Monday, November 30, 2009

Brothers: Susanne Bier

Here's a slightly dated but still worthwhile interview with Susanne Bier, director of the 2004 film upon which NP's Brothers is based. Bier also directed 2007's Things We Lost In The Fire with Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro. I didn't know Bier had directed a "Dogma" film. (Future Movies)

FM: What attracted you to the mixture of political and domestic in Brothers?

Susanne Bier: I am quite fascinated by the way we live in the West. Scandinavia is fairly small and fairly privileged, and we have this notion that we are protected and that nothing can happen to us. Since September 11, that sense of security isn’t so strong anymore – the big wide world is creeping in on us, for better or for worse – I don’t necessarily think it just bad. That sense of being protected also acts like a wall between us and the rest of the world, that I think is kind of unhealthy. I am fascinated by the way that we are being influenced by fear.

Dept. of Because I Can

An appreciation of Sonic Youth's Murray Street. (Aquarium Drunkard)

Recorded in post 9/11 vérité, Murray Street once again found Jim O’Rourke manning the boards, but now also as a full-time member. Sonic Youth were now five. Something was in the air during those sessions; the world had changed, both psychologically and physically (literally, ground zero laid just beyond the studio door). Rooted in the collective consciousness of that time, Murray Street is an album that feels solid yet impermanent, a quiet, private dystopia that somehow says ‘welcome to the 21st century.’ And by that I don’t mean to infer it is a depressing record, yet merely an aware record. A fitting soundtrack to changing times, it is the sound of a new millennium. Listening to it now, spinning on my turntable, it still sounds like that tonight.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Out in the streets

Obama-era gay activists: young, motivated, and more than a little angry. (The Nation)

Until late last year, LGBT activism had been dominated for more than a decade by a handful of established national organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, along with a network of statewide groups. These gay organizations saw scattered progress in the waning days of the Clinton administration and then fought vainly against a tide of state referendums banning gay marriage. But with Obama's election and the anger that grew out of Prop 8's unexpected passage, a host of twentysomethings have jumped into the fray with a new set of national strategies, often starting or joining new grassroots organizations that bypass the old guard.

Sunday Music: Sinead O'Connor - "She Moved Through The Fair"

I'm reading Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist; this video (or a video of Sinead singing this song at any rate) has great importance for the blocked poet at the novel's center.

Brothers: How To Make a Remake

NP's new film Brothers opens Friday, and I'll be posting reviews and relevant links this week. From today's Times, here's a look at the challenges and choices faced by director Jim Sheridan and writer David Benioff in adapting Susanne Bier's 2004 film Brodre.

With a plot virtually identical to Mr. Sheridan’s film, “Brodre” was critically acclaimed but made only a small impact in the United States. “If the critics had paid their way in,” Mr. Sheridan said, “it would have made $350,000 instead of $250,000.”

“I said, this could be remade in America, and if there are stars in it, I can get more people to see it,” he continued. “I can rant about this, but first Hollywood kills European cinema, and now it’s eating away at American independent cinema, so we’re in a time when these movies are very hard to get to the public. I think, for me, part of my brief was to get Susanne’s movie to the American public.”

The rights to “Brodre” were being sought simultaneously by the Hollywood producer Michael De Luca and Sigurjon Sighvatsson of Iceland, who eventually partnered and took their project to Ryan Kavanaugh of Relativity Media. “We showed Susanne’s film to crowds before we shot one frame of ours,” Mr. Kavanaugh said. “We wanted to see what audiences took away from it, what their feelings would be, and what we could learn from that.”

From the mouth of Jarmusch

You can't walk up to one of those Blockbuster kiosks in a Publix in Greenville, SC and rent Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, so I'll have to find another way to watch the latest effort of the auteur whose "Golden Rules" deserve their own poster. Wasn't Jarmusch hilarious on Bored To Death? (Moviemaker/via @jrichardkelly)

Rule #5: Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Where is my mind?

Seeing the Pixies. (Muzzle of Bees)

Lights finally brightened the stage, animation on the back screen kicked up, and the audience went insane as a familiar bass line, permanently engraved into any Pixies fan’s subliminal conscious strummed like magic. Guitars thrashed, percussion joined and Black got the crowd movin’ and groovin’ to the kickoff of Doolittle with the opening “Debaser.” From here on out, the Pixies played their thirty-eight minute, 15 track groundbreaking album as promised, consecutively and seamlessly. Without even realizing or caring if the album was being played in order (it was), I was transported into my personal music heaven, leaping and shrieking alongside several fans of different varieties, both screaming and singing along to every word and bark. While the Aragon may not boast the best sound quality, and vocals can sometimes be distorted in delivery, I think last night’s set still succeeded with its message. As a crowd, we bled, were carried on waves of mutilation, professed our love—both in general and to our man, shook our butts (but not too hard), went to heaven, got tattooed tits and were gouged away. It was a perfect set and I feel like I can finally mark a legendary task off my life-long to-do list. The only thing missing was a cameo from Christian Slater from the days of “Pump up the Volume,” when the Pixies played the slower soundtrack version of “Wave of Mutilation.”

Click Trick

Nicholson Baker on the small, annoying foundations of Google's omnipotence. (NY Times)

But think — when was the last time you clicked on a three-line text ad? Almost never? Me neither. And yet, in 2008, Google had $21.8 billion in revenue, about 95 percent of which flowed from AdWords/AdSense. (A trickle came from banner and video ads sold by Google’s new subsidiary, DoubleClick, and from other products and services.) These unartful, hard-sell irritants — which have none of the beauty or the humor of TV, magazine, radio or newspaper advertising — are the foundation of Google’s financial empire, if you can believe it. It’s an empire built on tiny grains of keyword-searchable sand.

