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Episode 99 - Sign o' the Times vs. Stop Making Sense

Sign o' the Times vs. Stop Making Sense  

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  1. 1. Which movie should be inducted into the Canon?

    • Sign o' the Times
    • Stop Making Sense


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See, I think pretty much all of that is there. In fact, I would even argue that the white-washing argument is a little overblown, but they are privileged as fuck.

 

It's that part that bothers me. Why do I care about these people achieving their dreams? Who are they, anyway? Ryan Gosling gets a really good job playing music that isn't even that bad, and then he turns into a grumpy asshole who can afford to feed himself while still playing music--also, when their argument gets too heated, their food in the oven burns, because subtle filmmaking. I liked it better when his mini-keytar made him look impotent because he wasn't having a good time playing for an 80's cover band--who, again, are not that bad. Sebastian is an undisciplined schmuck who can't spend a couple hours just playing Christmas songs, but who has enough income to waste on antique stools that held the asses of dead people he happens to like.

 

Same with Mia. She's a nice enough woman with talent, but then does the super irritating thing of constantly asking her manager if she can leave work early. Um, no? You have a job in a city of millions of people, and it wouldn't have been that hard to call in, or trade your shift. But if that doesn't work out, you have an education, and you can live with your parents for a while. Oh no! You might have to live a pretty good, comfortable life--which is sort of what happens anyway. Mia even has a big old poster of Casablanca on her bedroom wall--also, how does she work in a coffee shop, and live in that nice of an apartment, even with roommates?--which is so broad. Obviously, we worship the greats for a reason, but Mia can't do better than one of the most revered films in all history? Again, I do think this is on purpose, because Chazelle could clearly reference something more meaningful, but chooses something as big as he does.

 

Also, why do we never see these characters hungry? Money is barely an issue, except when it suddenly is. They care about their aspirations, but to what degree? They don't have any actual problems or conflict, other than their lives just aren't going their way right when they want them to. So, emotionally, I'm not invested in the story, even though I can appreciate the spectacle--because this is directed like it's no one's business.

 

I like your point about duality, because I think the film is aware of it, but it's also aware that nothing really changes. Yeah, it's sunny in winter, which is a sharp contrast with normal seasonal changes, but in L.A., it's always bright and sunny like that. I even like that number in their apartment, where they have this entire dance number that travels throughout their home, and they even use their lamps and so forth to make themselves look even more glamorous. That goes all the way to the end, where Sebastian never actually does anything to make jazz special, despite his claims that he loves and understands it so much, and where Mia ends up with a nice enough business type like her boyfriend from the beginning of the film. Which actually makes that ending set piece so strange to me, because what does it mean? The most popular theory is that it's a "what if?" scenario, but I don't think that's the case. I think it's that they see each other, and re-remember how great their relationship was, even though all the moments that are shown are all the low points of their knowing each other. What is the film saying if it's a "what-if"? What is it saying if it's a reinterpretation of events?

 

Again, with La La Land, there are clearly ideas and motifs littered throughout the picture, but how many of them actually mean anything? To refer back to the American Beauty episode--there are truths, but where's the insight? Why am I supposed to feel for these overgrown children? What does their story mean? What are they actually giving up? Yeah, sometimes you have to compromise. So what? Their relationship is based off of supporting each other, because the only real thing they have in common is that they're ambitious as artists. They're not even in the same medium.

 

This is a much better criticism of La La Land than anything offered up by Armond White, so I thank you for that. I also think much of is fair: the script is a little undercooked in terms of giving us concrete reasons to fully invest in the lead characters. Or rather, it's probably assuming empathy from people who are naturally inclined to empathize with ambitious artistic types (guilty as charged, here).

 

I did say that I could see an argument against the film along these lines, so yes . . . fair enough. I don't object to this line of criticism, only a blanket statement that there is nothing there textually. There are clearly ideas they are attempting to get across, not just a string of references to other works.

 

For me a lot of these problems are pretty well papered over by the strength of the visual presentation and the actors' performances. The writing is a little weak here, but in terms of how the romance and "meet cute" are presented visually? Holy cow, yes. That is something I'd be sad to lose. I also think what makes it "work" is that the film ultimately does not try to tell us that this was a great love for the ages, rather that it was one of those "stepping stone" relationships on the way to another phase of life.

