Exhaustively exhausted: Ben Affleck’s Live by Night

Has any topic been more exhaustively dramatized than Prohibition-era gangsters?

Live by Night seems especially redundant so soon after HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, which covers a lot of the same ground: the Florida/Cuba liquor pipeline, the Irish/Italian mob conflict, the pivot to legal gambling, etc. The explanation being pretty simple: original novelist Denis Lehane also contributed to Boardwalk Empire. The few elements not already done to death by the gangster genre, including additional conflicts with evangelicals and the Klan, are in this case simultaneously not enough and too much.

Also, did Ben Affleck always play every role as a man in a deep depression, or is this a recent development?

Two out of five stars.

A Dangerous Delusion: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is of course a remarkable achievement, a massive production with epic scope, a clever structure, and one of the best possible showcases for Technicolor. But I’m evidently so far out of step with the consensus on this one that I’m doubting my film snob bona fides. I simply hated it.

I couldn’t look past my contempt for the delusional rich. Consider: American politics is dominated by wealthy families living in dangerous fantasylands: the Trumps, Kushners, Kochs, Mercers, DeVoses, et al. Terrifyingly, they are in positions of real power, including and especially that of war.

As such, I have no time for the war-glorifying Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), playing soldier in his mansion, insulting his lifelong loyal manservant, and falling in love with three different Deborah Kerrs. It is simply beyond my suspension of belief to imagine a veteran of the Boer War and World War I that could preserve a lifelong delusion that there is such a thing as “good clean fighting”.

His Good German man-crush Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) repeatedly fails to disabuse him of this fantasy. He’s the more relatable character here; his monologue describing his grief over the rise of Nazism in his home country is heartbreaking.

Two out of five stars.

Radiohead: Meeting People is Easy…

Radiohead Meeting People is Easy…but being invited to your own party is hard.

I remember liking Grant Gee’s Radiohead documentary Meeting People is Easy when I first saw it in the late nineties, but now it just looks like a feature-length exposé of how music journos are twits that ruin everything.

Snausage Fest: Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs

Rather astonished to find Isle of Dogs defeat my expectations and become one of my least favorite Wes Andersons, if not the least.

Anderson is one of my absolute favorite filmmakers (I know, I know, join the club), but like a lot of my faves, I have significant reservations. It’s no great insight to point out that all of his films are male-centric, all with male protagonists, all with predominantly male casts, and all featuring at best one primary female supporting character.

He’s hardly unique in this respect, so it’s unfair to single him out when there are far more egregious examples (like, for example, almost every director ever). But it feels especially overt in the context of a fantasy fable, where anything goes. Why on earth did this have to be such a Snausage fest?

With a little effort, I count maybe five speaking female characters from memory. Of those, two are — sorry for this, but quite literally — bitches bred to be pretty or bear litters. Interpreter Nelson may share narration duties, but she merely translates the words of other male characters. Yoko-ono is practically mute. That leaves Tracy — about whom I barely know where to begin. At a time when pop culture is calling for greater representation of asian characters in film, the best I can say about her is thank goodness she wasn’t a Japanese character voiced by post-Ghost-in-the-Shell Scarlett Johansson.

Sorry to go on and on about the lack of female representation in an animated dog movie, but I just cannot overlook here what I could previously accept as a given with Anderson. It was worth it for his singular visual style and quirks, and he would occasional feature complex female characters like Margot, Suzy, and Miss Cross amidst all the boys. In Rushmore, Miss Cross is the love object of a precocious but immature boy emulating his notions of adulthood, and his inappropriate crush is part of the point. She is thankfully written and acted as far more than a token, but there’s no equivalently interesting female character in Isle of Dogs, and what’s the excuse? Why does the little pilot have to be boy? Why does the entire pack of dogs have to be male? It’s just so frustrating.

I’m also deducting points for another of my common movie complaints: when one of the most visually-oriented mediums that humanity has ever created — animation — is misapplied to primarily verbal works. The worst example of this in my mind is Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, throughout most of which I could not fathom why the painstaking process of animation was applied to stationary talking heads. Although the animation craft on display in Isle of Dogs is often extraordinarily wonderful, the screenplay is so verbose and overwritten that it often must halt to allow for a few pages of dialogue. Stop motion becomes stopped motion.

