Monday, December 24, 2007

Sweeney Todd

The blog's still on vacation. Really. I'm not here. But: a new review for you at Pajiba. The commenters mostly disagree with me, but I'll just say -- I do have knowledge of musicals (and like them), and I don't mind (at all) disagreeing with A.O. Scott.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Back in a Bit

I don't think the blog's ever been dormant this long, but I'm taking a break from it until January 2. Please come back then, at which time I'll be fully operational.

For now, I'm off to get a haircut. I'm starting to look like Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. Happy holidays, everybody.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Blog's Year in 12 Handy Links

This week shattered whatever my previous record might have been for visits in a week, so thanks to everyone who's stopped by. If any of you are new and want to get a long-range view of what I do around here, or if any of my regulars are feeling nostalgic for all the ways I wasted their time this year, I've put together a quick 2007 retrospective, one post per month. Here we go:

In January, the MTA continued lying to me. In February, I contemplated my inability to stop fantasizing about other places to live, and in March I contemplated how old I really am. In April, I wrote a post about panda bears that I really thought would have generated more comments, if only to inquire after my mental health. In May, it was back to contemplation, this time spurred by a great novel by Walker Percy. In June, along with the rest of America, I coped with the cognitive dissonance produced by Cormac talking to Oprah. In July, I dealt with a bat, and the mercifully bat-free August found me, among other places, in an Albany train station, where I overheard something worth passing on. In September, local kids entertained me. October found me in a classroom for the first time in many years. I took in the New York City marathon in November. During this last month of '07, I wondered what cultural creations since 1950 might have legs. If I had to choose a favorite video clip I posted during the year, it would be Mr. Met getting down at a wedding reception. The dancing starts about 35 seconds in. Enjoy (again):

AP Headline of the Day

Inmate Says He Needs Thor's Hammer, Drum

The 3 Best Things of 2007

It's probably most accurate to say that the following three things affected me more than anything else in 2007, and since the blog often celebrates my subjectivity, I suppose that's as good a standard to use as any.

#3: The Hold Steady in Harrisburg

I've said for years that the best concert I ever attended was Prince at Dallas' Reunion Arena in December 1998. But I think the little guy was eclipsed -- just barely -- this past May. As with all the best live-music experiences, timing played a pivotal role. My interest in The Hold Steady was cresting. I was listening to their most recent album, Boys and Girls in America, on a daily basis and had it memorized -- so I was getting into the first two records, knowing them just well enough to hope for certain songs to be played. My girlfriend and I drove to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for the show, and I wrote about the experience at length here.

#2: Into the Wild

There were several films that were more tightly crafted than Into the Wild this year, and I like things that are tightly crafted. The stubborn, ill-fated journey of Christopher McCandless, who left his comfortable suburban family in Georgia to reinvent himself and ended up dying alone in the Alaskan wilderness, might not lend itself to precision, but no other movie left me stumbling out of the theater into the bright afternoon sun trembling and crying. I had read the Jon Krakauer book that inspired the movie twice, and read it a third time to prepare my full-length review of director Sean Penn's adaptation. What I couldn't read before my review, naturally, but which would have helped me write it, were the comments left in its wake. The word "brat" appeared at least half a dozen times, and it seemed that the majority of people were so disdainful of McCandless' decisions that they couldn't stomach the movie. Others, like fellow critic Dan Carlson, were gentler on it, but still had a problem with how the story was presented: "I ultimately can't celebrate a film that seems to worship a boy for making such a cataclysmic mistake, the kind that cost him his life, especially when his existential breakthrough is something everyone else accepts much earlier, and easier."

To the charge of brat, I don't have much to say. These same commenters rarely call characters "brats" even when they are -- the average spoiled, soft consumers at the heart of so many movies. In the comments for the movie Juno -- a movie I liked -- the word doesn't appear once, but Juno, my friends, is a brat. A lovable one, fine, but still a brat.

I suppose that what mystifies me most is the widespread belief that the film "glorifies" McCandless' choices. He becomes emotionally attached to several people, and as he abandons those people one by one, it's impossible not to be frustrated with him. The supporting characters -- excellently played by Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Kristen Stewart, and the amazing Hal Holbrook -- are people with whom you fully sympathize, so McCandless' inability to allow himself a lasting connection with them is infuriating. But this is not a fiction. He really did all of this, and his belief, however dangerous it became, that going further into himself would yield more spiritual truth than conventional connections could, places him in an awfully long and fascinating tradition. Tolstoy was in his 40's when he strove for poverty and asceticism. Rigorous seeking is not just for the misguided young. It's for genuine pilgrims. The fact that such people often hurt others and often catch only a glimpse of what they're seeking only makes their quest that much more complicated and compelling. To me, anyway. Maybe I'm too old to be as interested in the transcendental as I am, but without ever worshipping McCandless for a single second, I find his story absorbing and provocative and heartbreaking.

#1: The Wire

The actor pictured above is J.D. Williams, who plays Bodie on The Wire. I choose to feature him with a purposeful sense of randomness -- there are two dozen other characters I could put there to stand for the show's depth of field and the staggering number of people it makes you care for, often against all odds.

The fourth season of The Wire technically aired in late 2006, but I saw it on DVD just a couple of months ago. Like the first three seasons, it's astonishing. Expanding the scope of the series' portrait of Baltimore -- the richest portrait of an American city ever produced for TV or movies, among other superlative things to be said about The Wire -- the fourth season introduces a group of middle-school characters, brilliantly acted by four kids who, like most everyone else in the series, you've criminally never heard of before now.

Even summing up the show’s most essential levels of greatness would take at least 10,000 words, and it's better to just watch, so I'll let you do that, if you promise to do it. Like most smart, complex things, The Wire is short on viewers, but since it debuted in 2002, it's been the best thing American culture has to offer.

My Inner Voice

I'm not a big fan of Family Guy. But Dwight Garner at Paper Cuts posted this funny clip of the football-headed baby, Stewie, taunting the dog, Brian. Funny, but also terrifying, because Stewie is also replicating, I think, the inner voice that nags many an aspiring writer:

Thursday, December 20, 2007

"Are you all happy?"

Not to bring the holiday mood down, but this is too fascinating to keep to myself. If you click on this link, you can see a list of the 405 people who have been executed in Texas since 1982. More staggeringly, you can read each of their last statements.

Many of them start with "Yes, sir," or "Yes, I do," presumably because they've been asked if they have any final words. They range from the brief and chilling ("I deserve this. Tell everyone I said goodbye.") to longer indictments of the system or the justice of a particular decision. Some of them have the Texas attitude you might expect people to have right until the end:
Yes sir, Warden. Okay I've been hanging around this popsicle stand way too long. Before I leave, I want to tell you all. When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet, put some headphones on my head and rock and roll me when I'm dead. I'll see you in Heaven someday. That's all Warden.
But mostly, of course, they're heartbreaking:
Yes sir. I would like to say to my family, I am alright. (Spanish) Where are you Leo; are you there Leo? (Spanish) Don't lie man. Be happy. Are you happy? Are you all happy? (Spanish)
The statements are given with onlookers present, which some inmates didn't seem to expect. This leads to at least one final-final word that seems apt for a Lone Stater:
Uh, I don't know, um, I don't know what to say. I don't know. (pauses) I didn't know anybody was there. Howdy.

