Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Al Gore: Team Player, Fun Guy

On a blog that I contribute to at work -- found here -- my buddy EJ already wrote about this article, which reveals that next season The Simpsons will run an episode parodying literary culture, featuring the voices of Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, and Jonathan Franzen, among others.

I just felt the additional need to draw your attention to the following paragraph. It discusses the eagerness with which celebrities lend their voices to the show:
"The fastest 'yes' I ever received was Elizabeth Taylor," says Bonnie Pietila, the producer in charge of casting. "I hung up the phone after leaving a message and she called back five minutes later." Some celebrities are so eager to appear on the show "that they have a representative call us on a monthly basis," Pietila says. "But we only have 22 episodes each season." Al Gore is one of the few to have turned "The Simpsons" down.
Ah, Al Gore. How did he ever get a reputation for being a stick-in-the-mud? It boggles the mind, doesn't it?

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Gratitude, and a Recommendation

If I'm not premature in celebrating my audio breakthrough, I should give thanks to the friendly blogger at My Old Kentucky Blog, who advised me out of the pure goodness of his heart. You should check it out if you're a music fan. Looks solid.

Let the Bells Ring, Let the Angels Sing, Let Me Annoy You With Sound As Well As Text

OK, stick with me. I'm trying to make it so that I can post audio files to the blog. If successful, we're really through the looking glass here. So, for the test run, I'm posting the Fiona Apple song mentioned in an earlier post below. Click it. See if it works. If it does, rejoice.

Oh Well - Fiona Apple

(OK, I just went and tested it, and it seemed to work. Hmm. First, I imagine I won't keep files up for a long time. Maybe a week or so and then take them down. This should serve as added inspiration -- as if you needed it -- to keep current with the blog. Secondly, I'll try not to let this capability tempt me into making this an even more music-centric endeavor. Thirdly, should I be worried about Fiona Apple's lawyers paying me a visit? I mean, not physically worried, because I imagine they're spindly people. But otherwise worried? Several of you are lawyers, even non-spindly ones; can you either reassure me or, alternately, serve as my counsel?)

mix 3: Songs for (Non-)Believers

I'm not a religious person. Sure, I was an altar boy for a while, and I was confirmed, and I've traded in my former militant atheism for a kinder, gentler holding pattern of agnosticism, but my past and present relationship -- or lack thereof -- with a higher power really warrants its own post (or series of posts, or short series of books). For now, I'll just say that religious devotion, to me, is never more palatable than when it's expressed in song. Since the whole subject is supposed to be about transcendence, and since music seems like arguably the only truly transcendent art form to me, it's a good fit.

Luckily, many modern musicians take a more subtle approach than, say, Stryper -– who, if memory serves, believed strongly in God, and believed strongly that He wanted His children to dress like bumblebees. Or Carrie Underwood, the most recent American Idol winner, whose first single -- if I heard this right -- is sung from the perspective of a woman ceding control of her steering wheel to Jesus as her car careens out of control. Wise move.

(OK, wait, I found the lyrics. These are too classic not to share:
She was driving last Friday on her way to Cincinnati
On a snow white Christmas Eve
Going home to see her Mama and her Daddy with the baby in the backseat
Fifty miles to go and she was running low on faith and gasoline
It's been a long hard year
She had a lot on her mind and she didn't pay attention
She was going way too fast
Before she knew it she was spinning on a thin black sheet of glass
She saw both their lives flash before her eyes
She didn't even have time to cry
She was sooo scared
She threw her hands up in the air

Jesus take the wheel
Take it from my hands
Cause I can't do this all on my own
I'm letting go
Um, me again -- does anyone else think this CD should come with some kind of disclaimer? I’m imagining something like this: “All songs about Carrie Underwood’s savior, Jesus Christ, should be taken metaphorically. In all cases of vehicular danger, particularly those involving infants and not just those occurring on the outskirts of Cincinnati, experts strongly advise that human hands should be kept on the wheel at all times.”)

It turns out that many singers I like incorporate fairly fervent, but much-much-much less strident Christian sentiment in their music. Off the top of my head, and based on various sources, the list includes Rosie Thomas, Denison Witmer, The Innocence Mission, Pedro the Lion, Damien Jurado, Sufjan Stevens -- oh, and then there's Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder. So, here's a group of songs that do more for my spiritual side than a thousand sermons. I'd love suggestions for this list, because I know it's a brief one (and doesn't include more traditional fare), and because my soul can use all the help it can get.

Some of these only qualify because of a line or two. And the Lyle Lovett song is a bit of a red herring to get things started. It does prominently feature God, but only as a counterpoint to the prevailing sentiment. Here's a sample of the lyric, which is great:
Who keeps on trusting you, when you’ve been cheating
and spending your nights on the town?
And who keeps on sayin’ that he still wants you
when you’re through running around?
God does, but I don’t
God will, but I won’t
And that’s the difference between God and me.
OK, I'm babbling. Here's the list:

God Will - Lyle Lovett
God Loves Everyone - Ron Sexsmith
Little Flowers - Denison Witmer
Promise - Pedro the Lion
In the Lord’s Arms - Ben Harper
Full Force Gale - Van Morrison
In the Sun - Joseph Arthur
You and Me - Rosie Thomas
Angel Doves - Mindy Smith
Spiritual - Spain

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A Strong Opinion About Something I'm Incapable of Even Comprehending

About eight years ago, John Horgan stirred up controversy with his book The End of Science, in which he posits -- and I'm broadly summarizing here -- that all the major scientific discoveries have been made, and that most revelations still to come will simply be filling in the details of those discoveries. It seemed clear to me reading it that Horgan deeply respects the scientific process and community, but many within that community chided him for suggesting that their discipline would never again be quite as revelatory as when Newton considered the apple, or Einstein cracked relativity, or the people at Pringles learned to neatly stack potato chips in a silo. Well, the first two, anyway.

Horgan's method was to interview scientists across many disciplines, and he relates much of what they say word for word. I told a friend, who had also read it, that while I certainly didn't think science had outlived its usefulness (and needless to say, I think it would grossly misrepresent Horgan to say he felt that way), it did seem that certain scientific practitioners were moving closer to having things in common with religion -- generating grand Theories of Everything that were running laughably far ahead of whatever foundation might exist for them.

Of course, I know as much about string theory as you do (which is nothing, unless my readership has drastically changed), but it does strike me as not just untestable, but so arbitrarily bizarre in its assumptions -- requiring different numbers of space-time dimensions, for instance, depending on whether or not certain currently imaginary elements exist -- that pleas to accept it begin to sound like evangelism. This is only my deeply unscientific instinct, and it's quite possible that string theory will lead to a major, provable breakthrough before long, but it seems that at least some people much smarter than me are beginning to introduce some healthy skepticism to the proceedings.

