Monday, October 31, 2005

I Blew Up My TV



Killed it dead three years ago. When I called the satellite service to cancel, the man on the other end sounded incredulous and offended: You don't watch any TV? Not really, I said. Long pause, followed by sputtering: B-b-b-but that's un-American!

I don't miss TV. Except. The comedies:

  • I have 150 episodes of Seinfeld on videotape from when they first aired, sitting in my basement. I won't need to watch them for a while; they've been committed to memory.

  • Sheer sustained brilliance: The Larry Sanders Show, Sports Night.

  • Classic TV faves: The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Simpsons.

  • Recent mind-boggling discoveries on DVD: Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, The Office.

  • I didn't grow up in the States and have never seen old shows like: MASH, Honeymooners, Brady Bunch, Soap, Sanford & Son, All In The Family, you-name-it. I have no idea which of these (or other old comedy shows) hold up well today.

  • I've never seen a single episode of: Sex & The City, Gilmore Girls, Six Feet Under, Freaks & Geeks, The O.C., Chappelle, The 70's Show, Daily Show.

  • About dramas. I used to watch a lot of these ten years ago but I get my drama fix just from movies these days (and Lord knows that movie queue is a mile and a half long). So, realistically speaking, I don't expect to be watching any TV dramas for a while.

So, here's my plea for help: I need recommendations for good comedy TV shows, old or new, on DVD. For which I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Comments

I only recently added comments to this blog (three or four months ago). I was an idiot to wait so long. Today, I chuckle when I see the first comment I ever got: I can imagine Acquarello throwing up his hands as he groaned, "About time!"

After reading Outer Life's post about comments, I realized my own take: I love 'em. I enjoy conversing in that little box. And posting linky dribbles in it during the course of the day. Like Jordan does.

So, anyway, just a word to say: Thanks for commenting. Thanks for reading. Now, off to work on a post that I've been pondering awhile — this one just might bring out your Inner Commenter on Monday morning.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Amy Rigby



New direction here at the blog. In addition to the regularly indulged obsessions, I'm adding mp3/music-blogging to the mix. Here we go.

The Trouble With Jeanie [mp3, 3.5 mb]

Amy Rigby is a matchless songwriter who makes me feel like I'm living in a parallel reality. I ask myself: Why isn't she heard at every street corner, in every bar, on every iPod? I discovered her ten years ago on her debut, Diary Of A Mod Housewife. She's made five albums, all superb. When I think of her, I wonder: what more does she have to do to prove her worth?

Amy is a brainiac lyricist. Robert Christgau, dean of rock critics, reviewed her latest, Little Fugitive, recently. Well-known for being stingy with praise, he wrote: "It really is quite simple: no one of any gender or generation has written as many good songs in Rigby's realistic postfolk mode since she launched Diary of a Mod Housewife in 1996."

Amy has a voice to cozy up to — it's like she's sitting next to you on the couch, talking: "Jeanie is my new husband's ex-wife/It looks like she's gonna be a part of my life." Her songs are detailed, novelistic. Her subjects are quotidian: marriage, raising kids, sex, having a crush on the bookstore clerk.

The arrangement on "The Trouble With Jeanie" consists of: (1) an acoustic-based country-rock skeleton; (2) quiet, glowing guitars; (3) chiming harpsichord arpeggios; and (4) plenty of sonic room for Amy's woman-next-door voice. Meanwhile, her gem-like writing sits front and center, as it should.

Fun reading: Amy's diary at her site.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Many More Than Fifteen



Darren (bless him) has played fast and loose with the rules of the game of IMDB's Top 15: 1990-2005 list, thus opening the door for further liberty-taking. The diehard auteurist in me has replaced the IMDB list of films with filmmakers, and added a special category of Singles. So, here are favorite directors and their films of the last 15 years (and in one instance, author, not director), arranged alphabetically by filmmaker:

  • PT Anderson: Boogie Nights, Magnolia

  • Wes Anderson: Bottle Rocket, Rushmore

  • David Cronenberg: Naked Lunch, Crash

  • Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne: Rosetta, The Son

  • Claire Denis: Beau Travail, Nenette Et Boni

  • Todd Haynes: Safe, Far From Heaven

  • Hou Hsiao-Hsien: The Puppetmaster, Flowers Of Shanghai

  • Wong Kar-Wai: Days Of Being Wild, In The Mood For Love

  • Charlie Kaufman: Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

  • Abbas Kiarostami: Close-Up, Taste Of Cherry

  • Krzysztof Kieslowski: Three Colors: Blue, Three Colors: Red

  • Richard Linklater: Dazed And Confused, Before Sunrise/Sunset

  • Tsai Ming-Liang: Vive L'Amour, What Time Is It There?

  • Alexander Sokurov: Whispering Pages, Mother And Son

  • Lars Von Trier: Dancer In The Dark, Dogville

  • SINGLES: Mulholland Drive (Lynch), Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick), Dead Man (Jarmusch), Satantango (Tarr), La Captive (Akerman), Dream Of Light (Erice), Code Unknown (Haneke), Drifting Clouds (Kaurismaki), The Last Days Of Disco (Stillman).

Monday, October 24, 2005

At The Toshiko Akiyoshi Concert.

I sit next to an 8-year-old blonde girl who ignores the music. Instead, she draws in her sketchbook. First, she draws the band. Then, Toshiko. Finally, she draws the people in our row. Her drawings are charming but unflattering. When she gets to me, I flash her my best smile. But it doesn't work. She draws me anyway. The portrait is charming but unflattering. She looks at me and grins. Her two center teeth on top are missing. I pull out my little moleskine pocket sketchbook and draw a picture of her. It may not be charming, I think, but it's not unflattering. Without a word, we exchange drawings.

Meanwhile: Toshiko. Five foot four. Seventy-six years old. Small hands. Japan's premier jazz pianist. As a little girl, she had no jazz teacher — just Bud Powell records. As a young woman, she sailed for New York, land of Bud. But by then, Bud had been institutionalized. When his family visited, he showed them his newest songs. He banged them out on a keyboard he drew with charcoal on the white wall of the visitors lounge.

Tonight, Toshiko plays Bud's "Un Poco Loco". She also performs a billet doux she wrote to him when she was young. Toshiko likes the movie they made about Bud in Paris. They turned him into a tenor sax player. The great Dexter Gordon played Bud. Dexter died soon after. Bud's been dead since '66. The movie's still around; it's called Round Midnight.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Sports Night



Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night is sheer bliss.

The series ran on ABC for two years from 1998-2000. Its ratings were abysmal, and if you loved the show, like I did, you took it personally. ("What's wrong with people?"). Sorkin, meanwhile, packed up and moved on to create The West Wing.

After a brief syndication stint on Comedy Central, Sports Night appeared on DVD a couple of years ago. That weekend, I stayed indoors, shades drawn, take-out pizza menu within reach, and watched all 45 episodes while my dog whined at the foot of the bed, stir-crazy.

Simply put, Sorkin writes music. His dialogue is rhythmic and syncopated, as if jazz musicians were trading fours. Gaps and pauses take on the quality of suspended chords, searching for resolution. Characters toss out riffs, which are then batted about, repeated, played with, transformed. Timing becomes paramount. The ensemble works in harmony. Martin Sheen, talking about The West Wing, warned that even the tiniest improvisation on Sorkin's written word was disastrous because it immediately undermined Sorkin's mathematically precise writing. Try listening to Sorkin-speak with your eyes closed — it sounds composed.

Here's the other reason I love Sports Night: God, I miss Howard Hawks. The last great Hawks movie was El Dorado in 1967, and thirty years later, his ghost unconsciously haunts Sports Night. The show is Hawksian to a fault: (1) strong and charismatic female characters; (2) people whose notions of self-image and mutual respect are completely bound up in what they do for a living; (3) the importance of professionalism ("Are you good enough?" is a question that pops up in almost every Hawks movie); (4) males who assume a facade of equanimity and understatement, unable to speak what's really in their hearts; and finally, (5) a sense of humor that emerges not through gags but by way of natural, easy, everyday back-and-forth that reveals volumes about the characters and who they are. It's all there in Sports Night, by the shovelful.

I'm an irredeemable sports idiot. To me, it's like rocket science — a world I know nothing about and never will. "It's about sports," goes the tagline for this show, "The same way that Charlie's Angels was about law enforcement."

And why am I doing this post today? Because of good news: Sorkin is returning to television next fall with a behind-the-scenes show about an SNL-like late-night comedy series. (Thanks, Mike Slagor, for the tip-off).

Monday, October 17, 2005

Safe


At the hair salon: Julianne Moore gets a perm, then a nosebleed

So, here's my pick for favorite American movie made in the last ten years: Safe (1995) by Todd Haynes. (David Lynch's Mulholland Drive runs a close second.)

Safe is about a Southern California wife and mother, Carol White (played by Julianne Moore), who begins to develop an allergy to her environment, in essence to life in the modern world. After her symptoms escalate — beginning with a benign sneeze and "bless you" in the opening scene, moving on to coughing, throwing up, nosebleeds and finally, severe seizure — she leaves the city, her husband and her step-son for a New Age retreat in the country, hoping to be cured. The illness remains a mystery, and the ending is as happy or sad as we want it to be. (No surprise: I lean towards the latter.) A few thoughts:

  • Safe is a sort of horror movie, but not your usual kind: In its most visceral scene, a single droplet of blood emerges from Julianne Moore’s nose.

  • An inventory of substances that casually flit across the screen during the movie, usually in the background: truck exhaust fumes, viscous perm gloop, hissing air freshener, roach bomb clouds, sticky cabinet paint, jets of hairspray, large dollops of supermarket ice cream.

  • “You know our couch? Our beautiful couch?.…Totally toxic.”

  • Haynes’ use of detachment and distance is truly inspired: stationary, unruffled camera; very few close-ups; lots of long shots; a quiet, eerie pace; and, like Hitchcock, a careful calm focus on the details of mundane activities that immediately precede a crisis event.

  • Horror movies need monsters, either inside or outside of us. It’s never clear exactly who or what the monster is here. Is it the environment? The chemical aquaria we live in? Our fears and anxieties? Our every thought of self-blame? I’ve seen this movie four times, and depending on my mood, I gravitate towards one or the other, or some mixture of these.

  • Is Safe a satire of New Age-ism? It didn't strike me that way at first, but it may well be. What makes this so un-obvious is Haynes' ambivalence for Wrenwood, the New Age retreat, which complicates our inference. On the DVD commentary track, he says that when the film first showed at Sundance, he was disappointed that the audience was confused (does this guy approve of New Age healing or is he satirizing it?) He wanted the audience to lean towards the latter, so he added one extra shot of a mansion on the hill that belongs to the retreat's CEO. Ironically, this shot barely changes the ambiguity with which we view the film.

  • Minutiae for fellow music obsessives: Carol's aerobics class works out to Madonna's "Lucky Star", and George Benson's "Turn Your Love Around" plays in her house. I've always liked both these pop tunes, but Haynes really meant them to signify generic 80s lite-FM. Funny tidbit: When his music supervisor picked an Aretha tune (off Who's Zoomin' Who, perhaps?), Haynes nixed it because he had too much respect for the song! Carol's insomnia is scored by Brian Eno's "Slow Water". (Haynes opened his next movie, Velvet Goldmine, with Eno's "Needles in the Camel's Eye".)

  • I found in my journal a sentence I scribbled years ago when I first heard Haynes on the DVD commentary track: "This is fascinating: he talks about the movie as if someone else had created it, as if it had a life completely of its own with no connection to him, as if he were trying to "read" the movie like anyone else."

  • Safe is part of a series of Haynes movies about women and their illnesses: Karen Carpenter’s anorexia in Superstar and Julianne Moore’s spiritual sickness in Far From Heaven.

  • This could easily be a movie about AIDS (another immunity-disorder sickness like environmental illness), not to mention an allegory about the personal identity challenges of being gay in a heterosexual environment. (Haynes is gay and was part of the New Queer Cinema of the 1980s.)

  • Safe is wonderfully — and disturbingly — undidactic. We almost want it to tell us: chemicals are bad; suburban living is unhealthy; New Age-ism is bananas; our society is built on a structure of falsehoods and systematic denial. Safe hints at these things but never explicitly connects Carol's illness to them. That is a connection Haynes will not make for us. It remains for us to make. Or not.

And now, back where we started: your personal pick for favorite American movie of the last ten years? And why? I'd love to know.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Aviator

One of the niftiest things about the French New Wave was that most of its filmmakers — like Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer and Rivette — were cinephiles. They not only made movies, they watched them, wrote about them, passionately debated them, and held them close as they lived their daily lives.

Alas, it has rarely been so in the specialization-driven socio-economic system that is the U.S. There are filmmakers, there are critics, and there are academic scholars — and in separate worlds they usually dwell.

Which is why one feels like cheering Martin Scorsese. He's that rare American filmmaker who knows and cherishes the history of cinema. His enthusiasm for movies is rousing and infectious, and this makes me want to love every movie he makes. And yet the last great Scorsese film was Goodfellas, over fifteen years ago. Granted — since then he's made some interesting feature films and some even more interesting documentaries about movies.

But for me, The Aviator is not one of them. Scorsese spends most of this interminable film recreating in excruciating, obsessive-compulsive fashion......Howard Hughes's obsessive-compulsive behavior. Which would be fine if it actually revealed something about Hughes's inner life. But this is a film that is all surface — expensive, fastidious, and brilliantined. Every penny of its hundred-million-dollar budget shines brazenly on the screen, but it is illumination of human beings that is nowhere to be found.

Still, upon noticing producer credits for both Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael Mann, a part of me (optimistically) thought: "Well, maybe Scorsese was just a hired gun on this one..."

Monday, October 10, 2005

Linkies



  • Next to "blogger" in the dictionary, they should carry a picture of Jeannette. Her interests span all the arts, and her posts are fascinatingly personal. She has a cinematic eye for daily detail, is a mom of four, and she blogs every single day.

  • Jim's blog has always been a personal inspiration, and just when I thought I had his vast repertoire of interests pegged, he recently laid on us a rock-solid essay on, yes, economics.

  • If you didn't see Michael's desert island discs post, you absolutely need to.

  • Ben and I may not agree on this movie but man is he fun to read.

  • Mosey on over to Tuwa's Shanty for some MP3 goodies of Modern Lovers and Junior Walker, served to the accompaniment of Laurence Olivier in The Marathon Man.

  • Sarah on vibrato taboo. (When I hit the end of the first paragraph, I felt a little shiver. You'll see why.)

  • Precious words from Tom Waits.

  • Alas, it's not online but there is a fantastic essay on Hou Hsiao-Hsien by James Quandt in the new Artforum that is worth driving to the bookstore or library for.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Parents: Can't Live With Them, Can't Live Without Them



Growing up, I was a rebellious kid, but what kid isn't? I fled home at sixteen, self-willed and dying to escape the suffocation of my parents' detailed affections. These affections were manifested in a concern for my well-being that bordered on the pathological (so thought my teenage mind). Through most of my twenties, I kept my distance from them except for essential, obligatory contact. But then, once I started to get a sense of myself and who I actually might be, the veil lifted and I began to see my parents for the wise, down-to-earth, funny and downright cool people I suspect they've always been. Better late than never, we became pals.

Accompanying this new incarnation of our relationship was a realization that as I was getting older, I was getting strangely serious about everything. Meanwhile, they were heading in the opposite direction — becoming lighter, playful, even child-like. It's ironic that watching them is teaching me how not to be such an adult all the time. In that spirit of play, yesterday was designed as Surprise Day for them. My only instructions were: be ready at 9 AM, and pack a sweater.

  • Our first stop is Niagara Falls, which my parents can't get enough of. I've been to the Falls so many times that if I never breathe its mist again, it will be too soon. (I've always enjoyed the acidic Oscar Wilde line about it being "only the second disappointment of the standard honeymoon.") But it's a crisp and bracing day, the black rocks are flashing with liquid light, and an international kite festival is underway a few feet from the water's roar. Every last Niagara Falls cliché seems to fall away for a couple of hours.

  • Next: lunch at a nice Indian restaurant. (Dad: So, this was your surprise, an Indian restaurant? Me: But I thought it would have been the last thing you would've expected...never mind.)

  • Mom unwraps her gift, a music mix CD that kicks off with Gwen Stefani's "Cool", my mom's current favorite song of all-time.

  • Dad unwraps his, a hefty hardcover volume of Dennis The Menace. Along with Charles Schulz and R.K. Laxman, Hank Ketcham is worshipped in our household.

  • Last stop, a surprise movie: My parents are asked to avert their eyes from the marquee as we enter the theater. My mom peeks, of course. We take our seats among an army of giggling children. The movie is Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit. It turns out to be fabulous fun, and a good time is had by all the kids in the room, us included.

Friday, October 07, 2005

An Apple For Teacher

I stopped by the Apple Store on the way home from work today and bought a 12-inch iBook. Before this afternoon, my total Apple computer experience was no more than ten minutes tops. But in the last few months, I was seduced first by iTunes and then by my iPod's, and when I held my friend Rob Davis' iBook in my hands, all resistance immediately became futile.

I've also just received a little box of books that I ordered to help me navigate the learning curve. I won't lie — I'm intimidated both by my lack of Mac experience and the impetuosity of my purchase. So, here I go, cracking open the first book from my pile: Mac OS-X For Dummies.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Conversations With My Mom: On Prudishness



Mom: I just heard the neighbors fighting, and the man said “f***” to his wife.
Me: Yeah, he does that all the time.
Mom: And it didn’t just slip out. He said “f***” over and over.
Me: Yeah. Well.
Mom: That’s such a powerful word. “F***”.
Me: Mom, please stop saying it.
Mom: What? “F***”?
Me: Yes. That.
Mom: Why? What’s wrong with it?
Me: It’s just weird to hear my mother saying it, that’s all.
Mom: But I didn’t say f***. I said “f***”….within quotes.
Me: But when you say it, I don’t see the quotes, I just hear the word. [pause] This is getting surreal.
Mom: Okay, I won’t say the word. [pause, then smiling mischievously] I just wanted to make sure your mama didn’t raise no prude.
Me: No, she didn’t.
Mom: I hope she didn’t.
Me: She really didn’t.
Mom: I really hope she didn’t.
Me: No, she really f***ing didn’t.
Mom: GIRISH! How dare you—
Me: MOM! Stop! Can we please go back to being plain old mother and son again? Thank you.

Monday, October 03, 2005

History Repeats



Yes, it's that damn movie again, and I can't quite get it out of my mind. But I do promise to be less long-winded this time.

  • It's impossible to appreciate the richness of this film if one approaches it exclusively from a doctrinaire, art-movie-loving, cinephile vantage point.

  • Cinephiles often hold their nose when they approach genre movies, implicitly assuming the primacy of art cinema over genre cinema. This can often be very counter-productive, naive and reductive. Not to mention a lot less interesting and fun.

  • A History Of Violence itself does not place its status as an art film over its status as a genre film. It demands to be taken seriously as both.

  • There is a solid tradition in American cinema of thrillers that are also great art: Fritz Lang's The Big Heat, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, Howard Hawks' Scarface and The Big Sleep, etc. This movie, I'd like to think, will keep company with them one day.

  • Everyone wants to talk and write about this film. The last time I can remember this happening, it was four years ago with David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.

  • Two recent (and useful) essays on the movie: Jonathan Rosenbaum and K-Punk.

  • I've still only seen it once, but I'm heading to my local ugly megaplex to plunk down my nine bucks tomorrow for an encore.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov's one of my favorite prose writers, and I've read Lolita about six or seven times; I discovered the book when I was seventeen. What grabs me about it is not the much-ballyhooed transgressiveness (decadent old-world prof and twelve-year-old nymphet), which I pay less and less attention to each time; instead, it's what Updike was referring to when he famously said, "Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically."

Sometimes, when I'm struggling at the keyboard, and the words are congealing like oatmeal sludge on the screen, I shamelessly reach for one of the Nabokov paperbacks on the shelf. (I found the entire Vintage lot at a public library sale for fifty cents apiece a few years ago.) I spend a few minutes reading a randomly opened section, and curiously, the words start to flow a bit easier after I've put the book away. It's not like I'm cribbing phrases or nicking ideas — that would only come off as instantly ridiculous. Instead, that brief immersion suddenly seems to put me in a less-inhibited headspace. Or something. I haven't figured it out yet.

The more traditional aspects of the novel — plot, character development, and such — don't seem to interest Nabokov all that much. What he really loves is language, which he twirls about like the genius-magician that he is. (I'm not sure why I'm still talking about him in the present tense.)

So, I'm wondering: the writer(s) you return to over and over and over again? And why? Pray tell.