This week’s question is from reader Matthew Rainstein:
I was talking about Gone Girl with one of my friends and how we have been eagerly anticipating a new David Fincher film. I realized that I would probably go see any one of his movies on opening weekend without knowing what kind of buzz surrounds it beforehand. Which brings me to my question:
What projects from any filmmaker/musician/artist would you always want to experience, without having any precursor as to its quality?
Easy one: When you’ve got a perfect track record like Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s pretty much a guarantee of quality. There’s really no “ehh” moment in his filmography. Sure, Hard Eight is more obviously the work of somebody who hadn’t made a feature before, but it’s excellent nonetheless. And from there, it goes: Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and The Master. Each is vastly different than the one before, but each is a knock-your-socks-off statement. Sure, there’s a chance that Inherent Vice will be terrible—he’ll make a clunker someday, presumably—but man, it doesn’t seem likely at the moment.
This feels like a bit of a cop-out, but I’m going to say Radiohead. It might just be my professional duty or whatever, but I’ll listen to anything that band puts out at least a few times right after it’s released (or leaked). I can’t say I’ll always love what they do, but I don’t think any of us would really claim undying affection for anyone we follow. That’s sort of the rub: With Radiohead, I’m not necessarily intently following all the members’ solo careers, but the band as a whole will always have at least a little part of my ear.
Right after I got this question, I looked up from the computer and my eyes landed on my hardcover Avengers Assemble collections, so I’m going to be spontaneous and say George Perez. I’ve had to phase out my weekly trips to the comic store due to insufficient funding, but I’ll always love Perez. His work on the original Avengers and Justice League Of America in the ’70s and ’80s were big reasons why I first started paying closer attention to comic books, and The New Teen Titans was a further turning point in my appreciation of his art, of course. But it was Crisis On Infinite Earths that cemented him as one of my favorite illustrators of all time. Mind you, it still wasn’t enough to get me to buy his New 52 Superman title on a weekly basis—I don’t have the will power to just buy one title—but, hey, that’s what trade paperbacks are for, right? I may not care anything about the New 52, but if it’s by George Perez, then I know it’s worth taking a look, no matter what.
Wanting to experience a filmmaker/musician/writer/whoever’s new project regardless of advance word is pretty much my default state if I consider myself more than casually interested in that artist. Josh’s Paul Thomas Anderson answer is a great one in terms of a spotless track record, but there are probably two dozen other directors whose work I’ll always seek out, no questions asked, even if their track records are (or have become) “imperfect.” The existence of Always isn’t going to give me a wait-and-see attitude about Spielberg; the existence of The Ladykillers won’t give me pause about the Coen brothers. It’s not just in my preferred medium of film, either: If I enjoy more than a couple of albums by a musician, I’m probably going to continue checking out the new records for a good long while. This doesn’t mean I’ll never read reviews of anything, or that reviews have no sway over me; I just find them more useful for discovering new stuff (or managing my expectations about artists I know) than deciding whether to listen to a new Weezer record. That’s also not to say that a pop-culture breakup is impossible for me. Based on Rob Reiner’s output from 1984 through about 1992, I should be willing to follow him anywhere, but these days I’m happy to stay away until such time as he makes something that sounds non-terrible. So to fudge an answer to this, I’ll narrow it down: An artist whose work I always seek out without any advance word about its quality, including any and all side projects, B-sides, curiosities, and children’s albums, regardless of my personal financial state, for the rest of my life? That would be They Might Be Giants, one of my earliest experiences in fanaticism. They come out on top mainly because movie directors or short-story writers tend not to have such large side collections of ephemera in the first place. If Woody Allen or Wes Anderson somehow made a “B-side collection movie,” I’d be all over it.
My automatic response to this question two years ago would have been Ween, hands down. For God’s sake, I have a Ween Boognish shoulder tattoo, have been fishing with Dean Ween twice, and am on the cover of Ween’s Live In Chicago. My fandom essentially defined my late teens and early 20s, interviewing the band any chance I could while traveling the country for shows. It was my first case of absolute faith in an artistic entity, and even when La Cucaracha, their final album, let me down, I only flew my flag higher. Sadly, Ween is no more, so that leaves me with Bret Easton Ellis. In High Fidelity terms, my tastes speak volumes (horror junkie, Ween freak, Ellis fanatic) so I’m clearly drawn to extremes. Like many millennials, I discovered Ellis through the film version of American Psycho. I voraciously consumed Ellis through college, and beneath all the casual sex, drugs, and violence, I found solace in Ellis’ portraits of isolation. His protagonists all want to connect to something meaningful, something beyond the sparkling facade, but it remains just out of reach. As a young man grappling with alcoholism, parental divorce, and failing relationships, Ellis provided an entrance, while simultaneously illuminating the exit. Despite his Twitter rants, the horrendous The Canyons debacle, and the fact that a new book seems to forever be pulling further from his sight, I’ll be at the bookstore the day a new one comes out.
Even if his stylistic quirks have become easily targeted objects of mockery in recent years, there’s still nothing that will get me out to a theater like a new Wes Anderson movie. Even when Anderson prizes style over heart (as in his Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr. Fox, or his most recent film, The Grand Budapest Hotel), he fills his movies with so many delightful little touches and beautiful vignettes that I always leave happy. (Case in point: The surprisingly terrifying sequence from The Grand Budapest Hotel, where Willem Dafoe pursues Jeff Goldblum through a shadowy museum, which always makes me pine for Anderson to do a slasher film). And when he does find something that connects emotionally, like Max Fischer’s frustrated ambition, or Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop’s passionate adolescent romance, there are few directors who can match his ability to delight.
Comics aren’t more prone to awfulness than any other art form, but they’re certainly susceptible to a sameness borne of the genre’s inescapable clichés. When a lifetime of happy comic-book gorging threatened to peter out under the weight of DC and Marvel’s accumulated stolid do-goodery, I discovered Grant Morrison through his run on Animal Man—and knew I’d follow him anywhere. Unlike, say, Garth Ennis, who expresses his contempt for the historical weaknesses of the superhero genre by making everyone wearing tights a drooling, murderous psychopath, Morrison looked at the tangled, often silly history of DC and fashioned a deconstruction of it that was satirical and reverent simultaneously. Taking up one of the company’s most justly forgotten D-list heroes, Morrison made animal-powered Buddy Baker the genre’s all-time tragic hero, a beleaguered everyman thrust into the violent, contradictory, often dippy heart of the DC universe, only to find something like poetry there (alongside, ultimately, Morrison himself, in a confrontation worthy of Beckett). Since then, I’ve devoured everything Morrison’s ever done, and seek out whatever he turns his singular imagination to next. I love his work, certainly, but I’ll follow him to the ends of any universe for making me love comics again.
I will read anything Thomas Pynchon writes; more to the point, I will reread anything he writes. (Except Slow Learner, although it was perfectly fine.) Over and over again, if I can. I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow at least three times, and am already looking forward to picking it up again. I don’t get every reference, and I don’t follow every plotline, but I don’t care. My favorite Pynchon novels (Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon) are books I get lost in, and that is a feeling I will follow wherever it leads. I’ve never been disappointed by a novel or short story collection with Pynchon’s name on the cover, and I doubt I ever will be.
When I was in my early 20s, I was willing to take a chance on seeing a band sight unseen, and shrug off frequent disappointments with, “At least I’m not just sitting on the couch at home.” But now that I’m almost 40, seeing a band that isn’t absolutely great inevitably brings me thoughts of, “But I could be sitting on the couch at home!” As a result, I now tend to see bands I know will be a safe bet, which is why an ever-increasing percentage of the shows I see involve Yo La Tengo. After 30 years together, indie rock’s foremost standard-bearers still put on an energetic, unpredictable show. Over the years I’ve seen the band do an entire set of garage-rock covers; a 15-minute, hypnotic take on the droning “The Story Of Yo La Tengo”; an epic, self-indulgent drums-and-vocals-only cover of Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War”; another entire set of garage rock covers under their alter egos the Condo Fucks; and shows with the band fronted by Jad Fair or David Byrne. For many years, my favorite holiday was Hanukkah (despite not being Jewish), because the band would play all eight nights at the late, lamented Maxwell’s with an array of special guests. Of course, none of that would matter if they weren’t still a great band. At an age when most bands have broken up, reformed, and are playing the nostalgia circuit, Yo La Tengo are still creatively vital—two of my three favorite albums came out past the band’s 20-year mark, and I defy anyone to say that about any other artist. There are bands I’ve loved a long time whose new albums I’ll pick up out of loyalty. Yo La Tengo’s the only long-time favorite whose albums I pick up because I can’t wait to see what they do next.