Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ashton Kutcher: Important Public Figure or Most Important Public Figure?

Get a load of this asshole, flaunting his rakishness, mugging for Nikon and its misguided attempt to convince you that this camera is versatile and state-of-the-art. Like all of Kutcher's work, the ad is slight, derivative, and puzzling. But it is significant. What if I were to tell you that Ashton Kutcher and, by extension, this commerical could be the key to understanding fame in the 21st century? His career during this decade, more than anyone else's, reaches down and defines our changing nature of celebrity.

Beginning in 1998, Kutcher transitioned from modeling and starred as hunky goofball Kelso in That '70s Show, a teenaged stoner strain of that most American of forms, the sitcom. As the most physically comedic component of the show, he got many of the more memorable laughs. He was younger then, but still way too old to be a believable high schooler, which is yet another part of the formula.

In 2000, he parlayed his role on the show to a role as a hunky gooball in the teenaged stoner comedy Dude, Where's My Car?, which turned out to be a commercial success, earning $46 million against its $13 million production cost. At this point, he was fulfilling our exact expectations for him and his identity, which was the early part of the decade's recipe for success. We knew who Ashton Kutcher was, and he did nothing to complicate that. As they always do though, things got more complex.

What or who Ashton Kutcher was had been confirmed to us, but he spent the middle part of the aughts attempting to play against that type. His audience met that experimentation with indifference. From 2003 to 2006, he acted in more subtle and mature versions of his persona. My Boss's Daughter (2003) was a slapstick farce, but this time Kutcher's character--shockingly--had a job. Just Married (2003) saw him and the late Brittany Murphy as real-life married grown-ups. The former flopped, but the latter, boosted by a powerful Valentine's Day opening, earned $56 million against its $18 million investment. Audiences vote with their pocketbooks, and the Ashton Kutcher business was still good. He wasn't the most reliable movie star, but he was a fine option on the B+ list.


Part two of this can be about how many years he set us back with the trucker hat.

So what do you do if you're in Kutcher's enviable position in 2004: handsome, rich, and powerful for being dumb, young, and immature? You test your audience by doing the opposite of what you're so famous for. Like Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, and Jim Carrey before him, Kutcher went serious in 2004's The Butterfly Effect. You can tell how serious it is because he has a beard in it. A comedic actor performing in a drama is kind of like a basketball player's heat check. If it doesn't work, it isn't disastrous; but if it does work, you've reached a whole new level of success. The Butterfly Effect worked even better than we remembered. It had a relatively small budget and grossed almost the exact same amount of money as Just Married, without the built-in audience of Valentine's Day or a marketable second-lead. What's more, even though it isn't regarded as a good movie, many critics singled out Kutcher's performance as not terrible.

So if an actor's commercial success in the first half of this decade is predicated upon filling a role, and Kutcher played against type successfully, doesn't that negate what I've written so far? No. The movie was a success not because Kutcher was doing something new. It was a success because he was, paradoxically, doing exactly what he was supposed to do at this stage of his career. He was still--even by subverting expectations--fulfilling expectations. And his audience, at the media-savvy mid-point of the decade, knew this, even subconsciously.

It helped that Kutcher mitigated the risk of that movie by creating and producing MTV's Punk'd. There, he shouted and guffawed his way through elaborately staged pranks on his unsuspecting celebrity friends. He's a prankster, folks. Just in case you were wondering whether or not he was the damaged, conflicted brooder seen in New Line's The Butterfly Effect, here he is showing you he's the fun-loving enfant terrible in real life that he always pretended to be on the silver screen. Watch him make this driving test impossible for Hilary Duff! Kutcher's audience was ready to move on with his acting as long as it was clear who he really was. Importantly, this was also the first instance of Kutcher being famous for something other than acting.

By 2006, Kutcher was choosing projects to include his loud-mouthed buffoonery within a structure that extended it, as seen in the romance A Lot Like Love (a disaster), the prestigious remake Guess Who, or the actioner The Guardian. In each of these, he played the Lewis to bigger and bigger Martins: Amanda Peet, then Bernie Mac, then Kevin Costner. Guess Who and The Guardian weren't hits--no Ashton Kutcher-driven vehicle has been--but they made money. The perception, however, which is all that is important when it comes to fame, was that Kutcher had become desperate. This was the time to anchor his own pictures, and he was hitching his wagon to another star.

Hijinx. You can tell how generic these movies are by the titles. How can you name your film The Guardian with a straight face?

So what do you do if you're a little older, a little less dumb, and a little more mature? If you're Ashton Kutcher, you have no idea. You try some voice work (Open Season), producing (Miss Guided, Beauty and the Geek), and small roles in independent films (Bobby), none of which works. You pick another role aside a more established, bankable star in a madcap, broad-faced comedy (What Happens in Vegas), and it becomes one of the bigger hits of the summer. Every time he plays an idiot alongside other idiots, people flock to movie theaters. Cast him as a retarded person alongside Adam Sandler, and the screen might spontaneously combust. You confirm what you already know: how people approve of your existence.

Here's what I've been getting at though: If you asked someone to summarize things Ashton Kutcher did to continue being famous in 2008-2009, he might say, "Starred with Cameron Diaz in What Happens in Vegas, which was one of the worst movies of last year." But it's much more likely that he would say, "Amassed a poo-ton of twitter followers, strangely stayed married to Demi Moore, and shilled for Nikon." None of these things have to do with what originally made him famous, but they somehow make him more famous, whatever that word means now.

In all of the examples leading up to the present day, I've used box office figures--all from imdb--to prove whether or not people accepted the different incarnations of what Ashton Kutcher was doing. By the end of the decade, that proves useless. We no longer have any data to support a celebrity's influence. Because he's presently known for things other than acting, he exemplifies the changes in the way we view celebrities. We started this decade knowing what we want from a star and promoting that image with our wallets. By the middle of it, we're second-guessing ourselves because of over-exposure and a more complicated understanding of media. Today, your guess is as good as mine. We've seen what he has to offer as an actor, and we've chosen the real Ashton Kutcher instead. Whereas we used to support cultural developments by paying for them, now they just kind of happen to us.

Kutcher's most recent film is 2009's Spread, which was such an enormous misfire you might not have even heard of it. Domestically, it made $250,000. He probably owns cars that are worth more than the receipts for Spread. In it, he plays a kept-man inching toward thirty, who takes advantage of wealthy cougars. Is this autobiographical or pure acting? Is this a validation of what audiences want or a rejection of it? Is Ashton Kutcher one of the most famous people in the world, or is he past his prime? We have no way of knowing this anymore, and Spread is the best shrug Ashton Kutcher can give.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Kanye West Post

#6 Album of the Decade- Kanye West- The College Dropout (2004) Kanye West feat. Mos Def, Freeway- "Two Words"

#1 Song of the Decade- Kanye West- "Jesus Walks"

#35 Album of the Decade- Kanye West- Late Registration (2005)

Secretly, as I read other writers' fin-de-decade retrospectives, I grow bristly when I see something patently obscure. Although I'll admit that I deal in the same cultural capital they do, and that I have elitist choices sprinkled throughout, there's a nagging part of the critic in me that shudders to admit: art doesn't really matter if it isn't popular.