Then last night, I saw Stephen Colbert interview Brian Greene on Comedy Central. Greene is the author of The Elegant Universe, the bestselling book that brought string theory to a much larger audience when it was published five years ago. Unlike guests of Ali G, it seems Colbert's interview subjects know they're on a satirical program, and Greene was great, explaining things as best he could while fully appreciating Colbert's glib rejoinders. This was the funniest exchange, after Colbert said that he finds the idea of being descended from a monkey distasteful:
Greene: Well, what we've come to learn is that the universe doesn't care about your tastes.

Colbert: I don't care about the universe. The feeling is mutual.
But an equally funny -- and more instructive, for my purposes -- moment was this, after Greene admitted that string theory is currently untestable:
Colbert: So, you can just say things and not have to prove it. What's that like?


Monday, November 28, 2005

AP What Have We Done to Deserve This? Headline of the Day

What Madonna Really Wants to Do Is Direct


Friday, November 25, 2005

Will the Real Parade Float Please Stand Up, Please Stand Up, Please Stand Up?

Thanksgiving was a big success -- heartwarming family time and all that, including a Scrabble game won by yours truly in very cheap fashion (scored big with "IQ" and "aw" at the end of the game to come from behind; I think I left just before the other participants organized an angry mob with torches).

Best moment of the day, though, came when my mother picked me up from the train station and notified me that there had been an accident at the Thanksgiving Day Parade. (Since everyone seems to be OK, it's fine to joke about this. Right? And refreshingly, according to the Washington Post, the father of the girls says the family won't sue, because it was "a freak accident," and "accidents just happen.")

Mom told me it was an M&M float that did the damage, and I jokingly asked if it was a float of the rapper Eminem. (I'm funny that way.) It turned out that was Mom's first thought when she heard the news. Leave aside the horrifying cultural ramifications of my Mom having replaced the delicious chocolate candies in her brain with someone who, if she heard even a line or two of his work, would send her into septic shock. I assured her that Western Civilization hadn't yet deteriorated to the point where the normal child-friendly floats like Dora the Explorer, Chicken Little, and Kermit the Frog had given way to an aggressively vulgar rapper. But I do think it would have been the funniest moment in New York history if parade organizers had bowed to pressure and allowed an Eminem float, only to have that float injure an 11-year-old girl in a wheelchair. Agreed?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Oddjack: RIP

It seems that Oddjack, a gambling blog that's part of the Gawker Media empire, is being terminated on Dec. 2.

I've enjoyed my visits to the site, so I'm sorry to see it go.

In the fishbowl NY piece reporting the site's fate, Gawker founder Nick Denton says: "A.J. Daulerio, the editor, is a trooper, and an amusing writer, but the audience was never there." The piece goes on to say that "According to Gawker traffic statistics ... Oddjack had 420,000 pageviews and about 180,000 visitors during its peak traffic month of September."

Wow - 180,000 visits and you've got trouble? I think if you remove the four zeros you're closer to my traffic number. Good thing I'm not owned by Gawker.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Stuffing (But Were Afraid to Ask)

The New York Times has a stunningly detailed obituary today, under this headline:
Ruth M. Siems, Inventor of Stuffing, Dies at 74
Like you, my first thought was: Someone invented stuffing? And if so, the person who did just died? It seemed like the equivalent of reading that the inventor of paper had passed.

It turns out that the good folks at General Foods (led by Ms. Siems) are the creators, selling it under the Stove Top brand starting in 1972. (Sorry to be so amazed, really, but I'm only two years younger than stuffing?!)

The obit goes on to read like a paid advertisement:
Comforting or campy, Stove Top stuffing is an enduring emblem of postwar convenience culture. Its early advertising tag line, "Stuffing instead of potatoes?" remains in the collective consciousness.
Ah, yes, nary a day goes by that the phrase doesn't flutter into my consciousness unbidden.

That's nothing, though. Check out this fevered pitch (again, this is the Times staffer writing this):
Stove Top's premise is threefold. First, it offers speed.

Second, it divorces the stuffing from the bird, sparing cooks the nasty business of having to root around in the clammy interior of an animal.

Third, it frees stuffing from the yoke of Thanksgiving; it can be cooked and eaten on a moment's notice any day of the year.
I have to give the writer, Margalit Fox, a lot of credit (I mean, a ton of credit) for that entire second paragraph, especially the concluding turn of phrase -- "the nasty business of having to root around in the clammy interior of an animal." But I hope she gets the help she needs if her diet includes stuffing "on a moment's notice any day of the year."


iPod of Plenty

I’ve discovered something quite strange about maintaining a blog. If I haven’t updated for a few days, I go to the site expecting to see new material, as if someone else would’ve updated it for me.

Alas, it’s up to me to keep this fresh (or less stale, as the case may be). But in addition to the impending holiday, I’ve been distracted by putting my music collection onto my computer and then my iPod. When you combine my obsessive-compulsive tendencies with my bone-deep music geekdom, the whole project is a bit dizzying. It’s probably not wise to try to transfer the contents of 600 CDs in just a few days, but I’m doing my damnedest. Send water.

It turns out that bringing an iPod into my life has made me reassess some of my foundational thinking – about things like singles vs. albums, guilty pleasures, and even gratification vs. longing.

In college, Ray and I were fairly adamant about the primacy of the cohesive album. (If you don’t know who Ray is yet, start taking better notes. And if my constant switching between “record,” “album,” and “CD” drives you crazy, tell me what the hell you call it these days.) By allowing you to deselect certain songs from albums, not to mention its shuffle function, the iPod is the culmination of a long series of events that sorely tests that primacy. It might be true that the increasingly singles-driven music culture has produced a disinterest in cohesion, but I think it still exists in traces, and I hope when I come across it – like Trouble by Ray LaMontagne or Original Pirate Material by The Streets – I’ll listen to it continuously on the iPod, at least for a while, as I would on my stereo.

As for guilty pleasures, they once existed mostly on the periphery of consciousness. Many of them fell under the umbrella of what I call “bodega music,” those radio-friendly hits that you would never admit to liking but don’t mind tapping your foot to while shopping for milk. There was never any danger that the next day you would spend $17 for the CD – or even $5 or $6 for the single. Now, though, for just 99 cents, you can bring the bodega home. And you don’t even have to face the shame of handing the product to the music-snob cashier. It’s a terrifying but instructive experience to stare at iTunes and linger over whether to buy “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson. (Why are you lingering? No one’s watching. Just click, you coward!) My feeling is that the new technology will render the whole idea of guilty pleasures a thing of the past. With such easy access, and with the ability for friends to scroll through your oeuvre – thus keeping the bodega music in context – why feel guilt?

(Of course, don’t listen to me – I still feel guilt. Lots of it. And not just about songs.)