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This is a much better criticism of La La Land than anything offered up by Armond White, so I thank you for that. I also think much of is fair: the script is a little undercooked in terms of giving us concrete reasons to fully invest in the lead characters. Or rather, it's probably assuming empathy from people who are naturally inclined to empathize with ambitious artistic types (guilty as charged, here).

 

I did say that I could see an argument against the film along these lines, so yes . . . fair enough. I don't object to this line of criticism, only a blanket statement that there is nothing there textually. There are clearly ideas they are attempting to get across, not just a string of references to other works.

 

For me a lot of these problems are pretty well papered over by the strength of the visual presentation and the actors' performances. The writing is a little weak here, but in terms of how the romance and "meet cute" are presented visually? Holy cow, yes. That is something I'd be sad to lose. I also think what makes it "work" is that the film ultimately does not try to tell us that this was a great love for the ages, rather that it was one of those "stepping stone" relationships on the way to another phase of life.

You know what? I think I can concede to a lot of this. La La Land isn't just visually strong because of the lavish pieces and references. Most of the themes that Chazelle can't write, he articulates with tiny cues here and there, and even gentler sequences.

 

Here's my favorite stretch of the film: Mia and Sebastian semi-agree to seeing Rebel Without a Cause. Mia goes on a date with her perfectly nice, but unrelatable boyfriend. This is intercut with Sebastian fidgeting in his seat, waiting for her. Mia, unable to relate to a world that is just pleasantries and noise, gets up and leaves. She chases what she wants, and we know exactly why. Sebastian can relate to her in a way this other guy can't. What Mia does is selfish and impulsive, which works. She gets to the theater, and stands in front of the screen--begging us to hate her, by the way--and makes this big gesture for the one guy she likes, and who motivates her. The two are about to kiss, because they're aware that they're living in a movie. And then the projector breaks, which interrupts their kiss. Rather than just consummating their attraction, they know they can do better. They can have their own Rebel moment. They go to the planetarium from the movie, and then La La Land makes its own movie moment. Mia and Sebastian slow dance in silhouette among the stars. Maybe there's no light coming from them yet, but they still eclipse millions and millions of distant, celestial bodies. This sequence is almost entirely dialogue-free. We see the proverbial and literal dance of courtship. It's frustrating and strange, but it's also magical. These people belong with each other, if only in this moment. And even if they are kind of awful, I'm glad they're with each other, rather than trying to pollute other good people.

 

Anyway, even though there's a lot that bothers me about La La Land, I do admire the hell out of it.

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I'm a middle aged feminist. What makes it man-splaining? Don't pop culture critics always offer their opinions as if they are facts? Don't they always act like they know it all? There wasn't a lot of give and take in the discussion, but I assumed it was a product of him not having listened to the podcast and not understanding the format -- like he thought he was being interviewed rather than having a discussion. But even so, I though it was interesting and I agreed with a lot of what he said about one of my all time favorite bands. Plus David Byrne has always been sexy.

 

I think the passion around La La Land is amusing. Thankfully I don't care much. I HATED Forrest Gump with a Fiery Passion when it was released and it was soooo painful to see it win Oscars. It's a terrible movie and for a long time I couldn't find people who agreed with me. So it's amusing to see the passion coming from other people about their pet issue.

 

Having said that, as someone who grew up loving Fred Astaire for some peculiar reason (perhaps his movies were frequently on late night TV?), I appreciated the comment that Fred (like Michael Jackson and Prince) worked really really hard to make it look effortless. Let's face it, there are many problems with La La Land, but the most obvious one is the songs aren't memorable. (it's also why the musical Rent is awful)

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You know what? I think I can concede to a lot of this. La La Land isn't just visually strong because of the lavish pieces and references. Most of the themes that Chazelle can't write, he articulates with tiny cues here and there, and even gentler sequences.

