31 January 2008

No Choice?

The Village Voice's J. Hoberman on 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Lake of Fire, Juno, Knocked Up, Waitress, and their relationship to the politics of abortion and the intertwined philosophy of human free agency.

30 January 2008

Santana, Giuliani, and Edwards LLC

Best front page EVER

We're attacking them from multiple fronts today:

- As briefly noted yesterday betwixt paroxysms of ecstasy, the Mets landed Minnesota ace and certified B.P.I.B. (Best Pitcher in Baseball) Johan Santana for a couple of beers and a six-foot sub; all that's left is to work out a long-term extension with the ace in the 6 year, $150 million range, a step considered by most observers to be a fait accompli.

How did this happen? After all, when the Santana sweepstakes opened last fall, the clear front-runners were the Yankees and Red Sox, the only teams with both the top-flight, low-pay prospects Minnesota craved, and the pockets deep enough to swallow the ace's exorbitant salary demands. The Mets' bid - a package pretty near identical to what the Twins ultimately accepted, incidentally - was considered quixotic at best, a desperate effort by GM Omar Minaya to appease a fan base shell-shocked by the team's disastrous late-season collapse. So why, oh why, did Minnesota GM Bill Smith end up shipping off the B.P.I.B. for Phil Humber, Kevin Mulvey, Deolis Guerra, and Carlos Gomez? Easy: hubris, humility, stupidity, and persistence.

The hubris is that of the Boston Red Sox, the incumbent World Series champs who elected to stand pat when presented with the opportunity to roll out the Voltron of pitching staffs against, say, the Yankees in a September set in the Bronx. The humility is that of said Yankees, whose new ownership mouthpiece, Hank Steinbrenner, was obviously soiling himself at the prospect of adding Santana to the family trophy case. Cooler heads prevailed though, with GM Brian Cashman recognizing that the Sox were only in it to drive up the price for the Bombers, who decided to hang onto prize pitching prospect Phil Hughes and save the $150 million for a rainy day. The stupidity is that of Bill Smith, who should have snatched the Hughes-Melky Cabrera deal when it was still on the table back in December. Instead he went for the slow play, betting that either the Yankees (probably) or the Red Sox would ultimately panic and offer him a smorgasbord of ready-to-go young impact players. Contrary to expectations, both teams maintained discipline, and Santana himself, wanting the situation resolved before spring training, forced Smith's hand by threatening to invoke his no-trade clause and ride out the season to free agency - meaning Santana walks a free man after the '08 World Series, and the Twins get zilch. Smith put out an RFP for last, best offers and the Yankees passed, the Red Sox low-balled, and the Mets trotted out a farm-system clearing deal (well, all except for top OF prospect Fernando Martinez). Indeed, it is the Mets' persistence that sealed the deal, hanging in when everyone said they were D.O.A. Omar Minaya's faith was ultimately rewarded, and he managed to spin four ciphers into the B.P.I.B.

- 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 Rudolph Giuliani 9/11 9/11, after 9/11 9/11 Senator John McCain in Florida 9/11. Giuliani will now throw his 9/11 behind McCain.

Allow me to translate: Rudolph Giuliani, the first politician to decide on a last stand before he made a first, saw his strategy of skipping out on Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, and South Carolina fizzle as transplanted Northeasterners failed to deliver the Sunshine State into his clutches. A victory probably would have catapulted Rudy back into the front-runner mix; unfortunately Florida Republicans were unwilling to cast their lot with a candidate a) who pulled a national disappearing act, and b) whose track record, personal history, and refusal to prostrate himself completely before the Religious Right (he refused to take a hard line against abortion; Pat Robertson endorsed him anyway - nice work douchebag) suggested that he was fundamentally out of sync with the G.O.P. mainstream.

Rudy's presidential run exposed his uncomfortable relationship with national Republicans. Throughout his career as mayor, he was a convenient mascot: first as the no-guff crime-fighter who cleaned up New York City single-handedly (implicitly saving it from decades of soft-headed, soft-on-crime liberalism), then as the Churchill-esque figure of 9/11. And while he remained in New York, he was useful: as a connection to New York's money spigot, as a firewall against Hillary Clinton (though he eventually dropped out of the 2000 Senate race), and as a credible backer of the Bush Administration's post-9/11 policies. It was possible to ignore his inconvenient past: his contorted family life, his stands on abortion and gay rights, his endorsement of Mario Cuomo over George Pataki in 1994, his cronyism (after all, he nearly shoehorned Bernard Kerik into Bush's cabinet), and his pre-9/11 security failures (placing the Emergency Command Center at a known terrorist target, failing to upgrade Fire Department radios, et cetera). Once he decided to seek the G.O.P. nomination, however, the fig leaf that distance and sentimentality afforded him fell away, and Republicans discovered that he was basically just a very angry RINO with a predilection for pissing liberals off (a quality whose appeal to hard-core conservatives cannot be understated).

The truly bizarre thing about Giuliani's decline is how it happened. Sure, he was always kind of a long shot to pull of the whole shebang, even when he led in the (national) polls, but the campaign's decision to decamp to Florida and cede a significant chunk of media attention and, ultimately, momentum to his opponents always struck me as bordering on suicidal. If anything it recalled Giuliani's infamous decision to attend Opening Day at Yankee Stadium in 2000 instead of campaigning against Hillary Clinton - a moment when everyone pretty much figured out that Rudy's heart wasn't in the race. Perhaps, then, his heart wasn't exactly in this one either. Or his campaign, led by what-have-you-done-for-me-lately poster boy Michael DuHaime, was run by idiots who couldn't even hold onto the enormous leads the candidate built in his own backyard.

I won't be sorry to see Giuliani go: he struck me as an extension of the present administration, single-handedly capable of continuing the official culture of fear-mongering, secrecy, and recrimination - a task President Bush at least required some assistance with. Certainly, Rudy presided over a great many positive changes for New York - particularly the decline in the crime rate (to whom, or what, the credit for that should belong is still a matter for debate); he undoubtedly left our greatest city better than he found it. However, America is not New York City and nor is Baghdad merely a dangerous neighborhood. These times call for a diplomatic hand, capable of consensus building both here at home and especially abroad, where the United States' reputation has been thoroughly soiled by unilateralism and misadventure. Giuliani, a famously dictatorial figure, is precisely the wrong man for the job.

- I am sorrier to note the exit of John Edwards from the presidential race. In many respects I cannot abide Edwards: his protectionist, anti-globalization economic stances typically represented wooden nickels for working Americans; he might as well have told them that he and he alone could prevent the sun from rising in the east tomorrow. However, he was sincere in his concern regarding the plight of impoverished Americans - the existence of whom is itself disgustingly incongruous with our present plenty. Barack Obama summed up Edwards' contribution to the race best: "At a time when our politics is too focused on who's up and who's down, he made a nation focus again on who matters -- the New Orleans child without a home, the West Virginia miner without a job, the families who live in that other America that is not seen or heard or talked about by our leaders in Washington." Both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton have pledged to make poverty a central issue in their campaigns; I hope that one of them has the opportunity to make it a focus of their administration.

29 January 2008


Dear Mr. Wilpon:

I will write you a personal check in the amount of $1,000 right now on the spot if you promise to apply the funds toward paying Mr. Santana whatever he demands, over whatever length of time he deems appropriate. DO NOT FUCK THIS UP FOR US.

