Saturday, January 30, 2010

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

I had a pretty deep WWII obsession when I was a kid. I had a few books on the subject, but I wasn't a big reader, so I mostly just looked at the pictures of cool weapons and vehicles, and didn't really absorb a lot of the real history of the conflict. Instead, I mostly experienced WWII through movies, comics and role-playing, both with little green army men in the vacant lots that dotted my still-growing suburban neighborhood, or with toy guns and pinecone hand grenades in the small tracts of woods that remained. For movies, you could occassionally catch The Dirty Dozen or Guns of Navarrone on the local station, but mostly it was HBO, which showed movies like Patton, MacArthur, Midway, A Bridge Too Far (my favorite, although I'm not really sure why), Sam Fuller's The Big Red One, Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron, and Enzo Castellari's The Inglorious Bastards. I watched all of these, but as time went on, I started to feel a slight disapointment with them, because they were so dry compared to the comics and my own made-up stories. The stories in WWII comics were always just nuts, action-packed stuff, with comandos sneaking in to blow up Nazi bases and all kinds of crazy scenarios. There was one anthology comic (might have been called All-Out War! or something like that) that had a continuing story about a Viking Commando: he was thawed out of a glacier, you see, and now he fights for the allies, and uses his battle axes to scale up the wall of an old castle to kill the "Huns." And that wasn't even in Weird War Tales, where they had stories about squadrons of gorilla commandos, or dinosaurs being used in combat or whatever. THOSE were the kind of stories I wanted to see in the movies.

And I would bet good money that Quentin Tarantino grew up reading those too, because that's about the pitch level of Inglourious Basterds, with it's ridiculously pulpy premise of a platoon of Jewish American GI's conducting a guerilla campaign in Nazi-Occupied France, with the goal of killing as many Nazis as brutally as possible. Operation Kino, the rag-tag mission to blow up the entire German high command, Hitler included, is straight out of those comics as well. And the story of Shoshanna is not far off this mark either (she seems to lay the plans for her revenge based on how good it will look on the screen).

You almost have to wonder why there was a need for the two stories at all. IB could probably have been a better film if it had just concentrated on Shoshanna's story. What is the purpose of these guys filling Hitler full of lead so that he'll die a few minutes sooner (well, other than that it looks awesome)? But in QT's Movie-Movie Universe, there is a sort of logic to the way these two stories interact. You can sort of imagine that Shoshanna is starring in her movie, and the Basterds are starring in their movie (where the individual characters are more fleshed out), and what we eventually got is bits of both movies getting mixed together (when the Basterds enter Shoshanna's theater, are they being filmed by a different camera crew from the other side?). [An aside: going back and reading that AICN post, it's surprising how IB had at one time been considered part of the Realer-Than-Real Universe, and it shows how much this project must have changed in Tarantino's head over the course of the decade. The final product is, by the time it reaches its climax, even more Movie-Movie than Kill Bill, with Hitler being repeatedly shot in the face with a machine gun while the theater burns down around him and Shoshanna's face, projected onto the smoke, curses the Nazis to death, until the dynamite finally blows the theater to smithereens. It's an absuredly entertaining fantasy. And as long as I'm digging up 10-year-old posts from the AICN archives, I really like this one where Quentin more or less describes the climax of Inglourious Basterds while introducing a Fernando Di Leo double feature.]

Inglourious Basterds is a film about propaganda, war through means other than physical violence: words, ideas, images. The second half of the film centers around Goebbles' propaganda films, movies produced by the Nazi regime specifically to advance the Nazi cause and promote German nationalism. These films are weapons of war, as surely as any tank or bomber. It's a war fought through ideas, and on the flip side of it, we have Shoshanna Dreyfuss, a culture jammer who hacks into Goebbles' system with her own counter-propaganda film, warping the weapon back on its weilder like Bugs Bunny bending back the barrells of Elmer Fudd's shotgun. Aldo Rayne and his squadron of Basterds are propagandists too, of a different sort. Their goal is not to win the war by amassing massive casualties (to "make the other poor bastard die for his country"), but to weaken German morale by striking terror into the hearts of Nazi soldiers. They are, in other words, terrorists. Rayne explicitly states this in his speech to his troops. Hitler understands this as well, and the imperative he issues is not to kill the Basterds at all costs, but to issue a gag order on soldiers spreading the Bear Jew mythology. Hans Landa, too, uses communication as a weapon. He doesn't find Jews by waterboarding collaborators, just by manipulating them with words (and "uncomfortable silences").

By the way, did anyone else think it was hilarious that Mike Meyers was cast as Basil Exposition?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

L00king Back, Part 3

In which I talk about my subjective experience of and reaction to a decade of cinema as if I were discussing a universal cultural reality. I think a lot of this post is actually kind of poorly thought out, but I'm just going to hit that publish button now and get it out of my mental queue.

