as much compassion and humor as Call the Midwife does. It honors the aged, the infirm and the unlovely just as much as it honors the strong and the gorgeous. It deals with religion, politics, race, handicap, age, sex, education, beauty, parents, money, and eating cake, all without stooping to moralism or ridicule. In fact,  I’m tempted to send it in a care package to Lena Dunham right now. 

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about subplots. She tumbls here.

"How Can I Drop You Without Gravity" - Plainfire (mp3)

"All So Nostalgic" - Plainfire (mp3)

The new album from Plainfire is entitled But When Words Fail, and you can find his bandcamp here.