Posts by Andrew Nichols

Editor-In-Chief, NQN

Lost Works: Steely Dan’s “The Second Arrangement”

May 1st, 2019 was a watershed date for me. A new version of Steely Dan’s “The Second Arrangement” was uploaded to YouTube, by user “Sir Mix-A-Lot Rare Music”. Ridiculous username aside, Mr. or Ms. Mix-A-Lot Rare Music had put a great deal of effort into restoring a song that was supposed to appear on side two of Steely Dan’s 1980 album Gaucho:

In fact, a number of songs were made during the recording of Gaucho that didn’t appear on the final product. In the very-online circles of Steely Dan fans that I run in (it’s me, a bunch of older white dudes, some audio engineers, and on a good day maybe like one woman), the legend of this alternate version of the album has spread, to the point where there are entire explainer videos on Lost Gaucho:

Of these cut tracks, the loss of “The Second Arrangement” stings most. It was, according to famed producers Roger Nichols and Gary Katz (who had both worked with the band for many years) the best song of the album. I trust their judgement.

So what happened? An unnamed, lower-level audio engineer accidently erased the best take of the track. The specifics differ from story to story, but the general consensus is that the engineer was asked to prep a version for Fagen and Becker to sign off on—a final mixed and mastered version—and this engineer accidentally recorded over the final 65% or so of the song. Now all we have are either really crisp versions of the first 2 minutes (the only part that survived), or partially-mixed, choppy versions of the full song (like the one I posted above). I like the full version, even if choppy, because lyrics are so central to Steely Dan. They add a great deal, even if the audio quality is terrible.

The circulation of such a choppy demo probably causes Donald Fagen a great deal of psychological distress—and no doubt me sharing this ‘remastered bootleg’ has caused Walter Becker to make a full rotation in his grave. Becker and Fagen were/are audiophiles on a level likely unmatched in all of popular music. Audio engineers study their 1977 album, Aja. Their 1975 album, Katy Lied, came out slightly below their standards, thanks to an equipment malfunction in the newly created dbx noise reduction system. Becker and Fagen refused to ever listen to the completed album as a result, and APOLOGIZED FOR IT in the liner notes for the original album. Now, personal anecdotes are by no means solid evidence, and my ear is far from refined, but I’ve listened to Katy Lied on vinyl. Honestly? Sounds pretty crisp to me.

In summation, Fagen and Becker would NEVER cosign the release of a song that wasn’t perfect, and so a muffled copy of a copy making the rounds online is nothing short of a pointed insult.

BUT

“The Second Arrangement” has the bones of, potentially, one of the greatest Steely Dan songs ever made.

The version of “The Second Arrangement” that I included above is quite obviously not a final cut, but not just because the vocals are muffled and the mixing is off. Because the master audio files were erased by that engineer, the only surviving copy of the full song (the ones that the bootlegs are made off of) was from a cassette tape recording of the partially finished track. The cassette was made for the session musicians that were going to play the horns in the final version. Once that engineer erased the masters, one of the horn players realized that they had an incredibly rare recording on their hands, and began passing it around. That’s the source for most of the bootlegs and restorations and copies of copies that float around.

Thus, the missing horns are also a limitation of the version I posted above. It’s difficult to imagine how they would have been woven into the song, especially if you’re like me and have replayed the non-horn version several dozen times. But, for a taste, you can listen to a guerilla recording of one of Steely Dan’s live performances of “The Second Arrangement”, from the early 2010s:


Now, I can’t really say how “The Second Arrangement would have sounded with the horns, or whether the studio version would have sounded good. But I’m inclined to trust Becker and Fagen on this one, as they often had saxes and trumpets in their songs, and usually did a bang-up job with them. Noted musical mind Grace Spelmen did some threads on their use on “My Old School” that succinctly showcases their ability to incorporate some hornin’:

She summed it all up by saying that on a Steely Dan song, “Every instrument has something to say”. Well said, indeed. I think the horns would’ve been great on “The Second Arrangement”.


As I mentioned earlier, lyrics are an integral part of Steely Dan, and that’s why I favor the first version above, even if the audio quality is significantly lower than other versions.

“The Second Arrangement” follows a similar tale as that of many Steely Dan songs, the tale of the gentleman loser. Becker and Fagen had a tendency to write opaque lyrics, which resist direct interpretation. I’ve always taken “The Second Arrangement ” to be about divorce, or any sort of relationship split. Our down-on-his-luck sophisticate has bungled the nominal “first arrangement”, which needs to now be redefined. As the chorus goes:

“And I run to the second arrangement

It’s only the natural thing

Who steps out with no regrets

A sparkling conscience

A new address

When I run to the second arrangement

The home of a mutual friend

Now’s the time to redefine the first arrangement again”

 

The “new address” of the “home of a mutual friend” suggests that our protagonist has seriously  f’ed up his previous life and had to move in with someone else. Furthermore, he toasts to “reckless lovers” in the first verse, calling attention—most likely—to his own habits. Driving around in his yellow Jaguar, perhaps he has been philanderous. Perhaps it is a callback to “Deacon Blues”, where our central figure “crawl[s] like a viper” through suburban streets, making “love to these women, languid and bittersweet”. Perhaps the ‘viper’ terminology was meant to evoke the sports car, not just the animal for which it’s named.  The use of another animal-named sports car allows us to make these connections to the previous work, opening up the possibility of a successor, even if it is only a symbolic nod and not a direct reference.

Our character feels alone in this world, claiming to have “just two friends in this whole wide world”. By the final verse, this has given way to denial and deflection. As the first arrangement collapses in on itself, he claims that he is losing his friendships, not because of his own actions, but out of envy:

“Old friends abandon me

It’s just the routine politics of jealousy

Someday we’ll remember

That one red rose and one last goodbye”

 

As often was the case, Steely Dan force us to confront a character who is, put mildly, unsavory. A catchy tune can’t totally conceal the fact that our central figure here is a rich, pompous asshole. What does it say about us when we sing along? Or when we are impressed by his flowery rhymes?


Many of the comments on the uploaded bootlegs compare the bones of “The Second Arrangement” to“Deacon Blues”, which I think is an unfair comparison. “Deacon Blues” is, IMHO, one of the greatest pop songs ever written. However, Donald Fagen himself seemed to know that “The Second Arrangement” was destined to be one of their great songs, stating in a Rolling Stone interview that its erasure was:

“one of the most serious emotional setbacks we’ve had in the studio.”

Furthermore, “The Second Arrangement was the first song recorded for Gaucho, and thus was the song created in closest proximity to Aja, on which “Deacon Blues” appears. It’s possible that some of the stylistic residue from Aja was to be found on “The Second Arrangement”.

Gaucho, for me, is in the pantheon of Steely Dan’s music even without “The Second Arrangement”. This is a bit of a minority opinion, as Gaucho is often placed on the low end of fans’ tier list of Steely Dan albums. The only thing that is universally agreed upon in the admittedly subjective ranking of Steely Dan albums is that Aja is number one, a beacon of masterful studio work that is the purest distillation of the music that Becker and Fagan set out to make starting on that fateful day in Annandale, way back in 1967. Aja is our lodestar, our bedrock; simply put, it is the perfect album.

But I would argue that Gaucho, their follow-up project, released only three years on, carries much of the spirit of Aja. It tones down the jazz in favor of yacht-rock, and ramps up the detached irony behind the songs, all while making the musical front more glittery than ever. It’s a “Glamour Profession”, but “living hard will take its toll”. If Aja is pure light—what-you-see-is-what-you-get—then Gaucho is a shimmering surface cloaking a darker truth. Aja is a Black Cow in Rudy’s, Gaucho is Kirschwasser from a shell.

All this, AFTER “one of the most serious emotional setbacks” the band had faced, losing a song that they worked incredibly hard on, one which indeed could have been the crown jewel of Gaucho.

In a retrospective review of Gaucho for Pitchfork, Alex Pappademas wrote that:

“[Gaucho] might not be the best of Steely Dan albums, but it’s definitely the most Steely Dan of the Steely Dan albums.”

Which is true. But, it’s hard not to wonder—with a less troubled production, and with a finished “The Second Arrangement” to buttress the back half—if Gaucho COULD have been the best of the Steely Dan albums.

We’ll never know, all because of some unnamed audio engineer.

Fuck that guy.

Christmas Time is Here: A Personal Essay

I. Christmas time is here/Happiness and cheer

I have no scientific evidence, but the idea of a “blue Christmas” (a holiday spent depressed rather than merry) seems to have more resonance in the culture-at-large this year. Miley Cyrus’s new song about feeling lonely and isolated has received a great deal of attention and acclaim. Her announcement of the song and its backstory has been liked over 50 thousand times:

It appears—to me—as though folks are more likely to acknowledge how difficult this time of year is for many, and how the collective joy of the season can paradoxically feel particularly alienating to wide swaths of the population.

Of course, I am by no means an unbiased observer. In the past couple of years, I have found the holiday season rather difficult to deal with, following a great deal of upheaval in my personal life. I have not been able to experience the same unencumbered merriment that I once did during this time of year.

Though, it hasn’t all been bad. I have been able to turn to one consistent source of comfort, which has been a sizeable chunk of my holidays for years now. I speak of Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, the soundtrack to the television special of identical name. Top-to-bottom it is, IMHO, the greatest Christmas album ever, including both exquisite covers of Christmas standards, as well as three of the best Christmas originals written this side of 1950—“Christmas is Coming”, “Skating”, and “Christmas Time is Here”.

Of those, “Christmas Time is Here” is the best, and has seen the most popularity in the 54 years since the special’s release. The song effectively straddles the line between melancholy and joy, perfectly exemplifying the conflicting emotions that the season can conjure.

