Thursday, September 14, 2006

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me by Richard Farina

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me by Richard Farina (2/5)

I really wanted to like this book, I really did. Terse and sometimes difficult prose, drug flavored stream of consciousness, and heaping allusions to The Odyssey and pulp comic book heroes. At first the book seemed perfect for me, but not unpredictably Richard Farina’s creative well was poisoned by the usual dose of misogyny. Usually I can stand some cognac in my literature, but in this case it felt as if there was more poison than water. Been Down is a frustrating book, where Farina’s hatred of women overcomes, strangles, shoots, poisons, and drowns out any of his natural talent.

Been Down follows Gnossos Pappadopoulis as he navigates his way through college while the whiteheads of the sixties rebellion make their way through his circle of friends. Early on he seduces an engaged woman who quickly falls in love with Gnossos. Why? I have no clue because the description of the “seduction” veers precariously close to date rape. It is easily the least erotic love scene I’ve read. When the seduced woman informs her fiancé that she is in love with Gnossos, he ends up committing suicide. A paragraph of regret later and Gnossos is back to his old ways.

Gnossos eventually gets bitten by the love bug when he meets Kristin (of course, if you’ve read the novel you’ll know that’s not the only bug he gets bitten by). This gives Farina the opportunity to delve into some drug induced conversation and scenes. The first psychedelic set piece is rather successful, and it involves Farina describing a dream where he encounters a wolf. It actually plays rather well by taking the form of an allegory but denying the reader any strict one-to-one metaphor. This strong passage is offset by another psychedelic piece involving a demonic monkey. Yes, you read that right. It’s funny for all the wrong reasons, and the only way I was able to get past these passages was by imagining the evil monkey that lives in Chris Griffin’s closet on The Family Guy. (I took a similar approach in getting through Wuthering Heights by imagining that Joseph was the spitting image of Groundskeeper Willie).

Well, it goes without saying that Gnossos’ love ends when they have a falling out, she becomes pregnant but decides to rid herself of the child, and, naturally, at the end of the book Gnossos ends up forcibly giving her a heroin suppository. Once again, you read that correctly. There are more subtle examples of Farina’s misogyny, but you have to admit he saved the most flagrant for the finale.

At one point Kristin asks Gnossos if he ever gets tires “thinking about stuff all the time.” This line is second only to the demonic monkey in unintentional humor. If you’ve ever wondered why so many progressive hippies became straight laced businessmen or fanatic evangelicals, then I have two untested observations. First, for a certain age group being a hippie was the norm, and for many was merely conformity to a subculture (Charles Manson comes to mind). Second, many just could not escape the lifestyle their parents had raised them in since birth. A summer of love can’t quite overcome a childhood filled with gender roles. Farina suffers from the latter and it is readily apparent in Been Down.

It’s a shame that Richard Farina dies so young, because at times you can see the talent peeping out of this novel. The prose can be really strong and unique, but unfortunately Farina suffers from an immaturity that is beneath his years. I can sense that a good book was in him if he has survived. Perhaps by the time he was sixty he would have written a novel with the insight of a thirty-year-old?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Comets on Fire - Avatar

Comets on Fire - Avatar (5/5)

If you play this CD in reverse it says “Jesus is Satan.”

Comets on Fire are dense. Blue Cathedral was a punishing wall of noise. Listening to it I felt like one of those explorers in the black and white Tarzan movies equipped with a machete inching through the foliage. However, once you carved out your own path the album rewarded you tenfold. Comets are unapologetically classic rock, but instead of just breaking out the old Hendrix and painting by numbers they added some proto-punk and an echoplex.

Some thought Blue Cathedral was more attitude than it was songwriting, and to them Avatar is the perfect rebuttal. Here the Faces riffs and Robert Plant vocals are slowed down to further reveal the songs to the point where someone who hated Blue Cathedral might actually like Avatar. Don’t worry, there’s still use of the echoplex, and the songs are drawn from six to eight minutes in length (with one exception), but Comets have traded in some of their feral energy for a more dynamic sound.

Benefiting the most from the new dynamics is the bad acid sounding “Lucifer’s Memory,” a song that sounds like a flower wilting. There’s a certain cadence that plugs along with the chugging vocals pushing the song towards its seven minute mark. It has quickly become my favorite new song of this year.

While there are still some rockers, such as the opener “Dogwood Rust” which sounds as if its beginning should be found somewhere before you pressed play, just as the closer sounds as if it ends before the song has stopped, even these rockers sound less brutal than their predecessors. Only “Holy Teeth” has the same long-haired head banging attitude as Blue Cathedral, and it only lasts three minutes (only a minute in Comets on Fire time).

At almost nine-minutes “Soup Smoke” pushes the limits of pseudo-tribal beats. Instead of punishing noise Comets are pounding repetition into our heads. Just thirteen more seconds and I think I would have had a spiritual vision.

At only six minutes long the closer “Hatched Upon the Age” proves that it takes more than just length to be epic (six minutes is pretty short for a Comets on Fire song) and more than just noise for a crescendo. The miracle of the album is that through all of the interplay between the instruments sometimes it needs just a couple of simple repetitive piano keys to bring it all home.
Avatar is easily one of the best releases of ’06. Very few bands can bring me back to that feeling I got discovering classic rock bands in middle school. But don’t break out your eight tracks and dust off the old bong yet. Unlike with most bands, retro is only half of the story for Comets on Fire. Comets on Fire are ultimately timeless. Try as I might, I cannot lump them with all the other seventies rockers, but their sound hardly seems contemporary. It’s as if they’ve found some time wormhole so they can rock on across the ages. I’m there, man, I’m there.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Futureheads - News and Tributes

The Futureheads - News and Tributes (4/5)

Lazy critics lumped The Futureheads in with the whole neo-new wave/angular movement without much thought. However, once you scrape away the glossy sheen it becomes apparent that The Futureheads offer much more: a cappella harmonies, British invasion melodies, and post-hardcore guitars were often found within a single song. Each ingredient was added with some thought to the other, and none were overpowering. With their myriad of influences The Futureheads were poised for a colorful and diverse new album to eclipse their debut.

Did they succeed? Well, yes and no. This is a Futureheads album so the good far outweighs the bad, and while News and Tributes certainly expands The Futureheads’ sound, it fails to best their debut. Of course, nothing short of the second coming could have satisfactorily followed up the best album of 2004.

News and Tributes lacks the razor sharp edge The Futureheads used to carve out the taunt songs on their debut. At times this works to their advantage on the Brill Building-ish “Thursday” and some of the poppier numbers (“Skip to the End,” “Fallout,” and “Worry About it Later”), but when things get too slow the songs don’t hold together as well. “Burnt,” for example, seems obligatorily heartfelt. Tellingly, two of my favorite songs – “Yes/No” and “Area” – could have been b-sides from their eponymous album.

However, the aforementioned “Thursday” shows that the band isn’t afraid of letting a single style dominate, and the fact that this song exists on the same album that houses “Return of the Berserker” – faster than anything seen on their debut – proves that The Futureheads have the kind of range other bands couldn’t cohesively keep together. What does keep this album together is the simple fact that these guys are great songwriters with no shortage of ideas.

Now that The Futureheads have shown their range you can be certain this album will be in my rotation until their third one marries diversity with consistency. When that happens I’ll be well prepared for the sky to crack open and The Futureheads to lead us to the promised land.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Those 9/11 Films

So, this weekend marks the opening of Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. Mr. Stone is one of the few directors who has the honor of putting his name before the film title, and is a wildly uneven filmmaker. From the superb Platoon to the perplexingly bad Alexander, Stone is never afraid of bombast, which would either make him the worst or best choice for a director of a 9/11 film -- depending on who you ask of course.

I'm going to go ahead and pull a Fox News and comment about a film I have yet to see.

Can a respectful 9/11 film be made? Of course it can, and judging by many reviews of both World Trade Center and United 93 two respectful films have been made. However, it is difficult to watch these movies without an eye towards the political. Sure, sure, both directors have eschewed any political grandizing, and claim their films are also without politics, but can a film ever be completely separate from the world of viewers it reaches? In other words, isn't a film always political because the audience will be political?

In my opinion, you can't separate a key historical event from the politics of the day, especially when that event is being bullhorned at the American public to justify a whole range of issues. I cannot see myself going into the theater and shuting off the news of the day while watching the movie.

The service these films provide is to remind us that great heroes stepped forward and accomplished some incredible things. I, for one, have never forgotten that part of 9/11. However, in the aftermath the Republicans have used the heroics and sacrifices of the American people and wrung their bodies for every drop of propaganda. For the Republican party 9/11 didn't represent a tragedy, it represented a Machiavellian opportunity.

America had a chance to bring the world together over this tragedy, a day when everyone was an American, but instead they squandered that opportunity by using it as a false justiffication for a war that is sending the Middle East heardfirst over a cliff. Perhaps ten years from now I will be able to go back to these movies and remember just the heroics, but until then the films will not be just about the heroics, but also about how the Republican party hijacked a national tragedy for personal gain.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Escapists #1 by Brian K. Vaughn

The Escapists #1 by Brian K. Vaughn

Gotham, New York City, Metropolis, Coast City, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Central City, Keyston City, New York City…oh, wait did I already mention New York. There’s one city that’s missing: Cleveland. For a city that has spawned Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of the original superhero, Cleveland has few superheroes of its own. Sure we have Howard the Duck, but I have a sneaky suspicion that’s because of Cleveland’s natural ability to find its way into bad jokes rather than its good qualities. Hopefully Brian K. Vaughn can change that.

