WEIRDLAND: October 2018

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

A Star is Born vs Vox Lux

The enduring appeal of A Star is Born is apparent in Cooper's rendition. Two lovers connect for a brief moment in time, inspiring one another to creative and emotional heights, only to burn up in a cloud of inescapable self-destruction. Jackson Maine woos Ally with his philosophy that success comes from "having something to say in a way that people want to hear it." She's helpless to resist his Southern drawl and aching vulnerability. Most of Ally's ascension is observed at a distance through Maine's drunken haze. One particularly painful scene finds Maine watching from offstage as Ally performs on SNL. Flanked by gyrating back-up dancers, Ally wags her finger at a pretty boy sitting on the stage, chastising him, "Why'd you come around me with an ass like that?" All Maine can do is take a swig from his beer bottle and die a little bit inside. If he wasn't depressed before this debacle, he certainly is after watching Ally debase herself on national television.

This is, perhaps, the most compelling (and untapped) theme swirling around A Star Is Born; one must smother their artistic integrity in order to become a pop star. The genuine girl slugging her way through life – the girl Maine fell in love with at the cabaret – is long dead by the midpoint of the film. All that's left is a fashion model, meticulously crafted to maximize the bottom line. Indeed, re-visiting each version of A Star Is Born and tracking what constitutes stardom in that particular era is more fascinating than the films themselves. If 1954's version was a celebration of Hollywood glamour and the 1976 update was a celebration of sleazy excess, this modern edition is a celebration of selling out. Ally can't wait to succumb to the trappings of stardom. She manages only a tepid refusal when her image-obsessed manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) enrolls her in dance classes and encourages her to abandon heartfelt songwriting. "I don't want to lose the part of me that's… you know… talented," Ally insists, only to completely abandon all substance in favor of style.

Unlike the 1954 and 1976 versions of A Star Is Born, Ally seems perfectly willing to not stand by her man. Visiting Maine during his hospitalization for substance abuse, Ally casually drops the suggestion that he might not want to come home again. In this moment, the audience (as well as a clearly shaken Maine) realizes that Ally has become the embodiment of all that she once despised. Had Cooper focused on this surprising trajectory for Ally, A Star Is Born might have found some much needed energy in its final act. Lady Gaga undoubtedly soars during her vocal performances, displaying a startling range, particularly in the film's pop chart single "Shallow", but she isn't asked to do much heavy lifting in the acting department. 

Bradley Cooper is more problematic, particularly when compared to the previous incarnations of his character. James Mason's 'Norman Maine' from the 1954 version is a raw nerve; a snarky buffoon who transforms into a 'mean drunk' at the slightest provocation. Even edgier is Kris Kristofferson's portrayal of 'John Norman Howard' in the 1976 revival. Compared to these burnouts, Cooper's version of Maine looks like a misunderstood angel. He gets drunk and passes out after the show. Sometimes he'll smash some pharmaceuticals into dust with his cowboy boot and then snort them. Otherwise, we aren't troubled with the ugliness of addiction. Maine's decline is precipitous and contrived, culminating with his nadir at the Grammy Awards. His edge is further dulled by an unnecessary backstory involving his stage manager/brother (Sam Elliott) and the ghost of their alcoholic father; all designed to make an implausible ending seem slightly more plausible. Source:

Cooper delivers one of his most emotionally rich performances yet as Jackson Maine, a character who could have easily come off as creepy and self-entitled but is charismatic and sympathetic in Cooper's hands - making it all the easier to believe that people would flock to him, despite his self-destructive behavior. Cooper the director offers a window into how unnaturally charismatic even the sloppiest rock stars are, and why the people who know them best usually seem to take a kinder hand. Ally helps Jackson’s embattled brother/roadie Bobby (Sam Elliott) drag him into bed after he drinks himself unconscious, and they share a knowing exchange about the magnetism of his talents, even as both remain aware that he’s burning every candle at every end. A Star is Born is refreshingly unsentimental about what a come-up in the entertainment industry looks like, and the film carries itself knowingly when it comes to lingering over the things people force themselves to do, just for the sake of maintaining comfortable illusions. Curiously, A Star is Born feels like a tighter version of what La La Land was trying to do, a melancholic musical about how the realization of superstar dreams usually comes at a great personal cost. Source:

A Star is Born never complicates the idea that the further from Jackson’s influence Ally gets, the worse her music becomes. What makes a star isn’t just talent, Jackson argues. You have to have “something to say.” And as an anguished Jack reiterates to Ally in front of an airbrushed billboard of herself, it has to come from deep down in her “fucking soul.” In music criticism, the turn of the 21st century was marked by the struggle between rockism, which Kelefa Sanneh defined in the New York Times as “idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; and 'poptimism,' which Saul Austerlitz fretted in the Times a decade later, had replaced the exacting standards of rock with the glib worship of artifice. A Star Is Born treats Jackson’s suicide as both a noble act of self-sacrifice and the ultimate validation of his tortured lyrics.

The first time he sings to Ally, he’s foreshadowing his own death alongside the “old ways” he represents, framing the world as “one big old Catherine wheel” of endless torment. In the bluesy duet “Diggin’ My Grave,” he looks forward to a time when “I’ll be gone from here/ and you’ll all be dressed in black,” and in “Too Far Gone,” he proclaims, “I can’t go on if I ain’t livin’ in your arms.” One hopes “I’ll Never Love Again” isn’t true for Ally, as moving as the rendition she sings at Jackson’s postmortem tribute is, but it’s certainly true for him. It doesn’t take much to imagine Jackson Maine’s death casting an ineradicable shadow over his work, the way it has for Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse. Perhaps Jackson was always doomed, and the best Ally could ever have hoped for was to slow his descent. But it’s telling that his final act effectively sets her back on course. After Jackson dies, Ally appears at a concert in his honor. Having dropped her surname to go pop, she takes his on for the first time, introducing herself, “I’m Ally Maine.” She’s a star, but the song is his. Source:

Brady Corbet's latest film Vox Lux, which had its North American premiere at TIFF 2018 and boasts original music by Sia, is almost definitely going to be overshadowed by Bradley Cooper's A Star Is Born, even though the two have almost nothing in common. While the crowd-pleasing A Star Is Born is about a pop star who deals with fame and addiction, Vox Lux has a pop star, and fame, and addiction, but focuses instead on political and philosophical questions about what we're doing to ourselves as a culture. Vox Lux was a true surprise – an almost antidote to A Star Is Born. Just as Corbet really goes for it as a director, showing zero fear of haters, Portman gives a big, loud, unrelenting performance as the adult Celeste that's bold in all the right ways, while teetering on a bit too much. She captures the confidence of a woman who takes for granted that she's always the most talented, interesting, powerful person in the room, but isn't unusually smart or empathetic. During one of her very best scenes, Portman's Celeste answers questions from reporters about why international terrorists have started wearing masks from one of her videos, and we can tell that she both believes and doesn't believe what she's saying; that she's impatient with the questions, but feels a professional responsibility to be polite; that she's trying to hit the talking points her managers gave her, but she really doesn't care and wants the whole thing to be over. Source:

Vox Lux (2018) is a roiling satire of post-traumatic popsploitation, where perhaps the cruellest joke of all here is that Celeste (Natalie Portman) is a somewhat unremarkable performer, reliant as much on pyrotechnics and costume changes to dazzle her fans as she is raw musical talent. Under the questionable guidance of a gruffly jaded manager (Jude Law), she’s dragged all too roughly down the path to stardom, and sent on a recording trip to Stockholm that rapidly hastens her loss of innocence. Portman’s outrageously over-the-top turn may still come as a shock. Channeling the performative theatricality of Lady Gaga and the imposing feistiness of Madonna, she’s gratingly cartoonish in her early scenes, delivering not so much a character as a physical manifestation of the corrosive effects of superstardom. But gradually, a more troubling vulnerability comes to the fore. Corbet's film steers away from glamorising the notion of suffering for one’s art, ensuring that his sharp social satire remains on firm moral ground. Source:

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Levittown, "A Star is Born" progression

The surging size and increased emphasis on style and luxury in American cars were just one sign of the new abundance of the era. After World War Two most Americans had a vision of a better life just ahead. At the core of it was owning one’s own house—and as Henry Ford’s invention and a rapidly improving network of roads and highways opened up the vast spaces of farmland surrounding American cities, the vision started to become a reality: Suburbia. Indeed, people knew even what they wanted to pay for their first house: $5,000, which was then roughly equal to an average family’s wages for two years. Right after the war, auto workers made about $60 a week, or $3,000 a year, while workers in other parts of the manufacturing sector made about $2,400. If the first great business figure of the American Century was Henry Ford, the second, arguably, was William J. Levitt.

It was Bill Levitt who first brought Ford’s techniques of mass production to housing, up to then the most neglected of American industries. Until he arrived on the scene, builders were small-time operators, employing multiple subcontractors (“graduate carpenters and bricklayers”). The typical prewar builder put up fewer than five houses a year (few put up more than two a year since the Depression). Levitt revolutionized the process of home building with remarkable planning and brilliant control procedures. These techniques made it possible to provide inexpensive, attractive single-unit housing for ordinary citizens, people who had never thought of themselves as middle-class before. As much as anyone, William Levitt made the American dream possible. As Paul Goldberger of The New York Times noted years later, “Levittown houses were social creations more than architectural ones—they turned the single detached single-family house from a distant dream to a real possibility for thousands of middle-class American families.” It was, Levitt liked to boast, capitalism in the most personal sense. “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do,” he once said. No industry had suffered more than housing during the Depression and World War Two; housing starts fell from 1 million a year to fewer than 100,000. But during the same period the marriage rate and, not surprisingly, the birthrate increased sharply, the latter reaching 22 per 1,000 in 1943—the highest it had been in two decades. Estimates placed the number of new houses needed immediately at over 5 million. In 1944 there had been only 114,000 new single houses started; by 1946 that figure had jumped to 937,000: to 1,118,000 in 1948; and 1.7 million in 1950. Levittown was an astonishing success from the very beginning.

The first Levitt house could not have been simpler. It had four and a half rooms and was designed with a young family in mind. The lots were 60 by 100 feet, and Bill Levitt was proud of the fact that the house took up only 12 percent of the lot. The living room was 12 by 16 feet. There were two bedrooms and one bathroom. A family could expand the house by converting the attic or adding on to the outside. The house was soon redesigned with the kitchen in the back so that the mothers could watch their children in the yard. In his book Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth Jackson noted that in their simplicity, durability, and value, the early Levitt houses were not unlike the Model T. The basic Levitt Cape Cod sold for $7,990; an expanded ranch-style house sold for $9,500. In the beginning the Levitts threw in a free television set and a Bendix washing machine as incentives. By July 1948 they were building 180 houses a week, finishing thirty-six houses a day. The homebuyers themselves seemed quite pleased with Levitt homes, which over the years proved unusually sturdy. Yet the very nature of what Levitt was doing and the scope of his success made him a target for those who disliked and even feared the new mass culture of postwar society.

The most relentless critic of the new suburb was Lewis Mumford, one of the most distinguished architectural and social commentators of his time. Mumford did not stop with one or two articles. His attacks were persistent and more than a little cruel. It was as if Levitt and his subdivision came to symbolize all that Mumford hated about the homogenization (and democratization) of American culture then being wrought by the combination of increasing affluence and mass-production technology. In 1961, some ten years after the completion of the first Levittown, Mumford described it as “a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances on uniform roads, in a treeless command waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same incomes, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold manufactured in the same central metropolis. Thus the ultimate effect of the suburban escape in our time is, ironically, a low-grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible.” Other critics agreed. The original version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, noted writer Ron Rosenbaum, was “about the horror of being in the ’burbs. About neighbors whose lives had so lost their individual distinctiveness they could be taken over by alien vegetable pods—and no one would know the difference. And those evil pods that housed the aliens and stole the souls of the humans: Were they not metaphors, embodiments of the Cape Cod pods of Levittown and the like, whose growth and multiplication came from sucking the individuality out of the humans housed in them?”

