Letter from the Editor


"That’s one of the great things about music. You can sing a song to 85,000 people and they’ll sing it back for 85,000 different reasons.” 
—Dave Grohl

This month we continue and conclude our two part look at music on film. In our last issue we focused primarily on Musicals & Soundtracks, but this time around we’re looking at Musicians & Fans—highlighting films that feature actual musicians, focus on some aspect of fandom, or find some way to straddle that divide.

We begin things with Sara Gray’s take on A Hard Day’s Night, the seminal Beatles documentary that captured the band just as they were beginning to explode into our national consciousness, screaming girls and all. Next, Sheila O’Malley looks at Elvis Presley, through the lens of his very first feature film, Love Me Tender. Then we hop back in time about two hundred years, with Michelle Said’s piece on the original wild child of music, Amadeus, before soaring smoothly back toward the present with Brad Nelson’s look at Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival that manages to capture the kind of singular magic that can take place between performer and audience. Next, Thomas Lowery offers up a personal take on the Townes Van Zandt documentary, Be Here to Love Me, and Elisabeth Geier explains her great love of Paul Simon, acknowledging both his shortcomings as an actor and his best moments on a film’s soundtrack.

Of course, since no magazine in its right mind would devote an entire issue to musicians on film without covering This is Spinal Tap, Andrew Root steps in to offer his unique take on the iconic rock mockumentary (spoiler alert: it involves an actual experience with a real-life moose), before we turn to a couple of essays on two decidedly modern bands—Anna Sjogren’s reflections on Sigur Ros and the landscapes of Iceland in Heima, and Brody Rossiter’s look at music, fame, and sibling rivalry in The National documentary, Mistaken for Strangers. Finally, Chris Fraser discusses listening a bit too much to the music playing over the end credits while working at a movie theater back in 2008, and we conclude things with a poem on Almost Famous from our Resident Poet, Arielle Greenberg.


—Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief


I'll Cry Instead

by Gray Hendryx

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“Prepare yourselves
for the roaring voice of the God of Joy!”

― Euripides, The Bacchae

Scene: an olive grove, warm and shadowed under the fading sun. Summer, a year when years weren't measured.

Women in various states of undress rest in the shade. Some of them still sport the elaborately threaded hairdos of the well-to-do, now beginning to unravel in the heat. A pile of sweat-stained togas lie at the foot of a tree. Those who aren't naked wear the skins of animals: bull, lion, leopard, buck. A fly lands upon the face of a sleeping matron, her cheek smeared with the makeup she applied just minutes before the call came. A young girl, fourteen or fifteen years of age, leans upon a staff entwined with ivy. Her gaze casts to the horizon beyond the trees.

She can hear it: music. Distant drums, skirling pipes. She takes her thyrsus in hand and thwacks it against a tree. Drowsy eyes open. "They're coming!" she says, her voice rising. "He is here!" Her smile exposes her eyeteeth. The women and girls stand. They turn towards the sound. As one, they run.

She screams when she sees the band, her ululating trill the sound of a wild bird set free. She drops the thyrsus the better to run harder, her arms pumping, her hair whipping in the dry wind. She can see the men, their bare arms shining as they beat the drums. In their midst strides a huge bull, and upon its tawny back, He sits. At the sight of His face, the matron trips over her own feet and tumbles to the dirt. The maenads weep and sing and shout as they sprint the final distance to the band of men. The musicians scatter but continue to play.

The bull rears and snorts at their approach, but He is calm. His black curls touch the base of His slender neck as He lifts His head. The women circle the bull, their upturned faces rapt. He lifts a wooden chalice and pours upon their opened mouths and hands a dark red liquid. The young girl's eyes roll back in ecstasy. The men quicken their drumbeat as the women begin to sway. A shaking hand reaches for His garment—a tentative touch, then a pull. They converge upon the bull and the god, clutching, grasping, rending. He welcomes them, spreading His arms wide as the maenads joyfully tear Him apart.

*

Scene: Marylebone Station, Bakerloo Line, London. Spring, 1964.

Their screams merge with the high whistles of departing trains. In their tweed coats and loafers, they run: girls with bobbed hair, boys in suits. To eyes watching fifty-one years later, their conservative clothes make them look strangely mature. They tumble pell-mell through the station, chasing three young men who laugh as they escape the stampede. The men dart and caper and climb, egging the crowd on until they reach the safety of their train. There, they meet the fourth of their band. He tears off his fake beard and boards the car with his mates. The mass of squealing fans breaks asunder as the train pulls out.

The Beatles' apparent glee at being pursued was for the cameras, of course. Just months before filming, their fame in the UK was already so great that none of them could step outside without dodging mobs of youngsters, all grasping for a word, a hug, a lock of hair, a scrap of shirt, or a pound of flesh, if a Beatle wasn't careful. Director Richard Lester's kinetic lens focused upon these four men and ignited them like so many ants under a magnifying glass. A Hard Day's Night captures The Beatles on the very leading edge of superstardom, and it's no wonder they all look so bemused. Yes, they signed up for this. But did they have any inkling as to what they were getting into? How could they? They were so young.

I've watched the opening chase of A Hard Day's Night countless times, and every time George Harrison trips, falls, and laughingly picks himself up, I think, he was only 21 years old. The older I get, the more my heart hurts at the sight of Paul McCartney's cherubic grin. Their youthful energy is a surprise no matter how many times I've witnessed it on screen. Alun Owen's script documents the truth of The Beatles' hectic touring life, and aside from occasional flights of fancy (John Lennon phasing through solid matter) and the omission of unsavory activities (tweaking on legal speed), the documentarian nature of the film isn't just a stylistic choice. The guys really were that funny, and their band was as tight as hell. All of that was real.

As were their fans. Girls that are now older than my own 60-year-old mother shake in the throes of hysteria forever enshrined. The Four's legend wouldn't exist without all of those tears. The extras in the train station were actual fans, and those faces, twisted with unbelievable longing, are the heart of A Hard Day's Night. There's just no faking the jet-engine roar of their love. In fact, the entire first day's shooting of A Hard Day's Night was scrapped due to the fans' zeal. The shoot's clapper-loader, who bore a passing resemblance to the Four, was chased from the set by Beatlemaniacs. He dropped and destroyed the negatives from the previous day as he fled.

When I watch them run, I always wonder: what on earth would those girls have done if they had actually caught a Beatle? Do I really want to know?

*

Scene: A darkened bedroom in a house on the outskirts of a mid-sized town in Texas. Winter, 1995.

I slammed the alarm off as soon as it blared. It was 2AM, and not even the dog stirred as I got out of bed, pulled on a sweatshirt, and gathered my ritual items: sheets of scribbled notebook paper and a long butane lighter. I held them under one arm as I tiptoed downstairs and through the garage. Soon the dead grass of winter crunched under my feet, cold in their flip-flops. A white half-moon lit my passing. Once under the shelter of the live oaks surrounding the pond, I laid my things out on a concrete picnic table.

I looked around once more to make absolutely sure I was alone. Rituals of such great import brooked no compromises. Satisfied, I shucked off every piece of clothing and stood, naked and shivering, in my parents' backyard. In as meaningful a voice as I could muster, I read aloud my tribute to John Lennon on the 15th anniversary of his assassination. Whatever earnest things I said are thankfully lost, as I committed the words I wrote to the lighter's flame. I hugged myself as the paper blackened, a burnt offering. Magic had been done, I was sure of it. I wriggled back into my pajamas and returned to my bed, where I eagerly awaited prophetic dreams.

I grew up listening to The Beatles. My parents played Past Masters: Volume II during summer evenings by Lake Nocona. As children, my sister and I held furious bedroom dance parties toPlease Please Me. Beatles albums and various other boomer jams were part of the air I breathed, and I gave them about as much consideration. That all changed the year I turned fifteen. The Sherman High School marching band played a medley of latter-day Beatles tunes during football halftime shows that fall. I liked the sound of "Penny Lane," and lo, I saw the song on the 1967-1970 Beatles compilation on sale at Hastings. Marketing synergy became another synchronicity as I noticed ads all over the store for The Beatles Anthologydocumentary series and box set. I watched the first episode the night it aired.

My blood quickened as the footage rolled: The Cavern Club, The Ed Sullivan Show, Shea Stadium. Something was happening to me. Unfamiliar, delicious sensations danced down my spine whenever I heard the plaintive edge in John Lennon's voice. A strange rapture pooled in the pit of my stomach and surged through my limbs, making me both woozy and hyperaware. I searched each moment Lennon was on screen with special intensity, as if I could divine the source of my feelings in his dark eyes. In actuality, the source was my own developing brain.

Between the ages of 12 and 20, the human brain undergoes vast neurological changes as neural pathways are opened and solidified. This is part of the reason why the music we loved in our teens and twenties retains a special magic; indeed, those are the years in which we become who we are and choose what we love. That night in 1995, I chose John Lennon, though it didn't seem like a choice at the time. It felt more like imprinting. Like a baby bird, I emerged from the shell of my childhood that night, and the first thing I saw was his face.

I soon played my dad’s copy of A Hard Day’s Night on a weekly basis as my Beatle fever rose. Despite its vaunted pedigree of influences—cinema verite, French New Wave, Buster Keaton comedies—A Hard Day’s Night was propaganda. Its bottom line: The Beatles are awesome, there’s probably one you like the best, and you should buy all of their albums right fucking now. The film documented a true moment in time, but it also created a whimsical typography that still fascinates fans. Just like the hat of Hogwarts, the film sorted each Beatle into a school, allowing fans an easy way to categorize their love and, hence, themselves. Thus Paul was sweet and cute, John was too cool for school, George was quietly sardonic, and Ringo was a doofus. I bought it—I bought it all.

Unlike the collective joy that seized Beatlemaniacs back in the 60s, my preoccupation was a solitary one. I was a late-blooming, sheltered kid, so it's not surprising that my first desire was for a man who was safely dead. I didn't care. My love transcended life and death! Honestly, I wouldn't have known what to do with a Beatle if I had one, either. Sex was out of the question. Even imagining a kiss just seemed wrong, somehow. Instead, I obsessed. For a solid year, I listened to nothing—NOTHING—but The Beatles or solo John Lennon albums. I felt guilty if I listened to anything else, as if I were cheating on him. I looked to Lennon as a martyr for peace and love, and I hoped to emulate him when I bought an old army jacket at Goodwill and festooned it with badges. I saw cosmic importance in the fact that two numbers featured in Beatles songs were also digits in my social security number. And there were the naked midnight rituals, of course. Eventually, having worn out the movies and albums, I turned to biographies. Therein came the fall.

Surprise! John was just a man. He cheated on his wives. He was a dick to his older son. He crudely mocked people with developmental disabilities. Even worse—he did drugs. Lots of them! (What can I say: I was so sheltered, I took Magical Mystery Tour at face value.) The other three Beatles were almost as bad, though they were no worse than any other reasonable human under the circumstances. Each word I read sullied my faith until, disillusioned, I could take no more. A teenaged mind rarely perceives nuance, and it almost never tolerates compromise. I tore down my posters and sold my albums to CD Warehouse. Until I turned seventeen, I listened to Beethoven, Mozart, and Liszt, old men longer dead who wouldn't torture me with fallibility. I didn't want reasonable humans. I didn't want men. I wanted gods.

After all, gods have the good sense to come back to life after you've killed them.

*

Scene: the Scala Theater, London. Spring, 1964.

She was just an extra, which is why her real name has been lost to film history. Lester dubbed her "the White Rabbit" due to her white-blonde hair and sailor dress. She is the punctum of A Hard Day’s Night, the image that haunts my thoughts when happy memories of other scenes fade. While her fellow fans scream and gesticulate in a tent-revival frenzy, she stands alone. Tears shine on her cheeks. Every so often, she silently mouths a name: George. Her emotion is so abject that I almost can't bear to look at her—not out of shame, but out of respect for her utter nakedness. Such raw love, such terrible longing. As I watch her, I ask myself, Why is she so sad?

All chases must end. The thing desired is grasped, and once held, it changes. The observer effect of physics pertains to love as well. The White Rabbit's desire for The Beatles, along with mine and the billions of others who loved them then and now, transformed them. Perhaps this is why the White Rabbit weeps. The love she shares with other fans is so great that The Beatles have to escape it by helicopter. The film's final shot of their ascension cinches it. Love made them too big to touch.

