Sunday, December 30, 2007

She did it all for Hannah Montana

The most amusing -- and dreadful-- news story I've read in the last month.

Friday, December 28, 2007

A few movies

What I've seen:

The Savages: The writer-director of Slums of Beverly Hills can't resist a too-cute opening montage of seniors pirouetting a la Busby Berkley against a Barry Goldwater-approved Arizona backdrop; or giving Laura Linney a breakup scene with her boyfriend instigated by a question about her fern (it's one of those details designed to develop character of which Cameron Crowe is so fond, like the bit of business in Singles involving Bridget Fonda Kyra Sedgwick and a garage door opener). These are the middlebrow equivalents to the highbrow flourishes in Jean Cocteau's Les enfants terribles, this movie's obvious influence. I don't buy Philip Seymour Hoffman's book on Brecht; it's a sop, like Woody Allen characters yammering about Rilke like Woody himself hasn't read him (you can discuss art and politics in American movies without looking smug). But Tamara Janowitz avoids "closure," and she's blessed with two of the least sentimental actors around.

Juno: "Jason Bateman's character is one of the members of Vampire Weekend ten years later," I wrote somewhere today. Thank You For Smoking's Jason Reitman deepens his talent for exacting portraits of trends and mores skewed at least a half-dozen times in the thirty years since The Graduate. He's a selfless talent too; he honors the intentions of the material being adapted. The first hour is such a meticulous rendering of screenwriter Diablo Cody's hipster gotcha-every-few-seconds approach that I wanted to run into Love in the Time of Cholera, playing next door. It's "Papa Don't Preach" written by Lily Allen. Then Reitman-Cody take their feet off the gas pedal, and allow the natural empathy of actors like Alison Janney and Jennifer Garner (in a lovely, disarming performance that's one of the year's best and least acclaimed) to absorb Ellen Page's tuba blast of a performance. And knobby-kneed Michael Cera (who's got no scenes with "Arrested Development" costar Bateman) has gotten more mileage out of shades of befuddlement than any actor since Buster Keaton.

This is England: White riot, I wanna riot, white riot, I wanna riot of my own.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Xmas and stuff

My favorite Christmas song:

Monday, December 24, 2007

The only hint of discord on what's so far been a lovely vacation is learning that Tim Finney just had a benign tumor extracted. All news is very good, apparently, so we can all breathe a little easier.

I know Tim slightly from ILM, numerous private emails, and the R&B blog assembled by Andy Kellman (which, sadly, seems on sabbatical). His musings on pop and dance music combine the best common sense with un-self-conscious erudition; you sensed his brain humming as he listened. His affective formalism is at its best when he parses the evolution of a singer's emotional state over the course of a song, as he does here in this post about Jacques Lu Cont's Thin White Duke mix of the Killers' "Mr. Brightside" that's much the best thing ever written about it. I wooed him many times to write for Stylus -- his sensibilities and the magazine's would have been a perfect marriage -- but he gave me nothing but polite demurrals. Our discussion earlier this year on Fleetwood Mac's Mirage was an awful tease: I wish we'd done this sort of thing more often.

Maybe his best contributions this year were to this gargantuan thread which, beside fine postings from Al Shipley, Chuck Eddy, and Jess Harvell, is dominated intellectually by Tim in the last third.

Good luck, Tim. Happy holidays.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

An addendum to my last post regarding ageing: bitching about "compressed" schedules, i.e. not enough time to listen to every album you want before year-end lists are due. I'll post the music lists before the end of the year, but, thanks to South Florida's erratic release schedule, will wait on movies, especially since I'm catching up on a few late arrivals (Juno, The Savages) over the holiday.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Like a bad trip that won't go away, Ethan Hawke's teeth in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead haunt my sleep. Forcing his voice through those yellowed, sharp babies produces the best imitation of Tim Roth's shot-in-the-belly spams in Reservoir Dogs I've ever seen. It's indicative of the movie's anachronism that it reveres Hawke's hysterics as realism -- realism filtered through the Method. Kelly Masterson's script too. Hollywood's always been a sucker for comebacks, so it's some kind of achievement that an octogenarian like Sidney Lumet can spearhead a project as overwrought as The Hill, Prince of the City, and the worst parts of Network, among many, many others (Hollywood also respects a certain kind of aesthetic consistency, which is why Peter Weir still gets the occasional big assignment).

I'm relieved that, as the various critics groups circle the waters, this bit of awards chum has been comparatively overlooked. All I took away was Lumet's unexpected detachment from the scenes in which Philip Seymour Hoffman's skeeze visited a heroin dealer's expensive downtown loft; for a few minutes we're thrown into a Tsai Ming Liang film. Hoffman has never employed his bulk to a better effect as he navigates the familiar geography, taking off his watch, tie, and shirt for what we think is a gay tryst. The dealer, by the way, is played by Blaise Hunter, whose boredom serves as counterpoint to the rest of the cast's grandstanding (his response to Hoffman's confession that wife Marisa Tomei left him: "Bummer."). It's a sign of progress that Lumet shoots him in long shot, without calling attention to his Man Who Fell To Earth wedge haircut and kimono. Or maybe he was repulsed. It's hard to know when Lumet clearly prefers Albert Finney's rutting-bison nostril flaring in closeup.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

...and speaking of Mary J. Blige, here's a review of Growing Pains.

Grow old with me

During a free moment yesterday afternoon in Raleigh this weekend I had a chance to read Slate's rockcrit year-end round table, comprised of Jody Rosen, Ann Powers, and Robert Christgau. Their opinions (boy, do they love Kala, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, and Lil Wayne, but so does most everyone else; glad to see Bob's suspicious of Iron & Wine; would love to meet Ann's 83-year-old mom) are immaterial. What remains beyond the self-plagiarizing and a couple of frankly weird self-congratulatory remarks about adding girl-pop to a year-end list (Rosen's homebases of Slate and EW are not Lost at Sea) are a handful of chewy ideas, expressed too windily for my taste, but, hey, this is supposed to simulate three old pros sitting around a table, right? Particularly:
It's fine for [Ann Powers] to like music I don't care for—she helps me understand its meaning for those it touches. The music opens them up, she opens me up. The reason all of us have such problems with indie orthodoxy—really orthodoxies, since, to cite just the two examples at hand, the Ryan Adams-Wilco-Josh Ritter Americanans are nowhere near hip enough for the half-assed revisionists and band-of-the-month snobs of Pitchfork and its many inferiors—is that we don't sense much emotional generosity there. The formal conservatism of the former and one-upping sectarianism of the latter—not to mention the rarity of engaging prose in either camp—seem stifling...
Before we start thinking of new variations on the word "grouch," I should point out that the subtext of most of this round table's discussion is an acknowledgment of how age slows us down at the same time at which young people and technology speed past us. No, not an acknowledgment: an embrace, even. One of the odd things about my own maturation is how my ironic sense deepens at the same pace as my "emotional generosity"; it's too soon to know whether the former provokes the latter, but why not? At any rate, the usual strawmen that Christgau dismisses in the excerpt above are less onerous than other acts supported by my colleagues, like, say, Burial, whose constricted aesthetics and monochromatic appeal seem more representative. Ryan Adams and Wilco are at worst failed craftsmen; whether you prefer Battles depends on how much you accept craftsmenship as an end in itself, or think Battles are an act whose development bears close scrutiny.

