Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year

I hope 2007 was good to you, and 2008 will be even better. Photos from a Flickr search for the most interesting photos tagged 'explosion.'

Happy New Year!

2007: Music

Sixteen years of musical fanaticism and (shamefully, I suppose), since making the modest shift from angst to melancholy, from Nirvana and Pearl Jam to Dinosaur Jr. and Luna in 1994 or so, I can't really say that my tastes have evolved all that much. When I flip through my year's purchases and play lists, it's still very much indie rock. And I get deeper in to Dylan. Ah, well. Here's 2007 for you, recommended, in all its glory:

Albums Released in 2007:
Fort Nightly, White Rabbits
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon
Night Falls Over Kortedala, Jens Lekman
Person Pitch, Panda Bear
Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, Of Montreal
Challengers, New Pornographers
Friend Opportunity, Deerhoof
Boxer, The National
23, Blonde Redhead
Asa Breed, Matthew Dear
The Shaky Hands, The Shaky Hands
Live At Massey Hall, 1971, Neil Young
Let's Stay Friends, Les Savy Fav
Mirrored, Battles
Weirdo Rippers, No Age
Woke on a Whaleheart, Bill Callahan

Albums Discovered/Re-Discovered in 2007:
The Greatest, Cat Power
New Morning, Bob Dylan
Bringing It All Back Home, Bob Dylan
Dongs of Sevotion, Smog
Ce, Caetano Veloso
Writer's Block, Peter, Bjorn & John
Absolutely the Best, Ike & Tina Turner
The Remains, The Remains
The dBs, Stands for deciBels
Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, Arctic Monkeys

Notable Songs:
If I were with it, a music critic, this list would be littered with hip-hop and country songs, M.I.A. and Gypsy-influenced emo. Sadly, I'm not. I still buy CDs, don't listen to the radio, and don't hear many singles. So you'll get mostly more indie rock. Sorry:

"Senor," Willie Nelson & Calexico
"Goin' to Acapulco," Jim James & Calexico
"I've Been Out Walking," Nina Nastasia & Jim White
"Myriad Harbor" and "Failsafe," The New Pornographers
"The Underdog" and "Rhythm & Soul," Spoon
"Pots & Pans" and "Brace Yourself," Les Savy Fav
"A Postcard to Nina," Jens Lekman
"No Cars Go," Arcade Fire
"Weird Fishes / Arpeggi," Radiohead
"Sycamore," Bill Callahan
"Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider," Of Montreal
"Up Against The Wall," Peter Bjorn & John
"Bros," Panda Bear
"Tourist Trap," White Rabbits

Lessons learned? I'm a sucker for kick drums and horns...

If you want to know what the cool kids like (some of which I like, some of which I'm not as smitten by), here are the year end comps from Pitchfork, Stylus, Slate, and AllMusic.com.

2007: Movies

Movies enjoyed (and recommended!) in 2007, both old and new. Caveats at the end:

In the Theater:
I'm Not There
Rescue Dawn
Ratatouille
Hot Fuzz
Michael Clayton
The Lives of Others
Notes on a Scandal
No Country for Old Men
Zidane

On DVD:
The Siege
Batman Begins
Extras
Ong Bak
Once in a Lifetime
A History of Violence
The Science of Sleep
An Inconvenient Truth
Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic
The TV Set
Match Point
Grizzly Man
Out of Sight
Me And You And Everyone You Know
Idiocracy
Planet Earth
Why We Fight
Pan's Labyrinth

And, having done the once-over of Dana Stevens' list over on Slate.com, a few films that I have every intention of seeing, and simply haven't at year's end, but I'm guessing will make the list: The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, Persepolis, and There Will Be Blood.