We want to run forever, but we can't. We want to have a thing and still long for it, too. Entire religions and philosophies have been invented to address this mystery. Some say that there is a magic being out there that can give us perfect fulfillment after death, as long as we behave ourselves. Others teach that attainment can be had on our own, right here, right now—but only if we accept the pain change brings. The White Rabbit's tears may never be explained, but to me, they hint at an answer. She stands at the still center within the maelstrom of desire and its pursuit. In that quiet place, pain and joy are one. Or, as a very wise, very stupid man once sang, "Nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time. It's easy."


Gray Hendryx is a writer on the move between West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Peru. Next year, she’ll end up in Pittsburgh with her beloved husband and chihuahua. You can follow along with her travels at Material Spiritualist.


Love Me Tender

by Sheila O'Malley

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“And introducing Elvis Presley,” read the credits for Love Me Tender, Presley’s debut as an actor. Released in 1956, it would be the only time in his movie career that he didn’t receive top billing.

Although there are only four songs in Love Me Tender, it has its place in the history of Hollywood musicals. It wasn’t a monster hit, although it made back its money in an astonishing three days. And while it was produced by the legendary Hal Wallis (who also produced films like Casablanca, Now, Voyager, and Yankee Doodle Dandy), directed by Robert Webb, and cast full of old pros like Mildred Dunnock and Richard Egan, Love Me Tender will always go down in history as the film that launched Elvis Presley into movies.

Wallis had seen one of Elvis Presley's appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, and before the performance was even over, he was making calls, trying to get Presley to come to Hollywood for a screen test. Wallis remembers his first impressions of Presley in his autobiography Starmaker:

“A test was necessary to determine if Elvis could act. I selected a scene for him to do with that very fine actor Frank Faylen. Elvis would play a young man just starting out in life and Faylen would play his father, holding him back. It was a difficult dramatic scene for an amateur. But I had to be sure. When I ran the test I felt the same thrill I experienced when I first saw Errol Flynn on the screen. Elvis, in a very different, modern way, had exactly the same power, virility, and sex drive. The camera caressed him.”

The script for Love Me Tender had been bouncing around Hollywood for some time under the title The Reno Brothers. When Wallis signed Elvis to a contract, he began searching for a film that’d be appropriate for Presley’s debut, and The Reno Brothers came up. Presley was completely green as an actor, and Wallis felt, rightly, that placing Elvis in the protection of an ensemble, where he wouldn't have to carry the weight of the film, was the safest way to go.

In Love Me Tender, three of the Reno brothers have gone off to fight in the Civil War, leaving the youngest, Clint (Presley), behind to take care of the farm. After robbing a payroll train, they return home from war. Vance, the oldest brother, is surprised to discover that his sweetheart, Cathy, believing Vance was dead, has married Clint. Family conflict ensues, including the growing threat of arrest due to the robbery.

Presley was completely green as an actor, and Wallis felt, rightly, that placing Elvis in the protection of an ensemble, where he wouldn't have to carry the weight of the film, was the safest way to go.

Love Me Tender’s original script had no musical numbers in it at all, but once Wallis had decided it was the perfect debut for Elvis, they went about adding the songs, four in total, clustering them in the early sequences of the film: two songs sung at a family reunion on the porch, and two more at a local fair.

These four numbers are moments where Elvis is allowed to shine, to do his thing, albeit in a completely anachronistic context. In a documentary aboutLove Me TenderRolling Stone editor Steve Pond joked, “On the list of priorities when they were making [the film], musical authenticity was at the bottom of the list or not on the list at all.” The songs have a folk-hillbilly feel to them so it's at least in the realm of plausibility that Clint would sing such things in 1865. (At least he’s not singing, say, “I Got a Woman,” or “Hound Dog.”) During the reunion on the porch, Elvis sings, “We’re Gonna Move,” as his family laughs, feet tapping. He jokingly gyrates and wiggles his leg, and it's all a bit ridiculous, but it's also fun and relaxed. Then comes "Love Me Tender," featuring just Elvis and his guitar, creating a quiet, still moment that opens up the heart of the film, Vance and Cathy sadly considering what they have lost, Mother Reno (played by the great Mildred Dunnock) going off into her own troubled reveries. The song provides an interior experience, vast and emotional.

The performance of “Love Me Tender” also shows Elvis’ ease with simplicity, his ability to be in the moment. Elvis loved ballads. His first recordings at Sun Studio in Memphis, when he was still a teenager, were ballads. During the number, he tries to make Debra Paget look up at him as he sings. He leans over, trying to catch her eye, and his movement is kind, sweet, and effortlessly charming. What he accomplishes with Paget is something he was able to do even in gigantic concerts in front of thousands of people. In fact, Elvis would play this song—originally a Civil War-era ballad entitled “Aura Lee”—at every concert until the end of his life.

At the county fair, Clint performs two songs, “Let Me,” and “Poor Boy,” on a makeshift stage. The songs are opportunities to see Elvis in “performance” mode. Girls in 1865-era dresses cluster around, squealing. Full-body shots reveal Elvis in all his glory. His pompadour flaps along with his movements, and there’s a sheer joy to his performance, a pure happiness at providing happiness to others.

The hillbilly sound, with the accordion and the stamping feet, is part of the American wellspring from which he emerged, yet he laid on top of it a frank sexuality and youthful freedom that helped turn American folk into what we now call rock ’n’ roll. “Let Me,” in particular, lets him show his humor. The sexy movements are there, and the girls squeal, but Elvis always takes the edge off of them immediately, with laughter. His energy vibrates off the screen to this day.

Elvis was a mercurial man, each persona an honest reflection of who he was. His musical influences were vast: rhythm and blues, country and western, gospel quartets, and mainstream singers like Dean Martin. He mixed it all up: you can hear the rhythm and blues in his gospel songs, you can hear the gospel in some of his rock and roll songs, where he moans and proclaims like an old-time preacher. He represented a blending of genres, something people find hard to parse, even today. In the four musical numbers in Love Me Tender, Elvis is given a chance to show us at least a couple of these personae, his different ways into songs: they introduce him and contextualize him.

In 1956, Elvis was getting slammed with criticism for his sexuality and his “vulgar” movements. In “We’re Gonna Move,” he is given the opportunity to show the silliness of those criticisms. His sexuality comes off as something innocent, fun-loving, and unthreatening. (The girls in his audiences always understood this. It was the preachers and parents who flipped out.) When Elvis gyrates his left leg, moving across the porch floor, it’s startling and funny, and he knows it’s funny, and laughs to himself at his own audaciousness. He’s in on the joke. He always was.

“Love Me Tender” is the only song among these that is remembered. Later films would provide some classic Elvis songs, like “Jailhouse Rock,” “Trouble,” “Viva Las Vegas,” and more. There were also some dreadful clinkers, mainly in the mid to late-60s, post-British invasion, when the songwriting world and the song-publishing world changed entirely, leaving Elvis (who didn’t write songs) out in the cold. Eventually, Elvis’s movies would become soundtrack-selling vehicles, in a loop of production and profit: The movies sold the soundtracks and the soundtracks sold the movies; everyone went home happy and a little bit richer.

Of course, Love Me Tender pre-dates all of this. It exists in the strange and interesting landscape before the “Elvis Formula Picture” settled in. The “Elvis Formula Picture” was stumbled upon, as it were, with Blue Hawaii, in 1961, an enormous success. Filled with great songs, an exotic location, and Elvis being chased by a bunch of girls, Blue Hawaii would be the model on which the Formula was based. In a decade when the studios were operating out of fear and panic, the structure crumbling around them, the Elvis Formula Picture was always a sure money-maker.

Elvis' next film after Love Me Tender was Loving You, a story tailored to him specifically: a rags-to-riches tale about a young guy in a small town who becomes a successful singer. After that, in Jailhouse Rock, he’d play a wild bad-boy who learns to sing and play the guitar while incarcerated. King Creole would follow, directed by the great Michael Curtiz, telling the story of a New Orleans kid who makes it big singing in a club on Bourbon Street. All three films were stories about show business and can be seen, in retrospect, as a frank attempt to deal with Elvis Presley's persona and the mayhem he had unleashed. Love Me Tender stands apart. Elvis doesn't even show up until 20 minutes into it, and when he does, he is a small figure in the background, struggling with a plow in a field – hardly a superstar.

Playing Clint was a great role for Elvis: he got to be sweet and kind, but also scary and dangerous. As Clint transforms from sweet younger brother to murderous villain bent on revenge, Elvis moves from heartthrob to bad boy, from amateur to experienced actor. He was a sponge, soaking up what he learned on the movie set. He came prepared, knowing his lines, as well as everyone else's.

Mildred Dunnock told a famous story about a crucial moment when Clint goes to grab a gun and charge outside. Playing his mother, she cries out, "Put that gun down!" Clint ignores her and races outside. But the first time they filmed the scene, when she commanded him to put the gun down, Elvis, a polite Southern boy who always did what his mother told him to do, obeyed. While that moment is normally used as evidence of Elvis' inexperience as an actor, Dunnock had another take: "For the first time in the whole thing he had heard me, and he believed me. Before, he'd just been thinking what he was doing and how he was going to do it. I think it's a funny story. I also think it's a story about a beginner who had one of the essentials of acting, which is to believe."

Elvis betrays some stiffness in the dramatic scenes, mainly in his hands, and has a tendency to hesitate before speaking (an amateurish sign). These “tells” would vanish by Loving You. Elvis was a fast learner. In Love Me Tender, under enormous pressure from all sides, with many people hoping he would fail, he was able to be honest and open onscreen. He does not push too hard, he does not try to "act." He focuses on the other actors, not on himself. He is a part of the family: a charming beginning for a guy who only three years before had been an usher at a movie theater in Memphis, dreaming of one day being in the movies like his idol James Dean.

Watching Love Me Tender now, it’s funny to imagine the teenage girls sitting in the theatre, breathlessly, waiting for Elvis to appear. Many people who saw Love Me Tender during its first run talk about the high-pitched screams that filled the theatre at the sight of Elvis's name. Of course, Elvis isn’t the lead, so the girls would sink into a restless silence during the scenes where he wasn't involved, then erupt into screams when he re-entered the action. Withholding Elvis was a deliberate choice, heightening the anticipation. Where is he? Has he appeared yet?

Elvis’ film debut, hugely publicized, was part of allowing the phenomenon to spread even further. In one year alone, the 21-year-old kid had conquered the various billboard charts, as well as conquering radio and television. Movies were the next logical step.

1956 was Elvis' big crossover year. He’d been causing riots throughout the South during concerts as well as his explosive appearances on the Louisiana Hayride radio show, broadcast out of Shreveport, Louisiana. In 1956, his new manager, the carnival-barker-genius Colonel Tom Parker, started pushing Elvis into the national limelight and Elvis made a series of television appearances, on The Dorsey Brothers' variety show, Milton Berle's show, Steve Allen's show, and, finally, momentously, throughout the fall of 1956 and into the winter of 1957, three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, the mark of mainstream approval. America finally got a good look at him, and the results were cataclysmic. Girls screamed and cried and went bananas, and preachers teamed up with outraged op-ed columnists to descry his sexual menace from pulpits and newspapers across the land.

Elvis’ film debut, hugely publicized, was part of allowing the phenomenon to spread even further. In one year alone, the 21-year-old kid had conquered the various billboard charts, as well as conquering radio and television (in terms of number of appearances, and how much he was paid for said appearances). Movies were the next logical step. Would, somehow, the Elvis phenomenon be stopped in its tracks, or at least contained? By scandal, failure, or a lessening of interest? Many thought (hoped) Elvis was a fad, a phase, a flash-in-the-pan. What 1956 represented, start to finish, and Love Me Tender helped solidify, was that Elvis would not be going anywhere anytime soon, that the explosion of his popularity was not just a lone firecracker in the sky, but a cataclysmic event more in line with the Big Bang, energy and movement and light roaring into the vast vacuum out there in the culture, an endless push that could not be stopped. Not even a 2-year stint in the Army (starting in 1958), where he disappeared from view entirely, could stop that Big Bang.

Even without Elvis, Love Me Tender is a wonderful film, featuring strong performances from Mildred Dunnock, and especially Richard Egan, with his gloriously low and mellifluous voice. Ironically, Egan is the romantic lead of the film, something no actor playing opposite Elvis Presley would ever get to claim again. Elvis doesn't even kiss Cathy in the film! His first onscreen kiss would come in the following film, Loving You.

