Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: May 4th

It seems like every year, there's one Tuesday where a ton of albums I really want are released. I think last year, it was early in March. This year, it's May 4th.

The first album coming out that day is the new record by the New Pornographers, "Together." They released the first single, which you can download here. It's a little different from their other stuff--the beginning in particular has a strange staccato feel--but I'm really excited to hear the rest of the album when it comes out.

And the second album? The Hold Steady's new "Heaven is Whenever," an album Craig Finn says is about "embracing suffering and finding reward in our everyday lives." The title of the album reminds me of a line in Colum McCann's "Let the Great World Spin," where a character whose brother thinks he's on heroin says, "All respects to heaven, I like it here."

I've only heard one song (in this video), and the sound quality isn't great, but the clip starts with "She said, 'Heaven isn't happening,' she played 'Heaven is a Truck." I'm really looking forward to seeing them tour for this album. They're coming to Pennsylvania twice!

So those are my two big albums that day (although I wouldn't be surprised if the new Arcade Fire album was coming out the same day.) Who wants to drive to Jermyn, PA to see the Hold Steady show in April?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: The Times They Are A-Changin'

On February 9th, the White House held a concert, "A Celebration of Music From the Civil Rights Era," to celebrate Black History Month and the music, across lines of race and genre, that called for social justice and equality in the 1960s. I unfortunately missed the broadcast of the concert on PBS and NPR, but I have tracked down some clips and I wanted to share them. The concert featured a large number of artists singing the songs of the Civil Rights movement, from Smokey Robinson to Joan Baez, The Blind Boys of Alabama to Bob Dylan.

Obama opened the concert with a short speech about the power of song and its importance during the most difficult of times: “It’s hard to sing in times like that, but times like that are precisely when the power of song is most potent. Above the din of hatred; amidst the deafening silence of inaction; the hymns of the civil rights movement helped carry the cause of a people and advance the ideals of a nation.”

So here are a few clips. The first one is Bob Dylan singing "The Times They Are A-Changin'":

And the second is Smokey Robinson singing "People Get Ready" with Jennifer Hudson:

That's all I've got for today. If anyone has a link to a full video of the concert, please let me know.

Also, if you're interested, there's a really great essay over on The Root about why Bob Dylan is so important to the civil rights movement. It's a great read, whether you're a Bob Dylan fan or not.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Fiction Mondays: The Truth in Fiction

When I'm writing, I sometimes think about the kinds of stories people wrote in undergraduate creative writing classes, the kinds that were autobiography so thinly veiled that it was difficult to think of them as "fiction." And I started thinking about what elements from real-life work their way into my stories, and I figured out something important about how I work: I am a thief and an arranger. I imagine that all of the anecdotes, all of the little bits of dialogue I pick up, end up on some shelf in my brain (or, if I'm being very organized about it, in my notebook). And all of these pieces, all of these discrete parts taken from friends, from family, from coworkers, from strangers, are each true in their own way. Even if I forget the details, or intentionally alter them later, each of them has some intentionally true piece in it.

An example: one of my favorite stories I've written featured an arson at a comic book shop. Now, my town has had a lot of arson, but never a comic book shop. So writing about it is a combination of memory and imagination, taking the meaningful images I've actually witnessed and trying to figure out what that street would look like as a comic shop smoldered (the half-burnt comic pages, the broken windows). But the reasons for the arson, the desperation that leads to someone destroying their business for the insurance money, are the truth. The story of the guy who lights the match because he thinks he'll improve his life is essentially true, even if it's made up. Or, for another story, the process may involve taking a story someone told me and changing the facts to fit a narrative shape and structure. The inspiration might be someone else's story, but I'm not interested in transcribing it. I want to find what's essential in that story, what it means and why they're telling it. I want the story underneath the story, even if it's wholly imagined after I've heard their version.

So when I say I'm a thief, I don't mean I literally steal. I'm not that German 17-year-old author who claims she's "mixing" instead of plagiarizing. I grab at things from real life, from newspaper articles, from overheard conversations. This is something all writers do, I think. The arranging, though, that's my favorite part. Finding strange overlaps and seeing if two disparate inspirations are really trying to tell a cohesive story. Working from something that happened years ago and utilizing a more recent real-life find to tie the story together. I love when several different inspirations influence the direction of a story, when a number of truths come together to form a really engaging and narratively cohesive lie. Or the details you pick up from day-to-day life become symbols in an entirely different story.

I'm really just rambling, here, because I'm working on a short story, and it's kind of strange how an idea comes back to life after it's been dormant for a very long time. Sometimes an event isn't clear, or the story you want to pull from the event is murky, until years after you've had that first idea. It can be such a long process, and I'm glad to be back in the middle of it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Friday Films: Filling in the Blanks

Since I got Netflix, I've been trying to fill in the blanks in my film education by watching classic movies, both foreign and American, that I have somehow managed to miss up until now. So far, there have been some misses ("Le Samourai" in particular), but on the whole, it's been a great project.

Last weekend, I watched Jean-Luc Godard's "Band of Outsiders," a movie that lends its name to a clothing company, Quentin Tarantino's production company, and an album by Nouvelle Vague. It's Godard at (I think) his best, a movie about would-be criminals undone by betrayal, featuring some romantic tension and a little bit of dancing. I really love "Breathless," and the movies seem to share the same DNA. The criminals are not very tough; in fact, they seem to be more inspired by movie gangsters than anything based in reality. It makes sense, considering the French New Wave's fascination with American film noir, that the characters who populate these movies would be similarly inspired.

The film revolves around two small-time crooks, Arthur and Franz, who decide to rob a man who lives in the same house as Odile (Anna Karina), who they meet in their English class. They plan the robbery, but of course everything goes wrong. The best scenes, though, have little to do with the heist itself. There's the run through the Louvre to break a record set by an American tourist, a "minute of silence," where Godard cuts the sound for a half a minute, and my favorite (which I mentioned earlier) the dance scene. I will not lie: I tried to learn the choreography in my living room. This scene was apparently a huge influence on the Travolta-Thurman dance scene in "Pulp Fiction":

One of the strangest things about "Band of Outsiders," for me at least, was the striking similarity between one of the characters, Arthur, and the lead singer of the Magnetic Fields, Stephin Merritt. They look like they could be related. It's kind of eerie.

Well, I will keep posting about my ongoing project to fill in the gaps, but for now, I want to share a really awesome project my friend Darren is trying to get together: over on his blog, he is asking everyone and anyone to send him birthday wishes for his grandmother, turning 80 this Valentine's Day. Send him a message for her!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: A Giant Collection of Decemberists Covers

I really love seeing the Decemberists perform live. Every time they play a show, you just know going into it that you're going to see something memorable, musically exciting, and more than a little weird. They're also a band that features a lot of covers in their live shows. Whether it's a Colin Meloy solo show, where he plays songs from his "Colin Meloy Sings..." albums (Morrisey, Sam Cooke) or the two-hour extravaganza on the "Hazards of Love" tour (when the band, along with their guest singers, did an over-the-top, belting-contest version of Heart's "Crazy on You"), they're incredibly talented at taking unexpected songs and making them their own. And now, you can hear all of them. Music blog You Ain't No Picasso has compiled a complete list, from "Wuthering Heights" to "The Sickbed of Cuchulainn" to "Go Your Own Way." So head over, check them out. You will not be disappointed.

And in non-music news: if you're in downtown Stroudsburg, head over to Starbucks to check out Allison Mosher's art show, which will be up through the end of the month. And if you're not in downtown Stroudsburg, get there. Check out the flier below for details!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Friday Films: I Really Hope "Avatar" Doesn't Sweep the Oscars

This week, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced the nominees for this year's Oscars. There were a few surprises, and one big twist: ten nominees in the "Best Picture" category. Now, before I share my opinions on this wide category (and the resulting four-hour ceremony), I want to say: I really hope "Avatar" does not sweep the nine categories it's nominated in.

I don't begrudge James Cameron for making his epic and his two billion dollars, not at all. I think technological innovation in movies provides a lot of space for directors to try new techniques, etc. But I don't want a future of bloated 3-D space epics. I don't want to see a rash of 3-D movies, where acting and story and characters are less important than rendering. Let those movies win visual effects, let them win every technical award. But don't let them win Best Picture.

As you may know, I read a book a few months ago called "Pictures at a Revolution," about the 1968 Academy Awards. What happened in the 60s was this: "The Sound of Music" made a lot of money and all of the studios rushed bloated musicals to theaters. "Paint Your Wagon." "Doctor Doolittle." And you know what these movies did? They bombed. They nearly bankrupted the studios. They broke the studio system, in place since the dawn of the film industry. And I don't think they learned a damned thing. If "Avatar" wins, we're going to see half a decade of utter shit, cranked out with the newest technologies and completely lacking anything resembling a soul. We're going to see young, educated viewers flocking away from Hollywood.

That said, some of the nominees do give me hope. "Up in the Air" was a really great movie about characters who I felt invested in, completely lacking in tech-wizardry (actually, a major theme was the danger of machines replacing human interaction) and with a great deal of relevance to the current economic crisis. "Up," nominated in both Best Animated Feature and Best Picture, was incredibly moving and engaging--a bold departure from the celebrity-voiced animated films that we've been seeing so much lately. But ten nominees is just too many. "The Blind Side"? I will quote author Colson Whitehead: "Is that one of those movies where a white person teaches a black person how to use a fork?"

Finally, I'm glad to see Kathryn Bigelow nominated for Best Director. In a year where all of the major book awards seemed to snub women, it's good to see a female nominated in such a typically male-dominated category. I haven't seen "The Hurt Locker" yet, but I've heard great things and it would be interesting to see her win some Oscars for it.

I'll be watching the ceremony, however long it stretches into the next day. The theme this year seems to be bloat: two hosts, twice the Best Picture nominees...If that's the narrative they've chosen to present (and let's not kid ourselves: what wins is determined by what kind of story Hollywood wants to tell about itself, whether it's "We Care About Poor People," "We Don't Support Proposition 8," or "We Feel Really Guilty About Never Giving an Award to Scorcese"), "Avatar" should have a great night.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: Some New Bands You Might Like

Sometimes when I listen to the radio, I feel a lot like a crotchety old man. I change the station whenever Passion Pit comes on, I don't really enjoy Beach House, and I pretty much swear at the radio when Vampire Weekend plays (Seriously, three different stations playing songs from their new record? Egregious!).

But I don't want to give the impression that I'm somehow opposed to new music. I love new music. There's nothing I like more than when a band I've never heard really impresses me on the radio, and I'd like to share some new bands that I have been liking lately.

1. Surfer Blood: Surf rock by way of Pavement? Yes, please. Definitely check out "Swim to Reach the End."

2. The XX: Not at all a typical pick for me, but "Heart Skipped a Beat" is really great. There's this great drum effect in the beginning that sounds like an irregular heartbeat and the rest of the song lives up to it.

3. The Antlers: I heard a song off of their album, "Hospice," called "Kettering" a few months back and was really struck by it. Of course, the first thing I thought of was Sloan-Kettering hospital, and it turns out the album is about losing a loved one to cancer. It's really powerful and I recommend checking them out.

That's all for today, but if there's anything else you think I should check out, feel free to leave a comment!