Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Musical Interlude

Can you believe fucking Gonzo won't even pay his chickens child support?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Top 50 Films of the 00's, Part 3 (40-36)

40. Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrman, 2001)

Beginning sometime between 1980 and 1984 (depending on how far out in the sticks you lived), and continuing until sometime in the late 90's (it was a gradual ending), MTV played music videos. They were garish, colorful, overly busy interpretations of nonsensical fantasies set to pop songs. At the twilight of this era (MTV was still airing videos in the ghetto of Total Request Live), Baz Luhrman produced this film, a tribute to the MTV era reinterpreted as an impossibly opulent musical extravaganza somewhere between The Red Shoes and Lola Montes. In the process, he revived the Hollywood musical, allowing godawful adaptations of Hairspray, Dream Girls and Chicago to be brought into existence, but credit where due. The mix of glittery pomp, pop song romance and a two hour mashup of dozens of pop hits, sometimes being mixed like a club DJ mixes records (the "Can Can Can"/"Smells Like Teen Spirit"/"Lady Marmalade" mix), is enough to leave you dizzy. Unfortunately, at some point (right after the showstopper "Tango de Roxanne"), there seems to be a sudden realization that the story needs a plot, and a rush to add one, at which point I find myself fidgeting a bit through the last 20 minutes.

39. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)/The Royal Tennenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)

The Fantastic Mr. Fox depicts the part of Bugs Bunny's life that you don't see in the cartoons: his family life, his midlife crises, his existential angst. Brought to life by the most charming stop-motion animation I've ever seen, Wes Anderson took Road Dahl's children's story (I remember our first grade teacher reading the story to us one day, although the only part I can really recall is the rhyme about the three farmers, "one fat, one short, one lean") and makes it into something that is at once a children's story and a Wes Anderson movie. This is no small feat--the many attempts to make children's entertainment palatable to adults (most notably the godawful Shrek franchise) have been misterable failures (although not necessarily commercial failures, which I suppose is what really counts). Is it the best Wes Anderson movie of the decade? I think so. While I don't like it as much as his looser, late 90's films Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, it does feel more lively and entertaining than the three other films he made this decade. But I still can't resist squeezing the gorgeous Royal Tennenbaums onto this list. I don't feel much emotional connection to the characters in that film, maybe you do, but it's blend of music and images shows an undeniable artistry. The image of Bucky Tennenbaum's falcon circling the city skyline to the Velvet Underground's "Stephanie Sez" may not hold any deep meaning to me, but who can deny that it's a beautiful image? So, not his best movie, but possibly the best long-form music video ever made.

38. Dave Chappelle's Block Party (Michel Gondry, 2005)

Dave Chappelle might be one of the most fascinating figures of the 00's. After creating one of the funniest seasons of television of the decade, Chappelle walked off the set of his show and diasppeared from the cultural landscape. He surfaces occassionally at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood, where he takes over the stage to do four hours of rambling (but by all eyewitness accounts, fully entertaining) standup. Somewhere in between, he managed to produce this documentary/concert/comedy film. Chappelle, a laid back stoner with a deep love for hip hop and jazz, may be the human embodiment of Native Tongues hip hop, and this movie, more than anything else he's been involved in, feels like the embodiment of Chappelle's personality.

DCBP progresses at a leisurely, spontaneous pace, like everything else in Dave's life. Dave acts on impulse. He gets the idea that he's going to produce the perfect concert, featuring the cream of the second generation Native Tongues crew, on a block in Brooklyn. He gets it in his head that he will bring a busload of random people from his Ohio hometown. At one point, he passes by a high school marching band, and gets the idea that he will bring them out to Brooklyn to perform. And when his headliner, Lauryn Hill, can't perform (her record company doesn't want the songs from her upcoming album appearing in the film--did the album ever come out?), he just casually brings up the idea of reuniting her old crew, The Fugees (one of the most interesting things about the movie is how small this major coup is played).

