Tuesday, 29 April 2014

This Blog Is Now Closed

I'm eternally grateful to everyone who's read the blog over the last year or so. It's been great fun and I've learned a lot about writing and the blogging community. If your interested in my writing then please check out my other blog: Daydream Fantastica.

Thanks for reading and I hope you find something of worth in the archives here.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Tao Lin's Taipei

I'd never read anything by Tao Lin so in preparation for reading his newest book, Taipei, I read many of his online pieces - all serving as a good entry point for Lin if you're in need of one. Among them: a short story told in the style of an instruction manual on giving a book reading on mushrooms; a self profile which works as a straight faced parody of an article on Jonathan Franzen; a personal essay on "living online"; and a recalling, in cold detail by detail style, of "trespassing" an NY bookstore. I had mixed feelings on these pieces, but I'll agree that they all serve the point that Lin is a "voice of his generation", although before you fill with rage, understand that such a title has nothing to do with quality.

He earns the title only because these pieces are all short, self-knowingly quirky, and have a sense of gimmicky spontaneity that links them with your average vine or shared internet story. Very "of the times". They're all obnoxious too. And come from someone who hails from 4chan and Thought Catalog, which work towards telling us that Lin is "one of us" and that his work doesn't just stand against the more accessible artists right now but comes from a place more or less below them - an apparent requirement for a voice of a generation.

If your looking for the style of these shorter pieces in novel form then - I'm told - Lin's earlier novels are where it's at. On the other hand Taipei is a straightforward narrative, no gimmickry involved. The story, although this is never hinted at in the book, is mostly based on Lin's life. It's unclear how much is exaggerated - obviously some is - but it doesn't take much time on the internet, on Lin's Wikipedia page even, to see that lead character Paul is Lin in disguise. Things are kicked off when Paul is dumped by long-ish term girlfriend Michelle, and in quick succession starts a relationship with another girl, Erin.

Taipei isn't complex: its half a romance, a journal/travelogue capturing a new relationship over a sort-of long period of time (long for a twenty-something lets-just-see-where-this-goes relationship) and half a drug story. It's not really about addiction, although that certainly exists between the cracks of this story, but the constant drug consumption here makes it more about drugs than anything else. The drugs here are treated as a perfectly normal facet of life, as if to be traveling with a group of recently-met young people of similar age and not all have your pockets brimming with pills would be weird.

The story might be straightforward but it has little structure. It's a long pondering, underpinned only by Paul's book readings and tours, and his yearly trips to his parents in the title city, where his mother - who he appears more connected to than anyone else - worries about his drug use and wants him to stay to gather writerly experiences in the vein of Ernest Hemingway - the sort of mother who probably only read Hemingway to get closer to her son's profession.

Paul doesn't know what to do with such love though, he exists in a different, newer world back in New York; where the cast of almost all twenty-somethings say they stay in a lot but all seem to wind up at a lot of the same parties, and for who the act of actually "doing something" - whether the party or trip or whatever it was was good or not - is good in itself. Where the whole point of an experience is to have it, making it now a memory, and a future story, and a facebook update. Paul exists in this sort of void - Taipei being a sort of cynical exploration of the New York youth culture explored in Girls and Frances Ha - and Lin uses Paul's story, told as unbiasedly event-to-event as possible, to jump off into tangent thoughts and explore the void.

You could call Taipei a satire: Lin's prose style can be read as purely sarcastic. He puts speech marks around common phrases, as if to say a phrase we all say is to buy into some sort of universal copyright. He puts brackets next to the names of characters alerting you of their age, just like a magazine article or newspaper. And the prose themselves come across like a 4chan Hemingway: a no-bullshit directness, further coloured by an Easton-Ellis style fetishization of brand names and consumer tags. It becomes painfully tiring after a while, with the only breathers from this style being Lin's pondering thoughts, all of them interesting, and all of them making it seem worth it to brave such a cold, calculated narrative. But that's the whole point really: that the writing here is meant to represent, and criticize, a human way of thinking by making it seem much more mundane and lifeless than most usual writing. I couldn't possibly say it makes for good reading, but it's commendable that Lin keeps up this style for the whole story.

