Monday, July 13, 2009

Glib in Manhattan

Ariel Levy's profile of screenwriter-director Nora Ephron in the current New Yorker (you need to be a subscriber to move beyond the firewall) shows a woman thoroughly comfortable with her intelligence and taste. She's got all the right connections: box office bombs like Lucky Numbers and Bewitched haven't hurt her ability to get financed, even when her godson is head of production; she's adored by a certain female demographic; she can get Meryl Streep in any of her films; she loves Ernst Lubitsch. Which only proves that all the taste that money and nature can provide still produces Sleepless in Seattle and You Got Mail.

The key is this excerpt from her autobiography provided by Levy, in which Ephron describes the aftershocks of her insane father's death:
"And when that happened, I don't know how to say this except...it was a moment of almost comic relief. It seemed entirely possible, in character, understandable, and I think we all filed it under Will I Ever Be Able to Use This in Anything?"

This is a family coping mechanism that was explicitly instilled. "Everything is copy," their mother used to say, which was related to her expectation that all suffering be reconfigured into a funny story be ore it was brought to her attention. "Take notes," she directed Nora, from her deathbed.
The list of writers who've drawn from the well of family tragedy is longer than those solely reliant on the fictive muse; but in Ephron's movies pain has a clammy aftertaste. Grief is mined for sitcom punchlines. Lubitsch's movies exist in a tinker-toy world of his own making, but The Shop Around the Corner (the inspiration for You've Got Mail) draws finely shaded regret beneath the verbal foreplay (Frank Morgan's offstage suicide attempt hints at the consequences of drawing too often on decorum). The new Julia and Julia sounds promising, although the presence of RoboStreep makes me wonder whether we'll get this instead.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Friday, July 10, 2009

It's been nineteen years and three months

1990 had some of the worst Number One singles in rock. It wasn't at all a bad year for pop music generally: as a high school sophomore I grooved to every hit on Rhythm Nation, thought it a minor triumph that a song as cool (in both senses of the word) as Depeche Mode's "Enjoy The Silence" cracked the Top Ten, and enjoyed great one-offs like "Groove is in the Heart" (my first concert alone with friends), Jane Child's "Don't Wanna Fall In Love," and Black Box's "Everybody Everybody." I was just discovering "college rock": Electronic's "Getting Away With It," Peter Murphy's "Cuts You Up," Michael Penn's "This and That," and the Jesus and Mary Chain's "Head On." Hip-hop, alas, meant "Bust a Move" and little else. Prince meant Graffiti Bridge (I also owned the "Thieves in the Temple" cassingle).

But the stately grace of Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U" stands out. Part of the reason it lodged four weeks at the chart (and, even more shockingly, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got topped the album chart) is that it was so obviously an anomaly. The arrangement remains mired in 1990, of course: the clattery drum machine, echo, the strings. But if it's impossible to separate the experience of listening to the song from watching its dramatic video, it's equally impossible to evaluate O'Connor's rendition of the so-so Prince song without considering the effect her voice had on listeners. As the third ballad in a row to top the chart (Tommy Page's "I'll Be Your Everything" and Taylor Dayne's "Love Will Lead You Back" preceded it), "Nothing Compares 2 U" was akin to dropping Isabella Rossellini's Dorothy Valens from Blue Velvet into your high school prom (David Lynch cannily stages the shocking sight of a naked, cigarette-burned Rossellini after Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern come home from their woozy slow dance at a friend's house). In its keening purity, the way it tosses around the line about going to the doctor as if it was a rowboat in a hurricane, the voice refuses to allay its intensity. Jane Dark hits it: "If there is a novelty to O’Connor’s reading of the song, it lies in its pointed monotony."

This unnerving performance, plus her baldheaded-and-barefoot schtick, made her a huge MTV star and something of a hero to fans of Top 40 and college rock; she was so special we could all like her. She offered crumbs to everyone. Not that 1990's other chartbound fare didn't offer similar examples of sustained melodrama: a curly-haired Whitney Houston clone named Mariah Carey would dominate the summer and fall; and a Swedish duo wrote an unexpectedly restrained power ballad for Pretty Woman called "It Must Have Been Love" that became the year's biggest soundtrack hit. And before you get too enamored with O'Connor's novelty, remember: "I'll Be Your Everything" and Taylor Dayne (a tough broad whose first hits consisted of post-Expose freestyle and who coulda been a contender had she ducked Diane Warren) stuck around to remind Sinead who she'd cut in line. Also: second single "The Emperor's New Clothes" -- in which O'Connor took songwriting credit for the sanctimony and clear conscience -- didn't even scratch the Top 40.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Two Lovers, directed by the aptly named James Gray, demands some patience. Gwyneth Paltrow plays a variant on her depressive in The Royal Tennenbaums and seems in places to channel the mannerisms of her Sylvia Plath from Sylvia too. Joaquin Phoenix, possessor of the loudest mumble in Hollywood history, is torn between submitting to the demands of his working-class parents, who want him to marry a perfectly normal and charming Vanessa Shaw, and loving crazy old Paltrow. Gray is very good at filling in the details of Phoenix's Brooklyn neighborhood and vague artistic ambitions. The performances by Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshanov as the parents ring true; their tolerance of his restlessness only stretches as far as normalcy will allow. A couple of scenes are among the best I've seen this year: a dinner at a swanky Manhattan restaurant at which Elias Koteas clearly suspects an attraction between his lover Paltrow and Phoenix but is too secure to even hint at his unease; and a rooftop confrontation in which the two leads fight and cry, pinned down by a darkening sky and egged on by Gray's restless camera. Paltrow is always Paltrow, though: a spectator checking out her own performance with approval and well-timed empathy (had Shaw played her character the movie would have been a real triumph). It works this time because she doesn't seem quite real to Phoenix either. I admired Gray's commitment to proletarian family drama in The Yards (2000) and Little Odessa (1995) without responding; committed to a late nineteenth century brand of determinism, he snuffed the life out of his well-observed portraits. Maybe the schlocky heart of this material loosened him up (in one of the DVD bells and whistles, he offers perceptive remarks about the treatment of love in American movies). He's also more attuned to nuance than ever: Phoenix's attraction to Paltrow, it's clear, emboldens him enough to lead Shaw on. Although I squirmed in my seat a few times, this is a modest film that gets better when you reflect on it days later.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy 4th of July

This is how I feel lately -- slightly worn and bloated too.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Cheeky!

Johnny Depp and Christian Bale have the finest sets of cheekbones in moving pictures today, and they sure get a workout in Michael Mann's Public Enemies. Bale's in particular are a wonder; thanks to the way they frame his expressionless lips he could be gnawing the inside of his mouth into corned beef. Not to be outdone, Depp loosens and contorts to him to fetching effect, especially when he holds a tommy gun or makes promises to Marion Cotillard that even Clark Gable and William Powell couldn't utter without making their mustaches wither.

Glowering in fantastic clothes -- that's all Mann gets out of Depp and Bale (like Clint Eastwood in the seventies and eighties, Bale's recent stint of non-acting has acquired a patina of respectability). While Mann is too obsessive about art direction and such to ever conform to hackdom, his scripts show a second-rate mind susceptible to the influence of pop psychology and mytho-poetic macho twaddle. But Mann's recent forays into genre pictures has flattened his ambitions. Collateral was surprisingly boring, Miami Vice redundant, but Public Enemies is his most anonymous work yet. For reasons I can't fully explain, Mann abandons his usual sharp eye for men filling widescreen spaces; it took more than an hour for "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Homer, and the other members of the Dillinger gang to register as faces, and not a jot more. A gangster pic without a colorful supporting cast is like a Western without a saloon brawl. The rest of the action is listless (a nightime shootout in a forest goes on a couple of minutes longer than necessary), and the transitions jarring. Does Mann mean to suggest that Dillinger spent almost ten years in jail for a petty crime, escaped, assembled a first-rate crew, robbed banks successfully, and became a public icon? It's a blur.