Combing through alternate takes of b-sides or fighting sleep to finish a Taiwanese chamber piece is alienating, even when it's fun. Most critics, even the self-appointed and undistinguished ones like me, are lonely and anti-social. They articulate things that are ineffable, and they practically beg a reader they will never meet to feel the same emotions that fuel them to write. By becoming better at this process, they only grow apart from the needs of their original audience. That's where that critical-commercial divide comes from. While most people wonder why critics like movies and albums they've never heard of, I wonder why the two groups have anything in common at all.

Elitism, however, is not satisfying. Information has no power if it can't be shared. Music, more than any other type of art, is transcendent in its ability not only to transport, but to unite. Good music doesn't endure because it's unique or influential or even moving. It stands the test of time because it's universal. Not too long ago--the seventies--the most critically-acclaimed art was also the most commercially successful. There's a reason Led Zeppelin is still on the radio and The Godfather is still on TV. In an age of stratified choices for entertainment, it's high time someone united us again.

Not very secretly, Kanye West knows all of this.

That understanding is the reason he does things like, you know, interrupt a teenage girl to rectify the oversights of a banal and inconsequential awards show. It's because he profoundly cares about his legacy. In five years he has shaped a genre of music as much as anyone ever has. Imagine what he might look and sound like in ten more. It's because of that impact that he can just as easily burn out in a year or change music for another forty. Neither of those options would surprise me, which only adds to his immediacy and mystique and ownership of this moment. So forgive him if he thought ol' squinty shouldn't have taken home the Moonman.

Ownership of this moment.

In discussing the best of his work, it is helpful to view West through these two guidelines:
1. Kanye West is historically great because of the breadth of his vision.
2. Kanye West's vision is historically great because of his exactitude in achieving it.

1. Despite its cultural influence, hip-hop is a niche genre in that there are some people who will never consciously listen to it, regardless of how good it is. But a lot of those people end up listening to Kanye West.

His first trick was cross-pollinating an already divided hip-hop audience. The College Dropout's focused songwriting, sense of humor, conscious rap tag-teaming, and boom-bap Tribe throwback beats endeared traditionalist heads, while its underdog spirit, big name co-signs, superficial trappings, and glossy production value convinced the unwashed rap masses. The College Dropout is, as the title suggests, both smart and stupid at the same time. Although it's structured as a conflicted bildingsroman steeped in the dusty soul platters of a misspent youth, Kanye is still trolling Black Planet for bubble-butted chicks at 3:00 AM.

If you want it in elitist shorthand, Kanye West is basically Ralph Waldo Emerson. Both are obsessed with spiritual growth learned through experience, even if that growth has to be filtered through self-reliance. "Whosoever be a man must be a non-conformist" and "that that that that don't kill me can only make me stronger."

It got weirder though. "Gold Digger's" punch-lines and serendipitously topical Ray Charles scratch-up hooked fifteen-year-olds and my mom, and 808s and Heartbreaks (which I was completely wrong about) is being played in a more upscale-than-thou clothing store right now. With each album, West has collected a wider, more divided audience. Not since Michael Jackson has a musician amassed a more diverse and demanding set of fans to please, and the miraculous thing is that he seems to satisfy all of those fans every time.

2. Of West's Big Gulp-sized Graduation, I wrote: "The songs sound like they were made by someone staying up all night by himself, and that's something that can't be faked." While rap has had many Mozarts and Rimbauds and Basquiats, it didn't really have a Stanley Kubrick until Kanye West. The College Dropout is not the tossed-off improvisation, the flash of genius standard that most of hip-hop has set; it's the imperfect work of a perfectionist. On it, West's vocals are curiously high in the mix, there are numerous punch-ins to disguise his poor breath control, the skits are mean-spirited and momentum-sapping, and the puzzling sequencing buries the epochal "Through the Wire" into the final third of the album. Likewise, Late Registration is over-ambitious, uneven bombast.

But you cannot deny that, warts and all, these are the exact records West sought out to make. Each hard snare and bongo roll is hand-crafted, and the intensity of his voice overpowers you, even when it's clumsy and undeveloped on the debut record. On The College Dropout, he's not yet a great rapper. But he's trying so hard, and he cares. He is trying to articulate the ineffable, and he's practically begging the listener to feel the emotions that fueled him to write. He thinks like a critic and embraces contradiction when most of his contemporaries are scared of it.

It should be mentioned that there's a whole other column I could write about my personal response to the music, since I've connected with maybe two or three other musicians in the way I have with West. I know every word of every album, I've written as many words about him as I have about any other pop culture figure, I quit a job in the summer of '04 to catch a show of his in Atlanta, etc. Some other time.

Combine all of these elements, and you have the recipe for why "Jesus Walks" is the defining moment of a career that defined the decade. Constructed around a sample of "Walk with Me" by the ARC Choir, the song's maximalism knows no bounds. It is reported that West layered over 100 overdubs of violins onto the bridge, and one of the track's biggest strengths is how centered it is while still dipping into flourishes, building and receding with the tension that mirrors the entire album.

As overpowering as the lush, militaristic sonic atmosphere is though, the lyrics stand out even more. This is the most assured West sounds on the entire album. It's poignant but not overbearing, and the most telling lines are:

"So here go my single, dog, radio needs this
They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, videotape
But if I talk about God, my record won't get played, huh?
Well if this take away from my spins
Which'll probably take away from my ends
I hope it take away from my sins and bring the day that I'm dreamin' 'bout
Next time I'm in the club everybody screamin' out (Jesus walks)"

It's not enough to make a bold declaration of faith in a mainstream single. He has to make it clear that the vision, as calculated as it is, is not complete until it is embraced by an audience. He's going to be iconoclastic, and you're going to love it. Information that can't be shared is useless. A personal statement will be converted to a public acceptance. He thinks like a critic but acts like the audience. He's conflicted but confident. He's lonely but not alienated. He's elitist and universal.

It was Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson's boy, who wrote:
"Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)"

To which Kanye would have replied, "Best poet of all time! All time!"

Thursday, December 03, 2009

#31 Film of the Decade- 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

31. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days- Cristian Mungiu (2007)

Imagine you're a young Romanian woman. You had a rough day at school, and you spent the afternoon trying to arrange transportation for your bestie to get an illegal abortion. Once you have lied your way past a suspicious desk clerk at the hotel you've scrounged up money for, you have to haggle with a shady, free-lance abortionist, whore yourself out to him, then--OMG--make it across town to the family dinner you promised your boyfriend earlier. Then you have to endure their unrelatably bourgeois conversation, fend off your boyfriend's advances (not in the mood?), and make it back to the hotel in case ol' girl bled herself to death. Why wasn't there an XBox game adapted from this?

