Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Herewith, Dave Barry's year in review:
Shortly thereafter McCain stuns the world, and possibly himself, by selecting Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a no-nonsense hockey mom with roughly 114 children named after random nouns such as ``Hamper.""

"On the Republican side, John McCain emerges as the front-runner when Mitt Romney drops out of the race, citing "motherboard issues."

In the presidential debates, John McCain, looking and sounding increasingly like the late Walter Brennan, cites Joe the Plumber a record 847 times while charging that Obama's tax policies amount to socialism. Obama, ahead of McCain by double digits in the polls and several hundred million dollars in money, skips the debates so he can work on his inaugural address. The New York Times declares his performance ``masterful.''

"Barack Obama, in a historic triumph, becomes the nation's first black president since the second season of 24, setting off an ecstatically joyful and boisterous all-night celebration that at times threatens to spill out of The New York Times newsroom."

The economic news is also gloomy for the U.S. automotive industry, where General Motors, in a legally questionable move aimed at boosting its sagging car sales, comes out with a new model called ``The Chevrolet Toyota.''

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Pacific Ocean Poo

Thank you, Matos, for expressing what I thought in July when I heard Dennis Wilson's rightfully withheld masterpiece. I'll only add that: (a) nobody in the late seventies sounded this addled and lachrymose unless you were Leif Garrett, and, on certain cuts, that's the kind of standard Wilson achieves; (b) if you're going to essay studio-rock, please be sure your singing and arranging are up to the standards of the genre and the players you hire.

Monday, December 29, 2008

When I saw the trailer for Doubt, I smacked my lips: it looked like an (un)holy combination of Agnes of God meets Notes From a Scandal, a mix of religio-mystic hokum and melodrama. Sad to say, Doubt was a lot worse. This farrago, adapted by and from John Patrick Shanley's play, lacks the basic mechanics of filmmaking to bring off Shanley's wisps of ideas. His idea of "opening up" his play is to visually dramatize a parable that Philip Seymour Hoffman tells (it involves the feathers from an opened pillowcase flying in the wind, of course). Ambiguities that might have teased onstage look like cop-outs on screen: is Hoffman a pedophile? Is the student gay? What are Amy Adams' motivations? Shanley's inspiration for this turgidly paced nonsense seems anachronistic: the manner in which he develops his ideas could have come from some 1950's conception of "provocative" subject matter (think Picnic, with William Holden in a wimple). Only Viola Davis comes closest to presenting something human and terrible onscreen, but if Shanley wanted real fireworks – real tragedy – why did he bury Davis' revelations in the middle of the movie instead of moving it to the beginning, where they would have forced the audience to reckon with them over the next ninety minutes? A similar eye-opener of a fact about Streep's personal life is mentioned once, an aside almost, and it changes not a bit of our understanding of her. Stephanie Zacharek: "Have no earthly idea what point Shanley is trying to make? It's all good -- you're just having Doubt."

Sunday, December 28, 2008

I contributed a couple of blurbs to Jeff Weiss' blog, which L.A. Weekly is publishing simultaneously: Hercules & Love Affair and TV On The Radio's "DLZ."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Xmas

One of my favorite Christmas songs, not least because it sets the mood for Steve Sanders' anguished parting from his friends as he begins the search for his real mother in season two of "Beverly Hills 90210."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


1. Erykah Badu - New America Part One (4th World War)
2. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
3. Robert Forster - The Evangelist
4. Ne-Yo - Year of the Gentleman
5. Bob Dylan - Tell-Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8
6. Portishead - Third
7. Conor Oberst - Conor Oberst
8. The-Dream - Love/Hate
9. Hercules & Love Affair - Hercules & Love Affair
10. Drive-By Truckers - Brighter Than Creation's Dark
11. T.I. - Paper Trail
12. Wale - The Mixtape About Nothing
13. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
14. Randy Newman - Harps and Angels
15. Lil Wayne - The Carter III
16. The Magnetic Fields - Distortion
17. No Age - Nouns
18. Dolly Parton - Backwoods Barbie
19. Arthur Russell - Love is Overtaking Me
20. Taylor Swift - Fearless

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Top Singles of 2008

Likely the ballot I'll submit to Pazz and Jop (the first ten anyway):

1. Hercules and Love Affair - "Blind" (Frankie Knuckles remix)
2. The-Dream featuring Rihanna - "Livin' a Lie"
3. Cut Copy - "So Haunted"
4. Q-Tip - "Gettin' Up"
5. The Juan MacLean - "Happy House"
6. Raphael Saadiq - "The Big Easy"
7. Big Boi feat. Andre 3000 and Raekwon - "Royal Flush"
8. Taylor Swift - "Hey Stephen"
9. Hot Chip - "Ready For The Floor"
10. Mary J. Blige - "Stay Down"
11. The Killers - "Human"
12. Beyone - "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)"
13. Erykah Badu - "The Cell"
14. The Drive-By Truckers - "The Righteous Path"
15. Estelle feat. Kanye West - "American Boy"
16. Of Montreal - "Gallery Piece"
17. Kanye West - "Love Lockdown"
18. T.I. feat. Justin Timberlake - "Dead and Gone"
19. Al Green - "Stay With Me (By The Sea)"
20. David Byrne-Brian Eno - "Strange Overtones"

