Monday, March 31, 2008

Zodiac (Fincher)

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

I'd been eagerly anticipating Zodiac but in retrospect I'm not quite sure why. Maybe it was because Sharon Waxman had included David Fincher as one of the six young late '90s Hollywood auteurs she chose to highlight in her sleazily informative study Rebels On The Backlot, along with Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, P.T. Anderson, David O. Russell, and Spike Jonze. Back when I read that book I would have said that Fincher was probably my least favorite of the six, although I still felt that the talent on display in his first five movies did make him worthy of inclusion. Even so, since then I've bought at least one movie by the other five directors, but none of his.

Well, my Fincher movie has arrived.

Because while Tarantino was busy indulging himself in his B-movie fixation and Russell was busy making sure no one would ever want to work with him in Hollywood again, Fincher snuck up behind them all and made the film that a part of me always knew, deep down inside, he was capable of making. Maybe a non-fiction story was the trick. If so, he should try it more often.

In Rebels, Fincher professed his love for '70s cinema, and with Zodiac, he has made a perfect '70s movie. I don't just mean a movie about the '70s (although it is that too), but a movie that shares the same spirit as the movies from the '70s. It has a firm grasp of time and place. It is deadly serious and delightfully funny at the same time. Most of all it is just plain...good.

Back in January Yoggoth was making fun of one of the film critics in Slate's Movie Club for referring to Zodiac as "deeply cinematic and slyly post-so." "Oh gimme a break," he said to me over the phone. "I'm sure if it's good, it's good for all the same reasons every other good movie is good." Little did he know how right he could be. For what makes Zodiac good is the same quality that's made so many of those other movies from the '70s good: a sense of effort. Fincher simply put a shitload of effort into the movie. I remember reading about the constant release date delays and the endless post-production tinkering and the studio begging Fincher to shorten the running time and the rumors that they had a big fat dud on their hands, and after seeing the movie, I just have this to say: Could these people please just shut the hell up? Because Fincher knew exactly what he was doing. Every little second he spent tinkering with the editing in post-production is up there on the screen for you to enjoy. Every line of dialogue that he sweated over is there to enhance the viewers' enjoyment of the story. Just as Kubrick and Lean couldn't do with their best films, I don't think Fincher was able to rest until he knew that every scene was as effective as it could have possibly been. So in the end I'm glad the studio finally took a chill pill and just let him finish the damn movie. Because there's hardly a false note in the entire 160 minute running time.

The movie is worth it just for the dialogue alone. When we first meet Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), he's showing his cartoons to his editor, who serves up a withering analysis: "Horrid... horrid... not so horrid... horrid. I'm thinkin' we go with not-so-horrid." Later Graysmith approaches a character named Shorty. "Doesn't it bother you that people call you Shorty?" he asks. Shorty replies, "Doesn't it bother you that people call you retard?" Graysmith does a doubletake. "Nobody calls me that." Shorty adds, 'Right," and walks away. Graysmith then saunters over to the desk of Paul Avery (played with intoxicating abandonment by a well-cast Robert Downey, Jr.) and asks, "Does anybody ever call me names?" Avery quickly responds, "What, you mean like retard?" "Yeah." "No." The characters in Zodiac are the kind of sharp, intelligent characters I wouldn't mind meeting in real life. Except for the title character, perhaps.

Indeed, the only serious misgiving I have about the film, actually, is its rather disturbing subject matter. I did not catch Zodiac in the theater because I have to admit I was not exactly in a big hurry to watch a movie about a serial killer who roams around the Bay Area and kills random strangers and, oh yeah, they never found the guy! Just what I needed, right? I mean, there really isn't too much that you can do about serial killers. Either they kill you or they don't. Why dwell on what you can't control? That said, Zodiac has so much going for it that I would recommend it despite the troubling nature of the first couple of murder scenes (troubling precisely because they are so realistic and convincing). Let's just say there's a time and a place for Zodiac's hypnotic menace. One would have to be in the mood for some relatively dark subject matter. Maybe you're getting over a break-up. Or maybe you've just been laid off. Hey, pop in Zodiac and forget all about it!

Besides, with defenseless murder at its core, Zodiac doesn't really have to spend too much time hunting around for a hook or a gimmick (unlike some other award-season favorites I could name). I mean, it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that something genuinely critical is driving the story. Imagine All The President's Men, except instead of the integrity of our nation being at stake, it's our lives. But Zodiac is two steps ahead of us anyway, because it is not particularly interested in the blood and guts of the serial killer but rather it's interested in our interest in the blood and guts of the serial killer. Why is it that a relative statistical anomaly (random murder) strikes such a powerful chord within us? As Avery says at one point, "Do you know that more people die in the East Bay commute every three months than that idiot ever killed?" But unsolved murder mysteries sting because they poke at our very notions of a just society, and of scientific omnipotence. Robert Graysmith is like many of us in that he believes any mystery could be solved if only someone simply looked hard enough. We have all these incredible tools at our disposal, so how can it be that after all these years, and after all these clues, we can't just find the guy? What Graysmith gradually realizes, of course, is that even in our seemingly foolproof modern detective world of fingerprints and handwriting experts, sometimes the truth is simply beyond our grasp. And we have to learn to live with that.

