Monday, December 31, 2007

The Year That Was (2007)

Blogs aplenty utilize this lazy time before the new year to extol their favorite this and thats from the preceding calendar year. Eschewing the traditional categorization of popular culture by the medium of its delivery, this list will simply lump all the bits, pieces and ephemera of popular culture from the year together. In no particular order, the best of 2007:

Above: "The Doggy Bounce."

The first season of HBO's "Flight of the Conchords," (June 17, 2007 - September 2, 2007)

Perhaps this show would not have received the attention and adoration it did had so many of its viewers not first seen clips of Flight of the Conchords, the band, on the YouTubes before learning of the existence of Flight of the Conchords, the HBO television program. The series' twelve episodes chronicle the misadventures of Bret and Jemaine, two clueless New Zealanders who have brought their folk duo New York City to seek fame and fortune. The dry wit of the series, coupled with the zany performances of the band's songs, was a marvel.

The Apotheosis of Jenna Fischer (2007)

2007 was the year of Jenna Fischer, who made appearances not just in NBC's "The Office" but in a variety of feature films (including Blades of Glory and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story). Her personal life was also newsworthy, as she fractured her back in four places after a fall (but fully recovered) and announced her separation from her husband, director James Gunn. As Pam Beesly on "The Office," she managed to project a sly and sweet sexiness with just a dash of attainability (as she had for several seasons). She is the girl next door to the nth degree.

Spinal Tap at Live Earth (July 7, 2007)

As a cultural event attempting to raise awareness of climate of change, Live Earth was an utter and complete dud. Spinal Tap, however, became the highlight of the series of concerts, when it brought nearly thirty bassists on stage to join them for their hit of hits, "Big Bottom." Joining them were James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Nate Mendel, and many, many others (or as Spinal Tap's lead vocalist, David St. Hubbins, would note, "every bassist in the known universe").

Sad Kermit (March 2007)

Some enterprising filmmaker decided to mash-up the pain and moral decay of Trent Reznor's "Hurt" with Jim Henson's Kermit the Frog, thereby creating Sad Kermit. The video for same features the green muppet singing Reznor's song and engaging in the types of stereotypically sick behaviors associated with hard core drug usage. Disturbing, yet amusing.

Doctor Who's "Blink" (June 9, 2007)

Aired in the United Kingdom several months before it did so in the United States, "Blink" was the tenth episode of the third season of the latest incarnation "Doctor Who." It was perhaps the best episode of the entire re-imagining of the series, which is ironic, since it barely featured the title character or his companion. Rather, the episode focused on Sally Sparrow, an ordinary citizen caught up in a battle with the Weeping Angels, aliens who become immobile as stone when observed but may move when unseen. To boot, they dispatch their enemies not by slaying them but by transporting them decades into the past where they cannot remain a nuisance. Sparrow must defeat the Weeping Angels so that the Doctor can be rescued from the past, where he is stranded without the Tardis, his fateful time machine. Not only were teh Weeping Angels the most frightful villains in the latest incarnation of the show's three seasons, but the episodes offers a nuanced (and consistent!) portrayal of the perils of time travel.

Above: Billiam the Snowman v. Mitt Romney.

Billiam the Snowman v. Mitt Romney (July 2007)

Is this pop culture, presidential politics, or both? 2007 was also the year in which Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney became entangled in a news cycle over his refusal to address comments made by a snowman character on YouTube. (The snowman was later named one of the "People Who Mattered" in 2007 by Time magazine.). This was, quite frankly, hilarious. "Hello, Mitt Romney!" Billiam would declare. Enough said.

Alanis Morrisette's "My Humps" (April 2007)

That Fergie, then of the Black Eyed Peas, could in 2005 and at age 30 perform without irony a song called "My Humps" is in and of itself astonishing. But it took Alanis Morrissette's somber (and sardonic) cover of the song this past spring to truly highlight its utter silliness.

Arcade Fire's "Neon Bible" (March 6, 2007)

Reviewing Arcade Fire's spring show at New York City's Radio City Music Hall, a writer asked an intriguing question about the band's first single from its then newly released second album:

Would it be perverse to claim that "Intervention" sounded even better when it was a shared secret, circulating as a low-quality MP3 taken from a BBC broadcast, complete with a breathless D.J. "If that doesn't get you, man, if that doesn't get you somewhere special . . .” talking over the last few notes? Maybe. But even now, after all the attention and the big-hall shows, the best Arcade Fire songs still sound mysterious.

(Kelefa Sanneh, "From Little Clubs to Big Halls, an Indie Band Evolves," The New York Times, May 11, 2007.).

Why is it that things, whether they be songs or bands or television shows, are "cooler" when they are unknown and we feel that we have discovered something that throngs of others have not? Is the only quality that makes the "low-quality MP3" better the fact that it is accompanied by the knowledge that you are in on the secret, and thus, part of the cool coterie? Was this question truly necessary in a review of a concert held month and months after the release of the bootleg MP3, or was its only purpose to provide notice to the reader of the writer's indie street cred? Whatever the case, Arcade Fire second major label release was no sophomore slump, primarily due to the presence of "Intervention," 2007's dirge of choice.

NBC's "30 Rock"

Consistently one of the funniest sitcoms on television, Tina Fey's "30 Rock" is the heir to "Arrested Development" and other such trailblazing and wildly amusing shows. In fact, in the fall of 2007, "30 Rock" began to surpass the "The Office" as the funniest half hour on television. Couple that with the lovely and self deprecating Fey and her intrepid cast of characters (including an absolutely hilarious Alec Baldwin), and you have gold.

Radiohead's "In Rainbows" (October 10, 2007)

Radiohead's pay what you wish download scheme was novel and a direct assault on the traditional model of the music industry (although its impact was lessened a bit when it was revealed that it would be unavailable in higher bit rate levels for audiophiles). But if you ordered the special edition boxed set (which came with a second disc), you received the album in all of its glory, including the long awaited release of the studio recording of "Nude."

Honorable Mentions: Wilco's "Sky Blue Sky" (which sounds as if it were recorded sometime in the 1970s), BBC's six episode miniseries "Jekyll" (June 16, 2007 - July 28, 2007), NBC's "Journeyman" (Fall 2007), contestant Blake Lewis and his reinvention of Bon Jovi on "American Idol" (May 1, 2007), and the Obama v. Hillary 1984 political advertisement (perhaps the most creative unauthorized political ad of the season).

