Art that was nowhere near what you expected
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? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My question is regarding art that was not what you were expecting. When I bought Saturday Night Fever on DVD, I was expecting a camp glitterfest along the lines of Grease or Footloose. Instead what I got was an anti-hero desperately trying and failing to claw his way out of a bad neighborhood. Around the time John Travolta was coldly telling a crying woman it was her own fault she had been raped, seeing as how she had been drinking and clearly gagging for it, I stopped expecting him to break into “Summer Nights.” The dancing scenes are the only relief from scenes of racism, abuse, and despair. Ever since I saw it, I cannot hear the title song in the same way again: The line “I’m going nowhere… Somebody help me…” takes on a shiver-inducing meaning once you have the context of the movie. Saturday Night Fever was a hell of a lot grimmer than I was expecting, and I have not learned: I made the same error recently with Boogie Nights. What piece of art, for better or worse, was nothing like you imagined it would be? —Emma
As I’ve said before in this column and on our podcast, I grew up on big, sunny classic musicals like Mary Poppins and The Sound Of Music. A few years ago, I suddenly realized I’d somehow missed out on some of the biggest classics—The King And I, Carousel, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Brigadoon, Oklahoma, and so forth. None of them turned out to be what I was expecting (Seven Brides in particular is disturbingly rape-themed, right down to a big happy song about the importance of kidnapping the object of your affections) but of all of them, Oklahoma left me most floored. This is a musical where the “hero,” Curly, dedicates an entire song to trying to talk his romantic rival, Jud, into suicide, under the pretense that once Jud dies, everyone will realize how mean they were to him, and will regret it. There’s a cute, chipper song from a girl lamenting that she’s available for any man’s use, but she just cain’t help it. There’s a song and dance that’s just about how cowboys and farmers want to kill each other. There’s a drug-induced rape-and-murder-fantasy ballet, and a song where all the ladies strip down to their (admittedly pretty bulky) underwear to lounge around together. The whole story is based around the threat of rape and murder coming off Jud, and the farmer’s daughter who attempts to use Jud as an emotional weapon against Curly, and is terrified when the whole thing backfires. It wouldn’t disturb me if the musical just had dark themes—so did Fiddler On The Roof and West Side Story, and those are terrific—but all the questionable behavior and dark, savage desire comes in an otherwise perky package, and the mismatch is endlessly disturbing. Or in the case of the rape-ballet, just tremendously weird—especially if you’re expecting Mary Poppins, which is really light on sullen, murderous, sexually threatening farmhands and not-really-funny shotgun weddings.
If you hadn’t mentioned Saturday Night Fever, Emma, I probably would have brought that up myself. I agree—nobody expects to see a (spoiler alert!) guy falling to his death in a movie that’s most known for a white suit and the Bee Gees. On that note, Cabaret also surprised me with its darkness. (More spoilers!) I expected Cabaret to be a good-time campfest thanks to Liza Minnelli, Bob Fosse, a bowler hat, music, and dancing. I did not expect Nazis, beatings and abortions. While I suppose some part of me figured it was part of the gay canon, I also did not anticipate the loneliness, anger, and confusion that ensues in Sally, Brian, and Max’s love triangle. I think when I popped in Cabaret, I basically expected Chicago but with Judy Garland’s daughter, but it was a whole hell of a lot more serious than that.
I can think of several musicians or rock groups—Ornette Coleman, the Velvets, New York Dolls, Pere Ubu, even the Shiny Beast-era Captain Beefheart—that surprised me the first time I heard them, because I’d heard so much about how uncommercial and audience-dividing they were. So I was braced for something I’d have to learn to like, and the first few bars just filled me with instantaneous, high-energy pleasure. Maybe these were simply cases of me discovering artists who were “before their time” at the exact moment that time caught up with them, good and hard. I had a less-happy experience with the 1970 Billy Wilder film The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, because both the title and what I knew by then of the director’s work had me expecting a parody, a Mel Brooks-Airplane!-style take on the great detective. It turns out that the actual, very long movie settles into a groove that’s slow, wistful, and autumnal—a little too much of all three for me, though many people think highly of it, even if each of them seems to think he’s the only person in the world who likes it. (It’s one of those movies that 999 out of every thousand film critics has described as “an underrated masterpiece.”) Likewise the more recent The Ice Harvest, whose pedigree (it was directed by Harold Ramis) and ad campaign were both designed to attract audiences who had no idea they were about to spend part of their holiday weekend watching Kansas lowlifes murder, betray, and tough-talk each other in a wintry film noir.
