Sunday, May 31, 2009

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Not only is this maybe the greatest pop song ever recorded but it's the greatest pop song ever performed with a backing band of hand puppets.

You know, this is a tricky song to get into for the first time if you weren't already into it. It's on the radio all the time. It's always on in the supermarket. It's as ubiquitous as any pop song from the last forty years. It's an easy song to not get too excited about. I didn't get into it until last year (my 32nd year!) and I don't even remember what did it. I think I was just sitting around with my girlfriend one night when she put her old record on and...!!! I had one of those inexplicable pop music moments that happen every so often, the kind of truly profound, existentially deep moments that pop music may have even created...and it was like I heard "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" for the first time, as if Elton John were just some unknown 22 year old living in Brooklyn and this was a track off his first album. Except way, way better than that. In every possible way. This song is stupid good.

I'm not an audiophile and I don't think analogue is better than digital or anything like that but I do think one of the reasons why this song is so amazing is because it was recorded at a particular moment (1973) when analogue recording equipment was at its prime paired with one of the great 20th century pop stars also in his prime working with his longtime songwriter/collaborator Bernie Taupin, also in his prime. It's a rare and utterly pristine can listen to this song a hundred times in a row and not get tired of it. It's huge, it's majestic, it's interstellar.... That slow down-tempo just kills me. It's perfect! And the space in between the verses! And the drum fills! What!? I'm not even sure you could write and record a song this good today...I actually think this is like a once in a generation type pop song. I mean, look, not every generation sends astronauts to walk on the moon. So why would it be any different in pop music?

Bill Cosby's Sweaters

You probably already know this but Bill Cosby's sweaters are actually portholes into other dimensions. Yeah. If you stare into one long enough you will be transported far, far away (depending on which sweater he's wearing, obviously - each sweater leads to a different intergalactic dimension). Although, as a side-note (I feel like its my psuedo-journalistic duty as a blogger to warn you): One time, while I was staring into one of Bill Cosby's sweaters, I was transported, not to another dimension, but to my mothers bathroom! Fortunately, she wasn't in it. But what if she was?

In any case, here's a Bill Cosby sweater moment:

Also, The Cosby Show is NOT a documentary so, Ron, you owe me five dollars.

Happy travels!

Literature With a Capital "L"

About once a week during the late-eighties, while my mother was at the local mall (apparently intent on maxing out one credit card after another), she would drop me off at the local Powell's bookstore where I would spend three or four hours slowly perusing the bookstore aisles - reading a page here, a back cover there - familiarizing myself with the work of hundreds of different authors. This was back in those blissfully naive days before I had a concept of Literature with a capital "L," before I'd ever heard of the Literary canon, before I had any name recognition for such classic authors as Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald et. al. Quite honestly, this was at a point in my life when I thought Louis L'amour was the most important living author (don't tell anyone I said that - unless you're talking to Louis L'amour).

In those pre-Literary days I was particularly drawn to the work of (in no particular order): Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County), Herge (Tintin), Patrick F. McManus (outdoor humorist, author of such books as The Grasshopper Trap and They Shoot Canoes Don't They?), Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (co-authors of The Dragonlance Chrinicles), and Jeffery Archer (British author and former Conservative member of Parliament whose book As the Crow Flies was, at 800 pages, the longest novel I'd ever read - though, actually, come to think of it, it might still be the longest novel I've ever read...). But you know what? All of these book are really good. I would happily re-read any of them. They may not be thought of as Literary or whatever (I mean, Tintin, obviously has cultural cache) but who cares? They're awesome.

But, anyway, there was one author, one series, in particular, that I was drawn to above all others as I trolled through those Powell's bookstore aisles: Gar Wilson's Phoenix Force. (Actually, as it turns out, Gar Wilson doesn't exist, but was rather a pseudonym for a collection of authors: Robert Hoskins, Dan Marlowe, Thomas Ramirez, Paul Glen Neuman, Dan Streib, and Mike Linaker.) With titles like, "Korean Killground," "No Rules, No Referees," and, "The Fury Bombs," and covers that depicted crouched men firing small arms into the distance, what was there not to like?

