Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Behind the Music and everything else

Lady Gaga's rise revealed: a few false starts, plenty of hard work, a Warholian fascination with surfaces, and yes, a few angry former friends. (NY Magazine)

Gaga also throws in our face something we’ve known all along but numbly decided to ignore: American celebrities have become very, very boring. (The fact that she has done this at the same time that much of the actual music she makes herself is somewhat boring is another feat.) One of her essential points is that celebrity should be the province of weirdos, like Grace Jones circa Jean-Paul Goude and her pet idol, eighties opera–meets–New Wave cult figure Klaus Nomi, who died of AIDS at 39. To Gaga, our video-game-playing, social-networking, cell-phone-obsessed culture has made all of us smaller, more normal, less interesting—and, except for odd lightning strikes like the Jersey Shore cast and Conan O’Brien’s anointment of one Twitter fan—famous to no one, after all. “Kudos on MySpace? What is that?” she says, spitting out the words. “That’s not emblematic about what I’m talking about. I’m talking about creating a genuine, memorable space for yourself in the world.”

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Book I Read: Just Kids by Patti Smith

My experience of reading Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids was putting "Patti Smith" (rocker, poet, icon, etc.) through a prism and watching refracted light emerge from the other end. When I wrote about this documentary some time ago I lamented how it made me like Smith less; she came off as precious and flighty, always performing and unwilling to offer a single genuine moment before the camera.

What a relief that Just Kids turns out to be so emotionally direct and moving. The better part of the book is an account of Smith's relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whom Smith met shortly after her late '60s arrival in New York. Smith was half a rung above homeless when she met Mapplethorpe; over the years he would serve as her lover, friend, mentor, inspiration, and usually some combination at any given time. The love affair would give way in time to Mapplethorpe's homosexuality; his conflicts about his sexual identity would filter into the provocative photographs that drew the ire of anti-NEA crusaders years later. Mapplethorpe's love for Smith never wavered though. He was an early champion of her half-formed ambitions to write and to change the world through art and was an eager audience member at her first poetry readings.

Just Kids is a marvelous firsthand account of funky downtown New York from the late '60s into the '70s. Smith and Mapplethorpe don't truly find a stable living situation until they reach the iconic Chelsea Hotel, where in Smith's account it was routine to cross paths with Janis Joplin, William Burroughs, and plenty of others on an almost daily basis. Maybe it's the wisdom of 40 years, but Smith never sounds starstruck. Smith was the source of steady income in those early years, clerking at book stores and reselling used books while Mapplethorpe worked his way up in the art world. As Smith gradually discovers her poetic voice and desire for a kind of rock stardom she pulls away from Mapplethorpe but still needs him as a supportive voice. If she pulls any punches it's in her description of what Mapplethorpe's becoming gay must have done to her self-esteem, but Just Kids is a book written out of deep love. The description of Mapplethorpe's final days (he died of AIDS in 1989) is haunting and the last photo he took of her is unreservedly affectionate. The times (and the kind of love) Smith describes seem very far away; Just Kids is the story of two artists finding their place in a world that didn't know it needed them.

Sunday Music: Miles Davis (w/John Coltrane) - "So What"

From 1959; recorded by a CBS producer. Wynton Kelly on piano and Jimmy Cobb on drums with the Gil Evans Orchestra.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Egoyan on Chloe

Atom Egoyan talks to Roger Ebert about his new film Chloe. Egoyan isn't shy about his influences and seems to think casting is a factor in how edgy a filmmaker can get. (Sun Times)

The films he loves, Egoyan said, were made in a time when filmmakers were more free to explore sexual feelings. When he made the perplexing thriller “Where the Truth Lies” (2005), he was slapped with an NC-17 rating by the MPAA, primarily for a sex scene involving Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth.

"I think if that film had been made with actors that were not as well known that scene may have not provoked the same degree of panic. And yet, that's a dramatic scene. Arsinee (Khanjian, his wife) worked with Catherine Breillat, a French filmmaker, and did a film called 'Fat Girl,' and that was really groundbreaking, amazing, where she goes. But again, they weren't famous actors. That's what I really admire with some of these European films. Who can forget “Don't Look Now,” with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, That just seemed so honest, and raw. I don't know if two actors of that stature would play that scene today. People right now are flipped out about seeing well-known actors go to certain places."

Mr. White speaks

So there's a certain extent to which Armond White is freaking crazy, depending on how much you do or don't like his contrarian ways. He isn't wrong that the art of critical thinking about film is under assault, and I don't think film is the only area in which standards of judgment are eroding. We can quibble about the reasons, but this essay adapted from a speech of White's makes the case nimbly. Is it a big deal that a bunch of celebs greeted White's words with "stony silence"? I don't think so; this isn't exactly after dinner speech fare. (First Things)

Art appreciation—once a staple of a liberal-arts education that taught music, literature, and fine art—derives from knowledge of a form’s history and standards, not simply its newest derivations or mutations. Movies also must be given the acceptance and protection that distinguish them from television and equate them to the other fine arts. Only critical expertise can provide this grounding and guidance.

But it cannot happen in an atmosphere that is hostile to the idea of learning, reflection, and personal (rather than herd-mentality) expression. Personal expression turns average journalistic criticism into its own justifiable work of art. Disrespect for expertise and personal response in criticism comes down to a vulgar, if not simply craven, attack on intelligence, taste, and individual preference. All opinions are not equal; the opinion most worth disseminating is the informed opinion, based on experience and learning. If criticism is to have a purpose beyond consumer advice, it is important that critics not follow trends but maintain cultural and emotional continuity—a sense of mankind’s personal history—in their reporting on the arts.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Ten

An unexpected list of "10 Books to Inspire Actors." (Brains of Minerva/Shiela Variations)

Against The Day by Thomas Pynchon

Pynchon fascinates me. So reclusive that only one known photo of him exists, this leaves the world NOTHING BUT HIS ART TO CONTEMPLATE. Some think it is a passive aggressive way of drawing the world in but after almost 50 years on the scene you’ve got to give the guy some props for staying so far underground. This book came out in 2006 and I’m just getting to it now. It involves the exploits of a band of zeppelin superheroes named ‘The Chums of Chance’, Nikolai Tesla, time-travel, the mystical city Shambhala, Anarchists addicted to detonation, and enough raunchy sex to make me blush one day while taking the bus to Santa Monica. You will forget who you are while reading this book and that is always a good thing.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Last Station