2007: Books

A good year for reading, on subways and airplanes, in India and Rhode Island and New York and California. My recommended reads, if you haven't already got to them (very few 2007 releases, since I read in paperback):

Fiction:
A Bend in the River, V.S. Naipul
Appointment in Samarra, John O'Hara
Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion
The Insanity Defense, Woody Allen
In Persuasion Nation, George Saunders
Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Le Carre
Giraffe, J.M. Ledgard

Non-Fiction:
Fiasco, Thomas Ricks
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
Prime Green, Robert Stone
Class Matters, Correspondents of the New York Times
Planet of Slums, Mike Davis
Kafka Was the Rage, Anatole Broyard

Little write-ups of each book can usually be found in the month in which I read the book. Search the site if you are interested in more detail on anything listed.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

Since everyone seems to have either left the city or gone into hiding, I headed down to the Angelika last Friday to see Sidney Lumet's Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. The movie has gotten exceptional reviews, particularly for the performances of Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was good, not great. I appreciated how cold and brutal it was, but perhaps even a little too heavy? And while Philip Seymour Hoffman is great, I definitely enjoy when his heavy-set, hard-luck with issues schlubs have a halo of good humor surrounding them. Not so here. It was actually Albert Finney who I thought was the most excellent of the lot (for all of the rave reviews of Ethan Hawke's acting, has the bar for praise been set at believable?). And while the opening scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei may have been completely gratuitous (sure, we understand his motivation), if Sidney Lumet wanted to make a two hour movie of Marisa Tomei walking around in her underwear, well, I'd watch it.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Happy Birthday JJK + Robot Love


JJK, I hope you are preparing your woman for the day that you will have to leave her:
Here's a prediction that'll make you squirm: In the future, people will fall in love with robots. Robots will not be cold, predictable machines, but actual lovers -- precocious, sexy, and remarkably humanlike in appearance. Humans will even marry robots in certain obliging jurisdictions. Now send the kids into the other room while we mention the obvious, bizarre implication: Someday, people will have sex with robots.

And not just cold, mechanical sex that barely incites a feeble meep-meep-meep from your robot lover: No, we're talking about real elbow-pads-and-helmets sex. Electrifying sex! (And afterward the robot will take a drag on a cigarette and say, "That really recharged my batteries.")

Another book that I think I will have to read, this time from David Levy, entitled Love and Sex with Robots.

PS - Mrs. JJK, if you can incorporate enough robot come-ons into your bedroom repertoire, perhaps you can fool JJK into thinking you're a robot well into the future...

PPS - Another quote from the author:
"Love with robots will be as normal as love with other humans," Levy writes, "while the number of sexual acts and lovemaking positions commonly practiced between humans will be extended, as robots teach us more than is in all of the world's published sex manuals combined."
Shouldn't there be a law for a picture of the author of these kind of works to be published alongside the review, so we can imagine if it is Professor Frink making these predictions or someone more along the lines of James Cromwell's character from iRobot? And didn't this scenario already get predicted by Johnny 5 coming on to Ally Sheedy in Short Ciruit?

The White Castle

When I was young, 14 to 17, I loved Kafka and Borges. I have to assume that I still do, although I haven't revisited either in four or five years, at least. So why do I have such little attachment or reaction to the obvious antecedents of these writers? Orhan Pamuk's The White Castle (not to be confused with Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, which was hands-down funnier, probably did a better job of evoking early 21st century New Jersey than The White Castle did for Istanbul, and maybe even handled issues of Western influence on the Eastern mind with equal aplomb [OK, that's debatable]) is a novel that is built on the slim shoulders of Kafka and Borges. Abstract, employing narrative in the service of ideas, symbolic, attempting to fold itself into an origami of narrative logic, demanding very little emotional attachment, evocative of generalities, not specifics.

While the novel has enough character to engage throughout, it's great intellectual questions never rise above mild interest, and the plot and setting offer so much promise for texture and depth of understanding, which are never really delivered. The wink-wink literary intellect supporting the whole thing never pays off, making the novel tough to write about -- it feels like a novel that requires investigation and response, except that it simply does not elicit that response. Perhaps this essay on Pamuk's new collection of essays probably does a good job of summarizing feelings that I don't feel strongly enough to want to summarize.

