Recommendations, 2/7

This week we like nostalgic short stories, classic Japanese cinema, and covers of Bryan Adams songs.

Gabriella

NYer

On this week’s New Yorker cover, a young, gangly couple lounge half-dressed in bed, awash in a cozy golden glow, watching snow fall and accumulate outside. It’s a perfect illustration of a moment that feels particularly intimate while it’s happening; with time, it’s commonplace enough to be conflated with other similar memories. Perhaps it’s even entirely forgotten.

The drawing was certainly evocative, but I found myself especially touched by the short story that inspired artist Tomer Hanuka. In “Indianapolis (Highway 74)”, Sam Shepard introduces us to Stuart, a solitary and purposefully lost narrator. He’s driving around the country, admittedly “without much reason,” when he finds himself waiting for a vacant room in a Holiday Inn lobby in Indianapolis. By chance, an old lover from decades prior walks through the door. She immediately recognizes him, while he initially has difficulty remembering their time together.

“Nineteen-sixty-five,” she says with a little sigh. “Tenth Street and Second Avenue? St. Mark’s Church.”

“I’m drawing a blank,” I confess. “I’ve been driving for days. What seems like days, anyway.”

She laughs nervously, half-embarrassed, then stares at the carpet. “We lived together for a while. Don’t you remember? We’d get up every morning and sit on the edge of my mattress eating bowls of wheat germ with brown honey all over it.”

Shepard’s portrayal of nostalgia feels especially authentic — his characters aren’t cloyingly sentimental nor overly dramatic when they run into each other after so many years. Their interaction is polite and tinged with weariness; both of them have been dealt an unfortunate hand since they shared a life together. Stuart pictures that time, “a fleeting memory of a morning facing a New York window with a bowl clenched between my naked knees.” It’s this recollection of a small, otherwise forgettable intimacy that serves to dredge up more of his past and changes his course that night on Highway 74.

Kevin

One of the better concerts I’ve been to in the past few years was M83 touring off Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Anthony Gonzalez does most of the vocal lifting in the band, but their most dynamic live element is singer/keyboardist Morgan Kibby. Particularly during “We Own the Sky,” Kibby belts and headbangs like it’s nobody’s business. Look at this live clip if you want evidence! (It also includes killer renditions of “Midnight City” and “Couleurs” as well.)

You can see the same intensity in Kibby’s side project, White Sea. I came across the song “Prague” a couple weeks ago on *Pitchfork* and it’s been the only thing I’ve listened to since then. The production falls along the same lines as M83′s fuzzy new wave dream pop, but perhaps a step or two more aggressive. The drums in “Prague” are less of a beat and more of a propulsive throb, the chorus is an theatric crescendo, and of course there are synths — so many synths!

White Sea’s debut album is due out sometime this year, and seeing as how “sometime this year” is not right now, it’s not soon enough.

Jonathan

Roger Ebert said in his “Great Movies” review of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru that he watched it every five years and “each time it moved me and made me think.” I recently re-watched Ikiru and, ala Mr. Ebert, it moved me and made me think. Ikiru is the story of a Tokyo bureaucrat who learns he has terminal cancer and at the same time realizes that he has wasted his life. It’s beautiful and human and wonderful and that’s all I have to say about that: just watch it. That’s the moving part. The thinking part changes as we age and what we bring to the movie changes. This time through Ikiru, I thought of the paperwork. Great Gilliam’s Brazil towers of paper that loom over the functionaries in what is basically the Tokyo circumlocution office. The heroic protagonist whose raging, YOLO-infused last months are spent just doing, actually doing, one small thing in the great gargantuan bureaucracy. Sure, we’re “paperless” now but that just means that we hide the giant gumming reams of bureaucratic runaround on a hard drive or a Gmail account.

Perhaps it’s time we kicked our bucket lists. Laughed at the idea that sky-diving in Tahiti or whatever is a way to really live. Take a lesson from Ikiru. Small things are sometimes bought at great cost. A playground built on what was once a vacant lot, for instance. The sound of a children’s song is all the YOLO that our hero needs.

Nick

pjs

What really appeals to me about PixelJunk Shooter is that it’s just so… videogamey. Developed by indie studio Q-Games and originally released only on Playstation 3 in 2007, the game appeared on Steam last fall to little fanfare. And that’s a damn shame because if you have any nostalgia for console gaming circa 1995, you should know about Shooter. It has all the trappings of a classic Super Nintendo game, yet it somehow feels completely fresh.

