Monthly Archives: December 2012

Does Philip Roth’s PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT Still Hold Up?

Philip Roth

Classics are classics for a reason, but this reason changes depending on the book.  Sometimes, a piece of art comes at just the right moment, and it ends up defining a generation.  Sometimes, a piece of art is a classic because it changes everything that comes after it.  And then, sometimes, a piece of art is just an oddity, standing on its own, and it’s unlike anything that really came before it or after it.

I bought Portnoy’s Complaint for one reason: I heard that Philip Roth was a great author. I had no idea what I was getting into.  I’ve seen the book on Best Of… lists, and TIME magazine considered it one of the best novels of its century.  There comes a point where, if I hear enough that something is revered and I see it on enough lists, I’ll give it a shot regardless of what it is.  The fuss is probably warranted, right?  Portnoy’s Complaint, isn’t a book with an especially dramatic plot, warm and likable characters, and or era-defining set-pieces.  Instead, it’s a narrative of the narrowest focus — it’s essentially a monologue, delivered via stream-of-conscious writing, from one neurotic suburban Jewish man to his therapist.

If you are as unfamiliar with Portnoy’s Complaint as I was buying it, you’re probably still wondering what about it makes it a classic.  It’s vulgar.  And I mean super vulgar.

Upon this book’s release, it received a lot of attention for being profane, obscene, crude, and vulgar. This book, released at the end of the 1960’s, was definitely provocative for its time.  1969 was just feeling the brunt of the sexual revolution, when Leave it to Beaver‘s depiction of family life was slowly unraveling in the popular consciousness.  What I think is amazing is, unlike Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, this book still feels like it’s pushing boundaries in regards to how vulgar it is. There are some pretty unspeakable acts and thoughts that flow through this book, even by today’s standards. I’m not a prude, but there were plenty of times that my mouth dropped open, incredulous to the things I just read.  Infamously, there’s a scene that involves masturbation, liver, and a family’s dinner; I’ll let you imagine how those items fit together.

Now, you may be thinking: Okay, so this is just smut, right? I think that, in the hands of any other author, this material would come across as pornographic, sadistic, or misogynistic. Instead, the titular Portnoy feels like a genuine character — not some silly caricature designed to offend the audience.  There’s an unshakable feeling that at least part of this character is autobiographic (Roth also grew up in a similar neighborhood under similar circumstances).  The neuroses that the audience is allowed to see feels somewhat honest — there are clear reasons why Portnoy behaves the way he does, and we can see it, trace it back to these cognitions/actions. Is Alexander Portnoy despicable? Yes. Is he a terrible human being? Certainly. However, there’s a certain kernel of logic and reason that he carries around with him.  Roth doesn’t expect you to love Alexander Portnoy, but he does expect you to understand him.

The narrator, titular character, and all-around hyper-neurotic guy, Alexander Portnoy is by most accounts a pig.  He’s a smart guy, and he won’t let you forget it — he constantly refers to literature, but he’ll never forget to quote the source for you, lest you go by without the realization that he is a well-read gentleman.  He’s obsessed with sex — as a teenager, he masturbates compulsively, and as an adult, it’s all that he really seeks in life.  He objectifies women — Portnoy refers to past girlfriends via nicknames to dehumanize them.  He’s a volatile mix of superego and id, constantly fighting the ghost (figurative) of his mother, trying to prove himself as a worthy little boy.  What seems, at least initially, like a caricature is a very real person.  This is not someone you would want to know in real life.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention — this book is absolutely hilarious! There are some crude jokes, yes, but often the humor comes from a very “Jewish” sensibility. If you enjoy the humor of Larry David or Woody Allen, it’s hard not to see some influence this book/humor has had on their work.  Roth captures the insecurity of a young Jewish man coming of age in suburbia and all of the paranoia that comes with it.  There are delightful turns-of-phrase and plenty of great back-and-forth, especially from Portnoy’s parents who aren’t too different from Jerry Seinfeld’s on his show.

Portnoy’s Complaint is a classic, but not because it only embodies the repression of sexual tension in 1960’s America.  Underneath the degradation, underneath the neurosis, there’s a very real portrait of a young man struggling to find meaning.  It’s not always pleasant… hell, it’s almost never pleasant, but it’s a fascinating book to spend time in.  I’ve read some reviews that lamented that this book was thin on plot. While I may agree, I would suggest that, while you read the book ask yourself “why is this character here, spilling his guts?” This fact only truly becomes clear within the final few pages, and it makes the previous 250 pages all fall into place and make sense.  This book definitely still holds up.

