ART TIMES 2009: Young Royals, Subtly Drawn

We'd be ever so pleased if you'd join us at the coronation

Man, French people. They are pretty good at directing movies.

This is what I thought after I watched Jean-Marc Vallee’s The Young Victoria, an unexpectedly nuanced, well-drawn period piece about Queen Victoria in her 17th and 18th years of life.

Imagine my surprise when I did a little recherche on the director and realized that Jean-Marc had directed Quebecois coming-of-age flick C.R.A.Z.Y. Jean-Marc ain’t no Frenchie, he’s Canadian! And for days after I saw his most recent movie, my friends and I were waxing poetic about the soft, adept touch of the French. We admired the directorial restraint, the subtlety involved in making as delicate a movie about as gargantuan a personage; we lauded his ability to avoid obviousness at all costs; etc. And then Jean-Marc had to go and ruin all our Gallic stereotyping with his Canadianness.

I saw C.R.A.Z.Y. almost 4 years ago in France. Apparently, French people have a hard time understanding les Quebecois, and this French-language movie was subtitled… in French. Ha. The film centers on a teenager, Zach, who is a bit of a space oddity in his very Catholic, traditional, suburban family home. Lots of friction between father and son ensues. Son wants to just live rocknroll, dad says he has to get a real job. It was the kind of movie that makes you laugh, cry, etc, and mainly illustrates the saving power of music (Bowie, Pink Floyd, 70s stuff like that, specifically) to a young teenage soul.

C.R.A.Z.Y. didn’t get much press States-side, or probably anywhere, but it was mosdef one of those movies that actually conveys an understanding of what it’s like to be 17. Luckily for us, Jean-Marc applied this understanding to The Young Victoria, and made one of the most excellent and yet understated movies about growing up that came out last year. Move over, langorous youth of New Moon and magical adolescents of HP: The Half Blood Prince.

Remember all the hullabaloo about Marie Antoinette? It features a no wave soundtrack! And pretty young American things! Ooh, so unconventional! Sofia Coppola aimed to repaint the young French royals as young Gossip Girl cast members. And sure, that movie was totally pretty, but it was also totally uncompelling. The danger of portraying vapid shit is becoming the vapid shit.

Coppola’s mistake was to conceptualize history within the trappings of our contemporary understanding of glamour; therefore, she didn’t latch onto anything essential or important, either in Marie’s time or ours. Maybe that was the point–but still, glamour is all relative, so the movie was all fluff, or to be precise, mille-fueille icing.

Jean-Marc Vallee, fortunately, chose the opposite path for his period piece. Of course, he made a pretty movie. But he latched on to the only things that are always essential: love, family, power struggles, and the life of the mind. And then he applied these essential life factors to the young royals in his film (Victoria and Albert, specifically), and what he came up with was a totally plausible, sympathetic and yes, even TIMELESS portrayal of what it is to come of age and also be royalty.

To sum up the plot: Victoria is the heir to the English throne but her uncle, the king, (played memorably as a fizzle-headed jolly old chap by Jim Broadbent) is going to be dead soon. Lots of other people want the power Victoria is about to inherit; they jostle. King dies. Victoria is queened, but she’s been sheltered all her life, so has to learn how not to get swindled, and fast. She finds a cute indie rock boyfriend from Belgium, they write letters (probably drawing cute owls in the margins), get married, lose virginities. Victoria gets swindled a couple times, blushes, learns from it, moves on, rules England. Fin.

This movie doesn’t pretend to be more than it is; it’s just about one lady’s very momentary struggle to find her voice amongst a chorus of manly voices. It’s about having butterflies in your stomach when your new Belgian boyfriend touches your hand. It’s sometimes even a little bit about pretty dresses, and it doesn’t touch imperialism with a stick. But still, ultimately this movie is about politics, both personal and political, and how to balance those two spheres… specifically, how to balance these spheres with a pearly glow in your English cheeks, while a golden hue is cast over everything by some excellent Polish cinematographer… you get the idea. Go see this movie, you won’t be disappointed.

