Mar 31, 2010

Best creature design of the year: Toothless

"So he[Toothless] has to do a great deal of acting and that’s one of the guiding principles behind his design, that he be frightening and a bit of a Stealth Fighter in their world, but also have the design elements that would make him friendly and cute and really adorable when it comes time to really get to know him." — Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois
They also said they modelled the rest of the dragons on reptiles and Toothless on mammals. It shows: he moves like an otter, rolls in grass like a dog, and gets crazy like a cat. I do not expect to see a better piece of creature design all year, for one basic reason: no matter how cute he looks, he never ceases to look comparably lethal. It's quite a trick to pull off. I think the black Goodyear-tyre-stealth-bomber-salamandar coat does a lot of the work. The movie is not bad, either, although it's too talky, in the manner of Jeffrey Katzenberg animated productions — there's even a bit of voiceover narration over a dragon attack, which is simply criminal. There's also an apology due the dragon from the boy which goes missing somewhere. But not bad.

Mar 27, 2010

Cunning, baffling, powerful

"If Mr. Obama overestimated his powers of persuasion in reaching quick agreement with the Russians, they misjudged how far they could get him to bend... The Russians calculated that Mr. Obama would be so eager to have a new treaty by the time he traveled to Oslo later that month to accept his Nobel Peace Prize that he would accept concessions, so they took a hard line.Mr. Obama held out.... Mr. Medvedev insisted on issuing a joint statement that would bind missile defense. Mr. Obama refused... Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that the Kremlin thought Mr. Obama would back down out of eagerness to finish the treaty before coming international nuclear summit meetings. “They believed Obama could be put under pressure and concessions could be extracted from him,” Mr. Trenin said. “He needed the treaty more than the Russians in the short term.” Ultimately, Russia backed down."— NYT
Why do all these details — a preference for strategy over tactics, a much longer game than your opponents are expecting, unending patience, unbending will, and, finally, the desired result — seem so familiar? Because we have just seen the exact same thing in the healthcare fight.

March Madness supplement: Robert Altman

My esteemed colleague, The Man From Porlock, is running Altman's oeuvre through a 32-film set of brackets. Already on the cutting room floor are Quintet, Dr. T and the Women, Fool for Love, Ready to Wear, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and HealtH, The Gingerbread Man, O.C. & Stiggs, Vincent & Theo, Kansas City, A Perfect Couple, Streamers, Images, Beyond Therapy, Brewster McCloud and Thieves Like Us. His round two results are as follows:—
A late-game injury to Neve Campbell helped Nashville overcome The Company, while A Prairie Home Companion caught Tanner '88 looking past the primary and pulled off a minor upset. McCabe & Mrs. Miller ignored Dick Nixon's epithets and handily defeated Secret Honor; on the other hand, the wacky surgeons of M*A*S*H paid a steep price for their hangovers and were stunned by Cookie's Fortune. Another major upset: a few punches to the gut were all Popeye needed to knock off Gosford Park. Short Cuts survived a tight contest with California Split. And the heavily favored The Player rewrote the script to the underdog hopes of A Wedding. Elite Eight, Key Matchups: Will Barbara Jean meet the Angel of Death when Nashville takes on A Prairie Home Companion? And how will team captains Philip Marlowe and Griffin Mill try to outsmart each other when The Long Goodbye squares off against The Player in what Variety is already hyping as "The Battle of L.A."? Stay tuned!
The gap between Altman's good ones and his bad ones is so noticeable that a lot of these decisions make themselves. However: Popeye beats Gosford Park? Somebody must have slipped something into his spinach since the last time I looked that film hummed to high heaven. It little matters, since it comes up against Short Cuts in the next round. As for Cookie's Fortune, a film which needs help getting up and downstairs, beating the coltish sprezzatura of M.A.S.H., I'm foxed. M.A.S.H would surely have given McCabe and Mrs Miller a good run for its money in the next round; against Cookies Fortune, on the other hand, the world's most loving cinematic tribute to the color brown will probably prevail. Prediction: this is coming down to Nashville versus the Player.

Mar 26, 2010

From Wikepedia:—
Pomplamoose are an American indie music and indie jazz duo consisting of multi-instrumentalists Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn. The band was formed in the summer of 2008.[2][3] The name of the band derives from the French word pamplemousse, meaning grapefruit.[4] Despite the group's presence being mostly through video uploads to YouTube and MySpace with few live performances, the collaboration has garnered significant fan support, with approximately 105,000 subscribers on their YouTube channel as of March 2010.
I am in love. More videos here.

What the Republicans do next: double down

"Having already made one gigantic miscalculation, the Republicans now seem poised to make another...they’re convinced that running against health-care reform will win them seats they otherwise wouldn’t get. But responsible Washington observers have been responsibly observing for months that it was obviously a terrible mistake for Obama to “focus” on health care at a time when “the American people” obviously wanted the “focus” to be on “jobs" ... So for the next seven months the Republicans are going to “focus” not on jobs but on … health-care reform? And not on doing it but on getting rid of it" — Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker

Mar 25, 2010

March Madness: Best Film Director, Round Two

Indiana's WEEKEND have published their second-round brackets for Best Living Film Director. For theirs check out the link. What follows are my choices, with any disagreements highlighted. We are in broad agreement in the Veterans category.
1. Martin Scorsese ("The Departed," "Shutter Island") vs. 9. Terrence Malick ( "The New World")

5. Clint Eastwood ("Changeling," "Invictus") vs. 4. Roman Polanski ("The Ghost Writer")

11. Oliver Stone ("World Trade Center," "W.") vs 3. The Coen Brothers ("No Country For Old Men," "A Serious Man")

10. Michael Mann ("Miami Vice," "Public Enemies") vs 2. Steven Spielberg ("Munich," "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull")
The Weekend guys had Woody Allen rather than Malick, but they ended up with the same result: Scorsese goes through. They also had Danny Boyle beating Roman Polanski, but it's also moot: Eastwood beats both of them. The Coens go through, as does Spielberg. The person who gets the roughest deal here is Michael Mann for caming up against Spieberg so early. That's like playing Federer in the second week of Wimbeldon. Otherwise, he might have made the quarter finals. I'm sure he'll suck it up by browsing books on titanium stress fractures like De Niro in Heat.

