Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Curious Adaptation

(Note: Potential spoilers, depending on your definition.)

Last week, I went to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on its opening night. As much as I love film, this was a rarity for me. My excitement stemmed from very hazy memories of enjoying the original F. Scott Fitzgerald story, which I read while in high school. The film version, directed by David Fincher, was very well made, and I was tempted to take the film at face value. However, my curiosity got the better of me--I decided to go online and re-read the original source. Now, with the story fresh in my head, I'm torn between my enjoyment of the film and my (possibly ill-founded?) annoyance at the major deviations between the story and the adaptation.

Naturally, it's understood that every adaptation cannot be one hundred percent faithful to a book or story, and this was a necessity in the case (no pun) of Benjamin Button. Fincher and screenwriters Eric Roth and Robin Swicord had to stretch a few pages into a feature-length film. For the most part, the basic themes are the same--how would someone react, adapt, and live life knowing that he/she is aging in reverse? While this question might seem more philosophical than anything, the story and the film progress naturally. Benjamin has no choice but to accept his fate, and the curious assumption is that middle-age is best, no matter which direction you're heading.

The differences between the story and film are equal parts inspired and unneccessary. The film is set in New Orleans as opposed to Baltimore, with continuous flash-forwards to the present deathbed of Benjamin's love, Daisy (originally Hildegarde, played by Cate Blanchett). This simple name change is puzzling. Is Daisy sexier than Hildegarde? Is it a cheapened homage to The Great Gatsby? In the story, Benjamin falls out of love as he grows "younger," with Hildegarde aging naturally. In the film, they do grow apart, only to be reconnected years later. The setting change also provides a needless backstory of Hurricane Katrina, which gets closer in the present film narrative as Benjamin's story advances. In my mind, this provides no additions to the story, not even a metaphorical one. However, partly related to the setting, the film does boast excellent castings of black actors playing black citizens. Yes, it's a very rose-colored look at 1920s Southern life, and yes, Benjamin's adoptive mother (the wonderful Taraji P. Henson) is more or less a servant. However, the film makes use of black actors and extras because they're people, and not because the script or scenes call for black actors. This is a small step in the direction that people like Spike Lee have been arguing for for years.

I could go on with more potential criticisms of the film/story differences, but I'd like to close with some praises. The production design by Donald Graham Burt is stunning, especially combined with the cinematography by Claudio Miranda. The early scenes feels like old photographs, with dimmed hues and lots of faded brown and beige backgrounds (these descriptions would be much better with DVD screencaps). The overall atmosphere "clears up," so to speak, as the decades advance. In one of the best examples, the 1960s scenes have a definite 1960s film cinematography feel. Also, it's always great to applaud the work of Brad Pitt. While this isn't close to being his best acting effort, I still feel that he's grossly underrated as an actor, since most of the focus seems to be on his personal life. Looking past the makeup and special effects, he does an engrossing job with what he has...that is, he does his best to incorporate the emotions of his various ages without going over the top. It's a nod to his versatility that he can show excellent range where there's the potential to have none.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Words and Image

In my attempt to eventually finish the Hunter S. Thompson canon (which is roughly halfway finished, give or take a few titles), I recently read Kingdom Of Fear. I had been planning to devote a post to Thompson for quite some time, and as I read the book, this realization struck me: writing about his writing might be very difficult. Someone like Thompson can be so clouded by his/her popular image that the actual output can be lost in the shuffle. This can happen often, depending on the writer. As talented as they were as writers, it's easy to simply visualize Jack Kerouac roaming around the country and F. Scott Fitzgerald throwing his lavish parties. With Hunter S. Thompson, the Raoul Duke/Johnny Depp-popularized mythology can take center stage quite suddenly, overshadowing the talent that made him popular in the first place. It's almost a Catch-22 (another literary idea which overshadows its origins, as Jonathan Franzen mentioned).

As much as I love Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and The Rum Diary, I prefer reading the many essay collections written by Thompson. For one, it's one of my favorite mediums. Also (I'm sure this has been said numerous times), Thompson was one of the greatest essayists ever, even if the more appropriate term is "journalist." I imagine that non-fiction writing teachers may try to discourage students from the gonzo style--immersing themselves in the article from which they should remain impartially detached. The beauty of Thompson's life (based on his works) is that he had no choice but to be involved in a story. However, no matter how immersed he was, there's always the unspoken understanding (at least in my opinion) that he remained detached. This is even true when he explains the events that led to the "99 Day Trial," in which he could have been convicted of drug possession and sexual assault:

"I had been making cranberry and tequila, because the margarita mix had run out. I was in that kind of mood. Let's all have a few margaritas. And she--the sot--she belted them down. We all did, no doubt; that's what it was all about. Some margaritas to celebrate...We were on about the third jug in the blender, or fourth jug, or fifth perhaps, when we switched to cranberry juice, and she had been getting louder and more randy. She was making open cracks to Cat, asking 'Who are you to Hunter?' She grabbed me and said 'Who's this girl? Why is that other girl here? We don't need her around.'
Shortly after Tim left, I reached for the phone and told the Witness, 'Let's call a goddamn taxi for you.' As I dialed the 'T'--in 925-TAXI--she rushed over, knocking the phone down, and cut me off. It was a quick, startling movement. She leaped, surprisingly fast for a rhino, from five or six feet away (Thompson 140-141)."

Yes, at first glance, it's trademark Thompson: colorful events accompanied by mind-altering substances. But read it carefully. In a paragraph and a half, he's described a scene with journalistic, precise details, with slight humorous embellishment ("suprisingly fast for a rhino"). Even though he's personally included in the events, he never dominates to the point of being selfish or going away from the main point of the essay (granted, this is a very brief citation from a much larger piece). In the age of everyone writing memoirs, it's easy to say that almost every published work by Thompson is a memoir (per se), but it's honest journalism at heart. As he's quoted in the forward to Kingdom of Fear: "I am the most accurate journalist you'll ever read (xvi)."

As usual, politics come up frequently in the book. This will be no surprise to anyone familiar with Thompson, but he was not a fan of certain presidents (Nixon, the Bushes, et. al) or conservative ideologies:

"The news is bad today, in America and for America. There is nothing good or hopeful about it--except for Nazis, warmongers, and rich greedheads--and it is getting worse and worse in logarithmic progressions since the fateful bombing of the World Trade Towers in New York. That will always be a festering low-watermark in this nation's violent history (333)."

Passages like these reaffirm my belief that Thompson was among the greatest American patriots in the written language. It is possible to criticize politicians and government actions and still be patriotic. He was a staunch supporter of the first, second, and fourth Amendments, and in his writing, no matter how blistering his critiques of the U.S. government get, there's always a glimmer of optimism that things can improve. I'm sure that if he were alive today, he'd be cheering the departure of Bush and the arrival of Obama. However, he'd be just as hard on the new President has he was on the previous ones, even the ones he supported. This post might be rambling a little, but the beauty of Thompson's work is that it touches on so many themes and events, and the essay collections are next to impossible to "review" (not that a review was my intention).