Dishonorable Mentions: The unnecessary sequels that were Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Spider-Man 3, and Live Free or Die Hard, the downward slide of TV's "Rescue Me" and "Heroes" (both of which became unwatchable in 2007), the cameo appearances of Roman Polanski and Max von Sydow in Rush Hour 3, the Writers Guild of America strike and its timing to coincide with the midst of the fall TV season, the fact that 2007's R.E.M. Live, the band's first official live album, was of a 2005 concert and not of something from the late 1980s.

Sad notes: The deaths of great film-makers Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, on the very same day, July 30, 2007.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

So This is Christmas

"Don't despair, just because it's Christmas!" - Fear (1982)

There has always been a phoniness of sorts to Christmas. (Caveat: The term "Christmas" in this post refers not to the religious celebration of the birth of Christ but rather the uniquely American secular celebration of fireside family chats, hyper-commerce, huge sales, eggnog and other such things generally unavailable two thousand years ago.). People that aren't really polite or nice during the preceding 11 months suddenly become cheery and expect prompt reciprocation. When January rolls around, though, everything returns to normal.

Fear, the punk band, was most famous for its 1982 album, The Record. (An aside: There was some speculation in the music press in the late 1980s or early 1990s whether that album would be released on compact disc as The C.D. rather than under its original title. It was not.).

Fear's song, "Fsck Christmas," did not appear on the original release of The Record, but was included as a bonus track on sequent releases. Rather, it was originally the band's second single and perhaps the best punk song about the yuletide season ever recorded.

Aside from a controversial appearance on "Saturday Night Live" in 1981 (organized by then-former cast member and fan of the band John Belushi), Fear sank into obscurity. (Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea was briefly a member in the early 1980s, following the release of The Record.). Lead singer Lee Ving turned to movies for a while, appearing in both Flashdance and Clue (as the soon to be corpse, Mr. Boddy). In 1993, Guns N' Roses introduced the band to a new generation by including a cover of the band's "I Don't Care About You" on their final official release, The Spaghetti Incident?.

Merry Christmas (and avoid a Sad Clown Christmas, if at all possible).

Monday, December 24, 2007

Off Duty X

You don't expect me to blog fully on the day before Christmas, do you? In the meantime, then, content yourself with the infographic depicted above, which tells us how nature would reclaim the Earth if humans were to suddenly disappear from the planet. (The original source for the graphic was this October 2006 post from Boing Boing, which in turn cited a post from Treehugger, which no longer exists). The chart in question is very similar to the relatively new tome, The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, who purports to tell that tale as well.

In sum, Excellent Christmas time reading.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Week That Was (12/17 - 12/21)

The Week That Was - Time Travel Edition: True chronological snobs can now pay $220 for a replica of the flux capacitor from Back to the Future, a device which might have come in handy earlier this month for Pretend to be a Time Traveler Day (more about which here, here, and here). On a similar note, Wednesday of this past week saw the airing of the thirteenth and final episode of NBC's "Journeyman," the time travel drama starring Kevin McKidd as a San Francisco newspaper reporter who inexplicably travels backwards in time to assist those in need. Although I voiced some initial concerns about the series at the time of its premiere, "Journeyman" actually improved over the course of its run and developed somewhat of an interesting mythology. Though the narrative took some early missteps, and its theory of time travel was hardly consistent, it had potential, and thus, it is a shame that it has now been forever consigned to the ether by the network. There are those that say the network would never have aired all thirteen episodes had they not been desperate for original programming during the Writers Guild Strike (which still continues as of this blog entry). That, coupled with the premature termination of the awful second second from "Heroes" from the airwaves, is perhaps one of the few good things to be prompted by the strike and its aftermath.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown Austin Premiere (December 20, 1997)

Ten years ago today, on Saturday, December 20, 1997, just five days before Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown opened nationally on Christmas Day, the Austin Film Society hosted a benefit premiere of that film at Austin's Arbor 7 theatre. Special guests present at that event included Tarantino himself, and directors Robert Rodriguez, Rick Linklater and Mike Judge. The event sold out among members of the Film Society before having the general public had an opportunity to purchase tickets. To accommodate as many AFS members as possible, the film was shown on two screens, with one beginning at 7:00 pm, the other fifteen minutes later.

While the 7:15pm audience waited for Tarantino to arrive and introduce the film, Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black made a few brief announcements. He thanked everyone for purchasing the $25 tickets, adding that all proceeds would go to support the Texas Filmmakers Production Board, which annually awards monetary prizes to independent Texas filmmakers. Black also elaborated upon the history of Film Society. To the dismay of many audience members, he noted that AFS was unable to secure a venue for a post-event party, as the bedlam of the Christmas holidays forced their original location to cancel. They couldn't find another place in time, so they arranged for a brief, informal Q&A to be held at the Barnes & Noble next door to the theatre. Black explained that both audiences would have to cram into the store and listen to Tarantino and the other directors, who would address the group from the second store balcony. At this point, Black noticed that Tarantino, who had arrived in Austin that afternoon, was now in the back of the theatre. Black then introduced Linklater, founder of the film society and director of 1991's Slacker and 1993's Dazed and Confused. Then Tarantino, Rodriguez, Linklater and Judge walked down the aisle to the front of the theatre.

They were met with applause.

After thanking everyone for supporting the society, Linklater noted that Tarantino was only personally introducing the film in three cities: Los Angeles, New York and Austin. He also recalled an 1994 interview he conducted with Tarantino, who was then in town promoting Pulp Fiction. While browsing the soundtrack section at the now defunct Sound Exchange, a record store near the University of Texas campus, Tarantino told Linklater that he had considered casting Pam Grier in the part that ultimately went to Rosanna Arquette. The subject arose because Tarantino was looking for the soundtrack to Coffy, a 1970s blaxploitation film direct by Jack Kill and starring Grier. He then told Linklater that he didn't want to cast Grier in such a small part, as it wouldn't really have been a favor to her. Saying that he really wanted to work with Grier, Tarantino told Linklater that she would have to be the lead.