Friday, November 27, 2009


I think there is far too much discussion of trailers on film blogs. I rarely talk about them for the same reason that I don't review books after reading 10 random pages. Trailers are marketing tools and should be treated as such....that said, I've followed Noah Baumbach since Kicking and Screaming and here's the trailer for his next film Greenberg. Out in April of next year, Greenberg was co-written by Baumbach's wife Jennifer Jason Leigh (who really wears those glasses). It's great to see Ben Stiller working in a lower key for once, but doesn't Greenberg look like it's poised on the threshold of preciousness? Decide for yourself, but remember it's just a 2 1/2 minute ad.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

A wonderful and effortless pleasure. I've read some reports that Wes Anderson and his co-writer Noah Baumbach only used about 1/3 of Roald Dahl's plot and grafted quite a bit of their own invention onto this gorgeous stop-motion animated film. Anderson's fans will certainly find the director's familiar theme of father-son relationships at the forefront of Mr. Fox, a major storyline concerns the efforts of young Ash (Jason Schwartzman) to impress his father Mr. Fox (George Clooney) with athletic prowess. Mr. Fox is a less irascible version of Gene Hackman's Royl Tenenbaum, a good natured rogue who must attempt to reign in his mischievous ways before his family is destroyed. In this case Fox's vice is stealing chickens; his meticulously described plans to rob three farmers are some of the film's funniest moments. As Mrs. Fox, Meryl Streep has less to do but does get to call her husband on his BS in the type of scenes that past Anderson females have never gotten to play. There is a lightness to the film I haven't felt in Anderson's work since some of the Murray-Schwartzman stuff in Rushmore, and to think it took making foxes have facial expressions to bring it out in him. I'm worried that Mr. Fox might too easily be dismissed as a goof by those who have written Anderson off as a one trick pony, in fact it's proof that the director can work in a lighter key while still bringing personal concerns to his films.

Do the Shuffle #43

  • National- Looking for Astronauts
  • Patti Smith - Going Under
  • Throwing Muses - Green
  • Bap Kennedy - Vampire
  • Wilco - Dash 7
  • Iron & Wine - Kingdom of the Animals
  • Pearl Jam - Got Some
  • Poi Dog Pondering - Pulling Touch (live)
  • Wilco - War On War
  • Dead Weather - Hang You From The Heavens
  • Beyonce - Single Ladies

    Total Songs/Minutes (approx.) - 11/43
    Miscellaneous Facts: Beyonce? Yep. Anyway, it's Black Friday and I'm not at work.....
  • Thursday, November 26, 2009

    For the Day

    Somehow I find myself far out of line
    from the ones I had drawn
    Wasn't the best of paths, you could attest to that,
    but I'm keeping on.
    Would our paths cross if every great loss
    had turned out our gain?
    Would our paths cross if the pain it had cost us
    was paid in vain?

    There was no pot of gold, hardly a rainbow
    lighting my way
    But I will be true to the red, black and blues
    that colored those days.

    I owe my soul to each fork in the road,
    each misleading sign.
    'Cause even in solitude, no bitter attitude
    can dissolve my sweetest find

    Thanksgiving for every wrong move that made it right

    --Poi Dog Pondering, "Thanksgiving" (How is this not on YouTube?)

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009

    So I did see The Blind Side....

    ...and it was about what I expected, an entertaining if sometimes bland telling of the story of Michael Oher. The essentially orphaned Oher (Quinton Aaron) was taken in by Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy (Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw), whose children attended the same private Christian high school in Memphis, and eventually became a sought after recruit at offensive lineman and now a starter for the Baltimore Ravens. The film details how Leigh Anne's influence gave Michael the toughness necessary for success on the field and a GPA high enough to win a scholarship at Ole Miss. Aaron gives a believably recessive performance but The Blind Side is Sandra Bullock's show. Sacrificing cuteness for a furrowed brow and flinty comebacks, Bullock sinks into her role and gives probably the best performance of her career as Leigh Anne. The filmmakers are so awed by Leigh Anne's sweet tea with vinegar personality that they forget to provide much drama (Was Oher really such a docile kid?) and the movie is flatter than it should be given the real-life complications. I enjoyed The Blind Side, but Oher's blocks on the field hit harder than any of the scenes depicting how this special young man grew up.

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009

    The year of seeing Sandra

    I've sat through a few Sandra Bullock vehicles that were frankly pretty bad because I've always had a low-grade crush on Ms. B.; for my money she doesn't have the looks crossed with the Ivy League hauteur of Natalie Portman but she's genuinely beautiful and charming in an unfussy and very winning way. It's a good year for Bullock thanks to the success of The Proposal and The Blind Side, and now there's a mention of a possible Oscar nomination for Bullock's role as a Type-A Southern do-gooder who takes a disadvantaged young man with an uncanny talent for football into her family. A nomination seems unlikely to me and I don't think Bullock is on the general Oscar-prediction radar at the moment (the crowd pleaser nomination slot is occupied by Meryl Streep for Julie & Julia), but I'm pleased to see an adult actress getting box office love who's willing to try to stretch it out occasionally. Bullock has 5 projects "in development" at the moment according to IMDB, and even if I don't make it to The Blind Side I'm sure I'll be catching up with her down the road. (Notes on a Season)

    Monday, November 23, 2009

    Precious/Pirate Radio

  • I'm late getting to Precious: Blah Blah Blah by Sapphire, and it seems that the critical consensus on the film has come down on the side of Oscar contender and Oprah-blessed transformative experience. I can certainly understand that reaction since Lee Daniels's film wastes no opportunity to share its love of its own heroine (Gabourey Sidibe). After enduring horrific abuse at the hands of her barely seen father (who rapes her) and mother (a genuinely terrifying Mo'Nique), Precious marches confidently out into the streets of New York at film's end ready to raise two children on her own and (in her fantasies) become famous. The eclectic ensemble Daniels assembled serves the film's blunt message well; in addition to Mo'Nique, Mariah Carey is nicely beleaguered as a civil servant and Sidibe plays Precious's inarticulateness with little sense of the technique that must have gone into the performance. I wish my satisfaction with the acting were matched by my feelings for the film as a whole, but there are troubling conflicts at work. The most obvious and much commented on is that everyone who helps Precious in the film is light-skinned, from Paula Patton's lesbian teacher to Carey's social worker to Lenny Kravitz's nurse. I don't know that I can or even should begin to comment on what this means, except that I sense a real anger at work in the film underneath all the self-expression and uplift.

