Monday, February 26, 2007

Sracso Eht

Disclaimer: The following is Little Earl's personal opinion only

First of all, The Departed:

Yeah yeah, "token award" this, "not Scorsese's best" that, but you know what? I'm glad he won it and I think he deserved it, for several reasons:

1. There weren't really any overlooked masterpieces this year that deserved to win it instead (I know a lot of people feel strongly about Children Of Men, but that's another post). It was a better year than 1987, for example, but it was not the greatest year for movies (discounting, of course, the ones I have yet to see). If I were an academy member, I might have possibly voted for Stephen Frears, since I did think The Queen was a better film overall than The Departed, but it's not better by much, and it wasn't so great that I would have wanted to see Stephen Frears walk up there instead of Martin Scorsese. The bottom line is: If Scorsese didn't deserve it, then who did?

2. It was better than the last two films for which he was nominated. If they were itching to give him a token Oscar, I'm glad they gave it to him for this movie instead of Gangs Of New York or The Aviator.

3. He got to receive his Oscar from Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg. For a fan of the 70s like myself, this was one of the most moving Oscar moments I can remember. First of all, when the three of them walked up there, I was almost blown back to the wall from the sheer talent and magnetism that was emanating from these three incredibly God-like, majestic, and handsome figures. Secondly, I felt a strange sense of gratitude that these three were still alive and healthy and active. Even though their hair was all grey, the three of them looked exactly the same as they always did. It was like, "Yep, there they are. No mistakin' 'em for someone else." Third, they were pretty funny. Coppola and Spielberg boasted about how they'd all won Academy Awards, and then Lucas bumped in and said meekly, "Hey guys, I never won an Academy Award." Then after a pause, Spielberg said, "So then why are you here?" It was perfect because you knew it would be absolutely traumatic if those three guys were up there and Scorsese lost, so they undercut it with having Lucas mention that he never won it either. But of course, Scorsese won it, and I realized it would have been some much more anti-climactic if he had won it for something else earlier and accepted the award from...who even remembers? With these three guys there to give it to him it was really ice on the damn cake.

Ultimately, I was so concerned with all the "Is Scorsese gonna win" talk that when I actually sat back and thought about it after the show was finally over, I realized that The Departed, for all its supposed deficiencies, is probably the best Best Picture winner since at least A Beautiful Mind and possibly since American Beauty. It's fun and watchable but not dumb. Unlike most of the other recent winners, it actually seems like a film that people will want to watch in 20 years. Somebody on Slate pointed out that what the Oscar show "lacked most of all—and this is not its fault—was a movie that really excited audiences. People liked The Departed as entertainment, but who loved it?" I nodded at first when I read this, but then I thought, "Yeah, but if the kind of movies that people 'love' are Gladiator, Chicago and Return of the King, then count me out." In summary, The Departed was not a flaming masterpiece, but it was better than the films that have been winning awards for the past ten years, so frankly I'm glad.

Now on to the rest of the show:

Given what they had to work with, I thought the Oscars did a really good job of nominating essentially the best movies of the year. I thought that four of the Best Picture nominees deserved to be there, which is more than I can say for any year since maybe 2001. And I didn't even mind Babel being there either (as long as it didn't win), because at least it was different and interesting. So although I've read a lot of griping on the internet, I was relatively impressed overall.

Ellen was safe and bland. Jon Stewart was great but apparently he offended everyone in the actual room, so I guess they decided to get someone nice for the people present at the expense of the TV viewer. Hey, it's not my show, they can do what they want. But sitting here at home, I'd rather have someone edgy and clever, if I could choose.

Some of my favorite highlights:

The Jack Black-Will Ferrell-John C. Reilly skit - especially Jack Black saying something like, "Peter O'Toole, I know you're all legendary and British and everything, but I will take you down!" and Peter O'Toole sitting there wondering what the hell was going on.

"Ladies and gentleman, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ben Affleck."

Robert Downey, Jr. presenting the award for visual effects: “Visual effects: they enable us to see aliens, experience other universes, move in slow motion, or watch spiders climbing high above the city landscape. For me, just a typical weeknight in the mid-’90s.”

The Oscars

So does this mean they can stop nominating Scorsese for every movie he makes? It was a decent show as Oscars go, but who was that guy with the microphone backstage? Who thought that was a good idea?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Recommended Viewing

The other night I happened to catch Half-Japanese: The Band that would be King on the best channel on television, the documentary channel. I didn't know much about the band before watching this. When I was a DJ in college I played a few of their songs for Halloween or whenever I was in a lighthearted mood, but I didn't dealve into their discography. I now regret this oversight.Watching David Fair explain that he 'won' every concert they ever played and Jad Fair say that his aspiration is to write the most popular song ever written I couldn't help but love this band.

The documentary is also interesting outside of it's treatment of the band itself. Interviews with fans reveal an alternate critical world in which Half-Japanese, not the Beatles or the Stones, stands as the greatest rock group of all time. I got the feeling that these people were much more out of touch with the actualities of popular culture than Jad or David. Jad may playfully attest great aspirations but to these fans, Half-Japanese have already achieved greatness, popular opinion be damned. They take the band more seriously than anyone in the band does.

Of course, this documentary wouldn't be nearly as interesting if it didn't include performances by the band. There is footage of an early performance at a nursing home. Jad strums away at a cheap acustic guitar and Davis flails around spastically at his side. A man pulls a harmonica out of his pocket and begins to play along. Latter in the documentary Jad plays with a later configuration of the band with Moe Tucker on tambourine. On a rooftop.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Blogging the Bloggers of Bloggingdom

I usually disagree with Jim Emerson's general approach to movie-blogging, but lately he's been putting up some pretty good stuff. Here's the general link:

Scanners: Blog

Apparently he just wrapped up something called the "Contrarion Blog-a-thon," which by its very name sounds kind of obnoxious, but at least the topics look interesting. It seems like all these people come from the same "Irritable and Exasperated School of Film Writing" as Jim Emerson does. Oh well, mostly I'm just jealous because he gets paid to do this and I don't.

Here's a sampling of some of the more interesting posts.

Which great director is not-so-great?