After relating that three year old conversation, Linklater introduced Rodriguez, famed former UT film school drop-out and director of El Mariachi and Desperado. Rodriguez, who also directed Tarantino in 1996's From Dusk Till Dawn and worked with him on 1995's Four Rooms, told the audience that Tarantino was happiest just watching movies at his apartment. He remembered how content Tarantino was just watching a 16mm print of 1973's White Lightning projected onto his apartment wall without a screen. (Note: Tarantino showed this film in Austin at his 1996 Filmfest, although the Wikipedia entry incorrectly notes that that festival did not begin until 1997.) Rodriguez then introduced Austinite Judge, creator of TV's "Beavis and Butthead" and "King of the Hill." Judge received a great deal of applause, more so than Linklater and Rodriguez had before, and more than Tarantino would in just a few minutes. Judge spoke briefly, starting with an impression of Hank Hill. After a few jokes, he said he hadn't yet seen the film, so he would end his remarks to avoid additional delay. (Margaret Moser of the Austin Chronicle would later observe that "while it was fun to schmooze with Quentin Tarantino, Rick Linklater, and Robert Rodriguez at the Austin Film Society's benefit Jackie Brown screening last weekend, it was Mike Judge, using his Hank Hill voice and the word 'sodomy' to introduce Tarantino, that made me almost die laughing.").

Tarantino was his usual self. Everyone laughed at things he said, not necessarily because it was funny, but because it was he that was saying it. He thanked the audience and his fellow directors for their support. He talked about how much he enjoyed staying in Austin. He briefly mentioned his other visits (1994 for a screening Pulp Fiction, early 1996 for the Austin premiere of From Dusk to Dawn, mid 1996 for the Tarantino Filmfest, and early 1997 for the world premiere of Full Tilt Boogie, the documentary about the making of From Dusk Till Dawn.). He also related that when he and Rodriguez were in production of From Dusk Till Dawn, they knew that there would be an Austin premiere, so they peppered the film with in-jokes just for that audience.

(Image courtesy of Laura's "I Met Quentin Tarantino" page from 1996.).

Thus, he had wanted to do a Texas premiere of Jackie Brown but had been too busy to make the necessary arrangements. So when Linklater called him about a benefit premiere, he happily obliged him. (In a mock Linklater voice, Tarantino said something to the effect of: "Quentin, I can't be responsible for the film in Austin if you don't have an Austin premiere!")

Tarantino then began to speak of his new film. He mentioned that fans come up to him and say they've seen all his movies, which surprises him, since he's only made two. He said that Jackie Brown definitely had a 1970s feel to it, although it was not set in the 1970s. (In fact, it is set in 1995, two years prior to the year of its release). He said it is the story of five characters whose lives were full of opportunities in the 1970s, all of which they squandered. The film, he continued, represented their chance their last chance to succeed, although there is only enough fortune for all of the characters. Tarantino's caveat: If the audience is expecting Pulp Fiction, then they'll like the film, but they'll soon realize that it not Pulp Fiction. Indeed, Tarantino had only recently told Entertainment Weekly that "[i]t's definitely not Pulp Fiction II."

In the same EW interview, he continued, saying "I felt I'd gone about as far as I could with my signature shooting style, so this one is at a lower volume than Pulp. It's not an epic, it's not an opera. It's a character study. I knew I didn't want to go bigger than Pulp, so I went underneath it." Before sitting down, he pointed out that there was one member of the cast in the audience. He asked her to stand. He introduced her as the "AK-47 girl," a character who appears in a brief segment called "Chicks Who Love Guns," a TV show that the characters played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro watch early in the film.

Tarantino then took his seat, as did the other celebrities.

(Aint-It-Cool-News publisher and all-around hack Harry Knowles, in his summary of the event, reported that Sandra Bullock was also in the audience.)

The film begins with a sequence very similar to the opening of The Graduate. Grier, an airline stewardess, is transported by an passenger conveyor belt as the credits appear on the screen. Grier did a respectable job in the title role. Jackson, who plays the standard Samuel L. Jackson character, lays it on a little thick. De Niro's character, as Tarantino would point out later, had little dialogue, relying more on physical gestures and posture. Tarantino would say he wanted this character to be akin to a stack of "dirty laundry." Micheal Keaton received the least screen time of all of the major players, while Bridget Fonda's surfer-girl didn't do much more than watch television and smoke marijuana. Chris Tucker, then famous for his flamboyant role in The Fifth Element and with the Rush Hour films in his future, had a brief cameo as a crook named Beaumont Livingston. The true joy was Robert Forster, who did a splendid job as bail bondsman Max Cherry, the Grier character's love interest. The film was lengthy at almost two and a half hours, and as Tarantino himself noted, it was no Pulp Fiction. Rather, it was a relatively straightforward crime film requiring little post-hoc reconstruction. There was an obvious attempt to make it look like a 1970s, as the camera work, editing and lighting were all throwbacks to that era of heist films. Absent also were the violence and standard Tarantino dialogue staples. (At the post screening Q&A, Tarantino would say that the dialogue was 60 percent his and 40 percent from the Elmore Leonard novel upon which the film is based.) Those expecting the Madonna speech from Reservoir Dogs or Ezekiel 25:17 from Pulp Fiction would later express their disappointment on the Internet in its pre-blog days.

After the film, the audience left for Barnes and Noble, already crowded as the audience from the first screening had just arrived. After twenty minutes, Tarantino and company appeared on the balcony. He and Linklater both had microphones, and Linklater said that he would be recognizing people for questions. The questions were standard fare. When asked when the FDTD documentary would be released nationally, Tarantino replied that Full Tilt Boogie would probably be in theatres around mid-1998. (This would prove true. After appearing at some film festivals in late 1997 and 1998, the film was released nationally in the United States on July 31, 1998.). Tarantino said that soon he would be acting in a Broadway revival of "Wait Until Dark" starring Marisa Tomei (who had appeared in 1995's Four Rooms). (This revival of "Wait Until Dark" would begin with a brief pre-Broadway run at Boston's Wilbur Theatre in February of 1998 before moving to New York's Brooks Atkinson Theatre for a formal April 1998 opening. Of that stage performance, Ben Brantley of The New York Times would observe that although he "brought an exhilarating burst of oxygen to the American crime movie" as "an actor making his Broadway debut in the production . . . he creates an inverse effect, draining the adrenaline from a play that if it isn't scary, isn't anything.").