The critical establishment has never truly acknowledged Elvis's gifts as an actor, although his fans know the truth about how wonderful he was onscreen. He starred in 31 pictures in a little over 10 years, most of them box office hits, tied in to wildly popular soundtracks, and many of them featuring his wonderfully comedic and charming performances. He was a sui generis figure, difficult to classify, and impossible to replace. Kurt Russell, who played Elvis Presley so memorably in John Carpenter's 1981 film (and also kicked Elvis's shin in a scene in the 1963 film It Happened at the World's Fair), has said that he loves Elvis movies because Elvis is in them. That may seem like a simplistic statement, but you can count on one hand the names of actors who have the same kind of appeal.

Clint dies at the end of Love Me Tender. In initial test previews, the audiences rejected this creative decision, and the only solution the director came up with was to bring Elvis back from the dead, visually, superimposing a ghostly image of him singing "Love Me Tender" over the final moments of the film, just before the screen goes black, Elvis smiles, a big, reassuring smile, as if to say (or sing): “It's okay, folks, I'm still here.”


Sheila O'Malley writes film reviews and essays for RogerEbert.com, Capital New York, Fandor, Press Play, Noir of the Week, and The House Next Door. She has performed her one-woman show “74 Facts and One Lie” all over Manhattan, and her first play—July and Half of August—recently had public readings at Theatre Wit in Chicago, and The Vineyard Theatre in New York. She is currently working on her second play, as well as a book about Elvis Presley in Hollywood


The High-Pitched Giggle of God

by Michelle Said

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

“Nobody sees anybody truly, but all through the flaws of their own ego.”
—Tennessee Williams

When I was in middle school, I was more than a little morbid. I had been meditating on the meaning of life and death over the past few years of my life, and I was terrified of the inevitability of my own passing. I did not know how to get around it. I would die. Everybody I knew would die. Life seemed not only hopeless, but almost like a joke. What cruel creator would provide life, only to snatch it away?

I didn’t know what to do. I enjoyed living, despite my adolescent strife, and I didn’t want to give it up. One day, in the midst of a particularly hopeless existential session following history class, I came up with a game plan: I would cheat death. Not in any of the normal ways we think about cheating death – no potions, spells, or deals with the devil; I wasn’t crazy. Instead, I thought about those who had made their mark on our history textbooks – the founding fathers, the great authors, the scientists, the visionaries. We remember those legendary figures because they left a legacy.

So I, Michelle Said, age 12, would cheat death by emulating those greats. I wanted to do something, to create something, something that would keep me alive long after I had gone. Of course, this sentiment was entirely motivated by my own fearful ego. I wasn’t t so much afraid of death as I was afraid of not being remembered.1

Which brings me to the eternal struggle of Mozart and Salieri.

Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984) is based on Peter Shaffer’s Tony award-winning play. If those unfamiliar, it tells the tale of Antonio Salieri, the relatively forgotten (if successful in his time) composer, who, according to the play’s version of events, was so consumed with envy in seeing Mozart’s natural-born talent that it drove him to madness.

There is so much to unpack here, and so many layers, that I could probably write a dissertation on the topic. (Talk to me later about the film’s images of dualism, the costumes, and F. Murray Abraham’s performance. All of these aspects are worth discussing, but sadly can’t be contained in a single essay here without the risk of boring you, dear reader.)

I held off viewing Amadeus until I was in my twenties. I will admit: “1980s period drama about the Baroque era in Vienna, featuring classical music” didn’t exactly spark my interest. But then one day, sick in bed, I decided to stream it on my tiny laptop screen out of a felt sense of duty to film literacy. It was, after all, a Best Picture winner. People had told me it was great. I didn’t believe them.

What gave me most pause was recognizing a piece of myself in it—a piece I didn’t exactly like. Like any great piece of art, Amadeus makes us recognize and confront our own foibles and flaws.

I was completely astounded by the film. There were no stuffy British accents or any evidence of overly affected Acting with a capital A to be found. Instead, Amadeus utilizes genuine human emotions, drawing portraits of people who feel alive in a world as easily recognizable as our own, whose quirks recall real human relationships and embody universal themes. The film walks the line between drama and comedy so deftly that it’s borderline miraculous. Yet, what gave me most pause was recognizing a piece of myself in it—a piece that I didn’t exactly like. Like any great piece of art, Amadeus makes you recognize and confront your own foibles and flaws.

It’s easy to imagine a more conventional writer producing a standard biopic of Mozart: His childhood, the cultivation of his talent, his legendary career, and his premature death at 35. But Shaffer’s Amadeus works in an entirely different way, succeeding largely because of the decision to frame Mozart’s life from Salieri’s point of view. Salieri slips into our own darkest impulses, niggling at all those fears, desires, and jealousies we often hate and reject in ourselves. He comes to embody the inner monster, that fierce, fearful ego that gripped me during my teenage years.

Looking to achieve his own slice of heavenly, musical grace, Salieri has dedicated his soul to God in what he hopes will be a fair trade: “I would offer up secretly the proudest prayer a boy could think of: Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate Your glory through music and be celebrated myself. Make me famous through the world, dear God. Make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote. In return, I will give You my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life, Amen.”

Essentially, he wants exactly what Mozart has. He has worked almost his entire life to get to where he is when we first meet him: a composer for the Austrian king, with an esteemed level of authority within the court. But he’s not happy.

And he’s not happy because he knows, deep down, that he is not, and will never be, half as talented as Mozart, who possesses an effortless and God-given talent. That knowledge alone would be hard enough to bear, but meeting Mozart in person twists the knife into poor, mediocre Salieri.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, that pinnacle of pinnacles, a veritable musical genius, is merely an immature young man who wears funny pink wigs and revels lustfully in life, indulging heartily in sex, food, and libation. He is everything the buttoned-up, pious Salieri is not.

This duality is what still keeps Amadeus so deliciously modern and novel some thirty years after its release and 224 years after Mozart’s death. There is something refreshing about seeing the stuffy costumes and formal attire of 17th Century Vienna brought down to real, human behavior every single time Mozart opens his mouth and lets out one of his ridiculous, high-pitched giggles. It’s hard not to love Mozart with his wide-eyed boyishness and dirty jokes. He is so unashamed of his own ripe youth that we can’t help but love him for it.

We are shown a Mozart that parties until the wee hours and then works all day on his music. A Mozart who is somewhat arrogant; whose comments give Salieri pause, and make him question his own work. After all, Salieri admires Mozart. In a way, he loves Mozart, and is unable to ever give false praise against his rival’s work because he has too much respect for the actual music. In his heart, Salieri knows that Mozart’s work will live on past the both of them. Mozart will be guaranteed an eternal life.2

Amadeus tells us to not be ashamed of ourselves, to focus on the art, not the outcome. The Mozart of Amadeus knew he was ahead of his time, and he knew that his music was better than anything else out there, but he never concerned himself with the way his legacy would be perceived beyond his own lifetime. He focused on the work itself. Amadeus, in many ways, was a lesson for me, one that I wish I had known when I was so fearful of death and trying to create my own legacy as a kid: do the work, do it to the best of your ability, and don’t worry about the outcome. Art, after all, is mostly for ourselves.

It is a lesson that Salieri wishes he could take to heart. But he can’t. His fixation on the afterlife is too strong, almost as if he doesn’t trust God to bestow upon him the eternal reward he felt he was promised.

The crux of this appears in the very opening scenes of the film. Salieri, having recently attempted suicide, sits down with a priest in his room in a sanatorium. He is old now, weathered mercilessly through the years with stringy white hair and eyes that have turned into slashes. He tells the priest he was a composer and plays him two of his works. The priest recognizes neither. “Can you remember no melody of mine? I was the most famous composer in Europe. I wrote 40 operas alone.” The priest shakes his head. Salieri then plays a tune by Mozart. The priest perks up immediately and says that he recognizes it, of course! Salieri sighs. He knows in the end that he is not destined for immortality because of his work. He would only achieve it centuries later, when a playwright would take his reputation for being a merely mediocre composer, and turn it into a play. A play that, in one final, terrible twist, would bear the title of his foil, Amadeus.


1 Weirdly enough, this theme also pops up in the 2014 animated film The Book of Life, which explores the Mexican tradition of La Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), wherein all of the remembered souls live in a happy and colorful 24/7 party atmosphere, and all of the forgotten souls live in a dusty, gray world. Cute movie, if not a little guilt-inducing.

2 In a way, and hear me out, I felt like this movie recalled a typical romantic comedy, something like My Best Friend’s Wedding, where we have a love triangle between Mozart, Salieri, and God. Salieri’s actions are almost that of the jealous lover, who is livid that the object of his affection could possibly fall in love with someone else. In an earlier version of this piece, I had mapped out complete parallels with that Julia Roberts romantic comedy, wherein Salieri is the Julia Roberts character, Dermot Mulroney is God and Cameron Diaz is Mozart. The parallels are not ironclad, but I still think there’s a case to be made there.


Michelle Said was one of the original founding editors of Bright Wall/Dark Room, and later served as media director and podcast hostShe currently freelances and works on her novel in New York.


Expressions in Blue

by Brad Nelson

illustration by Amanda McCleod

illustration by Amanda McCleod

The most established character in the documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day is the audience. The camera drifts affectionately over people lounging in chairs gently baked by the sun, listening to the performers with a kind of drowsy sensitivity. You can glimpse the small, musical adjustments of their hands and knees, the shapely moods their faces endure, making them look like expressive kinds of fruit. This is not a typical aesthetic of the music documentary or concert film, where audiences are often spectral or a distinctly secondary focus. In Stop Making Sense, probably the peak expression of the form, the audience is a long shadow of noise, incidental to David Byrne’s exaggerated and significant gestures.

According to his New York Times obituary, Bert Stern, a commercial photographer and one of the directors of Jazz on a Summer’s Day, said “taking pictures had always been his way of seeing people, and even of relating to them in ways he could not otherwise.” Stern films members of the audience with the patience and precision of still photography, so as much as the film is a document of the established jazz performers of 1958, it is more precisely a depiction of the intimate and distracted movements of the Newport Jazz Festival crowd. As Anita O’Day sings gorgeous, condensed phrases into a caged microphone, white feathers blooming from the circumference of her hat, the legs of a man in the audience quake out a rhythm. A woman with a seeming awareness of the camera moodily consumes an ice cream bar.

In one of the many interludes in the film, Stern and his co-director Aram Avakian focus on a group of people dancing to jazz on a roof. A waiter nervously conveys a tray of beer bottles up the stairs. A woman takes delirious, rhythmic sips from her beer and sheds her red cardigan. To her left, a man smokes and registers her movements. Late in the film, Louis Armstrong’s band plays dense and combustible phrases against a vivid red light, and the focus shifts to a man in the audience smoking a cigar and noiselessly snapping along. Danny Barcelona hammers his snare drum and teenagers in the audience seizure in their chairs. Notes transfer from Armstrong’s blooming cheeks into the air. A girl in a blue sweater drags her hand across the length of her face, on which a grin of overwhelming bliss unfolds. Her features seem to drift and lose shape like waves of the ocean.

The ocean is a literal, recurring image in Jazz on a Summer’s Day. The Newport Jazz Festival’s proximity to Easton Bay allows Avakian and Stern to dwell affectionately on the movements of water as they correspond to the movements of the music. Sonny Stitt’s saxophone playing has a syllabic quality; its phrasing doubles and stretches itself, alternately resembling the rhythms of breath and speech. Meanwhile the camera hovers over yachts racing through rifts of blue crystal. Sal Salvador wrings shimmering clusters of notes from the neck of his guitar. Light settles in dense constellations on fractals of water. Avakian and Stern seem interested in both jazz and water as oblique reflections of the floating world, glossy shapes and patterns that mutate as they move into endless variations of themselves.

"The look of the movie—with its high contrasts and percussive grain—is automatically nostalgic. It feels almost as if the film had entered a sentimental zone immediately after production finished, in the way that you can be nostalgic for the warm, pluralized atmosphere of recent weekend with friends."

Another recurring image in Jazz on a Summer’s Day is of a roadster full of musicians playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” as they curve indulgently along the roads of Newport. They look as if they’ll spill out of the car at any moment, but their faces are less focused on their distressing velocity than they are pulled toward the elastic, aerial joy of the music. A trombone slide throws nervy vertical shapes in the air. They perform the song in a kind of fractured polyphony, playing radically different musical phrases at the same time, like overlapping yet harmonic dialogues in a crowded bar.

