Thursday, January 31, 2008

Goodbye January

A world I did not wish to enter
Took me and poised me on my centre,
Made me grimace, and foot, and prance,
As cats on hot bricks have to dance
Strange jigs to keep them from the floor,
Till they sink down and feel no more.

-- Thomas Hardy, "A Necessitarian's Epitaph"

Now I've seen everything...

Armond White's complimentary review of the U2 concert documentary -- kind of. He's correctly notes the thrilling juxtaposition of surreality and documentary-style concert footage seen in the video of my favorite band:
U2 3D lacks the techno apotheosis you can imagine—the kind that might come from seeing a greater band in concert, as when dance-club imagery climaxes New Order’s "True Faith" music video. That wasn’t digital 3-D but ecstasy in analog.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I'm shocked that this article would miss the obvious explanation as to why Florida has so many seniors: the aging Cuban exile community. Naturally, it omits the most obvious explanation for why the U.S. was so generous towards my Cuban grandparents even though the Republican party they so heartily embrace would throw them over the side of a border wall if their feet weren't touching American soil: you get their votes by guaranteeing social services since they're not long for this world anyway. A deeply cynical move first adopted by LBJ's Democratic party and continued today, as shown by the pandering to Cuban talk radio demagoguery by every president of the post-Bay of Pigs era.

Monday, January 28, 2008

In defense of secularism

Responding to a Mitt "Mitt" Romney speech on his religious beliefs that, in the spin cycle of current pol drama, feels like ages ago (i.e. it was in December), Hendrik Hertzberg defines secularism in the best and simplest of terms:
No, you are wrong. Secularism is not a religion, any more than freedom of association is an association. Secularism is a political condition that permits a variety of religions and beliefs about religion to coexist peacefully. And the existence of God (or the divinity of Jesus) is not a fact to be acknowledged, it’s a belief to be protected, along with contrary beliefs or nonbeliefs.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

There will be non-epic

Upton Sinclair is a writer on the periphery of the periphery for me: I read and was duly horrified by The Jungle in high school; was a socialist but a best-seller in his day. His ethos -- a didactic, flat-footed Dreiser approach to Social Problems, if such a grisly thing is possible -- keeps him from canonicity. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, he wrote one book everyone remembers and which performed a great service, and was written as such; the good intentions shake like the branches of old elm trees.

Paul Thomas Anderson will never be associated with causes. To think of him performing a service (other than re-introducing the awesome Philip Baker Hall to casting agents) is enough to make me spit out the ice cube I'm chewing on. There Will Be Blood could use more didacticism. Conceived and shot like a the fever-dream of a doggedly sober man, it's so ascetic and apolitical that it could only have been made by a man who sees film as life. I haven't read Oil! and I understand Anderson adapted only the first few chapters, but damned if I can't believe that Sinclair wrote his novel as if it was The Wings of the Dove. His fluency with dollies and tracking shots belie the knock-kneed gait at which his films unfurl; he's the first director I know who's made three consecutive movies in which the events seem foreshortened yet attenuated. We come no closer to understanding Daniel Plainview's megalomania than his adopted son comes to thawing the monster's heart. Actually, Plainview isn't even that monstrous -- more like weird, which can't be the point (again, I haven't read the novel). For all Daniel Day-Lewis' considerable finesse -- the ease with which he moves in character mitigates our distance from Plainview -- this final heir of the Method tradition, accepted without hesitation as one of the immortals (his last movie was another Oscar nomination-loaded Noble Effort) , inhabits a movie without the insectival greed of Plainview himself. It's as if Humphrey Bogart's Fred C. Dobbs from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre were exiled in George Stevens' Giant. Anderson aspires to Stevens' asexuality too, which is probably his idea of fairness: Stevens, recall, made oil derricks as sensuous as Elizabeth Taylor in her prime.

Also, I'm beginning to resent Anderson's politics of embarrassment. He can't resist filming a scene in which one or more characters perform an act of such abject mortification that it forces the audience to squirm for the actor, not with the character. Think of Philip Seymour Hoffman slapping his own head for making a pass at Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights; or all of William H. Macy's scenes, for that matter. Or Adam Sandler fighting with Hoffman (him again) in Punch-Drunk Love. In a scene which may or may not be in the novel, Plainview and Paul Dano's preacher Eli confront one another for the last time. Since I don't get some of the bad press Dano's gotten -- his impassioned squeal and lack of girth work for the character -- I saw the possibilities latent in watching two such grossly mismatched opponents glower at each other (it helps that Day-Lewis has never looked so attractive, even when Plainview is disintegrating before us). I'm not sure what tone Anderson sought, but the scene has the intended effect: the audience, looking for a laugh, any laugh, guffaws at exactly the right moment after an act of rapid, predictable gruesomeness. Nothing is delivered, as Dylan once said. The scene floats, unmoored, with no relation to what we've learned; it's played and written as a sop to the audience. That's how it feels anyway.