    Thanks to Patton's Blu Rain Precious is reading by almost an eighth grade level at film's end but I have my doubts about Precious's future since almost all of the classroom scenes involve journalling and look-at-me cutting contests between Precious and her lively classmates and not, you know, ABC's. Precious is an example of what I call the "special case" movie (a la The Pianist and Life Is Beautiful) in which everyone the main character meets exists solely to come to his/her aid. Precious talks of getting her own apartment in the closing scenes, but since she's got two kids (including a special needs child unfortunately named Mongo) the idea rings hollow. Daniels wants to have it both ways with his heroine; her knowing voice-over is years ahead of the girl who's scrawling in journals, and ultimately its that cheating that makes Precious feel more like a message movie and less like the anguished cry it should have been.

  • What a self-satisfied, baby boomer-centric piece of nonsense Pirate Radio turned out to be. Richard Curtis's tale of illegal 1960's British radio stations generically celebrates rock and roll as a cure for English stodginess while never bothering to settle on an interesting main character (walking semicolon Tom Sturridge plays the youngster whose eyes we're supposed to view everything through). Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, and Kenneth Branagh are stranded with little to do in a movie that needs a bunch of classic rock song titles ("for only $29.95....") to crawl across the screen.
  • Sunday, November 22, 2009

    Sunday Music: The Decemberists (w/ Gillian Welch & David Rawlings) - "Sin City"

    Had the pleasure of hanging out with old friend and co-blogger Rob last night; he tells me that Rawlings's new A Friend of a Friend is the "album of the year". Here's Rawlings and Gillian Welch joining in on an Emmylou Harris song. This continues my streak of good videos marred by lousy audience behavior, but from this vantage point the song wins....

    Friday, November 20, 2009

    An Education

    Two celebrated films with young female protagonists opened at my local theatre today, and while Lone Scherfig's An Education flies onto screens without the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey or Tyler Perry (more on Precious in an upcoming post) it is by far the superior film. This richly detailed story of a young woman's first love and her efforts to avoid being boxed in by society's expectations boasts the female performance of the year in Carey Mulligan's turn as the clever Oxford candidate Jenny. Nick Hornby's screenplay (based on a memoir by Lynn Barber) and a strong supporting cast make the future of one bright 16-year old in 1961 London a question of unsettling immediacy.

    The only thing standing between Jenny and a place at Oxford would appear to be the financial burden university would place on her money-fixated father Jack (an exceptionally nuanced Alfred Molina). In lesser hands Jack could have been an one-dimensional creation, but he is written as being very proud of Jenny despite his money worries and Molina gives him all sorts of complicated shades of doubt and inferiority. The scenes of Jack and his wife Marjorie (Cara Seymour) fawning over Jenny's cultured older "friend" David (Peter Sarsgaard) are made even more painful with the realization that in England at this time who you knew was still something to be proud of. It's Sarsgaard's David that provides the biggest potential obstacle to Jenny's Oxford plans. Handsome (but not ridiculously so) and seemingly able to afford a life of good dining and art buying, David is an almost too-perfect temptation for a teenager whose interests are already moving beyond the perfume and cigarettes she teases her girlfriends with before David whisks her to Paris. (Rosamund Pike is sad and very funny as the image of what Jenny might become) Hornby's script and Mulligan's tart performance always give Jenny her head though; the relationship with David isn't a schoolgirl crush, Jenny believes she's ready for this. Casting a poised 22-year old Mulligan as the 16-year old Jenny helps give the character an almost otherworldly maturity and when things go bad Jenny asks for help rather than break down.

    Will the help come too late? The central irony of An Education is articulated by Jenny's headmistress (Emma Thompson), who thinks it's wonderful for young girls to study and gain admittance to Oxford but they'll probably just wind up running a school at best. It would be easier for everyone involved if Jenny would just accept David's surprise marriage proposal, but unlike her headmistress Jenny thinks of ideas, art, film, and education as the means and not the end. It's to the dour Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams, where has she been?) and her exhortations to stay in school that Jenny returns; how appropriate that An Education ends with a beginning. The film's greatest gift to us is Carey Mulligan, who embodies all the contradictions that make Jenny a heroine for this year's crop of clever young women ready for the great leap forward.

    Thursday, November 19, 2009

    Class struggles

    A whiny, vague post that goes off on perceived self-absorption in indie rock. Was the Garden State soundtrack really that influential? More importantly, did this post fall through a time warp from 2004? What does the following paragraph mean? (PopMatters)

    But while Tommy NewYorkBigwig used to pimp people’s art from everywhere else, now he’s only invested in the kids down the street. The music sounds like it has nothing to prove because the kids making it have nothing to prove. It enacts leisure because its authors come from a background of leisure. And the kids performing onstage don’t care about earning your attention or respect because they’re not accustomed to earning anything. It’s an entire artistic movement of, for, and about the bourgeoisie at a time when everyone in America is living anything but the lifestyle of the rich, famous and bored.

    Respect for enemies

    I'm of the mind that Palin isn't worth talking about. Andrew Sullivan disagrees, but I think the notoriety he gained last year questioning the parentage of Trig may have gone to his head. It's dubious to claim that Palin is the "likeliest nominee" for the GOP in 2012 and a 3rd party candidacy would ensure an Obama victory. Watching Sullivan do back flips should be entertaining for a little while anyway.


