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Sunday, Dec 9, 2007

It’s easy to want to dismiss Jars of Clay’s Christmas Songs because, really, the world probably doesn’t need another “boys with guitars play Christmas songs” album. That they haven’t done it to date (aside from an early EP) in their ten-year career, however, might indicate that they were waiting for the right time, when they had enough quality originals and covers to put out something wonderful. Indeed, Christmas Songs is a wonderful little album, with a version of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” that miraculously doesn’t make you want to bang your head against a wall until it bleeds, and a perfectly majestic original called “Peace Is Here”, which sounds like something Lennon might have written were he still around. The crowning achievement here is an electronic take on the standard “O Little Town of Bethlehem” which changes the melody entirely, in the process re-establishing the solemnity and quiet majesty of the song. It’s hard to say that Christmas Songs will be remembered for years from now, but for right now, it’s refuge from the bombast of the season, a perfectly subtle slice of Heaven.


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Saturday, Dec 8, 2007

Community journalism and the environment

Photo by Ng Swan Ti

Photo by Ng Swan Ti


The Words of the Year.


The December issue of FEED, the journal of the Union of Concerned Scientists that’s devoted to ethically challenging aspects of food production and agriculture, noted that “locavore”—a person who seeks out locally produced foods, generally from within a hundred mile radius of his or her home—is the New Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year. Reuters has reported that The Society of the German Language has chosen “klimakatastrophe” as the word that it feels “has captured the spirit or dominated the headlines and public discussion of the year.”


In the science section of The New York Times Andrew Revkin wrote about scientists groping for potent new words to draw attention to climate change. He took up the story again in a post he titled “Are Words Worthless in The Climate Fight” on his Times blog, Dot.Earth. He writes about people being so overwhelmed by the immensity of the looming disasters that they’re stunned into inaction and denial. He quotes an e-mail he received from Tom Lowe, a researcher with the Centre for Risk and Community Safety in Melbourne, Australia:


“A common reaction to this stand-off is for risk communicators to shout louder, to try and shake some sense into people. This is what I see happening with the climate change message. The public are on the receiving end of an increasingly distraught alarm call. The methods used to grab attention are so striking that people are reaching a state of denial. This is partly because the problem is perceived as being so big that people feel unable to do anything about it, partly because the changes associated with impact reduction are unacceptable and/or unviable to many people and partly because this ‘overselling’ of climate change attracts strong criticism from a vocal and disproportionately publicized few.

“Meanwhile, the public holds the story of climate change in its mind in much the same way as folklore, fairy tales or historical events are retained in the memory. When asked about climate change (research has found), people describe an apocalypse, devastating scenes of flood, disease and drought in a far and distant land. Are they concerned? Hell yes! Is there anything they can do about it? Definitely. Are the going to do something about it? Maybe.


“It is this dislocation that concerns me; as long as the language of chaos continues, it seems the public are faced with a threat which looms so large that it is beyond our focus.”


Madame Jacques Louis Leblanc (1823) by Ingres. Photo Metropolitan Museum of Art

Madame Jacques Louis Leblanc (1823) by Ingres. Photo Metropolitan Museum of Art


The Enduring Value of Fine Details


Today Al Gore and the UNIPCC receive their Nobel Peace Prizes at an Awards Ceremony in Oslo. Gore then travels to Bali where world leaders are meeting in this week’s sessions of a United Nations hosted conference aimed at finding solutions to halting the damaging effects of climate change. He’s suggested the levying of taxes on CO2 emissions and the creation of a global emissions trading market. “The problem is CO2 is completely invisible to the economy. The economists call it an externality which means ‘forget about it’ and yet what we’re forgetting about is posing a great unprecedented threat to the future of our civilization. More money is allocated by markets in one hour than by all governments in the world in one year.”


He’s joined the San Francisco venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which made early investments in Google and Amazon.com and Netscape, to become involved with their investments in clean tech and alternative energy. But he believes that the great gains are being made at a much smaller scale. Reuters reported yesterday that Gore “was optimistic that a growing “people-power” movement would push the world’s leaders to take action to stop global warming.The former U.S. vice president likened the campaign to the ban-the-bomb movement of past decades….Gore pointed to an international grassroots nuclear-freeze movement which helped push U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to sign arms controls deals in the late 1980s, and said the climate campaign was even broader.”


The telling of the people’s stories alongside the accounts of the glamorously urgent meetings and deals being struck between world leaders, and the chronicles of catastrophes is crucial. New Yorker correspondent Adam Gopnik wrote Paris to the Moon, an account of the last five years of the twentieth century as viewed from Paris, where he lived with his wife and their two small children. “Princesses died and prime ministers fell and intellectuals argued, gravely about genuinely grave questions, but I have left most of that writing out of this book,” he wrote. “...I looked for the large in the small, the macro in the micro, the figure in the carpet, and if some big truths passed by, I hope some significant small ones got caught. If there is a fault in reporting, after all, it is not that it is too ephemeral but that it is not ephemeral enough, too quickly concerned with what seems big at the time to see what is small and more likely to linger.”