Although I voted for Hitchcock, it's interesting to note that I own at least one movie by each of these directors. Some of the comments from other people are quite thoughtful. As far as who's missing in the poll, a couple of people bemoaned the exclusion of Bergman, Kurosawa or Lumet, but to me the biggest name missing is Lean, although I believe I hold Lean in higher regard than most film scholars do at the moment.

Your Oscar speech: How not to blow it

This was actually something he wrote for MSN, but there's a link to it from his blog. I felt it showed Jim at his most humorous.

All in all, no matter how much I curse it, Emerson's website is at least a halfway solid example of what can be achieved in bloggingdom. Someday, Yoggoth, this may be us!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Snubbed by Oscar, or just not very talented?

Actors Who've Never Been Nominated For An Oscar - Moviefone

I really agree with some of these, particularly Jeff Daniels, Martin Sheen, Donald Sutherland and Steve Buscemi. But some of the other ones, like Meg Ryan, Richard Gere and Sandra Bullock, are pretty understandable.

Two New DVD Purchases: High Fidelity and the 1st Superman

Seeing as that I have recently been employed once again, I saw fit to head down to Amoeba and find two new additions suitable for inclusion in what is already the world's most impressive DVD collection. So here's what we got:

I've had High Fidelity on my "to buy" list for almost a year now, but two factors delayed its purchase. First of all, there are always about five used copies sitting there in Amoeba, so every time I was about to buy it I always figured, "Well, I'll just get it next time, " whereas I knew I might never see that mint-condition discount copy of Gandhi ever again. Another reason I wasn't in a big rush to buy it was that I actually watched it fairly recently, back at the old apartment. It was playing on the television during a rather disturbing evening, as those present might recall. Enough time has passed, however, for me not to care anymore. Now I can watch John Cusack complain about his endless parade of ridiculously attractive and intelligent girlfriends...any time I want! I did kind of feel like a bit of a weasel buying High Fidelity at a record store, but thankfully the clerk didn't say a word about it.

The second purchase was the real find, though: the new, four-disc edition of the original Superman (from 1978). That's right, that's FOUR DISCS of useless crap I don't even need, but I want it because...I can have it! Look at some of this shit:
  • Original 1978 theatrical version with soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1
  • Commentary by producer Pierre Spengler and executive producer Ilya Salkind
  • Theatrical trailers and TV spot
  • 2000 expanded edition movie with commentary by director Richard Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz
  • Music-only audio track
  • Three documentaries:
  • -Taking Flight: The Development of Superman
  • -Making Superman: Filming the Legend
  • -The Magic Behind the Cape
  • Restored scenes
  • Screen tests
  • Audio-only bonus: additional music cues
  • Vintage TV special "The Making of Superman: The Movie"
  • 1951 movie Superman and the Mole-Men, starring George Reeves
  • Nine Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons mastered from superior vault elements: Superman, The Mechanical Monsters, Billion Dollar Limited, The Arctic Giant, The Bulleteers, The Magnetic Telescope, Electric Earthquake, Volcano, Terror on the Midway
Honestly, I only wanted about two of these discs, but at $25, who could pass it up?

Some might be surprised that I am a fan of Superman: The Movie (as its official title goes), but let me tell you something. Back in college my father asked me if I'd seen Superman as an adult, and I hadn't, so I went out and rented it. Well it kicked my ass five times into next Tuesday. This movie is freakin' heavy (it couldn't hurt that the screenplay was co-written by Mario Puzo). First of all, you've got some entertainingly bad acting from Marlon Brando (as only Brando can do) at the beginning, then you've got Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, who apparently just decided to have fun with it and go for broke. You've got the San Andreas Fault cracking open, the Golden Gate Bridge snapping, and the Hoover Dam exploding, all in about five minutes time. Finally, Superman is so disturbed that he couldn't save Lois in time, that he turns the rotation of the Earth backwards in order to save her. When was the last time somebody did that for you, eh? Yeah that's what I thought. All in all the movie could have really sucked but they kept a sense of humor about everything and the performances made you care. What's great about Superman is that he can do all this amazing stuff, but emotionally he's just a normal human. Well, if he were a cold heartless machine, I guess that wouldn't be much of a movie, now, would it?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Tom Waits' Early Career - Part II

I might be the only one who thinks so, but Tom Waits' second album, The Heart Of Saturday Night, is quite an improvement over his first. Most commentators have hardly made any distinction between the two, but to me there are some very notable (and pleasing) differences. While The Heart Of Saturday Night is still a good deal away from Swordfishtrombones or even Heartattack and Vine, it's at least the first sign of a songwriter with a unique voice. It's not a great album, but it's a nice album, and unlike Closing Time, it's an album that I find myself listening to quite frequently.

There's no one major difference per se, but rather it's a number of little differences that all add up to a stronger package as a whole. First of all, the individual songs are stronger. Take each song on its own terms and you might not really notice, but if most songs on Closing Time were about a B-, on The Heart Of Saturday Night he's averaging about a B+. Better melodies, better arrangments. Another key to the album's success, I think, is that the songs are relatively diverse, and yet they're unified by a similar vibe and similar sense of place. As a result, the lesser songs still sound good in the context of the better songs. The melody of "Shiver Me Timbers" might not be that impressive on its own, but sandwiched between the mid-tempo sleaziness of "Semi Suite" and the spoken word rant "Diamonds On My Windshield," it's a welcoming lullaby. In other words, all the songs display a different facet of Tom Waits' personality, but unlike on Closing Time, there's finally a tangible sense of that personality. Like any good album, it's eleven different sides of the same recognizable coin.

The largest leap, then, is in the lyrics. For the first time we get hints of the humor and sleaze that would soon dominate his work, as well as the strong eye for detail that would make his best songs seem almost like short stories. He's definitely in the embryonic stage, don't get me wrong. But on The Heart Of Saturday Night he's finally writing songs that couldn't have been written by other people. The Eagles would never have covered "Diamonds On My Windshield," for example.

