Sunday, February 27, 2005

Since my last post, I've finished Fishing With John, the best fishing show ever, and watched the entire Wonderfalls series and the first disc of Firefly.

Fishing With John grew out of John Lurie's home tapes of fishing trips. The premise is simple: Lurie goes fishing with some celebrity in some semi-exotic location. Although it's somewhat of a documentary style, the show takes obvious and usually fun liberties with the truth, and, best of all, Lurie & his guest rarely actually catch fish. It's worth it to see (1) Jim Jarmusch, decked out in Manhattan nightlight black, trying to land a shark off of Long Island, (2) Tom Waits completely lose his cool persona to seasickness on a rusty tugboat in Jamaica (according to the commentary, Waits didn't speak with Lurie for two years afterwards), (3) Matt Dillon -- well, that one's pretty but not much happens, apparently because Dillon didn't want to lose his persona on camera, (4) Willem Defoe trying to convince Lurie to zip their sleeping bags together while ice-fishing in Maine, and (5) Dennis Hopper being Dennis Hopper in Thailand.

Wonderfalls: I watched three of the episodes when they aired on TV (it was cancelled after the fourth) and found the show kinda flat at the time. This DVD collects all of the episodes filmed, most of which were never aired. At least one review said that even if it had been allowed to finish its season, the show would never have caught on, anyway. That might be true, but it also might not. The show grew intensely upon me during the course of these DVDs, starting right about at the fourth episode and going straight through to the end. Let me start with the look of the show: it's easily the most beautifully shot TV show I've ever seen, with bright, saturated colors, sharp lines, and fantastic angles. The writing: although there's mack truck-sized plot holes in the first few episodes (and a few dangling in later episodes), the writers gave the characters intense life and honest relationships. It's also funny and curious enough to be worth a watch. At the end of these 13 episodes, I have no idea where the writers could take the story further, but, that said, Tim Minear and Ben Edlund (both of Angel, the former of Firefly, and the latter of The Tick) are very good at pulling rabbits out of hats, tv-series-wise, and I'm sure they and the other writers & producers could have managed to astound us if given half a chance. Unfortunately, Fox only gave them 4/13th of one.

Firefly (similarly cancelled before its time) also watches better in order (Fox showed them out of order for some reason) thus far. Sure, it has plot holes, too, but it also has a keen imagination and wit that should have been given a chance to flourish. Whither the network equivalent of HBO?

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Books read recently: none.
DVDs viewed recently: The Battle of Algiers (which should be mandatory viewing for high school students in these United States), The Wild Bunch,* Princess Mononoke, a few episodes from Buffy Season Two, the first half of Fishing With John.
TV shows caught recently: Veronica Mars, which may not be up to the standards of The Wire, but remains the best thing on network tv since they cancelled Buffy and Angel. The acting and writing have been excellent overall, and the pacing is typically brilliant. That said, casting Allyson Hannigan as a self-obsessed celebrity-whore sub-Baywatch child-of-famous-actors was incredibly poor casting (unlike the casting of Paris Hilton as a vacuous rich-bitch ninny in an early episode this season, a role in which Hilton shockingly excelled). Hannigan came across as Stoned Willow, and her character will sadly return.

* Although I'm not sure if Li'l Sphere loved the shootout at Agua Verde; he seemed a bit fussy about Pike's death. I explained that the entire scene was both a redemption and the best possible closure for that character, considering that his pipe dreams of settling down were all but impossible for a man like him, but I think Li'l Sphere found certain aspects of the violence more exciting than appalling, which disturbed him. I suggested that it was meant to be both. Li'l Sphere spit up on me in reply. Touché, young man.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Not too much else to note. Busy with the baby. Had a jaundice scare earlier in the week, but it looks like he's fine now.

I did have time to catch The Saddest Music in the World on DVD, which is highly recommended. No new reading in the last week, though.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Li'l Sphere, born February 9, 2005 at approximately 7 pm.

My son weighed 8 lbs even and measured 21 inches. His mom thought she was having Braxton-Hicks contractions when I picked her up at work at 3 pm. We got to the birthing center at 5:30 pm and our boy was born at about 7 pm (I'm still not sure about the time). He had his umbilical cord wrapped twice around his neck, and his mom was going through labor incredibly fast, so she had to push him out as fast as possible. It took her all of four (maybe five) excruciatingly hard pushes. That was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen, and it all seemed like a dream for hours afterwards. We went home at 2 am.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

I'm taking special note of Phil Nugent's blog post about grieving war mothers, which has the rare pleasure of being all of the following: insightful, succinct, honest, emotionally wrenching, and self-evidently true.

