31 October 2007

The 21 Best Films of the 21st Century (English Language Division)

"What do you mean, he's not on the list? He's Zach Fucking Braff!"

And, so the best 21 films of our young decade, or century, or millennium, whichever you think most appropriate. I stuck to English language cinema because I know the score there better; most of my foreign language movie watching has sadly been confined to material decades old, so I felt it best to preclude any particularly glaring oversights that might betray my total ignorance in this regard. Hell, I probably screwed it up somehow anyway. Oh, and if you couldn't tell from the above caption, the absence of Garden State is not an omission on my part.

21. The Ring - Gore Verbinski (2002)

There are two movies that have the power to scare the piss out of me in my adult life: The Exorcist and Gore Verbinski's remake of the Japanese horror classic, Ringu. In this instance, Verbinski eschews the Hollywood tradition of mucking with great source material and remains faithful to the original, throwing in superb performances from Naomi Watts and Brian Cox and vastly improved special effects to boot. And his version of "the tape" is far scarier than the original.

20. The Proposition - John Hillcoat (2005)

The best Western of the decade thus far isn't even set in the American West; this one takes place in the Australian Outback, a place just as lawless and violent as anything John Ford or Sergio Leone ever imagined. The set-up is simple: outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce, perhaps the best underemployed leading man today) must betray his older brother Arthur to save his younger brother Mike. The execution is anything but, thanks to a serpentine screenplay by that old forked-tongue devil himself, Nick Cave. Terrific supporting performances by Danny Huston, Ray Winstone, and Emily Watson.

19. Old School - Todd Phillips (2003)

The Frat Pack paterfamilias, Old School has basically set the comedic tone for the decade by demolishing the wall that had evidently cordoned the sarcastic off from the juvenile since around the time of Ghostbusters. If you have Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrel, and a Wilson brother (Wedding Crashers proved that it doesn't matter which one), you probably have a hysterical movie. Add Ben Stiller, and, well, Results May Vary.

18. The Rules of Attraction - Roger Avary (2002)

Where the fuck were the critics on this one? Brilliant from top to bottom, starting off with three great leading performances (James Van Der Beek especially), every sharp narrative trick in the book (the rewind sequence at the beginning is particularly astonishing), and, hell, an awesome soundtrack. This is how you adapt Bret Easton Ellis, not that shit-eating grin of a "dark comedy" American Psycho. In other words, "criminally overlooked."

17. Catch Me If You Can - Steven Spielberg (2002)

Very quietly, Spielberg is continuing to burnish his credentials as a master filmmaker, producing the terrific Catch Me If You Can, War of the Worlds, and Munich (not to mention the controversial A.I. and split-decision Minority Report) this decade. I chose Catch Me If You Can for inclusion here because I feel that it is most representative of his best work: unlike other filmmakers who are constantly making their presence felt (for better or for worse), Spielberg's movies feel effortless - only upon further review does the intricacy of his efforts and breadth of his vision become evident. Also, not for nothing, but his movies aren't a chore to watch. Entertainment, people.

16. Shaun of the Dead - Edgar Wright (2004)

It's difficult to remember the last time someone made a comedy with this much emotional range, let alone a parody. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play best friends caught in the midst of your garden-variety zombie invasion? infestation? At first, everything is played for laughs - in this movie zombies can't sprint after your terrified ass. But then as the blood begins to flow, our besieged hero is forced to shoot his zombified mother in the head, his chief human antagonist is graphically disemboweled, and his best friend is a sure goner. Then, in a hail of bullets, everything is back to laughs again. What a strange little movie.

15. Mysterious Skin - Gregg Araki (2004)

Along with Mark Ruffalo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has emerged this decade as a great dark horse leading man, with stellar work Brick, The Lookout, and this film, in which he portrays a young gay hustler, Neil, whose life is fatefully intertwined with Brian (Brady Corbet), an introvert, when both are molested as children by their Little League coach. Neil's trauma resonates in his sexual risk taking and cold demeanor, while Brian represses the memory altogether, believing that his nosebleeds and memory lapses are the product of an alien abduction. Araki refuses to draw any easy lessons or proffer a clean moral, instead choosing to end his film with a gripping and grisly emotional climax that poses more questions than it answers.

14. Heist - David Mamet (2001)

Admittedly, Mamet's career as a director is pretty checkered, split between the imperfections (House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner), the movies nobody's seen (The Winslow Boy, Homicide), and the one everybody likes (State and Main). Only once have his talents as a screenwriter and interpreter of his own material perfectly jelled. Set in the criminal/con milieu where Mamet makes his bed, Heist is a genre piece all the way, with a million-dollar cast (Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Sam Rockwell, Ricky Jay, and Delroy Lindo) spouting dialogue so hot it's practically still on the griddle. "Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money." "You screw me on Wednesday, you screw me on Friday. I gotta go, I got my picture on a cereal box. " "She could talk her way out of a sunburn." Et cetera, et cetera.

13. The Incredibles - Brad Bird (2005)

When it comes to computer animation, there's Pixar, and then there's "when's Shrek 4 coming out?" Most kids films these days are an endless parade of fart jokes with a couple of over-their-heads-yet-wildly-inappropriate dick jokes thrown in for the parents. The Incredibles eschews this unfortunate trend by creating an interesting, smart, funny, heartfelt story that genuinely appeals to kids and adults instead of a 90 minute trailer for the DVD.

12. 24 Hour Party People - Michael Winterbottom (2003)

Steve Coogan plays Factory Records impresario Tony Wilson here as the not-quite-sainted fool, standing at the epicenter of a Manchester movement that would span the 1980s, from Joy Division/New Order post-punk to the Happy Mondays and the birth of rave culture. Wilson's reach always seemed to exceed his grasp ("Blue Monday" losing 5 pence per copy; the Hacienda bleeding thousands of pounds a month), but Winterbottom is rightfully empathetic, noting via Coogan that Wilson avoided the dilemma of selling out by having nothing, in the end, to sell. The movie is a celebration of a moment that has come and gone, and with Wilson now securely in the tomb, will never come again. I think.

11. All the Real Girls - David Gordon Green (2003)

Green's talent as a filmmaker lies in his feel for the authentic: everything in this movie feels like an intrusion, as though there is no possible way that something as intimate as the onscreen relationship between Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel could be remotely contrived. Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl - the great emotional truth at the center of All the Real Girls is that something so simple never really is.

10. You Can Count on Me - Kenneth Lonergan (2000)

Blood is thicker than water, but how thick is blood exactly? When Terry blows into town to stay with his sister Samantha and her son, he continually pushes those limits to their breaking point, fucking up behind a cloud of pot smoke and a veil of mumbled whatevers. Anchored by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, You Can Count on Me is not a film about easy forgiveness, or the indestructible nature of the familial bond triumphing over all. In the end Terry is gone again, and though Samantha deeply loves him, she doesn't stop him from getting back on the bus.

9. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - Peter Jackson (2002)

Only time will tell if the LOTR trilogy becomes a classic on par with the (first) Star Wars films; surely though, they are in the same ballpark. As with George Lucas' troika, the middle volume is the best - owing, perhaps, to the fact that the second act is always when the outcome is most in doubt and the final release remains far off in the distance. Ever since Braveheart, moviemakers have felt the need to recreate William Wallace's/Mel Gibson's rousing horseback speech to the troops ("They can never take OOOUR FREEEDOM!!!"). Peter Jackson goes the opposite route, letting audiences soak in the silent tension as tens of thousands of Orcs assemble for the climactic Battle of Helm's Deep. I needn't tell you which is more effective.

8. Control - Anton Corbijn (2007)

The most recent addition to this list, but I don't think I'll regret including it, give or take a few spots. Control is the kind of movie that leaves its thumbprint on your imagination, and I imagine that its stature will grow in the coming years as people start to fit it into the proper cinematic and intellectual traditions. Well, do yourself a favor and don't wait until they bag it, tag it, and put it on a shelf. The best rock and roll movie of the 21st century thus far.

7. Brick - Rian Johnson (2005)

Chinatown set in a public high school in an anonymous Southern California suburb. Yes, it could have been a two hour long Max Fischer play, but thanks to a fantastic script and yet another tremendous performance from Gordon-Levitt, it's the kind of movie that sucks you completely into its world without a backwards glance. Even if the whole set-up is kind of preposterous in retrospect.

6. United 93 - Paul Greengrass (2006)

Future generations may be able to watch Paul Greengrass' film with sufficient detachment to judge it based upon its cinematic merits, both as document of 9/11, and as a thriller, which it technically is. For those of us who witnessed the terrorist attacks, however, it is a surreal experience, reawakening those initial feelings of shock, confusion, and horror, as the terrorists' plot unfolded for the entire world to see. It's not a question of whether or not Greengrass handles his delicate subject tastefully; he barely handles it at all. United 93 comments on nothing, simply recounting events as they happened, thereby trapping us, helpless to stop it from happening again.

5. In the Bedroom - Todd Field (2001)

In an instant, everything can change; when the Fowlers' son is senselessly murdered, their picture-perfect life is completely eviscerated, and, in a sense, In the Bedroom is one long, painful denouement. That the film is bearable at all is due to the absolutely masterful performances of Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, who wear their characters' grief with terrifying realism. The most emotionally brutal film in recent memory.

4. A History of Violence - David Cronenberg (2005)

"It's easy to lose sight of the fact we're talking about the destruction of a body and a unique human, whose experiences are never to be replicated again. I want the audience to take it as seriously as I do." At its most basic level, A History of Violence is David Cronenberg's thesis on cinematic violence and how we as an audience interpret and respond to it. The plot is a notch above B-movie fare: a man is forced to defend his family against a bunch of ruthless gangsters who believe that he was formerly an associate of theirs. Traditionally, we would be expected to solidly identify with Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) and applaud his actions as he maims and kills his assailants. Yet, the brutality of the violence shown in the film, and its effect on Stall and his family runs contrary to our expectations; even if we're not being directly accused of anything, we feel complicit nonetheless.

3. Mulholland Drive - David Lynch (2001)

In retrospect Mulholland Drive seems simple: the first half of the film is Naomi Watts' fantasy of Hollywood, and the second is the reality. That is, of course, if you ignore the cowboy. Or the bizarre homeless guy behind the Winkie's. Or the little blue box. So on and so forth. David Lynch's films have always been expressionist in nature: really, it's just best to sit back and let them wash over you. And if you thought this one was tough, wait 'til you see Inland Empire.

2. Children of Men - Alfonso Cuaron (2006)

Apocalypse Now with an actual apocalypse, Children of Men, like many great works of science fiction, is best understood as a summation of the anxieties of its time. Terrorism, illegal immigration, war, and the police state all put in their appearances, but chief above all is our fear that our society, our civilization is in an inexorable state of collapse. Cuaron's film is a Hell House, taking us on a tour of a not-too-distant future so realistic that it may only be a dirty bomb away. Incredibly intense; we left the theater fearing snipers.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - Michel Gondry (2004)

It's as if somebody dared Charlie Kaufman to dream up the most convoluted way possible of saying "true love conquers all." Barring the incredible "memory erasure" framing device, Eternal Sunshine is a powerful deconstruction of all the ways that our tics and petty jealousies can conspire to destroy our relationships, and exactly how small all of it seems compared to what was lost. A beautiful, inventive film highlighted by the finest performance of Jim Carrey's career, Kaufman's wonderfully humane screenplay, and Michel Gondry's boldly impressionistic visual technique.

Honorable mentions: The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson; 2001), The Departed (Martin Scorsese; 2006), War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg; 2005), 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle; 2003), The Aviator (Martin Scorsese; 2004), Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann; 2001), Ocean's Eleven (Steven Soderbergh; 2001), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (George Clooney; 2002), Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola; 2006), Jarhead (Sam Mendes; 2005), Adaptation (Spike Jonze; 2002), A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater; 2006), Zodiac (David Fincher; 2007), Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino; 2003-04), Sideways (Alexander Payne; 2004)

30 October 2007

Don't Leave Me This Way

So, Stylus is going to stop publishing tomorrow a.k.a. October 31st a.k.a. Halloween, which is the internet music criticism equivalent of Burger King going out of business: yeah, it's no. 2, but it's the kind of no. 2 that's never going to be no. 1, so why not just concentrate on the people who really want Whoppers and Italian Chicken Sandwiches instead of getting all worked up about what Mickey D's is doing? Stylus was never really a threat to Pitchfork's ongoing reign as the first and last word in internet music dorkery, but it was the best alternative - more excited about the Top 40 than rifling through Sufjan Stevens' trash, free from blatant amateurism and blind indie boosterism, and possessed of a far more collegial atmosphere. (Plus it had movie reviews.) If Pitchfork assumes the tone of a knowing older sibling delineating what's cool and what's not, reading Stylus is was like walking in on a bunch of slightly obnoxious-yet-knowledgeable undergrads engaged in a wide-ranging energetic debate. Too bad that it has to die.

I had been working on a list of the best writing the site had to offer during its run, but Editor-in-Chief and Stylus founder Todd Burns beat me to the punch, so I will defer to his judgment and link to The Bluffer's Guide to Stylus. My picks of his litter would be Nick Southall's treatise on the state of sonics in modern recording, "Imperfect Sound Forever"; Michael Patrick Brady's survey of the handwritten "conversations" on LP covers at Boston College's WZBC radio station, "Cover Commentary: Second Looks at First Impressions"; and the staff's take on The Top 101-200 Favourite Albums Ever. Apparently the site will remain up beyond Wednesday, but I urge you to visit it ASAP, because, you know, nothing lasts forever these days.

Also: Stylus Senior Writer Nick Southall's thoughts on Stylus' demise and the downslope of music criticism in general (overstated, perhaps, but insightful), and his favorite 50 records (no reissues or comps) released during the site's five year run.