As if to contrast to the music scene, with it's sudden move away from a "shared culture," movies suddenly seemed to become more of a shared thing. Whereas the 90's were defined by indie films coming out of the Sundance festival, the 00's seem to be most clearly defined by...well, I've been thinking about what to call them. "Geek Blockbusters" seemed like a good title, but maybe "ComiCon Movies" nails it better. The center of the cinematic universe moved from Park City in the 90's to San Diego in the 00's.

I reckon it was the coming of age of a generation of filmmakers who grew up in the original Blockbuster era that began with Jaws and Star Wars, and that grew up with an itch that needed scratching. As an audience, many of us did to. How many of us nursed a craving to see those Star Wars prequels George Lucas was always talking about? Or to see a real, epic, three-movie treatment of Lord of the Rings? Or a live-action Spider-Man movie? Or a Batman film that reflected the dark, violent style of the late 80's Batman comics? Or a Fantastic Four or X-Men movie that got all the personalities and relationships right? Or a Watchmen film that was faithful to the book? We got all of these, even if about half of them turned out to be duds.

The 90's were not a good time for mainstream genre pictures. Horror was, after a two-decade resurgence, dead throughout the decade. Mainstream comedies had long been over (Pee Wee's Big Adventure feels like a final gasp for the genre). Animation, even with Disney's resurgence peaking with The Lion King, was pretty uninteresting stuff. And the big, blockbuster action films like Independence Day, Armaggedon and Twister felt at best like rote imitations of old formulae, and at worst were torture to sit through. Even Jurassic Park feels lifeless compared to, say, Pirates of the Carribean (which didn't even make my list). None of these were particularly missed, mind you (well, maybe the horror films). Audiences (or, at least, me) were looking for something different. I was ready for films like Slacker or Ruby in Paradise or Schizopolis, low-budget experiments, an antidote to a decade-plus-long binge of popcorn. There were, of course, the gangster deconstructions of Tarantino and his many imitators. There was also an interest in the genre films of the East: the martial arts work of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, the hyperkinetic bullet ballets of John Woo and Tsui Hark, over-the-top anime like Akira and Ghost in the Shell. But there wasn't that feeling of anticipation for a big film that everyone would be talking about.

So, like I say, the original blockbuster era starts in the summer of 1976, with the relatively low-budget Jaws overshadowing Dino DeLaurentis' overhyped King Kong remake, and continues to...oh, let's say Terminator 2 in 1991. Likewise, you could argue that this decade really begins in May of 1999, with Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace being overshadowed by The Matrix, which debuted a few weeks before Lucas' comeback (although the triumph was more in the cultural consciousness than at the box office). The Matrix brings together all those influences that had been simmering just below the mainstream through the 90's--kung fu flix, Hong Kong action films, anime, comics, video games, cyberpunk fiction--and mixed them into a piece of pure entertainment that feels almost inseperable from its historical moment. I generally like the first film a lot, more for the story than for the action set pieces, which just feel too abstract to really connect with me. I'd classify the Matrix sequels as interesting failures, but paradoxically, I like the fight scenes in Reloaded much more than those in the first film. The prequels, on the other hand...oh, those prequels. I keep swearing I'm never going to talk about them again, then the next thing I know, I'm watching a pair of eyes glance around the room, looking for an opening to escape my 15-minute tirade on the almost infinite failures of that cycle. My generation is doomed to send the rest of our lifespan trying to come to grips with these horrible movies.

This cultural moment was the result of specific confluence of events. It wasn't just what movies were coming out, it was also a new way of communicating about them, and the rise of the internet is inseperable from the era of ComiCon movies. The cycle of anticipation, checking back to Ain't It Cool News three times a day to see if there was any new information, arguing over whether Spider-Man should have organic webshooters, and working yourself up with anticipation: for a few years, this became part of the process of watching movies. Peter Jackson, while developing his Lord of the Rings movies, understood and exploited this dynamic, making the journey toward the films a part of the product, inserting the film directly into the audience's lives.

The era that begins in May 1999 ends, rather neatly, in April 2009, with the release of Watchmen. Or maybe I could stretch that to August 2009 and Inglourious Basterds, which I was, after all, anticipating for most of the decade. Either way, at this point I find myself exhausted of the process of anticipation with these films, and to some extent of the films themselves. I've scratched that itch, now I'm as tired of popcorn as I was when Schwarzenegger and Stallone ruled the world. Which is why I still haven't seen Avatar (although I probably will have seen it by the time I hit that "Publish" button). I just can't be bothered.

