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Ketchup

Sometimes the rate of my consumption of culture outpaces my capacity to reflect upon it. Here’s what’s passed through my head of late:

The Wire, David Simon et. al. (2002-2008). I believe this displaces The Sopranos as the best television I’ve ever seen. If you’ve seen it you already know what I’m talking about; if you haven’t seen it, you should. There were of course some passages that were more successful than others–I for one found the invented serial killer idea too clever by half–but on the whole this is a masterpiece. I was very sorry when I ran out of episodes, but then I realized that this story is of course far from over; all you need to do is read the Sun paper now and then and imagine the episode Simon would have wrought from the day’s news. Here, this one took me about forty seconds to start scripting in my head.

Just Before Dark, Jim Harrison (1999). What a pleasure to read Harrison’s collected nonfiction about Leelanau by a lake just northeast of Muskegon on a July afternoon.

We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, Joan Didion (2006). What a pleasure to read Didion’s collected nonfiction in the air over California’s central valley. Old and new favorites. Too bad this edition’s pages are so thin.

The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil (1930-1942). Oh my stars. I’m only on page 500 or so of the some 1200, and I’m going to have to put this away now that school’s started, but I feel like it’s OK not to read this straight through, and I also, frankly, feel like I’ve mostly gotten what’s on offer here, namely deliciously incisive diagnoses of a grand society striding confidently toward the edge of a cliff. I can’t think of any other novel that so decisively nails the 20th century’s disastrous obsession with progress. “With a little attention, one can probably always detect in the latest Future signs of the coming Old Times. The new ideas will then be a mere thirty years older but contented and with a little extra fat on their bones, or past their prime, much as one glimpses alongside a girl’s shining features the extinguished face of the mother; or they have had no success, and are down to skin and bones, shrunken to a reform proposed by some old fool who is called the Great So-and-so by his fifty admirers.” Paging Ross Perot.

The Ghost Writer, Roman Polankski (2010). Whew, Polanski’s just oozing decadence these days. This is supposedly a thriller about a CIA plot to, you know, take control of everything, but Roman can barely be bothered to flesh out any of the absurd plot points; he’s too busy setting up beautifully lit shots of fog and sad adulterers. Beautiful photography, but not really a movie. The amazing house on the beach at Sylt receives more attention from the director than do any of his stars.

The Green Zone, Paul Greengrass (2010). Essentially a continuation of Greengrass’s Bourne movies, in that Matt Damon takes on the entire corrupt U.S. military-industrial complex and wins. This one is purportedly set in the “real world,” though, namely Baghdad’s green zone. The movie is absolutely absurd, but the takeaway for the action movie crowd at the mall is that their government lied to them about Iraq, and that’s a truth I’m delighted to see promulgated as widely and effectively as possible.

Who Killed the Electric Car?, Chris Paine (2006). Muddily structured but useful. I really had no idea this was going on when it was going on.

The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009) does for 20c European history what Bergman’s so-called “trilogy of faith” (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) did for God. Namely, shows it to be incomprehensible and cruel, but absolutely beautiful to look at in luminous black and white. Go back and look at those Bergman films, though, and then look at this again, and see if you don’t feel, as I did, how creepily clean Haneke’s images are. Maybe I’ve been spending too much time in Lightroom, but The White Ribbon feels like a masterpiece of post-production as much as anything.

Colorado Territory, Raoul Walsh (1949). Walsh remakes High Sierra as a western, with Joel McCrea in the Bogart role. Nice enough for a Sunday afternoon, particularly if you like Virginia Mayo, which I do, but a minor Walsh by any measure. I like the hideout in the ruined village of Todos Santos.

Bad Day at Black Rock, John Sturges (1955). Sturges also directed The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and The Eagle Has Landed, among many others. Notice a theme? Manly men in conflict with other manly men. This one fits. A strange and small picture, in which Integrity (played by Spencer Tracy) squares off with Deceit (Robert Ryan) and comes out ahead. Atmospheric and nice to look at for a while, but finally the claustrophobia that Sturges is trying to engender just turns into tedium.

A Single Man, Tom Ford (2009) has its affecting moments, but is mostly, probably predictably, an exercise in style. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if the style brings pleasure. Some here does–lots of beautiful California summer light, lots of fantastic bric a brac to ogle–but someone really should have steadied Ford’s hand on the post-production dials; the gimmick where he keeps making people pale when they’re sad and rosy when their faith in humanity (and/or libido) is restored is tacky and emberrassing.

Band of Brothers, various authors (2001). The Pacific is way better, and do you know why? Because this is pre-9/11 triumphalism, and that is post 9/11 realism. That’s oversimplifying, but really, the difference is amazing. In Band of Brothers, PTSD is represented as tough luck that befalls the weak. In The Pacific, it’s clearly shown that those who appear not to have PTSD are the truly weird ones. Like I said, The Pacific‘s a great example of how our understanding of historical realities is shaped by our present historical circumstances. So is Band of Brothers, unfortunately.