Theda Skocpol is smarter than you or me. Which puts her about 60 IQ points above David Brooks:

Although Brooks implies that the Republican Party is the true populist party these days, the party did not adopt the privatization proposal at the urging of voluntary, grass-roots membership associations or a broad-based social movement. Bush got the idea from right-wing think tanks such as the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. What's more, the privatization campaign has been fueled by big-money donors who favor unfettered markets and, in many cases, hope to profit from fees paid by the government to Wall Street for managing the new private accounts. Democrats should no doubt be touched that Brooks is so worried about the challenges our party faces in building broad coalitions and appealing to vast numbers of ordinary citizens -- in both red and blue states. But since 2000, when the need to hang together became starkly clear, Democrats, organized in all kinds of associations, have been trying hard to bridge the concerns of different social constituencies. Still, Democrats do need to take care lest single-issue causes appealing to the privileged take our focus away from broad appeals to average citizens, many of whom have not been to college.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Book #7.

The Strange Death of American Liberalism by H.W. Brands.

I can't remember who recommended this to me, but this guy, a professor at Texas A&M, is one of the worst historians I've ever had the misfortune to read. The fact that he was nominated for a Pulitzer for a previous book fills me with rage and dread. Actually, the fact that he's a tenured professor at a major university while better historians slump along in adjunct positions fills me with rage and dread.

Let's start with his premise, which is presented in the most obnoxiously leading terms possible: liberalism in America, which Professor Brands more-or-less defines as "the belief that large government can help people socially and economically" (not an actual quote, but in the spirit of his reductive bullshit), was a Cold War phenomenon. Professor Brands claims that while America continues to have liberals (and be prepared, because from here on out, liberals are treated as a aggregate that agrees on everything), liberalism as a general political philosophy died with the fall of Russia. Professor Brands attempts to present this neutrally (and I suspect, based on his chapter on the Reagan years, he might be a Joementum-style Democrat), but fails to consider any other definitions of liberalism -- despite acknowledging that the word is ill-defined at best by its own adherents -- and goes on to discount (discount, mind you! From a historian!) the possibility that political alignment with social programs changes over time and with modifications to the program. To Professor Brands, context is nothing.

After the appalling introduction, Professor Brands rushes through recent U.S. history to set up his thesis. Keen eyes will notice that there is not a single human being in the book. Sure, the names of a few presidents get thrown around, primarily to stand in for an Administration, but this book is shockingly thin on evidence. Professor Brands relies on a few historic polls and voting data as a way of telling us what voters (i.e. the whole lot of them), liberals (again, all liberals), and other abstractions were thinking and doing at a certain time. Professor Brands provides no context for these polls. For instance, to "prove" that the American people were opposed to government social spending in 1939, Brands provides the results of a poll telling us that the vast majority thought the government was spending too much. Who do you think was answering polls in 1939? Do you think they were hitting the labor camps or migrant workers? How about the factory workers putting in 12 hour days? Do you think they even found one person without a telephone, considering what having a telephone meant in 1939? And who paid for these polls? How were the questions worded? Were they statistically significant, and, if so, of what population? Brands obviously doesn't have time to question his data: he's too busy polishing his rhetoric.

Even as a popular-history narrative, Brands fails with this book. The crux of his argument is that Dean Acheson and Harry Truman enabled popular liberalism by creating the Cold War, but that chapter flies by so inconsequentially that I didn't even realize I'd passed the most important point until two chapters later. Awful. Who is this written for, if not semi-literate idealogues like Sean Hannity? If I were to write a book arguing that, for instance, liberalism is thriving and using this type of scattered narrative and paltry evidence, I would be rightfully ignored or excoriated. I would not be a full professor at a major university. Professor Brands was an oral historian at one point in his career; he really should know better. The echoing of C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow in Brands' title is enough to make me sick.

So: avoid, avoid, avoid. Go read a real historian like Larry Goodwyn or C. Vann Woodward. You'll find the lack of question-begging and the ample evidence to support any conclusions they have drawn to be a refreshing change from bunk like this.

Book #6:

Hick Flicks by a certain Mr. Scott Von Doviak.

First of all, I could not possibly give this book a bad review. Mr. Von D (as he's affectionately known in the Obscurity Household) would sic his monkey butler and vicious sidekick Maury Walnuts on us.

However, Mr. Von D is clever. Knowing that we live in fear of his power over animals and the weather, he's decided, as is his wont, to do the unexpected: he's written a good, no, great book. Yes, that's right, I'll say it loud and drunkenly: Hick Flicks is a brilliant analysis, defining the genre and subgenres of movies by and about Redneck-Americans, or, as we prefer, "Sons of the Soil."

Von Doviak starts us with an Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow, as Scott canoes downriver, encountering hillbillies both planted and au natural, to a riverside viewing of Deliverance. This experience sets Mr. Von D to wondering: "Is that banjo kid available for weddings? Failing that, should I write an in-depth analysis of redneck movies?" The answer, as Scott reveals in a surprising twist, is (brace yourselves, font color modified for maximum shock value) yes.

Somewhat in the tradition of Jackass, Von D subjected himself to more movies about and by rednecks than is legal in 27 states. Von Doviak divides these into subgenres: trucker movies, stunt driver movies, chicks seeking revenge for what was done to them movies, hillbilly horror movies, documentaries about rural folk, and the like. In fact, in one of the more astounding segments of masochistic horror ever to emerge from scholarly film criticism, Von Doviak undertakes 24 hours of hillbilly horror flicks, starting with the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which shortly emerges as one of the more intelligent and sensitive movies on the line-up. The guy deserves a Purple Heart.

