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.