Regardless, the fact that a lot of indie -- nomenclature growing increasingly meaningless with Rilo Kiley, the Shins, and Arcade Fire scoring high in Billboard's Top 40 -- horrifies me provokes no smug titters. Discussing music with good friend and colleague Josh Love this weekend, I admitted that as my self-assurance as a writer grows so does my fear of complacency. To be exiled to a tropical rain forest with neither guide nor map is no fun, and likely dangerous, but a thrill too. If it takes no great imaginative leap for me to accept heteronormative literature and music (it's a matter of course, actually), then wrestling with an Iron & Wine or Battles should be no different, and no less thrilling, results be damned. It's our responsibility as critics to assess art about which we know little and empathize less. I had the experience reviewing the new Mary J. Blige album; now there's an artist whose many rewards and unabashed pleasures (I've loved and feared her since 1994) still make me sick to the stomach when I'm compelled to listen to fifty-minutes-plus of her thumpety narcissism. If I risk a tone of bemused ambivalence, fuck it.
Well-rested after a weekend-plus trip to Charleston and Raleigh (thanks, Hatzel and Josh). Only one assignment to turn in before another vacation begins. Returning to blue skies and cooler subtropical temperatures does wonders for one's carefully repressed indolence.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Final essays to grade, reviews and proposals to write, and a weekend with friends in Charleston and Raleigh have made this a breathless week few days.

Having listened to roughly a third of my favorite albums of the year on the plane this morning (Jay-Z sounds great with Kingsley Amis!), I've realized that 2007 is 1987.

A moment of truth: reciting the lyrics to the songs on the back half of Robert Wyatt's Comicopera would likely get me tackled by TSA officials.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

After two massive singles still getting lots of airplay on WHYI Miami, Timbaland featuring OneRepublic's "Apologize" has really hit the spot. No surprise: the track is a dead ringer for an Enrique Iglesias ballad circa 2002. And I love it...because it's a dead ringer for an Enrique song, albeit with a stronger rhythmic foundation. The guy knows how to keen too; when he glides over vowels in the chorus, I swear I could be his hero, baby. All my friends know how I resent the phrase "guilty pleasure," but...

Monday, December 10, 2007

I guess I'm a very bad homosexual for thinking that, with a few exceptional performances-- obvious ones at that -- I don't understand Edith Piaf. But I know why filmmakers do: she's the kind of subject of which award-worthy biopics are made, the more overwrought the better. Baffling and rhythmless, Olivier Dahan's La Vie En Rose rests snugly in the Walk The Line-Ray-The Doors tradition, except for the distributor's curious decision to release the film so early in the year ahead of the rest of the award bait; maybe they knew something we didn't, which is that, as usual, the Academy of Farts and Biases will assemble another disgraceful list of female Best Actress candidates as a reminder that they only consider sagging jugs after Labor Day.

This is not to detract from Marie Cotillard's commitment. Gifted with a cutting delivery and an eloquent smear of a mouth that switches from defiant to opaque depending on the company (and the liquor; the mouth is swollen with pique after champagne), Cotillard embraces Dahan's conception of Piaf as the sum total of her awful childhood experiences: insultingly reductive, true, but at least Cotillard is honest. She reminds me of Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest: oblivious to the pillars crumbling around and on top of her, she sawed away like Caligula. The forgotten Susan Hayward also comes to mind. If this was still the fifties, Hayward (whose career peaked while playing these Kabuki-masochistic roles) would have played Piaf, with that showbiz lady distance between herself and the role that the Method, curiously, emphasized all the more. Dahan is so devoted to his tawdry vision of Piaf as Our Lady of Sorrows that no inductive leap escapes him. To wit: we're treated to the heroine going blind, recovering her sight, and losing her childhood guardian in the span of fifteen minutes. Thelma Ritter in All About Eve: "Gee, what a story. Everything but the bloodhounds yappin' at her rear end."

Plus, as an old woman she looks like Quentin Crisp.
An addendum to Saturday's post about Elizabeth Hardwick: a lovely obit by Jim Lewis. He's right ("Her great theme...was the way fictional characters inhabit a field of responsibility and act out the subtleties of their situations as moral agents in a bounded universe") and wrong (Hardwick was supple and rigorous, but to call her "the best literary essayist of the last century. Better—yes—than Edmund Wilson, better than Trilling or Steiner or Sontag" is hagiography, not serious criticism).

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Elizabeth Hardwick, R.I.P.

A couple of days old, but worth mentioning. As the one critic whose stylistic temperance was like distilled Essence De New York Review of Books, she was tart, civilized, and judicious -- a lot closer to Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling than Diana Triling (the little-read Mary McCarthy is another matter) . I don't know much about her work beyond the worthwhile Sight Readings: American Fiction; if you find a copy cheap (and you will), snap it up.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

"Ladies and gentlemen..."

"The music and magic of Jermaine Jackson"...and Devo.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

It's a celebration, bitches

I'm baffled by complaints about Kanye's "ego problem," especially when as indentured servant to noted humble scion Sean Carter his productions swelled the latter's conception of himself like buttresses in a cathedral. Maybe people mean that Kanye's flow isn't good enough, which is to say that at worst his inadequacies render his contorted confessions as monstrously messianic as Bono's. A man who pens a couplet like, "Big Brother saw me at the bottom of the totem/Now I'm on the top and every body on the scrotum" has issues that Lance Bass is too boring to address.

His architecture stable and familiar enough thanks to the return of stable, familiar builders like Just Blaze and Kanye, the firm of Sean Carter can take immense satisfaction in promoting American Gangster. I get off on how great it sounds -- on an sonic level this is akin to a Pixar entertainment. When I'm paying so much for mainstream entertainment, I demand the deluxe treatment. As a back-to-basics move it's closer to The Blueprint than Reasonable Doubt, the latter of which bears the same relationship to Jay-Z's work as Run DMC does to Raising Hell: musicians often mistake spareness with "timelessness" (think of the retired "Unplugged" canard), and are therefore apt to overrate work made in comparative poverty whose aspirations can't match the results. The ominous, churning "Pray" hooked me from its first notes, and it allows Beyonce her most frightening vocal since "Bootylicious," which is to say she (and Jay-Z) don't project yearning so much as demand your abject worship. As a declaration of genius, "No Hook" is gentler and hence humbler than The Black Album's psychobabble-courting "Moment of Clarity"; if I were Ludacris, I wouldn't feel insulted. Think of it this way: if Bryan Ferry pulls me into a foyer and, haltingly, sadly, reminds me that white socks are, erm, not appropriate, old chap, at dinner parties, I'd remember the unease borne of good manners, not the fashion advice.

Even the album title's self-parody induces no groans, as it might have (and should have, maybe) in 2003. Context is all, and Jay-Z knows enough about how albums work to understand that craftsmen, like the veterans they are, no longer stumble into moments; they coordinate them after feeling the pulse of the populace. Fortunately, Jay-Z's also enough of a popular artist to realize that craftsmen must position the showroom lights in different places to create the illusion of novelty. A friend called American Gangster "Jay-Z's Some Girls." It's closer to Tattoo You, whose creators divided into fast ones-on-the-A-slow-ones-on-the-B and included a couple of sops to friendship and humility, two virtues plenty available in their older work if you were listening hard enough. Christgau's begrudging praise of the Stones album may as well be aimed at American Gangster: "But where The Blueprint had impact as a Jay-Z record, a major statement by an entrepeneur with something to state, the satisfactions here are stylistic -- beats, flow, momentum. And the artist isn't getting any less mean-spirited as he pushes forty."

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

I get the sense that Jacques Barzun is one of those men on whom the label "men of letters" fits awkwardly, if at all. Like Henry Adams, his collected works merely allude to his literally unaccountable interests. Background: only child to French parents, who send him to America for his college education; teaching the Great Books course at Columbia University with Lionel Trilling; becoming the university's provost; literary advisor to Scribner's; winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Internet has been good to generalists, but the medium's tendency towards atomization transforms any generalist into a specialist. What makes Barzun preferable to Adams is the refreshing way in which his diverse portfolio supports Orwellian clarity and directness. He doesn't write like an embittered insider banished to the periphery; rather, he proceeds like a scientist making deductions after studying data, no matter how unpleasant. Curiosity is his muse. Barzun embodies the spirit of nonplussed, enlightened humanism.