It’s been a thrill to have an excuse to listen to a lot of music I haven’t turned to in ages, but I also feel a gnawing sense of fear. Having all of this at my fingertips, at all times, seems potentially overwhelming. I’ve always strongly believed – the way I strongly believe in many clichés – that having what you want when you want will not just fail to make you happy, but might drive you insane. There’s the school of delayed gratification, of course, but that just seems like the same thing at a slower rpm – isn’t delayed gratification still gratification? And am I really making an argument for the preferability of longing over satisfaction? Maybe.

It used to be that I had to make a decision about which CD to pop in my Discman before I got on the subway in the morning. I was often in the mood for something sleepy and pastoral, it being the morning, like Beth Orton or The Innocence Mission. After the first few sharp elbows on a crowded F car, though, I would be ready for something more violent. But there I was, stuck with the pastoral. So I’m not complaining. In fact, I’m ecstatic. Still, I feel like I’ve quenched a strong yearning in the music department, and yearning always appears sweeter in the rearview mirror.


Tuesday, November 22, 2005

AP Headline of the Day

World's Ugliest Dog Dies at 14

Friday, November 18, 2005

Kinsley on Abortion Politics

On Slate today, Michael Kinsley has this piece, which eloquently summarizes why the left is insincere about wanting to protect Supreme Court precedents as a rule, why the right is insincere about not wanting to use abortion as a litmus test for judges, and how we don't really talk about complex issues in this country -- we set up a kind of performance-art system in which we talk at length about how and why we're not talking about them.

The Man in Black

In light of my recent, babbling posts on movies, I'll keep this one short. Went to see Walk the Line, which charts the early career of Johnny Cash, mostly through the prism of his playful, deeply felt, torturous courtship of his eventual wife, June Carter.

I thought A.O. Scott was a bit tough on it today. He's right that it succumbs to many of the usual biopic hazards, including that "Between the humble beginnings and the eventual immortality come events that seem almost interchangeable, more like stock situations than lived experiences."

But I don't think he emphasizes enough the tremendous lead performances. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (as Johnny and June) are both mortal locks to be nominated for Oscars, and deservedly so, not just because they play real-life figures with hard-luck-to-big-fame story arcs, which we know the Academy loves. (Someday, an actor will play a developmentally disabled boy who overcomes a childhood mining coal with a plastic spoon three miles into the earth somewhere in Kentucky, loses his leg in a blast but still manages to lead his high school football team to an unlikely state title against a team of more privileged players who get to use things like helmets, pays his own way through Harvard, becomes a trailblazing civil rights advocate, but after doing more good than most of us could in ten lifetimes gives that up to follow his true calling as a cross-dressing dancer, and expires from a terrible disease that he finds out originated way back in his coalmining days -- a disease that could be cured if it weren't for the evil pharmaceutical companies, who he spends the last 45 minutes of the movie fighting in a feverish legal battle, only to expire on the witness stand. When that day comes, the members of the Academy won't wait for awards night -- they'll show up, en masse, at the set on the last day of filming and hand out the statue right there. They'll just record that moment and show it on awards night, right after the film about the "tech awards" that they gave out the month before at a middle school gymnasium outside of Sacramento.)

The story of Cash's childhood and early career is certainly too distilled here, but the focus of that distillation is his relationship with Carter, and Phoenix and Witherspoon are both good enough to make the movie function quite successfully as a love story. Forget the inevitable made-for-TV-movie moments, and the sometimes silly, way-too-neat emotionalism of the last half hour (aside from the scene of Cash's performance in Folsom Prison, which is brilliantly done), and see it for their turns. Not a great movie, for sure, but two great performances.

What did I say about keeping this short?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Watching the Twangys

I don’t know why I watch awards shows. They’re awful on every rational level. Maybe it’s because they seemed more dynamic when I was a kid, when seeing Tom Petty and Axl Rose sing "Free Fallin’" together at the MTV Video Music Awards felt strangely exhilarating (I never said I was a particularly bright kid). Or longer ago, when staying up late to watch Cher accept the Oscar for Moonstruck carried a tinge of the illicit.

I normally limit myself to the Oscars and sometimes the Emmys these days. As a music fan, I can’t stomach the Grammys, which always ends up awarding Best New Artist to some poor mid-visibility band that just recorded its tenth album, and frequently turns the big awards, like Record of the Year, into a grotesque battle royale between antithetical forces, like Tony Bennett, Whitney Houston, and Limp Bizkit.

My attraction to these proceedings is vestigial, and I understand that, but I can't fully shake it. I'm even occasionally prompted by my imp of the perverse to watch something that I have no earthly interest in, like this week’s Country Music Awards, which took place in Madison Square Garden in midtown Manhattan –- akin to broadcasting the Vibe Awards from the Fort Worth Stockyards. But in fact, the venue is one of the reasons I tuned in, figuring that the cognitive dissonance created by the marriage of event and site would produce some enjoyable moments -– and sure enough it did, like when Mayor Bloomberg came out and declared New York America’s “greatest town,” and then they cut to Alan Jackson looking like he had a raccoon trapped in his small intestine.

So there were some laughs. Plus, I’m not reflexively anti-country music. Living in the south, you inevitably get exposed to the best of it along with the worst. If I had gone to college in Middletown or Providence, for instance, I doubt someone in my freshman dorm would have turned me on to Lyle Lovett, who’s now a favorite of mine. I own records by Kelly Willis, Iris Dement, Alison Krauss, Laura Cantrell, Johnny Cash, and others who you’d have to classify, on some level, as non-ironic country. And I respect (though I’m not as familiar with) people like Dwight Yoakam. (I’m not including the somewhat country-influenced –- like Whiskeytown, Son Volt, Richard Buckner, and others -– who compose a formidable bloc in my collection.) But of course, aside from Krauss, these weren’t the people who dominated the awards show. No, it seemed the awards show was more interested in squeezing women who look like 1950’s housewives into dresses three sizes too small and not giving them near enough back-up accompaniment to disguise their limited vocal range. (There are many exceptions in the genre, no doubt -– LeAnn Rimes, for one, can flat-out sing. And others, like Lee Ann Womack -– whose latest album sports an admirably classy throwback design -– and other women not named any variation of Lee Ann are fine, but done no favors by the aforementioned lack of accompaniment.)

The CMA, as it’s called in the biz, was also more interested in men like Big & Rich, a duo who I remembered reading about a while back –- I vaguely recalled they incorporated midgets and rappers into their act, making them far and away one of the edgier country outfits. (If you’re prepared to see what edgy looks like in country -– or, rather, if you think you’re prepared; you’re not prepared -– then go here.)

