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Talking Heads' Fear of Music (33 1/3)
Talking Heads' Fear of Music (33 1/3)
by Jonathan Lethem
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.39

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Book I Read: Lethem's Infinity Loop, 1 Nov 2013
I was surprised to see so many negative reviews of this book. What's not to like? At one point Lethem remarks that his identification with Fear of Music as a teenager was so strong that you could have placed the album where his head was and it would have adequately represented his inner self. If you haven't ever felt that way about an album, book, or movie, this isn't a book you should read. Lethem isn't doing standard music criticism or cultural analysis--thank God, who needs more of that?--he's exploring the strange liminal zone between his own psyche and a rock album that got so deep under his skin (like Byrne's air) that it had a hand in forming it (his psyche).

But then, some people don't know s*** about the air.

For Lethem writing this book, everything seems to be up in the air. That's the point. Lethem can't tell where Fear of Music ends and he begins, or vice versa, and the reader isn't supposed to know either. And it comes directly from his heart to you. What Lethem can do as well as any music writer I've ever read, however (as he also showed in his novel You Don't Love Me Yet), is describe musical progressions and effects in coherent language that somehow captures the essence of music and meaning, that merges forms, creates prose that sings the praises of songs that narrate, so the music and the analysis get together, load their trucks, burn their notebooks, and change their hairstyles. This is one of those abilities that mystifies and humbles me: I don't know how Lethem does it. I can only absorb it admiringly and, as with great music, enjoy its ineffability and my own incapacity to understand how he does it. Ironic, because Lethem's Fear of Music is kind of about that: Lethem's still-adolescent fumbling, joyful, jerky, melancholy, intense, searching, desperate, weary and inspired attempt to come to terms with his inability to understand Fear of Music and, at the same time, his inability not to at least TRY. Maybe that's why some people didn't like it? Too naked, too honest, too raw--like Fear of Music the album, Fear of Music the book offers no comfort or solace besides the comfort and solace of forgoing comfort and solace: "I ain't got time for that now."

Fear of Music has been my favorite album for thirty years. My favorite song was Heaven, which is about a bar where they play your favorite song, all night long. (How's that for an infinity loop?) I had never read anything else by Lethem before I read his little book. It did not disappoint, which in itself is about as likely as a party where everyone leaves at exactly the same time. Lethem writes like a building on fire, like he's flat on his back, with no regrets, like he's a little freaked out, like he's charged up, like he's got it figured out, like he doesn't know what he's talking about, like there's a party in his mind, like he's inside a dry ice factory.

It's a good place. He gets his thinking done.

This is the book I read.


Crows Over a Wheatfield
Crows Over a Wheatfield
by Paula Sharp
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.36

5.0 out of 5 stars Masterful and soulful, 22 Aug 2011
I live in Guatemala and good books are hard to find. (Actually that's true anywhere, I am very picky.) This morning I took back a copy of a Michael Disdin book which I had tried and failed to read. I had a conversation with the woman in the shop about how reading a book is like spending time with the writer - if I can't become their friend, I'm not interested in hanging out with them. If I can, then I will read everything they write. I'd rather re-read all of Patricia Highsmith or Dostoyevsky than struggle with unknown writers. I just didn't warm to Disdin and so I didn't care about his story. I ended up feeling annoyed with it, like when you get stuck with someone who keeps talking without really connecting.

I came across an advance copy of Crows Over a Wheatfield for $1 and a half (I'd never heard of it, or Sharp, but I love crows), and I sat down to read the first two pages (it's very hard for me to read in a bookshop). I was impressed by Sharp's command of language so I bought it. After reading the first few chapters, I began to feel that wonderful contentment that comes from having a great book to read. It's been a while since I had that feeling, and it came at a good moment.

I am astounded and delighted by how well Sharp writes; so much so that in those first chapters, I couldn't quite believe the story wasn't all exactly as it happened. It's a very powerful story, and if the last quarter doesn't quite follow through on the tension and pathos of the first three quarters, it's hard to fault Sharp for adhering to realism rather than the rules of melodrama.


Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business
Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business
by David Mamet
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars So-So, 22 Aug 2011
Normally when a book gets either one-star or five-star reviews it means it's at the very least interesting, challenging, and divisive. I didn't find this book remarkable except for being unremarkable. If it hadn't been written by Mamet my expectations wouldn't have been so high so I might have not felt so non-plussed with it. But here's a man with a formidable reputation and I expected some insights to match it. I didn't find hardly any and ended up with the feeling that Mamet didn't really have anything especially new to say.


