Saturday, September 30, 2006

Scaaaaary Music

For decades there's been no shortage of metal meatheads, gothic chumps, gangsta wannabes and disgruntled boy bands tripping over themselves to appear as dark and twisted as possible, but genuinely unsettling music of the jump-out-of your-seat, look-over-your-shoulder, or at least refrain-from-giggling variety is often hard to come by. Just being a quality musician that deals with "dark" themes isn't enough to qualify. Slayer, for instance, may kick ass and utilize plenty of disturbing imagery but I don't find them "scary," and ookie-spookie types like Nick Cave and Tom Waits are too theatrically removed from their material (call me when you've actually moved into one of those decrepit barns you're always going on about, Waits). So here's a list of stuff that I find/have found personally unnerving to varying degrees, and that may get you blacklisted by the rest of the neighborhood should you choose to play them at this year's Halloween party. Obviously, this is far from definitive, as vaguely defined lists on some random dude's blog are wont to be, so any other recommendations are welcome (hint hint):

Suicide, "Frankie Teardrop" - This is still the only piece of music I've heard that I never listen to alone late at night; a completely bent 10-minute masterpiece about a disturbed factory worker who earns eternal damnation by blowing away his infant son, wife and himself. Alan Vega unleashes some of the most horrifying primal screams ever recorded over the ominously chugging synth bass and drum machine. A direct inspiration for admitted fan Bruce Springsteen's menacing "State Trooper" from the Nebraska album.

Kronos Quartet, Black Angels - The shrieking violins that kick off George Crumb's Vietnam-inspired title piece set the visceral tone for this anti-war lament of an album, but do not encompass its entire style. There’s also a performance of Shostakovich’s bleak "String Quartet No. 8," a crying Romanian woman (man?) throughout Istvan Marta’s "Doom. A Sigh," and an ironically placed recording of an old Charles Ives war tune reminiscent of Kubrick’s use of "Midnight, the Stars and You" at the end of The Shining. "Black Angels" is the most effective piece on the record though; its dissonant bursts of sound conjuring striking images of violence.

Before I go further, I should state the obvious and mention that I’m a classical music layman, and did indeed become aware of most of the composers below through Stanley Kubrick movies.

Krzysztof Penderecki, Matrix 5 – Before Crumb’s “Black Angels” there was Penderecki’s harrowing “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” searingly performed here by the Polish Radio Nationaly Symphony Orchestra (of which my uncle was… not a member). Despite it’s clearly defined structure, “Threnody” is like the classical equivalent of Peter Brotzmann’s free-jazz onslaught “Machine Gun.” The entire album is amazing though, and in its way pure horrorshow.

György Ligeti, The Ligeti Project II – Second part of a five disc series on the composer’s works, recorded between 2001-2004. Kubrick used a few Ligeti pieces for the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Two of them here, the shimmering “Lontano” and the static, eerie “Atmospheres,” remain the perfect music for interstellar traumas that leave you an ashen-faced old man inexplicably living out your days in a room full of antiques.

Bartók, “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” – More Kubrick madness; this was also used in The Shining, although it was nearly replaced after “Reunited” by Peaches and Herb tested better with audiences.

Scott Walker, “The Cockfighter” – Assuming your inner Beavis can resist snickering at the titular “sport,” and that you have a taste for Walker’s outrageous, faux-operatic voice, this tune from his 1995 album Tilt can serve as prime car-crashing material. After a minute or so of low murmuring, buried instruments and weird digging sounds that prompt you to turn up the volume, the track explodes into a techno/industrial dirge with Walker warbling about God knows what on top. This all had to have come as a surprise to any Walker fan at the time, and leads the listener to assume he was probably listening to a lot of Nine Inch Nails at that point (he was).

Finally we come to what surely must be the most terrifying album on the list, however the cover is so intense I still can’t work up the nerve to listen to it.

