Wednesday, September 23, 2009

September Omnibus

Hello, my darlings. It's been a busy month, mostly for personal reasons (all good, don't you worry!), but I suppose it's time to do another quick roundup here to keep you abreast of the pop cultural goings-on in my world.

Yes, I have seen Inglourious Basterds. No, I'm not ready to write about it yet. For both your sake and mine, I want to get this one right, so you're going to have to continue to have patience with me. KTHX.

I did go on a bit of a documentary binge, though (perhaps in response to all the intellectual heavy lifting required by the Tarantino project--just needed to cleanse my palate a bit from all the intertextual references and whatnot). Over the course of three days, I saw It Might Get Loud, Paper Heart, and The September Issue. Contrary to what even I would have expected, I think The September Issue was my favorite of the bunch.

It Might Get Loud was fun but flimsy. Jimmy Page looks like this wonderful old lion, and I actually didn't realize how long he'd been a professional guitar player before the Zeppelin juggernaut, so that was super interesting to learn about. The Edge was totally the odd man out in the threesome, and he kept getting lost in his own logical contradictions as he was describing his philosophy of guitar playing--he'd start to espouse all the beauties of simplicity (modifying chords to ring more purely and openly with fewer notes), but then you'd see him hooked up this his huge rig of computerized effects pedals or standing onstage at one of U2's bloated stadium shows, both of which couldn't be more complex and elaborate. His heart is in the right place, though, I guess. His musical reference points were also fairly divergent from the blues idiom that continues to inform the playing style of both Page and Jack White, which left his contributions a bit in the cold as well. Jack White was an interesting addition to the mix, not least of which was due to the fact that there are no other comparable guitar players of his age and level of fame/success/stature who could have fit the bill (srsly, who else would you have put in there? Josh Homme? Doug Martsch? Stephen Malkmus? I love those guys, but there's not a chance in hell). He also came in with enough hunger and ego blazing to keep those elder statesmen on their toes. There's no way I'd ever want to be friends with that guy, because he just seems like such an impossible dick, but I really respect the hell out of him as a musician and pop cultural figure. I also kind of wish that the movie had gotten even wankier, though. I wanted to hear more about specific chord tunings, songwriting techniques, recording tricks, all that trainspotting nerdery. There's something always slightly hypnotic and wonderful about listening to incredibly skilled people talking about things that I have utterly no frame of reference for. For some strange reason, my dad used to subscribe to Guitar Player magazine when I was still living at home, and I grew curiously addicted to flipping through it--though all the talk about pedals and amps and whatnot could get a bit tedious, there was something incredibly fascinating about that level of detail that goes into your garden variety rock song. I suppose I'm in the minority here, and the director probably didn't want to alienate the already small target demographic for this movie, but I could have used fewer rhapsodic monologues on the theme of "when I was a young boy, the guitar just called to me..." and more hardcore information about what they're actually doing when they're playing guitar. By the end of the movie, though, I kind of started to hate white men and longed for somebody to do a ladies' rock version of the same--Joni Mitchell, Carrie Brownstein, and Annie Clark, maybe? Can somebody make that happen?

My girl crush on Charlyne Yi continues unabated. The nice thing that Paper Heart does is that it sucks you in with the idea that you get to watch her fall in love (or playact a simulacrum of what happened when she once upon a time purportedly fell in love) with Michael Cera, but it actually turns out to be a love story about friendship. The most interesting relationship in the whole movie was between her and the "director" (Nicholas Jasenovec, played onscreen by the totes adorbs Jake M. Johnson). It felt like they had the most screen time together, and it's beautiful to watch their relationship unfold as they tease each other, give each other nicknames (he endearingly calls her Chuck throughout), confess to each other their fears and ambitions in everything from life and love to their careers in Hollywood, and bicker and make up as their realize the true importance of their friendship. How can a garden variety romance with the indie-heartthrob-of-the-moment possibly stand up to something genuinely sweet like that? Luckily, the movie doesn't try too hard to force it and pretty much lets both of these "love stories" do their own thing, on their own time, with their own weight. Sure, much of it is cutesy and if stuff of this nature is inclined to bug you, there's no way anything I'm going to say will change your mind. But, there's a sweetness and a gentleness to it that I found plenty appealing.

Even though I'm not a remotely fashionable girl, I've always secretly kind of been fascinated by clothes and models and the fashion industry, almost in a scientific way, so Benji didn't have to do much convincing to get me to see The September Issue with him. And I loved it, loved it, loved it, largely due to the amazing onscreen presence of Grace Coddington. I can't even begin to summarize her list of achievements and accomplishments here, but she's the perfect complement to Anna Wintour at Vogue. The two women balance each others' strengths and idiosyncrasies so well, neither of them would probably be able to do her job as effectively without the other. It's a beautiful partnership, and of course it's hugely inspiring to see two women of such power and influence rocking their professions at the absolute top of their game. Even if you don't dig fashion, per se, it's a fascinating entry into the broadly defined "putting on a show" genre, as a bunch of creative people come together to make something beautiful out of thin air before the clock runs out. Highly recommended.