Check it out:

These books are basically the literary equivalent of a 1980s Chuck Norris movie. Think Delta Force and Invasion U.S.A. (still probably two of the most violent movies I think I've ever seen, by the way). Phoenix Force was this small, elite, anti-terrorist unit that traveled around the world covertly killing bad guys, drug lords, hijackers, terrorists, etc. I half-thought these books would have made a comeback during the Bush-Cheney years but even given the post-9/11 political environment the Phoenix Force books (I hesitate to even call them novels) were still too ridiculous to bring up as reference points. But, when I was twelve or thirteen years old, I loved them. I read like forty of them, one after the other, like a middle-aged divorcee cruising through a stack of romance novels, just sitting around waiting for Bronchial cancer to kick in.

The reality is, more than the writing, I was really drawn to the covers. It was at that point in my life when I'd spend all my time day-dreaming about gun fights, violence,
explosions, hand-to-hand combat, torture, you name it. I was that little boy (but aren't most little boys like that?) and these covers were exactly what I wanted.

But everything changed when my mom sent me to a private school in eighth grade where books like Phoenix Force were, shall we say, totally looked down on. At school I started reading books like Catcher In the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Night. And I hated these books. I thought they were SO boring. Sure, there are prostitutes in Catcher..., a cold-blooded hanging in Mockingbird..., a shocking murder in Mice..., and Nazis in Night, but when you're used to your protagonist mowing down a roomful of masked Colombian drug-lords with an Uzi (in the first scene), the reading experience just isn't the same.

Seriously, though...if you were a 13 year old boy which book would you rather read?

It took me a couple years to get into capital "L" Literature. It wasn't until my sophomore year in high school when we read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Sun Also Rises (and then a year or two later when we read Death of a Salesman and Denis Johnson's Jesus Son) when I started tuning into "serious" literature. I have to credit my sophomore English teacher for turning me towards Literature and away from supermarket reading (this is the same English teacher, by the way, who one day told me that Jeffrey Archer was vacation reading for old women and who, incidentally, was charged with statutory rape years later, causing him to flee to his native Ireland, never having cleared his name...but I digress). I wonder what would have happened if I kept reading those violent action/adventure books and was never introduced to "real" writing? Would I still be a writer today? What kind of writer would I be? Would I be dead? Would I have joined the armed forces?

The Great Pacific Northwest

I really enjoyed this recent piece in the New York Review of Books, a dual review of Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy and Jon Raymond's collection of short stories Livability:

Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy is, of course, the recent indie film shot and based in and around Portland, Oregon and Raymond is an author (and co-screenwriter of the film) whose short story the film was based on.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest I always felt divorced from culture. And when I say culture I mean great artists, great works of art. When I was younger I was all-too-aware that Oregon could claim no Nietzsche's, no Michelangelo's, no Proust's, no Mark Twain's, no Hemingway's as one of its own. It seemed to me that no one of cultural import ever came from the northwest and I think, for a time, I grew up suffering from a kind of regional/cultural inferiority complex.

Needless to say, I don't feel this way anymore. As Jonathan Raban points out in his NYRB article the pacific northwest is simply new to the cultural scene. Compared to the northeast, the northwest is still a teenager. Compared to Europe, we're barely out of the womb.

Great piece!

America's Bedtime Story

I'm glad Jay Leno is finally leaving The Tonight Show.

That was a long seventeen years. People talk about George W. Bush's eight years in office as being bad for the country; that's obvious. But no one really talks about Leno's seventeen years on the Tonight Show and its negative effects. Leno's Tonight Show (compared to Carson's) was a cultural lowest common denominator. The jokes were almost always bad, the level of discourse almost always low. Leno's a stand-up routine guy, not an interviewer. I can't think of one celebrity interview he did that was at all compelling. Not one.

If The Tonight Show is in fact "America's bedtime story" which I think you could make a compelling argument for (although probably now less than ever) you want someone highly qualified to fill the post. I mean, we're talking about viewing audiences of 10-15 million people a night. That's a far larger audience than most politicians ever get, let alone on a nightly basis. And if you think about those kinds of numbers over a 15-20 year period, it's not so crazy to suggest that the man chosen to be The Tonight Show host must inevitably, on some level (however small and/or subconscious) effect the mood of the general TV-watching American public. Which makes the pick of Letterman over Leno to replace Carson all the more baffling and unfortunate.

