Saturday, February 14, 2004

Amazon's anonymous reviewers were briefly unmasked last week, says this NYT story. And who posted them? The writers! Some puffed themselves up, some anonymously attacked others. Posting as "A reader from St. Louis," Dave Eggers wrote that his wife's novel was "one of the best books of the year."

Another glimpse of people jockeying for literary position. Good for them.

Friday, February 13, 2004

I've seen two movies in the last two days, Master and Commander: Far Side of the World and The Cooler. One of them I loved and one I hated. Can you guess which?

Wrong! I loved Master & Commander, hated The Cooler. William H. Macy, usually great, is wooden and unlikeable in the role of a man whose luck is so bad he's employed by a casino to stop other people's winning streaks. The movie technical problems (terrible lighting, ugly DV) are bad enough, but its characterizations are also paper-thin, its plot is pushed forward by pointless, unpleasant violence, its jokes flat, and on and on. Worst of all, it plays coy about its period. Sometimes it is set in the family-friendly Vegas of the 90s, sometimes the transitional 80s, sometimes the leisure-suited 70s. This is a movie that is not at all concerned with realistic detail, but at the same time one that never follows through on the surrealism/magic realism that its plot constantly hints at. Just terrible.

(I imagine the filmmakers pitching their story: It's like Leaving Las Vegas, but dumber!)

On the other hand, there is a lot of nudity, always a plus.

Master and Commander, though it doesn't have any naked chicks, is a startlingly vivid portrayal of life at war on the high seas, circa late-1700s. This movie is surprisingly great. One of the keys to its power, I think, is that the perspective is restricted to only one ship. In most battle movies, you get quick shots of the bad-guys loading their cannons, say, and then the film cuts back to the heroes taking the cannon fire. Master & Commander's fixed perspective makes the audience's view closer to that of the sailors themselves. The battle scenes can be disorienting, but they're also remarkably, well, vivid and real-seeming.

In a couple of places the dialogue was a tad corny, yes ("That's seamanship, lads. That's seamanship,"), but minor flaws are more than made up for by the wealth of gorgeous widescreen shots of the ships at sea or nature sequences on the Galapagos Islands. This is a great movie!

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Salman Rushdie is getting married to his model/actress girlfriend. Fourth time's the charm!
Kid A created.
From Kelefah Sanneh's NYT piece on Dizzee Rascal's New York debut, unfortunately an underground affair:

His set, like his style, was a hybrid:
there were uncategorizable album
tracks, freestyle riffs on top of grime
beats and a few excursions into hip-
hop, including "Fix Up, Look Sharp,"
a frantic piece of party music that has
become an underground hit in the
United States. ...He sometimes
adjusted his cap in time to the beat,
an appealing reminder that the
virtuoso is also an unassuming 19-
year-old.

Friday, February 06, 2004

An article in Slate about Brian Wilson's unfinished symphony, SMiLE, gives a basic history of the piece before snobbishly arguing that Wilson shouldn't perform the songs at a series of concerts in London.

SMiLE was supposed to be Pet Sounds cut loose from all pop moorings, a record experimental enough to include the sounds of crunching vegetables as the rhythm track of a song about vegetables called "Vegetables," an album full of spiritual meditations like the opening "hymn" "Our Prayer," a framework rich enough to hold "Good Vibrations," which (as you know) is one of the greatest songs ever recorded.

The album was never completed, though its shadow runs through the stop-gap Smiley Smile which was released following Wilson's nervous breakdown, and songs originated in Smile sessions crop up on the more traditional subsequent Beach Boys records. But throughout the sessions, Brian Wilson was a very ill man and badly addicted to drugs. Along with music critics then and now, he overvalued eccentric genius and undervalued the pop craftsmanship that leads to the completion of actual songs.