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The Most Disappointing Albums of 2012

2012 was a great year for music by almost any standard, but it wasn’t without a few upsets.  This list showcases some of the biggest disappointments of the year in music – now, keep in mind that these are not necessarily bad albums, just disappointing ones.  Likewise, you won’t see a bad Maroon 5’s Overexposed on this list, because how could it disappoint with expectations so low to begin with?  In fact, I just thought of something.  Two albums this year have the most appropriate title ever: Japandroids’ Celebration Rock and Maroon 5’s Overexposed.  I want to reiterate,  I like all of these albums and the bands/artists behind them, but these release let me down in some way or another.  Here’s the list in alphabetical order:

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Centipede Hz

Animal Collective – Centipede Hz

Sometimes, an album is only disappointing because of its predecessor – case in point: Centipede Hz.  Animal Collective released the phenomenal Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2008, and followed it up nicely with the atmospheric Fall Be Kind EP.  2012’s Centipede Hz isn’t a bad album (even though it seems to have already bagged the title of “Worst Album Art of the Millennium” already), but it is disappointing entry into the band’s discography.  The album is packed with jitter synthesizers, harmonies, percussion, samples, loops, and on.  The fact that it’s so packed with noise makes it an exhausting listen.  There are a few highs (“Today’s Supernatural” and “Moonjock”), but more often, the music bogs itself down.  Case in point: the slow and painful “New Town Burnout.”

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Mirage Rock

Band of Horses – Mirage Rock

With two albums, Band of Horses was a band poised to break into the mainstream consciousness.  I mean, have you heard “The Funeral?”  It probably ranks among my favorite tracks of all time, of any genre, by any band.  With Infinite Arms, the band polished their sound and gained the attention of a much, much larger audience.  Singer / chief songwriter Ben Bridwell capitalized on the band’s fame with Mirage Rock, an album that is nostalgic (like the band’s past work) but not forward-thinking.  After a few radio-ready tracks (“Knock Knock” or “How to Live”), the album limps by, and it proves fans’ worst fears that the band that recorded “The Funeral” is dead and gone.  Case in point: “Dumpster World” is a song that even Neil Young would scoff at for being too sentimental; Bridwell swings and misses so wide, it feels like a parody.

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This Machine

Dandy Warhols – This Machine

I’ve probably reached the point where I would consider myself a Dandy Warhols’ apologist.  After releasing three terrific albums (Come Down, 13 Tales from Urban Bohemia, and Welcome to the Monkey House), things got weird.  In what seemed like a ploy to be released from their contract, the band released Odditorium, or Warlords of Mars, an album that has terrific high points and ghastly lows.  The followed this with Earth to the Dandy Warhols, a slicker, more polished approach.  While the Dandy Warhols might attempt to be psychedelic, they never let it interfere with a good melody.  Unfortunately, 2012’s This Machine doesn’t have enough psychedelia or melody to stand up to anything the band has done before.  The album sounds like a band defeated.  The songs on this record that are good seem to be good in spite of themselves: “SETI Vs the Wow! Signal” has some of the worst lyrics this side of, well, you be the judge: “It’s like a rocket to a caveman / talking on a cell phone, staring into space, man.”  Case in point: the self-indulgent and unsatisfying “Don’t Shoot She Cried.”

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Laborintus ii

Mike Patton – Laborintus II

I love Mike Patton and pretty much everything he’s ever recorded (except for the detestable Adult Themes for Voice, but seriously, who likes that?).  Luciano Berio’s “Laborintus II” is a poem originally commissioned by France. Its purpose was to celebrate the life of Dante Alighieri: 1965, after all, celebrated the 700 anniversary of his author’s birth. Berio’s poem was created for three female voices, eight actors, a variety of instruments, and one speaker. The role of speaker is filled by Mike Patton; there’s not much singing or crooning going on here.  While I’ve liked some of Patton’s most experimental recordings, this goes overboard, and what was intentioned as an audio/visual dramatic spectacle comes across as a muddy, cluttered recording.  There are a few moments of interesting electric jazz at play in “Part Two,” but these points come sparingly.  This might be the least essential Patton recording since Adult Themes for Voice.  Case in point: the “where am I, and how did I get here?” feeling you’ll get in “Part One.”

