Author Archives: jakesweltz

THE NIGHTINGALE or The Evening Redness in Tasmania

By Jake Sweltz

If I called Jennifer Kent’s THE NIGHTINGALE a feminist neo-western revenge thriller, you might assume you’re getting KILL BILL or something.  This is not that.  In fact, Kent’s film is a direct refutation the sort of film that would rather stylize violence for entertainment than reckon with its traumatic reality.

During the course of THE NIGHTINGALE’s nearly three-hour-long running time, I didn’t have a lot of fun.  That’s entirely the point.  The plot isn’t dissimilar from TRUE GRIT or any number of other classic Hollywood westerns: a woman named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is wronged, her family destroyed, and she sets out for revenge with the assistance of a wily companion, in this case an aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykal Ganambarr).  But tonally, the work it most resembles is Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic western novel BLOOD MERIDIAN, where the sadism is so thorough as to become nearly invisible, as much a part of the landscape as the trees or the sky.

Film, though, is a very different medium than fiction, and the violence (particularly the sexual violence) in THE NIGHTINGALE is too immediate, too immersive to become invisible.  You can’t escape it, let alone ignore it.  You’re inside of it.  Kent emphasizes this with repeated close ups and POV shots from the perspective of characters upon whom unspeakable acts are being perpetrated.

The film demands a lot from its leads, and both Franciosi and Ganambarr are excellent as reluctant companions on a hellish journey through the literal ruins of their pasts.  Sam Claflin is also appropriately domineering as Clare’s abuser Lieutenant Hawkins, but the part is so cartoonishly evil it verges on comedy.  Nevertheless, the narrative’s broadly allegorical nature allows for broad performances to match, and several scenes use the Hawkins character to illustrate how abuse is passed from one person to another like a virus.

There’s an extended interlude featuring a “kind” Englishman whose attitude seems to contrast that of the sadistic, racist soldiers.  He invites Clare and Billy into his home and has his wife feed them supper.  This sequence has been misread by some critics as an example of cowardice on Kent’s part for not sticking to her guns.  What they’re missing is that the Englishman’s “acceptance” of Billy at his dinner table is the final humiliation of a subjugated people whose way of life has been completely supplanted by another in their own homeland.  It’s the kind of sequence Ousmane Sembène would appreciate.

Fittingly, there’s no real catharsis when Clare finally does catch up with her tormentors.  After brutally murdering one of Hawkins’ underlings, she finds herself paralyzed the moment she has the man himself in her sights.  Is Clare too shaken from her first murder to inflict that kind of violence again?  Or does her catatonic reaction reflect the kind of passivity many survivors of sexual crimes report in the presence of their abusers?

The main feminist thrust of THE NIGHTINGALE is one of intersectionality; it suggests that what ultimately bonds oppressed people (in this case, women and aboriginals) is trauma.  They may speak different tongues and even have opposing values, but they both know how it feels being raped by whitey.  Kent’s film is explicitly designed to make us (i.e. predominantly white, male critics and viewers) feel it, too.

The opening sequence, in which Clare sings onstage for a troop of leering Englishmen, is instructive.  Kent turns the camera on the audience of filthy men, most of whom are more focused on the—ahem—beauty of the singer than the song itself.  After Clare finishes singing, we cut to the title card.  It’s a masterful metaphor for how plebeian male audiences typically regard even the most high-minded films.  “Who cares what you’re saying?  Just get to the sex and the violence.”  Rest assured, THE NIGHTINGALE gives us plenty.  And in delivering the goods reminds us to be careful what we wish for.

image c/o Google Images

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The Good Old Days: Collective Memory in ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD

By Jake Sweltz

Image result for young john carpenter

One of the joys of late-period Tarantino is watching him invent new ways to quote himself.  Early in his latest film, ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD we’re treated to an excerpt from the film career of fictional 60s TV star Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.  The clip shows us the climatic sequence of a Corman-esque WWII film called the 14 FISTS OF MCCLUSKEY in which Dalton gleefully torches the Nazi high command with a flamethrower.  The sequence is deliberately staged to evoke the climax of QT’s own INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, in which a theater full of Nazis are burned alive in a similar manner. The reflexivity of that reference is amusing enough, but grows more impressive when you remember that in QT’s universe (the one in which MCCLUSKEY was produced), that actually was how WWII ended.  Hitler and the Nazi high command really were assassinated in a giant inferno by undercover American soldiers.  And if that was true, then naturally the movies of the following decades would reflect that version of history.

