Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

"Now, the making of a good mixtape is a very subtle art. Many do's and don'ts. First of all, you're using someone else's poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing."
-High Fidelity

Talking about Crazy Heart last week really set me thinking about soundtracks, and what makes one really memorable or perfect for a movie. Like a mixtape, there's an art to it, and it goes beyond just picking good songs. Anyone can pick twelve good songs (okay, not anyone, but most people) and put them all into their movie, but at its best, the soundtrack should convey a time and a place, a mood, the mental state of the characters involved. It can be used ironically, playing a happy song as everything goes wrong, or to underscore what's happening inside of a character. A soundtrack has the power to take a song that isn't great and transform it (I'm thinking of the jukebox scene in Say Anything) or to take a song that's already great and give you an entirely new association with it ("Tiny Dancer" in Almost Famous).

For me, Almost Famous has the ultimate soundtrack. You can probably say that about any of Cameron Crowe’s movies, which use forty years of pop music in every scene, but this one is the best pairing of music to image. From that scene with “Tiny Dancer” on the bus to the clip of “Misty Mountain Hop” as the car rolls into New York City, the music choices work on every level. There’s a sense of time, a sense of the shifting musical scene in the early 70s, and the feeling of an impending crash. At times, the soundtrack almost seems to be in conversation with the movie: there’s a part early on where two characters discuss Lou Reed sounding like David Bowie, and much later in the movie, a Bowie cover of “Waiting for the Man” plays over the action of the story. It’s just this little moment that shows how much care went into connecting the soundtrack to the plot.

I could probably go on for 2000 words about what makes a good soundtrack and what completely ruins it for me (but I won’t). Sometimes what works in one movie is horrible in another. An example: I love the way the soundtrack of 500 Days of Summer works, and the way the characters interact with the songs. The repeated use of the Smiths that initially connects the characters works really well, and the point where “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” moves from Joseph-Gordon Leavitt’s computer speakers to being played over the action is a well-crafted moment. They call attention to the music in the soundtrack, but it’s in such a character-defining and relevant way that it seems natural to do so. Contrast this with the moment in the movie Garden State when the characters call attention to the Shins’ “New Slang,” a moment that I think completely takes the audience out of the narrative.

What are your favorite soundtracks? I’m a personal fan of Wes Anderson’s because I think in addition to using great songs he utilizes them really well. Cameron Crowe always has really great music in his movies as well—I would argue that the soundtrack in Elizabethtown is its own character. What are the best? What are the worst?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Drown

Junot Díaz’s “Drown” was on my to-read list for a really long time, so I finally bought it and got around to reading it. I loved “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and the short stories I had read, like “How to Date a Whitegirl, Blackgirl, Browngirl, Halfie,” were so intelligent and engaging and funny that I knew I had to read the whole collection. The book didn’t disappoint.

Junot Díaz’s greatest strength, I think, is his voice. The stories are often in the first-person and feel so natural, like you’re hearing them told rather than reading them. This is a tough trick to pull off, I think. It requires a really delicate balance of details to remain realistic, and I think Díaz excels at providing enough information to really flesh out his characters without making it seem like they’re noticing things that no real person would notice. Not that the details are scant in any way: there are small things in all of the stories that the characters notice because of how he develops them, whether it’s the pool table deliveryman who notes the details on all of the models because he’s trying to save enough money to buy one for himself, or a guy going through a breakup at the same time as the woman in the apartment underneath his, who knows her route around the apartment because it mirrors his own.

There’s also an excellent sense of place in these stories. The ones that take place in New Jersey travel on the New Jersey Turnpike or the Garden State Parkway, or they take the bus to Paramus, while the ones in the Dominican Republic evoke the place so well that I can see it even though I’ve never been there. Díaz has a real talent when it comes to setting; the story “Boyfriend,” about the breakups on separate floors, was one of my favorites. It used the layout of the apartment so well, and gave the story a geography that made it incredibly concrete and visual.

