29 September 2008

the free market giveth, and the free market taketh away

Fidelity to ideology? Say it ain't so!

Not being an expert in matters financial, I can't exactly offer an enlightened opinion on this "Financial Crisis" [with theme music], but I can say that I'm in favor of Republicans acting like, well, Republicans. I'm opposed to the capital "B" Bailout on terms motivated almost exclusively by a desire for vengeance (also because I don't see why perpetrators of fraud should get their mess cleaned up while their victims are left homeless and on the street), whereas I would assume a true Republican would be opposed to the Bailout on ideological terms tied very closely to the freedom of the Free Market.

Last week, someone said that when push comes to shove, conservatives reveal themselves to be socialists, and that's kind of depressing to me. If that's the case, then they weren't real conservatives to begin with. I was despairing that real conservatives didn't exist anymore, until the talk of the Bailout began to reach feverish proportions. Then, and only then, did real conservatives start to come out of the woodwork.

I think that all Americans should be opposed to the Bailout, if for no other reason than the fact that it puts an inordinate amount of our money (yours, mine, Warren Buffet's) at risk for no real reason at all (don't believe
me? Here), money that could be going to fund, I don't know, useful things. We (by "we," I mean no one even like us) raised the debt ceiling $800 billion this year, and we really want to push against it already?

Also, it sets a horrible precedent for a country that's hi
storically balked at the merest hint of the word "socialism" (let's TANGENT for a moment and admit that, yes, I'm a proponent of Big Government. I think government exists to provide essential services to its people, "basic human rights" sorts of services: national defense, transportation, utilities, health care, education... I don't think people should profit from providing "basic human rights" sorts of services, which therefore leaves them in the purview of the government. However, in order to work properly, I think Big Government needs a much better plan than anything that's been put forth so far in this Bailout strategy. As someone who remembers what it was like last time this administration said, "We have to act now, because the consequences of inaction are too severe," I'm not in favor of the proposals that've been put forth thus far. END TANGENT). It doesn't give the perps any incentive to avoid playing fast and loose with other people's money again; in fact, it encourages them.

The way I see it, we have two options: either we nationalize everything, thus (theoretically) preventing a meltdown of (potentially) catastrophic proportions from happening again, or we let everything play itself out as the Free Market says it should, and let the chips fall where they may. I know no one's going to let either of those two options come into being, which means it's on the people in charge to figure it out.

Of course, we could just leave everything in the hands of these two geniuses...

The photo of George II was pulled off of the CNN.com homepage today; all due credit to the person who took it should be given.
I would rather have avoided the Noid, so I won't research into its history...
Fine. Group 243, Domino's advertising group, created the Noid. Read more about it here.

peace on earth... for a few hours

I went to purchase the new Sigur Ros album (Med Sud I Eyrun Vid Spilum Endalaust - which translates, apparently, from Icelandic into English as, "With A Buzz In Our Ears, We Play Endlessly") not on the day of its release, but at least the week it came out. While I was pretty sure it wasn't going to hit me over the head with its awesomeness the way its predecessor, Takk..., had, but given that I've been enamored with every one of their albums and EPs and singles that I've gotten my hands on since 2003, I wasn't exactly worried. I had no reason to worry; despite the fact that "Gobbledigook," the album's first track, is bizarre even for the ethereal post-rock that is Sigur Ros's calling card, the music is gorgeous, lush, beautiful, and uplifting in the way that only music can be (I'd write more, but this is a posting about a concert, and not so much about an album. Besides, I don't want to take away from what could be a nicely written response when I fashion my list of my five favorite albums from 2008... more on that in a few months).

First, a bit more background. When Takk... came out, Sigur Ros' tour took them to, I believe, the Gothic theater in Colorado. It's an all right venue, but nothing that's going to deliver a life-changing experience. It's fairly small, kind of cramped, and very short of an inspiring space. I don't like paying more than $20-25 for a show unless I can be assured of its unassailable awesomeness (Pearl Jam opening for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, the Smashing Pumpkins at Red Rocks); in re
trospect, seeing Sigur Ros would've been enough to qualify for "unassailable awesomeness," but I was younger, and much more foolish. I passed on the $35 for the show. I wonder, now, what that would've been like.

Let's fastforward to... the past. Saturday, September 27, 2008. Sigur Ros, live, at Red Rocks. One of the most amazing bands in the world at what could only be described as the best venue in the world (you're welcome to disagree with me, but I won't listen to you). A show I had been waiting to attend for, well, a while.

I was expecting it to be cold, but it wasn't. It was actually nice and... almost balmy, with just a hint of a breeze all night. Maybe it's possible for a whole lot of positive energy to affect a similar change in the weather, or perhaps Colorado's climate decided to be cooperative for once. Regardless of the reason, the fact of the matter is that it felt, well, practically perfect once Vanessa and I arrived at Red Rocks (she'd never been for a show, by the way. What an introduction).

I didn't (and still don't) know much about Parachutes, the opening act, but they're about the perfect Sigur Ros openers. Ethereal and beautiful, whispy and yet... potent, they embody an altogether similar, yet different, aspect of their homeland than Sigur Ros; that is to say, if Sigur Ros sounds the way you'd think Iceland looks and feels, Parachutes might sound like how it feels to live in Iceland. There's a sense of community to their music, almost one of harmony (it's almost got this foreign small-town quality to it), the kind of thing I instinctively associate with a small community of people that could well be connected at an almost fundamental level.

My opinion could well be influenced by their performance, where what seemed like every member of the band took their turn on virtually every instrument onstage: percussion, string, wind, even vocals. It was almost like watching a collective of artists emerge from their little compound for the first time in, well, a long time, to perform in front of an audience that's not themselves. They were very much in their own special world onstage, and that really lent to the magic of the entire experience. I figured the band opening for Sigur Ros would be good, but I didn't figure on them legitimately being a musical treat. I should look into some of their music...

Anyway, on to the main event, what's probably going to take the cake for my favorite live concert in 2008 (anyone that's not performing at Red Rocks is seriously kneecapped from the start, and anyone that's not Sigur Ros is in serious trouble, too).

I don't honestly know where to begin. It was a beautiful, stirring experience from start to finish, and I'm really not kidding when I say that, from my piddling little perspective, the entire world really was at peace during the time they were playing. I don't know if I've ever attended a show where I was surrounded by so many [shiny] happy people. It was a time of unrestrained joy throughout the venue, and I think we're all better for having participated in it.

I bet there were some people less than enthusiastic about the fact that the band didn't travel with its backing players (the horn section, specifically, which apparently was present during the Takk... tour), but I rather liked the... minimalism. Insofar as you could attempt an intimate, personal show at Red Rocks, I think they did, and I think they succeeded. I think everyone in the amphitheater felt the same way that Vanessa did when she said that, at times, it felt like there was no one else around except for the band, and us.

My personal highlight was the performance of my absolute favorite Sigur Ros song, "Saeglopur," off of Takk... The band began the song surrounding the keyboardist, playing all variations of percussion and keys, then spread out back across the stage as the song boomed into its full force. "Saeglopur" is... big, for lack of a better term. Well, "bombastic" might be better. The way the strength of the instruments simultaneously supports and battles with the fragility of Jonsi Birgisson's voice is something extraordinarily special. It's like... crystal and thunder. And it's gorgeous.

