Embracing the Melodrama Part II #58: An Unmarried Woman (dir by Paul Mazursky)

Unmarried_womanI have mixed feelings about the 1978 best picture nominee An Unmarried Woman and I really wish I didn’t because this is one of those films that I really want to love.

Erica (Jill Clayburgh, who did not win the Oscar that she deserved for this film) appears to have the perfect life.  She works at an art gallery in New York.  She has smart, sophisticated friends.  She has an accomplished teenager daughter (Lisa Lucas).  She has a beautiful apartment.  Early on in the film, she wakes up and literally dances from her bedroom to the living room and back again.

And, of course, she has a husband.  His name is Martin and he’s a successful stock broker.  Of course, there are hints that everything might not be perfect.  She and Martin are a cute couple but they’re not exactly passionate.  One need only watch Erica carefully wash dogshit off of Martin’s expensive running shoes to tell who is getting the most out of the marriage.  Add to that, Martin is played by Michael Murphy and, as anyone familiar with 70s cinema knows, Murphy specialized in playing well-dressed, outwardly friendly heels.  And, of course, the film is called An Unmarried Woman and the title can’t be true as long as Erica’s married.

So, you’re not exactly surprised when Martin suddenly breaks down in tears and tells Erica that he’s fallen in love with a younger woman and that he’s leaving her.

The rest of the film deals with Erica’s attempts to adjust to suddenly being an unmarried woman and a single mom.  We follow as she struggles to get back her confidence.  The scenes of Erica dealing with her suddenly rebellious daughter really struck home to me, largely because I’m a rebellious daughter of divorce myself.  There’s a few great scenes of Erica turning to her girlfriends for support.  (Importantly, one of Erica’s friends is happily married, as if the film wants to make sure that we understand that not all marriages are as bad as Erica and Martin’s.)  We watch as Erica starts dating again, having a memorable one-night stand with the obnoxious but oddly likable Charlie (Cliff Gorman).  Finally, she ends up dating a rugged, bearded artist (Alan Bates) and she has to decide whether she wants to remain independent or not.

And it’s all amazingly well-acted and fun to watch but I have to admit that I was a little bit disappointed the first time that I saw An Unmarried Woman.  For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to like it as much as I wanted.  The more I thought about it, the more clear my issue with it became.

As a character, Eric was simply too wealthy.

As I watched Erica struggle with being an unmarried woman, it was hard for me not to compare her struggles with the struggles that my own mom had to deal with after her divorce.  The film, and specifically Clayburgh’s lead performance, got so much right.  But there’s a difference — a huge difference — between an unmarried woman who has an apartment in Manhattan and a dream job at an art gallery and a woman like my mom who worked multiple jobs, spent hours worrying about how to pay the bills, and who had to do all of this while dealing with four stubborn daughters.  And so, whenever I saw Erica talking to her therapist about how upset she was over suddenly being single, there was a part of me that wanted to say, “Try doing it while living in South Dallas and having to deal with a brat like me.”

The second time that I watched An Unmarried Woman, I was able to better appreciate the film.  Now that I knew that Erica’s experiences were not going to be universal, I could focus on Jill Clayburgh’s great performance in the lead role.  I could marvel at how marvelously wimpy Michael Murphy was in the role of Martin.  I could laugh at Cliff Gorman’s comedic performance.  As for Alan Bates as that bearded artist — well, sorry, that still didn’t work for me.  Eventually, I could accept Erica’s perfect apartment and her perfect job but suddenly introducing a perfect boyfriend who also happened to be a passionate and financially successful painter; it all felt like a bit too much.

But, in the end, An Unmarried Woman is a good film and a valuable historical document of its time.  If for no other reason, see it for Jill Clayburgh’s lead performance.