In the article, Jeff Turentine says it's "too bad" that Wilson has decided to revive the song-cycle because he's not "exactly at the peak of his creative powers." He also argues that a few London concerts are going to completely demystify the album. They won't, but more to the point: why would the demystification of SMiLE be a bad thing? Record geek types always want to protect the "aura" of this or that rock artifact, but what they're usually doing is protecting the aura of the privileged in-group hip enough to know about it.

A song is something that shifts and changes. I think it is widely understood that Brian Wilson is older now, with a different perspective on the world. Nothing about his performances will magically alter the tapes that were recorded in the 60s. People talk about aura as if were something worth protecting, but artistic discourse is strengthened the more people actually hear the music, the more criticism there is (blogging counts!) and the more records released and disseminated via mp3. Music is a popular art form, savvy to modern technological recombination; in the society we live in, we listen to music not only in a critical bubble, listening to albums and doing nothing else, but also in more and less distracted states, in variously edited forms. Wilson's performances are neither more nor less definitive than a mash-up of Pet Sounds over Neptunes beats would be: they are one more thing to listen to and possibly like.

Record geeks are often sincere in their belief in the communion of individual and artwork, the experience of sitting alone listening to records so powerful you feel lucky ever to have stumbled across them. Piecing together an idea of what SMiLE might have sounded like from bootlegs, unfinished studio takes and later Beach Boys releases is religious work for many. But they're too ensconced in their monasteries! Let's open the doors a little bit; let's get some light on the subject. Let's have an all-acoustic SMiLE...Naked! record, a VH-1 special, a SMiLE Broadway musical and a Brian Wilson action figure. Why not?
A great profile of Chris Rock in the New York Observer (terrible title, though). There's a lot of interesting stuff about a stand-up comedian's craft. Here is Chris Rock on going pop:

The greatest artists of our time were
pop. Beethoven was pop!...Beethoven
was the fucking Justin Timberlake of his
time. You know what I mean? Louis
Armstrong, that shit was pop! It wasn’t
like just some cool-shit jazz people that
listened to it. That shit was pop. Picasso
was pop. Motherfuckers are eating
burgers and going, 'that Picasso shit is
good.'

And a funny joke about the war:

When I heard we were after Hussein,
I was like, really?!...That’s so 80’s. The
whole war feels like a bad VH1 special.
Hussein is back. And Bush is back. And
Cheney is back. And Paula Abdul is back.
Shit, before you know it, it’ll be Hammer
time again.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Maurice Clarett may be spoiled, dishonest and a lousy student, but I am nevertheless glad to hear that he will get to go to the NFL. For all the talk of protecting young athletes or preserving the "integrity" of collegiate sports, the real function of the rule prohibiting football players from going pro until they're three years out of high school is to establish college football as a de facto minor league for the NFL. This means that in order for young players to even have a shot at making money from football, they have to risk injury for three or four years (not to mention sit through a bunch of boring classes), all the while generating huge revenues for the universities and the NCAA (and even coaches, who are free to take endorsement deals on their players' behalf), of which they themselves never see a dime. Probably there are fewer 18 year old football players able to play pro ball than there are basketball players, but for those who are able, why shouldn't they be allowed?
Hey, let's all write letters encouraging Justice Roy Moore to run for president! Salon's War Room blog links to an article in the right-wing press that has him saying he hasn't ruled it out...so maybe he just needs a little encouragement. This is the guy who is still in the process of getting fired for installing the Ten Commandments outside his courthouse in Alabama. He'd likely be able to peel off some of Bush's evangelical supporters and just maybe serve as a right-wing Ralph Nader.

Saturday, January 31, 2004

Pope John Paul II didn't care for that Mel Gibson Jesus movie, but it turns out he does like break dancers. Said the Pope, "For this creative hard work I bless you from my heart."

Friday, January 30, 2004

My Dizzee Rascal review is up on the Alive web site.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Holy shit. Howard Dean's firing of his campaign manager Joe Trippi in favor of Gore advisor Roy Neel is potentially huge. In a way, Joe Trippi was as influential to Dean's campaign as Karl Rove is to Bush's, or anyway that was the way it was often portrayed and seemed to me.