2009 ART TIMES: Belgium and Existential Unrest

The Empire of Light

This past summer I went to England and took a brief sojourn over in Belgium, land of beer and wacky people. Has anyone seen the movie In Bruges? This film nicely summarizes the existential weirdness I have felt in Belgium. At one point in the movie, hitman Colin Farrell sits on a bench in a medieval square of Bruges. The incongruity of a brash Irish assassin plopped into a fairy-tale backdrop is enough to cause a laugh. But then the camera focuses on a dog with bulbous, insect-like eyes and an alien shaved snout. This dog is looking expectantly, or perhaps sympathetically, at our Irish hero. Colin Farrell just stares back in disbelief, and surely he is thinking, “What is my life?!”

It is no coincidence that this nether land evokes the sad revelation that life may very well be a meaningless, gloomy, and absurd jaunt.  Perhaps this existential dismay is caused by Belgium’s uncertain cultural position between Flemish and French; it doesn’t know who it is, (every two or so years someone writes up an article about how the country is on the verge of splitting) so how are outsiders supposed to get it? Or maybe the old cultural centers of Belgium, such as Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp, never got over the descent from their Renaissance-era Golden Age, and a bad Qi settled over them. Or maybe it’s just the weather, or there is a vortex of weirdness settling over the land. Who knows.

But what we do know is that Belgium has its own special brand of bleak absurdism, courtesy of René Magritte. This summer, my trip to Belgium was a lonely one. Like Colin Farrel, I wandered around the beautiful environs, wondering wtf I was doing there. On one occasion, I was merely trying to cross the street, and a parade of people dressed as medieval peasants marched by, smiling maniacally, playing brass instruments and exercising national pride by recalling their cheerful feudal past. I looked at other bystanders, hoping to find a face expressing the same shock as mine. But there were none. People either weaved through the parade, indifferent, or stopped to acknowledge this event as pleasant, as opposed to surreal and jarring.

I had been to Brussels three years prior, in February, and I was struck by the cold, joyless modern buildings of the E.U. capital. Barren gardens surrounded the royal’s castle in the city center, and these ‘jardins royaux’ had, foot-for-foot, far more gravel than manicured grass or stately fountains. At night, Brussels seemed more lively, with waffles and beer and falafels to warm the masses. Strolling down the Rue du Marché aux Fromages in search of dinner, my companion and I were heckled and harassed by the falafel stand owners, inviting us in all tongues to partake in their meilleur/mejor/beste shawarma. From there we took night shots of the buildings in the lovely old town square, which were either unscathed by/well restored after the bombs of WWII. The night literally sparkled, with a few spot lights illuminating the rococo lookin’ facades, while all the tourist traps lining the square exterior were twinkling with candles and art nouveau lamps.

Being in Brussels again this summer was like entering a weird fucking dream, because I walked the same streets and even went to the same waffle stand, only this time it was hot out, I was older, and I was alone. I wondered why I decided to come to the city and I could not come up with an answer. Yes, for some beer, but all the famous beer-brewin abbayes are outside of Brussels, and as an unaccompanied female traveler, I couldn’t do too much drinking alone as it was.  However, I did have one thing to look forward to–the newly opened Musée Magritte of the Musée Royaux des Beaux Arts.

On a sunny July day, I entered the new wing, which was three floors of purposely plain, darkly lit corridors. Magritte’s paintings and some of his advertising work was more or less chronologically ordered. The top floor featured his earliest stuff. By the third floor, I was completely overwhelmed. I have never quite figured out whether Magritte has a sense of humor, or if his juxtaposition of opposing sentiments and objects is the result of a serious attempt to create a new order of meaning. There is a lightness and deftness of hand even in his most terrifying work, but there is also a terrible weight in his lighter subject matter; eggs are made of stone, clouds lose their fluffiness and constitute real matter. His paintings, as any art history 101 prof would agree, left me unsettled and uncertain, since on the one hand they are representational and contain mundane, obvious objects, and yet the objects do not cohere to an earthly logical order.

