Previous month:
January 2010
Next month:
March 2010

what i watched last week

In the Loop. Imagine if the politicians in The West Wing didn’t actually give a shit about the people they represented. You might get a movie like In the Loop, which is also reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove, albeit not quite as psycho. The mid-level ministers and their staff, along with the occasional military man, spend half of their time trying to stay one step ahead of events by influencing them in the here and now, and the other half of their time covering their asses so they don’t get blamed for the events that have already happened on their watch. In this case, that means the U.S. will go to war in the Middle East, with the backing of the U.K. … but the only person who gets punished is a British minister who doesn’t want war, but says the wrong thing at the wrong time, setting events in motion that lead to war. Oh, and the movie is very funny. I watched it by myself, and I laughed out loud on several occasions, which sounds like faint praise but really, it isn’t. The film’s intelligence, which expects a smart audience to get the “joke,” ends up being a bit too low-key. But just when things get too subtle, Peter Capaldi lets loose with some of the most entertaining profanities since Al Swearengen retired from HBO. An Oscar nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay, and #199 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

i read the news today, oh boy

Gee, thanks:

President Barack Obama has signed a one-year extension of several provisions in the nation's main counterterrorism law, the Patriot Act.

Provisions in the measure would have expired on Sunday without Obama's signature Saturday.

The act, which was adopted in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, expands the government's ability to monitor Americans in the name of national security.

random friday, 1967 edition: the beatles, “all you need is love”

On June 25, 1967, just as the Summer of Love had begun, fourteen nations participated in the first-ever live international satellite telecast. Each nation was featured in their own segment, as the program, called Our World, worked its way around the globe. CBC out of Canada was there at the beginning, interviewing Marshall McLuhan before switching to New Jersey, then returning to Canada before moving to Japan and Australia. The CBC Digital Archives has this segment (

A reported 400 million people watched the program around the world. Featured artists included Maria Callas and Pablo Picasso. Participating countries were asked to present two items representative of their culture. One of England’s offerings was a report on the Scottish “new town” of Cumbernauld, where future talk-show host Craig Ferguson grew up (he was 5 years old at the time of Our World). The other British offering was the debut of a new song by The Beatles, “All You Need Is Love.”

Earlier in the month, the group had released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which met with instant acclaim as the best Beatles album ever / best album ever / best anything ever (Kenneth Tynan called it “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization,” which might be true except it’s not as good an album as A Hard Day’s Night). A few days before Our World, Paul had announced that he had taken LSD several times.

Beatlemania was still in full effect, despite the band’s giving up touring, which meant Callas and Picasso and Marshall McLuhan had to step aside: the big attraction of Our World was the Beatles playing their new song. I know my only memory of the event is watching the Beatles (I had just turned 14). Their performance was semi-live … they played over a pre-recorded track. In the audience were Mick and Keith and Marianne, Moonie and Clapton and Layla (she was still married to George). The entire program was in black & white, but the Beatles’ segment was later colorized.

According to documents released a few years ago under the Freedom of Information Act, not everyone in England was happy with the BBC’s choice of the Beatles as their representatives, with one viewer writing, “Have we nothing better to offer? Surely this isn't the image of what we are like. What a dreadful impression they must have given the rest of the world.”

“All You Need Is Love” has shown up in various places over the years. First, and in some ways best, was the lovely Beatles artifact, Yellow Submarine:

Elvis Costello trotted it out at another gigantic worldwide satellite blast:

The Rutles gave us “Love Life”:

Starbucks turned it into another worldwide video for charity:

Of course, now it’s been turned into a commercial for a cell phone:

And last, but not least, the Oprah Seal of Approval. Across the Universe was a 2007 film featuring 33 different Beatle songs. Cast members turned up on Oprah’s TV show to sing … you guessed it:

Me, I’ve always preferred this (PLAY REAL LOUD):

opening day tix

I’ve had season tickets to the Giants since before I started this blog, which means this will be my first season-ticketless blog year. But at least I can keep my Opening Day streak alive … I got tix today, reasonable location, reasonable price. This will be my 31st consecutive Opening Day.

