Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan

I picked up Pollan's slimmest book in an effort to keep to my '2 books, 1 month' New Year's resolution. But, if that were completely true, I could have picked up any number of tiny, quick reads. I picked Pollan's book because I've heard so much about him over the years. Many people have quoted his lines, followed his grocery store rules, and embraced the concept of "real food" (being aware of what you eat, why you eat it, and how much you eat). I may have simplified his manifesto too much. Oh well.

I find myself annoyed with Pollan more than I find myself enjoying Pollan. He has a lot of ideas. A lot of good ideas. And, I can't fault his efforts in trying to make the masses follow this healthier concept of eating. What I most enjoy about Pollan is his attack on diets and nutritionists. Pollan believes the Western Diet has caused Americans (and now the millions of others following our food/weight disorder) an unnecessary level of anxiety. I have to fully agree.

What I most dislike about Pollan's work is his inability to really stand by his ideas. He throws them out to the reader and explains why. But, he doesn't seem to back anything up. He states, in one chapter, that meat isn't really necessary (the only thing missing when meat is removed from the diet could be B12, but this is easily fixed). But, then states there is no reason to stop eating meat since we've been doing it forever and it hasn't harmed anyone. Why does he refuse to make a stand? Maybe I am at fault because I want him to take a vegan stand. He can't preach the healthy, plant heavy diet on one hand while agreeing to the murder of animals which causes damage to the environment and then poisons our soil (and, plants). Too afraid of alienating a larger readership?

Also, Pollan's view of nutritionists. He takes a bit of issue with the idea of vitamins. Pollan says people who take vitamins are healthier than those who don't take vitamins. But, he says this is true because people taking vitamins are more educated on diet and take better care of themselves. Pollan is dismissing the vitamin as the reason for better health. A hundred pages later, Pollan states one should take vitamins anyway. So, he is being paid off by the meat manufacturers and the vitamin corporations?

I liken Pollan's books to the way Pollan views vitamins. The people reading his books are already healthier people. The information is common sense. And, other than the tidbits of interesting food history, a fairly basic idea of getting back to nature when it comes to food. But, Pollan, of course, doesn't believe he is preaching to the choir. In fact, within the book he states "you would not have bought this book and read this far into it if your food culture was intact and healthy" (134).

To you, Mr. Pollan, I must say... You dismiss diet fads, nutritionist, and food crazes as unhealthy and short lived. I agree with most of what you have to say. But, do not forget that you, Mr. Pollan, are one of those crazes, one of those fads, and probably too short lived.


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Outlaster, Nina Nastasia

BEST OF 2010

What if a songwriter wrote short stories similar to Raymond Carver with a hint of Poe's Gothic and mixed it with the musical stylings of a gypsy camp and folk festival? Well, you'd get Nina Nastasia. The dark sounds of the instruments are similar to the ethereal sound scape of a Lynch film. These songs are dark.

Nastasia writes about conversations. About relationships failed, failing, or flailing. About the past as a ghost. About the future as a fiction. Her landscape is an ash field in place of a forest. The guitar is a grieving widow, the violins are abused children, and the voice is a wailing wind storm. Nastasia is a creature from another realm. If Joni Mitchell was tormented by those evil children from Henry James' Turn of the Screw... you'd have the lovely Ms. Nastasia.

I first discovered Nastasia upon the release of Run to Ruin (2003). This album will always remain her greatest. 'On Teasing' is, perhaps, her greatest achievement. Until you have heard the orchestra explosion by the songs end... you are not fully aware of how incredible a strings section can be. As soon as I heard this album I went in search of her first two albums, Dogs and The Blackened Air. Dogs was out of print for a bit, but I did my damnedest to make it mine. Both albums are great starts. The Blackened Air is the stronger of the two albums. Nastasia's storytelling skills are much improved between the first to the second album.

On Leaving
(2006) found Nastasia moving into even starker territory. The instruments and the voice and the lyrics are slimmer. Not emptier. Nastasia is a minimalist in the most impressive way. Capable of success within the simplicity. Then she released You Follow Me (similar to PJ Harvey's White Chalk). Nastasia teamed up with drummer Jim White. The album is made up of only the two. And you wouldn't know this after a first listen. The album seems more full than On Leaving. I consider You Follow Me to be the weakest of Nastasia's latest releases. But, weak for Nastasia is in no way a failure.

On Outlaster, Nastasia has managed to pull together the incredible elements from each of her albums. The sparse, stripped down storytelling of On Leaving with the messy, beautiful strings of Run to Ruin with the simplicity of You Follow Me and a bit of the darkness from The Blackened Air (Nastasia even sings a line with the phrase 'the blackened air'). Nastasia uses her previous albums as stepping stones. And, on Outlaster, Nastasia has combined their characters into one album. Nastasia is a master of her crafts, short story writing and song writing. 'This Familiar Way' may be in the running, with 'On Teasing,' as her greatest song.