Writing for The Ringer, Rob Harvilla describes “Christmas Time is Here” as: 

“forlorn-snowstorm melancholy…a joyous and heartbreaking ballad available as an instrumental (with a loneliness so vivid it feels communal) or a gentle children’s-choir spectacular (they’re not exactly in tune, but that just makes it more exquisite)”

Harvilla’s seemingly contradictory words characterize the song perfectly, and this tension between the joyous and the heartbreaking is, to me, what we mean when we discuss the feeling of emptiness that accompanies so many of us during the holidays. The desire to joyfully embrace the season in the same way as others is there, but we can’t quite tap into it, for reasons varying among different people, all colored different shades of blue come late December.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (the TV special, not Guaraldi’s soundtrack) has always been my favorite piece of Christmas-themed art, though my appreciation for it has changed over the years. I used to think that the highlight of it was Snoopy messing with Lucy during rehearsal for the Christmas play (“I’ve been kissed by a dog! Get hot water! Get some disinfectant! Get some iodine!”). I would laugh to tears, rewind the VCR, watch it again, and laugh some more. Now, I find the funniest part to be Charlie Brown’s “therapy” session with “Dr.” Lucy Van Pelt (who, by the way, is “real in”). Every line is absolutely brilliant, and is so true to life that it feels like they may have ripped lines directly from a bad session of mine.

The fact that there is a therapy scene in what is ostensibly a children’s program speaks to what A Charlie Brown Christmas is really about. In childhood I didn’t totally comprehend that A Charlie Brown Christmas was really about those who feel alone, outcast, and unable to enjoy the merriment of the holiday season. I mean, sure, on some level I knew that—in the same way that I could hear one of Aesop’s fables and give you a one-sentence descriptor of what I was to have learned from the thing. I could have told you (in the slightly sarcastic sing-songy voice of a child annoyed that they have to answer a question) that “we should be nice to people and include them so that they don’t feel alone and sad.” But I didn’t know what feeling lonely, depressed, and melancholic during the holidays really was. Christmas was a time of unbridled joy every year; a time of anticipation, excitement, exceptionally satisfying gratification, and overall contentment.

I miss those days.

II. Fun for all that children call/Their favorite time of the year

As with all children, my brother and I had trouble staying asleep through the night of Christmas Eve, often getting up at what I now recognize as an ungodly early hour.

In our defense, we didn’t have a clock in our room, and thus—this being the era immediately preceding smartphones—were unaware of the exact extent of our nuisance. However, one year in particular, our crepuscular shenanigans were indefensible.

Our parents had given us an exact time that we could come in and wake them, in order to go downstairs and open presents. But, again, being that we didn’t have a clock in our room, when we awoke in the middle of the night, we needed some way to see precisely how close we were to the sweet release of tearing open gifts.

There was something wrong with the door to our parents’ room—somehow the door was ever so slightly out of alignment with the door frame. You could still open it of course, but the door would rub directly up against the frame, and the friction it created would be…well…loud.

We must have gone in and out of there four times in the span of two hours (from 4-6 AM). I don’t know how in the world my parents didn’t snap and cancel Christmas. They would have been well within their rights to. They must have slept like two hours each that night. To make matters worse, my brother and I were SO over-the-moon excited, that we needed to get our energy out somehow. We decided to sprint back-and-forth in the upstairs hallway. The bulls in Pamplona probably make less noise than we did that morning, all while we should have been asleep.

Oh, that we could feel the unparalleled excitement of childhood again. Also, sorry Mom and Dad.

III. Snowflakes in the air/Carols everywhere

Guaraldi’s piano on A Charlie Brown Christmas is most often evocative of snow, in large part thanks to the television special to which it is inextricably linked. “Skating” is a prime example, with the piano mimicking snowfall as the notes quickly descend down the keyboard. During the special, this plays while the kids are catching snowflakes on their tongue, and that indelible image always appears when I hear the song.

While Guaraldi’s piano is undoubtedly the star, credit also must be given to drummer Jerry Granelli and bassist Fred Marshall, especially for their work on “Christmas Time is Here”. Granelli’s percussion has a roominess to it which is integral to the song—the cymbals are stroked ever-so-lightly, each strike sounding as though it rolls into the next. It feels like you’re hearing the air in the studio when it was recorded; it provides a warmth that is desperately needed to temper the melancholic key of the work.

On “Christmas Time is Here”, Marshall takes the ‘fluttering snowflakes’ duties, as his dexterous fingers navigate the double bass with precision. He and Guaraldi perfectly match in their timing at the end of the song, as both play soft yet rapid pairs of notes.

Marshall is able to be nimble and soft at the same time, and his solo during the instrumental version provides a pallet-cleanser from Guaraldi’s dominating piano. There is less melancholy in Marshall’s playing—less underlying sadness. He is integral in creating joy that exists in tandem with the melancholy.

IV. Olden times and ancient rhymes/Of love and dreams to share

Traditions are the backbone of Christmas. Christmas in different households is really all about the little variations to ancient traditions, slight alterations to the script which make every family’s celebration their own.

Growing up, we always said prayers together as a family each evening, and then in December, after our usual routine, we would sing “Silent Night”. I’m not sure when I stopped saying prayers, but my stopiing of singing “Silent Night” happened before that.

I’m not sure why, but recently I’ve had a really strong urge to learn the original German lyrics to “Silent Night”. Maybe I’m trying to tap into something historical—hoping that learning the song’s origins will help to recapture some piece of my childhood. It probably won’t. Knowing that it probably won’t is likely what’s stopping me from having learned the dang German, already.

V. Sleigh bells in the air/Beauty everywhere

Something about the way Guaraldi’s piano was recorded feels noticeably different from most other piano recordings, and it’s a large part of why numerous attempts to cover “Christmas Time is Here” have fallen short (in my opinion, anyway). Whenever I listen to “Christmas Time is Here”, I’m struck by how hard Guaraldi strikes the keys at certain points. The rising chords at the 4:30 mark of the instrumental version are a prime example; they ring out far louder and stronger than the vast majority of the song.

With the rise of the electric keyboard and the phasing out of classic analog pianos, I am guilty sometimes of forgetting that classic pianos are an instrument that makes its noise from dozens of hammers striking down upon the concealed strings and wire. Guaraldi’s style is such that you can’t possibly forget the underlying mechanisms, you feel the hammer’s strike. It’s forceful, clear, and distinct. It’s lovely. At points it sounds closer to bells being struck in rapid succession than to the “piano sound” of modern electric keyboards. I think this playstyle makes Guaraldi uniquely suited to Christmas music—being that bells are so closely intertwined with the ‘feel’ of the holiday. Its why it makes sense that the rest of Guaraldi’s catalogue (while by no means mediocre) pales in comparison to his brilliance at holiday composition.

VI. Yuletide by the fireside/And joyful memories there

In my early childhood, both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were spent at my grandparents’ house. We would have the quintessential Christmas morning experience at home, before making the ten-minute trip to grandma and grandpa’s for the afternoon and evening.

At some point in my adolescence, as my grandparents got a bit older, we began hosting Christmas Day at our house. My siblings and I were always doled out token hosting responsibilities, while my mother and father did all of the real work. My task was to build and tend to a fire, and while I was at it, satiate my grandfather by bringing him whatever he needed (this just made logistical sense, as he always sat directly next to the fire in a large leather chair). This task involved about ten minutes total, which included poking at the flame three or four times, pouring one (maybe two) glasses of white zinfandel, fetching a cracker and placing cheese on top of it, and occasionally bringing a cat to my grandpa’s lap.

My grandfather was the epitome of Silent Generation stoicism, and these incredibly small gestures were enough for him. He was content to sit by the fire, overlooking the two younger generations as the quintessential patriarch, proud of the family that he had helped build. I kept his glass full, his appetizer plate full, and the fire warm, allowing him to gaze over the merriment in front of him and smile contentedly.

Later in the evening, after all of the guests left, I was usually relieved of my fire-tending duties by my father, who often stayed awake the latest on Christmas, and was the one who watched the fire die down. I sometimes wonder what that was like, watching the glowing embers slowly fade into ash, before closing the doors on the fireplace. Should I have stayed up, played the same role of patriarch-satiater for my dad? Or, did my father like those quiet moments to himself? To reflect on the day, the days before, the years flying by, another Christmas having passed, his children one year closer to adulthood. I don’t know. I can’t know. I won’t know.

This is my third Christmas without my father, and my first without my grandfather.

VII. Christmas time is here/Families drawing near

The final 38 seconds of “Christmas Time is Here” might be my favorite part of one of my favorite songs. Guaraldi’s fingers flutter between two keys, while slowly moving the nimble extensions of his hand up and down the piano, different sets of two, falling upon the piano with the same pace and grace. They seem to press the keys softly enough that it’s almost surprising we hear any sound at all. The pitch of the fluttering notes rises, falls, and rises again, slowly fading into nothing.

On most days following work, I head northeast of my apartment to Central Park, where I like to walk around the Jaqueline Kennedy-Onassis reservoir. It’s usually fairly quiet, and the views of the Manhattan skyline simply cannot be beat:

skyline

Several weeks ago, I was walking along this route as a light snow fell, with the tiniest hint of accumulation beginning on the ground. Being the beginning of December, I was starting to work a full listen to A Charlie Brown Christmas into my  daily routine. As I made my way around the North-Eastern curve of the loop, the final 38 seconds of “Christmas Time is Here” began to play, Guaraldi’s keystrokes filling my ears. The notes paired perfectly with the light snow, as the sparse flakes in the air rose, fell, and rose again, before finally settling on the ground, all merging into tiny piles, the individual flakes becoming indistinguishable from the whole.

Perhaps…perhaps that is what it means to experience a blue Christmas. Each of us a unique flake; cold, wet, tossed about by the elements before landing on the cold hard ground.

But, at least we can fall into each other. And maybe—just maybe—we can find some comfort in the knowledge that we aren’t alone in our loneliness.

VIII. Oh, that we could always see/Such spirit through the year

The Rebirth Of City Pop and the Importance Of Searching

Have you ever heard of Mariya Takeuchi?

If you’re American, there’s virtually a 0% chance that you had before 2017. But in 2019, there’s an actual possibility—given that in its various versions on YouTube, her 1984 song “Plastic Love” has a combined 41 Million views, most of which come from the U.S. (this can be determined via a number of factors, including language of upload title, uploader country, and the comments section).