I was born in Cleveland but have lived in Seattle and Boston, and yet I still think of myself as a Clevelander. Cleveland has long been the punch line to rust belt jokes and there is a perverse kind of pride one gets from living there. It’s the underdog story, and no matter whether you win or lose, being an underdog is a bragging right in itself.

Here’s another list: Jerry Seigel, Joe Shuster, Harvey Pekar, and now Brian K. Vaughn. These Cleveland natives have each revolutionized the comic industry for the better. Not only is Cleveland the home of rock and roll but it’s also the birthplace of the superhero as well as the nexus of independent comics. That is why I was giddy over the fact that Brian K. Vaughn set his homage to the already classic The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in my birthplace.

For the two of you who don’t know, Michael Chabon wrote a what should have been voted the greatest novel of the past twenty-five years (Toni Morrisooooooooooon! [a native of Lorain, Ohio, just west of Cleveland]) called The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay that followed the lives of two Jewish immigrant cousins in New York who created the superhero The Escapists. Since the novel was published it has not only won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but also has spawned a series of comics that treat Kavalier and Clay’s lives as fact.

Vaughn does not tell the predictable Escapist story by pretending it’s an old issue, but rather focusing Max, who inherited a basement full of old Escapist comics and memorabilia after his father passed away. Years later Max’s mother also passes away. This Egger’s-like travesty results in Max inheriting $150,000 which he quickly uses to buy the long dormant rights to The Escapist. Max also recruits two friends for the roles of artist and letterer. It’s a story more fitting for a indie rather than Dark Horse comics (who have all but officially changed their name to Star Wars comics), and it’s also rather refreshing.

It’s difficult to judge a comic series based on the first issue, but the set up is intriguing enough to see where Vaughn is going. The idea of three kids going up against the big two publishers in their home court using a forgotten golden age superhero makes you wonder what Vaughn has up his sleeves. Oh, and it only costs a dollar. A dollar! Now you have no excuses.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut (5/5)
Vonnegut's introduction to Mother Night states that this is the only story of his he knows the moral of: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” For an author whose novels often read like a Jacob’s Ladder toy, amusing in their seeming lack of logic, it seems odd that he would write a novel with a clear and straightforward moral. However, what Vonnegut accomplishes in Mother Night is to rescue post-modernism from its more nihilistic tendencies, and makes it clear that our unreal selves can sometimes have real consequences.

Mother Night is apparently the diary of Howard W. Campbell Jr., written while he was awaiting a war crime trial in Israel. Of course Vonnegut is using the theme of a found text while claiming he only edited the manuscript. Much like the characters in his books, the authenticity of the novel itself is amorphous and unclear.

Through the course of the novel Campbell informs us that he was once a playwright turned Nazi propagandist who transmitted broadcasts espousing the Aryan philosophy across Europe. Similar to Reifenstahl’s claims, Campbell states that his own politics are nonexistent, and that he was merely doing his job. In fact, he purposefully makes these broadcasts so over-the-top that no one could possibly see them as anything but ridiculous, but in a world where people like Hitler and Himmler somehow took over an entire country, Campbell’s melodramatic broadcasts are viewed as genius. Soon he is contacted by an undercover U.S. agent who he affectionately calls his “Blue Fairy Godmother.” This agent forcibly recruit’s Campbell as a double agent, and using Campbell’s broadcasts, the Blue Fairy Godmother is able to transmit secret codes to the allied forces.

Vonnegut states in the book that the reason people are able to commit atrocities and still see themselves as a good person is the modern condition of schizophrenia. This leads to the question of whether or not Campbell is making up the Blue Fairy Godmother. Could the Blue Fairy Godmother be Campbell’s own form of schizophrenia? It's never certain whether the Blue Fairy Godmother is a real U.S. agent or a means Campbell uses to justify helping the Third Reich.

By the end of the book Campbell turns himself into the Israeli authorities so he can stand trial for war crimes. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Campbell was a double agent because his actions had very real and harmful consequences regardless. He stoked the coals of the Nazi propaganda machine, and regardless of whether he is guilty under the law, Vonnegut uses Campbell’s own admission of guilt to show that he is morally guilty. Whether or not Campbell was a double agent he is guilty of pretending to be a Nazi sympathizer. For a post-modern novel this is a very hard edged morality tale. Oftentimes post-modernism is criticized for moral relativity (interestingly enough, those who I’ve heard use moral relativity the most are conservative historians who wish to defend historical figures who have done questionable acts, slavery being a prime example). What Vonnegut accomplishes in Mother Night is to make it clear that while the “self” is amorphous and changing, our actual actions have a clear impact on others and cannot be fortified from morality.

Monday, July 17, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly (4.5/5)

My favorite Philip K. Dick adaptation is Blade Runner. It’s one of those adaptations that should never have worked. Ridley Scott’s Deckard has little to do with the book’s Deckard, only the skeletal outline of the plot is similar, and many of the assumptions and theories of the book are actually countered by the film. In the book the replicants lack any empathy towards other creatures and are never given a chance at redemption, while in the film the replicants are built without empathy but are given a chance to obtain it. What makes the film work is because it still understands the themes of the book even if it does not agree with them. That and because it’s the most visually unique film…well, perhaps ever.

A Scanner Darkly is the opposite of Blade Runner in that it is the most faithful Philip K. Dick adaptation…well, perhaps ever. This isn’t a film that takes Philip K. Dick’s ideas and dresses them up in some inane thriller, this is a Philip K. Dick book on the screen. The plot is largely absent from much of the film. Instead it focuses on the drugged out characters, and anyone who’s hung out around the perpetually stoned will recognize one or two of these stoner archetypes. Of particular note is Robert Downey Jr. doing another great character since his rehab. What the hell Downey, I thought all creativity was supposed to be used up by the time you go through rehab? It’s only until the second half of the movie that the plot twists start a-flyin’. If, like me, you’ve already read the book, then you’ll want to go for the great character interaction, already on the page, brought to life by the aforementioned Downey, Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane (who I was unfamiliar with, but does a great job at portraying a paranoid, nerve frayed druggie). You’ll also want to check out the great use of rotoscoping. I was surprised to learn a few months back that this was the same technique used in those 1940 Superman cartoon shorts. I guess everything old is new.

There are a few tweaks to the story line that make it slightly more relevant in today’s world, but I was surprised how little needed to be changed for Dick’s social commentary to shine through. It’s interesting how time tested political maneuverings remain relevent. The use of an enemy to annex more power is the oldest trick in the book, but people keep on falling for it. Again and again governments will sing the refrain of protection to eat away at the Bill of Rights. In Dick’s time it was protection against communism and the drug war. The drug war has been a good standby for years but it has recently been eclipsed by the war on terror. The drug war, terrorism, communism, Eurasia, Eastasia – governments will always create an enemy to make a power grab. Scanner paints a picture of a world where surveillance is so prevalent that the almost humorous situation of spying on yourself arises. Of course, one can ask the question about how many liberties we can give up to save “America” until we have actually destroyed the great experimental ideal of America our founding fathers hoped to create.

As with most Philip K. Dick, the shifting nature of reality is examined, but in Scanner this reality isn’t necessarily metaphysical as it is perceived (potential spoiler alert). Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) volunteers to go undercover in order to find the higher up drug dealers, but is unaware that his superiors have a second undercover operation in mind. While he did volunteer in a broad sense for undercover anti-drug work, and that is still what his superiors are using him for (albeit not in a way he expected), he did not volunteer specifically for the dehumanizing fate that would accompany this second undercover drug scheme. I am reminded of the soldiers sent to Iraq under the assumption that Saddam was related to 9/11 (as asserted by the President on several occasions and, interesting enough, repeated by commanders at Abu Graib prisons). However, once they arrived in Iraq the reasons for going there were switched around. There were no WMDs or 9/11 connection, and instead they realize they are there for two major reasons: oil and a naïve neo-conservative view of the world that believed toppling Saddam would make democracy flourish and solve the Middle East’s problems. (We can all see how that is turning out). Scanner portrays how easy it is for politicians to switch reality on the public once they have what they want.

Perhaps the next question is whether or not people even recognize that they were sold one war and given another. We live in a world where we're subject to a constant barrage of images everyday, and it means little to our mindset to go from a news anchor’s somber description of an Iraq massacre to a commercial about Depends. If our minds can make these extreme leaps, perhaps it’s not too difficult to think that what we believe one minute does not have to coincide with what we believe the next minute. To push the Iraq analogy, many people have no problem that they shouted WMDs at the top of their lungs before the war and democratization after the war without skipping a beat, and even claiming that democratization was their reason we should invade Iraq to begin with. It’s only a matter of time before people start claiming that the only way to protect civil liberties is to destroy them.