I don't know as much as I should about Leo Tolstoy, and Michael Hoffman's The Last Station won't fill in many of the gaps. Most of the film is a comedy about the difference between being perceived as a Great Man and actually being that man. Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer in fine form) is regarded as an almost God-like figure near the end of his life by a circle of followers led by the unctuous Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who wants Tolstoy to sign over the copyright of his works to "the Russian People." Despite living on a sumptuous estate with his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) Tolstoy eschews material pleasures and prefers working on his new philosophies (love, respect for all living things) to writing novels. Most of the time. Tolstoy still has plenty of time to reminisce with his eager young secretary Bulgakov (James McAvoy) about an old lover, and he horrifies Chertkov by killing a mosquito in public.

It is pretty easy to construct belief systems but life has a habit of getting in the way. That's what Bulgakov finds out when he falls for fellow "Tolstoyan" Masha (Kerry Condon) to the chagrin of others in the Movement. The heart of The Last Station is in the scenes between Mirren, who gets to be funny, tart, angry, and sexy, and Plummer, who plays Tolstoy with a vague awareness that he's screwing up pretty badly. The last act takes place as Tolstoy lies on his sickbed with Sofya barred from seeing him and the movie slows down considerably as we wait for what feels like a forgone conclusion. The Last Station takes place in 1910 and the debates feel quaint but oddly prescient in a world struggling with conflicts between creeds. It is the actors who give the movie heart and blood; The Last Station transcends the limits of the period costume genre and spreads just a tiny bit of the love Tolstoy was reaching for.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Numbers are in

Americans want health care reform. (Paul Krugman)

Actually, it’s not clear whether public opinion has changed all that much: a substantial fraction of those who disapproved of the reform did so because it didn’t go far enough. Anyway, true to form, one of the key talking points of reform’s opponents — that passing reform was an outrage because it denied the clear will of the people — turns out to be completely bogus.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In defense of Bella

Why do people dislike Kristen Stewart? (IFC)

Might I suggest that Stewart is actually quite good at what she does? In a world decrying the existence of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Stewart is realistically sulky and pissed-off -- not aggressively unpleasant, just hard to impress and already disappointed far too many times. I've seen people dismiss her performances based solely, it seems, on her association with "Twilight" -- which, as we can see, is fairly prickly even among that devoted community.

Leave her alone: no matter how awkward her faux pas can be (as if being caught smoking pot were somehow a completely unusual activity rather than a case of poor choice with regard to visibility), she has real talent. That she sold her soul to teenage Satan means she can do that much more for the other side on her off-hours, as she's repeatedly proven. Don't hold success against her.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Cruel "Rules"

A few days ago I read this Jason Kottke post, which I've since seen linked to at a couple of other high-profile sites. Kottke praises what he calls an "increasing tendency" by citizen reviewers on Amazon and other websites to comment on the packaging of media and its compatibility with various devices as opposed to content, plot, participants, etc. Whether a film or a book is actually good or not seems to be, in Kottke's world, something that "traditional reviewers" are fixated on to their detriment. It's the consumer-written reviews, with their focus on whether a movie looks better on an iPhone or a 42-inch flat screen or a book's readability on Kindle, that are starting to influence and democratize the world of media consumption. That's the argument.

It took me a little while to figure out what bothered me about Kottke's post besides the fact that one of the examples he cites - the impending release of the Lord of The Rings trilogy on Blu-Ray - actually has to do with content and not packaging. Before the discs are even released fans are posting negative reviews online since New Line is releasing the theatrical versions and not the extended versions put out on deluxe DVD's. That's content. If the studio was limiting the availability of special features or not making the films available for digital download then the fan reaction would make Kottke's point, but in this case it's simply a matter of the studio having something and giving the fans something else.

The larger point is that what Kottke is really talking about is crowd sourcing consumer advocacy. There is a huge pool of customers and fans out there ready to chime in on how movie A plays on device B and whether one should download songs from album C to MP3 player D before buying the whole CD. That's valuable and it isn't going away, but what isn't clear is why Kottke thinks this is more important than musty old "traditional reviewing." If audiences are conditioned to think of films only as shiny objects made for different size screens then that is actually what they'll get as opposed to actual films like The Hurt Locker and Crazy Heart. The role that critics have has changed as much as the landscape of film distribution; there's much more emphasis on sifting through indie and small-scale releases, but there's still an aspect of service to a mass audience. Next time Kottke physically goes to a movie (probably a radical notion for him) he should ask those in line how many checked Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic before choosing what to see. None of those people were worried about packaging. Kotte's post is a sincere ode to the power of fans, but it comes from a place of too much thinking about the gadget of the week and not enough to the the things those gadgets play.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

David Simon in New Orleans

Big piece in the NYT Magazine about David Simon and the new show Treme, an ensemble drama set in post-Katrina New Orleans. The last thing you read about Simon probably had something to do with how angry the last season of The Wire was. It's a relief to find Simon somewhat tongue-tied for once; much is made of his difficulties in describing the premise of Treme to HBO executives. There's an important difference between Treme and The Wire:

“Treme,” though no less focused on the workings and failings of 21st-century American urban existence, tells its story not through a city’s institutions but through its individuals. It isn’t that “The Wire” lacked for distinctive characters: Omar, the homicidal ethicist; Bubbles, the embattled addict; D’Angelo Barksdale, the doomed-by-decency street dealer — there were scores of them. But because so many of the show’s story lines dramatized the futility of any of these characters’ attempts to break through social and economic ceilings, the image of contemporary urban America that the show offered was one in which character wasn’t fate so much as a fait accompli: in the land of the free market, Simon was arguing, free will wasn’t going to get you very far. In “Treme,” Simon seems to be arguing for the very opposite idea: the triumph of the individual will despite all impediments, a show about people, artists for the most part, whose daily lives depend upon the free exercise of their wills to create — out of nothing, out of moments — something beautiful.