The concert itself is fantastic. Kanye West, pre-superstardom, plays a short opening set (in the months between the filming and release, Kanye would become one of the biggest stars in music). The Roots play a ferocious set, then lay down the beats for everyone else (a prelude to their future as a late night talk show band). Mos Def, Talib Kwali and Common rap in various combinations. Dead Prez, backed by The Roots, deliver one of the most devastating rap performances I've ever heard. Erykah Badu is the goddamn queen of cool when she comes on stage sporting a huge afro. Jill Scott, whom I'd honestly never heard of when I first saw the movie, delivers her own idiosynchratic fusion of poetry slam and soul diva. The Fugees might be the one disapointment of the show--the movie only records their opening number ("Nappy Heads," not a very good example of the group) and their big hit cover of "Killing Me Softly" (which I don't think is one of their best tunes either). Is there more of this set? When will an expanded DVD featuring the whole concert on multiple discs be released?

The vibe is similar to my favorite concert film, Wattstax: a sunny day, relaxing with some good tunes. It's a great disc to slip in on a lazy summer day. But the most fascinating stuff here is not the performances, but little moments of Dave and the various musicians discussing the arts of music and comedy. "I'm mediocre at both," Chappelle quips, "but I've managed to talk myself into a fortune."

37. United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)

In those scary, depressing days after 9/11, we looked to the heroes. There were firefighters and policemen who had given their lives to save their fellow men, but there was also the story of United 93. Nobody knows for sure what happened on that plane, but it seems that the plane was set to be another kamikaze, and when the passengers learned about the fates of the other planes, realized they weren't getting out of this alive, overpowered the hijackers and crashed the plane into a field.

Paul Greengrass' film follows the passengers and the air traffic control crew in real time verite through the hours leading up to 93's crash, and what you come away with is a scene of ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. That sounds too low-key, but everything sounds too low-key to describe the events of that day. To call the film "powerful" or even "harrowing" seems like a major understatement. It's a proper tribute to both the horror and the heroism of that day.

United 93 came out between Greengrass' two sequels to The Bourne Identity, and while I obviously can't count them as on the same level as U93, they are remarkable films in themselves, and would have to be counted among the key action films of the decade. People seem to remember the "shaky cam" that adds urgency to every action scene, but the real artistry is in the editing, that makes action scenes that would be confusing in the hands of most directors and make them clean and clear to the viewer.

36. The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, 2003)

Guy Maddin's movies feel like dreams you might have if you fell asleep watching Turner Classic Movies late at night. There's a strangeness to them that often reminds me of The Forbiden Zone if that film had been attempting serious drama. That's the closest I can come to a real comparison. When I started watching TSMITW, his best feature film, I thought it was the most amazing and beautiful thing I had ever seen. After about an hour, I built up a tolerance to it, and it didn't seem quite so intoxicating anymore. Maybe his aesthetic is better suited to short films like The Eye Like a Strange Balloon and The Heart of the World. Regardless, this story of a glass-legged beer barroness who, in the heart of winter and depression, holds a contest to find the most heartbreaking of music, is a unique and fascinating gem.

[EDIT: you can probably tell that I really should have gone back and watched Saddest Music again before writing this, but I was getting sick of having it in the queue. Time to get busy on the next batch!]

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Better to Remain Silent and Be Thought a Racist...

The events of the last week or so provide a good lesson in knowing when to just shut the fuck up. A week ago--was that all it was?--the NAACP released a statement calling on leaders of the Tea Party movement to repudiate racism in their ranks. The immediate reaction was mostly eye-rolling. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a very good, strong argument in favor of the resolution, but I think the reaction of most white people was probably something like "Oh, there they go playing the race card again," and even my reaction was "OK, yeah, there's clearly a lot of nasty shit going on there, but what exactly do they think they're accomplishing with this?" And I think if the Tea Party folks had just rolled their eyes and gone on with their lives (and to be fair, I guess that's what most of them did), that's the impression most of white America would have been left with. But some people just love finding uses for extra rope, and within 24 hours, Mark Williams, head of the Tea Party Express, responded to this charge of racism with the most blatantly racist diatribe I can remember ever hearing in American public life, a satirical letter from the NAACP to Abraham Lincoln. A few days later, professional scumbag Andrew Breitbart posted "video proof of NAACP racism" in the form of a video of Shirley Sherrod speaking at an NAACP event, edited so heavily that she seemed to be saying the exact opposite of what she was actually saying. The full video was posted within hours, but by that time Sherrod had already beenn asked to resign by the Obama administration.

