Friday, May 30, 2008

5/30/08 The Virtues of Leaving Well Enough Alone

So, the new Indiana Jones movie kind of sucks. Not terribly surprising, but still kind of deflating, in that the bell curve of youth as it applies to art was monumentally reinforced. Better no sequel at all than one so bereft of purpose and life.

It bears asking the question, though, especially in light of the new one's disposable crappiness, what makes the "original trilogy" stick where so many other summer blockbuster rollercoaster type movies disappear into the ether as soon as Oscar season rolls around? What makes a good summer blockbuster so hard to pull off?

I don't mean a successful one, because a blockbuster, by definition, should bust blocks. Financially it should do well, which Indy 4 is assuredly doing. So did Transformers, and so did Independence Day, etc. etc. for all the summers stretching back to (as far as I can figure it from critical readings) Jaws or Star Wars (the popular ones to blame). So in that measure, it's a success. But I have a hard time imagining that it will stick to the heart the way that the original set of Indiana Jones movies, or some of the other time-tested blockbusters have.

First, to tease out some critical opinion from anecdotal experience:

Critical opinion: "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is awesome, "Temple of Doom" is bad, and "Last Crusade" is passable. "Raiders" is the one that gets the essential nod, with the other two more or less dismissed as inferior reworkings.

Anecdotal experience, based on my own opinions and a bunch of friends that I've talked to: "Raiders" and "Last Crusade" are both awesome, which some favoring one and some favoring the other. "Temple" is still pretty sweet, but not as good (although one friend of mine says it's her favorite of the three. Overall vibe is that all three are of a piece - episodes varying in quality from great to greater, but still fundamentally of the same tapestry.

I think the gap between these two readings has to do with the the fact that critics are steeped in film, so the first movie gets lauded as a witty reworking of old B-movies and its cliffhanger/serial nods play off of the critical knowledge of the form. The 2nd & 3rd hit the law of diminishing returns - they don't do anything new, or new/old, like "Raiders". This reading is I think dependent on the fact that critics and cinephiles watch such a huge amount of movies that formal elements get foregrounded as the movies pile up in the brain. As an English major, I find it much easier to see narrative twists and turns coming simply because I've spent so much mental effort dissecting what various narratives are and what they attempt to accomplish. For that reason, when I'm reading I sometimes get overly caught up in the formal accomplisments/lack thereof in a book, as opposed to questions like, "is this fun to read?", or "is this compelling?". So because Indy 2 & 3 just followed the stylistic outlines of "Raiders", critics didn't find as much formal meant on the bone to chew on. For the average moviegoer (i.e. someone like me, not steeped in cinema), the appeal of the 3 are of a piece.

So the enduring appeal of these blockbusters is not, I don't think, necessarily a testament to their formal appeal, although all three are of course well-made. No "summer blockbuster" can really succeed without dynamic and memorable action scenes, and Indy has them in spades. Speilberg's facility with visual action is widely acknowledged, and since in Indy he really lets himself go for broke without regard to thematic/logical constraints, you get the setpieces only possible when a director with A-List skills goes B-List bananas.

But empty setpieces do not an enduring movie make. They're a prerequisite, but they have to be hung on the more difficult part of the equation. Enduring appeal goes back to a landing that's hard for a blockbuster to stick: tone and character.

Character first:
Indiana Jones in THE archetypal American action hero, but he is also a very specific character. In some ways, he's similar to James Bond, the aspirational ideal of British culture (or, the aspirational ideal of British culture as seen through the lens of American culture). Whether UK or US though, Bond is an urban ideal - he's the ultimate "city" hero.

Bond dresses well. He drinks expensive upscale drinks. He's constantly jetting off to places like Paris from places like London. Uniform: tuxedo. He's all about the no-strings-attached sex.
His gun is small, easily concealed, the PPK that you could carry into a tastefully appointed lobby in Manhattan (or London, or Paris, etc.). His one-liners tend to the debonaire and the double-entendre, and aspire to the tartness of prime Oscar Wilde. He is the modern, cosmopolitan city as action hero. And he has endured with incredible longevity as a character and idea. The idea, though, is more prominent - which is why it's been fleshed out by such a range of actors. Bond is very much style personified. As a person, we don't really have much of a sense of the particularities of his personality.