It's not all that often that I'm moved to tears by something that isn't a) Spock dying at the end of Wrath of Khan, b) Sam Seaborn talking about America being "a beacon that has lit the world for two centuries," or c) remembering what it was like seeing my grandparents waste away, but that song has some incredible power over me. I don't quite know what it is, but I certainly don't mind it. It feels good, like being alive.


"Saeglopur" was followed by "Hafsol," a track from the double EP they released last year, Hvarf-Heim, a collection of B-sides and live tracks. It builds to its stellar, otherworldly ending almost better than "Saeglopur" does (and for that, I suppose I can forgive Vanessa for liking it better than my favorite song). I certainly wasn't expecting to hear it that night (hoping, perhaps, but not expecting), and delivering the two of them, back-to-back, made for an improbably phenomenal climax to what had already been a great night of music.

To circle back to the beginning, "Gobbledigook," which closed the performance proper (with the exception of an encore that lasted two songs), is now a song that I can well and truly appreciate. The members of Parachutes took the stage with their friends for this song, all wearing drums that they banged on madly for the bulk of the song. If ever there has been/will be a cathartic Sigur Ros song, this would probably be the one. The elation that had so permeated me and my fellow audience members had most certainly made its way to the stage; you could see it in the way the band members moved, and played, and jumped around (and the way they had the audience sing along).

I'm going to end this now by saying that I feel it was a fantastic experience, worth significantly more time and money than that which I put into it. Beautiful, charming, elegant, glorious... I don't know if I can say enough positive things.

The full set list, for what it's worth (thanks go right here):
heysátan
fljótavík
all alright

njósnavélin
ný batterí
við spilum endalaust
hoppípolla

með blóðnasir

inní mér syngur vitleysingur

festival

dauðalagið
sæglópur

hafsól

gobbledigook

--(short encore break)--
illgresi

popplagið

(Oh, and the enclosed photographs were taken by Vanessa Luna and Phil Wrede).

24 September 2008

This... Is... Nellieball!!

Apparently, if you're a Golden State Warriors fan, you should be angry right now. Well, maybe not angry, but at least worried. Your team lost its heart and soul (and its best player) when Baron Davis (incoming pun) jumped ship to set sail with the Clippers, his heir apparent is going to be rehabbing a (potentially stupid) injury through the start of the season, despite winning more games than they did in their Cinderella-story season, last year's Warriors team actually accomplished less than the team of two seasons ago, you failed to make a big splash in the free agent market, and the architects of your brief renaissance, VP of Basketball Operations Chris Mullin and Coach Don Nelson, are both in the last year of their respective contracts. Expectations for this year are justifiably low; the Warriors' brief turn in the national spotlight may turn out to be even shorter than anyone could have expected.

Take heart, Warriors fans, and fans of entertaining basketball in general, for I come bearing a trident, pointed with news that should re-energize you and fill your hearts with hope once again (if only temporarily)!


Potential

Do you know how many of your players are 25 or younger? Do you, really? 14 of them. 14 of them, each an extraordinary athlete in his own right. In a situation like this, the only real virtue that can be espoused is patience. Look at a team like the Hornets: mostly young, with a couple of good veterans, a good coach, and a supremely talented young player as the focal point, whose potential is practically limitless. Sound like anyone else you know?

Look at how much Biedrins' game has improved from season to season (3.8 PPG 05-06, 9.5 PPG 06-07, 10.5 PPG 07-08), or Ronny Turiaf's (6.6 PPG on 18.7 minutes in 07-8 – his minutes tripled from what they were his rookie year, and his points followed suit)... if the rookies can follow their lead, we could well be seeing the start of the true Warriors renaissance this year, with the past two seasons just a preview of things to come.

Of course, I'm preaching patience here, which is especially important when you consider that the fellow to whom I just compared Chris Paul – Monta Ellis – is going to be unavailable through, in all likelihood, the end of November (and yes, I'm well aware it's his own stupid fault). We're all familiar with the spurts and fits that define the Warriors seasons, but this one might be more taxing than most. It's worth considering, though, that the more time Monta has to get used to the fact that he's now the man, the better off the team will be.

Right Right Now

This pretty much does everything it can to contradict everything that I wrote above, but the fact that it's really two points folded into one should cut me a little slack, right? As before, both Mullin and Nelson are in the final year of their respective contracts. If they want their jobs to continue past this season, or if they want this second go-around to count as something more than a victory lap, they're faced with the same choice: win, or lose. Prove you deserve to keep your job, or make it clear that you didn't really care about this to begin with. Their legacy was pretty much unimpeachable before they came back, but so was Michael Jordan's, and don't you think he'd like it if everyone had some fond memories of his second shot at glory? The motivation's there, and the tools are there.

Now, let's be realistic for a second. It took nearly 10 years for the Warriors to become competitive again after the Webber-Sprewell-Nelson torture trifecta. In this “What've you done lately?” world that we live in, people didn't remember Run TMC; when people thought of the Warriors in the late 90's and early 00's, they thought of either the team that bypassed Kobe Bryant for Todd Fuller, or Latrell Sprewell choking P.J. Carlesimo. Almost anything's better than that, right? Especially, say, falling just an inch or two short of the playoffs (not everyone can be the Boston Celtics, and that's really okay. )? What I'm advocating here is an accentuating of the positive, as Bing Crosby might've sung, and putting of things in perspective; even if things wind up not that great, they could still be ridiculously worse. Talk to a Nuggets fan; they'll understand.

Coach Don Nelson


Is there another coach in the NBA today that could inspire his players by telling them to just go out on the court and play basketball? In apparent stark contrast to the hyper-prepared, overly-cerebreal head coach that's the order of the day in the 21st century, Nelson looks like he drags himself out of bed with a hangover on gameday morning and works out his starting lineup over a pot or two of coffee. The last two years of Warriors' games have lent credence to that fear, but that's really just had as much to do with the making-lemonade-(or at least lemon juice)-out-of-lemons philosophy that Nelson's pioneered ever since he got his first coaching job with the Bucks. Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld may have put it best when he said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” Nellie understands; after all, he's a fellow Don.


The point is, no matter how worried you might be about your team, how afeared you might be that Baron really was the glue holding the soapbox derby racer that is the Golden State Warriors together, that his departure will mean that the Warriors'll fall apart just short of the finish line, like the Simpsons' “Lil' Lightning,” just remember, that already happened last year. This year can't get much worse than that.

Wait, that doesn't help... What does help is that Nellie will always, always make his team competitive (seriously, Davis, Jackson, Barnes, Biedrins, and Harrington? If Avery Johnson didn't see that coming, who did?). He'll find a way to give the opposition fits, to make his team catch fire (even if he has to literally do it himself), to fit a beluga whale into a square hole. Then, he'll talk about it while drinking his Bud Light after the game.


See, don't you feel better? Aren't you excited for the limitless possibilities that the 2008-09 season holds? No? Really? Well, buck up, and don't even consider buying that #1 Clippers jersey. If at any point in the season you start asking yourself, “How could it get any worse?” just remember this: at least you're not a Hawks fan.

22 September 2008

good ideas

I've only been obsessing over this for months...