I repeat that, if these right wing assholes had just laughed the whole thing off, the reaction of at least most white people would have ranged from indifference to annoyance at the NAACP. Instead, the story that the right wing base is inherently racist is pretty much unavoidable. And it continues into the third big story of the last week, which began when Sarah Palin tweeted "Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate." When it was pointed out that, uh, refudiate isn't a word, she responded with ""Refudiate," "misunderestimate," "wee-wee'd up." English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!" At this point, you'll have to allow this language geek a quick digression.

I actually agree with the body of Palin's tweet here, with a few caveats. First, she's obviously bullshitting--she wasn't coining a word, she just didn't know how to spell "repudiate," and probably got it confused with "refute"--but it's the kind of bullshit that I respect, like when you're debating a friend, and you call him on some bullshit, and he comes back with a response, and you know he's bullshitting, he knows he's bullshitting, but it's a creative response so you just kinda laugh and say "good save." Second, while Shakespeare certainly did invent some words, the extent of this is a bit exaggerated. Here's a list of Shakespeare coinages. Now, Shakespeare didn't just come up with the word "accused," for instance. It just means that the earliest incident of that word being printed in English that we can find was in a Shakespeare play.

But the important point, lost underneath all this "haw haw, what a rube!" silliness, is that Palin is openly promoting a racist, unamerican and stupid position. Racist because she is equating all of Islam with the fundamentalist terrorists who conducted the 9/11 attacks, the equivalent of equating all Christians with the religious terrorist who assassinated Dr. Tiller. Un-American because it goes against the basic idea of religious freedom and equality that this country was founded on, implying that Muslims cannot be a part of mainstream America, that there is a state-sanctioned religion in our country. And both un-American and stupid because it goes against another basic American principle, the melting pot. I believe in the principle that, if radical Muslims move to America, they will find our society preferable to theirs. They will find that they prefer sex to repression and making money to fighting Jihad. This is the strength of our country, it's why we will win this fight, because our way of life, the liberal way of life, is just obviously better (and we will lose this clash of civilizations if we instead go their way, and let religious fundamentalism, police state authoritarianism and militarism take over our country).

It's also a flat-out lie, because the Mosque in question is not to be built on the former sight of the towers (I hate calling it Ground Zero, as if what Osama Bin Laden accomplished on the sight means more than the erection of two gigantic towers or the bustling commerce they hosted), but two blocks away and not even within view. And why does she even give a shit what happens in a city that she believes is not even a part of real America anyway?

This is a mainstream right wing political figure, most likely the frontrunner for her party's 2012 presidential nomination, fanning racist resentment and promoting an openly, unambiguosly racist position in public (Newt Gingrich is going along with it as well). I should also mention this idiot running for state house in New Hampshire (???), who probably speaks for a lot of racists when he says he's not a racist because "The word does not have a specific definition. If someone says, 'You seem to hate people who aren't white,' I say no, so I can't really be a racist, because I don't hate them. I just don't want to live around areas that are heavily, predominantly non-white."

This is not some subtext overly sensitive liberals are inferring from ambiguous statements. This is open racism in the mainstream of the Republican party. And regardless of how you feel about government regulations of commerce, progressive taxation or social programs, I don't see how anyone can stand by and watch this happen. It is just not acceptable in this country. Which is a shame, because we are facing some crises that I think the Democratic party is ill-equipped to deal with. Huge cuts need to be made to entitlements, and public sector unions need to be aggressively confronted. It would be great to have a functional opposition party right now. But we just don't.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Los Feliz, CA

Been driving past this car for a long time, and kept telling myself I wanted to take a picture of it. Looks like something out of a UPA cartoon. Like the car Mr. Magoo drives.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

What's Good on TV These Days?

I know there's Breaking Bad (haven't gotten to it yet) and Mad Men (watched the first season, I think I'll skip two and three and just start in on four when it starts), but you know what else?