Drinker's Peace + 2


The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and Christoper Hitchens. I may read all three with a certain mixture of regard and disregard, but rarely do I link over. Today I'll make an exception, for Hitchens' review of Eric Felten's forthcoming Cocktails, Culture, and the Art of Drinking Well. RM has long been an admirer of Felten's reviews in the WSJ, I believe, and I am duly excited by the arrival of this book. I'm sure it will be well-worn copy, referenced often by Mssrs. M and W and myself. From Hitchens' review:
His remark about one or two but never three has been, I hope, lifted from my own axiom about the relationship between martinis and female breasts. One is too few. Three is too many. Two seems somehow superbly right. His second observation, about the girlie factor, is something that greatly preoccupies Felten. When all is said, isn't there something very slightly fussy about all this mixing and shaking and measuring: something, perhaps, fractionally light in the loafers?
Borrowing from an old Esquire distinction, he suggests that masculine cocktails involve whiskey whereas feminine ones "lean heavily on cream, fruit juices and crème de this-and-that." That seems fair enough, except that both he and Kingsley Amis (about whom there was nothing limp-wristed) demonstrate a high degree of affection for the "Irish Coffee" cocktail and the exquisitely careful means of making it. Of course whiskey, which Felten calls "that least feminine-seeming of spirits," is involved, so the honors here can be reckoned as about even.
I believe we are all agreed. And to off-set the war-mongering behind all of this, three from Uncle Bob and GBV, everyman's drinking man.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Clark and Michael


If someone made an Internet-only series of shorts in which a 20-year old George Michael from Arrested Development and a 20-year old David Brent from The Office were best friends trying to make it as a writing team in Los Angeles, having their awkward interactions and quixotic efforts filmed and edited, in blatant rip-off of The Office, would you watch it? If one of the creators and stars of this particular effort was the adorable and so-far, so funny Michael Cera, and he was able to convince the likes of Andy Richter, Tony Hale, and David Cross to make cameos, would you watch it? Or would you just get angry? The rich get richer, and all that?

What if it was pretty good, charming and generally funny? And had a couple of nice touches, like Michael Cera throwing a couple of unseemly temper tantrums, dropping a couple of deadpan, really laddishly dirty moments, and had Clark Duke doing a great job being a 20-something L.A. wannabe-writer, drunken escapades, wrestling matches, and unwarranted hubris included? You'd have Clark and Michael. According to CNN's 2007 Top 10 lists, this was a hit, but I missed it. If you did, too, then check it out. Another good use of the internet.

Revisiting Max Headroom


I've been at my parents' house for the last three days, and due to a combination of suffering from work fatigue and wanting to shut my body and brain down, and being stuck in suburbia (although a beautiful corner of suburbia) and bored, I've watched a couple of hours of VH1's "Why I Love the 80s" programs. One segment visited the phenomenon of Max Headroom, which I remember quite clearly from my TV-addicted youth, and was a reminder of what a strange phenomenon it was.

Nothing was congruous about the character, nothing quite fit, from the too-blond, too-white, L.A. borderline-Nazi sheen of the character's physical appearance, the hyper-glitchy cadence of his speech, his altogether spectral appearance and back-story, and his weird commitment, in references and commercial engagements, to pop and consumer culture. I remember when he first came out, being struck at how thoroughly odd and slightly scary Max Headroom was, but finding a great appeal in that, particularly as a pop and commercial phenomenon. At second glance, the appeal still holds, and I'd go so far as to say that I prefer the disconcerting freakiness of Max Headroom as an aesthetic to they bored irony pervasive in so much contemporary popular culture.

Charlie Wilson's War

Thank god for Philip Seymour Hoffman and what a strange history of carelessness we have here in these United States is all I have to say about this otherwise forgettable movie. While womanizing is a step in the right direction, I'm still waiting for a really cut-loose evil Tom Hanks.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Farnsworth Invention + Hairspray

Last weekend, I brought my parents down to New York City on the occasion of my father's 60th birthday. I was hoping to give my parents the royal New York treatment, but successful planning was badly impaired by work - a constant thorn in my side, where I can't find time in my life to be nearly as thoughtful as I would like. On top of that, the weather was absolutely horrendous, below freezing, sleeting, with a pile-up of snow and ice making New York City streets hazardous. Add to that the holiday crowds, and a perfect weekend was quickly downgraded to just pretty nice.