(This is -- unintentionally -- the second straight of my posts found through Very Short List. I highly suggest signing up for the service. They e-mail you one suggestion every day -- a book, a CD, a web site, a work of art -- for free, which is a very good price.)

Small World

This is amazing. On the same front page of a newspaper in Lewiston, Idaho, there were two prominent photos. One featured a local resident painting a holiday sign on his store window. Below that, a picture from a surveillance camera caught someone who looks suspiciously familiar stealing someone's wallet at a convenience store. You can see the page here.

It took the cops to notice the similarities and pick the guy up. Let's hear it for the eagle-eyed journalists of Lewiston.

(via Very Short List)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

These Are a Few (More) of My Favorite Things

With 2007's movies out of the way, let's move on to the rest of the world:


One comment I recently read on a blog put it perfectly: "Stay away from the Scrabulous, it's a writer-slayer." And how. I'd estimate I've spent 70 hours playing since I joined up in mid-October. When I used to play countless hours of high-speed Tetris (on Nintendo) in high school and college, I would sometimes have trouble falling to sleep at night because the board was imprinted on my eyelids like the sun. Now, I sometimes spend the moments before dozing off calculating the value of words that just pop onto the board in my head: "tingles," on double word score, with bonus for using all my least 66 points. "Extras," with the x on triple letter score, 29 points. That kind of thing.

This is unhealthy, is what I'm saying.

It would be easier to see it as worthwhile if it genuinely improved my vocabulary, but mostly I'm learning that words like "EA" and "OI" can help out in a pinch. In other words, Scrabulous may be helping me to communicate better with mice.

I've used all seven of my letters 25 times (the site keeps track for you -- I'm not that far gone...yet). My favorite instances were "airliner," "reallot," and "shuteye."

Someone at a party told me -- and I believe everything I hear at parties -- that Scrabulous is, amazingly, not associated in any official way with Scrabble. Huh. Kind of makes me want to start my own site -- Monopolitude. I bet there's money in that.

Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe
and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Robinson's book came out in 2005, maybe even 2004, but I'd be remiss to leave it off the list, because I finished it in '07 and it's one of my favorite novels. I've already focused on it twice -- here, and here -- so you can refer to those posts. Read the book if you haven't.

Gilead is modest, quiet but profound in both craft and effect, and Jamestown is a pyrotechnic event, in which Sharpe reimagines the settlement by imagining a futuristic version of it. In this version, Pocahontas sends IM messages to people under the handle "CornLuvr." That detail will have to suffice as a description of the book's genuinely goofy spirit, but the goofs add up to something substantial. It would take more time than I have here to get at that substance, so I'll just say that I think Sharpe's novel was one of the more underappreciated of 2007. I saw it in manuscript form while at my previous job, and it was a wild rebuke to the sameness of novels about nothing in particular. It's possible that Jamestown verges on being about too much, but that seems like a good problem to have these days.

(Tangentially, for those of you interested in the science of human reflexes, I can't seem to type Sharpe without writing "Sharper" first -- I honestly did it again when I wrote it just there; that's how ingrained it is. Crazy neurons.)

Time Out Film Guide

I'd been looking for a king of movie guides for a while. I used to rely on VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever, which is still a perfectly respectable choice in my opinion. (I have fond memories of my friend Jason laughing -- at, not with me -- whenever I'd sum up its opinion of a movie with something like, "They gave it two bones.")

Many thanks to another friend named Jason for pointing me in the direction of the London-based Time Out guide. It's elegantly designed, user-friendly, and comprehensive. Those are the three big criteria for such a guide, but Time Out adds a fourth quality to put it over the top: sharp writing. When they say of Night of the Hunter that "(Charles) Laughton's only stab at directing...turned out to be a genuine weirdie," those last two words may sound vague, but if you've seen the movie you know they're right on. And this at the end of the review for Days of Heaven: "Eventually...the narrative collapses, leaving its audience breathlessly suspended between a 90-minute proof that all the bustling activity in the world means nothing, and the perfection of Malick's own perverse desire to catalogue it nonetheless. Compulsive." (I also think its take on Malick's The Thin Red Line is perfect.) Even when it stoops to insult something as great as The Muppet Movie, it does it in style: "...the attitude towards Miss Piggy and Camilla the Chicken is, well, less than progressive."

In Rainbows by Radiohead

Welcome back, guys. I remain firmly rooted in my opinion that The Bends and OK Computer are likely to be their win-place exacta for the rest of time, but this collection of slow burners at least makes them relevant again after the increasingly obscure burbles of Kid A (which has several strong moments), Amnesiac (which runs together), and Hail to the Thief (which I didn't even bother investigating).

30 Rock

I haven't done the rigorous scientific breakdown yet, but I do think the second season of 30 Rock is less consistently funny (by a hair) than the first. It's still better than any other comedy on network TV by a good distance, and it fills the all-important need for a generator of catch phrases: "Me want food!" "What am I, a farmer?" "Banter!"

(I try to keep the blog smut-free, so for those of you looking for a more salacious picture of Tina Fey -- and I don't blame you -- you'll have to click here.

Just kidding, click here.)

Cease to Begin by Band of Horses

It's true that this band's terrific sophomore album is sonically similar to their terrific debut, Everything All the Time, but in 2007 some degree of treading water isn't much to complain about when the water's of such high quality. (OK, that metaphor got away from me.) How many bands currently releasing music do you think you might still be excited about ten years from now? I could count them on one hand, and these guys make the list. Or make the hand. Whatever. I'm leaving this entry before I mangle the language again.

Age Old Hunger by Christopher Denny
and Emotionalism by The Avett Brothers

Like Gillian Welch, Christopher Denny tries to faithfully recreate something that may have never existed: country music that is both rural-inflected and cosmopolitan-tinged, self-aware and unironic. In a warbling, consciously old-timey croon, he delivers songs that sound like they could only be authentically enjoyed by mid-century hobos or sad, hardworking people in bars with sawdust on the floor. What allows him to not only salvage the project but make it feel vital are two things: 1) He occasionally rocks. Several songs on Age Old Hunger -- “All Burned Up” and the instrumental “Goin’ Home,” to name two -- aren’t going to be confused for AC/DC, but they’re designed for the dancin’ that happens when the cryin’ is over. 2) He writes good songs.

The Avett Brothers seem to have one foot (or three of their six feet) planted firmly in the authenticity-averse hipster universe. (Though, in fairness, I learned about both them and Denny from Pitchfork.) Where Denny sings things like, "It hurts me so to look at the stars tonight / 'cause I'm thinking of you and the way that things used to be," the Avett Brothers sing, "Love writes a letter, and sends it to Hate / 'My vacation's ending, I'm coming home late'." Still, they're at least as earnest in their way. If you click on this link (you know you want to), you can see them perform a song called "Paranoia in BB Major" on Late Night. Conan seems geeked out about it at the end, if that counts for anything.

William James

James died in 1910, so it’s safe to say I’m exercising some license with this one. I read The Varieties of Religious Experience in October and recognized almost immediately that: 1) It was the best thing I'd ever read; 2) It was going to send me on a James-related reading spree (which it has); and 3) At 33, I had found some combination of intellectual hero and pal from beyond the grave. I've got much more to share about James, so I'm devoting a week of the blog to him in January. I guarantee it won't be boring. Rather, I guarantee it won't be boring to me. I hope you feel the same. More details soon...