Awesome? Yes. Depressing? Also yes.

Anyone who watched The Show knew that he (Obama) needs to make it about smart and stupid, engaged and not, qualified and not. Clearly, Sorkin knows his own show well enough to agree. First debate's Friday; we'll see if reality has been paying close enough attention to fiction.

19 September 2008

while I wouldn't call death magnetic, it is at least almost compelling...

First and foremost, a confession. After the incident surrounding the burgeoning society of file-swapping, I swore off Metallica for two solid years. Didn't wear my Ride the Lightning t-shirt, didn't re-buy my ruined copy of Master of Puppets, didn't listen to a single note of music. It's not that I'm opposed to artists making money off their work (I want to be able to do that myself one day, so I completely sympathize), it's just that I'm opposed to people who behave like dicks on general principle. I didn't much like how they just put their fingers in their ears and screamed the chorus part of "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" in the face of this creature that was going to herald a revolution in commerce and communication online. If Metallica was going to say, "Fuck the future," well, then, fuck Metallica.

Enough time passed between the Napster Controversy and the release of St. Anger that my irritation had cooled, and I was prepared to give James, Lars, Kirk and... Bob Rock another chance. That was, put simply, stupid. I should've known that the man who had done everything in his power to kill Metallica (Rock, who produced the Black album, Load, ReLoad, Garage, Inc.) wouldn't do anything to save them from themselves, and, lo and behold, I was proven right. For some reason, one of the pioneers of thrash decided that they should release a nu metal album. It didn't work (not one single guitar solo in over an hour of music - probably the easiest money Kirk Hammett ever made), and I didn't care.

My relationship with the band, rocky already, hit rock bottom when I saw a video of them performing, post-St. Anger, at... I don't know, some festival in Europe. They were playing "Master of Puppets," and it was probably the most phoned-in performance of any song I've ever seen (except for dear Mr. Hammett, who always looks like he's giving his all). I was about ready to swear off the band completely at that point, including following through on my long-threatened destruction of my copies of their albums. It was as though Metallica's long, slow descent into crummy was done to attack me personally (at least that's how I saw it), and I was prepared to finally respond in kind.

The only thing that could've saved us was, in fact, the very thing that saved us (well, not so much a "thing" as a "person"): Rick Rubin. The man who made me pretend to care about Linkin Park again, the man who altered my relationship with Slipknot from casual to committed (it's since lapsed - I haven't even had a chance, or a desire, to listen to their new album, but it's not Rubin's fault) was the only man that could reawaken my long-slumbering affection for Metallica. When it was announced that he would be producing the as-yet-untitled new Metallica album, I was able to hold out a shred of hope that things might turn around for the band, and as a result, for my connection to the band.

Let's backtrack a smidge. Metallica had virtually nothing to do with my desire to learn to play the guitar, they were never my favorite of the heavy metal bands with which I became obsessed in high school (and through high school, and into college, and through college, and up until now, if we're being honest), and they've not influenced any of the work that I do in any meaningful way. So, why has the decline and fall of Metallica (with a resurrection yet to come? Read on) remained lodged thoroughly enough in my mind that it's occupied me, off and on, for years? They were, very much, my gateway into the world of fast guitars, faster drumming, and vocals more screamed than sung; they were my... first, if you will. Your first time always has a special place in your heart, you know. They showed me what pure rock fury was really capable of accomplishing; James, Kirk, Cliff and Lars taught me what you could do if you were courageous enough to play around with what was "expected" of music (maybe they did have some sort of impact on my work...).

So, we're here now, with Death Magnetic (this may produce some bad karma for me, but it's better to be honest than to shade the truth - I have not paid anyone for the priviledge of listening to the new Metallica album, and I never will. As a permanent "fuck you" to the band, I refuse to ever again pay for one of their records, even the ones that I may not own that came out before the disaster occurred), what Metallica did when Rick Rubin told them to write the parts of Master of Puppets that were never written. I've listened to it enough that I can finally articulate an opinion on it.

Let's start with the good: it's ambitious as hell. Not a track on the record is under 5 minutes in length (just like, well, Master of Puppets). "Suicide & Redemption" is nearly 10 minutes long. It doesn't sound to me like they've lost a step, technically; if anything, age has probably honed their chops well enough that they're as good now as they've ever been. The fury's still present in the music (that is, it doesn't sound like they're going through the motions); heavy metal trades on "emotionality" (as RDJ might say) quite heavily, and the music drips with exactly that (solos! Actual, honest-to-God guitar solos! Sometimes more than one per song!).

However, even with all that, it's still pretty bland. I couldn't pick out a song that I liked (though I could certainly name one I disliked - "The Unforgiven III," because the last thing that the already-pushing-into-cartoonish heavy metal genre really needs is sequels to songs), or even portions of songs that stick in my head. As Matt Dillon said in Singles, it's beer and lifestyle music, like well-designed bottles of bleach. It doesn't mean anything to me, and while I wish the fact that it clearly means something to them was enough to pull me in, it's not.

While I say ambition is something to be encouraged, most of the tracks on Death Magnetic may well be too ambitious for their own good. "The Judas Kiss," for instance, is too fucking long by at least one verse and most of a guitar solo. The opening track, "That Was Just Your Life," also slogs on well past the point that it's worn out its welcome. The instrumental track, "Suicide & Redemption," is placed so late in the album that my attention had wandered so thoroughly that I didn't even notice it was the instrumental track until it was nearly finished on my first listen. Sadly, "My Apocalypse" is actually probably the tightest song on the album...

A lot's been made about the mixing on the record, about how it sucks ass, and it does. Sure, the production value's a lot higher than it was on, say, ...And Justice For All, but the flatness of the mix and the inexcusable clipping make for an obnoxious listening experience (and they can't even use the "recorded on inferior equipment" excuse these days).

I think the best way to sum this all up is to go back to a previous point, about how Rubin told Metallica to make the unwritten second half of Master of Puppets. While looking back to past triumphs and attempting to derive meaning and inspiration from them is obviously a useful exercise, I think it was pretty pointless in 2008. Master of Puppets came out in 1986, 22 years ago. Metallica's not the same band it was 22 years ago, and the guys in the band aren't the same guys they were 22 years ago. It's tough enough to recapture magic night after night to perform in front of a crowd, but to do it in a studio... I'll put this another way: let's say Kurt Cobain had lived to see today, that Nirvana was, in some form or another, still a viable entity. Let's say Cobain felt the need to refresh himself as an artist, and did what most mainstream artists do these days; he got himself a record producer that would force him to work outside his comfort zone (for the sake of argument, let's say that producer was Rick Rubin). What if Rubin told him to write the second half of Nevermind? Could Cobain honestly put himself in the same frame of mind that he was in 17, 18 years ago?

When faced with a challenge like that, the only thing, I think, you could reasonably do is enact some sort of meditation on the prior work, fashion some sort of a reaction to what you'd produced two decades ago. I don't think Death Magnetic is that at all (and "Unforgiven III" is nothing close to a response to its predecessors - its only significance is the fact that it shares a name with two prior Metallica songs. It lacks even the rudimentary self-awareness of the second song: "or are you unforgiven too?"), and were you to judge it solely on those merits, it would fail miserably.