Respectfully yours,

Mike, a (long-suffering) Mets fan

Summing It Up

by Drew Sheneman, The Star-Ledger

"Catchy, But At What Lacoste?" or My Vampire Weekend Insta-Review

"Upper West Side Soweto"? Sure, okay. Essentially, it comes down to one of the following options:
  1. You hate them because of who they are: Whit Stillman-eqsue Ivy Leaguers who "summer" and name drop Lacoste in interviews and Louis Vuitton in songs ("Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa") without being, you know, rappers.
  2. You like/love their music, but need to legitimize them on an acceptible artistic continuum, so you try to tie their African sound-foraging to Talking Heads (also unabashedly clean-cut, collegiate, and middle class), instead of Paul Simon's Graceland, a more (blindingly) obvious precedent.
  3. You like/love their music, and you feel no need to justify them in a classical rockist sense, either musically or class-wise. In fact, you feel that Vampire Weekend represent the final victory of poptimism, wherein we are able to embrace even the ultra-privileged cultural tourist as an artiste in his own right. The indie serpent swallows its own tail and total nirvana achieved. In a moment of epiphany-induced euphoria you admit that The Darjeeling Limited was your favorite movie of 2007.
  4. You hate Vampire Weekend because you find their music and lyrics obnoxiously twee.
  5. You hate Vampire Weekend because you think they are "culture stealers" (attribution: Benzino, from the famous Benzino-Eminem beef).
  6. You hate Vampire Weekend because they actively and aggressively assimilate African musics, yet still bring zero funk. You are Sasha Frere-Jones, who I don't think actually hates Vampire Weekend, and probably would chastise me for failing to draw a distinction between African and African-American musics. You, or I, am a racist.
  7. You hate Vampire Weekend, but you've just read Carl Wilson's outstanding entry in the 33 1/3 series, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, wherein he force-feeds himself Celine Dion in an effort to understand her appeal and remove her from the context of cheap shots and snide jokes, but doesn't himself transform into a devotee. You are willing to let bygones be bygones and remain friends with people who do like Vampire Weekend.
Verdict: Vampire Weekend are precisely the kind of band that you will deny thrice before the cock crows. They are proudly and firmly ensconced in the Hall and Oates, Billy Joel, and, yes, Paul Simon slick pop tradition. If you can hang tough through all of that, then you will find their album a pleasant little chestnut that will no doubt sound as good piping out of your minivan's speakers ten years hence as it does through your iPod earbuds today. Listen without shame.

Score: Uh, we don't do scores here.

23 January 2008


What the fuck do you think it is motherfucker?

To the 8,000 of you who actually went out and paid cash money for the new Magnetic Fields album this week, God bless you; we're cool. To the rest of you go fuck yourselves. If you don't have the money, skip a meal or two. I'm serious.

Don't Ever Take Your Famous Glasses Off, Cory

Cory 2008

Love Is Like Pazz


And so, Pazz & Jop 2007 is in the books as of 9:30 pm on January 22, the earliest I can recall. On the albums side, LCD Soundsystem surprised absolutely no one by coming in first, besting Radiohead's In Rainbows and M.I.A.'s Kala, both of which tied on the points (1,611 to Sound of Silver's 1,662); Yorke & Co. ended up officially in the two spot by virtue of four more ballot mentions. On the singles side, Amy Winehouse surprised at least me by placing first for "Rehab" (she landed #4 in albums for Back to Black); "Umbrella" finished #2, four mentions behind, and "All My Friends" ended up waaaay back with the bronze, thirty-six mentions off the pace.

This year, insofar as I can tell, the Voice has eschewed the State of the Union address format popularized by former Poobah Robert Christgau and attempted last year only as a "we've got to say something" mea culpa by replacement (and possible half-wit) Rob Harvilla; instead the ten topical pieces here get equal billing. Christopher Weingarten writes some blah-blah about the death or dearth of the "Rock Star" (coinciding with the death of a music industry now unable to underwrite $10,000 room service tabs, hmmm detective); not one but two essays on M.I.A. (I prefer Zach Baron's take); and even an Arcade Fire write-up, which is a nice close-but-no-cigar for the Canadians who were supposed to own 2007, but didn't even release the best record of the month (LCD dropped two weeks later). The champ, though, has to be Gregory Tate, who writes about black rockers without once mentioning Black Kids, which must be some kind of record in this day and age; to be fair to Black Kids though, "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You" (#105 in the singles) is a pretty nice slice of electro-jangle pop that proved they deserved a better fate than to be collateral damage in the ongoing Pitchfork v. Haters flame wars. Maybe in a few years with a little more seasoning.

Speaking of race and rock, this last piece, as you may have deduced, is a kind of response to Sasha Frere-Jones' jeremiad in the pages of The New Yorker bemoaning the lack of funk in indie rock. Indeed "A Paler Shade of White" was the rockcrit event of 2007; though I don't know of anyone who wholeheartedly endorsed SFJ's perspective, it's hard to deny the significance of the larger conversation he managed to kick start. Every dimension of the argument was contested: race versus class, what constitutes indie rock, what constitutes "black" influences (Win Butler of the Arcade Fire, a group cited as bordering on translucent by Frere-Jones, retorted by compiling an mp3 of black music he felt his band was ripping off). Nobody went away completely happy, but race, in music as in life, is a kind of a Rubik's cube, which we are compelled to pick up and screw around with every now and again, even if we have no real hope of solving the problem, the dimensions of which we can't even begin to agree upon.

In light of this discussion it is with some irony that I note the death grip of rock of both the indie and non-indie (dependent?) varieties on the upper reaches of the album and single charts. Hip hop had a shit year by most people's standards, and only Kanye West (#6) and Jay-Z (#18) managed to dent the top twenty albums, though I would attribute the exclusivity of these ranks to aged pre-Internet types not knowing how to obtain Lil Wayne's epochal Da Drought 3 (as well as the late release date for the minor-yet-excellent 8 Diagrams). The underlying conservatism of the Pazz & Jop electorate shone through in high placements for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Bruce Springsteen, Wilco, The White Stripes, and The Shins; like Nixon's Silent Majority these voters cut through the Internet chatter and voted for the same damn bands they always have voted for and will always vote for (only the Plant/Krauss and Springsteen records rate with me for reasons not sentimental). The creep is more subtle on the singles side, disguised by the Winehouse-Rihanna 1-2 punch, yet there they are: two Spoon sides, "Icky Thump" (at no. 11), "Young Folks" going top ten despite being practically ubiquitous in '06, and The Shins coming in at twelve for "Phantom Limb" (Wincing the Night Away was not evidently left for dead by everyone).

Strangest of all is the strange case of Radiohead, whose latest album is also their most inscrutable gesture yet. The story of In Rainbows is ultimately the story of its delivery, sent across e-mail as a bundle of mp3s for a price of the patron's choosing; a gesture at first rightfully viewed as altruistic, then subjected to the inevitable backlash as naysayers objected to Radiohead even granting customers the option of paying for the record, or knocked the band for claiming that the idea was original (they didn't). Sean Fennessey epitomizes the senseless derision when he comments that "Rappers have been 'giving away' mix tapes for years. Some are even better than In Rainbows. And they all have cooler cover art." This idiotic remark ignores the fact that a) Lil Wayne has gotten more than his fair share of hype for Da Drought 3's equally free distribution scheme (after all, he placed on this list without a proper release), b) rappers release mix tapes in large part because they can't get sample clearances and c) most mixtape cover art basically sucks. Fact is that Radiohead, who nowadays qualify as one of the world's biggest bands, released a new album by sidestepping the major label apparatus and practically giving it away for free; even Ian MacKaye never attempted that shit. So they got some publicity for it, big fucking deal, you chuckleheads are the ones who stirred the muck and tea leaves trying to figure out What It All Means in the first place. Hell, Radiohead went and did your jobs for you.

So a whole paragraph about In Rainbows and not a word about the music, which is pretty fitting, as I'm guessing that if the record suddenly appeared on Best Buy end caps October 3rd we wouldn't be sitting here talking about it. Radiohead pulled kind of a bait-and-switch: In Rainbows is definitely an artistic sidestep compared to the meteoric progression of The Bends to OK Computer to Kid A. Radiohead in many respects got a free pass on 2003's Hail to the Thief, which I maintain had an expiration date matching the day it was released: thematically, it perfectly encapsulated the air of global paranoia rampant in the wake of both 9/11 and the beginnings of the Iraq War, though musically even Thom Yorke mockingly referred to it as "Ok Computer 2". In Rainbows in that sense feels like a return to the humanist womb, displaying an emotional palette that extends beyond fear of technology, government, and other people. It's a good, comfortable record from a band that stopped making them (if they ever did at all); quality and career arc-wise, you could draw some pretty fascinating parallels with Wilco and Sky Blue Sky. In Rainbows is certainly better, but the only reason it's sniffing the top of this chart or any others is because of loyalty to the Radiohead brand, built on the backs of records far more exciting and innovative than this one. Close, but a cigar nonetheless.