The average reader knows Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence, a mammoth study of Western civilization that was a surprise best-seller in 2000. Uneven pace notwithstanding, it's a marvel, a model of elegance and sweep. Like his heroes Macaulay and Gibbon, Barzun treats history as fiction; characters are sketched at leisure; themes are developed in a lapidary manner, unfurled with the promise that they will be explained but not pinned down. In almost every sub-chapter Barzun dismisses orthodoxies; he's particularly incisive when assuring us that women did not do so badly as contemporary thought would have us believe:
There always have been hundreds of women in all ranks who were in fact rulers -- sometimes tyrants -- of their entourage, as well as hundreds of others who wrote, sang to their own accompaniment, or practiced one or another of the ornamental crafts. The notion that talent and personality in women were suppressed at all times during our half millennium except the last fifty years is an illusion. Nor were all women previously denied an education or opportunity for self-development. Wealth and position were prerequisite, to be sure, and they still tend to be. The truth is that matters of freedom can never be settled in all-or-none fashion and any judgment must be comparative.
Can anyone read Barzun's excerpt and find fault with it? As attractive as Virginia Woolf's portrait of Judith Shakespeare is in A Room of One's Own -- a triumph of the novelist's art, let's remember -- the ease with which Woolf dismissed what can only be called the triumph of the will in creative personalities is startling. It's not that the strong survive; think of it as the holy compulsion to create, more powerful than our sentimentalities about repressed talent (think of Jane Austen scribbling quietly behind her needlework, ignoring patronizing remarks from her family). From Catherine de' Medici to Louise Labe (Barzun's story of this poet, musician, linguist, and soldier -- at sixteen! -- is one of his gems) to Christine de Pisan to Florence Nightingale, history records achievements by women as world-historic as any man's. From its discursive method to the assertiveness of Barzun's prose, FDTD is a quiet repudiation of the university's version of a Hegelian view of history: progress, Barzun implies, is a specious notion. If we're looking for historic examples of How Far We've Come, Barzun suggests we draw correspondences from oft-ignored socio-literary moments -- such as the frequency with which Edward FitzGerald's gelid, rather racy translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam appeared on Edwardian coffee tables.

Other subjects and personages re-evaluated: how slovenly Shakespeare could write (Barzun quietly notes the dull passages, terrible puns, "ludicrous images," and "insoluble syntax," all of which should make Harold Bloom weep); Diderot (always in Voltaire's shadow); the remarkable wit of Sydney Smith, a precursor to Oscar Wilde; the novels of George Meredith (I've put down The Egotist more than once in ten years); the once-immortal, now-neglected George Bernard Shaw, who emerges as one of Barzun's heroes. The final movement's descent into a rote condemnation of late twentieth century vulgarity isn't less excusable for being predictable, especially for one who scorns progress but never embraced Adams-esque theories about entropy. Actually, I give Barzun credit for sweetening his jeremiads with the kind of batshit inductive leaps I've always admired in great thinkers: he says that, no joke, young kids who join gangs fall prey to the temptations of...Satanism.

If From Dawn to Decadence seems too daunting, Perennial Classics recently published a splendid distillation of this centenarian's work. Despite his idiosyncrasies, he should be read -- cited -- more often.

R.I.P. Pimp C

How awful. I know little about UGK (and slept on Underground Kingz), but the last bits of news indicated that the guys had finally gotten back to starting careers.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Ah, Larry Craig...

It gets worse. Four men, on the record, come forward and admit they had sex or suggestive encounters with the Idaho senator in the last twenty-six years.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

One of the most hilarious tell-all's I've ever read. Yetnikoff, to his credit, doesn't seem to regret a thing.
I'm Not There forces Breihan to throw his hands in the air. Although he's certainly right that in Haynes' film the music enforces the Dylan mythos instead of being an end in itself, I'm not sure you can dismiss Dylan's own propensity for allying himself with history – for wanting to merge with history. I'm Not There acknowledges, implicitly, that "Bob Dylan" is an empty cavern. That's why five of the film's six secret sharers balk at becoming what his critics and admirers want – and why most of his great work (especially his most recent work) attains the glazed anonymity of those blues idioms he reveres. The performance of Marcus Carl Franklin as the round-faced folkie uncorks a number of ironies, however. This version of Dylan is so full of brio – so devoted to becoming part of a folk history he already understands better than men much older and more proficient – that there's no way we can accept his anonymity. I can think of no other reason why the audience endures the longeurs of the Richard Gere scenes than Haynes' wanting to show how aesthetic ambition eventually collapses into a need to vanish (the pine trees in the forest where the Gere character lives project more charisma).

I've admitted many times that I rarely listen to "classic" Dylan (for old time's sake I threw on Bringing It All Back Home while showering this morning, my first real listen in seven years, I think. I've nothing to say except I'd forgotten the fragility of "She Belongs To Me," at once an incomplete summation and exactly as long as it needs to be). But often I'll thrown on minor Dylan like New Morning, Planet Waves, or my beloved Empire Burlesque, the latter of which exerts an undying fascination. I love how the intimations of apocalypse, references to Madame Butterfly and the Last Supper, and those herky-jerkily enunciated attempts at witticisms are so at odds with Arthur Baker's trendy production; while Dylan's reminding people that a vast culture exists in which high and low intermingle, Baker's fretting about how to turn "Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love?)" into a dance chart top ten like his remix of Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark." I wish Todd Haynes had cast Rupert Everett or somebody as the Disco Dylan, sporting a silver sports jacket, wailing the Breakout-era Pointer Sisters number "When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky" as a reminder that any movie examining an artist's mythos should look at its grisliest aspects (to be fair, Haynes shoots Christian Bale, clad in polyester, re-enacting Born Again Dylan in a pretty good rendition of Saved's "Pressing On"). Would that Haynes have written a scene with Antonio Banderas playing the mustachioed Dylan of "Love & Theft."

Monday, November 26, 2007

Don't Start Me Talkin'

To honor I'm Not There, which I saw yesterday, here's a great, rare live performance. Thin, wiry, at the verge of implosion like Entertainment-era Gang of Four, it's one of the best of his I've seen:

Sunday, November 25, 2007

I admire Marcello Carlin because he writes posts as if they were paid magazine articles. Then, on the couple of occasions when as an editor I solicited material from him, he delights me with submissions that suffers no loss of concentration. Since I know little about his private life, I can only guess at the horrors he endured; but I'm happy he's got a reason to be optimistic, and hope it's not churlish of me to admit that I hope he still writes. If not, I hope he stays in touch --he was always someone I wanted to know.

Here's my favorite recent post, searching and complete enough to prevent me from publishing my own thoughts on what it's one of the year's best albums.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Kelly McDonald's delicately shaded pathos lets the air into the vacuum chamber of the Coens' adaptation of No Country For Old Men. By filming most of McDonald's last scene off-camera, they actually improve on the novel; sketching a character's loss of dignity works best on the page, without the camera's literalizing tendencies. I also liked how McDonald and Javier Bardem's performances matched up in their only scene together. Although he's the executioner, he exudes what Jorge Luis Borges, in a short story titled "Death and the Compass" that's as meticulously composed as No Country For Old Men but devastating in subtle ways that the film and book are not, called "an impersonal -- almost anonymous -- sadness." Bardem and McDonald's muted duet is more eloquent than Tommy Lee Jones' well-delivered but literary ruminations on how the times they are a-changin'.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Lily Bart killed herself! According to a Charles McGrath story in today's New York Times, a letter written by Edith Wharton to Dr. Francis Kinnicutt, "a well-known society doctor who specialized in the mental ailments of the well-to-do," supposedly reveals that Wharton planned on doing away with the heroine of her second and best novel The House of Mirth after all. The coldness with which she contemplates dispatching Lily sounds just like classic Wharton ("I have a heroine to get rid of, and want some points on the best way of disposing of her”); but even if it weren't, I don't see why we would give the writer final word anyway. In literature, intentions rarely produce results. Besides, the ending is clear to me. As Roxanna Robinson points out: "If [Lily] doesn’t take action here, if her death occurs by chance (or if Anna Karenina had fallen under the wheels by mistake), the tragedy is drained of much of its power.”

