Summer Slump

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on August 9, 2009 by Adam

Due to various circumstances, my blogging output has been pretty non-existent as of late. I hope these circumstances have drawn to a close, and therefore, I feel safe saying that things should be returning back to normal from this point forward. For right now, I’d just like to mention a few things that have been running through my mind in the last couple months:

1. How is it that the San Diego Comic-Con can seem so unappealing in so many ways (Twilight, mass overhyping, ridiculous costume), yet make me feel like an absolute loser for not being there?

2. I have finally realized, due to an increased desire for certain creature comforts (namely, cable television), just how miserable network TV is in the summer. I am counting down the days until 30 Rock comes back into my life.

3. I have also finally realized how, despite my love for attending Brooklyn Cyclones games, baseball and baseball alone does not make for a riveting sports season.

4. I recently came across a post on Wired‘s Threat Level blog discussing Sonia Sotomayor’s not-so-surprising stance on the side of the RIAA when it comes to copyright infringement. This combined with her ruling on the historic case of the New York Times v. Tasini, makes me worry that the court will not be getting any more in touch with modern modes of distribution in the near future. Time will tell, and–admittedly–this will not be the biggest issue with which she and her fellow judges have to deal in the coming decade.

I have a couple more substantive posts in the works, one of which will deal with the legacy of John Hughes. While I work on that, I would suggest reading A.O. Scott’s personal, somewhat baffling memorial. One could argue that Scott, maybe more so than any other major critic working today, tends to accidentally reveal his psychological workings in his reviews. This look at Hughes, though, is forthright in its personal nature and his thoughts on the implications of Hughes’ work have given me some good fodder for thought. More to come. Really.

Another Late Night

Posted in Television on June 3, 2009 by Adam

Late night television was a big part of my adolescence. I have never been an early-to-bed type, and for the majority of my teenage years, my night-owl schedule allowed my to tune into Late Night with Conan O’Brien quite regularly. It was pretty much a nightly tradition, in fact. I would occasionally catch the last few minutes of Leno while waiting for Conan’s introductory horns, and I never enjoyed those times. Whether it was a musical act, a stand-up comedian or Jay taking part in some goofy science experiment, it always seemed…I don’t know…a bit 11:30 pm for my taste. But then Conan came on, and I was sure that all of the fogeys who had to force their eyes open during Letterman (who I do like very much, it should be noted) or Leno were finally safely asleep. The real “late night” hours began. I would eat some junk food, turn the lights off, and, in later years, maybe smoke a bowl. Come 12:30, I felt as if I were part of a secret club of insomniacs, ready to chuckle to ourselves until the sun came up. Especially during the summer, weeknights belonged to Conan–and whatever was on Adult Swim afterward. There were parts of his show I loved, namely the post-monologue, pre-interview sketches, when absurd characters like Preparation H Raymond and the Masturbating Bear would make it impossible for both me and the host to keep a straight face.

So I watched this week’s first episode of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien with a sense of excitement and trepidation. It was obviously going to be better than Leno, but I wondered just how much it would hearken back to the earlier days of a later time slot. I hoped O’Brien would retain the self-deprecating schtick, as worn-out as it can sometimes seem, while still looking forward to the partially new personality he would have to build for his expanded audience. I sat down, and I waited for two worlds to collide and produce a delightful hodgepodge of old and new, New York and LA, underground comedy and mainstream entertainment.

By my own account, O’Brien was fairly successful in achieving this with his first show, especially if one were to give him the “all pilot episodes suck” benefit of the doubt.

But by the time 12:35 rolled around, I had experienced an interesting feeling: apathy. At first, I thought it was just because the episode was merely okay, neither a disaster nor a masterpiece.

That’s when another funny thing happened. As the fast-paced opening credits of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon whizzed by, I suddenly got that old feeling. I looked out the window and the Brooklyn sky had a tinge of suburban twilight coloring. I got a craving for Sprite and Pringles. I imagined for a moment that I was the only one on my block who was awake. And I began to watch and I no longer felt apathy. I still didn’t love Fallon as a host or as a comedian, but that hardly mattered. I felt special, I felt like it was summertime and the clock had just struck and all the old folks had hit the hay and I was left with my show, the one that was a little bit weirder, a little bit cooler and, most importantly, a little bit later.

And I realized that content is really only part of the story. My relationship with Late Night with Conan O’Brien was one not founded on jokes or interviews or the host’s persona–all of which were enjoyable, to be sure. The real thing that kept me coming back every night was the feeling that things were just getting started for me at a time when they were winding down for most others. It was a feeling not unlike invincibility, and even though I am no longer young enough for such feelings to be wholly acceptable, I often yearn for them.

Welcome to my life, Jimmy.

Everyman Sings the Blues

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , on May 5, 2009 by Adam

Paul Rudd’s stock has been on the rise lately, and along with his current streak of critical and commercial success–see his roles in I Love You, Man, Role Models, and Knocked Up–has come the widespread use of the word Everyman to describe the affable actor. But as I watched Role Models (better than I was expecting) for the first time last night, it struck me that the common thread linking Rudd’s relatable characters consists of more than their humble sense of fashion or their involvement in fantasy baseball or their general sense of decency. Beyond all of that, they are men who suffer from depression, and whose ability to be cured of that disease has a subtle yet central role in the cathartic value of the films.

The self-deprecating good guy is a classic Hollywood trope. Our favorite comedians are generally people who lack a certain degree of self-confidence and frequently point out their own flaws. But unlike many of the films in which characters display that classic quality, Rudd’s works do not necessarily see any direct comedic benefits from his moments of self-loathing. When, in Knocked Up, Pete asks Ben, “Do you ever wonder how somebody could even like you?”, it is not akin to Woody Allen making a crack about his therapist. Or consider the scene in Role Models where Rudd’s Danny is confronted by his estranged girlfriend: “You hate yourself, but you still think you’re better than everyone else.” There is no punch-line here, no retort that brings comedic relief to that moment of dark fact-facing. Even going back to his first wide release, Clueless, we can see in Rudd’s characters a propensity for, well, sadness.

Of course, in each of these films, Rudd’s character must and does overcome his depressive bout, often due to a self-realization that involves taking full stock of his surroundings and acknowledging that there are people around who are, in fact, willing to love him. Central to the relatively new idea of Rudd as a romantic lead is that his characters, when we meet them, are generally embodiments of so much of the unhappiness that we feel at our worst moments. And, it must be said, the unhappiness comes off as very real. These are characters for whom, as Danny points out to a group of schoolchildren in Role Models, life has not gone as planned. They experience the kind of hopelessness and defeat that comes with feeling stuck in a world that is mundane and full of annoyances that add up to feel like a heavy weight. Because of this, they ignore or mishandle the relationships around them and must be forcibly reminded of why life is worth living.

I would not dare to say that this pattern has anything to do with Rudd’s own psychology. That kind of assumption is certainly better left at the door. What I do think it is important to acknowledge, though, is that the appeal of this actor, as mentioned earlier, goes beyond appearance and the nonchalance he brings to his roles. For whatever reason, the larger part of Rudd’s characters exhibit signs of true, unmistakable adulthood depression, the kind that often goes uncorrected and is confused for the normal emotional reaction to losing youth. And while I can’t speak for every viewer, I am willing to bet that, as adults, the majority of us have had to deal with similar feelings, ones that serve as a constant reminder of aging and the regrets we’ve built up over the years. The rare and wonderful thing about Rudd’s roles, though, is that these feelings are never accepted in the way that say, an Al Bundy’s cynical, punchy views on marriage might be. With the Apatow/Wain formula, comedy is allowed to be temporarily suspended in the face of serious issues–and be sure that depression, while less of an overt focal point, is just as much at the heart of these movies as unwanted pregnancies or mandatory community service. In the case of Rudd’s roles, mental instability is never the plot-driving issue, and therefore, it slips to the back of our minds as we witness the resolving of the more premise-driven problems. But there it is, right under our eyes–the gradual self-healing of a man who, at his lowest, resembles the part of ourselves from which we try our best to escape, the one that sees little value in an average day and does little to convince loved ones otherwise. When Rudd’s character, like a less melodramatic George Bailey, comes around to see the bright side of things, we may let out a sigh of relief and hope that the Everyman is an accurate reflection.

Escape to Where We Escaped From

Posted in Film on April 13, 2009 by Adam

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New York City lives in the background of Greg Mottola’s Adventureland like a Sugar Candy Mountain that will make all the tortures of a suburban, post-collegiate summer worth enduring.

Yet, despite the freedom that looms 327 miles east of the characters’ hometown of Pittsburgh, Mottola cannot hide the fact that the film is, in many ways, a love letter to the very kind of place that so many young people spend so many years trying to escape. Often, it fits into the same realm of sometimes-everything-crazy-and-life-changing-that-happens-t0-you-happens-when-you-go-back-to-the-town-you’re-from that is inhabited by The Graduate and Garden State, but more than either of those films, Adventureland finds a charm in those moments when we feel stuck yet also, deep down, content.

What is it about the land of our youths that so often ends up drawing us back for for nostalgia-fueled artistic inspiration? For my money, there are a few things that drive artists to make the kind of hometown homage we have in Adventureland.  There is, of course, the occasional beauty of small-town dive bars and realness of Middle America, both of which have been touted in modern art, whether ironically or quite sincerely. But the most honest reason I can think of for this kind of revisiting is quite simple: these are the places we know better than any other. I spent eighteen years in Watertown, Connecticut, a length of time I can’t really imagine ever again spending in one place, and I know the ins and outs of that town far better than I ever could the city I moved to afterward. For many artists, I believe it is this sense of familiarity that makes the hometown legend one of the most appealing tales to spin. It is also what often makes the tales so appealing to the audience.

If the majority of Mottola’s film, with the same characters, had taken place in New York (obviously allowing forvast changes to the narrative), I don’t think there is any way it would have been such an enjoyable experience. To try to learn the true nature of a place as an adult is as difficult as trying to learn how to swim after adolescence. We are no longer as receptive to the kinds of raw data that a place has to offer: we cannot absorb all of a city’s signifiers as adults, because we already have a deep psychological connection to at least one other place, in addition to a prematurely formed idea about any place to which we move. But those hometowns, Mottola’s Pittsburgh, my Watertown, came to us at a time when we were more spongy than we will ever be. The dialects, the geography, the hierarchies, the infinite number of quirks and mysteries that reside in those places that reared us during those years–they are impossible to shake and they influence the way we tell stories more than we are likely to imagine. Luckily, for Mottola and for us, that unshakability often comes out in an honest and funny portrayal of the places that we always call “back home”.

Time and Reading Bolaño Backwards

Posted in Books with tags , , , on April 8, 2009 by Adam

I am currently halfway through Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, and I am thinking a lot about authorial chronology. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I recently finished Bolaño’s 2666. Published in 2004,  six years after The Savage Detectives and in the wake of Bolaño’s death, that book is an achievement so epic and crowning that I was equally excited and terrified to begin another one of his novels. While I had an intense desire to dig deeper into his oeuvre, I was nervous about how having 2666 serve as my Bolaño starting point would affect my approach to what may someday be considered his “minor works” (even though The Savage Detectives, in addition to being Bolaño’s breakout book in the U.S., is in no way a minor accomplishment).  And I was right.

The Savage Detectives is very good, so far. It is sprawling and ambitious and full of twists and careens that take the reader into dark corners of a world that is vaguely familiar but also quite surreal. But. It has not the sprawl nor the ambition nor the careening nor the twisting of 2666–very few modern works of literature do. Generally, as luck would have it, I am able to read an author’s earlier works first, and the effect that has on my overall experience is usually one of parallel growth. I am proud if leaps and bounds have been made since the last outing, and I am amused and overjoyed at the sly nods to the past that has been left behind.

But in going from a work as formidable as 2666 to one slightly less formidable in The Savage Detectives, I am left with a feeling not unlike that of looking at pictures from my teenage years. I am slightly embarrassed by the (relatively few) mistakes, and with my hindsight, I am regretful of the things that could have gone differently, slightly better. I look at certain structural aspects and see a brazen youthfulness that, when compared to 2666, can seem like a sign of impatience and hurriedness. I look at the characters and wish that the mysteries surrounding their lives were just a bit more nuanced.

Yet, more than any of that, I read The Savage Detectives and I get a sometimes overwhelming feeling of nostalgia, for even though Bolaño had a grasp on darkness at the time of that writing, there is a kind of innocence in the dialogue and the way the characters think about each other. Certainly not naivete, but nowhere near the kinds of fatalism we see in 2666. And then I think about Bolaño as a man and I think about aging and I think about the ways that our words and how they change over time are as revealing as holding an old photograph up as you look in a mirror. To read backwards, so to speak, is to be sadly aware of what is to follow, and as in physical life, this awareness is usually wrought with all kinds of sadness.

The things we see in 2666, the things we read and know that Bolaño must have thought about as the years wore down, are not things that are easy to forgot as one goes back into time and visits the words of the man at a younger age. They are things that not only show us how his art progressed. They are things that speak to certain truths that can only have been found after years of hard looking. They are things that, when you see the process it took to find them, force you to wonder how your own current moment will appear when you look at it with the same hindsight.

Some works like 2666, which seem so timeless, may actually represent the moment when the ticking clocks that sounded throughout earlier works have finally come to a stop. And to move forth as a reader from that point when a grand and final stillness has set in, to revisit a time of forward progress and passing years from the opposite direction, can be an experience both invigorating and deeply, deeply melancholy.

All in the Akron/Family

Posted in Music with tags , , , on April 2, 2009 by Adam
via flickr user Taylor T-Sides

via flickr user Taylor T-Sides

Sometimes an hour and a half of jumping and chanting and sweating and otherwise acting like a crazed tribal epileptic can leave on impression on you. I had seen Akron/Family once before this past Sunday evening at Union Pool, but I can’t remember exactly when (probably about four years ago) or for whom or they were opening (Danielson Famile?) or many other of the circumstantial details. While I believe I enjoyed that performance, it obviously was not one that has stuck with me to a great extent. Ah, but Sunday.  Just wild.

It would seem that these guys have been holed up in some kind of magical mountainside cave since 2007’s Love is Simple was released. The chemistry between the three core members and brass section that accompanied them–a chemistry that I do believe was somewhat apparent last time around–was the kind that makes you wonder if these people actually learned to play music together. The set also exhibited a nearly perfect structure. After starting off with a few more mid-tempo songs, the band ended up building their way to an absolutely face-melting climax, centered around the new song “Gravelly Mountains of the Moon”. At moments when both the guitars and the brass were at their loudest and fiercest, I could have sworn that I was seeing sound. All of my pores seemed to be bleeding out the sonic ferocity. As the set drew to a close, the band took full advantage of the extra musicians, who added a deconstructed jazz fuzz to the slowly retreating final songs.

Really, the new songs are something special. One of them, “River”, will absolutely end up being my favorite song of the year. Note that I promised myself before writing this that I would avoid hyperbole. I stand by that. Akron/Family have managed to tap into the country’s collective state of mind, with the new songs demonstrating equal parts fear, naturalism, and most of all, a sense of anticipation for some kind of release, some kind of freedom. Their idiosyncracies as a band–shifting roles, a lingering communal primitivism, occasional unabashed bigness–are themselves beautifully American. When Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free is released on May 5, it may not get as much press as some of the year’s other widely-anticipated albums. But rest assured that it will capture the wild spirit of our country and our species in a way that may serve as a quiet revolution.

Sheer Madness

Posted in Internet, Television with tags , on March 22, 2009 by Adam

Earlier this week, I received a work e-mail from a higher-up at my magazine with the words “March Madness” in the subject line. Because this was not from the co-worker in charge of the office pool and because of the job title of the sender, I was pretty sure that I knew what this e-mail would be about: “Please don’t gamble or partake in activities that support gambling while at work.”

If only. Because despite the fact that I had already submitted 25 dollars in cash for an office pool, I could have lived with being scolded for gambling or even told that my money would be collected and used to buy a new copy machine. But the e-mail was more along these lines: “Please don’t watch streaming video of games on your work computer. We have to pay for our bandwidth and it slows the network down for everyone else.”

Outrage. Pure, vengeful outrage racing through my bloodstream. “How?” I thought. “They can’t…” “This is my com-“. Aha. I realized I had fallen into a dangerous modern trapping. Although my employer had provided me with all of the hardware and some of the software that I was using, the fact that I had been the only one who operated the machine on a daily basis gave me a false sense of ownership, one that seems to mirror many people’s feelings about the information they share with the world. While a false sense of information ownership is nothing new–think of all the musicians from the last century who believed they would get a cut of royalty money only to find out that the record label is the sole proprietor of a piece–what makes this modern naivete so much more prevalent is the fact that the tools used to send forth this information, unlike a record studio, are generally in front of us every day.

My inability to use my office computer for streaming video at first seemed like a Fascist prohibition of information flow. Before long, though, I realized it was much simpler. It was a reminder that the tools used for transmitting this information can sometimes be legally and appropriately snatched right out from under us.