Indiana Jones dresses functionally. He goes to grimy, dangerous places. He's about sex, but can't help but feel the strings. Uniform: Fedora. Whip (American West nod). He gets beat up a lot, but also delivers a fair amount of beatings. He doesn't take himself too seriously, but always Gets The Job Done. These are all Bond-ian ideas, style as substance. But many things about Indiana the character are recognizably human (much credit goes to Harrison Ford's portrayal, as well). He has a tense relationship with his father. He doesn't like his name, and gave himself a nickname. He has to deal with girls in his classes that have crushes on him. His best friend is someone who complements him (Marcus Brody, the ur-academic). Many of these character traits are specific to Indiana Jones as a character, not as a style of living, but they intersect perfectly with the style as well - the rumpled, wisecracking American Hero.

The character semi-holds up in the new movie. Ford has aged well, and plays Indy well, but the screenplay is leaden. There are no memorable wisecracks a la "No Ticket", and with the plot a convoluted mess involving aliens and lacking the simple economy and visual/verbal wit of the first three, Indy the character is mostly stuck giving exposition and giving ground to the 4 other characters he spends most of the movie with. The clunkiness of the dialogue prevents Ford from deploying his natural charisma, so crucial to the character. Because, fundamentally, Indy seems like the kind of guy it would be an absolute joy to be around but for all the danger & Nazis and whatnot, and in the new movie this doesn't hold true. Not because he's old, because if anyone is made to age into Connery's crusty, hilarious old guy dynamic, Indy is, but because the screenplay leaves him absolutely high and dry.

Which speaks to the other element that the first 3 had in spades, missing in the new one: tone. The earlier ones are playful, witty, and light; with just enough shadings of gravity and danger to ensure that the events of the plot don't seem weightless. Too often summer blockbusters are so bloated by their budgets and and the amount of work it takes to pull them off that they are engulfed in a kind of destructive humorlessness, or are so silly and light that nothing sticks. The original Indy trilogy strikes the perfect sweet spot between wit/danger/excitement/fear/laughter while being liberal with the set pieces.

This tone is perfectly summed up by the tank chase in Last Crusade. An incredible chase scene, impeccably choreographed, capped by the tank plunging off the cliff. Adrenaline stimulated, audience on the thrill ride. But then: quiet wit, as Indy unwittingly joins the crowd mourning him, removing his signature fedora to honor the fallen, a joke light and witty enough to fit in with the best of Chuck Jones.

The new movie has no such moment, no such balance of light and ballast. It's all just chases for the sake of chases, or jokes for the sake of jokes, the resurrection for no good reason of a character who was last seen literally riding off into the sunset. A character synonymous with celluloid exuberance forced to go through the motions.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

5/20/08 - WCF, And Then I See A Darkness

Ugh, I say, when greeted with the unholy visage of the NBA's final four teams left standing, especially the two odious titans left in the Western Conference. Here, then, is the downside of the glorious unpredictability of sports - sometimes, one is left with Goliath victorious, with David left in a crumpled heap, sling clutched in bloody hand. Surely it makes some future eventuality all the sweeter, knowing that this can be the result, but that doesn't make this any easier to stomach in the here and now.