It's weird reading these lazy reviews calling TWBB "epic" -- because it spans lots of years? it's shot in the desert? Anderson chose an "epic"-style font for his titles? This is a Noh drama, stylized yet minimalist. The audience can congratulate itself on having seen a "show," its prejudices about American history and the relationship between plutocracy and religious fundamentalism unchallenged; at least Richard Brooks' adaptation of Elmer Gantry tried. If ultimately it's not a very good movie, it's still a movie with a lot of very good things in it, helmed by a sensibility whose tics and obsessions are not getting more familiar as his resume lengthens.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

No dangling conversations need apply

So that's where Art Garfunkel's been -- reading Lucretius, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hardy, and, er, Fareed Zakaria. Thus proving that erstwhile partner Paul Simon's not the only rocker who can cite Wallace Stevens. Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the tip.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Two obits -- by the NYT's A.O. Scott and Slate's Dana Stevens -- try to unearth the nature of Heath Ledger's promise. I prefer Stevens' because it concentrates on the problem that James Wolcott (no link, alas) addressed earlier in the decade: young actors have no clue how to move in character. Ledger certainly did, according to Stevens. Based on the decidedly lethargic, almost stunted poses of Ledger's Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain, I'd say that Ledger found the predictably Method way around the problem -- and somehow made it work. That he also mastered the traditional Douglas Fairbanks' kind of kineticism in the overlooked Casanova tells me all I need to know about his talent (speaking of which: it's as rote as you'd expect, but there's pleasure in that, and it was a pleasure even then to see Ledger relax, especially when cast against Jeremy Irons doing his damnedest Basil Rathbone impersonation and still managed to look wan). Who knows what his Joker might be like.

I like this bit of Stevens about Ledger's role in 2005's Lords of Dogtown, in which he plays a funny, grittier variant on the Patrick Swayze part in the awesome Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow's 1991 absurdity about surfer-bank robbers.
This scruffy, inspirational sports picture, a fictionalized remake of the skateboarding documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, can barely contain Ledger's gonzo performance. He's fresh from Val Kilmer College, comically unhinged and unprecedentedly ugly. Late in the movie, after the Z-Boys skate their way to juicy endorsement deals and desert Skip one by one, he hurls surfboards off the roof of his store in a self-destructive rage, then sprawls on the roof's edge, guzzling from a bottle of whiskey while the crowd below gasps for fear he'll throw himself off.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heath Ledger 1972-2008

Ugh. He'll forever be remembered for Brokeback Mountain, deservedly, but his quiet performance in I'm Not There is the kind of unadorned excellent acting that never gets noticed, and suggests that he was only now discovering his power. He was very funny in Casanova and Lords of Dogtown.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Many fools have tried to embrace the 19,000,000 neon bulb excess of Las Vegas and only gotten singed for their hubris (how many copies of U2's Pop have you counted at your local used CD store? has Brandon Flowers kept the mustache?). Occasionally someone gets it right -- in this case, Carl Wilson, whose entry in the 33 1/3 series on Celine Dion Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste proved excellent consumerist product on the airplane. I chewed on this aside on Sin City:
If there is a laboratory demonstration of the antagonism between economic and cultural capital, it is Las Vegas, a city of such pure commercialism that money is its entertainment, interrupted occasionally by a show...In this non-stop carnival of social inversion, only money is purely beautiful, in Kant's sense of being an end in itself. Vegas's fabled love of the ersatz, like its mini Eiffel Tower, is money giddily blaspheming culture's sacred icons. All of which, in the abstract, seems kind of healthy. But in the flesh it depressed the hell out of me.
Well, yeah, it would, if you've never been to Walt Disney World, which, in addition to that Kantian sense in which the money-entertainment complex will consume itself after you've overdrawn your checking account buying a pair of Mouse ears, specficially targets the one segment of the population more uninhibited than the adult heterosexual male: the child. I wasn't very depressed: celebrating a bachelor party means you get the ride you pay for. But I must say, walking those labyrinthine subterranean corridors connecting mega-resort and casino four times a day, I never saw so many mirror-image representations of our group.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Now the best part about the Idolator poll: the selected mixes. Rich, Ethan, and Andy's are three of the best, but there are many others to which I've only given a cursory glance. Lots of goodies!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