22 January 2008

Political Song For Jonathan Richman to Sing

Joshua Clover has put up his year-end best album essay, which is dedicated to Maya Arulpragasam's a.k.a. M.I.A.'s sophomore album, Kala. M.I.A. is the kind of artist that well-heeled liberal bohos love to get behind: a Westernized Other, directly connected to genuine third world tumult while fully embracing the best that Our Culture has to offer, bearing in mind that Our Culture really means African-American culture which has become Our Culture through processes still hotly debated.

M.I.A.'s debut record, Arular, was freighted with way too much revolutionary chic political content to be truly pleasurable as pop: call it form equaling function as M.I.A. tried to free your ass and mind simultaneously. It populated the upper precincts of many a year-end list that year, but you would be hard pressed to find many people who have given it more than a cursory spin since. Kala, a record that functions far better as such than as a badge of taste or solidarity or what-have-you, dialed back the sloganeering and showed where Arular told; songs like "World Town", "20 Dollar", and "Paper Planes" are political art but with equal emphasis on the art.

One of the more fascinating aspects of M.I.A.'s success is that, musically, she is an accomplished cultural tourist, an activity that elicits much opprobrium from more discerning quarters when the perpetrator is, well, white. Arular, abetted by then-boyfriend Diplo (who has taken not a little shit for his Southern hip-hop repping Hollertronix parties, coincidentally), raided Brazilian favelas for the prized baile funk beat that underlies the entire album. Kala is more widescreen in its UN ambitions, leaning heavily on Bollywood, but making stops in Africa and the Australian Outback for musical inspiration. (Hell, there's even a little bona fide indie rock in there, with direct quotes from The Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner" and the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?"; somebody resuscitate Sasha Frere-Jones.)

So what makes M.I.A. different from, say, Damon Albarn or Paul Simon? Well, aside from the obvious, which we will of course come to, there's what Clover calls her "syncretism"; that is that rather than lifting one particular style wholesale, Ms. Arulpragasam has proven adept at fusing disparate "world" sounds together to form a novel whole. Whereas Graceland, an admittedly terrific album, is Paul Simon Sings Soweto, tracks like "Bird Flu" and "Boyz" demand unraveling, a process of discovery to pinpoint their musical roots; they sound like something, but more to the point, nothing sounds quite like them. M.I.A.'s music is, though familiar, profoundly original in its own right, and not theft unless you are one of those who think Elvis stole rock and roll, in which case, good luck to you.

(Of course, M.I.A. is hardly the only act to practice this form of synthesis; the most prominent example I can think of would be Brian Eno-era Talking Heads, who incorporated distinctly African polyrhythms into their songs beginning with 1979's Fear of Music. Furthermore, Eno and David Byrne branched out to Bedouins for 1981's more controversial My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. While they didn't get quite the free pass that M.I.A. gets, I think it goes to show that if people like what you're doing with the material, you could probably rip it straight off of some blind beggars dying of leprosy and people would be at least inclined to look the other way. Not that I'm accusing Talking Heads of this.)

The most important distinction between M.I.A. and other musicians is, of course, her ethnic background. Though reared mostly in the U.K., Maya is originally from Sri Lanka; famously, her father did/does have some ties to the Tamil Tigers terrorist organization. Her music and politics are informed in large part by this dislocation, and it constitutes 100% of her public persona, which she may not necessarily embrace, but does little to distance herself from. For all intents and purposes, to the limited audience that is familiar with her music (she has failed to penetrate the broader American marketplace despite Interscope's backing), M.I.A. is the Third World, or at least our most credible, and palatable, pop culture connection to it.

I certainly don't write any of this to discredit M.I.A. or her music; quite the opposite in fact. But I do think it bears mentioning that Arulpragasam isn't some Benetton construct romantically sprung from a muddled international ghetto. She's a human being with a fascinating but definite back story; she comes from somewhere, and that somewhere isn't the slums of Rio de Janeiro or Mumbai or the Bronx. It would be a mistake to accede her the same kind of credibility to speak "for" the world's oppressed masses the way we have allowed self-aggrandizing blowhards like Al Sharpton to speak "for" African-Americans. Right now she's speaking for herself, and given her tremendous talent and unlimited potential, that should suffice for the moment.

And the Losers Aren't

Before we get to the Academy Awards, a few thoughts about the WGA strike, because of which, said Academy Awards may not happen:

- The WGA is fighting the producers over so-called "new media" (i.e. Internet) and DVD revenues; monies, ostensibly, which would only go to benefit those select few writers working on shows and projects that have any kind of long term replay value. This means that if you write for Lost, you could have a nice chunk of change at stake; if you write for General Hospital, you're behind on the rent so the guy who writes for Lost can get his hands on that nice chunk of change.

- The WGA failed to count on the television networks' ability to coast by on reruns, reality TV, and episodes of mid-season replacement shows already in the can (The Sarah Connor Chronicles is apparently a huge hit). Fact is that most "content providers" are owned by enormous multinational conglomerates that can far better afford to ride out the strike than the writers (and sympathy-striking unions like the Screen Actors Guild); furthermore, even the networks themselves have revenue streams far more diverse than they did the last time the writers walked out in the 1980s. Worse yet, the writers went on strike at a time when new TV product is at its least valuable: the holidays, and now, the NFL playoffs, thus burning through two months worth of cash with pretty much zilch to show for it. The producers are far better off waiting out the WGA, the bulk of whose members have little gain from this impasse, and keeping the revenue to themselves.

- By allowing the writers for Letterman and Craig Ferguson to come to a separate agreement with Worldwide Pants (Letterman owns his show, while Leno does not), the WGA is basically saying, "We're all in this together, except for those of us fortunate enough to work for Letterman." So much for preserving solidarity. Furthermore, a good chunk of the bucks Letterman's show generates go into the coffers of CBS, thus directly benefiting the ostensible enemy. Additionally, by refusing to sanction Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jay Leno, and Conan O'Brien for crossing the picket line, the WGA is showing itself to be a toothless bunch of Hollywood insider softies. Now I know those guys went back to work because of the hundreds of non-WGA staffers they collectively employ were going to lose their jobs; however, a scab is a scab, and it's especially disheartening to see these so-called liberal comedy icons pull the el foldo when the going (i.e. Management) gets tough - tell that to Jimmy Fucking Hoffa. That having been said, I think this strike is a great way to break the writers' backs and put them behind the eight ball in every subsequent negotiation: way to go WGA.

Anyway, on to the Oscars (which, as I said, may or may not go down)!

- There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men tied for the most nominations with eight apiece, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. So already we have the grisly possibility of these two films, which undoubtedly appeal to much the same audiences, splitting the vote and letting Atonement waltz off with the big prizes.

- Juno is the big winner of what is fast becoming the Fox Searchlight quirky indie mini-blockbuster Best Picture nomination. Yet unlike prior recipients Little Miss Sunshine and Sideways, Juno (which I have yet to see) had some coattails, earning director Jason Reitman a nod, Diablo Cody a probable win in the Original Screenplay category (picking politically without having the seen the film is a sensible and time honored tradition), and Ellen Page her anticipated Best Actress nomination.

- For your Oscar pool, you may put down Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor in There Will Be Blood, Javier Bardem for Supporting Actor for No Country for Old Men, and Cate Blanchett for Best Supporting Actress for I'm Not There.

- Thanks for playing nominations: Viggo Mortensen (Best Actor, Eastern Promises), Marion Cotillard (Best Actress, La Vie en Rose), Hal Holbrook (Best Supporting Actor, Into the Wild), Tony Gilroy (Best Director, Michael Clayton), Ruby Dee (Best Supporting Actress, American Gangster), Surf's Up (Best Animated Feature).

