Spend a Couple Hours »Apple TV

A better Netflix instant experience

We loved our Roku – I think it’s a fantastic product – but when we decided to add a Blu-ray player to the mix (watching the Shining and 2001 back-to-back on Blu-ray one afternoon at Brittany’s dad’s house totally convinced me to switch formats) it just made sense to go with the Samsung model that integrates the Netflix instant player, the BD-P2500, and pass the Roku along to the brother-in-law.

This was a huge mistake. While the Blu-ray player itself is fine (actually, it’s sub-fine: not all discs will play and more often than not ‘enhanced viewing features’, like Ron Weasley – or Lafayette – appearing in a huge Picture-in-Picture window, are impossible to disable), the Netflix instant portion was a disaster. Despite being hard-wired (vs the wireless Roku), movies would take forever to start, the audio would often be out of sync and, most frequently, the picture would vanish and just the audio would play prompting at least one reset of the whole system; sometimes as many as half a dozen. About once a month ominous error messages appeared about registration issues and I’d have to hard-reset. It was terrible…

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Posted on November 27, 2010

Movies »The Lord of the Rings

Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the RingsDirected by Ralph Bakshi (1978)

Believe it or not (I’m hoping my facetiousness is apparent), I was a huge Tolkien fan when I was a kid. I’m sure I can’t remember what year it was, but the night my dad brought home our first family VCR we rushed out to the (sadly now defunct) Video World and grabbed the two tapes my brother and I would watch again and again over the next several years: the Rankin/Bass Hobbit and John Boorman’s the Emerald Forest (for years that was his favorite movie, go figure… BTW: Boorman nearly adapted LotR himself, he reused the sets he built for Excalibur).

I actually had two maps of Middle Earth hung on my bedroom wall (one was next to an image of the members of Public Enemy hanging out in a maximum security prison; pretty sophisticated juxtaposition of the kind of things boys in their pre-teens are drawn too – thanks for offering the tools needed to create such a dynamic collage, Prints Plus!).

I hoarded copies of the author’s books, which wasn’t all that easy considering that until the advent of the Book Barn years later, there really was no local spot that dealt in used books, though occasionally the Booksmith in New London would have an unusual looking pressing of Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham.

And in an gesture I’m still in awe of, the first time I met my father-in-law he presented me with a hardcover copy of the edition of the Hobbit he himself illustrated (awesomely).

But of all things Tolkienian, the Bakshi movie has made the deepest impact.

I’m not going to list to list its many inaccuracies (Tolkien enthusiasts have already complied lists taking care of that), and I’m not going to compare it to Peter Jackson’s films (plenty of articles are out there for the reading); while there’s no way to deny that this movie has its flaws, it’s an amazing work of art and it’s the imagery I’m really, really into.

I’ve collected a number of stills below/after the jump giving special attention to what I think is the film’s finest sequence: Frodo’s encounter with the Black Riders just outside Rivendell; it’s here that Bakshi’s impressionistic vision is most successful. As the wounded Hobbit breaks away from his party, the background dramatically fades to an expressionistic, nightmarish landscape, partly rendered in slow motion. It’s an absolutely amazing series of shots that truly captures the terror of the Ring Wraiths and Frodo’s almost submarine decent into their world of shadow.

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Posted on December 6, 2009

Books »The Book of the New Sun

The Book of the New Sunby Gene Wolfe (1980 – 1983)

Gene Wolfe‘s imagination is truly formidable. A industrial engineer (and devoted Catholic) who has become a living SF legend, Wolfe’s work is rich, dense, and not always exactly what I’m looking for. But that’s no slight: when Wolfe’s writing what I want to read, it’s amazing; when he’s not, it’s still fine, it just tends to get a bit… overly complicated and less than satisfying – but a return to form is always just a few pages away.

Brittany will be posting her impressions of Wolfe’s early short story compilation, The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (not a typo, FYI), and I imagine her take on Wolfe will be equally conflicted.

But the Book of the New Sun is the big one: the magnum opus (he’s since spun off a coda and two additional series, the Book of the Long Sun and the Book of the Short Sun).

The four novels that make up the tetralogy are packed so densely with episodes alternately incredibly compelling and kind of… kind of like you just want to get through them as quickly as you can, that, sitting here now recalling the bits I remember, I’m truly astounded at the way the story is so compartmentalized in my brain.

The plot unfolds in a distant future inspired by the work of the writer who has appeared more times then any other on this blog, the great Jack Vance. The first novel, the Shadow of the Torturer, opens with its protag, Severian (who is blessed/cursed with a perfect memory), serving as an apprentice in the guild of torturers. His kind of weirdly idyllic childhood is interrupted by a key chance meeting in the nearby necropolis and the professional discipline he’ll expertly develop over the next few years is kind of slow-burn compromised.