Clearly this nubile young woman has been traumatized by some kind of protracted mental and physical abuse, perhaps, judging by the location and the song title “Dirty White Boy,” incorporating scatological elements. I’m not familiar with the works of this “Foreigner,” but I would guess they resemble a cross between a harsher Diamanda Galas and John Cale circa the “Sabotage” tour, when he was ripping chickens’ heads off onstage.

Pleasant dreams!

Monday, September 25, 2006

"Freelove Autobahn" just isn't as funny.

Surely all of you are aware of the great BBC sitcom The Office, and even more of you are probably aware of the American remake (still largely unseen by me) on NBC. But did you know there are French and German versions of the show now as well? This Slate article has the details. I can't wait for the Islamic fundamentalist version where the boss makes inappropriate jokes about suicide bombers and Tim stones Dawn to death for her "shameful flirtatious glances."

(Above: One of David Brent's pranks goes horribly awry)

"I still wake up white on a blog that ain't." - Carcetti (paraphrased)

More Wire geekiness:
- Here's an in-depth new blog hopelessly devoted to every nuance of the show. David Simon posted a couple of comments, justifiably irritated by a post suggesting the show maybe is soft-peddling the junkie aspect. He pointed out that he wrote a six-hour miniseries focused on just addicts that was so grim even I couldn't get through it.
- Slate posted another "best show in the history of television" article shortly after the critical round-up in my previous post. They're also running one of their "TV club" features for season 4 where every week Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams and other documentaries, and author Alex Kotlowitz discuss the show.
- Here's a fairly recent, extensive Q&A with David Simon that I see was just updated a few days ago. Man, this guy doesn't toss off anything he writes, not even his interview responses.

My Mondays are going to be rougher for the next couple of months as new Wire episodes are popping up a week in advance right at midnight on HBO On Demand. Man, that scene next week where Bubbles is killed by a stingray at the Baltimore aquarium was eerily prescient!*

*yes, potentially irate googler, that's a phony spoiler.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Vote for the guy that doesn't flail his arms like an idiot

So I've been seeing the ads for All the King's Men, which opens today. Is Sean Penn playing another retarded character? That's the only explanation for whatever it looks like he's going for. Looks like he accelerated from "charismatic" to "lunatic" at about 90 mph and the director failed to hit the brakes. I've never gotten the "greatest actor of his generation" hype around this guy. Yeah, Dead Man Walking, but his only really iconic film role in 25 years was a high school surfer dude. Another reason why Jackass still has a clear path to my $9.50 this weekend: those guys are authentic cinematic cretins!

On another random note, if your company lost 1,137 laptops in five years, wouldn't you suspect something fishy is going on? I don't think a seminar about minding your valuables at Starbucks is the answer in this case.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Sven Nykvist RIP

I don't usually post these, but I wanted to note that Ingmar Bergman's longtime cinematographer on films such as Winter Light, Persona, Through a Glass Darkly, et al. has died. I was surprised to find out he won very deserved Oscars for possibly my two favorite Bergmans, Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander, neither of which are to be missed nor forgotten (although one's tolerance for Cries may vary). The Criterion box set for F&A is particularly exemplary even by their standards.

NY Times takes "Oh, that wacky Hugo" stance.

Insert "Hugo Chavez comedy hour" jokes here.

From the article:

But compared with Mr. Ahmadinejad, Mr. Chávez was just more colorful. He brandished a copy of Noam Chomsky’s “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance” and recommended it to members of the General Assembly to read. Later, he told a news conference that one of his greatest regrets was not getting to meet Mr. Chomsky before he died. (Mr. Chomsky, 77, is still alive.)

It's funny he thought Chomsky was dead, but on the other hand I know how he must have felt. I've always regretted not getting to meet Howard Zinn before he was mauled by that cougar.

However, this particular article doesn't mention Chavez' further literary criticism later in the same speech:

Mr. Chávez drew further applause from the assembly when he admitted to being one of millions of readers who felt "betrayed" by James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, calling Frey "a bearded Mephisto who should be exiled into space." Mr. Chávez also speculated that Running With Scissors author Augusten Burroughs "totally made all that shit up" in his own best-selling memoir, and called author William T. Vollman a "pussy" for "only writing seven volumes" of his treatise on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. Mr. Chávez later clarified that remark by claiming that a guy he knows has written at least ten unpublished volumes on the same subject and that Mr. Vollman had essentially "short-changed the reader" with his comparitively paltry effort.

No word yet on whether or not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has mentioned Reading Lolita in Tehran during any of his remarks yet, but I'll keep you posted. In the meantime, I suggest you read this.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Jetty Images

Chris Marker's famous, haunting 28-minute short film La Jetée(1962), which I caught for the first time on Turner Classic Movies' short film festival the other day, remains a must-see for fans of film and photography. The subject of a post-World War III time travel experiment is repeatedly sent back to meet the woman whose face became fixated in his memory as a child, after they both witnessed a man's death at an airport. If that sounds familiar, yes, this film was the inspiration for Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys. La Jetée is shot entirely as a series of still photographs, with the exception of a motion shot of the woman's eyes opening which unfortunately is pretty hard to make out in this Google video (it's around the 18:55 mark). Except for one out-of-print short film collection, I don't believe the film is currently available on dvd in America.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find a version in the original French w/ English subtitles to post. So this is the dubbed version (created by Marker, as he apparently is not a fan of subtitles). But the recording of the narration has a hissy quality that makes it sound oddly, convincingly more like a document of the experiment in the film (in my opinion, anyway).

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Hell M to the O to the T to the H to the E to the R to the F to the U to the C to the K to the I to the N to the Apostrophe Yeah!

HBO has renewed The Wire for it's fifth and final season! You see what kind of influence this blog has?!? Now maybe I can get takers for that dramedy I've been pitching about Mark E. Smith from the Fall coaching a high school basketball team. It'll be like White Shadow, except surlier and with less teeth.

On a semi-HBO-related note: Nice one, McSweeney's.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

If you're here 'cause you want to be entertained (by me, not The Wire), just go away.

Yes, this blog is going to be devoted to shameless, rapturous praise for my favorite tv show (often alternating with Deadwood for that title). The best drama series in the history of television, The Wire, returns tonight on HBO and this year it's especially important that every man, woman, child and pet duck that can watch it do so. It's been two years since season 3 and the perpetually low-rated show was only belatedly renewed for a fourth after it started doing well on dvd. Word of mouth has steadily been buzzing ever since and there should be a definite ratings spike this year, but HBO has come out and said the hopes for a fifth and final season rest on the audience response. As the sorry fates of Deadwood and Carnivale attest, HBO - despite their "It's not tv..." motto - is no different from any other network when it comes to watching the bottom line and has no problem leaving fans hanging and storylines unresolved if a show's not making them enough money. So if you've never seen it, now's the time to rent seasons 1-3 on dvd. The Wire has a rep for being slow-going and inaccessible but once you get into it you'll wish you could watch the entire thing in one sitting. More than once. The show's complex, multi-layered storylines never insult the audience, and it's closer overall to a living, "page-turning" novel than any show I've ever seen. Anyone who loves that feeling they get when they're reading a book and some seemingly disparate elements are tied together, or characters who you thought you'd figured out reveal some unexpected depth or take surprising action will love the payoff they get from the Wire's storylines.

Much of the show's uncanny authenticity and integrity stems from the top-notch pedigree of it's writers and producers. The series' creator, David Simon, is an ex-Baltimore Sun journalist who wrote 1992's nonfiction Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which was subsequently adapted into what was formerly my favorite cop show of all time, until this one came along. Writer and co-producer Ed Burns is a retired cop and former teacher whose experiences with Baltimore's broken school system will inform a lot of season 4's classroom scenes. The writing staff includes Richard Price, author of Clockers and Freedomland, as well as DC crime novelist George Pelecanos, among others. Every year the writers seemlessly incorporate upwards of 50 characters into a sweeping narrative with nary a false note to be found. The first season was firmly centered on the street level, as a cast-off police unit - including the show's nominal protagonist, self-destructive, oft-amusing cop Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West, providing a fresh spin on a cliched character type) - attempted to bring down drug kingpins Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). Season two threw the audience a curveball by focusing on Polish dockworkers (!) caught up in a deadly smuggling ring and illustrating the problems of the city's working class. Best of all for me, however, was season three, which not only brought the Barksdale storyline to it's wholly satisfying conclusion but featured the unlikely but fascinating character arc of Bunny Colvin, a fed-up retiring police major who decides to secretly "legalize" drugs in his district, setting up a "free zone" it's residents nickname "Hamsterdam" where police push all the district's dealers into one spot. Among other ramifications, the good news is that crime on all the rest of his corners comes to a halt. The bad news is that in Hamsterdam he finds himself, as one character puts it, "the Mayor of Hell." Season 4 - which critics who have seen it are proclaiming maybe the best yet - introduces a group of new, young actors and will focus on public schools. The premiere episode has been on HBO On Demand all week and offers another promising start for this year.

Which begs the question of why if The Wire is so good it's remained under the radar for so long. The most obvious reason is that if you don't really sit down and commit to it or get to know the characters, it's hard to get into on a weekly basis (which makes it ideal for dvd). Then there's the fact that because it's made in Baltimore it's all but ignored by the television industry (the same fate that befell Simon's Homicide). Plus, the truth is, tons of white viewers will settle in every Sunday night for the lurid exploits of Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen but they'll look down on a "black show" featuring drug dealers, no matter how insightful it is (and I've seen comments on the HBO message boards that confirm as much).

But since I'm not the most articulate person to be writing on this show, and am more on the George Michael Bluth side of things in terms of street smarts, here's some more people weighing in:

The Baltimore City Paper previews season 4 and delves into the real-life situations and politics that inform the show.
Edward Copeland on the show's vast array of black characters (warning: Contains major, major seasons 1-3 spoilers)
The SF Chronicle on getting into the Wire (more spoil-happy stuff)
Patton Oswalt begs you to watch it

Here's some more critics' praise I copied from the Television Without Pity message board (TWOP apparently doesn't deem it worthy of recaps and seperate forums):

“Brilliant, scathing, sprawling, The Wire has turned our indifference to urban decay into a TV achievement of the highest order.

The show’s impact doesn’t always register fully in individual episodes, wonderful as most are. But taken as a whole - not just over this premiering fourth season but over the entire run of the series – The Wire triumphs both as art and indictment.”


“It is the best drama in HBO history – all due respect to ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Deadwood,’ ‘The Wire’ is deeper, tighter and more ambitious - and one of the finest works ever produced for American television.”

-ALAN SEPINWALL, New Jersey Star-Ledger

“… ‘The Wire’ is more than just the best show on television. This sprawling, ferocious drama is one of the richest, most compelling pieces of entertainment created by anyone at any time in pop-culture history. And even that over-the-top endorsement feels like it comes up short somehow.”

-KARLA PETERSON, San Diego Union Tribune

“I am so blown away by this show that I will go out on a limb here to declare that these 13 episodes just might comprise the single finest piece of work ever produced for American TV.”
-ADAM BUCKMAN, New York Post

“This is TV as great modern literature, a shattering and heartbreaking urban epic about a city (Baltimore) rotting from within…. ‘The Wire’ reclaims its place in the top tier of American drama.”

“ ‘The Wire’ keeps getting better, and to my mind it has made the final jump from great TV to classic TV – put it right up there with ‘The Prisoner’ and the first three seasons of ‘The Sopranos’.”

“Second, the argument over whether ‘The Wire’ is the best show on television needs only two other participants -- also from HBO -- in the form of ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Deadwood.’ Rather than split hairs, let's just say that the breadth and ambition of ‘The Wire’ are unrivaled and that taken cumulatively over the course of a season -- any season -- it's an astonishing display of writing, acting and storytelling that must be considered alongside the best literature and filmmaking in the modern era.”
-TIM GOODMAN, San Francisco Gate

“The best show on TV…This is muckraking TV, in so many ways more powerful than anything a network news division can produce.”
-J. MAX ROBBINS, Broadcasting and Cable

“ ‘The Wire’ is the best thing ever done on dramatic television. Frankly, it makes ‘The Sopranos’ look like a sitcom. It makes ‘Six Feet Under’ look like a sitcom on the WB.”
-JAMES NOLD JR., Louisville Courier-Journal

“They have done what many well-intentioned socially minded writers have tried and failed at: written a story that is about social systems, in all their complexity, yet made it human, funny and most important of all, rivetingly entertaining.”

“ This season of ‘The Wire’ will knock the breath out of you….‘The Wire’ is a beautiful brave series. This is its best season yet.”

”No television show has provided so much insight on politics and all the foibles, frustrations and sick sense of humor that come with it.”
-NEAL JUSTIN, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“ ‘The Wire’ isn’t just impressive TV, its impressive art, and it shows just how far the medium has come – and where, one hopes, it’s going….the best analogy might be the serialized 19th-century novel, the kind of thing that kept Dickens fans lined up at newsstands in anticipation of the next installment.”
-MARY PARK, Seattle Times

“If there ever was a series that makes HBO a necessity, ‘The Wire’ is it.”
-MELANIE McFARLAND, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Season 4 of HBO’s The Wire – the best series on TV, period – is brutal and brilliant.”
-GILLIAN FLYNN, Entertainment Weekly

When television history is written, little else will rival "The Wire," a series of such extraordinary depth and ambition that it is, perhaps inevitably, savored only by an appreciative few. Layering each season upon the previous ones, creator David Simon conveys the decaying infrastructure of his hometown Baltimore in searing and sobering fashion -- constructing a show that's surely as impenetrable to the uninitiated as it is intoxicating to the faithful. In its fourth year, the program adds the school system to cops, drugs, unions, the ailing middle class, and big-city politics. Prepare to be depressed and dazzled.

“If you have only one hour a week for television, give it to ‘The Wire.’”
-MAUREEN RYAN, Chicago Tribune

“There is absolutely nothing simple about ‘The Wire,’ and that's what makes it the finest show on the current TV landscape.”

“. It's as uncompromising and challenging and troubling -- but ultimately stirring, in its triumph as art -- as anything on TV. “
-DAVE WALKER, New Orleans Times Picayune

Oh, and the show also has this guy; everyone's favorite gay robber of drug dealers ("James Lipton?" "Nooo..."):

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Please, PLEASE Stay Tuned for "The Commish"

I've been waiting for episodes of David Lynch and Mark Frost's short-lived 1992 sitcom "On the Air" to show up on YouTube for a while now and some kind soul has finally uploaded a well-worn VHS copy of the premiere episode in four parts. This page on gives a synopsis of the show's history and what it was about. Basically, Lynch's career was so mega-hot following the initial success of "Twin Peaks" that ABC pretty much gave him carte blanche to do any other kind of show he wanted. But by the time he gave them "On the Air" in 1992, Twin Peaks had been cancelled, Lynch was entering a commercial and critical downturn, and now ABC had this utterly whacked new show on their hands - a screwball sitcom with virtually every alienating trait the average network executive and/or person could imagine.

As anyone who's watched a lot of his work can attest, the only time Lynch is more bizarre than when he's vividly exploring nightmare imagery of the subconscious is when he's trying to be funny. Even in dark works like ERASERHEAD, a stray oddly comic moment ("OK, PAUL!") is often one of the most head-scratching elements of the film. Lynch's sense of humor is completely unfettered in "On the Air" and it runs toward the almost impossibly corny and dated. Picture scenes in "Twin Peaks" like the befuddled old man trudging slowly through the bank in the series finale, or the Deputy Andy/Lucy/Dick Tremaine bits late in the series' run, then ramp up the "zany factor" even further and you've got the tone of "On the Air." While the appeal and marketability of Lynch's usual dark milieu for art film snobs and social misfits alike is understandable, it's hard to imagine under normal circumstances that a sophisticated or not-so-sophisticated viewer would go for stuff in these clips like the unhilarious David "Squiggy" Lander's indecipherable German accent; the stock dimbulb, ditzy starlet character; and the sight gags involving midgets and siamese twins; all of which would have been stale by about 1939. However, Lynch's typically un-self-conscious and surreal presentation of this material makes it, if not traditionally funny, at least a weirdly compelling anomaly. I dimly recall the subsequent episodes as being even more odd so here's hoping they turn up on YouTube (or as I call it, SourceOfShamelesslyEverIncreasingOrgasms.orrrg) as well.

ON THE AIR - episode 1
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

On a related note, this YouTube user seems to be in the midst of uploading the entire first season of "Twin Peaks," including the essential, brilliant pilot episode which, due to ownership disputes is not available on DVD in the U.S., not even with the first season box set. If you've never seen the show and are unable to rent the pilot on VHS for whatever reason you may as well check it out. I watched TP when I was 11 and it forever changed the way I look at the world. The good news is it broadened my outlook, the bad news is I've attached permanent, creepy associations to ceiling fans.

EDIT: Whoops, that Twin Peaks pilot that guy uploaded is missing the last 10 minutes. I don't know what to tell ya.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Untitled Mike Judge Blog Post

What's the best way to spend your moviegoing dough for the remaining four months of the year - provided you live in L.A., Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Atlanta, or Toronto, that is (and yes, I realize that pretty much excludes all of my regular readers)? Go see the new Mike Judge comedy, IDIOCRACY. I have no idea if the movie's any good or not but at least by seeing it and possibly spreading word of mouth you'd be sticking it in some small way to 20th Century Fox, which has suspiciously gone out of it's way to completely bury and ruin this satire on the dumbing down of American culture. The film stars Luke Wilson as an "average joe" frozen by the government for research who wakes up 1,000 years later to find a society so moronic he's instantly annoited the smartest man alive.

The studio inteference and outright hostility Judge has experienced with this film sounds like any filmmaker not named Herzog or Gilliam's worst nightmare. IDIOCRACY was completed in 2004 but has sat on the shelf until just this past Friday, when Fox dumped it in and around the cities listed above with zero publicity, refusing to even authorize a trailer or website (as detailed in this Esquire article). Moviefone callers in the L.A. area are even finding the film erroneously listed under UNTITLED MIKE JUDGE PROJECT. I for one had never heard about it until last week. Since Judge is the creator of OFFICE SPACE, one of the all-time best sellers on dvd, as well as "Beavis and Butthead" and "King of the Hill," it stands to reason that good or not, the film deserves at least a FROM JUSTIN TO KELLY-level rollout. The prevailing conspiracy theory is that Fox either feared upsetting the film's corporate targets or were irked by his shots at the lowest common denominator-coddling entertainment industry (the #1 film 1,000 years in the future is a 90-minute posterior shot titled ASS). Early reports from people who have seen the film seem to be positive overall, although many are saying someone other than Judge obviously meddled with the final cut, citing examples such as the dreaded voice-over narration explaining self-evident gags on-screen. However, I'll remain optimistic about the film's quality. As the success of Beavis and Butthead proved and my junior high experience can attest, Judge's brand of satire can usually be embraced equally by those in on the satirical aspect of the joke and those who are simply tickled by the antics of their moronic counterparts on-screen. Also, let's face it: B&B's video commentaries were some of the most valuable music criticism of the past few decades.