Friday, November 30, 2007

Tough Guys Don't Write Dialogue

AMG writer Mark Deming has a rather entertaining piece on the All Movie Guide blog about Norman Mailer's film career. I have to say, it sounds pretty hilarious. If our own loose little Cosmic American clan ever made movies, they probably wouldn't be too far removed from this.

Just Take a Deep Breath, Guys

Ebert has a piece on his website about a really well-reviewed indie movie that failed to find any distribution and failed to make any money. Apparently Ebert received an e-mail from the movie's director, Tom DiCillo, in which the director apoplectically pulled his hair out in disappointment and frustration, and finally posed for Ebert a series of questions, which Ebert then attempted to answer in an exasperated tone. I enjoyed the general nature of the conversation, but felt that both Ebert and the director lacked a larger sense of perspective. Some observations:

1) People only have so much time in their day to watch obscure indie movies

I like watching movies, but in addition to working, and in addition to doing all the other things I like doing such as eating, sleeping, talking to other people, listening to music, surfing the web, and so on, I only have so much time to watch movies. Of that time, about 40% of that time is spent watching movies I either own or have already seen, and another 40% of that time is spent watching older movies I have not yet seen, of which there are many. Now that leaves about 20% of my moviegoing energy for current movies playing in movie theaters. Despite the marketplace being saturated with crappy blockbuster sequels and horror movies I don't want to see, there are still a large number of semi-intriguing "indie" releases coming out every month. Now, out of all those indie releases, the ones I am most likely going to see are the ones that either receive so much press coverage and critical buzz from places like Ebert, the AV Club, the Bay Guardian, Rotten Tomatoes, etc. etc., that I simply have to see the movie so that I can read all the reviews and form an opinion for myself, or the ones that are by directors I already admire and have the hunch I'm going to get my money's worth. I think we're experiencing an age of serious cultural oversaturation. This guy's movie might have been great, but when people like me only have time and energy for so many movies, there has to be something about this movie that says, "Hey, watch me before you watch all the others." One or two positive reviews is really not enough. The director should probably not take this personally.

2) Theatrical release means almost nothing anymore.

Ebert frets that this movie's inability to find a theatrical distributor means that it "has disappeared," although he does suggest at the end of his rant, "Maybe DVDs and Netflix and Blockbuster on Demand and cable TV and pay-per-view and especially high-quality streaming on the Internet will rescue you and your fellow independents." Maybe? How about yes? I'm pretty sure that films are no longer "dead" if they flop in the theater, or even if they fail to get released in the theater. As far as I can tell, even the big blockbuster movies barely manage to pay off their budget from the theatrical run. The reason why there's no huge demand to see a small indie movie in a theater is because there's no huge rush; people know they can just catch it on DVD. I also believe that indie films make almost all of their money off the DVD release, and that the theatrical release at this point is basically just advertising.

In sum, Ebert and DiCillo might want to calm down, take their heads out of the sand a little bit, and save the nihilism for something more worthwhile. It's going to be OK, folks.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bay Area Football Teams Finally Show Up To Play

So last weekend both the Niners and the Raiders managed to win their respective games. On the same weekend! No, I'm actually serious. I only saw a glimpse of the Raiders game but I managed to catch the last half of the Niners game, and boy, let me tell you, it was something.

It seems to me that a team can never end a losing streak with a big blowout victory. They have to crawl their way tooth and nail over the other (usually crappy) team to finally put an end to their pathetic ways. And so it was with the Niners on Sunday. I look on the internet to see the score, and at the start of the third quarter it's 24-21 - with the Niners winning! Holy beeswax. So I turn on the TV to catch the drama. The Cardinals get another touchdown to take back the lead at 28-24. Suddenly it's the fourth quarter and there's only two minutes left in the game. The announcer says, "The Niners have not scored in the final two minutes of a half all season long." Not just the final two minutes of the game, but the final two minutes of a half! So it would have seemed that history was not on the Niners' side. But somehow Frank Gore rushes for a first down about three times in a row, and then he rushes for a touchdown with about a minute-and-a-half left, making it 31-28 Niners.

So now all the Niners need to do is keep the Cardinals from getting into field goal range. Not an outrageous task considering their defense is their strong suit. However, the Cardinals keep making first down passes near the sidelines and then falling out of bounds, keeping the clock from running. With six seconds left, the Cardinals find themselves basically at the goal line. They throw to somebody in the end zone, and the receiver pretty much catches it, but a Niners player reaches right under there and tips the ball out of the guy's hands. The play happened so fast, however, that there's still two seconds left on the clock. The Cardinals go for a field goal and the game heads into overtime at 31-31.

Now the announcer says, "Out of eight overtime games this season, the home team has won six times. That's not good news for the Niners." In addition, the Cardinals start overtime with the ball. "If the Niners can just get the ball back, then they've got a chance, but otherwise, it's gonna be tough." The Cardinals make it into field goal range, at about the 27-yard line, on second down. They kick the field goal and it's good, but apparently the refs call a "delay of game" penalty, which I've never heard of before in my life. So not only does the field goal not count, but it's third down with a five yard penalty. Anyway, you say, OK, so a 32-yard field goal instead of a 27-yard field goal, no problem right? The guy misses it. The Cardinals punt on fourth down.