I reviewed the audiobook here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

As astonishing as James Murphy and Pat Mahoney's Fabriclive comp is, I think Murphy and his boys have surpassed a lot of this source material on their own records.

A dog

The appearance of Harry Dean Stanton in Alpha Dog is its most surreal moment. He has a scene in the first third in which he rasps some rutting-goat pussy talk to the Johnny Truelove character on a baseball field that warms Bruce Willis' smirk into a smile faster than receiving his first cut of the percentages for Live Free Or Die Hard. Nick Cassavetes is such an inept director that not once does he realize that Stanton's casual rancidness is more endearing and menacing than the Less Than Zero-inspired Natty Ice chugging of his young cast (who all look like they're having a ball, as well they should). That goes double for casting is-it-really Alan Thicke as a horrified parent; jeez, even Richard Kelly had fun with Patrick Swayze in Donnie Darko. Too busy directing actors to revel in Larry Clark-inspired youth porn, he fails to reconcile his exploitation tendencies with his moralistic ones -- Cassavetes betrays his similarities with Justin Timberlake's Frankie, Alpha Dog's closest thing to a moral conundrum. The profanity isn't even convincingly profane. For fans of Swimfan pool sex, though, Cassavetes films a surprisingly restrained threesome which actually got my juices flowing thanks to Anton Yelchin, who as the victim hits all the right notes as a kid comfortable slipping between hedonism and naivete when it suits him.

As for Justin, he earns most of the plaudits heaped on him at the beginning of the year. Bravado becomes a form of sweetness; and he moves on camera with a self-mocking grace, a star who understands how dorkiness makes him more attractive.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Why Norman Mailer is immortal...

From The Armies of the Night, his essay-novel about the 1967 anti-war rallies, in which he resorts to every bit of skullduggery to get himself arrested:
...Mailer finally came to decide that his love for his wife while not at all equal or congruent to his love for America was damnably parallel. It was not inconceivable to him that if he finally came to believe his wife was not nearly so magical as he would make her, but was in fact petty, stingy, small-minded, and evilly stubborn (which is what he told her in many a quarrel) why then he would finally lose some part of his love affair with America, he would have to, because there were too many times when thinking of his country and some new one of the unspeakable barbarities it invented with every corporation day, he would decide that no it would not be an altogether awful country because otherwise how would his wife, a Southerner and an Army brat, have come out so subtle, so supple, so mysterious, so fine-skinned, so tender and wise.
It's all there: the sentimentality about women, the hysterical analogies, the preening, the (really) subtle self-parody. Let us suggest that it's a relief he has no real imitators.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

I'll be back tomorrow after I've purged my system of birthday impurities.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hilarity and hooey

Matos has a wonderful post about his experience watching The Piano Teacher. When I saw it in 2002 it spooked me in ways that movies rarely do, and for months afterwards I wondered whether Michael Haneke's immersion in masochism obscured me from judging its merits. It reminded me of Pauline Kael's caveats about Hitchcock's Psycho: too well-made to dismiss entirely, yet the masterly immersion in emotional and physical violence revealed the director's true sympathies. The crucial difference is that Hitchcock made pulp, while Haneke, at worst, made tony pulp; his aesthetic distance is so pronounced that the only people you'd imagine getting off on his fantasies would be better-than-average SNL writers with a talent for spoofing the taciturn verities of a certain kind of European art cinema (the empty parlor room theatrics of Haneke's subsequent Cache is closer to what Haneke's critics have in mind than The Piano Teacher).

At any rate, what I remember most from The Piano Teacher is not the sex between Isabelle Huppert and the doe-eyed hottie who has no idea what he's awakened, but the delineation of a trope as old as The Wind and maybe The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde's, not Albert Lewin's): how aesthetic detachment creates a yearning for violence, self-inflicted or otherwise. For the record, I think the idea is bollocks, but it exerts a powerful fascination on artists; maybe it's wish-fulfillment, a compensation for the drudgery of creation. Haneke's enough of a ten-cent Freudian (and Hitchcockian) to blame Huppert's freakiness on her maman, with whom she actually shares a bed in case we miss the point. But Annie Girardot is so intensely needy that she goes beyond repulsive caricature into archetype; a scene late in the picture between them walks so dangerously close to the line of parody that in the wrong mood I might laugh it off too (how easy to imagine Cloris Leachman and Carol Burnett in their places). That's the...well, not pleasure, but satisfaction that this kind of French Grand Guignol provides: we're forced to constantly examine our reactions, forced to analyze how quickly we're inclined to lapse into irony when emotional nakedness -- even stylized, didactic nakedness like Haneke's -- troubles us. As I've said already, seeing Haneke's other films tempts me to dismiss TPT with all kinds of glibness (just thinking about Cache reminds me of an imaginary graduate thesis on colonialism). Which is why I can't ever rewatch it -- my sensibilities have been too influenced by David Lynch as it is.

Favorite Hitchens Antic #891

At the National Book Awards dinner last night.

Favorite bit:
Asked in an e-mail whether Mr. Shelton was telling the truth, Mr. Hitchens responded with an oblique but suggestive message: "The standard of fact-checking for Vanity Fair articles is very high."
EDIT: This kind of nonsense does him no favors. I recall Alexander Cockburn's remark in that New Yorker profile of Hitchens last year: when Hitch gets drunk he starts making kissy faces at his male friends.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Oxytoxins, meet harlequinade

Roisin Murphy's Overpowered is my favorite album of the last two weeks. A sleeper, too: the somnolent Moloko never did much for me. The album sleeve -- a low budget attempt at Bjorkian fantasia -- put me off too. Groove Armada, among others, construct gleaming, squelchy electro grooves that evoke without mimicking Bobby Orlando, Kraftwerk, and Orbital. That's what I could find; there are no doubt more allusions I haven't picked out (yesterday the chorus of "You Make Me Better" summoned Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time").

Murphy's voice is the killer. Like the music, it's a lithe amalgamation of every diva that's ever soared over busy arrangements. Dusty Springfield, the low snarl of Alicia "I Love The Nightlife" Bridges, Shara Nelson, Tracey Thorn -- in songs like "Overpowered" and the uncategorizable "Dear Miami" she's absorbed them; her oxytoxins are flowing as she turns a critical eye on the melting sun. I love this kind of out-in-the-city avidness. I love this kind of out-on-the-streets avidness. There's always room for women of intelligence and grace who can confess to low self-esteem and how weak they are in the presence of beauty without succumbing to the preciousness about which former Sleater Kinney guitarist/singer Carrie Brownstein warns us in her new NPR blog (thanks, Carl Wilson) -- if I'd any advice to offer Murphy, it's to leave the cover harlequinade to lesser performers, thanks.

Monday, November 12, 2007

"Each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds"

I can't remember a single memorable line, and what I can sounds tendentious or worse, but middlebrow agitprop doesn't get more effective than Lions for Lambs. The only critic that gets it is, of all people, Armond White, who notes that director/star Robert Redford's method isn't so much didactic as "Six Characters In Search of Authority." The way in which the three narrative strands complement each other is more tense than anything devised by Paul Haggis and Alejandro Gonzalez Innaratu, and LFL's scenes have the virtue of terseness. Lions for Lambs is an ideal Playhouse 90 episode, perhaps, one in which its creators and stars indict themselves and the audience, which is some kind of risk in these timid corporate times.

Although there's nothing easier than casting Tom Cruise in shiny dragon-toothed Magnolia mode as a Republican senator or Redford himself as a rumpled, washed-up college professor with an eye for young talent, Redford uses Matthew Michael Carnahan's script as excuses for actors to create the performative equivalent of Executive Wing "backchannelling": saying one thing to each other and the audience while telegraphing something else entirely. It's all there in the quiet semaphores exchanged between Streep's reporter and Cruise; she's Helen Thomas at the point of becoming Judith Miller, experienced like all Beltway insiders in how the game is played but beholden to familial and corporate attachments. Lions for Lambs doesn't Streep off the hook, but, as her last scene makes clear, the knowledge that actions have consequences -- a cliche which even Cruise's senator understands and has molded to fit his perverse sense of geopolitical entitlement -- dawns on her with a silent chilling urgency shared by the two soldiers in a remote Afghan peak(Derek Luke and Michael Pena) seconds before they meet their fate.

As for the Pena-Luke subplot, it's handled with grace: Redford suggests their bond with nary a moment of Saving Private Ryan-style "humanizing." A Washington Post column by a young ex-soldier published a couple of days ago came to mind; it might have been written by the Luke character:
Nonetheless, the Army's values are important to soldiers. They may not always live up to them, but they do when it matters most. Soldiers are selfless; they are courageous; they are loyal. The most interesting intellectual conversations I've had have been with others in the military. They discuss things not to impress you but because they're trying to figure them out.
Look into their eyes: as the snow descends on their trapped bodies, Pena and Luke are still trying to figure out why they're on this remote mountain, yet they still perform their duties. I think a poet who understood the depth of the chasm between the generals in offices and the soldiers on the field:
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Exeunt Norman

For many years he remained a monolith. Like his contemporaries Saul Bellow and Gore Vidal, I walked around him, intimidated by the sheer size -- the girth -- of his oeuvre. And so he remains, since The Armies of the Night is the only novel of his that I even attempted to finish. I'll give it another shot in the coming days. In the meantime I'll rue how Mailer never cast a cold eye on the new millenium's dissolving paradigms of masculinity

This 2003 essay has the usual mix of bathos, bullshit ("George W. Bush, who might, if he had been entirely on his own, have made a world-class male model [since he never takes an awkward photograph]" -- whaa?), and blather, as well as pungency. Mailer's truth occasionally coincided with reality.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


One of my favorite poems:

My father used to say,
"Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat --
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth --
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint."
Nor was he insincere in saying, "Make my house your inn."
Inns are not residences.

-- Marianne Moore

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

If it turns out that Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani are nominated by their respective parties for POTUS, I may exercise my right not to vote, in large part because of my disgust with their responses to the sanctioning of torture. Clinton hedges, Giuliani endorses whole-heartedly (even if he's not exactly sure what waterboarding is; if he did know, he would probably as mayor have used it on ferret owners, purchasers of assault weapons, and other official enemies of the five boroughs).

Considering the reluctance of the pundit class to discuss torture unless they're implicitly supporting it, I'm amazed this blight is discussed at all. Credit blogs. Speaking of blogs, an argument between Ned Raggett and a conservative troller inspired by a loony essay written by Deroy Murdock suggests that two people of such different backgrounds and rhetorical styles as Ned and one Geoff can still maintain a smidgen of civility despite finding no common ground.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Chris Molanphy OTM on the disgusting triumph of the Eagles this weekend. There's no facile polarities to construct here -- this isn't wise veterans trumping talented artiste, this was geezerdom trumping nubile survivor-cum-bizzer who will probably score her own Irving Azoff-conducted triumph in twenty years. Still, the moribund accounting practices of Billboard and its industry readers make one pause:
It wasn't even a squeaker. The real loser isn't Britney, who posts a perfectly respectable comeback; it's rank-and-file CD retailers. And, to a far lesser extent, chart geeks like me.
We know how the rest of the world feels about geeks; hell -- how I feel about them. We don't even have to ask Glenn Frey.

Monday, November 5, 2007

It shouldn't have surprised me that Control is better photographed than directed, which is another way of saying that it's static, not inhabited. Sam Riley's moist-eyed petulance fit Anton Corbijn's conception of Ian Curtis as a personality who didn't reckon the consequences of what he unleashed when penning those lyrics – or, more strikingly, singing them in that voice that even in its formative phase or onstage, removed from the cavernous gelding of Martin Hannett's production, sounded like a tremor, air escaping through an earthen fissure. As his photography indicates, Corbijn's talent is monochromized flattery: glamor run to seed, rebellion in the act of reification (the film poster already looks like a final version of its inevitable Criterion release). In adhering to the superficialities of what we know about Curtis' life, Closer presents the ultimate case for the banality of suicide. The trauma in the victim's head is disproportionate compared to the mundanity of how life is lived.

Simon Reynolds notes that Curtis' lyrics "are existential rather than autobiographical. Rarely straightforwardly drawn from his life, his lyrics strip away the everyday details that observational songwriters use to impart a sense of lived reality." To Corbijn's credit Closer does delineate Curtis' lived reality (some of its more effective scenes show Curtis as a surprisingly compassionate worker at an employment agency), but the film doesn't reconcile the Gothic certainties of Curtis' lyrics, the brutality of his bandmates' music, and the tension between presentation and autobiography. Combing the data of a life for motivation is ultimately fruitless, as any amateur psychologist will confirm, but Corbijn does little probing. He's not good enough of a director to make his lacuna signify at the level of mystery and pity at which Curtis pitched his crises. I found the Joy Division chapters in Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People more representative; the disjunction between the band's increasing skill and popularity – the end-of-days euphoria embodied in Steve Coogan's performance as Tony Wilson – and the shock of Curtis' suicide. Its ordinariness too.

As a fervent New Order devotee, I gotta mention Closer's most poignant moment: a still of Curtis' bandmates, numb with grief at a pub table, joined quietly in the corner by Stephen Morris' girlfriend – the past now part of their future, the present well out of hand.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Just returned from a brief, exhausting New York City sojourn to visit friends who worked for a certain music webzine that recently closed. Will now return to regular scheduled programming.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

So this is goodbye

My last Stylus essay. It's been a great three + years. Although I was a published music critic already, Stylus legitimized what had essentially been a side project. All the cool obits and letters I've gotten in the last few days were unexpected and gratifying. Thanks

Just for old time's sake, my first Stylus review.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"A tropical entropy seemed to prevail," Joan Didion wrote in Miami, "defeating grand schemes even as they were realized." All the butt-shaking and arm-waving obviated any sense that entropy prevailed at the M.I.A. show at Studio A last night, but it made me re-examine my own M.I.A. problem. I overheard this exchange a few minutes before she went on stage:

She: [M.I.A.]'s so good.

He: I like the CD you made me.

She: She sounds so Indian. Like, exotic.

Now, until last night's show, I had no idea who bought her albums beside rockcrits and readers of their prose. Which isn't entirely fair: I've students who went to her show in early 2006. But it was a coterie, and (teen) musical coteries store facts like granaries store wheat, without digesting them. Thanks to a grainy pre-concert film showing an authoritarian Ceylonian head of state and a Soviet kepis that M.I.A. sported (crowning a baggy gold sequined blouse thing that Phyllis Diller would have loved), the coterie had some inkling that her music was "political" even if its content was lost on them. On me too. Anthony articulated some of my discomforts a couple of months ago, predictably more sophisticated than protests from Ethan Padgetts of rockcrit. She gets too much credit for statements that wither when listened to as manifestos; her many good songs, as he rightly put it, "revole around not just facile slogans but facile questions."All I could glean from "Boyz" and "Sunshowers" is what I've enjoyed from noted theorist Prince Rogers Nelson: there's fucked-up shit in this world, so let's dance and fuck. While I'm not accusing her of cynically exploiting her background to add a patina of social relevance to those shape-shifting beats, she gets toomuch credit for them; or, rather, the beats are ever so much weirder than her lyrics.

I live in Miami. M.I.A. could have been Gloria Estefan, "Sunshowers" and "Boyz" could have been "Get On Your Feet" and "Rhythm is Gonna Get You" -- songs by another dark-skinned exotic who gets points for being friskier than what was on most of the audience's iPod's. Since she (and us) was having such a great time I don't begrudge her reluctance to turn into Linton Kwesi Johnson, but there's a reason why "Paper Planes," live and on record, remains her most conflicted statement and most striking musical moment -- she hints that she isn't the only one up for indictment.