They sang a song called “Comin’ To Your City,” which was the listening equivalent of drinking orange juice right after brushing your teeth, and which included the line “And then in Phoenix, Arizona / we drank way too much Corona.” (Forgive me if that’s not the exact wording; I’ve been slowly blocking out the experience in therapy –- kind of Coal Miner’s Daughter meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

For most of the night, I was able to safely divide myself between Discerning John, who appreciated Krauss’ performance and little else, and Mocking John, who appreciated (more than he can say) Big & Rich & Many Others. But there was one scary moment when I was caught in a no-man’s-land between the two safe territories. That’s when I found myself reasonably enjoying the vocals of the lead singer of Rascal Flatts. The song and the band itself seemed pitched almost exactly between Quality and Horror, and the performance sent my head spinning, not to mention my moral compass. Come to think of it, it was the kind of thrilling, soul-searching, character-forging moment for which we’ve come to rely on awards shows.

To top off this down-home week, tonight I’m going to an advance screening of the new Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line. I’m on a roll, y’all.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

AP Injury Report or Broader Character Assessment? Headline of the Day

Steelers' Roethlisberger Is Questionable

The Rest, Part II

Light day today. Ray (or "Dezmond," as he's known in the comments section) has inspired me to write a multi-part posting comparing the New York and Texas experiences, which will require more contemplation and care than the average blog posting. But there will be more of the usual nonsense in the meantime, of course, starting right here with a peek at "The Rest," my ocassional, out-of-context visit to other sites recently updated on Blogger. Enjoy....
Perhaps you say that I have no heart, but I say that Took deserves to die for how he killed Huang Na. And I say this without any consideration for "human rights", because I don't view him as "human". A wife who kills a husband who cheats on her, chops him into bits and feeds the body to the sharks in Sentosa, would be more human than a man who randomly kills a 7 year old. (I draw a line where the wife makes dumplings from the husband.)
The most significant fact I learned about the 20's is that all the music that was going on in that time like country, blues, jass, would lead up to rock n' roll in the fifties. This made me interested because rock n' roll in the fifties, later led up to hard rock in the late sixties. I also learned that in the 30's there was a stock market crash which was the biggest in US history which I did not know before.
I just returned from visiting Texas Tech, and I must say, the campus is way nicer than I really thought it would be. The buildings are really pretty! And there's a lot of trees (for Texas), which is definitely a good thing. The campus is big, but the main buildings are kind of compacted into one little area, so it doesn't feel so much like a big school. I met the Nav group there and they were very friendly. One of the girls even took me to her english class. So... the status of that particular college, for now, = impressive.

Monday, November 14, 2005

My Hipster Credentials (Or Lack Thereof), and Fiona Apple: A Two-Part Posting

I spent some of the weekend putting the first few CDs on to my sparkling new iBook. I’m not online yet, meaning I have to manually enter the song titles, so it was a limited sample just to test things out. The vast majority will have to wait for Thanksgiving weekend, when I very well may not emerge from my apartment. (I mean Friday to Sunday, of course. On Thursday, I’ll be on Long Island eating my body weight in corn pudding, and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do to stop that.) After that, though, the music. When I’ve been missing for a few weeks, the authorities will come and break in to find me buried underneath hundreds of jewel cases, muttering about “party play lists.”

I listened to one particular song about a dozen times yesterday, and I would recommend you do the same. But first, an anecdote:

At a friend’s birthday party three weeks ago, I was accosted in his kitchen by a group of two men and two women, the leader of whom, an aggressively nerdy type (one of the men), asked me if I considered myself a hipster. It turned out these four were observing the party’s traffic all night, on the lookout for this not-so-rare-in-Brooklyn breed. He grilled me about my glasses (OK, fine) and my footwear (Converse sneakers, which may have made me a hipster 15 years ago, when I first started wearing them, but I imagine don’t hold much sway these days). Then we discussed my rather conventional jeans and almost Bill Cosby-esque sweater, which everyone could safely agree made me quite unhip -– and that led to this exchange, along with my friend Jon, about the T-shirt the Aggressively Nerdy Type was wearing:
Me: Look at you, though. You’re wearing an MTV Video Music Awards T-shirt. That’s a hipster move.

A.N.T.: No, no. I work for the company that owns MTV. Viacom isn’t hip.

Jon: Plus, that’s a shirt from the 2005 awards show. A hipster would wear a shirt from the 1986 awards.

Me: That’s true. The 2005 version kind of makes you a square.
I relate this story for two reasons. First, it’s a window onto a certain kind of New York inanity. Sure, people in other areas of the country talk at mind-numbing length about NASCAR and church socials and sitcoms starring Charlie Sheen, but New Yorkers converse about social status, right out in the open, as if it’s interesting and unpretentious and not astoundingly self-involved. (I don’t mind implicating myself here a bit, but not entirely; I was dragged into the conversation above, after all -– literally, since I believe one of the women grabbed my sleeve and pulled me into the center of the tribunal.)

The second reason I tell it is because it leads, in a roundabout fashion, to the song you should seek out. Eventually the A.N.T. asked me, with a sly look in his eye, whether I liked Fiona Apple. Unhesitatingly, I said I did. The A.N.T., with alarming similarity to Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride when he “outsmarts” Westley in the poison-drinking contest, then lunged toward me and said, “A-ha! That was a trick question. Hipsters don’t like Fiona Apple.” Never mind that “trick question” implies I was trying to prove myself a hipster, which I wasn’t. (See above re: me being dragged.) He had lost his point, in his mind, so could no longer playfully disdain me. (I realized too long after the fact that I probably should have asked him, “Do hipsters want to campaign for the quarantining of Williamsburg and the East Village? Because I do.” That might have cleared things up a bit quicker.)

At this point in the conversation, we can jettison the A.N.T. and focus on Ms. Apple. I bought her first album, Tidal, when it came out in 1996. A couple of songs held my interest, but the rest seemed a bit overblown and way too affected (lines like “But then he rose brilliant as the moon in full / And sank in the burrows of my keep” didn’t help). When the follow-up, When the Pawn..., was released three years later, I bought it on the strength of its first single, and then I didn’t remove it from my stereo for approximately five months. It reminded me that Apple had been about 11 years old when she made her debut, and she had matured quite a bit in the years since, honing what turned out to be a preternatural gift for insanely melodic pop songs while polishing her satisfyingly bluesy voice.

Her newest, Extraordinary Machine, has gotten all kinds of press because of its back story. If you’re unfamiliar with that story, involving a variety of tensions between Apple, her producers, and her record label, go here and here and here (or a thousand other places on the web).

I haven’t listened long enough to know if it measures up to When the Pawn..., which is still one of my all-time favorites, but the song “Oh Well” has taken up permanent residence in my brain. The first time you hear it, you think, “That might be one of the catchier songs on here.” The second through four thousandth times, you’re like the mouse who hits the button to get the cheese, even if the button also triggers a massive wave of electric shock. It has the biting lovelorn lyrics she’s now close to patenting (“When I was looking with calm affection / You were searching out my imperfections / What wasted unconditional love / On somebody / Who doesn't believe in the stuff”), convulsive piano and drums that are hard not to twitch along with (in a good way), and enough orchestration swelling around the whole thing to remind you it’s a Sensitive Song. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go hum it to myself again...

