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The Way, Way Back Directors on Thinking You’re a Six but Hearing You’re a Three

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash didn’t set out to make a comedy about divorce. Eight years ago, when the improv-comedians-turned-actors-turned-Oscar-winning-screenwriters started writing a coming-of-age script based on a particularly upsetting moment from Rash’s childhood, they just wanted a happy ending. Yet almost all of the characters in The Way, Way Back, their directing debut, have suffered from divorce, either as heartbroken adults or powerless children. Among the kids who aren’t all right is 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), a lonely boy who finds refuge under the wing of a motor-mouthed man-child manager (Sam Rockwell) at the Water Wizz water park.

See Also: Our review of The Way, Way Back

In 2007, Faxon and Rash’s script landed on the Black List, the industry’s catalog of the best screenplays not in production. Over the film’s long trek to the big screen, journeymen directors Shawn Levy (Real Steel, The Internship) and Thomas Bezucha (The Family Stone, Selena Gomez’s Monte Carlo) were each briefly attached to the project. While the writers waited for something to happen, Rash joined the cast of NBC’s Community as the costume-loving Dean Pelton, and Faxon found supporting work in comedies like Bad Teacher and Zookeeper. Then The Descendants, which they co-wrote with director Alexander Payne, won an Academy Award for its screenplay. It was the time to strike.

Faxon explains, “Jim and I sat down with our producer Kevin Walsh and used the momentum from The Descendants to direct it ourselves, to do the movie on our own terms and realize our vision from start to finish” — a vision that included co-starring in the film as two of the water park’s eccentric employees.

In the opening scene, Duncan is asked, “On a scale of one to 10, what do you think you are?” by his mother’s boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). “A six,” Duncan replies — just above average. Trent swiftly corrects him: “I think you’re a three.”

Rash recalls, “That scene in the station wagon happened to me when I was 14, when we were on our way to our summer vacation with my stepfather at the time.” Even the numbers — six versus three — are lifted directly from Rash’s past. He adds, “My stepfather wasn’t that bad a guy. The reason we wanted Steve Carell is he brings an innate likability to Trent. He’s not so much a demon as he is this complicated, tragic male figure.”

But the happy ending Faxon and Rash envisioned when they sat down to write the script isn’t one that’s concerned with doling out redemption to everyone. “There are certainly a lot of father themes [in the film], but the central story is between the mother and son,” Rash explains. That might surprise viewers, given Toni Collette’s relatively short screen time as Duncan’s mom Pam (who’s at best the fourth most important character).

Freud theorized that the reason artists create fiction is that stories, like dreams, are the fulfillment of unconscious, sometimes undesirable, wishes. Faxon and Rash maintain that the “six versus three” incident and their shared love of water parks are the film’s only autobiographical elements. “For me to be able to say [the film is autobiographical] would mean I had this amazing mentor,” Rash laughs. Yet, given the directors’ insistence on the importance of the mother-son bond, it’s tempting to read the film as a kind of Oedipal revenge, especially when Rash, himself a child of divorce, declares that Pam “is wearing blinders and freaked and scared, and [needs to] realize she only needs one person.”

Rash’s teen years during the Reagan era contrasts against that of The Way, Way Back‘s kid characters, who live in today’s climate of divorce as the new normal. “When I was [Duncan’s] age,” he says, “divorce was relatively newer. It certainly was going on, but way more families were staying together [than today]. Now people are realizing much faster that things aren’t working out, that they’re not in the long haul.”

Rash explains that the film is about “transition, but the transitions happen to be divorce and infidelity in the family.” Despite no intention to do so, then, he and Faxon have created a film about divorce — still so rare in Hollywood, especially from the children’s perspective — that not only justifies parental separation, but exhibits a shrugging indifference to the integrity of the nuclear family.

That jaded wisdom makes The Way, Way Back a film the young Rash might’ve appreciated as a kid suffering through his mom’s second marriage — and what makes it a sufficiently bitter feel-good tale for audiences today.

See Also: Our review of The Way, Way Back

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The Way, Way Back Offers a Sugar High, but Not Much More

The Way, Way Back is a crowd-pleasing summer treat, predictable in its sweetness but satisfying all the same. It’s like the multinationally branded ice cream sandwich you get on any pier in the Western Hemisphere—market-tested to appeal to as many people as possible (but you don’t mind gobbling up).

