On A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: When Homes Start to Look Like Their Owners

On A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: When Homes Start to Look Like Their Owners

nullThe places where we live shape us, and we shape the places
where we live to suit our temperaments. This truth is driven home repeatedly by
J.C. Chandor’s newest film, A Most
Violent Year
, which has been compared repeatedly to The Godfather but just as easily could be compared to On the Waterfront, Winter’s Bone, or The Truman
Show
as a study of the way inhabitants of an environment deal with and
modify their environment. Chandor has foregrounded setting to such an extent
that the two powerful performances at the film’s heart—Oscar Isaac’s as the manager of an oil trucking company, learning how to defend himself against the aggression of his semi-criminal colleagues, and Jessica Chastain’s as his
wife, who already knows and is desperate to teach him—seem to grow naturally
out of the milieu in which we receive them. However, these figures also shape
the settings in which they thrive.

The first sight we have of Abel shows him running, nimbly,
though a modest suburban New Jersey neighborhood. The setting is appropriate
for a character like his: contained, inwardly manicured, almost frustratingly
righteous and plodding when it comes to the moral shorthand those around him
employ for survival’s sake. There is something bleak about these streets,
comfortable as they might seem; there’s a notable lack of other people in
Abel’s surroundings, a visible emptiness, that suits the story, and suits also
the story he is writing with his actions here. After he makes the first payment
on his business, huddled in a cold-seeming trailer, his partner, played with
memorable paleness by Albert Brooks, encourages Abel to take a look around his
future headquarters, and so he does: down by the river, facing Manhattan from
the Jersey side, perhaps picturesque in one sense but at this moment, in the
middle of winter, standing behind oil tanks, it seems less like a view of
dreamland than a reminder of what obstructions lie ahead. The buildings are all
the same color, they’re all huge, and they’re all a long way off. When we see
Abel’s house for the first time, its sleekness is impressive but its coldness
is telling. The impression it makes is not that Abel is cold—for he isn’t. As
confidently portrayed here by Isaac, he’s a warm person, almost warm to a
fault, naïve in his trust of ethics, good faith, honesty, and the people in his employ. The house suggests,
though, the high-flown way he believes a man of his stature should live: high ceilings, pristine
surfaces, vast spaces, off-white walls, the perfect kitchen, the perfect
library. But it’s a borrowed idea of perfection. When we meet one of his
associates, played here with semi-beefy malevolence by Alessandro Nivola, it
appears that they share this same notion of coldness, the appearance of
perfection, as an aesthetic. The colleague has a racquetball court built into
his house, pinging opulence at us with the force of the ball itself. When the
two share a drink and discuss a loan which could push Abel into career
adulthood, they sit in a space-age interior, resembling something out of an
advertisement rather than a place where anyone might live. This is fitting,
though, because the people Chandor is filming here place little stock in homes,
in domesticity; for them life is work, and work is life. Work, further, is all about the rewards you reap, and the rewards you reap are, in essence, your life.

Chandor is smart about this dichotomy, though. When we see
the home of one of Abel’s employees, a vulnerable man who, after being beaten
up by the thugs whose aggression against Abel’s drivers propels the story, shoots his aggressors and then flees, the apartment’s modesty and hominess, with its inexpensive furniture, its drawn shades, and its
lived-in quality stand in stark contrast to the other interiors we’ve seen. It’s
clear hat the employee isn’t suffering under the same preconceived notions Abel
suffers under—but when he meets a sad fate, we wonder if such illusions might
have helped him. In an interview, Oscar Isaac
recounted how Chandor had stressed the importance of the suits Abel wears in
the film, and how their presence might dictate the character’s behavior, and in
fact his entire world view. This is a profound truth, when all is said and
done: outer trappings can shape the person to which they are attached, in
greater or lesser degrees. It’s the direction that shaping takes that makes all
the difference.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