The Niners don't do squat with the ball, but when they punt, they tackle the Cardinals all the way back at their own 3-yard line. This was like the world's greatest punt. On the next play, the Cardinals quarterback takes too much time, gets hit by a Niners player, the ball goes flying loose, another Niners player jumps on it and since he's in the Cardinals' end zone, the Niners score a touchdown and the eight-game losing streak is over.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Joe Boyd Interview

I just stumbled upon a really enjoyable interview in the Pitchfork archives with a guy named Joe Boyd. I knew Boyd mostly as "the guy who produced Nick Drake," and also as "the guy that R.E.M. got to produce Fables of the Reconstruction because he'd produced Nick Drake." But it turns out he actually did a lot more than that. According to Pitchfork:

"In his 40-year career as a manager, promoter, organizer, errand boy, executive, and hanger-on, Boyd has produced Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Nico, the Incredible String Band, Vashti Bunyan, Fotheringay, R.E.M., and 10,000 Maniacs. He also toured with Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Rev. Gary Davis and was backstage during Bob Dylan's fateful electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Before there was an ABBA, Boyd hung out with Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. He also worked with Eric Weissberg on the Deliverance soundtrack; hung out with Marty Scorsese; went through Scientology classes with film producer Don Simpson (as a lark); oversaw the first, only, and legendarily unreleasable Jimi Hendrix documentary; and played fetch with Man Ray, William Wegman's famous weimaraner."

In short, the guy probably has a pretty interesting perspective on the rock era and reading this interview makes me actually want to read his whole book. It also doesn't hurt that he seems to share many of the same positions I hold on the current state of rock vs. the music of the '60s. Since he was actually there, maybe his opinions hold a little more weight than mine. Or maybe that would mean he's more biased, and that my analysis of the period is a little more clear-eyed and free of personal motivation. Who can say?

Some highlights:

Pitchfork: One of my favorite sections of the book was talking about Aretha Franklin in New Orleans. You write, "Waves of self-congratulatory affection passed back and forth between [Franklin and the audience]: she claiming credit for recognizing what they wanted to hear; the audience adoring themselves for being so hip as to want the real thing.' The music was caught in the middle, lifeless and predictable." Do you think it's possible for singers and artists of that generation to connect musically anymore, or do you think there's just too much baggage and history?

Boyd: It's pretty tough. I don't know. I had a wonderful experience when I went to the folk alliance in Memphis. I went over and visited Willie Mitchell at his studio. He's working on a new Al Green record for Blue Note, and he played a couple of tracks, which sound really good. A lot of places like New Orleans for many years has had great stuff still going on. But in a way, the key to that, unfortunately, is poverty. Areas that are not as economically developed are capable of keeping their traditions real a lot more easily than places that are prosperous. I think places like New Orleans and Memphis are kind of unusual. I can't remember if I put this in the book or not, I don't think I did, but in New Orleans I went to a Second Line parade about seven or eight years ago. I was distracted listening to the band and watching the dancers. It was a very traditional band-- brass and percussion. And this SUV pulled up on a side street with bass booming and somebody playing a hip-hop track so loud that it rattled the whole street. I looked around kind of angrily and then they turned the key, and these two guys in bib overalls and headrags got out of the SUV, went around to the back, pulled out their trombone and saxophone and joined the band! That's New Orleans. But it's not everywhere.

Pitchfork: What part of that period is such a magnet even 40 years later?

Boyd: I do think there's a little bit of a problem for people making music today in the sense that there aren't many new forms. Obviously hip-hop is a new form that's been invented since the 60s and that's had a lot of energy and has cleared a space for itself in a way. But the guitar-bass-drum rock band and the singer-songwriter with a guitar-- those forms are getting a little tired. And it's hard for people to come up with something really original, I think. Which is why-- and I haven't really listened to them that much-- you get the feeling that groups like the Arcade Fire, who are playing around with rhythmic feels and different instrumentations, have a better chance of coming up with something fresh. You can walk down 6th Street at South by Southwest in Austin and hear that same snare-drum backbeat and that same rhythm-guitar pattern coming out of one bar after another. You're not feeling optimistic that you're going to walk into one of those bars and hear something that you've never heard before. Most of the ground has been covered.

Pitchfork: Do you think there's anything else on the horizon? Or do you think it will keep advancing in revivals?

Boyd: Well, you have to believe that there's something new around the corner somewhere. But it is difficult because I think what we had in the sixties, however illusional or delusional it was, we were optimistic. And when you're optimistic, you can create more stuff that's new. You feel like you're looking forward into a great, big, open, warm, sunny space, and you can go in there with positive feelings of being able to do something new. Today, people are looking backwards. It's like, "Don't tear down that old building," because you feel like if you build something new on that site, it's going to be worse than what was there. Same thing about a lot of or whatever. These quotes from the past dominate what's new, because people don't feel confident in being able to take a blank piece of paper and being able to draw something freehand and coming up with something that's better than before. Whereas we did! When you have that confidence, it's very different. It creates a very different atmosphere. It opens up things that don't get opened up otherwise.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I'm Sure He Means Well...

William Saletan has an ongoing piece up on this week about racial intelligence. I have to say, this seems like a completely pointless topic.

First, there is the problem of obtaining relevant data. It is impossible to raise a child in isolation, separated from a community. Even if you somehow managed to do this you would have created an artificial environment that doesn't tell you much about real world conditions. Everyone knows that schools vary widely in quality (and not strictly along private/public lines either). Studies have consistently shown large gaps between the races when it comes to income and parental education. Saletan cites studies of adopted children but this still doesn't account for the behavior of other in these communities. Saletan recently cited another study showing that social expectations have an effect on weight gain. If your friends think it's okay to be fat then you will too. I'd wager that the same applies to IQ.

The second big factual problem is that race doesn't necessarily correlate with genetics. Why not just study genes that affect intelligence? Why even bring race into it? If you find a gene that directly affects intelligence and you develop a pill or a shot that will help people with or without this gene I don't think many people will be worried about which race has more of the gene than another.

Even if you ignore the factual problems you're left with the question, so what? What sort of positive social policy could you possibly base upon this information? I think Western society has reached the conclusion that human life is to be respected regardless of intellect. We allow inequality because this inequality allows even the lowest members of society to be better off than they would be under a system which forced equality through authoritarian means. Supposedly, equal opportunity is our goal rather than equal result. Given the vast and obvious inequalities in our educational system, why don't we worry about that before we start worrying about Nigerian breast feeding Mr. Saletan?

