Tuesday, November 10, 2009

11/10/09 - Yup


Couldn't have put it better myself. Count me in as one of thousand. Better to burn out or fade away? Well here's your fading away. Although about 30% the album is really mindlessly catchy fun ("The Girl Got Hot", "Put Me Back Together"), it's really sad that "mindlessly catchy fun" is the absolute ceiling for Weezer these days.

At one point these guys, unknown to the mainstream rock press, were positioned to be the Pixies of the 90s/00s. Weezer mark II is like the portrait in Dorian Gray's attic.

Friday, October 16, 2009

10/16/09 - Adventures in Headline Ridiculosity IV


"Creed is Good".

No. No, Creed is not good. Creed is terrible.

Look, I know that Slate.com's thing is to publish the contrarian position, but sometimes the site can be like that annoying friend you have that always wants to argue and thus winds up taking some kind of ridiculous stance like "The Washinton Monument is a liquid" or some other such nonsense (or, if you will, poppycock).

One can only imagine the essays that Slate turns away to argue "Creed is Good."

"Mortal Kombat: The Great Lost Auteur-Driven Visionary Film of the 1990s."
"Being Impaled is Fun"
"Sand Is A Great Ingredient For A Pie"
"Purple Is Black"
"Saving Money Is For Morons"
"Hummer Brand Finally Turning It Around"
"The Dark Does Not Scare Small Children"
"Vampires Are Cuddly"
"Baby Ducks Are Not Cute"
"Santa Is Real And Hangs Out In The Tropics"
"Jimmy Buffett Does Not Coast On His Lifestyle And Persona"

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

10/13/09 - Music Recommendation: The Jayhawks - Rainy Day Music

The Jayhawks are one of those bands that got a lot of critical praise back in the day but never sold much of their music; stuck in the alt-country gutter they pretty much honed in on a jangly Beatles/Byrds/Parsons groove and rode it through audience indifference and internal dissent. Like a lot of critically praised and audience ignored bands, it's not too hard to figure out why a lot of their material didn't connect; a decent amount of it is so tastefully played and sung as to be indistinct. I gave Tomorrow The Green Grass a good listen back in the day and just couldn't find a way to get in past the surface sheen.

But somehow I got inspired to give a re-listen to Rainy Day Music, one of their latter-day albums with Gary Louris at the creative helm (somehow nothing, I remember listening to "All The Right Reasons" in someone's car and being blown away by how good it was), and I found to my pleasure and surprise that it is a bit of a lost masterpiece. Each song has hooks for days, and the sweet vulnerability running through the songwriting provides the entry point that I couldn't quite find with the Mark Olson Jayhawks. If you like Tom Petty, the Byrds, three-part harmonies, or Beatles-y melodies with Americana arrangements, I can't recommend the album enough.

And here's the song that I still remembered years and years later:

Monday, September 28, 2009

9/29/09 - Infinite Jest, page 700 - fin

Wow. Am I glad to be done with Infinite Jest. Not because it's a bad read or because I did not love it unabashedly (because it is not and and I did), but because I can finally put a normal size book in my bag again. No longer carrying a biblio-cinderblock around every day should do wonders for my shoulder muscles and overall posture. I can't imagine getting that thing out of the library and reading it in two weeks - I feel like I read it pretty quickly and yet it took me a good couple of months to get through. Nonetheless it's well worth reading and I'd recommended it wholeheartedly. Flaws and all, the thing is a work of titanic ambition and talent, and it's always worth it to grapple with art from an artist that aims high. So if you've got a desire to bulk up while entering the world of Enfield Mass. and everything connected with it, pick up a copy and carry it around and, you know, read it. The book's awesome.

Final thoughts:

1. The final 100 pages are a tour-de-force as Gately sees the first glimpse of his bottom with the death of Fackleman. That scene is another of Wallace's absolutely nightmare-scapes. I read (on Infinite Summer I think) a comparison of Wallace's descriptions of horrible violence and terrible occurences with Cormac McCarthy's with a particular eye toward McCarthy's elision of detail vs. Wallace's hyperdetail. In sequences like the whole Fackleman disaster, I'm reminded of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho in the depth of imagining Wallace is able to deploy to depict scenes of depravity. Wallace is much more elegant than Ellis, but it's a similar feeling as a reader: like pushing off at the top of some dark and terrifying rollercoaster-styled slide into the abyss. Once you're off you're hurtling forward and down with momentum. The only sequence I couldn't take in the whole book was the final film description with the depraved old man and the young hustler. Just couldn't take it.

2. The book really doesn't build to a climax, per se. The emotional levels and stakes seem about the same as they were early on - again, something I've noted before but classical plot is not Wallace's bag. However, I did find a really convincing description of a possible ending online, which was pretty amazingly well-argued and I thought picked up a lot of the threads that Wallace weaves throughout.

HUGE SPOILER HERE:http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/ijend

Somehow, the thought that Orin is responsible for the dissemation of the master copy of IJ makes his final appearance in the book easier to take - ending up in the position of Winston from 1984 is a pretty brutal way to go out.

3. Similarly, the way that Pemulis is ushered out of the book is pretty brutal. It's no secret that many court jesters carry a lot of malice behind the smiles, but Pemulis is such a grounding, earthy counterweight to all of the high drama going on with a lot of the other characters and storylines that his worst nightmare being realized (and taking place completely in footnotes, no less - being quasi-written out of the text itself!) seems a pretty dire fate. The Eschaton really marks a turning point in the events of the book, and of all of the Big Buddies Pemulis was definitely the one who saw trouble coming. He didn't exactly try to stop it but he did scream his head off. He does strike me as the kind of character that's a lot easier to like in fictional form, however - having interacted with a few Michael Pemulis's in my younger days, they can be no fun. Still, a pretty brutal end for M.P.

4. I loved the appearance of Himself as a ghost. His observations of Hal have a sad depth to them and really illuminate the ways that Hal is in the process of disappearing throughout the book. Plus it pretty definitively answers the question of what he was trying to accomplish with the Entertainment. For all the narrative threads left dangling, there's a lot of answers Wallace provides through JOI's shade. It also literalizes the way that Himself hangs over the emotional landscape of the entire book. The Incandenza family is deeply screwed-up, and James is the centerpiece of the hurricane that seems to be blowing through the entire family for the duration of the book.

5. I loved Gately's experience in the hospital bed. The psychological depths that Wallace plumbs in his description of Gately's recovery are really impressive. His imagination/hallucination of the Pakistani doctor trying to persuade him to take Demerol are as terrifying as Hal's glimpse of The Darkness's true features in the forehead-sticking incident. Amazing how as I read it I moved from a real anger at Gately and compassion for his victim at the outset to such a compassionate outlook on Gately. He counterpoints Hal in so many ways, and yet it's ultimately heartening to see both he and Hal take the direct actions of courage in the final pages of the book. Hal talking to Mario, and Gately bearing phenomenal pain.

9/28/09 - Check my brain

Ok, by all rights this should be terrible. '90s band with dead lead singer gets a replacement singer and attempts a comeback? We've seen this movie 1000x before. So why is this song rocking my face off? Well, in the Curious Case of Alice In Chains, there's a couple of factors at work.

1. Prime Alice in Chains is really, really repetitive. Granted, I'm developing somewhat of a retrospective appreciation of AiC, and as a balance to all the Grateful Dead I've been listening to they're a fine palate cleanser. But they are absolutely, unrelentingly dark. Dark harmonies, sludgy drone, and lyrics about dying and addiction from start to finish. Plus, you know the ending is not a happy one for Staley, so it can be a grim listen. It's not like the early oeuvre is untouchably perfect - there's a lot of draggy material.

So, the lightness of a "California's all right -somebody check my brain" lyric nicely balances the punishing heaviness of the AiC sound. A little yin to go with all that yang.

2. Jerry Cantrell wrote a whole lot of AiC material, and he's still around. Vocally, too, he's the architect behind those flat harmonies, so those are still around too.

3. That main riff. Good Lord, it's the sound of someone taking a club made out of concrete and just smashing it into a 500 year old oak tree over and over (and I mean that in the best possible way).

