Films that mattered...
->"Sweeney Todd" and "Once." Two superb musicals. I took more pleasure from "Sweeney Todd" than I did from any other movie this year. Checking out Sweeney at the theater was a classic "communal" experience. So many wonderful geek communities converged: Sondheim fans, Tim Burton fans, kids with crushes on Johnny Depp, goths, and so on. Everything about Sweeney was cool, especially Depp's glam rock-esque delivery. "Once," a romance about friendship, bucked so many expectations. The two protagonists allow themselves to fall so deeply into a hodgepodge of empathy and passion and agape that they can only express in the music they create together. What a toughing representation of collaboration and creativity.
->"Superbad" and "Knocked Up." Believe the hype. Judd Apatow and his creative team deserve all of their accolades. I hope the success of these two raunchy comedies leads kids to DVDs of Apatow's series "Freaks and Geeks," the always hilarious tv show that argued that a VERY thin line separates rebels and nerds. Much of the brilliance comes from how damn funny actors like Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, and Leslie Mann are in their respective roles. But the writing is the real star of the show. Somehow, both scripts capture pathos alongside raunch.
->"I'm Not There." Another musical, this one less accessible and probably less rewarding. I can see why some dismiss "I'm Not There" as a clever stunt, but the film left me feeling warm for some reason. Warm, perhaps, for the great body of music that Bob Dylan has given the world. Warm, perhaps, for Bob Dylan the artist who--the film seems to suggest--by this point in time is more an "artist" than a "person" even. No film, whether documentary of fiction, can know a person, so this film concerns itself more with letting our blurry understanding of Dylan be blurry. I can't explain how something so blurry could leave me warm and I guess that's the achievement of "I'm Not There."
->"Grindhouse." Like essentially all of the films I've listed so far, "Grindhouse" devotes itself to a vision and sticks to it until the bitter end. I can't believe the DVD splits up the two features that comprise the theatrical version of Grindhouse. The beauty was that Grindhouse created an entire experience: a double feature, fake previews, fake commercials, fake missing reels, fake flaws and imperfections. But nothing's fake about how cool the car chase is in "Death Proof," Quentin Tarantino's half of the double feature. Awesome stuff. If you missed at the theater, you're out of luck.
Music that mattered...
->M.I.A. "Kala." Man, what is this? Is it hip hop? Is it leftist propaganda? Is it post-colonial theory? Is it grime? Is it techno? Is it punk rock? Is it bubblegum? Is it dance pop? A little bit of this, a little of that. My favorite record of the year. M.I.A. samples or recreates lyrical flourishes and riffs from The Clash, The Pixies, and The Modern Lovers on "Kala," moving between so many genres you can't keep up. There's absolutely no coherence here. A chaotic, "punk" musical experience. M.I.A. is a young Sri Lankan woman who mixes radical politics with a pop sensibility. You get the sense that people will be talking about "Kala" more in twenty years than they did in 2007. Super, super cool.
-> The "I'm Not There" soundtrack. Like "Kala," this moves all over the place. Unlike "Kala" (and the film with which this record is a tie-in), it's a remarkably coherent experience. Mostly, this soundtrack features contemporary indie artists covering Dylan songs, some classic, some obscure. This is a recipe for disaster. Dylan's catalog is very familiar, frequently covered, hard to approach, and superior to virtually all artists who try to capture it. "Covers albums" tend to suck. What a surprise, then, that the majority of the tracks on "I'm Not There" have something to offer. The rockers work especially well: Sonic Youth doing the title track, Yo La Tengo doing "I Wanna Be Your Lover," Karen O from Yeah Yeah Yeahs doing "Highway 61." I also really like the contributions from Stephen Malkmus of Pavement fame. Malkmus belts out a pretty faithful version of "Maggie' Farm" and does his slacker-Beefheartesque-drawl thing on "Can't Leave Her Behind" and "Ballad of a Thin Man." It's no Slanthed&Enchanted, but sweet nonetheless. Only a few missteps, like including a version of "All Along the Watchtower." Nobody needs another version of this song. I also don't get the appeal of Anthony and the Johnsons in general, so his rendition of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" earns the skip button in my book. Finally, Sufjan Stevens (another artist who seems boring to me) allows his "Ring Them Bells" (a song I really like) to adopt an annoying sideshow-calliope effect at the end. Only three missteps on two busy discs of great songs made fresh.
