Sunday, April 29, 2012

Highly-Anticipated Movie Reviews: "Damsels in Distress"

The latest in an occasional series comparing my anticipation of a movie with the post-viewing reality...

Title of movie: Damsels in Distress 

Reason(s) for anticipation: NEW WHIT STILLMAN MOVIE! His first in 14 years!

All right, technically speaking, I didn't wait a full 14 years for this film. I first saw a Stillman movie (Metropolitan) just two and a half years ago -- but it was love at first sight. Since then, I've discovered that several of my playwright friends are equally as enamored of Stillman's screenwriting as I am, and I even co-hosted a Metropolitan-viewing party earlier this year. (We ate deviled eggs, dressed up in 1980s prom gowns, and danced the cha-cha.) I was thrilled to learn that Stillman would have a new movie coming out and interested to see what kind of story he would tell about young women of my generation. And of course, with the release of this movie, I'm loving the renewed attention paid to Stillman's filmmaking and all of the new interviews with him that are being published.

The premise: At a third-rate private university, three female students -- ringleader Violet, imperious Rose, and dippy Heather -- are on a self-imposed mission to bring good cheer and old-fashioned sociability to the benighted student body. The girls befriend Lily, a transfer student, and include her in their schemes, such as tap-dancing lessons for depressed students and scented soap for stinky boys. (It is typical of Stillman's deadpan humor that none of the characters ever point out that all of the girls are named after flowers.) But their attempts to impose order on the world run up against a host of problems, mainly male ones: dumb and smelly frat boys or disreputable "playboy-operator types." Lily also turns out to be more skeptical, less tractable, than foreseen.

My reaction: Has Whit Stillman been reading my mind? How has he possibly put so many of my pet preoccupations into one film?  Here's a movie where the characters wear sundresses with full circle skirts, worship Fred Astaire, read "flit lit" (dandy literature like Waugh and Wilde), hang Paris maps on their walls, and use Truffaut's Stolen Kisses as a seduction technique.

So many of the movie's little details resonated with me in an almost spooky way. In an early scene, the girls are at a frat party, where the '90s song "Another Night" by The Real McCoy is playing. "Ooh, a golden oldie! I love these!" cries Violet. Now, I have a very powerful Proustian-terpsichorean reaction to "Another Night," because when I was in fifth grade, some friends and I made up a dance routine to that song for a gym class assignment. This is the closest I have ever come to trying to start a dance craze. (This was the year that the Macarena came out and I feel like the gym teacher's assignment, as well as my dance moves, were vaguely Macarena-inspired.) And, later in the movie, Violet reveals that her greatest ambition is to start a dance craze. Odd, right? Out of all of the '90s golden oldies that Stillman could have chosen, why did he pick "Another Night"?

And it went on from there: a joke (I won't spoil it) that will make me and my parents laugh for an entirely different reason than it will make everyone else laugh; a revelation that one of the principal characters is from Portland, Oregon (my home town)... Of course, because I enjoy Stillman's sensibility, I'd expected that I would enjoy Damsels in Distress. But I had not expected to feel like Whit Stillman had been reading my mind!

So, here's the conundrum. Damsels in Distress is an extremely strange movie: it's Stillman's broadest comedy, presenting lots of preposterous characters and situations with a straight face. Many reviews have remarked that it seems to be set in some kind of idiosyncratic fantasy world. It's utterly sui generis, and yet it felt like it had been made for me. It's not even that Damsels in Distress reflected my own college experience to any significant degree -- just that it's chock-full of the material signifiers and abstract themes that tend to preoccupy me.

And, furthermore, it's decidedly odd for me to feel this way about a movie made by a man my parents' age, and not, you know, by Lena Dunham.  On the other hand, I was quite pleased to be confirmed in my feeling (which I've had ever since watching Metropolitan) that I am a half-step away from being a Whit Stillman character myself.

