Hymns to Longer Days
118 · 1 May 97
Slingbacks: All Pop, No Star
Some time in the fall of 1984, when I was a senior in high school, my friend S. and I went to see the remake of The Razor's Edge, with Bill Murray in his first "serious" dramatic role. I think we saw it at Medallion, an on-the-way-down theater in a grim Dallas shopping mall left over from the days when shopping malls were just clusters of stores that shared a common parking moat, before they turned into consumer arcologies, a mall otherwise notable only for a sprawling Target (which my parents pronounced "Tar-jay", in that way that would be funnier if they hadn't also made us actually shop there) where I remember purchasing a copy of Gary Numan's The Pleasure Principle and then attempting to return it because I hated it so much, and a forlorn nightclub then called "Monopoly's Park Place", where U2 played on the October tour, before they became rock stars, and then superstars, and then cartoon characters.
It is, I think still, having rewatched the film periodically in the years since to recheck my earlier assessment, a much more affecting movie than anything with the marketing rationale of "Bill Murray in his first serious dramatic role" had a right to be. There is a counter-genre it belongs to, amidst the sea of Hollywood movies in which the boy always gets the girl, in which he doesn't (or, put gender-neutrally, in which they don't get each other, although the movies themselves rarely live up to this bi-directional formulation). And as a pathetic romantic, at heart, I am vulnerable to these films. What passes for "vulnerability to art" for me, though, still usually involves a layer of rational armor thick enough to deflect most projectiles short of the emotional equivalent of that gun that blew the hole in the Terminator's head. S., on the other hand, at least at that age, watched movies with an unguarded empathy that bordered on the life-threatening. The trauma of seeing the film's perfect couple split was so devastating to her that she literally ran out of the theater before the film ended. I watched the final five minutes without her (I'm sure this says something revealing about me), and then went out to find her in the lobby. Neither there, nor at any point in the drive home in my parents' mucus-green 1970 Toyota station wagon, nor at any time during the fifteen or twenty minutes we sat in the car outside her house, me attempting to coax some sort of verbal acknowledgment of reality out of her, did she say a single word.
Complicating the situation, for me, was the fact that I had a thoroughly debilitating crush on S. at the time. It was pointless, as she was totally obsessed with a boy named T., a year older than we were, who may or may not have even known her name. And, to be fair, I was nursing a concurrent letter-fed infatuation with a friend of S.'s named H., who was away at boarding school, a correspondence which ended up taking a course that makes Griffin and Sabine look perfunctory and circumspect, before disintegrating in an ignominious fashion that probably stemmed at least in part from our both having read Franny and Zooey a few too many times. Still, that hadn't happened yet, and it was dark and quiet out, and I was sitting in a car next to a person in obvious emotional distress, and while even my adled seventeen-year-old self could see that no romantic gesture was even remotely appropriate, I couldn't just sit and watch. So I tried, earnestly and clumsily, every approach I could think of, from jokes to attempted comfort to counsel to reproach to reason, in series, in parallel, and in all mathematical permutations. All to no avail. Some part of S.'s mind had shut down completely, unwilling to converse with a world that could deny two such people each other's company.
The incident has stuck in my mind for several reasons, but not least among them is a bizarre strain of envy. For all that I spend my life with art, I can never surrender myself to it that wholly. I cry uncontrollably at the MSCL episode where Rayanne overdoses and Angela calls her mother, no matter how many times I watch it, and again at the point in a later one where Ricky calls Mr. Katimski from a phone booth and pretends thinly that he has some place to stay that night, but in both cases, by the time the credits arrive I'm already reoriented and sheepish. And remembering S.'s silence, I wonder whether I'm just not doing this right. Am I skimming through all these movies, books and records with some filter on that masks out true emotional impact? Years from now am I going to suddenly break through a previously unseen barrier, on the other side of which art is a hundred times more vivid and relevant than how I experience it on this one? How will I ever find the time to see, read and listen to all this stuff all over again with my newfound sensitivity? I'm barely on speaking terms with two months ago as it is.
The closest I've come to handing my life-force over to a movie, excluding the time, after seeing The Eagle Has Landed, that I pretended to be a spy for three weeks straight, was last week when I saw Chasing Amy, the third film by writer/director Kevin Smith, who also did Clerks (which critics heralded, but I didn't much like, as it reminded me painfully of every bad student film we did in college) and Mallrats (which critics loathed, but I thought was charming and marvelous). I saw the film Monday night, and I lay awake for hours, afterward, trying desperately to think about anything else. At work the next day, I more than once found myself staring blankly at my computer screen as if I'd make a decision in my life so wrong that it was unclear whether there was anything left to live for, only to realize, Steven Wright-like, that the decision wasn't made in my life, it was made in the movie. I called S. Tuesday night, when I didn't have time to talk because I was writing last week's column, and told her that there was nothing more important in her life than seeing this movie. She called me back an hour and forty-five minutes later to say that she had.