No Title Available

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Lovable Freak, 25 Mar 2008
In a hundred years of cinema, there's never been anything quite like Lars and the Real Girl, the new film from director Craig Gillespie and writer Nancy Oliver (Six Feet Under). Lars (Ryan Gosling) is not quite right in the head; he keeps to himself, he can't bear to be touched, and he resists the efforts of his sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) to draw him out of his self-imposed solitude. Then one day, he asks Karin and his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) if he can bring over a friend. They are delighted, until Lars' friends turns out to be an "anatomically correct" silicon love doll named Bianca. Lars informs them that Bianca is Brazilian/Danish, that she's shy and doesn't talk much, and that, being deeply religious, she doesn't feel comfortable sleeping alone with Lars (in the garage where he lives). So Karen and Dave agree to put Bianca up in their place and, convinced Lars has lost his marbles, they suggest that Bianca visit the local G.P, Dr. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) for a check-up, hoping to put Lars under observation. After meeting Bianca, Dr. Dagmar suggests that, for the time being, they go along with Lars' fantasy and see what happens. Before long the whole town has agreed to treat Bianca as real: she attends church, has her hair done, and eventually gets accepted on the local school board.

Funny as it is, Lars and the Real Girl isn't really a comedy; and although it's an exquisitely tender-hearted film, it's never sentimental (having a silicon sex-doll at its center pretty much makes sure of that). Like Lars himself, the movie doesn't allow itself to be categorized. It's a lovable oddity in a felicitous "tradition" of flukes that includes Harold and Maude, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Donnie Darko, and United States of Leland (also with Gosling), movies that by all rights shouldn't work but somehow do. Lars and the Real Girl takes us into unexplored realms of humor and pathos, areas of experience that--outside of real life--probably only these oddball empathic American movies can provide.

As played by Gosling, Lars is a prodigy as well as a freak; he's impossible to get a handle on. How much does he believe Bianca is real? We never know for sure. Lars has a sweetness and vulnerability that's both heartbreaking and heartening, but there's a solidness to him too, a determination and directness. He's a survivor, and though he may be delusional, he's not solipsist. He stays true to his delusions, his fantasy world has a life it its own (he fights with Bianca when he feels she is becoming too independent). Before we know it, the plastic Bianca begins to seem real to us, too.

In interviews, Gosling has remarked upon the similarity between Lars' peculiar affection for Bianca and the love children feel for stuffed toys (Gosling observes how the love children feel for their toys is genuine even though it is never returned). This similarity is made explicit in the movie when Lars gives mouth-to-mouth to a co-worker's teddy bear (Margo, played by Kelli Garner, in a lovely, soulful performance). Like a child, Lars loves from both sides, and by the end of the movie his weird delusion has come to seem almost enlightened, like saintly, unconditional love. (What could be more selfless than loving someone who can never love us back?)

Lars learns how to relate to others by finding the soul in an inanimate object, and by finding his own capacity to love, he discovers his own soul. And the whole town learns by his example. Lars' delusion has the power of vision: it transforms reality into something better than it was before. With its kooky, off-kilter wisdom and its dead-on portrait of small-town Americana (where everyone's a freak on the inside), Lars and the Real Girl is enough to restore your faith in human nature. It's a goddamned miracle.


There Will Be Blood (2 disc Special Edition) [DVD]
There Will Be Blood (2 disc Special Edition) [DVD]
Dvd ~ Daniel Day-Lewis
Offered by A ENTERTAINMENT
Price: 6.89

21 of 33 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars One Hand Clapping, 28 Feb 2008
Being a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, my expectations were high for this flick, but alas, it did not deliver. Brilliantly directed by Anderson, with a phenomenal central performance by Daniel Day Lewis, I think the problem with the film is at a fundamental and conceptual level. The work is ambitiously themed, but Anderson hasn't taken the time--or perhaps didn't have the desire--to draw us into the story or the characters. Magnolia was an epic, ambitious work also, but it was on a human scale, and Anderson never seemed to be reaching for his effects. There Will Be Blood is another matter: it's all reaching, but it comes back empty-handed. Based on Upton Sinclair's novel, the film tells the tale of oil man Daniel Plainview, a man without substance, and apparently without heart or soul, driven by mysterious forces (forces that are never revealed), whose only passion is for oil. Plainview doesn't appear to be all that interested in profit, even, and although he is a ruthless businessman, the impression the film gives is that this is more a point of principle than actual greed. We are never given a clue as to what might be behind such a principle, however, or behind the character's stubborn, almost inhuman drive.