Though the script includes bits and pieces of writer-directors Nat Faxon’s and Jim Rash’s real childhoods (read our interview with Faxon and Rash), it’s a slick debut that feels like a recycling of familiar coming-of-age materials. It even shares with The Descendants, for which Faxon and Rash won an adapted screenplay Oscar, the premise of mopey teenagers in beach settings upset with the paternal figures in their lives. It doesn’t help that this is the third (male) coming-of-age tale in as many months, the other two being Mud and The Kings of Summer.

The film’s sympathetic but indistinct center is 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), a hunched, shambling, inarticulate boy whose loneliness weighs him down as much as his slightly out-of-date Bieber bangs. He’s an everyteen we’re supposed to feel sorry for—his parents are divorced, his mom (Toni Collette) has found herself a dick boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), he doesn’t have the sense not to wear long pants to the beach—but he’s so devoid of personality that we wish happiness for him only in the reflexive way we want to pet a sorry-looking puppy. Duncan is driven into further solitude on one of those summer trips that’s really a test of emotional fortitude: an extended stay at Trent’s beach house. He’s apparently so lost there he can only entertain himself by looking forlorn until an adult comes to talk to him out of pity.

For the most part, though, the grown-ups ignore Duncan, too busy trying to recapture their own adolescence. His mom, Trent, and his friends and neighbors (Allison Janney, Amanda Peet, and Rob Corddry) enjoy their “spring break for adults,” drinking late into the night and openly indulging in pot in front of their children. They make an informal game of outdoing each other’s double entendres, their raunchy jokes papering over the reality that sex has undone their lives and marriages. In a less kid-centered film, the adult quintet’s sangria-chugging and sexual jealousies might make for a volatile chamber drama, but here their rowdy shenanigans are neutered—they’re all just illustrative props to Duncan’s growth.

Among the middle-aged party animals, Janney charms as Betty, a well-meaning, ebulliently pushy neighbor, in spite of the script’s role for her as a kind of female grotesquerie. “My titties need some color,” she explains by way of inviting herself and her two children on a boat ride, her breezy brazenness a breath of fresh air. But she doesn’t have much to offer Duncan either, other than the friendship of her son, Peter (River Alexander), a foul-mouthed kid with a lazy eye and as much verve in his frog-patterned eye patch as Duncan has throughout the film.

See also: Our interview with The Way, Way Back directors

Like an angel in gas-station aviators, in swoops Owen (Sam Rockwell), the slacker manager of the dated-as-disco Water Wizz water park, to save Duncan from his misery. Child-labor laws be damned, Owen hires Duncan and introduces him to the world of “cool” grown-ups—much cooler to teenagers than to other adults—at the Wizz, including a no-nonsense, nearly no-fun Maya Rudolph and co-directors Rash, amusingly tetchy, and Faxon, memorable only for his crooked teeth. The script is stingy with Owen’s past, making him more of a plot device (a dude ex machina) than a character. But Rockwell’s virtuosic improvisations add depth and shading to his character, suggesting a smart guy too comfortable being idle to get on the road.

Owen performs alchemy on Duncan, transforming him from a mini-Lurch with a lead tongue and two left feet into the water park’s golden boy. But the magic is too strong; the transformation feels like a sleight of hand. The effect is like watching Pinocchio in reverse, in which a real boy, after a few lessons from his father figure and a series of aquatic adventures, learns to be a simulacrum of one. Duncan becomes a model employee, a respectable dancer, and the recipient of a kiss from a girl hot enough to be the star of a CW show (AnnaSophia Robb of The Carrie Diaries). His accumulation of movie-cliché moments is fun to watch, but his streak of spectacular luck isn’t ever quite credible. Like those ice-cream sandwiches, the ending is pumped with too much artificial sweetener.

