29 December 2007

"I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed."

Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is a masterpiece. I cannot recall the last time I left a movie theater so certain that I had seen a true work of art; I cannot remember the last film I saw that displayed such audacious ambitions and the means to fulfill them. Certainly the triumph belongs to Mr. Anderson, who wrote and directed the film, and has finally realized his true potential, but perhaps even more so to its star, Daniel Day-Lewis, who, more than merely inhabiting oil man Daniel Plainview, seems to summon him forth; I do not know how such a raw evocation of rage, passion, and violence can simply be considered acting. Obviously, if I proceed in this vein I will quickly exhaust all of my superlatives: for as laudatory a review as I could possibly conjure, and far more eloquently accomplished, I refer you to Manohla Dargis's write-up in the New York Times.

Some stray thoughts:

- Much has been made of There Will Be Blood's thematic connections, especially to Citizen Kane, an obvious antecedent. However, little has been mentioned with regards to the film's stylistic influences. Strangely enough, the feel of the movie reminded me of nothing so much as the psychological horror films of the late '60s and early '70s, especially Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, William Friedkin's The Exorcist, and Richard Donner's The Omen, all of which trafficked heavily in the atmospherics but doled out the scares rather sparingly (especially when compared with today's buckets of blood rape fantasies). Certainly Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood's outstanding score, all dischordant strings and rampaging percussion, plays no small part in this, evoking an undertow of existential dread throughout. Yet even the very composition of the images seems somehow indebted to these films: faces half cloaked in shadow and bathed in firelight, sinister religious iconography, Plainview's son H.W.'s attire - just check out the trailer and you'll see what I mean.

- About the ending, which has, in particular, been seized upon by many critics as the film's Achilles' heel. David Denby, capping an otherwise rave review in The New Yorker, said:
The scene is a mistake, but I think I know why it happened. Anderson started out as an independent filmmaker, with “Hard Eight” (1996) and “Boogie Nights” (1997). In “Blood,” he has taken on central American themes and established a style of prodigious grandeur. Yet some part of him must have rebelled against canonization. The last scene is a blast of defiance—or perhaps of despair. But, like almost everything else in the movie, it’s astonishing.
Without spoiling the film for you, I would just note that the film is called There Will Be Blood, not There Might Be Blood. Yes, the finale approaches the Grand Guignol in terms of staginess, and to some extent, gore. But after watching two and half hours of a man as bottled tightly against the obviously ruthless impulses that throb just beneath his surface, is it so unreasonable to expect an explosion? Is it "over the top," as Denby has it? Only, I suppose, if you believe that Daniel Day-Lewis' Plainview has a top to go over, or a bottom, for that matter.

27 December 2007

Dysfunction Junction

Some thoughts on The Savages:

Indie movie checklist:
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman (check)
  • Laura Linney (check)
  • main characters with professions that no real human being has but appeal to upwardly-mobile yupster indie movie audience types (theatre professor and aspiring playwright, repsectively) (check)
  • familial obligation pulling dysfuctional family back together to contemplate meaning of family/relationships to each other (check)
  • Kinks song on soundtrack (check)
  • Offbeat locations (Sun City, Arizona and Buffalo, NY) (Check)
  • Indie-rific cartoon iconography (check)
  • Cute offbeat animal scene (check)
I saw this movie at 4:10 pm on a Thursday in Chatham, New Jersey, which put me at about 20 years junior to the next youngest audience member. I have to wonder what the elderly think about representations of senior citizens that are a) clearly designed for the amusement of us younger folks - old people dancing in sparkling Busby Berkeley-type outfits, riding on bicycles built for two, getting their nails done whilst catatonic (though, to be fair, the movie resists the temptation to play dementia for heartwarming laughs or sentimental kindling), or b) show the end of life in graphic detail. Basically, if you were 75 and with it, how would you feel about scenes of your septuagenarian peers fouling themselves or playing around with their feces? Is it like a sneak preview of a living hell? Is there some kind of elaborate subconscious process of dissociation? Are seniors so accustomed to watching friends and loved ones go down that very same road that it's like water off a duck's back? Weird.

P.S. I suppose I should say that I liked the The Savages a great deal, though "enjoyed" may be too strong a word, given the subject matter. The movie has been pitched as a kind of dark comedy, which it isn't, though I think the marketing has been designed to get asses into the seats in anticipation that "two siblings deal with end-of-life care for estranged father" might not exactly be a tempting enough inducement. However it's never depressing or heavy handed; even the budget nursing home Linney and Hoffman choose for their father is, though obviously far from luxuriant, not drearily antiseptic. As for the acting, both stars are excellent, though I feel that Linney has been given more of the load to shoulder, standing in as a proxy for writer-director Tamara Jenkins; Hoffman, who has received more of the laurels, turns in a fine performance as well, playing an unsleazy version of his "Mattress King" character from Punch Drunk Love. It's a shame to say, but The Savages is precisely the type of muted, small-scale effort that racks up a couple of nominations and critcs' awards, but gets lost among the more biff-pow Oscar-season fare, like Charlie Wilson's War, Sweeney Todd, and There Will Be Blood. It doesn't deserve to be. Bucks are limited; at least check it out when it arrives on DVD.

26 December 2007

Death Worse Than Fate

The premise of the Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men is simple: man (Lewellyn Moss, a cowboy played with industrious quietude by Josh Brolin) stumbles upon a drug deal-cum-grisly shootout ex post facto, recovering a case containing $2 million; parties to whom we are meant to believe the case rightfully (or wrongfully) belongs set out after him. Chief among these pursuers is Anton Chigurh, a psychotic obelisk equipped with a cattle stun gun and played by a haircut posing as as Javier Bardem. Not since The Terminator have filmgoers been presented with a killer so singular of purpose, so intractable, as to seem more an Act of God than a three dimensional human being. Figuring as the final leg in this triathlon of pursuit is Tommy Lee Jones as a third generation sheriff on his last legs, outpaced by the sheer volume of blood spilt before him.

For its first two acts, the film slots nicely into the kind of quirkified noir that the Coens have perfected in Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, and Fargo (and on the lighter side of things, some might say, The Big Lebowski). It's their first adaptation, based upon the novel of the same title by Cormac McCarthy (who's having a big year; his latest work, The Road, won the Pulitzer for fiction). No Country's literary provenance shows through in its final third, after the shooting (or most of it, at least) ends, when the film becomes a philosophical meditation on fate - almost like a blood-soaked Magnolia.

Audiences anticipating an ultraviolent neo-western road movie - which, to be fair, is pretty much what the film's trailer promises - will doubtlessly be disappointed; such was clearly the reaction amongst the crowd I saw the movie with. No Country For Old Men is a movie without a climax, or rather a film with many climaxes which never leads to the satisfactory final showdown we have been conditioned to expect. This seems to be the point: that violence is the apogee of senselessness even when its purpose is clear, an act bigger than those victimized by it or those who perpetrate it. Twice in the film Chigurh presents his quarry with the option of calling a coin flip heads or tails, with their life the wager - a gesture which at first suggests a sadistic ambivalence, but in a larger sense, is a microcosm of the intricate workings of fate that brought he and his prey together in the first instance. That kind of fate is inexorable: you can't stop it with a heroic bullet to the head, no matter how well deserved. To say that such a nihilistic battleground is no place for old men might be an understatement.