Which is where Zodiac truly moves beyond being simply a good murder mystery and a police procedural and rather finds itself heading into startingly unique territory. The last half hour in particular, as Graysmith progressively becomes more and more thwacked out by the endless minutia of the case, is terrifically amusing and almost reassuring. When he begins receiving phone calls featuring the Zodiac's patented heavy breathing, Graysmith comes off as mostly annoyed rather than frightened. And there's a scene in a stranger's basement that's like the absurd cherry on top of Graysmith's (and our own) paranoia. At this point it's been years since the Zodiac has struck. In other words: dude, it's over. But Graysmith is still running around with a crazed gleam in his eye as if the world can't wait another second without knowing the identity of the Zodiac. Hey, life goes on. People live and die. Sure, some die at the hands of a brutal serial killer. Most don't. At some point we just have to let it go. "I need to know who he is," Graysmith states. "I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it's him." Well don't we all?

At any rate. I know I can be tough. I know I can gripe about the shortcomings of a film that most other critics are already willing to place on their "10 best of the year" list. I know I always talk smack about every heavily-hyped, highly anticipated movie that ultimately disappoints me - even just a little bit. I always complain that these movies may have a lot of good ideas or are well-intentioned but are missing that intangible whatever it is - a sense of urgency, memorable cinematography, a grasp of detail, a sureness of execution, a healthy dose of humor even. Well for once I'm going to have to shut my trap. I haven't seen every movie released in 2007, but I doubt any of them will be better than this one.

"Film critic" rating: ****
"Little Earl" rating: ****

Friday, March 28, 2008

Billy Corgan Just Makes Me Laugh

All in all he's probably a decent guy, but I just can't take Billy Corgan too seriously. Mostly because he seems to take himself too seriously. It's like, he has this conception of the Smashing Pumpkins as a band that is way more important it probably really is (see AMG's review of Zeitgeist). But who am I to talk, you know? I've never written a song in my whole God damn life. Still, if I ever did get around to writing a song, it's probably safe to say I wouldn't call it "Superchrist" (the title of the new Pumpkins single). More cringe-inducingly anthemic statements such as the one above are on display in this new Rolling Stone interview titled "Corgan's Fury." And man oh man, I wouldn't want to be on the wrong end of his fury if you know what I'm saying. The kicker has to be his scathing anecdote about the record company's obtuseness:

"I'll give you my favorite line of the past three years. I was talking to the label president from Warner Bros., Tom Walley, and we were having a call. They were actually thinking about dropping us, which in retrospect probably would have been good. I was in Arizona, we were starting to write the album, and so I said things are going great. And he said, 'What's the difference between Zwan and Smashing Pumpkins?' And I was like, what do you say? What do you say to a brick wall? What's the difference between your side band and the band that was your blood and your sweat and your heart for fourteen years?"

Uh...Billy...what was the difference between Zwan and Smashing Pumpkins? You know something? I'm with the sleazy record exec on this one. He asked a damn good question if I may say so. Whatever, I guess he just didn't understand that Billy is about the music:

"And as an alternative artist, we're still here because it is about the music. And anybody can point to any other 9,000 stupid things I've said or done. The music still trumped any of those things. So I can sit here at my rosy age and know that that's why we're here, because the music has held us in good stead with a lot of people around the world."

So at least he can joke about himself a little. But let's see, at least 85 of those 9,000 stupid things he's said were probably in this very interview. I did like what he said about American Idol and the music business though:

"Artists are finding their own ways to get paid outside of the major-label system, like the Eagles with their Wal-Mart deal, Madonna signing up with Live Nation.

I think it's really difficult for the young artist, who doesn't have at least some sense of a pathway. For example, if you were a kid today and you're looking at the bands who are successful right now, you think, if you don't sort of sell out and let somebody make you a star, go on American Idol, then you can't be successful. Alternative culture is really critical towards introducing new ideas. We need those young bands to push old band like us, to push new boundaries. We need our butts kicked regularly. That's where all the energy comes from, from the bottom. And when the message on Amy Winehouse is drama is better than music, and for Radiohead publicity is better than music — no disrespect to them. But I think it's a bad message to young bands of how to make it happen. It's almost like the evil stepchild of the rap bling-bling thing, like, the only way to make it work is I've got to come up with a gimmick.

Selling out has lost its negative stereotype in a sense.

We can all talk forever about how cool it is and how things are different: The power's coming back to the artist. But sometimes it takes an oppositional force to make things work. The old music business wasn't great but at least it kind of gave you something to kind of work with or against. Now, who do you work for and who do you work against? The great example is American Idol. I mean, who gets bigger marketing, whose TV show is bigger? And then those artists don't sell. There's a complete disconnect between the drama of the show, the emotional connection with the singers, and then absolutely no care for their musical career. I mean, that's troubling."

You know what people need to do? Here's what Little Earl says. They need to just lock themselves in a room for three years like Elliott Smith did and listen to nothing else and totally bare their psychologically scarred souls onto tape and then release it quietly and shoot for long-term cult success, because otherwise it's just going to be about gimmicks and it's not going to be any good. So Billy, get to work and stop yappin'.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Let The Games Begin

Don't tell me I'm the only one excited about the official start of the baseball season (if by "official," of course, we mean "random game in Japan while the real season actually starts next week"). Before the rosters have even been finalized I'm going to go out on a limb and call the entire season right now.

