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.