Archive for June, 2012

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Fiona Apple

Some people stay open to experience, despite the slings and arrows of life’s always outrageous misfortunes. To be a pretnaturally hopeful person is to generally stand apart from one’s more mundane friends and family, among whom complaint too often passes as conversation. Can happiness be a permanent point of view? Can a wish?  Several days ago, I spent time with a young man I had not seen in a while, largely because I felt he was so shut down, and critical of bodies not his own. But he turned up during Gay Pride weekend, and I was seeing a number of people I had not seen in a long time.  It was a wonderful weekend to walk around New York’s lower West side, and to learn about any number of things, including fashion. The best fashion is always devised by those who cannot afford it. And among the hordes of young people of color who promenaded up and down Christopher Street and its environs (there were more men than women) on those sultry nights, one noticed a particular trend among the girls: head ties that ended in a little bow at the top of the head, like sweet rabbit ears. When I asked a young friend who works in retail about it, she said that it was in homage to Whitney Houston, and one of her “I Want to Dance With Somebody” video looks. In addition, I loved the ripped tights worn with raggedy tutus I saw a number of girls and some boys sporting that gave the parade a distressed carnival atmosphere. But back to that other young man and his various criticisms. During the course of his visit–he’s in his mid-thirties–he talked about how much he loathed his body, that it had always been this way, and, as he talked, I realized that he had come around to tell me who he was after having spent a fair amount of time attacking me for having given him–anything. His viciousness was at least in part an outgrowth of his self loathing, and the whole time I had weathered his various cruelties, and watched his friends do so as well, he was more or less talking about himself. A very wise lady friend who spent much of her time giving to others what she’d destroy if you made her a gift of it, once said that my particular tragedy was that I felt people were actually talking to me, when they were generally talking about themselves. And in recent months, a wise doctor I see for twice monthly chats told me that, for the most part, people are talking out of their own tiny reality; conversation was not some shared exchange. That was my fantasy. While listening to Fiona Apple’s uncommon new album, “The Idler Wheel is…,” I was struck anew by what Apple expresses better than any of her contemporaries: jaundiced hope, and the fact that cynicism can exist side by side with wishes. Who would Apple be without her brilliant fetishization of disappointment?  The record opens with a lullaby, and in short order we hear Apple’s always distinctive use of percussion–drums in particular, and the piano as a drum-like instrument. Then there is Apple’s voice, which strikes me less as a “pure” singer’s voice than a spoken word artist’s–limited but resonant, Apple’s sound is not the direct result of having powerful lungs, but a mouth that relishes fucking with words. She gnaws them like bones, trying to get the marrow of her meaning out. (In this she is like other powerful but limited female singers, such as Lotte Lenya and Abby Lincoln: actors who projected musical feeling.) In a sense, the first song, called “Every Single Night,” Is a lullaby, or an ode–to Fiona herself, and to her insomnia. “Every single night I endure the flight/Of little whims of white flame/Butterflies in my brain/These ideas of mind percolate the mind/Trickle down the spine/From the belling swelling to a blaze.” The ideas that begin to percolate in the listener’s brain have to do with what a torture consciousness can be to an artist with a conscious, which is to say an artist like Apple. As she lays awake, numb to solace, Apple sees her body, and it’s interiority, and it is a wonderland of waste and anger and hope. “That’s where the pain comes in,” begins the next verse. “Like a second skeleton/Trying to fit beneath the skin/I can’t get the feelings in..And I say to her/Why’d I say it to her/What does she think of me/That I’m not what I ought to be.” Apple has a double. There’s the Fiona who lives inside her body, and then there’s “her,” the Apple of no one’s eye who fights for her unhappiness as hard as Fiona seems to fight for belief. The various dichotomies thus established, Apple moves on, primarily to the album’s second great theme: her existential isolation. Apple is as alone as she wants to be. Does she love it, though? Can she change her mind about how right it feels for her to be in her room, alone? O.K., she’ll try a person, and maybe kiss them, but will the kiss be as nourishing as her spooky but fun isolation? (Fun because she can make music.) She’s a realist who dreams of something different than the discomfort that visits her when she’s in close proximity to love, and it’s various unknown possibilities. Not that she doesn’t know how she feels–she begs one former lover in the unbelievably beautiful song, “Jonathan,” the most powerful and witty track on the album, to ignore her as she “calculates and calibrates”–but it’s a pity that the Other feels something for her various others. (This was the subject of her unforgettable “Fast As You Can,” from her 1999 album, “When the Pawn…” In the brilliant video by Apple’s former lover, Paul Thomas Anderson, the best of her career, the filmmaker encourages the singer to be a film actress, and she expertly collaborates with the camera. ) But who can blame her male subjects for falling for her? She articulates what it is like to be prescient about how things don’t change, and will change, but only if we change. Can we? Apple’s emotional radicalism separates her from that which a number of female singer/songwriters ask for again and again: to be saved by a lover. Instead, Apple turns to her dissatisfied double for approval, that same skeleton that won’t let her sleep, but maybe that’s all she has. Apple will and will not save herself, and how fascinating is that imbalance to watch, let alone listen to? She is a great writer who is a young Dylan’s equal in terms of building character and a persona through dense, picturesque lyrics. But unlike Dylan, Apple has yet to move into the world at large, and report on other lives, other stories. But that’s OK for now. She’s smart enough to move past her own story eventually, and include other aspects of the world in her work the better to enhance it, and make it grow. It’s lovely to imagine what she would make of hope in those Gay Pride streets, say, mixed in with someone else’s confessions about gay self-loathing, all the while keeping her eye on those Whitney Houston rabbit ears wilting in the first rush of summer.