Within this posturing lies the seed of a good movie: the creation of a federal police force that grafted developments in forensics and criminology onto vigilantism. In borrowing much from the criminals they wanted dead or behind bars, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI took its cue from the weaselly, plump, neurotic man at its head who wanted his G-men to wear smart suits as they shot crooks in the back. A film about the chicanery of crime fighting -- the implicit cooperation between the Mafia and the FBI in taking care of small fry like John Dillinger -- sounds exactly like the kind of project to which Mann would be irresistibly attracted (the corporate maneuvering in The Insider has the verisimilitude of a Louis Auchincloss novel); and in Billy Crudup's weird, very entertaining performance as Hoover (and being J. Edgar Hoover was a performance, as the press-savvy chief recognized in a career spanning ten presidential administrations), I saw material rich with comic potential. Since Mann isn't known to giggle at meal times, I wouldn't doubt that this ironic approach was beyond his sensibilities. Better an interesting failure than an inert one, though.

Crudup, by the way, has fabulous cheekbones.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

On the fortieth anniversary of Stonewall, cops raid a bar in Ft. Worth last Saturday, arrest seven people, and beat the shit out of one customer. Dan Savage has the lurid details, and the appropriate phone numbers to call. Why did the police react so belligerently? They were hit on, according to the police chief:
"You're touched and advanced in certain ways by people inside the bar, that's offensive," he said. "I'm happy with the restraint used when they were contacted like that."

July

Fewer great historical events are brought about by the power of the new than by the enduring strength of the old. It is altogether more serviceable for us to search for the destiny of nations in the permanence of their culture than in the transience of their political systems. That is why the novelist can always teach us more than the political scientist, because the realm called fiction is ruled by what is real, and the territory called fact has to make do with the dubieties of the fancied.

-- Murray Kempton
"As The World Turns"

Sunday, June 28, 2009

More MJ

The best Michael Jackson obits I've read:

Marcello Carlin (he hears Martin Fry and Trevor Horn in "Beat It"; about Off The Wall: "a pop-up encylopedia containing everything everyone should reasonably or unreasonably need to know about pop and how to walk it and breathe it").

Rick Juzwiak: "I'd never give the public that much credit if I hadn't observed countless examples of the unmitigated joy that results en masse when anything from Thriller is played at a party, no matter the attendees, no matter the occasion and still to this day."

Chris Molanphy dissects the probably-unsurpassable chart facts of Jackson's career. I reminded friends yesterday that Bad scored an astonishing five Number One singles (most of which I think are meh, but that's another story).

Rob Sheffield rushes home from a high school dance to watch Michael. I'm not sure I believe it, but it's touching and emblematic.

Hua Hsu drinks and stumbles his way through an evening of Jackson ("ifferent versions of Michael Jackson had already died years ago. Sometimes he had reinvented himself and found his way back toward his fan's good graces, sometimes he had only grown more illusive and erratic-seeming").

Singles Jukebox reviews

New bits on Kanye West ft. Mr. Hudson (people really do love 808 & Heartbreak), Calle 13 ft. Ruben Blades, the inexplicable Phoenix, and Wale ft. Lady Gaga (Wale and Drake are neck in neck for Most Egregious Squandering of "Promising Newcomer" Status).
Bravo, Frank Rich:
No president possesses that magic wand, but Obama’s inaction on gay civil rights is striking. So is his utterly uncharacteristic inarticulateness. The Justice Department brief defending DOMA has spoken louder for this president than any of his own words on the subject. Chrisler noted that he has given major speeches on race, on abortion and to the Muslim world. “People are waiting for that passionate speech from him on equal rights,” she said, “and the time is now.”

Saturday, June 27, 2009

As the President and the House crow about a cap and trade bill so diluted that business leaders get to smack their lips over its "sweeteners" (by the way, isn't there something...weird about the notion of trading "energy credits"?), the White signals its intentions to draft an executive order that would keep some detainees jailed indefinitely.

The next four years will amount to win-some-lose-some with this guy. As I've written before, Obama, so clearly interested in presidential greatness, would be a fool not to use the nifty new expanded-executive powers that the Bush White House left him. Thursday's episode of "The Daily Show" highlights the absurdities.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

You are not alone, so leave me alone



The Michael Jackson Phenomenon was such that I could tolerate him on my parents' turntable and sheer radio ubiquity between 1983 and 1984 (and again in 1987-1988) without being much of a fan. He was something pleasant you didn't think much about, like making a Christmas list. During school Halloween costume contests in those years, teachers handed out vinyl copies of Off The Wall and Thriller as prizes. By the time Captain EO premiered in fall '86, he was a joke -- we all knew about the Grammy menage a trois with Bo Derek and Webster, Bubbles the Python, the sudden lightening of his pigment. The movie was a sensation, and a laughing stock; the audience snickered through MJ's strutting and snarling (which presaged the "Bad" and "The Way You Make Me Feel" videos by a year). No longer was his preening tolerable. Maybe it never was, and we believed the fiction for too many years. Like the Beatles in India, who wore bad clothes, stuck daisies in their hair, and endured an intolerable bore and fraud like the Maharishi, his peccadilloes made him the best kind of superstar: he acted like an errant cousin whom you love anyway.

Michael Jackson taught me how to listen to music: the indivisibility of rhythm and vocals, the sublimation of horrible childhood memories and grotesque fantasies into disco. He was also my first exposure to the phenomenon of loving a performer who went through periods of being very uncool and eventually batshit and possibly a pedophile. No more serendipitous event in modern pop music exists than the moment when a Seattle band released an album called Nevermind knocked Dangerous off the top of the Billboard album chart in early '92. I know it's an obvious paradigmatic moment beloved by Anthony De Curtis types, but it's true: in my senior year of high school, the mass popularity of Nirvana confirmed what we'd suspected since Bad. It didn't matter that he was releasing singles like "Jam" and "In The Closet," which subsume the hard-diamond beats of New Jack Swing to Jackson's weird, one-of-a-kind rhythmic savvy and melodic finesse into the slammingest music of his career; his moment had passed, although he would continue to find chart success, like Clint Eastwood movies, as a freak show good for a laugh, with the added benefit of an MTV world premiere.

As the pundits pundit and the obit writers exploit the King of Pop and Jacko nomenclature, they're going to overlook what an amazing songwriter and producer Jackson became. With a tip of the hat and a deep bow to Quincy Jones, Teddy Riley, Rod Temperton, and other collaborators, it's quite obvious that even a facile acquaintance with Jackson's songs proves that no one else could have sung or written them. I don't know whether he played any instruments, but listening to the demos included on the Thriller re-release a few years ago, especially "Billie Jean," I was struck by how closely his melodies hewed to his sense of rhythm; it's like he wrote songs to his dancing, sung them to the syncopation of his feet (his inimitable hiccups and quick draws of breath almost scanned like verses). Better writers have studied Thriller, which is why I'm focusing on Dangerous. Jackson always performed as if he had something to prove; maybe he imagined his father, the horrible svengali Joe Jackson, watching him from the audience. But Dangerous sounds like the work of a man (yes) who felt the walls tumbling down. Unlike Prince during this period, his music evinces no insecurities about hip-hop or a shift in popular taste. He's challenged, not threatened. Something nibbles away at him, though -- he expands the paranoia in "Billie Jean" and "Leave Me Alone" to their exponential limits in "Can't Let Her Get Away," "In The Closet" (with its creepy, knowing chorus), and "Jam." It's perfect sense that the apologia/credo "Black or White" (which has aged better than you remember) features Slash playing power chords and pistonbeats that Bell Biv Devoe would sell their misogyny for; instead of an "Ebony and Ivory"-esque plaint for brotherhood, he's selling racial transcendence to his mass audience as if he thought the limpid grace of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" demanded an answer commensurate with the times and the awful will of an artist who changed his face and color for -- what exactly?

