Thursday, January 14, 2010

Ethan Hawke's Half-Brother

A long time ago, I met Ethan Hawke’s half brother. “Half brother” is how he introduced himself*. I don’t know which parent they have in common, father or mother—maybe he told me at the time, but I’ve forgotten in the years since—but it was interesting because Hawke was a pretty big star at the time, on his way to becoming a bigger one, making quite a few high profile movies. I was in the Army then, fresh out of artillery school at Fort Sill, in Korea for my first assignment, dripping butter from my gold 2nd Lieutenant’s bars all over the place. Ethan Hawke’s half brother was a Second Lieutenant in that same artillery battalion at Camp Casey, and one of the first guys I met after “in-processing” into the 2nd Infantry Division.

He was a nice enough guy, friendly, outgoing. He’d been there a few months already and seemed to know his stuff. Later I came to understand that some of the other guys in the battalion didn’t like him all that much because he apparently had a penchant for, um, “sucking dick” with the higher ranks—that is, going to lengths to ingratiate himself with superiors for career advancement. I never witnessed this reported penchant myself, but that’s what I heard.

I was interested to find out that he was Ethan Hawke’s brother, or half-brother, in the same way that almost anyone finds a brush with fame—and this was a pretty light brush— momentarily interesting. For a moment, just a teasing moment, you can imagine what it might be like to be famous, admired, cool, massively popular. For a moment, just a moment, you realize that the famous, admired, cool, and massively popular are regular people, too, and that’s always an interesting sensation. Ethan Hawke was once a kid with this lieutenant I had just met. They probably played sports and goofed off and maybe even went to a community swimming pool and played videogames and watched movies like I did when I was a kid.

Another thing that I noticed about this lieutenant was that he’d already been to Army Ranger school, which immediately put me on guard a little bit. The Army is a highly status-obsessed organization, where who you are is what you wear on your collar and arm and chest, and the Ranger tab was (and probably still is) a great indicator of status. Ranger training is easily one of the toughest schools in all of the world’s military. You’ve got to be strong, tough, smart, and focused to make it through, and Ethan Hawke’s half-brother had done it. I had not. I had a measly Airborne badge on my uniform, having graduated basic jump school between my junior and senior years of college. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of the accomplishment, but jump school is really not that tough if you keep your head down, do what you’re told, and are willing to jump out of an airplane. Airborne school is to Ranger as single-A baseball is to the World Series.

I may have paid some lip service to Ranger school, because you’re supposed to want to do stuff like that when you’re young and in the Army, but really, I didn’t want to. I didn’t have it in me. I probably wouldn’t have made it. I didn’t know that then, but I know it now.

As Dirty Harry so famously said, “a man’s gotta know his limitations.” And some of mine are these: I’d much rather be comfortable and well-rested than uncomfortable and tired and hungry. There it is.

Years passed. I left the Army in 1997 as junior captain. I had an OK career. My efficiency reports made me sound like the second coming of Douglas MacArthur, but in the Army’s badly inflated ratings system at the time, they all did—or else you were dirt. In truth, I was a passable, B-grade officer, good at some things, not so hot at others. I could have stayed if I’d wanted to, but ultimately, the smartest and most honest thing for both me and the Army was for me to leave, and so I did.

I’m not that big of an Ethan Hawke fan. I like him all right. I certainly don’t dislike him. “Training Day” is a fucking awesome movie, but that was mostly because of Denzel Washington’s gargantuan (and justly awarded) performance in it. I like Hawke's movies with Julie Delpy, particularly the second one, “Before Sunset.” Just about everyone in my generation has some appreciation for “Reality Bites.” And I thought his directorial debut, a movie called “The Hottest State” (apparently based on a novel he wrote) was actually pretty good, rather underrated and unseen.

Not long ago, I read and interesting article that Hawke wrote for Rolling Stone about Kris Kristofferson. And even more recently, I saw that he was in a new movie, something called “Daybreakers” that actually sounds kind of cool but that I probably won’t see at least until it gets to DVD.

I don't know why this occurred to me now, but in the way that some ideas just swing into your head at some times rather than others, I thought I’d use the powerful internet to see what had become of Ethan Hawke's half-brother. Sometimes I search out guys that I was in the Army with and sometimes I only find a trace of them. I'm not really that nostalgic or sentimental in general, but sometimes it's just interesting to follow up.

So I went to Google and typed in the name and got a got result right away. And when I clicked on it…

The Second Lieutenant that I knew back in the early 90s is now a Lieutenant Colonel. That was disorienting for a good long moment, until I did the math and realized I’d probably be a light colonel now if I’d stayed in—that’s the career path.