Sunday Music: Phish - "Weekapaug Groove"

From New York, 12/09....

Saturday, March 20, 2010

I'm in love with that song...

From the NYT, Paul Westerberg on Alex Chilton:

On Big Star’s masterpiece third album, Alex sang my favorite song of his, “Nighttime” — a haunting and gorgeous ballad that I will forever associate with my floor-sleeping days in New York. Strangely, the desperation in the line “I hate it here, get me out of here” made me, of all things, happy. He went on to produce more artistic, challenging records. One equipped with the take-it-or-leave-it — no, excuse me, with the take-it-like-I-make-it — title “Like Flies on Sherbert.” The man had a sense of humor, believe me.

The Ghost Writer

Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer is a paranoiac's dream, a clever what-if about the British government's complicity with the United States in the more dubious aspects of the last decade's War on Terror. Based on the novel by Robert Harris, The Ghost Writer wraps its larger concerns inside an atmospheric mystery. A nameless ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) is hired to complete the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister named Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) after the previous ghost dies under mysterious circumstances. The Ghost is whisked away to a fortress-like house on Martha's Vineyard where Lang is ensconced with his wife Ruth (sharp, angular Olivia Williams) and a perhaps too-loyal assistant (Kim Cattrall, miscast). What turns out to be merely a professional challenge - getting the slick Lang to open up - becomes something darker when the Ghost discovers his predecessor's link to a man who has just accused Lang of war crimes.

Because of Polanski's legal troubles The Ghost Writer was filmed in Germany, but I loved the mood of off-season oceanfront foreboding Polanski creates out of a huge house and a few dunes. The sense of veiled power Olivia Williams brings to her role makes the movie. There's little doubt that Ruth is the brains behind this power couple, but is she even more dangerous than that? Williams keeps us guessing until the movie's final scene. The Ghost is the best role Ewan McGregor has had in some time; he makes something out of a deliberately opaque character but I wish Polanski and Harris's script had given him more to work with. Lang is a step up for the Ghost, who is used to working on celebrity books. McGregor makes him a little bit of a jerk, clearly annoyed at the job's time pressures. But why does he draft Lang's statement when the ex-PM is accused of war crimes? (This event also occurs in the book) The Ghost's passivity irritates until the plot takes hold; his discovery of a college buddy of Lang's (Tom Wilkinson) who may hold answers but won't talk gets things moving.

The Ghost Writer is a product of anger at Tony Blair's taking the role of Bush's sidekick during the buildup to the Iraq War. Polanski has made a smart and very watchable entertainment out of it, if only he had taken a stronger point of view. Brosnan is good but only has barely enough time to give Lang a hint of weary introspection and the Ghost's journey doesn't have enough bite until almost too late. If The Ghost Writer turns out to be Polanski's last film then he's going out in good form, but he needed a little more character and a little less mystery.

Do the Shuffle #54

  • Wes Montgomery Trio - Yesterdays
  • Dan Auerbach - Heartbroken, In Disrepair
  • Tift Merritt - I Am Your Tambourine
  • Ryan Adams - The Sadness (Apologies if I'm repeating myself, but this is the worst song Ryan Adams has ever recorded.)
  • Breeders - Here No More
  • Husker Du - Plans I Make
  • Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Easy Does It
  • White Stripes - As Ugly As I Seem
  • Cassandra Wilson - Poet
  • R.E.M. - Time After Time (annElise)
  • Dinosaur Jr. - We're Not Alone

    Songs/Minutes (approx.) - 11/45
    Miscellaneous Fact - A downbeat playlist for a beautiful day; even with all the room I have left on the iPod is it time to start culling tracks I don't like? (a la the Ryan Adams)
  • Friday, March 19, 2010


    Less small talk equals a happier life. (Well/Orange Crate Art)

    “By engaging in meaningful conversations, we manage to impose meaning on an otherwise pretty chaotic world,” Dr. Mehl said. “And interpersonally, as you find this meaning, you bond with your interactive partner, and we know that interpersonal connection and integration is a core fundamental foundation of happiness.”

    Thursday, March 18, 2010

    NP casting

    NP is on board for a romantic comedy tentatively titled Friends With Benefits directed by Ivan Reitman and costarring Ashton Kutcher. There's already a release date (January 7, 2011), and while I'm certainly rooting for a box office hit I'm curious as to why Portman would want to team up with one of the highest profile names involved with Valentine's Day.

    ...and Alice Munro as the goalie...

    In perhaps the strangest bit of casting news I'll ever pass along, novelist Margaret Atwood will cameo in a Canadian hockey musical called Score.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010


    I'm a huge fan of the pianist Keith Jarrett; the 20-minute "On Green Dolphin Street" from the live Blue Note box set is in my opinion the greatest recording of live music I've ever heard. Jarrett has apparently still got it, but I might be better enjoying him from the comfort of home. (Pop & Hiss)

    Given that this was Keith Jarrett, the ever-sensitive pianist couldn’t resist taking time to admonish some audience members, calling out the usual smattering of nervous coughing one moment, and he nearly went into the crowd after an over-zealous amateur photographer took a picture of him as he walked off the stage between encores. “You should apologize to yourself,” he scolded when he returned, and sat down at the piano for a glistening reworking of “Over the Rainbow.”

    Yet for the most part, the crowd was well-behaved, and in fact eager to please its mercurial guest. After one melancholy piece concluded without so much as a peep from the room’s hair-trigger acoustics, one audience member proudly yelled to Jarrett that nobody had coughed this time.

    “What’s that?” Jarrett asked with a smirk, but there was no response. “He doesn’t want to say it again. I don’t like repeating myself either.”

    Dept. of Conservative Dumbassedry

    Dick Armey exposed! (Paul Krugman)

    Historian Armey was flummoxed by this new information. “Widely regarded by whom?” he challenged, suspiciously. “Today’s modern ill-informed political science professors? . . . I just doubt that was the case in fact about Hamilton.”

    Actually, of course Hamilton was very much a strong-government type. More than that: he was the author of the Report on Manufactures, an early call for — drum roll — industrial policy, backed by public investment.

