Monday, December 21, 2009

Lust, Caution

Ang Lee may be the most interesting and gifted director alive today. He's done comedies of manners (Sense & Sensibility), comic book adaptations (Hulk), martial arts epics (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), trifling comedies (Taking Woodstock), and the quintessential gay romance of our times (Brokeback Mountain), amongst others. In 2007, he branched out even further, to the near-pornographically sexy Lust, Caution.

It must be said, right off the bat, that I'm a sucker for resistance stories about the amorality and difficult choices in occupied territory. World War II, with Germany and Japan trying to take over the world, is the best recent setting for such storytelling, although it's usually in Nazi-occupied territory like Paris. For Lust, Caution, Ang Lee chose Japanese occupied coastal China, which may arguably be even more fertile territory for storytelling.

20th-century China was a nation falling apart and constantly reinventing itself at the same time. The last imperial dynasty, the Qing, had been overthrown and replaced with a constitutional republic, which was threatened by warlord-based civil war as China had seen dozens of times in its between-dynasty history. As the republicans began to win the civil war, a new communist movement started gathering momentum, and the Japanese began to attack Chinese possessions in 1937, when the film begins. The film is set in Hong Kong and Shanghai, two major coastal cities which also served as two of the main entries for non-Chinese into China. Shanghai, in particular, was one of the cosmopolitan centers of East Asia, with enclaves of Japanese, American, English, German, French, and more inside the city. The political nature of the time and setting allowed a massive importation of "Western" ideas into China - republicanism and communism being two obvious examples.

The film begins with a flash-forward in which we meet the protagonist, Tang Wei, a student in Hong Kong. She and a friend are quickly recruited by a handsome man and a theater troupe. The politics of the main characters are quickly made apparent when the friend suggests they do a play of Henrik Ibsen's. Ibsen was a favorite around the world of those inclined towards republican and bourgeois ideals, especially in China. The young actor shoots this down as too bourgeois, and recommends a patriotic play to help China win the war, a tacky little piece of socialist realism that wins instant patriotic success. The little troupe doesn't want to just be actors, however, and begins to plot against traitorous collaborators.

Although the film doesn't expressly say it, they're entirely incompetent other than Tang Wei, who is also the least willing to join in, but does so to chase a crush. She succeeds in getting into Leung's social circle, and is ready to start an affair with him in order to facilitate the assassination, when things suddenly go wrong and she sees just how violent and amoral her friends can be.

When the film picks up again three years later in Shanghai, Tang Wei's friends have found here - and Tony Leung - and recruit her again to achieve the same goal. She goes along with them again, but only after seeing that her life is even more cast adrift than it had been - her family life has gone to hell, and she doesn't appear to have any new friends, and only escapes into movies.

Once the the resistance recruits Tang Wei back into the plot to kill Leung, she returns to a world of carefully tailored dresses and endless games of mah-jong, combined with stilted flirtations with Leung, a poised, careful gentleman of the collaborationist government.

Everything in the film at this point, like Tang Wei, is brilliantly conceived, but empty artifice. There's a plot, there are characters, and it's all gorgeous, but it not real. It's an act. And when Tony Leung and Tang Wei finally consummate their flirtation, both the characters and the film tear away the artifice in a shockingly intense, brutal sex scene.

As the affair continues, Tang's alienation from her life continues - her resistance contacts prove to be shockingly incomprensive of her desperation, even when she breaks down and screams it at them. A romantic advance from her former crush proves awkward and rebuffed for being far, far too late - she is completely attached to her affair with Leung.

Tony Leung, meanwhile, is absolutely superb (as always) as Mr. Yee, the chief of police of the collaborationist government. His performance gives the impression that he is a perfect gentleman, stuck in a terrible situation outside of his control. Early in the film, it even seems like he might be likable enough that the young resistance troupe are entirely in the wrong to want to assassinate him. Slowly his character is revealed to be a despicable sadist, albeit a recognizably human one.

It is when he shows Tang Wei a moment of human kindness that everything unravels. When it occurs, it seems clear that she hasn't had a moment like that since the very start of the film, and her reaction is both entirely human and horrifically stupid. She is revealed as totally compromised, and her character is shown as starkly naked as the sex scenes for which the film is famous.

Lust, Caution is not an easy film to watch - no good resistance movie should be - but it is a stunningly beautiful, deeply compelling one. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Hidden Fortress: Flawed Experiment

Akira Kurosawa is one of the most influential storytellers in the history of cinema, using primarily samurai-based films to toy with different narrative devices. Arguably the most well-known of these is Rashomon, whose method of different people telling irreconcilable variations of the same event has become something of a subgenre on its own. The Hidden Fortress tells a fairly epic story: a samurai family has been crushed in battle, and now its final heir and loyal general must try to escape to safety with the family treasure. However, Kurosawa attempts to tell the story through the lens of two peasants caught up in the middle of the war.

The idea of telling an epic story from the point of view of the little people involved is respectable, and can produce marvelous results. The primary problem with The Hidden Fortress, however, is that Kurosawa takes two characters who are usually minor stereotypes in stories like this, and expands their roles dramatically while leaving the characters as stereotypes. In this case, the two peasants are greedy, selfish cowards, concerned only with making a quick buck and saving their own skin. Kurosawa may have some insulation against charges of classism by having another lower-class character introduced later in the film, but while she is more noble, she's still primarily a trait (loyalty) over a well-developed character.

The story of a young princess suddenly thrust into full responsibility for her entire family and nation, while a loyal - but defeated - general (played by Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune) attempts to deal with her stubbornness and grief is a strong core, and many of the film's best scenes focus on that. It's just something of a pity that the story is watered down by the often-grating antics of the two-dimensional peasants.

A modern description of The Hidden Fortress is somewhat incomplete without mentioning its influence on George Lucas and Star Wars. Lucas is a huge Kurosawa fan, and the Criterion edition of the film includes an interview with him on Kurosawa's influence. The Hidden Fortress is most often cited as the direct inspiration for the characters of R2D2 and C3PO in the roles of the two peasants (although the robots are much less obscene and violent). The opening of The Hidden Fortress begins with the two fighting, separating, then becoming captured and enslaved before an unlikely reunion, much like the beginning of A New Hope.

It's also easy to see Kurosawa's influence on Star Wars in perhaps the best scene of the film, a duel between Toshiro Mifune and an enemy samurai.

The slow buildup of dramatic tension, followed by moments of dramatic action combined with the use of terrain and props bring to mind the best lightsaber duels from Star Wars, most notably the finale of The Phantom Menace, arguably the best section of all three prequel movies.

Although I've been fairly critical of it, The Hidden Fortress is still a fairly likable film, but it pales in comparison to some of Kurosawa's other masterpieces. Star Wars fans and Kurosawa fans should find it extremely interesting, but a Kurosawa newbie may be better off with The Seven Samurai or Rashomon.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Best Songs of the Decade: 25-1

See also:

The Best Songs of the Decade: 100-76
The Best Songs of the Decade: 75-51
The Best Songs of the Decade: 50-26

The 10 Best Albums of the Decade

25. "Run" - Gnarls Barkley
My favorite Gnarls Barkley song. Almost impossible not to throw up my arms at the background 'wah!'s.

24. "Rehab" - Amy Winehouse
The most bitterly ironic song of the decade. Although I don't think all of Amy Winehouse's stuff is as fantastic as some do, songs like this show that she can be something special. So get off the crack and into the recording studio, lady!

23. "Entertain" - Sleater-Kinney
Sleater-Kinney's breakup wasn't all that surprising, especially as their later albums added more and more songs like this one, dealing with the perils of fame. With its thudding drums and intense riffs, this song may have been the best combo of the fuzzed-out classic rock of their final album and the anthemic punk of their earlier work.

22. "How To Disappear Completely" - Radiohead
If it's not clear from the songs on the list, I'll say it straight-out: I like fast songs more than slow songs, anthems more than ballads, rockers more than love songs, etc., etc. So it takes a damn fine slow song for me to grasp a hold of it. The primary attribute I'm interested in is lyrical evocation - does it make me feel a certain specific way? "How To Disappear Completely" reminds me of being on my college campus as one of a handful of people over Thanksgiving break, listening to Kid A, reading Watchmen, and dealing with a massive fog bank that made everything ethereal. It's a great song for anything along those lines.

21. "Mass Romantic" - The New Pornographers
Not to get all High Fidelity on y'all, but when they talk about the top five side 1/track 1 combinations? This would be my first pick, and also my pick for the best opening ten seconds of a song.