Music in rotation: Tosca, Up Bustle & Out, Jazzanova, Cal Tjader

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This Is Happening, LCD Soundsystem (2010)

The sound here keeps sending me back to the primitive electronica and new wave of my yoot, and indeed I think what’s happening with LCDSS here is somewhat similar to what happened with Eno in the 70’s and the Talking Heads in the 80’s: There seems to be some ambivalence over whether to create soundscapes or songs. Sound of Silver felt more soundscapey to me; this new one feels a bit more like songs. So if you prefer Another Green Day to On Land and More Songs about Buildings and Food to Remain in Light, then you’ll prefer This Is Happening to Sound of Silver. Me, I’m in the both/and camp on all counts, though I do not like this record nearly as much as I liked Sound of Silver.

Unfortunate: Photos of the band members and the recording studio on the album sleeve. Unfortunate: Videos featuring the charming/nerdy band members. These are bad signs. A big part of what’s worked for me with the LCDSS has been the sense of the music’s impersonality, the sense of it issuing from a construct, from an always-already-depopulated clean room somewhere in Loisaida. Now that the music is being made by personalities, I imagine the party will very soon begin for them–SNL, Letterman, whatever–but end for me.

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Massive Attack, Heligoland (2010)

I doubt the trajectory of my personal Massive Attack has been unique: I loved Blue Lines hopelessly, enjoyed Protection but felt nervous about how uneven it was, then actively disliked the noisy ponderousness of Mezzanine and, worse, was made to feel bad about not liking it by all the fans and critics saying that Mezzanine was their best work ever. I felt like it felt to have your best friend dump you for the cool kids and thereafter shun you on the playground. When 100th Window came out I didn’t even buy it.

It’s on order now, though, because if it’s as awesome as Heligoland then I can’t wait to hear it. Heligoland is something like a return to form, in that it’s accessible and features ethereal guest vocalists, but it’s also a new direction, and a really beguiling one at that. I’m not sure how to describe it. Maybe: “What if Radiohead had soul?” Or maybe: “Trip hop raises its gaze from its navel and stares you in the eye.” Or: “What if Cyberdyne Systems had commissioned Schubert’s Lieder?”

Ach, better you just listen. As Hope Sandoval’s future boyfriend (CALL ME!), I’m required to say that “Paradise Circus” is my favorite track, but “Girl I Love You” may be the best place to start if you want to hear how the group manages to integrate the vestiges of their earliest efforts with their newfound orchestral complexity. Every single track on the disc is rich and strange and wonderful. You can see the official videos here. I think the one for “Paradise Circus” is unfortunately and unnecessarily distracting. I think videos in general kind of suck as an art form, but that’s just me.

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Analog Africa

These people have released five CDs, of which I own the most recent four, each of which is absolutely exquisite. You have never heard such sublimely funky grooves in your life. The Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou makes James Brown sound like Lawrence Welk.

The first CD is labeled “#3,” because Analog Africa’s first two releases came in the form of mp3 mixes. Both are available for free download on their blog, and also through the Paris DJs podcast.

Paris DJs is where I discovered Analog Africa, and it is itself an incredible resource. Their weekly free podcast features all sorts of never-made-it-off-vinyl-onto-disc deliciousness from all over the world. There are nearly 200 mixes to download, and they’re all free!

Here’s a direct link to the second Analog Africa mix: http://analogafrica.cybsys.net/mp3/AnalogAfricaSelectionVol.2.mp3

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Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca (2009)


I don’t think I really even like this — it doesn’t give me the shivers like music I love does — but it is superduper stuck in my head. What even is it? It seems like it does so many different things at once, all of them provisionally, almost apathetically. I might not love it, but I am certainly intrigued by it.

Try to pay no attention to the utterly bizarre and banal video, which seems to me completely beside the point.

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Ketchup

All blogging energy still going to Harriet at the Poetry Foundation, but here’s what’s up on the home front.

Drunken Angel, Akira Kurosowa (1948). Beautifully shot but plodding story of an alcoholic doctor (not unlike Graham Greene’s whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory) determined to treat a self-destructive mobster with TB in postwar Tokyo. A kind of allegory of Japan trying to muck out its stalls. There’s a bubbling miasma right in the middle of the neighborhood just to remind us of where and when we are.

I Live in Fear, Akira Kurosowa (1955). Patriarch of a large family in the smelting business becomes so obsessed with his fear of nuclear weapons he insists on selling everything and moving to Brazil. The family doesn’t want to go, also doesn’t want to disrespect papa. A lot of long anguished silences ensue. Still, it got to me; Mifune’s absolutely terrific as the terrified and terrifying protagonist.

The Making of a Chef, Mark Ruhlman (1999). Ruhlman goes to the CIA and writes about what it takes to make it. Lively and engaged journalism, great fun if you’re the kind of person who enjoys debates over how dark a roux should be used in the making of brown sauce, which I am.

House of Games, David Mamet (1987). I’ve probably seen this ten times and it’s still really. really. good. It seemed kind of antique when it first came out, and has aged beautifully. The big red convertible seemed Twin Peaksish before there even was a Twin Peaks.