Siren Song

Here's your mid-week tune, David Gray covering "Song to the Siren" by This Mortal Coil. The crowd's annoying at moments, but they're mostly quiet while he sings. Enjoy:

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My Favorite Things, Part One

Thanks to my guests for writing so well about their favorite things of the year. Now it's my turn. There were several things I didn't get around to this year, most notably -- and most unforgivably -- new novels by Richard Russo and Junot Diaz. But I took in a bunch, too. I spent more time at the movies than I have in years. Sitting down to draw up my list of favorite songs from 2007, I was worried that I hadn't paid enough attention to new music this year, but the list turned out at least as robust as last year's. And since leaving full-time book publishing (for the time being) in July, I've been reading like a madman (though not many things that were released this year). In any event, I'm posting about movies below, various other things tomorrow, and then three particularly favorite things from this year on Thursday.

I'm singling out several movies further along in the list, but it does seem that the industry as a whole deserves some praise this year. In addition to the movies I thought were almost perfect (which together represented the best bumper crop in many years), there are several others I would recommend without reservation: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Savages, I'm Not There, The King of Kong, The Lives of Others. I also had a good time at The Jane Austen Book Club, Diggers, The Host, Juno, The Simpsons Movie, My Kid Could Paint That, 2 Days in Paris, and Knocked Up. And a few terrific performances enhanced otherwise mediocre efforts: Chris Cooper in Breach, Adrien Brody in The Darjeeling Limited, Alfred Molina in The Hoax. And this is with a handful of well-reviewed ‘07 movies having eluded me (so far) -- Gone Baby Gone, There Will Be Blood, Starting Out in the Evening, Grace is Gone, American Gangster, etc.

On to the standout choices:

Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There

Todd Haynes' superficially bizarre but actually kind of conservative take on Dylan just misses my top five of '07. My expectations were pretty low, for various reasons, but I got a real kick out of it. (My full review can be found here.) It's Blanchett who deserves singling out as the Dylan of the mid-1960s, driving the press crazy, cavorting with the Beatles, and maybe losing his own grasp on reality. Her casting was naturally reported as a stunt, and on one level it was, but with an actor of Blanchett's talent, I had a feeling she'd bring more to the role than just playfulness. She did.

Killer of Sheep

Charles Burnett's 1977 film, which he made as his MFA thesis at UCLA, got a long-awaited theatrical release this year. I wrote about it elsewhere, so pardon me while I crib from myself: "Filmed in Watts on a shoestring budget, it unobtrusively captures quiet, desperate lives on crisp black and white stock. The most desperate (and quietest) is Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), whose work at a slaughterhouse leaves him increasingly distant and stunned at home. Watching the movie's early, aimless scenes of Stan's young children playing with others in abandoned lots, it was easy to see Killer of Sheep's visual and tonal influence on David Gordon Green's George Washington, and it's likely that many others were inspired by exposure to Burnett's debut, which has the 'hey, maybe I could do that' quality of all great DIY work. Of course, most people couldn't do it, because it's not just about amateur acting and stripped-down plot (utter lack of plot, to be honest). The details are most important, like the slow, silent dance shared by Stan and his wife to 'This Bitter Earth' by Dinah Washington. It's in such moments that Killer of Sheep earns its reputation as an independent masterpiece."

Emily Blunt in The Jane Austen Book Club

This entire movie really surprised me, and I'd recommend it -- I did recommend it, at length -- but in a strong year for movies, it doesn't quite make the cut. But no matter how strong a year it was for exceedingly attractive women in movies, Blunt's at the head of that class. Mercy. (Well, maybe salutatorian to Ms. Tomei -- more about her later.)

Oh, and she was good, too (as she was last year in The Devil Wears Prada). Her character is saddled with a very unlikely marriage, but she manages to make it feel real and painful.

Ken Marino in Diggers

I don't think Marino's performance was the best of the year, but I'm pretty sure it would run away with Best Performance Per Viewer Who Saw It. (The Oscars should get on that.) As Lozo, one of several Long Island clam diggers whose livelihood is threatened in the mid-'70s, Marino is true to life in ways that movies rarely manage or even attempt -- sympathetic, rude, funny, angry, loving ... the list goes on. Diggers takes a little while to get its feet steady, but once it does, it and Marino are well worth seeing.
And now, my four favorite movies of the year in order. I didn't think this was going to turn into a numbered list, but I'm suddenly in the mood:
4. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

The photo at right is of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke. I include it only because I couldn't find one of Marisa Tomei that properly reflects her presence on screen in this movie. The closest I came was something like this.

Eighty-three-year-old director Sidney Lumet made an unlikely but undeniable return to form with Devil, the story of two brothers who plan to knock off their parents' jewelry store. It's the kind of movie where the good guy is sleeping with his brother's wife. Full of bad intentions, even worse outcomes, and great use of its New York setting, Devil was the best throwback of the year. With grainier film (and with less narrative hopping around in time), it could be mistaken for something from the golden age of American cinema in the 1970s. And as good as Hoffman is (he was also great in The Savages), Hawke's equally worthy of an Oscar nomination.

3. Michael Clayton

It was a strong year for carefully crafted movies, and Michael Clayton is an example of it. Tight performances from a stellar cast, steady camera work, consistency of tone, edited down to the essentials, with an ending that's completely Hollywood without making you feel an ounce of guilt for lapping it up. I haven't given the Oscars much thought yet, but a Best Picture nomination would only seem right, and I'm not sure Clooney wouldn't be my favorite for Best Actor.

Screenplay and Supporting Actor nominations would be in order, too. As the emotionally unbalanced Man Who Knows Too Much, Tom Wilkinson begins the movie with a voice-over set to pans of an eerily empty office building. He doesn't emerge again for a while, but when he does, he's every bit Clooney's equal.

The movie also features, for nerds interested in such things, a remarkably grown-up Robert Prescott, who played Val Kilmer's nerdy nemesis, Kent, in Real Genius.

2. No Country for Old Men

With artists like the Coen brothers, it's reasonable to fear that early, trailblazing work will be slowly replaced by uninspired, dutiful effort, and the Coens' career arc up to 2007 pushed that fear from reasonable to nearly bulletproof. But No Country stands clearly as one of their best. Fittingly, for such legendarily exacting filmmakers, not one element can be singled out as a weak link -- the acting, writing, cinematography, direction, and sound combine to rivet you from the ominous beginning to the radically understated end. I wrote about No Country at greater length here. I'd say it and the next movie on the list are close to a dead heat for the two best I saw this year, but while Oscar is likely to acknowledge the Coens' brilliance -- fine by me -- the next on the list might be a different story.

1. Ratatouille

Say what you will about Pixar movies, about the trends in animation, about movies that star vermin. The fact is, in a culture increasingly dominated by products for children -- and by that I mean Hannah Montana, yes, but also Deal or No Deal, CSI:Miami, and any number of other things for "grown-ups," har har -- Ratatouille is something that lavishly rewards adult attention. I'm sure kids would get a kick out of it, too, but I'm 33 and childless, and to my mind it featured three of the year's most astonishing scenes. The first involves Remy, our hero, scurrying through underground tunnels and finally reaching a rooftop, from which he (and we) can see the entirety of glittering Paris. It's stunning. The second involves a stuffy (to put it mildly) food critic, who, upon first eating the titular dish, is sent back in his memory to a defining moment of childhood. (My friend Sarah wrote very well about this scene for you last week.) The third comes not long after the second, when the critic -- voiced by Peter O'Toole! -- reads aloud his review of the meal, which review says more about artistry and criticism than most other dozen movies combined.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Waiting for My Faves

OK, OK, stop hounding me. Enough with the e-mails, and the picketers, and the cameramen following me to the deli across the street. You'll have my favorite things of 2007 soon enough. They're actually going up in pieces -- one installment tomorrow (on movies), one the next day (on everything else), and a "top three" on Thursday. Then the blog might get some beauty rest for a while. We'll see. But the next few days will be busy with those and other treats, so please stick around.