As you can see, A Scanner Darkly is one of those films you go and see late at night with a few of your friends, and then go get some coffee afterwards to talk about it. I guarantee you the conversation will take you places you didn't think it would. It is one of the great conversation films of...well, perhaps ever.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Sufjan Stevens Thinks You're a Ninny

Sufjan Stevens Thinks You're a Ninny

Do you need more of a reason to dislike Sufjan Stevens? Sure you do. Apparently mainstream critics aren't helping you out (Illinois was the best reviewed album of 2005 according to! (in my best William Shatner impression)). Well aside from being overrated, pretentious, and sappy, he also looks down on you if you like a particular song of his. Yes, you, a longtime Sufjan fan, if you like a song of his that isn't up to his standards (but still apparently "good" enough to put on his album and record multiple versions of), then according to him you're an idiot. The song: "Chicago."

According to a interview( Sufjan thinks that "Chicago" is "primitive" and "repetitive" and the reason people like it is "because it appeals to the lowest common denominator." So, if you're a Sufjan Stevens fan and you happen to like the song "Chicago," your taste is patheticly simple minded. Thank God he finally took aim at all those pesky fans buying his albums and tickets to his concerts. Who needs those assholes anyways. It's about time that musicians have finally called out fans for liking their music. I'm sure you're asking yourself, "but if Sufjan insults his fans, then who's going to buy his music?" The answer is simple: masochists. There are more of them than you think, and the more shit Sufjan heaps on his listeners, the more masochists are going to flock to the CD stores and concerts.

According to the article his insipid fans aren't the only problem with the world because there's been a recent "lowering of standards overall in art and music" which is possibly caused by "television, advertising, [and] pop culture." Wow, way to sound like you're ninety years old. Please, tell me another story of the good old days where you danced at the sock hop, gave the prom queen your letter jacket, and those pesky blacks weren't allowed to drink from the same fountain as you. (Hey, Sufjan, I have a book for you: I don't agree with everything this guy has to say, but he made an interesting remark once, that fifty years ago people weren't sitting around reading Middlemarch, they were still just watching crappy sitcoms). And what is this debased culture leading to? Well, "a decrease in literacy rates and languages and endangered species lists" that are "going up." Can you say "mutually exclusive."

Now tell us, oh great Sufjan, what the answer to our predicament is. A throwback to the Renaissance of course. Sufjan states that he wants to "go back to an era, the Renaissance era, where people had the freedom to develop big ideas." Of course everyone knows that during the Renaissance everyone had the freedom to develop big ideas so long as you were rich enough to afford an education, didn't disagree with the Church, didn't happen to have a vagina, or were not a slave or indigenous person holding land Europeans might someday want. Those were the days. I say we help Sufjan out and get rid of public schools and bring back the patronage system. Democracy in this country is a farce anyways, we might as well have our elites making artistic choices for us. Where are the Midicis when you need them?

All hyperbole aside, I hope that this blatant bitch slapping of Sufjan's fans doesn't only anger me (wait, I think that bitch slapping comment was hyperbolic). Hell, I don't even like his music and it makes me unreasonably angry. What upsets me the most is that this is an indie rocker who made it to the top because of his fans. There's no other way to be successful in indie rock. So, when he makes it to the critical summit what does he do, spits on all those who helped him make it up there. This guy does not deserve the adoring fanbase he's made no attempt to build. The whole indie-prog thing is in vogue, and the moment it goes out of style the only thing that will keep these guys afloat is a great fanbase.

Apparently there are more Sufjan haters crawling out of the woodwork (check out and the article "A Case Against Sufjan Stevens" by Stephen Thomas Erlewine), and if he keeps on dismissing his fans the way he does there will be a lot more. Although I wouldn't trust Erlewine or my opinion, because we obviously don't understand the Renaissance man that is Sufjan Stevens.

The interviewer of the article, Thomas Bartlett, said it best when he asked Sufjan Stevens the question "Are you being serious?"

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The New World

The New World (5/5)

Back in high school I asked a girl who had seen The Thin Red Line whether it was any good. She responded dubiously, saying there were a lot of “shots of birds and stuff.” Then, she turned to me and contemptuously stated, “you’d probably like it.” Despite this fine recommendation I still hadn’t seen a Terrence Malick film until The New World. This was a mistake because I cannot recommend this film enough. I try to review films that are either recently released or old enough that a reader might not have heard of the film or might want to be reminded of the film. However, I review this film because the movie made a really strong impression on me.

Film is a visual medium. A surprisingly few number of directors understand this. Television and stage should be based around dialogue, but film should be visuals first. Film is much closer to painting and photography than it is theater (which is one of the reasons most plays translate poorly into film). Malick understands films are visual, and the film is noticeably dialogue light. In fact, it’s a movie that could have been shot without dialogue, and while that would have been confusing, the fact the cinematography is so perfect I still would not have cared. Watching the film I am constantly reminded of how picturesque our country really is.

The film eschews what many believe were the historical events at Jamestown for the myth that has been handed down. Most historians now believe that John Smith wasn’t going to be executed, but was actually being initiated into the tribe in what would be now viewed as a kind of hazing ritual. This was supposed to have helped relations between the settlers and the Native Americans. John Smith was also a well known braggart and liar, and had told many stories where his life was spared by a gorgeous woman who had fallen in love with him. In fact, it is likely Pocahontas was sent to the colony as an ambassador between the two people in hopes of keeping the peace.

However, it does not bother me that Malick chose the myth over history because he perfectly captures the lives of early settlers. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn describes one failed settlement after another, many Europeans finding that survival meant leaving their settlement and joining the local native tribes (which was sometimes punished by death). The winters were harsh in this new world and the English did not have the skills the Native Americans had, such as growing corn, squash, and other American foods in soil that was far less hospitable than Europe’s. Malick presents this desperation perfectly, and even alludes to possible cannibalism that may have taken place. Even when well meaning, the English are a people who rule through a strict hierarchy and are not hesitant to use the harshest means to insure order (shooting, hanging, and whipping to name a few).

The Natives are presented as a people conflicted. They don’t want to start a war, but are weary that the newcomers will soon want more land than the swamps they’ve settled. Unlike the Europeans, who have one leader whose commands filter to the rest of the people unquestioned, the Native Chief accepts input from his advisors, and ultimately acquiesces to his daughter and spares John Smith’s life. They are presented as a people who live naturally with the world around them, and do not have to put nature under their dominion, but rather symbiotically live within nature.

Ultimately, The New World is a tragedy about love and imperialism. I would have to watch it several more times to find something more interesting to say. It’s hard to watch the film without knowing that the disease that took Pocahontas’s life would similarly wipe out whole Native villages along with a vicious military campaign. The New World takes place at a time when reconciliation seemed fragile, but not impossible, and before genocide destroyed Eden forever.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Superman Returns

Superman Returns (4.5/5)

At long last it's here (I believe this was a part of an earlier script: After a decade of studio development through flightless incarnations, Superman wrasslin' polar bears, and a black suit, the Last Son of Krypton has finally made it into theaters. Of course, nothing could have stopped The Man of Steel. I'm sure that after this long of a wait most people expect nothing less than the second coming from Superman Returns. With all of the Christ imagery in the new film, it seems that the filmmakers were more than happy to oblige.

However, while there are more than a few allusions to Christ in Superman Returns, I believe the film is actually dealing with the broader theme of Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces. Much of Campbell’s book deals with what he calls the “monomyth,” which is a single mythic structure that can be juxtaposed on just about any myth from any culture. This monomyth is supposed to be hardwired into us through Jungian psychology.

Campbell then goes on to analyze the themes found in the monomyth. One of the reoccurring themes of the monomyth is the return home. A hero must venture into an outer mystical world (ex: Luke Skywalker leaving Tatooine and Frodo leaving The Shire) on some kind of journey. However, eventually the hero will return to his home with the skills he has learned abroad and give his homeland a “boon” (ex: Luke Skywalker returning to Tatooine and destroying Jabba the Hut and Frodo and his friends saving The Shire during the Battle of Bywater [not shown in the movie]). This boon is supposed to reinvigorate the once decaying society.

Predictably, Superman Returns deals heavily with the idea of Campbell’s return. One of the revelations of A Hero with a Thousand Faces is that although the mythic hero is spoken of in terms of the ideal man, the mythic hero is really just a representation of each person’s true potential. The hero is really just a stand in for all of us at our greatest. This is what Superman Returns understands. There’s a great bit of dialogue from Marlon Brando where he says something to the affect: “They can be a great people Jor-El. They wish to be. They only need someone to show them the way.” (Warning: superspoilers below). Furthermore, Superman is not the only hero in this film. Lois Lane’s fiancé, Richard White, rushes to the aid of his love interest and their son (?). (Okay, so everyone knows by now that the kid is supe's, but I don't think he'd make that great of a father (On a side note, it’s nice to have a film that makes the other guy a decent human being. It seems like every film makes the “other guy” out to be some asshole. This puzzles me, because who has sympathy for a girl who’s going to marry a jerk?) Superman himself needs heroes to come to his own rescue. They come in the form of Lois herself and, later, the police officers and doctors who bring him to the hospital and help him recover. The hospital part in the movie is genius because it expands the idea of a hero beyond the guy in tights to every one of us. The “boon” in Superman Returns ends up being an example that’s not beyond the stars, but firmly within our reach.

