Friday, December 21, 2007

10 Most Awesome Moustaches In History

Some of my friends and I are going to enjoy a mustachioed New Year's Eve, and in honor of our approaching festivities, I thought I'd compile a list of the ten baddest moustaches in history. Let's get started:

10. Adolf Hitler. I wanted to keep him of this list, but it would be dishonest. The slim shrub of hair on his upper lip barely counts as a moustache--it's more like a northerly soul patch than anything else. And yet Hitler owns it. In the sixty years since Hitler's death, no one has worn "the Hitler" except Hitler impersonators. No other facial hair style can possibly evoke such horror.

9. Joseph Stalin. Let's dispense with the dictators. Martin Amis has a terrific passage in Koba The Dread where he compares the evils of "The Big Moustache and the Little Moustache." Brief recap: Hitler was worse, but Stalin's moustache was better.

Trivia for all of you: name three current world leaders with moustaches. Answer in white text on this line. Pervez Musharraf (Pakistan), Mahmoud Abbas (Palestine), Joseph Kabila (Democratic Republic of the Congo).

8. Genghis Khan. Damn, what is it with moustaches and evil conquering assholes? I'm guessing that Genghis didn't actually, uh, sit for this portrait -- and some representations of him show a full beard -- but I'm going to give it to him anyway. That mean slope on those whiskers says only one thing: Tatars of the steppe, you better watch your motherfucking backs.

7. George Harrison. Not all moustaches are bloodthirsty. Who could be a better antidote to Adolf, Josef, and Genghis than The Mildest Beatle? Lots of rockers attempted the long-hair-and-stache look in the mid-70s, but few wore it better than the Dark Horse.

5. Rollie Fingers. The first closer in baseball was also the owner of the best moustache in sports history. Grab a hold of them handlebars, baby!

Trivia: who was the last MVP of each major pro league (NFL, MLB, NBA) with a moustache? (Answers in white). NFL: Randall Cunningham, Minnesota Vikings, 1998. MLB: Jeff Kent, San Francisco Giants, 1990. NBA: Karl Malone, Utah Jazz, 1999.
4. William Howard Taft. Eveybody talks about Teddy Roosevelt, but Taft was our last president with facial hair. His moustache also kicks the hell out of T.R.'s comparatively feeble whiskers. Who doesn't love a fat man with a bushy mustache? It's possible that William Howard Taft came closer to looking like an actual walrus than any human being in human history.

Trivia: who was the last major-party presidential candidate to wear a moustache? (Answer in white) Thomas Dewey, 1948.

3. (Tie) Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck. The Bandit vs. Magnum, P.I. Smoldering machismo vs. smoldering machismo. The '70s stache vs. the '80s stache. Burt's whiskers have a blog; Tom's have a rock band. How do you choose? You don't. You sleep with both of them.

Incidentally, both Burt and Tom won serious cred by holding onto their whiskers well past the period of fashionability. Tom wore his well into the '90s--including his memorable guest-stint on "Friends"--and Burt was still sporting one as of the latest "Dukes of Hazzard" movie. These aren't fly-by-night facial-hair phonies, people. These are Men of the Moustache.

Trivia: Who was the last man to collect the Academy Award for Best Actor while wearing a moustache? (Answer in white). F. Murray Abraham, "Amadeus," 1984. Paul Newman may or may not have been wearing a moustache in 1986, when he won for "The Color of Money," but he didn't show up to the ceremony.

1. Otto von Bismarck. I guess you could go with Chaplin or Dali or Zappa here, but while those guys were probably all assholes, the #1 moustache should go to an asshole who made war. Moustaches are apparently much more belligerent than watching a lot of gay porn might lead you to believe: Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Kahn, Bismark, Saddam Hussein, and the list goes on. I have a feeling I'm going to start acting like a total cock on New Years' Eve for no apparent reason.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Top Five Music Videos for 1980s movie theme songs

The movie theme song music video is a delicate art, and the 80s were a pioneering time in their development. There are many

5. Huey Lewis and the News, "The Power of Love," from Back to the Future. The video has a two minute intro featuring Doc Brown arriving at a Huey Lewis show in the Delorean. Enough said.

4. Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, "Time of My Life," from Dirty Dancing. What is awesome about this video is that I can watch it and never feel the need to ever see Dirty Dancing, ever.

3. Kenny Loggins, "(Highway to the) Danger Zone", from Top Gun. Kenny Loggins + Fighter Jets = Awesome. Also: Iceman and Goose.

2. Survivor, "Eye of the Tiger", from Rocky III. Sadly, I can't find the actual Survivor video on Youtube, but it is on google video (possibly from China). It features the members of Survivor walking in time down the street while singing the song, and is reasonably awesome. Even more awesome, however, is the opening montage from Rocky III, depicted below, in which Rocky, now the champion, goes soft doing American Express ads and appearing on the Muppet Show while Clubber Lang (Mr. T) does some serious ass-kicking. You see, it is Clubber Lang, and not Rocky, who has the eye of the tiger by the end of the montage.

1. John Parr, "St. Elmo's Fire (Man in Motion)" from St. Elmo's Fire. The movie itself is a self-indulgent, taking-itself-way-too-seriously Joel Schumacher-directed tale of post-college life of a group of friends in 1980s Georgetown, which gave rise to the term "Brat Pack" for its cast (Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Andrew McCarthy, Emilio Estevez, Mare Winningham). The song is a fairly standard 80s anthem, apparently originally written as the theme song for some guy in a wheel-chair who was at the time going around the world to spread awareness for spinal cord injuries. The video is particularly awesome, featuring the perfect blend of scenes from the movie and shots of the ridiculous John Parr. Be sure to watch to the end, which features John Parr chilling out with the characters.

Monday, December 10, 2007

10 Great Novel Endings

Didn't some great critic or sage once say that the worst part of every great novel was its ending? That it's impossible, and artificial, to depart so abruptly from a rich world that has just been created? Or something like that. Maybe so, but here are 10 of my favorite such departures--and perhaps the best rebuttal to the 'anti-ending' argument I could come up with...

(Note: I'm using a liberal definition of "ending"--I don't just mean the final page or chapter necessarily, but the way the author takes leave of the larger universe of the novel. Although a smashing final page or line doesn't hurt, either.)

10. John O'Hara, Appointment In Samarra. O'Hara's hero, Julian English, completes his self-destruction in the final chapter. After mixing a highball drink in an enormous flower vase, he lurches into the garage and poisons himself with CO2 -- while semi-consciously regretting his actions the entire time. Has to be one of the best and most sensitive suicide scenes in literature.

9. Frank Norris, McTeague. It's impossible to render the context for this one fairly, but suffice it to say it involves a man handcuffed to the corpse of his former best friend, dying of thirst in the middle of Death Valley. Hard to beat for pure brutality, anyway.

8. Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'urbervilles. Hardy wrote a lot of great endings, and I was tempted to go for the near-triple drowning in Return of the Native... but nothing beats Stonehenge (yes, that counts as part of the ending sequence). I guess it's probably inevitable that a best-endings-of-all-time list would have considerable overlap with a favorite-books-of-all-time list.

7. Martin Amis, Time's Arrow. I read this thinking it was more or less an exercise in cheerful gimmickry. The ending (or the last quarter or so of the book) got me pretty good. Back, back, into the darkness.

6. Jane Austen, Persuasion. Gut-punch tragedies have a natural advantage over happy endings, but there should be at least one place on here for a brisk, beautifully executed triumph.

5. Kazuo Ishiguro, Remains of the Day. The suffocating melancholy here is a nice contrast against the special-effects melodrama of Samarra and McTeague. As I think we discussed in the "saddest books" list, sad doesn't have to be showy.

4. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. The most famous ending in American literature? (The "boats against the current" bit made it onto season 2 of The Wire). It deserves the hype.

3. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence. Quietly crushing, like the Ishiguro, but even a bit better.

2. Vladmir Nabokov, Lolita. Amid the hilarity and perversity and the virtuosity, people forget that this thing is a real heartbreaker at the end. Humbert's last visit with Dolly is gorgeously wrought, as is his final, misty-eyed ramble through the countryside.

1. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom. Beyond everything else, Faulkner practically squeezes the tragedy of the Sutpens, the Compsons, and American history into just a few lines:

"...Now I want you to tell me just one thing more. Why do you hate the South?"

