Friday, September 25, 2009
Now, Nicolas Cage has taken a lot of heat for the roles he's played since winning Best Actor for Leaving Las Vegas. A quick sampling: The Rock, Con Air, City of Angels, The Wicker Man, and Ghost Rider. All pretty bad movies that he wasn't particularly good in. In fairness, he was actually really good in Adaptation, and he also made a movie called The Weather Man which was OK.
But if you have a chance, take a look at the size of Cage's filmography: a fairly whopping 62 credited actor roles according to IMDB, 24 or so of those since winning the Oscar; another dozen producer credits. Now, maybe he isn't doing that much to earn those producer credits, but the point is obvious: the man works. Even if he's sold his soul and makes crap now.
The great underground film critic Vern said that he didn't really like Knowing until he realized how crazy and subversive it was, especially for PG-13 mainstream Hollywood movie. Now, I have to say I didn't really like it at all, but I agree about the crazy and subversive part: this movie has the balls to go for one of the battiest climaxes you'll ever see in a big-budget star vehicle, and deserves quite a few kudos for that.
The plot concerns a time capsule that's buried in front of an elementary school and then dug up 50 years later. It turns out that one of the items in the time capsule, put in by this creepy little sad-eyed girl, is a sheet of paper covered entirely with what appear to be random numbers. Except that when they open the capsule and Nicolas Cage's kid gets that piece of paper, he realizes that numbers aren't random at all: they actually predicted every major disaster of the previous fifty years. We learn this because even though Nicolas Cage guzzles whiskey by the glass he manages to stay up all night and crack the code without passing out.
(If I seem a little like a smart-ass for saying 'Nicolas Cage' all the time instead of the character's name, it's because I don't remember the character's name - John -something - which is kind of an indictment of the movie, to be honest. But also, it doesn't really matter what the character's name is, does it?)
I don't want give the ending away because it's not nice, and besides, this post is dragging on and I haven't even gotten to Milk yet - but let's just say, that where a lot of S-F movies with this high of a concept might lose their nerve and decide to play all ambiguous at the end and cop out, Knowing definitely does not cop out. It goes absolutely for broke, and whether or not you're laughing (or kind of smirking, in my case) at the alien angels and bunny rabbits and floating rocks at the end is up to you, but you can't deny that they went for it. And I think that's kind of good. Where a lot of movies might've pulled some deus ex machina trick of an ending to totally knock the movie off the track it clearly has been heading in for its entire running time, Knowing doesn't. You might say it skips the machina and gives you the straight-up deus.
Onto the other half of one of the weirdest double-bills ever, we have Gus Van Sant's Academy Award-winning biopic Milk, the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected in the United States. I only feel a little bad for saying that I was afraid at first that the movie was going to be too gay for me.
Too gay as in, too gay. It's not especially graphic, but there's a good bit of kissing in the beginning, and speaking of going for it, Sean Penn and James Franco did--they don't even use stand ins or lighting / camera tricks, it's all pretty up front.
Now I realize that it sounds petty and homophobic and mean to call out a movie for guys kissing guys, and maybe what I'm about to say sounds like a denial of a closet case, but sorry, I just don't roll that way. Make of that what you will, but I know what it means. Men kissing men is just not something I'm used to seeing but I think it's OK because I was able to get over it and finish the movie, even if my squeamishness returned briefly during some shadowy nude wrestling later on.
I don't like it, it kind of grosses me out, really - but psst, there's gay sex probably going on within a mile radius of where you're sitting right now, like it or not.
And homosexuality doesn't offend me nearly half as much--nearly a third as much, or a tenth as much, really -- as people who try to tell other people how to live. Now that I fucking outright hate. I could actually hold up a sign and demonstrate against that. Homosexuality? A mild distaste. A little skeeviness. Slight turning of the stomach, based on how flamboyant it is. That's it.
Consenting adults ought to be able to do whatever the hell they want to do behind closed doors, as long as it's not hurting anyone. Let 'em make love to dogs, for all I care (well, unless the dogs don't want to). That's just the way it should be, and there isn't a right-thinking person in the entire world who feels differently.