 

Here's my favorite stretch of the film: Mia and Sebastian semi-agree to seeing Rebel Without a Cause. Mia goes on a date with her perfectly nice, but unrelatable boyfriend. This is intercut with Sebastian fidgeting in his seat, waiting for her. Mia, unable to relate to a world that is just pleasantries and noise, gets up and leaves. She chases what she wants, and we know exactly why. Sebastian can relate to her in a way this other guy can't. What Mia does is selfish and impulsive, which works. She gets to the theater, and stands in front of the screen--begging us to hate her, by the way--and makes this big gesture for the one guy she likes, and who motivates her. The two are about to kiss, because they're aware that they're living in a movie. And then the projector breaks, which interrupts their kiss. Rather than just consummating their attraction, they know they can do better. They can have their own Rebel moment. They go to the planetarium from the movie, and then La La Land makes its own movie moment. Mia and Sebastian slow dance in silhouette among the stars. Maybe there's no light coming from them yet, but they still eclipse millions and millions of distant, celestial bodies. This sequence is almost entirely dialogue-free. We see the proverbial and literal dance of courtship. It's frustrating and strange, but it's also magical. These people belong with each other, if only in this moment. And even if they are kind of awful, I'm glad they're with each other, rather than trying to pollute other good people.

 

Anyway, even though there's a lot that bothers me about La La Land, I do admire the hell out of it.

 

Yes, bingo. Chazelle's visual presentation isn't just surface-level "pretty" (though it is also that), it's also purposeful and tells a story all on its own.

 

Armond White also slagged Tarantino in this podcast, but I think he's the same way. If you look beyond the surface flash and the references, you find a very precise visual storyteller.

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Yes, bingo. Chazelle's visual presentation isn't just surface-level "pretty" (though it is also that), it's also purposeful and tells a story all on its own.

 

Armond White also slagged Tarantino in this podcast, but I think he's the same way. If you look beyond the surface flash and the references, you find a very precise visual storyteller.

Exactly. It'd be really cool to see him direct someone else's writing. Give him a talented scribe, Chazelle will elevate the material to great heights.

 

Yeah. I didn't quite agree with his assessment of Tarantino. Literally everything White described as missing from Pulp Fiction is exactly what Pulp Fiction is about.

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I'm a middle aged feminist. What makes it man-splaining?

 

Mansplaining, as I understand it, refers to the phenomenon of men pontificating at length about subjects to women who almost certainly know more about it than they do. It's meant to call attention to the assumed superiority of male competence over female. In that sense it's a useful term.

 

It's also a neologism whose power has lately become diluted by overuse. This column, I think, gets at the problem:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/23/allow-me-to-womansplain-the-problem-with-gendered-language

 

Personally, I don't think Armond qualifies as a "mansplainer" here. First of all, he was invited by Amy to the podcast, so I'm going to assume she thinks he is qualified to speak on the subject. Secondly, I don't get the sense that he is "railroading" Amy out of giving her own impressions on the films.

 

People also used to accuse Devin of mansplaining, and most of the time I also didn't think that was a good description for his behavior. Just being kind of an asshole is not the same thing as mansplaining.

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Yeah. I didn't quite agree with his assessment of Tarantino. Literally everything White described as missing from Pulp Fiction is exactly what Pulp Fiction is about.

 

Ugh, seriously. What did he say? That Tarantino doesn't get that crime movies are supposed to be about moral choices and questions? That's literally the whole point of Pulp Fiction.

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I'll add something regarding La La Land: just because somebody is a protagonist does not mean the audience should see them sympathetically or they're "right" about everything. The prime example in the film is, obviously, Sebastian. He's on a crusade to prove to everybody that traditional jazz is right and perfect just the way it is. But, as John Legend's Keith points out, jazz is about innovation and creativity. He basically tells Sebastian after the band practice that being stuck in the past and not evolving is exactly what's killing jazz. It's a conversation that happens to Sebastian earlier when he mentions the name of his proposed club to Mia - Chicken on a Stick - to which she suggests a different name. Sebastian is so set in his monotonous tunnel-vision life expertly shown off in our first moments with him: when he is in his 40-year-old car dressed in a 60-year-old fashion style continually rewinding and replaying over and over the same passage on the 20-year-old technology cassette tape. He simply will not allow for any change from his plan and simply won't consider any other ways out - which directly contrasts how he explains (or man-splains, to some) the beautiful freeform of jazz and why he loves it.

 

Guess what happens when Sebastian eases up on these things and lets the other side win? Well, Keith's band is a massive hit and their music isn't bad at all. He has huge success with them and gets a fat pay check which is not only enough to support himself and Mia while she pursues her play but also enough for him to open Seb's (again, him caving in to others' ideas) at the end of the film.