So what does that mean, "a Whit Stillman character"? Perfectionists, idealists. People who believe and say utterly ridiculous things, but with great conviction and impeccable grammar. People who are concerned with the viability of virtuousness in the modern world. (I once said to a friend of mine in college, "I feel like I am on a constant quest for self-improvement." "Oh yes, me too," my friend replied, and I remember thinking No, it's not the same thing. Because she meant it in a New Age, spiritual-growth sense, and I meant it in an old-fashioned Protestant Work Ethic sense.) Stillman may gently mock his characters' more outlandish theories, but unlike so many other American filmmakers, he will not mock anyone for being too intellectual, too idealistic, too exacting. In a typical romantic comedy, Violet would be demonized as a prig in need of a comeuppance, but in Damsels, she's the heroine. Indeed, the movie could be subtitled "The Vindication of Violet." She gets the only guy in the movie who's worth having (no spoilers, but I will say that many American movies would demonize him, too), and gets to start her dance craze, the Sambola. The Sambola scene, shot in shades of red, gold, and black, might be the most visually lovely thing Stillman has ever filmed.

Violet is the sort of person who'd rather light a (scented) candle than curse the darkness. The movie's comedy arises from her failure to understand that some people just don't like candles, and from her tendency to singe her own fingers when lighting the match, but the point stands: she has an optimistic, generous, can-do spirit. I strive to be this way, and it seems like Whit Stillman does, too. If you read between the lines of interviews with him, you can tell that he doesn't like much modern cinema, but he's too much of a gentleman to go off on some curmudgeonly rant about "kids these days and their sex and violence." Rather (after fourteen years of struggling with matches that won't light), he's made the kind of film that he'd like to see. Which, as it turns out, is just the kind of film that I'd like to see. Anyone want to Sambola with me?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

La vie est ailleurs

Having one of those insanely busy weeks where I am being hit with about a dozen deadlines at once, so even though there's a lot of stuff I'd like to blog about here, I'll have to put that off. In the meantime, you can find me elsewhere:
  • I'm conducting interviews with the Bay One-Acts (BOA) playwrights for the BOA blog. First two interviews (with Bennett Fisher and Anthony Clarvoe) are up now -- more are on the way!
  • Twitter! Yes, I finally joined. Find me @MarissaSkud.
  • I'll be at the Cafe Royale tomorrow night for the Super Secret Kickstarter Fundraising Party for BOA! OK, not sure why the event title includes the word "secret," because we want LOTS of people to show up and help us reach our Kickstarter goal! And if you're not in the Bay Area or can't make it tomorrow night... you can donate online here.
And a little music before I go: French-Canadian singer Coeur de Pirate performs "La vie est ailleurs" (which means "Life is Elsewhere" -- like the Kundera novel)


Thursday, April 5, 2012

New Favorite Song: "The Chapter In Your Life Entitled San Francisco" by the Lucksmiths

"Is it April yet?

A valid question (to which the answer is "yes") -- but I'm not asking you that. Rather, I felt like quoting the opening line of "The Chapter in Your Life Entitled San Francisco" by the Lucksmiths -- my new favorite song about my favorite city.

Why have I lived in San Francisco for nearly 4 years and never heard this song (it came out in 2005)? Why doesn't everyone I know consider this their theme song? Why did it not become a massive smash hit? Ah! It's so good! Intelligent lyrics! Sunny melody! Cute Aussie boys with cute Aussie accents!

I love how the Australian perspective informs the lyrics, too -- it's a song about loving someone who's in a different hemisphere, with different seasons and "unfamiliar stars." A friend of mine who's been to Australia says that that's the most disorienting thing -- to step outside and literally not recognize the constellations.

If I had a cabaret act I would perform this song in a medley with the Magnetic Fields' similarly-themed "Come Back From San Francisco," naturellement.

I actually learned of the Lucksmiths yesterday when reading Alec Nevala-Lee's blog post about the Magnetic Fields, to which a very enthusiastic commenter named Darren Goossens had responded with a lengthy comment implying that if you love the Magnetic Fields, you'll also like "the great Australian wordy-pop band, the Lucksmiths." (It seems that Mr. Goossens merely moonlights as a pop-music enthusiast and in his day-to-day life, he is a nuclear scientist. Curiouser and curiouser!) The quoted lyrics greatly appealed to me, so I investigated the Lucksmiths further. They put out several acclaimed albums in the '90s and '00s but disbanded in 2009.