Now, about this movie Milk - Sean Penn really was great in it. I'm not that familiar with the real Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978, but this is certainly a very different Sean Penn from any I've seen before. In last year's Best Actor race I was kind of in favor of Mickey Rourke over Penn because I thought his win would make a better story--Rourke was a guy who had flushed a once-promising career completely down the toilet, and here he was, up for an Oscar. But I have to admit, having seen both The Wrestler and Milk now, I think Penn was better.
And after awhile in the movie, a funny thing happened: I didn't really care that it was about homosexuals. It was just about people who fought for a just cause, and even though it was pretty much based in fact, I found myself rooting for Milk and his friends to defeat the proposition against gays (or whatever the hell it was, I wasn't exactly clear -- but it doesn't really matter).
And they did, which makes it an even better story, but Milk did wind up dead, too, shot by some closet case of a fellow politician, and the coda of the film, after his death, is actually pretty moving.
But I started to wonder, though: how come all of the gay parts in Hollywood (or just about all) are played by straight actors?
There's considerable impirical evidence that Sean Penn is straight, and I'm pretty sure that James Franco is too. Now both the director (Gus Van Sant) and writer (Dustin Lance Black) are acutally gay in real life, but the guys portraying the two main 'gay' roles actually aren't.
I wonder if gay people mind that?
There really seems to have been a turning in America lately. Just a couple of decades ago, it was big news when someone came out of the closet. It was big news when it turned out that Rock Hudson was gay. It was big news when Ellen DeGeneres came out, too.
But now? Doogie Howser, MD came out of the closet - Neil Patrick Harris - I pretty much think that the general consensus was OK, whatever. American Idol had this pretty-openly-gay-without-actually-saying-it runner up Adam Lambert (who finally did say it, actually) and it wasn't a big deal at all.
Now, I know there are still plenty of gays out there who haven't come out, and won't, because they're afraid to--there's a significant scene about that very issue in Milk--but in general, this seemingly collective shrug, at least by the majority of America, suggests a pretty big turning in the country--and one that, if actually laid out and examined on a timeline, has come up pretty quickly. It means people are generally more open-minded than they were twenty years ago, and if this keeps up, we might have weeded out just about all prejudice (or at least the really nasty ones) in the gene pool within the next forty or sixty years.
Yeah, OK, probably not. But there's hope. And like they said in The Shawshank Redemption, hope is a good thing.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
It wasn't perfect, and it was mostly carried by the performances. The script rang completely hollow and false in spots, and tried way too hard to be quirky-cool in others. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. I don't remember the other scripts it was up against, but I don't recall feeling any particular outrage at that victory because the end result was a pretty enjoyable movie.
That script and its Academy Award victory launched Diablo (I've heard her real name but I don't remember and don't care) Cody's career as a screenwriter. Now she has a TV show ("The United States of Tara") and a regular column in Entertainment Weekly magazine, and she's written a new movie (Jennifer's Body). She's gone from stripping for dollars to rubbing elbows with Spielberg.
You've heard at least a precis of Cody's story; she was a stripper ('coming up on the main stage, three songs with...Diablo!") and then turned to writing, wrote the script for Juno, sold it, and starting turning up on Oprah and elsewhere; suddenly a small but vocal contingent soured on her because she got too popular and started sniping at her work on Ain't It Cool News and other web hangouts for the malcontent.
Like I said, I thought Juno was pretty good. I had some problems with the script, or at least the version of it that made it to the screen, but it had some heart and wit and told an engaging story. I think I read the dialogue get praised somewhere for its realism, but it wasn't real at all - it was an idealized reality, a shiny sparkling hyperreal image buffed up by Diablo Cody, with bits that rang sort of true and bits that clanged off of the truth like a basketball flung from half-court clangs off of the rim. But that's OK. It was fiction. It's no crime for fiction to reflect the truth as the writer sees it; that's actually fiction's entire job.
I haven't seen Jennifer's Body yet, but I don't think I'll have much of a chance because the box office isn't good. Early reports indicate it boasts that same wink-wink, nudge-nudge self-aware "reality" in its dialogue that Juno did.
