Thursday, January 28, 2010

State of the Blog

Who is this blog for? What kind of post is best? Where do we go from here? (I had a horrible dream where Patrick Wolf died and I decided I couldn’t go on with this anymore.) I don’t intend to answer any of those questions, except perhaps implicitly by saying: I could easily accomplish everything I do here with a Twitter account, as this blog is only my way of keeping track of my ceaseless opinionating and I feel no inclination to be elaborate in my comments (I think I’ve said that before). Ergo, I thought it might be nice from time to time to forgo my omnibus posts (which directly reflect the way I make sense of the world) and, for the sake of my readers, post something more self-contained and particular (i.e. twitter one tweet at a time). Well, the albums that made me who I am today are well known to my readers, I think, but there are also many lists of albums that have influenced me over the years, so here’s a list of some of those:

a) Spin Top 20s, 1996-1999; Top 90 of the 90s; Top 20, 2000; Spin Alternative Record Guide Top 100

I couldn’t choose just one, proof that Spin was the ultimate tastemaker of the 1990s. I’ve still got those 90s Top 20s, all beautifully laid out on two pages, bravely ranking Cornershop above Radiohead, putting Elliott Smith and OutKast side by side, championing Imperial Teen and Local H. I wasn’t interested in the mag’s 2000 list (and its gimmicky #1) but the much different one published on was totally awesome, almost perfect. I can't find it on the 'net, but I remember it well: pushing bands that would go on to become my favorites of the decade (Idlewild, The Delgados); ahead of its time in recognizing a new Swedish scene (Starlet); praising the continued and renewed greatness of Primal Scream and The Go-Betweens. And then there’s that mythic record guide, which I never owned but pored over at the store anytime I got a chance.

b) Alternative Press Top 99, 1985-1995

I never had the issue, but found the list on the very handy Rock List site, and it became my buying guide for most of my teen years. It comes closer to expressing an idea of the ultimate musical canon than I could ever come myself. This is still the music I care most about.

c) The Big Takeover: Jack’s Top 40s; “Desert Island” Top 200; Top 700 (!) 1976-1989

I started with issue 45, and by the time Jack went off about Idlewild’s 100 Broken Windows two issues later (also enthusiastic that Spin had just given the album, still an import, an enthusiastic 9/10), I was slavishly devoted. I don’t think I ever stopped to consider that my experience of the music he championed had to be different from the experience of Jack himself, punk and post-punk historian par excellence who lived through all of it. But he has a way of communicating the experience of a life in music in his writing, leaving you with a shared love of the music.

d) Noise from the Underground: A Secret History of Alternative Rock by Pat Blashill, Michael Lavine: suggested listening

The major draw of the book is Lavine’s grunge-era photography (recently given a more lavish retrospective in the ironically/appropriately titled Grunge). The listener’s guide in the back overlaps greatly with the Alternative Press list, but this book, pre-Azerrad, was the first time I’d seen such a discography tucked inside a narrative, and it totally beguiled me.

e) Ned Raggett’s Top 136 of the 90s

This one formed no part of my upbringing, but I was recently indirected to it on the internets and was struck by Raggett’s awesome taste (i.e. its similarity to my own). The list was linked from a piece Raggett wrote for Stylus’ retrospective of the most recent decade in music, for which he declined to provide a list. His premise in the article is that there are two ways to interact with culture, to observe and to proclaim, and he no longer has any interest in doing the latter.

I thought about this in terms of the future of my blog, but the only two choices such a distinction leaves me are to cease and to continue. I hope to one day achieve Raggett’s serenity of mind, which will probably allow me to hear more clearly the music I love, but right now I feel an unhealthy compulsion to continue. At least until Patrick Wolf dies. Which I hope I have averted by the very suggestion.

In summary: lists can often seem pretty soulless. For any subset of the near-infinite number of albums that exist, there are countless permutations, so what makes the lists mentioned above so important? I guess they came along at the right time. They wouldn’t have meant much if I’d already known all the albums they mention. But if you can believe it, I feel an emotional attachment to the permutations offered by Spin and AP. Those lists read like stories to me.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Umbrella Guru

I don't know what to do with any of this:

I’d like to hear a mashup of Captain Beefheart’s “Ella Guru” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” Although I don’t like mashups, especially ones that try to level pieces of music that have nothing to do with one another.

When writing fiction, my only two choices are autobiographical and dreamlike. Lately I feel called to write a novel about a sharecropper who concocts an impossible plan to sneak away with the entirety of his farm into the night, inspired by a dream I had in glorious black-and-white. More glorious than Citizen Kane, I swear!

I had another dream where my sister and I were driving down a crazy mountain road (really, it was more like driving along some high fashion garment) and despite the fog and deep snow (both at once?) she claimed she could see fine. Mom pointed out (in real life) that perhaps she will develop x-ray vision if she ends up getting Lasik surgery. A sensible connection that I would never have thought of.

I’ve kind of always wanted a family I could more easily disappoint: domineering parents who demand I become a lawyer and who cut off the trust fund while I fail to become a writer and travel the country searching out erotic adventures. Or something.

There are a surprising number of songs about being 22, but the best will always be Neil Young’s “Powderfinger.”

Do people have a genetic predisposition to preferring either fiction or non-fiction?

There was an anniversary issue of Box Office at my work that reprinted pieces from the magazine’s 90 year history. A 1929 piece about The Broadway Melody was included, and it struck me as the ideal movie review about an ideal type of movie. With great modesty (essentially disclaiming his or her writeup as entirely irrelevant), the reviewer treated what is nothing more than a big show as, yes, a big show, noting the number of skilled individuals who worked on the production and whose talents are on display. Plus, a story thrown in for good measure, but nothing that coheres, or should try to. I’ll type it up if the issue ever reappears at work.

I live for The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, so tonight is a very momentous night for me. I posited his cancellation as a defeat for young people on the order of Proposition 8, which I still believe.

Of those residents of the twentieth century who escaped war, poverty, and oppression, it will be said that they ruined it for the rest of us, but also that no one in the history of the world ever had it better.

I’ve realized I prefer neither the town nor the country, only that I don’t like them in combination. In a true city, where nature has been eradicated, one can pretend it’s always been that way, and concrete is natural. But a cluster of houses on the side of a hill is a sad reminder. (In Of Time & The City, Terence Davies says something about there being no vitality stronger than decay. Well, that’s maybe because we don’t think of decay as having intention, but if it does, a well-run city is a place where one is not often aware of a battle being waged.)

Newsweek says there might be a partisan divide over science (Conclusion: Conservatives distrust intelligent people, facts). I wonder if there is a similar divide among people who grow up as horror fans and those who grow up science fiction fans. Assuming all these people become film critics, do the former develop a stronger theoretical engagement with film, and the latter a stronger emotional one?

A bad new ‘tween punk album will be called Wake Up Get Up Grow Up Give Up.

Zadie Smith says of the Zadie Smith who wrote White Teeth a decade ago: “I find her idea of the novel oppressive, alien, useless.” I find this heartening for a couple reasons: (1) I thought I was the only one who thought that about White Teeth; (2) It suggests that progress is possible.

Vanity Fair says that Norman Rockwell has been routinely underrated, but does the fact that art critics ignore him really count? The man is beloved, and rightly so. Anyway, the article is good, and I shouldn’t complain because indeed Rockwell could never be rated highly enough.

Friday, January 15, 2010

2009, Pt. 2


Never publish a top ten 'til your warehouse is full.


Atlas Sound, Logos : As musicians go, Bradford Cox strikes me as a real artist, someone who never tries to conceal his determination to use the raw materials of his trade to sketch out the contours of his brain. My notion is reinforced by the way he makes his music available to the public: a steady stream of fragments, sketches, ideas, historical documents, free of charge, and then, a couple times a year, the real deal, for which he expects the patronage of his ardent admirers. Logos is, in my estimation, a major work among his major works so far. I’m waiting for July to soak in the full weight of aching summerstrum “Criminals”; non-seasonal “Quick Canal” is the album’s masterpiece, and produces in me the same feeling I felt when I first heard DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing. To correct a previous blog post: I realize that feeling has nothing to do with closeness to death and more to do with eternal life. Call it Elevation (an emotion proposed by Roger Ebert that I redefine here for my own purposes): the immutable promise of mysteries lying in wait. (4.5/5)

Girls, Album : I like albums like this for how they show that, in some ways, life goes on the same as before, and that there are still young people who need songs like this, and who won’t settle for the way they were played generations ago (by Big Star, and others). I’ve begun to respond to this in a major way—in the contest between last year’s great rejuvenators, I strangely prefer this (ever so slightly) to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, whose accomplishments and themes are similar but whose inspirations are different. Music like this seems to say, “Relate…or die,” and while I only relate to some of it, and in a sort of automatic way, I am also struck by the breadth of Girls’ talents and the variety of the songs: a tangled Pavement-y jam here, a gentle noise-soaked lullaby there. And here I am mentioning Pavement, who originated nothing either, except their own brand of awesomeness. Last, I was going to say that the drumbeat on “Ghost Mouth” (as popularized by “Then He Kissed Me” and later, “Just Like Honey”) must be retired from rock music, or used a lot more so that it becomes as general as waltz time. But it’s perfect here, part of the way Girls take on every rock ‘n’ roll staple and break its hidden heart. (4.5/5)

The xx, xx : I already knew this was great background music, and had reason to believe it was also great foreground music. Surprise: It is! Early reviews, littered as they were with RIYLs, gave me no indication of what this would actually sound like. Here’s my own imperfect analogy: It’s a good and proper update of The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds for the post trip-hop era. A lot of bands sound like The Cure recently, but only The xx seem to recall that they were essentially a very minimal band. The interlocking guitar and bass on xx, muted and melodic, is the essence of good taste. (4/5)

The Mary Onettes, Islands : A lighter set from my favorite pop romantics of the day. At first I wondered if they hadn’t brought what they brung on their debut, but then decided they’ve merely bringed something different, and less heavy. (4/5)

I’ve also been trying to hear at least one song by as many of 2009’s blog buzz bands as possible. So far, I especially love jj (soundtrack to a Swedish pillow rave), Wild Beasts (British sophistopop on the verge of going mad), and Neon Indian (70s AM radio + excessive pitchbend).

It’s a shame that no one heard The Sleepover Disaster’s Hover last year, but if the strength of “Scarlet Fields” is any indication, The HorrorsPrimary Colours has some of the same qualities to recommend it, and NME named it album of the year.


--Film after film in 2009 asked us to “accept the mystery” (none more so than the year’s pre-eminent religious thriller, A Serious Man) and Tulpan, which asks us to accept the mystery of our animal stewardship, is one of the best. I was awed by just about everything in Tulpan, nothing more so than the way it frames its animals, shows them as so noble and so vulnerable, and forces us to realize the wonderful and heavy burden we’ve taken on in our decision to use them and care for them. The result is cinema as pure as the Coens’ experiments in control, but so much more improbable because there is so much in front of the camera that is beyond the filmmakers’ direct control. One sequence, involving an injured camel, its protective mother, and a brokedown motorcycle—somehow, unbelievably—plays out like clockwork. The way the animals—especially the sheep—behave nearly like actors helps the viewer set aside ethical considerations about how the animals are being used, and fears that they might be in danger. Because the results are so assured, the process must be equally so.

--I’d be unable to explain The Limits of Control without overusing the word “reality,” so I’ll keep it brief: I declare this film to be about the relationship between bohemianism and reality. The relationship is a harmonic and not discordant one, it turns out, though the evil Bill Murray believes otherwise. It’s a ponderous and not always very interesting movie with an ultimately simple message: abstract art is good.

--Roger Ebert has called Jason Reitman the “hope of the cinema,” but I didn’t quite believe it until I saw Up in the Air, which makes his previous two features seem even better in hindsight. Because: This guy’s a real director, and Up in the Air is the most relevant, confidently told, and classically Hollywood movie in a while.

--Pirate Radio could do without its governmental subplot—after all, why show authority and the rebels against authority, while only fleetingly showing the souls they are fighting for? But the faulty plotting doesn’t distract from a movie that would be perfectly wonderful without any plotting whatsoever. How has anyone overlooked the total awesomeness of some of this movie’s best moments? I never suspected director Richard Curtis was capable of such naturalism and sublime human comedy, and he’s also skilled in the way he gradually reveals the hopeless sadness of some of the film’s very cool rock ‘n’ roll DJs. One burnout audiophile makes a desperate grab for his favorite records during an underwater LP sleeve ballet, and moments later, fellow rock-critic-schlub-to-be Philip Seymour Hoffman goes down with the boat as he broadcasts “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” a moment as full of dread and pathos and clinging-to-beauty as anything in Titanic. Then he flies out of the sea (literally!) like a rock ‘n’ roll messiah, and the film ends with a montage of hundreds of record covers that suggests the filmmaker’s understanding of the evolution and parameters of rock. Sweet.

--In the aforeblogged I Remember, Joe Brainard’s memories, as they accumulate, suggest a humanity both general and particular, but there are also times when one is struck with the burden of remembering. By the time he gets to hairstyles and popular songs, it becomes clear just how much there is in life that might easily be forgotten, and that the important things are no more safely stowed in our brains than the trivial. There are moments like that in The Headless Woman, a movie as silent and undramatic as a dream, and some of them, like a family wedding video on fast forward, are absolutely disorienting if you try to let yourself into the head of the titular woman. She suffers amnesia after an automobile accident, but it’s unclear throughout whether she’s a victim of head trauma or some subtler unmooring of long-suppressed anxieties. Spooky.

--When analyzing foreign films (i.e. films from foreign lands and foreign times), 90% of the work must be an attempt to understand what an audience from the same time and place as the filmmakers would recognize instantly. Jia Zhang-Ke (in certain circles, the most celebrated filmmaker of the past 10 years) is my main line to contemporary China, and he’s made a hyper-relevant and heartbreaking movie called 24 City that any citizen of the planet ought to see. Some might see it and recognize China as it is today; I watched it as an outsider, and found it an educational as well as emotional experience, and fairly out of the ordinary in its method, but never as inscrutable as it could be (like the work of Zhang-Ke’s fellow brilliant intellectual celeb Apichatpong Weerasethakul, from Thailand).

If you have a sense of the Chinese people as a mass of the faceless and nameless, here you will see a filmmaker asserting the primacy of the individual while showing characters struggling in an overcrowded world. If you wonder how China can maintain a sense of its history in the midst of massive industrial and economic expansion, here you will see that the Chinese wonder this too, and that they’ve had many losses and some gains (it’s all in the film’s title). We have these same problems in America too, but they rarely show up in our films. 24 City proceeds as a series of interviews, or, more accurately, beautifully written monologues, and it chronicles a China that has progressed from a nation of self-sacrifice to a nation where people have begun to recognize they deserve better. I don’t know if that’s the real China, but in the world of the film, it’s a convincing one.

More 2009 coming soon, almost certainly.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I Remember

I’ve been reading Joe Brainard’s I Remember, which ranks among Frans Masereel’s The City and the Up documentaries as one of those wonderful singular things that says so much about the mystery of existence without really telling us it’s doing that. I Remember is a 167-page list of remembrances (experiences real and imagined, wisdom learned, both true and false), told with such economy and clarity that it’s impossible to mistake the contexts of Brainard’s remembering. I’ve been thinking much about the book’s form (Should Brainard be celebrated for originating the form, or for perfecting it? Would any book in this style emanate such silent joyousness and sadness, or is that particular to Brainard’s life?) in relation to its content, but mostly I’ve been compelled to try some of my own remembering. Here’s a brief sample of my life, following the Brainard template:

I remember a piece of tissue in my room that I was always meaning to throw away. I remember when I finally did.

I remember layaway.

I remember hi-speed dubbing.

I remember “turn your head and cough” and not doing it right.

I remember wetting the bed. I remember the heavy warmth of the blanket.

I remember thinking I could pee away an erection.

I remember show and tell.

I remember showing two chess pieces carved by my dad. I don’t remember what I told.

I remember a cat’s toy koala.

I remember a sky green with lightning.

I remember Paula Cole and “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone.”

I remember daydreams of creating a fanzine and leaving it at grocery stores.

I remember daydreams of taking trips to my friends’ hometowns.

I remember being really good at math (People still assume I majored in it).

I remember my second-grade teacher’s very large birthmark.

I remember winning an award and being taken out for ice cream by my second-grade teacher.

I remember Gleaming The Cube, and life’s mysteries lying in wait.

More posts very soon (numerous).


I was going to do a list of my favorite movies of the decade, but the two I feel most strongly about are Mysterious Skin and Bad Education, so here instead is a list of the 25+ best gay movies of the decade.

1. Mysterious Skin
The coexistence of pedophiles and homosexuals in the same movie is always discomfiting, but this movie is uncommonly wise about the many modes of existence it circumscribes. It draws no obvious connections between its childhood traumas and adult miseries, but shows a collection of people whose only healthy relationships are friendships, and tries to understand why they’ve become the way they are. And what meaningful, sustaining friendships this movie contains.

2. Bad Education
There are pedophiles and homosexuals in this one too, but because this is an Almodovar film, they are swirled into an audio-visual movie-reverie about the ability of the characters to manage their demons while collaborating to make audio-visual movie-reveries. Almodovar is not often interested in the world of men, but when he is, he finds them as cinematic as his women.

3. Milk
I love Gus Van Sant’s insistence on making his characters gay when nothing requires them to be straight (like in Elephant). This one’s not like that though. Milk enacts in its story what the other films on this list enact in the method of their telling. Milk does the latter too.

4. Brokeback Mountain
In a way, Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock strikes me as a better gay movie, but probably just because it wasn’t marketed as one, and because it’s not one. People wrote about Brokeback Mountain as if it was the first time they’d ever seen two men in love, and indeed it is so good that it can feel like the first time you’ve ever seen two people in love.

5. The Hours
The correspondence between the scarcity of female directors and the scarcity of serious lesbian-themed movies can’t be an accident. Here’s an eminently serious one, directed by a man from a book by a man, that still manages to make men seem completely irrelevant: its male characters are losers and queers, while its female characters make the tough choice to kiss other women, for complicated reasons. Let me also mention the other Michael Cunningham adaptation of the decade, A Home at the End of the World, which along with The Fortress of Solitude taught me everything I need to know about mutual masturbation (like how 75% of those who engage in it are straight). Plus, Daldry’s Billy Elliot, which tells us nothing of its protagonist’s sexuality and becomes a triumph of the spirit for children of all persuasions.

6. Shortbus
In hindsight, Hedwig & The Angry Inch marks the rapid shedding of whatever inhibitions John Cameron Mitchell had to begin with. Shortbus is human sexuality unleashed, which means it is also, because of its honesty, exceedingly polite, proper, and cute.

7. Show Me Love
When released as Fucking Amal in Sweden in 1998, it outgrossed Titanic to become that country’s all-time biggest seller (as if we didn’t already know Sweden is a liberal paradise). When released in America under the name of the Robyn song that plays during the credits, the timing was unfortunate: 2000 was the nadir of teen-oriented cinema in the US, and nobody wanted a good teen movie.

8. Far From Heaven
Unsubtle as Douglas Sirk’s films are, there’s much in them that can be reclaimed, and Todd Haynes does a great job of that here. I’ve called him a primarily academic director whose movies are also dramatically interesting and plausible. This one favors the drama, and it’s sensational.

9. Tropical Malady
The object of desire: his charms are indefinable. He has no movie star attractiveness or charisma, but he’s captivating, and that makes him a rare sort of character. He’s sort of like one of Flannery O’Connor’s awkward seduced farm girls. But in the second half he’s revealed to be the seducer.

10. Chuck & Buck
I’m getting tired of writing these comments. Just imagine me shouting “Gay!” after each new title.

11. Tarnation

12. Angels In America

13. Capote

14. Breakfast On Pluto

15. Kinsey
Questionnaire as barometer of the self.

16. Bruno

17. Of Time & The City

18. Best In Show
The love story that develops in this one nearly makes it a plausible human drama (like Bruno, Lutz and OJ in #16).

19. The Deep End
Tilda Swinton’s in it, but because it’s not directed by Derek Jarman or Sally Potter, that’s not the reason gay men will love it. Instead, her son has a secret!

20. Mulholland Dr.
Weird as David Lynch’s movies are, his sexual politics have never progressed much beyond antiquated-yet-ironic. Here’s the ultimate “lesbianism for the sake of the male viewer” movie.

21. The Eyes of Tammy Faye / Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film / Michael Jackson’s This Is It
Three documentaries about three gay icons, two of them artists with vastly confused sexualities, and one of them a televangelist, of course.

22. I Love You, Man / Old Joy / Humpday
A bromance continuum. The characters don’t have much in common, but what really sets these movies apart is how far the directors (2/3 female) are willing to push them in the pursuit of love: hangin’ out, erotic massage, attempted sex, respectively.

23. 3:10 To Yuma / The Road To El Dorado
Ben Foster plays Charlie Prince as one of the great homicidal repressed homosexuals, but there’s nothing in Yuma remotely as gay as the fan fiction it has inspired. The Road To El Dorado plays like fan fiction, and it’s amazing Disney got away with such an obvious unrequited love story.

24. De-Lovely
Merely a placeholder for A Single Man, which I haven’t seen. If you’re having trouble reconciling that film’s promise of grief and despair with De-Lovely, it’s because the latter was advertised as a good times Cole Porter revue, when in fact it’s one of the most sour and dispiriting tales of a lonely and unfulfilled man I’ve ever seen.

25. Whatever Works
You can’t have a list of gay movies without an appearance by Woody Allen. Oh wait, you can, but here’s a surprise: the only remotely gay movie Allen has ever made.

Plus three I didn’t much care for that are sort of redeemed by their gayness:
-Y Tu Mama Tambien : It’s amazing that an audience of straight male film critics was able to understand the terminal protagonist’s decision to go driving around with two boys who are repulsive and annoying in all but the physical sense.
-Alexander : The best eye-shadow movie of the decade.
-The Descent : No hot cave sex? The restraint is admirable.

True Grit remains my favorite gay movie of all time. I hope the Coens don’t turn it into a straight movie.

And, because I can’t resist, my other favorite movies (gay, straight, lesbian, overweight, whatever) of the decade: George Washington, Ghost World, Waking Life, Panic Room, Lilya 4-ever, Lost In Translation, The Triplets Of Belleville, Sky Captain & The World Of Tomorrow, Me & You & Everyone We Know, Children Of Men, Marie Antoinette, I’m Not There, Wendy & Lucy. Those 13, plus #1 and 2 on the list.

And: Roger Ebert still has great taste, even if it's recently been obscured under a shroud of four stars.