RIP Edward Herrmann (1943-2014): A John Cheever Memory

RIP Edward Herrmann (1943-2014): A John Cheever Memory

nullEdward Herrmann’s acting talent will always be emblazoned in my memory for one performance he gave, in a television adaptation of the John Cheever story "The Sorrows of Gin" in 1979. He starred with Sigourney Weaver, (who would turn heads, that same year, for her groundbreaking part in Alien) and the adaptation was done, interestingly enough, by Wendy Wasserstein, in the days when she was only just beginning to get acclaim as a playwright. The story describes a husband and wife who, unthinkingly, fail as parents through their boozing, and partying, and self-absorbed decadence; we receive the narrative through the eyes of their child, who pours her father’s gin down the sink and then tries to run away from home. The failure is bigger than that; these two individuals fail each other as members of a relationship, but rather than allowing them to redeem themselves, Cheever leaves them hanging, as he so often does, in their despair. The teleplay was one of three in a series called "3 By Cheever," which, because I was a rapt Cheever fan in 1979, I watched with complete attention; the other two equally melancholy stories in the series were "O Youth and Beauty!" and "The 5:48." I can’t say why, as a youth at a single-digit age, I found these dramas so fascinating; what I can say, though, is that even at that young age, I could recognize the skill and intelligence Herrmann brought to his sad, sad part. It was mainly in his face, both slack and taut, perfect for showing a patrician lifestyle in the early stages of decay. As he and Weaver spoke the poetically charged lines from Cheever’s story, you could tell instantly that they understood the words they were speaking, grasped the message they carried, which is half the battle for an actor. As I think about that trio of dramas (Herrmann was in "O Youth and Beauty!" as well, but did not make as strong an impression on me in that part), I’m given a little bit of pause. We claim to live, over and over, in a "golden age" of the idiot box, and yet would we be in the midst of this age if programs like this had not come first, as models? Well-produced, well-acted, with attention to quality, not calling too much attention to themselves, responsible renderings of literature by a true American master: there is little in today’s programming offerings to match this performance level, and there are few actors working at any time who could have served as agents of the subtlety in "3 by Cheever" as well as Herrmann. He’s had justified recognition for his work in Gilmore Girls, in Reds, in The Lost Boys and many other roles, at other times, but when I heard of his death, this was the first performance I thought of. For your viewing pleasure, below, is a clip from "The Sorrows of Gin."

   

WATCH: This Video Essay Explores the Way We See Ourselves in Movies, from Charlie Chaplin to THE MATRIX

WATCH: This Video Essay Explores the Way We See Ourselves in Movies, from Chaplin to THE MATRIX

This gorgeously executed video essay takes us from The Great Train Robbery to Lost Highway to The Matrix to the original Dracula to Rear Window to explore what’s happening when we watch movies. The elegant point made here is two fold. One part is that when we watch a film, we are immediately brought back to what Jacques Lacan called the mirror stage, or the point at which an infant recognizs himself or herself in a mirror. The other part, and the more more ominous part, is that we look to movies to find idealized versions of ourselves–which is perhaps a childish impulse. That impulse, when reflected in a film, is chilling. Who could forget Bill Pullman’s phone conversation with Robert Blake in Lost Highway, as Blake was standing a couple of feet away from Pullman? Or Jimmy Stewart’s building revelations through his binoculars in Rear Window? This piece from Little Studio navigates, with delicacy and swiftness, some thorny concepts, threaded together with extensive film scholarship and great perceptiveness.

