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Monday, Jan 14, 2008

While I’m grateful to PopMatters for publishing my list of Best Music Scribing, I wanna note another place that’s toasting writers and publications now.  Music Press Report just gave out their own set of awards.  As editor CJ Chilvers told me, “Many participated in the nominations, but only a few hundred actual went to the ballots - which is how I wanted it. I didn’t want anyone to spam the voting, so I really limited who could vote and how.”  Nice to see more writers/pubs getting toasted as they get so much bad news otherwise nowadays and most of the general journalism awards rarely note music criticism, which is a shame. 

And though I’m weary/leery of polls, I also want to note another music one that doesn’t have the same winners you’ll necessarily see in Pazz/Jop and Idolator.  Blues Critic ran its own readers poll with J. Blackfoot, Latimore and William Bell getting their due, which you won’t find in many other polls nowadays.

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Monday, Jan 14, 2008

Last year, Slate business columnist Daniel Gross wrote a book called Pop!: Why Bubbles Are Great for the Economy. Needless to say, this doesn’t seem such a great title given our current economic climate and the growing sense even among people who aren’t business-news junkies that the burst real estate bubble will cause a lot of economic misery for all of us. You don’t have to read WSJ to notice the alarming depreciation of your retirement savings, as stocks have lost a huge chunk of their value in recent weeks. And you don’t have to be on a Bloomberg terminal to notice how expensive food and gas are becoming, or to notice how certain neighbors are failing to keep up on their home maintenance, or are even around anymore. No wonder consumer confidence is battered. Though Gross is a bit tongue-in-cheek in celebrating bubbles (as if this was a job he had taken on assignment) his assessment of the impact of the then-not-fully-popped housing bubble seems a touch short-sighted: “So far its salutary effects include the creation of a huge number of jobs and the inflow of investment into long-neglected urban areas.” That was true at the time, but now those jobs are vanishing, and blight is returning to those areas in the form of foreclosures.

Obviously, bubbles cause inflated asset prices, which eventually come back to earth, painfully, leaving a giant crater that causes all sorts of collateral damage. But some of Gross’s points about the origin of bubbles (government subsidies and favorable legislation) and their upside can’t be dismissed: Some of the paper assets created during the frenzy do spur real infrastructure investment, as with the build out of fiber-optic networks that are only now paying dividends with the advent of “cloud computing.” And past bubbles promoted widespread shifts in the way ordinary people work, travel, or communicate. In short, bubbles built the railroad and the information superhighway. Gross also argues bubbles build a “mental infrastructure” for comprehending new technological possibilities, new ways of doing business. The “creative destruction” enacted by the inflation and subsequent undoing of bubbles is presumably a small price to pay for progress. Indeed, by highlighting alternative energy as the next big investment boom, Gross suggests that bubbles will save us all from global warming.

In the most recent Harper’s former VC honcho Eric Janszen puts an apocalyptic spin on this thesis, claiming that the American economy has replaced the business cycle, the bugaboo of economies past, with a hyperaccelerated bubble cycle. Along with this shift, what are sometimes called the FIRE industries (finance, insurance and real estate) have supplanted traditional manufacturing as America’s economic base. Now that the housing bubble has popped, these industries are in grave trouble, and the usual remedies—rate cutting, currency deflation, tax cuts, an influx of foreign investment (think, sovereign wealth funds buying into U.S. banks)—are not so easily implemented when interest and tax rates are already low and inflation is rising and foreigners are filled to the brim with dollar-denominated assets. Hence we need a new bubble to bail us out, and Janszen too points to alternative energy. But rather than highlight the infrastructure and paradigm-shifting legacy such a bubble would supply, he directs our attention to the “$20 trillion in speculative wealth, money that inevitably will be employed to increase share prices rather than to deliver ‘energy security.’ When the bubble finally bursts, we will be left to mop up after yet another devastated industry. FIRE, meanwhile, will already be engineering its next opportunity.” In other words, the middlemen create fictitious value while extracting real profits for themselves, and then let government step in and clean up the mess when the fictions are revealed.

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Monday, Jan 14, 2008

While Katherine Heigl and Nikki Blonksy moan that no Golden Globes party means no excuse for a girly dress-up day, I remain annoyed that we’ve never seen a glitzy, televised event celebrating books and their authors. Who wouldn’t want to see Walter Kirn negotiating the red carpet? Or Susan Faludi gabbing about jewels with Joan Rivers? Alas, the loss the stars suffered on Sunday, forced to stay at home, is something we book lovers are well used to. It was weird, actually, searching the ‘net for Golden Globe winners like a scavenger trying to find out who won the Giller Prize. (It was Elizabeth Hay and she won for Late Nights on Air.)

If book awards need glitz, then the National Book Critics Awards has some to share—I believe winners get a gold sticker on their dust jackets. Nominees were announced this week. Winners will be announced March 6.

Joyce Carol Oates for The Gravedigger’s Daughter
Vikram Chandra for Sacred Games
Junot Diaz for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Hisham Matar for In the Country of Men
Marianne Wiggins for The Shadow Catcher

Philip Gura for American Transcendentalism
Daniel Walker Howe for What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848
Harriet Washington for Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present
Tim Weiner for Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
Alan Weisman for The World Without Us

Tim Jeal for Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer
Hermione Lee for Edith Wharton
Arnold Rampersad for Ralph Ellison
John Richardson for A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932
Claire Tomalin for Thomas Hardy

Joshua Clark for Heart Like Water: Surviving Katrina and Life in Its Disaster Zone
Edwidge Danticat for Brother, I’m Dying
Sara Paretsky for Writing in an Age of Silence
Anna Politkovskaya for Russian Diary: A Journalist’s Final Account of Life, Corruption and Death in Putin’s Russia
Joyce Carol Oates for The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973-1982

Mary Jo Bang for Elegy
Matthea Harvey for Modern Life
Michael O’Brien for Sleeping and Waking
Tom Pickard for The Ballad of Jamie Allan
Tadeusz Rozewicz for New Poems

Joan Acocella for Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints
(Re:Print favourite) Julia Alvarez for Once Upon a Quinceanera
Susan Faludi for The Terror Dream
Ben Ratliff for Coltrane: The Story of a Sound
Alex Ross for The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

Brooke Allen
Ron Charles
Walter Kirn
Adam Kirsch

The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to Emilie Buchwald, writer, editor and publisher of Milkweed Editions.

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Sunday, Jan 13, 2008

Has there ever been a case where such a seismic cinematic shift has occurred in such a surreal, almost otherworldly setting? Who could have imagined that the very fabric of film could be disassembled and stitched back together within the retired/repatriated citizenry of a trailer park? Is it at all conceivable that an actor, best noted for his work in genre films like Independence Day and Cabin Fever, would end up being the Neo-No-New Wave genius of his generation, the voice of the so-called bridesmaid, never the bride, digital revolution? The answer to these and a myriad of similar motion picture predicaments arrives in the form of musician/madman/monarch Giuseppe Andrews. Long an icon for those who appreciate his outsider oeuvre, the 28 year old auteur has amassed a creative catalog so important that it’s only a matter of time before he’s declared the most important filmmaker of the last decade.

For this novel real-realist, this Godard a go-go, the whole world is a soundstage. No subject is too scatological or scandalous, no actor to amateurish or aged. His is a universe where septuagenarian sex is as prevalent as vacationing cows, where silly songs about love and bananas become the perfect panacea for individual aches and pains. Initially supported by Troma (who continues to promise a bountiful box set of the man’s work), but now forging a aesthetic path all his own (via the website, Andrews is angling to prove that art can be found - and better yet, formed - out of the most unusual, mundane, and downright degrading elements of society. At the same time, he is restoring dignity to a marginalized group of people who’ve long since lost touch with the rest of the communal countenance. 

By now, the background is legendary. Drafting insanely intricate scripts filled with curse words and outrageously erotic innuendo, Andrews would seek out willing participants in his local trailer park (where he himself lived) and videotape them reading his words. Sans much action and very little conversational context, these specifically designed dialogues became treatises on disenfranchisement and depression. Highlighted initially by the amazing cantankerousness of Bill Nolan, these first films were part of something that should be subtitled “the last angry old man” movement. Blue, brave, and undeniably ballsy, Andrews’ cinematic statements avoided the stock elements we’ve come to expect from depictions of the public periphery. Instead, he simply made his characters back into what they originally were - real men and women.

Like the famed filmmakers of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Andrews ignored the standards of regular motion pictures to find a new means of expression. He concocted elaborate scores filled with his own amazing music, tunes that took the inert dramatics they supplemented and turned them into a sublime symphony of the human spirit. He used nudity as an equalizing, offered racism and the reactionary as part of both the problem and the solution. In Andrews’ view, white could play black, old could act young, and the most down and out of his complex company could become pure poetic pop stars. Nolan was the first of these found icons. The remarkable Vietnam Ron, the always evocative Tyree, and new sensation Elaine Bongos soon followed. They never come across as pawns, however. While part of Andrews’ plan, he keeps them real, and recognizable, no matter the dreamlike scenarios involved.

That’s part of the joy in an Andrews’ film - and its part of the reason to champion his continued output. As he’s aged, as his work has gone from straightforward script reading to more character-based interaction, the writer/director has elevated his game. He’s moved beyond the walls of those junked double-wides and RVs to hotel rooms and sunny backyards. His heart remains locked in the marginalized and underappreciated, but he’s willing to experiment with his unfathomable formula, instead trying to connect his cast in ways both weird and world-weary. Some may see the senior citizen nakedness, the hints at old folk’s homosexuality, the implied misuse of personal problems and borderline dementia and start screaming for social services. But there is no exploitation in Andrews. Instead, there is only admiration - even reverence - for what these noble exiles stand for.

More importantly, he’s shaking up cinema. He’s taking the tired blockbuster high concept crap that gets hurled out of Hollywood faster than a fame whore on TMZ and removes its over-processed shell. Even better, he’s triumphantly outed the self-indulgent dung that purports to be independent film by showing the shoe-gazing novices what real free thinking cinema is all about. He is literally rewriting the rules, doing what predecessors like Godard, Truffaut, and Cabrol did, and yet he’s found a decidedly American bent to the debunking. By using the trailer park, the last bastion of post-colonial wanderlust, he’s merged the symbolic with the substandard, the non-redneck version of liberated living combined with the typical tawdriness one would find in the slicker suburbs.

He is a true social commentator, a man making the most of what celebrity and found artistry can contain. While continuing to maintain his status as a Tinsel Town talent (he was recently seen in the excellent experimental film from pal/supporter Adam Rifkin, Look), he maintains a staunch personal work ethic. Over the last year or so, he’s release several sensational homemade CDs (all are recommended, as Andrews is a very, very talented songwriter and musician) and he’s used newfound friends Miles Dougal, Wally Lavern, Sir George Bigfoot, and Ed to further flesh out his freakiness. Perhaps most importantly, gal pal/significant other Marybeth Spychalski provides a kind of simpatico muse to make the madness go down soft and easy. Her work in the Americano Trilogy alone makes her the Bardot to Andrews’ jaunty Jean -Luc.

Over the next three days, Short Ends and Leader will be celebrating the unique vision of this equally idiosyncratic artist by getting fans and the unfamiliar up to date with the latest Andrews offerings. We will dissect the Short Cuts like Americano, explain the ‘Meat is Murder’ slant of the sensational Garbanzo Gas, uncover the filmmakers most heartfelt examination of the trailer park ever (the 17 minute masterwork Cat Piss), and revisit as much of the man’s canon as possible, including a countdown of past opuses and a look at what is waiting in the wings. Along the way, we will ascertain hidden gems, joke about the filmmaker’s fashion sense, and wonder what lycanthropy,, and a wind up sex novelty have to do with this awkward American life.

