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Friday, Oct 24, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
Words and Pictures by Steve Stirling

Frances matched my expectations almost exactly, which isn’t to say I was incredibly enthralled or disgusted by them. Heading into their set at Mercury Lounge, the only thing I knew about them was that they were an indie-pop outfit fronted by a Columbia Ph.D. So when a meek looking cat in glasses took the stage alongside a nerdy looking bassist, an energetic plaid-clad guitarist, and a pair of women who promptly picked up a violin and a melodica, I can’t say it was the shock of the century. Musically, Frances put forth a solid, albeit unremarkable product. Building tension through a minimalist string and faux-brass section served as Frances’ greatest strength, as they utilized the oft-overblown musical supplement with an artful restraint. Frontman Paul Hogan’s light, melodic voice was supported well by the cast of characters around him, who together create cohesive and pleasant tunes befitting of the college campus that birthed it.



Tagged as: cmj, frances
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Friday, Oct 24, 2008

It’s a staple of the cinematic form, drama’s go-to position when anything outside biology becomes unobtainable. In fact it’s such a stalwart that the independent movement has been milking it for over a decade, hoping it will grab the attention of the often-indifferent mainstream. Families in freefall as a motion picture type has been around since talkies gave voice to its collection of characters, but in the post-modern world, relations between parents and children, siblings and each other, and any newcomer to the kinship have been turned into something similar to a gonzo Greek tragedy. With the rare exception, these narratives revolve around the uncompromising pain our loved ones inflict on each other and us, while struggling to suggest sentiments more universal and profound. Rachel Getting Married gets most of this ideal dead right. But how it gets there becomes a big part of the film’s overall critical failing. 


Kym is the typical black sheep of her smug Northeastern family. A wild child teen model, she’s now a raging drug addict whose intoxicated antics led to some devastating, deadly results. On leave from rehab, she’s returning home to participate in her sister Rachel’s wedding. After first, everyone is wary of her prickly presence, including her overprotective father and sis’s suspicious friend. But as she warms up to her future brother-in-law’s best man, a fellow former junkie himself, and makes various scenes in public, the pain she’s hiding begins to slip through. Then her distant mother arrives, her decision for divorce derived directly from Kym’s inexcusable actions. As tempers flare and secrets emerge, it’s clear that everyone here has been affected by our highly stung heroine - and her inability to face up to the responsibility of same. Of course, their hands are far from clean.


Rachel Getting Married is Ordinary People turned inside out. It’s Shoot the Moon, Georgia, and dozens of lesser examples of familial dysfunction filtered through every cultural celebration on the planet. While it marks a return to familiar territory for cinematic schizophrenic Jonathan Demme, it contains elements that make you wonder why he came back in such an artistically questionable way. Perhaps after squandering his Oscar and Indie cred on such slight efforts as Beloved, The Truth About Charlie, and The Manchurian Candidate (the last two unnecessary remakes), he decided to rediscover his cinematic muse. But while the script he uncovers is more than solid (here’s hoping that Sidney Lumet’s daughter Jenny gets the Oscar nom she so richly deserves), and the performances he draws on exceptional, Demme’s own ideas appear to purposely undermine his efforts along the way.


Indeed, there are two facets of this film that threaten to overwhelm everything entertaining and endearing about the interpersonal problems on display. First, Demme employs the new fangled gimmick - the handheld shakey cam - to suggest a kind of An American Family documentary dynamic. As we watch talented actors pour their hearts out in conversations that crackle with abject realism, the cinematography acts like it’s got the shakes. There are perhaps two steady shots in the whole film. Otherwise, this is Cloverfield with monstrous people problems in place of an oversized extraterrestrial city killer. Quarantine wasn’t this unsettling, cinematically. It’s as if Demme watched The Blair Witch Project and any number of its crappy clones, and said “that sounds like fun.” Unfortunately, the stunt stifles some of the movie’s more memorable emotions.


Besides, the argument that this process gives the film a more authentic feel is high minded hogwash. Arguing documentary style suggests all fact directors are incapable of controlled camerawork. Sure, a more verite approach would support such a gross overgeneralization, but what we see in Rachel Getting Married is nothing short of a small screen interpretation of some clearly non-theatrical conceits. Directors need to look away from their video playback once and a while and realize that what they are creating will wind up 40 feet high in some neighborhood Multiplex. It’s as if everyone employing this device has given up on the moviegoing experience and relegated their film to the home video format of choice.