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Little Broken Hearts

Norah Jones – Little Broken Hearts

I’ve liked pretty much everything Norah Jones has done; from the jazzy feel-good Come Away With Me to the angsty Never Too Late, she’s done no wrong.  The idea of her collaborating with Dangermouse (Brian Burton, of Broken Bells and Gnarls Barkley) seems on the face of it like a good idea.  Dangermouse has a way of making the production of an album sound clean, clear, and irrepressibly cool, but there are times when the producer/instrumentalist has been less than stellar.  Beck’s Modern Guilt felt ordinary (an absolute crime for Beck’s music) as did the Black Keys’ Attack & Release.  Norah Jones’ collaboration with Mike Patton’s Peeping Tom project was an absolute winner, so I had high hopes.  The first two tracks on this album raise hopes for the best (“Good Morning” is such a beautiful song).  Unfortunately, her new Little Broken Hearts and its bass/rhythm heavy production never quite proves itself effective.  Aside from a few inspired songs (“Happy Pills” and “Say Goodbye”), the collaboration never quite meshes.  Case in point: the dragging, pseudo-jazzy “4 Broken Hearts” feels like a smoke-filled by-the-number songwriting routine.

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Days Go By

The Offspring – Days Go By

If you told me at the beginning of the year that the Offspring was releasing an album, I would have told you how low my expectations were.  It’s been years since the band has released a solid and consistently good album, so how does Days Go By end up in a list like this?  It’s been a long time since I’ve heard an album with such fantastic highs and such bizarre and awful lows.  The album begins with some of the most aggressive music the band has released since Americana – “The Future is Now” and “Secrets From the Underground” are terrific.  The closing track, “Slim Pickens…” is just as concise and engaging as anything that the band has ever recorded.  How is it then, that the band could both be at the top of their game and at their all-time low?  “Cruising California” and “OC Guns” are so stunningly awful that I can’t imagine who let the band record them.  There had to be people around in the studio, right?  How could these people not speak up?  The band even covers (or, um, “remasters”) their early fan-favorite “Dirty Magic,” but at this point, it feels like putting salt in the wound coming off the heels of “OC Guns.”  Case in point: the band seems to be in on the joke with “Cruising California,” but at what point does a band to profit off of “satire” like “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)” and “Original Gangster” before simply selling out with a wink and smile?

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The Shins – Port of Morrow

Last year, if you asked any Shins fan which of their three albums was their favorite, it’s quite possible that you would get an equal distribution of answers.  Oh Inverted World, Chutes Too Narrow, and Wincing the Night Away are terrific indie-pop records.  Singer/songwriter James Mercer released remarkably consistent melody-driven guitar-centric pop songs.  After Wincing the Night Away, Mercer started up Broken Bells with producer Dangermouse – their collaboration was darker and more electronic than anything Mercer had really done before.  When he decided to (essentially) reform the Shins in 2012, it came as a surprise.  Hopes were high that Mercer would deliver as he did on his past 3 records, but Port of Morrow strangely feels soulless.  Fans excited with the lead single “Simple Song” soon discovered that it was far-and-away the best track of the bunch.  Too often does Port of Morrow feel like a rote by-the-numbers album – where was the wit?  Where was the ear-hook melodies?  While the album certainly isn’t bad, it’s definitely a disappointment.  Case in point: “It’s Only Life,” for a writer known for his sharp pen, the lyrics to this song feel absolutely mailed in.