Thursday, November 10, 2005

AP Headline of the Day

Post Office Named After Karl Malden


Today's One Meal, and You'll Like It

For the sake of posting at least one thing each day (lest I fall out of habit and let the blog die, which I'm sure would disappoint all eighteen of you), but also because this is pretty funny, I send you to the Chuck Klosterman essay currently seen on ESPN's website. In addition to an opening defense of political independent-mindedness that I (mostly) strongly agree with, it offers an interesting connection between sports conservatism and larger conservatism, and it includes this sentence, which is one of the funniest I've read in a while:
No matter what he does, I somehow find myself supporting Bob Knight in drunken arguments; Knight could jam the face of a Texas Tech guard into the gears of a John Deere combine for failing to get back on defense, and I would eventually find myself in a bar saying things like, "Well, modern kids do need discipline."

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

AP That Makes One of 'Em Headline of the Day

Chesney Doesn't Regret Zellweger Marriage


Unlike Me or You or Anyone We Know

It’s difficult to truly love something and be deeply suspicious about it simultaneously (I’ve tried on many occasions), but I came pretty close when I watched Me and You and Everyone We Know. Released earlier this year, it’s the debut full-length film by a performance artist named Miranda July. On balance, it won me over.

The phrase “performance artist” often appears on my wish list a few notches below “ornery dentist.” I can be a bit of a traditionalist, and the small sample of performance art and conceptual art that I’ve come across often strikes me as half-baked and fatuous. Not always; I recently saw a piece by Tony Oursler, for example, that I loved, and it consisted of a heavily made-up face, distorted and projected onto a rock-like formation, muttering nonsense and occasionally shouting “Boom!” (You can see it here – it’s the orange-hued beauty at the upper right of the page.) In short, I’m definitely not the guy who says “A kindergartener could do that” when I see a short film of someone riding an exercise bike and boiling pasta to the strains of Wagner’s Ring Cycle (partly because I disapprove of kindergarteners boiling anything; it’s dangerous), but neither am I always rolling my eyes at that guy.

This is only tangentially relevant, anyway, because Me and You... isn’t just a filmed piece of performance art, despite July’s background. In the most liberal sense, it’s a traditional fictional story. July has striking, expressive eyes, and generally looks, to me, like a blend of Cate Blanchett, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and a third person I don’t know because whoever it is is too quirky and klutzy to have a movie career. She has screen presence to burn, and she needs it to pull off most of what she asks us to accept. In this interview, she has this to say:
This movie was inspired by the longing I carried around as a child, longing for the future, for someone to find me, for magic to descend upon my life and transform everything. It was also informed by how this longing progressed as I became an adult, slightly more fearful, more contorted, but no less fantastically hopeful.
If that sounds flaky, self-conscious, naive, heartfelt, strangely persuasive, and kind of great, well, the movie feels the same way. (If it only sounds flaky, self-conscious, and naive, you need to strenuously avoid this movie, or wear a haz mat suit when watching it.) When July’s character, Christine, falls in love with Richard (John Hawkes), a shoe salesman in a department store, she doesn’t waste any time letting him know about her affection in a quirky, direct, borderline-inappropriate fashion. (Think Jordan, the girl in Real Genius who flirts with Mitch while he's standing at a urinal, only grown up, slightly more in control and definitely more appealing.) When Richard leaves work one day, she runs to catch up to him, and then suggestively narrates their walk to their respective cars -- narrates to him, not in voice-over -- as a metaphor for a relationship (“Tyrone (Street) is, like, when we die of old age.” “And this is, like, our whole life together, this block.”) If such a scene sounds like death, it’s actually charming in July’s hands. (Hawkes is terrific throughout, too.)

Richard has two young sons, Robby and Peter, from a marriage that’s falling apart. They’re joined by a couple of other key child characters, though July’s tone, which A.O. Scott properly described as “guileless,” doesn't blur the line between children and adults as much as it denies the line ever existed. Robby, in particular, has a couple of moments that are worth the price of admission, but giving them away would be cruel. (Also, given that he’s about six years old and the funniest of those moments arrive while he’s in an adult chat room online, the delicacy of your sensibilities might play some part in how much you’re willing to find them amusing. I thought they were handled well myself.)

The movie's preoccupation with how misfits learn to love each other (or not) and the insistent oddity of its soundtrack reminded me of Punch-Drunk Love, but whereas that movie’s weirdness (which I enjoyed) felt very consciously constructed (especially since its director had already released the relatively more conventional Boogie Nights and Magnolia), it seems quite possible that Miranda July is as bat-shit crazy as this movie suggests.

That’s the good news, because the neurotic nuttiness on display is pretty inspired (starting with Richard lighting his hand on fire during the opening credits; long story). The movie as a whole, though, is a real tightrope act, with the preciousness of July’s conceits swaying between daydream-sweet unlikelihood and flat-out ludicrousness. She takes a heavy-handed view of modernity, depicting all her characters as so accustomed to suburban isolation and technology’s mediation that real-life concerns, from sex to careerism to earnest love, become almost impossibly awkward transactions when conducted face to face. The treatment of this, too, can be alternately trenchant and cringe-inducing.

There are some really bad scenes; bad less for their implausibility than for the fact that reaching whatever deeper truth they might contain doesn't seem worth the effort of forgiving that implausibility. These mostly involve secondary characters, particularly a co-worker of Richard’s and two teenage girls whom he’s delicately and half-heartedly trying to sexually harass. But there are also a handful of moments that are fall-down funny. Two of them I had to rewind -- or whatever the equivalent is on a DVD; redigitize? (One of them is fleeting but brilliant: Christine lies on her bed, staring at the lifeless cell phone next to her, hoping for Richard to call. Slowly dropping her head towards the phone, as if to kiss it, she very sweetly says, as if to Richard, “We have a whole life to live together,” and then, seamlessly dropping her voice to a frustrated growl, “you fucker!”)

Like a lot of conceptual art, I think, the movie asks to be judged less for a larger coherency than for smaller sui generis moments that might occur. And considered that way, it’s an unqualified success. At the very least, it’s a testament to the sheer strangeness and intermittent beauty –- both planned and accidental -– that you get when you leave an idiosyncratic vision unchecked, and it makes even the edgiest independent movie look formulaic and committee-driven by comparison.