    True Stories

    David Byrne's 1986 film True Stories has to be one of the strangest films that a major studio (Warner Bros.) has ever paid money for. Written and directed by Byrne and cowritten by Beth Henley and Stephen Tobolowsky, True Stories was a companion to the Talking Heads' album of the same name. That album, the band's next-to-last studio effort, contains some of Byrne's most emotionally direct songs. If there's no "Once In A Lifetime" here that's because the album's best songs live up to the title; these are songs that everyday people could write or even sing in their most vulnerable moments.

    True Stories the film is a mockumentary of sorts with Byrne as a host and narrator character. The setting is Virgil, Texas,a quiet town beginning to sprawl where the mall is a center of civic life and one company provides most of the jobs. There are several plot threads, most notably the story of a gentle bachelor (a young John Goodman) who advertises for a wife on television. Spalding Gray appears briefly as a town leader whose dinner table speech eerily foretells what working life will be like for many Americans ("There is no concept of weekends anymore") in 2010. Everything culminates in a town-wide "Celebration of Specialness," a talent show where Goodman's character triumphs by singing the country ballad "People Like Us." Goodman's performance may actually top the album version of the song; there's also Pops Staples as a voodoo priest singing "Papa Legba."

    The film's deadpan sweetness is hard to describe but for me was formative. The album and film of True Stories (when viewed at age 14) marked my realization that you could like something other than what you were told to like. It led me to Talking Heads other music, Spin magazine, R.E.M, "alternative v. mainstream," etc., and the rest is history. If True Stories had been arch or snide how would the beginning of my cultural literacy have been different? It's an unanswerable question really, but looking back I'm glad that this gentle act of defiance against Reagan-era blandness was my jumping off point into all the rest of it.

    Do the Shuffle #53

  • Joe Henry - Easter
  • Paul Simon - Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard
  • Vulgar Boatmen - Drive Somewhere
  • Cowboy Junkies - Powderfinger (this Neil Young cover comes from the band's second album, The Caution Horses. To this day I've still never purchased the RCA compilation of hits that got released after the Junkies were dropped from the label. With the explosion of "alt-country" and "Americana," why has it been so hard for the band to find an audience? Their highest profile release recently was a restaging of the Trinity Sessions with guest work by Natalie Merchant, Ryan Adams, and the late Vic Chesnutt. They still are near the top of the list of bands I'd like to see live.)
  • Steve Earle - Where I Lead Me
  • The Band - Rag Mama Rag
  • Colin Meloy - Barbara Allen (live)
  • Madonna - Nothing Really Matters
  • Takka Takka - Fever
  • Bob Mould - See A Little Light
  • Ryan Adams - She Wants To Play Hearts

    Total Songs/Minutes: 11/42
    Miscellaneous Fact: Seeing the Swell Season in Asheville May 20th!
  • Tuesday, March 16, 2010

    Green Zone

    The action scenes in Paul Greengrass's Green Zone are so well done I couldn't help but think as I watched how sad it is that clarity is the exception rather than the rule for the construction of mayhem. The climactic chase seems to cover an sizable portion of Baghdad and involves Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon), who has stumbled onto the WMD fiction that was one of the jumping off points for the Iraq War, as well as the Iraqi General (Yigal Naor) in a position to expose the Pentagon's use of bad intelligence and a Special Forces officer (Jason Isaacs) trying to protect the Official Story. There's no point in the scene when we don't know who's where, even as the crossfire grows and the Americans' situation becomes more precarious.

    I wish the rest of Green Zone, "inspired" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, hadn't so drastically oversimplified the American misadventure in Iraq. The book was a comprehensive tally of ill-informed and ideologically motivated bad decisions that created the Iraqi insurgency. Brian Helgeland's screenplay reduces the early days of the Coalition Provisional Authority to a detective story. Miller becomes frustrated with being sent on WMD missions and finding nothing; his interests align with those of a CIA lifer (Brendan Gleeson) who knows the Pentagon's idea of propping up a returned exile Chalabi-like character as leader is nonsense. Without too much effort Miller learns that the Coalition's "source" of intelligence on WMD's is fictional and that a mid-level Pentagon toady (Greg Kinnear) will do whatever is necessary to keep the Administration's plans rolling. There's also a reporter (underused Amy Ryan) bouncing around who's trying to come to grips with her service as an unquestioning conduit of propaganda in the days leading up to the invasion.

    If the entire Iraq War had actually been based on the lie of one Defense Department official you'd think we'd have figured it out by now; Greengrass has turned Baghdad into a sort Wild West background for the story of the naive, pathologically honest Miler, who will find the truth at any cost. Damon is doggedly likable and Gleeson wonderfully rumpled, but Kinnear and Ryan are saddled with impossible roles. Each is embodying the collective failures of an entire profession and Green Zone doesn't have time to deal with how the media failed us or how the Pentagon was infiltrated by ideologues. The film's timing of the announcement of the disbanding of the Iraqi Army is like a plot twist in a spy movie; it's merely a Pentagon move to cut Miller's legs out as he gets closer to finding the truth about WMDs. The lousy performance of Green Zone at the box office means the film that details the chain of decisions that has us still in Iraq may never be made, and that might not be a bad thing. Despite the efforts and abilities of a talented cast and crew, the legacy of Green Zone should be to send us back to the history books.

    Sunday, March 14, 2010

    Mehldau & Brion (Bonus Sunday Music!)

    Brad Mehldau and Jon Brion are working together again, and the result sounds like it will be a new take on things familiar. Enjoy the bonus clip of Mehldau's trio jamming on Paul Simon. (NYT)

    So the reunion of Mr. Mehldau with Mr. Brion raises a certain expectation, one that “Highway Rider” meets more than halfway. At the same time it reflects a loftier aim than “Largo,” often with a serious deployment of strings. Mr. Mehldau has worked extensively in recent years in solo and trio formats, and with the guitarist Pat Metheny; he has also delved into classical orchestration. “Highway Rider” presents a distillation of all those efforts.