To wit: the Spurs. Perennial playoff vanquishers of Nash and the Suns, who have, in fact, committed the death blow to the D'Antoni and his free-form offense and ensured that bland assertions of defense-wins-championships continues. Sure, they seem like "good guys" in the classic sense, Duncan=unselfishness and all that, but to have the tantalizing potential of the now-departed running Suns gradually sapped by such methodical efficiency is a multiyear tragedy. D'Antoni's warmth and self-deprecation makes the (great) Popovich seem bland, wan, and jerktastic by comparison. Bowen's voluminous fouls/elbows/dark magic foiling the offensive grace of Steve Nash is an affront to the aesthetic flow of the most telegenic basketball. Execution: the Spurs embody both meanings of that dread word. Add the evisceration of the Suns (and I do mean evisceration - they now have Shaq, don't run, and are about to bring in some defense-first knucklehead to follow D'Antoni's insanity) to the ouster at their hands of the marvel of the marvel that is Chris Paul and his young Hornets team (exciting to watch, and also endearingly young - witness Tyson Chandler's hilarious "I Wanted My Buddy But I Got Chucky" comparison) is enough to make one throw allegiance to...

The Lakers? Kobe Bryant? Not likely. Bryant hits all the signifiers of great basketball/terrible person while standing as the avatar of all that is shallow and petty about LA. Whining about a trade at the beginning of the season, playing like the worst ballhog pickup player when things aren't going his way, attempting some sort of bogus authenticity with his tattoos and bling when the guy is a cosmopolitan Italian-American - the smugness and self-regard are as wearing to me as a viewer as his trancendent abilities must be to a playoff opponent. And Vujacic? The machine? His hair net is even more egregiously annoying than the one sported by Oberto of...

The Spurs. Methodical. Slowdown. Duncan's self-abnegating brilliance. Execution, execution, execution, with the fun sucked out except by Parker's mad drives. And he raps in French! And is married to Eva Longoria? This is who I'm supposed to cheer for? Give me Lamar Odom's drives instead, any day of the week, except that leaves me with...

The Lakers. Phil Jackson and his billion titles. The crush of the celebrity crowd. Luke Walton's uncanny resemblance to every slightly-too-aggro drunk guy at every party I've ever been too. Pau Gasol's calculated scruff. But most of all Bryant, Bryant, Bryant - drinking in the MVP and the spotlight like that guy at the party that Luke Walton looks like.

So, what? The Celtics? The Pistons? Yawn and double-yawn? Stacked vs. been-there, done-that. I guess I'm for Rasheed Wallace, who I once saw throw down a stanchion rattling dunk at the Dean Dome when he played for UNC, and who seems to be the only member of any team left that embodies the slightly unhinged nature of basketball at its best, with so much of that aura departed with AI, Nash, Paul, and Deron Williams.


Monday, May 12, 2008

5/12/08 - Mashups, Delights

The first time I heard a mashup was the Freelance Hellraiser "A Stroke of Genie-us" - I highly doubt this was the first one, but it certainly seemed to be the first to penetrate mass cultural consciousness.

Now I would consider this innovation one of my favorite in modern pop music; both for the sublime immediate pleasures of hearing a new song created from familiar elements, and also for its signifying of the collapse of the importance of genre.

Like so many things, credit for this should go to the Internet, and specifically the brief flowering of Napster and the spate of P2P file sharing. For the first time, cross-genre exploration was possible with no cost/repercussion. While terrible for the music industry as a whole, ironically this development has been fantastic for the collapsing of artificial genre fences. Chuck Klosterman has a hilarious account of these fences in "Fargo Rock City", as he expertly delineates the bands that were "acceptable" to the North Dakota metal fans that he hung out with. I spent a lot of high school listening to a lot of California punk bands, where the "Sellout" designation got a lot of play; what this meant musically was that every single band sounded like the Ramones with better production values. I can't even count the amount of times someone was asked what kind of music they liked in middle school and responded "everything but rap and country", as though entire genres could be written off.

So, when it comes to the mashup, of of the thrilling things that it does is to decouple the actual music from the dogma of classification (classification perpetrated in these cases by the bands themselves making choices about their styles which often fit within prescribed modes). So, in a mashup of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with "Bootylicious", a whole set of normally segregated musical energies are gloriously combined (segregated being a loaded term, but apropos, in terms of the grunge/R&B demographic split in terms of artist and to a lesser extent audience)

To wit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit"'s musical ambitions - tension/release, alienation expressed through ear-splitting volume, attack, pained aggression married to inviting melody.