The trouble with There Will Be Blood is that, if you place a hollow man at the center of your movie, you are likely to wind up with a hollow movie. Daniel Day Lewis carries the film on his sinewy shoulders, and he keeps us gripped by the sheer magnetism of his presence; but the script doesn't provide much context for his performance, and the character seems to be almost entirely the actor's creation. Long as the film is (158 minutes), Anderson doesn't use the time to establish his characters, or appear to care about building suspense. He seems to consider such conventions beneath him, and the result is fuzzy, muted, shapeless and meandering. Individual scenes are often strong--the film is gorgeously photographed--and there's certainly a dark poetry and lyricism to the film; but because there's no central thread to tie the scenes together, and without much narrative or character drive, the various episodes just hang in a void. Since we have no clue as to what drives the central character, there is nothing to drive the scenes forward either. Violent confrontations--between Plainview and the preacher, Ely, between Ely and his father, and the final murder--should be intensely disturbing but somehow fail to move us. Anderson doesn't make us feel the tensions that lead up to these scenes, so they appear to come out of nowhere; they seem overwrought, faintly ludicrous. Inside such a dramatic vacuum, Lewis' performance--intense as it is--becomes often blackly amusing: Plainview seems not only psychotic but absurd. Yet we can't tell if he's meant to seem that way or not.
For such a bleak and violent work, Blood is almost devoid of tension. And for all the care that has gone into the film's look, and despite the central performance, it's rather slack, even tedious. It's clear Anderson is aiming for something big, but I think the ambitiousness of his concepts has undone him (though this is presumably why the film is being praised so extravagantly). He's trying to paint the portrait of a soulless man, driven by greed or unfathomable obsession, whose complete lack of feeling for anyone or anything besides oil turns him, by steady degrees, into a psychopath. And he's probably aiming at a parable for our times, in which insane corporate greed strips the Earth of its blood and man of his soul. But the film may be too finely conceived: Anderson has forgotten to take the trouble to draw us into the story and make it dramatic, meaningful, and what's on the screen are his lofty intentions, but not much of a movie.
There Will Be Blood left me entirely cold. I felt nothing for the characters, and besides Plainview there are no characters, really. There is the preacher Ely, who is faintly despicable but otherwise less than substantial, and Plainview's son, who barely says a dozen words throughout the film. The rest are shadows, and Anderson seems to have intended it this way (he has cast the film almost entirely with unknowns). And although Daniel Day Lewis is mesmerizing throughout, there is only one scene which gives us a glimpse of what is going on inside Plainview and allows us to see him as a human being (the scene when he admits to hating people). Mostly, he seems like some relentless force of nature, a golem, driven by sheer hatred. But there's nothing to account for this hatred: like everything else in the film, it seems to exist in a void.
There Will Be Blood is a tale told by a genius, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Critics may beg to differ, but if so, I suspect they are responding to the film's intentions more than what it actually achieves. Since Anderson's film appears to be about something, even though it never connects with us emotionally, it's being treated with awe and reverence (with repeat comparisons to Citizen Kane). But I think this is Anderson's weakest film, and except for one or two scenes (such as when Plainview's son is deafened in a rigging accident), it's almost entirely lacking in the compassion, the humanity, which made his previous films so remarkable. There Will Be Blood appears to be a case of a filmmaker getting carried away by the grandiosity of his vision, being too busy mapping the forest to remember to plant the trees. It's the sound of one hand clapping.
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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [DVD] [2007]
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [DVD] [2007]
Dvd ~ Brad Pitt
Offered by best_value_entertainment
Price: 2.00

15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ghost of a Legend, 28 Feb 2008
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an elegy of futility, an exquisite scorched earth of a movie. Its themes creep up on you and seep into your bones. A tale of friendship and betrayal, it's also a portrait of rootlessness, of violent men who kill because they don't know what else men are supposed to do, and it has some of the grizzled, melancholic grandeur of Sam Peckinpah's Westerns. Yet there's nothing generic about this film, and nothing melodramatic either; it's closer to lyric realism. Written and directed by Andrew Dominik (Chopper) from a novel by Ron Hansen, the film is an epic poem, a primordial vision. With its dreamlike landscapes and its delicate piano and violin score, The Assassination of Jesse James owes a clear debt to the early films of Terence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven), and there are images here that are among the most beautiful and haunting I have ever seen in a movie. Yet the visuals are never made to compensate for a lack of story (as with Malick's later films), and they aren't hypnotic for their own sake. Dominik uses them sparingly, poetically, like a master painter. The film is almost three hours long, but it doesn't meander and it never seems indulgent. Dominik shows a loving attention to detail, a sense of the ebb and flow of his scenes, that is reminiscent of Coppola's first two Godfather films. Assassination isn't quite on that level (its characters aren't that rich or alive, and the story, though poignant, isn't full-blown tragedy), but how many films can be compared to The Godfather? I think it's the finest Western film since McCabe and Mrs. Miller (it has a similar delicate pathos and poetic intensity), and never mind the Oscars: it's easily the best film of 2007.