    “A lot of my growth as a musician has been reaching back to things I’ve assimilated,” Mr. Mehldau said in his usual reflective cadence, sitting at a studio piano. He cited the pianist-composers Thelonious Monk and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and grunge bands like Nirvana. “Some of those things are being referenced here,” he said, “along with all that hyper-Romantic harmony I love, from Strauss and Mahler.” He took a drag on a cigarette.

    Sunday Music: Drive-By Truckers - "I'm Sorry Huston"

    New DBT album (The Big To-Do) out this week!! As for this clip, it probably isn't the most interesting performance of this song out there; I chose it because it took place at Earshot Records in my home base of Greenville, SC in 2008. I wasn't there but I did see their set that night at the Handlebar.

    Saturday, March 13, 2010

    Reshaping February

    This John McWhorter list of people black history could do without will get attention for its inclusion of Malcolm X, but it's whites like Jonathan Kozol and these two social scientists who McWhorter argues may have had the more chilling effect: (New Republic)

    2 and 3. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward

    Piven and Cloward were white social work professors at Columbia who, in the late '60s, openly encouraged as many people as possible to take welfare payments open-endedly, hoping that this would bankrupt the government and force a complete overhaul of our distribution of income. It wasn’t that they thought there was no work for blacks—just that it was beneath blacks’ dignity to do it. By 1968, the organization was staging more than two hundred protests a month, sometimes assisted by the Panthers.

    Traditional civil rights leaders didn’t get it. Piven has recalled, “We met with Whitney Young [executive director of the National Urban League] … and he gave us a long speech about how it was more important to get one black woman into a job as an airline stewardess than it was to get fifty poor black families onto welfare.” But when Piven and Cloward published a manifesto in The Nation, there were 30,000 reprint requests. One thousand neighborhood service centers nationwide encouraged people to go on welfare who would not have otherwise. In the '60s, one-third of the people whose incomes made them eligible for AFDC were on the rolls. By 1971, 90 percent were.

    If Nothing Else She Has Taste

    This is what NP looked like at the Vanity Fair Oscar party. Kristen Stewart's take on meeting NP: (E!)

    After the show, she was introduced to Natalie Portman at the Governor's Ball.

    "I didn't want to be in the room anymore," Stewart says. "I literally wanted to eat my own head with a fork and knife."

    A Market for Masses

    Mass market paperback books are the province of Dan Brown and Danielle Steel, right? It didn't used to be that way; DeLillo, Barth, and Barthelme had their day. (Constant Conversation)

    I love coming across mass market editions of books by writers whom you wouldn’t normally associate with that format (at least for those of us who were born in the seventies or later). Below are a few I’ve come across in used book stores. I always wonder: who was purchasing the mass market edition of Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father in 1976? According to Donald Barthelme: A Bibliography by Jerome Klinkowitz, Asa Pieratt, and Robert Murray Davis, lots of people: The print run on this book was a staggering (by today’s standards, at least): 80,000. Eighty thousand copies of a challenging book of innovative fiction.

    Around this same period, the New Yorker was regularly running Barthelme stories; equally baffling that his stories were regularly published in that magazine, given the type of fiction they run today. (In Gilbert Sorrentino’s final novel, The Abyss of Human Illusion, there’s a chapter about “New Yorker fiction” and the people who aspire to write it. You can imagine his take.) There are ads/order forms in the back of The Dead Father exhorting the reader to “Keep Up With The Bestsellers!”

    For Rent: Adoration

    For a week to go by between my watching a movie and writing about it I either have to be really busy or the film has to have been pretty lackluster. Both are the case with Adoration, a slow and confused effort from the usually sure-footed Atom Egoyan. (The Sweet Hereafter) The film of Egoyan's that Adoration most closely resembles to my mind is Exotica, in which the connections between a group of seemingly unconnected characters gradually become clear. Where Exotica had Bruce Greenwood in the lead and the allure of an apparently illicit attraction between Greenwood's bachelor and a young stripper (a pre-L Word Mia Kirshner), Adoration has flat characters wrapping themselves in post-9/11 paranoia to deal with private pain.

    A young orphan named Simon (Devon Bostick) is assigned a report by his French teacher Sabine (Arsinee Khanjian) and uses the moment to reveal his late father's complicity in a terrorist plot. Simon is being raised by his uncle (Scott Speedman), who is baffled when the story reaches the Internet and Simon becomes a flash point for those whose lives were touched by the terrorists. The fact that Sabine keeps showing up at Simon's house doesn't make matters any less confusing; the whole thing seems connected to the stormy relationship between Simon's Middle Eastern dad (Noam Jenkins) and Canadian grandfather (Kenneth Welsh). It's all eventually explained, but the answers feel half though out, especially with regard to Khanjian's character. Egoyan spends a great deal of time exploring the effect of Simon's revelations on the Web, in a DVD extra he even admits inventing a new kind of web chat software to serve his storytelling purposes. Egoyan's version of web chat involves 8 or 9 people shouting at each other simultaneously, which is a tidy metaphor for how the Web feels sometimes but isn't dramatically interesting. Is it really news that the Web sometimes blows things out of proportion?

    Egoyan's next film is called Chloe and stars Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, and Amanda Seyfried. I've enjoyed enough of Egoyan's work that I'm willing to dismiss Adoration as a sincere misstep and look forward to his future films.

    Friday, March 12, 2010

    Follower of Fashion?

    A strange but nonjudgmental article on the practice of wearing Japanese zentai suits. Is this really a growing trend, and what does it say about a person when they decide to efface their identity in full-body lycra? I won't be picking up this habit but would like to understand more about the subculture. (Daily Beast)

    “We’ll just go out in public in them,” says Dave Lee, a 28-year-old small-business owner from Walton, Kentucky, whose Southern-twanged syllables spill out of his mouth in stream-of-consciousness style. Unlike Darryl and Ben, Dave and his girlfriend, Trisha, a registered nurse, will go virtually anywhere in their suits. “We go to the Florence Mall,” he says. “We go grocery shopping in them. We’re pretty well known here in Walton.” Surprisingly, the threat of humiliation hardly crosses his mind. “You do have fleeting thoughts, wondering if someone’s going to say something bad, thinking to yourself, ‘What will I say back?’” But he says that more often than not, people are simply curious. Once they were stopped by a cop who wanted his picture taken with them.

    A panning in New York

    I haven't seen Martin McDonagh's new play A Behanding In Spokane and I probably won't get to; this blistering New Yorker review made me sit up because of its assertion that the play is broadly racist. Hilton Als goes a step further and seems to implicate African-American actor Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) for his acceptance of a caricatured role. I'm not sure how much an actor can be held responsible for embodying an author's disagreeable vision, but it is an argument worth having.

    What one does notice throughout this exchange is Mackie’s behavior. He performs as though he were Stepin Fechit in a room full of bickering ghosts. Toby’s characterization is as offensive as the language used to describe him. While Carmichael’s “nigger” talk could be put down to an attempt of McDonagh’s to expose the nastiness of a segment of the population—many writers have used ugly language to paint an honest portrait of racism in this country—the caricature he presents in Toby, the young black male as shucking, jiving thief, can’t be excused on those grounds, or by the slick professionalism that coats the play’s intellectual decay. McDonagh adds gag after gag to the show, as if he believed that comedy could cover up the real horror at its core: the fact that blackness is, for him, a Broadway prop, an easy way of establishing a hierarchy.


    I've always thought I'd be a good music supervisor (though I'm sure I'd overuse Wilco and R.E.M.) but was never 100% sure what the job entailed. This interview with Randall Poster fills in the gaps; Poster has a resume to be envied and an excitement for keeping his work fresh. (Cinematical)

    Cinematical: Given your pedigree as this 'archaeologist' of older music, is it easy to find new music that stimulates you or you think works musically or emotionally in the same way?

    Poster: I work very had at it to keep current. I'll also use my skills as an archivist to shore myself up in areas. But I work very hard to keep on top of what's going on, and I'm excited by new music, so it's a treat but you definitely have to put the time in and ask people what they're listening to. And as you get older, there's mainstream culture and there's counterculture, and it was the voice of the counterculture that I always was intrigued by, and it still intrigues me. So as I've gotten older I'm still not the person who says, "turn the music down." I'm still, "play the music loud!"

    Thursday, March 11, 2010

    Greenberg buzz

    I was nervous after seeing the trailer for Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, but here's a review that gets me excited about seeing the film. Ben Stiller certainly didn't have to or need to do this project at this point in his career; he seems to be back on point. (Some Came Running)

    Ben Stiller deserves full acknowledgement as Greenberg's co-creator. His performance is some kind of career peak, a beautifully modulated piece of craft and one of the best bits of physical acting you're likely to see in a film for a while. Greenberg's whippet-thinness comes off as born of a certain kind of spite; Stiller's here highly-prominent Adam's Apple sometimes functions as a character in and of itself. Stiller's smallness of frame works wonders when his Greenberg, feeling defeated before he's even made an effort at accomplishing anything, curls up in a corner. Florence, Greenberg's romantic foil, such as she is, has a frame that's the opposite number of Greenberg's matchstick; obtrusive and awkward and gangly and hardly smoothed-out. Todd McCarthy got a bit of smack from some overly sensitive observers for referring to Florence's portrayer, Greta Gerwig, as "a big young woman;" but here she's supposed to be "big," at least relative to Stiller, and apparently she put on 15 pounds for the role.

    Journey > Destination

    Sure you can put all your music on a hard drive, but what about the songs you forget along the way? (Paste)

    But as much as I’ve become used to clicking through my library over the past few months, this transformation of music into something post-physical freaks me out. There was value in music having a physical presence—even those records that you’d only pull out for very specific reasons reminded you of their existence during a routine house-cleaning. Now it’s easy for songs to get lost in the shuffle. The labeling can be faulty; the artist’s name could be in a weird nether-region of the library that you never scroll through. The sheer amount of music acquired with just a few clicks can be overwhelming.

    In the old days, pruning my record collection was an elaborate process that would start with struggling to squeeze an ill-fitting jewel case into an unyielding rack and end with a trip to the Princeton Record Exchange, where the “what do I get rid of now?” cycle would inevitably start anew thanks to the store’s copious bargain racks. Now divesting myself of music has been simplified to a keystroke. As music becomes less physical, its whole essence becomes more disposable. When we change our minds about a song, we just download it again.

    Wednesday, March 10, 2010

    Thile plays Bach

    Since I'm a little behind on my music posts how about some Bach to make up for it? It doesn't compare to seeing Thile play Bach live, which I was able to do a few years ago, but still pretty good. Good post on Punch Brothers, Thile's current project, here. (Muzzle of Bees)

    Eggers talks

    While you're sniping about irony and semi-fictional memoirs, Dave Eggers is busy doing this: (Guardian/Kottke)

    He believes passionately in the power of reading and of writing; one evening a week, he and a group high-school students get together to talk about American journalism, though tonight they will be interviewing me, a "real-life British person" (given that their last special guest was Spike Jonze, the film director with whom Eggers wrote the script for Where the Wild Things Are, I fear I could be something of a disappointment). At the end of the year, these students help Eggers compile a volume called The Best American Nonrequired Reading, a showcase for journalism and short fiction. His passion also led him to establish 826 Valencia, a place where children can come after school for help with their homework and to learn to write stories; it's right across the street. It's a screen-free zone, run pretty much entirely by volunteers, and has been so successful that the model has been rolled out across America (there are now branches in six other cities) ."Shall we go over there?" he says.

    In the Realm of Kathryn

    A long retrospective post on new Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow that identifies some qualities that make me want to rewatch (or in some cases watch) her older films. (Pinocchio Theory)

    Near Dark is one of the great films about nighttime; and this includes poetic visions of dawn and dusk, and also the scene in which the vampires face a daytime shootout from the cops, the bullet holes in their motel room letting in stabs of murderous sunbeams. The vampires of Near Dark are classic American drifters, unmoored from the social contract, left out of the promises of the American dream, with a “family” that does not conform to bourgeois suburban norms. And although Near Dark ends, as genre pictures must, with the triumph of daylight and of “normalcy,” those nocturnal hauntings are what the movie leaves behind in our minds and hearts.

    Monday, March 08, 2010

    Quick Oscar thoughts and news

    I would have traded a win in my Oscar pool for a win by Fantastic Mr. Fox or Carey Mulligan last night but I got none of those things, coming in second by one. (Damn technical upsets) As for the ceremony, I wouldn't have minded a little of the fat being put back in if we had lost the horror movie tribute and the ego stroking in the Best Actor and Actress presentation. Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin traded jokes ably enough to make me momentarily reconsider my belief that awards shows don't need hosts, but no one cares about the Oscar host after the opening monologue.

    Anyway, we're taking the successful production of Macbeth I was in recently to another venue this week so posting may be quiet here for a couple of days. Thanks for your patience and remember it's only a week to the new Drive By Truckers album. (Photo by Peter Knegt)

    Saturday, March 06, 2010

    Oscar predictions and thoughts

    I haven't checked but I'm pretty sure last year I did more posts on the Oscars. Time to blog is one thing, but I think the real reason for the lack of Oscar blogging this year is my lack of interest in engaging with Avatar and what its success means both for the Oscars and movies in general. Also, 10 Best Picture nominees....really? I'm happy to see An Education on the list but not so happy that I think we need to live in a world where The Blind Side is nominated for Best Picture. My predictions for the major categories aren't that different from what else is out there, in parentheses I've listed a few choices that I'd have liked to see among the nominees or winners.

  • Best Picture - The Hurt Locker (other favorites this year included Adventureland, Bright Star, The Informant!, The Road, Away We Go, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Inglourious Basterds)

    Best Director - Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (Jane Campion Bright Star, James Gray Two Lovers, and yes James Cameron. If it had to be this way I think I'd rather see Cameron win here and lose Best Picture than the other way around)

    Best Actor - Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart (I really don't have too many alternates here because I'm so happy to see Bridges in this position, but Jeremy Renner is deserving and I'd also add Matt Damon for The Informant!)

    Best Actress - Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side (Should win: Carey Mulligan, An Education. This is the one acting category that seems unsure and I think Streep still could win. I'll throw in Abbie Cornish for Bright Star, the best film this year that got zero awards season love)

    Best Supporting Actress - Mo'Nique, Precious (The fact that I really don't want Mo'Nique to win doesn't seem to be helping. My choice is Anna Kendrick for Up In The Air and how about Maggie Gyllenhaal for Away We Go instead of Crazy Heart?)

    Best Supporting Actor - Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds (Waltz seems to be the all but certain winner and I have no problem with that. Just for kicks, I liked Heath Ledger's work in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus just as much as the role he did win the Oscar for)
  • Cop Out

    A breezy riff on '80s action comedies from Kevin Smith, not directing his own script for the first time. (No auteurist gestures here; there's no sign of Jay and Silent Bob shambling through) Smith would probably be better served directing his own scripts in the future since there's little sense of real interest or engagement with the material. What energy Cop Out has comes from Tracey Morgan as a movie-obsessed detective partnered up with Bruce Willis as a financially strapped cop trying to pay for his daughter's wedding. The plot involves drug dealers and a missing baseball card but the real show is Willis and Morgan bickering with each other and Seann William Scott as a small time hood who crosses paths with our heroes. It's all pleasant enough for the movie to get by on giggles, but Smith really seems to be working for a buck here. Next time out I hope it's back to the convenience stores and comic shops of New Jersey, because this director is better at home than on the road.

    Do the Shuffle #52

  • Bob Dylan - Someday Baby
  • Throwing Muses - Say Goodbye
  • Bill Frisell - Focus
  • Bishop Allen - Shanghaied
  • Jody Grind - 3rd of July
  • Mike Doughty - Madeline and Nine
  • Rilo Kiley - Smoke Detector
  • Dwight Yoakam - Try Not To Look So Pretty
  • Feist - The Park
  • Sun Kil Moon - Lost Verses
  • De La Soul - Supa Emcees

    Total Songs/Minutes (approx.): 11/43
    Miscellanous Fact: Hello Spring.
  • Friday, March 05, 2010

    Politically Incorrect Yum

    I think that one of the hidden reasons that we as a nation eat so badly is the fact that stores like Whole Foods and its brethren are economically and geographically unavailable to those who need them most. This Atlantic article celebrates Wal-Mart's move towards locally grown and organic food; the corporate demon is "becoming harder and harder to hate." Surprising taste-test results too.

    I started looking into how and why Walmart could be plausibly competing with Whole Foods, and found that its produce-buying had evolved beyond organics, to a virtually unknown program—one that could do more to encourage small and medium-size American farms than any number of well-meaning nonprofits, or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with its new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign. Not even Fishman, who has been closely tracking Walmart’s sustainability efforts, had heard of it. “They do a lot of good things they don’t talk about,” he offered.

    The program, which Walmart calls Heritage Agriculture, will encourage farms within a day’s drive of one of its warehouses to grow crops that now take days to arrive in trucks from states like Florida and California. In many cases the crops once flourished in the places where Walmart is encouraging their revival, but vanished because of Big Agriculture competition.

    Thursday, March 04, 2010

    That Evening Sun

    If That Evening Sun had come out 10 or 15 years ago it feels like the kind of small regional film that would have come through Sundance to become an indie cause celebre and maybe achieve some minor awards season glory. Indie may not mean much anymore, but the sheer volume of small films in the marketplace (most of which the typical viewer will engage with on DVD) means that it's harder for an understated film starring an actor in his 80's to get noticed. In a stroke of additional bad luck, Hal Holbrook's rigorously angry turn as displaced Tennessee farmer Abner Meecham would in many years be a strong contender for one of those "you've been doing this well for a long time" Oscars the Academy likes to award occasionally, but Jeff Bridges is getting that particular honor this year.