" 'I don't hate it,' he said. I dont hate it he thought, panting the cold air, the iron New England dark: I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!"

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Historical Novels - Another Addendum

I love Matt and Akshay's lists and felt compelled to add one of my own. If The Confessions of Nat Turner and The Hunchback of Notre Dame hadn't been mentioned I would definitely have included them on mine.

6. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities – I forget if this is Dickens’ only or one of his two historical novels. It’s wonderfully inaccurate (was it Orwell who complained that Dickens was responsible for making everyone associate carriages with death?), more a pastiche with the French terror as a backdrop, and terribly entertaining. I read it again a few years ago after slogging through it in high school and managed to tear through it in a day. Damn you, Madame Defarge!

5. Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Manor and The Estate – It’s the history of a rich Jewish family in Poland from 1862 until the end of the 19th century, plotted like an 800 page train wreck, with one disaster befalling the tragically imperfect Calman Jacoby and his daughters after the other. From Singer’s introduction: “All the spiritual and intellectual ideas that triumphed in the modern era had their roots in the world of that time – socialism and nationalism, Zionism and assimilationism, nihilism and anarchism, suffragettism, atheism, the weakening of the family bond, free love, and even the beginnings of Fascism.” There’s also a paragraph in the text dedicated to vegetarianism. I don’t think a similar novel of our own time concentrating on “post-modernism and Christian fundamentalism, anti-Islamo-fascism and Obama-fascination,” would carry as great a weight.

4. Philip Roth, American Pastoral – The best American novel of the last 30 or so years may not count as historical, as Roth lived through all the events he describes. But there’s a strangeness with which he recreates the optimism of post-war Newark in the 40s and 50s and then the horrors of the 60s. John complained in a comment on a previous list that he disliked soundtracks that lazily presented the 60s as a wild and crazy time. American Pastoral is the only work of art that has convinced me that it was.

3, Primo Levi, If Not Now, When? – Levi did a great deal of research to imagine an alternative life during World War II, not as a Holocaust detainee, but as a partisan fighter whose suffering seemed to have more meaning and purpose. The Jew who expresses his sympathy for Dresden’s victims felt like a liberal transplant from 1982, when the novel was written, but I was willing to forgive the transgression.

2. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward – Solzhenitsyn wrote a true historical magnum opus about World War I which I haven’t read, but Cancer Ward brings back a very specific moment during the Khruschev Thaw, when Stalin’s victims were just coming to terms with the hell of their camps, and everyone was looking forward, very uncertainly to a less-than-promising future. I’ve met quite a few Eastern Europeans who have told me that this book actually speaks to their feelings right after 1989.

1. Ivo Andric, The Days of the Consuls, a.k.a. Bosnian Story, a.k.a. Bosnian Chronicle – Andric’s claustrophobic book is about a group of second-rate diplomats stationed in Travnik, Bosnia during the Napoleonic Wars. It touches anyone whose ever been an expatriate stationed in a small country, and who comes from an empire about to be neutered.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Historical Novels: An Addendum

Akshay's list is terrific -- a great topic, and fascinating-sounding selections (I say that because, not in spite of, having read only one of his ten honorees). Is it thunder-stealing, or thunder-appreciating, to offer a mini list of my own? I hope the latter.

5. William Gilmore Simms, The Scout. If you don't count Poe -- and there are good reasons for not counting Poe -- Simms is the dean of antebellum Southern novelists. I know, I know, that's like being the dean of Burmese gangsta rappers. But I enjoyed this Revolutionary War novel significantly more than anything historical by Fenimore Cooper, Simms's Northern model in the genre.

4. Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This is my version of The Shogun -- I read it at 14, loved it, and don't care to know if it's actually just gassy romanticism.

3. William Styron, Confessions of Nat Turner. Styron's version of the Turner rebellion was historically and politically controversial (OK with Eugene Genovese, not OK with certain black activists), but it works for me. Having read some of the academic history about Turner, I'd have to say this is another example (like Vidal's Lincoln) where brilliant, thoughtful fiction totally outshines workmanlike historical scholarship.

2. John Updike, Memoirs of the Ford Administration. Really a book-in-a-book -- Updike's narrator is an oversexed history prof in the '70s, writing a fictional life of James Buchanan. Both books are good, and Updike's quasi-defense of possibly The Worst President In History is surprisingly compelling.

1. Robert Graves, I Claudius. Along with its sequel, Claudius The God, this is endless fun. A sharp, distinctive, enduring take on all the personalities of the early Empire (partly lifted from Suetonius, but that's OK). Better than HBO's Rome, and I liked Rome. Has anyone read anything else by Graves? He has a 400 page novel on Belisarius which sounds pretty great.

Honorable Mentions:

* William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom. Is this a historical novel? Sure, John C. Calhoun and Robert E. Lee don't make appearences, but this book IS the antebellum South. That should count for something. And if it does count, it has to be #1.

* William Thackeray, Henry Esmond . Surely THE WORST historical novel I've ever read. I loved, loved, loved Vanity Fair, but this -- supposed to be Thackeray's #2 or #3 -- is dry, stilted, and repetitive. Wikipedia says it's about the Jacobite rebellion, but I swear I've forgotten everything about this book. A shame, because the sequel, The Virginians, sounds promising on paper. But after that nightmare, I'm not gonna bite.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Best Historical Novels

Note: there are huge gaps in my knowledge. I haven't read any Graves or Scott or Manzoni, so this is rather incomplete. Also, I'm not sure I have a particularly coherent idea of what actually makes something a historical novel.

1. Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma

(Man, this book was fun to read! I'm not totally sure that it counts as a historical novel, since the events took place during Stendhal's lifetime and he actually did fight with Napoleon. But it has a historical novel air that is somehow missing from, for example, War and Peace. I think Stendhal based a lot of the court intrigue off much older Italian memoirs.)

2. Marguerite Yourcenar, The Memoirs of Hadrian

(A really wonderful book, and it weaves its spell not through physical period detail - of which there is surprisingly little - but by recreating habits of thought.)

3. Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower

(A life of the poet Novalis and Fitzgerald's last, great book. One of the saddest last pages in modern literature. Her final three or four books were all wonderful historical novels.)

4. Anthony Burgess, Nothing Like the Sun

(I have a weakness for lives of artists. This one is about Shakespeare, written in a beautiful mix of modern and Elizabethan English.)

5. Virginia Woolf, Orlando

(Proceeds gleefully through three hundreds years of history with Queen Elizabeth and Alexander Pope as main figures, along with a shifting stable of characters who appear to be virtually immortal and keep changing gender. One of the most delightful and baffling and infuriating books I've ever read.)

6. John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman

(I've never quite looked at a Victorian novel the same way after finishing this book, even though some of its narrative tricks annoyed me a great deal.)

6. Gore Vidal, Lincoln

(I haven't read much other Vidal outside the essays, but I did enjoy this book a lot. I'm not sure it's of the same caliber as the other books on the list, but we need some Americans on this list.)

7. J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur

(A wonderful read - immensely funny and exciting and also an interesting meditation on the nature of progress. I was a little offended by how the Sepoys were portrayed, but I got over my outraged national feeling - Farrell's representation makes a lot more sense than a noble Hollywood Sepoy walk-on would have.)

8. Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees

(A delight! Probably the most purely pleasurable book on the list.)

9. Patrick White, Voss

(A rather disturbing tale about the exploration of the Australian outback in, I think, the early 19th century. I read it a long time ago and have forgotten most of it except for the rather horrifying conclusion.)

10. James Clavell, Shogun

(When I was twelve, I was pretty sure this was the greatest book ever written. I'm scared to look at it again because I have no real desire to find out that it's just cheesy epic romance. Anyway, even if it is, it is damn good cheesy epic romance.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

6 Terrible Vice Presidents

A lazy list, but no one's posted in a month, and I'd like to keep this thing going. It seems to be a law of American politics that there can be no great Vice Presidents, only unmemorable or awful ones. Surely it has to do with the structure of the job. Anyway, here's a haphazard list of six of the worst, in rough (but probably not comprehensive) order:

6. William Rufus King (VP to Franklin Pierce, 1853). Probably the most important qualification for Vice President is staying alive--aside from hanging out in the Senate and breaking the occasional tie, that's really all a VP is supposed to do. And yet seven Vice Presidents have died in office -- more VPs than actual commanders-in-chief, even though to my knowledge no has ever seriously attempted, let alone suceeded in, assassinating a Vice President. A VP dying in the middle of a term is an odd and frustrating kind of quirk -- a little like when a backup quarterback has to go on injured reserve for some kind of off-the-field accident. Anyway, King is the worst of the dying VPs: he managed to stay alive in office for just over a month. Also, he helped fuck up a decisive Quizzo question for John, Drew and I at the Bards one night. Fucker.