Leno had his farewell show with his final guest (and successor) Conan O' Brien this past Friday night:

After watching Leno's last show I had to youtube Carson's final show just to do a one-on-one comparison (not fair to Leno, I know, but...):

I still remember Johnny Carson's last show like it was yesterday. I cried. It's hard to believe that was 1992, hard to believe that Carson's Tonight Show overlapped with the '90s. He was the best.

Here's Carson's final T.V. appearance, a surprise guest appearance on Letterman's new CBS show (how cool is this?):

And for fun, take a look at this, one generation prior:

Rather than trying to recap Carson's career and legacy, here's his NYT obituary (incidentally, the longest obit I've ever seen - an obit that will, I believe, only be surpassed in length by Bob Dylan's, that is, assuming the NYT outlives Dylan which, as of today, is not at all a sure thing, but I digress...):

There was a really interesting piece on Conan in last week's NYT magazine that tries to explain the process by which a Tonight Show host is chosen. I can't say I understand it. It seems comparable to the electoral college: highly political, involving numerous trips to the midwest, lots of hand-shaking, hot dog-eating. The article suggests this is why Leno was chosen over Letterman as Carson's replacement: Leno was more amenable to playing ball re: Late night politics whereas Letterman preferred to stay at home (I'd say things worked out okay for Letterman).

(On side note: What's Craig Kilborn's story? Where did he come from and (more importantly) where did he go? What happened? I thought he was pretty funny in a highly contemptuous, tall-guy sort of way. I thought for a minute there that he was seriously in the late night mix...Anyone? What happened to Kilborn?)

Anyway, will Conan return The Tonight Show to its pan-American Carson-era glory days? Will Andy Richter rejoin the show? Are we preparing to enter a 30-year Conan O'Brien Era? Will I be 63 when Conan passes the torch to the next late night host? Will TV even exist in 30 years? Will anyone besides my girlfriend or mother read what I'm writing right now? I have no idea. But what I do know is that it should be interesting to see how Conan adjusts his game for the earlier, larger Tonight Show audience and how this effects the new Conan vs. Letterman scheduling match-up. Should be good.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Richard Ford and the Aquarian Writer

Several years ago my friend Stuart decided to read Richard Ford's The Sportswriter on a whim. His whim was that he and Ford share the same birthday, February 16th (my birthday happens to be the next day). Stuart (himself a writer) thought that he might enjoy the writing since he a Ford are both Aquarians. Anyway, Stuart loved the book, thought it was hilarious, and immediately read through Ford's trilogy The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land telling me whenever possible that I should read them too, that I would love them. He was right. I was never able to get into John Updike's Rabbit series or even Philip Roth's Zuckerman series. I tried. I love the idea of a literary serial with a single protagonist whom you grow with, watch change. But, honest to god, I never found Updike's prose captivating in any way. Am I missing something? And Roth...well...I don't know. I should be into Philip Roth. I mean, on paper, it would just seem to make sense: Dark, humorous Jewish author seeks same in reader. Portnoy's Complaint is hilarious no doubt but that's the only novel of his I could finish. You know, I think it's one thing to spend an hour an a half with a neurotic Woody Allen character or a half hour with Larry David, but to spend, what, a dozen hours or more with one of Roth's characters who tend to be a hundred times less likable or accessible than the former? No thanks.

In any case, it was a great relief to find in Ford's Frank Bascombe a serial character that I could really get into. I wonder though - how much does the fact that Ford and I are both Aquarians have to do with me liking/sympathizing his writing? Has anyone ever done an astrological literary study? I can't imagine a study like that would ever be taken too seriously in the academy but who cares? This is a blog, not the University.

Here's a completely unofficial list of Aquarian authors listed in order of birth with a note next to each re: whether I've read them and if I liked them (this is what passes for a scientific study here at Down Around The Sun:

James Joyce, Feb. 2: Vastly overrated. I mean, I understand his historical significance, his innovations within Modern Literature, etc. but I never, never, NEVER think to myself, "Gosh, I really feel like reading some James Joyce right now." Never. And I honestly think that should be relavent criteria for whether or not an author's work is good or attractive rather than just historically significant.

Gertrude Stein, Feb. 3: Now here's a modern experimentalist I can get behind. She's fantastic. There should be more of Gertrude Stein's work plastered around public spaces: on buses, park benches, sky writing, on the ceiling at the dentist's office, you name it, name it, you name it, name it, don't name it, you name it, don't name it, you name it.

J.M. Coetzee, Feb. 5: The best Aquarian writer, in my opinion. Several years ago on my previous stint living in Portland I was single, I was teaching and I had a really stripped down life. I spent my evenings lying in bed doing one of three things: Looking through L.L. Bean catalogs, watching all of David Cronenberg's films and reading all of J.M. Coetzee's books (this is an unbelievably fantastic threesome by the way, I strongly recommend it to the twenty-something bachelor on the verge of depression). Anywho, is there a better contemporary writer than Coetzee? I don't think there is. In my mind he's the Michael Jordan of his generation. He took the torch of "best writer of his generation" from Beckett (whom he wrote his doctoral thesis on) and expanded on Beckett's reductionist vocabulary in the most compelling, intelligent way. His stretch of work from '99-'07: Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello, Slow Man, and Diary of a Bad Year is, I think, unparalleled by any contemporary writer. In fact, can you think of a writer with a better eight year stretch of four novels? When I first read Disgrace I thought it was the best, most engaging novel I'd read since Lolita for the first time. But when I read Elizabeth Costello for the second (and then a third time) I realized that's his best book, and maybe the best novel written in my lifetime (it deserves a post of its own). All I have to say is: what will he do next?

Charles Dickens
, Feb. 7: Never read him.

Jules Verne, Feb. 8: Ditto.

Abraham Lincoln
, Feb 12: Not a literary author, obviously, but one of the most important writers in the American canon (of course, who knows how much of his speeches and proclaimations were written by Lincoln himself and how much was written by speechwriters, associates, etc. but for the sake of argument...).

Charles Darwin, Feb 12: Terribel writer. So terribel I'm going to leave in the mispelling of the word "terribel". When is someone going to prove Darwin wrong? It's only a matter of time. I'm really looking forward to it. Marilynne Robinson's essay "Darwinism" from her collection The Death of Adam is a good start. It's a difficult piece but it carves out a space in which an intelligent, "scientific" thinker can oppose Darwin without being thought of as merely a "creationist". I guarantee you, the second Darwin's theories become obsolete no one's ever going to take him seriously again. Ever. He's like that college boyfriend/girlfriend you were with for a couple years who you were convinced you were going to spend the rest of your life with, but then one day woke up and realized you don't even have that much in common.

Paris Hilton, Feb. 17: Has she written a book yet? I don't know. I just wanted to advertise the fact she and I have the same birthday and I happen to think that's f*cking awesome.

Michael Jordan, Feb. 17: Yes, I share the same birthday with Paris Hilton and Michael Jordan. Can anyone beat that?

Virginia Woolf, Jan. 25: I like Virginia Woolf. I like how kooky she was. Her suicide is kind of undeniably hardcore. I like her novels. I think A Room of One's Own, in particular, is an elegant statement that, I think, will continue to speak to readers for a long, long time to come.

How's that for a scientific study? Not bad, right? Who have I missed? Help me with the list.

To end on Richard's a great piece he wrote for the New York Times for their Writers on Writing series in which he describes his writing process and the importance of not writing:


The Brothers Solomon

I feel pretty comfortable saying this is the best stupid comedy I've ever seen. Also, it's the best film ever made about Donor Insemination (and I think I might be the first person to ever say that).

The trailer doesn't do it justice. This is a special movie. It's very dark, very smart and super well-shot. Starring Will Arnett and Will Forte (with Kristin Wiig), written by Will Forte, directed by Bob Odenkirk.

Monopoly of Power

I can think of six highly violent incidences that occurred on U.S. soil in my lifetime. It's hard to forget any of these, not just because of how violent and out-of-the-ordinary each one was, but because of the immense television coverage surrounding each.