This oughta test Mickey Kaus's Feiler Faster Thesis, that politics moves faster in a world where voters are comfortable processing a huge amount of information very quickly (24-hr cable news, internet, etc.), in a big way. Dean's decision to fire Trippi and presumably totally overhaul his candidacy, casting himself as an electable centrist, may be yet another influence of the Internet on Dean's campaign, and may yet pay off for Dean. Because the thing is that Vermont notwithstanding, Dean kind of is an electable centrist.

Maybe? I'm still hoping for an Edwards surge.

Update: I didn't know when I wrote this that Dean was also out of money, but, gee, I'd say that pretty well finishes his candidacy. The best thing for Dean to do now is go after Kerry--make it a murder-suicide. Edwards for President!

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

An Akron priest who grew weed in his church living quarters will not be able to return to his job, the church says. On the bright side, this means he will probably get to quit being a Catholic priest.
My work has been demanding quite a lot of my time and attention lately and blogging is just one thing I haven't been able to do as much as I'd like to. Over the weekend I also worked on my review for this week's paper of Dizzee Rascal's Boy in Da Corner, a CD I love with a wild abandon. I wanted to write a response to last week's Sasha Frere Jones piece on Dizzee in Slate, which, true to form, contained a number of good points and a few things that annoyed me.

But let me say this: Frere Jones wants to make Dizzee Rascal into a critical darling, writing that,

[H]e seems a contender for permanently
well-known unknown in the States,
because his abrasive, energetic music
doesn't fit easily in any American genre.

Rascal is plenty abrasive and alien to American ears, but not more so than some of the Jamaican dancehall artists who have lately had major hits in the U.S.; Rascal's beats are challengingly synthetic and minimalist, but not more so than Timbaland's on Missy Elliott's megahits. I would love to see Sasha Frere Jones proven wrong on this.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

If you ask me, Dennis Miller's transformation from smirking, condescending asshole into smirking, condescending right wing asshole is pretty organic, pretty unsurprising. Ever see those old SNL Weekend Update clips of him sneering over a young Chris Farley, totally oblivious to Farley's genius? What a prick; I say, the right can have him.
My short piece on Illogic is up as a part of the Alive's "Bands to Watch" feature. A couple of the other bands mentioned seem kinda cool, too.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Kelefah Sanneh writes about the current rash of great songs featuring lousy singing.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Okay, so we can't compete with Charleston, South Carolina. Fine. Still, tied for second place as "Best-Mannered City" are four towns in Illinois. Keeping score? It's Peoria, which of course is the place of my birth, as well as Springfield & the Quad Cities, two of which (Moline and Rock Island) are in Illinois and two of which (Bettendorf and Davenport) are in Iowa. Etiquettist Marjabelle Young Stewart counted the Quad Cities as one entity, which is what they are. Still, that's four Illinois cities!

According to MYS, we are "very wholesome, friendly people." Bloomington/Normal didn't make the list, but I assume that was an oversight.

Friday, January 16, 2004

In an article chalk full of provocations (English is among "the most backwards disciplines in the academy") Stanford's Franco Moretti proposes the study of literature without reading. Says Moretti:

A field this large cannot be understood by
stitching together separate bits of knowledge
about individual cases, because it isn't a sum
of individual cases: it's a collective system,
that should be grasped as such, as a whole.

His form of literature study would be composed mainly of charts and graphs, maps of literary fashions, the sum-total of publishing output over a period of time, the rises & falls of various genres. In a way it's just numbers-driven structuralism (uncovering the hidden patterns), but why not study literature in this sort of broad, abstracted way, like economics? I think it's a good idea--a great idea--to bring a sociological element to lit. study. Moretti's theories also have the addition virtue of being deeply irritating to Harold Bloom, who harrumphs a little in the NYT article. More provocation from Moretti:

[R]esearchers are convinced that they are all
describing something unique (the gender shift,
the elevation of the novel, the gentrification,
the invention of high and low, the feminization,
the sentimental education, the invasion...),
whereas in all likelihood they are all observing
the same comet that keeps crossing and
recrossing the sky: the same literary cycle.

