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Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

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Entries in tyler coates (8)


In Which We Are All Bloggers Of A Certain Age

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The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie



dir. Noah Baumbach

107 minutes

First, I should say that I love all of Noah Baumbach's films (with the exception of his collaborations with Wes Anderson, which don't really feel like Baumbach films anyway). I knew that I'd love Greenberg before I went into the movie, and I also knew that I'd have some opinions once I left the theater, considering that the movie has been a hot topic among bloggers of a certain age — that age roughly being the very wide range of twenty-five to thirty-five.

I think a pretty good assessment of Baumbach's oeuvre is that his movies are populated with assholes. They're charming assholes in his first feature, Kicking and Screaming (not the Will Ferrell one, obvs., which I'm sure also has its fair share of jerks); that's the one I most relate to, clearly, as I am younger than thirty and until then will consider myself "fresh out of college" (although I, like Greenberg's Florence, have been out of college for about the same amount of time as I was in college). Recent college graduates almost have a free pass to be shitheads since they're too young and immature to really understand how the world works, which is another reason I'm apt to include myself in that demographic.

As Baumbach has gotten older, his characters have become less sympathetic as they, too, have reached the age where considerate behavior should be the norm. His protagonists in The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding aren't sympathetic; they're pretty despicable people. I've heard people criticize those films (the latter especially) for being too focused on the petty aspects of self-indulgent, bourgeois white people. Well, sure!

Would we expect Noah Baumbach to write films about characters of the lower-class or of minority groups? I'd rather not see that, because I think they'd actually be offensive. But, still, white people have problems, and I relate to that as a white person with predictable and insufferably insipid problems. (But I like The Wire! Right?!)

Baumbach's films aren't offensive, of course — his characters are. It strikes me as slightly odd that people can hate a film because they don't like the main characters "as people." I certainly wouldn't want to hang around titular Margot or Bernard from The Squid and the Whale. I also don't want to know Patrick Bateman, either, but people certainly do love the shit out of American Psycho (probably because Bateman doesn't talk about his feelings after he murders people).

The same goes for Roger Greenberg, the forty-year-old man child played by Ben Stiller (who, per usual, rubbed me the wrong way; it doesn't matter if he's playing Greenberg or Zoolander — I just don't like him). I probably wouldn't have liked him very much if Baumbach had made him at all sympathetic (which, ultimately, he did not). But really, let's avoid that discussion; arguing over feeling empathy for a fictional character is very undergraduate. I had enough of this when I read High Fidelity for ENG 365: Contemporary British Novel.

Instead, let's talk about Florence, played by mumblecore actress (not my words — go read every other review of this film) Greta Gerwig. Both Gerwig and Florence are superb. Florence is a dynamic character (which is fresh for the female love interest of a lost / hopeless male protagonist!); she's smart, she's responsible, she's both happy and sad, she enjoys sex while hating the inevitable ramifications of it. And Gerwig makes Florence realistic because (and forgive me for Liz Lemmoning her right now) she's a relatively ordinary-looking actress.

It's too easy to label Greenberg as a misogynist. He doesn't hate women, he hates everyone, including himself, but he wouldn't admit it — he may come close to it in a self-deprecating way, but, as Edith Wharton writes in The House of Mirth, his outer self-deprecation is in proportion to his self-possessiveness. He's very sociopathic, rejecting connections with most of the people around him. I don't believe that his inabilities to form relationships are the result of anything other than the fact that he, as a human, is flawed, as most of us are.

I can't dispute the claims that he is self-indulgent and wrapped up in the petty problems of his bourgeois lifestyle. The great irony, of course, is that I am a white blogger who is publishing my self-indulgent reaction to a film featuring a realistically offensive protagonist. It's pretty rare when people can acknowledge the assholic (it's a word!) tendencies within themselves. (That is a statement that I do not intend to be a smug declaration.) Maybe that's why I relate to and appreciate Greenberg and the rest of Noah Baumbach's films so much: in his world, pretty much everyone is an asshole. 

Tyler Coates is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Chicago. He tumbls here.

