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by PC Muñoz

2 Nov 2009

“Dedicated Thespian Has Teeth Pulled to Play Newborn Baby in High School Play”

“Embarrassed Teen Accidentally Uses Valuable Rare Postage Stamp”

“Retired Grocer Constructs Tiny Mount Rushmore Entirely of Cheese”

“High School Shop Class Constructs Bicycle Built for 26”

These waggish tabloid-headline song titles, and the whimsical lyrics that go along with them, can all be found on Strange But True, the 1998 collaboration between renegade songwriter/vocalist Jad Fair and alt-funsters Yo La Tengo. Each song consists of Fair singing and speaking mini-stories which expand on the title, backed by Yo La Tengo’s avant-indie-pop grooves and soundscapes.

Jad Fair has been a prolific artist and mischief-maker for over three decades now, starting in the ‘70s with Half-Japanese, a band he founded in Maryland with his brother, David Fair. Over the course of the last 30 years, the Fair brothers have been hailed as archetypal, out-there popsters/rock ultra-deconstructionists by critics and in-the-know fellow musicians (including Kurt Cobain, who was reportedly a big fan), while remaining relatively unknown by many mainstream music fans. Their sound is an intense, chordless (detractors would say tuneless) amalgamation of earnest singer-songwriterism and primal skronk, decorated with often-tortured lyrics about girls or monsters/imaginary creatures. The result is the kind of raw-nerve honesty (in both a sonic and lyrical sense) which compels some folks to listen more closely, other folks to run for the hills, and still others to wax hyperbolic over the genius inherent in such a nakedly unfeigned artistic emission.

Since in the past I’ve occasionally been faked-out by hipster-chic critic endorsements of various “underground geniuses”,  I should make myself clear: I believe Jad Fair deserves a respectful ear not because of some kind of cool-kid/quirkier-than-thou fetishization of his “unschooled” music. Rather, it’s his obvious love for creating and exploring, his prolific output, and his utter fearlessness in expression that is most striking, and quite undeniable.

The 1993 documentary, Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King is a good place to begin for those who are intrigued. I also recommend the reasonably accessible, above-mentioned Strange But True as an introduction to Fair’s lyric and vocal style, though diving right into one of his solo albums, or any of the 25-plus Half Japanese releases, is a more completely immersive experience for those with a burning desire to go full-on Jad right away.

What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?
I was a big fan of the Beatles when I was a kid, and really liked “I Saw Her Standing There”. Beatlemania was so huge. It all seemed so modern, and so cool.

Who is your favorite “unsung” artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.
Hedy West is one of my favorite singers. She was a banjo player and released some great albums. It’s difficult to find much by her.

Is there an artist, genre, author, filmmaker, etc. who/which has had a significant impact/influence on you, but that influence can’t be directly heard in your music?
Vic and Sade was a radio show in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and is by far my favorite comedy show. It was a 15-minute show which had five shows a week. The show’s writer was Paul Rhymer. He was a comic genius. I have all of the shows I could find on my iPod and listen to the show almost every day. I’m not sure how it influences my music, but I’m sure it does, because it has such a strong hold on me.

Do you view songwriting as a vocation/calling, a gig, a hobby, other…?
I used to make my living off of music, and song writing is a good part of that. For the past seven years I’ve focused on my art. My main vocation now is paper cutting. I’ve had six books published and several exhibitions.

Name one contemporary song that encourages you about the future of songwriting/pop music.
Amy Allison‘s song “What’s the Deal?” is great. She’s one of the best songwriters around. There are many musicians that I like, but it’s hard to find a good songwriter. Amy gets my vote.

As Fair notes in his answers above, as of late he has been concentrating on his visual artwork. Visit jadfair.org for lots of information on Jad Fair’s art, music, and other activities.

by Rob Horning

1 Nov 2009

I have a post up about the end of anonymity over at Generation Bubble. As I was writing it, half of it got deleted in a Word Press malfunction, so I’m afraid it became a little disjointed as I struggled to reconstruct what I had had before. My overarching point is that Web 2.0 innovations encourage us to eschew online anonymity and stay logged on as our actual selves—fusing more completely our online and offline social lives. More important, when we conduct various transactions online, whether they are purchases or pleas for attention, they are associated permanently with that integrated identity, enriching the data that can be mined from it. Consequently, we begin to believe that we deepen our identity by contributing more data to the online archive, despite the fact that it is being exploited by the corporate interests who control the archives. We become more of person, with a more compelling identity, the more through our online presence mirrors our offline existence.

I argue that this is the completion of a trend away from the impersonal markets that once signaled freedom from sumptuary laws and class-based discrimination in the world of consumption, and toward the idea that what we consume should be precisely associated with who we are. An anonymous purchase is a pointless purchase.This begins as a nostalgic movement to restore communal meaning to a world made atomistic and alienating, to make social relations more relevant in a world that has been structured to isolate us (a complaint I’ve made a lot over the years here). But what happens when markets become non-anonymous is that we become reliant on consumption more than ever to mediate our relations with others, so that friendships happen only within the context of brand communities and branded social networks and shared affinities for the same products. (What economists Wolfers and Stevenson call hedonic marriage: “what drives modern marriage? We believe that the answer lies in a shift from the family as a forum for shared production, to shared consumption.”) The more transactions we make in the markets in which we can’t hide our identity, can’t pay cash, the more articulated our identities become. We “share” more and more in order to be.

by Bill Gibron

1 Nov 2009

It’s a shame that John Hughes died when he did. In self-imposed exile for most of the last decade, he was clearly talented and certainly had more to offer the world of entertainment than his flawless teen comedies of the ‘80s and the less successful remakes and family films of the ‘90s. Proof of such possibilities came back in 1987, in the form of his first “adult” effort, the holiday themed Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (recently re-released on DVD). Relying on the undeniable chemistry of comedians Steve Martin and John Candy, and trading on the Thanksgiving theme to explore issues of family, friendship, and loss, it marked a radical departure from the coming of age growing pains of his previous films. It also proved that Hughes could direct something other than slapstick and/or schmaltz. For all its physical shtick, this is one buddy film that relies less of humor and more on heart.

Our story begins the week of Turkey day. Advertising executive Neil Page (a nicely moderated Martin) is in New York, trying to wrap up an account before the holiday starts. Desperate to get home to his family in Chicago, he dreads the next few hours. Still, all he has to do is catch a cab, make his plane, survive the flight, and it’s a few fun days of wife, kids, and candied yams - that is, until he boards the aircraft. There he meets traveling shower curtain accessories salesman Del Griffith (Candy at his very best). A massive mountain of a man, this overly earnest passenger takes an instant liking to Neil and as they prepare to depart, they strike up a casual friendship. Then, disaster hits. O’Hare is snowed in and no flights can land. Neil and Del end up in Wichita, Kansas and with hotels all booked and no rental cars available, they have to figure out a way to get from the Midwest to Lake Michigan, less the miss the festivities all together.

One has to give Hughes credit - the premise for Planes, Trains, and Automobiles remains as unique today as it did 22 years ago. Sure, now we have cellphones and PDAs, means for any traveler to take the bullshit by the horns and improve their chances of getting home for the holidays, but way back during the waning days of the Reagan era, getting around during the madhouse that is Thanksgiving week was a challenge of low tech Herculean proportions -and the talented writer/director makes the most of it. Some of the material may be straight out of an old burlesque skit (Candy and Martin having to share a bed) and a few jokes do trade on the guys’ individual flaws (Neil marveling at Del’s cavernous underwear), but thanks to the shared experience that both of these divergent personalities have to go through, because of how their yin/yang archetypes play against and into each other, we come to identify and sympathize with their plight.

And then Hughes pulls out all the sentimental stops. Few can remember how devastating Del’s secret is now that it’s become part of cinematic common knowledge (don’t worry - we won’t spoil it here), but it stands as the kind of risk that the Ferris Bueller filmmaker wasn’t really known for taking. Most of his movies ended happily, narratives tripping over the occasional problem or personal pothole before reaching a kind of zany Zen optimism. But Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was different. It was mean to be serious and edgy. It was made to explore more mature elements in a person’s life. Martin’s harried ad man just wants his workday to be over so he can find his way back home. Candy, on the other hand, must cover up the truth so as not to look desperate or pathetic - and he does such a great job that when the reveal arrives, it’s stunning.