"New Coat Of Paint" kicks off the album with an intoxicatingly boozy swing. It's my favorite song on the album, and one of my favorite Tom Waits songs, period. It sounds like it's been around forever, as if Tom Waits' version is actually a cover version. He gets in some memorable (if cheesy) one-liners, like: "Love needs a transfusion, let's shoot it full of wine/Fishin' for a good time starts with throwin' in your line." The lyrics are hokey, but you get the impression that he knows they're hokey (an impression you didn't get on Closing Time).

Then he moves along to "San Diego Serenade," an awkward ballad with lyrics that seem to rival Alanis Morrisette's "Ironic" in the department of songs that barely seem to achieve their rigidly thematic goal:

I never saw the morning 'til I stayed up all night
I never saw the sunshine 'til you turned out the light
I never saw my hometown until I stayed away too long
I never heard the melody, until I needed a song.

I never saw the white line, 'til I was leaving you behind
I never knew I needed you 'til I was caught up in a bind
I never spoke 'I love you' 'til I cursed you in vain,
I never felt my heartstrings until I nearly went insane.

I never saw the east coast 'til I move to the west
I never saw the moonlight until it shone off your breast
I never saw your heart 'til someone tried to steal,
tried to steal it away
I never saw your tears until they rolled down your face.

I guess the ostensible idea he's trying to express is that people don't really appreciate things until they experience their opposite, or, as Joni Mitchell put it, "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." But how do lines like "I never felt my heartstrings until I nearly went insane" and "I never saw the moonlight until it shone off your breast" fit into this message? I think he just gave up and tried to make it all rhyme. Post-Heartattack and Vine Tom Waits would have never written a song like this, but I don't mind it too much on this album, because at the very least it's interesting.

With "Diamonds On My Windshield" we get the first appearance of spoken-word Waits, in which he describes a trip up Highway 101 from San Diego to L.A. If it's not quite "Frank's Wild Years," at least it captures a strong sense of place. My favorite verse is this one:

Wisconsin hiker with a cue-ball head
Wishing he was home in a Wisconsin bed
But there's fifteen feet of snow in the East
And it's colder then a welldigger's ass

A welldigger's ass, huh? That's pretty cold. "Diamonds On My Windshield" then segues right into the title track, a pleasant late-night ballad that Waits plays on acoustic guitar. Again, it's not the most amazing song in the world, but it works because it conjures a specific mood and it's different from the songs that surround it. The lyrics display his burgeoning eye for detail:

Tell me is it the crack of the poolballs, neon buzzin?
Telephone's ringin', it's your second cousin
Is it the barmaid that's smilin' from the corner of her eye?
The magic of the melancholy tear in your eye?

Compare this to "Lonely" or "Ice Cream Man." Those earlier songs were trying to sound universal, but instead they just sounded generic.
When I listen to "The Heart Of Saturday Night," on the other hand, it's like I can actually see Tom Waits bumming around in some dead end L.A. shithole.

The rest of the album keeps the vibe flowing admirably. If none of the songs are mind-blowingly awesome, none of the songs are quite filler either. This is the album that Closing Time wanted to be but (I thought) wasn't. You can put it on late at night when you're the only guy left in the bar, but it's not the kind of album that 20 other California singer-songwriters could have written if Tom Waits hadn't written it first.

Still, I wonder how good the album really is. What if Tom Waits had died in a freak boating accident circa Blue Valentine? Would I have ever given this album more than one listen? That's a question I just can't answer. It's possible that part of my affection for the album is that a small percentage of me is rooting for early Tom Waits not to suck completely. But whatever; a good album is a good album.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A Glimpse into the Mind of...

I'm hard at work here in the heartland. I was looking at some of the notes I wrote down late last night while avoiding my real work. Here's a sample:

A problem with Shakespeare’s comedies: Normal -> Outlandish -> Normal
The Dramas, which go: Normal -> Outlandish -> Everyone Dies are more believable. The move at the end of the comedies to reinforce the social status quo seems contrived and unfortunate. Contrast this with the fablios of Chaucer. More risqué and more transgressive!

I also embarked on an effort to grade all the books I've ever read. Maybe I'll give an update on this when I'm further along.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Midnight Special Infomercial

So I was flipping through the channels waiting for my dinner to cook when on comes this awesome infomercial about a 70s late night music program that I've never heard of but probably should have called Midnight Special. And let me tell you, they had clips from everybody. They had Blondie doing "Heart Of Glass," they had Rod Stewart doing "You Wear It Well," they had James Brown doing "The Payback," I mean everybody. They had this clip of Steely Dan doing "Reelin' in the Years," and Holy Christ, did Donald Fagen's teeth look awful. I hope he took some of that money he was earning and went and got his teeth fixed or something, because lord almighty, they were something else. They had a clip of Patti LaBelle doing "Lady Marmalade" and she had on the most preposterous silver spacesuit outfit; it looked a little like what Sly Stone wore on the Grammys last year. They had Todd Rundgren doing "Hello It's Me" on the piano by himself, they had Al Green doing "Let's Stay Together," Fleetwood Mac was doing "Over My Head" and Lindsey Buckingham had the most incredible white man's Afro I've ever seen. It was just a plethora of solid 70s gold. But not only did they have the music, they also had clips from 70s comedians like Andy Kaufman, George Carlin, Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor, and Steve Martin. They showed a clip of Steve Martin where basically all he did was dance around really rapidly. I guess that's what passed for funny back then. Anyway, I was almost tempted to order the damn thing, but cooler heads prevailed.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Tom Waits' Early Career - Part I

With Tom Waits it's sort of like Paul McCartney in reverse; because his later work is so immediately distinctive, endlessly rewarding, and almost supernaturally good, it's hard to even see his earlier albums as part of the same career. I've just gone back and listened to every single Tom Waits album, from Closing Time to Blood Money, and I'm wondering if the bizarre, edgy humor of his later persona has made people enjoy his relatively straightforward earlier material more than they really would have otherwise. I mean, I'm someone who already has a predilection for cheesy 70s singer-songwriters, but without that later career turn, it seems to me Tom Waits would have been just another one of those guys like John Hiatt, Townes Van Zant, or Jerry Jeff Walker: pleasant, rootsy-sounding guys that maybe wrote a couple of songs that someone else turned into bigger hits, while only rock nerds and a small fan base remembered who they even were. I'm not trying to take Tom Waits to task, exactly; it's just that the path of his career is so strikingly unusual. It's the exception to an almost infallible rule. How many rock acts have pulled off such an effortless switcheroo so far into their career? I can only think of a few, like Pulp, and the Bee Gees, and maybe Fleetwood Mac to some extent (although they essentially became a different band, like what happened with Pink Floyd). John Fogerty and Aretha Franklin both mucked around in mediocrity for several years before landing upon styles so seemingly natural that it's hard to believe they ever sounded so undistinguished. But those two went from obscurity to superstardom; Tom Waits went from obscurity to obscurity. It's like he has two completely separate cult audiences. A fan of his later stuff might not be a fan of his earlier stuff, and vice versa. I guess my question is: who were the fans of his earlier stuff? And what is a fan of his later stuff to do with his earlier stuff? Is it really not so different after all? In other words, could we see the greatness coming?