What really kind of freaked me out was looking at his accomplishments. Re-branched Special Forces (the Green Berets) a few years after Korea. That’s tough business: my understanding is that SF isn’t quite in the same vein as Ranger, but it’s still highly selective, elite soldiering, and you’ve got to have a lot of the same general qualities that a Ranger needs.

Then I read through a long list of accomplishments that sounded like the resume of a character in a Tom Clancy novel. Something to do with snipers. Something else with undersea diving. Some specialized parachuting school. Some deal with SERE, which I think is a survival school where you’re treated like a POW. A few tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lots of awards, and big ones – a Bronze Star, I think, which is one of the highest military awards short of the Medal of Honor.

What really got to me about finding this out was not the accomplishments themselves. Sure, I was once in the Army, and things like Ranger and SF and all of that high-speed stuff will always carry a certain cachet with me, and elicit a little jealousy too. But just a little. If I’m being honest with myself, I know I’m not cut out for that life, the same way I’m not cut out for the life of a rock star or an actor or an NFL quarterback.

What got to me was seeing someone I once knew who had identified what they were good at, what they wanted to do, pretty early in life, and then had gone for it full-bore, all in, with total commitment, and had made it work for him, and now had a heap of accomplishments to show for it. I haven’t done that—I’ve tried a lot of different stuff, but I haven’t committed fully to any of it.

Which I think is a common ailment in people of my rough demographic.

Sure, I’ve done some stuff. I was a commissioned Army officer, promoted twice, and I do have a college degree. I’ve worked for two civilian companies and have doubled my salary in 12 years. I’ve won a few awards and accolades. I’ve written a book, learned a musical instrument and a martial art. I’m probably in better physical shape now overall than I was when I was in the Army. I’ve been a homeowner twice and currently live in a house with a swimming pool in a modestly upscale area of the Atlanta suburbs. I’m married and have a great two-year-old son.

But sometimes, a lot of times, really, all of those things don’t seem to add up to much. Maybe it’s a basic human tendency we have to downgrade our own accomplishments, but sometimes it all feels like air. Intangible. Fleeting. Except for my son, of course.

I’m betting that when Ethan Hawke’s half brother looks in the mirror, he knows exactly who he is and what he’s done. Me, I’m not so sure all the time.

One of my favorite novels is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and one of the sharpest lines in that great book comes near the end, after the narrator has been accidentally shot. His wound is not life-threatening, and he goes on to recover. But even though he knows he was only accidentally injured, the circumstances make it appear as though he was heroic and put his own life on the line.

“…it made me feel better in some obscure way: imagining myself a hero, rushing fearlessly for the gun, instead of merely loitering in the bullet’s path like the bystander which I so essentially am.”

A bystander. Sometimes that's how I feel -- like a neutral bystander in my own life. A watcher, not a doer.

I’m not complaining, even though it may seem like it. I have it a lot better than many, many others. I should feel lucky.

But sometimes I can’t help but wish I’ve done more, that I could do more, if only I could shake off whatever condition keeps me from getting more fully invested in life.

And to Ethan Hawke’s half-brother: hats off to you, man.


* By the way, if it matters, I know the guy wasn't lying because I saw him named and quoted a few years later in a Rolling Stone article about Hawke. Also, Hawke himself referenced him (although not by name) in the piece he wrote for RS about Kris Kristofferson.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Andre Agassi is Open

The big buzz that greeted the publication of Andre Agassi's autobiography Open last November was that it included his revelation of using crystal meth during his playing career, getting caught in a drug test, and lying his way out of a possibly career-killing suspension.

In my teens and 20's, I followed professional tennis quite a bit. I still watch some of the big tournaments, particularly Wimbledon and the US Open. I remember Agassi's early career, saw how he got lapped by Pete Sampras and other players, remember the "Image is Everything" commercials, the hair, the Las Vegas playboy image. I remember some pretty harsh portraits in places like Sports Illustrated, remember him winning Wimbledon and doing almost nothing else of note for several years, then I remember when he re-emerged from virtual oblivion with a shaved head, a new dedication to fitness, and what seemed to be a brand new game, how he started winning. The latter half of Agassi's career is one of the great second acts in American sports history.

Truthfully, Agassi was never one of my favorite players. I preferred Sampras after his generally emotionless oncourt ways grew on me. I admired Michael Chang's scrappiness and Jim Courier's scruffy affability. And the player I liked most of all was Boris Becker.

