Track by Track – On Mixtapes & Why People Made Them

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  1. Mercury – Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner & Nico Muhly
  2. I Know You Know – Ásgeir
  3. 715 – CRΣΣKS – Bon Iver
  4. Glue – Fickle Friends
  5. Love Song – Lucy Rose
  6. Goodbye Soliel – Phoenix
  7. How Can It Be So Hard – Billie Van
  8. Tired as Fuck – The Staves
  9. Get Not High, Get Not Low – Feist
  10. Like Real People Do – Hozier
  11. Naiads, Cassadies – Fleet Foxes
  12. The Universe – Gregory Alan Isakov
  13. The Professor * La Danse Fille – Damien Rice
  14. True Care – James Vincent McMorrow
  15. Someplace Beautiful – Alfred Hall

Follow this rotating playlist of new releases & old classics here


In the eighties, they used to make mixtapes with cassettes.

To make one, you would stick the original cassette with the song you wanted into one side of the stereo & a blank one into the other & press the “play” & “record” buttons simultaneously. That song from the original would then be recorded on the blank as it played. Three, four, five minutes would pass. You would hit the “pause” button exactly when the song ended, change the original cassette, repeat twenty times over, & out of the hundreds of rewinds & tape hisses would emerge a cobbled-together tapestry of songs. 

This is why mixtapes are such a labour of love – because they had to be made in real time. It’s hard to imagine an age where one was unable to assemble a playlist in a matter of seconds like how you would on Spotify but yes, there was. Before iTunes & digital streaming, it wasn’t uncommon to spend hours ruminating on the perfect sequence of songs and compiling them for a certain mood, a certain season, a certain someone. Why do you think there have been so many movies made & books written about mixtapes? They are soundtracks to the beat of love unraveling, stitched together by fictional characters.

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Adventureland – Greg Mottola’s retro, ’80s inspired indie features Jesse Eisenberg as James & Kirsten Stewart as Emily. It tells their unlikely love story that unfolds over a summer spent working at Adventureland, a run-down theme park. In characteristic Eisenberg-esque style, James makes Em a mixtape called “J’s Favourite Bummer Songs” & they kiss in the car while it plays. 

In the film High Fidelity, the main character Rob (played by John Cusack) summed up my feelings about a good mixtape when he said this: The making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many do’s and don’ts. First of all, you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.

Rob was right – it is a delicate thing, especially when they’re made as gifts. The best mixtapes were the ones embedded with coded messages, not unlike song titles. A good mix didn’t just say: Here, This is For You, but also Hey, I Love You, or This Is Who I Really Am, or This Was How I Felt That One Hot Summer Night When I Was Thinking of You but You Didn’t Have a Clue. 

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Perks of Being A Wallflower – Charlie’s mixtape, with The Smiths’ “Asleep” put in twice for good measure

The word “mixtape” was foreign to me for a long time because I was born in a time of discmans & their accompanying CDs – yes, those long-gone, shiny circles of music. When I was eight or nine, the first iPod had not been invented yet & I spent most of my school allowances at HMV, picking up whatever looked interesting & rushing home to stick it into my CD player & listen to the delicious morsels of music under the sheets (as detailed in this long spiel about my love for Fleet Foxes).

The first time I ever heard the word “mixtape” was when I was at a sleepover with my friend Liz (who loved The Dresden Dolls & The Academy Is & who was always introducing me to interesting music) & we were falling asleep in the attic after a night of eating too much pizza & watching bad chick flicks. After hours of dancing to Cobra Starship (!), we finally collapsed, exhausted, our bodies splayed out on the floor. She put on this CD at a low volume & this amazing, piano-driven rock started to play, & as we drifted to sleep, I asked her what it was & she whispered drowsily, The Mixed Tape

Where are you now?
As I rearrange the songs again
This mix could burn a hole in anyone
But it was you I was thinking of

Since hearing that line in Jack’s Mannequin’s record Everything in Transit, I don’t think I’ve stopped making mixtapes, whatever form they may take. When I was thirteen & broke during Christmas, I bought blank CDs by the dozen & make a “mixtape” for each of my friends. I’m sure most of them went unlistened to, but I loved making them all the same, loved the gentle whirring of the disc in my dad’s laptop, designing album covers with magic markers while I waited for it to burn, the click of the CD tray as it delivered its gift to me twenty minutes later, warm & complete.

