Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Notorious Jimmy James

OK, if there are any pussified and whiny indie kids out there who want to start a band so they can wear cool clothes and sing about their feelings and chat up pretty emo girls with pixie haircuts and facial piercings, LISTEN UP. You are forbidden to do any of this until you study at the feet of My Morning Jacket.

Other than a vague perception of them being jammy and Southern-fried, I knew nothing about this band, and largely because of the aforementioned perceptions, didn't think I needed to know anything about them, before I saw them play on the Northwestern campus last night. Kittens, I have been touched by the power of ROCK. Those motherfuckers walked on stage looking like they'd just been released from prison somewhere and played their fucking hearts out. They could have phoned it in for this student show in the gym. They could have fooled us by hiding behind the bluster and momentum of their hair and beards. But, no. They flung their bodies across the stage and whipped that hair around and screamed and sweated and went through some kind of public musical catharsis for our benefit. It was spectacular, in the truest sense of the word. I mean, yeah, there was a fair amount of guitar wankery, but, my background in jazz being what it is, I have infinitely more patience with semi-indulgent soloing in a live setting than I do on a recording. Not to mention that the kind of music they play is best experienced like a blast from a furnace at the gates of hell: hot, loud, and overpowering, which is to say, not through the tiny plastic earbuds plugged in to your iPod. It deserves a stack of amps and groovy lighting and the reverence of a crowd of kids who were inspired to shout things like, "why don't you just play all night!" I have a better understanding now than perhaps I ever did why Pamela des Barres wrote I'm with the Band, and why she lived it before she wrote it. Oh, and they played maybe four or five songs, and then, by way of greeting and introduction, lead singer Jim James steps up to the microphone and, perfectly framed against a bastketball hoop and the gray cinder block walls of the Patten Gymnasium, drawls, "I hear you don't have a fencing team here at Grover Cleveland. Well, I'm going to do my best to start one up for you." I nearly died.

Oh, yeah, and Stephen Malkmus played a solo set (which I unfortunately missed but I'm told was chockful of older Pavement and Silver Jews material) and the New Pornographers, including Neko Case, were the second band on the bill. Did I forget to mention all that in the heat of my excitement about MMJ? Pretty much best concert ever. Thanks again for the heads up, KP and DS. (I still owe you for the ticket.)

The reason I missed Malkmus's set was because I was en route from Navy Pier to Evanston after seeing A Flea in Her Ear at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Ah, who doesn't love a good, fast French farce? GH asked me a while ago to tag along with her and her gals to their season-subscription seats, and the show, while by no means revelatory, was still a delightful, brightly colored bit of piffle. Rick Hall was so effective in his dual role as man-of-the-house Chandebise and bellboy Poche that I found myself illogically wondering how in the world they were going to stage a face-to-face confrontation between the two characters.

This just in! Christianity is repressive, men are assholes, and the U.S. government hates pornography. All this, and not much more, courtesy of The Notorious Bettie Page, the kind of biopic that gives biopics a bad name. Lots of shuttling from plot point to plot point with only the skimpiest of G-strings connecting them to a greater theme or raison d'etre. Now, I don't necessarily go to movies based on true stories or real people looking for historical accuracy or trenchant re-creations of a larger social context, but I do, at the very least, expect to be entertained. The one-note-ness of Bettie Page was not only reductive in its simplifying of the character and the era, but deeply boring as well.

Sure, Gretchen Mol (Rounders, anyone?) looked great and was sexy as hell in the title role (though I do tend to agree with Violet Blue [beware the link; NSFW] when she says Mol doesn't exactly fill out Page's "ruffle-butt panties"), but, when basically all the part required of her was the repeated furrowing of her immaculately tweezed brow in earnest consideration every time her boundaries were being pushed by the series of increasingly fetishistic photographic demands being made of her, looking good is pretty much the most a person could ask for. She does work extra hard in one of the final scenes showing her, after recommitting her life to the Church (which, after a garish and blatantly sexualized "conversion" sequence, complete with her kneeling all dewy-eyed in front of the preacher man, is mainly dramatized by showing her buttoning a white sweater up over a black brassiere), reading from the Bible to (ahem, mostly male) passersby in an autumnal-looking park somewhere. Though her leap from slightly daffy but deliriously exuberant pin-up queen to devout evangelist has, despite some heavy-handed foreshadowing, no sense of dramatic inevitability whatsoever, Mol does her absolute best to translate her radiance from the flesh to the soul. Yet despite Mol's best efforts here, this fact of Page's personal history is just one more inconvenient episode to be gotten through until director Mary Harron can show us Bettie dancing (in homage to this ridiculous yet adorable video? [she's fully clothed and completely SFW here]) over the final credits.

Though I think Bettie's pictures and persona are totally awesome, I've never been one of those leopard-print, cat-eye-glasses hipster gals who would cite her as a major hero or sexual influence or anything, so my complaints here don't really stem from any kind of proprietary sense that no one's ever gonna do my Bettie justice. But, I did want to leave the movie theater feeling like I knew even a little bit more about her and her milieu than I did when I went in; I wanted to feel like I had something to chew on, some tangled tensions to try to resolve in my own head in idle moments of pondering on the train or at lunch this week. And this isn't to say that I didn't glean a few factoids about the nature of her work with Irving and Paula Klaw and Bunny Yeager and the Kefauver hearings on juvenile delinquency. But, Harron tips her hand so strenuously in favor of Bettie's heroic place at the center of a very thin slice of 1950s female sexuality, with only the barest, Walk the Line-esque examination of the events that led her there, that, quite apart from accounts of Page's post-cheesecake life, there was no ambiguity in this version of her story at all. It's all, yay Bettie, yay sexytime, fuck anything that distracts us for a moment from images of her frisky smile and plump bum, including the messy complexities of the woman herself. Yet, as we all know, the most effective titillation requires a little something be left to the viewer's imagination.


brendan said...

Stephen Malkmus, New Pornographers, and My Morning Jacket all in the same show? In a college gym? nice.

I became absolutely convinced that Jim James was the second coming of something from his cameo on the Bright Eyes song "At the Bottom of Everything" so I bought their album "It Still Moves" which I just never quite got into. But maybe if I saw them live (opening for Pearl Jam, alas not to be, although I'd much MUCH rather see Sonic Youth opening for Pearl Jam, also not to be) then I would get it.

mj said...

Hey, I have an idea...

Let's go back in time and I'll pay you to write all of my papers for me and then you can be rich and everyone will think I'm much smarter than I actually am. That sounds like a plan to me!