Marty: Woke in the ’50s

Marty is a basically decent man, trapped in a kind of stasis by social forces only more amplified today: misogyny, distrust of the educated, racism, and classism. Even the changing economic landscape looms over him, as corporate consolidation threatens his dream to own a small business.

One more generation, and it’s easy to imagine Marty’s family chanting “lock her up” at a MAGA rally, and his friends as incels trolling women on the internet.

His family exemplifies a moment of social transformation between extended families living together and a trend towards isolation and nuclear families. His mother and aunt spent a lifetime working until they couldn’t work any more. In their old age, they are left with nowhere to live and nothing to do. His cousin is transitioning towards the American Dream of a house and child, but the accompanying burdens and anxieties outweigh any happiness. Outside the family tumult, his circle of friends is adrift in an increasingly isolated social world of movies, bars, and dance clubs — all in the pursuit of women that they seem to desire and loathe in equal measure.

I cannot tell you how utterly relieved I was when Marty made that last-minute phone call. I don’t think I could have borne it if he hadn’t.

Songs That Broke My Heart: Hallelujah by John Cale

Conventional wisdom will tell you nobody did Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” better than Jeff Buckley. The few who disagree are likely of the opinion that nothing beats the original. Here’s a third opinion: the person who transformed Cohen’s song into the modern standard it is today was John Cale.

As I started to compile songs for this Songs That Broke My Heart series, I found myself noting more than a few cover versions I found “sadder” than the originals. Maybe some songs have more pain embedded in them than their original creators realized, or were capable of expressing. Perhaps the original artists purposefully obscured the darker themes for the listener to slowly untease, only to have another artist come along later and lay it all bare.

The now-iconic song “Hallelujah” has a complicated lineage. Leonard Cohen’s original was released on the album Various Positions in 1984, and has since been overshadowed by a seemingly endless parade of cover versions. Former Velvet Underground member John Cale began it all with a spare, vocal-and-piano recitation for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Time has obscured Cale’s version about as much as Cohen’s original, but it’s still the template influencing nearly every subsequent rendition.

The most idiosyncratic take came from U2’s Bono on yet another Cohen tribute album, Tower of Song (1995). It now sounds very dated, from the brief-lived moment in the mid-to-late nineties when the trance and electronica genres flirted with the mainstream. Jeff Buckley and K.D. Lang each scored hits based on Cale’s version, and numerous amateur performances on American Idol finally broke the song into the mainstream consciousness (relive some of them here, if you can bear it). The song is now a cliché, but retains its ability to push emotional buttons even when performed robotically by Justin Timberlake on the “Hope for Haiti Now” telethon in 2010 and by K.D. Lang again at the 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

The worst abuse of all, however, was when director Zack Snyder misappropriated Cohen’s original recording for a preposterous sex scene in the superhero psychodrama Watchmen (read The Dork Report review). Granted, it must be said that Cohen deliberately crafted his lyrics to be flexible, and has himself performed different variations over the years. Buckley’s version found a markedly sexual interpretation, and were he still with us, he might have approved of the song’s use in Watchmen. Cohen himself told the Guardian in 2009:

“I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it, and the reviewer said ‘Can we please have a moratorium on Hallelujah in movies and television shows?’ And I kind of feel the same way. I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it.”

With such a wide variety of renditions, it’s clear the beauty is all in the particular vocalist’s delivery. Too many, however, bury any real human emotion under mountains of overproduced strings and histrionics, or in Bono’s case, trance beats and an ill-advised falsetto. For me, John Cale’s elegantly minimalist interpretation is the one for the ages, perhaps even moreso than Cohen’s original.

Albums That Broke My Heart: Sea Change by Beck

You could throw darts at the tracklist from Beck’s 2002 album Sea Change and each song you hit would be sadder than the last. Hence this deviation in format from our ongoing playlist of Songs That Broke My Heart… call it an Album That Broke My Heart.

Beck had always been equal parts folk (Mutations) and weird (Odelay), and perhaps at his best when he combined the two. Although his sense of humor and absurdism usually dominates, a pronounced darkness is often present. All of these tendencies were on display on his breakthrough single “Loser”, which, together with the roughly contemporaneous “Creep” by Radiohead, was part of a groundswell of indie rock self-loathing in the mid 1990s.