“A man who thinks his music,” Willis Conover announces, introducing Thelonious Monk. “We can’t describe him exactly as daring because I think he is unconcerned with any opposition to his music. He concerns himself with such elements as the quarter tone which he doesn’t find in our western scale. So he’ll strike two adjoining notes on the piano to imply the missing note that’s in between.” Monk, sitting at his piano in a slate grey suit, starts to play the song “Blue Monk” and his chords emerge as unwieldy blocks, falling in strange yet accessible geometries. The camera focuses on his back, rectangular, unyielding. There’s a kind of harmony in the imbalance and asymmetry of Monk’s music, like the organs of a clock moving against each other. The people in the crowd watching Monk seem subtly adjusted by the music and the heat. They concentrate on it, staring a considerable distance into it.

Later in the film the Chico Hamilton Quintet perform, playing dense, dampened rolls on his snare with mallets, over which Eric Dolphy’s flute gently quivers. Sweat dews Hamilton’s forehead as they progress into increasingly opaque, amorphous patterns. Jazz was taking on new shapes in 1958, lingering in its negative spaces. The music produced was a controlled, condensed chaos, players looming behind and ahead of the beat, encompassing it instead of inhabiting it. Things that at first sound wrong or odd generate their own rhythm and language. There are intervals and tonal clusters, notes that imply some sort of dissonance or struggle. As Hamilton’s rolls gather velocity he leans toward his drums, the intensity and proximity blurring the divisions between himself, his instrument, and the red light illuminating both of them.

The colors of Jazz on a Summer’s Day are deeply saturated, making sweaters appear as drifting red bruises. The look of the movie—with its high contrasts and percussive grain—is automatically nostalgic. It feels almost as if the film had entered a sentimental zone immediately after production finished, in the way that you can be nostalgic for the warm, pluralized atmosphere of recent weekend with friends. It’s a faintly accessible, unrepeatable document of the past; if these noises and gestures hadn’t been filmed they would’ve merged tracelessly with the air.

Concert films are intended to capture a specific interval of time where the connection between performer, audience, and material is almost irreducible. The best tend to achieve only two out of three. (Stop Making Sense documents a remarkably symbiotic relationship between material and presentation. The only other concert film I can think of that conveys a completely shared atmosphere between a band, an audience, and a body of work is The Last Waltz.) Jazz on a Summer’s Day, instead, expresses how this connection evolves; energy is continuously transferred from the musicians to the audience, and then from the audience to the musicians, eventually blurring into a near-tangible feeling and pulse. This, incidentally, is the nature of improvisation.


Brad Nelson is a writer living in Queens. His work has appeared in Spin, The Atlantic, and The Village Voice.


To Live is To Fly

by Thomas Lowery

illustration by Michael Hay

illustration by Michael Hay

“I’d like to write some songs so good nobody understands them—including me,” an older, weathered Townes Van Zandt says in an interview from Be Here to Love Me. It's the kind of cryptic phrase emblematic of Van Zandt's puzzling career as a whole, and seems to represent what the documentary is striving for. Released in 2004, Be Here to Love Me chronicles Van Zandt’s career: that of a lowly Texas hero who abandons a life of wealth to play songs in old music halls and dive bars. “[music] takes blowing everything off, money, family, happiness,” Van Zandt says at one point in the movie.

Describing the film, directed by the great documentary filmmaker Margaret Brown (The Order of Myths, The Great Invisible), poses quite a challenge. In one sense it’s a history: recollections of a man and his life presented through interviews and archival footage. Yet Be Here to Love Me, with its slow, languid pace, lacks any sort of agenda, or even argument. To say it attempts to show how sad Van Zandt’s life was would be too reductive. But to try to come up with grand answers to the mysteries of his life, based on the footage we’re shown, would almost be an act of vanity. We’d be seeking access to a soul that even those closest to him never had.

Brown’s film jumps around chronologically with no clear purpose, chronicling images, words, memories, and songs that are both perplexing and contradictory. Van Zandt lived without any pattern or plan; he was simultaneously a tragic loser and a lovable goofball, a mean-spirited reckless alcoholic and a father who sat by his son’s bed many mornings waiting to apologize for his behavior the previous night. Above all, he was an artistic genius; a wordsmith so in tune with the fathomless depths of the human soul that he often received letters from fans, saying that his songs had saved their life.

To try and come up with grand answers to the mysteries of his life, based on the footage we’re shown, would almost be an act of vanity.

I, too, have been deeply affected by Van Zandt’s music. I have four older brothers, and during those rare occasions when we’re all in the same place at the same time—sometime during the summer or Christmas holidays—we gather in a casual manner to play our guitars and sing together. This ritual usually involves a fire pit in my parents' backyard, plenty of good bourbon, and music we’ve committed to memory. We sing whatever we feel like, or whatever we know, but I realized recently that the nights were most often centered around Van Zandt songs.

We’re all from Texas. Our musical roots come from our dad, who taught us to play instruments from a young age. But our collective passion for playing Van Zandt’s music has a more mysterious origin. Our dad—a northerner without much real concern for Texas country music—certainly did not introduce us to him. What he did give us was complete liberty to play and listen to whatever sort of music we enjoyed. Perhaps this license, coupled with a shared passion for the musical heritage of our land, led us to Van Zandt’s music. We were drawn immediately to his soft, echoing voice and the laid-back profundity of his songs. They were too good not to learn. We discovered his music about ten years ago—coincidentally, right around the time that Be Here to Love Me was released.

Sometimes those nights around the fire would get too cold and we’d move into my parents’ shed with a cheap electric heater. No matter where we were, it was the music that mattered, the songs that defined our nights. These were more than just mere evenings of entertainment; they were ways to bond through a celebration of the music we’d inherited from our father, and the musical heritage of the state we called home. On one of these nights, a few years back, my brother told me about another Texas songwriter named Guy Clark, who happened to be dear friends with Van Zandt for most of his life. My oldest brother began to play a song of his called "L.A. Freeway", about a man and his wife leaving California to go back to Texas. These days, by the evening’s end, when the cigarettes are gone and the whiskey almost spent, it’s usually Clark that we turn to for one last song before calling it a night.

In a way it’s fitting, since Clark, also a native Texas songwriter, lived with Van Zandt in Nashville in the 1970s. It was during this time that both artists produced some of their most enduring work. Clark is featured prominently in Be Here to Love Me, his first line in the film coming early on, as he offers a shot of tequila to Townes, “Who we’ll toast today—and/or cuss.” The phrase encapsulates Clark’s relationship with Van Zandt, who tended to imprint his personality on those around him to the point where they'd embrace his finer qualities and reluctantly shrug, with a weary smile, at all his weaknesses.

Van Zandt frequently exhibited erratic and frustrating behavior. In an archival phone conversation, we hear Van Zandt talking about getting drunk all the time and locking himself in his room for days. His high school friends relate how, in his youth, Van Zandt jumped off a four-story building to “see what it felt like to fall.” This literal plunge reflects the figurative plunges Townes would take throughout his life. Steve Earle, another Texas musician who cites Townes as one of his mentors, describes how for a time Van Zandt’s major concerns were with morning glories, listening to Paul Harvey, and catching as many episodes of Happy Days as he could. But he also recounts how he would come home from a walk and find Van Zandt with a 357, in which he placed a round, spun the cylinder, and put it to his head and pulled the trigger. Though he got away with it, Earle relates how angry he was, asking, “How in the fuck could you put me through that if you give a fuck about me?” Later in the film, Van Zandt’s manager relates that the night before the start of a major tour, he went on a bender, got in a car wreck, and put the entire tour in jeopardy. From accounts of Van Zandt shooting up bourbon and coca cola, to his bouts with heroin addiction, to Guy Clark’s hoping that his close relationship with Clark’s wife Susanna “wasn’t sexual,” you’ve got to wonder how anyone ever put up with him.

My brothers and I have not necessarily sidestepped these issues in our embrace of Van Zandt and our willingness to base our few nights together around his music. In countless cases, he was a no-good, tragic fool, but we keep on turning to him, inspired by him simply out of a respect for, even an awe of, his choice of words: their overwhelming sadness, their raw emotion.

But at one point Clark also recollects Van Zandt’s best times, when he was a happy man, a genuinely fun-loving human, in a nearly euphoric tone: “[He wrote] songs that would take your breath away.” Clark puts a strong emphasis on the word breath, as if he truly means that Van Zandt’s writing was so good, so human, that it somehow transcended being human. As if he had some unearthly understanding of how to string a set of words together in order to capture humanity. It may be a bit paradoxical, but it’s truly the effect you experience when you listen to his songs. There’s nothing particularly complicated about their structure or sound. Van Zandt’s best work, as we see in various clips peppered throughout the film, is when he’s simply playing alone on his guitar, employing a simple finger-picking style to accompany his smooth, occasionally wailing, and altogether haunted voice. His songs are often lonely ballads about basic human needs, desires, and longings. In one of his best, "To Live is to Fly", Van Zandt gets inside the mind of a man—a singer preparing to hit the road and leave his loved ones—and relates both what it’s like to live, and how one ought to go about doing it:

Everything is not enough
Nothing is too much to bear
Where you been is good and gone
All you keep is the getting there

The lyrics roll off his tongue in a gentle, almost nonchalant fashion, but when you actually consider their meaning, it’s hard to not be terribly moved and also a little perplexed. When he goes into the chorus, to live is to fly, both low and high, you realize that the song isn’t tough to grasp because it's hard to analyze, but rather because it captures an insoluble aspect of life, the thing that propels you forward even when it seems there might not be much point to any of it.

An easy answer to this is that love, a simple connection with another human being, overpowers the obstacles that can make living seem like such a chore. But Van Zandt often rejected love in order to capture the aura and the words of his music. In "Two Girls" he repeats, amidst a series of fantastical verses: I got two girls, one’s in heaven, one’s in hell, and one I love with all my heart and one I do not know. Van Zandt was certainly capable of love, as the lyrics suggest, but he wasn’t entirely sure who he loved or why he loved them. In "Two Girls", Van Zandt doesn’t ever say whether he loved the girl in heaven or the girl in hell because, well, perhaps he didn't even know. Even the film’s title, taken from one of Van Zandt’s songs, is ironic. He’s asking for presence and love, but frankly, most of the time he never made himself present to be loved.

People often run away from their lives out of fear, but for Van Zandt it was something different. He was hellbent on a heartache, not for its own sake, but because he saw in that heartache the inspiration for artistic creation.

When Townes married his first wife Fran, in 1965, he wrote his first great song. Be Here to Love Me indicates that she was a little discomforted that the song was "Waitin' Round to Die", whose main argument is essentially that it’s easier to booze, gamble, smoke, and even rob than simply wait for death to come knocking. The song itself is powerful, a real punch to the gut, but it’s not a piece most wives would like to hear right after their wedding day. If anything, the song is a good indication that Van Zandt wasn't ever really concerned with what was normal or acceptable, even when it came to the people he was closest to. Yet what Brown’s film does, at its best, is to show how people were still in awe of his nerve and the power of those songs: from the story of a girl in the front row ripping off her blouse when Van Zandt was playing at The Old Quarter (unheard of at a folk concert, says fellow musician Dave Olney), to Van Zandt’s son talking about how he can only fall asleep at night if he’s listening to his father’s music, you gather that Townes was a true original, whose music and lifestyle people responded to uncannily.

The only actual concrete information we ever get about Van Zandt’s personal views in Be Here to Love Me is that, as his sister says, he was always deeply bothered by the fact that he didn’t grow up hungry. Van Zandt was a smart kid, a successful athlete in high school, and yet he saw people around him who had much less and simply had to keep on living regardless of their disposition. People often run away from their lives out of fear, but for Van Zandt it was something different. He was hellbent on a heartache, not for its own sake, but because he saw in that heartache the inspiration for artistic creation.

Even when my brothers and I aren’t together, I still find myself spending time with Van Zandt’s music. I recently learned his wonderful song "Flying Shoes", which he wrote about leaving his wife for months while he’s touring on the road. It provides some personal satisfaction to memorize the lyrics and pick out the chords on my guitar, but the communal satisfaction of playing these songs with others is lost. So instead I turn to something that is maybe even better: simply listening. Alone in my quiet apartment or huddled with close friends, not talking, I listen to Van Zandt’s albums, his quiet, peaceful voice and those opaque words.