The film haunts me still. I went to see it again over the weekend, and I have yet to spend more than a half-hour here and there out from under its spell. It's about love, friendship and gender relations among a group of fringe comic-book artists, which reads like a premise target-marketed directly at me, but a dozen movies in the last year or two have sounded like that on paper or in previews, and produced nothing like this response. Chasing Amy is, I think, a love story that finally gets right, for me, everything I've complained about in every other romantic film since Heavenly Creatures. To take the two most obvious recent examples, I was bitterly unmoved by the love stories in both Jerry Maguire and The English Patient. In Jerry Maguire I didn't buy her devotion to him, which seemed based totally on a mission statement that he repeatedly proved he didn't understand himself, nor his devotion to her, which seemed based on nothing but some mild (and drunken) attraction and a fondness for her kid. When he has his earth-shattering revelation, and rushes back to tell her, haltingly, that she completes him, it seems more to me like his triumph is that he figured out the phrase to say to win her, not that he actually came to understand or need her in any way. The film asks us to believe that both people are inestimable treasures, and that they are profoundly fit for each other (in fact it relies on us accepting these points), but it offers nothing other than Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger's photogenic countenances as supporting evidence. Cast two people in their roles who don't prompt reflexive superficial awe (Kathy Bates and Wallace Shawn, say), and the sense of the film would instantly unravel. To me Jerry Maguire is not a romance between its characters, it's a romance between movie audiences and the iconography and mythology of Hollywood. As such it's extremely adroitly done, and I did enjoy it, just not as the love story it claimed to be. The English Patient, for me, had a different problem, which is that while I found its marquee romance perfectly believable, I didn't find it in any way epic. She is attractive and intelligent, and arrives in the desert without any competition; what male heterosexual idiot wouldn't fall in love with her? I'm guessing that the book (which is in my to-read stack, but a long way from the top of it yet) takes the time to demonstrate that there's more to impressing the Count than showing up and contriving to look perpetually fresh-scrubbed without exceeding your camp water-ration, but none of it made the translation to film. In the other direction, the film shows so little detail about her marriage that I'm left with the impression that it's actually fine, and that her romantic defection is thus born of little more than impatience. This renders their thwarted passion more of a logistical problem than an emotional one, and the fact that its demise results from an event completely unrelated to anybody's relationship doesn't help me to see any element of grand tragedy in it. Fate throws people together all the time, and while they routinely fall in love as a result, the existential injustice of fate keeping two people apart is much more impressive when fate isn't basically retracting something it was responsible for to begin with.
The love story in Chasing Amy, on the other hand, is one the two people have to work for, and one whose authenticity I don't doubt for a second. We don't necessarily see enough to know why they fall for each other exactly, here either, but this time it doesn't matter, because the participants themselves are their own antagonists, not a cutthroat business or a war or a plane crash. To appreciate the dilemma the conclusion turns on, we need only to feel how deeply Holden and Alyssa are invested in each other, and how they have each come to think they understand themselves. There were several times in the film when one or the other of them begins a speech that I couldn't believe Smith was really going to attempt, and that I couldn't imagine him getting to the end of without something horrible happening, but every time he found a way through, a half-forgotten handhold along the most difficult precipice, a deft turn of phrase that turned anxious tension into reverent, melting incoherence. You'll make up your own mind, of course, but how shattered I still feel testifies to how convinced I was. The violence of my reaction to the film has more to do with just its resolution, though. The clutches in my heart as I watched alternated with flashes of astonished awe at its mastery of subtle storytelling nuance. Too many films (and almost all television) suffer from the inability to breathe life into a narrative. Events unfold according to the dictates of the plot, not in ways that they would happen to real people. The villain explains his entire scheme to the loosely bound and gagged heroes, and then leaves them alone in a gigantic tea cup with a World's Fair-size teapot of boiling water slowly tilting into pouring position above them. A real villain would have shot them in the heads, torched the capes, and dumped the ashes and viscera into the Gotham sewer. Strangers in movies fling themselves onto each other frantically, not because they've learned to bypass all the awkward missteps the rest of us stumble through on the way to tearing each other's clothes off (not least the reluctance to actually tear up perfectly good clothes), but because film stock is expensive, and both the producers and the people watching have paid good money to see a famous woman's breasts. Find me another film that squanders obvious opportunities for nudity even though its explicit language already necessitated a rating that would permit it. A real story has a thousand things about it that are the way they are for their own reasons, and can't be deduced from the premise or the posters. Irony arrives like nightfall, so slowly that you don't recognize it until it's upon