Overhyped "Edgy" Films

I’ve noticed a trend: every year, some movie gets a ton of acclaim as an “edgy, hip, breakthrough” movie that elevates it to “Oscar discussion” etc. — and the movie, when I see it, is completely forgettable, so much so that I am bewildered as to why it’s getting so much attention.

This happened a couple of years ago with “Little Miss Sunshine” — there was so much hype around it that I was stunned to discover how limited and boring it was. Then there was “Juno” — same story. This year, it’s “Up In the Air,” which I found not only forgettable, but really quite bad. I love George Clooney and Vera Farmiga, and I also love that scrappy sidekick from “Twilight,” so I had very high hopes (particularly after reading about how it got the most Golden Globe nominations, etc.) But from the first moments of the opening scene, I knew that I was in trouble: it looked like an insurance commercial. I’ve done a lot of traveling for work in the past couple of years, so I am very familiar with the airport routines that the movie celebrates, and yes, it does “capture” the experience of going through airport security a lot…but it captures it in the same way that an ad for Frequent Flyer miles might capture it.

But my main complaint is that not one of the characters ever did or said a single thing that any actual human being might ever do or say. I credit the actors with a pretty heroic effort, but the dialogue was beyond fake. I’ve made this complaint to various friends who claim to have loved it, and nobody can give me a satisfactory response. “Reitman’s films are hyper-real, not real” — “You just have to enjoy the pop psychology” — etc. I am actually very tolerant of crappy dialogue and implausibility in a movie that has some other purpose — so, for example, I enjoyed “The Hangover” despite the fact that it was not particularly realistic, because it was a farce, and I enjoyed “Avatar” and its cliches because it was a larger-than-life action movie — but if a movie like “Up in the Air” can’t deliver plausible characters, what is it? It’s a crappy commercial, for what I don’t know. Or, as a friend of a friend put it, “If the Pottery Barn started making movies, this could be their first release.”

It’s not that big a deal that I hated a movie that lots of people loved, but I am convinced that nobody really loved it, and instead they’re all just getting caught up in this trend. With the proliferation of media these days, I think everybody is afraid that studios are going to want to make only blockbusters, and that smaller, more introspective movies will stop being made. So periodically (typically during awards season) everybody latches onto one movie and makes it “mainstream” as if it’s a work of art. “Up in the Air” is the perfect candidate, because it has a “dark” and “timely” theme (the hero is a guy who flies around the country firing people), but it is also sentimental in various ways. My advice is pass, and make sure that your 3D glasses for “Avatar” aren’t smudged.

Spite Houses

Just in time for the holidays, I bring tidings of “spite houses,” structures built for the sole purpose of irritating the neighbors (by blocking their access to light and air, etc.).

I have to say — I can imagine something like this happening, but I’m a litle taken aback that this concept is so well-embedded in our culture that there is a commonly-recognized term for it. This wikipedia page contains many examples of “famous” spite houses, including the little bugger pictured to the right. It will also teach you about the less-common, but still spiteful “spite fences.”

The best part about a spite house? Because it isn’t built for any practical use by its owner, there is a lot of leeway when it comes to design — you can really let your imagination soar when the structure you’re building has no intended use beyond to irritate!

Sir Walter Drake

I’ve been cudgeling my brains to come up with gift ideas. These are gifts for my immediate  family, so I absolutely have to come up with something. Desperate, I turn to the Walter Drake mail order catalog.

I don’t know who Walter Drake is; have never seen a picture of him or even a fake, cursive signature. He sounds like the main character in a soap from the ’50s.

In outlook, the catalog is a certainly a vestige of the ’50s. You find there presents for people  who don’t  like things to touch each other, unless they are identical; then it’s ok. Like Rock Hudson and June Allyson in their matching pajamas and extended uniformly in widely-separate twin beds.

Eggs, which can be yucky, seem to pose a special threat to Walter Drake customers. There are advertised two devices for frying eggs decently. In both cases, you lay a hoop in the frying pan and then drop an egg into the containing hoop. As the catalog copy says, “Whites won’t run together, yolks stay plump”. “Keep whites under control, not spreading all over the pan.”  There are also two trays for carrying deviled eggs; the eggs rest in egg-shaped indentations so that they don’t slither around.

