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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007

When I used to study novels, one of the things that annoyed me most was the idea that I was supposed to take moral instruction from them, as though the writers has somehow seen deeply into the nature of human life and had a wealth of profound wisdom to impart in the form of a story about men marrying their servants or discovering their true aristocratic heritage. I had a hard time believing that artists magically secure some special insight into the way ordinary people get along in society or that they were in anyway morally superior and were in a position to dispense lessons about what it means to be human. The humanistic mumbo jumbo about exposing oneself to the great works and getting in touch with the extent of human possibility seemed like self-serving bullshit meant to allow the instructor teaching the “great works” to shine in the halo of the nominated geniuses. Sometimes, if the writers themselves and their works weren’t held up as moral exemplars, the art of novel reading would be put forward as a morally edifying activity, one that taught readers how to be empathetic or more tolerant or more aware of the universal nature of suffering and joy and our potential as a species—another convenient and flattering trope for literature instructors, who can dress up close reading as a kind of casuistry that improves students’ moral calculation while setting teachers up as arbiters of what is most human. (Some of the ideas Hermione Lee surveys in this NYRB review of recent books about the grand enterprise of novel-reading echoes this theme, which is what suggested this topic to me.)


As much as I liked to have believe it was true, and as many insights about human life as I’ve been able to glean from novels, I remain skeptical of novel reading as an inherently moral activity. It seems to me that if you want to learn to be tolerant and empathetic, you probably need to actually spend time with other people learning about their ways firsthand and listening to what they have to say. Conducting a social life is a much more humanistic project than reading or writing novels—novel consumption seems a way to escape social life if the prospect of it frightens you. Novel reading seems a convenient substitute for conversation, a hassle-free way to indulge in the pleasures of society without having to actually listen when you don’t feel like it or come up with anything interesting to say yourself. When I was younger, I started reading novels out of loneliness and shyness, and if anything I tried to mask that fact from myself by dressing it up with the promise of edification. I read novels looking for those ideal interlocutors I was too tentative to search for in the real world.


The conclusion of Lee’s review seems to suggest something similar about writers, that they write in order to conjure up the perfect listener, to fulfill a social need. Far from being a crusade, novel writing is better considered an inward, compensatory discipline. Lee quotes a passage from Edith Wharton’s the Buccaneers to illustrate her point, setting it up thus:


The passage (in Chapter 28 of The Buccaneers, one of the last things she wrote) could also suggest the old novelist’s sense of having been on a long road of storytelling, a road stretching on beyond the last unfinished page of her books, speaking as if to the faithful reader of the novel, who will continue to exist after her own journey is over:


  In this great lonely desert of life stretching out before her she had a friend—a friend who understood not only all she said, but everything she could not say. At the end of the long road on which the regular tap of the horses’ feet was beating out the hours, she saw him standing, waiting for her, watching for her through the night.


 


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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Elk City
Cherries in the Snow [MP3]
     


Los Cruzados [MP3]
     


You Got Me [MP3]
     


Buy at iTunes Music Store


“Lead-singer of Elk City and firebrand, Renée LoBue brings you on what feels like a free-wheeling make-out session right after your worst break-up.”—Friendly Fire Recordings


CéU
ave cruz [MP3]
     


Buy at Six Degrees Records


“Just when you think that Brazil must surely have exhausted its supply of irresistibly jazzy, funky, sexy, soulful electro-pop singer-songwriters, someone like CéU comes along and irresistibly mixes samba, reggae, dub, electronica and soul music and makes you think that maybe that particular well is bottomless after all.”—Six Degrees Records


Elliott Smith
Between the Bars [MP3]
     


Buy at iTunes Music Store


“Drink up baby / Stay up all night / With the things you could do / You won’t but you might / The potential you’ll be / That you’ll never see / The promises you’ll only make”. So starts “Between The Bars”, from Elliott Smith’s third solo album either/or. It’s as good a statement as any to describe the mood of this collection of songs about drug abuse, failed relationships and the pitfalls of stardom. Not that Elliott Smith the songwriter or performer isn’t making the most of his own potential here. It’s the downfall of his characters. Over the course of his first two solo outings, Roman Candle (Cavity Search) and his self-titled second effort (Kill Rock Stars), his fans are left to wonder if he isn’t writing entirely autobiographically. It would be hard to imagine that the majority of his lyrics, so sincere and detailed, could be a work of fiction. With his admitted past drug use and problems with relationships (both family and otherwise), it seems clear these songs are him, raw and unedited. >> read full PopMatters review


Dungen
Familj [e-card with downloadable MP3]


Shearwater
Red Sea, Black Sea [MP3]
     


Rock Plaza Central
My Children, Be Joyful [MP3]
     



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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007

The Reverend Al Sharpton held the annual conference for his National Action Network last week in New York. The event, affectionately dubbed the Sharpton Primary by the press, addressed many issues including a panel discussion on the media and racial issues. It was the presence of the three major Democratic candidates, however, which brought this conference into the national spotlight. John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama all spoke at the convention; each eagerly vying for the Reverend Al’s endorsement.


Dismissed by those on the right as a fringe player, Sharpton’s career as an activist has been mired in controversy. But his presence and significance has increased dramatically since his 2004 Presidential race when his blunt approach and rough assessment of the Bush Administration resonated with a lot of Democratic voters. The Reverend Al has built on this visibility and has become a dominant figure in today’s civil rights movement. This did not, however, stop the attacks from the right when the Democrats announced their visit to the Sharpton Primary. (Rush Limbaugh likened Sharpton to the left wing equivalent of David Duke when speaking of this years NAN conference during his nationally syndicated radio show.) The criticism did not deter the Democrats, who understand the importance of Sharpton’s clout. The staggering amount of support they receive from the African American community makes the Reverend Al’s endorsement a valuable asset.


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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007

Don Imus’ sexist/racist remarks are the controversy that just won’t go away but maybe that’s not a bad thing because we do need an open, frank dialog about these issues.  Not surprisingly, as I noted in another blog entry, this has inspired sage words and stupid acts.


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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2007

Stop with all the spoof talk, already. The latest masterpiece from Brit wits Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the spectacularly anarchic action buddy cop caper Hot Fuzz is more than just a simple-minded lampoon. Such a categorization limits what the amazing movie manages to achieve, bringing it down to a level of creative crassness that the duo manage to transcend time and time again. The truth is, Wright and Pegg have much larger funny business fish to fry than merely taking on the Bruckheimer/Bay gonzo gunplay dynamic. There is more to their satire than flying bullets, fisticuffs and testosterone-laced fireworks. No, this exceptionally talented duo is out to undermine their very own Englishness, to poke fun at a country that still views itself as a bastion of good manners and inbred etiquette.


The storyline is fairly straightforward. Sgt. Nicholas Angel is so good at his job, that his London superiors send him off into a sort of reputation saving exile. Soon lost among the citizens of this out of the way country village, Angel finds himself surrounded by a group of bumbling, doltish deputies. Lead by the impeccably optimistic Inspector Butterman, this subpar stable of inert officers features a bizarre assortment of dimwitted detectives, clueless constables and one particularly oafish officer, Butterman’s bulky son Danny. When it looks like murder may have finally found this tiny burg, Angel is eager for some action. But the local constituency doesn’t believe that such big city crime would visit their town. After all, it’s so calm, peaceful and well mannered –- almost suspiciously so. Of course, dark secrets lurk under such serene settings, and Angel and Danny are out to discover the truth.


When we first see police officer Nicholas Angel (in the person of Pegg), he seems rather cartoonish, almost incapable of becoming a three dimensional character. The many montages used by director Wright to instill the proper authority and focus to the man’s personality become part of a plan. Indeed, all throughout the film, Angel is a symbol that slowly becomes a human. As each layer is carefully peeled back, as we learn why the man is so dedicated to the law and so convinced of his perspective on crime, we begin the process of deconstructing this cinematic champion. Pegg is flawless in the role, doing his best to hide the utter contempt he has for the rest of his fellow policemen while always playing every situation by the book. It’s a brilliant turn in an equally remarkable story.