Bumblin' & Stumblin'

I really believe that for a certain brand of political geek, Bill Clinton's appearance on Charlie Rose the other night will represent Hillary's campaign jumping the shark.

Bill's always struck me as sharp, self-aware, and full of more crap than a circus elephant. Unfortunately, the latter quality was the only one on display as he sat across from Rose. Of course he was going to argue for Hillary's chances. It's something about which the candidate's husband should be up front -- of course he's stumping for her. Of course he's going to make arguments against the other hopefuls. As a former President, he may feel some awkwardness about having to check his diplomacy at the door, but so be it. Logic demands that he do it.

But -- surprise, surprise -- instead of just coming out and stating his opinions, Clinton talked in circles all night. He was mostly attacking Obama, implying that Hillary has far greater experience making real change in "other people's lives." That's about as specific as he got. Speaking of his own thoughts about running in '88, he said, "I knew in my bones that I shouldn't run; that I was a good enough politician to win, but I didn't think I was ready to be president."

Got that, Barack?

Give me a break. He spoke again and again about the dangers of someone deciding to run for president during their first term as senator. Well, as a reader of Andrew Sullivan's put it:
To that, I would answer: In 1860, when the country elected Abraham Lincoln, (he) had served just a single term in the House of Representatives. I'm not saying that Obama is Lincoln, but Lincoln's example shows that a president's good judgment and mental flexibility is more important than years logged in Congress. I for one am grateful that Stephen Douglas (the most "experienced" candidate in 1860) was not President of the United States during the Civil War.
What struck me most was how tentative Clinton was in trying to say the right thing for the campaign, but how clearly he likes Obama. I think that, deep down, he probably loves him. At one point, in a telling lead-up to a criticism, Clinton described him as "a compelling, incredibly attractive, highly intelligent symbol of transformation." Hmm. Sounds terrible. Where do I sign up for Hillary? At another point, he referred to Obama's "massive political skills," and we all know how highly Bill values those.

But mostly, he was forced to make attacks that were exceedingly vague and disingenuous. You can see an eight-minute clip below. Just imagine two or three times more than that, and you get the picture. It was painful. Shameful. Other kinds of -ful. If you hear a single clear reason to vote for Hillary over Obama in particular during this clip, let me know. And he's supposed to be a great communicator.

Brian and Snoop

Last Friday morning, I heard a remarkable interview on NPR. It was conducted by Brian Lehrer, who was talking to Felicia Pearson, who plays the relatively small but riveting role of "Snoop" on The Wire, the best show in the history of shows. The character of Snoop (which is Pearson's nickname in real life, too) has always scared the living hell out of me. Her androgynous look and gravel voice make her easily mistaken for a man, but it's the dead tone of that voice and her general demeanor that make the performance so chilling.

She was on Lehrer's show to talk about the show, and to promote her new memoir, Grace After Midnight. It was a comfort just to hear Pearson laugh during the interview. She actually seems like a good-natured person, which is somewhat miraculous given her background. Born a crack-addicted baby in Baltimore, she went to prison at 14 for shooting a girl in self-defense. (The girl died.) Her answer to one of Lehrer's questions about the experience is hard to argue with:
You write about how prison changed you. How did prison change you?

Because I don't like nobody tellin' me what to do. You know, "Lay down." "Go to sleep." Like, who likes prison?

For most of the interview, there's a disconnect between guest and host, but it's mostly charming and in the background. (When Pearson says, "You follow me?" and the uber-geeky Lehrer responds, "I do," it's a tiny but classic moment.) Then, as was probably inevitable, there's a culture-clash moment between the New York NPR studio and the Baltimore streets:
You also come out in the book as a lesbian. How are you viewed in real life as a gay woman in the gang world, which is dominated by straight men?

I mean, they accept me. Straight men...if they don't get along with me, they don't like what I like. They homos. You know, so ... I get along with everybody.

Now wait a minute, you're talking about being accepted as a lesbian, but you just used "homos" as an insult.

No, that ain't no insult. Straight men is (I can't make out what she says here) with what I'm doin'. Straight men is supposed to love women, and I love women. So, if they hatin' on me, they don't love women. So they homos. You understand what I'm sayin'?

I guess.

(Pearson laughs)

I'm not sure.
Both guests handled it well (Pearson's laugh near the end couldn't sound more innocent), and you get the sense that Pearson does mean something further that she doesn't have the time or rhetorical skill to flesh out, but it still jolted like the scratch on a record. In a good way. I was most disappointed to find this comment written by a listener on Lehrer's site:
Brian -- Not a very interesting interview, was it? I enjoy Snoop's character on The Wire, and more power to her for doing a book and telling her story. But the fact is, she really had nothing to say on your show. Perhaps this is the peril of us white progressives getting all excited over finding an "authentic" celebrity voice -- the voice may be authentic, but that doesn't mean it's saying anything. (But at least she says it in that great Baltimore accent.)
I wholeheartedly agree about the accent part. As for the rest of it, my problem is less with the tone (he identifies as a "white progressive," so I'm assuming he's not trying to bait other commenters into a full-fledged racial brawl) than with his failure to get something out of the interview just because Pearson isn't verbally dazzling. Take this excerpt:
How about you, are you political?


You followin' the presidential race?


You got a candidate?

Not yet. I'm still undecided right now.

What are you political about, certain issues?

Uh, when you're incarcerated and you come home and try to vote. Yes, I'm one of those. You know, I'm tryin' to vote.
This might not win the Evelyn Waugh Award for Outstanding Conversation, but I found it heartbreaking and illuminating. Here's Lehrer -- and I'm a fan of his -- trying to draw out Pearson's views on certain issues because she describes herself as political, and there's Pearson clarifying that, for her, "political" means trying to get a foothold in the larger system. She's not a policy wonk, she's an ex-con tentatively trying to hold her life together.

I recommend listening to the whole thing here. And here's a brief visual clip of the show, capped by her departure from the studio as they play the theme song to The Wire:

Sunday, December 16, 2007


Juno feels like two movies. The first is quite annoying, and lasts for about 30 minutes. In this movie, the talented Ellen Page is shackled with a title character that the script, in the accurate words of the person I saw it with, "sells way too hard." Juno is a 16-year-old -- in Minnesota, I believe -- who is pregnant from the one time she had sex with her goofy, lovable friend Paulie (Michael Cera). But even more important than her condition is the fact that Juno won't shut up. In order to make sure we don't mistake her for anything but a saucy, smart, disaffected young thing, the script (written by Diablo Cody, a self-proclaimed "sheltered, suburban geek" who wrote a book about her time as a stripper, a venture she evidently undertook to prove how saucy she is) doesn't allow her to get through a single sentence -- whether it be to a friend, a parent, or an abortion adviser -- without some wise-ass flourish on the end of it. She makes references to things that even sarcastic 16-year-olds probably wouldn't know or care about -- ThunderCats is on the "slightly believable" end of this spectrum; Soupy Sales is on the "entirely unbelievable" one. I read at least one review that said the dialogue comes across as what a 30-something thinks a 16-year-old sounds like. For the most part, I agree.