    Dave Eggers has received the Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation, the people who give out the National Book Awards. The Literarian Award is given for "outstanding service to the American literary community" and the NBF website mentions Eggers's cofounding of the 826 tutoring center program as well as the these two other foundations for the advancement of human rights. Other National Book Award winners here. If you've got the time, here's a video of Eggers discussing the origin of 826.

    Wednesday, November 18, 2009

    Quick Reaction to Norah Jones's The Fall

    The expectations game can't be ignored when discussing Norah Jones's new CD The Fall since the album has been billed as her sort of gentle coming-out as a "rock" artist" (Jones has been playing guitar in concert for a little while now) and it has become cliche to dismiss Jones's previous work as reassuring Starbucksy fodder for mass consumption. For the record, I think Jones's second album Feels Like Home is her best since it features her singing with Dolly Parton and covering Tom Waits
    and Townes Van Zandt.

    But to business. I wish Jones's pleasantly affirmative voice had a bit more bite to it, because I think if it did The Fall would have a greater chance of being seen as an artistic reboot. Lead track "Chasing Pirates" bounces along on a cushion of keyboards and though the lyrics are at least nominally about worries caused by an absent lover ("And I don't know how to slow it down/My mind's racing from chasing pirates") the song never gets above the level of catchiness because Jones doesn't really sound all that worried. Ryan Adams cowrote "Light As A Feather," a rumbling tale of a relationship that deserves to be put out of its misery, and I could easily imagine Adams and Jones swapping vocals but alas there are no cameos here. Will Sheff of Okkervil River helps out with the writing on "Stuck," which could have been the soundtrack to Jones's lovelorn city dweller in My Blueberry Nights. "Too Damn Slow," another ostensibly angry song that needs a jump start, appears to be addressed to an ex but ambles along so indifferently it hardly matters. Closing track "Man of the Hour," performed on solo piano is a too late cry for fidelity - or maybe a song about getting a dog - written after the fact; could Jones write more lyrics as funny as these? (But I can't choose between a vegan/and a pothead/So I chose you") The Fall contains some welcome shots of musical energy and it's a good sign that Jones is working with new collaborators; if she overcomes her tendencies toward prettiness and cuts loose on guitar then her next album won't be anywhere near coffee shop material.

    Monday, November 16, 2009


    Five reasons Pirate Radio flopped. (I'm seeing it this week) (IFC)

    1. No one cares about Richard Curtis in the US.

    Richard Curtis did time on "BlackAdder" and "Mr. Bean." That means nothing in the US (sadly). He did, however, write the following romcom staples: "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill," both Bridget Jones films, the aforementioned "Love Actually." HOW HARD IS THAT TO MENTION IN THE TRAILER? Pretty freakin' hard, apparently: we get a voice-over informing us that this is from "the creator of 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' and 'Love Actually.'" Two mistakes there: assuming your target audience is old enough to remember "Four Weddings" (doubtful) and using the ever-nebulous "from the creator of" formula, which wary audiences are smart enough to distrust. Just say "From the writer of every romantic comedy you love" early on with a full resume count -- not in a perfunctory voice-over over a minute-and-a-half into the trailer, by which points the young romantic girls are all like "Old dudes! Ew!" and have tuned out.

    It's list-making time

    Paste magazine listed its 50 Best Albums of the 2000s recently, and while I admire Sufjan Stevens (a little more than I actually like him I think) I can't quite get behind Illinoise as the decade's best. I also think the new Avett Brothers is fantastically overrated on this list; as you might guess my sympathies lie with the #2 choice.

    By now, the story of this album has become rock ’n’ roll lore like Brian Wilson’s sandbox and “Paul is dead.” In brief: Once upon a time, the acclaimed Chicago rock band Wilco delivered an album called Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to Reprise, its longtime label, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Terrified by the album’s squalling feedback and abstract songcraft, Reprise executives ran screaming from the room. Ultimately, they decided to let the band go. Soon after, Wilco streamed the record for free online. The album was met with raves from both fans and critics, and was eventually picked up by Nonesuch, an artier subsidiary of the same parent company. “There was a common perception and irony,” Nonesuch senior VP David Bither says today, “of one Warner label passing on the record and letting the band go out of its contract for very little cost, and another Warner label picking it up and putting it out. In other words, paying for it twice.”

    Cormac speaks!

    What did the Wall Street Journal have to do to get Cormac McCarthy to sit down for an interview? He's pretty engaging on family life, work habits, and the upcoming film of The Road. (The film's director John Hillcoat joins in the chat)

    WSJ: The last five years have seemed very productive for you. Have there been fallow periods in your writing?

    CM: I don't think there's any rich period or fallow period. That's just a perception you get from what's published. Your busiest day might be watching some ants carrying bread crumbs. Someone asked Flannery O'Connor why she wrote, and she said, "Because I was good at it." And I think that's the right answer. If you're good at something it's very hard not to do it. In talking to older people who've had good lives, inevitably half of them will say, "The most significant thing in my life is that I've been extraordinarily lucky." And when you hear that you know you're hearing the truth. It doesn't diminish their talent or industry. You can have all that and fail.

    Sunday, November 15, 2009

    Sunday Music: Neko Case - "Magpie to the Morning"

    Toronto, 4/09

    Two Ladies

    Two profiles in today's Times: the long piece on Megan Fox spends a good deal of time recounting past controversies and is notable for Fox's apparent utter honesty and lack of affect about her own abilities and what's expected of her as a sex symbol. Jennifer's Body may well have made more money with another actress in Fox's role but it's message would have been diluted.

    In her next movie, “Jonah Hex,” which is based on a comic book, she plays a prostitute. “I had my first sex scene in that movie,” she said. “I had on underwear and silicone covers that you wear over your breasts. I would never be naked in a film. You should never say never, but my body parts are all I have left that are only mine. The world owns everything else.”

