Monday, May 31, 2010

Lee Blessing

A brief chat with playwright Lee Blessing. I once had the pleasure of auditioning for a staged reading of a new Blessing play (which I don't know has ever been produced); upon hearing Blessing at a group discussion I appreciated his political engagement, generosity with his time, and lack of pretension about his work. (Adam Szymkowicz)

Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A: Write a hit play that helps you get into television. Stay in television if you can. But if you must keep writing plays, write with far more ambition than your audience typically has. Write characters who are at least as smart as you are. Never have a character make a dumb decision (i.e., one that you wouldn't make) just to further your plot. Don't write passive central characters. That about covers it.

The social contract

It's obvious that ebooks change the tactile experience of reading, but tying reading to a device does something even more insidious by reducing the way books can be a social unifier. Amen. (NYT/Orange Crate Art)

And finally, two related problems. I already have a personal library. But most of the books I’ve ever read have come from lending libraries. Barnes & Noble has released an e-reader that allows short-term borrowing of some books. The entire impulse behind Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iBooks assumes that you cannot read a book unless you own it first — and only you can read it unless you want to pass on your device.

That goes against the social value of reading, the collective knowledge and collaborative discourse that comes from access to shared libraries. That is not a good thing for readers, authors, publishers or our culture.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Fast & Slow

David Denby describes the editing of The Prince of Persia: (New Yorker)

The movement in this film is aided by parkour. The physical and spiritual beauty of parkour, which began on the outskirts of Paris in the nineties, is the sight of daredevil teens spontaneously negotiating walls, fences, abutments, and open spaces as they race through an urban environment. Parkour is extended acrobatic movement on the fly, and, as something to watch, it gains enormously from continuity. The parkour genius David Belle was on hand to give instruction, and Gyllenhaal, a good athlete, jumps over a wall, runs along a parapet, swings on a rope to another level, jumps down a kind of hollow, landing twenty feet below, and so on. The problem is that the movement has been broken into fragments and reassembled. The thrill of a single man mastering space is gone; here the continuity is provided by the glib editing of thrashing limbs, in which you never see any given action clearly. There are some kinds of happy authenticity that can’t be faked, no matter how vast a fortune you spend.

The existence of the hyperkinetic mess that is a Jerry Bruckheimer production is exactly the reason why we need the warm and conversational literary adaptations of James Ivory in the world, no matter what some ill-informed bloggers may think. (Cinematical)

The People Cry Out....

Following on my review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo yesterday comes word of Swedish demand to see NP as Lisbeth Salander in the American remake to be directed by David Fincher. (Filmshaft)

Earlier today, I was sent an e-mail from the Swedish branch of who told me an official online poll conducted by them states Natalie Portman to be the most popular choice with Edward Norton to play Mikael Blomkvist. They’re great casting choices, so I agree with Sweden on this matter.

The Swedes have spoken, folks. But will David Fincher listen? The role is one of the most hotly pursued in Hollywood. Everybody from Carey Mulligan to Kristen Stewart have expressed an interest. It’s a pretty tough role to crack and Noomi Rapace was brilliant in the Swedish language version released earlier this year.

In the Country of M.I.A. (updated)

Here's that long piece from the NYT about M.I.A., the Sri Lankan rapper whom author Lynn Hirschberg clearly considers politically naive, shallow, and maybe a little stupid. I'm not going to argue that M.I.A. has a clearly worked out position on ethnic conflicts in Sri Lanka; if she does it doesn't come through here. Yet I'm much more charmed by M.I.A.'s sincere if weird gesture of having photos for her new album shot by a working-class Sri Lankan photographer while wearing enough Givenchy jewelry that a bodyguard had to be present than I am by most of what Lady Gaga has ever done. Hirschberg slams M.I.A. for her violent "Born Free" video but lets Gaga and Beyonce of the hook for their homicidal "Telephone" mini-movie. In comparison to Gaga's masters-thesis self-presentation M.I.A. seems a sort of cultural sponge, aiming for the pop omniscience of Madonna while keeping one foot (a confused foot perhaps) in the struggles of her country.

UPDATE - Since reading the article and posting yesterday it has come to my attention that M.I.A. tweeted Lynn Hirschberg's phone number in a fit of displeasure. I don't approve. My opinion of the article itself as a hit piece is unchanged; Hirschberg even portrays M.I.A.'s choice of husband and childbirth method as a betrayal of her professed political sympathies.

Sunday Music: The New Pornographers - "Crash Years"

Together is one of my top 2 or 3 albums of the year so far and I still want to do a longer post on it. The New Pornographers always sound to me like a bunch of exceptionally clever kids let loose with musical instruments for an afternoon, and this album may be the best distillation yet of their warm and cryptic sound.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

How will this ever be remade in America? The Girl with Dragon Tattoo, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, is the first film based on the popular trilogy of crime novels by the late Swedish journalist Steig Larsson. David Fincher will direct the American version. The story is a grab bag of old Nazis, mysterious private islands, conspiracies, and a couple of scenes of brutal violence against women that will surely be toned down somewhere along the line; it's hard to imagine any of the Oscar-caliber actresses rumored to be in the running for the role of Lisbeth Salander signing up to play a character so defined by men's brutality towards women.

Lisbeth is played here by Noomi Rapace, whose looks recall Gina Gershon and whose performance is believably awkward. Lisbeth is a socially awkward, bisexual hacker with no friends and Rapace doesn't concede an inch. Even after 2.5 hours Lisbeth is appropriately non-verbal for someone who spends most of her time staring at a computer screen. Computers play a key supporting role; Lisbeth is sucked into the life of Mikael (Michael Nyqvist), a disgraced journalist hired by the kindly tycoon Henrik (Sven-Bertil Taube, who looks like an elderly Jimmy Stewart) to solve the 40-year old case of Henrik's vanished niece Harriet. There are mountains of evidence to sift through and computers make the job manageable and dramatically compelling. I particularly liked the way a series of old photos displayed on a Mac comes to life as a slideshow of Harriet's movements on the day she vanished. The movie plays better than it has any right to, given how much time is spent flipping through old documents.

The literally translated title of the film and novel should actually be Men Who Hate Women, and as the plot unfolds a sense emerges of a culture where women are regarded as disposable accessories for those powerful enough to avoid accountability. There's a subplot early on involving Lisbeth getting revenge on a parole officer (referred to as a "guardian") who has savagely raped her in a scene that will send some to the theater lobby. It's difficult to watch (as is Lisbeth's revenge), but necessary I think in justifying Lisbeth's behavior later in the film and establishing something about the world in which the film takes place. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is at its core a well-done procedural with good leads (Nyqvist is nicely dogged as the journalist Mikael) and an outsider's heart. I fear the American version will only play up the louder aspects and miss this movie's soul.

The Book I Read: When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison by Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus's short book (less than 200 pages) on the music of Van Morrison is both a celebration and a reminder of the subjective pleasures of writing about music. Marcus claims to have listened to Morrison's 1968 album Astral Weeks more than any other in his collection and When That Rough God Goes Riding is in large part about how one experiences Morrison's singular masterpiece. But how to describe the warm interplay of Morrison's voice and Richard Davis's bass or the emotional arc of the epic "Madame George"? The idea of the "yarragh" unifies Marcus's search for the sublime underneath Morrison's songs. What is the yarragh?