->Jay-Z. "Roc Boys." The "American Gangster" album was good, though slightly uneven, so I'll give the nod to my favorite track from the record. The great soul sample--Jay Z calls it "black superhero music"--creates a 70s vibe. One of the happiest, catchiest hip hop tracks in a long while. Clevel lyrics allow Jay Z's famed "flow" ability to shine, but it's really all about the horns in that sample. Repetition. If you haven't heard this song, find it on youtube and enjoy!
->The Muldoons. Live Shows around Detroit. The most fun you'll have at a rock show in Detroit. Two pre-teen boys playing punk guitar while their dad drums (oh yeah, and he used to play in bands with Jack White and knows just about everybody in the Detroit scene). These kids are what live music is all about: sweating, doing Stooges covers, and trying out moves you've seen your favorite rockstars do. On the latter, the two young lads do windmills, slides...if their allowances were more generous, you get the sense they'd smash their axes at the ends of shows. I've said it before and I'll say it again: one of the great things about the Muldoons in concert is that you needn't feel like you have to front. Sure, there are young hipster types in the crowd, but the frontman's aunts and uncles are there too. So just go be yourself and enjoy great Detroit rock and roll.
Was 2007 the year of the musical? Enjoyable and odd films like "Hairspray" (camp at the megaplex) and "Once" (try a little indie tenderness) saw success. I haven't seen "Dewey Cox" or "Across the Universe" yet, but they both appear to offer fresh takes on the painfully familiar: the biopic genre and the Beatles legacy, respectively. And of course the brilliant "I'm Not There," a relentlessly strange personal essay about various versions of Bob Dylan. The only remotely negative thing I can say about "I'm Not There" is that Cate Blanchett's complete embodiment of Dylan in '65 is so good that it ends up overshadowing the rest of the film.
The greatest Year of the Musical artifact of all is Tim Burton's film version of "Sweeney Todd." For those not in the know, Sweeney Todd tells the story of a wronged barber in Victorian London who kills his customers and sends the corpses downstairs where his landlady uses them to make meat pies for her cafe. I could write about the funny and dark brilliance of Sondheim's Sweeney songs. I could reminisce about my high school's production of Sweeney in which I was Beadle Bamford, played in the film by Timothy Spall, aka Peter Pettigrew from the Harry Potter films. I could say something about how Burton and Johnny Depp collaborate to create an entire universe every time they make a movie. Instead, let me say that Burton's version of Sweeney Todd looks at revenge and hate and blood and the dark corners of the soul.
Any adaptation of Sweeney must meditate on desperation, but Burton's version is decidedly light on the comic flourishes (not that Sacha Baron Cohen doesn't bring the funny as Perelli, not that a song like "A Little Priest"--about eating meat pies made of dead clergymen--has lost any of its humor) and heavy on gruesome murder. In a movie, you can get a much closer look at throats being slit than you can watching a play from a balcony. Burton includes a sequence in which we see one bloody killing after another. A musical montage like you've never seen--one in which each body falls to the basement with an unforgettable thud. The whole film is a dark, nihilistic vision. Absolutely beautiful. Johnny Depp famously used Keith Richards as a hallmark for his role in the Pirate movies. Here, he uses Johnny Rotten, looking around with a sneer and a set of bad teeth at a London whose poverty bores him. This is a musical for an era of pre-emptive war and senseless bloodshed and urban blight.
YEAR IN REVIEW
Jan: Tillie Olsen possessed an enormous amount of conviction.
Feb: Detroit: shiny, sleek, and metallic.
March: It's snowing again.
April: In this advanced writing course we will study how activists, community organizers, politicians, religious leaders, and everyday citizens use language to fight for social change. (This elicited a comment from someone selling bongs)
May: Okay, sometimes I'm a bit slow.
June: I've been reading the poet Tess Gallagher's memoir about her late husband Raymond Carver.
July: Growing up, I don't recall doing many patriotic things.
Aug: Talk about a well-deserved award.
Sept: Why does it bug me that the popular press is using words like "fallout" to describe responses to Appalachian State beating the University of Michigan?
Oct: I've probably blogged this thought seven or eight times before, but I'll say it again.
Nov: Wow, haven't blogged in a whole week.
Dec: i work at a diner
The other course--also an upper-level writing course--took a less public view of language production. We read several whole texts including Alice Sebold's memoir Lucky as well as shorter non-fiction pieces (Sarah Vowell, student work from previous terms) and used writing as a way to engage generatively with those texts. We kept writer's notebooks. We devoted class time to various "pre-writing" tasks and to open-ended discussions of course texts.
Common bonds between the two classes include revision (duh), rejection of the notion that "the essay" rules, (we used multiple genres), and production over consumption (problem- or purpose-driven writing instead of analysis for its own sake). There are some core things that stay constant.