And then there is the almost cartoonish multiculturalism. On the one hand, Demme should be praised for taking such a color-blind approach to this material. Unlike Robert Redford’s Oscar winning walk through suburban Chicago psychosis, there is no clear connection to anything Caucasian. Kym and Rachel are certainly suggestive of the majority, but everyone else, from the African American fiancé (and his eclectic brood) to the various Asian, Hispanic, and indeterminate friends make an impression about the globe circa 2008. But then Rachel Getting Married goes overboard, bringing every manner of tradition and ritualized ethnicity to the table. We get glimpses of India, pieces plucked out of Peru and the rest of South America. The reception even dabbles in the Caribbean and Eastern Europe before settling in for some nice, normative USA jazz. But the troubles talked over deserve a more focused approach. Half the time we feel like we’re locked in a hot button version of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?


And yet, Rachel Getting Married is so smartly written and expertly acted that we can easily forgive Demme’s directorial skylarking. Anne Hathaway, given the thankless job of making the perpetually whiny Kym seem tolerable, turns her into the noblest of needy offspring. At first, we wonder why the character constantly obsesses on her “me, me, me” mantra. Then we meet Bill Irwin’s dithering dad and - even better - Debra Winger’s Mary Tyler Moore style bitch mother and everything clicks. Both represent the worst aspects of so-called “perfect” parents - absenteeism, indifference, negotiating instead of directing. Both performers are fine, but Winger stands out as the kind of nurturer who clearly has limits. Elsewhere, Demme populates the film with an idiosyncratic collection of cameos. Everyone from Fab Five Freddy and Robin Hitchcock to Roger Corman make an amiable appearance.


In fact, had Demme done away with the trickery and taken this material more seriously, had he avoided the attempt to be au courant and simply staged the movie the way he did with previous classics like Something Wild or Melvin and Howard, we would be looking at an overall awards season frontrunner. Instead, Rachel Getting Married will be acknowledged for its cast, and for a screenplay that cuts out the clichés typically associated with the fractured clan genre, and that’s it. One cannot stress enough how remarkable certain individual moments are in this movie. Several scenes literally take your breath away with their heartbreaking intensity and raw nerve pain. But then the lens goes wobbly and we’re once again aware of the individual in the director’s chair. While taking an audience out of the moment is not the biggest cinematic crime, Demme turns it into something serial. Unfortunately, it costs his film dearly. 


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Friday, Oct 24, 2008

There’s nothing like scoring some fresh used books at an unexpected book sale. Today was the annual library book sale at the nearby central university library here in Atlantic Canada. Thank goodness I had some cash.


The books were roughly categorized and stuck on spare shelving carts, with colored dots stuck on the covers to indicate prices. I picked up a ten year old marketing textbook for fifty cents that probably cost a hundred dollars back when there wasn’t a newer edition. I might use it for one or two projects and then release it back into the wild.


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A cheap Dover thrift edition of Jane Austen’s Emma set me back a dollar but I’m pretty sure I don’t have a copy and I know I’ve never read it, so I picked it up because it looks brand new. There were quite a few beaten up hardcover mass market novels from big name authors, but the only one that caught my eye was Misfortune (2005) by Wesley Stace. The dust jacket was interesting enough to make me pick it up, and the premise was interesting enough to merit forking over another dollar. The paperback reprint has four out of five stars on Amazon, and five of five on Barnes & Noble’s website, but of course I didn’t know that at the time.


My big purchase was a two dollar guide to grammar and the major writing styles; indispensable when you have (as a humanities student) long been accustomed to using the MLA guide and suddenly professors want APA style and ix-nay on the passive oice-vay. A small price to pay for an almost current grammar and style guide!


A recommended management text for a current course that I didn’t purchase at the start of the semester because funds were tight was meant to be mine. For another fifty cents, it’ll be worth it for the next assignment alone, because normally I would be trekking back to the library to take a look at the copy on reserve.


Total cost for five books: $5 Canadian. An excellent start to the weekend.


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Friday, Oct 24, 2008
I am happy to make the case that this team represents the best possible players, based on the various criteria. What do you think?

Part Three: The Starting Lineup


And now, the starting lineup, complete with designated hitter (as it would somehow seem less American not to play by American League rules; all of the National League purists are encouraged to join the conversation about how the game used to be played over at Nogoodmusicwasmadeafter1960.com), organized by batting order:


NAME             POSITION


Creedence Clearwater Revival         SS
Bruce Springsteen         CF
Steely Dan           1B
R.E.M.              3B
The Pixies           DH
Bob Dylan           C
Lynyrd Skynyrd             LF
The Doors           RF
The Beach Boys             2B


Question: Where are the Grateful Dead? Three answers: First, they are too busy patrolling the concourse, dispensing miracles, to participate in organized games. Second, and perhaps more to the point, what position, exactly, is Jerry Garcia going to play? Finally, the game needs a mascot, and what could be more appropriate than the Steal Your Face guy flying in and around the stadium, at once part of the game and calmly removed from it; like a beach ball, only trippier. Also, instead of the current trend of singing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch, we’re pumping in Howlin Wolf’s rendition of “Smokestack Lightning” because, frankly, it doesn’t get any more American than that.