William Butler Yeats, a conflicted soul and superb poet, once wrote about the �yarragh.� For Yeats, the yarragh was a cry of the heart, a haunting and haunted sound that could be found in Celtic (and particularly Irish) song and poetry. It was sorrow and lamentation for what had been lost, and for centuries of foreign oppression. It was anger and self-righteousness, a loud and belligerent cry that insisted on the inherent dignity and worth of a people. In short, it was soul, but soul with a particularly nationalistic fervor.

Got that? The rooting of Morrison's music is a particular cultural tradition provides a starting point for talking about the unquantifiable feelings that Astral Weeks induces. Morrison himself seems to suggest that his songs are after something in the air. Marcus quotes a 1978 interview:

"The only time I actually work with words is when I'm writing a song. After it's written, I release the words; and every time I'm singing, I'm singing syllables. I'm singing signs and phrases."

Marcus unpacks Astral Weeks admirably but the yarragh also provides too easy a yardstick for dismissing some of Morrison's lesser albums. Over fifteen years of work gets dismissed in one chapter while the use of Morrison's songs in the films Breakfast on Pluto and Georgia receives too much attention. Live performances not available to the general listener (the bibliography is full of bootlegs) are cited too often, sometimes as counterexamples. Marcus zips all over Morrison's career, closing with an analysis of a track off Morrison's last album called "Behind the Ritual." The song celebrates the themes of Astral Weeks even if it isn't as musically memorable, and it's a fitting place for us to part company with this still-searching genius. Greil Marcus wisely doesn't try to pin Morrison's work to his biography, in fact he disdains the idea; When That Rough God Goes Riding peeks behind the curtain but wisely doesn't try to solve the mystery of Van Morrison.

Do the Shuffle #66

  • A.C. Newman - Young Atlantis
  • Bill Janovitz - Agnes, Queen of Sorrow
  • Patterson Hood - Back of a Bible
  • Laura Veirs - I Can See Your Tracks
  • Feist - Sea Lion Woman
  • Wes Montgomery Trio - Whisper Not
  • Wilco - Theologians
  • Wilco - In A Future Age (Alternate Take)
  • Avett Brothers - The Ballad of Love and Hate
  • Mark Olson & Gary Louris - Saturday Morning on Sunday Street

    Songs/Minutes (approx.): 10/42
    Miscellaneous Question: Why does the television show Royal Pains exist? Just asking.
  • The New Cinephila

    Jonathan Rosenbaum argues that not only do DVD's make developing a deep appreciation of film easier but in some cases they're preferable to watching old or unsubtitled 35mm prints. Almost none of the films Rosenbaum mentions are what I'd call easily accessible to the average viewer, but the larger point about DVD's expanding the reach of a film is well taken. How many DVD's of films that never came to your multiplex are available at your local big box stores? (Cineaste)

    Surely the varieties of contemporary film viewing are already wide enough to encompass both kinds within the experiences of most cinephiles. Even those film lovers I know who live in remote rural outposts and depend mainly on digital viewing typically venture into cities periodically in order to view some films in more optimal form. I would argue, in fact, that what qualifies as “optimal” viewing can vary enormously from film to film and from one set of conditions to another. Although obviously all of us should see Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in new 35mm prints, I’m not at all certain that all of us should forego the rich edifications of Yuri Tsivian and Joan Neuberger’s audiovisual essays about the film on Criterion’s DVD in exchange for that privilege. So we need to step away from absolutist positions about the future and make use of the best possible choices available to us in the present.

    Friday, May 28, 2010

    Do the Shuffle #65

  • Neko Case - Lion's Jaw
  • Alec Ounsworth - When You've No Eyes
  • Sara Watkins - All This Time
  • Lou Reed - Romeo Had Juliette
  • Let's Go Thundering - Robyn Hitchcock
  • Daniel Lanois - Where Will I Be
  • Rhett Miller - Sometimes
  • Dave Rawlings Machine - Bells of Harlem
  • Mark Olson & Gary Louris - Bicycle
  • She & Him - Lingering Still
  • Paramore - Misguided Ghosts

    Songs/Minutes (approx.) -11/40
    Miscellaneous Fact: I wasn't going to post this shuffle, but the second half hit a nice flow; it's a sequence of songs I might have picked if I was hosting a late night radio show. Yes, even the Paramore song - how did that get in there?
  • Thursday, May 27, 2010

    Sex and the City 2

    I'm not going to spend much time considering the cultural relevance or impact of the horrible Sex and the City 2 because I think that even many of those who liked the first installment (I didn't) will find this outing a bore. If SATC2 will be remembered for anything it's as an example of how badly it's possible for the writers and producers of a multi-miliion dollar motion picture to misunderstand both ordinary human behavior and things outside of their immediate experience. The first SATC at least provided a button for the relationship of Carrie and Mr. Big; the film ended with Samantha's 50th birthday party and seemed to be a yielding of the stage to a younger generation of fashion-dazzled young Manhattan women.

    Not so fast; this time there's a crisis in the marriage of Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie to Mr. Big (Chris Noth). Two years in it seems that Carrie is unhappy because she and the Mister aren't going out enough. Quiet dinners (takeout of course) and old movies aren't enough for our girl, who fears boredom like a virus and hasn't realized that marriage means accountability to another person. A deadline for Vogue prompts the first of many ridiculous plot twists, the idea of Carrie and Mr. Big taking two days off from their marriage each week. In a movie that is genuinely offensive longtime fans of the series should most disgusted by the fact that the films present the ladies as able to conceive of life only as a series of superficial pleasures.

    The second half of the film involves a trip to Abu Dhabi for reasons that don't matter. We're told Abu Dhabi is the fun and swinging "New Middle East," but when Samantha (Kim Cattrall) offends Muslim standards of propriety the movie essentially becomes a cartoon full of swarthy men and women who secretly yearn for couture. SATC 2 is the opposite of one of those unmanned space probes that broadcast welcome message and old songs; Carrie and her friends, it seems, are a mirror that the rest of the world's women long to see themselves reflected in. I haven't even mentioned Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) or Charlotte (Kristin Davis, always my favorite) because now I don't like them anymore either. Let SATC 2 be your farewell to Carrie and the girls, four emblems of their time who hung around too long.

    Tuesday, May 25, 2010

    Looking that way

    Everybody's excited about Janelle Monae these days; I love this post about Monae's role in a wave of forward-looking African-American women. (Crunk Feminist Collective/Parabasis)

    With ArchAndroid, I’ve been transported and transformed.

    What you and your wonder twin have done this year for music is like what Octavia did for Afro-futurism before she transitioned.
    Prophets heralding a new world era where black women, clothes on or stripped bare are changing the game.

    Having a wonder twin and twin myself, I really love that way of naming your relationship to Erykah Badu. Where as she sometimes gives an audience a thread to hold onto in the way of a sample or familiar phrase while gently pulling us by the heart and third eye to the future, you ask that we tip on it, take a risk and jump; sink or swim, fall or fly. Well luckily I am properly prepared, newly reminded that I’m 20 feet tall and I can jump up in the air and stay there.

