Sunday, March 30, 2003

Today’s NYT’ s offers up some much needed humor. On the front page, they offer a tantalizing blurb for a feature article found in their special, “Nation At War” section. It reads, “Friends and aids say the president has emerged as a engrossed leader of the war, absorbed by daily battlefield developments.”

I especially like that Dubya has “emerged” -as if he’d been, all along, unaware of his responsibilities and is only just now lifting his head from his pillow, rubbing his eyes and asking Condi, “What’s goin’ on?” Are we to be thankful that, with millions of lives at stake, he’s actually “engrossed,” and “absorbed” or are we to be even more disheartened that the Times and Dubya’s crew are working so much overtime to convince us that, if given the opportunity, he could point out Iraq for us on a globe?

The actual article itself, penned by Times writer, Elisabeth Bumiller, seeks to mollify the reader by reporting that, indeed, Dubya receives daily intelligence briefings, consults with his cabinet and, according to Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of Defense, “asks very good questions.” Just like a real president!

Of course the administration wants to project Dubya’s confidence, competence and resolve right now. They do so, of course, because he’s unable to do it himself. I imagine that each day Karl Rove and Andrew Card assign any number of the inner circle to toting Dubya’s leadership abilities behind the scenes. There’s rarely a day that passes when somebody doesn’t offer up a anecdote concerning the president’s seemingly preternatural abilities to figure things out.

By way of example, Bumiller writes that the president has asked “for assessments of the strength and ferocity of the Republican Guard troops around Baghdad, who American forces must battle before taking the city. He has also questioned the repeated delays of humanitarian aid to the southern Iraqi city of Basara, where the shortage of food and water is near crisis.”

And here you might have thought, as a concerned citizen, that you and a few million other folks were the only ones concerned about such things as the horrifying prospects of prolonged urban guerilla warfare and starvation. Not so. Move over and make way for the president! He’s on the phone with Condi and Tommy right now and he’s formulating actual questions. At 55, finding himself in the surprising position of leading the most powerful country in the world- one presently engaged in arguably the most contentious military operation in 30 years (that nagging word, “quagmire” is appearing again) is discovering politics. The Times, thankfully, is there to report of it.

Now, are we to be surprised by this? Gladdened? How about distressed? On Thursday at Camp David, Bush and Blair gave a joint news conference. Much has already been made of this, in particular the differences inherent in both leader’s responses to questions, but it bears repeating. When asked repeatedly for some kind of time-line for the war in Iraq, Dubya reverted to belligerence, frothing (four times) “However long it takes.” Later, when asked why the war lacked the participation of so many key Western allies, Dubya snarled, “We’ve got plenty of Western allies. (At this point the Times transcript reports that the president laughs- the laugh, no doubt, of indignation). We got, I mean, we can give you the list.”

Give us the list? Translation: “We’ve got plenty of Western allies. I can’t think of a single one right now asshole, how dare you ask me such a thing, but I know Condi printed me up a list once before. There were lots of names on it!”

This kind of bumbling keeps Rove up at night. Tony Blair’s answer to this second question offered the kind of intellectual nuance and transparency that behooves any democratically elected leader. I may not agree with Blair’s response, but I definitely respect his earnest effort to engage the question and offer a detailed response outlining his position. Time and time again Dubya has proven that he’s incapable of doing the same.

This administration likes to keep the president away from spontaneity. When he’s ill-prepared and not being lobbed predetermined softball questions, he tenses up, grimaces and fumbles. His handlers like to keep him in front of the teleprompters and friendly audiences. They love the articles like Bumiller’s- supremely controlled puff pieces loaded with examples of Dubya’s powers of concentration and curiosity. It’s a load of public relations crap.

This president is in way over his head.

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible" had been recommended to me by a few people whose opinion I trust in such matters as giving myself over to a 649 page work of fiction. (It comes to that in the mass market paperback edition.) But I was wary. So much interesting stuff to read and here I was about to give myself over to a book that had made its way onto the grocery store aisles, siding up alongside the latest fat lip of pulp by Daniel Steel (“The Cottage"), John Grisham (“The Summons") and Stephen King (“Dreamcatcher") to say nothing of the King Sized Snickers and Hubba Bubba. Still, the blurbs on the cover were mollifying. Supportive, cheerleading blurbs from Jane Smiley (“…ambitious, successful, beautiful”), The New York Times (“Editor’s Choice”) and The Nation (…magnificent fiction and a searing indictment”) all helped me to overcome my own supermarket prejudices (where we buy food, not literature) and nudged me over threshold of self-restraint and into the all-important, carefully constructed terrain of the “impulse buy.” I think I bought some lip-balm too.