But I wanted to read Agassi's bio, and not just because of the stuff about crystal meth (which is actually only a pretty small slice of the book). Something just told me it was going to be an interesting story. I wanted to see how he portrayed his essential rebirth (although he doesn't even consider it as such). I thought maybe there might be some interesting tidbits about other players. I was still curious about his marriage to Brooke Shields. A title like Open has promise -- you've got to figure it's going to be a pretty candid memoir. I guess I wanted to see if he would like up to that promise or wuss out.

Andre Agassi definitely does not wuss out with this book. It's open, all right--there aren't a huge number of nuclear-strength bombshells, aside from the meth revelation, but the overall story he tells, woven from a long and winding journey beginning with the end of his career, leaping back to his youth, and coming full circle, is compelling, at times riveting, engrossing, and one of the best books I've read in quite awhile.

He doesn't destroy other players or reveal anything particularly shocking about them--his description of his relationship with Sampras is interesting, but really more or less what I assumed from the available evidence. He does reveal a surprisingly bitter rivalry with Becker that I didn't know much about, spurred in pretty large part by Agassi's onetime coach, Brad Gilbert. He rails briefly against Chang's sanctimony. But that's about it for other players. And even when he clearly doesn't think much of the player as a person, he always compliments their game when it fits, even Becker's. When he is beaten, he admits to it and doesn't make excuses.

But what really makes the book is this: early on, Agassi writes "I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have."

It might be easy to look upon that revelation with scorn. After all, here's a guy who has lived a luxurious life, become an international star and multimillionaire, lived a life that many millions would envy, thanks to a game that he claims to hate.

To his credit, Agassi tackles that potential scorn head-on. Shortly after he wins Wimbledon in 1992, his first Grand Slam title, and his celebrity hits a new peak, he recounts a meeting with the actor Kevin Costner:

"[Costner] loves sports, follows them avidly, and assumes I do too. I tell him shyly that I don't follow sports. That I don't like them.
How do you mean?
I mean, I don't like sports.
He laughs. You mean besides tennis?
I hate tennis most of all.
Right, right. I guess it's a grind. But you don't actually hate tennis."

Even though the core assertion seems ludicrous, and Costner basically calls him on it, Agassi sticks to it through the rest of the book, through the ups and careening downs of his career, until recounting a turning point in 1997, after flaming out in the first round of a tournament in Stuttgart, Germany:

"I hate tennis more than ever - but I hate myself more. I tell myself, So what if you hate tennis? Who cares? All those people out there, all those millions who hate what they do for a living, they do it anyway. Maybe doing what you hate, doing it well and cheerfully, is the point. So you hate tennis. Hate it all you want. You still need to respect it - and yourself."

I love that. It seems pretty simple, but it's still so direct, so perfect - open. That's when the book, which I was already enjoying, completely won me over.

There's a lot more to the book, and it's worth reading if you have even a passing interest in sports or tennis. I'm not sure how someone who doesn't follow tennis at all would take it - there are fairly large sections recounting match action that might be tough to follow if you don't understand the archaic scoring of the sport,* but understanding everything that happens in those sections isn't really crucial. You know when Agassi wins and when he loses. And as a story of a guy who lived a public life while privately not really knowing who he was, and who spent a long time finding himself and just as long coming to terms with that search, it's a great read for just about anyone.


* It's really not as complex as it seems - men's matches are best of five sets, sets go to the first player to win at least six games, you have to win by at least two scores in either a game or a set (meaning you can't win a set 6-5), when a player wins while the other is serving it's called a break, and instead of 0,1,2,3,and 4, the points in a player's game score are Love, 15, 30, and 40. There's a bit more, tiebreakers and so forth, but that's the meat of it.

Up In The Air

Having finally seen "Up In The Air," I've now caught a whopping two out of the 10 films most likely to be nominated for Best Picture of 2009 ("The Hurt Locker" was the other). If I go to see "Avatar" as planned at the end of next week, I'll actually be at 30% of the presumptive nominees - not that great, but still miles ahead of last year.

But anyway. I did finally see "Up In The Air," starring George Clooney and Vera Farmiga and directed by Jason Reitman. It's gotten quite a bit of awards buzz, although that seems to have cooled a bit in recent weeks. Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, whose job is to travel the country and fire people. We see a lot of scenes of him doing this: sitting in conference rooms with the corporately downsized, telling them about opportunity and wake-up calls and severance packages. He has a favorite line, some claptrap about building empires, and it sounds like he's trying to motivate his victims to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but really he's just trying to get them out of the room before they start throwing furniture. He's pretty good at his job, and he likes it. And he loves the rootless life that the job allows him. When we meet him, he's used to traveling some 300 days out of a year; when we see his "home" in Omaha, Nebraska, it's as sterile and anonymous as a hospital room, devoid of even a single personal touch, which makes perfect sense because he's never there.

