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carrie brownstein, hunger makes me a modern girl: a memoir

The day before Carrie Brownstein’s memoir arrived on my Kindle, I finally got a copy of Nick Tosches’ biography of Dean Martin. The book is endlessly praised, and I’d been meaning to read it since it came out 20+ years ago. I started right in, and realized instantly that it was as good as everyone said. That night, though, I wondered to my wife what I would do when Carrie’s book was finally released. Which book would I read? Would I go back and forth between the two?

The memoir hit my Kindle just before midnight. I looked at the pictures in the back and went to bed. When I woke up the next day, I started reading the memoir. There were a few things that sidetracked me ... I do have a life, no matter how much it seems I am drowning in idleness. A friend was visiting from SoCal, and we had dinner at a Louisiana-food restaurant. And the World Series was playing in the background when I was home.

I finished Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl about 9:00 PM that night. It took 21 hours from when I got it to when I was done reading it. Now I can get back to Dino.

Early in his book, Tosches describes Martin using an Italian colloquialism. From everything I’ve heard, and from everything I’ve read so far, this one sentence summarizes the life of Dean Martin: “Deep down, that, as much as anything, was what he was, a menefreghista – one who simply did not give a fuck.”

Carrie Brownstein gives a fuck. But, like Dean Martin and like most public figures, there’s the face she shows us, and what is actually going on inside. During her years in Sleater-Kinney 1.0, we got occasional hints that Carrie wasn’t just the perfect focus of our fantasies, most clearly on their last album prior to The Hiatus, with “Entertain”. Carrie always sang it with not a little venom, and the first lines show how confusing things were:

So you want to be entertained?

Please look away

Don’t look away

We’re not here cause we want to entertain

You can go away

Don’t go away

There was also “Jumpers” from that same album, which Carrie had written about people who committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. She wasn’t describing herself in that song ... on the other hand, she was admittedly depressed when she wrote it.

The thing is ... and we’re talking before Portlandia turned her into a semi-household name ... Carrie Brownstein’s stage persona was so liberating in its ferocity that I rarely if ever thought that persona might have grown out of someone who didn’t necessarily feel either liberated or ferocious when she was off stage. There is something about the indie ethic that assumes the musicians on the stage are “real”. This was never more clear than when the band would set up their own gear, or work their own merch tables. It’s not that I never fantasized about what Carrie and Corin and Janet were like off stage ... it’s that I assumed I knew what they were like, because of course they had to be the same off stage or on ... they were Real. (I could carry this to silly extremes. I once interviewed Corin and her other band, Cadallaca, and even though the three women all dressed up with big wigs and big makeup, and even though they adopted stage names ... Corin’s was “Kissy” ... my biggest memory of that interview was eating burgers backstage before the show. Corin Tucker eats burgers, just like real people, because she’s real, wigs or no wigs.)

What Carrie’s memoir tells us is that I had it wrong. She has always been articulate about the difference between being a performer and being a fan. Here, she delves deep into that difference. Much of the book is about her search for an identity. Her mom was anorexic, and in his 50s, her father came out to her. She writes:

We want our parents to be the norm from which we deviate. So when my dad came out, my instinct was that I needed to husband-up and get married. As if my family wasn’t freaky enough. Me: adrift. My sister: unmarried. My mom: ? And now my dad. Who would fly the flag of normality? ... I immediately felt like I should be popping out kids within a few years of my dad realizing he was gay. Let our parents be anorexic and gay! That shit is for teenagers. My sister and I would be the adults. We would be conventional, conservative even. Guns, God, country, and my contrarian, reactionary self. (This phase lasted about ten minutes.)

The book is broken into three parts, Youth, Sleater-Kinney, and Aftermath. The middle section is the longest by far, but the first part is fascinating, and it is there that she shows what a fine writer she is. I wanted to quote passages every other page. At one point, she answers a classified ad from a band looking for a guitar player. The band turned out to be 7 Year Bitch. She went for an audition, but it didn’t work out. She responded with a letter to band member Elizabeth Davis, promoting her guitar skills, but then going on to tell her life story:

I wanted so badly to be taken to some special place, to be asked into a secret club that would transform my life. I felt like music was that club. And to see inside for a moment and then be asked to leave was devastating.

