Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Big News (I Mean, Right?)

The Cure has a new album out. To me, this feels like a giant tidal wave of music news, but I don't know why, because they've been releasing albums fairly steadily since their heyday. I guess a lot of those albums were hits collections and b-sides compilations. And a Depeche Mode cover album. Anyway, maybe the reason I feel like this is the first I'm hearing from The Cure in a while is that it's the first I'm hearing from The Cure in a while. Most of the songs of theirs that I listen to are the '80s and '90s ones, and I didn't start listening to them until a few years ago. So my Cure listening has always been a bit retroactive. I listen to them the way I listen to The Beatles: I love Revolver, but I have no idea what Ringo is doing right now.

4:13 Dream looks great. I sampled some of the tracks on Amazon. They don't sound exactly like the Cure songs I know best--a lot of those songs have that strong '80s, St. Elmo's Fire flavor. These new tracks remind me a little of Morrissey and even Counting Crows. I likes it.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas and "Merry Christmas" and Sufjan Stevens, et al

So Boxing Day has come and gone, meaning that Christmas has pretty much packed up and left town. This Christmas seemed to come and go a little more quickly than usual. I barely had time to process my annual thoughts on the Great Christmas Debate.

You know the one. Is Christmas exclusively a Christian holiday? Should Nativity scenes be displayed on public property? And what about saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”—isn’t that more inclusive?

I’ve never felt very sure of where I stood in this dialogue (yell-alogue). I don’t really identify with people who militantly defend the religious nature of Christmas. And yet December 25 has much to do with faith for me—this time of year, I always try to be more spiritual, trying to wring a little, I don’t know, growth or peace or breakthrough as the holiday speeds past.

Early in December, I came across a link to a short video put out by a division of Focus on the Family. In it, a blandly dressed man introduced a tradition he calls “Toss-mas,” the act of throwing out every catalog that presents its holiday gifts under the banner of “Seasons Greetings” at the expense of mentioning Christmas. This person annoyed me.

For one thing, smugness in any religious crusader (or crusader of non-religion, to be fair) is just a turnoff. Besides that, one could make a fairly solid argument that our “Christmas” is really a borrowing of very old winter holidays. If we borrowed it first, we can’t get too mad when someone else borrows it back.

Plus, it seems to me that most of our Christmas traditions are light-years removed from spirituality of any kind. Going to the mall between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the least sacred activity I can even think of. And when I give someone a nice sweater on Christmas, it’s not to say, “I’m giving you this to reflect the incarnation and the loving nature of God.” No, no, it’s to say: “Society tells me that if I don’t spend a certain amount of money on you, it means I don’t love you. So here.”

If stores want to appeal to as many people as possible by using “Happy Holidays” in their advertising, I just do not see how that’s a problem. That Focus on the Family guy was all like, “If you’re going to use our holiday to make money, at least get the name right.” See, if people are using the holiday to get people to spend sick amounts of money, aren’t they doing Christianity a favor by calling it something else? They’re kind of giving you back your word for it, no?

Anyway. I think there are two Christmases. There’s religious Christmas, and there’s community Christmas. Sure, there’s some overlap, but no one is doing me any harm by decorating a reindeer cookie without acknowledging the Baby Jesus.

This year, I went to liturgy late Christmas Eve night. The sanctuary was dim, and the altar glittered all red with poinsettias and candles in blood-colored glass holders. Christmas liturgy is mostly about Mary and the baby; it’s about the incarnation. As we sang, I breathed and said silently, Hey, I need you around here. And I needed to say that.

The next morning, I picked up my brother and drove to my parents’ house. We opened presents and ate a lot of food, and I watched probably three different movies that day. I know the sacred and the mundane shouldn’t be so separate. It’s just that Christmas and Christmas Eve were so markedly different. Two Christmases.

The thing is, though, that some things challenge my Christmas separation. The Charlie Brown Christmas special does. It has all that great music and those quotable, classic lines, and then toward the end, Linus quotes the Christmas story from the Bible and everybody sings “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” It’s great.