Among other things, Tarantino’s new film is a rich exploration of the relation between pop culture and collective memory, how we remember the past and how our memories influence the stories we tell ourselves.  His movie plays with our perceptions of history, inviting us to consider the fluidity of the past and our recollections of “the good old days.”

On the simplest level, this means memorializing the pop of his youth through direct homages to the TV shows of the 50s and 60s.  Before the events of the film, Dalton starred in the fictional series BOUNTY LAW, a RAWHIDE ripoff for which the filmmakers have shot and edited actual sequences in 35mm.  Later, we see Rick’s appearance in a contemporary episode of THE F.B.I., a real series Tarantino clearly idolized. Off the lot, the film depicts late 60s Hollywood as an idyllic, sun-drenched paradise; QT is literally viewing the past through rose-colored glasses.  But all is not well in Tinsel Town; siren-like hippies lurk around the edges, foreshadowing the rise of New Hollywood and the depraved 1970s.  

Here, QT employs his usual metatextual casting method, deploying the children of famous actors (e.g. Rumer Willis, Margaret Qualley) as Manson’s hippie acolytes.  Even more winking is the casting of noted 00s TV cowboy Timothy Olyphant (JUSTIFIED, DEADWOOD) as 60s TV cowboy Jim Stacy (LANCER).  Choices like these remind us of Hollywood’s cyclical nature, how its legacy is always reviving and reinventing itself for future generations.  Everything new is old is new again.

Rick Dalton is a man reckoning with his own increasing irrelevance.  DiCaprio’s performance is all cigarette butts and shredded nerves.  Rick sees the end of his career reflected in the paperback western he’s reading and breaks into tears.  He shuffles about swigging from a flask and muttering reminders to himself: “you’re Rick fuckin’ Dalton!” as though he might forget and disappear completely.  He fantasizes about getting a part in his next-door neighbor Roman Polanski’s next film, and in the end maybe even wins an opportunity.  Again, the stories we tell ourselves have a way of dictating the direction of our lives.

In a meeting at Musso & Frank’s, an old-world agent named Schwarz (played with sublime precision by Al Pacino) explains that if Rick keeps agreeing to TV guest appearances as a villain, it will have a “psychological effect” on the audience.  The movie is not subtle in its emphasis of the deep, sometimes unconscious influence pop culture has on us. Throughout the film, the pervasive presence of pop music, film, and TV bonds all the settings and characters together.  Songs and radio programs blare from car stereos.  Sharon Tate listens to Paul Revere & The Raiders as Brad Pitt’s stuntman Cliff Booth fixes Dalton’s antenna on the roof next door.  Everyone watches TV, of course, including the murderous Manson Family hippies; one of them even recognizes Rick from his old show. For better or worse, pop culture gives us a common experience, a shared history.  And it’s perhaps the primary source through which we sustain our collective memories.  

The most sentimental evocation of this theme occurs when Sharon Tate drops in on a screening of THE WRECKING CREW.  The sequence is both an ode to the joy of movies and a reclamation of Tate’s legacy as more than just the victim of a terrible tragedy.  She presumably worked hard to land that role, to learn her lines and nail down the fight choreography.  And we get to see Tate enjoying the fruits of that labor as the audience laughs and claps along to her performance.  It’s a beautiful sequence and probably the most touching thing Tarantino’s ever filmed.

The film is dotted with behind-the-scenes memories of the industry through character flashbacks, the funniest of which involves an argument on the set of THE GREEN HORNET that turns physical between Cliff Booth and Bruce Lee.  We remember Lee as a mythic figure, and the movie knows this reputation wasn’t earned through modesty.  But when Lee’s boastfulness strays into “I could beat Cassius Clay” territory, Cliff can’t resist putting him in his place.  Every legend, it turns out, has its limitations.  

