Friday, October 30, 2009

Songs of the Season, Part 18

Much cooler, but un-embedable, version here.

And here's the awesome Sonic Safari Halloween Mix (for a limited time only)!

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Fiery Furnaces - I'm Going Away

You know what this album reminds me of? Soul Asylum's Grave Dancer's Union. Remember that one? The one with "Black Gold" and "Runaway Train?" It was a pretty big hit in the days of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains first breaking through, and it's a pretty good album. Not nearly as good as Hangtime, but...well, therein lies my point, because I got into some pretty heated arguments over Grave Dancer's Union. If you listen to the songs on Hang Time--say, "Sometime to Return" or "Cartoon"--those songs are so thrilling, the way they have all these syllables crammed in, all these melodies working at cross-purposes. You don't get any of that on GDU, just simple, strong melodies, heartfelt lyrics and soulful performances. You get everything that most people would agree makes for good music, but you don't get anything that I personally felt had once made the band so unique, but maybe to other people those things were just gimmicks, extraneous bullshit that kept people from enjoying the songs. This is the dividing line between how the hardcore fan might look at an artist, versus how the average listener might hear them. I'm thinking of the way hardcore Coen Bros. fans can never really understand what the big deal is about Fargo, or the confusion it caused me to discover that there were people for whom Clockers was their favorite Spike Lee film. To the outsider, these films are superior because they have less of the auteurs' "quirks" getting in the way. To the insider, those "quirks" are the very thing that attracts them in the first place.
Anyway, I don't really feel the same about I'm Going Away as I do about Grave Diggers Union, (that is to say, I like the album a lot) but I'm guessing there are a lot of people out there who couldn't really get into the Fiery Furnaces in the past, who would dig this album if they gave it a chance. Here you have, for the majority of the album, no "prog rock" songs with multiple sections and tempo changes, no absurd stories told in an affected voice, filled with archaic language and too-clever alliteration. Instead, you have 12 solid, simple melodies, with lyrics written by Eleanor about her various ex-boyfriends (or so the band claims). To the outsider, this is the band concentrating on its obvious strengths: a great ear for melodies and a knack for writing clever wordplay into their lyrics. But here it is, without the "clutter." Oh, sure, there are a few weird songs scattered throughout, but mostly we get these simple melodies, with lyrics that make emotional sense. (I don't know if the lyrics are really any more heartfelt--it's possible that those silly songs have real emotional meaning to the Friedbergers, and these songs are total artifice--but to the listener, these songs are surely more emotionally accessible.) And the sounds are in the zone that's perfectly pleasing to the ear, all warm electric pianos that are not too sweet or too mellow, recalling the mellow 70's sounds of, I dunno, Stevie Wonder or Steeley Dan or something. In the most extreme example of this, we have the song "Even in the Rain," which could have been a hit for Alanis (?) Morrisette or Sheryl Crowe in the mid-90's.
Man, every time I try to write about this band, I just end up babbling.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Songs of the Season, Part 17

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009)

Where the Wild Things Are is the anti-Watchmen.

Just compare these two films. Zach Snyder was aggressively faithful to his source material, carefully recreating images and dialogue from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic, and ended up with a movie that was...well, I thought it was OK, but I certainly have no desire to watch it again (note that the one sequence that everyone agrees is great--the opening credits montage--is the only completely new addition). Spike Jonze just made a Spike Jonze movie based on his very personal interpretation of Maurice Sendak's book, and ended up with a miraculous film, one that people will watch over and over for decades to come. Also, despite all that painstaking devotion to detail, Watchmen doesn't really feel at all like it's source material, whereas Where the Wild Things Are, with all of it's extraneous material, feels much more faithful to Sendak's book.
Compare what Jonze and Dave Eggers did with their screenplay to Ron Howard's godawful adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas a few years back, since Watchmen isn't really a fair comparison (it would be impossible to make a 90-minute movie from Sendak's 10-sentence book without adding to it). With the additions to the Grinch, you can tell they sat down and said, "OK, how can we expand this book?" They write a back story for the Grinch, explain the childhood trauma that made him what he is, throw in a love story, and...Geez, I can't even remember enough about it to describe any more. For WTWTA, nothing is really added. Things are just fleshed out. And in every way, it feels logical, it feels intuitive, it feels like the story that was always there.
I can't really say much about what works in this movie, because it sort of exists beyond words, and a lot of it is probably tangled up in what was going on in my mind yesterday (including the fact that my dog is probably not going to last another year), but I do want to say this: I read a lot from people who don't seem to think this is a kid's film. If someone tries to tell you this, DO NOT LISTEN. Not just about this, about anything else they ever say to you. This is exactly the movie every kid needs to see. It seems much more genuinely oriented to kids than ost of the shitty kids movies out there. Is it scary? Maybe a little, but compared to Pinnochio or Bambi or The Lion King, hell no. Shit, the Wicked Witch of the West has been scaring the shit out of kids for 70 years now. I think there is a difference, though. This movie doesn't make a big deal out of signaling that we've entered a fantasy land. If you think of the passage from sepia-tone Kansas to technicolor Oz, or from Charlie's dreary factory town to Willy Wonka's day-glo candy factory, there's a clear signal of "we're in Never Never land now." There seems to be no real distinction between Max's everyday world and the land of the Wild Things, either physically or emotionally. The island feels REAL. And I think that freaks out parents. I don't think it freaks kids out that much, although I don't really know.
And yes, it's an emotionally difficult film to watch (again, maybe more for adults than for children), but those emotions are real. I can't imagine a greater gift to children than to see those emotions validated on the screen. And yes, things get a bit messy. I think there's an overprotective streak in the people that write those Hollywood kid flicks, a need to make sure everyone understands that things are worked out perfectly in the end. You can imagine the urge a writer would have to write a scene where Max and Carol have a conversation before Max returns home, and Carol comes to an understanding and acceptance about Max leaving. And the audience (young or old) would forget it as soon as it was over. It's that trace of sadness, that bit of messiness, that makes the moment so special. It also, ultimately, results in a more satisfying bit of communication between Max and Carol at the very end.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Songs I Used to Think Were Awesome, Part 10

When you think of the music in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the first thing you probably think of is "She's Got to be Somebody's Baby" and maybe "Are You Ready for the Sex Girls?" Then, maybe you think of the use of Led Zep's "Kashmir" and The Car's "Moving in Stereo." Then, maybe you think of Billy Squire's original contribution, the funky "The Best Years of Our Lives," which actually got a fair amount of airplay and I think had a video that was occassionally shown on MTV. Sammy Hagar's theme song for the film doesn't even appear in the movie, as far as I can remember (it probably plays over the closing credits). But man, have you ever heard a song that so thoroughly embodies the hesher culture of the late 70's/early 80's? "Friday night, I'll be checkin' it out/From the back of my vaaaaaaaaaan!" Hell yeah, dude! Nice, chunky guitar effects, too.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Very, Very, Very Late Appreciation of John Hughes

Yeah, so I fell off the posting wagon, if you can use that phrase like that, and there were some things I wanted to blog about that I never quite got to. Like the Generation X Celebrity Icon Death Spree of Summer 2009, which claimed Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson and John Hughes in the space of...seems like a week or two, but it's been so long now that I'm not even sure.

All three of those people occupy a strange space for me. Take Michael Jackson. I was in my early years of high school when Thriller dropped, so I remember the hype and hysteria pretty clearly, but it was never something that personally connected with me. At the time, I was pretty much all about Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, and had no real interest in any music that didn't have hammer-on guitar solos and lyrics about the devil. So when Michael died, I spent a lot of that week watching old footage of the guy on YouTube, and kinda getting to know this important figure that I'd never paid attention to. He was pretty damn impressive in his heyday, but in the end, I felt the same as I always had--that the only song of his I could really get into was "I Want You Back."

Farrah was a similar thing. I was never really into her, but she was so much a part of the cultural landscape of my childhood that she seemed like an important part of my life. I used to watch Charlie's Angels, but it was Jacqueline Smith that I thought was just incredibly beautiful. Farrah just didn't do anything for me. And when she left the show (did you realize she was only on there for one season?), they replaced her with Cheryl Ladd, who was like 10 times more smokin' hot.

And then there's John Hughes. And I am definitely of the John Hughes generation. No, seriously, I was a senior in high school when The Breakfast Club dropped. In fact, our class song was "Don't You Forget About Me." Even in facter, I recall my girlfriend having to do a play for her theater class, and she and the rest of her group sat down and transcribed The Breakfast Club in order to perform it as a play. That's how fucking of the John Hughes generation I am.

It's probably not surprising that, among people my age, views on the movies for which John Hughes is most well known, the "Brat Pack Cycle", are pretty polarized. I wasn't at all surprised to find the facebook status updates from my high school and college friends displaying an outpouring of emotion as if a close friend had died. These movies inhabit a special place in the hearts of my peers. But I also know there are a lot of people who hold a seething hatred for them. The word "dishonest" comes up a lot. And while I was never a particularly huge fan of those films (in fact, I just got around to seeing Pretty in Pink about a decade ago), I don't think they're at all dishonest. Oh, sure, they're hollywood movies, and they deal in fantasy. They're slick movies filled with beautiful, well-groomed actors. But I think in the basic emotional beats, they're quite honest about the internal lives of teenagers. It's a perfect Hollywood mix of projected teen wish fulfillment with the internal angst of real teen lives. Come to think of it, it's a lot like Spider-Man.

And in that respect, how lucky was he to find Molly Ringwald? She's so perfect for those movies: pretty, but in kind of an odd way, so that she can simultaneously be the nerdy outsider and the most beautiful and stylish girl in school. Plenty of guys had huge crushes on her, but her biggest appeal was surely in how her female audience could project both their angst and their fantasies on her.