Brown’s method of capturing Van Zandt’s life and work comes across as effortless, almost stream-of-consciousness. But even if the film rarely follows a cogent pattern, it does makes a point to capture the final days of his life. We see him playing "To Live is to Fly", but rather than singing, he’s sort of muttering the words, as if the life is being sucked out of him right before our very eyes. Tragically, as he got older, Van Zandt lost the general aura of his stage presence that had defined his early career. It’s almost heartbreaking to watch him playing in Nashville, in the late 80s on a big, bright stage with backup singers and a full band. The lyrics are still there, but somehow they don’t ring quite as true when performed with such commercial incentives.

Van Zandt’s son, J.T., recounts being in his car one day and hearing one of his father’s songs on the radio—and then another, and another. He knew at once that something wasn’t right. Van Zandt had died: heart failure on New Year’s Day, 1997, at the age of 52. In the film's final moments, instead of footage of Townes, we see Lyle Lovett performing "Flying Shoes", suggesting that while Van Zandt may be gone, his songs will live on. The final image, though, is of Van Zandt’s closest friend, Guy Clark, taking over for Lovett. He straps on his guitar and says, in a choked voice, that he doesn’t know if he’ll get through this. “But I booked this gig 37 years ago,” he finishes, hinting he knew all along that Van Zandt was following a self-destructive path.

And he loved him nonetheless.


Thomas Lowery is a college student from Texas and is currently in his final year as an undergraduate. When he's not in class or working on papers, he's probably engaging in cinema in some way: watching, talking, or writing about it.


Why God Made the Movies

by Elisabeth Geier

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Paul Simon was never not in my life. It started with Simon & Garfunkel, of course, Bridge Over Troubled Water blaring from the tape deck of my family's Dodge Caravan. As a troubled college student, I spent many late nights with “I am a Rock,” absolutely certain that nobody would ever understand. I'm older now, and I get that lyrics like “I have my books and my poetry to protect me” are best sung as over-the-top-dramatically as possible, preferably while wearing a black turtleneck and clutching a leather bound volume to your chest. I still go for the occasional late-night cry-along, and I still turn to Paul Simon more than any other artist. Every winter, I reliably embark upon a full-catalogue deep-dive to soothe/supplement the seasonal depression that threatens to cut me off from the world. When January rolls around and February looms darkly ahead, Paul Simon is the old friend I can count on to get me through. The world loves Paul Simon, and I love him dearly, deeply, indiscriminately, so it pains me to say what I am about to say: Paul Simon is a terrible actor. Thankfully, he hasn't acted much.

There were incidents and accidents/There were hints and allegations

In Annie Hall, Paul Simon shows up as wide-collared record producer Tony Lacey, stroking Annie's hand after she sings “Seems Like Old Times” in a club. “It was very musical,” he says of her performance. “I liked it a lot.” As an actor, Simon is sibilance on legs, all small-statured and soft-spoken. “We'll be very mellow,” he says when he invites Annie and Alvy Singer to a party, as though this leering leisure suit could be anything but. As Tony Lacey, Simon is quiet and calm to an irritating degree—no wonder Alvy hates him from the start. Simon is no good at playing anyone but himself, and while I can't praise his acting inAnnie Hall, I can say that his oddness suits the part. The last time we see Tony Lacey, he's dancing with Annie in front of a white Christmas tree, doing that sly Paul Simon side-smile and gently twisting his hips. What a creep.

Three minutes of comedic screen time in Annie Hall is one thing, but it's much harder to take Paul Simon seriously for ninety minutes of One-Trick Pony, the 1980 film he wrote and starred in. One-Trick Pony is the more-than-semi-autobiographical tale of a singer-songwriter about Simon's age, with about Simon's history of success, and about Simon's personal life at the time the movie was being made (estranged wife, one son, string of mistresses, uncertain recording career). The movie follows Jonah Levy (Paul Simon) on tour with his band, playing “ordinary rhythm and blues, your basic rock and roll” before groups like The B-52s take the stage with their hip new 80's sound. It's compelling subject matter: an artist going through a mid-career slump, weighing youthful dreams of stardom against the demands of family and encroaching middle age. But the film itself is shapeless and boring. Jonah mopes around, plays a few gigs, has a few flings, and records an album with with a hot-shot producer played by Lou Reed. Reed is the best musician-turned-actor in the starring vehicle Paul Simon wrote for himself.

Despite Simon’s amateur screenplay and questionable acting, One-Trick Pony does have one thing going for it: a soundtrack full of Paul Simon songs. The biggest hit to come out of the soundtrack is “Late in the Evening,” but my favorite is the title track, a bluesy rock song in which the metaphor is in no way veiled: 'He's just a one-trick pony, that's all he is, but he turns that trick with pride.” Where One-Trick Pony the film is a self-serious slog about a troubadour in crisis, “One Trick Pony” the song is a tight, rhythmic encapsulation of the same, more effective in less than four minutes than the movie is in over ninety. In the film, “One Trick Pony” is performed live at Cleveland's Agora Ballroom, “Jonah” and his band framed up close, sweaty and smoky under the stage lights. It's the closest Simon gets to sexy, dripping sweat and speak-singing in a dark club, decades away from the seated theaters and amphitheater shows I would see as a teenager and young adult. I can only speak for myself, but Paul Simon's appeal has never been as a sex symbol, and despite One-Trick Pony's best attempts to frame him as a highly-desired womanizer (written by the man himself, of course), to me he still comes off as a charming eccentric with a slight edge of creep. I don’t want to see the man shirtless, I just want to hear him sing. Like the song says, “when he steps into the spotlight/You can feel the heat of his heart,” and it's that heart that gets me every time.

One-Trick Pony was a colossal flop, and it was followed by the least-acclaimed album of Simon's career, 1984's Hearts & Bones. The early 80's were the nadir for my man Paul. And yet, out of the ashes of his middle-age crash and burn came his greatest triumph, 1986'sGraceland, one of the most critically and commercially successful records of all time. I find comfort in the story of Graceland, a perfect work of art that came about as the direct result of artistic and personal failures. If Simon hadn’t made a self-indulgent, solipsistic film about a singer-songwriter in crisis, and if that film and his subsequent album hadn’t flopped, and if his marriage hadn’t also failed around the same time, he never would have traveled to Africa and written about a “soft in the middle” “stranger in a strange land” called to account for his sins. Graceland is Paul Simon’s flawless self-absolution.

“The way the camera follows us in slo-mo/The way we look to us all”

Despite his failure as a screenwriter and actor, Paul Simon has managed to make an indelible impact on film. The man has amassed over 200 music credits in films and television over the past 50 years, his songs as ubiquitous in media as they are in my memories, showing up everywhere from The Graduate (1967) toWild (2014). Paul Simon songs are shorthand for loneliness, connection, global curiosity, spiritual ambivalence, and the sweet ache of memory; he’s the perfect supplement to a certain kind of film.

My top five film moments prominently featuring Paul Simon tunes are as follows (yours may vary):

5. Garden State (2004), “Only Living Boy in New York”

Say what you will about Garden State; there is a lot to say. I've been carrying a DVD copy in the trunk of my car for almost two years, and it's become a favorite joke of mine to offer it to anyone who happens to be with me when I pop the trunk: “Can I interest you in a DVD copy of Garden State, written by, directed by, and starring Zach Braff?” Trust me, it kills (just kidding, my friends hate me). As a younger woman, I fell prey to its emotional manipulation, but now that I'm a grown-up, I realize Garden State kind of sucks. But so help me, I still love the scene where Zach Braff and Natalie Portman kiss in garbage bag ponchos as Paul Simon sings “let your honesty shine, shine, shine.” Simon famously wrote “Only Living Boy in New York” about Art Garfunkel going off to film a role in Catch-22 and leaving Simon behind to write songs for Bridge over Trouble Water, which would become their most acclaimed–and final–collaboration. The song is all love, respect, and resentment at the edge of the infinite abyss.

4. Almost Famous (2000), “America”

“This song explains why I'm leaving home to become a stewardess,” Anita says, lowering the needle on Bookends. “America” is the soundtrack to her leaving home, and leaving her little brother William behind. As her boyfriend loads up the car, she leans down, takes William by the shoulders, and says, “One day, you'll be cool.” Then she whispers close to his ear: “Look under your bed. It'll set you free.” This scene signals the beginning of William's lifelong obsession with rock 'n' roll, and the entire thrust of Almost Famous. As Paul Simon sings about seeing America from a bus with his girlfriend, William pulls a satchel full of records out from under the bed and caresses the cover of each one: The Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Led Zepellin, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, the Who. In a few moments, the film will flash-forward a few years to William setting off on tour as a journalist for Rolling Stone, seeing America from a bus with a band and learning the difference between fan and journalist, and journalist and friend. But in this early scene, he's just getting started. “And the moon rose over an open field,” Paul Simon sings, as William's world is illuminated by a stack of records on the bedroom floor.

3. Obvious Child (2014), 

Director Gillian Robespierre has been quoted all over the place saying, essentially, that people can draw whatever meaning they want from the title of her film. Obvious Child is a romantic comedy that includes an abortion, and “the obvious child” may be the zygote the main character temporarily carries, or the character herself. Or maybe it's just a fantastic song. On choosing “Obvious Child” to score and title the film, Robespierre told The Wire: “It was just a song that I listened to a lot in the car when I was little.” In the film, Jenny Slate and her one-night-stand-turned-maybe-more turn it up loud. It's hard to capture the feeling of a great songs in words, but two drunk twenty-somethings in the beginning stages of like, air-drumming and jumping on the couch to a beloved beat from childhood: that says it all.

2. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”

The Royal Tenenbaums came out in the winter of my 19th year, and I must have seen it in the theater at least 15 times. It was a rough time for me (remember those late-night sob-sessions to “I Am a Rock”) and the film's release coincided perfectly with my first extended break from college. Almost every day for two weeks, I went to a matinee screening, sometimes two in a row. As in all Wes Anderson films, the songs in The Royal Tenenbaums are essential, each one perfectly placed to complement and complicate the story. I still have the journal (of course I kept a journal) in which I tracked my observations and feelings about the film, and one of the notes reads: “Me & Julio = New York boy sings about mischief while New York boys get into mischief.” The frenetic rhythms and juvenile delinquency narrative of “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” underscore Royal, Ari, and Uzi Tenenbaum “takin' it out and choppin' it up.” They run in the pool area, jay walk, jump horses, go-kart, throw water balloons at passing cars, shoplift, hitch a ride on the back of a garbage truck, and bet on dog fights on the bad side of town. It's a classic Andersonian montage of boys up to no good, an emotional and comedic highlight of my forever-favorite emotional comedy.

1. The Graduate (1967), “The Sound of Silence”

Could there be any other choice for Top Movie Moment Prominently Featuring a Paul Simon Song? The Graduate is a classic, of course, and Mike Nichols chose Paul Simon personally to soundtrack the entire thing. There are so many wonderful scenes to choose from, but as I'm making a case for Simon's indelible contribution to film history, I have to highlight the second-act “Sound of Silence” montage where Benjamin pulls himself out of the pool and into bed with Mrs. Robinson. In television performances during the late 1960's, Simon & Garfunkel often introduced “The Sound of Silence” as a song about “the inability of people to communicate, not only on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level as well.” Their earnestness is a bit laughable now, but Simon was in his early twenties when he wrote the song, not much older than earnest Benjamin Braddock, so of course it's the only choice to score Benjamin's summer of drift and lust.

“As if everybody here would know what I was talking about”

Throughout his 60+ years of songwriting, Paul Simon has written about big ideas, the hard part of relationships, parenthood, politics, and God. Sometime it's a little overwrought, but usually it's familiar and uncanny, full of sentiments I recognize when I hear them but could never articulate myself. My favorite thing about Paul Simon is the way he talk-sings, pulling the listener into a musical conversation that feels like listening to a friend. He’s knowing without being condescending, and his side-smile and shrug let us know he’s on our side. Paul Simon knows what we know, you know?

