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by PopMatters Staff

14 Jan 2009

 

The Bush Years: Farewell, Mr. President
The Daily Show profiles the final days of George W. Bush’s years in office as Barack Obama waits in the wings.

 

The Bush Years: He’s the Decider!
George W. Bush makes his case for the most bumbling presidency in history.

 

 

The Bush Years: Dubya Economics
Compassionate conservatism and tax cuts highlight eight years of finance under George W. Bush.

 

by Mehan Jayasuriya

14 Jan 2009

Photos: Mehan Jayasuriya

In June of 1998, while on tour in Canada, Champaign, Illinois alt-rock quartet Hum was involved in a car accident that destroyed their van and brought their tour to a screeching halt. Though the band was forced to cancel most of the remaining dates on their tour, they managed to soldier on and play two of the 13 scheduled shows. Shortly after the accident, the band flew from their hometown to Boston for a headlining gig and then travelled via caravan to Milwaukee, where they would play one of the largest shows of their career, as an opening act on the Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore tour. “The Milwaukee concert is such a huge show, and it’s so close to home that the band just decided to make do,” Hum publicist Gina Orr told JAMTV at the time of the accident.

Meanwhile, my brother and I—aged 13 and 15, respectively—were eagerly awaiting the bands’ Milwaukee date. Sure, we were Smashing Pumpkins fans, having seen that band on their Mellon Collie tour two years earlier. This time around, however, we were far more excited about the opening act, a little-known band from nearby Champaign that we had learned of through word-of-mouth. While the Pumpkins had largely abandoned guitar rock for moody electronic pop at this point, Hum still ably carried the flag of so-called alternative rock, marrying a driving rhythm section with layers of heavily textured guitars. Atop it all was frontman Matt Talbot’s trademark monotone, singing willfully inscrutable lyrics that, as with many shoegaze bands, served only to reinforce the relative unimportance of vocals to the band’s aesthetic. There’s a reason, after all, why people sometimes refer to Hum as a space rock act, alongside such luminaries as Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine and Spacemen 3.

The day of the show, my brother and I found ourselves at the home of a family friend, eagerly awaiting our drop-off at the Marcus Amphitheater by our father. As the clock ticked closer to the scheduled time of the show, the two of us started pestering our reluctant escort to drive us to the venue. Ever the procrastinator, our father shooed us away, assuring us that there would be plenty of time to get to the Marcus in time.

by Zeth Lundy

14 Jan 2009

Elvis Costello wears a silly hat throughout this episode of Spectacle. It distracted me. (The offending accessory is a red, short-brimmed fedora that appears to be made from, ahem, velvet.) Is he attempting to be ironic, given that this episode deals with, among other things, pop standards—and, furthermore, that he opens the show with a winking cover of “If I Only Had a Brain”? (A performance that seems to say, Get it, if I only had a brain? Obviously I do have a brain, a big one at that; ergo, what I’m doing here with this song amuses me so.) Does he think that this sort of questionable fashion choice is, in fact, the sort of thing that would impress or entertain a gay man? His guest, after all, is Rufus Wainwright, who makes no mention of the hat, this velveteen red elephant sitting atop the host’s head in a cocked, taunting fashion. (Wainwright does, however, stumble through many an answer—behavior that one could logically attribute to the absurd trauma of having questions posed to you by a man in a funny hat.)

by Bill Gibron

13 Jan 2009

About this time of year, when awards are looming in the mind of every marketing agent, attempts are made to woo the critical community. There are junkets and special perks, packages containing screeners and other movie-related merchandise regularly arriving at a journalist’s doorstep. The goal of each one of these items is clear - leave an impression. If they can do that, perhaps the individual inspired will say something nice about them in a column, or better still, cast a vote that winds up winning the item a place on some year end Best Of list. Then the studio can advertise such an acknowledgment, pushing the product ever closer to a chance at Oscar (or at the very least, Golden Globe) glory. Soundtracks are not immune from this approach. Every year, dozens of discs come traveling over the SE&L transom, each one hoping to motivate some aesthetic appreciation, and as a result, a quote-worthy comment or two.