you, not howling and flashing its lights from ten miles down a rail-straight track. Real people are complicated, and have long complicated pasts that infuse every moment of their presents; too many movies are peopled with characters that might as well have been disinterred from the vat while you were watching the previews. They often seem to go out of their way to be like this, even; the film of Smilla's Sense of Snow, a book with vastly strange and convincing characters, stripped off so much of its storytelling that there were several times when I laughed aloud, involuntarily, at the appearance of a meticulous reconstruction of a scene from the book whose myriad referents had been totally omitted from the build-up. And even with several touches that are practically Shakespearean in their classicity (including two sterling tragic flaws, a minor sub-thread about loyalty, enough appearance-vs-reality to occupy a high-school English class until college and an audacious exact-replica story-within-a-story), Chasing Amy strikes me as a paradigm of storytelling art because its story is really a story, not a paradigm for one. Its characters are people, not archetypes (no offense meant to any archetypes reading this). It is not a fable, it is a depiction of lives that might really have been led. When a fable turns tragic, I'm hard-pressed to muster more than a fleeting abstract regret. My capacity for sharing a real person's loss is much greater.
And a part, too, of my response to Chasing Amy has to do with me, not it. "That speech in the truck", S. said. "You did write that, didn't you?" There are letters I've written her, in fact, that except for a thousand-fold difference in length, might as well be the same text. The only major difference, other than the fact that S. has never given me a painting of birds that she bought in a diner, is that where Holden was willing to risk his friendship with Alyssa (and you can hear in his voice that he believes it will not survive his confession) for a chance, however infinitesimal, at romance, I don't believe that exchange is right or necessary. If there's one endemic movie trope that Chasing Amy can't quite evade, it's the unquestioned primacy of romance. A man and a woman can be inseparable lifelong friends, but if they don't also sleep with each other, the logic of movies suggests that they have failed. But all great friendships are complicated, aren't they? And so one of S. and my friendship's complications is that I'm in love with her. Peter and Harriet got along that way for many years; I don't see why we shouldn't, too. But maybe, if you're not in love with one of your dearest friends, part of the emotional power that Chasing Amy has for me won't come through for you. Maybe if you haven't sat in cars beside your S. through as many traumas as I have beside mine, and coping with your feelings by writing about them doesn't seem like the most obvious possible response, then the rules that control the characters actions won't seem as inevitable to you as they did to me, and the downfalls they lead to won't seem as calamitous. But I loved the movie, and so did S., and although the thought of recommending a movie to my parents that contains the phrase "vary my lapping speed" and a rather vivid hand-gesture explanation of fisting makes me slightly queasy, S.'s mother saw it and said it was cute.
"Cute", while it would have never occurred to me to apply the word to this movie, does lead me to what, the first time I saw it, I thought was the second of its exactly two flaws, and thus, by a route so roundabout that you probably only got this far if you happened to be carrying a passport when you started reading, to the subject of music, though not the right album just yet. The one significant musical moment in the movie, not counting the Soul Asylum songs on the soundtrack and a surprise appearance of Ernie Isley's wonderfully stilted rendition of the Cars' "Let's Go", which originally appeared on Elektra's fortieth anniversary covers compilation, Rubaiyat, comes in a club scene, early in the movie, before Holden realizes that Alyssa is gay, when the singer of the band that's playing coaxes Alyssa onto the stage to sing one of the songs she used to do when she was their bass player. The song, in stark contrast to Alyssa's reckless, exuberant persona, is a straightforward torch song, and Joey Lauren Adams sings it in an unnervingly fragile and artless voice. The first time I saw the movie, everything about this song sounded wrong to me. If it really came from Alyssa's past, I thought, it would have been confrontational and energized, dripping with defiant self-confidence and an indignant refusal to conform to anybody else's idea of anything. Alyssa's singing voice ought to have sounded like (and no matter how erratic these digressions seem, everything I mention eventually connects to something) Renee Zellweger's at the end of Empire Records, untrained but electrifying. Zellweger's rooftop lead is my second favorite piece of plot-motivated movie singing, after only Meryl Streep's "Amazing Grace" in Silkwood, because it seemed to me that I could hear in her voice her surprise and thrill at her own capabilities, and because Chasing Amy is almost certainly now one of my favorite movies, I wanted its song to be another favorite itself. But no amount of wishing could make this frail little song the catharsis I was after. In fact, the day after seeing Chasing Amy the first time, I bought the album that, for both gender-political and musical reasons, I planned to put forth as the music Alyssa should have performed, which was Sleater-Kinney's new record, Dig Me Out. There are two reasons this isn't a review of that. First, after several listens I've had to concede that I don't actually like Dig Me Out nearly as much as I like Call the Doctor, and I wasn't in the mood to write another "let me count the ways I liked the other one better" review this week. More importantly, though, after seeing the movie