Ahead on Differential

The blog arm of the Derek Godin Online Media Empire | derekgodin.com

Back in 2014, one of my favourite music writers, Steven Hyden, wrote and article for the late, great website Grantland called “The American Band Championship Belt,” in which he anoints a series of groups as the one that towered the highest of all over a series of reigns stretching back to 1964 (inaugural title holders: the Beach Boys).

Now, you may or may not agree with the methodology or ever the titleholders. I mean, sure, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are an “and the” band, but their output transcends their generic moniker and they'd have easily fit in between Talking Heads and R.E.M. And according to at least one person in my office, it was offensive to give Guns N' Roses the belt for four years when Public Enemy was still on the table. But ultimately this is just a fun thought exercise, a way to think about the evolution of popular music through the years.

The last title holders were the Black Keys, whose run started in 2011 and ended when the article was published. Seeing as how Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney haven't put out a record as the Black Keys since then, I think it's safe to say they've vacated the title. But who shall step up and take the mantle? Now, it stands to reason, but what follows is just my own continuation of this lineage, an opinion free from the shackles of rightness and wrongness. That said...

Run the Jewels (36303319652) Photo: The Come Up Show

Run the Jewels, 2015-17

Key music: Run the Jewels 2 (2014), Run the Jewels 3 (2016)

The pairing seems obvious in hindsight. That it took Killer Mike and El-P, two indie rap titans who had been putting in creative, acclaimed work as solo artists since the early 00s, until 20-goddamn-13 to record their first full album together is kind of surprising. What isn't surprising is how great the records they've made as Run the Jewels are; all three so far have been powder kegs of tag-team hip hop fury. If anything, the get this belt because their partnership is so fecund. They bring out the absolute best in each other as performers, and they've been conquering the world, and the charts, since. The title is theirs to hoist here because their records slay, their urgency is timely, and their indie spirit is undimmed.

Photo: Julio Enriquez

The War on Drugs, 2018-

Key music: A Deeper Understanding (2017)

I admit this is kind of a wishful thinking pick. Right now, Run the Jewels are busy touring arenas and being awesome, and I can't imagine any future work is going to dull their prior highs. But I feel like I need to reward the War on Drugs for not only putting out one of the great records of 2017 in A Deeper Understanding after three years in the woods, but for putting a rock record out in the “rock is dead” era that both critics, fans, and the public at large rallied around and embraced. I don't know what this says about the rock music idiom. Maybe Adam Granduciel is onto something. Maybe the way forward is to look back and pick apart the forms of yesteryear and re-examine what makes them work on a technical and emotional level. Or maybe the idea of the world-dominating rock band is just going the way of the dog. As Hyden said at the end of his article:

The last six years are the weakest ever for American bands. It’s not even close, really. There are still good bands, but they don’t matter like the other groups on this list.

And that six years has now become 10.


In a bit of Oscar night counter-programming, I rewatched Who Framed Roger Rabbit for the first time in a few years in preparation for the next Ebert Cup match. Spoiler alert, it holds up extrmeemly well. Even 30 years on, it's still an astonishing piece of work, not just as a funny-page pulp-noir, but in the way the animated and live-action worlds meld so seamlessly in a pre-CGI world.

Key to that fusion of worlds is the work of legendary animation director Richard Williams. By 1988, he was already a legend in the field, winning an Oscar in 1972 for his adaptation of A Christmas Carol. By 1989, his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit netted him not only two more statuettes, but a production deal with Warner to help finish his long-gestating magnum opus The Thief and the Cobbler. That particular story doesn't end well: Thief ends up being wrested from Williams' hands, and a compromized version dies an unmourned death in theatres, while his original cut becomes one of animation's great cause celebres.

That saga cemented Williams' status as a legend, but this video by Andrew Saladino of the Royal Ocean Film Society gets to the nuts and bolts of what makes Williams an all-timer. The short of it: it's all about the way his characters move through space. Dust off that VHS copy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and watch that opening cartoon again. Notice how fluidly the perspective shifts, how the camera glides and warps the space. That's the work of a true master of the form.

(via YouTube/The Royal Ocean Film Society)

#movies #animation #richardwilliams

Continuing in the proud tradition of novelty synth records from the 1960s like Switched-on Rock or Christmas Becomes Electric, the Moog Cookbook was a two-man project consisting of Brian Kehew (on the left, probably best known as a one-time touring keyboardist for the Who and the co-author of Recording the Beatles) and Roger Manning (on the right, probably best known as a founding member of legendary Bay Area band Jellyfish). During their short time together, they released two albums of of irreverent synthy kitsch, covering the hits of the day and yesteryear using a small army of analog synthesizers. Ever wanted to hear a lounged-out version of “Basket Case” that interpolates “What a Fool Believes” or a “Hotel California” that cycles through about a dozen genres in under six and a half minutes? Well then, buddy, you're in luck.

