Sunday, February 28, 2010

Honest Broker

I'm as big a fan of Jeff Bridges as anyone, but the piece in today's NYT doesn't add much to what we already know about the life and career. I was much more interested in this brief magazine interview with Harry Markopolos, the man who spent almost a decade trying to convince the S.E.C. that Bernie Madoff was a fraud.

Q: You actually began your career as a money manager in Boston who first noticed Madoff’s monkey business when your boss told you to try and duplicate his investment returns. You realized they were mathematically impossible.

A: Madoff was a competitor of mine, and I couldn’t compete against him because he was making up his investment returns, and I had to manage according to the market. It wasn’t a level playing field.

Sunday Music: Bob Marley - "Ride Natty Ride"

From 1979; thank you Internet.

Working On A Love Letter

"Why I'll Always Like Angelina Jolie" (Cinematical)

But hey, she could keep that starry stature simply by making romantic comedies if she wanted to. But she doesn't. She plays Kay Scarpetta, spies, and relief workers, presumably because she cares about doing something substantial. I think that's something to be commended, especially when other actresses seem to talk a lot about wanting better parts while upholding, oh, The Ugly Truth or The Proposal. Now, to be fair Jolie isn't the only one out there who is sticking to her guns, but she seems to be laughed at and derided for trying as opposed to Sandra Bullock who has practically been sainted for The Blind Side.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

For Rent: Medicine for Melancholy

Barry Jenkins's Medicine for Melancholy is a small, gorgeous film whose lo-fi exterior and romantic mood exist alongside a rather pessimistic view of 21st century urban life. The set-up is simple: Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins) sleep together after a drunken party. Morning after awkwardness turns into a day of tentative getting to know each other after Jo leaves a wallet in their cab and Micah tracks her down. We learn early on of Jo's white, out-of-town boyfriend so the time that the attractive young couple spends together is necessarily fleeting. But what a day. A casual errand turns into a trip to the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), more sex, dancing, and the kind of conversations that it's maybe only possible to have with someone you've just met.

While parts of Medicine for Melancholy make for a beautiful idyll the film also functions as a tribute to cities (San Francisco in particular) and the way people find each other in them, as well as a lament for the possibility of the city as anything other than a theme park for the monied. (James Laxton did the cinematography with color being selectively washed out in post-production) Micah and Jo are framed against the architecture of San Francisco, and the lack of extras and empty streets are a reminder of how it's possible to feel very much alone in a city of millions. When I've spent time in major cities I've always been struck by the sheer energy it takes just to get from one place to another, and when you're that exhausted a simple dinner in an apartment kitchen or an evening in an intimate dance club has a special resonance. Yet not everything in Medicine for Melancholy is as mellow as the joint Micah and Jo share. Cenac's dry performance conceals deep reserves of anger; he's tired of seeing native San Franciscans getting pushed out of their homes in the name of progress and of seeing African-American women (in a city with a 7% black population) date outside their race. The conversations about race in the last 20 minutes are too spot-on and messagey, but they're Jenkins way of working the movie around to the fact that these two can't work. (It's no accident that the transplanted Jo has never heard of MoAD) Micah falls in love with Jo during their day together, but the real romance of Medicine for Melancholy is between a man and a city that offers up unexpected pleasures even while turning its back on its most faithful residents.

Do the Shuffle #51

  • Tom Waits - Whistle Down The Wind
  • Ryan Adams - Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.
  • Band of Horses - I Go To The Barn Because I Like The
  • Robyn Hitchcock - The Green Boy
  • Maria McKee - This Property is Condemned
  • Ryan Adams - Night Birds
  • R.E.M. - Gardening At Night (live)
  • Breeders - Iris
  • Laura Veirs - Wide-Eyed, Legless
  • Brad Mehldau - Dear Prudence
  • Throwing Muses - Walking In The Dark

    Songs/Minutes (approx.) - 11/45
    Miscellaneous Fact: Time for a haircut. I usually exercise before showering and the because of my show I've had to let it go, leading to my unwashed hair flying out from my head like a crazy person.
  • Friday, February 26, 2010

    Mos Def (Feat. Talib Kweli) - "History"

    I wish more music videos (and more songs) felt this effortless. A lot of words in 2 1/2 minutes....

    Old Timers' Day?

    Be honest, are you really excited about new films by Martin Scorsese (yes) and Tim Burton (no)? This critic isn't. I think Burton has always been overrated, but Scorsese's intermittently pleasing late films feel like someone trying to find pleasure in genre and historical pageant the same way he used to in Paul Schrader's scripts. I won't be able to see Shutter Island until next week, but I am looking forward to watching a Master paint even if the palette is too familiar. (Guardian)

    Two extravagantly gifted film-makers whose gothic whimsy (Burton) and grand set pieces (Scorsese) have become brands for hire, both men seem to have made almost identical Faustian pacts with the mainstream by submerging their talents in a string of adaptations and remakes at once overblown and oddly empty, packed with ho-hum spectacle but not much else. So as we take our place in the cinema queue in the weeks ahead, we're left with a choice of two variations of the same basic flavour. Either way what we're paying to see is a ghost story – the promise of a spectral glimpse of the directors who so wowed us way back when. But while amazing things can be done with CGI, I'm just not sure they're there anymore.