Why Alex Ross Perry’s LISTEN UP PHILIP Is the Kindest Movie You’ll See All Year

Why Alex Ross Perry’s LISTEN UP PHILIP Is the Kindest Movie You’ll See All Year

nullAlex Ross Perry’s LISTEN UP PHILIP, besides featuring Jason Schwartzman’s best acting job and wrestling remarkable turns from Jonathan Pryce and Elizabeth Moss, performs an act of kindness for its viewers. This tale of an abusive, alienated, successful novelist’s spiral into loneliness lays out, in excruciating detail, the relationship between cause and effect that can govern the shape a human life takes. In showing us, painfully clearly, the results of novelist Philip Lewis Friedman’s poor behavior, both within his own life and in the reactions of those around him, Perry advocates strongly against such behavior, making his film the equivalent of watching a Biblical punishment unfold on film. The critical reception has focused almost entirely on Philip’s meanness, and the entertainment value therein, and not on why such a story might be told. Philip’s behavior is not, in fact, the most interesting part of the film–there is no novelty in the idea of a cruel, clever writer. That story’s been told, many times, and without such a shaky camera. There is, however, a great deal of novelty and originality in holding that cruel clever writer accountable, at length, and in so doing, prodding at viewers’ consciences. The play’s the thing, after all.

This reviewer will confess that it is a great relief to see Schwartzman out from under the thumb of Wes Anderson’s coddling genius. So deft and believable is his performance as Philip that I hated practically every nasty word that came out of his mouth. I disliked his smarmy smile. I found his walk annoyingly stridant. I was aghast that his girlfriend, played with reserve and likable cool by Moss, might find herself, for even one second, happy in his presence–unless her character was, in fact, akin to his. At some points, I hated his chin. When Philip discloses, in an intimate moment, that his parents died when he was young, and describes that as the source of "sadness," I will confess to thinking, "Cry me a river, you stupid, pathetic cliche. Are you even telling the truth?" In any event, what of the story being told here? It’s a simple one. Philip decides, upon the release of his second book, to forgo all tours or publicity, choosing instead to go upstate and lick the boots of Ike Zimmerman, a well-established and successful novelist who is Philip’s elder spiritual doppelganger: blunt, anti-social, manipulative, in search of the perfect quip at all times, vigorously dismissive. And alienated from his daughter, who, while not exactly a charmer herself, has a few beautifully executed moments of pain at Zimmerman’s hands. In so retreating to the country, Philip lands himself an adjunct teaching position–which most holders of such positions would chuckle at, given that it’s a cruel hand dealt upon Philip; such jobs are generally unglamorous, poorly paid, uninsured, and short-lived. As circumstances prove true to that latter characteristic, Philip makes no friends and finds himself bounced from his position, nevertheless managing to charm a French colleague whose initial action upon meeting him was to persuade all of his colleagues to dislike him. Throughout the film’s miserable sojourn, Philip is told off numerous times, by people from various walks of life, including a former college roommate who calls him a "Jew bastard" and a former girlfriend who responds to his request for a kiss by running away. The sad part, but the part which is the root of the film’s charity: Philip has it coming. He is arrogant towards his students in the face of open worship; he treats his agent badly (and is called an "asshole" for it); when he learns that a journalist who was supposed to intervew him committed suicide, he pines that it would have been a great piece for him. These moments of cruelty have some entertainment value, but for anyone who’s known a lot of writers, they’re unremarkable, since most writers know that, from the time of James Joyce onwards, the capacity for cruelty in literary sorts is as bottomless as the River Lethe. What’s remarkable here is what happens. And what is that? Well, Philip happens. In our last sighting of him, we see him walking down a crowded street, carrying a box of his belongings, alone, bereft of his former girfriend, who wouldn’t even open the door for him; the suggestion is that he’s walking towards more of the same. Are these his just desserts? Does he deserve to be this alone, to have all these people shouting at him, to be patronizd by a writer he worships, to be shown such anger by those around him? Yes, he does. If you have to ask why, then perhaos you should watch the movie again.

American culture, it must be understood, generally congratulates selfishness. It’s not typically seen as such, this quality, but it manifests itself that way. Slavish attention to career advancement, fierce competition with others, establishment of political alliances solely for the purpose of said advancement, dismissal of people, things, and ideas lying outside of one’s world view: these actions will, typically, make one successful and content in the world at large. The better car, the better phone, the better TV set, the better shirt, the better face: these things matter. Celebrity homes, celebrity surgeries, celebrity photos, celebrity "selfies," celebrity photo leaks: these things matter as well, perhaps more than we even think. The impact on human behavior of the absorption of these values is insidious. Talking becomes less important; a phone call becomes a rarer and rarer thing; and a handwritten letter? Forget it. The self is all. And if, one day, there’s a shooting in a mall, or a school, we cry mental illness, when in fact what we mean is national illness. It’s doubtful that Perry, in telling this story–and an old-fashioned story it is, with plenty of contrasting motivations, an antagonist, a protagonist, a climax, and a resolution (though perhaps antagonist and protagonist) have switched costumes here–intended it to be a fable, with a clear moral. It’s a character portrait, after all, an experiment as such, to see what happens if, instead of ignoring callousness and accepting it, we hold it up to a "hard Sophoclean light." The experiment, as conducted, performs a valuable service, providing a cutaway, of sorts, into a human psyche in the process of decay, or hardening; the cutaway is explicit, and gory, and eye-opening about the potential rebound effects of cruelty. It could be said that such a cutaway speaks out strongly in favor of kindness, of the opposite of Philip’s behavior. Beyond this, though, in the manner of all good experiments, Listen Up Philip points a way forward: towards different movies about writers, and perhaps different films about people, in which we take a good look at characters’ flaws and virtues, instead of waiting for them to sprout wings or replace their microchips. One might then hope that, as time passes, life might come to imitate art.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

All Truffaut Fans Should Watch This French Animated Short About DAY FOR NIGHT

All Truffaut Fans Should Watch This French Animated Short About DAY FOR NIGHT

La nuit américaine d’Angélique, or Angelique’s Day for Night, is, on one level, a story about a young girl’s experience of watching Francois Truffaut’s Day For Night at a young age and fantasizing about being, like Nathalie Baye in the film, a script supervisor. As a child, she romanticized the job, imagining, for instance, how wonderful it would be to place "messages," or revised script pages, under hotel guests’ doors. As she grows up, of course, she realizes that the job is too secondary and would not be nearly as exciting as it might have seemed to her as a child. Adult reflection reveals other things to Angelique that she was not conscious of as a child–most significantly that the act of seeing, when watching a film, is often more important than what you’re seeing. You might watch, as in Day for Night, implied sex on a screen, but the way the sex is represented is more important. Angelique also has significant revelations about the changing nature of her relationship with her father, with whom she saw the movie for the first time, during a period when he was divorcing her mother. As if to highlight the elegance of this small, bittersweet tale, directors Pierre-Emmanuel Lyet and Joris Clerté present it in a simple, cut-out style–in some of the passages that instruct about the nature of film-watching, the short even resembles a puppet show, with heads and other symbols held at the ends of long sticks. Based on a graphic novel by Olivia Rosenthal, this feature, in just over six minutes, manages to impart some hard messages about growing up, albeit ameliorated by snowfall, present from the beginning of the story to the end.

FAST CLIPS: The Video for Roy Kafri’s “Mayokero” by Vania Heymann Is a Simple Nostalgic Pleasure

FAST CLIPS: The Video for Roy Kafri’s “Mayokero” by Vania Heymann Is a Simple Nostalgic Pleasure

Vania Heymann’s video for Roy Kafri’s "Mayokero" is both spare and complex. It’s a pop cascade, in a sense, but what pop! Serge Gainsbourg, The Smiths, Prince, Madonna, Simon and Garfunkel, and many, many others show up on album covers tossed on an urban side street; their mouths move, singing the simple, catchy track for the video. The camera spins over these images, and then we see a homeless man going through the albums, and then we get the rest of the story: a reverse sequence showing the albums’ original purchase, a wistful look back at the days when you had to get up and drop a needle in a groove to listen to your favorite song–a needle which might skip sometimes, or might give away a scratch on the vinyl. There aren’t too many bells and whistles to Vania Heymann’s work here–in fact the camera work has a pointedly do-it-yourself feel, with one exception: the moving mouths. Even that gesture, though, is a recall of early TV comedy days, when a famous person’s picture, wth lips moving, might just make you laugh. We’re more sophisticated now–or are we? The video for "Mayokero" is proving remarkably popular, with 41,000 Vimeo plays in less than a week–it raises the question as to whether this sort of simplicity is just what video-watchers need right now.

FAST CLIPS: How Arcade Fire’s Music Videos Show the Essence of Greta Gerwig and Andrew Garfield

FAST CLIPS: How Arcade Fire’s Music Videos Show the Essence of Greta Gerwig and Andrew Garfield

If you’re immune to Greta Gerwig’s charms, or skeptical of Andrew Garfield’s talent, or not sold on Arcade Fire, the band’s recent music videos might help you out a little. There’s only so much a music video can do, of course. It has a limited life span–limited by the length of the track it’s built around. If it strays too far from the song, it risks being derided as "weird" or "gratuitous." Indeed, either of these adjectives could be directed at the two videos the band put out in the last year or so, the former (for "Afterlife") featuring Greta Gerwig capering, post-breakup, through a forest, under the dreamlike direction of Spike Jonze, and the latter (For "We Exist") featuring Andrew Garfield, in drag, directed with a strong sense of narrative by David Wilson. But why do that? Neither piece calls out for censure—and in fact, both seem the result of careful thought. 

What’s this evaluation based on? Well, these two videos, at least, have a similar structure, one which works well for the story being told in each case. They begin in stark, dramatic situations–in the case of "Afterlife," a tearful conversation, a goodbye in a tastefully lit room; in the case of "We Exist," a man dressing up in drag and going out to a rough-ish bar–and build the drama outwards, both ending up on an actual stage, during an actual musical performance. (Which, to their credit, both videos present to us without Bruce-Springsteen-ing it too much, or going too hammy.) The former video was filmed live, at the 2013 YouTube Music Awards, as if to underscore a point. And what is that point? There’s one point, and then there’s another–which both pieces share. The most obvious message is one which this particular kind of film has been sending since the mid-1980s, which is that, simply put, freedom and triumph are both possible within the purview of fictional narratives, and possibly within life itself. This notion of cheaply-bought happiness, conveyed within the confines of a 5-minute song, provide a buoyance that is easily digested, like a package of energy-boosting supplements you might buy at a bodega. These two videos, though, torque this narrative, or rather, this idea just slightly.

In the first, Gerwig’s heroine swoops from deep sadness (convincingly brought off, for such an all-too-often comic actress) into profound relief. She does, in the course of the action, a lot of cheesy dance moves–but only cheesy if you were born after 1990. For anyone born slightly earlier than that, the fist pumping has a nostalgic twang to it–recalling everything from Saturday Night Fever to Dr. Pepper commercials. The sudden burst of happiness, too, is just abruptly timed enough to smack of looniness–indeed, the type of looniness we all carry within us, and which can be unleashed at vulnerable moments, the kind of energy we don’t see coming. The earmark sprinting cascades of sound that Arcade Fire issues add to the mix with aplomb, making the whole thing less of a breakup story than a hero saga, complete with a treacherous journey through sharply photographed dark woods. And Gerwig herself communicates less a sense of youngster awkwardness than unbridled aggression here–which may lie more at the heart of her comedy than a desire to be funny: the difference between expressing your anger or happiness and turning it into a verbal or physical pratfall.

There’s more than one would think at the heart of the "We Exist" video, as well, at least in terms of the shapes it takes. There’s something internecine about Andrew Garfield, always, despite the roles he plays–his aggression is always tempered by a slightly more sensitive, vulnerable undercurrent, which runs at full force through this short clip. We begin with a scene that’s one part Midnight Cowboy, one part Girls Don’t Cry, one part American Gigolo, as Garfield puts on dress, wig, fake bra, and make-up to head out to what looks to be a dive bar in a tiny town, in the middle of the heartland, where nonconformity is wholly absent. As one might suspect, Garfield’s naif gets into a fight after a false dance or two with a couple of rowdies, and then the scene becomes surreal, as we watch a group of rowdies, by turns, dancing in skirts and fighting with Garfield. There’s a happy ending here–Garfield escapes and joins the band on the stage, as in the earlier piece. Once again, Hollywood writ small: truth to one’s self wins out, despite adversity, being outnumbered, and being wildly out of place–all showcasing Garfield’s ability. One can only hope that at some point this actor decides to try Greek tragedy: his vision of performance is that huge, and that personal. At a longer length, the scenario played out here would be unbelievable: here, it comes across as a burst of soft-hued optimism, dramatized against lush farmland and shadowy, believably grungy interiors, a small film, if you’re willing to give it the label.  

Oh, what to do with the music video? For people who came of age in the 1980s, when cable television was a mark of privilege (or something you could only watch by swiveling your TV antenna in a hyper-sensitive manner), music videos had a near-mystical charm to them, somewhat like the earliest films, which presented mini-narratives, or half-narratives, in easily watchable form. They were dynamic, too–a way to assess a cultural zeitgeist rapidly and without too much intellectual effort. Chances could be taken, as well–I remember watching a gorgeous video for Tom Waits’s "In the Neighborhood" (from Swordfishtrombones), showing him leading a parade of side-show freaks down a suburban street, and marveling at its subtlety. This was the crucial ah-ha moment that most music videos want you to take away: you thought the song was about this, but it could just as easily be about this. These two videos are fairly straightforward in their approach, as befits Arcade Fire, who have achieved a supremely marketable mix of sincerity and hipness; in so being, they add substantially to a medium that, like ivy, continues to grow up the walls of the edifice of music, beautifying it as it creates its own undeniable kind of beauty.        

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

FAST CLIP: Watch MONSTER, Jennifer Kent’s Short Horror Film Made Before THE BABADOOK

FAST CLIP: Watch MONSTER, Jennifer Kent’s Short Horror Film Made Before THE BABADOOK

If you have 10 minutes—less, in fact—you should watch Monster, the short horror film Jennifer Kent made before directing The Babadook. The latter Australian film has received widespread kudos–and from the looks of its trailer, they are richly deserved. Nevertheless, if, in this month of All Hallow’s Eve, if you’d like a truly frightening experience with remarkable (and blessed) brevity, Monster is just that. The film creates a mood of fear by, in fact, not trying. It presents its story, with its mundanities and its horrors, nakedly and simply, with a minimum of fanfare–small details may either tell you a great deal about a character or scare the crap out of you. The story is a simple one: A woman lives alone with her son. The son is restless, because he thinks there is a monster in the house. Is there a monster? Oh yes. But, unlike other monsters, it is frightening simply by being frightening, and not because of the way it is presented to us. There are no jumps, no shadowy figures moving in the background, no gruesome faces popping up in the center of the screen; indeed, when the mother first sees the monster, thy make calm eye contact for few seconds, as if maybe the creature were a household pest. And then? Well, things get a little rough from that point forward. Kent films the story in a crisp, pristine black and white–the shadows that occur seem entirely in place, natural, not added for effect. The actors fit right into this schema; Susan Prior’s mother has a careworn appearance, and a relaxed way of speaking that will, ultimately, allow her to make peace in her home, a peace which would not be believable in other films but works quite nicely here. Luke Ikimis-Healey’s child of the house, similarly, manifests his fear believably and without too much over-acting. While none of thse characteristics would seem to be elements which make a horror film frightening, they do: in allowing us to feel comfortable inhabiting this world for a few minutes, we, as viewers, become more prey to its terrors.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

FAST CLIP: Video for Goat’s “Hide From The Sun” by Sam Macon

FAST CLIP: Video for Goat’s “Hide From The Sun” by Sam Macon

If there is something anarchic, primal, and unknowable about Sam Macon’s new video for Swedish band Goat’s song "Hide From The Sun," from their new Subpop album Commune, that may be in part because there is something primal, pagan, and mysterious about the band itself. Its members wear masks when they perform, and it is rumored that the band has been existence for 30-odd years, in different forms. Leaping to the African-inspired pounding beat of the song, in this video human figures wearing animal masks chase a pre-Raphaelite young woman, wearing a diaphanous white gown, through a misty forest, are subdued by her in a flash of light, and then become her subjects after a hallucinatory journey through a long tunnel into an ill-defined afterworld. The lyrics are not overly intelligible, which is fine; in a song like this words function more as mood-setters through tone than as bearers of meaning. Sam Macon has designed beautiful, semi-Mayan, semi-indigenous, semi-childlike costumes for this piece, and provides animation for its more surreal parts that looks both hand-crafted and carefully considered. Watching Macon’s colors cavort and spin through the universe he creates would leave blessed trails on the retinae of any viewer. The song has a panicky nerve to it; raher than letting his camera be guided by the jumps and jolts of the song, though, Macon lets this energy flow through the film and empower it, pushing it along. Wordless epiphanies occur, one after the other, about power, about the nature of vision, about the passage into maturity, as we move through the video; we drink these in because, old as the story Macon tells might be, we never tire of hearing it.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

FAST CLIP: Video for Beck’s “Heart Is a Drum” by Sophie Muller

FAST CLIP: Video for Beck’s “Heart Is a Drum” by Sophie Muller

Beck has always had the capacity for expansiveness inside
his songs, even during the goofy days of One
Foot in the Grave
and Loser; the
song “Jack-ass” from Odelay always
read to me as an audio version of a Super-8 tour of a flat, marsh-infested
landscape of unchecked emotions rained upon by pure cool from the artist
himself. He has found a likely chronicler in longtime video maker Sophie
Muller, whose video for “Heart Is a Drum,” from the recent Morning Phase, takes us through and around cycles of life, death,
and aging. It’s been said that the piece owes a lot to Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon, which may
indeed be true, on the surface, but there are other influences lurking here, as
well, in the dust-bowl era pastoral Muller carries us through: the starkness of
the earliest and most aesthetically pure Bergman films; the Terrence Malick of Days of Heaven in its broad, sparsely
punctuated landscapes; a little bit of early Peter Bogdanovich, of the The Last Picture Show period; possibly
Jim Jarmusch’s brooding but also ambulatory realism that lends itself so
beautifully to down-at-heels domestic scenes. The video tells us a circular story,
as Beck sings his song of universality, of a beating heart “keeping time with
everyone.” We see the mature Beck, suited, standing in a deserted farmhouse,
staring outwards, looking within. Then we see different figures standing at the
end of a dusty road; Muller has played with the actual focus in such a way that
we are never sure where we stand with this story, even at its end. A caped,
masked figure of Death, tall, dark, scythe in hand, stands in a field, far
away, now closer, now walking swiftly towards Beck and a small child. A woman
is stricken down, as is her husband, whose face has an intensity and severity that
recalls the great silent film actors. There is a tremendous sense of poignance here.
The song itself goes in praise of embracing life in its completeness, and the
difficulty of doing so is brought home clearly by Muller’s film. Beyond this,
though, Beck has weathered change within his own work, from punk to funk to
bossanova, and so he has earned the right to slow down, in a sense. There is a
confidence to the way that he sings, “Need to find someone to show me how to
play it slow,” that suggests, in fact, he already knows how, as is borne out by the sound
of his recent albums, which has been, if anything, larger, more declarative,
more resonant than those of the past. As the video drifts towards its
conclusion, we see a hipper, younger version of Beck, bedecked with pony-tailed
ski cap and flappy clothes, walking with Death, in a small party that also
includes a small boy and the doomed couple who appeared earlier—a nod to The Seventh Seal, but also a haunting
image, suggesting that all that has occurred was only for the purpose of moving
onwards, or maybe inwards. Sometimes, there’s nowhere else one might rather go.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.