Rodriguez said that he would begin shooting a horror film in Austin in March. It was written by Kevin Williamson, scriptwriter of Scream and Scream 2. (This would be The Faculty, perhaps the most forgettable film of his oeuvre.). Rodriguez warned those gathered to watch out for him killing teenagers around town. Linklater said that AFS would host an Austin premiere of his latest film, The Newton Boys, sometime in March of 1998. This Texas gangster film stars Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke. Judge, who reminded everyone that he is still working on King of the Hill, confessed that he was then developing a script (and perhaps he was referring to what would become 1999's Office Space.). He is also contemplating sequel to 1996's Beavis and Butt-head Do America, although that project never materialized.

As for Jackie Brown, Tarantino explained that in one scene Bridget Fonda's character watches the 1974 film Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, which features her father, Peter Fonda. Tarantino said that that film was not then available on video, so they had to transfer his 16mm print onto video to use it in the scene. (Tarantino showed this film at his 1996 Filmfest.).

Tarantino also said that he is perhaps the only person in the world who doesn't understand the meaning of the term "Tarantino-esque."

Rodriguez asked him why he used a score, since he was hesitant to do so in the past. Tarantino explained that Harvey Weinstein, one of the producers, suggested the idea. Tarantino balked, saying it was too late in production to bring someone in to do a score. He went on to say that scores should be done before principal photography, so that the scenes can be shot around the score, rather than the other way around. Weinstein then suggested that Tarantino take an existing score and put it in the film. Money wouldn't be a problem, Weinstein said. Tarantino decided to use some of the score from the Grier flick Coffy, which worked well, he said. Rather than having someone attempt to replicate a blaxploitation score, he now had the real thing.

He said De Niro became interested in the project on an airplane. On a flight, they were sitting together talking about upcoming projects. Tarantino told De Niro that he was adapting an Elmore Leonard novel for a film that would star Grier. De Niro rose to call his agent about the project that very moment. Tarantino praised De Niro, saying that he is perhaps the greatest actor alive, so much so that people are beginning to take him for granted. He should have been nominated for 1995's Casino, Tarantino related, but he was not, simply because people aren't surprised when he gives a good performance.

Someone asked if Tarantino, as a former film buff, was intimidated working with all of his former idols. Tarantino said he was not. The only actors that make him nervous are "bad actors," because you can coach them through a scene, but they won't learn from their mistakes. He said the most nerve-wracking part about the film was sending the screenplay to Leonard. Of course, Tarantino wasn't shy about relating Leonard's praise. Leonard told him it was the best adaptation of any of his novels.

Louis Black wrote of the film and its Austin screening in the following week's Austin Chronicle:
Jackie Brown also looks at belief and redemption. A surprisingly contemplative film, it displays the characterization for which Tarantino has been famous without the spectacular cinematic set pieces of which there are so many in Pulp Fiction. The story is astonishing -- imagine a mature and sophisticated look at the characters from a generic blaxploitation film 20 years later. This is a film about who people think they are now in their lives, in the context of who they once thought they were going to be (who they are now in light of who they once thought they would be when they reached this point in their lives). It is about acceptance but not resignation, about dreams, but with ambitions dramatically lowered.

The criticism of the film will focus on its length and on it not being Pulp Fiction 2. The length is a problem; it is long, it drags in places, but this is leisurely storytelling that depends on varying speeds and tones for its success. The "too muchness" is part of the charm of Jackie Brown -- I would have it longer rather than shorter.

It isn't Pulp Fiction 2. Tarantino warned us of that before the film but I didn't realize completely what he meant until the stunning final shot of Pam Grier's face (and this is a movie told in faces). The whole film leads to that one face, Grier's face, and to the world that face has seen.

Shorn of Pulp Fiction's extravagances, what is surprising is how similar the films are, not in narrative or tone, but in moral vision.


Tarantino has made another great movie, exploring the same themes as Pulp Fiction but in an entirely different way with an entirely different tone. This isn't really a review; I'm friendly with Tarantino and have given up film reviewing. But, damn, his work is exciting -- intellectually and cinematically. In Jackie Brown, the performances are amazing, the dialogue brilliant (nobody writes dialogue like Tarantino), Pam Grier's lead drives the film in a way women are rarely allowed to. I can't wait to see Jackie Brown again. In the meantime, I've watched Pulp Fiction twice.
Ken Lieck, also of the Austin Chronicle, wrote of the post screening merriment:
It's been a notable two weeks for cartoonist/directors taking their turns on the stage. Of course you noticed Beavis and Butt-head Do America director Mike Judge at Antone's reprising his on-again, off-again role as bass player for Doyle Bramhall. And last week we covered Robert Rodriguez playing with Tito & Tarantula at Stubb's performing "Angry Cockroaches" from his film From Dusk Till Dawn. The return of Quentin Tarantino this weekend, of course, served to increase the list of celeb sightings tenfold. The Tito show at the Continental on Sunday proved to be the (hardly secret) hangout spot following Saturday's screening of Jackie Brown, where Tarantino, Rodriguez, Judge, and Rick Linklater had been on hand. The above -- minus Judge -- were spotted at Sunday's show, along with Ray Benson and Cindy Cashdollar of Asleep at the Wheel, Mojo Nixon, Sarah Brown, Rodriguez's wife, producer Elizabeth Avellán, band manager Mark Proct, Wammo (sans pig), and "The AK-47 Girl." Too bad Tito didn't know a lounge version of "Stuck in the Middle With You" -- QT coulda joined in wearing his Elvis outfit from The Golden Girls!
Everything comes back to Tarantino's appearance on "The Golden Girls," doesn't it?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

My Life's Playlist (1975 - 2007)

With 2007 forever sinking into the depths of history, I have created a Life Playlist, which features one song from each year that I, your author, has existed on this Earth. The rules: One song per year. Each song must have been originally released in the year to which it is assigned (although I acknowledge the possibility that the year of the song's initial release and the year that it became ultimately popular, if applicable, may be different).