There are pads for putting between pots and pans  stacked up in a cupboard, so that they don’t scratch each other  (or even touch). But my favorite is a contraption for preserving half-eaten bananas. “Place clip on open end to slow oxidation and prevent browning.” The clip  is yellow, and resembles the upper and lower jaws of a half -bananana. You have to imagine someone first slicing a banana cleanly in halves, then eating one half, rather than starting to eat at one end, as I would, and stopping halfway through. The remaining half of the bisected banana has a clean, round end over which the clip fits. Of course, the clip won’t keep the banana from becoming mushy and brown. It’s typical of many Walter Drake gadgets that they won’t work.

There’s a shower curtain on the outside of which are stuck are 40 5″x7″ pockets for holding photos and memorabilia. “Add Personality to Your bathroom Displaying Your Favorite Photos!  KIds will have fun decorating the bathroom, and so will mom and dad!. . . easily change your display to match the seasons.” How do people come up with these ideas? And then–harder to imagine– following them through: mechanical drawings, patents, trips to a Chinese factory.

This year’s catalog dealt me a real surprise, sending me into a state of cognitive dissonance. Toward the back of the catalog, inconspicuously pictured at the bottom of the page are two dildos, each with the sprightly trade name “Don Wand” and labelled “non-returnable”. What prompted this leap from the demure ‘fifties to the explicit 21st century? How does this fit with vinyl lace tablecloths and a gadget for dividing pies into exactly equal pieces? I cannot understand how sex got into the Walter Drake catalog, but granting that it did, one can account for its particular form: there’s still no touching of different bodies; like egg whites, the  bodily fluids are kept to themselves.

Highway to Hellichova

Two weeks ago, we drove down south and met up with the wife’s family in a town called Henry’s Castle (Jindrichuv Hradec). The castle was nice, although I never learned who Henry was or how he came into a castle. Here are some weirdly-named towns and areas we’ve passed near or through in our last two road-trips (this one and the Austrian Alps trip) and their English translations:

• Sobeslav = Celebrate Yourself

• Tabor = Camp

• Pisek = Sand

• Velka Dobra = The Big Good

• Česká sibiř = Czech Siberia. Czech Siberia is a little hilly area near Tabor that tends to get  colder weather and more snow than surrounding areas– something like that altitudinous stretch you hit about half an hour before hitting Los Angeles on Highway 5. To name it after a region that contains 8 time zones and 1/12th the world’s land mass is sort of an endearing stretch in my book. There’s also a ‘Czech Canada’, ‘Czech Switzerland’, ‘Czech Paradise’ and probably some others I’m forgetting.

Photo: short-lived Czech metal band Alarm. If there was really a song called “Highway to Hellichova”, I like to imagine that they would have made it.


Unrelated rant:

This is all pretty subjective territory to wade into… but wasn’t 2009 the worst year for new music since, like, 1894? I was just looking at Pitchfork’s top 500 albums for 2009– off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of anything from this year that I was super excited about, but I figured there’d be a few gems I’d forgotten about. Nope. The Grizzly Bear album was probably the thing I like the most out of their top 50, and I don’t love that one. Like it a lot, but don’t love it. And it’s not like I’m a ‘Bah humbug, recent music isn’t as good as in my day‘ guy (or at least I hope not): 2008 was full of records I loved (Arthur Russell, David Byrne/Brian Eno, Fleet Foxes, pretty good Santogold all jump to mind, and that’s just off the top of my head).

Oh, good

Hey, it’s a rare sports-related post. Just when you thought it couldn’t get more bleak for Tiger, this appears on the front page of espn.com:

Heaven protect me from the moment when I’m experiencing a crushing personal crisis and the phone rings with a consoling Ron Artest on the other end. It’s the sports world equivalent of something like ‘Economists worried about falling dollar | Robert Mugabe offers support’

Little Mouth Cat, Where Have You Been Hiding?

OK, I’m really excited to post this, although– WARNING– it’s incredibly crude and full of South Park-type sexual humor. If you’re not into that kind of thing, please move along to the more thinky, family-oriented content elsewhere in this blog…

Back in May of 2008, I was forwarded a hilariously offensive story written by a woman who decides to pass the time during the writers’ strike by sleeping with all three then-candidates for president. The origins of the story are something of a mystery to me: apparently, it was written by a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend who writes for TV or screen… a comic genius, in any case, albeit of a highly puerile nature.

Just a few days ago, I discovered this site xtranormal.com that lets you easily make an animation from any text you choose to copy-and-paste. This text seemed like the perfect thing to turn into an raunchy animated monologue (although the 2008 campaign storyline is obviously pretty dated at this point). Anyway, without further ado, here’s ‘Little Mouth Cat, Where Have You Been Hiding?


