I rejoined the working race today and I am utterly exhausted. This week I have the usual reviews, plus that damn Copper Press thing to finish (start?) and the International Film Festival of Boston this weekend. So, don't expect any significant posts for awhile. Some rainy day, I promise, I will return.


Best Music of 2003 REVISED

Y'all should know by now that I obsess over lists. I was looking at the music list I put together for '03 back in December and of course, wondered what the hell I was thinking with some of the positions. I've also acquired some pretty spiffy '03 albums since then, and also decided, very scientifically of course, that compilations should be included too (if it's good enough for Christgau...). So here's where we stand:

1. Rufus Wainwright, Want One (original position: 1)
2. The White Stripes, Elephant (2)
3. Death Cab For Cutie, Transatlanticism (-)
4. Belle and Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress (5)
5. Sufjan Stevens, Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State (-)
6. Teenage Fanclub, 4766 Seconds: A Shortcut To Teenage Fanclub (-)
7. Steve Wynn, Static Transmission (3)
8. Stew, Something Deeper Than These Changes (6)
9. TV On The Radio, Young Liars EP (7)
10. Paul Brill, Sisters LP (4)
11. The New Pornographers, Electric Version (8)
12. Super Furry Animals, Phantom Power (10)
13. Calexico, Feast of Wire (-)
14. +/-, You Are Here (9)
15. The Postal Service, Give Up (16)
16. Basement Jaxx, Kish Kash (18)
17. Oranger, Shutdown The Sun (11)
18. Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers (12)
19. Black Box Recorder, Passionoia (13)
20. Natacha Atlas, Something Dangerous (14)

And, to jump the gun just a bit, here's what's cooking for '04 so far:

1. Sufjan Stevens, Seven Swans
2. Nellie McKay, Get Away From Me
3. Tompaulin, Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt
4. TV On The Radio, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes
5. The Marlboro Chorus, Entangled EP
6. Mary Lou Lord, Baby Blue
7. Fey Ray, I Wanna Be New & Perfect

All bound to change soon, with new releases from Sam Phillips, Patti Smith, The Magnetic Fields, Morrissey, and PJ Harvey just around the cor-ner.

Hell, let's do '04 Film (so far) too:

1. The Return
2. Dogville
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
4. Monster
5. The Agronomist
6. The Fog of War
7. Nosey Parker


Inertia Creeps
Dogville, a donkey, and downtime

I've noticed this blog's becoming less formal by the week. I thought being out of work would give me lots of extra time to beef it up, but that obviously hasn't happened. Instead of writing more, I seem to be staying up until 3 AM, working on mix CDs, watching movies, and reading Jonathan Lethem's mammoth tome, The Fortress of Solitude, which I finished yesterday.

All the reviews I've read have highlighted its ambition, scope, and far-reaching brilliance, yet every single one of them also say it's flawed in some way. People, there's no such thing as a perfect novel. The closest I can think of is Michael Cunningham's The Hours, for its concise structure and careful language. Every word in that book is essential, and as particular phrases echo and bounce off one another, you get a sense you're examining a tapestry in perfect balance. Lethem's novel isn't nearly that economical, going off on tangents that have varied returns. But the deeply personal story it tells has one glistening thread running throughout, linked by music, culture, race, neighborhood, and dreams.

If this period is a vacation of 10 AM wake-up calls and 11 AM smoothies, mid-afternoon matinees and late night viewings of ancient, videotaped Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes, the best thing I've done with this time is to take lots of walks

This past Easter Sunday, between watching Unlucky Monkey at the Brattle's Eye-Opener series and making a pasta salad for dinner with friends, I walked through Brookline Hills, without a map and only my sense of direction. I traversed up the hill on Summit Ave. then made my way down all the little, nearly hidden paths, the ones that don't appear on a standard city map. I listened to Sufjan Stevens' Michigan, an ingenuous song cycle that's growing on me more than his great new album, Seven Swans, which I reviewed for Splendid last month. I cherished that feeling of not entirely knowing where each road would lead me. I used to do that a lot when I first moved here. It's liberating to anticipate where your instincts take you, and then see where you end up.

Today, I ended up at the Arnold Arboretum around 5:30 PM. I made my way to the very top of the first hill, not the one with views of Boston's skyline, but the other, slightly smaller one with the view of Blue Hill Reservation. For five minutes, I had that space entirely to myself, listening to Stevie Wonder's sublime "Summer Soft" (from Songs in the Key of Life). I stood in awe of the beauty and silence of those moments. I long for them, because they're rare and tend to appear without expectation.


And then, there's Dogville.

I want to review this film without giving much away. It'll have a much stronger impace if you know very little about it. I can sum up the plot by saying it's a Depression-era fable about a woman who seeks refuge and protection in a small town. She wants to blend in and, more importantly, belong. Although these sound like rational, achievable concepts, director Lars Von Trier bathes and scrutinizes them for the complexities and consequences they contain.

While watching this three-hour passion play (which I can honestly say is like nothing else, even unlike anything else Von Trier has done), I kept thinking this was a movie about cruelty and punishment, selfishness and greed, power and family. Afterwards, someone said it was a film about revenge, and I suppose it was. But, having three days to mull over its implications and surprising, cathartic, ironic ending, I've concluded that to say the film is about a single concept and leave it at that, is to simplify the volumes it speaks about utilitarianism and human nature in general.

Maybe it's saying these things specifically about America; maybe it has religious implications that leave you wondering where Von Trier stands.

Either way, it's a film that gets under your skin and makes you squirm. It leaves everything out in the open for everyone to see, and makes a point at examining what people choose to see and choose to ignore. It continues that downward spiral of victimized women Von Trier's perversely fond of (Breaking The Waves, Dancer In the Dark), but turns it on its head in the very last minutes, giving us and, more importantly, his characters a sense of self-awareness that the earlier films lacked. You will either love it or hate it, and it may take you days, even weeks to come to a final stance. The entire cast is superb. The director is infuriating, but he's pushing himself and the medium to new levels of conceptual and emotional achievement.

It's the movie everyone should be seeing instead of The Passion of The Christ.


I also got the rare chance to see Robert Bresson's Au Hazard Balthazar (1966), which was playing at the Kendall for a week. Occasionally labelled his masterwork and unavailable on video/DVD, this is another fable, following a donkey in a rural village as he gets shlepped from one owner to another. This has all the Bresson hallmarks: nonprofessional actors, a 360 degree moral compass, amazing cinematography, meditative/deathly pace. I wonder if the Coen Brothers were influenced by this film's use of piano sonatas on the soundtrack for their own The Man Who Wasn't There? Probably not, but I'd like to believe it.

While watching this one-of-a-kind tale, I also thought it was a film about cruelty, the characters' morality mirrored in their treatment of the donkey. I later found out that the film actually revolves around the Seven Deadly Sins, which I didn't pick up on at the time. To me, Bresson seems most fascinated by the choices his characters make and their consequences, which makes it sort of a companion piece to Dogville. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Von Trier has seen and studied all of Bresson's work, although I couldn't imagine what the latter would make of the former (though he might've liked the Dogme movement.)


One last thing: go rent My Life As A Dog. Right now. Best pre-teen coming of age film ever. Enthusiastically endorsed by Kurt Vonnegut. What more do you want?


The Work of Director Michel Gondry

I've been watching this two-DVD set that collects music videos and other ephemera from the director of Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind. I'd seen and admired a few of these videos and had heard exceptional things about others.

Watching them again took me back to my senior year at Marquette. On the cusp of age 22, I'd scan daily previews of MTV2 (then simply known as M2) and Amp, a weekly way-past-midnight MTV program that showcased videos falling under the generic, all-encompassing electronica banner: techno, trip hop, drum and bass, alternative dance, etc; I was a year into taking film studies classes for my undergraduate minor, and I felt like I was uncovering new worlds and possibilities unseen in the mainstream--even the Miramax-fueled mainstream that had held my rapturous attention with Tarantino, Fargo, and New Rock 102.1, Milwaukee's mid-90's corporate alternative radio station.

I wanted to revel in my own independence, celebrate my own discoveries and obscurities. I couldn't fully articulate such thoughts and desires yet. That would take time, miles, experimentation, failure and a little grief. I found a passion for hearing and seeing things a majority of my friends and peers hadn't heard of, then felt frustration when they found my developing tastes to be "weird". Fortunately, I eventually learned not to suppress my interests but to express, indulge in, and defend them.

I never fully gave up liking things everyone else likes. For instance, I watched Survivor tonight before Gondry. I used to find the show ridiculous but tonight, it moved me a little. I could say I was suckered in by the theatrics and the show's manipulation to entertain, but is that really a deplorable, unforgivable thing?

It's balance we need: to enjoy the things we want (whether a studio blockbuster or our personal favorite most endearing single song of all time) without feeling guilty about it.

So sayeth the music critic, I know! Well, what I love most about Gondry is that he doesn't seem to work within too many parameters. His very best videos make you ask, "How the fuck did he do that?!" The multiplying Kylies in Ms. Minogue's "Come Into My World"... the all-lego tableau of The White Stripes' "Fell In Love With A Girl"... the delirious, body-morphing choreography of The Chemical Brothers' "Let Forever Be"... perhaps most famously, the six videos he's done for Bjork, from the fake-bear-and-mothlight phantasmagoric cabin tale of "Human Behaviour" to "Bachelorette", a short film to rival Guy Maddin's The Heart of The World in its meta-narrative and conceptual scope.

The DVD was issued as part of a series that also includes Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham, whose work I'm less familiar with. Will have to check it out, and let's hope every one brilliant, groundbreaking music video out of a hundred merely mortal videos gets the same treatment in the near future.


Finally saw Pieces of April this week, and it did not suck. I still couldn't buy Katie Holmes as a problem punk girl, Sean Hayes was a little too quirky/mannered for his own good, and the younger sister was a cartoon. But Patricia Clarkson was magnificent--her best performance so far, the most fleshed out, contradictory cancer patient you're likely to see onscreen, and even more deserving of an Oscar than Renee Zwelleger. The script's only slightly better than your average WB drama, but that didn't matter. It actually charmed my socks off most of the time, and the somber, picture-taking ending was strong.


Ugh; I enjoy having all this free time, but I crave a little structure. I need to get back to work, and I will in three weeks time. Until then, I sift through another box of CDs to review, think about movies to see, and places to visit if the rain ever stops. Here’s a little repprt, detailing the very, very good stuff I've come across as of late and... um, well, you’ll see.


I fell asleep during director Michel Gondry’s first Charlie Kaufman-scripted film, Human Nature. I was vibrantly awake all through this one. I approached it skeptically; how could this cleverly constructed metaphysical romp have the same finesse and emotional impact of The Return, my favorite film of the year so far? Well, it does, although I didn’t feel the love until I began to piece together what this ingenious little film was trying to do (and yes, on the scale of every other film Jim Carrey has ever done, it’s little). I dare not give it away here; if you know anything about the plot other than it involves a couple played by Carrey and Kate Winslet (surprisingly commanding and earthy) and a memory-erasing clinic called the Lacuna Corporation, you’ll miss out on the process of discovery and memory that makes the film so engagingly puzzling. Carrey (his realest performance—subdued, controlled, honest), Winslet, and Kirsten Dunst make it touching, and Kaufman fully atones for the wasted final act sins of Adaptation.


The most anticipated full-length debut of the year, and how could it not be a letdown? Last year’s Young Liars EP has the advantage of being the first salvo, and at five tracks, its brevity left me wanting more. The LP doesn’t, even though it’s only eight new songs to contend with, since it repeats the EP’s “Staring At The Sun”.

So, here’s a rundown. “The Wrong Way” makes great advances on the band’s Zappa-esque industrial jazz stomp. “Dreams” comes closest to realizing their new-wave pop potential, and Tunde’s slippery vocal interjections are the shit. The menacing “King Eternal” has a great hidden joke in its title and a few choice phrases. “Ambulance” is their very own doo-wop a capella composition (as opposed to the EP’s twisted Pixies cover), and they should do more of that, but no more than one track per LP. “Poppy” is the prize. A two minute beatific sludge drops out, gives way to street corner doo-wop, and then rebuilds piece by piece and sounds like pure bliss. “Don’t Love You” is Bill Withers' and Innervisions-era Stevie Wonder’s angry, funky love child. “Bomb Yourself” isn’t quite the bomb, but interesting nonetheless. “Wear You Out” lingers and threatens to evaporate, but never loses ground.

It’s cohesive, funny, smart, art-damaged, contained, and still very unique. Not perfect, but if they survive the hype (or if the hype survives them), they could have a future.


OK, now I understand what the fuss was about Barbra Streisand. I knew her voice was amazing, and she made me laugh in What’s Up, Doc, but ugly-duckling-turned-into-a-swan stage comedienne Fanny Brice was obviously the role she was born to play. She owns it, and, unlike most movie musicals, she completely owns the film. It’s really all about her, a rare argument for megalomania. Thank goodness she came of age when she did, in the waning days of Old Hollywood grandiosity. She might’ve pulled off Cabaret in another five years, but what could she possibly have done on this scale in another ten? (Oh, that’s right—A Star Is Born. Not the same, is it?). Pray she stays in Meet The Fockers.


Well-meaning, Oscar nominated documentary about Cuban refugees in America. That’s all you really need to know. It’s stirring to see what progress they’ve made within five years, but the jump between both time periods leaves a lot out that could’ve adequately fleshed out the figures and their stories, all of ‘em worth hearing. I just wanted to doze off at the lackadaisical pace and throw stuff at the screen whenever disembodied musical voices appeared on the soundtrack, repeating lines just spoken by one of the film’s subjects. Not in the same league as the other four nominees, which included winner The Fog of War and Capturing The Friedmans.

Or, as oft-pronounced in the film, CA-LEI-GOO-LAAAHHH!)

Once in awhile, a special film comes along, a one-of-a-kind motion picture event that’ll make you laugh, cry, vomit, and vomit some more. It may even give you a hard-on. This is a must-see, not for any of those reasons, or ‘cause it’s good or competent even, but because you won’t believe it exists unless you sit yourself down and watch all two-and-a-half hours of it. Imagine this: Penthouse impresario Bob Guccione gathers a bunch of A-List actors to star in a Fellini-esque Roman Empire epic, scripted by Gore Vidal, and directed by approved Penthouse pornmaker Tinto Brass. Alternate hardcore scenes of incest, rape, fellatio (and it’s not just women going down on those guys) and the like with a heapin’ helpin’ of equally graphic, brutal, bloody violence. Make sure all the stars (Malcolm McDowell! Peter O’Toole! Helen Mirren!) except for Sir John Gielgud (whose character luckily gets killed off right away) overact HORRIFICALLY.

Don’t miss the priceless hour-long making-of documentary on the DVD, which feels tailor-made for the Playboy Channel circa ‘81 (even though it’s Penthouse, I know). Noteworthy for the following things:
1. Bob’s dangling medallions and open-chested shirt. Hello, 1979!
2. In his plump raincoat and matching hat, Brass resembles both a sidewalk flasher and a child molester.
3. The stately, serious narration. Obviously done by either the criminologist in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or a young James Lipton.
4. Meet the dozen Penthouse Pets whom Bob flew over to Italy just to be in his film and hear how much fun they had making out with each other!
5. Gore Vidal. He’s serious too, but he must’ve been more embarrassed by this than the film version of Myra Breckenridge.
6. Bob’s best quote: “The film is not pornography, it’s paganography.” Well, that clarifies everything.