I'm going to Vegas in a few days for a bachelor party. I don't gamble. Any suggestions?
A couple more reviews: Gore Vidal's last novel and the sequel to the best Theodore Roosevelt biography extant.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

With the 2007 Idolator Pop Critics Poll results posted, I can finally list my ballot and comments. Looks handsome too, especially the artists' renderings of the winners (James Murphy -- yummz). Since arguing against consensus is useless -- especially if you've contributed to the consensus -- I'll just say that I'm fine with LCD Soundsystem and have come around enough to "Umbrella" so that I don't change it when it's on the radio. Enjoy Matos' fine wrap-up, one of the better Sound of Silver reviews I've read of the (many, many) published this year, and the individidual ballots.

I'll provide the full top twenty. Happy reading:

1. Robert Wyatt - Comicopera
2. Miranda Lambert - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
3. Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
4. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
5. Jay-Z - American Gangster
6. M.I.A. - Kala
7. Lil Wayne - Da Drought 3
8. Arctic Monkeys - Favourite Worst Nightmare
9. Roisin Murphy - Overpowered
10. Amerie - Because I Love It
11. Kanye West - Graduation
12. Rilo Kiley - Under the Blacklight
13. Ciara - Promise
14. Robert Plant-Alison Krauss - Raising Sand
15. White Stripes - Icky Thump
16. Against Me! - New Wave
17. Ghostface - The Big Doe Rehab
18. Britney Spears - Blackout
19. Dizzee Rascal - Maths + English
20. Electric Six - I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me From Being The Master
A review of Prodigy's newest single. I'd like to propose a moratorium on kiddie choirs for the next five years.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

David Denby's essay on Otto Preminger argues for the director's aversion to bringing "formal or expressive pleasure to moviegoers or even to himself," whatever that means. Along with Hollywood's favorite pro-forma liberal scion Stanley Kramer, Preminger invented the high-concept film: a movie sold on the salaciousness of its subject matter, with a veneer of liberal pleading. Think of The Moon is Blue, Jimmy Stewart saying "panties" aloud in Anatomy of a Murder without jiggling his jowls, examining modern Washington and the Beltway chattering class' view of sexual hypocrisy in Advise & Consent, and adapting a Leon Uris novel (Tolstoy for the James Michener set) starring Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint -- which, depending on how far you want to push the analogy, makes Preminger his generations' Adrian Lyne or Paul Haggis.

Since Denby avers that Preminger was "an inquisitive and urbane fellow who respected the audience’s intelligence," in his usual sneaky way of asking a rhetorical question for which he damn well knows the answer, I'll let his own appraisals of Anatomy of a Murder and Laura -- two of my favorite films -- stand as the best defenses of Preminger's artistry. But consider: "urbane fellows" aren't inquisitive, not really. Rather than allowing action to unspool for the benefit of an indifferent camera (a la George Cukor) or recording his characters' behaviour as if they were arachnids (Howard Hawks), Preminger allowed them to hang themselves with their own words, with nary a cocked eyebrow. His interest in social mores and decor reminds me of Douglas Sirk without the partially hydrogenated corn syrup. He establishes a milieu so fully that his characters can't help but play by its rules -- and pay for it. With the exception of Clifton Webb's proto-fag Walter Lydecker, his "inquisitive and urbane fellows" come off rather better than the ones who try to change the system -- think David Niven in Bonjour Tristesse, Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder, Eva Marie Saint in Exodus, and Charles Laughton in Advise & Consent. Yet so fair is Preminger's approach that these characters never seem rancid or self-congratulatory, as they would in a Billy Wilder film; their reasons for keeping their distance are defined without fuss.

So rent Laura, Angel Face, Where the Sidewalk Ends (each one starring Preminger's greatest proxy, that underrated actor Dana Andrews), Bonjour Tristesse, Anatomy of a Murder, and Advise & Consent. There's a lot I haven't seen, and like all studio directors he made a fair amount of crap. I'm not taken with The Man with the Golden Arm: it's hammy despite a strong Frank Sinatra performance. Exodus is a weird beast, an epic with chamber-drama ambitions, least convincing when it's an action film. This is Preminger's Lawrence of Arabia, with several enigmas at its center.