craig ferguson goes retro

As was announced earlier in the week, last night Craig Ferguson did a show without an audience. His only guest was Stephen Fry, and the two of them talked for an hour. Fry was a good choice … Mark Evanier, who liked the show, disagreed, because Fry is largely unknown in America (the only reason Robin knew who he was is because he shows up occasionally on Bones), but Evanier also said “All I know is I enjoyed it.” I’d trust Ferguson’s audience to appreciate the choice of Fry, like Ferguson a foreigner who is both erudite and funny. My guess is this was done mostly to make Ferguson happy … it’s hard to distinguish reality from faux-reality here, given that part of Ferguson’s act on the show is that CBS doesn’t actually care what he does because the show is inexpensive and no one is watching, anyway … but I can certainly imagine Ferguson telling CBS “I want to do something different one night” and CBS saying “as long as it’s cheap, we don’t care.”

The conversation was pretty interesting, or at least it was this morning when I got around to watching it. Perhaps it would have felt different if I’d watched it live in the middle of the night. But it was the attempt that mattered, the idea that two funny guys could be intelligent without being ashamed of their smarts. And, of course, tonight Craig will be back to his odd monologues and skits featuring puppets and an adoring audience making lots of noise.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to me about last night’s show was the beginning, when Ferguson explained what was to come. He began by saying that he often thinks about what he does (late-night talk show), and that he had lately been particularly drawn to the topic because of all the Jay-Conan stuff. What really struck me, though, was the person he used as an example of what he was about to try: Tom Snyder. There was no audience on Snyder’s various shows (among other things, he was the first host of The Late Late Show), just Tom, blathering about what was on his mind during the opening segment, then inviting his guests to talk (I always enjoyed the punk rockers who would show up back when Tom was on NBC … they’d play a song or two, but then they’d sit with Tom and he’d treat them like any other guest who might actually have something to say, even if Tom himself was admittedly clueless about them). It was a good call by Ferguson, and as far as I am concerned, any reminder of Tom Snyder is welcomed.

Here’s last night’s open:

caprica and big love

Due to some faulty DVRness by yours truly, we didn’t get around to watching Caprica until last night, just before watching Big Love. I’m not sure how much “we” is left in either show … Robin still loves Big Love, and always did more than I did, while I’m rapidly tiring of it. Meanwhile, I suspect she thinks the jury is still out on Caprica, while it’s probably my second-favorite show that is currently on the air (behind the Ultimate Guilty Pleasure If You Believe in Them, Damages). I don’t think Caprica is as good yet as Dollhouse was at the end, but it’s not crappy like Dollhouse was at the beginning, either. For that matter, Caprica has a long way to go before it reaches Battlestar Galactica heights. But it already has what I’d call subtextual depth … there’s a standard, if complicated, basic narrative on top, under which you find examinations of identity, social construction, ethnicity, etc. For me, Big Love is all about the basic narrative … if there’s a subtext, I don’t find it interesting. (Damages has such a screwy, labyrinthine plot that there is no room for subtext, which is why its pleasures are of the guilty variety … it’s more fun than a barrel of Lost episodes, and happy to be that and nothing more.)

I’m thinking about this because I just read Annalee Newitz’s latest write-up on Caprica, titled “Is Caprica the Big Love Of Science Fiction?

Caprica's great experiment has been to wed the naturalist melodrama of nighttime soap opera with the posthuman preoccupations of contemporary science fiction. Which is why you have odd mashup plots featuring, for example, the mafia from another planet, and a dissolute rich family whose daughter turns into a cyborg. Ratings for Caprica so far have been low, so it's possible television audiences don't want to see Big Love in space. But frankly I don't care about that - TV audiences aren't always the best judges of what's good. The real question is: Can the genres of SF and nighttime soap be merged successfully? So far, Caprica has convinced me that the answer is a resounding yes. …

SF writer Karl Schroeder once explained that good science fiction has to be a combination of the familiar and unfamiliar: If you create a completely different world, like Caprica and its sister planets, then you need to have characters who are recognizable from our world. Or, if you are creating unrecognizable characters like the polygamous entrepreneurs in Big Love, you have to locate them in the mundane everyday of PTA meetings, work annoyances, and politics that we all recognize.