On the surface, this is incredibly strange. Why is a mid-80s Japanese pop ballad suddenly so popular halfway around the world 3+ decades later? The gut reaction is to pin this on the notorious YouTube algorithm, which tends to lend a snowball effect to random videos that get popular. ‘Someone watched this, let’s recommend it to X. X watched it, let’s recommend it to Y Z and A’, etc. It’s a fluke, an accident of coding…right?

But “Plastic Love” isn’t alone. Far from it. In fact, there are many songs from 70s and 80s Japan with English upload titles and millions of views:

Ok. Huh. Weird, right? Well let’s take a look at one of these other ones. I mean, there’s gotta be some explanation for this:

“AWWWOOOOOOOOOOOOOO 56709!!!!!!!!”

Damn that’s catchy. And if you go and listen to those other songs they’re catchy too; easy listening songs with funky grooves and memorable English choruses.

What you’ve just heard is City Pop, a subgenre of Japanese New Music which was popular in Japan in the 70s and 80s. It has become popular in the West decades later, mostly thanks to YouTube, as many of these songs aren’t available on any of the major streaming services (Spotify, Apple Music, etc.)

There are folks who have done deep dives into what City Pop is, but I’ll try to provide the sparknotes version. Essentially, Japan had an economic boom in the late 70s and 80s, thanks in large part to U.S. investment in Japanese technology businesses. Indeed, much of the Japanese economy soon became reliant on the U..S., both for capital investment and as their largest consumer market. It was during this time when companies like Toyota and Sony took off, and soon Japan was a global economic superpower.

While a number of people (read: businessmen) in Japan saw this as a good thing, others understood it as a nation which had traditionally been fiercely independent acquiescing to the culture of the day, in some cases willingly, in others due to colonialist forces. It was an extension of some of the themes that Yasujirō Ozu explored in his films from the 40s and 50s.

City Pop was born in this booming economic environment, when seemingly everything was becoming mechanized and artificial. It’s difficult to pin down any musical or lyrical specifics that allow something to be classified as City Pop. Certainly an embrace of American musical stylings (pop, jazz fusion, and/or R&B) is an element. But it’s more of a ‘know-it-when-you-year-it’ sort of thing than a by-the-book genre. Japan Archival Series supervisor Yosuke Kitazawa sums it up well, saying that there “were no restrictions on style or a specific genre that we wanted to convey with these songs” but that it “was music made by city people, for city people.”

It’s both an acceptance and repurposing of American musical style, while simultaneously conveying a sense of unwanted shallowness and melancholy, which comes through in the undeniably catchy popiness undercut by ponderous, sometimes dark lyrics.

These lyrics often had refrains in English, attempting to mimic American popular music so as to become popular both in Japan and abroad. It’s how you get lyric sheets that look like this:

Or this:

And it worked, though perhaps 30-40 years later than the artists and producers would have hoped. City Pop has become fairly popular in the U.S., long after the point when any rational person would have guessed it would.

But intuitively, it still seems odd that older music from any foreign nation would become this popular in 2019. Catchy as it is, if you aren’t familiar with the genre, it probably still seems weird that so many Americans have fallen in love with it.

So why has it finally caught on? Jon Bilstein did a write up of City Pop in Rolling Stone back in May that posits the same question, and he came up with a few explanations (which I agree with).

First, Bilstein argues that city pop was ahead of its time, and that it fits neatly into the current popularity of breezy background music to work/study/relax to. He notes that:

“the bounty of ‘chill’ music offered up by streaming services is reminiscent of City Pop’s own furniture music… No one listens to “chill” Spotify playlists or popular YouTube channels like “chill lo-fi hip-hop beats to study/relax to” to go anywhere. It’s literally music to make sitting where you are, doing what you’re doing, less awful.”

Further, many of the English lyrics that make up the refrains of City Pop songs have been sampled in remixes, particularly by Vaporwave artists [author’s note: if I also try to explain what vaporwave is we’ll be here for hours, so here’s its Wikipedia page if you’d like to do your own research]

Bilstein explains:

“City Pop has become popular among Vaporwave artists like Yung Bae, Saint Pepsi and Luxury Elite, who spin City Pop and its American analogs into songs that seem to flatten the space between past and future, nostalgic dreamscapes and glitched-out, late capitalist nightmares (there’s an equally active Vaporwave scene in Japan that pulls from the same reference points).”

These artists scour old music looking for things to sample, take clips they think they can use, and then repurpose them to fit their own art. City Pop has become so popular that even non-vaporwave DJs have begun to remix it:

Eventually, fans of these DJs go looking for the sources of these distinctive sound bites, and stumble upon City Pop. Intense digging and repurposing by Vaporwave artists, and light digging by their fans, allows for a forgotten subgenre to flourish again.

Another aspect of City Pop’s appeal in North America is that it’s a Japanese interpretation of American culture.

Via colonialism and millions of advertising dollars, American popular culture is the dominant culture worldwide. We are used to seeing the stuff we make, and other countries are used to seeing the stuff we make too. The percentage of people in Hong Kong who have seen a Hollywood film this year is astronomically higher than the percentage of Americans who’ve seen a Hong Kong film.

As Americans, we usually don’t get to see and/or hear how other countries see and/or hear us.

City Pop is one of the rare times when another culture reflecting on an American example has pierced our consciousness. When you listen to City Pop, you hear what Japanese people heard when they listened to American pop music. It helps that the music is well-made, but some of the appeal comes from the deconstruction of these layers; like looking into a funhouse mirror and realizing that’s how someone else sees you all the time.

In this regard it’s similar to Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen. Why has it remained relevant? Mainly because the music is fundamentally, and I’ll use the technical term here, damn fucking good.

BUT, good music does not necessarily mean longevity in the popular imagination. Carmen has retained it’s fascinating nature to this day in part because it is a Frenchman’s take on what Spanish culture looks like, and what Spaniards act like. One of Carmen’s most celebrated aspects is, as Bizet biographer Winton Dean puts it, “vivid expression of the torments inflicted by sexual passions and jealousy”. Would a Spanish writer have portrayed their countrymen as sexualized and overly emotional? Would a Spanish writer have created a story heavily featuring a bullfighter? Sounds a bit like a caricature, no? [for further information on Carmen‘s portrayal of Spain and how Bizet exoticizes the country, check out José Colmeiro’s paper on the subject. It’s a great read].

Decoding that caricature is part of the fun—looking at how one culture is seen by another is a compelling exercise, giving insights into the attitude of the voyeuristic nation.

The use of English in City Pop is an easily identifiable example. Just look at the lyric sheets I put up earlier. They are NOT subtle, expressing Big Ideas™ in bold, plain language that nobody in the U.S. would use, neither in conversation nor pop music. It’s fun to hear folks from another culture try to replicate our culture, as they often bring something new to the table.

So that’s in large part what has driven City Pop’s resurgence. But, even after all that, there’s still one thing about city pop’s appeal which stands out to me, and has gone largely undiscussed. If you scroll down into the dreaded comments section on any relatively high-viewcount city pop song, you’re certain to stumble upon a comment like this:

These types of comments are ubiquitous on these videos—people opining about, um, “nostalgia”(?) for a time and place that they never personally experienced, often in exquisite detail.

What the hell is going on here? How can you be nostalgic for something you were never actually there for? Something that until a few months ago, you never even knew existed?


In But What If We’re Wrong, Chuck Klosterman discusses how we—i.e. society as a whole—are totally off base when we predict what the future will look like. We are utterly inept at predicting which works of art (films, books, music, etc.) will live on, and which are forgotten. In my favorite chapter, he discusses books, and tries to determine which authors and works from the 21st century will live on.

During this chapter Klosterman makes the seemingly paradoxical argument that adherence to the historical specifics of a time is vitally important in generating timelessness, stating that “it’s impossible to generate deep verisimilitude without specificity” (pg. 44). Attempts to make a work timeless by omitting the specifics of an era actually calls attention to the fact that this is a work of art, and breaks down the sense of immersion and relatability that a work can create.

If, for example, a character enters a bar and orders “a beer”, it’s an immediate reminder that ‘oh yeah, I’m reading a book’. Whereas if they order a Heineken or Budweiser, it feels more natural to a contemporary audience. Even if neither of those brands exist in 2175, the context clues would allow a futuristic reader to discern what was meant, without shattering the fourth wall. Details like these make it more real.

Klosterman cites Moby-Dick in this chapter, and I think it’s a great example. What does anyone in 2019 know about whaling? Jack shit. But that’s not the point. Author Herman Melville allows Ishmael to naturally weave in technical explanations by masquerading them as descriptions of the day-to-day life of whaling. And often, these descriptions of activities that a 2019 reader would never conceive of are where Melville allows Ishmael to reflect on life.

The passage when Ishmael and Queequeg are weaving a ‘sword-mat’ is the perfect example:

“As I kept passing and reloading the filling or woof of marline between the long yarns of the warps, using my own hand for the shuttle, and as Queequeg, standing sideways, ever and anon slid his heavy oaken sword between the threads, and idly looking off upon the water, carelessly and unthinkingly drove home every yarn: I say so strange a dreaminess did there then reign all over the ship and all over the sea, only broken by the intermitting dull sound of the sword, that it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own. This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. Meantime, Queequeg’s impulsive, indifferent sword, sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly, or strongly, or weakly, as the case might be; and by this difference in the concluding blow producing a corresponding contrast in the final aspect of the completed fabric; this savage’s sword, thought I, which thus finally shapes and fashions both warp and woof; this easy, indifferent sword must be chance—aye, chance, free will, and necessity—nowise incompatible—all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course—its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events.”

Moby-Dick Chapter 47, “The Mat-Maker”

There’s so much to unpack in that passage (e.g. Melville’s meta-pun of using weaving as a way to weave in some philosophical conjecture), but for our purposes the main takeaway is this:

Ishmael turns a seemingly dull and very 1851 task into a stunningly gorgeous reflection on the nature of Fate, a timeless subject if ever there was one.