Where are you now?
As I’m swimming through the stereo
I’m writing you a symphony of sound
As I’m cutting through you track by track
I swear to God this mix could sink the sun
But it was you I was thinking of

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Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist – Post-breakup, heartbroken Nick makes many mixtapes for his horrible ex-girlfriend Tris, including this one devastatingly entitled “Road to Closure”. Unimpressed, Tris tosses them into the trash each time, only to be salvaged moments later by her friend Norah, who as it turns out, is the real deal.

When I was eighteen, a good friend moved to Australia for college. We had grown up together & shared common tastes in television shows & music & when she told me she was really leaving, I was happy for her but also quite morose. I was in that stage in my life where all my friends were making major life decisions, some of which scattered them across continents. Anyway, in December that year, she called to wish me happy birthday & we ended up speaking for a bit. I had missed her terribly & knew she had missed me too.

Finally, as we reluctantly said goodbye over the static of international airwaves, I thought I heard her say “I made a mistake!” before the line went dead & for the rest of the week, I wondered what mistake she had made… Was it her decision to leave Singapore? Did she want to come back? It wasn’t until I received a square package postmarked Australia a few days later that I realised that what she had really meant to say was this: I made a mixtape (for you).

“Sentimental music has this great way of taking you back somewhere at the same time that it takes you forward, so you feel nostagic and hopeful all at the same time.”
― Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

& then finally, there was that time when I took a music composition module in university which turned out to be an “experimental” soundscaping class. The professor was a hippie who wore long, white linen shirts and whose eyes lit up when he talked about John Cage or Steve Reich. He was also a terrible teacher & had the tendency to drone on or get lost in the middle of his sentence, never to find his way back again. It’s a true miracle I managed to pass the class since I was asleep most of the time.

Once though, he told us about how composers would create “incredible masterpieces” by locating sounds they liked in certain tapes & painstakingly splicing the portions by hand – literally cutting & pasting sounds together to create an auditory landscape. This avant-garde work had to be precise & sometimes took months, all to create pieces of “music” that sounded like noise to me. In that moment, I remember feeling crestfallen because it seemed like those new pieces, like the hundreds of mixtapes I had made over the years, were not new per se & were just combinations of things that already existed. You’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing…

The question of whether I would ever create something original haunted me all the way till I started to write in earnest. All the same, many poems & songs later, I arrived at the inevitable conclusion that everyone comes to when they set out to create something original – that we can’t, not really. But it’s quite alright, isn’t it? Artistic expression is but a combination of observation & imitation & influence. & we too, are undeniably made out of a thousand, indelible impressions from our pasts, & music is just a tiny slice of this inconceivable miracle that defines our humanity.

& where are you now?
& this is my mixed tape for her
It’s like I wrote every note
With my own fingers

Console yourself with this, dear reader: that we are more than the sum of our parts.

Even as I make playlists on Spotify today, some of them two hundred songs long, I try to think of what it was like for the original makers of mixtapes, how slow & torturous, but also how rewarding it must have been to find oneself in the immersive process. Sometimes the magic of music is lost on us because it has become so easy. But I won’t forget – no, I won’t.

I am from a time past, I fade onto squares of film, I am a mixtape… 

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Why Paris?

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View of the Institut de France from the Museé du Louvre

I saw Paris first through lenses, like everyone else.

The first lens was that of literature. In my little library at home, I have arranged my books in the following sections: Contemporary Fiction, Classic Works, Food & Cookery, Music & Movies, Poetry & Plays, & finally… “Books about Paris”. There, you will find Wilde’s Down & Out in Paris & London, Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Sartre’s L’âge de raison, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Stein’s Paris, France, Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil & perhaps the most definitive novel in my education on Paris, Adam Gopnik’s From Paris to the Moon (sublime, alluring, swelling with fervour & acute observations on the quotidian… but more on that later). That Paris as a subject should merit an entire shelf by itself may be astonishing, but wait – let me explain this peculiar obsession.

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Shakespeare & Company

I read about Paris first in the children’s classic When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr which chronicled the growth of Anna, a young Jewish girl living in Berlin during the Second World War. The story follows her journey across several countries with the rest of her family – Papa, Mama & her older brother Max – as they leave Germany for Switzerland & then France to escape the Nazis. In the book, Papa is a francophile & loves Paris with all his heart, & after the first few days of being in their new home country, he takes everyone out to explore the city & they somehow end up at the top of the Arc de Triomphe. There is a moment where Anna is rendered speechless at the sight before her – the roads glittering with lights, the dim shapes of domes & spires & the twinkling Eiffel tower in the distance – & she turns to Papa in wonderment, who can only stare off in a daze & say breathlessly: Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it a beautiful city?

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The Arc de Triomphe

I saw Paris through the eyes of a child, heard the sounds of Anna playing with her friends in the école communale, smelt the whiffs of freshly made coffee from the market boulangerie. The words of the book painted scenes that seemed so distant & strange for a young girl who had grown up in a tropical island her whole life, whose experience with coffee was limited to her father’s daily “kopi-c” – hot & sprung up, held, in a little plastic bag. Like Anna, herself so foreign & yet so immediately enamoured by the French capital, I could feel my mind expanding, dreaming, pushing against the boundaries of that stretched plastic to taste a faraway place where children drank espresso in the mornings & sipped wine diluted with sparkling water at night, where they sampled snails & onion soup for supper on the fourteenth of July & danced with their parents by the left bank till dawn. This was my introduction to the city, as were most other things – through literature.

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Then I saw Paris through my second lens – that of film. As a young teenager, I was (still am) besotted by Audrey Hepburn, & besides wanting to be Holly Golightly walking down Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, in her little black dress with a flaky pastry in hand, I watched her in Charade, How to Steal A Million & Funny Face with Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole & Fred Astaire respectively, hand-in-hand with her leading men & clad in Givenchy, finally in a city that seemed worthy of her beauty, something New York City never quite managed to be. I watched Moulin Rouge & Amelie, saw their characters bring colour to an already flamboyant Montmartre, the 18th arrondissement full of night time light & sin. Paris, I believe, is the city most fondly remembered & distinctly portrayed in old cinema, matched only by its equally romantic sister city Rome (Only Paris is worthy of Rome; only Rome is worthy of Paris, the famous saying goes).

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Hôtel de Ville
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Saint-Chapelle

& then there was the last lens, a collection of the more secondary images of the eternal city – the photographs, the stories from first-hand travellers, the music of Edith Piaf & Pink Martini. There is a picture taken by the famous photographer Robert Doisneau that is seared into my memory forever though I can’t recall where I saw it first. It was something that I unconsciously held to my chest as representative of the atmosphere of Paris until the day I finally went.

In this photograph, one can make out the famous Hôtel de Ville in the background, faint but magnificent, which means that this picture was taken right on Rue de Rivoli from a café during rush hour. Everybody in the picture is well-dressed – pea coats & trilbies & silk scarves – on their way to wherever they are going, & right in the thick of it, there is a pair of lovers kissing tenderly yet intensely, the lady beautiful in her fitting sweater & her head thrown back, & the gentleman (which has come to represent all French men for me, unfair as that may be) with his thick waves of hair askew, his arm forming a perfect nook for the lady to lean into. This struck me immensely, that Paris seemed to be a city where one could be right in the middle of this sprawling metropolis, the premier city of the old world, but still be completely abandoned to passion & romance whenever the situation presented itself. Could I one day have that too: structure & spontaneity?