In chronological order (with related wikipedia links):

1. Ruby Ridge, 1992:

2. WTC bombing, Feb. 26th 1993:

3. Waco, TX Feb. 28th, 1993:

4. OKC bombing, 1995:
(and the subsequent lethal injection of Timothy McVeigh: /wiki/Execution_of_Timothy_McVeigh)

5. North Hollywood Shootout, 1997:

And of course:

6. Sept. 11th, 2001:

That's a nine year span of extremely violent attacks/confrontations on U.S. soil. Excluding the 9/11 attacks, of course, I wonder if that's a fairly "normal" amount of domestic violence. Like, for instance, what were the nine years like from 1983-1992? I cant think of the U.S. invasions of Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989), the TWA hijacking of flight 847 (1985) and Pan Am Flight 103 (1988) exploding over Scotland but none of those events took place on American soil and the hijacking and bombing only peripherally involved Americans.

I can't really think of any comparable domestic acts of violence of that scale in the 1980's but I'm sure there has to be some. Am I totally blanking out here? Can you think of any? (I just remembered the Reagan assassination attempt in 1981: And if 1992-2001 was, in fact, an abnormally violent nine year span, I wonder if any economists have looked to see if there's a correlation between violent outbursts such as these and economic downturns like the one we're currently experiencing? Like, maybe, historically, every time there's an extremely violent ten year period it's followed within several years by some kind of recession. I don't know. Just a thought.

In any case, I always found these moments of violence extremely interesting. How could you not? I've come to think of them as little glimpses into our, at bottom, barbaric nature and how civilization and our civilized tendencies have largely, and successfully, contained (or repressed, depending on how you look at it) those tendencies. And, I wonder: if you live in a relatively peaceful society does that mean your society is A) peaceful by nature and thus not prone to violent outbursts or does it mean your society is B) the MOST violent and therefore the most successful at repressing and containing its own outburst of violence? I would have to say the U.S. is more B than A (though I bet the reality is all cultures are a mix of both).

What do you think?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

L.L. Bean or The Aesthetics of the Afterlife

I happen to think L.L. Bean makes the best catalogs. I could never quite figure out why until recently. Their photos look like stills from a Sci-Fi/Utopian/Afterlife movie, like a cross-between Total Recall, eXistenZ, and The other words, L.L. Bean's look is contemporary Christian afterlife. Whatever it is, I find it strangely captivating. For one thing, their choice of models is blatantly more wholesome and down-to-earth than say a J. Crew or (obviously) an Ambercrombie & Fitch catalog; not to mention the fact that it's strangely exhilarating to see beautiful women dressed in such blatantly non-sexualized clothing. Considering the culture is inundated with images of women in lascivious clothing bent in the most revealing positions, I find this look...fresh. I'm not saying I like it or that I prefer it, I just mean to say that it's a less common look at this point.

Have a seat...forever.

Grizzly Adams

This is the best boring TV show ever. I used to watch the re-runs on Sunday afternoons in the mid-eighties. I'd lie on the couch, a blanket pulled up over my legs. I don't remember ever making it through an episode without falling asleep. That's kind of incredible when you think about it. This show had a 100% narcotic effect on me.

Check out the intro, complete with back story and John Denver-esque folk theme song:

Anyway, I'm all for a film adaptation of this show. If I'm a studio producer, I'm green-lighting this project last year. I'd maybe want Spike Jonze to direct. I'd cast Russell Crowe as the lead. I think. Or is he too old for the part? I guess it depends on how you want to play it. He'd be the slightly older lead option. If you wanted to go younger you could go with...oh, I know...SETH ROGAN!!! That's totally it. You get Seth Rogan to play this benevolent outcast, surround him with the best in CGI forest animals, Sir Anthony Hopkins as the weird old Mountain Coot, write in some saucy love interest (like, you could have a young Hollywood starlette (played by...why not?...Lindsay Lohan) who's had enough of the rat race and runs away from it all but, of course, is followed by her evil agent, her drug dealer, her eighteen suitors...) and BANG! You've got yourself a really bizarre movie.

Are you with me?

The Hitler/Chaplin Mustache

How many years before this mustache comes back into style (and I mean really back into style, like we're talking en vogue, fashionable...)?

I say we still could be fifty-plus years away. I'm serous. I may not see this mustache en vogue in my lifetime. you think it could it creep up and suddenly become the international haute-couture mustache of choice in the next five years? Discuss.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Nice Gait!

I have a theory.

