Month: July 2012

One Year, One Voice; Remembering Amy

It’s been one year, down to the day, that one of the greatest voices in contemporary music was silenced forever. July 23, 2011 marked the death of Amy Winehouse; an artist’s death that affected millions around the world. As we go one year without the voice that inspired so many, I want to revisit an article I did for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last summer, explaining my frustrations at the outrage over the media coverage of her death. As we endure an age where media oversensation runs rampant, I wanted to touch on various aspects of celebrity culture I think are entirely important to cover in the news. Detractors cite her various addictions as reason to “expect” her death and, in turn, somehow justify it as something trivial and unworthy of our attention. I wanted to cover these topics in the article. The fact remains that Amy’s voiced touched millions, and while her physical voice may be silenced, the part of our hearts she illuminated will sing forever.

ORIGINALLY POSTED IN THE PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE, JULY 2011

He can only hold her for so long,

The lights are on, but no one’s home.

Amy Winehouse, “He Can Only Hold Her”

It’s a seemingly trite verse lifted from a tune which appears on the late Ms.  Winehouse’s sophomore (and, unfortunately, final) album “Back to Black.” Without  context, it doesn’t mean much. When examining the all-too-brief life of the  woman who wrote it, though, it becomes as searing as her out-of-this-era  voice.

The lights were certainly “on” in one way or another for Ms. Winehouse. Five  Grammys. International sales certifications named after every precious metal in  existence. Top 10 hits in what seems to be every country that hosts broadcast  radio.

But no one seemed to be “home” to discipline the young lady with all the  accolades. Certainly not Ms. Winehouse herself.

Images of the singer trolling the streets of London, barely coherent, come  quickly to mind. This seems to be how the media favored her. She was the celebrity screw-up. The headline disaster that struck once a  weekend. An easy target. The butt of the joke. All for being brutally honest  about her life, including her addictions to alcohol and crack cocaine.

She was an addict. But she was also one of my biggest inspirations.

Fans know the tragic last years of her life as the “old” Amy. This wasn’t the  Amy they wanted to see come out with another album. This was the Amy that  whenwillamywinehousedie.com preyed upon; certainly not the Amy I hoped would  survive.

The media awaited — and at certain points, even I painfully expected — the  breaking news of her death-too-soon.

“I’m absolutely disgusted that her death is receiving more coverage than the  tragedy in Oslo,” one of my friends said to me. “People are crying for Amy but  can’t even point out Oslo on a map,” he continued, “It’s just proof of this  country’s pathetic obsession with fame as well as the total lack of empathy with  the common person, albeit in a different part of the world.”

His frustrations have been echoed by many a hipster-Greenpeace-vegan hybrid  since the news arrived of Ms. Winehouse’s death. I mean, “anti-establishmentism”  is the bees knees nowadays.

It’s not hard to see that Ms. Winehouse was a godsend to many. The fact that  news of her death impacted so many people is no fault of the media which is  reporting it. If a story is being read, it would only make sense for an outlet  to cover it. The public has spoken, and news of Ms. Winehouse’s passing seems to  be hitting home with far more than just those “pathetically obsessed with  fame”.

News of her death hit me as hard as the first note I heard escape her tiny,  delicate frame. I was 16. She was around the same age that I am now. But her  voice smoldered with tinges of another era (though it’s done heapings of  injustice by any comparison whatsoever) that took me to a place I could  experience only by way of headphones and “Back to Black” on repeat.

The time I spent with her music was time I spent getting to know her. Loving  Amy was not, for me, about an obsession with fame, as my friend seems to think.  When an artist becomes a celebrity because she expresses extraordinary  creativity, as Ms. Winehouse did with every song she wrote and performed, she  forms a relationship with her listeners. Not only of a consumer-supports-artist  nature, but even on a spiritual level.

The darker side of life pervaded Ms. Winehouse’s music. Whether it was in  crooning a beautifully subdued rendition of the 1958 Teddy Bears’ hit “To Know  Him Is To Love Him” or tackling original tracks like the disturbingly honest  “Rehab,” Ms. Winehouse never downplayed her struggles. She needed no safety net,  and the public certainly never provided her one.