 

Sebastian is almost never right in this movie initially. He's condescending, stubborn, and hypocritical. The film so happens to follow his POV, but it doesn't tell us he's right in being the white savior of jazz. I mean, again, there's literally a scene in the film where Keith points out that Sebastian is wrong. Anybody who thinks the film is glorifying Sebastian wasn't really paying attention.

 

Also, I fully enjoy that this is a romantic movie where the two protagonists don't end up together at the end. To paraphrase another poster's analysis, it's another one of those stars that they're reaching for but just can't grasp. I'm not saying this film is perfect (the script could've used improvement, whereas the photography and direction are superb), but I really don't understand the fiery hatred of the movie. It feels more out of a place of contrarianism to a successful film rather than real critique.

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Okay, that all being said, now for a comment on the topic of this episode!

 

I've loved Stop Making Sense for so long and have been waiting on passionately for it to be discussed on the podcast. I have never seen Sign O' the Times before and I can't find it fully and legally to watch; I can see some of its component songs as videos, though. I really enjoy the filmmaking and style of the latter, but I honestly wasn't even aware of it until I saw it pop up in the title of this episode - and I consider myself a Prince fan. Maybe not a diehard, but certainly a fan. It's beautifully shot and I find it to be a superb concert film above near every other I've seen, but one of the things I found jarring was the use of dubs on Prince's vocals. It was distracting to say the least, especially when his mouth isn't near the mic and vocals come out. It feels like nitpicking, but if we're picking between these two which is the superior concert film, the sound's matching of the video is probably one of the more important aspects.

 

To talk about Stop Making Sense a little bit as I decided to rewatch it again again while writing this post, I've always loved how the film shows the stage slowly being constructed around the band after the concert has already started and that even when the full core band is on stage of Byrne, Weymouth, Harrison, and Frantz that the stage is still being set up around them. There black curtain behind the band still hasn't even been closed yet so you still see the brick wall and ladders. There's even a point when one of the stagehands crosses between the band and the camera obstructing our view of the band momentarily. It's only after that 4th song - when the back-up singers and the additional percussionist join the stage, the non-permanent members of the band - that the curtain is finally pulled. Everything prior to this was just setting up the scene, setting up the full experience that this film really is about. The backdrop and lighting for the songs is minimalist - pre-curtain it's all general lighting, then the first few songs with the curtain are simple general lighting, then we get monotone non-moving lights for songs, The lighting then goes to an extreme of backlighting to allow for "This Must Be the Place" to feature the lamp's illumination, an illumination that brings us the projector imagery in this song. The near-darkness makes for some beautiful scenes during "Once in a Lifetime," for the fun strobe effect in "Genius of Love, for great playing with shadows in "Girlfriend Is Better." Prince's film is in sharp contrast with it's showy usage of lights and background. Allowing for stagehands to distract you from the band and even upstage the band by crossing in front of them on camera goes hand-in-hand with the band's drab wardrobe (all except drummer Frantz wear fairly grey-toned washed-out clothes that don't really grab your attention) and the decision to almost never show the audience until the very end all showcase the point of the film: it's about the music more than anything else and you as the film's viewer to judge the performance based on what you see and not how you see others react to it.

 

Sorry Prince, but this has to be Stop Making Sense.

 

Another note: I think it's interesting that we're potentially inaugurating Jonathan Demme into the Canon not due to one of his Oscar-nominated or -winning films like The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, or Rachel Getting Married but for the first of his concert films.

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...but I really don't understand the fiery hatred of the movie. It feels more out of a place of contrarianism to a successful film rather than real critique.

 

My fiery hatred of La La Land has nothing to do with the plot or characters. This is a musical with instantly forgettable songs, croaked by terrible non-singers, performing insipid choreography poorly.

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Mansplaining, as I understand it, refers to the phenomenon of men pontificating at length about subjects to women who almost certainly know more about it than they do. It's meant to call attention to the assumed superiority of male competence over female. In that sense it's a useful term.