I could not bring myself to impose a limitation of only one song per artist.

I did restrict the list only to songs which exist in my current iTunes Music Library. Further, I do not, and simply cannot, warrant that I was actually listening to these songs upon their initial release, but for the most part (particularly when we get to the later 1980s and 1990s), I was. But, in the interests of full disclosure, I must confess to some level of retrofitting. I was not listening to Black Flag in 1981 or even The Smiths in 1986. Sorry. I just wasn't that cool then. You get the point. So, without further ado, behold, my list:

1975 - "Thunder Road" by Bruce Springsteen (from Born to Run)
1976 - "Beat on the Brat" by the Ramones (from Ramones)
1977 - "Heroes" by David Bowie (from Heroes)
1978 - "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory" by Johnny Thunders (from So Alone)
1979 - "Message in A Bottle" by The Police (from Regatta de Blanc)
1980 - "You Shook Me All Night Long" by AC/DC (from Back in Black)
1981 - "Rise Above" by Black Flag (from Damaged)
1982 - "Kiss Off" by The Violent Femmes (from Violent Femmes)
1983 - "Blue Monday" by New Order (from Power, Corruption, and Lies)
1984 - "The Killing Moon" by Echo and the Bunnymen (from Ocean Rain)
1985 - "Brothers in Arms" by Dire Straits (from Brothers in Arms)
1986 - "Bigmouth Strikes Again" by The Smiths (from The Queen is Dead)
1987 - "Where The Streets Have No Name" by U2 (from The Joshua Tree)
1988 - "Where is My Mind?" by the Pixies (from Surfer Rosa)
1989 - "Head Like A Hole" by Nine Inch Nails (from Pretty Hate Machine)
1990 - "Been Caught Stealing" by Jane's Addiction (from Ritual de lo Habitual)
1991 - "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana (from Nevermind)
1992 - "Drive" by R.E.M. (from Automatic for the People)
1993 - "Creep" by Radiohead (from Pablo Honey)
1994 - "Hallelujah" by Jeff Buckley (from Grace)
1995 - "Fake Plastic Trees" by Radiohead (from The Bends)
1996 - "Jack-Ass" by Beck (from Odelay)
1997 - "Paranoid Android" by Radiohead (from OK Computer)
1998 - "The Suits Are Picking Up The Bill" by Squirrel Nut Zippers (from Perennial Favorites)
1999 - "Save Me" by Aimee Mann (from the Magnolia Soundtrack)
2000 - "Press Gang" by The Murder City Devils (from In Name and Blood)
2001 - "Moment in the Sun" by Clem Snide (from The Ghost of Fashion)
2002 - "The Golden Age" by Beck (from Sea Change)
2003 - "Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (from Fever to Tell)
2004 - "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" by Arcade Fire (from Funeral)
2005 - "Let It Die" by Feist (from Let It Die)
2006 - "O Mary Don't You Weep" by Bruce Springsteen (from The Seeger Sessions)
2007 - "Intervention" by Arcade Fire (from Neon Bible)

I didn't listen to the Pixies in the 1980s although I remember hearing one of their b-sides in 1990 on the Pump Up The Volume soundtrack (which introduced me to them). Plus, I left out any hint of my heavy metal phase in the early 1990s (although, truth be told, I did get into Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Mother Love Bone, as that scene achieved national attention). Although I don't necessarily recall Jeff Buckley from 1994, his "Hallelujah" from that year is just so wonderfully ethereal that I had to include it. Radiohead appears three times in the list. I can remember thinking in 1993 that the crunching guitar line in "Creep" was stellar but I never suspected that they would rise beyond their initial first hit. Finally, I like that Springsteen begins and nearly ends the list. His songs are nice bookends.

But for 2007, the only choice for the list was Arcade Fire's "Intervention." Were I formally required to identify runners-up for 2007, they would be Radiohead's "Nude" or "All I Need" from In Rainbows or Girl in a Coma's "Clumsy Sky" from their Both Before I'm Gone album. Radiohead, however, is already well represented on my list, and technically, although "Nude" was only just released commercially this year, it has been played in concert for years and years. In the end, these songs simply could not compete with the power dirge by Arcade Fire.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Peoples is Peoples Speech (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984)

"Hey. I tell you what is. Big city, hmm? Live. Work, huh? But. Is not city open. Only peoples. Peoples is peoples. No is buildings. Is tomatoes, huh? Is peoples, is dancing, is music, is potatoes. So, peoples is peoples. Okay?" - Pete (Louis Zorich), a Manhattan restaurateur, to Kermit the Frog, offering perhaps the best statement of life wisdom depicted in cinema, in The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984).

In the film, a misfit band of Muppets descend upon Manhattan seeking fame and fortune on Broadway. They do not find instant success, and their dreams of stardom give way to the reality of daily living in a major metropolitan center. Kermit eventually finds himself working in a local diner run by Pete and his daughter, Jenny (Juliana Donald). Kermit inevitably turns to Pete and Jenny, denizens of the big city, for advice on his newfound life dilemma in New York City.

As a culture, we learn so very much about ourselves and our everyday actions from the movies. We order our first drink at a bar in the fashion we have seen in a film. We learn appropriate (and inappropriate) dating behavior from the movies. And yes, we acquire bits of life wisdom from the medium, including the "Peoples is Peoples" speech delivered by Pete the restaurateur. Can there be any more wise monologue in the history of cinema? (This is not the first blog to extol the speech's virtues, either, as you can see here and here and here).

Kermit's reply: "Yeah. Thanks. That helped a lot." Indeed.

Zorich, the actor who portrayed Pete, will turn 84 this coming February. He went on to play the father of Paul Reiser's character in his 1990s sitcom, "Mad about You" and has been married to the actress Olympia Dukakis since 1962. Donald has mostly appeared in cameos on television programs in the last two and a half decades, including the various Star Trek series.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005)

Perhaps film historians, decades from now, can unravel the mystery of how director Peter Jackson could perpetrate a movie as unwatchable as 2005's King Kong, released two years ago this month and only shortly after his massive creative success with Lord of the Rings. Far from the sort of wild escapist entertainment one would expect from such a remake from such a director, Jackson's King Kong is largely derivative - and not of great films. Rather, its source material appears to be other formulaic action pictures that were themselves derivative of cinematic detritus. Only a few years before this major misstep, Jackson was a daring filmmaker who rescued audiences from exactly this sort of wretched big budget studio film. Such a talented director should have been incapable of such rubbish. What gives?