I also had the delightful opportunity to see Sondre Lerche play a solo set at Schubas last weekend. I hadn't seen him live in concert since April '07 at the Double Door, but it's always a treat to see him when he rolls through town. I haven't picked up his new album yet, but I plan on doing so soon. As I observed the first time I saw him play a solo show way back in November '04, hearing his songs with nothing but his own guitar accompaniment only emphasizes how cunningly wrought and durable they are. The jazz chord voicings and sweetly twisty melodies can reveal themselves more fully when you're not distracted by the noise and excitement of a full rock band set up. I suppose it's only natural that he'd keep getting better as a singer, songwriter, and guitar player as he matures, but it's almost shocking to watch someone already so laden with so much pure talent continue to grow as a musician, basically in real time. (And the fucker's still only in his mid-20s!!) After opening with a song I'm assuming came from Heartbeat Radio, he ripped into an insanely rocked out and amped up version of "Faces Down" that, in all honesty, the rest of the set almost didn't recover from--it was that good. It was really almost too much too soon in its utter brilliance. He was unfortunately beset by some technical difficulties with his guitar mic, but that just gave him a chance to unplug and give us a totally acoustic version of "Say It All." It was one of those totally unplanned moments that takes a show up a level from enjoyable to special; the room was nearly glowing with warmth. His talent really brings out the best in his audiences, too. Maybe it's just because it was the 7 pm show and, as such, was filled with folks too old (and/or too young) to want to stay up for the 10:30 pm set, but everyone stayed respectfully quiet while he was playing--until he invited us to sing along, at which point everyone busted out not only perfect recall on the lyrics, but also on the harmonies, too. Like with the Juana Molina show back in February, I left the club wanting to be a better, more creative person. It's some next level shit when a show is inspiring like that. The photoset from the evening is posted to my Flickr page here.

In other music news, I already Twittered about it here, but, man, is that American Music Club album The Golden Age good. It's been on nearly constant repeat on my iPod for the past few weeks. It's not flashy or show-offy in the slightest; it just does everything right. There are so many turns of phrase that leave me utterly breathless ("I'll be the match that holds your fire / I'll be the note that sings from your wire / if I can give you all my love" in "All My Love" and "Years ago my soul went missin' / lookin' for a life no one would mourn" from "All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco" come immediately to mind but there are dozens of others scattered throughout), and "The Dance" has to be one of the most devastating songs (outside John Darnielle's oeuvre) that I've heard in ages. I suspect the album's only going to continue to grow on me.

As far as reading material, I've been absolutely devouring And Here's the Kicker. You can find out more about the interviewees at the book's nice and simple website here; take a look at the list there and maybe you'll understand why I've been forcing myself not to rush through it in an attempt to prolong its pleasures. I probably could have dog-eared every other page, it's so full of interesting insights, but George Meyer's interview is sticking in my brain most at the moment. For instance, in talking about cultivating the state of flow in comedy writing (specifically referencing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work!), I thought this was brilliant:

The work you do in this state has grace and ease and resonance. It's the opposite of what Michael O'Donoghue used to call "sweaty" comedy, when you've laboriously squeezed out something tedious, and the effort shows. When you're "in the zone," a joke will just land on you like a butterfly, and only if you scrutinize it later do you see how it came together from disparate elements. . . .

[In other to cultivate this elusive state] You have to be prepared. You need basic writing skills, of course, but you also want to have lots of raw ingredients rattling around in your skull: vivid words, strange song lyrics, irritating euphemisms, disastrous experiences that have been bothering you for years. To feed this stockpile, you need to expose yourself to the real world and all its hailstones.

The other essential is humility. You have to be willing to look stupid, to stumble down unproductive paths, and to endure bad afternoons when all your ideas are flat and stale and derivative. If you don't take yourself too seriously, you'll bounce back from these lulls and be ready for the muse's next visit. . . .

I used to berate myself if I couldn't think of a killer joke for every spot, but I gradually eased up on that. You can't keep bitch-slapping your creativity, or it'll run away and find a new pimp.

Seriously, guys, the whole book is chockful of stuff like that. It's been an unremitting delight for me as a comedy nerd. Definitely recommended for those of you with similar interests and obsessions.

On quite the other end of the spectrum, the interview with Philip Zimbardo, the professor behind the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment, in this month's issue of The Believer is not to be missed. Apparently it's an excerpt from a lengthier interview that will appear in the forthcoming McSweeney's title A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, but the full text of The Believer's version is available online here. It's horrifying stuff, but really important reading.

So what about you, my darlings? What's been keeping you busy and fascinated this month?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"not a remotely fashionable girl"...
what AMF are you speaking of, here?
i always wish i was half as adorably robed as you.
- lbla