Thursday, September 24, 2009

9/24/09 - Steve Nash continues to sport awesomeness as his chief accessory

The no-look passes are things of beauty, the full-speed 3 pointers are deadly weapons, and the competitive edge is intense and furious, but to me Steve Nash's sense of humor and regular guy-ness are what truly sets him apart in terms of his standing on the continuum of my own NBA fandom. It's like if you squint hard enough you could almost see him hanging out, swinging by for a few games of pickup, and then going out for drinks and making jokes and then maybe after enjoying a few libations gettin' a little crazy on the dance floor:

Steve Nash = my favorite professional athlete. I can respect the Ego-Laden Warrior persona currently sported by Kobe and Lebron (perfected by Michael Jordan), but give me the Steve Nashes and Dwight Howards and Chad Ochocincos any day of the week. Sports should be fun; they may be war in proxy but they're games, and even when a game is turned into a grueling profession the kernel of kids on a blacktop (or empty field, or [insert playing area of choice] remains at the heart.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

9/23/09 - All Taste is Subjective vs. the Netflix Recommendation Contest


Read this interesting article on Slate.com by Farhad Manjoo on the phenomenal success of Netflix's contest to improve their movie recommendation algorithm. Manjoo approaches the success of the contest from a business/tech perspective, which is interesting in and of itself, but to me is secondary to the fact that contest winners did in fact improve the algorithm by the goal of 10 percent, which is an amazing achievement when the nature of the problem is contemplated.

It reminded me of the initial article I read on the subject in the NY Times, which can be found here:


The Napoleon Dynamite problem laid out in the article is a fascinating one to me, since it speaks to something that I (and, I think, most people) experience in a visceral and day-to-day way. That is, most of the time one can be confident that in recommending a book/movie/album/work of art to someone if one enjoyed it, assuming that the recommendee will also enjoy it, but there are a subset of cultural artifacts that personally connect to one person that repel other people for seemingly no predictive reason. And often, these books/movies/albums/songs/what have you are the ones that the person doing the recommending feel a particular protectiveness/affinity for.

For example, I have spent the last two years recommending Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to various friends of mine that are avid readers, only to be met with one of two reactions: 1) a refusal to read the book because it's too big and impossible to carry around OR 2) complaints that the book starts slow and is too long and only gets good toward the end.

I am sympathetic to both of these reactions. The book is really long, and it's heavy to carry around. And, I can see the criticism that it starts slow. But, here's the thing. I don't agree at all. My experience of the book was basically 800 pages of solid rapture. But I have no idea how to set expectations for people when I'm recommending the book. I know that I love it, and if there's a chance that someone else who likes to read will have anything close to my reaction, I want to facilitate that experience. But at the same time I haven't talked to anyone that I've recommended it to that has reacted the way that I have.

The thing is, though, is that the book is hardly some obscure, difficult work. It won awards, it was on the bestseller list, it got great reviews - I'm not the only person by a long shot that enjoys the book. But at the same time, I love Jane Austen and I love dark fantasy, so it's possible I'm just uniquely in the sweet spot for Susanna Clarke's artistic aims.

Point being is that it's kind of exciting and kind of shiveringly terrifying that these sorts of questions are being algorithmized (if that's a word) with increasing success. I'd like to think that there's an unquantifiable part of art that accounts for the way that some works divide people.

The polarizing movies listed in the Times article above are described by the writer as "culturally or politically polarizing and hard to classify". It made me wonder what other works across genre falls into this classification. My reactions to the listed movies w/the Napoleon Dynamite problem below:

I Heart Huckabees - loved it.
Lost in Translation - loved it (know many people who hate it)
Fahrenheit 9/11 - loved it
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou - have not seen
Kill Bill: Volume 1 - loved much like a child loves his/her blanket
Sideways - loved it, had extended argument with a good friend who thought it was total pap.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

9/22/09 - Adventures in Headline Ridiculosity II

Ok, Newsweek. This is getting out of hand. 2 for 2 on nuanced articles regarding a complicated issue, and 2 for 2 on headlines that would put the New York Post to shame. The infuriating thing in all this is the way that Newsweek has tried to consciously rebrand themselves to be closer in tone and style to the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly - longer, in-depth feature articles, less page-long news summaries, and aimed clearly at the less people w/more money target due to all of the various troubles facing the entire print industry that have been hashed over ad naseum.

But there's a such a thing as having a cake, and there's such a thing as eating that cake. Newsweek please report to the cake and make up your damn mind kthx.

And please consider leaving headline ridiculosity to the Michelangelos of the art:

Monday, September 21, 2009

9/21/09 - Into The Wild

Watched Into The Wild over the weekend. I haven't read the book but now I'm basically a ravenous slavering book-craving monster after watching the movie. I thought that the movie had its flaws but the central tragedy is really present throughout.

I immediately put the book on hold at the library, but in the meantime sought out the Outside magazine article that Jon Krakauer originally wrote. In the year after I finished teaching, when I started really getting into non-fiction after a lifetime of exclusively reading fiction, Krakauer was one of the authors that gave me the entryway. He's justly famous for the harrowing Everest disaster account Into Thin Air, but it was his also-heralded followup to that book, the true-crime and Mormons tour de force Under The Banner of Heaven, that really sunk the claws in me. Both books I thought were exceptional, but what Krakauer accomplishes in Under The Banner of Heaven is a riveting mix of social history and individual tragedy.

So it's somewhat surprising I didn't pursue him back to Into The Wild then. I think it's because, having dabbled benignly in outdoor pursuits, the tragedy of McCandless's short life was too painful to look at directly. Even through the fictional prism of the movie I find it a tough pill to swallow. I can only imagine the loved ones in my life had I disappeared only to die inglourious and alone - but then, that's a sharper realization now that I'm older.

As Krakauer observes about his own younger self, regarding a similarly foolhardy Alaskan expedition that he took when he was McCandless's age:

"At the time, death was a concept I understood only in the abstract. I didn't yet appreciate its terrible finality or the havoc it could wreak on those who'd entrusted the deceased with their hearts."


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

9/15/09 - Slate.com on Dan Brown's superawesome protagonists


When people asked me if I liked The Da Vinci Code and I told them that the terrible writing was hard to get past, I'm talking about passages like this from Mr. Dan Brown:

"The youngest full professor at Georgetown University and a brilliant foreign-language specialist, he was practically a celebrity in the world of academia. Born with an eidetic memory and a love of languages, he'd mastered six Asian dialects as well as Spanish, French, and Italian. His university lectures on etymology and linguistics were standing-room-only, and he invariably stayed late to answer a barrage of questions. He spoke with authority and enthusiasm, apparently oblivious to the adoring gazes of his star-struck coeds."
--from Angels and Demons

I remember at one point in The Da Vinci Code where Brown describes Langdon as Indiana Jones-like, which struck me as a pretty bold simile, considering that a) Langdon basically is Brown's attempt at writing an Indiana Jones type character, and b) Langdon seems to have none of the flaws that make Indy interesting. The failed/strained relationship with his father, the complications in his romantic life. No, Langdon is like Brown's dream version of Indiana Jones - the version that I used to pretend I was as a 10-year old, all superintelligence and rugged good looks.

All of which is to say that although I read the whole book I decided Brown isn't my cup of tea. I've got nothing against popular works of art, and I've got nothing against genre fiction, and I don't even have anything against workmanlike prose, but I don't have a lot of interest in following patently unrealistically awesome protagonists. The guys that grow up to be symbologists (which is no one, since the scholarly field as far as I can tell does not exist) are not the ones that are dominating swim meets in between World of Warcraft bouts.

And geez, if they guy is Indiana Jones, who cast Tom Hanks to play him? Ball: dropped.

Monday, September 14, 2009

9/14/09 - Roger Federer owns you

From David Foster Wallace's "Roger Federer As Religious Experience" essay:

"Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K."

That was 3 years ago, and he's still doing it.

The fact that Roger Federer can hit that shot running back to the baseline with more accuracy, pace, and angle than I can hit a forehand served right to my sweet spot is both inspiring and, frankly, terrifying. It's always a little bit amazing to know that right now, RIGHT NOW as I write this there is someone out there that could quite possibly be the best there has ever been at something. At anything.

Even more amazing to me about Federer is that, like Superman, he has his tragic weakness: the Kryptonite of Nadal, ever lurking. From Wikipedia: "Federer's overall match record was 315–24 from '04-'08, but this included a mere 6–8 against Nadal, who was the only man to have a winning record against him."

Nadal, whose knees might just cruelly curtail his career, who is out of the U.S. Open, the Nemesis that Federer didn't have to to vanquish at the French after all (if it had been a movie, Federer-Nadal at the French would have been the climactic scene, and Nadal would wear black and be evil and hate dogs and old people like Don Johnson's golfer in Tin Cup instead of being friendly and unpretentious and kind of a surfer dude with a hankering for capri pants).

You watch a shot like the one above can only imagine - who is Rafa Nadal and what is the secret that he's not telling?