I don’t know if I’d call it a collection of linked stories, exactly; while many have the same characters and background, there is a lot of variation and a number of stories that involve separate characters altogether. The connections between the stories are really interesting, though. There are themes of missing fathers (or fathers who vanish and then return), and a recurring question of what it means to be financially stable. While the stories that take place in the Dominican Republic often touch on how the poorer characters scrape by, the New Jersey stories find them a little wealthier, but there is always a price. There’s a character who supports his mother by selling pot, but he worries that she might find out where the money comes from, and he has higher aspirations; the pool table deliveryman has a stable income, but used to steal money from the register to buy presents for his girlfriend.

Díaz is a really powerful writer, and his ability to develop characters makes these stories resonate long after you’ve finished the book. Even in the most broken characters, he has such a huge amount of empathy toward them that you can’t help but hope things will turn out for them. The second-to-last story in the book, which revisits a character seen in the first story, takes a deformed man and makes him into an odd kind of hero, running around his town and trying to perform good deeds. It kind of acts as an explanation for the rest of the characters in the stories: yes, they can seem like monsters at times, but their intentions are not necessarily malevolent. It just takes a different way of looking at them to understand what they’re trying to do.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday Films: Crazy Heart

This week, I went to see “Crazy Heart,” which is pretty late in its run, but only came to East Stroudsburg about two weeks ago. It’s a really excellent movie, and Jeff Bridges is as great in it as they say he is. I feel like a lot has already been said about it, but I still want to toss some of my thoughts out there.

I was especially impressed with Jeff Bridges’ singing voice and his complete embodiment of the character. I guess you can make comparisons between Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler and Jeff Bridges in this film—they’re both characters past their prime, weary from living too hard and trying to survive on their earlier success. But Mickey Rourke as “Randy the Ram” was (even though he was great in the role) still Mickey Rourke: he brought a lot of his own story into the character so much that you couldn’t see it just as a story about a wrestler. It was instead about the actor playing him, also out of chances, also weary, looking for a comeback. Jeff Bridges, though, took on the role of a broken old country singer so well that you kind of forgot he was Jeff Bridges; instead, he was this Kristofferson kind of character, trying to find one more hit song before slipping into obscurity.

Of course, the music is the highlight of the movie. The songs, particularly the Oscar-winning “The Weary Kind,” are more than just good songs from movies. They’re great songs. There’s a scene about halfway through the movie where Bad Blake is lying in bed, writing the song, and he asks Maggie Gyllenhal’s character if she knows that one. When she tells him she can’t remember who first sang it, he replies, “That’s how you know it’s a good one. It feels like you already know it.” It was a really interesting window into the songwriting process, which was kind of a theme that carried through the whole movie.

There’s a discussion early in the movie about who is “real country.” Bad Blake talks about his protégé, now a huge country star, and about how he has to try to hide it, “to compete with what’s coming out of Nashville.” Later on, the two men have a show together and Tommy Sweet, played by Colin Farrell, is living the life of one of those overblown country stars, with three tour buses and a big-shot tour manager and a full staff. The song “Hank Didn’t Do it Like This” is playing as Bad Blake pulls in next to the buses and walks backstage, and I think it would have been really easy at this point for the movie to make Tommy Sweet into a parody, a punching bag for all of the Brad Paisleys currently making millions of dollars, but they didn’t, and I think that ended up being much more powerful. Instead, he was this minor character trying to navigate superstardom without abandoning his roots, and it made him really sympathetic. He’s also the character who gives Bad Blake a chance to write new material, to break out of playing the same old songs over and over.

It’s not a perfect movie—it feels a little long at parts, and the montage of Bad Blake trying to get himself together seemed a little too familiar—but on the whole, it's worth seeing. I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to "Tender Mercies," a Robert Duvall movie about a touring country singer, which I haven’t seen yet. I think the producers of the movie wanted to pay tribute to where their movie came from: Duvall has a small part in the movie, as Bad Blake’s friend and bartender, a man who seems to have gone through this before. Like the country singers in the film, they acknowledge their roots while moving forward, and this struck me as a really admirable way to make a movie.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: RIP Alex Chilton, 1950-2010

"Did you know that 'The Letter' by the Box Tops is a minute and fifty eight seconds long? It means nothing. But it takes them less than two minutes to accomplish what it takes Jethro Tull hours to not accomplish!" – Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs, “Almost Famous”

You have probably heard by now that Alex Chilton, legendary musician from the Box Tops and Big Star, passed away last week. “The Letter” remains one of my favorite pop songs ever, and it launched the incredible career of an artist who never seemed to slow down. Chilton embodied the idea of the “working musician,” the guy who would stop between tours long enough to record an album, or to appear on someone else’s.