And still, still I had to contend with Oprah! “The Poisonwood Bible” was one of the most popular choices in her book club. How, I wonder, can I begrudge this billionaire her zeal for turning her denizens onto the pleasures of reading prose fiction? And what a rare treat for many of these anointed authors, to suddenly look up from their cloisters and find themselves with a mass audience. And what an even greater treat for the publisher, hoping against hope for the magic wand of Oprah approval and marketplace synergy. Little books made large, is that so terrible? What kind of jerk was I to feel disdain for the millions patiently making their way through the arduous pages of Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon”, or even to judge the worthiness of numerous other books with never having read them, so sure was I that they’d be infected by the wishy-washy aura of Oprah’s didactics of empowerment?

In his zippy little book, "Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality", Neal Gabler writes about the origins of American mass-produced entertainment, particularly the dime novels that first emerged around 1850 and sold in Michael Jackson “Thriller” like quantities. Glancing through it again, I found a couple passages that seem pertinent to this Oprah conundrum.

“Prior the arrival of mass-produced entertainment, American culture, like European culture, had been the special preserve of the wealthy, the educated, the refined- this country’s own aristocrats, virtually all of them landowners. They assumed the responsibility for determining what qualified as good because they felt they alone were capable of enjoying what one critic has called the ‘highest pleasure, the pleasure of complexity,’ which ‘must be learned.’ “

I wonder if part of what irks me about Oprah and her co-option of the books in her club (after anointing, publishers were quick to print up special “Oprah Editions”) was the depressing fact that millions of (mostly) lower and middle-class American women were sitting at home awaiting their hyper-wealthy leader’s latest consumption orders. What’s more depressing I wonder, millions of people watching other people talk on television or millions of people allowing their cultural agency, if they’re endowed with such a thing at all, to be dictated by the choices of a billionaire entertainer? (And books do take a significant amount of time to read.) Because, look, there on the cover of my copy of “The Poisonwood Bible” is the Oprah insignia of approval, a beacon for her tribe, a guarantee of freshness. The book’s been “Oprahfied.” But ultimately I have to fess up, just like poor Jonathan Franzan, and admit that just because Oprah dribbles dubious platitudes and is fiercely wealthy doesn’t exactly invalidate what she’s done and seems committed to continue doing- leading millions of people who might not otherwise enjoy any more words then those found in the tattered, disconcertedly damp People magazine found in the reception room of their dentist’s office to pick up a book (sometimes very good ones, too) and read. And what might that accomplish? Oh, that’s a big one. Why in the hell do we read? To each their own answer. Nevertheless, given that Oprah insignia on the cover, I haven’t felt this embarrassed to be seen in public with a book since reading Judy Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret" back in elementary school. I feel as though it somehow makes me a member of the Oprah tribe. When I read it on the Bart, I half expected a guffaw and accusing point from some literary hipster lapping up the last 50 pages of Volume III of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past.

In any case, here’s another lengthy quote from Gabler regarding the cultural aristocrats’s indignant reception or the new popular entertainment in 19th century America.

“Cultural aristocrats sneered, the new popular entertainment was primarily about fun. It was about gratification rather then edification, indulgence rather than transcendence, reaction rather then contemplation, escape from moral instruction rather then submission to it. As one elitist put it, the difference between entertainment and art is the difference between ‘spurious gratification and a genuine experience as a step to greater individual fulfillment.’ …Moreover, while it was a tenet of culture that art demanded effort to appreciated it, specifically intellectual effort, entertainment seemed to make no demands whatsoever, intellectual or otherwise. By contrast, to the extent entertainment enlisted the mind at all, it was only in the service of the senses and emotions; it was passive response rewarded by fun.”

I wanted to quote the above, especially the first half, because I found that for many years I probably would have sided with (or at least felt more sympathetic to) the arguments made by the so-called “cultural aristocrats” in a knee-jerk kind of way. But over the years, especially when it comes to film, I’ve had just as much fun watching so-called high minded works as I’ve been edified and intellectually fulfilled by the so-called crass entertainments of the Hollywood machine. (Granted, some of the intellectual fulfillment comes in pondering the mechanics of how something so dreadful could have been made, but that’s a fascinating subject in and of itself and if a lousy film spurns such questions, then great.) In fact, I wonder if the ultimate work of art doesn’t eschew the polarities of the above divisions and instead seeks to include a combination of both. “If art isn’t entertainment then what is it?” Pauline Kael once asked. “Punishment?”