Well, first of all, there's Treme. I reckon that's not really "on TV" at the moment, the first (and I imagine only, we'll see) season having finished it's run on HBO and not yet come out on DVD. But let me go on record as saying that this is the best show I've seen in a long, long time. No, it's probably not as "good" as The Wire (the previous show created by David Simon), but Treme really aims straight for my heart. It's a multi-arched tapestry set in post-Katrina New Orleans, mostly centering on musicians (and a little on chefs), so it's a non-stop buffet of New Orleans music, food and culture. There is almost constant music in the show, much of it being performed live by actors portraying jazz men and street buskers. It's like Glee for people who hate musical theater. This show will actually make you want to kick your own ass for not living in New Orleans. Take, for instance, the Mardis Gras Indians. I've heard of the Mardis Gras Indians for years, read plenty about them, heard recordings by The Wild Magnolias and Wild Tchoupitoulas, seen bits of video on YouTube, but only now, after seeing Treme, do I feel like I really understand what Mardi Gras Indians actually do. And so on, what Mardi Gras parades look like, what people do during the parades, all the little nooks and crannies of this incredibly rich culture, the King Cakes and begnets and midnight mass on Ash Wednesday. I've spent less than 24 hours in the city, and I'll probably never attend a Mardi Gras due to my hatred of crowd scenes, so it's a great opportunity.

Then there are the actors. John Goodman--I'd never thought about it before, but he may be our best actor. Except that then there's Wendell Pierce, who I think is actually my favorite actor in the world right now. And then there's Clark Peters, playing a very different character from Lester Freamon, and knocking it out of the park. I could continue, because just about everyone does great work here in bringing the masses of the city to life.

Another great show, which really is on right now, is Louis CK's new sitcom Louie. I was one of the few people who liked his HBO sitcom Lucky Louie, but Louie is much, much better. It's shot like a Scorsese movie, and often plays like Louis' standup routine (possibly the best in the world right now) brought to life. There are moments of absurd humor, but the best parts are as real as it gets. For example:

(For what it's worth, Andrew Sullivan said that the etymology part of this was horseshit, which I kinda figured--it sounds like that "witch trials were the patriarchy's way of keeping down uppity midwives" stuff--but it makes a great point.)

But the show I'm actually enjoying even more than Louie is The Green Room with Paul Provenza on Showtime. This is basically a talkshow where Provenza gets three other comics together, and they talk about comedy (and whatever else crosses their minds).

The clip above is OK, but it's pretty mild compared to some of the stuff that goes on. To watch Bobby Slayton race-baiting Paul Mooney, or Penn Gillette, Martin Mull and Tommy Smothers trade filthy shaggy dog jokes...it's just one of the greatest things I've ever seen. The audience is mostly comedians as well (they seem to have filmed all the episodes back-to-back), and it all feels loose and...to say it's politically incorrect would be an understatement (my favorite one-liner from Mooney: "Some people grow their own weed. [Woody Allen] was growing his own pussy."). In one of my favorite bits, Tommy Smothers starts giving Penn Gillette shit about going on Glenn Beck's show, and Tommy is actually coming off as a bit of an asshole, but he's so fucking funny that he ends up coming out on top!

Monday, July 05, 2010

Palm Springs Weekend!!!

Feeling relaxed and refreshed after a weekend relaxing in Palm Springs. On the way out there, we made a stop at The Wheel Inn in Cabazon to see the dinosaurs that were in Pee Wee's Big Adventure. I've been talking about taking a roudtrip to Cabazon since we moved out here, but never got around to actually doing it. I wasn't even thinking about it on this trip, but when I started seeing signs for Cabazon, I started going "OOOH! OOH! LET'S GO SEE THE DINOSAURS!" So here we were.

The weird thing is that if you go into the belly of the brontosaurus, there's a gift shop that doubles as a creationist museum.

This is pretty disorienting. Whenever you see a dinosaur exhibit, you're used to there being a bunch of signs explaining how evolution works. It strikes you funny when all the signs are explaining what bullshit evolution is. But how can you argue with evidence like this?: