Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question: If you could separate one work from its creator, what would it be?
This one comes courtesy of reader Edward Wilford, who further elaborates, “You could use it to eliminate an embarrassment from its otherwise respectable author, or give new ownership to a strange and unnerving blip in an oeuvre; whatever makes you feel better. Or flip it on its head and salvage the one good thing an otherwise inconsequential artist has done and let it stand on its own. Make The Sixth Sense the work of a one-time director, and know M. Night only as a hack filmmaker who once made an almost-good superhero film. Or turn Burn After Reading into a quirky black comedy by someone you can't remember.”
In the wild and wooly filmography of David Lynch, I’d like to expunge Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Critics and viewers savaged the Peaks prequel back in 1992, but it has been receiving a lot of positive reappraisal lately, most likely due to its recent 20th anniversary. This bugs me—not because Fire Walk With Me is a terrible movie, but because it shouldn’t even exist. The magic of Twin Peaks—and of Lynch’s work in general—lies in the unknown. Watching the original TV show and all its vague, spooky intimations of Laura Palmer’s past, I remember thinking, “Geez, what did this girl get herself into?” Watching Fire Walk With Me, I discovered she did a bunch of drugs and slept with a lot of strangers. Huh. Laura’s ultimate fate remains disturbing, but seeing her once-mysterious past spelled out in such banal detail is an affront to everything Lynch stands for. Albert Rosenfeld says as much in the film, after Cooper describes Laura as young, sexually active, on drugs, and crying out for help: “Well damn Cooper, that really narrows it down. You’re talking about half the high school girls in America!”
I don’t know why this immediately comes to mind, but I think I’d go with getting rid of Semisonic’s 2001 record All About Chemistry. It’s an okay record, but to me, it pales in comparison to its three predecessors: 1998’s Feeling Strangely Fine, 1996’s Great Divide, and 1995’s Pleasure. The little test tube people in the Chemistry art are pretty adorable, and there are a couple of good pop cuts on that album, but Feeling Strangely Fine and Great Divide are hit-laden from front to back, and Pleasure’s pretty good too. Despite being pretty much a band that's only really remembered for one song (“Closing Time,” for anyone who has lived in a hole since 1997), Semisonic had a ton of really excellent songs, and that’s the reason, I’m sure, that Dan Wilson is still working today. It’s just kind of a shame that the group had to end on kind of a boring and uninspired record like Chemistry. I’d rather have seen them go out with a bang than a whimper.
If I could, I’d separate Mos Def the actor from Mos Def the rapper (I know he’s called Yasiin Bey now, but I’m talking about his career before the name change). On both the game-changing Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star and his solo debut Black On Both Sides, Mos is an emerging talent who seems poised to become one of the greats. Lyrically, he was a match for Kweli’s intellectualism, but he also had a laid-back charm that was sorely missing from the gangsta rap era Black Star helped put an end to. But since that breakthrough, most of his attention seems to have been focused on his career as an actor. I don’t want to lose that actor, as he has been a charming, likable screen presence in Be Kind Rewind and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but I wish we had seen Mos Def the rapper live up to his full potential. Instead, his recording output has been a mixed bag, to put it kindly, with flashes of brilliance appearing among ill-conceived throwaways. He has also only released three albums since 2000, compared to Kweli’s 10. Mos always strikes me as the brilliant student who just doesn’t apply himself. If he had put his full energy into hip-hop from the start, who knows how good he would have been?
I’d like to see Dollhouse separated from the Joss Whedon name. This isn’t because Dollhouse isn’t good enough to be part of the “Whedon canon,” as it were, because there’s an Alien movie for that. Instead, I find that Dollhouse, which can stand on its own merits, tends to suffer from its inclusion in, and comparison too, the list of Joss Whedon TV shows. It’s not as witty as Buffy/Firefly/Angel, true, and, with every character working against one another, its small-team dynamics are missing. That would also help prevent the unfair-at-multiple-levels accusation of it being a vanity project for the supposedly incapable Eliza Dushku, while also helping characters like Topher—always entertaining, eventually stellar dramatically—be seen as something other than a “Joss Whedon amoral nerd type.” In short, I want Dollhouse to be seen as the often-riveting, usually intelligent, increasingly ambitious show that it is, instead of as a failure at being Buffy Lite.