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"Oh You (Christmas Blues)" - LCD Soundsystem (mp3)

"Jet Airliner" - Steve Miller Band (mp3)

"Please Don't Follow Me" - James Murphy (mp3)



In Which This Is How I Know Him

Pictures of My Father


The first real memory I have of my father is, like most of my "first memories," actually something that was captured on video when I was about three years old. My father came home on his lunch break, and he walked into the house to find me screaming at my grandmother. Instead of calming me down or telling me to shut up, he instead took the opportunity to capture the moment on home video. So somewhere in my parents' house there's a VHS tape with clips of me stomping around my living room and screaming, "Day-day," which was what I called him until I was about five years old. I think that perfectly introduces the relationship I had with my dad. I always joked that my mother was The Boss. At a very young age I understood that she was the breadwinner; she worked for the Navy as a computer scientist, whereas my father was dispatched around my rural Virginia area from the local Coca-Cola bottling plant fixing drink machines and fountain units.

Northern Neck Bottling Company, Montross, Virginia

There was never a strong conflict between my parents because of their uneven salaries. I didn't know how much they made until they co-signed on my first apartment out of college. When I say that my mother was The Boss, I mean it in the sense that she was the disciplinarian. She had a temper and very little patience for misbehavior, while my father, on the other hand, sometimes encouraged it.

Fleetwood Farm, Acorn, Virginia

My dad was born in Acorn, Virginia, which is a town only in the sense that there is a sign on the side of the road that reads "Acorn." He was born at home, in the house that my grandmother still lives in. He was the second of three children, and he lived at home from his birth in 1950 to the year he married my mother in 1976.

My father, my uncle Andy, my grandfather, and my aunt Lynn on the Minneapolis-Moline.

My grandparents were poor, which is a knowledge I grew up with. My father didn't tell stories about how he walked five miles to school in the snow (he only did it once - he missed the school bus and my grandfather refused to give him a ride). They didn't have indoor plumbing until my father was seven.

My great-grandfather, my father, my uncle Andy

Instead of complaining about his family's poverty, he described it in the way he did about everything: with a self-deprecating joke. "When I grew up the only toys I had were a spoon and a piece of asbestos."

There are very few pictures of my dad as a child because my grandparents could not afford a camera. The majority of the pictures we have of him as a kid are school pictures, or, in the special case below, a photograph of his visit with Santa Claus in Richmond.

My father went to the same high school as my mother (which is the same school both my brother and I attended over twenty five years later), but they were not high school sweethearts. They ran in different circles (if that is possible when your high school has about two hundred students). He was in the FFA, a football player (because, as he told me, "They let everyone who tried out on the team."), and in two bands.

The Rambling Rebels (larger image and full caption here)

It should be noted that my father could be described as a Good Ol' Boy - he was raised in the South and matured during the '60s. While he missed the major action of the Civil Rights Movement (his was the last graduating class of the segregated public high school in 1970), he was certainly affected by it, as were most of his generation. My mother once admitted to me that people her age in the '60s sported Confederate insignia and repeated the line, "The South will rise again," but, in her words, "We didn't really know what that meant." At the same time, my father loved the music of the black artists that recorded with Motown and Atlantic. He saw Aretha Franklin and the Jackson Five in concert, and even when I was a kid, I remember the sounds of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Wilson Pickett playing on the car stereo. So, while he was in a band called The Rambling Rebels and pasted the Confederate flag on his drum set, he sang in another band in 1968 called The Soul Creations.

The Soul Creations - my father is the second from left. I'm sure they sounded a lot like Spoon.

My parents went on their first date just after Christmas in 1972; my mother was a freshman in college and home for break. My father, who was four years older but one year ahead of her in school (he had been kept back two grades, she skipped one), was working his first job out of high school digging septic systems.

My parents always seemed like completely opposite people to me. My father grew up poor, my mother upper-middle-class. My paternal grandparents were uneducated farmers; my mother's father was a lawyer who graduated from the law school at the College of William and Mary (he was a member of a group students who saved the law school from closure - the state originally wanted to have one supported law school at UVA), her mother a retired schoolteacher and housewife. Both of my maternal grandparents could trace their lineage to the First Families of Virginia. My mother, of course, was a debutante.

After four years of dating, my parents married in June 1976 and settled in the area where they - and their parents - grew up.