    Byrne v. Crist

    David Byrne sues Florida Gov. and Senate candidate Charlie Crist over Crist's use of the song "Road to Nowhere" in an ad. Here's why this is wrong, from Byrne's blog:

    Now, there is such a thing as fair use. Typically the type of free use that doesn’t require a permission might be a student quoting a passage in a book to make a point in a graduate paper, or someone using part (not all) of “Road to Nowhere” to identify, say, the marching groove in that song as a metaphor for the inexorable forward momentum of time, or some such notion. These uses are typically exempt from licensing, permission and fees. In this case, however, the use was not to comment on or explain something about “Road to Nowhere,” ’80s music in general, Talking Heads or Cajun accordion riffs — it was used solely to further Governor Crist’s advertising strategy in his Senate primary campaign… a campaign that has nothing to do with me or my music.

    Just Wright

    I was unprepared for how much I enjoyed the understated sports romance Just Wright, in which producer/star Queen Latifah gets a rare chance to be more than just a personality on screen. In the role of Leslie Wright, a single physical therapist and avid New Jersey Nets fan (the movie's biggest element of fantasy is putting the Nets in the NBA Finals), Latifah displays a previously unseen facility for romantic longing. She also gets to play that rarest of all roles in American movies, that of a single woman genuinely fulfilled by her career. Leslie would love to meet men as easily as her friend Morgan (Paula Patton) of course, but there's a new house and plenty in her life that keeps her busy. (Is Just Wright the first movie in which a character takes advantage of the depressed housing market?)

    Leslie's life is changed by a chance encounter with Nets point guard Scott McKnight (Common). McKnight may be the most unbelievably sensitive pro athlete ever put on screen, he's a closet pianist and can confidently discuss the works of Joni Mitchell and Charles Mingus. Common seems like strange casting for this role, but he finds all sorts of unexpected notes of vulnerability that make his relationship with Leslie more than just a story about a working girl striking it rich. Speaking of rich, Paula Patton's Morgan is an unapologetic gold digger; it's to Patton's credit that despite her aspirations to the lifestyle of NBA wife we don't hate her for (almost) the entire movie. Just Wright is a movie about adults making adult choices; it's really no surprise you probably haven't seen it.

    Monday, May 24, 2010

    Last Lost

    (Generic spoiler warning!)
    I take no pleasure in saying negative things about last night's Lost finale, since like so many others I've made the adventures of Jack, Locke, and the rest part of my life for the last six years. (Five years really, I didn't watch the first season until the DVD was released.) Even with 2 1/2 hours to work with I had my doubts as to whether Lost could accomplish all it had to do - resolve the island story, deal with the "sideways" timeline, and answers, dammit, answers - with enough of a feeling of inevitability to rank it with The Shield, the greatest series finale of my TV-watching life.

    What's the verdict? Not too bad really; in bringing the "Man In Black" island story to what felt like its inevitable conclusion Lost pulled off the required thrills with characteristic nimbleness. Jack's ascension to guardianship of the island has brought a welcome swagger to Matthew Fox's acting and I loved his confrontation with Locke ("You're kind of the obvious choice....") and the final showdown on the crumbling island. Jack's decision to sacrifice himself for the island and the others wasn't a shock but it felt exactly right, though I actually saw Kate taking over rather than Hurley. As for the Man In Black, Terry O'Quinn continued to alternate between offhandedness and sociopathic behavior with chilling quickness. I only felt the tension slack in one scene; when the group arrives at the bamboo forest and Jack, MIB, and Desmond split off from the group the three seem weirdly comfortable cooperating in the cave given the circumstances. (Also, the bamboo forest felt like it was about 10 yards long.) On the level of pure pulp storytelling, Lost went out with flourishes that recalled the energy and newness of the pilot.

    My reservations about the finale are extensions of my issues with certain long form choices made about this season. I began to think Lost might be out of gas about the time everyone agreed to detonate the nuclear bomb. Even by the standards of the show that choice seemed a reach. With regards to last night I thought we saw certain limitations of the Man In Black character. If the central villain is going to be supernatural then the writers would do well to grounded him with some kind of internal logic. To be blunt, when and why did he become mortal? More importantly, why does the smoke monster need a plane to get off the island? Those are just plot points; I'm not one who needs every sign and symbol explained but the reason that the conflict between Jacob and MIB felt so deeply boring was not only did we not know what was at stake it didn't feel like there was a serious attempt to explain it to us. Of course, it now seems that Lost was a show about "community." Jack had his friends and MIB (for a time) his followers. For the result of their battles to come down to the fact that Jack's community was willing to help him while Locke wound up on his own was dramatically underwhelming.

    Last night's most significant flaw, and where the show falls down a notch in my view, was in the handling of the "sideways" timeline. If I had to sum up the finale in a sentence I'd call it a transparent attempt to end the island story with all the attendant consequences while at the same time giving the characters everything they want. In the sideways world Jack and the others (after being "awakened") have all the memories and lessons of the island in mind while being rewarded by the presence of friends and lovers thought long dead. The fact that it all happened because they went through the island together must be especially galling to Walt, Mr. Eko, and Ana Lucia. The "real" Locke gets his legs back and is surrounded by his mates; there is nothing I take greater offense to as a fan than the fact that Locke didn't live to see view of the island proven right. Like so many others he became an accessory to jack learning things and becoming the person he was supposed to be. A last season in which Jack was the MIB and Locke the leader of the islanders would have been a much juicier payoff of the faith-action conflict. Lost always anticipated and staged the deaths of its characters well; it's disappointing to see the show at the end pay no heed to the finality of death.

    I count myself a serious Lost fan. I was never as engaged as others in theories and the show's interactive aspects but was content to go along for the ride. I will miss Locke, Jack, Kate, and the rest. Yet ending the show with all aboard Oceanic 815 in the afterlife (How many years did Kate and Sawyer live after the plane landed?) cheapens the lives, the stories, and what it all means. If only it all didn't have to "mean something."

    Saturday, May 22, 2010

    Early Sunday Music: Janelle Monae - "Tightrope"

    Just got this CD today. Thanks, Parabasis!

    Treme trepidation

    I eagerly watched the first three episodes of Treme but haven't gotten around to watching any more. It seems I'm not the only one having doubts about the show and feeling bad about those doubts. My hesitation has a specific root; I can't stand Davis, the character played by Steve Zahn, who feels like David Simon's attempt to cram in everything about being a New Orleans lifer that he couldn't figure out how to dramatize. (The scene in which Davis explains why he blasts his gay neighbors with loud rap music was a low point.) I checked out just as a plot line about Davis running for city council was getting started. Davis would be a fine drinking companion for those cranky newsmen in Season 5 of The Wire.

    What have I liked about Treme? The work of Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters especially; the scene in which Peters's Mardi Gras Indians are interrupted by a "Katrina Tour" while serenading a dead friend is David Simon at his best. I hope John Goodman's video blogging and Rob Brown's objections to New Orleans jazz have become compelling in my absence.

    Friday, May 21, 2010

    The Swell Season @ The Orange Peel 05.20.10

    Last night I had the pleasure of attending my first concert at the Orange Peel Social Aid & Pleasure Club in Asheville, NC. I can't attest to what the "Social Aid" is supposed to be other than attending a great show with friends, but The Swell Season more than did their part in providing the pleasure. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova played songs from their last album Strict Joy as well as familiar tunes from the Once soundtrack to a delighted audience. The two switched off on acoustic guitar and piano and were backed by a 4 piece band. Irglova's lead vocals opened the show but Hansard sang the bulk of the songs; I don't mean to diminish Irglova or the fragile beauty of her songs but it was Hansard the crowd came to see.