I finished Roberto Bolano’s 2666 last night and felt the same disorienting feeling as after stumbling out of a David Lynch movie. This is the first Bolano I’ve read, but I get the distinct impression from reviews (for example, Jonathan Lethem’s, which also makes the Lynch comparison) that if Bolano books were Lynch movies, 2666 would be Lost Highway: expansive, shape-shifting, baffling and, at times, really scary. (Bolano’s last novel The Savage Detectives, meanwhile, sounds like Mullholand Drive– i.e., striking a more accessible balance between outre and grounded. But, I haven’t read it, so whatever…)

The book is made up of five separate novellas that are loosely intertwined and have blunt, descriptive names– ‘The Part About The Critics’, ‘The Part About the Crimes’, etc– that come across both as kind of joke and also as a huge relief, given how non-literal everything else in the book is. One of the most apt comments about I’ve read about 2666 is that it would actually make more sense if you read the five parts in reverse order, especially given that the last section actually happens first in chronological terms. So, yeah, it’s a bit… convoluted.

One weird thing about 2666 is that I can’t ever remember reading a long book that seems so short in immediate hindsight. And it’s not like this is a breezy page-turner or anything: the grueling ‘Part About The Crimes’ is a solid 200-page dossier-like account of dozens of rapes and murders plaguing the fictitious city of Santa Teresa, interspersed with occasional wacked-out digressions involving a Mexican television psychic, a turgid love affair between a cop and sanatorium manager and other curious narrative cul-de-sacs that lead nowhere at all. What makes the book seem so short is that it’s constructed like a paper accordion: viewed from a distance, you only see (or remember, as the case may be) one face, that being the events relating to the story line. Pick it up, though, and it expands into multiple faces, all connected together at the edges but facing off in their own directions. The events that drive the plot of 2666 can be summarized in maybe just 100 words, but are dispersed around countless accounts of characters and events and anecdotes-within-anecdotes that are totally extraneous and fascinating, and can be totally absorbing while you’re with them but then instantly forgettable as soon as you’re abruptly carried away to something else. In this way, the book feels frighteningly like real life, where people’s lives seem grotesquely over-stuffed with detail when viewed up close and then utterly inconsequential when looked at from some distance.

Meanwhile, the only things that seem real in Bolano’s vision are artistry and violence. Like Lynch, he makes a strong case for the essential primacy of horror– this is what is real; everything else people fill their lives with is just inane, civilized whistling-past-the-graveyard. In this sense, the use of anecdotes and digressions seems as clever and complex as the 18th century English literature I studied in college and can barely remember now (uh… Fielding, Sterne… those guys). The more vapid and diverting the digressions are, the more implicated we are as readers for clinging to them in the face of the brutal, toneless Part About The Crimes.

But, putting aside all the lit-crit stuff, the best thing about 2666 is that it’s so well written and has so many inventive, emotive or odd (and sometimes all three at the same time) passages that jerk you up in your seat. A few I dog-eared:

It was raining in the quadrangle, and the quadranglar sky looked like the grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness.

Musicians often visited Grete, including an orchestra director who claimed that music was the fourth dimension and whom Halder respected greatly.

He craned his neck towards Reiter and leaned on one elbow and began to whisper and moan imagine scenes of splendor that together formed a chaotic assemblage of dark cubes stacked on top of the other.

That night, as he was working the door at he bar, he amused himself by thinking about a time with two speeds, one very slow, in which the movement of people and objects was lamost impercetible, and the other very fast, in which everything, even inert objects, glittered with speed. The first was called Paradise, the second Hell, and Archiimboldi’s only wish was never to inhabit either.

Lastly: most of 2666 takes place in the fictitious city of Santa Teresa that Bolano apparently based on Juarez (which did, in fact, experience a wave of rape-murder cases that were bunglingly misinvestigated). Between this and Dylan’s ‘Just Like Tom Thumb Blues’, it’s hard to think of a city that’s been more damningly portrayed than Juarez. You even kind of get the same impression from both book and song (nameless dread, weird malaise, so on and so forth). Don’t think I’ll be taking any vacations there soon.

Image: painting by Guiseppe Acimboldo (1527 – 1593, amazingly) whom Bolano’s main character renames himself after.

Also: see Ivan’s post on 2666 at Moonraking.