The thought of Lin's that's stuck with me the most is about childhood - a theme returned to again and again in Taipei - and the idea that education, school and then college/university provide a structure for one's life, a forward momentum like that of moving up levels in a video game, that can be traced back to our births, and which is lost in adulthood in which our lives become a formless mass; the successes and failures given less frame of reference. It's a beautiful thought really, the sort of philosophical pondering that David Foster Wallace would rumble up, and not what you'd expect from an Easton-Ellis acolyte. That's because when he's not hiding behind a wall of smart self-degradation, Lin does have a more human side. Taipei is for the new lovers: a solipsistic rom-com. It's romantic in the way that Lou Reed's Perfect Day is romantic: because it sounds lovely but we all know it's really about taking heroin, which I guess isn't that romantic at all, but that's why it is, you see: because secretly we all just want to love the things that we believe no-one else loves, and we want to admire those parts of ourselves too, and not our good parts. Which is why this book - soon to become a classic document of "relatable" angst and having not found oneself, has nothing remotely relatable in it.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

March

- Happy April fools everyone. Just a short post today, being I'm currently being bombarded by English Lit essays and Media coursework deadlines, both proof of some sort of hellish underworld.

- A friend of mine, providing the only good April fool of the day, constructed some Oreo biscuits with glue inside of them. I witnessed only one casualty of what we were later told could have been a fatally wounding trap, but even that one was enough to verify the importance of such a strange holiday.

- Another friend celebrates his birthday today (so HAPPY BIRTHDAY to him!) and of course spent the entire day trying to explain to people that his birthday wasn't an April fools.

- The rest of the month was pretty usual, with school and the batshit crazy "you need to be doing 90s hours of revision per subject" teachers all acting sadistically happy to pile on the stress.

- This was also the month I finally got back to the gym. I keep meaning to write something about my gym experience here, such as the weird "turf war" that goes on between the three gyms in my town; although that's just another thing to go on the to-do list.

- And last, just look at these real Coca Cola ads that have been turning up all over New York (most courtesy of HTMLGiant):

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Dubliners by James Joyce

I've never left my hometown long enough to feel homesick, or more precisely: I've never left long enough to know if I would feel homesick, or if my brain would simply pretend the town froze in its spot the second I left; like a closed art gallery that only burst back into life when I made visits back. I doubt I'll hate my hometown when I'm gone, but, as I say, that's a perspective I don't have yet.

Although Dubliners gives me the impression that James Joyce always had it in for his hometown. He wrote most of the 15 stories while out of town, and each one seems to supply different reasons why not to visit Ireland, or if you do, why you should keep a long distance from the locals. Most of the stories involve death, bored blue collar workers, troubled marriages, overworked females who here are victims of pre-feminism, and drunken wrecks of husbands. If you read around then you'll find the main feature of Dubliners, its main selling point actually, is its lack of hyperbole: a very no bullshit, tell-it-how-it-is style - although that's now a 100 year lie of literature unless Joyce would have us believe his hometown was Hell itself.

I didn't get much out of this one: mainly because for a collection of stories that have only a county linking them, it isn't really about that county at all: I don't remember one place description. I'll be the first to admit I'm no expert on Ireland beyond what watching The Guard over and over has given me, so Dubliners helped paint a mostly blank canvas black: I imagine the Dublin here as in a constant gloom of murky skies and rainfall (my mind's own pathetic fallacy, not Joyce's), with big roaming fields isolating one house from the next, separating each family into its own private entity, and only the church and occasional concerts bringing people together; and which is night time for the majority of the day (because things get so bleak you wouldn't want the daylight to see them anyway).

So the best you could end up hoping to pry from these stories is some sort of end message hidden at the back. If you read any modern short stories you'll see their DNA here. All 15 are the sort of stories where you go through a short mundane tale then come to the ending, which is just another short mundane line like any other, and you sit there feeling cold and blank thinking the story was about nothing but what it was about, and you turn the page and start the next story without giving it much thought (or just put the book down and give up completely), but then later you notice something in the story, like how its symmetrical or ironic or something, and you smile to yourself for a second or two and from then on think back to that story as being a lot better than you originally thought. It makes me think I would have preferred to just read some summary line on the internet about what the stories were about than actually read them myself.

