Monthly archives of “December 2013

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Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul (2012)

Sugar-ManA unique story in some ways, all too familiar in others. Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, a working-class kid born 1942 in Detroit to Mexican immigrant parents, puts out a couple of solid folk-rock records in the late 60’s and early 70’s. They don’t sell, his label drops him, and he lives a life of menial labor and community activism in Detroit for decades. Unbeknownst to him, though, he’s hugely famous in South Africa, where his music is as familiar and pop-canonical as that of Simon and Garfunkel and Cat Stevens, though little is known about him personally. The movie traces the efforts of a few die-hard South African fans to find Rodriguez. Eventually, once he’s “discovered,” he tours South Africa, where he is much loved. The question of where all the money went from the hundreds of thousands of records sold in South Africa while Rodriguez scraped by in Detroit is lightly pricked but not dug into, because the filmmakers want this to be a story about Rodriguez’s mystical, totemic purity, rather than (yet another) story about a rube who got fucked over by the record industry.

However, that¬†is the story, however over-familiar or mean, and I wish the filmmakers had acknowledged that. Rodriguez wrote smart, incisive songs about systemic oppression; kids in South Africa were inspired by his ideas; record company executives took the kids’ money; Rodriguez made nothing. That’s not a story about a guy too cool to care about money. That’s the story of a guy who got fucked over. Detroit makes and the world takes! The movie seemed to want me to feel warm and fuzzy about this story but I felt angry. Maybe I listened to Rodriguez’s lyrics more closely than the filmmakers did.

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The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson (2012)

Orphan-Masters-Son-with-Pulitzer-BurstA thoroughly enjoyable, tautly written, cleverly plotted novel, and one perhaps more subtle than it seems. Because Johnson’s research on life in North Korea is pretty clearly in place, we buy into the idea that we’re reading realism here. But how do you write realism about a place where reality is perpetually subject to change at the whim of the state? As events in the novel get stranger and stranger, you start doubting the realism that you took for granted at first — Is it really possible that Kim Jong Il commissioned a hand-built ersatz Ford Mustang just to humiliate a visiting U. S. Senator? Are there really villages in the DPRK populated entirely by “zombie laborers” who have been given lobotomies by the state? — and thus Johnson is able, in a small way, to create in his reader’s mind a state of surreality analogous to the one which must pervade life in North Korea, where survival requires you to believe in obvious untruths, and the truth itself is unbelievable.

So that’s a nifty formal success, yes, but there’s something discomfiting about the enterprise too. We see kidnappings, torture, coercion, murder, starvation, and much else to denote the plight of North Korea’s citizenry, but the novel, weirdly, also feels like a bit of a romp, with loads of exciting set pieces, comic passages, a star-crossed love story, and in the closing moments a Scooby-Doo-esque foiling of Kim Jong Il that left me tickled as a novel-reader but strangely horrified as a human-being. Digging down to get at the exact nature of my complaint here, I strike a layer of iron, or irony — I think I may be wondering whether there are simply some subjects about which novels should not be written.

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Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach (2012)

Frances-HaFrances went to a liberal liberal-arts college where everyone was smart and everyone believed they would grow to become a professional in whatever endeavor they loved best. How could it not happen that this thing you love so completely — writing, sculpture, philosophy, film; in Frances’s instance, dance — would be the thing you would do with your life? But college ends, and then one day Frances is 27 and broke, living a marginal existence in New York City based on tax rebate checks and the goodwill of wealthier friends, still an unpaid apprentice at the dance company in which she thought she would have been a principal by now.

All of which hits me right between the eyes. I went to that school and dreamed those dreams and had those friends, and experienced too the violent undulations of spirit where one day a magazine publishes your poem and you feel like Baudelaire, and the next day your car breaks down and you have no money and you feel like a stupid kid from Michigan who’d better get this administrative assistant job at the office supplies supplier or you are screwed.

Frances barrels through a great many crossroads but the one that made me wince hardest was when her boss at the dance company, in one sweeping gesture, makes clear that she’ll never be in the main troupe, and then offers her the secretarial job being vacated by a woman going out on maternity leave. That is the moment every (non-trust-funded) “emerging artist” must needs face one day or another. The actor who winds up working in the Hollywood prop shop, the musician in the record store, the painter teaching classes at the retirement home, the dancer answering phones for the dance company.

I used to think, foolishly, that lives of artistic endeavor worked like that: It was one thing or the other thing. Either you made it as a musician, or you worked for the office supplies supplier. Time’s taught me better. Specifically, my concept of what it means to “make it” as an artist has gotten considerably more complex. I don’t even remember what I used to think, but I know now that any marker of artistic success you might choose to signify having “made it” is fundamentally arbitrary, because there’s always, always the perception that there are levels beyond the level you’re at, and the belief that only the geniuses on those levels beyond your own are the ones who can truly say they’ve “made it.” Never mind that, as Jean Valentine has it, “the one you wanted to be is the one you are”; now that you are that one, you want to be another one.¬†

My current definition of having “made it” as an artist is pretty simple. First, you have to call yourself an artist and believe it. Second you have to make art. Third you have to put your art in front of people. That’s it. If you’re doing those three things, you’ve — literally — made it.

There’s a lot that’s annoying about this movie. There are a great many whiners, jerks, self-deluded and self-important mediocrities, and other pathetics. But I like the ending a lot. Frances finds a way to eat and “make it” at the same time, and it doesn’t involve being a genius or a prodigy or having an epiphany or getting famous. It comes from work and self-awareness and humility and love. She’s a real artist.