You begin the game by selecting one- or two-player mode. Then you fly off to a Super Mario World-style overhead map to select a level. After skipping over a perfunctory bit of text-only story exposition, you enter a stage and take control of a cute, cartoony 2-D spaceship. By indie gaming standards, your goals are shockingly old-school: To complete a stage, you must rescue all of the random people scattered around the caves you explore, echoing Defender and its many imitators. To advance to the next “world,” you need to find a certain number of hidden gems, a task that brought me back to my Donkey Kong Country days.

In the hands of a lesser developer, these throwback design tropes could have made playing the game seem arbitrary and unnatural. But Q has the subtlety render such elements as homage — the references are clear, but they have enough PixelJunk style not to feel like rip-offs. And they serve a greater function in the game as well. For anyone who grew up immersed in games with these sorts of patterns, experiencing them again is tremendously comforting. From the moment my little ship swooped onto that goofy maze-like map, I knew what to expect, and I felt totally at ease.

That’s the perfect state to experience the game because once you start actually playing, it’s straight mechanical delight. Despite its name, Shooter‘s action is low key — you float lazily through caves, snagging scientists with a grappling hook and firing missiles at occasional slow enemies. Doing so is a joy because the controls are perfectly tuned; I often find myself gliding around a level, firing missiles at nothing, just because I can.

As with much great literature, your true conflict is with the environment. Lava and water flow through the caverns with realistic physics. The former is your greatest hazard — mere proximity will raise your ship’s heat dangerously while contact with a single drop will send you crashing to the floor. Water is just the opposite — submerging your ship provides a total safe haven from heat. The stages are laid out like puzzles, presenting every possible interplay between the two liquids. Shooter gives you many more toys to play with, but the core of it is the tension between fire and ice, as pure and essential as the game itself.

Nathan

There’s a song that I cannot stop listening to, this Bryan Adams song “Heaven” as covered by Brandi Carlile. Neither the song itself nor this particular rendition are all that good, but for whatever reason, I love it and have listened to it maybe four or five times a day for the past week.

I consider myself a semi-discriminating music person, as much as anyone can be now that the Internet has obsoleted the traditional “collector,” and thus lowered the bar for a broad education in pop music and made music geekdom a bit more difficult to define. But sometimes, regardless of actual quality, a song anyone would describe as just okay will completely wreck me. (Another example is the totally average “Who Sucked Out the Feeling?” by Superdrag, which I binged on throughout my 20s.)

I really hate the idea of “guilty pleasures,” so I’ve been trying to figure out why I like this song, and maybe all just okay songs, so much. I would just concede the point that I have shitty taste in music; I have no problem admitting I have shitty taste in other things — food, for one (my tastes basically run the gamut of different kinds of pancakes) and beer, for two (I’m all Hefeweizen, all the time — THE FRUITIER THE BETTER). But my objective estimation of the song’s worth actually somehow seems to be weirdly caught up in my enjoyment.

I mean the song certainly isn’t bad. It has a simple, serviceable structure delivering a “love will conquer all” payload pretty much exactly at the moments you would expect. But it’s by no means an example of simplicity belying something deeper, as with classics like “Bye Bye Love” or “Blue Suede Shoes.” What you see with “Heaven” is pretty much what you get.

This cover version pulls off that common maneuver, where an acoustic arrangement of a song, which originally had been way overproduced and over-layered in its arrangement, tends to highlight the underlying qualities of the songwriting. (See this Iron & Wine cover of George Michael’s “One More Try” for an even better example.) But really that doesn’t account for my love of it either. I saw this maneuver to repurpose the song’s potential under all the 80s cheese of the original from a mile away; the cover version is nothing as new or profound as the drastic change in tempo, genre, or vocal inflection would suggest.

My appreciation probably has something to do with the fact that I was exposed to it as it was played during the scene in the series finale of Friday Night Lights, when Matt Saracen proposes to Julie Taylor. (Uh, spoiler alert? That show wrapped in 2011.) And really, that song could not have been a more perfect choice for that moment, the best possible culmination of a truly great TV show.

The “what you see is what you get”-ness of the song, as it’s connected to that same quality in those two characters’ relationship in a show very much imbued with a nostalgic appreciation for “what you see is what you get,” probably explains its strong effect on me.

So I guess I’m recommending the themes of Friday Night Lights as they’re captured in that song, or that song as representative of Friday Night Lights? Something like that.