Indeed, this is the best these two ‘70s icons have ever been in a comedy. Both are poised, polished, and well moderated. Martin is more or less the straight man, forced to forage for laughs in hilarious putdowns of car rental agency personnel and his traveling companion’s cockeyed cheerfulness. Candy’s part is more complicated. Sure, he’s the fat man with quasi-questionable social skills (never, EVER, take off you shoes in a closed aircraft, John) and many of the jokes come at his physical expense, but this makes for a more meaningful finale. It’s a mutual discovery that both Neil and the audience have misjudged Del, elevating his human pratfall into something almost noble. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, especially since Candy was a genius at finding the complexities within the cliché. In a film that has basically two main focuses to lead us through the plotting, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles couldn’t ask for two better guides.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this film is nowhere to be seen on the new “Those Aren’t Pillows” Edition of the DVD. According to reports, Hughes shot almost twice as much film as a normal production does, leading to an initial three hour cut that is less a movie and more a montage of alternate takes, extended sequences, failed bits, and other character subtext. While this “holy grail” version of the film has long been coveted by fanatical lovers of the title, Hughes himself hinted it would never see the light of day. Not only was it a mess, he argued, but it was more or less “rotting” away in Paramount’s vault. Now, with his death, there is probably no call to see such a sloppy first attempt. At least this new disc has a few fun features, including three EPK like looks at the film itself, Hughes’ attempts at making movies for adults, and the talent that was John Candy. The sole deleted scene about airplane food is interesting, but not necessarily funny.

Hughes would go on to try another adult theme with the pregnancy-oriented She’s Having a Baby, starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern. It was not as successful for reasons that continue to remind us of how wonderful Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is. No matter what you think of Martin now (Pink Panther remakes? Please…) or how Candy eventually ended up, this was a pinnacle for all parties involved. It was the moment when Hughes was seen as finally casting off the angst of adolescent America and instead embraced the equally complicated complaints of 20 to 35-somethings. While we’ll never know if he had another classic in him (one can’t judge based on the silly scripts he contributed recently), it’s safe to say that John Hughes has a secure legacy in Hollywood laughfests. No matter the age bracket, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles stands as one of his very best. 

by Bill Gibron

1 Nov 2009

While it’s rare, it is indeed possible for a single element to save an otherwise standard piece of cookie cutter cartoon entertainment. For the last few decades, Hollywood has been cranking out the CG family films, animated efforts relying on quirky pop culture riffs and stunt voice casting to provide minimal amounts of superficial entertainment. While character and narrative depth are often secondary considerations, the funny business formula forged after years of Shrek-ccess must be met. Luckily for the latest installment of the Ice Age franchise (Dawn of the Dinosaurs, new to DVD and Blu-ray) that Simon Pegg came along. While the rest of the movie meanders along like a miserable Mastodon, this engaging tre-quel uses the Shaun of the Dead star to singlehandedly revive the series’ sagging fortunes.

The story picks up after the big Meltdown of the previous picture. Mammoth Manny (Ray Romano) and his equally hulky honey bunny Ellie (Queen Latifah) are expecting a child, and with the responsibility of fatherhood comes the inevitable cracks in close friendships. Sabertoothed Diego (Denis Leary) feels the need to leave the pack, while simpleton Sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) wants kids of his own. When the dim-bulb beast falls into a sinkhole and discovers a group of eggs, he immediately adopts them as his own. When they hatch, Sid is suddenly the father of…three baby Tyrannosaurus Rexes. When Manny and Ellie find out, they insist he return the foundlings to their rightful species. But this causes a major problem when the group gets lost in an underground domain of dinosaurs. Thankfully, heroic weasel Buck (Pegg) is around to protect the neophytes from danger while showing them the survival ropes.