20. "Love Lockdown" - Kanye West
Although Kanye's shift away from more conventional rapping/producing is a bit disappointing considering the quality he brings to those, his auto-tuned breakup album 808's and Heartbreaks was still good enough that I can't complain too much. "Love Lockdown" is easily the standout track thanks to its complex rhythms and intense vocals.

19. "Seven Nation Army" - The White Stripes
To call this song "anthemic" would be something of an insult both to the song and the term. This was the biggest and best rock anthem since "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

18. "B.O.B." - Outkast
Do I have too much Outkast on this list? Given that there are more Outkast songs to come, after three so far (and two more I just barely left off), that seems like it might be a worthwhile argument. But while Andre 3000 and Big Boi are most often compared to Lennon and McCartney, no doubt due to their somewhat fractured personal relationship, a better comparison might be to The Rolling Stones: would you complain about having too many Rolling Stones songs in a Best of the 60's list? Cause I'm not taking "Sympathy for the Devil," "Paint It Black," "Gimme Shelter," or "Satisfaction" out of the top 20 of THAT list.

17. "All For Swinging You Around" - The New Pornographers
Picking favorite New Pornographers songs is like picking children. This is my favorite child, then. Pity the poor cat in my lap when this song plays, cause they're getting swung around.

16. "5 Million Ways To Kill A C.E.O." - The Coup
15. "Laugh, Love, Fuck" - The Coup
Funky beats, radical politics, and wicked humor: it's like The Coup are aimed directly at the heart of my musical aesthetics. The only real surprise is how many people with similar tastes haven't even heard of them.

14. "Portions for Foxes" - Rilo Kiley
Is this song happy? Sad? Pro-relationship-with-bad-girls? It's kind of the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind of rock songs, in that it can be interpreted as meaning a variety of different things, but it's excellent on the surface.

13. "You Know I'm No Good" - Ghostface Killah ft. Amy Winehouse
One of my few criticisms of Ghostface is that his intensity can be a little bit overwhelming, especially over and over. One of my criticisms of Amy Winehouse is that while she has a beautiful voice, her songs often seem to lack, well, intensity. So put Ghostface together with Winehouse, and the gestalt is incredible.

12. "Furnace Room Lullaby" - Neko Case
The last slow song on the list. If I want evocative and ethereal, I really can't do better than Neko Case's stellar voice. She's great doing power pop with The New Pornographers, but songs like this are simply transcendent.

11. "My Favorite Mutiny" - The Coup ft. Black Thought & Talib Kweli
There is a specific subgenre of hip-hop song that I don't know the name for, but I'm mesmerized by. Its attributes are: 1) a medium-to-slow, simple, rhythmic beat; 2) a wide range of guest stars; and 3) aggressive, usually self-referential and -aggrandizing lyrics. "My Favorite Mutiny" fits this subgenre almost perfectly, although with its "who's who" of "socially conscious" rappers, it's much more political in nature than others of the sort.

10. "Prisstina" - Sleater-Kinney
Sleater-Kinney is ofter heralded for their politics, a somewhat overrated trait having more to do with the historical context of the band's creation than the radical nature of their lyrics. They do have an amazing faith in music, which shows up clearly in this magnificently catchy tale of a good girl going bad for rock'n'roll.
(I'm really sorry about the video, non-anime fans. But it's all the internet gave me.)

9. "Get By" - Talib Kweli
You can tell a song is great when hearing it for the first time causes you to immediately go back and play it again. My jaw hit the floor at hearing "Get By" and I played it again. And as time went on, again and again and again.

8. "Everything's Just Wonderful" - Lily Allen
Another entry into the catchy-as-hell-pop-song-about-depression subgenre. Between Lily Allen and Justin Timberlake, amongst others, this decade threatened to give disposable pop a good name. Who saw that coming?

7. "Hold On, Hold On" - Neko Case
Neko Case, on the other hand, threatens to give country a good name. Good thing they haven't noticed her.

6. "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" - Jay-Z
It's not only an excellent song, but it's stunning cultural impact may best be demonstrated in this clip.

5. "Flip Flop Rock" - Outkast ft. Killer Mike & Jay-Z
This may be the Platonic example of the subgenre of rap that I mentioned with "My Favorite Mutiny." Any Outkast song with Killer Mike has a great chance at being excellent. Add in a superb Jay-Z guest verse, and it's about as good as hip-hop gets.

4. "Kilo" - Ghostface Killah ft. Raekwon
I've called Fishscale my favorite album of the decade, and, with some very strong competition, I'm calling this its best track. The sample, swiped from an educational song about kilograms, starts it off right, and it's got Ghostface and Raekwon doing the cocaine-based storytelling they excel at.

3. "Hey Ya!" - Outkast
The most consistent criticism of "Hey Ya!" I hear is that it's overplayed. Yes, it's played a lot. A lot. But for it to be overplayed, don't you have to get tired of it? Ever? Cause I sure as hell don't.

2. "Breakin' Up" - Rilo Kiley
This combines two of my favorite types of songs: the breakup song, and the peppy song about depressing content. And it does it damn well, gospel, disco and all. The sheer joy and relief it conveys are refreshing in a world where pop songs are almost entirely about wanting to get into relationships or hating getting out of them. Listen now, and break up with someone close to you!

1. "The Whole World" - Outkast ft. Killer Mike
One of the big Outkast debates often centers on their first four albums vs. Speakerboxxx\The Love Below. Their earlier albums, though occasionally very experimental, still reside in the genre of southern gangster hip-hop, while the massive double album moves off the street and onto the stage, as it were, where hip-hop and pop mingle together. Both are excellent, but better yet is the bridge between the two: their 2001 greatest hits album, Big Boi and Dre present.... They recorded three new tracks for the album, including the standout "The Whole World" (another track of the three, "Funkin' Around," just barely missed this list).

"The Whole World" has Outkast at their best, with pop appeal but still some grime in the vocals, over a marvelous swinging beat. "The Whole World" is pretty much impossible not to like, and even grows on repeat listens. When I began putting this list together, I had it as my tentative #1, but was pretty certain that I'd pick something from the top 8-12 that would replace it. And yet, as the list took shape, I never really considered any other song better. "The Whole World" is the best song of the 2000's.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Best Songs of the Decade: 50-26

See also:

The Best Songs of the Decade: 100-76
The Best Songs of the Decade: 75-51

The Best Songs of the Decade: 25-1
The 10 Best Albums of the Decade

50. "The Legionnaire's Lament" - The Decemberists
The Decemberists were the "it" band in indie rock in the first half of the decade, which of course meant that they were the symbol of all that was wrong in the genre in the second half. But they've put out album after album of pop songs about subjects that aren't love - which is called "quirky." This is my favorite of theirs, a peppy little number about a French Foreign Legion soldier addicted to laudanum in 19th-century Paris.

49. "He War" - Cat Power
The final entry in the indie-rockers-with-one-song-I-love. See also: Guided By Voices - "Everywhere With Helicopter." Although I did find it easier to get into Cat Power when she was backed by The Dirty Delta Blues Band for The Greatest.

48. "Umbrella" - Rihanna
It's always easy to pick on radio songs. By and large they stink, though Sturgeon's Law, of course, states that 90% of everything stinks. If you shovel away the crap that's endemic to any media, you find that many of the decade's biggest hits were also some of its best songs. "Umbrella," "Toxic," "Lose Yourself," "Crazy," "Hey Ya," "Rehab," "Jesus Walks," and more. I'll take that over 90's grunge-wannabes and Puff Daddy hip-hop any day of the week.

47. "Bamboo Banga" - M.I.A.
For all the writing about how M.I.A. was making the future of music, she's remarkably focused on the past. Her breakthrough album, Kala, samples The Clash on its biggest hit, "Paper Planes," quotes The Pixies on another track, and begins this stellar track with lines from The Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner." The combination of influences including punk rock, world beats, and danceable hip-hop works about as well as anyone could hope on tracks like "Bamboo Banga."

46. "No Sunshine" - Rhymefest
Mixtapes, the staple of underground hip-hop and up-and-coming rappers, received a massive jolt in the arm from internet downloads. Perhaps the best of these is Rhymefest's Man in the Mirror, "the world's first Michael Jackson dedication album." This track works with the deliriously sampleable "Ain't No Sunshine" and turns it towards one of Rhymefest's favorite subjects, the difficulty of maintaining authenticity in the rap world.

45. "15 Step" - Radiohead
This is first track on Radioheads latest album, In Rainbows, and it achieved some notoriety simply for being a happy Radiohead song. But it's not just a happy song, it's also a fantastic one.

44. "He Did It" - The Detroit Cobras
I'm somewhat surprised that The Detroit Cobras aren't more well-known than they are. They do garage rock covers of famous and not-so-famous R&B songs. This one, originally by The Ronettes, is my favorite.

43. "Free or Dead" - Atmosphere
Atmosphere's MC, Slug, is about as clever as they come. This track demonstrates the pathetic arrogance of a young would-be rebel, and abounds with wordplay like "and I do believe in God/cause I keep coming across/all these fine women with low self-esteem."

42. "Say It Right" - Nelly Furtado
I'm mesmerized by Timbaland's beat for this song. There's an ineffable sadness in the spaces, that makes it sound oddly tragic. Plus, of course, you can dance to it.

41. "Electric Feel" - MGMT
The thing I like about this song is how it utilizes a lot of the tricks of much more upbeat songs, while maintaining its slow pace. It makes it sound wonderfully familiar and new at the same time.

40. "Gossip Folks" - Missy Elliot ft. Ludacris
While Missy Elliot had some of the biggest hits of the decade with "Work It" and "Get Ur Freak On," I found myself more drawn to her somewhat more conventional hip-hop tracks. This one's a great song already in the first couple of minutes, before Ludacris comes along and blasts it to a new level with one of best guest appearances ever.

39. "Smiley Faces" - Gnarls Barkley
While "Crazy" turned into the mega-hit, I preferred this other catchy-as-hell number from Gnarls Barkley's debut.

38. "Idioteque" - Radiohead
Kid A may be one of the most bizarre albums of the decade, where a successful rock band moved into the realm of electronic soundscapes (in addition to foregoing almost all conventional marketing ploys, like releasing singles). "Idioteque" combines a driving techno beat with Radiohead's rock instincts and Thom Yorke's ethereal wail to magnificent effect.

37. "9 Milli Bros" - Ghostface Killah ft. the whole goddamn Wu-Tang Clan
No song heralded the resurrection of the Wu-Tang Clan quite like this stunner from Fishscale, featuring every member of the group including Old Dirty Bastard from beyond the grave. Bonus points for Method Man bumping it in his SUV on The Wire. In fact, despite the music from The Wire being primarily diegetic, three songs on the show made it onto this list (I don't suppose it's a spoiler to say that "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" and "B.O.B." are yet to come.)

36. "Love and War (11/11/46)" - Rilo Kiley
35. "A Man/Me/Then Jim" - Rilo Kiley
Praise for lyrical density is almost always given to hip-hop MCs, or perhaps a particularly wordy singer-songwriter type. Rilo Kiley's third album, More Adventurous, demonstrates a traditional rock band's lyrical density. "Love and War" is an outright rocker and excellent at that, but discusses the plight of veterans of both struggles as well. "A Man/Me/Then Jim" is a gorgeous song in its own right, but the lyrics tell a dense, non-chronological story from multiple perspectives that requires multiple listens to fully grasp.

34. "Monster Hospital" - Metric
33. "Succexy" - Metric
Metric's best songs seem to come when they explore the intersection between sexuality and warfare. "Monster Hospital" explicitly does so by combining lyrics like "I fought the war/and the war won" with "hold my arms down/I've been bad" over a driving garage-rock beat. But it may be surpassed by its predecessor, the slightly more poppy "Succexxy," a sultry performance about the televised spectacle of war.

32. "Night Light" - Sleater-Kinney
Sleater-Kinney broke up in 2006, having released their final album, The Woods, the year before. The Woods was a radical stylistic departure from their punk-to-pop previous sound, wallowing in the fuzzed-out guitars, driving beats, and musical disintegrations of 70's classic rock and pre-punk. The final song(s) on the album are "Let's Call It Love," a three-minute song which turns into a 10-minute destruction of music, rebuilding at the end to segué into the evocative farewell track, "Night Light." A long goodbye with the tiny, flickering possibility of hope, "Night Light" isn't just a great song, it may be the best final song any great band has ever done.

31. "The Way You Move" - Outkast ft. Sleepy Brown
It's probably not too much of a spoiler for me to say that "Hey Ya" is further up on this list, but let's not say that that means I'm picking sides in the great Speakerboxxx vs. The Love Below debate. The megahit single from The Love Below may be a tiny bit better, but I still think that Speakerboxxx has a more consistently good set of songs, particularly in the first half.

30. "No Children" - The Mountain Goats
Alcoholism and horrific breakups have never sounded like more fun.

29. "Jesus Walks" - Kanye West
Kanye (and songwriter Rhymefest) talked about Jesus and got their record played, which is impressive enough. But how much more impressive is it that the song kicks ass?

28. "Catalina" - Raekwon
This is actually the only song from 2009 that I have on the list. I'm hesitant to rate something too highly when I might hate it in a year, but it also seems like maybe this hasn't been the greatest year for music. One of the high points, of course, was Raekwon's Only Built for Cuban Linx 2, which had previously seemed like it wanted to be hip-hop's Chinese Democracy - always worked on, never finished. In one of it's incarnations, it was attached to Dr. Dre's Aftermath label, but that marriage ended with Raekwon getting just a few Dre beats. But oh what a beat - the combination of Wu-Tang grime with Dr. Dre's production skills sounds like gangsta rap at its best.

27. "Paper Planes" - M.I.A.
How unlikely was this song for a massive hit? Sampling a somewhat unknown Clash song, espousing radical/criminal politics, from an artist controversial for allegedly supporting suicide-bombing terrorist seems like a perfect storm of cult hit. And that would have been okay, but sometimes the world gets it right, and a cult hit becomes a crossover hit.

26. "The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism" - The New Pornographers
There are a handful of sub-sub-genres of songs that I'm a sucker for. One of them is the incredibly catchy pop song about equally incredibly depressing content. This is one of those.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Best Songs of the Decade: 75-51

See also:

The Best Songs of the Decade: 100-76

The Best Songs of the Decade: 50-26
The Best Songs of the Decade: 25-1
The 10 Best Albums of the Decade

75. "Funeral Song" - Sleater-Kinney
Sleater-Kinney is my favorite rock band, but lead singer Corin Tucker's challenging dramatic soprano voice is off-putting for many. "Funeral Song" is one of their most accessible, with the vocal drama toned down, and the interaction of the melody and the rhythm is some of S-K's best.

74. "Surprise" - Gnarls Barkley
73. "The Jessica Numbers" - The New Pornographers
Both Gnarls Barkley and The New Pornographers exercise a disproportionate amount of influence over this list. Both groups are excellent song-crafters, while their albums may not get quite as much play. Gnarls Barkley sounds like both the past and the future of pop music, with a Zombies-like flair to the chorus of "Surprise" added to the spacey hip-hop/R&B the duo are best known for. The New Pornographers, by contrast, seem attached very much to the present, with a fairly conventional rock band setup expanding the form of the pop song.

72. "Wake Up" - The Walkmen
Here's another entry in the critically-acclaimed-bands-with-only-one-song-I-really-like category. See also: "Librarian" by My Morning Jacket.

71. "Bang!" - The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' debut EP was built around this anthemic banger, but I've been mostly disappointed by their slightly-less-energetic albums ever since. So it goes.

70. "A Day Like Today" - Tom McRae
Like Springsteen's "Magic," "A Day Like Today" is a case study in how to make a haunting, beautiful, but oddly catchy gem of a song.

69. "Since We Last Spoke" - RJD2
The only instrumental track on the list. A handful of DJs built their reputations releasing primarily instrumental hip-hop mix albums this decade, although RJD2 has since began playing instruments and singing, somewhat bizarrely.

68. "Going On" - Gnarls Barkley
67. "Crazy" - Gnarls Barkley
Has there ever been a group that achieved as much success and critical acclaim, while having an absolutely horrible name, as Gnarls Barkley?

66. "For Women" - Talib Kweli
At nearly eight minutes, "For Women" clocks in as the longest song in the list. Kweli's dense, affecting homage to Nina Simone's "Four Women" specifically - and women of color in general - helped cement his reputation as one of the best "socially conscious" rappers of his generation.

65. "Toxic" - Britney Spears
I mean, I guess I could have expected Britney to have a good song or two in her, but this good? This is a great song, for anyone, let alone a singer who'd made her reputation and money on pandering to the lowest common denominator.

64. "Here's Your Future" - The Thermals
Like The New Pornographers, The Thermals are something of an indie-rock supergroup whose combined fame and effect far exceeded that of their previous groups. But where The New Pornographers deal primarily in lush power pop, The Thermals are entirely driving dirty garage rock - extra sacreligious.

63. "Don't Feel Like Dancing" - Scissor Sisters
As disco has experienced something of a critical re-evaluation in recent years, it's also experienced something of a revival with the Scissor Sisters and Junior Senior making it cool. This song is unlike "Move Your Feet" in that its title is a blatant lie, and just like "Move Your Feet" in that it's hard not to at least tap and smile along with.

62. "Take Me Out" - Franz Ferdinand
Sure, the "neo-New Wave" movement was overplayed, and allowed a lot of crap onto the airwaves. But better this than nu-metal. And better this song than most any other pop-rock of the decade.

61. "Standing In The Way Of Control" - The Gossip
The Gossip somehow transitioned from dirty blues-rock to massively popular dance-punk, without seeming like they were selling out at all. And more power to them - I can only hope that Beth Ditto becomes the Gwen Stefani of the early twenty-teens.

60. "Ghost World" - Aimee Mann
Best song based on a comic book ever? I mean, I'll make the argument that David Bowie's "Oh! You Pretty Things" is about The X-Men, but I'm still not sure that it's a better song than this.

59. "99 Problems" - Dangermouse/Jay-Z
Dangermouse's The Grey Album launched him into superstardom, and helped move the mash-up from the novelty section into the realm of potentially great music. I'd argue that most of its tracks are better than the original Jay-Z tracks, especially this driving, intense combination of "99 Problems" with "Helter Skelter."

58. "Letter From An Occupant" - The New Pornographers
Music critics like to attempt to count just how many hooks can be fit into a single song. Some say "six" for this one. Go on, try and count.

57. "Clint Eastwood" - Gorillaz
I'm not sure how, but I'm both disbelieving that this song was from this decade, and that it was almost a decade ago that it came out.

56. "One Two Three Four" - Feist
Sure, it got overexposed, but damn if this ain't a great song.

55. "Rolling With Heat" - The Roots ft. Talib Kweli
I really want to get into The Roots. They're generally lumped in with a bunch of other hip-hop acts I really like (the Dave Chappelle's Block Party crews!). But I still haven't had any of their albums click with me. That doesn't mean that they can't turn out a great song, like this superb track.

54. "Combat Baby" - Metric
I kind of adopted Metric in the early part of the decade. I was amongst the first of my friends to hear them, and converted everyone I could. I don't think they've really musically transcended their initial steps into stardom, but I don't think they've regressed and I'm happy to see them becoming a bigger name.

53. "The Champ" - Ghostface Killah
While his Pretty Toney Album may have helped keep the Wu-Tang Clan in the public eye, Ghostface's Fishscale rocketed them back into the consciousness of hip-hop fans. An almost operatic saga of street life, featuring Wu-Tang members on several tracks. "The Champ" is Ghostface at his most combative, name-checking his previous successes but describing - and demonstrating - his continued drive.

52. "Silver Lining" - Rilo Kiley
Under The Blacklight took some flack for selling out from previous indie-rock darlings Rilo Kiley, but the thin veneer of pop shine only adds to the album's immense charms. Filled with catchy songs of quiet desperation and of lives gone horribly awry, it's one of the best albums of the decade.

51. "Overnight Celebrity" - Twista ft. Kanye West
How To Identify Chicago Hip-Hop: 1. Does it feature Kanye West or Twista? 2. Was it produced by Kanye West, or have his signature sped-up soul samples? 3. Do the vocals have a playful sneer? By this logic, "Overnight Celebrity" may be the signature Chicago hip-hop song of the decade.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Best Songs of the Decade: 100-76

The end of arbitrarily determined time frames means it's time for lists! Olé! My former bosses at The A.V. Club did a Best Albums of the Decade list, but in the era of the iPod, best albums aren't the entirety of music. Hell, my #1 song wasn't even released on a traditional album.

My criteria here are generally subjectively how I feel about the songs now, although there are some songs that I'm not so keen on now, but still felt needed to be on the list, and some weight was given to what I'll pretentiously call "cultural impact" although that really means popularity.

See also:

The Best Songs of the Decade: 75-51
The Best Songs of the Decade: 50-26
The Best Songs of the Decade: 25-1
The 10 Best Albums of the Decade

Without further ado, the list:

100. "Who Taught You To Live Like That?" - Sloan
Canadian power-pop band Sloan is one of those fun-sounding groups where the members all switch instruments for different songs. In practice, this makes them fairly inconsistent, but when they're on, they're really on.

99. "Sensual Seduction" - Snoop Dogg
A couple of weeks ago, my sister was trying to argue that autotune was the worst thing ever to happen to music. Sorry, sister dearest, but while Puff Daddy still needs to atone for his crimes, autotune makes pop songs like this. Also, how great is it to see that Snoop "bitches ain't shit" Dogg is now making songs dedicated to the female orgasm? Aww, he's all grown up now.

98. "Sovay" - Andrew Bird
Andrew Bird whistles. This is what he's known for. Hey, it works.

97. "California Dreamer" - Wolf Parade
I'm not sure if it's my expanding musical vocabulary, or just something I'm intrigued by, but I've noticed a trend of responses to famous songs by modern artists. This response to "California Dreamin'" may be inflated in my head thanks to the original's prevalence in Chungking Express, but hey, still a great song.

96. "Sari" - Nellie McKay
Nellie McKay's debut album, Get Away From Me, showed hints of a fascinating talent, and helped trigger the chanteuse explosion of the later part of the decade. Unfortunately, she seems to have tilted towards musical comedy-style songs instead of bizarrely marvelous gems like this.

95. "Benzi Box" - Dangermouse & MF Doom ft. Cee-Lo
Dangerdoom's The Mouse and the Mask was a wonderful gateway into hip-hop for white nerds who liked Adult Swim. This may be the best track on the album, thanks largely to the smooth chorus provided by Cee-Lo - who later teamed up with Dangermouse in Gnarls Barkley and took over the world.

94. "Bring the Pain" - Missy Elliot ft. Method Man
The Wu-Tang Clan opened the decade on top of the hip-hop world, and you couldn't throw a stone without finding their influence somewhere, anywhere. Missy Elliot's interpolation of Method Man's earlier song of the same name brought together Missy's danceable hip-hop with Meth's grittier Wu-Tang past with excellent results.

93. "Tooken Back" - Ghostface Killah ft. Jacki-O
The Wu-Tang Clan went into a swift decline as the decade progressed (culminating the in death of Old Dirty Bastard), with critical and popular support dissolving. The main exception to this general trend was Ghostface Killah, whose stellar solo albums kept the Wu-Tang name alive as something other than a punchline. 2004's Pretty Toney Album was a bit of a foray into pop over hardcore, leading to this silly, touching, and catchy-as-hell song.

92. "I Might Be Wrong" - Radiohead
Hey, it's the first Radiohead track on the list!

91. "PJ & Rooster" - Outkast
Hey, it's the first Outkast track on the list!

90. "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" - The Arcade Fire
I like to describe my tastes in modern rock music as leaning towards shouty-girl pop-punk over fuzzy whiny boy indie rock. That said, full credit to the fuzzy whiny boy rockers in The Arcade Fire. This is a good stuff.

89. "Galang" - M.I.A.
Though her second album made the massive mainstream splash, M.I.A.'s debut showed more than flashes of the superstar-in-the-making, particularly on this track.

88. "Let It Ride" - Ryan Adams
There are a handful of critically acclaimed, fairly popular indie rockers who have single songs I love, even as I can't get into the rest of their catalog. This excellent country/rocker about youthful alienation and rebellion is that song for Ryan Adams. See also - "Bukowski" by Modest Mouse.

87. "Lose Yourself" - Eminem
Remember in 2001, when Eminem and Britney Spears were the biggest pop stars in the universe? They both managed to increase their hit quotient with songs in the short term, but the long term? Yeesh.

86. "Devil's Dance Floor" - Flogging Molly
I don't feel qualified to write much about it, but I kinda like the Irish-punk musical movement. I really, really like this particular example of it.

85. "Animal Rap" - Jedi Mind Tricks ft. Kool G Rap
In an alternate dimension of my own imagining, hip-hop gets its samples not from 70's soul or 80's pop or 90's rock, but from the giants of classical music. Jedi Mind Tricks arrived in our dimension from that place, and gave us songs like this.

84. "Oslo In The Summertime" - Of Montreal
I've heard Of Montreal compared most accurately to David Bowie, in that their music is comprised primarily of catchy little pop songs, but the subject matter and personas adapted are far, well, weirder than other catchy little pop songs, although the comparison does a good job of describing the feel of the music more than the sound. This song will get stuck in your head. Sorry. Ba b-b-b-ba ba ba-ba.

83. "Side to Side" - Blackalicious ft. Lateef & Pigeon John
Blackalicious' Blazing Arrow was one of the best hip-hop albums of the decade, and its follow-up, The Craft, was mostly a disappointment. I only say "mostly" largely because of this comedically catchy, eminently danceable tale of the drawbacks of club hook-ups.

82. "Blue Magic" - Jay-Z
I kind of feel bad about a relative lack of Jay-Z on the list. He has great songs, and he'd certainly be in the running for Artist of the Decade. But by-and-large, he seems, like the Beatles, to do consistently good-to-great songs more than mediocre-to-excellent as most others do. And that's not a bad thing at all - just means fewer-than-expected songs on lists like these.

81. "Radio Nowhere" - Bruce Springsteen
80. "Magic" - Bruce Springsteen
The Boss had something of a career renaissance, focused primarily on his 2007 album Magic. The first track, "Radio Nowhere," demonstrated just how much he can still rock. But perhaps more impressive is the sense of weariness and sadness in "Magic," despite its ostensible happy subject matter of magic tricks. (It also always makes me think of Gob from Arrested Development, and that's not a bad thing.)

79. "Old White Lincoln" - The Gaslight Anthem
Speaking of Bruce, here's a group of young men from Jersey who seem to enjoy his music. I've heard them described as what might happen if Springsteen had gone up to CBGBs and hung out with The Ramones, and I really can't argue that that's either false or a bad thing.

78. "Tell a Story" - Rhymefest
Rhymefest's infectious humor, sense of storytelling, combination of arrogance and humility, and Chicago sneer bring to mind his occasional collaborator, Kanye West, but without the narcissism. That he hasn't become a star may seem baffling, but perhaps not as much when you realize that he's been delaying his second album for the last two years.

77. "Smart Went Crazy" - Atmosphere
Atmosphere got most of their notice as the progenitors of the terribly-named subgenre "emo-rap" early in the decade, but their fifth album, You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having, may be their best. This dense, catchy song is one of several standouts from the second half of the album.

76. "Move Your Feet" - Junior Senior
It does what it says. Truth in song-labeling.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The films of Wong Kar-Wai

In America, Hong Kong cinema is known for its martial arts or "gun fu" action movies, as exemplified by John Woo. In the mid-90's, Woo's crossover appeal and Hollywood successes helped, amongst other things, to bring more attention to Hong Kong cinema, including his compatriot Wong Kar-Wai. The irony is that while Wong may share a handful of stylistic similarities, the tone and focus of his films is almost entirely oppositional to the stereotype of the Hong Kong action flick.

Wong Kar-Wai deals with the realms of sense, memory, and longing more than storyline. The best way to describe them is that he's trying to recreate the feeling of sitting in a dimly-lit bar, nursing your favorite drink while a fantastic song plays on the jukebox, thinking of the one that got away. They're also extraordinarily difficult to describe literally in a complimentary fashion, but that doesn't stop fans from trying.

His two most accessible and probably best films are Chungking Express and In the Mood For Love. The former was Wong's breakthrough, released in 1994, focusing on an all-night food stand in the Chungking neighborhood of Hong Kong. A diptych, it focuses on the love lives of two local cops, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung (who would later reunite as the stars of Woo's Red Cliff). Kaneshiro stars in the first half. Having just gone through a terrible breakup, he desperately tries to reconnect with his ex, and failing that, finds a hitwoman who happens to be the only person he wants to talk to about the whole thing, while all she wants is sleep.

Tony Leung's second half is more memorable thanks to an indelible performance by Chinese pop star Faye Wong (most well-known in America for singing the theme to Final Fantasy VIII). Playing a proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl, she becomes obsessed with Leung's cypher of a character, breaking into his apartment, cleaning and replacing every part of it, even as he narrates that "I have an excellent memory." Later, Faye Wong's obsession leads to the defining scene of the film. She skips work to go to Leung's apartment using the excuse that she's paying the electricity bill, which never gets paid, causing the entire shop to lose power and get lit by candlelight. Wong Kar-Wai's obsession with light and lush, gorgeous city life create among the most beautiful shots you'll ever see. - the scene starts at around 9:10, and continues into the next segment. Although Chungking Express is, apparently, available on YouTube, Wong's sensual camerawork demands high-quality viewing. Unsurprisingly, Chungking Express was selected by Criterion as its first film to be released on Blu-Ray.

Chungking Express notably also helped, perhaps unfortunately, usher in the era of indie-quirk, where characters have defining habits as much as traits. Faye Wong's charming stalker is matched in the first half by Takeshi's obsessive purchasing of cans of pineapple with the expiration date of his attempts to rebuild his relationship.

In the Mood for Love is a simpler tale of connections nearly made and love nearly won and lost. Wong Kar-Wai uses perhaps his two most iconic actors, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, as the leads (like the Coen brothers, Wong has a stable of actors he dips into). They share an apartment complex, and discover that their spouses are having an affair with each other. They form a fumbling friendship with the shape of a romance, though never consummated, and in the end, they lose each other through their inability to make a move.

But a description of the storyline completely fails to measure the impact of the film. The camera caresses Maggie Cheung's wardrobe of cheongsams, and Tony Leung embodies the quiet desperation of his character. It's my favorite of Wong's films, and yet I'm virtually incapable of describing it.

Both of those films have more experimental pseudo-sequels. Chungking Express led to what was originally its third story, Fallen Angels, while In the Mood for Love spawned a somewhat more direct sequel, 2046. 2046 is arguably the most ambitious and least coherent of Wong's films. It follows Leung's character from In the Mood for Love as he fails to mend his broken heart with a string of women and authoring science fiction short stories taking place in the year 2046. The film bounces between his affair with a beautiful courtesan, his writing affair with his landlord's daughter, his memories of a female gambler who acted as his teacher, and his stories of a train in the future for the broken-hearted. It's a gorgeous, deeply affecting mess.

Fallen Angels follows a hitman and his agent as they become romantically entangled. Its scenes of extreme violence play out like a perfunctory action movie, as if Wong wanted the trenchcoats and badass without anything more than the minimum of the genre's attachments. It's arguably his most visceral, direct film, filled with fantastic images and moments, although it lacks some of the emotional resonance that Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love contain.

The idea that Wong Kar-Wai wants the accoutrements of a genre without the other expectations is even more true of Ashes of Time, his martial arts epic. Describing Ashes of Time as a "martial arts epic" is part of the problem - it's entirely personal in scope, and what little martial arts are shown exists more in effect than in cause or action. The film is about the idea that these men and women are near-superhuman swordsmen, but are crippled by their own lost loves and failures. Unsurprisingly, Wong focuses on the latter. It's another incoherent mess, but an affecting and beautiful one.

Wong Kar-Wai made his American debut a few years ago with the somewhat disappointing My Blueberry Nights. It's filmed in his signature style, with a broken-apart stories of lost loves in bars, casinos, and restaurants, but it never entirely coheres despite one fantastic segment with Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn, as well as a great performance from Natalie Portman. It's hard to say exactly why it doesn't work, but my guess is that Wong's work is so specific, so stylized, so artificial, so dependent on creating a mood, that any slight flaw makes the whole house of cards fall apart. It's not terrible, and may act as a gateway for Americans into Wong's works, but I find it one of his weakest films.

Wong is inextricably linked to his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. Wong's debut feature, As Tears Go By didn't include Doyle, and is considered a straightforward genre piece (it's the only one I haven't seen). His first film with Doyle, Days of Being Wild, includes several of his favorite actors (like Maggie Cheung and Leslie Cheung) and begins his run of odd, beautiful films, but still feels unfinished. The characterization is particularly weak, with the main character's womanizing being too-easily explained by his relationship with his horrifically manipulative mother.

Characterization is also the weak point of the last of Wong's films, Happy Together. Focused on a dysfunctional gay Hong Kong couple in Buenos Aires, both its subject matter and its cinematography are more jarring than most of his other films. Most of his characters have some level of darkness balanced by charm or kindness, but Happy Together lacks that all-around except for one minor character. It's easily his most difficult film.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Serialization and The Wire

The Wire is almost the very definition of a cult hit. Virtually everyone who has watched it says "This is the greatest show ever!" but virtually nobody has watched it. The latter makes sense - it's dense, slangy, unforgiving to new viewers, and difficult thematically. But hey, that's true for most good stuff. The former - the"best show ever stuff!" is far more interesting.

The reason The Wire succeeds is simple: it figured out a brilliant way to get around the perils of serialization. I've mentioned this somewhat in previous posts about Battlestar Galactica, but not entirely directly. Simply put, it is that the longer a serialized story runs, the more complex it becomes. Following that, the more complex a story, the more likely mistakes, inconsistencies, and retcons occur. Complex settings and mythologies also tend to turn potential new fans away. The most common serialized stories are TV shows and comic books, although long series of novels, video games, or movies can also show many of the characteristics.

Battlestar Galactica
offers an extreme example of a story collapsing under its own weight, but that tends to be rare. More generally, the stories continue, though with less emotional resonance and more caveats, retcons, or "reboots:" major events which exist to clean up the complexity.

In a sense, The Wire successfully avoids the perils of serialization by rebooting every season. Each season has a different antagonist, similar to Buffy's "Big Bads," but the significant difference is that The Wire also changes the show's focus each season. In doing so, they introduce new characters and new challenges, and leave older characters behind. It also focuses on different aspects of life within the city of Baltimore.

The first season is fairly straightforward, with the cops and the drug dealers at the center of the story. The second season expands to include a group of dockworkers, bringing the economy into sharp focus. The third season expands the focus on politics, at City Hall and within the larger police and drug communities (leading to some hilarious moments of gangster ComCil). The fourth season makes arguably the most dramatic thematic shift, bringing education and the children of the drug game to the forefront. Finally, the fifth season (which I haven't seen) is supposed to build the media into the show's setting.

By altering the focus each season, the show's writers can construct satisfying character arcs as well as grand plot arcs. Instead of seven seasons of variations on Buffy feeling overwhelmed by her Slayer responsibilities, or Mulder a half-step away from being able to expose the conspiracy, we actually get endings. McNulty figures out a way around his martyr complex in season three, and then is quiet in season four. The European drug-runners of season two shut down their operations in response to massive police pressure, and they stay shut-down for well over a year.

It's a risky way to go about things - introducing characters and stories, then eliminating them when they're done, but it's a great way to ensure that a serialized story has satisfying endings.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Tragedy, Spoilers, and The Wire

We've recently been watching HBO's critically acclaimed highbrow cops-and-robbers show, The Wire, and are about to finish the third season. Prior to this, my primary experience with The Wire was catching a few scenes when visiting my parents; my mother was a fan. While two of the scenes were nothing terribly important, another of them happened to be arguably the biggest event of the first three seasons.

Note that this will, of course, have major spoilers for that event.

The Wire is formally somewhat similar to Battlestar Galactica. Its ensemble cast weaves in and out of a master storyline, usually presented with individual episodes in media res, presented in a naturalistic directorial style. It focuses on a police unit assigned to heroic distributors and dealers in Baltimore. There are four main groups of characters: street-level cops, police administration, street-level dealers, and the drug bosses.

By the third season, the most important character is drug boss "Stringer" Bell. Stringer is the focus of the police investigation, internal politics in the drug world (including a hilarious council using Robert's Rules), the return of his former boss whom he has partially supplanted, the dredging up of his past crimes, and his attempts to go mainstream as a politician and real estate developer.

Stringer is, in many ways, a classic tragic hero perhaps most closely related to MacBeth. He's an extraordinarily competent, intelligent, ambitious man. He makes a few bad, violent choices as shortcuts on his path to achieving his ambitions, and eventually finds himself in over his head and unable to escape his brutal past. All this culminates with his assassination by two men out for vengeance, abetted by his former partner angered at Stringer's usurpation of his power.

The scene I saw and remembered was the assassination. I remembered one of the assassins as well.

Watching the entire series, several years later, and remembering this one scene actually, despite the spoily nature of it, added to my enjoyment of the show as much as not knowing might have. Knowing how important Stringer was; knowing how he died; seeing his ambitions to get out of the game; seeing his inability to stop playing the game; and watching his mistakes pile up all added to my reading of his character arc. It was almost Shakespearean, knowing the main character dies, but not knowing exactly how.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Superhero Movies and Ang Lee's Hulk

There's something about the superhero movie that appeals to my nerdliness. I never was a comic book nerd as a kid, but they were always around my periphery. There were games or cartoons or friends with comic books that managed to appeal to me without ever actually getting me to make a serious effort to invest in them. So, in many ways, the recent spate of superhero movies was aimed at me. No massive backstory or continuity to learn, but good amounts of fun, right? Not entirely, it turns out. While I have liked most of the ones I've seen to some degree or another, I haven't actually watched one and said "Wow. That's really what I wanted to see, how I wanted to see it."

Last week, I saw Ang Lee's Hulk. This movie was much-derided, called "too slow" or "too boring" or just plain bad. Yet I thought it was the best comic-based movie I'd seen. I think it's because it actually managed to solve the comic book paradox.

Superhero comics depend on a kind of balancing act with the reader. The reader sees the action as, to a certain degree, absurd or humorous. But it's always supposed to be fun. On the other hand, the story inside the comic is almost always deathly serious for its characters. New York, their mother, the world, something is about to explode or die.

The modern superhero movie exists solely within its own context. They are treated as deathly serious. The Dark Knight may be the pinnacle of this, with its grimy city, growly Batman, and psychopathic Joker. Any humor that exists in the movies is firmly within the movie's context - we're laughing with the characters, not at the absurdity of the film.

This all sounds somewhat counter-intuitive at first glance. Don't we want our movies to be realistic? Isn't absurd usually used as a negative descriptor? Not really, when it comes to comic books. They derived their success from the '60's "Silver Age" by placing realistic characters in unrealistic situations. Spider-Man became the best-selling superhero because he was a nerdy wisecracker who had cool adventures, not because his spiderness was inherently marketable. Superhero teams like the X-Men get a lot of their popularity from their examination of small group dynamics in stressful situations. The push in films to have more action and be "darker" or more realistic results in a flip of the normal comics plan - comic book movies take unrealistic characters and put them in realistic settings. It might be cool, but it's not all that fun. Part of this is the medium. Comics allow for much more imagination and playfulness by their very design - they play with space - where movies are more linear - they deal with time.

Ang Lee's Hulk, on the other hand, keeps the absurdity of the comic book universe alive, while maintaining a level of seriousness with its characters. It does this primarily with Lee's directing and editing. The film regularly has parallel scenes in comic-book style panels, or it split-screens to show two halves of a scene. Most jarringly, Hulk sometimes suddenly reverses the angle of a scene, either flipping a person to a mirror image. These gimmicks serve to remind the viewer of the artificiality of it all, and they say "hey! I'm the director, and I'm having fun!" The director's playfulness manages to combine almost perfectly with the characters' problems.

To be honest, I have no idea why this movie was so disliked. There's also plenty of action in Hulk - at least four distinct sequences - which is more than any other Marvel-based movie I've seen. It just seems to me to click in the way that a comic-based movie should.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica

After discussing the disappointment of Battlestar Galactica's ending and general story progression, the argument came up that any TV show was bound to disappoint in such a fashion, as the medium makes that sort of storytelling inevitable.

But Battlestar Galactica was not created in a vacuum, and had several different models of serialized storytelling to draw from, particularly in the fertile grounds of speculative fiction TV shows from the mid-90's to the early 2000's. Babylon 5 in particular demonstrates an entirely different method of storytelling.*

*The most relevant comparison might be Star Trek: Deep Space 9, as BSG's creator worked on that before BSG. Unfortunately, I'm almost totally unfamiliar with DS9.

Babylon 5 is perhaps the most ambitious television show ever, in terms of overarching plot. It is famous for being designed to tell a story over five years, and largely succeeds at this. But saying that it tells one story is something of a mislabeling. It would be more accurate to say that it tells multiple interweaving stories, each with its own tension and release. Each individual story is built slowly, but becomes a major focus of the show for somewhere between half of a season to a little over a season. For example, the second half of Season 2 deals largely with a war between two of the galaxy's races. By the end of the season, the war has come to an emotional, cathartic ending, in arguably the series' best episode. In its aftermath, a new storyline about the occupation of the defeated people begins to take precedence until it, too, is resolved, a little over a season later.