Little Earl's baseball power rankings:

1. Red Sox (terrific young players, veterans who are still productive, "curse" long gone - the team to beat?)
2. Tigers (really underperformed last year, best offense in the game, pitching might let them down though)
3. Indians (playoff experience should help them out, haven't lost too many players to big money)
4. Mariners (improved starting pitching, if Vidro/Ibanez/Sexson live up to their slugging potential, look out)
5. Mets (With Santana and solid offense, will dominate in a weak league)
6. Angels (Guerrero and Anderson getting old, pitching will be inconsistent)
7. Diamondbacks (guys are young, Webb and Haren best one-two punch in NL)
8. Blue Jays (they always seem to have promise but AL East is tough)
9. Rockies (great hitters, pretty good pitching staff but they probably got lucky last year)
10. Yankees (still a good team but 12-year run over)
11. Phillies (Will hit like beasts but no pitching)
12. Padres (didn't find any better hitters, pitching amazing, should combine with Phillies and together they'd be unstoppable)
13. Braves (still trying to rebuild, Smoltz, Glavine getting old)
14. Reds (new manager Dusty will give them shot at Central)
15. White Sox (won't be as bad as they were last year)
16. Brewers (need better pitching but hitters will rake)
17. Cubs (no real team identity)
18. Dodgers (Torre on board but otherwise bleh)
19. Royals (turning things around a bit)
20. Nationals (same here)
21. Giants (this is probably optimistic but hey)
22. Cardinals (lost in a sea of fog)
23. A's (will be as bad as they always seem like they should be)
24. Rays (won't be the worst team in Florida)
25. Orioles (check back in three years)
26. Twins (worst season in a long time)
27. Astros (ouch)
28. Rangers (yikes)
29. Marlins (why bother?)
30. Pirates (ladies and gentlemen, the toilet)

AL East: Red Sox
AL Central: Tigers
AL West: Mariners
AL Wild Card: Indians

NL East: Mets
NL Central: Reds
NL West: Diamondbacks
NL Wild Card: Rockies

NLCS: Mets over Rockies
ALCS: Tigers over Red Sox

World Series: Tigers over Mets

Now. I dare you to prove me wrong, Major League Baseball. I dare you!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Little Earl's Adventures In Rap

After having just about satiated my presumedly bottomless desire for '60s and '70s rock, pop, and soul through two-and-a-half years of fervent downloading, a month ago I decided to fill a large gap in my musical knowledge and undertake a systematic exploration of the history of rap. It has irked me when every time I've looked at a "greatest albums of all time" list I see several rap albums and I simply have no informed opinion on their supposed merits or lack thereof. I realized that I could improve my value as a music critic, and as a human being, if I exposed myself to the best of rap, and withheld judgment until I felt that I had engaged with the music on its own terms, because then I would truly be able to say "I like this and here's why" or "I don't like this and here's why not" and not simply speak from ignorance as I used to do. In short, it was time for Little Earl's Adventures in Rap.

There are probably many reasons why Little Earl did not take an adventure in rap sooner. First of all, there is so much quality music from the '60s and '70s that I've enjoyed and I wouldn't have been interested in other genres until I became quite sick of that era or simply found myself in a different mood. Such is now the case. Second, rap, as many of you know, is primarily urban music and primarily black music. I am a white Jewish guy who grew up in rural San Mateo County. It was not previously clear to me exactly what, to paraphrase Morrissey, rap had to say about my life. Having lived in a large city now for a few years, however, suddenly the rhythms and subject matter of rap don't seem quite so foreign or inapplicable to me. Or in another sense, what was previously a detriment (that rap is nothing like my life) is now a virtue (rap is nothing like my life...and that's interesting!). Also, champion as I am of art that comes from the perspective of the outsider and the marginalized, I have to admit that rap definitely falls into such a category. You know how I'm always complaining about the lack of passion in art? Well if there's one quality rap has in spades, it is passion.

Nevertheless, I knew I had to take a focused, scholarly approach to the issue. I decided to start at the beginning and work my way up to the present - or at least up to 1996 (Tupac and Biggie) and then continue on from there if I so chose, because I felt that at least that way I would have hit the basics. I wanted to leap off from a genre I knew quite well (funk/disco) and follow its mutation into rap so that I could better understand how rap related to music I already liked, rather than simply go into hardcore rap cold. I explained this rough plan a few years back to an old roommate of mine who had come from a more urban background and had his own perspective on rap history. He told me that my plan was good and would probably take me where I wanted to go, but that if he were attempting to get somebody into rap, he would give that person two albums: Dr. Dre's The Chronic and the Wu-Tang Clan's Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. "Because," he said, "then you'd have the West Coast, and you'd have the East Coast." Although he may have been on to something, let me just say right now that if I had taken my friend's advice and listened to those two albums first, I would have put off my whole project and waited another five years before even trying rap again. Which is funny, because after taking a strict chronological approach, I actually like those two albums. But I wouldn't have liked them if I hadn't understood the context.

So let's just say that the project has been worth it, because not only am I no longer ignorant in regards to rap, but I have discovered that I actually like rap. Currently about half of the music I have been listening to is rap. Which is not to say that it will stay that way. But at the moment, I have found fresh meat and I am excited. My exploration has demolished many of my old preconceptions about the value of rap, such as:

1. Why don't they just sing?

Well, because they're trying to convey a different feeling. While singing is by nature relaxing, rapping is by nature more aggressive (although, of course, some rap is relaxing and some singing is aggressive). Rap is (mostly) music of the streets, and I don't think you could really capture the feeling of the streets if you sang with the soaring beauty of a trained soprano. You can also pack a lot more words into a song if you rap, and the best rap is thrilling precisely because so many words are coming at the listener so quickly. Besides, if you don't need to be able to sing to rap, then so many more people can potentially become rappers, such as certain lower-class artists who might not have had the same opportunities as middle-class artists have had, but who as a result might hold a more unique view of the world and whose music might be more worth our time. Which brings me to...