- Puzzling nominations: Tommy Lee Jones, who should have been up for Supporting Actor for No Country For Old Men getting an equally quixotic Best Actor nomination for the stillborn In the Valley of Elah; Cate Blanchett getting a Best Actrees nod for Elizabeth: The Golden Age (which was loudly and roundly panned) when victory in the supporting category is all but assured.

- Best battles: the whole Best Picture category, save for Michael Clayton; Julie Christie vs. Ellen Page for Best Actress, with Laura Linney as a possible spoiler; Adapted Screenplay between There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men (winner of this could be getting a consolation prize); Ratatouille vs. Persepolis for Best Animated Feature.

- Prestige pictures that whiffed: American Gangster (failing to get a major nod beyond Ruby Dee, even for Denzel); Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp for Best Actor); In the Wild (Hal Holbrook, Best Supporting Actor); Charlie Wilson's War (couldn't even get Tom Hanks or Aaron Sorkin a nom).

- Coulda, woulda, shoulda: Ratatouille for Best Picture, David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises) for Best Director; otherwise this bunch looks pretty okay to me.

Anyway, I look forward to bursting a blood vessel and going blind in my right eye when the esteemed members of the Academy manage to screw There Will Be Blood into the ground. See you on the red carpet!

The Kingdom, Minus the Magic

For the first hour and change, The Kingdom is a police procedural; following a suicide attack on a compound housing Western workers (employees, we are meant assume, of the oil industry), an FBI team goes to Saudi Arabia with the intention of tracking down the terrorists under the guise of helping the Saudi police track down the terrorists. A brief scene of a general torturing a police officer whom he wrongly suspects of being involved in the plot serves as a short hand notice that the Saudis don't know what they're doing: hence the need for the Americans to put on a tutorial in crime scene investigation, canvassing for witnesses, interrogation techniques, and forensic pathology. For all of The Kingdom's implausibilities (Jennifer Garner waltzing around Riyadh in a t-shirt and with her head uncovered chief among them), the investigative techniques employed are a far more accurate depiction of combating terrorism than the "I don't have time for this" kneecapping style of Jack Bauer. Unfortunately, the filmmakers inexplicably abandon this somewhat realistic approach during The Kingdom's third act, staging a car chase/gunfight triangulated somewhere between Clear and Present Danger, Heat, and Children of Men in which the plot is resolved in a hail of Yankee bullets. It is at this point that the movie, which is clearly based on (or "inspired by") the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, utterly divorces itself from reality and gives American audiences the kind of finality and release that has eluded us thus far in the real-life War on Terror. The Kingdom is escapism, which is fine by me, as it's Hollywood's stock and trade. It's just a shame that the filmmakers felt the need to abandon, and in doing so inadvertently repudiate, the genuine police tactics they espouse for the bulk of the film, and instead embrace the kill-'em-all Playstation mentality that has led this country down the path of secret CIA prisons, extraordinary rendition, and enhanced interrogation techniques. That The Kingdom ends with a slapped-on pointed warning about the unending cycle of violence seems like sort of a sick joke given the gleeful bloodbath that immediately precedes it.

21 January 2008

Monster Mash

is less about 9/11 as an event than about how 9/11 has affected the grammar of cinema: buildings collapse into clouds of rubble billowing down the street, cars are covered in ash, masses huddle as they try to escape across the Brooklyn Bridge. The movie centers upon a clutch of despicable self-absorbed yuppies (naming them is pointless) as they try to duck a giant reptilian monster laying waste to Manhattan between Spring and 59th Streets. Said monster, and said film, are more than a little reminiscent of the 1998 remake of Godzilla, right down to the killer grasshoppers-cum-lice he periodically sheds; the key difference, and Cloverfield's raison d'être, is the Blair Witch camcorder style. The technique redeems the movie, turning it into, uh, Star Tours. You Are There as Yups Flee Through Subway Tunnels, Leap Onto High Rise Rooftops, and Ride The Wonder Wheel (not a spoiler in the bunch, I swear it). Did I enjoy it? Sure, but I like roller coasters, and you would be gravely mistaken if you think that Cloverfield has any deeper messages or pleasures to yield than the Great American Scream Machine. Really, the only problem I have with the movie (other than the done-to-death giant reptile, who is revealed early, all the better to dispense with suspense, minimize disappointment, and get on with the scares) is fact that none of the characters remarks that it's just like they're in a movie; maybe it's too meta, but it's what people actually did say on 9/11.

16 January 2008

Long Live the New Flesh

Lyrically, Stephin Merritt sticks to the Brill Building/Tin Pan Alley blend of shy hearts shattering that he has built an empire upon. Musically, Distortion is aptly named; the sonics are all Psychocandy-era Jesus and Mary Chain if someone slipped you a couple Advil and earmuffs before hand. Merritt himself, while claiming the album to be his "most commercial record in a way", admits that "some audience members may be completely and immediately turned off..." In Our Band Could Be Your Life, rock critic Michael Azzerad describes the theatrical wholesomeness of the Olympia scene that sprung up around twee-poppers Beat Happening, with its put-on pie baking parties, sleep overs, and sock hops; Stephin Merritt makes music for today's less-conspicuous domestic fetishists to play while filleting tilapia and sipping Riesling.

It wasn't always this way, of course. The Magnetic Fields are relative latecomers, career-wise, to the Feist-Sufjan Stevens-Decemberists Club for Good Taste: call it guilt by association. The dividing line is, of course, 69 Love Songs, Merritt's often brilliant, thoroughly ambitious 1999 magnum opus. Before that, Magnetic Fields were a decidedly minor concern with a small, dedicated following and a couple of hit or miss albums and one outstanding single ("100,000 Fireflies") to their credit. Afterwards Merritt became the indie Cole Porter: featured on NPR, writing operas based on Chinese folk tales, and recently recording a soundtrack album for Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. His Magnetic Fields' follow up record, 2004's i, continued with the concepts (each song begins with the eponymous letter) and stuck to 69 Love Songs' musical blueprint, best described as electrified showtunes.

Distortion is a clean break with that continuum in many respects. For one, Shirley Simms, who prominently featured on 69 Love Songs but was disappointingly absent on i, returns to take lead vocal duties on several tracks, including album highlights "California Girls" (decidedly not a cover), "The Nun's Litany", and "Courtesans". Her presence draws out the '60s pop leanings of the material (imagine if the Brothers Reid had actually gotten a live girl to sing over their Wall of Squall) and reinforces the universality of Merritt's songwriting while leavening his cynicism.

And about that songwriting:
  • Vicious: "I have planned my grand attacks/I will stand behind their backs with my brand-new battle ax/Then they will taste my wrath/They will hear me say as the pavement whirls/'I hate California girls'" ("California Girls")
  • Heart-broken: "Drive on, driver/There's no one home/We've waited hours/She didn't come/It's such a pretty little ring but it doesn't mean anything/Drive on" ("Drive On, Driver)
  • Sarcastic: "Sober, life is a prison/Shitfaced, it is a blessing/Sober, nobody wants you/Shitfaced, they're all undressing" ("Too Drunk To Dream")
  • Cheeky: "I want to be a porno starlet (for that I'll wait till Mama's dead)/ I'll see my name in lights of scarlet and get to spend every day in bed" ("The Nun's Litany")
The big change and hard sell is the electrification, which may not induce Dylan-at-Newport levels of shock, but will doubtlessly be received in some quarters as a mustache on a masterpiece. To Merritt's credit he throws the gauntlet down right away, opening with the Orange Juice-aping (it bears a striking resemblance to "Moscow Olympics") instrumental "Three-Way", a three minute prospectus of scoured surf guitars and organ. Each song thereafter is similarly distressed, with each instrument varnished in a fine layer of distortion to the point where the vocals fight to be heard in the mix. Several critics have already dismissed this admittedly-confrontational technique as mere gimmickry; Merritt himself stated in an interview with the Village Voice that "that's the whole point of it: taking a random sampling of songs and subjecting them all to the production style of Jesus & Mary Chain's Psychocandy."