"Bootylicious"'s musical ambitions - tension/tightness (in the James Brown sense), sex, ecstatic release of the dancefloor, metronomic rise and fall of energy.

The brilliance in the mashup is located the shared part of the Venn diagram (tension/release, tightness of performance) and then grafting the aspects onto each song that they are simply not concerned with in their original incarnations. "Teen Spirit" is unconcerned with sex, or the dance floor. "Bootylicious" is not concerned with aggression or attack. The brilliance of the matchup is that it grafts these elements together, making the shared track richer for it. The combination produces a dance floor stomper with all the whiplash dynamics of the Nirvana original, amping up the drive and kick. Similarly, it gives the shiver of sex appeal to a dour, sexless grunge song; just add glamour and a song as titanic as "Teen Spirit"gets slinkier, more complex, more fun.

I probably listened to Girl Talk's "Night Ripper" album more than any other last year, and it's an album that's stayed with me in a visceral way - namely, I continue to hear hits sampled on that album every time I'm near a radio. The thing that I find most impressive about "Night Ripper" is that, unlike other sample-based artists, Greg Gillis ignores the obscure entirely. The entire mix is built solely off of hits, megahits, hits that are even now floating along in the pop-cultural cloud. Sure, I can respect the Dust Brothers and the Avalanches for their impeccable ears and deep crate-digging and locating of the most perfect obscure sample for the moment, but there's something incredibly and almost dangerously intoxicating about "Night Ripper's" compression of top 40 into one long Frankenstein dance party. Where, I ask, can I get more of this, and the answer is that rocket has lifted off - the explosion is all there is.

For more mashup goodness:

Friday, May 09, 2008

5/9/08 - Jonathan Safran Foer - how precious is too precious?

I missed out on reading Everything is Illuminated when it first came out and got the full-bore hype/critical raving treatment across the media universe (NY Times - "a touching, searing, broiling, fried platter of delicious, delicious musings on the human condition!", etc.), probably because I was insanely jealous of Jonathan Safran Foer. He was in his 20s, living in Brooklyn, and a writer. I was 2 of these things, and seeing someone else achieve a dream that I've had was vexing, even more so because it just provided a counterpoint in the writerly work ethic - Safran Foer had completed a book, and I had not. How dare he?

So out of explicit or implicit protest I gave it a pass. I gave the same pass to Fortress of Solitude by the other Brooklyn Jonathan, for much the same reason.

Once I moved to San Francisco, I revisited Everything is Illuminated, and had to admit that it was great. Not flawless, but certainly great. The great strength of the book, in my opinion, is the character of Alexis, and the way that Safran Foer uses the English-as-second-language effect for humor and pathos. Alexis is a fully realized character, and his reflections on the events of the book are consistently affecting and funny. The account of the awkward dinner scene at the diner, especially, is a tour-de-force of cultural misunderstandings and the embarrasments peculiar to cultural currents crossing and swirling. Not to mention the expertly rendered hilarity of Alex's family dog, Sammy Davis Junior Jr.

An excerpt:
And I still haven't mentioned that Grandfather demanded to bring Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior along. That was another thing. "You are being a fool," Father informed him. "I need her to help me see the road," Grandfather said, pointing his finger at his eyes. "I am blind." "You are not blind, and you are not bringing the bitch." "I am blind, and the bitch is coming with us." "No," Father said. "It is not professional for the bitch to go along." I would have uttered something on the half of Grandfather, but I did not want to be stupid again. "It is either I go with the bitch or I do not go." Father was in a position. Not like the Latvian Home Stretch, but like amid a rock and a rigid place, which is, in truth, somewhat similar to the Latvian Home Stretch. There was fire amid them. I had seen this before, and nothing in the world frightened me more. Finally my father yielded, although it was agreed that Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior must don a special shirt that Father would have fabricated, which would say: OFFICIOUS SEEING-EYE BITCH OF HERITAGE TOURING. This was so she would appear professional.