Perhaps wary of being typecast as the dude with the emotionally detached and quirkily abstract lyrics (walking, one might say, in the Talking Heads’ shoes), and of being too closely associated with the production techniques of The Dust Brothers and the videos of Spike Jonze, Beck took an unexpected genre swerve in 2002. Sea Change was an album-length outpouring of anxiety, grief, and loneliness. Its low-key emotional honesty was probably alienating to most of his fans, and its morose mood no doubt not very attractive to new listeners.

After listening to only a few songs from the album, you wouldn’t need to consult Wikipedia to find out if these songs were the result of somebody breaking up with him. But if you did, you’d learn that this batch of songs dates from when he discovered his longtime fiancée was cheating on him.

Standout tracks for me are “Guess I’m Doing Fine” and “Lost Cause”:

Imagine There’s No Religion: Doctor Who and The Rings of Akhaten

Is the Doctor Who episode “The Rings of Akhaten” already one of the series’ most misunderstood? Almost two years ago, the Doctor urged his companions Amy & Rory not to live up to the title of “Let’s Kill Hitler”, for the vaguely-explained sci-fi reasons that changing history doesn’t always work out for the best. The Doctor defeated the devil before, in “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit” from Series 2. Here he has no compunctions in also killing god.

I’ve now listened to three fan podcasts debating the merits of “The Rings of Akhaten”, and was frankly surprised to discover the episode has been met by Doctor Who fandom with ambivalence at best, and outright derision from the rest. I would certainly not try to defend it as an instant classic, but it certainly does not deserve to be counted among the abysmal failures like “Fear Her” and “Last of the Time Lords”. In fact, I would argue it’s worthy of praise for daring to say something potentially very controversial. Perhaps it doesn’t say it very well (as evidenced by the fact that none of the participants in those three podcasts so much as broach the topic), but at least it’s a story that strives to be more than the usual Doctor-defeats-an-alien-invasion routine (not that there’s anything wrong with that routine — as a lifelong fan I love that routine!).

Out of all the various opinions voiced by the hosts of Radio Free Skaro, Verity, and Two Minute Time Lord, I align most with Chip of the latter, who was pleased the show still has the potential to be surprising. But everyone, even Chip, failed to even address what I took to be the major takeaway from the episode: the Doctor essentially rescued a civilization from a parasite they worshipped as a god. He freed a society from their self-defeating religion, and they thanked him for it.

Writer Neil Cross is famous for the grim BBC series Luther, and his script for Doctor Who was generally much lighter. But “The Rings of Akhaten” was about something very important, in a way that the series does not often attempt. I would classify it broadly in the same league as “Vincent and the Doctor”, where science fiction tropes were employed for a thinly-veiled metaphor of a particular aspect of human existence. Just as “Vincent and the Doctor” used time travel and invisible monsters to explore the topic of depression and suicide, “The Rings of Akhaten” used asteroids, interstellar mopeds, and angry space mummies to make a point about the detrimental effects of religion.

After watching the episode, I fully expected the fan conversation to be about how the show overstepped by taking on the negative affects of faith and religion. I expected many to take offense for daring to go there. But instead, it got called “dumb” and “stupid”, and Radio Free Skaro even dubbed it “The Borings of Akhenaten”. I suppose it raises the questions of what people want or expect from Doctor Who, which would seem to be plot, story, and character development. Anything beyond that (such as allegorical explorations of deeper themes like faith and religion) might as well be invisible. A good piece of science fiction ought to excel in both areas, so it seems “The Borings of Akhenaten” falls down on both fronts: none of the podcast hosts thought to mention the topic of religion (imagine talking about “Vincent and the Doctor” without mentioning depression!), and on the practical side, the plot particulars might not hold up to much scrutiny. But since when has Doctor Who ever been about hard sci-fi and airtight plotting? Any fan that demands that stuff probably ought to be watching Star Trek.

I don’t think I’m reaching at all in my interpretation here. This has to be one of the most thinly-veiled metaphors in Doctor Who history. The Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) begin their adventure explicitly discussing the society’s religion. He briefly explains how their belief system works: a giant orb in the sky, known as Grandfather, is worshipped as a vengeful god. A priesthood has long placated it via song, until today.

Doctor Who The Rings of Akhenaten
The parasitic “god” known as Grandfather, memorably described by the hosts of the Verity podcast as Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin

Clara wondrously asks, “Is it true?” For of course, she just rode across space and time to her first alien world, so it would’t be much more of a stretch to ask if, yes, the giant ball of gas in the sky (which the hosts of Verity memorably compared to Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin) might actually be a god that demands offerings of precious memories. The Doctor pauses, smiles, and then replies “It’s a nice story”. Again, it’s not subtle: the Doctor is saying that what these people believe is a god is actually just a thing. Many, many times before he’s unmasked the supernatural: the mummies in “Pyramids of Mars” were robots, the ghosts in “The Unquiet Dead” and the devil in “The Satan Pit” were aliens, etc. There is no real supernatural in the Doctor Who universe.

I’ve put all of this very broadly to try and keep this post short, but my point is that the episode was far from “dumb”, “stupid” or “boring”. For better or for worse, it took on some complicated questions about religion. It also made me wonder about what it is the Doctor does to the civilizations he rescues. He has a long history of freeing groups from oppression, often leaving at the end of the story having totally and utterly upended the status quo. Here, the Doctor frees a people from their self-destructive religion. It’s not a perfect metaphor for atheism, for in a sense this god is real — not actually a god, but real. Atheists would point to the tyranny of organized religion, which is the work of fellow humans.

John Lennon asked in “Imagine” that we consider a world without countries or possessions, and heaven or religion. The alien civilization in “The Rings of Akhaten” has an economy that derives directly from their religion: just as their ersatz god feeds upon emotional memories, they pay for goods and services with objects imbued with sentimental value. The Doctor destroys both of these things: not only their god but also the very meaning behind their currency.

This alien culture, as far as we see it in this episode, is defined by only two things: its religion and its commerce. All we see of them is a marketplace and a religious order. So, in rescuing them, the Doctor takes away everything that we know about them. And they’re happy for it. Surely that’s the interesting thing about this episode, right?

Songs That Broke My Heart: Days in the Trees (Reich) by No-Man

Any playlist of sad songs I might compile must include No-Man, but it was no easy task to select only one piece from a songbook positively chock full of them. To make my job a bit easier, I went back to the band’s beginnings.

Similar in style to their first breakout single “Colours” (a dramatic reimagining of Donovan’s mid-60s folk-pop hit), “Days in the Trees” is very much an artifact of early 90s minimalist art-pop. Despite its superficially dated production, the song is quintessential No-Man: Tim Bowness’ melancholy vocals hovering over Steven Wilson’s looped breakbeat, accompanied by Ben Coleman’s dramatic violin and very little else.

I found myself drawn to a relatively obscure alternate version subtitled “Reich”, first released in 1992 on the virtually impossible to find original EP and the subsequent mini-album Lovesighs – An Entertainment, and now available on the retrospective anthology All the Blue Changes. In a personal reassessment, Bowness expresses reservations about the mix and performances in the released version, but concedes that “Reich is a piece I still love”.

Utterly unlike a prototypically unimaginative remix in which rigid disco beats are bolted onto scraps of a song, this version has only the most tenuous of connections to its source material. It omits Bowness’ vocals entirely, in favor of a gently repeating keyboard arpeggio. The title alludes to composer Steve Reich’s brand of systems music, which reached its hypnotic apotheosis in Music for 18 Musicians. A generation of electronic musicians expanded upon Reich’s interlocking patterns, and Reich himself later completed the circle by experimenting with electronica and remixing on his 1999 album Reich Remixed.

The stark ambient soundscape of “Days in the Trees (Reich)” provides an atmosphere for an astonishing soliloquy extracted from David Lynch’s seminal TV series Twin Peaks. Donna (Laura Flynn Boyle) is a teenager disillusioned by unsavory revelations regarding her best friend Laura’s drug abuse and sexual misadventures. Over the course of the series, she is exposed to even greater depths of corruption and depravity in her seemingly idyllic small American town.

Lara Flynn Boyle as Donna in Twin Peaks
“It was the first time I ever fell in love.”

