Sunday, December 26, 2010

Saved by Darkness

In 1978, I was as hardcore a geek/nerd/dweeb as a boy could be. Star Wars had come upon the world, legitimizing those of us who read books with spaceships and monsters on the covers (and got beaten up by our cousins for it, but that's another blog post). Starlog magazine was hot. TV had The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman and the original Battlestar Galactica. Even music was jumping on the star wagon: Styx had spaceships at the climax of "Come Sail Away" and a Tolkein tribute song on their album Pieces of Eight. Heck, the entire British progressive rock scene owed as much to fantasy literature as it did to rock and roll. The time was right for me to undergo the final metamorphosis into the kind of genre fan and writer who lives, breathes and dreams about spaceships and dragons, lost in a world of imagination and whimsy.

But I was saved at the last minute from this darkness, by Darkness.

Bruce Springsteen's fourth album appeared in 1978. Prior to this, I knew him primarily from FM radio, which had introduced him via "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)." But now I was right there for the new album, and because of it, nothing would be the same.

The music on Darkness is solid and muscular, made up of snarling guitars and surging keyboards. But the lyrics are what make it special, and what made me connect with it. The romantic escape of his prior work is gone, burned out and swept away. Every song is about people trapped in small-town lives, in soul-crushing ennui where dreams no longer matter. Yet in each song is a kernel of something that might be hope.

What really spoke to me were the songs about fathers and sons. By its very title, "Adam Raised a Cain" states its purpose, and musically recreates all those arguments between every dad and every son. "Factory," which at first seems so slight it might be filler, actually described my own father's life in painful detail. In fact, for the first time I realized it was possible to make music--and by extension, any kind of art--from someone's own life. Not in the literal autobiographical sense, but through feelings that everyone understood and experienced, emotions other than the "love/escape/party" music on the radio. Or the "heroic destiny/good vs evil/love conquers all" tropes at the heart of what I read, listened to and watched.

Because of this music, I stayed connected to the world in a way I otherwise might not have, and often against my will. No matter how much I wanted to disappear into the Federation, the Rebellion, Pern or Shannara, the Boss would drag me back. Because I became a long-term Springsteen fan, I couldn't ignore or escape the real world. And when I began to synthesize the things I loved (horror and fantasy) with this real-world connection, I found my voice as a writer.

This is all fresh in my mind due to the release of The Promise, an exhaustive 3 CD/3 DVD set chronicling the making of the album. But I'd steer anyone interested simply to the album itself. Everything I talk about is there. And if you're a fan of my books, then you'll be able to share the moment when I turned onto the path that eventually led to the stories you enjoy.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Meet the Queen of the Lot

This is the final post on films I watched over the Thanksgiving holiday. I watched other films (Leatherheads, Pandorum, Coffee and Cigarettes), but there isn't much to say about them. I'm ending on a high note, though.

A while back I stumbled across the work of Henry Jaglom, a filmmaker who's been forging his own indie path for forty years. He existed on the periphery of my cinema consciousness until I saw Last Summer in the Hamptons on cable and suddenly realized here was this totally original artist, untouched by any popular trends, with a consistent (and consistently fascinating) body of work.

His latest film is Queen of the Lot, a follow-up to 2006's Hollywood Dreams. Both star Tanna Frederick, an actress notable for her total emotional clarity; she communicates everything her characters feel with her whole being. There's a moment in her previous collaboration with Jaglom, Irene in Time, that is probably one of the most amazing bits of non-acting acting I've ever seen. For her to have such a response, she would have to genuinely feel the moment to a degree most film actresses wouldn't dare, and couldn't pull off.

In Queen, Tanna is back as Margie Chizek, an actress on the make who hides a will of steel behind a "gosh-shucks" Iowa farmgirl exterior. Yet the Iowa farmgirl isn't exactly a put-on, either. As "Maggie Chase," she's the star of a successful action franchise, and is dating a hot established star, but wants more (she compulsively checks her Google points). She's also under house arrest after two DUIs in one week.

Jaglom's films are as much about locations as they are characters, and the film divides itself between two main spaces: the opulent home of Margie's managers (Zack Norman and David Proval), and the family homestead of her boyfriend Dov (Christopher Rydell), scion of a fading clan of Hollywood royalty. In the first setting Margie knows her role; in the latter she's afloat, especially when she meets her boyfriend's normal, sane brother Aaron (Noah Wyle). She gets into everyone's good graces by taking them at face value, something these crass, jaded, sophisticated people almost can't comprehend. But is she showing her true face to them?

That probably makes the film sound more serious than it feels, because ultimately it's a pretty amusing story. Jaglom's improvisational methods allow the actors to essentially make up the dialogue as they go, and since many of them are playing performers as well, they know the territory. Frederick and Wyle have great chemistry together, and though she's the star, he becomes the story's center; he sees through Margie, but at the same time responds to the parts that feel genuine, just as we do. A real surprise is Jaglom's daughter Sabrina, who gives genuine bite to her performance as a resourcefully conniving teen.

But the show belongs to Frederick. Jaglom tends to make his films around specific actresses; he had an extraordinary run with his wife Victoria Foyt, and his collaborations with Frederick have brought him into new territory. He's found a context for her unique energy and given her strong co-stars to bounce off, something many filmmakers (and actresses) would avoid. As for Frederick, she brings a level of emotional intensity and honesty to Margie that feels at times like a documentary. I've never seen another performer consistently seem so absolutely unaware of the camera's presence and risk the kind of things she does.

I'd love to see Jaglom and Frederick revisit Margie every few years, in between other projects like Irene in Time. If the funny, touching Queen of the Lot is any indication, the character and milieu are far from exhausted, and Ms. Frederick remains a wonder to watch.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Do I want to know Me and You and Everyone We Know?

Madison, WI poet Lisa Marie Brodsky recommended Miranda July's 2005 film Me and You and Everyone We Know, and I finally watched it over the holiday weekend. It's an indie film in the broadest sense, made by an outsider artist and about outsider people, some of whom do things so confoundingly odd that you wonder if they exist anywhere but in a film like this.

It's a film about relationships, about people reaching for meaningful connection in all the wrong ways. The central character, Christina (Ms. July), is a conceptual artist who sends positive messages out into the universe in the (so far) vain hope that they might bring love and happiness into her own life. She meets Richard (John Hawkes), a divorced father of two who barely functions and perpetually looks quite literally stunned. Richard's two children have inherited this inability to make appropriate decisions about closeness, leading them to odd connections with some of the other characters. It's one of those films where everyone turns out to be far less than six degrees away from everyone else, whether they know it or not.

July herself, as Christine, is a touching screen presence, so delicately lost and lonely that her art-inspired attempts to reach out seem incredibly brave. As a writer, she has penned not just this script but a collection of short stories, and knows how to structure multiple narrative lines so they flow and resonate. And as a director, she gets amazingly unaffected performances from the younger actors.

The issue I had with the film was how I felt about some of these connections. It's clear what the movie wants me to think, as every shot and music cue is used to cast a wistful, hopeful glow over things that perhaps shouldn't be considered as such. Some of the connections--for example, between a first-grader and an unknowing adult woman via online sex chat--are just inherently uncomfortable, and no amount of sensitive scoring or empathetic performance can overcome that. So I tried to decide: do I give in and feel what the film wants me to feel, or do I stay true to my own deep-seated and possibly Philistine responses despite my wish to like the film's view of the world?

Speaking of these same issues, Rogert Ebert in his review says, "I know this sounds perverse and explicit, and yet the fact is, these scenes play with an innocence and tact that is beyond all explaining." In Variety, Scott Foundas says these things "...sound puerile or even irresponsible, then it is all the more to July's credit that she embellishes such moments with a whimsy and melancholia that makes them seem less about sex than about making meaningful connections with other human beings." So should I admire this, the way Jessica Winter does in the Village Voice ("...July ascribes sexuality to persons under the age of consent without coyness or moral hectoring") or should I go with my emotional reaction, driven by my feelings as both a parent and a writer ("The movie engendered the kind of uncomfortable, crawling-out-of-your-skin feeling I get when I'm subjected to bad performance art," as said by Sam Adams in Philadelphia's City Paper).

Even after a few days pondering it, I'm still not sure. I know what Ms. July wants me to feel; I just don't know if I'm ready, willing or able to feel it. I asked Ms. Brodsky, who'd originally recommended the film, for her thoughts and she summed it up pretty well: "Miranda July is a brilliant voice in contemporary literature and film. She seems to do everything. She'll also make you squirm in your seat with the uncomfortable truth, so beware."