Favorite holiday songs

Inspired by recent TK references to ‘Fairytale of New York’, I thought I’d present my abridged list of Top 100 Christmas Songs. I’m ranking these according to a combination of (a) how good I think they actually are as songs and (b) holiday cheer factor:

1. ‘Good King Wenceslas’, Traditional. The class of the field in terms of Xmas carols. Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither! Bonus points for: establishing GKW as the most recognized Czech person in history. Loses points for: creating syllabic confusion about whether it’s ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out’ vs. ‘Good King Wencles last looked out’.

2. ‘Fairytale of New York’, Pogues. A close second— manages to be both heartwarming and bitterly cynical at the same time, which is quite an accomplishment. I’m embarrassed to admit that for a long time I had mentally combined Kirsty MacColl (the woman who shares vocals here) and Kylie Minogue into one person. This was before the latter became really famous; suddenly, when ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ was playing everywhere, I struggled to understand how this could be the same person who had once called Shane MacGowan a ‘cheap lousy faggot’. Only then did I realize the mistake behind my Krystie MacPogue confabulation.

3. ‘Jesus Christ’, Big Star. Here’s a good idea: once you strip the Nativity of all its religious gloss and worn-out piety, it just becomes a really rocking, kick-ass thing to write a song about. Which- hey- it was. Bonus points because you never know to what extent Alex Chilton is being sarcastic here.

4. ‘Christmas Wrapping’, The Waitresses. Another good idea: treating the holidays with New Wave’s signature attitude of cool detachment. Fun, dorky, smart.

5. ‘Christmas In Hollis’, RUN D.M.C. ‘Oh my god, it’s an ill reindeer’. Bonus points for: definitively being first holiday hip-hop track ever. Loses points for: the reality that a rap song can’t ever really put me in a holiday mood.

6. ‘Last Christmas’, Wham! Delightfully terrible from the moment George Michael hisses ‘Happy Christmas’ at you and the beat comes galloping in. Infectiously puts me in a holiday mood even as I desperately wish it didn’t. Simply the mention of this song would have earned this post the “actually good or just ironically ‘good'” tag if the speculation about Alex Chilton above hadn’t already put it in the running. Bonus points for: god-awful video, where the social norms of the 80s forced the Wham! lads to partake in a sham version of a prototypically heterosexual ski weekend.

7. ‘Ivan Meets G.I. Joe’, the Clash. Not a holiday song per se, but starts off with a few moments of what sounds like holiday shopping. And can loosely be construed to relate to Xmas in that it describes the Cold War and – thus, indirectly – our attempts to protect our holiday consumer culture against a Xmas-less enemy.

8-80: This is the part where I list songs that don’t actually do much for me but are about the holidays and are by bands that I like, so I have to mention them to prove that I’m not some idiot who sits around listening to Wham! all day. So: dBs, Beck, Belle & Sebastian, the Ronettes, Flaming Lips, XTC, etc.

81-98: This is reserved for holiday songs by artists I don’t care about at all, but who are worshipped by tons of people I know and like. Sufjan Stevens and Arcade Fire, come on down!

99. ‘Let It Snow’, Gloria Estefan. The ultimate Starbucks holiday jingle set to a demented Casiotone-sounding rumba. Rum-blegh.

100. ‘Silent Night’, Traditional. I had an extended conversation with my father a few months ago about how much we both dislike this song. Especially the sanctimonious lilt at the end of the verse (‘sleep in heavenly pe… eeeeeeeeeeeeeace!‘) Plus, it was composed by a slave trader (OK, I made that up). Get bent, ‘Silent Night’.

Total Quality Management

Felix turned six months old on Friday. As it fell on a Friday, I allowed the family a rare dress-down casual day and we celebrated with some local hemp microbrews in the conference room.

As I’ve written about many times before, I strongly believe in raising a family according to the same principles that you would use to build a successful corporation. With this in mind, it this seemed like an appropriate time to give Felix his first performance review to make sure we’re all on the same page moving forward. I’m happy to report that he met or surpassed nearly all of his expectations for Q3 and Q4 of 2009. Overall, his high performance scores indicate that he’ll be a valuable member of our “team” in the coming years. I did, however, lay out a few “growth areas” for him to work on over the next two quarters, especially regarding his erratic and sometimes tardy attendance record for our Monday morning staff meetings. I’m confident that he will be able to address these points in time for his next review.

(Sample performance review for a previous employee, no longer with the family)

My wife refused to participate in the review process, saying something about how it’s “wrong to treat a 6 month old child like an employee.” Whatever. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised given the occasional skepticism she’s voiced in the past about my family-as-corporation analogy. I can understand her perspective to a point, but it does disappoint me that Felix didn’t get the benefit of a full “360 degree performance review” so favored by today’s top management consultants.