Saturday, April 08, 2006

Serge Gainsbourg: "History of Melody Nelson"

Over the past few weeks, I've been getting into Serge Gainsbourg's music. I'd always heard his name mentioned as a major influence on stuff that I liked, most notably Dan the Automator's Lovage, one of my favorite albums of all time. And I really liked his stuff as I got into it. "Je T'aiem...mon non plus" is an incredible song, definitely an inspiration on Lovage. "Bonnie and Clyde" I had heard in Irma Vep, but I was surprised to hear that it was his song, since it sounded very modern.

I really liked those two songs, and the other stuff on those albums was pretty good, but I wasn't prepared for just how good the album "History of Melody Nelson" would be. The album is unquestionably his masterwork, one of those albums where the songs on their own are good, but working together they form one cohesive, album length work. This is partially due to the fact that, like many great albums of the 70s, this is a concept album.

I think the concept album gets a bad rap, if it's an excuse to write a bunch of poorly conceived songs that tell a story, then it's bad. But, if you use a concept as a way of building themes and cohesion within the album, that's a good thing. Even more than a story, I like concept albums because they frequently are structured with themes and motifs repeating, something that this makes use of, and is also prominent in "The Wall" or Green Day's "American Idiot." It's always good to make the album into a larger work than just a bunch of songs, and even if there's not a coherent story, the grander ambition is usually evident. In the case of "Melody Nelson," I don't speak French, so I couldn't really follow the story, but I was still able to follow the emotions and instrumental motifs.

However, the basic concept is quite notable. The album chronicles the story of a man who hits a 15 year old girl, Melody Nelson, with his car, then begins a sexual relationship with her until she dies in a plane crash. This is odd territory for an album, but it fits perfectly with Gainsbourg's dirty old man persona, and I'd imagine that the concept was likely a bit less troubling in France in 1971 than in America in 2005. And of course being an album, you don't really have to deal with any of the moral consequences of what's going on.

Even without understanding the lyrics, you can get the idea of what's going on. Jane Birkin guests as Melody, and the interplay between her and Gainsbourg during her cameos is fantastic. I love male/female interplay within songs, it works great here and on "Je T'aime," and is one of the crucial elements to the success of Lovage.

Gainsbourg uses a mainly spoken word style, which reminds me of Isaac Hayes' "Hot Buttered Soul." That's actually the album that this is most reminiscent of, both have really dynamic bass lines, slowly building songs and a blend of spoken word and sung vocals from the performers. Both albums draw a lot of on prog rock and psychedelic funk references in building their sound. Hayes turns this into the epic 12 minute version of "Walk on By," one of the greatest songs ever recorded.

For Gainsbourg, it turns into two stunning tracks, the opener, "Melody" and the closer, "Cargo Culte." They're variations on the same theme, each starting with a funk bassline, then slowly building with screaming electric guitars and great drum work. On "Melody," Serge's vocals are backed by a string section, while "Cargo Culte" brings in a choir.

I love how audacious these tracks are, each over 7 minutes, full of gorgeous instrumental sections that you just don't hear anymore. People may crack on the excesses of 70s rock, but listening to a song like "Melody," you hear a grandeur that just isn't present in rock today. At this point there wasn't the strict line between genres, so within one song Gainsbourg goes between funk, rock and orchestral arrangements. Right from the opening notes of that bass line, I was in love with the album.

I focused on those two songs because they're the most impressive, but the stuff in the middle is pretty impressive as well. "Ballad of Melody Nelson" is a catchy, more straightforward pop song, again featuring some great interplay between Birkin and Gainsbourg. "En Melody" was the other highlight for me, a fantastic instrumental which builds up, accompanied by Melody's moaning.

It's a short album, but I feel like Gainsbourg accomplishes everything he sets out to do, and because of the cohesion of the album, it feels more substantial than his albums that are just a bunch of tracks. This is a more ambitious work and one that is a complete success.

The album still sounds fresh, if someone told me it was recorded last year, I'd believe it, and that's probably due to the fact that it's an extremely influential album. Lovage was a clear antecedent, and in this album you can hear a lot of where Air came from, particularly with Moon Safari. That smooth, lounge rock mixed with strong backing bass is something Gainsbourg had all worked out here.

After listening to the album, I checked out the English translation of the lyrics, and they're quite good. I wish I knew French so I could really understand what he's saying, but even in the translated version, you can get what he's going for. One line, describing Ms. Nelson from the end of "Melody" pretty much sums up Gainsbourg:

"Melody Nelson has red hair
And it's her natural color."

Serge, you can sing about whatever you want as long it's housed in the incredible music that makes up this album.