    Wednesday, February 24, 2010

    The Loudest Voice

    Paul Krugman, Obama skeptic and left-wing hero, explains it all for you. (New Yorker)

    Again, as in his trade theory, it was not so much his idea that was significant as the translation of the idea into mathematical language. “I explained this basic idea”—of economic geography—“to a non-economist friend,” Krugman wrote, “who replied in some dismay, ‘Isn’t that pretty obvious?’ And of course it is.” Yet, because it had not been well modelled, the idea had been disregarded by economists for years. Krugman began to realize that in the previous few decades economic knowledge that had not been translated into models had been effectively lost, because economists didn’t know what to do with it. His friend Craig Murphy, a political scientist at Wellesley, had a collection of antique maps of Africa, and he told Krugman that a similar thing had happened in cartography. Sixteenth-century maps of Africa were misleading in all kinds of ways, but they contained quite a bit of information about the continent’s interior—the River Niger, Timbuktu. Two centuries later, mapmaking had become much more accurate, but the interior of Africa had become a blank. As standards for what counted as a mappable fact rose, knowledge that didn’t meet those standards—secondhand travellers’ reports, guesses hazarded without compasses or sextants—was discarded and lost. Eventually, the higher standards paid off—by the nineteenth century the maps were filled in again—but for a while the sharpening of technique caused loss as well as gain.

    Michelle Williams

    Michelle Williams is on top as part of the Shutter Island ensemble; I've recently added her name to my list of actors I'm sure will win an Oscar one day. This post at IFC outlines her indie-centric route to stardom, but there's really no mystery. As I've written before Williams and Katie Holmes were so much better than their male costars even in the earliest days of Dawson's Creek that one almost wished Jen and Joey had their own show. Since then Williams has been more interested in having a career and being a mom then transitory fame. We're only at the beginning of one of the most promising American film careers in recent memory.

    Tuesday, February 23, 2010

    Valentine's Day

    There's barely a moment in Valentine's Day that doesn't feel forced; Garry Marshall's huge-cast comedy celebrates the consumerist rituals of February 14th (flowers, dinner, chocolate) while barely stopping to consider the people who in the film's view need those rituals to give their personal lives meaning. If the movie had a few less characters there might be some room to examine the plight of the Romantic Guy Who Proposes Too Soon (genial Ashton Kutcher) or Woman Who May Actually Love Her Best Friend (Jennifer Garner, one of the few who shines through a thin role). There's just too much fluff; a swooning child lifted straight from Love Actually and Jessica Biel working very hard to look ditsy. There's a brief exchange between Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner as high school sweethearts that's more relaxed and charming than anything else in the movie; by contrast the performance of Julia Roberts as a soldier (you read that right) returning home on Valentine's Day feels like an obligatory nod towards Supporting Our Troops. This Valentine's Day is almost entirely white (Thanks for stopping by Jamie Foxx and Queen Latifah!), straight, and sensitive; the tone of well-meaning sincerity never lets up. The day deserves a great romantic comedy, but Valentine's Day is the first date you'll wish you'd bailed on.

    Monday, February 22, 2010

    Pops Stop

    Honestly I probably wasn't going to read Terry Teachout's biography of Louis Armstrong anyway, but now I'm definitely not going to because of this spot-on review in The Nation. (You have to subscribe to read the whole thing online, but there is a free trial option) Schiff takes Teachout apart for inadequately documented research, ignoring or underplaying Armstrong's sharp political remarks, and most importantly for not incorporating African-American critical perspectives in analyzing Armstrong's life and music. There's a larger point about the condescension inherent in writing about jazz by describing its relationship to European music written by whites. Schiff's piece is a must for anyone interested in music and cultural criticism.

    New NP project

    NP to produce and star in a "stoner comedy" called Best Buds; director and co-star wanted. (Pajiba)

    Natalie Portman and her production company, Handsome Charlie Films, are currently searching for a director to helm Best Buds, a stoner road comedy Portman is producing and set to star in. The independently financed comedy is said to be in the vein of Harold and Kumar and Half-Baked and will center on two best female friends who take a road trip to their friend’s wedding in order to save her by bringing her weed.

    According to our source, The Hollywood Cog, the script comes from actress Jamie Denbo, who is probably best known for writing and starring in a popular Showtime pilot, “Ronna & Beverly,” which was directed by Paul Feig, but never got picked up for series (it was apparently only aired for tax purposes).

