The Writers' Roundtable is an open-ended discussion forum in which a question or idea is posed, to be discussed at length by our team of contributors.
This month’s question: You can remove one disappointing scene or song from an otherwise amazing film or record to make it flawless. Which is it, and why?
- Bradley J. Dixon: 2001: A Space Odyssey
- Richard S. He: Rihanna – Rated R
- Stephanie B. Liew: Beyoncé – “Drunk in Love”
- Simon Di Berardino: Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
- Anthony Kellaris: Captain Phillips
- Ash Beks: The Kinks – The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society
Bradley J. Dixon: Heywood Floyd’s trip to the moon in 2001: A Space Odyssey
I know it’s unseemly, bordering on blasphemous, to question the artistic vision of a director like Stanley Kubrick, a true perfectionist whose legendary focus and attention to detail extended far beyond his work and into subjects as inconsequential as the cardboard boxes (30:14) in his archive. Like his boxes, Kubrick crafted his films to be exactly what he wanted them to be and nothing else, bringing his ideas to screen with remarkable clarity.
Which is why it’s so frustrating for me to sit through the space station layover scenes in the middle of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a tedious and interminably boring sequence in which the audience is subjected to a barrage of awkward, exceptionally polite conversations between people they neither know nor care about, and minute after merciless minute of inelegant, flashy demonstrations of "futuristic" technology.
It’s frustrating because this sequence’s presence in the film means that Kubrick considered it as important and worthy of inclusion as any of the film’s other scenes — which, need I remind you, are some of the most rapturously evocative and visceral experiences in cinema history.
I understand that in 1968 the idea of a zero-gravity toilet might have been novel to viewers, but to a modern audience the entire sequence sticks out as a regretfully dated misfire from a director unaccustomed to missing the bullseye.
The nadir of the sequence, and the absolute worst scene of Kubrick’s entire career, is the two-minute video phone "conversation" between Dr. Heywood Floyd and his daughter, played by Kubrick’s own daughter Vivian. The worst part isn’t that their conversation is stilted and awkward — which it is — but that it’s stilted and awkward and contributes absolutely nothing to the film.
Kubrick forces his audience to sit patiently for two minutes watching a girl (who is clearly talking to, and being coached by, someone behind the camera) ask her father about birthday parties and bush babies. That’s all there is to their conversation, and it’s as dull and pointless as it sounds.
Without that scene, 2001: A Space Odyssey is certainly one of the greatest films of all time. With it, I just can’t bring myself to call the film the flawless masterpiece it absolutely deserves to be.
Richard S. He: Rihanna – “Photographs” (Rated R)
In the pop charts, five years is a lifetime — for Rihanna, it’s a whole four albums ago. Released less than a year after the infamous Chris Brown incident, her 2009 album Rated R was destined to be overshadowed by its origins, but remains a minor classic nonetheless. Pop is all about appropriation, trying on trends and genres as casually as outfits, but Rated R’s fixation on darkness goes far beyond its flirtations with hard-edged, ahead-of-the-curve dubstep.
Our current generation of popstars’ feminism often frames sexual confidence as empowerment. But on Rated R, it feels like the only source of strength Rihanna has left, exposing her body and do-I-give-a-fuck glare in defiance of a public that simultaneously owns and gawks at female bodies, even at their most vulnerable. To this incarnation of Rihanna, love is inherently tragic, infused with survivor’s guilt; sex as much about seizing pleasure as pure dominance and submission. Every song either affects masculine steeliness betraying feminine vulnerability, or outward vulnerability reaching for feminine resilience. It’s easily Rihanna’s least commercial album, but she grew a maturity and vocal hardness on Rated R that’s informed even the sunniest of her work since.
But one song breaks the album’s unusually unified mood, and of course, it features will.i.am. His reputation isn’t entirely deserved — he’s a gifted, inventive producer, but some part of his lizard brain consistently lacks any concept of whatever humans consider good taste. Here, will.i.am co-writes and produces “Photographs”, which commits the indignity of reducing Rihanna to a girlish coo, passively pining over a lost love. The song alone would merely be dull, but his featured verse is so noxiously egotistic it beggars belief. In 16 bars, he has the nerve to cast himself as some simpering Casanova, while somehow making auto-tune completely atonal — an impressive achievement, considering that it’s literally the most mathematically on-key a melody can possibly be. And then there’s the reference to “rockin’ Calvin… KLEIN!” — where he yelps that last syllable with a humourless wink, confirming that yes, you should be cynical enough to think that will.i.am will drop entirely arbitrary product placement even on other people’s songs.