The plot is well known and unnecessary to dissect in detail. For the ridiculous Skull Island sequences, Jackson cribbed from 1993's Jurassic Park, and all of the films that themselves ripped off Jurassic Park from 1994 to 2005. Was there anything about being chased by monsters large and small in the first half of the film that wasn't done in 1998's dreadful remake of Godzilla, which itself was essentially a plagiarism of far, far better films? The lovely Naomi Watts, playing the Fay Wray role, attempts to calm or distract King Kong by engaging in a silly dance shortly after her capture by him. This sequence was too embarrassing for words. Bothersome also were the heavy-handed references to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which were forced upon audiences for what reason exactly? There was nothing particularly interesting about the bland performances of Watts or Adrien Brody, and Jack Black, as the Barnum-esque showman bent on commercializing Kong, essentially plays himself (a character which is beginning to wear thin). The only interesting sequence was the ape's climbing of the Empire State Building, which required sitting through the film's first two and a half hours.

The problem: Jackson adored the original 1933 King Kong and desperately wanted to direct his own version since he was a wee lad in New Zealand. However, a film should be remade only if the original (1) surpasses true awfulness and might be ameliorated by a remake or (2) has become outdated in tone, narrative, or special effects and can be effectively modernized. Arguably, Jackson's effort would fall under the second of those two prongs of this test.

Thus, a corollary: No filmmaker should remake a film that he or she truly loves. (Such a rule would also save us from remakes of films which, though dated, are classics which should remain untouched.). To do so blinds that director or producer from the original narrative's inherent flaws. Creative decisions are not made for narrative economy but rather with glee at the prospect of remaking a beloved film that is enshrined in one's memory. That's just not good film-making. Really, only if you loathe a film, or even just dislike it a lot, can you remake it. Didn't someone once say that the only good biographers are those who hate their subjects? Same principle.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Off Duty IX

Business travel keeps me from making a substantive post today, but I do have time to pause and ask of you, how could you not have signed up for the Spinal Tap Fan Club in 1992 when the world's loudest band resurfaced to support its then-new album, Break Like The Wind?

Depicted above, and below, are the front and back of an interest post card sent by the club 15 years ago. Early that year, Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and Derek Smalls triumphantly returned to popular culture after a multi-year absence that began following the release of 1984's This is Spinal Tap, the mockumentary which introduced the band to the world.

The back of the post card reads:

Dear Fan,

We're sorry it took so long to get back to you but we've been quite busy lately.

What with rehearsing for our upcoming tour and trying to straighten out our tangled legal problems. Oh, well!

We love hearing from you so please stay in touch.

Thanks for your support!
1992 was also the year of The Return of Spinal Tap, a television special and faux sequel to the originally faux movie which gave birth to their careers in the first place. (This would later be released on DVD; thank the maker.). Also that year, Tap's members quibbled with Metallica about black album covers and that band's theft of that concept for their 1991 self-titled album:

There was the controversial video for the band's 1992 single, "Bitch School," which was allegedly, although probably only in jest, banned from MTV:

They also released a video for "The Majesty of Rock," another 1992 video (featuring appearances by, of all people, Janis Joplin, Roy Orbison, and Buddy Holly):

Fifteen years after that, in 2007, the band would reunite again to play Live Earth. This means, of course, that since 1984 they have been together, played more significant gigs, and garnered more attention than many "real" bands. Ah, parody.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Richard Matheson's I am Legend

"The past had brought something else, though; pain at remembering. Every recalled word had been like a knife blade twisting in him. Old wounds had been reopened with every thought of her. He'd finally had to stop, eyes closed, fists clenched, trying desperately to accept the present on its own terms and not yearn with his very flesh for the past. But only enough drinks to stultify all introspection had managed to drive away the enervating sorrow that remembering brought," - Richard Matheson, writing in his 1954 horror novel, "I Am Legend," which relates the tale of Robert Neville, the last man on earth in a world filled with vampire-like creatures, who is coping with the loss of his wife, Virginia, to the vampire plague.

Imagine a contemporary horror novel not unlike George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead film with a gritty dash of Cormac McCarthy's post apocalyptic novel, "The Road." Richard Matheson's novella, "I Am Legend," has the frightful and serious feel of both of those works, but it significantly predates both of them: the former by 14 years the latter by over 50. The blogger 1979 Semi-Finalist has it right when she notes that upon the novella's publication in 1954, "it must have been mind blowing in its revolutionary thinking."

"I am Legend" is set in a future in which a vampire plague has destroyed the world's population. The protagonist, Neville, believes himself to be the last human being on earth, and he has no evidence to the contrary. He spends his nights holed up in his fortress of a home and his days venturing out into the world to slay as many sleeping vampires as he is able. He has only his work by day and the solace of his home by night. But this is no action adventure story (although the forthcoming film adaptation featuring Will Smith may transform it into such). Neville's tale is one of lost love, loneliness, and longing for the flesh in a world bereft of everything he ever knew. Neville attempts to distract himself with music and booze but his thoughts are never too far from the wife and child that perished with the old world. Matheson describes Neville's coming to grips with the post apocalypse as follows:

In a world of monotonous horror there could be no salvation in wild dreaming. Horror he had adjusted to. But monotony was the greater obstacle, and he realized it now, understood it at long last. And understanding it seemed to give him a sort of quiet peace, a sense of having spread all the cards on his mental table, examined them, and settled conclusively on the desired hand.

Each night, a pack of vampires surrounds Neville's home, beckoning him to join them. Knowing he has no companionship, the female vampires lift up their skirts to tempt him. But to go outside would mean death, which is why he hunts by day to thin their ranks as much as possible.