Friday, June 25, 2010

Lost Highway

I watched this film many times in high school. Spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the nonsensical, magical realism of the whole character switch. How is a man not the man he once was? While at the same time being the man he always was? Is this some statement on male identity? A statement on America's identity crisis? Is this David Lynch's attempt at a blockbuster?

This was my first experience with a David Lynch film. It was great to re-watch the film with someone experiencing Lynch for the first time. How difficult to sit silently during the slow camera scans... to strain your ears for the hushed, insignificant dialogue... to understand the bizarre topics of conversation... and to ready one for the all out attack against the contemporary film plot.

Lost Highway is about many things. Sex, love, affairs, cars, violence, pornography, music, voyeurism, and power. But, in the end, these are all really insignificant. The film really wants to focus on the power of the human mind to adjust to the worst experiences. A way of escaping our most painful memories in an attempt at a second chance. But, the moral of the story: there is no real second chance. We're doomed from the start.

I think of this film as part of a two film cycle. Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive must be watched together. Lynch is making use of very similar ideas in both films. It would be giving away too much to really go into detail on my theory. And, I may be full of shit. But, the abstract quality of both films is at a Lynch peak in these two films. Both films involve identity in a very surreal way. It would be impossible to dismiss their connection.

It is fair to say Lost Highway is a slower film. More a meditation than a film. There are unsettling pieces, exciting pieces, beautiful pieces... but, the film has a slow build. There are moments where the story seems to have disappeared. But, it is all there. Lynch is building you up. Lynch is fucking with your patience.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Night Work, Scissor Sisters

Recently I can be quoted as saying "imitation is flattery, but not entertaining." This was in reference to Lady Gaga's music video for 'Alejandro.' I stand by this opinion for that video and that song. But, I don't think this statement can cover all artist who imitate other artist. And, with that being said... Night Work is imitation as flattery and entertainment.

I have never been a huge fan of the Scissor Sisters. I think my beef rests in my hatred of Elton John. And, Elton John has always praised Jake Shears (and, I believe, a lot of vice versa has gone on). Not a good reason to dislike a band. But, after I've listened to a couple of their albums, I only find myself drawn to a few songs per album. I think they exist somewhere between a Rufus Wainwright and a Madonna sound. Both of these artists are great, but as a band falling in the middle... I never spent too much time with their records.

On Night Work they have changed my mind. This album does for the late 70s/early 80s what Goldfrapp's Head First was trying to do for the same period. Obviously the Scissor Sisters have succeeded. The songs are filled with enough energy to get your ready for a little bit of dancing. I would love to hear remixes of most of these songs.

Now, to the imitation part of the review. There are only a few songs on the album that sound like the Scissor Sisters. And, even then, the songs sound like another band. But, while listening to the album there are songs that sound dead on Dire Straits (Money for Nothing), Dead or Alive (You Spin Me Right Round), Pet Shop Boys (West End Girls), Bee Gees (insert any song title), and a bit of Michael Jackson (the Vincent Price portion of Thriller). This should be a bad thing. To so easily pick out these exact songs as the reference for the Scissor Sisters song. But, it isn't bad. It's fun. It's uplifting. It's almost perfect.

As someone who spent a lot of his Friday nights dancing around the club to 80s music theme nights, this album is a giant welcome to the mix.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop

When does an artist go too far? Can you make fun of the contemporary art viewer/reviewer/critic while at the same time using them for your own success? The theater, for the premiere of this film, was only half full (half empty?) with the typical art crowd. Gangs of hipsters, urban youth, and a few older/more educated persons. This in itself is almost performance art. What crowd does a "documentary" about street art bring into the theater? Close your eyes, imagine... and, you're right on spot.

The director, famed British street artist Banksy, uses the film as a satire against the commercialization of art (more specifically, street art). But, in doing so, is throwing stones at his crowd of on lookers. Street art is meant for everyone. This is where Banksy's idealism about his "art" and his "craft" starts to get under my skin. Rothkos, Newmans, Matisses, Van Goghs, and etc hang on the walls of art museums and art collectors. These spaces are created for a select few. The curious. The art interested. The collector. Banksy's art (and other street art) is for the every day person. Placed alongside billboards, curb sides, and bus stop terminals. Banksy and others are playing to the masses. I find his stance hypocritical.

This is not to say I don't find street artists to be artists. I respect their methods, their styles, and the group dynamic involved in the movement. Graffiti and the likes are a street version of the Dadaist movement. They are using pop images, collages, and unusual medium as a means to express themselves. This is a respected movement. An interesting and sometimes misunderstood art movement. My annoyance is not with the art or the artist... but, with Banksy's arrogance in attempting to hold a mirror up to the audience.