Juno also does ridiculously quirky things, like taking her family's living room furniture and setting it up on Paulie's lawn, where she delivers the news from an armchair. That idea makes Wes Anderson look like a realist. Ugh. And even though Juno worships hard-edged punk rockers from the 1970s, the movie insists on backing her every movement in these opening scenes with a spineless, faux-naive brand of folk that could drive one to homicide (songs provided by the cloying Kimya Dawson). After the first act, I was prepared to eventually leave the theater feeling terribly old, and to give this generation of viewers their version of Rushmore if their version of it was going to stink this badly.

Somewhat miraculously, the second movie, which lasts about an hour, is pretty great. It helps that the focus pulls back a bit from Juno to include several fully imagined supporting characters. Her father and stepmother (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) help her through the process, including an initial meeting with Vanessa and Mark (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), the wealthy couple that hopes to adopt the baby once it's born. In getting to know Juno (she periodically reappears at the couple's McMansion to show them sonogram results or to watch old slasher flicks with Mark), Mark remembers a few youthful dreams he's left behind. Their relationship could have been embarrassing and unconvincing, but Bateman and Page make it one of the movie's most appealing charms. There's still a lingering thought that Cody is trying awfully hard to sound hip through her teenage conduit, but she does end up crafting a climax and denouement that gently places every character where you might expect them to land.

If Cody had just pruned her heroine's Dennis Miller-like penchant for cultural references by at least a third, the movie would have benefited. When Juno runs into Vanessa at a mall, and says that some people believe a baby in the womb can hear you speaking, we don't really need the "even though it's like, 10,000 leagues under the sea" tagger. Juno seems like an ultimately decent kid, one who would turn off the smarm from time to time. Page isn't responsible for this flaw -- once Cody's overly eager script gets out of her way, she's phenomenal, deserving of the buzz that preceded the movie's release by several months. Cera's disarming performance as Paulie is never overly relied on, but allowed to pop in at just the right moments, so that his appearances in the final scenes with Page have a fresh power. In fact, the final 45 minutes of Juno constituted one of my better experiences at a theater in 2007, even in a strong year for movies. Or, as the Daily Racing Form might sum it up: Stumbled at the gate, finished clear.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A Few of Your Favorite Things: Movies, Tennis, A Horse Race, and Institutional Foolishness

The guest below doesn't focus on just one thing. In fact, he doesn't even focus on just the purely good, offering two things he felt were "so bad they were good." I usually rule the blog with an iron fist. But what can I say...he's my dad.
I can't reduce a year to a single best thing until I hit the Powerball lottery, so I will cover two subjects ... movies and sports.

To begin, three "bests" at the movies:

1) Michael Clayton and the incredible performance of George Clooney.
2) Gone Baby Gone and the transformation of Ben Affleck from an actor who never quite arrived to a director with a future.
3) No Country for Old Men, where the Coen brothers set the atmosphere of unrelenting menace early on with the simple crunch of Josh Brolin's boot on the hardscrabble Texas ground at a grisly murder scene.

Now, sports -- with a preface. The preface being that, although baseball is my favorite sport, any year that finds the Red Sox succeeding and the Yankees failing doesn't permit me to find any "bests" in the national pastime. The Colts' Super Bowl win was pedestrian, ditto the Spurs' victory in June. So I am left with these moments:

1) Federer over Nadal at Wimbledon. It seemed inevitable that numbers one and two would face off again after Nadal's victory in the French Open. Federer was heavily favored on the slicker grass surface, but Nadal had him at the brink before succumbing late. It was a perfect example of two great athletes in their prime playing a widely anticipated match that actually exceeded the expectations.

2) This year's Breeders' Cup Classic brought together the five very best thoroughbreds in the country in a showdown race that would decide the horse of the year. After two days of drenching rain, the sun emerged just before the start of the Classic, and it was a thrill to see Curlin leave Street Sense behind and set sail for the front-running Hard Spun. When he passed him easily and coasted to the wire, there was no doubt as to the best horse of 2007. The fact that I had a small wager on the winner was icing on the cake.

3) What is the name by which the Trinity University lateral play will be known? It had to be seen to be believed, and even then you had to wonder if it was a digital concoction served up as a hoax. It turned out to be real, and has eclipsed the Cal-Stanford “band” play as the strangest in football history.

Finally, we have all heard the phrase "it was so bad it was good," so I'm going to include two things in 2007 sports that were awful, but so awful that they were good.

I'll start with the more recent of the two selections. The 2007 college football season was terrific and unprecedented, as improbable schools like Southern Florida, Boston College and Missouri flirted with the highest ranking in the land and then fell back. The tone was set early, in September, when word spread that a school named Appalachian State defeated the mighty Michigan Wolverines, and it was reinforced a few weeks later when Stanford, a 43-point underdog, stunned top-ranked USC. What a year! A year that cried for a playoff to determine a champion, when 16 teams in a field could each have a plausible shot at a championship. A year, alas, when some sportswriters, coaches and computer guys will continue to make decisions that should only be made on the field. The fact that the NCAA seems to have no interest in developing a structure for determining a national football champion in Division I, a structure that, incidentally, is in place for every other collegiate sport in every division, is incomprehensible. It has always been ludicrous, but in this year of incredible upsets and real parity, it has arrived at the point of being "so bad it's good."

Finally, the NBA playoffs. After 90+ games in a grueling season, the championship appeared to rest on who advanced from the Western Conference matchup between San Antonio and Phoenix. The games were tense and emotions ran high. Near the end of Game 4, an incident took place in which Steve Nash, the leader of the Suns, was rammed into the scorer's table by a frustrated Robert Horry. As Nash fell to the floor, several of his teammates rose from the bench and edged toward the floor. Cooler heads prevailed, Nash picked himself up, and the game ended with no escalation of the incident. As it turned out, Amare Stoudemire, the Suns' star center, had set foot on the playing court when he got up from the bench. He never approached the immediate scene of the foul, didn't make a fist or threatening gesture, and appeared to make no incendiary comment. Commissioner David Stern, however, quoting from the precise language of a rule designed to prevent brawls, elected to ignore the spirit of the law and stuck to the letter, which required that Stoudemire be suspended from playing the next game. So it was that the NBA title was decided in a posh New York office by a short old guy in a suit. Stern should star in the first chapter if a sequel is written to The Death of Common Sense.

--Jake Williams

A Few of Your Favorite Things: A Taste of Home Courtesy of Patrick Swayze, Usher, and R. Kelly

June 7: My life as a cog in the military-industrial complex constructed by our Republican overlords begins. As most world conflict occurs near sand and/or oil, my new gig required a two-week "why they hate you" orientation trip to the UAE. Two weeks ballooned to more than five months, and was topped with the cherry of an all-expenses-paid two-month vacation to lovely Afghanistan. Before I could blink, I was staring at a Thanksgiving Camel and gulab jamun pie. During that time, television, as you might imagine, was limited for my non-Hindi/Dari/Arabic-speaking self, thus it was no surprise to one night find myself watching the 1989 classic, Next of Kin.