Predictably enough, the same malcontents are all over this one, ripping the carcass to shreds, shouting "I told you so" at the underwhelming box office.
That's what you do when someone gets too popular: you pull the knives out.
Now I happen to believe that the majority of this backlash is simple jealousy. I don't know if Diablo Cody is a great writer; time will tell, I guess. I don't personally think Academy Awards necessarily attend greatness -- the list of great scripts that haven't won awards is far longer than the list of those that have.
But Diablo Cody, at least, had the discipline to sit down and create something. I don't know what breaks she got along the way, but success is usually only a product of some hard work and opportunity. Sometimes it's a 50-50 split between those two elements; sometimes it's 80-20 for hard work, and sometimes it's the other way.
But work has got to be part of it. Sooner or later, if you want the success, you've got to get off of your ass and do something. If you don't, the only thing you can do is take bitter potshots at those who did.
The only Patrick Swayze movie that I own is Point Break. I think I've seen all of Red Dawn by now, although I'm not completely sure of that, and I'm pretty sure I never sat down and watched it end-to-end. Ditto for Ghost. I've only seen chunks of both Road House and Dirty Dancing, although at least in the latter case it's mostly the more important stuff, the nobody-puts-Baby-in-the-corner stuff, and that's enough make me feel like I've seen the whole thing.
I don't have strong opinions on a lot of Swayze's filmography, but I do love Point Break. I love everything about it, really, even the stuff that unfolds after Keanu Reeves's Johnny Utah and Swayze's Bhodi know each other's secret identities and then they still act like they don't. I love it even though Keanu Reeves and Gary Busey look about as much like FBI agents as I do, which is to say not at all. I love the energy of it, the sheer delirious confounding implausibility of it all, even the cameo from Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers as a psycho surfer.
A big part of the reason that Point Break works so well, even though it really shouldn't, is Patrick Swayze's performance as Bhodi, the zen bank robbing surfer. As many others have noted in the wake of Swayze's death this week from pancreatic cancer, which he had been diagnosed with earlier this year, this performance in particular stands out in Swayze's career because of the actor's commitment to it, his apparent belief in this gloriously improbable character who really anchors the entire movie.
I happen to think Denzel Washington is the best actor of his generation. Now, I'm not going to suggest that Denzel Washington, a two-time Oscar winner, has that much in common with Patrick Swayze, except in one very crucial way: Washington never seems anything less than absolutely, postively, 100% invested in his performance, regardless of the movie, regardless of the role. From alcoholic Army Colonel to crooked narc to high-school football coach to time-traveling cop, Washington always, always seems committed. Now some his movies have been more successful than others, certainly, but I've never once seen Denzel Washington phone it in. A movie that he's in is going to have a certain quality just because he's in it, no matter what other factors may be working against it.
It sounds a little funny to call Patrick Swayze a great actor, but I'll tell you this: like Denzel Washington, he always seemed to believe. Even his goopiest roles, in Ghost and Dirty Dancing, resonate with a certain honesty and dignity that elevate the entire enterprise. You may not have liked his movies, but you couldn't honestly ridicule anything he ever did. He never seemed to give less than 100%, and he seemed to do so effortlessly. Those qualities have to be barometers of greatness - if they aren't, then nothing is. So, yeah - I know he didn't win many awards, but maybe Patrick Swayze was a great actor after all.
Time can be a great healer - distance and perspective can often shrink what once seemed huge. Someone who's fucked up as many times in life as I have has earned that knowledge for sure. But time can also be unforgiving, and when the curtain comes down, it's time to leave the stage whether or not you've finished saying what you want to say.
Patrick Swayze probably had more to say. He was only 57, well short of a full life. But what he did manage to get out there in this time moved people and will last long after his death, and that's a pretty damn good legacy. If you've got to go too young, you could do far worse than leaving behind a body of work that will continue to be watched and loved for many, many years to come.