P.S. If you haven't read the Wallace essay on Federer, drop everything and read it now. You'll be glad you did:


Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11/09 - Adventures in headline ridiculosity

I remember being pretty blown away when I found out that the writers of stories in magazines did not craft their own headlines. It was one of those things that made the world make just a little bit more sense, because I had the vague sense that frequently the tonality of a story's headline didn't match its content. On the ridiculous end of the spectrum, Newsweek's headline for a very interesting, nuanced, and intelligently written examination of childrens' grappling with questions of race and otherness is none other than this gem:


Really? Because even if someone sees that cover and thinks to himself/herself: "Gee, I'd never thought about it before, but maybe my baby is **gulp**...racist?" or even "Huh, my baby seems to cry and babble in a manner that seems disturbingly unfriendly to Latinos...perhaps the lil guy is a future attendee of Bob Jones U.?", they're not getting the answer from the article. The "is your baby racist" question is really only answerable by your baby, and chances are he/she ain't talking.

The article in question:

Thursday, September 10, 2009

9/10/09 - Patton Oswalt on '80s metal videos

If, as I do, you enjoy both rock music as music and as a hilarious concept, chances are you'll enjoy Patton Oswalt's take on things. I also wish that I could make a piece of toast with melty cheese on it solely through the power of rocking. Glad I feel like I'm spoken for.


For an updated version of the kind of music video that Patton's talking about in that clip, The Darkness took a crack and did not disappoint. Without "guitah!" that squid thing would have devoured the whole band.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

9/9/09 - Reading material: Spike Jonze


Spike Jonze has made some of the most incredible music videos of all time, and his two movies are both awesome. In fact, if Charlie Kaufman only collaborated with Spike and Michel Gondry for the rest of his career, I'd be more than OK with it. Reading this article makes me wonder about the difficulty of identifying people with genuine vision/genius - I mean, by all accounts Jonze doesn't necessarily present the picture of the most together auteur in a professional sense, but his work is pretty amazingly singular and much more expressive in ways than the man itself. It must be hard to suss out though because a lot of what makes him distinctive is a very, very deadpan sense of humor underneath all the grungy skater cool.

The video for Wax's "California" that he made is a case in point. Sure, it's really cool to have a man on fire running down the street, but the best part is the utterly banal reason that he's running - dude's trying to catch a bus! Get out the way!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

9/3/09 - Random Awesomeness

Hey, what song would make an ideal cover for G3, the ridiculous guitar-wankery-based supergroup featuring Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani?

Correct, sir, you in the back. "My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama", by Frank Zappa.

9/3/09 Infinite - Jest, pages 500-700

1. Randy Lenz. Good Lord. Wallace may not uncork a lot of narrative thrill-rides, but as I've written about before some pieces of this book could be made into some pretty intense short stories. Along with the horror of Hal's discovery in the microwave, James Incandenza's father shearing his knees off, and Joelle's overdose, add Randy Lenz and the Curious Incidences of the Animals in the Nighttime. Brrr. For a book without much overarching narrative drive, the shorter contained narratives can get pretty white-knuckled at times, as they do with Lenz's noctural adventures. Reading sections like this is kind of like seeing those early Picasso paintings where one realizes that he can paint realism that he wants to. It puts the cubism into context - makes the aesthetic choices seem more deliberate. Or listening to Jack White shred the guitar and then going back and listening to White Blood Cells. For a book whose overall plot is either static or vaguely non-existent, the micro-plots and character arcs can get pretty gripping.

2. Tonally, the mixture of menace and comedy of the A.F.R. is a pretty complicated cocktail. Wallace does a really masterful job of building them up as a threat, even though as a concept they're pretty ridiculous as a terrorist group. In some ways, Wallace's strengths as a humorist come from his ability to wield a certain deadpan tone of narrative voice when approaching patently absurd situations. In his fiction, he's able to lay out absurdities as he sees fit, and the A.F.R.'s danger/menace cooexists uneasily but effectively with their comedy. I particularly like the oft-repeated assertions that really, the only thing they fear is hillsides. It's a Monty Python touch for an organization that proves, in its murder of the Antitoi brothers, to be completely serious and brutal. It's a delicate shifting point, that murder of the brothers, because for so long Steeply and Marathe have been all talk, no action. We get the suggestion that the A.F.R. should be feared - the sound of the squeak, and all that, but it's played mostly for comedy. But when the broomstick comes out, it's like Wallace is pulling back the curtain on the comedy and saying hey, you know how it's really funny to have a terrorist organization with mostly legless members? They're still a terrorist organization - i.e. terror and fear are indeed their weapons.

3. The Crooner Johnny Gentle section (which we see through Mario's history film) ascending to the presidency is another place where the tone of the book shifts pretty abruptly. Despite all of the literary pyrotechnics, for the most part Infinite Jest seems to try to capture real people and real personality types - there aren't many flat, cartoony characters despite its occasional trips into satire. Gentle, though, really is more of a cartoon; more a collection of tics than anything resembling a real person. The picture that's painted is a kind of funhouse Reagan, I guess; with his history of artifice as a singer and the kind of intimidations-beneath-charm that seem vaguely Reaganesque, Gentle comes off as as Reagan moved to logical extreme. I think what Wallace is trying to do here is to draw out the American tendency to deify celebrity. The daily doings of Ben, Jennifer, Brad, Robert Pattinson, etc. etc. etc. are the subject of much ink (electronic and otherwise) and care, and for some reason celebrities exert an enormous gravitational pull on American culture and its members. I'm hardly immune - why should I know about Matthew McConaughey playing the bongos naked on his front lawn and get arrested? I have no idea, but I do. Gentle then is the logical extreme of this tendency to value celebrity as currency - he is put in a position of power by virtue of his celebrity, and allowed to run amok. I'm not sure what Wallace is suggesting by the fact that Gentle seems to be such a shrewd and ruthless negotiator, though. The whole execution of the Concavity/Convexity plan is like the way the CIA sees itself operating - coldly, efficiently, and for the National Interest (as opposed ot the way they seem to actually operate: blindly, confused, and with the lurching contradictions of any large organization).

4. The book seems unfair to Avril. It's clear that her family has issues with her which results in a fair amount of hostility (Orin demonizes her pretty unmercifully, but Hal also doesn't seem to have the most positive of feelings towards her), but the narration seems to suggest that there is something terrible and off in Avril's treatment of her family. The thing is that her openness to her sons seems genuine, and even though she may take pains to ensure that they know they are loved, it doesn't seem fair from a narrative standpoint to continually insert these suggestions that her love is smothering or somehow solipsistic. As an outsider, it seems to me that Avril is doing the best she can to hold together a pretty screwed-up situation - there are suggestions of infidelity and a certain locking-away-of-skeletons, but these seem like understandable human responses to the kinds of things that have befallen the Incandenzas. Not to mention whatever sadness she has around her life with Jim and his death; that remains unexplored so far. We have a scene from Jim's history; why is Avril's pain obscured and why is she painted as having some kind of sinister life-sucking presence hovering underneath her declarations of maternal love?

5. I love Gately and the Crocodiles. Wallace really dignifies these men that have survived despite everything, and captures something authentic about the way that confused people like Gately can accurately see that beacons of hope and wisdom are often contained within foul-mouthed individuals of seemingly foul countenance. Their sheer cussed tenacity and emphasis on confronting real shit head-on is such a contrast to Hal's fakery when it comes to dealing with real emotions/sadness.

Monday, August 17, 2009

8/16/09 - Infinite Jest, pages 300-500

1. There seemed to be a point around page 300 where the book really seemed to click for me. I was loving it for the first 50 pages, and then the pace seemed to slow and slow and slow for the next 150 or so, but then sometime around 300 all of the setup that Wallace does up front really started drawing me in. I think I also finally got used to the rhythm of the book, which doesn't move at all like a classically structured novel. The interwebs have clued me in on the face that Wallace designed the book structure to be a "Sierpinski Gasket", a kind of triangle-based fractal, and parsing the structure of this thing definitely feels about like the kind of brain-heavy-lifting that the term suggests. One thing that felt crucial to locking in on the drive of the book was realizing that the plotlines aren't really set up to echo or converge - the themes are. So, for example, I spent a good chunk of the first couple hundred pages wondering how Wallace was going to link Ennet House and ETA, but now that I'm at page 500 or so it seems that the link is not one of plot (i.e. Hal is probably not going to be thrown into his whatever-it-is at the beginning of the book because of some run-in with Lenz or something) but rather of theme; ETA and Ennet House both being a repository of characters that use drugs to medicate their lives. Steeply and Maranthe's discussions on the clifftop regarding the conscious pursuit of deadly pleasure and choice reflect the daily choices that we see the ETA and Ennet House residents making. Choosing to watch the deadly Entertainment is much like the choice Joelle makes to suicidally overdose regardless of whether the plot strand following Joelle and the plot strand with Steeply and Maranthe converge or not.