When speaking of the day he married my mother, my father always said it was the second happiest day of his life, the first being the day his father sold the pigs. His third happiest day was the day my (younger) brother was born in 1989; the fourth being my birthday in 1983.

I have to find some truth in the idea that your life flashes before your eyes before you die. After all, your life flashes before your eyes all of the time: memories come in and out of your head in a fluid motion.

Like dreams, they don't often follow a logical pattern, nor do they always represent what actually happened in the past. When I think of my childhood, things are hazy in the sense that I'm not entirely certain I'm remembering what actually happened to me, or if I've just seen those things in pictures for over twenty years.

I have the same feeling when I remember my father, who died in May of this year from pancreatic cancer. I look at pictures of him and think, "Yes, that is what he looked like." But away from photo albums, I don't see him at 38, when I was five years old. I can look at a picture of him in high school, or in 1978 and think, "That is my father, and that is how I knew him."

But during the day, away from the scanned images of those old photos, the picture in my head is from three months ago: my father is 57, and he is laying in a hospital bed in my parents' room. For the first time in his life he does not look young for his age; he is old, tired, and his wrinkled skin is loose on his face because he hasn't eaten in two weeks. There are, luckily, no pictures of my father from the last two months of his life.

My father and me, Christmas 2006

My father was diagnosed with cancer in February 2007. With most cases of pancreatic cancer, the diagnosis comes months, even weeks, before the patient dies. My father, on the other hand, was extremely lucky; his cancer was still in early stages, and his doctor was very confident that with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation, my father's life could be extended immensely compared to other patients. He did, however, specify to my parents that the number of patients who lived for five years without the cancer returning was very low. My father, forever the optimist, replied, "So, we do have a chance!"

August 2007

My father had an amazing personality. I can't count the number of people who told me that he had never met a stranger, simply because he somehow managed to get along with nearly anyone. I credit his small-town upbringing; at the same time, he grew up with a notoriously unaffectionate father, which made my father completely opposite. My father would demand a hug and a kiss from my brother and me when we were fifteen, in public no less.

November 2007

My father responded well to his chemo and radiation therapy, and by the end of November 2007 he was in remission. At the same time, however, he tried to hide that he knew that his days were numbered. In August, as we crossed the bridge from the Outer Banks of North Carolina (where my parents have vacationed every year since the early years of their marriage) to the mainland, he cried and told my mother that it was the last time he'd be there. After Christmas he unsuccessfully attempted to conceal his illness from my mother, which is difficult when you're trying to hide feelings from a person you've known and spent nearly every day with for thirty-five years.

Dad went through a second round of radiation and chemo, which left him withered and tired. By the time he went into hospice care in May of this year, he had lost about 90 pounds. I flew home from Chicago for what was originally supposed to be a weekend visit, but I spent three weeks at home. I came home in time for his last few days of being aware of his surroundings, floating in and out of a morphine-induced haze. He held on for a week and a half, which my family spent holding a vigil of sorts. There'd be hours were we sat around the rented hospital bed, crying and holding his hand, hoping for a quick release from the pain that my father's illness was causing all of us to experience. Other times, we'd be down the hall in the living room, slamming down multiple glasses of red wine, which, like the casseroles and flowers delivered by the neighbors, were brought into the house in bulk shipments.

We prepared for my father to die, but in a way that surprisingly felt like a party rather than a somber occasion. We told stories about him and shared the memories we had. My mother and my father's sister argued over events that took place in those stories, I listened to the familiar tales that had changed and evolved over the years. It sounds like a cliche, of course, but it's true to my father's sensibility. He was a storyteller, a joker. He always had some elaborate tale to tell, and he never told the same thing twice - which, of course, was unintentional. He was plagued with a bad memory, and he couldn't help but tell the same story over and over, but it changed each time. Fittingly, the preacher who delivered his eulogy somehow managed to mix up the stories that my mother and I provided as research. He placed me and my brother into a story of a trip to Washington, DC in the late '70s, for example.