The best stories in Dubliners are in the middle of the book, which are short and to the point. My favorite story was Counterparts about an average Joey Briefcase who can't stand his work, and when he snaps gets some street cred from the boys down the office for talking back to the boss; only to go home to his family and get drunk beating his son. I don't remember any finer details, not even his snooty remark to his boss, just the mundane ironic-ness of the ending: of getting respect in the adult world only to loose it where it will one day matter a lot more.

Joyce's biggest weakness is in dialogue, which is why I didn't even manage to finish Ivy Day in the Committee Room, made up almost entirely of dialogue, which, like all of Joyce's dialogue, manages the impressive paradox of being very flat and simplistic yet somehow struggling to get the point across, and in this case would benefit from a little knowledge of turn-of-the-century Irish politics which I felt no obligation to read up on.

As you can probably tell: I didn't like Dubliners that much, but I read on through with the promise of The Dead, the final and longest story, which most consider the best. Reading up on things again, most people say it's really the last few paragraphs you want. So I read on through the first thirty-or-so pages of "padding", all of it as lifeless as the rest of the book, until I got to those final paragraphs, which jump off from the story - Joyce's most romantic moment - and off into a pondering on death or life or... something, I hardly remember it. It's just as lifeless as the rest. It has a nicely put line on death, but that's all. Instead the only bit of Joyce's prose that stuck in my mind, from the man who will be constant presence if you were to go onto Google now and type in "greatest prose stylists of all time?", was a small piece about a woman, inside the story A Mother. It's not grand or important, just joyful:
"He was old enough to suspect one reason for her politeness but young enough in spirit to turn the moment to account. The warmth, fragrance and colour of her body appealed to his senses. He was pleasantly conscious that the bosom which he saw rise and fall slowly beneath him rose and fell at that moment for him, that the laughter and fragrance and wilful glances were his tribute. When he could stay no longer he took leave of her regretfully."
Something about this paragraph... it's the only writing in all of Dubliners that has the passion of someone reminiscing about their birthplace while miles away from it, and it isn't even about the damn place.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Pharrell Williams: Which GIRL Is It, Anyway?


This is either a sign of me simply not being hip to things or just my terrible disinterest, but it surprised me greatly to find Pharrell Williams, as of right now, is 40 years old - and not in his early twenties. It has nothing to do with his looks: he's one of those weird thespians who's features don't give much away, but his recent behaviour. He's spent his new found fame wearing novelty hats, acting in misogynistic videos and making Meryl Streep dance at the Oscars: it's no knock to what is a very classy persona, only a shift on the charts from new-kid-on-the-block to mid-life crisis territory. 

For the sake of comparison, compare to an artist eyeing similar territory, like say Bruno Mars, and you will start to see the problem. Bruno is 28 years old, possibly seemingly a little younger through boyish good looks, but if reports by friends who saw him live are to be believed, possesses a sort of intensity that, while hard to pin to an age, probably wouldn't be associated with a young man, and not a modern pop star young man. I spent a while ignoring Bruno, seeing him barking up that 70s sex funk tree that so many want to plant their seeds into right now, and figuring him not up to the task. But Bruno, from what I can tell, is the real thing: he sings a line like "Yeah, your sex takes me to paradise/And it shows, yeah, yeah, yeah" with his voice, a voice so sharp I imagine it could cut through the sexual tension in even the most hushed conversation, and somehow makes you forget such a line is even about sex, probably because his voice is always pointing to sex anyway: he is definitely the real deal. 

I didn't really think Pharrell needed to be the real thing, although that was until I listened to G I R L, which is 10 tracks of (mostly) 70s inspired disco funk. It's got a chrome finish: the sort of glossy dance pop Pharrell has involved himself in so much of recently, but it's undeniably the sort of music for getting out when you've managed to get the girl back to the apartment (only to realize you forgot to download any Marvin Gaye).


The fact that Pharrell can adapt into whatever style and not have anyone take much notice does highlight an image problem the man seems to have weaved for himself: just where do you being with him? His work with The Neptunes? N.E.R.D? Or maybe his collaborations? The success of his recent ones with Daft Punk and Robin Thicke possibly the reason for this new solo outing - this afterall being his first since his debut in 2006. I find his collaboration with Robin Thicke worthy of note: for those that don't remember, it's these two who made that vile pro-rape song last year. Also worthy of note though: it was poor poor Robin who took all the blame for that one, although it's not hard to see why, just watch the video (the late night, tits and all version): Thicke looks like the cool jock type who's dragged Pharrell, his nerdy best friend, to the cool kids sex party and he (Pharrell) has just ran with it. We all silently agreed that any sex Pharrell got that night was as a lucky victim of circumstance. 