To reiterate, even if you could show that some races are generally smarter than others what are you going to do about it? Are you going to encourage some people to have more kids than others? Are you trying to justify a system that sticks some kids in terrible, violent inner city schools while others go to new clean suburban institutions? Saletan mentions 'truth' but this just seems like so much personal aggrandizement. If the only thing your truth does is make you feel superior to another it's not worth much.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

1. Gandhi (Attenborough, 1982) [LE]

That's right. Motherfuckin' Gandhi.

The skinny brown guy in the loincloth. Oh yeah.

This is not a particularly hip choice for best movie of the '80s. It may not even be that exciting of a choice for best movie of the '80s. But the truth is that, for me, this movie is pretty much the only movie of the '80s that manages to feel like so much more than a movie. It has a reality all its own. I do not watch this movie and think, "Wow, Ben Kingsley is really good." I think, "Man, Gandhi was kind of a self-righteous freak, but I guess somebody had to be." Some movies simply transcend the medium, and I think this is one of them.

The critical line against Gandhi is that it's essentially a hagiography, a nice piece of Oscar bait. You know, "Let's all pat ourselves on the back for having the good sense to recognize how great Gandhi was, because it's easier than actually going out and doing something meaningful." Sort of like the college kid who puts up a poster of Bob Marley on his dorm room wall and thinks he's done his part for peace and justice. You know what I say? If you want to grind that axe, you can grind it all you want to. But it's not Gandhi's fault that it happened to be about a relatively "sympathetic" historical figure. In other words, I don't think it's fair to hold its Oscars against it.

Then there's another line, relating to the movie, against Gandhi the actual person - often spouted by jaded intellectuals with an innate distrust of figures who are worshipped by the general public as if they were saints. Apparently Gandhi did and said some things that prove he was actually a jerk and not a saint, and thus he's not an admirable figure at all. To be honest, none of the things these Gandhi haters have ever said about Gandhi actually sounded all that bad to me. Let me tell you something. Nobody is a saint. But sometimes, at certain moments in certain societies, a person can get a lot done and have a positive effect if he or she tries to act the part of a saint. I think Gandhi understood this.

Besides, I don't think it was this movie's responsibility to rake the sacred Indian leader over the coals with some kind of withering post-modern analysis. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., or like John Lennon, I'm sure there were two Gandhis: the public Gandhi and the private Gandhi. This is a movie about the public Gandhi. Besides, you can't cover everything. Like the text that opens the movie says:

"No man's life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its alloted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and try to find one's way to the heart of the man."

Of course, if you come into the film feeling that the heart of the man was sick and disgusting, then you're probably not going to like the movie. But I came into this film without any baggage and I have yet to be convinced that what I've seen is somehow misleading or dishonest. You also have to keep in mind that Richard Attenborough could not have made this movie, in 1982, in India, with the gigantic budget he wanted to have, if he'd taken a more critical view of Gandhi. Is this movie worse than no Gandhi movie at all? I seriously doubt it.

But you know, all this assumes that Gandhi is a hagiography, which I don't think it is anyway. Let's take a look at a couple of scenes:

Scene 1) Gandhi's priest friend visits him in jail. Gandhi is dressed in a loincloth and that's it.

Priest: Did they take your clothes?
Gandhi: These are my clothes now.
Priest: You always had a puritanical streak Mohan.
Gandhi: If I want to be one with them, I have to live like them.
Priest: Yes I think you do but...thank God we all don't.

So here we have Gandhi: manipulative imagemaker.

Scene 2) Having been finally granted its freedom by Britain, India is now splintering into two factions along Hindu and Muslim lines. All the leaders meet.

Gandhi: My dear Jinnah, you and I are brothers born of the same India, if you have fears I want to put them at rest. Begging the understanding of my friends, I am asking Panditji to stand down. I want you to be the first prime minister of India, to name your entire cabinet, to make the head of every government department a Muslim.
Nehru: Bapu, for me and the rest, if that is what you want, we will accept it. But out there, already there is rioting, because Hindus fear you are going to give too much away.
Patel: If you did this, no one would control it. No one.
Jinnah: It is your choice. Do you want an independent India and an independent Pakistan, or do you want civil war?
Gandhi: [clutches chest, has no answer].

So here we have Gandhi, naive idealist.

In fact, the most interesting part of Gandhi is the end, because it shows the limits of Gandhi's philosophy, and Gandhi's power. He has freed India but he can't have his India. Suddenly he's out of his depth. Like a petulant child, he decides he would rather fast to death than live in a world where the fate of an entire nation hasn't spun the way he'd planned. And yet, when news of the fasting spreads, his pouting gets results. This leads to one of the movie's most moving scenes:

Narahi: Here, eat! Eat! I'm going to hell, but not with your death on my soul.
Gandhi: Only God decides who goes to hell.
Nahari: I killed a child! I smashed his head against a wall.
Gandhi: Why?
Nahari: Because they killed my son! My boy. The Muslims killed my son!
Gandhi: I know a way out of Hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed, a little boy about this high, and raise him as your own.
Gandhi: Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.

Suddenly, a few mornings later, Gandhi is shocked to discover that the fighting has stopped throughout India. Not shrunken. Not reduced. Stopped. Everywhere. Now, did Gandhi end the civil war between India and Pakistan forever? No. But did he end it for at least a moment, just by sheer force of will? Yes.