But despite these commonalities and constants, the classes seem to come from different theoretical worlds. I realize that various courses I teach on a term-to-term basis have differences that go beyond just "approach." Sometimes I use blogs. Sometimes "Detroit" serves as a course theme and learning laboratory. Sometimes we read a lot of books. Sometimes we use a pretty traditional "writing workshop" model.
After ten years of teaching (many of those as a grad student--I'm young damn it) I realize that I'm still trying on different versions of process, different versions of student-centeredness, different versions of the whole performance of teaching.
Big Love. Nicole and I ran into a friend at a Christmas party two weeks ago who we hadn't seen since the same party last year. Good guy. We talked to him much of the night and he couldn't say enough good things about this series which centers on the domestic life of a polygamist and his three wives. We promptly netflix'd the first season and we've already seen five episodes. Like other acclaimed cable shows (Weeds, Sopranos), Big Love highlights the "criminal" and "eccentric" taking place in the most mundane of settings: suburbia. The drug dealing soccer mom. The mafioso who pulls out his hair raising teens, drives an SUV, and goes to therapy. Crime as quirk. Crime not as resistance to bourgeois life but rather as alternate route to success in that bourgois sphere. In Big Love, we gaze upon the upwardly mobile Bill Paxton as the same kind of every-suburbanite.
So the way Big Love tweaks suburban life (and the thin line between mainstream- and counter-culture) is nothing new. More interesting, though, is how the show presents the family's suburban life as a kind of pioneering. Viewers contrast the polygamist family at the heart of the narrative (their comfortable, consumerist lifestyle) with the cult-like encampment (their ascetic, "simple" lives) where the Paxton character and one of his wives grew up. Both lifestyles involve this pioneering ethos: masculine values, work ethic and bootstraps mythology, and westward expansion. The polygamist encampment literally cuts into the western landscape with cabins and tents. Likewise, images of the "Mountain West" loom behind the subdivision where Paxton lives. It's no coincidence that hunting has already figured into the show's plotline. Or that the show references Mormonism's history as a "pioneer" culture. Oh, and Big Love is outstanding, from the pitch-perfect setting to the outstanding performances, especially from Chloe Sevigny who shines as the manipulative, credit-card-loving "middle bride" with a pedigree. Highly recommended.
Biggest Loser. Love-hate relationship with this one. Very few reality shows appeal to me. I don't see them as a sign of the apocalypse or anything, they mostly just aren't my thermos of chai. But the whole weight-loss subgenre is interesting and I watched most of this season of Biggest Loser, wincing most of the way. Okay, I guess one reason I like the show is that I've been fat my whole life. So there's that. Cliche as the sentiment might be, it's good to see a show with men and women of size (and who aren't "funny fat"--see, for example, the usually-male protagonist of many a working-class sitcom). And in 2004, I lost 100 pounds, mainly because 1) I wanted to avoid the heart problems that run in my family, 2) Nicole and I had just gotten life insurance and I weighed enough to up the cost of our policy significantly, and 3) I saw/see the writing on the wall that medical coverage is becoming a privelege in this country and am convinced that there will be portions of my adult life during which I don't have access to medical care, thus a desire to avoid chronic health problems. So I've got an identification with the process of losing weight, too. (Full disclosure: I've gained about 20 pounds back in the last two years.)
And it's an enjoyable show: the human drama, the genuinely interesting contestants, the wacky trainers. Why the wincing? Mainly because "fatness" on the show is a tragedy. A colossal tragedy. It would be nice if just one contestant would say "I've got a rewarding professional life and have been fat my whole life." Or, God forbid, "I think I'm a physically attractive human being and need to lose weight for health reasons." No. Most contestants express little other than pain: I want to be good looking for the first time in my life, I'm embarrassed by my appearance, etc. I don't doubt the sincerity. I recognize that this trauma gives the show it's dramatic trajectory. I can even identify with the struggles (dealing with airplane seats and such). But why no balance? Why no ambivalence? Why no acknowledgment that fatness doesn't preclude professional and personal happiness?
The show wants to put itself on a pedestal when it comes to "good health" (and, by extension, good morals). Family values entertainment. The show that saves marriages and saves lives. How about the waterloading? A practice that involves a contestant who for a number of reasons is safe from getting voted off drinking a couple gallons of water before weigh-in to protect a vulnerable teammate from elimination. Some contestants found the practice to be a sneaky strategy. But nobody--including the trainers--mentioned the health risks such a practice poses. And on last night's finale, one of the "final four" contestants--a professional woman who frequently referred to her teaching career during the season--alluded to having moved to L.A. because she couldn't adjust to life "back home" after her experience on the show. Returning to real life (from the round-the-clock trainers and dieticians one lives with during the competition) seems to have led to a kind of withdrawal and/or depression. No mention of the students who greeted this woman at her welcome home party. No mention of how this abrupt move would impact her professional life.