Maybe this is a harbinger of good things to come from Metallica. If they've got themselves in the right playing mindset, all that needs to happen is for them to be in the correct writing state. Heavy metal's always been obsessed with death and destruction; the fact that these middle-aged guys put out an album that touches on all the usual metal bases is nothing significant. If there's a next time, and there's a progression from the base they laid down here, they need to push outside their comfort zone while simultaneously drawing on it (given that they've been doing this for decades); something that uses Metallica's past to point them toward the future. Reliving your glory days doesn't help you move forward, and that may very well be my strongest objection to this record.

16 September 2008

united fucking nations

I have had a plan, for several years now, to start a band. I've had a plan like this, in one form or another, since high school, but this time I'm serious. Eventually, this band will form, and it will kick fucking ass.

The name comes from a unit in a video game that I've tried my hardest to appreciate, but that I just can't ever get into: Civilization (to tangent, and thus explain, I should say that I'm uncomfortable devoting the better part of a day to playing a single level of a game at this, the ripe old age of 24). The name of this unit is the Modern Infantry, and thus, is the name of my band. You can view our MySpace page, if you like, and listen to two songs I arranged on my computer about two years ago.

The songs themselves are not all that representative of what I want the band's music to sound like. An name like Modern Infantry sort of demands a position at the vanguard of music, the most cutting-edge of cutting edge, which is a difficult enough proposition when you yourself are a skilled musician surrounded with skilled musicians, but it becomes an infinitely more difficult goal when you're not a musician of note under even the most generous of definitions. I want it to push boundaries, to be ridiculously far ahead of its time, like the Refused's The Shape of Punk to Come, or Botch's We Are The Romans, or Converge's Jane Doe, music that calls attention to itself and demands total engagement, because anything less will result in a demonization of the music as "noise."

The problem with this self-imposed requirement, the ambitiousness of it, is that it's directly at war with the purpose of the music, the message that I want it to convey, which, while not necessarily one of outright rebellion against evil authority, should at least be one of warning, one that urges people to keep their eyes open and their attention paid, because we can see right now what happens when the public falls asleep and disengages, and we have to do everything we can to prevent that from happening again. I want Modern Infantry to inject itself into the public discourse, to get some people talking and thinking, and perhaps get those people to lead others towards the realm of civic responsibility and active thought and debate, and that's difficult to do when your music limits its audience severely. "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Fortunate Son" are politically charged songs that've lived on, at least in part, because of their... musical accessibility, shall we say. So, if I were to alter the form of Modern Infantry's music, but not the content, it's possible that the message could make its way out to more people, making a greater impact.

The beauty of what I'm going to refer to as "hardcore" is that the music can really reflect the primal, unrestrained fury that the people making it feel. There's a sort of purity to this kind of music, and it's the best way that I can think to articulate how I feel about the gross abuse of power that we've been living with for the last eight years, and that I fear we're going to face in the future if we don't all wake the fuck up and try to do something to change the situation. Let's not forget what happened to the good Prince of Denmark when he delayed action; we don't want to follow in his footsteps.

The point that I'm coming to now is this: when you have a good idea like this, you need to devote time to getting it off the ground, because, eventually, someone more successful/talented than you will have a similar idea, and make it happen. The case in point? United Nations, the brainchild of Daryl Palumbo (Glassjaw's vocalist, a band I never felt strongly about, one way or another) and Geoff Rickly (Thursday's vocalist, a band that I've never cared for in the slightest). Insofar as there can be an underground grindcore supergroup, United Nations is a grindcore supergroup, featuring not just the guys from Glassjaw and Thursday, but also (potentially - apparently due to contract-related garbage, other members of the band can be neither confirmed nor denied) members of The Number 12 Looks Like You, Made Out Of Babies, Isis, and Converge.

It'd be foolish of me to not post, in its entirety, the track listing for the album, so here we go:


1. The Spinning Heart of the Yo-Yo Lobby
2. Resolution #9
3. No Sympathy for a Sinking Ship
4. The Shape of Punk that Never Came
5. My Cold War
6. Model UN
7. Filmed in Front of a Live Studio Audience
8. Revolutions in Graphic Design
9. I Keep Living the Same Day
10. Subliminal Testing
11. Say Goodbye to General Figment of the USS Imagination

In case the track listing doesn't do all of my work for me right off the bat, the pictures of the band members wearing the Ronald Reagan Halloween masks over their faces should. They're clearly not happy about the direction in which things are going, and I sure as hell can sympathize. However, they're clearly going about voicing their displeasure in a healthier way than I'd planned to; they're doing it with their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks.

Take, for instance, the first track. While I've listened to so much of this music in the last few years that none of it can unnerve me in the slightest (in truth, most of it causes me to burst out laughing, precisely because it's so over the top emotionally and lyrically, rather like black metal), sometimes it can still grab me in a significant way. The noise, and the way the noise is layered, in "The Spinning Heart of the Yo-Yo Lobby" is as potent and powerful as any a song I'm going to hear this year. The barking, the yelling, the squealing of the guitars... Beautiful, in a way.

Another virtue of many of these "-core" songs is their brevity (my second Shakespeare reference in this post. Might be a record for the blog thus far). With the exception of the last track, none of the songs on the album cross the four-minute mark, and only one of them goes over three minutes. As the last eight years has shown me, it's tough to keep up really righteous fury for a long period of time ("indignance burnout" is the term I've used to describe it), so the short, burst-y nature of the UN album suits what it's trying to accomplish just fine.

It doesn't really let up, either ("The Shape of Punk that Never Came" is obviously the best song that the Refused never wrote), with the exception of a few moments in "Filmed in Front of a Live Studio Audience" and the last minutes of "Say Goodbye to General Figment of the USS Imagination" (thank goodness for saxophone solos - one of the best things that Yakuza has incorporated into their music, and now it's migrated over to the UN record), the record is 27ish minutes of pure, primal (goofy?) fury. It's everything that I wanted Modern Infantry to be, and so much more.

This is easily among the best records I've heard all year (certainly up there with R.E.M.'s new album, and Randy Newman's, as a blasting of the terrible direction the world's taken during the reign of George II), and it features some of the most impressive cover art (see below) I've seen in a long time. They're not taking any prisoners, and I think there's something to be admired in that. It's ambition with focus, with drive, with passion, all of which sets it apart from the new Metallica album (more on that later).


Oh, and I haven't given up on Modern Infantry. I just need to rethink it (again).

The long, slow march towards conventionality (or, the inevitable decline and fall of the Phoenix Suns)

I don't think I could ever actually swear off basketball entirely, particularly after the last two (okay, three) years, where a game that had stagnated under the weight of boring-as-hell teams to watch like the Detroit Pistons and the San Antonio Spurs finally brought back some of the fun. D-Wade killing himself on the floor to win that championship (sure, maybe the refs were right there with him – those were too many free throws for any human being to make in any game, unless they're playing Bill Laimbeer's Combat Basketball – but he won a championship for one of my all-time, all-time favorite players, Alonzo Mourning) might've been the image burned into most everybody's brain, but for me, the only thing that mattered was Steve Nash (MVP!) and the Phoenix Suns.