At any rate, the movies that really blow you away are never the big, anticipated genre epics (well, Kill Bill excepted, maybe). It's the films that come out of left field and surprise you. Looking through the list below, most of my very favorites are genre films, but the lower-budget genre films that take an offbeat approach to their genre, films that hover in that space in between the tentpoles and the small, quite indies.

So, my 50 favorite (more or less defensible) movies of the 00's. The idea of writing a capsule review for each one was just too daunting, but maybe I'll return to it in a series of future posts. (The ideal thing would be to rewatch each one in order, and post a review, which would be doable, but would just slow down my regular Netflix schedule way too much.) In fact, yeah, that's what I'll do. Look for a 10-post series where I bravely write a paragraph on each of these mighty films!

My list of albums was purely a list of my favorites, but I take a more analytical approach to movies, so while this isn't an attempt at any kind of objective "Best Films" list, I did try to temper it a bit. Maybe it's two parts my personal reaction, one part "objective" analysis. Or it's my favorite films that I feel comfortable defending. I don't know, something like that. I probably took to many liberties in combining multiple films for a single enttry, but it was in the name of including a wider variety of filmmakers, so it's OK. These lists are always works-in-progress, but it's worth saying that I haven't really processed the movies that came out in the last year yet, so their will inevitably be shifts in this list. And of course, there are plenty of important films I haven't even seen yet.

1. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
2. Oldboy
3. Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and 2
4. Pan's Labyrinth
5. Shaun of the Dead
6. Battle Royale
7. Children of Men
8. No Country for Old Men
9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
10. Y tu Mama Tambien
11. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
12. Kung Fu Hustle
13. Capturing the Friedmans
14. Up
15. The Fountain
16. Where the Wild Things Are
17. Tsotsi
18. The Triplettes of Belville
19. Spider-Man/Spider-Man 2
20. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
21. Persepolis
22. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
23. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
24. The American Astronaut
25. Once
26. Into the Wild/Grizzly Man
27. The Incredibles/Ratatouille
28. Mulholland Drive
29. In the Mood for Love
30. Superbad/Pineapple Express
31. There Will Be Blood
32. Casino Royale
33. The 25ht Hour
34. Lost in Translation
35. Zodiac
36. The Saddest Music in the World
37. United 97/The Bourne Ultimatum
38. Dave Chappelle's Block Party
39. The Royal Tennenbaums/The Fantastic Mr. Fox
40. Moulin Rouge
41. 28 Days Later
42. Inglourious Basterds
43. Let the Right One In
44. The Hurt Locker
45. The Aristocrats
46. Hustle and Flow
47. Burn After Reading
48. District 9*
49. Jandek on Corwood
50. Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby

*I'm thinking about replacing this with Moon. It's a little too early to figure out exactly how I feel about either of these films, though.

Honorable Mentions or Something: There were some movies that were truly great films that just didn't move me, like The Assassination of Jesse James, for example. This next list is the opposite: they aren't exactly guilty pleasures, and in fact I could probably make a good argument for including some of these on my list, but they're movies that appeal to my personal fetishes.

Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack! - This is maybe my favorite Godzilla movie of all time, or at least second to the 1954 original (and if you know how deep my love for Godzilla movies go, you know that that's really saying something). GMK is an alternate-universe Godzilla movie: in the mythology of this film, only the events of the first film (and, vaguely hinted, the 1999 American remake) have taken place. Godzilla is reimagined not as a scientific disaster, but as a supernatural incarnation of the unrestful wrath of the WWII casualties, and Mothra, Ghidorah and Baragon are ancient elemental guardians called upon to save Japan. It's great to see Godzilla as a bad-guy again, and he looks seriously fucking scary, with hollow, pupil-less eyes like the posessed bodies in the Evil Dead films. Director Shūsuke Kaneko, having updated the Gamera franchise, tweaks the rubber suits with a little CGI to make the action more believable and the monsters more expressive. I'm not sure I could reasonably argue for this to be on a list beside, say, There Will Be Blood, but I enjoyed it as much as any film this decade.

Awesome! I Fuckin' Shot That! - I could probably argue for this one to be on the main list, though. Shot by 50 fan-held digital video cameras, this really is one of the most exciting concert films ever made, providing a panoramic view of the audience experience as the Beasties rock Madison Square Garden. But of course, it's my favorite band, so I'm a bit biased.

Wet, Hot American Summer - Even by the time I left college, Meatballs was probably the movie I had watched more times than any other (it may have eventually been displaced by Dazed and Confused). I can't recall ever seeing any of the other summer camp comedies except for one called G.O.R.P. late one night on HBO, but the cliches and conventions are recognizable enough. This postmodern parody, populated by members of The State and other very funny people, is funny, although maybe not quite funny enough to include on my main list if it weren't for the positive associations I still feel for the genre and the general summertime vibe.

Undercover Brother - That x-ray foot-up-the-ass shot in the opening fight scene? That is a legitimate addition to the vocabulary of action filmmaking (and, if you ask me, cooler than anything in the Matrix movies)!

Dagon/Call of C'thulu - Stuart Gordon has spent the better part of his career adapting HP Lovecraft stories, although usually the result has little to do with Lovecraft. Dagon actually does borrow heavily from "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and some of Lovecraft's other stories, and it's a nasty and grotesque piece of work. The silent film Call of C'thulu is much more faithful--a literal adaptation of Lovecraft's most famous story--with all the weird atmosphere of the original.

Blade 2 - This is a stupid vampire/action movie, but Guillermo Del Toro took the script and said "I'm going to make this stupid script into the best damn stupid movie it could possibly be." Vampire ninjas, dude with a giant hammer, weird uber-vamps with gaping, Gieger-esque jaws, and some really nice, gothy cinematography.

Ong Bak - Tony Jaa emerges from Thailand with some moves that Jackie Chan in his prime might not have been able to pull off. 'Nuff said.

The Corporation - Well, if you want a quick primer on the leftist worldview, here it is. It's also a sort of prerequisite to a lot of the other left-leaning documentaries of this decade, helping you understand Who Killed the Electric Car or what dark forces are behind Food, Inc.

Trick 'r Treat - As a movie, or even as a horror movie, this is pretty unexceptional, but it's clearly designed to be a seasonal Halloween treat, and it fits in nicely enough with the season that it will probably end up getting a lot of play in my house over the coming Octobers.

Le Pact des Loups - I held back from including nerd fetish films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but this one is actually a good film (if a little flabby). It's a mashup of werewolf movies and The Hound of the Baskervilles in an alternate-universe 18th century France where everyone knows kung fu. Plus, Monica Bellucci.

Grindhouse - And if I'm including nerd fetish films, I can't really leave this out, can I? Death Proof is probably Tarantino's worst movie, but for some reason I find it to be one of his most watchable. And Planet Terror is among Rodriguez's best films, but still a pretty shallow exercise. Together, in a theater, they add up to more than the sum of their parts, and the fake trailers (probably the best part of the experience) adds that extra bit of sauce to it!

The Hotness:

Gina Gershon in Prey for Rock-n-Roll
Angelina Jolie in Wanted
Cate Blanchette in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Salma Hayek in Ask the Dust
Penelope Cruz in Volver (I never really thought she was that hot outside of this film, but Almodovar really brings it out of her.)
Scarlett Johanson at the Golden Globes that one time when she wore the red dress

The 10 best experiences I had at the movie theater this decade:

1. Evil Dead, The Egyptian Theater, Halloween 2001
2. The Movie Orgy, New Beverly Cinema, 2009
3. The Tingler, The Silent Movie Theater, Halloween 2008
4. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidora: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack!, Egyptian Theater 2003 and Godzilla: Final Wars, Egyptian Theater 2005
5. Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2, The Vista Theater, 2003 and 2004
6. The Two Towers and Return of the King, The Vista Theater, Christmas 2002 and Christmas 2003
7. John Kricfalusi presents a night of his favorite classic cartoons, The Egyptian Theater, 2004
8. Inland Empire, The Aero Theater, 2007
9. Drag Me to Hell, Mission Tiki Drive-In, 2009
10. Pan's Labyrinth, The Arclight Cinema (AFI Festival), 2006

Monday, January 18, 2010

L00king Back, Part 2

I already posted a mix of some of my favorite music of the decade that just ended (Side 1, Side 2). In fact, I've been going back and tweeking it, adding some songs, fiddling with the order, cleaning up the embarassing writing. I'm sure I'll do the same with this post--in fact, I'm doing it right now. But check those out if you're interested.

The 00's have been the best decade of music that I've ever lived through. Not so much for what I heard, but for what I didn't have to hear. It's easy to forget just how annoying it was, as recently as the 90's, to have to be subjected to whatever horrible music your average idiot decided was good. Limp Bizkit, Celine Deon, Ace of Bass, Coldplay...whatever a large enough group of people liked, you had to hear it. Now, I look at Billboard's list of the biggest one-hit wonders of the decade, or this list of the worst songs of the decade, and I realize that I've never heard most of them. And that makes me very, very happy.

We basically now live in the world that I always wanted to live in, that I've been fantasizing about since the 80's, where everyone just listens to their own shit and leaves everyone else out of it: The World of Niche Marketing. And I've read a lot of critics complaining about it, and lamenting the lack of a shared culture, but if shared culture means I have to listen to Phil Collins, you can fucking keep it.

In the late 90's, I had become pretty bored with music. I had dutifully listened to Sebedoah and Pavement, but when the next wave of indie rock bands came along, bands like Versus and Built to Spill, all still sounding basically like retreads of Pixies, Sonic Youth and Fugazi, I just called it quits. As for hip hop, it really seemed to be in the same state that rock was in the mid-70's. There were some good party jams, but most of it was so unoriginal it hurt. There was underground hip hop, of course, which always seemed just on the verge of exploding into a revolutionary equivalent of punk, but it felt like it never quite got there. Groups like Company Flow, Latyrix and Anti-Pop Consortium had some good stuff, but lacked the fire and energy you could hear on hip hop records from the golden age. It seemed like music was going a different way, like everything was moving toward, in the outdated jargon of 1999, "electronica." The future belonged to Daft Punk, Fatboy Slim, Chemical Bros., The Propellorheads, Moby. This seemed perfectly logical, but it didn't really interest me. When I moved to L.A. from Athens, where I used to go see a live band at least every other week, I found myself intimidated by the new surroundings. I didn't know the clubs, didn't have much money, didn't have a group of friends who liked the same music as me, and it was just easier to let my agoraphobia win. I felt completely disconnected from the world of music.

It has quickly become a cliche to start a piece like this by talking about the ways our consumption of music has changed over the last decade, but it's pretty startling to think where we were in 1999. Basically, after 15 years on the market, the CD was just beginning to not feel like a rip off. For one thing, most cars now came with a CD player (you could get a CD player in your car long before that, but I guess I needed to have it forced on me to really appreciate it), and people were just figuring out how to rip tracks to your computer and burn them to a CD--much easier than making a cassette mixtape. The next logical step was file sharing, and we all know what happened then. Next thing I knew, I had 300 mp3's on my hard drive at work (still too paranoid about the fuzz to do it at home), most of which were songs I had been itching to hear again for over a decade. A lot of them were early 80's hardcore records that I had barely thought about since, say, 1988. I could put them into 80 minute mixes on CD's, drive around listening to that mix I had wanted to make in high school but could never get all the records together at the same time. From Napster to Audiogalaxy to WinMX (I could never get Soulseek to work).By the time they shut that one down, it was irrelevent. Now came the age of the mp3 blog, and if you found a few that lined up with your personal tastes, you could put together a great mix, amounting to an album or so every Saturday morning. Then iTunes and eMusic, and I was buying more music than I probably ever had, even while "stealing" the same amount. (This situation can have dark consequences for the more compulsive music hound. On my visit to Florida, I had a long conversation with Jason about it. His music builds up so quickly that he has no time to listen to it, and lives in constant anguish from not being able to hear everything, a curse from the Gods that will eventually end with him being drug to the happy home, acheiving immortality as a cautionary tale for those afflicted with the hungry ear. [I'm joking by the way--let's make it clear so I'm not slandering my friend.]) A decade that started out with me completely disconnected from the world of music ended with me deeper in it in some ways than I had ever been.

All these developments--blogs, online communities, satelite radio--prevent you from ever having to be subjected to anything outside your tastes. You just focus on the genres you have a personal fetish for, find a few blogs that cover that stuff, or a forum dedicated to it, and live in your own little world. Of course there are disadvantages to this as well. No, I have never had to hear a single song by any former American Idol contestant, but I also had no real reason to check out Arcade Fire's Funeral. I finally used up some eMusic credits on that one about 5 years after it came out, and hey, it's a pretty fantastic album, so maybe it pays to keep a little ear to the mainstream culture.

Anyway, my 10 favorite albums of the first decade of the 21st Century:

1. Beck - Guero Much looser than Odelay, Guero feels like the synthesis of the "funky Beck" of Mellow Gold, Odelay and Midnight Vultures witht he "folky Beck" of One Foot in the Grave, Mutations and Sea Change. It also feels like the sound of L.A., its melting pot of culture, languages, musical styles and foods, all brought together into a unified whole, never feeling contradictory or forced. It's the sound of the Korean Taco Truck, of the symphony of smells you get as you drive up Vermont with the windows down, maybe catching bits of gangsta rap, punk rock, Norteno and Cumbia. The title track, with Beck rapping in monotone Spanglish interspersed with fake Cholo dialogue attracts some criticism, and if I weren't living in L.A. it might strike me as a slightly embarassing minstrel act, but having lived here (and probably having listened to plenty of standup comics and audiences of all races doing this sort of cross-cultural lampoon), knowing that Beck grew up in Echo Park, I just recognize it for what it is--just how people talk around here.

2. The Drive-By Truckers - The Dirty South So I guess if I had stayed in Athens, this would probably have been my number one pick. Expanding on 2000's Southern Rock Opera, The Dirty South is a concept album exploring the mythology of the South, covering, among other things, Sun Records, Buford Pusser, John Henry, stock car races, and smaller, more personal stories about family, work and music. Smack in the middle of the three-album stretch that featured their strongest line-up (with Jason Isbell serving as the third singer/songwriter/guitarist alongside founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley), the sound is strong and confident, a band hitting their peak. Cooley kicks things off with the ominous "Where the Devil Don't Stay" (the opening seconds always make me think of a scene in a Western, a closeup shot of a gunfighter's cowboy boots walking deliberately across the plank wood floor of a saloon to start some shit), and contributes some typically great songs throughout. Isbell's songs, a bit more emotionally grounded and less schticky than Cooley's and Hood's, give the album a bit more weight, and he offers what might be their definitive take on the Southern Rock genre with "Never Gonna Change," and finishes off the album with the heartbreaking saloon ballad "Goddamn Lonely Love." The centerpiece of the album is Hood's "Puttin' People on the Moon," more of a monologue than a song, a savage curse at the world that describes the hideous details of a Job-like life in a declining factory town. It's an incredibly intense performance, building to a scream of impotent rage and anguish. And if that sounds too heavy, Cooley is there to releive the tension with a reverent ode to Sun Records mogul Sam Phillips.

3. The Fiery Furnaces - EP I've written pretty in-depth about this band, so I won't go into too much detail here. But side one of this record is simply the most solid stretch of pop songwriting I've heard this decade, with its five songs flowing from one to another in a perfect, fluid stream. Side two offers a bunch of weird, experimental songs to balance it all out.

4. Gogol Bordello - Gyspy Punks I got to take a late pass on this one--just heard it for the first time a few months ago. For all I know, this might not even be their best album, since it's still the only one I've heard. Gogol Bordello are, as the title says, Gypsy punks--Eastern European immigrants in NYC, playing a rocked-up version of their traditional folk music in a way that's comparable to the Pogues, with a fierce urgency worthy of the Clash and a high-energy live show that takes me back to the heyday of Fishbone.

5. The Coup - Steal This Album The Coup are every bit as politically radical as, say, Public Enemy, but unlike PE, The Coup are funny. They're also incredibly funky. Describing a hip hop crew as "funky" is probably not that helpful, but I really don't know what other word to use. Everything is wah-wah'ed out, loping along in a rhythmic pimp strut. Like all left-wing musicians, they say a lot that's complete horseshit (from "I Love Boosters" on 2006's Pick a Bigger Weapon: "We all know that there would be no prisons/If rights to food, clothing and shelter were given"...yeah, right, pal.), but they got humor, and humor goes a long way. Steal This Album is their third record, and, while I like all their albums, it's their most solid, funky and funny.

6. The People Under the Stairs - O.S.T. (Original Sound Tracks) In Florida or even Georgia, a hot summer day is usually followed by a hot summer night. In the dry-heat of L.A., though, the temperature drops 5 to 10 degrees within the space of about 10 minutes at sunset. After an intensely hot day, there's an almost involuntary sense of relaxation, as if your muscles are breathing sighs of relief at this suddenly pleasant temperature. That's what this album sounds like to me. To my ears, Thes One and Double K outdo the late Jay Dilla at his own game in producing smooth beats somewhere between Native Tongues and G-Funk. The album's not perfect--"Acid Raindrops" should really be the last song, rather than the two forgetable songs that follow it, and it drives me nuts that they interupt the best run on the album ("The Dig," "Montego Stay" and "L.A. Song") with the throwaway "The Heat"--but hey, just leave the junk off your playlist.

7. Deerhoof - Offend Maggie I'm constantly amazed by this band. It feels like they came from another planet, aliens trying to figure out how to write Earth-Pop songs, and having no idea how to go about it. This approach could result in interesting exercises that nobody wants to listen to, but Deerhoof manage to inject each song with their own weird little personality. And they just keep getting better, so that this, their most recent album, is maybe their best.

8. The Flaming Lips - Embryonic Back in the late 80's, the Lips were doing some cool shit, but they were definitely second-stringers on a team where bands like the Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth and Meat Puppets were the starters. Now, 20 years later, most of the competition has fallen by the wayside, and The Flaming Lips are putting out the most interesting music of their career. Embryonic feels like the album they've been trying to make for the last decade or so. OK, the songs on The Soft Bulletin are probably stronger, and Yoshimi is probably a more fun listen, but Embryonic just sounds like nothing else you've ever heard. The first time I heard it (streaming on, I thought "Wow, they've totally abandoned the guitars and gone all-synth." Then I bought the album, listened to it a few more times and realized "Holy shit! Those ARE guitars!" The guitars are so heavily treated that they sound completely alien, but you can here that physical pressure of pick-against-string on every song. There's a line in Killing Zoe, where someone's trying to get Eric Stoltz to try some drug, and tells him that "It makes you feel like all the world is inside a glass bubble, and you're on the outside rubbing against the glass." (Stoltz replies "I'll try it anyway.") That's what this album sounds like.

