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Friday, Jan 2, 2009

I love a New Year. Time to clear out the baggage of the year before and start fresh. It’s time, too, when I challenge myself to read 100 books in the next 12 months. I’ve set the challenge for about 18 years now, and have yet to actually succeed. But, you know, perusing various publisher’s sites and coming soon-type articles, the pickings are so good over these first few months, that this could be my year…


But then, I say that every year.


Here’s a sample of my exciting reading for 2009 (if I get through these, that’s just 96 to go!):


High Voltage Tattoo
by Kat Von D
HarperCollins, January
Nothing about Kat Von D is conventional, so it’s no surprise her first book features a unique padded red cover, ornate type, and parchment pages. It’s a work of art, just like its brattily beautiful author. The book promises the lady’s in depth perspectives on contemporary tattooing, and offers a look into her own artistic development. Much as I’m looking forward to reading about those things, I really want this for the photos. Kat’s work is transcendent.


Handling the Dead
by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Quercus, March
If you’ve read John Ajvide Lindqvist’s previous novel, Let the Right One In, you’ll likely know why this one both excites and frightens me. If this one is anything like that one, there are going to be times I wished I’d picked up The Secret Life of Bees so I perhaps wouldn’t have to confront descriptions of acid-burned faces pressed into bathroom concrete. Of course, however, it’s the daring and ultra full-on nature of Lindqvist’s otherwise rather sweet storytelling that makes it all such an adventure. In Handling the Dead, folks are rising from their resting places in the city morgue and looking for home. I can’t wait to experience this writer’s take on the zombie genre.


Infinity Blues
by Ryan Adams
Akashic, January
He’s like whiskey—you need him, he knows it, bites as he goes down, warms when he hits the spot. All I really know about Infinity Blues is what the pre-release hype tells me: Cameron Crowe calls it “soul poetry”, Eileen Myles says it’s “better than reading a friend’s journal”, and Stephen King reckons it’s brilliant, too. I think I’m ready to slot this one on the special bookshelf next to The Energy of Slaves.


It’s Not Necessarily the Truth
by Jaime Pressly
HarperCollins, February
And it’s a great title. No room for argument there. Pressly has risen in a very short time from sexy model and movie eye-candy to Emmy-nominated actress—not the easiest of progressions, right? How many stars of late-night Skinemax fare like Poison Ivy 3 have seen half as much success? I must know how she managed that. And I hope she discusses her sweetly tragic stint on Punk’d.


The Crossroads
by Niccolo Ammaniti
Text, January
As with Let the Right One In, translated from its original Swedish, Ammaniti’s I’m Not Scared introduced me to the literature of another country and culture, introducing me to world perspectives I’d not previously experienced in my reading. I’m Not Scared is an amazing book, with the most breathtaking final act. The Crossroads interests me because it features similar themes, about young men watching their elders make bad, bad decisions. This time Cristiano waiting and watching as his father plots an ATM theft with a converted tractor. Something tells me the plan won’t go smoothly.


Stephen King Goes to the Movies
by Stephen King
Simon and Schuster, January
Whether it’s in depth analysis like Danse Macabre or film reviewing in Entertainment Weekly, right back to those “Dear Reader” letters he’d put in his old short story collections, Stephen King doing any sort of non-fiction writing just excites me. This book looks especially cool, as the author looks at five of his stories made into films. Of the five he revisits, only one, in my opinion (often the opposite of King’s in EWFunny Games the best movie of the year? Steve, you are nuts, dude!), is of any real worth as a film, and that’s The Shawshank Redemption. I must know what he thinks of the awful Children of the Corn adaptation, and I’d like a real explanation for the stupid ending to 1408. King’s candor is always fun, so I expect big things, including major bickering in my head between King and I.


Handle with Care
by Jodi Picoult
Simon and Schuster, March
If Ryan Adams is like whiskey, then Jodi Picoult is a strong peppermint latte with cream. She’s sweet and soothing, but she bites, too. And she’s addictive. Picoult is the queen of the family drama, taking key issues of the day—medical, legal, social—and providing insight into what life is like for those “others” who actually experience child suicide, sex attacks, heart transplants, school massacres, and every other human headline event. This time she’s tackling brittle bone disease, abortion, child’s rights, wrongful birth, and the meaning of family. It’s a lot to fit into one story, but such layers and textures are what Jodi does best.