He never became a rock star, at least not to most people, but he was much more than that: he was a presence. Through shifts in style, often within the space of an album, he played whatever influenced him, whatever moved him. He went from teen pop star to pioneering rocker to guest on the Replacements’ Alex Chilton to covering jazz standards on an acoustic guitar. He encompassed the music that came before him and five decades of shifting musical tastes in the second half of the 20th century.

Chilton was supposed to play at this year’s South by Southwest festival, a show that instead became a tribute featuring M. Ward, Mike Mills, and Sondre Lerche. Here are a few videos from that tribute, a fitting goodbye to such an influential artist.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

I mentioned last Wednesday that I was reading Murakami, and I have now finished “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”. My head hurts a bit, because there’s a lot to wrap my mind around, but I think I liked it. It’s not as great as “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” or “Kafka on the Shore,” and it’s very much a science fiction novel, which I honestly was not expecting going into it. I never really think of Murakami as a sci-fi writer; he’s more of a magical realist to me, someone who writes about normal people who stumble into a weird, sinister other world. That’s all in “Hard-Boiled Wonderland,” but the protagonist is not at all “normal,” and the setting is a futuristic version of Tokyo where two kinds of computer specialists are warring over information. There are hints of advanced technology and a large portion of the story involves altering humans with a module that is implanted into the brain to run a computer program.

I guess what it seems like is a Murakami story set a few years later than most of his other work. While many of the familiar elements of his books are there (including a well-like structure that leads to a bizarre netherworld), they are warped and transported. The detail in the book that made me think of this was that the unnamed protagonist explains that he used to have a wife and a cat (another recurring Murakami element), but that they left him. First the wife, then the cat, exactly like in “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” It could be the same character, ten years later. In that time, the world has gotten a little stranger, the weird parts of the earlier story becoming prevalent parts of society.

What I did really like was the structure of the book; it’s split into two sections, reality and myth. The chapters alternate, with the connection between them becoming more and more apparent. Strangely enough, I found myself thinking of the current season of LOST, with the narrative divided between an on-island timeline and a “flash-sideways” timeline. The writers of the show haven’t yet revealed how these two plotlines link to each other, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it worked out to be a lot like Murakami’s book, where the character has to decide whether to escape to his “real life,” or to keep living in the myth. Only on LOST, it isn’t so clear which is which.

Haruki Murakami is one of my favorite writers, and it’s been a while since I’ve read one of his books. His fictional world has become so familiar, and I was glad to be back in it, to see where he would take the story. There were a lot of unexpected things in this novel (and I don’t just mean all of the crazy sci-fi stuff; that kind of stuff is almost expected in a Murakami novel) and I loved the forays into old movies, Russian novels, and Bob Dylan songs throughout the book. I think I’m going to check out his nonfiction book, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.” I’d be interested to see if he sheds some light on his own themes, the way Chabon did in “Manhood for Amateurs.”

I also started a new project last week: reading "Ulysses." I'm trying to space it out so that I finish it on Bloomsday, June 16th. That's the day the novel takes place, and it will require me to read about 50 pages a week. So far, so good. But don't worry: I'll be reading other books along the way. If you want to join me in this big reading project, let me know. I just finished the first section (The "Telemachiad") and now I'm onto the second part. And yes, I know it's another book with connections to LOST. But they've thrown so many literary references in there that it's hard to find a book that doesn't somehow connect.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Friday Films: Inglourious Basterds

I’ve been a Tarantino fan for a long time, ever since I saw “Reservoir Dogs” when I was probably way too young to watch it. “Pulp Fiction” came next, and then “Jackie Brown” and “Kill Bill” when I got to college. There has always been something so appealing about his style, the aesthetic of grabbing disparate parts from a lifelong immersion in popular culture and shaping them into something coherent and over-the-top and referential that they become so much greater than the sum of their parts. The combination in “Kill Bill” of kung fu, samurai, and western films produces something completely unrecognizable because it is such a loving and meticulous pastiche. So I was pretty intrigued to watch “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino’s World War II epic, to see how his style translated.