The beats only got sparer and stranger as the line between the pop star attempt's to embrace his mass audience for self-actualization and moneyed isolation vanished like his blackness: in Jackson's soul "You Are Not Alone" fought "Leave Me Alone" for control. "They Don't Really Care About Us" has a go-on-I-dare-you taunting quality that reminds me a little of the "reverse racism" self-pity in which certain segments of talk radio still traffic. And Blood on the Dance Floor's "Morphine" -- well, this is the pop/R&B world equivalent of John Lennon's "Cold Turkey." I wish Eric Weisbard's original SPIN review was posted somewhere; it nails the lunacy of a track whose splintered, staccato drum programs cut into the filthiest, most confessional lyrics of Jackson's career, with singing to match. There's even a bizarre, virtually a cappella section in which the singer moans about his lover getting hooked on Demerol. His audience never abandoned him; he just assumed, with a megalomaniac's hubris, that they'd accept his music's weirdness on his terms. When they didn't, he resorted to videos with faded pop culture icons like Marlon Brando for support. I never bought Invincible, but the craft of "Butterflies" suggested that a comeback was his for the asking if he didn't try so damn hard.

So, rest in peace, Michael. I don't believe in an afterlife, but for a life as tormented as yours, death is peace enough.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

As if the Academy of Motion Picture Farts and Biases needed another reason to promote a longer show: it expands the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten. Academy President Sid Ganis cites 1939 as the annus mirabilis; yet, glancing at the list, Dark Victory, All This, and Heaven Too, Our Town, and Kitty Foyle are trash that would still get "green-lit" (and nominated) today. Ratings motivated the decision.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I've said it many times: the Richard Nixon White House tapes are the gift that keeps on giving. Charlie Savage's story offers more goodies:
“There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white,” he told an aide, before adding: “Or a rape.”
This exchange between the President and Republican National Committee Chairman George Herbert Walker Bush belongs in a novel:
“I noticed a couple of very attractive women, both of them Republicans, in the legislature,” Nixon tells Bush. “I want you to be sure to emphasize to our people, God, let’s look for some... Understand, I don’t do it because I’m for women, but I’m doing it because I think maybe a woman might win someplace where a man might not... So have you got that in mind?”

“I’ll certainly keep it in mind,” Bush replies.

“Boy, they were good lookin’ and bright,” Nixon continues. And he had been informed, further, that “they’re two of the best members of the House.”

“Well, that’s terrific,” Bush says
I consider, for the hundredth time, the humiliations that Poppy Bush endured for the sake of careerism.

Monday, June 22, 2009

More singles: Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, Black Eyed Peas, Drake.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Peggy Noonan is a fool, but as a draftsman and apologizer for power she understands how to create Special Moments. What's happening in Iran now, she insists, is not one of them. For an American president to tempt another international crisis by openly supporting the protesters in Iran this week (emphasis mine: who knows what will happen tomorrow or next week) is to lapse into the kind of messianism and democracy-building that we thought neoconservatives and their allies got out of our systems after the Iraq debacle:
To insist the American president, in the first days of the rebellion, insert the American government into the drama was shortsighted and mischievous. The ayatollahs were only too eager to demonize the demonstrators as mindless lackeys of the Great Satan Cowboy Uncle Sam, or whatever they call us this week. John McCain and others went quite crazy insisting President Obama declare whose side America was on, as if the world doesn't know whose side America is on. "In the cause of freedom, America cannot be neutral," said Rep. Mike Pence. Who says it's neutral?

This was Aggressive Political Solipsism at work: Always exploit events to show you love freedom more than the other guy, always make someone else's delicate drama your excuse for a thumping curtain speech.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Get up, get out, into something new: The Rolling Stones' Mall Rat Years

"The Mall-Rat Years" is Rob Sheffield's apt description of Ye Olde Rolling Stones between 1978's Some Girls and 1983's Undercover -- the period when the death of disco as a commercial force signaled a return to AOR verities (I would have included Mick Jagger's 1985 solo album She's The Boss; I didn't have MTV but I did hear "Just Another Night" a lot on the radio). The Stones were uniquely qualified to exploit conservatism regnant, as their sales proved. Checking the figures, I was shocked to learn that Some Girls is their best-selling album, period (six million), with Tattoo You not far behind (four million). Then again, "Start Me Up" was a monster hit (Number Two for several weeks); Sheffield rightly points out that teens in that period didn't give a damn about history and context -- the kids "shook mullet when `She's So Cold' or `Little T&A' hit the radio in between Journey and Foreigner." The kids knew the Stones as just another damn fine rock band. This was pretty much my take when I jumped on the bandwagon in 1989 after hearing "Mixed Emotions," which I still rather like.

Despite the welcome news that the 33 1/3 series has commissioned a book on Some Girls, this remains a comparatively unexplored period in the band's history. Credit engineer Chris Kimsey, the engineer who got a thin, hard sound out of the band's guitars (Jagger now joined Keef and Woody, a move which did much to change their sound) and a new suppleness out of Wyman's bass. The first album is an acknowledged classic, part of the oft-used bit of rockcrit taxonomy which includes Scary Monsters and Blood on the Tracks, among others (as in "Bridges to Babylon is their best album since Some Girls...").

The rest:

Emotional Rescue remains underrated, despite "She's So Cold" and the terrible title track; Jagger and Richards were writing so many good songs in this period, together and separately, that any album comprised of Some Girls leftovers will hold up better than Black and Blue (I rep for "Summer Romance" and "Let Me Go"). Hell, on a good day it might even top Some Girls. The great thing about being cynical veterans who've scored a comeback coup is that you have little to prove on your next outing except justifying that advance. Spend more time with "Dance (Part One)," a crunchy punk-disco tune with a great call-and-response Mick and Keith vocal movement that Franz Ferdinand should spend more time studying.

Tattoo You represents their professional peak. It doesn't matter that "Start Me Up" is my least favorite major Stones single; the second and third ones ("Waiting on a Friend" and "Hang Fire") are vulnerable and political, respectively. If you can smell the calculation behind them, well, si si ils est rock stars; their craft helps them simulate vulnerability and political conviction. "Neighbors" is a thrashy number about how Keith won't let Mick sleep. "Little T & A" lets Keith try his best Pepe Le Pew accent ("She's my little rock and roll, haw haw HAW!"). My favorite track, though, is on the second, "slow" side: "Heaven," featuring Jagger whimpering love man jive while playing a heavily phased guitar over minimal accompaniment from Watts and Wyman. It completes a transformation some of us have waited years to see: Jagger into sound effect, voice so distorted and flanged that you wonder if Eno or Lindsey Buckingham snuck in behind the boards (the most moving part occurs when he sings "nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah").

Notorious Stones booster Bob Christgau comes down notoriously hard on Undercover ("what do people hear in this murky, overblown, incoherent piece of shit?"). It's a better album than, say, Steel Wheels, but liking this album depends largely on your tolerance for Mick bellowing lines like "feel the hot cum, drippin' on your thighs." Keef and Woody play their asses off, as if they still think they're recording Some Girls. I think you won't miss it if you forget to buy it. The videos at this point are more entertaining than the songs. Keepers: "She Was Hot," in which Woody's guitar melts in the presence of hotness; and "Too Much Blood," in which Keef runs after a mugging Mick with a fuckin' chainsaw as Sly and Robbie churn a helluva groove (Arthur Baker's twelve-inch mix is pretty phenomenal).

