May 7, 2011 § Leave a Comment
From the opening notes of Damn These Vampires to the closing lines of Liza Forever Minnelli, All Eternals Deck is a upward journey through the dark places of the human psyche and condition into a place of a certain contentment, touching on matters of utmost importance often veiled in cryptic phraseology. Like many of The Mountain Goats previous releases, All Eternals Deck continues to touch on the deepest failures and fears of human life, but manages to push through these tribulations toward a genuine awareness that although this world is still marred by pain and sorrow, beauty and healing can be found. In this way, All Eternals Deck reminds me of The Sunset Tree in its ability to address deeply personal matters in such a way that the listener can experience their own emotions in the obliquely worded lyrics of John Darnielle. This time around the music matches the songs and is quite worthy in its own right unlike the majority of The Mountain Goat’s last album, The Life of the World to Come, which suffered from similar sounding music and poor pacing.
Our journey begins with the mournful piano of Damn These Vampires, a slow burning meditation about vampires. As Darnielle sings in the chorus, “Crawl ’til dawn/On my hands and knees/God damn these vampires/For what they’ve done to me,” one can’t help but wonder what these vampires represent. Is Darnielle musing on on the general state of mankind, drawn in by dark and mysterious things until it is too late to escape? Or do the vampires represent the past, unshakable memories that haunt and wound? Whatever the case may be, Damn These Vampires sets up the brooding and questioning nature of the rest of the album, where allusions, references and metaphors abound and it is up to the listener to untangle them and make sense of Darnielle’s lyrics.
These metaphysical concerns and references keep coming up throughout the album, and with them it seems as if Darnielle is attempting to answer or at least consider some larger questions of life. The album’s third track, Estate Sale Sign, is full of religious imagery and lyrics mentioning memory, while the music draws the song along at a quick clip, not giving us the luxury of really being able to catch the meaning. Lines like, “Worked hard to build this altar…the sacrificial stains all spreading out and and soaking through,” and, “Stock shots, stupid stock shots…set up like unloved icons gathering dust up on the wall/from films no one remembers,” draw our attention to the recurring theme of memory, the past and forgetfulness that Darnielle seems particularly occupied with on this album. Age of Kings, whose musical backdrop is pristine, featuring some beautiful string arrangements, picks up this theme of memory again, as Darnielle sings of a past relationship. The last verse is gut-wrenching, “Small chambers sinking ’til they vanish/Wolves in the hallway gaining ground/Reach down to the moment when I should have said something true/Shadows and their sources now stealing away with you.”
After the moody The Autopsy Garland urges its recipient to remember certain places and times, Beautiful Gas Mask takes over the listener’s ear drums. The refrain commands us to “Never sleep, remember to breathe deep,” trying to make us calm and alert at the same time as we try to stay together in the face of nameless shadows and an eventual reckoning with someone or something. High Hawk Season asks us how we will be remembered, “Who will rise and who will sing?/Who’s going to stand his ground and who’s going to blink?” There is almost a sense of paranoia in Darnielle’s voice as he sings, “Rise if you’re sleeping, stay awake,” as if the world is coming to an end or that this may be the only chance we have to truly live, taking advantage of every day.
Prowl Great Cain deals with the curse that bad memories can bring, and I can’t help but wonder if this song is mining the same autobiographical territory as The Sunset Tree in Darnielle handling the memory of his abusive father. As the song draws near its close and Darnielle wails, “Sometimes a great wave of forgetfulness rises up and blesses me/And other times the sickness howls and I despair of any remedy,” I am reminded of the scars of the past that haunt all of us. The very next song, Sourdoire Valley Song, highlights another facet of memory, the bittersweet nature of leaving things behind that once held such joy. In a few words, the song’s chorus beautifully sums up having to leave behind memories and the past as we move forward, “And then the grass grows to cover up the fire pit and the forge/Half a world away from the Olduvai Gorge.”