It’s a little off-putting at first. Fans of the Ice Age films really don’t come to this material expecting danger and derring-do, but the moment our one-eyed adventurer shows up, all the cloying skrat love and kiddie oriented concerns fall by the wayside. While parents might balk at the notion of having to put their wee ones through a mega monster mash, Dawn of the Dinosaurs is clearly out to be a meatier, more menacing version of the series. Like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen without Michael Bay’s desire to play sledgehammer visionary, this installment takes everything that made the first two films tolerable, tweaks it with the addition of some genuine action energy, and the pours on the 3D gimmick du jour to make sure we get the appropriate cerebral overload (sadly, home video can’t recreate the real dimensional feel of the theatrical film).

For their part, the regulars show up and earn their paycheck. Romano does urbanized Droopy better than most similarly styled comedians, while her Majesty has little to add. Leary is really the odd man out here, shuttled to the side so that Leguizamo’s Sid can play proportionally dumber than ever before. Primary director Carlos Saldanha (also on hand for the first two films) does make great use of the supporting characters, including Seann William Scott and Josh Peck as charming frat dude possums Crash and Eddie. But it truly is Pegg that saves the day. While the four credited screenwriters are busy trying to find a continuous string of jokes, the English icon’s dry, devil-may-care wit takes everything Buck does and turns it into a post-modern manipulation of old school Hollywood heroism. He’s like a combination of Errol Flynn and Eric Idle.

If there is a flaw in the execution, however, it’s in turning the dinosaurs into one dimensional villains. Instead of infusing them with the same complicated characteristics of the stars, it’s all teeth, terror, and really bad attitudes. Mama Rex gets a moment or two of maternal attention, but that’s it. Like the water - both frozen and flowing - in the first two films, this inarticulate element really adds very little to the narrative…and that’s a shame. Kids really love those prehistoric creatures, and by giving them some basic personality traits, the series would have a whole other tempting talent pool to draw from. As it stands, Ice Age 3 feels like a film that said everything it had to say this time around. Where the series goes from here is anyone’s guess (and, one assumes, on the mind of everyone currently working at Fox).

At the very least, the recently released Blu-ray version of the film looks fantastic. The high definition medium really enhances the detail and depth put into CG film like these. Granted, there’s no 3D option, and the 1080p image can only go so far in recreating the theatrical experience, but the end results are stunning - specially when our heroes enter the lush, verdant dinosaur world. As for bonus features, Fox really lays out the content. We get a great commentary, a series of behind the scenes featurettes, a look at some deleted scenes, and a piece with Pegg about creating his character. There are also several episodes of Fox Movie Channel Presents, all focusing on different actors from the film, as well as a clever compendium of Skrat Shorts (known as the “Skrat Pack”). Each one illustrates how the mute little mouse-thing singlehandedly strives to revive the art of slapstick. While a few wear out their welcome before long, the entire package (including a regular DVD and digital copy) supplements the main feature effortlessly.

So it’s clear that there is more to Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs than Simon Pegg and his fearless ferret. Indeed, from the look of the “lost world” to the various interpersonal (or interspecies) issues drawn upon, the movie is definitely an improvement over the standard stereotypes and formulas employed by the genre. On the other hand, Saldanha and the gang have kind of painted themselves into a corner. The next film in the franchise will have to focus on kids, since the whole third act centers on Ellie giving birth, and when movies take such a turn toward the juvenile, a huge section of the audience ends up being left out. Still, if any series can find a way to make their next installment work, it’s Ice Age. While other wannabe franchises have come and gone, this one remains flexible, and fun. And as long as they keep casting talent like Pegg, they’ll be perfectly fine.

by Bill Gibron

1 Nov 2009

We will never see the final version of Michael Jackson’s This Is It concert. We will never experience the full blown macabre mastery of the epic “Thriller” number, complete with 3D zombies and a stunning recreation of perhaps the most well-known dance in all of pop music. We will never get to see how a 50 year old Jackson would truly sell his pre-teen Motown legacy, the perfunctory run through as part of Kenny Ortega’s inspired film doing little to inspire confidence. We’ll also never know how audiences would react to the moment in “Earth Song” when a giant bulldozer crashes through the stage backing and threatens the fading King of Pop. In fact, we will never know if the actual event would have lived up to its creator’s varied vision and posthumous hype. One thing is certain, however, Jackson was game to try.