When an attractive woman walks by and a man turns around to check her out from behind I don't think he's so much looking at her ass so much as he's checking out her gait. That's right. He's determining how sturdy and even and dependable her carriage is for - you guessed it - child bearing. (Wow! I totally just took it there.)

For those of you still reading...this is exactly what slave-owners did when sizing up a slave and determining whether he or she was worthy of purchase. Same goes for horses and work animals. I mean, I understand no guy thinks, "I'm going to check out her gait," or, "Nice carriage," but I just mean to say that there is a primitive, deep-seated biological imperative behind turning to observe a woman after she's just passed by on the street. (Okay, I immediately concede that my girlfriend and most of my female friends won't ever take me seriously again but...I'm taking this one for the blog).

Second Greatest T.V. Theme Song Ever...

(...the first being the theme from 60 Minutes, of course.)

Did I totally rip-off my blog name from this show? You bet I did.

Painting by Alex Grey


Pythagorean Initiation Rites

Catchy title, huh? Now that I've got your attention...

Pythagoras has got to be one of the most interesting people from history. And by "interesting" I mean completely crazy. A few months ago I was doing some research into the history of reincarnation - where it comes from, who believed/believes in it, etc. - and I found this great book, "To Think Like God, Pythagoras and Parmenides, The Origins of Philosophy" by Arnold Hermann:

I found a passage about Pythagorean initiation rites that blew me away. The exclamation points in parenthesis are mine. Check it out:

"The examination began with a background check of the petitioner; inquiries were made into his personal life and the state of his relationships (!) with family, friends, and so forth. Then the person's behavior was scrutinized. Did he talk too much or laugh on the wrong occasions? How did he get along with other students? What, for example, made him happy or sad? Next followed a physical inspection, which included an evaluation of the shape and gait of the applicant's body(!), allegedly for assessing the state or habits of his soul. If a candidate passed these preliminaries, he graduated to the next phase, in which he was simply sent away for three years(!!) and utterly ignored. The idea was to test the person's resolve, that is, how strong was his desire to learn. However, unbeknownst to the aspirant, he remained under constant, if covert, observation (!!!) in an attempt to determine whether he craved status or recognition, instead of displaying scorn for such lowly impulses."

I love the image of a bunch of hooded pre-Christians tip-toeing through the forest spying on one another. This is totally a high-concept slapstick comedy waiting to be green-lighted. Somebody, get Ron Howard on the phone! (Did I just say that?)

But wait, there's more (again, the intrusive parenthetical remarks are mine):

"If a petitioner survived this phase, a greater trial still lay ahead: a five-year period of absolute silence (!!!) awaited those still determined to belong...A candidate who entered this phase had to turn over his belongings - money, properties, income (Scientology anyone?) - to the order, where it was held by trustees called (get this) "politicians," "economists," and, "legislators."(!!!!)...If the candidate survived the ordeal and was still found worthy to join, he was raised to the rank of esoteric and allowed to the inner circle. This meant that from that moment on, the associate was authorized to see the face of Pythagoras, who, so far, had only lectured from behind a curtain.(!!!!!!!)"

Wow. I don't know what to say. It's all so crazy and ridiculous and yet I feel like this describes exactly how elite American financial institutions conduct their hiring. Oh wait, America doesn't have any elite financial institutions anymore. Never mind.

In any case, the Pythagoreans kind of died out. I think their problem was that they believed anything that was at all pleasurable should be eliminated from life because they believed life itself was punishment for some atrocity committed in a previous existence. I don't totally get it but I love it. You can't make stuff like this up.

Didion On Cheney

Given that our former Vice-President has recently been making a push for most visible, most vocal Republican leader (with a forthcoming HBO mini-series about him) this seems like a good time to remind everyone about Joan Didion's excellent October 5, 2006 portrait of Dick Cheney published in The New York Review of Books:

It's the best portrait of Cheney's life and career that I've seen and what ultimately makes it so good is Didion's fairness. She doesn't take any cheap shots at him and refuses to demonize the man, instead approaching his life and rise in politics as the very classic American story it is.