Another thing that jumbles my Christmases is the Sufjan Stevens Christmas box set. It has quirky and funny songs that have nothing to do with babies in mangers, and even sometimes pokes fun at the juxtaposition of Christmas symbols. But then he tacks the most beautiful bridge onto “Away in the Manger”:

Be near me

Lord Jesus

I ask thee to stay

Close by me


And love me I pray

And love me I pray

I guess beautiful things and good art can do that—marry disparate realities, and reintroduce you to something great that you maybe missed under all the obvious.

So I suppose I’m nowhere on settling the Christmas debate. I really don’t care whether a person’s holiday greetings are religious in nature or not. (My Christmas card this year had a photo of poodles on the front. I picked it because it was cute and I like dogs.) But as much as I love a good reindeer cookie, I think the "Be near me" part of Christmas is the most subtle--and the most amazing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Marley & Me and Me

So at some point over the next week or two, I will most likely visit a theater with my mom to watch Marley and Me. I know, I know, it might be a touch oversweet. And it has McSteamy in it, for some reason. But I think it could be fun, and I like Owen Wilson.

Plus, sometimes watching something with someone who loves it is as much fun as watching something you yourself love; and my mom likes sweetness in movies and books. Likewise, she lurves slapstick comedy, and while it doesn't do much for me, watching a pratfall-riddled flick with her is a pretty good time. That's why Just Friends is a holiday favorite for me, my mom, and my brother. Ryan Reynolds' sarcasm (and hotness) for me, people getting hurt for my mom. And Anna Faris's hilarious farcical pop star for everyone.

Anyway, John Grogan, the author of the monstrously popular Marley and Me book, has a new memoir out. The Longest Trip Home is about growing up in the tumultuous '60s and '70s under his parents' very Catholic tutelage. Could be interesting if you're curious about other people's growing-up years and religious formation. Here's an interview for your reading pleasure.

Merry Christmas, everyone! Hope your holiday break is full of all your favorites--and a little time for quiet as well.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Just for Fun

This is only sort of media related, but it's a good time nonetheless. Ze Frank did a daily podcast for a full year in 2006-2007. I love him. Here's the entry from this day in 2006.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Kaufman. Synecdoche.

Last night, on a bit of happenstance, I caught a late-night showing of Synecdoche, the latest Charlie Kaufman and semi-latest Philip Seymour Hoffman movie. (Actually, I think this is Kaufman’s directorial debut—he both wrote and directed this one.) I was not prepared.

If you’re planning on seeing this movie, that’s probably because you like Charlie Kaufman. Is that a fair assumption? And if you like Charlie Kaufman, you probably know what to expect from Synecdoche: criss-crossing realities and an acceptance of the implausible. (We might also add, a sort of sad-sack male character surrounded by female characters that are pretty much inscrutable.) I think this one is kind of specially Kaufman, though. Because—as far as I can tell, anyway—this movie is about death.

PSH, as Caden, starts the movie with an onset of weird illnesses and maladies, and there’s this general sense that his life isn’t going where he wants it to. He keeps having un-success with tha ladies (that’s an oversimplification, but just go with it), and he has this sort of tragic and powerless relationship with his offspring. He’s falling apart.

The movie wastes very little time in becoming illogical (why was that house still on fire?), and time seems to be running extra fast. As Caden rapidly ages, the film starts to spiral into this weird vortex of unreality. He’s a theater director, and he wants his present project—which is taking upwards of seventeen years to finish—to be really real and truly truthful. So he creates what seems to be a mirror of everything he experiences. The set keeps getting bigger, until the whole thing starts to look like a demi-version of his reality.

The movie’s title is a play on Schenectady, I guess—Caden’s residence. I think a synecdoche is a figure of speech where the part represents the whole, or something represents something else. The example I can think of is, “The White House said today . . .” The White House didn’t say anything; it just represents an administration. So maybe the title means that our physical reality is a representation of non-physical things. Or maybe that every human life is ultimately interchangeable with and represented by every other. Or . . . yeah, I have no idea.

Anyway, things keep not making any sense, and then some more stuff happens, and then Dianne Wiest’s character steps up out of nowhere and seems to explain what’s going on. Maybe. Sort of. I don’t want to give anything away—although that might be impossible, since I’m not sure I understood this movie. Maybe it would be best just to say that the film puts you inside Caden’s mind, and his mind is full of an acrid, itchy fear of death and despair over life.

I like Charlie Kaufman—I like the way his stories go. And I think this is a very interesting, affecting movie. But I didn’t enjoy it. At all, really.

I just didn’t enjoy feeling the way it made me feel. For one thing, I spent at least an hour and a half feeling desperately sorry for Caden, along with wondering where this all was going and suspecting that it wasn’t going anywhere. (I was right.) I feel uncomfortable with that kind of sympathy, because there’s nothing I can do with it.

For another thing, the whole movie is panicked and depressive (though it did have its funny moments). I respect Kaufman for making the kind of art that creates a state of mind. But I don’t like that state of mind, that feverish anxiety, that fear that you’ve screwed everything up, and I’m perfectly capable of experiencing it on my own. At one point, Caden moans, “I think I might be dying.” I have said this exact sentence, if not out loud. And I was doing fine until you showed up, #$@& Charlie Kaufman.

So I left the theater sort of angry. Having a movie create depression for you feels like getting hit in the face by a wet cotton ball, a little of the water splashing upward into your eye. And I didn’t feel like I could say to my companions, “I require you to spend the next hour with me, preferably eating something.”

Maybe I should have, despite the late hour—I think having other people around you is not a bad way to crack a window in the experience of depression. But I don’t think this movie made me depressed. I think it made me scared of being depressed. And that’s almost as bad.

I came home and turned on Scrubs, only to despair that it was the episode where Turk, J.D., and Eliot all have patients that die. So mortality was inescapable for me last night. This morning I woke up to the choice of believing that, despite how sucky life can be, and despite the fact that I don’t “get” death and possibly never will, there’s such a thing as good.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"They're rippin' me off!"

Well, Coldplay, I don't know what to say. You seem like swell guys, and you're a legitimately popular band. But apparently you've gone and copped to ripping off Jeff Buckley in "Shiver," and it's not the first time you've been accused of musical plagiarism.

I don't even know what Buckley song "Shiver" rips off. That "loouuuud and cleeeeear" part does sound Buckley-esque, but I can't place the exact song. Does anybody out there recognize it?

The thing is, this doesn't really ruin Coldplay for me, because I've never been one of their biggest fans. Sure, they've got some good hooks, and I always like a few songs on any Coldplay album. But I feel that they've gained such a firm foothold into pop music partly because they know how to manufacture certain emotions. (Exhibit A: Look at the stars, look how they shine for you.) And that's fine--I just think we should call it what it is and not pretend that these guys are rock and roll saviors.

Of course, having Brian Eno produce their last album was a credibility feather in their cap. But if they keep putting out songs with suspicious relationships to songs by other artists, that credibility might be hard to hold on to.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On DVD: Chapter 27

I demand to know why no one told me that this happened:

Jared Leto starring in a biopic about Mark David Chapman, the man who assassinated John Lennon. Jared Leto. Mark David Chapman.

I may have to watch it out of sheer curiosity.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Read This Person: Xiaolu Guo

Reviewing books is one of my favorite side projects, and this summer I got to read and review a book that I genuinely loved: Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo. Her previous book, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, looks equally amazing. Told in the point of view of a Chinese student studying English, it starts out in her broken English prose, and gradually improves as she masters the language. Nice.

Guo also takes photos, and also makes films--films that look incredible, if a bit elusive here in the States. If she creates movies with the same beauty and clarity of her novels, they're well worth the effort to find.

Friday, December 12, 2008

My Concession Speech

Okay, fine. Fine, okay? I concede that Radiohead is awesome. I'm at a coffeeshop, and they're playing The Bends, and it's fantastic. "High and Dry." "Fake Plastic Trees." It's great, okay?

But I still defend my previous and deeply-held belief that Amnesiac is pointlessly depressing. Melancholy is not the same thing as depth--sometimes melancholy is more self-indulgent than anything, and I think Amnesiac toes the line. Thirty minutes of this album makes me want to go to bed with a bottle of vodka, and I will never apologize for saying so.

But the other albums, they're good. I even like Pablo Honey (which apparently no one else does) and In Rainbows. Maybe I just like all the wrong Radiohead albums. Maybe I'm a nonconformist. Just like Thom Yorke.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

On My (Kitchen) Shelf: Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World

Ever wonder how to make delicious, petite desserts with nary a molecule of animal-derived foodstuffs? Sure you have. Well, thanks to Post Punk Kitchen hosts Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Romero, you can. Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World offers 75 recipes for moist, sweet, tasty cupcakes that just happen to be completely absent of dairy. I’m wearing out my copy—I can’t seem to stop myself from making cupcakes every other week or so.

