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Sunday, February 25, 2007

random observations

Scroll two entries down for the list of predictions and favorites.

I posted my Oscar list last night. Several categories were extremely difficult this year. Sometimes, one just has to make a choice and move on.

I predicted Babel because Hollywood loves easy liberalism with a supposed Important Message For Our Time, even if that message is obvious and tedious. Then again, what do I know? Babel was the one film I refused to see this year.
Why did I favor The Queen over The Departed as the best film nominated? I think it came down to degree of difficulty. The screenplay and the two principals were impossibly true to what I remember and know (and assume) about the time and the people. Also, it broke my heart to recall so palpably how earnestly and hopefully we believed in Blair once upon a time. It may take an entire generation or more to undo the harms wrought upon the world by the twenty-first century's original sin: the stolen U.S. presidential election of 2000.

How did Michael Sheen not get nominated for playing Tony Blair? He deserves the award, and Ken Watanabe should be the runner-up. I saw three of the nominees—Sunshine, Departed, and Dreamgirls—and Arkin, Wahlberg, and Murphy all have strong cases for the award, but I'm going with Marky Mark. ('Feel it! Feel it')

What knuckleheads voted to give the Golden Globe to Jennifer Hudson? Her face is blank and her elocution inexpressive, anachronistic, and muddled throughout the movie.
If there were an award for best casting of a supporting actress, it would have to go to Pedro Almodóvar for bringing back Carmen Maura. Yay.

How on earth was Children of Men nominated for screenplay? I discussed the problems with its screenplay in my entry for January 25, 2007. I can't think of a less appropriate nomination.
Borat belongs to a category of its own, but best screenplay? Can it be said to have a screenplay? What we see on the screen is largely the result of editing, not writing.
The Departed: what is it but a great adaptation? That was easy.

I chose The Lives of Others, but the three films I saw in this category were all contenders. I was sure until last night that I would pick Pan's Labyrinth. For me, it was the first film I saw after returning from a trip to Spain where I spent a lot of time reflecting on Spain's history of the 'Reconquest' and Franco's fascism. (See blog entries for early January.) After facing its reality in person for a week, I came home to see it treated as fantasy. What an inspired idea and what a great movie.
Indigènes, released here as Days of Glory, tells the story of North African soldiers who fought to liberate their oppressor, France, in World War Two. I'll blog more about this film later this week.

I predict Dreamgirls, but it is one of the worst movies for sound ever made. The songs were produced according to twenty-first-century pop conventions where all levels are played at the same high volume. Such music has no background. That's not what Motown sounded like!

Random categories
Most under-nominated nominated film: Volver
Best male dialogue: The Departed
The only feature film of the year not based on characters (not that that's a criticism): United 93
Worst screenplay: Dreamgirls
Most disappointing: The Go Master, directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang, China
Most boring: Letters from Iwo Jima
Most surprising discovery: Leonardo DiCaprio can act as an adult.
Most hair-raising relationship: between Ryan Gosling and Shakeera Epps in Half Nelson
Very satisfying plot twist: the mascot in The Last King of Scotland gets spanked.
Worst documentary ever made: The U.S. vs. John Lennon
Funniest movie I've ever seen: Borat

(The blog entry below this one lists all the 2006 films I saw at its first comment.)


best film of the year

Since overcoming the furious seriousness of my youth, I have enjoyed taking the mantle of the æsthete in all matters of culture. In my assumption of the persona, that has meant elevating style over content and surface over depth. Consquently, I often say things like, 'Content is nothing; style is everything'. While I do earnestly think that such a belief offers benefits to humanity like safety and a guiltless love of beauty, I can also recognize my susceptibility to the pull of Wildean epigram in saying such things. ('There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.' Oscar Wilde, preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray.)

But then a great book or film or play of deep moral and political commitment comes along and all my dandyism and foppishness fall by the wayside. Commitment, of course, is not enough. It takes a work of great æsthetic achievement as well to avoid the pitfalls of easy didacticism and dull morals. I saw such a film last night and, while I recognize the risks inherent in immediately calling it the best film of the year, I'm going to run with it (and, yes, today is the Oscar deadline). It was, in short, a national epic for an age that history has taught to be anti-epic.

What is a national epic? Usually, it's a myth or a lie, a substitution of easy narcissism—if not supremacism—for the mess of history. The Nazis, the Soviets, the Serbs, and the Afrikaners all made deep investments in epic in the twentieth century, but only their crimes make them any different than all the other epic-hungry nations of the world. In a best-case scenario, national epics are what nations tell themselves so they can live with what they've done and forget it.

Salman Rushdie's great accomplishment in Midnight's Children was to write a national counter-epic. The novel comprehends the sweep of twentieth-century Indian history while constantly questioning narrative's ability to do so—'Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems'—and acknowledging its protagonist's need to 're-write the whole history of my times purely in order to place myself in a central role'. (chapter 12) Instead of a tale of heroism, the novel offers a narrative about narrativization told by a schlemiel with a big nose. Its sprawling form demonstrates that the only healthy version of history is the mixed-up kind that the novel calls in its final chapter 'the chutnification of history'. The great Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien used a different post-epic approach in his trilogy (City of Sadness; The Puppetmaster; Good Men, Good Women) by formally showing the limits of cinema's ability to comprehend history and experience. Through his use of open framing, the characters fall out of the frame; the film literally cannot contain them.

All of which brings me to the best film of the year: Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck of Germany. The film, set in East Germany in 1984, takes us inside the Stasi and its surveillance of a risk-averse playwright whose actress-girlfriend the Stasi chief minister covets. The agency entrusts the operation to a true believer, a man so zealous in defense of his craft that he teaches interrogation at the Stasi academy. (Because the film is still out, I will avoid spoilers, but it kills me to have to do so.)

I had heard that the film was about Stasi surveillance, but I was surprised that it asks us to identify with the zealous agent Wiesler, played with supreme control by Ulrich Mühe. If Forest Whitaker finds subtlety in exuberance in The Last King of Scotland, Mühe finds exuberance in subtlety. Like Almodóvar's Hable con ella, the film begins with the characters attending a performance, but agent Wiesler is no Almdovóran hero moved to tears by art. No, he will spend the performance staring at his target through binoculars. But what of the power of art to transform us? Does anyone still believe in such things? (Reader, I struggle, for your benefit, with the need to avoid spoilers.)

Filmically, we're treated to a masterful display of the cinematography of surveillance and the color palette of Erich Honecker's DDR. Can this really be the director-screenwriter's first feature? The style of this film is as subtle and controlled as Mühe's performance. The rest of the cast is first-rate as well. Sebastian Koch embodies the cool, the quiet sexiness, and the humanism we fancifully attribute to men of the arts. Martina Gedeck burns as the desperate, self-doubting actress. Ulrich Tukur and Thomas Thieme are perfect as the badly dressed Stasi higher-ups. If they look like that in real life, they both need makeovers.

The film rises to the level of epic—and no, not counter-epic or 'epic' in quotes—by telling Germans the story of themselves. It's not a story of heroes and triumphs and easy moralizing. It's a story of truth. It hurts to watch it. If its classification as epic needs qualification, then let us call it an epic that hurts. The film shows us everything: the insane closed logic of the zealots of order, the depradations they exact on the innocent and the confused, the compromises of spirit that such an order requires for survival, and the tragic fate of those who cannot weather such impossible compromises.

We can only hope that when the long Bush-Cheney nightmare is over, we can have as thorough and uncompromising a truth-telling about how Americans sat by while the Supreme Court sanctioned a coup, towers fell while terrorism warnings were ignored, people who needed our help in Afghanistan were abandoned for war elsewhere, intellectuals paraded their support for torture on television, the rule of law was suspended, and our countrymen returned the culprits to power. But perhaps epic would not be the appropriate genre. No, the only genre suited to our late history would be tragedy.

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Oscar predictions and favorites

Here it is, just a few hours behind schedule: my list of predictions and favorites. Explanations will follow in separate entries in about six or seven hours, i.e. after I wake up. Do feel encouraged to post your own predictions in the comments thread.

Tale of the Tape
24 Oscar categories
113 nominations
58 films nominated
I have seen 17 nominated films accounting for 48 nominations.
I did not see any of the animated features, animated shorts, documentary shorts, or live action shorts.

See the first comment for the complete list of all 26 first-run features for 2006 that I've seen.

best picture: The Lives of Others (not nominated)
best nominated: The Queen
(would not mind: The Departed)

best director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others (not nominated)
best nominated: Martin Scorsese
(would not mind: Stephen Frears)
(should have been nominated: Pedro Almodóvar)
PREDICTION: Martin Scorsese

best actor: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland; and Ulrich Mühe, The Lives of Others (not nominated)
PREDICTION: Forest Whitaker

best actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen
(would not mind: Penelope Cruz)
(should have been nominated: Ivana Baquero, Pan's Labyrinth)
PREDICTION: Helen Mirren

best supporting actor: Michael Sheen, The Queen (not nominated)
best nominated: Mark Wahlberg, The Departed
PREDICTION: Mark Wahlberg

best supporting actress: Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine
PREDICTION: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls

best screenplay: Peter Morgan, The Queen; and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others (not nominated)
PREDICTION: Peter Morgan, The Queen

best adapted screenplay: William Monahan, The Departed
(should have been nominated: Frank Cottrell Boyce, Tristram Shandy)
PREDICTION: William Monahan, The Departed

best foreign-language film: Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others)
PREDICTION: Pan's Labyrinth

best art direction: Eugenio Caballero and Pilar Revuelta, Pan's Labyrinth
PREDICTION: Pan's Labyrinth

best cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, Children of Men
(would not mind: Guillermo Navarro, Pan's Labyrinth)
PREDICTION: Children of Men

best editing: Clare Douglas, Christopher Rouse, and Richard Pearson, United 93
PREDICTION: Thelma Schoonmaker, The Departed


PREDICTION: Alexandre Desplat, The Queen

PREDICTION: 'Our Town' by Randy Newman (music and lyrics), from Cars

best costume design: Milena Canonero, Marie Antoinette
PREDICTION: Marie Antoinette
[I may revise this one after watching The Devil Wears Prada on dvd later today.]

PREDICTION: David Marti and Montse Ribe
, Pan's Labyrinth

PREDICTION: An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim

PREDICTION: Michael Minkler, Bob Beemer, and Willie Burton, Dreamgirls
Note: this film had the worst sound mixing of the year, but that's my prediction.

PREDICTION: Alan Robert Murray
, Letters from Iwo Jima

PREDICTION: John Knoll, Hal Hickel, Charles Gibson and Allen Hall
, 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest'

PREDICTION: The Danish Poet, Torill Kove

PREDICTION: West Bank Story, Ari Sandel

PREDICTION: The Blood of Yingzhou District, Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

film alert: hello, Anthology, or, what time is it playing there?

Last week I chose Tsai Ming-Liang's The Wayward Cloud as the best unreleased film (in the States) of 2006. Today I discovered that it is playing right now for a limited engagement at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan. Reader, you might not get another chance to see this film on the big screen for quite some time.

Friday, February 23, 2007

new announcement, new list

One of my readers has suggested that we do live blogging during Sunday night's Oscar broadcast, like the way Daily Kos and other strictly political blogs do on election night. That sounds like an excellent idea. You are all hereby invited to join in the fun: 8 p.m. New York time, Sunday, February 25. Everything will be fair game: the outfits, the outcomes, and the host.

Also, the list of nominees that I posted earlier did not quite include everyone's name. The first comment attached to this entry provides the completely complete list of all the nominees.


fading sun, rising sunshine

I have seen two more films this week in my mad dash to Sunday's Oscars: Letters from Iwo Jima and Little Miss Sunshine. I'm still very keen to see two of the foreign-language nominees, Days of Glory (Algeria) and The Lives of Others (Germany), but we'll see what I have time for.

I guess I just don't belong to the cult of Clint Eastwood. In 2003 he directed Mystic River, an ugly, stupid movie based on unimaginative platitudes of innocence and vengeance that brought six of the coolest actors born between 1958 and 1964 together for no good reason whatsoever. (Laura Linney's Lady Macbeth turn at the end stole the show.) Incredibly, or not, it was nominated for best picture and best director.

This year, my reaction to Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima is not angry but equally mystified. It is nothing more than a boring, digitally de-colorized war movie of explosions and a range of male responses to the stress of combat. Ken Watanabe is great as the worldly General Kuribayashi, a man of equal parts compassion, conviction, and courage. But the film is a big nothing. Can someone help me understand the reasons for the hype?

Message-wise, the film wants to teach us not to demonize an enemy we do not understand. A timely (and obvious) message perhaps, but one would not want to get too carried away analogizing al-Qa'ida to imperial Japan. People generally rally to their nation's cause, however wrong it may be, in time of war; al-Qa'ida fights to abolish nations per se. But enough about that. This is supposed to be Oscars week.

On a sunshinier note, Little Miss Sunshine was a complete surprise to me. When I heard last year that it was a moving road movie about a dysfunctional family on their way to a children's beauty pageant, it sounded like the last thing I would want to see. I'm probably exaggerating, but it seems like half the films made by Americans these days are about dysfunctional families. (Why do we even have this term 'dysfunctional family'? Isn't it redundant?)

But any story told well is worth hearing, not for the content but for the telling. The content of a well-told story always feels new even when it is anything but. Filmically, Little Miss Sunshine is nothing special. There are some cute compositions of the family members as a chain, à la Abbey Road—sitting on a bench with equidistant spacing between them, moving in line formation, taking turns jumping into their vehicle—but it is the screenplay and ensemble cast that shine here.

I'll limit myself to the start of the film for the sake of remaining spoiler-free. Even so, I don't think I could describe the screenplay without it sounding trite or mawkish. My academic colleagues will appreciate the setup: Steve Carell plays Frank, the nation's preëminent Proust scholar, who has just experienced a failed suicide attempt prompted by a sequence of events beginning with falling in love with one of his grad students, who then left him for the nation's #2 Proust scholar, which then led him to words and actions that led to his being fired from his university position. His sister's family takes him in and things go downhill from there.

The story works because the screenwriter, Michael Arndt, never shies away from the pain of disappointment that real people experience. The dysfunctional family scenario is everywhere these days, but it usually amounts to a shallow catalogue of quirks. Rarely does this genre of narrative make one feel the pain of one's own family or one's own experience. Little Miss Sunshine is a dysfunctional family film that succeeds. And it's very funny.

People who know me personally know that the HBO series Six Feet Under is like scripture to me: I study it over and over again on dvd, and I would certainly never take its name in vain. I do think there are grounds for comparison, and not just because the family drives around with a [spoiler suppressed] in the back of the [spoiler suppressed]. Think of it as Six Feet Under meets Arrested Development: humor, gravitas, recognition, and genuine feeling, earned by the creators' honest and mature reflection on real experience.

Although not nominated, could it be my choice for best screenplay of the year? Tune in Saturday night around midnight, New York time, for my full list of predictions and favorites.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Hong Kong comes to Boston, or, why Scorsese deserves the Oscar

Part two of two on Scorsese. Click here for part one.

I still have a couple of films to see in the best director category, but I am prepared to say that, if Martin Scorsese finally wins this year, his Oscar will be deserved. (Check back Saturday night for the complete list of my Oscar predictions and preferences.)

People sometimes speak imprecisely about what a director does and doesn't do. The best case I can think of is another Scorsese film, Gangs of New York (2002). There were several awful things about that film, chiefly its insufferably stupid screenplay, but the film's problems cannot all be laid at the director's feet.

Visually, Gangs of New York is an outstanding and inventive film. I only saw it once—I can't bear the thought of watching it again—yet one shot has stayed with me since. Scorsese created a waterfront 360-degree pan that, in one revolution, told the entire story of the Irish in America: first we see the Irish immigrants stepping off a ship, then we see the newly arrived being recruited and outfitted for the Union army, then we see them setting off to war, next we see the coffins returning from the battlefield, and finally the coffins are loaded into a ship to return to Ireland for burial. All that visual storyteling occurs in a single rotation of the camera. That is great directing.

A film director's main task is the visual interpretation of a screenplay. The director also bears the theatrical responsibility of directing the actors, but to my way of thinking, that comes second. Acting-wise, Gangs of New York was a wildly mixed bag: Daniel Day-Lewis's ferocious and frightening fury as Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting versus the limp intertness of Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz. But on filmic æsthetics alone, Gangs is a great feat of directing. (Who should have won the directing Oscar that year? Pedro Almodóvar for Hable con ella. Easily.)

This year, Scorsese is nominated for The Departed, his adaptation of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs (2002), starring Tony Leung and Andy Lau. Many Hong Kong police films since the 1980's have featured a pair of doubled or opposed male leads. John Woo's The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992) come to mind. In Infernal Affairs, the doubling is ratcheted up to new levels as we follow a police mole in the mob and a mob mole in the police trying to outwit and discover each other. Hong Kong screenplays are typically cavalier narrative affairs. People don't watch HK hyper-violence to scrutinize the details of plot points. Even so, by local standards Infernal Affairs had a tight plot with few obvious holes.

This then is the film Scorsese chose to remake: a proven international box office smash with an intricate and intriguing double cat-and-mouse plot. But the script is not a director's responsibility. The cinematic interpretation is. And Scorsese has managed to make this film his own while working in several visual cues to its Hong Kong roots.

The film's visual HK borrowings include some slow-motion and a Chinatown scene wherein DiCaprio, in the Leung role, spots his fleeing nemesis in the suspended shards of a glass hanging ornament. Without knowing the geographic source of the material, one might find these bits hokey, but they ought instead to be recognized as very economical and clever ways of paying homage in an adaptation that winds up being all Scorsese from start to finish.

Infernal Affairs relies on Tony Leung's typically melancholic eyes to provide the film's emotional weight. In The Departed Scorsese replaces HK cool with genuine horror at the violence that men do. I know that some of my readers will strenuously object to my saying this, but it's Scorsese's most eloquent portrayal of the ugly side of masculinity since Raging Bull. No particular shot stands out in the way that the dock scene did in Gangs. It's more of an overall impression achieved, in part, by a revision of earlier Scorsese moments.

Readers may remember the scene in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta uses his gun to bash the face of the Long Island neighbor in Lorraine Bracco's driveway. That was a deliciously nasty little scene, but the neighbor had invited revenge by attempting to impose himself sexually on Bracco's character. When we first witness DiCaprio's violence in The Departed, he finishes a guy off by ramming the hook end of a coatrack into his face. True, the guy was a mobster, but it's a far more chilling scene than in Goodfellas, not simply because DiCaprio is a cop, but because he is doing it to prove his tough-guy bona fides to an invisible audience of other men. There's no quotable, amusingly demented Joe Pesci here. ('Whaddaya mean I'm funny?') Just darkness and men behaving badly towards each other. Even the Rolling Stones' 'Gimme Shelter', by now a Scorsese mainstay, is back, but this time we're not along for a drug-addled automobile ride fleeing a police helicopter with a pot of tomato sauce possibly burning at home, as in Goodfellas. This time we hear the shout of 'War, children, it’s just a shot away' as Jack Nicholson's ganglord character recruits a child into mob life. The gang's induction—or is it seduction?—of children in Goodfellas invited our identification with Henry Hill's acceptance into his new 'family'. Here the scene is sickening.

Acting-wise, I finally see why Scorsese has persevered in his belief in Leonardo DiCaprio. I had written off DiCaprio's adult career as a series of failures, but here he rises to the occasion as his character sinks into despair and isolation. His suffering is not as economically portrayed as Tony Leung's—how could it be?—but he achieves genuine pathos and clearly works for it. Matt Damon makes the devilish most of his deceptively boyish face. And Jack Nicholson? He stays on the right side of the line, ham-wise. It's Scorsese's conspicuously dark lighting in his first scene that defines the character, not Nicholson's sometime tendency to run rampant through a film. But if Scorsese's directing is visible in the acting, it's in DiCaprio's surprisingly mature suffering.

Going into the film, I expected none of this. I thought it would simply be a tight thriller and perhaps a compromise by Scorsese to go for the gold with a proven seller. It was anything but the latter. Instead, it was a very good Scorsese film and one that should earn him a deserved Oscar.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

the perils of robotic adverstising

Wow. I coyly included a link to a certain website in the entry below, and the robots at Google's ad service have replaced my blog's ads for 'Talking Heads Ringtones' and the like with ads about making 'libs squirm' and military ringtones. Let's see if this reverses the tide: President Al Gore, President Al Gore, President Al Gore.

Hmm. I wonder if repeating the phrase often enough might have other beneficial effects as well.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

scent of an Oscar?

Al Pacino has deserved several Academy Awards but has only one once. It wasn't for either of the great Godfather films, it wasn't for best supporting actor in Glengarry Glen Ross, and it certainly wasn't for Scarface, although in retrospect Tony Montana is surely the most culturally important movie role of the past twenty-five years. (Fishscale, anyone?) This year the smart money says the Academy will finally recognize Martin Scorsese as best director, but why have they denied him before and does he deserve it for The Departed?

Let's get straight to the point: Martin Scorsese has never won an Oscar because of racism. Racism, you say? But he's white, isn't he? As in everything, it all depends on who's doing the looking. I hope we can all agree that all the racial categories of past and present are biological fictions. Their only reality is in people's minds. (If I need to explain this to you, then perhaps you're at the wrong website. Try this one instead.)

Scorsese has been nominated five times and has deserved it at least two of those times: 1980 for Raging Bull and 1990 for Goodfellas. But let's consider all five nominations and the winners :
-1980 Raging Bull (Robert Redford for Ordinary People);
-1988 The Last Temptation of Christ (Barry Levinson for Rain Man);
-1990 Goodfellas (Kevin Costner for Dances with Wolves);
-2002 Gangs of New York (Roman Polanski for The Pianist); and
-2004 The Aviator (Clint Eastwood for Million Dollar Baby).

Any group of people can be constructed by others, or by themselves, as a race, and racial identities often have hierarchies within them. Are the Irish a race? They were to many of the English who occupied their country and starved them out of it. They were to the white Americans to whose country they then emigrated. Today they're a 'nationality' or an 'ethnicity', perhaps equally imaginary categories but less susceptible to discrimination. In the twenty-first century, many Americans have racialized Muslims (a religious group) and Arabs (a language group), which only goes to show fluid and adaptable 'racial' discrimination is.

The category of 'white people' has always had its internal hierarchies in the States: there are white people, and then there are 'ethnic whites' or 'white ethnics'. For many people—consciously or unconsciously—to be an 'ethnic white' is to be white but not quite. The category usually includes Italians, Poles, Greeks—basically any European population group that is Catholic or Orthodox Christian and/or generally swarthier-complected than WASPs. To the ignorant people who care about degrees of whiteness, Jews are somehow beyond the pale. (For the record, I don't subscribe to any of this racial rubbish. I'm just trying to characterize a racist set of attitudes that one encounters in the world. I believe that racism exists but race doesn't.) (Second aside: if you ever watch Spike Lee's Jungle Fever again, pay attention to the Italian-American candy store scenes. Michael Badalucco's character explicitly talks about his ethnic envy of Robert Redford. Spike Lee knows what I'm talking about.)

Now scroll back up to the list of Scorsese's nominations. Do you see any patterns? Scorsese most deserved to win in 1980 and 1990 for New York-based films about Italian-Americans, and he was beaten both times by Redford and Costner(!), non-'ethnic' white guys making films about non-'ethnic' white people way west of New York. And Clint Eastwood? Eastwood is the icon of the stoic, no-nonsense white man of the west. Scorsese is not just Italian-American. He's also short, asthmatic, a fast-talker, and a New Yorker. In person he talks even faster than Woody Allen in Annie Hall. I'll even go one further and say that much of America, especially in the 70's and 80's, racialized New Yorkers in general. We were one big cesspool of pollution to the red-blooded, and blue-blooded, states. (Woody Allen expressed New Yorkers' internalized racism eloquently in Annie Hall: 'Don't you see? The rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.')

Things are getting better at the Academy and in the States generally, but the Academy has historically discriminated against Scorsese as an Italian-American, as a New Yorker, and, compared to Eastwood et al., as a non-Hollywood masculine body. It's racism and more, and it stinks. Will the Academy, as expected, right a historic wrong this year? And if Scorsese wins, will he deserve it? For the answer to the last question, tune in tomorrow for part two, tentatively titled 'Hong Kong comes to Boston'.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

and the Oscar does not go to...

Every year we all have our choices for the best films and performances not nominated for an Oscar, but what's even worse is when the best films of the year don't even get released in one's home country. Those of us in New York are lucky to have film festivals throughout the year—NDNF, Tribeca, NYFF, others—and we are also treated to occasional film series with the explicit theme of presenting the best unreleased feature films of the year. Sometimes single screenings are our only opportunities to see the best films of the year on a big screen.

The two best unreleased films of 2006 both come from Taiwan, but that should not be surprising. Taiwan and Iran have continuously produced two of the most exciting national cinemas of the past twenty years, and Taiwanese films in particular often have too little narrative action and editing for the typical audience. So, without further ado, here are the two best films unreleased in the States in 2006.

2. Three Times, 2005, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan
NYFF, Alice Tully Hall, October 6, 2005

I don't think there has ever been a filmmaker who has used the long take and the open frame as expressively as Hou Hsiao-Hsien. In films like The Puppetmaster (1993), Hou has demonstrated how the rigorous interrogation of film form can lead to works not just of high æsthetic sophistication but also political and moral commitment. Not that æsthetics and morality have any necessary relationship to each other, but a film that explores both is satisfying on all levels.

Three Times is not an interrogation of national narrative like The Puppetmaster. It is instead three self-contained romance stories, each set in a different decade of the twentieth or twenty-first century. Shu Qi and Chang Chen play the young woman and young man across the century in 1966, 1911, and 2005. Each segment has its own film style and palette of colors, and each one shows a different generation's experience of courtship and romance: from sweet innocence in the 1960's, to the lop-sided balance of power between patron and flower girl in a brothel, to Hou's jaded take on our contemporary moment.

As always in Hou's work, the visuals do more of the work than his barely scripted plots. J. Hoberman, film critic of the Village Voice, has compared the stationary frame that dominates many of his films to cinema's earliest era. In the second segment of Three Times, Hou goes one better by adopting the look and limitations of the silent era. For a filmmaker whose style sometimes involves as much camera movement as a Lumière film, it's quite funny to see him using intertitles for dialogue. I'd urge you to see this film, but you probably can't.

1. The Wayward Cloud, 2005, Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan
BAM Cinema, April 15, 2006

What makes me rank Tsai's film higher than Hou's? It drew me in with humor and eroticism and gradually took me to lower and lower depths of discomfort and nausea. Like Hou and Edward Yang, Tsai typically relies on a style of static long takes and a paucity of event. But not this time.

The film begins with a sex scene involving a watermelon. And what does one do with a watermelon? You will have to see the film to find out, but it manages to be both sexy and funny. Or is it? The Wayward Cloud is a film about pornography, seen from both sides: the finished, polished product and the ugliness of industrialized sex. I don't say this often, but this is not an easy film to watch. And yet we're treated to riotous musical outbreaks with brightly-colored umbrellas and Busby Berkeley-esque dance numbers. This film will draw you in and spit you out. Anyone interested in films of audience-complicity or films with two levels that operate at cross purposes needs to see this film, but sadly, you probably can't see this one either.

Why begin Oscar week with an entry about films not even considered for nomination? We need to be mindful of how narrow a sliver of cinema the Oscars comprehend.

And now that we've said that, we can be totally shameless for the rest of the week. Yay. Frankly, I can't wait to see what they're wearing this year.

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Oscar countdown

I saw fewer films in 2006 than in any year of my adult life, but there were enough gems to make it a good year in film. Over the next seven days, let's talk about the year in film. I'll offer my predictions as well as the films that should win, whether nominated or not. I hope you will join me in the comment threads.

For now, I'm posting the complete list of nominees as the first comment in this thread. The text is unformatted, so you can copy it and easily do whatever you like with it. My list has the advantage of including the names of all the individuals nominated. This information is harder to find that one might think. The list of nominees at the official Oscar site lists all the actors' names but only movie titles in most other categories. Unlike the Academy, I think everyone from the cinematographer to the makeup artist deserves to be recognized by name.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

musical interlude

This one speaks for itself. No, that is not my cat.

[Note: this was an embedded YouTube video of a cat playing a piano. It disappeared when I tried to add a label. I will restore it after the Oscars.]

Ayatallah Guevara

Part two of two on Iran. See yesterday's entry for part one.

If some part of the Iranian government is sending weapons into Iraq, as Bush stated on February 14, to whom are they sending the matériel and how do we know? First of all, Iran is obviously not arming the Iraqi Sunni insurgents that U.S. troops routinely engage. How could they when the Sunnis are murdering Iraqi Shias and Iran is run by a Shia theocracy? It would be Shia suicide.

Second, we know that Iran is arming Iraqi Shias not thanks to any great achievement by American intelligence but because it is public knowledge. As Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo reminds us, Abdul Aziz Hakim has publicly acknowledged that his Shia political party SCIRI receives weapons from Iran. SCIRI stands for Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. It was founded in Iran by Iraqi exiles in 1982 during the Iran-Iraq War, it occupies the most seats of any party in the new Iraqi parliament, and it is currently a U.S. ally. And let me say it again: SCIRI acknowledges receiving weapons from Iran. If, as he said, Bush does not know who in the Iranian government orders the weapons for Iraq, then all that he does know is nothing more than what has been reported in newspapers. That's not encouraging.

Instead of dwelling on what Donald Rumsfeld used to call the known knowns and the known unknowns, let's use this moment as an opportunity to consider the ideological sources of revolutionary Iran's international conduct over the years. It might help us further distinguish between the Iranian government's aims and those of al-Qa'ida, something Bush and the neocons seem unable to do.

Let's start by recalling that the Iranian Revolution occurred in 1979. And what was happening on the world stage in the 70's? The 1960's and 70's were decades of revolution and de-colonization all over the world. Self-styled anti-imperialist thinkers erected a pantheon of national liberation figures: Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Ahmed Ben Bella, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Robert Mugabe et al. Most anti-imperialist leaders simply replaced foreign occupation with homegrown dictatorship, but that's besides the point. What matters is that there was a global culture and discourse of revolution and national liberation that swept the world and that its appeal to many was still quite robust in 1979.

The Iranian Revolution remains a strange hybrid of one part religious extremism, one part Shia empowerment, and one part national liberation struggle à la Che Guevara. Reader, I know that last part raised some eyebrows, but let's consider the evidence: the establishment of a revolutionary republic; the proud overthrow of a foreign-backed puppet regime; and a foreign policy based on 'anti-imperialist' international solidarity, especially where Shia populations are concerned. (Let me say for the record that I do not condone anything Iran does nor am I calling the U.S. an imperialist power. I am simply trying to characterize a state of mind common to 'anti-imperialist' discourses and Iranian attitudes of recent decades.) Let's also consider actual cases of Iranian foreign policy.

1. Hizballah in Lebanon
Iran sponsored the formation of Hizballah, the Lebanese Shia militia, in the early 1980's when U.S., French, Italian, British, and Israeli military forces were operating in Lebanon. Iran's goal: to expel what it deemed imperialist occupation. After the barracks bombings of October 23, 1983 that killed 241 American soldiers and 58 French, they succeeded.

2. Palestinians
The Palestinians' struggle is not a religious cause, let alone Shia. Palestinians are Sunni Muslims and Christians, and in the 1980's, before the emergence of Hamas, the movement's leadership was entirely secular. To its supporters, it was and remains a national liberation struggle. Why else would a revolutionary Shia republic support a secular-Sunni-Christian movement?

And if you ask me, this is precisely the reason that al-Qa'ida, despite its anti-Israel rhetoric, has never done anything to assist the Palestinians. (I made a similar point in my entry of January 27, 2007.) Nor, except for Saudi-born Abu Zubaydah, do Palestinians join al-Qa'ida. Why is that? Because Al-Qa'ida has no interest in nations, national liberation struggles, solidarity, alliances, or even politics. Iran, on the other hand, is happy to play a Shia version of Che Guevara by supporting 'anti-imperialist' revolution abroad even when it is not Islamic and not Shia.

3. The rest of the world
Whether it was opposing apartheid in the 1980's or building alliances with the new leftist presidents of Latin America today, Iran has always adopted an 'anti-imperialist' posture on the world stage. I know this sounds incredible given how right-wing Iran is within its own borders, but don't take my word for it. Here is the New York Times's January 14, 2007 coverage of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's second visit to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela:
'President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran arrived here on Saturday for talks with President Hugo Chavez, on the first leg of a Latin American visit to enhance Tehran's stature with governments where distrust of the Bush administration already runs deep.
It is Mr. Ahmadinejad's second visit to Venezuela in the past five months, and the two leaders were scheduled to talk about strengthening their economic ties. From here, the Iranian president is to visit Ecuador and Nicaragua, where leftist presidents aligned with Mr. Chavez are taking office this month.
''Welcome, fighter for just causes,'' Mr. Chavez said in a speech here before the National Assembly, describing Mr. Ahmadinejad as a ''revolutionary'' and a ''brother.''
Iran seems to have also found a welcome in Ecuador, an oil-exporting country where Mr. Ahmadinejad will attend the inauguration of Rafael Correa, a leftist economist elected president last year. And in Nicaragua, Mr. Ahmadinejad will meet with Daniel Ortega, the former guerrilla leader who assumed the presidency this month.'
Yes, that's the same Daniel Ortega that led the Sandinistas in the 1980's.

Surely, Hugo Chavez is no Muslim. But he does style himself an anti-imperialist revolutionary and he does arrogate to himself the mantle of Guevara. Now, can you imagine Osama bin Ladin standing alongside Hugo Chavez? Of course not. To al-Qa'ida, Chavez is just as much a 'crusader' as George Bush. Al-Qa'ida has no goals other than a caliphate run on Salafist grounds. They seek purity, not allies.

Iran, on the other hand, has dual agendas: Shia solidarity and 'anti-imperialist' solidarity. To the Iranians, arming Iraqi Shias accomplishes both goals, neither of which al-Qa'ida shares.

Reader, we desperately need to understand these differences. Bush and Cheney do not and apparently cannot. We can't let the most ignorant among us frame the questions for public debate. I began yesterday's entry by quoting Bush on what 'what we do know' and 'what we don't know'. Reader, let's disseminate knowledge as widely as possible and not be fooled by the foolish. Whatever happens, we cannot lose faith that knowledge makes a difference. Knowledge is the only thing that can save us from being fooled by people too stubborn to learn.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

who's running this thing?

Yesterday, February 14, Bush held a press conference at which he accused forces in Iran of sending weapons to Shia militants in Iraq. Unusually, he admitted not knowing who in Iran was responsible for the decision:
'What we do know is that the Quds force was instrumental in providing these deadly IEDs to networks inside of Iraq. We know that. And we also know that the Quds force is a part of the Iranian government. That's a known. What we don't know is whether or not the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds force to do what they did. But here's my point: Either they knew or didn't know, and what matters is, is that they're there. What's worse, that the government knew or that the government didn't know?'
This is a rare admission of ignorance on Bush's part, but what could it mean? How could Iran be sending weapons to Iraq without knowing about it? Like the old saying about a stopped clock being right twice a day, I for once believe that Bush is right on both points. In order to understand how this can be and what it means, let's review what we know about Iran.

The Iranian Revolution that brought Ruhallah Khomeini, the famous ayatallah, to power in 1979 was a strange thing and the Islamic Republic that it founded remains equally strange. Let's think about that name for a second: Islamic Republic. There are many Islamic-majority states, like Turkey and Syria, that are governed as secular republics. Other states, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have Islamic polities, but they are run by hereditary emirs or kings, not republics. The Iranian Revolution did not create an emirate, let alone a caliphate which is a Salafist dream that Shias do not share. It led instead to an Islamic Republic. But what does that mean?

In practice, it means two things. One is that Iran holds fair democractic elections for executive and legislative offices. Elections there are 'fair', meaning that the votes are accurately counted, but they cannot be called 'free' since only candidates approved by religious authorities can stand for office.

Which brings us to the second feature: the Islamic Republic of Iran is ruled by both political and religious authorities, currently President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. These dual authorities are not always in accord with each other, and competition occurs between them. U.S. intelligence agencies are often unsure as to who decides what in Iran, and Iranians themselves don't necessarily know either. In a scenario like that, whom are the Iranian intelligence agencies and elite units likelier to follow: the elected president or the religious ruler? No one can say for sure, and therein lies Bush's uncertainty.

So we don't necessarily know who, but we can say quite a bit about why. Reader, the answers may surprise you. Be sure to tune in tomorrow for part two , entitled 'Ayatallah Guevara'.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

David Byrne, day four: speaking in tongues

The final night of David Byrne's four-concert series at Carnegie Hall took place on February 4 in the building's basement, otherwise known as Zankel Hall, and this time he did not perform a single note. The concert instead featured three acts—Haale, Alarm Will Sound, and Camille—performing separately in a program called 'One Note'.

Explaining the concept at the start of the show, Byrne retired his trademark awkwardness in favor of more straightforward communication. Unlike the 'weird folk' concert two nights earlier, the musicians assembled on February 4 were not part of an established scene. The connections among them were made by Byrne himself. Curatorially, he was taking more of a risk. Which leads me to propose a hypothesis about Byrne's stage persona: that there may be a directly proportional relationship between his creative certainty and his professional awkwardness: the more confident he is about what he's doing, the more ostentatiously he performs the rituals and tics of awkwardness. A legacy from the punk era perhaps?

The common trait shared by the night's musicians was that their music tends to feature a drone or single note running through their compositions. All three acts were outstanding. The middle group, Alarm Will Sound, is a contemporary classical ensemble best known for performing orchestral arrangements of Aphex Twin. They played one of those, a piece by Scelsi, and a Renaissance saltarello with unusual attention to visual presentation. I'd like to say more, but I have neither the vocabulary nor the experience to say anything worthwhile about classical music. As good as they were, the other two acts blew me away.

The first act of the night was Haale, whose erotic, hypnotic music offers the union of Iranian Sufism and Jimi Hendrix. True, these days combining unexpected genres is what everyone does and hardly merits a raised eyebrow, let alone a defense. David Byrne has been quietly combining classical strings and Brazilian percussion for a while without offering any manifestos on the subject (nor, regrettably, attracting the attention his music deserves).

In Haale's case, the more one knows about Hendrix and Sufism, the less bizarre the combination sounds. Some years ago, I described Sufis to a friend as 'the hippies of Islam' and I now see, thanks to Google, that I'm not the only one to use that phrase. Her guitarist John Shannon played with the requisite amount of feedback to evoke Hendrix while Haale set sensual fire to the hall by singing songs of passion and poems of Rumi in the ecstatic vocal style that traditional Sufis believed led one to feel the divine. And I was definitely feeling it. It was extremely erotic, to say the least. And at the level of literal influence, she even had a song about Hendrix himself set during his military service when he would sit in the aeroplane listening to the motor and the wind before his parachute jumps. (In the midst of writing this, I just ordered her two EP's from her website. Tune in soon for an update.)

The final act, Camille, was also quite musically sexy but in a much more terrifying vein. She made just about every sound that a human mouth can make from screeching to moaning to burping to slapping her O-shaped mouth with her open hand. One would run out of verbs before her strange oral creativity could be contained. At one point her pianist even hit her in the back while she was singing in order to make her delivery tremble in a new way. Throughout the show she used a digital sampler to capture her strange emanations which would then play in loops to accompany her live singing.

Her songs were so psychologically tricky that I wonder if I can describe them a week later with any justice. (Yes, I'm about to order her cd's, too, just as soon as I finish this entry.) Imagine a fierce, knowing woman, with ample experience of pain, pleasure, and mind games, offering herself to the world with equal measures of sarcasm and desire. Her advances would be part taunt, part warning, and part need. Not a word could be taken only at face value.

Ah, here are some lyrics of hers online:
'He thought he'd run me over in the middle of the night. He thought he was the devil. But I was the devil and I'd chosen him to run me over. My name is Baby Carni Bird.'
'My name is Baby Carni Bird .
I'm the only one in the world.
I'm yours,
For I can fly up in the air,
And you can shoot me when you like.
I'm yours.'

Now imagine such songs sung in both French and English by a young woman with a voice—and persona—that ranges between Beth Gibbons of Portishead and PJ Harvey. All that plus the onstage antics and charisma of someone who knows she can get away with anything. Anything.

I don't know how deliberate it was on Byrne's part, but the evening was perfectly framed by the two young women. At one end of the night, eroticism as religious ecstasy performed by a delicate-seeming woman of earnest passion and tenderness. At the other, the outrage of a fuck-you carnality staged by a woman at the height of her musical, sexual, and manipulative powers. Yeah, if I were David Byrne, I would not want to look awkward around them either.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

two pounds for the price of one

Here in New York, Theatre for a New Audience is currently staging Marlowe's The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in repertory with the same cast but, unusually, different directors. Each production typifies the best and worst ways to stage difficult canonical plays. Both plays star F. Murray Abraham, and he plays both roles straight: he is as monstrous a Barabas as Marlowe could have wished, and he plays Shylock with equal conviction.

I was excited by the idea of seeing the texts played without irony, but that really only happens in Venice. In Malta, the cast does not seem to be acting under the same director as the star. Malta, directed by David Herskovits, visually appears to be set in the past, yet there are all kinds of mindless interventions of cheek and faux-irony to make the production a theatrical cacophony devoid of apparent design. Friars Jacomo and Barnardine do battle with staffs, Hong Kong style; Barnardine gets busy with a nun's corpse; and one of the characters actually says 'bi-otch'. Oy.

Now, if these revisions served a new reading of the text, they might have worked. But all they accomplished was to distract from the possibility that Abraham's un-ironic performance as Barabas might move the audience to outrage or at least a perplexing discomfort. I am reminded of last fall's Hell House, a totally un-ironic performance of an actual evangelical scarefest staged by Les Freres Corbusier, and how difficult it was to come to grips with what I was seeing. If the measure of artistic success is to take us to unexpected emotional terrain, Hell House was a theatrical triumph. I was confused and uncomfortable from start to finish and long afterward. A similar opportunity may have been missed in Malta.

Darko Tresnjak, the other director, had a coherent vision of how to stage The Merchant of Venice. Last year, he directed an unusually dark production of All's Well That Ends Well for TFANA, and his Merchant was staged in a similar spirit. The cast was all on the same page, and the anachronisms—Apple laptops, mobiles, modern suits—made sense in a play set in an age of international commerce.

The trial scene is fierce here, and Tom Nelis as Antonio, with his Merchant-Ivory upper-class looks and dressed in a three-piece grey wool suit befitting a 1930's English fascist aristocrat, was so hateful, though without ever being a caricature, that I wanted Abraham to cut him in real life. Shylock's pain was palpable and the rightness of his desire for vengeance irresistible in Abraham's very pathetic portrayal. (Is it too late to bring back the original meaning of 'pathetic'?)

But the legal deck is, of course, stacked against him. Shylock can extract Antonio's flesh but, as a Jew, he cannot draw a Christian's blood, and, worst of all, being a Jew makes him an 'alien' and not subject to equal standing in a court of law:
Tarry, Jew,
The Law hath yet another hold on you.
It is enacted in the laws of Venice,
If it be proved against an alien,
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen [...]
(Act four, scene one)

Alien? Citizen? Shylock may as well have been Dred Scott. The scene is then played for maximum humiliation, and Abraham makes it painful to watch.

But what really makes the production risky and smart is that once Shylock leaves the stage, the play makes its merry way to a traditional Shakespearean comedy finale: the disguises are revealed, the lovers forgiven, and the newlyweds are all beautiful and young. (They even use Apple PowerBooks. Regular readers of the blog know what that means.)

Wait a second. One doesn't want these people to be happy and beautiful. One wants them to be ugly and vulgar and to see their bigotry denounced from the mountaintops. Couldn't they goose-step around the stage with Nazi armbands or at least use Microsoft Windows? Ah, but playing it straightforwardly as a Shakespearean comedy rather than an obvious indictment of Elizabethan anti-Semitism makes it more obnoxious than didacticism can ever accomplish.

The lightest ending is the darkest: the Jew-haters are pretty, happy, and untroubled. We don't have to be beat over the heads to know that sometimes the bad guys win, and that makes for the most galling ending of all.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

the war on the war on science

I still have one more night of David Byrne's Carnegie Hall concert series to write about, but I do recognize that a lot of my readers come here for politics (or at least variety), so I'll switch gears for a bit and get to day four a little later on. Believe me: there was some hot new music to talk about, but you'll have to check back later to read about it. Today's topic is, The war on the war on science, or, The difference a Democratic Congress makes.

Bush's war on science has been widely covered in the six years since he usurped the presidency. The Bush White House has altered and supressed data on everything from global warning to sex education. I'm sure my readers know all that, and I don't want to be in the business of telling people what they already know.

But Reader, did you also know that the backlash against the backlash against science has entered the halls of Congress thanks to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Henry Waxman of California? On January 30, 2007, the committee held hearings on 'Political Interference with Climate Change Research' and the testimony was damning indeed.

Since the topic is science, let's look at the numbers. The Union of Concerned Scientists surveyed over 1,800 federal scientists. According to Francesca T. Grifo, Senior Scientist at UCS, here is what they found:

GRIFO: In a nutshell, here is the problem we face - political interference is harming federal science and threatening the health and safety of Americans. UCS has surveyed more than 1,800 federal scientists and found the following:
-- 145 FDA scientists reported being asked, for non-scientific reasons, to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information or change their conclusions in an FDA scientific document.
-- Nearly half (44 percent) of all FWS scientists whose work is to evaluate endangered species reported that they have been directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making findings that would protect a species.
-- And, from the report we are releasing today, 150 federal climate scientists report personally experiencing at least one incident of political interference in the past five years, for a total of at least 435 such incidents.

When it came to climate change in particular, the interference was acute.
GRIFO: Yet unacceptably large numbers of federal climate scientists personally experienced instances of interference over the past five years:
-- Nearly half of all respondents (46 percent of all respondents to the question) perceived or personally experienced pressure to eliminate the words "climate change," "global warming," or other similar terms from a variety of communications.
The more frequently a climate scientist's work touches on sensitive or controversial issues, the more interference he or she reported. More than three-quarters (78 percent) of those survey respondents who self-reported that their research "always" or "frequently" touches on issues that could be considered sensitive or controversial also reported they had personally experienced at least one incident of inappropriate interference. More than one-quarter (27 percent) of this same group had experienced six or more such incidents in the past five years.

The UCS has compiled a helpful A to Z Timeline of every instance of political interference in science that has een reported in the press. It is an impressive and depressing document.

My personal favourite anti-data instance was not part of the hearings and did not involve scientists at all but, incredibly, cattle ranchers. As reported in the New York Times for April 10, 2004, the feds used the Animal Virus, Serum, Toxin, Antitoxin Act of 1913 to prevent Creekstone Farms Premium Beef from voluntarily testing its own cows for mad cow disease. So much for the free market. This beef producer lost its Japanese market because Bush's Department of Agriculture compelled it not to test its cows. One wonders what the feds were afraid to find.

What Republican government cannot compel, the private sector has tried to bribe, as the Guardian reported on February 2:
'Scientists and economists have been offered $10,000 each by a lobby group funded by one of the world's largest oil companies to undermine a major climate change report due to be published today.
Letters sent by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ExxonMobil-funded thinktank with close links to the Bush administration, offered the payments for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).'

ExxonMobil has reportedly given AEI $1.6 million. Why exactly do people refer to the AEI bribe-o-rama as a think tank? What thinking is alleged to go on there?

Bush and Cheney's attitude towards science is no different than their attitude towards intelligence. What we've witnessed is, in short, the politicization of everything: not just every government agency but every fact, every word, every punctuation mark. The federal government can no longer produce or publish information that does not serve partisan Republican ends.

I earnestly hope the new Congressional leadership will persist in its oversight obligations. Science should not be a dirty word. Reader, raise your fist in the air and shout for all to hear, 'Science Power!'

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

David Byrne, day three: and she was

On Saturday, for the third of his four concerts at Carnegie Hall, David Byrne performed his new song cycle Here Lies Love. The subject: the life of Imelda Marcos.

Because I have the pleasure of teaching at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, I get to force the next generation of actors and filmmakers to listen to my fortune-cookie wisdom about the arts. One thing I tell them is that everyone has crazy, fantastic ideas, but only a few people heed those bizarre visitations and trust them enough to try to make something out of them. Those are the people we call the artists. A pop song cycle on Imelda Marcos surely sounds like a crazy idea, impossible even. Yet there is now such a work in existence and I hope it will soon be available for purchase because it was indeed impossible, and I mean that in the best sense possible.

I have long admired the way David Byrne effaces the separation between the earnest and the ironic. When he treats material easily ridiculed by less interesting minds—like, say, Microsoft PowerPoint or sesquicentennial Texans—he invariably does so from a position of genuine, non-condescending fascination while still retaining an awareness that, yes, these things are ridiculous, but...

With age, his songwriting interests have grown from quirky recitals of fact and paranoia on early Talking Heads albums to the moving and sweet emotional depth found throughout his later solo work. And as long as I'm making comparisons, why miss an opportunity to quote from 'Animals', a classic Byrne composition from Fear of Music (1979)?

'I'm mad
And that's a fact.
I found out
Animals don't help.
Animals think
They're pretty smart.
Shit on the ground,
See in the dark.'


'They say they don't need money.
They're living on nuts and berries.
They say animals don't worry.
You know animals are hairy?'

Oh yeah. They definitely don't write songs like that anymore.

As for the Imelda cycle, the closest thing to it is Sofia Coppola's recent film Marie Antoinette. The film depicts not the cake-eating, head-losing queen of French nightmare but a young woman dealing with sexual and romantic complication in a foreign setting. Likewise, Byrne presents Imelda, lover of beauty and glamour, through her relationships to the servant who raised her and the men who loved and left her. (The lovely-voiced Joan Almedilla and Ganda Suthivarakom sang the roles of Imelda and Estrella, respectively.) Here, too, the signature fact that dominates the public imagination—in Imelda's case, the thousands of pairs of shoes—is nowhere mentioned. Its conspicuous absence signifies other narrative and affective interests.

Surely some out there are sniffing this out as a sterile exercise in humanizing dictators. I, for one, appreciate any attempt to capture the complexity and surprise that we sometimes find outside our usual zone of judgment. Yes, let's bring down all the dictators and tyrants. But surely that does not mean that we can't stop for a moment and enjoy the weirdness of life. Saturday night at Carnegie Hall was the time and the place to do just that.

I'm going to limit myself to a single song, not simply because it's hard to write about twenty unrecorded songs performed once, but also because I hope to have the chance to revisit this material in greater depth when an album eventually comes out. Nevertheless, one song stood out beyond all the rest. Indeed, this one song 'Order 1081', about the imposition of martial law in the Philippines, may belong in the highest rank of art, i.e. the impossible.

Before getting to the unlikelihood of a pop song about martial law that is anything other than obvious, it's worth reminding ourselves that David Byrne has written a number of great songs on other unlikely topics, terrorism for instance. Reader, if you don't have Talking Heads' Remain in Light album (1981), stop reading now and download it. On it you will find 'Listening Wind', a song that dares to give us the POV of a terrorist named Mojique:

'Mojique sees his village from a nearby hill.
Mojique thinks of days before Americans came.
He sees the foreigners in growing numbers.
He sees the foreigners in fancy houses.
He thinks of days that he can still remember...now.

'Mojique holds a package in his quivering hands.
Mojique sends the package to the American man.
Softly he glides along the streets and alleys.
Up comes the wind that makes them run for cover.
He feels the time is surely now or never...more.'

'Order 1081' does not give us the dictator's POV on martial law, nor is it sung by a dissident. Instead, Byrne has made the boldest choice of all: it is sung by Estrella, Imelda's childhood servant, and she sings it from the position of gratitude for the order that martial law brings. (I previously wrote about the appeal that order holds for the fearful on January 2, 2007.) This song broke my heart because it bore witness to the truth that many people, if not most, welcome martial law when it comes. The song was accompanied by eight classical strings and seven brass and woodwinds beautifully demonstrating the bliss that people feel from knowing that the troublemakers are being suppressed and order maintained.

I imperfectly scribbled what I could of the lyrics:

'Got to stop all this confusion.
[failed to transcribe this line]
And the way to make it happen
Is Order 1-0-8-1.'

[... ]

'Now it's safe to walk the streets at night
[failed to transcribe this line]
Everyone is sleeping soundly
Thanks to Order 1-0-8-1.'

The song is not sarcastic in the least, nor is it sung with any ironic winking. We live in an age of fear, when torture and amplified executive powers and the suspension of the rule of law somehow seem attractive to many and have entered public discourse on a basis other than shame. We need to accept that many of our fellow human beings are prepared to sacrifice law—and us—in order to allay their fears and sleep more easily at night. Where 'Listening Wind' asked us to identify, this songs asks us to come to grips with the mentality of so many among us. Somehow, the song was depressing and beautiful at the same time, and the intentions and method behind it were absolutely brilliant. It was, in short, an impossible artistic achievement.


Saturday, February 3, 2007

David Byrne, day two: this ain't no Mudd Club or CBGB

Last night was day two of David Byrne's four-night takeover of Carnegie Hall, and he was not even billed to perform. He was instead due to introduce an evening of, for lack of a more knowledgeable word choice, weird folk. The lineup: CocoRosie, Adem, Cibelle, Vetiver, Vashti Bunyan, and Devendra Banhart.

Why, you may wonder, would a David Byrne fan attend a David Byrne concert without David Byrne? For the answer to that, we have to go back to 1989 and the founding of Luaka Bop, Byrne's own record label until recently. I know many of my readers will recall the label's first release, the tropicália anthology known as Brazil Classics, Vol. 1: Beleza Tropical. Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben—that album was many Americans' introduction to Brazilian music, myself included. And many more great albums followed on the Luaka Bop label. The man has impeccable taste.

Despite all the music I listen to, I don't think I had heard a single song by any 'weird funk' act other than Joanna Newsom, even though I had some mp3's sitting unlistened to on my hard drive. Would Byrne's curatorial magic strike again?

Reader, after Friday night's concert, I may go broke trying to catch up on all the great albums I've missed by the artists he gathered at Carnegie Hall. Every one of them was a surprise. The biggest surprise had to be CocoRosie's trippy combination of straight-up opera singing, high-pitched Newsom-esque vocals, and rapping. It sounds too cool for school, but there was nothing cheeky about it. I don't understand how or why it worked, but I do intend to get their recordings and get back to you about them. The other acts were less bizarre in varying degrees but no less revelatory.

But what about the host of the evening? He did join all the acts for a final number, a song I was unable to identify, but he hung back behind the young 'uns and was barely audible. I attribute this to his modesty and his earnest desire to showcase these exciting young musicians. (Only Vashti Bunyan was not young. Let us say instead that she is young again.)

In the program notes, Byrne invoked the From Spirituals to Swing concerts of the late 1930's, an influential series that brought together Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Big Bill Broonzy, and others in order to expose their work to a bigger public and to explore the common roots of their various musics. But sitting there watching all these bright, young, irrepressible fonts of enthusiasm and experimentation, I thought of a more apt comparison: New York from 1977 to 1981, for my money the most exciting music and art scene of the twentieth century.

Think about it. We had David Byrne and Talking Heads, Brian Eno and everybody, Debby Harry and Blondie, the Ramones, Basquiat, Keith Haring, plus Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and the entire first generation of hip hop all in one city at the same time. Throw in the UK influence of the Clash, the Gang of Four, the Fall (thanks, Dan), and others, and the result is a scene of incomparable experimentation, excitement, and achievement. A lot of those people passed through CBGB and Glenn O'Brien's TV Party but never all at once. (There are a lot of reasons I'm glad I was born in the 70's, but to have been that geographically close, yet too young to have seen any of it in person, remains endlessly tantalizing, even in retrospect.)

Now, I'm not saying the weird folk folk are that great, but they are pretty special. A lot of them asked David Byrne why he chose them to play Carnegie Hall. Apparently, they were genuinely surprised, and unabashedly wide-eyed and amazed to be playing Carnegie Hall. But Byrne knows why it was important to get them all together on one of music's great stages for at least one musical snapshot of the scene as a whole in 2007. I don't know if he watches Six Feet Under, but Nate Fisher tells us the answer in the final episode: 'You can't take a picture of this. It's already gone.'

David Byrne, day one: today is an important occasion

Thursday night, February 1, I went to Carnegie Hall for the first of four concerts hosted and programmed by David Byrne. Sadly, it seems he will only be performing at two of them, but having seen him thirteen times already, perhaps I should welcome something new.

The first concert was a special one for me because of the material he played. I discovered Talking Heads back in 1983 when their Speaking in Tongues album came out. It wasn't just a great record with strange lyrics that teased my youthful understanding. It was literally like nothing I had ever seen before. That's no exaggeration: the first copy I encountered was the clear-vinyl limited edition designed by Robert Rauschenberg. (No, I only had the regular edition.)

By the time Talking Heads split up, I had already tracked down all of David Byrne's solo albums. Two stood out as major records of my teenage years: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and, still unissued on cd, Music for The Knee Plays. It was the latter album that Byrne and Les Misérables Brass Band performed at Carnegie's Zankel Hall.

Lyrically, the album belongs to Byrne's absurdist flat-affect period, so flat that his vocals are all spoken declarative sentences. 'Tree', my favourite track, demonstrates what I mean:
'Today is an important occasion.
She thinks that she must wear the right clothes.
The right combination of clothes
Will make her lucky.
But there are specific kinds of luck
And different kinds are needed
For different occasions.'

That same year, 1984, Talking Heads released their second live album, Stop Making Sense. The album's title was probably the first time anyone had explicitly invited me to do that. And, Reader, I did it. I stopped making sense and began conjuring apparently meaningful statements that led listeners nowhere. At last, a new function for language: non-sense. I was an uptight kid, so this was a valuable discovery.

The Stop Making Sense liner notes were full of similar Knee Play-like statements:
'Table manners are for people who have nothing better to do. Civilization is a religion. Civilized people walk funny. There is always a party going on somewhere. People will remember you better if you always wear the same outfit. Men like pastries, women like custards. [...] Schools are for training people how to listen to other people. Body odor is the window to the soul. Sound is worth money.'
Then there's the brilliant section on the Space People:
'Space People read our mail. The Space People think that TV news programs are comedies, and that soap operas are news. The Space People will contact us when they can make money by doing so. The Space People think factories are musical instruments. They sing along with them. Each song lasts from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. No music on weekends.'
Now imagine David Byrne reciting statements like these over a brass band playing gospel hymns and Bulgarian folk melodies, and you've got the Knee Plays album. (For the gospel hymns, think of 'Abide with Me' from Thelonious Monk's 1957 album Monk's Music.)

But flat affect and non sequiturs tell only half the story. Talking Heads always owed as much to funk as to punk, as evidenced by adding P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell to the band in the 80's. Or better yet, recall the Dadaist poem set to polyrhythms on their Fear of Music (1979) album. And that was 1979!

Thursday night's concert demonstrated how much genuine swing lay just beneath the surface of Byrne's beguiling lyrics. Les Misérables Brass Band—two trumpets, two saxes, trombone, tuba, and drums—played the gospel and Bulgarian compositions with more feeling and swing than they did on the original album back in the day. As ironic and cheeky as Byrne's lyrics could be in the 80's, there was nothing but earnest appreciation for the musical genres that he and his various collaborators drew on. The lyrics may have been funny at times, but the commitment to the musics—post-punk, gospel, African, Brazilian, etc.—was always genuine. And all of that—the brains, the soul, and the wit—was movingly demonstrated at Thursday's performance.

For me personally, there's also an uncanny aspect to The Knee Plays. Although I played the album a lot as a teenager, once I went to college I never had a turntable again until 2006. Last year my grandmother died and I spent several weeks cleaning out her house, the house I grew up in. Just as we were finishing packing everything, my mother discovered a shelf under the basement stairs with stacks of 78rpm records, most of them Czech folk music, belonging to my grandmother. They had been there so long that the dust was right out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not only had I not known there was a shelf there, but I had never known my grandmother to play music. There was only one thing to do: buy a turntable and bring back to life my grandmother's forgotten record collection.

One side effect of the discovery was that I could now bring my own vinyl records to my apartment in Brooklyn and play them. And so, more than a dozen years later, I finally got to play The Knee Plays again, many times over. Then, incredibly, Carnegie Hall announced that David Byrne would be performing it live for the first time in fifteen years. So many memories rushed back to me during and after the concert—being a teenager, finding the music I could call mine, playing vinyl records in my bedroom, living in my grandparents' house.

There's no rational explanation for why we like one thing over another. Ultimately, we're all stuck with our tastes. We can expose ourselves to an infinity of possibilities, but what actually moves us is beyond our control. For better or for worse, David Byrne is the main soundtrack of my life and a significant intellectual influence as well. Why should a performance of spoken word over a brass band send a decade of my life rushing back to my conscious attention from the shadows of memory? That's the mysterious power of music. Thank you, David Byrne, for bringing The Knee Plays back to the concert hall. (And if somehow you ever read this, please issue it on cd already!)