Kingsolver’s novel is ambitious. In the prefatory “Author’s Note” Kingsolver writes that she “spent nearly thirty years waiting for the wisdom and maturity to write this book.” For the books first two-thirds that wisdom and maturity hold sway. There are over 1000 reviews of this novel at, so it feels oddly redundant to give a plot summary. Alas. The book is about the Price family, led by the fire and brimstone patriarch, Nathan, a evangelical Baptist who, in 1959, has decided to take his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo and convert the heathens. Of course it’s not that easy. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold…

The novel is divided into seven chapters with alternating narration provided by the wife/mother, Orleanna and her four young daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May. No Nathan Price, mind you. Kingsolver casually adorns each with their own particularities- certain cadences, compulsions, malapropisms, interests, burdens- just enough spice to give each their individuality. More importantly, I cared about each of the character’s and enjoyed the Rashomon like flux of different perspectives. Kingsolver clearly has great affection for each of these girls, especially the three teenagers (Rachel, and the twins, Leah and Adah) and uses their curiosity, natural angst and sense of dislocation to explore and offer the reader an amusing, oftentimes illuminating account of their peculiar and, as it goes, unfortunate experience. If some of their characteristics overstay their welcome (Rachell’s malapropisms, Adeh’s backwards fethish) it’s a minor irritant at worst. More importantly, she gives each her own particular and peculiar voice- voices that mature and attach themselves to ideals that will come to confront the strange culture they’ve been set down in.

Nathan Price’s mission is in a village called Kilanga which “runs along the Kwilu River as a long row of little mud houses set after-one-the-other beside a lone red snake of dirt road.” Kingsolver has a way with the landscape and it is good. The novel’s first two-thirds resides in this village and we get to know, among other things, many of its inhabitants, its culture, it’s system of governing and other social customs. Kingsolver’s talent here is that this never feels like a history lesson or a commentary on our Shared Humanity and she deftly weaves these elements into her narrative until the novel’s themes of forgiveness, guilt, betrayal, selfishness, sin and democracy gone sour begin to come into focus.

Nathan Price is blinded by missionary zeal. His is a brand of immutable Christianity, of fundamentalist absolutism- where the flexibility of the imagination is frowned on and The Word is immutable. Kingsolver’s contempt for this character is glaring and it’s a weakness. He’s a cliché of less then endearing characteristics. She works too hard to make us dislike him. Examples abound and grow wearisome. Nathan’s theological implacability, his refusal to adopt, dooms the family. His good works are, in fact, harbingers of destruction. The youngest child, Ruth May, dies because of the sins of the father. Nathan represents how good intentions can go awry- how what seems “normal” to us in our own culture can, in fact, be incomprehensible in another. Unfortunately, he’s never anything other than a blunt sounding board for Kingsolver’s own post-modern gaze. He’s not a character but rather the first and most prominent of Kingsolver’s exhibits detailing Western hypocrisy in its dealings with Africa. He’s representative of the colonial mentality- the pious white man’s burden to save the primitive heathens.

If we place Nathan Price aside, however, and focus on the narratives of the four daughters, the novels first two-thirds is beautifully written exquisitely controlled. Kingsolver’s clearly loves these characters and the people of the Kilanga village they’re inhabiting. Sure, some passages do feel like history lessons- that is, there’s an unfortunate sense that it’s not the character who is learning about the ways of the African, but the reader. Will there be a quiz for reading clubs? Still, these stumbles are rare and for the most part, it’s a joy to read.