But then, by chance, he stumbles across Ruth, a female survivor apparently unaffected by the plague. At first, she is timid and flees from Neville, who gives chase and captures her in an attempt to keep her safe from the vampires. He takes her to his home and slowly gains her trust. But he is conflicted:

As the moments passed he could almost sense himself drifting farther and farther from her. In a way he almost regretted having found her at all. Through the years he had achieved a certain degree of peace. He had accepted solitude, found it not half bad. Now this . . . ending it all.

He had accepted his fate as a loner; he had come to terms with his isolation. Now, in finding another human being to talk and relate to, he begins to long for the solitude he once had. Although he saw fit to complain of his loneliness, now he preferred it to this new interloper.

Would that he had acted on those feelings of doubt. Like so many new people in our lives, Ruth is not at all what she seems. She is actually sick with the virus that leads to vampirism. She is a spy sent to learn Neville's secrets and spill them to the new vampire society which has arisen. Although she began to feel some sympathy for Neville, she betrays him nevertheless, leading to his capture, imprisonment, and as the novella ends, the likelihood of execution.

Matheson's story is far, far more psychological and dark than the type of rubbish that we have come to expect from modern horror writers. It is difficult to imagine the new film version, written by Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich, directed by Francis Lawrence and opening this coming Friday, conveying this sense of complexity. (The studio picture starring Will Smith is not the first such adaptation; the novella became 1964's The Last Man on Earth and 1971's The Omega Man.). In 1954, writers like Matheson didn't write books as a mere predicate for selling movie rights to Hollywood. They were not attempting to shock for the sake of shock value or fill their pages with derivative postmodernist nonsense. Matheson's novel is less about a plague of vampirism than a man's isolation and avoidance of the world. The tone is a grim and amoral, for "[m]orality, after all, had fallen with society" and Neville is now "his own ethic."

Sound familiar?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Texicalli Grille (South Austin, Texas)

As 2007 draws to a close, one cultural and culinary staple forever left behind in this year is Austin's Texcialli Grille, a local restaurant and live music venue, which closed its doors in July. Known for its diverse jukebox and its magnificent queso fries, the Texicalli Grille has been described as "an old Taco Bell [that] has lots of South Austin hippie stuff in it." But according to the restaurant's official website, its last day of business was Friday, July 6, 2007:

We are in the process of finding a place to relocate - we apologize for the short notice- please email us your contact information and we will let you know as soon as we are back in business!

We look forward to hanging out with you at our new location - hopefully in the VERY near future!

Despite the optimistic pronouncement of a potential new venue, six months later, Texicalli has not yet risen from its grave. (At least one other blogger is already lamenting its loss.).

The restaurant began in Austin, Texas in 1981. Its original location was on South Lamar, and after eight years, it moved to its current and final location on Oltorf, just a few blocks from I-35. Anyone who visited the restaurant was likely greeted warmly by its gregarious owner, Danny Roy Young, described in the press as both the "unofficial mayor of South Austin" and a "South Austin institution." Dale Rice, writing for the Austin American Statesman, once described Young as "a meetin'-and-greetin' proprietor whose welcoming smile is as inviting as the menu, which features a wide range of sandwiches and salads, along with a few entrees." In 2006, Young would turn over his management duties to Jimmy Keith "Bonz" Kendall in 2006.

Reviewing the place in 2002 for the Austin Chronicle (which was a friend to restaurant, covering it often in its pages), food critic Rachel Feit summed it up the appeal of the 'Cal:

There are some restaurants that never lose their appeal. Year after year they manage to weather sea changes in the economy, food fashion, and neighborhood transformation. Through it all, they never lose sight of the essential things that really define them. The Texicalli Grille is one of those places.

Austin will be a lesser place without the 'Cal's Queso Fries #2, a plate of waffle fries smothered in cheese, avocado, and onions. In 2000, one restaurant reviewer noted:

When you walk into this tiny, quintessentially South Austin eatery, Danny Young welcomes you as if you were an old friend dropping by for lunch at his house. But unlike the fare in most of our dining rooms, you get to choose from 14 carefully crafted sandwiches, six salads, five kinds of burgers, four large plate lunches (including a serious chicken-fried steak), and a panoply of interesting appetizers, such as Spicy Fried Squash with Herb Dip. And don't forget the renowned crispy waffle fries drizzled with a mildly spiced queso, a meal in itself. In addition to the personal attention, cheerful service, and fresh ingredients everywhere you look, Texicalli offers some ice cream concoctions that you won't find just anywhere. Sundaes, floats, malteds, and shakes are constructed with everything from real Dr Pepper (the original syrup imported straight from the source in Dublin, Texas) to mocha to avocado. So save room for dessert.

Another review by Rebecca Chastenet de Géry says:

Ease into a booth at Texicalli Grill, a funky little south Austin institution, and after you've spent several minutes scanning the ceiling collage honoring Austin music history -- a work impressive enough to have received mention in Rolling Stone -- turn your attention to the handwritten menu. The story goes that Texicalli owner Danny Young set out to adapt the flavors found in delicatessens on the Eastern seaboard to Texas tastes. The result is Texicalli's straightforward menu loaded with unique takes on traditional deli sandwiches, salads, burgers, and plate dinners. Attention! If you're craving a greasy spoon, go elsewhere. Despite its roadhouse appearance, Texicalli pays attention to its ingredients, admirably using vegetables that haven't suffered canning. Take the cheese fries for example. A dish that often exits kitchens at other eateries as a sticky mass of processed cheese hiding sodden strips of potatoes turns out, at Texicalli, to be a more finely-tuned (if still gooey and comforting) affair. My favorite version features the restaurant's crisp waffle fries blanketed with cheese sauce and studded with bits of fresh green onion, red bell pepper, and real bacon. ($7.25 full order/$4.85 small order) Paired with the Greggie sandwich ($8.45 large/$6.35 small), a hoagie bun layered with lean Canadian bacon, Swiss cheese, avocado, leaf lettuce, and a mound of sprouts, you've got yourself a hearty, but not entirely unhealthy meal to tackle. Another notable Texicalli offering, one that has developed a cult following over the years, is the Dixie Red Hot sandwich ($6.75 large/$5.10 small), a boneless breast of chicken marinated in Tabasco, grilled, and topped with a slice of Monterey jack, strips of red bell pepper, and leaf lettuce. The best part about the Dixie just might be its accompanying side order -- a pile of earthy, dense, sweet potato home fries. If sandwiches aren't your thing, the restaurant's salads are full meal deals and Texicalli does a mean business in burgers and plate specials. In fact, Texicalli does a mean business, period.