Combining Battlestar Galactica with Big Love to create Caprica may be a stroke of genius, but I fear it may be lost on a TV audience seeking "relatability" over all else.

what i watched last week

Paris, Texas. Kurt Cobain’s favorite movie places character actor Harry Dean Stanton in a leading role, and he makes the most of it by underplaying. There is some fine acting here, not least by 8-year-old Hunter Carson in his film debut. The movie looks lovely, and Ry Cooder’s soundtrack sounds like the best parts of his contribution to Performance. Sam Shepard’s dialogue is a perfect match for Stanton’s quiet excellence. In other words, this is a very good movie. But its virtues, which are aggressively low-key, make it both a nice antidote to the Michael Bay School of Filmmaking, and something I admired more than I loved. #313 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the Top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

District 9. Clearly Neill Blomkamp is influenced by Peter Jackson. I just didn’t expect that the influence would come from Jackson’s early splatter films. As the hero’s body started falling apart, I was reminded of Braindead/Dead Alive. It’s also pretty amazing that Sharlto Copley wasn’t an actor until this movie. District 9 is ambitious without losing its sense of humor (the Jackson influence again), and it succeeds on most of the levels it tries for. I don’t think the film is racist … it’s more misanthropic, humans in general pretty much suck in this movie. I’d probably feel differently if I were Nigerian. As is often the case with sci-fi, you have to close your mind to some parts … I don’t mind that the film is vague about some aspects of the backstory, but I’d still like to know exactly why the alien spaceship came to Earth in the first place, and why, if it was stranded for 20 years, Christopher and his son were able to get it working again so easily. But what the heck. 8/10.

random friday, 1966 edition: dusty and tina

Might as well break a rule and do two songs this week, since they showed up at the top of the shuffle, and since I think they match up in some interesting ways. The songs are “River Deep - Mountain High” by Ike & Tina Turner, and “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” by Dusty Springfield.

Springfield was born Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien … yes, her family was Irish Catholic. “Dusty” was a childhood nickname; “Springfield” came when Dusty joined a folk band who changed their name (and hers) to “The Springfields.” That was 1960, and she stuck with them until ‘63, reaching the Top Five of the U.K. charts on two occasions (and #20 in the States in 1962 with a version of “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”). Turner, meanwhile, was born a few months after Dusty, as Anna Mae Bullock … her name came from Ike. By 1966, both Springfield and Turner were established recording artists. Dusty already had five Top Five U.K. hits (and one in the U.S.), while Ike & Tina, not yet crossover artists, had made the Top 10 R&B charts six times, although when “Proud Mary” came along in 1971, it was their first real hit in 9 years.

In 1964, Springfield was deported from South Africa after playing a concert there before an integrated audience. The blue-eyed soul singer was also known as a champion of American soul music, creating a 1965 special, “The Sound of Motown,” for British television. While attending an Italian song festival in ‘65, she heard a song she liked and had English-language lyrics written for it. That version was “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.”

Meanwhile, Turner continued working hard in the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. Turner was reportedly a control freak in the studio (and elsewhere), and when Phil Spector signed them to his label, it was surely a case of takes-one-to-know-one. The story goes that Spector paid Ike five figures to stay out of the studio, agreeing to put the name “Ike & Tina Turner” on the label, as he prepared to record “River Deep – Mountain High,” which he hoped would be his greatest production. He piled on the Wall of Sound and demanded that Tina emote on top of the wall. Listening to it, you can hear her fighting to be heard, reaching beyond her range, until by the end her emotional power is almost frightening. Turner later said, “I must have sung that 500,000 times. I was drenched with sweat. I had to take my shirt off and stand there in my bra to sing.” It remains one of the greatest tracks ever recorded in the history of rock and roll. And it flopped, at least in the States.

Tina Turner’s subsequent story is well-known at this point, thanks to that movie. Springfield may join Turner in on-screen glory … rumors have persisted for several years that Kristin Chenoweth will play Dusty in a biopic, although she’s already a bit old to play Dusty in her 20s (she has the vocal chops, although I wouldn’t exactly say she’s blue-eyed soul).