Ultimately, Gandhi isn't really about the man anyway, it's about an idea. Now what if you had an idea that would just blow the world away? What if this idea went completely against the grain? Would you have the self-discipline to follow through with it? Would you have the debating skills to sell the skeptics on it? Here's a pivotal early scene in the film:

Nehru: Mr. Gandhi, I'd like you to meet Mr. Jinnah, our joint host, member of Congress and leader of the Muslim league...
Gandhi: How do you do?
Nehru: ...and Mr. Prakash, who I fear is awaiting trial for sedition and inducement to murder.
Prakash: I have not actually pulled the trigger, Mr. Gandhi, I have simply written that if an Englishman kills an Indian for disobeying his law, then it is an Indian's duty to kill an Englishman for enforcing his law in a land that is not his.
Gandhi: It's a clever argument. I'm not sure it'll produce the end you desire.

I've heard this tone before. I've heard it within myself. It's the tone of frustration with other people for not being able to see the whole picture. It's like, "Hey, listen, I know it sounds counterintuitive - somebody hits you and you hit him back, right? But just hear me out for five seconds and I'll explain the limitations of that age-old philosophy." Gandhi's idea is the exception. The rule is that if someone punches you, you have every right to punch them back. But Gandhi forced people to ask themselves, "Well, what does that really do?"

Critics of Gandhi love to quote his statements about using non-violence against Hitler. Obviously I don't think some amazing statement from Gandhi would have meant jack shit at that point. When a situation progresses that far down the road, I think the time to act has passed; it's the time to clean up and learn from your mistakes. Besides, was Gandhi supposed to have the answer to everything? Cut the guy some slack, for crying out loud.

Anyway, all that's just philosophy; Gandhi the movie is a vibrant photographic creation. One reason why Gandhi may not get too much critical respect is that its style is not progressive. To put it bluntly, Attenborough ripped off David Lean. But I can think of worse people to rip off, frankly. Besides, he ripped off David Lean better than David Lean did; Lean's A Passage to India came out two years after Gandhi, and while it's pleasant, I find the basic story simply not as powerful. In a small twist of irony, Lean was originally going to make a movie about Gandhi before he decided to make Lawrence of Arabia, so in a way Attenborough finished the job for him. To say that Gandhi is not as good as Lawrence of Arabia is in no way to knock it; no movie is as good as Lawrence of Arabia. But the Lean tricks are powerful tricks, and I only wished more movies tried to employ them. It's all here: intimately silent scenes followed immediately by shots of noisy crowds, a narrative that begins at the end, well-chosen dialogue that compacts the action, etc., etc. Maybe you could just call it good filmmaking. Indeed, the movie might get more respect if Attenborough had gone on to create a more distinguished filmography (instead, he showed up in bit parts like the fat old scientist guy in Jurassic Park). As it is, it's simply the last of a certain style of movie rather than an influential work in its own right.

Which leads me to my final point: a film like Gandhi would never be made today. Because the studios would just insist on using CGI and saving the money. Well you know what? I can tell the difference. When you see a shot in Gandhi of a crowd of 300,000 people, you know why it looks real? Because it is. Apparently people will settle for a fake shot of 300,000 people, but I won't. Gandhi had the good fortune to be made at a time before special effects became remotely passable. I may sound like an old fart, but the truth is, they sure don't make 'em like this anymore. They didn't even make 'em like this in 1982. In fact, there's not a single trace of the '80s in Gandhi.

Which is probably why I'm calling it the best movie of the '80s.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Almighty Cleanse

So I was watching an interesting biography of John Cleese. He was talking about how funny authority figures are because you can often tell that they are acting out of some unresolved issue from their childhood and how funny most of our problems are once you become attuned to the essential silliness of life. It was really adding to my respect for the guy, and then the Cleese gave way to...The Almighty Cleanse.

Before I could change the channel I witnessed a 50-something man in a suit describing the bowel movements of average Americans in detail. Two infomercial hosts questioned the man about the benefits of a cleanse. Then he started talking about a black, oily layer that prevented nutrient uptake. All medical problems could be traced to the colon. He explained that the body's sewer has become a cesspool. And here I was thinking those were the same thing.

After about 30 euphemisms for crap had been exhausted in the first 3 minutes I decided it was time to change the channel. It's the kind of the product that makes you hesitate for a moment and think, "What if all my problems are really due to that?" I think I know exactly what Cleese was talking about.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Going To Mexico? Check Your Insurance

The walls of my apartment, by some odd decorative choice on the part of my master tenant, are covered with maps. Maps of the U.S., maps of Japan, maps of the Boston commuter rail system, you name it. Right outside my room there's a map of California, and I was staring at it last night, when I suddenly noticed a little box in the right-hand corner, near Arizona, that I'd never noticed before. It read as follows:

"Check your insurance before entering Mexico

U.S. automobile insurance is not valid in Mexico. Motorists should arrange for full coverage, including property damage and public liability, with a reliable Mexican insurance company that has complete adjusting facilities in cities throughout Mexico. The Mexican government has no minimum requirement for insurance; choose the level of protection that best suits your needs. Make sure you read the English translation of the policy carefully to discern what is and is not included. Mexican automobile insurance is available at AAA offices in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas."

And to think: I was going to entertain myself next weekend at all the Tijuana brothels I could handle, and I hadn't even considered the matter of auto insurance! How silly of me. Honestly, how many American tourists are actually going to worry about whether or not they have Mexican auto insurance before they drive into Mexico? I mean, isn't that the whole point of going to Mexico - that nobody gives a shit about that sort of thing? Just thought I'd ask.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Number Two: Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Soderbergh, 1989) [Y]

I didn't know much about this film going in and I was surprised by how good it was. I watched Sex, Lies after Soderbergh's masterpiece, Schizopolis, and was prepared to be disappointed in his other movies. But in its own way, I think this movie is just as good.

