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Washtenaw Flaneurade
6 January 2009
Farting Squirrel Hot Sauce
Now Playing: The Fratellis--"Chelsea Dagger"

If it ever shows up at the grocery store, I'll be partially to blame.

Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates (2008): Sarah Vowell is a writer and broadcaster who has appeared frequently on This American Life, the ultra-twee NPR oral-story icon making sense of an often strange and confusing world for people who don't get out that much. From everything I'd read and heard of Vowell, I was ready to hate this book with a passion. My idea of her veered close at times to the female version of the proudly mediocre Chuck Klosterman (who's also appeared on This American Life) in the excessive dollops of irony and frequent pop-culture references used to season her work, and her reported stories on the show reveal that she has a voice akin to Sara Gilbert's when the latter did her impression of Jenna von Oy in the Saturday Night Live parody of the NBC sitcom Blossom during the early nineties (a classic sketch probably better remembered for Mike Meyers' Joey Lawrence). The voice issue is hardly unappealing, but everything I'd read about The Wordy Shipmates prepared me to revile it, especially a review by Virginia Heffernan in The New York Times Book Review. The Wordy Shipmates, you see, is an impressionistic analysis of the New England Puritans and the influence they've had on American history and literature. Vowell, a noted history buff, previously published Assassination Vacation, the story of her journeys to various famous assassination sites throughout the U.S., and The Wordy Shipmates promised to be another chapter in her quest to quirkily snark on some cherished myths about our collective past. The first twenty pages or so were profoundly unpromising, Vowell gassing on about how she saw the Puritans during her childhood, referencing Brady Bunch episodes and so forth, with hipster slang cast this way and that, that I was halfway prepared to give up, as I'd already read Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and really don't want to relive the experience. I'm not sure how to describe what happened next. It was somewhere between instant seduction (maybe unfortunately, I think Vowell's cute, and coupled with the voice, that might have had some effect)* and getting used to the pool temperature. After the first few pages, it just becomes fantastic, Vowell recounting the stories of colonial power-players like Massasoit, John Cotton and John Winthrop, and lusty "heretics" like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, and making frequent asides to later centuries, when political figures such as Reagan, Dubya and Mario Cuomo bandied about Winthrop's classic "city on a hill" vision to describe America. I fell in love with it, pperhaps largely through Vowell's unabashed personal fondness for many of these people. She feels that the Puritans don't get a fair shake in conventional accounts of American culture, and her vehemence struck a chord, as I share a similar defiant affection for the Puritans' contemporaries (and nominal superiors), the Roundheads of the English Civil War (Harry Vane, one of the condemned regicides of 1660--the men still alive who'd condemned Charles I to death in 1649, makes a surprise appearance in The Wordy Shipmates, as an idealistic young whippersnapper out to make a name for himself in 1630s Massachusetts). One thing Vowell does very well is to expose how human and vivacious the supposedly strait-laced Puritans really were, citing poetry and sermons (the latter for which she confesses an uncontrollable love). At times this book reminds me of one of those sermons, supposedly cool and ironic but with a torrent of affection bursting forth for those marginalized or despised in the historical consciousness, an affection hardly sparing of its beloved's genuine flaws and misdeeds (her accuont of the Narragansett-Pequot War of 1636-37, in which the Puritan colonists revealed a side of combat devastating to the indigenous population is both well-done and bracingly incongruous to the tone of the rest of the book). The chatty style and breakneck alternation of ironic distance and deep emotional identification start to create a gently disorienting feeling, especially by page 162, where she cites Elliott Gould's performance in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973) as an example of the Algonquin spiritual concept Manitou (as understood, anyway, by Roger Williams). By the time she arrived at a triumphant conclusion, I felt quite intellectually ravished.

*Not that it should, really; I've thought Natalie Merchant a goddess for twenty years and only stopped loathing her music a few years ago. 

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 11:28 AM EST
Updated: 6 January 2009 11:33 AM EST
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31 December 2008
I Keep Eating My Moustache
Now Playing: The Temptations--"Ball of Confusion"
I don't really have much to say about the last year, to be honest. In terms of incident, it was arguably more important than '07: I got a new job and we got a new President. Still, it didn't seem as eventful somehow. The departure of a couple of good friends didn't quite generate the gaping hole I feared (though they can never be replaced) and my new job has yielded both new learning opportunities and the possibility of social interactions I hadn't previously considered. I wrote more, I think, than I ever did on a yearly basis and I had four straight stories in a row that I'm now quite proud of--the quality's been more (relatively) consistent than ever. Maybe it all just seems too pat, but that's all the more reason to look forward to this year, which I hope will be a happily interesting one, as I hope it is for all of you. 

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
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28 December 2008
The Cries of Pod Six
Now Playing: Nick Lowe--"Marie Prevost"

Every time I get irritated at being mistaken for homeless simply because I use the library computers (that is, when I'm not down on my hands and knees thanking whoever for not being homeless), I'm treated to a spectacle such as two grown men (who I used to see at the Michigan Cinema Guild) indulging in a "shut up-no, you shut up" test of strength. Sometimes life really does give back. 