Monday, October 29, 2007

RIP, part two

Simon Reynolds has the best short obit (dovetailing with a run of less than cheerful dispatches on the state of music and music writing, a subject my final essay will also address), specifically addressing Stylus' relation to Pitchfork:
And for purely selfish readerly reasons I’ll miss Stylus's off-kilter approach, which I’ve often fancied sorta made it vis-a-vis Pitchfork what the [late Eighties] Melody Maker was to the [late Eighties} NME. Except that’s quite unfair to Pitchfork which is way better than NME was then... but the analogy nonetheless has something to it: P-fork as the Accepted Authority, saddled with a certain responsibility, and Stylus thereby freed up to be the younger brother/maverick/underdog.

Stylus RIP

As the world of rockcrit knows by now, Stylus will cease publication this week. I have a lot of thoughts I haven't sorted yet which I may post as inspiration comes, but my unfinished valediction to be published on Thursday is an attempt.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Milquetoast on hambone

Since I don't suck on Hollywood hambone too often, I looked forward to watching Mr. Brooks. Not a good idea when the writer/directors wrote Stand By Me and Kevin Costner plays a mild-mannered serial killer, but whatever. William Hurt! Kevin Costner playing a mild-mannered serial killer! Did I say William Hurt?

Alas, Mr. Brooks is about 80 minutes too long. It equates funereal pacing with Serious Drama. It's got Costner discussing abortion with a teenage daughter who's probably his girlfriend. Faithfully adhering to Hollywood serial killer movie rules, there's a scene in which Costner burns his clothes and a few incriminating possessions of his victim's while crouching in the nude (we get no scenes, alas, of Costner sticking his dick between his thighs and penciling eyeliner to the accompaniment of Colin Newman). Demi Moore's in here too, playing, you guessed it, the determined cop out to get Mr. Brooks, grinding her teeth so fiercely that bicuspid ash oozed from her jaws. Fortunately Lindsay Crouse is on hand, as a crypto-dike police captain who's minutes from turning into Laurie Metcalf-playing-Joan Crawford. The biggest disappointment is Hurt, relegated to glowering in the shadows and committed to playing this shit role like it's Iago; he does experiment with an cackle he stole from Dr. Evil, though. Once again the filmmakers missed an opportunity in not switching the roles: how much more delicious would this film be if William Hurt, as the serial killer, took advice from alter ego Kevin Costner, especially if Costner is still allowed to act this milquetoasty?

If you happen to catch Mr. Brooks on cable, make sure you make it through the first thirty minutes. Costner utters a line of dialogue destined for the annals of camp. To serial killer apprentice (don't ask) Dane Cook: "I feel I must warn you -- if it turns out you enjoy killing, it can be very addictive. It can ruin your life."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Let's hope I never have to write about Madonna again. This is as personal as I get.

A reminder that old habits don't die hard -- they rot and occlude serious thought from intelligent people. This morning a colleague sniffed that Madonna was more credible as a marketing force than an artist; she "didn't write her own songs."

Monday, October 22, 2007

Good Neil Young albums begin with throwaway openings that are nevertheless lots of fun; you could fill a dandy quarter of a CD-R with Sleeps With Angels' "My Heart," Comes a Time's "Goin' Home," Time Fades Away's title track, and a handful of others. Chrome Dreams II's "Beautiful Bluebird" isn't one of them -- it's a reminder that, when he wants to, Young can still be mawkish in a melodious way. Don't laugh: it's some kind of achievement after good will and healthy sales. The proletariat concept album, Bush-bashing album, and Jonathan Demme-enshrined country-rock record are the kinds of modest achievement we expect from veterans who still read The New York Times and haven't forgotten how to plug their electric guitars into amps; Prairie Wind even became his first new album in more than a decade to be certified gold. I don't own a one, and I'm not too ashamed to confess that I've lost the tracks I've preserved after a hard drive meltdown a few months ago. I haven't paid much attention to him since "I'm The Ocean" proved too sloppy for Pearl Jam in 1995 (to their credit, they've absorbed its lessons, to commercial shortfall).

Chrome Dreams II's backstory is more interesting than the album itself, but its slapdash nature is good for Young; it reminds us that lots of his great albums, particularly Rust Never Sleeps and Freedom were cobbled together, indifferent to abstractions, "concepts," or any notions of gestalt that Young's concentration couldn't focus on. Its ramshackle charm feels earned. "The Believer" tunefully rewrites After the Goldrush's "I Believe In You" (and alludes to it in the chorus call-and-response vocals) for post-fiftysomethings. "Dirty Old Man" takes the "Piece of Crap" riff around town, gives it a Jagermeister shot, and forces it to drive home. It's a stupid song, but for Young "stupid" allows him to record essentialist statements beyond his self-important peers (Dylan, with all his newfound senescent grace, seems incapable of it).

Of course "Ordinary People" will get all the attention. After years of spotty bootleg appearances, it sprawls for nearly twenty minutes on an album incapable of supporting the song's conceptual ambitions. Despite visible signs of age (note the hearty "Lee Iaccoca people!" Neil shouts, a reminder that maybe he thumbed through Talking Straight in 1986 while admiring Ronald Reagan's Miss Liberty tribute on TV) it makes its pretensions pay off. Or stupidity -- Neil's ideas about "the people" might as well come from the lyrics to "Hands Across America," oblivious to Joseph Cotten's contemptuous dismissal in Citizen Kane. How reassuring that he's not settling for mere iconicity. Who cares that we're not sure how many new songs he's written for this album -- that he's still possessed by the spirit of "T-Bone" and "Welfare Mothers" at 93 or however old he is is a boon in this climate of Starbucks-ified boomer-rock.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Couldn't have said it better...

I like Kevin John Bozelka a lot. The best bit of (seemingly) tossed-off criticism this week.
I always thought "I Want It That Way" was a fine piece of product. But it wasn't until Joe Gross in the 1999 Pazz issue compared it to Gertrude Stein's Stanzas in Meditation that I realized it was no piece of product at all. Or rather, it was the ultimate proof that the pop assembly line could produce poetry of an almost disquieting singularity. The well-trained sincerity (NOT an oxymoron) of the voices; the sturdy, non-distracting backing track; the overall arc from quiet to quiet; the "ain't nothing" hooks which are really cascades of question marks - all are designed to streamline what is at heart a mystery so that "I Want It That Way" means exactly what you (or I) think it does. It's like DeBarge made solid

Couldn't Hae

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Current listening

CRS (Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, Pharell) - "Us Placers"
Keyshia Cole - "Got To Get My Heart Back"
Radiohead - "All I Want"
Robert Wyatt - Comicopera
Annie Lennox - "Little Bird" (12" remix)
Neil Young - Chrome Dreams II
Ringo Starr - "Back Off Boogaloo"
Justin Timberlake - "Until The End of Time"

Monday, October 15, 2007

This love project

Until I read this today, I'd wrestled for months on how to articulate the tuneful horribleness of Of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?; which is to say, a lot of these songs inspire horror, but I've been nervous about plumbing their depths. The only song that made me really enthusiastic is "The Past is a Grotesque Animal," which is five-sixths of a great title until Montreal scion Kevin Barnes assumes that "animal" has more specificity than "thing"; the oddness of this metaphor says a lot more about a certain indie mindset than SFJ's temperate essay.