For those luckily not in the know, Next of Kin finds Patrick Swayze as a reformed hillbilly who's now a Chicago cop. As heroes are wont to do, he convinces his little brother (Bill Paxton) to also make the transition from Green Acres, and as fortune would have it, the little brother dies in a mob heist gone wrong. Swayze must bring the killers to justice before his hillbilly roots (personified by a mulleted Liam Neeson) rise up and do it for him.

I was sitting through this tripe, watching a fight between Neeson and Swayze -- which I knew would end in a resolution of family strength and brotherhood -- and a wave of peace and serenity enveloped me. I realized that life simply had no meaning whatsoever.

This type of epiphany is difficult to verbalize, but watching this movie -- including Ben Stiller impersonating an '80s night-club act, while knowing that he would emerge many years later as one of the highest paid actors in history -- I realized that actions must have no consequence. Nothing I do in this world will have any lasting imprint. Life is short, and while I may be a catastrophic f***-up in nearly every aspect of it, historians will not be able to easily trace my effects on this planet back to me. It might sound depressing, but in that moment, it felt mighty fine.

August 7: If television options are slim in Dubai, in Kabul they're non-existent. Deciding between Fox News and According to Jim can be trying, indeed. The silver lining? During breaks in the shows, instead of advertisements instructing you to buy products that will get you laid, music videos are shown. (Yes, some of which seem to be telling you how to get laid.) Now, while I may shove a hot poker in my eye before I watch Rihanna's "Umbrella" again, one particular video caught and kept my attention every time.

Lyrically, "Same Girl," a duet by R. Kelly and Usher, is a tale of treachery and deceit. But the video tells another story. As the song begins, R. Kelly calls Usher to inform him of a shorty that has him considering marriage. Usher, obviously happy for his friend and his new boo, listens intently as Kells describes her: she's an attractive, Coke-bottle-shaped, Durango-with-a-vanity-plate-driving woman who goes by "TT." She has an ankle tattoo and a house on Peachtree and 17th. Usher's stomach drops and concern crawls across his face. He inquires if, in addition to the aforementioned qualities, she is a single mother who loves Waffle House, graduated from Georgia Tech, and works at TBS. Kelly confirms all. Usher realizes that, as the title alludes, they are peeing, er, seeing the same girl. Not having it, the men plan revenge.

After watching several episodes of 70's sitcoms, Usher invites the girl to dinner, where R. Kelly is waiting to serve today's special: Comeuppance. As the girl walks in, Usher and Kelly rub their hands and twirl their mustaches only to watch as she splits "Doublemint style" into twins. They were not messing with the same damn girl after all -- which makes no sense within the context of the song, but alleviates any pain and embarrassment. Usher pops a Mentos into his mouth and smiles at the camera while we fade to black. (Just kidding about the Mentos part.) During my stay in Afghanistan, I saw this video at least four times a day. Every time was like a blessing from god.

--Jason Wiseman

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Few of Your Favorite Things: A 26-Mile Mardi Gras

This year, I ran the New York City marathon. It was my first marathon ever, and I had no idea what to expect. My training had been about as diligent as Bud Selig’s anti-steroid enforcement, and I was in just about the worst shape of my life. I was terrified.

The morning of the marathon, I rode the ferry across to Staten Island, and as I looked back at Manhattan, it occurred to me that I was only getting farther and farther from the finish line. I questioned the logical supportability, the plain sensibleness, of traveling an hour and a half by four different modes of mass transit (taxi, subway, ferry, bus) only to return on foot. But, as I often do, I felt a kind of thrill to be flying in the face of reason -- not in a Jackass kind of way (not this time, at least); more in a "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" kind of way (minus the wimple). Mostly, I just hoped I wouldn't get hurt.

Not long after the descent into Brooklyn, though, after the long, lonely slog across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, my fears were displaced by my fascination with the crowd. Rock bands were set up outside of stores playing the themes from Chariots of Fire and Rocky on electric guitars. Little Spanish kids lined up next to their brothers and sisters with their hands outstretched for high-fives. A high school band played in Fort Greene. Gospel groups sang outside of their churches. A group of nuns (pictured; clicking to enlarge is recommended) in the Bronx stood outside their rectory ringing communion bells. A woman in a wheelchair in East Harlem cheered us on in a Statue of Liberty costume. Sloshed twentysomethings clotted the sidewalks outside of bars on First Avenue, cheering for the sake of cheering. Random people offered hard candies and bananas and pretzels to keep us going. (I clung to one of those pretzels as if for dear life for the last three miles.)

I'm sure the physical exertion had something to do with it, but all that simple effusion of joy and enthusiasm came to seem kind of pure and transcendent, and it's what I remember more clearly than the three middle toes on my left foot going numb or the weird feeling that may or may not have been pain in my knee. Maybe that's what's meant by a runner's high. Regardless, it was the most fun I've ever had. Much of it had nothing to do with athletic performance or personal achievement or camaraderie among fellow runners. The fun was in seeing the city, block by block, hour after hour (after hour, after hour, after hour) thronged with cheering strangers. It was like an incredibly wholesome and lucid Mardi Gras. I can’t wait till next year.

--Patricia Fernandez

A Few of Your Favorite Things: The Year's Warmest Movie

There were better films in 2007 (better performances, scripts, and direction), but no movie flattened me with the warm fuzzies like Waitress, a magical-realist tale about a pregnant waitress carrying a child she doesn't want, in an abusive relationship she can't bear, and in love with an obstetrician (Nathan Fillion) she can't have. And it's a comedy. It's kind of kooky, whimsical, earnest but not dumb, sweet but not syrupy, and features Andy Griffith -- of all people -- as the curmudgeonly voice of reason who manages to play against type while simultaneously bringing that magical Mayberry charm to a pie diner. But it's Keri Russell who sells it, who seeps under your skin and floods you with a thaumaturgical glow. Waitress is not a movie you watch; it's a movie you feel. I wasn't particularly familiar with director Adrienne Shelley before, but watching a film filled with so much hope and verve only a few months after her unfortunate death was a strange experience, filled with both sadness and absolute delight.

--Dustin Rowles

A Few of Your Favorite Things: A Swimmin' (and Divin') Hole

Place names in the Adirondacks tend to fall into one of three categories: There are the ordinal names (Eleventh Mountain, Thirteenth Lake), the first-resident names (Lake George, Elizabethtown), and the thing-that-was-there-when-the-place-got-named names (Loon Lake, Garnet Hill, Crane Mountain). The names aren’t clever, mostly, but I like to think that’s because the places they refer to were settled by people too rugged and practical to get fancy about things – people for whom the word “branding” would have suggested nothing that didn’t involve hot metal on a cow. There is the occasional inspired, evocative one, though — like Paradox, or Lake Tear of the Clouds, where the Hudson starts. Or my favorite, and favorite thing this year: the Black Hole.

The Black Hole is a very deep spot on a fast-moving stream called Mill Creek (a Category Two name), which runs through Warren County, New York, about five miles from where I was born. It’s an ideal swimming-and-diving hole, a spot so perfect that alien visitors would be able to deduce from its existence not just the human practice of swimming and diving but the human practice of Mountain Dew commercials. It’s flanked on both sides by 12- or 13-foot cliffs, and has cold and seemingly bottomless water. It really does look black, at least from the top of the cliff, but this is not what gives the name resonance. The important part — the irresistibly attractive part, the one that justifies the other sense of “Black Hole” — is that some years ago, somebody ran a length of steel cable from a tree on one side to a tree on the other and fixed a rope swing to a spot in the middle. The rope hooks at the bottom to a bent spike in a tree, and if you loosen it, grab on above your head, and pull your knees up, it will fling you out into midair and deposit you about fifteen feet above the water, from which point you can drop down and forget about everything in the world for a few seconds, until the water slaps against your legs and then sucks you in.