The performances of Andie MacDowell and James Spader stand out immediately. Many people expressed surprise that Andie could act. It's not so surprising. Acting really isn't that hard. Here's Yoggoth's quick guide to convincing performances: 1) Don't be embarrassed by a camera/audience. 2) Act like yourself. If you've got a role that allows you to do 2 and you don't have a problem with 1 then you're set. James Spader seems to be playing a role that is also somewhat close to his actual personality, which helps. There really aren't that many actors who can deviate much from their personality. Brando comes to mind. He was actually weirder than any of the characters he played. And given the movies he was in that's saying something.

But we know those guys can act, or at least they look pretty. The surprising performance for me is that of Laura San Giacomo. I only knew her from "Just Shoot Me." She didn't stand out in that venue. But then, who would stand out acting opposite that dramatic powerhouse, David Spade? In Sex, Lies she plays Andie's slutty sister who is having an affair with Andie's husband. And somehow she still comes across as a sympathetic character.

This brings me to the final thing that makes Sex, Lies, and Videotape so good - Soderbergh's portrayal of that first titular subject. Most Hollywood movies reserve the sex for the beautiful leads or the soon-to-be-dead villains. In this film the 2 stars are dysfunctional oddities. One has never had an orgasm even though she's been married for years. The other gets himself off watching his taped interviews of women about their sexual preferences. The actual sex is mostly reserved for the creepy lawyer husband and the odd sister who is less attractive than the woman the guy's already married to. Emotional release comes not from wild conquest of the alpha-male or -female, it comes from the characters' shuffling stumble towards some semblance of normalcy.

Maybe that seems like a shallow basis for a film. It's not. Our culture is still stuck somewhere between Puritan fear and Roman bloodlust, on the scale of cultural salaciousness. Sex, Lies marks the boundary of the 80's and the 90's. Greed and hyper-shallowness subsided for a brief period in favor of grunge and awkward hipness (think Nirvana and the Ben Stiller Show vs. Miami Vice and, well, Don Johnson). Soon enough we'd have Ken Starr's $70 million report and the Young Women's Exploitation League (Britney as the founder, Lindsay as the reigning champion). But for a while there things looked more reasonable, and Sex, Lies, and Videotape was one of the high water marks.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Department of Pathetic Indignation -- Music Snobs 'R' US

Last week Slate ran a dialogue called "Let Us Leave Our Musical Islands." I clicked on it thinking, "Hmm, this could be interesting." Then when I actually started reading it, I realized that what they really should have called the article was, "Let a Classical Critic Have a Chat with a Jazz Critic."

I will make no bones about it: I am a fan of "rock," or, more accurately, "popular music from roughly 1955 to the present." I have enjoyed classical music in bits and pieces all of my life. I have never particularly enjoyed jazz, although occasionally I have moments where I understand why other people would. That said, my understanding is that classical music essentially exhausted itself creatively somewhere around the 1920s/1930s, and that jazz exhausted itself creatively at some time in the mid-1970s. The two critics in this dialogue spend a whole lot of time wondering whether or not the jazz and classical scenes are "fringe" scenes in today's world. Well let me answer that question really quickly by saying "Yes."

The first critic's opening statement seems to me to be a bit of wishful thinking: "People tend to listen to various kinds of music over the course of the day: rock at the gym, jazz on the drive home, maybe a little Vivaldi while waiting at the dentist's office for the root canal." Not me. I pretty much listen to rock, rock, and more rock. If that's a musical island, then hey, I find my musical island pretty satisfying. I mean, does anybody really listen to music in the fashion that he's suggesting? He then goes on to basically say that, "Yeah, I'm hip and not one of those elitist guys you think I am, because even though I think classical music is 'real' music and rock is kind of boring, I can still appreciate certain rock acts, especially the ones that remind me of classical music, or the rock acts that classical people are finally 'OK' with after all these years of insulting rock." Here:

"I'm a freakish case in that I started paying serious attention to nonclassical music only in college. While all my friends were listening to Pink Floyd, I rocked out to Schubert and Brahms. Then, during a prolonged immersion in the classical avant-garde—at my college radio station, I subjected a minuscule audience to György Ligeti's Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes and John Cage's Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 radiosfriends instructed me to listen to Cecil Taylor and Sonic Youth, which is where my 'pop' collection started. For years I steered clear of hummable tunes and polished production; I bought into the punk-modernist notion that any band selling over a thousand or so CDs was worthless. By age 25, though, I'd expanded my horizons to accommodate the Beatles and Bob Dylan."

Well congratulations buddy, you worked your way up to the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Buy some ABBA and then we can talk. He name-drops Radiohead, Bjork, and Oasis, but somehow I'm not convinced that he really likes these bands, or rather, whether he likes them for the reasons I do: because of their personality.

My favorite musicians are the ones that I really feel are sharing themselves with me in their music. Perhaps I've so strongly grativated toward rock because of its emphasis on lyrics. Rock has a literary quality that classical and jazz really don't seem to have (although I'm sure some classical/jazz nut would argue with me on some grounds I can't anticipate). Rock also seems a lot more willing to be tasteless and ridiculous, which I like.

Also, my personal feeling is that in the late 1960s rock managed to absorb the best of both classical and jazz to essentially become the most relevant/exciting/effective mode of musical expression in that age, and that after this point, all the people who still consider classical or jazz to be interesting and progressive are pretty much walking down a blind alley. I love it when these guys start naming all these people like Steve Reich or John Cage or Osvaldo Golijov. Come on. The great "composers" of our time have been people like John Lennon and Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson, etc., etc. I mean, who are they kidding?

For me, the point of music is to reach as wide of an audience as possible without compromising itself as art. This is what I believe rock has done so well - at its best. As far as I can tell, proponents of contemporary jazz and classical music do not seem to share this artistic goal. In fact, I'm not quite sure what their goals are. I've always been wanting to meet the "Little Earl of jazz" or the "Little Earl of classical" - you know, the guy who had as much of a desire to get people interested in their genre the way that I like to think I try to get people interested in my genre. It always seems to me that jazz and classical fans don't really care whether I like their genre or not. It's like, "Either you get it or you don't." I actually want to help people enjoy their lives more by introducing them to music they haven't heard but might enjoy. That's a very important part of the process for me.