5. John C. Calhoun (VP to John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, 1825-1832). Calhoun was the only Vice President to serve under two consecutive and hostile administrations. He was also the only Vice President to be loathed by two consecutive and hostile administrations. He scores high on the terrible meter for leading the almost-traitorous nullification movement while still a sitting VP, and for coming off like a major league asshole to nearly everyone in politics who wasn't one of his South Carolina flunkeys.

4. John C. Breckinridge (VP to James Buchanan, 1857-1861). Calhoun was a near-traitor while in office, but Breckinridge did him better by becoming an actual traitor immediately after leaving office. The only VP (aside from John Tyler, who was also a President, and hence doesn't really count) to join the Confederacy, Breck spent most of the war as general in the CSA army. The fact that he was by most accounts an incompetent politician-general mitigates his perfidy, but doesn't erase it.

3. Spiro Agnew (VP to Richard Nixon, 1969-1973). As a native Marylander, I have this to say to Spiro Agnew: fuck you! And fuck Roger "Dred Scott" Taney, too. Unless Paris Glendening leads a miraculous dark-horse movement to steal the Democratic nomination in '08, those two chuckleheads will remain Maryland's greatest actors in national political history. Oh, OK, Thurgood Marshall at #3 helps us somewhat, but Spiro was still a total dickhead who deserves the everlasting condemnation of all fellow Marylanders.

2. Aaron Burr (VP to Thomas Jefferson, 1801-1805). He killed a guy, while in office. As Vice President, he fucking capped a dude in the chest and killed him. And not just any dude -- a fucking legitimate, top-five, real-deal Founding Father. Is that terrible, or just really badass? Why aren't there more gangsta rap songs dedicated to Aaron Burr?

All right, all right, committing murder while Vice President is pretty awful, especially when I don't think he really needed to do it. Running from the law and committing treason (even feckless, hopeless, ineffectual treason) immediately afterward is bad, too -- not to mention the whole attempt to get himself elected, bogusly, over Jefferson. But it's hard to hate Burr too much because he was such a charming, amoral rake, and Gore Vidal wrote such a readable book from his perspective, stuffed with vicious-but-plausible insights like the idea that George Washington had the lower body of a large, awkward woman. #2 seems like the right spot for him.

1. Dick Cheney (VP to George W. Bush, 2000-2008). The most powerful VP of all time. Which I guess could be a good thing, if he weren't actually an evil fucker from planet Destructo. The temptation is to make Burr #1 most terrible, but in the larger perspective of history, Burr wasn't really more than an opportunistic pipsqueak who didn't accomplish much one way or the other. Cheney, on the other hand, has accomplished a giant fuckload of irreperable harm. Even if he has worse aim with a gun.

Friday, September 28, 2007

11 Best Harmonies on Record

A lost art! Or an ignored one. I was hoping the boy bands might bring some of it back, but their harmonies ended up being big boring blocks of monotone sound. Strangely enough, most of the best modern harmonies don't even come from groups -- they come from the same singer tracking different vocals over each other. Sadly, this strategy mainly communicates a sense of internal division and alienation instead of the old joy of singing together.

1. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Ooh Baby Baby

(What comment is possible? It's on YouTube, unfortunately along with a bunch of someone's semi-erotic comic book art.)

2. The Everly Brothers, Cathy's Clown

(Pretty mind blowing. Apparently served as an inspiration to the both the Beatles and Elliott Smith, who are included below.)

3. Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, That's Heaven to Me

(Just picking one out of dozens of really beautiful performances.)

4. The Beatles, Baby's in Black

(What astonishes me about this song is that the harmonies sound like they're completely improvised, unlike, say, another classic like Because, where they are clearly planned out.)

5. The Beach Boys, In My Room

(Ach, touched by God! Or whatever the modern secular equivalent might be.)

6. The Marvelettes, Please Mr. Postman

(There should probably be more girl groups on this list, but my knowledge is very limited.)

7. Curtis Mayfield and the Attractions, I'm So Proud

(Curtis Mayfield is amazing. I love his doo-woppy period better than the more well-known funk one.)

8. Radiohead, I Will

(The "I keep falling over" harmonies on Black Star are also wonderful, but they're also pretty much the only ones in the song.)

9. Neil Young, Through My Sails

(Who knew that high nasal voice could harmonize so beautifully?)

10. Ron Sexsmith, Raindrops in my Coffee

(A gorgeous song. I recommend Sexsmith to anyone I can get to listen. Dylan just played this song on his radio show, which I was very pleased about.)

11. Elliott Smith, Say Yes

(Low on the list only because the harmonies occur during a very small part of the song - "crooked spin can't come to rest." But they always give me a bit of a chill.)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Favorite Shows at Austin City Limits Festival 2007

Going to ACL means braving a crowd of 65,000, porta-potties, and oppressive Texas heat. I didn't see a lot of the 130 bands and of the ones I did there were some disappointments (The National and Peter, Bjorn, and John were two of the major ones).

Here are some that made it worthwhile.

1. Gotan Project
2. Ryan Shaw
3. DeVotchKa
4. James Hunter
5. Raul Malo
6. Pete Yorn
7. LCD Soundsystem
8. Lucinda Williams
9. MIA

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Music Documentaries

The posts about the best/worst use of music in film made me think about movies about music. Since there are a lot of music documentaries I haven't seen that are supposed to be very good I won't call this list the best but rather just a few really good ones.

1. Buena Vista Social Club

It is amazing how many of these musicians hadn't played in years, even decades, before putting this band together. This is a great movie.

2. Gimme Shelter

My favorite parts of this movie are watching the reactions of the Stones as they are watching the footage of Altamont.

3. You're Gonna Miss Me / The Devil and Daniel Johnston

I grouped these together since they are both stories of mentally ill but very talented Austin musicians. I think the contrast between how the two of them handle their illnesses is really interesting. Daniel is obsessed with being famous and is willing to exploit his illness to become famous (for example, when he says he draws ducks in his artwork because they help him fight the devil you wonder if he really thinks that or if he knows saying that will increase the value of the drawing) while Roky seems like he would be more than happy to be just left alone.

4. Standing in the Shadows of Motown

This is a great unsung heroes story but it loses some points for overstating the importance of the musicians ("anyone could have been singing those songs" - I mean, really?) and for featuring live performances by Ben Harper and Montell Jordan.

5. New York Doll

Arthur Killer Kane is so, so likeable in this movie, and so are the women he works with at the Mormon library who are all atwitter when they find out they work with a rock star. Even knowing before starting it how the movie would end (I don't want to ruin it if someone doesn't know and wants to watch it) it still made me cry.

6. Don't Look Back

I'm sure I would like this movie more if I had been born in the 50s. But, it is good. The best scene is the opening which makes it kind of anti-climatic.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Luciano Pavarotti, RIP

Along with my fondness for the King of Rock 'n' Roll, I have a soft spot for the King of High C's, who died this morning of pancreatic cancer. (Also fits into my admiration of powerful fat men.) While I couldn't find any footage of old Lucky singing to basset hounds, it was easy to compile some fine moments. You'll notice I don't include any bullshit duets with Michael Bolton (assclown!) or Andrea Bocelli (faker!), or Christmas specials, or anything that isn't an aria. All that was beneath the big man, and the point of today is honoring him:

Pavarotti as Pagliacci, the sad clown singing "Vesti la giubba." The gist is: "the show must go one despite the fact that my wife's a cheating whore who is making an ass of me." Surely this temporary suppression of jealous rage will work--who ever heard of an opera with a tragic ending?

Pavarotti as Calàf,
the suitor of the mysterious (i.e., Asian) Turandot, anticipating his victory in his quest to win her hand. "Nessun dorma" ("No man shall sleep") has become a popera smash in recent years with numerous covers appearing in films and commercials, but the several high c's make this the signature Pavarotti aria. Accept no imitations.