Underneath the veil of fame was a dark, lonely, self-deprecating human being  who placed herself on display through her art. Any fan of hers will tell you  that. Her songs are like a diary, written for all of us to read.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big of a Britney Spears fan as the next guy, but  I’ll never be more than a “fan” of music products like her. We feel safe with  products. Ms. Winehouse was anything but “safe,” in both her artistry and her  personal life.

She was a danger to herself and no one denies that. But her public struggle  made her a shoulder to lean on for so many people she never knew. And it made  her death more tangible to those who loved her. Ms. Winehouse’s lyrics touched  the similarly afflicted hearts of those who clung to her as the second coming of  Billie Holiday.

Many of the hundreds of thousands mourning her death are simply mourning a  friend. We’re not elevating her death above the tragedy in Norway; we’re  grieving a personal loss that just so happened to coincide with an unspeakable  act of terrorism.

As a culture, we seem to have an “I told you so” mentality. Amy Winehouse  detractors “aren’t shocked” or “couldn’t care less” about her death, as I gather  from countless Facebook postings and conversations with friends. Now that their  “prophecy” has come true, the stake needs to be driven deeper. It can’t suffice  that she succumbed to a disease that’s little different from a fast food-induced  heart attack or smoking-induced lung cancer. We feel the need to keep talking.  Like it’s an addiction.

The song “He Can Only Hold Her” continues:

How can he have her heart,

When it got stole?

Ms. Winehouse’s heart may have been damaged and easily stolen in her search  for acceptance, but I’m thankful that I was given at least a piece of it in  recompense for the part of mine she’s since taken to the grave.

Rest in peace, Amy. I have a feeling the angels will be doing more listening  than singing thee to rest.

On a Somber Note…

On a somber note, amidst all the hooplah surrounding the release of “The Dark Knight Rises” over the past few days, I’d just like to ask everyone to keep the victims of Colorado’s “Batman Massacre” in your thoughts throughout the day.

Cinema has always been a means of escape, for me and countless millions around the world. We may, at times, find ourselves enjoying the spectacle of costume, fantasy, whimsy, sex, and often violence. But when something like this happens and is directly connected to the industry we love so much, everything stops being fun. The spectacle becomes the news coverage of such a horrid event, our arena of joy, for a moment, becomes one of darkness, confusion, and pain.

Please, do not let these senseless acts keep you from the theater this weekend. Spit in the face of these acts and show the industry’s resilience.

As a lifelong cinephile and PR rep for a studio, I am deeply saddened that people were harmed consuming the medium I’ve spent my entire life loving and a product I’ve spent the past few weeks promoting. These people were no different than you or I; fellow chasers of the celluloid dream, defenseless as they indulged in the type of fantasy we’ve all formed a healthy addiction to. To prey upon those who have suspended their everyday lives and wits about them to absorb the fantasy of what’s on the screen in front of them is an act of cowardice far too pathetic to describe. A sucker punch none of the victims saw coming.

Please, if you do anything today, send thoughts, prayers, well-wishes; anything in the vein of positivity to all those affected by today’s tragedy.

And please, I say this as a person who could have just as easily been one of those people sitting in that audience, not caring what was onscreen, just happy to be at the movies; please, go to your local theater this weekend. Support the business, and by all means, don’t let nightmares like this deter you from the dream.

May the victims rest in peace.

Coming Full Circle; “The Dark Knight Rises” Runs Rings around the Superhero Genre

Eternity; the pang of our unyielding hunger for more Batman goodness has endured for what seems like one. An insatiable need for the raw, the real, and the nitty gritty from the underbelly of the often overly commercialized “superhero” action subgenre birthed itself after our exposure to the cinematic tools (rising above mere goodie-slams-baddie-with-amazing-CGI gimmicks) contemporary auteur Christopher Nolan brought to the table in 2005’s Batman Begins. It was a reboot of an aging film franchise no one dared rouse from its defeated slumber since Joel Schumacher’s 1997 disastrous Batman & Robin, a rebirth which not only taunted the sleeping giant but forcibly prodded its awakening with brute force and cinematic mastery.