So yeah. This is the way Netflix makes money. This disc will be on top of your DVD player for a few weeks before you psych yourself up to watch it. Otilia's day in this film makes Michael Douglas' day in Falling Down seem like Christmas Eve. But once you watch 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, you'll be thankful--relieved maybe--to have experienced something so wrenching, gritty, and eventually beautiful.

The intelligentsia decides every few years which culture to follow, and--on the heels of the Iranian cinema craze of a decade ago--Romania has become the country to watch. With The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; The Way I Spent the End of the World; Police, Adjective; and, most importantly, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the filmmakers of that nation have done something no other tradition has been able to: They have made film the medium essential to analyzing (and revising) their own history. Funded by juries and grants, Romanian artists are finding new ways to reflect upon the fall of Ceausescu's Communist rule, and each stab at doing so seems more vital and energetic. While we've known for a long time that film is the most democratic form of entertainment and artistic expression, Romania is finding a way to prove it and revel in that democracy. They're putting their leu where their mouth is.

"I really meant to watch it. It was just a busy week. I had planned to finally get to it on Friday, but I got drunk and watched basketball since I wasn't in the mood to read subtitles. I switched to two discs at-a-time, thinking that would be a solution to the problem, but now I just have two discs sitting on the machine, and I'm paying twice as much..."

Since the film takes place in the late '80s, the fall of Communism is, tragically, not yet realized for Cristian Mungiu's protagonists. Instead its compromises are ever-present. Otila, played naturalistically by Anamaria Marinca, guides Gabita around the entire movie, seemingly wise and sneaky and controlling in the way she uses the black market or navigates the town. But we easily see--through the practices of the hotel, through the humiliation she faces at dinner, through bartering for something as inconsequential as American toothpaste--that she's a tool of Communism. If such a strong woman is powerless in this political system, what hope do any of us have? If this were just a treatise on the economic and spiritual results of the collapse of Communism, it wouldn't be affecting. The viewer engages with it because the characters are not accents on some grand thesis statement; they're complicated and validated by this backdrop.

Despite its political intensity, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days exemplifies the power of minimalism like few other films of recent memory. It's half-lit and soured by drab, pre-rain atmosphere. Mungiu rarely moves the camera, and the story unfolds in interminable episodes. Much like the sublime Inglorious Basterds from earlier this year, most of the suspense is mined from the paucity of actual scenes. If there are only about ten scenes in your entire movie, they're all going to count. In some of these interactions, the negotiation with the creepy doctor for instance, we want to cut away desperately. But realizing that we can't cut away, that this is real and necessarily painful, is kind of what the movie is about.

If you only see one Romanian baby-killing buddy thriller this decade, make it this one.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bring Me the Head of Les Miles!

Today was the most embarrassing finish to an LSU game since I've been a fan. The coaching problems have come to a head.

prior to working at LSU, Miles was Heath Ledger's lifecoach

Today has not been a good day! LSU lost cause Les Miles is an idiot and should be fired

wtf les miles.

LOLOLOLOL, how does Les Miles still have a job?


Fuck Les miles. WTF

I think anyone who has been a fan of LSU would agree, this is a new low. The team plays hard but when you have coaching that apparently is at the same level as WW Lewis middle school, it makes it kinda hard to win any game against real teams. DOWN WITH MILES.

These are Facebook status updates and tweets (@cbowes) that I collected after LSU's controversial game on Saturday. This week I've heard both casual fans and die-hards alike insist that Les Miles, because of but not limited to his mistakes on Saturday, should be fired. While Miles' clock management was inexcusable--and while his team's weaknesses are symptomatic of his own weaknesses--firing him would be the most counter-productive measure possible for the program. All of these statements--especially the one about Les Miles being Heath Ledger's life-coach--are ridiculous. Because we all know Mary-Kate Olsen was Heath Ledger's life-coach.

Anyone who objectively looked at LSU's schedule before the season began would have predicted three losses for such a young team in such a competitive conference. The Florida and Alabama games never seemed winnable to me, and I figured that we would fall to either Auburn in a trap-game or Ole Miss on the road, a team who, let's remember, began the year ranked in the top five. That is exactly what happened; LSU has lost three games. With a new defensive coordinator, a bulls-eye on their backs, and a nineteen-year-old quarterback who frankly isn't good, they have met expectations. That is, unless your expectations were a National Championship, and you forgot that only one team can win that per year.

Yes, LSU should have won that game. I'll admit that Miles' poor play-calling and clock management down the stretch cost them the victory. His team is undisciplined and over-matched. And even if you want to blame Jordan Jefferson for the loss, he makes bad decisions because of the relaxed environment his coach has created for him. Jefferson hasn't grown because Les Miles hasn't made him. Much like that other successful "players' coach," Pete Carroll of USC, Miles is starting to see the fallout of his laid-back, reckless style. But when that laid-back, restless style won all of those games LSU had no business winning, my tweets were much different.

"Say hello to the bad guy." I would encourage you to google-search "anyone associated with college football + photoshop." It's a good way to spend an afternoon.

At no point this year was LSU better than Florida or Alabama, so it's a moot point that we won't play for an SEC title. Should the loss against Ole Miss matter? Certainly. You might be saying that we should still hold our heads high. You might be saying that you "refuse to let the program gravitate into mediocrity," which is exactly what Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson said when he canned Frank Solich after he went a disappointing 9-3.* Two coaches later, now under LSU familiar face Bo Pelini, the Cornhuskers haven't come close to 9-3.

Or look at Michigan, who pink-slipped the "mediocre" Lloyd Carr--this time a guy with a National Championship to his credit--after one too many disappointing seasons. The Wolverines then spent millions of dollars on Rich Rodgriguez, who has an 8-16 record since taking over. Notre Dame made the same mistake by pulling up shop on Tyrone Willingham, and they're making the mistake once again by firing Charlie Weis.

Despite what Urban Meyer would have you believe, after winning a title in his second season with Florida (and we'll see how he does once he no longer has the most dominant player in the country on his side), continuity is the most important factor for a college football program's success. Most LSU fans would admit that the team's biggest weakness is its immaturity and inexperience. So the answer for that is...get a less experienced coach to take over?

Because who would take over the reigns for the helpless and unprepared Les Miles, overreacting Tiger fans? Boise State head coach Chris Petersen in the best case scenario? It that such an upgrade? Maybe we could promote Gary Crowton, the other guy you're demonizing?

If you're assuming that LSU is a prestigious enough program to attract an NFL coach, what precedents are there for success in that arena? Lane Kiffin and Bill Callahan haven't lit up any scoreboards. And you're counting on either a guy who is getting fired this season or a guy who has sat out a few. Let's say Bill Cowher, Mike Shanahan, or Joe Gibbs is interested in taking $3 million to coach the Tigers. Cowher would want to install a new staff and probably knows as much about Louisiana recruiting as I do about his zone blitzes. (Can you imagine Harry Coleman on one of those? I'm nervous enough, thanks.) This would, once again, destroy continuity. Right now at least, there is no one who can do this job better than Les Miles, whether that angers you or not.