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“The Kiss” – Robert Doisneau, 1950

You can imagine how these three lenses made my idea of Paris swell to disproportionate sizes. My Paris before I knew Paris was pink & pretty & artistic. I always let sentiment get the better of me (the forlorn poems & endless daydreams speak for themselves) & this is often to my detriment especially when I travel. In From Paris to the Moon, Gopnik encapsulates it perfectly in these sentences:

“There are two kinds of travelers. There is the kind who goes to see what there is to see & sees it, & the kind who has an image in his head & goes out to accomplish it. The first visitor has an easier time, but I think the second visitor sees more. He is constantly comparing what he sees to what he wants, so he sees with his mind, & maybe even with his heart, or tries to.”

I knew before I went to Paris that it would be difficult because I was the said second visitor, rich in expectation, laden with the lenses & the distorted views that they had produced all my life. So when I came to the city for the first time in 2011, I was full of trepidation. It was then when I would be confronted with the truth, see for myself if I would truly love Paris now that I was right there, or if I had only loved the idea of it. I was only eighteen then & my friends & I were backpacking around Europe & had just finished our stint in Rome. As we finally rode into Paris on the ten o’ clock Orlybus, I knew that I couldn’t be wrong about my assumptions because there was a distinct click between the images in my mind & what I saw before my eyes. I felt like I was dreaming for something like five consecutive days. It is a city that inspires words, poems, songs; it flows out of you, like the waters of the Seine.

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Champs-Élyseés on a Sunday afternoon

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Days like these
when things don’t matter
when you don’t matter
when
I only want the smell of rain

of cities & streets
& eyes dreary with sleep
indelible & sublime
swallowed dappled light &
leapt in air, soared

& curled up in love & silk scarves
This is where I belong
in liquid sound
I am going heady with grey
douse me in flowers & sweet tea

(Rue, 2013)

I returned to Paris two years after that, & again in March this year. Paris was the same, no matter how much it had changed. It still elicits the same emotions, perhaps only more intensely each time. In between all these sojourns, I have learnt what it means to truly love a city for all that it is, all the pretty parts but all the ugly, raggedy bits too. Images & nostalgia are all well & good, but you cannot say that you love Paris if you do not know its pain keenly, if you have not seen the gypsies who inhabit the street corners, wearing everything they own, their eyes hungry & searching, or the dark-skinned immigrants selling their wares outside the Louvre with a sense of intimidating urgency, who have come from very far away because they, just like you, believed that Paris was a city of magic, of hope. You must love every dirty cobblestone, every dinghy backstreet, every overcrowded café you dine at, rubbing shoulders with a stranger, your nose itching from the unceasing cigarette smoke. You must not complain at the offhanded Parisien service at the brasserie or at the rising prices of croissants because after all, this is the Paris you fell in love with, & love means to accept something completely.

Time is relentless
it casts long, tremulous shadows
& we, we are always in transit
fleeting & flitting
between light & dark & translucence
always fickle
always whisked away by loftiness
by that crumbling feeling
or the lift away.
We don’t study the minute details
but we take in beauty in spoonfuls, gallons…
What ephemeral creatures we are.
We must tread lightly on this earth.

(2017)

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The Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre
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Lunch at Benoit – cheese & black pepper puffs, offal salad & champagne
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A café in Montmartre

So there it is, my elaborate answer to the question, Why Paris? – because I love it wholly, the same, through the lenses & without. Nowadays, whenever I read a novel, I can’t help but think of the legion of lost generation writers (Hemingway, Joyce, Stein, Eliot, Fitzgerald) who graced the grounds of Les Deux MagotsCafé de Flore in 1920s Paris, who did not know yet that they were one day going to write books about the eternal city – they simply lived. Nowadays, I never stand in the middle of a museum & not see the marble arcs and gold-glided ceilings of the Louvre at the corner of my eye (I still expect the Winged Victory of Samothrace to appear right before me, her pose dauntless & her well-chiselled shoulders carrying the weight of centuries). I see the Tuileries in every garden, the Seine in every river, Shakespeare & Company in every bookshop.

I cannot help it. Because of these innumerable, tiny pinpricks on my psyche, I sometimes dream a million dreams in a span of a day. Edith Piaf knew what she was talking about when she sang that famous tune, seeing life coloured in a rose tint, full of spirit & song. Quand il me prend dans ses bras / Il me parle tout bas / Je vois la vie en rose… Six years on, like that black & white photograph, so do I, or so I would like to believe. Because of Paris, I now see the world through a different lens – Paris itself.

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On the Road – Austin to Boston

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“As itinerant musicians, we find ourselves here quite often, saying farewell again & again… After all the road is just one long goodbye.


I’ve been listening to The Staves a lot lately (something about their music resonates in this season) & a music producer friend of mine recommended that I watch this documentary chronicling their 2012 American tour with Ben Howard, Nathaniel Rateliff & Bear’s Den because it “outlined the reality & the romanticism of music-making & touring”. So I did, & it was just that: filled with powerful moments, featuring in equal measure the rapturous music & the people who made it, all twenty-five of them.

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The story is simple: In 2006, Ben Lovett (Mumford & Sons) & Kevin Jones (Bear’s Den), frustrated by the lack of live gig exposure for talented singer-songwriters founded the concert promoter, music label, & recording house Communion, & began planning these fantastic single shows & tours all across the US & the UK, bringing lesser-known artistes & their music to all sorts of venues – concert halls, chapels, bars, rooftops, friends’ backyards, & so on. Austin to Boston charts the 2-week, 10-show, 4000-mile journey a bunch of bands take across America in 5 Volkswagen vans, one journey bleeding into another.

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“When I think of Ben Lovett, I think of time travel. Old factory dreamer.”

(Gill Landry, tour driver)

“You know, this is a hard tour. People are exhausted. Everyone’s just pulling together & there’s no hierarchy & everyone’s just here because you feel part of something & that’s kind of embodied by the vans, you know, that’s like symbolised by the vans. We’re not in some big corporate tour bus or whatever. We’re in these little shitty little vans. Communion is like a camper van. It doesn’t work very well, it’s disorganised, it breaks down all the time but it still feels really nice when you’re in it. You know what I mean?”

(Kevin Jones, Bear’s Den & Co-founder of Communion)

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I think that touring in buses or vans is something of a time past in this age of plane travel, but I get what they mean, even with my little experience in this field. Music is always a magical thing, but music shared with strangers (who become new friends, & then family) across time & space becomes a transcendental experience. You know what I mean, don’t you, the swell? The perfect moment. I am always chasing it, & always finding it in unexpected places.

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“I like moving. I think it’s nice to always have a base & go back to it. Always in transit & kind of popping through places. Sometimes it’s really cool & sometimes it’s frustrating, but most of the time it’s a blessing. You get to see places like this… I’ll probably never come here again. You get those little moments where you’re like, ‘memory photo’, & then you move on. I don’t know what it is… I think anyone on this trip will tell you it kind of gets in your blood.”

(Ben Howard)

In this documentary though, it is not hard to find the perfect moment because the music is just so good… Ben Howard, the “indie snob’s John Mayer” & crazy, creative savant, ripping up the stage every night with his leftie-Fenders & wonderfully talented friends India Bourne & Chris Bond. & then there is the folk genius that is The Staves, who evoke mountains of tenderness with a single other-worldly, soaring harmony. With their songs, Emily, Jessica & Camilla render every room vibrating, every person speechless.

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“When I first heard The Staves, it was like being called by sirens from across a dark & silent sea. It’s hard not to be struck by their beauty when they walk on the stage… but when their harmonies set in, you’re done. You’re just done.”

(Gill Landry)

& there was the unexpected treat – the storytelling of Nathaniel Rateliff, so full of raw pain & truth, the only artiste I had not heard of before this documentary but whose music & stories struck me the most & made me cry. & of course not to leave out Bear’s Den, the youngest of the ragtag crew, with their deep, blossoming vocals & strings.