Over Christmas, I came into temporary possession of a few Great Lakes area films, made on microscopic budgets and all of them intriguing in their own ways. Regional, transnational holiday personal film fests are fun.

Death (2005): The first of two short (forty-minute or so) features available involving Ann Arbor band Counter Cosby was made in 2005 by Justin Brewer (using a number of recognizable Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti locations) and tells the story of Bill (Aaron Howard), whose grief over his girlfriend's recent death brings him to question the existence of God, the nature of reality, and the meaning of death. This all comes about through his leaving increasingly angry messages on his pastor's answering machine, extended hallucinations and song-and-dance sequences, and visitations by "angels" (in reality mutant humanoids from the future). The movie is well put together, with a storytelling approach that manages to genuinely convey Bill's grief while remaining unsentimental and hilarious. The songs are a mixed bag, but my favorite was probably Bill's realization that he might be dead, which kicks the film into a high gear it doesn't lose for the rest of its running time.

Asshole Drunkard (2006):  Langel Bookbinder of Counter Cosby put together this Hong Kong-style kung fu flick, again using local settings (with a couple of very funny scenes set in the Middle Eastern restaurant Jerusalem Garden, the Vault of Midnight hobby store, and along what looks like the railroad bridge above Washington Street) and taking the merry piss out of kung fu movies in a way that manages to satirize one of the most unspeakably smug towns on Earth (look for a great turn by Death director Justin Brewer during the Jerry Garden scene). Si Feud (Bookbinder) lives with his king fu master's daughter (Anna Chen), who throws him out for his laziness and denies him return until he finishes a number of tasks. Hooking up with Prince Ass of Dingus Province (Aaron Howard again, whose weaselly, sniveling performance really deserves some kind of award), Si Feud shows Ass the "Asshole Drunkard" way in order to build his young student's skill and to best his own archrival, Pak Mei (Drew Schmeiding), whose bitter struggles with Si Feud over a long-ago jar of pickled eggs have hardened into a deadly hatred. A rather more obviously amusing affair than Death, Asshole Drunkard is unforgivably entertaining. Bookbinder does an excellent job of spoofing the braggart heroes of Hong Kong kung fu (and maybe even Japanese films; I was reminded of Toshiro Mifune in The Seven Samurai on occasion), and the supporting cast gives great value, especially Counter Cosby drummer Justin O'Neill as "Hippie Guy," who has a number of scene-stealing moments. Best of all are the authentic sounds used for the various kicks, punches, and slaps of "martial arts," culminating in the final battle with Pak Mei and some pantswettingly funny special effects.

Infest Wisely (2007): As mentioned some time back, my favorite living fiction author is probably Jim Munroe, the Canadian wunderkind whose DIY prowess gave works like Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask (1998) and Angry Young Spaceman (2000) to the world. His multimedia projects are just as interesting, ranging from both print and online zines to the graphic novel Therefore Repent! (2007) and Infest Wisely, a dystopian sci-fi film written by Munroe and directed by himself and six other directors in an episodic format for artound $700. In Toronto of the near-future, a newly-marketed nanotechnology ingested through chewing gum promises to fundamentally alter reality by computerizing the brain. What could possibly go wrong? The spread of the new technology's effects makes itself felt through a now-familiar hipster milieu that only Munroe and, in the US, Andrew Bujalski--and arguably J.J. Abrams at the beginning of Cloverfield--have ever really gotten right. A number of Luddite spoilsports--including a brilliant but socially retarded hacker (Sean Lerner), a hottie lab technician and guitarist (Andrea Battersby), and a smartass grad student (Kevin Hainey)--just don't get it, rising up in various ways against the nanotech onslaught. A cast of both actors and non-actors blends together quite well in a story which I think is a more successful take on issues Munroe examined in his earlier 2002 novel Everyone In Silico (which I found a little too obviously cyberpunk for my taste). Western consumption patterns, advertising, and commercialism take the brunt of some well-deserved satire, with an especially funny subplot concerning hustling artists on the make. Points are made without being hammered, save for a somewhat cartoonish but more-entertaining-for-all-that ad guy (Sean MacMahon). Spaces of time pass between episodes in a peripheral, unobtrusive way, rather refreshing from a narrative standpoint. All in all, Infest Wisely is a fantastic example of thought-provoking, low-budget cinema, and an excellent model for other filmmakers to progress in a similar vein.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 1:20 PM EST
Updated: 28 December 2008 1:07 PM EST
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25 December 2008
A Very Messy Kweznuz
Now Playing: LCD Soundsystem--"Someone Great"

A happy holiday season to all. At present I'm probably cooking, watching movies, writing, drinking, or doing laundry (probably all five), but whatever you're doing, I hope it's a terrific day and week for you. Can't be any better than this kid's, I'm guessing.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
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15 December 2008
Any Girls With Machine Guns
Now Playing: Lightning Love: "Good Time"

It's been my intent to hibernate a good deal more this winter than I have in the past. Every year I make this resolution that I'll stay indoors, save money, cut down on my exposure, get some writing done, try some new recipes, and I never seem to entirely keep it, succumbing to the wholly irrational urge to go outside. There's not really that much sun and I can get vitamin D from whole milk, for heaven's sake. Inspired by the examples of certain co-workers, I think this year's project will be markedly more successful. Not now, though, as they keep putting on sweet shows at the Blind Pig, probably just to put me out of sorts.