Only G I R L makes the case that Pharrell really is a misogynistic ladykiller, firing out lines that don't even hide behind metaphor, only without that Bruno Mars intensity, which is why I still found myself making excuses for him like I'm sure many will. Take a line like "Your waves, they wash all over me" which would seem cheap from some artists, a placid if it came from good old Bruno, but from Pharrell's mouth it's more like when a five year old unknowingly says a sexual innuendo then has no idea why his parents are laughing. 


Instead everything's pretty unspectacular chill disco; from a guy who's just won a Grammy for it, the production is uninspired. The least chill track is Happy, the track I imagine most will buy the album for, which doesn't really fit with the other tracks at all; understandable, being it was recorded over a year ago for Despicable Me 2, made by the least groovy company in the world. The best production is in Lost Queen which has a tribal chant played to the background of Pharrell's most bubbly sweet lyrics, his best, and the only that might actually be used to charm a girl: "What planet are you from, girl?/And are there others like you there?" and "Though my planet's full of warfare/you make it feel like a dream". 


There are actual girls on here too; although Miley and Jojo are strangely uncredited, and Alicia Keys, who is credited, is no less forgettable than either. It was only Spotify that reminded me Justin Timberlake even appears on the damn thing. The only guest Pharrell actually knows what to with is Daft Punk, who lend their robot voices to add a longing sense of tragedy to Gust of Wind. It's a mixed bag of an album: half forgettable slush and the other half questionable groove with occasional highlights.

The album didn't leave me much in the end: it's breezy on first listen and not so much after that. Who is the GIRL Pharrell is looking for? Wanting? It's not Marilyn Monroe or even Joan of Arc as the man informs us himself on the first/best track; I doubt it's lover girl, the Bruno Mars type, since there isn't a love song on here; and yet I doubt Pharrell wants a girl down-and-dirty either, not with the asexual of these numbers: no, which GIRL Pharrell is looking for, G I R L certainly doesn't tell us. 

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Celebrating One Year of Blogging

Exactly one year ago I wrote my first real post on this site: a "history of Nirvana" type post, only a day after a "Welcome" post that now looks as confused at what it was going for as I was at the time. I wrote that early stuff because I knew I wanted to write, just didn't know what about, or exactly how.

I thought about packing it all in multiple times, but looking back I've found it worthwhile. That welcome post did say I wanted to be a better writer and review culture (Note: site originally called "Culture Vulture" and very boringly coloured) and I've had a lot of fun accomplishing both.

It wouldn't feel right not to thank the people below, who along with the long list of blogs down the right of this site who inspired me to start blogging in the first place, has made blogging a great experience:
Groggy Dundee - the first person to comment on this site, defusing my conspiracy theories that this whole "blogging" thing was a made up way for Google to fuck with me 
Cherokee - the first person to subscribe to this site and someone who's been very supportive of my writing since 
and to the others who have commented and gave kind words: Ryan McNeil, Dan O and the writer of Lights Camera Reaction (who I didn't catch the name of) and many more
as well as a special thanks to the many imdb posters who had no problem giving me painfully honest feedback and helped improve my writing this past year  
In a year I managed to hit publish on 62 posts, a streamlined guide below:
It's a horrific cliche of anyone creating something that they would say their latest is their best, although I couldn't be more proud of this piece about On The Road which also ends up being about the American Dream and the pure energetic life of reading 
Some other pieces I'm proud of: this small post on my biggest writing inspiration Lester Bangs; and a review of a collection of his works; this recollection/pondering on Michael Jackson; movie reviews of Frances Ha and The Perks of Being a Wallflower; music reviews of Nirvana's In Utero and Lorde's Pure Heroine; a piece I write about my high school prom; and a piece on David Foster Wallace, a recent inspiration/obsession for me 
I also want to link to two pieces I wrote early on-on the site. Both were music essays, both trying to mimic what Lester Bangs had done, or what at the time I thought he had done, and both not that well written. I would write them differently now, but I still feel close to both, as if both were somehow important to me being a writer: one on Radiohead and another on The Beach Boys
For the sake of of fairness here's what I believe are the absolute worst I've ever published and why I think they suck so bad: first is this post on The Sopranos, written right off the bat of reading Consider The Lobster by David Foster Wallace, which should be easy to tell from my poor imitation; then there's me trying to make sure I get a review of an Eminem album out on the day of it's release, providing a personal view of why re-writing is important 
The year could best be described as a fun struggle. The earliest writing on this site, quite a bit of it up until Christmas actually, makes me feel a little embarrassed, especially since it's digitally attached to all the writing I'm most pleased with, but I'm glad to have wrote it anyway.

One reason for blogging was to get my writing seen by a wider audience that might give me some feedback, although I wasn't expecting anything like what I got from some posters on imdb. I decided to abuse my place as a somewhat-frequent poster on the message boards and posted my review of Kanye West's Yeezus, to which one poster actually went through my review line-by-line, giving an exact critique of what was good and bad. I wish I had wrote down his (online) name, but to whoever was wonderful enough to do that, a big thank you. And just a few weeks ago I posted a terribly written review of The Wolf of Wall Street, which the imdb posters were happy to rip apart and tell me exactly where I'd went wrong, leading to a much improved post. I've been thinking a lot about writing and finding one's voice lately and even if I don't feel like I've fully formed my own yet, I feel like I'm a lot closer to than I was last year.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

American Dream Under Sweltering Heat: Kerouac's On The Road

While reading On The Road I would sometimes stand up and walk around while reading; doing circles around my living room table and repetitions up and down the stairs, as if simply sitting down wouldn't be able to harness the life force of the words on the page. I guess I walked around for the same reason Dean Moriarty continually has to take his top off while driving: because there's something more primal in doing it, getting closer to the earth, closer to the road, in my case closer to Kerouac.

I read the book after enjoying the film, watched last year as I tried to watch everything on Netflix before the month free trial ran out. Its a brilliant film actually, one of the most unfairly mangled of recent years; and it made me feel so terribly depressed inside. Same as Dazed and Confused: the first time I ever watched D&C was during a summer holiday when I was around 13, 14, one of the best films I'd ever seen at that point (and still is), and after watching I felt almost suicidal. The film is about a group of American high schoolers, simply living through the last day of school, and ending as the gang ride off onto the open road. I remember lying in bed after, awake until the early hours of the morning, thinking of the endless possibilities that that open road represented. Thinking about the whole movie's glowingly nostalgic view of its director's own high school days in the 70s, then feeling trapped in my hometown, wanting the life on screen. Watching On The Road gave me the same feeling: it made me want to be a writer, want to be in America traveling around meeting people, the mad ones, the ones who never say a dull thing; to drink and dance and fuck and write. Its inspiring to the point of mania. It made me want these things so much it makes me not want anything at all: Kurt Cobain put it perfectly when he sang "love you so much it makes me sick".

That's what On The Road is really about (I'd say I didn't want to spoil it but like any road trip worth having: the journey's more important than the destination), about using up that energy everyone senses on the horizon of a night without sleep, the energy that must have hung around the beats, and using it all up to the point of burnout. Things are told from the perspective of Sal (Kerouac in disguise), a Nick Carraway-esque figure of not quite blankness, but enough transparency to allow you to imagine yourself making most of the same decisions; Sal's default work-towards in life being getting his book written and settling down with wife and kids, all of which is dropped whenever Dean rides into town. Dean too wants to be a writer and poet, wants to observe the world like Sal and friend Carlo Marx (real life: Allen Ginsberg), tragic in that he can't, not for lack of talent, but because he isn't like Sal and Carlo, both standing on the edges of parties, happy and content but well aware of everyone else's happy and content-ness more than their own, unlike Dean who is the party, lost in a sea of long wishful desire and the excess of its fulfillment.
The book isn't without fault: the "intro" in my edition of the book describes Kerouac's struggles to write the book, and later to publish it. Based off of Kerouac's real life trips in the late 40s, the multiple turn-downs for publishing lead to multiple re-writes, apparently leading Kerouac to streamline the book by combining multiple of his trips together, although even then the book sometimes feels like an overload of the Sal-Paradise-settles-down Dean-comes-calling Sal-and-Dean-head-off-into-sunset formula. Some sections read like a tedious list of place names. Through every trip we get the city-by-city breakdown, when, as the name suggests, it's neither the geography or (as mentioned before) the destination that's important here - the destination of the final trip ending up being the book's point of tragedy - but the road that we're interested in. There's nothing there but the people and the cars, youthful human nature trapped inside a traveling box, leading to the best moments of the book, the smaller, more personal moments; for example:

Sal and Dean and the rest of the gang (which usually means one of Dean's lovers, a random friend, and possible hitchhikers) are traveling when they pick up a hitchhiker who says he can pay his way by getting money off of his aunt who lives out the direction they're going near a gas station. Eventually they reach their destination, no aunt to be found, the kid, who leaves quickly with no thought to paying, only having known a gas station existed somewhere out here. Later they pick up another, who gives the exact same story of an aunt out somewhere in the direction they're going who holds their payment for the ride. At first a repeated moment like this seemed like a strangely obvious laziness on Kerouac's part, although right after Dean starts yelling, joyfully (paraphrasing) "ha, hear that, we've all got aunts, get in kid" yelling with such delight for the mundane craziness of the road. Kerouac clearly had big ambitions, he wanted parts of his story to be about the search for Dean's long lost father or the story of Ed Dunkel who abandons his wife to join Dean on his travels, although these end up the weakest parts of the story. The best are the kids running alongside the car outside of Mexico, the kids Sal knows would run beside the car into other countries if they went slow enough; and Sal's short lived, and very boozy, job as a night watchmen at a camp for merchant sailors; and of course the boys stop off at "Old Bull Lee" (William S Burroughs)'s place. These are the moments that last, the moments that feel alive enough for Kerouac's own terming of his writing as "spontaneous prose".

The film obviously had to miss things out, but does a good job streamlining all of Sal and Dean's trips, and why it has gained the reputation it has is beyond me. The film uses a rapidly quick cutting style, that style long hated by film snobs, to get across Kerouac's speedy words, while Sam Riley proves again he's underused for no explainable reason, here with a deep, husky voice and un-judging stare. It misses many of the moments I mentioned before along with a number of sub-plots, but it hits its emotional marks with a swiftness that Kerouac's book lacks in the heavier moments. Sal's final time with Marylou, one of Dean's mistresses, in San Francisco, is in the book a long, drawn-out, murky affair, showing days go by as a relationship that both members knew - but didn't want to admit - had little substance slowly wither away, while in the movie its one last screw and goodbye, an acceptance that love doesn't always need to be in the equation. Or on the boys last trip, to Mexico, where Sal/Riley's single tear expresses what Kerouac didn't seem to want to write, an acceptance that Dean, if not a bad guy, is bad for those around him: he is an addictive poison of a lifestyle. Although it's the ending the movie gets most right; the cliché that going back and reading the book after enjoying the movie will only enhance the movie on further viewings is in reverse here. The ending (and the only real spoilers of this post):

The ending takes place not long after Sal's return from the Mexico trip. In the book Dean returns to him, for the first time seeming a burden on Sal's life, who shows little interest in jetting off into the sunset now his life has matured into something more permanent. Both the book and movie are tragedies, both revolving around a final meeting: Sal, about to get into a car to a concert with friends and girlfriend, is approached by a scraggy looking Dean on the sidewalk. The two talk, then Sal gets in the car and leaves, an obvious symbol of his choice of his new life over the old one. I won't say Kerouac's ending isn't good stuff, but in the book Dean arrives in town a few weeks earlier, talking to Sal and Co. the whole time, his appearance on the street just another turn up; which drags things out too much, taking away the gravity of a moment that feels like it should be the one to slice down the whole American Dream; Kerouac seemingly finding it impossible not to tear it down after bigging it up so much. In the film Dean hasn't been there for weeks, instead he has been unseen since the Mexico trip. His appearance from the darkness of the night, on some lonely sidewalk, so much more tragic. After, Sal is shown at his writing desk, going over everything we've just watched, the character's identity here somewhat blurred with Kerouac's as the writer of the book, ending with that lone image of Dean Moriarty standing there in the night, the one we saw as the car pulled away. That book gets it right in its final line, also used in the film, thinking back to Dean Moriarty, but it doesn't get the urgency of that final meeting right. This last moment of one kid's adolescence as he turns his back on the kid who gave him it in the first place, leaving him there to wallow alone in his own fun, once so beautiful and divine, like the very energy of the human race maximized to its zenith, now turned black and soulless and burnt under its own sweltering temperatures.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

A habit of mine, gained from growing up an avid video game fan, has been to ignore the word "controversy", which I did with the controversy revolving around The Wolf of Wall Street. For those somehow unaware: many worriers, or possibly even well-informed members of society, came out of Wolf horrified, believing that without properly sign posting the fast life the movie so enthusiastically rampages on screen as "bad" or "immoral" it is clearly corrupting our youth.