It has a good after-taste, too. Since I watched it, I find myself remembering its strengths more vividly than its weaknesses, and my fondness for it has me investigating the rest of July’s career. I came across her blog. It contains snippets like the one below, which documents her disappointment at the packaging of the DVD. In its invoking an imaginary conversation, and in the playfulness that sugarcoats its control-freak core, this passage is further suggestion that the deliriousness of the movie isn’t all an act:
Luckily the folks at IFC and Sony have agreed to let me re-design the cover for the next batch of DVDs. ... I am very relieved because I lost many hours of sleep over the whole thing, especially the tag-line on the back cover: The person you've been waiting to find is waiting to be found. I would lay in bed at night wondering who had come up with this line and how it had ended up on something that was mine. No offense to the person at Sony who thought it up, there is nothing bad about it in and of itself. But for me it is like wearing someone else's hair on my head. Oh Sony Tag-line Writer, you probably have no idea how much I would have loved to talk to you and your friend in graphic design. If you two are reading this now then please contact me through I promise we won't talk about the tag-line or the cover design, because that's water under the bridge, but maybe we can talk about our hopes and dreams for an industry where great care is given to every step of the process.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

March, Resolved

Wow, not everybody at once on the song-of-March issue.

No one has piped up on the blog (no big fans of Iron Maiden's "Ides of March" among my readers, I suppose, which is probably a good thing), but the always reliable Nick came to the rescue. He brought me a CD of duets between Brazilian bossa nova king Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina, the opening track of which is an irresistibly catchy song called Aguas de Marco, or Waters of March.

Not sure how it would fit between Billy Bragg and Simon & Garfunkel. It does have the kind of antiquated-but-cool feel, though, that makes it prime material to be resuscitated on the next Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino soundtrack and embraced by hipsters everywhere.

So, we have a winner, but if you have any other contenders... -- if you have reason why this song and my mix shouldn't be legally wed, speak now or forever hold your peace.

Otherwise, thanks for the tip, Nick. I promise never to call you a music snob again. To your face.

AP Avian Flu Isn’t the Only Pandemic to Look Out For Headline of the Day

Phil Collins Says Genesis Reunion Possible


Appreciating Your Job

When you're in a grumpy mood about your job, do you ever sit around contemplating those with worse fates in order to lift your spirits? Of course you do. Your mind turns to, say, Ann Coulter's personal assistant or someone doing outdoor construction work in the summer in Phoenix. And sure, those do the trick. But isn't it obvious that we have a new clear-cut winner in this department? Defense attorney in the Saddam Hussein trial. Yeesh.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Fine Art In Its Own Right

Slate's slide show feature is normally a discussion of fine art, but today's, refreshingly, is an appreciation of the great Calvin & Hobbes. (The bottom strip in the second slide -- the one that starts "Here comes that new girl" -- is a classic.)

Listen to This

Go to this page from Matador Records. Then download the title track from Cat Power's forthcoming album (due in January). This song's a doozy, and seems to be comfortable with being lovely, which is a change for her.

Time Warner and Me:An Impending Love Story

Since several of you have been so kind to ask, I assure you I still have a job. I’m not writing feverish blog entries all day, but I’m not hooked up online at home – due equally to deep laziness and deep Luddism – so I write most of this stuff at my apartment (I have Word there; long story), put it on a disk, bring it in to work...the whole thing is too ridiculous. I’ve recently set up a November 21 appointment with Time Warner, though, and I'll be getting my iBook anyday (did I spell it right, Leigh?), so life will be properly compartmentalized again in a couple of weeks.

Ah, compartments.

mix 2: The Calendar

So, when you’re an incredible geek, and you’re two gin-and-tonics into an 80th-birthday dinner for your aunt, and you’ve got a younger sister who you’ve properly cultivated into becoming a fellow music weirdo, conversations based around finding songs with titles for every month of the year become quite compelling. Thus, the second mix. The first mix posting below garnered eight responses (granted, the first two were from spammers), so I figured this might kick-start a conversation. Plus, I need help, since we're missing something for March.

The only rule for this mix was that they had to be songs I like. This eliminated contenders like September Morn by Neil Diamond and November Rain by Guns N Roses (which, yes, I liked quite a bit when it first came out, but the years have been much kinder to Sweet Child O’ Mine). They also have to mean the month in the title – in other words, no “march” as a verb or noun, no “June” as a woman’s name, no “may” as an auxiliary verb, no “august” meaning “venerable for reasons of age or high rank” (since so many song titles adopt it that way). Etc.

I wish that January and May were stronger examples of songs by those particular artists, who I like a lot, but what can you do? January in particular is rough because a) it’s my least favorite song on one of my all-time favorite records, and b) it’s the closing track on that record, and sounds like one, so opening with it is kind of disastrous. Oh, well – such are the hazards of being a giant list-making nerd.

So, without further ado...

...and any good ideas for March?

January’s Little Joke – Trash Can Sinatras
The Fourteenth of February – Billy Bragg
March (This Space for Rent - 1-800-ASWOBA)
April Come She Will – Simon & Garfunkel
King of May – Natalie Merchant
June – Pete Yorn
July – Innocence Mission
August Again – Ida
September Gurls – Big Star
October – Rosie Thomas
November Spawned a Monster – Morrissey
December – Teenage Fan Club

Friday, November 04, 2005

Better Living Through Chemistry?

Slate and The New Yorker both have compelling pieces this week (here and here) about Joshua Wolf Shenk’s new book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.

Slate’s analysis includes a comparative look at Peter Kramer’s recently published Against Depression, which argues that our culture is dangerously insistent on romanticizing the illness, believing that intractable melancholy can enhance artistic greatness, emotional sensitivity, and any other number of things we value, instead of treating it like other diseases outside of the mind and unsentimentally trying to eradicate it. Kramer’s argument is convincing. If you’ve ever known anyone, or been anyone, who is truly depressed in the long- or short-term, it’s hard to believe that eliminating the condition isn’t in his or her or your best interests.

But taking into account something like Shenk’s portrait of Lincoln as somehow fueled by his depression (I can’t elaborate past the reviews linked to here, because I haven’t read the book), a more complicated picture emerges. One of the best popular science books I’ve read is The Undiscovered Mind by John Horgan, which is perhaps too strenuous in its anti-pharmacology stance (though Horgan is pretty convincing on whether medications work as well as the vaguely worded television advertisements of people skipping around would have us believe). Horgan does capture, though, the general weirdness – to use a scientific term – of the human brain, and how the varieties in that weirdness from individual to individual (much less across all humanity) make it exceedingly unlikely that we’ll ever understand the brain as comprehensively as, say, the inner ear.

All of this is a bit more timely for me because I'm just a few pages into Kay Redfield Jamison’s Exuberance, which examines melancholy's understudied opposite sensation, though I have a sneaking suspicion that by the end of the book I’ll see depression and exuberance as more closely related. Jamison refers to this quote from Louis Pasteur:

The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequeathed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language – the word ‘enthusiasm’ – en theos – a god within. The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who bears a god within, and who obeys it.
Bearing "a god within" is a fitting etymology for enthusiasm (I guess that’s the point of etymology, isn’t it), but depending on the god’s mood, and what he or she is whispering in there, it seems obeying could just as easily lead to the dampening effects of the blues.