(Photo by John Anderson of the Austin Chronicle).

The restaurant was also a staple of the South Austin music scene and was used both to record an album and play host to local concerts (at which you might see Young playing the washboard). Its old school jukebox was described as follows: "He's got a good box - from Johnny Otis to Link Wray, Judy Garland to Laika and the Cosmonauts . . . ." In a recent email, musician Mandy Mercier describes the experience of playing a gig at Texicalli:
The main difference between Texicalli and other venues for me was, first of all, we didn't use any amplification!!! The room was of a size where we didn't need to so it really emphasized the content of the music. The atmosphere was festive, joyful and supportive due to Danny's pervasive presence even when he wasn't always there . . . . And when Danny was there, the place just lit up, as I'm sure has been said by everyone who was ever at Texicalli.

Also striking about the joint was its immense collection of Austin music scene ephemera and memorabilia which dated back decades. Austin writer Lee Nichols noted that the restaurant's "walls [were] covered with a combination of left-wing political bumper stickers and local music posters dating back to the earliest days of Austin's modern scene." Fellow Austin writer Marc Savlov once wrote that "[t]he interior of Danny Young's Texicalli Grill is a virtual time machine, the walls plastered with sun-faded Jukes, Franklins, and Garretts . . . ." (referring, of course, to notable music poster artists of the day). No doubt, the place had atmosphere.

Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson for the Austin Chronicle.

Though affable, Young was also an outspoken advocate of South Austin as a community. He was known to express his concern about what he would call the "Stepfordization of Austin. " He was also a frequent letter writer to the Austin Chronicle.

(Photo by John Anderson of the Austin Chronicle).

The restaurant won its fair share of local awards. In 1996, the Austin Chronicle bestowed upon Texicalli the "Best Use of an Old Taco Bell" award and noted:
This South Austin landmark might also get an award for Best Unofficial Museum of Austin History and Culture. An extension of owner Danny Young's personality, it is everything that makes Austin unique from the rest of Texas -- in lieu of wallpaper, every nook and cranny is covered with an assortment of flyers announcing old Armadillo and Soap Creek gigs, left-wing political bumper stickers, and autographed pictures from great Austin musicians past and present. Young's clientele is eclectic -- hippies, rednecks, and businessmen, all chowing down on his great sandwiches.

Four years before that, in 1992, the Austin Chronicle named Young the "Best Mayor of South Austin" and observed:

DANNY YOUNG "Hey buddy, how ya doin'?!" asks Texicalli Grille owner Danny Young whenever a friend enters his restaurant - a common occurrence, as many regular Texicalli patrons soon become Young's friends as well. How can they not when South Austin's friendliest restaurateur is on hand to make you feel not just welcome but at home in his Oltorf eatery. The posters covering every available wall and ceiling space make the spot a virtual Austin Music History Center, the jukebox is one of the hippest in town, and the food is great. But it's Danny's enthusiastic hospitality that makes this the friendliest spot south of Town Lake. And his freely offered political opinions reflect the concerns of small business people as well as a strong will to preserve the best of Austin.

Photograph by John Carrico for the Austin Chronicle.

On March 27, 1996, James A. Cooley posted the following on the Usenet newsgroup:
I am VERY fond of the Texicalli Grille on E. Oltorf Street. Great sandwiches, interesting salads, and very friendly service. I have eaten here literally hundreds of times and it is by far and away my favorite place. I also like the Mandy Mercier live show on Friday early evenings.

(See also here for another 1996 post by Cooley on the place.). But Cooley wasn't just a fan of the restaurant; he helped to build it. Reached recently via email, Cooley remembers:

I first met Danny Young and started doing woodwork for him in 1985 (I myself came to Austin in 1984). My first tasks were gluing chairs at his original South Lamar location. When he moved to behind that location, I did a lot of work on the new joint. I built their counters, put the giant flag on the ceiling, and a host of other oddball projects. When they went to look at the old Taco Bell, I was one of the people who evaluated it for the conversion. I spent several weeks doing the conversion inside and built most of what is in it. Tables, counters, one of the dining rooms, all of the shelving and storage, etc. I was the guy (along with Carlos "Goose" Garza, Danny then-manager) who hung the pinball machine on the ceiling. Danny Young and me would go down there and sometimes be up all night working on the place. I was drawn to unusual woodwork projects and Young needed someone who was willing to take on his off-beat jobs. He was my best customer over the years (and I one of his best regulars, as well). My daughter even got her start in the restaurant business when she start working for him as a teenager. She has since gone onto graduate from chef school.

Unfortunately, Young and Bonz did not respond to requests for an email interview regarding the fate of their restaurant. Hopefully, they were too busy looking for a new location.

Texicalli Grille (1981 - 2007)

Resquiat in Pace

Photographs of restaurant exterior by Dani L.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Week That Was (12/1 - 12/7)

Thriller is Old: "[December 1] marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Michael Jackson's Thriller. These days Jackson is more of a court jester, but for those of you who have forgotten (or never knew) that he once wore the "King of Pop" crown, one look at the Thriller tracklist will set you straight . . . . That's a murderer's row: seven top-ten singles out of nine tracks, back in the days when such things had meaning, and not a cheap one in the bunch. 100 million copies later, the music still matters." - Stereogum, in his own exercise of chronological snobbery, in "The Funk of 40,025 Years," Stereogum, 11/30/07.

Does the modern listener of music, too young to remember 1982, understand how huge Michael Jackson's Thriller was at the time? That the record was both made for and made MTV as a network? For those too young, or too pre-existent to recall, the record is a historical artifact parodied a myriad times over and over again. But before it became one with the pop culture landscape, and before its author became known for more sordid pursuits, Thriller was, well, Thriller. There was no comparison. To think now that Thriller has existed longer than a current college senior is baffling. But it has, and in its vain and overproduced glory, it rocks. No word yet on whether the upcoming twenty-fifth anniversary of "Say Say Say" will be similarly recognized, but really, it should be, shouldn't it?