Thursday, July 23, 2009

let your kite fly! go to her!

Sorry for the delay, beloved blog readers. This week's excuse is I have a cyst in my hand & it's been causing a lot of pain (and insurance hassle) and I just haven't had the time to write without serious pain.

Today's recommendation, the third of this week's quintet of postwar German films, is Heiner Carow's

The Legend of Paul and Paula

I bet you've never seen an East German film. I bet you don't know anything about East Germany except that they used to have a wall and don't anymore but maybe once someone you knew was in Berlin and they brought you back a rock which they said was part of the wall; you may or may not believe them. You still know nothing about Germany.

This is your chance to learn something!

The Legend of Paul & Paula is about 2 people named, for real, Paul and Paula. Paul is a successful military officer who marries the daughter of carnies because, hey, it's a socialist utopia now. He should bring her up, his colleagues say, and she shows a lot of cleavage. Improve her mind. Paula is a charwoman with two children from two different men who is weighing a marriage proposal to marry herself up to a nice (old) tire salesman with a dacha. Incongruously and intercut, old buildings are imploded, making way for the glorious, classless future of a unified DDR, a slouching and silent third character in the film. The shots of demolishing buildings function as sorts of intertitles within the film.

Paul & Paula is about failed relationships and failed government systems. It's about fate, in a way. It's about the peculiar German taxonomy of fairy tales & legends and how they are transmuted into and animate the otherwise grim and lifeless Plattenbauen of 1970s east Germany. Paul and Paula are less fleshed out characters than they are symbols, functioning human widgets in a complicated moral drama. Maybe.

This is a movie about social class in the classless utopia of the DDR. It comes to troubling conclusions - our bleeding liberal hearts recoil at the notion that, say, Paul's vulgar wife is the way she is because of some social Darwinism, although I suppose our collective minds, indoctrinated from birth into American determinism, agree with the socialist critique.

Paul & Paula also features some AWESOME tunes by an East German band called Puhdys. When I was teaching in East Germany, my colleagues were amazed I had heard of the band.

As you can imagine, the government censors did not love this film, and they loved it even less because it played for a period of time before they realized it was like, all political and shit.

So, in order to become more worldly, I Recommend that you watch The Legend of Paul & Paula. The DVD is available both on Amazon & through Netflix.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Overtheorized and underseen: "The oppressed accuse you"

Today's recommendation, the second in this week's quintet of postwar German films, is

Helma Sanders-Brahms'

Germany, Pale Mother

I'm not going to get into tokenism here & point out ZOMG FEMALE DIRECTOR, though i guess i just did. This film has been unfairly derided as one of the most depressing ever made. To which I say: How nice that you can concern yourself with such first-world problems.

What most people know about this film is that it is vaguely about Sanders-Brahms' mother, and that it is a Metaphor (deliberate capitals) for Germany. Hence the title, which is from the (extremely fine) Brecht poem. The story is narrated by a daughter, who exists both outside and within the narrative. She tells the story of her parents' courtship, which exists in a mordantly idyllic Germany and has milestones that occur along the backdrop of The War (deliberate capitals): a wedding during a declaration of war, childbirth during bombing, postwar marital divide.

But this isn't about the story, and the point of the story as a film is that it could be millions of families' stories, because it's about Germany's story (cf O Deutschland, Bleiche Mutter!). The structure of the film's narrative is what has always fascinated me. On the one hand it's straightforward and linear; on the other, it's elliptical and puzzling and raises questions: How can Lene's daughter narrate when she doesn't exist yet, and what does that imply about narrative? What is at stake when Sanders-Brahms integrates newsreel footage and cuts it so that it seems like old newsreel subjects are interacting with the fictional characters; how are we to interpret that within the context of historiography and New German Cinema? The film itself reminds me of the narrative structure of Willa Cather's My Antonia, a composite narrative that picks up and subsumes other narratives, structures, and texts, to create a female narrated and female-centered narrative within a male-dominated space; Germany, Pale Mother does the same thing in its integration of The Robber Bridegroom (Grimm) and the Brecht Poem

Finally, watching the film nearly 30 years after it was made, how would it be different now, in an ostensibly reunited Germany?