Dirty Work (1986) doesn't fall within the parameters of this discussion. Here's hoping the band realizes the worth of the greatest sleeper of their career.
Since I loved Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped more than the rest of their catalogue going back to Daydream Nation, I was ready to embrace The Eternal (in anticipation I relistened to Murray Street for the first time in four years and realized I'd underrated it). They'd entered their most artistically febrile period, with enough craft to sleepwalk through another half dozen albums on which whispered stories about domesticity on the road collide with third-rate Beat poetry. The Eternal proves I'd underestimated how even the familiar elements can grate. Like Dylan's Together Through Life, it's often very far from uninteresting; but the music is blurry, the lyrics unfocused. The most difficult part about assessing modern SY is distinguishing between tracks that serve as rest-stops before anarchy and tracks constructed as proper songs. Some critics never got over the band hiring a drummer that believed in forward momentum and crunch; listening to the middling experiments with three-minute noise bombs collected on Dirty, I'm ready to believe them – before reminding them as they leave the room to check out A Thousand Leaves, on which the textures signify as songs. 

The Eternal sounds like an even less focused Dirty. All the rhythm strumming I hear doesn't produce songs that aren't mere homages to tunefulness or their own recent past (but there is a Gregory Corso dedication, how 'bout that). "Malibu Gas Station" uninterestingly rewrites Rather Ripped's "Incinerate"; "Antenna" actually has power chords, as it should, since it's a song about radios and girls. The album has no scary-Kim moments; it could use some (one song uses "rapacious" in the same sentence as "vagina"). Prediction: in 2014 the band's walk through the tempo shifts of  "Massage The History" will feel less rote. Which is okay. If SY albums feel like quick tours through public libraries whose books remain in the same place for years, there's always the chance another visit will bring my attention to a oft-scanned spine. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Last week's singles: The-Dream featuring Kanye West's "Walkin' on the Moon" (ehhh); single of the year contender Yeah Yeah Yeahs; and Ciara's "Tell Me What Your Name Is."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

I love this song: Macca doing Hall and Oates, with even better vocals. How weird that everyone in the video's playing keyboards.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Mere discriminations

I know: how reassuring to have a President follow the rule of law after eight years of unitary executives and signing statements; a Bush appointee in a Cabinet department is not a Bush apparatchik; but why do I still feel sick about the kind of language employed the Department of Justice's brief? Law Dork gets it exactly right:
It’s offensive, it’s dismissive, it’s demeaning and — most importantly — it’s unnecessary. Even if one accepts that DOJ should have filed a brief opposing this case (and the facts do suggest some legitimate questions about standing), the gratuitous language used throughout the filing goes much further than was necessary to make its case.
I'm referring, of course, to DOJ's motion to dismiss a challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act policy on Thursday afternoon.

It is entirely possible that the Obama administration sees this as a tacit request to gay-lesbian organizations to reach such a angry froth that public or congressional outrage forces him to do what he really wants anyway: repealing DOMA. We've been told over and over again by reporters how much Barack Obama analyzes each issue exhaustively before making decisions. Even if this were so, words and intentions matter little from a politician, especially one as smooth as Obama: only deeds do. This is a pretty disgusting deed.

So note the similarities between the language in the motion:
Plaintiffs also maintain that DOMA discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, in violation of their right to the equal protection of the law, see Complaint, ¶ 20, but DOMA is not subject to heightened scrutiny on that basis. As an initial matter, plaintiffs misperceive the nature of the line that Congress has drawn. DOMA does not discriminate against homosexuals in the provision of federal benefits. To the contrary, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited in federal employment and in a wide array of federal benefits programs by law, regulation, and Executive order.... Section 3 of DOMA does not distinguish among persons of different sexual orientations, but rather it limits federal benefits to those who have entered into the traditional form of marriage
...and this decision:
When a man has emerged from slavery, and, by the aid of beneficent legislation, has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, and when his rights as a citizen or a man are to be protected in the ordinary modes by which other men's rights are protected. There were thousands of free colored people in this country before the abolition of slavery, enjoying all the essential rights of life, liberty and property the same as white citizens, yet no one at that time thought that it was any invasion of his personal status as a freeman because he was not admitted to all the privileges enjoyed by white citizens, or because he was subjected to discriminations in the enjoyment of accommodations in inns, public conveyances and places of amusement. Mere discriminations on account of race or color were not regarded as badges of slavery.
The last quote is Joseph Bradley's opinion for the Supreme Court in the 1878 Civil Rights Cases, in which the Court argued that the Fourteenth Amendment does not protect black Americans from being refused admission to public places like inns and restaurants. The subtext of Bradley's opinion is, "If you're a ex-slave, get over it. You're only discriminated against if you choose to look at the situation that way."

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Art Brut vs Satan still pledges allegiance to Britpop, 2005 edition: post-punk infected guitars, a high degree of lyrical literacy. Often the music can't match the lyrics, and a couple of times neither works at all. A forgotten minor band called The Auteurs did this kind of middle-class observation (especially in Now I'm a Cowboy) with more finesse and a rage suppressed enough to qualify as homicidal. But on "The Passenger" and "The Replacements," Eddie Argos' voice matches the dry wit of the guitars and the unsentimental bits of secondhand observation (I still get the sense that he read about these memories rather than experienced them). A British band writing smartly about certain Minneapolis avatars of shamble-punk is certainly preferable to a dismissal of U2 and Eno, however welcome.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The L.A. Times has a profile of Frances Kroll Ring, F. Scott Fitzgerald's secretary during his harrowing exile in Hollywood shortly before his death. It's rather soft, and I get the sense that had she been asked she would have said waspish things about the quality of Fitzgerald's work in 1939 and 1940. Since it's impossible for us to appreciate him without viewing the fiction through the prism of myth, the burden rests on survivors like Ring. It's comforting that he returned to serious fiction writing and, ever conscious of history, penned a series of didactic letters to his daughter loaded with aphorisms more apt to be remembered by biographers and critics than a teenage girl. Myth aside, though, I can't take The Last Tycoon seriously -- it's not even a finished first draft, in which I find several structural problems (is this a first- or third-person narrative?) and more serious conceptual ones. Kathleen is the most innocuous of Fitzgerald's golden girls, and the mythologizing of a hack like Monroe Stahr confirms that the writer learned little about Hollywood from his infamous run-ins with Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Irving Thalberg. Maybe Fitzgerald would have fixed this stuff. It's all conjecture. On the other hand, the terse, brief stories he published in Esquire -- distillations of the Fitzgeraldian flourish without succumbing to imitations of nemesis Hemingway -- look better every year. If you can get copies of "The Lost Decade" or "Three Hours Between Planes," by all means read them.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

In no order, my favorite albums of this half-finished year, on my most indiecentric list ever:

Wussy - Wussy
Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
Marianne Faithfull - Easy Come, Easy Go
DOOM - Born Like This
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!
Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle
Amadou & Mariam - Welcome to Mali
Art Brut - Art Brut vs Satan
Franz Ferdinand - Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
Electrik Red - How To Be a Lady, Volume 1

I'm not as enthusiastic about any of these as I was at this point last year about Erykah Badu, Robert Forster, and Portishead; it's possible that I expended more energy hating Animal Collective than in listening to new music. 