See also: Our interview with The Way, Way Back directors

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Big Mommas: Martin Lawrence’s Sky-High BMI Equals More Malnourished Jokes

Irony supplies the sole spark of humor in Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son, as this moribund second sequel has the audacity to feature Martin Lawrence’s fat-suit-encased FBI agent decrying the very same noxious stereotypes in which this film wallows. John Whitesell’s extraordinarily witless movie operates as a checklist for cultural and racial clichés: Young black men prefer hip-hop dreams to college educations; foreigners are evil; fat people are hilarious; skinny white blondes are bitches; and girls (even artistically talented ones) secretly spend their free time staging lingerie dance parties. Amid these cruddy generalities lies a lame premise: Fed Malcolm (Lawrence) and his 17-year-old wannabe-rapper son, Trent (Brandon T. Jackson), go undercover as overweight women at an all-female Atlanta arts school in order to catch a Russian criminal (Tony Curran). Dutiful Bosom Buddies–style scenarios ensue, with Malcolm being romantically pursued by a hefty security guard (Faizon Love) and Trent attempting to woo a beautiful pianist (Jessica Lucas)—though the narrative’s prime objective is milking nonexistent laughs from Lawrence’s latex-swaddled sassy-mammy routine. Fatally anorexic in terms of comedy, action, and romance, Big Mommas depressingly corroborates Trent’s belief that “there’s no rush to greatness.”

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Live From Nine Inch Nails’ Retirement Party

And then, our stick-figure arms raised ironically heavenward, our fingers clenched into tight, bone-snapping balls of cartoonish fury, we all scream, “FIST FUCK!” in joyously enraged unison.

Perhaps it’s more poignant in context. The full line, from Nine Inch Nails’ manic 1992 industrial-thrash anthem “Wish,” is “Gotta listen to your big time/Hard line/Bad luck/Fist fuck.” OK, it’s not any more poignant in context. Except it’s incredibly poignant here on Saturday night, among the 500-odd NIN disciples astoundingly fortunate enough to bust into the Bowery Ballroom to revel in Trent Reznor’s 20-year celebratory wallow in profound misfortune. This is the sort of show where there are 70-odd ticketless dudes lurking outside the venue looking dolorous. How appropriate.

Trent is threatening to quit, you see. No one really believes this. (Brett Favre ruined public retirement for everyone.) But the first—and, at least here, smallest-capacity—stop on his brief, terse Wave Goodbye tour (three cities, four NYC shows) is rife with feverish anticipation anyway, an encomium and entombment for a dude whose every song already feels like a eulogy, a suicide note (“This is the first day of my last days,” begins “Wish”). So he saunters nonchalantly onstage—no fanfare, no lowered stage lights, no theme music—grabs the mic with one meaty paw (each bicep is roughly the size of his head), and launches his magnificently lean and muscular three-man backing crew directly into “Somewhat Damaged,” a somewhat slower, surlier, more nuanced industrial-thrash anthem, and after he growls, “This machine is obsolete,” ZAPPITY-BOO, an Olympic closing ceremony’s worth of aggro lighting supernovas behind him, blinding us with sweet, sweet science. Next song: “The Beginning of the End.” Next song: “Last,” as in “This isn’t meant to last/This is for right now.” Let the good times roll.

Since we’re encouraged to view this fete through a nostalgic, ferociously wistful prism of finality, let us marvel at Trent’s two-decade evolution, from doom-obsessed Lollapalooza-era titan (no “Closer” tonight, alas, “I want to fuck you like an animal” apparently being too uncouth a sentiment) to Doom-obsessed perfectionist shut-in (peace to psychotically self-absorbed 1999 double album The Fragile, the perfect way to cap off the ’90s) to astoundingly prolific Internet badass (on Shaq’s level as a Twitter-er, in his prime, before Trent triumphantly—and repeatedly—retired from that, too). He has spent the last decade finding clever ways (flash drives hidden in bathrooms, iPhone apps) to market his various dalliances (ambient records, Saul Williams collaborations), and though I can’t say any of it moves me the way The Downward Spiral did, it’s extraordinarily comforting just to have him out there, pumping iron like Henry Rollins, Tweeting like ?uestlove, antagonizing Chris Cornell like . . . a rock critic!

And even if later records like 2007’s Year Zero or last year’s The Slip aren’t his most concentrated symphonies of rage, loneliness, and abject narcissism, they’ve clearly loosened him up and thus vastly improved the older, harder, really narcissistic stuff—Saturday night, once-joyless dirges like “Heresy” and “Reptile” (which can sure fuck up a 16-year-old’s perceptions of the opposite sex, but I forgive him) paradoxically swing, somehow sound more fun. Vintage Nine Inch Nails could have aged terribly—all of that whiny synth-bashing nihilism—but now more than ever, Trent sells it as whiny, synth-bashing populism: “There’s nowhere to hide up here,” he notes appreciatively at one point. “It’s good to be back where I belong: Where I can see people.”