Since the movie's less than two hours long, a lot of things don't really get explained, so we don't know what came first with Ryan Bingham: did he get the job because he likes to travel so much and doesn't like being tied down, or did he have the job first and discover that he likes being up in the air all the time? No way to tell--maybe that's covered in the source novel by Walter Kirn, but I'll probably never read it, because I've got no itch to revisit these characters.

Which is not to say it's a bad movie. Far from it. It's actually pretty good. The script is decent, quite well above average for a big Hollywood movie, and the direction is confident, even if Reitman clearly adores "The Graduate" way too much and throws in a few too many scenes scored to hip acoustic music. The acting is never less than solid. Clooney is a bona-fide movie star because, even though he basically plays the same character over and over (with the exception, possibly, of "Syriana"), he exudes an effortless charm and affability that makes for an acceptable audience surrogate in a lot of cases--his performances work not because they're stellar displays of acting technique, but rather because we want to be like him.

On one of his many trips, Ryan meets Vera Farmiga's Alex, another frequent traveler (her exact job is ambiguous, probably on purpose), and they bond over comparing travel-club memberships and frequent flier miles and the like, kind of like the way the guys in "Jaws" bonded over their various scars. Alex and Ryan indulge in some casual sex and then try to arrange their travel schedules to see each other again*. For a time, everything's cool in the world of Ryan Bingham--he's on the road as much as he wants, racking up his miles in the pursuit of the magical ten million goal, and he has a nice no-strings relationship going, and he looks like George Clooney.

Of course, a complication must arise to perforate all this perfection, and it does in the form of Anna Kendrick's young go-getter Natalie Keener, a hotshot recent college grad who just joined Clooney's firm and pitches the concept of going "glocal"--that is, basically, cutting the road trips and having the layoffs happen by teleconference from a single location. Immediately sniffing out the threat to his peripatetic existence, Bingham does into attack mode on Keener's initative, even taking her on the road himself to show her the advantages of axing someone in person.

I think the movie's single best touch was the way Reitman filmed Bingham's preparations for travel and movement through airports: like a soldier performing a drill, he knows exactly what to pack and how, and while seldom-flying yahoos like me are fumbling with belts and shoes and grumbling about security, Bingham knows exactly what to do at each step of the process and floats right through it all with ease and an enviable economy of movement, on his way to the next Medallion-or-whatever-level lounge and a nice glass of preflight Scotch.

When the Academy Award nominations are announced in just under a month, I'm pretty sure "Up In the Air" will get a nice handful of nods, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Clooney, director for Reitman, and probably Best Adapted Screenplay. I think it's going to lose to "Avatar" for Best Picture, but I was all but sure that "Saving Private Ryan" was going to win the top prize back in 1998 or whenever, so what do I know? Clooney is probably in the top two for Actor, although Jeff Bridges (pretty much considered the only other horse in the race) should win because he's never won in four previous nominations even though he's been around a lot longer than Clooney, and Clooney already won once (albeit for a supporting role). If Reitman wins director over Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker," I'm gonna lose it -- but that'll wait until another day. As for adapted screenplay, who cares, except the guys that win it.

This movie shouldn't win Best Picture because, even though it's pretty well made, when it's all said and done, there isn't anything very cinematic about it--it's a quality television production writ large, and it really just comes down to people talking in rooms. It doesn't have the heft that a Best Picture winner ought to have. It doesn't do anything to push the limits of film and show us something we've never really seen before. Now, I'm not saying that every movie needs to do those things, and even though the Best Picture award has been squandered on plenty of smaller movies in the past, this one just doesn't feel right. It's missing something, some key ingredient for a truly lasting impression. It's kind of like Ryan Bingham himself--the kind of guy you'd find yourself forgetting an hour after meeting him.

And so, it'll probably win.

A lot of hay has been made about the movie's topicality because it shows people getting laid off while the country is experiencing a generational high in unemployment. But I've been in corporate America for more than twelve years now myself, and layoffs have been a near-constant threat for at least nine of those years. There's not really any such thing as job security in America anymore. Things may be statistically worse now than in recent years, but don't believe the hype: "Up In the Air" is not really any more topical in 2009-10 than it might've been at the end of the last decade, or the decade before that.