Some sad day in the not-distant-enough future, Hollywood will make a biopic of the late, great Paul Simon. Perhaps Jason Schwartzman will star. Josh Groban would make a pretty good Garfunkel. The famous sons and daughters of Paul Simon's famous friends can play younger versions of their parents, dressed in period costumes and wigs. If we're lucky, it will be something compelling and unique, more I'm Not There than Walk the Line. If we're not, it will be an overblown Hollywood affair, manufacturing drama where there was little or none. The details of Paul Simon's real life are rather boring: a musical kid, a combination of hard work and lucky breaks, a few romances, an up and down career. Chances are, the movie won't be great. But with any luck, and the permission of his estate, it will be full of Paul Simon songs. And oh, those songs.


Elisabeth Geier is a writer, teacher, & etc. living in Portland, Oregon. She has previously lived in Dallas, Oregon; Missoula, Montana; Chicago, Illinois; Boston, Massachusetts; and Lafayette, California. She would be happy to direct you towards the best pizza in these locations.


Preserve the Moose

by Andrew Root

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“Do you feel that playing rock ‘n’ roll music keeps you a child? That is, keeps you in a state of arrested development?”

“No, no, no. I feel it’s like going to a national park or something. And, you know, they preserve the moose. And that’s my childhood up there on stage. That moose.”

“So when you’re playing, you feel like a preserved moose?”

“...Yeah.”

—Documentarian Marti DiBergi in conversation with Derek Smalls, Spinal Tap (bass guitar)

***

My brother called me one afternoon and said “I’m sick of being a Canadian and never having seen a moose.” So we gathered up my father, my two brother-in-laws, and a dog for good measure, and piled into a car for the drive north to Algonquin Park, Canada’s largest national park. It was raining and cool—perfect weather for spotting a moose, the kindly guide at the gatehouse told us. Despite the rain, the dog’s nervous and unpredictable digestive system forced us to drive with the windows down. The forest smelled sharply of wet leaves and pine resin as we drove slowly along the paths, occasionally calling out false sightings to break up the monotony—and then, through a break in the trees, I spotted an enormous bull moose.

“STOP! STOP! STOP THE CAR!” I yelled, hitting the headrest of my father’s seat. We piled out, cameras at the ready. There, in the small clearing, he stood: nearly eight feet tall, with huge, mossy antlers and a handsome, dripping beard. He regarded us casually, slowly pulling a fern frond into his mouth with his massive, horse-like lips. We snapped pictures, forgetting all about the open car door until the dog jumped out and started barking wildly. As my brother attempted to corral the dog back into the car, the moose turned and walked calmly back into the trees. A few seconds later, across the same clearing, walked a female and her calf. On our way out of the park, the guide at the gatehouse told us that in twenty years, he’d never seen a family group together before, and we drove home buzzing with a great sense of luck and accomplishment.

The buzz died down significantly on trying to explain to my unimpressed five-year-old niece the rarity of having been there for something so special. The debate (and, reader, never enter into a debate with a five-year-old) centered around the fact that the moose didn’t really do anything, so who cares? The moose’s job, I feverishly tried to explain, isn’t to do anything at all. The moose’s job is just to be a moose.

“I like horses,” said my niece.

Everyone’s a critic.

***

"The musical growth of this band cannot even be charted. They are treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry."
—Review of Spinal Tap’s “Intravenous DiMilo”

"That’s just nit-picking, isn’t it?"
—Nigel Tufnel, Spinal Tap (lead guitar)

***

“I didn’t laugh, I wept,” remarked U2 guitarist The Edge, on seeing This Is Spinal Tap, the faux documentary chronicling the not-so-slow decline into obscurity of England’s Loudest Band. “It was so close to the truth.” This Is Spinal Tap is a work of fiction that so adeptly captures the truth that the two can become indistinguishable if you’re not looking very carefully. There are countless stories of musicians watching the film and thinking it was about a real band. Director Rob Reiner was criticized for not picking a more prominent band to document. Spinal Tap has an album you can buy on iTunes (true to form, it’s not a very good album). When I picked up a copy of the film recently, it was filed in the Non-Fiction section, cozied up against the World War I documentaries. The characters have an uncanny, richly-detailed history, peopled with pitch perfect fake rock ‘n’ rollers (on a scale of believable musician names, “Peter James Bond” is neck-and-neck with the likes of “Keith Moon” or “Dave Davies”), and backed up by period-appropriate footage from TV appearances. And just like in real life, the characters have no idea that they’re utter morons. It is immensely believable.

The story is simple, but potent; a group of musicians—so deeply entrenched in the music world that their fallback plans include being a “full-time dreamer” and maybe working in a hat shop (depending on the hours)—fall from celebrated heights to the pits of public indifference. Their mercurial musical existence has left them without a legacy hit, as they ride wave after wave of fads, from skiffle to flower-power to heavy metal. Lead guitarist David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) of course don’t know they’re riding fads, which is a tricky thing for a musician pushing forty to do. There’s very little awareness of cultural trends. In fact, there’s very little awareness of any kind (such as the difference between feet and inches). Luckily, they’re part of an industry that—as Cameron Crowe notes in Almost Famous—is “gloriously and righteously dumb.” Ignorance is bliss, as they say.

The members of Spinal Tap seem to exist in a world devoid of self-reflection, so watching them attempt to explain themselves is like watching Bambi on the ice; they’re adorable for their lack of practice. With ids as unruly as the bulges beneath their spandex, the musicians are mystified by their superego counterparts—manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) and the meddlesome wife/girlfriend/Yoko Ono figure Jeanine (June Chadwick)—simply unable, or unwilling, to comprehend the mechanics behind the business of art. But despite their clashes and professional frustrations—despite the costume designing, arguing with hotel clerks, tracking down mandolin strings and getting only a few hours of sleep a night—Ian and Jeanine can agree that the band, their music and their performances are what’s most important. Their self-imposed mantle is to ensure the flourishing of the band, a mission they follow through with enthusiasm, if with mixed results. It’s hard work managing wild animals.

***

“There’s such a fine line between stupid, and, uh… and clever.”
—David St. Hubbins, Spinal Tap (lead guitar).

“No one looks stupid when they’re having fun.”
—Amy Poehler

***

Comedian Eddie Izzard describes being cool as a circular pursuit: at the top of the circle is looking like a dickhead, followed by average looking, before cycling into cool, cool, cool, hip & groovy, and inevitably crashing headlong back intolooking like a dickhead. “One matchstick out the corner of your mouth? Quite cool,” explains the comedian. “A second matchstick out the other side of the mouth? Looking like a dickhead!” The cutting edge is aptly named. The sequences in Spinal Tap in which the band attempts to craft their stage personas are like watching a tightrope walker with both arms tied behind his back. In the case of this band, the acrobat is also blindfolded and probably a little hungry. Counter-intuitively, when the band tries—when they really put effort into improving their stage show—everything falls apart.

There’s an old argument that’s popular among young children and stubborn men regarding the intelligence of animals; if pigs (or dogs or dolphins or moose or whatever) are so smart, why can’t they drive cars? The unfairness of this question is rooted in a basic lack of empathy; pigs can’t drive cars because cars weren’t made with pigs in mind, and pigs have no interest in automobile travel. The preserved moose couldn’t be less interested in the ins and outs of managing his day-to-day, perhaps because they have no capacity for understanding those issues. The moose just does his thing, and though we may not know exactly what that entails, it’s easy to see that he does it very well. Spinal Tap is at its best when performing. The sneers, the rolling eyeballs, the sweat all mingle with the pounding drums, the shrieking guitars, the gut-rattling bass to create something bigger, more powerful, more eternal than any one person in that stadium, or amphitheater, or—in one unfortunate instance—puppet show.

***

“Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?”
—Marty DiBergi

“If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a nonworking cat.”
—Douglas Adams

***

Spinal Tap, the film, functions similarly to Spinal Tap, the band: you just have to let it be. A successful satire speaks for itself, raising and then addressing concerns in a not-as-oblivious-as-it-seems manner. The film is perfectly suited to its specific environment, but becomes more and more prominent in its symbolic form; just as certain wild animals have taken on a mythic spiritual shorthand, so too has the band become totemistic of the excesses and shortfalls of the music world.

Whatever the musical preference of the viewer, there is something far more universal at play here: vanity, ambition, childishness, devotion, talent, strife and spontaneous combustion (which is not as widely reported as it ought to be). The more you attempt to dissect and examine this particular animal, the more you look foolish in your attempt to determine the source of its mystique, and the more likely you are to end up with a total mess on your hands. You can cut open a songbird, but you won’t find the music inside. If you’re lucky, on a rainy day with a group of special people, the woods might part and reveal something grand and otherworldly, something that you’ll never be able to explain to anyone. And that’s ok. The moose isn’t for explaining.

***

“Curious creatures,”
says our quiet driver,
rolling his r’s.
“Look at that, would you.”
Then he shifts gears.

—Elizabeth Bishop, “The Moose”

“Look at this. This miniature bread, it like… I’ve been working with this now for about half an hour and I can’t figure it out.”
—Nigel Tufnel, Spinal Tap (lead guitar)

***


Andrew Root is a professional part-time job holder, and a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. He lives by a creek in Peterborough, Ontario.


The Distance Between Brothers and Strangers

by Brody Rossiter

© Abramorama Entertainment

© Abramorama Entertainment


I first learned how to strum guitar strings and press upon piano keys in high school. By college, I understood how to apply pressure in all the correct places. I was taught how to filter melodies through mixing desks and computer screens, turning music into teenage trinkets trapped upon compact disks crudely scrawled with marker pen and burned with borrowed verse. In university, I clung to a wooden body and nickel-wound strings (a satisfying mix of heavy and light gauge) to get me through the homesick hours.

I left my home, I lived alone, I wanted to change my name. I clumsily hashed out compositions about the beautiful girls who gave me black dreams inside a second floor studio apartment, a temporary residence that I now remember with much fondness through a revisionist haze. I recall how the ramshackle noise I manufactured would float through the room’s diminutive dimensions before settling in its sulky, sunless corners. Music’s perpetual force pulled me through a period of tumultuous young adulthood, allowing me to express myself in ways I never thought possible.

*

After years of toiling away beneath the shaky lighting rigs of empty, beer-soaked bars—peddling musical wares alongside his melodic band of brothers (The National's five man line-up includes two sets of siblings)—Matt Berninger’s eloquent, sucker-punch lyricism paid off. The Ohio native escaped New York City’s labyrinth of flickering light and fleeting adulation for the upper echelons of indie-rock immortality, garnering widespread critical acclaim and selling out venues around the world along the way. A notable omission from this journey? Matt’s actual younger brother, Tom.

While still living at home in Cincinnati with his and Matt’s parents, Tom Berninger watched his big brother sweet-talk his way into the hearts and record-collections of America. After an impromptu invite landed the self-appointed runt of the litter a spot as a roadie on The National’s High Violet tour, Tom’s fondness for filmmaking and troublemaking was rekindled and documented through the lens of his video camera. This bittersweet collage of footage would result in Mistaken for Strangers: a startlingly candid, irreverently funny, and deeply redemptive tale of two brothers reconnecting in the midst of an indie-rock miasma of stardom and self-loathing.

Mistaken for Strangers is a music documentary with a difference—a picture without the typical pomp and circumstance evident when famed directors fetishize equally famed musicians. The endearing amateurishness of Tom’s muddled footage strips away at the veneer that has coated indie rock 'n' roll with a shimmering, self-loathing mystique once impenetrable to mere mortals. Mistaken for Strangers is a story told by a man sitting in the shade of his brother's fame, a man who lost himself and never quite found his way back onto the path, a man who illustrates that our greatest obstacle in life is often ourselves.

*

Music has always been an irreplaceable part of my life. Specific records dot my formative years like highway markers. Oasis' Definitely Maybe soundtracked rain-soaked mornings spent on the schoolyard; if we endured these miserable days beneath gunmetal grey skies we might just "Live Forever." The soulful storytelling of Ryan Adams' Cold Roses signalled the death throes of summer's sticky malaise, while the potent bleakness of Love is Hell’s chiming gloom marked autumn’s vibrant collapse into the black hollow of winter. The National's High Violet warned of the perils of whiskey cocktails, dangerous women and prescription medication—an intoxicating education of cautionary tales. The melancholic fantasy and eloquent dejection of Matt Berninger's meditative vocals provided an escape from my own fears and regrets as I fostered those of a man who had already lived through and immortalised them. I listened to High Violet’s eleven songs on repeat, often falling asleep to the enigmatic verses of “Lemonworld”:

This pricey stuff makes me dizzy
I guess I've always been a delicate man
Takes me a day to remember a day
I didn't mean to let it get so far out of hand
I was a comfortable kid but I don't think about it much anymore
Lay me on the table, put flowers in my mouth
And we can say that we invented a summer loving torture party

The album's waves of guitar reverb flattened out and sat upon my frame like a blanket. Sharp blasts of brass sent orchestral shivers down my resting bones. Drums pounded like exclamation marks, intricately stressing the transition from verse to chorus to coda. Hushed vocals swelled in the heat before exploding into screams.