It is with Outer Scorpion Squadron that the album begins to take a turn to the positive. In this soft, touching ballad, Darnielle sings of conjuring up ghosts of the past, learning to live with them and eventually putting them behind you. He seems to suggest that once you own your past and the many terrible, painful things that make up a part of it you can begin to make steps toward healing, and with the final three songs of the album, this healing begins to manifest itself. For Charles Bronson encourages a certain Stoicism toward the past, advising to concentrate on good things and try to live as if the past has no hold on you or your current state. I think many pass through this stage on their way to realizing that true healing never comes in this manner.
Healing comes in the awareness of our own failure to ever escape the past and its damage, and this is what Never Quite Free masterfully shows. On this Earth, the closest we may come to true freedom is this deep and difficult realization that our past makes us who we are and we have to learn to live with it and the way it has shaped us. The most cathartic song on the album by far, I can identify with Darnielle as he almost whispers the verses, and the second one especially hits home, “It’s okay to find the faith to saunter forward/There’s no fear of shadows spreading where you stand/And you’ll breathe easier just knowing the worst is all behind you/And the waves that tossed the raft all night have set you on dry land.” Now, maybe the worst isn’t behind me, but I know that the struggles and wounds of the past and present have shaped me and will continue to do so as long as I live. In order to move toward healing, we have to acknowledge our flawed and damaged state or we may forever remain entrapped by our pain and our suffering, not understanding that everyone has their own skeletons in their closets: we are no different.
All Eternals Deck is a challenging, but rewarding album. For those who want a straightforward message in their music, this is not the album for them, but for those who invest careful attention it will reveal a deeper message, spoken through metaphor and imagery. By wrestling with his past in an open and vulnerable way, Darnielle encourages us to take a second look at our own past and how we can find healing in our circumstances, a topic he frequently sings about. I can’t recommend this album enough.
August 29, 2010 § 2 Comments
This summer’s biggest movie was Inception. Christopher Nolan’s big-budget spectacular focused on one thing that continues to evade human understanding: dreams. Dreams capture our interest because they are mysterious and as much as we understand the mechanics or physiology behind them, we never really grasp what they are all about. Most of them are fleeting, gone with the morning sun, but some stay with us and we don’t know why. Sometimes they mean something, but most of the time they mean nothing, and yet we continue to dream.
Dreams are the jumping off point of a movie I watched recently called Ink (Jamin Winans, 2009). But unlike Inception, Ink wants its dreams to count for more. Winans uses dreams as a way to describe the presence of things unseen, veering into deeper territory than Nolan mined in Inception. Ink centers around a business man, John (Chris Kelly), and his relationship with his daughter, Emma (Quinn Hunchar). This, the main thrust of the film, is surrounded by two groups of unseen characters, The Storytellers and the Incubi (plural of Incubus).
The Storytellers come to you while you are sleeping and give you good dreams, while the Incubi come with nightmares. The film really begins when a mysterious character named Ink kidnaps Emma in her dreams, which means she can’t wake up in the real world. We follow Ink and Emma through the dream world, as in the real world John is facing a big business deal that could destroy his career if it doesn’t come through. When John refuses to come see his daughter, now in a coma, we know that truly lives for himself and no one else. This is confirmed later as we John followed by an Incubus who whispers in his ear day and night.
This sets in motion a chain of reactions that would be unfair for me to disclose, because this independent movie truly is a treat to watch and ponder. Its small budget for a film of this genre doesn’t stop it from being visually interesting, as Winans employs several filters and color schemes to bring out different parts of the dream worlds. And occasionally the script tries a little too hard, but I would rather a script that tries to provoke thought and does it poorly at times than one that never attempts it at all. The thing, however, that stood out most to me as I watched, was the conviction that Winans invests in these unseen characters.