2. One aspect of the book that just doesn't work for me is the constant humor regarding Steeply's cross-dressing getup and its various grotesqueries. What bothers me about it is that usually Wallace is sly about his jokes and doesn't belabor them; he's much more likely to get a laugh by spearing some absurdity or another quickly and out of the blue. For example: Pemulis ending his dictated footnote with "P.S. Allston rules". But in the case of Steeply he plays it broad and is needlessly repetitive. Every single description of any of Steeply's movements or looks reference some grotesque way that his costume or disguise appears - it seems to be going for observational humor but by this point in the book it's just tiresome; like the 3rd stand-up in a comedy club that comes out and notices the funny-looking dude in the front and makes the same jokes about him that the two preceding him did. For a book containing such varied descriptions and moments of humor and sadness, poking fun at Steeply's appearance seems unworthy of being returned to again and again, unless there's some kind of thematic point that I'm not aware of.

3. The Eschaton section is real tour-de-force. Again, it's a section in the book that could serve as its own taut, penetrating short story, and the fact that it's a small part of a larger whole is another reason to be in awe of Wallace's accomplishment in writing this behemoth. What's really impressive to me about this section is how well Wallace is able to work on multiple levels. On one hand, the sheer physical comedy of a mannered nuclear wargame being played by academically precocious 12-year olds descending into a physical fight is so well-delineated and true to the way that most activities of 12-years olds carry a real risk of just getting chaotic provides the kind of grounding drive that Wallace often achieves in his shorter set pieces, if not in the book as a whole. On the other hand, the postmodern contrasting of maps and territories and the way that Pemulis freaks out at the mixing of the two is a really clever way of unpacking the signs and signifiers conundrum that Saussure talks about. And the math is just ridiculous. To be honest, I skimmed it and didn't try to understand the calculus, because I started getting confused around pre-cal in high school. I do love the way that Pemulis's personality comes ringing through loud and clear with the naming of his diagram "HALSADICK" and with his final PS: Allston rules. The flight of Lord into the computer monitor is such a transcendentally hilarious and tragic climax of this section and really hits the tone that Wallace is going for a lot in the book - sadness with a lot of dark comedic overlay.

4. Lamont Chu's anxiety about reaching the pinnacle of success and getting caught up in Hype is a really trenchant section that plays on celebrity culture in America. One thing that I think it really illustrates is the way that for Chu the fallacy is that the accolades that come from success are connected on a 1:1 level with that success. What Lyle's attempting to get across to him in decoupling the Hype/accolades from the Success is the way that any sort of success in entertainment (and, as we are reminded multiple times, the Show is the name for making it in competitive tennis, the athletes are entertainers, and the biggest threat floating out there in the universe of the book is the Entertainment) is just an entry point into a very complex matrix of public approval/denunciation. I've mused on it a lot, but it reminds me of the Britney Spears experience, where a culture just all of a sudden elevated an individual up way past any sort of actual achievement into a heightened level of worship/lust objectification/etc., and then tore her limb from limb by labeling her stupid, crazy, slutty, and all of the 1000x pejoratives that greeted her long slide from grace. But all of that unconnected with the actual quality of music that she produced, which was, on balance, a handful of catchy and pretty great pop songs. But the tornado bore her away, and if her goal was to be an artist it got subsumed in her commodification. That's the nameless fear that grips Chu, and why Lyle is trying to help him decouple what he actually wants (happiness) from what he thinks he wants (success).

5. One thing that I really like about the book is the absence of James Incandenza. The impact of his suicide on Avril, Hal, Orin, and Mario, is obviously profound, but it's arrived at obliquely. The small slivers of the man that we do get are more powerful for their rarity, like a supernatural creature in a monster movie that's glimpsed rarely and mostly in shadow. So Wallace will throw out in description of the past that Himself was not in the position to meet people on some day, letting us fill in the blanks of the senior Incandenza on some ferocious bender, or senseless, or some combination of the two. It also echoes for the reader Hal's experience, since he has never really grieved for his father but rather put on the appearance of grieving and convinced everyone that he has grieved. It's pretty clear that Hal's self-medication and gradual cracks in his mental well-being can be directly traced back to the the suicide of his father, and the way that he pushes it out of his mind is similar to the way Wallace pushed the senior Incandenza off the main stage. Which of course, parodoxically, makes him loom larger over the entire narrative. It's his movie, after all, that everybody's after. It's his tennis academy. It's his sons that we follow around for a most of the narrative. And as we see with Gately, and many others, the sins of the fathers are absolutely and always visited upon the sons (and daughters).

Monday, August 03, 2009

8/3/09 - Infinite Jest, pages 150 - 300

Falling behind pace in Infinite Summer, so I'll throw up some of my thoughts on the section from 150 - 300. Coming on strong for the next section - I will catch up.
  1. Michael Pemulis is emerging as my one of my favorite character in the book, for his unbridled aggression and unpretentious teenager-ness. A lot of the characters seem to veer in and out of being actual characters and being mouthpieces or symbols for the complicated ideas that Wallace is trying to explore (I hated this about DeLillo's White Noise, and found that it ruined the book for me - "characters" just delivering didactic monologues to each other for pages, ugh - no thanks), but Pemulis is fully within the realm of fictional creation with his own personality and drive. Plus, he's the lowbrow comic relief of the E.T.A sections, and he reminds me of every student that I had in middle school whose sole aim was to get one over on any authority figure in range.
  2. Having started with DFW from the non-fiction end of things, I remember reading some of the stories in Oblivion and being surprised by just how dark Wallace is in his fiction. He goes to some really terrifying and dark places in the human psyche, and there seems to be a way in which the themes that he likes to tackle artistically (alienation, how to live/communicate with others, authenticity of thought/feeling vs. "faking it") are a lot easier to take when he's tied down to real-world subjects. He lets the subject of his essays serve as his anchor or tether, whereas his imagination is only constrained by its own limits in his fiction. Some of the stories in Oblivion parsed as horror stories, almost, although horror of the internal rather than external variety. The central character of "Mister Squishy", for example, is numbed by working in market research, but the suggestion that his attempts to deal with that involve manufacturing ricin to poison market research groups is way more terrifying and dark than Wallace's treatment of the soul-sickness of marketing in his cruise-ship essay, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again". All of which is to say that the section in which Hal describes finding his father dead with his head in the microwave is straight-up terrifying, especially Hal's climactic confession to his brother that his first thought on entering the house was that something smelled delicious. that's the kind of grotesque detail redolent of something like Dahl's "Leg of Lamb" short story. Wallace can be extremely funny, and he can definitely get conceptual and intellectual and all of that, but there's a real core of anger/terror/sadness running through the heart of this book that can make it tough to digest, length/postmodernism notwithstanding.
  3. Similarly to point #2, Joelle's OD in the bathroom is straight up terrifying as well. Wallace gets so minutely detailed in everything that he writes about in Infinite Jest that when the subject really is horrible and/or scary, like a suicide by drug overdose or self-microwaved head, the details really make it loom large. He goes into as much detail with Joelle's OD as he does to the structure and layout of the Enfield Tennis Academy - not employing any allusive distance to scale back from her attempt to annihilate her own map, so to speak. Obviously, his own suicide looms large over a scene like this, not least because it can get really easy to project the the level of detail of thought and physical description of Joelle's attempt onto his own real-life map erasure. And suicide is all over this book - from the central one of James to Joelle's attempt to the Valium-addicted unnamed driver that destroys the Separatist terrorist mirrors in upstate NY.
  4. Wallace is great at capturing irritating personalities. Pemulis is one of these, but of equal delight is Day, the jc professor that shows up and uses academic jargon to attack the cliches that Gately believes in so desparately. Wallace is good at having his cake and eating it too in moments like these. It's an interesting rhetorical maneuver: AA is based on cliches, but Gately et. al draw real power from the cliches, and Wallace is most interested in the way that people live their lives, which for the members of Enfield House is dependent on believing in the central truth of cliche. Because the source of a cliche, really, is a very powerful statement. It's only the repetition that robs it of the power - it's not inherently false. But having Day around lets Wallace let the reader know that he's thinking actively about the contradictory nature of attempting to live by cliches. By making him such a buffoon, DFW shows he's on the side of the believers.
  5. I'm curious as to how non-tennis players react to the tennis sections. I find it all really facscinating, having played on my high school's tennis team (I wasn't that good), but some of the Separatist stuff, for example, is tough slogging for me at times. Thoughts?

