20 January 2008

2007 in retrospective: Part III (special bonus Cloverfield content!)

I didn't really experience a lot of the Cloverfield hype; part of the problem with the whole viral internet marketing thing is that it demands a lot of participation on the part of the advertised-to. I have better things to do than research a movie that may or may not exist. Well, that's not necessarily true, but there are plenty of other things I can do on the tubes instead of following a trail of digital breadcrumbs to learn snippets of information about J.J. Abrams' latest project (Star Trek would be another story entirely, but that's because it's, well, Star Trek).

Nevertheless, it looked interesting, and I'm in favor of anything that might be well-done and reasonably nerdy, so the roommates and I made a trip to the cinematorium to take it in yesterday.

Let's begin with a little prefacing: I like shakycam. I like The Bourne Supremacy, United 93, Children of Men, The Bourne Ultimatum... I like the immediacy of shakycam, and how it demands the viewer's attention. I also really like how technically complicated it can be (see Children of Men, especially), with a particularly long take demanding the perfect timing of everyone involved in the shot for minutes on end (entrances/exits, effects, focusing, the whole ball of wax).

I don't, however, much like overuse of shakycam. There's a point at which it stops being refreshing and starts being, well, motion sickness-inducing.

And that's where we run into the problem with Cloverfield, shot as it was with the conceit that everything we're seeing was recorded by people who were actually present at the "event," as it's referred to in the opening credits. 80 minutes of shakycam is, for me, about 40 minutes too many.

That's not to say I'm reacting negatively to the movie; it was an interesting idea, and clearly a pretty big production to pull off. Ambition, particularly in art, is not often something to shout down. It did, however, need to end about 5 minutes earlier (like so many movies I've seen recently - I Am Legend, to name another). I liked how it utilized the camerawork of both the POV camera from which we're seeing the events unfold, and that of the news reporters, to mask a clear view of the creature. We can always create something more terrifying in our minds than the filmmakers can put onscreen (a point illustrated all too well by the end of the movie - when we're face to face with the creature, it's not all that frightening). And while I don't really buy into the whole "we're dealing with 9/11 by giving the attack on NYC the physical form of a creature from the deep" concept that's been floated by people involved with the production, I don't think it should be dismissed out of hand.

I don't know if I found myself genuinely caring about the characters all that much. Kind of like with
Alejandro Iñárritu's movies, I kept getting the feeling that I was supposed to care about the characters by virtue of their extraordinarily unfortunate situation, rather than on the merits of them being, you know, characters I actually liked and/or was drawn to. The movie's pace was frantic enough that I never really found myself considering that fact during the film itself; that problem only reared its head after the credits started to roll.

Upon further consideration of the above paragraph, I may be the only person in the world that's drawn comparisons between Cloverfield and Amores Perros.

I wouldn't caution anyone away from seeing it because it's not a good movie, but more due to the fact that the style in which it was shot is more than difficult to handle. And I don't believe I'll ever be watching it again; much like Peter Jackson's King Kong, I can't imagine ever watching Cloverfield on a screen that is not gigantic.

That being said, it's time to return to the topic at hand and deal with album number four on my list: Fountains of Wayne's Traffic and Weather.

One of the more noteworthy advantages of not listening to the radio is that you don't get sick of hearing the same songs over and over and over and over again (now, if you listen to the same couple of songs on repeat and get sick of them, well, then you have no one to blame but yourself). The reason I bring this point up is because unlike much of the English-speaking world, I didn't get ridiculously irritated/angry at/tired of "Stacy's Mom," which may well have been most everyone's introduction to the boys from Massachusetts (it certainly was mine).

I have nothing against catchy. Good art of any kind, be it music, photography, filmmaking, writing, oratory, cooking - whatever you want to define "Art" as - is all about making a connection. Catchy songs make an almost instantaneous connection with the listener; they burrow their way into the brain and don't let go until they complete their mission. That mission, in most cases, is to get you to buy the band's album.

"Stacy's Mom" succeeded quite handily in getting me to pick up Welcome Interstate Managers, but not only was it far from the most catchy song on the album, it was far from the best song on the album (for my money, those awards go to "Hey Julie" and "All Kinds of Time," respectively).

I remember somebody comparing FoW to Weezer, in that they both make big, power-pop music (well, whether or not the music Weezer makes lately is "big" is probably debatable, but let's let that one go), but I'm going to take this opportunity to disagree. I think Weezer is just an elaborate psychological coping mechanism that Rivers' developed to allow him to get through his life without having to be committed to some sort of mental institution, while Chris Collingwood and Co. are some of the most underappreciated chroniclers of late-20th, early-21st century American experience. It may not be limited to the "American" experience, but seeing as how it's that with which I have the most familiarity, I'm going to go with that description.

Traffic and Weather is, quite simply, awesome. Not just because of its tightly structured songs (the best pop music doesn't waste time - "Someone to Love," "Traffic and Weather," "Fire in the Canyon," "Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim," "I-95"), or its sardonic wit (the main character in "'92 Subaru" is one of the best deluded characters I've met recently), but because of the lyrics.

It'd be overkill to quote, in their entirety, the lyrics to my favorite songs on the album. This is not solely due to the fact that I adore so many of the album's tracks, but because it would take up a ridiculous amount of space in this already long-winded post. In lieu of this, some of the more noteworthy snippets follow:

When it's late, and it's hot/And a date with the Late Show's all that you've got/Don't give out, don't give up/One of these nights you might find someone to love" - "Someone to Love"

And I'm checking out the road signs/Highway hotels/And they're air-conditioned cable-ready cold padded cells" - "Fire in the Canyon"

Michael and Heather on the shuttle bus/Standing alongside the rest of us/Michael says, Heather, have you had enough?/Heather says, Michael, you know that it's you I love" - "Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim"

Admittedly, the first and third quotes probably require the emotional investment in the rest of the song to truly appreciate them, but I can't help but admire the construction. There's something deceptively simple about the best pop music; it takes a lot of work to make something difficult look easy (ducks on ponds, just like Gene Hackman said in The Replacements).

There's also something universally applicable about the cream of pop; even though the two lonely modern professionals in "Someone to Love" are almost certainly aspects of the songwriters' imaginations, their search for amour in the big city, in any city (or town, or village, etc.) is something to which most people can find a connection, or could have found a connection at some point in their lives. Likely the same is true for the voyeuristic (until he takes action at the end - take that, Jimmy Stewart!) speaker of "Yolanda Hayes," who watches the female clerk at the DMV while he stands in line, and with the old men that absently banter about making changes in their lives in "New Routine" (and the characters in the background that actually take the bull by the horns). Even the speaker in the album's stinker song, "This Better Be Good" (there seems to be one per album), sells his discontent, his unhappiness.

Okay, you could say the same exact things about any number of middling, shitty albums released in the last [time period of your choosing]. What makes Traffic and Weather special?

Sincerity. Even if we don't believe in these characters (we can't take them seriously, they depress us, they remind us too much of ourselves, whatever), Fountains of Wayne believe in them, and that comes through in every power chord, every harmonized vocal, every ridiculous rhyme that ends a chorus. I think that this album, chock-full of pop songs, matters to them, in a deep and fairly vital way. If it was a bad record that they believed in, that would be one thing. But this is a great record. The fact that they believe in it pushes it up the scale to something just this side of fantastic.

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