Thursday, August 27, 2009

4. Wong Kar-wai

A few days ago, we saw Wong Kar-wai's film Ashes of Time Redux on DVD. Despite the muddy storyline (apparently, the plot is clearer in the Redux version than in the original), we were reminded of films by him that we've admired.

At this point, we've seen all of Kar-wai's feature films except for two: As Tears Go By (1988; this was his first film as a director) and the original Ashes of Time (1994). (It would take at least a paragraph or two to explain why there are two different versions of Ashes of Time, so we won't go into it here.) Everything that we've seen is worth a look-see. That said, his best films are great and his lesser films include great moments.

How we discovered Wong Kar-wai:
Shortly before the release of Chungking Express in North America, we read an article in Film Comment about Wong Kar-wai's films. (All we can recall from the article is that he seemed to scribble ideas for his screenplays in coffee shops.) A while later, we rented Chungking Express from a local video store. We thoroughly enjoyed the film's performances and its distinctive style. Later, we made trips to the university cinema (Cinecenta, in Victoria, BC) to see his next two films Fallen Angels (1995) and Happy Together (1997).

Why Wong Kar-wai's films are worth watching:
We know that we aren't going out on a limb by recommending Wong Kar-wai. He's one of the most acclaimed directors in the world. He's had several books written about him. In a Sight and Sound poll from 2002, UK critics were asked to list the top ten directors and films of the past 25 years. Wong Kar-wai ranked #3 as director (just behind Scorsese and Kieslowski) and the #8 film was Chungking Express. (In the Mood For Love missed the Top 10 by one vote.)

Truth be told, Kar-wai isn't one of our favourite directors. But there's something very alluring about his films. Even when we don't get what he's doing exactly, we sometimes feel compelled to re-watch his films to try to find out. (Much of our favourite art -- literature, music, cinema -- tends to take time to digest. We like books, albums, and films that have tough bits, bits of gristle that we can gnaw on.)

We love the look and tone of Wong Kar-wai's films. The best of them involve close collaboration with Christopher Doyle (one of our favourite contemporary cinematographers) and William Chang (on many Kar-wai films he has somehow managed to be editor, production designer, and costume designer), both of whom are instrumental in creating the unique style of the films. His films are refreshingly peculiar and there's an intangible brilliance to his best work.

For what it's worth, Wong Kar-wai also uses rain and music in film as well as anyone since Singin' in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Where to start:
Days of Being Wild (1990)
Chungking Express (1994)
In the Mood For Love (2000)

The films:
The first time we saw Days of Being Wild, we didn't fully appreciate it. Taking place in Hong Kong and the Philippines (circa 1960), the film focuses on a few volatile relationships. Leslie Cheung is convincing as the not-too-nice main character (his name is "Luddy" according to the DVD box and IMDb, but we think he's generally referred to as "York" in the subtitles), a rebel with a plausible cause (he's adopted and has a troubled relationship with his adopted mom). His chemistry with actress Maggie Cheung (playing York's girlfriend/ex-girlfriend) is amazing, as is Maggie Cheung's chemistry with Andy Lau (playing a cop/sailor). In one riveting scene, York's ex-girlfriend asks, "Did you ever really love me?" He replies, "I can't know how many more women I'll fall for in my life. I won't know which I love most until the end of my life." Meanwhile, this exchange is being overheard by his current girlfriend. Ouch. (A barely-related, indulgent digression: The tone of this scene reminds us of the ex-lovers song "Hearts of Stone," with its devastating line "But I can't talk now; I'm not alone." Here's a remixed version of the song by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes w/ Bruce Springsteen, who wrote the song. We prefer the version on the SJ and the AJ album Hearts of Stone [1978], or even the Springsteen version on Tracks [1998]. Yes, we have been listening to a lot of Southside Johnny lately.)

Like some of Wong Kar-wai's other films, Days of Being Wild is indebted to French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, particularly the film's overly abrupt ending. Kar-wai also has a similar approach to writing screenplays to Godard's (that is, he relies heavily on improvisation).