Listening to "The Past..." this afternoon a few minutes after finishing Bob Dylan's equally endless 1997 "Highlands" (all told, the consumption of both songs took about 16 hours of my day), it struck me: the Of Montreal track is the boho update. As Barnes recounts, praises, laments, and chews over a relationship powerful enough to inspire a twelve-minute song, his monomania is so ridiculously inappropriate that "The Past..." becomes powerful in a way that the album's other (shorter) numbers never approach. The way Dylan's "Highlands" is mixed, the instruments might as well be programmed into a Synclavier; the metronomic chords and unyielding sobriety of Dylan's vocal are ambient washes, with discrete phrases and allusions poking their heads out of the tide. Similarly the tepid programmed beats of "The Past..." suggest an exhaustion with form. For both these romantic casualties the only way to plumb their pain is to find the most predictable forms and elongate them to the breaking point. Erica Jong is Dylan's signifier of solidarity with the concerns of womanhood (I doubt he'd even dignify it by citing "feminism"), "Neil Young" his musical one, presumably the introspective Young of On The Beach. In Barnes' song, "George Bataille" has the weight of a compatible astrological sign -- if I didn't think that Barnes really believed that meeting the first cute girl who read The Story of the Eye was kismet. And maybe he believes in the cleverness of using rote business school jargon like "Our love project has so much potential"; it might have excited Gary Numan's transistors had not Barnes also included, "Somehow you've red-rovered the Gestapo circling my heart," which suggests that he knows Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" by heart. Meanwhile Dylan's so bummed that he can't keep himself awake through most of his song. I haven't been in enough devastating relationships to distinguish between the least meretricious and the most dishonest of the two; these songs elide the distinctions, I think.
This is encouraging.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The fixer

One of the great Hollywood mysteries of the last thirty years is why an actor as incisive as Sydney Pollack directs such lumpen movies. With the exception of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and the marvelous Tootsie (and it is a marvel, considering the monstrous egos of everyone involved and the pay-as-you-go gestation of its script), his movies define middlebrow plod. He wants to be William Wyler when he's more like Edmund Golding. His films get financed because he knows everybody and there's still old-timers who think the lethargy of The Interpreter represents, in the age of comic book adaptations, "classic" Hollywood filmmaking. It's the subtext of the reviews for these movies themselves: the lethargy is a relief, like walking into the TV room of a nursing home after spending the morning at a first grader's birthday party.

Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton's gotten excellent reviews in large part due to George Clooney's furrowed-brow turn as a fixer who can't decide whether to accept the fact that he's got a conscience, and, accepting its limitations (like its misconceived conclusion, despite giving Tilda Swinton a good chance to project that scary open-mouthed blankness she's so good at), it earns its acclaim. Gilroy's isn't a fluid director yet; the first third seems needlessly complicated, hindered by Tom Wilkinson's purploid voice-overs, a scene that has no dramatic payoff, and underwritten expositions. While it's a rare virtue that a Hollywood insider like Gilroy (the adaptor of the Bourne films) trusts the audience enough to figure out who's doing what to whom, he forgets to clarify important relationships until midpoint. Still, the dialogue crackles (not what you'd expect from the adaptator of those Bourne movies) and Gilroy mitigates the material's inherent sentimentality. Clayton isn't a slickster -- unlike, say, John Travolta in A Civil Action or Julia Robert's noble cleavage in Erin Brokovich, he looks as if he's felt like shit for being a shit for years (this film should put to rest the self-perpetuating myth of Clooney's handsomeness). His family means little to him, it's clear; a couple of exchanges between him and his brothers hint at an extinct intimacy. He loves his son, maybe (a scene between them in a parked car after a tense sibling confrontation is the best acting of Clooney's career). He maintains a sliver of self-respect by imagining that he cudda been a contender. Gilroy doesn't spoil it by including honey-hued flashbacks to Clayton's better days -- he didn't have any, as Sydney Pollack reminds him in one scene of quiet but muscular brutality.

Pollack's the ultimate character actor fixer: when you want late middle-aged angst delivered with a touch of Tabasco, he's your go-to guy. His work here is a new crinkle. As Pollack has aged, so have his characters become resigned to their fates. In Tootsie and, in his greatest role, Husbands and Wives, he was a whiz at cutting through crap with jabs and feints; he didn't let his co-stars breathe. In Michael Clayton he's really slowed down. As the mouthpiece for Gilroy's mordant takedown of global plutocracy (right, as if you thought any filmmaker would celebrate it), he says each line thoughtfully, without emphasis -- quite differently than the younger Pollack or even Wilkinson himself would have essayed it; you can understand why this methodical man is the law firm's senior partner while Wilkinson's the feared litigator. When he calls Clayton "soft," he sounds hurt and, of all things, disillusioned, as if the world is so corrupt that it's taught Michael Clayton to become repulsed by corruption. "We always knew this case reeked," he admits, lingering just for a moment on the pronoun -- a subtle way of branding Clayton an outsider, the one who never got it; or it's a gentle reminder that Clayton, in joining the firm fifteen years ago, signed a deal with Satan. It's not a stretch to imagine Clooney like this in fifteen years, when the camaraderie and profits of Ocean's 23 can't assuage the tension between Vanity Fair/GQ playboyhood and his own ideas of what constitutes honest filmmaking and acting.

Now there are unconfirmed rumours that Pollack's got terminal stomach cancer. Best of luck to him.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Doris Lessing!

One of those titans who've quietly accumulated a considerable body of work and assumed won the Nobel Prize years ago. Anyway, she finally has. I've read not a word by her, and feel guilty about it. The Golden Notebook's been on my short (well, by now long) list for years; and while I care little about science-fiction as a genre, some of her work comes highly recommended. Any recommendations or demurrals would surely be welcome.

On another note, I was most struck by today by how beautiful this octogenarian looks. A bit like Gertrude Stein, untouched by the malice or guile.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chart flashback

According to this ILM thread, the following were among the videos played during MTV's first broadcast on August 1, 1981:

1. "Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles
2. "You Better Run" by Pat Benatar
3. "She Won't Dance" by Rod Stewart
4. "You Better You Bet" by The Who
5. "Little Susie's on the Up" by Ph.D.
6. "We Don't Talk Anymore" by Cliff Richard
7. "Brass in Pocket" by The Pretenders
8. "Time Heals" by Todd Rundgren
9. "Take It on the Run" by REO Speedwagon
10. "Rockin' the Paradise" by Styx
11. "When Things Go Wrong" by Robin Lane and the Chartbusters
12. "History Never Repeats" by Split Enz
13. "Hold On Loosely" by 38 Special
14. "Just Between You and Me" by April Wine
15. "Sailing" by Rod Stewart
16. "Iron Maiden" by Iron Maiden
17. "Keep On Loving You" by REO Speedwagon
18. "Message of Love" by The Pretenders
19. "Mr. Briefcase" by Lee Ritenour
20. "Double Life" by The Cars
21. "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins
22. "Looking For Clues" by Robert Palmer
23. "Too Late" by Shoes
24. "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" by Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty
25. "Surface Tension" by Rupert Hine
26. "One Step Ahead" by Split Enz
27. "Baker Street" by Gerry Rafferty
28. "I'm Gonna Follow You" by Pat Benatar
29. "Savannah Nights" by Tom Johnston
30. "Lucille" by Rockestra

A few things:

(a) I'm struck by how many videos for second-tier songs Rod Stewart had made by summer '81.
(b) Megaproducer Rupert Hine (Rush, Stevie Nicks) had a solo hit?
(d) AOR dinosaurs roamed the earth.
(e) I need to consult AllMusic about Shoe, Lee Ritenour, Ph.D, and, um, April Wine.
(f) I'm pretty sure these 30 videos were repeated two dozen times a day.

Since my MTV options were limited to what I could watch at friends' houses, the monitors at major department stores, and "Friday Night Video" (I didn't get cable till 2000), I have to depend on my readers' input here. Any other great stuff you remember from the early days?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Anthony's the biggest Electric Six fan I know, so I'm curious to know what he thinks of The New One With The Long-Ass Title; it's pretty good to almost great.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Of bootlegs and such

Reading Ned's series of posts on listening to Radiohead over the years, it occurred to me: I own very few bootleg recordings. He discusses owning scads of Boo Radleys stuff; meanwhile, in a good friend's car last night, I marveled at the sheer volume of Pearl Jam live shit he owned -- I mean, stuff beyond the 642 "official" bootlegs they released a few years ago. while I can't think of more than one CD-R worth of let's say extra-commercial material I own by my favorite bands. Geography gets some of the blame: Miami's a big city, but we have only two-count'em-two indie record stores. But I gotta admit to a certain disinterest in trolling fan sites and file sharing programs looking for, say, late '95 Bjork club shows (of which I own a couple of performances, actually). There's only so many hours in the day, I have too many other interests, not enough storage capacity at home, and, as anyone who knows me will confirm, the number of songs stored on my hard drive runs into the low double digits (I still burn lots of CD-R's, which returns us to the space question). Thank the gods for YouTube, which has helped me finds lots of archival footage without my ever having to own it.