Monday, July 06, 2009

7/6/09 - Infinite Jest, pages 81-150

Whoa boy. Things are heating up around IJ way. I'm going to break this down bullet-point style, not as any sort of DFW homage, but because the sprawl of the book is starting to get downright unruly, as Wallace hits page 150 still in setup mode; that is, he's still laying down new track as the book heads toward the second century mark. So, here goes:

1. Expanding on something that I wrote about the first 80 pages ("What also stands out is Wallace's Jules Verne-like take on entertainment in the future"), I found the brief digression on the history of the video-phone in the imagined future of Infinite Jest to be an example of Wallace at his best, writing the way that very, very few people are capable of. In a few short pages, he melds a very prosaic sci-fi conceit, the invention of the videophone, with an exploration of the ways that people adjust to new technologies in terms of the presentation of their public selves, complete with a rigorous examination of the cause-and-effect nature of social pressures on individuals. In addition, it's got very funny moments, like Wallace's tossed-off asides regarding certain investors in videophone technology losing their shirts, and some absolutely terrifying images (the description of the masks hanging on hooks next to the phone and getting mixed up by family members rushing to the phone). Really, it's almost like a self-containted short story, so to find it as background coloring the setting just points up the genius to spare that Wallace possessed. It's also an exaggerated version of the dilemmas of Facebook, wherein a new medium demands the new presentation of one's public self. Just as the videophones evolved to a static presentation of an attractive celebrity, so has Facebook evolved to present people's semi-public selves. Also, as someone who uses videoconferencing technology at work, I can vouch for Wallace's observation that observing oneself having a conversation, and observing the conversation partner, is terribly awkward. Videoconferencing is here, and it is just as alienating from a connection perspective as Wallace predicts in this short sketch.

2. When critics get on Wallace for being concerned mostly with his own cleverness (Michiko Kakutani's New York Times review: "Indeed, the whole novel often seems like an excuse for Wallace to simply show off his remarkable skills as a writer and empty the contents of his restless mind."), I feel like they're referring to material such as the sequence between Maranthe and Steeply in which Wallace breaks down the levels of betrayal/loyalty going on with Maranthe. Not going to lie - I'm pretty sure that Maranthe is ultimately compromised and loyal to Steeply's bosses, but I lost track of all of the ping-ponging descriptions of his loyalties. I am positive Wallace had worked out exactly what was was going on, and who thinks Marathe is betraying whom, but I got lost. And I'm not quite convinced that it's necessary to have all of the back and forth to get at the idea that loyalty and compromise quickly become very blurry things. Thoughts on Wallace's intentions at all the double-blind explications of Maranthe dilemma?

3. Also, the 2 footnotes that really take up some serious space: the filmography of James Incandenza and the explanation of the Wheelchair Assassin's origins (the latter being footnote 304, and the background exposition coming through Struck's plagiarized paper on the organization). One of my favorite books of the last couple of years is Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and she uses footnotes even more extensively than Wallace, usually in the style of these two expansive footnotes. I really enjoyed these, because, as with any sci-fi or fantasy endeavor - though this isn't straight-up sci-fi as much as sort of "contains sci-fi elements" in movie rating parlance - world-building is crucial. It doesn't make sense narratively to come to a full stop and inform the reader exactly what the contours of this fictional society are when those contours are presumed understood by the reader; how then to get the exposition across? I would say that these two footnotes are great examples of Wallace's intelligent solution to the problem - setting off the main narrative with deliberately place-less exposition that nonetheless more fully builds out the world Infinite Jest inhabits. I blew through both of these footnotes, especially the filmography, but from what I'm reading elsewhere there's plenty of narrative grist in there as well.

4. Steeply's grotesque appearance - I'm not sure what to make of it, but it resonates with the grotesque image of the steadily evolving videophone masks referenced above.

5. I loved the section in which Wallace pivots from mentor to mentor in the Enfield Tennis Academy, capturing vividly the cross-section of different kinds of advice and worldviews that can be possessed by various people, even when those people are bound by common cause and parts of their identities. The contrast of Hal's brilliant observations about the way that ETA positions the boys to bond against the administration as a way to develop their mental games with Struck's more prosaic advice regarding in-match flatulence provides both a sweeping continuum of Wallace's engagement with the issue of enacting one's place in modern society, and also some prime juxtaposition based humor.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

6/30/09 - Michael Jackson RIP - a double helix of genius and strangeness

It's a question that comes up again and again when it comes to any art form: how does one reconcile phenomenal work with disreputable living? The death of Michael Jackson has produced a lot of commentary about the man, his music, and his life, which opens up a whole Pandora's box of queasiness.

MJ is one of the more extreme cases; he's got one of the widest divides between artistic accomplisment/reception and personal freakiness in recent memory. As high as the artistic peaks are; equally taboo-violating and strange are the personal freakiness episodes. And unlike some artists whose work seems to resonate with their own negative personal tendencies, Jackson's life and the way that it produced sadness and revulsion in the observer was directly opposed to the aims of his work, which aimed for univeral pop inclusiveness (not in any sort of altruistic sense - the man wanted to sell his music to the maximum amount of people, he was a pop artist in every sense of the term). So while it's easy to square, say, Hank Williams the man as a nasty alcoholic with the content of his songs (all that cheating, drinking, and sadness), it's a lot harder to square the ecstatic dance floor rushes and sparkling love ballads aimed at max pop penetration with a man whose life seemed to involve a whole lot of family abuse, possible child molestation, self-mutilation, and racial angst. If I were to guess at what Jackson's music sounded like based solely on the biographical details of his life, I'd guess something on the order of early, urgent Nine Inch Nails, or Nick Cave - machine-tooled and rage-filled, or dark and Gothic.

Jackson's life is a full-on tragedy - one of the cases of a celebrity whose life no sane person would wish upon him/herself, and by virtue of how many taboos he violated, it's no wonder that the urge is to remember him up until about Thriller, when he still seemed to be in full command of his vast array of gifts. For giving so many people so much pleasure, he sure seemed to have a sad and lonely life; which has always made listening to his music feel a little vampiric to me. It's not on the same level of a Fleetwood Mac, where one can dip into the drama-laden Rumors and know that everything eventually worked itself out from the long cocaine/infidelity bender. Jackson never recovered his equilibrium, and really, it seemd like he never quite had it to begin with. The artist that he reminds me of in this sense is Phil Spector; a murderer responsible for some of the most gorgeous music of the '60s. The accomplishments don't pale, exactly, when the life is factored in, but the coloration and connotations of every note and lyric change in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. "Human Nature"? I mean, what the hell did that even mean to Jackson?

Still, though, the artistic peaks are towering. "Billie Jean" may be the best song of the '80s. "PYT" is the hands-down best song of most singer's careers, and it's not even the best song on Jackson's top-selling album. Just a list of the radio hits is staggering. There's a reason the man was a superduperstar - he was exceptional talented as a singer, songwriter, dancer, and businessman in the music industry. Michael Jackson was no f'in joke, until, by the end, he had become one.

Some takes on Jackson's death that I found interesting:


A great write-up of the child molestation trial:


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

6/23/09 - Infinite Jest, pages 1-80

All right, so what makes a better summer beach book than David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest? Nothing! You can learn new words while you listen to the surf crash on the shore, and if anyone attempts to take your shiny new beach chairs you can beat them off with a book that weighs about as much as a small dog. That's right, this is one intimidating mutha of a book; and, truth be told, I'm thankful that Wallace was able to crank out his magnum opus before his disease got the better of him - he's too good a writer to have not attempted a batshit crazy epic, so God bless him for getting this thing written. It's a doorstop, but it ensures that all readers of Wallace have a north star to guide them by, and it's this attempt of Wallace's to write the epic of modern living, or so it would appear from the reviews, hype, and snippets gleaned from various Wallace interviews.

So, then, how did I come to this book? Like many, primarily through Wallace's non-fiction, which as I've written about previously is simply stunning in its brilliance. Moored to everyday reality, with the events of real life (somewhat) providing a natural grounding force for a towering, towering intellect, Wallace just owns the essay form. The best essayist I've read since James Baldwin, and that means not a lot since I don't read many essayists, but his short-form journalism is simply amazing. Plus, it's accessible. I've only read Oblivion, of his fiction, and while also brilliant, it's a harder read, because Wallace can really get bleak in his fiction in way that he rarely does in his non-fiction. His non-fiction voice quizzical, ironic, questioning. His fictional narratives in Oblivion plunge full-bore into depression, anxiety, confusion, and despair, with a lot less of the humor that characterizes his non-fiction. Granted, he was struggling with some pretty heavy stuff by the time that story collection came out, but it still gave me pause at opening up Infinite Jest.