Sure it may be a gimmick, but it's a hell of a gimmick, creating a fascinating tension between The Magnetic Fields' default style of chamber pop, the lyrical material, and the decidedly punk effect of waves upon waves of feedback. The songs becomes more than conveyances for Merritt's bon mots and witty turns of phrase, forcing the audience to experience the composition as a whole instead of cherry picking the clever bits. Certainly it's a more primal conceptual gesture than the parlor game theatrics of dedicating an album to each of the fifty states or a single letter of the alphabet. Doubtlessly this will offend some parties upon discovering that their dinner party playlists have been corrupted by non-wallpaper; they shouldn't fret, however, as I understand that Colin Meloy's solo joint is slated to drop in April. For those of us who believe that rock is not dead and spend a lot of time searching for the pulse, Distortion will do.

I Don't Want It

At last year's Macworld event, Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone; this year he unveiled the Macbook Air. Macbook Air is an ultra-thin laptop that clocks in at under an inch at its thickest point. It comes in two versions: $1,800 lands you a 1.6 GHz, 80 GB model, while $3,100 gets you a faster 1.8 GHz, with a 64 GB solid-state hard drive (a positive innovation when you consider the fact that traditional "moving" hard drives store your data on a spinning aluminum disk that's bound to crap out sooner or later, and, if you don't back up religiously, leave you in the lurch). Due to its thickness, or lack thereof, the Macbook Air cannot accommodate an optical drive for CDs or DVDs: Jobs asserts that this won't be an issue because 1) people will be able to download their software via the internet, 2) Apple plans on producing a $99 external optical drive, and 3) Macbook Air will enable you to access CD/DVD drives on other PCs or Macs you may own.

This last point illustrates precisely the consumer whom the Macbook Air is targeted at: upper class individuals who have a ton of disposable income and probably already own an iPhone, an iMac, a Segway, etc. It's an accessory. Certainly this a charge that could be leveled at previous Apple baubles (the iPhone, which is essentially a glorified BlackBerry with a touchscreen and less functionality), but even those devices offered something tangible by way of a functional innovation. Macbook Air, on the other hand, does what other Macs already do in a more chic package. In fact, apart from the fact that it's super thin, it compares incredibly unfavorably with the cheapest iteration of the Macbook already on the market, which comes standard with a faster processor (2 GHz) and a CD/DVD combo drive all for roughly $1,100. By this metric, the Macbook Air is more a parlor trick designed to squeeze more fawning write-ups out of an obsequious media in the absence of an earth-shattering revelation like last year's iPhone announcement. Yes, the technology that went into making it might lead somewhere new, but the current product is the sizzle without the steak.

There were a couple of other announcements yesterday: iTunes now offers movie rentals, there's a new device called the Time Capsule which doubles as a WiFi station and an external hard drive (500 GB or 1 TB versions available), and couple of software updates for the iPhone and iPod Touch which includes a navigation function that figures position based upon cell towers and WiFi networks - as Salon's Farhad Manjoo put it, "GPS without the GPS." All in all it was a "Zzzz" worthy event, product-wise, which is kind of a backhanded compliment in that it proves that though Steve Jobs may not be God, he faces similar expectations.

15 January 2008

Isn't It a Little Premature to Be Putting Out Best of '08 Lists? Oh, Wait, You Actually Waited Until 2007 Was Over? How Novel!

Gawkerlet Idolator has posted its "Idolator Pop 07" feature, a follow up to last year's Jackin' Pop poll, which was, as the name suggests, pitched as a cumshot in the eye of Village Voice Media for shit-canning Pazz & Jop mastermind Robert Christgau. Like P&J, Idolator Pop 07 is a poll of music critics; essentially an aggregation of the aggregators. Inconsistently Updated is not precisely proud to note that Idolator's top album and single of the year match my own picks of about a month ago (here and here); furthermore I had six of the top ten albums in common, and five out of ten singles (wrong Feist). Does that make me the end product of some indie hive mind? Perhaps.

The real question, though, is whether 2007 was a year of tremendous consensus because some truly delectable cream floated to the top, or because the field was so incredibly weak, leading everyone to settle for the same ten to fifteen records out of boredom and exasperation. Certainly last year saw a lot of familiar favorites putting out strong records - LCD Soundsystem, M.I.A., Kanye West, Spoon, Arcade Fire - that everybody seemed to agree on, and these albums dominated the year-end lists, much to the chagrin of those who actually pay some attention to the deluge coughed up by the internet between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Exacerbating the ennui was the lack of new blood: the big debuts were Battles (Mirrored, #11) and Amy Winehouse who, despite (or perhaps because of) image problems, placed in the money both for albums (Back to Black, #5) and singles ("Rehab", #4). No one else who wasn't already on the radar appeared to make a sizable dent.

The big winner was James Murphy, who, after getting the all-time shaft from Pitchfork (which proved its indie conservatism by privileging the bedsit over the dance floor) posted the #1 album, and scored three singles in the top twenty. But surely you don't require me to wax rhapsodic about LCD Soundsystem, and so I refer you to Idolator editor Jess Harvell's piece on Sound of Silver.

The big surprise was Britney Spears, who will doubtlessly be cheered to note, provided whatever padded cell she's presently in has WiFi access, that, according to assorted pro and semi-pro cognoscenti, she had the 32nd best album of the year in Blackout, and the 29th (tied with 8 others) best single of the year in "Piece of Me". Spears has been only accorded scant respect from the critics before (almost all for 2003's excellent "Toxic"), so it's nice to see that Child Protective Services aren't the only ones who've got her on a list this time around.

In addition to the traditional album and single categories (oh, and reissues: Young Marble Giants topped The Complete "On the Corner" Sessions, which should give you some idea where the electorate's allegiances lie), Idolator also had an "artists" category, posted with only a cryptic "It's up to you" by way of explanation. This, of course, is a double entendre, honoring winner Radiohead's pay-what-you-like distribution scheme for In Rainbows while at the same time acknowledging the complete subjectiveness of the category. Yet it seems that voters didn't really take it in any new direction, instead preferring to reshuffle their album top tens around (though it's worth noting that Bruce Springsteen, whose Magic placed #24 (!), landed at #6 here).

Like Pazz & Jop, Idolator uses a weighted system to determine the final placement of albums, allowing voters to not only list their top ten, but divvy up a certain number of points among those ten records, singles, or whatever anyway they see fit. Unlike Pazz & Jop (though Christgau would often make mention of this in his valedictory piece), Idolator publishes an "enthusiasm" top 40, rearranging the albums that received more than 150 points in order of most points-per-voter. Overloading an album with points is a time honored trick among voters trying to a) secure a relatively obscure, but worthy artist a mention in the lower reaches of a list, or b) trying to run an album up the flag poll over more generally, but less passionately acclaimed competition. This is the practice that let the old farts peopling last year's Pazz & Jop vault Bob Dylan's Modern Times, a solid but unspectacular effort, past TV on the Radio's Return to Cookie Mountain and into the #1 spot. Here Spoon, whose Ga^5 finished #6, are a surprising #1, followed by perhaps an even more surprising Bruce Springsteen at #2.

(ED. Okay, so the above paragraph is only partially correct. According to Idolator's explanation of the poll's mechanics, there are only two ways to parcel out your allotment of 100 points: you can either opt to award them in descending order (15 points for #1, 14 points for #2, so on and so forth until you get to 5 points for #10) OR you can just assign 10 points to each album. I approve of this system because it prevents a handful of elderly guerrillas from contaminating the sample, and it addresses the concerns of the oh-so-weak-at-heart who just can't imagine privileging one of their favorite albums of the year over another, like they were their kids or something. So you can either disregard the above paragraph, or read it as a critique of Pazz & Jop, which I believe still allows voters to go for broke and spoil the soup.)

In a few weeks Pazz & Jop will be out and we can finally put 2007 to bed and focus on 2008. Which is important because here we are, not two weeks into January and The Magnetic Fields went and put out a contender for Album of the Year.

Super Duper Tuesday

"Did you poison this?"

Aggregated thoughts:

- On Barack and Hillary: In which we get to debate who are the bigger victims: women, or African-American men? The first (or at least most audible) volley was fired by the inimitable Gloria Steinem in the pages of the New York Times ("Women Are Never Front Runners", 1/8) when she tried to make the case that, as bad as black males have it, they're only on the second-to-bottom rung when compared with women. Steinem preemptively denies this charge in the piece, claiming that she's "not advocating a competition for who has it toughest." Of course, three paragraphs earlier she says, "Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter)."

Were this piece was about the perils facing women globally, or African-American women in particular (Steinem starts out rhetorically asking whether or not a woman with Barack Obama's biography would be considered a serious contender for the White House) perhaps there would be some merit to it. But the point is to knock Senator Obama down a few pegs while placing Sen. Clinton, whom Steinem supports, on a loftier pity pedestal. Steinem's logic is laid bare when she says, "What worries me is that some women, perhaps especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system; thus Iowa women over 50 and 60, who disproportionately supported Senator Clinton, proved once again that women are the one group that grows more radical with age." Thus a vote against Clinton (and implicitly for Obama, winner of the Iowa caucuses) translates into a docile acceptance of subservience and a rejection of feminist ideals, while a vote for her is both an act of rebellion and an affirmation; by this logic New York State, having gone almost 70% for Clinton in '06, must be a progressive wonderland, with even the menfolk getting on board en masse.

- On baseball: Listened to Mike and the Mad Dog on the way back from lunch (Cobb salad - best of all the salads?), and they were discussing today's installment of Doesn't Congress Have Anything Better To Do?, in which the House Oversight committee grandstands while interviewing celebrity guests Bud Selig (Commissioner of Major League Baseball) and Donald Fehr (head of the player's union) about performance enhancing drugs (a phrase that has now received it's own annoying insider abbreviation - "PEDs"). Both Mike and the Dog (Chris Russo) were laying into union honcho Fehr for doing a disservice to his "clean" players by dragging his feet on mandatory random drug testing. A fair point, if you think that adopting a more robust testing policy up front would have forestalled the present cloud of suspicion that taints any achievement that deviates from the mean. Russo then goes on to blame the clean players for not standing up for themselves (again, a fair point, though I hardly think that steroids in baseball is an issue on par with, say, McCarthyism), and accuses them of having been led around on a leash by Fehr & Co.

Methinks that this final assertion might be putting the cart before the horse. After all, though you will always have the "nothing to hide" contingent (otherwise known as Curt Schilling), is it not far-fetched to assume that even most clean players would blanch at the idea of having to piss in a cup on Bud Selig's say so? Having to produce bodily fluids at your employer's demand, which sadly, many of us have to do when seeking a job, is a fairly invasive and, in some respects, humiliating process. It certainly cedes a great deal of authority to whomever is demanding the sample. Frankly, I don't think that Don Fehr would have been doing his job to represent the players if he rolled over just because baseball (which made a mint off of the 'Roid Rally that was the '98 home run chase, and hasn't coughed up a refund) abruptly changed its tune. Sure, the decision looks bad in retrospect, but let's face it, part of Fehr's job is to be the bad guy and take the heat on the players' behalf.

- On Blockbusters and Oscar: As part of an "Eight Oscar Longshots We Love in '08" web featurette suggesting The Bourne Ultimatum be considered for Best Picture, EW laments that "Oscar's memory must be as short as Jason Bourne's. Action blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Fugitive were once legitimate Best Picture contenders." Speaking of short memories, someone ought to remind EW that Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, certified "action blockbusters" both, have not only been nominated, but indeed won Best Picture statuettes in 2001 and 2004 respectively. Furthermore, despite the Academy's alleged preference for so-called "prestige pictures", lists of recent Best Picture nominees have been littered with good old fashion entertaining fluff: The Departed (2007), the first two Lord of the Rings films (2002 and 2003), The Sixth Sense (2000), Titanic (1998), Braveheart (1996), and The Silence of the Lambs (1992) have all gotten at least a nod in the past two decades. Certainly there used to be a higher correlation between box office and Oscar: in the '70s hits like The French Connection, The Godfather, and Rocky were all winners, with nods going to commercial behemoths like American Graffiti, The Exorcist, Jaws, and Star Wars. However, all of those films endure as classics of American cinema; I don't know whether or not anyone will be waxing rhapsodic about the bland Bourne Ultimatum three decades hence.

14 January 2008

And We're Back Before the WGA

Yup, it's a still from Lost. Because you don't want to do an image search for "abortion"

...just a little gag there, you know that we support knowledge workers, and hate most television, so Guild members, we're with you as long as there are episodes of Lost in the can.

Anyway, we're back with Leonard, though he is not back with us, as guest host Lisa Birnbach fills in for L-to-the-opate, who, we are assured, has not walked off the job in a gesture of sympathy. Birnbach interviews Dr. Susan Wicklund regarding her book This Common Secret, which details her career as an abortion provider in Montana.

The Future Ain't What It Used To Be

Superman is boring: let me tell you why. He's invincible, possessed of evidently limitless strength, he has x-ray vision and shoots heat rays from his eyes, plus he can fly. The only way to combat Superman is to threaten a hostage or hostages, preferably someone in his retinue (the role fulfilled by "girl reporter" Lois Lane, though Jimmy Olsen and old flame Lana Lang occasionally fit the bill), or, you can get your hands on some kryptonite, the only known substance to which Superman is vulnerable. 99% of Superman stories are a variation on these themes.

I relay this blunt assessment to you because I think that Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which premiered on Fox last night, is going to fall prey to a similar problem. In fact, I know it, because it's already happened to the cinematic franchise that is the show's gospel.

The plot of the three Terminator films is as follows:
  1. Evil omniscient computer Skynet unleashed nuclear armageddon (dates vary depending on the film), killing 3 billion people. Proceeds to construct and control army of evil cyborgs, with purpose of eradicating surviving human population.
  2. John Connor, who we meet at various ages depending upon the film, is the leader of the human resistance. Skynet reasons that by eliminating Connor, it can eliminate said resistance.
  3. Skynet sends a robot disguised as a human - referred to as a Terminator - back through time to kill Connor (or his mother, pre-preggers), deducting that this might prove simpler than offing present-day Connor as no-one circa 1984 (or 1991, or 2003) will be equipped to evade or destroy a tenacious killer cyborg. In the first film, the Terminator is a simple skeleton-shaped robot covered in human flesh, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger: it's basically super-strong and hard to destroy. In T2, it's a so-called T-1000, a "liquid metal" shape-shifter personified most of the time by the less-adenoidal Robert Patrick. In T3, we get our first Terminatrix, which basically has the same attributes as the T-1000, but also has a laser cannon.
  4. The human resistance, however, gets wind of Skynet's nefarious plan, and sends guardian back through time to protect Connor and/or his mother. In the first film, the protector is Reese, a human being who is one of future Connor's most trusted lieutenants; in subsequent films the good guy is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been reprogrammed and sent back through time to play bodyguard in T2 and T3.
  5. From here the formula varies: in T1, we basically stick to "run from the Terminator." In T2, Sarah Connor (played by a jacked Linda Hamilton) decides to turn the tables and take out Skynet at the root by destroying Cyberdyne Systems, the corporation responsible for its invention. In T3, we learn that John Connor has a wife who is instrumental to the resistance and must also be protected. Blah blah blah.
  6. Terminator is invariably lured into some industrial setting where Connor(s)/protector outwit it and use some environmental advantage to destroy it (liquid nitrogen, molten metal, giant metal door that descends from the ceiling, machine press).
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, one episode in, is precisely the same plot. Sarah Connor and John Connor (we're in 1999 here, between T2 and T3) are on the run, both from a Terminator and the law, who want Sarah in connection with the attack on Cyberdyne and the death of Miles Dyson, the computer programmer responsible for Skynet (I can't fill you in on everything; go rent the movie). Of course, the resistance sends back another protector, a lady Terminator played by the chick who was River in Serenity. There's a lot of running and shooting; our merry band decides to take on Skynet again; hot lady Terminator takes them to the present (uh, 2007) via a time machine in a bank vault (we'll get to that) in order to pick up the trail.