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Between Gill Landry’s (Old Crow Medicine Show, The Kitchen Syncopators) deep drawling narration & the distinctive direction & cinematography by James Marcus Haney (No Cameras Allowed) – an interweaving of gritty, b-roll footage, lens flares, high-contrast stage shots & intimate warm lighting – Austin to Boston captures the bittersweetness of old-fashioned touring perfectly, the grime & the splendour of being on the road, the friendships forged & the euphoric moment of a note sang well & sweet.

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“& the same way it came together, it parted. Since this tour has ended we’ve crossed paths many times & many places. Sometimes you can be quite far down a road you didn’t even know you were on. The draw of touring can be so strong that years can pass before you even stop to question why you’re even doing in the first place. Why make all those miles to perform to total strangers in far-off towns? Why leave all your loved ones behind to live out of suitcases & shit hotels & the back of vans? I suppose the answer I give myself is because it’s a damn good time. & so the road is one long goodbye & here we are, again… again… again.”

“It Hurts to be Alive & Obsolete” – 20th Century Women

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When you were born I told you life was very big & unknown. There were animals & cities & music… you’d fall in love, have passions, have meaning, but now it’s 1979 & nothing means anything, & I know you less everyday.”


The Clash. Jimmy Carter. The pill & feminism. It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara, California & free-spirited, single mother Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) worries about the growing distance between herself & her 15-year-old son Jamie & the lack of a strong male role model in his life. She enlists the help of two women to help “raise” him: Abbie (Greta Gerwig), Dorothea’s tenant & a talented photographer who is well-versed in women’s liberation & the punk rock scene as well as Julie (Elle Fanning), an independent & promiscuous 17-year-old who is simultaneously Jamie’s best friend & love interest. A kind but hapless Billy Crudup features as William, a live-in handyman & car mechanic who does pottery in his spare time & can’t quite seem to get a grip on why he does the things he does. Together, this ragtag bunch make up a bohemian family who attempts to navigate life in a turbulent time in history or at the very least, get by.

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Dorothea: Men always feel like they have to fix things for women or they’re not doing anything but some things can’t be fixed. Just be there. Somehow that’s hard for all of you.

Jamie: Ma, I’m not all men. I’m just me.

Dorothea: Well, yes & no.

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Dorothea: I just think that having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world… & wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to just being depressed.

I won’t go into details – you can read a proper review here – but you must know that this film is a beautiful masterpiece & one of importance. I don’t think I’ve felt this way about a movie since Amelie or Phoebe in Wonderland, or anything from the Wes Anderson catalogue. It educates, yet reaches deep; it has profound historical significance, yet is relevant to any time & place & person. Through its curious mix of light & dark, its dramatic & comic tenors, this film has moved me inherently & perhaps not in the way one would expect.

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Dorothea: (listening to punk rock records) What is that?

Abbie: It’s The Raincoats.

Dorothea: Can’t things just be pretty?

Jamie: Pretty music is used to hide how unfair & corrupt society is.

Dorothea: Ah, okay so… they’re not very good, & they know that, right?

Abbie: Yeah, it’s like they’ve got this feeling & they don’t have any skill, & they don’t want skill, because it’s really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that’s raw. Isn’t it great?

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Julie: (on having sex) Half of the time I regret it.

Jamie: Then why do you do it?

Julie: Because half of the time I don’t regret it. 

The cinematography & soundtrack & the poetic script are stunning, the dialogue is peppered with all the right kinds of pop-culture & literature references, but most importantly, the characters are well-crafted & intriguing. After you’ve watched enough films, you’ll find that what makes them compelling isn’t the love story or the happy ending, but the exploration of the people themselves. It’s not about what happens, but who it happens to, & why. 20th Century Women demonstrates this wonderfully, & is all at once a study of gender & generational differences, an accurate depiction of the fickleness & frustration of family, & a tender yet aching coming-of-age film. At one point or another, it hurts to be alive & obsolete…

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Julie: This is just my opinion. I think being strong is the most important quality. It’s not being vulnerable, it’s not being sensitive, it’s not even being… honestly, it’s not even being happy. It’s about strength, & your durability to get to the other emotions.

I’ll leave you with that.