Masterful. The joke, obviously, is that "Officious Seeing-Eye Bitch" is the exact opposite of "professional", and Safran Foer carries it off with panache. Aside from the comedic aspect of Alex's character, the key function that Alex provides is to remove the authorial-focused myopia that can often grip first novels with a vengeance. At its heart, after all, "Jonathan Safran Foer" looms large as a character, and the work is clearly personal in a way that can prove troublesome to writers. Put simply, an introspective writer from Brooklyn is not interesting as a character, being prone to lugubrious navel-gazing and writerly conceits that are so stale at this point that I now skip the fiction section of certain monthly magazines with regularity. By framing the "Safran Foer" character through the lens of Alex's perceptions, Safran Foer the author is able to deflate a lot of the saggy writer-as-protagonist drag that the base story/plot of the book uses (writer searches for family history, discovers Holocaust terror).

The weakness of the book is that the family history is pretty much just cut-rate Garcia Marquez, and specifically cut-rate One Hundred Years of Solitude.


The young couple first married on August 5, 1744, when Joseph was eight, and Sarah six, and first ended their marriage six days later, when Joseph refused to believe, to Sarah's frustration, that the stars were silver nails in the sky, pinning up the black nightscape. They remarried four days later, when Joseph left a note under the door of Sarah's parents' house: I have considered everything you told me, and I do believe that the stars are silver nails. They ended their marriage again a year later, when Joseph was nine and Sarah seven, over a quarrel about the nature of the bottom of the Brod. A week later, they were remarried, including this time in their vows that they should love each other until death, regardless of the existence of a bottom of the Brod, the temperature of this bottom (should it exist), and the possible existence of starfish on the possibly existing riverbed. They ended their marriage thirty-seven times in the next seven years, and each time remarried with a longer list of vows. They divorced twice when Joseph was twenty-two and Sarah twenty, four times when they were twenty-five and twenty-three, respectively, and eight times, the most for one year, when they were thirty and twenty-eight. They were sixty and fifty-eight at their last marriage, only three weeks before Sarah died of heart failure and Joseph drowned himself in the bath. Their marriage contract still hangs over the door of the house they on-and-off shared - nailed to the top post and brushing against the SHALOM welcome mat:

It is with everlasting devotion that we, Joseph and Sarah L, reunite in the indestructible union of matrimony, promising love until death, with the understanding that the stars are silver nails in the sky, regardless of the existence of a bottom of the Brod, the temperature of this bottom (should it exist), and the possible existence of starfish on the possibly existing riverbed, overlooking what may or may not have been accidental grape juice spills, agreeing to forget that Joseph played sticks and balls with his friends when he promised he would help Sarah thread the needle for the quilt she was sewing, and that Sarah was supposed to give the quilt to Joseph, not his buddy, deeming irrelevant certain details about the story of Trachim's wagon, such as whether it was Chana or Hannah who first saw the curious flotsam, ignoring the simple fact that Joseph snores like a pig, and that Sarah is no great treat to sleep with either, letting slide certain tendencies of both parties to look too long at members of the opposite sex, not making a fuss over why Joseph is such a slob, leaving his clothes wherever he feels like taking them off, expecting Sarah to pick them up, clean them, and put them in their proper place as he should have, or why Sarah has to be such a fucking pain in the ass about the smallest things, such as which way the toilet paper unrolls, or when dinner is five minutes later than she was planning, because, let's face it, it's Joseph who's putting that paper on the roll and dinner on the table, disregarding whether the beet is a better vegetable than the cabbage, putting aside the problems of being fat-headed and chronically unreasonable, trying to erase the memory of a long since expired rose bush that a certain someone was supposed to remember to water when his wife was visiting family in Rovno, accepting the compromise of the way we have been, the way we are, and the way we will likely be...may we live together in unwavering love and good health, amen.