Moving onto the
Newbies bracket, I have:—
16. Jon Favreau ("Zathura," "Iron Man") vs 8. Judd Apatow ("Funny People," "Knocked Up")

5. Pedro Almodovar ("Volver," "Broken Embraces") vs. 4. Guillermo Del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth," "Hellboy 2")

6. Jason Reitman ("Thank You For Smoking," "Juno," "Up in the Air") vs. 3. Sam Mendes ("Jarhead," "Revolutionary Road," "Away We Go")

Sofia Coppola ("Marie Antoinette") vs. 15. JJ Abrams ("Mission: Impossible III," "Star Trek"
I would chose, as second round winners: Apatow over Favreau, Del Toro over Almodovar, Mendes over Reitman (just), and Coppola over Abrams. The Weekend guys are with me except for the last: they have it as a match between Coppola and Cuaron with Cuaron going through. I think they're making a mistake to bank everything on one movie (Y Tu Mama Tambien) and even if it were down to one, Lost in Translation is still the better film. Moving on.

My second round Indies bracket looks like this:—
1. Quentin Tarantino ("Death Proof," "Inglourious Basterds") vs. Gus Van Sant ("Paranoid Park," "Milk")
5. David Lynch ("Inland Empire") vs. 13. Ang Lee ("Brokeback Mountain")
6. David Fincher ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Zodiac") vs. Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler," "The Fountain")

7. Steven Soderbergh ("Che," "The Girlfriend Experience," "The Informant!") vs 15. Richard Linklater ("A Scanner Darkly," "Me and Orson Welles")
Finally, a decent dust-up. The Weekend bracket looks wildly different from mine. They have Ang Lee going out in the first round: a major, major mistake. Lee has range, power and longevity— the only A-lister other than Eastwood and Spielberg who can actually move an audience. They have Aronofksy beating Fincher: a close run thing, between tweedle dum and tweedle dee, but again a mistake. (The Wrestler is the only Aronofksy film that repays rewatching; Fincher has Se7en, Panic Room and Zodiac.) They have Wes Anderson beating David Lynch which is myopic, modish and unpersuasive: Blue Velvet blows Anderson's corduroy pants off. And they have Paul Thomas Anderson beating Soderbergh and Linklater. There's more of a case to be made here, but it rests entirely on There Will be Blood, a loveless and overrated film in my opinion. Linklater's films have tenderness and humor — qualities on scant display in this bracket. I'd go for Tarantino over Van Sant, Lee over Lynch, Fincher over Aronofsky, and Linklater over Soderbergh.

Moving onto the Populists, we have:—
1. James Cameron ("Avatar") vs. 8. Ron Howard ("Frost/Nixon," "Angels & Demons")

5. Peter Jackson ("King Kong," "The Lovely Bones") vs. 4. Tim Burton ("Sweeny Todd," "Alice in Wonderland")

6. Robert Zemeckis ("Castaway," "A Christmas Carol") vs. 3. Ridley Scott ("American Gangster," "Body of Lies")

7. Frank Darabont ("The Mist") vs. 2. Christopher Nolan ("The Prestige," "The Dark Knight")
My winners are: Cameron over Howard, Jackson over Burton, Zemeckis over Scott, and Nolan over Darabont (just, and again solely because of Memento). Weekend favor Scott over Zemeckis who they have going out in the first round – pure craziness. Scott is too chilly, with a lack of curiosity about his fellow human beings. Zemeckis is hardly Mr Empathy but there's a whiz-kid exuberance to Back to the Future and Roger Rabbit that is contagious and inherantly cinematic. I suspect a lingering case of anti-Gumpism.

Mar 23, 2010

Ten Books That Changed My Life

Some bloggers are listing the Ten Books that Influenced Them The Most. That wording doesn't really work for me (ah Proust, Nabokov, Updike, influences all!) so I've changed it to books that had a big impact on me. Here they are, in roughly chronological order.

1. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis. The first book I read and reread until I disappeared into it, like Lucy into the back of the wardrobe. I used to time it so that I finished the last page of The Last Battle on Christmas Eve, so that any comedown I had upon reentering reality was immediately compensated for with Christmas presents. Lewis over Tolkein: as revealing in its way as McCartney over Lennon would be.

2. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The first book to take over my head in that virulent way that sightly pretentious masterpieces only can when you are a teenager. It sat at the centre of my universe for a long time, everything radiating out from it, like spokes from a hub — the 20th century, Modernism, the possibilities of aesthetic obliquity, narrative self-consciousness, etc. It taught me all about being a literary critic, basically — lessons I would spend twenty years trying to unlearn.

3. A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes. My guilty secret: a big French literary theory phase, with a particular weakness for books that blew up pop culture particulars into big shiny generalities like Lichtenstein cartoons. Mythologies is the Ur-Text for any would be pop culture analyst. But this one had a sexier topic and cover. I couldn't get over that someone was attempting to be intellectually rigorous about tenderness. If ever I showed off about owning a book, it was this one.

4. The Shining by Stephen King. King was my first true, purely pleasurable, just-for-myself read. I used to eat up all his stories about evil, talented children whose gifts could be used for good or will, depending, but are destined to be misunderstood by the adult world. No wonder I used to read him so secretively. This is the best of them, complete with a heartbreaking father/son relationship, and a great account of falling off the wagon. The best American novel about alcohol, in my opinion.

5. In Between the Sheets, Ian McEwan. The first book of contemporary literature I can remember picking up and liking. Up until then everything had been Dickens and George Eliot and the rest of them. This meant I could live in the present and buy books in a bookshop like a normal person. Not only that but these guys were alive, right now, writing. It was a like realising you can date brunettes and redheads — a whole world opens up.

6. Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth by Gitty Sereny. The book that boiled my fascination with the Nazis (ongoing throughout my twenties) down to one electrifying showdown: on the one hand Speer, the evasive, vain, intellectual, grandiloqent architect of all that was most glamorous about the Third Reich, and on the other his diminuitive Jewish biographer: grave, persistent, sympathetic, exacting. The first book to teach me that ethics could be as exciting as aesthetics.