    She paused. It was a little confusing to watch Fox’s former personality recede before my eyes. In a few short weeks, she had gone from happily outrageous to virginal and controlled. It was, perhaps, a healthier attitude, but pale by comparison. “I have to pull back a little bit now,” Fox said. “I do live in a glass box. And I am on display for men to pay to look at me. And that bothers me. I don’t want to live that character.”

    Kristen Stewart, who has been acting most of her life, pulls the standard shy celebrity act with quotes that seem to suggest she has just realized people are interested in her.("I do wish people would focus more on the work...") Stewart is the far superior actress, but it's Fox who seems to be more adept at engaging the public sphere on her own terms.

    Saturday, November 14, 2009

    A Serious Man

    The Coen Brothers' (mostly) black-hearted A Serious Man has been described in some quarters as their most "personal" film, as if all their previous work had been made from a kit. The late-1960's Minnesota setting and academic father do parallel the Coen's own childhood, but A Serious Man isn't some backward-looking ode to youth but rather an extension of themes explored in the Brothers' No Country For Old Men. Can one, in fact, stop what's coming, and what does it mean that it's headed for you in the first place?

    A Serious Man would be much meaner without the presence of Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik, the physicist and tenure candidate who learns early on that his wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for the older and wealthier Sy Abelman (played with wonderful passive-aggressive menace by Fred Melamed). Larry's children are only attentive to him when they need something and his career hangs at a precarious tipping point as he's up for tenure and the victim of an anonymous letter-writing campaign accusing him of "moral turpitude." Larry is in a state of flustered bewilderment throughout, but there's more to the character than just being a sad sack. There's a sharp intelligence at work in the performance that keeps Larry from becoming pathetic. As the bar mitzvah of his son (Aaron Wolff) approaches Larry is inspired to turn to local rabbis for the meaning of his trials. The first and youngest offers feel-good blather about "perspective," the second tells stories with no resolution, and the third won't even take Larry's call. While the successful bar mitzvah provides a moment of relief, the overall attitude towards religion in A Serious Man is one of frustration as Larry continues to find ritual and no meaning.

    While Stuhlbarg's Larry takes up the bulk of the screen time (Larry also must deal with his no account brother played by Richard Kind, who seems to be in the movie only to make Larry seem relatively normal), I think it's important to consider the fate of Aaron Wolff's Danny since a "personal" reading of the film means that Danny is the boy one or both of the Coens will grow up to be. When Danny isn't bugging his Dad to fix the TV antenna or fighting with his sister he is at least nominally interested in preparing for his bar mitzvah, but what wisdom does that elusive senior rabbi finally hold? If you've already seen the film then you may be interested to know that the members of Jefferson Airplane are not Jewish. The rest of you will understand upon viewing. In a dream sequence earlier on, Larry explains the uncertainty principle to his class and says that even though no one knows what's going on his students will be "responsible for this on the midterm." A Serious Man ends on the same note of uncertainty that follows Larry and his family throughout the film. It's a probing and angry movie and I'm inclined to think it one of the Coens' best. The meaning that Larry seeks remains beyond his grasp, but in the Coens' moral framework the certainty of being held responsible is as final as the outcome of a visit from Anton Chigurh.

    10 Years After

    How does Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore feel about the last decade? What decade? (Monitor Mix)

    I don't even think of the 2000s or whatever it's called as a specific decade, really. The decades of the last century each had such significant cultural developments, I feel like there's some kind of worldwide exhaustion to event-charged identity. But regardless of that, I do feel like this past decade was really the birth of Internet culture, as lousy as that sounds. Everything everyone does in communication, music, art, literature and activism is part and parcel to the Internet. That's undeniably big. I think the overall sense is that it is still nascent, and that the forthcoming decades are going to look at this time as "quaint."

    Friday, November 13, 2009

    AC/DC - "Let There Be Rock"

    For Ben Brandreth - an actor, footballer (soccer), and classic rock fan who left too soon.

    Do the Shuffle #42

  • The Jam - That's Entertainment
  • Drive By Truckers - Feb 14
  • Elvis Costello - Jack of All Parades
  • New Pornographers - Mystery Hours
  • Spinanes - Sunday
  • Husker Du - How To Skin A Cat
  • Silver Jews - San Francisco BC (I accidentally hit the back button on this one halfway through and then decided to go on to the next track)
  • Delta Spirit - Strange Vine
  • Bon Iver - Team
  • Monsters of Folk - Losin Yo Head
  • Pavement - Stereo
  • Bill Frisell - Goodnight Irene (live)

    Total Songs/Minutes (approx.) - 11.5/41
    Miscellaneous Fact - Last time I posted a question about which artist on the list might make my 10 Best list for the year. Since they popped up again this time I'll reveal the answer is Monsters of Folk, that surpisingly winning Jim James/M Ward/Bright Eyes hybrid. Rob, you're correct to point out that I am an Alejandro Escovedo fan; unfortunately he didn't release anything this year.
  • Thursday, November 12, 2009

    Do I need... add the movie Next Day Air to my Netflix queue? In Armond White's review of Precious he compares Next Day Air to the plays of August Wilson. Thoughts?

    Me Me Me Me Sonny Rollins

    I've been thinking about an artist's work habits lately, inspired by the fact that I am appearing in a production of As You Like It at my alma mater and everyone else in the cast is an undergraduate. It occurred to me that I really have no memories from my student days of doing shows there; that is, I remember being self-conscious about what was required of me as far as hair and costumes but no memory of actually being on stage. There isn't just one reason for this, but I'm thinking that part of this memory gap has to do with the fact that it's only since leaving school I've acquired a set of tools for my job that allow me to come out the other side of a rehearsal process with a three dimensional character. That is, I'm aware of the work that I'm doing and of what it feels like to be finished (as much as one can "finish" in theater). Back in the early '90s being on stage at night was just one more thing I did during the day, and even though I was saying someone else's words I wasn't really doing anything other than marking time. Who knows where it will all go from here, but these thoughts collide with my reading of this interview with 79-year old saxophonist Sonny Rollins. The subject of how artists of any stripe work on their craft throughout their lives will always be fascinating to me, and it's heartening to read that Rollins isn't anywhere near finished. (Guardian)

    "Let me tell you what I do want to do," Rollins says, warming to his theme. "If you've ever heard any Native American music, there's a repetitive sort of a beat to it, but paradoxically it's very freeing. It's different to what we know from jazz. It's not a loose, swinging beat; Native American music is solid, not so expansive. I like that feel. It's giving me more ability to express myself, and I'm trying to get my band to feel it. I'm interested in the social context of it, too, in Native American culture. I hate the word 'spiritual' because it's been so overused, but I've always wanted something beyond the secular in music. This has it." His plan is to have his rhythm section play with a Native American beat, while he improvises over the top. That's the plan for now, anyway.

    Brooklyn's the borough

    40 Songs That Define The Brooklyn Sound (NY Mag)

    Couldn't this also be titled "40 Songs To Help You Decipher What Music Blogs are Talking About," or something similar? At least we finally have a way of understanding what cause so many celebrated young bands to cohere in such a small place. That is, until we come to the passage below. Specific, isn't it?

    No. 8
    Vampire Weekend
    “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”
    They forged their Calypso-meets-Graceland sound at Columbia, but front man Ezra Koenig has roots in the grimy Brooklyn underground


    I like this appreciation of Malick's Days of Heaven so much I might go home and pull out the DVD tonight. There is much love for the narration of Linda Manz and of course the famous cinematography. (Sheila Variations)

    Her voice is so distinctive. So her own. It is wise beyond its years, and feels "caught in time", rather than "acted", in any way, shape or form. That is tough for an adult to pull off in a narration, let alone a child. It feels improvised, like she really is calling up her own memories. She is articulate in the way children can be, with a bluntness of expression that is in stark contrast to the painterly beauty seen in shot after shot of the film. "He was pretty close to the boneyard," she states about Sam Shepard's Farmer. Or: "They pretended they was brother and sister. I guess it made it easier for them, because people like to talk," she says about the relationship between Gere and Adams. There is no affect in her voice. It's perceptive, this is a child who sees a lot, and maybe doesn't understand all that she sees, but she understands enough.

    Tuesday, November 10, 2009

    Black Swan casting

    The cast for Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (NP as ballet dancer, sex scene with Mila Kunis, etc.) is getting bigger and better. (/Film)

    Ryder will play Beth, Nina’s “sorta friend” who has been the school’s running lead in all the productions, but who is nearing the end of her career. All the dancers are aiming to take her place as Odette, the Swan Queen, in the next big ballet: Swan Lake. Cassel will be playing the ”handsome but sinister Yevna,” the director of the new stage production. And Hershey will play Nina’s mother, a role which was at one point Meryl Streep was rumored to be in talks for (my source says that Streep was never offered the role however).

    Forty bucks for this?

    The 10 worst Criterion DVD's. The choice of the two Michael Bay discs is obvious, but the list also points up Criterion's tendency to pick lesser films by hip directors. (Viceland/Kottke)

    6. The Last Days of Disco – Director Whit Stillman, 1998

    Really? This thing? All of Stillman’s films revolve around the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” AKA self-absorbed cokeheads in pleated khakis who are afraid of black people and never shut the fuck up. Stillman directed three films and this one differs from his others (Metropolitan and Barcelona) as being the one where the protagonists dance to Sister Sledge and get herpes. It takes place in 1981, roughly two years after the actual last days of disco, but that’s a minor quibble in a film whose script includes lines like “I think Scrooge McDuck is sexy.”

    Monday, November 09, 2009

    NP goes vegan

    Celebrity eating habits aren't exactly huge news even when the celeb is NP and the place is this blog, but NP took to the Huffington Post recently to discuss her newly fervent veganism. The new Jonathan Safran Foer book Eating Animals was a catalyst is opening her eyes to the dangers of factory farming and the moral implications of eating meat. I (a meat-eater) actually agree with some points made in this response at the conservative Big Hollywood blog, but the author goes too far into the realm of culture-war broadside. Judge for yourself. NP in HuffPo:

    And as we use food to impart our beliefs to our children, the point from which Foer lifts off, what stories do we want to tell our children through their food?

    I remember in college, a professor asked our class to consider what our grandchildren would look back on as being backward behavior or thinking in our generation, the way we are shocked by the kind of misogyny, racism, and sexism we know was commonplace in our grandparents' world. He urged us to use this principle to examine the behaviors in our lives and our societies that we should be a part of changing. Factory farming of animals will be one of the things we look back on as a relic of a less-evolved age.

    In other news, NP has a bunch of projects in the works and oh, she's sexy. (MSNBC)

    Doctorow on YA sex

    I wrote about Cory Doctorow's novel Little Brother a while ago here. It seems the sex scene in the book offended some more than the idea of a teen outwitting Homeland Security with hacked Xboxes; here is the author's vigorous defense of giving teen characters the license to experiment. (Locus)

    I've spent enough time explaining what this "plot-sense and story-sense and character-sense" means to enough people that I find myself creating a "Teen transgression in YA literature FAQ."

    There's really only one question: "Why have your characters done something that is likely to upset their parents, and why don't you punish them for doing this?"