Yeah, sure, One Hundred Years of Solitude is great. But its one of those books that can only be written once, because the formal structure matches the central theme in such an exacting 1:1 ratio. Catch-22 is a similar book - great, and stylistically resistant to replication. So the "village" portions of Everything is Illuminated, while well-written, have a grating, imitative quality that the Alex portions do not.

I started reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and found, to my dismay, that Safran Foer attempts the same trick twice and encounters that dread beast: the law of diminishing returns. He again places much of the primary narrative in the hands of a character whose perspective as expressed is slightly off; this time, it is not to create distance from the too-easy trope of writer/protagonist, but to create distance enough to look at the fallout from the destruction of the World Trade Center towers.

A lot of it is effective, as Safran Foer is able to accurately grasp a nine-year old kid's wild mood swings and emotional responses to such a traumatic event (which veer from fantasy to catastrophic sadness and back again, like a compass needle unable to find true north). But there is a limit to this version of the conceit; it's impossible to credit Oskar Schell, the protagonist, with the outsized intelligence that Safran Foer imbues him with. Oskar's peculiar and blinding intellect provides a lot of the humor, but it also continuously yanks the reader out of the narrative by calling attention to his identity as a narrative construct, not a flesh-and-blood human being.

The best of example of this is when Oskar meets an attractive older lady in his search across the city for a lock that fits his dad's key (at least that's what he thinks he's looking for). Oskar's attraction to the lady and his proposal to kiss her are kindly rebuffed, and his longing and disappointment ring true to his age. But then he hands her his business card, which reads the following:


Funny because of the vagaries of interest, and the last 2 lines especially ring true to the 9-year old mind, but "Francophile"? "Jewelry Fabricator"? Sorry, but hell no. Those are cheap jokes by a very literary twentysomething. I don't care how gifted/peculiar Oskar is, there's no way the kid puts "Francophile" on his business card. It turns him from character to construct in an instant, which undercuts Safran Foer's very real mission to come at the tragedy from an off angle so as to better apprehend it.

What most impressive in retrospect then is that he never commits this slipup with Alex in Everything is Illuminted. He makes it seem so easy, so natural to assume that Alex is a real flesh-and-blood person inhabiting a real flesh-and-blood universe that it's a letdown when he can't repeat the trick the second time out.

Monday, May 05, 2008

5/4/08 – Weezer Broke My Heart

Weezer was the first band I really, truly loved, in that way peculiar to teenager-hood, when a band really can seem to speak as some sort of totemic signifier of everything that you feel and feel that you are about. As the strains of their new single leak out, and hope renews that maybe, just maybe, they’ve got their shit together this time, my mind again turns to the matter of how painful it is when a band breaks your heart.

A history of my discovery – back in the day of 30 second .wav file samplers, I played the one for “Buddy Holly” on loop. I loved the song. I wanted to own it. But, concerned that it would be the typical nugget-of-gold-on-a-mound-of-trash so typical of so many full albums (I’m looking at you, Better Than Ezra) that flooded music stores in the wake of the Nirvana explosion, I actually bought the single, not the album.

This led to a couple of discoveries – 1) I had made a mistake. I loved the crappily recorded live versions of “Surf Wax America” and “My Name Is Jonas” just as much as I loved the main event, and now I knew I had to own the album. 2) I experienced that perverse pleasure of music loving, the discovery of the obscure b-side, for the first time. “Jamie”, the b-side for that single, remains to this day my favorite Weezer song. It’s basically what I imagined the Jesus & Mary Chain sounded like from reading the reviews of Psychocandy – a pretty ‘50s singalong melody about a girl that sounds like it’s being played inside a tornado. I learned later that the song was recorded as part of someone’s graduate school project in sound engineering (details fuzzy), and it sounds like it. The guitars sound like a thousand amplified basses, all being played through a fuzz pedal. It’s glorious, and remains so.

