cartwheels into your heart

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

This week's singles reviews. If I'd been assigned that Corinne Bailey Rae song, I'd probably have used the phrase "Norah Jones meets Natasha Bedingfield." Also, for what it's worth, my personal favorites (though I didn't write about them) were Madonna and Black Eyed Peas.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The problem with Transamerica isn't Felicity Huffman's Oscar-nominated performance, which is admittedly a deft characterization of a M2F transsexual who still must consider and try on her femininity at every step. No, the problem is nearly everything else about the film, which I suspect is garnering better-than-average reviews because of its "brave" subject matter.

The film's most glaring failure is that, for all of Huffman's nuanced mannerisms, Bree remains a fundamentally one-dimensional character. There is little sense of who she is beyond what is put on the screen: all we learn about her past is that she once attempted suicide, once had sex with a woman, and that she spent ten years in college without graduating -- a detail that serves alternately as a joke and as an excuse for Bree to expound upon Native American mythology and other trivia throughout the film. I kept wondering simple things like how long she had known she was a woman, why she decided to transition at this point, what was her history of desire, and essentially how she had gotten to where she was.

Granted, these questions were perhaps at the forefront of my mind having just read Jennifer Finney Boylan's funny, sensitive memoir She's Not There, about her own life as a transsexual and all of the identity grappling that goes along with it. And there's an interesting counterargument that could be made, to the effect that dwelling on all of the psychology reifies our understanding of transsexuality as a "problem" (cf. early narratives of the tragic mulatto and the tortured homosexual). This line of thought claims that it's more progressive to present members of marginalized groups as just plain people, without all of the attendant handwringing. And yet the film is already making a big deal of Bree's gender, as indicated first by the title (an admittedly clever pun for a film about a cross-country trip) and by her superobjective (getting back to Los Angeles for her surgery), not to mention all of the predictable reactions from those around her. If we are going to make it a focus, why settle for superficiality?

Unfortunately, superficiality seems to be writer-director Duncan Tucker's modus operandi, since most of the other characters are not just flimsily written but outright caricatures. There's the jovial old Mammy, the teenage dreadlocked hippie, the wise and gentle Native American, the shrill harpy mother, the Jewish retiree. Even Toby (a/k/a Eddie Furlong Jr.) rarely moves beyond the tired markers of Troubled Youth. A few weeks ago, my friend Brian Tallerico of The Deadbolt warned me that Transamerica exemplifies "everything that's wrong with independent cinema nowadays"; at the time it sounded like an exaggeration, but I'm willing to concede an element of truth. There's a sense in this film in which diversity appears to be presented for no other reason than the fact that it's an independent picture and they can get away with it -- not only does this carry a whiff of smug self-congratulations, but the intended effect (see how tolerant and liberal we are?) falls flat when every character can be reduced to his or her identity-quirk. Ipso facto, the old stereotypes win. In the same way, the film introduces "controversial" elements -- Toby's sexual abuse at the hands of his stepdad, Bree's sister's alcoholism, the almost-incest between Bree and Toby -- more or less gratuitously, with hardly any exploration of their import, an approach that strikes me as sub-Solondzian at best.

All of this has the effect of creating a fairly uneven tone, which is disastrous for a film that I think ultimately requests sympathy for its lead character. I am reminded of About Schmidt, another film about a farcical road trip that simultaneously aims to be a serious character study. At the end of both films, the protagonist breaks down and cries, supposedly having suffered so much -- but in neither case does it feel earned, after all the cartoonishly broad strokes (cf. Dermot Mulroney's redneck role in Schmidt) that precede it. The family scenes could've been a wonderful opportunity for Bree to examine her past and what she's sacrificed to become who she is -- but Tucker apparently thought it served better as an opportunity for an old lady to make dick jokes.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Me and the Stylus crew on the New Pantheon Music Awards. This piece reaffirms my belief in the value of collective criticism, or criticism as conversation -- as exemplified by things like the Slate Movie Club, the too-brief Singles Jukebox experiment, and (I guess) ILX at its finest. I like being able to react to others and reshape my positions as I go along; the apparent solid certainty of most published criticism is one of its major fallacies. And I like the voice that comes out when you're just bullshitting with fellow writers: smart and a bit show-offy, but also breezy and fun. I even got to make use of my interest in baby-name trends while talking about the Arcade Fire: all of a sudden I feel like Malcolm Gladwell.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Two thoughts while listening to the ol' iPod this week:

1. I was skeptical when I first read that K-OS had a cameo on that new Broken Social Scene album: I mean, I know they like to promote the collective spirit and all, but I was imagining, I dunno, like R.E.M.'s "Radio Song" or something, and this didn't bode well. But you know, it's actually surprisingly fluid, to the point where when I hear the song now, even before he comes in, I'm thinking, "This would be a great place for a guy to just freestyle over." Which is weird, but what I'm saying is, it really works.

2. There's something about Kiki (of "& Herb" fame) -- at least just listening to Live at Carnegie Hall -- that reminds me of a Martin Short character! "To be a lesbian and a nun in SHOW BUSINESS!" This probably does Kiki a disservice, but ... that voice.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

From Carl Wilson:

I was being interviewed for a teevee show about music writing and blogging today, and among my staircase moments afterwards, I thought that my answer to the question, "If writing about music is such a non-lucrative career, why do it?" should have been that precisely because music is so abstract and inimical to verbal capture, it opens up an infinite field to write across, an unending series of creative near- or far-misses -- and because music is so insinuated in everyone's personal lives and consciousnesses, it burrows tunnels into every subject matter, making it a subject that potentially permits you to write about anything and everything in the world. But then again, I thought, that could be said of writing about food or clothing or a hundred other things.

He's right, though: those are exactly the reasons why I find writing and thinking about music (as opposed to other art forms, at least) so consistently rewarding.

Saw Inskeep's top 10 films of 2005 today and thought I should turn mine in as well, although there's still plenty I haven't seen (I've got War of the Worlds and Murderball at home via Netflix).

It was one of those years I almost didn't make a list at all, since I barely thought about it throughout the last twelve months (unlike, say, 2001 or 2004, which were particularly fruitful movie-watching years for me) -- only last week did I realize that Werner Herzog's fascinating Grizzly Man was in fact my #1, although I'll admit it got there mostly by default.

1. Grizzly Man
2. Capote
3. A History of Violence
4. The Squid and the Whale
5. Brokeback Mountain
6. Walk the Line
7. Munich
8. Hustle & Flow
9. Broken Flowers
10. Match Point

A new crop of singles reviewed. I think I'm getting the hang of the new international jukebox (although I requested to write mostly about songs that'll actually show up on these shores).

Friday, February 03, 2006

Illustration by Ken Chu

There's something utterly fascinating about this ILX thread, which began with Emily posting a photo of three people sitting on a bed -- but with no information about it apart from her own caption "so not gonna happen." From then on, everyone almost instantly began dissecting it, and for hundreds of posts.

The ways in which people analyzed the photo differed, however. On one hand, you had those interested mostly in socio-psychological analysis based on the available clues in the photo: for instance, what are the motivations of the dude in the photo (quickly nicknamed "Wayne")? What does his dress and body language tell us about his goals in the scenario? Why are these girls hanging out with him? Etc. And then you had those of us who sought to expand upon that by gathering as much detailed, actual information as we could about the photo subjects and their environment. The fact that Wayne's Hooters t-shirt reads "King of Prussia, PA" at the bottom (look closely) is irrelevant to determining what sort of relationship he has with the sorority gals on the bed, but inasmuch as it broadens our knowledge base, the discovery of this detail is rather exciting.

When Emily revealed the source of the photo -- a photo gallery on the website of a young soldier deployed in Iraq -- some complained that this took the fun out of the game. But for the more investigative-minded posters, it only gave us more to work with. Full names led us to Myspace profiles, which enlarged the social circle beyond the partygoers pictured in the gallery. The comments there were revealing: a reference to "that shadeball Tommy Loftus" suggested Wayne's entire real name (we already knew the surname from the URL on some of the jpegs). And yet by the time I had worked out that Ashlee and Danielle and Jenna, who went to a different high school than most of the gang, must have met them at Delaware County Community College, I had to stop and ask myself what was really the point of all my amateur sleuthing.

Longtime readers of this blog might note shades of the Maya Keyes fiasco, at least in the initiative I took toward investigating and putting together a puzzle based on clues dropped around the Internet. (My friend Robyn joked that I should find some way to turn my obvious skill and talent in this area into a career -- like what, a private eye?) But in this case, there was no sense that I was on the front line of uncovering a political scandal; in fact, at one point, I remarked that the very banality of these kids' lives held a certain appeal to me. The pleasure, therefore, was related more to the thrill of fiction, at having a narrative unspool before you, a whole world opening up full of new people and places, all somehow connected. One of the things I like about an epic novel like DeLillo's Underworld is how you're introduced to a minor character like Eric Deming in the context of being a colleague of Nick Shay's, and then a couple hundred pages later you're treated to a prolonged account of his childhood. (You find the same thing in the improv-comedy form known as the Harold.) In this sense, the delight I took in tracing Andy's love of Pantera and friendship with a sandwich-maker named Glen (for instance) was like a great subplot spinning off from the main storyline, with boundless possibilities.

So: Pazz and Jop is finally out, and not surprisingly, Kanye takes both album and single (for "Gold Digger"). (Precedents: Michael Jackson in 1983, Prince in 1987, Nirvana in 1991, Arrested Development in 1992, and Outkast in 2000 and 2003.) I'm not sure why I thought that Kelly Clarkson had a chance for "Since U Been Gone" (when Alex in NYC is on record as digging "Gold Digger," then there's your P&J winner, folks) -- but I'm pleased that Amerie and Kelly round out the top three.

Once again, glenn mcdonald has done the yeoman's work of calculating the critical alignment ratings for every voter in the poll. As you can see, I'm 209th -- up nearly 100 places from last year, which I'm guessing has something to do with the fact that I didn't have any truly idiosyncratic votes (like, say, Codename: Dustsucker or "Phone Call") this time around. (Wait, I take that back, I'm the only dude who voted for the Braxe/Falke remix of "Black History Month." But I also voted for the #2 and #3 albums and the #2 and #3 singles.)

Kisses to David Moore: the fact that we're the only two critics to list Lindsay Lohan's deliciously swaggering "First" means I'll forgive him for igniting perhaps the biggest hype machine in indie rock this decade. Fun to see, too, that Stylus writers make up the majority of votes for Snoop Dogg's "Signs" (it's me and the notoriously stylish Alfred Soto and Thomas Inskeep, and then someone named Robin Edgerton), and nearly the majority for the Kelley Polar record (me, Todd Burns, and Derek Miller make up three of the seven, and I don't think anyone's surprised to see melodic dance aficionados Juzwiak, Kellman, and Pytlik in there as well.)

Heather Phares, who are you? We have the same favorite album and favorite single from 2005. Let's date.