They are every bit as real as John and Emma. The movie doesn’t conclude with Emma and John both waking up and having dreamed of the Storytellers and Incubi, but continues to posit them as real beings. We are forced to take them seriously as they struggle against each other, and by doing so are made to consider the possibility that in our world there may be things like this happening. There may be more than we see on the surface. As a Christian, it’s a vibrant picture of spiritual warfare, especially in some of the film’s impressive fight sequences.
Ink succeeds by creating a world that is believable that evokes thought. For as much as I liked Inception and the many things it did well, it barely scraped the surface of deeper issues. This is what Ink does well and with a measure of creativity that far exceeds its budget. Highly recommended.
Filmwell‘s very insightful review of Ink can be found here.
August 4, 2010 § 2 Comments
The only reason I know about Jonathan Safran Foer is because I saw Everything is Illuminated with a friend at college last semester. It’s a shame that I hadn’t heard of Foer before. Although I’ve yet to read Everything is Illuminated the movie sold me on Foer’s creative characters and unique style. If it came through in a movie, it screams in your ear in his writing.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a novel, but it’s also so much more. Foer seems to sneer at typical literary conventions and introduces a myriad of clever, hyperactive ways to move the story along. There are illustrations, and a series of pages marked by a red pen to show the mistakes in a letter sent to one of the characters. There is color and life. Foer switches narrators every chapter, just to keep things interesting. The interesting thing about this is that it all feels so necessary as the characters try to make sense of what is happening in their world.
The novel takes place after and deals specifically with September 11th so in a way it’s not just the characters in the story trying to make sense of life, but all of us Americans. Foer’s writing plumbs the depths of a young boy Oskar, whose father died in the attacks, as he tries to cope with his father’s death. Even though I don’t often think about 9-11, Oskar’s story brought it all back to me. On two separate occasions I was near tears, which for me are almost never elicited by the written word. The story is so personal, yet so universal to all of us who witnessed those attacks.
Foer does an excellent job of bringing the memories back, but he doesn’t sugarcoat them or romanticize them. They are real things that carry real weight, not only for the characters in his story but for all of us. He deals with the real questions of life and death here. But more impressively, he does it with such tenderness that they don’t seem forced upon the story in some haphazard way of drawing a moral from his fable.
For a story about death it’s bursting full of life, from Oskar’s unrelenting quest to find the lock to the key he found in his father’s closet to the old man he befriends whose bed has so many nails in it that it has become a magnet. I can’t say much more about this book. It has everything you could want in a story without simplifying the hard questions. At the end, we still might not be better equipped to die, but we are better equipped to live.
March 22, 2010 § Leave a Comment
(Caution: minor spoilers ahead.)
2009 saw the science fiction film make a triumphant return to the public spotlight with the critically acclaimed releases of Star Trek (Abrams, 2009), District 9 (Blomkamp, 2009) and Avatar (Cameron, 2009). Star Trek and Avatar reveled in stunning special effects and wove larger than life intergalactic plots. They dazzled and entertained like the science fiction films of old, creating vast new worlds for our imaginations to explore. We left the theater full of wonder and awe after being immersed in a world that was wholly other. But when the shiny veneer of the computer-created beauty fades away, the only thing left for the films to stand upon are their stories and what they say.
Of the two, Star Trek’s story was far more entertaining than Avatar’s, but still rather shallow. District 9, however, is a harrowing tale of segregation and the implications of corporate power and greed. Wait, doesn’t the plot of Avatar concern itself with these things as well? Yes, but it does it through a heavy-handed, highly politicized script that concerns itself more with advancing a pantheistic agenda than actually letting the narrative live and breathe realistically. District 9 on the other hand, in numerous ways, strives to make its world as real as possible and it helps the movie make a more convincing statement and tell a better story.
District 9 immediately roots itself in the world we know and inhabit. Set in Johannesburg, South Africa the film operates within the framework of a documentary, immediately lending validity to its tale. It centers on a fenced-in slum, District 9, wherein aliens (Prawns) are segregated from the populous of Johannesburg. This segregation occurred due to a growing hatred and ignorance of the Prawn culture. Wikus van de Merme (Sharlto Copley) is called upon by his corporation MNU (Multi-National United) to evict the Prawns from downtown Johannesburg to a new site outside of the city.
We follow Wikus as he begins to evict Prawns, occasionally through violence, but mainly through preying on their ignorance of the evictions laws. In one particularly disturbing scene, Wikus orders a shack with Prawn eggs to be torched by a flamethrower. As the fire engulfs the shanty we hear the screams of the eggs as they are incinerated and the laughter of Wikus and the other humans around him. In fact, as we learn later, the only reason the Prawns haven’t been slaughtered is that MNU still needs to run experiments on them in order to figure out how to work their advanced weaponry.
Wikus finds a silver cylinder and while examining it sprays himself with a black fluid. All appears well for a little while, until he begins to vomit blood and lose fingernails. When he goes to the hospital to get checked out, they cut off a cast on his arm and find a Prawn hand. Wikus has been infected and is turning into a Prawn. Because of this he can work their weapons and is suddenly a valuable commodity to MNU, who wants to harvest his DNA to be able to equip others with the ability to operate Prawn weaponry. There’s one catch; they have to kill him to harvest him.
This sets up the rest of the film, as Wikus becomes a fugitive from MNU, stuck between the humans and Prawns, fitting in with neither. With this in place the film begins to delve into the deeper issues racism and exploitation. There are a few specific examples that flesh this out a little bit more.
I’ve already mentioned the torching of the Prawn eggs early on in the film as a prime example of the injustice being done to the Prawns. At this point in time Wikus is laughing as the Prawn eggs wail and scream. Later in the film, there is a distinct turning point as infected Wikus is being forced to operate Prawn weaponry. He has been shooting dead pigs, but for one final test a living Prawn is put in front of him, and he is forced to shoot the Prawn, who explodes into a gory mess. At this point Wikus breaks into tears and perhaps he finally understands the evil being done to the Prawns by his own corporation.
But why all this persecution? The only reason the Prawns are being persecuted is because they have high tech weapons which mankind wants to use. These weapons are very powerful and whoever controls them will have power. This is the real reason why MNU is trying to evict the Prawns from downtown Johannesburg. It has nothing to do with helping them; it’s all about finding their technology and figuring out a way to use it. It’s yet another example in the long history of film that attempts to uncover the corruption that drives so many “humanitarian” efforts.
The racism in District 9 isn’t just human to Prawn discrimination, but there is also a very real sense of racism between the largely white/upper class workers of MNU and the Nigerians who live in District 9 and use the Prawn’s ignorance against them to procure their weapons for themselves. The Nigerians are the antithesis of the MNU workers; they believe in the supernatural and think that if they eat Prawn flesh they will eventually be able to operate the weapons.
The real struggle here is not a struggle for equality, but a struggle for power. The Nigerians don’t want to be equal, they want to rule. The Prawns just want to live without being exploited like they have been for the past 20 years. In the current system this is impossible, and the Prawns continue to be exploited, predominantly by the Nigerians, who sell them basic necessities of life and cat food (which is like a narcotic to the Prawns) at extravagant costs. There’s the free market at its worst.
There are echoes of this in our own society. Often, large corporations oppress smaller people groups in order to keep the status quo. They hold basic necessities of life back until they get people to give them what they want. They force people to live in awful conditions and work awful jobs because it keeps their bank accounts full. Avatar seems to hint at this too, but it doesn’t really put us in the place of an oppressed people. The Na’vi are only oppressed for a short time and then Nature comes to their rescue. Everything works out fine in the end. In District 9, things aren’t so simple, and by showing us the oppression of an alien species, maybe it can make us re-evaluate how we treat our own species.
So, if you choose to watch one of these three science fiction films and want something that will stick with you after the credits roll, pick District 9.