The "documentary" is clever. It contains all the requirements of a documentary. The details of why so much film footage exists. A somewhat specific goal from the start. And, a series of interesting, eclectic characters to make the audience think 'isn't life grand and bizarre?' The film succeeds at being very funny. But, only in the way I see through all of its attempts at pointing a finger at the audience. For demanding one not love art for the sake of loving art.

Art was never meant for the masses. Art was never meant to be understood by everyone. Art was never meant to be a means for everyone to express themselves. Banksy understands. But, I'm not sure he makes his audience understand. In the end, I think too many people miss the point. Another piece of art misunderstood by its audience. Bansky may have fallen prey to the one thing he is trying so hard to run away from.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Five Ghosts, Stars

BEST OF 2010

The first two releases by Stars, Nightsongs and Heart, are lovely albums. Bits of shoe gazing, indie pop wearing its heart on its sleeve. They are the albums you fall in and out of love to. They are the albums with large, emotional concepts contained within lounging sound bites. They are lovely starts.

On Set Yourself on Fire, Stars finally achieved greatness. These bitter, aggresive, beautiful songs come at the listener full force. The songs never once back down. Throughout the entire album the listener is constantly pulled further and further into the strain of what may or may not be a threaded short story collection. This album is one of my top ten favorite albums of the last decade.

Stars followed up their masterpiece with In Our Bedroom After the War. This album could never live up to the previous. So I gave it little attention. Allowed it to die a quiet death weeks after its release. I know there are a couple lovely songs, but overall... just a follow up to an incredible album.

This time around, on The Five Ghosts, Stars have released a lovely album that should have been the follow up to Set Yourself on Fire. This album if filled with ghosts (as the title suggests). I imagine all those haunted, living souls from Set Yourself on Fire are now dead and haunting those they left behind. There is an emotional heaviness to much of the album. The lyrics on loss and death. Even the sound of the songs requires a few mournful pauses.

The song "I Died So I Could Haunt You" is perfect. How many of us haven't thought of those we'd return to if we had the choice to haunt? On "We Don't Want Your Body," the humor and attitude are perfect. "Changes" may be one of Stars greatest songs. And, "Opinion vs the Sun" just gathers into a beautiful storm of lyric and music.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel

BEST OF 2010

I am still debating the decision to make this a "best of" because I don't know if the novel is too heavy handed. A novel about the Holocaust and animal rights. Of course I'm going to enjoy the hell out of this novel. But, am I enjoying it because (on some level) I agree with what is being presented? Or, is this a superior novel?

Firstly, this is postmodern literature run wild. The novel is a novel within a novel within a play. And, the author is a character within the novel, indirectly. In fact, it is possible to say the author is the characters. Beatrice and Virgil is an experiment in a dizzying literary world.

Secondly, meta narrative is the best way to describe the purpose of the novel. Martel wishes to present the real world (on a large scale) as a novel (on a small scale). Martel wishes to push the boundaries of literature and history in order to reinvent the way we view our history. And, to reinvent the way we think of our past, present, and future. History is very much being attacked and adored throughout.

Beatrice and Virgil has not received the best reviews. I understand the issues. Few readers wish to take part in the literary games Martel is playing (the play, the novel within the novel, the animals as Jews, etc, etc, etc). Beatrice and Virgil is not The Life of Pi. Both novels are playful and harsh. But, Beatrice and Virgil is smarter (for the most part. There are the few occasions where Martel appears to be speaking down to the reader).

Usually, a "best of" receives an A or above. But, there are so many issues taking place within the novel. But, I have to respect the attempt and the risks.


Friday, June 4, 2010

East of Eden (1955)

I understand that film adaptations of novels are never up to par with the novel. In fact, I assume I will be disappointed with the film. But, when one goes into the film expecting things to be "different," one shouldn't finish the film pissed off at how poorly the film portrayed the novel. In the case of 1955's East of Eden... I was pissed off.

From the start, the film skips over the first 2/3 of the novel. I understand a 600 page book needs to be skimmed. And, fine, you (Mr. Kazan) feel the story of Cal and Aron is the only significant factor in the novel. But, to rid even their background from the film? Their youth? So much emotion and connection is lost when characters are just thrown into a situation without our understanding of why. Even having read the book I couldn't quite understand the situation.

Also, the book is about good and evil. The book is very gray about the character of Cal. A lot is left to interpretation. The film leaves no room for interpretation. The playwright decided Cal is complete evil from the films start. This leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Leaves me confused by the motivation of Cal. And, his brother, Aron is almost a non-character. Hardly speaking, rarely on the screen... the end has no significance without this character.

The acting is horrid. I understand some older films weren't too concerned with acting (hell, most contemporary films aren't too concerned with acting) and East of Eden is a perfect example of over the top performances. This is close to a Saturday Night Live skit (not funny, poorly performed, etc). James Dean, who I have never seen in a film before this one, is making his film debut in this film. It shows. He pouts, stomps, mumbles, runs around the screen as if he were drunk before filming started. Is his character suffering a stroke? A learning disability? Is he Kristin Stewart?