I haven't watched Point Break in awhile, but I know this much: if it were on right now, I wouldn't turn it off.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
His good movies aren't good because of him -- Children of Men was good, because it had a cool, original idea, a great production design, a really well staged extended action sequence toward the end, and a shout-out to one of the best albums ever, Pink Floyd's Animals. Inside Man was pretty good because it had Denzel Washington and a decent little plot that kept you guessing, but anyone could have played Owen's role. Derailed stank because Jennifer Anniston is a terrible femme fatale and the central 'twist' was plainly visible a mile and half away. If anyone has ever seen King Arthur, The International, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, or Shoot 'Em Up, I haven't met them.
Point is, I look at Owen and watch him on film and see nothing more than a sorta-handsome-I-guess guy who delivers every emotion, every mood, from bemused indignation to tender romance, exactly. The same. Way.
And I have no idea whatsoever why Julia Roberts ever became a star. Where others see (or claim to see) etheral beauty and incandescent acting talent, I see a broad face and a huge mouth, and moderate-at-best range. I've liked her on film exactly once: when she was playing someone pretending to be 'Julia Roberts' in Oceans Twelve, a meta-celebreality joke that I'll admit worked for me. But even at around five minutes, that gag overstayed its welcome. In every other movie, in every way, I can only wonder why there was any fuss over her to begin with. Bland as a field of wheat.
Owen and Roberts were the two stars of a movie I watched the other night, Tony Gilroy's Duplicity, and as I watched and my indifference began morphing into contempt as the story elaborations unfolded, I thought for a second that I'd found the ne plus ultra of good movies gone bad. I say good movie gone bad because there's some talent at work here - Gilroy's first directing effort was Michael Clayton, with George Clooney in the title role, and even if that movie became way overrated, I liked it because it had a good story and good acting and was clever enough to portray Clooney against type, as a 40-something loser.
But it's no stretch to say I hated this one, hated its cuteness and patness and self-love for its own cleverness. I didn't like the characters or the actors that played them. I didn't like the winking and mugging and rancid stylistic tricks. Really, I didn't like anything about it. Oh, wait, I guess the cinematography was OK.
Gilroy apparently likes stories about powerful corporations and he really likes to have his movies unfold nonsequentially, because both Michael Clayton and Duplicity share those qualities. But Michael Clayton's timeline-trickery was reduced to an opening sequence that laid out certain parameters of story and then a flashback that moved everything to the point where the movie began: a circle, basically, and even though the movie would've been just as good if it had been told in a linear fashion, that technique at least didn't do any real harm.
It's probably a debit for Duplicity that Michael Clayton paid off so well--big box office and a ton of Award nominations--because that just encouraged Gilroy to go for broke in his next story about corporate greed, hip-hopping the narrative all over the damn place - six years ago, present day, three years prior, present, eighteen months earlier, etc. It's so damn tiresome and confusing (especially since the narrative is shifting geographically and introducing new characters left and right at the same time, too) and pointless, the worst kind of "just-because-I-can" trick that adds nothing and feels like a filmmaker jerking off, like almost every Quentin Tarantino effort outside of Pulp Fiction.
It's also a damn shame that the Oceans movies of Steven Soderbergh paid off so handsomely, because Duplicity is rife with the little stylistic flourishes that were all over those movies too, all of the split screens and grating wanky-hip soundtrack. This isn't a movie, it's pasteurized-processed cheese product disguised as a movie, corporate crapola about, well, corporate crapola.
Sorry, Tony - you're not a bad writer, but why don't you change subjects and just tell a story, a straightforward, linear story? I bet it'd be pretty good, or at least better than this bullshit.
I'll admit, I got a little caught up in the Melanie Oudin hoopla at the US Open. I still like tennis, even though I don't play anymore. Maybe my fascination was because of the local connection. Maybe because she's American. Maybe it was the string of improbably, come-from-behind wins. Maybe because she's cute. Maybe all of the above.
But a 6-2, 6-2 loss in the quarterfinals to some player I've never heard of before brought it all to a crashing halt last night. The feel-good sports story of 2009, at least so far, is now history and we've got to wait to see if Oudin makes any further impact on women's tennis, or if it's just a one-season-and-done, flash-in-the-pan deal for her. I'm still hoping not, but only time will tell.
