Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I've Got Something To Say!

Eight things, to be exact.


They say there are no important birthdays after 21, but I’m thinking 25 might turn out to be a pivotal age, and not just because I’ll be able to rent a car. The thought of being able to look back 20 years into the past and recognize a fully formed version of myself is mortifying. Maybe you don’t feel, like me, that you haven’t changed since age 5, but you must at least have some vivid memories from that age.


I just began reading J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, which bears the inscription: We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping? That would be an appropriate quotation for Stitches, a story about a boy with one vocal chord…

Stitches by David Small : Another great “family tragicomic” in the manner of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, though the drawings here recall Quentin Blake, and at times suggest a latent narrative potential in the art of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Stitches reveals that David Small had despicable parents who gave him cancer and did not love him, though actually the story is never so reductive, and avoids being an airing of grievances. It is instead an extended mediation on violence, control of bodies, the vulnerability of children, etc. (just count the number of panels in which David is being forcefully held in the hands of an adult). Throughout, David makes childish mistakes, and his parents and grandparents tell him he “needs to learn,” but because these adults are so emotionally impaired, there is nothing he can learn from them. The book is best when it intentionally confuses the idea that life is a series of lessons learned.

The ending: Even though a cliché, I believe that ending with a dream is almost always a good idea, and Stitches helps prove me right. I was left wondering: Do introverts tend to have architectural dreams? Do mute people hear their own thoughts more loudly? David, like myself, wanders through weird buildings in his dreams, including a “temple whose guts had been bombed,” which is of course also a description of himself.

The medium: I can’t think of a medium that better captures humans in the act of peering at and contemplating their surroundings. The outline of a human head, frozen in time, the white space between black lines filled with thoughts… it gets to me. David looks into many mirrors, and these scenes, and scenes of lying in bed at night, should have as their soundtrack The Human League’s “Darkness.” But: Am I the only one who feels vertigo, or perhaps just distraction, when reading comics? Page to page, one can never predict where the eyes must go next.


Songs of the moment:

Janet Jackson, “State of the World”
—The state of the world hasn’t changed much, nor has pop music.

Weezer, “Across the Sea”
—Rivers Cuomo might be the emotional age of his crush, in perpetuity, but he is wise not to touch.

The Magnetic Fields, “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits”
—Mother nature’s wrong? Is the narrator’s lust so strong it can only be blamed on nature, or does it suggest a flaw in the architecture of the human body? The bridge is oh so 60s baroque.

Built To Spill, “Hindsight”
—I especially love Doug Martsch’s weird twists on tired phrases, the grass that’s greener because it’s fake.

A Sunny Day In Glasgow, “Shy”
—Continuing to explode my head to pieces.

Modest Mouse, “Dark Center of the Universe”
—I forgot how this band is nearly as energetic as the Minutemen.

Field Music, “Measure”
—I thought 2007’s “In Context” was the culmination of this band’s talents for intricate string arrangements, but I was wrong.

The Hidden Cameras, “Underage”
—Horny outtake from Graceland.

Norah Jones, “Chasing Pirates”
—A melody and arrangement so simple it seems to belong to a different era, plus no vocal tics or attempt at being blue.

Alicia Keys, “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart”
—I hadn’t heard any Keys since “Fallin’,” so I’m surprised to learn she’s traded the piano for a dampened beat. I can’t go on praising Bat For Lashes while ignoring how lovely this song is.

I request a Critical Beatdown on these last two.


Whitney Houston, now 46 and maybe no longer haunted by demons, sounded really good on the AMAs (and if imperfect, all the better for it), not so different, in her superstar way, from Daniel Johnston, now 48.


I’m almost compelled to consider Adam Lambert’s For Your Entertainment for inclusion on my 2009 top ten. I don’t know if it’s better or worse than any other pop album this year, but I’ve realized the reason I never hear or care about pop stars like Lambert is that I never understand where their audiences come from. I know how bands like A Sunny Day In Glasgow build a following; I don’t know where chart-toppers come from. I’ll be minding my own business, and suddenly some freak named Lady GaGa has five top ten hits and can’t be avoided.

