Empty spirit/ In a vacant space

Month: May, 2013

Back for the first time!

by gradus22

Whoa! Hold on a minute here. The sixties were not kind to any number of women from that era, Betty Draper included, feminist or not. I think a better question is whether Mad Men encapsulates this fairly, believably and in a nuanced, original and entertaining fashion. I don’t know if you can have everything here.

From the very start, Betty Draper was less of an independent human being and more of a functional complication for the Don Draper character study. Do you remember the pilot? She’s barely in it. In the morning, Don Draper, handsome, clever, charismatic, test sales pitches with a woman in her apartment. At the  end of the episode, in a classic ironic twist, he returns home to a previously-unmentioned wife and family. You didn’t need a record scratch to get the point.

As the seasons progressed, I believe that Betty Draper has always been more sinned against than sinning. When she was more involved in the show, the writers tried to flesh her out a little more. She had that group of friends in the suburbs. Her family showed up. The writers even gave her that dream sequence. But Betty was never in charge of her own destiny, much less given the opportunity to influence her own happiness in one direction or another. Even as she learned Don’s secrets, her responses seemed to be dictated by circumstance and conventional options. She cheated in return, found another husband and another house in the suburbs. She had more children, even though the most cursory examiner of the Betty-Sally relationship could have predicted that was a bad idea. We can’t be surprised that the new situation failed to create a fully self-realized Betty Draper. A chance at happiness was never really on the table. Are we getting Betty Draper back? I don’t think we ever had her in the first place.

In the past, I’ve found January Jones’ portrayal frustrating. I will always suspect that some of Betty Draper’s less savory traits – the bad parenting, unenlightened political and social views – stem from her limitations as an actress. Her appearance on SNL and X-Men:First Class have done nothing to persuade me otherwise. (Although, to be fair, not even Jennifer Lawrence could manage a believable line-reading in that movie.) This season, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. She looked at Bobby Draper with something akin to parental affection! Her work with the suitors in this episode wasn’t something that we’d accept from Peggy Olson, but it was passable enough. As for the pillow-talk with Don: are we watching Betty Draper slowly transform into Anna, the original and legitimate Mrs. Don Draper? And the last scene played right to her strengths, be polite, Mona Lisa smile. It’s a nice echo of Betty Draper’s first appearance: she’s meeting her husband one more time, but at least this time she’s in on the irony.


A letter to Matt concerning Betty Francis

by iroqu0ispliskin


Dear Matt,

The seasons have not been kind to Betty Draper. For a show that I think is problematically feminist but indisputably sympathetic towards female characters (they tend to be either: 1) bright and ambitious or 2) non-culpably vapid), Mad Men has been cruel towards Betty.

During the first several seasons, Betty  shouldered the thankless task of representing everything that we have come to regard as inauthentic and self-deluded about her age. Where Don is granted a quasi-sorcerous insight into this psychological abyss that was in the process of pulling civilisation apart, Betty was always the one charged with caring deeply about things we have come to regard as unimportant. I mean, you kind of admired her for being so successful in her commitment to propriety. But you had to ask: what was in it for her?  

To add insult to injury, she’s spent the Francis years cultivating a cruel streak and a wattle. Despite getting herself a substantial husband-upgrade in the person of Henry Francis, the experience of seeing her married life for a sham didn’t seem to have given her much in the way of self-knowledge nor happiness.

Indeed, while you could cite the  fatsuit as the chief humiliation of the Francis era, to me the cruellest cut was the infantilisation of visits to her daughter’s psychologist: her dogged obliviousness to the fact that those visits were for her. I mean, there is just this indignity of watching a grown woman lying in a room full of children’s toys, talking about her mother with a person who is elaborately polite about the inappropriateness of the whole situation. This obliviousness a characteristically human failing, but one that  evokes pity.

Which is why I was so pleased to see her get some swagger back in this last episode. While I cannot in good conscience recommend going blonde or sleeping with Don, you have to admit: she’s the first woman in a long time who has gotten what she’s wanted from sleeping with Don.  She seemed, even more, one of the only people in this series who seems to have don’s number, to have an compassionate bead on what a needy shit he is — Peggy, while she has the good sense not to bewitched by Don, seems no closer to figuring him out. I mean, she didn’t have any idea who this man is while they were married, but better late than never.

It takes a higher grade of woman to slip out for pancakes and leave your formerly despised ex-husband to wake up, alone, wondering where his wife went.  I’m glad to have her back!