Work Cited:
Thompson, Hunter S. Kingdom of Fear. Copyright 2003 by Gonzo International Corp.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Casual Friday--Poetry VI

I'd like to begin this post with this poem, entitled Collections.
"Tuesday, normally the least important of the seven
The morning is windy and rainy, not hard, but enough to do the job.
The weekend was excessive, we lived like aloof royalty--
food eaten lustily, drink guzzled lustier. Our sweaters
were regal vestments, our dirty shoes were cobbled by peasants.
Monday rose, as did we, a mindless bustle of showerheads being flipped,
teeth hastily brushed,
the clothes and towels forming an unglamorous heap by the wall.
Tuesday morning--
The sun still hides as I shift out of bed to put the containers out for the collectors.
They collect what we want to leave behind.
I grumble as I drag out the compost bin. A collection of shredded receipts,
orange peels and moldy bread.
I think of the less fortunate, several days too late.
That bread would have been consumed, some children right now would cry for an orange peel.
Something, anything.
I drag out the trash bin. Aluminum foil, food wrappings, empty lighters.
The items cannot be categorized. In due time they will join their brethren:
the unidentifiable landfill mass of items no longer needed.
The final bin is recycling, an activity based on guilt.
Fifty years ago, everything was thrown away together, to be hauled off.
Never to be heard from again. Today we recycle,
a perverse "oops" offered to the world with a shrug.
The collectors take the items a few hours later, but not for personal gain.
Everything is separated, and we never see the likes of them again.
Until we start collecting again on Wednesday."
This is a pretty awful piece, and I'm actually pleased to note that I'm the author, since it exemplifies an excellent article recently published in the November 27th issue of The Stranger. In it, Paul Constant bemoans the sad offerings of Seattle's public poetry works, everything from the "Poet Populist" to "Poetry on Buses" (a similar idea used to be done for Chicago's Transit Authority, entitled "Poetry in Motion"--I cannot decide which is worse, title-wise: Seattle's laughingly minimalist description, or the feeble attempt at a lame poetry title for Chicago's program). Constant's complaints are that, even with the best intentions (to expose poetry to Seattle citizens who otherwise would never read it), these types of public programs celebrate bad poetry, written by bad poets:
"Karen Finneyfrock is a rare example of a slam poet who writes excellent poetry; for every one of her, there are a thousand people who should be ashamed to share their work with others (31)."
Given Constant's claim, why did I open this essay with one of my poor efforts? Even though I'm sharing it with whomever reads this blog regularly or may stumble across it, I know full well that it's not a great piece. I'm not a poet, I don't think I ever will be, and I would never dream of openly sharing something that I know to be bad, whether it be at a poetry reading or as a submission to a public arts program. I wrote the above poem while riding a bus to downtown Seattle, mainly to pass the time, and because I had the idea for it, since it was trash day. I'm only using it as an example since I never intended it to be read by anyone else. Above all, as a writer, I know I have an eye for my own production--that is, I know that's ready to be shared, what needs to be edited before being shared, and what should never see the light of day. Constant cites a few snippets of what he deems to be bad poetry, some of which can lead people to assume stereotypes of "poets:"
"...[Ananda Selah Osel's poetry] the kind of self-entitled Henry Rollins fuck-the-system bullshit that automatically makes everyone tired of angry young men and their viciously thin poetry. And his second-place finish (at the "Poet Populist" reading) means his dreadful work has an implicit endorsement from the city (31)."
Ouch. I'm not at all familiar with Osel's work, so I cannot readily agree with Constant's assessment. However, it's refreshing to read a take on a program like this written from the point of view of someone who obviously reads and understands poetry. I can only imagine that a City Hall press release would state the exact opposite, probably under the assumption that all poetry is good and worthy to be read. Public arts programs have their hearts in the right place, but the focus should be on quality, not on quantity.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Evil Geniuses

Last month, in an attempt to brush up on philosophy texts that have flown under my radar, I read Martin Heidegger's Poetry Language Thought. I remembered that his other works were touched upon briefly in some of my college courses, and recent research on him brought up something that I had totally forgotten about--his link to Nazism. I don't know the full history of his relationship to that ideology (save for some very generic bullet points), I do know that some of his supporters attempted to soften the blow of such a connection. There are two very distinct points of view at play here: one side will say that in Europe during World War II, the choice was very clear, that one could choose to superficially "accept" Nazism or lose their well-being (or life) otherwise. The other side will say that any acceptance equals guilt, regardless of whether or not a person was trying to save his or her own life. My point is that Heidegger wrote some of the most influential philosophy texts in history, yet will always be linked to one of the most horrendous "philosophies" in history as well. It's a staggering dynamic--how can an outside observer balance someone's contributions along with someone's evils, especially with something as evil as Nazism? This being said, had Heidegger been a fictional character, he very well would have been one of the many composites in Roberto Bolano's Nazi Literature In the Americas (first published in English in 2008).

I went into reading this Bolano text trying to be as impartial as possible, given the fact that I was still feeling the amazing awe of The Savage Detectives. Nazi Literature In the Americas is a vastly different work, both in themes and length. Instead of providing us with hundreds of pages devoted to exploring the lives of imaginary, generally admirable (though faulted) writers, Bolano writes very brief biographical sketches of writers from North, Central, and South America, all of whom (explicitly or not) are connected to Nazism or Nazi sympathies. While these are fictionalized descriptions, readers cannot help but get caught up in Bolano's attention to detail, describing, in precise detail, the writers and lifestyles of these artists. In the same sense of The Savage Detectives, I found myself admiring the prodigious outputs and hedonistic tendencies, since the idea of Nazism is not pointed out on every page. At times, it came as a suckerpunch, nodding along with the lifestyles, only to be reminded of the sometimes latent theme of evil. This is where my introduction on Heidegger comes into view--the writers in Nazi Literature In the Americas are brilliant, yet the idea is that a seriously faulted ideology is lurking below the surface.

Bolano also employs the "dust-fucker" style of comparisons (for the origins and explanations of this term, click here). Again, as evil as Nazism is, some of the writers in the novel are more extreme than others--in short, Bolano has characters who are even worse Nazis than others. Take these passages, for example:

"The failure of her marriage plunged Luz into despair. She took to drinking in dives and having affairs with some of the most unsavory individuals in Buenos Aires. Her well-known poem "I Was Happy With Hitler," misunderstood by the Right and the Left alike, dates from this period (21)."

"...[Borda's] mere existence, in short, brought out the basest, most deeply hidden instincts in the people whose paths he crossed, for one reason or another, in the course of his life. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that any of this demoralized him. In his Diaries he blames the Jews and usurers for everything (109)."

In the hands of a lesser writer, a book such as this could have merely turned into a catalogue of depraved individuals. With Bolano, the degrees of repulsion are almost scientific. As with the two cited examples above, a reader acknowledges that the two fictional writers have ideological faults, but have to acknowledge that the writing of a poem is a "lesser evil" than a blatant written hatred of an entire people.

At the end of the novel, Bolano stunningly crafted a detailed bibliography of the writers, including ones not described in the book. In addition to admiring the minute detail, I was taken aback by the bibliography's title: "Epilogue For Monsters." With three words, any earlier rationalization is thrown away, since every party is guilty. The effect is very similar to the final line of James Wright's poem Lying In a Hammock On William Duffy's Farm In Pine Island, Minnesota: "I have wasted my life." Everything that comes before it, while essential, is overtaken by a single line. This literary skill, especially compared with the vastness of The Savage Detectives, reaffirms my belief that Bolano is one of most important writers of the past twenty years. I cannot wait to take on his final work, 2666.