Well, I know where Adam Lambert came from (and I don’t mean the closet!). He was the star of American Idol Season 8, and the only reason I watched all year. I don’t really have anything at stake in his popularity, but I can pretend I do, and it’s been nice learning that he has a fairly sophisticated understanding of pop music and his place in it. He knows the difference between song and production, and that one way to record a song is with too much production, and that this has been the appropriate approach for his first album. Opener “Music Again” (which must be written by the guy from The Darkness) is the blueprint, an escalation of over-produced micro-pleasures that will either make you, like Lambert, want to listen to music again, or never again. I’m still listening, but don’t worry, it won’t be on my top ten.


The elder statesman Chevy Chase is one of many great things about Community, a show that is one half of the half of NBC’s Thursday night sitcom lineup that has no restraints on or formula for its loony-ness.


Another week, another unconvincing Newsweek article. Ramin Setoodeh’s analysis of gays on TV vacillates between a number of half-formed arguments with such force and frequency that it ends up saying nothing. Here’s the worst:

“In fact, when gay marriage has been put before the voters of any state, it has failed every time. Is TV to blame for this? Of course not. The mission of popular culture is to entertain, not to lecture. But if we accept that Will, Dawson’s, and the rest once fostered acceptance, it’s fair to ask if Glee may be hurting it.”

Ah, the old A, therefore B? No! Wait, yes argument. I can’t understand how toning down gay flamboyance on TV (a premise that only makes sense, if like Setoodeh, you think that Jack on Will & Grace, during the good old tamer gay days, merely “swung the more flamboyant way”) will accomplish anything besides making TV boring. The article, like many a Bruno review, assumes that gayness is only a romantic or sexual preference and needs no corresponding culture (however susceptible to stereotyping), and ends with a platitude: “There's so much more to the gay community than the people on TV (or at a gay pride parade). We just want a chance to live and love like everybody else.” What about wanting to see flamboyant people on TV, and at gay pride parades?

But: I do agree with the notion that TV has “helped bring gays into the mainstream,” and I’m not surprised by a GLAAD survey that finds that “of the people who say their feelings toward gays and lesbians had become more favorable in the past five years, about one third credited that in part to characters they saw on TV.” I’ve long found TV the most enlightened and effortlessly enlightening of media in this regard, with an encouragingly flippant tone in even the most special of Very Special Episodes (The Simpsons, the incomparable gay bar episode of Roseanne). And Will & Grace, in hindsight, is better than any other sitcom of the late 90s.

Setoodeh is also spot-on about TV lesbians, who “face a different problem. They are invariably played by gorgeous, curvy women straight out of a straight man’s fantasy—Olivia Wilde on House, Sara Ramirez on Grey’s Anatomy, Evan Rachel Wood on True Blood—and they’re usually bisexual. How convenient.” Indeed, has there ever been a celibate lesbian on TV?


I shouldn’t pick fights with Michiko Kakutani, since I’ve never agreed with her about anything, but her review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals annoyed me. She wonders (or actually, forces her readers to wonder in her place) “how the author can expend so much energy and caring on the fate of pigs and chickens, when, say, malaria kills nearly a million people a year (most of them children), and conflict and disease in Congo since the mid-1990s have left an estimated five million dead and hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped and have driven more than a million people from their homes.” If one only ever cared about things that are more important than everything else in the world, then Michiko Kakutani would not be reviewing books. But then I’ve never been one to rank suffering, or seen animal cruelty as some petty concern. Kakutani does both, but never explains why she believes that human suffering is more important.

Thursday, November 19, 2009



I’m on a reading kick again. That’s not to say it doesn’t still take me two weeks to finish a normal-length book, just that I’ve regained the uncontrollable urge to read books that I’ve missed since graduation. My most recent read may be responsible…

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch : My outsized affection for this biography may stem from my lack of familiarity with the genre, but I believe this is the greatest book I’ve read all year. A life, from birth to death, with all its contradictions and unities, in one book: how wonderful. When that life is Flannery O’Connor’s, even better, but Brad Gooch doesn’t just rely on the inherent interest of his subject; he’s done his work, and made it seem effortless.

Flannery had a great way with names and titles for her stories, a talent I can only aspire to. There’s nothing I dislike more than an innocuous title. Flannery’s least innocuous and most evocative titles tend to be borrowed from philosophy, literature, and scripture, while some of my proudest achievements of recent years come from popular song (via The Smiths, New Order, Nico, The Damned, Yo La Tengo, My Favorite, Joy Division), film, film criticism, Shakespeare, and even a variation on one of Flannery’s most famous stories (though not by switching the adjectives, which would suggest a certain kind of story). My favorites of these are also the most inscrutable (“As It Is When It Was,” “No It’s Not Wrong But I Must Add”). I have a whole stockpile of Stephin Merritt quotes waiting for stories, the most promising being “How They Were Not Like Me Because.”

Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy : Daughter of the eminent Helena Meloys, she read here last week, and her brother Colin will perform at my work next month. She has a fine way with dialogue, and the slowly revealed plot; these aren’t the types of stories I’m especially interested in, where what happens resonates more than the language itself, but she’s taken a style I associate with Richard Ford and his (non-feminine) ilk, and shown that it belongs to everyone.


I haven’t seen Precious yet, so I won’t pass judgment, but I’ve been reading about it with interest. The most common criticism (Newsweek, et al) seems to be that the film reinforces the notion that inner city black people are helpless and need outside support to overcome their tragedies. I don’t know if that’s true (and if it is, but the story is well-told, I don’t see why the filmmakers should have to provide an alternative), but the film that Newsweek wants Precious to be already exists, and it’s called Ballast. That film, like Precious is said to, piles tragedy on top of tragedy, and then slowly, by revealing a back story previously withheld but entirely plausible, allows its characters an out, so that it begins to pulse with an overwhelming, because so vulnerable, optimism. Ballast introduces a kind white man early on, but he turns out to be a red herring; the characters’ tenuous striving for a better life comes entirely from within themselves. The final two shots are so perfectly understated, but so precise and unambiguous, that I found myself silently shouting, like I often do, End! End! End! This film followed my command.

How does last year’s equally inevitable Best Picture-winner Slumdog Millionaire fit into all this? I never really felt one way or the other about that movie, and clever as the conceit is, I don’t have the brainpower to think through what it’s saying about improvement of the impoverished. Game shows are a rigged and frivolous form of self-improvement in which no contestant has the upper hand. But Slumdog has the answers! Agency! The host, like the protagonist, is Indian. But where’s this money actually coming from? I give up. But even a reading of the story arc as arbitrary and the style as poverty-porn still gives the film an advantage over the new Sandra Bullock vehicle The Blindside, which is sure to be the most racist movie of the year.

I was wondering why last weekend’s offerings at the Myrna Loy were drawing such big crowds, and then as I gazed out from my perch in the box office, I realized: Coco Before Chanel and Amelia are the first two movies about women we’ve shown since I was hired.

Whatever Works is hardly perfect, but I’d say it’s a better articulation of Woody Allen’s long-held ideas about the world than many of his recent films. And it’s pure fantasy, a mode he should work in more often. He also avoids clichés, stereotypes, and uncomfortable depictions of intergenerational romance (or not really, but when they do crop up, they exist, again, in the realm of pure fantasy), and this is especially remarkable given his biography and the typical homogeneity of his casts. If only Philip Roth was so lucky.


I’ve already voiced my approval of The Office [US], but I caught a rerun the other day that was great in ways I never thought The Office could be. It said things about pride in failing institutions, and paper, and art, that I expect from, well, great art. The episode concerns Pam’s first art gallery exhibition of her drawings, on paper, one of which depicts the building that houses the paper company for which she works. Only the often-blind (or too-seeing?) Michael Scott understands the beauty of this drawing—which I suppose is in a way the equivalent of having a tattoo of your own mother—and ends up privileging art and comradeship over financial gain in a way that might be a valuable lesson to those of my classmates who took jobs in the business world. Though I don't know of anyone who did.

I’ve wondered what Conan O’Brien’s complete indifference (it shows) to most of the musical guests they push through on The Tonight Show says about the state of the music industry. Does his discerning taste and relative youth signal the end of something, and the beginning of something new? But mostly I’ve been wondering if Flannery O’Connor would find him funny, and I suspect she would. That’s only fair, as Conan wrote his senior thesis at Harvard about her.


My favorite local artist is Jim Poor. His recent works are less colorful, and now on display at his studio.