As time went on, they would cross paths on occasion:

Later, when I knew what it felt like to carry the weight of your fans’ aspirations, I would remember the way Elizabeth looked at me after I’d sent the letter: a look of pity, distrust, and weariness. There is a gulf of misunderstanding between musicians and their fans, and often so much desperation that the musician can't possibly assuage, rectify, or heal. You feel helpless and you feel guilty. With Sleater-Kinney fans I tried to be generous, but I soon grew uneasy. For a long while I could share nothing more than the music itself. I think I was too scared to be open with the fans because I knew how bottomless their need could be. How could I help if I was just like them? I was afraid I might not be able to lessen their pain or live up to their ideals; I would be revealed as a fraud, unworthy and insubstantial. The disconnect between who I was on- and offstage would be so pronounced as to be jarring. Me, so small, so unqualified.

The first section also covers the “pre-SK” years. I was interested to find that Carrie first hooked up with Corin because she loved Corin’s band, Heavens to Betsy. I guess I thought of the two of them just popping up together one day, but of course, they didn’t come from nowhere. As you might imagine, Corin floored Carrie:

It was a combination of Corin Tucker’s voice and the lyrics. The beautiful parts were edged in disgrace and disgust; it bordered right on ugly the whole time. The singing was louder than it needed to be – did she even need a mic? ... The voice asked to be listened to but it did not beg or plead, it dared and challenged, it confronted but needed no reply from the listener. Any sadness was also defiant: it was not the wail of mourning but of murder. And there was so much I wanted to destroy.

The Sleater-Kinney part reminded me of a long-forgotten book by Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople, Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star. You learn what it’s like on the road, what it’s like to make records, what it’s like to be in a band. Much of it brought back good memories, but what seemed romantic for us (the lack of a road crew, the fact that they traveled in a van) was just drudgery to them. On tour, they lived for the time on stage. In the studio, they took pride in the ways they changed and the ways they never delivered a bad album.

I feel like I don’t want to spoil the whole book, so I’ll just say that it got really bad for Carrie by the time of The Woods tour. I remember sometime after the hiatus began, hearing bits and pieces about Carrie in the hospital while on the road, but here, you get the details. Throughout the book, she is extremely honest, which means she doesn’t always come across as the nicest person in the room. But she does come across as ... what’s the word ... real.

In an epilogue, she talks briefly about the return of Sleater-Kinney, and how their first rehearsal felt:

What I didn’t remember was how it feels to stand in a room while Corin Tucker sings. How her voice is the answer to so many of my questions, a validation, as if she knows the map of my veins. And I had forgotten the beastly avalanche that is Janet Weiss behind the kit, when our guitars are propelled by the cascading force of her. We ran through “Jumpers,” and this time it was not about death, it was about being alive.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl does a superb job of letting us inside Carrie Brownstein, via great writing and a smart sense of what makes a memoir work. In passages like the one above, Brownstein also perfectly describes why Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss are such special artists. If this book lacks anything, it’s just an outsider’s look at Carrie herself. That defeats the purpose of a memoir, to some extent. But those of us who read this book, who have followed Sleater-Kinney for all of these years, know that Carrie Brownstein is a special artist. She can’t come right out and say that ... it’s up to us to say it for her.


what i watched last week

Ivan’s Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962). Criterion was featuring Soviet Cinema on Hulu, so I thought I’d dip my toes in the Tarkovsky waters. (Actually, I saw Solaris back in the 70s ... hated it, although I can’t remember anything about it except it was really long and I was bored.) Ivan’s Childhood (called My Name Is Ivan in the USA for a long time) was Tarkovsky’s first feature, and while I can’t compare it to his consensus classics from later in his career, I can say that it was relatively easy to follow, came in at a decent 95 minutes, and had a great performance from teenager Nikolay Burlyaev as Ivan. The B&W imagery from cinematographer Vadim Yusov is magnificent. The film came during the “Khrushchev Thaw”, one of many Soviet pictures that were relatively personal and less dogmatic than earlier Soviet films. I can’t say Ivan’s Childhood makes me want to binge-watch Tarkovsky movies ... I have a feeling it’s not very typical of his other films. But I liked this one. #361 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975). 9/10.


music friday

Jimi Hendrix, “Star Spangled Banner.” In making the anthem into his song, he made it our song. We usually hear this song at sporting events, but Jimi was playing at Woodstock.