Meanwhile on the set of LANCER, Dalton recounts almost getting Steve McQueen’s role in THE GREAT ESCAPE.  As Dalton recalls how McQueen nearly passed, putting him in line to play the part, we cut to Dalton literally playing the part, with DiCaprio spliced into footage from the actual film, FORREST GUMP-style.  Once the past is written, certain images and events calcify in our memory.  Like watching an old movie, it becomes impossible to imagine things turning out any other way.  But Tarantino wants us to imagine how easily they could have been different.

By presenting us with alternative versions of what we already know, QT highlights the simple twists of fate that launch or destroy careers, change lives and alter the course of history.  To that end, the film’s conclusion reads as half nostalgic wish fulfillment, half conservative punchline (no pun intended) about what might have happened if only those murderous hippies had stumbled into a different house on Cielo Drive…

Just as with BASTERDS, the film subverts our expectations by flipping the historical script and giving the murderous Manson Family hippies their comeuppance.  But the magic of the ending derives not from the cathartic burst of violence that has become QT’s trademark, but from what comes next.  After the whole bloody affair is over, Rick is invited into the Tate residence for an introductory visit.  The gates swing open, and Jay Sebring (played by Emile Hirsch) beckons Rick like Saint Peter ushering him into the kingdom of Heaven.  Tate greets the pair at the top of the driveway and they enter the house, but the camera lingers outside as the credits roll.  We’d like to imagine they all lived happily ever after, but the emotional power of that final shot comes from our knowing the sad reality of what actually happened to the people in that house.  Like the entire film, the conclusion is ultimately both a tribute to the power of pop culture and a poignant reminder of its limitations.  The movies can’t change history, but, to quote a similarly wistful denouement: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Image c/o Google Images

Every Kanye Song, Ranked

By Jake Sweltz

kanye-evo-bears

Attempting to rank every Kanye song is, by nature, a foolhardy and incendiary endeavor.  Even the most mild-mannered Kanye fans can get aggressive when they feel their favorite tracks are under attack.  And even the mildest Kanye tracks have their ardent defenders.

But on the other hand, everything about Kanye is foolhardy and incendiary.  What better way to honor his catalogue than to throw more kindling on the fire?

Here’s my five-tier ranking of every Kanye track (so far):

TIER 5: ONLY BUILT 4 KANYE FANCLUB PRESIDENTZ

135) Crack Music
134) Lift Yourself
133) Ye vs. the People
132) To the World
131) The One
130) The Morning
129) Made in America
128) Welcome to the Jungle
127) Love Lockdown
126) New Day
125) Who Gon Stop Me
124) Drunk and Hot Girls
123) Champions
122) Waves
121) Feel the Love
120) Cudi Montage
119) Why I Love You
118) See You In My Nightmares
117) Only One
116) Illest Motherfucker Alive
115) Christian Dior Denim Flow
114) Bad News
113) Amazing
112) My Way Home
111) Coldest Winter
110) Late
109) Fire
108) Freestyle 4

TIER 4: ELEMENTAL YET NON-ESSENTIAL

107) Celebration
106) Bring Me Down
105) Kids See Ghosts
104) Violent Crimes
103) Lift Off
102) Reborn
101) Street Lights
100) Stronger
99) Homecoming
98) Freeee (Ghost Town, Pt. 2)
97) New God Flow
96) Cold
95) 4th Dimension
94) Facts (Charlie Heat Version)
93) Welcome to Heartbreak
92) Gotta Have It
91) RoboCop
90) Barry Bonds
89) No More Parties in LA
88) Black Skinhead
87) So Appalled
86) Never Let Me Down
85) Get Em High
84) Big Brother
83) Gorgeous
82) I Love It (w/ Lil Pump)
81) Saint Pablo

TIER 3: LOW KEY CLASSICS

80) Yikes
79) Otis
78) Barry Bonds
77) FourFiveSeconds
76) Guilt Trip
75) Don’t Like
74) Roses
73) We Major
72) We Don’t Care
71) Say You Will
70) No Church in the Wild
69) FML
68) I Am a God
67) That’s My Bitch
66) All Mine
65) Good Morning
64) Spaceship
63) Bound 2
62) No Mistakes
61) H.A.M.
60) Dark Fantasy
59) Hold My Liquor
58) Drive Slow
57) Ghost Town
56) Paranoid
55) Lost in the World / Who Will Survive in America