Work Cited:
Bolano, Roberto. Nazi Literature In the Americas. Copyright 2008 by the Heirs of Roberto Bolano. Translation copyright 2008 by Chris Andrews.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

50th Post: Odds and Ends

I'm a little behind on some of this month's essays, so I thought I'd have some relaxed fun with this post. I'm pleased to note that this is my fiftieth post on Chicago Ex-Patriate, and since I don't see myself commemorating every "milestone" post, this should be a one-and-done affair. However, I already have a plan for this blog's one year anniversary in February, but that is down the line. Also, on a personal note, I'm very pleased with how my writings and contributions are taking shape. I'm still not as "quality consistent" as I'd like to be, but when I started this blog, I simply had no idea where it would be going, content-wise. Thanks to everyone for their readings, comments, and support. My network here is small, but I'm grateful for the impressive writers and bloggers who support this project. The new year will hopefully bring more maturation and variety to my writings.

I don't remember where, but someone once linked an article listing the signs of a bad blog. One of the signs was the inclusion of lists: best ofs, top tens, and so forth. However, some of the blogs that I regularly read have posted these kinds of lists, and the quality was just fine. So, in keeping with the idea of "fifty," I'm attempting a combined list of my "Fifty Essentials," whether they be books, albums, or films. I hesitate to call these my favorites, since that list always fluctuates. However, these are fifty titles that I feel have shaped and influenced me to this point. Enjoy.

1.) Le Samourai by John-Pierre Melville (film)
2.) How To Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen (book)
3.) In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra (album)
4.) No Country For Old Men by Joel and Ethan Coen (film)
5.) The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson (book)
6.) Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco (album)
7.) Jackie Brown by Quentin Tarantino (film)
8.) The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano (book)
9.) Hail To the Thief by Radiohead (album)
10.) Goodfellas by Martin Scorsese (film)
11.) The Rush For Second Place by William Gaddis (book)
12.) Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (album)
13.) Glengarry Glen Ross by James Foley (film)
14.) The Fortress Of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (book)
15.) Picaresque by the Decemberists (album)
16.) Amelie by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (film)
17.) Choke by Chuck Palahniuk (book)
18.) Animals by Pink Floyd (album)
19.) The General by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton (film)
20.) The Middle Mind by Curtis White (book)
21.) Z by My Morning Jacket (album)
22.) From Here to Eternity by Fred Zinnemann (film)
23.) White Noise by Don DeLillo (book)
24.) Abbey Road by the Beatles (album)
25.) The Big Sleep by Howard Hawks (film)
26.) The Road by Cormac McCarthy (book)
27.) Give Up by the Postal Service (album)
28.) Nosferatu by F. W. Murnau (film)
29.) Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman (book)
30.) Come On Feel the Illinoise! by Sufjan Stevens (album)
31.) Le Cercle Rouge by Jean-Pierre Melville (film)
32.) Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace (book)
33.) Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan (album)
34.) Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa (film)
35.) Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor (book)
36.) 13 Songs by Fugazi (album)
37.) The Lives Of Others by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (film)
38.) Bloodcurdling Tales Of Horror and the Macabre by H.P. Lovecraft (book)
39.) Blacklisted by Neko Case (album)
40.) Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas by Terry Gilliam (film)
41.) Bambi Vs. Godzilla by David Mamet (book)
42.) The Mysterious Production Of Eggs by Andrew Bird (album)
43.) All the Real Girls by David Gordon Green (film)
44.) Dubliners by James Joyce (book)
45.) Class Clown by George Carlin (album)
46.) Dog Day Afternoon by Sidney Lumet (film)
47.) White Teeth by Zadie Smith (book)
48.) The End Of Love by Clem Snide (album)
49.) Cat On a Hot Tin Roof by Richard Brooks (film)
50.) A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace (book)

On a final note, I normally have a seething hatred for music videos which are literal interpretations of the given song, whether these videos involve the band or are made by a random student filmmaker and posted on YouTube. However, I stumbled across this video for the Decemberists' O Valencia! and was quite pleased. Yes, it's a literal interpretation, but I found it amazingly enjoyable. Perhaps this is due to the cinematography or the dark humor, or possibly both:

Friday, November 28, 2008

Casual Friday--Poetry V

On and off for at least three years, I continually pick up and skim through Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins. I don't know that much about his history, other than his previous tenure as the U.S. Poet Laureate and his set place as one of America's most respected poets. While I plan to do more research on him and other poets (both established and independent), for now, I feel that it's to my benefit to not know much about his accepted, defined style or to have instant comparisons to his previous poetry collections. I only purchased Picnic, Lightning in order to do a presentation some years back in an introductory poetry class. As I read some selections this week, I feel that I picked up on what could be considered his "style," as varied as that definition can be, especially in relation to poetry.

The poem that jumped out at me is entitled "After the Storm," a look at a house in the early morning, following a late-night dinner party. I'm not going to transcribe the entire piece, but I want to look at some select stanzas in relation to my understanding of his aesthetics. The first stanza is simple, with simple metaphors that render their descriptions in an utterly perfect manner:

"Soft yellow-gray light of early morning,
butter and wool,
the two bedroom windows
still beaded and streaked with rain (41)."
I re-read the second line over and over, each time more amazed at how perfect the description is in relation to the first line. Butter and wool. Yellow and gray. Soft and slightly abrasive. Again, I use the word "simple," but it is in no way an insult to Collins's craft. Instead of going for a slightly more obscure reference, he opts for descriptions that trigger the senses. As I'm always ready to remind people during my poetry posts, I'm trying to build up my knowledge of poetic craft, and it's a testament to Collins's talent that what seem like easy metaphors at the beginning are actually untouchable.
"the long table, dark bottles of Merlot,
the odd duck and brussels sprouts,
and how, after midnight,
with all of us sprawled on the couch and floor (41),"
This is the fifth stanza, and to me, Collins is walking a delicate line. While the beauty of poetry is the ability to find poetic movements in everyday life, there's a slight risk of "boring" some readers with imagery of a pretty standard dinner party. However, the last line hints to the fifteenth stanza, which is familiar to everyone:
"even the ghosts of ourselves
had to break up the party,
snub out their cigarettes,
carry their wineglasses to the kitchen (43),"
Once again, Collins whips out the poetry of the mundane. The "ghosts of ourselves" reminded me of your typical hangover, even if this isn't what he intended to begin with--we all wake up after late nights with vague memories of dragging ourselves up, finishing the long nights, and engaging in late night tasks: emptying ashtrays, gathering up empty bottles, etc. Of course, I'm leaving out the main storyline of the poem--hints of a previous night's party reflecting themselves the following morning. And I'm probably committing a major sin by just focusing on three stanzas of a poem that consists of nearly twenty. However, what I wanted to show is that Collins can take what appears to be "basic poetry" and "simple events" and make them captivating.
Work Cited:
Collins, Billy. Picnic, Lightning. Copyright 1998 by Billy Collins.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Bleak Future Of Music

Yes, I understand that the title of this post can be a little misleading, since I'm not at all bemoaning the quality of music today (or in the near future). However, what does disappoint me is the realization that, as time goes on, there will be less and less opportunities to discover lost pieces of musical development/history, especially in this era of internet technology and, both in conjunction with that and to a lesser extent, bootlegging. Allow me to explain this with more clarity. I read a wonderful article in the November issue of Harper's entitled "Unknown Bards," written by John Jeremiah Johnson. In it, he recounts an early fact-checking mission to uncover the lyrics of a rare blues LP, enlisting the help of musician/blues intellectual John Fahey. Sullivan's sketch of Fahey makes him come across as eccentric, which I always assumed was a stereotype of blues collectors/historians (the images that come to my mind are Steve Buscemi's character in Ghost World and some selected album covers by R. Crumb). However, this is not far off, according to the article:

"'The serious blues people are less than ten...most are to one degree or another sociopathic (p. 89)."

The article combined solid historical information with a very compelling musical treasure hunt. After my reading, I felt that these kinds of activities and scavengings will lose prominence as my generation gets older. If need be, I could easily go online to find out-of-print recordings and unreleased live shows. Hm, I want to re-listen to a Jeff Tweedy solo show from 2006. Click, click, done. As March of 2009 nears, I'm sure I could do some illegal searching for a preview of Neko Case's new studio album, which will undoubtedly be leaked at some point, which seems to be the case with all albums. With these thoughts, I'm getting more into the subject of music piracy as opposed to my original thoughts. However, it's that kind of technology that is a blessing and a curse. With all the bands I admire today, there's virtually no chance that something will become "lost." On the other hand, it eliminates the possibility of "hunting" for future generations. Today, the concept of an album being out-of-print does not carry the same urgency and fear that it does for early blues recordings.

Then again, there still might be the opportunity for discovery in other ways. I can only imagine that some artists (Conor Oberst comes to mind) have cabinets full of unreleased home recordings, ones that might remain out of sight for years to come. To some extent, I'm sure there's a teenager somewhere recording songs on his or her computer, songs that are absolute genius, but will not be heard by mass audiences. But for the most part, the majority of music will always be available. Overall, this is wonderful, but the idea of tracking down a long-lost Colin Meloy demo in fifty years just strikes me as intriguing. Hopefully, despite recording advances, there will still be an intangible element of mystery.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Solitary Pursuits

"At that moment the equation became clear to him: the act of writing as an act of memory. For the fact of the matter is, other than the poems themselves, he has not forgotten any of it (Auster 141)."

Forgive me if this essay is heavily tinted with autobiographical asides. One of the reasons I moved to the Seattle area this year was to focus on writing, to make up for the lack of attention that I had been paying. Naturally, I was homesick, which I dealt with by sending long e-mails to friends, happily detailing my newfound focus on writing, coupled with the fascination of exploring a new city, one that I had never even visited before. A friend of mine recommended Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude, saying that I would relate to the look at the solitary nature of writing and creativity. After recently finishing the book (a few months after this recommendation), I was immediately reminded of a conversation with another friend of mine, one who found it curious (read: odd) that I enjoyed reading books about writing. I'm amazed at how right these two friends were, both the first one with his accurate recommendation, and the second one with her affirming question. I'll gladly be considered odd.

The Invention of Solitude is composed of two volumes in one. The first half ("Portrait Of An Invisible Man") consists of Auster writing about his father, a man of complex emotions, both infuriating and gently touching, and a man who dealt with a family tragedy which accounted for his makeup (an event that Auster found out about purely by chance). At first, I found this first half extremely compelling and well written, but I was anxiously awaiting the second half of the book for his insights on writing. However, he provided some passages that hit me in the stomach, passages undoubtedly relatable to young male writers and their relationships with their fathers. This is not at all a slight towards female writers, but one of the unspoken themes of this book is abstract masculinity.

"His most common description of me was that I had 'my head in the clouds,' or else that I 'did not have my feet on the ground.' Either way, I must not have seemed very substantial to him, as if I were somehow a vapor or a person not wholly of this world. In his eyes, you became part of the world by working. By definition, work was something that brought in the money. If it did not bring in money, it was not work. Writing, therefore, was not work, especially the writing of poetry. At best it was a hobby, a pleasant way to pass the time in between the things that really mattered. My father thought that I was squandering my gifts, refusing to grow up (61)."

To an extent, these words describe my relationship with my own father. I love him immensely, and he has always supported me, but while I was in college, he kept hinting that I should study business instead of writing. His feelings were totally well-intentioned, that after college I needed something to fall back on. Even to this day, I sometimes feel like I'm still trying to prove that I'm not merely engaging in a hobby, but working on what I really want to do.

The second half of the book is entitled "The Book Of Memory," a collection of fictionalized autobiographical memories, mixed together with personal examples of the solitary writer. This idea can easily be open to outside stereotypes: a disaffected young male, sitting alone in squalor, attempting to create art. While that might describe "A." (Auster's fictionalized version of himself), it's not at all a caricature, but rather personal history and honesty. "Memory is a room, as a body, as a skull, as a skull that encloses the room in which a body sits. As in the image: 'a man sat alone in his room' (86)." As brief as this quote is, this is the core of Auster's beginnings and growth as a writer, an idea that is truly universal among artists. Despite the revolving door of acceptance, publication, gallery shows, feedback, critiques, networks, and sharing of creative endeavors, virtually all art begins with a man or a woman alone in a room, engaging in creation. Even after the art has been exposed to the outside world, it will come back around to solitude:

"Every book is an image of solitude. It is a tangible object that one can pick up, put down, open and close, and its words represent many months, if not years, of one man's solitude, so that with each word one reads in a book one might say to himself that he is confronting a particle of that solitude (135)."

The quoted passage that opened this essay is crucial to the book, appropriately buried towards the end. While this might seem like an obvious idea, sometimes it is easy to forget that virtually all writing is affected by memories and experiences. This is not to say that all writing has to be autobiographical, nor am I falling on what I've always found to be a horrible piece of advice for beginning writers: "Write what you know." However, memories shape everything that we do. A given piece of writing may have no resemblance or bearing on the author's life, but his or her memories have shaped who they are and how they've come to creating what they have done.

To close, and for the final autobiographical allusion to myself, Auster has a phenomenal description of writers, yet another one that made me nod in agreement. This might have been more appropriate to write about a few months ago, when I first moved to Seattle, but I still sometimes see myself as a singular entity, both where I live and how I see myself as a writer:

"He has spent the greater part of his adult life walking through cities, many of them foreign. He has spent the greater part of his adult life hunched over a small rectangle of wood, concentrating on an even smaller rectangle of white paper. He has spent the greater part of his adult life standing up and sitting down and pacing back and forth. These are the limits of the known world. He listens. When he hears something, he begins to listen again. Then he waits. He watches and waits. And when he begins to see something, he watches and waits again. These are the limits of the known world (96)."

Work Cited:

Auster, Paul. The Invention of Solitude. Copyright 1982 by Paul Auster.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

An Early Christmas

"Don't you see that this is a fucking symbol?"

This line is spoken early in the film Christmas On Mars, the latest creation by the Flaming Lips (written, directed, and edited by frontman Wayne Coyne). At first, I thought the line was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, since the viewer is exposed to a barrage of imagery just begging to be analyzed symbolically: light, outer space, birth/creation/female genitalia, death, and isolation, to name a few. In addition, these themes are presented in merely an hour and a half, although this running time feels much shorter. However, as I think about it after my first viewing, I realize that the line should be taken at face value...these are just symbols. Combined with the story, we're treated to a wonderfully structured science fiction yarn. I cannot tell yet if I merely enjoyed it a lot, or if it could be a work of artistic genius. Perhaps time will tell after future viewings.