Pavarotti as Mario, comparing his love Tosca to a portrait he is painting--the title, "Recondita Armonia" come from the line Recondita armonia di bellezze diverse ("Concealed harmonies of contrasting beauties"). Transcendent from the first note to the last.

Pavarotti as the Duke of Mantua, singing "La donna è mobile" ("Bitches are sneaky") from Rigoletto. This particular video is a demonstration of why canned opera seldom works--the dubbing is off (partially YouTube's fault, but I've seen this version on tape, and it's not much better in the original), the space feels too small to hold the magnificent aria, and Pavarotti's acting is, to put it politely, more suited to stage than screen. But that last high C--unbelievable.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Nationality titles

I’m a sucker for titles with nationalities. Even if the movies and books don’t always satisfy, the use of the words themselves are often excellent shorthand for “exotic,” “powerful,” or “naïve.” For the purpose of narrowing my subject, I’ve avoided all uses of the word “American,” but even that had some fine uses: “An American Tragedy,” “The Quiet American,” “American Pie,” “American Beauty,” (my personal favorite title if not movie) and “American” (the original title of “Citizen Kane”).

1. The English Patient – The irony, as those of you have seen the movie or read the book, is that the patient isn’t actually English. He’s Hungarian, burnt beyond recognition. But there’s a certain poetry in a man who has lost everything grasping onto an innocuous national identity.

2. The Spanish Prisoner – The trick, in its most modern incarnation, is attempted by every Nigerian who ever sends you an email requesting a transfer of 80,000 dollars to save a minor noble brought down by revolutionary violence with the promise of 10,000,000 later on. David Mamet could use it as a title only because the story it refers to was not too well-known. “Spanish Prisoner” might remind the average viewer of something closer to the Spanish Civil War or modern Basque violence than to a tale from the 16th century.

3. The Italian Job – I haven’t seen either version. But apparently it deals with a heist in Turin. And the title sounds lot more intriguing than The Turin Project.

4. The Argentine – It hasn’t even come out yet. But this is the most inspired title I could imagine for a Che Guevara biopic. So ambiguous. Is he an evil Argentine or a good one? Just where will Stephen Soderbergh lay his political beliefs?

5. The Mexican – The title refers to a gun. You can't name a gun after the Canadians.

6. Burmese Days – I guess I’ve lived in enough places that I can write my own books: Vietnamese Days, Bulgarian Days, Latvian Days and, maybe soon, Hungarian Days…But the lilting two-syllable/one-syllable bit only seems to work with Burmese Days, which recall the awful colonial experience so well. (No, I don’t know any film version of the Orwell book.)

7. The Good German – Was there any such thing in post-World War II Berlin? Soderbergh again.

8. My Big Fat Greek Wedding – Awful title. The fine thing about the use of nationalities in titles is that you can make them short. You don’t have to say much more than “Spanish Prisoner” (strange thriller) “The Mexican” (violence), or “Good German” (drama about moral ambiguity) for audiences to get the idea. If Nia Vardalos needed to say “whacky” she only had to say “Greek Wedding.”

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Saddest Books in the World

(Note: I'm throwing together both the tragic and the drearily depressing under the heading "sad.")

1. Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy

I'm pretty sure this is the saddest book in the world. It is probably the least plausible of Hardy's endings but somehow more crushing than any of the others. I stared at a wall for like ten minutes after I finished it.

2. Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates

They are, incredibly, making a movie out of this book. I think it's the most depressing one I've ever read. It falls under the "drearily depressing" category, but it's written beautifully and has a sense of honesty that makes it art instead of torture. Although it is certainly the latter as well.

3. A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

Maybe it's manipulative, but it still gets to me. God, Sydney, don't sacrifice yourself for that worthless aristocrat!

4. Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

I haven't read The House of Mirth, but apparently that is even more depressing.

5. The Golovylov Family, by Saltykov-Shchedrin

The dreariest book in all of Russian literature, says Mirsky. One of the most awful sets of people ever to occupy a single book. It also has what is probably the most horrific suicide scene in all of literature.

6. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

I didn't realize what Jake's injury was when I first read this book and it still depressed the hell out of me. Now that I know, it is both depressing and a little painful to think about.

7. The Professor's House, by Willa Cather

More subtly depressing than the other books on this list. A quietly brutal verdict on most people's lives.

8. Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

Maybe the most desolate last page of any of these books. Man.

9. The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald

A set of stories largely about people who lived through the holocaust. Never cheap or manipulative, though.

10. Adolphe, by Benjamin Constant

I wrote a little bit about this book already. A harsh and sad little novel.

Monday, August 20, 2007

5 Worst Film Uses of Pop Music

The much-awaited follow-up to last week's mini-list. Again, the focus is on the film's use of existing pop music, not original recordings.

5. American Psycho (2000). No wonder the men of Late Night Shots routinely trade quotes from this chotch epic on their often-hilarious members-only forums. It's their ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy: 1980s cocaine-fueled predator UTTERLY DOMINATES women, Wall Street, and all his foes. And he does it to a soundtrack featuring both Robert Palmer and Huey Lewis. That's hard enough to believe by itself, but it only gets worse when you throw in "Lady in Red," "If You Don't Know Me By Now," and two Phil Collins/Genesis songs. I know, I know, it's all supposed to be ironic, but at some point this movie, like its fans on LNS, starts enjoying itself so much it leaves the irony behind. Phil Collins doesn't help.

4. Garden State (2004). Is this a controversial call anymore? Or has the Zach Braff backlash (Brafflash?) made it boringly conventional to hate on Zach and everything he's done? In any case, this movie is not The Graduate for our generation (neither is "Knocked Up," by the way). It's not even good. And the lite indie soundtrack is limp enough even without Braff calling attention to his good taste with egregious scenes like the one parodied here.

3. Dazed and Confused (1993). American Graffiti was the early '70s doing the early '60s; this is the early '90s doing the mid '70s. Problem? The mid '70s pretty much sucked. I'll admit did enjoy this movie in high school (I even bought the soundtrack! It slotted in perfectly between The Best of Grand Frunk Railroad and Bad Company's 10 From 6). But looking over the music again, man, it just sucked: ZZ Top, Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo", and "Jim Dandy." Some of these songs wouldn't even crack a Classic Rock Block anymore. Do they convincingly recall the American high school experience of 1976? Maybe. But to borrow from Phil Collins (see above): I don't care anymore. They still suck.

2. Fear (1996). If the mid '70s were lame, what can we say about the mid '90s? If you haven't seen it in a while, it's time to revisit this Mark Wahlberg/Reese Witherspoon thriller, which borrows heavily from both Cape Fear and Straw Dogs. I caught it via On Demand last week, and was impressed by Reese's navel-hugging jeans, the guy from CSI's hilarious performance as her intense dad, and the fact that at one point in time Marky Mark was a pretty tough dude. I wasn't impressed by the music. In fact, Fear is the inspiration for both these lists. Aside from one throwaway moment where Toad the Wet Sprocket is heard in the background (don't blame the director; this was the mid-90's after all), there are apparently only two songs in the entire film: a soggy '90s girl band cover of "Wild Horses," used enthusiastically whenever something kinky is going on; and Bush's "Come Down," used enthusaistically whenever Mr. Mark is being a badass. There's a chance "Machinehead" subs for "Come Down" during one of those frequent badass scenes, but I swear those two songs recur about seventeen times during this 90 minute movie.

1. Armageddon (1998). I love ripping on this movie. It's like Michael Bay saw "Independence Day" and then bet Roland Emmerich that he could take out the aliens and still make an explosions/space/world-saving movie that was louder, coarser, uglier, and dumber than what had come before. (It's too bad Bay didn't make a similar wager with Emmerich after The Patriot--I would love to have seen that film). Anyway, everybody remembers the loathesome "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing," but that was recorded specifically for the film so technically can't count here. Fortunately, Armageddon sports two other awful Aerosmith tunes, including their cover of "Come Together," which should be mentioned -- along with "I Don't Want..." -- in any serious discussion about The Worst Song Of All Time. There's also Bon Jovi, ZZ Top, and Bob Seger. To be honest, I can't remember exactly how all these songs are used, but does it even matter? At least Dazed and Confused was purposely trying to capture the sour-milk taste of '70s cock rock. What's Michael Bay's excuse? He's making a giant sci-fi epic about saving the planet. We're left to suspect that he really thinks "Sweet Emotion" is, like, the most ass-kicking song in history. Ugh.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

5 Best Film Uses of Pop Music

An impressionistic, not a comprehensive list. (I left some obvious choices off the board). And bear in mind that I'm not looking for original compositions, but movies that put existing music to good use.