What I find interesting about the juxtaposition of Tina and Dusty revolves around their relationship to rock and roll and r&b. Dusty Springfield was an Irish blonde bird from the 60s who epitomized blue-eyed soul. Tina Turner was an R&B screamer who connected with the rock audience in the 70s, opening with Ike for the Rolling Stones, turning up in the film version of Tommy, eventually performing famous duets with the likes of Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, and Elton John. Dusty Springfield never reached the raw heights of which Turner was capable … she didn’t try. Her specialty was something else, something cooler. And when she revived her career later in her life, it wasn’t with Mick or Rod or Elton, but with the Pet Shop Boys.

Also, Turner’s life for a long time seemed to be defined by others, by Ike, obviously, or by Phil Spector on her greatest record. When she blossomed on her own, she had a lot of ground to make up, but she also had an audience that loved to root for her. Springfield, by all accounts, tried to do things her way in her career. No one knows how hard that was for her; her biopic hasn’t yet muddied the “facts” of Dusty’s life. She was highly regarded during her peak, and Dusty in Memphis remains a classic and acclaimed album. But there were a lot of years between that and her revival, a revival that never had the cultural impact of Tina Turner’s reclaiming of the spotlight. Dusty Springfield was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, along with Bruce Springsteen and others, eight years after Ike & Tina made the Hall. She wasn’t present; ten days earlier, she had died of cancer.

kind of blue

There’s an interesting discussion going on in the comments section of Facebook. I don’t know how to link to such things, but the discussion starts with Charlie Bertsch’s review of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s new album. In it, he talks about the ways a jazz artist of the post-rock and roll era might have been able to “make it big.”

Within the context of that significantly reduced market share, the only way for a jazz artist to make it big was to produce music that satisfied both hardcore fans and casual listeners who might buy an album or two to stand in, metonymically, for the collection they didn’t have the time, money or inclination to assemble.

Now, I’m pretty sure that what really fascinates me about the subsequent discussion is that I’m out of my league. I know little about jazz beyond “I like this.” I am, in fact, just the kind of audience Charlie references above, someone who listens to jazz sparingly and mostly casually. My taste preferences are towards noise, so the “stand in” albums I might listen to aren’t necessarily the “easy” ones … like everyone my age, I know Time Out, but my favorite jazz guy when I was young was Pharoah Sanders. Still, I don’t have much time for the jazz avant-garde … when I once saw Cecil Taylor in concert, I couldn’t wait for him to get off stage so Sun Ra could play.

Charlie’s example of the kind of album which could “stand in” for all jazz is Kind of  Blue. It’s an excellent choice … it’s as popular as any jazz album ever made, it was cutting edge art, it was instantly great and its greatness has stood the test of time. It certainly is one of those “if you only had one jazz album, this should be it” kind of recordings. All of which perhaps explains its lofty status amongst hardcore fans. But casual listeners like it, too … as Charlie says, “it could be enjoyed by people who didn’t want to think too much about what they were hearing.” Kind of Blue is challenging, or it’s background music … it works as both, which opens it up for a large audience.

Where Charlie and I differ … well, I’m not even sure we differ, and even if we do, I’m far from sure I know what I’m talking about … is regarding the intent of the artist, in this case, Miles Davis. We agree that Kind of Blue is, to use Charlie’s word, “palatable” in ways other works are not. We agree that “palatability” is part of what makes the album so popular to this day … it rewards not only the hardcore fan but the casual one. But … and here I’ll quote not only the article, but Charlie’s comments, because they go together, and because it’s entirely possible I’m reading something into them that doesn’t exist, so best to let the reader judge for themselves:

[T]here’s no denying that Davis and his collaborators succeeded in recalibrating the virtuosity of hard bop so that it could be enjoyed by people who didn’t want to think too much about what they were hearing. … I do think its popularity and appeal to casual jazz fans are no accidents. … By slowing jazz back down after the hard bop years, he made it more palatable to those who were looking for a soundtrack rather than a primary focus.

Again, we agree that Kind of Blue can be enjoyed by more than just hardcore jazz fans. Where I disagree is about the intent of Davis in this particular case. What I read into Charlie’s comments is that Miles intended to cross over to those casual fans. He “succeeded” in creating something that “could be enjoyed by” casual fans … that success is “no accident” … Davis “made it more palatable.”