    The singer couldn't have been a more engaging presence, warmly praising the city and recounting his day in between singing in his trademark head-about-to-explode style. Hansard onstage wants to expand the boundaries of what's possible with each song; to turn both old favorites and new tunes like "Low Rising" and "Feeling The Pull" into moments of joy, communion, and even healing. You'd think he'd get tired or phone one in after awhile, but the fact that he didn't is why this review sounds like a gush. His solo cover of Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" was a highlight of the evening and maybe the greatest live musical moment I've ever seen. Hansard honors the original and at once makes the song his own. The video above is not from last night but you'll get the idea.


    Thinking about maturity in the films of Noah Baumbach would be useful in thinking about Greenberg, Baumbach's latest and in my opinion best film. In both Kicking and Screaming and The Squid and the Whale Baumbach's lead characters seem overly mature for their age and situation but no happier for it. Grover (Josh Hamilton) is stuck in a post-college holding pattern and can't seem to articulate a feeling or a desire for most of Kicking while Jesse Eisenberg's Walt Berkman apes his novelist father's selfish behavior but is too bereft over his parent's divorce to realize doing that isn't winning him any fans in Squid. On Baumbach's other films, I'll confess that I've seen but forgotten Mr. Jealousy and sort of wish I could forget Margot at the Wedding.

    So we come to Greenberg, the story of a few weeks in the life of Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller). Greenberg is a fortyish carpenter from New York come to L.A. without a driver's license to housesit for his more successful brother (Chris Messina) and ease his way back into the world after a stay in a mental hospital for vaguely explained reasons. Greenberg's self-proclaimed plan is to "do nothing" for a time, a goal that looks especially thin when he attends a party at the home of a successful friend (Mark Duplass) with whom he'd once almost gotten a record deal before Greenberg's last-minute scuttling of the contract. At the same party Greenberg meets an ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who gets a story credit with husband Baumbach) who can barely mask her horror at his lack of purpose. If Greenberg belonged to its title character alone the film would quickly grow tiresome; Greenberg's chief hobby is writing elaborate complaint letters and he's prone to bitterly sarcastic outbursts at those closest to him.

    The other major character in Greenberg is Florence (Greta Gerwig), the 25-year old assistant to Greenberg's brother who becomes a (verbal) punching bag and potential lover to Roger soon after they meet. Florence is enjoying her fourth year of post-college malaise; she probably would have been friends with the Kicking and Screaming gang in school but couldn't have kept up with their irony-laced drinking games. I don't know whether Gerwig's unactory style is the product of hard work or just comes naturally (though I loved her drunken dance to "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey"), but it's just right for Florence. Although Florence is justifiably hurt by Greenberg's outbursts she's also attracted to his aimlessness, and Gerwig underplays that conflict beautifully. Stiller's performance here is pared to the bone, completely free of mannerism. There are acting moments in Greenberg better than anything Stiller has ever done; a drug-fueled rant at a party full of 19-year olds is hilariously angry and scared and a confessional baring of the soul to another ex-bandmate (Rhys Ifans) reveals Greenberg's deeper issues.

    Here we are back to maturity. There's a strong misanthropic streak running through Baumbach's films at least since Mr. Jealousy; anger cloaked in humor and buried resentment give his characters a more specific version of indie movie malaise. (Whatever the male version of the Manic Pixie is, Baumbach's characters are its angry older cousin) Greenberg is the first Baumbach hero looking to push past the shell of irony and disappointment to a deeper connection. One of the charms of Stiller's performance is the way he uncovers Greenberg's surprise at wanting to reconnect with his old life, particularly the characters played by Ifans and Leigh. A lesser director would have given Greenberg his reboot and I'm not suggesting that the character is deserving or even likable; yet there's a poignant pre-middle age need to connect here that I haven't seen in Baumbach's other films. Yes, Greenberg tweaks the expectations we've formed from too many bad romantic comedies, but I don't think that's all the film is. The winter L.A. sun has done something to Noah Baumbach's corrosive spirit, and Greenberg is the beginning of the next phase of his career.

    Thursday, May 20, 2010

    The Too Many Poets problem

    Are there too many poets? Or too many MFA-anoited poets anyway. The "things are never as good as they used to be" argument never gets very far with me, since any art form that doesn't change to some degree with the times will die. I wonder though if the business model of producing poets doesn't wind up flattening out the end product. I don't pretend to have answers to these questions, but it's always fun to hear different generations go at it. (Nothing to Say...)

    Has the ubiquity of MFA programs done something to diminish the quality of writing being done today? I can imagine it could. Some situations and times are not conducive to the artistic sensibility. But poets of lasting value are always rare for any time period. Are there really fewer than before? Are we “allowing” too many voices into the choir? There is a critique that I often hear and kind of agree with, that there are simply too many books being published. It makes it impossible to find the hay in the needle-stack. But as soon as I think to myself, well, what would I propose, I back away from my criticism, because it would mean denying participation by someone, and who knows what might be lost then? (Probably nothing much, but still, the possibility is enough to keep me from getting all reactionary.) Beyond that, what has the MFA done to harm anyone? Mostly, from what I’ve seen, it’s just people sitting around talking about each other’s poems. I suppose that could be damaging to a young poet if the people were saying really dumb things, but mostly I’ve seen that the things said in workshops are rather benign, and were often constructive, especially when talking about how to read poetry as opposed to how to write poetry.

    Wednesday, May 19, 2010

    Do the Shuffle #64

  • Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians - Upside Down Church Blues
  • Cowboy Junkies - To Live Is To Fly
  • Nickel Creek - The Fox (live)
  • Decemberists - The Perfect Crime #2 (live)
  • Bill Frisell - Lovesick Blues
  • Ryan Adams - Tennessee Sucks
  • Belly - Slow Dog
  • Throwing Muses - Bright Yellow Gun
  • Joe Henry - Our Song

    Songs/Minutes (approx.) - 9/43
    Miscellaneous Fact: Have you heard "Our Song"? I've heard it a few times of course but really focused on it today; such a great hymn to America in the early 21st century and probably worthy of Dylan.
  • Tuesday, May 18, 2010

    2 out of 3

    There's a great point lurking at the heart of this post about some recent albums. For the record, I'm also very high on The Drive-By Truckers The Big To-Do and The New Pornographers Together but am still working on the new Hold Steady album. But anyway:

    We hear a lot about the death of music, but it's really about the death of the current business model for the music industry.

    I couldn't have said it better myself. No matter what's happening in the outer sphere of corporate media entities it would all be moot if someone wasn't creating the next great band/novel/film/play/etc. in their garage right now.

    Monday, May 17, 2010

    Not Ridley Scott's Next Movie

    Robin Hood was once a script called Nottingham in which the Sheriff was the main character and used "period forensics" to catch Robin. This slightly whiny post reveals the problem: directors. (Sex In A Submarine/Cinematical)

    They needed a director that Russell Crowe likes - he’s the star, gotta make him happy - so they hired Ridley Scott. That sounds great, doesn’t it? You write a script, everybody loves it, you sell it for a bunch of money in a bidding war, and now Russell Crowe is going to star and Ridley Scott is going to direct. I’ll tell you - I would be dancing on clouds if that happened to me. So excited I could not sleep for months.

    Except if everyone loves the script, the director is ranked #2... and that can not be! Film is a director’s medium, right? The director must be the most important person on the film! Hey, I’m just guessing about Ridley Scott’s motivations, I don’t really know. What I do know is that he wanted massive rewrites done to the screenplay that everybody loved.

    Sunday, May 16, 2010

    Dept. of Contradictions

    Yep, Facebook needs to do something about privacy. A good first step might be for Mark Zuckerberg to talk to us. This post nicely gets at some of the contradictions surrounding Facebook's relationship with privacy and our double standards about it. (Venture Beat)

    Another long-time Facebook employee Yishan Wong, who recently left, wrote that the company spends an immense amount of time focusing on how users want to control information on Quora: “My observation of Facebook as a company (its people, including its executives) is that it cares a lot about privacy. It spends a lot of time thinking about it, it spends a lot of time thinking about how to protect its users’ privacy, and then (ironically) it is continually surprised at how the vast majority of its users don’t end up really caring at all to make use of various privacy-protection mechanisms built into the products.

    He added, “Mark Zuckerberg probably cares about privacy, but he probably also understands it in a far deeper way than most people do, because he has to work with it in a real and practical sense, and so if he “doesn’t believe in it,” it’s in the way that someone doesn’t “believe in” a primitive and unexamined view of something when he has had to personally develop a fuller and deeper understanding of it.”

    The problem is that privacy is not generally understood to be a reciprocal right, according to Wong. People love to invade other people’s privacy, but are upset when the same is done to them. Hence, every time Facebook has become more open and public, its usage has gone up because people suddenly get more access to each other’s information.

    Sunday Music: The White Stripes - "We're Going To Be Friends"

    ..from Sydney, Australia. The recently released tour documentary Under Great White Northern Lights includes this song but only as the background to a montage.

    Friday, May 14, 2010

    Robin Hood

    This probably isn't the Robin Hood you were expecting. Ridley Scott's loud, clanging take on the story of England's most famous outlaw might as well be a superhero movie for all the time it spends on origins and Robin's development of a sense of right and wrong. There's no idyll in Sherwood Forest here; Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) and his love and comrade-in-arms Marian (Cate Blanchett) don't arrive in the forest until literally the last scene of the movie. Before that there are two hours plus of court politics and motivation as Scott takes Robin from a skilled but inconsequential archer in the army of Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) to the leader of the English citizenry's quest for individual liberty.

    Scott's Robin Hood owes something visually to Braveheart, the weather is unrelentingly cloudy and the production design favors dank and realistic over the soundstage look. The action is sharp and close-in; there are no slo-mo montages set to Lisa Gerrard songs and that choice feels right. The climactic battle scene on a beach is a tactile flurry of sand, water, and blood. I wish the dramatic scenes had been as nimbly put together as the action material. When callow King John (Oscar Isaac) assumes the throne there is much discussion of taxes and loyalties. The King's mother Eleanor (Eileen Atkins) and the loyal Marshal (William Hurt) don't have much to do other than stand around and fret while the traitorous Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong, better used in other roles) makes an alliance with the French King.

    What does all this have to do with Robin? Not very much at first, since his main goal is get safely home from the Crusades. A chance encounter with a dying knight leads to Nottingham and assuming the identity of Robin Loxley with the assistance of Marian and Loxley's father (a spry Max Von Sydow, whom I would have happily have seen more of). What slows the movie down is Scott's determination to have Robin not be only an action hero but the founder of modern democratic ideals as well. A garbled backstory involving Robin's father leads to a long scene of speeches that stops the movie's momentum. All this seriousness of purpose doesn't allow Crowe much room to breathe, it's a dour and interior performance. Blanchett nicely suggests reserves of long-buried emotion but is also on the sidelines for too long. Robin Hood has talent and style to burn but is dragged down by its need to make its hero relevant. Ridley Scott and his team could have used a little more of that outlaw spirit.

    For Rent: Surveillance

    If Jennifer Lynch's Surveillance had been released around 1993 its deadpan violence, narrative feints, and "shocking" twist would have generated a minor outcry. In 2010 this tale of thrill killers and a couple of FBI agents (Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond) with unconventional interrogation methods feels like something assembled out of spare parts. The agents are charged with interviewing the survivors of a brutal highway attack, and as they recount their stories we get to see what really happened. Almost everyone has something to hide; a shaken young woman (Pell James) had just come from robbing a dead drug dealer's stash and the cop (Kent Harper) whose partner was killed is actually a sociopath who shoots out drivers' tires and then busts them for speeding. The only innocent is Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins), the child whose parents and brother were victims of the spree killers.

    Stephanie is the bearer of the film's "meaning." She carries around a small portable TV on which we hear news reports about the hunt for the killers. The TV screen is actually the last shot of the movie in the slightly preferable alternate ending on the DVD. Everyone in Surveillance who commits violent acts perceives their behavior only through the way others perceive them. This kind of self-awareness feels dated, and I think there's a reason serial killers movies are out of vogue right now. The theme of killers' obsession with their image dates back to at least Bonnie & Clyde, but when anyone can be famous on the web then the need to be feared and understood via violence loses its dramatic power. Lynch has an unconventional eye for casting (French Stewart, Cheri Oteri, Michael Ironside) and by all rights Surveillance should be the end of using early Violent Femmes music in movies. Yet Surveillance is the type of movie where you'll guess the ending twenty minutes in, dismiss it as too obvious, and then unhappily be proven right.

    Thursday, May 13, 2010

    Ellison's Folly?

    Ralph Ellison as one of the great examples of writer's block in American letters? Not quite, saya a new book by one of those charged with going through his papers and assembling his unfinished second novel. (C.H.E)

    Three Days Before the Shooting ... , the version that Callahan and Bradley assembled from the second-novel notes and drafts in the Ellison archive, runs to almost a thousand pages. It's a big book in every sense, full of democracy and demagoguery, race and religion, fathers (real and surrogate) and sons.

    The archival evidence suggests that the computer gave Ellison more latitude for experimentation. "You can see Ellison at play in the computer files," Bradley says. "You can see him riffing on the word itself and having a lot of fun with his creation. At the same time, you can sense that the computer may have become an enabler of certain of Ellison's literary foibles, the biggest one being his near-mania for revision."

    Do the Shuffle #63

  • Cowboy Junkies - Spiral Down
  • Sara Watkins - Will We Go
  • Elvis Costello & The Attractions - B-Movie
  • Emmylou Harris - Where Will I Be
  • Dan Auerbach - The Prowl
  • Drive-By Truckers - Wednesday
  • Swell Season - Back Broke
  • My Morning Jacket - Two Halves
  • Robyn Hitchcock - Full Moon In My Soul
  • Bishop Allen - South China Moon
  • Sonic Youth - No Way
  • Kristin Hersh - Under The Gun

    Songs/Minutes (approx.) - 12/40
    Miscellaneous Fact: I don't usually do these two days ina row, but this list was different enough from yesterday I thought it was worth posting.
  • Wednesday, May 12, 2010

    City Island

    A low-key, winning movie that I think might actually have played a little better with a no-name cast. Andy Garcia is appealingly beleaguered as Vince, a corrections officer from a sealed-off fishing community in the Bronx with secret dreams of being an actor. The movie hinges on whether or Vince can be honest with himself about his own ambitions and honest with his family about the existence of a son (Steven Strait) from a long-ago relationship. The acting class Vince sneaks off to leaves plenty of room for misunderstandings since Vince's wife (Julianna Margulies) doesn't know a thing about her husband's ambitions. It's fun seeing Vince blunder his way into a part in a Scorsese movie by being himself and there's an appealing non-romantic relationship with Emily Mortimer as a fellow acting student. I wish writer/director Raymond De Felitta hadn't felt the need to fill the movie with loud ethnic arguments and indie-style quirkiness for Vince's kids. Vince, Jr.'s (Ezra Miller) fetish for overweight women in particular could have been rethought. Alan Arkin has one good scene as an acting teacher unimpressed with Brando-style emoting but is barely around for the rest of the movie. Both Garcia and Margulies get a bit too broad at moments - my attention was on capital A acting more than it should have been - but their built-in appeal carries us through to a climax of multiple revelations. City Island tries too hard at times but its family is very un-movieish and I liked this story of how Vince finding the courage to be who he was all along.

    Geeking out about "Across The Sea"

    Here are a couple of takes on last night's Lost worth reading, one from the LA Times and another from the Antenna blog that I'm slowly becoming a fan of. I'd agree with Todd that last night's episode can't really be judged until we know the rest of the story, but I think the efforts of "Across The Sea" to give the show a mythic sweep only partially paid off. How did Allison Janney's character get there? More importantly, the one "revelation" I haven't seen discussed anywhere involves the "Smoke Monster." I think I had assumed that the Titus Welliver character ("Man In Black") had somehow acquired the ability to change shape and become the Monster. After all, his brother Jacob seems to have no problem time traveling and doing other mystical things.

    "Across The Sea" reverses expectations; the Monster is released when Jacob throws his brother's body down the Cave of Light and the Monster then takes on MIB's form. That is to say, the Monster and the MIB are not the same entity. This leads to a whole other series of questions and gets to the heart of what I think is the major flaw of this season. Jack, Kate, and the gang have slowly been sapped of their agency; they're caught in a battle between two opposing forces and what's at stake just hasn't been dramatized well enough. It's possible that I'll reverse my view after the series finale of course, but for now I'm sticking with Season 6 as just a playing out of the string.

    Do the Shuffle #62

  • Iggy Pop - The Passenger
  • R.E.M. - Pilgrimage
  • Iron & Wine - Bird Stealing Bread
  • Mary Chapin Carpenter/Shawn Colvin/Roseanne Cash - You Ain't Goin' Nowhere (from the Bob Dylan 30th anniversary album)
  • Gary Louris/Mark Olson - Doves and Stones
  • Breeders - Metal Man
  • Tom Waits - You Can Never Hold Back Spring
  • Joe Henry - Helena By The Avenue
  • Belly - Full Moon, Empty Heart
  • Dave Rawlings Machine - Ruby
  • Liz Phair - Never Said
  • Neko Case - Outro With Bees

    Total Songs/Minutes (approx.): 12/42
    Miscellaneous Fact: Still can't get my head around Allison Janney on Lost.
  • Tuesday, May 11, 2010

    I wonder if they pledged frats

    I love this tidbit about Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem at Bennington; it's part of a longer interview that will be best enjoyed if you're familiar with Ellis's work. His next novel, Imperial Bedrooms, is a kind of sequel to Less Than Zero. (Vice)

    Oh, really?
    We were in the same class at Bennington.

    I didn’t know that. What was he like in school?
    Nice. He was a nice guy. I had no idea that he wanted to be a writer. He wasn’t in any of the main workshops. Like Donna Tartt would be in there, and Jill Eisenstadt. You know, the people who really wanted to write were the people who always managed to get into the major workshop that term. And Jonathan never got into any of them. And then I got a galley in the mail a long time after we graduated, and it was for a novel by Jonathan Lethem about talking animals or something. And I was like, “What the hell is this?”

    Sunday, May 09, 2010

    NP casting news

    NP is rumored to be among many interested in the role of Lisbeth,the hacker at the center of David Fincher's adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Carey Mulligan has been reported to be campaigning for the role, and Noomi Rapace is getting good reviews for her performance in the Swedish version.

    An insider has claimed that Fincher "is not sure if he wants to go with an actress of any note or go with an unknown". The source added: "David's process is very specific and private. He's looking for authenticity and a degree of fierceness and believability capable of delivering the intensity that the part on the page calls for."

    Movie set faux pas: hitting on Natalie Portman and finding out it's actually Keira Knightley. (Daily Mail)

    Do the Shuffle #61

    A special drive-to-work edition:

  • Poi Dog Pondering - Ta Bouche est Tabu (live)
  • Wilco - Jesus, Etc. (live)
  • Alec Ounsworth - Obscene Queen Bee #2
  • Red House Painters - Japanese To English
  • Spinanes - Sunday

    Total Songs/Minutes. (approx.): 5/22
    Miscellaneous Fact: A pretty good set for 5.30 am on a Sunday....
  • Sunday Music: Youssou N'Dour - "Cheikh Ibra Fall"

    A song from the Egypt album mentioned in the previous post. I can't find the English lyrics online but the song is a tribute to a key figure in Senegalese Islam.

    Saturday, May 08, 2010

    Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love

    The Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour, arguably the most famous living African musician, is known in this country primarily for the guest appearances he makes on other artists' albums. N'Dour is the foreign voice on Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" and his biggest international hit to date is "7 Seconds," a duet with Neneh Cherry. In his home country and continent N'Dour is a beloved figure both for his music and his activism; the first thing we see in Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love is N'Dour asking his countrymen in song to ignore religious, tribal, and geographical boundaries for the purpose of strengthening Africa. The film is loaded with N'Dour's music, but any Westerner approaching the songs without a working knowledge of the African political and religious figures mentioned in the lyrics is missing at least half the music's import.

    If I Bring What I Love was only a biography of N'Dour it would be interesting enough. N'Dour's parents were of two different castes, giving him roots in both traditional griot culture and a more modern outlook. As a teenager there was an aborted attempt to leave Senegal and start a musical career before he found success with The Star Band and then on his own. Fortunately Vasarhelyi's camera captures N'Dour at a time when combining his music with his Sufi Muslim beliefs led to unexpected results. The Egypt album (released in 2004 after being delayed due to 9/11), recorded with Egyptian musicians working with N'Dour's regular band, was an attempt to honor Senegalese religious figures in popular song. Though the film follows N'Dour on a successful European tour (the Egyptian musicians refuse to play a show in Ireland until the club cuts off the alcohol) in Senegal the Egypt album was greeted with confusion and disdain. The criticism against N'Dour for (perceived) insults against Islam is presented almost entirely in a montage of newspaper headlines. If I Bring What I Love has a weakness it is the failure to give N'Dour's detractors a voice; the most prominent religious figure we meet is Moustapha Mbaye, the "official" griot singer of the Prophet Muhammad. Mbaye seems to have no issue with N'Dour's music and even records a duet with him when Egypt is rereleased in Senegal.