If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that trolling should at least be done with competent music. Rihanna has two post-assault duets with Chris Brown — one aggressive sex jam, one distressingly sweet love song — and both are infinitely more charming than her work with will.i.am. Their existence is deeply questionable, but their ill-advised chemistry at least attempts to justify their recording. will.i.am’s contributions to “Photographs”, however, deserve pure contempt, made even worse by their proximity to greatness.
Stephanie B. Liew: Jay Z’s verse in Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love”
There is so much to love about Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love”, from her latest self-titled album. The way she says “drinkin’” then “drankin’” in the same sentence. Her further blatant disregard for conventional pronuncation (“surfbort”). The slightly clumsy way the melody and syllables tumble down when she sings, “We woke up in the kitchen saying, ‘How the hell did this shit happen?’ / Oh baby” — it’s like the verse drunkenly stumbles along with her, and it’s genius. Continuing on: how it exudes this straight-up, dirty, womanly lust unashamedly; the bass thuds like audio hip thrusts. (Too much? Sorry.) Beyoncé’s flawless vocals in general, ranging from seductively exhaling the words to ecstatic growling in the choruses because, damn, she’s feeling gooood (“We be all night! LooOOOooove!”).
Then Jay Z’s verse comes in. It’s nothing mind-blowing but, you know, it’s catchy (if I do say so myself) and it doesn’t interrupt the flow or the mood. And then it gets to that line. “I’m Ike Turner, turn up, baby, no, I don’t play / Now eat the cake, Anna Mae, said eat the cake, Anna Mae!” Oh, Jay, no.
The disapproval of this lyric has been expressed widely, and with good reason. Jay’s referring to a scene in the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It, in which Ike (played by Lawrence Fishburne) and Tina (played by Angela Bassett) are arguing and then Ike becomes physical, forcing cake into Tina’s (birth name Anna Mae Bullock) mouth. Ike’s abuse towards Tina during their marriage is common knowledge. Not to mention, the previous line, “Beat the box up like Mike in ‘97, I bite” is referring to Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist.
“Drunk in Love” is by no means in Beyoncé’s top tier of songs but it is a supercharged, animalistic grinder of a thing, and in the Timeline Of Beyoncé is noteworthy of being representative of Beyoncé as a whole, on a basic level. And as one of the album’s best-known songs, it is a marker of Bey’s musical transition. But just as you’re really getting deep down into the song, Jay Z’s lines rudely snap you back out and then the rest is ruined. It’s an unnecessary slap in the face, not just in terms of the song, but indeed all of Beyoncé, which bills itself as a modern soundtrack to young feminism — a call to young women to be in control and proud of their sexuality. That message is severely negated by those couple of lines in Jay’s verse, especially on a track like “Drunk in Love”. Whatever the intention, to go lightly on it would be to say it comes across as a distasteful shrug in the face of violence against women. It’s a major flaw and one that cannot be ignored.
Simon Di Berardino: Kendrick Lamar – “Compton” (good kid m.A.A.d city)
Considering the fact that The Essential seems to be unintentionally celebrating the exploits of hip hop label Top Dawg Entertainment this week, for this question I thought I’d continue that trend by addressing the single flaw I have with the label’s breakout album — Kendrick Lamar’s good kid m.A.A.d city.
When good kid m.A.A.d city dropped, it temporarily shook up the hip hop landscape, and its seismic ripples are still being felt today. On the back of the successful mixtape Section.80, the young L.A. MC released what can only now be called a landmark of the genre with his major label debut. The record was (and still is) a clear-headed, pointed and mature dissection of not only Kendrick’s relationship with his own city and upbringing, but also the culture of hip hop in general, a mighty feat for the young upstart.
While Lamar adopts a number of characters and perspectives throughout the record, his focus is singular as he raps about numerous issues that plague his beloved city of Compton. His loose narrative manages to address a large number of issues such as gang related violence on “The Art of Peer Pressure”, alcoholism and drug-related woes on “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and racial/economic disenfranchisement on the insanely aggressive “m.A.A.d city”. After a wild ride through Kendrick’s Compton, the album eventually comes to a high watermark of self-realisation with the track “Real”, a potent expression of actualisation that rejects the stereotypes that keep his people of Compton down. It’s an incredibly powerful track that comes after many songs of struggle and hardship, and it’s probably where the album should have ended.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t. The track that actually rounds out good kid m.A.A.d city is conveniently titled “Compton” and ends up a strange celebration of the things denounced in the track that precedes it. Is it the presence of Dr. Dre that brings about such misguided celebrations? Or are its merriments Kendrick’s attempt to bring his newfound perspective to the good of the city he loves? Either way, its placement and tone are awkward, and although the track isn’t particularly bad, I would have loved to finish out one of hip hop’s finest albums with the unlikely but highly welcomed positive mantra “Real”. You can’t win ’em all, I guess.
