Thursday, February 28, 2008

Where The Wild Studio Heads Are

Those of us who've been waiting six years for Spike Jonze to release a follow-up to Adaptation. might possibly have to wait a little longer. At least three years ago I began reading on IMDB that he had begun working on a movie version of Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are with a script written by Dave Eggers. Sounded like a pretty intriguing idea. I then read this article in the New York Times where the book's author explains how he turned down offers for years and years until he met Jonze, back before Jonze had even made Being John Malkovich: "He was the strangest little bird I'd ever seen. He had fluttered into the world of the studios and, could he not be swatted dead, I knew he would manage. I had total faith in him." By some miracle of creation, of course, Jonze managed to make not only one completely uncommercial, off-the-wall movie, but two. Sendak and Jonze met up again later and the movie was on.

As I kept pace on the IMDB message boards, however, it seemed like the studio was getting cold feet and trying to smother Spike's, Dave's, and Maurice's vision. Originally Spike wanted a certain actor to play the part of Max, but the studio didn't like him, and they spent so much time fighting that eventually the kid was too old for the part anyway, and they had to find someone else. I think. The production has been shrouded in secrecy so I can't really be sure. At any rate, after the release date has been pushed back countless times, it now sounds like the studio is finally contemplating just taking the film out of Spike's hands and re-shooting the damn thing. This sounds like a bad idea.

I'm not even talking about the principle of it. I'm just thinking back over film history and trying to count the number of times a studio tampered with a maverick auteur's artistic (albeit commercially unfeasable) vision and managed to make a hit out of the movie. Yeah, I think I'm done counting, because they've never been able to do it. All those Orson Welles movies they took out of his hands and re-shot? Still flopped. Peckinpah's Major Dundee and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid? Still flopped. Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate? Still flopped. The lesson is, even if Spike hasn't made a hit movie, just release it anyway because at least you'll have an artistically daring flop rather than a butchered flop.

And what was Warner Brothers thinking anyway? What kind of movie did they expect Spike to make? Did they even see Adaptation.? He needs to find a studio that will support him 100%, even if that means working with a smaller budget. I mean, Wes Anderson doesn't have these problems, does he?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Number Seven: Pulp's This is Hardcore (1998)

This is Hardcore was one of those great art surprises. I read about it in Spin, Rolling Stone, and maybe on (although if I did it wouldn't have helped much; the review is in the form of a fake consumer analysis). At least half the albums I buy based upon reading articles turn out to be disappointments. Some of them are only slight disappointments that grow on me over time. Others are crap from the start. My exposure to Britpop before this was limited to Oasis and Blur singles on Fresno's New Rock 104. Maybe this is why I never cared much for Blur. Or maybe Pulp is simply the better band. I'll leave that discussion to the comments.

So what makes This is Hardcore great? Let's start with the obvious - the songs are great. Jarvis Cocker mixes the R&B groove that's sadly missing from 99% of R&B today with great sing-along choruses that are sadly missing from 99% of rock today. Some Nigel Godrichean bells and whistles are thrown in, but they never overwhelm the melodies. If you're familiar with David Bowie, imagine if Brian Eno had produced Let's Dance. Think of it as artsy music you can dance to. "Glory Days" mixes buzzing pop-punk guitars with nostalgia worthy of Springsteen. "Dishes", "Help the Aged", and "A Little Soul" slow the tempo and break up the crimson-tinged clouds of doom hanging over "The Fear", "This Is Hardcore", and "Seductive Barry". This album has a reputation as the bleak nadir in Pulp's oeuvre but it really only fits that bill in few songs. Rather than feeling inconsistent, these shifts in tone lend a narrative drive to the album that justifies its 70 minute running time and keeps me coming back on those days when a quick bit of indie rock wit or jazzy pleasantness just won't do the trick.

Another thing This is Hardcore has going for it is singer Jarvis Cocker himself. His voice is low and smooth. His lyrics are full of references to sex and drugs but they still manage to be endearing because they seem so honest. When he sings, "I did what was wrong though I knew what was right/I've got no wisdom that I want to pass on" a little shiver runs up my spine. Like a noir private eye pointing out the corruption of a system he remains a part of, his admission and even just his ability to see the world for what it is, distinguishes him from the bad guys.

I can't write about this album without also mentioning the cover art. I think it's one of the best album covers of all time. The artist, John Currin, does a lot of odd looking nudes. Seen from afar the picture looks like standard pornography. But as you get closer it looks less and less arousing until you pick up the CD and notice the brush strokes. Is this art? Is this sex? Both, and neither. This is hardcore.

I'll end this with a quote from the last song on the album, "The Day After the Revolution": "Why did it seem so difficult to realise a simple truth?/The revolution begins and ends with you/Now all the breakdowns and nightmares look small/Now we decided not to die after all." I've heard it said that no one makes big social statements in pop music anymore. Well, Pulp did - you just weren't paying attention.