Matt and I talk Random Access Memories

by iroqu0ispliskin

daft-punk-get-lucky-pharrell-williams-single-cover-art-nilde-rodgers-random-access-memories-400x400 (1)

Dear Matt,

In the interest of disclosure: as far as I am concerned, Discovery is a perfect pop album.  As music, it is about as good as it gets.  The joy I associate with listening to this album regularly is so intense that some tracks are too emotionally powerful to listen to now.  I was young and I was in love and I listened to it every day, possibly while lifting weights.  Which is just to say, Daft Punk does things for me.

Like much of Western civilization, apparently, I also had this experience of seeing the one-minute clip of “Get Lucky” and instantly recognizing we might have a beast on our hands.  I mean, this thing wasn’t even a song. It was a one minute clip for chrissake, and it nearly drove me out of my skull.  Musical love-at-first-sight is not a common phenomenon for me nowadays (although, “Diane Young”, about which more), but this was it.

So how is this thing?  To me the best news is this: “Get Lucky” is not even the best Pharrell song on the album.  It may seem incongruous to call a relentlessly smoove a piece of art a “monster,” but this album is a monster.  By which I mean: these guys have attempted to incorporate every native musical capacity at their disposal on this record, and succeed for the most part.

While it is possible that someone could, through congenital defect, lack the ability to enjoy music that is this orchestrated (further disclosure: I really enjoy Sade), it is impossible to deny that this album the lofty ambitions it sets for itself.




Dear Wes,

Oh, all right. I’ll give it a go.

Someone once told me that the best pop music always reminds you of being young: not just the specific historical context of when you heard it, but the overall impression and texture of how it felt to be young as well. It’s an idealized version of youth, to be sure — one where young people are never selfish or angry or make stupid mistakes — but god, what a feeling! Discovery will always have that role for me, I’m not sure I could judge it impartially even if I wanted to. But most of that album seems engineered for preemptive nostalgia, it’s full of those dance tracks that manage to be unbearably sad even at their most uplifting moments. (New Order is another good example.) I believe that “Digital Love” is one of the most perfect pop songs of all time, but I’ll never be completely sure of that.

So you can probably guess how I feel about Random Access Memories. It caught me at weak moment; I haven’t sought out new music as much in a couple of years. But the prospect of a new Daft Punk album was just too much, and what can I say? I listened to “Get Lucky” and by the time you hear the signature Daft Punk synth riff (I think it’s in Digital Love as well?) and robot voices break down, I was sold. After a couple of years without hearing new music that I could say I absolutely loved, the feeling was similar to coming up for air. I don’t think RAM is as good as Discovery. I’m enjoying it immensely, but it’s the same part of my brain that loved “Beautiful Day” because it reminded me of U2’s absolute prime. I can’t help but wonder if I’m just enjoying the echo.


Dear Matt,

Sadly, you are right about “Digital Love.”  It’s perfect.

I, too, am more or less sold on this thing.  But while nostalgia certainly has a hand in whatever this album stirs up, there is something else afoot here: it’s just been a long time since there’s been good pop music about love.

I mean, how did pop music get to be such a huge bummer?  At some point, the radio songs we all want to sing in a club all started being either 1) breakup anthems or 2) liquor advertisements. Don’t get me wrong, love Drake and I enjoy rosé. But what are all the people in love gonna listen to?  They need songs, because these are hard times. I mean, yeah, I get it: getting lucky is a euphemism for putting the key in the ignition. I’m a 33 year old man and I know what’s up. But the song is so exuberant! I can’t but take it in the literal sense: they’re up all night to get lucky. The luck is just being together! Music about this kind of luck is oxygen.

As an album, Random Access Memories is not without flaw. The record is frontloaded with a lot of lush, downtempo robocrooning. Which is not my favourite mode. While “Game of Love” is pretty, it feels like it deflates the buzz kicking off the needlessly funky “Give your Life Back to Music” (summer plans made!).

Fortunately, the album hits its stride with the aptly-titled “Instant Crush” and never looks back. The sometimes-stiflingly restrained vibe the band maintains throughout the album gets a real stew cooking on “Lose Yourself to Dance,” the only song that contends with “Get Lucky” for musical-miracle status.  Every Daft Punk album needs a song-to-be-listened-to-on-the-bridge-of-a-starship, and “Motherboard” fits the bill.

So, basically this album is great and all of us who have got our mitts on it have gotten lucky, sometimes in a nonsexual way.