25 December 2007

American Pastoral

Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven begins in an early 20th century Chicago represented, in triptych, as a trash-strewn ruin, an industrial Gehenna, and a Gordian knot of railroad ties before the action shifts to the West Texas panhandle: an ocean of wheat, light and space dotted only by a single, severe house, a constricted absurdity rising in defiance of the surrounding void. This new setting suggests an Eden reconceived as a rural American idyll; such a Biblical allusion would be of a piece with the film's two central motifs, wrath and flight. Bill, a steelworker played with vacant rebelliousness by Richard Gere, accidently kills his supervisor in a fit of rage, forcing him to flee the city with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and little sister Linda (Linda Manz) in tow. Working the wheat harvest of a wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard), Bill and Abby - who have posed throughout as brother and sister to protect themselves against accusations of impropriety - decide to exploit the farmer's attentions towards her by having her accept his proposal of marriage. The plan has been hatched on the belief that the farmer (he is unnamed in the film) hasn't long to live; when he fails to expire or show any recognizable signs of deterioration, awkwardness transfigures into claustrophobia and suspicion. Bill and Abby's masquerade wears thin, and the farmer slowly uncovers their subterfuge. He confronts Bill, who flies off with a visiting aerial circus, and during Bill's absence cements his marriage to Abby; Bill's return at the start of the harvest - we never learn his whereabouts during his months-long absence - is accompanied by a devastating plague of locusts. Another Biblical allusion. More destruction; more death; more running.

The very title Days of Heaven refers to our infinite, self-defeating capacity to cast ourselves out of paradise should we ever find ourselves in it. Bill and Abby, finding themselves in secure material circumstances for the first time in their lives, cannot suppress their love for one another, the price of said security. Yet never do we, the audience, feel that they are trading a lesser happiness for a greater one, as is the custom in these types of fables. Rather we see only the paradise lost, a land of constant twilight traded in for a compromised existence; not the greater of two happinesses, but no happiness at all. Even in death, we do not, as is again so often the case, feel as though at least love in principle has triumphed. Instead there is a profound sense of inevitability as the film draws to a close, an epilogue consumed with yet more scenes of flight. This time a great wandering, but paradise no more.

24 December 2007

The Re-Up

Get familiar

HBO's The Wire returns for its fifth and final season on January 6th. I've said enough about the show here, so I just would like to take the opportunity to encourage those of you with access to HBO to watch before it, like all other good things, comes to an end. One reason, at least, to look forward to 2008.

Unfinished Business

Videogames and rappers: like peanut butter and kung fu

Post-list pre-2008:

Wu Tang Clan - 8 Diagrams (SRC/Universal Motown)
Yeasayer - All Hour Cymbals (We Are Free)
Robert Wyatt - Comicopera (Domino)
Stars of the Lid - And Their Refinement of Decline (Kranky)
King Khan & the Shrines - What Is?! (Hazelwood)
Dinosaur Jr - Beyond (Fat Possum)
Sir Richard Bishop - Polytheistic Fragments (Drag City)
Black Dice - Loaded (Paw Tracks)
Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha (Fat Possum)
PJ Harvey - White Chalk (Island)
DJ/Rupture vs. Filastine - Shotgun Wedding Vol. 6 (Violent Turd)
Chromatics - Night Drive (Italians Do It Better)


Fugazi - Repeater + 3 Songs (Dischord)
Neil Young - Live Rust (Reprise)
Ghostface Killah - More Fish (Def Jam)
Steely Dan - Gaucho (MCA)
Sly and the Family Stone - There's a Riot Goin' On (Epic/Legacy)
Roxy Music - Roxy Music (Virgin)
Roxy Music - Stranded (Virgin)
Pylon - Gyrate Plus (DFA)
Portishead - Dummy (Go!/London)
Massive Attack - Mezzanine (Virgin)
Meat Puppets - II (SST/Ryko)
The Clash - Sandinista! (CBS/Epic)
Depeche Mode - Violator (Mute/Sire)
Chuck Berry - The Great Twenty-Eight (MCA)
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (Warner Bros.)
V/A - Idol Tryouts Two (Ghostly International)
Burial - Burial (Hypedub)

23 December 2007

Breathless, A Film By Jean-Luc Godard

Seen from the front, the packaging for the Criterion Collection edition of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (À bout de souffle) is rather spartan. Unlike most other Criterion boxes, there is no still from the film, nor any other graphic representation of the contents therein, just "Breathless, a film by Jean-Luc Godard": a simple fact stated simply.

And Breathless is a simple film in many respects: shot in black and white on a low budget with a tiny cast and crew, the movie is a compact yarn about a small-time Parisian hood who shoots a cop, sequesters himself with an American girl while he ducks the police, and gets gunned down by the gendarmes when she turns him in. It's an archetype owing most to Dillinger, whose girlfriend sold him out to the G-men who would gun him down in an alley next to Chicago's Biograph movie theater; the young Godard, who had been a critic for Cahiers du cinema, dedicated Breathless to Monogram Pictures, an American studio known for knocking out gangster B-pictures, including a 1945 version of Dillinger.

Yet saying Breathless is a gangster picture is like saying that David Lynch's Blue Velvet is a murder mystery. Before Breathless, movies were vehicles that took audiences from point A to point B, playing by a certain set of rules. Breathless, on the other hand, treats its plot with a kind of ambivalence, moving from point to point as if keeping an appointment. Fully a third of the film takes place in Patricia's (Jean Seberg) bedroom as Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) tries to bed her - a digression that does nothing to move the film "forward." Furthermore, the actors look and behave as if they belong in a movie: Belmondo with his too-large tweed jacket and insectile sunglasses exuding a cynicism and diffidence well in advance of his too-few years; Seberg with her movie star posturing, her youthful indifference to being wrapped up with a murderer - indeed, when she turns Belmondo's character in, she does so not because she is wracked with guilt or afraid of any consequences, but simply because it is what her character is expected to do.

Godard has claimed time and again that his intention was to make a genre picture, and in doing so, bend it to his own intellectual and theoretical purposes, explicitly building off of a preexisting cinematic language. In that sense, it can be said that Breathless is a movie of a movie; in an interview with Cahiers du cinema, Godard himself admitted that Belmondo's character dies at the end of the film because his "avowed ambition was to make an ordinary gangster film" and therefore, he "had no business deliberately contradicting the genre." This supreme self-awareness is both an act of reverence and of deconstruction; a contradiction that gets to the very root of why a film such as Breathless endures while those that inspired it have faded into obscurity. Speaking of himself and his colleagues in the New Wave, Godard said, "When we were at last able to make films, we could no longer make the kind of films that made us want to make films." In making Breathless, he exposed the fallacy of trying to do so.

18 December 2007

Don't Tase Me "Bros."

I can't believe it either

This is the modern equivalent of "Dewey Defeats Truman."

Other thoughts:
  • Definitely the most obscure list I've seen yet (which will probably be much to Idolator's private delight, if still not immune from public snark); I had to check to see whether or not Pitchfork actually reviewed all of these albums, a distinction which used to belong to Stylus (R.I.P.).
  • Only three dance-oriented albums, all of them predictable: The Field, Villalobos' Fabric mix, and Justice (seems a little high at 15). And no, I'm not counting Dan Deacon, who is a shit dog eating horror show with an incomprehensible Rasputin-like, no, Isiah-Thomas-on-Jim-Dolan-like hold on certain rock critics' ears.
  • NO heavy metal albums whatsoever, not even a token Boris or Jesu record.
  • Jay-Z's American Gangster is the best rap album of the year? Really? Don't get me wrong, I actually had it a spot higher on my list, but I also pegged it behind Kanye's Graduation and Lil Wayne's Da Drought 3.
  • The National at 17. A lot of people had this pegged as a dark horse contender for no. 1; someone I know is shitting himself purple this morning.
  • For a site that played it "cooler than thou" when it came to not including Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" - the runaway single of 2006 - on its songs list last year because it had been an ultra obscure white label in 2005, it sure was interesting that they included Sally Shapiro's 2006 singles comp this time around.
  • Finally someone recognizes that Neon Bible was a middle of the pack record at best this year.
  • Finally someone gives Of Montreal their proper due.
  • If I'm going to have to choose between Patrick Wolf and Jens Lekman, I'm taking Patrick Wolf every single goddamned time.
  • Between Panda Bear's Person Pitch shocker and Animal Collective's Strawberry Jam placing in the top ten, I would say that those guys are officially the indie rock Wu Tang Clan, especially since the real Wu Tang Clan placed much, much farther down the list.
  • Notable new trend: the garage rock revival revival, with Black Lips' Good Bad Not Evil, King Kahn & the Shrines' What Is?!, Liars' Liars (fuck you I'm counting it), and 2007's most startling inclusion, The White Stripes' Icky Thump at no. 39 with a bullet. Sadly, the girl group revival Pitchfork has been grooming us to expect for a year or two now remains stalled with only the Pipettes (who, you ask?) and, uh, Grizzly Bear having made it past the beach.
  • Notable omissions: it's always fun to see what was once "Best New Music" or "Recommended" but has since fallen by the wayside. This year Chromatics, Sunset Rubdown, Blitzen Trapper (yuck), and The Clientele all saw their stocks sag as the year wore on. More surprising exclusions are Besnard Lakes' Are the Dark Horse (8.2), Prodigy's Return of the Mac (8.5), A Sunny Day in Glasgow's Scribble Mural Comic Journal (8.0), and Gui Boratto's Chromophobia (8.3). The most telling/embarrassing snub, of course, would have to be A Place to Bury Strangers, whose self-titled debut landed 'BNM' and were being groomed in features as the site's next Clap Your Hands Say Yeah/Deerhunter indie svengali project. Yet even P'fork wised up, and seeing no one else on the train, ditched AP2BS with nary a peep; meanwhile, be on the look out for the Black Kids' debut LP sometime in 2008!
  • The "Loved You in January, Forgot You By June Award" has to go to Menomena, whose Friend and Foe was declared by the site to be "the first great indie rock record of the new year"; evidently it was far from the last.
  • The "Loved You in 2005, Forgot to Tip You at Starbucks in 2007" award, meanwhile, goes to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, whose self-released follow-up to their self-released debut (Radiohead...not invent...self-releasing of albums, you say?) sank with nary a trace in January: quick, see if you can name it!

17 December 2007

Lemon = Penis, FYI


Because I don't have original thoughts, I have to steal/critique other peoples' (what part of "blog" didn't you understand?), so I figure I'd give a few inches...ha ha...to Sasha Frere-Jones' telegraphed punch in the pages of the New Yorker this week, his ruminations on Led Zeppelin circa 2007. Led Zep, or at least the remaining members thereof - Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones - and late drummer John Bonham's son, Jason, played their first show under the "Zeppelin" banner since 1985 at London's O2 Arena last week. The arena holds roughly 22,000; 20 million people applied for the presale ticket lottery.

The critical story on Led Zeppelin is thus: panned initially for being faux-bluesman cave dwelling sexist guitar wankery of the first order; they sell a bazillion records and after 1971's Led Zeppelin IV (that's what I'm calling it) they become the biggest band in the world; critics reassess Zeppelin and hail them as visionary rock gods; critics brought up in the '70s and '80s anti-commercial DIY punk and indie scenes pan them again as embarrassing classic rock dinosaurs (stories about violating nubile groupies with mud sharks surely didn't help); anti-rockists do the same, for completely different reasons; presently an uneasy balance exists, though Zep's place in the rock and roll pantheon is secured by their enduring popularity with, ya know, actual people, which by this point is probably second only to The Beatles. And I guess that's why I question the need for a quote-unquote reevaluation of Led Zeppelin. Sure, it's opportune as the band has finally dangled the prospect of cashing in on their formidable legacy (highest ratio of great songs per album ever?) with a full-blown reunion tour, but what can Frere-Jones tell us that we haven't heard a million times before?

Part of the problem inevitably is that Zeppelin is one of the least difficult bands to decode in rock and roll. New thoughts cannot be provoked by outside interlocutors; new perspectives are wholly unnecessary. John Bonham hits hard, Jimmy Page shreds insanely, Robert Plant voice is simply improbable, and John Paul Jones is a pretty fucking good bass player. They electrified the blues (outright stealing them in some cases), mixed in the English folk that had been resurgent in the late '60s, and heaped on the blink-and-how-
could-you-possibly-miss-them Tolkein references. Oh, and "Kashmir" displays "Eastern" influences. This isn't to say that Zeppelin are shallow, but they are definitely accessible in ways that require little higher brain function to appreciate. In essence they're archetypally "rock and roll", which is to say they're positively fucking great.

Frere-Jones says old things in new ways: Bonham "played the drums as if the fate of the universe depended on how hard he could hit them"; Page's guitar was "simultaneously nasty, small, and big, as though a tornado was happening inside a tin can"; Plant's "cackles and screeches don't belong to any particular pop tradition"; we learn that Jones - a giant, it always seems, among gods, whenever the Zeppelin story gets exhumed - "was especially skilled on keyboards." Sure, it's a more erudite perspective, but let's face it: Led Zeppelin represent Led Zeppelin, a monolithic...monolith. And seeing as they've sold more records than Jesus Christ will when He finally gets around to that sophomore effort we've all been waiting on (presently slated to drop the week before Chinese Democracy, wakka wakka), and virtually everyone in the Western world has become regrettably familiar with at least four of their songs ("Stairway to Heaven", "Rock and Roll", "Whole Lotta Love", "Kashmir") before exiting their teens, it's not exactly clear what restating the facts does, other than affirm that a super cool real live professional rock critic concurs with what every 16 year old with a blacklight and a bong already has etched in his DNA.

As for the show, it was a competition between old age and Led Zeppelin's incredible catalogue, and the audience won.

16 December 2007

Oblique Strategies

I'm tired of using technology

Listening to Load Blown, Black Dice's (MySpace) first album for new label Paw Tracks, the imprint owned by fellow free-formers/ex-touring partners Animal Collective. Black Dice's prior home was DFA records, where they released three albums (Beaches and Canyons, Creature Comforts, and Broken Ear Record - which features some truly eye-gouging artwork) and several singles and EPs, none more seminal than 2002's "Cone Toaster" 12-inch, a plinking, plonking, squeaking, skwonking soundscape that sounds like hip-hop by way of a George Herriman landscape. (Black Dice began life as a hardcore outfit in the Providence scene centered around RISD, but their allegedly violent past bears little sonic relation to their present work.) Even on a label with an aesthetic as far-reaching as DFA's, there was nothing that approximated the sheer "out-ness" of Black Dice's almost-Zen free-play approach; presumably Paw Tracks will offer a more accommodating hole for Black Dice's square peg.

Load Blown isn't really a "new" album, per se: "Manoman", "Gore", and "Toka Toka" made up the band's last DFA 12-inch release, while "Roll Up" and "Drool" comprised their first single for Paw Tracks. Yet there is enough unity of vision here that the label applies. The story of Black Dice since they abandoned hardcore's face-melting, ear splitting thrash - an approach still favored by fellow travelers Wolf Eyes (with whom BD produced a 2003 split LP) and Lightning Bolt (with whom BD shared former member Hisham Bharoocha) - has been the abnegation of the song form, and the long, slow process of reconstituting it. On Beaches and Canyons and Creature Comforts, Black Dice's songs had an improvised quality to them, like an experimental film where a camera is fixed upon a spot, and whatever wanders into frame becomes the finished product. With 2005's Broken Ear Record and attendant single "Smiling Off", a new sense of structure came into play; the compositions became more focused upon a central rhythm, around which the other sonic elements would loosely orbit. Load Blown progresses in this vein, with each track coming to a direct head almost straight away: the music is predictable in a way which is pleasing - you can nail it down in your head and get the hang of it while you're listening, keeping you mentally engaged. Tracks like "Roll Up" and "Gore" are still delightfully left field, but they're far from passive or impressionist; Black Dice are trying to take you somewhere with these songs, speaking in a kind of ur-pop tongue.

An interesting analog is Animal Collective's Strawberry Jam, another record trying to feel its way towards the pop form while preserving a kind of oblique, avant-garde whimsy. Indeed, AC's "Peacebone" single, with its percolating 8-bit synths, sounds like something of a not-too-distant cousin to the lusher electronic textures on Load Blown. Neither of these bands have any hopes (nor any prayers, I dare say) of breaking through to the mainstream, but they seem keen to maintain and expand upon their relation to it; and vice-versa perhaps. I'm probably not the only one to hear 50 Cent's "Ayo Technology" and draw a connection between what Nick Sylvester has termed Timbaland's "Ghosts and Goblins beat" and what's going on here.

Socialist Surrealism

"You are not shooting to kill. You are firing at the past."

Black and white has a way of taking the most lush, colorfully inviting places on Earth and transforming them into alien wastelands, harsh and foreboding. In Mikhail Kalatazov's I Am Cuba, the Caribbean is tar-black, lapping at a chalky beach studded with bleached-out palm trees; sugar cane rises incongruously out of a gray desert. The monochromatic palette fits the film's political sensibilities: a joint production between the Soviet Union and Cuba, the movie serves as an ex post facto justification for Castro's revolution and subsequent regime. Westerners buy and sell the flesh of the poor for prurient delight; a sharecropper is informed that the lands he has worked his whole life have been sold off to the United Fruit Company and that he and his family must leave; a gang of American sailors accosts a woman in the street; a boy is martyred for distributing pro-Castro leaflets.

Like other similarly situated works of agitprop, such as Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, and Frank Capra's Why We Fight, Kalatazov's film is a marvel of the artform, a potent mixture of pensive lyricism and technical virtuosity. The camera swoops, soars, pans, and tilts, producing a riot of imagery so bold that it is difficult to believe that it could have been birthed in the confines of the Soviet system. Steven Holden's 1995 New York Times' review (the film, completed in 1964, was not screened in the U.S. until after the Cold War) stated it perfectly when he opined that I Am Cuba "suggests Eisenstein filtered through 'La Dolce Vita' with an Afro-Cuban pulse. " Certainly Fellini and Eisenstein (of course) are two of the touchstones here, but also present are the influences of King Vidor and D.W. Griffith, a potent combination that threatens to subdue the film's overt political content.

Obviously, I Am Cuba's political legacy is a key deterrent to its widespread appreciation, as the Soviet system has since collapsed and Castro remains rightly reviled as a brutal authoritarian. Yet the images of repression and dispossession in the film do not smack of hamfisted falsity, nor are they fatally compromised like Riefenstahl's Nazi-era works. That such a fugue as Kalatazov weaves here could be a poison pen letter rhapsodically proclaiming a new bootheel pinned to the throat of the Cuban people he celebrates is one of the perverse ironies of art and history. Such is the risk the utopian runs.

14 December 2007

Bill-bored 2007

If they hate then let 'em hate and watch the money pile up

Normally, I would field a singles/songs extravaganza to a) compliment the albums list I put out last week, and b) further stoke my delusions of grandeur, but frankly, the mind/body divide was too much to overcome in 2007. Typically the complaints run the other way: just Google any of Christgau's Pazz & Jop essays from the late '70s and early '80s and the recurring complaint amongst the electorate is "so many terrific singles, so few worthy albums." But after a bumper crop in '06 (courtesy of, in large part, Timbaland's collaborations with Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake), perhaps we were due for a down year pop-wise in '07. This year a lot of great albums spoke to the head, but not a lot of tracks spoke to the ass, and there weren't a lot of "What's Going On"s to pick up the slack. I'm keeping it to a hard-fought ten:

1. Rihanna feat. Jay-Z - "Umbrella" (video)
2. LCD Soundsystem - "All My Friends" (video)
3. M.I.A. - "Jimmy" (video)
4. Justice - "D.A.N.C.E." (video)
5. Shackleton - "Blood On My Hands (Villalobos Remix)" (mp3 via The Book I Read)
6. Kanye West - "Stronger" (video)
7. Feist - "My Moon My Man" (video)
8. M.I.A. - "Paper Planes" (video)
9. Burial - "Archangel" (mp3 via Redthreat)
10. Miranda Lambert - "Famous in a Small Town" (video)

"Got You In A Corner"

No pussyfooting around

Wire's version of "12XU" was a direct blast of arty proto-punk, clocking in at a lean 1 minute, 56 seconds, and consisting of the following lyrics:
saw you in a mag
kissing a man
saw you in a mag
kissing a man
smoking a fag
kissing a man
saw you in a mag
kissing a man yeah

saw you in a mag
kissing a man
saw you in a mag
kissing a man
smoking a fag
kissing a man
saw you in a mag
kissing a man yeah

got you in a corner
got you in a corner
got you in a corner
got you in a corner
got you in a cottage
got you in a corner
got you in a corner
oh no no no

Minor Threat's version, faithfully reproduced in the above live performance, lasts 1 minute, 4 seconds, according to the running time listed on the Complete Discography CD; the last four seconds of the track are silence.

13 December 2007

Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Don't Google me son

Nick Sylvester/Spiderfang, proprietor of Riff Market, has a year-end habit of turning over his blog to guest writers to weigh in with their version of "The Year in Riffs" (2006; 2007). Choice bounty:
The venue is a veritable who’s who of local celebrities. Up front, Panthers coach Eric Taylor wonders aloud whether organist Jenny Conlee will cover Laura Veirs’s guest vocals on “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then).” Meanwhile, running back Smash Williams eagerly explains to car dealer Buddy Garrity that “The Bachelor and the Bride” is a reference to the Marcel Duchamp sculpture La mariée mis à nu par ses célibataires, même--of which Garrity, judging by his bored look, is obviously well aware already.

Naming Names

12 December 2007

Teen-Age Riot

Dreams, unfulfilled

When I first heard The Replacements, I thought Paul Westerberg yowled like a hungry cat with a pack a day habit and the guitars sounded like razor wire being yanked through a drain pipe. I hated it then; I love it now, though my shorthand assessment hasn't changed a bit. They formed young (bassist Tommy Stinson was 12 at the time), played youth centers, got drunk, played all over Minneapolis, got drunk, toured the Midwest, got drunk, etc. The erratic nature of the Replacements' live show was so legendary that the band nicknamed themselves The Placemats on nights they were too fucked up to/didn't give a shit about performing well. They managed a contract with Minneapolis independent Twin/Tone after playing only a handful of gigs at a time when not everyone was running a noise imprint out of their Williamsburg loft (earning them the enmity of then-better known scene contemporaries/friendly rivals Husker Du). In their time, the band cut three formative records plagued by obvious growing pains (Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, the "Stink" EP, and Hootenany!), one masterpiece (Let It Be), one near-masterpiece major label debut (Tim), one great-yet-flawed last grasp for pop stardom (Pleased to Meet Me), and two decline-and-fall-of records (Don't Tell a Soul and All Shook Down).

Either The Replacements had a prolonged adolescence or none at all; drinking, drugging, and the fact that they were in rock band seemed to both shove them into maturity while retarding their transition into adulthood. Westerberg's best songs, especially those from the Let It Be/Tim era of 1984-85, are delivered with a teenager's overblown emotional intensity, but they read like letters from a future self: "I Will Dare", perhaps the band's most famous tune, starts off with the lines "How young are you?/How old am I?/Let's count the rings/Around my eyes." Sure, Westerberg was 24 when he wrote that, the same age as Dylan was when he recorded "Like a Rolling Stone"; the difference is that while Dylan sounds preternaturally ageless, Westerberg sounds about sixteen.

Rockers in the '50s idealized teenhood (some might say they helped invent it); in the '60s they tried to outrun it; in the '70s they ignored it. The Replacements, like other seminal '80s groups such as Black Flag and Minor Threat, embraced it, shaking off the fashionable adult obliqueness of the new wave with a directness that stemmed from their personal experiences and those of their audience. Ever since Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" (and likely before), the frustrations of being a teen had been fodder for pop music; instead of making light of these attendant frustrations, The Replacements and their ilk infused them with a sense of desperation. In effect, Alice Cooper's "School's Out" became Paul Westerberg's "Fuck School".

No one stays a teen forever though: Black Flag imploded when Greg Ginn and Henry Rollins got tired of sleeping in vans and couldn't agree on a new direction; Minor Threat outgrew Ian MacKaye's straight-edge self-righteousness, and MacKaye outgrew Minor Threat's willingness to compromise its sound; The Replacements signed with Warner Bros' Sire imprint and decided to go for the big time. 1985's Tim, their first major label effort, was still a great album, nearly standing shoulder to shoulder with Let It Be, but Westerberg's songwriting had perceptibly shifted into a more adult tone. Though the album still teemed with teen standards like "Kiss Me On the Bus" and "Bastards of Young", regret began to seep in where rage had been, and telltale diversions like "Gary's Got a Boner" and "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out" (sample lyric: "Let's get this over with/I tee off in an hour") were replaced with the bizarre stewardess put-down "Waitress In The Sky." By 1987's Pleased to Meet Me, guitarist Bob Stinson was out of the band, and Westerberg's Big Star fixation took center stage: the record even featured a direct homage to his inspiration, "Alex Chilton." Though he had finally banished the messiness from the instrumentation, Westerberg could never rub it out of his own voice; for all its pop ambition, Pleased to Meet Me - a fine record in its own right - failed to break the 'Mats commercially. The rest is denouement.

The Replacements - "Bastards of Young" from Tim (1985)

I Need a New Cliche and I Need It Yesterday

Shit just got real

Watching The Bourne Ultimatum. Looks like like the producers might have staged a little dry-run for the WGA strike, judging from the amount of recycling going on here:
  • "Our target is a British national - Simon Ross, a reporter. I want all his phones, his BlackBerry, his apartment, his car, bank accounts, credit cards, travel patterns - I want to know what he's going to think before he does. Every dirty little secret he has, and most of all we want the name and real-time location of his source. This is NSA priority level 4. Any questions?"
  • "Listen, people - do you have any idea who you're dealing with? This is Jason Bourne. You are nine hours behind the toughest target you have ever tracked. Now I want everyone to sit down, strap in, and turn on all you've got. That would mean now."
  • "Issue a standing kill order on Jason Bourne, effective immediately."
  • "That's what makes us special. No more red tape. No more getting the bad guys caught on our sights, then watching them escape while we wait for somebody in Washington to issue the order."
Of course, the CIA is also an omnipotent mega-institution with limitless resources that can tap any phone it wants with a couple furious keystrokes; maintains seemingly hundreds of agents in London, of all places; attempts to carry out extraordinary renditions in the middle of Waterloo Station in broad daylight; assassinates foreign journalists at will; and communicates entirely in "I mean business" type cliches. Sadly, this last part is probably not far from the actual truth.

11 December 2007

Kim Jong Il Gets New York Philharmonic in Cultural Exchange; Omar Minaya Still Can't Trade for Top-of-the-Rotation Starter

Since the Rockettes were such a big hit, why the hell not?

The New York Philharmonic is debating whether or not to accept an invitation from the North Korean government to visit Pyongyang for a concert to be broadcast on public radio across the isolated hermit nation. According to this New York Times account, at issue is whether or not the visiting Philharmonic will be permitted to play "The Star-Spangled Banner"; the State Department, which is advising the orchestra, has indicated that the North Koreans are inclined to follow "philharmonic protocol":
Philharmonic protocol calls for anthems to be played on tour during concerts of special importance. In 2002, for example, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played in Japan when the empress attended. Traditionally the host anthem is played first out of courtesy. The United States anthem is always played on opening night of the Philharmonic’s season.

Appetite for Destruction

"What, me worry?"

Following the end of the Cold War, you might have thought that nuclear armageddon, that old Damoclean sword hanging over, you know, humanity, would have been consigned to the dustbin of history, right next to busts of Lenin, government-manufactured vodka, and parades with missile launchers. Well, lemme tell ya something: RONG. Since Gorbachev started making Louis Vuitton ads, Pakistan and India have gone public with their nuclear arsenals, North Korea has developed a nuclear capability, and the Iranians are thought to be working on a bomb - though evidence has recently surfaced that their covert program had ceased in 2003. Additionally, the rise of nihilist terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda have raised the spectre of a nuclear-armed foe who cannot be deterred, determined to obtain the bomb and use it to strike within the United States. And we haven't even gotten around to the old Ivan Drago to our Rocky Balboa, Russia, which has announced plans to develop a new generation of modernized ICBMs and has resumed nuclear-armed bomber patrols.

(Of course, we've refused to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, pushed development of nuclear "bunker busters" with theoretically tactical applications, broached the possibility of modernizing our own missile forces, and committed to develop some kind of strategic missile defense program. Furthermore, we have promised to share civilian nuclear technology with India in flagrant violation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty - to which America is a signatory, and India is not. To be fair, the Bush Administration has also consistently pushed arsenal reductions.)

Luckily for us, Jonathan Schell has been monitoring the continuing threat, and has graced us with a book outlining his findings: The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger. Leonard Lopate, being one step ahead of the game as usual, has managed to eat Schell's knowledge by asking him mad questions.