But others thought that Mumford was not quite fair; the young sociologist Herbert Gans, who decided to buy a house in the third Levittown with his young family, was surprised by the rich and diverse quality of life there. Levitt loathed critics like Mumford. When people spoke to him of the texture of a community, he turned cold: He was in the business of putting up good low-cost housing; he was not in charge of human relations after the building was finished. It was the classic confrontation of the doer and the critic, of the older America and the newer, entrepreneurial one. The criticism was, for someone of Bill Levitt’s background, like being told that no matter how successful he was, how much money he made, and how many good houses he built for people who wanted them, he was somehow not good enough for acceptance by the privileged, educated classes. When in 1956 the Levitt group decided to offer a greater variety of houses, Levitt said at the meeting, “Now Lewis Mumford can’t criticize us anymore.” In the press release on his third Levittown, Levitt wrote, “We are ending once and for all the old bugaboo of uniformity.... In the new Levittown we build all the different houses ... right next to each other within the same section.” (Almost thirty years later, when Ron Rosenbaum wrote a piece for Esquire magazine celebrating the most important men and women of the last half century, he called Levitt, only to discover that the builder was still angry about Lewis Mumford. “I think by now we’ve shown that critics like Lewis Mumford were wrong,” Levitt told Rosenbaum. He thereupon launched upon a bitter diatribe that concluded: “I think that Lewis Mumford has been shown to be a prophet without honor.”)  "The Fifties" (1994) by David Halberstam

The first A Star Is Born (1937), directed by William A. Wellman, starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, emerged from an era when the city of Los Angeles, teeming with delusional newcomers attracted to the nascent movie industry, wanted to discourage vulnerable young women from seeking fame and fortune. “From the teens onward, droves of young women went to Hollywood to make it as actresses. Young men too,” says Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the U.C.L.A. Film & Television Archive. “It was a bit of a plague.”

Judy Garland hoped A Star is Born (1954) would be her big comeback, and though it secured her an Oscar nomination, she didn’t win and much of what people remember about her interpretation of the film is the parallels to her life. But as this take on Esther Blodgett, the script actually takes the time to deconstruct the nature of addiction. In one scene, Esther discusses how much she loves Norman who “tries” to keep drinking, yet she “hates him” for continuing to lie and fail her. It’s a powerful moment none of the versions, then and since, have attempted to recreate. There are lines of dialogue that recur in some of these movies but not others; the only one that pops up in each and every one of the films is “Just wanted to take another look at you”. It’s a key element of the story’s tragic climax — a line said in the first flush of love becomes a kind of farewell.

Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a combination of all three takes on the character: possessing March and Mason’s drunkenness, alongside John Norman’s musical background. But what he does differently than the other three is examine how his character has been shaped like celebrity, a facet that holds more in common with the 1937 version which emphasizes how tightly Hollywood controls a star’s persona. Lady Gaga’s Ally is certainly the most divergent, being a blend of Gaynor’s sweetness, Garland’s tenacity, and Streisand’s feistiness.  When Ally performs her final song at the end, it isn’t about showing that her husband gave her a career, nor is it perpetuating the idea they were partners. It’s a romanticization of all that’s come before, and seems more at home in 1937 than 2018. Will this be the final A Star Is Born? It seems unlikely. As long as there is Hollywood, there will probably be more versions of the same old story. The shape they take and the details will morph with the times, but the core story — a love story, a melodrama, and a tragedy all wrapped into one — seems to hold unending appeal. Source: