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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Paul Simon


I've been listening to a lot of Paul Simon lately. About a month ago, I saw on the news that he received an award from the Library of Congress called the Gershwin Prize for American Songwriting (he is the first ever recipient). That got to me to listen to all of the Simon and Garfunkel albums, which I have in a boxed set, and some of his solo music. Just yesterday I purchased his new greatest hits collection, called The Essential Paul Simon, and PBS aired the broadcast of his award ceremony, which featured Simon as well as many other artists performing his songs.

He has a staggering body of work that is easy to overlook unless one thinks specifically about it. He straddles many periods, many genres, and because of this he doesn't emerge, at least in my mind, when you think of popular pop music acts. In the sixties, when Simon and Garfunkel were at their height, I don't think they were mentioned in the same breath as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. As a solo act, Simon had some well-received albums, but again, if you mentioned the biggest acts of the 70s he probably wouldn't come up. He's sort of been a 'tweener, neither fish nor foul, selling a lot of records but not achieving a kind of Mount Rushmore status (this is not true of his devotees, one of whom is a friend of mine, who owns every Simon album and has seen him any times, I speak more of the casual music fan).

He deserves more credit. The emcee of the TV show, Bob Costas, spoke of a difficulty in making a list of Simon's 20 greatest songs. The man has knocked out some world-class pop songs, and managed to experiment with almost every different genre. When he and Art Garfunkel were known as Tom and Jerry, I'm sure they thought of themselves as the next Everly Brothers, but their first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M, was pure folk, including old chestnuts like Go Tell It on the Mountain and a cover of Bob Dylan's The Times They Are-A Changin'. Their breakthrough came when a drum track was added to The Sound of Silence, and suddenly they were a pop act.

With Garfunkel, Simon made some indelible music. A lot of his early stuff, though, had the unmistakable whiff of an English major. Consider The Dangling Conversation, which is oppressively pretentious, with references to Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. Yet, I find it a very moving song due to the string orchestrations. And by the time they broke up, I consider three of their songs to be among the best pop songs ever recorded: Mrs. Robinson, America, and Bridge Over Troubled Water. Mrs. Robinson, which was also featured in the film The Graduate (among several other S&G songs), is one of those tunes that perfectly fit its time period. These lines: "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you," perhaps Simon's greatest lyric, succinctly captures a country that had become disconnected with its past. Almost as good is from America: "Kathy, 'I'm lost', I said, though I knew she was sleeping. I'm empty and aching and I don't know why. Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they've all gone to look for America." I get chills every time I hear it.

As for Bridge Over Troubled Water, a recording that certainly has no subtlety, it would be easy to dismiss it as an over-blown example of ego run amok. But for me the song holds together, mostly due to Garfunkel's vocals. Simon knew his reedy voice, which has always made me think he sounds likes he's got a cold, couldn't do it justice. The relationship between Simon and Garfunkel is fascinating. Simon, it has always seemed to me, resents the fact that Garfunkel is forever linked to him. He cut him loose in the early seventies, and except for a few songs and some reunion concerts, hasn't worked with him much since then. Famously, he recorded an album with him and then removed all of his vocals. Still, Garfunkel, like an eager puppy, is always there, as he was at the Gershwin Award, to sing Bridge Over Troubled Water, of course.

Simon's solo career has been productive, but not as consistently great, in my opinion. He's had some great songs, like Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard, Kodachrome, and Still Crazy After All These Years, but I think his only truly magnificent album is Graceland, which came out in 1986. Working with many different styles: African and Zydeco just two, there were some great achievements on that album: The Boy in the Bubble, You Can Call Me Al, Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes, Homeless and the title track, which is sort of like a follow-up to America, still about a guy looking for answers by traveling, only this time with a son instead of a girlfriend.

Since Graceland Simon has come to the same fate of other sixties and seventies giants, he's become less relevant and sales have dropped. He was involved in a Broadway musical that flopped, and his last two albums have gone largely unnoticed. But he is an always-interesting musician, and his body of work certainly stands with any from the same time frame.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Slaughterhouse-Five

I don't reread many books, figuring I'd rather spend the time discovering a new book than raking over the past. But I've made an exception with some of my all-time favorite books such as Catch-22 and Portnoy's Complaint and now Slaughterhouse-Five. I first read the book back in high school, I think, and following the death of Kurt Vonnegut in April I had been thinking a lot about him so figured the time was right, and to make sure the book held up to the standards I had assigned it. It does.

Vonnegut had been wanting to write a book about Dresden for years. He was there, as a prisoner of war, when the Allies bombed the city in 1945. It was a city without military value, full of beautiful buildings. But it was reduced to cinders and over 100,000 civilians were killed. Something like that, especially to a sensitive soul like Vonnegut, doesn't go away easily, and for all those years he was grappling with it. In 1968 he finally wrote Slaughterhouse-Five, and what he did was particularly Vonnegutian: he combined the trauma of what he went through with a genre that he was familiar with, the pulp science-fiction novel.

Vonnegut's protagonist is Billy Pilgrim, a fellow prisoner of war who goes home from the war and lives a quiet little life as an optometrist. Except Billy has a curious affliction: he is unstuck in time. At any moment he can be in one time period, walk through a door, and find himself at a point twenty years earlier, or twenty years later. He has been at his birth and death many times. He knows that what happens will always happen, and there is nothing he can do to change it.

He learned all this from the Tralfamadoreans, a race of extraterrestrials who kidnap him and display him as a zoo specimen on their own planet. Tralfamadoreans see time differently than we do. They know that the past, present and future are simultaneous. Anything that ever happened is still happening. There is no death--a corpse is just a body that is in particularly bad shape at the moment. Everyone that we think of as dead still exists in time.

In this construct, Vonnegut unfurls a quiet meditation on the nature of war. In one passage, Billy watches a war film backwards. Instead of bombs being dropped, they fly up into the air, are caught by airplanes, the bombs broken down into minerals, and the minerals buried into the earth so they won't do anyone any harm. The book is also about coping with trauma. Vonnegut, in the first chapter, talks about how he likes to get drunk and call up people on the phone. With Billy, though, he has invented the world of Tralfamadore, where his hapless hero is mated with an adult film actress named Montana Wildhack. The words trauma and Tralfamadore even have a similar sound. When one wants to escape the horrors of reality, creating a world where one is frolicking with a naked starlet seems a reasonable solution.

The book features some characters from other Vonnegut books, such as Howard W. Campbell from Mother Night, Elliot Rosewater, and Kilgore Trout, the science-fiction writer who is in many Vonnegut books. It also provides us with Vonnegut's best known phrase, "So it goes," which he has inserted any time after there is mention of a death. I don't know if Vonnegut will have an epitaph, but surely "So it goes" would be an appropriate one.

If you've never read this book, do yourself a favor and read it.



Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Supreme Displeasure


What is the number 1 criteria to earn my vote for President of the United States? Who they are likely to appoint to the Supreme Court. The Bush presidency, one of the most disastrous in the history of the republic, is winding down, and a Democrat has a pretty good shot at succeeding him, but the damage is done in that Bush got two justices on the court who are likely to remain there a long, long time.

Supreme Court appointments are tricky, and there have been plenty of surprises. On the current court, two of the most liberal voices are John Paul Stevens and David Souter, who were both appointed by Republican presidents. John Roberts and Samuel Alito, however, are not surprises, at least not yet. They have quite predictably sided with the conservative mentality that Bush no doubt wanted on the court. Some decisions handed down in recent weeks have been depressing reminders that the die is cast.

Roberts replacing William Rehnquist didn't make much difference. Rehnquist was a very right-wing justice. He was even-tempered jurist, and in his role as Chief Justice he was more measured, but his tenure during much of the seventies he cut a swath through Warren court precedents that would curl the hair of any civil libertarian. Fortunately, much of the time he was in dissent. It was only with the addition of Antonin Scalia that Rehnquist actually appeared to be more moderate. Rehnquist even wrote one of my favorite opinions, that of the Jerry Falwell-Larry Flynt case. I was an editor at Penthouse then and wrote him a fan letter. I got a personally-signed response that is hanging on my wall to this day. I'll give a guy credit when he's right.

Alito replacing Sandra Day O'Connor is much more disturbing. O'Connor, though certainly fundamentally conservative, never seemed to be toting around an agenda. By virtue of being in the center, she became the most powerful person on the court. She dissented least of any justice. With her departure, and the far-right Alito taking her place, the center has moved a tick right, and now is in the hands of Anthony Kennedy, who I've grudgingly admired most of the time (especially considering he was the alternative to Robert Bork). But he's gotten on my bad side in the last few months, and things are looking bleak.

A few of the cases that are disturbing: Gonzales v. Carhart, which let a ban on partial-birth abortions stand, the first time since Roe v. Wade that a law prohibiting abortions has been upheld. Ledbetter v. Goodyear, in which a woman was denied the ability to sue for gender discrimination because she didn't do it within 180 days of the discrimination, which basically tells employers, discriminate away, because if you can keep it hidden for six months, you don't have to worry about it. Morse v. Frederick, the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case. This has little in the way of ramifications, since it was the student who was suspended that wanted to sue his teacher, so it's not like the guy going to jail or something. But any infringement of freedom of speech gores my ox, especially when the student held the banner on public property, and is not a good sign for any free speech cases that come down the pike.

Of the five justices that normally vote for the right, none are imminent for retirement, with Scalia and Kennedy both turning 71 this year, mere pikers when it comes to justices, they are like tortoises when it comes to longevity. But of the four justices who are leftward, Stevens is 87, and is no doubt trying to hang on for a Democrat to be elected next year, while Ruth Ginsberg is 74, and has had cancer. If Stevens can't make it, civil libertarians will be fucked for a long, long time.

Monday, June 25, 2007

La Vie en Rose


I can't remember when I first knew about Edith Piaf (perhaps when it there was a play on Broadway about her, and an actress named Jane Lapotaire scored an upset win in the Tonys over Elizabeth Taylor) but since then I've had a mild fascination with her. She's not particularly well known in the U.S., but I do have a CD of her greatest hits, coming in my collection between Liz Phair and The Pretenders.

Therefore it was with some interest that I viewed La Vie en Rose, the film about her life from Olivier Dahan. The title refers to her most famous song, a tune that immediately conjures up visions of Paris. At one point in the film Piaf meets Marlene Dietrich, who tells her, "You are the soul of Paris." I think that's quite true, because Piaf's songs are so evocative of the romance and wistfulness of 20th-Century Paris.

The film tells her life story, and while lushly filmed with plenty of great details and a magnificent performance by Marion Cotillard, it ultimately suffers under the weight of the music biopic structure. Dahan does his best to avoid this, directing the bejeesus out of this film, and jumping around in time, but it still has the predictable "rising from poverty, finding a mentor, hitting it big, unlucky in love, hitting the skids because of drugs and/or alcohol, one last triumph" that is so familiar. Unlike Ray Charles or Johnny Cash, who's late-life success ended their films in a rosy glow, Piaf came to a very pathetic end.

Born in poverty in the Belleville section of Paris, the daughter of a street-singer and an acrobat, Piaf grew up in both a brothel and a circus. She was sickly and was blind for a time, and her frail body led to her name, which is a French colloquialism for sparrow. She was discovered singing on the streets by a cabaret-owner (played by Gerard Depardieu) and after some fits and starts became a sensation, and one of the most beloved singers in France. Of course she also became a drug addict, and had a tragic romance with boxer Marcel Cerdan. By the time she was in her forties she looked like she was in her seventies.

Oddly, the film jumps from 1940 to 1947, completely eschewing the war years. Piaf was an active member of the resistance, and saved many lives. This film didn't need to be any longer, but it is strange that a significant part of her life was completely ignored.

From the photos I've seen of what Marion Cotillard really looks like, she makes quite a transformation into Piaf, who was a bit of an ugly duckling. Performances of real people are ofter overrated, because they are viewed as impersonations, but since I haven't seen much film of the real Piaf, I didn't succumb to that thinking, and instead could appreciate how Cotillard brought to life the nature of this woman, a bruised soul who made her fame through a soaring voice. I could watch this film again just to hear the music, and to enjoy the nuances of Cotillard's performance.

Friday, June 22, 2007

President Bloomberg?

Much of the chatter about the 2008 presidential race has focused this week on New York City Michael Bloomberg possibly mounting an independent run. Such a move is tantalizing for those who like to see chaos, because surely such a move would change the entire scene.

I don't think Bloomberg has any chance of winning, mind you. An independent candidate, no matter how rich, has an uphill climb. State laws for getting on the ballot are byzantine. And even if on all 50 state ballots, that doesn't mean much. Ross Perot, who by all standards did amazingly well in 1992, with 19 percent of the vote, nevertheless failed to garner a single electoral vote. Furthermore, Bloomberg is a Jew from New York City. I don't think there's too many folks who will come out of the woodwork to vote for him.

No, it's what Bloomberg does to the other candidates that's interesting. Perot is certainly owed the credit for two terms of Bill Clinton. If it weren't for Perot's presence on the ballot, Clinton may have lost both races (he got less than fifty percent in both '92 and '96), and since Perot undoubtedly siphoned more Republican votes than Democratic, Clinton was the beneficiary. But it's unclear who Bloomberg will draw from. A lifelong Democrat, Bloomberg was elected to the mayoralty as a Republican. He is socially liberal and fiscally moderate-to-conservative. He is likely to draw from the middle.

More specifically, he's sure to hurt Rudy Giuliani. The Republican race is sure to be stirred when Fred Thompson officially declares. With Bloomberg hogging the spotlight, Giuliani may find himself struggling to get air-time on the evening news. If Giuliani is the nominee of the G.O.P., there will be an interesting struggle to separate the two men in the voters' minds. Giuliani would likely run to the right. If Hillary Clinton were the Democratic nominee, voters all across the country may stay home, dismayed that all their choices live within a short radius of Times Square.

Bloomberg was elected in 2001 for two main reasons: 9/11, and the horrible campaign of Mark Green, his Democratic opponent. He got off to a shaky start, but cruised to re-election four years later. Were I a New York resident, I may have had to violate a long-held resistance to voting Republican, because the Democratic, Fernando Ferrer, seemed to me to be another in a long line of widgets from the Democratic party machine. Bloomberg has run the city well, I think. He has taken some extreme positions, particularly on things like public smoking, that have rankled some, but he seems to not give a shit, which is kind of refreshing. Instead of consulting polls, he has his own mind. I would not vote for Bloomberg for President, because this election is likely to be close, and I don't want such a vote to backfire and land a Republican in office (like voters for Ralph Nader may have done in 2000). The first vote I ever cast in a presidential race was for an independent candidate, John Anderson in 1980, so I'm not philosophically opposed to third-party candidates.

Just a few days ago Bloomberg was interviewed on PBS along with the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa. The two both complimented and complemented each other, and if one didn't know better one could think they were running mates in a national ticket. I wouldn't be shocked to see that premonition come to fruition.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Egyptologist

Having read Arthur Phillips first novel, Prague, and not thinking much of it, I didn't know what to expect with his second, The Egyptologist. It made Stephen King's top ten books of the year, and the subject matter--archaeologists in Egypt in the 20s, is a fun time period, so I bought a used copy.

I liked this book a good deal. It's very interesting stylistically, as it is told in epistolary form by two unreliable narrators. One of them is Ralph Trilipush, a self-important Egyptologist who seeks to find the tomb of a possibly apocryphal king. His journals are full of self-reverence that drip with baroque humor. He has the unfortunate distinction of digging for a tomb at the same time Howard Carter is looking for the tomb of Tutankhamen, and you can see where that's going.

The other narrator is Harold Ferrell, an Australian private eye. He is hired by the estate of a British industrialist to find all of his illegitimate offspring. Ferrell gets on the tail of one of them, who disappeared in Egypt during World War I. Ferrell is writing his recollection of the events thirty years later, in answer to a man seeking family history. Ferrell is so enthusiastic in his reply that he structures his letters like a mystery novel.

The two narrators describe events quite differently, so as the reader goes back and forth between them it's hard to know what to believe, which is the fun of it all. There's also a twist that though I saw coming, is still rather clever, and requires a very careful reading of the ending to figure out entirely (I'm still not sure what became of one of the characters). The writing is very rich and the humor droll. A second read would probably clarify things much more, but it wasn't quite good enough to compel me to do that.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Al Pacino

I tuned it last night to the broadcast of the ceremony for the AFI Life Achievement Award to Al Pacino. It was notably profane, which I guess is appropriate because Pacino's movies must lead the world in F-bombs (the record will one day be set by Samuel L. Jackson). They hardly had a clip to show that didn't need to be bleeped. There were the usual encomiums, blown-kisses, and declarations of love and gratitude. I won't say that they are not sincere, but if you believe these kind of shows, Hollywood must not have any assholes running around, or at least they don't get awards.

But it was nice to see Pacino's career represented in its entirety, from Off-Broadway to today, and remember just how many good performances he's given. As pointed out, he's probably best known for a golden four year period from 1972 to '75, when he made The Godfather, Serpico, The Godfather Part Two and Dog Day Afternoon, certainly one of the greatest four-film stretches in the history of cinema acting. He topped off the seventies with And Justice For All, his fifth Oscar nomination of the decade.

The eighties were a more fallow decade. Cruising was a controversial disaster. Scarface was a critical flop, but has gone on to be a cult hit in video, particularly among the hip-hop culture. "Say hello to my little friend" may be Pacino's most famous line, outdoing even "Attica!", "My father made him an offer he can't refuse," "You're out of order," and "Hoo-hah!" He only made two more films in the 80s, the flop Revolution and Sea of Love. Pacino was no longer a bankable box office leading man, instead he morphed into an eminence grise. A cartoonish turn as gangster boss Big Boy in Dick Tracy earned his first Oscar nomination in over ten years, then in 1992 he was nominated twice, for Glengarry Glen Ross and Scent of a Woman, when he finally won.

I think it's somewhat ironic, but unknown in the way Oscars are handed out, that he won for his weakest nominated performance. By this time Pacino was well known for a tendency to go way over the top and chew scenery, and boy did he masticate in Scent. He was much better in Glengarry, as salesman Ricky Roma. The scene in which he pitches a real estate sale to Jonathan Pryce was sheer brilliance, and practically had me in the audience ready to buy.

Pacino has not been nominated since then, but it was nice to be reminded that he's several world-class performances since then. Now when a director hires Pacino, he's getting a certain product. Long gone is the Pacino who was so magnificently subtle as Michael in The Godfather. Remember the scene in which he calls Carlo to account for Sonny's death? When Carlo lies to him, Michael says quite calmly but supremely chillingly to stop lying, "because it insults my intelligence, and makes me very angry." If he did that scene today he may be shouting at the top of his lungs. Indeed, when Pacino played Michael for a third time in The Godfather Part III in 1990, Michael had undergone the same changes as Al.

In the last decade or so, Pacino has played this kind of role in films like Carlito's Way, Heat, City Hall, Donnie Brasco, The Devil's Advocate, Any Given Sunday and Two For the Money. They are baroque performances, full of bombast, larger than life. This Pacino style is crystallized in a cameo in Gigli, when as some kind of mob boss, he walks into the film for about five minutes and in a fascinatingly overwrought fashion, gesticulates wildly and then leaves, never to be seen again. As over the top as he can be, though, he's fun to watch. I saw Heat again over the weekend, a great film, and sometimes he turns it up to 11, as Spinal Tap would say. You almost want to look away out of embarrassment at times, like when he shouts at Hank Azaria that he got involved with Ashley Judd "because's she got a great ass! And your head is all the way up it!" But then, in the classic diner scene with Robert DeNiro, we see him dial it down, matching DeNiro beat for beat, not in a competitive way, but in a collaborative way. As loony as The Devil's Advocate was, I really dug it, especially because Pacino, given the chance to play Satan, went for it whole hog. The director must have been like a guy firing a pistol behind a race horse, sending it running at full gallop.

Perhaps my favorite Pacino film for the last ten years, though, is Looking For Richard, a quasi-documentary about Shakespeare's Richard III. I would love to see it again, but it doesn't seem to be available on DVD in the USA.

Pacino's body of work certainly is equivalent to almost anyone in Hollywood history, and he richly deserves the accolades he has received.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Tattoos

There was an article in the New York Times over the weekend about how tattoo-removal is now a hopping business. It seems many people experience tattoo-remorse, and go through painful and expensive treatments to remove them. Tattoos were once a thing for sailors and people who lived on the margins, like bikers and convicts, but today they are quite commonplace. The Times quoted a 2003 estimate that 16 percent of all adults and a whopping 36 percent of people aged 25 to 39 have at least one tattoo. They also estimate that 100,000 Americans have gone through tattoo-removal treatments.

I do not have a tattoo, but I have long flirted with the idea. There are many reasons for my reticence--my mother, for one, may have to die before I get one, because she would not approve (though my brother did get one and life has gone on). With my finances, it's not the first, second, or third thing I would do with discretionary funds. But perhaps most of all, what would be the main purpose in getting one? That's not an easy question to answer.

If a growing number of people have them, tattoos can be seen as trendy, and I certainly have never been, nor wanted to be, trendy. Of course, I am not in the 25-to-39 age bracket anymore, so for a 46 year old guy to get a tattoo might be pleasingly perverse. But what does it say about me to get one? Do I want to just be cool? Do I want to make a statement? If I get the tattoo where no one would see it when I am normally clothed, that's not making much of a statement.

What kind of tattoo would I get? Certainly something timeless. Tattoo artists must be rolling their eyes when some kid walks in and gets a tattoo of a cartoon character, or some boyfriend/girlfriend name. If you don't want to go through the torturous removal process, it's wise to get an image that will mean something to you when you're 70, as well as 17.

As a connoisseur of adult films and magazines, tattoos pop up a lot in my daily life. It seems that hardly any adult film performers don't have them. There's a woman named Belladonna who has a huge sacred heart tattooed on her chest, and another with the words "Slippery When Wet" etched across her pubic area. They are also turning up with more frequency on Playboy models, which bedevils some old fans. I'm on a Playboy mailing list, and every year or so a debate on tattoos breaks out. I think a small tattoo on the ankle or above the tailbone can be kind of sexy. The extensive tattooing on the women in the picture at right is just downright bizarre.

Tattoos are just another extension of individuality, albeit far more permanent than fashion or hair choices are. Who knows, I may get one some day, but if I don't it's no big deal.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Knocked Up


A Judd Apatow style has emerged: profane comedies with a heart of gold. Like his big hit from last year, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up is full of characters who are vulgar but sweet. That's a pretty good combination for the romantic comedy of the 21st Century, and Knocked Up is mostly pleasing. But ultimately I think it takes an easy way out and settles when it could have been far more interesting.

Allison Scott (Katherine Heigl) works for the E! Television Network. She's just been promoted to be on-air talent. She goes out to celebrate and meets a shaggy, corpulent man-child named Ben (Seth Rogen). Blurred by alcohol, she takes him home and they have drunken sex, during which he neglects to put on a condom. Nature takes its course and these two people, who ordinarily would have never seen each other again, attempt to make it work for the baby's sake.

There's nothing wrong with that premise, but as a foundation for the film, Apatow has a flimsy structure. This is mainly because the character of Allison is woefully underwritten. She's obviously attractive, has a good career, and seems to have no major mental illnesses. There's been a lot of buzz that no one who looks like her would ever sleep with a guy like Ben, but I'm not going to go there. People get together for a myriad different reasons, and the dulling effect of alcohol on the decision-making process can't be underestimated. But we need to know more about her, to understand why she sticks with him. But we don't know anything about her, or her romantic history. One line about a Wendy complex would have been enough, but she's a complete cypher. The other solution would have involved a complete rewriting and would have made a more interesting picture, and that's if the two of them had no romantic possibilities and instead tried to cope with being parents without the inevitable romantic comedy underpinnings.

So I think Knocked Up is a good movie, but not a great movie, and there's plenty to like here, especially the supporting characters played by Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd. They are Allison's sister and brother-in-law, and they might have made a good movie unto themselves. Mann is pretty much a harpie, and Rudd is her pussy-whipped husband who understands his situation but feels hopeless. He and Ben become friends, and as in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Rogen and Rudd make a great comedy team. At one point Rudd tells Rogen, "Being married is like Everybody Loves Raymond except it's not funny." There's a great sequence where the two go to Vegas and eat magic mushrooms while watching Cirque du Soleil. Though Mann's character is a stock one, she's good enough to give the character some extra depth, and a scene in which she can't get admitted to a hot nightclub because she is too old makes us actually sympathize with her.

I also liked scenes with Allison and her bosses at E!, particularly Kristin Wiig of Saturday Night Live, who perfects the technique of saying undermining things while making them sound supporting.

Then there's Ben's friends, a house full of slacker burnouts who are starting a web site cataloguing the appearances of actresses who appear naked in movies. They are more interested in bong-hits than actually doing any work, though. These guys are so clueless that they are unaware of the existence of Mr. Skin (one of them says he heard about it, but didn't connect the dots). It's clear that Apatow has great affection for these characters. I just wish he had spread a little of that affection around more evenly.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Dana DeArmond


The world of adult film has many corridors, veering off into many different directions. Every fetish and fantasy is addressed, focusing on body parts from head to toe, and almost all manners of behavior. Until recently, though, there was a certain sameness to it all, rooted in the style that came about when video was born. Many casual viewers are familiar with that style: girls with blonde hair and artificially enhanced breasts, in cheesy settings, where pizza delivery boys and pool cleaners are seduced. Over the course of a few decades the settings are at times much classier (a lot of adult films are shot in fancy LA-area mansions) but even the flimsiest of plots have been axed. Gonzo porn (which means there is no plot at all) used to be a novelty, but now it seems the norm.

And so, in answer to that, a new style has emerged over the past few years, called "alt-porn." It is mostly shot on film, with a gritty, punk aesthetic. The girls and guys look different--no fake boobs, no bleached blonde hair. There are however, lots and lots of tattoos and piercings. In an attempt to get more young people and women interested in porn, Vivid, one of the largest adult film companies in the world, has a line called Vivid-Alt, and produce much of this new style. The main performers are women like Joanna Angel, and a woman I've just discovered, Dana DeArmond.

DeArmond is very different from most adult-film performers. For one thing, she just turned 28, which is an age when most porn chicks have long retired. A former fetish model, she's been making films for a couple of years and has a few dozen titles, much of which is typical stuff, but she has also done a few for Vivid-Alt that bear a distinct stamp. I saw two of them recently, Girls Lie and Dana DeArmond Does the Internet.

Girls Lie was directed by Eon McKai, perhaps the most prominent director of alt-porn. In a series of vignettes it tells the stories of girls who, well, lie. There are scenes set in places where many guys my age would never want to set foot, like a meth lab in suburban LA, and the back room of a punk club. The performers are splattered with tattoos, which I don't much mind (DeArmond has only one, a cluster of strawberries--or are they cherries?--where her pubic patch would ordinarily be) but the piercings can be a bit much. DeArmond has one in her "taint," while the guys have them in areas where no sharp object should be introduced.

In Dana DeArmond Does the Internet, we get a look at what her life is like. She says she is shy, and socially awkward, and also is "Straight Edge." I had to look that one up, and find that it a lifestyle that is an off-shoot of punk that abstains from alcohol and drugs. Some Straight Edge folks also do without promiscuous sex, but clearly DeArmond doesn't follow that dictum.

What is most interesting about this DVD is the Behind the Scenes footage. DeArmond relates how important this film is to her, and how passionate she is about making the kind of porn that will change the industry. At a few points she gets teary-eyed, and it's easy to see that even in this shadow art form, there are people who care about what they are doing just as much as musicians, dancers, writers, etc.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Alpha Dog

Caught up with Alpha Dog on DVD last night, which was an early release from this year. The film has a good pedigree (no pun intended), with Nick Cassavetes as director and with stars both young (Justin Timberlake, Emile Hirsch) and more established (Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone). I was, however, unmoved.

This is the true story of how a dirtbag drug dealer, in an attempt to get money owed him, kidnapped the debtor's younger brother. The dealer in question, played by Hirsch, had a kind of personal charisma that attracted a menagerie of low-life hangers-on, all eager to do his bidding. He learned at the knee of his father, played by Willis, who apparently was some sort of mob-connected guy.

The film attempts to paint this film as being about lost innocence. The opening credits are over home movies of children at play, with Over the Rainbow playing in the background. Yes, we get it, even the most despicable adults start out as adorable children. Then we get the second message, in an opening scene with Willis, that it is all about parenting. These kids clearly have some bad parents (they are either criminals, impose too little discipline or too much), but it certainly can't excuse some of the behavior that is seen here.

Though the film is well shot, edited and acted (particularly by Ben Foster as the big brother of the kidnap victim) it is about a group of people who consistently do stupid things. At no point does anyone in this film have a clue, and at a certain point, as a viewer, I just have to shrug and not give a shit about any of them. This is true even of the victim, who has several chances to go home but wants to be cool and fit in. His fate is partly his own fault.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Verlander's No-No

I watched a DVD last night and when it was over I clicked over to ESPN to see what was happening. I learned, to my pleasant surprise, that Tiger pitcher Justin Verlander had just completed a n0-hitter. For the next half-hour or so I watched the coverage, and felt a nice warm sports glow.

The last Tigers no-hitter was hurled by Jack Morris in 1984, also the last year the Tigers won the World Series. Good omen? It was the first no-no at Comerica Park, and the first by a Tiger pitcher in Detroit since 1952. Morris' no-hitter was in Chicago, and my father attended that game (he lived near Chicago at the time). I haven't been in touch with him yet, but I imagine he watched the game last night.

ESPN replayed all the highlights, including the ninth inning in its entirety. Ordonez made a great sliding catch on the seat of his pants in the 7th inning, and Neifi Perez (filling in for the usual shortstop Carlos Guillen) made a super stab of a hot grounder that he turned into a bang-bang double-play. Verlander struck out two in the bottom of the ninth (for a total of 12). His curve ball was wicked, and his heater was clocked at 102 mph--in the ninth inning! The last out came on an easy pop fly to right, and then there was bedlam.

In their 107-year history, the Tigers only have six no-hitters, and this is only the second in my lifetime. However, as my Met fan friends are well aware, that franchise has yet to have one. The no-hitter really is a magical event in baseball. Every game has the potential to be one--how often have you heard someone say, when the first batter of the game gets a hit, "There goes the no-hitter." To be in attendance at one is the Holy Grail for many baseball fans (even better than getting a foul ball, I think). I'm sorry I didn't get to see this one live but I enjoyed the celebration nonetheless.



Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Star Wars

I'm a little late on this subject, but I was just in the post office and I was reminded, by the sheet of commemorative stamps on display, that a little film called Star Wars had its thirtieth-anniversary a few weeks back. In what is undoubtedly a minority opinion, I think the whole Star Wars fol-de-rol is a big ho-hum.

I don't say this out of pique, for those who do worship at the shrine of Lucas are entitled to their opinions. I was friendly with a fellow who was one of those who was neck-deep in Star Wars mania, so I tried to get it, but I just couldn't drink the Kool-Aid. I have seen the first film (or, in the re-numbering, the fourth) three times, and each time I am less and less enchanted.

It might be due to age. I was probably 17 the first time I saw it. The film had been out a year or so, and in the age before movies jumped to video and then cable so quickly, it was still playing in theaters when I saw it at the Abbey in West Milford. I remember thinking it was a pleasant diversion, but certainly not a classic. I also dutifully saw each of the next two films in the trilogy in their first release, enjoying them not so much for their cinematic achievements but more for the goofy kitschiness of it all. When I saw Return of the Jedi I was in college, and saw it with my friend Joe Masset. We were both in a comedy improv group and, if it weren't completely inappropriate, would have provided a running commentary, like the robots on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

When the films were rereleased (was it in 1996?) I went to see it again with my Star Wars aficionado friends. I was somewhat stunned to realize how bored I was with it. This is what had inspired an entire generation of fan-boys? The acting was bad, the dialogue worse, and the special effects, which were state of the art at the time, seemed dated. I didn't say anything, though. It would have been like attending mass with devoted Catholics and then critiquing it.

Last year I rented the DVDs of the first trilogy (aside from the presence of Natalie Portman, I have no interest in seeing the second trilogy ever again), and again I was unconvinced. Lucas is certainly to be commended for creating a complex world, but the regurgitation of Joseph Campbell, old serial films, and Kurosawa rings hollow to me.

Over the years I've run into other people who have loved Star Wars, and most of them are about ten years younger than I am or more, which makes me wonder whether it serves better to have been a child when discovering the film. Maybe by 17 I was already too jaded. I will say that Raiders of the Lost Ark, another Lucas product (albeit directed by Steven Spielberg) that came four years later was to my mind a far superior film, and that I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings trilogy far more, and consider them much better films than anything in the Star Wars series. I guess I just think the Jedis have no clothes.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Summer of Love

It's the fortieth anniversary of the summer that became known as "The Summer of Love," when young people from all over the country got restless and headed west to San Francisco in a charming but naive attempt to create a countercultural utopia, or at least get high, listen to rock and roll, and have lots of sex. I was six years old that summer, and my priorities were my Matchbox cars and watching Captain Kangaroo. I have never been to San Francisco, I have never worn flowers in my hair, so I don't really have nostalgia for that time period. Nonetheless, I have often wished that I could have lived through it at a more appropriate age.

Today, unless we actually were there, I think most of us look at this time period for its kitsch. Tie-dyed shirts, VW microbuses, and psychedelic rock show posters are the artifacts left from what, at the time, must have seemed like a real sea change. The congregation of flower children in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood scared a lot of people, and rightly so. American would never be the same, for good or bad. In the end, the summer of love only lasted that one season, as drugs and a co-opting of the movement by commercialism doomed it. In October, those who were still around conducted a funeral for the entire movement, even though the effects lasted much longer.

There were no hippies in my family. I didn't come to know what it was all about until I was in high school. As with many, it started with the music. I gravitated away from top-4o radio when disco got popular, and started listening to FM stations like WPLJ and WNEW, where I learned about "classic" rock. Of course I knew about the Beatles, but now I was learning to love bands like the Rolling Stones, the Doors, The Who, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. My social circle in high school listened to all those groups, or the progressive-rock descendants of those bands like Queen, ELO, and Genesis. Punk rock was something on the horizon that we had heard of but didn't know much about. Today I do my best to keep up with the current music scene, but I always seem to go back to the sixties music, when a single radio station could play bubblegum, psychedelic, folk-rock and rhythm and blues, all in the same hour! I've come to love a lot of other types of music since then, from Talking Heads to Nirvana to The White Stripes, but nothing gets me going like a sixties song.

I also devoured any books or articles on the time period. For history classes I did papers on Abbie Hoffman and the Chicago conspiracy trial, or Allen Ginsberg. By this time, the late seventies, youth had returned to its usually apathetic state, but I wanted to be a rebel, and grew my hair long (I did not do drugs, though). I actually wished I had been born about twelve years earlier, when I could have went to college during those heady days, and not the drab Reagan years that I was stuck with. In retrospect, I was probably lucky to not have lived through it. First of all, if I were in any situation where "free love" was the norm, I would have likely come down with a serious case of clap, if the drugs hadn't killed me first. Then I would have been faced with this: my birthday, April 24th, was the first birthdate picked in the draft reinstitution, so I would have either had to go to Canada, jail or Vietnam. Living a life of quiet desperation seems a little more comfortable in comparison.

A lot of people who weren't even born then must look back at those days and think it was all pretty silly. The anthem of that time period, the Scott McKenzie song San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers In Your Hair) may seem like a drippy piece of nonsense. But I love that song, and just the other night put it on repeat on the CD player and listened to it four times straight. Co-written by John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas, who in the end was destroyed by drugs, the song really transports me to a time that probably never was as I imagined it, when girls wore paisley skirts and went barefoot and for one brief moment cynicism seemed to vanish. There was a lot that went wrong with the hippie movement, but a lot that was right, and it's never too late to hope that some of that comes back.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Free at Last?

News organizations and the Los Angeles legal system have been atwitter the last 36 hours, as the notorious criminal Paris Hilton was freed from lockup after a few days and sentenced to home detention (wearing an ankle bracelet, no doubt tarted up by a big-name designer) due to a "medical problem." Now the judge, in high dudgeon, has ordered her to return to court to see if she should be thrown back behind bars.

This young woman, who appears to be a waste of space, actually serves a purpose, I think. She is a national cartoon. Just as we have the funny pages in a newspaper to separate the horrors of real life with a simple gag, Paris Hilton and the melodrama surrounding her provides frivolous relief.

Of course there is a lot of outrage over Hilton being released early, but that shouldn't be a surprise. Justice in this country has never been equal--it depends on how much money you have to spend on representation. Certainly a non-famous person would never be able to get out of jail for being "psychologically bummed" or for some mysterious rash (isn't that what prison infirmaries are for?)

As a side note, Ms. Hilton's greatest talent, aside from getting herself in headlines, is evident in the DVD called "One Night in Paris." I will admit I succumbed to curiosity and purchased it. Most of it is deadly boring. There's amateur porn, and then there's bad amateur porn, which this is. But there is one scene that is on my frequent playlist. Paris shows all the world that she has a gifted oral technique, top-notch if you ask me. As talents go, I'd rank that one pretty high.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Emperor's Children


Six down, four to go in my quest to read all ten of the New York Times ten best of 2006. The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud, is a sumptuous comedy of manners, set in New York City in 2001. It is a rich evocation of the literati class and their offspring, and an outsider who spoils the party.

At the heart of this book are three friends, graduates of Brown, now at 30 years of age. Marina Thwaite is a former teen model and daughter of Murray Thwaite, an eminent journalist and intellectual. She is aimless, living with her parents on the Upper West Side, trying to finish a book on the semiotics of children's clothing that she's been working on for seven years. Julius Clarke is a gay, half-Vietnamese freelance critic who suffers from both ennui and a sybaritic lifestyle. He lives in a hovel in the Lower East Side, but while office temping seduces his boss, a brash financial analyst. Their friend Danielle is a TV producer. Perhaps because she has Midwestern roots (she hails from Columbus) she's more sensible, and seems to regard the drama of her friends as some sort of extra entertainment. As for Murray, who is the metaphorical "Emperor" of the title, he is a bigwig in the intelligensia, a firebrand liberal from the 1960s who now lives in comfort, surrounded by acolytes and a huge ego.

Two outsiders enter this cozy set-up: Ludovic Seely, an Australian writer, who comes to New York to start a magazine that he hopes will slaughter some sacred cows. He holds Murray in contempt, but nonetheless seduces Marina, though Danielle is suspect of his motives. Also arriving on the scene is Murray's nephew, Frederick "Bootie" Tubb, a college dropout and autodidact, who leaves behind his suffocating mother in backwater Watertown, New York with a few precious books in tow to learn at the feet of his revered Uncle Murray. Bootie is a mess, an overweight, forlorn figure who has little social skill but a zealous compulsion for personal integrity. Murray, touched by familial good will, takes him under his wing, but as Bootie comes to learn the true nature of the great man he worships, decides to betray his family, and his actions will forever change the dynamics of the family and friendships he touches.

This book was a pleasure to read, as Messud layers on wonderful details and witty conversation. Though when you get right down to it, none of her protagonists are particularly sympathetic (except perhaps Danielle) she somehow manages to make us care about them. Marina is a beautiful spoiled child, really, but there is something so vulnerable about her that it's hard to hate her. Even Bootie, who consults Emerson as his bible, yet makes a couple of decisions that are fundamentally cruel, is not a villain.

As I said, the book takes place in 2001, and the climax is in September, so you can guess what event shakes up everyone's lives in this novel. I suppose this could be considered a 9/11 novel, though that day doesn't occur until the final quarter of the book. I am not sure how I feel about this, because the earlier portions of the book don't fully prepare one for such a blow. It's like watching one of Noel Coward's plays have to deal with the London blitz. Also, there is a whopping coincidence that ends the book, and while it is satisfying, it's a bit too incredulous a note to end on.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Subject to Debate



The early presidential debates are fun, political theater on a par with watching small kids play soccer--there's lots of running around in circles, but occasionally someone accidentally scores a goal. Over the past three days the nation got to see all 18 declared candidates from both sides. I missed the first debates back in April, but watched this time.

CNN, which hosted the debates, was bald in its statement of who they thought were meaningful candidates and who were just killing time. In both debates, they arranged the candidates on stage so that the front-runners were in the middle, and the presumed also-rans fanned out, until the most marginal were practically off the stage. The front-runners also got more screen time, and some of the candidates on the frontier could be seen fuming as they were ignored in their exile, raising their hands as if signally rude waiters. Wolf Blitzer was the moderator, spending most of his time trying to get the candidates to shut up, as they had ridiculously little time to address each question.

The Democrats squabbled on Sunday night. In the center, like a homecoming queen surrounded by her court, was Hillary Clinton. She was flanked by the only real competition she has, Barack Obama on her left, John Edwards to her right. There wasn't too much elbow-throwing. Clinton, as front-runner in the polls, tried to stay above the fray and concentrate her ire on Bush and the Republicans. Edwards, sitting in third position, did the most jostling in an attempt to break into the top two. I thought Obama was most impressive, seeming most in command of his facts, and giving Edwards a slap-down when the North Carolinian accused Obama of not being a leader in the Iraq war funding vote. Obama calmly reminded Edwards that he had voted for the war, while Obama had always been against it.

As for the others, Bill Richardson seemed a bit clumsy and anti-charismatic, and not very nimble. His answer to every question always came around to what he did in New Mexico. Joe Biden, who ran for president 20 years ago, seemed like he realized he had nothing to lose and sounded angry. Chris Dodd was largely ignored, perhaps because his answers were so bland. Dennis Kucinich, the most liberal of the candidates, pitched some grenades, but one was left marveling that his greatest achievement was marrying the stunning redhead who is a foot taller than he is. She would be the hottest First Lady ever! As for Mike Gravel, he sort of played the part of the cranky old uncle at a family gathering, everyone worried that he might say something inappropriate.

The content was predictable: all were in favor of wrapping up the Iraq war, though Biden was the only one in favor of not cutting off war funding, because he didn't want to endanger the troops. They all had health care plans, and they bickered about whose was best. They also disagreed about the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, with Richardson defending it.

I went into the debate favoring Edwards, but I wasn't thrilled with his strident tone, which wasn't very presidential. I felt better about Obama.

Though I'm partisan and would never vote for a Republican, I tuned into their debate, a veritable orgy with 10 participants. It looked like a Rotarian meeting, ten pale white men anywhere from 45 to 75, but after there discussion of evolution one could be excused for thinking it was a meeting of the Flat-Earth Society. There was some pointed disagreement, but they all tripped over themselves declaring their belief in God.

As with the Dems, the front-runner was smack in the middle, Rudy Giuliani, flanked by John McCain and Mitt Romney. You practically needed a scorecard to keep track of the others, but a few stood out. A congressman named Tom Tancredo, dour and sinister, called for an end to legal immigration, certainly securing the Ku Klux Klan vote (I did enjoy him rebuking President Bush, though). At the other end of the stage, a libertarian named Ron Paul was the only voice against the war. I had trouble telling apart the former governors of Arkansas and Virginia.

Except for Paul, they were all for staying put in Iraq, though most conceded the war was mismanaged. There were some interesting disagreements, though. Giuliani continued his brave and perhaps foolhardy position that abortion, though wrong in his eyes, was the law of the land. McCain defended his immigration bill, and was eloquent in defense of Hispanics and others who contribute to our culture. And, amazingly, all seemed to agree that global warming was a real problem, though they're using that as an opening for nuclear power.

This dynamic may be changed by the entry of Fred Thompson into the race. He is a guy who really isn't a leader, but he's played one on TV, so he might have a leg up. If he's in the next debate, watch them all turn on him.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

It Was 40 Years Ago Today

This week is the fortieth anniversary of the release of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of the epochal albums in the history of popular music. Perhaps no other record album has been written about, discussed, or pored over more than this one. A few years ago Rolling Stone magazine named it the greatest album of all time.

After forty years, there is bound be to some reassessment. Over the past few days I've read a few essays, one by Aimee Mann in the New York Times, another in Salon, questioning the accolades this album has received. Mann's article is a personal one, describing her love of the album as a young girl, but her inability to listen to it now, comparing it to a first love. David Marchese's article in Salon expresses a puzzlement over its continued reputation as somehow representative of the 1960s, and considers it overhyped. Then there's Jim DeRogatis, a Chicago rock critic, who a few years ago wrote an essay that dismisses the album entirely, summed up by these words: "It sucks dogs royally."

So, is Sgt. Pepper overrated? The Beatles are my favorite musical group of all time, regardless of genre, and in the face of such reflection I'm forced to step back and do some reassessing of my own. I've never consider Sgt. Pepper their best album, I suppose Abbey Road would be my choice if I had to make one, but I've never harbored hostile feelings about the 1967 release that turned the rock music world on its ear. To be honest, the album is a bit more than the sum of its parts. If you take it track by track, as DeRogatis does, it is wanting. Getting Better, Fixing a Hole, and Good Morning Good Morning are probably in the lower third of all Beatles' songs. George Harrison, fully into his Indian music phase, takes up five minutes of wasted space with Within You, Without You, which frankly isn't all that interesting.

With a Little Help From My Friends and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds are, to my mind, underproduced, as evident by the superior cover versions by Joe Cocker and Elton John, respectively. The title song and its reprise, Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, and When I'm Sixty-Four are pleasant diversions, but not earth-shattering.

That leaves two genuine classics: She's Leaving Home and A Day in the Life. She's Leaving Home is dismissed by DeRogatis as syrupy nonsense, and in the cold light of forty years later, the lyrics do seem a bit facile. But The Beatles were creatures of their time and class. Men born in the 40s, they knew life in England as it once was. Many of their songs are influenced by music hall and other remnants of the war era. Today, a line like "Fun is the one thing money can't buy" seems so simplistic as to be moronic, but I've always thought of the song as the flip side of the hippie rebellion, told from the point of view of two drab, middle-class English people who wake up to find their daughter has split, maybe to go wear flowers in her hair. But beyond the lyrics, I love the orchestration of this song. Following Eleanor Rigby, it's another example of how they used the string quartet so brilliantly.

Every critic who knocks this record can't say anything bad about A Day in the Life, one of the Beatles' greatest creations, so I find no need to defend it here.

Was Sgt. Pepper a concept album? I don't think so. If it had included Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, as it was supposed to, it would have been clearer that this was a record about nostalgia. Was this record representative of its time period? Not really. There's no songs about Vietnam, or overt drug use (though most assume Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds is about LSD), and the musical style seems doggedly retro. Is it the greatest rock album of all time? No, but I'd say it's in the top twenty.

Aimee Mann makes a good point when she says she can't listen to it anymore. I can, but do I hear it anymore when I listen to it? How many times can you listen to an album before it starts to lose meaning? I bought the record in about 1975, when it was already old news, and I've probably heard it over a hundred times. Familiarity may have lessened its impact for me, but I'm not of the opinion that it has lessened its impact upon the history of music.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Once

Once is a charming, scruffy movie that is a sure cure for the blues. The tale told is written, acted and sung in such winning manner that a viewer can be easily transported. And though Once is a romance, it is not the kind of sickly-sweet drivel that Hollywood would churn out with Drew Barrymore in the lead.

The setting is Dublin, and our protagonists are a street musician, played by Glenn Hansard, and a Czech immigrant, Marketa Inglova. One night Hansard is playing his own stuff (he plays cover songs during the day, because that's what people want to hear). No one is listening, except for a demure young woman with an accent. She is drawn to his music, and attaches herself to him. When she finds out he works in a vacuum-cleaner repair shop, she shows up the next day with a broken Hoover.

She is also a musician, and frequently stops by a music store to use their pianos (she can't afford one of her own). She brings Hansard along and he teaches her one of his songs, and the result is one of the most engaging musical numbers I've seen in a film in a long time. You can take all the razzle-dazzle of Dreamgirls, this scene, with two people, two instruments, and a Dublin music store, is what movie musicals should be all about.

As the story progresses, we learn that Hansard (we never learn the characters' names) pines for a woman who moved to London, and Irglova has attachments of her own. But instead of being about whether the characters will ever hook up, it becomes about something more interesting--that these two supply something that the other needs. Irglova has inspired Hansard to finally do a demo of his music, and the two of them, along with some musician friends, borrow some money and rent a recording studio for an all night recording session.

Though this isn't a true musical--the songs are not part of the narrative--there is plenty of music, and if the songs weren't any good this film would be dead in the water. Fortunately the songs, written by Hansard, who is the lead singer of a band called The Frames (and was also a cast member of The Commitments, the other great Irish movie musical) are wonderful. They're hard to classify in genre terms, suffice it to say that they emo with a gritty edge.

The film is written and directed by John Carney. It was filmed on a low budget and shows, but even with limitations there are some wonderful uses of the camera. A for instance: Hansard has given Irglova a copy of a song he has written but has no lyrics, so he invites her to write some. She has to run out to get batteries for the CD player so she can keep listening to the song, and as she walks back to her apartment from the store, in her pajamas and bunny slippers, she sings her newly created song, and the camera records it all in one long take.

In a summer of mega-blockbusters, it's nice to have the option to see a much smaller, more intimate, more human film like Once.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Dispatch

Dispatch is a fairly spooky horror novel of a distinctly post-modern stripe. It centers around a character, Jason Hanford, who writes letters. A lot of good horror can turn a seemingly banal activity into something frightening, and Bentley Little wrings every last bit of suspense out of someone writing a letter. He carries to absurd extremes, but the ride is pretty fun.

I enjoyed the book's first half. We follow Hanford from when he is a boy, living with his horrible mother and father. Some of the best horror writing isn't necessarily about the supernatural, it's merely depicting the terror felt by adolescents. Hanford learns that if you write to companies complaining about something, they will send you back free stuff. He milks this for all it's worth. Then he finds he can manipulate things by writing letters, whether they are letters to the editor, or letters to discredit those who have wronged him. When he writes a letter that leads to the death of an old lady the neighborhood kids call a witch, things start getting really weird.

The second half of the book goes off in a direction that is certainly imaginative, but had me harrumphing a lot. Hanford becomes employed in some kind of other-worldly place where everyone writes letters. When he realizes that some of his co-workers are dead writers from the past, it gets a little ridiculous. The ending, in which he squares off with someone called the "Ultimate" is just too much to swallow.

Though there is some snappy writing here, a few things bothered me. National publications don't run letters to the editor without calling to fact check that the letter writer is who they say they are, which would make Hanford's writing letters from several different identities to the same publication impossible. Also, Little attempts but does not entirely succeed to make this story work in an age of email. No one writes letters any more, so how they could still have the power that Little suggests they do?