23.1.15

A Partial Defense of Chandler Bing

Friends

The primary issue with Ruth Graham's identification of Chandler as the problematic element with Friends is that she gives insufficient weight to his context. Chandler, in the first few seasons, is meant to be a stereotypical child of 1970s divorce: he was both quite young when his parents' marriage fell apart, and they--crucially--appear to have done nothing to keep him out of the details of their fighting. The adult Chandler is not a Nice Guy, i.e. the sort who believes that he deserves love (or at least sex) from the particular objects of his desire; he's a guy who does not believe that he deserves or could have a lasting relationship. It's for this reason that he seeks out women with imperfections or for whom the relationship is doomed from the start. Indeed, Chandler's inability to manage relationships is one of the central themes of season 5. But it's solved by the time he proposes in season 6, which means about half the show's run happens with a relatively-stable Chandler Bing.

Friends does have two serious problems on re-watch. The first is an obvious and notable decline in quality that occurs no later than season 6; on a previous blu-ray re-watch (thanks for the wedding present!), I had pegged it in season 3. There's no reason for Monica and Chandler not to get engaged at the end of season 5, but it is instead dragged out for another year, just the beginning of extending plot points for the sake of keeping the show running. The second, and more notable, failing is the manner in which Ross-and-Rachel overshadow everything else. The screen time they get as a couple is very minimal: about one year between seasons 2 and 3, one episode at the beginning of season 4, and then not again until the finale six years later. Because they are Fated To Be Together, every interaction or potential interaction gets disproportionate attention, and the whole thing falls apart. Thus the eternal question: given writers who are unable to accurately portray the interesting dramatic possibilities of a healthy marriage while needing the happy ending expressed in the possibility of a healthy, long-lasting marriage, is it better to keep a central couple apart for as long as possible, as with Ross and Rachel, or put them together quickly and never allow more than the slightest hint of friction between them, as with Jim and Pam? Or should we just admit that all tv shows, because they have runs of uncertain length, will borrow liberally from melodrama and soap operas, and go read books instead?

22.1.15

If This Isn't Indie's Epitaph, It Ought to Be

Boy, if this Pitchfork review isn't a sign Belle and Sebastian are heading in the right direction, I don't know what is:

Besides, Murdoch is surely trifling if he doesn't think sweeping, sophisticated pop has a place on the charts: Adele and Sam Smith are two singers who've carved their niche by singing right to your parents. A flippant comment to Pitchfork about how listeners would rather lose themselves in Nina Simone than Beyoncé shows not just a flagrant misunderstanding of how people listen to Beyoncé, but to the artists they love. He means well, but it faintly stinks of snobbery that's gotten other indie acts in trouble when they've tried to explain their theory of pop with, well, a lot of theory. Tom Krell of How to Dress Well raised hackles when he told Pitchfork he wanted to be "pop, but not populist." But what's wrong with trying to appeal to as many people as possible?

Getting a reviewer that mad is usually a sign of having gotten something right that the offended party would prefer not to admit. "What's wrong with trying to appeal to as many people as possible?" is such a remarkable abdication of coolness that it's shocking anyone would write it for a website that purports to hold certain standards. There's nothing wrong with trying to appeal to lots of people, after all, but it's orthogonal to quality. The Velvet Underground may have wanted to sell lots of albums, but they also wanted to write good music, and we have some historical evidence to suggest which they valued more. Believing there's nothing wrong with Beyonce but that Nina Simone is deeper on a number of levels seems not so much snobbish as an accurate reflection of reality. Calling it snobbery is a defense based around the absence of better arguments.

21.1.15

On Critical Judgments and the Band Responsible for "Heart Factory"

Since The Dissolve is discussing how critical views can change over time, I will expand on a related thought I expressed on twitter recently:

"Thesis: articles explaining why the new album by [hipster band] is good are the new explaining why the new Rolling Stones/U2 album is good."