Be Is For Beer
by Tom Robbins
HarperCollins, April
Which bring me to my most anticipated release of the New Year, and possibly the year in full. A new Tom Robbins book is cause to celebrate. This is his first novel since 2003—a children’s book about beer. Robbins is now with Ecco, making him a stable mate beside his heroes Leonard Cohen and Charles Bukowski. The press release for this one calls it an “hallucinogenic hymn to beer, children, and the cosmic mysteries that sustain us all.” I hope this one sets forth to solve some of those cosmic mysteries. I’m quite convinced Tom Robbins holds those answers, and serves them up piece by piece through crazy phrases, big thumbs, and spoons trapped in drawers with vibrators. This one might become my Bible.


Happy Reading New Year.


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Wednesday, Dec 31, 2008

2008 was the year of the auteur. It was the time for the mind behind the lens. While previous seasons have seen hit or miss offerings from the best and brightest of the artform’s directorial gods, this year was different. Original celluloid voices like Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy II), Clint Eastwood (Changeling) and Michel Gondry (Be Kind, Rewind) delivered some of their finest flourishes, while new voices like Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted), Steve McQueen (Hunger), and screenwriter turned filmmaker Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York) brought their new and novel ideas to the motion picture party. In 2008, it was all about the vision, storytelling supported with big ideas, wild ambitions, and all the technical tools one could muster to realize both. Yet there was also room for more personal approaches, pictures where the only moviemaking magic needed was a great cast, a solid script, and someone to make sure both got showcased.


In looking over the 200 plus films SE&L reviewed this year, a few that didn’t make the final ten deserve more than an honorable mention. Man on Wire proved that individual drive and daring-do can overcome even the most outsized architectural aims, while Trouble the Water offered a searing documentary denouncement of the post-Katrina relief efforts of the Bush Administration. Iron Man catapulted Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., and Marvel Comics to the frontlines of the Summer popcorn parade, while Tropic Thunder and The Pineapple Express proved that comedy didn’t have to be pretty, or always joking, to make its merry point. We even got the final installment in Dario Argento’s long gestating Three Mothers trilogy - and wouldn’t you know it, The Mother of Tears was a terrific return to form. Even the universally touted titles that didn’t come close to breaching the Best (Frost/Nixon, Doubt, The Reader) argued for the talent of the individuals calling the shots.


While you may argue with a few of the choices (and the placement of a couple more), the following collection of neo-classics represents SE&L‘s selections for the year’s superior cinematic experiences. They may not all be serious. Some may cross the line when it comes to movie mastery. And at least one is oft cited as one of 2008’s worst. But for our metaphysical money, these were the titles that made the year in film worth watching, starting with: 


#10 - Zack and Miri Make a Porno
In a year that’s seen such spry and subversive comedies as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, and Tropic Thunder, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is the best. It represents yet another triumph for Kevin Smith (after the amazing Clerks II) and showcases a growing maturity for a filmmaking once noted for wallowing in the infantile. Sure, scatology abounds, and no one could accuse Smith of taking his subject too seriously. But when it comes time to deliver the goods, to get past the obvious T&A toilet humor and offer up something sweet and sincere, the king of the ViewAskew Universe literally rules. With its combination of heart and hilarity, bawdy blackouts and cleverly drawn characters, Smith starts out strong and ends up delivering something that’s timeless as well as tasteless.




#9 - Speed Racer
Forget all the curmudgeonly criticism that argues for this movie’s optical overload capacity - Speed Racer is a modern masterpiece, no two ways about it. Andy and Larry Wachowski have succeeded in creating a living, breathing comic book, complete with nods to psychedelic pen and ink designs, four panel editing, and overflowing visual pizzazz. Anyone who can’t see the brilliant blockbuster fun the brothers are having with this material has spent one too many hours staring at gloomy independent dramas about siblings struggling to deal with their dysfunctionality. This is filmmaking as fireworks, directorial innovation that, while not as media morphing as The Matrix, stands as the highest level of celluloid creativity. From races that routinely flaunt the rules of realism to a story that stresses the noble over the nasty, Speed Racer soars to the highest levels of movie magic.