While pursuing information on her own, Donna finds it necessary to ingratiate herself to a lonely male stranger. The mode of seduction she chooses is to recount the story of her first kiss. Her ploy quickly becomes a real confession, even an uncomfortably intimate flirtation. It’s an ostensibly happy memory, but her state of bliss over an event in the distant past is shot through with melancholy over a sublime moment long gone. Forced to confront the profound darkness festering in her community, this young woman prematurely mourns simpler times forever out of reach. Her tale portrays herself as a girl just beginning to sense that sexuality was a dangerous force her friend had already embraced but she couldn’t yet harness.

Boyle may not be one of the world’s most celebrated actors, but her performance in this scene is nothing less than stunning. Bowness and Wilson edited and condensed her monologue, but opted to leave in the sound effects of a cigarette lighter and her exhalation, effectively providing an audio vérité percussion track. Here is a full transcript of the truncated version that appears in “Days in the Trees (Reich)”:

“This is from a long time ago, is that ok? I was about thirteen years old, fourteen maybe. We were going to the Roadhouse to meet boys. They’re about twenty years old. And they’re nice to us. And they make us feel like we’re older. Rick asks if we wanna go party and Laura says ‘yes’, and all of a sudden I feel this knot building up in my stomach. But when Laura gets in the truck with Rick, I go anyway. A stream in the woods, and when I think, it’s pale and light out. Laura starts to dance around the boys. She begins to move her hips back and forth. And we take off our clothes. I know the boys are watching. Laura starts to kiss Josh and Rick. I don’t know what to do, so I swim away. I feel like I want to run, but I don’t. He kisses my hand and then me. I can still feel that kiss. His lips are warm and sweet. My heart jumps. He’s talking but I can’t hear him. It was the first time I ever fell in love.”

The brief song drifts away on her last word.


Further reading:


You’re reading an entry in The Dork Report’s ongoing mixtape The Songs That Broke My Heart. Get started with the introduction or dive right in. Know a sad song you’d like to see added to the playlist? Please let me know in the comments below.

The Songs That Broke My Heart

Rock ‘n’ roll is not an everyday conversation topic around our family table, but the improbable longevity of The Rolling Stones was remarkable enough to come up once during dinner. I had recently listened to “Sympathy for the Devil” for the first time in a while, and remarked upon how surprisingly dark and intense it was, so much so that it gave me chills. My grandmother asked why, then, would I deliberately listen to something that unsettled me?

She had a point. Upon reflection, I’ve found that most of the music I hold dear is chilling (like the aforementioned ode to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita), chilly (like some of the more academic, brainy music by Brian Eno or Philip Reich), or just plain cold (pretty much everything else). Some have subject matter that makes you want to jump out a window, some just sound like they do, and some may not be sad per se, but are rather so painfully beautiful I almost can’t bear listening to them.

How on earth did incurable sad sacks like The Cure, Nick Drake, or Kurt Cobain become pop stars? Why do we listen to the likes of “Hallelujah”, “Mad World”, or “Hurt” for fun? The answer is simple, but opens a can of worms: prehistoric humans almost didn’t invent music for entertainment or personal expression, but rather as a component to ritual, spirituality, and community.

To think of music as merely entertaining or escapist is to belittle an entire art form with limitless capabilities. Even at its best, it can be dissonant and ugly (such as György Ligeti’s Requiem, which still sounds alien today in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) just as easily as it can be pretty and moving (Johan Pachelbel’s Canon in D, so lovely it has passed into cliché and back again). It’s possible to make the same point about other oft belittled media, such as comics — where the uninitiated may be unable or unwilling to accept that the same format that stars Ziggy and Superman can also be as trenchant as Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury or as literary as Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

Hence this new series of short essays exclusively for The Dork Report: The Songs That Broke My Heart, in effect a playlist of melancholy, misery, and loneliness. It is not meant to be an objective list of the saddest songs of all time, but rather a personal compilation of songs that create an emotional response in me now, at this time in my life. But first, I’m going to start with something slightly more esoteric. Watch this space for my thoughts on No-Man’s “Days in the Trees (Reich)”.

The Songs That Broke My Heart:

  1. No-Man: Days in the Trees (Reich)
  2. Beck: Sea Change
  3. John Cale: Hallelujah
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