Wednesday, June 30, 2010

David Foster Wallace On My Mind

Tuesday night's David Foster Wallace post reminded me of a couple of David Foster Wallace links from recent years.

The AV Club covered DFW's memorial service, held on NYU's campus, at which Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, and other literary heavyweights eulogized him.

In 1997, Terry Gross interviewed David Foster Wallace on Fresh Air. Here is an excerpt.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Scattered Thoughts on Although You End Up Becoming Yourself

In 1996, David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest was released to a wave of publicity unlike anything the world of publishing had seen since The Bonfire of the Vanities. Reviews were not entirely positive, but there were two things on which critics agreed: nobody had ever seen anything like it, and Wallace was the first writer to capture the voice of his generation in a serious literary novel. Rolling Stone magazine sent David Lipsky to the Midwest to follow Wallace on the last leg of his book tour, and, over the course of a short flight and two long car rides, Lipsky and Wallace discussed how he wrote Infinite Jest, Wallace's influences, literature, film and film criticism, writing and how it is taught, Alanis Morisette, Quentin Tarantino, and basically everything else that you would expect two highly educated thirty-something-in-1996 literary types to discuss. Lipsky left Illinois with a bag full of audio cassettes that would, once transcribed, fill more than 300 pages. It is an interesting conversation, like My Dinner With Andre for America's Generation X.

Wallace and Lipsky discuss several of Wallace's familiar themes - how it is impossible to escape the media in modern society. These roughly break down into 'subject matter' themes: tennis, illegal drugs, addiction, alienation, the corrosive effects of television, mental health and pharmapsychology (among others). and 'big picture' themes, such as the need for sincerity and empathy, the importance of identifying cliches and refusing to be manipulated by them; how consuming serious art makes us better people, and a general, reader-friendly sense that literature can't be written exclusively for other writers and graduate students, it has to reach readers where they live.

During my senior year in college, I was assigned to read Wallace's story "The Depressed Person" for an English course on post-World War II American literature. "The Depressed Person", one of Wallace's earliest short stories, is told in the first person, and about a depressed young woman whose inability to talk about anything other than her own depression annoys, and, eventually, turns off, everybody who is important in her life. The story is experimental, and meant to annoy and depress its readers. Because it the story is so effective, it is also very annoying. In my small-group discussion section, I remember saying that I thought the story was well-written, but that, if I was a person in the real world, who worked all day and came home at night and read to relax, that I would, despite my admiration for the author's skill, find this story to be enormously depressing and aggravating. The near-universal reaction from the rest of the section was: but you don't understand. David Foster Wallace is a genius. The story is meant to annoy you. The fact that it annoys you is just proof of Wallace's brilliance. I said that I fully understood that it was meant to annoy me, but that a well-executed story that is meant to annoy me isn't as enjoyable as a well-executed story written with any number of other goals in mind. Some of my classmates regarded me as if I was a philistine; to them, at least at that point in their lives, their appreciation for Wallace's skill as a stylist trumped all else.

After listening to some mid-00's interviews Wallace gave to NPR and Charlie Rose, and after reading his widely-disseminated Kenyon College commencement address, and now after reading Although You End Up Becoming Yourself, I feel somewhat vindicated - I doubt that Wallace himself would have agreed with my former classmates who defended his early writing so fiercely. In his forties, Wallace seemed to focus more and more on our culture's increasing levels of narcissism, and struggled publicly with what it means to live well without inconveniencing those around you. Wallace began to distance himself from his highly experimental earlier works, because he believed that serious reading should make us better people, and that stories written to show off to other writers, or to impress the reader, rather than challenge and entertain, weren't worth the time that busy people who work for a living have to invest to read them. Wallace believed that a lot of his early writings, including his first novel, The Broom of the System, some of his early short stories, and even the title essay of his best-selling essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, which he, in hindsight, saw as being overly critical and snarky. A Supposedly Fun Thing is one of my favorite books, but I don't disagree with Wallace about his early fiction - it is much easier to appreciate for its technical accomplishment than it is to love, or even enjoy on a gut level. If Wallace was so disgusted by the ceaseless barrage of irony that he encountered whenever he turned on the television, how come his own writing could be brutally cutting and sarcastic? What to make of the fact that Infinite Jest can be read to be sincere on the big issues, while consisting of a thousand small-scale ironies? How is one supposed to interpret the parts of his interview where he shares what purports to be his love-one-another philosophy, then admits that he knows what he just said "sounds like a piety," then writes short stories in which a great team of painful humor is had at his characters' expense? Is it just that Wallace had identified a problem, but was unable to come up with a solution? If that's true, couldn't one argue that he nonetheless came closer than anybody else could have? I don't know how to answer these questions, but it bothers me they do not seem to occur to a lot of the young readers who worship Wallace so sycophantically.

Although You End Up Becoming Yourself captures Wallace at what I would call the "end of the beginning" of his career (this is a difficult point to demarcate, because several books that would not be released until after these interviews had already been written/were still in the pipeline). I don't necessarily prefer late Wallace to early (pre-Infinite Jest) Wallace, but I believe that Wallace preferred late Wallace to early Wallace, even though 'late Wallace' eventually killed himself. His death was a great loss, and also sort ironic, in that somebody who was so fascinated with the day-to-day living of life would, due to crippling depression, hang himself in his mid-forties. And if you want to try to resolve that contradiction, I wish you so much more than luck.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Weekend Links

Paul Krugman's editorial about the likelihood of a 'Third Depression' is depressing because it is so convincing.

The AV Club criticizes Knight and Day for believing that it can get away with portraying Tom Cruise as a grinning, untouchable action hero two and a half decades after Risky Business and Top Gun. In this week's AV Club Talk, the critics discuss Knight and Day in comparison to Grown Ups, the terrible-looking Adam Sandler/Kevin James vehicle that casts them in roles similar to the roles they've played in every movie they've ever made in the past 15 years. Its no wonder that the movie business is failing; neither of these films seems to have an original idea in their heads.

In The New Yorker, Anthony Lane's review of I Am Love reminded me of why I read The New Yorker in the first place.

Real estate listings like this one make me want to move to Buffalo.

Bill Simmons' NBA Draft diary on was excellent as usual, though the increasingly competent NBA front offices give him less material than he had in the old days.

McSweeney's publishes another in its series of "Open letters to people or entities who are unlikely to respond."

And, finally, we at CSD headquarters have been watching Season 3 of Mad Men to get us excited for next week's premiere of Season 4. In case you are trying to catch up, check out the TV Club's episode recaps and, just for fun, Movieline's "Mad Men Power Rankings," which ranks the characters on their awesomeness and introduces the Don Draper Fingerbang Threat Level, which is one of the two or three best ideas I have ever seen on the internet.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Andres Cantor Is Excited

Andres Cantor, the Argentinian soccer announcer who is internationally famous for his "goooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaal" calls, broadcast the United States vs. Algeria game on Thursday, and the call was every bit as awesome as you'd expect it to be. Here's the link.

Thanks for the words, Deadspin.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The National - Two More From BAM

'Its, like, a thirty-dollar tie' is one of the least rock-star things anybody has ever said.

"Anyone's Ghost"

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Buzz Bissinger and Signs of the Apocalypse

Buzz Bissinger is a sports journalist, best known for writing Friday Night Lights, one of the best books about sports I have ever read. Among sports writers, he is the most vocal advocate for the traditional, self-consciously professional, access-based brand of journalism, popularized by outlets like Sports Illustrated, whose selling points are access to athletes and coaches and an objective point of view. A new generation of internet-based sports writers, led by people like ESPN's Bill Simmons and New York Magazine's Bill Leitch, believes that it is contradictory to celebrate access and, at the same time, pretend that their access doesn't skew their perspective in favor of the subject of that access. The new generation is also generally more willing to acknowledge their own biases (Bill Simmons roots for the Boston Celtics, Leitch for the St. Louis Cardinals), including the teams they cheer for, and see Bissinger's generation of writers as being too unwilling to criticize or thoroughly probe interview subjects for fear of losing access to them or their teammates, and for being so obsessed with day-to-day minutae (of the sort that only those with access can see) that they ignore the 'big picture' stories that are happening right before their eyes.

Bissinger is also a world-class crank. In this famous 'debate' on Costas Now, Bissinger criticized Leitch and his sort without seeming to know any of the particulars about how the internet, or blogging, actually worked. Just the other day, he wrote an obnoxious article in The New Republic about how he - a Pulitzer Prize winner, no less! - fell in love with Twitter. He writes about how he responds to "twit twats" who dared to criticize him and his writing.

Bissinger goes on to say this about Shooting Stars, Bissinger's somewhat fawning book about LeBron James and his friendship with his high school teammates. Bear in mind Leitch's criticisms about the downside to Bissigner's access, and Bissinger's comments about Leitch's tone and lack of respect:
Shooting Stars was far from the best book I had ever written; the compromises of such collaboration, written in the first person of James and subject to his approval, had always shamed me. I did it for the money, because all writers, or at least those who don’t want to die, also have to eat. But I also did it because it was an inspirational coming-of-age story involving LeBron and the four teammates who had become his brothers through high school. I took great offense to what this Twit twat said. So I wrote back: Fuck off.

Coincidentally, I am currently reading The Game From Where I Stand, a memoir by former Major League baseball player Doug Glanville about his 15 years in professional baseball. Its an interesting book, though not a great one, but I won't review it here. I bring it up because its cover bears a blurb by Buzz Bissinger, who says "The Game From Where I Stand is a book of uncommon grace and elegance. It is a book about baseball unlike any I have ever read, filled with insight and a certain kind of poetry in its spare and haunting prose."

I like Doug Glanville, but I do not consider his book to be particularly well-written. So Buzz, please tell me, what 'certain kind of poetry' does his book contain? I haven't read a single review that has complimented his prose style, and I certainly do not consider it to be written in 'spare and haunting prose' by any means. In fact, if anything, Glanville's book, which is full of good-natured anecdotes organized by topic instead of chronologically (and therefore tending to circle back upon itself) is written in . . . whatever the opposite of spare and haunting prose would be.

So, Bissinger, who vocally criticizes blogs for being mean-spirited and petty, who believes that blogs only exist to humiliate people, is now using Twitter, so that the subject of Bissinger's insults can now be humiliated before the thousands of people who followe Bissinger's Twitter feed.

Thanks for the words: Ellen of Wormbook, who found the link to the TNR article.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Neko Case Threatening Assault Is Surprisingly Arousing

The New Pornographers played Boston's House of Blues this past weekend, and, at noe point during the show, an unidentified audience member threw a compact disc at the stage, bouncing Carl Newman's guitar. Neko Case, one of Common Sense Dancing's favorite musicians and co-lead singer of the New Pornographers, came to her bandmate's defense, saying "seriously, whoever threw that, come up here and I will fucking fight you . . . I will pummel your fucking face I'm a piece of shit white trash and I will fuck you up . . . I'll go to jail, I don't give a shit. I will fuck you up. I will fight every single fucking person in this room."

In related news, my crush on Neko Case, already a decade old, is now even stronger. She's the best.

The AV Club's post about the incident has generated some hilarious comments.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Weekend Links - Belated Monday Edition

The AV Club interviewed legendary tv comedy writer Robert Smigel, who discussed his unused ideas for Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and for Saturday Night Live movies, particularly a hilariously absurdist Hans and Franz film that the fifteen year-old me would undoubtedly have enjoyed the shit out of.

Above the Law has the story of a contract attorney who quit the business to become the proprietor of Curbside Cupcakes, the best idea I've seen for a food truck since The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck.

David Brooks and Gail Collins discussed the World Cup on the New York Times Opinionator blog.

McSweeney's 'Reviews of New Food' discusses Frito's Scoops and the KFC Double-Down.

Some good friends have recommended Christopher Hitchens' new memoir, Hitch-22. Jennifer Senior's review in the New York Times picks a few too many nits for my taste, but also seems to capture Hitchens' charm.

The web-comic The Oatmeal says it would rather be punched in the testicles than call customer service.

ShakenNeighborSyndrome sent me this link, to The Castle, an Australian movie with one of the funniest courtroom scenes since My Cousin Vinny.

In The New Yorker, Nicole Krauss has a new short story entitled "The Young Painters," published as part of The New Yorker's "20 under 40" series.

Jason Bateman and Will Arnett, two of the three most famous alumni of the most sophisticated sitcom in the history of American television, teamed up for an Orbitz advertisement, which is not exactly the Arrested Development reunion movie we have all been anxiously awaiting, but, at this point, we'll take what we can get:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Oh, the Internet . . .

Sad Keanu is the best just-for-kicks blog I've seen since Selleck Waterfall Sandwich.

Although on the one hand I think this site is awesome and hilarious, on the other hand, I sort of resent it, because tall, dark, and sad has proven to be an electric combination for my girlfriend, and nobody is tall, dark, and sadder than Sad Keanu. The price we pay for living in the Internet Age.

Thanks for the words, Ellen!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Somewhere Professor Mahoney Is Smiling

On Sunday night, a friend and I went out for dinner at Madiba, a South African restaurant in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. It seemed like a natural choice - I had never been there before, but it is always crowded with locals (a good sign) and had been well-reviewed, and we both had South Africa on our minds after a weekend of watching the World Cup. It was good - fun atmosphere and a menu that nicely balanced Zulu, British, Dutch and Indian elements - and afterwards I wondered if the ability to walk a few blocks to a South African restaurant was, without ever stopping to think about it, one of the reasons I live in Brooklyn in the first place. I don't eat South African food often, but that style of cuisine isn't available anywhere in any of the other cities in which I've lived, or even most big cities. Its a really nice thing to have nearby. Whether those cosmopolitan-but-minor-in-the-big-scheme-of-things institutions nearby justify the high rents and general inconvenience that come in living in a city with high rents and no parking is another question . . . but I definitely see the benefits.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Weekend Links

The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 issue on the best young writers in America is a must-read for literature lovers. Although he's over 40, Jeffrey Eugenides' short story "Extreme Solitude" is also very good.

Heroes, Studs, and Raging Bulls - The Only Game In Town, an anthology of The New Yorker's best sportswriting, gets a glowing review in the Times.

The AV Club pumped itself full of sugar at the 2010 Candy Exposition.

Speaking of the AV Club, Kyle Ryan and Genevieve Koski recently got iced. So did the members of The National. If the cast of the West Wing and the surviving members of the 1990 Buffalo Bills ever get iced, every institution that has every mattered to me in my lifetime will have been tainted.

Speaking the The West Wing, AV Club critic Steve Heisler has begun to review the second season of The West Wing for the AV Club's "TV Club Classic" series.

The Guardian profiled The National.

The Financial Times had a nice little feature about the City of Buffalo's Allentown neighborhood.

As it turns out, not everybody is on board with the 'Bros Icing Bros' phenomenon. Kissing Suzy Kolber offers a suggestion of its own - >Bros Burritoing Bros.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Apple Is A Little Suggestive

Sufjan Stevens, on Matt Berninger: "You have to trust a voice like that. He sings like an older brother with a dark side. He'll protect you on the playground, but he's not afraid to tell it like it is, and he'll kick you in the face if he has to."

"Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks"


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Some Thoughts On I Am Trying To Break Your Heart

I recently got around to watching I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. Yes, I know that it is nine years old.

Chicago-based indie rock band Wilco had already earned its reputation as The Most Significant Band in Indie Rock and The American Radiohead by the time it recorded its fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Just about every periodical that published a "best of decade" feature last December ranked Yankee Hotel Foxtrot among the ten best rock albums of the Oughts. The documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart tells the now-legendary story of the album's production and release.

The documentary tells and inspiring story. Wilco's label, Warner Bros., gave it an $85,000 no-strings budget and almost unprecendented artistic license. Then, Wilco's champion at Warner Bros. retired, and his replacement did not share his predecessor's high opinion of the band. When Wilco turned into a brilliant-but-challenging record, Warner executives hesitated for two weeks, before issuing a vague request that Wilco make the album more listenable. Wilco, and particularly its lead singer Jeff Tweedy, bristled at Warner's demands, and negotiated a favorable separation with Warner, whereby Warner did not pay Wilco for the record, but Wilco was albe to leave the label with total ownership of its record, and was released from its contractual obligations to record more albums for Warner in the future. Because the album is so good, leaked copies became enormously popular on the internet, to the point where Wilco was able to tour on the strenght of its unreleased album. Eventually, Wilco ended up selling the record back to a different Warner subsidiary for three times the price that Warner had promised to pay for it initially. Everybody (except for Warner itself) won. But something about the documentary turned me off. A lot of Wilco's music is more easily appreciated than enjoyed, and a lot of the songs on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are intentionally difficult and rough. Combined with the black-and-white footage and the shaky, ambient-noise quality of hand-held documentary filmmaking, it makes for a less than viewer-friendly experience.

The movie shows Wilco as they write a number of songs, perfect them, then take them apart and put them back together in a way that is more challenging for the listener. The documentary never explains why Wilco felt compelled to do that; why they weren't happy to release an album of beautifully played, pretty songs. When Jeff Tweedy and bandmate Jay Bennett have lengthy, obscure arguments about the best way to master a track, the stakes are never properly explained. This was one of many creative disagreements that led to Bennett being kicked out of the band, but its never made clear why Bennett and Tweedy felt that those particular artistic decisions - out of thousands and thousands in the band's career - were worth digging their heels in over. To their credit, when the memebrs of Wilco fight, they fight over artistic choices, instead of, say, sleeping with each other's girlfriends, but when even dedicated music fans cannot pick up on the subtle distinctions that led to the argument, the director's obligation should be to flesh it out a little bit more, and show us how Bennett and Tweedy's musical visions diverged.

Similarly, Warner's not-entirely-unreasonable request that Wilco make the album less intentionally difficult is dismissed as the worst sort of cliched meddling by rich know-nothing executives who wear suits to work, but the album might be loved more and appreciated less if Wilco had taken that advice to heart. Wilco's music can be heartbreakingly beautiful when they want it to be, which is why their ten-minute long songs that are intended to sound like headaches leave this listener wondering what might have been. It is interesting to note that the best live performance in the movie is of "Always In Love," which is off of Summerteeth, not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the best live song from YHF is "Heavy Metal Drummer," the most lightweight song on the album. and many of YHF's songs sound even rougher in the movie than they do on the album. The documentary gets bogged down in the album's heaviness. This story of outsiders triumphing over their corporate masters makes for a surprisingly joyless documentary; Wilco comes across as very professional, but not very much fun to be around.

Still, the movie has a lot to recommend it. It is basically indie rock's "Don't Look Back," and most Wilco fans will leave the theater hungry even after seeing how the sausage was made. The film does an admirable job of building suspense out of events whose conclusions most viewers will already be familiar with, and the 16 mm black and white footage, though a little too self-consciously grainy at times, brilliantly captures the spirit and atmosphere downtown Chicago. I recommend it, but with reservations. It gives Wilco admirers what they're looking for, but is not going to win many new fans to Wilco's challenging style of music.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

My Ears Need Band-Aids

The buzz in indie music circles these days is about Sleigh Bells, a Brooklyn twosome that just released their first major-label record, Treats. Though a lot of well-respected critics have been raving about them, I don't see the appeal. Musically, all of their songs are simple and heavily sampled, and they sing in a percussive, grating, yell-y style depressingly reminiscent of The Go! Team. Yes, the lead singer is a total babe. But that's not enough to carry the day.