We did get a chance to take in Aaron Sorkin's new Broadway production, The Farnsworth Invention. Starring Hank Azaria, the play relates the story of the invention of television, depicted as a competition between one of the first media moguls, NBC-founder David Sarnoff, and a genius-hayseed inventor from Utah, Philo T. Farnsworth. Immersed in its historical context, well-staged, generally light and funny, the play was good, worth your half-off TKTS admission, if you can get it. The only quibble I had was the very odd and over-the-top scene invented by David Sarnoff, which was both anti-climactic, off-beat, and insanely melodramatic.

As the weather prevented us from venturing to far afield in the city, we caught a Sunday afternoon matinee of Hairspray. What can you say about "Good Morning Baltimore," "The Nicest Kids in Town," and "You Can't Stop the Beat"? I dislike musicals, but if you're going to see a musical, I guess this one is the one to see. Even three ex-teen heart-throbs and a crowd full of fourteen year old girls wasn't enough to damn it.

Don't Stop Believin'


The annual year-end Best Of conversations are starting to tumble out, and the culture nerd in me is excited. Given that I didn't watch The Sopranos, I was a little bemused by Jody Rosen's decision on Slate to lead off her year end discussion with Journey... and more concerned that the YouTube clip was actually both really tepid and dorky. Because that song really does rock. Which closing a night of karaoke out a few weeks ago at Lulu's in Brooklyn with "Don't Stop Believing" only reinforced. That said, given that the song endures, there isn't a parallel logic that says ridicule of Journey shouldn't also endure. Because they were a ridiculous band. I wish I could find that clipping from the Eggers comic strip about Journey that ran in the SF weekly papers in 1996. Damn it!

Funny how out of touch I am with any year-end music list that focuses on singles. Since I routinely visit a very narrow sliver of the rock world with reverence, I definitely find myself out of step with the goings on in pop and hip-hop, and a little uncertain about the enduring qualities of a lot of the hits. In the same way that Journey endures as an alcohol fueled sing-along, so do Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" or House of Pain's "Jump Around." Doesn't make them necessarily important or interesting, outside of the strictly populist sense. And just because most people can't sing along to "The Weight" or "Common People" or "Psycho Killer" or "Back to the Lake" (god help me if I ever find that in a karaoke bar...) doesn't mean I'll stop singing it.

In the meantime, awaiting the rest of the lists that come out that will simultaneously drive me insane and drive me to go directly to Other Music.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Five from Hannah Cole


Hannah Cole. I don't know her, but I like her paintings, from the windows of cars.

Another Night of Vomiting With Yo La Tengo

ED, TL, and LC drove out to Maxwell's on a cold and rainy evening to see the 6th night of YLT's Hanukkah celebration. After circling Hoboken twice in search of parking, we finally made it to the club. We grabbed a bite to eat, and then ducked into the backroom to catch the last three or four songs of Redd Kross' set. Heather Lawless then came on, and she was OK (the Variety Shac stuff is more charming, I think). TL slipped out mid-set. Then YLT came on. It was hot in the club. TL had come back, but LC left. After a while, TL went to find out what was wrong. YLT opened with a cover of "Eight Days A Week." They played a great version of "Autumn Sweater" and the droned-out but rhythmic sprawl of "Pass the Hatchet." TL had not come back. LC had not come back. ED and I went to find out what was wrong. Food poisoning!

If this was the first time that a guest had been poisoned at a YLT show, I wouldn't hold it against them. But it's not! (We don't blame Maxwell's. ED and I were fine. We blame Joe's Pub.)

In the meantime, satisfy yourself by reading Ira's blog about the shows, or this interview with James from AllMusic.com. Key quote:
JM: It's pretty shocking. In America, maybe above any other country in the world, people will just talk during a show. When I go out to see bands play, people will just talk through the whole thing. And text. Actually, texting isn't so bad just because it doesn't make any noise. It still boggles my mind that people will pay $20 each to get into a show and talk the whole way through it. When I'm elected mayor, I will make that...well, certainly a ticketable offense. Maybe more. I haven't decided exactly what the punishment would be for that.
And, yes, I can refer to them by first name like I know them because, goddammnit, I once awkwardly introduced myself to them at the Commonwealth bar. So there. And now I'll fall asleep to "And Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out."

The Whalehunt + Basik Group's City of Light

There was a point where I may have been skeptical of Jonathan Harris' self-stylization as an internet artist or digital artist or whatever, but he consistently produces elegant, dense, engaging pieces that fully utilize the potential of Internet as medium. His latest, The Whalehunt, is well worth a look.

Basik Group's holiday gift contained a link to their City of Light project, which I found to be another altogether charming and worthwhile use of the internet.

Inside Fashion



"Sales are more important than media" - MM, Fashion Designer.

THAT'S MY BOY!!!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Relationship Between Money and Problems

Dear readers -- well, I won't be posting much until later this month, my life has been consumed by the devil work. Will try to push a few things out this week, mostly the November reading and raves lists, and maybe a few notes on recent activities (tonight's YLT concert, for example). So, until then, you'll have to be satisfied with this chart, and the unyielding maxim "Mo Money, Mo Problems." Graphical illustration of other such bits of wisdom can be found here, courtesy MC.

The November Raves List

Hooray for Henry!
Music
I'm Not There Soundtrack
Stands for Decibels, the dBs

Movies
No Country for Old Men
Grizzly Man (DVD)
Out of Sight (DVD)

Books
Giraffe, J.M. Ledgard
Planet of Slums, Mike Davis
Faceless Killers, Henning Mankell

Food & Drink
Little Dishes, Brooklyn, NY

Misc.
Grails at Knitting Factory / the return of WS
Black Watch
Fat Suits
HH Modern Art Lecture
Weekend in SF
Thanksgiving in RI / Thanksgiving eve's train ride
The arrival of Henry Emmet! (technically, December!)

The November Reading List

Faceless Killers, Henning Mankell
Amsterdam, Ian McEwan
Planet of Slums, Mike Davis
Giraffe, J.M. Ledgard
The Best American Poetry of 2007

This write-up is past due, and as it creeps further past deadline, I can only guess that I don't really want to write it. Not because the books I read this month were bad. They weren't. They ranged from the really excellent (Giraffe) to the good (Planet of Slums, Faceless Killers) to the grudgingly good (Amsterdam) to the about as good as I expected it to be (The Best American Poetry of 2007). I really have no excuse for balking at this, beyond over-work and holiday malaise. So here goes.

I've already written about J.M. Ledgard's debut novel Giraffe. It was everything I like in a novel - cleanly written, mysterious, elegant, smart, relating the bizarreness of our worlds, internal and external, with the drabness of our worlds. Read it.

Planet of Slums was an onslaught of dispiriting statistics, anecdotes, and analyses of macro-development trends, also very good, if not exactly heartening. A worthwhile look into what will surely be one of the most relevant and emotionally affecting stories of development in the next fifty years.

I picked up Faceless Killers on a whim in Penn Station, needing a good book to read over Thanksgiving. I had no context for Henning Mankell's murder mystery, set in the ice-blue winter of southern Sweden, and purchased the book solely on the strength of its appealing cover design, dust jacket accolades, and the desire for a wintry murder mystery. Faceless Killers was good in exactly the way murder mysteries are good. It managed to create suspense and an internal propulsion and gravity, from nothing in particular, other than brutal and senseless acts of violence, half-presented and unaccountable facts, speculation, an ensemble of odd, reticent characters, and the anxiety of the movement inherent in solving a mystery (or so I gather). The cold Swedish winter and the political color added by Europe's growing xenophobia in the face of an influx of immigrants and refugees added some, if not significant, texture to the novel. A more than worthwhile travel read.