Sunday, June 7, 2009

New single reviews: Grizzly Bear's piss-soaked bedsheets are hung over the balcony railing, the Manic Street Preachers remind us why their politics and music never set Yankee charts afire, Amerie watches with amusement, Charlie Wilson drops a really big bomb on us, baby, Clipse and Kanye West release a track that's kinda no big deal, Rob Thomas struggles against his genetic boringness, and Keyshia Cole is boring, period.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

I'm getting very tired of white people and, worse, Cuban people complaining about "identity politics." The latter have no business bitching about it because they've been the beneficiaries of relief and immigrant policy exceptionalism since the early sixties (I won't go into the politics – how for many years it was a morsel offered to distract them from the suspicion that the United States would never topple the Castro regime by force); the former, well, I have no idea about the former, except

Anyway, Stanley Fish (who's currently a professor at FIU's College of Law) wrote this essay in 1993 as the reaction to political correctness had reached the boiling point. Best moment:
At this point someone will always say, "But two wrongs don't make a right; if it was wrong to treat blacks unfairly, it is wrong to give blacks preference and thereby treat whites unfairly." This objection is just another version of the forgetting and rewriting of history. The work is done by the adverb "unfairly," which suggests two more or less equal parties, one of whom has been unjustly penalized by an incompetent umpire. But blacks have not simply been treated unfairly; they have been subjected first to decades of slavery, and then to decades of second-class citizenship, widespread legalized discrimination, economic persecution, educational deprivation, and cultural stigmatization. They have been bought, sold, killed, beaten, raped, excluded, exploited, shamed, and scorned for a very long time. The word "unfair" is hardly an adequate description of their experience, and the belated gift of "fairness" in the form of a resolution no longer to discriminate against them legally is hardly an adequate remedy for the deep disadvantages that the prior discrimination has produced. When the deck is stacked against you in more ways than you can even count, it is small consolation to hear that you are now free to enter the game and take your chances.
Lots of progress made since those heady days, including, yes, the election of the first African-American president. Lots more to go, etc.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"Risottoberg"

Following a tradition, Jonathan Bradley commissioned a series of summer mix tapes from former Stylus alums. This year Tal Rosenberg and I compiled a mix we called "Risottoberg" )we included a not entirely convincing etymology), concentrating on 12" mixes of big beat eighties stuff, a sprinkling of obscure post-punk, and lots of R&B. The link, along with blurbs for each song, is available above on Jeff Weiss' blog.
Whoa. Rich has got me really excited about Electrik Red, a Vanity 6-esque side project by The-Dream, and I'm ready to be excited. After three months of increasingly distracted listening, I think I'm filing away Love vs Money as a nice try. Denser than its predecessor, the album puts more pressure on Terius Nash's pipes than they're able to support. He's saying more with a lot less. 

Monday, June 1, 2009

A few more single reviews that ran in the last seven days: Keyshia Cole, Clipse featuring Kanye West, Mos Def, Ace Hood featuring T-Pain and Akon, Anthony Hamilton, Maxwell, and Pet Shop Boys, and Lil Kim.

Maxwell excepted, an uninspiring lot, maybe the dullest hip-hop and R&B batch I've heard in years. I'm still trying to figure out how to calibrate my scores against my blurbs, so I plead guilty to grade inflation (some wiseacre will no doubt laugh at "grade inflation" and "Alfred Soto" in the same sentence, especially former students).

Welcome, June

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near 
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose 
or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending; 
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing 
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.

– e e cummings

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Poor Bill Clinton, still champing at the bit.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hugs Are For Thugs

I plead guilty to cultivating a certain detachment -- one of my best friends calls me The Tin Man -- but my Cuban blood, which demands chaste kisses on the cheek between male relatives, pulls me in other directions. In short, I'm trying to be more expressive; a handshake just won't do anymore.

This thoroughly odd story in today's New York Times set off mild chatter in my little corner of the blog world. Some parents, educators, and behavioral psychologists, alarmed by the rise in hugs between adolescent students, want to monitor how much physical affection the children under their care receive. While I'm as repulsed by exhibitionism and the heart vs mind cliches that animate most popular culture (the truest line Steve Malkmus ever penned was "We need secrets"), we can stand to see less friction between bros and ladies. The characters in this farce don't seem to remember that Hispanics will soon outnumber blacks as the largest minority in the country, none of whom exactly stint in expressing themselves. Ethan Frome and The Scarlet Letter are so nineteenth century.

One Beth Harpaz, a columnist for the Associated Press, provided a quote that proves what fallow terrain the novelist irrigates when seeking to lampoon the shibboleths of modern psychology:
“And there doesn’t seem to be any other overt way in which they acknowledge knowing each other,” she continued, describing the scene at her older son’s school in Manhattan. “No hi, no smile, no wave, no high-five — just the hug. Witnessing this interaction always makes me feel like I am a tourist in a country where I do not know the customs and cannot speak the language.”
The last sentence reminds me of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's more apocalyptic pronouncements.
For the Who Woulda Thunk It file: Ted Olson and David Boies join forces to overturn California's Proposition 8. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

With comic book movies having reached a post-Nero stage of decadence, it's instructive to return to hip-hop, in which Marvel tropes still adduce good/evil dichotomies while the MC's croak that it's all in the game. I've never warmed to MF DOOM's: he seemed a GZA-esque smart guy whose internal rhymes demonstrated prolixity without ever cohering into the narratives that the detailed musical backdrops promised. No matter how many superhero or villain identities he assumed album to album, DOOM still coughs up that hydroponic denseness. Rapping alongside Ghostface on The Mouse and the Mask's "The Mask" or the new Born Like This' "Angelz F" does him no favors either; he sounds out of breath or confused, which is expected when your partner can shift tones and points of view faster than Clark Kent can jump in a phone booth. But Born Like This is his best anyway: the running time (Forty minutes! Gracious!) keeps him tight, the production an airy, nimble synthesis of every hip-hop trend of the last thirty years, from Run-DMC drum skitter ("Supervillainz") to vertiginous RZA keyboard downshifts and tempo changes ("Gazillion Ear"). DOOM understands a supervillain's only as good as his henchmen, so his henchmen don't distract -- with one exception. If I were him, I'd keep an eye on someone called Empress Starrh, whose MC'ing on "Still Dope" makes me suspect she ran off with more than the song. Best Unexpected Didactic Bit: "Crime pays no dental, nor medical"/Unless you catch your time in county, state or federal."

Monday, May 25, 2009

Happy Memorial Day

I never thought I'd agree with a Jackson Browne opening monologue...

Stanley Fish, responding to President Obama's mission to appoint a successor to Justice David Souter who values "empathy" as much as "abstract legal theories," writes a typically astute column distinguishing between law and morality, even though it sputters to a conclusion. There's a whole tradition of twentieth century jurisprudence that valued results over legal formalism, and the tradition transcends ideology (Rufus Peckham, author of the notorious Lochner vs New York, is as results-oriented as William O. Douglas and Earl Warren). Maybe newly graduated lawyer Andy can hash this out.

Friday, May 22, 2009

More singles reviews: Tommy Sparks, The Big Pink (really), and N-Dubz.
You're not really president until the Disney Company preserves you in plastic, silicon, and wire.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Christian Bale, James Wolcott reminds us, is not a human being, nor does he inspire to be one. For a time I thought this was a limitation; now I wonder if he was smarter than the rest of us, including other Hollywood youngbloods who don't realize the future isn't in middlebrow Oscar dramas, but genre pictures with tony filigrees -- that is, The Dark Knight and The Bourne Ultimatum, not Good Will Hunting and Atonement.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The hosannas heaped on Green Day's 21st Century Breakdown by a couple of my favorite critics worry me a little. I don't hear a note of the commitment, songcraft, and political acumen they seem to think runneth out of every pore. They hear maturity; I hear a band confident enough to embrace the garbled agitprop and received liberalism they ignored in their youth when were too busy recording superior albums of comfortable but not painless apoliticism. It's like three obnoxious graduate students cornering you at a bar to convince you of the "realness" of Kurt Vonnegut. As Theon put it:
This is a seventy-minute lump of three thirtysomething fuckwads yelling received ideas about "revolution" over guitars that just grind and grind and grind and grind and contort themselves in the dullest ways unless they decide to drop out for some cocktail piano
Or what H.L. Mencken famously said about Warren G. Harding's prose:
It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.
I can understand how teens looking for gateway drugs might hear chimes of freedom (imagine it's 1976 and Wings at the Speed of Sound teaches you how to hear Rubber Soul), but adults should know better, especially adults whose greatest strength is letting the enthusiasm they honed in their youth inform their adult quests for wisdom.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Today Christopher Hitchens called Wanda Sykes the "Sable Sapphist" in his Slate column

Friday, May 15, 2009

Andrew Sullivan isn't known for temperance. This is a guy about whom it can truly be said that he's all id. His passion, though, makes for one of the more enternaning recent Pet Shop Boys interviews I've read (as publicity for a not terribly good album, alas). Nice kicker too: 
Chris Lowe: We once met these fans backstage. I started chatting to them, and they quickly realized that I simply didn’t know enough about the Pet Shop Boys and turned their backs on me and carried on talking. I just got elbowed out of the conversation because I was literally worthless to them. It was really funny.

It’s true, though. At some level it’s our Pet Shop Boys, not yours.

CL: Quite. I understand that. It’s nothing to do with us anymore.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Some scattered reviews: Runaway, Alice Munro's marvelous 2004 collection of short stories; and blurbs on the Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert singles. I'm heartened (and maybe not too surprised)

Mother Lovers

Catch this before the Lords of NBC pull it. Justin can do skits like this into perpetuity, Andy Samberg not so much. Where's Lance Bass?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

As criticism struggles to remain relevant in the age of media bankruptcies and blogs like mine, I'm grateful that MSN cares enough to publish Christgau's Consumer Guide, despite a redesign so unwieldy that I suspect it'll appall more people instead of increasing its hit count. My discovery of the year is Wussy and their eponymous new album. If it isn't quite at the level of Shoot Out The Lights (to which Christgau breathlessly compares it, I'll claim that Wussy matches the Afghan Whigs' Gentleman in sound and fury, and Chuck Cleaver's vocals a sui generis combination of Ira Kaplan and Adam Duritz. Tender, hypersensitive, and ruthless, Cleaver's voice suits Wussy's well-shaped psychodramas, such as the opening cut, in which Cleaver tells his partner that the punctuation in her latest letter hits him like a truck. 

Friday, May 8, 2009

Stylus' former singles jukebox editor William Swygart has roped in several of my favorite critics to review, well, singles. I've got blurbs here and here on Meg and Dia's "Black Wedding" and Katy Perry's "Waking Up in Vegas" respectively. Katy Perry's creator needs to melt her down and start over again. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I've longed to read a bad review of "The Wire." Jason Kotke compiles bad reviews from Netflix comments -- as in, badly written bad reviews.


(H/t to Simon Crowe)
At barely over eighty minutes long, Wendy and Lucy already had me. I wasn't a fan of Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, whose attention to the shifting rhythms between landscapes and her characters' inchoate emotional states nevertheless grew taxing with actors as uninteresting as Daniel London and Will Oldham (I never bought his tearful confession for a moment). A flintier McCabe & Mrs Miller suddenly seemed possible.

W&L still emits that smell of rotting pine and animal fur that gave Old Joy its verisimilitude, but it's got an actress who can smoulder without working our tear ducts. Playing an Alaska-bound traveler with just a beat-up hatchback and her dog Lucy, Michelle Williams does all kinds of things with her pinched face. The car breaks down, she's forbidden from sleeping in a drugstore parking lot, she's arrested for stealing dog food, and her damn dog goes missing, yet she cedes not an inch to bathos. Reichardt's camera is like a stress test, lingering on Williams' face as if waiting for it to crack. I liked that W&L neither condescends nor gives unnecessary credit to the yokels whom Williams meets; they're exactly as kind as they need to be, and no more. When Williams accepts an obliging but alert watchman's offer to use up his cellphone's free minutes, the gesture is so unexpected but welcome that it's like water in the desert. Wally Dalton's unactorly performance helps. The supporting cast, especially Michael Brophy as an infuriatingly self-righteous grocery store stock boy, interacts with Williams with no fuss (only Will Patton as an is-he-really-an-asshole? mechanic seems too overtrained for the proceedings).

Reichardt's got her material figured out, all right, for better or worse. This kind of indie minimalist miserabilism unsettles me; the way in which these movies don't mind dipping into sentimentality makes me wonder whether Reichardt can film adult emotions instead of flattering the desires of her audience (when Williams hums an unknown tune to herself, I assume it's Will Oldham's). Someone send her a good script.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

It's hard these days to write about music with the guarantee of a mass audience and decent pay (in that order). Charlie Bertsch's excellent, excellent analysis of the EMP Pop Music Conference's impact on the rockcrit community -- not all of it complimentary by any means, especially in its early days -- reminded me that enclaves needn't be support groups; that meaningful discourse is appreciated by a group of die-hards as sizable (i.e. as small) as the ones who read Christgau, Eddy, Levy, Arnold, and Bernstein in their salad days. Since I only started attending in 2007 (and missed this year's), I missed the acrimony at the beginning of the decade. Suffice to say that former Sleater Kinney guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein sounds as compelling and insufferable as usual, while Alex Ross proves he's a terrific critic even when his awareness of writing for a mass audience causes him to bristle in unpleasant ways.

Monday, May 4, 2009

No analysis of David Souter's jurisprudence, just a brief portrait of the life to which the Supreme Court justice returns. There's something deeply admirable about a man saying "Fuck this" and retiring from public life to read Henry Adams and Proust, and repair the roof of his ancestral home.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Troy Patterson on what made "The Golden Girls" a memorable sitcom. It really is hard to believe that the show was a ratings smash -- on a Saturday night! Americans watched sit-coms on Saturday nights! I rewatched a few episodes a few nights ago. Patterson's quip that the writers shaped one-liners to the characters so well that these scripts would work for radio is apt. If "The Golden Girls" never rises to the heights of "The Cosby Show" -- it never feels as lived in or comfortably rumpled (blame the old bats' shoulder pads too) -- it's because its creators treated the old birds as a gimmick, complete with instant rimshot laughter to reinforce the ping-pong patter.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Welcome, May

The oaks, how subtle and marine,
Barded, and all the layered light
Above them swims; and thus the scene,
Recessed, awaits the positive night.

So, waiting, we in the grass now lie
Beneath the languorous tread of light:
The grasses, kelp-like, satisfy
The nameless motions of the air.

Upon the floor of light, and time,
Unmurmuring, of polyp made,
We rest; we are, as light withdraws,
Twin atolls on a shelf of shade.

Ages to our construction went,
Dim architecture, hour by hour:
And violence, forgot now, lent
The present stillness all its power.

The storm of noon above us rolled,
Of light and fury, furious gold,
The long drag troubling us, the depth:
Dark is unrocking, unrippling, still.

Passion and slaughter, ruth, decay
Descend, minutely whispering down,
Silted down swaying streams, to lay
Foundation for our voicelessness.

All our debate is voiceless here,
As all our rage, the rage of stone;
If hope is hopeless, then fearless fear,
And history is thus undone.

Our feet once wrought the hollow street
With echo when the lamps were dead
At windows, once our headlight glare
Disturbed the doe that, leaping, fled.

I do not love you less that now
The caged heart makes iron stroke,
Or less that all that light once gave
The graduate dark should now revoke.

We live in time so little time
And we learn all so painfully,
That we may spare this hour’s term
To practice for eternity.