That is how you achieve timelessness through adherence to era-specific details.


Ok, so what in God’s name did any of that have to do with City Pop? Well, I think those YouTube comments from earlier are a shining example of what it means to experience “verisimilitude through specificity”.

The best City Pop conveys a sense of isolation and ennui, no surprise given the socioeconomic climate it was born out of. Many Japanese people in the 70s and 80s felt like they were shedding their millennia-old traditions and culture for a new, artificial and shiny culture that could compete with the global superpowers of the day. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing—many Japanese people viewed this development positively and built a tremendous amount of wealth—but it undeniably influenced the sound of the music that was born out of it.

Happy on the surface, with a dark underbelly.

Remember that super happy and catchy telephone number song from earlier? The one with the AWOOOO? Here’s the first verse translated:

“Don’t forget my telephone number

I want you to dial it anytime you’re worried

Yes, every night you continue to drink

I’ve noticed it, ah…your loneliness, ah…”

Artificiality, a sense of loneliness in cities of millions, surface level relationships, these experiences are already quotidian in 2019, and are on the rise. Art that can express our reactions to these things has tremendous power, and speaks to deep-seated thoughts and emotions that we didn’t know we had. The reason why “Plastic Love” resonates is because it so perfectly utilized its music and lyrics to tap into a universally relatable aspect of the human experience— surface level love affairs and the “games” that people play with each other. It’s what allows music that is very much ‘of a time’ to feel timeless.

People from all over the world understand these emotions decades later, and it allows them to feel an intense empathy with a person from an era they never experienced. They feel like they were there, that they know the specifics of the time period, because they can tap into the parts that are timeless.

‘I know what that emotion feels like. I know what this person felt like while driving their toyota in Tokyo in 1983, because I felt something similar in 2019.’ After all, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It’s the same reason why if Moby-Dick were a YouTube video, people would probably comment “oh this reminds me of the time I spent on a whaler except I never did lol”.


City Pop’s resurgence occurred because the music was able to express something that modern audiences can relate to, years and years after the fact. But, I think it’s important to recognize that the only reason why people were able to experience this intense empathy with decades-old music is because it was ‘discovered’ by others. Without the remix subculture, vinyl collector/sampling culture, and people dedicated to finding new and interesting things, millions of people would have never known about City Pop, and would have missed out on an art that speaks to them.

I think the reason why But What If We’re Wrong fascinates me is because it’s so satisfying to think about what will live on, what’s important in the long term. So satisfying to imagine discovering something new, and hailing it as having a deep connection to timeless aspects of the human spirit; heralding it as a work that will live on as something worth remembering centuries from now.

Chasing that satisfaction is why people continue to collect obscure recordings and dig for art yet undiscovered. It’s why some people listen to SoundClouds with no followers or watch YouTube videos with minimal views. However infinitesimally small the chances are, they may just stumble upon the next Moby-Dick. The internet provides us with an unprecedented ability to dig for things that speak to the human condition, to find the works of art that mean something. City Pop’s resurgence is merely one example of how just a little bit of initiative and digging can provide joy, catharsis, an experience, to so many.

So fall down the rabbit holes, click the links on page 22 of google results, and search high and low. The golden works of our time are hiding in plain sites.

Thanks for reading. If you want to go searching for undiscovered stuff but don’t know where to go start, Jon Bois has a really cool suggestion here (at 19:50) which I highly recommend.

Inherent Traits Affecting Tastes

Are the films we love, the artwork we’re drawn to, or the entertainment we ‘choose’, less of a choice than we think?

Recently I began to explore the underlying reasons why I love the films that I do. I can explain why I think certain cinematographic choices are good or bad—this framing subtly reinforces the film’s message, this choice in set design serves as a portentous omen, etc. But why do I enjoy them? Why do I like films with longer takes more than those with heavy cuts? Is it because I find them more dreamlike? More realistic? I’m not quite sure, but these thought experiments have given me the chance to think more deeply about the films I love, which I find invaluable.

But when it comes to color, there is a more easily identifiable reason, and it’s caused a great deal of existential worry.


I love films that experiment with color and shades, both those which assign artistic meaning to color and those which use color to appeal to cineaste’s soft-spot for visual bliss. One of my favorite cinematic choices ever is Douglas Sirk’s costume changes for the white characters in Imitation of Life, which I’ve previously discussed here. I’ve spent multiple hours reading scholarly articles just about the use of green in Vertigo (highly recommend it). I went out of my way to go to a theater to RE-watch an obscure film from 1945 (Yolanda and the Thief), just because it was showing on 35 mm from a copy of the original Technicolor negatives. I think every film should be required to use Minnelli yellow. The reds of Le Mepris haunt my dreams:

In summation, I LOVE to look at color in film. The richer the better.

But, as many people in my life already know, I am colorblind. I have trouble distinguishing subtle differences in shade, I can’t tell the difference between certain colors, and colleagues have to “color check” graphs I make at work, so I don’t send lime green bars to the VP. Hang this image on a wall (as one roommate of mine almost did):

and all I would see is an abstract collection of dots [hopefully my editor didn’t change the image just to fuck with me]. This is a genetic trait, one I’ve had since birth. The only form of vision that I know is one with deuteranomaly.

So it begs the question: do I love rich, saturated colors so much because of my colorblindness?

As far as scientists are concerned, yep. Us colorblind tend to like yellow way more than the rest of y’all, and we tend to favor things we can see well, as one study found “colors named more accurately and quickly being more preferred”. The richer the color, the more it pops out, and the easier it is to identify. It follows that my colorblindness has directly influenced my preference for rich colors.

I found this nugget of research profoundly disappointing when I first read it. We don’t often think about the origins of our preferences, and for some reason I found it disconcerting to think that I love the things I love thanks to a blip in a genetic code. That the emotions roused in me by a lush cinematic landscape were merely an accident of nature.

The idea of nature vs. nurture has been *ahem* in our culture’s DNA for a long time; often as a point of debate against asinine socially conservative bigots. But it’s fascinating to consider just how much our genetics influence the things we think are wholly of our own accord.

Certainly our experiences shape our reactions to art. I can attest to that fairly easily. After my father died I was much more susceptible to tearing up at father-son stories. I read The Road about a year later and it immediately became one of my favorite novels ever. Would it have made the same impact had I not experienced that loss? Perhaps. But I doubt it.

People intuitively understand this. The events of our lives—both momentous and trivial—mold our outlook on the world, and it follows that what we like and dislike fits into that mold. It is far more difficult to grasp that something as personal as what gives us pleasure, what speaks to us, or what we hold dear could have been decided before we were sentient.

If you’re anything like me, you’re scared that if you think too hard about this you’ll come to hate the things you once loved, all thanks to some colorblind jackass with too much time on his hands. I know when I first realized just how much my colorblindness influences my taste in films, I found it profoundly unnerving. But I’ve come to love this circumstance of my birth.

You see, it gives me a unique perspective which allows me to appreciate beauty in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to. I consider myself lucky. It’s possible that I would never have fallen in love with color in the same way I have without my colorblindness. I think of the joy that the aforementioned screening of Yolanda and the Thief gave me, and how I wouldn’t get the same rush of abject pleasure if I saw colors ‘correctly’. Would I still love it? Maybe. But it wouldn’t have been quite the same. Indeed, I first saw Yolanda in a course at college, and the overwhelming sentiment of my classmates was “Yeah the colors popped. So what?” I suppose we saw things differently.

Everyone is born with a perspective all their own. We can all find beauty in our own way, and the art that we are drawn to all speaks to us differently, even if these differences are minuscule.

Think deeply about the things you enjoy, and why they bring you happiness. Whether gathered by experience or encoded via genetics, they are what make you distinct, and they allow you to have an outlook that can only be your own. Every time someone shares the perspectives that make them unique, the world becomes a better, more colorful place.

Photographs taken from Vertigo (1958), Le Mepris (1963), and Yolanda and the Thief (1945).

The Christmas Playlist to Save Your Sanity

You’re driving to the nearest mall on attempt 2.5 to get your holiday shopping done. Attempt one was not as fruitful as you would have hoped, with the Foot Locker carrying the Kyrie 4s in every size but your dumb nephew’s. Attempt two was marked as a half attempt after the Cinnabon cheat meal you treated yourself to wreaked havoc on your intestines. Your resolve to make it through the holidays is dropping by the second.

Not helping matters is your local radio station, which has been recycling the same 20 Christmas songs ever since the last bite of turkey left the thanksgiving table. “Sleigh Ride” is a classic, no doubt, but you swear the next time you hear Johnny Mathis’ voice you’re gonna explode. And what’s worse, every time they DO play something novel, it’s downright awful. You know who was asking to hear Jane Lynch sing “Up on the Housetop”? Fucking nobody.

Are there really only a handful of decent versions of Christmas songs to carry us through December? Are you really stuck with the Christmas stylings of 109.1, WFML for the next thirty days?


No! There’s plenty of underappreciated greatness lying outside the public eye, especially when it comes to Christmas music. The beauty of the genre is that it’s an exercise in covers; there are only so many Christmas songs which have stood the test of time, and as such, everyone is putting their own spin on melodies which, even when butchered, can provide a rush of nostalgia.

It’s what makes it all the more impressive when an artist is able to make a song their own, by shining a new light on the same old songs that we all love.

To save your sanity this holiday season, I’ve put together a Spotify playlist of songs which, for whatever reason, aren’t yet a part of the American Christmas canon. This could be due to obscurity or novelty, but either way, they probably haven’t been assaulting your ears this holiday season. Full disclosure: my taste in holiday music skews to the more quiet, pensive type, partially because those don’t grate nearly as hard on the ears with repeat listens. Without any further ado:

I’ve also put together some notes on the songs I chose, and those are below. Give those a read and give the playlist a listen if you’d like!