The Flaming Lips have been working on this film for well over ten years, and its release on DVD has come quite suddenly. The story involves an American space station on Mars during Christmas Eve, awaiting the birth of the first human child in outer space. We meet alternatingly stern and hilarious characters through the eyes of Major Syrtis (Steven Drozd), who witnesses the death of one of his fellow crew members, and is moody and introspective even before more trying events happen. During various mishaps and hallucinations, a silent Alien Super-Being (Coyne) casually walks into the space station:

At first glance, it's comical, but that's the whole point. The alien costume design and the black and white photography/cinematography are made to invoke 1950s space movies and television shows. By the end, astute viewers will catch references to The Day the Earth Stood Still, Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and probably a few others that I missed. I think I've covered the basic film details without giving too much away; this is truly a film that must be seen to be fully understood and appreciated. However, I think Coyne puts it best in the liner notes: "[This] just an elaborate, arty, home movie starring the band with our friends and family."

Another excellent part of the film is the soundtrack, which branches out into new territory for the Flaming Lips. One would think that a science-fiction movie would be perfect for their usual brand of psychedelia, but here they opt for an almost classical sound, mixed with drawn out atmospheres that evoke outer space just as well as the soundtrack for 2001 did many years back. Film scores can be very hit or miss when placed on their own, but the soundtrack for Christmas On Mars stands up very well. I'll leave you with some screencaps, ones that best represent the cinematography of the film. The photography for the film was done by Coyne's wife, J. Michelle-Martin Coyne, and she did an impressive job.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Rockying the Free World

This is my contribution to the "Politics and Movies Blog-a-Thon" that is being hosted from November 4th-November 9th. Please visit The Cooler for more contributions and information.

It is with a reasonable degree of trepidation that I chose Rocky IV for the "Politics and Movies Blog-a-Thon." This film continued the trend of the Rocky series hitting some ups and many downs after the classic 1976 original. The fourth installment was released in 1985, and I find it to be very enjoyable, although campy at times. This notion of camp, coupled with the general agreement that Rocky IV is the most ludicrous of the franchise, makes this choice worthy of justification. The last thing I wanted was for this analysis to come across like an ironic, hipsterish elevation to "great movie" status based on its far-fetched plot. Nor did I want to aim for a Mystery Science Theater joke-fest. To justify this, I'll begin by saying that Rocky IV attempts to highlight some very clear-cut politics, balancing representations of the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. To help out, I read John Lewis Gaddis's book The Cold War to see if writer-director Sylvester Stallone was able to (intentionally or not) mirror on film the emotions and events of that conflict.

"By that time [1940], one historian has estimated, the Stalinist dictatorship had either ended or wrecked the lives of between 10 and 11 million Soviet citizens--all for the purpose of maintaining itself in power (Gaddis 99)." In the 1980s, while the Soviet Union had its problems, it had moved away from the serious megolomania of Josef Stalin. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to maintain Socialism without violence or force (257). In terms of the film, what better way to live vicariously than through Ivan Drago, the best amateur boxer ever to emerge from the USSR?

He's super-strong, his punches deliver 1,850 pounds of force, and he's ready to take on America's best fighters, with Rocky Balboa at the top of his (well, not his, but his handlers--they do most of the talking for him) list. Before, he settles for an exhibition match with former champion Apollo Creed. This does not go well. What starts off as an exhibition fight turns into a supreme beating, with Creed dying in the ring. In his way of getting revenge, Rocky decides to fight Drago, in Moscow, on Christmas Day, for no cash purse. Talk about American sacrifice. At the start of the film, we're treated to supreme American excess, starting with the Balboa family's robot:

And then James Brown leads a lavish gala before the Apollo Creed-Ivan Drago fight:

Once Rocky and his trainers arrive in Russia, he establishes some shots of the Soviet landscape, some bordering on stereotype, complete with snow and stone faces:

Let's go back a few scenes: During the press conference, a verbal argument erupts between Paulie (Rocky's brother-in-law) and Drago's Soviet publicist. Again, getting into stereotypes, Paulie represents the "ugly American," while the publicist does his best to maintain Drago's equality with the best American athletes, not for a second believing that Drago will lose the fight.

During this argument, Paulie says: "At least we don't keep our people behind a wall with machine guns." This is almost definitely a reference to the Berlin Wall, which, curiously, was not fully supported by the Soviet Union: "The wall dramatized the extent to which the Soviet Union had chained itself to a weak ally--who was able to use that weakness to get its way (138)."
The training sequences then turn into a sort of political mindfuck. In order to clear his head and focus on the fight, Rocky insists on living and training in the barren countryside with no luxuries, while Drago has the best science and technology as his disposal. In other words, Rocky, the great American hero, becomes a representation of Communism. He's living off the land, training by sawing logs and running in snow. In one sense, he's maintaining his Americanness by rolling up his sleeves and working up a sweat. However, he totally blends in with the peasants who live nearby.

In the above scene, he breaks away from Communism by outrunning his KGB bodyguards, who follow his every move.
As the fight begins, more metaphors become obvious. The size of Drago overwhelms the size of Rocky, but as we all know, America will prevail. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Eventually, Rocky's determination wins over the Soviet crowd, who start to cheer for him instead of their beloved countryman:

With a the sinister Gorbachev look-a-like watching, Drago's publicist confronts the underachieving fighter, incensed that the crowd is cheering for America. This leads to the revelation that Drago does not fight for his country, but for himself. This is all good, however, because after Rocky's victory, even the Soviet Premier stands to applaud him. At this point in the film, the audience should breath a sight of relief. According to Ronald Reagan, "as long as Communists preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world (224)."

Sure, there are some discrepancies that could be pointed out. For example, before the fight between Creed and Drago, Creed is wearing his boxing gloves. There's a single frame where he's not wearing his gloves, and then he has them back on again. Also, at the beginning of the film, a lot is made over the fact that the East and West have never met in sports. Um, really? In the case of Rocky IV, it's obvious, because Drago was an amateur before turning professional. Even if he didn't hail from an oppressive regime, it would have been impossible for him to fight professional American boxers. On top of that, American baseball teams played against Japanese teams in exhibition matches back in the early 1930s.

In conclusion, Stallone didn't really create a film with overt metaphors and allusions to Lenin and Stalin, but that wasn't his intention; the United States/Soviet relations provided an easy conflict to paint on the boxing ring. However, it should be considered a political movie for that reason. It caused me to research the Cold War, to learn more about it than I knew before, and therefore increased my political and historical knowledge. And, as Rocky says at the end: "If I can change, and you can change, then anybody can change."

Work Cited:

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War. Copyright 2005 by John Lewis Gaddis.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Casual Friday--Poetry IV

Normally, my Friday poetry posts deal with fun activities in the vein of found art and piecing together random words in a sort of poetic collage. No, it's nothing that serious or revealing, but I find it enjoyable. However, for this installment (and for more future Friday poetry entries), I'd like to focus on a poem by Wallace Stevens. As I've mentioned quite a few times, I'm not as knowledgeable on poetry as I'd like to be, at least as far as having a basic eye for certain poets and styles. Undoubtedly there are "easier" poets I could have started with, but Wallace Stevens's name has continually shown up in my readings.

While reading one of his poetry collections, I came across "On the Road Home," and was struck by how it seems to reflect both the current American landscape, as well as my personal life:

"On the Road Home" By Wallace Stevens
"It was when I said,
'There is no such thing as the truth,'
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.
You...You said,
'There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth.'
Then the tree, at night, began to change,
Smoking through green and smoking blue.
We were two figures in a wood.
We said we stood alone.
It was when I said,
'Words are not forms of a single word.
In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts.
The world must be measured by eye';
It was when you said,
'The idols have seen lots of poverty,
Snakes and gold and lice,
But not the truth';
It was at that time, that the silence was largest
And longest, the night was roundest,
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest and strongest (164-5)."
I'm afraid that if I analyze it too much, the tone of this entry will lean to the side of technical rather than poetic. I'll try to keep my ideas to a minimum and let the poem speak to you (the reader) in the ways it personally should. The opening stanza seems to hold the idea that, even in the best of times, there is always a sad reality on the horizon. In these post September 11th years, we've experienced this. How quickly we've gone from prosperity to international woes and a sinking economy, complete with countless people giving countless opinions. "There is no such thing as the truth," indeed.
The fourth stanza, on a very superficial level, reminded me of next week's Presidential election, although the use of the word idol would be too grandiose for either Barack Obama or John McCain, based on your preference. However, they have both seen lots of poverty, both literally and figuratively, as they've made their campaign rounds these past several months. Whomever wins still hasn't seen the truth, since a position like that can only be known once the office has been obtained.
The third stanza speaks loudly to me, as it probably would to any writer and reader. "In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts." Again, making a connection that might be a stretch, projects can seem ungodly daunting, and at times it can be easy to be pessimistic, to get caught up in the tiny details without taking the entire project into account. This goes for writing, drawing, research, and pretty much anything creative. This very idea also highlights one of the poem's themes (as I see it): contrasts between pessimism and optimism.
Hmm...I have some more ideas in mind, but as I said, I'll let the poem stand on its own. I think I'm overriding it with unnecessary "touchy-feeliness."
Work Cited:
Stevens, Wallace. The Palm At the End Of the Mind. Copyright 1971 by Holly Stevens.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Jump Shots

I've spent bits and pieces of the past three days or so working on, editing, and re-writing this post, which to begin with was nothing more than a light preview of the upcoming NBA season. As much as I love the NBA, I've never really found myself thinking about an approaching season, at least not as much as I've been doing in the past month. Even though Seattle no longer has a team (which means limited TV broadcasts for me, unless Comcast miraculously decides to air Portland Trailblazers games), and the Chicago Bulls are probably not going to accomplish more than a first-round playoff loss, I've found myself wondering about teams that I normally wouldn't think twice about. This is very good, since I've expressed earlier excitement about the NBA returning to relevance, and I feel that after last year's playoffs, and all the coverage of the preseason, the relevance is genuine.

Also, the fact that writing a simple, breezy preview was so difficult is very good, since I found myself trying to "out-hustle" (yes, please forgive the obligatory basketball cliche) each previous draft. On a humorous note, the sport of basketball also contributed to delays in the writing. I live next to a church parking lot that has a basketball hoop, and I tend to try and alleviate bouts of lackluster readings and writings by going out to shoot baskets. It didn't help too much in this case, but at least I got a taste of irony by actively engaging in the very sport that I was having trouble writing about. All of this buildup might be too much. Instead of a strict essay, I'm going to try and answer my own questions about the 2008-2009 NBA season, which begins on Tuesday.

1.) Is Greg Oden going to be under too much pressure? Oden was the first overall pick in the 2007 draft, but missed the entire season due to knee surgery. Now that he's healthy, he's generating even more excitement than he did before last season, even to the point of overshadowing this year's rookies. His team, the Portland Trailblazers, had an excellent season without him, even though they missed the playoffs. I don't think he'll be under pressure, but everyone in Portland (and the NBA) will be holding their breath for at least two weeks to make sure his knee really is healed. The Trailblazers will definitely win 5-6 more games than last season, and a final stat line of ten points per game, fifteen rebounds per game, and two blocks per game would be an excellent first season for him.

2.) After this season, will Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets be considered the best point guard in the league? Yes.

3.) Will Larry Brown make a difference as the head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats? This is a tough question. They're a young, unproven team with a few good individual players (Gerald Wallace, Emeka Okafor, and potentially Sean May), but nobody can really expect them to make a playoff run. Brown has historically coached teams to better performances, but his tendency to jump from team to team wears thin after awhile. However, as comically inept as Michael Jordan has been as a basketball executive (he's the Manager of Basketball Operations for the Bobcats), he at least brought in a great coach and will hopefully leave Brown alone to call the shots. The quality of leadership too often gets misconstrued, especially in the sports world, but Larry Brown will at least bring stability to the franchise.

4.) After years of clearly being the lesser conference in the NBA, has the Eastern Conference caught up? Yes, finally, although the top to bottom talent still isn't as great as the Western Conference. As odd as this may seem, I think it's due to a single player not named LeBron James. Elton Brand's signing with the Philadelphia 76ers has made a decent team potentially one of the best in the conference. To me, that shows how close the East is to being equal to the West. All it took was a single player to elevate a team, and I feel that a few of the Eastern Conference teams are one or two star players away from being consistent playoff threats. Want another example? If Kobe Bryant had gotten his early wish last year and had been traded to the Chicago Bulls, he would have taken the team deep into the playoffs. Since the Western Conference rosters are quite deep, it's easy for a single trade or signing to help shift the balance. I envision more trades in the coming months leading into the new year, trades that will help teams get better.

5.) Which Western Conference disappointment has the "best" chance of losing in the first round again? I have to go with the Phoenix Suns, and it has nothing to do with the team getting older. I just simply cannot see Steve Nash, Amare Stoudamire, and Shaquille O'Neal getting deep into the Western Conference playoffs. The other disappointments have made improvements. The Dallas Mavericks have a new coach and an overall sense of urgency to shape up and stop getting kicked around. The addition of Ron Artest to the Houston Rockets, along with a healthy Yao Ming, should at least get them to the second round of the playoffs. The Suns? It should be another season of 50-55 wins and another playoff disappointment. Most of the articles I've read hint that the team will probably be dismantled if they fall short, but no matter what, they cannot lost Amare Stoudamire. Rebuilding is fine, but it would be fantastically stupid to let go of one of the best young players in the league.

6.) In regards to the new Oklahoma City Thunder logo: are you kidding?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Cormac McCarthy--Language Landscapes

I recently finished reading what is normally considered Cormac McCarthy's greatest novel, Blood Meridian. While it's certainly among one of the best books I've read in a long while, I cannot place it "best-of" style among McCarthy's canon, since the only other novel of his that I've read is The Road. The film version of No Country For Old Men should probably count for half a point in this tally, since most of the essays I've read generally agree that the film is a faithful adaptation. However, I won't put too much stock into that, since I've always agreed with the old saying that the book is almost always better than its film version.

Before I get into specific thoughts, my reading of Blood Meridian put a spin on another longstanding literary "rule." When one reads an English translation of a non-English novel, it's usually a given that, no matter how good the translation is, something (whether it be specific passages, certain words, or entire intangible atmospheres) often gets lost. Unless you're reading a work in the original language, it's simply not the same in its English form, no matter how good. I've never thought of this adage in reverse until I finished Blood Meridian. Take this passage:

"They followed an old stone trail up out of the valley and through a high pass, the mules clambering along the ledges like goats. Glanton led his horse and called after the others, and yet darkness overtook them and they were benighted in that place, strung out along a fault in the wall of the gorge. He led them cursing upward through the profoundest dark but the way grew so narrow and the footing so treacherous they were obliged to halt. The Delawares came back afoot, having left their horses at the top of the pass, and Glanton threatened to shoot them all were they attacked in that place (McCarthy 149)."