Ultimately, to say that my taste in music is "better" than other people's taste in music is to slide down a slippery slope. The most useful observation I could make is that for reasons that remain slightly mysterious to me, certain other people seem to share my taste in music and hopefully they will be interested in some of my thoughts on that music. To say any more than that is probably to invite ridicule.

Related: Notes On Music

Sunday, November 11, 2007

This Preview Wears Prada

Yoggoth and I attended a matinee screening of Michael Clayton yesterday. Before the movie (which was quite good, by the way) began, we were treated to a pair of previews for two upcoming romantic comedies named, if I'm correct, R.S.V.P. and P.S. I Love You. Near the end of the preview for R.S.V.P., a credit came on the screen saying, "From the screenwriter of The Devil Wears Prada." Near the end of the preview for P.S. I Love You, a credit came on the screen saying, "From the producer of The Devil Wears Prada." Yoggoth turned to me and said, "Wait a second, didn't they just say that for the last movie?" I responded, "No no, the last one was the screenwriter of The Devil Wears Prada, this one was the producer." Laughter, and a comic riff, immediately ensued:

"From the casting director who brought you The Devil Wears Prada!"
"From the key grip who brought you The Devil Wears Prada!"

I mean, do people even care about that sort of thing anyway? Or do people just go, "Wow, honey, it's Julia Roberts. Let's go see that." And since when did The Devil Wears Prada earn such a brand-name value? It's like, "From the people who brought you 3:10 To Yuma!" To be fair, I haven't even seen it, so maybe I should before I talk smack. Or maybe I should go slaughter a flock of endangered geese instead.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Speaking of...

A Catholic priest has been charged with stalking and harassing Conan O'Brien. His conversion to Catholicism came in the middle of viewing La Dolce Vida. Pretty damn cosmic.

I'll have to be more careful when I watch Fellini movies. If La Dolce Vida can turn you Catholic what horrors could result from Satyricon?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

2. The King of Comedy (Scorsese, 1983) [LE]

If the '80s gorged upon itself and became so sick and nauseous from its own rancidness that it vomited itself right back up all over a movie screen, it might look something like The King Of Comedy. Here is a movie that is hypnotic in its vitriol, mesmerizing in its pure unfiltered hostility, completely absorbing in its utter refusal to allow its characters even a single moment of joy or understanding. It's like watching your two favorite mean old spinster aunts bicker with each other over Thanksgiving dinner - you want to look away but it's all too fascinating.

As many of you know by now, I have a low opinion of the '80s. Apparently, so did Martin Scorsese. After riding the artistically challenging wave that was the '70s, Scorsese suddenly found himself in hostile waters. New York, New York was a big commercial flop, and while Raging Bull was a strong critical success, it hardly put Scorsese in the same league as his buddies Lucas and Spielberg at the box office. So what did he do? Did he turn right around and make a blockbuster? No, no, he would do that later. Back in 1983, he simply grabbed De Niro, found the world's most bitter, nasty script, and he railed.

But Scorsese railing is not the same as, say, Oliver Stone railing. When Stone rails (as in Natural Born Killers), it's pedal to the metal. But when Scorsese rails, it's like a long, slow burn. I mean, you can laugh off Natural Born Killers as soon as it's over, but The King of Comedy crawls under your skin until you really feel it. You don't realize how dispiriting it is until the next morning, and then you're sitting there munching on your corn flakes thinking, "Wow, from top to bottom, there's not an ounce of goodness in the entire human race."

The portrait the movie paints of American culture is not a flattering one. The masses are desperate, greedy idolators, the idols they worship empty shells who have nothing to offer their subjects but contempt. No one has any answers for anybody. No one is capable of connecting with anyone else. Ladies and gentlemen: the '80s.

In one corner, we have Rupert Pupkin (De Niro), who is very much a Travis Bickle Part II: just another social misfit looking for happiness in all the wrong places. In the other corner we have Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a seemingly affable late-night talk show host who, when not on television, manages to come off like a cold, heartless showbiz creep. It's hard to say who, between the two of them, is the more likeable character. You hate Rupert because he's such an abusive stalker, but you hate Jerry because he is so completely disinterested in helping Rupert with his problems. Of course, it's not really Jerry's responsibility to help every abusive talk-show host stalker with his problems. But the movie does such a good job of making you understand Rupert's need that you can't help but take his side a little when he is faced with Jerry's rejection. I mean, let's see a show of hands here, who hasn't fantasized about being famous? Who hasn't sat in their basement and figured that if only they somehow managed to achieve instant fame, all their problems would be solved? Who hasn't daydreamed about being interviewed on a talk show, revealing their brilliance piece-by-piece to the adoring masses? Count me in. The difference between most of us and Rupert, however, is that Rupert is unable to exercise patience. He wants the fame...without all the hard work.

What makes the movie such an incisive analysis of media and celebrity is that it calls attention to the discrepancy between the celebrity and the fan. You see, the fan sees the celebrity every night on television at 11:30 and thinks, "Hey, I know that person. That person is my friend." But the truth is that the celebrity doesn't know you from a shit stain on a wheelbarrow, and probably doesn't even care to know you. The closeness is an illusion. If you understand that, then you realize what a big waste of time shows like Leno and Letterman are and you'll spend your viewing energy on something worthwhile. If you don't, then, well, you're Rupert Pupkin.

