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.

Monday, October 5, 2009

I'd Be Too Afraid That the Coffin-Shaped Light Rigs Were Gonna Fall On Me To Play, a.k.a:

Is It Possible To Get a Hangover Just From Music?, a.k.a:

James Hetfield Looks Like Gregg Allman Now (Well, Kinda)

You've gotta love Metallica, and if you don't, you've gotta respect their steadfastness: with the exception of a strange dalliance with eye makeup* back in the 1990s and the fallow period of St. Anger while they were weathering a personnel change and James Hetfield was getting sober, they've pretty much stuck with the same recipe for over twenty-five years.**

I saw 'em last night on the second leg of their Death Magnetic tour, and ten hours after the last double-barrelled shotgun guitar blast I'm still a little confused and stiff about the head and shoulders. But that's what you sign up for when you go to see Metallica.

They're older now, sure - Hetfield does bear a certain resemblance to Gregg Allman, at least from a distance, all gray-bearded now and everything, and Lars Ulrich is almost bald (I think but am not sure that Robert Trujillo, the bassist who replaced Jason Newsted, is somewhat younger than the core group, and Kirk Hammett appears basically ageless, which may or may not be due to some sort of Satanic pact), but my fourth full-frontal Metallica show was pretty much the same as the other three, maybe even a little more intense than the last couple. They were flat-out awesome as recently as 2000, still with Newsted, absolutely one of the best & most intense concerts I've ever seen. The Summer Sanitarium tour a couple of years later has to be graded on a curve because a) it was a stadium, and stadium shows almost always suck, and b) it was their first tour with Trujillo, and the lineup hadn't really meshed yet. The St. Anger tour was OK, but kind of uninspired because the band didn't even like the album they'd just put out. But you can tell they're happy with Death Magnetic - a lot of ink has been spilled about how it harkens back to the classic Metallica sound from albums like Kill 'Em All and Ride the Lightning, etc.--and they've even got giant coffin-shaped light rigs on the stage setup (plus some very Pink Floydy lasers, which were interesting) to prove it.

In all honesty, it's kind of odd for me to be seeing Metallica. I wouldn't call myself a huge fan of theirs, or even of metal music in general. The only Metallica albums that I own are the so-called "Black Album" and Load, both fairly latter-day in terms of the band's ouevre, and I hardly ever listen to either. Great chunks of output from their early trail-blazing days sort of bleeds together sonically for me, but that's because I've never really tried to make it stand apart - sure, I know "One" and "Seek and Destroy" and "Master of Puppets" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and maybe one or two more, but I don't own any of the albums they're on and probably never will. I just don't feel the need to put 'em on for recreational listening.

But live is another story. There's a certain genius in what they do, and last night's bill made it obvious. I got inside the venue right as the second opening act, a buncha long-haired yahoos called Lamb of God (oh, the irony), were thrashing out their opening set (the first warm-up was some outfit called Gojira, which I missed completely), and every single song sounded exactly the same. Exactly. Loud, fast, unintelligible lyrics, completely free of anything resembling a hook or melody, and absolutely as boring as shit. It's the exact kind of unsubtle stuff Metallica would do if they were about fifty percent dumber, and it's probably a lot like how Metallica first started out. But all of the guys in Metallica, depsite being complete drunkards, were too smart to stick with that for long, which is why they're in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and why bands like Lamb of God will just grunt their way along the regional club circuit until one band member gets brought up on child molestation charges and another dies in a puddle of his own vomit.

Dig it, metalheads: melody isn't just for wussy shit. Melody doesn't have to be pretty; it can be bruising, but it's gotta be there. And if you go back and listen to early Metallica, you can hear some surprisingly complex rhythmic and melodic ideas at work in there, and some real ambition, too.

Fame and riches may have dulled a great deal of Metallica's ambition by now (let's be honest, it's a litle silly for forty- and fifty-something dads to be putting out albums called Death Magnetic with song titles like "My Apocalypse" and "Cyanide"). But the fact that they ever had ambition in the first place is the reason we're still talking about them today.


*To be completely fair, the Load era did yield at least a few good songs, like "King Nothing," "Hero of the Day," and the Mission Impossible II contribution "I Disappear," which by itself was better than the movie.

**After I wrote this part I realized I forgot the DVD they did with the symphony, the LA Philharmonic I believe it was, but that was really more of a one-off, "what the fuck, we're superstars and millionaires so we might as well try this" kind of thing, and it actually worked. Which is more proof that there's more to Metallica's music than just straight ahead power-chord fastballing.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Top Albums #7 - The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground + Nico

Year released: 1967

Tracklist: Sunday Morning, I'm Waiting for the Man, Femme Fatale, Venus in Furs, Run Run Run, All Tomorrow's Parties, Heroin, There She Goes Again, I'll Be Your Mirror, Black Angel's Death Song, European Son

There's an old joke about The Velvet Underground + Nico that goes something like this: "only a hundred people bought it, but ninety-nine of them started bands." The joke is meant to both tweak the album's lack of commercial success and laud its influence simultaneously. More than one hundred people bought it back in 1967 and the years since, but not millions more; ninety-nine percent of them didn't start bands, of course, but the weight of this record's influence on subsequent generations of musicians is obvious on almost every track. There's a reason that Rolling Stone magazine called it "the most prophetic album of all time."

Never mind not getting it: I didn't even hear VU + Nico until earlier this year. One day, I started to fully realize the generally sorry state of my rock n' roll classics resume - plenty of Pink Floyd, sure, and I know great chunks of discography from Zeppelin and the Beatles, the Stones and Who, but it's all piecemeal: I hadn't really heard the albums. I'd never really sat down with some of the true classics of rock and listened to them end to end, I'd just taken what radio was giving me. And there's a lot out there that's untouched, untapped, preserved, just waiting to be discovered - whole worlds of music, really, and a lot of them can be heard on this album.

In a lot of ways, it's album about masks, about deceptive appearances. It also may be the most New York rock album ever made. Some of The Velvet Underground + Nico is pretty straightforward stuff--the Berryesque blues stomp of "Run Run Run," for instance--but throughout most of the album's other tracks, lyrics hide under cover of rhythms and melodies that suggest something completely different. "There She Goes" could be any up-tempo 1960's pop-rocker about a girl, but it could also be about a hooker with a drug problem.

Off the bat, the lulling, idyllic "Sunday Morning" seems to promise an album of calm, sunny pop--after all, what's more peaceful and inviting and calm than a Sunday morning? But there's already something underneath, the restless feeling described upfront in the lyrics, the hints of wasted opportunity, the feeling of suspicion and paranoia ("Watch out, the world's behind you"). It may be the most gorgeous despair on record.

That prettiness gives way the surging urban grit of "I'm Waiting for the Man," the first of two songs to directly address heroin addiction, a vividly seedy ballad of a junkie going for his score, bedecked with gallows humor. I don't know where 125 Lexington is, but after hearing this song, I felt like I did--and it's not a nice place at all.

The campy, vampy Nico makes her first appearance on the third track, making the word clown sound like clan on "Femme Fatale," a beautifully strange little ditty that hints at some of Lou Reed's doo-wop influences in its chorus. Nico is a bit sunnier later on in "I'll Be Your Mirror" and "All Tomorrow's Parties," but there's still a cold imperiousness to her delivery that's really fascinating--it sounds more like she's giving orders to subordinates than actually singing. It's just another example of the record's genius--in context, you can see how inspired Andy Warhol's pairing of the singer with the band actually was.

Song four, "Venus in Furs" is a groundbreaking paean to S&M that's so truly unsettling in its suggestive lyrics and off-kilter instrumentation that I was originally hesitant to listen to it twice. But now it feels just like a bad habit, something that you know you shouldn't enjoy but that you can't stop loving anyway. Almost as unnerving is the perilous psychofolk of "Black Angel's Death Song," in which Lou Reed's delivery may be parody or tribute or both, accented with screaming viola and instrumental flourishes that sound like a hospital respirator, suggesting a life in crisis, on medical support.

The crown jewel of The Velvet Underground + Nico is "Heroin," the epic, seven-minute ode that's the greatest drug song of all time. Reed is said to have patterned the song, with its crests and breaks, after the ups and downs of a heroin rush. Many have tried, but no song before or since has so eloquently portrayed the junkie's plight, so evocatively painted the abandon and surrender, the self-loathing and self-delusion, the push-pull of addiction.

The Velvet Underground. They were weird, hip art-pop operators that foresaw punk and grunge and noise rock, that forefathered all manner of alternative avenues, many of which are still being explored today. Most of the ninety-nine bands that were first spawned by this album never made it out of the garage, and those that may have are long defunct. But the record's still there, waiting to shine its black light in the corners that rock radio doesn't often show you. There's dirt in there, and some scary stuff, but there's also some incredible possibilities, as big as the city that spawned the album. The Velvet Underground + Nico will change your perception, if you let it.