Lightning Love and the Friendly Foes: The sister-brother combination of Leah and Aaron Diehl has been around for a while, ever since the demise of the Minor Planets, in which both Leah Diehl and a former co-worker of mine at Chateau Fluffy figured. They play a sort of intimate electro-chamber-pop, in which Leah Diehl's strange, almost robotic voice plays well with the simple melodies and occasionally childlike lyrics. While their appeal certainly can't be hurt by the fact that Diehl is inordinately attractive (no offhand judgment, this, as I know at least two cases in which this is a factor in attracting interest from the curious, probably a la Rilo Kiley and Jenny Lewis), they're a tight,appealing unit, and were certainly much better than when I'd last seen them, opening for Starling Electric. They seemed a little thin but have really perfected a recognizable sound that works great on CD, copies of which they sportingly gave away free with the ticket purchase. I hadn't seen the Friendly Foes before, and they were quite a pleasant surprise, playing the kind of straight-up, shtick-free rock that one rarely sees these days (around here, anyway) outside of acts like the Ultrasounds (maybe a little harder than the latter). I don't count the Hard Lessons, excellent though they can be, as the straight-up rock actually seems to be the shtick in their case. "My Body (Is A Strange Place To live)" was an especial standout, with a nice, anthemic feel to it.

Texas Prison Rodeo and Counter Cosby: There was a bit of a kerfuffle a few years back concerning the aforementioned Starling Electric and their next-door neighbors, when the former lived at the old "White Lodge" on Third Street. One of the guys badmouthed the next door band in the Metro Times and one of the badmouthed wrote in to protest, and shortly thereafter the lads of S-E decamped further west. Working at my present job, I discovered a couple of months back that probably my most frequent co-worker, Joby, was one of the next-door band. So the town's small enough that I can end up working with and befriending one of my favorite band's mortal enemies. I thought this marvelous, and he and my other co-worker Joel have been osmotically working to make me like metal. Some backstory, unfortunately: I've never understood metal, and missed the bandwagon there the same way I did with graphic novels and post-1990 video games. I thought Black Sabbath was all right, but that was about it. My high school's very irregularly produced paper featured a joke quiz one month in the late 80s in which those who won, they said, must have listened to Slayer while those who lost favored Poison. I knew Poison sucked anyway, but Slayer's appeal shockingly eluded me. Watching the entertaining and informative Metal: A Headbanger's Journey on Joel's recommendation started to clear away some of the mystery, but I don't think I ever voluntarily went to hear a metal show until I checked out Joby's relatively new band, Texas Prison Rodeo, opening for Counter Cosby. Featuring Joby on guitar and the infernal, Cthulhu-y vocals of Tavi Lux Veraldi, it was a very committed form of metal (I'd say "intellectual," but that just feels wrong) that had me alternately shaking in my seat and trying to figure out how the hell they did that. Maybe it was simply down to being my first experience with live metal, but it was a great show and I hope to see them again. Counter Cosby have been around for some time; I kept seeing their flyers all over town but never made it to a show. It was my loss, apparently, as they're both very interesting and hilarious. They follow a complex, mathematically-based approach to composing their music that makes for some jarring and arresting melodies (if that's an applicable word). The music in turn goes to support lyrics both wickedly funny and joyously obscene in songs like "Wahmbulance" and "Rickets on the Crotch," all promoted by a paradoxically welcoming stage presence. They' ve even released a couple of movies, Death and Asshole Drunkard, which I'll be watching later this month as part of a planned "local movie day" at my house. After hearing their show and reading their lyrics, it's hard to express how much I'm looking forward to it.

