"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Monday, April 30, 2012

Crying with Jonsi at the Zoo

I just watched the movie We Bought a Zoo, and I'm not ashamed to admit I cried. Granted, it was a single, shallow tear welling in the far corner of my left eye, but I'll count it. That brings the total to five. I've cried at five movies in my life.

But that's not the point. The point is that, though my twelve-year-old daughter called it "the most touching movie" she's ever seen, it is a gooey gumdrop of a movie, and I would never have cried had it not been for Jonsi.

Jonsi hails from the Icelandic band Sigur Ros (which means Victory Rose in Icelandic), and I cannot gush about them enough. Several years ago, I heard this song late one night on a Denver radio station which I never listen to but did that day. It was kismet. The song was the "Untitled 3" track from the album ( ). (That's the album title: two parentheses. For those in the know it's called "the parentheses album.") The song builds slowly with the repetition of a simple piano melody, adding layer after layer of strings and electronics and vocals until it just sort of topples over from its own weight. That night in my car I fell in love with Sigur Ros.

The above video is from the documentary/concert film Heima. This live version is slower and quieter than the album version, and it leaves out the soft, Jonsi vocals, but it's still quite lovely.

Heima features performances filmed at various locations around Iceland and is just stunning, both visually and musically. I never imagined the landscape of Iceland to be so varied and beautiful. But add in the lush soundscape of Sigur Ros, and you just might keel over from pulchritude.

(I just discovered that you can watch the entire Heima film on YouTube. I'm not going to include a link because the video is grainy and not so gorgeous after all. Plus I don't know how legal it is that it's there in the first place, and I don't want to get in any trouble with the band in case I ever have the chance to join their collective and become one with the universe. But should you have the opportunity, at least check out the penultimate song, "Untitled 8" also called "Popplagio," from about the 1:20:00 to 1:30:00 mark. Ten minutes that will change your life.)

Sigur Ros is all about expectation. Their music revels in soaring anticipation that ends in a climax of epic proportions. And not just one song per album. That's MOST of their songs. Take a sweet melody, repeat, add layers, then crash it all in to a wall. And it works every single time.

Here's an example: This is the song "Festival" from the album Med Sud I Eryum Vid Spilum Endalaust (which means "With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly"). The first four minutes is a quiet, atmospheric little thing with Jonsi's controlled falsetto vocals, but then a solid bass line kicks in and then the drums and it doesn't slow down again for five too short minutes when the last 30 seconds presents the melody again, delicately whistled. "Festival" is featured at the end of the movie 127 Hours. Talk about anticipation. You go in to that film knowing exactly what's going to happen with the rock and the arm and the knife, but you still need the salve of Sigur Ros to heal what you and James Franco have had to endure.

In 2009 Jonsi released a moody ambient album called Riceboy Sleeps under the duo moniker Jonsi and Alex. Then in 2010, he released a full solo album called Go. It features a few songs sung in rare English and the most conventional song forms of his career. Still, it's utterly giddy and intense music.

Then Cameron Crowe had Jonsi write the music for We Bought a Zoo. I like most Cameron Crowe films. And he has a clear understanding of how music can enhance a movie. But I wondered how Jonsi would work with a story as understated as the one about a widower who buys a zoo. I should never have questioned him.

As you know, I cried at the end. And I'm going to tell you why. A widower having learned to live again, Matt Damon is sharing with his kids the story about how he met their mother, and it's sweet and everything, perhaps even a little saccharine, but Jonsi just won't let up. The strings soar and then the kids say "Hi" to their mother as if she were there and...Jeesh.

Sorry. I'm not crying again. I'm just running out of ebullient synonyms for the soaring, giddy, climactic beauty that makes up this music. Give it a listen. You will smile involuntarily. Let me know if you tear up.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Envy and Ire

I have to keep the blog coals smoldering, as it were, so I'm going to post another something that's been on my mind recently.

A week or two ago, my beloved Entertainment Weekly published a review of the book Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James. And it wasn't just a short blurb. It was the main book review for the week. Which is a sticky wicket for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is the fact that this is a self-published book that took off through word of mouth and e-editions and now has garnered the author a multi-million-dollar deal through a real publisher and a multi-million-dollar option from a Hollywood studio.

I'm in a quandary about it. Aside from the money, there's the subject matter of the book. First of all, it's romance, which is to say, erotica, which is to say, pornography.  I don't think I'm exaggerating. The EW review itself calls the book pornographic. (This is not to say that "romance" equates to "pornography" or even that what some call "erotica" is pornographic. Surely they are not the same thing.) (Except in this case.) The difficulty is that such a mainstream pop culture mag is admittedly now dealing in porn. (I know it's ironic that I called my own vindication of the EW "Pop Culture Porn." But I was using the term metaphorically. The porn in this book ain't a metaphor.)

So part of my disappointment is with Entertainment Weekly. They know they're being salacious. This week's EW cover story is an interview with James, but only subscribers will even see this cover. The newsstand edition features The Hunger Games again. Tell me why they would do this except to stave off outrage. What's more, in the EW interview, James won't reveal her real full name. It's not James. Who does she think she is? Banksy? I can't tell if I'm more embarrassed than she is.

Okay. So here's where I get judgmental if I haven't already. The rest of my resentment about this whole thing is that James's story began as Twilight fan fiction. I don't think there are any vampires or werewolves in Fifty Shades of Grey, but the characters did start out with the names Bella and Edward.

I know I'm a literary snob. I don't want to knock fan fiction, per se. People can write it; others can read it. But should we legitimize it in such a way that we'll pay millions of dollars for it? Should Stephenie Meyer be calling copyright foul?

I also understand the power of the fluke. Sometimes a Tim Tebow comes along and throws the football ball into the score zone and everyone's happy about it for a while. But when the new publication "will include the new copy edit," according to the publisher, the fluke is simply dolled up and called legit.

My real problem is that I can't decide if it's simple jealousy or just recurring frustration with the system. And I'm conflicted enough to wonder if my ranting here is just more publicity, more fuel for the fire, as it were. But still, here it is.

I know this is backlash, fanning the flames, as it were. I admit I haven't read this book and I never will. When the "People are People" video began it's rotation on MTV in 1985, I was sure Depeche Mode had suddenly sold out, even though their best albums were yet to come. Maybe I'm wrong and Fifty Shades of Grey will spawn Black Celebration and Violator, and twenty-five years from now some upstart artist will be compared to the great E L James. As if...