Rolling Stone, rather famously, will give 4-5 stars to any album by either of those or any associated entity, which is why Mick Jagger's solo albums always end up with 4.5 stars. It's an abdication of judgment in the face of an unenviable situation for a reviewer. U2 and/or the Rolling Stones are good writers and good musicians, which means the majority of any album of new music either writes will be good; were they anonymous bands one might even be able to judge them as respectable. Each has hit some of the greatest highs of music, however, and so the question presented by a new album is now "is it good?" but "does it match up with Sticky Fingers/Achtung Baby?" The new albums never do, because how could they? Thus is born the face-saving compromise for all involved.

As 90s nostalgia has ramped up, and culturally significant but underappreciated bands have decided to go in for some easy money by releasing new material, there's been a tendency to give them a similar pass: if it's not their best work, but it's fine, who's to begrudge them for enjoying newfound popularity and commercial viability? It's entirely possible that all of these bands save the Pixies, the Stooges, and Guided By Voices (who were loose cannons at the best of times) made good albums, but it seems as likely that people were not prepared to hear--or admit--a harsher truth. And hey, I'll rep for "Thief in the Night" and "How Can I Stop?" as excellent Rolling Stones songs (which I think they are, and not just within the context of later-period Stones), so I'm aware of the manner in which we all become compromised.

Sleater-Kinney has a new album out, its first in about ten years, and people are falling all over themselves to praise it very much in the manner of a new Rolling Stones album. Feature articles talk about the band's relevance, which is almost always a discussion of its relevance in the riot grrrl scene in the mid-late 90s. The "best album since x" distinction is broken out, often with the same self-aware ironic dimension in which "their best album since Achtung Baby" is deployed. Reviews will quite strenuously note how much the band sounds like how it used to.

Having listened to the album myself, I would put it in the same "good but not that good" camp as The Woods.* It's not a classic Sleater-Kinney album, nor is it even the classic rock revivalism of The Woods. It does, however, sound very much like an album made by the people who were responsible for the Corin Tucker Band and Wild Flag, i.e. a bunch of perfectly good albums whose preferred musical textures were borrowed from classic rock and 80s power pop. In the end, a lot of the rough elements that made the band sound like themselves are not there, and there's an abundance of metaphor-songs, never the band's strongest suit.

(Here's how I know not to take these reviews too seriously: none of them mention the absence of the defining element of the 'classic' Sleater-Kinney sound, already becoming absent on The Woods: guitars in counterpoint. Most of the older material works--creates the tension it does--because neither the melody nor the rhythm is dependent on one guitar part, but passes it between the two. An ingenious solution to not having a bass player--as was the prominence of baritone guitar--but requiring considerably more time to develop.)

One can compare this reaction to that greeting the new Belle and Sebastian and Decemberists albums, which is decidedly mixed. I like Belle and Sebastian and have never cared much for the Decemberists, but I find these reviews to be more plausible because it seems likely that in a four- or five-year hiatus between albums, a band's sound will have changed, and not all of these changes will necessarily be good. I always find "this thing you're predisposed to like is as good as you hoped it would be!" to be the emptiest of critical stances, conflating "better than you might have expected" with "excellent," and retroactively causing me to revisit the things that came before.** If this is excellent, and of a piece with the rest of their work, then perhaps I mistakenly understood its merits, a train of thought that rarely redounds to the benefit of the thing being considered.


*Important footnote: I have been listening to S-K since 1996, when I included Call the Doctor as 'album of the year' in my junior high newspaper. Your attempts to hipster-than-thou me will fail.

**There's also the weird effect this has on a band's catalogue: previous albums tend to be viewed as 'of a piece,' which they very rarely are, and to simultaneously raise or lower the critical profile of albums as the narrative requires. The Hot Rock, All Hands on the Bad One, One Beat, and The Woods were divisive when they were released. It's possible that critics focused too much on individual flaws rendered less important in the context of a body of work, but it also seems just possible that taking the body of work as a whole reduces the need to think about its individual elements, much in the way that streaming an entire season of a tv show reduces critical attention to smaller but meaningful flaws in each individual element. Confession time: I find there to be no S-K albums that are listenable front-to-back: each of them has at least one wildly misconceived song ("Heart Factory" is the best example). They're still a great band, and their highs are very high, but they're not perfect. The last thing the indie world needs is to require the unquestioning loyalty of Phish fans.