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AP Oh, No, That's OK; Really, You Shouldn't Headline of the Day

Michael Jackson Working on Katrina Single


AP Headline That's About 35 Years Too Late of the Day

Yoko Ono Apologizes for McCartney Remark


Thursday, November 03, 2005

AP Common Sense Headline of the Day

Latin Grammys to Be Broadcast in Spanish


Friends and Neighbors

Just a quick word on the other links, which will grow over time to include all kinds of nonsense, I'm sure. For now, though, it's just the essentials -- Andrew Sullivan for politics, Deadspin for sports, Achewood for weird laughs, and a bunch of friends, none of whom, as far as I know, believe they can’t be killed by a dog:

To Say Yes is an artfully designed site that houses the literary analysis, suggestions, and opinions of a remarkably smart Texan. (Not remarkably smart for a Texan, because -- despite five years and counting back in NYC, where it's encouraged -- I don’t traffic in that kind of stereotype. He’s just intimidatingly smart, and would be anywhere.) is named after its creator, a New York comedian of some renown. He will make you laugh. And he once slept with the Shins, no joke. While there, go to the “Ask Eugene” link. Go everywhere, of course, but especially there.

The latest addition is the Humorless Feminist, which is a catchy but somewhat misleading title. The blog is in its infancy, like this one, but so far it's as smart, diversely interested, and yes, humorous as its author.

If you have something to link to that I'm unaware of, please make me aware. And watch out for that quicksand, kids.

Quicksand: You Decide

I’ve been meaning to stump for some of the links found along the right-hand side of this page, and today, Bad Movie Club gives me the perfect excuse.

BMC is hosted by Jason, a friend I met in college, and it tackles, in his distinctly funny, pop-culture-steeped, faux-violent tone, the stupidity of Southern cultural conservatives, the efficacy of Dallas Cowboys defensive alignments, and the good, bad and ugly of the cinema. (Jason has been known to see more than 200 movies a year, without exaggeration.)

Today it features this enlightening post, which I’ll comment on after you have a chance to absorb it. Here it is:

Three Things

Hey there sexy BMC readers -- Mandrake here feeling a small amount of scientific vindication.

For those of you who have spent any amount of time speaking to me while I am drunk and/or angry with the world (i.e. 99.99% of my waking hours), you may have heard me speak about the three things on which I base my life. Before you worry that I am going to throw out some philo-speak about Buddha or the benefits of a vegan lifestyle, fret not. That is not why we are here today. The three things are just simple facts -- things that I know to be true. Regardless of how out of sorts my life becomes, I can fall back on these three things and know that somehow the sun will come out tomorrow and a new day offers a new opportunity.

Wiseman's Three Things He Knows To Be True.
1. Quicksand does not exist.
2. I could never be killed by a dog.
3. In a ten round fight, I could beat a kangaroo on points.

Some people believe in karma. Some people believe in Jesus. I believe in my three things.

Well about a month ago a study by the University of Amsterdam published in the magazine Nature confirmed my #1 belief. Quicksand truly does not exist (at least the way the liberal Hollywood elitists would have you believe.)

And I quote:
But when they used an aluminum ball with a density equal to the human body, which is less than the density of quicksand, they found it impossible to sink the ball, no matter how hard they shook the pit.

What a feeling. Bring on the dogs and the fighting kangaroos!
The other day over lunch, I kid you not, I was randomly telling a couple of friends about Jason’s fixation with: a) believing he’s incapable of being killed by a dog, and b) believing he’s capable of beating up a kangaroo. These beliefs alone, obviously, make Jason – in no particular order - incredibly entertaining, a bit terrifying, good to have around in a tight spot, and possibly worthy of government-funded study. And for what it’s worth, I believe him on both counts.

But I had forgotten about the quicksand. We used to have discussions about this in college with some frequency, which normally boiled down to something like this:

Me: I think it’s pretty much scientific.

Jason: It’s a myth.
Now, Jason boldly asserts that he was right all along.

Not so fast.

A closer examination of the article he links to, which can be found here, leads me to stand by my side of the argument, which is that quicksand is real and deadly. The study does suggest that it is less cartoonish than is popularly believed, finding that once one is in up to the waist, one tends to float rather than sink further. But, wait.

First, we have this: “Yet while the risk of vanishing has apparently evaporated, escaping the muck is still a tough task: To pull one leg free requires the amount of force needed to lift a small car.”

Now, I admit that I’m on the wimpier side of the spectrum, especially in comparison to someone like Jason, who has often spared my life out of sheer generosity of spirit. Still, I wouldn’t define any situation that requires the “force needed to lift a small car” to be a particularly safe one – especially when, according to the study, “Movement by a victim makes things worse.”

And what does worse mean? The report, again: “The higher the stress, the more liquid the quicksand becomes, so movement by a trapped body causes it to sink in deeply.”

So there are your two options: Bob happily in the middle of a quicksand pit for eternity, or start “moving” and “make things worse.”

So, dear readers, unless you believe you’re capable of lifting a small car without moving, I would argue that you would find any experience with quicksand all too real.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

A Happy Moment in the Young Life of a Blog

Oh, my. In a fit of presumption, I sent Andrew Sullivan a link to ASWOBA last week, and I just realized yesterday that he was kind enough to link to one of my postings on his blog. I can't tell you how happy this made my inner geek (who occupies about 95% of my interior and has long been a fan of Sullivan's). Thanks, Andrew.

If you're a reader here because of the esteemed Mr. S., I hope you'll stick around for a while.

Literally Good Reading

A funny piece on Slate about the historical usage of the word "literally" also links to this highly entertaining blog, which collects what it considers abuses of the term.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Squid and the Whale

In 1996, I was a college senior in San Antonio, Texas, not exactly the independent-film capital of the world. Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming was one of the few smart movies that came to town that year (Twister and Independence Day were two of the dumb ones), and I loved it. Not only did it avoid the fashionable tropes of the time, like cattle being tossed skyward, but it managed to be genuinely funny while just about nailing the awkwardness of the immediate post-college years. The film’s tone is neatly summarized when Max, played by Chris Eigeman, says, “I'm nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I've begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I'm reminiscing this right now.” The movie shows people experiencing this reminiscence problem while mostly avoiding sappiness, which seems a bit miraculous.

“What I used to be able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life,” Max also says, and did that concern ever ring true at the time.