There are other themes in the film that bear discussion (the new family dynamics for example). There are also little ways I could nitpick the film (the Christ imagery is a little heavy handed, and weren’t Siegel and Shuster Jewish anyways?), but that’s not a whole lot of fun. While not perfect, Superman Returns delivers some great action, drama, and a pinch of intellectual ideas, but, most importantly, it also leaves the viewer anticipating a sequel. My vote for the next title: Superman Again: Lois Lane’s Quest for Child Support. Picture Brandon Routh out on his dilapidated porch sporting a wife beater with a beer in his hand, and Lois Lane with their kid resting on her hip yelling at his deadbeat ass. (Although, Lois might have to get in line: Now that’s a movie America can get behind.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Grunge Legacy

The Grunge Legacy

As a child of the nineties I am indebted to the Seattle sound. If it wasn’t for the alternative explosion lead by Nirvana and Soundgarden then who knows what I would be listening to these days? These days I find myself hanging out with people who are mostly into independent music (indie hip-hop, punk, rock, or whatever), and it comes as a genuine surprise when people actually listen to pop music. I was at a job interview the other day and was shocked to hear some twenty-something guy talking about how much he liked Shakira and Christina Aguilera. I was generally taken aback. How could this be? I suppose the fact that pop stars find their way onto every television channel (from the occasional music video to prime time interviews) that the fact they they have a following outside of teenage girls shouldn't be that surprising, but I’ve always thought that the late-nineties pop explosion was merely a reaction to the movie Titanic’s ability to tap into the pre-teen and early teen female demographic. I thought teenage girls were targeted and they were the only ones who listened to pop music. I had no clue that people in their twenties actually listened to this shite. I didn’t know what to say – I had momentarily lost any vocal functions. He might as well have told me he hated Jews and was a reincarnation of Goebbels.

I secretly fear that without the Seattle sound I too would be listening to Shakira and Christina Aguilera. I shudder to think of myself in a parallel universe with the Pussycat Dolls on my i-pod. I would be forced to hang myself from my feet and then ritualistically eviscerate myself. However, in this universe I’ve been saved from bland music thanks to the nineties alternative boom. While pretty much all of the bands I listened to during the early nineties were on major labels, without them I would never have been drawn to independent music. The Seattle sound was my gateway drug.

Because I hold much of grunge music with esteem (specifically the big four: Nirvana, Soundgarden, Melvins, and Mudhoney) I’m disappointed to hear people equate bands like Creed, Staind, and Nickelback with grunge music. If I had it my way, nothing outside of Seattle from the last half of the eighties to the first half of the nineties would be considered grunge. However, I am willing to compromise and give a broader definition: a mixture of punk and metal. This obviously does not cover all of the bands from Seattle during the given years, but it’s the closest definition I’ve ever read. Some bands were plain punk (Fastbacks), others dabbled more in classic rock and psychedelia (Screaming Trees), and still others did something entirely different (Earth). Just about any definition is going to fail because grunge wasn’t necessarily a genre, it was a scene. People were making music they liked and weren’t as beholden to a specific sound as the media would have suggested. Furthermore, when I say metal I’m mostly referring to the proto-metal of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and when I say punk I’m often talking about attitude towards production or approach to music. The Melvins were a punk band, but they didn’t sound anything like late seventies punk. If that makes sense to you, then you have a good handle on grunge.

In order to stymie the rumors that grunge has become a bunch of sappy marble mouth retreads I have created a list of bands who I believe are carrying the grunge legacy forward. Some are bands who have consciously borrowed from grunge and others merely take a parallel approach. I have even included some highlights of grunge bands still making great music. The following is the true grunge legacy:

Queens of the Stone Age
Toungue-in-cheek metal meets hardcore punk mania. Queens of the Stone Age sound like the natural evolution of grunge. What’s important about QotSA is that they don’t take themselves too seriously. Most people today think of grunge in terms of a dirty long haired kid strumming his guitar and feeling sorry for himself. This is a misconception brought about by the number of imitators that sprung up after grunge made it big. Just because Candlebox didn’t have a sense of humor doesn’t mean real grunge is humorless. Look at The Melvins who self consciously went over the top in emulating metal, or look at Nirvana lyrics that are filled with humorous dadaesque self-contradictions. The vast majority of grunge bands did not take themselves as seriously as the media thought – they just weren’t in on the joke.

While I’m tempted to say that Sleater-Kinney represented the more punk side of grunge, that’s just not true anymore. Their newest album, The Woods, takes its cue from Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, which in turn takes punk to a whole new level. Also, like Soundgarden and The Melvins, Sleater-Kinney constantly get better on repeat listens.

Comets on Fire
Comets on Fire sound like Jimmy Page met Johnny Rotten in a back alley and only one was going to survive. Comets combine classic rock sounds with the proto-punk production and attitude of bands like The Stooges and MC5.

Isis is a sludge metal band that ends up being far more accessible than something like Earth, but still manage to push metal to its far reaches. In many ways grunge was merely taking punk and metal into places they’ve never been before.

Mike Patton is a consistent collaborator with the Godfathers of Grunge: The Melvins. I believe that Fantomas is Mike Patton’s most successful band (how many bands does he have, sixty-five?). Fantomas music can run the gamut from seventy-eight minute tracks of horror movie ambience to short bursts of punk energy. Named after a villain from a series of French novels, Fantomas do not fear evil – they incite it.

While they could have picked a more imposing bird (was albatross taken, because that would have been a great allusion), Pelican are a formidable sludge metal band. They’re often referred to as Isis without vocals, but listening to their music you can tell they have their own brand of noise to kick out.

Modest Mouse
Okay, maybe Modest Mouse doesn’t sound like grunge, but like grunge you can hear the rainy Northwest weather in their music – especially in their early albums. I find it interesting when you can hear a region in a bands sound. I can never separate the Meat Puppets from the Southwest, for example.

Foo Fighters
Dave Grohl’s Wings project. Actually, Foo Fighters aren’t as bad as their detractors claim. Sure, they can get sappy at times, but check out The Colour and the Shape. That’s a great pop-rock album.

Local H
Local H make straight ahead blue collar rock and roll. Of all the non-Seattle bands that sprung up in the grunge aftermath Local H are easily the best. They may have had only one major hit, but unlike Stone Temple Pilots, Candlebox, and Collective Soul they didn’t feel like watered down grunge. Instead, Local H always sounded as if they just happened to have similar influences as the original grunge bands. They’re also the best live show I’ve ever seen.

Mark Lanegan
Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees has released several of his own solo albums. He has also collaborated with Queens of the Stone Age on many occasions. This proves that grunge wasn’t a flash in the pan, but a movement with dedicated and talented musicians.

The Melvins
Wait, you say, grunge is still around? The Melvins have been kicking it for years, and still sound better than any indie/pop rock band NME is pushing these days.

They’re like The Ramones of grunge, but their music has evolved ever so slightly. Don’t hold that against them, Mudhoney still goes off.

Looking back on this list it is amazing how influential Earth has become. Sludge-metal and all of his relatives have gained a little foothold on independent music. This would not have been possible without bands like Earth. They are without a doubt the most bizarre grunge band. Their more resent releases still sound decades ahead of other experimental metal bands. That’s not to disparage those bands, but merely to show that Earth is still ahead of its time.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Sufjan Stevens - Illinoise

Sufjan Stevens - Illinoise (2/5)

When I first threw Illinoise into my CD player it took me a couple of songs to form a reaction: wow...this is really bad. By the time I bought the CD Sufjan Stevens had received an ungodly amount of hype, and I was ready to sit back like in those decade old commercials and be blown away by my audio equipment. Too bad Illinoise wasn't up to the task.

The first thing I noticed about the album is how the production makes much of it sound limp. The production reminds me of a Coldplay album where the songs have their rough edges sanded down. If you're going to make use of this many instruments, then I want to be reminded of Mahler and Prokofiev not Chris Martin.

While there are a couple of standouts (I recommend downloading "Chicago") there's just not enough high points in the twenty-two tracks to recommend the album. The lyrics are too often overtly self-conscious and overwrought. One of the worst offenders is "John Wayne Gacy Jr." The idea itself is interesting: try and create sympathy for someone who has committed atrocious acts. However, Sufjan isn't clever enough to pull this off in a three minute pop song. When talking about Gacy's victims he directs a hushed "Are you one of them?" at the listener. The results are laughable at best. Imagine the following line delivered with utmost earnestness and a fist clutched to the singer's heart (at least that's how I picture it) and you'll get an idea at how ridiculous his songs can be: "And in my best behavior/ I am really just like him/ Look beneath the floorboards/ For the secrets I have hid." Trying to create a sense of connection and empathy with a monster is an interesting idea, but Sufjan Stevens just can't do it without being overly sappy.

