Monday, June 30, 2008

An Ode to the B-Movie [Part 1]

We'll come out and admit it: having passed the quarter century mark, we here at FTB can't help but feel a twinge of that "they don't make 'em like they used to" feelin'. We feel this most acutely when thinking about the movies and cartoons of our childhood.

The Early Filmography of Arnold Schwarzenegger: In addition to boasting the highest governor to actor ratio of any movie, many of Arnold's early adventures in film possess a schlocky grandeur that you'd be hard pressed to find in the modern cineplex. I'd be a lot happier in life if I could revisit these scenes at least once a day:

-Commando: "Remember when I said I'd kill you last? I lied." An early classic, and an example of what would become a defining feature of Arnold's career.

-Any scene in Total Recall in which someone's face bugs out due to the martian atmosphere. Scared the shit out of me when I was six, and I still get a little bit of a thrill whenever I see it. Honorable Mentions--the prostitute with three boobs (three boobs!) and one of the earlier Arnold one-liners: "see you at the party, Richter" while holding Richter's severed arms. Michael Ironside, our movie-going lives are poorer without you.

-Predator: In many ways, Predator is the perfect storm of 80's B-moviemaking. Rugged manly men in the jungle, plenty of stereotypes, Carl Weathers, minimal character development, just the right amount of primitive special effects, and plenty of blood. Although Arnold is a little light on the one-liners in this movie, the rest of cast carries him along with lines like, "I'll bleed you, real quiet" and "It'll make you a sexual tyrannosaur."

-The Running Man: The dystopian future is a popular topic for filmmakers and Blade Runner, Logan's Run, Death Race 2000 stand as testaments to its powerful attraction. However, there will always be a special place in my heart for Ben Richards, the conscience burdened pilot who refuses to bomb a food riot. After being framed by his government for his recalcitrance, our noble savage is forced to play a hellish gameshow to earn his pardon or die trying. In addition to featuring Jesse Ventura as the cowardly Captain Freedom, The Running Man moves in a structure familiar to all children of the 80's--plot development, problem solving, boss fight--life as understood through Megaman 2.

-The Last Action Hero: Arguably my favorite Arnold flick, it's hard to imagine a movie of his that so effectively combines schlock, self-referential humor, and genuine pathos. It gently pokes at the formulaic nature of Arnold's performances while including just enough heart to keep the audience engaged.

The closest we have come an heir to Arnold is the Rock (or "Dwayne" as he now fancies himself), who strayed from his promising early ventures (The Rundown, The Scorpion King) into family-friendly fare, which was certainly not the Game Plan (a-hyuck!) I had in mind. So take some time to watch or revisit the inimitable Schwarzenegger of the 80's and early 90's.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The world is one fucked-up place.

This is the lesson that I have learned from law school. Place millions of strangers into a region, leave them free to interact with each other, and call it a society. You are bound to find that the most horrifying, tragic, and unlikely events will become the norm.

A "dwarf" woman was arrested last week for pimping out a 15-year old runaway. Clients paid $250 per sex-session and $100 for oral sex services. When interviewed, her neighbors "were not surprised by the arrest": one Reginald Ford told CBS News, "I didn't know she was a pimp, but I'm not surprised." (Ed: Reginald? Bubbles?!?)

Let that soak in for a while.

He wasn't surprised? Why not? Did this woman flash jewelry and wear purple suits? Was she known in her community as a person of unscrupulous morality? If so, how? Did the reporter walk around her neighborhood asking, "Sir, could you kindly tell me what you think about this woman? In your opinion, is she a pimp?" Questions, people, questions!

Cases like this are sadly commonplace. Not the physical deformity part - rather, the runaway turning to tricks. The lady pimp here is in a world of trouble. On top of promoting and soliciting prostitution, she has been charged with child endangerment.

What about aiding and abetting rape?

We all know (or should know) that having sex with a minor is a crime. What many people do not know, however, is that it is a strict liability crime. This means that anyone who has sex with a minor is guilty of a crime, regardless of whether the minor consented, looked old, or even lied about age.

As far as I know, no one has been charged with rape for having sex with a minor prostitute. Of course, it is already a crime to patronize prostitutes, and in New York the severity of the punishment rises when the sex worker is a minor. However, there is a strange wrinkle in the law: while it is a more serious crime to obtain the services of underage prostitutes, it is an affirmative defense that buyer "did not have reasonable grounds to believe that the person was less than the age specified." (See, New York Penal Law
s. 230.07)

Just to be clear, a 45-year old man who has sex with a 15-year girl who lies to him about his age can be convicted of a felony, but the same man can buys a 15-year old runaway might be guilty of only the 'vanilla' prostitution charge (a misdemeanor) if the girl "looked old".

Let's not dwell on this any longer. This is what happens when the governor of the state acts the pimp and ends up resigning in disgrace.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

RIP George Carlin, 1937-2008

Rest in peace, you glorious bastard. Enjoy life in comedy heaven, getting wasted with Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce while making Mitch Hedberg your bitch.

