Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Films: Where the Wild Things Are

After waiting for a really long time for it to come out--there was some delay because apparently the monsters were testing as too scary for little kids--I was really excited to finally see Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic book. I actually started getting really impatient a week or two before it was released, because the commercials would get me so excited that I wanted to go out and see it immediately. I'm happy to say that I was not disappointed. I absolutely loved it. It was dark, and complex, and everything seemed real, especially the danger. When Max was being chased (it happens twice in the movie, but I won't spoil any more), I actually felt my heart beating. It was a movie that was going for real emotional connection, and I loved that about it.

It was also a beautiful movie--it looks surreal because it uses a lot of natural light to convey a strange world. It looks like either the beginning or the end of the day for a lot of it, with the sun a certain kind of orange-yellow coming in through the trees. The scene changes from forest to desert to mountains without any kind of transition, exactly the way a young kid would imagine his own world. And then there were, of course, the monsters.

They looked like nothing else I've seen, some perfect combination of the monsters from the book and Henson Creature Shop productions (which they were). At first it was distracting to have one with Tony Soprano's voice, but for some reason it fit. I think because Tony Soprano was a complex monster anyway.

I don't want to go on and on, but I will say this--it isn't a kids' movie. It's dark, and has some scary parts, (little kids in the theater were terrified), and it doesn't fit into anything remotely resembling a neat package or moral. Instead, it's a movie about being a kid--about imagination and the loneliness of being young and misunderstood--and it really resonated with me because of that.

Most movies aimed at kids are pandering (honestly, the previews were terrible, and not only because The Rock is trying to become Dwayne Johnson) and rely on making jokes about pop culture, instead of actually being a movie, and the fact that Where the Wild Things Are did not do this at all was what really made it, for me, not a kids' movie. But it's a bold statement of what a kids' movie can be, and what a young audience can handle.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: Pavement, Ten Years Later

I was driving home the other night, and Pavement's "Range Life" came on the radio. It's a great song, one of my favorites, but then the line, "Stone Temple Pilots are elegant bachelors" came on, and I thought, "Wow, this song just really dated itself." The Stone Temple Pilots broke up in 2003, which was four years after Pavement's last album. There's also a reference to a Walkman in that same song, which is of course, a device that played cassette tapes, which were...oh, you get where I'm going with this. Pavement has some reunion shows coming up, and what I'm wondering is: will they still be relevant?

I'd love them to be (although I didn't manage to get tickets to any of the four shows in Central Park), but still, I have to wonder: what generation will Malkmus, at 43 years old, be fighting? And is a leisure suit still nothing to be proud of in this early century? I don't mean to make fun of these songs--I really love "Harness Your Hopes" and "Cut Your Hair" and "Summer Babe"--but it is weird to think of a reunion after a ten-year hiatus.

But it's been done before, and it's not like the members of the band have been silent since Pavement broke up. Reissues, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, the Silver Jews--they've still been in the music business. I'm interested to hear how this reunion is, and whether they'll change any of the very-90s references in some of the song.

On the other hand, the Stone Temple Pilots apparently had a reunion tour this summer. I wonder if they're still elegant bachelors..

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Fiction Mondays: I Don't Want an E-Book Reader

So last week, Barnes and Noble released the Nook, their new e-reader, to compete with Amazon's Kindle, the Que, and the Alex. I have to say that despite some good ideas (particularly the ability to "lend" an e-book to someone else's e-reader), I'm still not sold on these things. Not in the slightest. Of course, some publishing people think that these are the hope of the industry, but I'm not really clear on who wants these. Students? That would make sense, to keep all of your textbooks on one...But what about book people? You know, like constant readers (and book buyers)?

I love the feel of a book, and the design that goes into it, and the discovery of something from the shelf. But none of that matters on an e-book reader. The user experience is limited--no matter what book you're reading, it looks like a PDF. I also have some problems with the bells and whistles on these things. Do you need two screens on a dedicated e-reader? Doesn't that make it even less of a book than it already was?

Maybe I'm just becoming a cranky old man, but I'd much rather see someone do something really interesting or innovative or high-quality with print. Something like...this, maybe?

Of course, the man behind the San Francisco Panorama is also the man who said this:

"Nothing has changed! The written word—the love of it and the power of the written word—it hasn’t changed. It’s a matter of fostering it, fertilizing it, not giving up on it, and having faith. Don’t get down. If you ever have any doubt, e-mail me, and I will buck you up and prove to you that you’re wrong."

And that's the corner I'm standing in.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: To Be a Rock, and Not to Roll

I guess this week's Monday and Wednesday posts are kind of interchangeable, as they both revolve around the story I mentioned Monday. I've gotten back into the story, and I feel like there's a lot of crisis in this disc jockey's life--the fear of being replaced by Clear Channel's machines, wondering whether a station format change will make him obsolete--and I think the real trick is going to be why being forced to play Led Zeppelin becomes the crisis that embodies all of this.

