ZYZZYVA Staff Recommends April 2021: What to Read, Watch, & Listen To

ZYZZYVA Staff

Summer is just on the horizon—but if you’re anything like us, you still like to spend a fair amount of the warmer months curled up with a good book (or your streaming service of choice). As such, Staff Recommends should still be in business for the next several months. With that in mind, let’s say farewell to April with our latest round of picks.

Owen Torrey, Intern: When the Nederlands Dans Theater 2 last toured through the city where I live, it was a late winter evening two years ago. I took the subway out from campus and arrived at an old theatre downtown, where the contemporary dance company presented several short works from their repertoire. At one point, dancers emerged on-stage to a doo-wop song, as small slips of paper fell from the auditorium’s high ceiling. A few collected in my lap, then piled around my shoes. Seeing my neighbor unfold hers and smile, I knelt to grab one. In tiny bold letters, written on each: LIFE COULD BE A DREAM.

When I see NDT 2 again this month, performing their live-stream programme We haven’t said enough, certain things have changed. In the low-ceilinged kitchen where I sit, laptop leaned against a bowl of lemons, there is little chance of anything falling from above—even less of a brief encounter with an unfamiliar seatmate. Still, with its bold choreographic experiments and tireless energy, We haven’t said enough shares much with the company’s best in-person performances, revealing an unexpectedly rewarding transferral of dance from stage to screen.

The dancers come to us live—though six hours ahead—from the large theater in The Hague where the company is located. First in the programme is “The Big Crying” by Marco Goecke, a German choreographer known for his twitchy movement vocabulary, equal parts exact and exacting. On stage, a horizontal strip of light stretches across the width of the floor, with two voids of darkness pressing in from either side. Dancers shuffle in and lurch into motion, like zoetropes with several slides missing. Goecke’s choreography is centered in the upper body—tensed branches of hands and sudden tremors of fingers, dissipating when the dancers return to the dark.

At first, these scenes are conventionally filmed: cutting obligingly to featured performers, pacing back for ensemble shots from the empty audience. Yet as the programme enters its second piece, things begin to change. “IMPASSE” by Johan Inger opens with three dancers, circling through a series of generous, organic movements. More and more performers soon enter, as the piece gains the tenor of an out-of-control house party. Suddenly, the camera gets pulled on-stage and we’re part of it all, spinning along with the dizzying crowd. In one moment, a dancer approaches us, inches away and smiling. She gestures for us to come and—across the several hour time difference, and several thousand more miles—we move with her, following along wherever NDT 2 goes next.

Kyubin Kim, Intern: Like many others, I’m a college student who has spent an entire school year waking up and logging into Zoom still dressed in pajama bottoms. It’s no surprise that 22-year-old Cooper Raiff’s coming-of-age film Shithouse (2020) was an aching, bittersweet reminder of the small cavity in my heart, the college experience that never was.

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Raiff’s debut indie film, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, follows an awkward college freshman Alex (played by director Cooper Raiff himself). He fumbles to find his footing on a campus where guidance is obsolete and loneliness is overwhelming. Alex calls his mother frequently, spends most of his time imagining conversations with his stuffed animals, and even starts on a college transfer application to move closer to home.

This routine is almost unbearable to watch until one fateful night where Alex accepts his perpetually shit-faced roommate’s invite to crash infamous party house “Shithouse.” There, he meets his RA Maggie. After an awkward sexual encounter, they embark on a spontaneous nighttime adventure together that can only be done with strangers in a college dorm. They fish Maggie’s dead turtle from the dumpster and give him a proper burial on a mountain, they play a game of baseball with a group of random students they befriend, and most importantly, they talk about themselves, their families, their dreams, and actually listen to each other. This film offers no pretenses to be an epic transformative journey, but finds meaning in the quotidian gestures of opening up to be honest to ourselves and to the people we meet.

The film captures quite accurately the present-day college experience, one muddled and misread through interactions over social media, with an intuitive understanding of hookup culture and fear of intimacy, but also the inescapable feeling of isolation during any adjustment period. The film feels genuine, with all of its flaws in pacing and random emotional outbursts, because what is college if not a messy whirlwind of mistakes, regret, laughter, and hope? In Shithouse, growing pains are transparent and inevitable.

It is through this night of micro-self-discovery that Raiff offers the audience a chance to take this voyeuristic glimpse of self-discovery inwards. We all carry embarrassing stories about growing up, months of feeling homesick and days spent mourning the relationships we cut off too quickly. Films show us the stories we empathize with are worth telling. It cannot be overstated that Shithouse is a terrible name for this movie. This college movie is not about partying, getting drunk, a Seth Rogen-type-of-wild; Shithouse is at its core, an attempt to capture the slippery affects (positive and negative and neither and both) imbued into young adulthood.

Lily Nilipour, Intern: St. Vincent—moniker of musician Annie Clark—has been one of my top artists for the past few years, and not necessarily because listening to her music is enjoyable. There is something strangely compelling in the brash guitars, unusual digital sounds, and sometimes frenetic interludes that are characteristic of Clark’s musical output. Over the years, St Vincent’s sound has shifted into new innovative dissonances and complexities, and yet Clark has sustained the special touch that makes every second of her music sound like hers.

Anticipating the release of St. Vincent’s sixth studio album Daddy’s Home on May 14, I wanted to go back in time and revisit Marry Me—Clark’s 2007 debut album and one of my favorites of hers. Pitchfork called this album “challenging,” and indeed songs like “Now, Now” and “Paris is Burning” demand the listener’s active attention. This is not background music.

As with all of St. Vincent’s music, there are startling pockets of beauty within the discord and disruption of Marry Me—startling because these moments arise so suddenly yet seamlessly from the chaos around them. “Landmines” and “All My Stars Aligned” offer melodic respite from the onslaught, haunting with their ethereal instrumentals and Clark’s slow voice. The song “Your Lips Are Red” begins with a few chime notes that devolve into a beeping alarm, which then transitions into a rumbling, monotone drumbeat that drives an angry electric guitar, atonal piano riffs, and deep vocals for the majority of the song.

But in the final minute and a half, the tension lifts, as if in a sigh: a sustained cymbal crash guides in a wilting string instrument, and Clark’s voice rises at least an octave. “Your skin’s so fair,” she sings woefully, over and over again as the song fades out, “Your skin’s so fair it’s not fair.” Annie Clark’s sound has certainly evolved since Marry Me, but if this album promises one thing for what is to come, it is that St. Vincent will never cease to surprise.

Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: For the past month, Hannibal Lecter has been following me wherever I go. No wait, let me explain. Like many, I used Hannibal’s semi-recent debut on Netflix as an excuse to revisit the gone-too-soon NBC series. It was a welcome reminder of just how electric Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen is in the role of ‘Hannibal the Cannibal,’ a reinvention of the iconic character that I would readily compare to the way Heath Ledger’s performance redefined the Joker; Mikkelsen adds a cold, reptilian quality to the infamous killer while retaining his core traits, like his keen intellect, vampire-like seductive quality, and his taste for the finer things.

The pleasures of the show drove me to explore Thomas Harris’ source material for the first time, and I was pleased to find novels eminently readable, a series of crackling page-turners that leave little doubt why they were so eagerly turned into films by Hollywood, from the taut thrills of Red Dragon to the florid grand guignol of Hannibal (sample prose: “Will you enter this palace so prominent in blood and glory, follow your face through the web-spanned dark, toward the exquisite chiming of the clavier?”). And yet even an entertaining novel like Silence of the Lambs remains just that—a page-turner par excellence. It was director Jonathan Demme’s highly attuned approach that turned Harris’ raw materials into cinematic artistry with his 1991 adaption: that film’s now iconic close-ups (gorgeously photographed by Tak Fujimoto) tell us this is a story about seeing and being seen, and all the danger that entails. And it was Jodie Foster’s steely determination in the lead role that brought FBI trainee Clarice Starling to life in an even bolder way than on the page.

And so as I also this month made my way through Kate Reed Petty’s 2020 debut novel True Story, preparing for a craft interview that will appear on ZYZZYVA Studio in the near future, I was perhaps less surprised than I might have been that Clarice Starling’s name kept popping up. The narrator of True Story, Alice, is still reeling from the trauma of an event that occurred during high school and often finds herself drawing strength from the female protagonists in horror films. And who better to serve as a fount of resiliency than Clarice Starling, who has to match wits but not one but two serial murderers in Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill?

And yet as the month of April comes to a close, the coincidences continue to pile on: I was one of the (apparently very few) people who tuned into the Oscars last weekend, watching as Jodie Foster’s Silence of the Lambs castmate Anthony Hopkins, Hannibal Lecter himself, won another Academy Award…which the Academy bafflingly refused to let him accept remotely, sending the entire ceremony out on a bum note. Well, considering what a shaggy dog story the last year or so has been, perhaps it was only fitting. La La Land is likely just as eager as the rest of us to put this 2020 business to rest and see what the new year brings.

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