The amount of hype this album has gotten insures that Sufjan will have a few more albums critics can overhype and then forget. I'm just hoping that he gives the whole state theme up before he reaches my home state of Ohio. If you screw that one up Sufjan, then don't expect us to go easy on you.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones

End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones (4/5)

There are two kinds of geniuses: those who forge their intelligence through hard work and those who have a frighteningly precocious intuition. The Ramones had the latter. Somehow they managed adapt such gimmicks as replacing their last names with “Ramone” and all adopting a faux-fifties look and still seem one-hundred percent genuine. How a bunch of glue sniffers from Queens managed to create retro, yet revolutionary, American music is anybody’s guess. End of the Century never broaches the question of inspiration (although they do tell the stories behind several of their songs), and instead focuses on the drama of interband turmoil. As Dee Dee Ramone says, echoing ACDC, “it’s not easy being in a rock and roll band.”

The interesting thing about The Ramones is that their music managed to be both retro and forward thinking. Tommy Ramone described their music as “futuristic.” If you look at any of the retro sounding bands out there, from the 80’s revival to the well renowned Shins, virtually none of them are able to move rock music forward. In fact, the best of them sound as if they’re a really good band from a couple decades ago. You can make some great music working within older genres, but only geniuses are able to reshape old songs into a completely new genre. The Ramones were somehow able to make music that drew from the past, but updated it so you felt the same energy kids in the 1950’s must have felt when they first heard Buddy Holly on the Jukebox. The secret of The Ramones is that using the old blueprint just isn’t enough; you have to update the music in a way that speaks to an audience twenty-years later.

Like all famous rock bands since The Beatles, each member of The Ramones had a distinct niche: Joey was the innocent one; Tommy business minded and a bit too adult for the band (probably why he left early on); Dee Dee a jester and a thug; and Johnny…well, Johnny was a fucking dick. One of the centerpieces of the Ramones story is the feud between Joey and Johnny. As The Ramones were starting out Joey was the hopeless romantic responsible for most of The Ramones' love songs. He was also fighting an almost terminal case of shyness. It was around this time that Johnny stole his girlfriend from him. Joey held a grudge against Johnny for the rest of their career. The liberal Joey even wrote “The KKK Took My Baby Away” attacking the creepily conservative Johnny (at the rock and roll hall of fame induction Johnny thanks “God and George W. Bush”).

If you’re looking for a pick me up End of the Century is not it. Johnny, Dee Dee, and Joey all passed away in the last few years. Despite twenty years of hard work The Ramones were unable to become as successful in America as they had hoped, and looked forlornely across the Atlantic as punk exploded in England.

The shy, OCD, and often physically sick Joey is really the heart of the story. Before The Ramones, Joey was withdrawn and barely able to handle his obsessive compulsive disorder. He even checked himself into a hospital in hopes of stopping voices that made him repeat words. When he become the frontman for The Ramones he was able to build the confidence needed to rejoin the world. Joey even manages to stand up to the domineering Johnny. The story of the introvert who becomes an inspiration to millions is an unlikely testament to the power of music. What would Joey’s life have been like had he never been a Ramone? Would he have returned to the hospital? While End of the Century puts down that pesky rumor about how easy rock and roll is, I have a feeling the music gave Joey a life he couldn’t have lived otherwise. He was also generous enough to share that music with the rest of the world. What would the world be like without the music of The Ramones? I don’t know about you, but my life would be a whole hell of a lot more boring.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Best American Short Storie (2005), ed. Michael Chabon

Best American Short Stories (2005), ed. Michael Chabon (4/5)

My creative writing teacher once told me that a when a short story ends it should leave the reader with a tuning fork-like resonance. That is, it should continue ringing in your head long after you’ve put the story down. Michael Chabon has compiled a collection of short stories that accomplish exactly that. Long after you have finished the Best American Short Stories of 2005 I guarantee your mind will continually drift back to them. I think the reason for this resonance is because a well crafted short story is, to borrow an analogy from Hemingway, an iceberg. As a reader, we are only shown the small part of the iceberg that’s visible above water, but there still remains the perplexing ninety-percent of the iceberg hiding underwater. The short story teases us with the visible ten percent while our mind continues trying to figure out the remaining ninety percent either consciously or unconsciously. To borrow another phrase from Hemingway (who in turn borrowed it from Gertrude Stein), a great short story is like a moveable feast.

It is to Michael Chabon’s credit that he managed to pick out short stories that contain this resonance when his own short stories lack exactly that. I picked up Werewolves in Their Youth several years ago, and found myself disappointed. While his prose has no peers, I found Chabon’s short stories suffered from an attempt to wrap up epic problems within twenty pages. From my experience, short stories solve nothing within the protagonists’ lives. At most they merely suggest a future resolution. Perhaps the reason is that the short story is too small for Chabon’s panorama epics to hold, and he really needs a novel to stretch out and contain his worlds. However, he recognizes a good short story when he sees it.

Let’s start with two of my least favorites from the collection. First up is “Silence” by Alice Munro. Before I read this story I had heard plenty of praise about Munro and was exited to finally read something by her. Like every story in the collection the prose is well written, but there was just something missing—oh, yeah a believable protagonist in a believable situation.

The story begins as the main character, Juliet, goes to meet her daughter who recently returned from a European trip. She discovers her daughter has joined some kind of cult. What does Juliet do after discovering her daughter has abandoned her? What every mother would do, she continues to live her life, and we get to about her switches careers, her relationship with men, and every once in a while manages to find the time to think about her lost daughter.. Of course, losing a daughter seems secondary to just about everything else in her life. Like anyone, my mother has her faults, but I now find it comforting to know that at the very least she would freak the fuck out if I became some kind of weird recluse cult member. What’s worse is that we never find out why Juliet’s daughter left her. The question is brought up once or twice, and it’s suggested that Juliet was not meeting her daughter’s spiritual needs or that she let her daughter get too close to her and treated her like a friend instead of the vulnerable child she was, but ultimately we’re given no definite answer. This is one of the worst cases of a writer creating a situation she has never encountered before. Sure, a really good writer can make a foreign situation seem real even though they have never truly lived through it. Usually they can find a comparable life experience and draw from that, but Munro does not manage that. Instead, the shortcomings of this story act like a black hole that sucks the rest of the narrative into it.

I didn’t have as much of a problem Tom Bissell’s “Death Defier,” but I did feel it failed to live up to its potential. In the commentary section the author claims he came up with the idea for this short story after going to Afghanistan and observing other journalists who were unaffected by the death surrounding them. The location and scope of his story promises to bring up some interesting questions, but by the end of the story you quickly realize the author’s content with breaking that promise.

The story involves two journalists, one American and one British, covering the American invasion of Afghanistan. The two of them decide to explore the country instead of staying holed up inside the fence of the American troops. The American seems absolutely callus to the events surrounding him. Is this a clever commentary on the effects of journalism or maybe some observations of an American outside of his boarders? No, it’s actually a character study of some guy who became a free lance journalist after his dad died. That’s right, he has become the “Death Defier!” I think I read a similar plot in a comic book, but the comic book was better written.

With these two exceptions the rest of the collection is an absolute joy. One of my favorites is “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face.” This story involves a beer and sports kind of dad who must deal with having a homosexual son. He doesn’t deal well, and when the story opens he is living alone after he’s decked his son and his family naturally moved out. I loathe to reveal anymore, except that most of the tale concerns the protagonist acting as an umpire for a little league game. These things seem awfully disparate, but connect in some odd bit of logic. By the time I finished the story I was stretching my mind to reconcile the themes with what happened in the story. It took me some time, but it all sort of clicked together like an erector set. What is the meaning behind Happy Chang’s smile?

My second favorite (I should say my current second favorite because it will almost certainly change) is Alix Ohlin’s “Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student.” Besides having a catchy title, there are some prose gems hidden in Ohlin’s work. The story revolves around a misfit kid who begins piano lessons. The way this kid is described I imagine the smelly kid in the back of the classroom who the other misfits won’t even hang out with. I mentioned earlier that I don’t believe short stories should have easy solutions at the end. Well, this story one ups me, and the world seems to be in even more disarray by the end of the story. It all falls apart, like your big brother kicking over your Lincoln logs.

Several themes pop up a in The Best American Short Stories – cousins and piano lessons spring to mind – but the theme that seems most prevalent is immigrants and the diversity of America. This seems particularly relevant at this juncture in our history when streets are filling with immigrants protesting for their citizenship. Best American feels like a kaleidoscope of images representing a country that’s a patchwork of immigrants. I doubt this was a conscious choice on the part of Chabon, but for me this reoccurrence only enhanced an already fine collection.

Some other stories that are still ringing in my head: Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals” – a ghost story about a family that’s falling apart, Joyce Carol Oates “The Cousins” – a series of letter correspondences between two lost second generation Jewish immigrants, and Thomas McGuane’s “Old Friends” – a former best friend moves in with the yuppie protagonist who can’t stand his former acquaintance.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Mogwai - Mr. Beast

Mogwai – Mr. Beast (4/5)

Mogwai is not a band that’s ready to rest on its laurels. After the ethereal Happy Songs for Happy People, these Scots have returned like William Wallace with his mace. Mr. Beast has a harder edge than the last album, stripping these ten songs of the electronic garnish and playing up their guitars. From this new direction they’ve brought us “Glosgow Mega-Snake.” This is the kind of epic rock Muse wishes they could play. For three and a half minutes they feed us guitar fuzz, and when they’re done serve us “Acid Food” for dessert. “Acid Food” is a rare delicacy on Mr. Beast, because the electronic percussion sounds the closest to the preceding album.