The lingering power of observations of everyday life is noted in a New York Times story on the re-opening of the galleries of 19th century European painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


The story starts with Ingres, and with one look at his portraits you understand the appeal of 19th-century art to modern eyes. This isn’t an art about kings and saints, salvation and damnation. It’s about ordinary comforts and secular exultations, and about people whom, even when they are different from us, we could imagine being.


Jacques-Louis Leblanc and his wife Françoise, seen in paired 1823 Ingres portraits, had aristocratic connections without being nobles themselves. They had money, at least some of it new. He is dressed in what could be a business suit. Her attire is more elaborate, but not excessively so. Neither handsome nor homely, they offer us confident but noncommital smiles. Their glamour is strictly haut-bourgeois, developed and earned, not a birthright. In an upscale but unglitzy Manhattan restaurant they would blend right in.


Holland Cotter. The New York Times. December 7, 2007.


Award Winning Environmental Journalist, Sarah Lewis


“I have become increasingly concerned about climate change and sustainability over the years,” says John Bristow, a selfemployed psychologist who lives on the Brighton and Hove border. “Particularly in the last five years, and it’s a kind of hell. It leads to despair. What can I do? There is such a sense of powerlessness.”


With ever-increasing references in the media to climate chaos, catastrophic tipping points and irreversible climate change, who can blame him?


The language of climate change is not just that of unusual weather patterns, it is a glimpse into the future, not 100 years from now but a much more immediate time when, worryingly, we might actually be here to see it. As the language we use becomes ever more doom-laden and panic stricken, so too our hopes begin to fade.


And it was from this feeling of powerlessness that John discovered the Transition Town project. “I thought, ‘my goodness, this is exactly what is needed,’” he says.


Transition Towns are a rapidly growing network of places – towns, cities, villages, even a forest in one instance – which have decided they cannot wait for governments to take action on peak oil – the moment oil production peaks and goes into irreversible decline – or climate change, but nor can people do it alone.


The idea is that through workshops, meetings and education, the whole community can be gathered together to work towards a gradual reduction in fossil fuel dependence, based on a 12-step programme developed by permaculture and sustainability teacher Rob Hopkins.


Sarah Lewis. “What Future Brighton?” Rocks Magazine. August 13, 2007


Sarah Lewis won the EDF Energy London and South Environmental Journalist of the Year award. She writes the Going Green column for the Argus in Brighton and Hove in the UK and publishes her own magazine, Rocks, in both print and online formats. She writes about life itself, with a wry comic sensibility and a great eye for detail. Some of those details happen to be ‘green’. Much environmental writing in newspapers and magazines is self-consciously and self-referentially ‘green’, as if greenness were the main subject rather than life. There may be occasionally cuteness but little fully developed joy and wit in this writing. Sarah Lewis writes, in traditional newspaper columns and a quirky local magazine, fully-developed social portraits where ‘greenness’ is just another aspect of life, in proportion with life itself.


She catches the significantly small truths that Adam Gopnik writes about, that are more likely to linger than the sensational headlines. And she anchors her subjects in their world so that a vivid picture of the community of Brighton and Hove begins to form as you read the stories. The broad spectrum of life is included. In a recent column for the Argus she touches on the thorny issue of popluation growth. “The current global population of 6.6 billion people is predicted to rocket to a staggering 9.7 billion in the next 40 years, putting an unprecedented stress on our natural resources. Yet while we are all busy changing our light bulbs and campaigning to ban plastic bags, there is a conspicuous silence hanging around the topic of sustainable family planning.” Rocks magazine profiles a famous local drag queen, a spiritual ‘university’ that includes courses for men to help them get in touch with their inner eco-ist, and the problem of accumulating rubbish.


 




 



 


 




 


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Saturday, Dec 8, 2007

After the Rolling Stone debacle with RJ Reynolds, there’s now news that another ad in XLR8R magazine has pissed off experimental composer Dan Deacon and for including him in a Greyhound ad, which DD fumed about in an angry, explicit bulletin post on MySpace. Laptop act Wzt Hearts weren’t too thrilled about being in the same ad either, asking in a bulletin board if they could sue the company for this.  Mags are doing trial and error experiments figuring out how to get cash for a dwindling ad rate base and this can probably be chalked up as a failure but expect to see other experiments like this as they try to figure out the changing landscape.


Speaking of composers, you might have heard that Karlheinz Stockhausen just passed away.  Though I admired his early work (especially his early electronic pieces), I was also kind of disturbed by the cult that was built around him, sometimes at the expense of other composers.  How many times have you heard a mindless blurb that someone was “influenced by Stockhausen” without much understanding about what that means?  I hashed some of that over in a blog post last year.  I also have a hateful letter he sent me years ago- I guess I’ll have to dig that out and frame it now (or at least put it on Ebay). For now, this is an interview he did in 1997.


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Saturday, Dec 8, 2007





 




 



There on the corner. Across from the car wash; at the intersection just before the freeway on-ramp. He’s ever there, come rain or come shine. Unfailingly, clutching the meter-long squeegee under his darkened stump. A man of color; mid-fifties, could even be in his sixties. A trace of grey stubble flecked across his chin. Sometimes a smoke extending from between his pink lips. Usually a baseball cap pushed back on his crown.


Every day I pass him. Or, if the light happens to turn red, my car rolls up alongside his yellow water bucket. He turns his bad arm—the one that is only a tenth of a limb — my way. Giving me the full technicolor horror. Forcing my mind to linger over the details; imagine the possible scenarios. After my head is good and churned, he turns his eyes full bore through the windshield.


“Got it? Jack! My situation! My life, as it is. Today. Tomorrow. Every day hereafter forevermore. No money. No prosthesis. Barely enough for these here smokes.”


 


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Saturday, Dec 8, 2007


They represent the last word in physical comedy, their surefire slapstick a crazy cut above everyone who would eventually try and imitate their art. While the formidable silent film approach to humor had long been abandoned for more sophisticated laughs (i.e. the majestic Marx Brothers), the so-called Stooges still believed in its visceral, unequivocal effectiveness. Working both live and on film, they perfected their timing and false fury in a way that would forever change the format. In fact, when people think of the appropriately named comedy style, the Stooges come up more often than other, more mercurial examples.


It’s safe to say that they now own the genre – and this without the complex, narrative inspired gags that one time illustrated its cinematic language. No, aside from an occasional clay/pie/cream puff fight, Rube Goldberg inspired tumble, or interaction with a collection of well-placed props, the trio touted as The Three Stooges were the most hands on of the body-oriented buffoons. From the moment their shorts aired as part of a trip to the movies, the eye gouge, the cheek smack, and the stomach poke were never quite the same. 


Fulfilling the wishes of longtime fans, Columbia has finally wised up, dropped the three short per package DVD format, and delivered The Three Stooges in a logistically sound chronological breakdown. Covering the first three years the performers pitched their vaudeville shtick to motion pictures (1934, ‘35, and ‘36) the 19 mini-masterworks presented all contain the classic line-up that most devotees prefer: mean leader Moe, absent minded minion Larry, and unbelievably brilliant bundle of butter, Curly. There is no Shemp, no Joe Besser, and definitely no Curly Joe DeRita to muck things up. While there is nothing wrong with any of these later stage substitutes, nothing beats the magic of the original Stooges. Looking over the titles offered, there is not a bad apple in the bunch.

Still, if you don’t get the genius that is The Three Stooges, don’t fret. Not everyone embraces the masterful at first. What you need is some manner of perspective, a compare and contrast if you will between the boys’ unquestionable wizardry and all the other warmed over wannabes. Think the trio is too low brow? Look at their contemporaries Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. They practically lived along the bottom rungs of subterranean common denominators. Find their actions too brutal and abusive? Watch modern mirthmakers attempt the same physical shtick. It’s all unnecessary violence with none of the boys’ panache.


No, the Three Stooges remain viable cinematic icons nearly 75 years after their motion picture debut because, in an era which still embraced slapstick as viable everyman entertainment, they understood the rules, rewrote the syntax, and defined the genre for all who would come after. In fact, you could argue that the Stooges both showcased and strangled the artform. Before them (BTS), individual anarchy was an approachable element for any film. But once they came along (ATS), their flawless bravado couldn’t be matched. Instead, most bowed to the masters and moved along.


It’s not hard to see the immediate impact of the trio. Looking at the four films from their first year at Columbia (they had some previous success as part of the MGM family with straight man Ted Healy), their impeccable style and skill with comic timing is more than evident. Granted, “Woman Haters” does the dumbest thing possible with the boys – it turns them into shuffle bum singers in an all rhyme (and no reason) variety review. The premise has possibilities, but outside the standard slapstick, the rest of the short stumbles.