That was the year the Suns really got around to playing basketball the way it was meant to be played: with heart, and with soul. Nash, the man with eyes on every side of his head (not just the front and back); Shawn Marion, the insecure hero who'll still do anything asked of him; Amare Stoudemire, the super-athlete man-child; Leandro Barbosa, who I kind of hope makes his way to New York so he can run the latest incarnation of the D'Antoni offense; Raja Bell, the gritty heart of the team... Those Suns were magic on the court, and somehow moreso precisely because they didn't win it all (if you haven't gotten around to reading Jack McCallum's “Seven Seconds Or Less” - about the 2005-06 Suns team – you really should take the time); that might have something to do with the “imagine what could've been” mystique that shrouds teams that fall short of their apparently limitless potential.

Anybody that says that “fundamental” basketball is more fun to watch than run-and-gun, risky, emotionally exhilarating/exhausting basketball is either lying or completely untrustworthy. Anybody who didn't jump out of their chair/couch when the Suns (incoming pun) caught fire and went on one of their trademarked unbroken scoring runs by playing gutsy, ballsy basketball doesn't understand the beauty that's inherent in the game (though, if it happened to your team, a different reaction might be excusable). The aesthetics of fundamentals pale in comparison to a no-look, alley-oop pass.

In a lot of ways, the 2005-06 season was when my basketball-watching experience peaked. The return of the fast-break, up-tempo philosophy that'd fallen by the wayside long ago injected into the game not just a sense of excitement, but one of almost old-fashioned idealism, a return to the good old days, if you will (seeing as how I wasn't alive for them, I'm viewing them through even more thoroughly rose-colored glasses than most). I had this inappropriate hope that maybe, just maybe, the Suns were going to herald a sea change in the National Basketball Association, that the fast-break would run through the league like wildfire. Perhaps this was a sign of a better world to come (and in this world, we needed all the hope we could get).

It was aided and abetted the next year by the improbable run of the Baron Davis-led, Nellieball-playing Golden State Warriors, who returned to prominence and relevance by throwing caution to the wind and just playing basketball. Watching their systematic dismantling of the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs, as they took control of the series and never looked back, allowed me to hope that I was right; sure, the revolution was going to take a while (many do), but once the Suns and the Warriors and their brothers-in-arms had finished remaking the league in their own image, we could finally say goodbye to plodding, creep-along basketball that had driven me, and so many like me, past the point of disinterest in the NBA, and basketball in general.

All of those hopes and dreams came crashing down with one simple hip-check. You know the one I'm talking about (and if you don't, a simple search for “Cheap Shot Rob” on YouTube will enlighten you). Grace, beauty, and style were driven out by artless physical domination. “The beginning of the end” is what I've come to call it.

It's not unreasonable that the Suns decided they needed to “get tougher” after losing in the playoffs to the Spurs once again; Horry's classless dropping of Nash to the floor exemplified the Achilles' heel of my hoped-for revolution in style: when finding yourself facing an opponent wielding a baseball bat, if you're holding an epee, you're going to have to fight perfectly in order to win. When all your enemy needs is one good shot to take you out, they're going to wait for their best opportunity. As much as I hate to admit it, the Suns played scared for the rest of that series, and that, as much as the suspensions of Stoudemire and Diaw, lost it for them.

I think there's a difference between physical toughness and mental toughness, and the Suns let that escape them. Anyone could see that they needed more players like Raja Bell, scrappy guys that never let the opposition get in their head, not like Brian Skinner, who can push people around and maybe get a rebound or two, but who contribute virtually nothing to the team's overall philosophy of scoring as many points as you can as quickly as you can. But, given that this is not a perfect world, where the things I dearly hope for very rarely happen (Firefly, anyone?), the Suns got tougher in precisely the wrong way, and it cost them. They started down the slippery slope to being a “conventional” basketball team, and there are too many of those as it is.

I don't actually want this to be taken as a condemnation of the Shaq trade, because I thought it was a fantastic idea at the time. Part of this, obviously, harkens back to Bill Simmons' long-running “No Balls Association” joke: since they were obviously moving away from D'Antoni's fast-break strategy, but not quickly enough to make a discernible difference – and the only thing that drives me crazier than conventional basketball is a half-assed commitment to fast-break ball – they might as well roll the dice and try to redefine their entire team in one stroke, but there was more to it. I saw this Shaq trade, strange as it might be, as some actual long-term planning. One thing the Suns clearly lacked was a good tutor for their big man, and it showed. Amare does, and did, a great job in covering up his lapses in skill with ridiculous athletic prowess, but he wouldn't be able to do that forever. Shaq could teach him how to compete when his body started to slow down on him, how to use his head to compliment the rest of his game. Shaq could show Amare how to be a better big man, which would contribute greatly to that overriding goal of getting Steve Nash a championship.

Clearly, since we're here, and I'm writing this piece, it didn't work out immediately, and the window's closed another year further. They had to give up The Matrix to bring Shaq over from Miami, and while I'm certain that I wouldn't like Marion as a person if we ever had to interact with one another, I can't deny his talent, or his skill, as a player. His future ceiling is a lot higher than Shaq's, and his most natural replacement, the ever-unreliable Boris Diaw, I can't imagine ever filling me with confidence (you never know whether gamebreaker Boris or invisible Boris will show up). The worst part, obviously, is the departure of the architect of the whole grand scheme, Mike D'Antoni. If his fast-break didn't leave with him, it's sure to become a far more ancillary piece of the puzzle that Steve Kerr and his staff are trying to put together. I just despair that this team I love is going to get disassembled piece by piece; D'Antoni put together an unconventional team that's incapable of playing conventional basketball. That was what made them special, what made them worth watching and remembering.

I can't make anything resembling a prediction for this season yet; I'm going to have to wait and see if Coach Porter and his staff are going to let Nash and his compatriots languish in a system designed to stifle them, or if they'll let them cut loose one more time and give them all the tools they can to succeed where the nouveau fast-break mastermind failed. I know what I'm hoping for.

Oh, and it doesn't help one little bit that Baron bolted from the Warriors for the Clippers. I guess no one's commitment to the best sort of basketball is absolute.


And by virtue of the fact that the comment I received on this article (??) is brilliantly hysterical, I'm including it, and my 2-part response, for the sake of posterity:

by dirty at Oct 04 2008 02:54 pm

This article pisses me off.... i dont even know where to start. Which is why it took me so long to respond to it. I think you should swear off basketball entirely. Where were you in 04-05 (ok three years) fuck you. That was the best team we had. We would have won if JJ did not break his face, are you kidding me. One of your all time fav players is ZO? unless you have one kidney Zo should not be your favorite players. Run and Gun has always been the way the Suns have played, in the late 80's, 92-93 suns that went to the finals, KJ was full throttle all the time. I know Fat ass or Sir Charles clogged the lane in the half court set, but he could still run. J-Kidd and Antonio Mcdyess doing half court ally-oops. There was even a year when the suns had J-kidd, KJ, and Nash, all on the team at the same time. 05-06 was the year your basketball watching peaked. Um Amare was injured the whole year..... and i dont know why you wouldnt like Trix as a person. To me the problem was with Amare but the team had to side with Amare cause he is the franchise. And the overriding goal of getting nash a championship. Who the fuck cares about getting nash a championship. What about the city the fans, Jerry, all the former players. This franchise has never won a championship. it is much bigger than NASH. So no the suns are not going to fall or decline. We still have STAT. Sorry but this article just seemed like a fair weather fans critique..... and it really made me upset.
by Phil W at Oct 14 2008 09:33 am

I think there's a difference between a "fair weather fan" and a recent fan, and I'm more in the latter category. I've lived and died with this team for a couple of years now, so while I may not have all the decades of emotional investment that you apparently have, I've been right there with you for a while now. I'd like to think that means that there's more than brings us together than drives us apart, but, you know, it's not like we'll ever actually meet, so it doesn't matter all that much.

"Best team" doesn't necessarily correlate with "best season." Any Patriots fan could tell you that. I enjoyed '05-'06 best; I'm sorry if that's "wrong" somehow. Just my opinion.

And what if I did have focal segmental glomerular sclerosis and had to get a kidney transplant? Do you have something against people with one kidney? For the record, Alonzo's one of my favorite because of NBA Jam: TE. When I wanted to win, and handily, I played as Charlotte, and that was because of Alonzo. And because the man has an awesome voice.
A long-time fan such as yourself probably doesn't need to read a book about his team to attain a better understanding of them, but a recent convert does, which is why I read McCallum's book. That, buddy, is where I get the impression than Shawn and I wouldn't get along. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think so.

I also think you missed the point of the title, that it refers to a specific sort of run-and-gun that I think is going to slowly fade away with Coach D'Antoni's departure. That's depressing to me, because that's precisely what brought me back to basketball, for good or for ill. Amare's presence, or lack thereof, has little to do with that (and, by the way, I don't think anyone should be allowed to give themselves a nickname).

And I, by the way, care about getting Steve a championship. If I could develop a massage technique that'd relieve some of his back pain, I would.

Oh, one more thing. I think it weakens your entire argument when you "apologize" at the end of your posting. If you're going to tell me to fuck off and die and never write a single word about your team ever again, don't end by saying, "I'm sorry, but you just made me so upset..." End by restating your point that I should fuck off and die and never write a single word about your team ever again.

15 September 2008

when it makes sense


Great though my love for No Country For Old Men is (and it's not all that great - were I given a choice between watching it, or The Big Lebowski, or O Brother!, or Fargo, or Barton Fink, or even, probably Blood Simple or Intolerable Cruelty, No Country would lose every time), I was jonesing for the Cohens to get back to form. If anybody could stay true to themselves after winning the ultimate in popular artisitic validation awards (and whether or not the Oscar is just that is very, very debatable, but let's just say it is for the moment), it'd be Joel and Ethan Cohen. They did it once before (Fargo to Lebowski), and I knew they could do it again.

Enter Burn After Reading, the movie I'd been waiting to see for nearly two months, ever since the "Red Band" trailer made an appearance on iTunes (a similar situation occurred with Tropic Thunder, and while I think I'd like to see it again, just to confirm my suspicions about it, I'm still pretty sure I'll be underwhelmed again). Those two or so minutes of footage confirmed what I'd hoped, that the taut, lean tension of No Country was going to be counteracted by pure, unleashed ridiculous. George Clooney mugging as confidently as only our generation's Cary Grant can, Frances McDormand biting into another self-conscious, self-confident bag of contradictions, John Malkovich being, well, John Malkovich, and Brad Pitt throwing every drop of his cool away and replacing it with ass-dumb stupidity.

J.K. Simmons! J. Jonah Jameson, Verne Schillinger, Mac MacGuff, Emil Skoda! And Richard Jenkins! Nathaniel Fischer!

I really don't want to relay the plot of the movie, because attempting to bring order to the beautiful, nearly incomprehensible chaos that is Burn After Reading seems somewhat counterproductive to me. Revealing the fact that we don't even meet Linda and Chad (McDormand and Pitt) until we're much farther into the movie that I'd expected doesn't really reveal any insight into how I felt about it (the movie). Making a comparison between Burn and Pyscho, while apt (perhaps), isn't really justifiable, and may well be lazy.

It touches upon all of the hoped-for Cohen bases (sex, violence, loyalty, betrayal, commitment, confusion), includes the requisite bizarrely quotable lines ("Hello? Anybody lose their secret CIA shit?", "I'm not here representing Hard Bodies," or "Think I got time to get a run in"), and the nonsensical tangents (like that chair that Clooney's character puts together).

While it's not in the same league as the top-shelf movies Joel and Ethan have put out, it's more than satisfying, particularly for someone who's as endeared towards their comedy as I've forever been. If great actors playing great characters is one of the things that makes a great movie (or so says John Madden's cousin, Jon Madden), then Burn After Reading is, at the very least, a good movie, or a fun one. And it ends exactly when and where it needs to (unlike, say, almost every other movie that has/will come out this year).

belief in gosh

I wish I'd been able to fashion a better reaction to the new Hedberg album, Do You Believe in Gosh?, but here's all I've got:

- I think it's the second-best of his albums (better than Mitch All Together, but still not anywhere close to the awesome peak of Strategic Grill Locations), because it's kind of a happy medium between the bookending pair: many of the jokes are rough and imperfect, and his nervousness regarding that is absolutely palpable, but he's also grown more comfortable onstage, so his delivery is smoother and a little more intense. Mitch was at his best, I think, when he wasn't at his best. His act wasn't anything close to an act, so when it was honest, slippery, stilted, and even scared shitless, that was when it was the most enjoyable. For me, anyway.

- The track entitled "Phil" was misleading. It is not, in fact, a long joke about a guy named Phil (his name is my name, too!) but a conversation between Hedberg and a guy in the audience whose name turns out to not be Phil. Confusing, and somewhat damaging to hopes.

- I think he was demonstrating a clearly maturing trajectory as a comic. His jokes were getting more intricate, more layered, moving away a little bit from the strictly absurdist-seeming one-liners and into the realm of the building, repeatedly peaking, payoff-providing joke. Thankfully, he hadn't started to move away from the cursing; I so enjoy his cursing ("The wolf'd huff and puff, and fuck shit up").

- My hope that heaven exists has been rejuvenated (if it doesn't, how am I going to get to have conversations with all of these people that died before I got the opportunity to speak to them?).

- It's a Mitch Hedberg album. Even the worst one is miles better than a Dane Cook record.

14 September 2008

new noise

Well, after passing up advertisement after advertisement on Craigslist soliciting for writers for startup webpages, I finally decided to answer one this past week. Biased-sports.com, a site that deals with exactly what you'd expect it to (and looked like it might welcome writers with a sense of humor), had put out a call for writers; I figured I'd answer it. I'm decent at arranging words on a page, after all. My message was pretty informal, just offering up my interest and my ability, if their interest matched mine.

I received a reply from the guy who runs it pretty quickly, asking for some kind of a writing sample. Truth be told, I don't spend a whole lot of time writing about sports in my free time, but I did somehow have the foresight to type this up earlier in the year, so I sent it along with my next message, and encouraged him to peruse the blog in its entirety if he wanted to get an idea of my writing style. Amazingly enough, a set of paragraphs mourning the Pats' loss (and not one celebrating it) was actually good enough for me to get invited to join the writing staff of the website.