Final verdict: a good if ultimately lightweight movie. Solid, but unspectacular. There's really nothing significant to dislike about "Up In The Air," but there's not really that much to love, either.


* I'm on the fence about the resolution of the Ryan-Alex arc because even though I was almost certain that she was hiding something (I'm not gonna say what, but it's not that hard to guess) pretty early on, I still had a fraction of a doubt right up until that something is revealed. I guess that's actually a tribute to the quality of Clooney's acting, because even in the face of almost certain disappointment, I was still kind of rooting for him to find happiness.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Current Cultural Diet - December 2009

Wow, there sure is a lot of dust around here. Let me clear some of this off and have a seat.

OK, then. Where was I? Somewhere in the middle of my favorite rock albums countdown, which I will get back to at some point. Movie awards season is in full swing, and I want to watch some of the nominated movies before the Oscars this year, plus there are some other film-related things I want to get to. I was going to post something about Tiger Woods and actually got it half-written, but I junked that because I realized I didn't have anything new or interesting to say about the whole sordid story - suffice it to say, the guy has crashed and burned more spectacularly than any outsize celebrity has in, well, perhaps forever.

To get myself back in the blogging swing, I'm going to spend a few minutes on the music, TV, and literature that's currently occupying my limited attention span.

Music - Hunky Dory, by David Bowie. I've never been that big of a David Bowie fan, although my brother gave me a bootlegged live recording a few years back that I really enjoyed.

I picked up Hunky Dory, really, because of Rolling Stone magazine - it was #107 in their top 500 albums list a few years back, and then they recently did a piece devoted entirely to the album itself. Since I've been trying to work more classic rock albums into my ongoing musical education, I nabbed it from the used record store (yes, they still have those) and immediately won the store manager's respect--"cool!" he said. I don't know the guy but he listens to a lot of music, so that made me even more inclined to give it a shot.

Before Hunky Dory, I actually thought that "Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow" was an original lyric by the 90's Nirvana-aping band Bush. Now I know that Bush lifted it from David Bowie and "Life on Mars?" and that Gavin Rossdale is even more of a thieving hack than I thought he was.

Ahem. So anyway, my reaction to Hunky Dory? At least a half dozen end-to-end spins since I picked it up a few weeks ago, and I can see this as a staple of my audio diet for quite awhile to come. It's ambitious, a bit reckless at times, but also fearless. "Changes" and "Life on Mars?" and "Andy Warhol" and "Queen Bitch"--great, great album. Now I want to get around to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Aladdin Sane.

Book - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson. Got this in paperback, well after the groundswell of popularity that attended its hardback release. Not sure why I picked it up exactly, as I'd been offered a copy for free before and had passed on it. I'd heard it was good, engaging, exotic mystery, but I'd also heard it was a bit dull in the beginning.

I may have been persuaded by the press surrounding the second novel in the late author's so-called "Millenium Trilogy," The Girl Who Played With Fire, published in English earlier this year. (Larsson died of a heart attack at 50 years old in 2004).

At any rate, I'm just over 100 pages in and can report that, yes, while it is a bit dry in the early going, it evolves into pretty nimble little thriller that I'm looking forward to finishing. The translation is a bit stiff and certain parts come across rather clinically, but the Swedish locales are interesting and the central mystery has real promise. Look for a follow-up later...

Television - Californication, starring David Duchovny. This show just wrapped up its third season on Showtime (and will be back for a fourth sometime next year). I've seen every episode to date, although I'd hardly call it great TV --some of the plot mechanations are so stupid that they leave me beating my skull against the headboard. Some of it is so patently contrived that you want to choke. And the actress playing Duchovny's daughter acts like a robot. At times I wonder why I even bother to watch, but then I remember that I like Duchovny--even as a loser, he's a winning presence, a perfectly deadpan mix of dry wit and moral rot who can be a drunk and a serial philanderer and still somehow likeable. He carries the show.

And the third season finale was a winner. Hank Moody (Duchovny's character) had to fess up to one of his more egregious sins, committed way back in the show's first-ever episode. I liked the way that karmic boomerang worked--it makes it seem like the writers have control of the show, even if they don't--and that turned out to be a very well-done scene. At first I was irritated that the show copped out on letting us actually hear the dialogue between Hank and Karen (Natasha McElhone), opting instead for playing Elton John's "Rocket Man" over the scene, but as it went on and the situation obviously escalated, the emotion on the actors' faces did the lifting, and what do you know, it actually worked. The dialogue wasn't necessary, and maybe would have been overwrought. The music, scoring what looks to be the final disintegration of an already fragile relationship, made it more memorable.