“Greensleeves”, Liz Story                                                                                       “Greensleeves” falls into the ‘tweener’ class of Christmas songs along with “My Favorite Things”, where its status as a Christmas or Non-Christmas song seems to depend on the cover art (e.g. Clarkson=yes, Coltrane=no). Liz Story’s version of “Greensleeves” is a smidge more difficult to parse, as it appears on a compilation album titled A Winter’s Solstice, AKA December 21st, AKA not Christmas. However, I’ve chosen to count it under the “ABC Family 25 Days of Christmas Corollary”. Sue me.

Not that anyone who’s listened to it would want to strike Liz Story’s version of the song from their Christmas playlist. It is a solo piano piece, with Story utilizing improvised variations on the classic tune. She gives it a decidedly and fittingly winters’ vibe. Story’s playing melds dexterously quick finger movements with soft strikes of the keys to create an effect where the notes sound like snowflakes cascading on a winter’s night. They fall quickly, but their light weight causes them to flutter and shift with the air. Eventually falling to Earth, unable to defeat gravity, but able to exert enough agility to temporarily defy the ground’s pull.

Such images are conjured by Liz Story’s piano, and I cannot call her “Greensleeves” anything less than a masterwork. Close your eyes with and allow images of a cold winter’s night to dance in your mind.

“Santa Baby”, Daniella Andrade
I normally HATE “Santa Baby”. It’s a weird vehicle for sexualizing Christmas, in one of those kinda-sorta-tongue-in-cheek-but-also-kinda-not ways. I’m no prude, but we really could leave Christmas alone. Nobody needed an “I want to fuck Santa Claus” song, and it disturbs me to no end that people wanted one in the first place.

BUT, I really enjoy this version. What comes through in Andrade’s delivery is a mix of detachment, sarcasm, and innocence that takes the sexual charge out of the song. She sings it like it was requested by some creep at a Christmas party, and she’s making fun of the ridiculousness of it while also showing off her chops. The extremely lax guitar and lo-fi quality add to this vibe.

That Andrade is able to produce a highly listenable track from a song I’m reflexively disgusted by is no small feat. It comes off of her 2013 The Christmas EP, which is solid seasonal listening throughout, though this is the standout tune for me.

“Swingle Bells”, David Tobin
A decent choice if you’re like me and love the idea of “Jingle Bells” as a swing song but vomit in your mouth a little bit when you hear Diana Krall awkwardly scat or say “I’m just crazy ‘bout horses!” 

“I Saw Three Ships”, Darol Anger
Hook me up to an IV drip of this string interplay STAT. Shit makes me feel like I’m living in the Christmas portion of an English historical drama. Where’s Keira Knightley?

“The Christmas Song”, Denis Solee
A laid-back instrumental rendition that is capable of evoking the scenes of a relaxed Christmas Eve by the fire, not with the words of a crooner, but with impeccably smooth ivory tickling, bass plucking, and a soft sax. I can dig it.

“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, “I’ll be Home for Christmas”, Leslie Odom Jr.
Hamilton is a cultural phenomenon, and Odom’s turn as Aaron Burr has become the stuff of legend, propelling him to legitimate superstardom (if you had said that sentence to anyone in 2013 they’d have looked at you like you had 3 heads).

These two songs are a bit more stripped down, letting Odom’s angelic voice take the lead, which is always a great decision. These cuts also capture a Christmastime mood that I, and many other people experience, which Odom captured when he said of the album: “I didn’t want it to be sad. I didn’t want it to be sullen. But I don’t think the album was really ever cheerful.” Odom’s voice is good enough to make a half-assed attempt sound great, but that’s not what’s going on here.

What I especially appreciate about these efforts is how much care has been put into them. This isn’t some cobbled together, hastily assembled celebrity Christmas album that may as well be titled A Quick Influx of Cash.  Odom himself said that making a good Christmas album is “a lot different than singing at a Christmas party. You want to make sure that it sounds sincere and honest.” That attention to detail and desire for sincerity comes through on these two emotional ballads, and they are great additions to the genre.

These songs are really only on this playlist because of how new they are, having come out in late 2016. I think that in due time, Odom’s Christmas album will become a part of the go-to American Christmas music canon. He’s too talented, too charming, and the music is too good for it not to. So enjoy it now, before constant plays through the years make you sick of it.

“O Christmas Tree”, George Tidwell
Tidwell’s trumpet is fantastic, and the piano playing manages to avoid being a complete Vince Guaraldi rip-off, which is commendable, since his version of “O Tannenbaum” is iconic enough to inspire imitation. Kudos to this track for not trying that.

“Xmas Done Got Funky”, Jimmy Jules
(See song title)

“Winter Wonderland”, Earth, Wind & Fire
That’s right—Earth, Wind & Fire made a Christmas album! It was released just a few years ago, in 2015. However, unlike Leslie Odom Jr.’s Christmas album, this one really should have been titled A Quick Influx of Cash. This track is really the only one where I can feel them channeling their old selves, and E, W&F are so damn good that their watered down, half-assed stuff is still pretty great.

“Frosty the Snowman”, Beegie Adair

For Christmas music especially, I favor the simplicity of a piano/bass/drums trio. Highlights of this song are Adair’s piano variant of the “Thumpety Thump Thump” from the original, and the extended stretch of improvisation that we get for the second verse.

Beegie Adair could also totally be a name from a random name generator and I’d be none the wiser.

“Here Comes Santa Claus (Live)”, “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer (Live)”, The Oscar Brown Jazz Trio
Live performances! Again with the piano/bass/drums, I know. I have such a type. But I enjoy these performances because I think the live aspect lends them a warmth that is lacking from a lot of holiday music production. You can hear the airiness and residual rattling of the snares on this track where it’s often missing in studio-recorded Christmas music, even on jazzier cuts.

“I Wonder as I Wander”, James Gaertner
A solo piano track which, similar to Story’s “Greensleeves”, begs to be listened to with eyes closed. Though this particular hymn carries more heaviness than most Christmas songs, it’s a really beautiful arrangement that I enjoy much more without the lyrics. Gaertner does a great job to make it listenable without losing the pure punch that the song is designed to carry.

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, David Shoenberg
If you’ll indulge me, a word on the religious aspect of Christmas. “Hark!” is my favorite religious Christmas song, and I think far too often its performances are a miss. Yes, the song is supposed to represent the moment when “a multitude of the heavenly hosts” appears to shepherds in order to give glory to God. Artists from Bing Crosby to Mariah Carey take this to mean that it should be belted out as a swelling, grand piece that starts near the top and only goes up. Glory is, as another hymn tells us, meant to be expressed in excelcis deo.

I have a different view. David Shoenberg’s rendition understands something fundamental about the holiday that is missed by those grandiose interpretations. The “newborn king” was, after all, born in the humblest of places, with the lowest members of society in attendance. If we learn anything from the nativity, it is that the seemingly shoddiest of circumstances often hold those people and things which are most precious. It makes little sense to me for the heavenly hosts to be a loud revelry trumpeting from the mountaintops in a story where everything is humble, understated, quiet.

This is how “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is supposed to be done. Shoenberg shows that true beauty is in subtlety. That glory can be given softly. That the “king of kings” would, of course, be born in a manger.

Shoenberg understands that, as my favorite theologian once said, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

 

And finally, the most underplayed and underappreciated piece of Christmas music out there:

“All I Want for Christmas is You”, Mariah Carey

Just kidding. It’s actually:

Windham Hill Holiday Guitar Collection, Various Artists

The whole thing. For my money, this is one of three indispensable holiday albums, along with Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas and Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song. But while those two are rightly recognized as titans of the genre, this compilation album is oft overlooked. This despite containing some of the most ponderous, beautiful music I’ve ever heard, Christmas or not. As the title suggests, this is an album consisting entirely of acoustic guitar covers of Christmas classics. As with the previously listed songs, the featured artists are able achieve the remarkable feat of imposing their own sensibilities and creative flourishes onto instantly recognizable and beloved songs. The technical skill of each of the featured guitarists is undeniable, and it’s easy to find yourself astounded by their ability to merge pure precision with unbelievable beauty.

What’s more, the Windham Hill Holiday Guitar Collection is one of the more adaptable holiday albums out there. By that I mean that it works both for people for whom the holidays are the most joyous time of year, as well as those who find the season to be one of grief and woe. Its acoustic aesthetic lends it a relaxed, almost melancholic sensibility to satisfy those experiencing a blue Christmas, while not entirely sacrificing the hope and joy that pulses through the melodies we’ve hummed for decades.

While I would argue that the whole album is essential listening, there are certainly highlights. If you only wish to skim off the top, I think the best songs are Steve Erquiaga’s “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” and “Angles We have Heard on High”, Steve Morse’s “Carol of the Bells”, and finally Sean Harkness’ gorgeous cover of my favorite Christmas song, “Christmas Time Is Here”. Those four songs belong on every Christmas playlist. If you still haven’t heard them I implore you to listen now. You won’t be disappointed.


And that’s the playlist! Thank you so much for listening and reading, I hope you enjoyed it.

Finally, I’d like to wish you a safe, happy holidays from NQN. Thanks for reading in 2018, and we’ll see you next year!

Don’t You Feel Like Desperados Under the Eaves?

I love Warren Zevon’s music.  To me, he is the type of musician that blends so much of what I love in art. Attention to detail, love of the outcast, desperation, loneliness, and an immensely personal touch wherein the work you make changes depending on where you are in life.

I could write about Zevon’s entire discography in this context, but I’d need the space of a book to do so. Instead, I’ll focus on one song in particular that I feel perfectly captures Zevon. The artist, the musician, the poet, the man.

[Warren Zevon’s] musical patterns are all over the place, probably because he’s classically trained. There might be three separate songs within a Zevon song, but they’re all effortlessly connected. Zevon was a musician’s musician, a tortured one. ‘Desperados Under the Eaves.’ It’s all in there.”
Bob Dylan

“Desperados Under the Eaves” is many things. It is immensely evocative, chock-full of wordplay, and above all else a great song. I’d like to start by focusing on the poetic lyrics that Zevon penned.