-- Robert Penn Warren, "Bearded Oaks"

Thursday, April 30, 2009



I do agree with Jess Harvell: Bonzo Goes To Washington's legendary cut "5 Minutes" is a dud. This collaboration between Talking Heads utility man Jerry Harrison and bassist Bootsy Collins adds layers of gimmicky effects and porn slap bass reminiscent of "Seinfeld" to the infamous Ronald Reagan quip uttered before a radio show in 1984 ("We begin bombing [Russia] in five minutes"). Greil Marcus thought otherwise:
"[Reagan] rushes it because while this really is a joke -- you can hear people laughing in the background -- it is also unmistakably sexual. The lust in the passage is what makes it so terrifying. It's anything but unknown for soldiers to fuck the corpses of women killed in search-and-destroy missions; they're turned on by death. That, that exactly, is what you hear."
Certainly it's inferior to what Negativland did a few years later, or the whiskery, whispery need that Laurie Anderson injected into "O Superman" and other cuts from Big Science in 1982.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

So Arlen Specter is, in the words of Jonathan Chait, an "unprincipled hack," but in that he's not charmless. Better an unprincipled hack than a senator with actual convictions and such (the South has senators and congressmen with plenty of those). But with news like this, I can't imagine the modern GOP luring anyone who isn't like this Principled Person With Convictions. 

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The death of Bea Arthur has got me wondering where else to get my fill of her pert bullfrog voice and inflexible smirk besides old "Golden Girls" episodes. Pauline Kael's review of the Lucille Ball film version of Mame ("Too terrible to be boring; you can get fixated staring at it and wondering what exactly Lucille Ball thinks she's doing," Kael writes, delighted. "When that sound comes out -- it's somewhere between a bark, a croak, and a quaver-- does she think she's singing?") has got me excited.

A CD-R filled with bullfrog croaks would irritate less than Michael Haneke's Funny Games, his English-language version of his 1997 film, which itself predates the Abu Ghraib photos by several years. Outside the work of auteur Sylvester "Sly" Stallone (Cobra and Rambo particularly) I can't think of another filmmaker who took such exquisite pleasure in inflicting pain on his characters. "Exquitite" is right: his sets gleam with the unemphatic chic taste of Good Housekeeping. 2002's The Piano Teacher worked because of the too-perfect casting of Isabelle Huppert, who is to mashocism what Julia Roberts is to dentrifice; beneath the undigested Freudian subtexts and stupid ideas there was Haneke's perfect composure, the unhurried confidence with which he sustains a mood of dread. But I understand the complaints of those (many) who hated it. Cache (2005) was supposed to make us feel guilty about something, but I'm not sure what -- the French treatment of Algerians? Haneke treats lacunae as reverentially as Naomi Watts does her kitchen counters in Funny Games. He's the asshole who would blame the impulse to ask honest questions about his films on capitalism and Twitter.

It doesn't help that Funny Games' cast performs like Haneke instructed them to stare at a black spot in the corner of the frame. I've so tired of Naomi Watts' open-mouthed Kewpie doll routine; she either needs another comedy like I ::Heart:: Huckabees or a director more sympathetic to her gift for unearthing the hysteria in ordinarily pretty people. Tim Roth's in this farrago too, I think. As for Michael Pitt, he's a chubby nothing. From certain angles he looks like Truman Capote wearing an Andy Warhol mask. Shifting his weight from one tennis shoe to the other, he can't decide what to do with his body, or whether he should be on the set at all. If Pasolini were still alive, he'd cast Pitt as a too-long-for-this-world hustler, which would at least have the virtue of being convincing. In how many movies has Pitt been the object of leers from other boys? He and Haneke are ideal partners -- they each have something to pimp.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thomas swears by the first Wendy and Lisa record -- it's one of his top ten albums, he told me once. The only post-Prince works of theirs I know is their literally unaccountable studio work (Wendy co-writing Madonna's "Candy Perfume Girl," fer instance). Anyway, OUT publishes the first interview (I love Barry Walters) in which their relationship is discussed without euphemism, although at this point it's no surprise. Alex Hahn's terrific Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince includes an ugly anecdote wherein Prince, frustrated by a session and his own weird relationship with Wendy's twin sister Susannah, calls them dikes who'll burn in hell or something. This exchange is telling -- the politics between Prince and W&L remains, shall we say, fractious:
OUT: Won’t [Prince] be proud of you too?
Wendy: No. No. No.
Lisa: He’s not very generous like that.
That Prince is no prince won't shock anyone; it's the dirt they dish on Trevor Horn (with whom they produced a shelved album years ago) that shocked me:
LISA: I hate to say it, but he wouldn’t even let us eat off of his silverware on Friday because he was Jewish. It turned into this nightmare. He and his wife, oh God, I don’t want to talk disparagingly about anybody, but it made us very uncomfortable.
Yes, the audiophile/scion who produced Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Grace Jones, and the Pet Shop Boys is a homophobe.

Anyway, if someone recommends the first W&L record -- or, better, sends it my way -- I'll appreciate it.

(h/t to Tal)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009



While Adam Lambert can't bear the weight that Ann Powers puts on his (lovely) shoulders, she does as good a job as Tom Smucker, Peter Shapiro, and others in defining what happens on the dance floor when the spirit of communal ecstacy give us the freedom to enact roles for which we'd normally be ill-suited. As a character in my own disco drama last Friday, I know something about the pain and release of "Let The Music Play" and "Lost in Music. From the clips I've seen of Lambert, he looks more conscious of his potentially outsize weirdness than other "American Idol" contestants, and he's got an audience far bigger than any his idols got at their peaks, with the weirdness to match (and not in that chemically impacted Clay Aiken way either):
The life-changing pop stars Lambert emulates, from David Bowie to Prince to Madonna to lesser lights like Pete Wentz and Lady GaGa, open up the doors to these alternate universes. Through their example -- their music, their style, their way of moving through the world -- admirers can dream of a life beyond the confines of their "normal" lives.
Someone hook this boy up with the Scissor Sisters, please.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

At the Supreme Court today, justices wrestled with the question of whether a strip search of a thirteen-year-old at a public school for Ibuprofen was constitutional. Stephen Breyer brought the laughs:
"In my experience when I was 8 or 10 or 12 years old, you know, we did take our clothes off once a day, we changed for gym, OK? And in my experience, too, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear." Breyer hesitated as he realized what he said as the courtrooom erupted in laughter.

He quickly recovered and added: "Or not my underwear. Whatever. Whatever."
Yeah, whatever.
After several recent desultory appearances, it's a relief to see Gore Vidal at near peak form, as he was on "Real Time With Bill Maher" last week. 

Monday, April 20, 2009

The new Pet Shop Boys album isn't memorable, sad to say. My review of Yes takes off from a discussion first stared by Scott and Thomas here

Saturday, April 18, 2009

StinkyLulu has a nice appreciation of one of the most beloved characterizations in movies: Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Oh, look: Nora Ephron still thinks that Mike Nichols makes movies for Intelligent People. "One of the main things about Mike’s movies is that, with a few exceptions, they’re all really smart movies about smart people," she avers. "They’re about something. And he’s funny. You’re certainly not going to lose a joke. And if there’s one hidden, he’ll find it.” The director of Charlie Wilson's War, The Birdcage, and What Planet Are You From?

This guy's wise ass tone -- an irony fashionably distant enough to flatter the watchers of clever sitcoms -- is TV incarnate, for better or worse.
The latest subject of George F. Will's ire: denim. So Tory he makes Samuel Johnson look like Clement Atlee, George the Bemused doesn't like the faceless humanoids out there wearin' Levis and Gap:
Denim is the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy's catechism of leveling -- thou shalt not dress better than society's most slovenly. To do so would be to commit the sin of lookism -- of believing that appearance matters. That heresy leads to denying the universal appropriateness of everything, and then to the elitist assertion that there is good and bad taste.
He's got kids. He's never seen teenagers comparing loose and easy fit? Or those two globules punching through a girl's chest?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Playground Indie and Its Malcontents

Exile produces silence more often than cunning. After two months of not publishing a single rock review (this should change very soon) and compensating by listening to more indie than ever, I've left amused by the suspicion that as the market for rock writing collapses the polarization between the pop world and indie expands. It's a strange world when Flo Rida and Animal Collective debut high on the same chart, separated by sales of a few thousand, and their partisans can't shake hands across Flyoverland. This is a landscape in which Billboard confirms the hegemony of the Pitchfork ethos. I know colleagues who drool over Ghostface or Lil Boosie as much as they do over Animal Collective or Dirty Projectors. They're smart enough to note their differences and intentions, yet unwilling to examine what accounts for the championing of artists determined to make clear statements to a recognizable public and artistes who speak for and to a cult that won't look past its own biases.