So despite a follow-up, Mr. Jealousy, that I found disappointing, I was eager to see The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach’s latest. I knew going in that he had drawn on his own experience to tell the story of a divorcing couple in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and I suppose that being from a divorced family myself and currently living in Park Slope and admiring Baumbach’s previous ability to balance the humorous and poignant, I was hoping for some kind of revelatory insight. I admit that my expectations were probably too high, and I was entertained. I would recommend that you see it. But the movie, ultimately, is less about divorce per se than about monstrously self-absorbed parents. For the purposes of their effect on the kids, Bernard and Joan Berkman (played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, respectively) might as well still be together. They are when the movie starts, and the kids are already schematically aligned on either side of their fault line: Walt, the oldest child, is parroting his dad’s intellectual pronouncements to his schoolmates, while the younger, softer Frank is quick to defend his mother and others against his father’s defensive charges of philistinism.

Strangely –- or maybe not so strangely –- the movie seems to adopt its tone from the viewpoint of a confused child, but it doesn’t feel like an intentional choice. If I can put him on the couch for a moment, it feels more like Baumbach still hasn’t processed whatever happened to him in his youth. The parents are never given the opportunity by the script to exist simultaneously as looming caricatures to the kids and true, complex adults to the audience. I’m not saying that balance would be easy to pull off, but Joan and especially Bernard remain mostly caricatures throughout.

The primary reason for this might be attributed to the Wes Anderson Factor. A friend to this blog, Christian L., has already written a thought-provoking, extended take on the movie here. His review includes this observation:

It is hard, then, to ignore the presence in the opening titles of Wes Anderson, credited as a coproducer. Baumbach cowrote Anderson’s lackluster The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; there Anderson (and Baumbach) sailed into a stylistic Bermuda Triangle, allowing whimsy to overwhelm plot, character, even wit. From that angle, The Squid and the Whale plays like a correction. Indeed, our first glimpse of the Berkman family unraveling on a tennis court brings a gasp of recognition. The irony and the funny costumes have been stripped away. These are the real Tenenbaums.
That last line is a great one, and it’s partly true. The Berkmans are certainly more real than Anderson’s Tenenbaums, but the same might be said of the Flintstones. I didn’t sense that the irony and funny costumes had been stripped away, as Christian suggests, as much as they had been kept around, slightly minimized, and forced to dance, awkwardly, with Baumbach’s real-life experience. I haven’t found any of Anderson’s subsequent work quite as winning as his debut, Bottle Rocket, which evoked some real feeling alongside its costumes and capers, but that mixture is volatile, as Anderson’s follow-ups have shown. In any case, it’s not a style that easily lends itself to believable human drama, and Bottle Rocket’s Dignan is the last character Anderson created who you might imagine meeting on the street. (Of course, he created him along with Owen Wilson, and this Slate piece is awfully convincing about what I’ve long suspected, somewhat instinctively -– that Wilson was largely responsible for making Bottle Rocket and Rushmore as good as they are.)

In retrospect, even Bottle Rocket was fable-like, with all the early signs of the director's subsequent, more Rococo movies, and Baumbach apes a bit too much of the more recent Andersonian style. Minor characters in TS&TW, like Billy Baldwin’s tennis coach, who’s constantly wearing an athletic headband and ends every sentence to Frank with “my brother,” are two-dimensional. Even Walt’s pontification to classmates sends him veering dangerously close to the territory of Rushmore’s Max Fischer, an overblown portrait of ambitious precociousness rather than an actual kid –- fine for Rushmore’s purposes, but more damaging to the tone here. This is mostly because Bernard himself, who Walt imitates, is written as such an extreme of the untamable solipsistic writer. Maybe a second viewing would yield it, but I don’t remember a single moment when Bernard expressed anything but blatant self-regard, or oblivious disregard for others.

But Daniels is excellent with what he’s given, and it’s difficult to itemize my objections without feeling unfair, because I did laugh out loud many times and I thought the performances were uniformly solid. (I suspect I could watch Laura Linney plant trees for two hours and then recommend her for an Oscar, but that’s a different story. The only line of Christian’s that made me apoplectic was his calling Linney’s performance in You Can Count on Me “schmaltzy” – I feel like I can count that movie’s contemporary equals on one hand, maybe even a hand that’s been disfigured in a factory accident. Its attention to and respect for real people are what is lacking from TS&TW, not to mention nearly every other movie made in the last 20 years.)

TS&TW so strains to be about real people that the effort itself seems laudable, but just when something genuinely affecting felt within reach, the movie yanked it away. In a scene towards the end, Bernard is pleading with Joan to take him back, promising that he’ll cook again, implying he’s done it in the past. When Joan asks him to recount such efforts, he says, “I made burgers that time you had pneumonia.” That cracked me up, so it might be ungrateful to make the observation, but no one with even a trace of self-awareness -– even an irredeemable egotist like Bernard -– would say that in that situation. Only a clever screenwriter would call that line into being, never a real person in a real moment. Like many lines in the movie, it seems to call out for a beat to allow audience reaction, like the sharpest sitcom writing (and come to think of it, TS&TW also has a touch of Arrested Development’s vibe).

Cartoons are fine with me, and often preferable. There are any number of movies, like Rushmore or Raising Arizona or Harold & Maude, which are successful mostly because of their expert cartooning. So I don’t mean this to be a screed against the studied frivolity of Anderson, Baumbach, or anyone else. I saw The Royal Tenenbaums twice in the theater, after all (even if the second trip was mostly to hear Van Morrison sing "Everyone" over the closing credits again). It just seems to me –- and this may be too crotchety, even by my standards –- that fantasy and reality require considerably different methods of exposition. For all of their faults, maudlin fare like Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People seem to have more to say about family life than TS&TW, which succeeds on several levels, but never quite the human. This would be less frustrating if the movie didn’t seem contrived with such success in mind.


Something to Read, or to Plan on Reading

Working in the book business, you buy (and receive free of charge) loads of books that you’ll have time to read, maybe, sometime in your 70s. The latest I’ve added to the pile is Gone to New York by Ian Frazier, which collects his pieces about the titular city from over the years. I mostly got it for the closing essay, which recently ran in The New Yorker, called "Out of Ohio." It chronicles Frazier’s time in his small Midwestern hometown after college, and how, after several false starts, he finally left the comfort of its routine and moved to New York. The essay’s tone is one I wish I could emulate, and it struck me when I read it as one of the best things to run in the magazine in years. (And I like the magazine, a lot.) Here’s just one good paragraph among many:

When I left the first time to go to college -- the original leaving, which set a pattern for later ones -- my plane to Boston was on a Sunday morning, and I spent all the preceding day and night going around town, seeing friends, saying goodbye, standing and talking under street lights in hushed, excited tones. Early Sunday, I was lying on the floor of a living room with Kent, Bitsy, and Kathy, listening over and over to the song “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Nobody was saying anything. The girls were quietly crying, not so much about my leaving as about the overwhelmingness of everything: the year was 1969. I cried, and also pretended to cry, myself. From ground level I looked at the nap of the rug and the unswept-up miscellany under the couch. I would never be even a tenth as at home anywhere again.