I never listen to the radio. I have close to 30,000 songs in my iTunes library, so I’m never really lacking for something to listen to. If a song/album/artist is going to cross my radar, it’s not enough that they be insufferably catchy enough to warrant Top 40 play. Conversely, great songs that are insufferably overexposed never bother me, because I don’t hear them enough to suffer appropriately. This isn’t to say I ditch charted music (or pop culture) entirely; I do make it a point to see what is out there on occasion.
So, the following is a list of songs that caught my ear for one reason or another and warranted multiple spins in 2012. A companion “Best Albums of 2012” list will follow, when I can get around to writing it, of course.
Note: The best way for me to provide examples of the songs on this blog is to post their music videos. Some of these videos are absolute shit and don’t do their songs justice. The following list is a list of songs, remember, and not videos.
10. “Untouchable (Parts 1&2)”
I’m totally cheating, as these are two separate tracks, but this one-two punch opening Anathema’s latest album has an intricacy of musical arrangements and production that recall the solo work of Alan Parsons, before he decided he’d rather produce unremarkable electronic piffle. From the once hard death-metal band, I didn’t expect anything like Weather Systems, but it’s a welcome left turn.
Does anyone remember those The Mind’s Eye videos from the early 1990s? Back then, computer animation was still something of a novelty. This was before Toy Story and Shrek started slowly strangling traditional 2D animation, which was soon cast aside by big studios like Disney and the nascent Dreamworks. We had seen it used quite effectively in movies like The Lawnmower Man and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but it wasn’t until Jurassic Park, I think, that Hollywood really began to develop the technology, and computer animation became a primary force in storytelling, instead of merely a supporting character.
Okay, this isn’t a post on the development of computer animation. I always get distracted by tangents! Anyway, I was talking about The Mind’s Eye. It was a series of VHS tapes begun in 1990 that featured different clips of computer animation, of often wildly inconsistent levels of sophistication, assembled music-video style over an electronic score. They were very well done, mining material from motion pictures, video games, short films, and industrial clips used to highlight the skills of various animation houses. And the music for them wasn’t some cheesy post-80s electro hogwash either; Jan Hammer, of “Crockett’s Theme,” did one of the videos, and I remember much loving the video scored by Thomas Dolby.
Very often I encounter articles penned by some well-meaning cineaste or journalist ruing the state of female-driven cinema. Such articles follow a similar pattern: they tell you that women make up half the population but are grossly underrepresented as media creators, show you a few statistics to illustrate their point, then invariably include a list of female directors that have not been sufficiently recognized in the author’s opinion. The usual suspects on such lists are Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion, Penny Marshall, Amy Heckerling, Nicole Holofcener. Sometimes, desperate for names, there may even be a mention of a Catherine Hardwicke (you know, of Twilight fame) or Nancy Meyers (of Something’s Gotta Give and The Holiday). If the scribe is actually somewhat knowledgeable, you might see a shout-out for Lucrecia Martel, Kelly Reichardt, or Lone Scherfig. Leni Riefenstahl and Chantel Ackerman make lists with an eye to history.
But in such historical lists, one name I have never seen is that of Larisa Shepitko. Have you heard of her? If not, it’s a real shame, for she helmed one of the greatest of war-themed films: The Ascent (Восхождение, for the Cyrillic-minded). A student of the famed Alexander Dovzhenko, Shepitko made only four films before a car crash cut her career short. (I guess an abbreviated film career could contribute to her lack of renown, but James Dean only made three films…) The Ascent is no less than her masterwork; a haunting film of stunning beauty, its images burn themselves into your memory.
In his seminal essay “The Lion and the Unicorn,” George Orwell paints us a very vivid portrait of wartime England and makes a forceful argument that egregious class differences directly led to the fecklessness that characterized England in the early years of the Second World War. It seems like a highly specific, specialized polemic—and it is that. But rereading it recently, I could not help but draw parallels from the aspects of his society that caused Orwell such woe and the facets of American society that today cause my exasperation. The essay deals much with what Orwell calls “the decay of the ability in the ruling class.”
… it was happening with the speed of a chemical reaction. And yet somehow the ruling class decayed, lost its ability, its daring, finally even its ruthlessness, until a time came when stuffed shirts …could stand out as men of exceptional talent. As for [Prime Minister Stanley] Baldwin, one could not even dignify him with the name of stuffed shirt. He was simply a hole in the air. … Why? What had happened? What was it that at every decisive moment made every British statesman do the wrong thing with so unerring an instinct?
The United States of America is about to undergo another presidential election. This fills me with a measure of dread; I live in America, you see, and at no other time is disinformation and invective at such a fever pitch in my country than the months leading up to a presidential election. It’s especially disheartening to see what passes for “news” sometimes in the US—we have freedom of the press here, and consequently there is no law preventing our nominal “news outlets” from slanting, spinning, or outright lying. This has the unpleasant effect of causing large swaths of the least informed residents of my home country to immediately become convinced of the correctness whatever point of view they currently hold, regardless of any facts about the real world we actually live in.
I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, like the majority of the population—not because I got swept up in quixotic notions of Hope and Change, but because Barack Obama ran a more sincere campaign than his opponent, and I responded to his purported worldview and intentions for leadership. I still maintain that Barack Obama is a better choice than the man he ran against in 2008 (and that man’s running mate, who deserves neither mention by me nor further consideration). But I would not be honest if I failed to mention that, as a president, Barack Obama has left me wanting. However…
Better late than never, right? This list’s belated appearance is due to a number of factors I won’t bore anyone with, but hopefully it’s early enough in the year that you can catch up on the great films of 2011 you may have missed before 2012’s Oscar season launches full-force.
Michael Shannon, in the year’s best male performance, plays Curtis, an Ohio construction worker plagued by vivid apocalyptic visions. Though his mother (Kathy Baker) is a schizophrenic, Curtis is convinced these nightmares are actually prognostications, and begins preparing his home and family for the worst, to the consternation of his sensible wife (Jessica Chastain, in one of her many great performances given last year), friends, and colleagues. Director Jeff Nichols builds the suspense so expertly that by the end the tension is almost unbearable. The film also has the distinction of having my favorite ending of 2011 by far.
The Tree of Life opened over a year ago, on 27 May 2011, and since then, every attempt I have made to write about it has failed. Perhaps it has taken me this long to work out exactly how I feel about it, although I’m still not sure I’ve done so. I’ve tried starting with a simple plot summary, as is customary in reviews; this seems inappropriate though, not only because the film is only tangentially related to its plot, but also any movie that shows you the creation of the Universe and the destruction of the earth is worth more than a paragraph of plot. (And this is not strictly a review.) I tried leading into an analysis by comparing it to films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Mirror—other barely linear films that attempt to elucidate Man’s relationship with Infinity.
I should have been talking about how the movie makes me feel. That’s the real bottom line. That’s where all the aborted writing was leading anyway. The Tree of Life produces within me a deep, spiritual awareness, an awe of existence, a rapturous, rhapsodic emotion. It’s the kind of state I imagine deeply religious congregations experience during their more ecstatic moments in church. Not being religious, deeply or otherwise, I was fairly stunned to have a movie affect me in this way.