Then comes the last one-third of the novel and Kingsolver’s loving close-up of 5 woman confronting, enduring and questioning pulls back, it seems, in order to assess the big picture of consequences. Fine. But she keeps pulling back further and further until her characters loose their essence. After over 400 pages, covering a little more then a year, Kingsolver decides to follow and drop in on her three chief protagonists over the next few decades of their lives. Her goal is nothing less then to demonstrate how that time spent in Kilanga has gone on to shape their destinies. But the characters loose all their shape, all the contours Kingsolver had just spent so much time carefully crafting and delighting in, and her once tightly nit character study becomes a historical pastiche. A story with a smattering of polemics organically woven into the narrative becomes, to the readers misfortune, polemics with what feels like the burdensome obligation to provide a continuation of the story. It’s as if, pouring over her history books (there is a bibliography provided) Kingsolver grew so irate over the U.S. complicity in so many of the horrors of modern Africa (and we empathize, there are many) that her characters suffer their uniqueness to become her outraged mouthpiece. They become less like characters and more like representatives of various attitudes- the apathetic, the guilt-ridden and the intellectually tenuous. She looses the center of gravity established in Kilanga and the book becomes an unruly sprawl of sadness and anger. It’s not that I disagree with any of Kingsolver’s politics, or even the necessity, especially now, of sharing with the reader the U.S.’s oftentimes murderous contempt for those democratically elected leaders whose will did not tow our own. It’s that I’m left feeling let down. Having demonstrated for over 400 pages her ability to write with engaging sympathy, poise and discernment, the final 200 pages feel bloated and arduous, more a tirade then a satisfactory conclusion.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

For a variety of reasons, I had resisted going to see Alexander Sokurov’s latest film, “Russian Ark.” Maybe it was the much repeated reviewers detail that it was, in the words of J. Hoberman, “the longest continuous take in the annals of motion pictures, a single 96-minute tracking shot” that made me suspect. I wondered if it wasn’t a director’s conceit, maybe even a reply to another great Russian director, Sergei Eisenstein, and his great gift to the world, the film language of montage, which, as an armchair film lover, I’m only just beginning to explore and understand- so, I’ll spare any elaboration and trust that you’ll nod your head knowingly.

Well, no, let’s try. It’ll do us both some good. Probably the easiest way to define montage (Eisenstein believed there were five different types) is a series of independent shots, carefully edited together. You know what I’m talking about. A man walks up to a house. Cut. We see a close up of his hand reaching up to ring a doorbell. Cut. Another man appears from what we take to be the inside of the house. Cut. The man waiting outside lights a cigarette. Cut. The door opens. And so it goes. It’s the collision of these independent shots that then go on to give the film its meaning. It seems pretty simple and straight forward enough- but it’s important to keep in mind that it’s a new kind of language, barely 100 years old and still evolving. The power to manipulate this process, to make associations, “express abstract ideas” or make “ideological statements” is, well, infinite.

“Russian Ark” had the whiff, then, of something insular, an elaborate bit of filmic wankery exploring the limitations of montage (and the granddaddy of Film Theory, the French critic Andre Bazin, wrote eloquently about these limitations in one of his most famous and controversial pieces, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”) and the potential to do away with it all together. Was it anything more?

About a year ago the Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley had a retrospective of Sokurov’s work. All things being vastly different, it’s likely that I would have gone to see quite a few of the numerous works they were showing (and his body of work, since 1978, is formidable) but as it is, I was sidelined. Still, I had the film notes to read. He was mentored by one of cinema’s giants Andrei Tarkovsky (who, among other films, directed the original and superior “Solaris”) and it was noted that, among other themes running through his work, he “does not disguise his deep empathic view of the human condition, inviting us with his warm and resonant voiceover to share his most intimate feelings and reflections.” Pure cat nip.

So, when the film lingered on for the past few weeks at one of the Landmark theaters downtown, I finally gave in and decided to catch a matinee figuring, better to test suspicion then to later suffer regret. Sokurov’s work isn’t exactly rushing to the local video store shelves. Besides, how many times do you get a chance to check out what a Russian filmmaker is up to?

And, look, the film totally kicked my ass. No, (most definitely, no) it’s not some director’s conceit at all- it’s not some dull technical exercise. It’s swooning and sublime. It won me over before a single image appeared. And don’t we enter into the theater with the best of intentions- to be won over, to be entertained, to have our hopes fulfilled? It’s certainly not for the $8 bag of Peanut M&M’s.

The film opens with a voice: “I open my eyes and I see nothing…” Our unseen narrator. It’s a warm, gentle voice. It lulls. The screen still dark, he vaguely recalls some accident. Eyes, it seems, adjust. A group of decked out 18th century partygoers (puffed gowns, crisp military digs) joyfully bustles their way into the Hermitage, located in St. Petersburg and, I later learned, one of the largest museums of the world. (33 rooms and housing over 3 million pieces.) Our narrator, invisible to us and to, it seems, everybody else, follows them in. (The camera= his eyes.) Inside he glimpses another displaced figure with wonderfully frizzy hair and smartly dressed all in black. He too is wondering how he’s come to this place and, equally strange, marvels that he’s suddenly able to speak fluent Russian. He’s also the only person to acknowledge the presence of the narrator. Sporadically referred to as the Marquis, he is/was a 19th century French diplomat and, like our narrator, we never will learn how or why he’s arrived here. Maybe it’s all a dream?