Growing up, I knew a lot of kids whose parents were divorced - so many, in fact, that I felt left out that mine were still together. I only knew one girl who had a parent die when she was a young age. I felt both normal (in the sense that losing a parent as a child was something that only happened in movies) and out of place (because I only had two parents, not four). Growing up, I realized that my parents had a nearly perfect marriage, despite their opposite upbringings and childhoods. I can't imagine what it is like to be married to someone for almost 32 years (and being with that person for almost 36) and suddenly lose them.

My father left a lot behind when he died. For my brother and me, there is the enormous cache of stories and memories, both from our lifetimes and previous. I have pictures of him - a few from his childhood, even more from my parents' life together before I was born, and a ton since then. My mother, on the other hand, has two sons who look a lot like their father. She has the house they built together when they married. And she has my father's final gift, which is the last metal Coca-Cola sign he built and painted for the owners of Driftwood, which was my parents' favorite restaurant.

My father's name, which he printed on his final sign, is just above the entrance to the restaurant. He told the owner that he did it for my mother, so that whenever she went there for dinner, she'd know he'd always be there with her. 

Tyler Coates is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Chicago. He tumbls here and twitters here.

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"This Is My House, This Is My Home (alternate version)" - We Were Promised Jetpacks (mp3)

"The Walls Are Wearing Thin" - We Were Promised Jetpacks (mp3)

"With the Benefit of Hindsight" - We Were Promised Jetpacks (mp3)


In Which We Wonder If There Are Any Blogger Cats

Jellicles Can and Jellicles Do


When I was in fourth grade my teacher had us watch some sort of educational video that I assume was about saying no to drugs, which is the kind of troubling situation in which most nine-year-olds in rural Virginia find themselves. I remember one important thing from the movie: I'm always supposed to say no, because if I don't I will most certainly jeopardize my chances of performing in the school talent show, which is the conflict the film's heroine was struggling with. In the end, of course, she made the right choice, and the video ended with her giving a rousing rendition of "Memory," the essential song from Andrew Lloyd Webber's smash musical Cats.

I remember watching that scene and thinking, "This song is beautiful! What is it?!" One of my classmates, who already had the genetic predisposition of becoming someone's fag hag, was the only one who knew what it was, and she was the person who introduced me to the glory of Cats.

A few weeks later I bought the double-cassette soundtrack and made my mother play it on the car stereo on the way home. I was floored. It was amazing! I listened to the tapes over and over again. I danced around my room pretending I was Mr. Mistofelees. I tangoed with stuffed animals to "The Rum Tum Tugger". I belted my own version of "Memory," surely blowing Betty Buckley's Tony-award winning performance out of the water. My obsession with Cats culminated in my mother buying orchestra-section tickets to the Richmond-stop on the national tour. It was every pre-pubescent gay boy's dream: to be fifteen feet below a group of adult men and women clad in spandex and yak fur prancing around and singing on stage for two and a half hours.

As an adult my fascination with Cats has morphed from being baffled by the actual performances to being amazed that the show actually exists. Seriously: why would anyone enjoy a musical in which adults dress in cat costumes and dance to bizarre choreographed routines that are supposed to represent how cats would dance if they could dance like people (but really look like what humans dressed as cats would dance like if they thought cats could dance like humans)? More so, how did this play become a smash hit and stay that way for eighteen years? I decided that I really had to see it as an adult, and when I announced that I was absolutely going to see a performance of the show in Chicago, my friend Bethany volunteered to go with me.

I bought tickets - the cheapest! - on the morning of the show, which of course meant that we had the worst possible seats in the Cadillac Palace: the very back row of the upper balcony, and to the right. I was concerned since Bethany had never seen the show, nor had she heard any of the songs except for "Memory," which is the only song that isn't absolutely batshit insane. I then realized that sitting very far from the stage might be a good thing, as someone seeing Cats for the first time at twenty four (and, you know, it being 2009 and not 1982, when the show opened on Broadway) would probably be terrified. Especially if she was drunk, which she was: I had suggested we slam multiple martinis before the show.

I was shocked how full the house was for a Tuesday night performance of Cats, and I wondered how many people were like Bethany and seeing it for the first time. (I did notice that most of the audience had drinks in hand when the house lights came down.) I also speculated how many of our peers would be as sober as we were by the end of the opening number, "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats," which serves as an introduction to the kinds of cats. There are practical cats, dramatical cats! Romantical cats! Political cats! Oratorical cats! Cynical cats! There are even rabbinical cats! And they are all Jellicle cats, which is a term that the cats promise to explain, but never do. I mean, they're cats, and I suppose what one takes away from Cats is that they can do and say whatever the fuck they want. And you had better CHEER for them.