Let's start with Closing Time. To me this album is one great song and a bunch of filler. We've got "Ol' 55," and then a lot of underdeveloped meandering. Sure, it's relatively diverse, but on the whole it's pretty thin stuff. It sounds like he was trying to pull off a Randy Newman sort of thing, but it just comes off like Randy Newman lite. In fact, "Lonely" sounds like he just listened to Newman's "I Think It's Going To Rain Today" and tried to do a quick rip-off. Look at these lyrics:

Lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely eyes,
lonely face, lonely lonely in your place.
Lonely, lonely, lonely eyes, lonely face,
lonely lonely in your place.

I thought that I knew all that there was to,
lonely, lonely, lonely...

Melanie Jane, won't feel the pain.
Lonely, lonely, lonely eyes, lonely eyes,
lonely lonely in your place.

And I thought that I knew all that there was to
Lonely, lonely, lonely eyes, lonely eyes,
lonely lonely in your place, and
I still love you, I still love you,
lonely, lonely...

What the hell is that? The music sounds even less distinguished; I think he just plucked around on the piano for three minutes and called it a song. (Hell, Newman probably did the same thing, since "I Think It's Going To Rain Today" isn't one of my favorite Newman songs either). Then there's "Martha," which sounds like one of Newman's patented "Ironically Sincere Songs About Old Folks" like "Love Story" or "Marie" or "So Long Dad," except without the sharp lyrical detail. Indeed, that's the surprising thing about Closing Time: for an artist whose best work is so unmistakably "Tom Waits," his debut album presents a songwriter and performer who is extremely typical. There's nothing here that really would have made him stand out from the pack as far as I can see. "Ice Cream Man?" Anyone could have written this song:

I'll be clickin' by your house about two forty-five
Sidewalk sundae strawberry surprise,
I got a cherry popsicle right on time
A big stick, mamma, that'll blow your mind

'Cause I'm the ice cream man,
I'm a one-man band (yeah)
I'm the ice cream man, honey,
I'll be good to you.

Baby, missed me in the alley, baby, don't you fret
Come back around and don't forget,
When you're tired and you're hungry
and you want something cool,
Got something better than a swimming pool

'Cause I'm the ice cream man,
I'm a one-man band
I'm the ice cream man, honey,
I'll be good to you.
'Cause I'm the ice cream man,
I'm a one-man band
I'm the ice cream man, honey,
I'll be good to you.

See me coming, you ain't got no change
Don't worry baby, it can be arranged:
Show me you can smile, baby just for me
Fix you with a drumstick, I'll do it for free

'Cause I'm the ice cream man, I'm a one-man band
I'm the ice cream man, honey, I'll be good to you.
Be good to you, be good to you,
Good to you yeah, good to you yeah,
good to you yeah, good to you yeah,
Good to you yeah, good to you,
'll be good to you, I'll be good to you...

Sure it's pleasant, but was this really the best stuff he had? It sounds like any schmoe in a bar on a Saturday night. Through the prism of his later persona, I guess the song might be seen as the earliest version of his funny, weird songs about assorted strange characters. But at the time, people did not yet know that Waits would get weirder, so it must have come off as more of a throwaway novelty.

The bottom line with Closing Time is that the songs reveal very little of Tom Waits' actual personality. And because we know all about Tom Waits' actual personality from his later music, there's a sense that he was trying too hard here to be a normal (read: bland) singer-songwriter. Where's all the beatnik crap? We get maybe a whiff of it in "Virginia Avenue" (which sounds like the warm-up track for his next album), but otherwise there's not really a trace of the lyrical wit or sleazy charm that would define "Tom Waits" and at least tenuously link his early and later careers. Even his voice is shockingly normal at this stage. The album is well-produced, and doesn't sound dated, and certainly is good enough to be released, but in an era where the standards in rock were very, very high - where a singer/songwriter album meant something like There Goes Rhymin' Simon or Something/Anything - Closing Time barely makes the cut.

The one track that I would rank with Tom Waits' best material, of course, is "Ol' 55." Indeed, this is the track that apparently made his reputation, as the Eagles famously covered it. The thing is, it sounds almost nothing like later Tom Waits; basically he wrote an Eagles song. It looks, smells and tastes like an Eagles song. But people who would never tolerate an Eagles song find themselves liking "Ol' 55." Come on. If these people didn't know that Tom Waits would eventually become much cooler, would they really like "Ol' 55" all that much? Maybe it's only OK because they know this is the same guy who would later use trash cans as percussion. What I'm saying is, is it possible that at one point in time, Tom Waits was actually less cool than the Eagles? A terrifying thought, I'm sure, but one that I will leave as pure conjecture.

To be continued...

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Conundrum of Yoko

Even after having read several different books on the topic, I find it almost impossible to have a balanced perspective on Yoko Ono. To do so, I think I would have to take several steps. Step 1 would be to divorce my affection for the Beatles and John Lennon from my opinion of Yoko. As you can see, Step 1 is virtually impossible. For better or for worse, Yoko really threw herself into the public eye as someone who wished to be associated strongly with John Lennon, and since the public always strongly associated John Lennon with the Beatles, Yoko apparently owes most of her fame to a group of artists that she didn't really have anything to do with. This doesn't make her a terrible person, exactly, but it doesn't make her someone that I particularly admire.