The Tickled Fancy Burlesque Company: Having a bunch of beautiful women ascend stage and then take most of their clothes off to music would seem like a no-brainer of an idea for a show, and I'm a little surprised that it hasn't happened (to my knowledge) around here before recently. Yet another co-worker of mine, who I'll refer to (as he does on stage and occasionally in real life) as "Leonard G. Moustache," has begun working with this local group, which has been around for about a year and which I saw for the second time Saturday night, both out of general interest and because Leonard would have a starring part in the show, if you know what I mean. Tickled Fancy incorporates the traditional elements of classical burlesque with a more modern sensibility that tries to bring a little more comedy and performance to the proceedings. The show starts with the MCs, Chuck Rock and Annie Thing (the latter somewhat resembling a 60s-era Monica Vitti), playing a husband and wife trying to pretend--with the helpful assistance of booze--that they don't loathe each other, doing their intros and then linking the various acts. These differ in style and appeal: a particular audience favorite is Rita Riggs, whose acrobatic ability lends itself to hula hoops and bending coat handers with her tongue, although Lydia Valentine was very good as well. Mabel Syrup's baking routine ("oh, my apron's so dirty!" etc.) definitely hit closest to home, although part of me sniffed at the product she was wasting; still it was all in a good cause. As for Leonard's performance, words fail me. "That mailman's got too many packages! What are we gonna do?" Etc. The audience, as one might imagine, was very responsive to it all; another co-worker (co-workers were unsurprisingly pretty thick on the ground that night) and I actually wound up kneeling atop barstools to get a better look--starting out like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) but thankfully escaping the fate of Eutychus (Acts 20:9-12). The spirit of the evening set out to involve people, with raffles and calls and response, and thoroughly delighted everyone (certainly me). As Ms. Syrup put in the new local music journal Sound Notions (a very informative reference which proved quite helpful in writing this entry), they're "more vaudeville than burlesque," and the combination puts a new spin on the kind of entertainment locally possible, at places like the Blind Pig and elsewhere. It's definitely the kind of thing we need more of around here.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:27 PM EST
Updated: 15 December 2008 12:35 PM EST
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21 November 2008
Marmot's Progress
Now Playing: The Raveonettes--"Love In A Trashcan"

Writing as someone a little skeptical of the widespread "change" the presidential campaign I recently supported promised, I have to say that this is pretty awesome. From my perspective, my congressman's had it coming since he decided to go after Lynn Rivers in the wake of the Republican gerrymander.

This post by Jessi Klein and the surprisingly impassioned (or vituperative, take your pick) rebuttal from Ezra Klein (no relation) really dramatize an argument I've been having with myself ever since I decided to go into the food service industry. I enjoy cooking, and I'd certainly like to improve my abilities and my ingredients. That said, I've long had a visceral dislike of the "foodie" craze that's swept the middle class for the last few years, which seems to have less to do with making good food than showing off some kind of cultural accessory, like playing a video game. I've never seen Top Chef, and I've heard mostly laudable things about Tom Colicchio, but good cooking existed long before the show and doutbless will long after. Part of this dislike, of course, may have to do with my jealousy of the access, both temporal and financial, "foodies" seem to have to excellent ingredients and equipment. Cooking for a living doesn't pay very much (at least for me at the present time) and sometimes tends to leave one exhausted to a degree that, yes, Hot Pockets are, at times, the most welcome form of sustenance.

 On the other hand, the tendency to demonize good cooking and good ingredients themselves, rather than the fetishization thereof, is perhaps more ridiculous. I remember that, a few years back, a number of acquaintances would rag on anything "artisanal" as somehow inauthentic, as opposed to pizza and Pabst Blue Ribbon, just the thing to unwind after a hard day down at the mill or factory or graduate internship. The interest in growing and eating well and local became just one more example of bourgeois decadence. Some of the criticisms, to be sure, were well-directed; for instance, at local grocery stores that had to price higher than the big box places out in the suburbs, a legitimate complaint (if not always applicable in my view) as the nearest decent places to buy food in and around a major college campus were, by and large, only financially accessible to "foodies." All too often, though, this concern simply expressed itself in that aforementioned visceral dislike.

I'm still not quite sure where I stand; I suppose my present exploration of cooking is an attempt to find some kind of middle ground.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 10:28 AM EST
Updated: 21 November 2008 10:29 AM EST
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8 November 2008
Smelling The Ham Of Truth
Now Playing: Of Montreal--"Vegan In Furs"

Listening to the radio and going online over the past week, it's struck me in a kind of rolling barrage how strange the election has made everything. Realizing that sane, centrist, and possibly even liberal policies might actually be possible--infrastructure investment, open acknowledgement of global warming (let alone strategies to fight its effects), narrowing the gap between rich and poor, this diplomacy thing--is a little disorienting. There are going to be hard economic facts to face in the meantime, but if anything, my optimism has increased, to the point where I actually have optimism. So much of my outlook on life had been influenced by the appalling effects of the past eight years, and I suppose I'm trying to wrap my head around visualizing a future again that doesn't involve a post-apocalyptic scenario in which everyone worships Chainsaw Jesus. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has a similar, if more high-minded, reaction. In a way, it's a little disappointing. Had things gone differently, I was provisionally prepared to give up on civic engagement and spend my entire free time watching Harvey Birdman: Attorney-at-Law and eating pizza until I exploded like a punctured zit. So that's cool.

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008): Mike Leigh's a director whose work I've enjoyed in the past but haven't really adored, apart from the Mikado biopic Topsy-Turvy (2000). I'm not a big Gilbert and Sullivan fan, but it was one of the best historical films I'd ever see, the conversational nature of Leigh's dialogue dispelling the portentous stench that hangs around so many films set in the past. Life Is Sweet (1991) was pretty good, although I respected Naked (1994) a lot more than I liked it. David Thewlis' scabrous performance won deserved raves, but my heart went out to Clare Skinner's hilarious control-freak character at the end. Some of his more famous works, like Secrets and Lies (1995) or Vera Drake (2006), I haven't seen at all. When I heard about Happy-Go-Lucky, I was intrigued. Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a primary (elementary) school teacher in London who manages her life with an infectiously goofy good cheer, no matter what happens. The latter include testy interactions with Scott (Eddie Marsan), her driving teacher, her problematic family, and a handsome social worker she ends up dating. It's hard to describe Hawkins' performance save to say that I felt like I'd been run over by a tank--in a good way. In other hands, Poppy could have become intensely annoying (others certainly may find her so), but Hawkins actually makes her a believable character who just happens to be incredibly nice, which I find more than a little subversive in today's cinema. I worried at times that Poppy's free-spirited innocence might turn farcically promiscuous or misogynistic, but such wasn't the case, and it made the whole thing more fascinating. Her relationships with friends and with those her personality throws off-kilter reminded me of Leigh's earlier Career Girls (1997), in which Mark Benton's mentally damaged character finally turns on the two title characters. Poppy's also no pushover, forcefully reacting when bullied, but refusing to let it alter her general personality. In this she reminded me not of one of Leigh's characters but of Kate Dollenmayer's Marnie in Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha (2002). Marnie's problem wasn't so much that she was overly nice but that she was listless and apathetic. She never let that get in the way, though, when stakes were relatively high, either when stopping a drunk friend from driving or taking her creepy admirer (hilariously played by the director) to task for potentially violent antisocial behavior. Poppy's much the same, only preserving her happiness rather than her apathy.  The supporting cast is excellent, especially Marsan, who makes his character amusing, menacing, and pathetic at once, but it's Hawkins' show, and she left me dazed.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 5:21 PM EST
Updated: 16 November 2008 1:25 PM EST
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5 November 2008
Well Played, America
Now Playing: The Electric Prunes--"Hey, Mr. President"

Yeah, this'll do nicely.

Four years ago, I was pretty much the first person in my precinct to turn out on Election Day. As I supported John Kerry for President, that didn't really turn out so well. This year, I didn't wake up until 8:30, and didn't get to my polling place until about 9. There was already a fair-sized line, and an atmosphere of polite but definite excitement among both voters and pollworkers. One girl came out of the booth with tears on her face, wailing (a little redundantly, to be sure) "I'm crying! I'm crying!" At one point a buzzer went off somewhere which some of us unnervingly thought was the fire alarm (that would have sucked). My precinct is an interesting mix of students, shifty service proles like myself, and well-to-do families or childless "professionals" living in a wedge-shaped slice drawn along the edge of the University of Michigan central campus. As a result, I often see strange poll-fellows come election time. It's a pity we didn't have longer lines for the people-watching, but I won't reorganize my priorities when the stakes are so high. It's fun to guess who's going to vote for which candidate; the vast majority of my own precinct, I'm sure, was pro-Obama, as was I, but I know I shouldn't assume things simply because I live in Ann Arbor. I've somehow managed to encounter quite a number of conservatives during my time here: several of my housemates, my former boss, the long-serving mid-shift cook at my job, and my co-worker who's actually pretty liberal but who doesn't vote because of the perniciously undemocratic nature of the Electoral College. I see his point; my position is that the EC is a flawed system that usually works, but his intransigence has gotten me thinking as to how it might be reformed to be a more accurate reflection of the popular will in elections when it doesn't reflect the popular vote--maybe something akin to the veto system between President and Congress. It might be a little cumbersone, but as this is really the civic privilege and responsibility, I think it might be worth a look.

Actually casting my vote proved anticlimactic. This is usually true, but this time it was a little disappointing. This election was historic for a number of reasons. Given the history of this country, it would have been astonishing enough to elect a black President. This choice came, too, at the end of maybe the most disastrous US presidential administration since Buchanan (regardless of that Rolling Stone cover story a while back, I'm not sure I'm ready to rank Bush below the President who practically ensured that the Confederacy started the Civil War on a much stronger military and political footing than they could have otherwise). For all McCain's talk about "not being Bush," he seemed determined to continue the latter's ruinous domestic record and to actually worsen it abroad. Finally, we had a chance to choose a President who seems to understand better than any candidate over the last twenty years (with the possible exception of Gore) the kind of challenges we'll face in the next few decades--the kind you can't just blow up--and with a leadership style that probably surpasses any presidential candidate of the past twenty years. I voted for Barack Obama, and though I may not have been as bright-eyed or bushy-tailed as the volunteers--particularly the young'uns--who turned out in such numbers over the past couple of years, I'm prouder of this vote than any I've ever cast. To quote one of the people with whom I watched the acceptance speech last night, "I can't believe this guy's gonna be our President--this is awesome!"

I spent most of Election Day at home, baking clove gingerbread and watching Peter Watkins' Edvard Munch (1974) and a DVD of Bill Hicks' live shows (the latter in many ways an ideal manner in which to celebrate Election Day). I later wound up at my friend Margot's to watch the election returns (mostly on CNN, then to ABC and NBC for some variety and to escape the reflexive hypocritical stench Bill Bennett managed to send through the TV screen, and then over to Fox for a few laughs after Obama won--did anyone else notice the so subtle "bling"-style shine over the name they had going for a few seconds?), with her boyfriend Brian and several of their friends. Margot is a valued friend of mine, and an academic of somewhat Marxist inclinations. Anyone who ever harbored the laughable paranoid delusion that our next President will be a Marxist should have a conversation with Margot. She was, as a result, a little more skeptical about our guy than I was, but it was touching and instructive to know that we both felt the same joy at his win, even considering that he'll likely not live up to her desires or, indeed, to my own expectations. Nevertheless, it was a glorious night, especially as I walked home through downtown Ann Arbor, to widespread yells of rejoicing, honking car horns, and a monster rally on the "Diag" in front of the grad library. It was only after I woke up that I think it hit me. I'd fallen asleep with the radio on, and the BBC World News on Michigan Radio was broadcasting reactions from around the country and around the world. At several points, I really did start to mist up.

As the overrated duo of Trey Parker and Matt Stone put it, "America! Fuck, Yeah!!!"

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 11:07 AM EST
Updated: 5 November 2008 11:08 AM EST
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26 October 2008
Embracing The Gristle
Now Playing: Fleet Foxes--"Your Protecrot"

I remember when I was in middle school or so that my dad scolded myself and my little brother for constantly using "like" in our conversation (as does pretty much everyone, I suspect, born after 1960 or thereabouts), identifying it as a conversational pollutant. Ever since then, in one way or another, I've been trying, both consciously and subconsciously, to purge it from my daily use. In doing so, I've been wondering how it might have become so prevalent in daily speech. Its most classic use is as the defining word in a simile--"her lips were like a ripe watermelon." The Merriam-Webster Deluxe Dictionary, in a relatively lengthy commentary, mentions that "like" has been in contention for some time as a more syllabically efficient synonym for "as if": "it was like a syphilitic warthog had been given power of attorney." Whatever controversy this usage has attracted is now apparently over six centuries old, so I assume it's entered the language along with just about every other word that comes from non-European or non-Mediterranean environments. I can only conclude that is present ubiquitous form arises from its substitution for "for instance," or "for example," which I suppose has some sort of existential meaning. It does have a pleasant discursive quality that renders unpleasant events or everday annoyances in one's life part of a greater, unfeeling whole or as the whimsy of some blind, drunk, senile god: "So, the other night, like, Jamal totally cock-blocked us at the Eight-Ball." If the universe just hated you, you could feel better. I don't know where the surfers picked uit up, or how it infected the rest of California, and then the country, and then the English-speaking world, and then eventually myself, but I'd love to find out. Anyone have any ideas? 

I returned home the other day to find a couple of McCain-Palin yard signs in my front yard. Now, I'm a firm Obama supporter (I've been in the tank to varying degrees since the primaries), and not a big believer in yard signs (I even refuse "I Voted" stickers at the polling booth), but I found it funny more than anything else, especially since McCain's given up on Michigan and a couple more yard signs are going to indicate one's own ineffectiveness rather than aid his cause. My money was on our socially bereft, malodorous Russian housemate, who's been getting the wingnut rag Human Events for the past few months. As I said before, while I'm not a believer in yard signs, I'm just as equally not a believer in tearing them down, as they're someone's legitimate political expression, however moronic or delusional. Making one's own sign, say, one that says "I'm afraid of gays," and then planting it in one's yard with an arrow pointing to the McCain sign, is another matter entirely. Unfortunately, I only thought of that the next day, when I discovered that the signs had been ripped down. I figured they were overzealous Obama supporters or indeed local rowdies opposed to all forms of political involvement (after getting to know some of my co-workers, the latter is much more of a possibility). Whichever, I was hoping my aforementioned housemate would jump to the depressingly obvious conclusion and write to Human Events denouncing a vast socialist, LGBT-ally, baby-killing subversive conspiracy which could be publicized, say, by Jonah Goldberg or someone equally deficient on national television. I don't want to be famous, but it would have been a hoot. Sadly, the sign-planter turned out to be our landlord (who, to be sure, was heard in his shop going on about certain presidential candidates wanting to "take his money and give it to poor people on welfare," or something; substitute "rich" for "poor" and you've got McCain's policy, so I knew that wasn't who he was talking about), and another housemate of mine had ripped them down the first time, after which a couple more were planted, the ones I'd seen. It's just too weird, even when you leave aside the ethics or even the legality--I haven't checked--of one's landlord placing them in a yard he legally owns but where he isn't an on-site resident. If anyone has any information on that, I'd be obliged. Great fun, anyway.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 1:19 PM EDT
Updated: 26 October 2008 1:24 PM EDT
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17 October 2008
Trappist-Style Aged Mayonnaise
Now Playing: John Cale--"Fairweather Friend"