    "...full out, noise crazy..."

    Praising Wilco guitarist Nels Cline: (Muzzle of Bees)
    I think hiring Nels Cline was one of the best decisions Jeff Tweedy ever made (as did someone else, who actually yelled out to Nels every other song). He has an amazing capability to go full out, noise crazy on some songs, ripping out speeding solos and then melodically and tastefully accenting Jeff’s acoustic guitar on others. He changed guitars every song and often pulled up a chair to whip out some mean slide guitar. Also, although looking like the oldest member of the band, he had the most energy in the band, hands down. He spazzed out, jerking his unusually long arms around his guitar, which he often accompanied with jumps into the air, while everyone else simply rocked back and forth, but even though Jeff Tweedy may not have been the most mobile performer, he definitely made up for it with charisma.

    Monday Music: Barenaked Ladies - "Brian Wilson"

    A (different) live version of this has been playing in my car the last week or so; not the best video in the world but the song is a good summary of what the band does well. I think having your most annoying song ("One Week") become your biggest hit should be known as having the "Barenaked Ladies" problem.

    Friday, February 19, 2010

    Minor moments

    Richard Russo's Straight Man, one of my favorite academic comedy novels, gets dissected. It's definitely not as cutting as Lucky Jim, but it's the balance of heart and tart in Russo that makes him worth reading; when he leans too far one way (Bridge of Sighs) things go awry. Straight Man is filled with telling details. (About Last Night)

    Also very wonderful is a thread that proves the linchpin of the narrator's relationship with his imposing, distant father--a prominent literary critic of his time who, toward the end of the book, returns to his family after decades apart. In midcareer the father, William Henry Devereaux Sr., had rescued himself from a late-onset fear of speaking that threatened to derail his career by, in part, delivering an especially impassioned indictment of Charles Dickens.

    The class was on Dickens, a writer my father particularly despised for his sentimentality and lack of dramatic subtlety, and never did a scholar lay more complete waste to a dead writer than my father to Charles Dickens that day....He had given the same lecture before, but never like this. In a fit of unplanned dramatic ecstasy, he read Jo's death scene from Bleak House to such devastating comic effect that by the time he'd finished the entire class was on the floor. Then they got up off the floor and gave him a standing ovation. This was what they'd paid their money for. Finally, they felt themselves to be in the presence of greatness, as they slammed Bleak House shut with contempt.

    From The Files: St. Vincent - "Mistaken for Strangers"

    St. Vincent covers The National....

    Ebert on Ebert

    Ebert blogs about the celebrated Esquire piece and the reaction to it. I really need to start reading his blog entries more thoroughly.

    What goes around, comes around. I'd read some of Chris's stuff. He's good. You sense the person there. He's not holding his subjects at arm's length. I knew I'd have to play fair. I've done interviews for years. This was no time to get sensitive and ask for photo approval, or an advance look at the piece. I'd been the goose, and now it was my turn to be the gander. I've never known what that means, geese-wise.

    Chaz is always my protector. She had her doubts. She worries that I'm too impulsive and trusting. She is correct. Left entirely to my own devices, god knows what I might be capable of. She would follow me into the mouth of a cannon, but first she'd say, "Do you really think out's a good idea to crawl into that cannon?" Then I would explain that it was my duty as a journalist, a film critic, a liberal, or a human being, etc., to crawl into the cannon. And she'd suggest I sleep on it and crawl into the cannon fresh and early in the morning.

    Thursday, February 18, 2010

    Editorial decision

    Why Dave Eggers should edit The Paris Review. The usual Eggers-envy pops up in the comments.(The Millions)

    Whether or not Eggers seriously considers throwing his hat into the ring, The Paris Review could certainly benefit from having an editor of his stature. The task that awaits Gourevitch’s replacement may be more daunting than that which awaited him in 2005. In addition to hosting parties, raising funds, tending to the needs of writers, and serving as the public face of The Paris Review, the next editor will have to make the case to readers that, in this era of YouTube and the iPad, the bound literary quarterly is still worth their time and money. That’s a mission Dave Eggers has already proven himself to be committed to. And The Paris Review, for nearly 60 years, has proven its commitment to the kind of great American writing I’d like to see more of from Eggers. Odds are these two commitments will be pursued on parallel tracks. But wouldn’t it be great if they could meet?

    Do the Shuffle #50

  • Bill Janovitz - Man Out Of Time
  • Bishop Allen - The Lion & The Teacup
  • John Mellencamp - Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)
  • Pearl Jam - Just Breathe
  • My Morning Jacket - The Wanderer (live)
  • Silver Jews - Suffering Jukebox
  • Van Morrison - Keep It Simple
  • Bon Iver - Skinny Love
  • Van Morrison - Philosophers Stone
  • Grizzly Bear - Cheerleader
  • Be Good Tanyas - Ootishenia

    Total Songs/Minutes: 11/44
    Miscellaneous Fact: What are some things there are less than 50 of? Freaks and Geeks episodes, Super Bowls, and Patrick O'Brian novels just to name a few.....
  • Wednesday, February 17, 2010

    Rules to live by

    Roger Ebert:

    To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

    The much-talked about Esquire profile of Roger Ebert.