Thursday, April 06, 2006


Three Extremes is an anthology film featuring films by two of my favorite directors: Chanwook Park and Takashi Miike, as well another film with cinematography by the world's best cinematographer, Christoher Doyle. It's a really good film, but one that reveals some of the problems of the anthology format. Unlike Eros, this is a case where all the films are pretty successful, but it's exhausting watching them all in a row.

The first film is the one I'd heard the most about, Fruit Chan's Dumplings. The basic premise here is fantastically nasty and is played out in an interesting way. The film goes into issues surrounding aging and through the use of a genre twist, is able to comment on the absurdity of plastic surgery and the ridiculous lengths that people will to to keep looking young.

I loved all the stuff with Bai Ling. In America, she's primarily known for her ridiculous VH1 karaoke appearances, but in this film she plays a witchy character who seems right out of a fairy tale. In fact, the whole short has a very fairy tale, be careful what you wish for quality. So, Bai Ling's character is that crazy woman in the woods offering our innocent heroine what she wants, ignorant of the potential moral consequences that it could have.

The film isn't as explicitly disturbing as something like Oldboy's graphic torture scenes, the content is more about being conceptually uncomfortable. There are some very nasty scenes, most notably a bathtub abortion sequence that's equally disturbing for its visuals and the narrative implications of what's happening.

The interesting thing about the film is the way this deviant behavior seems to bring this woman to life. She starts out wanting to become younger so that she can keep her husband's attention, however by the end he is secondary and it's her own appetites that take precedence. This brilliantly articulated in the scene where she licks the blood off her face. By the end of the story the roles are reversed and she has total power over her husband, which is conveyed in the fantastic long take of the two of them in the bedroom. As always, Christopher Doyle shoots a really dynamic film, his camera bringing beauty to even the most grotesque of moments. And big props to the sound effects here, they're critical on selling the nastiness of the dumplings.

The second film, Cut, is by Chanwook Park, who's directed two of the best films of recent years, Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. However, this film seems to be a bit of an autopilot exercise, playing on the same themes as his Revenge trilogy films, but without the narrative depth. The film is basically one lengthy sadistic torture scene, and while similar scenes worked as part of his other films, to make it the entire movie is a bit excessive.

Visually, this is still a striking work. The black and white floor and elaborate net of wires holding his wife to the piano were great visual touches. I also really liked the moments of comedy sprinkled throughout the film, the excessiveness of the opening vampire segment was a particular highlight.

However, the film ultimately doesn't really end up going anywhere. It presents the basic idea, lets it play out for a while, then ends with a somewhat nonsensical twist. It seems to imply that this guy's son, through his desire for revenge, is able to affect the director's perception and cause him to kill his wife. I do love the buildup to that with the scenes that seem to flip around each other in a surreal 2-D way, but that doesn't make up for the fact that the conclusion goes for shock value at the expense of any kind of logic. Maybe there's a better explanation that I missed, but as it was, it took me out of the story.

The final film, Miike's 'Box' is my favorite of the three. However, I wasn't able to fully enjoy it because I was pretty worn out by the time we got to it. It was almost 90 minutes into the film, which isn't the ideal time to enjoy a slow paced, contemplative film. I think this would have been better suited as the first film, lulling you into a calm, making the extremes of the other two even more notable.

But even with that, this is still a fantastic film. Miike's films almost always take place in a world that's on the border of dream and reality, not quite sticking to either one. Here, we've got a woman who's haunted by dreams of her sister's death. Visually, this is one of the best things I've seen by Miike. It has the restrained pacing of the first half of Audition, but an even greater focus on the beauty and power of the images. The performances they do exist in that Club Silencio style world, performing for the viewer rather than a physical audience, and that gives Miike more excuse to mess around with form in depicting the performance.

It's a very quiet film, most of the drama between the twins and their father is played out silently, using the visuals to build the drama. This works really well in setting a mood, which is punctured by the ignition of the box. That was the one moment in the film that actuallly made me jump, because it was a sudden burst of violence after all this quiet.

Miike can go to excess with the best, but here his restrained approach comes off looking great next to the more obvious nastiness of the first two films. This is a more psychological piece and Kyoko's troubles are quite interesting. She is in an odd relation to her trauma because it simultaneously haunts her dreams and provides her with the material for her novels.

This film was pitched with the tagline: "From the Nightmares of 3 Horror Masters," and with this story, Miike seems to be explicitly commenting on the idea of someone using their own traumas to construct a story. I think this is easily the best of the three films and I'm going to check it out on its own, apart from the anthology to really evaluate it.