While I suppose I could offer a more comprehensive plot synopsis, I’d really be doing everyone (particularly you, dear reader) a disservice. Suffice to say, a lot happens very quickly: Severian makes a judgement call that ultimately results in his exile from Nessus (the capital city), is challenged to an alien poison flower duel, demolishes a church, meets a young lady who’s been submerged in (for lack of a better description) internment water for who knows how long, meets another young lady who’s definitely hiding something, gets a crazy note from a bus boy, and becomes aquatinted with a fairly unique traveling acting troupe. Oh, and he’s given an awesome sword called Terminus Est and dispatched to a place called Thrax: the city of windowless rooms.

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Posted on December 6, 2009

Songs »Reba

Phish at UNH 5.8.1993Phish, live at the UNH Fieldhouse May 8, 1993

Phish has never been an easy band to love, it takes hard work and an extremely specific social context for the music to take hold – but once it does, once it becomes the official soundtrack to youthful good times, it never fully leaves the lives of its long-time listeners.

The concept is pretty straight forward: stoned nerds meet up in the late ’80s in the Burlington, VT area. Channeling the sounds of the Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa, they become the ultimate bar band on acid, then they cross over to playing colleges. Over the next ten or so years they produce some of the most popular and enduring music of the ’90s (yet never really appear on MTV or FM radio) with a serious bent towards goofiness and a penchant for mind-bendingly intricate musicianship. Constantly touring, they close the decade out as one of the world’s highest grossing live acts.

What’s so appealing about this music is that it’s always in good spirits – it’s always ready to affect your mood in a positive way – and the song I’ve selected here is a prime example of the band at their finest… or, more accurately, phinest.

If you spent any time at all around a high school parking lot or university hacky sack green in the early to mid 1990s, you’re probably familiar with the refrain ‘Bag it, tag it, sell it the butcher in the store’. If not, I’m sorry because you totally missed out.

Reba is comprised of three distinct movements (and a parenthetical fourth: the final, whistled refrain), the first, which includes the lyrical portion of the song, tells the children’s booky tale of an over-eager cartoony home-chemist (kind of betraying Trey’s roots as the son of a woman who wrote songs for Sesame Street); the second portion sounds like what you might expect if an early 1960s eastern European master of animated film commissioned an avant garde jazz quartet to score an unfinished film he created based on the first part of the song (the narrative of Reba mixing all these crazy ingredients in her bath tub); finally, at around the 6 and a half minute mark, the song opens up and… well, you really ought to hear for yourself.

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Posted on December 6, 2009

Albums »Chronic Town

R.E.M. Chronic Town album artR.E.M. (1982)

Sure, R.E.M went on to become a pretty big band, but I’ve always thought their first EP contains some of their best work. I hadn’t listened to these songs for a long time, but a fairly recent interview with Tucker Martine on All Songs Considered put me back in the mood and I dug up my copy of Dead Letter Office.

All the elements that would propel the band first to the top of the college charts and then onward and upward to the real big time when they signed with Warner Brothers (the first time, back in 1988 and then again, for like $80 million, in 1996) are pretty much fully formed: Peter Buck’s signature urgent, jangly guitar tone, Stipe’s mumbly and oblique lyrics, Mike Mills’s thoughtful – even occasionally playful – bass lines, and Bill Berry’s masterful fills would serve the band well up to the release of Document; and that’s partially what’s so wild about this record: the point of view comes across so complete, so… so wholly developed that the only other debut recording I can draw a comparison to is that of another jangly-toned guitar player and enigmatic front man.

The first two tracks have always been favorites of mine with Stumble edging out Wolves, Lower as a song I can listen to over, and over, and over again – and they’re both overlong, which is something I absolutely love about them. Mitch Easter‘s ahead-of-their time production techniques (weird sound-scape breakdowns with almost Native Americany undertones) and the insistent mystery these songs evoke make them endlessly re-playable pieces of pop music – even with the advent of online lyric databases, the meaning of these songs still eludes me.

The images below/after the jump harken back to a special time when buttoning your top button was totally de rigueur.

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Posted on December 6, 2009

Hunks »Chhom Nimol

Dengue Fever's Chhom NimolDengue Fever’s lead singer

We saw Dengue Fever at South Paw a few months ago and I was blown away. Not only is musical mastermind Zac Holtzman’s beard absolutely amazing, singer Chhom Nimol is totally adorable!

A few more photos, culled from Flickr, are below/after the jump.

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Posted on December 6, 2009

Style Icons: Male »Keith Morrison

Keith Morrison of NBC's Datelineof Dateline NBC

While I truly do love Jim Morrison (not only do we share the same birthday – we also have the same name! I’ve even been to his grave!), I’m also a huge fan of Dateline NBC correspondent Keith Morrison. It’s not smugness or incredulity (exactly) that you’re detecting in his voice; it’s just his unique aristocrat-specializing-in-drama tone. Love it!

Little did I know that Bill Hader is also a fan! Below/after the jump are a compilation of clips, the top three feature the man himself (for those of you unfamiliar with his work); the last two are Hader’s not-quite-spot-on-in-but-accurate-enough impersonation. Enjoy!