    From The Files: Elvis Costello & Co. - "The Weight"

    From Costello's TV show; Ray LaMontagne, Nick Lowe, Allen Toussaint, Richard Thompson, and some others join in on a rousing cover of "The Weight." Q: How do you have Levon Helm onstage and NOT have him take a verse? A: This is how.

    Tuesday, February 16, 2010

    Another Donation to Haiti

    Naomi Klein in The Nation: Don't cancel Haiti's debt, pay them back.

    From 1957 to 1986, Haiti was ruled by the defiantly kleptocratic Duvalier regime. Unlike the French debt, the case against the Duvaliers made it into several courts, which traced Haitian funds to an elaborate network of Swiss bank accounts and lavish properties. In 1988 Kurzban won a landmark suit against Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier when a US District Court in Miami found that the deposed ruler had "misappropriated more than $504,000,000 from public monies."

    Haitians, of course, are still waiting for their payback--but that was only the beginning of their losses. For more than two decades, the country's creditors insisted that Haitians honor the huge debts incurred by the Duvaliers, estimated at $844 million, much of it owed to institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. In debt service alone, Haitians have paid out tens of millions every year.

    Was it legal for foreign lenders to collect on the Duvalier debts when so much of it was never spent in Haiti? Very likely not. As Cephas Lumina, the United Nations Independent Expert on foreign debt, put it to me, "the case of Haiti is one of the best examples of odious debt in the world. On that basis alone the debt should be unconditionally canceled."

    Allusion To Classic Album

    The title of this article caught my attention (I live in Greenville, SC), but it's actually an account of Liz Phair's attendance at a NASCAR race and an environmental convention in Arizona. The information about NASCAR's recycling of fuel was news but the whole thing feels a little offhand, much like some of Phair's recent music....(Atlantic)

    Sick of the brainiacs at NASCAR haranguing me about responsible waste management and alternative-energy sources, I head back to Greenbuild, where, eschewing further education, Kim and I take a martini-fueled ride in one of the courtesy rickshaws, snapping photos of ourselves with our legs in the air as we cruise the streets to Led Zeppelin blasting out of our cyclist’s boom box. Why is it so hard to reconcile what we need to do with what we want to do?

    Even longtime enviro-types are still struggling to come to terms with the loss of their old lifestyles. In his speech at Greenbuild, Al Gore admits that he misses his vice-presidential motorcade like a phantom limb. Sheryl Crow, who follows Gore’s keynote address with a rocking performance, tells me that when she went to Capitol Hill to lobby for environmental legislation, she met with Senator Carl Levin, who hails from Detroit. “I told him, ‘I am a person who grew up in Missouri, and I have always had a muscle car,’” Crow recalls. “‘I would love to continue driving a great, American-made 12-cylinder. I’m not gonna do that, but …’”

    How Soon Was Then

    Colin Meloy (and many others) on the Smiths' Meat Is Murder ,now 25 years old. (Stereogum/HTV)

    Like a bomb specifically designed to detonate at the perfect time and altitude so as to exact the maximum amount of carnage, Meat Is Murder came into my life exactly when it was intended to strike. Literally 15 clumsy and shy. The song "Well I Wonder" spoke to me so much that even I, all pimply and introverted, thought it bore almost too much resemblance to my life. I wore that cassette thin, so thin you could hear the shadows of the first throes of "The Headmaster Ritual" through the hissing bandsaws at the end of the title track. "So scratch your name on my arm with a fountain pen / This means you really love me." In my mind, I petitioned to be a character in one of the songs; the stories of provincial England resonated somehow, impossibly, with my agonized adolescence in provincial Montana with all its hicks and jocks and repressed, meddling adults. (No offense, repressed, meddling adults!)

    Monday, February 15, 2010

    Rye rights

    Casting and director speculation for a Catcher In The Rye movie; don't worry, it's just talk so far. (Guardian)

    Terrence Malick – rumoured to be working on a Catcher in the Rye adaptation in 2006, and himself considered the Salinger of directors for a while – would be a popular choice. The voiceovers so artfully done in The Thin Red Line and The New World could be used to stay true to the novel's core, while his meditative, impressionistic style would surely suit a film essentially set in one person's head.

    Yet a voiceover does run the risk of that ultimate nightmare: Catcher in the Rye meets The Wonder Years. But who, then? A good alternative might be Paul Thomas Anderson. With Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood, he's shown he can paint complicated main characters while saying very little. Even Spike Jonze must be worth a try, fresh from adapting another coming-of-age classic in Where the Wild Things Are.