For the high profile titles like Frost/Nixon, Revolutionary Road, Slumdog Millionaire, and Milk, there is frequently no need to flaunt their importance. The media, mindful of jumping on any bandwagon before it hits full stride, always wants to be the first to taut any soon to be phenom, so there are many instances where the hype machine simply sits back and fuels itself. Between Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, Ain’t It Cool and Movie City News, there’s enough pre-release publicity to render most post-experience analysis moot. Take the three titles being discussed today as part of this installment of Surround Sound. Both The Reader and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button have been lauded as ‘tough to beat’ Academy faves. Yet few talk about the work of Alexandre Desplat or Nico Muhly, respectively. In the case of Last Chance Harvey, the two main actors - Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson - have garnered all the talk, leaving composer Dickon Hinchliffe out of the conversation all together.

While it may be too late to save their trip to the podium come 22 February, what’s clear about the three efforts discussed here is that they have every right to be considered among the year’s finest. While perhaps not 100% awards worthy, they still show a tremendous amount of musical breadth and aural atmosphere, beginning with:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 7]

As Brad Pitt vehicles go, this David Fincher masterpiece of modern filmmaking has its narrative issues. Frankly, screenwriter Eric Roth seems impervious to the forced melancholy that made his take on Forrest Gump so syrupy. As a result, he adds just as much pap here. But thanks to the man who made Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac so memorable, the movie more than stands on its own. It also helps that Alexandre Desplat handled the aural backdrop. Nominated for his work on 2006’s The Queen, the Frenchman has spent the last two decades dreaming up slightly idiosyncratic scores for many important movies. Benjamin Button, with its unusual narrative and timeless title character, requires a balanced aural perspective to keep things from becoming outrageous or simply unbelievable. Desplat does this magnificently. Along with a collection of era-appropriate songs (available on a second CD), we end up with a perfect sonic buffer.

Starting with “Postcards” we get the basics of Desplat’s approach - a careful combination of harmony and discord, with strings used to smooth out some of the rougher edges. It’s a conceit he will carry on throughout much of the score’s first half. You hear it in tracks like “Meeting Daisy”, “A New Life”, and “Love in Murmansk”. By the time we get to “Mr. Button”, we sense a shift, Desplat going for a more plaintive, studied ideal. With “Alone at Night” sounding like a hymn or prayer and “Nice to Have Met You” providing a new recognizable theme, the composer definitely creates a remarkable canvas. Toward the end, things start to get overly gloomy, however. Pieces like “Growing Younger” and “Dying Away” overstate their sympathies, while “Benjamin and Daisy” makes a nice, if unnecessarily soapy, finale.

The second disc, steeped in all kinds of amazing New Orleans jazz - “That’s How Rhythm Was Born”, “Freight Train Blues”, “If I Could Be With You (One Hour a Night)” - is a thoroughly enjoyable trip through the ages. We get wonderful classic tracks, a couple of Louis Armstrong masterworks, and snippets of movie dialogue, reminding us of what’s responsible for this embarrassment of riches.


Last Chance Harvey - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 8]

Even for those well versed in the comings and goings of current Cineplex releases, the arrival of Last Chance Harvey seemed like a shock. Writer/director Joel Hopkins was not some Tinsel Town face to watch. His last big screen effort was 2001’s Jump Tomorrow. Huh? Right. Granted, costars Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson carry four Oscars between them, but their latest thespian doings don’t normally draw the kind of press that flailing no name TV stars seem to earn. Besides, this is a romance for aging adults - the title even suggests same - so Tinsel Town must understand the demographical concerns. No matter the film festival recognition or independent awards nods, many just didn’t know this was arriving on their year end radar. Even composer Dickon Hinchliffe is something of an unknown quantity. While his efforts have graced such divergent fare as Forty Shades of Blue and Married Life (both for director Ira Sachs), many more probably know the musician as a founding member of the UK pop band Tindersticks.

Such a background really shows throughout the Last Chance Harvey score. “The Brief Encounter” is like the instrumental version of a beautiful ballad, while “Parallel Lives” uses lilting piano lifts to create an atmosphere of longing and loss. “Kate” gives Thompson a wonderful theme, building on the melodies heard before, while “Taxi to the Airport” is another lovely piece with a melancholy edge. About halfway through, we get the song “I’m a Mean, Mean, Mean Son of a Gun”, and along with the closing number “Where Do We Go?”, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Neither track was composed by Hinchliffe, and the juxtaposition between his melodious trills and each song’s stomping staginess just doesn’t work. Why they were included is anyone’s guess. Frankly, more of the musician’s tiny tone poems would have been just fine.