9. Sleater-Kinney - One Beat I was unsure whether I was going to include a Sleater-Kinney album (I considered going with Of Montreal instead). On the one hand, I feel strongly that they were The World's Greatest Rock-n-Roll Band for much of the decade, but I also feel like their best album was clearly 1998's Dig Me Out. They don't have quite as solid an album from the 00's, but they have three damn good ones. It seems that more people chose their final album, the noisy, heavy rock The Woods, but I'm going with One Beat. Admittedly, it's not the most solid album, but the high points--songs like "One Beat," "Oh!," "Step Aside" and "Sympathy"--are so good that they justify sitting through some forgettable material.

10. Madvillain - Madvillainy I wish there were more Madvillain albums, because Madlib and MF Doom just work together brilliantly. In the same way that the members of Led Zeppelin or The Velvet Underground or The Who all compliment each other, Madlib's glitchy beats and Doom's stoner rhymes just fit together like a jigsaw. Madlib has done the same kind of stuff better on the two Quasimoto albums, and Doom has dropped better rhymes, but, like wine and cheese, they make each other taste better. They should be a band.

I'm working on the last part of this, the movie post (unless I decide to do another one about TV, which is doubtful since I haven't finished The Wire yet), but I'm gonna hold on to it long enough to see just a few more movies. You understand, right?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

You Guys Are Into Architecture, Right?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Negro Dialect

So a new book claims that a couple of powerful, old white men are closet racists, which of course is a victory for conservatives. Go figure.

OK, the sources seem sketchy, but I don't really doubt that it's possible that Bill Clinton used some racist language talking about Obama, and I barely care. The funnier bit is Republicans trying to say that Harry Reid, using old man language to talk about what's just obviously true (that Obama is electable because...well, I don't think his skin tone really has as much to do with it as his not using "negro dialect." Another way to think of this is that it's impossible to imagine America electing a black man who conducted himself like, say, Teddy Roosevelt.) is equivalent to Trent Lott saying America would have been better off if we had elected a segregationist president in the 60's. TNC's take on this is the best and funniest I've read, no reason for me to go any deeper into it.

At the time, by the way, I actually defended Trent Lott in an argument. I just didn't feel like it was absolutely clear that he had thought the statement through, or that he meant what it sounded like he meant. In light of the behavior of the right wing over the last year, I find myself reevaluating that opinion, but I want to share an example.

Last summer, I went down to Georgia for vacation. I was posting updates about my trip on Facebook. I stayed a few days at my parent's beautiful cabin in the mountains, ate some good soul food, was generally enjoying The South, and making posts to that effect. I had a friend whom I worked with, who was from the South. Unlike me, she hates L.A. and wants to move back to the South badly. She's also a conservative, for what it's worth. And she was replying to my posts, saying how much she loved the South, how badly she missed it. So one day, we end up going to this horrible Chinese buffet, where they had the T.V. on showing America's Funniest Home Videos, with the volume up so all the patrons could enjoy the show, and I posted something like "Experienced the dark side of the South tonight." And she replied "There's no dark side to the South!"

Now two things: I was kinda blown away by that statement, and I didn't respond to it. I didn't respond because I knew that those words didn't mean the same thing to her that they meant to me. I'm sure my friend doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about how the ghosts of history inform the present-day South, and parsing the racial subtexts of contemporary culture or whatever we liberals do with our brains. She just meant that the South is a great place to live, and it's not terrible like L.A. It didn't occur to her, I'm sure, that she was endorsing a history of white supremacy and racist terrorism. And maybe we forget that a lot of white people just don't spend a lot of time thinking about race, and thus don't see statements like this through that lense.

Obviously, my friend's situation is pretty different from Trent Lott, he being a life-long politician and all, and maybe I was cutting him a little too much slack at the time. These guys are proving themselves to have more of a "dark side" than I even guessed.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Fruits of Mashup Culture

Friday, January 08, 2010

L00king Back, Part 1

It's a strange construct, dividing time up into 10-year incriments and reviewing what happened as if it presents some kind of narrative structure, but I maintain that it is a useful compulsion. And why not, anyway? I need to type something here.