Well, imagine my surprise then to find that Wallace the raconteur is in full effect in Infinite Jest. He doesn't write comic setpieces in the Confederacy of Dunces sense, but already in the first 80 pages of the book he sets up very vivid scenes of anxiety that are shot through with the kind of ironic good humor that he uses so effectively in his non-fiction. Thus, the scene of Erdedy waiting for a delivery of marijuana is a humor and dread tour de force as Wallace burrows deep in the man's mind, tracing his every attempt at reformation, which always involves throwing out all of his bongs, weed, and smoking paraphenalia, only to have to buy it all again when he is fiending anew.

What's also stands out is Wallace's Jules Verne-like take on entertainment in the future. Published in 1996, which if I remember right is about the time of AOL demo discs spreading the gospel of pay-by-the-hour dialup throughout the land, it's incredible the way that Wallace's imagined Teleputer anticipates the whole laptop/iPhone/Hulu/streaming video axis of constantly available entertainment. Roku came out this year, and Wallace is writing with his usual easy facility about purchasing entertainment online and watching it instantaneously. It makes the whole near future in which Infinite Jest is set seem both more contemporary and more prescient.

The novel also has genuine narrative drive, which is more than I expected from both the stories in Oblivion (which are structured like more-or-less detailed sketches - few of them really hit any sort of climax or rising/falling action) and the usual critical writeups of the book. But Hal Incandenza, Don Gately, the nameless marijuana addict, and a whole host of other supporting characters are all well-drawn - the footnotes are a lot less intrusive than they are in, say "Host" (the essay about talk radio in which the footnotes were visually designated and quite distracting), and all told, reading the book is a lot more straightforward than I expected, even with the requisite alternate future and chronological shifting.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

6/18/09 - The Cars, Band Out Of Time

The Cars exist, still, decades later, as a band out of time. Their sound is definitely '80s, but in a sui generis way, such that to hear a Cars song on the radio is not to feel that it could only have been a hit in 1982, but that it could have been a hit today with the sound of '82. One wouldn't necessarily react that way to, say, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun", which has much more of a time capsule feel.

The Cars, though, have a sonic influence that has proven remarkably widespread. Despite criticism of the time that tried to fix the band into the New Wave movement (where they undoubtably belonged), the Cars sound has wormed it way into some unexpected places. From the Rolling Stone review of Candy-O, the second album:

I don't dislike Candy-O—after all, it sounds better than practically anything else on the radio—and I still like the Cars. They're a good band. Their virtue is they're never anything less than that. Their limitation is they've yet to prove they're anything more."

This fixes them purely into the times while missing the Cars true legacy - a sound that has made them one of the few bands serve as a sonic touchstone whenever any band straddles that classicism/futurism divide by busting out the synths. Potter Stewart-style, any pop music listener can instantly identify the "Cars" sound - there's only a handful of ingredients, after all. Mid-tempo; crucial because you don't want to shade into punk on the fast end or sludge on the slow end, brightly wheedling synth sounds; needed for the the bright melodicism combined with the sleazy undercurrent of a suggestion that All Is Not Right Here; and hooks redolent of '50s proto-rock and British Invasion rock of the '60s.

Bands have taken and stretched these sounds to fit their own ends, but in doing so the Cars sonic legacy never fails to shine through. Take a song like 12:51, by the Strokes. It's not just that the synth-sounding guitar is a nod to the Cars the points up their bizarre and particular influence, it's the way that that instrumentation combined with the hook-laden vocals make the song sound not like a Cars-influenced Strokes song, but like a long-lost Cars song wearing some kind of surface Strokes mask. The sound endures eternal.

The destabilizing sonic element of the Cars, the synths on top of power chords, account for why they're such an influence on a lot of the noisy '90s bands, the ones that were all supposedly about bringing rock and roll back from the cheesy neon lights of the '80s. So you get Poison rejected, but the Cars embraced, as in the Smashing Pumpkins, of all bands, covering "You're All I've Got Tonight". There's even a Nirvana cover of "My Best Friend's Girl" floating around out there, and why not? Trojan horse pop destabilization was Cobain's game. Just as Kafka's name as adjective lives on more vividly even than his most trenchant stories, the most resonant aspect of the Cars might well be their blueprints, not their buildings.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

6/16/09 - Kobe Kobe Kobe (sigh)

So, the LA Lakers get another title, Kobe gets another title, the Magic go home empty-handed, and Turkey Glue, D12, and the rest of the Magic get a summer to console themselves with the soothing purchasing of Lamborghinis and the launching of vanity rap careers and watching Transformers 2 and whatever else a millionaire NBA star does to console himself in an offseason not washed in the glow of a championship. I'm pretty sure they'll be just fine.

But from the sports narrative perspective, I'm disappointed that Kobe got another title, because of the way that it validates this whole athlete-as-steely-warrior meme that holds that to have a killer instinct a pro (or amateur) athlete has to be kind of a jerk. Or a lot of a jerk, depending. The goofballs (Dwight Howard), the dry wits (Steve Nash), the happy-go-lucky spotlight-eschewing beach-loving space cases (Lamar Odom) don't get much slack in the perceived mental toughness department, maybe because of the way that athletic competition serves as proxy war, and war tends to the serious. Although this breaks down as a straight 1:1 - what of the dark, cynical gallows humor? That takes place, if at all, definitively offscreen, away from the viewing audience. And, additionally, there is a viewing audience. It's entertainment, after all.

Nontheless, it's disappointing the way that the warrior/grinder is celebrated. Kobe is validated because winning is so important to him, when clearly what's most important to him is winning while being awesome, and as an occasional pickup basketball player (go-to move, the airball), there's no type of player I'd least rather play with.

Here's the subtitle for the article SI did on Dwight Howard toward the beginning of the playoffs:


"Great centers don't come any more easygoing than Orlando's Dwight Howard. But can he take the Magic to the Finals—and get one big, bad dude off his back—while keeping his smile intact?"

And the article proceeds to follow that, with the main thesis being that Dwight Howard, with his goofy nature, imitations of his coach, ADD photo shoot style, and all the rest, just isn't and serious and focused enough to win the NBA title. Which is infuriating. Because last I checked, basketball is a game. And sure, to make a living at it, and to play at the highest level, it's a lot of work, but it's still a game. There's still a lot of it based on fun, and on artistry, and on improvisation (within a defined context), so I don't get the binary that states that one must be a basketball Terminator in attitute to win it all. It's like the asinine dress code on ESPN, whereby grown men and women dress in power suits to talk about football. It would be a lot less disenguous, and a lot more reflective of the kernal of truth at the center of sports, if ESPN anchors would just sport sweatpants and the jersey of whoever their favorite player is. Because it comes off as dressing up something fundamentally non-serious as something important, when any spectator can see that despite the passions they inspire, sports have their foundation in play; ergo, playfulness should not be so shunned.

So, great, Kobe wins, the grinder wins, the warrior wins. Now can he please retire the bizarre underbite-as-intimidation facial expression. Because it makes me want to reach through the screen and tell the man to grow up, already.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

6/11/09 - Southeast Engine, a recommendation

I'm not usually the first on any below-the-radar bands, since my music discovery tends to follow the stampede of the written word, but I'm going to have to give a plug to Southeast Engine, I band that I came to by following a fairly convoluted route: In reading the Onion's AV club "Popless" project, I believe, the writer mentioned that Southeast Engine was a band that he was getting into after his vacuum chamber away from music.

Curious, I found my way to their website, where they've got a generous slice of songs on display (link below)


I was (and remain) impressed, which is partially because I think the band is way tighter and polished than their level of exposure. Back when I was first getting into music seriously, I had a kind of rage against the machine mentality, when I thought that there was a whole universe of music outside of the mainstream push that just didn't get exposed for some reason. I was excited about going to shows and seeing the opener, and about all the random bands I'd never heard of. I quickly learned that most (MOST, not all), bands that aren't head of are obscure for a reason - rarely do I go see openers at concerts anymore, just because the vast majority of them are mediocre-to-poor. Still, I'm not ignorant to the fact that good music is bound to slip between the cracks, and I think that this band is a good example of that.

I'm not going to make any grand pronouncements about why - the band is playing straight-up Band-style Americana, but pulling that off without being insufferably boring and turgid is a tough trick. Now that Wilco decided they wanted to be the American Radiohead, instead of the 2000s version of the Band, the slot is open for a roots-rock band with ambition, that's not just obsessed with pedal-steel formalism, but rather in the way that the intersection of folk, country, and rock can speak uniquely to the open space and frontier mentality that's such a part of American culture, for better and worse.

For further reading up on the Popless project, proceed to:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

5/29/09 - On the evolution of Green Day

From the Pitchfork review of 21st Century Breakdown, the new Green Day, re:American Idiot:

"Have you tried to parse the lyrics to "Holiday" or "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" lately? This wasn't anti-imperialist dissent set to kick-ass. It was gaudy, way-too-impressionistic, self-congratulatory garbage warbled over lumbering AOR dressed in strings and conceptual malarkey."