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Friends know how I feel about Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen's ode to bad marriages, Judy Davis perms, and Shakeycam. Nick Davis has written one of the best evaluations.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Although I've owned it for two years, I don't use my iPod "properly." It mostly acts as a musical way station, into which I upload the new albums I'm reviewing or interested in, or older favorites I need to hear at that moment. But I've never used all its memory capacity; as of eight-thirty this morning I've got a grand total of 57 songs uploaded, and it won't change soon. I'm still attached to physical copies of CD's, so the procedure goes: I get sent a digital copy of, say, Dear Science, I listen to it a half dozen times, then go buy a copy. When I want to hear Comes A Time or Please, I do what millions of listeners did before the advent of personal listening devices: I listen to it in my car or wait until I'm home. I've neither the time nor the inclination to upload hundreds of albums that I may not want to hear in the next few days. Besides, I'm a natural deleter: wasted space offends me. Ask my students how much I love ripping pages off essays and defacing paragraphs with red sharpies.

Yeah, yeah -- I contradicted myself. Buying CD's when I've already got a digital copy takes up space. It's an odd sort of redundancy. But my habits haven't adjusted to the paradigm shift of which Joe Levy speaks in his jauntily defiant response to remarks by Robert Christgau on the changing nature of music consumption: from home stereo system to laptop speakers and headphones. Christgau worries that the "privatization of music consumption that the iPod-computer speaker model assumes," along with diminishing word counts for reviews, has constricted the ability if not the desire of rockcrits to think beyond their prejudices.

Whew. The remarks may deserve their own space. As much as I enjoy drawing correspondences between subtle changes in the thinking patterns of the world at large and the banal/personal, and as much as this midthirtysomething gets off on a certain earned orneriness, I don't see the atrophy that Bob does -- not yet. I do see a lot of good writers struggling to express their thoughts in shrinking space, some of whom adjusting better than others, as usual -- nothing new in that. My iPod does have lots to teach me about managing shrinking space, though.

PS: Check out the roundtable at Slate between Jody Rosen, Ann Powers, and Christgau.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

This grows on me the more I listen to it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

When you amuse George Packer, he laughs long and hard, as he does here in this assessment of Sean Penn's journalistic talents.
I don't yet own the remastered first-time-on-DVD Earrings of Madame De... (I treasure my videocassette copy), but it would have to be a pretty sterling remastering to knock 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's job restoration of F.W. Murnau's Sunrise from the top of my list of the year's best. It's quite likely that the 1927 classic has never looked this good: the once-removed videotape copy I checked out of the university library in 1996 popped and cracked like a toddler walking on bubble wrap. Released as part of the firm's Murnau, Borzage and Fox collection, it does much to restore not just Murnau's reputation, but introduce most of us to the work of Janet Gaynor, the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress. She's sweet, not saccharine, and the simplicity of her effects foils Murnau's fluid, baroque staging; we root for her as the only human being, in spite of a blond wig that's like a shower cap with a ponytail.

Don't look at silent films for a realistic depiction of human behavior, let alone coherent plots. This is a film in which we're asked to extend our sympathy to George O'Brien after a City Girl, sultry and slinky like Jezebel, tempts him into murdering Gaynor -- he really does love her, you know. Concentrate instead on Murnau's extraordinary visual effects and eye for emotional verisimilitude: a dog running through the water to catch up with the boat carrying his master away; O'Brien's proto-Frankenstein walk

Dave Kehr provides excellent context.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Somehow Hitchens taking down the dreary, sinister propaganda of modern Christmas isn't so funny anymore, not when he sounds like Bill O'Reilly protecting a town square manger. And I blanched when he called The Weekly Standard "humorous." These days my irony-meter rings in suspicious tones around him. 

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Now that the auto company bailout, Blagojevitch, and pictures of Meryl Streep in a wimple have distracted the nation, it's time to consider the old battle between pragmatism vs ideology, as it manifests itself in the shaping of Barack Obama's Cabinet. Ta-Nehisi Coates' post covers a lot of things: the by now threadbare comparisons betwee Obama and Lincoln's Team of Rivals (Doris Kearns Goodwin and Mr. Goodwin can wish themselves a very merry Christmas); the connection between "centrism," "bipartisanship," and Beltway insiderdom; and the "fetish" we make of pragmatism. He's not completely correct: his reading of Lincoln's views on race don't account for the subtle evolution of his thinking. Relying on Lincoln's to our ears dispiriting reluctance to admit social equality between black and white in 1858 and his 1862 letter to Horace Greeley, not to mention Lincoln's request to assembled black leaders to seriously consider a proposal to take freed black slaves to Liberia -- one of the few really dumb ideas Lincoln ever told anyone, which Coates doesn't mention -- shortchanges how delicately he looked past his own prejudices in his private letters and public statements.

