Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Wind that Shakes the Barley: Intensity Magnified

There's a question to be asked regarding intensity in film.  When making a movie that is brutally emotional as well as violent, how much can the human mind take in the span of two hours?  For the most part movies need a reset, brief scenes of levity or calm between mind-bending terror or emotional trauma.  An emotionally traumatic movie like Blue Valentine ingeniously uses flashbacks of happiness and love to offset the degradation of a present marriage.  We are happy when Dean and Cindy are; it also has the added effect of making their present scenario all the more heartbreaking.  A violent movie like Children of Men bookends that violence with the strong bonds of family.  So what happens when we leave out the reset button, when all we are left with is trauma after trauma until we are left huddle in a corner wondering when or if the sun will shine again?  We are left with The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

It should be said that the history of Ireland and England after WWI is an intense and heartbreaking one.  I won't summarize the whole thing, which starts with an insurrection in 1916 and (roughly) ends with an assassination in 1922, but needless to say it was a devastating time filled with imperialism, arrogance, power politics, bloody backstabbing, and friends turning on one another.  It deserves a whole list of serious films exploring every aspect of the war of independence and subsequent civil war (and that list exists, Michael Collins being a great starting point).

Set at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, The Wind that Shakes the Barley follows two brothers who become immediately involved in the Republican Army in its attempt to expel British occupancy.  The film opens with Damien (Cillian Murphy), a doctor who has accepted a residency in England, and his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) witnessing a brutal murder of a seventeen year-old boy by British soldiers after a field hockey match.  The scene is loud and aggressive.  It sets the tone for a film that cannot back down from its opening scene.  Retaliation upon retaliation unfold and as they do the complicated politics of war unravel with it.  Sides are chosen and ultimately the film ends as tragically as the Irish Civil War did.

But what makes this movie so special is the deliberate pacing of the movie.  There is no turning back from a boy's death, and director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty leave very little room for peaceful moments: houses are burned, women tortured, and priests cursed at their pulpit.  Yet in spite of this the aggressive intensity in no way diminishes what are clearly the two most emotionally jarring moments of the film.  The fact that they are odd mirrors of each other no doubt enhances their magnitude, but when you finish the movie you push everything else to the side, focusing almost solely on two triggers and one letter.

What the pacing does do is create an agitation that never allows for comfort.  It plays with our expectation of what a film should be.  Watch intense movies enough and you begin to understand the unwritten contract: loudness followed by quiet.  The Wind that Shakes the Barley plays with the volume until your mind wrestles with the want for quiet and the need for loudness.  There is a brief respite between the cease-fire and the beginning of the Civil War, but at this point your brain is trained to disbelieve joy and wait for sorrow.

If the movie wasn't so good this would be a cheap trick, and if the ending wasn't so desperately gut-wrenching it probably wouldn't work.  But the demise of Teddy and Damien, brothers who once stood their ground together and later chose differing politics, makes for an ending not easily forgotten and one that left me in the fetal position in the corner of my room, waiting for and wondering about that damn sun.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Daring Yeezus

Kanye's albums have always erred on the side of brash egoism, which is admittedly nothing new in hip-hop.  But what does set him apart from most is how vulnerable his albums are.  Whether it's the self-consciousness of College Dropout, the awkward singing of 808s and Heartbreaks, or the strange apology in a song like "Runaway," Kanye has consistently given us a window into his own weaknesses and fears.  In this way he invites you to join him on ever album, a passenger along for the ride.  The listener doesn't follow the artist down a dark road, they stroll side by side.  His new album Yeezus is great because it takes the listener and the artist down a road far darker and stranger than the listener may be comfortable with.

One of Kanye's skills is that he can create a consistent character in each of his albums, a certain part of Kanye intensified and picked apart.  What makes Yeezus so compelling is that Kanye has created a character stripped away of everything but raw emotion and ego. The intensity of Yeezus is centered on what's left when you take everything away, both sonically and thematically, and raw emotions become unconcerned with anything but themselves.  On Yeezus, Kanye is a god, he is a womanizer, he is rich, he is powerful.  He is everything you thought he was, or maybe wanted him to be, but to a degree that leaves you uncomfortable with what you see.

The familiar Kanye is there on Yeezus: the hilariously uncomfortable wordplay, the questions of race and blackness, the sexual deviance.  But familiarities intensified with slight distortions push the boundary of what is considered creative, funny, or even acceptable.  Kanye wants to know how comfortable you are with lines about Asian women and condiments or a terrible visualization of women and civil rights signs.  He wants this album to sting, and his lyrics do.  He sings about Black Skinheads and New Slaves and even distorts a classic civil rights song into a tale of groupies and abortion.  If this is the raw ego, it is a dark place.

What makes it even darker is Kanye's self-awareness.  Yeezus, the character and the album, are calculating; it is ego stripped raw of cultural persuasion, yet left with the knowledge of its former constraints.  Kanye is aware of what made him great, but only gives the listener that old soul mix on the last song.  This is almost a dare, with Kanye saying "if you want the me you like, you have to deal with the me you don't."  Of course this would be more of an actual dare if we could only listen to the album from start to finish but pining for the days of  records is besides the point.

In character, Yeezus comes off as far too brash and too brazen not to be self-aware.  If he is a god, he is closer to greek tragedy than modern omnipotence.  Hubris and vanity may be only one side to this god, but the only side it is willing to show.  This is not a one-dimensional character, but a complex persona refusing to show anything but it's worst aspects.  It can make for a frustrating listen, waiting around for the character to develop, especially when that character knows your waiting.  It uses that knowledge against you, playing with your own level of comfort.

Kanye isn't just daring you to like him, he's daring you to relate to him, or at least this part of him.  He wants to know how close you come on a daily basis to devolving into a Yeezus-like shell of yourself, where societal moors no longer matter and your suppressed ego is realized.  It makes the listener wonder not what part of yourself you're hiding behind, but what is really there when you pull the layers back and take a look at your most raw self.  Maybe that's the vulnerability of the album.  Kanye recognizes the darkest parts of his soul; now he's just waiting for and daring you to know you aren't that unlike him.