“Punch Drunks” was the perfect comeback. It gave Curly his first great goofball roll (a fighter who goes nutzoid the moment he hears the song “Pop Goes the Weasel”), and sets up the trio’s working dynamic – Moe as the cantankerous leader, Larry as the sullen sidekick, and Curly as constant source of frustrated bemusement. By “Men in Black”, the hospital/doctor setting could barely contain them. The Oscar nominated effort is so overloaded with sight gags, physical flailing, and memorable lines (“Jeez, the joint is haunted”) that it accurately reflects the growing confidence between the studio and its stars. It would all be taken to dizzying new heights with the football themed funny business of “Pigskins”.


By 1935, the Stooges were established. After a couple of minor period piece stumbles (both “Horses’ Collars” and “Restless Knights” have their non-narrative moments), the threesome hit a string of inspiration that would forever illustrate their power. Unlike the costumed craziness of an era specific outing, the timeless aspects of the gang worked best when butted up against the current social morays. It’s just more fun to see Curly court and dress down a snooty dowager than a Wild West cowgirl. They were better as social commentators, the downtrodden taking on the haughty rabble, than as members of a specific historic sect.


That’s why the art school spectacle of “Pop Goes the Easel” soars, its last act clay fight a delicious combination of comeuppance and cruelty. It’s why the whiskey crazed swells of “Pardon My Scotch” and the cockeyed Confederate gentility of “Uncivil Warriors” make the perfect backdrop for the boys’ unbridled mayhem. Even the insular short “Hoi Polloi” figured this out. It actually made taking down the privileged part of the plotline. It’s obvious that the Stooges work better as the storm amidst the calm, not visa versa. The minute they step on the elitist golf course to challenge the links in “Three Little Beers”, their presence perks up (and perplexes) all around them.


Still, those behind the camera didn’t quite grasp this comedic compartmentalizing – at least, not yet. They still believed the boys could work well within every filmic format. Proof of how wrong they were arrives toward the end of 1936. The first six shorts the trio made that year featured present-day circumstances (exterminators, performers, war veterans, trial witnesses, starving hoofers, and firemen) and used modern slang and jargon to complement the physical hijinx. Then it’s back to Dodge City as the guys give the frontier another try. True, the Stooges were fantastic as part of a Civil War setting, but “Warriors” would be the exception that confirms the overall rule.


“Whoops! I’m an Indian” is not bad, it’s just not a stunner. It takes too long to payoff, and along the way, the boys are seemingly forced to be funny. That’s not how the Stooges are supposed to work. When matched with the effortless laughs of “Slippery Silks” (the furniture gowns remain one of the shorts’ best sight gags), or the public domain delights of “Disorder in the Court” (who HASN’T seen this legal lampoon), it simply stands out as something underwhelming. And since this incarnation of the act would go on to make another 78 shorts (97 in all), it would remain a prickly premise the studio would insist on. After all, how many different settings could the storied group’s havoc fully function in?


It’s important to note that there was more to the Three Stooges than location, location, location. Many believe the boys to be inept in the arena of scripted jokes, but buried throughout the first three years of their Columbia existence are consistent examples of verbal wit. From a classic witness box exchange invoking the spirit of ’76 to a dessert as feather bed reference, the trio used lots of imaginative wordplay as part of their performance. Even the titles created were typically spoofs of current popular films (“Men in Black” for Clark Gables Men in White) or parodies of well known songs or sayings (Pardon My ‘Scotch’ subbing for ‘French’).


In fact, those who would marginalize the trio as being nothing more than jocular juvenilia, the pre-post-modern equivalent of fart jokes and toilet humor, have probably never really studied the Stooges. They are much more than boxers battling within a craven comedic context or arrested adolescents using fists instead of quips to earn their keep. They are artisans working in the almost impossible arena of physical wit. That they continue to delight a quarter century later is both a testament to their timelessness and their unequivocal quality control. Sadly this first Volume only whets our long dormant appetite for the rest of their amazing output. 


Back in the mid-80s, it was argued that The Three Stooges were the male equivalent of a chick flick – that is, the kind of entertainment that hit men in the merriment harder than it did the ladies. Of course, there are numerous ways to argue out of such a broad overgeneralization, but for the most part, the comment has a small amount of truth. Sold as a baser experience, as the artistic equivalent of a knee to the groin, the short films made by these amazing performers can be considered gut level laugh getters. But does this mean women are above the experience, or simply that, searching for a way to describe the decades old appeal of the act, scholars slipped into stereotyping?


Whatever the case, it’s clear that there are more than gents holding up the Stooges’ lasting legacy. Constantly bringing new generations into their farcical fold, as long as there are viewers, there will be fans for the threesome’s fantastic follies. Bellyache all you want over the lack of packaging or added features, but The Three Stooges Collection Volume 1: 1934 – 1936 is performing one invaluable service – it’s protecting the boys’ mythos for future aficionados to enjoy. And when it comes to skilled slapstick, a true obsessive will take preservation over puffery any day of the week.


 


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