(He also says, “I’m too old for this shit,” which may have been true once, but he’s younger than that now.)

The big whoop tonight is two tracks from 1989’s self-explanatory Pretty Hate Machine, both stupendously cheesy and all the more satisfying for it. “Down in It,” which Trent sheepishly intros as inadvertently responsible for “the rap-rock genre”—it’s basically the evil version of “Semi-Charmed Life,” what with the extremely fast-spoken lyrics and all—now reads as very gentle self-parody, like a nü-metal Broadway-musical showstopper; it comports itself as well as a song that ends with a chant of “Rain, rain, go away/Come again some other day” possibly can.

“Something I Can Never Have” is taken way more seriously (upright bass!), a tear-jerking, wrist-slashing torch ballad (“I’m starting to scare myself,” etc.) inspired by someone or something that—and I’m just guessing here—Trent couldn’t give less of a shit about anymore and probably hasn’t for decades, the sort of ultra-maudlin, unsophisticated early work that alt-rock stars of his ilk have no problem completely abandoning in their later, “mature” years, and yet here he is, grabbing his mic stand in both meaty paws like it’s a life preserver and belting it out, that trademark just-about-to-cry-but-that-only-makes-me-tougher catch in his voice. The Broadway thing again: Sell it night after night after night, in your double role as both the Rage and the Machine, and make the tourists believe it.

We get a couple of evil-cabaret tunes like that this evening—ominously sawed upright bass, mournful piano, eerie haunted-house ephemera—including “La Mer,” one of The Fragile‘s stranger and more indulgent moments, inching perilously close to jazz-odyssey territory, but redeemed, as with everything, by Trent’s absolute emotional investment, leaning over his keyboard and hammering it out like some sort of aggro concert-hall virtuoso. The bitch is Bach. Directly in front of me, a woman in a T-shirt with “INSECURITY” printed across the back sways hypnotically to and fro like she’s at a Phish concert. It’s the quiet, intimate inverse of the “FIST FUCK!” moment, though, of course, those are way more fun: “Burn,” a medium-tempo industrial-trash anthem included on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack, which gives you some idea as to its degree of subtlety, is forever my jam, at 16, 32, whatever. The crowd as a seething, grinning mass seems to go for “Gave Up,” which is fine, too: The bizarre moment when everyone raises their arms again and claps along as Trent moans, “I tried/And I gave up” is heartwarming in its complete cognitive dissonance. He never did, is the thing, and I hope he doesn’t start now.

rharvilla@villagevoice.com

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Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts I-IV

An impulsive 10-week bro sesh—recorded at home, released onto the Net with no promotion and no record label—allows Trent Reznor’s loyal army of Diggsters and Halo opponents to rejoice, as the machine has officially been raged against. (Basic multiplication shows that the intrepid Nine Inch Nails made a healthy profit off $5 downloads, $10 CDs, and a limited-edition $300 future eBay staple.) Unfortunately, the gloomy repetition-as-ambience loops on the instrumental, 36-track, 110-minute Ghosts I-IV live or die on little beyond the accompanying 40-page PDF’s gorgeous graphic design (bleak and spacious, courtesy of resident NIN artist Rob Sheridan) and Trent’s name recognition (hell, he got  my money).

The same democratizing Internet that leveled the playing field for the label-free TrentCo may be the same one that disassembles him: It’s only a matter of time before his fans find out how easy it is to discover more interesting electronic music. In the mid-’90s, Reznor alone was the way your average  Hackers fan connected with the cutting edge, jacking in via his collaborations (Aphex Twin, Luke Vibert) and the signees to his Interscope imprint, Nothing (Autechre, Squarepusher). But now, just like Trent himself, everyone is one MySpace friend away from Ricardo Villalobos or Keith Fullerton Whitman or Richard Devine or Burial or Carlos Giffoni or Fuck Buttons or whomever. Not to mention it’s easier than ever to make your own electronic music. There’s photos of Reznor and collaborator Atticus Ross looming over mountains of gear—impossible tangles of wires, museum-ready rows of pedals, monolithic switchboards that might as well be manned by Lily Tomlin. But with some time and the right plug-ins, your friend might make a similar record on ProTools (if your friend could invite Adrian Belew to play a few ripping solos) that could escape a blind taste-test and grow to the heights of being one of the many records on Mush or Asphodel or Plug Research that don’t get written about.