The release of Begins’ sequel, 2008’s The Dark Knight, saw Nolan exacting a razor sharp precision and understanding of the essence of his iconic subject; the aura of darkness which surrounded the mythos of the Batman universe oozed from every corner of the film, fully deconstructing our ideas of what a “superhero movie” should be. With these two films, Nolan became the “fantasy” killer; a harbinger of a new breed of “superhero movie” that wasn’t a “superhero” movie at all.

And so, we come full circle. Seven years; the amount of time its taken The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s fantastic conclusion to his Batman trilogy, to see the light of day. Seven years well-spent, building to a momentous finale that’s as viscerally pleasing as Batman Begins yet lacking the lyrical, sinister darkness that made Rise‘s direct predecessor the crowning jewel of the entire franchise, Nolan or non.

In Gotham City, eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent (a political figurehead and defender of Gotham) is dead, the crime rate is down, and the city’s sole beacon of hope hobbles around its decrepit mansion like an old man after one too many whiskey sours. This is a mere shell of a man, limping and struggling to regain composure after one scene sees a woman half his frame and a quarter of his build literally knock him off his feet; this isn’t the man who went toe-to-toe with the Joker but a single film ago—that’s the point exactly—this is Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the “human” behind the mask, fading away in the shadows of Batman, a face Mr. Wayne can no longer wear thanks to the murderous accusations which taint it. Gotham no longer needs a hero, for Harvey Dent lives on in post-death legislation and honorary holidays immortalizing his protective legacy…or so they thought.

And alas, the image of security can only sustain for so long; Gotham needs Batman once again after a devious plot to destroy Gotham comes via Bane (Tom Hardy), a mysterious brute originating from the Ra’s al-Ghul (Liam Neeson, who makes a brief cameo here) school of villainy, hell-bent on carrying out his forefather in crime’s wishes of scraping scum like Gotham City from the bottom of earth’s boot. Bane’s plot involves shutting Gotham off from the rest of the world, making routes into and out of the city impassable via some impressive explosion sequences, staging a jailbreak of Gotham’s most vicious criminals, and instigating an all-out overthrow of the bourgeois world people like Bruce Wayne inhabit. After a few weeks of the underdogs rising against “the man,” a nuclear weapon will detonate, destroying everything within a six mile radius.

The initial “attacks” range from visually stunning (an airplane sequence which opens the film) to socially commentative (an attack on the stock exchange) to a combination of the two (a football stadium is eviscerated), culminating in a grim tone that, in true Nolan fashion, forces the audience to examine their own commercially conditioned morals, seeing as bourgeois societal control is an equal partner in crime here.

Bane’s villainous intentions share similarities, in many ways, to those of Heath Ledger’s now-infamous Joker in The Dark Knight. Anarchy is key for both men; at the very least it’s stripping power from those who have been deemed worthy only by a public system of urban politics and blind submission of Gothamites, citizens who have been taught to fear Batman because he supposedly killed Harvey Dent, but willingly indulge in the monetary splendors Bruce Wayne pumps into the city. Once Bane shows up, however, they’re more than willing to embrace the former. The point being; power (through fear or through money) rules Gotham, and once fear trumps money and renders it useless, well, what else is left to do other than submit? And it’s here that we truly start to miss the antics of the Joker. Where the Joker played upon the morals of his victims, Bane is a mere brute wall (literally and figuratively) of villainous flesh, a chunk of evil who’s too bulky and cold to inspire empathy yet too fantastical to take entirely serious. Bane is a force where the Joker was a presence, and in that transition of evil we lose a sense of depth (and a key character with whom we could have identified with) along the way.

The Joker, in essence, is the sort of villain birthed from the societal confines of depravity, going after the elite social order that it was, at times, hard not to will the destruction of in The Dark Knight. Part of his appeal (and the film’s appeal, for that matter) was the ease with which we could understand (not necessarily “agree with”) his intentions. Attempting to fill that void in The Dark Knight Rises is an outcast in the form of Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), also born into the lower echelon of Gotham’s class structure, who’s made a career of stealing from the rich and willing the demise of the bourgeoisie; her ideas of overthrowing Gotham’s first-class citizens are realized, albeit not by her own hands. Willing something to happen means nothing if action isn’t taken, and she straddles a fine line between “light” and “dark” that only a wishy-washy, pseudo-villain-with-heapings-of-charm could. While Hathaway is the best “performer” of the actors in the film, her character’s presence is unjustified and, to be honest, entirely unnecessary except to balance the unmotivated “necessity” for Bruce to find love where the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in The Dark Knight left a void. It’s difficult not to compare Hathaway’s Catwoman to that of Michelle Pfeiffer’s in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, if only to place into perspective the former’s frivolous presence. Hathaway is playfully sassy and Pfeiffer was darkly sinister, the latter a consummated affair where former is but a mere striptease.

In fact, it’s the film’s superfluous elements which ultimately detach The Dark Knight Rises from any level of supreme greatness it could have achieved. The screenplay is bloated with far too many characters, events, subplots, and other excess fat which could have been easily trimmed to narrow the focus. But, I get it; the scope of the Batman universe has never been about downplaying anything, and the task of wrapping up one of the most inventive reboots in cinematic history is no easy task. The strength of the film lies within its ability to simply remain faithful to the tone and scope of Nolan’s initial blueprint in Batman Begins; whereas the evils of The Dark Knight were much more disturbing, complex, and brimming with the passion of indulging within its own sinister mythos, The Dark Knight Rises feels cold and calculated, thrilling on the surface but, thankfully, twisted and morally ambiguous in its own right. It is, at times, difficult to choose a moral “side” of the battle, primarily because the power of Nolan’s Batman saga as a whole has always been the ability to present the material slightly ambiguously; yes, we think killing is “wrong” and there is a clear distinction between “hero” and “villain,” but who can’t feel inclined, at least in part, to side with someone like the Joker, morally corrupt but with intent to destroy an equally corrupt system of bourgeois politics and societal oppression?

Perhaps I’m getting too philosophical for my own good. The savory bits of the conclusion to Nolan’s Batman trilogy really don’t lie within the individual film itself. The importance of The Dark Knight Rises is, in a sense, its ability to successfully wrap up the series which birthed it, and it does a sensational job at that as the last exciting breath of action-packed air to escape (not as subtly as I would have liked) from the lungs of the saga as it dies. A hero is not perfect, and neither is Nolan’s conclusion to his fantastic trilogy, but at least he was able to show us that over the course of three complimentary films that work as an overall package, despite their various shortcomings. Nolan’s interpretation of Batman has always been a fantasy for the people of Gotham; a beacon of hope in a shadowy underworld, the city a mere reflection what we as an audience should see within ourselves, questioning our own governances and societal positions. The line between patriarchal rule and violent force is something which has become altogether blurred through Nolan’s lens, The Dark Knight Rises his Fourth of July fireworks display; the capstone of his blossoming small-scale revolution.

Post-Grad, Post-Theory, and Present Dilemma

It was the most brilliant episode of HBO’s fantastic new series, “Girls,” which aired a little over a month ago. Protagonist Hannah Horvath (played by Lena Dunham, also the show’s creator and writer) visits her hometown in rural Michigan, which can best be described as passing out half a mile short of the finish line in the laborious marathon of life (or at least Hannah’s perception of it). She trampled it, striding past, all the way to New York City where she “lives” as a struggling writer (AKA working mindless jobs that don’t require a college education and bitching about it in a few bedside journal essays).

She meets with a childhood crush. They sit in a kind of awkward silence that’s only comforting when you know it’s only a matter of minutes before you’re in the other person’s bed (or, they’re in yours), moving your hips instead of your lips, using your tongue to titillate their genitalia versus engaging in any sort of meaningful conversation.