As I've said, I ignored this argument before watching the movie, and even through its first half, until a scene where dancers and strippers and even a marching band are paraded through the offices of corrupt wall street company Stratton Oakmont. A friend I was watching with, who had seen the movie before and advertised to me and others as "one of the best film's I've ever seen", and who very clearly falls into the "mainstream" demographic the worriers are probably most worried about, turned to me and said "wouldn't it be great to work there" (to which I didn't answer).

To anyone who doesn't already know the plot (and I do realize I'm running this review a little late): the story, based on real events, follows what works out around a decade in the life of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio - once again showing he's best at playing bastards), following Belfort's life from his arrival at Wall Street as a fresh faced, married and apparently only modestly ambitious assistant to Matthew McConaughey; going through his illegal activities as the boss of Stratton Oakmont - who scammed their customers out of millions in the 90s - which lead to his excessive lifestyle, and an ending which links to the real life Belfort who's currently working as a motivational speaker (not to mention living off the millions he got for selling his memoirs to Scorsese and Co.). 

I won't deny Scorsese makes the fast life look good, and very fast too: his camera swooping in and around the crowds at Oakmont, making sure never to stop. It's Scorsese's longest picture yet, three hours in total, and it's a rolling 180 minutes. I couldn't really give it more praise than saying it's as slick and passionate as anything Scorsese's ever done. The casting is brilliant, mainly because as we're supposed to be unsure if these characters are everymen giving into human lust or bastards doing what they've always wanted, the casting is mostly people it's always hard to lock down. Take Jonah Hill, who's spent the last few years splitting time between oscar-nominated drama and all out comedy, or Jon Favreau, who's spent more time recently directing than acting, or Jean Dujardin who's still making the transition over from French cinema. The cast is as colourful as everything else in this movie. 

Obviously Wolf isn't the first film to show the fast life, and neither is it the first Scorsese film to run into controversy: Goodfellas (which Wolf most closely resembles), Casino, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull etc all ruffed people up the wrong way too, although that was almost entirely for these film's excessive use of the red stuff (at least at the time of making) and very little to do with the morales involved. Wolf isn't nearly as violent as any of these films, it's vulgarities almost entirely sex and drugs, and it's not the first time a Scorsese film has shown its main man getting himself out of trouble. So the big question is obviously, what makes Wolf so much worse that anything else Scorsese's ever made? 

The answer is pretty clear when you compare Wolf to Goodfellas. Both start half way through things, showing Hill/Belfort on top of their respective worlds, although both with a hint (a knocking sound from the car boot, a near-helicopter crash) to how it's all going to come crashing down. After this both take us back to the start, with both sharing many stylistic flourishes: the heavy use of narration, elongated freeze frames, and DiCaprio/Liotta turning to the screen to address the audience. Yet it's the differences that are important here: after the openings both movies take us back to the start, for Goodfellas this all the way back to Henry Hill as a kid, idolizing the gangsters in his neighborhood, even taking the belt for the life of debauchery he's about to have. In Wolf we're only taken back to Belfort's arrival on Wall Street. He arrives very literally a blue collar everyman. He's shy on his first day on the job, isn't well experienced with drugs, and seems a well intentioned man trying to provide for his wife, who screams at him how he's changed, and is quickly forgotten about when the supermodel blondes start showing up. The interest in Henry Hill, even though advertised to us as a true story, has always been slightly fantastical, his neighborhood and upbringing and the time period things were set all playing a part in the life he lived, whereas Belfort's life is a life born purely of choice, which the film says we all could have had given the right time and place. That's what's got everyone so riled up, and it's why my friend had stars in his eyes for Belfort's story: because what might possibly be Scorsese's most despicable character starts off as his most ordinary everyman.