The songs on Mr. Beast don’t involve the whisper that can build to a scream, like previous Mogwai albums. Instead, each song rides out a soft instrumental or an “amps go to eleven” rock out. For every hard number Mogwai delivers a delicate palate cleanser. Naturally, the song length has shortened as the band has sharpened their focus. While not quite as effective as Young Team or Happy Songs, it is nevertheless encouraging to see Mogwai change their recipe and succeed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m feeling strangely hungry.

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" v. "A Study in Scarlet"

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" v. "A Study in Scarlet"

After reading the first Sherlock Holmes adventure, "A Study in Scarlet," I decided to go back and reread "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Edgar Allen Poe wrote "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) forty-six years before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published the first Sherlock Holmes novel (1887). I wanted to know the difference between a detective story that took place during the first half of the 19th century compared to a detective story that took place at the end of the 19th century, I wanted to know if Doyle was able to perfect the genre Poe had created, and I wanted to know if Sherlock Holmes could kick C. Auguste Dupin's ass. If this were the one-hundred years war and the two met on a battlefield would the tall and lanky Holmes decapitate Dupin's Frenchified noggin, or would Dupin deduce his sword all the way into Holmes's gut? Right here and right now I'm going settle the centuries of war between the English and the French based on two short stories: one written by a Brit and the other by an American. Well, maybe not quite, but I am going to determine which story is better based on five categories: each author's biographical low point, the writing style, the sidekick, the greatest moment of deduction, and, finally, the detective itself.

Author Low Points

Not much is known about Edgar Allen Poe's life, and much of the myth is actually a series of lies told by his former publisher. Perhaps the low point of poor Poe's life are the circumstances surrounding his death. After having several drinks at a friend's birthday party he disappeared for three days and later winds up dead in a gutter. Probably not the most noble death but it does combine his preternaturally strong love of alcohol and gutters.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a standup British gentleman who famously defended Great Britain's involvement in both the South African War and World War I (talk about having your head up the Queen's arse in order to get knighted). Unfortunately, Doyle did not share Holmes's deductive skills. Doyle was later duped into believing the stories of the famed Cottingley Fairies thanks to some photographic trickery. The culprits of this hoax: two sisters, one aged ten and the other sixteen. D'oh! Doyle even claimed that Houdini was magical even though the escape artist himself claimed otherwise.

Author with the lowest low: Sir Author Conan Doyle (which makes him the loser in this category). A ten-year old and a sixteen-year old! Moriarty could have figured this mystery out. Check out the pictures and see what you think: Pretty crafty for a couple of girls who would soon be taught to "lay still and think of England," don't you think? Besides, Poe's death is almost cool. It's kind of John Bonham before John Bonham.

The Writing

Edgar Allen Poe's prose is masterful as always. It has this wonderfully archaic quality to it that can never be reclaimed. Absolutely gorgeous. It is interesting to note that a good deal of the story is in the form of Dupin discussing his deduction of the crime. This theme of a story within a story appears several other times within Poe's work. You can also find it in "The Oval Portrait."

Doyle isn't quite as masterful with words as Poe, and perhaps this is why he isn't the canonical God that Poe has become. In fact, Doyle drops a couple of real clunkers when he writes. At one point he describes a group of Mormons as traversing "every impediment which Nature could place in the way, with Anglo-Saxon tenacity." Wow, that's bad writing. Maybe it sounded good before WWII, but it's the kind of line that ages worst than Ed Wood's special effects. Nowadays Doyle's sentiments strike the tone of being more than a little racist and awkward.

Best overall writing: no contest, Poe wins. Doyle can write an entertaining yarn, and knows how to create suspense, but his prose is nowhere near the level as Poe's.

The Sidekick

In both works the sidekick is the narrator of the story, and while we are given a sizable introduction to Moriarty, the unnamed sidekick in "Murders in the Rue Morgue" is not given a name. Poe does not tell us much about the sidekick except what is important for the story. He seems to possess some wealth, is staying in Paris for enough time to gain residence there, and encountered Dupin while looking for the exact same book at a library. The two talk about their situation and decide to rent out a place together, and, in typical Poe, they get a mansion that's rumored to be haunted.

Moriarty, on the other hand, is a physician who is returning from the Afghanistan war after sustaining some wounds. He calls himself a lazy man and decides to seek out a roommate after he realizes that he's been living beyond his means. Moriarty is a great means of introducing us Sherlock Holmes and his deductive techniques.

Best sidekick: Moriarty wins. We really don't get to know Poe's sidekick all that well, and Moriarty just works as a better foil to Sherlock Holmes. I have to look up to anyone who describes himself as lazy. It is odd, however, that both sidekicks decide to be roommates with the famed detectives (as we speak several Brokeback Baker St. and Murders at the Brokeback Morgue parodies have suddenly been posted online).

Greatest Moment of Deduction

Both of the most impressive moments of deduction occur as we're first introduced to the respective detectives. The moment Moriarty and Holmes meet the detective comments that Moriarty must have recently come from Afghanistan. A chapter later, he explains how he came to this conclusion: "The train of reasoning ran, 'Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.'" Impressive, impressive.

As the narrator and Dupin stroll down a Paris street without talking for fifteen minutes Dupin responds to the narrator's thoughts, "He is a very little fellow,varieties true, and would do better for the Theatre des Varietes." After the narrator unwittingly responds he does a double take (well, it doesn't say he does a double take, but he must have done a double take, and a spit take too) and inquires how Dupin knew what he was thinking about. The narrator was in fact thinking about a wannabe actor by the name of Chantilly who was attempting to play the role of Xerxes. Dupin reveals that he noticed a fruiterer bump into the narrator causing him to trip on some lose stones, and in turn forced him to examine the causeway more carefully. Soon the two of them came upon a road paved in a manner called "stereotomy" which the narrator noticeably muttered. Dupin deduced from stereotomy that the narrator would have to think of the Greek theory of atomies which lead to Epicurus. When the narrator looked towards the Orion constellation Dupin was certain he was on the right track. Knowing that there was a reference to Orion in a review of Chantilly's latest performance Dupin surmised that the narrator's thoughts must have finally fallen on this final topic, and responded to his thoughts. Once again, this is rather impressive.

The winner of the greatest moment of deduction: Dupin. Sure, Holmes is smart, but Dupin deduced someone's very own thoughts. That's pretty fucking cool. What's interesting about Poe's idea of deduction is that even though he attempts to give us a definition of the deductive faculties, it ends up seeming more like a supernatural power. The deductions that Dupin can make are often impossible. Holmes, on the other hand, was a character created in the thick of the industrial revolution when science was leaping forward, and therefore all of his deductions are merely improbable. Poe has the luxury of outpacing science while Doyle is shackled to reason. Holmes calls Dupin's act of deduction jealous and superficial,'" but we all know that he's really just jelouse.

The Detective

There are a couple of surprises in store for anyone who has never actually read a Sherlock Holmes story. One of the most surprising things about Sherlock Holmes is how prissy he is. When Moriarty gives Holmes a compliment, he describes Holmes as responding with some sort of giddy pride. Who would have guessed that an Englishman could be more feminine than a Frenchman? Another surprising characteristic is that outside of knowledge needed for deduction Holmes is a complete dunce. He had absolutely no idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun. He explains to Moriarty that if he were to fill his head with too much that essential knowledge might fall out.

Much like his sidekick, we don't learn much about Dupin. The narrator tells us that he comes from aristocratic roots, but that his family wealth has been all but squandered. That's about it. Unlike Holmes, Dupin knows just about everything and possesses an almost supernatural intellect. However, he does lack any giddy pride.

The winner of the greatest detective: Holmes. Sure, he can be really annoying sometimes, but someone who has fatal flaws is far more interesting than someone who is flawless. I can't speak about Dupin's further adventures (perhaps he becomes more interesting as Poe refines his character), but as far as the first adventure goes Holmes is the more fully fleshed out and interesting character.

However, this only gives "A Study in Scarlet" two points and "Murders in the Rue Morgue" three. Poe seems to have bested Doyle in this round, but just like the adversaries in their stories, I feel they will return to face each other once again.
"A Study in Scarlet": 2 "Murders in the Rue Morgue": 3.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Why Pitchforkmedia is bad writing.

Have you ever noticed that is filled with worthless adverbs and adjectives? I have, and must admit that it gets on my nerves. Or, should I say that I begrudgingly admit it gets on my shattered nerves. Even when I agree with Pitchforkmedia's reviews, their poor writing really bothers me. Don't they realize that adverbs, more often than not, weaken the verb itself? The same is true of the adjective. Anything they write falls into limp academia cliche of throwing words from the thesaurus at the reader. Take a few examples from their recent review of DFA's release: "decadent anthems," "corporeal latticework," "personable charisma," and "lavishly unveiled." This is only in the first paragraph. Do these writers live in a world where the literary restraint of the Modernists doesn't exist? Why Pitchfork writers are so stylisticly awful I can't explain; however, I can emplore them to take a goddamn writing class.