The movie is, like all of Tarantino’s films on some level, about the movies it draws from. But where Tarantino’s interests in film are more obliquely referenced in his other movies, here the film is used very literally as a weapon against fascists. There’s a moment relatively early in the movie where Brad Pitt, as the leader of the “Basterds,” tells a Nazi officer that “watching the Bear Jew beat Nazis to death is the closest these boys get to going to the movies,” and this link between violent entertainment and movies just grows throughout the film.

“Inglourious Basterds,” like a lot of Tarantino’s movies, is told in chapters; it opens in the French countryside, with a Nazi known as “the Jew Hunter” (nicknames are big in this movie) seeking a family that has gone into hiding. The opening minutes of the movie are so tense, with such a sense of mounting dread, that it’s completely engrossing. It was like the first few minutes of “Kill Bill,” where you knew exactly what was going to happen, and that makes it worse. You’re waiting for the gunshot. Christophe Waltz, who won the Academy Award for his portrayal of “the Jew Hunter,” earned it based on this scene alone: he plays it so sane, so methodical, but with this undercurrent of psychosis that is completely convincing. At the end of the opening chapter, the family’s daughter escapes to Paris, where she opens a cinema.

Meanwhile, the Basterds, an all-Jewish squadron led by a redneck named Aldo Raine, work their way across occupied France, killing and scalping Nazis. Their ultimate goal? Well, Hitler of course. But along the way, they inspire fear and become legends; there’s the “Bear Jew,” who beats Nazis to death with a baseball bat, and a German who enlisted in the Nazi army solely to kill his commanding officers. They eventually become involved in “Operation Kino,” a plot to destroy the Nazi leaders during a film screening, and work their way to Paris. They don’t know, however, that the cinema’s owner, hell-bent on revenge, is planning to do the same thing during the high-profile premiere of “The Nation’s Pride,” a film celebrating a Nazi sniper who killed two hundred enemy soldiers.

I won’t spoil anything of the film’s climax in case you haven’t seen it, but this write-up would be incomplete if I didn’t mention the last lines. Brad Pitt’s character, after carving a swastika into a Nazi character’s head (a way to make sure his past will always stay with him), looks down and says, “I think this may be my masterpiece.” It’s difficult to not hear Tarantino in that line, commenting on this movie. It’s the culmination of years of movies about violence and revenge and movies, and I can see how the director would consider this his finest work. And you know, I just might agree with him.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: Dancing About Architecture

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."

I was thinking this week about the uses of music in fiction, because I’m currently reading Haruki Murakami and he uses jazz in his books like Woody Allen does in his movies. It makes sense—if I remember correctly, Murakami owned a jazz club before he became a writer. Maybe he still owns a jazz club. But he’s a writer who seems to always have a soundtrack going. There’s the classical music in the beginning of “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” and the acoustic guitar in “Norwegian Wood.” These aren’t just briefly touched upon; these are essential to the novels. And more than that, I think there's an expectation that the readers have at least a basic knowledge of the bands or the songs involved.

So I was wondering what readers think of using music in books: is there a time factor involved, or a level of cultural saturation that needs to be reached before music should be included in fiction? Is it okay to use the Beatles but not Pavement? Where is the threshold? To me, it would seem that the key is how ingrained into the culture the music is--the Kinks are a band that most people know, while a reference to MC5, a band formed at the same time, might not register with as many readers because they never got to the same level of popularity outside of Detroit.

My thought on it is a lot like Stephen King’s thought about the use of brand names in his books: “Do you look in the medicine cabinet and see blank bottles?” Similarly, do you turn on the radio and just hear music? No, you hear the classic rock station, or George Clinton, or Neko Case. To ignore that seems inorganic to me. I use music a lot in my writing because it's an important part of my day--to forget to include music would be taking some truth from the stories I'm trying to tell.

But running counter to this is the possibility of becoming dated. If you write a story featuring some band that briefly flared up only to become a minor pop culture touchstone, your story is going to suffer from being a story of that moment. It might distract a reader from the flow of that story if they have to wonder who the hell you're talking about, or what genre the music is in.

So my questions for today: what are the best uses of music in fiction that you've read? And what are the worst?