Last year in this space, I expressed similar skepticism over critical darlings Grizzly Bear, and eventually came around to appreciate them, though I never loved them. Perhaps a similar thing will happen this year . . . but I don't see it. Your thoughts?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Its About Damn Time

Last summer, the AV Club assigned their critic Steve Heisler, who had never seen an episode of The West Wing, to watch Season 1 from the beginning, and review every episode.

This summer, Heisler is back with Season 2, and this afternoon he posted his review of the two-part season opener, "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen," which many at CSD headquarters consider to be among the best two hours of television we've ever seen. Heisler will post a new review every Monday for the next several months, so be sure to check them out.

Now I'm in the mood for some Jeb Bartlett and Leo McGarry awesomeness:

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Weekend Links

CSD headquarters is abuzz with excitement for the World Cup, which begins on Thursday. If you're not excited yet, these highlight videos of England's Wayne Rooney and Argentina's Lionel Messi will get you pumped.

The AV Club's go-to movie critics, Steven Hyden and Kyle Ryan, discuss the best music of the year so far. Not surprisingly, The National's High Violet and LCD Soundsystem's This Is Happening are leading the Album of the Year contest thus far, but they give a lot of time to dark horses like Dum Dum Girls.

The AV Club strikes again with a great Q & A feature on films that should be television shows and a great live-from-the-office performance by legendary British punk band The Wedding Present covers The Rolling Stones' "19th Nervous Breakdown."

In the New York Times, Jonathan Eig reviews Dirk Hayhurst and Doug Glanville's new memoirs of playing Major League Baseball.

Jeffrey Eugenides has a new short story in The New Yorker, entitled "Extreme Solitude."

Roger Ebert, the beloved dean of film critics, takes a big, steamy shit all over Sex and the City 2.

And, finally, on somewhat of a somber note, a sexy firefighter died in New York City this week. The Onion has his obituary.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Most Awkward Going-Into-the-Crowd Stunts of All-Time

Two weeks ago, The National held a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to raise money for the Red Hot organization. Legendary documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker recorded the show for a live stream on YouTube. The show was awesome and the band sounded great, but the crowd was curiously dead, despite the fact that The National was on their home turf. I write it up to the fact that these tickets were so difficult to get that only the big BAM supporters could get ahold of them - sort of like how the Super Bowl and Final Four crowds are never as much fun as the "Murph and Sully"-type crowds that show up for rivalry games during the regular season.

During two songs, "Bloodbuzz, Ohio" and "Mr. November," lead singer Matt Berninger went into the audience to sing with the crowd.Anyway, the curiously subdued crowd (and a too-short microphone cord) combined to make them two of the most awkward going-into-the-crowd stunts of all-time. At one point in "Bloodbuzz, Ohio" he takes a woman's hand and gets her up to dance, and she SITS BACK DOWN. During "Mr. November," Berninger gets up on a chair to sing, and falls over. Its really, really awkard. But that's part of the reason we love The National - they're not Cool Kids, they're not really rock stars, they're just regular guys who sing great songs about the claustrophobia of living in New York and relating to your friends and lovers as you learn to be an adult.

Bloodbuzz, Ohio

Mr. November

The band has also posted "Director's Cut" versions of Bloodbuzz, Ohio and Mr. November.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Jonathan Franzen's new short story in The New Yorker

This week's issue of The New Yorker includes a new short story by Jonathan Franzen. The story, which is entitled "Agreeable," will whet your appetite for his new novel, Freedom, which will be released by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux on August 31st.

Freedom is Franzen's first novel since The Corrections (2001), which was a generation-defining classic. We don't want to jinx anything, but here's hoping that Freedom will be just as good.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

This Is A Song By The Black Keys

The Name of the song is Tighten Up. The performance totally owns.