The laboratory the show sets up isn't sustainable. In this contestant's case, the contrived setting seems to have led to unreasonable expectations (contestants routinely lose double digits of pounds each week). I keep saying "seems" because you never know how editing is constantly manipulating contestants' stories in order to create narratives of trauma, redeption, etc. And, of course, the weight loss itself is a competition, one that fails to account for different body types, compositions, and other factors. For instance, it's no coincidence that a woman has never won the show.
Okay, didn't intend to go on that long. A lot of critique from somebody who watched the show all season long. Like I said, the drama entertains, but, like other reality shows, Biggest Loser is a limited and limiting representation of a complex human situation that is too proud of its own good intentions to problematize itself. I'm reminded of that home make-over show (you know the one, it's got the spiky-haired dude serving as the hyperactive, almost manic host), which never contends with root causes of poverty or contextualizes, well, anything. Is there something wrong with a society in which a disabled Iraq war veteran can't afford to have a ramp put in front of his house? There's no time to ask such a question as the dude's crew turns home improvement into a Mountain Dew, extreme sports commercial. And if you ask such a question, you're not being part of the solution. Pick up a hammer and shut up. Biggest Loser serves a similar anti-activist, anti-critique function. Don't question the industries that profit from people hating their own bodies. Pick up a 100-calorie packet of crackers and shut up.
So I pause and do other things. Partly this clears the head. Partly this is procrastination, pure and simple. I pause the revision and make a list of things I need to do. Some of the things are things that will take fifteen minutes (uploading latest round of interviews with service learning students and e-mailing them to research assistant, registering for RSA). Some of the things will take up a healthy chunk of the break (prepare presentation for Campus Compact conference, assemble materials for tenure portfolio, write syllabi for winter term). The list has 29 items on it. Sheeeet!
December 15, The Muldoons at Donovan's
December 27, The Muldoons at St. Andrew's Hall
January 27, Supersuckers at the Magic Bag
February 16, The Dirtbombs at the Magic Stick
If I don't write them down here, I'll forget.
(x-listed in rhetoric of civic engagement)
From an e-mail sent to UM-Dearborn employees:
“I Heard It Through The Grape Vine” that Michael McDonald is “Takin’ It To The Streets” at Orchestra Hall in the Max M. Fisher Music Center on Tuesday December 11 at 8:00 pmWhich begs the question: Michael Mcdonald has an emsemble? I'll probably pass. Or, rather, I'll enjoy the "Sweet Freedom" of doing something else on the 11th, even if it means I'm "On My Own" that night. For instance, if there's a movie playing that looks good, "Yah Mo Be There."
U OF M DEARBORN FACULTY AND STAFF and their families and friends may purchase discount tickets.
Michael McDonald of Steely Dan and Doobie Brothers fame will bring his Blue-eyed soul to the Orchestra Hall stage for your holiday enjoyment. McDonald and his ensemble will perform many of his hits plus holiday favorites.
Regular Tickets Prices for this concert are $45.00 to $65.00
Me, I'd like to experience, just once, Yo La Tengo's annual eight-night Hanukkah celebration at Maxwell's in Hoboken. That's right, all eight nights, live and in person. Of course on any two given consecutive nights, Yo La Tengo offers setlists so surprising, spontaneous, and varied that they make the Grateful Dead look like Hannah Montana. I've seen the band cover Devo and Fleetwood Mac, segue from twenty-minute psychedelic jams to ninety-second punk anthems, and take audience requests that span the group's deep catalogue of originals.
But by all accounts, the Hannukah concerts showcase the band's most sublime sides. They wear costumes. They cook up theme sets (the other night they put together an homage to great Jewish punk songwriters). They bring along guests (Sun Ra! Fred Armisen! Marc Arm of Mudhoney fame!).
Sorry Tiger Woods, I'll pass on the eighteen holes in favor of eight crazy nights with Yo La Tengo. Maybe someday when I'm living a life of leisure (read: if I ever have a fall sabbatical and hence am not knee-keep in student papers come Hannukah time) I'll make it happen.
i work at a diner
i don't hate this job
i don't hate anything
i don't know my name
i look at them
they look at me
i heard about myself in a
bruce springsteen song
i am no one
i am faceless
i don't know what to do
i come here and then i go home
i feel so blank today
am i here?
do i exist?
i am turning to wood.