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Monday, January 6, 2014

Retrograde: A Return to Previous Themes

I suppose I should count it as propitious that I did not resolve to be timely this year. It's six days into the new year and I have to yet to fully grasp just what occurred in 2013. Not for lack of hunger or thirst, but for reticence to abbreviate and surmise. In some ways it was a cruel year, tragic and not without tempestuous clouds, but it was also a year of high notes - cultural fortitude and the undercurrent of some renaissance. Even if that's wishful thinking eventually we must always reprise to a previous theme, and it seems long overdue...

In 2013 we worshiped in CHVRCHES, praised Yeezus, and understood the bloodthirst of the Weekend vampire. Lourde told us we'll never be Royals, but baby George and the directionally confused demigod disagree. Some Twerk'ed or watched along as young entertainers sought infamy, or moments thereof, via public acts of absurdity. Actions without intention or cultural reference (even when misunderstood) are of the worst kind. We reveled in the bang of the onscreen apocalypse. Walter White went out with a whisper, as Jesse drove screaming into wild freedom. (Spoiler alert kids: he was definitely arrested one mile down the road, right?) Netflix forever changed the landscape of television consumption. Orange (and television binge-viewing) became the new black. Frank Underwood sauntered onscreen via stage left, soliloquist; reminiscent of some tragic, bloodied Scottish general. Reprise. Even in politics little was spared: secrets were leaked, the government went on vacation, and we lost many great minds including our South African, peaceful warrior.

In contemplation of the previous year and in anticipation for time still to come, I will share some of my personal highlights of the 2013 cultural landscape. They are not necessarily my critical tops, but they are pieces that continue to resonate with me. As I am perched in 2014 and ruminating on 2013, I find my first choice of song, Retrograde, very fitting.

Tune of the Year: Retrograde
Retrograde by James Blake is just plain sexy. Though Blake has created some controversy for himself by drawing a line in the dubstep sand, he is irrevocably talented and this sophomore album is so delightfully textured and full of the sounds that make him such a compelling artist: R&B, dubstep (the right kind), electronic, gospel, and solo piano. The beginning vocal loop could be the only thing on the track and it would still be the sexiest thing this year. Get into it.

Album of the Year: White Lighter, Typhoon
Originally, I thought of 2013 as the year of the female voice. From Lucius to Daughter to Haim to POLICA - all the sounds I kept returning to were female. But there was nothing else quite like Typhoon's White Lighter. A band comprised of eleven members - including female vocals and harmonies - Typhoon is more an orchestra than a band after all. Their heavy, full, sometimes clamorous sound is textured and rich and then literally collapses into reflective refrain. All of this is guided by Kyle Morton's lyrical storytelling. After a few listens you will see that in both sound and theme it is a concept album that tackles the arc of youth: growing older, gaining awareness and facing the strange and often noxious trials that rise out of that passage.

Documentary: The Stories We Tell
The Stories We Tell directed by Sarah Polley (Away from Her, Take This Waltz) was perhaps one of the most staggering, profoundly human pieces of art that I came across this year. Polley sets out to uncover family secrets and unbind the myths of her family's collective voices into one true narrative, but the story itself takes a hold of the feature and twists the genre into something else entirely. I will not spoil the film's most delicate surprise, which is not what it seems at all. It is deeply personal, permanently stained with nostalgia and so entirely human. Sarah's deft storytelling, immutable search for the truth, and Michael Polley's narrative carry the film through the twists and turns of a naturally messy history. In the end stories are just the lies we tell ourselves, are humans themselves are often are the most resounding anecdotes that can be imagined.

"When you're in the middle of a story, it isn't a story at all but rather a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood, like a house in a whirlwind or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard are powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you're telling it to yourself or someone else."

Fiction: Tenth of December, George Saunders
This short story collection will make you feel; really feel. Feel so much that you laugh and cry at the same time; you wonder how language, having come so far, can still seem so imaginative and absolutely bizarre. Though Saunder's crafts strange worlds that appear like science fiction, the absurdity itself is that these worlds and their idioms are not so far from our current human condition. It is often vast and devastating within his dark landscapes, there is still a sense of humanity and shameless humor that is not to be missed. Read this book.

Television Series: Masters of Sex
It was a strange, but good year for television; still much was clouded by the haze of Walter's blue crystals. It was a finale seen round the world and to me was a bit lacking (but that's another story). For new debuts I loved the first season of Sundance's Rectify, which has been renewed for 2014, and I am slowly digesting Jane Campion's weird and wonderful Top of the Lake on Netflix. House of Cards, of course.
But the standout for me was Master's of Sex. The strength of acting, the simultaneous restraint and immodest hungriness, and the deftly told scientific history make it a very compelling series. Every character is round and full enough to carry the show itself, and bare enough to leave you breathless. I must admit something though...I haven't seen the whole first season. Having binge watched as many possible episodes over the holidays I'm still a few episodes behind the season finale. Perhaps like the show's subject matter itself, the near anticipation of the finale has kept me in wanting. Good art models the very arc of the emotions it hopes to elicit.

Scene Stealer: Miles Teller
For years I've been wishing that we could recreate young John Cusack and keep making heartbreaking but funny coming of age movies. Talk fast, love hard, and hold that boombox so good. Thanks for listening universe.

Movie: Breathe In
I've intentionally chosen a movie I think was overlooked and only really ran on the film festival circuit. There were many beautiful films last year, but this is one that perhaps you haven't seen. Drake Doremus (Like Crazy) tells stories the way you might recall them in your mind: as a visitor - with slow reluctance, memories flooding like water, music telling the tempo, and strange emotions extracted. Performances by Guy Pearce, Felicity Jones, and Amy Ryan were strong and heartbreaking. The score by Dustin O'Halloran is so deftly felt it adds another presence to the film; it has also found a permanent home in my music rotation. Breathe In is best viewed through the lens and weight of a short story; breathe in, but don't be prepared to breathe out just yet.

Come Back Kid: Jay Gatsby
Oh sweet Jay. What can I say? I will spare you my thoughts on The Great Gatsby itself (Baz Luhrmann's version, I could write another novel about the novel itself), but I can't resist delving into a literary character revival. Jay Gatsby. The romantic, the great tragic hero, the essence of the American Dream and it's eventual disillusion. It's a story and character we romanticize, an inherent part of our natural American landscape; book sales skyrocketed this year under the imminence of the the movie release. Gatsby was first revived in film by Robert Redford (in the hands of Francis Ford Coppola) in 1974 and then again last year by Leonardo DiCaprio (Luhrmann). The story, and Gatsby himself, is perhaps the ultimate warning against retrograde - eternally moving backwards towards a girl, goal, a point, a green light.

"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther....And one fine morning--"

You know the rest, or at least you should.*

*In case you were sleeping in English class. "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."