    Monday Music: Laura Veirs - "July Flame"

    The title track from Veirs's new album, which Colin Meloy proclaims "best album of the year" (that's 2010 folks) on a cover sticker. I can only assume the winter release is some kind of counter-programming, since the entire disc has a lovely summer evening feel and the songs are perfect curios that I can imagine Meloy or any Decemberists fan liking.

    Friday, February 12, 2010

    Dear John

    I put aside my visceral hatred of all things related to Nicholas Sparks (I used to manage a bookstore that hosted one of his earliest signings for each publication) to see Dear John because of the presence of Amanda Seyfried and Richard Jenkins in the cast. Seyfried's name has been simmering on the almost-a-star burner for a few years now; she's the best thing about the series Big Love and even made something out of Jennifer's Body. Jenkins is the Oscar-nominated star of The Visitor who has been giving quietly great character performances mostly noticed by critics and hey-it's-that-guy junkies.

    Seyfried plays Savannah, the spring breaking daughter of wealthy Charlestonians who's lovestruck by the on leave Special Forces member (Channing Tatum) she meets by chance on the beach in Spring 2001. Tatum's John Tyree seems to exist without any support system; he has no friends except in the military and his father (a touching Jenkins) is gentle but emotionally distant. The bulk of the story is the two weeks Savannah and John spend together on his leave and the letters they exchange once he returns to duty. The pair's dullness is almost charming; John's worst fault seems to be getting really, really, angry, and the perky Savannah only wants to start a camp for autistic kids. Autism is a major plot point in Dear John. Savannah bonds emotionally with the autistic child of a neighbor (Henry Thomas) and diagnoses John's dad as autistic with not a jot of medical training. Savannah's knowledge level isn't important though, since it's obvious no one involved with the movie knows anything more about the condition than she does. Autism as presented in Dear John is merely a sort of childlike shyness that exists to make other characters feel good about themselves.

    But the biggest problem with Dear John is that it isn't interested in the couple's relationship as much as what a good person John is. John goes to war, writes letters, extends his tour (9/11 as plot device: too soon?), survives betrayal, and finally achieves an understanding with his father all with Savannah off screen; her exile from the second half of the movie leaves a void. Tatum handles most of this pretty well, but none of it is dramatic and when we learn what Savannah has been up to all that time there's no sense of the stresses or choices she has faced. Tatum and Seyfried will look great at the MTV Movie Awards when Dear John wins Best Kiss, but neither they nor Richard Jenkins got the movie they deserved.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010


    It has been quite some time since I regularly watched any half-hour sitcoms, but I find myself a fan of both Parks and Recreation and Modern Family. Aubrey Plaza of Parks is a big reason why I like that show, and here she points out that recent improvements signal that the series is just beginning to hit its stride. Plaza is also great in a small role in Funny People. (NY Post)

    PW: Everyone keeps talking about how the show was "2009's most improved," what do you think about that?

    Aubrey: [Creator] Greg Daniels once said that when you have a first season that consists of six episodes, you have to view season two as extension of that. It takes more than 6 episodes to get on a rhythm, so I think about it like that. Once you get passed the exposition and set up the world, you allow the characters to start playing together. I think that's what people are having fun watching now that they've gotten to know us a bit.

    PW: When you first started creating April, where did she come from?

    Aubrey: Greg and Mike [Schur] talked to me about this intern character and I remember relating to that immediately because I've had so many internships. So they asked me about those and I told them, "I did nothing and hated every second of it." So having a character that doesn't want to be there is funny -- especially next to Leslie, who is such a go getter, trying to inspire her.

    From the Files: Talking Heads - "I Zimbra"

    Think of this as a special edition of Sunday Music; I've got a backlog of performances in my reader I need to clear out. I have no idea what the blue background is about, but here's a Talking Heads classic from 1983. (via @muzzleofbees)

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010

    Fan Mail from 27 Million

    A review of Rihanna's "Hard" turns (in the comments) into a discussion of whether music needs context - information about the artist,etc. - to be enjoyed. (Answer: Maybe) You'd have to work pretty hard not to know the backstory behind Rated R, but all the boasting and fronting (which could be read as defensiveness) in "Hard" is the payoff for the first verse. After the chanted "yeah yeah yeah" section (meant to sound like more than one voice) there's what's either Rihanna talking to herself or reminding her fans that she's OK underneath it all:

    Tougher than a lion/Ain't no need in tryin'/I live where the sky ends/Yup, you know this

    Throw out the irrelevant rap by Jeezy and try for a moment not to think of the video, which could easily cause impressionable viewers to develop a military fetish. What's left over is the high point of an album that too often wallows when it should be raging. The Jukebox gang gives "Hard" a 3, I would have put it at 6 or 7.

    Monday, February 08, 2010

    Dept. of Really?