2. Anybody can do it

Well yes, technically anybody can do it, but as with singing, few people can do it well. After having listened to a lot of rap, I've realized that anyone who says that rappers aren't talented has not seriously bothered to listen to good rap. Are great rappers as talented as great singers? Probably not. But does that mean they're not talented? No.

3. It's not music

Didn't they say the same thing about jazz, rock n' roll, and punk at first? "It's not music." Well, that's because it's redefining what music actually is. In many ways, rap is the logical extension of the history of recorded music. Instead of making music out of live performance, and instead of making music out of overdubbed performance, why not make music out of pre-existing recorded performance? It's like rock n' roll cubed. I will say this: if an alien showed up on this planet and wanted me to introduce it to music, I would not start it out on rap. But I'm not an alien, now, am I?

4. It's unoriginal

Technically, even a normal cover version is "original" because a different person is singing the song than the person who originally sang it, right? The question is not whether music is "original" (because it's always original) but whether it's derivative. Bad rap is derivative. Good rap is imaginative. I think it's as simple as that. The best DJs can arrange samples in such a way as to craft better songs than the songs they're stealing the samples from!

5. It's so violent and misogynistic and negative

One epiphany I've had while listening to rap is that a lot of these lyrics you cannot take too seriously. So many of these guys were trying to uphold "street cred" images while deep down it seems they just wanted to hang out and party. Rap is also a reflection of the lives of the urban black community (with exceptions I'm sure), and if a rapper's everyday reality is guns and hoes, then he's going to have to rap about guns and hoes, isn't he? Actually, to be honest, this is the one issue I had with rap before I began this project that I have not yet fully resolved. Are rappers just making excuses for lazy songwriting by claiming their violence and misogyny is socially relevant? Hell, do rappers even have an obligation to be moral? And if so, which rappers are moral and which rappers are not? Also keep in mind that there is plenty of rap that does not revolve around the N word and the B word, which is how De La Soul can rap about hitting on girls in Burger King by pretending to be Tracy Chapman and how the Beastie Boys can boast about having more hits than Japanese home run king Sadaharu Oh.

So in the end, as with any artform, if you start making generalizations about rap you'll very quickly start to sound stupid. Like when I talk about video games. Now, I would not blame someone for not wanting to listen to rap. It is not for everyone. But I would blame someone for dismissing rap without listening to the best of it. As I probably used to do. But no longer. To my surprise and delight, rap is for me. And if you choose to join me on my Adventures In Rap, you may discover that it is for you too.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Chillin' In The O.N.I.O.N.

The Onion has a pretty good batch of stuff this week:

Black Guy Asks Nation For Change

I Love My Country-Aw, Who Am I Kidding? My Country Can Go Fuck Itself

(Favorite part: "O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, like Ray Charles ever saw amber fucking anything. Amber waves of nimrods trying to cut in front of me at the supermarket, maybe.")

We Care A Lot: 14 Overblown Charity/Advocacy Songs Besides "We Are The World"

There's also a terrific interview with Matt Stone and Trey Parker from that know...the one with the rodent that crawls around inside Paris Hilton's intestines. They come off better here than they did in last year's Rolling Stone interview; they sound more like the guys that I would expect would be capable of making a show like South Park. The most affirming aspect of the interview is how it comfirms what I already suspected about their work ethic - they actually have high standards. Highlights:

Parker: "I always like, in the interviews too, I like to fancy myself more of a musician than anything else, but it really is—for me, writing an episode of South Park, it's like sitting down and writing a song. When you sit down and write a song, you kind of have the idea for the song, and you sit there at the piano and you kinda just write it. And then of course later there's some dinking around with it and changing some stuff. But there's this thing that happens when the song first comes out, that sort of magic when it first comes out of the ether, and you can't even really explain where it comes from. That happens so much with music, and people understand that with music. But I really think that a lot of movie and TV should be the same way.

So much of what you see now in Hollywood is written and directed by committee, and you can see it. Things are so workshopped and so run around the room, and so overthought. And finally, once you have a draft and then a draft of the draft, then they go in there and they work on every single little joke, and "Is there a gag here? Is there something here?" You would never do that with a song. You would never sit around for a month and talk about what a song should sound like, and what the chorus is going to be. To me, every episode is like a song, and every season is like an album. There's that part of the day when you first get the idea and you say, "This could be really funny." And you sit down and you write it. There's just something that happens there that doesn't happen when you really give it a lot of time beforehand. And that's basically my long-winded answer of saying I'm a procrastinator. [Laughs.]"

Stone: "The overriding pressure we feel… On one hand, I'm feeling less pressure lately. We have a four-year contract. No one in television has a four-year contract. We have crazy job security, so it's in our own hands. And so the pressure is more like, we have this body of work that we're pretty proud of, and we don't want to muck it up in the last couple of years. Although, obviously, you're trying to get an emotional charge out of a show that's been around for a while, so you're looking for fresh snow to clomp around in. We don't feel pressure of, "Let's make this really raunchy." It's more about making a good story, which is 10 times harder. The raunchy stuff's really easy for us. We just really are offensive, raunchy people. The work part of it is making it have a story and make sense and make it worth 22 minutes of your time, which I feel is a tough thing."