I've not gone into great detail regarding the depths of my disapproval for the way the NBA leadership handled the eventual departure of the Seattle SuperSonics for parts unknown this summer, but it runs deep. To take a former championship team, in a city where ties to the franchise run deep, from a great, magical town and dump it in Oklahoma City is one thing, but to allow it to happen without a modicum of interference from the head(s) of the NBA is another thing. Clay Bennett's thievery of the 'Sonics sets a bad precedent for professional sports around the county (1 - want to move the team you just bought back to your hometown? Make a lot of unreasonable demands and bitch a lot, and eventually everyone'll get so sick of you that you'll be allowed to leave; 2 - Taxpayers can now be expected to foot the 9+ figure bill for the cost of new facilities - which they still have to pay to enter, by the way - to allow millionaire athletes and the super-rich that own their teams play games against other wealthy athletes and owners).

I certainly can't lay claim to the origination of the monicker "Oklahoma City Robber Barons" for the "new" basketball franchise in the OKC, but I think I used it pretty effectively here - my first "article" for Biased Sports. As usual, comedy is my best outlet for frustration, and clearly, it was decent enough for the powers that be to print (my writing was good enough for the Internet!).

I'm shooting for producing another sports-related comedy article once a week for as long as I can keep it up. With the other 17 or 18 people that are on the writing staff for the site, I think the future's bright. If nothing else, it's another venue for my writing, and that's never a bad thing.

12 September 2008

NBA Training Camp Preview: Oklahoma City Robber Barons

This was my initial attempt at a sports comedy article. While it might not be "good" in a conventional sense, I think it does a decent job of illustrating my long-standing point about committing to the joke (who the hell else writes nearly a full page of of jokes based on the Captains of Industry).

We all know that the Team Formerly Known As The SuperSonics departed for markets far less exploited this summer, but the action and adventure hasn't stopped there. The flurry of activity down at the J.P. Morgandome, in preparation for the tipoff of training camp, far outstrips even that of the Federal Reserve as it examines applications from dozens of businesses, all vying for taxpayer bailout. In a brief interview with one of the team's Senior Basketball Officials, we learned the following:

- Kevin Durant, on recommendation from Coach P.J. Carlesimo, has been pouring over David Nasaw's biography “Andrew Carnegie” all summer. Our source confirmed the longstanding rumor that Carlesimo and assistant Paul Westhead plan to run a “vertically integrated” offense through Durant this year, allowing the former University of Texas star complete control over the production and distribution of points on the floor. Whether Nick Collison and Jeff Green will be able to feed the team's demand is a question that, as of yet, appears to be unaddressed. An interview with Durant is scheduled for next week.

- Rebuffed, but not dissuaded, from his offers to form a “basketball partnership” with Denver Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Robber Barons owner Clay Bennett has put his staff into motion with orders to purchase the businesses that provide essential services to the Nuggets' Pepsi Center and the Mavericks' American Airlines Center (not limited to, but including, custodial and concessional services), in order to place more pressure on his erstwhile allies. Bennett is said to hope that he might be able to force his competition into such an untenable state that they cede their position in the National Basketball Association, departing as sources of athletic competition.

- The explosion in season ticket purchases after the announcement of the team's relocation has not come without cost; the speed at which the sales occurred, and subsequent purchases of tickets to individual games, generated a fear at the highest levels of Professional Basketball Club LLC that demand at reselling services (like StubHub) could “water” the value of the tickets, resulting in a net loss of income for the Robber Barons. Plans to charge upwards of $300 for single-game tickets were quickly reversed when sales to Robber Barons games slowed in concert with their NBADL affiliate club, the Tulsa Strikebreakers, record-breaking surge in ticket purchases.

Extra-special thanks to kaseymoody@yahoo.com for the fantastic Photoshop job.

09 September 2008

sometimes fantasy really is more intersting than reality

Casting Will Smith becomes controversial?

Okay, so it turns out it wasn't real, but I'm going to spend a little time today seriously considering this. Captain America has been, for as long as I can remember, my absolute favorite superhero (that's probably over 18 years at this point), so while I'm not as qualified to comment on it as, say, Paul Dini, Mark Waid or one of Jack Kirby's children/grandchildren, I've been sufficiently emotionally invested in the guy for over 3/4 of my life. I honestly think I settled on him because of the shield, initially; I had a big thing for shields when I was little.

Steven Rogers, declared 4-F (unfit for service) when he volunteered to join the Army during the darkest days of WWII, until Project: Rebirth and the Super Soldier Serum entered the picture. They rebuilt him, made him better, faster, stronger... They had the technology (up until the point that the serum's inventor was killed by Nazi spies), and when his physique matched up with his willpower, Steve Rogers became Captain America, and led the U.S. Army and its allies in the European theater of war until he was captured by the Red Skull (the Reich's answer to the ultimate embodiment of everything that made America great - interesting that Steve's a blonde-haired, blue-eyed fellow, traditionally - more on that in a second) and presumed dead, until he's discovered by the Avengers (or S.H.I.E.L.D., depending on if you're looking at traditional or Ultimate continuity, I suppose), floating frozen in a block of ice in the North Atlantic. Thawed out of his icy tomb, Captain America re-emerges like an Arthur Pendragon for the New World, returning when his people need him most.

Now, let's consider this a bit more carefully, and dig a bit deeper than a recounting of Captain America's origin story (skipping over Steve's time as Nomad, or the Captain, or his recent assassination...). Steve Rogers is a New Deal liberal, dedicated to all of the true and pure American ideals, literally the American ubermensch (obviously, from a specific perspective, but it's one that I share). He was designed to be, in part, a tool of propaganda for the War Office - a man dressed in red, white and blue chainmail isn't going to be performing covert assassinations and acts of sabotage (that's what his sidekick, the young James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes, was for - at least, according to the updated continuity provided in Ed Brubaker's still-going run, which easily ranks among the best 3+ years of comic books I've ever read). Captain America participated in large-scale operations, often as a member of the Invaders, an international group of superheroes working alongside the Allies (Great Britain's Union Jack and Atlantis' Prince Namor were among the members).

Now, imagine that, instead of an Aryan leading the charge at the battle of Normandy, it was, say, Jesse Owens, or someone that looked like him. That's what would have been at stake with the casting of Mr. Smith as the lead in Captain America: The First Avenger.

Let me get this out of the way before I go any further: I believe, with all of my heart, that Nathain Fillion, Captain Malcolm Reynolds, Sherrif Bill Pardy, should play Steve Rogers. He has the physicality (both the brawniness and in his gift for playing injured), the look (again, brawny, square-jawed, the perfect American man, if he weren't Canadian), the smarts (much like Superman, Cap has to be able to play the weak, mortal man when he's not in character - there's not a whole lot that separates Clark Kent from Private Steve Rogers, when you get down to it) and the delivery (key among Cap's various skills is his "speechifying" - in the Iron Man book Operation: AIM, Tony Stark describes his friend as the only man who can fight off a horde of supervillains while disarming a bomb and outdoing the Gettysburg Address simultaneously). If addressed correctly, the part of Captain America will be extraordinarily demanding for any actor that can physically fit the bill. Fillion can do all of those things, and well.