again I realized that the song needed to be exactly the way it is after all, and replacing it with a roaring Sleater-Kinney diatribe would have missed the point completely. As both Alyssa and the film point out, explicitly, her homosexuality is personal, not political or confrontational at all. Idiosyncratic Routine is "hearts and flowers", not riot grrl, and for all its sexual experimentation, Alyssa's past is deeply sentimental and somehow even emotionally naive. The song she sings, and the way she sings it, are inextricably hers. I wouldn't buy an album of music like that, but I wouldn't read Bluntman and Chronic, either. Nonetheless, this is a music-review column, and my rule for myself is that I can write about whatever I want to, but only as long as I eventually do get around to reviewing some music before the issue ends. And while I don't have anything on my waiting-to-be-reviewed shelf that fits in with Chasing Amy, topically, I do have an album that shares many of what I see as the film's artistic virtues, and which has obsessed my musical thoughts in the last few weeks almost as thoroughly as Chasing Amy has monopolized my movie ruminations.
Good storytelling is, plainly, even rarer in music than it is in film. Films are supposed to have stories, and habitually botch them, but albums are under no social pressure at all to create real characters or scenaria that demonstrate truth, rather than just naming or alluding to it, and so rarely show even the slightest interest in attempting such things. My friend S. (actually a different S. than the other one; I better call this one Sylvia, to avoid any dangerous misapprehensions getting back to her husband, who is much bigger than I am) asked me recently why I don't talk about lyrics more often in these reviews, and the grim truth is that even the albums I like a lot rarely merit it. When I was in high school I remember poring over the sleeves of Moving Pictures and Signals with no less of the heady thrill of universal secrets being exposed than I got from The Antichrist or The Zoo Story. Yes, Albee and Nietzsche's work holds up a little better under post-high-school scrutiny than Peart's earnest positivism and suburban empathy, but the fact remains that Peart was trying, which is an order of magnitude more than a thousand "nothin's gonna stop our love" bands can say for themselves. Except for folk records, which have always been as much about storytelling as sing-along, I rarely even find the occasion to care whether an album has printed lyrics in the liner or not any more. I don't mean that music has gotten any dumber, just that rock albums that make me stop and actually focus on the words of the songs for longer than it takes to hear them have been rare in every age, and the massive increase in my musical intake since I was fifteen hasn't appreciably affected the number of them I come across.
But they do still crop up, and my favorite one in some time is All Pop, No Star, the debut album by the Slingbacks. Nothing here chills or rivets me quite the way Chasing Amy does, but there are many other emotions besides those that storytelling can tap. "No Way Down" is a grown woman's recollection of her childhood idolization of a dissolute nightclub cage-dancer, and the wide-eyed catholic tolerance in "She wore glitter and fringe and lace up boots, / Want to be like her when I grow up, / Even though she isn't in the Beatles" seems to me to co-opt a demeaning role for the narrator's own empowerment, even when seen from the clarifying perspective of adulthood. "Wasted" could easily have been a simple drinking and driving song, but the question "Will your resume see you through?" hangs unanswered in the surge of the chorus, and I discover that the song is more "Smithers-Jones" than "Trashed", not a paean to alcoholic oblivion but a pained admission that neither social convention nor contrarian nomadism are sufficient to redeem a life by themselves. "Hey Douglas" sounds like a compassionate but bouncily uncluttered song of encouragement to a friend, until I notice in the credits that the album is dedicated to ex-Gin Blossoms songwriter Douglas Hopkins, and realize that the plaintive, but seemingly offhanded, "Hey Douglas, won't you stick around?" in the chorus is being sung to somebody who has already killed themselves. "Trashy Broken Heart" sounds like a Shampoo title, but the aching melancholy in "These words have all been used before, / Collect them all and keep them safe" is a sentiment from another language. "Autumn Teen Sound" not only captures half a dozen emblematic details of adolescence yearning to be adulthood (like "bicycles overturned on summer lawns", "past the veils of chainlink" and "sing along to prove that you've been listening"), but in the middle, "Stranded all alone between the Partridge Family and the Rolling Stones", Shireen Liane pinpoints both her own band's place in the musical cosmos and, by extension, much of the rest of power-pop's as well. My two favorite songs, though, go one narrative step further, and make the rare rock venture out of first person entirely. "The Boy Who Wanted a Heroine" (abbreviated on its single to "The Boy Who Wanted...", for reasons I can't discern) is an unsettling character study of confused male prejudices and isolation, in which the boy never does figure out what it is that women can't get him higher than. And "Junkstruck", which could easily be the theme song for a movie adaptation of High Fidelity, includes one detail ("Everybody knows / That you're looking through her records / While she's taking off her clothes") that, like the book, sends a shiver through me like somebody has spoken aloud one of my essential character flaws, but somehow the song's conciliatory follow-up ("Had a brush with gravity / But since it's come apart / I've been looking for new evidence of your / Slow rock and roll start") feels to me like understanding and even forgiveness, like there are people to whom it isn't a flaw, after all.