The Spies of Warsaw, Alan Furst (2008). One of my many guilty pleasures. Read more than half of this on a day of LGA delays while listening to Radian on the iPod. Was almost happy!

The Dark Side, Jane Mayer (2008). Probably the most significant and comprehensive account of Richard Cheney’s efforts to secure unlimited and incontrovertible power for the executive branch, and the inevitable results. The accounts of Jack Goldsmith, Dexter Filkins, Seymour Hersh, Phillipe Sands, and others are certainly also worth reading, but this one is the one to read if you’re only going to read one, in my opinion.

Beacons of Ancestorship, Tortoise (2009). Yuck! Way too noisy. Sounds like high school students covering Can songs. Had to listen to Millions Now Living ten times before I was able to forgive the lads for this betrayal of my love.

Dying City, Christopher Shinn (2008). This rather lightweight play, which uses the device of identical twins to investigate certain dualities to be found in human nature, was, amazingly, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Weak.

A lot of drama in current rotation. Bert Brecht (esp. Galileo). Georg B├╝chner (I hesitate to mention this name, since I am loving this book so much I don’t even want anyone else to know about it. Do you ever get that way about a book? It’s a weird feeling.) Mark Ravenhill (wildly overrated). Suzan-Lori Parks (fantastic, esp. Venus, but all of it is terrific). Genet, Lorca, Peter Weiss. On deck: Edna Walsh, von Kleist, Wolfgang Borchert.

TV worth watching: Smith. You can only watch this if you have DirecTV, and there are only seven episodes. CBS produced and then killed it in 2006-2007. It’s very good; Ray Liotta’s character has a lot in common with DeNiro’s in Mann’s Heat.

TV which might be worth watching; I can’t really tell: Weeds. I find this show very disconcerting, but completely addictive. It’s so weird. What does it even mean? Cheech & Chong + Three’s Company + Good Fellas. Or something like that. I suspect if I lived in California, it would just seem like a reality show. As it is, I’m bewildered but fascinated.

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Pop Music is Boring; Long Live Pop Music

All the year-end music wrap-ups seem to be suggesting that Vampire Weekend, Santogold, Adele, TV on the Radio, Coldplay, Duffy, Goldfrapp, Fleet Foxes, Kanye West, The Kills, The Ting Tings, M83, and Lil Wayne are all geniuses. I just spent some time sampling these wares on iTunes and I find it all incredibly dull because — and here’s my combination confession and complaint — it’s all so incredibly derivative. Why would I buy Fleet Foxes when I already have Buffalo Springfield, Duffy w.i.a.h. Dusty Springfield, the Ting Tings w.i.a.h. Ladytron and the Human League and Heaven 17 and a zillion other eurotrash two-hit wonders, Kanye West w.i.a.h. Gang Starr, The Kills w.i.a.h. Opal and Suicide . . . .

That’s the complaint part, but here’s the confession: When I was freaking out about the Smashing Pumpkins in 1991, there must have been some smug 40-year old bastard writing on his blog (which were called “alternative newspapers” back then) about how he didn’t see any reason to buy Gish when his Houses of the Holy LP still played just fine.

So viva la change. I guess I’m nearing pop music tenure. I even bought the new Portishead this year, only to be irritated that it wasn’t the old Portishead. Which way to that grove where the elephants lie down to die.

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Ketchup

I have four major reviews to write by May and I’m freaking out. Here’s a summary of recent ingenstions before I go down the rabbit hole.

The African Queen by John Huston (1951) is dispiriting because in order to be a hero a missionary has to dump your gin into the river. I guess that counts me out.

The Dark Knight by Christopher Nolan (2008) has in it a cool motorcycle and also The Greatest Actors of the Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries. Jesus. All right, listen, seriously. This movie was very nearly free of content and the absurd circle jerk of critical admiration confuses me. I well understand and have frequently participated in the phenomenon of intellectuals-stampede-to-blockbuster-which-yields-to-cult-stud-analysis-and-also-features-explosions. But this is far from even that. It’s one part Rambo four parts water. Notice that everyone who tells you it’s brilliant is male and/or owns a Trans Am.

Deep Blues by Robert Palmer (1982) features some groundbreaking and fascinating elucidations of the connections between African music and the blues, some wickedly entertaining interview footage with Muddy Waters, and a whole lot of somewhat repetitive but none the less Dorito-like anecdotes about Delta and Chicago blues musicians.

Burn After Reading by the Coen Bros. (2008) is such a curious waste of time and talent. Every one of these fine actors seems to burrow down into their two-dimensional goofy/manic characters and, basically, disappear. Disappointing. Something could have been made of this, but wasn’t.

Charlie Bartlett, by John Poll (2007) is in so many ways excruciatingly dull, cliched, and mawkish, BUT: 1. Robert Downey Jr. and Hope Davis are exquisite actors, 2. Kat Dennings looks a lot like an old girlfriend of mine, and 3. I love the proposition that a 100 tabs of Ritalin could turn a dull high school dance into Studio 54.

Plus Super Chickan. Oh my oh my. Get you some.