Offering little of the money-grubbing graverobbing that the project’s announcement inferred, This Is It is like a DVD bonus feature without an actual movie to support. One could easily see this hodgepodge of rehearsal takes, expertly edited together by a team that deserves some kind of award for consistency and continuity, as a guide or animatic. Indeed, it is very much like the computer created cartoons that action filmmakers used to pre-visualize their stunt sequences, except this time, we have our own human special effect at the center. Jackson, acting half his notorious age, dances, prances, demonstrates, and illustrates as he puts his band and back-up “flare” through their paces. While the opening of the film gives us a glimpse at the devoted artists who come whenever Mr. Jackson calls, any additional personal insight is decidedly absent. In its place are several sensational musical numbers, followed by a few flashes of what this famed 50 show stand in London would have looked like.

As with many of Jackson’s shows, this is a greatest hits package carefully choreographed for maximum impact and guaranteed audience appreciation. The King is not breaking out new material, or mining his albums for unusual cuts to spice up the set-list. We move from dance hit to power ballad, “Wanna Be Starting Something” reminding us of how fresh early Michael sounded, while “Human Nature” highlights the singer’s sensational voice. Sadly, there is no take on “Rock with You” (Off the Wall is almost always forgotten by Jackson live) and the equally effective title track to Bad is missing as well. Other major hits not making the cut include “Remember the Time”, “In the Closet” and “You Are Not Alone”, while you can forget about seeing anything from Invincible. Indeed, what director Kenny Ortega (who also handled the same duties for the concert “experience”) understands is, as an elegy to a man taken too soon from his fanbase, familiarity eases the lingering pain.

Still, it’s hard to sync up the man on stage with the media maelstrom of the last five months. There are no signs of drug abuse or use, no obvious physical symptomology of the addiction that would supposedly kill him. In his element, Jackson is strong, if scarily bone thin, and while a bit out there in his ability to interact, he is still in command of his craft and how it is presented. He comments frequently on preserving his voice, admits to slacking off in some of the dance numbers to guarantee that the staging is just right. He is present for all the film work forged to amplify the overall live show experience, and even adds his two cents to sequences he feels need to “sizzle” or “simmer” more. As his muscular back-ups bob and weave around him, Jackson’s ever-present magnetism never lets him down. Even when he’s merely going through the practice motions, he’s as dynamic as he ever was.

All of which begs the question - what happened? How could someone this confident and carefree onstage (he is so light on his feet and lithe that it’s the very definition of “effortless”) become a press room pariah, unable to live a leisurely life in the public eye. It’s a weird dichotomy, one that This Is It has no desire to delve into. Even with all the tabloid tattling and clever character assassination surrounding the icon, his musical ability belies all the gossip and grotesqueries that have come to define him - even in bereavement. As a matter of fact, one of the best things that This Is It does is rewrite the legacy that Jackson left at the time of his death. TMZ nation would have us believe he was half off his nut, doped to the gills with human aesthetic on top of an already near-lethal cocktail of various narcotics. But reality - or careful editing - argues otherwise.

And then there is the notion of Jackson repeating this immense spectacle day in and day out for 50 grueling shows once he headed over to England. It’s sad to think that some promoter saw an opportunity to exploit the entertainer’s recent financial distress and decided to bludgeon his coy cash cow for as much milk money as possible. One truly believes the singer when he smiles and says “this is really it” during the promotional press conferences that announced the “tour”. No matter what he did after the concerts, he could never top the ideas he was trying to showcase here. That this rehearsal material provides actual glimpses of what could have been stands as a testament to what Jackson conceived, as well as how nimble Ortega is at cobbling together what was clearly meant as nothing more than random reference footage.

So instead of spending almost two months making sure that fans from around the world got one last shot of seeing their idol in person, This Is It will be the event that facilitates the final chapter in the myth of Michael Jackson - and then that’s truly “it”. Even if another album of amazing material is lifted from the vaults (and the original tune presented here as the movie’s theme is no great shakes) and the artist who once owned the pop charts scales them once again, there will never be more than “this”. No more videos. No more news cycles. No more music. As titles go, Jackson’s own self-penned label lingers with hints of what could have been and what never will be. Still, for anyone still looking for a little bit of his magic, This Is It contains more than enough.

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