Is my writing any better? Well, as you can tell I don't edit anything I write. Hell, about one person a month actually reads my site, so I don't really have a reason to, but when you have thousands visiting a day, you would think that you would try and put up something decent.

Ahh, Pitchfork. Some critics write reviews that are works of art themselves. Indeed, they write companions to art that makes the reader delve deeper into the author's idea. In the hands of a great critic art gains dimensions not yet fathomed by the reader. Pitchforkmedia is capable of just such criticism, but too often they substitute an attempt at style for any true substance. When they're good they're very, very good, but when they're bad they're awful.

I can't be too hard on Pitchfork because despite their failures they're informative and fun. Their biggest falure is that they come accross as critics and not fans, but when you're covering five albums a day that's excusable. If they happen to run accross my article then I hope they take the criticism to heart, but also remember that I've just had eight beers tonight. Take that for what it's worth.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Howl

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Howl (5/5)

“It’s time for a howdown ma’! Invite the cousins over and put the new ‘Black Rebel’ in dat ‘dem der new fangled disc playin’ merchine. Heeeeeehaw!”

No, no, no! Despite what everyone’s claiming, B.R.M.C. have not gone country—they’ve gone retro!

I’ve always wondered why a band who took their cue from the 80’s rock group The Jesus and Mary Chain would name the band after Marlon Brando’s gang in the 1953 film The Wild One. I don’t recommend judging a book by its cover but judging by B.R.M.C.’s name I would have expected something along the lines of The Raveonettes. If they’re going to name their group after a fictitious gang I would suggest The Lords of Hell (on a side note, you have to give props to a family film that keeps the line, “Don’t fuck with the Lords of Hell). On B.R.M.C.’s latest they take their sound back to the roots of rock and up the folk and country influences, but at its heart it sounds like 1950’s rock ‘n roll—well, with 50 years of musical evolution having more than a little influence.

B.R.M.C. came out of the gates with a ridiculous amount of hype (it was probably New Music Express). They were just asking for a smack down. When their solid debut album came out plenty of critics dismissed them as Jesus and Mary Chain rip-offs (fair enough) and then declared B.R.M.C. were juvenile delinquents who would amount to nothing (a little harsh I thought). When B.R.M.C.’s follow up, Take Them On, On Your Own, was a little sophomore slumpish you could hear bones splintering around the world as critics collectively broke their arms while patting themselves on the back. Things only got worse when B.R.M.C. were dropped from their label. To top it all off an ex-girlfriend stole their dog and showed up at a show only to make out with every guy there.

Down but not out, the B.R.M.C. have return with a triumphant left hook. Howl isn’t a return to form, it’s a complete reinvention. The Jesus and Mary Chain posturing is downplayed while folk, country, and gospel are embraced. The sounds conjure up the dustbowl west complete with lone churches set against a flat landscape. It’s hard to tell whether the incantations of religion are sincere or merely dressing for the new sound, but in the end I don’t think it matters much. Even if the album is style over substance, they have enough style so that it doesn’t matter. For a band to do a complete overhaul like this is impressive to say the least. I hope the attention Howl is getting will force those critics who dismissed B.R.M.C. to take another look.

I read that the title of the album, Howl, is a reference to the Allen Ginsburg poem of the same name. I don’t really see much of a connection. “Howl” the poem is loaded with urban imagery that Ginsburg seems so intent on railing against. At one point he intones “Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets,” likening the urban landscape to the Old Testament idol the unfaithful worshiped. Despite Ginsburg’s distaste for concrete surroundings, his poem has its feet firmly planted in a city if only to condemn it. Ginsburg’s “Howl” strikes me as a Jeremiad pointing to a new way of life in an increasingly conservative America. B.R.M.C. are much closer to On the Road, the novel that follows Kerouac’s persona as he crisscrosses the country as if he was running from his Bible-black Catholic roots. It has the same grand sense of movement and a tortured sense of religion that would ultimately consume Kerouac just like his alcoholism.

My three favorite tracks: “Howl,” “Ain’t No Easy Way,” and “Sympathetic Noose.” Despite the organ, the title track sounds as if it has one foot dipped in B.M.R.C.’s last two albums (come to think of it, “Salvation” could probably have gone on this album with no problems). “Ain’t No Easy Way”—the obvious single—is a taunt song that ruminates on how it’s much easier to fall into love than to completely escape it. “Sympathetic Noose” makes great use of studio trickery. The song starts with the strumming of a raw sounding acoustic guitar only to have it backed by a percussion section that can only be produced by modern day electronics. It’s a great dichotomy, and in my opinion the best moment on the CD.

The B.M.R.C. have tossed off their leather jackets, gave their old label the finger, and completely revamped their sound. After listening to this album you might be asking yourself, “What are they rebelling against?” B.R.M.C. would pointedly shoot back, “Whaddya got?”

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Clash - Super Black Market Clash

The Clash - Super Black Market Clash (4/5)

My three favorite bands/artists are The Clash, David Bowie, and Nirvana (sometimes in that order). Several months ago I realized I had been buying a string of albums by new bands--many of them debut albums. (Well, I had been buying whatever CDs my meager school loans could afford me whenever I decided I didn't really need to eat dinner for the next two nights). This struck me as odd because I remember back in middle school and high school I would choose two or three bands and quickly consume their discography. I began to notice huge gaps in my CD collection. The Clash were one of my favorite bands, but I only owned four of their CDs. It was time to starve for a couple more days.

For weeks I could feel "the shakes" coming on. You know, the rumbling that moves from your extremities until it infiltrated your whole body. I half expected dead babies to start falling from the ceiling a la Trainspotting. So I gave in and bought a few CDs, and made certain I start filling in the gaps in my Clash collection.

I love the feeling I get when I'm peeling the plastic from the jewel case. It's like a miniature Christmas, but better because you don't have to return everything. I proceed to unhook the jewel case cover so I can remove the annoying sticker at the top (if there's already a plastic cover why do we need the goddamn sticker). I don't believe in God, so this is really the only ritual I take part in. My girlfriend even accuses me of being obsessive about my CDs whenever I count them (she doesn't know me like they do anyways).

Enough about my idiosyncrasies, lets talk about the music. Super Black Market Clash is exactly what a B-sides album should be: a handful of gems ("1977," "Groovy Times," "Pressure Drop"), some experimentation ("Justice Tonight/Kick it Over," "Radio Clash"), but is ultimately uneven. I have been put on the record as saying that a B-sides album isn't worth anything if it isn't uneven (well, on the record because I just wrote it now). If the band doesn't have some failures then they're really not trying, are they? They're just spending time lounging in the safe zone. There's nothing terribly wrong with the safe zone, it's nice, I'd visit, but I sure as hell wouldn't want to live there. The two biggest critical darlings had some massive failures. Radiohead's first album was absolutely grating (and not in an avante garde sort of way) and in my personal opinion the Beatles were mediocre until Help!. That being said, some of the songs off the second half of the album fall a bit flat. Even so, they're all interesting to listen to and don't permanently scar the album.

Super Black Market Clash is just the fix for those of you who have already bought the first three CDs (which I recommend doing immediately if you haven't already). Perhaps I have been avoiding finalizing my Clash collection because I just don't want to get to the point where I buy the final CD. Until several years ago I always had the ability to look forward to Joe Strummer releasing an album now and then, but once he passed away the prospect of reaching the end of The Clash's extended discography became very real. If there was an artist who was able to truly represent the world I live in it was Joe Strummer. His music always presented the world with a hard edged realism, and yet managed to be filled with hope. It was like sifting through the dregs of a garbage bin to find a Picasso. Who's going to be the soundtrack to the world once I do buy that final CD? I guess I'm just marching to the inevitable.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Chungking Express

Chungking Express (4.5/5)

Chungking Express is cut into two distinct but tangentially related stories. The first involves a police officer recovering from a breakup with his long term girlfriend May. He is so obsessive that every day he buys a can of pineapple juice with an expiration date of May 1st (also his birthday). Eventually his paths cross with a cocaine smuggler who has been double crossed. The two make an unlikely pair, but the film is smart enough not to play up the theme of lovers (well, more like a lonely pair who happen to occupy similar space) from the opposite sides of the fence.

The second story involves another police officer and a local restaurant worker. This is where things get good. The second police officer has also recently broken up with his stewardess girlfriend (stolen from him by the police officer from the first story). The stewardess leaves a Dear John letter and the keys to the officer’s apartment at the restaurant so he can pick it up. What follows is an energetic, funny, and ultimately emotional love story.

Much of the success goes to Faye Wong, who admires the police officer from afar (and eventually from not so afar). She’s charismatic and an absolute joy to watch on screen. In fact she has enough energy to match Wong Kar-Wai's frantic camerawork. The role could have easily been annoying or downright creepy. She’s downright charming. I should probably continue with the review lest my fawning will be seen as annoying and creepy.