*

In High Fidelity, John Cusack arranges his vast black sea of vinyl records not alphabetically or chronologically, but autobiographically—forcing himself to relive the moments that went hand-in-hand in with the track he seeks:

"…And if I want to find the song "Landslide" by Fleetwood Mac I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 pile, but didn't give it to them for personal reasons."

The music is a tool, a spiritual regression, a sadomasochistic ritual, a means of remembering—or rather, never forgetting. Throughout Mistaken for Strangers , The National’s back catalogue doesn’t take centre stage, but instead forms background noise. Its presence scores a series of sombre set-pieces—ranging from the brothers’ optimistic reunion inside a Paris hotel room to their many moments of frustration on the road—while also acting as a subtle reminder of the vast distance which has slowly formed, and continues to grow, between the two men.

“I feel like I’m on the outside of the world looking in. And even though there was a huge age difference growing up it was never like that… I think he never really understood me.” - Tom Berninger

Very few bands are capable of creating music as richly evocative and cinematic as The National; every verse could provide the narrative seed of a screenplay. However, Mistaken for Strangers deals in monotony; petty exchanges; and the struggles of an individual eternally connected, yet forever sequestered upon the peripheries of the cool, successful inner-circle The National and their music are secondary here to the director and his moving tale, secondary to a classical fable of two brothers, which presents the film with perhaps its greatest narrative obstacle: a contemporary re-telling of the parable of the prodigal son, transposed onto a bona fide rock star and a certified goofball. This time, the older brother left home and didn't fuck everything up.

“It was in the editing room when my brother’s wife… She really convinced me that this is the way that the movie should go… about my struggles somewhat in the shadow of my brother.” - Tom Berninger

Mistaken for Strangers isn’t about The National’s long, hard road to success or the eccentricities of their music. It doesn’t dwell upon their fandom or the experience to be had at one of their concerts. The film is uniquely insular and revealing to an almost embarrassing degree. While Matt exorcises his demons on-stage through a microphone, Tom’s candid interviews with the other members of the band—particularly guitarists, Aaron and Bryce Dessner—become a source of therapy. He intends to give the softly-spoken siblings a solitary spotlight for once, but ultimately steamrolls them, poking, prying, and urging the bemused pair to share anecdotes that will publicly shame Matt and confirm that he’s just not that great of a guy.

Tom is like a fly on the wall who continually finds himself stuck in the ointment, embarrassing his older brother and failing to fulfill his own actual job description. He sees himself as a contemporary D.A. Pennebaker (despite probably not knowing, or giving a shit, who Pennebaker actually is). In reality, we witness him awkwardly fumble across this alien, indie rock landscape over which his sharply suited brother reigns: Matt, peering over his thick, black Ray-Bans at the unruly subjects below like a sharply-tailored overlord.

Tom assumes that all the necessary pieces of making a documentary will magically fall into place while he relaxes in a corner with St. Vincent and pounds a beer, much to the chagrin of his older brother and the bemusement of the rest of the band. He is left to source bottles of water and towels for the band while constantly questioning why his experience on the road is so “coffee house” and not more “metal”—why isn’t everyone having more fun? As the brothers’ tentative reunion begins to unravel, so does a concert of comedic moments. Tom loses a venue’s VIP list, stranding Werner Herzog and the cast of Lost outside in the cold for forty-five minutes; he shouts abuse at what he believes to be Moby’s house from an infinity pool; and, finally, he misses the band bus after getting loaded in a bar—a mistake which ultimately results in the termination of Tom’s role as roadie, though not the brothers’ journey together.

*

Following university, I got lost in dead-end jobs inside department stores and building yards. Honestly, I still am. I’ve watched seasons change through beat-up automatic doors that refuse to meet in the middle and flattened my fingertips through repeatedly tapping at a touch-screen till. I stopped listening to all those influential albums. Why would I want to live forever when every day was exactly the same? I packed away the guitar—now fixed with an ugly crack produced by a fist and fit of frustration—and pressed mute. Just as Tom had rested in the shadow of his older brother, I couldn’t escape the memory of my former self.

I grew up as an only child. The bond between brothers and sisters is a foreign concept to me. The fierce competition of sibling rivalries will always evade me, and yet I can relate to both Matt and Tom throughout Mistaken for Strangers. Sometimes the distance isn’t difficult, the self-inflicted loneliness welcomed. Whether it’s life on the road or life three hundred miles away from home, the separation is easy; it’s facing what you left behind that’s the hardest part—whether that’s a baby brother or a small town in the North West of England.

I interviewed the Berninger brothers for the UK release of Mistaken for Strangers. Many of the quotes featured in this piece are taken from that conversation. One thing was dramatically clear throughout; they were closer than ever before. Their journey together had sucked out the venom of Tom's jealousy and eased Matt's dismay at his brother’s slacker lifestyle. They shared laughs and made fun of one another with grace and ease and without prejudice. There was still distance, but it was perhaps lesser than at any other point in their lives. They had felt their way through one another’s fame and frustration. The music that had ultimately forced them apart was now drawing them together.

“He was often his own worst enemy and gave up on things, and that’s a big theme in the movie. It’s about persistence and not quitting, so in a weird way, Tom’s biggest challenge was just to finish the thing. To me it didn’t matter if it was good or not, I just really wanted Tom to see it through, and that was the biggest breakthrough for him, the understanding that things are ultimately bad until they get good and you have to just stay with it.” – Matt Berninger

However powerful its individual components may be, music’s greatest quality isn’t just hearing a stirring lyric or the cascade of a plectrum upon strings. Music is about motion. Music dismantled the last fragments of the Berningers’ adolescent bond before piecing them back together not as siblings, but as peers, one a musician and the other a director.

Whether things are bad or good, I don’t stop listening anymore.


Brody Rossiter is a Falmouth University Film graduate and freelance journalist. He is a features writer for the independent cinema magazine, ONSCREEN, and has contributed to various print and online publications.


I Cannot Pronounce Your Name

by Anna Sjogren

all photos courtesy of the author

all photos courtesy of the author

24 July 2006

“Small, over-tired children demand to be taken home by their mums once the full-on racket of Glosoli starts to shake the rafters, maybe to return nightmarishly in their troubled sleep later on. Some little girls aged maybe seven or eight ponder why the funny man is screaming some bullshit they don’t understand.”

—John Best, Sigur Ros’ manager, Heima tour diary

§

It is a Saturday afternoon in January. I have invited a few friends over to watch Sigur Ros’s 2007 tour film Heima. I am the only one who has seen it before. Different parts of my life are represented in the room: Chris, my partner; Adam, a fellow writer from class; Michael, a coworker from the office.

Chris has tried to listen to Sigur Ros a few times but has never felt connected to their style of music. Always a good sport, he’s going to give Heima a chance with an open mind. He has a football game queued up on his laptop to keep an eye on while we watch the film.

Adam asks us what our levels of interest are in Sigur Ros, on a scale of one to ten. With the exception of Chris, all of us have been tens at some point in the past decade and have now settled into a still-interested-but-not-devoted rating of six. When I’d mentioned that I wanted to re-watch the film (it feels right to watch it in the gray of winter), they were both eager to join, having intended to watch it for a long time.

Adam first experienced Sigur Ros’ music when he was studying abroad in Barcelona. His eyes are bright as he tells us the story. He’d been watching a vibrant sunset when a friend came over, fitted headphones to his ears, and played the ( ) album in its entirety for him.

Michael discovered the band through their earlier, rowdy postrock music. They were a perfect transition for him—out of metal and into expansive, ambient sounds.

I first heard Sigur Ros on a two-disk mix CD my brother made me for my seventeenth birthday. Appropriately titled Expansion Kit, the mix was a new world of music for me. Like many people who have older siblings, I benefitted from my brother’s cultural influence. He paved the way to adulthood, to coolness, and I followed him through the Britpop bands he loved in the 90s and early 2000s. Then, Expansion Kit brought me into the new decade.

The mix included two songs from Sigur Ros’s debut album Von. Along with the mix CD, he also played a late-night talk show performance of "Njosnovalin" (“the nothing song”) for me. I was fascinated by the way the lead singer used a cello bow on the strings of his electric guitar.

The song was from their ( ) album, which I bought right away. Titled only by a pair of parentheses, the album is composed of eight lyric-less tracks with vocals sung in a beautiful made-up language. It came with a blank booklet, inviting the listener to fill the pages with his or her own interpretations of the sung sounds. The native language seemed unpronounceable to me, so I appreciated the space in those blank pages.

Every time I listened to ( ), I felt as if I had stepped on a plane and been carried somewhere else.

1 August 2006

“[They] play through the three songs from their rare, tour-only Rimur EP. Not having heard these songs for a bunch of years, I am struck by just how powerful and moving they are and also how reminiscent of the time in which they were written and recorded. The Rimur EP was made alongside the ( ) album and its doomy wintery soundscapes definitely recall [it] in mood and texture, as well as providing a real tangible link between Sigur Ros and the Icelandic tradition into which they knowingly, and unknowingly, tap.”

—John Best, Sigur Ros’ manager, Heima tour diary

§

As the ( ) album became more widely recognized, Sigur Ros earned critical acclaim and popularity. They embarked on a world tour in support of their fourth album Takk. They came through Portland twice and I went to both shows with my brother. It is hard to describe what a Sigur Ros show is like because it is such a special experience. Their music is spacious and evocative of _________. Of everything.

In autumn 2007, I was working at Borders Books in downtown Portland. I purchased Heimaon its release day and happily carried it home. I popped the disc into my laptop and began watching. I had been looking forward to this moment for months.

When the film ended ninety minutes later, I immediately hit play and watched it a second time.

Heima is unlike any other music documentary I’ve seen. It is an art film, a woven portrait of the relationship between land and music.

Upon their return home from a global tour, Sigur Ros decided to host a series of free shows across Iceland for their own countrymen with their companion band Amina, a four-piece string group. Heima, which means “at home,” follows the band’s journey through their homeland. They perform for huge crowds in Reykjavik, for families on picnics, for locals packed into an abandoned fish factory. As we listen, the camera wanders. We’re led through waterfalls and up volcanic mountain ranges, across great flowing bodies of water, and down green textured hillsides. We admire close-up shots of craggy rocks and pale grass blown by the breeze, glaciers shuddering into the sea, red kites catching wind. Quiet shots of the all-ages concertgoers: a portrait of a country cast on faces and soil.

The Icelandic Board of Tourism could not have made a better advertisement for their country.

25 July 2006

“We strike land at some wee harbour at the bottom of this sticky out bit of Iceland and immediately set off through some of the most amazing landscape many of us have ever seen (including the Icelanders) on our way to Selárdalur, remotely sited in the very west of the west fjords.”

—John Best, Sigur Ros’ manager, Heima tour diary

§

Four years later, I travelled to Iceland. I was on my way to visit friends in Britain and took advantage of a stopover in Reykjavik with Icelandair. I had to see the landscape for myself.

When I fly into or out of Portland, I always choose a window seat so I can see everything I love from a different view. From the sky, I pick out my landmarks. I know the bend of the Willamette River and the names of the twelve bridges that cross it and the lush dormant-volcano park near my neighborhood. I know the thrill of flying over the very top of Mt. Hood as it watches over our valley and the crosshatch of waterfalls that rush down its sides. It is my home.

The view from the plane as it circled over Keflavik before landing revealed a place that I’d never seen before, but felt an affinity for right away. A bright, cold sunrise was stark over volcanic plains. I changed into warmer clothing and boarded a shuttle for the city. For the ride, I put on headphones and, with my eyes glued to the window, began listening to the music from Heima that I know so well.

Some friends of mine who’d recently passed through Reykjavik told me I had to stay at KEX and they were right. It was the perfect home base for my wanderings, complete with a generous Scandinavian breakfast and cloud-like duvets for sleeping off the jetlag (the ninety dollar ones I never buy for myself). The dining room looked out over the bay and the far-off mountain range across the water. I loved sitting alone with a whiskey and reading by those windows, watching the daylight melt into the water and the peaks.

