Tag: the national

Mistaken for Strangers (2014)

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I feel like I should start this review off with a disclaimer. The National is probably my favorite band still playing music and their second most recent album, High Violet, placed at number three on my top albums list. So yeah, I was probably already in the bag for this rock doc about their tour playing that album. But rock docs usually aren’t my thing, so it would take a special twist on the old formula for me to really get behind it.Luckily for me, that twist is right there from the beginning. This isn’t just a concert film, it’s a soul-searching movie about growing up in the shadow of a rock star, and about the creative struggles of a guy who’s down more than he’s not. It’s a movie about making itself, and it’s a triumph of the genre.

The National is a band of brothers, as the five main members are comprised of a duo of brother guitarists and a bassist and drummer who just happen to be twins. That leaves singer Matt Berninger as the only guy without a brother in the band. He does have a brother, though, Tom, who seems to have taken up being a younger brother as a full time job. Tom is not a fan of The National, he prefers the metal end of the spectrum and derides the band’s music as coffee house rock. That doesn’t stop him from joining the band on their European tour as a roadie who spends his free time making a documentary about the tour. Early on he tries to get all of the things we expect to be in a tour doc into the film: one on one interviews with all the band members and behind the scenes squabbles, though these are both filtered through his singular lens. See, Tom is a bit focused on his own relationship with his older brother, and the ways that Matt’s fame has twisted their already kind of distant relationship. Most of those interviews with the band members become a kind of therapy session as Tom either asks about times when Matt has been a jerk to them or questions why there isn’t as much crazy drug-fueled parties happening. It seems like Tom forgot which band he was following.

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He’s also not a very good roadie, and the film chronicles his misadventures as he loses guests lists and forgets to get water bottles and towels together for the band before a show. This puts his relationship with his brother on even rockier ground. There’s not a whole lot of good times captured on record here as the film dispels the myth of the rock tour with the truth of overwhelming logistics and stress. Tom is unafraid to show us exactly how much he screws up and when he is fired once the group gets to New York it is not so much a surprise as it is inevitable. He’s not cut out to do this kind of thing and his first stop is to return to his parents house and ask them on camera what the difference is between him and his famous brother. He’s trying to figure himself out by contrasting himself against his wildly successful brother. Nobody is going to stand up to that kind of self-scrutiny. As Tom spirals further and further into himself we see him starting to edit the footage he captured throughout the tour. Here is where you’ll either lose patience with the film or get even more engrossed in his struggles with depression and creative consternation. Matt and his wife (who is also credited as an editor on the film) put Tom up in their daughter’s playroom to give him enough space physically and emotionally so he can create the film he needs to create. There are further struggles as Tom realizes exactly what the movie has to be about, and when he changes the post-it notes that serve as an outline of the film from a sprawl of multi-colored near-randomness into on straight line of red notes detailing all of his screw ups we begin to understand exactly how and why this movie is what it is. The film a fantastic work of self-realization which ends with the most euphoric credit card I’ve ever seen. It’s a powerful statement that signals a new phase in this man’s life and is inspiring to anybody who has ever had a creative bone in their body.

A final note on the the music, which, if this were a typical rock doc, would probably take up the majority of the review. The film saves it’s biggest music scene for last, a performance of “Terrible Love” in which Tom is serving a new role in the crew of the band and Matt goes out into the crowd and eventually into the lobby to use its echos as amplifiers of the line, “It takes an ocean not to break.” We’ve seen the ocean at this point in the film, and Tom has not been broken. The National provides the perfect backing to this kind of self-examination as their songs are full of people in similar situations to Tom, trying to find their way in a world that feels indifferent to them. There’s another part in the film where Tom goes into the studio with the band and hears them working on a song from their most recent album, Trouble Will Find Me. It’s a song about the relationship between Tom and Matt called “I Should Live in Salt” which has lines like “Don’t make me read your mind/You should know me better than that” and it’s chorus “I should leave it alone but you’re not right”. Throughout the film we get Tom’s point of view on their brotherly relationship, or lack thereof. In the song we see Matt’s side, his recognition that they aren’t alike and his guilt over leaving Tom behind as he pursued his rock and roll career. It’s the film in four minutes and from the other point of view, and is must listen material for any fan of the movie.

The Necessity of Mediocrity

Wrong Turn is the epitome of mediocrity.

Mediocrity is climbing molehills without sweating. ~ Icelandic proverb

As I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, I’m reading Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s vampire book The Strain. It’s kind of pulpy fun, but it is no great shakes. And that’s okay. Recently I’ve found that things are divided into two categories: The Best Thing Ever and The Worst Thing Ever. There’s no middle ground. No room for a wide spectrum of quality. When you read a book or watch a movie or listen to a song you put it into one of those two boxes and then bash it or shout its merits from the rooftop. But is that really the best way to talk about art on the internet? Isn’t there some stuff that’s just okay?

Let’s get this straight first, though. There are some things that are just that awesome. Magnolia, my number 1 movie of all time, is super awesome. The National’s High Violet is super awesome. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is super awesome. Awesome things exist. So do crappy things. I really hate Idiocracy. I really hate Logicomix. But most things aren’t awesome, and most things aren’t crappy. Most things are pretty mediocre. Most things have good parts and bad parts and middling parts that mesh into a fine, gray, blobby blob. These things are worthy of conversation. They let us know where artists go right and where they go wrong, often in the same scene or song or whatever. They provide a case study in mediocrity, show us the ways they can be great and the pitfalls that sit waiting for us to fall into them.