Spending fruitless hours agonizing over Fever Ray, Grizzly Bear, and the increasingly paradigmatic Animal Collective was instructive. That age is much more than a number explains only the half of it. In the case of Animal Collective, I hear a half-understood but determined effort to approach the guilelessness of the young adult sensibility. AC wants domestic bliss to resonate like the unmediated wonder of thirteen-year-olds making sense of their bodies. But a twentysomething isn't a pre-teen, and if you're still having trouble figuring out the difference, you need to find another analyst. I expect bands to realize that confusion is sex -- as X, Springsteen and Yo La Tengo's own explorations uncovered. But they didn't dumb down their approaches to get at higher truths; if anything, their albums showed that human drama often can't accommodate them. For artists ideals are fine, but they're a burden too, maybe a luxury, and an economy increasingly hostile to the pursuit of venalities puts a greater demand on clarity than Animal Collective are prepared to give. As for the other two, Grizzly Bear and Fever Ray live in a world I don't recognize: it's retrograde in a hostile way. Fascinated by their adolescent grievances, they perform a shadowplay illuminated by a light that's dim and wrongly colored, intended to show their music in the most attractively disfigured way.

It isn't so dire though. Fumbling through Dirty Projectors' predictably named Bitte Orca, I heard a lot of too-pretty harmonies and ambitious, not-quite-there arrangements and not enough of the peculiar androgynous subtexts that impressed me when I saw them at Pitchfork Festival last summer (it's as if Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie took turns changing into one another and took turns harassing an equally protean Lindsey Buckingham) . Then, in "Two Doves," Amber Coffmann or Angel Deradoorian, I can't tell whom, lets this out: "Your hair is like an an eagle/ your two eyes are like two doves/But our bed is like a failure." Buttressed by fingerpicked acoustic guitar, foiled by string swells, these are pretty good verses, especially after the girl demands an open-mouthed kiss at the beginning of the song. Bands uninterested in expressing emotions are often perplexed about how to express them; here's an example of how to do it right.

Anyway, Christgau's review of two new charity comps helmed by indie/Pitchfork all-stars articulates the dilemma of how to size up songs of experience performed as songs of innocence. To put it another way, it's the best example of how an old guy, with characterstic good humor and common sense, scrunches his eyes real tight to evaluate an ideology as alien as Arianism.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has published a series of well-considered takes on the last fifty years of Cuba policy. In light of the Obama administration's lifting of restrictions for family visitations and remittances here's another good post, a follow-up to one made last week regarding the Congressional Black Caucus' disgusting obsequiousness during its visit to Fidel Castro a couple of weeks ago. Coates last week: 
I get the politics of the 60s and the 70s. I understand that the Vietnam-era was a different dynamic. But today, in the 21st century, in the era of Barack Obama, I have no idea how any lefty can say of Castro, "It was like listening to an old friend."
Or, as one Tel succinctly puts it in the comments section: "There's nothing contradictory about believing that Castro is the scum of the earth and also believing that the embargo is a stupid way of addressing the situation."

As the son of Cuban immigrants who sought political exile in the early sixties, the issue is a raw one –and generational. Many Cubans who emigrate today have no interest in politics; they want better jobs for their families so they can afford the consumer goods denied them in their homeland. My "hair stylist" (who does a superb job under the circumstances) once described the awesome experience of visiting his first American supermarket a dozen years ago. "What abundance!" he said. Perhaps his reasons are more venal than my grandparents'. But if there's anything that a democratic republic is supposed to offer its citizens, it's the space to indulge their venalities, an experience with which Cubans are unfamiliar. It's cruel to dismiss the pleas of new emigrés who want to send money and visit their mothers as often as possible. Remittances keep the Castro regime alive in part; the continued romantic attachment to a cruel and vain dictator by black men and women who should know better depresses me; but Cuba isn't Poland or East Germany. The aim of the embargo – to diplomatically and financially isolate the regime such that internal pressure causes its citizens to overthrow their masters – failed because it ignores the gnarled shared history of the United States and Cuba, dating back to the McKinley administration. You can argue that Cuba, despite its liberal Constitution of 1940, high literacy rates (even pre-Castro), and thriving middle class, was always doomed – a victim of Cold War politics and the Caribbean basin's indifference to coups and skullduggery of all sorts.  

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A poignant story about Nicholas Hughes, the son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, an ecology professor who, like his mother, committed suicide:
In Fairbanks, the responses are more complex. Here a community of scientists knew him not through his parents’ poetry, but through the ingenuity of his research into freshwater ecosystems. They knew him from ice fishing and cycling, from gardening or making pottery. And with his death there is building resentment, a sense that his life and death are being distorted by strangers, depicted as either the inevitable after-effect of his father’s infidelities or somehow genetically foreordained by his mother’s demons

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Happy Easter. A searing performance of my favorite John Cale song:

Jessie Eisenberg does a dead-on Alvy Singer channeled through Bob Newhart. After three movies (Romper Stomper and the superior The Squid and the Whale are the other two), of his schtick, he's found new wrinkles, and although Adventureland has his best performance yet, I can see a time when, like Michael Cera in writer-director Greg Mottola's last movie Superbad, his originality may harden into caricature. For now it's a treat watching him interact with an actress as alive to gesture and response as Kristin Stewart (without makeup she looks a bit like a young Helena Bonham Carter). Even with the all-too-wet ending (literally: there's sensitive emoting in the rain), I suspect that Stewart will, like Annie Hall, wise up to Eisenberg's routine and dump his ass.

As for the rest of Adventureland, its slightness and lack of tension is a slight letdown after the subcurrents beneath the post-Meatballs machinations of Superbad. Mottola has a talent for catching peripheral beauty: there's a lovely scene between Eisenberg and Stewart in a kind of graveyard for amusement park parts shot with the light of dusk as gray, cheerless, and familiar as the weed the two smoke. The rhythms feel genuine too; we've all had jobs in the service sector that allowed too much downtime and not enough stress to take home, therefore allowing us time to get drunk and high at after work parties. I expected a familiar payoff between Eisenberg and his jowly, depressed dad that thankfully never came. Most of the cast seems way too young for college graduates, though (except Ryan Reynolds, who has the kind of doughy plasticine looks and wardrobe that can get him cast as Matthew McConoughey Dazed & Confused-style lecher-slacker if he's not careful). But I can't be the only one who expected Martin Starr to admit to a crush on Eisenberg instead of Stewart; the behind-the-beat detachment he projects from behind those owlish glasses also flashes self-loathing.

If I started looking at my watch too often past the 75-minute mark, blame my taste in music: no Big Star studio album runs 106 minutes. This is the problem when writing the kind of movies inspired by your favorite albums; the evanescence of perfect pop doesn't require the concentration of film watching. Mottola pats himself on the back with the kind of musical (these late eighties post-graduates listen to Husker Du, the Replacements, and the New York Dolls) and literary (Starr gives the amusement park's resident Hot Girl a dog-eared copy of The Overcoat) cues designed to make an audience applaud. It's axiomatic that all indie and quasi-indie films will advertise their cool soundtracks. But I don't want my tastes gratified.