Still, talking about the work of Giuseppe Andrews does not do this masterful moviemaker justice. Instead, his films need to be experienced and savored, studied like an archeological find from the past and positioned as the powerful new voice of a raw, futuristic, and subversive cinema. When established filmmakers like Coppola and Tarantino argued that technology would traverse a new creative manner, it is Andrews who they were obviously referring to. While others are trying to tame the digital realm, making it mimic the very establishment stance they should be avoiding, efforts like Trailer Town and Touch Me in the Morning are raging against the machine - and winning. When the wave has finally crested and broken, a lot of time wasting wannabes will be washed away. But Andrews will remain standing. It’s how any true innovator usually winds up.

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Sunday, Jan 13, 2008
by James Klurfeld

By James Klurfeld
Newsday (MCT)

This already has been one of the most interesting and unpredictable presidential election campaigns in decades.

I wish I could say it’s been a stellar performance by the press, but I can’t. The only good thing on that count is that voters aren’t letting what we say influence their decisions. In fact, the opposite might be true. How delightful.

We buried Sen. John McCain months ago - well before any votes had been taken - because his campaign organization was in a mess. We, the collective media, were ready to anoint Sen. Barack Obama as the nominee Tuesday afternoon - before any New Hampshire votes had been counted.

What’s going on here? A few thoughts:

The press is always looking for what’s new and different and makes a good story. We help create expectations; when the expectations aren’t met or they’re exceeded, that’s news. It’s just not compelling to say: It doesn’t mean much that Barack Obama unexpectedly won the Iowa caucuses last night because Iowa is an unrepresentative state.

With the advent of cable television and the Internet, there’s a surfeit of opinion and interpretive reporting over just straight reporting. I sometimes feel as if we are jumping to conclusions. For example, following Iowa dozens of pieces were written about how “change” would be the defining element of this campaign. That may or may not be true, but in New Hampshire Tuesday the experienced candidates, McCain and Sen. Hillary Clinton, prevailed. The point is that we shouldn’t come to such broad conclusions about the mood of the electorate based on the voting of two small states and before a whole lot of other voters have truly focused on the campaign.

We tend to make too much of polls. Polls can be helpful in showing trends, but they are snapshots of a point in time, not predictors of what’s going to happen. Monday evening I spoke to any number of colleagues in New Hampshire who had seen the latest polls showing McCain and Obama well ahead. Obama was said by some polls to have a 10-point-plus margin over Clinton. The Republican polls turned out to be fairly representative of what happened, but not the Democratic ones.

Part of the problem is that as good as polling models are, they’re based on assumptions of who is going to vote. When a lot of young voters turned out in Iowa for Obama, contrary to the assumptions in prior polls, the results turned out to be surprising. In New Hampshire, more women voted for Clinton than was expected. In that sense, the best polling data are usually the exit polls of people who actually voted. But, even then, we’re assuming voters are honestly answering questions about why they voted, as opposed to saying what they think they are expected to say. I’m not saying polls don’t have value, just that their value must be kept in perspective.

Trying to gauge candidates’ performances on election night based on the types of crowds they are drawing is a very dangerous game. In his classic book “The Making of a President 1960” (still a thoroughly worthwhile read), Theodore White devoted an entire section to how deceptive big, enthusiastic crowds could be. He admits that in the closings weeks of the campaign, he believed John F. Kennedy was headed to a smashing victory based on the exuberance of the crowds. The election, of course, turned out to be a squeaker. The point, said White, is that a myriad of larger forces was at work. What he observed tended to overwhelm his judgment, White said.

How and why Americans vote as they do is complex and not always easy to discern. And how and why citizens vote as they do doesn’t always fit into the demands of how the news media operate. On Feb. 5 there will be 22 primary contests, and after that evening more than 60 percent of the delegates will have been chosen. Hold the analyses. Let the voters vote.


James Klurfeld is a professor of journalism at Stony Brook University.

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