I've seen a bunch of Miike recently and he's consistently impressed it. For a guy who's so notoriously prolific, all his films have a unique feel and are skillfully crafted. I'm definitely going to check out more of his stuff soon.

In conclusion, I'd say that Three Extremes was a pretty successful anthology film. You didn't get the sense that these guys were phoning it in, all the films were gorgeous and had something to say. The Box in particular lingers with me of a wonderful example of how to use the limitations of the short film to your advantage.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Sopranos: 'The Fleshy Part of the Thigh' (6x04)


While this episode wasn't as conspicuously emotional or mindblowing as the last two, it does take on a structure unlike any episode the show has ever done, simultaneously functioning as a street level gangster tale and a philosophical discussion of faith, science and the nature of existence. Only one show can fit all of this into an hour.

The main plot has a lot in common with previous "Human Tragedy" episodes of the series, in which we see an innocent figure get caught up in the mob world and burned by their involvement. One of my favorite arcs that the show ever did was the David Scatino storyline back in season two, and the Jason Barone arc is a similar story of someone who's not aware of how to do business with the mob and winds up getting burned as a result.

It's not explicitly commented on in the episode, but I feel like Jason Barone's experience shows us a vision of what could happen should AJ get involved with mob life. Like Barone's parents, Tony and Carmela have tried to shield AJ from that world, and he would probably have a similarly difficult entrance should he go the gangster route. Tony does make the parallel explicit when he tells Jason that he's more whiny than his son.

And the Jason arc is a great continuation of the generational conflict that is at the heart of the series. Unlike his father, Jason does not know how to conduct business, and as a result things go to hell once the older generation is gone. Will Tony's crime family have a similar meltdown once he's gone? Even though the Barone thing is going over some territory we've seen before, it works because it's easy to empathize with this outsider who's thrown into the middle of this criminal world, with no idea of how to handle himself.

While the storyline clearly has some major implications for the NY/NJ relations, the primary emotional pull comes from how the story is played against Paulie's troubles. The brilliance of the Paulie storyline is the way that it plays our logic against our attachment to the character. In theory, Paulie should just be able to recognize that even though Nucci isn't his biological mother, she's taken care of him all his life, and the circumstances of his birth shouldn't change his affection for her.

However, so much of the mob world is based on the bond between family, and the loss of his throws Paulie into chaos. The justification that a lot of the mobsters use for their actions is that they're just doing it to provide for their families. Tony said this to Melfi on multiple occasions, and for Paulie, he could justify anything by saying that he's doing to provide for his mother, and make up for what he put her through when he was younger. And, in theory, there's no reason for that to change.

However, Paulie is also a guileless business man, and the idea that he's spending $4,000 a month to put someone who's not his mother in a nursing home doesn't work. He seems to feel that he's been scammed into providing for her, and all the luxuries in her room are a mockery of the life he's leading. I think Paulie always felt superior to Tony in that he respected his mother and was able to provide for her, and now he finds that completely shattered.

So, when he sees Mrs. Barone's outpouring of love for her son, it doesn't make him realize that Nucci has that same feeling for him, instead it makes him want to destroy that love. Occasionally the show goes out of its way to remind you that these are bad people, and the episode's finale was certainly an example of that.

The other major thing going on here was Tony's intellectual exploration. I thought this storyline was brilliant, a wonderful followup to the Kevin Finnerty stuff. Tony has always been way beyond his fellow mobsters intellectually, something that's rarely been more apparent than in this episode.

It's still early to speculate on how much Tony has been changed by the coma experience, but if this episode is any indication, he seems to have become a bit more understanding when it comes to dealing with others. His encounter with mortality has put him above the fray, able to see the consequences of his actions rather than just the emotion of the moment. This is what separates him from Paulie, who does something that could get him in huge trouble with Tony just to satisfy his emotional need for revenge.

I saw two scenes as really critical to the episode. One was the scene with Hesch, Chris and Pastor Bob. First off, it was hilarious to see Aaron back. I was seriously not expecting that and his Terri Schaivo Vigil t-shirt was hilarious. It's astonishing the way the show is able to weave really hilarious bits of comedy into all the darkness. This scene was interesting because Tony doesn't outright dismiss Bob's offer of prayer.

Tony's experience in the Kevin Finnerty world seems to have opened up to the idea that there's more to life than just the physical world we live in. As the scene opens, Tony is talking about the insignificance of humanity in the overall lifecycle of Earth, and Christopher responds "I don't feel that way." We still haven't gotten that much insight into where Christopher is this season, clearly he's got some major issues still lingering from the death of Adrianna. And that comment would indicate that he sees a significance to what we're doing, he's not ready to write off his existence as merely a drop in the ocean of existence.