And above all, have a nice day.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Silver Jews: Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea

I saw David Berman headlining at the Pitchfork Music Festival two years ago. He was in the midst of the first tour of his two-decade career, and the adoring throng in Chicago's Union Park may well have been the largest audience he'd ever faced. He took the stage nervously, stumbling a bit and carefully placing a folder of what looked like hand-written lyrics on a music stand in front of him. He mumbled and stuttered his way through “Albermarle Station” and a couple of other forgettable songs, each of which was met by thunderous applause from an extremely supportive, forgiving crowd. He finally found his voice on "Trains Across the Sea," intoning the lyrics hypnotically as the El went rattling by and the sun dropped into the water behind the bandstand. By his last encore, he seemed supremely confident, embellishing his deadpan croon with playful phrasings and ornaments. David Berman, who has gotten more lyrical mileage out of physical and spiritual discomfort than anyone this side of Lou Reed, sounded downright at ease.

Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
, released today on Drag City, sounds like it was made by this fitter, happier Berman, with all the good and bad that implies. The change is one of tone, more than content. All the Silver Jews ingredients are there -- esoteric, viciously sarcastic lyrics wedded to cracked, off-kilter country rock, the acidic, somewhat tuneless baritone. But Berman's albums have often luxuriated in their own unfinishedness, the ramshackle, messy quality that lent them their immediacy -- this is the first that sounds finished. Polished, even.

Which is not to imply there's anything slick or complacent about the songs -- "Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer" explodes out of the gate with a drum-roll and a frantic piano riff and refuses to cool as Berman sneers his way through a vengeful, twisted little romantic comedy. And I don't even mean that the songs sound happier -- "Suffering Jukebox", a heartrending lament for a neglected jukebox in a dingy bar, has to be one of the saddest songs ever written about an inanimate object. It floats in on a cloud of pedal-steel smoke that sounds like a cliché until you realize that it perfectly expresses the deadening misery of a life spent repeating the same old lines to distracted drunks. ("They never seem to turn you up loud, there are a lot of chatterboxes in this crowd.") "My Pillow is the Threshold" begins as a romantic lament from a guy who can only be with a girl in his dreams, then turns out to be about suicide ("Now I'm here for good, I won't leave you anymore,") -- a fact that only becomes clear in the last moments, when the mindless drone of the deep bass rises to overwhelm the song, illuminating a frightful foreboding that's been hidden in the music all along, somehow just beyond our notice like the twist that ends the slasher movie. So when I describe Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea as "polished," I'm not referring to the sound or the content -- I mean that it sounds less like a desperate cry from the center of Berman's soul than an artfully conceived, well-crafted record.

The album is filled with idiosyncratic story-songs, which have never before been the Silver Jews' favored mode of expression. “San Francisco B.C.” is a brilliant, cinematic caper involving a jewelry heist, a murdered barber and a mysterious Oriental named Mr. Games. “Party Barge" is the heroic tale of, well, a party barge and the Coast Guard that tries in vain to shut the party down. (That song features a great call-and-response bit between the barge-partiers and the cops.) There are no devastating, laid-bare Berman tracks, no “Dallas” or “Pet Politics” to be found here, and it would be easy to shrug the album off, concluding that Berman does his best work when his life is on fire. Instead, he takes on a more writerly voice, exploring characters and ideas rather than his own personal pain. The razor-wit is there -- even a Silver Jews-by-numbers song like “Strange Victory, Strange Defeat” can contain a wonderfully sharp couplet like "What's with all the handsome grandsons in these rock band magazines? And what have they done with the fat ones, the bald and the goatee'd?" -- the miserablism has just been leavened slightly.

But, to my ears, there's always been something slightly redemptive about Berman's music. Something he glimpsed out beyond the despair -- beauty or light or even death -- that made all the doom and gloom at least halfway worthwhile. Even great downers like "Smith and Jones Forever," about glue-sniffing killers sentenced to the electric chair, have a grandiose quality -- not by way of apologia, but by way of sincere commitment to the story of these born losers who disappear into a self-destructive holocaust entirely of their own making. The story is nihilistic in the extreme, but the portrait is humanizing, even slightly touching. There’s warmth, empathy behind all the misanthropic sarcasm, and it’s clearer on this album than ever before.

Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
closes with "We Could be Looking for the Same Thing," a heartsick plea for love -- derivative, familiar and entirely unclever, but moving just the same. We're reminded that behind all the wordplay and mystery, behind the prophetic junkie persona, the fundamental reason we connect with Berman's albums might be that we share his exquisite sense of longing and the hope -- the tattered, distant, extremely Jewish form of hope -- that tinges all the despair. Berman is who he is because he's able to affect us even when he comes before us with no tricks and no tools. Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is the first Silver Jews album that has ever left me feeling bright, even uplifted. Whether we call that breaking new ground or losing his edge says less about Berman than it does about you and me.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Shearwater: Rook

Okkervil River leapt to quasi-fame last year with the release of The Stage Names, an album chronicling the miseries, frustrations and rare pleasures of life on the indie rock's B-list. The Stage Names debuted to rapturous critical praise and sold over 10,000 copies in its opening week. Last month, keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Meiburg announced he was leaving Okkervil River to focus on the Shearwater, a project he co-founded with OR lead singer Will Sheff. (Sheff is no longer with the band.) Just as a rising tide was carrying all ships, Meiburg decided to jump overboard and make haste for the ocean floor. It's an admirable decision, one that officially declares that Shearwater is nobody's side project.

Their new album, Rook, makes it clear why Okkervil River's direction didn't jibe with Meiburg's vision. Instead of the solid, meaty songwriting, the clever lyrics and catchy choruses in which Sheff specializes, we have an album made up of bits and pieces, ebbs and floes of incidental noise and repeating loops -- not a sing-along in sight. It's less than six degrees away from melancholy cocktail party music -- for a moment it's tempting to dismiss the album as lovely sonic wallpaper, the sort of pretty, fragile snoozer that bands like Iron & Wine and Death Cab for Cutie churn out by the dozen. The first track, "On the Death of the Waters," is delicate, haunting, and barely audible -- it would fit comfortably on any number of lesser indie rock records -- until a deafening hi-hat crash, discordant horn blast and manic keyboard arpeggio rip unexpectedly through the quiet. Before long the volume falls out and we're left only with a distant tinkling piano, but notice has been served -- this will not be another album to fall asleep to.

The opener is immediately followed by the title song and single “Rook”, with its resolute percussion, and carefully enunciated vocals, understated yet confident, even commanding. The bridge is provided by a ominous trumpet sounding off in the distance somewhere -- an intruder from another song, come only to issue a few spacious brass notes of foreboding, then beat a hasty retreat back to the set of "For a Few Dollars More." Brimming with unexpected oddball moments like this, Rook is the rare album that that's quiet and mournful without once feeling lazy, predictable or detached.

Of course, all the starry-eyed abstraction can be a little much, and I sometimes miss the cinematic immediacy of Okkervil River. The lyrics are half balderdash, with a lot of psuedo-Keatsian rambling about falconers and leviathans, interrupted by sudden moments of startling, devastating directness. On "Home Life," when Meiburg sings "When you were a child you were a tomboy, and your mother laughed at the serious way you looked at her," the words feel much more lived-in and honest than all of his elliptical meditations on the natural world. (Meiburg is an ornithologist with a masters degree in geography, so his dedication to the land is at least genuine.) Mundane lines like these redeem all the poetry -- "Home Life" is an epic of nearly 8 minutes, and by the end, when the instruments begin to fall away and Meiburg sings "Horse without rider, lungs without breathing, day without light, a song without singing... a song," the words are both darkly frightening and warmly enveloping. The music is slinky and furrow-browed, and the singer sounds utterly lost. The poetry feels natural, not written, and we feel enraptured and alive, glad to be adrift in Meiburg's strange dream.

Ultimately, this effect of lyrical inconsistencies and shredded, patched-up songs feels less like a flaw than a unique vision. Rook is a troubled, difficult album, an album that resists intent listening and yet refuses to fade into the background. The way the soporific butts up against the electrifying in these etched-out, discordant lullabies creates the sense of twisting the radio knob on a dream. And if Meiburg’s radio-dreams are all of seascapes and archipelagoes, of birds plunging down through clouds that cling to salty cliffs -- Freudian clichés, to be sure, but lovely ones just the same -- we're no less lucky to be invited in through all that static, spume and spray.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Music Calendar

Dearest Loyal Imaginary Reader,

I've posted a music event calendar up here. It's that thing you see on the left, clogging up the blogrolls and looking generally horrible and amateurish. I hope to find a way to make it into a link, and thereby less stupid-looking. I've been whacking my computer with an ice cream scooper for the better part of an hour, but it doesn't seem to be doing anything.

There's no real guiding principle behind the calendar besides "Here are some events I might go to/am going to." Mostly in Philly and some New York, with a few tempting roadtrips like the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago thrown in for good measure.

It's fun making a calendar like this -- you find out about shows you might have missed otherwise. For instance, I had no idea that Daniel Johnston and O'Death were playing World Cafe on June 22. If you see me there, gentle imaginary reader, you should dance with me. I'll be one of the many hairy shirtless sweaty guys shambling around. (Really putting the "no such thing as bad publicity" theory to the test there.)

[Update: Okay, I've moved the event calendar to the bottom of the page, where it looks less ridiculous but is also harder to find. Does anybody know how to do that thing where a link takes you to a different place on the same page? You know, like Wikipedia does?]