Our wary narrator follows the ebullient Marquis (his enthusiasm is childlike, but this is tempered by his oftentimes provocative statements concerning some of the art) deeper into the museum where they come upon, not only many of the great works harbored there, but historical scenes being played out. I won’t pretend (like most reviewer, who, no doubt, trusted their press notes) that I had any clue as to the historical context for many of these scenes- but I was never left disheartened by confusion. In fact, what Sokurov is doing here is intoxicating- using the Heritage, itself, as a canvas- blending the art it houses with historical reenactments of moments that, I later learned, actually took place in the Heritage (it wasn’t always a museum and housed, among other prominent Russian figures, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, The Romanov’s and Nicholas I). The narrator and the Marquis happen upon these scenes, occasionally erupting as they do, and with them, we enjoy their spectacle. Sokurov makes the works of art, otherwise discombobulated from their moment in history, come alive, just as the Heritage, as the film’s title implies, becomes a vessel or ark where past and present gather and collide.

There is sporadic dialogue, mostly between the Marquis (impishly played to marvelous highs by Sergie Dreiden) and our unseen narrator (Sokurov), usually revolving around some wry commentary the Marquis has made about a work of art. On other occasions, the Marquis interacts with a patron (at one point he engages in a conversation with the current director of the Heritage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, and complains about smelling formaldehyde) or historical figure. A number of such scenes floored me, and I wonder if what I loved most about this film, even as I tried, reflexively, to grasp its history, was the subtle power it accumulated through seemingly random moments. In one of these cherished scenes, the Marquis approaches a blind woman who is caressing a sculpture. Our narrator implores him not to confront her, he mumbles something about her being an angel. The scene, like so many in the film, has a phantasmagoric quality to it and we hear, suddenly, the soothing ambience of bird chatter. The Marquis is endlessly amused and delighted by the art and people he stumbles on and his enthusiasm radiates as she takes him by the hand and leads him to another room. It could be terribly precious if it weren’t so devastatingly breathtaking, residing, as does all of this film, somewhere just outside of time, a kind of temporal plain where all time collides and, just as quickly, dissipates.

In another scene, the Marquis comes upon a patron from the present. She looks to be in her early 60’s and hip (a sharp, flat-top haircut, dressed in all black- like you just know she belonged to some avant-garde movement at one time or another) and is, literally, cooing to the large painting she’s standing before. The Marquis, curious as usual, approaches her and she explains, “I have a relationship with this painting.” “Tell me about it,” the Marquis flirtatiously implores, wrapping her delicately in his arms. She delicately refuses and breaks free, coyly walking away from him as the soundtrack swells with a melancholy ache. What does she say? I can’t remember. I might see the film a dozen more times and never clearly recall. The scene reverberates with the romance of the ephemeral, an ode to the glance that we would, despite ourselves, give ourselves to wholly.

And so we come to the final swoon. A grand ball (over 850 extras) where the Marquis revels in the pomp (a full orchestra, the ritualistic dances) of the elite. It, like so much of the film, is gorgeous to behold and I can’t stress how remarkable the camera work of Tilman Buttner is (a German cinematographer best known for his camera work on “Run Lola Run), whose accomplishment here with a steadicam, especially modified for the film, is remarkable and deserving of all the accolades he’s received. His camera weaves in and out of the performers with ease and grace, calmly capturing the sublime. It does cross your mind from time to time: “How in the hell did they do this? Look at that blocking and choreography! How did everybody hit their cues? One single 96-minute take? How many times did something go wrong and they had to start over again?”

A few. Thankfully in the opening minutes. 7 months of preparation (with the Heritage’s full cooperation), over 2000 extras, over 20 assistant directors, one day, December 23, 2001 to film it and 4 hours of light to work with. (Given St. Petersburg’s latitude, that’s all they had- and a few scenes called for daylight.) It is, no doubt, an amazing technical accomplishment, especially considering that the single take (a “single breath” as Sakorov called it) is never something you’re pressed into an awareness of- you’re too busy enjoying yourself to get too bogged down with the audacity and complexity of it all.