I liken Ian McEwan's novels to M. Night Shyamalan's movies (I was going to suggest Spielberg, but I would be selling Spielberg short) -- accomplished, displaying an absolute mastery of form, engaging from start to finish, marvelous in construction, but more than a little contrived, and leaving me without a clear sense of purpose, at novel's end. So with Amsterdam. I can't dis-recommend the novel. It was good, generally interesting. It's necessary trope, at the novel's climax, was more than a little forced, and other than painting touches of the general anxiety of aging and nodding its head at the machinations of modern political intrigue, I'm not entirely sure what was holding the center of the novel. Probably nothing.

In this season of Best Ofs, well, you get a good sense of their worth. Compendiums for the uninitiated. Something to thumb through for those with a sense for what they like. So with The Best American Poetry of 2007. Not entirely clear why this is a recommended purchase over simply picking up a literary quarterly, but, hey, it wasn't bad, either.

The Best American Poetry 2007

While I think it is pretentious to sit in a bar (or on a train) and discuss poetry, if you are not a poet, I still do it anyhow. I am one of the very few people I know (RM and MP being the only others that come to mind), who actively care about and consistently engage with poetry. And, for good or bad, we have largely different tastes in this regard.

When it comes to poetry, I tend to like a few different kinds of poems. I enjoy poems that are written because the poet loves language - ranging from the clever, surprising, or inventive use of words to poems that are mostly just about the sounds of the words, treating them less as vessels of meaning, and more as things, that you might drop from a third story window, just to see what happened. I like poems that shine a light, that reach through time and space to allow you, the reader, and him/her, the poet, to share a moment of recognition, understanding, wonder, joy, or clarity. I do not, however, tend to like maudlin poems. I like poems that rattle a conceit, be it poetic, linguistic, literary, metaphysical, or whatever, in order to project a world. I tend to prefer a spare poem to a dense one, but I will take density if it offers entertainment.

I do not tend to read anthologies of poetry, more often flipping through magazines, and diving deeper into the body-works of poets who engage me. So, it was a bit of a whim that I bought The Best American Poetry of 2007, and I have to say, I was largely disappointed. A lot of poems, few of them bad, but only a handful really hit home. Here is a sampling of a few of my preferences:
Scumble by Rae Armantrout

What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words such as "scumble," "pinky," or "extrapolate?"

What if I maneuvered conversation in the hope that others would pronounce these words?

Perhaps the excitement would come from the way the other person touched them lightly and carelessly with his tongue.

What if "of" were such a hot button?

"Scumble of bushes."

What if there were a hidden pleasure
in calling one thing
by another's name?

A Voice From The City by Louis E. Bourgeois

And why, Nephew, does this engine make you sad?

The night before the Communists invaded the city my uncle sat at the
stone table and was transfixed by a dozen ripe bananas lying there.
"Aren't they wonderful, Nephew? Isn't it wonderful that we should
have such fruit in our house? We are luckier than all the kings who ruled
over Cambodia -- they could have all the bananas they wanted but as
sated as they were, they could never eat them." My uncle was not an
optimist; he had simply grown unclear in the head. He didn't sleep, he
sat up all night at the stone table staring at the bananas -- two days later
they dragged him to the outskirts of town and shot him in the face for
wearing eyeglasses.

1975

Etymology by Marilyn Nelson

The filth hissed at us when we venture out --
always in twos or threes, never alone --
seems less a language spoken than one spat
in savage plosives, primitive, obscene:
a cavemob nya-nya, limited in frame
of reference and novelty, the same
suggestions of what we or they could do
or should, ad infinitum. Yesterday
a mill girl spat a phrase I'd never heard
before. I stopped and looked at her, perplexed.
I derived its general meaning from the context,
but was stumped by the etymology of one word.
What was its source? Which demon should we thank
for words it must be an abomination to think?