Monday, March 15, 2010

(Non)Fiction Mondays: Manhood for Amateurs

Last week, I read Michael Chabon’s “Manhood for Amateurs,” a collection of personal essays about the author’s experiences as a father and as a man in general. I was kind of wary about reading it—sometimes learning too much about an author’s personal life is detrimental to how much you like their writing—but after the first few essays, that feeling dissipated. At some points, I think reading these essays even shed some light on some aspects of Chabon’s novels.

The book is broken down into thematic sections, each sticking to the format of a “handbook” of sorts for being a modern man. The section titles include “Techniques of Betrayal,” "Patterns of Early Enchantment, and “Tactics of Wonder and Loss”, which I thought was a clever way to tie essays together. The essays themselves cover a lot of ground, touching on everything from memories of Chabon’s grandfather’s basement workshop to the merits of raising children who are, well, geeks.

But not just geeks: that same essay is where Chabon gets the book’s title. He says he is raising a family of “amateurs,” kids who are extremely interested in things like Dr. Who and Star Wars, who really love diving into these things with abandon. It’s a use of the word “amateurs” I hadn’t ever thought of, but it makes sense in its way. An amateur, whether it’s in sports or arts, is someone who is only there because of passion. I devour comic books and LOST and such because they get me excited and I like to talk about them and think about them.

While some of the essays are better than others (there's one about the author's "murse," or man-purse, that I'm still on the fence about), the absolute best essay was called “The Story of Our Story” and it’s about Chabon’s younger brother. As an older brother myself, the essay, which was about the stories we always return to, the ones we know by heart and still tell one another, reminded me a lot of the worlds my brother and I liked to create when we were younger, and about how we have these shared memories that we each remember differently. “My life story really began when I had someone to tell it to,” Chabon says.

This is a quick read; the essays are each only a few pages, but they’re mostly really interesting, and Chabon has an engaging voice and eye for detail that are common to his fiction and nonfiction. This is the second book of his nonfiction I have read, and I think it’s even more enjoyable than “Maps and Legends,” which I read last year. If you’re a fan of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” “Wonder Boys,” and Chabon’s other novels, this book serves as a kind of companion piece, where you can see the same themes and concerns visited in a different format. And if you haven’t read those novels, go read them.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Autograph Man

This week's book (yes, I'm trying to read a book every week) was Zadie Smith's "Autograph Man," her follow-up to "White Teeth," and a book that seemed to suffer from ridiculously high expectations. It seems to be a pretty common occurrence for second novels when the author's debut was insanely great (see: the reviews of Joshua Ferris' "The Unnamed"), but I tried not to let the critical reaction influence my reading at all. Here's a confession: I love second novels like this. They're like second albums, the long-awaited follow-ups that everyone agrees will never be as great as the first one. So I tried to go into this novel without expectations, so I could take it for what it was.

The story follows Alex-Li Tandem, a Chinese-Jewish-British collector of Autographs, in the week leading up to the anniversary of his father's death, when he is expected to perform kaddish in front of his friends and family. Along the way, he tries to obtain an autograph of Kitty Alexander, a 1950s film star, and to make up with his girlfriend, who has a broken finger because Alex wrecked his car while she was his passenger.

The story is about a character who is looking for redemption, but it's a take on that type of story where the character actively rejects redemption or tries to avoid it. He's drunk or stoned for a large portion of the book; he alienates the people around him; when his girlfriend has to go in for surgery, Alex leaves for New York. Every time you think he's going to have a relevatory moment, he screws up (my personal favorite is a time when he decides to go to the bar and drink alphabetically instead of going home). He's like the protagonist of Flannery O'Connor's "Wise Blood" in that he knows exactly what he should do to be a better person and actively does the opposite thing. It's an odd character type, and one that could have been really alienating from another author, but Zadie Smith moves the story forward with such momentum and surrounds Alex with such a great cast that it makes it more exciting--while you read it, you wonder if she will pull it off, and how it will be done.

It's difficult to discuss too much of the plot without revealing too much, but I will talk about the structure and the religious aspects of the book. The novel is divided into two sections (well, three if you count the long prologue and four if you count the epilogue), each corresponding to a different religious idea. The first section is called "The Kabbalah of Alex-Li Tandem," divided into ten chapters that correspond to the ten "sefirot," which I took to understand from the novel's forays into discussions of mysticism as ten aspects of God in humans. They're the steps a person has to take to achieve mystic enlightenment. The second section is called "The Zen of Alex-Li Tandem," and is based on a story involving a bull. It's not really elaborated on, but if I can guess (based on my own reading of Zen Buddhist books), I would say it's a metaphor for enlightenment--going out and seeking the bull, taming the bull, and carrying it forth into the world seems to correspond to achieving enlightenment and going through life in that manner. Maybe I am wrong, though.

The real meaning of this religious structure and the mysticism doesn't become clear until the last few pages of the book, when Alex's personal history and his friend Adam's forays into mysticism finally converge in a really beautiful moment where Alex shows some hope that he's not completely irredeemable. The ending is really interesting, and again I won't spoil it, but it's a scene that ties all of the characters together (and this is something Zadie Smith tends to do, isn't it? There's that scene at the reveal of the supermouse in "White Teeth," and that scene of the character's reading at the end of "On Beauty"...) while also exploring the religious themes and the nature of the past and present.

It's a quick read, a really interesting book. I can see why it didn't fare so well with critics; I mean, it's not as fantastic as "White Teeth," and it doesn't have that complexity or the giant cast, and at times it seems like some of the supporting characters aren't as fleshed out as they could be. But at the same time, it's a novel that, despite its flaws, has a lot of passion, a lot of belief in why the character's story needs to be told. It kind of ties into this thought I had recently about which sticks with you more, the story that is technically perfect and polished to the point of austerity, or a story that's a little messy but obviously cared-about by its writer and with genuine passion? I think I'd rather have the mess than a hermetically-sealed perfect story anytime.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Friday Films: Shutter Island

Last Monday, I went to see "Shutter Island," the new Scorcese movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo. I was a little wary, because some of the reviews were less than stellar, but everyone I personally know (the opinions that matter a lot more to me) said it was fantastic, so I went into the movie cautiously optimistic. I was not disappointed.

From the first scene, with the two US Marshalls on a ferry to the titular island, the aesthetic of the movie is unlike most modern movies. There's a fantastic use of rear-projection that gives the movie--set in 1954--the look and feel of a movie of that time. There's a little bit of backstory, where we learn DiCaprio's wife died in a fire and that he's never worked with his partner before, and then they arrive at the island, which houses the mental institution where the protagonists are going to investigate a missing person. The music at this point gets a little overwhelming, which might be my only complaint. I think I understand what he was doing, though--with the music blaring, it's easier for the movie to disorient the audience.

There's a lot going on in the movie, with DiCaprio's character flashing back frequently to the liberation of Dachau, as well as imagining his deceased wife, who was killed in a fire, giving him instructions. Scorcese seems to want to fully explore every possibility for the movie to take before revealing the ending, so there are many diversions and discussions into the possibility that the mental hospital is serving as a site for medical experimentation, that the arsonist who killed DiCaprio's wife is a secret prisoner on the island, and that the hospital's administrators have brought DiCaprio onto the island because they know he's on to them. There's a storm, the power cuts out, and DiCaprio starts to question reality. I won't spoil anything of the ending, but I will say that Scorcese's ability to constantly increase the tension until the film reaches a breaking point is really incredible. By the time the Marshals find themselves in "Ward C," home of the most dangerous criminals, the tension and unease makes the slightest movement onscreen shocking.

I love watching a movie by a director clearly knows a lot about film history and is not afraid to show their love of classic movies in a new work. This movie, while definitely a Scorcese film, has the feel of many Hitchcock movies, and seems to drop little references to many of them. There's a scene that reminded me a lot of "Vertigo," while another reminded me of "Spellbound," and I like that Scorcese can pull of those references without using them as a crutch. I will give you one word of advice if you're going into the movie: pay careful attention to the editing, and watch the scene where they're interviewing patients very closely.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: I Should Have Gone to Bonnaroo Last Year

Last summer, a few of us tossed around the idea of going to Bonnaroo, the four-day music festival held in Manchester, TN. The line-up was incredible, with Bruce Springsteen, Neko Case, Wilco, David Byrne, the many bands I love, more than enough to make up for the inclusion of acts I don't really care for (Phish, Animal Collective). But last year, we couldn't afford the trip and the tickets, so we decided not to go. I remember thinking, "Well, maybe next year."