However, a lot of people have blamed her for something that wasn't really her fault anyway: the break-up of the Beatles. John was getting restless no matter what. He had a rebellious streak a mile wide, and I think when he started sensing that the public wanted him to stay in the Beatles and keep writing songs with cheerful Paul, he wanted to tell them to fuck off. So along comes Yoko, who's completely disinterested in the Beatles, and she starts encouraging John's rebelliousness, and he's feeling straitjacketed and defensive, so he just goes for it. My point is that there were a lot of stupid Beatles fans who ignored the individual Beatles as people and just wanted them to stay together and be great, at whatever personal cost. These people hated Yoko because she "broke up the Beatles" and, by extension, made their lives worse. These people are annoying. They are the "unrealistic" Beatles fans.

The "unrealistic" Beatles fans have been so annoying that they've created another group of people, the "Beatles De-mythifiers." would be the perfect nest for Beatles De-mythifiers. The "Beatles De-mythifiers" are tired of hearing people talk about how great the Beatles were, they downplay the Beatles' importance in rock, and, as a strange byproduct of the de-mythification, they hold up Yoko as a sort of misunderstood hero. The "Beatles De-mythifiers" are just as annoying as the "Unrealistics." They base their opinions on irritation rather than honest evaluation.

Finally, we must keep in mind that for most people, "Unrealistics" and De-mythifiers" included, one single event has given Yoko essentially a free pass for the rest of her life: the murder of her husband. Everyone felt so bad about hating her guts before, that once John got shot, they decided to leave her alone, or even try to like her, no matter how weird she was. It's been 26 years, but still I think people hesitate to rip on Yoko because they feel like it's somehow "insulting the aggrieved". Again, it's an instance of people having sympathy for Yoko not because of anything positive she actually did. Does that make her a bad person? Not really. But it doesn't make her all that great either.

I think the real Yoko is just someone who's very confused and not particularly eager to be honest. The one thing that's really annoying is that people keep approaching her as some sort of authority on John (and even as some sort of authority on the Beatles) when, from what I've read, she really isn't. But she keeps on playing the role as if nothing's wrong with it. Then she complains that people always criticize her! We're not criticizing her, we're just calling her out on perpetuating an image that simply isn't true. She can keep trying to perpetuate it, and every time, we'll keep calling her on it. It's not even good for her, probably. She's 70 years old and she's still confused as hell.

Bottom line: Yoko's not evil. She's just puzzling.

Clash: The Documentary

I continue to enjoy the documentary channel. Last night they had a documentary about the clash featuring interviews with each member of the band. God did Topper look terrible! Live concert footage was interspersed with bits of each interview. They each had interesting things to say, but Joe Strummer's description of the breakup of the band stood out. I felt like I was listening to a eulagy for a former lover. The heartbreak obviously remained even after more than 10 years. The tragedy, and listening to Joe it was impossible to see it as anything else, was described by each band member as inevitable. They did what they did because of who they were, but the regret in their voices was palpable.


I was reading the review of her new album here. Who started this idea that Yoko Ono is a persicuted artist of great talent? Is it a coincidence that the only good songs she recorded are the ones that sound like John Lennon's solo work?

Nitsuh Abebe decries 'the disgusting level of mockery and abuse she gets for the sin of having been so cool that even John Lennon was bowled over.' This conviniently ignores the many, many other things she has done that have garnered the mockery and abuse she is now subject to. In fact, if most people knew more about her personality and actions they would dislike her more, not less, than they do now.

There are some people that deserve our consideration in light of innacuracies in their public personae. Then there are others who are just portraying themselves as victims to recieve attention and fame they never deserved in the first place. As celebrity misfits go, Paul Rueubens has more of my sympathy than Ono ever will.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Rebels On The Backlot - The Update

The Mystery of the Missing Moviemakers

The article is by Sharon Waxman, who also wrote Rebels On The Backlot. Two big observations:

1) Just as she did in the book, she still has a tendency to insult filmmakers for being adventurous, as well as an eagerness to quickly label certain films "disasters" because it makes her argument easier and means that she doesn't have to explain the films' more complicated receptions. For example, The Fountain was not a box office success, but it made a big impression at Rotten Tomatoes, or at the very least didn't "sink without a trace." Likewise, "I Heart Huckabees" was not a flaming moneyball, but everyone I know has seen it and it certainly has its fans (including myself), so I would hardly call it "disastrous." But if she reduces these movies to piles of garbage right off the bat, then it means she doesn't have to write as much about them.

2) She mentions that the pace of current directors "is a far cry from the deluge of creative output from young directors in the 1970s". But there were all sorts of great directors who took their sweet ass time in the 70s, like Kubrick, Lucas, Bob Rafelson, and Bob Fosse. Even Coppola, whom she sites as an example of prolificacy, took five years on Apocalypse Now. They can't all be Altman. Hell, sometimes I wish Altman took a little more time on some of his movies, you know what I'm sayin'? Besides, our generation actually does have an Altman: Steven Soderbergh, who's been prolific as all get out. But her article sounds better if she doesn't mention that.

However, I think she does have a general point. Aside from Soderbergh, the other five directors from the book seem to have been taking their time, and I agree that I wish they were making more films. However, they're almost all currently at work on something: Tarantino on Grindhouse, Spike Jonze on Where The Wild Things Are, P.T. Anderson on There Will Be Blood. All these movies sound interesting to me, and I'd rather they make one great movie than five shitty ones. (Also, I hear the real reason David O. Russell hasn't made more movies is because everyone in Hollywood thinks he's a flaming jerk-ozoid.)

P.S. Were people really all that amazed by Boy's Don't Cry and One Hour Photo? Just a question - not my own personal opinion.

How Not to Get a Job

A man sitting next to me in this cafe just attempted to apply for a job over the phone while simultaneously explaining why he had quit the same job eariler after he almost got in a fist fight with his boss. So I guess we have it easy eh guys?

Monday, February 5, 2007

The Clash's Sandinista! - A Defense

Just about everything anyone ever said about The Clash's Sandinista! is true. In a way, it is a very bad album, especially coming after the focused brilliance of London Calling. But it is also fucking awesome.

Part of the album's charm is that you can totally see the logic that went into it. It's 1980. The Clash have just released London Calling. They're sitting around in New York, stoned out of their minds, wondering what the hell they should do next. But it's got to be BIG, people - The Clash are thinking BIG! Now what could possibly be bigger than a double album? How about a TRIPLE album! Yeah! Let's do it!

The only problem with that scenario, of course, was the slight possibility that maybe The Clash wouldn't have enough worthy, releasable songs for a triple album. "But fuck it!,” I can hear them saying with impatience. “Life is not for the faint of heart!" Perhaps not, but maybe life isn't for a bunch of coked-up reggae fans with half-baked song ideas either.

It's like they misunderstood what makes music effective. It's like they took a look around them, saw more and more injustice, and concluded, "The only proper way to battle more with more songs!" I'm not sure it works that way. It's like sex. More sex doesn't necessarily equal better sex. Sandinista! is like trying to have sex three times in two hours. At first it's really exciting, and then it slows down a bit, and then it kind of gets exciting again, but by the end it's like a long, hard slough - and yet, in its own tiring way, still slightly enjoyable.

Sandinista! is like The White Album to London Calling's Sgt. Pepper, except it's not nearly as good as that comparison suggests. The White Album is one of the greatest albums of all time, and many even prefer it to Sgt. Pepper. Do I prefer Sandinista! to London Calling? Not really. But after listening to London Calling for the three hundredth time, I have to say Sandinista! is quite enjoyable on its own terms.

But let's go back to the White Album comparison. There were many people in 1968 who thought that The White Album was self-indulgent and should have been pared down to a single album, but this opinion has become a minority opinion over the years. The sprawling, unfocused nature of The White Album has become a major source of its charm. Of course, the Beatles in half-assed mode were (I think) still better than any other band ever. The Clash in half-assed mode were...uh...not as good. But in a similar way, you can see how people were doing the White Album a great disservice by sitting around and wishing it were as focused and well-produced as Sgt. Pepper was. There was some imaginary "Sgt. Pepper Part II" that existed in people's minds, but that was just not where the Beatles were at, man. Of course, a common argument from the White Album naysayers used to be, "Oh gimme a break, you know the songs are bad, you only like it because it's the Beatles." My father actually used to say this. I would try to explain to him that while perhaps unintentional, the messy, chaotic quality of The White Album influenced decades of alternative rock (to which he would reply, "Yeah, and all that music sucked!"). But enough of me ranting about my father. My point is that it takes all kinds of albums to make a world. Sometimes you want the focused ones, sometimes you want the unfocused ones. And the intentions of the artist don't necessarily matter in this game. The White Album was The White Album because the Beatles were falling apart, not because they sat around and thought, "Let's influence alternative rock." But who gives a shit?

The Clash were clearly hoping that a little of the White Album magic would rub off on them, but I think they misunderstood a few aspects of The White Album's success. The White Album is the work of three of the major singer-songwriters of rock. The Beatles' approach may have been haphazard, but for the most part, each song was fleshed out to its full potential. The Clash, on the other hand, consisted of one really great songwriting team. Joe Strummer couldn't really write music. Mick Jones could write decent lyrics but couldn't inject quite as much personality and charm into them as Joe could. Paul Simonom couldn't really write songs. Topper apparently laid down the basic structure of a lot of the songs in improvizational bursts, but this approach was probably about as fruitful as it sounds. In short, the individual members of The Clash weren't quite as gifted as the individual members of The Beatles. In other words, yeah, The White Album was a mess, but The Beatles could get away with it, because, hey, they were The Beatles. The Clash, well, maybe not so much. But they gave it a shot anyway, damn it, and that's why we love them.

Sandinista! is a hard album to take, though, because although the album is bursting with great ideas, it's so obvious that many of the songs could have been executed better. “The Street Parade” isn't a bad song in itself, but their performance sounds so lazy and half-assed. Couldn't they do a re-take? Likewise, “The Sound of the Sinners” wasn't necessarily a bad idea for a song, but Joe's vocal's are ridiculously buried in the mix, the choir wasn't recorded with the proper separation, and so the song just sort of rolls along limply. One could go on and on. I guess The Clash couldn't be bothered to polish up the record just a little bit more. I mean come on guys. You get the feeling they just stopped recording at one point and decided to release everything exactly as it was. “See what the fuckers think of all that!” Which leads me to another observation: you could accuse The Clash of many things, but one thing you couldn't accuse them of was meticulousness. Hell, that was prog rock's territory, and fuck prog rock, man. In this sense, maybe Sandinista! is the ultimate extension of punk's do-it-yourself aesthetic, except 20 years before the mp3: “We'll release every song we've recorded in the last five months, and you can make the god damn album yourself!

So if you're the kind of listener who expects the artist to do all the work for you, then Sandinista! will not be your cup of tea. But if you're the kind of listener who would rather have a more participatory relationship with your favorite band, then, oh my friend, how The Clash are worthy of your fandom.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

The Beauty of the Free Market

In this interesting article in the New York Times we find out, among other things:

  • fewer than half of all government contracts are open to competitive bidding
  • Lockheed Martin gets more government money than the Departments of Justice or Energy
  • contracted projects have less oversight than intra-governmental projects
  • contractors are now hired to analyze government contracts(possible Kafka/Kaufman collaboration about a worker hired to analyze his own contract)?
If you look at the graph they provide, you can see that as contracts nearly doubled in cost the number that are open to competitive bidding has gone down almost 50%. What that basically means is that under Bush lots of new money has been given to corporations but no new value has been added due to free market interaction.

The article makes particular note of contractors hired to analyze government contracts that may have involved fraud or or other misconduct. The company they hired had itself been considered for contract suspension in the past. The employees of this company earn $104/hr , a bit more than your average federal worker. This leads us to the necessary question, is this really a good deal for our country? And more importantly, where do I sign up for temp jobs like those?

This does make sense if you think about it. The corporations may have a more efficient workforce because it's easier for them to hire and fire people, but they also have an added incentive to screw the government out of money. Maybe the government is less efficient, but the government is going to be involved in these projects in some way no matter what because they are funded by tax revenues. Is a government/corporate project more efficient than a purely government project?

I've been thinking of this subject recently regarding my own interaction with government workers and bureaucracy. I can't honestly say that I feel better in private hands than with government workers. Try calling a big cell phone company or bank with a complaint or problem with your account. There's a good chance that your call will take longer than a trip to the DMV and result in less personal satisfaction. And at least the DMV isn't trying to sell you anything.

I'll end with this Truman quote from the Times article, “I have never yet found a contractor who, if not watched, would not leave the government holding the bag.”

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Arranging my DVD movie studio

I was staring at all the spines of my DVD collection, as I am so often known to do, when I started to realize, for the first time, that they all had little studio logos printed on them somewhere. Many of the same logos appeared on completely different DVDs. In addition, films by the same director often were made at several different studios. I began to see the history of film not as the history of directors, but as the history of studios. To further this coldly corporate view of film history, I've decided to count how many DVDs I have from each studio. Here's where it stands:

Warner Brothers: 18
Columbia: 9
Paramount: 6
Universal: 6
Criterion (not a studio): 6
20th Century Fox: 5
MGM: 4
Disney: 2
Dreamworks: 2
Fox Lorber (not a studio): 2
Miramax: 1
New Line: 1

Now what can this tell us about Hollywood history? First of all, Warner Brothers has kicked some serious ass, with a commanding lead of 18 titles in my collection. However, at some point in the 80s, I think, Warner bought the rights to MGM's catalogue, which means that obvious MGM classics like The Wizard Of Oz have been released on DVD by Warner Brothers. What I don't understand, then, is why I have some DVDs released by MGM, like The Graduate and Annie Hall. Maybe Warner Brothers only purchased the rights for MGM movies made before a certain period?

I can also see that some studios suffered long lulls in quality (or at least didn't make any movies I've felt were worth buying). For example, 20th Century Fox has The Grapes of Wrath from 1940, but they don't show up in my collection again until M*A*S*H in 1970. Same with Columbia, which released Mr. Smith Goes To Washington in 1939 but didn't put out anything else I own until Easy Rider in 1969.

It's also interesting to see how directors jumped from studio to studio, especially in the 70s. Scorsese did Mean Streets for Warner Brothers, Taxi Driver for Columbia, and The King of Comedy for 20th Century Fox. Altman did M*A*S*H* for Fox, McCabe & Mrs. Miller for Warner Brothers, and Nashville for Paramount. Other directors, however, seemed to find their studio and stick with it, like Coppola with Paramount and Kubrick with Warner Brothers.

Another thing that becomes apparent is that for a long time there were basically only seven studios in Hollywood, and only recently have we had newcomers like Miramax, New Line, and Dreamworks.

Finally, the biggest difference between the studios is the effort they put into their DVDs. When Disney does a double-disc, they're basically as good as Criterion. Next comes Warner Brothers, which sometimes gives the full-out double disc treatment and sometimes does the half-assed, single disc, here's a trailer and a featurette treatment. Fox is solid but not amazing. Universal sometimes goes for the double-disc treatment but barely puts anything worthwhile on the second disc; the best DVD of theirs is actually the single disc of American Graffiti (I assume George Lucas had a hand in putting that one together). MGM's are the worst; even the covers look cheap.

Well, even though my roommate made fun of me for doing this, I have to say, I found the exercise quite rewarding and educational.

Don't Mess With a Wookie

'Chewbacca' arrested for head-butting
'Star Wars' character impersonator allegedly attacks Hollywood tour guide

Friday, February 2, 2007

How Depressing is too Depressing?

Your last post made me think again of Heart of Darkness. Here is a book that is monumentally depressing and nihilistic, yet it remains one of my favorite books. Over depressing books have lost their appeal to me over the years. Unless the work of art shows at least some kind of hope, or at least a playful approach to nihilism, I'm left thinking, 'What's the point?' At some point aren't we just wallowing in it? The book, Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee comes to mind. It's a well written, well plotted book, but after two rapes, a forced marriage, and a failed career it winds down with our ruined protagonist sitting waiting to die. Okay, life is crap, especially in South Africa, but writing or reading this book doesn't make it any better.

So what seperates Heart of Darkness? I think that there is actually a glimmer of light in the book. Marlow begins the book sitting in a lotus pose and is compared to the Buddha. At this point, years removed from the events of the novel, he seems to have come to peace with himself and to have removed himself from the situation he decries. Even if he cannot stop what is going on in the Belgian Congo he has reached a kind of personal freedom removed from the evil ideologies of his day. Is this morally superior? I don't know.

It also reminded me somewhat of Dune Messiah, a book I picked up from my aunt's bookshelf and read yesterday. The main idea of the book is that some evil will necessarily result from good actions. It's also filled with an interesting combination of buddhism and western linguistic philosophy. Paul Atreides, emperor of most of the known universe, is caught by his own oracular powers, swept up by a cycle of actions and misgivings about the implications of those actions. I think the idea is that if we knew the future results of our actions we would then be trapped always trying to minimize negative results, and then trying to minimize the results of those results.

Little Earl and I have discussed this before, and it's interesting to see it echoed in my random artistic encounters.

The Last King Of Scotland (Macdonald)

A lot of filmmakers think that if you make a movie on a serious subject, you have to be serious. Babel was a movie like that. It was still a pretty good movie, but I got the sense that a big neon sign was flashing the whole time saying "Tragedy! Tragedy!" The movie never really sucked me up into the story, because I only got to know what the characters were like when they were suffering, and never what they were like when they were happy. You see someone on the screen that's suffering and you think, "Damn, sucks to be them," but after a while it's hard to care. Like Bjork in Dancer in the Dark. I just wanted her to hang already.

On the other hand, if a weird, loopy approach to a serious subject is what you crave, then do I have the movie for you. The Last King of Scotland is about as much fun as a movie about a psychotic dictator could be. It's like some bizarre, left-field fairy tale in reverse. There's a lot of suffering in the movie, I guess, but it's smothered by darkly ironic chuckles. The characters in Babel are trying really hard to be good people. The characters in The Last King of Scotland just want to party.

The film's very title is a good indication of its slightly warped perspective. If the movie is, as you might have heard, about Idi Amin Dada, then why the fuck is it called "The Last King Of Scotland"? You know the filmmakers are up to something. The truth is that the protagonist of the story is not really Amin at all, but actually a young (and clueless) white doctor from Scotland named Nicholas. And when I say clueless, I mean clueless. My guess is that he's slightly under 30, but he has the political knowledge that I might have possessed when I was about...I don't know...16. He goes into his bedroom at the beginning of the movie (having just been toasted by his father for graduating med school), and he spins a globe to see where he'll go practice medicine. On his first spin his finger lands on...Canada. Naw, fuck that. He spins again and hits...Uganda! Yeah. He'll be a hit with all the ladies in Uganda. Young white doctor, are you kidding? You might ask yourself the question, "What kind of idiot would be so dumb as to just waltz into Uganda and become best buddies with Idi Amin Dada almost by accident?" The answer is "This guy."

But Nicholas' reckless stupidity is part of his charm, because he's only as aware of African politics as he was ever required to be. He's just an innocent product of his white middle-class upbringing, convinced that the world is his oyster. I've known people like him my whole life. He's like the cheerful rabbit who happened to stray into the wrong part of the woods. I spent half my time with my jaw on the floor, as Nicholas continued to hurl himself further and further into one blatantly dangerous situation after another. After a while you realize that the kid deserves whatever he gets. In some ways the movie is a dialectic about which character is worse: Amin or the white kid. I think it's a draw. At the very least it's a match made in hell.

Despite threatening to frame the struggles of Africa as a white guy's problems (an issue I'm too lazy to talk about right now), I think having Nicholas as the protagonist helps us appreciate the complexities of the historical situation much better than an alternate approach might have done. Because even though we know the historical facts about Amin, there's still a part of us that wants to believe that guys like him really weren't all that bad. I could almost picture Nicholas on the phone to his mom: "Once you get to know him, he's got a really great sense of humor." The film helps you see how these guys can actually get as far as they do, through the double-pronged combination of their own personal charm and other people's misplaced good faith.

But the first time(!) director Kevin Macdonald manages to raise all these issues without giving us a big fat lecture. On the contrary, he rocks the house down. The movie is kind of like Boogie Nights in Africa, not just in form - there's a lot of terrific 70s Afro-beat on the soundtrack (I only recognized one song, Hugh Masekela's instrument hit "Grazing In The Grass," but that's an awesome song) - but in structure as well, as the good times give way to the bad. But again, Macdonald knows that even the most tense situations have an element of humor; there's a scene where Nicholas walks into Amin's house wondering if he's going to be beaten to death for one indiscretion or another, and he finds Amin sitting in his living room watching Deep Throat. "Tell me Nicholas," he asks the kid, "I want your medical opinion: is it really possible for a woman to have a clitoris in her throat?"

All in all, there's a lot more to the movie than Forest Whitaker's performance, which is said to be the front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar and which is pretty much the only thing that critics have been mentioning about the film. Sure, he kicks ass. I don't actually know anything about acting, of course, but he passes my general standard for good acting, which is: Did I forget he was acting and just simply start thinking of him as the character? The answer is a big fat yes. But the movie as a whole, I thought, was a lot better than some of the other, more celebrated movies of the awards season. Like Babel.

No, The Last King Of Scotland is not the world's most perfect movie. Sometimes the characters reiterate information with dialogue that was already obvious from the action. And once the film's central relationship takes a certain turn, it loses suspense. But at least the movie has the right idea. Lectures are fine once in a while. But better to make the viewer roll around wildly in the filth and the stench of sheer bizarreness.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

I liked this one too

Inner-City Teacher Inspires Students To Stab Him

Kill the Spiders

Most people hate them. The girl I liked in elementary school ate one.

The Day Jim Morrison Came Into My Living Room

By Randall McWhorterdorder (Cosmic American Blog columnist)

I’ve always considered myself a moderate Doors fan, but that still doesn’t quite explain what happened a few months ago, when Jim Morrison just showed up in my living room one day.

I was playing some videogames when I heard a noise in the hallway. I turned to look, and there he was – leather pants, long hair, beer in hand – everything.

Jim Morrison?,” I called out. “Dude, I thought you were dead.”

Jim replied, “Just got into town about an hour ago, took a look around to see which way the wind blow.”

I was incredulous. “But Jim . . . is it really you?”

Come on, come on, come on, come on now touch me babe . . .”

I reached over and, sure enough, it was Jim. “Wow, Jim man, whatcha been up to?”

Woke up this morning and I got myself a beer.”

That’s cool, man, that’s cool.” I couldn’t think of what to say. “You wanna bite to eat or something?”

Before I sink into the big sleep, I want to hear the scream of the butterfly.”

Groovy, dude.” He then wandered over to the dresser, and he started staring at this photo of my ex. “That’s my ex-girlfriend man.”

Don’t you love her madly, wanna be her daddy.”

Tell me about it. You know, I was thinking of calling her again sometime. What do you think I should say?”

“ ‘Before you slip into unconsciousness, I’d like to have another kiss.’”

Good one man, that’s a good one.” Jim really had a way with words. “What else?”

“ ‘You know that it would be untrue, you know that I would be a liar.’”

Aw, right on.” He started leafing through some of my Maxim’s. “You want a few copies? I got extras.”

Cancel my subscription to the Resurrection. Send my credentials to the House of Detention.”

It’s all good, Jim, it’s all good.” I was actually getting pretty hungry, so I told Jim I was gonna go out and get some pizza.

Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel.”

Thanks man. Any other advice?”

There’s a killer on the road. His brain is squirming like a toad.”

Gotcha.” I was gonna ask if he wanted to come along, but he started to head for the back door. “Heading out Jim?”

I’m a back door man.”

Where you goin’?”

Show me the way to the next whiskey bar.”

I’ll show you later man, I gotta get some grub you know.”

Meet me at the back of the blue bus!”

Another time man. It’s been good hangin’ out.”

We chased our pleasures here, dug our treasures there.”

Yeah man, I really gotta go.”

He waved goodbye, and just like that, he was gone.

The pizza was awesome.