Thursday, December 29, 2005

2005: Albums

I spend more time listening to or playing music than I do watching movies, but I'm woefully unequal to the task of making an end-of-the-year music list. I've seen a good chunk of the favored movies (14 of the top 15, it turns out) in the Village Voice film critics poll, but the situation couldn't be more different with music. Given (1) the vast volume of music released each year, (2) the splintering of genres into oceanic sub-regions, and (3) the sheer amount of time it takes it wrap your ears around each album and do it justice, I've only been able to hear a dozen or so 2005 albums with any care or attention.

Of these, my numero uno pick is probably M.I.A.'s Arular. Yes, I'm Tamil like she is, but that's not the reason why. M.I.A.'s sound is a masala of hip-hop, electronica, Jamaican dancehall and the British hard and minimal style known as grime. Her vocal arrangements favor tribal-sounding chants, often in a fabricated English argot with Tamil-like cadences. The beats are monstrously thick, the bass lines elephantine, and the whole concoction glows with a chintzy-neon video-game ambience. The album sounds both thoroughly experimental and thoroughly accessible. People have been trumpeting M.I.A.'s Sri Lankan refugee background and revolutionary agenda but frankly, I find the real strengths of this record to be more sonic than political. And it drips with charisma the way Neneh Cherry's eclectic hip-hop debut Raw Like Sushi did. Now let's hope M.I.A. doesn't drop out of music like Neneh did.

Of the other 2005 records, the ones I played the most were probably: Amy Rigby, Little Fugitive; Missy Elliott, The Cookbook; Sufjan Stevens, Illinois; and Kanye West, Late Registration.

Recent acquisitions that I like already but haven't yet plumbed the suspected depths of: Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine; Mountain Goats, The Sunset Tree; and Robyn, Robyn.

2005 albums that spent the most time on your stereo? Feel free to share if you like.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Good Night, And Good Luck

Dianne Reeves

Growing up, ours was the only house on the block with a party at Christmas-time. We were Hindu but my sister was born on Christmas Eve, and it was a perfect pretext to celebrate both occasions, one of which rightfully belonged to us; the other we confidently claimed as ours because we had seen it in countless American movies, most memorably in a little jewel written by Preston Sturges called Remember The Night. All my family lives in India and so, on the night of Christmas Eve this year, when American families were presumably gathered around trees or fireplaces, I ventured out into the cold and clear to go see a movie. I was the only one in the theater for Good Night, And Good Luck.

George Clooney begins this black-and-white film, set in the 1950's, with a tenor sax playing the melody to "When I Fall In Love". But he's being ironic, because nostalgia is the last thing he's after. This is a wisely small and compact movie that never overstays. It is meticulously written and the lead performance, by the brilliantined David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow, is the best I've seen all year. Senator Joseph McCarthy plays himself, on kinescope, and almost the entire film takes place indoors in spaces where people work. Modest though it is, there is a coherence and clarity to Clooney's conception that is pleasantly startling. Next on my to-rent list: Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind.

I like the way Clooney weaves in vignettes of Dianne Reeves performing with her band in the CBS studio periodically through the movie. At first it seemed like lazy filler, easy connective tissue, but then I thought of Nicholas Ray having Hadda Brooks sing "I Hadn't Anyone Till You" in that nightclub scene with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame in In A Lonely Place. There is a dry ironic aftertaste to many of these songs from the Great American Songbook — they are romantic and courtly on the outside, but lean into the lyrics and you'll find them issuing dispatches of disappointment and betrayal. Which suits the unforced, glancing parallels with the tenor of present times that seem to be on Clooney's mind.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Jaime Hernandez

Jaime Hernandez is one of my favorite visual artists. In the early 1980's, along with his brothers, he created the cult alternative-comics series Love And Rockets. Last year, I spent several months reading and playing cartographer with alt-comics, roughly trying to map for myself the evolution and history of the art-form. It also got me religiously keeping a sketchbook, which I still do. But more about those expeditions in future posts.

Today, I'd like to share with you a small but killer Christmas comic that Jaime wrote about a decade ago. Dan Clowes (of Ghost World) once told a story about buying a Jaime Hernandez page of original comics artwork and being stunned by how it contained not a single splotch of white-out, no evidence anywhere of a single second thought. The key to appreciating Jaime is to not treat his work like any other comic strip and zip though it just to get to the punch-line. Instead, read slowly, and watch for: (1) His wonderfully elliptical style, with its signature jump-cuts; (2) The virtuosic but minimal rigor of his pen-based line (not a brush in sight); (3) The endless creativity of his compositions (his mise-en-panel?) with their pitch-perfect balance between black and white areas; and (4) The humor tucked away into the details of almost every panel, a mark of one of his influences, Hank Ketcham. To get the most out of Jaime's work: linger on the details.