The most compelling oddity is 1958's Bonjour Tristesse. Besides being one of the most beautiful looking color films ever made, Bonjour Tristesse works as a clinical update of Henry James works like "The Pupil" or The Turn of the Screw, in which children plot mischief for reasons they don't fully understand. Casting the attractive, blank, future Breathless star Jean Seberg as the little schemer shows Preminger's shrewdness; her ineptness in scenes designed to show her sophistication puts the audience on guard. More conventional Preminger touches include extended scenes between Seberg and stepmom-to-be Deborah Kerr. The camera keeps itself in the middle distance until subtle glides and pans underscore the audience's realization that Kerr's primness has a sinister element (it's one of her best performances, until The Innocents unleashes the hysteria beneath the primness). It foreshadows what he would accomplish in Anatomy of a Murder's courtroom scenes and the cross-examination of Sal Mineo's shifty terrorist in Exodus.

So he's a great director of a handful of films. Why does Denby raise such a fuss?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Whether with Thomas or the handful of other guys and ex-boyfriends who constitute the entirety of my gay circle, it feels tiresome to define a reality you've never considered particularly special. As last Monday's Hillary Clinton New Hampshire meltdown reminded us, it's repugnant to manipulate perceived gender/sexuality differences for expediency's sake. The only time it works: surrounded by a bunch of straight men, as I usually am, it's purifying to unleash one movement of pure faggotry. But call it "faggotry" without my permission and I'll punch your jaw.

Thank you, Rich, for putting it so succinctly: "The more uniform we are, the easier we are to dehumanize, the easier we are to hate."

Thursday, January 10, 2008

My proposal for the EMP Pop Conference was rejected, but Todd and Tal's were accepted, so I'll be there anyway as part of the cheering section and to soak in any number of great panels. I look forward to seeing you there.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Despite my caveats about Mary J. Blige's last couple of albums, her biggest competition in the I'm-a-real-diva competition still sounds blank to these ears. "No One," which has been in the Top Two for several weeks, gets by on the public's perception of Alicia Keys as the heiress to a lineage of R&B signifiers of soul. For all her emoting it's a surprisingly empty record. The production is sorta interesting: synth bass interjections beneath her chorus vocal, the acoustic guitar in the coda. I've wondered why she leaves me cold. Maybe it's her conservatism. I never get the sense that she's a loon -- and, no, I don't mean she has to drink and drug like Britney or Blige herself (and, egads, write another survivor narrative). No, just the expectation of assfoolery, like Blige's canny manipulation of self-regard or Beyonce's talent for channelling a young woman's lust (and lust for power) through several layers of Louis Vuitton celebrityhood. By contrast Keys seems to be biting her tongue so hard that she's reduced it to ribbons. In other words, I can understand why the industry conferred classic status on her so soon. My favorite song remains 2005's "Unbreakable," which does a humbler job of situating Keys in the black bourgeois tradition than any of her bigger moments.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Hope, how audacious

I haven't said much about Radiohead's In Rainbows because, well, there's not much to say. It's a quiet little album, its climaxes elided and epiphanies muffled like an Oliver Assayas film, and with a similar Method-inspired horror; if ever a band deserved the right to be labeled unobtrusive but surly, it's these guys. On a good day I'm amiably indifferent to Radiohead, whose aesthetic exploits have inspired more limp and exciting prose than any band of the last few years. With nothing at stake, I've little to gain from merely admiring their iconoclastic marketing gestures at the expense of their better than decent albums.

Here's an example of the good prose, by the reliably wonderful Marcello Carlin, who rightly hears the minor-key synthy Springsteen in the ugly crawl of "All I Need" (which he, also rightly, singles out as the album's best track), even though I think it's more "I'm On Fire" than "Streets of Philadelphia." I admire the sense in which Marcello's sentences aim for Radiohead's rhetorical overreach without curdling into the purploid -- "it's alright because you were patient and open-minded enough to continue trying to penetrate the Rochester core" is pretty good, but a writer with less savoir-faire wouldn't survive the Mephistopholes allusion in the last graf. However, this analogy raised my eyebrows:

“Bodysnatchers” aren’t that far removed from Broken Social Scene, and I cannot imagine “All I Need” without the precedent of Arcade Fire, the Barack Obamas of 21st century rock whose subtle generosity is now seeping through all necessary musical quarters – how much more satisfying than the standard pseudo-trick of stamping one’s feet and yelling.