Dear Wes,

I don’t know if we’re the only ones being nostalgic here, Wes, but I think you’re right. Random Access Memories is a record about love, but it’s also a record about nostalgia as well. That’s the only way to explain the mix of 1970s production value and contemporary indie guest stars (if you can say that Pharrell and Panda Bear are stars, I suppose.) This isn’t just a wistful trip through Daft Punks’ favorite disco records. It’s not  a way to cash in on Discovery’’s heartbroken-robots theme either. It’s a record that looks in both directions, and it’s at least partly an admission that Daft Punk probably couldn’t make another record as conceptually tight and musically perfect as Discovery. (I’m sure I’ve thought about this past the point of diminishing returns, but doesn’t that make “Random Access Memories” a particularly appropriate title for the record? Maybe my thoughts are just chasing their own tails at this point.)

At some point in the 1980s, Mick Jagger told Keith Richards that he didn’t want to remake “Exile on Main Street” every year. Richards response was just “Man, I wish you could.” Daft Punk probably don’t want to make Discovery every year. They probably couldn’t even if they tried. I don’t think there’s an easy way out of that situation, but there’s a maturity and an element of compromise that makes this album better than a Discovery knock-off could ever be. And I certainly plan on playing it loud and frequently in my car this summer.

The Great Gatsby

by gradus22

Wes, I’m just happy to be on the team. Just be advised: I like to take a lot of contested three-point shots, I don’t like to pass and I can’t play defense. Additionally, I have never committed a legitimate foul in my metaphorical basketball career and honor demands that I correct any referee who assumes otherwise. Maybe the better comparison for us is the Damon Stoudamire-Rasheed Wallace partnership from the Portland Trail Blazers during the 1990s.

I haven’t seen Spring Breakers, but conceptually, it reminds me a little of Sugar & Spice, which you and I saw in the theater, paying the full ticket price, naturally. (ah, the mistakes of youth!). If anything, Spring Breakers appears to be a darker take on the same can’t-miss premise that somehow manages to miss every time. But still, I think you can learn a lot about a generation by examining its cheerleaders-that-rob-a-bank movie.

I recently took in a similarly tasteful film, Baz Luhrman’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. In Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! (the man has a thing for punctuation in his titles, apparently), Luhrman has cultivated a supercolorful and exaggerated visual style. The man loves the spectacle, and so, if anything can be accentuated further in a Luhrman film, it must be. This works fine for Moulin Rouge!, which is pretty ridiculous to begin with; its characters drink absinthe and sing anachronistic pop medleys. And once you’ve hired John Leguizamo, digitally edited him into a midget, and given him a cane and monocle to play as Toulouse Lautrec, realism has pretty much gone out the window. Romeo + Juliet, despite its Shakespearean pedigree, is still a story about teenagers who fall in love and kill themselves, while delivering emotional monologue to anyone who will listen. So spectacle fits the bill.

The same can’t be said about The Great Gatsby. Despite the Jazz Age setting and sometimes overly dramatic dialog, Gatsby is not a story about spectacle and excess, but about that moment when reality intrudes on the dream and summer yields to fall. And in a story like that, you’ve got to earn your drama. F.Scott Fitzgerald may have given Nick Carraway the original, theme-stating line: “You can’t repeat the past”, but he built that on paragraphs of delicately structured writing. Luhrman, as you may have already guessed, doesn’t have similar talent or patience. Consequently, the most dramatic moments of the story are breath-taking. The parties are opulent to the umpteenth degree (although I think Gatsby may be renting the house from the Capulets in Romeo+Juliet, judging from the staircase-pool combo), but the poverty is done in its mirror image. It seems foolish to even point out that 1920s Queens and North Dakota weren’t quite the post-apocalyptic hellscapes that are put before us. It’s like listening to too much popular music on the radio; the production is certainly impressive, but after a while you just want to hear something resembling an imperfect, human voice.

The actors are left to fend for themselves. Some of them don’t make it: Tobey Maguire is dopey as Nick Carraway, Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan is an uncomplicated bully. This is particularly tragic when you remember that the 1974 version had a pre-Law & Order Sam Waterston giving Nick Carraway some restraint and introspection, and Bruce Dern balancing Tom’s insecurity, hypocrisy and cowardice while still managing to come off thoroughly repulsive. Carey Mulligan is more or less unaffected to the lavish sets and funhouse costumes around her, but it’s as if she’s been imported from some non-existent and much better version of The Great Gatsby.