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Posted on December 6, 2009

Restaurants »Baoguette Cafe

Baoguette Cafe37 St Mark’s Place (between 2nd Ave & 1st Ave)

While sitting down to write an essay about my favorite sandwich has me feeling a smidge like Liz Lemon, banh mi (a French/Vietnamese sandwich served on a baguette stuffed with pickled carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, chile peppers, pate, mayonnaise and more) is something I love so much that I honestly don’t care if I’m betraying a deal-breaking character quality (I’ve already written about Phish – twice this week…).

I’ve long been a fan of Vietnam Banh Mi So 1 on Broome Street and Nicky’s on 2nd Avenue, so when Silent H opened its doors on Berry Street and banh mi became available locally, I was totally psyched. Sadly, the price, service and hours they chose to serve sandwiches during (weekdays noon to 4), made me less than happy…

Recently, An Nhau’s banh mi shop on Bedford and North 7th has changed my life (I must eat at least one meatball sandwich a week). The sandwiches are cheap, delicious and prepared in about three minutes, but when Brittany and I were out in the EV a few nights ago, we grabbed dinner at Baoguette Cafe.

I automatically ordered the classic #1 banh mi sandwich (pork terine, pate, pulled pork, fresh herbs) and it was amazing – but totally heavy duty, I was actually having a hard time finishing (the pulled pork is no joke) – and Brittany totally scored with beef vermicelli noodles (the waitress recommended the beef over the chicken bun dish).

We got to the restaurant at around 6:45 and it was gloriously devoid of any other diners, but by 7:15 dudes were beginning to pack the tiny interior – so go early!

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Posted on December 6, 2009

Spend a Couple Hours »See Phish

Phish at MSG 12.3.2009Fall/ Winter 2009 Tour

There’s a real difference between armchair analysis and actually being a part of the crowd, and when Dan and I saw Phish at MSG the other night, the experience differed, as you can probably imagine, rather tremendously from listening to a bunch of MP3s on Nugs.net.

I hadn’t seen a Phish show since Astrid and I went our during our last year of school – practically another life: this was back before the Providence Civic Center was re-christened Dunkin’ Donuts Center – so I was a bit out of step and a couple things struck me right away.

First of all, the music is front and center – for hours. Without a cluttered desktop full of stuff to do, Outlook’s auto-receive scheduled for every 3 minutes and, of course, coworkers, there are relatively few distractions (though there are definitely a few distractions) and the takeaway isn’t in the details (obviously you can’t scrub back to that amazing moment at 12:39), but the entirety of the experience.

Ebb and flow, tension and release, lighting effects and glow-in-the dark-bracelet-throw-cues; the whole thing kind of melds together, laying bare the structure nearly every song adheres to and the band’s truly unique sound-vision. Absolutely no other rock act so successfully fuses what is essentially contemporary jazz, good old fashioned crooning, traditional rock blues, tone-based alien landscapes, overly ambitious college-level compositions and unadulterated white, duct-taped-brimmed embroidered collegiate cap funk. After a couple of hours the distinct aural experience becomes more than familiar.

‘Precocious’ may seem like an unusual descriptor for someone who’s a well established virtuoso, but the personality of the playing, which I can best sum up as kind of a nerdily frustrated musical theory major (they’re just not teaching what I want to learn, dude) who happens to be super into showing off (which I guess probably isn’t all that unique a character combo), makes for alternately sublime and confounding music.

The continual escalation, the nearly infinite ratcheting up of every song, results in one ‘Can you believe I’m even playing this?!’ moment after another. This can go one of two ways: it can blister and ultimately kind of numb, like the incredibly intense David Bowie that closed the second set, or it can truly wow, like the breathtakingly necessarily over-complicated Fluff’s Travels, which was just absolutely stunning to behold as the band navigated its way through what felt like dozens of sound-scapes drawn in cartoony broad-strokes, literally turning on a dime several times a minute.

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Posted on December 6, 2009

Spend a Couple Minutes »Suscribe to the WTF with Marc Maron podcast

WTF podcast with Marc Maronat the iTunes Store

You don’t have to send him any money, and you don’t have to use the justcoffee.coop coupon code he keeps talking up, but this weekly, hour long podcast by comics and for comics is worth listening to. It’s true, Maron himself is a bit much and yes, he does comes on strong (though you’ll get used to him soon eventually), and yes, there are definitely times you won’t feel like listening to him talk about how he told off a jerk in the airport for lacking even the most basic human decency, but once you become familiar with Maron’s point of view and wrap your head around the show’s core concept: an angry, former alcoholic (he’s also divorced) comedian interviews some of today’s most popular comedians – some former alcoholics themselves – with an occasionally contemptuous tone and a constant self-absorption that’s so real and unnerving it cannot be faked, I think you’ll really like it.

A steady stream of really, really funny people including Patton Oswalt (whose success Maron is almost okay with), Zach Galifiakis (always charming), Sam Lipsyte (author of the novel Home Land), Jerry Stahl (who, next to founder George Dawes Green, is the best story teller I’ve heard on the Moth in awhile), David Cross, Maria Bamford (who I never really appreciated until Maron had her on the show and I took in her performance in long-form), Eugene Mirman, and Matthew get into really entertaining conversations mainly about themselves…

It may take a couple of episodes, but it’s definitely worth getting in to.