Anthony Kellaris: Any 20 minutes from the middle hour of Captain Phillips
The bloated running time epidemic spreading through Hollywood is getting out of hand. As each film season passes the results are more severe, with films like last year’s Man of Steel, a flawed production from the beginning, clocking in at a completely unreasonable 148 minutes. The worst victim in recent memory is Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, an otherwise captivating survival thriller which unfortunately succumbs to peer pressure, grossly overstaying its welcome.
Greengrass builds tension masterfully over the course of the film’s first hour, going to great lengths to portray both the pirates and the victims as equals in the fight for the Maersk Alabama. As good as Greengrass is at building tension, he doesn’t possess the skill to maintain it for over two hours. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, a similarly suspenseful film released just a week prior and to which Phillips was repeatedly compared favourably, tackles this problem head on — aware of the genre’s limitations, Cuarón caps the film at 91 minutes. Phillips has another forty minutes on its fellow action thriller with a running time of 134 minutes.
Adding insult to injury, Phillips’ best scene is its final one, in which lead Tom Hanks breaks down in the aftermath of the hijacking. It’s a powerful scene, arguably one of the best in Hanks’ career, but one that’s difficult to appreciate after a grinding middle stretch. With a shorter running time and a little bit of restraint, Captain Phillips could have been one of the great survival thrillers. It’s still a good one, just a little long.
Ash Beks: The Kinks – “Phenomenal Cat” (The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society)
Between the years 1965–1970, The Kinks were virtually unstoppable. When big name artists like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan were each releasing their finest records, The Kinks were also quietly releasing masterpiece after masterpiece. Never grabbing headlines like their peers, The Kinks still managed to remain wholly relevant in the musically drenched psychedelic late 1960s. Their greatest success from this period was without a doubt 1968’s The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, a flowery concept album released in the early, early days of concept albums. Ray Davies stated in later interviews that The Village Green is an album which pays homage to country life and the London of old and is a nostalgic remembrance of the village green era. The album adheres to this concept far greater than many of the eras other concept releases and marvellously combines the band’s musicianship with Ray Davies’ unique and often hilarious lyrics.
Moving through the album, the listener is enveloped by a stunning collection of songs, each as catchy and memorable as the last. Interestingly, The Village Green is one of the only albums from The Kinks lacking a knockout single, a fact which certainly doesn’t diminish the album’s quality. There is a certain quiet unity on the album; no song is overreaching above others and no track is disappointing or poor. That is, of course, if you remember to skip the eleventh track “Phenomenal Cat”.
“Phenomenal Cat” is the kind of track I have considered on many occasions to simply delete from my iPod because it interrupts an otherwise flawless string of tracks. The song follows the spectacular “Starstruck” and suddenly is a jarring experience among its surroundings, kind of like a bee sting on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Opening with a flourish of jazz notes and flutey mellotron à la “Strawberry Fields Forever”, the track opens promisingly. However, all reservations regarding the album’s high quality up until this point are quickly forgotten once Davies begins singing.
Tonally, “Phenomenal Cat” is probably the least intrusive on the entire album. It floats along casually with its tom hit and mellotron, Davies singing “though he was big and fat / all the world was good to him / and he pointed out on the map / all the places he had been”. The lyrics and melody are, to say the least, childish, and though I understand and respect that this has its place within the overall thematic concept of the album it doesn’t excuse the band for releasing a track of such lacklustre quality. The “fa da di da dum daaaaaa” refrain sung by Davies accompanied by a young child is without question one of the most annoying musical cues of the 60s.
Davies sings elsewhere on the record about mundane everyday things: a train, the sky, photo albums, the riverside. Never, however has the lyrical content been as uninspired as it is here. It’s a song about a fat cat. Forgive me, but I completely oppose our bizarre cultural obsession with our feline friends. It is as strange and scary as it is monumentally now and all-consuming and I really don’t know how to escape this widespread obsession. (Note: I do not generally hate cats. I have a cat called Suki and she is gorgeous. It is this modern social networking-fed feline frenzy which is frightening and simply too much for me to handle.)
Despite barely serving its purpose thematically, Davies seems to be pre-empting such obsessions by providing us the musical equivalent to a YouTube clip of a fat cat sitting around, being “cute”. Amidst such resounding observations of culture elsewhere on the album, both thematically and musically, this pointless exercise in fat cats, maps and childishness is about as frustrating as it is pointless.