Despite its anti-corporate model, Ghosts is a 110-minute endorsement for brand loyalty: For all the cues Reznor seems to be taking from Steve Reich and Eno/Byrne and Richard D. James, it’s basically a minimalist record that coasts on one’s predilection for NINoise. Rampant arpeggios, muted guitars that pop and sproingle, purple fuzz to suffocate an outro, distorted beats to score self-destruction, piano played slow and moody—it’s the same paintbrush he used on last year’s Year Zero, but now powering a lofty ambient record instead of a lofty Manson-style industrial record. Neither album reveals much beyond the fact that they can both survive constantly in medias Rez.

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Trent Reznor Checks His Pain and Hate Into the Old Rage Home

Nine Inch Nails’ second and most successful record, The Downward Spiral, arrived in record stores one month before Kurt Cobain killed himself, a bleak opus brimming with malice and misery and enough pig references to tip off high school juniors who had just finished reading Lord of the Flies that Satan was somehow involved. But while Spiral provided easy-bake catharsis for depressed theater students, it was also drive-time music for the weekend dominatrix, people who thought handcuffs were fun but were also into Friends. That first group was mostly responsible for the million units sold of overblown follow-up The Fragile, and it was the latter group’s absence that made that number a commercial disappointment. And so Trent slithered off to sober up and, to borrow a phrase from Bono, “dream it all up again.”

That dream is With Teeth, a record that’s half as long as The Fragile but just as plodding and mummified. The Bono reference is not accidental because Reznor, for all intents and purposes, is his photo negative; where Bono sings bluntly about big, vague ideas like love and faith and hope, Trent sings bluntly about pain and hate and rage. The difference is that you can only pull off one of these noun sets after you hit age 35 and—hint hint—it ain’t the one Trent’s working with. In the past he compensated for this lyrical artlessness with a crafty sonic breadth. The critical shorthand for Spiral may be “paean to rage,” but that record’s best moments are actually the quiet ones: the jazzbo bass thunk of “Piggy,” the Vince Guaraldi breakdown on the chorus of “March of the Pigs,” “Closer” ‘s Atari porno aesthetic. With Teeth is all pain-by-numbers with no topography or relief—just one angry distorted chord after another.

Volume just boxes Reznor in. Who knew a fondness for light bondage could get you tangled in a Gordian knot? This Creatined misery plays just fine in the live setting, as the group proved during two jaw-dropping and frighteningly kinetic shows at the Hammerstein Ballroom a couple weeks back. But when you’re sitting alone with them in your car or on the subway or in your apartment—well, it’s a problem. A braver man might have realized this and decided to rebuild from the foundation, but Reznor just clings more desperately to formula, keeping his few ballads shapeless and pillaging Broken for the rest. It’s no wonder: To embrace change means to risk failure, and in these shaky days one more Fragile gets you crickets in the concert hall and a three-album deal with Sanctuary. (Here’s Al Jourgensen to tell you all about it.) In the end, Trent’s biggest problem ends up being exactly what he always said it was: He just wants to be loved.

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Checkout Time

At the 2001 Toronto Film Festival, Mike Figgis’s Hotel had the sorry luck to screen on a certain morning dominated by more urgent images. But now he’s finally getting a run for his latest sexed-up, teched-up, theater-troupe pedantry disguised as avant-garde film. This crack at art-is-life comedy finds Venice’s art deco Hotel Hungaria hosting Dogme director Trent (wryly hyper Rhys Ifans) and his underling Jonathan (unmodulating hangdog David Schwimmer) attempting to film the Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, with Saffron Burrows (oft the object of Figgis’s stunned attention) as the libertine Duchess. Burrows’s actress character is also Trent’s girlfriend, but once he’s comatized by an assassin’s bullet, she drifts Schwimmer-ward. This triangulation is surrounded by split-screen intrigue involving the film’s corpulent wife-abusing financier, mysterious flamenco dancers, creepy hotel staffers, and a doc crew headed by Salma Hayek, capturing it all. As usual, Figgis coaxes moon-shooting performances, but all the furious improv lacks any sort of map.