Stay tuned for the corresponding 5 worst films, coming tomorrow...

5. Farenheit 9-11 (2004). I'm no big fan of Michael Moore, but the man does know how to get the most out of pop music. Sure, it's heavy handed (insert Moore weight-related joke here) but it's heavy-handed in the best and most exuberant way -- almost as if Moore really believes he can score more political points with pop than with actual argument or evidence. In almost all cases he's right: especially when he streams the Go-Go's "Vacation" over clips of Bush at Crawford, and "Shiny Happy People" over Carlyle Group-Saudi handshakes. Best of all is the 2-second overdub of "Cocaine" while Moore discusses Bush's truancy in the National Guard. The movie is full of holes, but that is a brilliant moment.

4. Buffalo '66 (1998). I have an admitted soft spot for prog rock, but it's not that soft, and I would never willingly sit down and listen to Yes's "Heart of the Sunrise" just because I wanted to. Yet in this movie, a personal fave, that song-- along with a few other Yes and King Crimson tunes -- is taken so far beyond its potential that I went out and bought The Yes Album. The final scene where Vincent Gallo finally confronts Buffalo Bills kicker "Scott Wood" is especially awesome.

3. Zodiac (2007). An underrated film whose subtle soundtrack makes '60s and '70s San Francisco ooze all around you. No obvious period choices, here: Scott McKenzie, Mick Jagger, and Grace Slick have been temporarily exiled to Oakland. Instead, a brilliant use of slightly dustier pop classics, both good and bad: Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" wafts in eerily during the first murder; Santana's noodly "Soul Sacrifice" captures the onset of the decadent '70s. And don't you think bedgraggled, sideburns-sporting Frisco cops on the tail of the Zodiac probably DID spend a lot of time in bars that played Gerry Rafferty, Boz Scaggs, and Steely Dan?

2. Easy Rider (1969). A cliched choice, but an Important one. By some accounts, Dennis Hopper canceled a proposed CSN score and more or less invented the idea of re-using existing pop music in a feature film. Personal favorite moments, besides the obvious Steppenwolf opening: the naked frolicking with hippie chicks during "Wasn't Born to Follow," which first drew me to the Byrds, at age 17, but sadly did not augur any naked frolicking of my own; and the Roger McGuinn take on "It's Alright Ma," which I still prefer, sacreligiously, to the original Dylan.

1. Donnie Darko (2001). In its own way, this is an even more obvious selection than Easy Rider. But it's unavoidable: this movie led me directly to purchase no fewer than six albums (two Echo albums, and one record each by The Church, Joy Division, Tears For Fears, and Duran Duran). In a very real sense, Donnie Darko gave me the gift of the '80s. Dubious, but undeniably catchy -- and memorable, too. "The Killing Moon" manages to make c. 1988 suburbia both ominous and fascinating, in under 3 minutes; "Head Over Heels" is the perfect introduction to Donnie's school; and "Love Will Tear Us Apart," which only gets about 20 seconds of background airplay, nevertheless establishes itself as the ultimate party song. I don't know if I can count Gary Jules's final, heartbreaking cover of "Mad World," which was specially recorded for the movie. But Darko doesn't even need the help. It wins anyway.

Elvis Aaron Presley, RIP

I know this isn't really a list at all, but it's thirty years to the day that America lost the only King it would ever know. If you want to see the famous first televised performance of "Hound Dog" (pictured), click here and fast-forward to 4:30. Or if you're more of a late Elvis fan (honestly, who isn't?), check this and this out. And surely you've always wanted to see Johnny Cash doing Elvis and Andy Kaufman doing his Elvis for Cash himself. To complete this exercise in postmodern Elvis appreciation, check out Jim Carrey doing Andy Kaufman doing Elvis.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Top Ten Christian-and/or-Biblically-Themed Songs That Are So Good That They Call My Agnosticism Into Question.

10. Dirty Dozen Brass Band, “I’ll Fly Away.” Some bright morning when this life is over... A gospel standard, originally a hymn. Your basic Southern Baptist doctrine, set to song. Never really gets old, though, whether it’s sung or merely instrumental. The DDBB take is a great jazzy-gospel hybrid.

9. Norman Greenbaum, “Spirit In The Sky.” Gotta have a friend in Gee-ZUSS! Appropriately enough for this list, this classic Jesus rock song was penned and performed by a Jew looking to either appeal to Christians or to mock them to their faces. With its high-distortion guitar chords, infectious clapping, and cheesy back-up girls, it nears pop perfection.

8. Regina Spektor, “Samson.” I cut his hair myself one night/Pair of dull scissors in the yellow light. Like “Hallelujah,” (below), this song channels the raw sexuality of the Samson story, although Spektor tells it from a seemingly innocent Delilah perspective. Her characteristic whimsy and silky vocals makes this somewhat tired trope fresh and enticing.

7. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” Undertaker, Undertaker, please drive slow/For this body you are hauling, Lord, I hate to see her go. A touching folk-hymnal dirge that can still have some bounce and life. The NGDB cover has excellent use of fife, fiddle, and bango to give it an authentic rolled-in-corn-meal-and-deep-fried feel. You could thump a bible in time to it.

6. Jeff Buckley (Leonard Cohen), “Hallelujah.” Maybe there’s a god above/But all I ever learned from love/Was how to shoot someone who outdrew you. Everyone’s favorite Old Testament break-up song. Despite the fact that this song has been soundtracked to death (from The OC to The West Wing to, my god, Shrek), it remains powerful thanks to its epic scale and its potent mix of cynicism and eroticism. I favor the Buckley take most of all, but enjoy the Rufus Wainwright and Imogen Heap versions as well. And while I regret to knock the man who gave us “Chelsea Hotel,” it must be said that compared to these excellent covers, Cohen’s original comes off as overproduced and horribly dated.

5. Bruce Springsteen, “Reason To Believe.” Still at the end of every hard-earned day/People find some reason to believe. Perhaps this is the unrepentant agnostic speaking, but I find some of the best songs about faith are the ones that question it. It’s hard to tell if the Boss admires or pities the blindly faithful; although familiarity with his work (and the increasingly ecumenical spirituality of later albums like The Rising) would suggest that he identifies with them, even if their unwavering hope also mystifies him. After all, it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.

4. Ralph Stanley, “Rank Stranger.” Some beautiful day (Some beautiful day)/I'll meet 'em in heaven/Where no one will be/A stranger to me. A bluegrass standard on kinship and faith. If the mountain mentality had a singular anthem, it would be this song. There’s a lot of fine covers out there, including a Dylan one, but Stanley’s is definitive. His voice is craggy as an App’a’latchan ridge line. The man’s breath must be made of moonshine vapors and coaldust.

3. Sufjan Stevens, “The Seer’s Tower.” Seven miles above the Earth/There is Emmanuel of mothers/With his sword, with his robe/He comes dividing man from brothers. There’s a millenarian streak in Stevens’ work, perhaps best explored in this song, “They Are Night Zombies!,” and “Seven Swans.” Like in “Night Zombies,” Stevens imagines the Illinois landscape as the setting of the Apocalypse. This song is ethereal and perhaps too churchy for some tastes. I find I enjoy it for its unflinching sense of doom and judgment.

2. Johnny Cash, “Man in Black.” I wear the black for the poor and beaten down/Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town. A direct statement of faith in action, in which Cash casts himself as kind of badass Christ figure. There’s also a pretty pointed critique of secular, materialistic America. That’s right, you douchebags with your streak-of-lightning cars and fancy clothes. Johnny here would love to sport some rainbow duds, but you’re so fucking selfish that he has to wear this here suit of black. On his back, like a fucking cross. Just to remind you panty-waisted cocksuckers of those who are left back.

1. Gillian Welch, “Orphan Girl.” Blessed Savior, make me willing/Walk beside me ‘till I’m with them. A gorgeous song about a lonely orphan who takes solace in the love of Jesus. It seldom fails to raise the hair on my arms. It can make me tear up if I’ve had a bit to drink. And it’s possible proof that there is a benevolent, sentient creator who takes great pleasure in sending foul-mouthed heathen like me straight to hell.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Five four-letter words spelled with one button using T9

deed feed high noon moon

Which one do you think is most common in text messages?