    A plan to ask J.D. Salinger for his unpublished work. (More Intelligent Life)

    Their plan was to rent a couple of cars and drive up to Cornish, find his house and deliver their message to him. This visit was to be preceded by a letter to Mr Salinger warning him of their impending visit (but leaving the date of their visit vague so that he would not know when to expect them). I read a version of their letter-an imploring manifesto asking for more of the stories that had already affected their lives so deeply.

    I found this trip to be a bad idea, and I told my friend so. I recall having a spiteful little thought: that I would have preferred it if these artists had chosen some other writer, perhaps any other writer, and gone to his house to urge him never to publish anything ever again. That is a manifesto I would have enjoyed.

    NP and the stage

    NP considers stage work, worries Broadway is too commercial...(Broadway World)

    IMDB News is reporting that Broadway vet and screen star Natalie Portman is hopeful to return to Broadway, but fears that the high ticket prices has changed the nature of the Broadway roles available to young actresses like herself.

    As she recently explained to the New York Post: "It's gotten so expensive that the audiences you get aren't up for something experimental."

    She especially fears that due to the expense, people are seeing less shows and will chose instead to spend on the bigger blockbusters or musicals, as opposed to with meatier, lesser-known plays.

    Monday Music (and thoughts): The Importance of Being Josh Ritter

    I'm a fan of the singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, who I first discovered a few years ago after hearing the song "Good Man" on the radio and thinking it was a lost Springsteen track. Ritter has that effect; his songs are so good you'd swear you'd heard them before. Ritter has been putting records out since 1999 to critical acclaim but is famous primarily to the crowd that follows "alt-country" and "adult alternative" music thanks to places like Paste Magazine and the No Depression website. That didn't stop one music blogger from referring to Ritter (after hearing a track from a new album) as one of the "...most important songwriters of our generation" and another from firing back that the claim didn't hold up because Ritter's music hadn't been heard by enough people. (Green Day is used as a point of comparison) Like so:

    Important songwriters of our generation (I guess that’s applying to Generation X) would be more like Billie Joe from Green Day, whether you like his music or not with American Idiot he said some pretty unpopular things to many people & received quite the backlash for standing on principle. Another would be Jeff Tweedy who revolutionized the alt-country genre twice with Uncle Tupelo & then Wilco. Ryan Adams has such an amazing body of talented work that he is a better example of one the most talented writers of our generation.

    Tweedy and Adams, who have both made a good deal more music than Ritter, are indeed pillars of the alt-country genre though each have their detractors. They could each be accounted more "important" than Ritter because they've influenced more artists. (Ritter's music is less obviously influenced by country than either Tweedy or Adams's) Billie Joe is a different case, part of a hugely successful band with a built-in audience that has become fashionable for expressing banal anti-war and nonconformist attitudes. To put it another way: Who needs a civics lesson from a band that once released an album called Dookie? Billie Joe's songs have reached more listeners than those of anyone else under discussion, but will they last? The fact that some of his work has already been sentimentalized and contextualized in a musical isn't a good sign. What's the answer? Ritter will never sell as many records as Green Day (unfortunately) but I think he's far more likely to produce work that will endure, and for an artist isn't that really what's "important"?

    Josh Ritter hasn't weighed in on his own importance, but he is blogging about his current tour.

    To describe the cities we've been in I would have to use all the same old adjectives that you've read before, so I'll try to avoid a straight forward accounting. Suffice to say that Prague wows even those who have been there before and aren't looking to get wowed. Art seems to spring up from everywhere, and the omnipresence of decoration new and old makes the new art seem on a par with the old art and vice versa. Stoop shouldered statues, mysterious saints, concert posters, enormous metronomes, cathedral spires, communist-era TV towers; it's all there for your eyes to see if you're looking.

    Sunday, February 07, 2010

    That's Sixty.....

    A troubling post that indicates all that filibuster rhetoric is falling on deaf ears. (US News)

    ...all of 26 percent of Americans know that 60 votes are required to break a Senate filibuster. Almost the same number (25 percent) think that a simple majority (51 votes, for those of you scoring at home) can break a filibuster. Seven percent of Americans think the number is 67 votes and five percent think it's 75 votes. And 37 percent had the good sense to throw up their hands and admit ignorance.

    Figures like that make me glad that President Obama made a point in his State of the Union address of admonishing the GOP that if they "insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town -- a supermajority -- then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. " I might have liked him to spell things out a bit more explicitly, pointing out that such a blanket insistence on a supermajority is a recent development, and not in keeping with how the filibuster has been traditionally used. But I'll take it.