Anyway, it's fun to laugh at rednecks, especially if, like me, redneck blood courses through your veins (and only occasionally coats your rage-filled hands of justice these days), but thinking about rednecks and the mysterious ways of redneck culture is hard work and usually limited to slightly contemptuous, brilliantly smart-assed novelists like Harry Crews. Von Doviak leads the way in thinking about an underappreciated segment of film history, one that mostly exists only in documentaries and on the USA Network now. This book's a hoot and a holler and has been scientifically proven to be more fun than a semi full of monkey sidekicks. Use the link at the right and go buy it.

Baby music last night:

From the reports of kicking, the baby especially liked "Jockey Full of Bourbon." That's right, my baby loves the rhumba.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Gizoogle rocks in so many ways. Here's my page. Thanks to Maggie for the link.

Since all I do these days is steal links from Julie Beth's blog, here's an thorough and succinct description of Bush's Social Security plan.

I still haven't responded to comments by John and Marya following my obstetrics jeremiad disguised as a review of Ina May Gaskin's Guide to Childbirth. Many apologies to them; I've been working like a guinea pig on a wheel at my J.O.B. This hasn't left me enough time to formulate and respond in an intelligent way, but they're on my mind.

Baby music last night:

Both of these are the remastered versions, which sound so intensely better than previous versions that I hear new things in the songs every time. Also, Mrs. Obscurity reported rhythmic kicking during "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," proving that my kid has exquisite taste already.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Thanks, Julie, for posting Dana's blow-by-blow take on the execrable State of the Union from last night. I honestly don't want to hear any words out of Bush's mouth other than "I apologize for my complete incompetence and hereby resign," so I skipped it happily.

Two more books down and another (by a certain friend of mine) is imminent.

Book #4 is Peckinpah: The Western Films - A Reconsideration by Paul Seydor.

Peckinpah: The Western Films--A Reconsideration

As I understand it, Seydor's book originally came out roughly when Peckinpah had finally burnt his reputation to the ground with Convoy. Without it, we might not have the lovingly restored version of The Wild Bunch or the shockingly restored version of Major Dundee that is apparently making the indie cinema rounds these days. Personally, I find Seydor's analysis brilliant, if a bit technical in parts (I know that Professor Seydor is an editor, but some of his discussion of Peckinpah's editing is too overcooked for a layman like me -- Gary Mairs says it more succinctly in his essay). I wish I'd read this before I wrote about Major Dundee for the High Hat because Seydor says the points where we agree better and leaves me with a higher burden of proof when addressing our disagreements. Seydor's only comment about the High Hat's Sam Peckinpah issue was a dismissive note about an overly friendly approach some of the writers (myself included) used when discussing Peckinpah the Man. After reading his book, I can understand his lack of warmth towards my clumsy essays, but I'm baffled about his lack of enthusiasm for the other essays, some of which remain the smartest I've ever read on the subject.

Book #5 is very short. In fact, I read it in a single day, partially while waiting for something to happen at my job and partially while in bed and listening to the subject of the book: The 33 1/3 book The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society by Andy Miller (thanks to the man they call "DX Machina" for my copy).

At 128 very small pages with regular-size type, TKATVGPS is more pamphlet than book. That said, I still need the numbers in this 50 book challenge, so I'll take it. Continuum's 33 1/3 series has writers and musicians writing about albums they love, and TKATVGPS (the album) is certainly a worthy subject for such a book, being one of the finest albums ever recorded. As much as I've loved this album in my life, my personal connection to it is even greater since I played in a cover band last year that did this album, start to finish, and pretty much nothing besides.

Miller discusses the circumstances surrounding the album's recording (the Kinks in crisis point, unable to tour America, and bassist Pete Quaife about to quit the band) and the themes of the songs. TKATVGPS is a concept album about memory and regret, one of the best examples of idiosyncratic songwriting and point of view with a inestimable influence on indie rock, with a few tracks that veer from the main concept into loosely-connected character studies. Forget Lola and Arthur, this is Ray Davies at the top of his game.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Miller's discussion was the context for the least-coherent song on the album, "Last of the Steam-Powered Trains." Miller argues that the "Smokestack Lightnin'" riff was intended to lightly mock the British bands, contemporaries of the Kinks, who got their start playing American blues songs and later embraced pop songcraft. Like the best of Ray Davies songs, though, the sarcasm is underscored by a deep humanity and compassion for the subject. Although the singer lives in a museum, he's driven insane by all the peaceful living because he simply wants to be a good old renegade.

Anyway, enough dancing about architecture. Miller's book was a fun, short read about an album that belongs in every music fan's home.

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From Here To Obscurity, founded ca. 2003, population 1. The management wishes to emphasize that no promises vis-a-vis your entertainment have been guaranteed and for all intents and purposes, intimations of enlightenment fall under the legal definition of entertainment. No refunds shall be given nor will requests be honored. Although some may ask, we have no intention of beginning again.

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