The Reader - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 7]

Slow, loping, and laconic, Mulhy’s work on The Reader is more ambient than aggressive. There is no solid repetition of themes, no attempt to remind the audience of action or individuals via certain sonic cues. Instead, the combination of piano signatures, lazy string streams, and occasional dramatic flourishes provides an even soundscape for the films many flaws to flow within. Mulhy doesn’t make the mistake of over-romanticizing the material. She’s not out to turn Hanna and Michael into some manner of star-crossed lovers. Instead, the entire score stays securely within a serious, almost strident ideal. This plotline needs to be respected, says Mulhy’s melodies, and for the most part, the listener acquiesces. Even toward the end, the score stays understated, avoiding outward melodrama and schmaltz to keep the sentiments real.

Beginning with minor moments like “The Egg” and “Spying”, things don’t really take off for the score until “The First Bath”. For those who know the film, this is also the beginning of Hanna and Michael’s elicit relationship. By the time we get to “You Don’t Matter”, Mulhy has done a good job of creating a compelling backdrop for their love. “Go Back to Your Friends” turns the tide, setting up the setting half of the film and the realization of our heroine’s troubled, inexcusable past. From then on, “Handwriting”, “The Failed Visit”, and “The Verdict” all accentuate the narrative with little bits of instrumental brilliance. Like the best movie compositions, The Reader supplements the tale. It doesn’t try to technically stand on its own or provide a wholly iconic counterpoint. Instead, Mulhy sees her role as coc-onspirator, not main attraction. It’s a role she and her score essay very well indeed.

by Rob Horning

13 Jan 2009

Rob Walker recently posted about Polaroid’s efforts to survive in the digital-camera era. It now intends to offer the PoGo, a digital camera that comes with a built in printer. Judging by the AP review Walker cites, both the camera and printer are somewhat rudimentary, yielding small, low-res prints. This, Walker suspects, will prove to be a feature rather than a bug, since “the imperfections and limitations of actual Polaroid pictures were, in a way, part of their appeal.”

This got me thinking about photos as artifacts, as specific objects that acquire a patina. Part of what makes photos worth saving is not their content alone, the image itself, but also the history that the object itself accumulates as it becomes like a heirloom. And as printing an image becomes more onerous and unnecessary, old photos seem to become valuable in and of themselves, as souvenirs of lost technologies, like old 78s or rotary phones.I wouldn’t want to take the photos I have in box, scan them all, and throw them away (as I did with my CDs after I ripped them to my hard drive). The physical collection has a gravity to it that would be lost and would probably become inconceivable if it were digitized. Handling the objects seems to affect the feelings I have about what I am seeing. (I feel the same way about my long-since-scattered record collection, sacrificed because of NYC-apartment space constraints.) Paging through photo albums, too, is utterly different than scrutinizing image pools online. (This line of thinking makes me wonder if I should print my blog out and bind it, stick it with my college notebooks.)

With actual printed photos, there is a sense that something delicate and ineffable has managed to survive, a small miracle amidst the rampant image destruction we experience in our disposable culture. They seem to have an occult power, as pictures in lockets sometimes seem portentous, mystically imbued with significance. Digitization, though, puts photos in the same category with flickering TV images, meant to be consumed and forgotten after being experienced as entertainment. A physical archive seems to put them in a category with paintings, which invite us to take the time for contemplation. Digital photos are pushing prints further into the rarefied realm of fine art, the audience for them will most likely become reduced to those with the appropriate cultural capital—the aesthetic appreciation training and so on.

Anyway, as a result of all this, I find digital-image frames strange and sad. Would you really stop to contemplate an image in a digital frame? Particularly one that will rotate new images into view like the billboards on bus shelters rotate ads? A certain contempt for memory seems to be built in to this technology. It encourages us to regard nothing framed as permanent, and by extension it prompts us to consider every impulse we might have to frame and preserve a particular image as provisional. The disregard for permanence embodied in such devices as this may establish a kind of material base for institutionalized forgetting. (I typed that sentence a few minutes ago, and now have come back to this and have no idea what I was getting at. Talk about forgetting.) History could be effaced, 1984-style, but worse, we could be convinced by the sorts of things we have in our culture that we shouldn’t even bother with memories. (When people from my high school who I never talked to contact me through Facebook as though we were friends, I have this sense that memory is already under attack—technology affords such interconnectivity that it seems to undermine the finality of choices made in the past, as though they never happened.) There may be no reason to automatically assume that memory preservation is inherently important to us. Given the right conditions, and a certain kind of society fixated on novelty, we could end up with every incentive to try to forget as much as possible, and have new images in our digital frames on a quarter-hourly basis.

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