When the ball ends (and it is a reenactment of the final ball to take place in the Heritage, the opulence soon overrun by the Bolshevik Revolution- again, a bit of history I learned afterwards but it hardly spoils the joy derived form the scenes splendor, let along watching the Marquis’s joy as he joins in the dancing), the camera spends the films final ten minutes exiting the Hermitage, threading its way through the elaborately adorned cast. I don’t think I can adequately convey the grandeur and melancholy of these final scenes. Films, for me, can be made bitter by a false ending. Equally, films can be made ecstatic by a true ending. When successful, how a filmmaker chooses to exit his work can either put an exclamation mark on all that has come before it or, suddenly, bring a films quiet merits into sudden, sharp focus. The former is at work here. The camera moves ahead of the murmur and flourish of crowd exiting the ball, turning back for one final gaze before turning to look out a window, out at a sea enshrouded by fog. “We are destined to sail forever….To live forever, ” the narrator says. It’s too ambiguous to be taken as a summary and, if anything, it can be construed as a response to all that we have just seen- the past forever coming alive in the present by the power of our imagination, our observation and the ability to feel and be moved.

Monday, March 10, 2003

Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo has been required daily reading of mine for some time now. Yesterday he posted one of the most cogent essays I’ve yet to read about the current quagmire we’re in over Iraq. I tend to agree with most of what he says (give or take, though maybe I’m more easily persuaded today) but what I appreciate and admire the most is his willingness to ask himself tough questions. I don’t always like his responses, but I do think there more perspicacious then most. Check it out.

Sunday, March 09, 2003

Will Oldman and his Bonnie “Prince” Billy alias had been hovering around the outskirts of my consciousness for a while now. There were signs everywhere. “Chris, Check Me Out!- Back Porch/Sunday Morning Alt-Country Satisfaction Guaranteed!” I’m easily pleased and it’s astounding how many musicians manage to plant these kind of signs directly in my line of vision, beckoning for the kind of attention I’m more then willing to give. Sadly, due to the drudging woos of my current employment history, I’ve had to put up some blinders and file away dozens (well, no, make that hundreds, but then, financial security or no, isn’t this always going to be the case- this new music voracity?) of potentially interesting albums into the file marked, “When You Get Your Shit Sorted.”

Until then, there is a barely a trickle. Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “Master and Everyone” is a brief (34 minutes, ten songs) slice of mellow, country-fried pastoral earthiness. The album’s first track, “The Way” is representative of the rest of the album. Cradled acoustic guitars lovingly (delicately) plucked and intertwined, minimal ornamental keys (heavy on the analogue grit) and gorgeous melodies and harmonies gently carving into the niche of Sunday afternoon melancholy. It’s a simple method with plenty of sway and breeze. On a number of tracks, Marty Slayton harmonizes with Oldman like a Carter sister and the songs are all the better for it. A cello winds through a track like a comely Appalachian lass decked out in a bonnet and on her way to a church picnic with a handful of wildflowers in one hand and a plate of freshly baked biscuits in the other. Well, you can imagine, right? It’s nostalgic for a time that never was, or at least I sure am. The droll, wide open spookiness of “Even if Love,” which ran during the opening credits of “All the Real Girls,was the best thing about that woozy film.

It’s wistful like the best of Nick Drake but it’s overall feel is more Southern georgic then English bucolic. It’s intimate, unpretentious and alive enough to get your toe tapping. The albums last cut, “Hard Life” has the grand feel of something timeless. Its austere lyrics (“It’s a hard life for a man without no wife, babe it’s a hard life god makes you live..”) and the ebullience of Oldman and Slayton’s melodies nicely sums up the overall quality of the album. It’s both rural and urbane without ever pandering to hipster expectations of authenticity. It’s lovely music played lovingly, with enough craft and attention to detail to ensure its very own smoky flavor.

As an aside, “Master and Everyone” was recently reviewed by Ian Penman in last month’s Wire magazine. Penman disliked it. Actually, more then simply disliked, he loathed it with a kind of curdled disgust that I found both disturbing and hilarious. Was the tongue firmly placed in cheek or was Penman really throwing a tantrum, his expectations in tatters? The latter, I fear. But how to get this across to the reader? By attaching the albatross of numerous comparisons to those artist’s whose work Penman (and surely other Wire readers worthy of their rareified/fetishistic musical collections) detests.