And it all left things in what could be a really interesting, game-changing spot for the fourth season, if the writers don't wuss out. I've been hard on the show in the past, so it's time to give it kudos for a job well done.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire, Belatedly

As much as any aspect of parenthood, I've struggled with the sudden lack of time. Once you've got a completely dependent human being on your hands, your time is no longer your own. Books gather dust on your nighttable. The TV stays off longer than it used to. Scheduling becomes much more difficult, even with only one child. That's just how it is. As Hunter S. Thompson used to say, buy the ticket, take the ride.

So it took me a year - and eight months after its Best Picture victory at the 2009 Academy Awards - to finally watch "Slumdog Millionaire." I was curious, I wanted to watch it sooner, but I just didn't get to it.

I've had other opportunities. It was on DirecTV Pay-Per-View for awhile, and then I almost picked it up a couple of times in Blockbuster, but it just never felt right. I can't say why. I'd heard parts of it were kind of depressing but that it was really uplifting in the end, but I picked up both "The Wrestler" and "Milk" before ever seeing "Slumdog," and both of those movies are pretty depressing too. So the darkness of it shouldn't have scared me away, especially since I knew it ended pretty happily.

Again, something inside me was just lukewarm about the film, despite all of the accolades and awards.

It wasn't because of any dislike for any of the actors, because there aren't really any names in the picture.

It wasn't because I don't like director Danny Boyle - I personally own "Trainspotting" (talk about depressing) and liked "Sunshine" a good bit, along with "28 Days Later"--neither is a world-beater, but they're both pretty solid entertainment, and come to think of it I have a copy of "28 Days Later" around here somewhere, too. And I maintain that "The Beach" is a lot better than most people give it credit for being - it would've been much better if the movie had retained the book's ending, and there was some stuff that just didn't work, but also a lot of pretty cool ideas.

It's not the only Best Picture winner I hadn't seen, not by a longshot. There's a lot of stuff that has won the top Academy Award that I'm just not interested in, which I suppose makes me not that much of a cineaste. But even if every now and then I think I ought to try to be a little more well-rounded, I just can't force myself to sit through something that I have a really good feeling is not going to work for me, no matter how many awards it's won, in the same way that I can't force myself to try to read David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" or Thomas Pynchon. I'm too old for homework. When I get free time, I want to spend it on something I actually think I might enjoy on some level.

So anyway, "Slumdog Millionaire." It's a small thing, but I always kind of like it when a movie doesn't hit you with its title right away. I think it shows confidence on the part of the filmmakers to not start off by broadcasting the title of the thing (although plenty of good movies have done exactly that, like "The Godfather" and "Star Wars" and "Jaws" and "The Matrix" to name a few), and I love confident filmmaking. Let's say you didn't know anything about "Slumdog Millionaire" and didn't have any kind of Guide button on your remote control or didn't have a newspaper or TV Guide, you wouldn't know what the movie is called until you were quite a few minutes in.

And Danny Boyle is an interesting director because he's always trying something different. Like Ang Lee and Paul Thomas Anderson, he's got a checkered resume. "Trainspotting" (heroin addicts) isn't like "The Beach" (rebel backpackers on an island paradise), or "28 Days Later" (zombies) or "Sunshine" (straight-up SF). That's not his complete resume, either. I find any artist that challenges him or herself to be interesting, so there's another point in the movie's favor.

It's got a good look, too. It's well shot. The cinematography really lets you feel the stink and grime of Bombay or Mumbai or whatever it's called now.

And Frieda Pinto, the girl who plays the mature Lathika - she had to be amazing to inspire this years-long quest, and she is, absolutely. What a beauty, even with a knife scar on her face. I mean, just flat-out stunning. You can see a guy going to great lengths for a girl like that.

So, why didn't I like the movie more?

I'm still trying to figure it out a week later. It wasn't bad, not at all. I didn't hate it. But something about it just left me kind of cool. I sensed something a bit glib about parts of it, a little bit facile. Part of that, I think, is because it's such a large tonal leap between comedy and stark human drama, and it's very difficult to stick that landing, especially if you're doing it multiple times over the course of two hours or so. In the end, a movie that tries can feel like it's just dabbling between the two without fully committing to either.

And there's also what I call the Catcher in the Rye syndrome. You know The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger's iconic novel, even if you don't really know it. It's assumed an almost mythical status in American fiction, is perptually cited as an influence both good and horrible (Mark David Champman, for instance), and only gains stature from its creator's impenetrable mystique.

All of the hype that has accrued to The Catcher in the Rye since its publication may well make you think that you're going to read something staggering, something immense, something that pushes the boundaries of prose with every single line, something that's going to change your perception of the world, but it really isn't so. It's really a pretty straightforward and not very hard-to-grasp story.

It wasn't bad, I kind of liked it, but that's all.

I think that happens quite a lot in our culture. Books, movies, and music all get digested by the mainstream and ribboned with this outsize applause. But if you miss the initial wave, and all you get is the hype for months or years, you can't separate it from the work itself.

So if a movie wins awards and gets great reviews, and months go by before you see it, you're probably going to be expecting something immense, profound, life-changing. Just being good isn't going to be good enough.

It's not fair to the work itself. Everything deserves to be judged on its own merits.

There's a larger point to be made about prejudice and the power of suggestion, but I think I want to leave that for another day. For now, it's enough to say that "Slumdog Millionaire" was all right. I doubt I'll ever see it again, and I don't really think it's going to leave much of a lasting mark on cinema, but that's OK.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Top Albums #6: Dave Matthews Band, Before These Crowded Streets

Year released: 1998

Tracklist: Pantala Naga Pampa, Rapunzel, The Last Stop, Don't Drink the Water, Stay (Wasting Time), Halloween, The Stone, Crush, The Dreaming Tree, Pig, Spoon

Dave Matthews Band?!?!? Ewww! Didn't they sell out? Don't they do, like, love songs and stuff? Aren't all of their fans fratboys and underage girls?

I'm not even really sure what "selling out" means. Yes, they do do love songs. And I'm neither a fratboy (never was) or an underage girl.

I'll admit, DMB sticks out amongst my favorite bands somewhat like a sore thumb -- they aren't like any other band that I follow, for the simple reason that they aren't like any other band. And this album makes my top ten because, while I knew of DMB several years before this came out, this album specifically is the one that made me pay attention to them.

Specifically, it was the dark crazy-quilt lead single "Don't Drink the Water" that grabbed and pulled me in, with its banjo and wind and vocal flourishes. It exploded in 1998, immediately distinguishing itself as different from anything else on the radio-scape, and hooked me on first listen.

Now, not every Dave Matthews Band sounds like that. But that song was the hook, and pretty soon I was openly devouring their music and going to their concerts. I estimate that I've now seen the Dave Matthews Band in concert something like 30 or 35 times. They don't always wow me, but I usually enjoy them. The thing about DMB live that most people who've written them off as pop opportunists don't understand is this: in its own way, when properly motivated, this is a band that can rock as hard as any other out there.

I actually wrestled with including this album over Crash, which immediately precedes it in the DMB discography. I love a lot of Crash, played it a ton when my DMB appreciation was in its heyday, and still probably hear it once or twice a year. But Crash's debits, in the end, proved too much for me: sure, it has "Lie in Our Graves" and "#41," but it also has the drippy single "Crash Into Me," my alltime least favorite DMB tune (which they played on both nights of two-night Atlanta stand earlier this year, to my chagrin, and which the crowd lapped up both times), along with "Let You Down."

Before These Crowded Streets isn't perfect, either - "Stay (Wasting Time)" does exactly that, well past its welcome, and my ability to tolerate "Crush" comes and goes. In fact, the highlights of Crash and BTCS could make one hell of a record put together, but thematically they don't really fit (maybe a double album??). Crash, overall, has more bounce, and a lighter touch. Before These Crowded Streets is generally darker, but is also a more ambitious, confident record on the whole, full of texture and color, bursting at the seams with ideas.

It's still the best studio album that the Dave Matthews Band has made, more than a decade after its release (they flirted with surpassing it with their last release, Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King, but ultimately fell short).

What's best about Before These Crowded Streets is how much the band seems determined to use their opportunity. Remember, back in 1998, the Dave Matthews Band was still on the rise, still ascending in popularity, and this album was the third stage in their rocket to stardom. A couple paragraphs up I said that BTCS is bursting at the seams, and it really is, strikingly so--I can imagine the band in the studio, listening to the record as a work in progress, looking for new colors to use and new places to add a detail or two. That kind of effort can easily lead to something schizophrenic and overwrought, or just ponderous and joyless and dry. Happily, while BTCS definitely flirts with being overwrought, it avoids those pitfalls and still feels fresh today.