Here are the lyrics in the first half of “Desperados Under the Eaves”:

“I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel
I was staring in my empty coffee cup
I was thinking that the gypsy wasn’t lyin’
All the salty margaritas in Los Angeles
I’m gonna drink ’em up

And if California slides into the ocean
Like the mystics and statistics say it will
I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill

Don’t the sun look angry through the trees
Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves
Don’t you feel like Desperados under the eaves
Heaven help the one who leaves

Still waking up in the mornings with shaking hands
And I’m trying to find a girl who understands me
But except in dreams you’re never really free
Don’t the sun look angry at me

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel”

The first stanza/verse paints a picture of a broken man, who clearly loves drinking. The added flair of alliteration forces us to pay attention to the words in this part, rather than the music. Zevon also offhandedly mentions that he’s been to a gypsy psychic, showing us a glimpse into his thoughts on the supernatural.

As we move on into the subsequent verses, our picture of this paranoid alcoholic is sharpened. Zevon also, in a clever rhyme, reminds us that sometimes the spiritual (mystics) and secular (statistics) converge. Of course, in this case, it’s an agreement on apocalyptic prognostication, one that will still leave Zevon bitten in the behind when all is said and done. This is a motif of the first half, everything coming together against Warren Zevon. The world must just be against him personally.

There’s also a great deal of religious imagery in this opening half. Obviously there’s the “heaven help” line, as well as the the appeals to both mystics and a gypsy. But I want to focus on the Sun, and the trees that “look like crucified thieves”.

In the gospels, Jesus is crucified along with two thieves (in Luke these are the Penitent and Impenitent thieves). This line changes the meaning of the angry Sun; instead of referring to an angry ball of hydrogen and helium, it’s referring to the homophone version (Son), which when paired with crucified thieves, means Jesus.

Thus, when the Son looks angry at Zevon specifically (“don’t the sun look angry at me”), it’s referring to an angry God, one that Zevon thinks is singling him out. This plays into the persecution complex that is plaguing him throughout the song. Even if the world is ending, the motel will still be there to collect from him, because he just can’t catch a break. He can’t find a girl who “understands” him, and this complaint is lumped in with the shaking hands that indicate his alcoholism. He can’t find any freedom but in his dreams, and it’s all because the world, and God, is against him.

“Desperados Under the Eaves” has been called one of Zevon’s most personal songs, which makes sense. A struggling man, who thinks the world is against him. An alcoholic, waking up in the morning with “shaking hands” and a vague recollection of what some gypsy told him as he stares into his coffee. It’s easy to see how Zevon, who at the time of writing hadn’t released a major studio album yet, and who was an alcoholic abuser who did awful things and was a generally shitty person, could be seen in these words. He’s justifying his own failures and shitty actions by blaming them on an angry God.


If “Desperados Under the Eaves” were purely literary, I clearly still think it would be worthy of praise, even if the message of the first half is comically misguided.  But it exists as a song, and it is musically where it shines.

Thus far I’ve focused on the first half, and in that section the words dominate.  But this shifts as we move to the latter half, and something else takes over.

“Desperados Under the Eaves” is 288 seconds long. Here are all the words in the second half of the song:

“I was listening to the air conditioner hum
It went mmm…
Look away down Gower Avenue, look away”

Of course, if that was all that there was to the final 144 seconds, I wouldn’t be writing this piece. Those seconds contain a hymnal quality, with the sweeping strings, layered harmonies, and incantatory repetition of “Look away…”. It is one of the most hauntingly beautiful arrangements I have ever heard. I am not a musical theorist. I can’t give you the concrete reasons as to why it is brilliant. People way smarter than me (Dylan, Springsteen, Carl Wilson and Jackson Browne, the latter two being a part of the “Look away” harmony) recognize how incredible it is, and I’ll take their word for it.

All I can tell you is that as it crescendos and eventually fades, it arouses emotions in me that I didn’t know I could feel. Its beauty moves me in the special way all of us have been by music—i.e. a way that as of yet hasn’t been put into words, and which I highly doubt ever will.

But what makes “Desperados Under the Eaves” truly genius is in the way it frames this beauty.

This gorgeous, maddeningly perfect ending is all supposed to be coming from a humming air conditioner, in a tacky, themed motel. We have all seen these air conditioners, have all felt their mediocre cooling abilities, have all heard the rattle and hum of one of life’s least consequential items. Zevon’s genius is that he gives said item the ability to conjure the holiest of sounds—to be the source of one of the most beautiful things you can ever hear.


When Aretha Franklin passed away earlier this year, I read an amazing piece by Rembert Browne that talks about her album, Amazing Grace. In it, he says:

“Technically, Amazing Grace is art at its highest form, the work of a bona fide musical genius at her peak…For as long as I can remember hearing these songs…there’s been a moment, on each song, that Aretha does something that makes me believe in God.

More than any sermon, any text, or any life moment, it’s Aretha that keeps me a believer, in something…Over the years, it was this album that provided a light. That assurance you need in your life, that things will eventually be OK.”

I have gone back and forth on my spiritual beliefs more times than I can count. Even as I write this I grapple with the idea of a higher power, the concept that there is something out there for us that binds us all, that gives us that assuring light.

I can’t go as far as to call myself a believer. I’m not. But in the moments when I fancy myself a believer, in the moments when I do think there is a higher power, I find it in the smallest details. In the crevices and crannies that on any given day seem innocuous. If there is a higher power, it comes to me in the strangest ways. It’s in an autumn breeze. In the facial expression of a loved one. A smell from an open window. The feeling of warm water on your hands. The tiniest things that reach out to you and remind you why life is this cosmically beautiful thing, which–higher power or not–we’re lucky to be living.

Warren Zevon would have never written a song that is explicitly about a religious experience. He thought himself too cool, too swaggering, too devil-may-care.

But I think Warren Zevon heard his higher power humming to him in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel. It’s why religious words and imagery pervade throughout. It’s why his complaining about the world’s bias against him ends. It’s why we’re left to rise up with music that would move heaven itself as we look away, down Gower Avenue. He heard something speak to him, reassure him that everything would be alright. He heard it in that beautiful hum.

It’s why every time I hear that hum, I find something new to believe in.

Thumbnail image copyright Asylum Records, 1976.

Streaming Recommendation: Twilight Zone Tripleheader

I know, I know. In my original Streaming Recommendation, I said that this series would mostly focus on feature length film, rather than television. But I have a justification! Namely that the first episode in this tripleheader, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, was not originally made for television, but is instead a French short film (La Rivière du hibou) that won first prize for Best Short Subject at Cannes in 1962, and the 1963 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. The producers of The Twilight Zone decided to buy the American broadcasting rights and air it as an episode. So there, cinematically inclined.

Despite its plaudits as a film, it is routinely overlooked in lists of the greatest Twilight Zone episodes, and its popularity pales in comparison to, say, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” or “It’s a Good Life”.

Plus, I’ve added two more seldom-appreciated episodes to bring this recommendation up to feature length, both starring the perpetually underrated John Hoyt! So without any further unnecessary sematic justification, here’s a Twilight Zone tripleheader that you can enjoy on Netflix right now:

S5 E22: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

This short film is based on the famous 1891 short story by Ambrose Bierce. Of that short story, esteemed author Kurt Vonnegut said:

“[‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’] is a flawless example of American genius, like ‘Sophisticated Lady’ by Duke Ellington or the Franklin stove.”

The story of “Occurrence” is that a man is to be hanged, at Owl Creek Bridge. While standing on the bridge, he thinks of his family. But, the rope snaps, he falls into the creek, and is able to escape. The story is lauded for its exploration of life, death, humanity, human nature, reality, and the consciousness of thought that humans possess.

To adapt Bierce’s story is to accept a high degree of difficulty and scrutiny. Thankfully, director Robert Enrico is up to the task.From the very opening moments, Enrico’s stylistic imprint is upon us. The opening longshots of the woods, the lookout, the bridge, are semi-obstructed by branches and stones. We’re observing from afar, figuratively and literally. It suggests that much like the running of the creek or the growth of the trees; humans bring war, crime, and punishment as our contribution to nature.

Indeed, nature, and the appreciation of the world and the lives within it, is the main thrust of the film. I’ll leave out as much detail as possible with regards to plot, but wish to comment on some other technical things I appreciated/noticed.The underwater camera work is fantastic, and is one of the instances of black and white photography almost certainly being the better option, as it allows for sharp contrasts and clearer delineations of objects while in a disorienting position (similar to the earlier moment of vertigo while on the bridge). The perspective shot as we sink to the bottom is exceptional.

The choice to distort one of the few bits of dialogue is notable. It serves as a commentary on the monstrous nature of war and killings while also working within the diegesis in multiple ways.

One major deviation from the short story which I think is positive is that the reason for the hanging, while shown, is given much less time as a focus. It allows audiences to be more empathetic and forgiving, especially 2018 audiences.

The almost complete lack of dialogue is not a first for the original Twilight Zone. One of the more famous episodes, season two’s “The Invaders” is almost completely dialogue-free. As in that episode, the lack of exposition via dialogue allows for an emphasis on visual storytelling, and it is here where the film’s directors shine.

We don’t learn of the regimented nature of war via various orders. We see it in the choreographed movements. We don’t hear the struggle of facing death. We see it in anguished faces and exaggerated movements. It’s a shining example of what can be accomplished by showing rather than telling–something which is glaringly overlooked now more so than ever in narrative (supposedly) visual media.


S2 E8: “The Lateness of the Hour”

“The Lateness of the Hour” is so good that it’s able to win me over despite being one of the few Twilight Zone episodes shot on video rather than film. I can’t overstate how great of an accomplishment it is to be amazing while looking ugly as sin.

“The Lateness of the Hour” seems prescient in the questions it poses on morality in artificial intelligence. It has served as an inspiration and template for many a sci-fi work in the almost six decades since its release. Indeed, “The Lateness of the Hour” tackles many of the philosophical and moral questions examined by Philip Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the primary basis of the 1982 film Blade Runner) a full eight years before that novel debuted.