My parents say that I used to go swimming there when I was a kid, but I don’t remember, and in any case I’m sure I was too little to get on the rope. I didn’t try the swing until just a few years ago, when my girlfriend and I starting renting cars on the weekend and driving up whenever we could. The first time, there were a bunch of local teenagers there, lean county kids in cutoffs and baseball hats who’d set their beers down and launch themselves into looping backflips, landing as close to the rocky shallows on the other side of the pool as they could get. They were leaving as we were coming in, so after about fifteen minutes we had the place to ourselves and could take our time summoning the courage to try a swing. I’m not sure I can explain how good it felt. For other New Yorkers, the best analogy I can offer is to the feeling you get when your cab is stuck in traffic for a long time and then you finally get loose and out onto the West Side Highway and the air starts rushing in the window. We go now every time we’re up there; a visit isn’t complete without it. Once we even took the host of this blog (I’ll leave it to him to tell you how he did). If you’re ever in the Adirondacks, you should stop by. It’s not hard to find — right between Johnsburg and the Town of Chester.

--Nick Trautwein

A Few of Your Favorite Things: A Fight Scene

One of the things I loved about The Bourne Identity (2002) was the fight scenes. Instead of quick cuts, unnecessary close-ups, and hard angles that obscured the action taking place on screen, director Doug Liman let the camera just sit back to capture the intricate and inventive combat. Naturally, they brought in a new director for The Bourne Supremacy (2004) -- Paul Greengrass -- and he got rid of all that. Whenever any action occurred in Supremacy, the cameraman would suddenly develop some combination of Parkinson's, coffee jitters, and attention deficit disorder. The camera would zoom in and out, shaking so violently that it was difficult to tell what was happening, and a lot of good choreography ended up hidden behind an amateurish attempt to create excitement. Greengrass was back for this year's The Bourne Ultimatum, and the shaky camera and quick cuts with him. But despite my dislike for how much of it was shot, Ultimatum did feature one of the few movie moments in 2007 that elicited genuine Wows from the theater audience. A bad guy is stalking Julia Stiles, and Bourne is stalking the bad guy, culminating in one of the best fight scenes in memory.

--Matt Miller

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Few of Your Favorite Things: An Australian Sweep

I thought for a while about what my best thing of 2007 was. Naturally, given the focus of John's series here, my thoughts turned first to movies. Not books, because most of the books I read this year haven't been of this year but of years further back, and many of them way further back. But movies, yes, OK. Heading for the top spot was this one, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others, when it dawned on me that, if I'm honest, my really best cultural experience of 2007 wasn't actually a movie, it was a game.

From the 2nd to the 5th of January this year I was at the Sydney Cricket Ground watching the final Test of the five-game series played between England and Australia for the Ashes. Australia had won the first four Tests and were heading for a probable 5-0 whitewash. Two of the all-time greats of the game, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, were making their last appearances, having both announced their retirement from international cricket at the end of the series. A 5-0 scoreline between these two countries hadn't happened in over 80 years. Australia is my team. So the SCG was the place to be; it was the place to be for me.

On the final day, after Australia had won, there was a real party at the ground, and that was good to be there for, too. Later, in the early evening, I am with friends at a seafood restaurant in Sydney, The Boathouse, and Luke, who is as happy about the outcome as I am, explains to us that he goes to the Sydney Test every year. It starts the day after New Year's day; five days later - max - it's over. "It's the highlight of the year," Luke says. "At the beginning of January. From there it's downhill."

My best cultural experience this year was over by January 5th. That's OK. I've been happy about it all year.

--Norman Geras

Programming Note

The thoughtful posts from others will continue later tonight, and for the rest of the week, with the occasional pop-in from yours truly. On Monday, I'll post my own year-end selection of favorites.

(No Wednesday song this week, to keep the focus on my friends.)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

I interrupt my parade of guest writers to bring you my latest review at Pajiba. And just to mix things up, here's a paragraph that I wrote for it but ended up leaving out:
Schnabel said he was drawn to make Diving Bell partly because of his father's difficulty accepting mortality in his last days, and because he himself has "always had a problem with death." Join the club. It's the almost universal fear of not just death but complete lack of control that gives Bauby's story its force. Schnabel occasionally pulls back from the overwhelming nature of the condition to show its more quotidian frustrations, as when a fly lands on Bauby's face while others in the room talk amongst themselves. He stares at the pest with his one good eye (and feels like he's shaking his head to remove it), but the fly may as well have landed on a bowl of fruit for all the danger it feels, and it casually explores his nose until someone else notices and shoos it away.


Is it just me, or does anyone else think that taking the time to glean unintentional messages of bigotry from random license plates is a sign that we're gettting dumber, not smarter?:
The state on Friday said it will now prohibit auto tags that begin with HA8 or H8 to prevent any accidental or intentional messages of hate.
(Via Andrew Sullivan)

A Few of Your Favorite Things: Witches on Stilts

Let's start with the honorable mentions: Fiona Shaw's feat of making sense of every word of Beckett's Happy Days; the Elevator Repair Service's Gatz, the finest stage adaptation of a classic book ever; Omar in The Wire; the one-liners of the underwhelmed Michael Kors. But since a good Macbeth is a rare thing to be treasured, I vote for the exhilaratingly epic and wildly unique production of "Macbeth: Who is that Bloodied Man," an outdoor spectacle by the Polish company Biuro Podrozy that played the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Among its series of dark, virtuoso images are the three witches on stilts surrounded by roaring onstage motorcycles, the charred body of Lady Macbeth underneath fireworks and a wheel barrel of skulls. I'm still having nightmares.

--Jason Zinoman

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Few of Your Favorite Things: A Critic's Revelation

When the curmudgeonly food critic in Ratatouille, Anton Ego, takes his first bite of the film's eponymous dish, drops his pen, and experiences a Proustian flashback to his childhood in rural France (shades of Kane's Rosebud, but let's not go into that here), we the viewers are given indisputable proof that the rat hero of the film has created the ideal art work -- eminently public and profoundly private. Profound seems the apt word here in so many senses. At first bite of the ratatouille, the critic is sent deep within his memory. He rediscovers a sense of himself we are given to believe he has lost, the kernel of himself, something authentic, around which so many layers of life have accrued that he can no longer access it. Until he tastes the ratatouille, which does something to him that only the best works of art can do to anyone--it quite literally changes his mind.

--Sarah Douglas

A Few of Your Favorite Things: An 11-Year-Old Hamlet

Sure, it's almost 2008 and the act of reading an actual book is increasingly passé, but even still I made a sincere effort to read as many new literary releases as possible in 2007. I did a decent job of it, too. Although several titles are worth talking about -- The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, The World Without Us, and I Love You, Beth Cooper are three that spring to mind -- the one that really stood out for me was Matt Haig's The Dead Fathers Club.

