Monday, February 28, 2005

I'd Like To Thank My Transportation Coordinator

To even consider writing seriously about the Oscars these days you might just have to explain why you’d even bother, you have to break down for your reader what its potential allure might be given its less then stellar reputation for boring folks pants off and its transparently gaudy, self-congratulatory tenor, something New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis took a stab at yesterday when we wrote, “Part of what makes the Oscars such an addictive spectacle is that there are few times when the struggle between cinematic art and industry, vision and profit plays out as openly as during the awards show, with its veneer of high seriousness and molten core of greed.” Fair enough, even if Dargis might be stretching it a bit thin when one considers that there’s rarely much of a struggle in Hollywood between cinematic art and profit: the dollar always triumphs. Business first, art second or third or whatever. Should you have had any doubts about this pecking order last night, Hillary Swank was up there on stage, using her precious 30 seconds in front of millions and millions to thank everybody who ever helped her cash a check, including her lawyers. That she did it all while stuffed in a mammary inflated dress made out of blueberries was doubly gormandizing.

The show itself, the 77th Annual Academy Awards, was a better spectacle then last years, where Billy Crystal was dusted off and rolled out of storage to perform his proven system of Catskills operation. Chris Rock, fresh from a couple weeks of witless homophobic bating hype (“Watch out,” it seemed designed to say, “this guy is a loose-ass and highly controversial black cannon that you simply cannot miss tuning in for!”) started off strong (bashing Bush is good and necessary) but was quickly cast aside, appearing every now and again to dash off some canned one-liner, very few of which scored, though I did like the bit about next years Oscar’s being handed out via drive-thru’s along with a McFlurry. Rock turned out to be a disposable host when deflated of the hype, which is what you’d expect from a network made so jittery of offending that it axed the song Robin Williams was originally set to perform skewering Focus On Family’s SpongeBob SquarePants outcry. Making light of intolerance posing as family values might offend.

Oh, we also liked how the Oscar audience all rose when Chris Rock first walked out, a standing ovation in praise of The First Black Man To Ever Host The Oscars! Bastian of progressivism they are, the audience felt the over-indulgent need to stand and give Rock and, one imagines, themselves, a pat on the back. The first words out of Rock’s mouth? “Sit your asses down!”

So why do we watch? To catch fleeting glimpses of Kate Winslet of course!

Friday, February 25, 2005

To End As We Began

Originally uploaded by chrisbreitenbach.
There’s a lovely scene in Kenneth Branagh’s screen adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing where Emma Thompson, as Beatrice, is perched in a tree languorously sighing:

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into Hey nonny, nonny.

Sing no more ditties, sing no mo
Of dumps so dull and heavy;
The fraud of men was ever so,
Since summer first was leavy.
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into Hey nonny, nonny.

You could listen to Thompson do this sort of thing all day, the way she makes each word sound lazy, ripe and luscious. Contrast that with Keanu Reeves line readings in the same film. Yikes.

In Wit, the play adaptation Thompson co-wrote with its director Mike Nichols for HBO, she plays a professor of John Donne, the 17th century metaphysical poet, who, like Marvin Gaye, wrestled mightily with sexy secularism and righteous spirituality. (Only Donne didn’t work for Berry Gordy or snort blow.) Her character also has terminal cancer. Thompson acts her ass off, and once again we’re lucky to get some of those ripe and luscious line readings of Thompson’s, this time drawing from Donne’s Holy Sonnets and especially the following from Holy Sonnet X:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death,
though shalt die.

Not as light as Hey nonny nonny, but still thrilling to hear when Thompson recites it.

Wit has many beautiful scenes but it falters in the sentimentality department. The film, which takes some nice albeit blunt shots at the humane deficiencies of our health care system, is for the most part a brutal look at a terminal cancer patient physically and mentally disintegrating before our eyes. This is devastating stuff to begin with, and Thompson’s characterization nicely captures the emotional acrobatics of a woman (her character arc moves from hardened and flinty to desperate and needy) inexorably dying. Unfortunately, at the same time, Nichols and Thompson lacquer on a goopy sheen of twinkling piano and a crassly manipulative final 20 minutes where a former mentor, grandmotherly with age and empathy, fortuitously arrives to tenderly take Thompson’s character, now at death’s door, into her arms and…read her a children’s book about bunnies! It’s like going from unsweetened tea to having sugar cubes ground into your teeth. You’re fighting off both tears and anger at the same time, acutely aware of that there’s something bullying about this need to herald in so much additional emotional padding.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Dude, It’s the Mullah’s Fault, Not Any Of Us!