Leading off, at short stop, is the hits machine Creedence Clearwater Revival. In their relatively brief, but remarkably productive prime, they were not only a force to be reckoned with, but unparalleled as a positive force in American music. They led the league in hits and batting average over three seasons (1968-1970). Their highlight reel runs constantly on FM radio, and it’s worth recalling that these dudes rocked the flannel look long before it was cool (in the ‘70s or in the grunge 2.0 fashion cycle).


Hitting in the number two spot, in centerfield, is Asbury Park’s own Bruce Springsteen. A promising rookie in ’73 who’d paid some serious dues for several years in the minor leagues, his breakthrough season came in 1975 when he garnered MVP honors for Born To Run. Since then he has seldom been out of favor, cranking out timely singles and infusing the game with his unmatched energy and integrity. If the team ever hits a losing streak, the Boss is often at his best when times seem the toughest: Bruce understands (and does his best to ensure) that the glory days are always in the future.


Spunk In Centerfield: The Boss

Spunk In Centerfield: The Boss


Batting third and flashing some serious leather at first base is the quiet but deadly duo Steely Dan. These guys were as close to a dynasty as anyone else in the much-maligned decade of the ‘70s. Perfectionists, oddballs, studio wizards, the Dan put together a string of winning seasons that any band would happily emulate. Consummate team players (never ones to put their faces on albums), Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were such perfectionists that they stopped touring altogether in the ‘70s so they could concentrate on crafting their meticulous string of albums. Every team requires the quietly obsessed, lead-by-example professional, and in the understated Dan, this squad has the perfect player to keep them grounded, and focused on what matters most.


The clean-up hitter and arguably most impressive player on the squad is that most American of bands, R.E.M. Not only the ultimate run producer and homeruns leader (from their rookie season in ’83 through at least ’96, their prime is one extended batting title). Consistency has always been their hallmark, and only the most versatile, fearless and original band could cover the hot corner year in and year out. If they’ve shown their age in recent years, it does not (cannot) diminish their credentials: a longer heyday than any other American band, hands down.


Batting fifth is highly regarded designated hitter The Pixies. This perennial fan favorite would warrant inclusion in the lineup courtesy of their two masterworks Surfer Rosa and Doolittle.  But to put their influence and reputation in proper perspective, consider the fact that Kurt Cobain once admitted that on the Nirvana hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, he was “basically trying to rip off the Pixies…I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band.” Factor in that this is also the band that (sort of) spawned The Breeders, not to mention Black Francis’s metamorphosis into Frank Black, and the considerably satisfactory solo career he’s had. When you contemplate a band that hit long bombs when given the chance (with the strikeouts that are an inevitable part of the DH position), you might be hard pressed to come up with a better slugger. If the bases are loaded with two outs in a tie game, all that needs to be said is “if man is 5, then the devil is 6 and if the devil is 6 than god is 7”. That (rally) monkey’s gone to heaven.


Catcher, Captain and Iconoclast: Bob Dylan

Catcher, Captain and Iconoclast: Bob Dylan


Team captain, and catcher, Bob Dylan hits sixth. To be honest, he could play anywhere and do anything he feels like. It’s rather unlikely that he’d want to be associated with any teams, as he owes allegiance to no one other than Woody Guthrie. Dylan is, in short, the consensus leader of this entire generation: he is the alpha and omega of post-‘60s American music. Everyone from The Byrds to the Beatles and singer-songwriters from Van Morrison to Neko Case are, in their own way, paying homage to everything the bard from Minnesota made possible.


Batting in the number seven slot, it’s the tough-as-nails, first off the bench in a brawl southern boys Lynyrd Skynyrd. And where else but left field for a band that took Neil Young to task for critiquing “sweet home” Alabama, only to befriend him later? Where else but left field for a group with ultimate southern street cred advocating that we toss all pistols to the bottom of the sea (“Saturday Night Special”)? These non-NRA endorsing rednecks wrote songs that were remarkably nuanced (“That Smell”, “Needle and the Spoon”) and unusually sensitive (“Tuesday’s Gone”, “Simple Man”) as well as the obligatory ‘70s anthems (“Sweet Home Alabama”, “Give Me Three Steps”, “Free Bird”). Like too many of their teammates, tragedy derailed their run to glory, but the body of work is versatile, deep and enduring.