I also like the reportage from the SXSW Festival, particularly this bit about Lou Reed:

"I gave myself the assignment of attending this year’s keynote speech from Lou Reed, but seeing as I went to bed around 4:30 a.m. and the only R.E.M. sleep I got was at last night’s show (hardy har), I decide to just blow it off. But here’s how I imagine it went: “Whatever your interpretation of my work is, it’s wrong. The ’60s were an amazing time and full of lots of political turmoil—kind of like now. Ahem: Berlin song cycle, transcendental meditation, my photography. No, I don’t want to talk about the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol, David Bowie, or anything else you might actually be interested in. Thanks, and to my all my fans out there, fuck you sincerely.” Hey, this is easy! Maybe I should just cover the whole festival this way."

On that note, apparently someone else found that Honda commercial clip on YouTube because here it is in the wryly amusing (and quite accurate) piece called "The Five Faces Of Lou Reed."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Film Scores: Bland and Samey?

As if the supposed decline of popular music wasn't depressing enough, I was just reading an article about how most film scores are really lame. And after spending about two seconds thinking about it, I have to agree. When was the last time you heard a really great film score? I mean not just a score that was pleasant and functional, I mean a score that caught on in the popular consciousness and could instantly be hummed by any number of people? Yeah, it's been a while. Where's our Third Man Theme? Our Midnight Cowboy waltz? Our Godfather dirge? Now that I think about it, almost all of my favorite movies have memorable music. Only a few have scores I don't much care for, such as Roman Holiday, Spartacus, and The Wild Bunch, to name merely three. I wouldn't say that a bad score can ruin a film, but I definitely do notice it, especially since I tend to watch my favorite movies many times over, the way I listen to my favorite albums many times over. Great music simply makes the images go down smoother. Kubrick once said film's closest artistic cousin was music. Think about that.

Besides, there's plenty of obscure pop music to go around, isn't there? Who needs an orchestral score when you've got Nuggets Volume II, right, Wes Anderson? Actually he does feature some fairly enjoyable original music from Mark Mothersbaugh in his movies, so I guess creative original film music is still out there. The score for American Beauty was pretty good. I mean, at least it wasn't trying to be so conventionally "orchestral" or what have you. And I couldn't hum you Johnny Greenwood's score from There Will Be Blood if I tried but at least he was going for something different. Honestly, though, I think films should worry about having good plots before they worry about having good original scores. One element at a time, folks.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

There Will Be Blood (Anderson)

Paul Thomas Anderson has admitted that he began working on the script for There Will Be Blood as a sort of writing exercise, to help snap the writer's block he'd been stuck in since trying to come up with a follow-up to Punch-Drunk Love. And after seeing the film, I have to say that this little piece of information sounds about right. The finished product certainly has an aggressive, off-kilter charm, but I still can't escape the feeling that for all its grandiosity and fire, There Will Be Blood was not a story particularly close to Anderson's heart.

To compare Anderson to one of his filmmaking idols, Blood perhaps finds him in his Gangs of New York/Aviator phase. He wants to make great movies, he knows he's made them before, he doesn't want to repeat himself, and yet he doesn't really know what else he wants to say. My favorite film of his so far is Boogie Nights, which may be messy but skates by (oh Roller Girl) on Anderson's pure enthusiasm for the subject. He approaches his characters with a simultaneously satirical and affectionate eye, a balancing act that he milks for all it's worth. We laugh at Dirk Diggler, but we love him, because deep down he is just like us (except for know). Both there and in Magnolia, I really got the sense that Anderson had a personal connection to the characters.

Punch-Drunk Love was the first sign, I thought, of a director who was running out of burningly urgent ideas and was instead relishing the opportunity to show off his film school knowledge. It was a strange movie, and also more distant than his previous work. At the time I remember thinking, "OK, that was cool, but hopefully next time out he'll get back to something more immediate." And now, five years later, we've got There Will Be Blood, which I liked about as much as Punch-Drunk Love.

With Boogie Nights and Magnolia, I had the feeling that Anderson was making movies about the people he knew, the people he liked, the people he rooted for. Daniel Plainview, on the other hand, is more like an idea than a fully conceived character. He is Greed with a capital G, Conquest with a capital C, but human with a lowercase h. OK, sure, so maybe some turn-of-the-century oilmen were actually like this, but my hunch is that most of those guys were decidedly more mundane. They probably sat in their offices and balanced the checkbooks while the immigrants went out and got their hands dirty. Plainview is more fun, but also less plausible.

I'm not saying Anderson should stick to the same kinds of stories with the same old San Fernando Valley lowlifes and losers. But if he wants to make another great movie, I'd like to see him dive a little more into his own soul and really share something personal with us again. Writing exercises are fun but also low risk. I'd like to see him do his Adaptation., his I Heart Huckabees - you know, his "God am I gonna look like an idiot when this is over?" movie. Some have called Blood risky, but for me it was too safe.

Of course, I came in with high expectations, so let's be real here and admit that there's a lot to enjoy. It's never predictable. It's funny and odd. Most of all it never begs for the audience's sympathy. Anderson juggles several provocative themes throughout the storyline: the emptiness of religion vs. the emptiness of capitalism, the way our absolute quest for progress can ultimately ruin the lives of our children, and probably plenty of others if you care to fish for them. But still, I felt like I could actually see Anderson sitting there at his desk cramming all these ideas into the movie, rather than just letting the movie flow through him. It's hard, people. Just ask Scorsese.

Nevertheless, every time Anderson sits down to make a movie, he is trying to make a great one. And for that reason alone, I am still curious to see what he will be making next.