That may be the auteur’s point—life is mapless too, no?—but just as the drawn and quartered players workshopping four simultaneously shot Hollywood send-ups in 2000’s Time Code played fifth fiddle to the miracle of the DV long take, Figgis’s usual suspects are here pawns in another pretentious form-game. They passionately ad lib through the titular structure while scenes play in time-lapse and resolution jumps to rectangular pixels. All the while, the play, the film, the doc, and the hand-held digressions must go on, with their thuddingly jazzy middlebrow Godardisms and libidinal grandiosity. Irked by Hayek’s scene-hog gesticulations, slick journo Lucy Liu snaps all too believably, “You come off so abrasive and you just don’t need to.” Which is certainly always true of the hopeless Hayek, but echoes even louder through the halls of this empty experiment.


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Listings

Ghostly, that cool li’l Midwestern label with the cute kitty icons, is having a big party with all of its stars. Yes, the event takes place at my least favorite venue in the city, but even I’d put up with the mayhem to hear some real forward-thinking techno and electro (not the cheesy kind, yo) from the likes of Dabrye, Dykehouse, Kill Memory Crash, and Osborne—who are all performing live—plus DJs James Cotton, She Ra, Cut Faster (of Record Camp), and Trent. Saturday @ 10, Pianos, 158 Ludlow, 212-505-3733.


In the event that the temperature actually gets higher than 60 degrees and the continual flow of rain stops, one might actually get a chance to enjoy Halcyon’s monthly Summer DJ Legends BBQ series. For a mere 10 bucks, patrons get an all-you-can-eat-barbecue and Brooklyn Brewery beer while legends like the first month’s guest, Nicky Siano, provide the beats. (Seattleite Eugene Lemcio opens for Mr. Siano). Next month: Mark Kamins takes the decks. Saturday from 2 to 10 p.m., Halcyon, 227 Smith, Bklyn, 718-260-9299.


I write about this party every damn month, but that’s ’cause it’s such a cool idea. And apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks so—the party is mad popular. It’s time to get Sorted again, with help from Dara and DB, who dig up all their old tunes of the house, techno, acid, indie, and d’n’b variety to take you back through a mini-musical history. Thursday @ 10, Bar 13, 121 University Place, 212-979-6677.

tromano@villagevoice.com

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All’s Well That Ends Well

If the decade in Modern Rock were a Shakespearean comedy (and what else could it be? Between hanging with Romeo + Juliet and Abercrombie & Fitch, and lending a name to superproducer Shek’spere and a script to 10 Things I Hate About You, he had a huge decade, second only to Kurt among dead white guys), it would end with four starfucked lovers left on stage. Having survived confusion, lies, and bitter wit, they would join in a glorious double wedding and exeunt omnes into the utopian future. Ah ModRock!—a midsummer night’s dream that lasted longer than anyone could have hoped, or wanted.

Act I opened with Tori Amos flirtatiously stage-whispering, “those demigods with their nine-inch nails” (“Precious Things,” 1991). Trent Reznor RSVP’d via “Big Man With a Gun” (1994), the role-playing answer to her “Me and a Gun.” When he sang in her choir on “Past the Mission,” you could feel them getting closer to god: twinned keyboard conceptualists freaked with guilt, avatars of the baroque and the interior.

Act II: Things fall apart. Trent saw his reflection in the snow-covered hills and thought it was love. But it was just sincere flatterer Marilyn Manson, who for a little bit of Nothing made Trent feel like a man. Spurned Tori marched out the pigs for cover art on Boys for Pele (1996); inside she purred, “made my own pretty hate machine.” She took her love and she turned around. And her fury took her higher: On her Courtney Love ode, “Professional Widow,” the Bosendorfer babe hit the stage shrieking “starfucker” over a groovyhatefunk so deep it landed on Decade of Ibiza (1997).