Although the premise of The Dead Fathers Club is hardly original (it's a retelling of Hamlet, after all), like the works of Shakespeare it's not so much the originality of the story but the way the story is told that's striking. Philip Noble, the eleven-year-old protagonist, is an amazing kid whose story is so poignant and darkly humorous that I found myself cringing and cheering for him in ways I never did even for the Prince of Denmark. And while the story line is plenty engaging, it's Haig's style that wins you over. In simple and fragmented language, he perfectly captures the voice of a sad, anxiety-ridden boy who is ridiculed by his peers and manages to bravely face impossible expectations.

For Shakespeare fans (or just anyone who was force-fed the Bard during the course of their literary education), it's fun to anticipate how the story will follow its point of inspiration, and although I'd be loath to ruin the ending for anyone, it is a fairly accurate and impressive retelling. Unfortunately, I suspect only a handful of people read it, but I will continue to annoyingly push this book on as many people as I can, because I absolutely loved it. In fact, it was so nice I read it twice.

--Mrs. White

A Few of Your Favorite Things: A Country Singer of the Classic Mold

When I stop to think about it, most of the music I buy isn't new, just new to me. Whether the album is a few years old or a few decades old, I'm not charting any new territory with most of my purchases. The best way to think of it is as a known unknown; e.g., I am familiar with Caitlin Cary, but do not own Begonias. I know the album exists, but it's not part of my collection. So it's a rare and wonderful thing to actually be in on the ground floor (or close to it) with a new artist, and that happened for me this year with Christopher Denny's Age Old Hunger. I found out about Denny from the proprietor of this here blog, and still haven't figured out a way to pay him back. Denny is a country singer-songwriter of the classic mold, spinning simple story songs and listenable melodies and pairing them with his own vibrato tenor in a way that seems to create something wholly new. His cover of Cash's "I Still Miss Someone" is remarkable for how much he makes the song his own, but it's his originals that really blew me away, like the spare "The Stars Above and My Heart In Your Hands" and the downright beautiful "Westbound Train." Denny was an explosion of something new and wonderful in my universe, and I've been pushing him on my friends ever since.

--Dan Carlson

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Few of Your Favorite Things: Japanese Rock

Given what I considered the great success of the project last year, I've again asked some of my readers and friends to write about their favorite cultural object or event of 2007. People tended to write longer this year -- a trend of which I heartily approve -- so I'm presenting them one at a time, as opposed to last year's groups. The author's name appears at the bottom of each post. Enjoy.
My cultural event of the year was reading Julian Cope's book Japrocksampler: How the Post-war Japanese Blew Their Minds on Rock ‘n’ Roll, the aftershocks of which are still being felt with some force and volume around our house. In the introduction, Cope writes: "I guarantee that a detailed study of this book will have you re-thinking your attitudes to music, art, time... indeed, life itself. Yowzah!" The first time I read this, just three calendar months ago, I glossed over it. But I was wrong to do so; this is a factually accurate description of what this book does. It may seem übernerdish to say that a book about obscure Japanese prog-rock can perform a cultural trepanning operation on your Head. But I am only here to report the truth. Hearing some of this music for the first time – Satori by Flower Travellin' Band, for instance, or Magical Power Mako's eponymous debut – is not just a trip in itself, it forces a reevaluation of some of the hoariest old chestnuts on the chestnut tree – Funkadelic, Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, to name but three – making you feel like you're hearing them for the first time, too. It made me look further afield for art whose exclusion from the Canon constitutes a recommendation in itself: Lovecraft, Machen, Huysmans. And it has made me think hard about my uptight, "correct" attitudes to music, art, time... indeed, life itself. Yowzah!

--Andy Miller

What Will Last

In an interview once, Charles Murray said:
I think that the number of novels, songs, and paintings done since 1950 that anyone will still care about 200 years from now is somewhere in the vicinity of zero. Not exactly zero, but close. I find a good way to make this point is to ask anyone who disagrees with me to name a work that will survive -- and then ask, "Seriously?" Very few works indeed can defend themselves against the "Seriously?" question.
One blogger offers a few suggestions of what might last here. Another forum on the subject can be found here, and among many comments, I found this one most amusing:
"We Will Rock You" by Queen will be the only rock song remembered because it has the word "rock" in it and thus can be used as an exemplar of the rock era and lastly it can be sung by a mob.
As for myself, as much as I enjoy making lists and airing my opinion, ideally both at once -- I think it's the Y chromosome -- the addition of historical considerations throws me for a loop. The words "care about" don't exactly help, either. I mean, surely there are many things since 1950 that historians will care about, but does Murray mean that individuals will care about them the way 16-year-olds currently care about Fall Out Boy? If the latter, I think very few things survive 200 years with the ability to inspire that kind of devotion. It will be another 66 years before even Anna Karenina can be judged this way. (I like its chances of maintaining prominence, of course, but I'm just trying to establish the kind of temporal challenge we're discussing.)

I've often said that one of the best, most indicative cultural creations since World War II is The Simpsons, which, for those playing at home, is not a novel, painting, or song. And it's comedy, which probably has the least likely chance to age well. But because its best moments satirize universal human behavior, current cultural behavior, and its own medium (TV), I honestly think it has a chance of surviving if there is enough interest 200 years from now in any of the following: human foibles, late-20th century America, satire, television. I would not take interest in any of those things in 2207 for granted. I would just as easily believe that two centuries hence people will fundamentally differ from what they are today -- at the most, perhaps they'll have synthetically progressed (if that's the word) to resemble the kissing robots in Bjork's great video; at the least, decades of reading little more than the troglodytic comments on YouTube will have left us with all the cultural savvy (and memory) of a possum.

Well, assuming the best, I also believe these things have a shot: Atonement by Ian McEwan, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, the best of The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, and Sam Cooke. Murray left out movies, which seems smart -- picking which of those will survive seems particularly difficult, given the relative youth of the medium. But I'll go out on a limb and say no one will care about anything from Pauly Shore's oeuvre.

(And, oops -- this is via 2 Blowhards, which I forgot to mention originally. This omission is doubly inappropriate because I unwittingly stole their headline for the post, too; though my lack of a question mark is intentional, which ... oh, forget it.)

Today's Animation vs. Classic Illustrations

I'm not sure it damns the entire animation industry in 2007 the way he wants it to, but Stephen Worth has an interesting post about the ways in which CGI animators could learn from more traditional artists. I think Ratatouille, for instance, wouldn't necessarily benefit from this particular style, but surely some deviation from the presiding aesthetic would be refreshing. The post is illustrated with beautiful examples, like this one:

(Via Colby Cosh)

A Blogger Sighting

My guests' favorite things of the year will begin going up later today (maybe tonight), but I spent more of the weekend than normal tangled up on the web, so first a few posts about things I found.

For starters, probably due to the writers' strike, screenwriter and rarely-heard-from blogger Josh Friedman has been posting. Here, he writes about a flood in his house and his attempts to make peace with Joss Whedon. Things start grim:
So my wife is on her third round of antibiotics and her first batch of steroids for what the doctors believe is a sinus infection migrated south to retire permanently in her lungs as bronchitis. My son has awakened us every night for the past two weeks complaining of a recurring nightmare involving a bad man with a tail who lives in a lamp. I have a rash that I don't want to talk about, and my dog has had a recurrence of something that requires its own special canine dermatologist.

So something's up.
And actually, they stay grim, but remain kind of funny, too.