The King of Comedy is, in its own sneaky way, one of the most unpleasant movies you're ever likely to see. So then why do I love it so? Well, I guess sometimes, when you're sick, it feels good to vomit.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Rolling Stone's Almost-Impossible Music Trivia Quiz

I dare any of you so-called music fans to dive into the murky waters of what Rolling Stone calls its "Almost-Impossible" Rock & Roll Quiz. Let me tell you, from someone who considers himself a knowledgeable scholar of that ignominious genre, this one is a doozy. I scored a 51, which apparently means I'm an "expert" and that I "know (my) Bowie from (my) Bambaataa," and yet I hardly feel reassured of my pop music mastery. Every now and then I hit a question that just made my brain freeze with absent-minded horror, like the proverbial student who knows he would totally be acing the final if only he'd bothered to study the night before. The questions are quite humorous on the whole, although the questions they came up with for the 2000s will tell you a lot about what Rolling Stone thinks is the canonical music of our current decade.

Number Three: The Shining (Kubrick, 1980) [Y]

I first saw The Shining one Halloween night at UC Davis. Films were shown in the cyclopean Chem 194, a room without insulation or mercy. I knew what The Shining was about; I had even watched the famous "Here's Johnny" scene before. But the movie was still scary in a wonderful, optimistically nihilistic way. I can't think of many films that are fun to watch even when you know what's going to happen beforehand. Horror movies rely on suspense and startling visuals more than any other genre. Yet somehow The Shining does not suffer for its cultural ubiquity.

Two men deserve credit for this: Jack Nicholson and Stanley Kubrick. Nicholson's contribution is obvious - he's Jack Nicholson. Nicholson is such a playful maniac you can't help but love him. It's Kubrick's second funniest movie after Dr. Strangelove. I love that mix of dark humor and horror. I don't know of any other movie that has so effectively mixed the two. Most sacrifice one for more of the other, but The Shining is funny without sacrificing any of the horror.

The Shining
plays right into Kubrick's strengths. The Kubrick films I've seen (everything after Lolita) are emotionally cold and distant. In each, the protagonist becomes increasingly isolated as basic human relationships break down. The most hopeful of the lot, 2001, ends with the hero achieving transcendence in total isolation, both spacial and temporal, from the rest of humanity.

Given this, horror seems like a natural genre for Kubrick. He reportedly told Stephen King that ghost stories were hopeful because they posited a life after death. Few people other than Kubrick would make that association. Perhaps The Shining has a happy ending after all. Jack is relieved of his annoying wife and kid and achieves immortality, partying with his ghost buddies in the mountains for all of eternity. Do you see how this is the perfect herald for the 80's? Artistic, educated man let down by the promises of society goes crazy and decides to sacrifice everything for his own personal happiness led on by visions of the 1920's, the end of the last gilded age? Sure it's a stretch, but I like it.

Stephen King didn't like the way Kubrick adapted his book. For one, he objected to Kubrick's casting because he felt that Nicholson was too crazy-looking from the beginning and that audiences wouldn't be surprised when he went nuts later in the film. This is an odd complaint from a man whose entire career is built on delivering predictable stories. Here's the checklist for every King story ever written: Common household object that is now mysteriously animated and malevolent? Check. Hackneyed psychological explanation for malevolent/supernatural event based on King's own personal problems allowing spurious claim of thematic depth? Check. Sappy ending that completely destroys the suspenseful atmosphere that made the story interesting? Check! What were audiences supposed to expect from a movie based on a Stephen King novel that starts with a family going alone to an isolated hotel for the winter? Maybe they're going to work out their differences and everything will be okay? Yeah, and maybe supply-side economics really works and Ronald Reagan was a decent president.

P.S. If you like The Shining I recommend the book House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. It was partly influenced by The Shining and has a similar atmosphere. Many of H.P. Lovecraft's stories are also similar. The only other movie that comes close is Hitchcock's The Birds.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Saddest Concerts Ever

Califone are touring with Iron and Wine. I can't think of a more depressing combination of bands playing today. Sure, there are bands with more depressing lyrics, but do any of them sound more depressing? What do you do at a Califone/I&W concert? They're playing in Oakland if anyone feels like standing and slowly swaying with me.

If you haven't heard Califone, their music is downtempo and bluesy, with interesting percussion and some electronic effects. I highly recommend their latest album, Roots & Crowns. Iron & Wine is what the lead singer of Califone would sound like if the other 3 members were brutally murdered and he was asked to play solo acoustic guitar at the funeral.

Take a Scooter Ride on the Wild Side

3. Down By Law (Jarmusch, 1986) [LE]

Down By Law is the story of three men who are presented with the short end of the stick of the universe. Two of them are ready to give up on life and call it a day. But the third one is convinced that if he's going down, he's going down with enthusiasm.

I never pegged myself as a Jim Jarmusch fan. As far as I could tell, he was the kind of director that bored, artsy white kids gravitated toward just so they could feel weird. His movies never topped critics' polls, never got nominated for Oscars, never made it big at the box office. I figured I could go my whole life without seeing a Jim Jarmusch movie and die a perfectly happy man.

I hadn't seen Down By Law.

Now, it wasn't necessarily in the cards for me and Down By Law. At first I was thinking, "Hmm, is this movie going to go anywhere?" A lot of the time it just felt like I could feel Jarmusch sitting there behind the camera letting the scenes go on and on, hoping they would eventually get interesting. His creative choices were too transparent. It was like, "Hey, look, I'm in New Orleans!" "Hey, look, I'm filming in black-and-white!" "Hey, look, I've got Tom Waits in my movie!" Sure, "Jockey Full of Bourbon" was a winning choice for opening song, but was Jarmusch just another one of those directors who spent all his time picking cool songs to put into his movies so that he could pat himself on the back for his good taste in music? Seemed like it. Then he had some guy named John Lurie in the movie, from some hip band that I hadn't even heard of. Bottom line: maybe Jarmusch was just too damn hip for me.