Casting Will Smith as Steve Rogers (if that'd still be his name in Will Smith is... Captain America: The First Avenger) is not simply a "flying the face of 60+ years of comics continuity" action, as many knee-jerk reactors on the Internet might have you believe. It would, in fact, have been a spectacularly gutsy maneuver, with the potential to redefine what a comic book movie is capable of doing and saying. They would've cast a black man as the ultimate emobdiment of America, or at least what America thought it could be in the 1940s; they'll be making him into a symbol that every man, woman, and child in the United States was supposed to strive towards. A black man would be leading the charge against the Nazis, with companies of men behind him, men still serving in segregated units, men who, in some cases, probably agreed with Hitler's ideas on racial purity. Hell, some men who had familial ties to the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. And the man expected to be the first one to put his boots on the ground would be the descendant of people brought to America by force and thrown into slavery.

That's so forward-thinking and idealistic as to be almost absurd.

I remember hearing, back when the Ultimates line was getting started, that Brian Michael Bendis & company were talking about "casting" Captain America as a black man. I remember the outcry from the nerd community; most everyone is so married to history and continuity that to change any essential element of it is always met with vicious disapproval. I would say that 99.9987% of the people that reacted negatively to that story did so because of that sort of attitude; no one with a brain, or an interest in good storytelling, decried the idea of the black Captain America because he would be, well, a black Captain America. The same thing wound up happening when the Will Smith story was still flying around as a legitimate possibility.

If this decision had actually been made, it could not have been made lightly. It would have changed the entire substance of the movie, and made it about something, in the truest sense of the word. And the number of doors that would've been thrown open for the Avengers movie, when Smith's Steve Rogers awakens in this world, well, it almost boggles the mind (how would that Steve Rogers react? If you want to talk about conflicting emotions, it would probably have been a case study). It completely redefines the relationship between Cap and Nick Fury, as well as that between Steve and his closest modern-day ally, Sam Wilson, the Falcon. Rogers'll have to lean even heavier on his compatriots when he can't fathom the myriad changes in 21st century America.

In this world, Will Smith's Captain America could well have been a source of inspiration for leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X; both men would've been able to draw on his example in their battles for social change. Through the fault of the Nazis, Steve wound up missing out on what he might well consider the greatest battle of his life. The speed at which change occurred, and at which it's still occurring, is mindboggling enough to someone my age; just imagine what it might do to him.

My mind is spinning with the possibilities.

I think I'm disappointed to find out that it was just a rumor, with no substance to it at all. I think a great American hero deserves to have his story told in a way that demands greater attention and understanding, that provokes thought and discussion and genuine consideration. Captain America, starring Will Smith, would've done exactly that. Captain America, starring Nathan Fillion, has to focus its vision somewhere else, and can't pose the same sorts of questions. It'll just have to utilize the traditional questions and conflicts that Cap's always addressed, but it'll have to be better, just to make up for the fact that I'll always be asking myself what could've been.

Of course, Marvel is a business, with a vested interest in the bottom line. They don't portray themselves as agents of social commentary or change (despite, well, the X-Men, to name one example); their priority with the Captain America movie is not to talk about the role of race in America in the last 60 years. But I don't see why it shouldn't be.

04 September 2008

ah, chuck's bringing it down...

I almost hope this is a sign that he's going to be the 2Pac of comedy...

I didn't know anything about Mitch Hedberg until a little over a year ago, when Comedy Central started to make its "Comedy Central Presents..." standup series available for download over XBox Live. My best friend loves his comedy, and when he found out that I hadn't ever heard anyone enumerate the differences between Smokey the Bear and Smackey the Frog, well, we lost a good half an hour almost instantly.

To be perfectly honest, I fell in love with him instantly. Hedberg was, and probably still is, the anti-Dane Cook. I don't just mean that Hedberg was funny, unlike the "Vicious Cycle" Cook (who, to his credit, was at least tolerable in Dan In Real Life), but that he was authentic. Hedberg didn't have a single shred of pretense about him; the guy you saw on stage, I still contend, was probably a lot like the guy you'd have wanted to sit around and bullshit with. His jokes, ridiculous, inane and simple though they might've been, came from a real and honest place. When he said, "I haven't slept for ten days, because that would be too long," you could tell, at a very basic level, that he told that joke because he believed in it. He wasn't trying to play this guy, this "Mitch Hedberg" in his act; he was a shy, nervous, thoughtful guy who told jokes. Incredible jokes.

Strategic Grill Locations, I believe, is a significantly better album than the one that followed it, Mitch All Together. The reason is simple, because it's one I've already stated before: it's far more honest. He's a nervous wreck in the first album, and he does a poor job of masking it. Like many people, Hedberg turned to self-deprecation as a way to mask embarassment; like with all of those people, the tactic is transparent.

He made a running gag out of threatening to edit his audience's laughter, to make a whole "joke of unfunny jokes," as he put it. With most comics, such an admission would probably only have served to undermine the immediacy of stand-up; the form depends on the link between the performer and the audience. There is nothing else to stand-up, that's why it's pure. Altering the record of the event in any way would weaken it, even if it were impossible to tell. I think Hedberg understood that, which is why his jokes about damaging the record of his concert went over well.

The anticipation may well drive me crazy; the prospect of new-to-me Hedberg jokes is almost more than I'm able to bear. I suppose this means I should have some sort of response to it ready to go shortly after its release. I'll do my best.

03 September 2008

the cycle (part II) - I think I was really meant for comedy, and not drama

I almost hate the fact that I spend twenty minutes looking through my previous postings before I start to write a new entry; I've become so self-referential that I actually need to make links to older postings in the context of new postings (of course, this is one of those "multi-part series" entries, so I can probably excuse myself this one time).

Now that I've gotten that out of the way... here. That post actually links back to another one that's somewhat older, but the points that I make in both of them regarding art (as communication of... something - an idea, an feeling, what have you - and that this desire to communicate, at least with regards to great art, is borne out of some terrible despair, or loneliness, or grief, or some kind of traditionally "negative" emotion. This, as many before me have said, is why comedies don't typically get nominated for, or win, Best Picture Oscars) will prove to be important shortly.

I have long been of the opinion that I am destined, for good or for ill (and that more or less depends on what you personally consider positive or negative), to be alone, well, forever. Not like Emily Dickinson alone, but just lacking that person whose presence improves everything, that "significant other," if you will. I didn't necessarily see a problem with it, because, as I've said before, great art comes from a need to channel terrible, all-consuming feelings in a way that doesn't result in, well, death or psychotic depression. I figured I was more meant for fiction than life.

Maybe I was wrong.

The issue that comes up here is similar to one that Roger Waters posed when he was interviewed on the Dark Side of the Moon DVD that I bought years and years ago. Like with most every other successful band in the history of popular music, Floyd apparently didn't expect the album to blow up as thoroughly as it did. Waters said that he found himself faced with an interesting problem, that he had to decide, now that he had gobs and gobs of money flying his way, whether or not he truly was a socialist (apparently a crisis that faces many people once they stumble into some money). Would he remain true to his ideals, or not?

I find myself in a similar state. Do I hold fast to ideals that have managed to get me, well, not all that far, but at least this far, or do I junk them in favor of the new condition in which I find myself (or, the mysterious third option, do I just do what comes naturally and make ridiculous comedy while, potentially, being happy... at the same time)?

I know what the answer is, don't worry.