"Film critic" rating: ***1/2
"Little Earl" rating: ***

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Now This Is News

Forget about Eliot Spitzer. How about a woman stuck to a toilet seat? Highlights:

''The smell was overpowering -- a terrible smell about the house, obviously coming from where she was at.''

McFarren, 36, told police his girlfriend, Pam Babcock, 35, had a phobia about leaving the bathroom and may not have left the bathroom in two years, although he's unsure how long she was in there.

He said during that time, he brought her food, water, and clean clothes.

''The unfortunate thing is this truly is a case of two people, in my opinion, with diminished mental capacity,'' Whipple said.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Who's Buying Blu-ray?

I mean really? How many people have been watching their DVDs lately and been thinking "You know, there's just something about this whole experience that is seriously lacking"? Like "Hmm, this picture just isn't clear enough, wouldn't you say, Muffy?" Of course, given that I have never actually experienced a motion picture as presented on a Blu-ray player I am in effect talking entirely out of my buttocks, but that is beside the point. Am I the only one who remains perfectly satisfied with standard DVDs? Perhaps it's because I am of the generation who had to watch all those classic 70s movies on pan-and-scan video. Suddenly when DVDs came out, I was like, "You mean I get the whole picture? Please, don't tease me with your candy-colored visions." I'm still tickled pink that I can freeze a shot in a movie, and it doesn't have all these weird lines all over it! Let's see, the difference between video and DVD is:

widescreen presentation vs. pan-and-scan
jumping from scene to scene in seconds vs. fast-forwarding and rewinding
director's commentary, special features, subtitles, language options, etc. etc. get the idea

The difference between DVD and Blu-ray is:


I mean what? The picture? Look, I'm still pretty satisfied watching movies on my piece of crap computer monitor. OK, maybe if I had a ton of money, I'd think about a Blu-ray player. Or maybe I'd take that money and actually make a movie.

Also: Same thing goes for those SACD things. If I don't notice the difference between a record and an mp3, how the hell am I going to notice the difference between a CD and a CD?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Touché Mr. Fish

Responding to my earlier criticisms, Stanley Fish uses his current column to claim that... he wasn't making substantive arguments at all! Instead he's "making arguments about arguments." I've been foolishly playing into his game all along. And to think, he portrayed himself as a bumbling old man in that article about the difficulty of shopping at Starbuck's just to throw me off track. He writes, "Is it the best thing to do? Is it good for the country? These are real questions, but they are not questions I take up..." And why would you? That would be too easy.

Fish taunts me, "I was motivated not by a belief in God — which I may or may not have, you’ll never know," and I am stung. What can you say to a writer who admits, "Given a choice between being trivial and being ethical in any direction whatsoever, I’ll take trivial"? Fish continues, "...a reader of a typical “Think Again” column will have no idea at all where I stand on the issues that catch my attention, because at least for the length of the column (as opposed to real life, which is much longer), I am agnostic on those issues and interested only in the way they are playing out in our present cultural moment." Could it be that he's done it? Has he found a way OUTSIDE the meta-critique and transcended to supramodernity? Given his newfound powers of righteous rhetoricism it may now be proper to think of Fish as a sort of columnist demigod. I will have to reconsider my strategies.

You win this round Stanley.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Why is the Conventional Wisdom Wrong?

Mark Leibovich provides us with a "Scorecard on Conventional Wisdom" over at the NY Times. He concludes that it is often wrong. If the conventional wisdom is now that the conventional wisdom is often wrong, do we need articles about it? The people that report on stuff like this, Wolf Blitzer and Joe Klein for example, are mostly dumb. On top of that, they have no particular expertise in the field. It's only common sense that their opinions will not be first rate.

Leibovich provides a list of assumptions that have been proven wrong. Let's go through these bits of anti-conventional wisdom conventional wisdom.

1. "Bill Clinton will be a great asset to Hillary." - Without Bill, Hillary would not have a chance. Hell, without Bill, Hillary would not even be in the Senate. 50% of the Hillary supporters I talk to hope that she will be elected on the theory that Bill will be the one making the tough decisions. Seems like a dubious and sexist rationale to me, but what can you do?

2. "Money is everything." - Money is everything. Do CNN, Fox, Time-Warner, or NY Times reporters provide coverage out of a sense of civic pride?

3. "Barack Obama has a glass jaw." - This one never made sense. It goes along with the Obama's-never-been-tested meme. Was he going to start crying because everyone was mean to him? Isn't that what Hillary did? Is this really just another way of saying that you're surprised so many people are voting for a black guy?

4. "Hillary Clinton has no sense of humor." - Hillary Clinton may have the greatest sense of humor in the world. However, there's no way to know because she's stiff and awkward while speaking in public.

5. "The presidential race goes on too long." - This is driven by the press. The press is driven by the ease of reporting vacuous political gossip. People don't like presidential races because they are 90% vacuous political gossip. I could fit all the substantive information I've learned about the candidates from mainstream political writing on one double-spaced, 12-point, Times New Roman page.

In conclusion Mr. Leibovich, the conventional wisdom is wrong all the time because all of you are just guessing.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

I'm Not There (Haynes)

I'm wondering if it would be possible to evaluate the quality of I'm Not There without simultaneously becoming bogged down in a lengthy discussion on my rather mixed feelings toward Bob Dylan himself, for that is an essay of a more thorough nature. Perhaps I'll just keep it brief and say that I like him more than the average pop music listener does, but I don't like him as much as most rock critics do. If someone starts ripping on him, for example, I almost feel like a fan. But when hardcore Dylan nuts start going on and on about the pure transcendence of "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," I just scratch my head in befuddlement. Occasionally I've been inclined to think that decades of effusive praise for Dylan's work is a case of the Emperor having no clothes; as John Lennon once said, "Dylan got away with murder." But when someone like Yoggoth tells me that he thinks Dylan is at least as good and possibly better than the Beatles, I just have to shrug and say "De gustibus non est disputandum."