But here's the thing: to make it work, I need to find a Led Zeppelin song (or songs) that a guy whose taste tends toward the Modern Lovers and Velvet Underground would actually like. Nothing too well-known, I don't think--I mean, I'm running through songs in my head, and I might go with the ones I kind of like, "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Houses of the Holy." Maybe "Going to California"? What I'm saying is this: my knowledge of Zeppelin is pretty limited, and I would love to hear some suggestions.

Some quick Wikipedia-ing has turned up some interesting facts about Led Zeppelin, and I feel like my character in this story would love the fact that they wanted their fourth album to stand alone, without any indication that it's a Zeppelin album. This kind of belief in the strength of the music is something that the DJ character in this story would find really admirable. Maybe my answer is in there. I also decided, as I started writing this story, that the character is 32 years old, only to find out later that John Bonham was 32 when he died. Not something I'm planning on using in the story, but an interesting side-note.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Fiction Mondays: I'm in Love With the Radio On

Remember last week, when I said I wasn't spending enough time with my fiction because of graduate applications and work? Well, I kept thinking about it, and I realized that I didn't have any new ideas for short stories. I had old ideas that never really took off--they're all over my hard drive, a collection of titles that I have to remember what they were supposed to be. But there was nothing rattling around half-formed, waiting for me to put it down on paper. And then, since it's almost Halloween, one of those stories lying dead on my computer suddenly came back to life.

Here is what happened: I was driving yesterday, listening to Bob Dylan's "Theme Time Radio Hour," and the theme was radio. I don't know if you listen to that program, but it's pretty much an hour of Bob Dylan playing whatever he wants, loosely assembled around a theme. The themes can range from gambling to colors to musical instruments. And Bob Dylan has a hell of a record collection. So last night, one of the songs Bob Dylan played was Jonathan Richman's Roadrunner. And I remembered a story idea I had a long time ago, about a radio DJ who hates Led Zeppelin.

It was strange, but while that song was playing, I started imagining a disc jockey starting his set with that--it would be appropriate, wouldn't it? With lyrics like, "I'm in love with the radio," it would be a great anthem to start the set. And I imagined all of the people the song would go out to, the people starting their cars to go to work, the people listening in the kitchen while they're eating their breakfast, the people in the office turning it up (or down) as this new DJ starts his show. And then I started thinking about how that form of DJ is dying out (except on satellite and online), the guy who, as Tom Petty says, "plays whatever he wants to play." Now it's all Clear Channel and preprogrammed stuff. And I'd imagine if you got into radio because you really loved music, that would be a terrible, tragic thing, and you'd be really worried about what your future looks like. So now I'm ready to return to that story, because I think I can now do it right.

I wasn't looking for inspiration (I mean, I was, but not in an active kind of way), but suddenly seeing the story outside of the story, what's at stake, really pushed me to want to write. By not looking for inspiration, but always leaving myself open to it, I've discovered the heart of a story that I thought I'd never touch again.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Friday Films: Now You, Too, Can Ruin Classic Movies

Tired of Directv's stupid ads having the monopoly on ruining classic movie scenes?

Well, have I got a product for you.

Thanks to Yoostar, anyone with $170 dollars to spend on absolutely useless shit can ruin classic scenes from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Sabrina, and the Blues Brothers. Just hook it up, film yourself, and insert yourself into any of these movies (and more!). Just like the directors intended, I'm sure, when they made these films. Haven't you thought, so many times, "Well, Oscar-winner Tom Hanks was pretty good in Forrest Gump, but I could do better"? Now is your chance to prove it.

I actually came across an ad for this product at the Onion, so I really hoped it was a joke. I still really hope it's a joke. I hope it's some elaborate, misguided anti-piracy campaign. Like those commercials you sometimes see before a movie with a cell phone ruining a scene. Anything but this being a real product, aimed at some target audience that ostensibly likes movies (enough to buy a product that will let them be an a movie scene).

My biggest question is this: who the hell is responsible for this? I mean the whole thing, soup-to-nuts. Who is accountable? I want to know who the investors were who thought this was a product the market needs, the studio execs who signed off on the clips...everyone who had a hand in this. I know there's a ton of completely useless garbage out there, but come on...this one does terrible things to movies. Is nothing sacred?*

Now, if you're still holding that $170 dollars, wondering what you can do with it, here's a suggestion: send it to me. Believe me, you'll feel a lot better about feeding a writer for a month than you will about wasting it on Yoostar. And you won't be hurting movies. Hey, you know what? For $170, I'll even quote all of these scenes with you!**

*"Is nothing sacred" is a line from a scene in "Rushmore" that you will be able to insert yourself into using Yoostar. No, I'm just kidding. I think Wes Anderson has more integrity than that.

**Some restrictions may apply.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: New Daniel Johnston!

I don't know how I missed this, but...

New Daniel Johnston!

But that's not all: it's a new, polished and produced Daniel Johnston--an album where the production values match the grandeur in his mind. And speaking of his mind: one of my favorite old Daniel Johnston songs gets a new life on this album--"I Had Lost My Mind"!

I've only heard one track so far, "Freedom," and I'm happy to report that Daniel Johnston doesn't lose any of his best qualities by recording a clean, well-produced album. The song is still catchy, there's still a hint of mania in the voice, and I can't imagine that anything has been autotuned.

Hm, has anyone tried autotuning Daniel Johnston? That would be terrible.

But to return to my previous point: if anything, Daniel Johnston recording an album with an actual producer makes his music sound like it can finally match his ambitions. It's kind of strange to wonder what his earlier albums, recorded on cassette tape, would have sounded like. It's equally strange, given Johnston's life story and subject matter, to see that on the various music blogs reporting the new album, he's regarded as something of an elder statesman in independent music, a singer-songwriter who has passed through shifts in popular taste with his sound mostly unchanged.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Fiction Monday: Application Conundrum

As you may know, I'm currently applying for graduate school. I want to go for my MFA in Creative Writing, but I've noticed something strange about working on applications. I notice it every year, but this year I want to post about it. I was going to feature it as a line graph, but instead I'll just say it:

Between statements of purpose, online applications, and "biographical sketches," my time spent working on actual pieces of fiction has disappeared.

I'm sure this isn't a revelation, but it is frustrating. The way forward, toward a degree in writing fiction, is keeping me from doing any writing.

I think there's only one way to end this post, and here it is:

"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
'That's some catch, that catch-22,' he observed.
'It's the best there is,' Doc Daneeka agreed."

Friday, October 9, 2009

Friday Films: Movie Title Screens

I came across this really awesome website yesterday, featuring the title (and sometimes end-title) screen captures of movies from 1920-today. Some of them are just incredible, and are enough to make me want to see the movie. The one above is for an early film noir that I haven't seen, and a quick search tells me it's about a wrongfully-accused man searching for the real murderer. Of course, the classic opening title shots are all accounted for, including Citizen Kane and, well, everything Hitchcock ever made, but it's the ones I've never seen or heard of that are the biggest surprises.

It takes some really nerdy devotion to movies to assemble a collection like this website, and I love it. Title screens are very often the forgotten parts of movies, and it's good to see such a well-designed website attempting to collect and display them.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: Two Sufjans

At the end of the month, Sufjan Stevens will release his latest album, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, although "album" might not be the right word for it. It's a multimedia package, incorporating a super-8 video Sufjan shot, as well as his instrumental composition. Now, God knows I love Sufjan--I waited outside, overnight, in February to get tickets to his concert with the National Symphony Orchestra--but the new stuff he's tending to play lately makes me miss the incredible songs of his "Illinois," "Seven Swans," "Avalanche," and "Michigan" albums. So many of the tracks on those albums are insanely beautiful, tragic songs, but a lot of his recent stuff is kind of detached from that. It's...well, "glitchy" sounds wrong, but it does sound less expansive, and more influenced by his early electronic stuff. Which is just not my thing.

But I haven't heard the "Brooklyn-Queens Expressway" yet. I intend to listen to it, to give it as much of a chance as I give everything he does, but this review of the live performance does not make me feel hopeful. I wish the Sufjan of the breathtakingly beautiful "Majesty, Snowbird," a song I only heard once, at that show I waited all night for, would return. That would be something to get excited about.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Fiction Mondays: Assembling My Portfolio

Happy October! The fall means it's time for MFA applications, which means it's portfolio time. I am going through my stories, attempting to figure out which ones convey my skills and my narrative concerns (and strength of plot, character, and dialogue), and will fit into a 25 page limit (the number for about half of my applications, while the other half ask for 30). It's a long and tiring process, but it's still easier than the statement of purpose (maybe it's just me, but I find them really daunting to write).

No Rainy September update this week, because my brain is tired and I got waaay ahead of schedule this week. I'm sure this will correct itself in the very long third section of the book, but for now I'm just going to keep on going. But what's everyone else out there reading? I got my copy of Dave Eggers' "The Wild Things," and I'm really looking forward to diving in. Maybe I'll read it concurrently with "Gravity's Rainbow," so that my brain has a way to rest.

It's going to be a busy fall, but I will try my best to keep up with posting here. The updates might be a little shorter than usual, but will continue to be on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Tune in this Wednesday for a post on the cancellation of the Kanye West/Lady Gaga tour.

No, I'm just kidding. It will probably be an open letter to the Hold Steady to tour the East Coast, or something about Sufjan Stevens' weird Brooklyn-Queens Expressway album.