The novel is full of paragraphs fashioned with rapid verbs and stark descriptions that sometimes don't stop for analysis; events happen and the story moves along. I thought about the ideas of translation in a couple different ways. One, as I hinted above, would this English novel lose its atmosphere in translation to, say, Spanish or French? McCarthy is writing about the Old West, a time and era unfamiliar to modern Americans, with "familiarity" coming through stylized, cleansed Western films and books. I cannot help but think that readers in other languages would understand the book, but still lose something innate and present in the descriptions...just like what happens when English speakers read Proust or Marquez. Another side of translation that I thought of was that Blood Meridian feels like a translation. Despite being filled with metaphors and allusions, passages like the one cited above might (at first glance) feel simple, as if they've been modified from a different source. Then, it struck me: a reader of this novel (no matter what language it is presented in) is reading a translation of sorts, reading a description of 1840s-50s Southwest America written by someone in 1985. McCarthy was obviously not alive during that time, but his gifts of language and description are so detailed that one cannot help but believe the authenticity of the novel's events (which were based on true happenings in the mid-nineteenth century). Dialects and meanings definitely change within a language from era to era, so in a way, we're reading a "translation" of sorts.

As I mentioned, the novel is rife with metaphor, biblical comparisons and allusions, and is the type of work that requires intense study and re-readings, so anything I mention in this post should be taken with a grain of salt, since I'm merely going on a single reading. The story follows the exploits and adventures of "the kid" who teams up with an anti-social, violent gang made up of intimidating, colorful characters, many with two sides, hidden motives, and descriptive names such as "judge" and "ex-priest." What can safely pass as one of the main plots is the murder and scalping (for sale) of Indians in the American Old West. Like William Gaddis, McCarthy has no need for quotation marks, simply letting the dialogue stand on its own. At certain points, I was reminded of two other novels.

"All to the north the rain had dragged black tendrils down from the thunderclouds like tracings of lampblack fallen in a beaker and in the night they could hear the drum of rain miles away on the prairie. They ascended through a rocky pass and lightning shaped out the distant shivering mountains and lightning rang the stones about and tufts of blue fire clung to the horses like incandescent elementals upon the metal of the harness, lights ran blue and liquid on the barrels of the guns. Mad jackhares started and checked in the blue glare and high among those clanging crags jokin roehawks crouched in their feathers or cracked a yellow eye at the thunder underfoot (186)."

In seventh grade, my English class read Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. I clearly remember that our teacher had us make a list of all the colors that Crane mentioned, and by the end, there were well over one hundred examples of color adjectives. The same is true of Blood Meridian. As desolate and violent as the landscapes and the people are, there are constant references to hues and colors, which serve two functions. One, these adjectives highlight and give the reader concrete mental images of the book's settings. Two, in the case of the works of Crane and McCarthy, colors provide an ironic contrast to the violence. While The Red Badge of Courage is nowhere near as violent as Blood Meridian, there's definite angst when a page has meticulous details of violence mixed with vibrant colors of nearby objects.

The other novel I had in mind was The Road. It's been about a year since I last read it, and I don't have a copy available in order to make specific, cited comparisons. However, as I was reading, I felt that the two McCarthy novels were sort of linked, whether as similar entities or opposites. Blood Meridian's "kid," at least at the beginning of the novel when not much is known about him, reminded me of the son in The Road. They're both young, somewhat innocent, and subconsciously know that violence is looming. The bandit gangs that abound in Blood Meridian are not unlike the unseen villains that the father warns his son about in The Road. Even the time periods, while separate, can be connected. The futuristic, post-apocalyptic landscape of The Road would likely resemble the landscape of Blood Meridian, especially if more people were introduced in the former.

In both cases, McCarthy uses his incredible gift of language in all forms. Whether he's giving us a scenario at face value or layering it with metaphor for interpretation, he can take utter depravity and somehow make it beautiful, forcing readers to admire the situations even as they recoil from them.

Work Cited:
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. Copyright 1985 by Cormac McCarthy.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

(Needless?) Nitpicking on Jenny Lewis

(Note: As I've mentioned before, music writing isn't my strong point. I'm trying to rectify this, so accept my apologies if this post is a bit scattered.)

(Note II: As I wrote this, I had the title in mind, but had this nagging feeling that I had seen the word "nitpicking" used very recently in another headline. This turned out to be correct, as it was used in a Culture Snob posting about Sarah Palin. Granted, this article and that one deal with two very different women, but I feel that I owe it to Jeff (the creator of Culture Snob) to acknowledge this. I'm sure he wouldn't accuse me of plagiarizing an essay title, but to me it's the right thing to do.)

I recently bought Acid Tongue, the latest solo album by Jenny Lewis. It's as solo as a musician can get, considering the appearances by Elvis Costello, Zooey Deschanel, Chris Robinson, et. al. My purchase of this disc came about in this manner: I heard it was coming out a few months back and got very excited. The release date came and went, and I finally came around to picking it up about two weeks after the fact. I listened to it, enjoyed it, and am left wondering if it will become part of my laptop listening rotation. I'm also left wondering: am I really a Jenny Lewis fan?

At first glance, "Yes, absolutely" is what I would say if someone asked me this on the street. As muddied as the genre "indie rock" is becoming as a definable entity, Lewis has undoubtedly been one of its reigning queens. She first came to my attention a few years ago, when I really enjoyed her faint, beautiful vocals on a few Postal Service tracks. She's physically beautiful, too, but this has nothing to do with her talent. I think I was fourteen the last time I bought an album based on the attractiveness of the female musician in question. Maybe it's strange that I'm questioning my fondness for a vocalist based on my feelings for an album that I enjoyed. Perhaps this essay is my feeble attempt to make sense of this. I was never really big on Rilo Kiley, but I only have one of their albums, More Adventurous. It was an enjoyable power pop album, but I could name a hundred better discs. In the interest of not going off on too many tangents, I'm going to stick to her solo work.

2006's Rabbit Fur Coat was a collaboration with the Watson Twins, but it was undeniably Jenny Lewis. Her songwriting was impressive, but most of the album's acclaim came via the song "Handle With Care," a Traveling Wilburys cover. While Lewis gave an excellent interpretation, the standout for me was the song "It Wasn't Me," an aching, bluesy song that truly deserves the hyperbole of "haunting." Any discussion of Lewis's best efforts has to include this song. Overall, even the album's up-tempo numbers had a tinge of sadness and echoes of smoky bar laments. The more I think about it, this might be why I'm confused as to how Acid Tongue affected me. Was I expecting the same thing as Rabbit Fur Coat instead of listening for what it is? If so, that might be a first, a listener taking the blame instead of doling it out to the musician.

I think part of my apathetic view of this album is that I wasn't expecting what I feel is its core--which is normally a good thing when a piece of art goes in a different direction than one assumes. Is she trying to emulate classic female vocalists? It sort of feels that way, since, in some way, she's wrapping an old-fashioned voice around contemporary lyrics. However, there's a touch of originality missing that was evident on Rabbit Fur Coat. To me, it sounds like her voice is trying to catch up to a given song's intensity, but it cannot quite catch up. On a positive flip side, she oftentimes sounds a lot younger than she is, giving her work a hint of vulnerability. For example, Neko Case is arguably my favorite female vocalist, but even when she's trying to sound softer (i.e. trying to soften her voice to Jenny Lewis's style), she always sounds tougher and can't always nail the atmosphere of innocence. Sure, these might be intangible qualities, but every listener picks up on different ideas and intentions in a given song.