At first, Brad Pitt might seem somewhat lacking in the central role. Pitt is a problematic actor: when he has a role that allows him to get out of himself and let rip (such as Twelve Monkeys or Fight Club), he can be a riveting, electrifying presence; but like Jack Nicholson, he can also be lazy and coast on star appeal. He does a little of that here: his Jesse seems only partly rendered, a sketch, and as a result the film at times lacks for a stronger center. But Pitt's Jesse grows on you. This is an extremely tricky performance and in the end I think he pulls it off and does some of his best work. Pitt makes Jesse both menacing and oddly affecting, lost and almost childlike, a figure of pathos. And although we never really come to know him, there are moments when Pitt suggests that Jesse is an enigma even to himself. (When he talks about counting the stars, for example: a confederate says he isn't even sure what stars are, and Jesse replies, "Your body knows; your mind just forgot, that's all.")

There are plenty of performances to watch here: Jeremy Renner as Wood, Sam Shepard as Frank James, and especially Paul Schneider (from All the Real Girls), as Dick Liddil. Kailin See, as a sexually frustrated house-wife Dick allows to seduce him, gives the only outstanding female performance. (Despite her high billing, Mary-Louise Parker, as Jesse's loving wife Zee, barely appears in the film except to look loving and to bemoan Jesse's death). And although he has a major role as Charlie Ford, the usually mesmerizing Sam Rockwell isn't given enough to do here. You'd never guess how talented he is from this role, but he's a welcome presence anyway.

The outstanding performance comes from Casey Affleck (Ben's younger brother), whose creepy Bob Ford is one of the most original characters ever created for the screen. From his first moments, Affleck puts us on guard: there's something not quite right about Bob, yet we can't put our finger on it. (By the end of the film we still don't know; Shepard's Frank states it for us, however, in the very first scene: "I don't know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies.") Bob's worship of Jesse prefigures the slavish, faintly psychotic devotion of modern-day celebrity hounds like King of Comedy's Rupert Pupkin; when Bob smiles, he sets his small teeth on edge and we can feel the hostility lurking inside him, waiting to come out. (It may be buried so deep even he is unaware of it.) In the end, the film is as much about Bob as it is about Jesse (who is never quite real to us), and maybe more so. The amorphous spell of melancholy which the film casts upon us comes as much from our feelings for Bob as for Jesse. Creepy as he is, we never hate Bob; by the end, we may feel almost unbearable pity for him.

It may be facile to say that The Assassination of Jesse James is about lost souls and false heroes; the film is so deftly, instinctively made, so light of touch, that it never pushes its meanings. But they are there, and the exquisite beauty of the film, the ghostlike images, the long silences, the open spaces it allows to exist both inside and between the scenes, combine to create a haunted, otherworldly quality, and a sense of unglimpsed depths. There's a moment, towards the end of the film, when the Ford brothers leave the James house where they are staying (and where Bob will assassinate Jesse), and we are allowed to see the surrounding countryside, and the skeletal town that is growing up in it. The image comes as a shock, because until now the intimacy of the film has kept our focus closely bound to the characters; despite its epic scope, there seemed no need to recreate the greater world in which they exist (or for the film's budget to include such elaborate sets). The image is all the more breathtaking for coming so unexpected, and we may be struck by how much care has gone into creating this world, seemingly for its own sake, independent of the story. At such a late stage, letting us see the fruit of this work seems almost an afterthought. Dominik may be so intensely inside his vision that he is indifferent to whether or not we experience it--the process of creation is enough. He has the focus and immersion of a true alchemist.

This is an almost perfect film (the ungainly title and the absence of women characters notwithstanding; even Nick Cave's improbable cameo is forgivable--he co-wrote the gorgeous score with Warren Ellis). Yet it's an elusive work, and definitely not for everyone. A lot of people will miss its ineffable, alchemical grace, and mistake it for a rather long, lugubrious Western. Like Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Dominik is not interested in genre conventions, not even enough to subvert them. He's inventing a whole new genre in order for this one work to be exactly what it needs to be. (There's very little action in the film, yet it's full of suspense; and the occasional violence is never what we expect, it's never not disturbing.) At times, the effects Dominik gets are so unique, so inspired, that they seem faintly mysterious. He's a major, major talent. The Assassination of Jesse James is both an epic about the process by which legends are made and a tender, intimate love story between two antagonists so utterly dissimilar they might come from two different worlds. Yet they do have one thing in common: both men are so lost to themselves that at times the film seems almost like a ghost story. In a way, that's what it is.


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