Now, when it comes to reviewing music, Pitchfork is a straw man constructed out of the world's largest hay bale, but still, I thought that toward the end of the '00s we were past equating commercial success with lack of quality. Like it or no, describing the Green Day of American Idiot as "lumbering AOR dressed in strings" betrays a gross laziness of musical descriptive powers. You want lumbering AOR dressed in strings? Try picking up a Kansas album, buddy. Green Day's still playing 3-4 pop-punk last time I checked, even if they've taken to adding some stylistic grace notes here and there. OK, a 9 minute conceptual song suite isn't very Ramones-ish on the surface, but if you dig into "Jesus of Suburbia" it's easy to hear the the underlying architecture is still recognizably Green Day - it's just that there's a few more shifts in tempo and instrumentation.

It's something that anyone in the punk idiom has to wrestle with - music based on the anyone-can-play dictum that has, as its primary audience, teenagers, invariably has to either mutate or die, but it comes out of a subculture with pretty rigorous formal codes. Ambition is frowned upon. The two touchstones of the punk revolution, musically, the Clash and the Ramones, serve as very different templates; interestingly, the biggest East Bay punk bands, Green Day and Rancid, both have followed the Clash template, incorporating different influences as they've transitioned from snotty upstarts to established vets. For this, Green Day, especially, gets pilloried?

There's a catch-22 at work here that all bands that last for longer than 2-3 albums have to contend with, but punk bands more than most - do you keep doing what you're doing, or do you change and evolve? There's merit to both, but it's a lot easier to work these things out as a band in a commercial vacuum, because nobody gives a damn. It's also easier to do as a Big Rock Band, because the template was set by the Beatles. So when Radiohead decides to follow up a masterpiece with a half-assed set of song sketches (ahem, Kid A), they get lauded for breaking new ground. When Green Day starts trying to ape the Who, they get the insulting 'AOR mess' tag, as though they're toddlers trying to fly a plane.

Thing is, their only musical problem is how to reconcile the sound of pogo-ing 16 year olds that forms their core (like the way old blues informs the core of the Stones), with the ambition that comes from being honest-to-God grownups, with kids and everything. The tension may show at times, but ambition shouldn't be slapped down reflexively, even if it results in multiplatinum sales and arena shows. Sometimes the lucre comes along with the singalong chorus, and sometimes it doesn't.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

5/20/09 - Lost, Season 5, Final 2 Episodes

1. OK, Miles finally voiced what I've been saying all season, which is that the Incident is being created by the time-travelers at the heart of this season. I would be very surprised if S6 opens with anything other than the time travelers awaking on the beach back in the present, everything unchanged. I appreciate that the writers have stayed true to their own rules of time travel, namely that you can't change the past. What was so interesting this season was seeing the ways that the castaways created their own past. What it makes me wonder is why Daniel got the idea that he could actually change things, when he for so long had been the consistent voice arguing that the past could not be changed. His change of heart was unclear, and naturally, to maintain the mystery, he was gunned down before he could do much explaining other than speaking cryptically about people being the variable and how the hydrogen bomb would need to be detonated to ground the energy pocket.

2. There are way too many guns on Lost. One thing that was great about the first season was how scarce weaponry was. Now everybody seems to belong to the SWAT. There's no reason Jack should be in a gunfight with members of the Dharma Initiative - on a show that strains credibility on the best of days, there's no need to employ the dreaded 80s action movie cliche of the villains being unable to hit the broad side of a barn.

3. Jack is such a tool. For him to say that he wants to detonate the bomb to erase the misery of him screwing up his relationship with Kate is such tiresome BS. He remains purely reactive and hasn't changed a bit.

4. Fascinating when dead Locke tumbled out of the box. Really plays up Terry O'Quinn's spookiness as Locke, which is something that the show does an excellent job with. In contrast to Jack, who has hardened into a very 2D character, Locke remains an intriguing enigma. Sometimes pathetic, sometimes irrational, and sometimes creepy as hell and twice as threatening. And now that he's imbued with the spirit of the nameless Man In Black from the beginning of the episode (or is that man, or is the smoke monster, or is one or both of those and Locke), the intrigue surrounding him deepens. I'm reminded of the moment in the pilot when he puts the orange peel in his mouth and appears absolutely terrifying. Sometimes he's got the scary nutso intensity of a true believer, and sometimes he's the most lost character on a show full of them, and both are eminently believable.

5. All that racing around LA was just time filler, as suspected. It really wasn't necessary to get the O6 off the island - just false obstacles to stretch the story out. Nothing really crucial happened while they were off the island.

6. Juliet dying feels like a cop-out. It's bizarre because she and Sawyer have so much more history accorded to them than we have spent time with them. As viewers we're seen them in a relationship for a total of about 4-5 hours. They've spent 3 years together. I think that the 3 year mark is too long - it's just so much time and killing Juliet off so soon after we learn about the relationship throws the audience's perception of the depth of that relationship off. Sawyer knew Kate for about 100 days- what, he's really still hung up on her? The length of time he spent happy with Juliet makes the whole Kate love triangle seem even dumber (and it's already excruciating).

7. I've never seen a show that foregrounds its weakest elements so often. The difference between a Ben/Locke/Faraday centered episode and a Jack/Kate one is profound, and the the quality of the latter has been on a steady downward trajectory.

8. I'm happy that we have finally been introduced (presumably) to the top of the pyramid, conflict-wise. Jacob vs. the Man In Black would seem to be the ultimate conflict of the show, with Ben and Widmore serving as pawns and the castaways serving as the pawns of pawns. I liked how Ben snapped - carrying the burden of being Oz the powerful left him with a pretty intense chip on his shoulder, indeed.

9. Bring on Season 6!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

3/31/09 - March Madness and the NBA race for #8

I love college basketball, I love March Madness, and, even it seems like a sort of too-easy sporting event to love (since the team I am loyal to, the Tar Heels of North Carolina, are perennial Goliaths/contenders), nonetheless, I do love it even when there aren't really a great deal of opening round upsets to speak of. The reason being is that when upsets are expected, they're not really upsets at all. To know that the higher seeds are capable of steamrolling the entire tournament may make this year's (and last year's) tournament seem dull, but it lays the seeds for future tournaments, when we don't expect a George Mason or W. Kentucky to do anything but roll over and die an then lo! We are shocked again anew. I've heard a lot about how this might be a really boring tournament, but I don't find a lot boring about close games and desperation basketball, even if Goliath winds up eating David alive. And again, to reiterate, I'm biased, because UNC is one of the 800-pound gorillas here, and I would love to see them win every game by 20 and cruise to the title.

But it brings me to one of my favorite subjects, which is the bad rap that the NBA suffers in comparison to the college game. Having come to the NBA late, and not having a team to swear blind loyalty to gives me a little bit of the freedom to freelance, fandom wise, and I once again find myself following the plight of that NBA Sisyphus of franchises, the Phoenix Suns. They played the Jazz last week to fight for the right to enter the playoffs, and the atmosphere of the game was absolutely electric - far more so than any of the opening round games of the NCAAs. I don't know where the idea comes from that pro athletes don't care, or don't try, but it seems particular to the NBA. Nobody ascribes sloth and non-motivation to the NFL as a league, so why the NBA? Especially since the Suns-Jazz game I saw featured neck and neck lead changes, dives for loose balls, and all players going all-out 110 percent while playing some of the best basketball in the world. I love the NCAA tournament, but if basketball gives you pleasure it's sheer madness to write off the entire NBA just because of received wisdom that the games don't matter and the players don't care. When a 35 year old point guard is sacrificing his body by stepping in front of Carlos Boozer on the way to the rim, hitting the deck to ensure postseason games, well; the dichomoty falls apart.

Best of luck to the Suns in their quest, even if it looks like post-Sacramento all hopes are dead in the water until next year.

Friday, March 20, 2009

3/20/09 - Lost: Season 5, Episode 8 - 9

Thoughts on Lost, Season 5, Episode 8:

- WTF. So Sayid is part of Ben's origin story? That both makes a lot of sense, and no sense at all. The writers of Lost have been playing with fire all season with the time travel paradoxes, and they just ratcheted up the stakes with Sayid's action at the end of this episode. That said, I think that it's not really as much of a game-changer as it seems. Doubtful that Ben will die; much more likely that he will be resurrected by the island and conclude that he should be the leader of its people and maniupulate a man named Sayid into attempting to murder his own self in the past, since he has always known it has happened. Even writing that sentence made my brain hurt.