    Friday, February 05, 2010

    Crazy Heart

    Easy stuff first: even if Jeff Bridges didn't have the resume that makes his pending Oscar at least in part a lifetime achievement award his performance as Bad Blake in Crazy Heart would still be good enough to merit a statue. He's that good; it's there in the details, the way the fading country legend Bad lurches out of a club drunkenly to vomit or the way he casually gestures to a sideman to take a guitar solo. Many rapturous descriptions of Bridges's acting use the word "disappear" to describe the unfussy way he slips into a role. Whether that's the right term is a matter of acting semantics, but if there was a any doubt on the subject then I'd say Crazy Heart proves Bridges as capable of projecting more charisma with less sense of effort than any film actor I've ever seen.

    If only the movie hanging around Bridges were as strong as his performance. Writer/director Scott Cooper gives Bad a good deal to think about; there's his drinking problem, his protege and possible benefactor Tommy (Colin Farrell), and his new relationship with single mom Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Alcohol is the central issue in Bad's life. It's the thing that occasionally keeps him from completing a show coherently and it's what preys on his mind during his time babysitting Jean's young son Buddy (Jack Nation). Not to belabor a point but Bridges is expert at portraying both the ravages of drinking and the need for alcohol that has been the fuel to some of Bad's best work. When a drink-fueled crisis jeopardizes Bad's relationship with Jean things spill over and Bad enters rehab. One of the most common complaints I've read about Crazy Heart is that Bad's time in rehab feels rushed and inauthentic; when a pal (Robert Duvall) comes to pick Bad up it's as if he has finished in 45 minutes. I can't deny that the rehab stuff feels like filler, at one point Bridges is wandering through a garden and I thought I was watching a "Deep Thoughts" from Saturday Night Live. Yet I would also add that I think the choice to enter rehab is a good deal more important to Bad's story than the actual process of getting well, and that I don't know what Crazy Heart could have added to the countless depictions of detox and AA meetings we've seen in other films and shows.Better to have skipped the rehab center scenes altogether and used a "30 Days Later" title card.

    The issue that almost sinks Crazy Heart isn't Bad's recovery but the fact that Jean is inexplicably coming on to Bad from the moment she enters his hotel room to interview him. If you can't figure out why an attractive young professional with a kid would be attracted to a older man whose face looks like an abstract painting then you're not alone, and I don't think even the talents of Bridges and Gyllenhaal (whose no-nonsense sweetness is enormously attractive) quite made me believe this relationship. Jean and Buddy are too obviously on hand as engines for Bad's redemption, and when the moment comes it works but we can see it from much too far away.

    Nevertheless there's a raucous Americanness to Crazy Heart that I love, from Duvall's seen-it-all bartender to the culture of bowling alleys that put on country music shows on Saturday nights. (Bad's downscale Texas home feels exactly right) Bad Blake feels like a capstone role for Bridges but perhaps the best thing about Crazy Heart is that it might not be. As a newly certified film legend Bridges will have his pick of good roles for awhile and we'll all be better off for the results.

    Shepard on acting

    Should have included this in the previous post, but I love this Shepard quote on acting from a '97 Paris Review interview.

    "I am not a Strasberg fanatic. In fact, I find it incredibly self-indulgent. I've seen actors come through it because they're strong people themselves, because they're able to use it and go on, but I've also seen actors absolutely destroyed by it, which is painful to see. It has to do with this voodoo that's all about ...the verification of behavior, so that I become the character. It's not true Stanislavsky. He was on a different mission, and I think Strasberg bastardized him in a way that verges on psychosis. You forget about the material, you forget that this is a play, you forget that it's for the audience. 'Hey, man. I'm in my private little world. What you talkin' about? I'm over here. I'm involved with the lemons.'"

    Late Shepard

    A long profile/analysis of Sam Shepard in The New Yorker. There's some gushing, but the piece puts many things in context for me; he seems to be combining early style with themes of his classic plays.

    Shepard’s early plays, written between 1964 and 1971, were full of surprises and assaults on the senses—people spoke from bathtubs or painted one another, colored Ping-Pong balls dropped from the ceiling, a chicken was sacrificed onstage. The plays express what Shepard called the “despair and hope” of the sixties; they act out both the spiritual dislocation and the protean survival instinct of traumatic times. Better than anyone else writing in that fractious hubbub, Shepard defined the fault lines between youth culture and the mainstream. “You were so close to the people who were going to the plays, there was really no difference between you and them,” he said, pinpointing both his work’s value and its limitation. The mockery, the role-playing, the apocalyptic fears, the hunger for new mythologies, and the physical transformations in his work gave shape to the spiritual strangulation of the decade—which, in Shepard’s words, “sucked dogs.” “For me, there was nothing fun about the sixties,” he said. “Terrible suffering. . . . Things coming apart at the seams.”

    Precious problems

    Ishmael Reed in the NYT today nails what's wrong with Precious.