From today’s Times:

European officials say the negotiations with Iran in Vienna are at an impasse, and they have become increasingly vocal in saying that the talks will fail without the Americans at the table. But the White House is skeptical of the European approach, which is to offer economic and political incentives to Iran to try to get the country to drop its nuclear program.

It’s all Iran all the time in Europe right now, isn’t it? It provides a nice smokescreen, I suppose, a way for Bush and European leaders to pretend that when it comes to Iran’s nuclear ambitions they finally have an issue on which they can all agree. Bad, very bad! Of course, just how the US and Europe hope to approach this problem is at odds, but that’s not something you’ll hear the gang talking too loudly about. Europe is tired of being mad at the US and the US is tired of being mad at Europe. It’s time for hugs and backslaps. Look, Europe is going to train Iraqi troops! Well, yeah, it’s modest, but gosh, it’s something! Now Europe would love to have the US at the bargaining table with them concerning Iran but Bush refuses. Why, I can’t entirely understand but Bush did offer this revealing piece of realpolitik:

Look, first, let me just make this very clear -- the party that has caused these discussions to occur in the first place are the Iranians. . . . They're the party that needs to be held to account, not any of us.

So there! I’m sure the Iran’s mullahs are chewing on that one. “Well, by Allah, he’s right! Away with these nuclear weapons programs!”

And yet you've got to wonder, if the Bush gang aren’t hip to Europe’s way of dealing with Iran, what’s their alternative? Bush offered his assurances at a press conference yesterday:

And finally, this notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous. And having said that, all options are on the table.

And might one of those options be attacking Iran? You want to say, “Well, that’s impossible given how stretched we are in Iraq, it’s simply not possible,” but then, I’ve learned to never underestimate the lunacy of this administration and what they’re capable of.

This kind of refusal to take part in negotiations while failing to provide a necessary alternative is not unlike the administrations current troubled relationship with North Korea and that countries own nuclear ambitions. Pyongyang has strongly hinted that it would stop processing plutonium in return for energy assistance from the US, South Korea and Japan but it’s currently refusing to continue negotiations within the framework of the current 6-party disarmament talks, favoring instead dealing one on one with the US, something the Bush administration refuses to even consider.

Now granted, North Korea ain’t exactly the sanest kid on the block, but doesn’t that provide even more reason to resolve this issue? When we know it has, according to our latest intelligence, anywhere between 2 to 15 bombs, three-phase rockets capable of reaching as far as the US West Coast and a country slowly starving itself to death, you have to wonder about the ideological rigidity of this administration. Avert nuclear crisis? Some other time perhaps.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Links Ahoy

Originally uploaded by chrisbreitenbach.
Happy 30th to Holly P! (We’ve been lurking.)

The most depressing site ever?

Movie I’ll be at later this afternoon.

Movie I’ll be at Thursday night.

Album on now.

Shouldn’t it become a museum?

I can go to this because I’m unemployed.

John Barlow’s pretty daughters.

Still the best thing going for The Nation.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Creating Place

Creating Place
Originally uploaded by chrisbreitenbach.
We left California a little over a year ago. We boarded Amtraks California Zephyr line in early February of last year, pressed our noses up against its murky windows as it pulled out of the Emeryville station and wondered, "Are we making the right decision?" At the time we believed we couldn't make a wrong decision. Staying in Berkeley would have been just fine and, for that matter, so would moving back to Chicago. Both choices, leading toward two radically different sets of experiences, had merits we were prepared to fully embrace. "It'ss a Win Win situation," we'd tell each other daily.

No wrong decisions, and so we made the right one. We've been content to find ourselves living back in what Dan Quayle once called "the great state of Chicago," even if its winters deplorably drag on and on only to teasingly linger through most of its springs. There's a nagging distance here too, a lover's cold shoulder- something waiting to be reclaimed, reexamined and made wholly our own again.

Lately I've been perusing some of the class readers Cathy used while in graduate school. In particular, I've been attracted to a handful of articles that explore ideas about landscape perception, interpretation and a sense of place. I'm probably attracted to these articles because the original move from Chicago to Berkeley in 2001 and our consequent attempts to put down roots in the Bay Area, followed once again by our move back to Chicago in February of last year and our attempts to reclaim our roots, created a sense of being always on the cusp of integrating into a place, of feeling like our roots were shallow and fragile.