I obviously don't propose answers to these questions; I'm just a hack trying to fluff my ego with a blog. But I think this film is really overlooked; the only people who are even aware of it are either humorless intellectuals who ignore the life in it or laypeople who didn't seem to appreciate it very much. I Recommend it to you from the midpoint of those viewpoints and hope that you find middle ground. It's a sad film, a tragic one, but one that fights for and affirms life in every frame, and I hope you watch it accordingly.

Monday, July 13, 2009

everything else is pure theory

This week's theme will be Postwar German Movies That I Recommend to You.
I used to live in Germany. I studied German for so many years I lost count. Allegedly, my PhD minor is Germanic studies. I study like, movies and shit. For my PhD. So I feel somewhat qualified to do this.

The first of this week's quintet of recommendations is

Tom Tykwer's

Run Lola Run

I realize this is pretty hackneyed, but bear with me. I think people only understand Run Lola Run as an MTV-generation music video, but I'm hoping you'll come around to the way I see it.

It isn't merely a much more fun way to introduce yourself to Berlin on foot than reading an excruciating travel guide: Lola Rennt is a philosophical examination of what I understand epistemology to be. The slick style is off putting for some, but I see the media/medium as the message , a vehicle used to deliver an important statement about the multiplicity of truths, the possibility of concurrent realities, the notion of infinite possibility

I think Lola Rennt is a good movie to watch for those who are learning German (the language), because you get to see everything 3 times, however minimal the dialogue is. As my German teacher in high school said, "There's truth in all 3 iterations of this film." That statement introduced to me the notion of concurrent truth. Maybe I was a little slow.

Unlike some of the German films I'll be talking about in the upcoming days, Lola Rennt is relatively happy and deals only peripherally with the huge, horrifying, all-caps concepts overshadowing German life and film, at least the way we understand them in the USA: WORLD WAR II and EAST/WEST DIVIDE.

I was introduced to this film at a young age, so maybe it's heavy handed. I'm not watching it again to write this post. Maybe it wouldn't hold up. Maybe it seems blatant and obvious. I recall being about 18 and finding it really profound that Tykwer shot the scenes on film of Lola & Manni but everything of everyone else on video, so it would seem less real.

And you know what, I mean, I still find that pretty profound. What can I say. I'm a philistine at heart.

Therefore, I recommend Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt) to you.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

in the fragile beauty we froze: let go let go let go let go!

The last shall be the first. I wrote this first , but the final album I'm Recommending to you is


Phil Ochs' Rehearsals For Retirement

I came pretty close to writing a 33 1/3 book about it this year (shortlisted, not quite good enough but thanks for trying, story of my life), and I still really want to write a book about this album. (Aside: If you know anyone, if you are a publisher, if you know stuff other than sketchy sleazy publish-yourself opportunities and if you've got anything for me other than worthless, hastily-Googled assvice, please get in touch.)

Anyway, this is about the album. Not my pitiful attempts to make something of myself.

So. Let me talk about this album in the only ways I know how.

By the time he made this album, Ochs had this idea that each song should be a self-contained narrative. Like a movie. The word I"d choose to sum up this album is cinematic. And within that, this album uses different cinematic modes, shifting frenetically between tragedy, comedy, farce, jump cuts, a switch between styles that reminds me of the Nighttown part of Ulysses or early Godard. Songs shift styles between 70s B-comic Western and historic tragedy, between war drama and musical comedy.

It isn't frenetic or schizophrenic, it's a deliberate evocation, an intentional signifying that demonstrates a mastery over different cultural styles. By the time Ochs had made this album, sneering critics had dismissed him as a bipolar alcoholic. It's my project to change the hegemonic narrative of his life, to change the way you think of him, if you think of him at all. Most just dismiss him as an inferior contemporary of Dylan's, a sad sack bipolar alcoholic who couldn't take the switch to electric and killed himself. You are wrong. This blog post will not attempt to address this biographical disservice (that's, uh, what the book was supposed to be about, because the two biographies of Ochs have been pretty lacking; mine would have been both critical and AWESOME). At the time of Rehearsals, Ochs was a multi-movie-a-day filmgoer. I often wonder how living to and through the age of MTV would have affected him and his work and I feel sad all over again that he died so young.

I thought about doing this blog post track by track, lugubriously analyzing each song, but it just doesn't work that way, not today, not on an already tl;dr post on an album that's so important to me, not already risking criticism on something where I just can't deal with it.

Rehearsals is seamless misery and rage, frustration from beginning to end. I could give you a note by note analysis. But I won't. I thought about elliptically writing impressions, but that was a little too precious for a blog post.

In a way I guess it's good I never did get to do the 33 1/3 book because all I can do is stamp my foot and make vague gestures and say, fuck recommendations, I demand that you listen to this album NOW NOW NOW because it's so essential and so passionate and sad and angry and summarizes so perfectly an important time at the brink of American politics and culture, and at the same time, it summarizes a beautiful crisis moment in one man's life. Yet it's not exploitation. It's someone screaming into a void. It's someone screaming into a void and reassembling the echoes, reassembling the reflections, in a desperate and futile attempt to make someone understand - a last-ditch effort.

So, please, I implore you, I beg you, I demand that you listen to Rehearsals for Retirement.

This album has been the constant that's followed my entire adult life. A heavy and beautiful burden. Of course it's underrated. Of course it's forgotten. Of course it's overlooked and underappreciated by sneering rock critics, but I think it's one of the greatest albums ever made.

Therefore, I Recommend it to you.

So, that concludes this already-delayed project (and, thanks for sticking with me, if you did). It was good to get out of my comfort zone and make myself do this (almost) every day after putting it off for a week. And now I will flee back to my comfort zone.

Next week, in a transparent attempt to vaguely cash in on the Bruno craze, I will attempt to Recommend to you 5 Postwar German films.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

why when you know you should go is it so hard to leave

Today's recommendation, the fourth of our quintet of out-of-date and probably un-hip album recommendations,


Christine Fellows'
Paper Anniversary

As you'll recall yesterday, I used to live in Germany. But eventually in 2006, I came back to the US to do a master's at what I will refer to as a large, private university in lower Manhattan. An incredible confluence of bad luck and shit circumstances convened such that around the time of September 30th, 2006, I was recovering from a quadruple wisdom tooth extraction not covered by my incredibly expensive student health insurance, I was moving, I was living off student loans, and my computer had crashed yet again, losing the majority of my music and writing. I needed the Mountain Goats show at the Bowery Ballroom. I dragged myself there after moving all day. I remember I was standing there in so much pain my knees kept buckling.

That is how I was introduced to Christine Fellows' music. I lack, and am not sure I want to develop, the real critical vocabulary to talk about her voice, which struck me as uniquely beautiful without being affected and pretentious (cough johanna newsom cough). It reminded me of all I had wanted to become during the years & years I had seriously studied voice. The lyrics of her songs were simple, yet evocative and vivid. Like The Mountain Goats, places I'd never been and people I wasn't sure were real suddenly felt real and familiar to me.

At one point during her set, her husband, Jon K. Samson (back to 2009: whom I recently saw play at Zoop! II) sang a glorious arrangement of a Cortazar poem with her. Shit. Cortazar?! Someday I will recommend Cortazar to you guys, too, but...not only was it Cortazar, one of my favorite writers, but it was one of my favorite Cortazar poems ever: "Instructions on how to dissect a ground owl."

I had been shaking before, and maybe I'll chalk it up to the painkillers, but I was crying. It was gorgeous. It was honestly one of the best live music performances I had ever seen.

A few weeks later, once I had my computer situation straightened out and I was done moving, I bought Paper Anniversary off iTunes. At the time, you have to understand that was a huge freaking purchase for me. During the long cerebral autumn of 2006, Fellows' modified jazz chords kept me company. Stories and sketches of places that were unfamiliar and yet terribly familiar filled my consciousness as I stood, alone among packed strangers, on the Q and the B and the 2 and the 3. The rain fell; life seemed sad and beautiful. Slightly askew, time.... marched on, with a minimalist piano accompaniment and the hint of a cat purr.

I feel the need to assure you that my intention in posting these recommendations was not a self-aggrandizing memoir, though that is what it is becoming.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

we've got stars in our eyes tonight.

Today's recommendation, the third of this quintet of recommendations, is

The Mountain Goats' Full Force Galesburg

I'm not picking out a favorite or best Mountain Goats album here. I'm just Recommending this one because once upon a time, and a very miserable time it was, I lived all alone in a tiny German village on the Polish border and this album was, for whatever reason, how I stayed sane. I'm not sure this post is even really about the album, but please, you're here to listen to me bloviate, aren't you?

You remember periods in your life in associative ways: In those days I would read such-and-such book. You use the progressive tense: I was listening, I was reading, I was doing.

But it is only recent technology that has made music iterative in this way: In those days, using my newfangled refurbished 2nd generation iPod that already looked obsolescent, I would walk around every day and listen to Full Force Galesburg over and over and over. Specifically, and mostly, I would listen and re-listen to "Maize Stalk Drinking Blood" and "Evening in Stalingrad," which seemed so eerily apropos to my situation and surroundings. As late summer turned to fall and I should have been inside, I would walk around until my fingers were numb.

The album was and became like a collection of short stories that quickly became dog-eared and annotated, as I walked around in the cool air (sometimes for the hell of it I would walk to Poland, just to be able to say that I had). The language constructed my understanding of a world that made very little sense. The sparseness of the guitar and John Darnielle's vocals matched perfectly the minimalist, depressing Soviet-bloc buildings, many of which were slowly being reclaimed by squatters, by graffiti artists, or by nature.

I have never been to Galesburg, and I don't know the dogs. But I do know that the infinite sky seemed so much bigger and so much more magical and bearable when the music took me there. The loneliness I felt seemed holy somehow, like there was a portal linking the German border to it.

Mountain Goats fans - a notoriously insular and at times even elitist group - may disagree with this assessment, but I don't care. I don't want to argue about the nuances of split 7 inches or unreleased cassettes or talk about my record collection or discuss this album in the context of a discography. I just want to speak about why I recommend this album to you because it's so important to me. Maybe it will be important to you.

Therefore, I recommend Full Force Galesburg to you.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

all i could want is silver & spinning out from your arms.

The second of this week's (or last week's, I guess) quintet of recommended albums is

Neutral Milk Hotel's On Avery Island.

yeah, that's right. Not In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I love that one, too, but everyone recommends that, and I'm still Building An Audience on this blog, and honestly, over the past few years I have listened to On Avery Island way more. So I am here to disagree with virtually every Music Critic Ever (because I'm not one, right?) and tell you that this is Tuesday, and today's Recommendation is On Avery Island, and you only get one recommendation a day from me if that, so forget about everything else and just hear me out for the next 300-500 words.

What's the difference? I think most people dismiss On Avery Island as early sketches for In the Aeroplane over the Sea. On Avery Island, was that their early stuff? Why are they against sex and who the hell is Pree? What's the difference? it just starts with a different pronoun, right?

Oh, you are so fucking wrong. I wish I could contemptuously end the blog post right here, but now I have to explain myself.

Plus, in case you're counting, I think I'm now 2 for 2 for dropping F bombs in these recommendations this week, which means this blog is so never getting on my department's blog roll.

Oh well.