    The blacks who are enraged by “Precious” have probably figured out that this film wasn’t meant for them. It was the enthusiastic response from white audiences and critics that culminated in the film being nominated for six Oscars by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an outfit whose 43 governors are all white and whose membership in terms of diversity is about 40 years behind Mississippi. In fact, the director, Lee Daniels, said that the honor would bring even more “middle-class white Americans” to his film.

    Is the enthusiasm of such white audiences and awards committees based on their being comfortable with the stereotypes shown? Barbara Bush, the former first lady, not only hosted a screening of “Precious” but also wrote about it in Newsweek, saying: “There are kids like Precious everywhere. Each day we walk by them: young boys and girls whose home lives are dark secrets.” Oprah Winfrey, whose endorsement assisted the movie’s distribution and its acceptance among her white fanbase, said, “None of us who sees the movie can now walk through the world and allow the Preciouses of the world to be invisible.”

    Are Mrs. Bush and Ms. Winfrey suggesting, on the basis of a fictional film, that incest is widespread among black families?

    Thursday, February 04, 2010

    That just happened

    There are too many online reports of NP being "terrified" of shooting her much-anticipated sex scene with Mila Kunis in the upcoming Black Swan for me to link to just one, but they're all pretty much the same inconsequential wire-service type blandness. Part of Portman's anxiety is the usual awkwardness of filming a sex scene, but as previously reported here she's also attempting to both redefine her image and to stay away from screen nudity. Good luck on accomplishing both of these, since I'm sure there are more than a few producers and writers out there who would have no problem turning Queen Amidala into a sex object. For now I'll be content to admire the diversity and varying scale of her upcoming projects while waiting for that "Oh, now she's an adult" role to come along. (photo by Armando Gallo)

    That's 65 times more...

    Do you know why KSM and other terrorism suspects should be tried in a civilian court? Because courts are better at prosecuting terrorists than military commissions. (Democracy Arsenal/Obsidian Wings)

    The record of federal courts for trying terrorists, particularly since 9/11 is formidable. Former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma Mickey Edwards writes: “[Critics] scowl and declare that our American courts will not, or can not, convict terrorists. They seem pretty damned certain of that. Which is weird since nearly 200 terrorists have been convicted in our federal courts in the last nine years (that's 65 times as many as have been convicted by military commissions).” A 2009 report by Human Rights First written by a team of former federal prosecutors found that terror trials in civilian courts had “a conviction rate of 91.121%.” And for those still think the NYC issue somehow stems from the courts effectiveness at prosecuting extremists, a study by NYU’s center on Law and Security, found that NYC courts have a zero acquittal rate for terrorism cases.

    Dick saw God

    The mystery of Philip K. Dick's religious "vision," and its affect on his work. (Hero Complex)

    “In the grandest Dickian sense, it’s a mystery that will never be solved,” says David Gill, a San Francisco literature professor who runs a website devoted to Dick's life and work. “Whether it was real or imagined, it was important to his life because it really mellowed him out. Dick felt, I think, like the Universe cared about him, and that all his suffering had not been in vain.”

    Some think that whatever the cause or meaning of the 2-3-74 visions, they were valuable as a way to focus Dick’s thinking and writing. Mysticism and religion -- which had interested the author deeply from at least the early ‘60s -- became his abiding concerns in the years after his visitation.

    Wednesday, February 03, 2010

    Sontag the Novelist

    Susan Sontag, a genius who used her imagination in the wrong way. (The idea of Sontag has always been more interesting than the reality to me, but it's time for a reread.) (Bookforum)

    Susan Sontag became famous in her late twenties for her bold essays of the '60s, the ones announcing that sea change in tones of high seriousness. From the beginning, hers was the voice of an educated urban intellectual, free of inflection or nuance, in rigorous possession of a strong, stimulated intelligence that produced insights by the dozen, researched them prodigiously, and organized the findings so brilliantly that the results equated with cultural authority. From start to finish, she was a formal rather than a personal essayist. Even when the impetus for the work was openly derived from her own years-long battle with cancer (as in Illness as Metaphor [1978]), she herself was never there on the page. Concomitantly, living as she did in a fishbowl, she very early put in place a way of appearing in the world—haughty and dramatic—that, for many years, provided a living mask that served her well.

    Tuesday, February 02, 2010

    For Rent: Zombieland

    Zombieland clocks in just a hair over 80 minutes long, which is just short enough for you not to be bothered by the fact that there isn't anything more to it than Woody Harrelson's performance as a badass zombie killer and Jesse Eisenberg's geeky narration of the "rules" ("Check the back seat") to surviving in a world where almost the whole population has become ravenous for human flesh after a pandemic. Harrelson and Eisenberg pick up two sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) in their sprint across the country and that all there is; the appeal of watching the four smash things (and people) up and bounce off each other carries through to the final showdown at an amusement park. Zombieland was part of a great 2009 for Harrelson (culminating in an Oscar nomination for The Messenger), and for that alone we should be glad of its existence.