Review: Korpiklaani – Noita

Korpiklaani have been pretty heavily criticized over the years for what has been perceived as a highly “gimmicky” sound. That view has a faint shred of legitimacy, but it gets blown way out of proportion. With bands like Alestorm and Nekrogoblikon managing to pump out really impressive albums without the slightest hint that they take any of their music seriously, it is easy to falsely impose on the genre a spectrum ranging from hoax to serious. You’re either writing brutal pagan metal homages to Odin or you’re dressing up as a mutant snork and dancing a jig, right?

It doesn’t really work like that. Bands like Kalevala (Калевала) and Troll Bends Fir (Тролль Гнёт Ель) can come off as fun-loving boozers, but you can’t escape the impression that they have a deep respect for their cultural heritage. Finntroll sing about dim-witted fantasy monsters eating people, and they’re heavy as hell. Being light-hearted and fun certainly does not make a folk metal band “gimmicky”, as if all folk traditions are inherently morbid. Doing it for nine albums without showing much inclination towards anything but fun and relegating your only English language songs to tantrums about not having enough beer–well, that can tarnish an image. I do understand why people might see Korpiklaani as a having a one-track mind.

But it really shouldn’t, and they really don’t. Not if sounding the same means maintaining the quality that turned people to them in the first place while honing their musical talents along the way. Not when for every track devoid of lyrical content the listener writes off eight others as the same because they don’t speak Finnish. Korpiklaani were very well received when they first appeared with Spirit of the Forest back in 2003. Folk metal was still fairly new then, and Jonne Järvelä was a frontrunner, not a bandwagoner. He had contributed to Finntroll’s Jaktens Tid in 2001, and prior to changing his band’s name to Korpiklaani he had released folk metal under the monicker “Shaman” beginning in 1999. He was recording non-metal Finnish folk music earlier than that. As folk metal picked up steam, Korpiklaani’s pop-centric, lighter brand–characterized by very simplistic metal riffs underscoring catchy yolk vocals, accordion, violin, and an occasional whistle–came under fire. Why?

That’s an open question. I really don’t get it. My best guess is that people experienced Spirit of the Forest and Voice of Wilderness when folk metal was still a novelty. They didn’t really love the band; they just loved the direction that metal was heading in, and Korpiklaani were a prominent example of that. As the scene broadened and more variety became available, some people were quick to throw Korpiklaani under the bus because the band’s pop tendencies made them feel a little insecure in their metal manliness. Korven Kuningas (2008), Karkelo (2009), and Ukon Wacka (2011) got a lot of negative reviews. But to me, the band just kept getting better. Spirit of the Forest gave us “Pellonpeikko”, and “Wooden Pints” is certainly nostalgic, but the album had a lot of half-formed filler tracks too. It has all the feel of an early, less developed work in a band’s discography. They really started to nail the folk on Voice of Wilderness in 2005, and Jonne Järvelä’s distinctive yolk-style vocals–the band’s most unique traditional feature–really didn’t fully mature until Tales Along This Road (2006) and Tervaskanto (2007). Their next three albums took all the heat, but they were only guilty of not offering further development. They didn’t really need to. The band was in their prime.

Manala (2012) was the first and only Korpiklaani album that I had misgivings about. It was distinctly heavier, with folk instrumentation feeling subservient to metal guitar riffs rather than the other way around. For that, it actually got some positive feedback. Korpiklaani were abandoning that “folk gimmick” and getting back to their “metal roots”, or some nonsense like that, as if the band even had metal roots. My speculation was, I think, a bit more realistic: Long-tenured violinist Jaakko “Hittavainen” Lemmetty retired after Ukon Wacka. Short of digging the jewel case out from my basement, I can’t even find a clear answer as to who played violin when Manala was recorded in 2011. Teemu Eerola replaced Hittavainen on tour that year, and Tuomas Rounakari stepped in as the band’s permanent violinist shortly after. I have to believe that there is a direct correlation between Manala‘s lack of a strong folk component and the transitional state of the band’s lineup at the time.

Korpiklaani did not record another album for three years. That’s a long stretch by their standards, and in the meantime Juho Kauppinen, their accordionist since Tales Along This Road, left as well. Was the band doomed to drift ever further from their unique poppy folk sound into the cesspool of generic derivative heavy metal?

Not at all, as it turns out. Noita sounds strikingly successive, but in a way that works wonderfully. It takes Manala and drives it back into where the folk left off on Ukon Wacka. The first track, “Viinamäen Mies”, opens powerfully with a driving violin and a nice accordion accompaniment. Where the folk drifts out, the passages are brief enough to feel like a showcase of Jonne Järvelä’s vocals rather than a void in the content. The song is a total return to Korpiklaani’s poppy folk roots, and that feeling persists through the first two tracks.

Track: Lempo

The third song, “Lempo”, slows down the pace and stretches things out in a turn that is, for them at least, a bit on the heavy side. Unlike Manala though, the guitar is hardly alone in giving it an edge. The vocals are great, as always, and the folk instrumentation blends in and out of playing harmony to the plodding verses and busting out solos in really fluid form.

The rest of the album is a mix of these two approaches, and it is surprisingly the latter that comes out strongest. “Sahti” and “Luontoni” give us two more upbeat, fun songs that don’t feel remotely contrived, and then the album slows back down for the long haul. The violin on “Minä Näin Vedessä Neidon” is about as heavy metal as that instrument gets, and I was especially impressed on the closing track–“Sen Verran Minäkin Noita”–by how Tuomas Rounakari and Sami Perttula seem to have mastered improvisation over long, drawn out metal chords. Moreover, the rhythms on that song are way more diverse than we’re used to from Korpiklaani, tipping a hat to prog and viking metal. It’s one of the few songs in their catalog that don’t follow a standard verse-chorus-verse pattern. I can’t help but think “this is way too awesome to be Korpiklaani” when I listen to it. And I’m one of the people that never lost faith in the band.

It’s hard to imagine, listening to Noita, that Sami Perttula and Tuomas Rounakari were new to this band. Perttula totally gets their sound, and he brings a fiery spirit that wants to imbue anything and everything with rambling accordion harmonies. Rounakari offers much the same on violin, and also a great deal of thoughtfulness. In an English-language interview released by Nuclear Blast to promote the album, he explains each song quite articulately. He even points out cultural relevance in “Sahti”, a song that turns out to be about (surprise!) drinking. (It’s kind of funny, because Järvelä and Perttula’s bad English cater to every negative stereotype surrounding them. I write this song because I like get drunk!) If you didn’t know any better, you would think Korpiklaani had been Rounakari’s baby all along. Hittavainen was a hard man to replace, but I’m not complaining about who they found.

The album does have one very unfortunate, glaring flaw, and it’s called “Jouni Jouni”. “Jouni Jouni” is a cover of Billy Idol’s cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ mind-numbingly stupid hit classic “Mony Mony”, and it appears right smack in the middle of the damn album. You know what makes even less sense? Noita has a “hidden” bonus track, “Antaja”, and that song sounds totally normal. Instead of putting “Antaja” in the main mix and relegating “Jouni Jouni” to the end of the line after a few minutes silence (or better yet, deleting all record of its existence), they cram it smack in the middle between “Minä Näin Vedessä Neidon” and “Kylästä Keväinen Kehto”. Bad Korpiklaani! Bad!

But this album is great. In fact, I think it’s their best. Yep. Noita: my new favorite Korpiklaani album. Pick up your copy via Nuclear Blast.

(Nuclear Blast is being a bit douchey about youtube samples, but if you want to check out some of the better tracks before you buy and can find them, I recommend “Kylästä Keväinen Kehto” and “Sen Verran Minäkin Noita”.)

Song of the Day: Binary Sunset (by John Williams)


2015 will see the return of Star Wars to the big-screen. Will it erase the underwhelming memories left behind by the prequels which came out at the start of the new millenium? Will it return the franchise to it’s rightful place as a pop culture juggernaut that began many decades ago?

We shall soon find out this coming Christmas when Star Wars: The Force Awakens premieres around the world. Until then here’s the latest “Song of the Day” from John Williams.

May the 4th be with you.