When we were living in Berkeley I wrestled with how to best go about creating a sense of place. Was such an amorphous thing at its most conducive when simply left alone and not forced? This kind of thinking is similar to how I feel about traveling abroad- do you make an itinerary and madly rush about trying to "see it all," take the obligatory pictures of the landmarks, pay for the tours, set foot in the required museums- or do you chart your own course, allow for spontaneity and the opportunity to simply linger amongst the natives and soak up an arguably more authentic ambience?

Unfortunately, the place where one lives is not a vacation spot. So maybe cultivating a sense of place or a sense of relatedness is better served by actively seeking out experiences more conducive to its flourishing. Increasingly, the idea that a sense of place magically arrives wholly via the passage of time has come to feel depressingly casual. That's part of it. But how to go out and create place and meaning and experience? How do we interact with a place beyond the superficial level? And how does somebody such as myself, more introverted and socially anxious and plagued by ugly thickets of self doubt then your average person (I could play you my small violin here, but we'll save the self confessions for some other time) find ways to interact more fully with our environments and gain a greater and more fulfilling sense of place and relatedness and experience?

In one of those handful articles I've recently read, The Meaning of Place, urban strategist Peter Smirniotopoulos writes, "The true meaning of place is grounded in theories of cognition, the physiology of memory, the complementary disciplines of anthropology and sociology, and- perhaps most important- the basic human need for community and social interaction." That's a lot to unpack, and yet when Cathy and I were searching to buy our first home last year, it was this "true meaning of place" that we were hoping to find. We eventually, after much looking, bought a place in a neighborhood we adore. The Edgewater/Andersonville neighborhoods we belong to are rich in the possibilities of interesting social interaction and ripe with conveniences, diversity and amenities. (I sound like a brochure.) There's no chance of our neighborhood suffering from what Jane Jacobs called "The Great Blight of Dullness." We love the fact that it's walking distance to urine scented transit stops, gut buster burritos, million dollar homes with sprinkler fed lawns and a few of Lake Michigan's 1600 miles of shoreline. We're continuing to grow into the place we live, both inside and out, though feel like we've barely begun to scratch the surface of its potential.

All this hope for creating an authentic sense of place runs into roadblocks. My current unemployment, a stubborn roadblock if ever there was one, is laden with more ironies and frustrations then I care to detail. I'm crashing into debris each day but histrionics aside (and I could play you my violin!) it's terribly difficult to feel motivated in taking the steps necessary to fulfill this potential. I'm feeling listless. I have a fledging video project I've been tinkering with and its helped me to become more conscious of my environment while allowing me to be creative in an area I've long been interested in playing with. As i've mentioned before, this video project is really a tool to help me interact with the people and places around me in ways I wouldn't probably have the courage to do otherwise. It's a prop and a way to find deeper meanings in the human and geographical landscapes that surround me.

Returning back to Berkeley, then, as we did last week, was bittersweet. It was a place whose deeper strata we were just beginning to discover and incorporate into our lives. It was becoming our home and we were beginning to finally feel an intimate part of its culture rather then just observers of it. Walking its lush streets last week I had a sense of contented limbo- of straddling two places ample in the familiars of kinship. Berkeley is still our home- the rituals we had woven into its landscape, those places we identified so strongly with in the area (its restaurants, the Bay, Tilden, campus, Telegraph, 4th St, Mt. Tam, Mt. Diablo...) were still present and exerting a powerful attraction.

Having only been away a year it felt like we hadn't left at all, as though things had remained fixed even without our presence. The time we lived here, a little under 3 years, had a powerful effect on both of us, one that encompassed both knuckle scraping emotional lows and giddy intellectual highs. The residue from that time still lingers and holds a powerful allure- and returning I simultaneously recoiled from it while lovingly examining the remnants. It no longer belongs so wholly to us as it did a year ago and I found myself wondering how long the enchantment of a place, its intimacies and personal rituals, retains its influence before growing more rounded and remote- decoyed with nostalgia. How long will we continue to recognize ourselves in Berkeley before the details begin to disappear? What are these intangibles we lose?

As difficult as it was for us, we fell in love with the Bay Area. It may simply be impossible not to. The people (engaged, for better or worse), the politics (to the left of Kucinich, a bumper sticker favorite) the food (slow food organic), the natural beauty (big ocean, rolling hills and Redwood awe), the relentless pleasantness of the weather (N. American's only Meditation climate) advection fogs (right thru the Golden Gate), the kookiness (Freak flags still flying proud) are all going to conspire to offer you something unavoidably enchanting if not entirely confusing.