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The Actor’s Body

I was fixing dinner one night recently and the television was on. Even though I wasn’t watching it, I liked listening to the dialogue–I think that’s the only way I ever watch network TV; I am interested in speech, in the rhythms of speech, particularly scripted speech: writing as talking, talking as writing.  In any case, television serials are, for the most part, plot and dialogue driven, and one can often tell what’s happening by what is being said rather than what is being shown. A variation on radio stories, TV as “anti-cinema.” While washing some spinach, I could tell–I could hear–that the show’s protagonist and his wife were at a theatre–a “first night”–and, seconds later, I could tell they were watching Jean-Claude van Itallie’s “America Hurrah.” This I knew less by what the actors were saying, than how my body reacted to what they were saying. I had appeared in the “Interview,” section of the three act piece when I was a drama student at the School for the Performing Arts. And before I quite knew what was happening, I was saying the words–my part–and I wasn’t washing spinach, I was that character again, on that stage again, trying to put the writer’s ideas, and my character’s, over. Montgomery Clift, to my mind the greatest film actor this country has ever produced, once said that acting was hard because your body didn’t know you were acting. And that is, perhaps, the most precise definition I’ve ever heard of the actor’s machinery: to make a character or situation real, your body, and the emotions and thoughts it contains, has to infuse it all with their real blood, and tendons. That may explain the jitteriness one sometimes encounters with actors in what passes as real life: they are filled with words and situations their bodies can’t forget. That is, they are “themselves,” in the world, buying overpriced necessities or crap in supermarkets like the rest of us, but they’re past lives, as other people feeding on their real nerves and blood, trail after them like old tin cans. Or Marley’s chains. They take on a part, and it will not let them alone. (Nina Simone once wrote that part of her madness at a certain point was the direct result of not being able to forget song lyrics.)  That is where their training comes in; Sandy Meiser, Stanislavsky, Strasberg, not only helped the performer free themselves, but to build up their internalized shrink’s office, a place where they can gain some distance, perspective, on the fictional skin they inhabit for real. In a wonderful book called “Bergman By Bergman,” the great Swedish director talked about a particular shot featuring Liv Ullman–a close up. Bergman’s interlocutor asked if he used a special filter to capture a certain look on Ullman’s character’s face. And Bergman said, no, he told the actress to put all her character’s emotions in her lips. Ullman did. Bergman said, This was only something that a great actress could do. It couldn’t be unexplained. I had a similar feeling–about my old actor’s body, about Ullman’s lips–when I recall two film performances I have yet to recover from. The first was Rachel Weisz’s truly uncanny work in “The Deep Blue Sea.” Terence Davies directed this small, beautiful film, by wrapping it around Weisz’s character–a posh Englishwoman living in World War II London who catapults herself out of her class and into the arms of a working class man who cannot and will not meet her demands to be loved now and forever. She is in love with him because he has loved her once, can’t he love her again? Sharing a small flat situated in a sad little courtyard, the grime on the lovers windows is the grime of death: we meet Weisz’s character after a failed suicide attempt. Working backwards, Davies more or less narrates the story through Weisz’s eyes, which are often filled with desire and panic; we hear it in her voice, too. Why can’t her lover stay? Why can’t love kill you and bring you back to life? In one beautifully choreographed sequence, Weisz runs into the underground, and pauses on the platform. A train rushes by, she leans towards it. (A major influence on the piece is clearly David Lean’s “Brief Encounter.”) She has everything and nothing: her understanding of England’s class distinctions, the turn on that comes with flouting the rules, loving down, her body. But she has only grown to know her body because of her passion for a man who does not have her language or, more specifically, the language she acquired because of her background, her access to the life of the mind, a closed world where she could not call her soul her own. Last year, Glenn Close was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of “Albert Nobbs.” She should have won. As with Weisz, Close has an amazing command of her face, which is the film actor’s stock in trade: they must convey thought with relatively little language. But whereas Weisz’s ripe blooming lips and Vivien Leigh-like dark lushness only adds to her character’s tragedy–she luxuriates in small rooms and in a cold grey England  that cannot contain her beauty–Close’s Nobbs is trussed, like a mental patient who has committed himself not to his madness, but to society’s: the world will not allow him to be who he is, so he will pose as the very image of rationality even as his soul grows wilder, quietly wilder. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia, one of the best young directors out there–his cinema is a cinema of women without relying on obvious “drama”; his pacing is remarkable, and Isak Dinesen like in its love of the tale unfolding in its own time–Albert Nobbs fills Close’s face with that character’s genius for survival, in addition to the ambitious performer’s.

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Sheryl Sutton, 1984