Similarly, Pegg/Wright regular Nick Frost is an excellent example of the audience stand-in, the inexperienced commoner who only knows the law based on what he’s seen on TV and in movies. He’s not just a flawless foil for Pegg’s procedural prig, but he makes a solid case for himself as a well-meaning copper. Frost may come across as a bumbling klutz, his size instantly giving him the standard jolly fat man vibe, but this is an actor of unlimited skill. All throughout Hot Fuzz, Frost is the face of honesty and truth inside a wonky world of mysterious deaths, countryside conspiracies, and more than a little semi-erotic male bonding. Indeed, when placed alongside Pegg, the pair manage the same filmic feat as they did in Shaun of the Dead –- they create a cinematic figure that you want to champion and root for.


As for the story –- a strange kind of Stepford Wives weirdness going on in the little out of the way alcove of Sandford –- we really don’t make much of it at first. We assume the series of eccentric ‘accidents’ (all of which are realized in a nicely nasty helping of gore) will have a rational explanation, or perhaps just a reason to exist. But since Hot Fuzz isn’t focused on being 100% realistic, at least not plot wise, Wright and Pegg have some over the top fun with their finale. Instead of being a simple case of serial murder, we get healthy doses of civic pride, mass hysteria, crawlspaces loaded with corpses, and a real warping of the whole ‘neighborhood watch’ conceit. It’s kitchen sink comedy at its most uproarious, a movie than makes you laugh consistently, enjoying every moment for its many levels of amusement.


Wright deserves a great deal of credit for combining two of the most misunderstood genres in post-modern moviemaking (comedy and action) into one overwhelmingly inventive and clever combination. Hot Fuzz is willing to do anything for a giggle -– from major malapropism and obvious jokes to little asides and inside digs that only the smartest film fan or trivia expert will understand. He surrounds his leads with several sensational supporting players, UK names like Billie Whitelaw, Edward Woodward, Jim Broadbent and Timothy Dalton. They all add a kind of historical heft to the movie, making the drama seem that much more serious, the wit that much more wicked. Additionally, Wrights got the stuntwork setpiece down pat. Several chase scenes in Hot Fuzz zing with Spielbergian artistry. They play as perfectly planned out and simultaneously caught off the cuff.


If there is a single insignificant flaw in this otherwise outstanding film, a minor facet that could keep audiences from completely connecting with the characters, it’s the very British-ness of the piece. Many outside England won’t understand some of the more biting irony, the sequences where church festivals and local snack shops play backdrop to bigger, more striking social commentary. Indeed, why Sandford would care about the title of Best Village in the UK may seem rather silly to wired Western suburbanites. What’s missing is context, a life or death reason why the town must preserve its perception –- apparently at all costs. It’s an absent ingredient in what is already a heady combination of personalities and pistols.


And there will be others who lament the lack of a love interest here. Even Shaun of the Dead found time in its zombie stomping to give its titular hero a love life. In Hot Fuzz, Angel is seen speaking to his CSI inspector girlfriend (Cate Blanchett in a clever cameo), but once we toss said ex aside, there is not another lady in either his or Frost’s life. It’s as if Sandford doesn’t have an available gal under 50 for either man to make time with (and Police Department trollop Doris Thatcher doesn’t count). Pegg can essay an endearing love struck suitor, and it would have been nice to see him chat up a bird or two while in the line of duty. Frost’s Butterman could also stand with a date. His private stash of action movies is a sad replacement for actual human companionship.


Such quibbles do very little to undermine Hot Fuzz’s power as an entertainment epiphany. In a modern medium which is more than happy to spell everything out in baby step simplicity, where jokes are based in the gross out, not the finely crafted, where acting is often confused with one’s status as an A-list celebrity, this is the kind of film that rekindles the inherent joy of movies. It so effortlessly formed, so wholly its own entity that you consistently find yourself giddy with satisfaction at how good the film makes you feel. In a domain that’s basically forgotten how to satisfy, Hot Fuzz is the very definition of a crowd pleaser. It may be making fun of a hundred varying Tinsel Town conceits, but it takes its desire to delight very, very seriously


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