In truth, Oudin killed herself more than the other player (I think it's Wozniak or Woznacki or something) did -- I watched a bit, and she was spraying shots all over the place, long and wide, losing point after point on unforced errors. It was pretty obvious from early in the match that she wasn't up to it. I'm sure fatigue had a lot to do with that.
She had her chances - a couple of break points early in the second set - but couldn't convert anything.
Now, some people are saying that Oudin got more buzz than the Williams sisters did when they first got on the scene, and that's because Oudin is white while the Williamses are black. I'm not really sure that Oudin got more buzz to begin with, because I don't really remember how much buzz greeted the Williamses - I recall it was a lot, but how do you measure such an entirely subjective thing?
Now, if Oudin did receive more adulation than Venus and Serena, that may be at least partially due to race. I can't deny the possibility, since Barack Obama's election has done nothing if not make the lingering racial issues in the US even more obvious.
But I prefer to think that if there really was any disparity in coverage, it was more due to the fact that Venus and Serena's father Richard is an wacko asshole--admittedly, one with some vision, but a wacko asshole nonetheless--and that Serena is a charter member of the Sore Loser Hall of Fame, but that's just me.
Then again, we just learned that Oudin's father is divorcing her mother because of her mother's affair with Melanie's tennis coach, so it isn't like everything is all cheery and proper and tidy in that family circle.
And there's the fact that even though she's only 17, Oudin oughta know better--and be coached better--than to get excited over her opponent's mistakes. It's obviously no formal violation of etiquette, but it's still really poor sportsmanship. If you hit an incredible winner, it's fine to get pumped up. But if you only get the point because your opponent hit the shot long or wide or into the net, that's no cause for celebration. You take the point and move on.
Same goes for the crowd, too. Cheering a double fault? That was embarrassing.
Well, anyway. That'll about cover tennis for a few months.
Monday, September 7, 2009
Where Men Win Glory, by Jon Krakauer. Former NFL player-turned-Army Ranger Pat Tillman was a (perhaps unwilling) poster boy for an America united against terror, and his death in Afghanistan became a political and social football when the coverup about the circumstances came to light--after being posthumously cited for gallantry and even earning the Silver Star, one of the highest combat awards short of the Medal of Honor, his family's persistence forced the Army to admit that he'd actually been killed by friendly fire. It was a horrible tragedy and abuse of trust, but it's also brought about the perfect marriage of author and subject matter. Krakauer's Into the Wild and Into Thin Air are as good as any two nonfiction books of the last generation. The subject matter alone would make this a probable buy for me, but after I learned it was Krakauer behind the keys, Glory jumped immediately to must-read status so high, I'm even planning to break my usual prohibition against hardback purchases when it comes out on 9/15 (the closest release date to 9/11 - coincidence?).
Entourage and True Blood on HBO - I had all but given up on Entourage by the time of this season's (the show's 5th) premiere, and the first few episodes did little to change my thinking -- they felt stale, flat, forced. Once upon a time, the show was a nice, light palate-cleanser after the Sunday heaviosity of Six Feet Under, but then it became a phenomenon and almost immediately started to go downhill. But what do you know, it's gotten a lot better in the last few weeks -- the current Vince's-crazy-stalker storyline is the closest that this typically sunny-side up show has gotten to the dark edge of celebrity. I'm sure the plotline will be played mostly for laughs as it works itself out over the final few shows of the season--Entourage is primarily a comedy, after all -- but it's given the current season some bite that the show has too sorely lacked of late. As for True Blood, whose second-season finale hits Sept 13th, there hasn't been a quality show this batshit in-fucking-sane on any network in, well, maybe ever. The plotting is occasionally as wobbly as a bad shopping cart wheel, but the show as a whole is as pulpy and soapy and bloody and adult and fun as it gets, TB is the unholy offspring that resulted when Dark Shadows and Melrose Place hooked up and moved to the Louisiana bayou.
Football season - the sports doldrums between the final horn of March Madness and the first whistle of football season always bring me down, but this year I've felt it even more acutely than normal. Baseball gives you more games, sure, but it also puts me to sleep. But now that college football is in session with a ton of storylines already -- the power vacuum created by Oklahoma's sudden demise being the juiciest for the moment--and the NFL is hot on its heels, the good sports times are rolling once again.