How interesting, if true! On the other hand, on Moretti's theory one might discuss, e.g., the reappearance of the horror genre in the late 70s as if it were some kind of impersonal historical shift, without mentioning that maybe it had a little bit to do with Stephen King specifically. (Hmm...and there's been a rise in adolescent fantasy fiction in recent years...) Which is some form of missing the trees for the forest, or something like that. All the same, I'll be interested in having a look at some of this guy's charts.
Today is the last day of Slate's "Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War" feature, which has had such heavy hitters as Paul Berman, Fareed Zakaria and Christopher Hitchens weighing in on whether their thinking has changed since the invasion. Most have not changed their position, but their honest grappling with the issues of the postwar have made for really gripping reading.

While knee-jerk opposition to the Bush administration's policies is generally a reliable way of reaching correct conclusions, with the war, a more nuanced approach is required. An interesting question faced by some of these left-leaning writers: Can you fight the right war for the wrong reasons, in the wrong way, and still be in the right? Facing a regime as abhorrent as Saddam's and a faltering containment policy, how important is the fact that the administration's case for war was made in bad faith?
Something about Salman Rushdie and his hot girlfriend.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

New Alive is up, with my negative review of the new CD by Juvenile, and a preview of mashers-up Evolution Control Committee.
In this puffy entertainment interview with MSN, Ben Stiller mentions offhand that one of the movies he's developing to direct is an adaptation of George Saunders' "Civilwarland in Bad Decline." Hopefully this will get made!

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Okay, anyone who reads this blog: I will pay you $50 to go to the GED Partners meeting I have to go to this afternoon. It's in Marysville, Ohio. You'll have to take the minutes. But...just consider it, will you?

Monday, January 12, 2004

There is a water-main break in front of my office; water is pouring through a crack in the pavement, a large yellow truck with "City of Columbus Water Maintenance" on the side is parked amid rows of orange cones that are rerouting traffic. Such excitement!

...And still more. Now a backhoe with a jackhammer attachment is out there punching holes in the pavement like construction paper. Four or five people in reflective yellow vests are standing around watching. The pavement is now completely torn up and the water is still coming.
The New Yorker has a profile of Larry David, whose Curb Your Enthusiasm is one of my favorite TV shows. The show has been getting a flurry of attention as it begins its fourth season. It's a good article for background and behind-the-scenes detail, and among others includes this funny anecdote:

One night at Catch a Rising Star, a comedy club
on Manhattan's Upper East Side, David stepped
onto the stage, scanned the room from side to
side, said, "Never mind," and walked off.

Friday, January 09, 2004

NYT film critic A.O. Scott expressing my exact feelings on Quentin Tarantino in Slate's Movie Club:

I found Kill Bill in some ways impressive but
ultimately not very interesting. Yes, [Tarantino]
does love movies, and he has a marvelous skill
at refreshing and recombining them, but I'm
more than a little wary of your testimonials to his
genius and your professions of love for him. I
certainly admire his absence of cynicism—Kill Bill
is as pure an expression of cinematic ardor as
you could wish, and an earnest attempt to
communicate delight—but there is also an
absence of genuine emotion, of connection to
anything outside his pop universe, that deadens
the joy.
Got my post-Xmas Amazon order in delivered yesterday, including a couple of great CDs (namely Josh Rouse's 1972 & Four Tet's Rounds) that I mighta considered for my ten-best list, had I encountered them during 2003.