This performance, filmed using delightfully dated camcorder effects, took place on 18 August 1996, three months after their first album dropped. Get a load of those sweet proto-Daft Punk sci-fi B-movie costumes! Look at those chunky-as-fuck keytars! And keep an eye out for the wild-looking synth guitar Kehew brings out for the finale.

Setlist 1. “Black Hole Sun” 2. “Buddy Holly” 3. “Evenflow” 4. “Are You Gonna Go My Way”

(via YouTube/artcoimbra)

#music #synth

Alright, I'm a little late, but that okay. Let's get this party started.

Wings of Desire was the first movie I ever close-read. It was my first week of college, and in one of my film classes, students were tasked with breaking down the first few minutes of Wim Wenders' urban fantasia into its smallest moving parts. In hindsight, this may have been a form of culling: are you here to watch movies or are you here to really watch movies? Our notes were exhaustive but did nothing to dull the magic of that opening. I had seen Wings of Desire again between that exercise and my rewatch for this project, but the little details of that opening never left me. The shot of an opening eye fading into a flapping ivory wing, the sweeping helicopter shots of 80s Berlin, the subtle droning organ on the soundtrack, the overlapping internal monologues. And weaving through it all is the great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, all warm eyes, pronounce widow's peak, and ill-advised ponytail.

Ganz plays Damiel, an angel who watches over all Berliners, privy to even the most mundane of thoughts, joyful or otherwise. Their job, as per fellow angel Cassiel (the late German actor Otto Sander) is to “assemble, testify, [and] preserve” the goings-on of the humans, which they've been doing since time immemorial. Interfering, and thus experiencing, is forbidden. But Damiel wants to feel, dammit! There's an entire two-hander where Ganz and Sander are sitting in a convertible, most of which consists of Ganz waxing rhapsodic about the tiniest of gestures, like wriggling your toes under the table or feeding the cat “like Philip Marlowe.” Human love shoots to the top of the list after he becomes infatuated with Marion (the late Solveig Dommartin), a trapeze artist whose circus company has shuttered its doors.

Visually, thematically, formally, Wings of Desire is the kind of movie a layperson would probably conjure if asked to describe a poetic European art film. The use of black-and-white, the musings about Life, the oblique storytelling, the melancholy, world-weary tone. But the film is great because of this, not in spite of it. Wenders managed to wrest these individual components from the grips of chiche by turning them into an oneiric layercake, and placing the whole metaphyiscal fantasia inside a city symphony about Berlin. Hell, even Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds show up, because why the hell not? It's a great movie to see in a film class at 17, because it's so deliberate and enrapturing in the way it moves, and since you're 17, you're the most attuned to how the sensory and the melancholic are inextricably linked. Being able to feel joy means risking feeling pain.

There's a decidedly more grounded pain permeating Running on Empty, Sidney Lumet's family drama about a couple (Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch) on the run from the FBI after a protest bombing gone awry in the 1970s, and their son (River Phoenix) who yearns for a little more stability. This viewing was the first time I had seen this movie, in part because it's so easy for a movie like this—that is to say mid-budget “adult” dramas—to fall through the cracks because of their unassuming nature. In that way, Lumet is the perfect director for the job. He's not a flashy director, but that doesn't keep him from sitting at the big boys' table. Even in the quietest moments, his films brim with energy and power. He came up in the Golden Age of Television, and his unfussy sense of pace and rhythm reflect that. Running on Empty is a simple story told expertly; there are no extraneous moving parts. The movie's wildest choice occurs in the last 30 seconds of the film, and it's not even that wild a choice. It just puts a neat, melancholy bow on the story. No, this isn't that kind of movie. If Wings of Desire's melancholy drew from its mise-en-scene, its more “filmic” aspects, then Running on Empty's came from its actors. Lumet was a magnificent director of actors. Just look at this list: Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepbern, Albert Finney, Ingrid Bergman, Al Pacino. And this was before stuff like Network and The Verdict and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.

