Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Grantland

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

December 23, 2015 at 7:30 am

Filling in the blanks

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Taylor Swift

Earlier this week, Ryan Adams released an album in which he covers every song, in order, from Taylor Swift’s 1989. It’s a project that has inspired a fair amount of media bemusement, and although Adams explains his thought process in detail in an excellent interview with Steven Hyden at Grantland, I’d prefer to think that it was the only way he could get these songs out of his head. One track or another has been running in my own brain more or less continuously for months, and I’ll often look around, surprised, upon realizing that “All You Had to Do Was Stay” or “I Know Places” has been playing for hours in my subconscious without my knowing it. And I’m not alone. 1989 is pretty much a perfect model of precisely the kind of album you want from the biggest pop star in the world: on its own terms, it’s magnificent, executed throughout at what ought to be an unsustainably high pitch of technical proficiency, but it’s also a little relentless in its insistence on seizing the listener’s ear and never letting go. Every song could be a number one single, and while the result is easy to love, it can be hard to like. Adams, very shrewdly, has taken the album as a rock-solid spine from which he can explore in unexpected directions while being able to fall back on his source at any time. It’s a foolproof blueprint that he uses to construct something shaggier and more eccentric, in a style that he describes as “somewhere between Darkness on the Edge of Town and Meat is Murder.”

But it wouldn’t work at all if the underlying material weren’t close to infallible. I may as well start with “Blank Space,” which I’m not ashamed to say is one of my favorite pop songs of the decade. It hasn’t achieved the same level of cultural ubiquity as “Shake It Off,” but it’s a much stronger track: the latter is loaded with tricks and gimmicks, and it can come off as slightly too eager to please, while “Blank Space” is so supremely confident in its own quality that it needs little more than an electropop beat and Swift’s deadpan delivery of some fiendishly clever lyrics. It’s been compared to Lorde, who certainly provides it with a template for its studied, somewhat fussy minimalism, but it’s really more a question of a song that is good enough to make an indelible impression while doing as little as possible. And for once, it isn’t the kind of love song we’ve heard a million times before, mocking Swift’s public reputation as a maneater while subtly reinforcing it through the sheer specificity of its observations. (My favorite line, which evokes a movie’s worth of plot in a few words: “New money, suit and tie / I can read you like a magazine.”) In its crystalline, chilly perfection, it’s the ultimate realization of the approach refined by cowriter Max Martin, as Bonnie McKee, one of his disciples, once described it to The New Yorker: “A line has to have a certain number of syllables, and the next line has to be its mirror image.” “Blank Space” is meant to be both enticing and just a bit frightening, and its form and content make for a perfect match.

Ryan Adams

Adams’s cover is a different animal entirely. Its mode is closer to Iron and Wine, and its delivery is quiet, almost conversational. Instead of demanding our attention, it insinuates itself gradually, and the result is oddly moving, as if a core of emotion had been released from the cryogenic freeze in which it had been suspended. As Adams says in his interview with Hyden: “We did ‘Blank Space’ and I knew, Wow, this record is going to tell as much of a story as my own record. The lotus blossomed.” And there’s a strange sense in which the combination of Swift and Adams gets at something fundamental about my own feelings about art and how it works. Any creative endeavor is a series of covers of previously recorded material, except that in most cases, the artist is collaborating with himself: you start with the germ of an idea, work it out in a somewhat clinical way, and then, if you’re lucky, you grope your way back to the initial emotion through a long process of revision and introspection. Usually, it’s time that makes the difference, with any extended work of art turning into a partnership with the previous versions of yourself that existed at various points in the past. In the case of 1989, those two sides happen to be split into two different people, but the principle remain the same. David Mamet likes to talk about the Apollonian side of the playwright that structures the plot and the Dionysian side that writes the dialogue, which is also embodied in the opposing but complementary forces of the screenwriter and director, and the collision between Swift and Adams sets up a similar vibration.

To put it another way, the original version of “Blank Space” is like an outline so logical and strong that it could be released on its own, while the cover is a more leisurely attempt to tease out additional resonance. (The contrast between the two approaches also reflects the difference between an album written and recorded under enormous pressure and a pet project that even its creator never thought would see the light of day.) And I’m glad that both exist, especially because the result tells us more about both Swift and Adams than either could convey themselves. As Adams says to Hyden:

But when you break a song down to what it is, to its bones—the emotional structure, the way the words are, the cycles in the song—there’s usually a blueprint there, a fingerprint. Like, the DNA of the song usually tells the story of the writer.

Adams’s covers give us a new perspective on the originals, with their fanatically polished but impersonal seductiveness, but Swift’s songs also serve as a baseline to remind us of what Adams brings to the table as a performer, which might not be as clear if he were singing his own compositions. It may be true, as Spencer Kornhaber puts it in The Atlantic, that Adams breaks with Martin’s syllable obsession, “delivering words in accordance with their meaning rather than out of a desire to bore a hole into the listener’s memory.” But the result wouldn’t be nearly as effective if those syllables didn’t also align.

Written by nevalalee

September 23, 2015 at 9:51 am

The Uncanny Birdman

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Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

Frankly, I don’t think anyone needs to read an entire blog post on how I felt about the Oscars. You can’t throw a stone—or an Emma Stone—today without hitting a handful of think pieces, of which the one by Dan Kois on Slate is typical: he hyperbolically, though not inaccurately, describes the win of Birdman over Boyhood as the ceremony’s greatest travesty in twenty years. So I’m not alone when I say that after an afternoon of doing my taxes, the four hours I spent watching last night’s telecast were only marginally more engaging. It wasn’t a debacle of Seth MacFarlane proportions, but it left me increasingly depressed, and not even the sight of Julie Andrews embracing Lady Gaga, which otherwise ought to feel like the apotheosis of our culture, could pull me out of my funk. It all felt like a long slog toward the sight of a movie I loved getting trounced by one I like less with every passing day. Yet I’m less interested in unpacking the reasons behind the snub than in trying to figure out why this loss stings more than usual, especially because indignation over the Best Picture winner is all but an annual tradition. The most deserving nominee rarely, if ever, wins; it’s much more surprising when it happens than when it doesn’t. So why did this year’s outcome leave me so unhappy?

I keep coming back to the idea of the uncanny valley. You probably know that Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist, was the first to point out that as the appearance of an artificial creature grows more lifelike, our feelings toward it become steadily more positive—but when it becomes almost but not quite human, small differences and discrepancies start to outweigh any points of similarity, and our empathy for it falls off a cliff. It’s why we can easily anthropomorphize and love the Muppets, but we’re turned off by the dead eyes of the characters in The Polar Express, and find zombies the most loathsome of all. (Zombies, at least, are meant to be terrifying; cognitively, it’s more troubling when we’re asked to react warmly to a digital Frankenstein that just wants to give us a hug.) And there’s an analogous principle at work when it comes to art. A bad movie, or one that falls comfortably outside our preferences, can be ignored or even enjoyed on its own terms, but if it feels like a zombified version of something we should love, it repels us. If a movie like The King’s Speech wins Best Picture, I’m not entirely bothered by this: it looks more or less like the kind of film the Oscars like to honor, and I can regard it as a clunky but harmless machine, even if it wasn’t made for me. But Birdman is exactly the kind of movie I ought to love, but don’t, so its win feels strangely creepy, even as it represents a refreshingly unconventional choice.

Edward Norton in Fight Club

The uncanny valley troubles us because it’s a parody of ourselves: we’re forced to see the human face as it might appear to another species, which makes us wonder if our own standards of beauty might be equally alienating if our perspectives were shifted a degree to one side. That’s true of movies, too; a film that hits all the right marks but leaves us cold forces us to question why, exactly, we like what we do. For me, the classic example has always been Fight Club. Like Birdman, it’s a movie of enormous technical facility—ingenious, great to look at, and stuffed with fine performances. To its credit, it has more real ideas in any ten minutes, however misguided, than Birdman has in its entirety. Yet I’ve always disliked it, precisely because it devotes so much craft to a story with a void at its center. It’s the ultimate instance of cleverness as an end in itself, estranging us from its characters, its material, and its muddled message with a thousand acts of meaningless virtuosity. And I push back against it with particular force because it’s exactly the kind of movie that someone like me, who wasn’t me, might call a masterpiece. (It may not be an accident that both Birdman and Fight Club benefit from the presence of Edward Norton, who, like Kevin Spacey, starts as a blank but fills out each role with countless fiendishly clever decisions. If you’re going to make a movie like this at all, he’s the actor you want in your corner.)

As a result, the Oscars turned into a contest, real or perceived, between Boyhood, which reflected the most moving and meaningful memories of my own life despite having little in common with it, and Birdman, which confronted me with a doppelgänger of my feelings as a moviegoer. It’s no wonder I reacted so strongly. Yet perhaps it isn’t all bad. Birdman at least represents the return of Michael Keaton, an actor we didn’t know how much we’d missed until he came roaring back into our lives. And if David Fincher could rebound from Fight Club to become one of the two or three best directors of his generation, the same might be true of Iñárritu—although it isn’t encouraging that he’s been so richly rewarded for indulging in all his worst tendencies. Still, as Iñárritu himself said in his acceptance speech, time is the real judge. The inevitable backlash to Birdman, which is already growing, should have the effect of gently restoring it to its proper place, while Boyhood’s stature will only increase. As I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, Birdman is an audacious experiment that never needs to be repeated, while we need so many more movies like Boyhood, not so much because of its production schedule as because of its genuine curiosity, warmth, and generosity towards real human beings. As Mark Harris puts it, so rightly, on Grantland: “Birdman, after all, is a movie about someone who hopes to create something as good as Boyhood.”

Written by nevalalee

February 23, 2015 at 10:00 am

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