I watched a few movies over the past weekend. Outside of Black Narcissus, none of them were very good. Dreamcatcher, based on one of Stephen King’s lesser books, has a few tense moments and some pretty good performances but the movie is mired in silly dialogue and sillier aliens. It doesn’t work very well as a film, but there’s something to learn from it. I, for example, learned that what might work on the page as quirky dialogue that has developed among friends over many years doesn’t work when real people have to say dumb phrases over and over again. Cujo, too, is a movie full of great moments that suffers from a bad ending. The final attack on the mother by the rabid dog is super intense and scary. However, the ending kind of leaves you with a bad taste. The book ends with the kid dying, and it is bleak as hell. But that works. The kid shouldn’t survive such an ordeal. In the movie he seems like he dies, but he gasps for another breath right when you think he’s toast. Ugh.

Cujo almost avoids mediocrity, then it doesn't.

See? There’s room for the stuff that’s just ok. Not all art works as it is supposed to. If it was easy to create great art we’d have nothing to judge it against. Everything would meld together into one big boring mess. The bad stuff serves to tell us what to avoid and how to do it. The mediocre stuff fills the space between those great and crappy works. They are like our lives. In general, every day is kinda mediocre. There are bad days and great days, but most end up as a mix of the two. You spill coffee on your shirt, you find some money in a coat pocket. You have a good meal, you have a boring meal. You watch a good movie, you watch a bad movie. Or, you watch a mediocre movie, because most of them are just that. Mediocrity is our lives, our norm. It’s the way we’re able to distinguish good from bad, by knowing what’s in between.

By the time Poltergeist 3 came around, it was almost inevitably going to be mediocre. Just look at that mediocre car!

The Top 5 Albums of 2010

Here we are, 18 days into the new year and I haven’t given you the best albums of last year yet! How have you survived? Before you do anything drastic, please read on. I’ll let you know what’s good and why.

5. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

There is something to be said for an artist vomiting his-or-her-self out and into their art. Kanye has always been a polarizing figure and his past year has been a turbulent one for sure. In this album he takes all of the craziness of his ego and the way people perceive him and lays it down in wax. His production has always been top notch (“Gorgeous” has a really awesome sound that seems more at place in my number four album but totally works here, too) but on this release he’s got some really killer lines: “Too many Urkels on your team / that’s why your wins low” (Family Matters!) and pretty much the entirety of “Runaway” prove that he’s still a force to be reckoned with no matter what he does in his personal life. 

4. The Black Keys – Brothers

I’ve liked The Black Keys since Magic Potion (after which I promptly went back and enjoyed Rubber Factory). I even saw them in concert, no small feat for living in the nowhereland between Boston and NYC. Brothers is the best album since Rubber Factory because it finds the duo going back to what made them so great while retaining a bit of the adventurousness that they found while having Danger Mouse produce their previous album. The revelation here is Dan Auerbach’s falsetto found on a couple of tracks. I never expected him to sing in such a fashion but it totally works. The rest is all blues and rock and all. It’s great fun. 

3. Vampire Weekend – Contra

From this album on to the end there’s a bit of a trend. My top three are albums from bands that I have not heard before but fell in love with upon listening to their 2010 efforts. I’m not usually one to get in on the ground floor of a band’s work (2010’s Local Natives is the only “new” band that I really liked) but when I do find a band I like I’ll go back to the beginning and see how they developed. Anyways, all of this is kind of meaningless, when it comes down to it.
Vampire Weekend is a love ’em or hate ’em kind of band. I fall into the former. Yeah, “Holiday” got overplayed this Christmas – which is funny because it’s a song about the summer as far as I can tell – and they have songs about Horchata and balaclavas. They get really into their own thing and I admire that. The final song on this album “I Think Ur A Contra” (and damn if I don’t hate that whole shortening thing) is freaking perfect. It’s got an end-of-summer vibe to it which works wonders at describing the way a relationship works. It’s lazy and intense at the same time. 

2. The National – High Violet

A friend of mine hates The National. He can’t stand the constant mellowness of their sound. I can’t really argue that they are a super-diverse group. Their songs do sound kind of similar. Their subject matter doesn’t vary all that much. But they are the best at what they do. Every song on this album is fantastic. Whether it is the sad reflection on familial and home-town ties of “Bloodbuzz Ohio” where we learn that still owes money to the money to the money he owes or the sad song from the perspective of a man in love with sorrow (on the aptly titled “Sorrow”) The National know melancholy and know it well. Probably the best song is “Lemon World”. We get the portrait of a man back from war (“It was the only sentimental thing I could think of”) and dealing with his friends and family not understanding how he feels. He ends up “try[ing] to find something on this thing that means nothing”. It’s a wonderfully touching song and resonant even for people that haven’t gone to war.

1. LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening

Before I listened to this album I could have sworn that I wasn’t really a fan of the technologically inclined music. Daft Punk never did much for me. I guess this album isn’t full on techno. It is full on awesome. What really appeals to me is the cleverness. “Dance Yrself Clean” (there it is again) starts the album and it begins quietly. James Murphy whispers some lines about “Talking like a jerk / Except you are an actual jerk / And living proof that sometimes friends are mean.” There’s a very basic beat for a good 3 minutes and then the song explodes into crazy energy and loud noises. The song sets the tone for the rest of the album. The way Murphy plays with words and production really makes this album great. In “Drunk Girls” Murphy extols the virtues of the titular beings, telling us that they “know that love is an astronaut / It comes back but is never the same”. It’s a song that seems like one of those drunk anthems but is really about waking up the next morning and talking about the weather.

His kiss-off to the record labels/music journalists/fans, “You Wanted a Hit” is a lot of fun, too. Murphy knows what he is doing in every sense of the word and when he tries to do something for somebody else, “it ends up feeling kind of wrong”. That’s an artist. That’s the best album of the year.

I’ll return soon with some odds and ends from the year in music. Some good songs and albums that didn’t make the cut.