The Bay Area resides in a state full of contradictions and is burdened with one of the nation's most murderously interesting histories. In her book, Where I was From, native Joan Didion writes eloquently about some of California's many contradictions, of its "extreme reliance on federal money," so starkly in contrast with its "emphasis on unfettered individualism," of its reliance on massive government construction projects to irrigate "millions of acres of essentially arid land" while simultaneously subsidizing enormous crop yields that glut national and international markets. Its current governor was, just 3 short years ago, mumbling and shooting his way through a waning movie career when, fortuitously enough, long sought opportunity to hold political office arose in the form of widespread disenchantment with its current governor, Gray Davis and the ensuing Republican led recall drive. Schwarzenegger won the 2003 recall (itself a vestige of California's increasingly troubled experiment with direct democracy, a system which as currently stands allows those privileged few who are able and willing to pony up the capital necessary to hire petition circulators who'll gather the necessary signatures, the affluently singular opportunity to see their pet proposition on the next state ballot) by announcing his decision to run on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and proceeding to regale the close to 5 million Californians who eventually voted for him by running a campaign with the support of the likes of fellow sex offender, Rob Lowe, and the ample use of well worn one-liners from his films. It's important to note that we voted in this election. It's also important to note that Gary Coleman garnered 14, 242 votes.

But all this aside, and it's a lot to discount, what's not to like? Well, yes, the cost- there's that. According to a report published last year by the Bay Area Economic Forum, "housing prices have continued to rise at a 6.5% cumulative annual growth rate (CAGR), while salaries have flattened." The exorbitant costs of living in the area would have eventually sent us packing barring the sudden appearance of exorbitant paychecks, something I'm having difficulty even receiving with dependable regularity let alone having an account burdened with expendable income. Unemployment's a bitch. Still, we wonder if someday we might move back.

When we left to return to Chicago last Tuesday it was raining. The rains come heavy there from December through February, long stretches of it that sometimes last for days. Everything goes green and so it was while we were there, the Berkeley hills luminously poking up through the fog and Tilden's paths, which we walked on Saturday, verdant and squishy. We came back because when we left we made a promise to return a year later. I don't know when we'll be back next or how much of us will still be there.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Watts, Who and Issac (Washington, Not Hayes)

One of those talking heads in Wattstax looked terribly familiar. I didn’t pick up on it the first time around, but by the second or third sweep I realized it was Ted Lange, better known as Isaac Washington from Aaron Spelling’s The Love Boat. He’s playing himself in 1972, just another brother shooting the shit in some Watts diner.

Wattstax has more to offer then Ted Lange (who soon found work as Melvin the Pimp in 1973’s Trick Baby) -there’s hilarious and trenchant commentary from Richard Pryor, long before his freebasing explosions to the face, excellent performances by Rufas Thomas, The Staple Singers, Issac Hayes and an absolutely smoking club performance by Johnnie Taylor.

Also watched The Who: The Kids Are Alright, a 1979 documentary made almost entirely out of old concert footage (most of it is fantastic- from their mod beginnings in the mid-60’s to their manic arena rock performances of the 70’s), guest appearances, television interviews and a sprinkling of new footage recorded for the documentary in, presumably, 1978, not long before Keith Moon’s overdose. Total blast to watch, especially the footage of John (Boris The Spider) Entwistle skeet shooting his gold records with a Tommy Gun. There’s also some wonderful behind the scenes studio footage of the recording of the song, Who Are You, where we get to see the band recording everything from background vocals to handclaps.

Lastly, we’re off to California for the next 5 days. Mt. Tam, we’re all over you come Saturday.

Monday, February 07, 2005

When I’m Stuck With A Day, That’s Grey And Lonely

Reading Nicholas Dawidoff’s In The Country of the Country: A Journey To The Roots Of American Music and really enjoying it. Still amusing to think that there was a time not so long ago when I met the very idea of Country/Hillbilly/Old Time music with strong feelings of displeasure if not outright hostility. I belonged to that camp that admitted smatterings of Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson and saw fit to narrowly generalize the rest of the genre as a vestige of southern redneck racism.

Dawidoff, like Peter Guralnick’s awesome trilogy on Blues, Country, Rhythm and Blues and Rock ‘N Roll, knows when to provide context and when to disappear and allow his subjects to talk and tell their stories.