6. The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger. A painfully unoriginal choice, I know. I didn't even read it as a teenager. I came to it late — late enough to realise that all the modern American novels I liked had their straws in Salinger's soda. When people say that it speaks to them, they aren't being metaphorical: all the writing goes into not making it sound like writing, and then hides even that effort. An act of perfect ventriloquism.

7. Revolution In The Head by Ian McDonald. The bible of my early thirties; and the best book about a pop band I've ever come across. An obsessive book, by an obsessive, for obsessives, so fond and familiar in all its particulars as to be slightly embarrassing. He knows each Beatle better than they knew themselves and his descriptions of the songs are so good I would reread them again and again, muttering "descending arabesques of G minor arpeggios," as if one day I might be able to slip such phrases into my conversation. It hasn't happened yet.

8. The Life and Death of Peter Sellers by Roger Lewis. Quite simply the saddest book I ever read, written with such intimate, inside-out peeled-skin understanding of its subject you feared slightly for its author. (His latest book, Seasonal Suicide Notes, suggests maybe I was right to worry). I've never gone back to it. It still terrifies the life out of me, but it's an amazing book, bleak, brilliant, maybe the best biography I've ever read.

9. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. A miraculous blend of warmth and detachment — the kind that only great comedy can do. This book came along at just the right time for me, bringing to an end a long and long-suffering period where I read a lot of depressing books about depressing subjects so that I could get depressed on behalf of myself, the subjects of the books and the rest of humanity (who didn't realise they needed me to be depressed for them). Then one day I came up for air and Stella Gibbons was there.

10. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The only book that I've read in adulthood the way I used to read as a child — in one compulsive, don't-want-to-come-up-for-air gallop. It came after a long period in which I read nothing at all, just comic books. It was snowing. Two weeks later I knew one thing for sure: Anna Karenina is better than Spiderman. Which news will come as a big relief for the Tolstoy estate, obviously. Anything you can do to pass it on.

March madness! Film directors: round one

With March Madness upon us, WEEKEND magazine is working their way through three 64-team pop culture-centric brackets to determine the best TV series on the air, the best active film director and the best music act. Here are the first-round brackets for film director, in the
1. Martin Scorsese ("The Departed," "Shutter Island") vs. 16. Edward Zwick ("Blood Diamond," "Defiance")

8. Woody Allen ("Cassandra's Dream," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona") vs. 9. Terrence Malick ( "The New World")

5. Clint Eastwood ("Changeling," "Invictus") vs. 12. Mike Nichols ("Charlie Wilson's War")

4. Roman Polanski ("The Ghost Writer") vs. 13. Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire," "Sunshine")

6. Sidney Lumet ("Find Me Guilty," "Before the Devil Knows Your Dead") vs. 11. Oliver Stone ("World Trade Center," "W.")

3. The Coen Brothers ("No Country For Old Men," "A Serious Man") vs. 14. David Cronenberg ("Eastern Promises," "A History of Violence")

7. Spike Lee ("Inside Man," "Miracle at St. Anna") vs. 10. Michael Mann ("Miami Vice," "Public Enemies")

2. Steven Spielberg ("Munich," "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull") vs. 15. George Romero ("Diary of the Dead," "Survival of the Dead")
Of those, I would have Scorsese over Zwick although Zwick was unlucky, Malick over Allen, Eastwood over Nichols, Polanski because Boyle has nothing like Chinatown, Stone over Lumet only because Lumet is in the wrong era's bracket, the Coens over Cronenberg, Mann over Lee, and Spielberg over Romero (easily) to win the first round. Moving onto the Newbies bracket, Weekend have:—
1. Paul Greengrass ("Bourne," "United 93") vs. 16. Jon Favreau ("Zathura," "Iron Man")

8. Judd Apatow ("Funny People," "Knocked Up") vs. 9. Marc Forster ("The Kite Runner," "Quantum of Solace")

5. Pedro Almodovar ("Volver," "Broken Embraces") vs. 12. Edgar Wright ("Hot Fuzz")

4. Guillermo Del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth," "Hellboy 2") vs. 13. Marc Webb ("(500) Days of Summer")

6. Jason Reitman ("Thank You For Smoking," "Juno," "Up in the Air") vs. 11. Noah Baumbach ("Squid and the Whale," "Greenberg")

3. Sam Mendes ("Jarhead," "Revolutionary Road," "Away We Go") vs. 14. Zach Snyder ("Dawn of the Dead," "300," "Watchmen")

7. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu ("Babel") vs. 10. Sofia Coppola ("Marie Antoinette")

2. Alfonso Cuaron ("Children of Men") vs. 15. JJ Abrams ("Mission: Impossible III," "Star Trek"
Of the newbies, I would chose, as first round winners: Favreau over Greengrass because of variety (Elf) and because of the centrality of the performances in Iron Man, Apatow over Foster, Almodovar over Wright, del Toro over Webb, Reitman narrowly over Baumbach, Mendes over Snyder, Coppola over Innaritu and Abrams (just) over Cuaron. Weekend's Indies bracket looks like this:—

1. Quentin Tarantino ("Death Proof," "Inglourious Basterds") vs. 16. Michael Moore ("Sicko," "Capitalism: A Love Story")
8. Gus Van Sant ("Paranoid Park," "Milk") vs. 9. Terry Gilliam ("Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus")

5. David Lynch ("Inland Empire") vs. 12. Spike Jonze ("Where the Wild Things Are")

4. Wes Anderson ("The Darjeeling Limited," "Fantastic Mr. Fox") vs. 13. Ang Lee ("Brokeback Mountain")

6. David Fincher ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Zodiac") vs. 11. Michel Gondry ("Block Party," "Be Kind Rewind")

3. Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler," "The Fountain") vs. 14. Alexander Payne ("Sideways")