I snapped up the S/T album and devoured it. Obviously, it’s great. It was then, and it remains so. The chief accomplishments of the album are sonic and lyric: sonically, it balances perfectly on the delicate fulcrum between sugar-sweet pop melodies (and delivery – Rivers Cuomo is a talented singer, a crucial component of the band’s appeal), and sledgehammer guitar fury – both the roaring 4/4 drive of the twin-guitar rhythm section and the Winger-meets-the-Pixies guitar solos. Lyrically, Rivers works a masterful variation on one of the definitive rock variations – the scorned geek. Backing those gorgeous melodies and venomous crunch is a boy/man that’s been rejected by the ladies, one that looks like Buddy Holly, one that plays a mean game of D&D, one that is holed up his garage trying to put a band together so he can tell the world just how thoroughly it’s done him wrong.

The persona is not original – Gordan Gano worked it to perfection on the Violent Femmes’ debut album, just to cite one example. But the engaging part of the Cuomo persona-in-song is that He Is Us – that is, like Elvis Costello was once purported to be, the workings of his mind seemed to mirror mine exactly. I could never relate to a Kurt Cobain; swirling down a drain of heroin and inchoate rage at modern existence. Rivers’s grievances were mine, blown up to Technicolor proportions.

Like a lot of people that liked the debut, Pinkerton left me cold at first. Both the sound and the lyrical persona are sharpened – Cuomo digs deeper into the lover-scorned persona, peppering in ever more personal details and letting some of the humor from the debut curdle into true alienation/bitterness. Sonically, the bright sheen is no longer present – the guitars hit hard and flat, feedback squalls are everywhere, and the drums sound reverb-less; the whole album has a lot of the sonic qualities of Surfer Rosa, but with a whole lot more bass on the guitars and a lot less of the Santiago surf-whine.

As a relistened, the album grew on me for these reasons – it’s a more adult album, and a messier one, and I’d put it in the top 5 of the nineties on my own personal list. It didn’t sell worth a damn, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s not cute, like the debut. It’s not really that funny, either (well, except for maybe “Pink Triangle”). The lyrical specificities make listening to it feel oddly voyeuristic; intimate in a frightening way. Watching the overanalytical superego of a nerd crushed by romantic failure bash away at the self-imposed cage with gravelly, feedback-laden storms does not immediate radio hits make.

Then, a long hiatus. Weezer was broken up, or took a break, it was hard to tell in the pre-blog saturation Dark Ages. I sought out all the b-sides I could, and discovered even more greatness. I was amazed – here was a band that had never put out a song I disliked. After 6 years, I was in college, and the rumors stirred – they were coming back. Sure, Matt Sharp was long gone, having pursued his own muse with The Rentals, but surely the bass could be replaced. This was Rivers Cuomo’s show.

And, then, the horror. The third album. Lyrics, once sharp, insightful, personal; now dull, generic, unmemorable. The sound – no guitar solos. No longer tuned down half-a-step for that gravel crunch. The songs, that most crucial of components, the songs were just terrible. Actual bad songs. Trash. Songs I would never in a million years want to hear more than once. One line, just to pluck from many: “Open your heart and let the good stuff out”. What? What the hell? Who was this Stepford Wives version of my favorite band? I had no idea that Matt Sharp was so important to the quality of Weezer’s songs, but maybe I should have been after hearing the highs of some of his Rentals material. I felt genuinely betrayed. A band that I had wanted to return I now wished had gone on permanent hiatus.

It makes me appreciate all those diehard Rolling Stones fans, the ones who must have realized at some point in the ‘80s that their heroes had peaked.a while ago, and that while Exile In Main Street will endure, the current iteration of the band is mostly going to crank out forgettable crap. The titans of the ‘60s and ‘70s already had their peaks and declines frozen into a coherent discography/narrative – Weezer was the first band in which I experienced that rollercoaster personally, viscerally, for myself. Having read about the Replacements sad decline, and the Clash, and Zeppelin, and all the rest, here was the painful lived experience.

