Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Dept. of The Deep Archives

Today I found this year-old post that celebrates the Buffalo Tom song "For All to See", a rarity off of the No Alternative compilation. I remember the song well, though I'd already become a fan (never saw them live, alas) thanks to the Big Red Letter Day album. Still, there's something about this song....this post does a good job of explaining what's great about "For All To See" while admitting that it's really not something that can be put into words. Art in a nutshell. Enjoy. (....and how great was the No Alternative compilation?)
“For All To See” is exactly what I wanted to see from them as a single, and what is a guaranteed million-seller compilation but the biggest opportunity to release a single (that isn’t really a single) ever? Thank god they didn’t use another ballad here—I would have been tearing my hair out. No, the only reason I ever found “For All To See” frustrating was because it wasn’t ever included on an album of theirs (at least not until the B-sides compilation Besides, which was released in 2002, long after the fact), so I had to dig out a comp cassette to listen to one song. And that’s kind of ridiculous, I know, because that whole tape was awesome. Did I not want to hear the Matthew Sweet song, or the Urge Overkill song, or the Pavement or Uncle Tupelo songs (those last two in particular were incredible, by the way, and neither of them ever made it to an album either)? Well, I mean, intellectually, I knew I should. But once I heard “For All To See,” all I wanted to do was listen to more Buffalo Tom. It was a frustrating song that way—an extremely tough act to follow.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Love is Blindness (Maybe)

On loving Ani DiFranco and the ensuing awkwardness. I don't know if I have an exact parallel in my own life, but I definitely have tried to force myself to like things because I thought I should. (Parabasis)
In a way, really, I'm embarrassed of me. I hear Ani's music and a little window opens and there I am: 20 years old, the last bits of a nice, comfortable suburban life stuck to my cheeks, wrapping up my liberal arts degree in a college town of bars and pizza shops, saddled with a doomed crush on my friendly neighborhood feminist. Armed with half a survey course in feminism and years of listening to the Indigo Girls, I thought I'd figured this whole sexism thing out. Ani was the soundtrack to that. Hell, it was like she was singing my journal entries. New York City is dirty but SO cool! Those big glass high-rises ARE full of assholes! Anti-abortion protestors ARE the worst! The coffee IS just water dressed in brown! Any tool IS a weapon if you hold it right! (Actually, I still love that quote; I have a concert t-shirt that says that on the back. I never wear it.)

I don't mean to belittle Ani's politics, or the politics of any of her fans. I believe in the equality of men and women and that long-term sexism and misogyny have done horrible damage to our society and our world. It's just that it's so earnest and so forthright and, in some ways, simplified and smoothed out, so lacking in nuance. The '90s wasn't really a time of nuance, though. There was a great resurgence in political songwriting that was welcome and 1992. Listening to old Ani now is kind of like reading editorials in a college newspaper from 25 years ago. You kind of want to sit her down and say, "Chill, okay? You're doing too much."

Monday, May 28, 2012

Take This Waltz trailer #2

A previous trailer I posted for Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz has been taken down. This new trailer makes the film look a bit more conventional while still focusing on its biggest selling points, the talents and the beauty of Michelle Williams. I'm on board.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sunday Music: The Decemberists - "Rox in the Box"

I like this performance, featuring Sara Watkins on fiddle, but I wish the performance from the Austin City Limits episode (a showcase for keyboardist Jenny Conlee) was available.

The Avengers

Let us consider the task awaiting writer/director Joss Whedon when he accepted the challenge of The Avengers, the first grand payoff of Marvel's series of linked films purporting to provide the definitive take on several long-running characters. Whedon was working with actors and characterizations largely shaped during the making of the previous films; if you expected Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark to be anything other than a prickly, reluctant hero then you wasted your money. Chris Evans is as square-jawed and wistful for the past the first Captain America film set him up to be, and Chris Hemsworth just as befuddled by his presence on Earth as he was in Thor. Newcomer Mark Ruffalo is a world-weary Bruce Banner, conveying the effort involved in constructing a life that doesn't release The Hulk. Whedon's wisest move is to give his built-in audience exactly what they expect in a new coat of paint; The Avengers never loses sight of what's best about these characters, and the personalities of the actors are strong enough to carry the film over a few soft spots.

In a pre-credits sequence we encounter both the threat the Avengers must battle and the film's biggest problem. Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, whose understatement is welcome) knows where the Tesseract* (*energy source and space portal opener featured in earlier Marvel films) is and is willing to hand it to some aliens in exchange for control of Earth. (There's no going back to Asgard it seems.) The aliens are never developed or individualized, and their goal doesn't seem to be anything other than power. While the extended closing fight would have meant more if the aliens had been better developed, if Whedon had slapped some alien makeup on Derek Jacobi and written him a monologue about humanity's flaws, The Avengers is of course an origin story.Whedon is savvy enough to know that seeing how, for example, Captain America and Thor work together on screen is the kind of fantasy that knits our mass movie-going culture together, and he honors our need to see that moment play out. (Captain America handles the battlefield like a soldier, while Thor's concerns are more personal and run as deep as a Shakespearean revenge plot.) That closing fight sequence I mentioned is wittily done, by the way, acknowledging the spatial improbabilities that the heroes can overcome while never losing sight of where all the pieces are on the battlefield. Not everything works. I was unmoved by the heroes' anguish at the revelation that S.H.I.E.L.D., the agency that employs them that’s run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), was planning to use the Tesseract to make weapons of mass destruction. A great deal of time is spent on the S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel, where it’s not always clear what’s going on, and the attempt to develop the characters of the S.H.I.E.L.D. support staff (Clark Gregg and Cobie Smulders) doesn’t really take root.

Whedon’s biggest contribution to The Avengers besides his sense of humor is the foregrounding of Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff, the tightly clad assassin played by Scarlett Johansson. Whedon knows something about heroic yet vulnerable young women, and Johansson benefits both from that fact and from not being bound to our received ideas of what her character should be. The word “avenge” gets thrown around a few times, most notably in a conversation between Iron Man and Loki, but Black Widow engages on a more personal level as she attempts to redress the wrongs done by the person she was before. Johansson does everything that could be asked of her and more, and as the Marvel Universe films come to a fork in the road I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was talk of Black Widow getting her own installment. The end of The Avengers hurriedly introduces the idea that the public is afraid of these new heroes; the sequence felt dragged in from one of the X-Men films. The theme itself is worth exploring though, and I hope in a second Avengers film (the next, too-similar mission is hinted at) that Joss Whedon or whomever directs will get a chance to put the stars in sharper relief against a world that doesn’t always know what kind of heroes it wants.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Sunday Music: Superchunk - "Everything At Once"

I'm enjoying rediscovering this favorite band of my college years thanks to their most recent album, Majesty Shredding.

Dept. of Having a Moment

I just saw Damsels in Distress and I can't deny the hype. Greta Gerwig is poised for (even more) great things. Previous NYT Gerwig check-in here.

Damsels in Distress

Few directors have had as much written about them WITHOUT making films as Whit Stillman. Damsels in Distress is Stillman's first film since 1998's The Last Days of Disco and only the fourth in a career that began with the still fresh Metropolitan. (Fun fact: Besides his four features, the only other directorial credit on Stillman's IMDB page is an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street.) It's neither good nor bad to say that Damsels feels like it was made by someone who hasn't directed in over a decade. The film doesn't feel grounded in any particular time, and technology doesn't seem to have penetrated the campus of Seven Oaks University. But a movie in which the characters texted and flirted via Facebook couldn't have come from Stillman's imagination. He's interested as as always in the ways that characters hide their emotional lives beneath a conversational fog of unprovable theories and would-be profound maxims. Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her followers (Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke) run the campus "Suicide Prevention Center" while they each seek their own romantic partners and their own levels in the world. Watching Greta Gerwig's performance unfold is akin to realizing that you're actually drinking gin and not water. Once you're comfortable with the rhythms of Stillman's dialogue (a new design for living is always just around the corner), which Gerwig handles flawlessly, then a different kind of pleasure unfolds. When Violet's heart is broken and she alarms her friends by taking off, the movie never loses it's affection for her admittedly nutty worldview. Stillman has always regarded his still forming characters with love, and the fact that Violet may actually be ill doesn't change that fact here. Violet, and Gerwig's embodiment of her, are Stillman reclaiming his voice while admitting how odd it can sometimes sound.

 The actual plot of Damsels in Distress proceeds in bursts. Violet and her ladies "adopt" a transfer student named Lily (Analeigh Tipton) who is alternately charmed and appalled by Violet's obsessions (smells, intelligence) and behavior. Men stay mostly at the edges of the movie, with Adam Brody making the best impression as a student also inventing his own story. There's also a subplot that never quite comes together involving tap dancing, featuring a couple of tart scenes from Aubrey Plaza. I'll admit that my love of Stillman's earlier films colors my reaction to what's on screen here, but I can't conceal my delight at finding Stillman in his element after all these years. Here's to a vigorous second act from a director primed to comment, in his own sweet way, on our new class struggles.

Friday, May 04, 2012


 This is a fantastic piece on The Beastie Boys and the late Adam Yauch that you've probably already seen linked to multiple times. It mirrors my own take on the group, that they went from 3 guys who had one-hit wonder written all over them to something much weirder, more collaborative, and joyful. RIP MCA.
Yauch wasn’t my favorite Beastie. That’d be Mike D, with whom I’d felt a kinship with ever since reading about how, during the debauched "Licensed to Ill" tour, Adam and Adam used to gang up and mess with him. I’d always felt like Ad-Rock was the best MC of the trio, adept at classic hip-hop shit-talking and bonkers referentialism, and possessor of a certain swag the other two couldn’t match. But it’s clear to me what Yauch was: Yauch was the leader. A small part of that was aesthetics; the premature graying hair, the permanent rasp. But it was also evident that the morality tale of the Beastie Boys — three genius New York City smartasses who grew out of Budweiser-crushing caricatures into three endlessly curious, wholeheartedly decent adults — was best represented by Yauch.

When I was younger I couldn’t see the point of MCA rapping about taking a sledgehammer and breaking his nine millimeter, or shouting out “all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends.” That shit wasn’t cool to me, or funny, which is mostly what I cared about back then. But MCA’s focus on unity and progression was at the heart of who the band was. Later, I would read the liner notes in the Beasties anthology, Sound of Science, for the track “Song for the Man,” a putdown of some macho street dudes, and it would make sense. Horovitz writes, “Listening to the lyrics of this song, one might say that the Beastie Boy ‘Fight for Your Right to Party’ guy is a hypocrite. Well, maybe; but I’d rather be a hypocrite to you than a zombie forever.” That was what Yauch represented, to the fullest.