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Unfortunate Mentions:

Temper Trap – Temper Trap
Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror
Lana Del Rey — Paradise
Walkmen — Heaven
Yeasayer — Fragrant World

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The Most Under-Appreciated Albums of 2012

2012 has been a pretty good year for music.  Every genre has received some kind of hit record: for folk-indie, there was Mumford and Sons’ Babel; for R&B, there was Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange; for hip-hop, there was Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, for pop, there was Taylor Swift’s RED.  Perhaps it’s because it was a good year in music, there’s been several albums that have kind of fallen by the wayside.  The collection of albums below have gone through 2012 without much appreciate.  Here, this means that the album didn’t receive much critical or commercial attention — Grizzly Bears’ Shields is excellent, and underappreciate by audiences at large, but it was championed by critics and it has found its way on many “Best Of…” lists already.  The following list of albums is by no means ordered.  Stay tuned for a list of the most disappointing albums of 2012 coming soon!

damon albarn Dr Dee

Damon Albarn — Dr. Dee
It would be hard to Damon Albarn to release anything that goes under the radar.  Sure, Dr. Dee was noticed, but it was largely dismissed upon its initial release.  The album is a folky British opera that chronicles the mysterious John Dee — a consort to the queen, scientist, magician, mathematician, and astronomer.  Who would have thought that audiences weren’t interested in traditional operas about obscure 16th century alchemists?  The album is littered with Blur-esque acoustics by Albarn, but the majority of the album is traditional opera.  Critics were hoping for a small scale, intimate set, but instead, they got a strange, esoteric passion project.  SAMPLE THIS:  “Apple Carts” and “Preparation.”

liars WIXIW

Liars —  WIXIW
Those fans that were hoping that Radiohead would return to their uncompromising, electronic tendencies (Kid A and all) got their wish with last year’s King of Limbs.  Anyone still feeling a bit unsatisfied should seek out Liars’ WIXIW (pronounced “Wish You”).  The band has been no stranger to changing their sound between albums or being inaccessible: WIXIW changes none of that.  On the face of it, it’s an electronic record set with many of dance-ready beats.  A deeper listen reveals the paranoia and menace of the album.  It’s an album that rewards repeated listens, and while it may take a few to get used to the dense electronic atmosphere the band creates, it’s well worth the time.  What initially feels like a claustrophobic and harsh set of songs gradually opens up to be a surprisingly open and rich record.  SAMPLE THIS: “No. 1 Against the Rush” and “His and Mine Sensations.”

Django Django

Django Django — Django Django
It’s the band so nice they named it twice — four times if you take into account this is a self-titled record.  When I first listened to Django Django’s debut record, I knew that this was the record that everyone would be talking about in 2012.  The album has everything a listener could want: it’s well produced, it’s catchy, it’s fun, and it spans an array of genres, constantly keeping you guessing what comes next.  The band effortless shifts between surf-rock, electronic music, traditional Egyptian, and world music, but they never forget to give the listener a melody to remember.Django Django opens with the sound of nature before giving into the sounds of an arcade-like PacMan synthesizers.  It’s the perfect metaphor for the album itself: it’s an album that marries very natural sounds and melodies with fun electronics.  The album came in went with some people noticing it (NPR), but for the most part, it was lost in the rush.  Check this album out!  SAMPLE THIS: “Hail Bop” and “Waveforms.”

Grass Giraffes transportation

Grass Giraffes — Transportation
The Athen, Georgia-based band carries on the musical traditional.  The band’s debut release, the Transportation EP is a stellar mix of pop-rock and psychedelia.  Grass Giraffes’ music is sure to please anyone looking for more music by the Elephant Six collective.  The EP is only 5 songs long, but the band leaves its mark on the listener by giving the audience melodies that are irresistible and spot-on musicianship.  The lyrics here are just as smart and sharp as the lyrics, and if Transportation offers anything, it’s the hope that this kind of music (whose epoch seemed to fade out after Neutral Milk Hotel’s excellent In The Aeroplane Over the Sea) isn’t quite on its way out just yet.  SAMPLE THIS: “Backstories” and “Better Alone.”

Dan Deacon america

Dan Deacon — America
Dan Deacon has been skirting around massive audience appeal for some time now.  He’s a hard guy to pigeonhole:  his background is in classical music, but he is constantly trying to push the boundaries of electronic music.  America offers one of the best examples of what Deacon is capable of: the first half of the record is a handful of short, melody-heavy pop songs, and the back half of the record is a sprawling instrumental.  It’s hard to understand why Deacon isn’t a bigger figure in the mainstream consciousness — his music is either too electric for classical listeners or too classic for electronica listeners.  America does a great job marrying the two approaches, and if any release this year makes electronica fun, smart, and beautiful, it’s this one.  SAMPLE THIS: “True Thrush” and “USA II: The Great American Desert.”