Monday, February 25, 2008

No Ceremony For Old Blockbuster Fans

Watching the Oscars last night, I was really struck by the discrepancy that I think exists between the taste of the moviegoers that Hollywood caters to and the taste of Hollywood itself. You see, the Oscars could never please everybody. On the one hand, you've got film critics who always complain that the Oscars are a popularity contest and that they never nominate the right movies. But on the other hand, as this year's crop of nominees surely demonstrates, you've got the American public, who is thinking, "Like, who the hell is Marion Cotillard?" I watched most of the ceremony with two of my roommates, Paul and Betty. At the start of the show, as they announced all the technical category winners first, Betty kept saying in amazement, "Wow, The Golden Compass! I saw that," and "Wow! Ratatouillie! I saw that one too." Then when they got around to the bigger categories, my roommates were just looking at the screen, going, "Never heard of it." I think the rest of America must have felt the same way: according to Nielsen, the ratings were the worst ever.

But come on, what are the Oscars supposed to do? Nominate popular movies that don't really deserve nominations just so more people will watch? Guess what, there's a ceremony called the People's Choice Awards, and you know what it's for? Yeah, that's right. See, this is why I could never really hate the Oscars: not because they're so great, but because they could be so much worse than they really are. You can't tell me that it's just a popularity contest when Marion Cotillard wins Best Actress for a movie that nobody, not even me, has seen. And I may not have agreed with No Country For Old Men as Best Picture, but that was not exactly a safe, cuddly choice. In fact, it's probably the most unapolegetically nihilistic Best Picture winner in Oscar history. Quite how it became the movie with the "Oscar buzz" is unclear to me. Yes, at least it was attempting to be a "real movie" and not just a shameless "Oscarbait" movie, but even after a month of reflection, I still feel that, when all is said and done, it was essentially a very, very well-made piece of crap. Kim Morgan on MSN feels that the movie "was an entirely deserving winner for both Best Director (in their case Best Directors) and Best Picture. [The Coen's] bloody, beautifully acted, poetic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel was soulful, inventive, mysterious and truly horrifying." Soulful? In what way was the movie soulful? This had to be one of the least soulful movies I've ever seen. The one specific element that the Coen Brothers lack in their art is soul. I still have yet to hear somebody explain why the movie was great other than by saying that the movie was really well-made. The closest that anybody's ever come to doing so was some user on IMDB who said (*possible spoilers*) that the last scene, where Anton Chigurh almost gets killed in a car accident but walks away alive, is Cormac McCarthy's (and the Coens') way of saying that eventually, no matter how you try to outrun it, death comes to everybody, even the guy who tells people that he's death coming to everybody. While a halfway decent insight, that is not nearly enough, I don't think, to carry a feature-length movie. Or at least not enough to carry a Best Picture winner. I'm curious how its win will sit with the average moviegoer. I think a lot of people are going to rent No Country For Old Men after it won all these Oscars and think, "WTF?"

Other thoughts:

Best Jon Stewart jokes: "There is a great variety in the nominated films this year. Even Norbit, got a nomination, which I think is great. Too often the Academy ignores movies that aren't good." "Tonight we look beyond the dark days and focus on happier fare. This year's slate of Oscar-nominated psychopathic killer movies. Does this town need a hug? What happened? No Country For Old Men, Sweeney Todd, There Will Be Blood. All I can say is thank God for teen pregnancy." I also liked the shout-out to Lawrence of Arabia, via a joke about watching it on an iPod/iPhone/whatever it was.

I loved how they had the armed forces present best documentary awards to films about same-sex rights and army torture, respectively. Somewhere, somehow, somebody cringed.

I didn't like any of the song nominees, not even the "indie-ish" song from Once that actually won. Agree/disagree?

My favorite presenter was probably The Rock: "Special effects artists create movie moments that take us beyond reality. Of course, nobody told this to an 11-year-old boy who thought that the faces melting in Raiders of the Lost Ark were real! (Long, comically awkward pause) But, he's over it now."

Friday, February 22, 2008

If I Didn't Write For This Blog, I'd Still Read It

From IMDB:

Springer Says He Wouldn't Watch His Show

Jerry Springer has admitted that if he weren't hosting his daily talk show, he "wouldn't watch" it. In an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News, Springer remarked, "I get it. I get why it's entertaining. But I'm 64 years old. If I were in college, I would probably like it." Springer made his remarks at West Chester University prior to a lecture on TV's effects on pop culture. His show, he said, has "no redeeming value" and subjects are selected for their "outrageous" potential. "People come on our show to get attention they don't have in their regular lives," he acknowledged.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Fight On The Bus

Somedays the bus just doesn't want you.

Yesterday was one of those days. I could taste it in the air. Chaos was brewing on Muni and I was destined to feel the wrath.

All that needs to be said about my destination is that it was in Potrero Hill (south of Market St., east of the Mission), I had never been there before, and I needed to be there on time. I knew it would be tough, so I gave myself a lot of leeway. My first plan of attack was to take the new T line along the Bay, because it runs out of the other main stations under Market St. and its above-ground stops are probably easier to spot. I spent fifteen minutes watching the screen in the station that tells you which lines are coming, and the T never showed up at all, so I figured it must not have been running at that time (2 p.m.). On to Plan B.

I looked at a Muni map and it appeared that the 19 bus would get me pretty close to where I wanted to be. I stood out on Market St. and only had to wait two or three minutes before the 19 came. I sat down near the back and congratulated myself on my quick resourcefulness. After a couple of strange turns, I suddenly found myself smack in the middle of the Tenderloin. "When's this line going to turn around?" I began thinking. Eventually it sank in that I was on the right line but headed in the wrong direction. I knew this would happen; that's why I'd wanted to just take the rail line and not have to worry about ending up in the Tenderloin by accident. Well what now? The bus lurched forward at an agonizing crawl, finally making its way up to Polk. I saw another bus coming in the opposite direction. Maybe it was the 19, I figured. I quickly got off and tried to dash across the street. Sure enough, it was the 19. Salvation! The green light was unusually long, however. The light finally turned yellow, but the bus rode right on through. "Well, I'm close and surely it'll stop and I'll be able to run up to the door," I surmised. Oh no. The bus didn't stop. Apparently not one person was waiting at the stop to get on, and not one person was waiting on the bus to get off. The bus went bye-bye.

As I stood around waiting for the next 19, a sketchy guy kept fidgeting with a little box on top of a nearby trash can. After about 12 minutes, the next 19 began riding up. The sketchy guy finally walked over and displayed the box to me, which contained two watches, and made a noise which communicated that an offer was being made. I mumbled something incoherent and barely managed to squeeze into the front of the bus, which was packed. I took my bag off and put it on the floor, per Muni etiquette, and an old lady said, "That's my knee." Apparently I hit her knee with my bag. I grumbled "Sorry" and tried to move further back, which of course is tricky when the bus is moving, but I have become a master at such maneuvers and I did my best. Finally! I was on the right bus, and I was actually moving in the right direction. I had to pinch myself to believe it.

After a couple of blocks, a cluster of people got off and I was able to sit down near the back, which happened to be populated by a boisterous group of African-American high school kids. I had my headphones on so I didn't really hear what they were talking about, but it seemed lively. A few blocks later, a sleazy middle-aged white guy sat down right next to me - and I mean he sat down right next to me. I could feel him leaning into my body. He wasn't looking at me, and he didn't say anything to me, so I just stared straight ahead and pretended I was too braindead to notice. "Just a few more minutes and I'll hopefully be there and this nightmare will all be over," I kept telling myself optimistically.

The man suddenly began talking to the high school kids. Did they know each other? He had a curiously thick Eastern European accent. The kids and the man began laughing. Apparently he was flirting with a particularly chubby black girl. "I jerk off to you," he said. Then he spat on the floor. Every stoplight seemed an eternity. As the girl got up to leave, the sleazy guy reached across me and tried to shake her hand. "What is your number?" "I don't have a number," she said, amused. He turned and put his hand on my shoulder for a few seconds. Did he understand that I was a stranger? Did he think it was normal to lean against strangers on a bus? Hard to say. Whatever, just a few more blocks and I could ditch this sordid scene once and for all.

Suddenly another sleazy white guy, let's call him Sleazy Guy #2, got on the bus, and sat right across from me and Sleazy Guy #1. "Hey what's your problem man?" Sleazy Guy #2 said, apparently to Sleazy Guy #1. "What is your problem buddy?" Sleazy Guy #1 replied. "Hey I'd appreciate it if you stopped staring at my crotch." Upon hearing these words, I realized that my effort to stay on the bus until I reached the appropriate stop would be in vain.

Now, if I had been faced with this exact situation when I first began living in the city, I probably would have stuck it out for a little while longer and waited to see how the situation panned out. But being more experienced in the ways of Muni, I knew that such blunt, unprompted hostility was my cue to make a hasty exit. I got up and headed for the front of the bus. Only a few seconds later, the brawl was on. My judgement was expert. The black high school kids began hollering, but I think even they were slightly taken aback by the suddenness of the violence. The bus driver shouted, "What the hell is going on?" As she stopped the bus, I made my way out the door and began walking down the street. Other people began getting off. After two minutes, I turned around and the bus was still there at the same spot. Staying on the bus wouldn't have even saved me time.

I imagine the police were called, but I didn't stick around to find out. Who knows? Maybe the sleazy white guys worked out their differences.

My ride back was uneventful.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Early Tom Waits Videos

An early interview and a performance of Burma Shave.

Singing Old Boyfriends on The Smothers Brothers show.

Frustrated in 1980, talking about leaving show business.

I'm glad he stuck around.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Lament of a Gamer

Via my favorite comic, Penny-Arcade, I read Wager, a bet that video games will never be a culturally relevant art form. This bothers the author greatly.

My first response is to ask, how culturally relevant do you want video games to be? They seem pretty culturally relevant to me. A lot of people don't play them, but they're still familiar with what they are. Blockbuster video games sell a huge number of copies worldwide and earn a ton of money. Maybe you're talking about lesser known artsy games? But then why did all the game critics choose Half-Life 2, Bioshock, Mass Effect, and other extremely popular games on their end of the year lists?

Maybe you want intellectuals to respect games and discuss them along with No Country For Old Men and the new Kanye West album. Speaking as a holder of a prestigious Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, I can tell you that cultural acceptance and academic reverence doesn't always do great things for your art. A lot of the great books were written before anyone even studied English at a university. Now that everyone studies it, a lot of soulless verbiage passes as great art.

Now, there are a few points I agree with in the article. I, too, wish I could talk about my favorite games in a mixed crowd without getting odd looks from people who then shift the conversation to American Idol. I also particularly agree that, "Filling a game with explicit failure states requiring replay of level segments upon death limits accessibility." In other words, games are often too hard in a repetitive way. This can be seen as blasphemy amongst some gamers. I was recently playing Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and was reading about various modifications you could download that would make the game harder. I was actually looking for a way to make the game easier. Some people get a sense of accomplishment from replaying the same difficult part again and again. Others, myself included, just get a sense of tedium and quickly cheat or give up.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Rock It To Me, Slate, Rock It To Me

William Saletan is at his sarcastic best in a new Human Nature column. The appeal of this column is Saletan's pithy bluntness. He may be mean, but hey, he's funny! Example:

A man grew his own jaw transplant in his abdomen. Scientists attached his stem cells to a scaffold and "put it inside the patient's abdomen to grow for nine months." The cells "turned into a variety of tissues and even produced blood vessels." Surgeons then transplanted the tissue to his head. Benefits: 1) No animal viruses, since doctors didn't use animal tissue. 2) No rejection problems, since the transplant matches the patient's DNA. 3) Fast recovery, since the new bone was grown instead of taken from his leg. Approved reaction: This brings "custom-made living spare parts for humans a step closer to reality." Unapproved reactions: 1) Congratulations—it's a bone! 2) Is that a bone in your abdomen, or are you just glad to see me?

Meanwhile, in the Sports section, Boston sports fanatic Charles P. Pierce still can't get over the Patriots' loss (he's the only one), Stephen Metcalf tries to turn the Roger Clemens steroid scandal into something more profound than it really is (but yields halfway interesting results), and Douglas McCollam spins some decent fluff and earns his paycheck.

Andres Martinez travels to Venezuela and marvels at the sincerity of the country's propaganda. Let's just say I'm not going any time soon.

Bruce Gottlieb and Cyrus Farivar discuss why and how art is so frequently stolen in Europe. Personally I'm tickled at the notion of art crooks: criminals with...taste! Surely Jagger in "Sympathy for The Devil" would approve.

Dear Prudence always makes me feel better about my life, since it's good to know that other people also have ridiculous social problems. You would think that people who need the assistance of an advice column would be stupid, but honestly, I can see exactly why these people feel the need to consult a completely neutral third party when faced with dilemmas such as otherwise-perfect boyfriends who posess that one terrible flaw, or awkward step-parents who tear families apart. What they really need, of course, is therapy.

Mia Farrow, of all people, has spent the entire year throwing a huge guilt trip on Steven Spielberg for deciding to participate in the 2008 Olympics, which apparently means he supports genocide. Spielberg finally agreed, and he bailed, which should make Mia happy. I wonder if it will really do anything though.

And now we come to Slate's bread and butter: politics. This week, unsurprisingly, it's Obama Obama Obama. John Dickerson wonders if and when the bubble will burst. Daliah Lithwick treats Slate as her own diary with mixed results in this piece. But Douglas Kmiec takes the cake in his dubious article "Barack Obama is a natural for the Catholic vote." A recent Romney aide, Kmiec's heavily religious slant sticks out like a sore thumb in Slate's snarky, non-commital universe. He writes that "if either Clinton or Obama would acknowledge the myriad problems associated with a declining population in the developed world and affirm the importance of both having and raising children (and not just punting these duties over to Hillary's "village"), Catholics could well contemplate a Democratic adoption." Is this really a problem? I mean I've heard about people in Italy and Japan not wanting to have kids but what percentage of voters is seriously going to find this a key election issue? I don't care who this guy votes for.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Like Frank Zappa...But Better

I haven't even been listening to them lately, but I couldn't help but be amused by the Wikipedia entry on legendarily secretive/ridiculous cult band the Residents. The most impressive aspect of the band is that even though they've been semi-famous for about thirty years now, no one actually knows who the bandmembers are. I would have figured that somebody - their girlfriends, their dentists, their landlords - would have ratted them out by now, but I guess we can take some heart in the knowledge that some celebrities in this multimedia age can still remain anonymous (either that or nobody really cares). As for their charmingly ludicrous discography, Third Reich 'N' Roll is a cult masterpiece I would unreservedly recommend to any fan of '60s popular music, and the rest I have yet to fully explore. Highlights:

The Residents supposedly hail from Shreveport, Louisiana, where they met in high school in the 1960s. In 1966, members headed west to San Francisco, California. After their truck broke down in San Mateo, they decided to remain there. Like all information pertaining to the early days of the band, this is provided by The Cryptic Corporation and is potentially false. Newer information indicates they are probably from Slidell, Louisiana, and picked Shreveport as the "place to be from" since it is the city in Louisiana that was furthest from Slidell.

The first performance of the band using the name Residents was at the Boarding House in San Francisco in 1971. That same year another tape was completed called Baby Sex.

The Residents, at this point, were at a rough point in their career. There was internal turmoil, which supposedly resulted in a large, "embarrassing" food fight. They decided to resolve this tension in 1974 by allegedly recording what would later become Not Available— representative of N. Senada's Theory of Obscurity taken to its logical conclusion. The album was recorded and then placed in storage to be issued only when everyone had forgotten about it. However, contractual obligations (related to the much-delayed release of Eskimo) forced its release in 1978 after the band had almost forgotten about it. The Residents were unbothered by this deviation from their plan since the 1978 decision to release the album would not affect the philosophical conditions under which it was originally recorded.

The Commercial Album(1980) consisted of 40 songs that, like Eskimo, rejected traditional song structure. Each consisted of a verse and a chorus and lasted one minute. The songs pastiched the advertising jingle although the songs were not endorsements of known products or services. The liner notes state that songs should be repeated three times in a row to form a pop song. With a leap of promotional imagination, The Residents purchased 40 one-minute advertising slots on San Francisco's most popular Top-40 radio station KFRC forcing the station to play each track of their album over three days. This prompted an editorial in Billboard magazine questioning whether the act was art or advertising.

In 1981, a trilogy of albums, starting with Mark of the Mole, was released. A tour ensued, and was narrated nightly by Penn Jillette. Many think, after observation of official clues in liner notes such as those found in Demons Dance Alone, that the Mole Show caused several members of the Residents to leave, leaving Mr. Skull to studio duties. The Mole Trilogy is made up of parts I, II and IV. This tour is also noted for being the first time The Residents appeared on stage wearing their trademark eyeball masks and tuxedos. The performance featured The Residents in front of painted back drops used to help illustrate the story. Penn Jillette would come out between songs telling long intentionally pointless stories. The show was designed to appear as if it was falling apart as it progressed: Penn would grow angrier with the crowd, the lights, music, and smoke would intensify, all building up to the point where Penn was dragged off stage and returned handcuffed to a wheel chair, which is where the show would end. During one performance Penn was assaulted by an audience member while handcuffed to the wheelchair.

Much of the speculation about the members' true identities swirls around their management team, known as "The Cryptic Corporation." Cryptic was formed by Jay Clem (Born 1947), Homer Flynn (born April 1945), Hardy W. Fox (born 1945), and John Kennedy in 1976, all of whom denied having been band members. (Clem and Kennedy left the Corporation in 1982.) The Residents themselves don't grant interviews, though Flynn and Fox have conducted interviews with the media. Nolan Cook, who has been working with the band recently, denied in an interview that Fox and Flynn are the Residents, saying that he has come across such rumors, and they are completely false.

William Poundstone, author of the Big Secrets books, claimed Flynn and possibly Fox are likely members of The Residents, probably the group leaders; this is probably the most widespread belief among the group's fans. A subset of that belief is that Flynn is the lyricist (a conclusion buttressed by the fact that his voice bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the Singing Resident) and that Fox writes the music.

Many other rumors have come and gone over the years, including the idea that the band members are physically disfigured; that 60s psychedelic band Cromagnon shared members with the band; and that the band members are in fact The Beatles in disguise.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Juno (Reitman)

Considering that it's supposed to be a feel-good comedy, I knew that when I walked out of Juno feeling slightly depressed, the film had probably not been created with me in mind. Apparently I was supposed to be charmed, touched, and tickled by its deft balance of wit and pathos, but mostly I was just resentful of people who seemed to have had happier childhoods than I did. The film critic in me liked what he saw, but the morose misanthrope in me cringed. Instead of thinking, "Oh, so this bright young teenage girl accidentally got pregnant? How cute!," I was thinking, "Wow, so these people actually had sex lives in high school? God how depressing."

As documented here and here, Juno is now facing the year's nastiest cinematic backlash. Many feel that the dialogue is unrealistic or too cute by half. Haters have expressed their disdain for the movie's pseudo-scribbled credits, overcooked pop culture references, and suffocatingly twee soundtrack. To be honest, I didn't mind those things all that much. Some have said that high school girls don't actually talk like this. Personally, I recall the people at my high school being a pretty sharp bunch, and yes, they coined random catchphrases and deployed them in conversation at almost every chance they could find. Besides, who wants to watch a movie where all the people talk like idiots? It's OK for dialogue in a film to be smart as long as it brings you closer to the characters and doesn't distract from the story. And I don't think Juno fell into that trap, as much as it seemed it was about to do so.

The bottom line is, I just didn't relate very much to these people, given the jaded state of my urban existence. Except, that is, for the potentially adoptive couple, played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. This couple flew in from another movie - you know, the one with the characters that Little Earl could actually care about. Their story is the melancholy soul of this film. And every one of their scenes managed to sidestep all of the potential pitfalls and wrong turns their narrative could have so easily wandered down. There is a moment, after it's clear that Juno is spending way too much time with the Jason Bateman character, where we think, "Ah, yes, the wife's going to come home and think Juno and her husband are doing the jailbait dance." But the movie takes that scene to a totally different, and much more interesting, place. For the couple's plotline alone, the movie deserves respect and admiration.

But the rest of it? I dunno. I caught Juno early on and was not surprised when it became the monster hit of the awards season. But it's not a movie that spoke to me. And I'd like to think that a truly great movie would be able do that, no matter how jaded and misanthropic I might be.

Hell, she should have just gotten the abortion.

"Film Critic" rating: ****
"Little Earl" rating: ***

Friday, February 8, 2008

Slate/NYTimes Roundup

St. Louis City Museum

Fun articles from the webrags we love to hate:

A photocopy of the Gambino grand jury indictment - Greaseball, The Doctor, and One Eye are all great gangster names, but check out Steven Iaria aka Stevie I., John, Simon, Herman, and Alan. How do you keep track of a guy with 5 nondescript names?

Why don't we have more places like this St.Louis museum? The exhibits involve, "crawling up an open tube of steel mesh toward the fuselage of a Sabre 40 airliner, all part of the three-dimensional outdoor labyrinth the museum calls MonstroCity", "dropping one by one through a hole in a steel floor down a two-story slide", and "slithering through the Enchanted Caves, a seemingly endless warren of tunnels, nooks and crannies carved from concrete." Better still, the place stays open until 1AM on weekends. Forget bridges, that sounds like an infrastructure project everyone should get behind. Road trip to St.Louis anyone?

No Country For Old Men (Coen)

Dear Coen Brothers,

I do not understand you guys. We're just not on the same page I guess. Can you just tell me: why do you like making movies? What drives you to create? What do you hope to achieve with your art? I mean, you're two very talented hombres but at the end of the day all your skills are in the service of...what exactly? I must have seen at least eight of your films, and while they were all enjoyable, even highly enjoyable to some extent, none of them really blew me away the way I want a great film to just blow me away. It's like you creep up on greatness, and then smother it with silliness or implausibility because you're not comfortable really going for those moments of transcendent truth. The closest you came was The Big Lebowski, but...what was the John Goodman character all about? I mean, sure, you're consistent and quirky and when you see a Coen Brothers movie, you get what you pay for. But I'm willing to get less than what I pay for if sometimes there's a chance I'll get way more. And you guys just never give me that chance.

Like No Country For Old Men. Even though the critics were going gaga over it, by now I've seen enough of your guys' movies to know that it would probably disappoint me...and I was right. What in tarnation was that movie all about? How was that movie supposed to aid me on the great journey of life? OK, so some guy runs around and shoots people, and some sheriff can't do anything about it, and some other guy tries to steal some money, but so what? What was the point?

Many reasonably intelligent people might interject here and say, "Does a great movie always have to have a point, Little Earl?" Well, no, not every great movie has to have a point. But 90% of them do. And the other 10% percent better be damn good. I am told by Yoggoth, who read the book but has not seen the movie, that this time you guys are really just agents of author Cormac McCarthy, and that any pointlessness found in the movie is really the author's fault and not you own. But you guys pick the movies you want to make! What was it about this book, as opposed to a thousand others, that screamed out at you, "That's it, that's what we'd like to say to the world."

I mean, there was a moment in this movie (I swear, it happens with every one of your guys' films) where I thought, "Hmm, wow, maybe this is it, maybe this is the Coen Brothers movie that finally breaks the mold and goes to that special place where great films reside." But then...(possible spoilers) it just becomes totally implausible. Nobody is actually like Anton Chigurh. Nobody just wanders around and kills people by flipping a coin and parsing out some coolly enigmatic dialogue. Nobody does it. And if a guy was wandering around Texas killing that many people, I mean hell, the FBI and a whole SWAT team would be on his ass. And what's the deal anyway, is he after the money or does he just want to kill people? It seems like half the time he's a legitimate hired hand and the other half of the time he just wants to kill people. Now compare this film with Zodiac, which was 100% plausible with the added bonus of actually having a point. Was No Country entertaining? Yes. But when a movie is about to win the Best Picture Oscar, it better be damn well more than just entertaining.

In sum, I really don't get you guys.


"Film Critic" rating: ****
"Little Earl" rating: **

Monday, February 4, 2008

8. Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993)

And now we the Britpop.

For my money, Britpop was the most exciting, interesting, and rewarding musical movement of the '90s. My sentiments are not exactly shared by my countrymen, but I suppose there are many sentiments I don't share with my countrymen - the fondness for KFC, for example. Why, then, do I hold such an unusual enthusiasm for a ragtag cluster of Anglocentric louts? A few quick guesses:

1. Britpop is very evocative of a time and a place that is quite different from my own life in California, so it offers me a bit of the thrill of escape.
2. Britpop bands tended to write songs that were a little more theatrical and literary than songs written by American bands, and those are qualities that I really like in music.
3. Britpop bands knew how to make an album flow like a beast.
4. Some Britpop may be dark or angry, but on the whole it is more cheerful and exuberant than American rock, which I often find too macho, aggressive, or straightforward by comparison.

With about five seconds of scrutiny I'm sure I could poke about twenty holes into each of those theories, but nevermind. Ultimately I love Britpop because I Which brings me to Blur and their second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish.

First a little context. Around 1989, a musical style known as "Madchester" rapidly overtook the British charts, led by two bands from Manchester, England: the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays. To hear Madchester described, it would sound like an incredibly exciting genre. But I have found the actual experience of listening to Madchester slightly disappointing. Although critics have linked Madchester with classic '60s guitar pop, from what I can tell, the two styles have very little in common. Whereas '60s guitar pop is eclectic, punchy, and focused, Madchester is repetitive, lackadaisical, and meandering. Madchester is music that sounds like it is about to get really exciting any second, but never actually does. Every Madchester song employs the same basic beat: a slightly lazy regurgitation of the Doors' "Peace Frog" (also known as the "baggy" beat - ostensibly because the Madchester bands wore baggy clothes, but as far as I can tell, because the music sounds about as relaxed as the trousers). Of course, given that the genre was meant to be danced to, usually while high on ecstacy, I think it's fair to say that I am not its target audience.

That's why I love Blur. Because just as the Madchester scene was in its death throes, Blur showed up to make a mockery of everything. They got pissed before every show and giggled their way off the stage in a drunken haze. They didn't even seem to be trying particularly hard. As far as artistic credibility was concerned, Blur were a joke, shameless imitators, ale-swilling football lads rather than E-dropping ravers. They were to Madchester what the Stone Temple Pilots were to grunge - mainstream gatecrashers who lifted the more superficial aspects of the style for some fast fame and cheap glory. The band gave no indication that it would be good for more than a few catchy singles and a cash-in album (Leisure). The consensus was almost universal: as soon as Blur were in, they were on their way out.

Instead of this being an obstacle, however, the aura of low expectations worked deliciously in Blur's favor. Hell, when you've released a hit album after barely even trying, you'd start to wonder what would happen if you actually put in some effort. With no one in particular watching them, free from any sort of artistic pressure, Blur decided to create an album in a style that would appeal to themselves and themselves alone. Like Ray Davies in his Village Green Preservation Society period, they retreated to their own little Blur world, unconcerned with whether their new music would fit into the contemporary music scene or not. Little did they know that the scene would quickly shift around them.

Modern Life Is Rubbish was initially conceived as the "anti-grunge" album. What really happened is that Blur did a quick tour of the U.S., flopped big time, and decided to act like American rejection didn't matter. Damon Albarn originally planned on titling the album England vs. America, but the powers-that-be at their record label wisely talked him out of it. Rather, the album rips on America by ignoring it. Which is not to say that it's madly in love with some long-lost English past. Modern Life Is Rubbish is a portrait, in snippets, of a people who used to be the center of the world but now find themselves just lonely inhabitants of another island off the coast of Europe. The glorious remnants of the past remain, but the present is dull and the future doesn't look much more promising than the present. This very British take on the American "slacker" ethos was perfectly expressed in Damon Albarn's attempt to defiantly spraypaint "Modern Life Is Rubbish" on the walls of various public lavatories across England.

If Modern Life Is Rubbish is a great album, it is a very low-key great album. I'm actually a bit hesitant to toot its horn, because part of the pleasure of this album is its relative obscurity. Among the albums of Blur, a band that is still known in the United States mostly for "Song 2" (and for being the former band of that Gorillaz guy), it is not that well known. It is not even, from what I understand, that well known in its native UK, where it was only a minor hit upon release. But I think Modern Life Is Rubbish works best on the listener when, as it did when it came out, and as it did when I finally heard it, the album's quality comes as a surprise.

Back in college, when I mentioned to Yoggoth that I was a Blur fan, he replied that he didn't really like them but that he owned Modern Life Is Rubbish, and then he asked me if I wanted to borrow it. That was the most easily answerable question I'd ever been given in my life. I'd already heard Parklife, The Great Escape, and Blur, so I was eager to fill in this missing piece of the puzzle.

The album turned out to be a Blur fan's goldmine (the American version has nineteen tracks - including an extra single and two B-sides!). Maybe none of the songs were that spectacular by themselves, but strung together one after the other they were a kingdom of riches. The tunes sped by like tense, spiky, angular little bullets of melody. A couple of them maybe weren't quite as strong as the rest but even those ones squeaked by on sheer texture and energy. The Jam, Wire, XTC, Madness, and The Smiths were all lurking around in there somewhere, but still Blur managed to sound like Blur, because as retro as their style seemed, their spirit was firmly rooted in the present (England circa 1993) and they brought so much of their own energy to the proceedings. In other words, what the hell was Yoggoth talking about? I offered to buy the CD from him, but I think he still has his copy somewhere.

George Lucas once said that the thing he loves about Japanese cinema is that it just plunges him into a different world without bothering to explain itself. I might say the same about Blur albums. I don't understand half the lyrics on Modern Life Is Rubbish, but instead of this bothering me, it only means that I discover something new with each listen. Assorted images pop out at me every now and then through the pseudo-cockney haze: "The Peeping Thomas has a very nice view/Across the street at the exhibitionist/These townies they never speak to you/Just stick together so they never get lonely"; "Colin Zeal knows the value of mass appeal/He's a pedestrian walker, he's a civil talker/He's an affable man with a plausible plan/Keeps his eye on the news, keeps his future in hand"; "It's six o'clock on the dot and I'm half way home/I feel foul mouthed as I stand and wait for the underground/And a nervous disposition doesn't agree with this/I need something to remind me that there's something else." In fact, I must have listened to this album over a hundred times by now, and yet only this week did I finally notice the touching lyrics Damon Albarn sings over the "la la la"s at the end of "For Tomorrow," the album's hypnotically ambivalent opening track:

Jim stops and gets out the car,
Goes to a house in Emperors Gate,
Through the door and to his room,
Then he puts the TV on,
Turns it off and makes some tea,
Says modern life, well it's rubbish, I'm
Holding on for tomorrow.

Then Susan comes into the room,
She's a naughty girl with a lovely smile
And says take a drive to Primrose Hill
It's windy there and the view's so nice,
London ice can freeze your toes
Like anyone I suppose you're
Holding on for tomorrow.

Coming out as it did on the heels of Madchester and shoegazing, Modern Life Is Rubbish was an album that probably seemed comparatively... unhip. You could not dance to it at a rave. But you could dance to it in your room. And personally, I'd rather do the latter.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Sure, Quentin, Just Keep Making Movies

I swear to God, what would we do without Quentin Tarantino in this world? He's at it again in an interview in Sight and Sound, throwing f-bombs all over the place and simultaneously praising/insulting other directors while arguing with the interviewer over the magazine's interpretation of his style. Highlights:

So then I started thinking about what I could do. And the first idea was a bunch of young college history students that were going through a tour of the plantations of the old South. And there's a ghost of an old slave that is part of negro folklore. Jody the Grinder actually went down and bested the devil, by fucking him. And so the devil put him on earth for all eternity to fuck white women. And that was the devil's punishment. The opening scene would take place in the classroom, with the professor telling the story of Jody the Grinder in a big four-page monologue. I would probably have had Sam Jackson playing that part. And it was really good. But then I didn't have anywhere to go with it, because if you have a story about a killer slave with supermacho powers done in the style of a slasher films, then even if he's doing it today, and even if the white girls are innocent, how can you not be on the slave's side?


Q: Where does your girl dialogue come from?

This is gonna sound like a smartass answer, but I have to say, it's obvious, but it so needs to be said. I'm a good writer. It's what I'm supposed to be able to do. It needs to be said. It's not like I overheard some friends. It's my job to be interested in other people's humanity and not just write about myself. Having said that, there was something that added to the authenticity of these ladies. For the last five years I've had a lot of different posses of female friends. You know, these three black girls over here, these four Korean girls over here, these waitresses over here, these more posh club owners over there... I have male friends but up until recently they were more one on one. I didn't roll with a crew. But with women I did. And in most cases, it wasn't like they were my crew, I was part of their posse. It wasn't like Quentin and his bitches, even though it looks like that when we walk into a club. I just realised as I finished the script that, wow, they're here! This is almost my love letter to them.


But I lost my stamina in the last quarter of the last lap of Jackie Brown and part of the reason was I wasn't taking something I created from scratch from a blank piece of paper and turning it into a full project. When I finished the edit and got my cut the way I wanted, I was emotionally done. I believe people could say it's my best movie, but there's a slight once-removed quality, located somewhere in my balls where that doesn't live.