7. Steven Soderbergh ("Che," "The Girlfriend Experience," "The Informant!") vs 10. Hayao Miyazaki ("Ponyo")

2. Paul Thomas Anderson ("There Will Be Blood") 15. Richard Linklater ("A Scanner Darkly," "Me and Orson Welles")
Here I'd go for Tarantino over Moore, Van Sant over Gilliam (duh), Lynch over Jonze with a wince, Lee over Anderson with a bigger wince, Fincher over Gondry, Aronofsky over Payne, Soderbergh over Miyazaki, and Linklater over Anderson by virtue of temperament. Moving onto the Populists:
1. James Cameron ("Avatar") vs. 16. Guy Ritchie ("RocknRolla," "Sherlock Homes")

8. Ron Howard ("Frost/Nixon," "Angels & Demons") vs. 9. Mel Gibson ("Apocalypto")

5. Peter Jackson ("King Kong," "The Lovely Bones") vs. 12. Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker")

4. Tim Burton ("Sweeny Todd," "Alice in Wonderland") vs. 13. M. Night Shyamalan ("Lady in Water," "The Happening")

6. Robert Zemeckis ("Beowulf," "A Christmas Carol") vs. 11. Andrew Stanton ("WALL-E")

3. Ridley Scott ("American Gangster," "Body of Lies") vs. 14. Robert Rodriquez ("Planet Terror," "Shorts")

7. Frank Darabont ("The Mist") vs. 10. Sam Raimi ("Spider-Man," "Drag Me to Hell")

2. Christopher Nolan ("The Prestige," "The Dark Knight") vs. 15. Martin Campbell ("Casino Royale," "Edge of Darkness")
My winners are: Cameron over the joke entry, Howard over Gibson, Jackson narrowly over Bigelow, Burton over Shayamalan but indifferently, Zemeckis over Stanton (back catalogue), Scott over Rodriguez, Darabont over Raimi because Raimi has nothing like Shawshank, and Nolan over Campbell but only because of Memento.

Oh the tyranny of being adored by millions!

There was a moment in the Michael Jackson documentary This Is It that had me puzzled. Jackson is performing a duet of 'I Can't Stop Loving You' with one of his backing singers. She is giving it her all; he's hanging back to save his voice. Gradually a crowd of the shows dancers form at the bottom of the stage, applauding the two of them, whooping them on. Jackson starts to get into his performance, throwing in a dance move or two. The number ends and everyone applauds. Michael is angry. "You can't do that to me," he says. "You shouldn't make me do that..." At first I thought he was talking to the show's producers; maybe they had slipped him a signal to ramp it up? Or maybe the documentary's director? It takes me a while to figure it out: He was addressing the dancers. For applauding him. I thought that was fascinating: the idea of a performer so compulsive that the mere presence of applause wields a power impossible to resist, almost tyrannical. He was genuinely resentful at them for abusing that power.

Mar 22, 2010

Quote of the day: Newt Gingrich

"If Democrats pass health reform, 'They will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years' by passing civil rights legislation." — NYT
Ah, civil rights legislation. What a cock-up that was.

It's no longer just 'hope'. Something got changed

"There are at least two glaring anachronisms in American society today, through which it is possible to discern how much one’s children, when they reach power in adulthood, will regard their parents as Neanderthals. One is the country’s retrograde treatment of gays and lesbians under the law. The second is that we succored for so long a political economy with a social-insurance hole so large that forty million people managed to drop through it before we got around to fixing it" — Steve Coll, The New Yorker

"Barack Obama has sealed his reputation as a president of great historical import. We don't know what will follow in his presidency, and it's quite possible that some future event--a war, a scandal--will define his presidency. But we do know that he has put his imprint on the structure of American government in a way that no Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson has." — Jonathan Chait

"After leaving the Democratic caucus in agony for a week in the wake of Massachusetts, Obama set a course that was a combination of conceptual clarity and inspired improvisation... The flip side of Obama's perhaps naive belief that he can win Republicans over is his ability to show them up. Americans are confused about the plan, but they are not confused about the man. By large margins they trust Obama more than they do the Republicans to produce rational solutions to the country's problems. In the past month, he exploited his mastery of policy detail, his pragmatism, his focus on effectively alleviating the suffering he spotlighted, and his willingness to stake his political future on getting this bill passed to the utmost. The full eloquence and passion of the campaign came back to his lips in forum after forum and speech after speech... He moved the needle of public opinion enough to move enough House Democrats to "yes." The process may have been frustrating, and long, and ugly, as Obama told the crowd at George Mason on Friday. But it was also glorious. " — Andrew Sprung

"Obama's great strength is patience. He has, as no one I can think of has had in recent times, an ability to just completely ignore the 24 hour news cycle.... it's an enormous strength. Partially because winning each and every news cycle is almost certainly a waste of time. Partially because everyone else is putting so much effort into it, so the player who doesn't is freeing up an enormous amount of time and energy. Partially, I suppose, for the same reason that (warning: actually horse racing analogy coming) I'll always bet the only closer against a field of speed horses." — Jonathan Bernstein

The Republicans.... weren't so happy.

Why are duets almost always a bad idea?

I was just listening to an Emmylou Harris duet the other day and I thought to myself: why are duets always so disappointing? Is it because people are afraid of hurting the feelings of famous artists? Duets tend to only happen late in an artists career, when they're pooped and looking around for ways to make it interesting again. They come with a fair amount of baggage — they're Legends. Say you get Emmylou into the studio to perform a duet with you and she lays down a track. It's a little sloppy, she hits a duff note or two, but she comes out of the booth smiling. What do you do? Do you say 'Emmylou, I'm sorry but that didn't really work for me, can you do it again?' If course you don't. You don't correct a legend; maybe she does this on all her albums; you don't know. So you mutely accept her duff vocals and the record goes out and it's crap. (For her part, she thought the same about your vocals but said nothing, too.) The only exception that I can think of is Paul McCartney, whose team-ups with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson were both good pop records. My theory is that Paul missed John. He wasn't born a solo artist; he became one; the duets completed him.