Even the comments section maintains a fairly high level of intelligence.

Friday, December 12, 2008

What a relief that Stephanie Zacharek refuses to spread gifts before Meryl Streep, the Dowager Empress of Actor's Acting:
Streep's performance scales new heights of absurdity. Like you, I've heard all the critical (or, more accurately, not-so-critical) rumbling: "Streep's performance will surely win an Oscar!" That's observant: It's so lousy that it probably will. The nuns in "Doubt" are members of the Sisters of Charity, which means they wear puffy hoods that tie under the chin, instead of the more familiar veil-and-wimple penguin getup. It's a costumey look that does no actor any favors, but it seems to have had a particularly deleterious effect on Streep, turning her into an overplaying maniac. She glowers from behind her austere little spectacles like Sunbonnet Sue on a PMS tirade.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I still don't know if I'll make the journey to D.C. for the inauguration, but here's hoping the bars stay open late.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Rich as usual is a great read. I haven't seen Milk yet, but his thoughts on the ignorance of gays about their own culture are worth pondering.

Monday, December 8, 2008

If you want to get a sense of why all three Cuban-American Republican incumbents in South Florida sailed to re-election last month (one comfortably, the other by a landslide), why Washington DC pays obeisance to Miami, the real capital of Cuba, and why resentments run deep in this most bitter of family feuds, read Roger Cohen's NYT Magazine cover story. The Cuba of Cohen's story isn't so much a totalitarian death trap as an abattoir of numbing boredom, closer to Milan Kundera's The Joke than Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind (the title of which accurately captures the sense in which lines for moldy bread and an institutional suppression of Internet activity has squelched the imaginative life in post-Castro Cuba):
But of course Cuba is not totalitarian East Germany. Fidel has been nothing if not a brilliant puppet master. He once said that some revolutionary fighters “let their enthusiasm for the cause overwhelm their tactical decision-making.” Not Fidel, whose training as a lawyer has been evident in his mastery of maneuver and brinkmanship, not least in his dealings with the United States. There have been hundreds of executions, especially in the early years, but he has never been a bloodthirsty dictator, a Caribbean Ceausescu. Nor has he tried, in the style of some despots, to sweep the past away; he has merely let it wither.

“There’s a very intelligent repression here, a scientific repression,” Yoani Sánchez, the dissident whose blog is now translated into 12 languages, told me. “They have killed us as citizens, so they do not have to kill us physically. Our own police is in our brains, censoring us before we utter a critical idea.”
Sanchez, who's about my age, has allowed a number of her blog posts to get translated at Babalu Blog.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Another example that my Congresswoman has a good sense of humor: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen hangs up twice on the President Elect. She also held her own against Jon Meacham and Ashton Kutchner a couple of weeks ago (is that how she learned about being punk'd?).

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I want to accept Simon Reynolds' judgment on Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak -- that the album's "cold and dehumanized sounds" reveal an unusually transparent Kanye -- but the damn thing is so monotonous; what's transparent is the paucity of ideas. Sure, the 808 programs, string arrangements, and the artist's fixation on misery as signifier of aesthetic ambition weave a temporary spell; but West's shortcomings as a melodist become clear. After the Violator-era Depeche Mode worthy "Welcome to Heartbreak," the anti-single "Love Lockdown," and maybe "Robocop," the rest is a slog. As an admirer of Kanye's public rants, I balk at the kind of perversity that requires us to accept his rejection of capitalism. Money doesn't buy him happiness -- okay, fine. But capitalism got him the fancy gizmos he deploys to uneven effect here. If Kanye wants to continue to be the venal human being that we've loved for years, he must understand that therapy need not require the unfurling of blue-shaded dolor for the entire session.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Feeling cocky and drunk (on one Blue Moon Ale) at a domino game with buddies on Saturday night, I burst into the scat part of Anita Baker's "Caught Up in the Rapture" (da-da-da-da-DAAAAAH....). She's been on my mind the last week. I grew up listening to her: Mom, a Beatles and CCR fan growing up (I inherited her albums), eased gently into adult contemporary in the eighties, mostly Hall & Oates, Lionel Richie, and "Ebony & Ivory," but also gobs of Baker and Basia (remember her?). It's difficult to remain objective about Baker's output between 1986 and 1990: road trips to Disney World required the diplomatic acumen to balance the proper exposure to Mom's favorites and Dad's preference for George Benson and, um, Najee (last seen befouling the only completely terrible album of Prince's career). But I've warmed to Rapture over the years; Greil Marcus be damned, it's a minor classic, anchored by a voice so willing to be caught up in the rapture that she ignores the MIDI presets and pedestrian songwriting ("Sweet Love" is impossible to sink, though). So too "Giving You The Best That I Got," Baker's biggest hit and a perfect example of what adult commitment should sound like from a middlebrow singer-songwriter.

Thanks to Thomas for writing about it sympathetically, and for reviving his excellent blog.

Welcome, December

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven't they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Don't go too early.
You're tired. But everyone's tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

– Galway Kinnell, "Wait"