It's fitting that the word "crowded" makes up part of the album's title, because in many ways, it's like a crowded street fair with something interesting going on literally everywhere you look. It juggles genres from jazz to bluegrass to world beat to straight-out rock in a way that shouldn't work but somehow does. The band even includes a number of transitional interludes between songs, snippets of conversation or throwaway melodies that make the album feel like a unified, almost thematic work.

In fact, for quite awhile, I thought of Before These Crowded Streets as a concept album, like something Pink Floyd might've done, even though there isn't a readily discernible unifying concept to the songs -- there's a love song ("Rapunzel") and a hate song (the legendary "Halloween"), songs about religious fanatcism ("The Last Stop") and the evils of colonialism ("Don't Drink the Water"), loss ("The Dreaming Tree"), regret ("The Stone"), and getting the last laugh on a former lover ("Spoon").

Thematically, it's all over the place, but that's completely fitting for DMB, a band with influences as diverse as their instrumentation and cultural makeup. Relentlessly, almost exhaustively entertaining, even through some serious darkness, Before These Crowded Streets comes as close as any record can to clearly defining the polymorphous, continually evolving collective known as the Dave Matthews Band. And since I love the band, even after all of these years, I love the record. Still.

This Just in: Yes, Rush Limbaugh is a Jackass

So his Rushness was on the Today show earlier this week. I watch sometimes in the morning while I'm getting my breakfast or getting my kid ready for daycare. Hey, I like Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera. What can I say?

I knew Rush was coming on and I should've shut it off (or at least muted the TV) because it's never good to get one's blood pressure too high, especially not that early in the morning. But I couldn't quite get my finger to reach the remote in time, it was one of those car-crash impulses where you can see the flashing lights and a bit of the twisted wreckage coming up ahead and you know you should look away but you just can't help yourself.

So during Rush's segment--there he was, wearing some kind of Viet Cong black-pajama getup, or maybe he's just finished practicing some Kung Fu on liberals -- spouting off on this and that, and then the reporter asked him to play some word association. She gives a name, and Rush is supposed to give his first reaction.

I'm gonna paraphrase some because I don't remember the exact words:

Barack Obama: Disaster. OK, no surprise there.

Michelle Obama: Rush gets all cute and belittling and says "garden." Because, yuk yuk, she planted a garden at the White House. You card.

So far, so good. I mean, I certainly wouldn't expect him to say anything positive about Barack Obama.

George W. Bush: something like, the most decent, real person you'd ever want to meet.

Screw you, Rush. Screw you and whatever brain the OxyContin binges left you with, you preening, bloviating, smug, overpaid windbag.

There was your chance, your chance to show some small glint of objectivity, and you just passed on it. Because that's the right-wing way: never, ever admit, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that you were even the slightest bit wrong.

Say nothing about the sad state of the economy after W's watch. Nothing about the garbage like line-item vetos, maniacal expansion of executive privilege, and disregard for Consitutional rights. Nothing about the federal inepitude typified by the response to Hurricane Katrina. Nothing about the absurdly ballooning deficit. And certainly nothing about not one but two wars that are both ill-conceived and very possibly unwinnable.

Are we still looking for WMD's in Iraq? No? What's Rush's response to that? Wasn't that why we invaded in the first place? What's that? Saddam Hussein didn't have any, you say? There was no clear and present danger to the United States? He wasn't in league with Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda after all? Hmmm...well, it doesn't matter. Because George W. Bush is real, dammit! And he's nice! And down-to-earth! And...

Oh, I can feel myself slipping...I didn't want to, but here I am, falling down the rabbit hole.

Why do I hate Rush Limbaugh and his ilk? Because they're stupid. Because they're blind. Because they just want to sit there and beat their tin drums all day long and even though they're stupid and blind, a lot of people still seem to pay attention.

Look, I voted for Barack Obama (and John Kerry before him, and Al Gore before him, and Bill Clinton, too, twice).

What grade would I give Barack Obama as president so far? A low B. But because of the curve created by the plateful of shit the previous adminstration left with their hawkishness and greed and cronyism and inepitude and myopia, he might really only be around a C-average President so far. He's gotten some stuff right. He's gotten other stuff wrong. He isn't perfect. I look at him and I see some strengths, but I also see some real weaknesses that he should--and hopefully will--address.

But I don't see George W. Bush. I don't see a stupefying lack of curiosity and bull-headed stubborness. I don't see klutzy mush-mouthed, malpropism-riddled speeches.

Let's play word association:

Barack Obama: decent, but still has much unrealized potential.

George W. Bush: fool.

Rush Limbaugh: asshole of the first degree.

I feel a little bit better.