The problem is really the time travel element, 1) because it's mechanically flawed, and 2) because time travel is inherently paradoxical. The first complaint is the simplest: according to the Terminator mythology, only organic material can go back (or forward, evidently) in time. Hence no clothes (played to hilllllarious effect in all three films and the TV series), and more importantly, no super weapons from the future. Yet, despite these edicts, you can send Terminators - robots - back in time because they are wrapped in, or can produce a simulacrum of, human skin. Which begs the question: why not just super weapons back in time wrapped in flesh-bags or something? Surely Skynet could figure this out. This isn't a deal breaker, but it is remarkably stupid.

The paradox issue is, however, a deal breaker. Let's face it, if your strategy is to send assassins back through time to whack out John Connor pre-or-post-natal, then why not, I don't know, send multiple Terminators to separate points on his timeline? After all, we're under the impression that the resistance is some kind of rag-tag militia just hanging on by the skin of their teeth - they couldn't possibly send back enough protectors back to counter a deluge of killer cyborgs. Furthermore, the TV series makes a point in the first episode that, while you can send any cool gadgets back into the past, you can send someone to build them for you (without instructions, I guess, but that's another matter). Hence the time machine in the bank vault, and the cache of super cool nuclear future death rays stashed in safe-deposit boxes. But if you could send someone to the past to do all this, why doesn't Skynet just send an army of Terminators to, I don't know, the 18th century to whack out pre-industrial, pre-guerrilla warfare humanity and establish a cybernetic imperium back then? Presumably Skynet could send some Terminators back with blueprints on how to construct another Skynet, and given the fact that Terminators can go for about 120 years on their batteries, they could even build the infrastructure required to support this technological society.

Furthermore, even if Skynet was worried about accidentally whacking itself out by terminating the great-great-great-great-grandfather of the guy who invents the silicon microchip or something, it has the lesson of the previous two films, in which some key element of Skynet's creation is removed, and yet an alternate history quickly develops that allows Skynet to be built and destroy humanity anyway (more importantly, it also lets the guys who own the rights to crank out another movie or TV show). In fact, the end of the third film is pretty explicit that Skynet's creation is fated (an assertion that pretty much flies in the face of T2's anti-destiny stance). Furthermore, the series has openly embraced "snake swallowing its tale" paradoxes before, most famously in which Reese, the human protector in the first film, ends up knocking up Sarah Connor and ergo fathering John; either this is a mighty powerful argument in favor of nurture-over-nature going on here (i.e. any male child Sarah has would end up leading human resistance), or we have a big time continuity issue. Additionally the foreknowledge that her child would be humanity's savior leads Sarah to prep him for his future vocation, including survival and weapons training; assuming that these key formative experiences are essential to John's leadership, we either embrace that the Terminator timeline is the only possible chain of events (a difficult assertion in a time travel-friendly environment), or that there was a different chain of events that led John to be a great leader in some Terminator-free timeline. Additionally, we are given no indication at all that, despite engaging in activities that would definitely cause a "butterfly effect"-style clusterfuck in the future, that the temporal mucking about taking place is having any determinate effect of future events, which would then effect events in the past, as presumably time would be continually resetting itself, creating a blank, or different, slate each time. So, bearing in mind all of these circumstances, there ought to be no problem with Skynet being its own inventor, despite the fact that such a development would require intelligent design-levels of benightedness for someone to embrace.

As for the show itself, it's not all that bad: Lena Headey won't make you forget Linda Hamilton, but she hits all the right ferocious/paranoid notes; the show continues with the film's odd embrace of feminism - i.e. Sarah Connor-as-lioness/partner of equals in T2 - here we get our first good (as in not evil) lady Terminator, with stereotypical male savior figure being tended to by two strong female role models. The kid, played by Thomas Dekker, is pretty much standard teen-beat fare, and it's a lot easier to see him turning into Nick Stahl (John circa T3) than Edward Furlong (still the best John, circa T2). The direction embraces the Fox/MTV hybrid of jumpy editing with healthy doses of slow mo to convey excitement and energy, despite the fact that since we're constantly watching people flee murderous super robots, the tension and suspense ought to be pretty self-evident. I'll probably check out another episode or two before rendering final judgment: after all that ought to be enough of a sample to figure out whether we're going someplace new or this is just another run on the treadmill.

13 January 2008

Psycho Killer, Qu'est-ce que c'est?

Listening to Lou Reed's 1982 album, The Blue Mask, I realized that track 8, "Waves of Fear", is the greatest rock and roll song ever. I'm guessing with lyrics like "Looking for some pill/the liquor is gone", the song is supposed to be some kind of paean to drug paranoia or something; Christ knows that Lou, whose dalliances with speed and heroin back in the VU days are essential part of his Gutter Elvis foundation myth, probably could write a billion songs about the ins-and-outs of the ups-and-downs and whole albums about hitting rock bottom. Yet "Waves of Fear" seems a little bit bigger than that; like a human mind trying vainly to saw its way out of a skull.

Musically, it's a driving, aggressive piece, repetitive in a way that causes each new iteration to gather more intensity to its breast, like an armload of bowling pins or toasters. Reed's sonic metier, here abetted by former Velvets associate and Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine, has always bounced around the rock and roll mainstream (save 1975's legendary, inscrutable feedback collage, Metal Machine Music), and his best work has only been experimental in the sense that it plays with rock's building blocks and arranges them in interesting ways - more drone, feedback, askew lyricism, and a pervasive (albeit subversive) doo-wop influence. "Waves of Fear" sits at the heavier end of his spectrum, with Reed and Quine's guitars piling up like a car accident, while Doane Sanders' loose, assured drumming provides firm direction.

Reed's vocals are on another level altogether, a departure from the slick cynical mumble-singing hybrid typifying much of his work (though far from all of it, as Coney Island Baby devotees can attest). Here he is alternately a vortex and an oubliette, raging against the words, reciting them with venom. It's a kind of riding-the-bomb demented glee mixed with sheer terror; by the end of the song Reed is a apocalyptic street preacher, clutching at our lapels, drawing us closer, shouting "waves of fear, waves of fear" in our faces.

Maybe Reed isn't a millennial, though. Maybe, rather than his fear controlling him, there's a symbiosis at work. Another addiction:
I'm too afraid to use the phone
I'm too afraid to put the light on
I'm so afraid I've lost control
I'm suffocating without a word
Jimmy Breslin once said the Son of Sam was watching the world from "his attic window." Reed, again:
I cringe at my terror, I hate my own smell
I know where I must be, I must be in hell
This is murder music, emotional fascism. Lou Reed is one sick fuck.

12 January 2008

Gift Card, You Are The Best

American gangster

Had gift cards left over from the the Big Baby Jesus' b-day, so I went to Best Buy and FYE (conveniently situated across Route 22 from one another; ah, suburban living) and decided to spend 'em up on a few loose ends that had been pitter-pattering around the ol' noodle:

  • The Doors - The Doors
  • Led Zeppelin - Presence (used, natch)
  • Black Sabbath - Greatest Hits 1970-1978 (the Ozzy years)
  • Black Sabbath - The Dio Years (uh, the Dio years)
  • Depeche Mode - Violator (I already have this, technically, but I lost my original copy and hence only had the AAC files. It was $9.99; give me a break.)
Plus the DVDs for Miller's Crossing (both an outstanding movie and occasion for the still above) and Drugstore Cowboy (which is also great, but were it not for FYE's buy one DVD under $16.99, get the other half off deal - sale items excluded - I probably would have passed).

And a full day of football programming with a six pack of Sierra Nevada to wash it all down; I ought to write a book.

Light My Fire

Sunshine: The plot is elegantly simple: the sun is slowly dying, condemning humanity to a long, frosty goodbye. Hence, we have sent a spaceship, the hubristically-named Icarus II, filled with pleasantly multi-ethnic mix of attractive astronauts and carrying a thermonuclear weapon "the size of Manhattan" to attempt a kind of interstellar jump start. Complication: the ship is called the Icarus II because there was an Icarus I.