Yet because this is a Shakespearean comedy, everyone must dally together before it all gets sorted out. One day while Marilyn was out frolicking, Courtney and Trent made the rock star with two backs—or is that the head with two holes? It’s an act comical to the last, ending with Prince Reznor’s royal guard standing by in the hotel room. Amos nailed them both in “She’s Your Cocaine” (1998), detailing “the way she makes you crawl,” electro-banging over a murky boom. “Prince of Darkness?” she fumes as Act III ends. “Try squirrel of dimness.”

In the field of permutations, foul flowers grow; witness the Marilyn/Courtney fling. Were they not both comatose (“Sugar Coma,” 1997; “Coma White,” 1998)? Were they not both beautiful monsters (“Beautiful Son,” 1994; “The Beautiful People,” 1996; “Reasons to Be Beautiful,” 1998)? Thankfully, Act IV was brief.

And now, finally, the circuit is complete: Sashaying from the wings for “Starfuckers, Inc.” (1999), Trent rehabs Tori’s vocab and spits venom over Marilyn and/or Courtney: “My god pouts on the cover of a magazine, my god’s a shallow little bitch trying to make the scene.” Sheesh, god: Sometimes you just don’t come through. The song’s a breakneck noisedisco apocalypse overseen by the ghost of Carly Simon; who could ask for more? Except, no one cares. Welcome to Act V, in which catastrophic ennui obliterates the audience. Marilyn promises an “Astonishing Panorama of the Endtimes” on some wrestling-friendly compilation, and no one cares. Hole’s ragged bit of gender-baiting industrialismo, “Be a Man,” leads off Any Given Sunday (free MP3 at www.brookelyn.com/beaman/index.html), and no one cares. Reznor, silent all these years, releases two more singles in quick succession: the industrial version of a power ballad, and the artrock version of an existential crisis, and no one cares. Tori, not to be outdone, releases two singles simultaneously, sending the pretty baffling “Bliss” to ModRock stations and the pretty coherent “1000 Oceans” to Adult Contemporary. The only people who care are drinking radical tea and paying rent in faerieland.

Maybe it’s not a comedy after all: no couples, no weddings, no utopia. Just a tragedy with mismatched heroes: a Hamlet and a Lady M, an Ophelia and a clown, every one with a knife in their back catalog. If they have one great single among them before the curtain drops like a guillotine, you won’t hear it in Sugar High; I quit. But anyway, listen: It’ll be Tori’s “Glory of the ’80s.” Between a modal synth wash and a Quaalude blues, she phases back to peoples’ parties circa 1985 and discovers that Then was just as grotesque as Now, with silicone party Barbies and Bugle Boy models and “no one feeling insecure we were all gorge and famous in our last lives.” For a famously opaque lyricist, each detail is transparent to anyone who managed to live through this, the music just distorted enough so you know you’re too high to get home, the melody’s doing flake while the bass does yoga and “my husband ran off with my shaman but they love me as I am.” Checking to see if anyone out there’s listening—past the party, beyond the stage—she proposes, “the end is nothing to fear.” And then “Blow the end. Now, baby, who do I gotta shag to get outta here?”