Hitting eighth and getting the mojo rising in right field are The Doors. Not too many groups have finished their careers as solid and strong as they began them, but L.A. Woman was almost as perfect a swan song as The Doors was a debut. Overlooked and easy to dismiss (Jim Morrison was to rock music what the oft-suspended and self-immolating prima donnas are to today’s sports), they cast an immense and influential shadow—often on the short list of younger band’s role models. And while right field is arguably the least exciting and uneventful position in the field, when you need that long throw home on a rope, or that perfect song at the end of the night before you slip into unconsciousness, the Lizard King is always ready to light up the fire.


The Hits Machine at Second Base: Brian Wilson

The Hits Machine at Second Base: Brian Wilson


Finally, batting ninth and turning double plays at second base, it’s the forever young angels from the gold coast, The Beach Boys. Obviously, they had enough ammo, early in their career (another runs factory) to warrant serious consideration for inclusion on this team. But some historical perspective is imperative when really assessing the Beach Boys’ place in history: while The Beatles are (correctly) credited with creating rock music’s first commercially embraced work of art with Sgt. Pepper, it is well documented that Paul McCartney’s initial inspiration was to somehow make a record as incredible as Pet Sounds. A second baseman is counted on to stir the pot and produce timely singles, and The Beach Boys delivered some of the most crucial hits ever in postseason play: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”, “God Only Knows”, and, of course, “Good Vibrations”—the single still hear ‘round the world.
So there it is: the ultimate lineup of American rock music legends. While I reserve the right to second-guess myself (that, after all, is pretty much the point—along with instigating discussion!), I am happy to make the case that this team represents the best possible players, based on the various criteria. What do you think?


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Friday, Oct 24, 2008

Former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan testified in Congress yesterday on his contributions to the current financial crisis. To the surprise of virtually everyone, he admitted fault. House Oversight Committee chairman Henry Waxman basically told him that he was making decisions ideologically and that his ideology was inadequate; Greenspan admitted it was true.


“I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms,” Mr. Greenspan said. Referring to his free-market ideology, Mr. Greenspan added: “I have found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact.” Mr. Waxman pressed the former Fed chair to clarify his words. “In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working,” Mr. Waxman said. “Absolutely, precisely,” Mr. Greenspan replied. “You know, that’s precisely the reason I was shocked, because I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”


This is flabbergasting, most of all Greenspan’s claim that he believed that the “self-interest of organizations” would protect shareholders. It’s almost as if he’d never heard of the principal-agent problem. Bankers make big bonuses when they take big risks and increase revenue; those risks are in the interests of their bonuses, not in the shareholders’ long-term interests. And what’s more, shareholders had even less idea of what was happening on trading floors with respect to derivatives and securitizations and the whole alphabet soup of financial arcana. Management was making bets with shareholder’s equity. Incentives were misaligned. It was only a matter of time before the whole system melted down. But this isn’t the failure of the “free market,” at least how your average free-market ideologue would understand it. Dean Baker explains how Greenspan’s testimony makes him a faux Randian. Ayn Rand would say be as greedy as possible and let shareholders look out for themselves, if they can. And the fee market ideologue would say those who fail, fail; they don’t get bailed out. But that is not what was happening on Wall Street, which is not the “free market”. It’s not free because the government and taxpayers were tacitly paying for it all along:


The banks were able to get access to vast amounts of capital because everyone had faith in the “too big to fail” doctrine. In other words, all the people who lent Bear Stearns, Lehman, AIG, Goldman and the rest money felt secure because they thought the government would come to the rescue at the end of the day if the hotshots messed up big time.
With the exception of Lehman Brothers, these folks were right. The Wall Street hotshots were gambling not only with their shareholders’ money, but they could also count on the security blanket of a government bailout if they really got into trouble. In other words, they were gambling with the taxpayers’ money also.
This is important because the Wall Street hotshots didn’t have and don’t want a free market. They want to be able to take big risks with other people’s money, both their shareholders and the taxpayers.


The point, as always, is that talk of “free markets” is a disguise for trying to slant the markets in your favor. The same goes for “spreading the wealth,” as Will Wilkinosn explains: “democratic politics just is a wealth-spreading exercise, and there’s no avoiding it. If you’re gonna pick sides, you’re just picking your favorite redistributive poison.”


Judging by what has happened to income distributions over the past eight years, Republicans want to spread it up, concentrate it in the hands of the established and already well-connected. Democrats—I hope—intend to spread it around.


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