And so it is that I came into I'm Not There with a mixture of excitement and skepticism. Excitement because I admired Todd Haynes' previous film, Far From Heaven, and because it seemed that the premise of having several different actors represent Dylan (even of different races and genders) was delightfully off-the-wall and ridiculous. Skepticism because I only like Dylan so much, and this seemed like a film geared almost exclusively toward those who speak of Dylan in that hushed, reverential tone I tend to reserve for the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. "How good could it be?," I told myself. "Even if Haynes has made the world's greatest Dylan movie, it's still know...a Dylan movie."

And although that evaluation is ultimately not too far off, I enjoyed I'm Not There immensely. Yes, maybe Haynes has made "just a Dylan movie," but he really went balls to the wall with his "just a Dylan movie." For what he set out to do, he did splendidly. The problem with most biopics, I think, is usually a lack of effort. Most filmmakers figure that since people already know their subject's basic story, they don't need to try very hard to make the actual film itself entertaining/dramatically convincing/educational/aesthetically adventurous/evocative/weird/etc. I'm Not There does not have this problem. Haynes has submerged himself in a big ocean of Dylan: he packs the movie with so many knowing references and bizarre snippets that you feel like you're almost swimming around in an artist's work. If every biopic of a classic rock musician were made with the level of enthusiasm that Todd Haynes brought to I'm Not There, then I would be a happy man.

But when the credits rolled, I didn't feel as though my life had been enriched in any way. I had a good time, but didn't discover anything new about Dylan, Haynes, myself, or life in general. And this is where Haynes' approach arguably falls short. The standard critical word on I'm Not There is that "at least it's not another cliched, pseudo-uplifting Oscarbait biopic" along the lines of, say, Ray or Walk The Line. Not being an admirer of Walk The Line, I do not mind such an insult. But I bristle at the insinuation of Ray being "Oscar cheese" while I'm Not There is held up as a work of great artistic integrity. Ray, I feel, was the perfect example of a musical biopic that worked, and it worked because the film's director, Taylor Hackford, submerged himself in a big ocean of Ray when he made it. Hackford's enthusiasm and grasp of even the smallest details of Ray Charles' career came through. When Ray was over, I felt like I had learned something about Ray Charles that I hadn't known before. Hell, I felt like I learned something about myself. By contrast, Walk The Line was disappointing precisely because I was hoping to be submerged in an ocean of Cash, but instead I was only lightly doused with a squirt gun of Cash.

My point is, splitting Bob Dylan into eight different people was not necessarily the only way to make a great Bob Dylan film. In fact, I think one could make a great Dylan biopic featuring the same actor playing Dylan. I might actually enjoy such a movie more. There is this awkward veneration of "Dylan the shape-shifter" that I don't really understand. It seems like Dylan fans have continually re-written the script of their own fandom in a way that seems a little forced to me. It's like, "Oh, so he's not the folkie hero, he's the guy that constantly wants to change, know what the best part about Bob Dylan is? It's that he's the guy that constantly wants to change!" Sure, yeah, I guess so. My favorite work of Dylan's might actually be his Chronicles book, because there he seems to admit that he's basically been a normal guy who's never really changed in any profound way throughout his career and that his fans have probably read too much into his artistic choices. Maybe so and maybe not. But I don't think Dylan is "above" the standard biopic format. It would just have to be done with care.

Maybe every great musician deserves two biopics: the standard one and the crazy one. I wouldn't complain.

"Film critic" rating: ***1/2
"Little Earl" rating: ***1/2

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Moses Was High!

Was Moses High On Mt. Sinai? - MSNBC

Maybe Jesus was just drunk. Maybe Abraham was on Vicodin!

Monday, March 3, 2008

What Would Ayn Rand Say?

In one of the worst New York Times articles I've read, Nicolai Ouroussoff describes a new development that is being planned in Dubai. The project will consist of a six and half square mile artificial Manhattan. Artificial in the sense that the island is landfill, and also in the sense that they are copying the actual Manhattan. Oh, and throwing in one of those London egg-buildings. This will manifest architect Rem Koolhaas' unique and wonderful "generic city" concept. Koolhaas believes, "in its profound sameness, the generic city [is] a more accurate reflection of contemporary urban reality than nostalgic visions of New York or Paris." What better reflection of a generic city than...a generic city??

The article continues:

"The mixed-use project, startling in scale, is a carefully considered critique not just of the generic city but of a potentially greater evil: the growing use of high-end architecture as a tool for self-promotion."

Critiquing the generic city and self-promotion by building a generic city with your name on it - brilliant!

"The way Mr. Koolhaas addresses the island’s isolation raises the most difficult questions. If his island of densely packed towers evokes a fragment of the great 20th-century metropolis, it can also conjure its dystopian twin: a miniaturized version of a city of glittering towers built for the global elite, barricaded against the urban poor and its makeshift shantytowns. (Think of George A. Romero’s 2005 flick, “Land of the Dead,” with its menacing corporate masters peering down on a world of faceless zombies.)"