TIER 2: “THIS SHOULD BE WAY [HIGHER / LOWER]”

54) Clique
53) Breathe In Breathe Out
52) Murder to Excellence
51) Wolves
50) I’m In It
49) 30 Hours
48) The New Workout Plan
47) Mercy
46) Last Call
45) Good Life
44) Father Stretch My Hands (Pts. 1-2)
43) Power
42) On Sight
41) Addiction
40) Devil in a New Dress
39) Two Words
38) Fade
37) Heartless
36) Slow Jamz
35) Touch the Sky
34) Send It Up
33) Hey Mama
32) See Me Now
31) I Thought About Killing You
30) Blame Game
29) Real Friends
28) Diamonds from Sierra Leone

TIER 1: THE PANTHEON

27) Feedback
26) Wouldn’t Leave
25) Low Lights / Highlights
24) Runaway
23) Ultralight Beam
22) All Day
21) Flashing Lights
20) Champion
19) School Spirit
18) Hell of a Life
17) The Glory
16) Family Business
15) Blood on the Leaves
14) Everything I Am
13) All of the Lights
12) Through the Wire
11) Gone
10) Monster
9) Niggas in Paris
8) Can’t Tell Me Nothing
7) Famous
6) All Falls Down
5) Heard Em Say
4) Gold Digger
3) I Wonder
2) Jesus Walks
1) New Slaves

*image c/o Google

The Case for “LeBron to the Clippers” (No, Seriously.)

Don’t sleep on the new-look Clippers as a legitimate contender to sign the King this offseason. 

By Jake Sweltz

lbj-clips-lakers

It’s been widely reported that LeBron James’ son will be enrolling at Sierra Canyon High School just outside of Los Angeles.  Most verified basket-bloggers have taken this as evidence that LeBron plans to sign with the Lakers.  But I wouldn’t dismiss the other LA-based NBA franchise’s chances so easily.

Stop laughing.  That’s right, I’m talking about the friggin’ Clippers.  As a legitimate contender to sign LeBron this offseason.  To play basketball.  I said stop laughing.

To be clear, I fully acknowledge the inherent absurdity of a scenario in which LeBron actual James plays real NBA games in an official Clippers jersey.  But hear me out; there are a number of factors suggesting this scenario might be more than science fiction.

  1. PROPERTY RIGHTS: LeBron already owns two homes in LA.  If he signs with the Clippers, he can still make his move to Laker land without the pressure of living up to the Laker legacy held in place by the HOF’s who came before him.  LeBron is savvy, and he knows that losing to, say, the Kyrie-led Celtics in the Finals after becoming “the next great Laker” would ruin his reputation.
  2. GREAT MINDS THINK ALIKE: The Jerry West factor is not to be taken lightly.  The Starters’ Trey Kerby mentioned that LeBron frequently brought up “basketball minds” during this latest playoff run.  The Logo is just the type of next-level basketball thinker LeBron could jibe with.  Plus, they already have a great relationship.
  3. EMPIRE STATE OF MIND: If LeBron wants to maintain a presence in the NBA after his basketball career is over as an owner or GM, he could eventually become the Magic Johnson of the Clippers.  And who knows?  He might even one day eclipse Johnson as a mogul.  Imagine, the once-pitiful Clippers, controlled by the most heinous racist owner in the league, now a proud contender in the West with the greatest player of his generation at the helm?  Sounds to me like a pretty sweet flip o’ the script.
  4. STAY FLEXIBLE: The Clippers have the 12th and 13th overall picks in this year’s draft, which they could theoretically package for an impact player or some other assets.  Their roster is composed of mutable entities like D’Andre Jordan and Tobias Harris, plus a ton of flotsam.  Can I interest you in a 2018-19 Clippers starting lineup that features LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Patrick Beverly?  And besides, wherever he signs, LeBron will most likely ink a short term contract, as he did in Cleveland.  That way, if the Clippers experiment doesn’t work out, he can always reset in 2020 with the Lakers or somewhere else for yet ANOTHER final act.  If history has taught us nothing else, it’s that LeBron James is virtually indestructible (“pretty much broken” hand aside).
  5. THE RAINMAKER: We all know LeBron is precious with his Narrative.  He knows if he can’t win more rings than MJ, he’ll have to tell a better story.  Bringing a title to this cursed Clipper franchise would cement his legacy as a franchise rainmaker, someone who could enter an NBA desert like the Cavs or the Clippers and turn them into a champion.