Why passing heathcare is like catching a plane

So Obama's healthcare reform looks like it is going to pass. I'm more interested in the mathematics of it than the politics. How can it be that right up until the last minute there is such suspense as to whether it will get passed and yet at the same time a fair certainty that they're going to get their 216 votes? It reminds me of the way I am late for airplane flights. I've never been so late as to miss my flight (touch wood) but I have been repeatedly late enough to have to break into a run. Why is that? You'd think that statistically speaking it would be random: I'd miss it as often as I didn't and by different amounts each time. And yet I always make it with just minutes to spare. Clearly my efforts to be on time increase, incrementally, the closer I get to being irreversibly late. The same law is obviously at work in the legislative process, even though it involves a body of people: the very difficulty that creates blockage, creates the antithetical spurt of energy required to remove that blockage. It's great narrative: it gaurantees both nail-biting suspense and its successful resolution, every time.

Mar 21, 2010

Best Albums of 2010 (as of 4.28.10)

1. Go — Jonsi
2. The Suburbs — Arcade Fire
3. The Wild Hunt — The Tallest Man on Earth
4. Lit From Within — The Paperbacks
5. Subiza — Delorean

6. Interpreting the Masters — The Bird and the Bee
7. July Flame — Laura Veirs
8. The Archandroid Janelle Monae
9. Tribute to Famous People — Pomplamoose
10. Gorilla Manor – The Local Natives

Mar 20, 2010

America's Next Top Model: cycle 14

"Man hands on misery to man," wrote Philip Larkin. He was thinking of his parents in particular and parents in general, but then he never got to watch America's Next Top Model. Model hands misery onto model in ceaseless roundelay on the show, now in its 14th cycle, which at the risk of appearing ungallant, is beginning to show its age. There are a lot of retread contestants in the current cycle, while the format of the program has now settled into a reassuringly familiar form, like pantomime. First, the skittish hopefuls are called before the judges to cough up their pre-assigned Oprah bio-points: the difficult childhoods, the unwanted pregnancies, the lapsed religious affiliations. Then they are sent on their first photo-shoot, aimed not at making them look better, but at making them look as awful as possible: they are forced to dress up as circus freaks, or corpses, or buried beneath seven layer cakes of carnivalesque make-up. On hand is plasticoated astroboy Jay Emanuel dispensing the least helpful advice since Iago whispered sweet nothings in Othella's ear. "Don't look cold," he instructs them. And: "This lack of self confidence is crippling you." Then they are recalled to the studio where they are critiqued for every pose, lozenge of light and stray hair — one girl last week was even taken to task for the way a single droplet of water, sprayed onto her from a hose, dangled ignominiously from her chin — and if they dare push back, bam. Down comes the guillotine. They are making excuses. Top Models do not make excuses. Top Models are "fierce." They "want it." The show has much less to do with the job of being a model, and everything to do with simulating an exact physiological recreation of the injustices Tyra felt she had to negotiate to make it to the top. The show is wholly fashioned in her image, to her specifications, around her peccadillos, in illustration of her issues, in a way that the franchise equivalents abroad are not. She presides over it like a cross between Naomi Campbell and Neferiti, inducing hysteria in he girls with her by now entirely predictable surprise visits, alighting in their midst like a visiting Goddess, before gutting them neatly with a smile. "Why are you crying?" she asks, having reduced one of them to tears, in a tone halfway between sympathy and threat. She occasionally plugs in her sympathy chip for a nice sit-down chat with the girls, a la Oprah, but she is to her predecessor what the Terminator T-1000 was to Arnie in Termintor 2: a meaner, leaner, more beautiful version, her sights trained on the radical extermination of all opposition. One girl is even a refugee from a cult, which makes perfect sense: America's Next Top Model is the most vivid personality cult on TV.

How America lost faith in its fictions

America is losing faith with its fictions. Such is the thesis of David Shields, whose new book Reality Hunger: a Manifesto lays out a compelling case for the prosecution:—

The quasi-home movie, Open Water. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Joe Frank’s radio show In The Dark. The depilation scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Lynn Shelton’s unscripted film Humpday (“all the writing takes place in the editing room”)... public-access-TV, karaoke nights, VH1’s Behind-the-Music series, behind the scenes interviews running parallel to the “real” action on reality television shows, rap artists taking a slice of an existing song and blending an entirely new song on top of it, DVD of feature films that inevitably include a documentary about the ‘making of the movie’....”

You’d have to have been living on Mars not to recognize the broad truth underlying that list: everywhere you look, fiction is going into the ring with reality and getting trounced in three rounds. Reality TV shows beat fictional dramas in the ratings. Memoirs outsell novels. More people voted for American idol than for Barack Obama. High school girls write letters to the “real” Juliet, while fans of the Matrix plug into that film’s DVD extras to unravel the magic. This new interrogatory mood may surprise those who cast Americans as a nation of dreamers, fantasists, escapologists seeking endless distraction from the pain of their daily lives in the doughy delights of the 24-hour pop-culture sensorium. It’s called the American Dream not the American Unfomfortable Fact.

According to Shields pop culture has succeeded only too well: wired up the kazoo with high-speed internet connection, punching away at our blackberries and iphones, hooked into our twitter feeds and Facebook status updates, we have more ways than ever to not be paying attention to what is directly in front of our noses. Seqeustered in our electronic eyries, we long for scraps of reality to puncture the fourth wall — SOS notes hurled through our flatscreens. “Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any,” writes Shields. “We like non-fiction because we live in fictitious times.” Hence our taste for movies like Paranormal Activity which ape the jagged rhythms of documentary; and for TV shows that drop the air kisses of fictional drama for the Darwinian death-match that is the fashion industry (Project Runway), or LA hairdressing (Shear Genius). Shields is not the first to point out that there’s nothing real to these shows; “hybrid mutants of documentaries, games shows and soaps” they offer just as much of an escape as I Dream of Jeannie ever did. I would still prefer to sit in judgment of the hopeful, beavering snouts on The Apprentice than sit down and talk finances with my wife.

As for reality —the stuff happening outside the range of our Wi-Fi connections — well, nobody believes in it anymore. All those whale infanticides and melting ice caps and black presidents. No way. It’s too unreal. Too close to stuff of fiction. “The American writer has his hands full, trying to understand and then describe and then make credible much of American reality,” writes Shields. “The actuality is continually outdoing our talents and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of the novelist.” Well said, Sir.... except.... Hang on. That sounds a little familiar. Hmm. Turn to the back of the book, and sure enough, there in an appendix, we find that that quote actually belongs to Phillip Roth in his famous 1961 essay ‘Writing American Fiction’ for Commentary. “Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any”? That was Salon’s Andrew O’ Hehir. “We like non fiction because we live in fictitious times”? Michael Moore.

Cut spooky Twilight zone music — Der-ner-ner-ner! Der-ner-ner! —as the reader rocks back in her chair, loosing a silent Munch-like scream, as the fabric of reality itself seem to shift and shimmer around her. It turns out the entire book is a tissue of similarly unattributed quotations, some running on for a page, others pithy little apercus: —

82 Art is not truth; art is a lie that allows us to recognize truth.

318 Resolution and conclusion are inherent in a plot-driven narrative

Which ones are Shields, which are just quotations? “A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what those terms mean,” he says, “Your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read is not a bug but a feature.” Random House lawyers were not so convinced and told him to append a complete list of citations at the back of the book. “If you would like to restore this book to the for in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or a box cutter and remove pages 210-218 by cutting along the dotted line,” he says, although the fact that the only argument he deems worth addressing is the legal one is telling. The possibility that the reader might detect something more than just the hard, clean oxyacetelane flame of aesthetic principle at work here — hey, we’d all like to sound cleverer than we are by sprinkling a little Kierkegaard into our coco pops, buddy — doesn’t seem to have occurred to him, even as something to be refuted.

It’s a shame, because Shields of guilty of more originality than he’d care to admit. Amidst the thickets of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Emerson and Nietzsche, are nestled perspicious nuggets from Shields himself on everything from Facebook (“crude personal essay machines... millions of little advertisements for the self”) to the James Frey controversy, which has come to seem one of the emblematic brouhahas of our time. Frey is what happens when you make individual suffering, publically borne, the locus classicus of all literary culture. Frey was not Oprah’s betrayer he was her creature, Caliban to her Prospero, blowback for a million tricked-up memoirs in which people massage their misery into modern-day Penny Dreadfuls. “Memoirs really can claim to be modern novels right down to the presence of an unreliable narrator”, concludes Shields. “I’m not disappointed that Frey is a liar but that he isn’t a better liar.” There’s more than a touch of the fop to Shields, with his silken paradoxes and plush contrarianism; a century ago he would have holed up in a Parisien opium den, reading Apollionaire pastiches to an audience of wan, tubercular poets.

Like most modern fops he’s best when dancing around the pinheads of pop culture; when it comes to his commandments for those a little higher up the brow, Moses starts to sweat. “I’m bored by out and out fabrication, by myself and others; bore by invented plots and invented characters,” he says. “You read seven hundred pages of get a handful of insights that were the reason the book was written. And the apparatus of the novel there as a huge elaborate, overbuilt stage set.” His recommendation to novelists: cut out the characters and plot and instead just give us a piece of your mind. He’s a little vague on what kind of books might result — a little like Nicholson’s Baker’s, perhaps, or Proust’s, books which “sit on the frontier between genres”; which combine “self reflexivity, self ethnography, anthropological autobiography”; which look like essays but which ”behave less like an essay and more like a poem.” At which point the penny drops: he means books just like the one we happen to be holding in our hands right now. What Shield’s manifesto turns out to be a manifesto for is ta da! — more manifestoes like this one.

T’was ever thus. When Andre Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, Tristan Tzara’s Dadaist manifesto, and Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto were published in quick succession in the 1920s, their work reached such an incantatory pitch that it seemed a shame to break off from the hard work of manifesto-writing and produce some actual, you know, art. There are many writers who would react with horror to Shield’s prescriptions: more novels are killed every year by ideas than were ever led astray by a character or derailed by plot. For every Don De Lillo, there are a thousand scribbling brainiacs convinced that a power-point presentation of their ideas is preferable to the careful cultivation of living, breathing human beings. When Phillip Roth first diagnosed America’s reality surfeit he wasn’t advising novelists to throw in the towerl, but to adapt, keep fighting, finding new footholds, fresh points of ingress in which the imagination can bloom. Shields extended essay on the subject concludes merely that essayists should write more essays.

My review of David Shield's book for The Daily Beast

MARCH PLAYLIST: Sambassadeurs, JJ, Frightened Rabbit, Efterklang, First Aid Kit

I'm a little restricted with these playlists by what LALA can find in its collection. I couldn't find the Bird and the Bee tribute to Hall & Oates on there, for instance, but it's wonderful and you should seek it out. But this gives a rough idea of things I've been listening to this month. The Scandinavian take over of my record collection continues apace with JJ's no 3, Efterklang's Magic Chairs, the Sambassadeurs European. The Sambassadeurs are surely a contender for the award for the worst band name of 2010. Maybe it's better in Swedish.

Mar 19, 2010

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Intro - Progressivism Is Cancer

Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Reform
Jon Stewart's takedown of Glenn Beck is a little frantic for my tastes — I prefer Stewart when he cruises, not when he floors it — but it does answer something I've long wondered about Beck, which is: is he serious? or more particularly: do his fans take him seriously? Or is it just fun to get all riled up like that? Take his view that Obama is Stalin. Nobody honestly thinks that. They understand that Stalin was very bad guy, though, and that to compare Obama to him is sprightly mischief. It gets a rise out of people. Ask them to bet their house on it and they will shortly retract the statement. They were just joking. It is the like the "Obama is a muslim" meme. Nobody honesty thinks that. On the contrary, they know it is wrong. That's why they say it, because saying wrong things about Obama riles his supporters. Same with WWW wrestling, whose supporters both know and don't know that the whole thing is a put on. Say it one way and they will strenuously deny it. Ask them to bet their house on the answer and they will say: of course it's just a game. Its a peculiarly American trait — certainly one that is baffling to outsiders — this tendency to accord play all the weight of reality. In England that would be called irony — not meaning what you say, but deliberately, as a game. Here it is more like irony without the deliberation: not meaning what you say, but with a straight face, a look of cherubic innocence on your face.

"Fatty Arbuckle!" "Scene 34 Blowjob!" "Genius!"

'Typically when a scene number is called the clapboard operator will follow the English alphabet, and each film set will have their own variation such as using names in alphabetic order, or the International Radio Operator Alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc.). Not Brezca, “the Clapper Loader and Tarantino’s Camera Angel.” She’s been working with Tarantino over the course of several films and has her own style — which as you’ll see, tends to either shock or compel the actors, or both. After the second viewing, we think there is a method to her madness, even if you think that shouting “Dario Argento” or “Scene 34 Blowjob!” at actors seems random.' — Laughing Squid

Dude deserves a Liam Neeson biopic not a $50 bill

"Grant's list of presidential achievements is rather meager for being depicted on such a notable piece of currency. His greatest claim to fame was being President Lincoln's selection to lead the Union army in the Civil War. But even in that instance, he wasn't Lincoln's first choice. Lincoln first requested Robert E. Lee's services, before Lee committed his loyalty to the Confederacy. In his two terms, Grant oversaw the end of the South's Reconstruction, and the Transcontinental Railroad was completed on his watch. However, Grant's presidency was also riddled with scandal.... Grant was notorious for his lifelong battle with alcoholism and his presidency has been consistently ranked in the bottom third of all U.S. presidents by bipartisan coalitions of scholars"— The Journal
The writer is, of course, scoring political points. I couldn't care less who goes on the $50 bill but Grant won the civil war. He saved the Union. And he did so while consuming enough bourbon to fell a small herd of buffalo. He was the civil war's answer to Robert Shaw's shark hunter in Jaws, Burton to Lincoln's Taylor. The fact that the beetle-browed hero of the civil rights movement turned out to be a boozy rogue is one of those ironies surely too good for Hollywood to pass up. He is the one American president most sorely in need of Liam Neeson Biopic, complete with the most famous I'll-have-what-he's-having exchange of dialogue in the history of the republic:
"Grant is a drunkard," a senior politician told Lincoln. " He is not himself half the time. He cannot be relied upon. It is a shame to have such a man in charge of the army"
"So Grant gets drunk does he?" asked Lincoln.
"Yes he does and I can prove it."
"Just find out what brand of whiskey he drinks because I want to send a barrel of it to each one of my generals."
Actually scratch Neeson. It's comeback vehicle for Mel Gibson.

Mar 18, 2010

Most anticipated albums of 2010 (updated)

23 March
Goldfrapp, Head First
She & Him, Volume Two
The Bird and The Bee, Interpreting the Masters
13 April
Kaki King, Junior
MGMT, Congratulations
20 April
Cornershop, Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast
Rufus Wainwright, All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu
27 April
New Pornographers, Together
Broken Social Scene, Forgiveness Rock Record
Josh Ritter, Runs the World
11 May
Keane, Night Train
The National, High Violet
18 May
Band Of Horses, Infinite Arms
Janelle Monae (above), The Archandroid
Tracy Thorn, Love and Its Opposite
22 June
Stars, The Five Ghosts

Also new albums from The Radio Department, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Cat Power, Amy Winehouse, Royksopp, Kraftwerk, Justice, Outkast, Arcade Fire and John Mellencamp

Michael Lives! (Except he moved to Canada)

Actually it's a Canadian kid named Justin Bieber who sounds like he's come off Canadian Idol. He was born in 1994. Imagine that. 1994. Amazing. But somehow he recalls that long-vanished era when a cartoon Jackson five shoot hoops with a cartoon Harlem Globetrotters, their only concern whether to teach the world to sing or buy it a coke.

Mar 17, 2010

A decade of music through the bottom of a glass

Until a few months ago, I couldn't really have told you what my favorite albums of the decade were for the simple reason that I spent much of the last decade drunk. Bladdered. Blitzed. Blotto. Ratted. Heavy drinking does bad things to your liver and also to your record collection. No matter how catholic and interestingly varied your tastes when sober, when drunk all you want to do is listen to the same record over and over again. So if you'd asked me what my favorite album of the decade was, I could in all honesty reply "Daft Punk's Discovery and Rufus Wainwright's Poses" for the simple reason that for a single 3-year period, I barely listened to anything else. I'm not joking. Those two records feel almost shamefully familiar. I can play them back in my head without the record being on. All this is by way of saying that last December, I read everyone else's 'Best Of' Lists through a scrim of jealousy. These people seemed to have lived actual lives, and managed to listen to actual new records like normal people every now and again. I felt like Rumplestiltskin. At first I wondered what I had missed out on, but then I thought to myself — why wonder? Why not find out what the big albums would have been for me? Availing myself of the vast new array of music blogs, and a subscription to iTunes and emusic, I went back in time, so to speak, and pieced together what my record collection might have looked like had been adding to it every now and again. It was a bit like one of those historical digs the guy from Blackadder goes on, piecing together from fragments what kind of vase the Romans would have drunk wine from (bad example). I'm sure this process will go on for a long time, but after several months research, I can safely report the following.

2000 was all over the place. I had just moved to the US. The last album I bought in heathrow was the Lemon Jelly album. Newly ensconced in the village, I embarked on a year-long folk / rock archeological dig that resulted in me disappearing almost completely into the seventies. It was Nick Drake or the Allman Brothers or nothing. Most of my new music was heard in bars: Coldplay's Parachutes, David Gray's White Ladder, Sade's Lover's Rock, Nelly Furtado's Legend and Madonna's Music all got listened to, as did Ryan Adam's Heartbreaker, Chicane's Behind the Sun, Badly Drawn Boy's Hour of Bewilderbeast, William Orbit's Pieces in a Modern Style, and Aimee Mann's Bachelor no. 2. The William Orbit in particular fitted right in. I listened to that and the Chicane on constant loop while walking around Central Park feeling homesick. It's great music to feel homesick to.

In 2001, there were more albums released than just Daft Punk's Discovery and Rufus Wainwright's Poses, apparently! Poses I can see why I listened to so religiously. Its all about being drunk on fifth avenue in flip-flops and comes suffused in a regretful done-it-again dawn light. It's about classical ruin. Daft Punk I'm not so sure about although those chrome surfaces did offer me a fantastic opportunity to pack it in with this whole human being business — a very enticing fantasy at the time. Other albums I later caught up with included Prefab Sprout's The Gunman and Other Stories, the Moulin Rouge soundtrack, Ryan Adams' Gold, Clem Snide's The Ghost of Fashion, The New Pornographer's Mass Romantic, and Bruce Springsteen's Live in New York. The Springsteen album, in particular, hinted at feelings and loyalties that were beyond me at the time. I couldn't have taken very much of it.

From the looks of it, I would say this was my low-point in terms of music consumption. Albums, anyway. The only sign I have that anyone recorded any new music at all in 2002 was k d Lang's Hymns from the 49th Parallel, which was an album of covers, and Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head. Oh and the Oukast album. I was in LA: you couldn't avoid it. I listened to a lot of singles that year, driving around West Hollywood trying to get interviews for my blockbuster book. A lot of Janet Jackson: the singles of All For You were all fantastic, I thought. Much later on, I discovered Alison Krauss and Union Station's live album, Springsteen's The Rising, Cornershop's Handcream for a Generation, Frou Frou's Details, Neko Case's Blacklisted, and Ron Sexsmith's Cobblestone Highway. The k d Lang is still my favorite though. I saw her live at the Hollywood bowl. I've never been to a more magical show. I came away thinking that the 2002 version of 'Simple' is one of the best love songs since George Harrison's 'Something'.

The soundtracks to Lost in Translation and Garden State are both very good but they will not do as a substitute for all the music released in 2003. Reliving old habits I played Rufus's Wainwright's Want One into the ground, particularly 'I Don't Know What It Is' which has more plays on my itunes software than any other record except the Human Leagues 'Don't You Want Me'. Had I ventured further afield I would have fallen in love with: — Beyonce's Dangerously in Love, Kathleen Edward's Failer, Cat Power's You Are Free, Annie Lennox's Bare, Deathcab for Cutie's Transatlanticism, The Chemical Brothers Surrender, Sun Kil Moon's Ghosts of the Great Highway, Phoenix's United, The Postal Service's Give Up, The Radio Department's Lesser Matters, and Stephen Merritt's Pieces of April.

Here's something I bet you didn't know: while in the last throes of writing a book about blockbusters through an almost permanent hangover and the only records you will want to listen to will be by Peter Gabriel. That's a fact. I think it has something to do with the weight and mass — the sense of big heavy things grinding their way through to inexorable completion. I still have many blanks in 2004 but thanks to the miracle of the internet and the recommenations of friends, I have reconstructed a more varied pallette of music that includes: The Magnetic Fields I, Keane's Hopes and Fears, Patty Griffin's Impossible Dream, Royksopp's Melody AM, Arcade Fire's Funeral, Alexandre Desplat's score for Birth, Jon Brion's Eternal Sunshine score, U2 How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, George Michael's Patience, and Rilo Kiley's More Adventurous.

Theoretically 2005 should have seen a big improvement in my listening habits but only Imogen Heap's Speak For Yourself registered. Bruce Springsteen's Devils and Dust, the Chemical Brothers's Push the Button, David Gray's Life in Slow Motion, Kraftwerk's Minimum-Maximum, Deathcab For Cutie's Plans, Goldfrapp's Supernature, Oasis' Don't Believe the Truth, Inara George's All Rise Sun Kil Moon's Twin Cities, Sufjan Stevens Come On! Feel The Illinois! and Josh Rouse's Nashville all came later.

I didn't even buy Amy Winehouse Back to Black in 2006. (Too much irony underload)I did catch Scritti Politti's White Bread, Black Beer, Lily Allen's Alright Still, The Beatles Love, and Corinne Bailey Rae's debut album. New additions include Camera Obscura's Let's Get Out of This Country, Cat Power's The Greatest, the Decembrists The Crane Wife, Josh Rouse's Subtitulo, and Midlake' s The Trials of Van Occupanther.

Things were picking up by 2007. I was paying enough attention to buy Feist's The Reminder, Radiohead's In Rainbows, Rilo Kiley's Under the Backlight, and Josh Ritter's The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, Patty Griffin's Children Running Through and The National's Boxer. To which I'd like to add: Andrew Bird's Armchair Apocrypha, Kiln's Dusker, Band of Horses' Cease to Begin, Justice's Cross, MGMT's Oracular Spectacular, Robert Plant and Alison's Krauss's Raising Sand.

No excuses. No hold outs. 2008 was Adele's 19, Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago, Cat Power's Jukebox, Estelle's Shine, Goldfrapp's Seventh Tree, Kaskade's Strobelight Seduction, the rerelease of Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue, Owl City's Maybe I'm Dreaming, Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid, Vampire Weekend's debut, Oasis's Dig Out Your Soul. Just added: Marching Band's Spark Large and Cut Copy's In Ghost Colours.

In 2009, the following all hit me in real time:— Phoenix's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, The Temper Trap's Conditions, Camera Obscura's My Maudlin Career, Empire of the Sun's Walking on a Dream, JJ's JJ no.2, Lily Allen's Its Not Me Its You, Neko Case's Middle Cyclone, La Roux's debut, The Low Anthem's Oh My God Charlie Darwin, The Bird and the Bee's Rayguns Are Not Just The Future, and the Dark was the Night compilation. Late arrivals: Miike Snow's Miike Snow, Noah and the Whale's First Days of Spring, Annie's Don't Stop and The Leisure Society's Sleeper.

So far in 2010, I'm in the can for Laura Veirs July Flame, Midlake's The Courage of Others, Clem Snide's The Meat of Life, The Bird and The Bee's Hall and Oates tribute album, The Local Natives' Gorilla Manor, Yeasayers Odd Blood, the Magnetic Field's Realism, and Hot Chip's One Life Stand. I love that there is so much music out there, coming out 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and all of it produced just on the slim, crazy, offchance that someone, somewhere, will happen to like it. It's such a good deal, the second best deal in the world after $500,000 3-D movies about blue people for just ten bucks. Amazing. and you don't even need glasses.