29 October 2007

No, Not Like "Fudgie the Whale"

Admittedly, this would have made for a more entertaining interview

This week, Leonard chats with Eric Jay Dolin, author of Leviathan: A History of American Whaling, which, sadly, is not based upon the sick 2004 album of same name by Atlanta metal band Mastodon. Instead, it's actually about whaling. Boooooooring:

Rock and Roll Suicide

Anton Corbijn's film biography of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis, Control, is a passion play. It faithfully stops at all of the well-trod Stations of the Cross: Curtis listening to Aladdin Sane while putting on his sister's makeup at age 16; Curtis marrying his wife Deborah at 19; Curtis forming up with Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner, and Stephen Morris to become Warsaw, later Joy Division; Joy Division forcing Factory Records' honcho Tony Wilson to sign their contract in his own blood; Curtis suffering his first epileptic seizure on the car ride back from the band's London premier; Curtis falling in love with Annik Honoré and sabotaging his marriage; and, of course, Curtis watching Werner Herzog's Stroszek, listening to Iggy Pop's The Idiot, and hanging himself in his home the day before Joy Division were to embark on their first American tour. It is a story with limited permutations, as by the time Curtis' genius became widely acknowledged, he was already dead; only Deborah Curtis' memoir, Touching From a Distance (upon which Control is based) survives as a kind of comprehensive primary source.

Ian Curtis' life was a tragedy in the classic sense: his downfall a combination of his own indecisiveness, callousness, and callowness exacerbated by his epilepsy and the cornucopia of pharmaceuticals required to mitigate it. As Joy Division took off, he dealt with the psychic burdens of a home life increasingly out of step with his newfound success, as well as his body's inability to cope with the demands of his intense performances and burgeoning rock star lifestyle. That his art seemed to presage his demise lends both all the more resonance.

Corbijn's film meets Curtis on his own terms. There is an unfortunate tendency given Joy Division's considerable influence to over-intellectualize their music; what gets glossed over all too often is that amidst the sturm und drang, Joy Division were a couple of twenty year old guys in a rock band. They were adventurous, pretentious, and melodramatic in equal measure; Control seizes upon these elements, filtering Curtis' story through his own black and white lens. The film is self-consciously arty, each shot framed meticulously, each moment freighted with significance, all of it riding the great downward curve towards Curtis' impending doom. Yes, it's a linear recounting of facts well known to Joy Division obsessives - a sticking point for reviewers seemingly hoping for 24 Hour Party People Redux - but what seems to have gotten missed is how very peripheral most of those bullet points are in the film. In fact, though Corbijn is highly influenced by the band's aesthetic (an aesthetic he helped shape with his now-iconic photographs), his film is not an explainer of Joy Division's appeal, nor is it an investigation of its creative processes. Most of the movie takes place in the intimate spaces in between, where actors Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, and Alexandra Maria Lara are given free reign to create deeply human characters, as opposed to automatons simply recreating scenes famous and infamous from their subjects' lives.

The film's title refers to Ian Curtis' losing battle against his personal weakness, his increasingly bleak artistic trajectory, and his physical frailty. By the end of Control, he is shaking apart, futilely trying to reconcile his abdicated responsibilities as a father and a husband with the demands of being in Joy Division and his desire to be with Annik. Ultimately he could not, but nor could he bring himself to abandon one or the other; instead he abandoned himself. Corbijn presents Curtis' suicide at the age of 23 as both a fait accompli and a product of illogic and haste, soaked in whiskey and teenage theatrics, and we are left to wonder how an act so cosmically preordained could be so unpremeditated. Control declines to proffer any answers, and the myths are left to make themselves.

An interview with Anton Corbijn on WNYC's Soundcheck:

26 October 2007

Water Seeks Its Level?

Not helping

Well, through two games of the World Series, we have discovered what many have suspected all along: that the Rockies aren't a .955 baseball team. In fact, having dropped two straight to the Red Sox, the Rockies' winning percentage over the last month has dipped to a mere-immortal .875. (If they win out, they can bump that back up to a still-respectable .893; get swept and they nosedive to .808. For you fans at home, that translates to roughly 130 wins over a 162 game schedule.)

Understandably, much of the discussion leading up to the Series centered around which Rockies were going to show up: the blistering team that sprinted through the NL field by sweeping both rounds (a feat never before accomplished since the introduction of the divisional round in 1995), or the team that was sitting at four games above .500, 6 1/2 back of the Wild Card on September 14? What we've seen so far suggests something in the middle. In game one the Rockies struggled both on the mound and at the plate, with starter Jeff Francis and reliever Franklin Morales staking Mr. Sox-tober Josh Beckett to a huge lead, though only two runs might have sufficed as Boston laughed its way through a 13-1 rout. Yesterday, the story was a bit different: the Rox made trouble for aging National Treasure Curt Schilling early, plating a run in the first and putting that deer-in-headlights on Red Sox Nation's collective faces. Unfortunately, after that glimmer of hope the well ran dry, and Schilling cruised through 4 1/3 more scoreless innings before giving way to an equally dominant Okajima-Papelbon tandem. The good news for the Rockies is that their pitching mostly shut down the Red Sox lineup as well, with rookie starter Ubaldo Jiminez pitching masterfully in a huge pressure spot on enemy soil, yielding only two runs to an opponent who had scored 41 times in the previous four games.

The bright side for the Red Sox is obvious: win two more games out of the next five and you're world champions for only the second time in the last 89 years (or four, if you're charitable). For the Rockies, well, things suck a teeny bit more than that, with the best case scenario being that they sweep the series at home, in which case they would still have to pick up a W in Fenway to grease the series; ask the '04 Yankees or the '07 Indians how easy that'll be. Fact is, the Red Sox proved against Cleveland that they can play fast and loose with their backs to the wall, winning three straight elimination games to advance to the WS; the Rockies haven't so much as whiffed adversity since clipping San Diego in that one game playoff, and even then they came out ahead on a clearly blown call. Now they're face deep in a hot, steaming plate of it, with somebody just off camera shrieking "MANGIA, MANGIA" in a ridiculous Southie accent.

Yet, all hope need not be abandoned, Colorado fans; in fact, there's a pretty decent chance this series could be headed back to Boston. For one, the loss of the DH is going to hurt the Red Sox enormously; more likely than not manager Terry Francona is going to opt to drop Kevin Youkilis and play David Ortiz at first base at Coors Field. This is a double whammy, as Youkilis has been hitting nearly .400 in the postseason, while Big Papi is a defensive liability, especially against a small-ball team that is going to look to build some runs by laying down bunts and putting on the hit-and-run. Furthermore, the Sox are going to be starting Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lester in games 3 and 4; not bad pitchers, but certainly a downgrade from the Beckett-Schilling 1-2 punch that baffled the Rox at Fenway. Sure, the Rockies pitchers are going to have to find a way to quiet the bats of Papi and Manny (and Pedroia and, uh, J.D. Drew), but their hitters also should find a way to put up more than two runs back at home with what will doubtlessly be an insanely energized atmosphere. Also, Coors Field, like Fenway, is a park with it's own little odd ins-and-outs (like the fact that it's a mile above sea level), which should provide the home team with a bit of an edge.