Leonardo DiCaprio, on the other hand, has the chops to get through this thing unscathed. He’s got that personal magnetism that makes him a marketable big movie star, and the acting skills to back it up. Plus, he’s been though the Luhrman machine before; he knows how get and keep your attention, even as he’s asked to perform pratfalls and he’s being shot in a way that underlines his perfect tan. He even manages to read some of Fitzgerald’s clunkier lines in a believable manner. Christ, he can call someone “old sport” without a trace of irony, which might be medal-worthy in 2013. But still, part of him remains solidly DiCaprio at all times. He’s a savvy one. He’s got Jack Nicholson’s cat-that-ate-the-canary grin. He’s at those Laker games. He sees the career paths in front of him. He knows where he wants to be sitting in twenty years and he knows how to get there.

It’s good to be here. I think this will work out pretty well. But enough about me, let’s talk about Daft Punk.

A Letter to Matt Concerning Spring Breakers

by iroqu0ispliskin

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I am very pleased to have you aboard this semi-defunct vessel.  For much of my adult life you have been my ideal reader anyway: my Bouhilet, the Greenwald to my Chris Ryan. The man who understood the literary potential of a zombified Abraham Lincoln before it came to be unanimously acknowledged by our peers.  Mostly I would like to see you class up this joint, if at all possible, to better serve a readership that already stretches into the dozens.

So, Spring Breakers finally came out here in Istanbul last week.  I brought a lady friend who I’ve been courting to come see it with me, a course of action I cannot recommend in good conscience. I would not describe its nudity as “tasteful.”  But man, if you take her to see Spring Breakers and she bails, it was never meant to be. (I have a history of taking prospective ladies to grossly inappropriate entertainments, including a trips to see a child-sexual-abuse-themed-play and Mulholland Drive on what were, technically, our first two dates).

Which is not to say that Spring breakers is lacking as a diagnostic tool.  Tolerance/appreciation for what Spring Breakers is trying to do to its viewers discloses much about one’s character.

The plot, in outline, one can dispatch briskly: four college girls knock over a chicken joint in order to buy themselves a trip to St. Petersburg, where a hard-partying montage draw sucks them into the criminal web of rapper slash drug dealer slash cornrow enthusiast “Alien,” portrayed by James Franco.  A crime spree ensues, and Gucci Mane figures prominently in the denouement.

To be honest I was not buying what this film was selling for the first half.  The dames, perhaps intentionally, have barely distinct personalities. When they are not robbing people they just narrate emails to their moms extolling the transformative impact of travel over a turgid montage of them getting slammered/blazed with other bikini enthusiasts. There is a lot of impossibly nubile slow-motion nudity. A goodly quantity, gradually acquiring a kind of audiovisual wallpaper quality. “Is Bolivian bouillon snarfed from bare sweater cows?” you may ask.  I am too much of a gentleman to say.

But then, right after intermission (there are intermissions in Turkey), we hit a decisive point.  The ladies have retreated to James Franco’s bedroom, where he’s showing off all his sweet stuff – his nunchuks, his cologne collection, his custom headboard, his machine guns.  And so while Franco and these girls are lolling around on his bed in a quasi-erotic fashion and admiring the fruits of his labours, one of the girls playfully sticks a loaded gun in his face.  And then the other girl eggs her on, telling him to put the gun in his mouth.  And then this escalates to the point where the girls are semi-menacingly berating him, ordering him to suck on this gun as if it were a human penis.  At which point Franco enthusiastically fellates a handgun.

Sold, Spring Breakers!  From here on out I was on board.  The ladies proceed to don neon balaclavas and black sweatpants with “DTF” emblazoned across the rear in large metallic lettering.  They proceed sway around dreamily with their kalashnikovs as James Franco plays Britney Spears’ “Everytime” on his poolside grand piano.  This was exactly the aesthetic experience I had been seeking when I walked into that theatre. Over its second half it gets a kind of mouseketeer Scarface vibe cooking, which I was behind 100%.

A word concerning Franco: he’s great here.  James has this weird quality as an actor, where he seems to simultaneously stand inside and outside of whatever character he’s playing. He always seems to be putting you on, but also entirely sincere at the same time. This can be disastrous, but for some reason it just works here, where he is playing the most ridiculous human being imaginable.

There is a lot going on, like, thematically in this film. From the montages and the letters home you’d get this sense that the film is a conscious tribute to/parody of the transformative power of youthful consumerism. There’s some overt racial stuff in there, too. Spring Breakers is by no means a seaworthy vessel for this freight.

What worked, for me, was this turnaround they pull on Franco. Spring Break is an seemingly institution built around women abasing themselves for the sake of bros, and that is what gets reversed here.  As a feminist, I am on the record: I am willing to tolerate a lot of cheesecake if the underlying message is that women are the arbiters of their own pleasures.  And these women are.  Spring break foreverrrrrr……