    The title I Bring What I Love refers to N'Dour's desire to combine the two biggest forces in his life, music and religion, into something new that will reach a mass audience. N'Dour remains gently perplexed throughout by the way Egypt is received in Senegal; it isn't until the album wins a Grammy that things begin to turn around. Vasarhelyi doesn't overstate N'Dour's impact on Senegal's religious culture, but for a Western audience the singer and the film are a powerful commercial for our failure to understand the breadth and variety of the Muslim religion. There isn't the slightest suggestion that N'Dour's personal safety is at risk despite the criticism, and there's no sense of the government using religious law to control behavior. Women in N'Dour's family and on his staff are respected and counted on. In short, the practice of Sufi Islam as depicted here is far removed from the stereotypes our minds leap to when we watch CNN or episodes of 24. I doubt that one documentary about one singer can serve to bridge gaps that have inspired wars, but the deeply optimistic I Bring What I Love is needed both for its subject's bravery and the glimpse into a different side of an foreign culture.

    Friday, May 07, 2010

    Iron Man 2

    Iron Man 2 happily avoids the bigger/heavier/louder pattern that megabudget sequels fall into; see the second Transformers or the Spider-Man follow-ups for examples. With Jon Favreau again in the director's chair the movie zips along, gleefully aware of its own inconsequence, and there is a sense of play throughout that's mirrored in the fun that Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark has with his flying suit and other toys.

    The first Iron Man was lightly engaged with real-world politics; Tony built the first Iron Man suit while being held prisoner in the Middle East and learned to his chagrin that American-made weapons sometimes fall into the hands of those fighting America. This time out Favreau and writer Justin Theroux pull back for a broader view. Six months after revealing his identity at the end of the first installment Tony is under siege from the feds (who want the suit to become part of America's arsenal) and rival magnate Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). Oh, and that glowing thing in the middle of Tony's chest? There's a downside. Hammer's goal is basic: If the secrets behind the suit are revealed he can make billions copying Stark's work and selling Iron Man suits to the Pentagon. Rockwell has fun giving Hammer fussiness and vanity 180 degrees removed from Stark's sensuality, and when Hammer frees renegade Russian scientist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) from prison Stark may be on the defensive for the first time. Rourke is one of the movie's biggest assets and perhaps its most wasted opportunity. After Vanko's bold assault on Stark during a Grand Prix race early on Rourke has little to do except tinker with things in Hammer's lab and stare at computer screens. I don't know if I completely bought the accent, but who cares? Rourke visibly relishes his character's crazy hair and body's worth of tattoos; he doesn't overplay to compensate for his relatively few lines but controls all his scenes through sheer willpower. Rourke's charisma is more than enough to make Vanko's hatred of Stark feel personal and specific.

    Once Vanko and Hammer start building knockoffs of the Iron Man suit there isn't much doubt where things are headed, but the cast is fun enough to make the ride enjoyable. Gwyneth Paltrow's role as Stark's secretary Pepper Potts has been beefed up, and she and Downey have an easy chemistry. Scarlett Johansson, as an assistant with an agenda, isn't asked to do much except look hot during the climactic mayhem but she's a pleasant enough addition to the Marvel Universe. John Slattery is ideal as Stark's late father Howard; Slattery looks like he could have a couple of Sterling Cooper junior execs for lunch. Only Don Cheadle (stepping in for Terrence Howard) as Stark's friend/sidekick Rhodey (aka "War Machine") seems lost; the overqualified Cheadle isn't used to the mixture of intensity and silliness movies like this require, and Favreau doesn't have time to develop the character. I'll leave it to those more invested than I to discuss the relationship of Iron Man 2 to Marvel's "Avengers" mythology; Samuel L. Jackson clocks in for a few scenes as hero facilitator Nick Fury, but Jackson's scenes are all exposition.

    I didn't expect much from Iron Man 2 but got plenty of something I didn't expect: good fun. In a way it's too bad that Favreau and Downey fire the first shot in Summer 2010, since most of what's to come can't be nearly this entertaining or less full of itself.

    Into Great Silence

    A new book about John Cage's 4'33" fails to consider that it's the reactions to it that say the most about its importance. (New Statesman)

    In refusing to speculate about the reasons for the heated reception of 4'33" outside the concert hall, Gann takes it for granted that what matters most about a piece of music is how it is made, and not how it is performed or received. The result is that he strips 4'33" of many of the qualities that made it daring. With Gann so intent on turning the piece into a hallowed icon of seriousness, one turns with relief to those outraged BBC listeners. For if 4'33" has any importance at all, theirs are the kinds of reactions that register it.

    The Big Reveal

    These celebrity comings-out don't just happen you know; there's a whole plan in place. Meet the man who steered the ship for newly out singer Chely Wright and a host of other gay celebrities. (Speakeasy)

    Wright first met Bragman, who stands six-foot four and has something of a Midwestern manner with a Hollywood sense of humor, last summer over Greek salads at the Brooklyn Diner in mid-town Manhattan. A team of documentary filmmakers who are making a movie about Wright’s coming-out journey recommended that she seek out Bragman’s help in advance of the release of her album, confessional memoir—and the inevitable media blitz.

    Chely Wright, foreground, with publicist Howard Bragman. “Quite frankly, I was scared and I was coming from the conservative community of Nashville and I needed someone who would hold my hand through it all,” recalls Wright. “These filmmakers said to me, ‘You should go see this guy Howard—he’s the best at bringing celebrities out of the closet and he does it with compassion.’ So I didn’t waste another minute. I wanted a publicist who wouldn’t be freaked out by the situation—I wanted someone who could show me the way.”

    Thursday, May 06, 2010

    DFW c. 1996

    A "lost" profile of David Foster Wallace from 1996, which all too clearly foreshadows things to come (good and bad). (Craig Fehrman/Kottke)

    Before long, Wallace had dropped out of his philosphy Ph.D. program at Harvard and stopped trying to publish fiction. Living in a series of crummy apartments around Boston, he began to degenerate. “I was haunted by the idea that I was a sham and a whore and a fraud.”

    He doesn’t want Infinite Jest to be seen as autobiography, which it’s not. On the other hand, if Wallace hadn’t been hospitalized in 1988 and put on a suicide watch, he might not have written so accurately about Kate, a character in Infinite Jest who keeps trying to die: “It’s like something horrible is about to happen,” she explains to her doctor, “there’s the feeling that there’s something you have to do right away to stop it but you don’t know what it is you have to do, and then it’s happening, too, the whole horrible time, it’s about to happen and also it’s hapening all at the same time.”

    Do the Shuffle #60

  • Smithereens- Spellbound
  • Spinanes - Epiphany
  • Kristin Hersh - Peggy Lee
  • Spinanes - Noel, Jonah, and Me
  • Steve Earle - Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold
  • Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Go Easy
  • Mark Kozelek - If You Want Blood
  • Grizzly Bear - Fine For Now
  • Elvis Costello - Veronica
  • Lou Reed - Street Hassle (live)
  • Son Volt - Who

    Total Songs/Minutes (approx.) - 11/41
    Miscellaneous Fact: Found a more aerobically challenging walking path, so a few minutes of music gets traded in for better exercise.
  • Phish 3D

    Phish 3D was an experiment of sorts for me, my first visit to a new theater in my area that offers a special focus on IMAX and 3D features. I've long resisted
    3D, not only because I don't want to pay for jury-rigged movies shot in 2D and then converted later but because I just don't want to wear glasses and dodge imaginary flying objects while I'm watching. There were few such moments in Phish 3D of course, though it did take me a couple of minutes to realize the balloons flying around in front of the band weren't being tossed around by people in the theater.

    There's an undeniable richness to the 3D images; Oh man, Trey Anastasio's guitar is right there! What of the music? I'm a low-key Phish fan, never having seen them live but regularly listening to their live releases. The set list is full of older tunes; "Tweezer," "AC/DC Bag," an acoustic "Wilson", and a joyous "Suzy Greenberg" among others. I was surprised how my attention didn't wander during the jams, but if you don't know the band's music there's absolutely no reason to see Phish 3D. The highlight is an excerpt from the Halloween show; the band's tradition is to cover an entire classic album and the four cuts we get from Exile On Main Street allow the band to step out of their familiar roles. Anastasio looks pleased not to be the center of attention during "Happy" (sung by drummer Jon Fishman) and the horn section and backup singers (including Sharon Jones) steal the show during "Shine A Light." Did 3D add something to the Phish experience? I suppose so, but I'll buy another Phish CD before forking over extra cash for another pair of glasses.

    Tuesday, May 04, 2010

    Trip worth taking

    A review of a new book recounting a road trip with David Foster Wallace; I think this one is next on my list. (Washington Monthly)

    It has become a commonplace in the literary community to call Wallace a genius. This seems to occur in part because he won a MacArthur "genius" grant, which many writers covet, and in part because he wrote about math, which many writers fear. Mostly, though, the plaudit stuck because Wallace was smart and articulate and had the enviable quality of finding everything interesting. But in truth, his appeal lies more in his honesty than his intellect; it is less that his observations were profound than that others lacked the self-scrutiny or courage to voice them. Throughout the road trip, Wallace spoke with disarming candor about difficult issues: a suicide scare in college, an almost crippling fear of how others perceived him, difficulty finding love. No contemporary writer discussed despair and loneliness with such frankness.

    Dept. of Right The First Time

    Actress Rita Tushingham on making Dr. Zhivago, Steven Soderbergh, and not fixing it in the editing room. (Some Came Running)

    And I don’t like it when I hear people say, 'Oh, we can fix it in the editing.' I don’t think that ought to be said. I know sometimes you’re running against a clock. But the craft is…you should be able to do it. People could do it years ago, so why can’t you do it now? And that was something Lean never said, and if there was anyone who actually knew how to fix things in the editing, it was he; editing was where he started. And he would have a very good idea of what he wanted, and he would shoot to get it. Whereas, working with Richard [Lester], you almost felt that he more or less edited as he went along."

    Oh, the leather...

    Christina Aguilera defends "Not Myself Tonight" video. (MTV News)

    But does it need defending? Two things going on here: We don't really know how much of this video was Aguilera's conception, but since she has managed to avoid being Britney-like tabloid fodder I'm inclined to take her full-throated claiming of her own sexuality at face value. I'm of the opinion that Aguilera is demonstrably more talented than her peers, but as this blogger points out the A-list pop divas are often drawing on the same group of songwriters. Does someone in Aguilera's camp feel she has to do stuff like this to stay in the Lady Gaga/Rihanna conversation? If so, too bad. Aguilera's voice may not inspire pseudo-academic web dissertations but it deserves to put her ahead of the competition.

    Monday, May 03, 2010

    Spike speak

    Spike Jonze thinks most of the uproar over Where The Wild Things Are was about parents' expectations, but whatever the truth Jonze's career seems to be heading away from studio features.

    If this suggests that such left-of-centre directors are now losing their power in a system which favours film made by committee rather than uncompromising artists, it doesn't bother Jonze, who has already returned to his roots. Recently making commercials for a Japanese phone company, featuring Brad Pitt and sumo wrestler, he has also started making shorts again. There was a ten-minute skit with Kanye West and, most recently, I'm Here – a quite brilliant 29-minute tale about two robots who fall in love that's somewhat reminiscent of his bizarre video for Daft Punk's song "Da Funk", in which an anthropomorphic dog trolls around New York City.

    Word has it his next project – collaborating with the band Arcade Fire on a piece about friends growing apart – will also be a short.

    Sunday, May 02, 2010

    Thank You Mr. Ebert

    "Don't train for a career, train for a life."

    What the internet is creating is a class of literate, gifted amateur writers, in an old tradition. Like Trollope, who was a British Post official all his working life, they write for love and because they must. Like Rohinton Mistry, a banking executive, or Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive, or Edmund Wilson, who spent his most productive years sitting in his big stone house in upstate New York and writing about what he damned well pleased. Samuel Pepys, who wrote the greatest diary in the language, was a high officials in the British Admiralty. Many people can write well and yearn to, but they are not content, like Pepys, for their work to go unread. A blog on the internet gives them a place to publish. Maybe they don't get a lot of visits, but it's out there. As a young women in San Francisco, Pauline Kael wrote the notes for screenings of great films, and did a little free-lancing. If she'd had a blog, no telling what she might have written during those years.

    The Personal is (A)political?

    Lisa Cholodenko's new film The Kids Are All Right is about a lesbian couple raising kids. If the previous sentence doesn't shock you, then this film is right up your alley. Cholodenko's partner is Wendy Melvoin, one half of former Prince collaborators Wendy and Lisa. (NYT)

    It is a mark of Ms. Cholodenko’s generosity that her characters don’t always act as one might expect, let alone as identity politics dictate. She’s aware that it is “politically incorrect,” as she put it, to show a lesbian character caught up in a torrid heterosexual affair. But, she said, “I see sexuality probably in a more fluid way than many gay and lesbian people.” (Another case in point: The film’s amusing variation on the birds-and-the-bees talk, in which Nic and Jules must explain to their teenage son why his lesbian mothers have a secret stash of gay-male pornography.)

    An audience member in Berlin took Ms. Cholodenko to task for being “not radical at all but really square,” she said, since the movie depicts an alternative family even as it affirms the importance of family. But Ms. Cholodenko has a hard time looking at the film in polemical terms. “It’s about what’s organic for the characters and where my heart is,” she said.

    Sunday Music: St. Vincent, Beck & Liars

    Record Club: INXS "Need You Tonight" from Beck Hansen on Vimeo.

    Doesn't this make you want to dig out your copy of Kick? I'm not exactly sure who Liars are, but this is St. Vincent's show. This video is part of Beck's Record Club series in which he and collaborators cover classic albums. (Muzzle of Bees)

    Saturday, May 01, 2010

    Dept. of Career Paths

    What is David Gordon Green up to? There's word of an animated MTV series to come; while a comparison with the more commercial efforts of Steven Soderbergh is interesting, I agree with the point that one always feels Soderbergh is making his film. I'd love to see Green get a chance to become the Kelly Reichardt of the American South; if he has to knock out a pot comedy in odd years so be it. (IFC)

    The difference is tonal: Soderbergh is instinctively a chilly, cerebral filmmaker who's unconcerned with what audiences want (the "Ocean's" movies are pleasing because that's part of the concept), while Green -- even at his artiest -- is instinctively a populist (the lushness of "George Washington" and "All The Real Girls" is there to dilute the sting of the more painful material).

    The problem may turn out to be that Green is a little too committed to playing within the genre rules as much as possible. It's hard to imagine Soderbergh paying such scrupulous homage to the likes of "Tango & Cash" (one of Green's favorite movies) without trying to tinker with the formula. But there (and on "Eastbound and Down," where Green flawlessly imitated Jody Hill's style while he was out of town), Green demonstrated his willingness to purge everything interesting about his work if necessary.