Of course, above all of this hangs the specter of Josh Beckett, who looms over this World Series like no pitcher since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling handed in dominating performances to propel the Diamondbacks past the Yankees in 2001. Beckett initiated his legend in 2003, coming back on short rest to shut out the Yankees in game 6, icing the championship for the Marlins and earning World Series MVP honors; his playoff resume makes me wonder if he has trouble pitching when there's not an insane amount of pressure bearing down on him. The righty has simply been having an unconscious postseason, pitching to a 1.20 ERA with 35 strikeouts over 4 starts. Indeed, it's gotten to the point where the national cognoscenti have basically written off Beckett's next start, game 5 in Denver, as a loss for the Rockies, giving Boston only slightly longer odds than those on the sun rising in the east tomorrow morning. Personally, I agree; the axiom that good pitching beats good hitting seems to go double in the playoffs, and as much as I love Matt Holliday, Todd Helton, and Troy "Why am I batting seventh?" Tulowitski, I don't give them much of a chance against what has become a Force of Nature.

So, do the scrappy Rockies respond and push the series back to Boston? Well, after last night's game, I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt and say yes; they hung tough enough with the Red Sox that had the game been played in Denver the shoe might have ended up on the other foot. Saturday's game 3 will be the crucible: if Colorado can't get things going against Matsuzaka, or if Josh Fogg lays an egg, then you can put a stamp on this one and drop it in the mailbox on your way to work Monday. However, if the Rockies get their foot in the door with a win, well, they've gotten insanely hot before, and all bets are off. Clip Beckett on Tuesday night and I don't know where they have the parades in Denver, but the city fathers are going have to start working that out.

25 October 2007

Hannah Montana and the Invisible Hand

Lemme tell ya something

So, the free market: good for health care, but bad for Hannah Montana tickets.

24 October 2007

The Fine Art of Self-Justification

I did it for the children

Police in the U.K. and the Netherlands shut down the Cadillac of file-sharing services, OiNK, in coordinated raids yesterday. OiNK is a members-only torrent site notable for its wealth of yet-to-be-released material (60 such albums have been available through the service this year alone, according to "authorities") and its requirement that all files made available for trade have a bitrate of 192 kbs or higher (as opposed to iTunes standard 128 kbs AAC format). Hence, it's kind of like a country club peopled by cool kids (read: internet music nerds), fenced off from the watery cymbals and mislabeled tracks (have you heard Bob Dylan's "Stuck in the Middle With You" yet?) available to the maws-agape masses across the rest of the internet. Accordingly, OiNK users have reacted to news of the shutdown with Barbara Bush re: Katrina levels of out of touch-ness; the league leader thus far, as unearthed by Idolator: "Sorry if this has already been posted, but I'm following the San Diego fires right now, and this is just another devastation right on top of it."

Look: I used to download music back in the heady days of my youth, when Napster, and then Audiogalaxy and LimeWire were the industry standards for copyright violating. That I don't anymore is because a) I can't find a suitable client for Mac, b) I don't even have time to listen to all of the music I'm buying nowadays, let alone all the stuff I could possibly be downloading, and c) call me a wuss, but I don't want to have to end up settling with the RIAA for $20,000 or some ridiculous sum if I lose the lawsuit lotto. So believe me when I say that the whole morality angle in the illegal downloading debate doesn't really bother me that much.

What does bother me is the oblivious self-righteousness that people display when this issue arises, as if it's their divine right to download whatever they want without paying a single red cent to any of the people involved in writing, recording, manufacturing, promoting, or distributing the song. I understand that the music industry sucks, that it's ridiculous to pay $18.98 (who the fuck buys CDs for the MSRP, I'll never know) for a piece of plastic with 14 songs on it and only 2 or 3 of them any good whatsoever. Furthermore, I'll agree that the industry has not acquitted itself particularly well in handling this problem, launching a legal intimidation campaign against its target market and screwing over actual paying customers by surreptitiously inserting malicious spyware files on CDs. They're dicks, and if you want to steal from dicks, that's fine; maybe they deserve it. But getting indignant when those same dicks take action to prevent you from stealing their shit is kind of ridiculous.

This whole "Waaah! Waaah! I have a blog! I hype these bands! I'm an integral part of your ecosystem! How could you do this to me?" shtick is both deluded and unseemly. I don't disagree that file-sharing has helped to raise the profiles of certain acts - it's no mistake that the current indie boom started to pick up steam right around the time the Napster generation went off to college. However, facts are facts: 2000, right before the illegal downloading wave broke, was the biggest year in the history of the music industry, with titles blowing past the platinum mark left and right, and number one records routinely moving 500,000+ units in a single week. A mere seven years later and the music biz is in complete free-fall, with number one records coming in with a mere 60,000 copies sold, a total that might have snuck an album into the top 40 back in the good old days. The most garish example I can cite: Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds, an album that launched six singles into the Billboard Top 40 (one shy of Michael Jackson's record seven for Thriller), has moved roughly 3 million copies in 57 weeks since its release; in 2000, N'Sync's No Strings Attached moved 2.4 million copies in one week.

Is the RIAA' s approach (and those of analogous international trade groups) self-defeating? Yeah, and the industry would probably be far better off expending its energy trying to figure out how to cope with what is now, as Ronald Reagan once said of the Iranian Revolution, "a fact of history." However, this idea that OiNK's estimated 180,000 users are somehow indispensable in moving copies of Curtis is also pretty fucking retarded. And make no mistake: it's records like Curtis, Thriller, and the Eagles Greatest Hits Vol. 2 that have buttered the industry's bread, not 100,000 copies of Feist's latest here, or 60,000 of Our Love to Admire there. Again, should the industry be acclimating itself to the new realities of the 21st century? Absolutely. But are they somehow out of line demanding that a fat, stationary target like OiNK be shut down? Not really.

Frankly, the whole illegal downloading epoch is nothing if not a fascinating study of the psychological makeup of America's youth. The RIAA (and MPAA) have both tried to liken downloading to the theft of material goods: you wouldn't shoplift of steal someone's television would ya? Most kids wouldn't do those things, not simply because they fear the legal repercussions, but because they grasp that stealing is immoral. When I steal a material object, not only am I obtaining it free of charge, but I'm also depriving you, the rightful owner, of its use - therein lies the harm. However, illegal downloading is manifestly different: if I download a song, I'm just making a copy of it - it doesn't affect your ability to have the song too. The harm done is far more abstract. Furthermore, society at large doesn't seem to feel that illegal downloading is all that big of a deal - there's no widespread opprobrium associated with the practice that might help reinforce its illicit nature. In fact, most people have a "blame the victim" mentality, seeing illegal downloading as some kind of karmic retribution visited upon a fat and complacent industry built upon victimizing both its customers and the talent alike.

Perhaps against this backdrop it shouldn't be surprising that many shut-out OiNKers have started rending their garments and gnashing their teeth at the site's demise. And, after all, I'm sure that a great many of them are being genuine when they say that they used the service to find obscure commercially unavailable material or music by newer, lesser known bands that would benefit greatly from a mention on their blog (shout out to my boys in...uh...THE ARCADE FIRE!!!! YEE33EAH!!!). However, I can't help but feel that most of the vitriol/bewilderment is due to an unfathomable (okay, somewhat fathomable) sense of entitlement that has led them to believe that what they're doing is not only not wrong (in either the amoral anarchic realm or civil disobedience senses), but that, by shutting down OiNK, the industry and the authorities are visiting an injury upon them.