One thing that was nice about those movies was the music. At the time I didn't think much about it, because when you're soaking in Butthole Surfers and Meat Puppets records, the Psychedelic Furs don't really seem like much of a big deal, but for that notoriously conservative period in mainstream music, it was pretty neat how he'd score his films to music that was a bit more edgey than what was floating around on radio and MTV. Although, I still hate "Don't You Forget About Me."

But what about the guy's chops as a director? I put it to you that John Hughes was not a hack in any sense of the word, and I offer evidence. This first one is a bonus, because I just found out while researching this that Hughes wrote, but did not direct, Pretty in Pink. This one and Some Kind of Wonderful were both directed by John Deutsche. But I reckon most of the credit can be split between Hughes for writing the scene into the movie, and John Cryer for what he did with it. Tell me this isn't a great piece of cinema:

OK, you're unconvinced. Then watch this. 2:30 of exquisitely staged and edited cinema from Planes, Trains and Automobiles:

And how about the art museum scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off? How strange, in the middle of this boisterous comedy, to take 5 minutes to show the main characters staring at paintings. Just conveying that experience in a cinematic way is enough of a challenge, but he actually manages to advance the characters while giving us a visually pleasing series of shots of famous works of art.

Ferris is such a strange character, in that it's impossible not to immediately like him, and at the same time immediately hate the little shit. He's your fantasy projection of yourself and at the same time, an embodiment of the people you have the most resentment for. I remember having a great sympathy for Ferris' sister and the principal for being so pissed off at what the guy was getting away with, while at the same time cheering for him to get away with it. The teenage mind is complicated. Which brings us to The Breakfast Club.

So like I said, I don't think these are necessarily "great" movies, but I do enjoy them. And The Breakfast Club in particular, I think is quite good. Oh sure, it reduces it's themes to the simplest possible elements--I don't think anybody in the real world fits so easily into one of the five categories of teenagers that the movie presents, and I don't think any assistant principal is quite the perfect embodiment of authoritarian douche that we see in Paul Gleeson's character, but there seemed to me to be a general truth to it: that sometime, late in your high school years, you realize what bullshit it is to pigeonhole people based on these social classes. And it's not just the jocks and princesses that do it. Being the brain, basket case or delinquent, you probably spend a lot of time complaining about that social system without realizing how much you participate in it. As difficult as it is for a jock to recognize the consequences of bullying a nerd, how much harder is it for a social outcast to realize that the internal life of the football captain and homecoming queen are just as fucked up as theirs?

The most brilliant scene in that film is the opening credits sequence, where you see each character being dropped off at school. You learn everything about their characters from their interaction with their parents in this very brief scene, which unfortunately I can't find on YouTube. And doesn't that make perfect sense? Isn't that how our personalities are formed?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Songs of the Season, Part 16

For what I guess are pretty obvious reasons, The Cramps hold strong associations with October for me. It started out with the horror movie themes of much of their music, but now it's just become pavlovian. When I see October 1 come up on the calendar, when the weather starts to get chilly, I have to listen to The Cramps. Jesus, Lux just looks psychotic in this clip. I should think of another word, though. Psychotic is so cliche. Time to start putting up the Hallowe'en decorations!

Monday, October 05, 2009

Personal Shit of No Real Interest to Others

Wow. I really expected that quitting my job would result in this blog being updated more often. It hasn't worked out that way. I'm sincere when I say that from here on, I intend to put more effort into the blogular arts, but who knows how that will actually play out.

It's certainly nice to have more free time and less stress. For one thing, it means I can eat better and exercise more. But in some ways, it's even more stressful. I realized that I've basically had a 9-to-5 job since I graduated college, so there has never been a point in my life when I didn't have this artificial structure imposed on my life. And while that structure sucks, on some level it's also comforting. Now I get up in the morning and actually have to think about what I'm going to do first. For the record, I'm still teaching ESL at night, taking a pretty labor-intensive class on Friday nights that I need to make my credential permanent, and taking StandUp Academy's comedy writing class on Sunday afternoon (if you live in L.A. and want to get coached in your writing by a guy who writes for the Tonight Show, check it out), AND filming a show pretty much every Sunday night. Unlike the old situation, all of these things are of aproximately equal importance, so I actually end up more nervous or anxious as I adjust to this new situation. Anyway, bottom line as far as this is concerned is that blogging has taken last place in this contest. I hope to remedy this.

There's also the fact that Bobbie and I get to spend more time together, which is weird because we've been married for 18 years, so we pretty much ran out of things to say to each other 10 years ago. So we basically just pass each other in the dining room like "Mornin' Sam," "Mornin' Ralph." This doesn't really bother me, but to her it seems to indicate some kind of problem with our relationship. To me it just means we finally get some quiet.