Chungking Express is the most fine-tuned and consistently rewarding of WKW's early films (that is, his pre-2000 films). It has two dovetailing love-related storylines (its third storyline was made into a separate film, Fallen Angels [1995], which isn't one of our favourite of Kar-wai's movies). One story is about a lovelorn, tinned-pineapple-eating cop who meets a wig-wearing, gun-toting vixen, and the other story is about a cute, doe-eyed girl who works at a food stall and falls for a chef-salad-ordering cop. The film looks great (thanks, Chris Doyle and William Chang!), and the performances are dynamite, particularly those by Faye Wong (the doe-eyed girl) and Tony Leung (the chef salad cop).

Here's a clip of the chef salad cop and the doe-eyed girl meeting:

In the Mood For Love is different stylistically and tonally than Wong Kar-Wai's previous films. It has less handheld camera work and is more meticulously composed. It looks gorgeous and has the feel of a 98-minute-long novel. (We recall seeing an interview with Michael Ondaatje, who has made documentary films himself, in which he mentioned how In the Mood For Love reminded him of a great novel.)

The film is at once languorous, intense, rigorous, and sensuous. It is also one of very few films we can think of in which characters' clothing reveals aspects of their personalities. If you have have never seen a Wong Kar-wai film, start with In the Mood For Love. It is rich, romantic, and truly remarkable. The lead performances by Maggie Cheung (as Mrs. Chan) and Tony Leung (as Mr. Chow) are astonishingly good. Enough said.

Here is an illustrative clip from the film:

Other viewing/reading:
We would also recommend seeing 2046 (2004). It is an unusual, difficult-to-describe film that stars Tony Leung, a frequent Kar-wai collaborator and an all-around fantastic actor. We can't remember much of this movie, but we will certainly be seeing it again before long.

There are many books about Wong Kar-wai, though we have not read any of them. We understand that the best one might be Stephen Teo's Wong Kar-wai (one of at least two books with that title published in 2005). That's the one that we're planning to borrow from the library soon.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

3. Sloan

Initially, our enthusiasm for Sloan developed slowly. A song here, an album there. We chipped away for years until we found our iPod saturated with Sloan. For the past two years or so, we have enjoyed a steady diet of finger-snapping, drum-cracking pop from these ex-Haligonians (currently Torontonians). We don't see our interest in their crisp, infectious songs disappearing any time soon.

Since 1991, Sloan has been creating guitar-based, harmony-laced power pop. All four musicians in the band write songs, and the band's best albums contain at least two songs written by each member. (The four members of Sloan are Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland, Jay Ferguson, and Andrew Scott. All of them can sing, and they still sound like Sloan when they switch instruments.)

How we discovered Sloan:

Like most Canadians, we first heard Sloan when the single "Underwhelmed" (from the band's first album, Smeared [1992]) broke the sound barrier. It was catchy and ubiquitous, but it didn't compel us to buy Smeared. (Years later, when we did purchase it -- for a very reasonable price -- it revealed itself to consist mainly of undistinguished guitar rock.) Later, we borrowed or bought the occasional Sloan album. We first became interested in Sloan while living in Nova Scotia during the early '00s. (Our favourite maritime shout-out is in the appropriately-named "The N.S." on Between the Bridges: "If you get cold when you're swimming in the ocean / it's hard to believe you're a Nova Scotian boy.") After a friend burned us a copy of Never Hear The End Of It, we finally yielded to Sloan's melodic pull and found ourselves tracking down most of the band's back catalogue.

Why Sloan is worth listening to:

Every album by Sloan has at least a few great songs, and the band's best albums are riddled with them. Sloan manages to evoke the history of catchy rock, yet succeeds in maintaining its own sound. Sloan's songs often occupy the border between cheekiness and sincerity, a border that also happens to be filled with harmonies and melodies. Sloan has learned from the pantheon of rock, and it knows how to create inventive arrangements and intelligent lyrics. On many occasions, we have found ourselves afflicted with Sloan-induced ear worms. Oh, Sloan is also one of very few groups that knows how to fruitfully work the word 'rock' in a rock song.