I’m inclined to think that it was an accident. I’d feel more certain about my opinion if I actually knew anything about the subject … this is definitely a discussion where I’m learning more than I’m offering. But I see Kind of Blue this way: Miles Davis has an idea for extending his experimentation with modality. He gets the right people together, they make Kind of Blue, it’s a trendsetter, and yes, it is popular and some people to this day use it as background music. But I doubt the notion of making music that was “more palatable” to casual fans ever crossed Davis’ mind at that time. As I said in the comments, “I can't think of many artists who seem less interested in making his work more palatable to an audience than Miles Davis.”

This is all trivial, I realize. I love to listen to Kind of Blue, as does Charlie, as do many people, both for “hardcore” and “casual” reasons. It is indeed a “palatable” work. It hardly matters whether Miles intended it to be that way.

A postscript. My favorite Miles Davis album is probably A Tribute to Jack Johnson. The fact that I have a favorite Miles Davis album is in itself odd, implying I know more than one of his albums … my background in jazz is far too limited for that to be true of many jazz artists. Anyway, Jack Johnson is anything but background music … no one could use it that way. It comes from Miles’ most fevered “electric” period. But for someone like me, it is also palatable. It’s closer to rock music than most of Miles’ electric period, at least the stuff I’m familiar with. It’s also more structured, to my ear, than Bitches Brew (although both are “constructed” rather than pure jam sessions). Background, no, palatable to a rock fan, yes. (Since I’ve already gone far afield of any possible expertise on my part, I’ll say that In a Silent Way might be the Kind of Blue of the electric period … you could almost use that one as background music.)

A second postscript. I should add that On the Corner from 1972, which I am less familiar with (Jack Johnson is the chronological end of my taste preferences here), was apparently created out of Davis’ desire to reach out to the young black audience. If that’s the case, then I’m wrong when I say that Davis was never interested in making music that was palatable to a larger audience.

i read the news today, oh boy

Dick Cheney:

I was a big supporter of waterboarding.

Jesse “The Body” Ventura:

It is torture. … It's drowning. It gives you the complete sensation that you are drowning. It is no good, because you -- I'll put it to you this way, you give me a water board, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders.

Scott Horton:

Section 2340A of the federal criminal code makes it an offense to torture or to conspire to torture. Violators are subject to jail terms or to death in appropriate cases, as where death results from the application of torture techniques. Prosecutors have argued that a criminal investigation into torture undertaken with the direction of the Bush White House would raise complex legal issues, and proof would be difficult. But what about cases in which an instigator openly and notoriously brags about his role in torture? Cheney told Jonathan Karl that he used his position within the National Security Council to advocate for the use of waterboarding and other torture techniques. Former CIA agent John Kiriakou and others have confirmed that when waterboarding was administered, it was only after receiving NSC clearance. Hence, Cheney was not speaking hypothetically but admitting his involvement in the process that led to decisions to waterboard in at least three cases.

What prosecutor can look away when a perpetrator mocks the law itself and revels in his role in violating it? Such cases cry out for prosecution. Dick Cheney wants to be prosecuted. And prosecutors should give him what he wants.

Eric Holder, January 2009:

President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee for attorney general said unequivocally Thursday that waterboarding is torture, and he vowed to initiate an extensive and immediate “damage assessment” to fix fundamental problems within the Justice Department that he said were caused by the Bush administration.

Andrew Sullivan:

To have subjected an individual to waterboarding once is torture under US and international law. To subject someone to it 183 times is so categorically torture is it almost absurd to even write this sentence. …

So the former vice-president has just confessed to a war crime. I repeat: the former vice-president has just confessed to a war crime.

Glenn Greenwald:

In general, people who commit felonies avoid publicly confessing to having done so, and they especially avoid mocking the authorities who fail to act. One thing Dick Cheney is not is stupid, and yet he's doing exactly that.  Indeed, he's gradually escalated his boasting about having done so throughout the year.  Why?  Because he knows there will never be any repercussions, that he will never be prosecuted no matter how blatantly he admits to these serious crimes.  He's taunting the Obama administration and the DOJ:  not only will I not hide or apologize, but I will proudly tout and defend my role in these crimes, because I know you will do absolutely nothing about it, even though the Attorney General and the President themselves said that the act to which I'm confessing is a felony.  Does anyone doubt that Cheney's assessment is right?  And isn't that, rather obviously, a monumental indictment of most everything?