In a parallel universe, this obscure rock band called the Goo Goo Dolls broke up in 1990 right after releasing its third album—and third commercial flop in a row—Hold Me Up. Like its predecessors, 1987’s Goo Goo Dolls and 1989’s Jed, Hold Me Up is full of scrappy, raspy anthems cut from same cloth as The Replacements and Soul Asylum (incidentally, two other bands who could benefit from being disassociated with certain albums in their respective catalogs). It isn’t that Goo Goo Dolls’ post-Hold Me Up albums are crimes against humanity or anything, it’s just that they ought to have changed the name of the band or something—that way the lifeless, tepid pop-rock of their later period wouldn’t continue to overshadow the bouncy, Replacements-rip-off pop-rock of their lean and hungry days.
I can’t bring myself to airbrush even my favorite artists’ output, but hypothetical art, now that I can do. So say goodbye to Star Trek, J.J. Abrams and company. Number three gets to be made by people who will make a Star Trek film (or at least an interesting film) instead of a factory blockbuster with the right costumes and props. I don’t need Star Trek to be wholly faithful or anything. I just want some imagination back. The most interesting thing about Star Trek Into Darkness is the oxymoronic title. It’s anti-visionary, a shallow remix of Star Trek history (with a Star Wars wink for good measure) that sends its galactic explorers to deal with terrorism on Earth. Thanks for the branching timeline and the slash-fiction casting, but we’ll take it from here.
As a rule, I pretty much see anything Cameron Crowe directs or writes, since his track record when it comes to offbeat films is rather stellar. However, his 2011 film We Bought A Zoo was very much an exception: The storyline was predictable, the characters were caricatures, the conflicts were Scooby-Doo-level contrived (no money! a grouchy USDA inspector!), and the chemistry between so-called love interests Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson was nonexistent. Granted, the movie was based on a true story, so perhaps Crowe wasn’t entirely to blame for the content. But instead of capturing the intricacies of a family’s relationship (or developing rich, quirky characters that endure), We Bought A Zoo is merely a pleasant-enough movie for a boring Saturday night.
Sometimes I wish that Roman Polanski didn't direct Roman Polanski movies. Or rather, I wish that Roman Polanski hadn’t sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl in 1977 and fled the United States, never to return. Still, the image of Polanski as Eurotrash libertine/rapist/monster/exile is so instructive to many of his great post-’77 films that it's impossible to negate. (Would The Ghost Writer work so perfectly if we didn't see Polanski reflected in both the character of Pierce Brosnan’s house-arrested war criminal prime minister and Ewan McGregor’s snoopy biographer looking to find him?) Picking one pre-’77 work to separate from Polanski is tricky. It can’t be Chinatown, because that's too indebted to earlier elements of his biography—especially the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, and his resulting disillusionment with the American experience. So I guess I’d say Rosemary’s Baby. In another universe, Rosemary’s Baby isn’t a taut, Polanskian potboiler, but a full-on exploitation movie. The baby would be born in the first act and spend the rest of the film wrecking havoc on an NYC apartment complex, spewing demonic gunk out of its tiny mouth and clawing tenants’ faces off. Would that be a better movie? I don’t know. I guess at the end of the day, it’s impossible, and unproductive, to separate art from its artist, maybe especially when that artist has all kinds of gross skeletons clunking around his closet.
I am super-surprised I am the first one saying this, but I’d love it if someone else had written Ender’s Game and Speaker For The Dead. In my humble opinion, Orson Scott Card is a bigot whose skewed views on humanity are only available for public consumption because many years ago he happened to write two very, very good books (I could go on, but Sean O’Neal has already done it better). I’m less impressed with everything that came after, but if I could, I would transplant those novels and put them in the hands of someone more willing to accept other people’s differences.
God, I wish I could forget that Chris Brown is the artist behind “Forever.” I love that song with abashed fervor. It would be simpler and easier to love it if I could forget or ignore that Breezy’s voice is underpinning the sentimental lyrics. Brown is hardly the first or only performer to do something dumb, violent, and criminal, but given how sweet the song is, his notorious “incident” with Rihanna is a terrible juxtaposition. “Forever” is a wonderful little song about joy, and the famous wedding dances to it—both on YouTube and from The Office—have earned it a permanent place in my heart. Breezy, unfortunately, has not.
This may feel like blasphemy, especially among Beatles fans, but I’ve always thought that Let It Be should be considered separately from the rest of the Fab Four’s discography. Not that the album doesn’t have classics, of course, like the title track, “Get Back,” “The Long And Winding Road” and “Across The Universe.” But the rancor over the original Get Back sessions, and the decision to a) delay the album’s release until after Abbey Road and b) take the stripped-down sound of the original sessions and add Phil Spector’s flowery over-instrumentation on many of the tracks leads me to think of what might have been. If Get Back came out in 1969 in its original version, it might have been thought of as one of the band’s classics. But as Let It Be, it feels like an afterthought album by a band that was more or less broken up by the time it came out. Even the cover of the album, with John, Paul, George, and Ringo pictured in separate boxes, gives the impression that it’s an album by four individuals rather than one of the best bands that was ever assembled.
There are a lot of cases where an artist’s worst album tends to grow on me over time. A sin I have a much harder time forgiving is when one of my favorite musicians releases a best-of collection and adds an obligatory “brand new track!” that’s an obvious throwaway, something that came into existence solely to fulfill a contractual obligation. Even worse, though, is when you’re pretty sure the band actually did put some effort into it and it’s still excruciating. Given that I now own all their albums up to the point that Public Image Ltd released 1990’s The Greatest Hits, So Far, there’s no reason for me to ever listen to John Lydon’s unbelievably crappy ode to environmentalism, “Don’t Ask Me,” and, frankly, I couldn’t be happier about that. I’m a sucker for a pop hook, and I’ll grant that it's catchy in its way, but every time it catches my ear, I instantly start gritting my teeth and wonder, “How did the guy who gave the world ‘Public Image’ and ‘Death Disco’ ever think this song was a good idea?” It doesn’t even belong in the same universe as those tracks, let alone as the closing word to a compilation that ostensibly represents PiL’s best songs up to that point. So I’ve just decided that, since it’s not on a proper PiL album, it doesn't count…which is surprisingly easy to accept, because God knows it’s not a proper PiL song.
Ricky Gervais wraps The Office’s Christmas specials, and then withdraws to the English countryside to spend the rest of his days entertaining his most important audience: himself. No Life’s Too Short, no increasingly grating “Ain’t I a stinker?” public persona—Extras goes out the window, too, but I’ve never been that show’s biggest fan, and in retrospect it looks like the beginning of a slippery slope. As a bonus, this would prompt Stephen Merchant to take up his solo act at an earlier date, meaning we’d already be several years into the inward-looking, Woody Allen/Albert Brooks/Louis C.K. period of his career, rather than having to wait until September 2013 for Hello Ladies to kick it off.
I’ll preface this by saying that I realize it’s petty, but I’ve never really been able to break through Will Oldham’s public persona and enjoy his music. This is partly due to actual interviews with him that I’ve read, and partly due to anecdotal evidence from people who’ve met and/or interviewed him. Oh, and partly due to a very, very brief personal introduction back in the mid-’90s. It’s too bad, because I do like some of his music: I just find his public face (which seems to have mellowed considerably anyway) to be sort of overwhelmingly insufferable.