Now, if you want a thoughtful read from someone mourning the passing of OiNk, I highly recommend DJ Rupture's blog post on the subject. As both an music fan/audiophile and a musician whose material was available on the service, Rupture brings that rarest of commodities to this discussion: a sense of perspective. So put a smile on kids, and before you get all huffity-puffity about navigating the new morality of the digital media age and how you're really helpful, like a remora or something, just remember: Robin Hood was a thief too, and people still like that guy.

23 October 2007

All Your Bass Are Belong to Us

Oooooh nooooooo

Shocking contender for top album of the year (non-LCD Soundsystem division):
  • Neil Young - Chrome Dreams II (Reprise)
Shockingly worthy blog hype:
  • Black Kids - Wizard of Ahhhs EP (self-released)
Shockingly waiting on it to happen for me:
  • Radiohead - In Rainbows (self-released)
Shockingly meh:
  • Animal Collective- Strawberry Jam (Domino)
  • The White Stripes - Icky Thump (Third Man/Warner Bros.)
  • Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - Living With the Living (Touch & Go)
  • Interpol - Our Love to Admire (Capitol)
Shockingly borderline:
  • Okkervil River - The Stage Names (Jagjaguwar)
Shockingly forgot these were released in 2007:
  • Menomena - Friend and Foe (Barsuk)
  • Low - Drums and Guns (Sub Pop)
  • The Shins - Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop)
Shockingly must remember to listen to again:
  • Papercuts - Can't Go Back (Gnomonsong)
  • A Sunny Day in Glasgow - Scribble Mural Comic Journal (Notenuf)
  • The Rosebuds - Night of the Furies (Merge)
  • The Clientele - God Save the Clientele (Merge)
Shockingly unsure what to make of them (but secretly sure they're full of shit):
Shockingly hotly anticipating:
  • Wire - Read and Burn 03 (Pinkflag)
  • Ghostface Killah - The Big Doe Rehab (Def Jam)
  • Daft Punk - Alive 2007 (Virgin)
  • James Murphy and Pat Mahoney - Fabriclive 36 (Fabric)

22 October 2007

No, It Doesn't Stand for 'Taco Bell'

Ha ha, get it?

Today, Double L interviews Andrea Barrett, author of the new novel The Air We Breathe, a Hallmark card set in 1916 at a public sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers in upstate New York. Hot new literary device par excellence: "plural first-person omniscient narrator." Learn more at:

"Not Fewer Guns, But Safer Bullets"

Back to the future

Today's New York Times brings us an op-ed from Clinton-era FDA apparatchik David G. Adams arguing the need for "A Two Cigarette Society": that is, the introduction of cigarettes with little to no nicotine. This innovation is necessary to limit the harm done by underage smoking, an activity that Adams argues is initiated by the self-reinforcing need-to-fit-in/peer pressure tandem, but becomes a habit long outlasting the faddishness of adolescence owing to the highly addictive nature of the nicotine concentrations present in cigarettes. Adams believes that the regulatory will isn't there to force cigarette manufacturers to reduce nicotine in all cigarettes, but that by essentially bifurcating the cigarette market - that is, prohibiting the sale of nicotine-laden cigarettes to people born after a certain date - we can filter down the numbers of people exposed to "addictive" cigarettes, making quitting a simpler matter and eliminating a lot of the long-term health issues associated with smoking.

Having quit smoking and lived to tell the tale, I empathize with Mr. Adams' main point: kids are going to smoke anyway, but if we started them off on cigarettes without nicotine, far more of them could quit before doing any longterm damage to their health. However, I think that there are several drawbacks to such a scheme, not least of all that it runs contrary to existing, and I think, successful, public health policy. For the past twenty years, the federal and state governments have largely pursued a three-pronged approach to reducing smoking: increasing public awareness of the health risks associated with smoking, banning smoking from places of public accommodation, and increasing taxes on tobacco products. All reliable statistical indicators have suggested that this approach works: far fewer people smoke today than did even fifteen years ago, and states that apply the most aggressive approaches usually see results commensurate with those efforts.

(A side note: it sure was sad that all of the restaurants and bars in New Jersey went out of business after the Legislature banned smoking indoors. I remember when you used to not have to go to Pennsylvania for a steak or a beer - oh wait, that's right, none of that happened. At all. Thank God we dodged that bullet.)

By mandating the introduction of nicotine-free cigarettes, however, government would be playing into the "safe" cigarette illusion, giving its tacit imprimatur to smoking. Fear of addiction plays a large part in the current avoidance model; by removing or reducing that fear, we could be encouraging more young people to pick up smoking casually. It would by naive to think that tobacco companies, with one foot already in the door, would abstain from trying to tempt this potentially lucrative new market into switching over to addictive nicotine-containing cigarettes. Furthermore, reduced nicotine levels might lead to a net longterm reduction in exposure to the hazardous aspects of smoking, but it would not remove those hazards; in fact, by potentially increasing the number of people willing to smoke in the short term, Adams' proposal could inadvertently increase the numbers of people exposed to secondhand smoke.

What is most interesting to me about Adams' piece is what it doesn't propose, or even mention in passing: why not ban the manufacture and sale of cigarettes? There are the obvious reasons, that people trot out, which usually run the gamut from personal choice ("it's a free country") to economics (in many states, such as Virginia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas, Big Tobacco remains a major employer) to the perils of outright prohibition (we don't want another War on Drugs, do we?). Admittedly, these are compelling points, and they form the basis of Adams' underlying assumption that even taking such a mild step as mandating an across-the-board reduction in nicotine is politically impossible.

Yet, while implementing a ban today is probably unfeasible, mentioning one is also seemingly verboten; rarely, if at all, do you see high profile discussion of such proposals, even hypothetically. Imagine a pro-life movement committed to restricting women's access to abortion clinics but virtually mum on the idea of making the procedure completely illegal. Such a thing would be absurd, but it is that same lack of totality that may be the defining feature of America's anti-smoking movement. Indeed, even among people most ardently opposed to smoking, it seems like conceiving of a world without cigarettes simply requires too great a leap of the imagination to be reasonably discussed. Most have an accommodationist point of view: as long as you don't smoke around me, I don't care what you do. Ostracization, as opposed to eradication.

The "you're only harming yourself" point of view, however, fails to account for the actual social and economic costs of smoking. Smokers are generally more unhealthy than non-smokers, and as a result they miss, on average, far more time from work due to sickness. Being more prone to illness, they also tend to require medical care more routinely, thus contributing to an overall increase in insurance premiums that effects non-smokers as well. As they get older, they are far more susceptible to wide range of debilitating health conditions, including heart attack, stroke, emphysema, and, of course, a cornucopia of cancers. This costs programs like Medicare millions if not billions of dollars - your tax dollars - annually. That's not factoring in the additional expenses incurred by family members and other assorted caregivers, nor the high levels of emotional duress those people experience as their loved ones are rendered completely incapable of fending for themselves.

Furthermore, the question of banning smoking has a moral dimension as well: should the government permit the sale of a product, that as a matter of its routine and proper use, invariably damages the health of the end user? After all, we prohibit the sale of recreational drugs such as a cocaine, heroin, and marijuana on the grounds that they pose a public health risk. Why shouldn't the same logic be applied to the deleterious impact of cigarette smoking? That smoking kills is not the subject of much dispute nowadays; anyone exposed to a gangrenous foot or a clogged carotid artery courtesy of the New York City Department of Health while enjoying a Mets game on SNY can attest to that. It is vaguely ridiculous that we spend millions on advertising the ill effects of tobacco and setting up quitlines, and yet you can walk into any convenience store in your neighborhood and buy a pack of cigarettes.

(Allow me to head you off at the pass, Mr. What-About-Big Macs-and-Booze? Yes, alcohol and fatty foods can be dangerous to your health. However, both of these things can be enjoyed safely in moderation; having been a pack-a-day smoker I can tell you that "moderation", for the most part, simply doesn't exist when it comes to cigarettes. Furthermore, several jurisdictions have already taken steps to reduce consumption of harmful foods: New York City has banned the use of trans fats in restaurants, and several states have banned or otherwise restricted the sale of junk foods and sodas from school cafeterias. So there.)

Ultimately, though I believe that smoking will continue to become more and more marginalized, I don't think that we will see an outright ban on cigarettes anytime in the near future. Instead, I predict an intensification of the current regime: smoking will be reduced by attrition as increasingly alarmist propaganda (seriously, gangrene?), exorbitant taxes ($9.00 a pack in NYC), and greater restrictions (bans on smoking in rental units? households with minors?) all continue to proliferate. It's a curious mirroring of the "avoision" phenomenon taking place in the legal sphere; instead of circumventing existing outmoded laws, we'll be affecting a ban on smoking in everything but name only. Unless it becomes practical to pay $30 for a pack of cigarettes that you can only smoke in a sealed room in your home (complete with its own isolated ventilation system) while running the risk of spontaneous facial rot, that is.

I Didn't Go to CMJ So You Don't Have To

Where does he come up with all of this zaniness?

So (papers shuffling) uh...*cough*...if you don't think that New York City offers a suitable panoply of horrifically shitty indie bands on a regular basis, each year College Music Journal throws a little week-long industry/press/average Joe schmooze fest where these unwashed hordes flood venues from your basement (I'm not kidding; there's an Indonesian hardcore band down there as we speak) to, uh the Apple Store in SoHo. The point, I guess, is to get these acts that we read about on blogs all year long (not this one though; I'm too busy writing about Bruce Springsteen and racism in pro sports) in front of the people who...write those blogs.

For authentic coverage by people who could be bothered to check out...uh...Cool Kids:
New York Times CMJ Blog
Idolator CMJ Coverage
Should be Pitchfork's CMJ Stuff, but they use pretty unspecific tags (like I should talk)
Tom Breihan evincing passive resignation sprinkled with faint glimmers of hope
More Voice
Brooklyn Vegan's yadda yadda yadda
And Stereogum's partridge in a pear tree

Hott bands you simply had to see:
Black Kids
Mika Miko
The Cool Kids
No Age
Yeasayer (Winner: Worst Band Name Ever 2007)
Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band

Bands with "dirty" in the name, in no Dirty Projectors shocka:
The Dirty Pearls
The Dirty Secrets
Dirty Vegas

Bands with "Maccabees" in the name:
The Maccabees

Care Bears on Fire

Ass Dog Eating Horror Shows:
Dan Deacon

21 October 2007

Maybe God Hates Your Racist Mascot

I'm writing this in the bottom of the eighth

So, when the Indians' not quite unprecedented collapse is postmortem-ed on sports talk radio, ESPN, and in the newspapers, two moments from game 7 will stand out. The first is Indians' 3rd base coach Joel Skinner's decision to hold Kenny Lofton on a fluky Franklin Gutierrez single when he could have scored from second without a throw in the top 7th. On the next play Casey Blake grounded into a double play, stranding Lofton on third and leaving the Red Sox up 3-2. The second is manager Eric Wedge's bad mojo decision to pull starter Jake Westbrook after six innings, despite the fact he had retired eight Red Sox in a row and was cruising. Reliever Rafael Betancourt promptly gave up a two-run homer to mighty mite Dustin Pedroia: 5-2 Red Sox. After Jonathan Papelbon retired three in a row with two inherited men on in the top eighth, the Sox came back to put the Tribe out of their misery in the bottom frame, with Pedroia hitting a bases-clearing 3 RBI double, and Kevin Youkilis tatooing a 2 run homer. Now we sit in the top of the 9th, 1 out, 11-2 Red Sox.

19 October 2007

Tramps Like Us, and We Like Tramps

It'll be right, and it'll be tonight

Bruce Springsteen is like Dorian Gray. His age only seems to be reflected on his albums: the material as become more reflective, with the sharper edges worn away, and each passing year seems etched into his increasingly grizzled voice. Live though, time seems to have stood still for Springsteen like it has for none of his contemporaries. His vocal instrument is vital, powerful - able to deliver the most demanding songs of his youth with the unmatched vigor they require. His energy is boundless: for two and half hours it never seems to flag or fade, and he finishes the show with an even greater intensity than he began it. Great performers feed on the crowd: Springsteen's crowd feeds on him.

Last night at Madison Square Garden, Springsteen and the E Street Band closed out a two-night stand in support of his newest record,
Magic, putting on a clinic that serves as further evidence that he is America's greatest rock and roll star. Some thoughts:

It's a kind of Magic: When I saw the Rolling Stones back in the fall of 2005, they were touring in support of A Bigger Bang, and they played maybe two or three songs off that album, and then basically said, "Fuck it, we're playing the hits" - an understandable decision when you're the Rolling Stones and nobody gives a good goddamn about your new album. Springsteen, however, is not at that stage yet (if he ever gets there), and a good third of last night's set list was drawn from Magic.

Now, I like
Magic, but I also like Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, et cetera, et cetera. To the Boss's credit, most of the new stuff sounded pretty terrific live (leading me to voice the observation that "maybe he ought to just release live albums from now on"): opener "Radio Nowhere", which I suspect is going to be a longtime fixture in Springsteen's sets, packed an appropriately wicked punch, ramping the big room's energy level from 0-to-60 in about two seconds; "Devil's Arcade", a dirge-y number that no one was looking forward to tremendously benefited from a fuller (Brendan O'Brien-less) live band sound; "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" actually provoked a sing along to lead off the encore (who knew?).

Is Darkness on the Edge of Town his best album?: Three of the show's best moments were drawn from Bruce's vastly underappreciated follow-up to Born to Run: "Candy's Room", "The Promised Land", and an incandescent "Badlands". Springsteen has had three prominent public personas: the skinny kid takin' on the world from Born to Run, the beefed-up workin' man from Born in the U.S.A. era, and grizzled lefty folkie Bruce, who we've got now. Yet though the stretch between Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A. (including both albums, obv.) is generally agreed to be his greatest work, it is also Springsteen at his most enigmatic - as brilliant as Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, and Nebraska are generally agreed to be, you won't find a lot of takers among Bruce aficionados for favorite album status. Yet last night may have changed that a little bit, as the three Darkness tracks blew the doors off the place, best of all being "Badlands", which ended the set before the encore, and left 20,000 people chanting the "oooo,OOOO,OOOO,OOO,ooooo" part from the bridge a cappella in the dark for 5 minutes before band came out for the encore.