Anyway. On Avery Island is strange and wonderful and refreshing and nearly forgotten. It incorporates found sound and ephemera in a way that In the Aeroplane simply doesn't. Where In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has at least developed a secondary hegemonic narrative in the endless dissections thereof, On Avery Island has stayed mysterious, and I'm going to keep it that way. On Avery Island is elliptical and vague and not tied to linear interpretations.

For those of us who came to On Avery island late, it's impossible to understand On Avery Island without the overshadowing behemoth that is In the Aeroplane over the Sea (and, ya know, just typing that out every time is kind of precious & infuriating, and I love that album). On Avery Island is visceral and reactionary and angry, a collage of sounds and voices and moods that range from elegaic to frustrated to despairing to vulnerable. Sounds twist and are distorted in unexpected ways; voices of the everyday mingle with the sounds and voices of musicians and thus become the sounds and voices of musicians. It's a very populist album.

But On Avery Island is neither mere chaos nor mere aural self-indulgence. It is not mere trial runs for melodies and lyrics that would be reused later with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It stands on its own as its own ideas. It is its own masterwork that has been overshadowed by the more accessible and more talked-about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Therefore, I Recommend On Avery Island to you.

Monday, July 6, 2009

where is waged the daily strife.

wow, thanks for all those cat name suggestions, gentle blog readers.
I'm being sarcastic. As usual I can only count on Asa for things I ask for on the Internet.
You want to know what i decided to name him? I'll tell you on Friday so you keep reading. HA.

ok. so now i shall commence with the album recommendation project previously scheduled for last week.

The first album of this quintet of recommendations is

John Vanderslice's Cellar Door.

As a *vague airquotes* "film scholar* (and, let me qualify that: by scholar, I mean, master's degree, current PhD student, once had prestigious fellowship to go overseas and do something with film, forthcoming non-blog publications, the kind that smell gloriously of bookbinding glue, the kind you only put on your CV, cuz you sure don't get paid, please, oh please for a moment avert your eyes to the TipJar; by vague I mean: well who cares), I guess I just have an affinity for narrative, cinematic music.


I bought this album after seeing JV open for the Mountain Goats in Florida in 2004. At the time, I was heavily involved in reading apocalyptic things about peak oil, Katherine Harris was my representative, and I watched my country re-elect George W. Bush (Dear America: Why?). The song "Pale Horse" spoke to me in a way that nothing else really had before, and when I voted for the first time, I wrote in John Darnielle and John Vanderslice as president & vice president, respectively; I held my breath and waited for the apocalypse. I moved to Europe a few months later.

I still don't trust Diebold.

Anyway anyway:

What I liked about it (Cellar Door, I mean, wasn't that the subject of this post?) was that it was more than a soundtrack and more than fan fiction. The tracks on "Cellar Door" are translations, transliterations, interpretations and workings-with of filmic texts ("and much, much more!"). Although the best thing about it is that it's elliptical and open-ended, Cellar Door features songs that are loosely about Wild Strawberries, Mulholland Drive, Requiem for a Dream (the book or the movie? I do not know, but I hope it's the movie; I really hated that book), Percy Bysshe Shelley's "The Mask of Anarchy" and others I'm probably too much of a philistine to know. Or others that are more subtle and can refer to any one of several texts.

The result is a hypertextual, nodal album that situates itself within and between all of these texts.

The entire album, as I interpret it, is about the act of translating and working with one text to produce another. As I see it, this is the paradox of creation in the Modern and postmodern ages (I don't know why I capitalize Modern but not postmodern, either). Have we reached a critical mass of creation? Is there nothing left to create but creations about creation (oh god, does that explain fanfiction) ? Is that what all creation is anyway? A spinning off of inspiration, but now we are only inspired by an ever-growing array of other texts?

Anyway. Cellar freaking Door, guys. John Vanderslice really is the friendliest guy in the music industry, not that I know that many guys in the music industry.

Cellar Door!

Plus, it just has some fucking good beats. I Recommend it to you!