"The Chapter In Your Life Entitled San Francisco" comes from the Lucksmiths' 2005 album Warmer Corners, which I listened to today and warmly recommend to all lovers of well-crafted guitar pop. Other standout tracks: "A Hiccup in Your Happiness," "The Music Next Door," "Sunlight in a Jar," and "Fiction." After hearing this last song, which is about a girl with the word "fiction" tattooed on her arm in typewriter font, I now have my answer to that recent AV Club Q&A about mandatory pop-culture tattoos...

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"Bernadette" and False Endings

Oddly enough, I'm reading two novels in a row that mention/discuss the song "Bernadette," by the Four Tops.

From A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (this is in the infamous PowerPoint chapter, so I can quote the text but not the formatting):
Right now, [Lincoln's] obsessed with rock songs that have pauses in them.
Songs with Lincoln's Comments:
"Bernadette," by the Four Tops: "This is an excellent early pause. The voice tapers off, and then you've still got 1.5 seconds of total silence, from 2:38 to 2:395, before the chorus kicks back in. You think, Hey, the song didn't end after all—but then, 26.5 seconds later, it does end."
From Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann:
The jukebox finished a song, then whirred to a new start. It was the Four Tops.

Bernadette. People are searching for—
the kind of love that we possessed. 
Some go on searchin' their whole life through
And never find the love I've found in you.

"Do you know the lead singer's name?"

"Levi Stubbs," Mark said matter-of-factly.

I reached for his sleeve. "Listen," I said, adding his name, "Mark. I love this part. The false ending. The way he screams her name. Bern—a—dette."

I sighed. "I'll never be loved like that."

He shook his drink, looking into it. "I doubt that."
I couldn't recall ever hearing "Bernadette" and had no idea that it was so widely known for its false ending/mid-song pause.  So I looked it up. Here it is for your listening pleasure:

The trouble with listening to songs on YouTube or an iPod is the little bar that indicates how long the song is and how much more of it remains, meaning that the false ending can't surprise you the way it could on the radio or an LP record. False endings and hidden tracks are becoming a thing of the past. Music is more convenient than ever (I mean, how nice that I could look this up on YouTube instantaneously!) and yet less able to surprise us.

Then again, when you read a book, you always know exactly where you are in it and how many pages remain, and that doesn't ruin your enjoyment of it. Why should it be any different when you know exactly how many seconds remain until the end of a song?

And now this is making me think of the "Aria with Diverse Variations" dialogue in Gödel Escher Bach where the Tortoise and Achilles discuss exactly this problem.
Tortoise: You've undoubtedly noticed how some authors go to so much trouble to build up great tension a few pages before the end of their stories--but a reader who is holding the book physically in his hands can FEEL that the story is about to end. Hence, he has some extra information which acts as an advance warning, in a way. The tension is a bit spoiled by the physicality of the book. It would be so much better if, for instance, there were a lot of padding at the end of novels.

Achilles: Padding?

Tortoise: Yes; what I mean is, a lot of extra printed pages which are not part of the story proper, but which serve to conceal the exact location of the end from a cursory glance, or from the feel of the book.

Achilles: I see. So a story's true ending might occur, say, fifty or a hundred pages before the physical end of the book?

Tortoise: Yes. This would provide an element of surprise, because the reader wouldn't know in advance how many pages are padding, and how many are story.
(And then, because this is Gödel Escher Bach, it all gets very meta.)

I don't have a Kindle, so I'm curious to know: on an e-reader, do you know exactly how much of the text you have remaining, or is it left mysterious? Wouldn't it be funny if the iPod caused this problem for music (of always knowing how long the work of art is) but the Nook or the Kindle eliminated this problem for books?