Then Roberto Benigni showed up. Now, Roberto Benigni is probably the least hip person in the entire universe. It was quite obvious from the start that he had absolutely no idea how to speak English and he genuinely did not seem to be aware of this.

In a now-legendary scene, his character shows up out of nowhere, approaches Zack (Tom Waits) on the street, and says, "It is a sad and beautiful world." Zack is obviously thinking, "Who the fuck is this guy?" He takes a breath and replies, "'s a sad and beautiful world pal." Bob (Begnini) then just sort of stands there, saying nothing. Finally Zack waves his hand dismissively and says "Buzz off, pal." Bob responds, "Ah thank you, buzz off to you too." Zack says it again, and finally Bob nods his head in recognition . "Ah...'buzz off'...'buzz off'...Is a sad and beautiful world...'buzz off'..." Then he whips out a notebook and begins jotting it down. "'' Good evening, buzz off to everybody, oh thank you, buzz off to you too, oh, oh, each pleasure, thank you." Then he wanders off the screen.

Hmm. Maybe Jarmusch had more up his sleeve than I thought.

But then the film began sliding back into its same old self-conscious detachment. Suffice to say, both Zack and Jack (Lurie) end up in prison after being set up for crimes they did not commit. With the shift to the prison setting, however, suddenly the story started taking on some real depth. Hey, there's nothing "hip" about serving time behind bars, you know what I'm saying? Watching Zack and Jack sulk in their cell, I couldn't help but be intrigued by the sadder and lonelier direction the film was taking.

As a response to their bad luck, Zack and Jack both lock themselves off emotionally; having been screwed by the world, they decide to offer a "screw you" right back, and it's hard to argue with them. You might think that they would find comfort in their shared misery, but sadly they only see the other man as a target for further hostility rather than as a fellow comrade in arms.

Once Bob shows up in their cell, the movie truly takes off. If Zack and Jack couldn't stand each other before, they both manage to find common ground by absolutely loathing their new cellmate. Bob makes an auspicious entrance: After telling the guards in hilariously mangled English to "go take a flying fuck," he turns to his recalcitrant cellmates, pulls out his trusty notepad, and says, "Not enough swing a cat." His grin is met with dead silence. Little do Zack and Jack know, however, that Bob is their salvation.

You see, Bob has also been screwed by the world, but unlike Zack and Jack, he continues to embrace the world in all its wondrous glory and refuses to offer a "screw you" right back. This irritates the shit out of Zack and Jack. One day Bob has the hiccups, and he asks Jack for a cigarette. Jack, not even bothering to open his eyes, tells Bob, "Cigarettes won't help with hiccups, not in this country." Later Bob steals a piece of chalk from Zack, walks up to one of the walls of their cell, and draws a window on it. Turning proudly to Jack, he asks, "Do you say 'I look hout the window,' or 'I look haat the window'?" Jack, annoyed and yet possibly suppressing laughter, responds, "In this case Bob I think you'd have to say 'I look at the window."

But Bob's magic, much to their consternation, is gradually beginning to work on the other two. One day they lean against the bars, and as the conversation drags on they all end up explaining how they came to be imprisoned. To Zack and Jack's surprise, Bob tells the story of how he killed a man in a bar with a pool ball, but he insists that it was an accident and that despite his violent deeds, "I ham a good egg." Zack and Jack laugh at Bob's attempt at colloquial English, but they are beginning to see how his situation resembles theirs, and how his attitude diverges.

One day, while playing cards, someone mentions the word "scream." Inspired by this, Bob pulls out his notebook and recites with glee, "I scream-a, you scream-a, we all scream-a, for ice cream-a." For some reason Bob finds this phrase absolutely delightful and he says it over and over again. Soon Zack and Jack, aware that Bob is not going to stop any time soon, begin reciting it along with him. After a minute or two, the three of them are dancing around the cell, hollering "I scream, you scream, we all scream at ice cream" at the absolute top of their lungs. The whole prison inexplicably joins in, and as the guards charge in to break it up, Zack and Jack and Bob rush back to their cards with childish glee, hoping to escape the guards' punishment by pretending that they had nothing to do with it.

The "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream" scene is the pivotal point in the film, because it represents Bob's victory over Zack and Jack's apathy and resignation. By proving that he can retain the joy of life even in the most miserable of situations, Bob has offered them the secret to freedom. I mean, here are three men, they've all been victims of fate and circumstance, they're stuck in prison, in New Orleans for Christ's sake, for God knows how long, things couldn't be any worse, and yet...they have each other. And once they realize that, the rest is all gravy.

This is my definition of a feel-good movie. Not some cute little romantic comedy where the couple kisses at the end and then the credits come up and we're spared the hideously co-dependent and psychologically abusive relationship said couple is obviously going to have. Oh no. This is a movie where the main characters stare down the absolute worst that life has to offer them, and the universe practically spits in their faces, and yet, and yet...they come out the other end.

So I guess the moral of the story is that, despite my best attempts to the contrary, I discovered that I was the biggest damn Jim Jarmusch fan there ever was or ever will be. What can I say: he had me at "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream."

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Lists So Far...

I thought I'd do a recap of our Best Movies of the 80's feature. It's now November and the list will soon be falling off the side of the page. Lest you forget, here are our choices so far:

Little Earl -

4. Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985)
5. The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
6. The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese, 1988)
7. Crimes and Misdemeanors (Allen, 1989)
8. The Right Stuff (Kaufman, 1983)
9. Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989)
10. Sophie's Choice (Pakula, 1982)

Yoggoth -

4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981)
5. Blade Runner (Scott, 1982)
6. The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
7. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Gilliam, 1988)
8. The Princess Bride (Reiner, 1987)
9. Grave of the Fireflies (Takahata, 1988)
10. Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985)

Our top 3 will follow shortly.