The friends who gave me this cookbook even hosted a cupcake-baking party, during which we made, I don’t know, like, seven different kinds of cupcakes, including strawberry “tallcakes,” some nice red velvet numbers with the best icing ever, and tiramisu cupcakes.

This Christmas, your gift from me might be a batch of gingerbread cupcakes (with yummy crystallized ginger) with lemony buttercream icing. Just so you know.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

At the Movies: Baz Luhrmann's Australia

Q: Jessica, should I spend my hard-earned cash to go see Australia?
A: If you want to, sure.

Baz Luhrmann’s latest offering—four years in the making, apparently—released last weekend to a reception of shaky reviews. Critics are decrying its hokeyness, its over-the-top attempt at an epic, and its length.

But I liked it. It follows in the footsteps of Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge with its exaggerated, vaudevillian feel, especially in its early scenes. There are the same quick pans of the camera and a similar type of cinematography, and Nicole Kidman, though she plays a completely different character than Sateen, adopts a few of the comedic affectations she used in Moulin Rouge.

That’s why its over-the-top presentation worked for me: because even as the film strove to be an epic, it winked at the audience a few times along the way. So maybe it was a little outsized. Best I can figure, it was supposed to be. I think any epic is going to fail a little in its attempt at grandiosity and importance—um, Pearl Harbor?—but at least Australia is appropriately self-conscious.

Plus, I think at least some portion of the movie’s over-the-top feel comes from the casting of a certain Sexiest Man Alive. Hugh Jackman swaggers around like a bowlegged cowboy—or, more accurately, a drover, which is evidently both his job and his name, for some reason. The thing about Hugh Jackman is that his particular sexiness seems to be part ruggedness, part big, happy smile. One wonders, if Russell Crowe had been cast as originally planned (or so I heard), would the movie feel a little more like a dusty war epic and less like a parody? Seems possible.

But hey, I got nothing but love for Hugh Jackman, and he made this movie more watchable. There are a few things he couldn’t improve, of course. In a few places I felt unpleasantly aware of the score, and that’s not good. Also, it has to be said: this movie is long. And while I didn’t really labor under the burden of its length, the ending felt a little protracted.

Meanwhile, although the film’s treatment of Australia eschews stereotypes (i.e., there are no shrimps on barbies, very few crocs, and zero dingo babies) in favor of softly sketching a historical and sociopolitical outline of the land down under, sometimes that outline felt a little thin. Its treatment of racial politics, for example, isn’t offensive by any means, but its lack of depth raises a few unanswered questions.

So: Should you see Australia? If you like Baz Luhrmann, I think you’ll find room in your heart for this film. You might also enjoy it if you have a special affection for Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, or the continent of Australia.

But I think you won’t like this movie at all if you fall into either of two categories: 1) You despise melodramatic epics. 2) You love melodramatic epics, but hold them so sacrosanct that a chip in the veneer, or any tongue in any cheek, makes your own cheeks flush with indignation.

So it’s not Gone with the Wind. But really, would you want it to be?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


First post. Rock on. I'm here because I'm obsessively analytical and need an outlet to talk about all the media to which I am addicted--books, film, music, even a little TV. You're here because . . . I don't know, maybe you're just spinning through Blogger blogs, or maybe you're my friend outside the Internets and stopped by because I asked you to. Or maybe you're as obsessive as I am. In any case, I hope you find yourself at home. Grab a ca-hold one and feel free to add to any discussion that might occur.

To start things up, I'd like to draw everyone's attention to that collective of Swedish awesomeness, Little Dragon. I can't figure out why I don't hear more about them. I hope that will change here in the States, because they're one of the most unique and sonically pleasing bands I know of. A very soulful and cool vocal by Yukimi Nagano meets beats, bass and keys by Erik Boden, Fredrick Källgren and Håkan Wirenstrand, respectively. Not all the songs sound the same--some are dreamy and ambient, and some sound a bit like hip-hop. You can have a listen here.

Those Swedes. They know what they're doing. Ikea. Jens Lekman. Meatballs.

I guess that's it for today, kids. Hope to see you around soon.