At once it’s a scene that captures the delicate, almost fully-blossomed awkward pre-sexual encounter that’s standard for most developing young adults during college. While that’s a very difficult thing to capture for an audience, the scene also makes it very clear that these people are young beyond their years, maturing sexually far prior to having any sort of grasp on the “real” world that’s pounding on the other side of their raging hormones.

It’s also an expertly constructed encapsulation of one of the most potent things any recent college graduate will live with for the rest of their young adult life; fear.

“So, you’re a writer in New York City?” he says to Hannah.

“Yeah,” she replies coolly, clearly enjoying the astute impression that phonetic combination affords her, knowing it impresses him.  The city turned her into quite a catch.

“So that’s how you make your money?” he asks.

“No, I don’t have any money.”

The revelation is obvious, staking a clear divide between passion and sense, a divide which hits far too close to home than I’m comfortable with.

You see, the first airing of “Girls” was in late April of this year, a week or two prior to my own college graduation.  I could barely wrap my head around the slew of last-minute final analysis papers (Hitchcock…Haneke…headache, is more like it) that I’d put off. The daunting workload perfectly outlined on the syllabi I’d been given at the start of the semester, its edges now yellow and crinkled where crisp, pure white once sprawled. A fitting metaphor for my last semester at the University of Pittsburgh…four years ago, the excitement I felt upon making the decision to dedicate an entire college career to studying the medium of cinema, one that I loved so much and wanted so desperately to be a part of. Now, it’d become a routine. A task. A landslide of busywork no different than an onslaught of algebraic equations and organic chemistry assignments I would have no doubt endured had I chosen a course path that would lead to a fruitful, marketable major. There were times, I admit, that I hated film over the course of the past few months. It was something routine, something I “had” to do versus something I “wanted” to do. At times I felt like if I’d known studying something makes passion an afterthought, I’d have buckled down and studied something “normal.”

But, instead, I’m a Film Studies major. I have a Bachelor of Arts, and what to show for it after graduation? The usual anxieties flood my mind on a daily basis. When can I move to New York? Am I going to feel “old” going out with my friends still in school? Will I be able to find a job with my major? I think, at least for me, these reasons are why “Girls” was like a shining beacon of hope for every doubt I harbor about my own post-college career. The show celebrates a sort of blind delusion with regards to one’s own talents and abilities. Are we each made to carve our own artistic path and succeed in fields which are basically impossible to find steady work in realistically? Or would we find the most comfort in working a job unrelated to what we love because it’s easy,  satiating our wallets but starving the creative side that forced us to go for that liberal arts major, ultimately leading us to the nine-to-five desk job we’re at right now?

Hannah’s cluelessness in relation to her own talents is, I supposed, meant to function as a mirror to all of us “creative” college types. She’s good at what she does (her former professor obviously thinks so), but is she somewhat delusional about just how far her abilities will take her? At that, is being somewhat delusional actually a good thing? Is there actually beauty in resisting what is the “best” way to go about paying bills after college and pursuing a dream full time? The beauty of my generation (yes, I realize I just used a positive adjective to describe us) seems to be an unflinching sense of uncaring. No job? No money? That’s fine, as long as I can make it to an unpaid photoshoot for a local magazine or have one of my articles published in the newspaper for a mere $120 (before taxes, mind you). That seems to be something my generation doesn’t fear; persistence. We definitely don’t stray from it. And if we have a goal in mind, we’re going to work ruthlessly (sometimes selfishly) in order to get it, even if that means living off of mommy and daddy for two years after college graduation (I’m looking at you, Hannah).

While I seem to be merely musing here and not making any real points, I guess what I want to take away from a show like “Girls” is a sense of pride in being fearless. Some might call the writing major Hannah studied “artsy” or “careless” because it yields little potential for financial success after college. Some might say (and have said) that the Film Studies major is a one-way ticket to the unemployment line. Three months after graduation as I write this, staring out my window at the gently pouring rain I’m forced to come to terms. Do I have a “real” job? No. But do I know a hell of a lot more about something I’ve felt passionate about my entire life? Yes. I’m equipped to analyze and write the medium. I guess now I just wait for my “Girls” to happen.