- I like the suggestion that Sayid had a hand in creating the Monster (The Monster That Is Ben, that is). Over the course of the show we've seen time and again that Sayid's judgments and decisions are the correct ones. He was the one that believed that Ben was not "Henry Gale", and in conflicts among the castaways he historically has had his judgment borne out by the events of the show. I wonder if his decision to shoot will also be borne out by the events of the show.

- Although in the following episode, it looks like the writers are positioning Ben as a flawed but redeemable character ultimately. At some point they have to get off the fence with Ben and with the ghost of Alex giving him his new marching orders it looks like he may yet work his way toward some sort of salvation. Seeing him forced to use his manipulations to serve Locke instead of torment him will make for some interesting new wrinkle's in Ben's method of operations.

- It's easy to forget now, but Lost's whole first season had no Ben at all. It's amazing how primary and elemental he now seems to the central narrative. Although narratively I see no way for him to make it out of the show alive, I have to admit that if they do wind up killing him off I'll be sad to see him go.

- Locke & Ben are a cut above, acting-wise. The contrast between the poorly written and decently acted Kate scenes previously in the season and Locke and Ben's charged tete-a-tete's really bring it home. I don't think the writers do Evangeline Lilly any favors, but it's kind of unavoidably noticable how far above the bar Michael Emerson and Terry O'Quinn consistently reach.

- I love the temple scenes. Straight out of the Indiana Jones school of kinda-hokey-but-actually-really awesome. There's a real sense of place and power in that temple - it's a strength of Lost that it slowly reveals the layers beneath its most narratively important locations. Similar to the way that we first saw the hatch exterior, and then gradually saw what was underneath (ultimately leading to the 'charged electromagnetic deposit' or whatever it is), we've been slowly led to see the temple fence, the exterior, and now the underground layer where the smoke emerges.

- Watching things fall apart around Sawyer is amazing. LaFleur as wielder of authority is great, LaFleur as cover-up artists really tests Sawyer's ability to think on his feet in an amazing way.

Friday, March 13, 2009

3/13/09 - Lost: Season 5, Episodes 5-7

Thoughts on Episodes 5-6

1. 2 episodes without Jack and Kate. Glory glory hallelujah! Watching two episodes back to back without those two just reinforced my opinion that they have become the least compelling characters on the show. Especially in contrast with Locke, whose adventures and struggles are much more dramatic (as opposed to melodramatic) and whose character arc resonates much more strongly with the overriding themes of the show. I really wish that they would just leave Jack and Kate off-island with a happy ending so that I don't have to witness high-strung Jack making asinine arguments and moony Kate biting her lip in confusion over which man to string along. Blech.

2. One of the things I like most about Locke is that he is very different in demeanor depending on which other character he is dealing with. Like in real life, where one's persona/personality comes through differently depending on who you are with (subtly in some cases, dramatically in others), Locke's persona shifts depending on who is he is with. So, when he's talking to Jack, who has such a poorly defined sense of self/comfort in his beliefs, Locke comes off as calm, certain, and at peace with himself and his choices, because compared to Jack, he is. But when he's talking to Ben, Locke comes across as fearful and uncertain, because Ben's strategy of manipulating people is predicated on a kind of titanic certainty in whatever Ben is saying at any given moment. In the face of that kind of certainty, Locke's self-doubt flowers. So you have two dramatically different scenes: a calm Locke attempting to talk Jack into returning, and a frantic Locke flailing suicidally and questioning everything in his dealings with Ben. Both scenes make sense based on the way Locke is written and portrayed, which speaks to the breadth of scenes Lost is capable of bringing off.

3. Why did Ben have to kill Locke? Why not let him kill himself. My 2 theories: 1) he didn't know about Eloise Hawking before Locke told him, and once he found that out Locke became redundant for Ben's purposes; or 2) Somehow Ben thought that if he killed Locke, if Locke did not die of his own free will, that the island wouldn't bring him back. Ben wants the leadership position that the island wants Locke for, that much is clear.

4. I'm really glad that all the off-island nonsense is over. Who wants to hang around LA when you can be on the Freak Island?

5. Similarly, although the time jumping was fun, I'm glad that we've stabilized in the '70s Dharma era. The building time paradoxes were starting to make my brain hurt, and now things are stabilized I'm looking forward to the writers using the deposit of our heroes in the Dharma era to flesh out a lot of the exposition/mysteries of all of the leftover Dharma relics that have provided so many questions over the first 4 seasons.

6. So happy to see Juliet and Sawyer as a pair. They work together quite well. Although it was annoying to see the suggestion that Sawyer hasn't gotten over Kate. Really? They were only sporadically together over the course of a couple of months, and now Sawyer and Juliet have a 3-year (!) relationship. I would think that would be plenty of time to get over a not-worth-it Kate.

7. It seems clear that Ben is revealed to be more unequivocally evil. Amazing how many predicaments he's been able to talk his way out of so far, but how is he going to talk his way out of killing Locke to Locke's face?

Friday, February 13, 2009

2/13/09 - Lost: Season 5, Episodes 4-5

Thoughts on Episodes 4 and 5:

  1. Usually Lost does a really good job of integrating its new characters (Nikki & Paulo excepted), but I feel like Charlotte was never really a compelling part of the ensemble, which makes her death feel a little weightless. Which is a shame, because the other three members of the science team definitely feel like they've made their place in the ensemble. Faraday stands at the middle of this season's time travel madness and, as portrayed by Jeremy Davies, is a fantastic portrait of the twitchy meddler in Things That Maybe We Shouldn't Be Meddling With. Miles is solid comic relief, and really having him and Sawyer in the same crew is a treat. Like Hurley, he's an audience stand-in, reacting to things with the same nonplussed slacker disdain that he might react with if he were watching the events of the show instead of participating in them. Charlotte's dominant trait, though, was possessing scary-intense blue eyes. We never really got a sense of her as a character, so her death doesn't hit very hard, except for the fact that it clearly unnerves Faraday; especially in the suggestion that he tried to prevent it.
  2. The time travel paradoxes are opening some Pandora's boxes that are straining the narrative logic - namely, there don't seem to a set of rules as to whether or not you can a)change the past b)interact with past events/your past self without causing problems or b) have people from the past remember you. As awesome as it was to see Jin witness the dark days of Rousseau's crew's arrival, is raises the logical question of: why the hell didn't Rousseau say something about it when she met the castaways?? Surely she would remember that having happened since, after all, Jin was the one that stopped her from going into the scary cave where the smoke monster lives. That strains the suspension of disbelief that's so necessary for Lost, which already operates on a thin margin of error on that front due to all of the mystic occurences flying around.
  3. It's unclear as to why the O6 have to return to the island, aside from taking Ben and Eloise Hawking's word for it. This makes the action in LA seem really arbitrary. Of course they are going to make their way back to the island - the obstacles are just ways to extend the show, it seems. The LA stuff is not very compelling, except for the ways that it shows Ben operating improvisationally instead of with advance planning (the strain shows - he's never lost his cool in front of Jack before).
  4. In contrast, the action on the sland is extremely compelling. One thing that Lost has done very well is to make the island a major character on the show - the queasiness and sense of everpresent danger is very much alive and well on the island, from the monster's terrifying arm rip near the temple to the way that Rousseau's man seems to lose his mind. Not to mention all of the rainstorms and time flashes - the island remains the most interesting character on the show.
  5. Jack and Kate have worn out their welcome several times over. Kate as a mother is much less interesting than Kate as a tomboy criminal. Jack is infuriating - for all the time we've spent with him, he's grown very little - he never considers things rationally and is a ridiculous control freak. Kate spends way too much time biting her lip. Jin and Sun, Desmond and Penny, and at this point Sawyer and Juliet are all much interesting romantic (or potentially romantic) pairings. I wouldn't mind if Jack and Kate just got written off the show into some happy domestic life in LA so that we could spend more time with the more interesting characters.
  6. Terry O'Quinn is fantastic as Locke. One thing the writers do really well with Locke is show that depending on who his interactions are with, he can seem serene and self-confident or scared and uncertain. With the other Oceanic survivors he is an expert manipulator - with Richard, Ben, and now Jacob, he is consumed with fear and indecision. His self-possession is a mix of genuine confidence and bravado. O'Quinn does a great job of showing Locke dropping the mask of bravado once he falls down the well and encounters Jacob and reveals he doesn't know what the hell he's doing.
  7. I think it was a mistake to kill off Rousseau and Alex. Rousseau's story is fascinating, and her time on the island had the potentail to open up a lot of context. And Alex was such a major part of the Others/Castaways conflict that having her gunned down just seemed short-sighted on the part of the writers.
  8. Jin and Sawyer's reunion was fantastic - the core ensemble is really strongly drawn and has such a history together.