I'm not complaining, but LSU is a team that was given too much too soon. Its fans have understandably followed suit. Pete Carroll is in the same situation as Miles, but is anyone in California calling for his head? LSU is a team two years removed from being the best in the country, and it just had another top five recruiting class. Whenever his back is against the wall and he needs to get wins, Les Miles finds a way--witness his undefeated bowl record. I expect nothing but his best against Ar-Kansas and our bowl opponent.

So I'm sorry if you had a bad day or were embarrassed, but you can't win them all and firing your coach is not the right move. If you've reached the end of this column, you're undoubtedly patient. Show that same patience with your football team. Or at least go watch the Saints and shut up for a few months.

*- qtd. in Stewart Mandel's Bowls, Polls, and Tattered Souls: Tackling the Chaos and Controversy That Reign Over College Football.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Top Fifteen Babes of the Decade

I need a post for this week, so I started on a Bill Belichick column. Four paragraphs, two funny pictures, and some variation on "Bill Belichick is America" later, I realized I wasn't saying anything concrete or original, and I trashed it. You can ask P.T. or Jelly--there are a bunch of half-finished columns lingering on the TANBR profile, and I have a lot of half-baked theses that I never return to. (One of these includes the lines: "Don't you see, man? Electronic picture frames! We are in the future.")

Toiling on the best of lists, I found myself pretty naturally ranking babes of the decade as well--not girls or hotties or anything like that. Babes. Every age has its own babes: women/objects who reach down and define what is desirable or captivating, whether those babes were Raquel, Marilyn, Farrah, or Pam. Is this shallow? Yes, of course it's shallow, and of course it's subjective. There are girls who have fallen off the map dramatically as of late but probably still belong on a decade list (Heidi Klum), and there are chicks I have become obsessed with for a week and then forgotten about. And of course this is going to be cheesy and fratty. And of course I'm worried that this post with minimal commentary reveals more about me than anything else I've written. And of course I've probably spent too much effort on trying to justify this. Here are the top fifteen babes of the decade.

15. Keeley Hazell- She was neck-and-neck with Yvonne Strahovski and Eva Green for the last spot. Although, to be fair, I've never really looked above her neck. (What did I tell you about cheesy frattiness?)
14. Charlize Theron- She's finally starting to show her age, and her body type is a bit more athletic than what I normally like, but few this decade could match her mixture of raw sexuality and elegance.
13. Jessica Biel- We're beginning a run on really predictable entries, but what can I say? The point of this is summing up the zeitgeist. I'm sorry to admit that as far as thickness goes, she's pretty much the Blackest chick on this list. There were some in the honorable mention, I swear.
12. Adriana Lima- I kind of hate myself for being so attracted to her over-the-top sultriness. One commonality among a lot of these broads? I like belly-button rings. Or, to be more accurate, the long torso that would accentuate a belly-button ring. The belly-button ring itself is sort of incidental.
11. Alexis Bledel- Finally, one that women can't argue about. It's been said before that there are two types of attractive: the modest, classically beautiful type that other women have to accept (see number seven) and the fake, wanton sex objects that get something thrown at you. (Number 12 is a sore subject with my wife.) Bledel is definitely in that first camp with eyes that would look fake if they weren't so unique. I'll also admit that part of my fascination with her has to do with the indie cindy she played on eight seasons of Gilmore Girls. (I told you this would be revealing.)
10. Christina Hendricks

I promise that the list is not completely populated with zaftig bombshells. But number 10 is another one.

9. Rachel Bilson

We don't see much of her anymore, and she doesn't have the best smile. She does, however, have the best smirky fake-frown.

8. Mila Kunis

This might be a bit high for her, but, again, this is a girl we've spent the better part of the decade with, and she's gotten 7% hotter each year as she's grown into herself. No ceilings.

7. Anne Hathaway

First off, I like pale chicks. Moreover--and I've used this corollary before--if you ran into Anne Hathaway at an Ikea and invited her to a party you were throwing, there's a small chance she might show up. There's just something approachable about her, as beautiful she is. I've got to be down to ride for a woman like that.

6. Angelina Jolie

Fading fast due to increasingly skinny arms (and kids), you can't deny how powerful her sexy has been this decade. Consistent and one-of-a-kind.

5. Laetitia Casta

For about a year, she seemed poised to become the biggest supermodel in the world. Now only French people know who she is. I have no idea why this is.

4. Zooey Deschanel


3. Diora Baird

Diora Baird actually belongs on the top fifteen babes of next decade list. You'll hear from her; she's like Catherine Deneuve with bigger hooters. Good twitter follow also. By the way I got this picture on chickipedia.com. I'll stop now.

2. Bar Refaeli

She's taking over.

1. Scarlett Johansson

Never any doubt. You can start making fun of me in the comments now.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Essential Tyler Hansbrough: Air Quotes Edition

Tyler Hansbrough makes jokes about the food quality of cafeterias. The term "mystery meat" is usually involved.

The only verb Tyler Hansbrough associates with computers is "download."

According to Tyler Hansbrough, "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."

Tyler Hansbrough is a woman who describes herself as "expensive."

Tyler Hansbrough defines "denial" as a river in Africa.

When his phone rings, Tyler Hansbrough claims that he's "blowing up."

Tyler Hansbrough spells "breakfast of champions" K-I-N-G V-I-T-A-M-I-N.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Changing Back of Michael Jordan

I help to coach a high school basketball team, and last week we passed out this season's jerseys for the first time. The jerseys were hung up in numerical order, and I braced myself when number 23 came around.

Anyone who has played organized sports can tell you that, as silly as it is, a lot of significance and inspiration is wrapped within the folds of whichever number you wear. I usually asked for 34 because I modeled my undersized but aggressive play after Charles Barkley. Most kids, however, fought over 23, looking to share a small piece of Michael Jordan's leadership, competition, and clutch performance. Based solely on my own experience, I expected all of my players--mostly fourteen and fifteen year-olds--to jump for Jordan's number. If anything, it's LeBron James' number too, so there's an added incentive to share in the tradition of the jersey.

Much to my surprise, the jersey is still hanging in the closet. Things have changed. For the first time, boys that age experienced more of Jordan as this:

than as this:

I've written about the changing legacy of Michael Jordan in this space before, but this experience showed a different side of him than either the negative anecdotes circling about his reputation or his delusionally petty Hall of Fame speech. In judging the futures of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, William Goldman once wrote, "The greatest struggle an athlete undergoes is the battle for our memories...it begins before you're aware that it's begun, and it ends with a terrible fall from grace."* Since I'm thinking about it, that struggle has begun for Michael Jordan. The difference between his fall and Magic and Larry's falls is that he brought it upon himself.

Many contemporary celebrities speak of "building their brand," and the example set for them is Michael Jordan's infiltration of our culture. As the face of an expanding sport in a westernizing world, with countless endorsements to his name, Jordan became more famous than any other athlete before or since. What those other celebrities are talking about is having their name be synonymous with an idea or a logo, and MJ did it first. He was so successful, in fact, that the Jumpman--legs outstretched, arm reaching high above his head--has survived without him.

See, these kids spurning the 2-3, many of them were even wearing Air Jordans. However, instead of wearing them because they're hoping that the air in them will help them to jump from the free throw line, or that the aerodynamic sole will help them cross over Byron Russell, they're wearing them because Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade do. Jordan still gets their money, but it's no different from Phil Knight getting their money. The symmetrical dunking symbol might as well be Adidas' three stripes. To paraphrase as big a Jordan acolyte as any: "He's not a business man; he's a business, man."

Another thing that has gone out of style? The hoop earring. Come on, Mike. You can't afford a makeover?

Because teenagers didn't experience Jordan's greatness first-hand, they don't have a connection to it. That's no surprise. I didn't grow up with, say, George Mikan and only know about his dominance from other people's memories. The difference here is that Jordan gets the short end of his own legend. All the expectations of his own myth are there, but none of the acclaim.

For example, all of my players have done time in AAU or summer leagues, and they have played with or against the kid wearing 23, and that kid is always a dickhead. He's delusional and petty enough to fight for the number. Then he has lent himself expectations that he never lives up to. (Because who can?) This has gone on for a generation until the guy who originally wore it has been marginalized as much as any billionaire demi-god can be.

Wearing 23 is a cliche. It's derivative. It's the wrong type of brand: a knockoff. And LeBron? He's just another dickhead whose downfall we're presaging. There's a lot more to be made of a number than there is to be made of a man.

* Bill Simmons quotes this in his Book of Basketball. That's where I saw it.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

#16 Album of the Decade and #40 Song of the Decade- Death Cab for Cutie

#16 Album of the Decade- Death Cab for Cutie- Transatlanticism
Death Cab for Cutie- "Title and Registration"

#40 Song of the Decade- Death Cab for Cutie- "Transatlanticism"

I work at a Catholic school whose religion department employs several dudes who dropped out of the seminary. Apparently, this is more common than I ever knew. Men devote their lives to modest, poor, celibate lives serving the Lord until they meet a woman who shows them that teaching high school religion is a compromise they can live with. They always word this decision the same way though: "God brought X into my life to show me that He has a different plan for me. I can serve Him just as well by being a good Christian husband and father." It's impossible that their love for a woman could be an obstacle to God's true plan, a temptation and impediment to the goal toward which they're still supposed to be striving. They assume that they're supposed to give into it. It's God's new will.

Love and Christianity actually have a lot in common. You know those crackpots on Facebook who list their religion as "love"? They believe that the world would be a better place if everyone loved everyone else, just as Christians sometimes believe that the world would be a better place if everyone else were Christian. Love makes everything possible. Everyone would be better off with a little TLC. But honestly, TLC can't change the world; TLC doesn't even advocate the chasing of waterfalls.

Look, I'm not making fun of either of these groups. It's human nature to believe that love is a freeing blessing instead of an obstacle. But sometimes it is. We've all known people who have made terrible decisions and ruined their lives for love, who have ignored time, distance, and good-old-fashioned reasoning for a fleeting, pie-eyed ideal of amore. Looking at love as an irresistibly destructive force isn't natural. But Death Cab for Cutie's Transatlanticism is about this exact notion, and that's what makes it so unique.

Of course, I realize there are parts of the record that are mawkish--"emo" for those who write love as their religion on Facebook. When Ben Gibbard's songwriting isn't being melodramatic, it's being too-clever-for-its-own-good. Sometimes, however, a work of art comes along poised for maximum personal impact, and Transatlanticism arrived at just the right time for me to consume it. I screamed along with this album headed east on a road no one ever heads east on, one time when love became too destructive in my own hands. I would give you more details, but I don't want this to become that type of blog.

Death Cab for Cutie has confessional lyrics like, "I should have given you a reason to stay...this is fact not fiction/For the first time in years." Luckily, they don't care that they're that type of band. In fact, this album, obsessed over love that was and could have been, made them a pretty girly band. Usually, that designation is handed to bands that are cloying and cute. This album is something else entirely.

I never said they were immune to photographic cliches.

Sydney Pollack once said that filmmakers "can show people falling in love for an hour or can show people breaking up for an hour, but you can only show people in love for ten minutes." That's exactly what Gibbard's lyrics do: chronicle the spaces bookending love. They suggest love as a fulfilling salvation, but it's always "a love that could have been if I'd only thought of something charming to say." There are details that make it seem real, ("With every Thursday I'd brave those mountain passes/And you'd skip your early classes/And we'd learn how our bodies worked") but they're always in the past tense. The lyrics and the sometimes martial, assiduous rhythm section lend an elusive quality to the album that is always present, no matter what tempo the band is working in.

Across the album, there's a motif of tangible distance representing the emotional distance of lost love. The opener, backed by chords as major and windmilled as Chris Walla's lead guitar gets, laments: "I wish the world was flat like the old days/Then I could travel just by folding a map/No more airplanes or speed trains or freeways/There'd be no distance that could hold us back." But the nearly eight-minute centerpiece of the album, the title track, takes that wish fulfillment one step further.

Structured around searching piano chords, "Transatlanticism" begins as a pity party for that well-worn distance territory. It continues with slides and more resolved guitar, as if taking tentative steps, and it builds with resolve until the understated refrain of "I need you so much closer" takes the song into a trot. By the halfway point, the song has transitioned into a gallop, and by the time the rest of the band joins in with a harmonic "so come on," the distance does indeed "feel quite temporary."

The usually astute Stephen Thomas Erlweine once called this marathon "long for length's sake," and he was more correct than he realized. Often used as the closer to live shows, the song is as much of a solution as Gibbard can find to the problem of an uneasy memory of love. The distance is the song itself, and listening and understanding is its bridge. Like the seminary dropouts, we have to accept a new path for ourselves, and "Transatlanticism" is Gibbard's way of assessing that.

Two albums removed from Transatlanticism, Death Cab for Cutie has become something like the new R.E.M.: stalwart, literate, rainy day adult contempo for all the thirtysomethings who let people assume they're twentysomethings. They can open for Springsteen and get referenced on teen soap operas. "I Will Follow You into the Dark" off Plans is practically a standard by now. It would seem as if they're conquering the world as we speak.

Recently, however, news came out that Gibbard has become engaged to resident manic pixie dream girl Zooey Deschanel. (Apparently, my hair needs to be set further on the Gram Parsons side of the dial for her to take notice.) For a guy who used to capitalize on the futility of a divergent love, this might be a challenge. Instead of singing, "It seems by the time that I have figured what it's worth/The squeaking of our skin against the steel has gotten worse," he might have to switch to, "My girl has great skin and a naturally colorful complexion/She also has a really cute laugh." She might be the death of one of our great songwriters.

But what can I say? Love can be destructive.

Monday, October 26, 2009

#26 Song of the Decade- "Soul Survivor"

#26 Song of the Decade- Young Jeezy feat. Akon- "Soul Survivor"

In any metal retrospective you'll ever see, each interviewed party rhapsodizes over Black Sabbath. You'll have to wait an entire commercial break before any other musician is mentioned, and there's never enough hyperbole to go around. "It was like I had never heard music before blah blah blah," some bald guy with creative facial hair gushes. There were a lot of hard rock bands who seemed dark but were really mama's boys, but Black Sabbath was clearly something different from the rest of the dirge-like English rockers in the way they fully embodied their own witchy mystique. They were a lone dissenting voice with a sound more discordant and uncompromising than anyone else. We could be talking the same way about Young Jeezy's verisimilitude, if only he stood out as much. He's just as much of a master of reality, but that reality is so unrelentingly dark that he's become the mainstream. His Machiavellian solipsism is not a shock to the system, it's representative of it. Black Sabbath changed the world; the world changed Young Jeezy.

If he and Akon hooked up on a song today, it would be an event; but in 2005, neither was particularly well-known. The unique tone of Akon's tongue-depressant warble is what first got the song on the radio, but it will be remembered as our entree into the hopeless outlook of Jeezy. Rarely has a rapper condensed his entire ethos into one verse the way the man born Jay Jenkins does here, particularly in one couplet:

"A hundred grand on my wrist, yeah life sucks
Fuck the club, dog, I'd rather count a million bucks"

At the time, musicians were first feeling the squeeze of the record industry's collapse and doing whatever they could to branch out and become more palatable to the mainstream, whether that was starring in Budweiser commericals or making entire albums for the ladies. Here, Jeezy at once glorifies the hustle and casts it as meaningless. He's not interested in anything else like, you know, socializing with people in public, but his only pastime of money chasing is just as hollow, just as much of a reminder that life sucks. In his debut single, Young Jeezy seems to be saying that even ambition itself is hopeless. And the really disturbing thing? In one of his patented ad-libs, he even laughs at the notion.

That's the black cherry on top of the rest of Jeezy's performance, in which he prays against/for his own inequity, conflates dreams with nightmares, and threatens an anonymous spoken-to with clenched teeth. Akon's weary spritualizing and foreboding beat, matching claustrophobic string stabs with wandering twinkles, do their best to match Jeezy's hoarse futility, and in neither the music nor the lyrics is there any celebration to rival the dread and paranoia.

Here's the real significance of the song though: it sounds as if I'm exaggerating. Rather than reading those lyrics for their inhumane cynicism, the majority of critics heard this track and found it not irredeemable, but rather typical. We are immune to the landscape Jeezy's describing and the persona he's reporting from. As far as hip-hop gloom goes, he's not the minority. He became a star, and the song became an anthem for the faceless grind because we live in a society that he blends into when he isn't holding a mirror. He's bellowing that "we're livin' in hell," and we "just keep on movin' now."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

20 Best Movie Trailers of the Decade

The criteria for these decisions is hazy in my own mind, but it usually just comes down to how much the trailer made me want to see the movie it was promoting. I had different reasons for choosing each of these previews, and the videos vary in quality and are so wide in some cases that they mess up the rest of this page. I did my best. Also, this ranking has nothing to do with the quality of the final film: I'm only judging the trailers. Allow me to explain each:

20. Finding Forrester

Throughout high school, my friends and I went to the same movie theater every Friday. For about six months, the trailers before every screening were the Pearl Harbor teaser (a great trailer in its own right) and Finding Forrester. This is a pretty standard trailer, but it is responsible for the Sean Connery lines "Punch the keys," "Bolt the door...if you're coming in," and "You're the man now, dog." I have ruined friendships by over-quoting those lines. Hell, they inspired an entire website. Which is just silly. Who names a website after an innocuous line from the trailer of a forgettable mainstream movie?

19. Kill Bill, Vol. 1

With the Kill Bill diptych, Quentin Tarantino sought to prove that he could direct action, and the trailer for the first installment promises nothing but that. In fact, there's barely any dialogue, which was a pretty daring way to promote a Tarantino film. You can't beat that song either.

18. (500) Days of Summer

Bouncy music, quirky narration, cool clothes, pretty people. Teasing of some artsy, innovative visuals. Works for me.

17. 300

I didn't like the final product, but the powerful, atmospheric, otherworldly visuals of this trailer definitely made it a hit.

16. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (teaser)

Hauntingly spare and quiet, this trailer nails down the premise of the film without giving too much away. Fincher's trailers are always top-notch, and this one is no exception.

15. The Dark Knight

I watched this so many times that I was able to time it so that I clapped my hands at the same time the Joker does. It's hard for an ad to hint at the complex themes of a movie without ruining the plot, but this one does that while also showing off some great visuals. Furthermore, it's rare that a score is completed in time to match with the trailer, but this trailer gets a lot of extra mileage from the main theme of the movie. Extra points for the "Jokerized" version of the trailer that was only sent out to a handful of theaters.

14. Marie Antoinette (teaser)

Honestly, you could put "Age of Consent" over anything, and it would get me excited. This trailer presents a daring, sumptuous final product that was never really delivered to us.

13. The Hangover

This is another case of a movie's success being inextricably tied to the strength of its promotional materials. Not since There's Something about Mary had I been able to sit with an audience and guarantee from their reactions that a movie would be a hit in four or five months.

12. Little Children

As a promotional tool for the film, this trailer is kind of unsuccessful. As an art object unto itself, it's pretty beautiful. Seeking to capture the tone of the film rather than summarize any of its content, this is one of a kind.

11. Femme Fatale

Speaking of one of a kind, this Brian De Palma vehicle shows us the entire movie in super fast forward, stopping it to give us the sexier parts out-of-context. Then it kind of dares us to see it in the end. The entire movie is not as good as this trailer.

10. Red Eye

This ended up being a pretty solid movie, and what's remarkable about the trailer is how long they wait to tell us what it's actually about. This is a classic rope-a-dope. I'm sure there are a lot of first drafts of trailers like this that get focus-grouped to death. This one actually follows through.

9. The Man Who Wasn't There

The smoky, contrast-heavy cinematography of this movie is its greatest strength, so it's the focus of an elegant, assured trailer that takes advantage of heady dialogue and smooth editing.

8. Cast Away (teaser)

The full-length version of this trailer would be on my worst trailers of the decade list for giving everything away. (No really. Everything. The last shot of the trailer is the last shot of the movie.) But this one is a perfect setup, giving us everything we need to know and then leaving us at the exact spot when things get intriguing.

7. Borat (full-length)

Probably the funniest trailer I've ever seen. Again, where would this movie be without this preview?

6. Watchmen (trailer 1)

This is another one I watched over and over again. With a portentous Smashing Pumpkins song, it delivered exactly what anyone wanted from the film. It's expository enough for newcomers, but it also teases all of the things fans were wondering about. It builds and builds until it can't anymore. This is a splashy, mature trailer for a film that wasn't nearly as successful.

5. Comedian

It features absolutely no footage from the film, but this sardonic, inventive trailer still manages to get us excited about it. I wish I could go back and see an audience's reaction to this.

4. Cloverfield (teaser)

Talk about mysterious. While we're on the subject of how much or little is revealed in a trailer, this one doesn't even give you the title. Beat that. It does, however, establish the look that guides the entire film, and it ends with as provocative an image as possible. I've never been as intrigued by a trailer as I have been by this masterpiece.

3. Jarhead

Great trailers can promise a subtext and thoughtfulness and thematic heaviness that the actual film does not necessarily have, and that's the case with Jarhead. By featuring the unimpeachable stars, revealing dreamy, ironic shot selection, and using a contemporary song for once, this trailer stresses that this is not your father's war film. It gathers a whole lot of momentum in just over two minutes.

2. Garden State

There's no dialogue or explanation of a plot here. Everything about the tone is communicated through ironic, eye-popping visuals and the hipper-than-thou Frou Frou song. Unlike something like Jarhead though, this trailer actually does approximate the viewing of the film. Sometimes it's too clever for its own good, but you enjoy spending time with it and sharing in its exuberance.

1. Where the Wild Things Are (teaser)

Considering that writing online about your reaction to this trailer is now seen as a cliche, I'd say this is a pretty powerful piece of work. Spike Jonze and the Arcade Fire can make you cry in...two minutes. The word "melancholgia" was invented for this.

Let me know what I forgot in the comments.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

#14 Album of the Decade and #31 Song of the Decade- Ben Kweller

#14- Album of the Decade- Ben Kweller- Sha Sha
Ben Kweller- "Commerce, TX"

#31 Song of the Decade- Ben Kweller- "Wasted & Ready"

John Seabrook's smug 2001 book of culture criticism, Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture, devotes an entire chapter to the precocity of a then-unknown Ben Kweller. Seabrook follows a teenaged Kweller and his band Radish as he's courted by major labels. At one point Kweller's at Jimmy Iovine's house freestyling with Tom Petty, and there are about ten times when an expert calls him "the next Kurt Cobain." Kweller was a songwriting prodigy mining Cobain's quiet-loud dynamics, and he could play almost any instrument you gave him. Seabrook spells out the seeming randomness of the buzz surrounding this kid from Greenville, Texas, and Seabrook captures the herd mentality of record executives flying out there without knowing anything about him. By the time the chapter ends, a lot of money and attention has been invested in Kweller, and he seems oblivious to how much is actually riding on his nascent career. Seabrook has asked "why him?" and we don't have much of an answer.

We still don't. Nine years after the events of the book, Kweller's career has stalled. He's trying to cross over to a country audience. He's known primarily as a girly type of act because of earlier bills he shared with Guster and Evan Dando. He's trapped on Dave Matthews' label, which is doing nothing to promote his talent. Worst of all, he has neutered his songwriting's more unique flourishes to fit into some idea he has of what a traveling bluesy roots-rock working man's hero should be. What made him great the only time he actually had to prove all of his promise, his debut Sha Sha, was that he was so oblivious to all of these outside factors. Perhaps a voice like his was never meant to hit it big. After all, Cobain probably wasn't supposed to either.

Sha Sha is an album a great songwriter makes when he's twenty, before he gets political, before he gets stream-of-consciousness, before he's trying to be Dylan, before he knows that what he's doing is called approximate rhyme. The lyrics here are rough around the edges. They reach for connections that aren't always there, like calling butterflies "passive-aggressive." They leave blanks for us to fill in with non sequiturs like, "Sex reminds her of eating spaghetti." "Maxed out like a credit card" isn't exactly Rimbaud, but it's better than what I was writing at twenty.

Sha Sha is a perfect storm of these eccentricities. Most rappers' first album is their best because it's their entire autobiography and manifesto delivered in one fell swoop. They say everything that has been building up inside of them for their entire lives and capitalize on the now-or-never urgency of a debut. They are able to channel their message and worldview into one album, and they aren't jaded enough to compromise that point of view. Ben Kweller, a guy who used to cover Vanilla Ice live, presents the same naive but breathless weltershaung as someone like The Game. It's all-or-nothing, and he delivers summery, indelible power-pop with an equal facility for fist-pumpers and honest, heartfelt ballads. Yes, it's a little girly, but other than maybe Is This It?, it's hard to find a record this decade that is as top-to-bottom fun to listen to. Kweller finds a way to overcome a limited, straining voice with his gift for melody, and nowhere is his exuberance and dusted-off brilliance more evident than on "Wasted & Ready."

With its wandering slides leading up to deafening power chords, "Wasted & Ready" sounds like something Alex Chilton would have written if he had been raised eating barbecue and watching Cowboys games. When I saw Kweller live in Philadelphia two years ago, it seemed as if everyone was waiting for him to wrap up the love songs and hit them with what was buried deep in their collective drunk playlists. It's a playing-dumb classic, a hit that never became a hit. Kweller's guitar playing has never sounded more muscular, and his reedy intonation has a way of making platitudes sound immediate and cathartic. Especially when he multi-tracks his own voice on the song's last fourth, we're reminded of just how far a little obliviousness can go. Kurt Cobain would be proud.

Monday, October 12, 2009

LSU-Florida: Diary of a Letdown

Lately I've been feeling as if I'm a sixty-year-old man living in a twenty-five-year-old man's body. Even though I'm back in my home state among friends in Tiger football, I've been content to grouse around my apartment complaining about LSU via supercilious tweets. But when my brother-in-law came through with a ticket to #4 LSU against #1 Florida, and P.T. flew in for the game from Massachusetts, I knew I had to play the young man's game with an all-day tailgate. I took these terrible pictures.

To give you an idea of how crowded Baton Rouge gets on a gameday, this is about two miles away from the stadium on Highland, where I parked. Six hours before kickoff.

I made sure to wear my walking shoes. Speaking of being sixty years old, I have designated walking shoes.

Considering that I've never lived in Baton Rouge, I have a lot of memories of the city. During the post-Katrina semester when many of my friends were making do at disparate Louisiana campuses, PT and I visited our friend Karl in the 225. I snuck a fifth of Jack Daniel's into this diner under my jacket, and it slipped out, smashing into a million pieces. The funny part of the story, however, is when we walked to Karl's temporary apartment to crash. We got home before him or his roommates, whom we had never met. Figuring that these roommates wouldn't react too well to weird, unindentified drunk dudes sleeping on their floor, we wrote "Karl's Friends" in Sharpie on sheets of looseleaf and taped the signs to our chests before we passed out. College.

If you ask the proprietor of this restaurant, Roul, how juicy his burgers are, he'll say, "Juicy like a pussy." It's charming.

Beware that none of these pictures are composed. I don't even bother to get a shot of anyone's face. Anyway, P.T.'s buddy hooked us up with this tailgate party, sponsored by an organization called S.H.A.R.T., which stands for something stupid. If you want to know the difference between SEC football tailgating and any other inferior gathering that calls itself tailgating, all you have to know is that this party had satellite TV, thirteen kegs, all manners of roasted pork, and its own monogrammed coozies.

And this punch, which was gone before we got there, much like any hint of LSU offense.

What has a longer corny t-shirt shelf-life: the Got Blah-Blah-Blah? construction or the Price of Blah-Blah-Blah? Priceless... arrangement? Both of them have been going ten years easily.

This was delicious until it gave me food poisoning.

About two hours before game time, the LSU players march down Stadium Drive with the Golden Band from Tigerland. I'm waiting for them and looking for my brother-in-law, who is one of these 90,000 people. Miraculously, I found him and my ticket.

Les Miles and his poo-eating grin are somewhere down there.

About forty-five minutes before kickoff. This was the last time I would see LSU in the end zone that night.

I don't think I've heard more virulent language than the cursing directed at Tebow on Saturday. Between that and the dude who punched a Gator fan in the face for no reason, I reminded myself to wait a while to bring any kid to a game. This photo was taken on Florida's touchdown drive, the only lapse in what was a pretty tight defensive game from the Tigers. I would have taken some pictures of JoJeff airing it out or Russell Shepard being used in creative packages or Charles Scott stretching the defense with plays other than off-tackle dives. Unfortunately, none of those things happened.

By the fourth quarter, when it was clear that LSU just could not measure up to the #1 team in the nation, my entertainment came from the old boozer sitting next to me, reaching down for his flask in this picture. He was the type of drunk who just says the same two things over and over. If it wasn't "that facemask penalty really hurt us," it was the more emphatic: "How do they all know to look over at the sideline at the same time like that? I'll be goddamned! How do they do that? You figure that out you call me. I'mma give you my card." Most people, my brother-in-law included, would ignore the dude, but I just goaded him. "You know how they all look at the same time? The coach probably grabs their facemasks and pulls them over during practice." I was sobering up by this point, but I should've asked him for some of whatever was helping him cope with this game.

Congratulations to the Florida Gators, who took advantage of the tentative nature of our offense and controlled the clock with their own conservative offensive attack. Their touchdown should have been called back, and the center kept turning his head before the snap, only to get called for a false start once. But good game nonetheless. LSU is ranked #10 in both polls after the loss, which, honestly, is probably where we belong right now.

I love attending conference games in the heart of the season, but I'm 0-2 at Florida contests and might have to return to my couch for the team's own good. I'll do my fair share of grousing from there against Auburn. LSU football is shaving so many years off my life that I just might be sixty by now.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Film of the Decade #46- 28 Days Later and Album of the Decade #17- Lift Your Fists...

#46- 28 Days Later- Danny Boyle (2001) [watch the whole movie here]

#17- Godspeed You Black Emperor!- Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2000) [all songs too long to link to]

The best films of this past decade usually took long-accepted tropes or themes and synthesized them in new ways that spoke to the concerns and fears of our age. There is probably no more appropriate genre to do that in than horror, which is what makes 28 Days Later the best horror film of the decade. (Though pardon me if I haven't seen Saws II-V. I might be wrong, you know?)

Anyone would agree that 28 Days Later is a visceral horror entry, but calling it a zombie movie is both factual and insulting. It is true that the plot begins with animal rights activists releasing chimps who are part of a scientific experiment. It is true that those chimps attack their liberators with a contagious disease and escape, spreading this disease among the entire population of England and turning them into rage-fueled zombies. But calling it a zombie movie is denying how antithetical Danny Boyle's genre exercise is to what we acknowledge about such films. It's not that Boyle and his screenwriter Alex Garland use "the rage" as a symbol--that would actually make it sort of retro. No, this stands out because it takes someone turning into a monster, one of the more inviting and guilty pleasures of such films, and makes that prospect the most terrifying and present danger imaginable.

From Invasion of the Body Snatchers on, zombies have been used as filmic symbols for what we are denying of our human nature. In the first crack at that property, those who famously "go to sleep" are the ones who give up questioning the world around them. The sheep who blindly obey 1950s authority become metaphorical and literal zombies relegated to feeding on the flesh of those still kicking and screaming. George Romero expanded similar ideas from his Night of the Living Dead to address consumerism in Dawn of the Dead and class in Land of the Dead. They Live is also expressly political. These stories remind us of our own independence, the agency that makes us human, and they presuppose that we should avoid anything that would turn us into zombies. 28 Days Later has no such context. Whereas those other films obsessively delineate living, breathing humans from The Other, in 28 Days Later the zombie is our friends and family. And we still have to kill it.

Instead of denying human nature, Garland's characters are faced with the question of what humanity is in the first place. The ubiquitous threat of a person no longer being a person is what makes watching the film such a draining, harrowing experience. Other horror films have set-ups that build excitement and then end, giving us a breather to prepare for the next one. Up until its admittedly crappy ending, 28 Days Later is non-stop running from a continuous endangerment and insecurity.


Those thematic concerns would not matter much if we didn't connect to any of it though. Thankfully, we do. For instance, Garland and Boyle balance those questions of humanity with something that marks us as humans: the mundane. If the apocalypse happened, what would you eat? How would you get water to shave? Where would you get gasoline? The characters have to figure this out, and they almost feel guilty for needing these things, no matter how much they are reminded of their necessity. That imperfection is helped by Boyle's decision to shoot the film on HD video, which was still a daring choice in 2001. The medium's imperfections underscore the spontaneity and immediacy of what is happening on screen.

No discussion of the film would be complete without mention of the Piccadilly Square centerpiece, in which our protagonist Jim wanders around a completely deserted version of the most populous, touristy spots of London without any idea of why the locations are so empty. It's one of the most eerie scenes I've ever watched, and it's impossible not to marvel at the scale of it all. It establishes an unrivaled sense of foreboding and loneliness. It just so happens to be scored by a Godspeed You Black Emperor! song that establishes an unrivaled sense of foreboding and loneliness.

GYBE! were Canadian eight-piece progenitors of post-rock, a nineties subgenre characterized by interminable, hypnotic instrumentals that built through several movements and usually ended with a thrilling crescendo. Sometimes accompanied by multi-media presentations, post-rock sought to re-examine the structure of what rock music typically was and present a more cerebral, experimental version of it.

GYBE! took the mantle of early post-rock bands like Mogwai, Spiderland, or Sterolab and created something more textured and haunting and timeless. When the four suites of Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven take off, they push the music past weird time signatures to something heavier and more substantial. Although they're considered experimental, they're actually presenting a piece striking in its unified sense of purpose, that purpose being one of absorbing, centered dread for something lost or hopeless. They took the sound of a type of music criticized as clinical and infused it with genuine, earned emotion. While that sounds kind of navel-gazing, as post-rock usually is, there is a selfless quality to the music that keeps its eye on the prize. (This is definitely part of their m.o. They only conducted interviews through one member of the group and never had the band name or track titles on the album packaging.) By splicing in clips of French children singing or an old man yammering about Coney Island, there are even times when an instrumental band's music does not take center stage, as if to say that the world around us continues even as we're creating a soundtrack for it. That aspect of the album makes it undeniably present and cathartic, a memorial for something still dying.

In that way, I would agree with Danny Boyle that it's perfect music for a sort of hopeful apocalypse. You get the sense that album closer "Antennas to Heaven" isn't the real end, and someone will still be twitching long after the droning aftermath of its strings and guitars.