A few interesting anecdotes:

Elvis Presley’s all-time favorite country gospel group was the Louvin’ Brothers, but he never recorded one of there songs because Ira Louvin, (a sad template for redneck clich├ęs if ever there was one- though his singing voice is magnificent) upon hearing Elvis sing a gospel song to unwind after a show in the mid-50’s, humiliated him by shouting, “You fuckin’ white nigger. If that’s the kind of music you like, why don’t you do that out there instead of that shit you do?” Ira Louvin was eventually shot 5 times by his third wife.

The head of Doc Watson’s first banjo was made out of his grandmother’s decrepit old cat. His brother, asked to put the thing out of its misery, scraped off its hair, tanned it and his father stretched it across the hoop. Watson tells Dawidoff, “The catskin made a great head and a beautiful sound.”

Johnny Cash once recorded a song called, Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart. In 1983 he tried to hit his pet ostrich with a two-by-four only to be kicked in the chest and have three of his ribs broken.

George Jones, who many believe to possess one of Country Music’s greatest voices, was once one so filled with delusions and self-loathing that he sang live concerts in the voice of Daffy Duck. Believe it or not! No, it’s true, and I have to say, that may be my favorite anecdote- I mean, can you imagine?

Now we’re going to watch Wattstax.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

There’s Acid In The House

Richard James is back, releasing a string of 12” singles as AFX on his Rephlex label. Very exciting. The Analord singles (a pun on Analogue), as they’re called, will supposedly be a string of 10 releases, with 1 and 2 having just been released last Tuesday.

For many of the techno cognoscenti, James has a mandate to break new ground with each new release. Talk about pressure! Innovate, you Cornwall fiend! Somewhere back in the mid-90’s he was flagged as the pacesetter for all future electronic music, each of his releases to be nothing less then the gold standard on which all else was judged. He was done gone and hailed a genius, a judgment I wholeheartedly embraced- his Ambient Works 85-92, being one of the earliest full albums of electronic music I ever purchased (right around the time of other, then rare and stellar full length releases coming out by the likes of LFO, Black Dog, Autechre, The Future Sound of London, The Orb, and Orbital) and the album I probably cherished and listened to the most throughout the decade.

Throughout the remainder of the 90’s James was fairly prolific. He seemed willing to oblige his critics by releasing a string of extraordinarily innovative albums, his last acknowledged masterwork being 1999’s Miami bootylicious Windowlicker single. There was, however, a palpable sense of disappointment upon the release of 2001’s Drukqs, a collective impression that James had lazily reached into his vaults and released a 2 CD set of half-baked cast-offs. The disheartened consensus seemed to be that he wasn’t breaking new ground, not properly fulfilling his mandate and progressing. I have to admit, however, to being wary of this idea/legacy that somehow novels, poems, paintings, music, etc… must somehow be…what? more advanced then their predecessors…an idea that seems intimately connected to the arts function as a commodity in a capitalist society rather then its emotional/intellectual connection to the person engrossed in it. This idea of progress first is particularly entrenched in the world of electronic music- that somehow because of its production reliance on computers it must shadow and demonstrate a kind of Moore’s Law rate of development- its complexity and wow factor doubling every 18 months or else.

We digress, man.

The initial Analord releases seem to be all all about heading back to the sound of old skool aciiiiiid, supposedly made on James’s hefty collection of classic analogue gear. It’s the antithesis of progress, the sound of a dude reveling in an acid (analogue) bubble bath. The Roland 303 is sputtering and squiggling all over these tracks and the beat programming, while exquisite (those crisp hi-hat’s- oye!), is kept simple and supportive rather then eclipsing via cut-up ‘how’d he do that? mayhem. Most of the tracks are in fact pretty straightforward, which is to say James’s is cool with keeping things fairly minimal and letting the acid gurgle and shine. Take a track like Analord 10’s untitled track 1 (James released a couple tracks from Analord 10 as teasers a few weeks ago), where a fat and dampened kick drum serves to reinforce propulsive dueling acid lines that are oh so delicately tweaked up and out and into a sublime grind that, in the tracks final seconds, are dramatically dropped leaving just the kick and a distant acid arpeggio. Sweaty and sublime, and yes, we've certainly been here and done this before- any use of the Roland 303 at this point has what Simon Reynolds aptly called the "patina of homage," but it would take a lot more by way of record collection acid fatigue (simply put, I don't have all that much music laced with the Roland 303) for me to find this an "utterly lame" retread.