Unusual Lines of Influence, Part I



Oasis, "Bonehead's Bank Holiday"




Neil Young, "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere"


Not sure I had heard this line of influence before. Pretty sure Noel Gallagher would be horrified to realize it. Still prefer the Small Faces, T. Rex, and Slade, in that order.

20.1.15

One Day I Will Understand Why It's Easier to Train My Cat Than My Dog. But Not Today.





















Pictured here in a moment of unassailable dignity.

Returning home after the holidays, I set myself a task: train the cat to come and sit beside me on the couch, and allow me to pet her, before she received her dinner. As a proper frame for the trick, one has to understand that this cat would not even be in the same room as me for the first six months after I met her. With the influence of my warm personality, she has gradually become more social, submitting to her morning feeding ritual, and occasionally even venturing out in public when we have guests. She remain skeptical of the benefits of petting, even from my wife, the one person she unquestionably loves. (I have been #2 since I met the cat in the beginning of 2012, but it's a measure of how little she likes people that I have constantly increased in affection received over this period and remain far behind my wife.)

Instituting the evening feeding process took about two weeks: a few days of picking her up, sitting her on the couch next to me, and petting her for 15 seconds; a week of her attempting every other trick she knows to get food, in a battle of wills* that would last long into the evening (when she'd run things out past 10:00pm, she'd get dry food, which she barely acknowledges to be food at all). Now, if I set my laptop aside, she will come and sit next to me, and twist herself around in love/hate, while I pet her, for as long as it takes for me to decide to feed her.

As with the morning feeding ritual, the only question is why I waited so long to try this.


*I have one merit as an animal trainer: once I decide not to lose a battle of will, I do not lose it, and I am prepared to wait or to repeat as often as necessary until I win.

On Radio

For the first time since 1997--not counting listening for traffic reports when I worked in Chicago--I have been listening to the radio. Not internet radio, which I find an iffy proposition. Nor, worse, streaming services. As the ipod has been sidelined with some occasional connectivity issues, and the cd of Underworld's Second Toughest in the Infants finally having worn out its novelty, I turned to good old broadcast-from-a-tower, received-by-an-antenna radio. It's been quite the revelation.

After one Taylor Swift song, a few acceptable R&B numbers, and far more Christian talk programming than I would have guessed, the scan function landed on 88.1, which was playing a very weird song. The very lowest end of the dial is usually reserved for pirate radio stations, so this was promising. As it turned out, the station was something even better: WKNC, NC State's radio station. A charming and very amateur interview with a local bluegrass band later on in the same car ride confirmed this as a winning option, and it has become my listening method of choice on subsequent trips.

The advantages of live college radio are best explained in comparison to their opposition. Internet radio is as good as the underlying station. WFMU has a good radio simulcast because it is a good station; the average station owned by a conglomerate with a playlist determined nationally will not. Sirius and XM, in virtue of their narrow identities as stations, tend to play the same sort of thing over and over again. One requires many stations in those cases to get minimally acceptable variation. I've never had the feeling that Pandora and its ilk are anything but antiseptic: if I must go to the trouble of telling a service what I would like them to play, I might as well make my own playlist and only hear songs I want to hear. The radio solution is a station that is only likely to play songs you want to hear, but not repeat any of those songs so many times as to get sick of them.

The dirty secret of coolness, especially in its college expression, is that it never changes. This is the way--and pretty much the only way--that someone like me, now no longer remotely cool, could stumble on the hipster coffee shop at Chicago as the 'comfortable' option. There will be new expressions of its themes, but these follow the same general trends: garage rock, appropriations of 1950s song styles, some light electronic music, the occasional screamer band, the edge of hip-hop, some country (both authentic Hank Williams Sr and all possible alt- configurations), guitar pop, and the slightest bit of world music.

College radio, then, is a solution to the problem of radio: a predictable but not repetitive collection of music that will hit far more often than it misses, but requiring no work of the listener.

19.1.15

Figuring Out the Premier League, An Ongoing Series

QPR 0-2 Manchester United

Man U won, but unconvincingly. One of the interesting things about picking up a new sport is attempting to sort out the phenomena other people take for granted. United looked terrible; City lost to Arsenal; I've watched Chelsea and Tottenham and City all drop points to teams that are in danger of relegation. Why?

United kept losing the ball in midfield; QPR seemed to particularly enjoy messing with Wayne Rooney (an old man at 29! There's sports for you). This appears to be the key: the Premier League is mostly about 'parking the bus,' putting 8-10 men in and around the penalty area in an attempt to stop goals. The primary offensive strategy, such as it is, is the quick counter-attack after a missed chance on the defensive end. No one has much talent in creating shots from midfield (aside from Karim Benzema, but that's why he's great); if there's no score on a break, you end up watching highly-paid strikers stand around waiting for someone to miss a shot so that they can scramble. That's the Plan B for most teams. It makes sense, in a way: if you have a massive, or substantial, talent gap, passing the ball around waiting for the other team to make a defensive mistake is a solid strategy. Man U won, after all.

But it's not a great strategy. Because these teams are lazy in the middle third, any team committed to high pressing has a good chance to score on their own break: QPR had three or four good chances go wasted. Combine that with a natural inclination towards conservatism on the road, and it only takes a lucky chance or two to lose. Talent will out, but it looks like a poor tactical decision.

A Brief Word on Invisible Man

For MLK Day, I usually recommend Letter from a Birmingham Jail and something else. This year, I recommend to myself that I reread Strength to Love, since I read it almost 15 years ago with considerably less life experience and considerably less settled theological views.

The 'something else' is Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Though not the work of a day of reading, it is, very possibly, the Great American Novel. It takes the very American theme* that people, on the whole and individually, are squalid, or crass, or manipulative, or ignorant, or mob-like, or unwilling to stand up for themselves, or unwilling to stand up for anyone else, and somehow concludes that these people might be worth loving, caring about, fighting for and alongside anyway.

I think we tend to want as allies only those people who are purer than pure, and look askance at people with obvious agendas or personal problems. The tendency to run down MLK because of his treatment of his wife, or his doctoral dissertation, or to think of him as in some way 'less smart' than Malcolm X, is a perfect example of this. It is somehow not enough that he be charismatic, visionary, a good speaker and a man who knew how to get important results. We would do well to remember the point that my old dissertation subject, Hugo Grotius, made. Human motivations are multifarious and almost never pure, but this is no discredit to them, since to count it so would be to discredit every last political and social cause. Instead, we ask people to --and judge them by their willingness to--uphold the moral principles they espouse even as we all disagree. And their are worse moral principles to uphold than "I will treat you like a human being even if you don't always treat me like one."

It seems to be the lot of reflections on race in America that they remain ever relevant, and in some ways Ellison's is the most important note to strike.


*see also: Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, It's a Wonderful Life

Adventures in Cultural Consumption: Let's Watch Some Movies We've Already Seen Edition

Four Weddings and a Funeral
Mean Girls

Scott Fitzgerald once said there are no second acts in American life. As if to prove the point, the line has served as easy lede copy for every magazine and newspaper story about individual comebacks since it was written. The line makes rather more sense about 'second acts' in the sense of Act II of a play: Americans like a good origin and establishment of conflict, and love the climax of conflict and its resolution, but are often quite unable to do the work of a second act of a five-(or even three-)act play. In that space the plot generally moves more slowly but themes and motifs are developed, depth can be added to characters, time taken to reflect on the situation, important counterpoints to the main action established. It's not that this cannot happen, or does not happen, but it frequently happens that all the pieces, none of them bad in themselves, do not quite naturally integrate.

Like everyone else, I love Mean Girls, but it's emblematic of a problem in a number of movies that are in the 1:30-1:40 range. The first hour proceeds with one general idea and conceit, there's a shift, and the remaining 30 or 40 minutes are tonally quite different. It's a funny high school movie about the dynamics of being a girl, up until the point when Cady throws a party in her house. After that, it gets meaner, the jokes are fewer, it stops for fifteen or so minutes to conduct a town hall about the issues teen girls face, it shoehorns in an extensive side plot about the math team--barely mentioned in the first hour--in which (as I hate) the main character explicitly says one of the morals of the movie, and ends with everyone being happy with each other. It's not bad, but it's haphazardly organized, and devotes a lot of screen time to making sure its point has been sufficiently underlined, and the tone veers as it attempts to signal both the difficulty of issues teen girls face and to resolve in the manner all high school movies must resolve themselves.

Four Weddings and a Funeral, by contrast, makes its construction quite clear: A Movie in Five Acts. The structure allows it to be significantly more winning than anything else in its general description would lead one to believe. Because it works with the conventions of a (long) play and the running time of a (reasonably short) film, any individual character or scene has to do very little work. The characters are all well-defined quickly, with additional quirks and excellent small periodic monologues, a few notable exceptions aside (is it still raining? I hadn't noticed). None has too much weight to carry, since there are so many of them and so many scenes to establish, and this also allows a certain amount to remain unsaid, an inexhaustibly wonderful quality for a movie to have. It's also--and this is, too, quite rare--a movie that allows everyone to have their dignity even as it passes them through embarrassing situations.

16.1.15

I'm Going to Have to Start Putting Titles On These, Huh?

Why yes, I did update my blog's template for the first time since 2004. The header is an old WPA photo of the area around Durham. Please gape in amazement at the wide variety of tags that I almost never use. Blogroll forthcoming.

Adventures in Cultural Consumption, Still Don't Like Stanley Kubrick Edition

Long-time blog readers are aware of my general policy regarding cultural items I don't particularly like: they should be revisited periodically in order to see if I have different feelings about them. Sometimes my opinions really do change, or I am aware of aspects that previously escaped my attention. This goes more emphatically for those things held in high regard: a good consumer of culture should be at least open to the idea of having missed something important.

Steven Soderbergh posted a new cut of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which seemed as good a moment as any to revisit the film, not least because the central feature of the cut is removing 50 or so minutes of runtime to bring the entire film under two hours. I am not a Kubrick fan. I've seen Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket, not an exhaustive list but a reasonable number from which to draw conclusions. Those conclusions: most of the movies are too long--far too long. If they contain any moral point, they hit that point over the head repeatedly and without any nuance--the only film that works for is Dr. Strangelove, as a satire. The slow pacing and the emphasis on composition rather than dialogue is the primary reason the films seem stretched. As a compositor of images, Kubrick may be without equal--every film has striking shots and takes, many of them memorable and justly celebrated*--but they come too infrequently. (I prefer lots of dialogue and emphasis on the interplay of the actors, unless the film is going into avant-garde art-film territory.)

On Soderbergh's edit: it was shorter, which is something. It contains all the iconic moments, also something. It makes better use of the eye topos as a theme connecting the disparate elements of the story, something this film needs quite desperately. But it also cuts out much of the dialogue. It is perhaps most worrisome that an hour can be removed from the film and I was unable to identify exactly what was missing, aside from expository dialogue. So we'll put Kubrick back on the shelf for a while longer.


*The problem with this reliance of image is that most of them work so long as you don't focus too much on the thing being symbolized. The ending sequence of 2001--the baby and the earth--is shocking and striking, and works as a general means of connecting the broader themes of the movie. But what is that broader theme? Perhaps something about the fragility of humanity, the contrast between the origins of man and what looks (or looked) like our fate, the contrast between the serenity of nature and our own capability for violence. Why is that represented by a fetus and a shot of earth from space? Well, it's a striking image. Don't think about it too much.

15.1.15

On a Driverless Car of the Future That Has No Windows

“A central idea of ​​the concept,” explains a reporter from Motor Authority, “is a continuous exchange of information between vehicles, passengers and the outside world."

If only there were a technology already existing that allowed for a continuous exchange of information between what was happening inside a car and outside a car, that a person in said car could call up at a moment's notice. Such as, for example, a piece of glass.

One of the problematic assumptions of technology is that it constitutes only new things, or only things that involve computers. That the world of everyday things consists of many technologies and their applications does not always seem to sink in.

I also wonder if the people who designed this car even particularly like driving. Granted that I grew up in Michigan at the very tail end of the Big Three's automotive dominance, but being able to see where you're going is one of the very real attractions of taking a car: riding alongside the Erie Canal or into denser woods in upstate New York, seeing the mountain passes in West Virginia, driving through the old, weird America off interstates practically anywhere, those months I watched the sun rise over Lake Michigan while driving in to work: those are why you drive a car.
The weirdest argument I've seen in some time, arguing against people who only like foods with bold flavors:

"This is first-class fustian. If you are unable to enjoy simple, traditional fare that has been properly prepared with good ingredients, the problem is not with the food; it is with you. To purloin a phrase from Slate food writers, you're doing it wrong."

If you watch Top Chef, you're familiar with both the assumption that French food is the height of culinary sophistication, and that other large and complex cuisines are local and parochial: there is no shortage of instances where a chef is condemned for "just" cooking Mexican or, worse, "Asian." It's weird to see this argument deployed against home cooks who like to take advantage of the wide variety of ingredients now available to make food they find to be interesting. Though I often make an analogy between reading and cooking, I'll point out a disanalogy here: cooking at home is almost always better than the alternative--sometimes not much better, but from a health and flavor standpoint, usually preferable. The gradual accumulation of skills can result in definite improvements over time. I once hot-sauced everything within an inch of its life, and now no longer do so; my favorite thing to do with many vegetables now is just to wash them and eat them raw. Also, and this cannot be stated forcefully enough: everyone has to eat, tastes differ, so everyone should just go ahead and eat the things that they like, provided they maintain a healthy balance.

It's a weird argument to be making for several reasons. First, it assumes that "traditional" fare is "American" fare which is French, German and English, with perhaps a side of Italian. None of the first three are known for assertive spicing which, it has to be said, makes them the exception rather than the rule. If your family is of Asian descent, or African, or South American, then none of this will apply. And I would suggest that each of those is closer to the heart of American cuisine as it stands today than French (which required a nouvelle revolution in order to be at all palatable to modern tastes), German, or English. Second, it assumes that the purpose of spicing is to cover over a lack of good ingredients, an argument so obvious as to be ridiculous and one that entirely misses the point. It's obvious that the purpose of spicing is to cover over non-ideal ingredients because the purpose of almost all cooking for almost all of history has been to compensate for less than ideal cuts of meat, vegetables, etc: the omnipresence of braising as a cooking method should indicate as much. It's unclear why the use of local ingredients with strong flavors--garlic, onions, ginger, fish sauce, a wide variety of dried chili peppers*, cilantro and cumin--somehow renders these no longer "simple" or "traditional." Third, while we're at it: I have no idea why anyone's opinion of the comparative merits of a apple tart and an apple pie should be a cause of distress. We have the phrase de gustibus non est disputandum--in Latin, no less!--for a reason.

Now, if the argument were instead that certain dishes, modified to add extra spices from outside the recipe itself, cease to be precisely those things, that I would have no issue with; if this were an argument about requesting foreign spices to add to a restaurant's offerings, there might be a point. But I will also point out that a drop of sriracha on well-roasted potatoes will bring out a smokiness that gets lost with just salt and pepper.


*Sriracha is, after all, just chili peppers and garlic set in a small amount of liquid.