Jesca Hoop the house that jack built

Jesca Hoop — The House That Jack Built
Tom Waits once described Jesca Hoop’s music has refreshing as “going swimming in a lake at night.”  It’s a surprisingly apt description of her music, and on that front, The House That Jack Built succeeds.  Hoop, who recorded this album after touring as part of Peter Gabriel’s band, pushes herself in a ton of different directions.  This album is a bit more streamlined than her previous work, but it’s also more accessible — fans of Hunting My Dress may be a bit disappointed with the decidedly poppier approach Hoop takes here, but it pays of in dividends.  Although Hoop’s musicianship is pristine here, what really shines is her lyrics; the material spans a wide array of subject material, but nothing is as profound as her reflection of death on the haunting and minimalist “D.N.R.”  Hoop’s music feels too poppy for the indie-audience that she records for, but here’s hoping this fantastic album finds its audience.  SAMPLE THIS: “Ode to Banksy” and “D.N.R.”

Aimee Mann charmer

Aimee Mann — Charmer
Aimee Mann has been around for a while now, but 2012’s Charmer feels like she’s found new inspiration.  The 90’s alternative rocker’s latest album is a fun, slick record that never forget to put the melodies up front.  Complimenting Mann’s guitar this time around is a Cars-like synthesizer. The album is accessible, but it’s immensely listenable — this is a record that never fails to just be a fun record.  Even though some of the subject matter turns sour (“Disappeared” or “Living A Lie”), Mann couches it all in poppy songwriting.  Collaborations with James Mercer from the Shins and Tim Heidecker from Time & Eric give the songwriter enough room to maintain her own personality while offering new takes on her music. SAMPLE THIS: “Charmer” and “Soon Enough”

Exitmusic-Passage

Exitmusic — Passage
Celebrities playing in bands is not a new spectacle.  Everytime you here about a Keanu Reeves and Dog Star or Russell Crowe and 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts, it’s hard not to imagine that these are ployed attempts at artistic credibility.  These celebrities play in their band, but they never want that to be the focus of the music; Billy Bob Thornton, for example, nearly cancelled a live interview because the radio DJ singled him out in a question.  Exitmusic, on the other hand, doesn’t feel like a gimmick at all.  The group is a husband/wife duo featuring Boardwalk Empire’s Aleksa Palladino on vocals.  Their album, Passage, has all of the atmospheric bombast that a Sigur Ros record has, and it’s just as beautiful.  Simultaneously beautiful and haunting, this is a record that works both as background music and music to lose yourself in.  SAMPLE THIS: “Passage” and “Sparks of Light.”

Hot Chip in our heads

Hot Chip — In Our Heads
Here’s an album that initially received a bit of a buzz at first only to seemingly sizzle away.  Hot Chip has been around for a while now, and their records have been mixed at best.  Sure, some are better than others, but none of them have been as consistent as In Our Heads.  Part R&B, part electronica, part dance, this British group’s latest record features the band at its very best.  The band’s positive outlook makes In Our Heads not only a great album, but one that you’ll enjoy spending time with.  If the music isn’t trying to create a groove to dance to, it’s dropping melodic hooks that will keep listeners coming back for more.  SAMPLE THIS: “Motion Sickness” and “Let Me Be Him.”

Future of the Left plot against common sense

Future of the Left — The Plot Against Common Sense
I don’t know the last time I listened to an album so brutal.  Future of the Left’s The Plot Against Common Sense is noise-rock at its finest, made all the most harsh by the fact that they just don’t seem to make bands like this anymore.  Not only is the music aggressive, but the lyrics are just as sharp as the melodies here.  Moving from cynical to satirical, Future of the Left tackles subjects such as the music industry, Hollywood, the Occupy Movement, and um, bad restaurants.  It’s one of the year’s best, as long as you’re willing to endure the fast, noisy, and raw sound that’s thrown at you.  SAMPLE THIS: “Sheena is a T-Shirt Salesman” and “Beneath the Waves an Ocean.”

Honorable mentions:
La Sera — Sees the Light
Mynabirds — Generals
Hopsitality — Hospitality

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Why the Term “Biopic” is no Longer Useful

Lincoln

Something is happening to the Oscars.  It probably started in 2004 and 2005, when Ray and Walk the Line proved to be massive hits with critics and audiences alike.  Since then, there’s been a flood of movies that attempt to condense a person’s life into a 2, 2.5 hour long movie.  Yes, it was the rise of the biopic.  Since then, there’s been a ton of these movies released, seeking the same returns that a film about Ray Charles or Johnny Cash warranted.  There once was a time where the word “biopic” meant something.  Short for “biographical motion picture,” the term as it’s used today has become an all encompassing genre for any character-based film that just happens to have really happened.

2012’s Lincoln, for example, is a fantastic movie.  The movie, directed by Steven Spielberg with Daniel Day Lewis playing Abraham Lincoln, is just as good as it sounds like it would be.  It’s funny, moving, sad, and patriotic without being sappy or jingoistic.  The movie has, unfortunately, been called a biopic repeatedly.  Lincoln has even been advertised as a movie solely about Abraham Lincoln (look at the title!).  Unfortunately, this isn’t a movie about Abraham Lincoln — it’s a movie with Abraham Lincoln in it.  It’s based on true events, and Lincoln is the main character, but this is not a movie about one of America’s greatest presidents.

The source material for Lincoln was pulled from Team of Rivals, a book about the process of ratifying the 13th amendment to the United States’ constitution.  Was this a career defining moment for Lincoln?  Absolutely.  Was this a life defining moment for Lincoln?  Absolutely.  However, just including the the president’s pivotal moments as a leader of a nation at war with itself doesn’t necessarily mean it ought to be labeled “biographical.”  Calling Lincoln a  biopic is like saying that Saving Private Ryan is really all you need to know about World War II, or Platoon is all you need to know about Vietnam.  The same applies to 2012’s Hitchcock (and the less circulated The Girl) — both are movies about Alfred Hitchcock, but not about his life.  Hitchcock focuses on his attempt to get Psycho made, and The Girl focuses on his obsession with Tippi Hedren.  Can we learn about World War II from Saving Private Ryan?  Of course, and in exactly the same way that we can learn about Abraham Lincoln’s life by Lincoln even though these movies don’t tell the whole story.  Audiences get the “gist” of Lincoln’s character, his relationship with his wife and sons, his ability as a presdient, etc…  Does that make these movies biographical?  The Social Network, ostensibly a movie about the creation of Facebook, is more about the character of Mark Zuckerberg, but it’s rarely regarded as a biopic.

Here’s why “biopic” is no longer useful: the phrase encapsulates both the Ray‘s of cinema and the Lincoln‘s.  These movies, while based on true events, have very different purposes and approaches.  The first (Ray, Walk the LineEd Wood, A Beautiful Mind) attempt to condense a person’s life into a two hour film.  That isn’t to say that these movies are necessarily cluttered, but they cover a span of years.  The second brand of biopic focuses on defining moments in a person’s life (The King’s Speech, Lincoln, Hitchcock, Capote, Hyde Park on Hudson).  The key difference is that the arc of the stories are different based on what the film attempts to do.  The first brand of biopic’s arc and plot are focused on someone’s life, with the film usually chronicling childhood/early years and the death of the character; in A Beautiful Mind, audience are given some scenes to show John Nash as an old (and happily married?) man.  The second brand of biopic’s arc works on a smaller scale, with the climax and resolution coming from the pivotal moment of that person’s life; in The King’s Speech, we don’t see “Bertie” get old, we just see him complete a speech to rouse England during World War II.  

We’ve been classifying movies that focus on key events in a person’s life as a biopic.  Aren’t these movies more like character studies?  While the term “character study” is mostly conjured in fictional works, it applies well to movies like Lincoln or Hyde Park on Hudson.  Traditionally, character studies involve placing a character in a situation and watching how said character reacts and responds to his environment.  Isn’t that what these smaller scale “biopics” have been doing?  These movies don’t try to the audience about the life of a person — they try to convey who this person was.  In 2012, Entertainment Weekly created their “50 Best Biopics Ever” list.  It included Hotel RwandaSchindler’s ListErin Brokovich, and Stand and Deliver.  Are these movies “biographical motion pictures”?  Should they be in the same list as A Beautiful MindMy Left FootEd Wood, or The Aviator?  Unfortunately, all “biopic” means here is that it’s based on true events, and there’s a person in it.  We can come up with something a bit more descriptive than that, can’t we?

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FILM REVIEW: Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN

Lincoln Movie

LINCOLN starts off like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN: people fighting and dying for war. In Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the scale of D-Day was astonishing and gruesome. This memorable first scene sets the tone throughout the entire movie — even if characters make jokes an hour into the movie, it was hard to fully remove yourself from how truly awful war was. While LINCOLN’s first scene doesn’t hold nearly the same grand scale that SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s did, it serves the same function. We’re made to look upon brothers fighting in the rain, in the mud, with their bare hands if they had to. It’s a short scene, but the rest of the movie is haunted by the thought of these men — all around the country — fighting and dying for what’s going on in Washington DC.

It’s often hard for big studio pictures to equal the sum of its parts — not so for 2012’s LINCOLN. On the outset, I was super excited for this movie: it’s got one of the best living directors heading it (Steven Spielberg) with one of the best living actors leading it (Daniel Day Lewis) about one of the most significant moments in American (and human) history (the ratification of the 13th amendment) from the perspective of one of America’s most beloved presidents (Abraham Lincoln). But wait! There’s more: a DP that can make anything look cinematic and beautiful (Janusz Kaminski) and a cast of some of the best actors in supporting roles (Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Lee Pace, John Hawkes, James Spader, Walton Goggins, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael Stuhlbarg, and plenty of others). It seems that a movie like LINCOLN would never be able to live up to its pedigree — but it does. LINCOLN is one of the best movies of 2012, and I can’t think of anyone I wouldn’t recommend this movie to.

First, I’d like to clarify that this movie is not a biopic in the traditional sense — it’s not a movie about the life of Abraham Lincoln. LINCOLN is about Abraham Lincoln’s attempt to ratify the (then controversial) 13th amendment to the United States Constitution. If you’re not familiar with the story already, the 13th amendment clarified that equal rights ought to be provided for all people, of all creed and race. In today’s time, this sensibility seems like nothing special, but in the 19th century, it divided the nation. Getting congress to ratify any amendment can be an arduous process, but Lincoln was up against near-insurmountable odds: he faced a split (and nearly hostile) congress and a strict time line (he wanted to pass it before his re-inauguration after his re-election). Oh, and let’s not forget that the entire country was at war with itself in the bloody and brutal Civil War. This is what the movie is about: we pick up in the middle of the civil war, just after President Lincoln’s re-election, and the movie ends just short of the amendment’s ratification.

The film is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book TEAM OF RIVALS. Spielberg and (screenwriter) Tony Kushner do well to shrink the scope of their story. Rather than trying to cover every element of Abraham Lincoln’s life, they focus in on one of the most pivotal moments of his life and of American history. Working on this smaller scale, Spielberg is able to capture the drama of it all — there are clear story arcs at work here. LINCOLN is excellently paced with plenty of moments of drama, suspense, and even comedy. The movie never for a moment feels like a history lesson. The political maneuverings are fun to watch and, even if you know the story, feel cinematic. Spielberg never gets jingoistic about America either — there’s a sense of patriotism here, but it’s earned by watching the characters on screen fighting for human rights, rather than hollow platitudes.

There’s considerable buzz that Daniel Day Lewis is a shoe-in for the Best Actor Oscar, and the hype is warranted. Lewis is good in pretty much everything he does, but he genuinely disappears as Lincoln. While watching the movie, I would forget that the character on screen wasn’t the actual Abraham Lincoln. He comes across as stern, stoic, and infinitely wise. Through the movie, it appears to be a defeated man, but he is still able to find the beauty in moments with his young son, or camaraderie with his staff with a few jokes. I wouldn’t say that Lewis steals the show though (as he did in THERE WILL BE BLOOD) — the rest of the cast is phenomenal. Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens (the staunch, idealistic congressman) is excellent; James Spader as W.N. Bilbo (as hired gun sent out to obtain votes from on-the-fence congressmen) is hilarious; Michael Stuhlbarg as George Yeaman (the nervous, on-the-fence Democrat) is great. I really could go on — the acting is superb.

LINCOLN is one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2012, and Spielberg’s most consistent drama since MUNICH.  While there is a bit of foul language (and violence in the first scene), I would recommend this movie highly to anyone interested in it.  Go see it.

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