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Posted on December 6, 2009

Web Sites »Tickets & Music

Tickets and MusicScouring the web for music tix

When it comes to purchasing tickets to live music events, sometimes StubHub and TicketMaster are your only options – but just as frequently someone’s trying to dump tickets through Craigslist and using a whole different rate structure. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a one-stop resource (that defaults to a home page showcasing immediately upcoming shows in your geographic area) that automatically returned all the available ticket options?

Enter Tickets & Music (the brainchild of our friend Marcus), an incredibly useful site that does exactly that.

A couple of days after Halloween, I was thrilled to discover that the one and only Blues Traveler was playing locally – but I was (understandably) stunned by the prices TicketMaster was charging. I checked T&M and discovered that some dude was getting rid of tickets through Craigslist for just $12! Armed with that kind of bargain basement price info, I quickly got in touch with Fred, who had worn a Blues-Traveler-themed costume just days earlier.

Of course, he firmly rebuked me for even suggesting that he’d want to attend such and event but, thanks to T&M, I was able to get the conversation going. Just wait until the Spin Doctors come to town!

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Posted on December 6, 2009

TV Shows »Wicked Attraction

Wicked AttractionOn the Investigation Discovery channel

Visually, it definitely takes some getting used to (the first time Brittany and I watched an episode we found the overuse of kinetic video techniques incredibly overwhelming – and distracting), but the concept behind Wicked Attraction is undeniably intriguing: the show profiles couples (usually romantically involved, but not always) who have gone on (usually murderous) crime sprees.

The great Honeymoon Killers examines the bizarre, but not unique, relationship of a pair of crazies who probably would not have been killers if they hadn’t met each other but, through some crazy shared world view (usually founded upon the romance of the outlaw lifestyle), became serial killers. Badlands is a pretty wonderful portrait of this kind of relationship – so is Natural Born Killers, for that matter.

What’s great about Wicked Attraction is that it examines tons of similar cases – as a tease, a photo of Karla and her husband Paul flashes across the screen in the over-done intro – most of which are not nearly as infamous, though no less horrific, than the few high profile couple-killer cases we’re all familiar with. One particular episode, about two guys who met in prison and bonded over their mutual interest in abducting, assaulting and torturing women then, upon their respective releases, went out and bought a van and murdered an untold number of young girls, is truly chilling.

The production staff is always saddled with too few photos to work with (see below/after the jump), so I can almost understand the use of all the stylized digital fire, spazzy zooms and quick blurs; the over-saturated dramatic recreations (told almost entirely in close up) are an entirely different matter.

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Posted on December 6, 2009

Laughs »Ghost Hunters Academy

Ghost Hunters AcademyAiring weekly on SYFY

Let me just start off by making it clear that Ghost Hunters is a show that, unless you’ve seen it, you really can’t believe it. If you’ve seen clips on the Soup where a traditionally good looking guy is, in the parlance of McHale’s writers, “taunting the air”, that show is not Ghost Hunters but the free-wheeling, tongue-in-cheek Zak Bagans of Ghost Adventures. Ghost Hunters, which airs on the newly branded SyFy, is a dour, sour, extremely self-serious program that follows the TAPS team (former RotoRooters – I kid you not, watch the animated intro) Jason and Grant as they travel the country proffering their special blend of dickish skepticism.

I’m not sure how to put this without sounding like a dick myself (I’d certainly like to suppose that I’m not without a base-level belief in the supernatural), but a television show about the (pseudo) science of ghost detection is, at its very core, problematic. I suppose what I have the biggest issue with is the way that a bunch of scowly douchebags have thoroughly stripped away the mystery and wonder of the spiritual realm and replaced it with a bunch of hard and fast rules they simply shat out over years and years of know-it-ally conversations. Ghost stories are always fundamentally people stories: once you’re dead, you can’t really do all that much – it’s the human element that makes tales of spookings and hauntings so compelling – and Ghost Hunters occasionally succeeds when it profiles individuals experiencing paranormal activity in their homes and places of business.

The interviews with the afflicted are always the most genuinely interesting parts of the show because, more often than not, the interview subjects cannot help but betray that the haunting is something that they’re kind of proud of, a fact that sparks a series of essential, and rather heavy, human experience questions: why do these people think they have ghosts in their lives, what’s going on psychologically? Why aren’t all of us affected by moving plates and dimming lights, bumps in the attic and visions of people not there? Ultimately: is there really an afterlife or are we doomed to haunt some tourist attraction for the rest of eternity?

After the interview and case history are established, a  bunch of DV cams, EMF detectors and rigid, jerky attitudes take center stage as the team tries to ‘scientifically’ establish whether or not the place is actually haunted. This ‘evidence gathering’ phase of the show is always tedious, once it’s completed the team studies the A/V record they’ve made and looks for pieces of the tape where they can almost detect a voice straining to say something like, ‘Help me”.

But I filed this under Brittany’s Laughs category for a reason: this show is hilarious.