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Expose yourself

Dear Trent,

How’s it going, dude? Long time no see. (Ha Ha Ha) But seriously, as much as I loved your excellent soundtrack work, I thought I’d never get my hands on the follow-up to the holiest of relics, The Downward Spiral. I worried that the pressure of performing those one-of-a-kind hymns to the eternal sadness live so many times would drive you from the music business altogether. I’ll bet those jerks in Orgy would have liked that. Those guys suck! Trent, we both know how sacred a song like ‘‘Blue Monday’’ by New Order is, and they treat it like yesterday’s meatballs. It makes me sick! Peter Hook should hit them over the head with his bass. By the way, I always thought Hooky was the cutest member of New Order. I know, I know, everyone thinks Bernard hung the stars and the moon, but he has no passion. (Did you know he takes Prozac now? That’s no way to write sad songs!) Anyway, did you know Orgy’s guitarist used to be in ’80s hair-metal band Rough Cutt? It’s true! I have to admit their song ‘‘Kids Will Rock’’ was pretty hot, even if the subject matter was a tad cliché. Trent, as much as I’m aligned with the inner misery of your haunted lyrics, I love how loud and anthem-like your rockiest songs are. The other day MTV played Slaughter’s ‘‘Up All Night,’’ and even though Slaughter were pretty silly, they sounded awesome coming out of my Optimus brand Radio Shack speakers. Then they played some Smashing Pumpkin thing, and it sounded like ants. And not the good kind of ant, as in Ant Music for Ant People! (Adam rules!) But annoying, buzzing, tiny, ugly ants from Hell!
Oh my god, I haven’t even told you how much I worship the new album. It totally rocks! The highest compliment I can give is that when I close my eyes it’s as if I’m listening to the last album all over again. I think you were right on in duplicating the same groundbreaking sound you came out with five years ago. Now that everyone has caught up with your brilliance, you can show them how it’s done! (Um, Filter? I don’t think so. I know that guy was a friend of yours, but he will never fill your leather pants.) And I love how you haven’t given up on the way your songs start off really slow and creepy, and then GET REALLY LOUD AND ANGRY, and then get soft and sad again. You must do that like 20 times on the new album. ‘‘The Mark Has Been Made’’ starts out all dreamy like a 4AD album cover and then kicks ass like Queen’s ‘‘We Will Rock You’’! Trent, I know it took you over two years and a whole lot of tears and black nail polish to record this epic of decadence, but it was worth the wait.
This may be in bad taste, but do you ever feel bad that you weren’t mentioned as the reason behind all those school shootings? If it makes you feel better, Marilyn Manson was, and you made him what he is today! I know you guys aren’t talking, and your totally rockin’ ‘‘Starfuckers, Inc.’’ is supposed to be about him and his band. Maybe you can bury the hatchet someday. You two were such good friends! Did you know the Rolling Stones (Gag!) had a song called ‘‘Star Star’’ that was about the same thing—I think it was about Warren Beatty (Double gag!!). Anyway, your CD has just come out (I thought CDs’n’Such at the mall would start selling them at midnight like they did with the Limp Bizkit album, but they’re such retards there), and once again you are pioneering the marriage of heavy guitars, moody atmospherics, electronic drones and beats and aggressive singing. Just like Killing Joke 20 years ago. Weren’t they great! I just know that your albums will sound as fresh and exciting someday as their 1980 debut does now. (I know you’ll think I’m queer, but Youth their bass player produced one of my fave Bananarama singles, ‘‘Long Train Runnin’ ’’—a Doobie Bros. cover!) Just imagine what they could have come up with if they’d had a ton of money and two years in the studio. Back then, they made records in like two days.
Your album truly runs the gamut of styles. All the way from With Sympathy–era Ministry, to Cold Life–era Ministry, to Twitch-era Ministry, to The Land of Rape and Honey–era Ministry, to current-day Ministry. Wow! That’s a lot to take in. Trent, I’m sending a gift with this letter. It’s a creepy amulet that my total Goth friend Prince Ivor got on eBay. The guy who sold it says Charles Manson gave it to Terry Melcher, the record producer, in the hopes that Paul Revere would record a song he had written, called ‘‘Girl, You’ll Be a Raider When You Die.’’ But get this, Terry Melcher gave it to Sharon Tate as a housewarming gift when she moved into his old house. The legendary house where you created The Downward Spiral! Isn’t that awesome!
Anyway, the new album is the best. It’s right up there with the greats: Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and the Leather Nun. I love how the two CDs are entitled ‘‘Left’’ and ‘‘Right.’’ It’s like the left one represents aggression and sadness, and the right one represents anger and depression. And I love how ‘‘Please’’ is like Skinny Puppy without any of their icky bits about dead animals and boring politicians. It’s about real life! Especially when you sing, ‘‘All the flesh—All the sin—There was a time when it used to mean just about everything.’’ And ‘‘Where is Everybody?’’ is almost like your own wicked version of rap. When you bust a move and sing, ‘‘Pleading and needing and bleeding and breeding and feeding exceeding,’’ I want to shout, ‘‘You go boy!’’ (Do you like rap?) Too bad most ‘‘normal’’ people couldn’t begin to understand the depths of your tragic soul. You expose yourself to the world! Your songs sound like a hundred guitars are playing an elegy for the madness of humanity. Just don’t wait another five years to put out another masterpiece, or you will have to compete with the new Guns N’ Roses album. (Ha Ha Ha)
Yours in blood,

One devoted fan

PS: My friend Baron Olaf says your new haircut makes you look like that Garth Brooks comedy character, Chris Gaines. But the Baron is so lame.