We are not arguing that everything by Sloan is original and delightful. It isn't. Some of its songs are derivative and unspectacular. When Sloan tries to write hits, these songs tend to lack the idiosyncrasies that make the band appealing. But when everything works, Sloan is a wonder. There are few contemporary musicians that we follow, but we follow Sloan. And the band's last two albums are among its best.

Where to start:

One Chord To Another (1996)

Never Hear The End Of It (2006)

The albums:

Twice Removed (1994) is the band's most acclaimed album. According to one poll, it's the best Canadian album ever. Hmm. It's not even our favourite Sloan album. But it's got some real treats, including two songs that probably enjoyed heavy radio rotation in an alternate universe: "People of the Sky" and "Coax Me." We still remember the first time we heard "People of the Sky" -- that great "bah bah bah-da bahhhhhhhh" backing vocal and the deathless line "Like a three-legged dog in search of a crutch." However, our favourite song on Twice Removed is "Coax Me." It's got a catchy melody, a sweet "oooooooooohh" backing vocal, and -- wait for it -- the bridge is sung in falsetto. The lyrics are oblique with bits of lucidity peeking through (e.g., "It's not the band I hate; it's their fans"). Other songs to sample include "Snowsuit Sound" and "I Can Feel It."

Here's the video for "Coax Me":

One Chord To Another is twice as good as Twice Removed. We're fond of every track and nearly all of them have confident, uncluttered arrangements. Listen to the contrast between the spare, piano-dominated "A Side Wins" and the song that follows it, "Everything You've Done Wrong," with its horns and handclaps. Throughout One Chord To Another, we love the brilliant use of percussion (handclaps, tambourines, shakers, etc.). The lyrics are another highlight. Check out "Autobiography," for example. It begins, "I'm writing 'young and gifted' in my autobiography. / I figured who'd know better than me. / I'm certainly the former, but I'm not so much the latter. / No one's gonna read it so I'm sure it doesn't matter."

Here's the song "The Lines We Amend" (we didn't talk about it, but we really like it):

Released ten years after One Chord To Another, Never Hear The End Of It has a walloping 30 songs. It's got a bit of everything, including several one- and two-minute bursts of pop, rock, and hardcore. We are fond of the heterogenous everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. We agree with William Carlos Williams that the art you create shouldn't be expected to be consistent ("[A human being] varies; Hamlet today, Caesar tomorrow," he said). We don't love all of the songs equally, but who cares? Even a straightforward foot-tapper like "Someone I Can Be True With" contains some wonderful lines: "She's someone to hear Husker Du with / And someone to wait in the queues with / And someone to hate all things new with / She's someone to watch Gremlins 2 with." The details in these lyrics are funny and revealing. We've got a bead on this guy. "Right or Wrong," the next song on the album, includes the lines "This one's for the girls / There's no particular one in the world." To our ears, Sloan is taking the piss out of run-of-the-mill love songs. And what do we make of a sort-of piano ballad ("Live The Life You're Dreaming Of") that begins, "Hello, / can I have a show / of hands who have taken / something before?" But the delivery on the song is truly emotional, especially on the repeated refrain, "Maybe I can make it happen."

For us the album's centerpiece is "Fading Into Obscurity," a mini epic that clocks in at 4:12. The song is essentially a series of short interconnected bits that adds up to something pretty remarkable. It exhibits ambition, cleverness, tempo shifts, harmonies, and an array of glittering musical and lyrical shards. One choice lyric: "I made a name for myself when one could do such a thing, / a reputation that's held together by string. / And so I chose to cherish those who think there's some purity / to fading into obscurity." And another: "This cake is baked, / but I much prefer the batter / perhaps in part because it had so much potential / to be delicious and still be influential."

Sloan playing "Fading Into Obscurity" live:

Other listening/viewing:

We also have a lot of love for the albums Between the Bridges (1999) and Parallel Play (2008). But we've already written too much about One Chord and Never Hear.

There are, of course, various music and concert videos out there, and we're confident you can find them without our assistance. Apparently, there is a live Sloan DVD -- lamely titled Keepin' the Tour Alive -- that was released in 2006. We have not seen it.

Monday, August 10, 2009

2. Friday Night Lights

We just finished watching Season 3 of the TV series Friday Night Lights. It’s about a high school football team (the Panthers) in Dillon, Texas. We have no interest in football or high school students (played by 20-something actors, no less). But we really enjoy this series. (We almost said ‘enjoyed,’ but it looks like the show has been renewed for two more seasons. You’ll have to wait a while for Season 4, though. It doesn’t start until summer 2010.)

How we discovered Friday Night Lights:

This series is a recent enthusiasm. We heard the series was good, and Season 1 was sitting on the shelf in the library. So, we took it home, watched a few episodes, and became hooked. A week later, we watched Seasons 2 and 3 in one week. (Just so you know: it’s called Friday Night Lights because the Panthers' football games happen on Friday nights under bright stadium lights.)

Why it’s worth watching:

The characters are simultaneously simple and complex and so are their relationships. And the acting is frequently amazing. You may find yourself caring about characters that you disliked early in the series. You will understand why FNL has a 8.6/10 rating on

We are often surprised by the number of people we know who are addicted to the series. (A few days ago, we mentioned to a co-worker that we had just finished watching Season 3. By the end of the day, we had promised to lend our Season 3 DVDs to 3 different co-workers. All of them are female and none of them has an interest in football. That says something. Hopefully, it doesn’t just say that there are a bunch of cute boys in the show.)

Is Friday Night Lights a brilliant show? No. It's trashy TV. (Picture an adrenalized, American version of Coronation Street with a younger, more attractive community and an overuse of handheld camera work and quick editing. Then, throw in a football, a locker room, and a handful of broken homes.) OK, so FNL is essentially a Texan teen soap opera. At least it's good trashy TV. A pleasure you don't have to feel guilty about enjoying.

The series:

It’s hard for us to discuss this show in terms of its story arc. Yes, the series has an arc, but it’s not as finely executed as in some series (e.g., Mad Men, The Wire). The strength of Friday Night Lights is its characters and the relationships (friends, lovers, teammates, family members) between those characters. We come to care about a gawky, ginger-haired dweeb trying to rock out with his Christian metal band, Crucifictorious. We come to care about an ex-cheerleader who finds religion after cheating on her boyfriend (with his best friend, of course). We come to care about an oily, fast-talking car salesman who derives his identity from his ongoing relationship with the Panthers.

Here’s a commercial from said car salesman, Buddy Garrity:

Surprisingly, the football games in the series can pack an emotional wallop because you get to know the players off the field. You also get to know another side of the players, the head coach, and even the fans during games.

The characters who form the three-chambered heart of the show:

  1. Eric Taylor: He is the head coach trying to "do what's right for the team," even if it's unpopular in football-obsessed Dillon. (This is a town where everyone has an opinion about what the coach should be doing to win on Friday night.) Kyle Chandler's understated performance is remarkably compelling.
  2. Tim Riggins: Yep, he's the tough, perpetually hungover bad boy who the girls can't resist. But Taylor Kitsch turns him into a strangely nuanced and decent young Texan.
  3. Matt Saracen: He's the uncharismatic first-string quarterback -- aka QB1 -- who looks after his bathrobe-wearing, dementia-afflicted grandma. Zach Gilford makes him the most refreshing character on the show.

There are a variety of strong female characters as well, including Tami Taylor (the coach's wife, who also works at the high school; she's spunky, headstrong, and intelligent), Julie Taylor (the coach's daughter, who dates one of the Panthers), and Tyra Collette (a pretty blonde who initially accepts, but eventually wants to transcend, her white trash upbringing; her sister is a stripper and her mom is an aging sexpot).

The first and third seasons of the series are consistently good. Unfortunately, the second season takes a few ill-advised detours. (We believe Season 2 may have been somewhat lacking due to the Writers’ Strike in 2007/08.) The way Season 3 ends, we’re not sure how many characters will be returning for Season 4. But we’re looking forward to finding out.

Other reading/viewing:

The series FNL was created by Peter Berg, co-director and co-writer of the film Friday Night Lights (2004). The film was, in turn, based on the book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream (1990) by H.G. Bissinger. In his book, Bissinger writes about a high school football team (the Panthers) from Odessa, Texas (the town in the TV series -- Dillon, TX -- is fictitious). We started to read the book, but its prose was too overheated for our taste, so we abandoned it. And we haven’t seen the film.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

1. Paul Collins

A few days ago, we finished Paul Collins’ just-published The Book of William. For no other reason, we decided that Collins should be the focus of the first installment of this series.

We have read every book Collins has published except his first book, a textbook called Community Writing: Researching Social Issues Through Composition. All of his other five books are worth reading.

How we discovered Paul Collins:

When we were teaching English as a Second Language, one of our co-workers lent us a copy of McSweeney’s no. 5 (this was in 2000 or 2001), which included an amazing article by Collins called “Solresol, the Universal Musical Language.” A year or two later, we checked out Banvard’s Folly from the library.

Where to start:

  • Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World (2001)
  • Not Even Wrong: A Father’s Journey into the Lost History of Autism (2004)
  • The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World (2009)

Why he’s worth reading:

Collins unearths unbelievable stories that happen to be true. He brims with enthusiasm for rare books and old newspaper articles. In these sources, he always finds eccentric characters and remarkable nuggets of information (or misinformation). He also peppers his works with a great selection of quotations from peculiar sources.

The books:

His first book, Banvard’s Folly, focuses on thirteen once-famous people who are now long forgotten. They include an artist who painted an enormous canvas – reputed to be three miles long - that moved past the viewer, the creator of the Concord grape, and the inventor of a music-based universal language. The book is held together mainly by the underlying glue of fame-to-obscurity narratives. This may be Collins’ funniest book. (The other contender would be the delightful Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books [2003], which is about trying to buy a home in the Welsh town Hay-on-Wye, a town with pop. 1,500 and 40 bookstores.)

Not Even Wrong is Collins’ second memoir (the first being Sixpence House), and it’s his most personal (and emotional) book to date. It focuses on the author’s discovery that his son Morgan is autistic, causing Collins try to find out what he can about autism and its history. His discussion of Peter, a ‘wild boy’ in the early 1700s who Collins suggests may have been autistic, is particularly fascinating. We have recommended this book to a few people and they have all enjoyed it. This may be our favourite of Paul Collins’ books.

Collins’ most recent book, The Book of William, looks at how Shakespeare’s First Folio became the most expensive and the most revered secular work in the world. It is packed with illuminating historical details. (For example, after stating that a printer and his assistants nailed several copies of a book’s title page to nearby posts, Collins writes, “This is the eminently practical reasoning behind old title pages – their ludicrously prosaic subtitles make sense when doubling as posters.” Huh.) Though we had no interest in reading about Shakespeare, we knew that we would like this book because of its author. (That said, we were somewhat disappointed by his previous book, The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine [2005]. Though the book is animated by a great cast of characters, including Walking Stewart and Moncure Conway, we felt that Collins lost the narrative thread at times.)

Whether writing about warring 18thC wags Pope and Theobald or unfolding the story of why a business consultant decided to track down every existing copy of the First Folio, Collins always manages to be both entertaining and informative. His enthusiasm for the past is contagious. He makes us care about history.

Other reading:

Collins maintains an enjoyable, wonderfully-named blog, Weekend Stubble, which often includes links to his latest articles. Since 2002, he has also been the editor of the Collins Library (published by McSweeney’s). These books tend to be out-of-print and obscure. The few titles that we’ve read in this series include Curious Men (a slim, rather slight selection of writings on Victorian curiosities; from the mid-to-late 1800s), English as She Is Spoke (a hilariously atrocious English phrasebook; first published in 1855), and Lady into Fox (an astonishing novella about a man whose wife suddenly transforms into a fox; first published in 1922).