 

It's also a neologism whose power has lately become diluted by overuse. This column, I think, gets at the problem:

https://www.theguard...ndered-language

 

Personally, I don't think Armond qualifies as a "mansplainer" here. First of all, he was invited by Amy to the podcast, so I'm going to assume she thinks he is qualified to speak on the subject. Secondly, I don't get the sense that he is "railroading" Amy out of giving her own impressions on the films.

 

People also used to accuse Devin of mansplaining, and most of the time I also didn't think that was a good description for his behavior. Just being kind of an asshole is not the same thing as mansplaining.

Yes, I think it applies when the woman clearly knows more and the man assumes she doesn't. I personally don't want it thrown around every time a guy disagrees with a woman and explains why.

 

We all know that Amy is capable of insuring that she gets her points across. We may be in a little period of uncertainty with her being the only host. It seems to me that the podcast has always been tolerant of the guests, and lets them have as much time as they want to talk about the movie they came to promote. It's been different than the dynamic between two hosts.

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Back to the topic... Here's a nice, timely article written upon Demme's death and on point with the main discussion!

 

https://www.wired.co...p-making-sense/

Demme did a great job with a great band. Thanks for posting that. I was just thinking of some of those other movies last night. I was thinking that, other than the two films discussed on this episode, I can't think of another good concert film. I thought of The Last Waltz and ruled it out, because that's a music documentary that contains some concert footage. I also thought of the Song Remains the Same, but that has all the awful side footage of band members.

 

Gimme Shelter is another good music documentary that's not a concert film. True concert films tend to be awful, though Armond mentioned Wattstax. I know I saw it when I was in college but I felt like I was doing my duty to tick it off my list and I simply don't remember it now.

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This is tough. I'm a much bigger Prince fan than the Talking Heads, but I've only ever seen Sign o' the Times once, while I've seen Stop Making Sense several times. I feel that film is superior as a tool to captivate someone who is not already a fan of the band. Sign o' the Times is a great concert film, but not the film best representative of Prince to be in The Canon. So I'm going with STOP MAKING SENSE.

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La La Land was terrible though

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Assuming I'm alone here but I would like to have more Armond White in future episodes. With the caveat that another guest is also invited who vehemently disagrees with White. The problem here was a lack of disagreement; though I'm all for that but it seems like a missed opportunity with the contrarian White as a guest. I didn't think there was much "mansplaining" in this discussion of these concert films and saying so is a discredit to Amy who held her own.

 

I vote for Stop making sense and look forward to more episodes

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BTW: What happened to the restriction that the movies that are discussed need to be widely available? I mean Sign o' the Times is basically unavailable anywhere

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BTW: What happened to the restriction that the movies that are discussed need to be widely available? I mean Sign o' the Times is basically unavailable anywhere

 

And is the very fact of unavailability a point against canonization?

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And is the very fact of unavailability a point against canonization?

No, but a point against being able to follow the discussion and make an informed decision

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I just found out today that the Canon was back. I missed all you guys.

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((WET BLANKET ALERT)) I am not a fan of concert films and I don't think either host really sold me on the cinematic worth of them. Interesting time capsules, but this conversation sounds more like talking about how great Prince and the Talking Heads were as musicians (yes, true). I'll agree with Armond, if there's room for one there should be room for both. They're both great musicians of the 80s and while I don't agree concert films should be anywhere near the canon, well... fuck it, Clerks is already in.

Agreed- at this point it's just debating music and pitting your personal fav musician in rather than the film.

I guess I'd go for David Byrne since I like his music better- but man I really think concert films are the equivalent of inducting DVD extras into the canon

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man I really think concert films are the equivalent of inducting DVD extras into the canon

Maybe we should then nominate the making-of documentary of the Lord Of The Rings right away, instead of the film itself. I remember that one being pretty influential amongst wannabe-filmmakers and in my books quite a bit superior to the film itself. ;)

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Maybe we should then nominate the making-of documentary of the Lord Of The Rings right away, instead of the film itself. I remember that one being pretty influential amongst wannabe-filmmakers and in my books quite a bit superior to the film itself. ;)

DUDE! not even joking- Maybe the next VS should be LOTR trilogy V the hours of The Making of footage.

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DUDE! not even joking- Maybe the next VS should be LOTR trilogy V the hours of The Making of footage.

 

Man, that's actually not a bad idea... follow me on the suggestion thread, please.

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