I’ve been a Lou Reed fan since getting into The Velvet Underground in high school. From then into my early 20s, I began accumulating Reed solo albums, especially the standout records from the ’70s, like Transformer, Berlin, Coney Island Baby, and The Blue Mask. In particular, The Blue Mask has some pretty harrowing guitar work (thanks to Reed’s stellar interplay with the late, great Robert Quine)—stuff that ranks up there with some of VU’s noisiest moments. That said, I shied away from Reed’s most notorious noise-fest, Metal Machine Music, as long as I possibly could. It wasn’t hard; in the early-to-mid-’90s, it wasn’t that easy to find MMM on LP, and I was a vinyl junkie back then. The longer I put off hearing, the more the album’s infamy grew in my mind. I read articles about it. I heard people talk about it. By the time I finally broke down and got a copy of it on CD around ’96 or so, I was prepared to throw it on, press play, and have my brain instantly liquefied and my eyes melt out of my face. Honestly, though, MMM didn’t do any of those things. In fact, I found it… kind of pretty. No, really. Maybe the whole thing had been built up too much in my mind. Or maybe I’d already subjected myself to so many MMM-inspired feedback-drone bands by that point, the granddaddy of that whole movement actually sounded kind of quaint. I don’t mean to downplay the disc’s historical significance, nor do I mean to appear all blasé about something that most human beings justifiably recoil in horror while hearing (that is, if more than .00000001 percent of the world’s population had ever heard it). I guess I just expected something a little less, I dunno, hypnotic. To me, MMM isn’t some kind of sonic monstrosity, it’s a white-noise lullaby.
I have a long history of coming into artists’ work well after the point that most everyone else has discovered them, and as a result, I’ve often fallen in love with an album that longtime fans have deemed subpar because it doesn’t hold up to the artist’s supposed masterwork. Such was the case with Public Image Ltd., though at least my entry point—Album (though to date myself, my first copy was actually called Cassette)—is one that the majority of PiL fans, if not all of them, deem to be a reasonably consistent effort. What I didn’t realize, however, was that Album was by far the band’s most accessible release up to that point, so when a surface glance at their discography assured me that Second Edition, a.k.a. Metal Box, was the absolute best PiL had to offer, I figured, “Wow, if I liked Cassette, then I’ll really love this!” Having just begun the upgrade to CDs, I bought the disc on its reputation alone, slapped it in the player, and promptly began wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into. I know the musical trifecta of John Lydon, Jah Wobble, and Keith Levene is still considered to be among the best post-punk had to offer, but I went in expecting “Rise” and got “Albatross.” Talk about jarring. As a result, Second Edition was taken out of the player and sat untouched before finally being sold off a few years later in a mid-college purge to buy my family Christmas presents, and although I’ve come to appreciate a few of the songs over the years—“Death Disco,” “Memories,” and “Careering”—thanks to repeated spins of PiL’s The Greatest Hits, So Far, I’ve never felt the need to own Second Edition again.
I loved music growing up, but I’m not sure I ever thought about it. Sure, I’d have my trigger finger ready, anxious to record that week’s big hit singles once Casey Kasem stopped his overly long introductions. But I never really stopped to contemplate what music meant, or what it could do. That changed in 1989, when the 14-year-old me walked into a music store and plunked down some accumulated allowance money to pick up Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. I liked License To Ill well enough, but I didn’t think about its context in the larger musical world. But Paul’s Boutique just knocked my head in, and I’ve been kind of recovering ever since. Even listening to it now while I type up this response leaves me a little in awe: The production is incredible, the attitude is unique, and the creativity on display is top-notch. While I bought the record on the strength of the single “Hey Ladies,” I was drawn into the myriad of samples laid down by producers The Dust Brothers. Those samples led me down a rabbit hole to music I didn’t even know existed, expanding my musical vocabulary and my mind in the process. In one album, Beastie Boys went from a bunch of dudes waxing semi-poetic about Paul Revere’s prowess with a whiffleball bat to men name-dropping science “like Galileo dropped the orange.” I’ve been more impressed with records in the time since, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as surprised.
I remember seeing bits of Giant as a kid, but my memories of George Stevens’ 200-minute epic from 1956 mostly centered around the cast (James Dean in his final role, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson) and it having something to do with oil. I recently watched the whole thing for work, and I was completely unprepared for the message movie it turned out to be. To put it glibly, that message is “Racism is bad.” I expected an epic about the rise of the Texas oil industry, and while I did get that, the film spends just as much time—maybe more—addressing white-vs.-Mexican racism with no aspirations of subtlety. (In the final scene, the camera zooms in on a pair of toddlers, one white and the other mixed-race, closing in on their eyes while “The Eyes Of Texas” plays.) Considering the time and the star power involved, the message was probably pretty bold. Labored and hammy in that way Hollywood tends to be, but respectable nonetheless. The message wasn’t totally received, though: When the film premièred in Marfa, where Stevens shot the exteriors, the audience was segregated, with Latinos forced to the balcony.
To be honest, part of what made me stay away from Hunger Games books for so long was the idea that somehow, since these were books were about a female heroine, they would be slanted toward a female audience à la Twilight, full of dewy-eyed romance and playing at plot points that only appeal to 10-year-old girls with Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers. Not only was that wrong-headed of me to assume, it was also way, way off-base. Little did I know of the grisly violence, dark subjects, and burdened, reluctant hero contained within. If anything, the series is the antithesis of Twilight. There are muddled motivations behind everything in the book; any subplot pertaining to anything resembling a love triangle is dripping with paranoia. And as for the lead, Katniss, author Suzanne Collins has rightfully earned accolades for not only writing a strong female protagonist, but a complex one who recognizes not everything is black and white, and sometimes you have to compromise yourself for the sake of pure survival.
Due to some really bad timing and a few weird coincidences, my conception of Breaking Bad was ridiculously far off. About the time the show started, I was just giving up on Showtime’s “suburban mom becomes weed dealer to support her family after dad dies” dramedy Weeds. That show jumped the shark pretty hard by the end of season two, although I hung on a little longer out of hope it would turn around somehow. (Alas, it never did.) So when I heard about AMC’s crazy “suburban dad becomes meth cook to provide for family after he gets cancer” show, starring none other than the dad from Malcolm In The Middle… well, I’d like to believe I can be forgiven for assuming it was a pathetic, ludicrous attempt to one-up Weeds’ formula. It wasn’t until Breaking Bad’s third season and the overwhelming critical buzz it was receiving that I finally decided I must have been way off-base about the show and decided to check it out. Wow, am I glad I did. As anyone who’s ever seen a single episode of Breaking Bad knows, the tone and style of the two shows couldn’t be more different, in spite of the superficial similarity of the subject matter. Weeds is a comic-book soap opera with some occasionally dark material; Breaking Bad is a gritty, noirish anti-hero saga spiked with black humor. Oh, it’s also arguably the greatest show in the history of television, so there’s that, too.
I have spent much of the past two years researching and writing a book about Phish and Insane Clown Posse, but I didn’t actually begin listening to the latter’s music until fairly late in the process, in part because of the group’s reputation as the worst, most hated band in the world, a crime against music. So I was delighted and more than a little surprised to discover that while the duo is far from unimpeachable, its music is often extraordinarily fun. You might not imagine it from the “Miracles” video, but 99 percent of the time, the tunes of Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J are supposed to be funny. They’re definitely in on the joke, but their surreal, self-deprecating, distinctive music is also far catchier and more pop than their reputation suggests. There’s a reason Jack White wanted to work with the duo (and did, producing its single “Leck Mich Im Arsch”), and it’s not entirely out of perversity or musical masochism.
When I first saw the title of Geek Love, a 1989 novel by Katherine Dunn, I immediately thought of romance at a Star Trek convention or some such. Imagine my surprise when it opened my eyes to a world of power-hungry circus freaks purposefully created by their parents via excessive drug use in order to save the failing carnival. Their offspring includes Arty, a boy with flippers for arms and legs, who ends up convincing others to amputate their limbs in an effort to become pure. Infinitely more interesting than Trekkies in love.
I somehow missed the initial hype surrounding Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium series”—The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, etc.—but by the time the original Swedish film came to Milwaukee in 2009, I was ready to hop aboard the mom- and frequent-flyer-manned bandwagon. In keeping with a tradition I have regarding anticipated movies, I imposed a media blackout on myself, avoiding any and all reviews and publicity surrounding the film. Of course, that blackout extended to the film’s basic premise, which I believe I described to my meek, extremely pregnant movie companion as “kind of like The Crow and The Dark Knight, or something.” Two and a half hours of sodomy and Agatha Christie plotting later, I realized just how wrong I had been. My friend was a good sport, however, and even asked if I wanted to see The Girl Who Played With Fire a few months later. I politely declined.
I approached Philip Roth’s American Pastoral having only read The Human Stain, and even its scathing assessment of academic and identity politics couldn’t prepare me for the intensity and rage that fuels American Pastoral. For some reason, I was incapable of reading the title as ironic or getting past my assumption that its literary canonization was a sign that it’s more polite and consensus-building than his friskier work. And even the class reunion that eats up the first third—with its evocation of Seymour “The Swede” Levov’s sporting heroics as a high-schooler and its long, throat-clearing disquisition on whether people are truly knowable—lulled me into a false sense of security. But once the tragedy of The Swede’s life, as filtered through the fecund imagination of Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman character, takes over and we get into his tortured relationship with a daughter turned Weather Underground-style domestic terrorist, American Pastoral goes marvelously haywire, reflecting the cultural madness that Roth coins “the indigenous American berserk.” If Zuckerman’s presence didn’t complicate the issue, the reactionary invective that follows would be cartoonish; as it stands, you still have to wipe the spittle off your cheeks.
Whenever I see a highly-hyped hit movie months after it’s come and gone from the theaters and is now on DVD, oftentimes I don’t get what I’m expecting. That’s especially true with comedies, whose best jokes are often played ad nauseum on TV and have been shown over and over on YouTube and picked apart in the blog/Twit/Facebookosphere. For instance, when my wife and I sat down to see Bridesmaids when my cable system had it on demand, we knew a lot about it; we knew there were scenes where most of the cast, including Maya Rudolph in a wedding dress, were going to be violently sick. We knew Melissa McCarthy was going to be a butchy, sexually aggressive bridesmaid with a soft side. So we were expecting a wall-to-wall gut-clutcher. What we got was funny scenes with a lot of actual emotions and drama in between. We even got to see Kristen Wiig act! But it was a little disappointing that this wasn’t the laugh-fest we had been told it was by oh so many people, whether it be reviewers, talk-show hosts, friends, or party guests. It didn’t help that it was a Judd Apatow production, which means that it was inevitably 30 minutes too long. If it had been only 90 minutes instead of 125, maybe it would have been the gut-clutcher we were expecting.
I'd kept hearing about Gotye on The Voice and other competition shows, and by the time I’d heard its third or fourth over-emoted interpretation, or some dubious source’s praise, I’d already decided I hated it. And imagined it was some generic trip-lounge with bland, slinky vocals, based on the name, but mostly how I’d seen other performers represent it. But now I get why Gotye, the actual dude behind the inscrutable name, was bummed about Glee’s theater-pop take. People are still finding “Somebody That I Used To Know,” but just as many who’d potentially follow his career for years are calling its bluff. Finally, just last week, I watched the video with open ears and mind. Both were beautiful—arty without being pretentious, catchy without giving it all away, moving on rhythms of clever phrasing and piercing lyrics, and full of surprises (i.e. Kimbra’s late arrival and tantalizingly curt back-and-forth). Zooming back out, the whole story of the song is inspiring, but I wish I’d simply zeroed in on the music that much sooner.