I have no idea how the film was able to use the name East of Eden when the film only follows the story as far as character names and, maybe, 3 small plot details. Entire characters are removed. Other characters given more significance. A true massacre.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Expo 86, Wolf Parade

I have always loved Wolf Parade. Their two previous albums are classics. Well, Apologies to the Queen Mary much more so than At Mount Zoomer. But, still, both very strong albums. On their second album, At Mount Zoomer, it was easy to begin recognizing the difference in the sounds and styles of the two lead singers Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner. This lead to a small breakdown in the second album.

Once Wolf Parade hit it "big" I went in search of the other albums Krug and Boeckner were part of. I found Krug on Sunset Rubdown, Swan Lake, and Frog Eyes. Boeckner created the group Handsome Furs with his girlfriend/fiance. Having experienced both of these vocalist in their 'other' bands made it easier to recognize the singers on Wolf Parade. Their lyrical powers, their vocal strengths, etc. Partially this caused a problem. Wolf Parade no longer felt like a band... more like a super group (ie, The New Pornographers).

On their 3rd release, the same issues are found. I can pick out which song belongs to which singer based on the opening sounds. I want something a little fresh. I don't want their solo work infused into this band. But, that is what you get. So, you have to make peace and enjoy the music. Luckily, I still like the music. A lot of the songs are pretty much background music. Nothing lyrically stands out and nothing musically is demanding attention. Although, I adore the songs 'Oh You, Old Thing' and 'Ghost Pressure.'

The strangest thing about this album... how much the folk/rock sounds remind me of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This isn't a bad thing, just a strange thing. Something unexpected. And, only a few songs/sounds/pieces remind me of Hedwig. But, enough lingers in the songs to make me think about it every time I listen.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Man From Beijing, Henning Mankell

I made two New Year's resolutions this year. (1) Read two books a month. (2) Complete each book I begin. Both of these resolutions were made to keep me focused on reading. I went to college for a degree in English Literature. After I graduated, I found myself reading fewer and fewer books. Maybe I was worn out? So far, I have only put one book down with no intention of completing. And, I have completed 21 books this year (3 books shy of the goal of 24 a year). With this being said, I did not complete The Man From Beijing.

I decided to try and read a genre I haven't read in years. Crime fiction. Mystery novels. They are very popular right now. Especially Swedish crime novels. I asked two women I work with for recommendations. They both agreed the author Henning Mankell is a promising read. I picked his newest novel as it is not part of a series of detective novels he has been writing over the years.

The story starts out fairly small. An entire village, tiny village (19 residences), is massacred. Of course the point of the novel... why? who? Sounds like an interesting start. How does an entire village end up dead? How is no one aware the murders are taking place from one house to the next? The only clue is a red ribbon.

The novel quickly becomes larger than an incident. The novel travels back to 1863. The story moves from Sweden to China to Arizona to Africa, etc. This is the definition of an international crime novel. I am not a fan of large novels. I have said this before and will probably repeat myself many more times. I like small scenes, single narrators... postmodern fiction.

I can't fault the novel for being exactly what it sets out to be. In fact, it does everything very well. The suspense, the characters, the flow of past and present, the travel from one continent to another. Even Mankell's writing (or, the translation) are pretty respectable. Just not my cup of tea.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

(500) Days of Summer

I remember my first viewing of this film. I was slightly annoyed at how 'cutesy' the film wanted to be. The musical number, the Godard and Bergman references, the soundtrack (although, I love, love, love The Smiths), and the quick dialogue. These aren't bad things. In fact, they're all really fun and playful ways to tell a story. But, somehow, I found them slightly overbearing when all thrown together in one and a half hours.

Also, from my first viewing, I remember thinking... "This is a hipster version of Annie Hall." The film starts from the end, jumps back and forth throughout their time together, and ends in a similar manner. Not to mention the characters are almost spot on. The Joseph Gordon Levitt character is so similar to Woody Allen (quick witted, neurotic, overly romantic) and Zooey Deschanel is clearly inspired by Diane Keaton (vein, melodramatic, flighty, cruel at times).

I wonder if we're supposed to like Ms. Deschanel's character in the film. Because I don't. She reminds me of so many people I've met in my life. So painfully unhappy and lost in their unhappiness that they start to rip apart the happiness of others. She picks at the idea of love others have, she sneers at those with jobs that aren't quite to their own liking, and she is a bit of a snob when it comes to art, music, etc. Alright, perhaps her character is a little too much like me. But, that doesn't mean I have to like her.

The film is playful. The performances are honest. It was my second viewing. I would watch it again. But, there needs to be a longer break between this showing and the next.