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Posted on December 6, 2009

Spend a Couple Hours »The Parlour

parlour greenpointThis week Jim was so taken with a new salon here in Greenpoint that he volunteered this post:

I’ve never actually felt comfortable in a salon; I’m sure my own issues are a big part of the reason why but, personal hang-ups aside, I’ve always genuinely perceived a mild disinterest radiating from the staff, as if they didn’t exactly want me in their club house – like I was some kind of interruptive intruder.

Never again. The other day, under pressure from Brittany to trim my beard, I booked an appointment up the street at The Parlour (it’s on Greenpoint and Franklin, right next door to Brouwerij Lane). I’ve never in my life felt more welcomed in a place of hair dressing. Everyone is super friendly and I didn’t at all feel like I was disrupting whatever they were up to the second before I walked in.

For $25 I got a shampoo, neck and beard trim with a hot towel, which is both super relaxing and a pretty good deal – but what’s really key is that I was able to get my beard trimmed by someone who totally knew what she was doing – which has not always been the case at other local shops that boast of their tonsorial expertise.

In fact, the last time I got a trim I was so displeased with the results that I had to tinker with it at home for some time and, in an (ultimately ineffectual) effort to make it look even and regular, I gradually shortened my beard far more than I would have liked to; so I’m sure you can imagine how pleased I was that I walked out with a great looking beard.

But the Parlour offers far more than mere man maintenance packages, Nackie (who runs the salon) is a major hair stylist. She worked for a number of years at the Chelsea Hotel before opening The Parlour just a couple of months ago. She trimmed my hair and it looks excellent, so I’m sure that whatever kind of style you’re looking for, she and her team can totally deliver.

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Posted on June 8, 2009

Movies »Demonlover

demonloverNo one does corporate espionage quite like Olivier Assayas. We watched Boarding Gate a little while ago and at one point I had to pause the DVD and ask aloud, “If you could make a movie about anything you wanted, why would you choose this story?” Brittany didn’t know for sure, but what really prompts my question isn’t so much a distaste for office intrigue – which is a perfectly valid genre to work in – but the way the writer/director goes about putting these movies together. There’s something really mind-blowing about how Assayas not only over-thinks the story, but how he consistently gets the kind of banal details that many filmmakers live or die by totally wrong, then, in the next scene, spends far too much time on what feels like the actual conversations these working professionals would really have with their colleagues – conversations that other filmmakers (the same filmmakers so anxious to portray banal everyday-osity) would find far too technical and specific and would feel obligated to water down with more universal factors in an effort to restore audience relate-ability.

It happens all the time in Boarding Gate: time and again the actual work that Michael Madsen’s character does (which is central to the story) is vaguely explained; apparently it’s financial – tied to the international markets – and he made some bad discussions a while back. This seemingly deliberate lack of specificity forces me to wonder, has Assayas ever had a real job? Has he ever worked in an office? Why, if this character’s job is so important to his movie, did he choose to do no actual research and leave the details out, which tends to be fairly common practice on the stage – where common knowledge dictates that those kind of details only hold a play back – but are routinely included in films – where realism tends to trump the black backdrop stylization of the modern theater? But then, towards the end of the film, Kim Gordon appears on the scene (Sonic Youth created the music for Demonlover, which I promise I’ll get to shortly), and gives the always phenomenal Asia Argento this incredibly detailed and (according to Brittany, who works in the industry in question) incredibly accurate description of the garment production work she oversees in Hong Kong.

That’s the contrast that makes these films so interesting: the purposeful omission of details (in an almost studenty way) that would ground the story in a semi-realistic world clashes with instances where the realism become un-filmic – which sets Assayas up to do what he does best, work with structure. And that’s really what sets Demonlover apart from Boarding Gate, it’s much a more successful and intriguing film because the narrative unravels in such a complex and disturbing way.

Here’s a quick synopsis: Diane (the steely Connie Nielsen), a corporate saboteur secretly employed by an Anime distribution outfit called Mangatronics to ensure that the takeover of the Japanese production studio TokyoAnime by the powerful VolfGroup corporation does not divert Mangatronics’s current market share to its rival, the American distribution company Demonlover. The resourceful Diane quickly dispatches her superior at Volf, a woman named Karen (Dominique Reymond) who just bought a jet black Audi TT, and takes over the details of the takeover. Diane and fellow Volf account exec Herve (Charles Berling) head to Japan to finalize the deal, which, the audience is told, is barely legal (who knows why). After a long working lunch discussing the legality of characters without pubic hair, Diane and Herve are taken over to the Anime-Tokyo studio, where they are turned on to the state of the art work that TokyoAnime is making (3-D animation not quite on par with the intro to Diablo II) as well as the existing product line (our DVD is censored, and the cartoon penetration is pixelated, but apparently there’s a 2-disc directors cut out there, somewhere).

Back in Paris, events take a quick turn when Gina Gershon, an executive at Demonlover, is picked up at the airport by Karen’s former assistant Elise (the lovely Chloe Sevigny, playing a character who’s always sticking her baby-sitter with overtime). Diane makes a number of moves to block Volf from signing a deal with Demonlover that would put Mangatronics out of business while CEO Volf himself (in Paris for only 16 hours) questions the Demonlover top brass about their involvement with an interactive torture site called Hellfire Club. Desperate to thwart the Demonlover contract, Diane dresses up in the kind of tight clothes required for willowy B&E and things start to go off the rails as the consequences of Diane’s actions – and some surprising office allegiances – are revealed.