    Sunday, November 08, 2009

    Gulity Pleasures Abound

    Thoughts on Scarlett & Pete Yorn's new single, which I can't help but like. (Singles Jukebox)

    In everything she has ever done, Scarlett Johansson says “Hey boys! Make me the repository of your fantasies!” Perhaps her entire career represents a model of culture in which the line between “muse” and “whore” is erased. Nevertheless, it is also possible that she has kept something in reserve over the past decade, something that she refuses to give up to the men who spend their time fixedly gazing at her beauty. I’ve usually sided for the first option. But Yorn gives her a wonderful role in this indie-hootenanny anthem that is best likened to a pop version of a Lorrie Moore short story. ScarJo’s a woman with a taste for melodrama looking for meaning with a man equally in love with drama for its own sake. In the last minute, when he sings “You don’t relate to me, no girl”, she softly coos “You can leave whenever you want out”, showing that she’s been gazing at and wisely judging him the whole while.

    Hyping The Wire

    From a very promising blog which I discovered thanks to The Mumpsimus : The Wire may be one of the greatest TV shows ever made, but does David Simon have to keep telling us that? (Zunguzungu)

    I love The Wire, good lord I love The Wire. But I continue to be struck by how often the conversation about the show insists on rehearsing a narrative of TV transcending TV, one of David Simon’s favorite hobbyhorses. Here he is, for instance, in the introduction to the new edition of the a book first published in 2004 (h/t), darkly castigating television’s slavishness to the commercial break:

    “As a medium for serious storytelling, television has precious little to recommend it – or at least that has been the case for most of its history. What else can we expect from a framework in which the most pregnant moment in the story has for decades been the commercial break, that five-times-an-hour pause when writers, actors and directors are required to juke the story enough so that a trip to the refrigerator or bathroom does not mean a walk away from the television set, or, worse yet, a click on the remote to another channel.”

    Saturday, November 07, 2009

    Dept. of Obvious?

    Gladwell: Genius or dispenser of banality? Long but worth it. (The Nation)

    That success is in the eye of the unsuccessful would seem to be the great unspoken dilemma dogging critics asked to consider the work of the rich and famous author and inspirational speaker Malcolm Gladwell. No matter how well intentioned or intellectually honest their attempts to assess his ideas, the subtext of Gladwell's perceived success, and its implications for their own aspirations in the competitive thought-generation business, obscures their judgment and sinks their morale. Nearly a decade has passed since the New York Times dryly summarized Gladwell's first book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000), as "a study of social epidemics, otherwise known as fads," and yet, each Sunday, it still taunts perusers of the paperback nonfiction rankings, where it currently sits in sixth place. Gladwell may be merely "a slickster trickster" who "markets marketing" (as James Wolcott put it), or a "clever idea packager" who "cannot conceal the fatuousness of his core conclusions" (science writer John Horgan); he might even be an "idiot" (Leon Wieseltier). But one thing is clear: Gladwell is no fad. He is a brand, a guru, a fixture at New York publishing parties and in the spiels of literary agents hoping to steer writers toward concepts that will strike publishers as "Gladwellian."

    Pinstripe Press

    As an avowed enemy of the New York Yankees (and other institutions that have ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD) I wasn't too happy with the outcome of the World Series. Yet as a gesture to my Yankee fan sister here's a look back at the way the NY Times has covered the Bombers' past victories. (Wezen-Ball)

    I thought it'd be fun, then, to take a look through the Times' archive to see how the various Yankees' titles were celebrated. I originally wanted to create a slideshow of all twenty-seven front pages, but that seemed like it might be pushing things a little bit. Instead, I chose a select few to feature here that hopefully show how the front page celebrations have evolved over the last 80+ years.

    Do the Shuffle #41

  • Bruce Springsteen - Walk Like A Man
  • Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Let Us Down Easy
  • Throwing Muses - Saving Grace
  • Alejandro Escovedo - Last To Know (live)
  • Uncle Tupelo - Grindstone
  • Calexico - Cruel
  • Grizzly Bear - Dory
  • Cassandra Wilson - Red River Valley
  • Conor Oberst - Eagle On A Pole
  • Feist - 1 2 3 4
  • Monsters of Folk - Say Please
  • Breeders - It's The Love

    Total Songs/Minutes (approx.): 12/46
    Miscellaneous Fact: Which artist on this playlist has a shot at ending up on my Top 10 list for the year? Not so fast Grizzly Bear.....
  • Friday, November 06, 2009

    Reading List

    10 Books on Race you haven't read (or maybe even heard of). (The Root)

    What is “the treatment”? When it comes to books, it’s the New York Times review, the conversation with the author on Morning Edition, placement upfront at Barnes & Noble. And for every book on any subject that gets “the treatment,” there are a couple of others that get lost in the shuffle—and it’s not always because they aren’t equally worthy of attention. This is certainly true of race books. Yes, there are so many books and so little time. Top-name authors get attention for whatever they write, which crowds out the lesser-known names. Plus, hot-button issues—hip-hop, Obama—can distract us from equally vital ones that aren’t as sexy. Here are 10 books on race that should be more widely read. Some of them got something like “the treatment”—but haven’t taken their place as fundamental sources in the way that they should. If I ever taught a course on black issues, these would all be on the syllabus

    Friday Music: Dirty Projectors - "No Intention"

    Blogging may be impossible on Sunday, so here's an acoustic take on my favorite track from Bitte Orca. I'm also loving this recently released B-side. (PMA)

    The Men Who Stare At Goats

    The giant wink at the audience that is The Men Who Stare At Goats boasts a strong cast and unusual source material (Jon Ronson's book about the U.S. Army's parapsychological warfare efforts) but winds up being as smug and dramatically inert as an episode of Frontline. The film, directed by Grant Heslov and coproduced by its star George Clooney, quickly forsakes any interest in examining how and why the military studies techniques like "remote viewing" (psychically "traveling" to other locations). If you're curious about any of the practices described in Goats then you have got one up on those who made it. There's never any serious question about whether there is any validity to what the Army is doing after a Special Ops agent named Cassady (a very funny Clooney) tells reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) that attempts to train men in invisibility were "adapted to finding ways of not being seen." Heslov and Clooney are more interested in a capital-M Message: the methods practiced by free-spirited nutjobs like Lt. Col. Django (Jeff Bridges) were twisted into the tortures applied to Iraqi prisoners of war in U.S. custody.

    If the filmmakers committed to their premise then Goats might have been something new, but Heslov and writer Peter Straughan can't even commit to a consistent tone. Wilton stumbles onto the "New Earth Army" after a chance meeting with Cassady in Kuwait. While the two make their way through Iraq in search of something never quite specified Wilton narrates a history of how Django convinced the post-Vietnam Pentagon to fund a secret unit that seeks to create better soldiers through telepathy with long hair, dancing, and drugs on the side. (There's also a banal subplot about Wilton getting over his divorce) Clooney and Bridges are a bit too obviously having a ball but the party is spoiled by the arrival of careerist officer Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who foreshadows the military's turn towards private contractors in Iraq and the eventual perversion of Django's unit. At least I think that's what Spacey's character foreshadows; it's hard to tell since he disappears for a long stretch of the film. It all adds up to a counter-history of the Iraq war in which the worst excesses of the American military can be undone by a reporter and a half-senile old hippie with access to a stash of LSD. Except of course that they can't be. It's a debatable point whether too many films have taken on Iraq too close to the conflict, but The Men Who Stare At Goats sacrifices storytelling for satire and wish fulfillment while the history its lampooning is still being written.

    Tuesday, November 03, 2009


    Like you (probably), I was a fan of Weezer's first album - the one with "Buddy Holly" and the funny videos. Everything the band has done since has struck me as cold and self-satisfied and it appears the new record is no exception.

    Indeed, the record is so uniformly lacking that it's easy to wonder whether perhaps there isn't some subtext at work: Is "Raditude" a cry for help? An ironic experiment, or a satire of by-the-numbers studio rock? Or is frontman Rivers Cuomo just messing with the band's fans — tossing off a shallow album on a lark to see what the reaction will be?

    It's tough to tell. But whether or not Mr. Cuomo is joking, it's not funny — and certainly not worth listening to.

    Another flame out for me: Ben Folds. Any dissenters out there? (Washington Times)

    Monday, November 02, 2009

    Do it, don't be it

    A.S. Byatt has a view I like regarding how artists should think of themselves in relation to their work. (Marissabidilla)

    Even though she is an acclaimed and prolific novelist, Byatt says that she still has a hard time thinking of herself, or describing herself, as "a writer." Instead, she says, she thinks of her career in terms of "there's work to be done, something that needs to be said, a new chapter that needs to be written." I am beginning to think that Byatt might have the right idea--that it might be healthier to say "I write plays" instead of "I am a playwright." Putting the emphasis on the work, not on your own ego and identity. (And an active verb like "I write" is always stronger than the verb "to be.")

    Sunday, November 01, 2009

    On the subject of "good hair"

    Under the heading of things I can't believe I've missed, there's a minor Web brouhaha over the hair of Angelina Jolie's adopted daughter Zahara. Alison Samuels of Newsweek rounds up blog posts on the issue and suggests that there's a concern that Jolie hasn't properly educated herself on how to take care of African-American hair and thus allowed Zahara to go outside looking unkempt. In Chris Rock's Good Hair there are discussions of children as young as 3 getting perms with dangerous chemicals (Rock correctly points out that products marketed as "kiddie perms" are really no different from "kiddie beer") It's true no one is suggesting Jolie get Zahara a weave (though she could afford to), but leaving aside the fact that Zahara is too young for anybody other than her parents to worry about her hair the whole matter stinks of identity politics. There are plenty of mothers who don't comb their children's hair and also fail to do other essential things which no one disputes Jolie is doing quite nicely. Samuels' professed concern for Zahara's self-esteem hides the reductive and deeply insulting argument that Zahara can't mature properly without hair that meets some received cultural standard. The Newsweek piece mentions Madonna's hair care favorably, but Jolie has managed to raise and grow her family without Madonna's self-aggrandizing nonsense; Jolie deserves the same privacy Alison Samuels would want afforded to her own family.

    Address unknown

    A rare look at Wilco's recording space. (LoftLife/Muzzle of Bees)

    Just last year, musician Andrew Bird spent four days recording at the Loft. He spent the entire first day arranging the studio space just to get the right violin sound. Using microphones placed around the room, he was able to pick up the acoustics of his violin as well as the sound of the amps bouncing off the walls. The sixty-plus guitars sitting around the room all hummed along, as the vibrations from everything else shook and resonated the steel strings, adding even more texture to the sound. The Loft is, essentially, an instrument of its own.

    Somehow getting the strings of 60 guitars to vibrate together, without ever touching them, might seem fantastical, but the Loft’s “brick box” layout allows for such playful effects. “The stairwell, elevator, and bathroom have all been utilized for specific sounds while recording,” says Tobias. Grocery-carrying neighbors have been known to take the stairs when Wilco is recording in the elevator.

    Welcome to the club

    The problem with gatekeepers, or "Who decides what books are worth talking about?" (Bookslut)

    I should maybe state that I don't think of myself as a critic, nor do I have aspirations to become one. As such, I feel free to ignore the wider culture at large, rather than suffer through a William Vollmann book just because his books contribute to the larger cultural conversation. I, and this website, exist outside of all of that, and happily so. I think briefly I thought I might try it on the inside, so I got myself elected to the board of the NBCC. I resigned five months later. Bookslut may have its own value (like I said, it goes month to month) but respectability is not where it is.

    Sunday Music: R.E.M. - "Driver 8"

    This is the second R.E.M.-related Sunday Music in a row,which is unusual, but I loved their new live album and couldn't resist this video chestnut from 1984.