So of course the actors shine here. It's a film that brims with warmth and empathy. Lahti and Hirsch are great as the ex-radical hippies trying to stay one step ahead of the law, and Phoenix, only 18 here and already a disarming cinematic presence, shines as a young piano prodigy who's sick of the nomadic lifestyle that's been forced upon him. He broods, he plays piano, he falls in love with Martha Plimpton (who also is only 18 here and already a disarming cinematic presence). There's an effortlessness on display that never ceases to be enthralling, as if Phoenix were some kind of emotion elemental. Look at him play piano. Look at him contort at his desk when he gets called on to answer a question in music class. Look at his eyes, his hands. Well, Hollywood brass certainly did, as he got a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his trouble, as did Naomi Foner's solid, moving screenplay.

I can see why tournament namesake Roger Ebert gave the full four stars to both of these movies. They're both top-tier examples of their respective cinematic idioms. As I mentioned earlier, I feel like the deck is stacked against small, naturalistic dramas like Running on Empty by dint of the fact that they're not showy. But I'm of the opinion that there are more perfect films in this idiom, that are just as warm and simple but more idiosyncratic, and at least one of which starts River Phoenix (1991's sorely slept-on Dogfight, for example). Lumet has a deep catalogue of gems to explore, but barring any kind of prior familiarity with his work and his style, a neophyte might watch a sweet, unobtrusive film like Running on Empty and wonder what the hubbub is all about (I will use this admittedly tenuous link to plug Lumet's 1996 book Making Movies, by all accounts one of the great books about movies out there). But Wings of Desire is an immediately thrilling piece of filmmaking. Wenders has a sense of romance that endears him to budding cinephile, and Wings of Desire, a movie tailor-made to amke you fall in love with what great movies can offer, deserves to be rewarded here.

The winner: Wings of Desire

#ebertcup1988 #movies

Before I get to the meat of this, two things.

I. Roger Ebert passed away five years ago this coming April. He was a titanic figure in the world of film criticism, and like many others, was my gateway into the world of active cinephilia (as opposed to passive cinephilia , which mostly happens when you're a kid and you're more into the familiarity of the images than what they mean or are trying to convey). I have become a fan of many different writers since then, some more rigorous and analytical, some more playful and bizarre. But Ebert's voice, sharp, warm, knowledgeable, still stands out for me. There's a mix of approachability and expertise in his prose that I strive for in my own work. His reviews lean generous, which I appreciate; more people seeing more things more often is something I can get behind. It also partly dismantles the idea of the critic as objective arbiter. What someone thinks of a movie, of any work of art, really, can't inherently be right or wrong. Taste isn't a virtue. How you talk about something is the interesting part.

II. I'm turning 30 in a week and a half. I don't know how to feel about this. Sure, it's just another birthday, an arbitrary milestone on another trip around the Sun. But somehow, I feel like I should have more to show for it. More what? Who knows?! But despite my mixed feeling on closing the book on my third decade of life, I love March. Not because it's my birthday, or because the calendar flips that much closer to spring, but because it means for 31 glorious days, the wider world shares my enthusiasm for brackets. I love brackets. I love them as a conflict resolution device or a means by which to crown something champion. The NCAA Men's College Basketball Tournament (aka March Madness) gets all the glory, but many outlets use it as an excuse to pitch cultural objects against one another. Maybe it's because I'm a sportsman at heart, maybe it's because I read and reread a similar bracketological gauntlet involving progressive rock albums at a formative age, or maybe I just like to flex that dormant comp-lit muscle of mine. In any case, I thought this year I would do a little something in that vein.

So to honour the man who helped set me on the path I'm on today and, you know, get my bracket on in celebration of my 30th birthday, I'm going to be holding a small, 10-team single-elimination tournament where the participants are Roger Ebert's top 10 movies of 1988.

Here are the participants and seeds for the 1988 Ebert Cup.

  1. Mississippi Burning (Alan Parker, USA)
  2. The Accidental Tourist (Lawrence Kasdan, USA)
  3. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman, USA)
  4. Shy People (Andrei Konchalovsky, USA)
  5. Salaam Bombay! (Mira Nair, India)
  6. A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, UK/USA)
  7. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, West Germany/France)
  8. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, USA)
  9. Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (Bob Couterie, USA)
  10. Running on Empty (Sidney Lumet, USA)

To start with, there will be two play-in games (7v10, 8v9) before we get going with the quarterfinals. I'll be watching each movie before their first match, taking a day for each to collect my thoughts. With that in mind, the first write up should be on March 3rd, where I'll be running down the play-by-play of Wings of Desire vs. Running on Empty.

How many of these movies have you seen? Which is your favourite? Who will get to drink from the mighty chalics that is the Ebert Cup? Stay tuned to find out.

#movies #ebertcup1988 #brackets