Today I went to my last First Book meeting. I am stepping down from my position as Columbus's Community Outreach committee chairperson. These things happen.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Also, cool interview in Salon with Robert Altman (my favorite director? certainly in the running) about his new ballet movie, which I am very excited about despite having no real interest in ballet.
This New Yorker piece on Howard Dean is a must-read, with a textured, thorough portrait of the doctor as prone to leaping to conclusions and surprisingly averse to doing much thinking about the future. On the whole, though, Dean comes off well, as genuine, capable and extraordinarily adaptable (rather than bound to an ideology). Another theme that emerges: as media-types harp on "gaffes," voters don't respond the same way. It's the George W. Bush effect: even when substantive, the media criticism just comes off as mean-spirited nitpicking. David Broder, for instance, predicts Dean making the "gaffe of all gaffes, the one for which no repairs are possible,"--but doesn't imagine what the content of that uber-gaffe might be.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Oh boy oh boy. Modest Mouse sets a release date for Good News for People Who Love Bad News.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Have you seen the Mars photos? Here's a link to one article--go to the "Return to Mars" menu and click on the slide show for pictures of celebrating scientists & Mars pics.

I guess Mars looks pretty much like you'd expect. Still pretty cool to see photos, though.
I did something this weekend that I rarely do: weeded my CD collection of unwanted promo copies, used-bin purchases that didn't pan out, & old stuff that I don't listen to & don't have any particular connection to. Sold a bunch of stuff to Used Kids (and picked up a sweet copy of the Car Wash sndtrk). Laura & I both also unburdened ourselves of many garbage bags' full of old clothing, which we donated to the Volunteers of America.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Today's NYT has an article about the jailed Russian oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the complicated political & economic intrigue surrounding the case.

Khordorkovsky is one of a handful of businessmen who made billions in the power-vacuum that followed the implosion of the Soviet Union through all manner of shady & immoral unregulated capitalist maneuvering: transferring holdings off-shore to avoid taxes, shifting assets around among various front-companies, flat-out refusing to pay taxes sometimes, association with the mafia, and on and on. He became the richest man in Russia and established himself as among the most powerful. The NYT article notes that he's spent mountains of money on PR for himself, casting himself in the image of a benevolent pro-Western capitalist success story. He sponsors philanthropic enterprises like the Open Russia Foundation and the weird capitalist-boy-scout organization New Civilization.

In the fall, Khordokovsky was thrown jail by the ever-more-authoritarian Vladimir Putin, ostensibly because K. was going to sell a large share of his oil company to ExxonMobile (no, it didn't help that this company is American) & hadn't consulted with Putin. But there is so much more! K. apparently had some political ambitions, and hadn't sufficiently denied that he might want to run for president someday. He supported the U.S. war in Iraq. He was breaking the gentlemen's agreement that Putin made with the oligarchs: stay out of politics & I'll ignore all the shit you did to get where you are. K.'s trial (whenever the Kremlin gets around to putting him on trial) will surely prod at underbelly of the laissez-faire post-Soviet days, but it will likely also consolidate the power of the already-too-powerful Putin. K.'s jailing has, in the NYT's word, "cowed" the rest of the oligarchs.

Many believe that Putin's next move as president will be to abolish term limits, effectively establishing himself as full-blown dictator. Khordokovsky is no innocent victim of the gulag, but after you've thrown one person in jail on trumped-up charges, it's a bit of a slippery slope, isn't it?

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Happy New Year everybody. Mine was spent indoors watching South Park and hanging out with my lovely girlfriend.

The music writers' lists are up on the Alive web site. (Try to ignore my editor's indie-snob introduction..."[P]opular music continued to devolve into being merely an entertaining diversion for most Americans..." Yeah, so exactly what is popular music supposed to be?)

I was the only writer who put Radiohead in the top ten, which I find weird and disturbing. And my list has at least one glaring (to me) omission: Missy Elliott, whose This is Not a Test! is surely one of the year's best, but which I have not yet gotten my hands on.

Also, each writer got a paragraph on other miscellaneous bests here.