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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Film: Upstream Color

A small spoiler free "poster" I created to go along with the writeup, featuring the movie's key characters

I think I'll open up this post by providing a link where you can purchase this film, and merchandise related to it:

Please do by the way. At the very least I will buy the Blu Ray DVD to support Shane Carruth's brilliant film-making endeavors, but I could definitely go for that all inclusive package that comes with the soundtrack (also excellent) on vinyl, some posters, and a copy of the classic work "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau. Naturally that last one will make the most sense after you've seen the film.

Well, where do I start? A couple of years ago I watched "Primer," which would be Shane Carruth's first film. Its thoughtfulness was only outdone by its mind-bending plot device - seriously go watch that movie too - and perhaps its biggest downfall was that it had too technical of a story for most people to enjoy, possibly causing more confusion than entertainment. The plot can be worked out and has been done by various places on the web. It was overall a piece that I enjoyed, but mostly it paved an interest in Carruth's future work. Just a few days ago I saw "Upstream Color" and I can say without a doubt that this film has jumped into position as one of my all time favorites, and has led me to believe that Shane will be carving a new path for film-makers yet to come. Despite my desire to analyze everything the first time, I allowed myself the opportunity to simply drink in the entirety of the movie, letting the puzzle reveal itself, and only on the second and subsequent viewings would I begin to pick away at its mysteries, of which there are many. To be completely honest though, the film didn't give me much of a chance to analyze everything the first go around.

"Upstream Color" is exactly the kind of movie where the less one says, the better the reward is in the end. All of this makes it particularly difficult to write an opinion piece, but I think too highly of it to not make some small waves right here on this blog. To that end, I suppose what makes this movie so intrinsically valuable to me is how much it takes advantage of its advantages. I'm no doubt positive every single person reading this right now has heard someone say some permutation of this: The book was way better than the movie! Well that's fine, but not altogether fair. You see, books are an entirely different medium, and I'd be willing to bet that more often than not, a film-maker does not change the book because he/she has a secret sneaky agenda to make you upset whilst making him/herself boatloads of money in bags with "$" printed on it, like a 19th century bandit. Different mediums have different strengths and different ways of telling stories. I love movies and more specifically I love how movies can tell a story. Imagine a twisting narrative that jumps back and forth in time, let's say between 3 different time periods: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. It sounds easy enough to write about in a book, just write it. But imagine how that plays out in a film. We could cut between scenes without delay, flashing images that provide key details and quickly return from whence we came. If you wrote three sentences in a book that took place at three different times, it'd be entirely plausible, but would probably become a tiresome read extremely quickly due to the confusion factor. This is likely why you'll find that books are divided respectively into: sections, chapters and parts. It's much easier to switch a point of view after having completely given a different one, and conversely, much as it would be befuddling to change tense mid sentence, so to would it be to switch focus or POV within one as well.

This all comes up because "Upstream Color" is precisely that kind of film. The one in which the viewer is rewarded for viewing. It takes advantage of what makes films an enjoyable medium, and it supports that charge with a gripping plot, terrific direction, and a finely crafted soundtrack all of which only make you want to hit to play once more as soon as the credits roll. I know I don't have to say it with all the pimping I've already done for it, but I absolutely love this film. For what it's worth, I highly recommend it.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Music: Modern Vampires of the City

Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend

A few days ago I was afforded the chance to listen to this album in its entirety. Having anticipated it ever since the days post-Contra, I knew I was potentially risking letdown from the (largely unfair) expectations that had been built in my mind. From the singles that had been released over the course of this album's creation I grew more and more excited as the songs gave so much promise. Despite my best efforts I was already judging this album before I listened to it.

Being a self-admitted Vampire Weekend fan I took a few moments to consider whether I would be in my right mind to judiciously comment on Modern Vampires of the City. Fans often have a way of excusing faults or embracing the body of an artist's work that critics might otherwise unilaterally pan. Make no mistake though, this is the life of a fan and I believe it is not only important but necessary for music as a whole. All this being said, I was indeed caught off-guard by what Vampire Weekend did with their latest effort. In a surprisingly twist, they made a critic out of someone who has confessed in the past that they could do no wrong.

They created an album that caused reflection on why I enjoyed their music so much in the first place.

MVotC is by far their most sonically varied, furthest reaching, and thematically consistent music to date. From the opening lines of the album, Ezra sings of abandon within a larger world that seems to care not for the thoughts of the lonely persona he lyrically paints against a soft melodic background. "Unbelievers" further expands upon the notions contained within the album by establishing a thesis of a strangely interesting subject for the band: God. Religion at the very least, perhaps metaphorically standing in for a more over-arching topic takes center place on MVotC. The track sings of dying a sinner for the lack of a belief system, curiously wondering if there's room for people like that in the world while also questioning whether or not there is any agency in this disposition. Does this person have a choice, or is he/she damned to a unearned fate they cannot control? Perhaps most notable is how Vampire Weekend composes these songs under the guise of pop music and catchy instrumentation that make for foot-tapping tunes blinding the (very heavy) lyrical weight if one does not pay attention.

"Diane Young,"was one of the double A-side singles released in mid-March alongside "Step" and seems to be another hint at the wit of the album which masks the content with another upbeat melody. Perhaps it is a stretch to think but for argument's sake let us assume that Diane Young refers not to a woman, but a wordplay that might also be read as: Dying Young. The premise built from the onset of the album seems to be playing towards living a more or less bohemian or rebellious lifestyle questioning the outcomes associated with not falling in line. In this case "dying young" would be one of the potential threats to an existence that chooses to live without a higher power guiding it.

"Everlasting Arms" seems to be reconciling with this problem seeking advice on how to potentially be saved. In a further development however, the speaker fully acknowledges the semi-paradoxical difficulties associated with buying into a proposition that he does not fully align with. A key line asks again whether or not it is possible to be subservient to a system that cannot be easily understood. The troubles of this "main character" -if there can be said to be one- continue to deepen as we ourselves move deeper into the album. As a side note, this song seems to be the most familiar sounding to VW's back catalog, and also interesting the one that most resembles something would have come off Paul Simon's Graceland.

 As the albums moves through "Worship You" and especially, "Ya Hey" the central figure to this tale appears to have fully abandoned the possibility of being a true believer. The lyrics challenge the concept of accepting God when the world around this narrator (again by his/her choice or not) seems to be actively rejecting the idea as well, making it near impossible to do anything but that. Further in the song, a reference to The Rolling Stones' "19th Nervous Breakdown is given likely as evidence towards the exasperating sacrifice one is required to make in order to believe. Ultimately it is rejected. The title of "Ya Hey" itself might be another disguised word play aligning with the ideas of the album as a whole. Appearing in the lyrics, distorted, Ya Hey sounds close "Yaweh," which would be the Hebrew word for God, or The Lord.

The second to last track is perhaps the only one that seems to match tonally to the lyrics. "Hudson" veers far from the released singles diving into far moodier and dark territory than the band ever has before. Through such stark lyrics as:

The time has come
The clock is such a drag
All you who change your stripes
Can wrap me in the flag

 It could be inferred at this point within the album that the speaker accepts that he/she will never be able to change how they think and therefore how they live. By accepting this, their life has become a ticking time bomb to a fate that may or may not actually befall them. The character in this tale will notably leave this world having tried to see the other side of things and despite being unable to, will ultimately be proud of having reached a decision upon independently considering the potentially grim outcome and staying honest to what they believe is the truth.

Almost as though the album were an incredibly formal and academic way of defending a "punk" attitude.

Of course the album works sans all of that, and I highly recommend it for reasons beyond what can be discerned through its lyrics. If you're looking for music with a little something extra, this album might be just the one for you. Vampire Weekend have impressed me once again and I will continue to relentlessly hype myself in preparation for their continued output though all the years I've left.