My life hasn't exactly been uneventful recently; it's just that so much of what happens isn't really visible to others. Also, the downtown library computer lab's pretty much turned into the local homeless shelter by day, and while most of said patrons are quiet, unobtrusive characters, the bad apples are starting to get on my nerves (while I can hardly comprehend what some of these people have to go through in their daily lives, it is supposed to be a library--although such behavior, of course, is hardly limited to the homeless, as witness my housemates). I doubt I'd have blogged anyway, but I suspect it's becoming a more than minor factor in my online reticence. It's mostly been writing (after a month-long break) and reading, anyway, along with work, with film taking an unexpected dive. I've been a little stunned to find myself reading science books--Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, several collections of essays by Stephen Jay Gould, and a book on ecology and gardening (I'm thinking of learning next year). The weather's been fantastic, especially over the past couple of weeks. The tree in front of my window's been turning a brilliant red gold, which makes for some superb reflected sunsets against my wall. The graveyard looks stunning.

Election stuff's always captivating, especially this year. This is hilarious, and be sure to check out "I'm BATMAN!"'s contribution in the comments section.

Work's been adjusting itself to normal, as the novelty wears off and I seem to settle into a groove. It's a hilarious welter of stories and complaints there, most often from the people who've been there the longest. Bitching and back-sniping are a way of life (it is a restaurant, after all), but it'll take more than that to dent my general good cheer (although I tend to wonder about the ethics of staying a forthright, plucky sort partially for the specific purpose of pissing people off--it's not as important as I make out, but sometimes it helps). If you enjoy people-watching and-studying, it's a wonderful envoironment, with much more diversity than my former job (naturally, considering that it boasts over a hundred more workers than the cafe). I've been taking a few classes on cheese, and will probably start learning about olive oil in a couple of weeks. One of the good things, surprisingly enough, is that there's hardly any room for advancement. My immediate supervisor has been there for ten years, and our manager for twelve. One of the mid-shift cooks is, I believe, into his second decade. This will hopefully militate against my staying there (and in Ann Arbor) too long and also encourage lateral moves into some of the other shifts, if possible. There's more actual cooking that goes on in the morning, and more scope for creativity.

Culloden (1964): One of my favorite cinematic discoveries over the past couple of years has been left-wing British filmmaker Peter Watkins, whose massive, astonishing six-hour La Commune--Paris, 1871 (2000) I watched last Christmas Eve. His first major success came with this film for the BBC--like La Commune, a well-researched docudrama on a bloody episode in European history, and one of the most engrossing and thought-provoking films I've ever seen. This is mainly because it's not only a historical film, but also a film about history itself--how it's made, recorded, and rememebred. Having dealt at length in grad school with questions regarding the legitimacy of historical research from both traditional and "postmodern" persepctvies, and then being an amateur cineaste, I loved Culloden. Some will guess simply from the title that Watkins' subject is the last stand of Prince Charles "Bonnie Prince Charlie" Stuart's Jacobite force against the British army at Culloden Moor in Scotland in 1746, the final gasp of Stuart (primarily Catholic) resistance to what was seen as the usurping Hanoverian dynasty and its attendant Protestant commercialism that threatened traditional noble and clan-based society. The scenario, in nationalistic terms, may sound familiar, as it was used thirty years later to portray events four and a half centuries before, and was called Braveheart, a stirring movie in many ways, but a historical film of almost staggering awfulness. Watkins' approach to filmmaking could hardly get any different from traditional Hollywood. Culloden, like La Commune, is filmed as a TV documentary, recording the action as it happens and interviewing participants (played almost entirely by semi- or non-professional actors) like the foppish Bonnie Prince Charlie, some of the Hanoverian commanders (though catching only glimpses of the opposing general, the Duke of Cumberland), and especially common soldiers and noncombatants of either side (some speaking Scots Gaelic to an English-speaking translation voiceover). The result is brilliant, especially given the gritty, verite nature of the fillmmaking and production. The battle scenes are fantastic, eschewing Hollywood noble sacrifice in favor of the genuine horror of war as much as any sort of film with Watkins' budget probably ever could. The chilling--and deliberate--dispassion of the narrator (Watkins himself) works wonders: "This is grapeshot. This is what it does." The fight scenes were orchestrated by Derek Ware--stuntman, bit actor, and founder of frequent 1970s British TV stunt team Havoc (Doctor Who, Elizabeth R)--who would perform similar duties the next year on Watkins' most famous work, The War Game, an Oscar-winning depiction of a possible nuclear attack on Britain, which would be banned in the UK for the next twenty years. The work of cameraman Dick Bush is similarly inspired, giving Culloden a look that still remains fresh and even ahead of its time after four decades. They don't make movies like this anymore, but they were hardly making them back then, either. Watkins manages to convey his deep feeling for the ordinary participant in history without being too preachy (especially through his trademark closeup technique, cutting off the space above actors' heads so audience attention never escapes their faces). Unlike traditional English vs. Celtic and/or American cntests, the warts of each side are clearly revealed for the viewer. Though Watkins obviously feels for the destruction of traditional Highland society at the hands of proto-"globalizers" (an apparently conscious echo of contemporary anti-insurgency campaigns--France had just left Algeria and the US was about to get "serious" in Vietnam--and a theme that would echo much more forcefully in La Commune) and emphasizes the brutalizing effect of conflict on the combatants, he also doesn't shy away from the less savory aspects of clan life, demonstrating both the exploitative nature of the clan system and revealing the rift the rebellion opened up between different families and clans (the most obvious being the pro-Stuart MacDonalds and the pro-Hanoverian Campbells). There are no easy good or bad guys in the film, just as there are relatively few throughout history. If more films like Culloden were made, such truths might be easier to understand.