    That Evening Sun, written and directed by Scott Teems from a William Gay short story, couldn't take place anywhere else in America other than where it does; how many films can we say that about these days? (Vancouver can't double for Tennessee farm country) The story is soaked in specifically Southern notions of class and the meaning that owning property gives a man's life. When Abner breaks out of a retirement home to return to his farm, he discovers on arrival that the place has been rented to Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon) and his family. Choat knows that Abner considers him white trash and he won't leave, setting up a series of decisions that manage to avoid a few cliches I thought the movie might be unable to steer clear of. McKinnon, who also produced, is a familiar face whose lengthy credits include the befuddled coach in The Blind Side and a haunting turn as a dying preacher in the first season of Deadwood. The film belongs to Holbrook, but McKinnon absolutely nails Choat's barely concealed desperation and compensating anger. No one thinks Choat can is worth a damn and he isn't sure they're wrong. Mia Wasikowska (that's "Alice In Wonderland" to you) is exceptionally guileless in the role of Choat's daughter, who seems destined for better things by film's end.

    But then there's Hal Holbrook. Abner doesn't have any illusions about being able to work his farm anymore, he simply wants what belongs to him. Holbrook's performance is equally direct; Abner doesn't want his son (Walton Goggins of The Shield,also a producer) or anyone else to feel sorry for him. There is an awareness of the time running out behind Abner's eyes which the film confronts very honestly. Abner is last seen in a hospital bed where he speaks of dreams of his "forgiving" late wife (Dixie Carter). Holbrook underplays this scene to perfection and adds an extra layer of tragedy; Abner wants his land back but really needs something deeper and unreachable. This is one of the best performances of the year. That Evening Sun is a clean and sharp piece of storytelling that is a triumph of regional cinema, and a beautiful button to the career of an underappreciated actor.

    Tuesday, March 02, 2010

    Shutter Island

    What happens when Martin Scorsese makes a genre film? The result is Shutter Island, an overstuffed effort that adds more themes and capital-I Importance to Dennis Lehane's pulpy shocker of a book than the material can bear. Where the novel was a fast ride through two horrific days on a rain-swept Massachusetts island, the film is determined to be something more. Scorsese has made a horror film where modernity of the late-20th century variety is the monster licking its lips in the wings.

    Part of what must have attracted Scorsese to this material was the chance to work with Leonardo DiCaprio again. In addition to making it easier for Scorsese to get films made DiCaprio can be counted on for an unshowy lead performance. He doesn't disappoint here in the role of U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, called to dank Shutter Island in 1954 with his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the disappearance of a patient from the fortress of a mental hospital that's the only structure on the island. The case quickly, perhaps too quickly, spirals away from a mere missing persons investigation. There are the doctors (Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow) with shadowy agendas, the patient (Elias Koteas) with a connection to Teddy's earlier life, and oh yes Teddy's late wife Dolores (an indelible Michelle Williams) who isn't shy about dropping in with key bits of information. Whispers of barbaric experiments and Cold War paranoia abound. The surreal sequences with Williams are the movie's greatest visual treat and biggest problem. The scenes, taking us into Teddy's head at key moments, are beautifully shot,edited, and designed and not at all scary. Scorsese is overplaying his hand; if Teddy is busy having such operatic fantasies of his late wife then how can he be expected to solve a case?

    What's equally troubling is the way Scorsese inflates Teddy's experience during the liberation of Dauchau into a major trauma. I'm not one who would argue that Nazi atrocities are off limits dramatically, but the Dauchau scenes are filmed just as lushly as the rest of the movie and seem to exist only to make Scorsese's point: The only solution to a nuclear and genocidal world is to go mad. There are multiple scenes of patients telling Teddy they don't want to leave Shutter Island (Robin Bartlett is very good as a deceptively sweet patient) because they are afraid of what's out in the world and Teddy is a man having increasing difficulty dealing with what he has become thanks to the sum of his experiences. All very well, but the philosophizing gets in the way of the police procedure almost to the point that I was ready to skip a scene or two (having read the book I knew what was coming) to get to the payoffs. The film's ending is faithful to the book but am I the only one who thinks Scorsese is twisting the twist? From the way the scene is played and shot I think it's at least possible that Scorsese is signaling surrender to a world spinning much too fast.

    While it suffers from a case of Director Bloat Shutter Island is not without its pleasures. Everyone wants to work with Scorsese; there's very good acting in small roles with my favorites being Williams and Jackie Earle Haley as a patient with an unusual degree of knowledge about what's going on. Cinematographer Robert Richardson makes the wards and corridors full of lurking dangers and the soundtrack (curated by Robbie Robertson) is ideally complementary. If only Scorsese had resisted the urge to impose a meaning on it all and instead respected the low down dirty fun of his source material. Shutter Island is classy to its core but not nearly as much fun as it should have been.

    Monday, March 01, 2010

    Out the classics

    From Jasper Johns to the work of #61 Alvin Ailey (above) to Angels In America, Out lists 80 LGBT gifts to American culture.


    War photographer slams Hurt Locker for factual inaccuracies, completely misses point of movie. As one of the commenters points out, it's the juxtaposition of the "cereal" scene with James's actions in the field that is the movie's real subject. (Lens)

    Finally, a few nights ago, I sat down to see “The Hurt Locker” for myself.

    This time, the soldiers were right. The film is a collection of scenes that are completely implausible — wrong in almost every respect. This time, it’s not just minor details that are wrong.

    If there is one rule with the military, it is that there is strength in numbers. No one soldier, no one vehicle, goes out alone. Ever. Four vehicles and a 20-man squad is the minimum that I have worked with in Iraq. A lone Humvee would not be allowed to clear the gate at any base in Iraq.

    Death of the Long Form

    I'm pretty sure not all film logs are as brash and ahistorical as this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. claims; the roundup of anthologies, histories, and one documentary makes the case that serious film reviewing is an art form for the museums. (via @brainpicker)

    Then a different kind of termite art burrowed into the house that film criticism built. In the mid-1990s, the wide-open frontier of the blogosphere allowed young punks who still got carded at the multiplex to leapfrog over their print and video elders on user-friendly sites with hip domain names. If the traditional film critic was a professorial lecturer who lorded his superior knowledge and literary chops over the common rung of moviegoer, the Web slinger was a man-boy of the people, visceral and emotional, a stream-of-consciousness spurter with no internal censor or mute button. Listen to the war cry of the Internet Movie Critic ensconced at http://home.earthlink.net/~usondermann: "What sets me apart from the Siskel & Eberts of this world is a simple truth: I don't read books!"