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.