"Born to Run" is Springsteen's favorite song: Now, I'm not even going to try and qualify this by saying that it's his favorite Springsteen song; I can see him listening to it in the car, on his iPod, around the house, wherever. I guess if you were a 24 year-old kid setting out to record the greatest rock and roll single ever cut with your music career circling the drain, and you came up with "Born to Run", you'd be pretty damned pleased with yourself too. Despite the fact that Springsteen gets a huge amount of mileage out of holding his best material pretty close to the vest in the live setting - meaning that when he deigns to play "Rosalita" the crowd goes positively batshit (see next item) - I don't know the last E Street Band set list that "Born to Run" wasn't in, a testament to how much the Boss must love playing it. And for the fans, it's still like a match to gun powder, 20,000 people singing along, "and the crowd goes wild."

He played "Jungleland": You can tell a true Springsteen die hard by the songs he most wants to hear live: "Rosalita", "Out in the Street", and "Jungleland". None of these are 'hits', per se, and there are a great many songs that are that are not automatic concert inclusions, like "Thunder Road" or "Born in the U.S.A." Yet the Bruce die hard has probably heard all of the really big hits on the road at one point or another; he may never get to hear "Jungleland".

Well, last night, he got to hear "Jungleland." Following a touching rendition of Born to Run deep-cut "Meeting Across the River" in tribute to the late Peter Boyle, the familiar violin intro to "Jungleland" kicked in, the crowd had the 411, and for eight minutes, 20,000 people felt like they had been let in on a secret and went positively bat shit. It's often said that Born to Run is Springsteen's greatest album, and that he never even attempted to make another one with the same operatic wide screen vision. Well, how many songs like "Jungleland" can a guy write in one life time?

Katie Couric had better seats than me: And I didn't even ruin the CBS Evening News. Come on! Well, they weren't that much better; it's nice that, unlike with a lot of concerts where they have these ridiculous "Platinum Circle of Friends" mega-expensive tickets where you practically get to sit in on a few songs with the band, making $15 million a year gets you...slightly better seats than I had. Workers of the World, Unite!

Miscellaneous: Clarence Clemons was pretty much playing the same filler sax solo all night, until "Jungleland" when he brought the house down..."Magic" remains a momentum-killing turd...Springsteen advertised a possibly fictitious E Street Band themed line of sex toys at the merch tables: "What we use in the comfort of our own home, you can use in the comfort of your own home"...Springsteen closed the show by bringing out Seeger Sessions band members for an incendiary run through of "American Land".

18 October 2007

The Yankees Are Dumb, Steinbrenner Incapacitated, Film at 11

See ya!

It is often said that the undoing of the coup that temporarily deposed Mikhail Gorbachev in August of 1991 was a disastrous press conference broadcast on Soviet state television that pretty much gave everyone the impression that nobody was running the ship. Well, right now, the New York Yankees are having that same press conference.

As we speak, team president Randy Levine is on a conference call with the media following Joe Torre's rejection of the Yankees' $5 million, one-year deal to manage the club. Over the past 10 days, the Yankee dynasty off of the field has completely unraveled. After the Yanks bowed out 3-1 to the Tribe last Monday following Steinbrenner's senile grumblings to a Bergen Record reporter over the weekend that Torre "probably wouldn't be back" if the team lost the series, everyone figured his goose was cooked. Then began the bizarre waiting game, which has extended through now, which all of the sudden went from a Torre death watch to a what the fuck is going on with the Yankees? watch. Torre was coming back; no, LaRussa's the manager; no, Mattingly; wait, Mattingly said he's not ready for the job; no, Mattingly's agent says that's a lie; we're still meeting at Chez Steinbrenner in Tampa, the mahi mahi was lovely, but no decisions yet, don't call us, we'll call you.

Frankly, here's what we know: Steinbrenner is out of the picture, or at least people are saying "that's nice George, but Vince Lombardi is a football coach, and he's dead besides." Everyone else has slaved under his iron fist for so long that they totally have the zap on them like Iraqis after the fall of Saddam. "Free? You give us electricity and politics, G.I. Joe?" The Steinbrenner sons are acting like "we can give a shit, pls mail us the checks when you sell team, kthnxbi."

Look, if you wanted Torre, you should have sucked it up, given him a two year deal at what he's earning now, and be done with it: 4 WS rings, and 12 playoff appearances in 12 seasons is a pretty goddamn good record. Instead these chuckleheads fly him down to Tampa to sing for his supper and then hand him some "fuck you, take or leave it" offer - the option automatically vests if the team wins the World Series next year, ho ho ho - and he rightly said "suck my dick, I've danced with The Boss when he had a head on his shoulders and something inside of it." Peace!

"This America, Man"

Listen carefully

As The Sopranos blinked out to the strains of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" back in June, there were no shortage of critical hosannas for the show: typical was David Remnick's assertion in the The New Yorker that it was "the richest achievement in the history of television." This immediate rush to lionize David Chase's family (capital and lower-case 'F') saga as the television medium's zenith is understandable. After all, The Sopranos fits neatly into the continuum of great American masterpieces like The Great Gatsby, Death of a Salesman, or (perhaps unsurprisingly) The Godfather - all stories about the compromises and failures of individuals in pursuit of that illusory ideal, the American Dream. Tony Soprano's tale resonated with audiences because, at its heart, the show was about grappling with the existential pressures of family life in modern day America. Tony's in therapy; Tony has a domineering mother; Tony has money problems; Tony has marital problems; Tony has to put his daughter through college; Tony has to navigate the egos in his workplace. The series' often fantastical Mafia setting serves to raise the dramatic stakes of these otherwise quotidian dilemmas, yet they remain essentially recognizable and eminently relatable.

"The richest achievement in the history of television" though, it is not. That distinction belongs to a far less feted HBO drama: The Wire.

That The Wire is brilliant television is, by this writing, a third or fourth-hand observation: if you haven't heard that by now than you are reading the wrong papers. On its face, the series is primarily concerned with the Baltimore drug trade and how it shapes the communities and institutions it interacts with, and vice versa. With each season The Wire's universe expands outwards: season one established the rules of "the game" through the eyes of the drug crews and the cops working them; season two chronicled the decline of Baltimore's port and the unions reliant upon its trade; season three expanded to the politicians and the problems of governing a decaying city; season four tackled the public school system. Yet, though the show's focus may shift with each season, the bigger picture, as it were, always remains in view, a city in miniature.