Then again, as the title of this piece implies, am I just nitpicking? Am I merely trying to rationalize that I didn't like Acid Tongue as much as Rabbit Fur Coat?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Beauty, Desolation, Redemption

Several months ago, I planned on re-screening and writing about David Gordon Green's 2003 film All the Real Girls. This is arguably one of my all-time favorite films, and while it's taken me awhile to get to this post, it worked out in a wonderful way, analytically. While the definitions of a "great film" are eclectic, I firmly believe that one of the factors is the potential to discover different aspects of a given film on multiple viewings. This is definitely the case with this film. I think my college newspaper review of the film went on and on about the beauty of All the Real Girls as a realistic relationship movie. This is still true, but at that time, I didn't have the sharpest eye for some of the smaller details, not to mention the stunning production design.

The main character, Paul (Paul Schneider) lives at home with his single mother, works odd jobs, and bums around with his friends: Tip, Bust-Ass, and Bo. One of the early shots in the film captures them as children who happen to be adults. They wander around their small town, sharing a single bicycle, and engage in playful banter:

Their friendship gets tricky with the arrival of Tip's younger sister, Noel, who has returned from boarding school grown up. There are immediate sparks between her and Paul, which Tip immediately disapproves of, for two reasons. One, there's always an unspoken rule in male friendships that a sister is off-limits. Two, Paul has a history of sleeping with women in the town and intentionally ending relationships before they start. Noel is played perfectly by Zooey Deschanel:

She captures intelligence and innocence, and her physical beauty is not exaggerated, unlike some of the other women in the town whom Paul has bedded. He sees more in Noel than he's accustomed to, and fears Tip's wrath. Quite a few times, he looks over his shoulder before engaging in a simple kiss or conversation with her:

However, his greatest fear is himself and his history. At one point, when Noel reveals her virginity and says that she trusts him, Paul cannot bear to even lie next to her or consistently look her in the eye. Ultimately, as he falls in love with her, human instincts take over, but not in the expected ways. One of the major ideas that I missed in earlier viewings is that the film is not so much about Paul and Noel's relationship, but primarily about Paul finding himself, learning how to be happy, and accepting his mistakes with women.

My recent screening showed a definite hierarchy in the friendships. As similar as Paul and Tip are, Tip has the (for lack of a better term) upper hand, simply based on being Noel's brother and his tendency to lose his temper at a moment's notice. The film later shows that he has a lot more inside than he normally shows:

Paul is in the middle by default, because as immature as he is, he's no match for Bust-Ass (Danny McBride):

Bust-Ass has his own feelings for Noel, and while he can be chauvinistic, there are hints that he has a sensitive side.

Finally, All the Real Girls has some of the most breathtaking imagery, courtesy of production designer Richard Wright. Jeremy at Too Many Projects Film Club has some excellent writings here regarding Wright's production design on Green's 2000 effort, George Washington. I'll let these images speak for themselves to close this post. Note the stark differences of the landscapes, which all represent the same area. The contrasts between rural nature and rural small town desolation are staggering.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A New Website

Some friends of mine back in Chicago have banded together to launch a very cool (and very new) website: Collision Detective. Think gaming, think music, think pleasant diversions. I'm not just vouching for them because they're my friends (okay, fine, I am), and the minds behind it should be turning out some excellent reviews, essays, and brainstorms.

I hope to contribute to it as well, in addition to my own blogging duties here. Stay tuned for more information, and keep checking out their site. It looks very promising.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Modern Spin

"A number of magazines devoted to the player--many of them put out by the manufacturers themselves--were stolidly enough written to convince any player owner that his was the most important instrument in the history of music and that he was its master (Gaddis 2)."

This quote is from William Gaddis, an excerpt from "Stop Player. Joke No. 4," a brief essay on the history of the player piano. While the piece was published in 1951, I cannot help but think how it could also apply to the video games Rock Band and Guitar Hero. More specifically, if he were alive today, would Gaddis see a possible connection? I can't think of a stronger way to ask that question, a way that wouldn't sound like an elementary school textbook (remember questions like "What would George Washington say about democracy today?").

"Although Gaddis had kept perhaps one hundred pages from earlier drafts and he anticipated (at this stage) a finished work approaching fifty thousand words...brief though it is, the essay is complete and it stands as the closest indication of what he had in mind for the player piano project (Tabbi 6)."

In his excellent notes on Gaddis's essay collection The Rush For Second Place, Joseph Tabbi mentions Gaddis's major unrealized project, a (social and chronological) history of the player piano, namely how technology helps or impedes the arts. While the available analyses don't seem to offer any explicit opinions, a reader wouldn't be faulted for guessing that Gaddis believed that the player piano impeded creativity rather than helped it. With the music rolls, the user of a player piano needed no musical knowledge or training, but could appear to be a classically trained pianist.

The connection to the video games came about after seeing Rock Band played at a party a few weeks ago and reading quotes in Entertainment Weekly both praising and criticizing its popularity. (A brief note on EW: If you follow this blog, you may have noticed two or three previous references to this publication. My sister-in-law has a subscription to it, and I tend do do a lot of deep thinking in the bathroom with back issues on hand.) On one hand, the games are fun at parties, especially after a few beers. Plus there are indications that they might steer people to actually learning musical instruments. On the other hand, some (children) might be led to believe that playing music is nothing more than pushing synchronized buttons.

While the games are wildly popular, there's no real reason to fear that they will overtake actual bands and instruments in popularity. When the player piano was in its prime, that idea was a definite possibility. Consider these notes compiled by Gaddis:
1.) "Their piano praised by: His Holiness Pope Pius X, the Sultan of Turkey, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Bros., Prince Tadashigo Shimedsu--and installed on 32 battleships (162)."
2.) "Decade 1900-10, rate of pianos increases 6.2 times that of human beings (163)."
3.) "As for the ultimate consumer of all this musical feast, the American music lover, he ate it up and cried for more. No longer did he have to exert himself even to the extent of pumping pedals or pushing levers. An electric motor now reduced his chores to zero. He merely sat back, relaxed, and dreamed, while his piano, entirely on its own, delivered performances by the giants of the keyboard, from Pachmann and Godowsky to Vincent Lopez, right in his own living room. No czar, sultan, or begum could command more [clipping] (165)."

Then again, what's to say that two current video games couldn't start such a revolution? There are websites that allow users to create songs with just a few mouse clicks. In the early 20th century, entertainment options were limited, so a novelty like the player piano could easily create a diversion monopoly. Today, music and games are just a fraction of the available hobbies and entertainments. Getting back to my original question, what would Gaddis say about something like Rock Band?

My guess is that the argument would be the same--entertainment and karaoke stylings are fine, but people need to remember that the notes and songs being reproduced electronically needed to be created in the first place. A video game can never supplant a live show, just as a book with novel-writing tips and "formulas" can never be a substitute for an idea and creativity. William Gaddis and Marshall McLuhan were two authorities on communications and technologies, yet it's fascinating how different their personalities appeared on paper. McLuhan seemed to be full of excitement and optimism, whereas Gaddis (to paraphrase Franzen) seemed to grow more bitter as he got older. One can only imagine how angry his player piano opus would have been. The notes left behind really seem to be the forming of a mental eruption.

Work Cited:
Gaddis, William. The Rush For Second Place. Copyright 2002 by the Estate of William Gaddis. Introduction and notes copyright 2002 by Joseph Tabbi.

"You Against You" in Hobart; "I Don't Want to Pry" in Pidgeonholes

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