Now that it's March, I've started thinking about the summer, and about the festivals that occur during the summer. So today, I went on the the Bonnaroo website and the first thing I saw was "The Dave Matthews Band." And a bit further down that same row, Weezer (not 1997 Weezer, mind you, but current unrecognizable Weezer). And Kings of Leon. And a half-dozen bands that I've heard exactly once, only to change the station. I will not name names.

It seems like the line-up is the exact opposite of last year's. There are some good bands buried in this list, ranging from Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes to Jimmy Cliff to Steve Martin (I'm sorry. Mr. Steve Martin.), but I just don't see how they're enough to overcome some of the other more dubious choices. I am looking at the list, but I am failing to be at all interested. I'd rather see the bands individually, I think. I can't see taking the time or spending the money when I'm less than enthused about most of the acts. I'm sure they'll announce more artists soon, and I'll see if I change my mind.

Until then, I'll say (again) "Maybe next year."

Monday, March 1, 2010

Fiction Mondays: the Lazarus Project

Last week, I finished reading Aleksandar Hemon's "The Lazarus Project," and it was one of those books that took a few days to really assemble my thoughts about. I really liked it, and the ending was much different than I expected. It was different in a good way, though--anything else might have seemed forced, an attempt to get the two storylines to resolve in a way that wouldn't have felt so organic.

The novel is a story of two immigrants who move from Eastern Europe to Chicago, one at the turn of the 20th century and one almost a century later. Lazarus, who came to America after the pogroms in Eastern Europe in the late 1800s, is killed by the chief of the Chicago police, and the event sets off an anti-anarchist wave through the city (and possibly through the country). While there is no evidence that Lazarus was carrying out an assassination attempt on behalf of the anarchist cause, police statements and a newspaper writer named Miller escalate the fear of foreigners, while the later disappearance of Lazarus' body leaves many Christians convinced that the second coming of Christ will soon occur. In the middle of this cultural and religious upheaval, Lazarus' sister Olga tries to navigate her grief and the political factions trying to use Lazarus' death for their own gain.

100 years later, Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian writer, begins to research for a book about Lazarus. He and his friend Rora, a war photographer who escaped Sarajevo during the seige, return to Eastern Europe and begin to follow the trail that they hope will lead to Lazarus' origins. There are odd connections along the way--a corrupt journalist that Rora knew during the war has the same last name as the journalist writing about Lazarus--but more important are the connections between Lazarus and Brik. Although their stories are far different, they have both experienced the disappointment of immigrants who find themselves working miserable jobs to get by. They feel cheated by the promise of America. Even though Brik has married an American woman and settled (somewhat) into his American life, he still feels a deep connection to his roots. This feeling only grows the further he and Rora get into their journey. In a cemetery where several of Lazarus' relatives are buried, Brik has a full panic attack as he realizes his similarities to Lazarus.

In a book with simultaneous plotlines, sometimes you expect that miraculous connection--someone from Lazarus' story in connection to an ancestor of Brik's, or a moment that cannot just be coincidence. But Hemon resists this kind of easy out, and it makes the book even better. The connections are somehow deeper because they resonate thematically rather than literally. Like I said before, it's a book that took me a few days to really puzzle through, to collect my impressions of it and to write this post, and I love when a book does that.

It's kind of amazing that Hemon has only been writing in English for about 15 years, and there's something in the language of the book that suggests it isn't his first language. Some of the sentences seem like he's looking at the words through new eyes, and I guess this is even more thematic connection to Brik and Lazarus. Brik even teaches English as a second language. Here is my favorite sentence of the book: "Whereupon a gigantic Toyota Cherokee, or Toyota Apache, or Toyota Some Other Exterminated People, drove up on the pavement, the tinted windows throbbing with concussive fuck-music." I think I re-read that sentence three times in a row. It just struck me as a great bit of observation that somehow tied to the pogroms and cheap criminals through the book. This book definitely made me want to read more of Hemon's work, and I highly recommend it.