Battlestar Galactica, on the other hand, is essentially a single story, focusing on several different characters. Its tension is rarely released, except in smaller, self-contained episodes such as the arrival of the Pegasus, the colonization of New Caprica, or the mutiny. Not surprisingly, these smaller, stand-alone sets of episodes are generally the series' best and most satisfying.

While this process may lead to Babylon 5 having more satisfying endings, it would be extremely difficult to actually say that B5 is better than BSG. Babylon 5 storyline development occurs much more slowly, leading to episodes that may be important later, but are often, well, boring, especially in its first season. Virtually every episode of the first season of B5 has something in it which becomes important later on, whether it's character-building, foreshadowing, storyline development, or details about the setting. But each episode also stands alone almost entirely, so the viewer may not know what's important, and may simply be, well, bored. On the other hand, Battlestar Galactica's first season and in media res storylines create an instant intensity. As I described last week, that intensity leads almost inevitably towards disappointing endings - but it may be worth it.

In an ideal world (which may also be achievable), some future TV show could take the best of both methods of storytelling - some combination of Battlestar Galactica's intensity with Babylon 5's forward planning. The key sticking point is that it would require a strong personality at the forefront. Babylon 5 is famously the brainchild of J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote 3/4's of the show's episodes, including the entirety of the third and fourth seasons, and all but one episode of the fifth season - an unprecedented run in television history, but also one which kept both the plot and characters developing under a single person's vision. The extraordinary confluence of events where a person was effective enough as a writer to accomplish this, effective enough as a producer to keep his show on the air in order to complete his five-year plan, and effective enough as a storytelling to develop an interesting long-form story, seems unlikely to occur again. Working show-by-show, and season-by-season, is much easier and more likely.

But who knows? With cable channels doing more formally interesting shows, those networks may be willing to deal with such an ambitious gamble. Or there's Joss Whedon, who claims to have a five-year plan for his Dollhouse, and its unaired (but now seen and viewable) episode indicates there's a lot more going on there than initially appeared in the first season. Good luck with that.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"Previously on Battlestar Galactica..." - SF TV endings

Brad Templeton, chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and more importantly, science fiction-related blogger, has a long blog post which is going around the Internet about how the finale of Battlestar Galactica is "The worst ending in the history of on-screen science fiction." I cannot disagree with the premise, nor the massive amount of detail he includes in the post. However, I do think that the post's narrow focus on the massive mistakes of the final episode distracts from a larger, perhaps more interesting point: Battlestar Galactica's form of storytelling made it almost inevitable that the finale was going to be a disappointment.

The BSG episode form was built to increase dramatic intensity. Most television shows built their episodes as stand-alones, which include enough exposition at the start to explain their universes so that anyone can jump in and understand. This is often combined with references to the rest of the setting, so that they also can increase long-time viewers' knowledge of how the universe works. The storyline focuses on a handful of characters each episode, generally with two stories, a main A story and a secondary B story. The A story generally has the more important characters doing somewhat expected things, while the B story often has more intense, comic, or experimental things going on. The characters involved in the two (occasionally three) stories can intersect, but the themes almost always intertwine. The episode's storylines are resolved by the end of the episode. This familiar, procedural format tends to make surprises fairly unlikely.

Battlestar Galactica took a more fractured, ensemble-based form. Instead of each episode having a self-contained story, each episode tended to have one storyline specific to that episode, and a little bit of everything else shown in pieces. The most obvious example of this is the first season's story of Helo and Athena on occupied Caprica. Every episode in the first season had a few minutes worth of this storyline, which was totally unconnected to anything else going on in the series until the very end of the season. There was no particular reason why this couldn't have been done entirely in a single episode. Likewise, virtually every episode in the first season also had something about Tigh's alcoholism, the Chief's relationship with Boomer, Apollo's relationship with Starbuck, or Roslin's cancer.

By focusing on every character at once, the storyline became fragmented. These fragments do two things to a storyline: 1) they ratchet up the intensity, and 2) they make strong resolutions unlikely. The best parallel for this comes not from television, but instead from fiction, particularly the epic fantasy mega-series such as The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire by Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin, respectively. Both of these series are built around narrative shock after narrative shock, a massive, world-shaking climax at least once per book, characters consistently dying (and then being resurrected - sound familiar?).

The books are massive - usually between 700-1000 pages, largely because they often have ten or more point-of-view characters, who often take part in, or discuss, the same events. The POVs change with each chapter, often ending with semi-cliffhangers, leading to a narrative intensity based around one character being in mortal danger, another about to receive an incredibly important piece of information, a third falling in love, while the one you happen to be reading about is doing research in a dusty library. It's a great way to maintain reader interest; a fantastic method for having large books with lots of sequels; a brilliant plan for creating a detailed, well-populated setting; and most importantly, a guaranteed, sure-fire method for being totally unable to finish a story well.

The essential problem with the fractured-POV approach, which both Galactica and the fantasy mega-series have, is twofold: first, it forces the writer to come up with situations of increasing intensity to hold the viewer's attention (Tigh has sex with Caprica! Gaeta turns evil and sings! Boomer turns evil and doesn't sing! Adama becomes an alkie!); and second, the increasing complexity and intensity leads to one of the greatest banes of serialized storytelling, the "retcon."

Retcon, short for "retroactive continuity," is a device by which the writer of a story changes an explanation of what happened in the past in order to tell the story they want to tell in the present. It's most common in comic books, which have their decades of plots, deaths, and resurrections. Perhaps the most famous example is the X-Men's Dark Phoenix Saga, in which Jean Grey becomes so powerful that she goes insane and threatens the universe, and ends up committing suicide. A few years later, writers wanted to bring Jean Grey back, so the storyline was retconned so that it wasn't her who became Dark Phoenix, but rather...well, I'm not really sure, but it was some kind of clone/embodiment who was like, but not, Jean Grey.

Retconning can be used in ways that benefit the story. The Warcraft video games, for example, began as virtually plotless strategy games, but as they progressed, they've become incredibly detailed complete universes. In order to make the detail of later games make sense, the storylines of the original games have been retconned to be filled with relative details. Retcons can also be used to explain apparent mistakes by the writers.

However, in general, retconning simply makes it look like the writers are making it up as they go along. They're changing the rules, and if they change the rules, the storyline loses emotional impact.

Battlestar Galactica, from the middle of the third season until the end, had a storyline which was dominated by retconning: the "Final Five." The problem which created the Final Five was simple: by the end of the New Caprica storyline, we'd seen seven Cylons, with no particular reason why we hadn't seen the last five of the promised twelve models. So Moore created an explanation: the Final Five were special, and not spoken of. Which is fair enough. But then Moore had to ratchet up the intensity. So several major and minor character were retconned into being Cylons. The history of the Cylons themselves was retconned into existing before the war against the Twelve Colonies 40+ years before. And the entire storyline of the show changed from a complex examination of the ethics of leadership in desparate situations and whether humanity deserved to survive into a simple good vs evil struggle, where one evil Cylon with mommy issues tries to destroy all humans and most Cylons.

And now comes word of the ultimate in retcons, the TV movie "The Plan," which is supposed to totally explain everything that the Cylons did at the start of the series, according to the crap that the writers made up at the end.

By the end of BSG, the show was almost completely different from its stellar starting point. Consistency, both in storyline and in characterization, had been thrown out the window. Is there any wonder, then, that the ending was a crushing disappointment? The methods that Battlestar Galactica used to maintain interest and build intensity were, just like the fantasy mega-epics, initially thrilling, but eventually tiresome. This kind of storytelling is the rough equivalent of a microwave dinner. It's fast, it requires very little work, and it's edible. But it's not likely to be anywhere near as good as a meal made with care.

So how could Battlestar Galactica have done better at unfolding its story? There are several other TV shows that may provide some kind of answer - a subject for a near-future post.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Smile Time - Be Kind Rewind; After Life

I've been having several half-ideas which could be fleshed out on paper, but I haven't gotten them done just yet. I'm going to start trying to write something at least once per week, so look for something on Mondays. We'll see how it goes.

I have something of a reputation for preferring depressing movies. It's not necessarily because I actually prefer them, I think, but rather that I think that it often makes for more effective storytelling which breaks out of the tension-climax-resolution-happy! clichés. I may roll my eyes at a tacked-on happy ending, but I'm perfectly content to watch a movie which makes me smile.