Magritte will be an artist to ponder for a long time, and I left the museum with something other than loneliness on my mind. And so it was, oddly, that a king of absurdism and surrealism gave my trip some telos. And that was one of my great encounters with art in 2009.

In Defense of Aesthetic Contingency

Le Spleen de Paris causes me much pain; mayhaps I should get it removed

Compiling and reading end-of-year, and, good lord, END-OF-DECADE lists, can be an exhausting and unrewarding process. I thought about making a list of my favorite movies from the past year, but then I realized that my list would contain 5 or 10 of the same movies as everybody else’s list. I got bored just thinking about how much I liked The Hurt Locker, and it is sad when the best art is robbed of its exhilarating properties by the expected, codified way critics note their “favorites.”

Furthermore, we all know that there are objectively good and bad things that came out this year–we hardly need a list to sum it up if we’ve been paying attention. Daftpop was supposed to avoid shit like that, because it was originally conceived in appreciation for the subjectivities and contingencies of artistic taste, which is to say that daftpop wants to celebrate what a person feels drawn to and ends up loving the most. And let not this celebration of individual artistic taste be confused with the stupid egoism of some critics (more on this in a minute). The daftpop quest is to discover how we make our aesthetics, and that is a rather grand quest.

Baudelaire wrote in “Wagner and Tannhauser in Paris,” one of his more enjoyable long-winded essays on aesthetics, that writing from the “I” point of view binds the writer within the strictest confines of sincerity and truth. Now, I personally don’t prioritize sincerity or truth as important virtues when writing, but I do think these qualities are more integral to criticism than, say, disingenuous posing, mindless trend-following and stubborn contrariness, which together make the triumvirate of bad critical thinking. Baudelaire builds on his concept about “I,” by close reading the Tannhauser reviews by other respected critics. He then draws parallels between the critics’ subjective perceptions of the Wagner opera and calls the reader’s attention to the uncanny similarities between his, Berlioz, Musset and god-kn0ws-who-else’s-thoughts on the opera. From there, Baudelaire builds his totally psychedelic theory of “synesthesia,” the idea that great art can elicit the same experience in all those who encounter it. I am not talking about synesthesia here, in fact it’s pretty much contrary to my plan, but I did want to talk about the “I,” and the strength of subjective responses to art.

So in the spirit of not codifying a damn thing, and by humbling myself to the majesty of Art (a la Baudelaire), this week I will just write about my favorite encounters with “art” this year. These will include arts high and low… so watch out.

Gaga Finally Honored with Daftpop Post

I often hide one or many of my facial features, as I am not a natural beauty... but who's to know?
I often hide one or more of my facial features in photos

Before I got the chance to write a similar article, Guy Trebay, part-time nuanced pop culture watchdog, part-time announcer of bogus trends for the NYT, scrawled a style piece on Lady Gaga. I don’t know how, but Trebay gets away with a prose uncharacteristic of the Gray Lady’s distinguished pages: his witty, slightly bitchy words are more fitting for one of Carrie Bradshaw’s facile confessionals than they are for the monolith of American journalism. But whatevs. Maybe the Style section makes special exceptions for stylin writers–Trebay probably has impeccably crafted Italian leather shoes and indubitably carries a dapper murse. Anyway, Trebay’s thesis was: her music might be forgettable, but her whole package is anything but.

But Guy was just fulfilling his role, he had to admire Lady Gaga’s ostentatious clothing before 2009 ended along with her reign. However, she had other notable admirers (and detractors–just as significantly). Sasha Frere Jones bought her hype and admired her Rilke references. Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps called her a lady of the night, whore, slut, etc.  But dudes, dudes, calm down. We’re just so excited because we haven’t seen anything Madonna-esque in a while.

The last white pop star that really made the waves was Britney Spears. Then we had a few years of alleged virginity and highly sexualized 16-year-olds on the charts and TRL. Every once in a while those “artists” got a Swede on their production team and we drooled. But then those stars went crazy, or got married, or became otherwise useless to us. The real winners of the aughts/naughties/last ten years were Rihanna and Beyonce. And for some reason, I think it’s significant that Gaga is white, and that everyone thinks she’s so avant-garde n’ shit. Granted, Beyonce is not considered in the same pop-game as Gaga, as she is admired by critics for her reserved professionalism. She’s not a flashy new star–she is remarkable for her old school classiness, and more of a Diana Ross than a Madonna. Rihanna, on the other hand, visually has it DOWN. She’s not as future-friendly as Gaga, but her new look of leather and steel suits her, and I think Rated R‘s cover art is every bit as visually engaging as a Gaga bubble frock. The only problem is her music–she still hasn’t created an aggressive enough genre for herself. (Hint to Rihanna: dub step is waiting for you to mainstream it.) I still have a suspicion that we are more likely to accept an aesthetic as revelatory and an artist as a true auteur if they are white. Everyone thinks Rihanna is a tool–that she’s a talent who’s just not being handled correctly, etc. Most people blamed her production team for the failures of her recent album. When she gets in the hands of REAL writers (like the-dream, et al), we say, that’s when she really shines. It’s as though Lady Gaga is given a voice and an agency that these other stars are not, and it could be because of her skin color (it also could be because she writes her own music, but let me be a pessimist for a minute). People conceptualize race in entertainment as such: black people dance for us; white people make us think.

Anyway, I meant to talk about Lady Gaga’s EP The Fame Monster. Undeniably, Lady Gaga is an auteur, and she would have us know she isn’t handled by anyone. [Incessant reminders that she’s a free bitch, baby, did the trick.]

The Fame just kinda sucks. We can all agree. Her pounding, drunken club hits were timely, but hardly made for interesting dance music: we’re not talking Basement Jaxx here, we’re talking disco’s version of row-row-row your boat.

But ferreal now, The Fame Monster is awesome. [Listen to it streaming via myspace here.] It kicks off with her best single, “Bad Romance,” a perfectly subversive, triumphant anthem for forbidden love. “Alejandro,” is a tuneful ode to Abba’s “Fernando.” It begins with Lady Gaga denying her many Latin admirers, then launches into an Ace of Base bump, complete with the glossy, Doctor Who-esque organ flourish of the eternal 1994 hit “The Sign.” Just pretend she doesn’t say one of the dudes is “hot like Mexico,” and you will be left with the idea that she really knows what she’s talking about.

Then we have the inspiration for the title of the EP: “Monster.” The monster is a guy with whom she may have had sex with previously, but she “doesn’t quite recall.” Then, like a phantom from the subtextural depths of an H.P. Lovecraft story, his horrifically competent skills in the bedroom rise from her subconscious. They make out on a subway train. (This makes the subway sound exotic and exciting, but of course, it only is for those of us who do not trudge defeatedly onto it every day.) He then tears off her clothes, and also eats her heart and brain. This will probably be her next single–it has plenty of heavy machinery pumps and fuckable thumping. I guess that’s the idea.

I could go on, but I’m sure you understand what this EP is about. It’s musically more interesting and less schticky than her singles off The Fame. And it also gives us a glimpse of what could be an interesting future. Lady Gaga has consolidated her strengths, which include vividly conjuring a real object out of her love in the club. Most Usher hits feature faceless R&B biddies with a booty like ooh-ohh-ohh (sorry, the-dream), but Gaga’s boys are criminals, or monsters, or disco sticks–they have some interesting attributes, defined ontological properties, and foreign accents, even.

All that’s left to see is how her next LP works out. More 90s Euro obviousness? The radio is full of that now. She needs to stop talking about how much Bowie inspires her and write the next oddball dance hit a la “Let’s Dance.” Maybe she could even write a song as weird as “The Secret Nights of Arabia.” I think her capable of it. However, Gaga needs to turn down the punchy fuzz she favors so much production-wise, and let other textures enter the dance floor. She needs to keep wearing bubble outfits, though.