So, Penman sinks his teeth in. Oldman sounds like “John Fahey doing an Elliot Smith soundtrack for Dreamworks.” The horror! The album is smooth “like the great pretender, Beck.” Yeah, down with that poser Beck! It’s likely to be a “Mojo ‘Roots Album of the Year” candidate. Yeah, fucking Mojo is so not hip, man! Penman saves the big gun for last though, describing one song as “more James Taylor than Bob Dylan.” So there! Then, exhausted but still frothing, Penman writes, “The hell with him.”

Was it the acoustic guitars, dude? Too Dreamworkish? Too Will Ackerman and not enough Bert Jansch?

It’s hard to argue with somebody’s dislike of a work. We all have different reactions. If Penman listens and thinks the album sounds “embalmed,” well, fair enough, though that’s pretty gross. I don’t, he does and never a twain shall meet. But to heap such derision because the album doesn’t live up to your past experience with an artist (previous albums, Penman writes, were more “searingly confessional without being ickily confessional” and had a certain “x factor” now absent and furthermore, this one isn’t “messy” enough- it’s “perfect to the point of intolerable” and lastly, that beard Oldman’s has on the cover is surely “conceptual” goddamnit) isn’t a review or a critique, it’s a vendetta. So upset is Penman that “Master and Everyone” failed to pander to his entrenched expectations, his displeasure has morphed into a surfeit of disdain and a tantrum of derision. File under “Children’s Section.”

Thursday, March 06, 2003

Grocery shopping this morning at the Berkeley Bowl I accidentally read the label on the Reduced Fat Skippy Peanut Butter. Just beneath the brand name it read, “SPREAD THE FUNK.” Cartoon double-take. “SPREAD THE FUN!”


The funk was being spread in the parking lot. Somebody dropping off a truck full of oranges in crates had the windows down (it’s a brilliant, warm day here) and Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) pouring out. I could feel my hips being seduced by the rhythm.

Marvin Gaye, a man who needed absolutely no diglycerides to improve his creaminess.
I probably wouldn’t have ever bothered to visit, a political parody site run by Chickenhead Productions, if Cheney hadn’t had some of his cronies send a letter bullying them over its content. It seems there’s a less than flattering parody of Cheney’s wife, Lynn, a prominent public figure in her own right and, from what I know of her, certainly ripe for having some of the righteous stuffing knocked out of her- most notably the publication of a recent children’s book, “America: A Patriotic Primer and the creation and dissemination of her now infamous American Council of Trustees and Alumni list of over 40 professors who failed to muster the appropriate jingoism in the immediate wake of 9/11.

You can see the letter here.
Today’s NYT’s confirmed that the letter is, indeed true. Now, the site itself isn’t all that funny. At least what little I read of it certainly didn’t induce any chuckles. The bullying letter, however- now that was funny! Go get ‘em, Dick! Grrrrrr!

Monday, March 03, 2003

As a follow up to my review of “Remember the Titans,” my sister recently reminded me of an anecdote from when she was working as a sales representative for Metatec. It seems that somebody in Management decided that “Remember the Titans” shared Metatec’s workplace Vision of Unity, Teamwork, Grit and Determination. They made free tickets available. Anybody could pick one up. In fact, so important, so doggone inspiring was the Message of “Remember the Titans” that Management, surely rewriting the book on leadership practices, gave the green light for staff to attend a matinee showing…”during work hours!” Not only would Valuable Lessons be learned but so too would there be an increased level of fellow feeling amongst Metatec workers, the result of movie magic's inspiration and wisdom distilled into each and every one of them and, ideally, drawn on and channeled into a unified workplace effort to Make Even More Money for Metatec!

But what of my sister and those other Metatec Sales Representatives? Sure, they could grab a free ticket, but it was separately made known to them and those of their ilk that attending the film “during work hours” was out of the question. So as the post-lunch weariness and tedium set in, my sister and the other untouchables watched as those deemed worthy of basking in the films Inspiration giddily shuffled by, tickets in hand, the work day over. And how did she and the others marooned at their desks feel? Pissed off. But hey, somebody had to take those orders, right? And in sowing the seeds of Unity, of Teamwork and Shared Vision one wonders why Middle Management never thought it might be beneficial to humble themselves by pitching in and taking over the shop for a few hours, you know, for the sake of Unity and Teamwork and all.

I’m pleased to say that my sister no longer works here.