"But the thrust of his strategy is to turn the logic of the gated community on its head: isolation becomes a way to trap urban energy rather than keep it out."

Alright, I can't keep a straight face anymore. Koolhaas is turning the logic of the gated community on its head by building the world's largest gated community? And he's doing this by building it for Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, the guy who brags about building the first gated communities in Arabia?

"Whatever the answers, Mr. Koolhaas’s design proves once again that he is one of the few architects willing to face the crisis of the contemporary city — from its growing superficiality to its deadening sterility — without flinching."

So this is postmodernism for the profoundly lazy. Why bother to change anything about a concept you are critiquing? Just do the exact same thing and let New York Times columnists sort it out. So we come to my original question - what would Ayn Rand say? Koolhaas and al-Maktoum are realizing their personal vision. Their vision is to innovate by strict imitation. Undeniably a novel approach. Now that I think about it, this project has a lot in common with that George Romero movie. Both are poorly conceived, derivative, and boring. Both have facile justifications tacked on to massage their creators' egos. All they need now is Dennis Hopper. Sheik al-Maktoum, you can make it happen.

Yoggoth here - turning the logic of blogging on its head, challenging generic self-promotion, and facing the crisis of superficial sterility one post at a time.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

7. The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs (1999)

I am convinced that the phrase "more than the sum of its parts" was coined to describe the slippery magic of 69 Love Songs. Taken individually, each of the album's elements are slightly enjoyable, perhaps, but not amazingly impressive - sort of like a well-executed bunt. Only when experienced all together does it become clear that the album is a home run.

For years I had only heard 69 Love Songs piecemeal, and didn't understand what all the fuss was about until I listened to it all the way through. Down at KDVS, they had a promotional CD featuring "highlights" from the album. I don't remember exactly which songs were on it, but after having read reviews comparing the band to Belle and Sebastian, I wasn't too impressed. Belle and Sebastian songs were delicately woven fortresses of melody and instrumentation; Magnetic Fields tracks came off as disposable and flimsy by comparison.

A few years later, Yoggoth began sharing his enthusiasm for the album and in an effort to spread the word, he made his own "highlights" mix and passed it along to a select few. This I liked a good deal more, perhaps having lowered my expectations after the first encounter. Even still, the album seemed more of an intriguing novelty than a serious indie-pop heavyweight contender. Finally, in grad school, I got my hands on all three discs, and listened to the album all the way through, and it was only then that I truly understood.

Because 69 Love Songs is a once-in-a-lifetime musical balancing act. At first glance you'd think this album could have been better in many tangible ways. For instance, about a third of the songs are gimmicky throwaways that could have been jettisoned and the album wouldn't have been too much worse for the wear, right? And about a third of the songs sound like they were written in two minutes flat and recorded in three minutes flat with no instrumentation other than a ukelele. Besides, in small doses, sure the lyrical conceit is funny, but over the course of three CDs doesn't it eventually exhaust its "songwriting exercise" charm?

Such were a few of my thoughts as I began absorbing this 69-headed beast. But as I tried sharpening all my criticisms, I soon realized that "fixing" any of these elements would not have actually made the album any better. Yes, only about 25 of these songs are truly first-rate. But 69 Love Songs would not have been better as 25 Love Songs, many other albums are 25 Love Songs! The charm of 69 Love Songs is that is it a big smorgasbord of tracks that the listener can simply get lost in and uniform quality is not really the priority. Released in 1999, 69 Love Songs is actually the ultimate album for the mp3 age: it almost begs listeners to compile their own mixes of album highlights out of its sprawling potpourri. But just because some songs are better than others doesn't mean it shouldn't have been released as a three-disc album. Better to have given us the whole collection and let us pick our own favorites.

And yes, a three-disc album featuring only ukelele would have been torture - so Stephen Merritt knew to change up the predominantly acoustic instrumentation with a choice sprinkling of electronic tracks. Just when we've heard one too many piano ballads, a bouncy synth-pop song comes along to reignite the flagging momentum. And yes, 69 songs sung by Merritt and his admittedly soothing croon would have nevertheless become dreadfully monotonous - so he divvied up the vocal duties between himself and four other distinctively different singers, male and female. This way, even though we know he wrote every song himself, the album still has the aura of a group project, which gives it an energy it would have otherwise lacked. And yes, taking even the best songs here and playing them alongside a killer Belle and Sebastian or Elliott Smith track would probably make them seem cheap and somewhat lazy by comparison, but if you stand back and comprehend the sheer diversity of styles and sounds on the album, you will realize that very few albums from any era can touch it. And yes, most of the songs are laced with heavy doses of irony and sarcasm, but some of them, such as "My Only Friend" and "Busby Berkeley Dreams," are quite serious.

So there you go. It's a miracle that it all works, but in pop music, miracles arise from the most ephemeral ingredients. Just think about it: there are so many ways this album could have been bad. If all the songs were jokes, then this album might have been good for a couple of laughs. But they're not. If all the songs were cheesy ukelele throwaways, then you'd be insane to utter this in the same breath as Belle and Sebastian. But they're not. If all the songs were sung by Stephen Merritt, then you'd want to smash your computer into 69 little pieces. But they're not. He anticipated every criticism one might have made about the project and he addressed it with just the right dose of whatever-it-is. I'd give him more credit aside from the fact that no other Magnetic Fields album, as far as I can tell, comes close to achieving this kind of aesthetic harmony.

Maybe Stephen Merritt should consider doing 69 Religious Songs.