The philosophizing here is pretty thin: does re-igniting the sun constitute a grave breach of theological etiquette? After all, the sun is probably the closest thing to a tangible manifestation of God we've got: it keeps us warm, grows food, it's extremely distant (93,000,000 miles away) yet omnipresent, and without it we would die. When the sun goes out, it would seem to be an obvious and momentous indicator of His will that our time is over. Unfortunately, the point gets kind of lost because a) it's put in the mouth of the film's most extraneous, and ergo annoying, character, b) the race against the clock factor is much more interesting (will they have enough oxygen? will they be burned up before they can release the bomb?), and c) I think even the most devout among us would view restarting the sun and saving humanity a minor transgression considering all of the other crap we pull on a daily basis.

Sunshine, directed by Danny Boyle ( Trainspotting, 28 Days Later), is a movie that tries to sample the best of its obvious inspirations: 2001, Marooned, Apollo 13, Armageddon, Alien, and even Star Trek V (yes that one) are scoured for spare parts. In a sense it's too big for itself, trying to tether its brilliant central concept with a metaphorical payload to match; the story almost ends up getting drowned out. Yet for all of the bigness, Sunshine has a decidedly minor key feeling to it, reflected in its muted, but gorgeous coda. It's an ending that proves that the film's questions are ultimately all rhetorical.

11 January 2008

Why the Bedroom Is So Cold

Philip Sherburne, who has been discussed in these pages before, posted a year-end mix to his blog back at the end of December (sorry I missed it then, but even this site took most of the holidays off). The mix, "Every Single Day is a Yellow Day (Everybody Had a Hard Year)", is, most of you will be pleased to know, not techno-centric (though not wanting a techno mix from Sherburne is like asking a vintner if he's got any beer lying around). Most of the tracks here will be familiar to your average Pitchfork reader, including contributions from Iron and Wine (Sherburne just posted about The Shepherd's Dog, a record I still can't get can't quite get my ears around, probably for lack of trying), Grizzly Bear, Matthew Dear, Thom Yorke, and, well, Prince. The big treat, though, is the first selection, Susanna and the Magical Orchestra's cover of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (courtesy Zeon's Music Blog). Unlike other abortive attempts to replicate the original's cinematic intensity or distill the song's plaintive ethos, SatMO cast their version as almost a cross-gender rebuttal, slowing the tempo to a crawl and highlighting singer Susanna Karolina Wallumrod's placid yet direct vocals. The result is a song that you might actually listen to in your bedroom, with or without the curtains drawn.

Youth Without Youth

Idlewild come from an imaginary point on the map somewhere between the Athens, Georgia of R.E.M. and U2's Dublin, which is to say that they don't really come from much of anywhere at all. The music here is odorless, colorless: an odd approximation of the past ten years in rock music - Radiohead to The Strokes to Franz Ferdinand to...Klaxons? The tracks on Scottish Fiction aren't arranged in chronological order, and they needn't be, as there's no evolution here to speak of. You can start anywhere you like; to paraphrase Rod Stewart, comb your hair a thousand different ways and come out looking just the same.

I Have Come Here to Chew Bubblegum and Kick Ass

10 January 2008

Notes on Ron Paul

Ron Paul supporters. I'm not kidding.

  1. This is the most profoundly stupid, pathetic thing I've ever heard of.
  2. "Libertarians are incapable of being a racist, because racism is a collectivist idea."

Best Album Cover of 2007

I've never heard this album, but I've seen the photo a couple of times. The record, for the record, is a collaboration between the Berlin Staatsballett and the Ostgut Ton label featuring music by such techno luminaries as Luciano, Sleeparchive, and NSI. It's received some good notices. The photo is a perfect illustration of a simple concept simply executed: I just wish they'd done away with all of the extraneous type and graphics on the cover.

La Bête Humaine

"Anyone can cook": so goes the mantra of late master chef Auguste Gusteau, who once ruled the whole of French cuisine from his eponymous restaurant, but whose Paul Newman-ized visage now graces boxes of frozen food, and whose restaurant has been demoted from five-stars and haute rigeur to a tourist trap. Yet just as Ratatouille tempers this encouragement with a dose of reality (well, as much reality as a film about an anthropomorphic cooking rat can spare), so to does it stand as a testament to the fact that while anyone can make a movie, not everyone - or anyone, for that matter - can make a movie like Brad Bird.

Bird, you see, is a genius. His previous efforts - 1999's sorely underrated The Iron Giant and 2004's The Incredibles - marked him out as a filmmaker in full, an auteur rather than some faceless project manager; the nearest comparison I can make is to Stanley Kubrick, whose films also manifested the same obsessive eye for detail. Yet where Kubrick only seemed intermittently capable of, or interested in, creating empathetic characters (Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket spring to mind), Bird is clearly a humanist. His characters are full-blooded, three-dimensional, complex, with wants, needs, and desires that we can identify with: Mr. Incredible struggling to balance his responsibilities to his family (and his relationship with his wife) against the opportunity, however illusory, to realize his full potential; Remy's desire to cook allowing him to overcome an ingrained mistrust of humans and his limitations as, well, a rat.

Ratatouille is Bird's best film by far, a visual marvel of such heart and panache that transcends the kiddie ghetto condescension usually accorded animation and instead stands as not only one of the richest cinematic achievements of 2007, but surely one of the finest pop artworks of the young 21st century. The film is the story of Remy, a young rat besotted with a refined palette - a problem when your main source of nutrition is garbage - who dreams of becoming a chef. Forced to flee his country home and separated from his family, Remy finds himself in Paris, led by the specter of his idol Gusteau to the latter's restaurant, its former glory dimmed yet still resonant. It is here after much hijinx that Remy strikes up an unlikely partnership with a gawky plongeur improbably named Alfredo Linguini and the two set about whipping up dishes that put Gusteau's back on the map, and right in the cross hairs of sinister critic Anton Ego, setting up the film's climax, though far from its only conflict.

That the Pixar team has yet again outdone itself should surprise no one; the studio pioneered feature-length computer animation with 1995's Toy Story, and has not yet relinquished its lead. Ratatouille's characters are miraculously brought to life in a way that combines the expressive surreality of hand-drawn animation with such painstaking detail that you can almost hear their hearts beating; compare this to the dull, oddly vacant plasticity of Shrek. Furthermore the environments themselves are astonishing, bordering on photorealism - the kitchen alone, with its bright copper pots, gleaming knives, lush vegetables, and bubbling sauces is (pun intended) a feast for the eyes. Ratatouille's brilliant action set pieces - rats escaping on a makeshift flotilla, Remy ricocheting around Gusteau's kitchen, a chase along the banks of the Seine - are practically thrown gauntlets not only to Pixar's direct competitors but the whole of cinema: "Let's see you top this."

Though heaping laurels on Ratatouille is exhausting business I would be remiss if I failed to note the film's many fantastic vocal performances - especially Patton Oswalt, Jeneane Garofalo, Ian Holm, Brad Garrett, and Peter O'Toole. Unlike other similar animated ventures, Ratatouille is not a vehicle for any of these actors, and each plays his or her part with a conviction and professionalism so all-encompassing that they disappear in the characters, unrecognizable - with the exception of O'Toole, whose voice is such a distinctive dramatic instrument that it cannot, and should not, be concealed).

Speaking with Richard Corliss, Brad Bird voiced his frustration over the treatment he and his fellow animation directors receive in Hollywood:
We're kind of at the kids' table. If I do the most perfect job of directing [an animated feature] — in terms of composition, editing, how the performances come down on the screen — it's still the same thing [as directing live-action]. You're dealing with close-ups and editing and when to not cut and when to cut rapidly and was the music engaging and how do we know what the characters are thinking. [But] people disregard it. It's sort of an unspoken prejudice.
As the critic Anton Ego notes towards the end of Ratatouille, "Not everyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere." Bird's metier may prevent him from attaining the mainstream recognition as one of the current cinema's great realisateurs, but he shouldn't take it so hard. After all, when it comes to animated rodents, he's in pretty good company.