This decade has been so different from previous ones, because of my age. I haven't gone through any dramatic change in life this time, as I did during the 70's, 80's and 90's. I started as an adult, I finished as an adult. The movies and music of the last 10 years haven't had the sort of impact on me that they had in previous decades. They aren't forever associated with moments of adolescent heartbreak, or a first year in a new situation, or my first joint, or whatever external events make us believe that movies or music was so much better when we were young. I'm pretty much the same person I was when I started, although in a better position perhaps. (I know this is hardly universal--my wife, a week younger than I am, would probably tell you that she's a completely different person than she was 10 years ago, and I'd have to agree with her.)

But the 00's work out to be a pretty clearly-defined unit of time for me: my time working a desk job, the Bush years, the years of the geek blockbuster movies, the years of discovering the internet. I can remember how it all started (cue wavy flashback effect)...

The Desk

I'll start with talking about my own personal bullshit, so if you have no interest, just skip down. I keep thinking I should stop blogging about personal matters, and maybe just pick a topic to devote the blog to, but that's just not how I write. I have a compulsion to get all these thoughts out of my head and onto the internet.

I moved out to L.A. in 1997, having spent the better part of the 90's doing nothing. On graduating college in 1991, I had moved to Athens, GA, with the vague idea that I was going to start a band, or do some writing, or maybe go to grad school. I got a job as an orderly in a hospital, just something to pay the bills until I figured out what I was going to do. Then I woke up one morning and it was 7 years later. So when Bobbie wanted to move to L.A., I really had no argument to put up. Truth is, while I was living in Athens, I was continuing to live as a teenager. In the early years of my L.A. residence, I think I finally was able to put that adolescence behind me, and by the time I turned 30, I was starting to actually feel like a grown-up. The next decade, I feel, was me putting in the hours to make my actual life catch up with my age.

The desk job thing really does line up well with the decade unit: I started working at Pepperdine in August 1999, moved to Occidental (where I did the exact same job a mile from my house, rather than having a daily hour-plus commute each way) in 2001, and finally quit in August 2009. For a while it was really nice--a job where I sat at a desk, had constant internet access, made decent money, had low stress, and could ride my bike home to eat lunch every day. But eventually, boredom sat in, so I took a few night classes, got a teaching certificate, and eventually got a steady enough job that I could leave the soul-crushing boredom of the office behind.

There had been times in the past where I had considered grad school, or some other career path, but had always balked at how long it would take, how much hassle and effort. From making the decision to actually having a class to teach took a good 4 years for me. And that's probably the biggest life change--at the age of 41, I guess I just realize how short 4 years is. 4 years is nothing, man!

So I said there had been no real change in my life, but I recently realized that that was wrong. There is a change: I have no regrets. I mean, everyone says they have no regrets, I always said it, because to say otherwise is to admit failure. But I always regretted coasting through college, blowing off opportunities, wasting so much of my life. But now, I have hindsight, and I see that I couldn't have gotten here without going through a certain process. I had to work that desk job until I was absolutely bored out of my mind in order to begin pursuing the teaching career. That's just who I am. It all seems like part of a process now. So I guess in some ways, I am a different person than I was when I started.

The Bush Years

I voted for Ralph Nader in 1999. Yep, it's true, and a testemant to how much Bush changed the way I think about politics. In the 90's, I never had a good word to say about Clinton, and never would have referred to myself as a Democrat. Clinton was the establishment, not much different from Reagan or Bush. And Gore was running as an even more moderate version of Clinton. I had no desire to vote for the lesser of two evils, so I thought I'd "send the Democrats a message" and vote for a REAL liberal. After all, this Bush guy was running as a moderate too. Who cared which of these indistinguishable candidates won?

Jesus, is that unrecognizable. By 2004, the Clinton years seemed like a mythical dream time. And then Bush won re-election. I will spend the rest of my life trying to figure out how that happened, but as far as I'm concerned, democracy failed. The guy did a disastrous job, and failed to be fired for it. The day after the election, I went online and changed my party affiliation from "independent" to "Democrat." I started to realize that this whole "I'm not asoociated with any political party" and "I refuse to vote for a lesser evil" bullshit was more about ego, about pumping up one's self-image as an iconoclastic truth-teller than about the real world of politics. People who continue to insist that there is no real difference between the two parties right now are simply not looking at reality. We have one party which, whatever it's faults, is serious about running the country, and another party that's a cross between a Klan rally and a bad Jerry Springer episode.

It's funny to look back at the 80's from this perspective, and the way punk bands used to talk about Reagan. I'm no fan of Reagan, but when you look back at the hyperbole being slung at him, with the perspective that the Bush administration provides, it's sort of hilarious. Bush really was the president that Jello Biafra thought Reagan was! Maybe the hardcore generation willed Bush into existence through their imagination. Which is actually a bit encouraging. In 20 years, maybe we'll have a president somewhere to the left of Noam Chomsky, willed into existence by the paranoid imaginations of the Tea Baggers!