Be Kind, Rewind, which was released within the last couple of years to a resounding thud, was just such a movie. Mos Def and Jack Black play video store employees who manage to delete the contents of all their videos. Their solution, such as it is, to the requests for movies which come in, is to reshoot the movies DIY and rent them to the customers the next day. The concept is a dangerous one, particularly with Jack Black ready and waiting to mug the movie in mediocrity, but it was written and directed by Michel Gondry. Gondry takes a DIY approach to his films and music videos. He does special-effects heavy flights of fancy like The Science of Sleep or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, while refusing to use CGI, leading to White Stripes music videos done painstakingly with LEGOs:

A famously playful DIY director making a movie about playful DIY movies of famous movies is ripe for a Baudrillardian analysis, particularly when Black and Def remake a documentary, When We Were Kings (Black is Ali). Yet the movie neither falls prey to pretension nor slapstick. It's exuberant, joyful, funny, and endlessly charming. Just watch the first remade (or "Sweded") movie-within-a-movie, Ghostbusters:

Perhaps it's the DIY concept which makes Be Kind Rewind so charming, as it has that in common with the Japanese film After Life. But where Be Kind Rewind has the initial plotline of a generic slapstick underdog comedy, After Life has a sweet, comforting story built around death.

The film is set in an isolated high school, staffed by twenty or so men and women in a very corporate environment. They have constant meetings, worry about meeting their quotas, and so forth. Then their clients are introduced, and the setting is further revealed. All of the clients are recently deceased, and the school is the first stage of their journey, where they pick out a memory that they wish to relive for the rest of their existence. The staff then uses their meager resources to recreate the scene. One man, a would-be pilot, wants to experience his first flight. The clouds are recreated by cotton balls dangling from a wire on a pully, a decidedly Gondry-esque touch.

Some dramatic tension is generated for the movie when a few of the clientele either cannot or will not choose a memory from their lives. This leads to revelations about the staff of the facility, which leads to either fascinating plot twists or unbelievable coincidences, the latter of which drags down the ending of the film. But the charm of the sequences where the memories are chosen, scripted, and most of all, produced and filmed, are what make After Life so memorable. It, like Be Kind Rewind, is in many ways, about the application of imagination to memory.

There aren't many clips from it online, but one, and a trailer, can be found by looking for it under its original name, Wandafuru Raifu. In this one, an adorable older woman talks about her memories of dancing and her older brother.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

John Woo and Dynasty Warriors

A Better Tomorrow; Hard Boiled; Red Cliff

One of the things I've been attempting to do over the last year or so particularly is fill in the gaps in my movie knowledge. I've started trying to build my knowledge of Hong Kong cinema, and have been doing so by checking out two of its most well-known directors, Wong Kar-Wai and John Woo - ironically, near-total opposites in style. Where Wong's films are languid and beautiful, Woo is well-known for being the king of the action genre, the inventor of "gun fu." Woo recently returned to Hong Kong and Chinese cinema with an epic based on the Three Kingdoms, Red Cliff (or Dynasty Warriors, for the gamers out there).

Woo's breakthrough film was A Better Tomorrow, released in the mid-80's in Hong Kong. It was not only Woo's breakthrough, but also a very young Chow Yun-Fat. In a single scene (which the internet, unfortunately, cannot seem to provide a clip for), both demonstrate why they'd become huge stars later. Chow Yun-Fat, playing a Triad hitman, prepares for an assassination by dressing like a badass, then hiding a series of guns in several potted plants along the way to the back room where his target awaits. As he starts the hits, he fires all his bullets, moving back and pulling out the hidden guns so that he doesn't need to reload. Although the scene ends with a direct warning that crime doesn't pay - he gets shot through the shin and is crippled for the remainder of the movie - the badassness of both the director and the star are firmly established.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film is a regrettable melodrama, apart from that scene. The story concerns an older brother who works for the Triads and his younger brother who becomes a cop. There are several scenes of the former trying to reconcile with the latter, but he just keeps getting caught up in his sordid past in horribly uninteresting ways, at least until the hyper-violent yet surprisingly dull shootout finale.

Woo's last Hong Kong film before he left for Hollywood was 1992's Hard Boiled, which also stars Chow, alongside a new breakout star, Tony Leung. Hard Boiled is a much more accomplished action flick, with just enough character development to make the massive action sequences interesting. Chow plays a cop investigating a gun-running operation, which is also being infiltrated by Leung, an undercover policeman. Chow's police skills are rather questionable, as his only talent seems to be shooting the hell out of everything, but logic isn't really what you look for in an action movie.

Hard Boiled has three major action sequences, which include a few iconic moments: In the first scene, a shootout in a restaurant ends with Chow Yun-Fat sliding down a staircase with two pistols blazing setting the standard for the action. A second bit, in which he breaks up a gang war, alone, by rappelling into the middle of the action with a shotgun, seems rather ludicrous, but it does introduce him to Leung's character.

Chow and Leung eventually form something of a team, turning the second half of the film into more of a buddy movie. The final third of the movie is a massive shootout, illogically located in a hospital, which the characters destroy with gleeful abandon and seemingly endless ammunition. I'm not an action movie connoisseur, so take this with a grain of salt, but this may be the most exquisitely choreographed gunfight filmed. The most famous part of it is a 2 minute, forty-two second long shot which sees Chow and Leung fighting off thugs while moving down a corridor. Leung accidentally shoots a fellow policeman, after which he and Chow argue about it in an elevator, and as soon as the elevator arrives, the two jump back into action.

This is quickly followed by a duel between Leung and the chief enemy henchmen, whose breathless chase involves the two scampering down a hallway almost on their knees, firing at each other through overhead windows.

My final foray into Woo's filmography was his latest film, Red Cliff. When I found out this movie existed, I simply had to see it. I've been a fan of the Three Kingdoms saga ever since I was first introduced to Dynasty Warriors. I've read the novel as well as played many of the games. The battle of Red Cliff, or Chi Bi, is one of the major turning points of the Three Kingdoms story. This version is a no-expense-spared epic, filled with big stars, telling a story so big it was split into two different movies. To think of it as a Chinese Lord of the Rings would not be terribly far off the mark.

*Note: Red Cliff is supposed to be released as a single film for American audiences at some point soon. The Chinese version, with English subtitles, can still be acquired without looking too hard....)

One of the main things which separates the Three Kingdoms from many Western stories, such as Lord of the Rings, is that in the novels (and surprisingly, many of the games), the lines between good and evil are blurred. Cao Cao, the antagonist, is brilliant and ruthless, but he is also arguably the only man who can prevent China from totally collapsing with the end of the Han Dynasty. Most of his crimes are also committed by the ostensible "good guys" in their rise to power. The film removes these grey areas, and instead treats Cao Cao as merely ruthless, a horny old bully. The protagonists - in the film, Tony Leung's Zhao Yu and Takeshi Kaneshiro's Zhuge Liang - are treated as almost entirely good, even though their warmongering and rivalry in the novel are far less heroic. (Ironically, Leung and Kaneshiro were the two male leads in Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express, playing characters almost opposite of Zhuge and Zhao's near-superheroes.)

In addition to a somewhat generic villain, Red Cliff also falls apart somewhat in the second part, as the multitude of characters start to change in importance. Like Lord of the Rings, Red Cliff diverges most from its source material by giving its female characters significantly more to do than the original medieval, or medievalist, authors had them doing. In this case, the tomboy Sun Shang Xiang (one of the best Dynasty Warriors!) is practically the star of the second half of the film, as she infiltrates the enemy camp and provides information to the strategists across the river. Zhao Yun's wife, Xiao Qiao (arguably the lamest Dynasty Warrior), is much less interesting, but ends up being the focus of the film's climax, as she takes it upon herself, thoroughly uninterestingly, to cross the river and distract Cao Cao so the final attack can succeed. Which she does. With tea, and obvious metaphors.

All that said, these disappointments are relatively minor for an extremely competent, occasionally gorgeous historical epic. Red Cliff's high point occurs towards the end of the first film, when master strategist Zhuge Liang lures Cao Cao's cavalry into the "yin yang" formation, a beautiful troop setup seemingly designed to allow historical superheroes to be their badass selves. One by one, Gan Ning, Zhao Yun, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, and Zhao Yun come out to take on Cao Cao's cavalry. The fight choreography is top-notch, and any Three Kingdoms or action fan should come out grinning. Happily, the yin yang scenes are on Youtube, in three parts (25 minutes - the main action starts at about 8:20 in the first part with Gan Ning.

part one
part two
part three