So, here's that comic for you to savor: "Our Christmas".

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

2005: Ten Favorite Older Films

Seen for the first time this year, and arranged in alphabetical order by filmmaker:

  • 3 Women (Robert Altman, 1977)

  • The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)

  • Three Comrades (Frank Borzage, 1938)

  • White Dog (Samuel Fuller, 1982)

  • Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934)

  • The Woman In The Moon (Fritz Lang, 1929)

  • Design For Living (Ernst Lubitsch, 1933)

  • La Signora Di Tutti (Max Ophuls, 1934)

  • The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray, 1952)

  • Germany Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948)

Actually, I had seen The Conformist years ago, on a pan-scan/dubbed VHS tape, and it made no impression whatsoever. Encountering it this year in a new print on the big screen (with the restored "party of the blind" sequence), it felt utterly new.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The "Four" Meme

I have scant meme experience (I did a music-related one a good while back) but Nick has tapped me for this one:

Four jobs you've had in your life: college prof, chemical engineer, computer salesman, grad assistant.

Four movies you could watch over and over: Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, 1939); Raising Cain (Brian De Palma, 1992); The Last Days Of Disco (Whit Stillman, 1998); Trouble In Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932).

Four places you've lived: Buffalo, Calcutta, Jaipur, New Delhi.

Four TV shows you love to watch: Seinfeld, Sports Night, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Twin Peaks.

Four places you've been on vacation: Kashmir, Rotterdam, Quebec City, Lille.

Four websites you visit daily: Bloglines, New York Times, Greencine Daily, and (immodestly) this here blog.

Four of your favorite foods: paalak paneer, gulab jamun, Madras aloo curry, pasta puttanesca.

Four places you'd rather be right now: Museum of Modern Art, Village Vanguard, Anthology Film Archives, Strand Bookstore, all in Manhattan.

I'm not tagging anyone in particular but you're welcome, if you feel like, to snap it up.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

2005: Ten Favorite Films

I saw all but one of these on the big screen, and half of them at the Toronto film festival. There were films that were released in the US this year that I didn't include here because they were on my list last year. So, here goes, in alphabetical order by filmmaker:

  • Funny Ha Ha (Andrew Bujalski, USA). A neo-realist slacker comedy that John Cassavetes might have loved.

  • A History Of Violence (David Cronenberg, Canada). Mythic-allegorical Rorschach film that was many things to many people. I was obsessed with it for a while.

  • The Child (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium). I know some critics were a bit underwhelmed by the newest Dardenne but it held me vice-like in its consciously stripped-down form and its typically Bressonian concentration. Would make a great double bill with Pickpocket.

  • Caché (Michael Haneke, Austria/France). This art-thriller is a projection screen, a tabula rasa on which to write your own story of the story of this film.

  • Three Times (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan). After the willfully small scale of Café Lumière, Hou opens out into a rangy and formally labile three-part portmanteau film that spans a hundred years.

  • Me And You And Everyone We Know (Miranda July, USA). A visionary and courageous movie, consecrated to the ordinary, humbly celebratory of art-making, and uncynically at home in our postmodern times.

  • 2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong). Wong's coolest, most cerebral film. Which comes as a shock from a director known more for his sensuality than his chilliness. To me anyway, the only film on this list that demands to be seen at least twice before it begins to sink in.

  • The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan). Tsai loves Jacques Tati, and so the humor in this film isn't surprising. What is surprising is the film's transgressive ending — however, it never feels like a lazy stunt or an attention-seeking ploy, but revelatory (though exactly what it reveals is up for grabs.)

  • The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, Romania). The title pre-emptively "spoils" the ending, making the movie all about the journey, both nightmarish and hilarious, of one long and metaphorical night. The director's two chief models were Eric Rohmer and ER. The most unexpected great film of the year.

  • Last Days (Gus Van Sant, USA). Rounding out the trilogy begun with Gerry and Elephant, and consummating the remarkable reinvention of Gus Van Sant. For me, along with Todd Haynes, the most interesting American filmmaker currently working.

Three films hard on their heels: The Sun, Regular Lovers, and Broken Flowers.

Three films I haven't seen yet but wished I had before I made up this list: Saraband, Grizzly Man, The Squid & The Whale.

Some of your faves? Do share, if you like.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Final Crunch

Unlike some of my faculty colleagues, I never put my home phone number on my course syllabus. But I'm in the phone book, and my name is, safe to say, pretty unique in town if not the entire country. (Even Google concurs.) So, a student looks me up in the book and calls me with a question late last night — unconscionably late — rousing me in mid-dream panic. (It was one of those crazy chase dreams.) After I snapped and crankily hung up on the fellow, he emails me this morning gushing with apologies.