Silent Running (1971): I'd seen bits and pieces of Silent Running over the years, the actual film on VHS, and finally got to see the whole thing on DVD recently. An online chum of mine considers it the best American sci-fi film of the 1970s, and considering the competition from other decades, I might be willing to consider "of all time" status (along with The Thing From Another World, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 2001--if one considers it American, and Close Encounters--and the last for the musical sequences). It's certainly one of my favorite movies, a conviction reinforced by seeing it again. In the near future, Earth's been stripped of all its forests (how they're possibly getting enough oxygen is left unsaid) and a fleet of spaceships drifting through the solar system carry the last patches of green in colossal geodesic domes. When the news comes that the spaceship crews are to return to commercial service (jettisoning and destroying the domes), botanist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) determines to preserve his charges, and ends up killing the crew of his own ship (including a startlingly young Ron Rifkin) to do so. Lowell manages to steer the ship away from a potentially lethal confrontation with Saturn's rings and faces the prospect of an eternity alone with his two robot servants, "Huey" and "Dewey." It's a remarkable achievement: a stunning employment of special effects matched with an unexpectedly compelling and morally ambiguous story without being pretentious, preachy, or hackneyed. It also features Joan Baez music that doesn't make you want to puke or rip forth your eardrums (she's not that bad, but you probably know what I mean). Director Douglas Trumbull, son of special effects wizard Don Trumbull--who had, among many other feats, made the flying monkeys fly in The Wizard of Oz--was responsible for the look and effects of 2001 a couple of years earlier, and convinced Universal to let him make Silent Running as one of several "hip" films (along with Easy Rider and a few others) that the studio greenlit to capture the elusive "youth market." Everything looks fantastic. The spaceship models are amazingly realistic (whatever that means when discussing futuristic spaceship design), and the interiors are even better, mainly because they were filmed on an old aircraft carrier in the midst of decommission. Trumbull simply redid the interior structure with paint and a few cinematic touches and had a spaceship set. The robots look like oversized space-heaters on legs, and were performed by multiple amputees (one of many interesting details revealed in the DVD's thorough extras). The latter probably had a lot to do with their sympathetic performances (again, robots). The look is similar in some ways to 2001, but with quicker editing and more emotional connection to the events. I might be mistaken, but I think Lowell was the only role Dern ever had where he was the main actor, not co-starring with Jack Nicholson or doing ensemble stuff (for the latter, Michael Ritchie's brilliant 1975 sleeper Smile is well worth a look), and he's absolutely mesmerizing (especially considering that he came to Silent Running after a dry period in his career). It helps that Lowell isn't just some single-minded, fanatical eco-warrior. He likes hanging out with his crewmates, regularly cleans up at poker games (and enjoys it), and has ordinary ambitions (in his case, becoming head of a restored Park Service). The threat of destruction to what he considers "nature's greatest gift" makes him snap, and he spends the rest fo the film agonizing over what he's done, realizing the need for human companionship, and finally (in a way) confronting his crimes. One can sympathize with a motive but not excuse the crime, and this relatively simple dilemma (scripted by future producers and directors Stephen Bochco and Michael Cimino) plays out with fascinating scope and power throughout Silent Running. It really is a wonderful example of the sort of drama one often finds in literary science-fiction (and so rarely in cinematic), and its influence even helped to create Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the 90s. I for one feel considerable pique at its relative obscurity when you consider that Trumbull came up with cute, squat non-anthropomorphic robots years before Star Wars and "future grunge" nearly a decade before Alien or Blade Runner. Trumbull went on to direct a couple of low-profile sci-fi flicks and the special effects on Close Encounters, but he ought to be considered one of the greats just for Silent Running.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:51 PM EDT
Updated: 17 October 2008 1:02 PM EDT
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