#8 - Wall-E
By its very definition, imagination is limitless. The only true restrictions to the notion exist in the connection to actual human thought. Clearly, whoever is hiring (or perhaps, cloning) the creative forces at Pixar have found a way to circumvent said biological boundary. In an artistic endeavor where there are no sure things, this astounding animation studio has that most unprecedented of reputations - they never make a mistake. Not only are their films fantastic examples of motion picture craftsmanship, but they keep getting better with each and every new offering. Take their latest, the special sci-fi allegory WALL*E. It a stunning achievement in computer generated imagery, and once again expands the company’s range in dealing with subject matter both speculative and wonderfully sly.




#7 - The Dark Knight
Like a symphony where every note is exactly where it needs to be, or a painting without a brushstroke wasted, The Dark Knight is an unabashed, unashamedly great film. It’s a flawless amalgamation of moviemaker and material, Christopher Nolan’s calling card for future cinematic superstardom. All those comparisons to The Godfather and Heat are well earned. This is popcorn buzz built for the complex mind, a motion picture monolith constructed out of carefully placed plot and performance pieces. At two and a half hours, it’s epic in approach. But as the battle between men who are each facing their own inner demons and unsettled sources of personal discontent, its subtext and scope are unmatched. This is Coppola at his crime opera peak, Kubrick coming to the comic book and banging on all meticulously crafted cylinders.




#6 - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not a movie made for a single viewing. At nearly three hours in length, its detail and depth become distant and unclear. There are times when it looks like director David Fincher is operating under a delusion of self-indulgence, basic camera tricks and CG deception taking over where narrative drive and clear characterization would suffice. But then the premise kicks in, an idea so novel and yet so simple that it often threatens to spin out of control. But this is where Fincher shines - bringing the outrageous and the outsized back into scale with the rest of his vision. As a result, Benjamin Button stands as the kind of filmmaking achievement that formidable French auteur theory was meant to celebrate. Without Fincher behind the scenes, this would be an occasionally interesting, often irritating trifle. With him, it’s some manner of masterpiece.




#5 - Milk
So much about Milk speaks to our current Prop 8 poisoned society that it should be studied by anyone wondering where hate and bigotry get their clear eyed cravenness. Mirroring the main character’s rise from activist to Establishment, director Gus Van Sant wisely juxtaposes archival footage of former Miss America and orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant as part of the perspective. Militant in her narrow-minded opposition to equal rights, she’s Sarah Palin sent back in a time machine, a smiley faced whack job that preaches Christian charity while targeting her baseless Bible at an entire underclass. Her moral majority preaching, position as part of what will eventually be the religious right rejuvenation of the Republican Party, is frightening, and reminds us that Milk the man truly laid his life on the line for the cause.




#4 - The Wrestler
Taking its tone from Rod Serling’s memorable Requiem for a Heavyweight while utilizing a breathtaking neo-realistic approach, Darren Aronofsky’s sensational The Wrestler marks a major comeback for Mickey Rourke and ‘70s style filmmaking in general. Offering up characters of quiet charms and deep emotional pain and a cinema verite cinematography that frequently feels like a documentary, this is a tour de force of acting, directing, and stripped down motion picture passion. It’s rare when a film can make you feel such emotional extremes. On the one hand, the story of The Ram’s rise and fall is truly heartbreaking, helped in no small part by Rourke’s Oscar worthy performance. But there is so much more going on here, from the concept of a career lost long ago to an attempt at redemption that almost anyone can relate to. It makes for a truly remarkable entertainment experience.




#3 - Slumdog Millionaire
There ought to be a law against Danny Boyle and his undeniable moviemaking brilliance. After all, if an everyday item threatened to take your breath away as often and as intensely as this Englishman’s many cinematic masterworks, the government would at least step in and find a way to stick a warning label on it. After the serious sci-fi stunner Sunshine, Boyle’s trip into the darkened heart of impoverished India is the perfect illustration of celluloid as avant-art. From landscapes that literally look alien in nature and creation, to a simple love story spread out among elements both tragic and electric, this is perhaps the best film of Boyle’s already illustrious career - and this is the man who gave us Trainspotting, Millions, and 28 Days Later, mind you.




#2 - Let the Right One In
With its bursts of horrific violence and stark, matter of fact mannerism, Let the Right One In instantly becomes one of the few outright foreign fright film classics. It uses routine to unholy ends, and takes the standard coming of age and turns it right on its pointy, perplexed and paranormal little head. Rare is the movie that can take the trials and tribulations of peer pressure and personal awareness and make it into something both celebratory and sinister. But thanks to the efforts of Thomas Alfredson and his collaboration with source novelist John Lindqvist, we wind up with a compelling companion to every story of overlooked and alienated youth ever told. It’s like A Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace with night stalkers.





#1 - Revolutionary Road
Apparently, in order to enjoy Sam Mendes take on Revolutionary Road, you have to (a) have never read the Yates’ book it is based on, (b) never watched an episode of AMC’s au courant revisionist hipster drama Mad Men, and (c) believe the filmmaker’s previous Oscar winning effort, American Beauty, was not some award season anomaly. Add in the “isn’t that cute” conceit of having three members of James Cameron’s Titanic back onscreen (Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kathy Bates) and the pedigree everyone involved provides, and you’re either drunk on the idea of the film, or failing to see the true mess that Mendes has made. Actually, none of this is true. In a season which sees underage sex with war criminals celebrated and old racists made warm and fuzzy, Revolutionary Road stands as a bold bit of filmmaking. It’s not always pleasant, but then again, neither is life.


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Wednesday, Dec 31, 2008

Instant gratification, as we all have learned, is readily available on the internet. If I wanted to and had some ethical flexibility, I could check out PopMatters’ list of top albums for the year, do a little creative searching involving the word torrent and have all the ones that piqued my interest. The same goes for games, films, books, basically anything culturally current. It is the apotheosis in the society-wide trend toward convenience. We get what we want with minimal fuss and as little human interaction as possible. The triumphs of Amazon.com in the midst of the worst retailing season in modern history also demonstrate how online convenience has conquered America.


But is the ensuing hegemony of online retail merely setting up a backlash? Will we rebound into a yearning for more complex and challenging shopping missions? Will we miss the so-called experience economy? Let me once more go to the bottomless well of insight that is Albert Hirschman’s Shifting Involvements. In discussing how disappointment with consumerism might lead to a widespread embrace of public involvement, Hirschman points out that part of the appeal of civic life is that it makes for “a confusion between striving and attaining” that allows the process of involvement to provide as much pleasure as actually achieving the ends one strives for. The process becomes part of the pleasure, if not the better part of it, augmenting the pleasure achieved from the ostensible goal of the process. Therefore the “free-rider problem”—in which people wait for other people to do the work of public action—to a degree vanishes. “To elect a free ride under the circumstances would be equivalent to declining a delicious meal and to swallow a satiation-producing pill that is not even particularly effective.” Free riders get none of the pleasure of effort for its own sake, which becomes more and more appealing the more commercial interests try to make our acquisitive life effortless, and the more we are stung by the disappointments of mere things. They never satisfy for long, they lose their novelty, they fail to deliver their full promise, they cease to reflect who we are, etc. Public action, as action, expresses our being in a different way, as something that’s not merely curatorial. And in public action, the pleasures from the process and the goal compound rather than alternate, as they often do in the classical economists’ analysis of consumption, in which we exchange hard-earned money for goods that then provide pleasure. Hirschman points out that under the ordinary conditions of exchange, “the separation of the whole process into means and ends, or costs and benefits, occurs almost spontaneously”—separating out the pleasure of the process of striving from the pleasure of attainment. This seems to be a perfect description of the instantaneous, near friction-free gratification of online shopping.


But don’t we want shopping to be more like public action, and have the process of seeking our holy-grail goods be a substantial part of the pleasure itself? Thanks to digitization, anyone can have lots of media-based stuff, which for me anyway has long been the only stuff that mattered. (I haven’t grown up into the world of home furnishings yet.) So the pleasures of mere possession are threatened, as are the pleasures of use—when you have 49 days worth of music to listen to, it becomes hard to know where to start—it even becomes a positive source of anxiety. Acquiring the next album seems relatively simple and possibly more pleasurable by comparison.


HIrschman evokes the pilgrimage to describe a sort of private consumption that thrives on difficulty, that becomes more meaningful the more trouble they cause: “The discomforts suffered and perils confronted during the trip were part and parcel of the total ‘liminal’ experience sought by the pilgrim.” The next wave of retail may make a more explicit attempt to incorporate this kind of arduousness into it, meaningful inconveniences that during pilgrimages can take on symbolic significance. In other words, shopping may customarily encorporate the difficulty level that hardcore collectors already make their raison d’etre—the sort of people who fly to Japan to get a pair of limited-edition sneakers at a boutique whose very existence is a closely guarded secret. Perhaps all the stores of the future will be secret boutiques. (Ugh. I sound like a futurist all of a sudden.)


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Wednesday, Dec 31, 2008

Prompted by the availability of David Harvey’s lectures, I have been reading Marx’s Capital and am sure to have all sorts of mind-numbing posts about the insights I’ve derived from it in the new year. (Look forward to my close reading of footnote 39 in the chapter about large-scale industry.) But I was glad to read that, like Sarkozy I am part of a current fad for Marx, prompted apparently by the end of capitalism as we know it and all that. The Times of London reported on the Marxmania in October:


Visitors to Karl Marx’s birthplace in Trier have soared – 40,000 so far this year – with many coming from China, eastern Germany, Cuba and Bolivia.“I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say: ‘The man was right!’,” says Beatrix Bouvier, chief curator of the museum. Alexander Kluge, the film director, is preparing to make a blockbuster film out of Das Kapital. Little wonder, since Marx comes highly recommended. President Sarkozy of France has been seen flicking through the book, while the Peer Steinbrück, the German Finance Minister, recently admitted: “Certain parts of Marx’s thinking are really not so bad.” The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave him a decent review last month: “Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that had no life in themselves.” Even the Pope has put in a good word for the old atheist – praising his “great analytical skill”.


And according to Princeton historian Howard James,


The implication of Marx’s renewed popularity is that capitalism is now universally accepted as being fundamentally broken, with the financial system at the heart of the problem. Marx’s description of “the fetishism of commodities” — the translation of goods into tradable assets, disembodied from either the process of creation or their usefulness — seems entirely relevant to the complex process of securitization, in which values seem to be hidden by obscure transactions.


(James does warn against adopting the Communist Manifesto as solution to the financial crisis, however.)


The most relevant part of Capital to the current crisis that I’ve read thus far comes in chapter 3, about money, section 3(b) (here in a somewhat lackluster translation):


The function of money as the means of payment implies a contradiction without a terminus medius. In so far as the payments balance one another, money functions only ideally as money of account, as a measure of value. In so far as actual payments have to be made, money does not serve as a circulating medium, as a mere transient agent in the interchange of products, but as the individual incarnation of social labour, as the independent form of existence of exchange value, as the universal commodity. This contradiction comes to a head in those phases of industrial and commercial crises which are known as monetary crises. Such a crisis occurs only where the ever-lengthening chain of payments, and an artificial system of settling them, has been fully developed. Whenever there is a general and extensive disturbance of this mechanism, no matter what its cause, money becomes suddenly and immediately transformed, from its merely ideal shape of money of account, into hard cash. Profane commodities can no longer replace it. The use-value of commodities becomes value-less, and their value vanishes in the presence of its own independent form. On the eve of crisis, the bourgeois, with the self-sufficiency that springs from intoxicating prosperity, declares money to be a vain imagination. Commodities alone are money. But now the cry is everywhere: money alone is a commodity! As the hart pants after fresh water, so pants his soul after money, the only wealth. In a crisis, the antithesis between commodities and their value-form, money, becomes heightened into an absolute contradiction. Hence, in such events, the form under which money appears is of no importance. The money famine continues, whether payments have to be made in gold or in credit money such as bank notes.


In troubled credit markets, all collateral is suspect.


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Wednesday, Dec 31, 2008

Nu-progressive types beware! At first blush, Tony Bennett can seem to be a crotchety old traditionalist, harshly critical of any popular music trend that flirts outside the pages of the Great American Songbook. During his appearance on Elvis Costello’s weekly Spectacle show (Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel), Bennett faults contemporary music for its emphasis on banging and clanging (there’s “too many drums…instead of harmony and melody,” he explains, adding, “and they’re all screaming!”), recalls a time when “the audience was so with the music,” and deems Porter, Gershwin, Ellington, Mercer, and Arlen as “America’s greatest ambassadors.” He even performs Kern and Mercer’s “I’m Old Fashioned” to underscore his position, for anyone still unsure on where Bennett stands.


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