What say you? If you own lots of bootleg stuff, what motivates you -- completism? fandom? neurosis?
One of my crucial influences gets the Library of America treatment. Charles McGrath's essay is a good place to start learning about the man.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Baby's gonna cry

I have a lot of affection for Annie Lennox. "Here Comes the Rain Again" was the first 45 I ever bought with my own money (the first album: Wham!'s Make It Big, of course). It was moody, mysterious, and indescribably sexy in grade school. So I endured most of Eurythmics' stylistic shifts over the next few years, even when it was rather obvious that synth-dominated AC would be Lennox's metier, as augured by 1989's "Don't Ask Me Why," their last Top 40 hit (and, I think, the last new 45 I bought).

This is a nice way of saying that I don't hate Lennox. It pleased me when 1992's Diva scored a couple of small hits (the coquettish "Walking on Broken Glass" and the model-of-its-kind ballad "Why") and Lennox's visual instincts remained intact. Despite the lovely "No More I Love You's," Medusa was a perfectly useless covers album, containing a version of Strummer-Jones' "Train in Vain" which diligently tries to generate as little heat as possible, and a cover of Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down" which served as a creepy backdrop for Kevin Spacey's improbable seduction of a minor in American Beauty. Not even David Stewart's post-1985 hair matched this level of outrage.

Way too tasteful and agreeable, most of Songs of Mass Destruction doesn't even work as a treatment for future Lennox videos. Maybe that's her strategy: her fortysomething cult audience doesn't watch MTV or VH-1 either. But that's no reason to write airless songs which allude to nothing beyond their own gestures towards soul and meaningfulness.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Don't count on Polly Jean Harvey for predictable surprises. White Chalk, her most frustrating yet, is the kind of album you're glad to own and will no doubt play a couple of times a year -- a lasting pleasure, sure, a lasting enjoyment, maybe. I've warmed to it since I wrote this; "When Under Ether" is her most chilling recorded moment; and there's courage in Polly Jean's decision to work against her strengths. Still doesn't make the album more than a harrowing misfire.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The masterpiece business

EW avers that Bruce Springsteen "is back in the masterpiece business," as if Springsteen's masterpiece manufacturing firm was depressed and in decline since Rolling Stone's last 4.5 star review. Springsteen himself agrees -- "I wrote a lot of hooks," he told A.O. Scott in Sunday's NYT feature. The truth, unfortunately, is closer to what Theon noted in his review of Magic today: magic tricks "are so thin and fragile—let the light touch them the wrong way and the audience won't even understand what they were meant to be." I'll go farther: the audience understands, all right, and so does Bruce, but the messages aren't interesting. Twenty three years since Born In The U.S.A., he's still most compelling when, like the Prince of "1999," he's dancing at the edge of apocalypse. He's too old to write teary-beery anthems and not intelligent enough to illumine those post-Dust Bowl with which he delights the editors of Rolling Stone and scares the rest of us. After a few plays "Radio Nowhere" starts to sound like somewhere -- the demilitarized zone that Bob Dylan saw from a tour bus window which inspired the dessicated songs on Time Out of Mind. "I'll Work For Your Love"'s is unintentionally prophetic, as Springsteen works too hard to summon the magic. "...Love" even returns to Mariolatry City (thanks to Michael Chabon for the phrase), where "She's The One" was situated. The real keeper is the insinuating title track, on which Brendan O'Brien's gauche mix fits the spooky vibe.

I'm a casual fan of Springsteen's. I like a handful of songs from every album before 1980, Born in the U.S.A. a lot, and love Tunnel of Love. I profess not to hear what Greil Marcus does in 1978's "The Promised Land" (cue lyric about knife cutting pain through the heart). But as I admitted in my reassessment of Tunnel of Love, lots of his subsequent records sound like good ideas rather than finished statements. At their best they remind me of John Mellencamp records, which is odd because Mellencamp's had a far more interesting post-1987 career (the year in which he released his critical breakthrough The Lonesome Jubilee) than Broose; his double-disc comp holds up end to end better than Springsteen's Essential set.

Monday, October 1, 2007


Listening to Bruce Springsteen's new "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" whilst finishing Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach revealed the differences between aging boomers dealing with the recent past. I retract what I said to friends about the lecherous intentions in Broose's song; in comparing Springsteen to the Robert Palmer of "Some Like It Hot," I confused one paunchy men showing his age and weakness for windbag romantic poesy with another paunchy man showing his age and dick.

Anyway, the lovers in On Chesil Beach discover that their genuine love isn't enough to overcome how little their upbringing prepared them for the mystery of sex. Set on the couple's honeymoon night in 1963, with explanatory flashbacks, the novella deconstructs Frederica's self-sufficiency while affirming its/her dignity; while it's clearly a defensive gesture, McEwan doesn't treat her devotion to classical music condescendingly. The seaside milieu is well-drawn even though, from my vantage point, McEwan's skill could be fictive rather than mimetic for all I know about the English countryside (Christopher Hitchens testifies to the verisimilitude of McEwan's depiction of "the full gruesomeness" of this holiday).

Still, there's tension between the thin plot and the etiolated manner in which the narrator comments on it; we're reminded of those John Fowles or Milan Kundera novels whose authors can't leave well enough alone, even when their cultivation and delineating of their narratives' finely shaded ironies is a pleasure. Another pleasure: how McEwan has learned how to integrate a predilection for surprise endings and springing horrors on his characters. From the casual way in which Edward's mother suffered permanent "brain damage" after an exiting passenger slams a train door against her head, to how repulsively yet convincingly the wedding night descends into a comedic horror show, this is life observed with a watchful eye, careful not to confuse fidelity with realism. The McEwan novel I was most reminded of was Black Dogs, in which the author posits a future -- and a past -- for a couple as deeply in love as Edward and Frederica. But the spare, silvery grace of the earlier novel peters out in On Chesil Beach, which is at least ten pages longer than it needs to be, especially its pat ending. McEwan's narrator comes to resemble a dinner guest telling a story well past the moment at which the servants have begun to quietly blow out the candles and put away the decanter of brandy. The pathos threatens to harden into the grimmest sort of didacticism.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Civic Literacy Test!

Have fun. Ignore the conservative bent to some of these options, especially towards the end of the quiz ("National defense is considered a public good because...," rofflez). I got a 80% (48 out of 60 right).

Thursday, September 27, 2007


Thanks to TIME Magazine, its subscribers now know that we and the rest of America incorporated "ghetto blaster" into the vernacular years ago. And, oh yeah, something called, goodness me, "rockism." (Thanks, Matos)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The world is too much with us

Teaching three classes and a slew of writing (the fruits of which I'll post directly) have kept me from posting this week.

As usual there's too much political chicanery for me to comment on -- from the numbing certainty that the Democrats will nominate Hilary Clinton as their candidate for POTUS to the idiocy of the blather regarding the appearance of Ahmadinejad at Columbia University, and the expedient manner in which its president tried to please our own homegrown mullahs, the Norman Podhoretzes and Hugh Hewitts, with prefatory remarks that subverted his hospitality. This is when I turn to Orwell to clear my head, and, as usual, his antidote is bitter but effective. From a review of paleocon Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, which has rarely been collected and should be more widely circulated:
Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can be somehow combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.
If the polarity outlined by the first two sentences seems anachronistic to everyone except Larry Kudlow, a quick glance at any major newspaper reporting on Madame Clinton's new national health care initiative (and GOP resistance thereto), and the anxiety generated by the now settled strike by United Auto Workers should settle the matter.

The real twist is in the last sentence, which is straightforward enough to please a wimpy Philistine like William Bennett. When was the last time a public intellectual lamented the decay of the concept of right and wrong? This is common sense purged of cant.