Who Do We Blame for the KD Warriors?

Kevin-Durant-2

By Jake Sweltz

Kevin Durant joining GSW in 2016 was really good and cool for KD and the Warriors 😀

But it was really bad and not cool for most NBA fans 😦

By now, we all know where we stand on this issue, so let’s just move on to the million dollar question:

Who can we blame for all this?

Lots of people, it turns out!  Browsing the NBA blog-o-sphere in the weeks after KD and the Warriors won it all last year, I saw a surprising array of names floated as the Real Culprit.  Now that GSW are on the verge of going back-to-back, I’ve compiled a comprehensive list of the guiltiest and/or most interesting candidates.  Let’s explore them one by one:

KD JOINING THE WARRIORS…WHOSE FAULT WAS IT?!

  1. KD? (for joining the Warriors) I think he definitely deserves some of the blame here.  But it would be boring and inaccurate to lay it all at his size 18 feet.  What about…
  2. The Warriors? (for losing the 2016 Finals and actively recruiting KD) Between Klay slaying OKC, Draymond getting suspended, and Steph freezing up, there were a lot of ways the Warriors could have ended their 2016 season in a way that didn’t facilitate KD jumping ship to join them.  But ultimately, you can’t place a ton of blame on a team for signing an all-time great when they got the chance.  As usual, the most compelling narrative always comes back to…
  3. LeBron? (for setting a “Super Team” precedent w/ the Decision) The weirdest take I’ve seen catch on is that LeBron’s 2010 Decision was somehow equivalent or worse than KD’s turncoat act.  Sure, the Decision was an obnoxious, ill-advised publicity stunt.  But from a basketball perspective, LeBron still left some semblance of the NBA’s competitive balance intact.  KD stone cold murdered that shit.  Besides, blaming stuff on LeBron stopped being cool in 2014.  In 2018, it’s much cooler to blame stuff on…
  4. Russell Westbrook? (for hogging the ball so much in OKC that KD could no longer abide being his teammate) Durant more or less admitted to this when his burner accounts were outed last year.  If Westbrook passed the ball even 20% more often, maybe the Thunder would have won multiple titles.  But then he wouldn’t be Russ, and for NBA fans, that’s a worse fate.  Let’s move on to my personal favorite object of Arbitrary Internet Blame…
  5. Michelle Roberts? (for defeating the proposed cap smoothing that would have prevented GSW from being able to pay KD) Now you’re talking my language.  Nothing is more satisfyingly mind-numbing than when the Blame Game turns into THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT.  Let’s dig a little deeper down that rabbit hole…
  6. Adam Silver? (for not swooping in like Dikembe and blocking the shit out of the KD trade the second he caught wind of it) Where’s David Stern when you need him?  A few months after his promotion to commissioner, we were all singing Silver’s praises, but is it possible the NBA paved paradise and put up a parking lot?  Surely, he’s more blameworthy than…
  7. Sam Presti? (for trading James Harden and unwittingly killing in the crib a potential Super Team that could have preempted GSW)  The only person I saw make this argument was Bill Simmons, who also claims the Harden Trade swung the terms of the Iran Nuclear Deal, the ’07 Writers’ Strike, and the O.J. Simpson trial.  Personally, I’d go back even further and blame…
  8. George Mikan? (for allowing the ABA to introduce the three point line in 1967) Obviously it will never happen, but I think the NBA should abandon the three point arc.  Now that the power of the three ball has been discovered and exploited, the style of play has become homogenous.  If every shot were worth two points again, it would promote a diversity of styles.  A team like GSW that shoots a high percentage from distance could still stretch the floor, but big man bully ball would also have a place in the league.  In the long term, that equals more fun for fans AND more employment opportunities for traditional big men.  Just a thought.  In the meantime, we haven’t yet mentioned…
  9. LaVar Ball? (he’s bad for the game, guys.  HE MUST BE STOPPED) Last year, when I wrote the first draft for this piece, LaVar was in the news like every week.  This year, he’s been mostly ignored as his start-up Junior Basketball Association struggles to generate ticket sales.  Is this his karmic punishment for secretly orchestrating the infamous meeting in the Hamptons between Durant and the Warriors that led to his signing with Golden State?!?  No, almost certainly not.  But what about…
  10. Donald Trump? (this would never have happened in Obama’s America) I dunno, it just feels like he should take some heat for this.  And while we’re at it, let’s throw some dirt on…
  11. James Naismith? (for inventing basketball, laying the groundwork for eventual domination by GSW) Hard to argue with that logic, right?  And finally, for your consideration as the One True Arbiter of the KD Warriors…
  12. Keyzer Soze? (“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”)  You can’t fool me, Soze.  I always knew you were behind this.

