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Wednesday, Jul 25, 2007

Quite possibly the greatest animated show of all time, The Simpsons has become one of the most popular shows on television. Starting in 1989, The Simpsons began with strong writing and clever storylines, attracting a large audience and becoming one of FOX’s first hits. Unfortunately, as time has passed, the show has declined in quality, losing its once great edge. The Simpsons Movie premieres Friday, July 27, and judging from the trailer, The Simpsons has sunk even lower to a point of no return.


Remember the good times:


Not these:



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Tuesday, Jul 24, 2007

After the big screen musical went the way of other motion picture dinosaurs (around the time of Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz), critics started complaining that the only viable source of cinematic song and dance left was animated kid films. With Disney inserting tunes into everything they could, and fiscally minded mimics (Fox, Warner Brothers) following suit, the only place to find legitimate Broadway style show biz was in the soundtrack of cartoon cavalcade. Of course, the House of Mouse saved face, bringing in real life tunesmiths like Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, and Tim Rice to reinvent the genre. But now, a few decades removed, it seems like the fantasy format of characters vocalizing their inner feelings has, again, gone the way of the do-do. In fact, Pixar (Mickey’s latest production partner) has consistently avoided the crooning creature ideal. So where does that leave the pen and ink production? By the look of the selections in this second installment of SE&L”s Surround Sound, it appears the genre is tired and treading water. Two of the three highlighted choices this time represent the most routine – and in one case, shameless – substitute for actual artistic accomplishment available. And then once again, it’s the stellar CGI of one company’s amiable aesthetic that wins out over everyone else.


The Simpsons Movie [rating: 6]


By now, most fans know the sad and confusing fact that neither Danny Elfman (who concocted the series’ signature theme) nor Alf Clausen (the man behind the music for 17 years) are involved with the sonic situation in the new Simpsons Movie. Instead, that Tinsel Town tunesmith Hans Zimmer was pegged to provide an aural backdrop to the big screen adventures of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. An Oscar winner (for The Lion King) and five time nominee, there is nothing inherently wrong with said choice. The German born composer has been on a summer blockbuster role as of late, having worked on the last two Pirates of the Caribbean films as well as Batman Begins and The Da Vinci Code. But like asking an outsider to partake in a massive and extremely insular family reunion, Zimmer arrives unfamiliar with the ways of America’s favorite family. As a result, he turns in a decent, if derivative score that owes as much to the men he replaces as it does anything remotely original. It’s tough to get a handle on just what doesn’t work – especially in light of the music’s inherent quality and sparkle. But it’s clear that, without the context of the film around it and the specific sequences illustrating its tone, the auditory concepts here just don’t gel. Instead, they end up resembling disconnected sketches, ideas never coming together under a common theme or mood.


It’s clear that Elfman and Clausen were Zimmer’s main inspiration. Several of the tracks here - “Trapped Like Carrots”, “What’s an Epiphany?”, “Thank You Boob Lady” – are nothing more than extended symphonic tweaks tagged to variations on the main Simpsons’ theme. While the notes aren’t always in the exact same place, you can instantly recognize the series sassy trademark each and every time. In other instances, elements that Clausen excels at (stylistic mimicry, sonic stereotyping) are also attempted by Zimmer. Yet the results, like the ersatz spy jazz of “Release the Hounds” or the Busby Berkley gone batty of “Bart’s Doodle” have a less pointed, satiric quality. Still, there are moments of ambient excellence throughout – “You Doomed Us All…Again” is a massive musical statement that goes from delicate to demonstrative with perfect action/adventure vibe, as do “…Lead, Not to Read” and “World’s Fattest Fertilizer Salesman”. We also experience a weird kind of Aaron Copeland hoedown déjà vu during “Why Does Everything I Whip Leave Me?”, the track resembling that famous beef council commercial rewritten and inverted. The score can get syrupy at times, and when Zimmer is stuck for inspiration, her reverts back to Elfman, or a joke from the film (in this case, the overblown choral version of “Spider Pig”) to save the day.  Like any new writer or artist coming to The Simpsons, fitting in is half the battle. Zimmer more or less succeeds, but not without an awkward adjustment period.


Ratatouille [rating: 9]


Unlike the Simpons score, there is a solid synchronicity between Michael Giacchino and his remarkable work for Pixar’s latest animated pearl, Ratatouille. Almost every cue contained on this 24 track collection reminds one of the amazing adventures of the rat Remy and his desire to be a great Parisian chef. The composer – a long time JJ Abrams associate, having worked on Lost, Alias and Mission Impossible III – is no stranger to the animation/family film game. He helped Brad Bird’s other 3D masterwork, The Incredibles, roar to sonic life and put the aural polish to several Muppet titles. Here, Giacchino had quite a massive musical mountain to climb. Dealing with a modern France filtered through the city’s noted old world charm and aura, the score for Ratatouille needed to be instantly recognizable while incorporating as much of the cosmopolitan European flair the narrative needed as possible. It’s a balancing act that he manages brilliantly, turning this score into a reference heavy collection of waltzes, tangos, slow groove jazz, and ‘50s/’60s metropolitan cool motifs. When combined with the other odd inclusions – random Hawaiian guitar and harmonica –, the idiosyncratic ethnic choices (gypsy?), and the occasional callbacks to his own Mediterranean culture, Giancchino delivers a delightful aural stew, perfectly seasoned and ready to consume.


With some tracks lasting less than a minute, and others pushing close to ten, the Ratatouille score has a very traditional flavor and feel. There are snippets of big band swing and the typical sidetracks you’d find in a foreign set storyline. As this is France, wandering accordion and saccharine string trills are mandatory, and Giancchino doesn’t shy away from them. Yet he also tries to anthropomorphize the soundtrack, tossing in aural allusions to mice, a chaotic kitchen, or a robust city street. This is a composer who understands the inherent ingredient a good musical backdrop needs in order to stand on its own – a fully realized ‘personality’, one easily identifiable and separate from the movie itself. In addition, all throughout the collection of tracks – “Souped Up”, “Remy Drives a Linguini”, and “Kiss and Vinegar” for example – we find ourselves swept away into an ephemeral world where one’s imagination starts painting in the particulars.  Like the movie it supports, the Ratatouille soundtrack melds classic and contemporary ideas into something that should be routine and familiar – an animated movie – into a stunning work of art.


What’s Cooking? Songs Inspired by Disney’s/Pixar’s Ratatouille [rating: 4]


Leave it to the House of Mouse to find a way to dull this Pixar production’s decided twinkle. Presented as a collection of songs ‘inspired’ by the film, but really nothing more than an excuse to make more merchandising oriented cash, What’s Cooking? utilizes the theme of food as a way of tying together 12 mindlessly mundane tunes. Most are originals from composer/conductor Fred Mollin and his Blue Sea Band, while others are corny covers. Sounding like something you’d experience in one of Uncle Walt’s theme parks, the slick overproduced feel of this collection is kind of creepy. You can hear every over-earnest nod to minority music styles in this hodgepodge of jumping jive and swamp boogie slink. It’s supposed to be toe tapping and finger snapping, but it ends up soul sapping most of the time. Like the recipes included in the liner notes (for fabulously perfunctory dishes like “Oven-Baked French Fries” and “Eiffel Tower Cookie Sundaes”) this is broad, unimaginative pap barely capable of providing true aesthetic sustenance. While there may be a few fans out there who see this release as a way of extending their Ratatouille pleasure – or cynically, introducing their impressionable children to the world of musical diversity – there’s nothing here that demands attention or approval. This is the kind of listening experience available every morning as part of TLC’s family programming. All that’s missing are Raffi and someone dressed up like a monkey.


Complete with fake applause and crowd noise that will continue throughout the entire 36 minute running time, What’s Cooking? starts off with “Cheese Please”, a goofball jaunt that uses rhyming as its reason to exist. We are supposed to get a kick out of the various culinary quips, but the whole song smacks of a rejected Madison Avenue dairy jingle. Next is a classic track, “Saturday Night Fish Fry”, and with its blaring horns and thumping bass, it’s a perfect illustration of what this compendium strives to be. For a while, the call and response nature of the tune is infectious. But soon, all the goodwill garnered by this anthology is destroyed by a doping rap remix/remake of the Gerardo hit (huh???) “Rico Suave”. Entitled “Taco Grande”, this soggy sonic satire makes you want to grab something and destroy your CD player. Even when followed by the safe and superficial beats of “Pizza, Pizza, Pizza”, and “One Meatball”, the stench of such a sloppy selection lingers. Luckily, the classic clip of “Save the Bones for Henry Jones” (one of the oddest swing numbers ever) and the Louis Prima penned “Banana Split for My Baby” almost save the day. Without the original artists providing the performance however, the rescue is only half realized. Indeed, most of What’s Cooking? could be considered a semi-success. Of course, this also means that it’s mostly a failure as well.



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Tuesday, Jul 24, 2007

Jon Elster’s Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality brings together a number of my favorite topics, all of which I tend to see as connected to consumerism: the importance of the public sphere, the problem of trying to will authenticity or naturalness (the sprezzatura conundrum), the ways in which collective and individual rationality are at odds, limitations of Pareto efficiency—i.e. the argument that optimal rational equilibrium is achieved only when no one can be made better off without making any other individual worse off—and the possibility of altruism. Consumerism sets forth a set of values that hinge on a blindness to these issues; it thrives on a ideological belief—easily disproved—that there is no society, only individuals and their preferences, that can be sated in the market through goods, independent of the actions of others. After all, even our consumerist desires are dependent to a degree on what other people want, or have wanted, or will want. What’s available depends on what others want and are willing to produce and sell. The value of things to us often depends on how others view them, and how scarce they are due to how much others covet them. And then there are status goods and positional goods, which can only be valued in terms of excluding others from having or using them—things like beach-front property and limited-edition luxury goods and artworks. We are not in total control of what we want and whether we can have it, and this undermines any simplistic assessment of what our rational behavior should be in such terms. Rather, our desires are always affected by the sort of decisionmaking processes studied by game theory—if they want that, then I should want this, unless they know I know they want that in which case I should want this and not that. And so on. And such strategizing makes us hopelessly self-conscious, and by some standards, inauthentic, at one remove from what we are brought to regard as our “natural” desires. Consumerism exploits this problem—offering to return us to our naturalness through a fantasy evoked by heavily-advertised goods while exacerbating the inauthenticity that comes with a feeling that we are calculating our identity. COnsumer products seem to provide us a signalling language to express real selves, but our real selves don’t speak that language, and are actually byproducts of other activities—perhaps of being lost in what productivity gurus like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi call flow.


In other words, consumerism chooses us to consciously, rationally, plan out what we desire as a means to achieving a better sense of who we are and how we want to live. This very act of willing makes the goal—selfhood—impossible. Elster cites Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit on this point: “Desire and the self-certainty obtained in its gratification are conditioned by the object, for self-certainty comes from superseding this other: in order that this supersession can take place, there must be this other.” The process of desiring is central to the self, not what is desired—consumerism tends to make us confused on that point and we wonder why the objects alone continue to disappoint us, or satisfy us only temporarily, or leave us fundamentally unfulfilled. Once we set out to pin our nature down, it eludes us, becomes contrived, feels wanting. At this point, the machinery of the consumer society intervenes to remedy that lack, reinforcing the faulty premise that conditioned it.


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Tuesday, Jul 24, 2007

Chris Pasels’ Writers’ Block might be one of the most laudable columns written this year.  In it, he describes various successful survival methods for modern composers: “So what’s an ambitious composer to do? In fact, conversations with several dozen suggest a variety of strategies. Some are forming ensembles. Others are starting festivals, webcasting or setting up streaming audio sites. And just about everyone has found an alternative way to pay the bills. The only thing that’s certain is that waiting for a cloudburst of opportunities is not an option.”


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Tuesday, Jul 24, 2007

Consolidate This! YouTube takes over the Democratic debate.

As monolithic media corporations continue to gobble each other up, creating vast media empire likes Time Warner and NewsCorp, one may find themselves asking if the common man’s perspective matters anymore. Enter YouTube. The Internet has brought with it a democratic process of the direct participation, which hasn’t been seen since the old-school Town Hall Meeting. The question is: How will the media adjust to accommodate this growing trend?


Much to my surprise, CNN actually had the balls produce an entire Democratic Debate comprised completely of questions submitted on YouTube by average Americans! Ringmaster Anderson Cooper did an excellent job of insisting the candidates answer the questions, and derided them each time they veered off into campaign rhetoric. This forced candidates to directly engage with the voters.


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