That "bigger picture" - that which makes The Wire unique in the annals of American television - is the failure of the entire system. It is certainly among the first major works of art to convincingly define "the system" as something other than an abstract impediment to progress. The Wire's conception of "the system" is instead built around the tensions that develop between institutions that often have competing prerogatives, and the effect that those gravitational forces have in shaping those institutions and the individuals subject to them. The net result is a portrait of a post-industrial metropolis that is both absurdly dysfunctional and yet staggeringly realistic; according to series creator David Simon, a former crime reporter with the Baltimore Sun, this is precisely the intended effect:
“ ‘The Wire’ is dissent,” he says. “It is perhaps the only storytelling on television that overtly suggests that our political and economic and social constructs are no longer viable, that our leadership has failed us relentlessly, and that no, we are not going to be all right.”
I could spend far more time waxing about what makes The Wire superb: its rigorous authenticity, rich dialogue, intricately interwoven story lines, the brilliant actors (many of them non-professionals draw straight from the series' milieu), etc. However, all of this is done to far greater effect in the current issue of The New Yorker, wherein Margret Talbot profiles David Simon, a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun who first broke into television when his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets was adapted into a series for NBC. The most fascinating tidbit that I will let drop here is that The Wire's fifth and final season, which wrapped shooting in August and is set to premier in January, is focused on the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun (the actual Sun permitted Simon to use the paper's name, provided no current staff appear on the show). According to Simon, the final season
will be about “perception versus reality”—in particular, what kind of reality newspapers can capture and what they can’t. Newspapers across the country are shrinking, laying off beat reporters who understood their turf. More important, Simon believes, newspapers are fundamentally not equipped to convey certain kinds of complex truths. Instead, they focus on scandals—stories that have a clean moral. “It’s like, Find the eight-hundred-dollar toilet seat, find the contractor who’s double-billing,” Simon said at one point. “That’s their bread and butter. Systemic societal failure that has multiple problems—newspapers are not designed to understand it.”
One final observation: If The Wire is about how economic, political, and social stresses can combine to break society down, then another HBO series, Deadwood, concerned itself with how those same factors are core ingredients for erecting a civilization. In fact, Deadwood, which was canceled after three magnificent seasons ("Some will win, some will lose," as Steve Perry would sing it), is kind of like The Wire in reverse. When the series began, the mining camp of Deadwood was a place literally beyond the law, called into being by the promise of quick riches, and held together by criminal strongmen - a place not altogether unlike The Wire's inner city ghetto. Yet where Baltimore's drug corners are a terminus, Deadwood is quickly built up from a temporary hovel into a bustling permanent settlement after a major gold deposit is discovered. In essence, Deadwood is a foundation myth, dedicated to exploring the unique manner in which brutality and greed can call forth order as well as sow chaos. Even as gold magnate George Hearst descends on the camp, threatening to erase it from the map as he consolidates his control of its mineral resources, the net effect is even more civilizing: the camp's denizens, once disordered and arrayed against one another in an anarchic realm, realize the only way to resist obliteration and protect their interests is to form an even tighter societal bond.

Deadwood is about forming connections; The Wire is about collapse. Both are uniquely American stories. As Boethius' said in The Consolation of Philosophy:

It's my belief that history is a wheel. 'Inconstancy is my very essence,' says the wheel. Rise up on my spokes if you like, but don't complain when you're cast back down into the depths. Good time pass away, but then so do the bad. Mutability is our tragedy, but it's also our hope. The worst of time, like the best, are always passing away.
Another way of putting it is the oft-cited first scene in The Wire's pilot episode, an exchange at a murder scene between Detective Jimmy McNulty and a friend of the deceased. The victim, memorably named Snot Boogie, liked to participate in neighborhood dice games, but would always try and steal the pot money before the game ended.
McNulty: I got to ask you, if every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away, why did you even let him in the game?
Friend: What?
McNulty: If Snot Boogie always stole the money why did you let him play?
Friend: Got to, this America, man.

17 October 2007

Um, Yeah, So About This Being America in 2007

This happened yesterday

So after watching the Cleveland Indians and their fans for two consecutive rounds of the MLB playoffs, I have come to the conclusion, that, yeah, the whole thing is kind of racist. Well, I shouldn't say that I "came to the conclusion": I've thought that for a while, it's just that the Indians (and their fans) have been out of sight, out of mind for a long time prior to this year, and while I was fretting over the Mets' season-ending self-immolation jag, I really didn't have a lot of time to think about what a horrendously racist caricature the Chief Wahoo logo is, or how mind-blowingly inappropriate it is for middle-aged white guys to paint their faces red, put on headdresses, and engage in mocking facsimiles of stereotyped Native American rituals culled from equally racist 1950's western serials.

Lately, in college athletics, there has been a renewed push to eradicate mascots offensive to Native Americans; the NCAA has even threatened to ban schools with such nicknames and logos from postseason competition. In some instances, such as the University of Illinois' decision to drop Chief Illinewek, a clear-cut good has been accomplished. In other cases, such as Florida State University's successful bid to retain its 'Seminoles' nickname, the issue is a bit more complicated: the Seminole Tribe of Florida has officially endorsed the University's use of the nickname; however student rituals such as the "tomahawk chop" and stereotypical chanting (also employed by fans of the Atlanta Braves baseball team) are definitely of questionable taste. The overall trend, however - one that has been duplicated at the secondary and primary school levels throughout America - is that more and more Native American mascots have been consigned to the dustbin of history, so that our ancestors can look at them in textbooks generations hence and wonder what the fuck we were thinking.

In professional sports, there has been no comparable campaign to eliminate offensive Native American team names - the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Blackhawks, and Washington Redskins all remain in circulation. In fairness, there have been minimal attempts to mop up the image around the edges a little bit - the Braves eliminated Chief Nokahoma (say it out loud) and the Indians have adopted this bizarro furry purple thing named Slider as their mascot, instead of, say, the guys in the photo at the top of this post. Indians' owner Larry Dolan has even made noises about dropping Wahoo occasionally, and the Indians have pointedly introduced an alternate cap replacing the offending image with a letter 'I' (though it has been entirely absent throughout these playoffs). However, all four of these franchises have long, storied histories, and as such have fanbases steeped in their traditions for generations - traditions with which the offensive nicknames and logos are inextricably bound up. Such brand loyalty is enormously difficult to overcome (imagine if someone floated the idea of changing the Yankees to the Devil Rays or something equally stupid), and doubtlessly a primary factor in ownership's continued unwillingness to make a change.

In a bizarre way, I kind of feel bad for Cleveland's fans - a) they probably grew up rooting for the team because their father did, and his father did, so on and so forth, b) they didn't pick the name or the logo, and c) I imagine that a lot of them are pretty embarrassed to have to sit next to the guys in the picture at the top of the post. I can afford to feel superior because I root for the Mets (wait, did I just say I could feel superior to fans of a team up three games to one in the ALCS because I root for the Mets?), and so far no people with giant baseballs for heads have come out of the woodwork screaming bloody murder; if I was born in Cleveland, who knows what I would think?

Yet, even tradition can serve as only so much of a fig leaf, and a pretty flimsy one at that. I'm not going to take you on a walk down memory lane, but we've also got quite the long and storied tradition in this country of pulling fucked-up racist shit, from slavery, to Native American genocide, to the Chinese Exclusion Act, to segregation and Jim Crow laws, so on and so forth; Chief Wahoo remains a direct and obvious link to that lineage of shame. I'm sorry that changing it would mean that Cleveland fans would have to go and buy new caps and jerseys (Larry Dolan I hear $$$); however I'm not sorry that it would put an end to Fox cameras panning to a couple of jerkoffs in redface mid-inning while Joe "I can't believe Randy Moss just faked-mooned some drunk Packers fans - THAT'S DISGUSTING!" Buck continues blathering on with Tim McCarver like "ain't nothin' wrong with that!"