The Hellfire Club site factors prominently into the latter half of the film and much screen time is devoted to Flash-heavy site intros. I know, it’s a bit hard not to smirk at the 21st century-osity of it all, but that’s okay – even though Foster Wallace didn’t exactly nail impending technological developments, Infinite Jest certainly doesn’t suffer. As the primary themes Assayas is working with become apparent early on: desensitization to sex and violence in these modern times, how even underground pornography – which seems so independent – is now a corporate commodity, how amorality and corruption seep upward into the highest strata of corporate enterprise with the acquisition of a vice-based product line; so do the techniques: the film is shot predominantly in shakey, hand held close ups of characters that are always smoking, classic film noir tropes are employed throughout, not only are there double crosses aplenty but, as one reviewer pointed out, Diane is knocked out more times than Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe combined. Darker themes emerge in the second half regarding the repulsion/allure of sadomasochism and voyeurism and the surrender of sexual control.

But it’s not the contemporary themes and the use of film styles that make this movie so dynamic, it’s Assayas’s use of his own technique: the inversion of these relatively commonplace elements by focusing the audience’s awareness on the surface level, requisite plot, which at time feels so paper-thin that there are moments where the lack of any kind of realism is actually distracting (at one point Diane is trying to reach Volf by phone but he’s unavailable, “tied up with that real estate thing again”; the first floor of the Volf corporate headquarters is a stock boiler room full of young men with telephones in each hand yelling, “Buy” and, “Sell” arbitrarily, while the second floor is reserved for too sexy executives working diligently on contracts for web sites like sexslavelaracroft.com; there’s a scene where a DJ is playing with faders on a mixing board like an over-enthuisiastic extra without any knowledge of the impact that such toying would have on the floor of a Japanese club), which forces audiences to recognize the plot is purely superficial – then Assayas hits back with a scene like the long lunch meeting (a scene that’s too realistic), and the resulting reality discord is an ideal set up for the way that the plot breaks down, not so much in a typical surrealist fashion (comparisons have been made –negatively – to Lost Highway and – positively – to Videodrome), but more along the lines of Blow Up or Glamorama, where the plot folds in on itself and all the topical content falls away to reveal something much darker and unsettling than could ever be reached through the straight addition of its parts – like Easton Ellis and Antonioni, Assayas practices a bizarre form of narrative mathematics; like Lynch and Cronenberg, he wields technological dread and sexual anxiety to create the atmosphere of a nightmare that’s gone on too long.

I don’t want to spoil the surprise so please, check it out for yourself. While I can’t promise you’ll like it (it was booed when it premiered at Cannes), you’re not likely to see anything else quite like it.

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Posted on December 8, 2008

Books »Dhalgren

dhalgren samuel r delanyA book that’s really like no other I’ve read, Samuel R. Delany‘s Dhalgren is technically a Sci Fi novel –but I think that’s super misleading. While it’s true that traditional SF elements abound (multiple moons, plague journals, cool multi-bladed hand weapons, gangs clad in mirrored chains roaming the streets enclosed in holographic dragon shields), would anybody ever strictly classify Naked Lunch as SF?

An amnesiac meets a woman in the woods and they have sex right away. She leads him into a cave where he discovers a chain of prisms and mirrors which he wraps around his body. The woman runs off and the amnesiac chases her, losing one of his sandals somewhere along the way. He picks up her trail in a field where he catches her just as she turns into a tree. He hits the road and is picked up by a trucker who gives him a lift to the edge of the city. A lot happens over the nearly 900 pages that follow. The amnesiac enters the city of Bellona, which is somewhere near Texas or Oklahoma, it’s not quite clear; something has happened to the city, either a man-made or natural disaster (it’s never explained), but there’s no phone service, no radio or television waves can pass in or out, the national guard has left and the residents have been evacuated – most of the residents that is, a number of folks remain, and there are frequent visitors.

Who would choose to live in a lawless city? Hippies, gay bikers, delusional yuppies, drag queens, poets, disaffected teens, drug users, AWOL sailors, psychologists, would-be publishing magnates, ministers, department store owners, astronauts and poor African Americans, these are the characters that the amnesiac –who becomes known as “The Kid”, Kidd or “Kid” encounters.

But I want to make it clear that Dhalgren isn’t a really tale of post apocalyptic survival, not like Mad Max or even A Boy and His Dog are, and even though there are gangs and there’s violence and there’s rape and there’s massive suns threatening to envelope the earth and lightning fields and earthquakes, there’s mainly page after page of literary acrobatics and conceptual language work that constantly lurches between the pretentiously inaccessible and the really dirty. In fact, this is the most sexual book I’ve ever read. Not only are the sex scenes graphic (to say the least), Delany is acutely interested in sexual psychology and much of the book deals with exactly why some residents and churches are decorated with massive posters of a naked black guy named George (the posters feature his fully erect penis), a man made famous in Bellona when photos of him raping a white girl hit the cover of the local newspaper – but even that little detail is loaded and not reflective of the myriad of complexities Delany works into the book.

Even more than sex, the book is about writing, it examines art criticism and art making with the intellectual rigor that David Foster Wallace (having never read Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest is the closest thing I can compare Dhalgren to, they share major ambition and SF elements –but the comparison is a bit misleading) applied to ball-hitting theory; Delany crafts pages and pages around Kid’s writing process, as Kid goes from erasing his way through early drafts to proofing galleys. A visiting celebrity poet, a pain in the ass semi-successful poet and a newspaper man all play key roles in Kid’s conception of art which, because he is a 30 year old amnesiac who seems to have spent time in mental institutions, is pretty much zilch when the book begins.

And it’s reflexive: buildings that have been burning for days are suddenly restored, street signs are suspiciously inconsistent, then deep, deep into the novel Kid discovers a warehouse full of the very props that have made the city what it is; it’s truly confounding. You’ve got to get to a point where you stop even looking for the kind of context clues that inform the plots of regular books. It doesn’t even matter what’s going on, plot-wise, because not only do events unfold in an inconsistent, semi chronological order, the final portion of the book is printed in a particularly infuriating format: the pages are split vertically in an attempt to recreate Kid’s fragmented notebook – when he discovers the spiral bound notebook in the park early on in the book, it’s already about 40% full, Kid pens the poems that are anthologized in Brass Orchids on the flip side of the pre-written pages, then squeezes journal entries into the margins, in between poems and around preexisting lists and such. This final section is introduced in a way that implies that the notebook had been converted into a manuscript which was later discovered by scholars and published with an almost academic introduction – but that’s misleading, it hints at some kind of a familiar structure (like Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub) but it’s important to note that even though the “discovery” of the notebook is inferred, no real narrative satisfaction can be gained from this device.

This is literally the diametric opposite of seminal SF works like Dune, plot and story take a secondary role to the incredibly engrossing and occasionally infuriating character development. Kid meets so many people, and interacts with them in such profound ways that even though I’ve probably (unintentionally) described this as more of a chore than a pleasure read, the four or so months that this will take you to work through it are well worth it. This is a thoroughly unforgettable book – and big thanks to Sarafina for tipping Brittany off to it.

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Posted on December 8, 2008

Albums »The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

Genesis The Lamb Lies Down on BroadwayWhat comes to mind when someone brings up a progressive rock concept album? Keyboards, for sure. Labyrinthine narrative structures, definitely. An intellectual earnestness that fluctuates between the pretentious and the downright naive, check. Chops, absolutely. Rampant egotism, usually captured best in ponderous interviews (though sometimes off the cuff outbursts at unappreciative but paying audience members do the trick), right. Awesome album art and unclear liner notes, yes. British (maybe even Canadian) origins, most likely. Finally, the real signature bullet point is ambition, which is commonly paired with excessive control on the part of one (or more – and it there’s more than one then they’re typically at odds) true-sighted dude with stringy haired (most likely bearded) seen almost exclusively smoking cigarettes inside a recording studio (thanks, VH1 Classic).

It’s not necessarily an alluring picture, and it’s easy to understand how the the bloated prog rock behemoths of the 1970s, all keyboards, drum solos and obtuse, sometimes downright ridiculous plot lines shoe horned into these self-important records, spawned a backlash so severe that punk music was created as a cultural antidote. But there are a couple of things that are easy to forget: first off, this stuff was hugely popular. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, which is rigorous and decidedly an acquired taste, was still mainstream enough that while doing some preliminary research I came across a photo of a billboard outside Orlando advertising the album and the ensuing tour. If there were billboards for OK Computer along Florida highways, I missed them. In our era of don’t-get-it-twisted popular music, thoughtful experimentation isn’t always rewarded and, for the most part, downright unprofitable.

Another element that doesn’t always get factored into our assessments is the live performative side: light shows, costuming, immersive atmosphere. Album-oriented rock is by its very nature bound to two (sometimes four) vinyl sides, but the early work of Genesis in particular (Peter Gabriel was described as a multi-media artist decades before the term really caught on) involved elaborate stage elements, which, judging by images like this, are just as awesome today as they were in the early 1970s.

So maybe it’s time to give this thing another shake – and besides, this album has always been a favorite of my dear aunt Graye’s, and she’s got great taste

Soooo, here’s the story: Rael, your typical Puerto Rican hustler/graffiti artist is hanging out in Midtown when a black trans-dimensional wall appears. The wall chases Rael all the way up to Columbus Circle before absorbing his body and knocking him out. Regaining consciousness first in a womb, then in a cage, Rael spots his brother John, who ignores his pleas for help. The cage dissolves and Rael makes his way to a warehouse – a warehouse full of packaged human beings! Rael flees into a nearly perfect reconstruction of the New York City of his youth and his mind drifts back to the time when he was studying a sex manual in preparation for intercourse.

After a lengthy flash back Rael returns his attention to the subterranean corridor in front of him and winds up in a room full of people trying to escape this strange underground realm. Everybody gives Rael tons of advice on escape (there are 32 doors, but only one exit), but it’s too much and he flees again, this time with blind woman who leads him into a dark cave where some real soul searching takes place before Rael meets Death himself, who blows smoke in his face. Death departs and Rael makes his way into a room with a pool – a pool full of snake women (the Lamia) who try to eat him alive before dying of ecstasy!

Rael consumes their bodies and keeps moving, arriving in a colony of deformed humans puttering around. Slipperman, one of the deformed, explains to Rael that all these folks have been through the same shit with the snake women and Rael, now as disfigured as they are, is just another sucker. Among the crowd Rael spots his brother who tips him off to the only route to re-normalization: castration. Both Rael and John undergo penile removal procedures and are handed back their dismembered members just as a super-sized blackbird comes down from the sky and snatches their peeners. Rael chases the raven (John doesn’t see the point) and watches as it drops its cargo into a deep ravine. Depressed, Rael glances up only to discover a skylight leading back up to the overworld. Just as Rael is about to resurface, he hears John screaming in the rapids below.

Rael thinks it over for a second, then moves to rescue his brother. He scrambles down the ravine and pulls John out of the water. Just as Rael gets his brother safely onto dry land he peers down at John’s face and discovers that John isn’t John at all – he is Rael!

Pretty crazy right? It’s like a story our good friend Tony would try to turn in to an intellectually limited summer school teacher. What’s really crazy is how the songs really aren’t about their topical narratives at all. This album has nothing to do with characterizing Rael as anything near an accurate depiction of an inner city youth. What Puerto Rican street hustler spends time fretting over which sex manual to buy or speaks at length about how he trusts country men more than town men? Why are the only landmarks major tourist destinations? There’s very little to do with the actual New York, it’s mask theory (not to be confused with Jack Vance’s Maske: Thaery); Gabriel’s most personal work is done when he’s buried under heavy makeup and crazy costumes. That’s when he gets down to business, and that’s why this story is, on the surface, about the furthest thing from a famous English progressive singer/songwriter.

But even with so much going on within and below the music itself, it’s elements outside of the what you’ll hear on the record that have really earned The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway its particular place in the pantheon of the greatest album of all time. The band was imploding, Gabriel wrote and recorded the lyrics separately from the rest of the band – which pleased no one – and he actually quit the band while on tour promoting this record.

For me, the most noteworthy thing of all is that in my lifetime Genesis has been a terrible band; a bastion of my least favorite musical genre: Adult Oriented Rock. And while Solsbury Hill is fine and the videos for Sledgehammer and Big Time certainly are cool, John Cusack hoisting a boom box over his head to declare his undying love for Ione Skye isn’t my personal ideal 80s sentimental moment – but I understand I’m in the minority on that one.

Not long after the album hit store shelves, the band embarked on a world tour, playing the complete album straight through over 100 times. Gabriel performed the first two thirds of the show in his Rael make up and leather jacket, then inhabited a light chamber representing the Lamia, and donning this amazingly grotesque costume to play Slipperman. This live element is the most intriguing facet of the whole thing, you can listen to an entire show, complete with Gabriel’s semi lucid narrative introductions, here. Even better, you can see videos here and here. But can you imagine seeing something like this today?

While it’s extremely easy to focus on Gabriel’s surreal story and live performances, the music is phenomenal – don’t forget, Phil Collins really is a virtuoso drummer. But it’s not just Collins, Banks, Rutherford (both of whom you will no doubt recognize from this early MTV staple), and guitarist Steve Hackett deliver throughout; even synthesizer advocate Brian Eno drops by to add some color (did you know who plays drums on Another Green World? Phil Collins! How’s that for art rock credibility?).

The title track, which begins with Banks’s dexterous ivory ticking and rapidly builds into a sonic portrait of the New York City that only short-term European visitors have glimpsed between concert dates; In the Cage, with it drone and menace; Back in NYC, dreadful, threatening – pre-punk, even; and the silly Counting Out Time, are just a few examples of the fantastic songs on the first, more accessible half of the album. And everybody loves Carpet Crawlers – so much so that Genesis took to closing the shows of its 1999 world tour with it.

The second half features the irritating Waiting Room, the seductive encounter with the Lamia and the amazing conclusion stating with Ravine, building to a crescendo in Riding the Scree, an avalanche of urgent sounds, then re-calibrating before the denouement. By the time that Rael has braved the rapids and “rescued” John, prompting the final epiphany, you’ve earned every note of It, which feels like a game show outro fused with the midi score that plays over the credits of Outrun, which inspires nearly the exact same empty thrill that comes from completing an 16-bit video game: you’ve worked so hard to get to this moment and there’s all this synthesized fanfare but you don’t totally want to be here – you don’t want it to end – and despite the hokey celebration, there’s something depressing watching a bunch of Japanese names scroll across your screen, or hearing the repeated refrain, “‘Cause it’s only knock and knowall, but I like it…” fade into nothing.

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Posted on December 8, 2008