Toward the end of the first song, Bethany turned and gave me a confused and exasperated look, and I knew that my prediction that she would hate me within fifteen minutes of the overture had indeed come true.

While watching the incredibly sobering first act, I thought about the actors as they impersonated cats impersonating tap-dancing rats and cockroaches. Bless their hearts! These were most likely musical theater nerds who worked very hard for their dreams, which probably did not involve paying their dues as Munkustrap and Bombalurina in a national tour of Cats. The saddest part about Cats is that it's entirely an ensemble piece: no one stands out in any way. Even if you're lucky enough to get the part of, say, Old Deuteronomy, Grizabella, or Rum Tum Tugger, you're still an anonymous actor covered in pancake make-up and fur, and no one pays you much mind other than the middle-aged women who publish their self-aware and self-deprecating Cats fan fiction on the Internet (because even hard-core Cats fan understand how sad depressing their interests are).

Bethany, who had fallen asleep at the beginning of the second song, regained consciousness during the long dance sequence that ends the first act. "What is going on?!" she whispered. I told her that she'd be asking me that question had she not fallen asleep twenty minutes into the show. There's very little plot to Cats: it's mostly a revue of narrative songs, each one describing a specific cat (this is what happens when you try to string together a book of obscure T.S. Eliot poems into a musical). The only over-arcing storyline is this: all of the cats in London get together once a year for the Jellicle Ball, which turns into a celebration featuring song and dance and, naturally, an opera starring the cats.

The opera, which is a post-modern wink probably lost on the middle-American audience who most likely don't appreciate the references to Puccini that would certainly incite the more academic Cats fans to cream their pants, is called "Growltiger's Last Stand," which is about a pirate cat who is captured and killed by Siamese cats. It is at this point in the show where the audience gets to experience the casual racism: how do you think the Siamese cats are portrayed on stage? It's The King and I-level racism, or, as my friend suggested, "Defcon Flower Drum Song" (but at least they changed Eliot's original line that called the Siamese "chinks"!). It's also overly-long and confusing, which I guess ads to the meta-madness of Cats in general: there's a bizarre and confusing musical starring cats within a musical about cats. It's a taco wrapped in a burrito wrapped in a pizza covered in fur, and it won't stop doing somersaults.

To make a long story about a long musical about cats short: the play ends with Grizabella the Glamour Cat belting "Memory", which receives the only applause of the night. Then Grizabella rides on a floating tire up to the Heavyside Layer, which is some sort of cat heaven, to be reborn. I suppose cats have eight chances to do this? I'm not sure, because it's never really explained, nor are we given a reason why Grizabella gets to do it, because all of the other cats hate her until she sings "Memory" and they feel sorry for her. Isn't that how it always goes? Old Deuteronomy sings a song about how "cats are very much like you" at the end of the show, which was a theme I happened to pick up on already when I watched two cat burglar cats rob a house and then a railroad cat drive a train. But that's the Andrew Lloyd Webber way: he gives you a theater piece with fairly obvious themes, and then he follows that with an explanation of those themes. It's a very high school senior approach to art.

What I learned from re-watching Cats, however, is that some things you liked as a pre-teen don't age very well, no matter how many t-shirts featuring the words, "Now and Forever!" were on sale at the merchandise table (next to DVDs priced at forty-five dollars a pop, which makes me confused about how the economy works). And to use an analogy that is probably oft-repeated and obvious (and therefore COMPLETELY APPLICABLE): Cats is like your childhood pet. Eventually, she's too old and frail to go on, and you've got to put her down. And sorry, honey: she's not going to Cat Heaven in a tire.

Tyler Coates is the senior contributor to This Recording. He tumbls here.

Songs about cats that are not from Cats:

"Phenominal Cat" - The Kinks (mp3)

"The Lovecats" - The Cure (mp3)

"Plea From A Cat Named Virtue" - The Weakerthans (mp3)