Monday, August 6, 2007

Four Fat Presidents

As a US-historian-in-training with a healthy gut, I thought I'd give a shout out to a few of our fattest American Presidents. These are not exactly rankings: instead each man's position on the list comes from a rough equation that factors in both his historical importance and his BMI. So, for example, Clinton ranks below Taft both for his indeterminate legacy (it's too soon to really tell) and his relative svelteness compared to Taft. This is also not a definitive list; alternate nominations are welcome in the comments.

1. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. T.R. was a fit fattie with the physique of a middle-aged football coach--thick-necked and dense. He still counts as fat, though; he is undoubtedly the pudgiest man on Mount Rushmore. Roosevelt tops the list for his actual accomplishments. A hero of the Spanish-American War, he gave us the Panama Canal, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Park system. He pulled off numerous diplomatic feats, and became the first American to win a Nobel Peace Prize. He was, on most occasions, an enemy of trusts and a friend to workers. T.R. was also an unabashed imperialist and a leading theorist of scientific racism. Still, the good wins out--the man gave names to the nation's most popular stuffed animal and the nation's most popular condom for anal intercourse. And he graciously aided the people of Africa by considerably thinning the population of big game on the continent.

2. John Adams, Jr. John Adams was a double-chinned douchebag who has recently been overpraised by a handful of book-club biographers. This chubster was a sulky, stubborn, ill-tempered man with a talent for making enemies. (Like many fat boys, Adams surely suffered cruel taunting as a child, and I suspect his need for revenge against his tormentors led to his conception of a monarchical Presidency.) Adams actively sought to criminalize dissent and to scapegoat immigrants, and he tried to pack the federal judiciary with his friends. "His Rotundancy" had some strengths, to be sure. He didn't own slaves, he had keen argumentative mind, and he was a skilled diplomat--both in ensuring Dutch support for the infant republic and avoiding a full-on war with France. But ultimately, Adams is to the Founding Fathers what Chunk is to the Goonies: a grating tag-along with a few moments of usefulness.

3. William Howard Taft. The only real lardass to serve as POTUS, Taft earned the title of "tubby" when his considerable girth caused him to become stuck the White House bathtub multiple times. (I wonder, how many times do you have to get stuck to consider switching to showers?) His reputation is also weighty--as the only man to serve as both President and Chief Justice, Taft made a large impression on government and politics in early 20th-century America, much like the deep, buttock-shaped crater an obese man leaves on his favorite side of the sofa. True, his actual tenure as POTUS revealed him to be politically tone deaf and led to his humiliating reelection defeat--he only carried Utah and Vermont, making the loss the worst ever experienced by an incumbent President. And granted, on the bench he was a conservative who consistently ruled in favor of big business, executive privilege, and segregation. But schoolchildren everywhere in this roly-poly land still remember Taft. Cause he was fat. Really fat. Like Manatee fat. He was a big boy, is what I'm saying.

4. William Jefferson Clinton. Relating Clinton's fondness for food to his other appetites is a tired cliche, so I would prefer to put his pudginess in historical perspective. If Hillary Clinton becomes President, then Clinton will have adhered to the pattern of fat presidents have unusually large political influence after leaving office. If he becomes the only President to return to the White House as First Gentleman, his legacy will be comparable to TR's run for a third term, Taft's tenure as Chief Justice, and the Adams family dynasty. Perhaps there is a genuine trend here. Apparently fat men take to the halls of power like they take to an all-you-can-eat buffet. It's not easy to kick them out.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

14 Best Protest Songs

The genre of music in which the most iconic and embarrassing songs have been written (or, in Elvis's case, performed). Fortunate Son and Eve of Destruction. Blowin' in the Wind and the Dead Prez vegetarian anthem Be Healthy. And any number of other well-meaning but musically horrific songs. It is probably easier nowadays to mock the genre rather than make a credible contribution, despite the fact that the quantity of things to protest is certainly not shrinking. Jeff mentioned Biko already, so I will leave it off the list; and the ones mentioned above can go without saying.

1. Clampdown, the Clash

(My favorite Clash song. Addressed to industrial workers, but strangely biting even in a modern office building. Since I was just in such a building, this song makes it to the top of the list. The men at the factory are old and cunning / you don't owe nothing / boy, get running! / it's the best years of your life they want to steal...)

2. A Change is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke

(An obvious choice, but unavoidable.)

3. We're a Winner, Curtis Mayfield

(A joyous protest song! Pretty much only directed at black people but I love it anyway.)

4. Revolution 1, the Beatles

(Not really suitable for singing at protests -- "Guys, hold on, we need a plan!" -- but probably better than the Lennon songs that are. Although having a plan does indeed seem revolutionary nowadays.)

5. Let Me Die in My Footsteps, by Bob Dylan

(So many to choose from! I'm going with this one because I love it, and also because I am now self-conscious about being obvious. No one has bomb shelters anymore but the song still resonates.)

6. Don't Look Now, CCR

(One of the greatest sets of lyrics in all of music, a good example of how much can be said in a three minute song.)

7. There But for Fortune, Phil Ochs

(I really love this song. Draft Dodger Rag and a few others are still good, but this is probably the only Ochs song that holds up completely. And stabs at the conscience a little, no less.)

8. I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I'll Get it Myself), by James Brown

(The title is really the only good line in the song. Luckily, it is repeated several dozen times.)

9. Higher Ground, Stevie Wonder

(I actually think the Chili Peppers' cover might be better than the original, but once they start talking about "funky funky sounds" it is hard to take it seriously as a protest.)

10. Bourgeois Blues, Leadbelly

(The title has obviously dated, but still a great song. And D.C. hasn't gotten much more more integrated since he wrote it.)

11. 911 is a Joke, Public Enemy

(One of few songs on this list that might conceivably have produced some change.)

12. Christmas in Washington, Steve Earle

(The most recent song on this list - it's from 1997 - and it expresses nostalgia for a past era of protest instead of any sort of desire for a better future. This is either indicative of the floundering, uncertain state of opposition in this country, or a sign that I am out of touch with what's going on today and have gotten musically as well as politically complacent. In either case, an immensely sad song.)

13. It's Expected I'm Gone, the Minutemen

(I'm not sure how great this song really is, but it is the world's most defiantly pessimistic. The best line: "No hope. See, that's what gives me guts." The next line -- "big fucking shit" -- is not quite so impressive.)

14. Vampire Blues, Neil Young

(The protest is pretty oblique; it's about oil price gouging, but the lyrics drift around the topic. It does contain perhaps my favorite Neil Young verse:

Good times are coming
I hear it everywhere I go
Good times are coming
But they're sure coming slow)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

RE: 10 Worst Movie Gerund Titles

I haven't been on here in a while so bear with me as I comment on an older posting concerning the "10 Worst Movie Gerund Titles". I realize this is not a list, but I wondered if Matt K would provide a little clarification to his post (other comments are certainly welcome)...
Was the implication in #10 that "Being John Malkovich" was also worthy of placement in the list as a bad title? I ask because I cannot think of a title that would have been more appropriate for that film. The others, especially #'s 1, 2, 4, 5 and 8, could easily have been improved upon, #1 perhaps most (Really, who's doing what in that title?) But what else would you have called "Being John Malkovich"? The other titles read like tailer sound bytes summarizing the conflict that has to be overcome/experienced/etc and were probably thrown out at the pitch meeting, but "Malkovich" isn't about anything except being John Malkovich--there's nothing figurative, no double entendre. It would be like remaking "Elizabeth" with the camera's view representing that of the queen. Wouldn't it be fitting for such a film to be called the obvious? It almost seems like the title of "Malkovich" is purposely invoking the other films on your list so it can then play against their duplicity by being straight forward in its delivery.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Ten (Top? Who could say?) Rhymes in My iTunes and in My Head

Inspired by Akshay's comment regarding drinking and driving, I thought first of Wilco and second of other rhymes I like, which I determined to be good fodder for my first crack at 'Wigging out.' Apologies for errors. The transcriptions are the work of my ear, memory, and the Internet, imperfect sources all.

Performed by
Song (Album)

10. Wilco
Passenger Side (A.M)
You're gonna make me spill my beer
if you don't learn how to steer.
See above.

9. Chuck Prophet
Run Primo Run (No Other Love)
Primo snorted up his name like he does every year
on the day he came into this world. It makes him feel like Richard Gere.
I don't really like the song, but I have to credit the appearance of Richard Gere.

8. Frank Sinatra
I Get a Kick Out of You (??)
Flying too high with some gal in the sky
is my idea of nothing to do.
. . . and internal rhyme takes the stage! It gets even better if "gal" becomes "guy."

7. Bobby Darin
Clementine (Greatest Hits)
took the foot bridge, way 'cross the water
though she weighed two-ninety nine.
The old bridge trembled and disassembled—
Oops!—dumped her into the foamy brine.
A re-write in which Clementine becomes "chubby Clementine." Extra points for being totally offensive and ridiculous.

6. A tie! Outkast
Hey Ya! (The Love Below)
Why, oh why, oh why, oh,
are we so in denial . . .

Happy Valentine's Day (The Love Below)
Never know because, sh[oo]t, I never tell her.
Ask me about my feelings I’d holla that it’s irrela'.
I don't get myself caught up in the Jello gella' . . .

Roses (The Love Below)
Caroline! See she's the reason for the word "bitch."
I hope she's . . .
and crash, crash, crash into a ditch.
Near rhymes are my favorite, and oh! the delivery on the last one.

5. Langhorne Slim
Drowning (Langhorne Slim w/ Charles Butler)
Here comes the lifeguard.
I'm drowning and she seems so delicious.
I'm grounded with her arms around me,
and I'm blinded by them ugly fishes.
If you don't know Langhorne, you should. He screams real high and wears a hat.

4. Mose Allison
Top Forty (??)
No more philosophic melancholia—
800 pounds of electric genitalia.
What Mose can look forward to when he makes his "big beat, top-forty, rock'n'roll record."

3. Tom Waits
The One the Got Away (Small Change)
And the shroud-tailor measures him for a deep-six holiday.
The stiff is froze, the case is closed, on the one that got away.
This entire song deserves consideration for this list.

2. Joanna Newsom
Emily (Ys)
That the meteorite is a source of the light,
and the meteor's just what we see.
And the meteoroid is a stone that's devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee.

And the meteorite's just what causes the light,
and the meteor's how it's perceived.
And the meteoroid's a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee
Even though she astronomically confuses meteorites for meteoroids, who can argue that this isn't genius?

1. Tom Waits
Step Right Up (Small Change)
It's sanitized for your protection; it gives you an erection; it wins the election.
Mr. Waits at his best.

Top 5 TV Sit-Coms

5. Green Acres
4. The Dick Van Dyke Show
2. MASH and All in the Family (tie)
1. Seinfeld

Top 5 Westerns

5. Silverado (1985) - This Lawrence Kasdan written and directed film boasts an all star cast and helped to reinvigorate interest in the genre.
4. Unforgiven (1992) - Clint Eastwood shows he learned a thing or two about film making from starring in all those spaghetti westerns.
3. True Grit (1969) - John Wayne won his Oscar for this one; probably not his best film, but a good western.
2. Shane (1953) - A great telling of the classic lone drifter story.
1. High Noon (1952) - Gary Cooper, Grace Kelley, and the story of a man determined to do the right thing despite the odds and being abandoned by the people he thought were his friends...just a great movie.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Favorite Readable Works of Post-Classical Philosophy

1. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, by David Hume

(This book is amazing. I've read it three times while never making a dent in the more famous Treatise Concerning Human Nature.)

2. On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill

(Also wonderful is Mill's autobiography, although I've never been able to get through Utilitarianism or any of his other books.)

3. The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James

(Again, much more approachable than either Pragmatism or Principles of Philosophy. I also recommend the Talks to Teachers and Students.)

4. The World as Will and Idea, by Schopenhauer

(I've actually only read the abridged edition from Will Durant. So there goes my credibility.)

5. Unto This Last, by John Ruskin

(Beloved of Gandhi, Tolstoy, and Proust! Now famous largely for being terrified of his wife's naked body and refusing to have sex with her. Bizarre proclivities aside, I like Ruskin a lot. I think people will start reading him again one of these days.)

6. The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz

(So good, especially the central chapters about individual artists.)

7. The Need for Roots, by Simone Weil

(Like Ruskin, her books are -- to modern eyes -- equal parts silly and profound, but they stay with you more than any number of works by more reasonable people.)

8. Walden, by Thoreau

(Low on the list because Thoreau is an infuriating writer. It is impossible to pin him down to any position at all. But he succeeds beautifully on the sentence level while failing, continually, as a communicator of ideas.)

9. Freedom and Beyond, by John Holt

(Out of print for decades, but easy to find in good libraries and very worthwhile.)

10. Four Essays on Liberty, by Isaiah Berlin

(I find his least philosophically "important" essays the most interesting, cf. the biographical sketch of Mill and the one on the birth of Greek individualism, collected in the big volume called Liberty.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Desert Island Movies

These aren't the best movies I've ever seen, exactly, just the ones that I feel like I could go on watching for a very long time. In no particular order:

1. Punch-Drunk Love, by P.T. Anderson
2. McCabe & Mrs. Miller, by Robert Altman
3. Afterlife, by Hirozaku Kore-eda
4. The Diary of a Country Priest, by Robert Bresson
5. Bottle Rocket, by Wes Anderson
6. You Can Count on Me, by Kenneth Lonergan
7. City Lights, by Charlie Chaplin
8. The Big Lebowski, by Joel & Ethan Coen
9. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, by Tim Burton
10. The Jungle Book, by Wolfgang Reitherman

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

10 Worst Movie Gerund Titles

As I hinted in a previous post, I hate titles that begin with gerunds. They're slick but inelegant, 'contemporary' but banal, and they force a kind of spurious intimacy on their audience -- hey, you, just glancing at this movie poster, you don't know it but you're already involved in this vapid plot -- you're already "Saving Silverman" or "Walking Tall." Ugh.

Of course, there are gerund titles for all different kinds of art, from classic literature ("Loving") to crap music ("Throwing Copper"). The gerund phenomenon is only an epidemic, however, in Hollywood. Here are the 10 worst titles, largely (but not entirely) irrespective of the quality of film:

10. Wrestling Ernest Hemingway. This 1993 old-person movie -- which, strangely enough, I've actually seen -- is the most egregious of the 'Gerund + Famous Person' genre, which also includes Searching For Bobby Fischer and Being John Malkovich.

9. Waking Ned Devine. Old-people movies are apparently gerund-friendly. The worst of the 'Gerund + Random Full Name' genre. Beats out Kissing Jessica Stein and the projected 2008 Judd Apatow release, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Who the fuck is Ned Devine, and why should I care?

8. Saving Private Ryan. Say a word for perhaps the biggest-ever of the Hollywood gerund titles. Both the overblown praise and the unfair criticism of this film tends to neglect its awful title. I actually think its banality taints the overall work of art (which I respect) in a small but still meaningful way.

7. Pushing Tin. Surely the first and last time air-traffic controller jargon makes it into the title of a major studio picture.

6. Leaving Normal. OK, OK, so it didn't make much of an impact at the box office, or anywhere in pop culture, really. But it was still a studio pic made by Edward Zwick, and you tell me if it doesn't manage to pack about six Hollywood cliches into those four syllables. (Yeah, you guessed right -- "Normal" is also "Normal, Wyoming.")

5. Riding In Cars With Boys. Such ghastliness should speak for itself. The first of these clunkers not released in the '90s -- truly the Age of the Gerund.

4. Finding Forrester. Hollywood really likes to help filmgoers "find" things: Graceland, Neverland, Nemo. It's hard to imagine a more disappointing find than Sean Connery doing a preposterous J.D. Salinger impression in this painful Good Will Hunting reprise.

3. Being Human. The grandaddy of gerunds. We've been forced to be There, Julia, John Malkovich, and countless other people, places, and states of mind. But the tie goes to a movie whose central premise has Robin Williams playing a single human soul over the course of all human history, including stints as a caveman, an ancient Roman slave, and a 16th C Portuguese nobleman.

2. Feeling Minnesota. 1996. Keanu Reeves. Cameron Diaz. Courtney Love. Ugliest 'Gerund + Random Place' title. I might have to see this.