It deals with a family who uses robot servants built by the patriarch, Dr. William Loren. Dr. Loren’s daughter objects to the cushy lifestyle that her father’s inventions enable, and asks them to be decommissioned. The episode unfolds from there, and deals with one of the great questions of humankind. What does it mean to be human? Can a non homo sapien be human?

It is another Twilight Zone episode with a mind-bending twist, though the reception of this twist in popular culture has differed from some of the more famous ones. Rather than being parodied, it has been replicated, by the aforementioned Blade Runner and the more recent Ex Machina. It’s why I think the episode still feels fresh 58 years on, as compared to the brilliant but heavily spoofed “To Serve Man” or “Time Enough at Last”.

Inger Stevens is incredible in this episode. She does so much work with her face, and truly throws every bit of emotion she’s got into the episode (Inger Stevens is a criminally underrated actress in every regard. Check out The World, the Flesh, and the Devil sometime, or “The Hitchhiker” episode of Twilight Zone). Her wide eyes are totally engrossing, almost hypnotic. It might seem like a melodramatic or unrealistic performance on the first watch, but repeat viewings really do it justice. She walks a fine, fine line.

I think my favorite part of the twist is the multifaceted dramatically ironic line that proves its speaker’s point unintentionally. I want to avoid spoilers here, but it really does speak to a part of the human condition that is as inseparable from life as nerves and muscle.


S2 E28: “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”

“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up”, or “WtRMPSU” if you wanna be a hip acronym-using youngster, is one of the closest things that the original Twilight Zone has to a straightforward whodunit. Though, crucially, the “dunit” in question is not an action, but an identity.

State Troopers are sent to investigate reports of a UFO. They find tracks leading to a diner where a bus has stopped due to an ongoing snowstorm. Six passengers got off the bus. Seven patrons are in the diner (including the dude who played Dr. Loren in the episode we just watched. ‘Sup doc!). Nobody knows who is the Martian among them. Paranoia sets in. Play it out from there.

It plays perfectly to the advantages of a “bottle episode”, building up the claustrophobia and tension with every panicked look, every emphatic triad of musical notes. The use of close ups and medium shots from all over the diner aid this. We get a great sense of what the space looks like thanks to the multiple perspectives, but the repeated use of close-ups and medium shots makes the space feel smaller.

This is another episode which has aged well due to cultural forces outside of its control. The modern police procedural has gotten so far inside our own heads that we have all these reasons for why we suspect a certain “who” in whodunit. ‘Can’t be the cranky guy. Too obvious.’ ‘Can’t be the couple. There was only one killer.’ ‘Can’t be the wacky woman, too obvious again.’ The creators of “WtRMPSU” didn’t have all those conventions and tropes to worry about, so they just made the best possible story. The only convention they had to adhere to was Chekhov’s gun. This provides them the freedom to perform a cunning bit of sleight of hand that makes suckers out of so many people the first time they see it.

What’s more, thanks to being part of an anthology series, we don’t have to deal with the half-assed five minute attempt at serialization that we put up with in 2018! And thank goodness for that. Because I have yet to meet someone who watches CSI for the long-term character development. “WtRMPSU” doesn’t have to shoehorn that in.

Yes, the set-up of “WtRMPSU” is contrived. Yes, the episode moves much slower than your standard 2018 procedural. But, it accomplishes something that fewer and fewer works of contemporary narrative cinema are doing. It builds tension on top of itself, all culminating in the waning minutes of the episode. It’s gripping, high quality entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Sit back and enjoy a masterful piece of pacing.

Where to watch: Netflix

When to watch: I’ve always felt that the optimal time to watch the original Twilight Zone is nearing midnight on a cold, blustery Friday evening. “WtRMPSU” begs to be watched during a snowstorm, but I guess we’ll have to settle for autumnal wind.

Who to watch with: Anybody! Maybe not small children? I’m guessing the MPAA gives these a PG.

What to look for:

  • Is the ending to “Occurence” shocking? How? In its conception or visual? Both?
  • In “Occurrence”, where’s our marked man’s family at the end?
  • Look for repeated shots scattered through “Occurrence”. Is this an editing mistake?
  • What are the parallels between Dr. Loren and Dr. Frankenstein? How does the episode overtly hint at this? Is one more morally upstanding than the other?
  • I mentioned that there’s one line in “Lateness” that’s multifaceted in its irony. See if you can spot another, in the form of a double entendre, much earlier.
  • I mentioned above how “WtRMPSU” plays with space. How does it play with time? With geography?
  • What are the differences between the latter two episodes and the first? Visually? Musically? Structurally?

Streaming Reccomendation: Y Tu Mamá También

On a general level, my attitude toward most of the streaming services’ catalogs can be described as such:

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The big online streaming platforms (which for simplicity’s sake I’m counting as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and YouTube) have done a disservice to the vast expanse of film history, paring down their movie offerings to either the exceptionally popular or titles that are cheap to purchase the streaming rights for (clearly things are different on the television side of the equation, but that’s not my lane). Hardcore cinephiles have had to turn elsewhere for their classic/indie/international kicks, and luckily we have been gifted the incomparable FilmStruck and the exceptional Fandor.

If you find yourself craving an excellent film, but don’t have the extra $10/month to shell out for these services, it’s easy to feel like you’re SOL with the major streaming services. But fear not! Here at NQN, we are launching our Streaming Recommendations series, where we recommend the great slices of film history that hide in plain sight on the big streaming platforms.

First, the 2001 Alfonso Cuarón film, Y Tu Mamá También.

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Y Tu Mamá También is a genre-bending film. Google identifies it as a “Drama/Comedy-Drama”, so basically the ultimate search engine just spits out genre buzzwords when asked. Y Tu Mamá También has been identified as “coming of age”, as a “sex comedy”, and, if you ask me, a “politically driven coming of age sex dramedy”.

The film follows best friends Julio and Tenoch in the days immediately following their graduation from high school. Both their girlfriends are going abroad to Europe, so the boys are left to gallivant and embrace their hedonistic tendencies to their hearts’ content. They meet an older woman, Louisa, at a wedding, and, despite being married to Tenoch’s cousin, attempt to seduce her by inviting her on a trip to a far-off beach. The main section of the film deals with their road trip across Mexico, the people they encounter along the way, the conversations had while hotboxing the car, and the toxicity associated with Julio and Tenoch’s competition to sleep with Louisa.

I am loath to spoil any of the details of said trip, but suffice it to say that Y Tu Mamá También earns every label I ascribed it in my attempt to identify its genre. While the ostensible plot moves rather slowly, everything else moves at breakneck speed, bouncing from conversations on drugs to sex to the lives of working class Mexicans and all the way back in a span of a few minutes. Every time I’ve watched Y Tu Mamá También I’ve found something new, either a side-splitting joke or a poignant new socio-political message.

The politics of Y Tu Mamá También are difficult to describe, as most of it is either presented visually or inferred through plot details. If you aren’t up on Mexican history (I wasn’t when I first saw it), a lot of it can go over your head. There are two important things to know before watching. First is that one party held control of the government for 71 years (elections were not considered “free” by anyone outside Mexico up until the 90s) and Y Tu Mamá También takes place during the election that voted them out of power. Second is that NAFTA was enacted in 1994, and played a huge role in the stratification of wealth among rich and poor Mexicans. There were very few middle-class citizens (though, critically, Julio is one of them).

Director Alfonso Cuarón’s technical chops have never been questioned (he won an Academy Award off of them via Gravity), and Y Tu Mamá También is no exception. The film is a masterwork of neo-realism, able to simultaneously weave long takes and “slow” moments into a commercially appealing work. Cuarón doesn’t think we’re all impatient nitwits, and is willing to linger in scenes and shots in the service of both character development, and replicating Mexico as realistically as possible. The film also contains my favorite long-take ever, see if you can spot it.

Y Tu Mamá También is one of the funniest films ever made. It is one of the more sexually explicit films ever made. It is also one of the best examples of how to make an extremely potent political film that is also immensely entertaining. You can enjoy Y Tu Mamá También without looking for what it’s really about. But once you start reading between the lines, that’s where the best things are hidden.

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Where to watch: Netflix
When to watch: A good weekend romp. Friday or Saturday evening.
Who to watch with: Some good friends, or a significant other. Do NOT watch with family.
What to look for:

  • Look for details in the background. What’s hanging on the walls? Who’s in the background? What are they doing?
  • If our non-diegetic narrator pops in, PAY ATTENTION.
  • What does Tenoch’s father do? Why does it matter? Pay close attention whenever he’s brought up.
  • What’s Julio’s last name? What does it reference?
  • What’s the name of Julio and Tenoch’s group? What’s their “code” called?
  • Who pays? Why?

Phantom Thread’s Demme Influence

I absolutely adore Phantom Thread. Many of its qualities seem handpicked to whet the cinephile’s appetite, from the delicacy and precision of character movement, to the dreamlike quality of the score, to the range of emotions that emanate from Alma, Reynolds, and Cyril in every frame. Similar to many of my personal favorites, it is a film which makes the ordinary hypnotic.

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Another quality which endears cinephiles to Phantom Thread is the obvious reverence that it has for film history. Director Paul Thomas Anderson repeatedly mentioned Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) as the main inspiration for the film, but other images and styles from the annals of film history pulsate through Phantom Thread. A simple Google of “Phantom Thread influences” finds numerous essays and videos attempting to showcase Anderson’s appreciation for the masters of the form who came before him:

However, there is one influencer of Anderson (and consequently Phantom Thread) who seems to be missing from the conversation.

Paul Thomas Anderson loved Jonathan Demme. Following Demme’s passing in April 2017, Anderson moderated an entire weekend’s worth of discussions and panels on Demme’s oeuvre. Anderson made note of a number of motifs which stood out to him during the screenings, a few of which you can see clearly imprinted upon Phantom Thread:

“One thing I would say about all of Jonathan [Demme]’s films is that there’s not background in the traditional way that you see like somebody mindlessly crossing in the background of an office. Literally everything, every person in the frame seems to have some role or story going on.” –Paul Thomas Anderson

While Phantom Thread is an intensely personal film, chronicling the dynamic relationships of Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril Woodcock, Anderson ensures that any scene with extras shows said extras with some ulterior action or motive. In taking this cue from Demme, Anderson creates an entirely new multi-dimensional world with Phantom Thread. A world alive with people of all shapes and walks of life, not merely a sandbox for our central characters to roam in. For a film which deals with wealth, opulence, and luxury, such a grounding in reality is crucial. It allows the viewer to engage with the piece in a manner not possible while residing strictly in the realms of fantasy.