But a rock album is not the sum of its lyrics, any more than a movie is the sum of the narrative pitfalls it skirts. Chasing Amy would have been a Pyrrhic triumph if Smith had let his serious romantic themes crowd all the maniacally frank discussions of sex out in the editing, or concentrated on the protagonists so much that he forgot to make even the most minor characters twitch in their own ways. And so All Pop, No Star would have been a hollow exercise in mismarketed poetry if it weren't also an album that I couldn't stop listening to if it were in Basque. It came out in 1996 in the UK (when it will appear here, if ever, I have no idea; but that's why they invented mail-order), so the chronology doesn't work out quite right, but if you hear this album after Veruca Salt's Eight Arms to Hold You, like I did, it's easy to imagine that it's the next step in the retaking of rock. If Eight Arms to Hold You serves as a kind of demonstration record for how to convert jagged American indie bands into world-striding pop-rock colossi, then All Pop, No Star could be the British equivalent, pointing the way from Elastica, Sleeper and Echobelly to a variant of open-hearted three-minute rock and roll faith that forgets neither the lessons those bands preserved from their own ancestors, nor anything that transatlantic Anglophiles have added to the idiom. I don't know, for a fact, whether Liane is British, or is just singing that way, but there is an accent somewhere between Manchester and CBGB's that belongs to all of rock and roll in common, and is simply the way words sound when you sing them like nothing else matters. Indeed, the punk-pop power-trio stomps that Slingbacks roar through unswervingly mingle Sex Pistols sneer, Pauline Murray's wail, Social Distortion swagger, Byrds jangle, Velvet Crush's warmth and Tommy Keene's sparkle, just for a foundation. "No Way Down" sounds a bit like McRackins finally slowed down enough to think about what they're doing. "Wasted" seems like Barbara Manning after some Cheap Trick and Ramones brainwashing. "Hey Douglas" could be the cross-product of the Gin Blossom's "Hey Jealousy" and Echobelly's "Insomniac". "Trashy Broken Heart" is dense and swirling, like the Cowboy Junkies trying to record with the Amps equipment and My Bloody Valentine's effects settings. "Sometimes I Hate You" might be a renegade Kenickie song, "All Pop, No Star"'s strut could be Sleeper trying to imitate an only barely remembered Stray Cats, "Autumn Teen Sound" hovers between Magnapop and the Go-Go's and "The Boy Who Wanted a Heroine" between the Bangles and the Icicle Works. "Insufferable" has hints of the B-52's and fitful blues, and "Better Think Hard" rings with Connells-like guitar harmonics and dreamily sighing girl-group vocals. "Whorehouse Priest" merges raw Everclear-esque guitar with blissfully unhurried drumming and endearing boy-girl harmonies. Vintage punk rhythm guitar roils through the edgy, Elastica-like "Junkstruck", and the quiet acoustic finale, "Stupid Boyfriend", starts out like Mary Lou Lord doing a Dolores O'Riordan imitation, and evolves into a sappy mock-orchestral fade-out that Oasis has nothing on. Producer Mitch Easter has been involved in some important records over the years, but this may be my favorite of his that doesn't also involve Scott Miller. He bathes this whole album in a fuzzy analog glow that tastes of worn LPs played to death on stereos your parents bought you, in rooms whose outlines never entirely leave your peripheral vision. This is the first album I can remember in a very long time that I can listen to and feel self-contained, the way, long ago, a single record really was enough to sustain me for weeks at a time. It's easy to forget, in the rush to explore every frontier at once, that things like Chasing Amy and All Pop, No Star are precisely what all this frantic orienteering is meant to locate.
Next week will come all too soon.