Later in the scene, Pastor Bob is talking about faith, and Tony says "Must be nice to have something to hold onto." We cut to Christopher who looks really uneasy. He's got a lot of ill feeling towards Tony because Tony took away the one thing that he did have to hold onto, Adrianna. I'm really interested to see where Christopher goes, and just from his demeanor this season, it's clear that he's a bit darker, more mature, but also sadder.

Speaking with Pastor Bob, Tony seems genuinely interested and open to his message. Before the coma, Tony would not have been willing to flatter this guy, he was never one to put up with religious figures. In some ways, the scene is undercut by the extreme ridiculousness of Bob's idea that the dinosaurs were on Earth the same time as Adam and Eve. Considering how well Bob was selling things before, it's clear that he took too big a leap in telling Tony that, and undermined his sales pitch.

My favorite scene of the episode was the Da Lux's room scene. There's so many layers here, on the one hand you've got Paulie's sullenness, and inability to even contemplate any of the ideas that Schwinn is talking about. He's completely set in his ways, choosing to bask in his own problems rather than overcome them. This ties into the Ojibwe quote that Tony continually mentions throughout the episode.

But the really interesting thing is what Schwinn is talking about Tony's reaction. Schwinn brings out the quantum mechanics idea that on a base level, we're all just a collection of particles, and there are no boundaries between an individual and the world around him/her. It's like air, some may be moving quickly, some moving slowly, but it's all part of the same thing. This is a favorite idea of mine, one discussed a lot in Grant Morrison's work, with his idea that human beings are basically cells within a larger organism and once we get beyond our petty differences and recognize the unity, we'll cohere and form a larger mind, like the individual cells within our bodies become something greater than the sum of their parts when they work together.

So, Tony entertains this idea as part of his spiritual journey. He's aware that he was in touch with something larger during the Finnerty sequences, and he's not sure whether it's Schwinn's scientific view of a unified plane or the Pastor's Christian idea of God's hand at work. These two conceptions are not mutually exclusive.

When Tony gets out of the hospital, he seems genuinely thankful to be alive, and even says "Every day after this is a gift," a sentiment that he would surely have ridiculed had he heard it before being shot. It's interesting that he says to Janice, someone who used to be really interested in this sort of spiritual exploration, but now seems to have become completely bogged down in her own issues as a mother. She's become strictly of the physical world, as nearly all of Tony's circle is.

I'm really interested to see Tony back at therapy with Melfi because we haven't gotten a full idea of what this experience has meant to him. The scenes with Schwinn give us some idea, but only in the Melfi sequences can we get a relatively unfiltered view of his mental state. If Tony really is changed, how long can this new attitude last in the business he works in. Dealing with Johnny Sack is going to cause him a lot of trouble and I don't see his zen management style helping his crew in the long run.

The close of the episode was fantastic, with the seamless intercutting of Tony's bliss just observing and Paulie's utter selfishness in attacking Barone. At this point, Tony would rather just be sitting outside, appreciating the day, than having to deal with the turmoils of everyday life.

This was largely a two character episode, but we do get some interesting bits along the way. AJ's part time job at Blockbuster is clearly not a career, and it'll also be tough for him to adjust to actually working after a life of basically being served. And if things go south at Blockbuster is he going to seek out another real job, or perhaps look to his father for some connections? I still feel like we're headed down that road with AJ, it's just a question of how soon we'll get there.

Despite barely appearing in the episode, there was a lot of interesting stuff going on with Carmela. In the hospital, she warns Tony about Vito, the first time we've seen her give him guidance on his business. It's notable that during this scene she's wearing a business suit and her hair is tied back. It's a much more authoratative, business look than we're used to seeing from her, and I'll be interested to see if this is indicative of a major role change from her. Is she going to move from trying to distance herself from the mob completely to becoming Tony's second in command?

This episode also gives us our first glimpse of Tony's feelings about Junior. It's astonishing how much power single lines can have in this show. Tony's authoratative claim that he never wants to see Junior again has deep power. If Tony doesn't want to see Junior, is he basically gone from the show? If Junior were to be released from prison, that could put a further divide between Tony and Bobby. I'm guessing that Junior will be released fairly soon, so that we can see some follow up on AJ's promise to kill him.

On the whole, it's a fascinating episode, full of a lot of really interesting concepts and ideas. The stuff with Tony and Schwinn was a highlight, forcing Tony to examine his existence in ways that he never has before gave us a lot of strong material and much to ponder for the future. This is our first glimpse of the new status quo for the rest of the series, but next episode should really let us know just how changed Tony is, and how those around him react to his return.