Side note: I hate to sound morbid but...when I read this piece the first thought I had was, "God, that was really well done," followed by, "God, what's going to happen to American letters when Joan Didion dies?" I mean, who else comes even close to doing the kind of work that she's produced over the last several decades? Who are we left with? Harper's magazine? Frank Rich? Keith Olberman? As John McEnroe says, "You can not be serious!"

Didion's perspective strikes me as very unique and, finally, very reasonable, i.e. she never lets herself slip into that easy Liberal-Conservative divide where everything on one side is good and everything on the other side is bad that seems so frighteningly common today. She's the master of nuance, precisely the quality you want in your political writers. And, unfortunately, it's precisely the quality you can't teach. The woman has a gift for seeing all the angles.

Mt. Rushmore

Ferdinand The Bull

For those of who haven't seen Ferdinand the Bull recently (or for those of you who don't know the story) here's the famous 1938 Walt Disney short animation:

The Story of Ferdinand was written by Munro Leaf (great name) and illustrated by Robert Lawson, first published in 1936.

It's a classic story and still totally relevant today, about a good guy who doesn't care about fame or fortune and just wants to stay home and enjoy a little peace and quiet in the shade. Nothing wrong with that.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Best 20th Century Jewish Singer/Songwriters...

If you put a gun to my head and made me put together the Mt. Rushmore of 20th Century Jewish singer/songwriters my list would have to go something like this:

(The first three are no-brainers, not necessarily in this order)

1. Bob Dylan

2. Neil Diamond

3. Leonard Cohen

But this is where it gets tricky. It's either Billy Joel or Paul Simon at #4. I know there are a lot of Paul Simon partisans out there and not a lot of Billy Joel supporters for whatever reason (or for a variety of reasons) but I've thought about this a lot in the past few years and I'm going to have to go with Billy Joel. Paul Simon's important, obviously, but Billy Joel's had a far greater effect on my experience and I just think he's cooler. They're both shockingly short, tiny men and they're two of the best songwriters of the 20th century. I love both of them and if I was forced at gunpoint to rewrite this list tomorrow it might come out different. But for right now there's two deal-breaking factors: If both Joel and Simon were playing in Portland at the same time on the same night and I had to choose between one or the other I would, without a doubt, choose Billy Joel. I'd rather hear "Only the Good Die Young" live than almost any Paul Simon song and (as anyone who knows me knows) I'm drawn to Billy Joel's almost complete absence of coolness and his complete (and entirely hypocritical) exclusion from the contemporary rock canon (which, frankly, says more about the post-'60's rock cannon than it does about Billy Joel any day of the week...but that's another conversation entirely).


4. Billy Joel

And incidentally, the top three Jewish singer/songwriters of the 20th century also happen to be...the top three singer/songwriters of the 20th century (after #3 there's a big drop-off...sorry Billy).

And isn't it strange, on an entirely different note, that for everything people have to say positively or negatively about THE JEWISH PEOPLE as a whole and in the abstract that no one ever talks or thinks about the Jews as great bards...why is that? No, seriously, why is that?

Have You Seen This Woman?

My mom recently confided in my girlfriend that she was concerned for me as a child because, she thought, I had a crush on Angela Landsbury. First of all, Mom, I did not have a crush on Angela Landsbury and even if I did, so what? Her character on the show, Jessica Fletcher, is probably one of, if not, the most underrated private eye in the modern cannon. Here's a still of J.F. in action to prove it:

Come on, you can't tell me that's not awesome: A murder mystery serial about a murder mystery serial writer who solves actual murder mysteries. Thank you! A meta-narrative of the first order without any critical theory to totally ruin your day.

I used to watch Murder She Wrote every Sunday night immediately following 60 Minutes in what was in hindsight one of the great back-to-back television programming coups in history. First, you've got the classic 60 Minutes team of Morley Safer, Ed Bradley (who, incidentally, did a great piece on Michael Jordan which I recommend to everyone, that you can see here:

And here:

...a great reminder to anyone who might have forgotten how intelligent and special Jordan was or if you were actually in danger of believing Kobe Bryant is in the same class as him, but I digress).

Back to the 60 Minutes line-up: Mike Wallace (Chris Wallace's more level-headed father. On a side-side-note: How often does this happen when you have a father-son duo where the father is far cooler and more down to earth than his son? What has to happen for a son to become more stodgy and hard to be around than his dad? I wonder...). And of course the legendary (and still working) Andy Rooney. My theory why 60 Minutes is/was so successful (beside the fact that the show is staffed with intelligent people who perpetually find really compelling stories that the show's producers aren't compelled to turn into sensationalized fluff) is the really minimal, program design. It's brilliant. That black background with the large ticking clock (the best television theme song, hands down). Decade after decade it's relevant. It's never tacky or outdated. It's like a Beckett play. It's Time.

So after your dose of top-notch television journalism, you take a quick bathroom break (or in my case a five minute phone call from my grandparents) and then it's straight into Murder She Wrote and then bed time. Boom-boom-and-boom. Thank you very much.

Point of View

"That jewel of Earth was just hung up in the blackness of space."

-Charles M. Duke Jr., Astronaut, describing the view from the moon

Imagine what it's like to see Earth from afar, as an object in the distance. It's one thing to see the photographs which are amazing enough but to actually be there and feel its presence in the distance must be another thing entirely. I think this still must be THE perspective of the contemporary experience, as of 2009. The Human Genome Project is obviously incredible but it's not as breathtaking, it doesn't have quite the same dramatic effect.

Several years ago while I was in grad school in Los Angeles I got really into reading Astronaut's personal accounts of what it was like to leave the planet and to see it from afar. First of all, I was surprised by how little information there seems to be available for public consumption. I mean, I'm sure there are hundreds of hours of audio with these guys that they did with NASA and the military relaying their experiences of space but there's surprisingly few books and the interviews that are available mostly focus on their material experience: What was it like going to the bathroom in zero gravity? What was it like eating in zero gravity? What was it like changing your clothes in zero gravity, etc.

I was more curious about the astronaut's (for lack of a better word) spiritual experience. I mean, no human, no life form (as far as we know) had EVER left the planet, after all. You'd think there'd be the possibility of some real full-fledged Awe and Wonder mixed in with these men's experiences.

As it turns out there was.

To be cont...

Charles Duke is only one of twelve men to have walked on the surface of the moon.

Duke walking on the moon April, 1972.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Rise And Fall of The Guy Who Played Barry Lyndon

Ryan O'Neal's has got to be one of the more tragic stories floating around Hollywood these days. I only think of it because Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon is one of my favorite films and I was just talking about it with a friend yesterday. I mean, O'Neal was once one of the elite, A-list actors who could do anything, anytime and who has since let his career go entirely and who has , apparently, in the past few years, taken to snorting crystal meth with his son.

I think you know where I'm going with this.

O'Neal's rise and fall mirrors Lyndon's own rise and fall. Do you think Ryan O'Neal ever sits down, alone, on some random weekday morning and throws on Barry Lyndon for a quick viewing? Or maybe the better question is: How many times has Ryan O'Neal watched Barry Lyndon in the last 34 years? The answer's either somewhere around 1,500 or zero. It's got to be one or the other. But maybe an even better question is: Did Kubrick cast Ryan O'Neal in the first place because he recognized in O'Neal that very same hubris that took Barry Lyndon to such high heights and, finally, to such low lows? (Actually, I think we know the answer to that.) OR...did playing the role of Barry Lyndon send Ryan O'Neal further down the path of tragedy that he may have not gone down had he instead taken a different role?

Tangent: Casting is entirely underrated. There should be an Oscar for Best Casting even though I know this would never happen because there are too many people and too many factors that go into deciding who gets to play what role. But, actually...who cares? There should totally be an Oscar for Best Casting. It's the single most underrated task when putting a film together. It's easily just as important as having a good writer, good director, etc. Think about all the mediocre scripts or mediocre films that were saved by an awesome cast and vice versa.

Secret Society

I don't know if this is true but I heard there's a secret society of sensitive men founded by Alan Alda, John Denver, Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog. Word is they control half the banks in South America and have a controlling interest in the NHL, Whole Foods and J.Crew, not to mention sympathetic operatives in the Knesset, the British Labour Party, and the U.S. Senate. Their worldwide membership is unknown but it's estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. Supposedly they have their own Mt. Rushmore-style mountainside sculpture but that no non-members have ever seen it.

If you have any information about this organization or know someone who is a member please let me know. I don't want to get into details but it's urgent.