1. Regarding Henry. I guess you could quibble with the purity of the gerund use here; I think "regarding" functions more as a preposition than as a verb-noun. But I'd say that just shows the flexibility of gerund awfulness. Maybe you have to know that the movie is about Harrison Ford's brain-injury-induced transformation from obnoxious lawyer to deep-souled human innocent. But is there a more sickly smug, more emptily mawkish film title in the universe than "Regarding Henry"? I hope not. It fits the movie perfectly.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Top Ten Movies of the 1990s

I think these folks had the last word on this topic.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Top Ten Victorian Novel Titles

My prejudices have always lined up with the curmodgeonly conventional wisdom that the 19th century was truly the greatest age of the novel. What's less debatable, though, is that the 19th century was the greatest age of the novel title. Sure, there are 20th century gems like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Lolita, but I'll take a Victorian title over a contemporary one any day of the week.

10. Can You Forgive Her? (Anthony Trollope). Obviously, my bias is for wordiness, and sentences-as-titles are often favorites. But this one is memorable not just as a sentence, but as an interrogative. What's the best 20th century book with a question in its title? Who Moved My Cheese? Trollope's is the second best interrogative title of all time, topped only by...

9. What Will He Do With It? (Edward Bulwer-Lytton). How Awesome Is This? Points for ambiguity, long-windedness without pomposity, and comically obvious (to modern eyes) sexual double entendre. Deductions for Bulwer-Lytton being an unread and probably unreadable goliath, a kind of dorky caricature of a Victorian author.

8. The Egoist (George Meredith). Maybe it's just me, but who doesn't want to read a book about an egoist? (I haven't yet, but will soon). Meredith's title shows off the kind of terse directness that alternated with the more famous volubility of classic Victorian titles. I don't think the straightforward "The X" format is quite so popular now, but it had a terrific heyday in the 19th century.

7. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte). The best place-name title in 19th century British fiction, edging out Mansfield Park and flat-out slaughtering Middlemarch. Of course Middlemarch is probably a better novel than anything on this list, but the title has a kind of dense, ungainly obscurity that surely drives away far more readers than it entices.

6. The Odd Women (George Gissing). I haven't read this, either, but I want to. "Odd" is just a great word no matter how you look at it, and this simple title allows it to take rare full billing.

5. Jude The Obscure (Thomas Hardy). Wins the character-name title award. This has such a nice ring to it that my freshman-year hallmates took to calling a preppy douchebag named Jude on the third floor "Jude The Obscure," which eventually got whittled down to just "The Obscure." The book is, of course, great as well, but actually my least favorite of the major Hardys -- not so the title.

4. Our Mutual Friend (Charles Dickens). Beats out Bleak House and Great Expectations for the best Dickens title. Not flashy or immediately evocative, but subtly intriguing... An interrogative without the question mark. Whose mutual friend? Mine? Dickens's? What's going on?

3. Dracula (Bram Stoker). According to Wikipedia, Stoker probably didn't get the word from the historical Vlad the Impaler. He just stumbled across the Romanian word dracul and decided it was pretty badass. It was: this is a very good read, but half the reason Dracula continues to occupy so much cultural space, even in the 21st century, is because Stoker didn't call the book "Count Vampyre."

2. Far From The Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy). Before the cliche, there was the book. Normally I hate gerunds (more on that, perhaps, later), but this one transcends that bias.

1. He Knew He Was Right (Anthony Trollope). Some of the greats had title-writing in their blood (or at their publisher's office); some didn't. Hardy had it; George Eliot didn't (besides Middlemarch, there is the archaically boring Mill on the Floss, the laconically boring Adam Bede, and the, uh, boringly boring Silas Marner, which, in fact, is probably the comic archetype for dull-sounding Victorian titles assigned in school).
Trollope was an absolute master of the art. Besides the two represented here, there are The Way We Live Now, Ralph The Heir, Is He Popinjoy?, and An Old Man's Love. But this one takes the cake--not only is it a full sentence, it's a brilliantly ambiguous one, a sentence that already takes place within (and yet also without) the main character's brain. It's a title that could be an opening line. This may be a completely obscure Trollope novel, number 28 of 45, or whatever it is, but I will read it just because of the title.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Top Five Full-Length Suspense/Horror Films On The Web

This actually started as just a list of cool movies that are online, but then I realized that they were all pretty ghoulish, as many of my favorites are. Also, while many movies show up on YouTube and get taken down, these are all fully legal and should be available for a long time. Enjoy!

5. Night of the Living Dead (1968).
"They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhh!!" Bring it on, George Romero, bring it on.

4. Nosferatu (1922).
The F.W. Murnau classic. Moody, engrossing, and actually scary at a couple points. (And campy in many other parts.) If you find it hard to get into silent film, perhaps you should check this out after renting "The Shadow of the Vampire," which gives you all sorts of fun context and shot-for-shot recreations of the original.

3. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). In eight parts.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Peter Lorre. That's right. Peter Lorre. The man who perfected being creepy, strange, and awesome before Christopher Walken was a spermatoza. Also, while Hitch claimed otherwise, most agree that it's superior to his 1950s remake with J-J-Jimmy Stewart.

2. Fritz Lang's "M" (1931).
Of course, now that I've confessed my deep love for Peter Lorre, you don't think I'd forget this one, do you? The only reason it isn't number one is that I think it's kind of sacrilege to watch such a textured black-and-white film on a YouTube screen (even though the quality's pretty good for YouTube). But if you've never seen it, just five minutes should convince you to run out and get the Criterion Collection DVD.

1. Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr (1999).
Talk about creepy, strange, and awesome. It's not technically suspense or horror; it's a documentary. But it's pretty chilling all the same. Definitely one of Errol Morris's best, perhaps second only to "The Thin Blue Line." And it's on Google Video, so it has higher resolution than the others on this list.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Top 10 Bruce Springsteen Songs About Automobiles

10. “Cadillac Ranch.” El Dorado fins, whitewalls and skirts/ Rides just like a little bit of heaven here on earth… A lighthearted love song, dedicated to the ultimate Detroit chromeboat.

9. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” My tires were slashed and I almost crashed but the Lord had mercy/ My machine she's a dud, I'm stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey… Seven minutes of gimmicky lyrics that come dangerously close to Billy Joel territory. But it’s a toetapper, and it’s hard not to like.

8. “Used Cars.” My little sister’s in the front seat with an ice cream cone… A wistful lament for all those poor folks who have to buy their cars second hand. A little overwrought, perhaps, but moving in spite of itself.

7. “Stolen Car.” Each night I wait to get caught/ But I never do… Stealing hearts and stealing cars. It’s the same thing, really, when you get down to it.

6. “Racing in the Streets.” For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels/ Rumbling through this promised land… The gentle piano arrangement gives this song a contemplative distance from its noisy, roaring subject matter.

5. “My Hometown.” Two cars at a light, on a Saturday night/ In the backseat there was a gun… A chilling survey of the ravages of deindustrialization. The narrator grows from son to father with his hands on the wheel, deciding whether to keep circling around Main Street or to pull out of town.

4. “Born to Run.” At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines… I’ll be honest. While it is admittedly brilliant, I think this song is a little overrated, and that it overshadows its superior album companion “Thunder Road” (below). The fact that the track has been played and quoted for thirty years doesn’t help. It just never seems fresh to me like it must have seemed when it was new.

3. and 2. (Tie) “State Trooper” and “Open All Night.” Two parts of the same song. A man drives down the Jersey Turnpike in the dead of night. In one version, he’s an outlaw: License, registration: I ain't got none/ But I got a clear conscience 'bout the things that I done… In the other he’s a working man on the night shift, remembering taking the same drive with his girl: Fried chicken on the front seat, she’s sittin’ in my lap/ We’re wipin’ our fingers on a Texaco road map… Whether or not they are the same man, they curse their radios for being jammed up with talk and gospel and offer this prayer to the relay towers: Hey ho rock and roll deliver me from nowhere.

1. “Thunder Road.” All the redemption I can offer girl is beneath this dirty hood…. It really isn’t the Boss’s most articulate comment on American car culture (see Nos. 10, 8, and 6, above). But it's certainly the best of his many hey-girl-get-in-my-car songs. It offers rich Catholic imagery and stark visions of life passing by, framed by the dashboard and seen through the windshield.