Melanie Oudin - hailing from right here in Megacity 8, the teen tennis dynamo has reinvigorated the sport. Precocious, adorable, intense, and possessing some wicked groundstrokes, it doesn't matter if she gets any further in the US Open, she's already given tennis a sustained buzz after a pretty punchless season, aside from the Andy Roddick - Roger Federer final at Wimbledon (which was really more like an endurance test than a real blast, anyway). Bonus points: the difference in opinion on how to pronounce her last name--some commentators say ooh-dan, others opt for oh-deen. Whichever is right, she's a phenom.
Backspacer, by Pearl Jam. Anything new from my favorite band ever is a cause for celebration, I don't care if it's Eddie Vedder's spoken-word recitation of the latest Ikea catalog. This new album--the quintet's eighth studio set--promises punk-rock urgency (it supposedly clocks in at just 36 minutes) and already boasts two great new tunes, "Got Some" and "The Fixer." Now if I could only get them to tour the southeast, my life would be temporarily complete. No news on that for a moment, but I'll take what I can get.
Sunday, September 6, 2009
State of Play, starring Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, and Ben Affleck, is 2009 model of the Hollywood paranoid thriller, and it sports a good bit more craftsmanship than most 2009 movies and actually feels like a throwback to when little things like plot and acting mattered a bit more.
It's not a bad movie overall. It didn't wow me, but I also didn't feel cheated. You can tell the movie was striving to be something that was a little out of its grasp. At the end of it all, you may very well be bothered by a lingering sense that everything doesn't wrap up quite as neatly as the filmmakers think it does, but that could also be because of editing.
Herewith are some points about the film, which I suppose will require me to divulge a few mild spoilers, but nothing about major plot points -- so if you're still considering a rental, you're safe.
WTF does the title mean? If anyone actually explained it during the movie, they slipped it right by me. Now, I know this was based on a BBC series of the same name that was apparently quite good, so maybe that show offered some explanation. But here, my suspicion is it just kinda sounded good so the producers figured audiences would you give it the benefit of the doubt. It does have a certain ring to it. The Parallax View. The Manchurian Candidate. State of Play. Yeah.
And you know, I dislike a movie that decides to be thuddingly obvious about its title, like Crash (where Don Cheadle explains the significance of the title in the first two minutes) or As Good As It Gets (where Jack Nicholson says it to the camera).
So maybe this ambiguity is really a plus for the movie.
Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck as college roomies. Russell Crowe actually has about eight years on Ben Affleck in real life, and though they've made some attempt to make Affleck look a bit older in the movie, the idea of him and Crowe as contemporaries is a bit of a stretch.
But that's not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that the entire relationship, which is central to the movie, is a complete contrivance. One goes on to be a hotshot congressman, one turns into a shabby, sorta-skeevy journalist with bad hair and a gut. College roommates taking divergent paths after college isn't really that remarkable, I guess, but it just feels too neat and I don't really know why the characters had to have that much of a background. Crowe just could've been the old-school DC journalist who won Affleck's trust somehow, and when the big plot thing that happens actually happens and Affleck seeks out a journalist, Crowe could be the guy...OK, I'm thinking too much.
Oh wait - they had to have a relationship because there's this bit about Crowe having had an affair with Affleck's wife back in college that...really doesn't mean anything to the movie, except to add a layer of emotional complication that...doesn't provide any payoff and could've just as easily have been left out. Are we supposed to think that Robin Wright Penn would still be attracted to Russell Crowe even after he's put on thirty pounds and looks like he hasn't cut his hair since Woodstock? Hm.
On the plus side, about romances - they resisted the urge, at least in the final cut, to work in any sort of romantic angle between Crowe and McAdams, which was a good move. A lesser movie would've almost surely had them hook up at some point, or at least kiss. Now, Crowe seems to bond with the young reporter a little too easily, but that was at least tolerable.
In the final analysis - there aren't any really bad scenes in the movie, and there are at least a couple of good ones, including one pretty nice and suspenseful stretch that works even if it's hard to believe that Crowe's overweight desk jockey would be able to elude a trained killer. And the plot has some nice momentum and keeps you guessing.
On a scale of 1 to 10, I give it a 7 or 7.5, which these days is actually pretty good. It's like being a .290 hitter in baseball -- not outstanding, but capable. If you've got four or five dollars to spare and you want a couple of hours' entertainment, consider State of Play worth a rental. I realize that's faint praise, but faint is better than none.
You might think the movie's a dog from the blink-and-you-missed-it theatrical run, but I chalk that up to 50% marketing, 35% not enough violence or sex, 10% people not being able to figure out exactly what happened at the end, and 5% people who still give a shit that Russell Crowe threw a phone at some guy once.
Saturday, September 5, 2009
Year released: 1986
Begin the Begin - These Days - Fall on Me - Cuyahoga - Hyena - Underneath the Bunker - The Flowers of Guatemala - I Believe - What If We Give It Away? - Just a Touch - Swan Swan H - Superman
The soundtrack to my high school years ran on 1/8th inch tape between two plastic reels inside a small plastic box, about the size of most cell phones today. CDs were still a thing of the future. We never imagined anything more advanced or possessing greater fidelity than the humble cassette tape. It wasn't that we wouldn't have wanted more, if we'd known it was possible - we just didn't know. We accepted tape's limitations as state-of-the-art.
Sometimes I heard tapes on a Sony Walkman, sometimes on a boombox, sometimes on a rattling, echoey car stereo with all kinds of exposed wiring and an add-on equalizer that did something, although I had no real idea what.
One day I happened across REM's "I Believe" on one of those cassettes, and my brain immediately said, "What's that?" It was one of those inner connections that gets made with an almost audible click in your head. Something about the song took me away to somewhere I'd never been. I believe in these types of profound yet spur-of-the-moment connections, just like Michael Stipe believes in "coyotes, and time as an abstract" (if that's really what he's saying) in the song.
It wasn't just the words or Stipe's delivery on that song that hooked me, it was the loping jangle of the rhythm and how it all worked together - a shambling but beautiful little handmade engine of a song that carried the flavor of the underground, a hint of a life off the beaten path.
I took a roundabout path to discovering more about REM - that must have been '87 or so, and my Pink Floyd mania was at its peak. I went back to Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, over and over and over, and REM fell by the wayside for awhile -- but I filed away that first taste for later examination. I didn't forget.
Just as my full appreciation of them took awhile, REM's career had a very slow burn. They stayed on independent I.R.S. Records (still the coolest logo ever) for their first five discs, and their commercial peak didn't come until after their sixth album. And although they have tons of great songs on either side of Lifes Rich Pageant, what thrills me so much about this particular work is how it captures the sound of an original band in transition, already accomplished but still reaching for something, confident but not yet complacent.
Stipe's vocals on this album are closer to the front than on previous records, far less cloaked and secretive, but still just as difficult to penetrate, just as wryly inscrutable right off the bat -- "A birdie in the hand / of life's rich demand / the insurgency began, and you missed it," is Stipe's gruff tee shot for "Begin the Begin," which isn't just the record's first track, it's one of the best. Throughout the album, the lyrics sport references to insurgency and colonialism and South American nations and bunkers and entities--corporations, presumably--that "buy the sky and sell the sky" ("Fall on Me"), hand-in-hand with other complex ideas, but the exact meaning of Stipe's lines and couplets is rarely ever completely clear, giving these songs and the record as a whole a beautiful, enduring extra life.
Flavored with nods to pop and guitar rock and world beat and bluegrass, the music is from everywhere and nowhere, a new point on the American musical map fixed by Mike Mills, Peter Buck, and Bill Berry. The last time I encountered someone who scoffed at REM's influence, I nearly fell out of my chair in disbelief - this was the band that launched a thousand others, that suggested new possibilities, that basically created what became known as alternative rock.
Life's Rich Pageant captured them at the height of their powers but still looking up. That's why it's a great record, a lasting statement--of both power and potential--by one of the truly great, original American bands.