Slim Harpo, “I’m a King Bee.” I’m not sure I even knew there was such a thing as the Grammy Hall of Fame, but this recording is in it. The first time Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi performed as The Blues Brothers, on Saturday Night Live, they sang this song. Well, they weren’t technically the Brothers yet ... they were dressed up as bees and billed as “Howard Shore and His All-Bee Band”.

Kanye West, “Power.” Imagine it’s 1969, and you’re in a prog-rock band that has just released its first album, which includes a song titled “21st Century Schizoid Man”. Prog-rock is something new, and your band is on the cutting edge. One day, you go to a fortune teller, who says that in the actual 21st century, a rapper will sample your song on a track he’ll call “Power”. You will not know what a rapper is. You will not know what a sample is.

Led Zeppelin, “Stairway to Heaven.” Or imagine the irony of Led Zeppelin being a popular source of samples. For an example of that irony, listen to “Taurus” by the band Spirit.

DeBarge, “Rhythm of the Night.” Helped jumpstart the career of songwriter Diane Warren, who is, according to the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, “considered to be the most prolific and successful contemporary songwriter of our time.” Take that, all of you talented but unprolific songwriters out there!

Van Morrison, “Slim Slow Slider.” It’s odd to remove any particular track from Astral Weeks. I do it all the time, especially with “Cypress Avenue”, but since I’ve been known to claim that Astral Weeks is the greatest album of all time, I feel obliged to actually listen to it as an album at least once in awhile.

Marianne Faithfull, “Losing.” People were surprised when the then 32-year-old Faithfull released Broken English, a great and memorable album from someone who had been mostly dismissed in the past. Who would have believed that 25 years later she’d release her 20th solo album.

The Capris, “There’s a Moon Out Tonight.” I used to say that if you didn’t like doo wop, you didn’t like music. Or something like that, I don’t actually remember any longer what I used to say. But it was about doo wop, and I was gushing.

The Shangri-Las, “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand).” You know, there’s a pretty good book out there about the Shangri-Las, Are You There God? It's Me, Mary: The Shangri-Las And The Punk Rock Love Song by Tracy Landecker.

Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” There’s no getting around it: if he hadn’t killed himself, this song would mean something different.


o.j. simpson never sleeps

This is going to be one of the most confounding “My Memory Is Failing” moments in awhile.

Well, actually since I have some concrete evidence, the only thing I don’t remember is ...

I’m getting ahead of myself.

I took my son Neal to his first football game 27 years ago today, October 22, 1978. The 49ers, who were just awful that year (they finished 2-14) hosted the Falcons at Candlestick, and if memory serves the tickets were given to us by a season ticket holder who couldn’t take the team’s poor performance any more. You might wonder why I remember the exact date I took him ... it’s funny, earlier that year I’d taken him to his first baseball game, and it’s easy to go back and find the date, because at his first game, we saw John Tamargo hit a triple. Since he only hit one triple in his major league career, it’s not hard to find the game where it happened. Similarly, we saw the 49ers take and early 7-0 lead when O.J. Simpson ran for a touchdown. It was his only TD of the season.

I have another memory, and once again, it’s easy to find the date. Robin and I went to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse at the Cow Palace. It was the show Young later used for the concert film Rust Never Sleeps. He only played one night at the Cow Palace on that tour, so it’s not like we went to a different show.

And yes, the date was October 22, 1978.

I remember OJ’s touchdown. I remember the Neil Young concert. But I’ll be damned if I remember them happening on the same day.

Here’s “Like a Hurricane” from that show:


film fatales #7: jeanne dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 bruxelles (chantal akerman, 1975)

I admit to some trepidation as I approached this film, which runs for 3 hours and 21 minutes and which, to the best of my knowledge coming in, consisted mostly of a woman doing dishes and making dinner. A friend said I shouldn’t be scared, just set some time aside and take it in, and it turns out she was right. I might have taken 4 hours to watch it ... there are a couple of convenient places where a break can be taken without doing too much damage to the film. But watch it I did, and it is very impressive.

So much of what Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte present seems off-putting. There is no camera movement ... once the camera is placed, we see only what it sees until a new shot begins. Akerman doesn’t rely much on quick cuts, either, so Jeanne Dielman is static for much of its running time. Which doesn’t mean “nothing happens”, but the audience is forced to slow down to the pace of the film. At one point, I imagined my wife at a baseball game ... she’s not a fan, she finds it boring ... if she had to watch a 3 hour and 21 minute game, she might try to find something to grab her attention, but eventually I’d guess she’d just give up. You will be tempted to give up on Jeanne Dielman if you decide to watch it. And I wouldn’t blame you at all if you did decide you had better things to do.

But the boredom is necessary, as is the length of the film. The boredom is cumulative (which is another reason why a person might want to avoid it) ... you are more bored after half an hour than you are at the beginning, more bored after an hour than you were thirty minutes before. Much of the boredom is due to the repetitive nature of Jeanne’s life. She makes breakfast, wakes up her son, makes and drinks coffee, sees her son off to school, cleans house, goes shopping, entertains clients at home (she works on what seems to be a part-time basis as a prostitute), cleans up some more, makes dinner, welcomes her son when he returns from school, eats dinner with him, puts him to bed, goes to bed herself, and gets up the next morning to make breakfast again. She is very compulsive, always turning lights off when she leaves a room, then turning them on again when she returns. Her coats are perhaps the most interesting aspect of her compulsions. There’s a housecoat she puts on when she gets out of bed. There’s a coat-length kind of apron that she wears when she’s got good clothes on and wants to make sure they don’t get dirty. She has a coat she wears when she leaves the house. And every time she puts on a coat, she buttons all of the buttons, and when she takes it off, she unbuttons all of the buttons and hangs the coat up. The buttoning gets annoying after awhile ... OK, we get the point, she’s compulsive, do we have to watch the entire process every single time?

And then, in one scene in the second half of the movie, she forgets to do one of the buttons. It has about the same impact on the audience as Norman Bates turning up in the shower with a knife. I worried I was going to spend the rest of the movie wondering about that button, but luckily, her son notices, saying “your button” ... she fixes it, to the relief of everyone.

As the boredom accumulates, our understanding of Jeanne also accumulates. For whatever reason, she is defined by her routine. The film is broken into three segments, each showing us a day in her life, and by Day Three, you know that she is different. But if you started watching at that point, you might not notice anything was wrong at all. The differences are subtle, and the only way you can spot them is if you’ve been paying attention the first two days. I won’t say she’s going crazy ... whatever plagues her, it was there before we meet her, so “going” isn’t the right word. But once you see how she is changing, you realize what came before was far more troubled than you might have thought. Her insistence on routine is no longer quirky ... now it’s a sign that she is barely holding things together.

My favorite line came after the Potato Scene. She puts potatoes on to boil, but neglects them for too long. She throws them out, then finds she only has one potato left, so she goes back to the store and buys a bag of potatoes. When she returns, she starts peeling the potatoes, but she no longer has the obsessive precision we have seen previously. She seems frustrated by the potatoes, she stops and starts ... something is clearly wrong. Her son comes home and notes that her hair is a mess. She replies, “I let the potatoes cook too long.” I’d say it was the funniest line in the movie, if it wasn’t so obviously sad.

Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne is, to my mind, the best and most important thing about the film. It’s Akerman’s idea, and Mangolte has a strong effect on the finished product. But Seyrig is given an impossible task: to portray a woman (who is on screen for virtually the entire 201 minutes) who puts on an armor to prevent us from seeing the “real” her inside the shell, but gradually giving us peeks at what is going on in her head. The differences are subtle ... like I say, if you hadn’t already watched her for two hours, you might not notice right away that she was faltering by that third hour. This isn’t Carrie Mathison, leaping from one side of her bi-polarness to the other, always getting our attention (and ensuring that Claire Danes will always have Emmy-winning material). As Seyrig plays it, Jeanne is more like Edith Scob in Eyes Without a Face. Jeanne’s face is nearly as inexpressive as Scob’s Christiane, only Seyrig isn’t wearing a mask. She’s acting. And as the movie goes on and on, it is Seyrig that gives us the gradual, if minimal, progress in Jeanne’s life.

Jeanne Dielman let the potatoes cook too long, and that was one of the most important events in the movie. At the beginning, you can’t believe you’ll still be watching 3 1/2 hours later. But by the time she over-cooked those potatoes, they had me. #90 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


what i watched last week

The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014). Another movie where my lack of advance knowledge probably increased my enjoyment. I try hard to avoid movies I don’t like, but I also try to watch things that are recommended from various sources, so I get a wide variety, and those sources aren’t always locked in to my preferences. The Babadook is an Australian horror film, the first feature from director/writer Jennifer Kent (an ex-actor). The cast was unknown to me (Essie Davis, the star, seems to be known mostly for her stage work). The film was partly funded via Kickstarter. It made my Netflix queue because it was #423 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. Well, this is one time the unknown film delivered. You could watch it as a standard horror film about a monster that comes from a book, and it definitely works on that level. But it is also ripe for detailed analysis, particularly from a feminist angle. (I agree with a commenter who thought it odd that this movie wasn’t on the Film Fatales list of “Recent Women-Directed Films That Everyone Should See”.) The main character isn’t the titular monster, nor is it the frightened and disturbed young boy who initially seems to be its target. No, this is a movie about a mother’s grief, and Davis plays the entire spectrum of holding-it-together to flat-out-losing-it in a moving and believable way. Kent’s eye is remarkable for a first-time director (with excellent work from Polish cinematographer Radek Ladczuk and book designed Alex Juhasz). She also worked hard to draw a strong performance from young newcomer Noah Wiseman, while also doing her best to avoid exploiting the child during emotionally intense scenes. The Babadook is better than a simple plot description might suggest, and I recommend it to most people (as the IMDB notes, it includes “Definite trigger warnings for anyone who had a violent or abusive relationship with parents”, so I can’t recommend it to everyone). 8/10.

The River (Jean Renoir, 1951). A bit of an oddity. Renoir, the Frenchman, teamed with Rumer Godden, the Englishwoman who had written the novel, for a film that took place in India. The movie is beautiful to look at (it’s Renoir’s first color film), and Renoir’s unstoppable humanism helps somewhat to turn the characters into people. But I found the film unable to move far outside the colonialist perspective ... the Indians are good people, but the movie isn’t really about them. The acting is highly variable; even if I thought The River was on the level of Renoir’s greatest films, the acting would prevent me from over-estimating its value. #173 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

We Own the Night (James Gray, 2007). A perfectly competent crime thriller that somehow has gotten a lot of critical acclaim. Director James Gray is the recipient of a lot of that praise. I don’t see it. The story is unoriginal ... two brothers, one a cop, the other on the wrong side of the law, come together to defeat bad guys. There’s nothing wrong with the movie, but I felt like I was watching a remake of a Hong Kong crime thriller that had itself been influenced by American crime thrillers. Eva Mendes does good work, but it’s an exaggeration to say her character represents some triumph for women in “guy movies”. She isn’t dumped on, which is nice, but the real story here is about the two brothers ... she is secondary. Somehow, this is #815 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 6/10. I actually preferred Gray’s romance drama, Two Lovers, which also starred Joaquin Phoenix (and Gwyneth Paltrow).

Oculus (Mike Flanagan, 2013). Silly thriller that delivers some scariness without ever making sense (which probably doesn’t matter anyway). Karen Gillan is very tall and very red-headed, and her characters is more than a little batty (albeit with good reason). Katee Sackhoff plays a supporting role ... since she’s the reason I watched this, I wish she had more screen time, but she’s fine whenever she turns up. This wouldn’t be a bad movie to watch for Halloween, but it’s no classic. 6/10.


film fatales

So I don’t have to explain this every time, some history about the new series I’ve begun that I call “Film Fatales”. The name comes from a group with the same name that describes themselves as “a collective of female feature directors who meet regularly to mentor each other, collaborate on projects and create a supportive community in which to make their films.” I discovered them when I read a piece on Bitchmedia where the Fatales were asked for two lists, “Recent Women-Directed Films That Everyone Should See” and “Women-Directed Films That Inspired the Work of Film Fatales”. Later, a friend passed along another piece, “Update!: 115 Films By and About Women of Color, and What We Can Learn From Them”. I combined that list with the Film Fatales lists, and now I have a lot of movies to catch up on, all of which I’ll include in the “Film Fatales” series, even though the name isn’t quite correct any longer. (I continue to add to the possible films for viewing as I come across them.)

Posts in the series include:

#1: Vagabond

#2: American Psycho

#3: Daisies

#4: Wendy and Lucy

#5: Me and You and Everyone We Know

#6: News from Home

#7: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

#8: Beyond the Lights

#9: Ratcatcher

#10: What Happened, Miss Simone?

#11: Night Catches Us

#12: The Gleaners & I

#13: Bridget Jones’s Diary

#14: Diary of a Teenage Girl

#15: We Need to Talk About Kevin

#16: Citizenfour

#17: Suffragette

#18: Obvious Child

#19: Tallulah

#20: Paju

#21: Stories We Tell

#22: 2 Days in Paris

#23: 13th

#24: Fat Girl

#25: The Intervention

#26: To Walk Invisible

#27: Wanda

And the following movies, which would be in the series except I’ve already written about them ... call them Honorary Fatales:


music friday: 1990

My friend Tomás mentioned on Facebook that his 25th high school reunion is this weekend, which gave me an excuse to do a Music Friday from 1990. It’s funny, I met Tomás in grad school, but I was already there in 1990, while he was just entering college. Anyway, on his blog, Tomás often annotates songs with stories about what those songs meant to him at the time. He created a YouTube playlist for 1990 (his list isn’t confined to 1990). Here are some 1990 songs I liked, that aren’t on his playlist. (And if I have the year wrong, oh well.)

Deee-Lite, “Groove Is in the Heart”.
Madonna, “Vogue”.
Public Enemy, “Welcome to the Terrordome”.
Seal, “Crazy”.
Moby, “Go”.
C&C Music Factory, “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now). (For some reason, my 3-year-old grandson sings this song on random occasions.)
Social Distortion, “Ball and Chain”.
Sinéad O'Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U”. (Note: Famous Video, if you only like to watch one or two.)
Digital Underground, “Doowutchyalike”.
Garth Brooks, “Friends in Low Places”.


throwback marianne

On this date in 1983, we saw Marianne Faithfull in concert, touring behind her album A Child’s Adventure:

In the end will it matter that you've gone?
In the end will I go on minding that you've gone?
Will the night always seem so long?
Is it really darkest before dawn?
Will I see whiskey as a Mother in the end?

In the end will I smash my brains with drinking?
Till I fall down on the floor
Will I hiccup and jabber
Saying things I never meant?

Will I kiss and cry and wake to find
A sordid stranger by my bed?
Will the world shake its sensible head
And say the words that have to be said?
She's got a problem

Every problem has solution in the end
And solutions must be final
For help gets so unhelpful near the end

When I take my last ride
Down the big dipper slide
Will I care, will it matter
If the world should say?

She had a problem
She had a problem
She had a problem

In the end will it matter that you've gone?
In the end will I go on minding that you've gone?
Will the night always seem so long?
Is it really darkest before dawn?
Will I see whiskey as a Mother in the end?