I can't reconcile the sensibilities of an Radiohead Arcade Fire – creators of bedroom rock with a delicious penchant for arena-size dyspepsia – with the gestures of an Obama, but the Audacious One is on-track towards inspiring more good (and dreadful) popular art than JFK (who at least needed death to complete his enshrinement as myth). I can't wait for Greil Marcus' book in 15 years.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

For those of us too quick to applaud the success of "cocktails" designed to curb the spread of HIV, this should give us pause. Note experiences like this:
Jeff, who asked that he not be fully identified, has had one hip replacement because of a condition called avascular necrosis, the death of cells from inadequate blood supply, and needs another to avoid a wheelchair. Many experts think that avascular necrosis is caused by the steroids many early AIDS sufferers took for pneumonia.

“The virus is under control, and I should be in a state of ecstasy,” he said, “but I can’t even tie my own shoe laces and get up and down the subway stairs. ”

Friday, January 4, 2008

No way will I even try to add pebbles to the mountain of blather, useful and otherwise, devoted in the last 18 hours to the Iowa caucuses. Suffice it to say, this non-affiliated blogger is relieved that the smartest, most articulate (in politics you can't assume one follows the other) Democrat won; and that the most articulate (but not smartest) Republican trounced a field of particularly loathsome androids. James Fallows wrote my favorite obit – Bill Clinton's:
...Who managed a wan smile but for seconds on end stood motionless, as if traumatized or stuffed. Better than anyone else in the country he must understand the situation. The young candidate with the sex appeal and the fun and the magic and the sense of the future and the opportunity to shed the old – Clinton knows the advantages that candidate has. And he knows full well how feeble the appeals to "experience" and "ready from day one" and "competence and responsibility" were when they were issued sixteen years ago by a candidate who really was superbly prepared and experienced: the incumbent president, eight-year vice president, victorious war commander, former ambassador and CIA director George H. W. Bush.
As for Huckabee and Obama's appeal to the Iowa electorate, credit the candidates' oratory. Sullivan:
One aspect of this race that has not been given enough notice so far: Obama and Huckabee and Edwards are easily the best public speakers in this race. They won last night in part because of their ability to connect with people in large settings. You hear in Obama and Huckabee the cadences of the churches they come from - "the holy places where the races meet" - but you also hear men who have honed their rhetorical skills over the years, and actually connect their own thoughts into words. Contrast these skills with Romney and Clinton, who are competent but programmed like a salesman and a focus group respectively.

In the television and internet age, old-style rhetoric is sometimes regarded as an anachronism. It isn't. Huckabee's brilliance in the debates gave him this opportunity. Obama's public speeches have been the best in a candidate since Reagan and Kennedy.
Both can implode. I have no use for an evolution denier and homo hater like Huckabee, and Obama must lay steel beneath the soaring buttresses of his rhetoric. But we'll see.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

At least Nathan Pinkerton didn't pull the canard that a certain film critic of a major weekly tried to hustle last summer: that Knocked Up reneged on the three-dimensional roles offered to women in screwball comedy. After seeing about twenty minutes of Bringing Up Baby on TCM at my parents' house this New Year's Eve, I wondered if Meghan O'Rourke or He Who Shall Remain Nameless had Katherine Hepburn -- squeaking lines in an impossible falsetto and acting like a dingbat -- as a paragon of feminine independence. When will dissenters realize that Animal House didn't cast a Leslie Mann, much less give a Leslie Mann the chance to blast her smiling cad of a husband? Since one of those dissenters is none other than Katherine Heigl, someone needs to remind her that the guys come off as badly as the women -- maybe more so. Someone needs to remind them of the oddly forgotten Irene Dunne, who was maybe Hepburn's best foil -- quiet, dignified, reasonable -- but rarely given funny moments, despite being capable of physical comedy and delivering zingers (The Awful Truth). I'm not suggesting that Mann is anywhere in Dunne's league; but she and Judd Apatow understand the value of the arched eyebrow, the dumbfounded expression, the cold look when Mann has to put up with more shit from Paul Rudd. So does the audience.

As for Heigl, she was right the first time:
“I think that what she realizes pretty early on, when they kind of start dating to see if it's going to go anywhere and if they can make it work, is that he's a really nice guy with a big heart. He means well. He's a bit of a doof and he makes some sort of silly and stupid choices, but ultimately he means well. I think she starts to get his sense of humor. I think in the beginning they're kind of off, they don't get each other and she doesn't get his jokes and thinks he's serious and is offensive and whatever. Then she starts to realize, 'Oh he's actually really funny and charming in his own way and a very kind, good person.'”
Isn't Heigl's empathy enough?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Happy New Year

Now that partying and family gatherings are out of the way, I can return to writing about what will probably be the slowest film and music release month of the year.