R.I.P. to my friend Jessica Lum, who I worked with at the Daily Bruin and battled cancer for longer than anyone should have to. I just heard the news. She was without question the bravest person I’ve ever known. After her diagnosis, and a rough stretch that looked too much like the end, she completed a grad program at UC Berkeley and interned at the Los Angeles Times, where I’m grateful I got to see her again. She was always upbeat and kind and open in a way many of us wish we could be. She brought that energy and sensitivity to her photography, which you can find now and hopefully always on her website. Goodbye, Jess.
Here is a story about her sharing her fight on Facebook and beyond from 2009.
I liked this film, though I won’t tell you to run out and see it. It’s arduous and painful at times, as you might expect from a film about mental illness, and its happy resolution shines brighter than the preceding hours would have you believe. But it grapples admirably with difficult subjects and I wasn’t troubled by its occasional liberties. The real love story here is the triangle between Pat and his parents, who have to reconcile their sympathy with their own lives’ dramatic arcs. De Niro is superb, and reason enough to shrug through the less credible parts of the third act.
I’m not sure why we call movies like this comedies. A handful of punchlines buried in the thick of a visceral film about relationships and loss isn’t a comedy; it’s closer to real life, which is what films like this and its quirkier cousins, most notably the genre-affirming Little Miss Sunshine, strive to mirror, even in a funhouse reflection. The comedy tag in films like this in recent years tends to be a cover for bad dramas trying to scribble “screwball” over stick-thin characters — see the stunt-casting of the decidedly miserable Away We Go, the also stunt-casted empty romantic nihilism of Save the Date, the almost-funny bummer of Our Idiot Brother.To its credit, Silver Linings Playbook is full of strong actors who don’t swerve awkwardly into either the jokes or the tears, and there’s more authenticity in a film that allows for an occasional laugh than two hours of some actor in period garb Daniel Day-Lewis-ing around a set. Maybe we should start calling 100% dramas “Awardsies” (or “Snoozers”) so we can better reclassify the rest.
So many “indie” films are about people with amorphous or irritatingly petulant problems. Illness is a convenient raiser of stakes, if a difficult one to treat with sensitivity. This film felt sincere enough, though in watching it, I felt inadequate to judge the line between understanding and exploitation. The best of its kind in the last few years has been 50/50, a film that balances vivid, moving drama with bawdy warmth. That one gets it just right. Silver Linings Playbook comes a few yards short, but it wins on effort.
What they don’t tell you in the movies is that they’re alive, just like you are. And they’re on their own schedule. Just as you’re ready to embrace adulthood, they’re 15 and getting really into the Cure. They’re moody and erratic; when they get what they want, they’re still peeved you didn’t order pizza. That’s too much information for the average rom-com.
I wanted to be a paleontologist first. I was fascinated by dinosaurs, like most kids, but it’s interesting now that I was pulled toward the past, toward our earthly origins, than driven to the future. A subscription to The Amazing Spider-Man when I was 8 years old turned me toward wanting to draw comic books. I created a full roster of characters, including Deathwish, a heroic Deadpool knock-off, and proceeded to painstakingly half-finish several original stories.
A lot of my art was trashed in a still-regretted household mix-up, and in middle school, I turned to writing science fiction. This, I could finish. Writing in serial form, I managed 45,000 words spread over three novelas before calling it a day. The plot involved a post-apocalyptic teenage cult revolving around Winnie-the-Pooh; it was heavily influenced by the James Cameron film Titanic and the predilections of girls in my 8th grade GATE class.
Music came next. For a long time, I thought it would come last. It became evident after a few years of guitar playing and songwriting that started a rock band wasn’t in the cards (though I’d like to start one now!). I had begun discussing music and writing pseudo-criticism on guitar message boards, and as A&E editor of my high school paper senior year, I made it official. Writing had become my greatest talent — it felt like the best way to be close to music, and to share it. I wanted the world to know about the bands I loved.
I still want that. But it’s been 10 years since I started that senior year. In some ways, bands need a champion more than ever: nothing’s more frustrating than seeing the Internet, so allegedly eclectic and open-minded, so full of opportunities for discovery, gloss over albums by ARMS or Ravens & Chimes or even Jens Lekman. If people would just hear it! I thought in 2002. Then they’d love it! I was so young then. Most people don’t want to discover, at least not more than a few artists a year. It feels like work, and it is. I understand that now. My heart will go on breaking for every musician I love who goes back to grad school, but I understand.
Almost Famous made me want to be a rock critic. I wanted to write for Rolling Stone. I did that this year. This month, I complete my fifth year as a full-time professional journalist. It turns out that writing about music every day has its pros and cons. A majority of pros, to be sure. But the arguments, over Lana Del Rey or a Buzzfeed headline, are so often sad feudal squabbles now, with no real purpose but to murder the opposition to cling to a few inches of critical turf. There are worthwhile discussions poking out from the Tumblr haystacks, but too few. The future is unclear and it it makes us jealous and scared and mean. I hope 2013 is a chance to pause, to step back from the brink, but I know better.
Dreams can be like falling in love with a postcard of a city and taking a long flight to get there. It looked so beautiful in the picture, but you step off the plane, groggy and sweaty, and realize you don’t know where you are. If you’re lucky, your dreams are smart. They grow up. They know what to do next. And they’re never, ever scared.
Witness the maelstrom of praise and consideration that greeted Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master this year. Anderson has made 6 films in 16 years; he retreats, monk-like, between each, inspiring the image of an auteur insistent on perfection. The Master was shot on 70mm film, a Hollywood delicacy. It marked Joaquin Phoenix’s return to acting. It is about a controversial subject (barely). It was presented as an Important Film and received as such. What I have just described to you is context: it is not itself art, though the mistake is made often. Effective art becomes such in the transmission between art and audience, even an audience of one, and not a single moment before. The value of its presence in a room should not be determined by the distance and punched ticket stubs that led it there.
What we are talking about is rarity, which has a stranglehold on our stupid, 10,000-year-old monkey brains. We believe in the cost of diamonds and the staggering genius of the lone, laboring creator, but only if he or she waits three years between releases. Any more often would insult our self-confidence: how could someone write a great song, or script, every week? (And thus: why haven’t we?) Consistency, reliability: these are the most disrespected qualities in art or pop culture or however you want to fence it in.
Rarity is partners with novelty: we conflate new sensations with superior ones. Joaquin Phoenix! Scientology! Consider the half-paid cultural attention to the fifth season of any sitcom or a new album by Ryan Adams (or Animal Collective) and the glistening eyeballs pressed against the BBC’s Sound of 2013. The world moves on, constantly. Reinvention is the only safeguard against the appearance of complacence: that’s clear in the music of Radiohead or David Bowie, or the films of Stanley Kubrick, the godlike director who formed each tremendous film as a new world. Imagine, though, if he’d only made war movies? Or comedies? He’d be Woody Allen, whose tirelessness produces no less sweat. The prolific are doomed to catch our attention only by disappearing, their magic revived by reunion tours or Midnight in Paris. (Woody, to his credit, has come to an understanding with critics by making bad movies for long stretches instead of taking a vacation.)
Wes Anderson has released seven films since 1996, only one more than his perhaps distant relation. Upon developing a distinct, imaginative creative vision, he has applied it to each project with unrelenting craft and focus. His patience and perfectionism is unquestionable. Yet his films do not stretch toward the three-hour mark, and they often encourage laughter. They are not shot on 70mm. They could be described disdainfully as “similar.” The undercurrent of people who murmur about such things would scream loudly that they are not Important Films. They are not — close your eyes, tremble with anticipation — events. The worst critique a Wes Anderson movie can receive is to be prefaced with “another.”
And yet, Moonrise Kingdom is his very best film. Fantastic Mr. Fox, a recovery from the rare stumble of The Darjeeling Limited, was his story book — Moonrise Kingdom is his young adult fiction, his Harry Potter. It is every bit as wondrous. Within its chosen limitations, it is note-perfect; if there are people, and there are, who watch films with a hierarchy of genres firm in their minds, I hope I never run into them at a party.
The film makes no secrets of its influences, laying out yellowing fantasy novels among the survival supplies of Suzy, its young femme fatale. The nostalgic image isn’t a cheap grab for rose-colored innocence: the books she clings to are a reminder of our capacity to lose it. Sam, the film’s orphaned hero, has special powers after all: he survives two lightning strikes, but his real strength is keeping the cruelty of the world from turning him cold.
The Master, a film with many moments of gravity and intensity, idles between them like a half-finished conversation, arranging itself with the elaborate, aimless purpose of a drunk’s rambles. Important Films have an uncanny ability to twist the volume knob when they have little to say, their faintest whispers emboldened by the towering genius and Herculean labor that rests, must rest, behind them — destitute piggy banks that demand others’ analysis to fill themselves up. The Master’s characters are failed adults, hardly their own masters, much less anyone else’s. I don’t regret giving them my attention, but they didn’t deserve it.
Moonrise Kingdom’s protagonists are successful children despite the failed adults around them, whose unblemished achievements certainly could use another look. Each of Wes Anderson’s films, at their hearts, document the struggle — mostly, this — and hope for human connection. It is the fundamental search of our emotional lives. In Moonrise Kingdom, in the good, messy, unerring love of Sam and Suzy, he finds it at last. It’s a rare thing, indeed.
Before seeing it, I was cynical about the Levitated Mass as a piece of art: it is, after all, a boulder. There are no shortage of them at your local backpacking trail or campsite. But the stone’s very anonymity is what makes it interesting within its context. Sitting in LACMA’s backyard, it stands — sorry, levitates — in contrast with a 99 Cent Store in one direction and the towering Variety building in another, two extreme emblems of human civilization. Cars pass by, filling the air down the street with smog and noise. The rock sits, motionless but, as you pass beneath it, silently powerful. An enormous tree might serve a similar purpose, of creating a reminder of nature within an urban context — the particular use of a massive stone, with the accompanying mythology of its arduous voyage to LACMA, presents the added significance of human engineering might. The rock itself is meaningless; our dominance of it is not. I haven’t read anything on the artist’s intentions, and I doubt it’s meant as a critique of our ecological arrogance rather than simply a grand installation, but I can’t help thinking its fitting destiny lies in floating out to sea in a century or so, carried by the rising tides of global warming.
The Kubrick exhibit is really great, by the way.
1) Unlike the Fader Fort, the L.A. Fort is not a traveling commercial for denim and bands who don’t need the press. It’s a new downtown D.I.Y. space hidden in a gritty, industrial section of downtown Los Angeles far away enough from the bars to discourage scene-seeking passers-by. The Fort is essentially a small warehouse given the accoutrements of a venue: a couple of paper lanterns to light the stage, a sign on the wall with social media links, an RSVP list outside from Facebook that gives you a discount on the $5 door fee. I saw Spaceships there last night, a punk rock duo with clever tempo changes, scorching riffs and lyrics about outsider angst. Young people moshed, politely, dancing in their own area and pushing around their friends. The crowd was what Greg called “self-selected.” It reminded me of the weird, fun kids I knew in high school: there was a girl in a paint-stained yellow Batman vest that probably dated back to the ’60s, a lot of choppy haircuts and a prevalence of thrift store cardigans. A girl who stood next to the moshers looked too put together to fit in with the evening’s more authentic elements with her boots and cute little backpack but she listened respectfully and gave dancing a shot all the same. (She reminded me of me.) In another venue, she’d probably be sitting by the bar, paying more attention to trying to bum a cigarette.
2) Five miles away at the Satellite, Colleen Green played a show that was significantly more amateurish than Spaceships’. She played by herself, with a drum machine and a bass guitar — the drum machine would rattle onward for whole minutes between songs as she decided what to do next. It reminded me of Michael Cera fumbling with his band’s electronic replacement drummer in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. She played a handful of new songs, including one called, I think, “Taxi” that included a line very nearly like this: “I just want to drive a taxi/and not have to talk to anyone.” Outsider angst. The performance was less than theatrical but the melodies were engaging. People sat by the bar and paid attention to trying to bum cigarettes. It was an older, more stylish, more expensive crowd: the signifiers of indie rock, underground culture and, frankly, being poor that were so evident at the L.A. Fort were replaced by beers and dark denim. Men with choppy haircuts accompanied them with fashion-statement leather jackets.
Both shows made me think about irony. The image of the hipster is an image: cultivated and calculated by fashionistas and scene leeches looking to impress, an inescapable population even miles east of Hollywood. But not so far away, the kids are getting weird because they are weird. They’re real. I hope they never change.
A lot of things went wrong with music blogging very quickly. It became an excuse to ask for free music and concert tickets. It became a traffic game, where newcomers would ask, “How often should I post?” News headlines swallowed up personal encounters with new favorites in an endless torrent. Personal sites became the product of editorial teams. So, so much bad writing.
But when it started, it was exciting. It stayed that way for a while for me. No one knew what was coming next — not that anyone does now, but things seem to have settled down now that avenues such as Twitter and Tumblr have reached a ubiquitous maturity. In 2005, Rawkblog — then The Rawking Refuses To Stop!, a borrowed title from a personal, quite emo Blogspot page I started in college — was a pretty goofy site. I paid no attention to SEO and wrote about what I was listening to while procrastinating on homework. There’s a post from June 2005 where I became aware of the Blog Ads network — Stereogum was apparently charging $200 an ad at the time. How far we’ve come. That August, I wrote about the 10th anniversary Jagged Little Pill acoustic album. Rawkblog was never going to be cool. By the end of the year, though, I was posting MP3s via YouSendIt, trying to get on the ball.
I didn’t switch to Wordpress until maybe 2008, and it was already too late by then. The blog hierarchy had been established - Stereogum, Gorilla Vs. Bear and so on. Hipster Runoff was ramping up. We were all getting the same PR emails. At this point, it seems pretty clear why Rawkblog never blew up the way some other blogs did. At its peak, summer 2007, it was drawing over 1,500 uniques a day and I was posting 3-4 times with some help from a couple of trusted friends. But it was never a content farm and rarely driven by news headlines. Carman wrote a sports column. Greg wrote Pitchfork-sized reviews. I was still writing artsy headlines instead of SEO.
There were a lot of missed opportunities in that crucial ‘06-‘07 window: I could’ve brought in 3-4 (or 10) serious writers and boosted the productivity; switched to Wordpress and written SEO-savvy headlines, played the Digg game and so on; paid for hosting much earlier to better share MP3s; been much, much less cantankerous and more focused on taste-making. I could’ve bought a DSLR a couple years earlier and built the handsome website I have now. And I could’ve not named the site The Rawking Refuses To Stop! for like three years. Sheesh.
I was one of the rare people who came to MP3 blogging at that time from a journalism background — it was always an extension of my work for the Daily Bruin and Cokemachineglow and my various internships, never the focus, though it’s become a big part of what I’m known for now. That held me back, in a way: for conflict of interest and time-management reasons, I didn’t start promoting local shows or launch a label, techniques many of my favorite bloggers have used effectively. (And they’re more than just techniques for attention, obviously.) When blogs started, one thought was it’d be a way to become a professional rock critic — I’m not sure that’s what people ended up wanting, outside of Matthew Perpetua, who by being the “first” music blogger is the exception that proves the rule.
I don’t have any regrets, though. Rawkblog has always been true and expressive of my opinions and my taste, idiosyncratic as it is. I’ve tried not to waste anyone’s time. (This Tumblr is much more indulgent.) During the brief period I had a staff, they were friends and it was fun — and didn’t last long enough for me to feel bad about not paying them. I’ve met a lot of really incredible people. I don’t know what the Rawkblog legacy is beyond that, and the rest of my career, and that’s fine. If I could go back, maybe I’d trade in a few dozen — hundred? — posts for hours bar-hopping in New York or college essays written more than 12 hours in advance. But maybe not.
The avalanche started so quietly I almost didn’t hear it. My friend Phil got married in 2008. He and his college sweetheart tied the knot in a post-Garden State, pre-(500) Days of Summer ceremony soundtracked by the Clientele and stocked generously with imported Belgian beer. It was a blast; he was perhaps 25. Any age older than you is old in that first blush of adult life, so it didn’t seem that strange. The pebble rolled gently down the hill, no louder than Alasdair MacLean’s half-whispered vocals.
The avalanche is in full roar now, the granite victims of the marriage industrial complex tumbling over each other in a race to update their Facebook pages. Phil was just the outlier, the first canary down the mine. I’m 27 now: in the last 18 months, I’ve seen at least as many couples get engaged, married or both. Make that 19: my fiancée and I walked down the aisle, pausing to circle each other in a feminist take on the Jewish tradition, in September. And there are at least another dozen in the anxious stretch of co-habitation where talk of a ring begins to reach the dinner table, or at least neighborhood Jane Austen BBC adaptation-watching parties. I go the gym with my single friend, and occasionally he asks me advice. “You should call her,” I said last time, sweaty and baffled. “Or text? I don’t know what the kids are doing these days.” I’m old.
Some of us are a year or two older, some my age, and all are exiting our years of grad school/early career desert wandering. We’re pragmatic, stable, serious, maybe even employed. The timing is crucial. HBO’s Girls and websites such as Thought Catalog bemoan the state of post-college relationships, and they’re not so wrong: unless you have the iron-clad certainty necessary for long distance, the vagrancy inherent in our grad school/Brooklyn/Africa-aimed mid-20s lives means affairs of the heart are limited to the ticking moments between plane flights and the bar exam. You have to just wait it out.
Our generation is also among the first to grow up in large part as the product of divorce, our hearts bruised and blackened by the Baby Boomers’ failed attempts to replicate Leave It To Beaver. (This is why Mad Men, which outs our grandparents as horny, morally challenged lushes, is our favorite show. I have no explanation for Breaking Bad.) When a romance goes sour, or violent, the social acceptance of divorce is a blessing; in its current quantities, however, we’ve lost far too many to collateral damage. For every friend I have planning groomsmen suits or floral arrangements, there’s another in a long-term relationship idling in Kurt-and-Goldie mode. I would’ve picked Tim and Susan but, you know.
There are certain advantages to putting one’s expected coupling progress on indefinite pause. You can delete “My Fair Wedding” from your Netflix queue. (Hang on to “Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta,” it’s the best.) Your parents, rather than torment you with a year of micro-management and family politics, presumably shrug and resume the position of lip-biting indifference they took after you told them you were seriously going to be an English major. There’s no jewelry or legalese or patriarchal tradition tying you to a person, and a home, and an increasingly weighty life.
It doesn’t feel weighty to me. She went to grad school but didn’t have to move for it. I thought about moving to New York for the bagels but couldn’t give up burritos. All our parents are still together. We lie in bed every night and talk about our dreams. When she goes to work, I miss her. We own a cat. When you’re sure, as they say, you actually are. I know I can do so much more with her than I ever could without her, and frankly, we could use the tax breaks. But I can understand the fear. You have a good thing: on a chemical basis alone, our minds aren’t built for change. Our hearts’ capacity for it needs no explanation.
I saw Beth Orton at the El Rey last night. Sam Amidon, her husband, opened the show and joined her on stage for a few songs. She was good by herself, but together, the performance caught fire — her voice strengthened and their guitars danced together like old lovers. They’re newlyweds, or close enough, and their enthusiasm in playing together, in being together, was palpable. Support, understanding, pleasure: that’s what marriage can be, though it often isn’t.
Given the rarity of that bond, the strangest part of the marriage trend is watching it happen everywhere, even when I’m not invited. Especially then. Facebook launched when we were freshman in college; we don’t know how to live any other way. The newsfeed loudly announced to me that my ex had gotten married earlier this summer. I covered my ears and clicked through all the photo galleries. Certainly there is an as-yet untranslated German word that can describe this spread of feelings, smeared like so much artisanal blueberry jelly: relief, judgment, nausea, genuine human empathy. (If you’re reading: your dress looked really cute!)
Mostly, Gen-Y weddings are just hopeful, maybe a little naive: white dresses, suits that don’t fit, lots of smiles. Facebook offers a stirring version of the fairy tale, Instagrammed as it is. But the photos stack up and the smiles start to look strained and I can’t help but feel the fear squirming around my stomach: how long until the Facebook divorces? Will we be 32, 35, 40? How many baby pictures will I click through between now and then? Will the break-ups come one by one, sad pebbles tumbling over forgotten Pinterest boards? Or will they barrel down the hill, thundering into the digital graveyard of our optimism?
Like I said: I just got married. I feel amazing about it. Phil and Jen are doing doing great: they’re in a two-bedroom apartment with a puppy and a pair of guinea pigs. She teaches; Phil is a member of the local beer club. They go to Coachella every year with the enthusiasm of drug-dazed teenagers. We live across the street and cook vegetarian dinners together as Storage Wars blurts “yuuups” in the background. We’re not kids anymore. But I think we’re alright.
Feel like this went under the radar after “Jay-Z Interview,” but it’s pretty good! His pen game’s not bad — he drops an origin story, a post-Drake conflicted narrative about women and fame, some worthy brags and a surprisingly affecting Biggie/Pac homage. I don’t know how many beats he produced, but the range is impressive — the Primo/Q-Tip jazz loops of “East Vs. West,” the straight-up post-rock heaviness of “She Belongs to the City,” the Kanye keys of “Brake Lights,” a nod to ‘Ye’s own “Flashing Lights.” His flow is clear and serious, the sound of an artist still finding his footing. It’s inviting. The champagne-and-fuck-you “Jay-Z Interview” is the best, but I really like “East vs. West” — hearing him rap about beats Biggie might’ve rhymed on should feel undeserved, but instead, it’s all heart.
This movie is like watching bubble after bubble of undeserved snobbery get punctured in the most affectionate possible way. Its characters are largely privileged, self-centered or the opposite of self-aware, but there’s a level of naivety that sands off the potential for irritation. It’s goodness, not status, that’s their most respected quality. The contrast between their braying intellectualism and romantic befuddlement helps bridge the sympathy gap, with the thread of Jane Austen allusions adding an effective, light-handed wink. And the ending — when the film goes from idle chit-chat to a call to action, strange bedfellows included — couldn’t be better. Our snobs have open minds after all. I don’t know much about Stillman, but Metropolitan plays like Woody Allen for WASPs, a jazz-soundtracked love letter to New Yorkers in their natural habitat and Brooks Brothers tuxedos. Too, it shares a certain understanding of youth rarely found outside the films of John Hughes. I loved it.