 

Some Questions Re: Championship DNA

By Jake Sweltz

During game 4 of the NBA Western Conference Finals on Tuesday, Reggie Miller commented that Trevor Ariza was the only player on the Rockets with “Championship DNA.”  I have a few questions.

How is Championship DNA measured?

Are you born with Championship DNA?  Or do you acquire it by winning a championship?

Does everyone who wins a championship have Championship DNA?  Does Mario Chalmers have Championship DNA?

Is Championship DNA transferable?  That is to say, if you have Championship DNA, are teams that you play for in the future more likely to win a championship?  Or do championship-winning teams only consist of players who were born with Championship DNA?

Does every team that’s loaded top to bottom with Championship DNA win a championship?  What if two (or more) teams have the exact same amount of Championship DNA?

What if everyone on the roster has Championship DNA, except for one player?  Does his/her lack of Championship DNA prevent potential championship-winning teams from winning a championship?

Is Championship DNA permanent?  Is it possible to be dispossessed of Championship DNA, and if so, what sort of atrocious sin against the sport would it take for that to happen?

Does Phil Jackson still have Championship DNA?  What about Derek Jeter?

Is there somewhere I can buy Championship DNA online?  What conditions would be required for Championship DNA to be stored and shipped through the mail internationally?

Does Championship DNA have to be refrigerated?

Is George R.R. Martin Rewriting The Winds of Winter?

HBO's "Game Of Thrones" Panel And Q&A - Comic-Con International 2014

By Jake Sweltz

Waiting for George R.R. Martin to finish writing The Winds of Winter has begun to feel a bit like waiting for Tiger Woods to return to pro golf dominance.  At first we assumed it was only a matter of time, but time has a way of eating away at inspiration.

Confession: I’ve never met GRRM IRL.  I’ve never even read any of his books.  But I have a depressing theory about why he’s taking so long with The Winds of Winter.

I’m worried that since everyone sniffed out the whole “R + L = J” thing*, Martin might have been tempted to change the direction of the narrative.  I’m worried that he’s decided to tamper with his vision in order to stay ahead of his fans.

*For the uninitiated, “R + L = J” is a widely accepted theory explaining and predicting a number of important plot points relating to A Song of Ice and Fire.

This might partly explain the long delay.  Maybe he scrapped certain portions of the story and started from scratch after realizing that hordes of voracious readers had not only solved the mystery of Jon’s parentage, but had actually projected his endgame for the entire series.

With its upcoming season, HBO’s Game of Thrones will finally eclipse A Song of Ice and Fire as the primary medium through which Martin’s story is unfolding.  That is remarkable.  Think about it: this is a saga that started in one century as a fringe-genre book series and will finish in another as a mega-popular television phenomenon.  As far as cultural events go, that’s total solar eclipse-level.  We’ve never seen anything like it.

Part of the show’s success has been its fans’ unwavering trust in the storytellers’ ability to tell the story.  I don’t want to see that beautifully constructed story mangled just because we kind-of-sort-of already figured it out.  As a writer, GRRM has always had an inclination toward devastating plot twists.  Compromising his original vision in the name of surprise would be the most tragic of all.