And now they’re back, with another new single, and this one comes the closest in a long while to recapturing the feel of the original. The old hope comes flooding back, and the phantom nature of it just makes it more agonizing. Is that the old guitar churn? Those oddly personal and clunky lyric touches? Matt Sharp’s still M.I.A., but is it possible Rivers is paying attention again? I know it’s not, and I know the letdown is coming, and for that reason it would be best for my musical piece of mind if they would either become great again, or just give it up. The Stones loom like a grinning specter, and still I’ll get my hands on the new album as soon as I possibly can.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

5/1/08 Hey Phoenix, Don't Fire D'Antoni

The standard disclaimer - I am a complete bandwagon NBA fan. The Charlotte Hornets were relocated, and I have not yet warmed to the Bobcats nor do I have any childhood connection to them, so for now I cast about at will, compelled by the stories that swirl around various teams/styles. So any passion that I have for the Phoenix Suns comes from their well-documented revolution and in my admiration of Nash, not from the blood-deep bonds that other sports fandom promotes.

That being said, it's ridiculous to me the amount of groundswell behind firing coach Mike D'Antoni. Sure, it was obvious that he got outcoached by Popovich in that series, but join the club. Popovich has coached his way to 4 titles in the last decade. D'Antoni's not the only one to have his neck get in the way of that particular axe.

But what about longevity, and building a program, and all of that? Every endeavor has ebbs and flows, and as the ads are so fond of telling us, "There Can Only Be One". Which means that there are going to be teams, good teams, sometimes even great teams, that don't win it all. It's the beauty and curse of sports. No one in their right mind would argue that the '07-'08 Patriots weren't a great team, even though they didn't win it all. And, sure, the temperature might be hotter on Belichick if he didn't already sleep on a pile of Super Bowl rings, but the thing is that sports are unpredictable. By nature and by glorious design.

So it can become difficult to sift out teams that were derailed by unpredictability from those that are simply incapable of winning it all. But past accomplishments should count for something, I think, especially at the coaching level. Sometimes, what seems like a long-term team-altering decision gain (like canning a coach) provides just a short term burst of false hope. And sometimes it halts the rhythm and momentum of building a program and a culture.

So, sure, you can argue that the D'Antoni culture in Phoenix is that of "almost", but if the Suns braintrust doesn't have a good idea of what they want and who they want that is NOT D'Antoni (and who fits their players, who for the most part are locked in), then they should calm the hell down and realize that Popovich outcoaches everybody, and that D'Antoni has had teams that brought the firepower to at least go up against San Antonio with a fighting chance.

Popovich & Duncan are as linked as D'Antoni and Nash, and the culture that he has been able to build in San Antonio is a key part of their accomplishments. Jackson and Jordan and the Bulls in the '90s; similar "program development". Even when the Lakers were terrible and getting bounced in the first round by the same Suns that now look so lost, no one was calling for Phil Jackson's ouster. Sure, he's got the credibility of a championship, but unless you're bringing Jackson or Popovich to Phoenix than you're taking a step down from Mike D.

The thing about the Suns is that with D'Antoni at the helm they will be good, and they could be great, and they may even win a championship one day. But give the man credit, give him stability, and let this year stand as a disappointment, sure, but let the man get back to the drawing board. You'll be getting offensive fireworks and defensive idiocy, but that's as good a weapon to train on the behemoth Spurs as anyone has figured out how to muster. The wrong thing to do is to force Mike D. out or to force him to alter who he is as a coach. The short term philosophy demands an ouster, or to turn the Suns into more of a playoff built, low-post team. That's what Kerr will want, it will probably happen.

But I wish they would take the long view. I want Kerr to say screw it, Mike, Amare Stoudemire is never going to play defense, so let's crank the O up to 130 point per game. Bring in 3 point shooters, leapers, alley-oop finishers, surround Nash with as much offensive ridiculousness money (and trade flexibility) can buy, and let the two men that brought such high style to the desert go out shooting the guns they know how to fire. Execution/lack of defense/lack of health, whatever - ignore the demands of a championship-hungry fanbase and run the hell out of every 10 second possession. It hasn't won a championship yet, but it will one day, and I know D'Antoni believes that. Let him try, or let him go.