10 December 2007

Sins of Omission


PJ Harvey's newest album, White Chalk, is a ghost story, filled with reverse murder ballads sung by the corpse. The obvious hook is that the record features no guitar parts - a gesture that might seem to be a step back from confrontation, were it anybody besides Harvey making it. But the electric guitar is an essential facet of her persona, and its absence here drives to the fore a perverse primness antithetical to Harvey's previous incarnation as the "50 ft Queenie", all puffed lips mashed against a pane of glass, or on a bad night, concrete. The bruises may not have healed, but she's now concealing them beneath a high collar and long sleeves; a doll under glass.

Communism: Not Entirely a Waste

LOLsheviks. You can haz cheez. No haz cows; must wait in line for bun. (Courtesy Jess Hopper.)

A Matter of Life and Death


Following the United States Supreme Court's 1976 decision in Gregg v. Georgia to reinstate the death penalty, and two attempts vetoed by Governor Brendan Byrne, his successor, Governor Thomas H. Kean, re-established New Jersey's death penalty in 1982. Over the intervening twenty-five years, through the process of judicial review and legislative amendment, New Jersey's machinery of death has developed into perhaps the most rigorous such process, from a jurisprudential perspective, in the nation, if not the world. In order to assess the penalty of death, a jury is required during a penalty phase, separate from the original trial, to determine that the defendant's actions displayed certain aggravating factors establishing the particularly heinous nature of the crime. The defendant is represented by no fewer than two attorneys, provided at taxpayer expense by the Office of the Public Defender. The appeals process is extensive, lasting decades and allowing the defendant direct access to the state Supreme Court; furthermore, a proportionality review, also to be conducted by the state Supreme Court, is required to ascertain whether or not the defendant's sentence was excessively disproportionate to those received by others committing similar crimes. All death row inmates are housed in a special wing of the New Jersey State Prison, where they are isolated from the general population. Should they be executed, the state has selected lethal injection as the sole instrument of their demise, wherein the condemned receives a barbituate cocktail intravenously until he or she asphyxiates and dies. Presently there are eight individuals on New Jersey's death row, two of whom have finally exhausted all of their appeals. No one has been executed under the present statute since its implementation.

Today, the New Jersey Senate voted 21-16 to abolish the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, positioning New Jersey to be the first state since the Gregg v. Georgia decision to voluntarily move to repeal capital punishment. The General Assembly will take a vote on the issue on Thursday, and Governor Jon S. Corzine, a vocal death penalty opponent, has promised to sign the legislation into law. Barring unforeseen circumstances, New Jersey's death penalty will soon be confined to the dustbin of history. Where it belongs.

New Jersey has striven vainly to have the best of both worlds: a death penalty that would sufficiently punish and deter murder, while at the same time ensuring the highest possible degree of judicial scrutiny, thereby minimizing the chances for an erroneous execution. To their credit, the legislature and the judiciary consistently privileged this latter objective over the former. Yet such rigorousness (absent in states such as Texas, which have actually instituted laws to "fast track" death penalty appeals) has had the twin results of ensuring that only a handful of murderers have made it onto our death row, and that they stay parked there for decades. With the prospect of execution therefore so remote as to be practically abstract, it is questionable whether or not New Jersey's death penalty serves either a legitimate punitive or deterrent function.

I have no compunction against punishing the guilty - and I believe in certain instances that death may be an appropriate punishment. However, I think this view is irreconcilable with the practical demands of a justice system that must place a premium on fairness and engender the utmost trust of the people of New Jersey as to its certitude and its morality. Our courts are human institutions, and as such, they are inevitably prone to error. It is unconscionable that we should recognize this essential and immutable truth, yet at the same time insist upon meting out punishments that are irrevocable. Taking the death penalty off of the books is not a sop to murderers, nor an admission of weakness, but a courageous affirmation of the legal precepts that underpin our democracy. In America, death and justice cannot be one in the same.

07 December 2007

Psychosexual Noir

"What do you mean? You're where right now?"

A voice tells Bill Pullman, a middling saxophonist named Fred Madison, over his home's intercom system that "Dick Laurent is dead." Pullman thinks his wife Renee, played by Patricia Arquette, is fucking around on him; they receive a package with a videotape of the exterior of their house, then another, this time with footage of them in their bed, sleeping; they go to a party, hosted by some sleazeball named Andy, where Pullman meets a bizarro Robert Blake (billed in the script only as "The Mystery Man"), who is simultaneously at the party and in Pullman's house; Pullman hallucinates; Arquette is murdered, and Pullman is convicted of the crime, sentenced to die in the electric chair.

Then Lost Highway gets crazy.

While on death row, Bill Pullman somehow becomes Balthazar Getty, playing an 18 year-old kid named Pete Dayton. Since Dayton isn't guilty of anything, the cops let him go, and he returns to his job at garage run by Richard Pryor. His best customer is a Mercedes-driving sociopath named Mr. Eddy (rendered with phlegmy panache by Robert Loggia), who, as we learn following an impromptu lesson in driving etiquette, is definitely a bad motherfucker. Of course, Mr. Eddy has a girl, Alice, who looks suspiciously like a blonde Patricia Arquette (Pullman's Arquette was a brunette); she promptly sets about seducing Balthazar. Balthazar gives in, and (correctly) fearing Mr. Eddy's wrath, they hatch a plan that involves robbing Andy (the sleazeball from earlier in the film, who turns out to be some kind of porn kingpin) and going on the lam. They fuck on the road, illuminated by car headlights.

Then Bill Pullman/Fred Madison reappears. And it turns out that there weren't two Patricia Arquettes after all. And Mr. Eddy turns out to be Dick Laurent, and he's involved with Arquette somehow. Pullman and Creepy Blake kill him; Pullman says "Dick Laurent is dead" into his house's intercom and then takes off, chased across the nighttime desert by the police. Fin.

It is impossible to spoil a David Lynch film, so don't worry that I've given the game away: I still hardly understand what the hell happened myself. Greil Marcus has theorized that, unlike 2001's famously cryptic Mulholland Dr., Lost Highway actually becomes less comprehensible each time you see it. Which would be quite a feat, as Lost Highway is pretty incomprehensible the first time you see it. People become other people for no apparent reason; there's a snuff film with Marilyn Manson and Twiggy Ramirez; a man is memorably killed by a glass coffee table; Gary Busey turns in a fairly restrained performance. As David Foster Wallace put it in a contemporaneous account from the film's set, "The one thing I feel I can say with total confidence is that the movie will be...Lynchian." It is.

David Lynch has professed that he isn't certain what he wants to say to his audience: "I get ideas and I want to put them on film because they thrill me." In this sense, his movies have more in common with theme park amusements than any summer blockbuster; after all, no one rides a roller coaster in order to get somewhere. Obviously this approach limits the appeal of his work: most people go to the movies expecting to see a narrative, to be told a story, and while there are characters, events, thing happening in Lynch's films, they don't really ever add up in way that pleases the human mind's inherent need to impose order on everything it encounters. Lost Highway looks like a puzzle to us, littered with the simulacra of clues: a picture that pointedly changes from one scene to the next, an image of cabin burning that we see repeated, the appearance and reappearance of Robert Blake's Mystery Man. We try to solve the puzzle, but regardless of whatever explanations we come up with, whatever theories we develop, the pieces don't ever seem to fit conclusively; probably because they're not meant to.

The in-vogue approach is to say that the movie is then like a Rorschach inkblot - you are free to supply your own meaning. Yet, I don't think this is the case. Lost Highway represents a very definite set of events and ideas. There are concrete themes of suspicion, jealously, and betrayal; the Pullman/Getty transformation suggests the fragile and fragmentary nature of the human psyche. Bill Pullman's blank-faced Fred MacMurray stand-in, Arquette's twin femme fatales, and Getty's good kid from the wrong side of the tracks are all noir archetypes; the plot to rob Andy, which predictably goes awry, is practically lifted from Double Indemnity. All of this may not say a whole lot, but any semiotician could tell you that it means something.

Lynch himself explained it best in a 1997 interview about the film with Rolling Stone: "You can say that a lot of Lost Highway is internal.
It's Fred's story. It's not a dream: It's realistic, though according to Fred's logic. But I don't want to say too much. The reason is: I love mysteries. To fall into a mystery and its danger ... everything becomes so intense in those moments. When most mysteries are solved, I feel tremendously let down. So I want things to feel solved up to a point, but there's got to be a certain percentage left over to keep the dream going. It's like at the end of Chinatown: The guy says, 'Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown.' You understand it, but you don't understand it, and it keeps that mystery alive. That's the most beautiful thing.

06 December 2007

Results 1 - 10 of about 57,300 for Ethan Frome. (0.17 seconds)

Why u hatin internet?

In the realm of opinion, there is truly nothing like a Really Big Idea. Observe Maureen Dowd soft-tossing grenade after grenade in the pages of the New York Times ("Men: Are They Even Suitable for Breeding?"), or Sasha Frere-Jones suggesting that indie rock is not sufficiently "miscegenated" in the New Yorker, or, hell, George Kennan anonymously suggesting a policy of containment towards the Soviets in the pages of Foreign Affairs sixty years ago. As you can see, the "bigness" of the Really Big Idea is relative to the arena to which it is relevant; the only necessary component is the idea's audaciousness. It doesn't have to be correct, or even well considered - in fact, if you really want to set tongues a-wagging, it's probably best that their be a few gaps in your reasoning. The Really Big Idea is about the controversy it subsequently engenders: how could person X (the more credibility in his/her field person X has, the better) say Really Big Idea in forum Y (the more widely-respected the forum the better, especially if it has a relatively conservative reputation when it comes to voicing Really Big Ideas)? The intended effect is to create a scene comparable to that at the Paris premier of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps.

This week, the editors of The New Republic have seen fit to lead-off with an editorial portentously titled "The Battle of the Book." The premise is essentially thus: the digital age is killing off the book. This consequence, according to the author, is not necessarily unintended. This is not to say that anyone is disparaging the book on grounds of content; rather it is the physical format - binding, glue, pages, ink, etc. - that vexes. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos is quoted calling print "the last bastion of analog"; his company (which it should be noted began as a book e-tailer) has introduced a device called the Kindle, which would allow people to download digitized copies of books and other print media instantaneously via a wireless internet connection. This has been done, according to TNR, under the guise of saving "the book from the print."

More ominously is the way that our digital, multi-platform lifestyle is weaning us away from "long form" media - an Orwellian term taken to mean, well, books - and towards less time consuming and intellectually demanding distractions, such as YouTube clips, or mp3s, or blogs (HEY THANKS FOR READING!). Obviously, the Internet et al. did not initiate this process: I'll give you a hint, it rhymes with "veletision." However, it is a great leap forward from the days of three channels and rabbit ears to the plethora of personal media devices and unlimited access to untold amounts of content that most of us enjoy now. Previous to the digital revolution, the book as a physical form had largely been unchanged and unchallenged since the days of Guttenberg. Now to sit down with a book is to yank ourselves away from The Device You Are Now Looking At - a device which is increasingly becoming indistinguishable from just about every other source of media delivery there is. The truly committed can watch TV and movies, listen to music, read everything from the news to recipes for canapes to whacked out conspiracy theories about the "Amero", interface with friends via text, and, thanks to VoIP, even make phone calls. And hell, that's just via the computer. Insert "have you heard about this crazy iPhone gadget?" joke here.

Now, no one is suggesting that books are inconvenient: they're still entirely self-contained, highly portable, require no electricity to operate, and though they take up space, all but the most committed bibliophiles seem to have enough room for those they own. However, the widespread belief is that in the 21st century, print is a prison, a medium consigned to obsolescence; divorcing the book from print and ending its holdout status in the digital age is therefore considered essential to keeping the form, and the ideas therein, relevant. Yes, people will continue to read, but reading, the ability to understand the printed word, it seems, does not necessarily equate to literacy - comprehending information on an analytical level. While this is not to say that the internet is devoid of intellectually stimulating content (AGAIN, THANKS FOR READING!), some ideas require a book-length unpacking; if books remain largely in the realm of "analog", the fear is that people will never encounter an idea pursued for more than a few thousand words. And that's just non-fiction: while the internet has proven fertile ground for authors and devotees of (often pornographic) Harry Potter fan fiction, people aren't typically devouring Charles Dickens or Toni Morrison or, hell, actual J.K. Rowling on their flat-screens and laptops.

The TNR, though, has read its Marshall McLuhan. Referring to a Newsweek reporter's claim, in the same story as the aforementioned Bezos quotes, to be "reading Boswell's Life of Johnson on his iPhone", the editorial's author issues a decisive dismissal:
No, he isn't. All reading is not the same. It takes more than the apparition of words to constitute a book and its inner forms. Bleak House is not e-mail (even if it once was serialized) and Atonement does not deliver information. "Search" is not the most exciting demand that one can make of a text. So let us see how many conversions to literacy's pleasures these gadgets make, and let us be grateful for them; but let us also recognize that we toy with the obsolescence of the book at our mental peril.
Or, phrased another way, "the medium is the message." It's an interesting point. Are books simply the words on the page, or does the form of the conveyance matter? No one doubts that the Internet has altered writing, in terms of democratizing the process of getting work to an audience, creating an entirely new form in the blog, and enabling the use of hyperlinks to instantaneously explain concepts and connect readers with related materials. These are radical innovations to be sure, but they are also specific to web-based writing, for reasons both stylistic and technical. But does a simple change of context alter our perception of work, otherwise unchanged from print form, so greatly as to dramatically change the way we consume and understand it?

The Internet certainly has degraded the concept of "authority" in writing. When you read something in print, you could be absolutely certain that somebody cared enough about the ideas expressed - and their manner of expression - that considerable resources had been expended to get said ideas before your eyes. This is obviously not to say that books and other print materials aren't qualitatively different: that's besides the point. The fact is that though I initially read "The Battle of the Book" in a print edition of The New Republic, I have linked to a perfectly free copy of precisely the same article above. Now, platform-wise, the editors of the TNR and I are on the same playing field: my content is the same price as theirs, and just as accessible by anyone with an internet connection. However, there is a significant difference between reading "The Battle of the Book" as a page one editorial in print - a position imbuing the piece with a manifesto quality - and reading it on the website, where a link to it is presently buried half way down the front page in a side bar, with not even a synopsis to convey its import.

Imagine if Marx and Engels had first published the Communist Manifesto on a blog: certainly it would have been immediately accessible to a global audience, but would anybody have bothered to read it? Would it have changed history? What about Tom Paine's Common Sense, or Betty Freidan's The Feminine Mystique? These are revolutionary ideas that altered humanity's collective consciousness for better or for worse, but would we be able to identify them today? Even if they were on a web page right in front of our faces? (HI DERE!)

Let us remember, however, that we are not merely talking about eliminating the printed word from future existence, but taking works published in the past and recreating them whole on the web: we already know about The Communist Manifesto, and Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness, too, for that matter. Clearly, their cultural currency is well-established. Yet, even has canonical as those masterworks are, is there not the possibility that their meaning could be altered and their significance diminished by digitization?

It is an issue of associations. Take, for instance, the YouTube presidential debates: the selection of the leader of the free world has now been linked with a website considered by most of us to be a repository for time-wasting, low-content comedic diversions - think Dramatic Chipmunk and Angry German Kid. (On second though, perhaps Angry German Kid and Rudolph Giuliani are already associated in the public's mind.) Certainly, such a move can be seen as a democratizing innovation. Yet it is important to remember that democratization not only means equal access to opportunity, but the democratization of authority - a democratization that does not typically reward those among us deserving of it, but instead lowers the bar and muddies the waters. Consider the rise of intelligent design, a thoroughly ridiculous attempt* to lend scientific credibility to fundamentalist religious beliefs. Suddenly, evolution, a logical theoretical concept vetted by a century and half's worth of rigorous scientific inquiry has come under attack by people whose rebuttal principally consists of an assertion that nature is simply too complex to have developed without the input of an "intelligent designer" (i.e. God). That this is the intellectual equivalent of saying "well, there has to be an easier way, so obviously you're wrong" has not deterred the media and high ranking members of the United States government from embracing this so-called "controversy."

Yes, this position smacks of intellectual elitism. However, I'm not saying that I embrace the idea of choking off the access to outlets of expression the digital age has afforded us, nor am I even saying that I concur with The New Republic's reasoning as to the qualitative differences between print and digital. Yet I do think it more likely that Naked Lunch and Gravity's Rainbow will get pushed down into the muck, obscured by, well, what you're reading now, than they are to be improved by digitization. I don't subscribe to the "dumbing down" school of popular culture, but I do believe that we are living in a highly fragmented society, wherein the Internet has improved out ability to self-select, allowing us to hone in on like-minded individuals and intensely focus on narrow, preexisting interests to the exclusion of novel ideas and experiences. Obviously the Internet has given us access to a greater breadth information, but it has given us access to greater depth as well, and we seem inclined to take advantage of the latter at the expense of the former. Replacing the printed page completely with the web page might be great for the most canonical works in the canon - future generations will not want for The Great Gatsby - but for the overwhelming majority of books, it's fairly close to a death sentence. They'll be everywhere at once but effectively nowhere at all.

* * * * *

Frankly, and I know that this was not fair of me, but I neglected to discuss the main thrust of "The Battle of the Book", which led off with a fairly compelling idea before getting on to its worthy central, if less stimulating, point, which is the death of the book review in the mainstream media. You can obviously read TNR's contention for yourself: that major media outlets are public trusts; by reducing space allotted for literary criticism (or eliminating it altogether), papers are implicitly saying they don't consider books important; book reviews are "training for controversy," exercising their readers' critical faculties and creating a more intellectually-engaged polity. I agree with the ideas, though I'm curious as to why they are accorded the lion's share of the space when compared to the considerably more fundamental question of whether digitization will save the book or destroy it. Frankly, if we're concerned that people aren't reading the actual books, isn't worrying about whether or not the public is exposed to enough book reviews putting the cart before the horse? Nobody has responded to the death of physical music formats at the hands of digitization by lamenting that not enough people read Pitchfork. Granted, that is an imperfect comparison, but newspaper editors have been cutting back on literary criticism because people by and large don't seem to miss it. Try cutting out Sally Forth and you get a truckload of letters; cut the book reviews and the reaction is, "Pass the sports." I find it improbable that even if a Peace Corps of willing young literary critics were loosed upon the land that people would really open the Bunkville Picayune-Gazette and say, "What an engaging perspective on Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Not only do I wish to read that book, and several others that the author cleverly referenced, but I now feel more prepared to engage in the type of informed civic debate our society requires."

*I'm not saying that God can't do whatever He wants, but if we accept that as the case, then isn't it a little ludicrous to feel the need to use scientific vocabulary to defend His actions? Isn't faith supposed to be belief in the absence of empirical evidence?

05 December 2007

John Cusack, You May Be Better Off Dead

Just kidding playa: I loved you in Con Air

Look at mah kid here: one day he's bodying 50 of the best records of 2007, and then does he take a week off? Does he fly to his mountaintop lair to plot his next move, tha takeover to end all takeovers? Does he sit around drinking fruity drinks with umbrellas in them and shit? No way, because time is money motherfucker.

Time is money.

And looky here, because this one is a like a quadruple dip for ya. First up:

Philip Sherburne (website, MySpace) may not actually be the world's foremost authority on techno music, but if he isn't, the guy who is had better fire his publicist (either that or the guy only speaks German, Portuguese, French, Spanish, and Japanese and hasn't been translated into English because, well, we don't care enough about techno/"critical beats"). Obviously, I don't know much about that scene (or scenes; don't get your schaffel in my acid house, brother), but I do have a great admiration for those among us who can take a completely alien subject, replete with its own glossary of technical jargon, and make it not only comprehensible but compelling for the rest of us. Sherburne, who does this sort of thing professionally (he writes for The Wire, eMusic, Pitchfork, Earplug, and about a million other publications), is essentially like the first few seasons of ER in that respect: you don't need to know what an infarction is ("the process resulting in a macroscopic area of necrotic tissue in some organ caused by loss of adequate blood supply") to appreciate the underlying drama of what's going on before your eyes, or in this instance, ears.

Sasha Frere-Jones recently gave Sherburne - who also practices what he preaches, both as a DJ and a creator of original work - propers over at his New Yorker blog. In particular, he singled out a recent 90-minute mix Sherburne posted on his website called "Music for the Evening After." I haven't heard that one yet, but just last night I finally managed to stay put for long enough to listen to a briefer mix PS put together for UK techno blog Allez-Allez. Called "Springshowers", it's a dramatic and engaging half-hour that isn't afraid to reach out for the melodies, blending The Knife (by way of a Booka Shade remix), with some folks you may not have heard of, like Argy and and Rekleiner. Not that it's important that you've heard of them; Sherburne's mix, like all great mixes, raises the essential question: how can something so anonymous display so much personality?

As you all know, we also have a contractual obligation to fulfill to the Leonard Lopate Show (on New York's Own Freshest, WNYC), wherein we typically select one piece per week AT RANDOM for posting below. In exchange for the eyes and ears of my readership, Leonard has promised me...nothing. As you can see, a highly equitable arrangement.

Well: due to the high volume of completely excellent interview segments Leonard conducted yesterday, I am going to be givin' ya

not one

not two

not three


First, the director of One From the Heart, The Cotton Club, and Jack discusses his latest film, Youth Without Youth. Francis Ford Coppola!:

Then: a man whose blank face constituted subject material for an entire chapter of Greil Marcus' The Shape of Things to Come: Prophesy and the American Voice discusses his role in Edward Albee's Zoo Story and the play Albee recently wrote that has something to do with Zoo Story, Zoo Stor...I mean, Bill Pullman! (With co-star Dallas Roberts):

Then, again: One Crazy Summer. Better Off Dead. Tapeheads. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I ask, have you not eyes? A man whom I am told knows how to say "thank you" to the ladies: John Cusack!:

And last but certainly not least, an academic who wants you to buy the most expensive pair of jeans you can possibly find and author of the guilt trip Fugitive Denim, I give you, on a day with two show business legends and John Cusack, the most commented story of said day, Rachel! Louise! Snyder!: