Nicholas Winding-Refn’s Drive Film Review

Drive2011Poster There’s something about an action film involving a dude who drives a fast car and goes up against a bunch of ugly bad guys that appears cliché and banal. The tough-dude-plus-car-plus-guns-plus-explosions formula has produced some of America’s worst cinema, especially as of late. So it’s understandable if one’s initial response to a movie like Drive, where the premise seems to boast everything totally insufferable about macho action-adventure flicks, is dismissive. Not so fast.

The ninth film from director Nicholas Winding-Refn, Drive is a neo-noir masterpiece, a twenty-first century Los Angeles fever dream that helped herald the neon-tinged analog-nostalgia of the 2010s, Moog keyboard and all. Think Sixteen Candles or Pretty in Pink, but with a few pages torn from Scarface and a lot of blood. The film boasts a soundtrack of tasteful synth-laden alt-pop that’s essential listening (and I’m talking about the original soundtrack, not the atrocious Zane Lowe-curated rescore). The cast is a remarkable roster of impressive fledglings and seasoned heavyweights—Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Pearlman, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks; and then Ryan Gosling, or James Dean with a baseball bat and a muscle car. You know it’s present-day Los Angeles, but it feels almost like the LA of 1985, when Tears for Fears was on the radio and leather jackets ruled Sunset Boulevard. The images create an atmosphere that is at times rich and warm but still visceral and brutal. It’s like a world unto itself: The distinctive visuals pair so perfectly with the score and soundtrack you’d think Refn had spent years studying simultaneously under John Hughes and David Fincher.
Even though it has stunning ambience and cool factor, the film is actually a very effective and stylish mob movie. The criminal underworld crops up throughout the film, and villainous characters like Bernie and Nino harken back to the days of classic Mafia films and give Drive a sense of timelessness by tapping into traditional Hollywood motifs. The Mob ties add a little extra sleaze and seediness to an already degenerate ring of crime, and give the film some of its most violent and thrilling moments.

And it is thrilling. The opening scene—a nail biter of a police chase through the streets of LA—is perhaps one of the tensest and most riveting of the last ten years, maybe longer. Gosling’s character doesn’t even break a sweat, and his unyielding confidence and startling moments of aggression keep the film in a constant suspension between tranquility and grit. Gosling’s nameless character rarely breathes a word of dialogue, and something about his silence makes the film all the more foreboding.

But underneath the leather gloves are soft palms. The true brilliance of Drive lies not in its modern-day cult status or flawless sense of style. It lies in its tender, albeit ironclad, heart. Despite the throat slitting and head bashing, there’s something about Drive that feels strangely hopeful and upbeat, a dull warmth, demonstrated particularly by Gosling and Mulligan’s performances with each other, that seems to encapsulate the film and guide it through its bleakest moments.

In short, Drive is an excellent piece of robust, sleek adrenaline that still somehow manages to be haunting, beautiful, and eternal.

By: Nick Biland

On Divers, Joanna Newsom and sexism in music criticism

Joana Newsom

Last month, Joanna Newsom released her new album Divers, her first release in more than five years. Joanna Newsom’s music is striking for its use of classical instruments like the harp, its narrative-style songs full of natural and literary allusion, and precise and painstaking arrangement. In one single song from her 2004 album Milk Eyed Mender, Newsom references Saussurean linguistics and Albert Camus. Such highbrow allusion feels natural in Newsom’s work, rather than pretentious or inaccessible like some of the less successful songs of “intellectual” artists like The Decemberists. Newsom’s songs are both gems and puzzles, deceptively simple but concealing complex layers of orchestration and meaning. While most of the press around Divers has lauded Newsom’s creativity and unique style, there remains one question: Why has it taken so long for Newsom’s work to enter into mainstream discourse?

Newsom has been recording and releasing since 2002, but it wasn’t until the release of her last album, Have One on Me, that the mainstream critical response to her work went far beyond either bemusement at her music’s uniqueness, criticism of its “inaccessibility,” or simple comments on Newsom’s unique voice, which has been called “squeaky,” like that of a “prepubescent teenager,” or, opposite, an “old-woman crackle.” The nature of her work and her personal beauty has led many reviewers to both infantilize Newsom and cast her work as some kind of magical accident, rather than the result of years of training and hard work. For example, in a 2010 profile by the New York Times, the writer wondered “Was she a wood sprite? Or was she…a serious musician, diligently, obsessively, honing her skills?”. These kinds of asinine comments and comparisons minimize the talent of a woman who I would call one of the foremost musicians of our generation. Joanna Newsom is a classically trained harpist and virtuoso vocalist; even though she writes about natural scenes and complex emotional experiences, she is not a wood sprite, a fairy, or any kind of otherworldly creature.

In addition, in many of the reviews of Newsom’s albums I read (and as a devoted fan, I’ve read quite a few), she is compared solely to other female artists. This is true even when the comparisons don’t really fit, like Spin’s categorizing of Newsom and Angel Olsen into one bland category of “indie folk.” Olsen’s album Burn Your Fire For No Witness was stunning in its rawness and piercing emotionalism, but those qualities bear little resemblance to Newsom’s precise and deliberate composition and eschewing of most conventional “indie” instruments for the harp and piano. This is only one example of the fact that music writers have a tendency to compare female artists solely to other female artists, seemingly forgetting that gender isn’t a genre. Rather than Angel Olsen (whose album Spin even misnamed), Newsom’s contemporaries seem multi-genre, like Wes Anderson or her frequent collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson, whose filmic words are just as precisely curated and emotive as Newsom’s musical ones.

Most of those who know Newsom’s work and don’t call themselves fans explain themselves in shrug, saying something along the lines of “I just can’t get past her voice,” as if its tone and clarity are barriers to be overcome rather than essential to her music’s realization. The same is rarely, if ever, said for male artists with unusual voices, who lack Newsom’s vocal control and sheer range. The content of artists like Tom Waits’s and Bob Dylan’s lyrics is enough to deserve legions of fans, though I doubt anyone would class their voices as conventionally “beautiful.” Their voices are cherished for their uniqueness, rather than castigated. From Joanna Newsom’s example, it is abundantly clear that female voices are judged for their prettiness and pleasantness rather than the lyrical content the voice conveys.

Is her frustrating critical reception because her instruments are feminine, her subjects often pastoral? Is it because her voice is girlish? Is it because, even after all this, I hesitated to type the word “girlish” because it still feels like a pejorative, like an insult?

By: Emma Hyche

Press photo by Annabel Mehran

SNAPS Release Event


SNAPS is the semesterly event at which the Auburn Circle officially releases the newest edition of the Auburn Circle. This semester it will be at The Coffee Cat from 7-9 pm. Come by to get a copy of the magazine, hear some great poetry, and get some free coffee!