I enjoyed the second story so much that I almost wish the entire film was devoted to it (although a majority of the movie is). Wong Kar-Wai seems to be playing with the theme of urban isolation. The contradictory feeling of seclusion when you’re surrounded by throngs of people. Yet somehow, despite the competing cultures and fast-paced non-interaction, there is a thin thread connecting you to everyone around you.

I don’t really know what Chungking Express is about, but I do know that it’s fun. It’s easily the best romance I’ve seen in a very long time. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen an American romance that was any good (do they make American romance films anymore, or are they all comedies with romantic endings tacked on?). This is the kind of movie you feel elated when it’s over—the kind of movie you watch movies for.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Bubble (4/5)

One of the first shots in Bubble shows gravestones huddled around two American flags. The death of the American dream would be all but played out in art, if it wasn’t so damn relevant all the time.

Bubble begins with Martha and Kyle who work at a doll factory in a Southern Ohio town. Kyle lives with his mom and works two jobs to get by. Martha goes home to her bed ridden father she refuses to put into a nursing home. When a new factory worker, Rose, is hired a love triangle forms between the three. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Martha has romantic feelings for Kyle, but she does become jealous when her only friend starts taking smoke breaks with someone else. The monotony of the small town is broken up—ever so slightly—by the murder of one of the factory workers.

Bubble has gotten more press for its release strategy than for the film itself. It is being released in theatres and DVD simultaneously. I have been on record as saying that I oppose this business model because it will hurt the theatre owners and continue the growing trend of people avoiding the movie theatres altogether. Although, I did see this on DVD because no one wanted to see this movie with me. Fine, I’m a hypocrite, so sue me (I’m in law school so I feel perfectly safe saying you can sue me, because I’m reasonably certain hypocrisy is not remedied by law).

What is more interesting than the business model is the experimental nature of the film. The director, Stephen Soderbergh, uses all digital film, actually shot the film in Ohio, and uses non-actors. The result is largely successful. And it's got a sweet trailer (

Each character seems numb. They blindly go through their daily routine unaware that anything exists outside of their job and the small circle of people they know. Kyle and Rose are probably in their mid-twenties—about the time when the feedom of teenage years quickly gives way to an ever decreasing number of options. Martha is at least forty, and has long given up thinking about life outside of the town. When Rose says that she wants to get away, Martha asks why with a puzzled look on her face.

The characters in Bubble show almost no emotion, even when the murder occurs. They’re completely numb. A part of that numbness transfers to the viewer, and it does become a little difficult to care about what happens to them. Maybe that’s the point of the film, but it also subdues some of the emotional resonance.

I went to college in a city in Southern Ohio so this film had a little more impact on me. It was odd living on a campus where the springtime landscapers made certain every flower and blade was just right, while the city around us looked like it was crumbling. There’s a lot of Ohio that feels as if all the brick and mortar has been torn down leaving only a steel skeleton. In Springfield, Ohio, where I lived, certain areas of the city had rows of large mansions that were either vacant or carved into separate apartments by a landlord. You could tell that the whole city collapsed when the factory jobs were shut down and eventually sent over seas.

Because it was filmed in Ohio Bubble does a great job of showing the flat landscape littered with barely running factories or barely standing houses. It’s a film that’s actually concerned with places that aren’t on one of the coasts. While I have no evidence to back this up, perhaps one of the reasons Hollywood is taking a hit is because people finally want to see themselves or people they know up on the screen. The average person gets enough fiction from the daily news, and the public wants to see something real from today’s artists. This doesn’t always mean a documentary (although documentaries and non-fiction literature are immensely popular these days), but it does mean that books, movies, and television will have to start viewing the world through the eyes of the average American.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Addendum to Sliver: The Best of the Box

Addendum to Sliver: The Best of the Box

The other day I was listening to Nirvana's Best of the Box, but became so frustrated with it that I had to come up with my own list. Take a look if you're interested:

1. Spank Thru (1985 Fecal Matter demo)
2. Token Eastern Song (demo)
3. Ain't it a Shame (demo)
4. Blandest (demo)
5. Clean Up Before She Comes (solo acoustic)
6. Heartbreaker (live)
7. Mrs. Buttersworth (rehearsal recording)
8. White Lace and Strange (radio performance)
9. Floyd the Barber (live)
10. Even in His Youth (demo)
11. Polly (demo)
12. Opinion (solo acoustic)
13. Oh the Guilt (B-side)
14. Lithium (solo acoustic)
15. Verse Chorus Verse (outtake)
16. Curmudgeon (B-side)
17. Here She Comes Now (demo)
18. Sliver (solo acoustic)
19. Old Age (outtake)
20. I Hate Myself and I Want to Die (B-side)
21. Marigold (B-side)
22. Sappy (B-side)
23. You Know You're Right (solo acoustic)
24. Do Re Mi (solo acoustic)
25. All Apologies (solo acoustic)

It took me a while to come up with a way to make each side of Nirvana sound cohesive, but I eventually decided to organize the list by the eras represented by the box set. The first eleven songs are from the Bleach era. The next eight come from the Nevermind era. The final six come from the In Utero era. I think it gives it the feel of a documentary on CD. You really get to hear the gradual progression of the band, and maybe see where they were going. Enjoy.

Land of the Dead

Land of the Dead (3.5/5)

Horror movies almost always make money. It's an easy formula: create a monster, cast attractive people, and then have the monster kill them. All you really have to do is make people jump once or twice and your job's finished. It's also why most horror films are terrible. Land of the Dead, while not perfect, manages to be a unique horror film, because it believes horror movies can do something other than make people jump in their seat, although it does that too.

Land of the Dead is the fourth film in George A. Romero's Dead series. While the previous films involved the eventual decline of civilization, this film revolves around the last remnants of humanity trying to create a new civilization. The only problem is that the new civilization looks a lot like the old. In fact, it looks a lot like ours. Land of the Dead is a straight ahead allegory. It's not quite a mirror image of today's political climate, but it's awfully close. This is both a strength and weakness of Land of the Dead.

The plot revolves around a group of raiders who make a living going into the outlining suburbs and ransacking them for supplies. After a night of raiding, Cholo (John Leguizamo) decides that it's his last. He wants to buy his way into Fiddler's Green, a high rise building where all of the affluent live surrounded by the poor throngs, like Cholo, who work for them. When the owner of Fiddler's Green, Kaufman (Dennis Hoffman), makes it clear isn'tt Cholo isn't the kind of person who can live at Fiddler's Green (as Kaufman will say later on, a "spick bastard"), Cholo steals Kaufman's specialized armor vehicle Dead Reckoning. Cholo threatens to fire off Dead Reckoning's missiles at Fiddler's Green if he isn't paid five-million by midnight. Riley, one of Cholo's fellow raiders, is enlisted by Kaufman to find Cholo and stop him before the midnight deadline.

Oh, and there's a side plot about the zombies (often called stenchers) starting to gain the ability to think.

The analogy is there for anyone looking. Cholo starkly states that he's performing "jihad," and when he hears the demands Kaufman says he doesn't "negotiate with terrorists." Romero is examining how marginalizing certain groups causes dissatisfaction and anger to boil over into violence. There are many examples of this around the world, and one of the most recent were the riots in France. While Romero never asks us to like Cholo, he does expect us to understand why he's doing what he's doing.

I enjoy it when escapist fair tackles more serious subject matter. While they can never truly probe the problems as deeply as a more dramatic piece, the effect of recontextualizing real world problems in a fantasy setting can help us see things in a new light. It may never give us answers, but may help us tackle a problem from the flank rather than head on. There's a certain amount of catharcis in seeing such serious issues cut to their essence and treated as escapism. Such a blatantly political theme in a horror movie is brave to say the least.

The problem with the film is also its strength. At times the allegory becomes stretched. A ready example is when Riley chooses not to fire on a band of zombies because they're just trying to "find their way." I know the zombies are there to symbolize the marginalized people outside of our boarders, but c'mon, they're fucking zombies! Hell, they were just eating people! Maybe Romero feels that his message is too urgent not to shove it in our face, and while I can understand this proposition I feel it hurts his art. Romero was able to insert his political message into Dawn of the Dead in a less labored manner.

That being said, Romero does a fine job of creating a world out of a tiny budget. Seeing how much people can do with a small budget used to be one of the highlights of horror films. Would The Evil Dead be as good if you didn't know that it was filmed in a few months with virtually no budget and no experienced filmmakers? Now that horror movies are becoming less ambitious and special effects cheaper, I haven't seen a movie try and stretch a budget anymore. Romero does a fine job and adds a few details here and there that show you why he's so good in the first place. The first shot in the film is a diner sign spelling "eats." It's a clever bit of dark humor in a film about flesh-eating zombies. This may seem like an odd thing to say, but the gore is gleeful in its excess. When an army officer tries to throw a grenade, a zombie chops off his arm causing him to fall onto his own explosive and blow up. It's deliciously twisted. There are several scenes of gore that are painful to watch not because of the amoung of blood, but because they focus on things you could imagine actually hurting. You'll know them when you see them. Romero goes out of his way to show us things we've never seen in a zombie movie before.

While not on the level of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead should satisfy Romero fans. It's almost enough for me to forget the awful Dawn of the Dead remake. If Romero is back in the game, then hopefully other horror movies will try and keep up.