We're all a bit tense this week: it's final exam time. I have a hundred students (forty master's, sixty undergrad) and I'm administering exams today and tomorrow. I'm also doing combat with an intractable blog post which I hope to have wrestled to the ground and ready for you in a day or two.

I like academia and will likely spend the rest of my life here. But I will never ever miss being a student during the week of final exams [shiver]: Far better to grade them than to take them.

Friday, December 09, 2005


McEnroe & Birdapres — Nothing Is Cool

I first discovered hip-hop during its old-school “golden age”, the late 80s/early 90s. For a number of years I believed, like an idiot, that for hip-hop to be “real” and “authentic” and good, it had to be black. The few undeniably striking exceptions (like the Beastie Boys) I chalked up to pure chance. This, of course, was utter nonsense: good music is simply where you find it. The white hip-hop artists I like best are those that don’t try too hard to sound black. They sound like who they are: white musicians in love with a black musical idiom, but injecting something original and personal into that idiom.

McEnroe, a protean MC and producer based in Vancouver, is probably my favorite white hip-hop artist. Because Amazon doesn’t even carry his music, I had to go direct to the record label, the high-cred indie outfit Peanuts & Corn, to order it. I hit a Paypal snag, and emailed the label’s one-man customer service department, a guy named Roddy, for help. He was prompt and helpful, straightened out the accounting and billing tangle, and mailed the package to me the same day. Come to discover: McEnroe and Roddy are one and the same. He owns and runs the label and whips up beats and rhymes and also raps. The track is from the crackingly good 2003 album Nothing Is Cool that he made with fellow Vancouver rapper Birdapres (pronounced Bird-a-prey). It's hip-hop satire at its best.

More: Robert Christgau’s review; and an interview with McEnroe.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Film As A Subversive Art

WR: Mysteries Of The Organism

Ever fall in love with a book at first sight? It happened to me with Amos Vogel's Film As A Subversive Art (1974) a couple of years ago after I idly pulled it off a library shelf. Discovering it was out of print, I hunted it down used and tattered on the Net for a cool fifty bucks. Without hesitation I wrote out a check, only to find recently that the book is back in print and available new at my local bookstore for half the price.

Amos Vogel did something pretty amazing: from 1947 to 1963, based in New York, he ran Cinema 16, the single most successful and influential American film society ever. (It is interesting that film societies occupy no more than footnote status in US film history while being legendary in France, associated with figures like Henri Langlois and Georges Franju.) Vogel programmed hundreds of films, often creating provocative "dialectical" double bills of movies that deliberately subverted expectation, either of subject, form, or both. All the while, he was taking careful notes after each screening, amassing material for what would become Film As A Subversive Art. The book is lavishly illustrated with over 300 fascinating and eye-popping stills. (If I had brought it home as a kid, I'd have surely done so between the pages of my math textbook.)

I've always believed that epigraphs can uncannily telegraph the sensibility and thrust of a book. So, I thought I'd share with you the ones Vogel chose; they're pure dynamite.

  • "But that the white eyelid of the screen reflect its proper light, the universe would go up in flames." — Luis Buñuel

  • “Your order is meaningless, my chaos is significant.” — Nathanel West

  • “I like my movies made in Hollywood.” — Richard Nixon

  • “Only the perverse fantasy can still save us.” — Goethe, to Eckerman

  • “Behind the initiation to sensual pleasure, there loom narcotics.” — Pope Paul VII

  • “By the displacement of an atom, a world may be shaken.” — Oscar Wilde

  • “Film is the greatest teacher, because it teaches not only through the brain, but through the whole body.” — Vsevolod Pudovkin

  • “The cinema implies a total inversion of values, a complete upheaval of optics, of perspective and logic. It is more exciting than phosphorus, more captivating than love.” — Antonin Artaud

  • "'Don't go on multiplying the mysteries,’ Unwin said, ‘they should be kept simple. Bear in mind Poe's purloined letter, bear in mind Zangwill’s locked room.’ ‘Or made complex,’ replied Dunraven. ‘Bear in mind the universe.’" — Jorge Luis Borges

Monday, December 05, 2005

Le Samouraï

One of my nearest and dearest movies has finally come to DVD. The last time I saw Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï on the big screen, it was at Manhattan’s Walter Reade Theater a couple of years back. I had arrived an hour early, bought my ticket, and was lounging, people-watching. A commotion broke out. The screening was one ticket away from selling out, and two men, one French and the other American, stepped out of the line. As we gaped incredulously, they rolled up their sleeves and solemnly fought a bare-fisted duel for the prize ticket. Meanwhile, a young African girl stepped forward to the booth, paid for the last ticket and coolly walked into the theater, leaving the men in mid-male-ritual.

My DVD viewing of Le Samouraï last night (probably the fifth or sixth time I've seen it) had no such accompanying excitement. But the film remains eternally beautiful and hypnotic:

  • It's a hit-man movie that Bresson might have made: the concentrated and reverential attention to the ordinary; the detailed anatomical recording of a contract killing; the blank emotionally neutral faces; and the waving aside of psychological realism and motivational backstory.

  • The lack of interest in realism is one of the movie’s most attractive aspects for me. Nobody characterized it better than Melville himself: “I don’t want to situate my heroes in time; I don’t want the action of a film to be recognizable as something that happens in 1968. That’s why in Le Samouraï, for example, the women aren’t wearing miniskirts, while the men are wearing hats—something, unfortunately, that no one does anymore. I’m not interested in realism. All my films hinge on the fantastic. I’m not a documentarian; a film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact re-creation of it. Transposition is more or less a reflex with me: I move from realism to fantasy without the spectator ever noticing.”

  • Impassively icy icon Alain Delon, in his belted alabaster trenchcoat, is an über-macho figure but paradoxically brings to the role a delicate androgyny. He and his lover, played by his soon-to-be-ex-wife Nathalie Delon, share an almost sororal resemblance.

  • A tiny, almost invisible detail, but it kills me every time. She’s in bed. There’s a knock at the door. She walks over, puts her ear to it. She asks: “Jef?” Comes the soft reply: “Oui”. She opens the latch, he steps in. Then, later in the film: another knock at the same door. Once again she asks: “Jef?” Comes the same answer: “Oui”. She opens the latch, and the cops burst in. Here's what gets me: For the “oui” the second time around, Melville used not the voice of the police but the same recorded Delon voice as in the first knock. Realism this ain’t. And proud of it.

  • The movie’s poeticism is signalled by the music. Melville does something unusual. He’ll begin a scene with Delon in his room, and lay behind him a little wash of piano, organ and harp with a trumpet line. A few seconds of it is all he needs to suggest a mood. Then, the music dies out quickly while the scene continues. The quotidian sounds and ambient noise now drop into the soundtrack. The music’s been erased, but its after-mood somehow lingers, combining with (the music of) the clattering sounds around the room and the sharp soprano of the canary in its cage.

  • 1967 was a killer year for hit-man movies: in addition to Le Samouraï, we were also given John Boorman’s Point Blank and Seijun Suzuki’s Branded To Kill.

  • Godard cast Melville as a famous author in Breathless. Jean Seberg asks him at a press conference: “What is your ambition?” The first time around, he ignores her. When she asks again at the end, he replies hilariously and brilliantly: “To become immortal, and then to die.” Real life has a way of wickedly reversing the prophecies of art: Melville died in 1973, without realizing how influential and widely imitated he’d later become.

Friday, December 02, 2005

A Quick Jazz Anatomy Lesson

Renee Rosnes — Someday My Prince Will Come

This one goes out to my mom. She writes: “I’ve been trying to read your paper [that I wrote on how to apply principles of jazz improvisation in the classroom]. You use all these terms that I don’t understand: head, chorus, and so on. And I have to admit: Jazz always sounds pretty crazy and chaotic to me, like it doesn’t have any structure…”

Mom, you just brought up the single biggest misconception about jazz. In reality, it is a highly structured music. Here: let's take a quick look at a basic, four-minute tune as an example.

  • "Someday My Prince Will Come" is from the Disney movie, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937), and after Miles Davis recorded it in the 1950’s, it became a jazz standard. It’s played here by a piano trio: Renee Rosnes on piano, plus a stand-up bassist and a drummer.

  • The song itself is 32 bars long. The group plays the song through five times. Each play-through is known as a "chorus". (see yellow pad doodle above.)

  • In the first and last choruses, Renee plays the melody of the tune faithfully on the piano. These are the "head" choruses (as opposed to the other, "solo" choruses.)

  • During the solos, the underlying chords of the song remain the same. The new improvised melodies sit atop this familiar bed of chord changes.

  • The song is in 3/4 time (or waltz time), unusual for jazz, which is often in 4/4 time. Until Bill Evans came along (he's my all-time favorite jazz pianist), nobody thought it possible that jazz could “swing” in waltz time.

  • A word about Renee Rosnes. She was adopted, and raised in Vancouver. About ten years ago she met her birth mother (a Sikh) who then died three months later. She made an album about it. I had an unusual and amusing encounter with Renee at the Village Vanguard the last time I was in New York, but that's a story for another time, place and post. Salut, ma mère.