I spent most of my time in Reykjavik, wandering the city, but also took a daytrip to the countryside. I brought my mother’s 1970s-era Nikkormat film camera and captured images of volcanic hillsides and bright windy skies. Everything I had seen in Heima and heard on all of those albums was here before my eyes. All of it—the waterfalls, the geysers, and the mountains—was breathtakingly real. I was far away from home and very happy.

I made friends with a few women in my hostel dorm, two young Americans and a Finnish teenager who was hitchhiking around Iceland. We were all travelling alone and easily became companions for a night out. We’d all heard of the rúntur, a notorious pub-crawl in the city center, that takes place every Friday night, we wanted to experience it for ourselves. Every bar was open and overflowing with music. I’ve never seen so many people pack a town in the middle of the night.

A local woman walking beside us asked if we knew where we were headed. We said we had no plans, that we were just headed to a bar. She quickly herded us to what she described as a “law bar,” waved us in past the bouncers and disappeared into the crowd. It was exclusively for students of the local law school and, baffled by our luck, we happily paid for the cheapest beers we’d found in Reykjavik all night long.

Icelandic students came up to us throughout the evening, first speaking in their native language, then impressed that there were Americans smuggled into their midst. We made friends with two men on the dance floor who introduced themselves as Þórður or Thordur, who went by “Tóti,” and Bjarki. I asked Bjarki for help pronouncing his name, my every attempt at rolling my Rs unsuccessful.

“Is there another name that you go by?” I asked.

“No, that’s just my name,” he replied.

“Oh. Okay.”

We shrugged and smiled at each other over our beers. We started talking about Sigur Ros instead, swapping concert stories. He had attended one of the small village shows on the Heima tour.

We moved on through the night from bar to bar. The Northern lights came out and we chased them through the streets. It was all real.

“It’s way too early to tell, but I truly get the sense we’ve got something special here; a proper old fashioned rock film, pretentious and over-weening, unconventional and ambitious, beautiful and, hopefully, unique.”

—John Best, Sigur Ros’ manager, Heima tour diary

§

It is a Saturday afternoon in January. When we finish our shared viewing ofHeima, we are all smiling, happy to have our ears buzzing.

Chris has been pulled in. It didn’t take long before the film had his full attention and he really started enjoying it. He later tells me that it’s sparked his interest in travelling to Iceland. We’re planning a trip there together later this year.

I think back to the people I’ve shared this music with. At one Sigur Ros performance I attended, a rain shower fell across the front of the stage, creating a mist that drifted out over the audience. With some of my closest friends at my side, I felt the rain on my face and was fully at home.

The band has also invited listeners to participate in performance art. In advance of the release of their album Valtari, they hosted a “global listening party,” during which the album streamed in advance at 7pm local time in every time zone in the world. I remember listening to it for the first time, facing east as the sunset filled my evening room. Some good friends of mine two time zones before me also listened and we were connected by that roaming hour.

And how can we help but be swept up in it? Sigur Ros’s music transports us, andHeimabeautifully shepherds us along and places us in Iceland, if only for ninety minutes. It lets the landscape and the wordless music speak volumes.

“This is what the mist of an ancient waterfall feels like on your upturned face,” it says.

“Here is the wind and your imagination and the lightning.”

“Here is our home.”


Anna Sjogren lives in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. She writes for the Portafilterland coffee profile project and is publishing a memoir this Spring through the Independent Publishing Resource Center's Writing Certificate program. She gets out of town as often as possible, via film, novel, or airplane.


My My, Just How Much I've Missed You

by Christopher Fraser

courtesy of Stockport Image Archive

courtesy of Stockport Image Archive

I started working for The Savoy Cinema in February 2008. I was seventeen. The Savoy was a rundown old place in Stockport, England – one of two remaining independent cinemas in the town where I grew up, and a ten-minute walk from my house. Before I started working there, my friends and I had made something of a ritual of going to see whatever they were showing each week. There was already familiarity embedded in the fraying fabric seats, last reupholstered in the late sixties: before every screening, the same album—Hank Marvin’s Marvin at the Movies—would play, apart from around Christmas, when an album of instrumental Christmas carols took its place.

2008 is a year that stands out in my mind, even six years later: it has something to do with the force of the experiences I had around that time. I had my first breakup at the end of the preceding year, my first drink shortly thereafter, and everything was racing headlong to a point where I’d be leaving my hometown for university. This is all weighty, emotional, utterly typical stuff for a teenager to be going through.

Standing in stark contrast to all this weighty, emotional, and utterly typical teenager stuff, there’s Mamma Mia!, the 2008 musical adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Dominic Cooper, Amanda Seyfried and a barking seal wearing a Pierce Brosnan skin-suit. But somehow, I remember every single beat, every single lyric, and everything I was doing around the time The Savoy started screening it. (I had just come back from a French exchange. I had started a blog. I was writing my personal statement for university applications.)

Mamma Mia! was remarkable in a lot of ways, especially in terms of the impact it had on our little suburban community. The Savoy was always on the verge of bankruptcy due to low sales, but the week Mamma Mia! came out, we packed 340 people into the first screening, and those numbers didn’t dwindle for the next fortnight. Since someone had to be on duty in the cinema itself during each screening, I have seen Mamma Mia! over a dozen times. Sometimes, I still catch myself humming "The Winner Takes It All".

The other huge movie of 2008 was Slumdog Millionaire, which also made The Savoy enough money to keep operating over winter. At the end of the film, there’s a Bollywood dance number set to the song "Jai Ho" by A.R. Rahman. It’s a nice nod to the film’s Indian setting and filmic influences, but it’s not meant to be watched every night for 21 days. When they started playing the reworked version by the Pussycat Dolls over the radio in the foyer, we all groaned with exasperation.

This doesn’t even begin to touch on the music that plays over the end credits of movies, when my colleagues and I would begin to clean the auditorium. If we were lucky, this would usually be a piece by the film’s composer. "A Dark Knight", Hans Zimmer’s 16-minute closing suite of the similarly-titled Batman film, is an impressive piece of work, and made us feel like we were doing more important work than picking up trash. A Black Sabbath song plays over the end credits of Iron Man, and it’s great. There’s a nice little Peter Gabriel number that plays at the end of WALL•E—in fact, the whole Thomas Newman score is lovely, understated stuff.

However, at the end of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, will.i.am subjected us to a cover of "I Like To Move It" that, impossibly, managed to make the original sound good. Regina Spektor and Switchfoot perform a couple of charmless songs in the 9-minute credit sequence that follows Prince Caspian. And, at the end ofKung Fu Panda, Cee-Lo Green and Jack Black cover "Kung Fu Fighting", which is every bit as cringe-worthy as it sounds.

Why do I remember all of this? At the time, I resented it: these films were fun the first time we saw them, but even the best ones started to lose their shine a few weeks in. The logical part of me says it’s thanks to repetition, but that explanation falls short. The key, I think, is that I remember my life outside the cinema just as powerfully. 2008 was really the first year that I felt like my life was being soundtracked, so much so that I can listen to those albums now and remember things as though they happened last week.

For example: on November 5th, 2008, I’d gone to work. We were playing Max Payne, a film starring Mark Wahlberg and featuring a score by Marco Beltrami that was full of detuned pianos and jump-scare chords, exactly the kind of music you’d expect in a very silly film about a far-too-serious man. As I stood in the cinema lobby, I saw the fireworks for Guy Fawkes Day going off at a nearby rugby club and in a handful of backyards. After work, I was invited out by a few friends, but I said no.

Later that night, I woke up to the sound of my phone vibrating. One of my friends was calling me. This wasn’t exactly unexpected–I had more than a couple of friends who thought that drunk-dialing me was the height of entertainment—but it was certainly unwelcome, especially at 2am on a school night. I silenced my phone and fell back asleep.

When I woke up the next morning, I had six missed calls from the same friend. I called him, but there was no answer. A little concerned—though, I should add, more annoyed than anything else—I called his landline. His mother answered. She told me that the night before, one of my closest friends had taken six tabs of LSD, stripped naked in the middle of a field, and crawled around on all fours for three hours while two of his friends, also on acid, looked on. Eventually, because he was naked and it was 32°F outside, he keeled over and the two with him finally had the sense to call for an ambulance. His heart rate was dangerously low, he was experiencing the early stages of hypothermia, and the doctors said that he would have likely had a fatal heart attack if he’d been outside for another half-hour. He was still coming down from the trip as I spoke to his parents.

Obviously, when one of your closest friends has a near-death experience, it’s not something you forget easily, and I’m not surprised that I haven’t. It’s strange, though, that when I remember it, the event is tied to the music of the film that preceded it all. Max Payne, like any other movie adapted from a video game, is hardly a modern classic, but because of what happened that night, its soundtrack is still vivid in my mind.

Music amplifies our memories. Although there are other harrowing and absurd moments in my past, when they aren’t associated with any musical cues, they eventually become pencil sketches, rough ideas that work as pithy anecdotes but have lost most of their emotional force.

But the music of Max Payne helps me remember even minute details, like trying to contain my laughter on the phone (hearing that your best friend explained to the extraordinarily patient paramedics that he was okay because he’d spoken to and subsequently eaten God during his trip is just funny), and being yelled at for staring into space and trying not to worry during my French class the next day. The memory has absorbed a strange, discordant tone that sharpens its edges. Just as music becomes meaningless without a listener, life loses some of its texture when you take music away.

I’ve long since stopped caring that Johnny Depp sounds like a rock star past his prime in theSweeney Todd soundtrack; more important to me is the fact that I can put it on and instantly remember taking walks through the snow with my best friend on the days we weren’t working. All the saccharine, upbeat songs from those kids’ summer blockbusters remind me of the times I would go to the park and scribble down ideas for what would, a year later, become my first book. I remember that we spent our free periods before sixth form philosophy classes at the pub, with the vaguely-plausible excuse that a couple of measures of Scotch make you a better philosopher. There’s a color to that year that’s lacking in the years that followed.

Recently, I passed my one-year anniversary of moving to the United States, so these memories have become even more important to me. Sometimes, Stockport—now an eight-hour flight away—feels impossibly distant. By the time I left, most of the friends I knew in 2008 had already drifted away, but I still felt a tug as I boarded the flight to Massachusetts.

Memory fades. As I get older, that scares me. I want to be the sum of my experiences; I want to be able to look at the person I was when I was seventeen and understand his thoughts and motivations, even if that clarity of perception comes with a little guilt and shame. Hell, sometimes I just want to feel my heart swell with nostalgia. That’s why I don’t mind Pierce Brosnan yell-singing the lyrics to “SOS,” or remembering Dev Patel’s impossibly exuberant face at the end of Slumdog Millionaire, or even—yes—Jack Black singing weird backup vocals on "Kung Fu Fighting".

The Savoy quietly closed a few months ago when the projector finally gave up and died. It had been struggling for years—owned, but not run by a family who took little interest in keeping it alive—but when it closed, I felt sadder than I expected. It’s the quiet silencing of an institution that’s forever bound up in my adolescence, the severing of a clean through-line from who I was then to where I am now. Now there are only the memories, buoying me along.


Christopher Fraser is the Operations Manager for Bright Wall/Dark Room and the author of two books. He lives and works in Massachusetts.


Lay Me Down in Sheets of Linen

by Arielle Greenberg

© Dreamworks

© Dreamworks

(Almost Famous, d. Cameron Crowe, 2000)

On a chunk of gold confetti
that you push with pointed toe,
you glide around the lit-up, emptied
stadium, the songs you know
only shapes your mouth is making:
leftovers, as you are, too.
Cashed for a sixer, cast-off, broken,
what’s the band to do with you
when the wives join up in Cleveland?
Pack you in that lamb’s fur coat.
Dump you in a suburb, leave you,
Quaaludes slipping down your throat.
To love the music like a groupie—
we all want to lick that edge.
Be seen, on stage, be fucked, be trumped.
Be almost with them, almost dead.


Arielle Greenberg is the Resident Poet at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the co-author of Home/Birth: A Poemic; author of My Kafka Century and Given; and co-editor of three anthologies, including GurlesqueShe lives in Maine and teaches in the community and in Oregon State University-Cascades' MFA; she is currently teaching a course in American cinema to insightful students at the Maine State Prison enrolled through the University of College at Rockland (hi, guys!). Arielle writes a regular column on contemporary poetics for the American Poetry Review.