Another aspect of Deme’s film-making that is imprinted in Phantom Thread (and Anderson’s filmography in general) is Demme’s choice in shot angles and framing. Demme loved to experiment with what he called the “subjective camera”, and expand upon “the little snippets you see in Hitchcock and Sam Fuller”. In most cases, Demme represented this via extreme closeups directly in front of a character’s face. Demme fully admits to not inventing this type of shot, but he did take it further than almost anyone else (except Yasujirō Ozu). In some film circles, the shorthand term for this type of shot is “the Demme closeup”. And indeed, both Demme and Anderson make heavy use of these extreme closeups, which have a tendency to make characters appear to pierce the fourth wall and make eye contact with the viewer. This angle has appeared throughout both of the directors’ filmography, shown below from Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Philadelphia (1993), and Beloved (1998); and Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) and Phantom Thread (2017):

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While this is a solid starting point, there’s even more to be found be delving into Demme’s idea of the “subjective camera”, and how it relates to Phantom Thread.

Take, for example, Demme’s Swimming To Cambodia. It is, ostensibly, nothing more than a recording of Spalding Gray’s on-stage monologue of the same name. But Demme’s choice of when to use the subjective camera is of note. One such example comes when Gray is imitating his girlfriend yelling at a neighbor (below). Demme places the viewer in the yellee’s shoes, to punctuate the intensity of moment:

But if we go beyond this initial analysis, we find more levels of subjectivity in this shot. As much as it may feel like it, we aren’t being put in Gray’s neighbor’s shoes, because we are receiving the tale secondhand. Gray is merely conveying his girlfriend’s shouting to the audience as he understands it, and Demme is conveying his understanding of Gray’s attempt to replicate the scenario. The layered meaning of the “subjective camera” throughout Demme’s filmography lies beyond the innovative framing of perspective shots.

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Anderson takes this idea of subjectivity even further in Phantom Thread. The film’s story is framed as being told to Reynolds’ doctor by Alma, following her ‘mild’ poisoning of Reynolds to “calm him down”. This easily forgotten detail is crucial, and informs how Phantom Thread should be watched by an active viewer. Alma is our guide through the world of London couture and House Woodcock. This detail is the raison d’être for the dreamlike quality of banal sequences, the hypnotic rhythm of the day-to-day, and the overall intensity of the film. It is one Alma removed from reality, thus coloring the world seen on screen as she sees fit. It contains a filter that could be said to contain a mixture of nostalgia, and either exaggeration or understatement.

Was Reynolds truly as overbearing, anal, controlling, and possessive as he is portrayed in Phantom Thread? Or is Alma remembering it that way to justify her actions in poisoning him? Or is the opposite true? Could Alma be underselling Reynolds’ toxicity to justify her love for him and fend off a doctor that clearly desires her? Ultimately it is for the viewer to determine.

But it is vital to recognize that we are not observing Phantom Thread through anyone’s eyes but Alma’s, and the entire film is viewed through this “subjective camera”. Anderson has taken Demme’s love for the subjective camera to its limits, by subtly making an entire film told via this view, all while weaving elements of Demme, Hitchcock, and over a century of film history into the tale.

Phantom Thread is a fitting homage to one of the great directors of the modern popular cinema, who himself was an avid student of film history. It takes elements of Demme’s style, mixes them with the things Demme loved, and creates a masterwork of subjective storytelling. Anderson provides a wonderful send off, for the mentor who influenced him most.

 

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The Underappreciated Scene Transition

One of my personal favorite touches in filmmaking is when a film’s editing ties two separate scenes together such that the way in which a transition takes place conveys meaning beyond that of a normal cut. Film (more accurately speaking, media of the moving image) is unique in that transitions from one scene to another can be instantaneous. In the vast majority of cases, this means that the production of two different scenes is a self-contained exercise, wherein each is shot separately, and then placed in its order in the film’s narrative, with the only interaction between the two scenes being said narrative link. The transition itself is given little or no thought.

However, there are sequences throughout the annals of film history that aim to creatively weave scenes together, and make an artistic statement via a dissolve, cut, wipe, fade, etc. Such sequences and transitions can make a film much more cohesive, and can elevate the artistic meaning of a film beyond the reaches of a “conventional” cut.

To show what I mean, here are my three favorite examples:

1. Citizen Kane’s (1941) “eye dissolve” 

I mean, come on. This eye matching is just nutty.

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To not only have the foresight to plan such a transition, but be able to formulate a way in which you can stage and shoot these scenes and get that eye match is the sign that Orson Welles was in an elevated stratosphere of filmmaking while making Citizen Kane. Also, the rest of the stained glass gives some more symbolic meaning to Susan’s character (the scales being the clearest). But I’ll leave that for you to read into.

Sometimes the greatest scene transitions are much more subtle in practice, but can make a grand statement. Sadly, these moments of greatness often go unnoticed, as is the case with my second example:

2. Opening credits zoom out from O Něčem Jiném (1963)

This one doesn’t appear to fit within the theme of scene transitions. Moreover, it doesn’t even seem all that interesting at first. I consider it a scene transition because without the zoom it would be incredibly difficult for a first-time viewer to discern that they are watching a TV being filmed. As such, the audience moves from watching an isolated performance by a gymnast, to a family’s home. But still, why is this transition worthy of praise? Sure, it’s mildly impressive that director Věra Chytilová is able to convincingly shoot the scene such that we can’t tell we’re watching a TV, but the two zooms (first being a zoom away from the gymnast, then a zoom out to the living room) aren’t all that great in isolation.

The reason why I love this particular transition has to do with O Něčem Jiném’s structure as a film, and how this subtle introduction interacts with it. O Něčem Jiném (English title: Something Different) has two seemingly separate stories that are intercut with one another. Edgar Cochran sums it up nicely:

“Two stories are simultaneously told. One dutiful mother progressively becomes a frustrated woman who is the only one assuming the family responsibilities of working at home and looking after her only son, whereas her husband works all day, does not appreciate his wife’s efforts and the only thing he does by the time he gets home is to read the newspaper and watch soccer matches. On the other hand, a female gymnast prepares for her last competition before her career retirement, but faces pressure from her trainer and a lack of motivation to keep going. The film depicts frustration on both sides, and parallels two worlds dominated by men, where women do not receive any recognition, and in case they do, it is momentary.”


What Cochran does not mention is that the gymnast is Eva Bosáková, an actual Czech gymnast whose scenes were shot while she was training for the 1962 World Championships in Prague. Her segment of the film is a documentary, with Chytilová observing what was going on behind the scenes in her training sessions. Conversely, the story of housewife Věra (played by Vera Uzelacová) was written for the film, and is “fictional”. This opening sequence is the only interaction that the two stories have in Something Different, and yet it proves to be one of the keys to the film’s meaning. Chytilová is expressing that the struggles of the housewife are just as real as those of the gymnast, by connecting their worlds through this framing device. If the gymnast’s story is real, and contained in the diegesis of the housewife’s world, it makes the housewife’s world just as real. An extremely potent and subversive statement, especially for 1963.

And finally, my absolute favorite transition

3. A statement on race and power, from Imitation of Life (1959)

Imitation of Life tells the story of aspiring actress Lora (Lana Turner) who befriends and takes in African-American Annie (Juanita Moore) and her daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). When Lora’s career takes off, Annie becomes the family housekeeper. However, Sarah Jane is extremely fair-skinned, and passes as white for the majority of the film, much to her mother’s dismay. She begins dating a white boy, but her race and his racism come to a head in the following scene:

CONTENT WARNING: RELATIONSHIP VIOLENCE, RACIAL VIOLENCE

 



The loud, seemingly-ill-fitting jazz in the background punctuates the beating scene such that it forces the audience to pay attention—you can’t ignore it as “normal conventional movie drama” anymore. Then, it abruptly cuts to Annie giving Lora a foot massage, as Lora says “Ahh that felt so good.” Such a line following a savage beating like that is not merely coincidence. The visual symbolism of a black woman giving a white woman a foot massage underscores this.

This has been read numerous ways, including as a confirmation that director Douglas Sirk secretly harbors racist sentiments himself. However, my reading is one of a commentary on society and the prevailing attitudes of the time. Sirk is arguing that white people of the day, no matter how seemingly allied with black people (as Lora is through the film) are willing to make black people subservient in order to fulfill their desires. When a black person gets out of “their place” (as Sarah Jane did), it “feels good” to put them back (violently, if need be). Sirk later acknowledged that the two African-American characters were the main characters of the film, claiming that he “subversively undercut Turner to draw focus toward the problems of the two black characters.” I mean, just look at this screenshot:
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Lana Turner’s skin and costuming practically blend into the monochrome set, something that repeatedly happens to all of the white characters in the second half of the film. Sirk reduces her to furniture; he’s visually confirming that her story is NOT the one that matters. Such a visual strategy makes it hard for me to believe that he used the preceding cut as some sort of sick joke.

Instead, I think it was Sirk’s way of undercutting his apparently progressive and “colorblind” leading white family. This transition shows that even though Lora claims she views Annie as an equal, she truly views her as a subordinate. Even though she appears to love Annie and Sarah Jane, she is aghast earlier in the film when she discovers that Sarah Jane is dating a white boy and not “one of her own”.

I cannot understate how important it is to consider this transition in the context of the film as a whole, and recommend wholeheartedly that you go watch it now. But the fact that even in isolation it can be so pregnant with meaning is a testament to the power of editing in film, and reinforces what a shame it is that this opportunity for artistic expression is so criminally underutilized.