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.


aaron said...

first ever whitney h.--daniel j. comparison?

w/r/t MK on the eating of animals, she is not wrong in asserting the primacy of human suffering. it obviously comes first, and at some level you are ranking these concerns no matter what. what she misses is the fact that a concerned teenager can make a legitimate dent in animal suffering by simply changing her diet. impacting the congolese civil war is not really within most people's power to do, and even if it was, doing that while needlessly sending horribly abused creatures to the slaughter would be inexcusable anyways

Geoff said...

I just wish she would make some positive assertions and not condemn other people's good intentions. Though I guess I'm guilty of the same thing. Anyway her writing makes me feel contradictory.

Nathan said...

It seems maybe unnecessary to keep dumping on this woman since Norman Mailer basically did that for her entire career, but still, Kakutani is a pretty annoying example of a professional naysayer who moreover is never held into account for what she says.

Try to find a review of a book she read that was over, say, 700 pages where she doesn't say that it is "ambitious" but "overlong," or something to that effect. She obviously thinks the function of book reviewing is to check the ambitions of other writers, to get them to write less and more clearly. She is a template conservative reviewer (think John Simon) and I don't get her.

Geoffrey said...

What happened to Aaron's comment?


Geoff said...

Oh, there it is.