Thursday, August 28

Reviews across pop culture genres

I like to read reviews. It started out just with movie reviews, particularly bad movies. Reviewers always seemed to have more fun savaging the most insipid, most banal, most blatantly commercial dreck possible. At their absolute best, these reviews could make me laugh out loud when the right phrase was found to capture the inanity of some plot point or absolute lack of acting talent. Consider this little chestnut by A.O. Scott of The New York Times. "Watching [Smokin' Aces] is like being smacked in the face for a hundred minutes with a raw sirloin steak. By the end, there’s blood everywhere, a bad smell lingering in the air, and vegetarianism — or starvation or blindness — starts to look like an attractive option." Screenwriters on their best days might pull something like that off. Even better, I do not have to worry about reviewers going on strike. Their jobs are tenuous enough as it is already.

I like to think my review-reading habits have matured a little. Now I enjoy the reviews of more lauded movies as well. While these can still make me retch when they stray into straight up worship, it is something beautiful when someone finds theirself transported by film and manages to capture some of that feeling in words. As you might guess, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are major time sinks of mine. They are composite sites, offering little or no original content but fairly comprehensive lists of and links to reviews from other websites. While Rotten Tomatoes is solely concerned with movies and offers links to news items and some original writing in the form of lists and commentary on the film industry, Metacritic only links to reviews from professionals and offers reviews of music, television and video games besides film. I originally preferred Rotten Tomatoes for its much larger directory of reviews, but Metacritic has risen in my esteem as my appetite for music has increased.

It was in pursuing this latest interest that I came to an interesting discovery. Within the divisions of its site, Metacritic offers the average rating and links to recent releases. Idly perusing them a week or so back I was surprised to find an incredible disparity in the ranges of reviews between genres. Currently the movie ratings run from 93 (WALL-E, which bloody well deserves it) to 24. Video games top out at 85 and rush down to 18. Recent music albums? The highest rated sits at 90 and the lowest at 39 (the 11th lowest-rated album of all time according to Metacritic). The disparity is even more obvious if you take a quick glance. Metacritic colorcodes its average scores to offer a general suggestion on its value. Green means a score of 60 or higher, yellow is between 40 and 60, and red is all that remains. A fair mix of all three colors can be found on the movie and game lists, but there is only a single red score in all recent albums and a definite bias towards green for the rest. Assuming we are not in midst of a musical Golden Age or Dark Times for film and games, this discrepancy interests me.

In conversation, my friend Emmett suggested this may be because people are not as attentive towards music as they are towards games or movies. If they were, they would have no problem finding entirely distasteful albums as easily as the other pop culture genres. I am willing to accept this thesis in general, but it is not explanation enough. The reviewers on Metacritic are professionals, people who listen to a lot of music, watch a lot of movies and play a lot of games and are paid not so much to do it well. They are definitely attentive people.

Yes, attention does have an impact, but I would suggest that the demands of attention a medium puts upon its audience are a more significant cause for this disparity in general preference than anything else. In a theater you can do little but pay attention against the onslaught of surround sound and a freaking huge screen. From experience, if you are not paying close attention when playing a game, you will lose, and that is incredibly frustrating. Meanwhile, music, engaging only a single sense, does not immediately demand as much from its audience and leaves them freer to wander in thought and body. Even if we are compelled to listen to Kevin Federline's Playing With Fire, the lowest-rated album of all-time on Metacritic, we can at least put it on in the background, focus on something else and idly tap a foot to the beat. In the same way, bad movies are a lot more fun when watched at home where we are no longer restrained by theater etiquette and can move and mock as the wont takes us. Video games, unfortunately, always force the player's attention. Maybe someone standing by can laugh when an idiotic collision detection system causes another loss, but the player will likely be less amused.

It is a lot harder to hate something when we can so easily avoid it or, at least, distract ourselves, and if we do not take those opportunities, I guess it is our own fault for being miserable then.

Monday, August 25

Learning Argentine Tango: Gotan Project's "Lunático"

By virtue of its appearance on the soundtracks of several popular television series including Nip/Tuck and most especially So You Think You Can Dance and its instantly recognizable sound, Gotan Project has greater license than most to call itself the most popular Tango group active today. Which is rather a pity because they are not the Tango that first entranced me but something very different. That is not to say I dislike them, far from it in fact, but they are tango electronica. Bandoneons and beats come together on the fringe of the tango tradition I am more interested in and must be considered on a much different level than something by Piazzolla. For those who enjoy it, this album and Gotan Project's work as a whole are more likely an entrance into electronica than tango.

For my part, I enjoy Gotan Project and Lunático, its second and most recent studio album. The songs on the album encompass and effectively present a wide spectrum of moods, and their range appears in my two favorites. The slow burn of "Diferente"'s beginning flares into something forceful, an aggression restrained by the rules of the dance floor. At the other end of the spectrum lies"Paris, Texas." Downtempo, "Paris, Texas" is dominated by a meloncholic mood but a strain of resilience, one that admits of sorrow but is willing to overcome it, emerges as the song progresses. Gotan Project is not afraid either to stretch its songs in surprising directions. "Mi Confesión" features a rap and "Domingo" uses the human voice as more of an instrument than anything else.

The music on this album is particularly interesting to me in that the tone is better described as ambient than anything else. It is not so demanding of the listener's attention as Piazzolla or any classical composer in the Western canon and neither as catchy as most rock and pop tunes, perhaps because the vocals are entirely in Spanish and French, both languages I lack any level of fluency in. Though I believe the attentive audience will not be disappointed by a close listen of Lunático, it is natural and appropriate for this music to stay in the background and can very easily be appreciated from that distance. The music does not often force itself upon you. Rather, it is content to remain on the periphery of your consciousness until you finally realize you have moving to the rhythm for the past three songs.

As far as dancing the Tango goes, Gotan Project works better than many. Its emphasis on a steady rhythm makes finding and keeping the beat unnaturally easy. The electronic sounds, too, offer some excellent audio contrast to a night of dancing otherwise dominated by works from the '40's and '50's.

That all said, I also believe that the music video for "Diferente" is one of the greatest I have ever seen. Never before have I seen a mirrored screen, use of which always before screamed "novice who is way too excited by all of the special effects on Final Cut Pro" to me, put to such beautiful artistic and even thematic use.

Saturday, August 23


For the vast majority of my life, I had no interest in concerts. I imagine this was a combination of living hours from the nearest venue and inheriting the musical tastes of my parents, which included few actively touring groups. Then I made it to college and a bigger city (though still a hinterland by the standards of those friends from Seattle and similarly sized cities). My musical tastes expanded to groups still crafting and recording new songs, and actually seeing them in concert became a real possibility. This past weekend, I attended my fifth concert in the past eight months and, incidentally, my life. In order, these concerts by Bloc Party, Rodrigo Y Gabriela, the Young Dubliners, Andrew Bird and Josh Ritter, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I apologize for the low quality, which really is to be expected as they all are illegal recordings made with handheld sub-par equipment, but as this is a post on the concerts, it seemed more appropriate to link to these than music videos or anything professional. By way of recompense, I offer these links to earlier posts dedicated to my first and second concerts. Part, too, of what I believe kept me from concerts so long, even after arriving in Spokane, was a general confusion. What is the point of attending of attending a concert, shelling out enough money to buy another album or two, to listen to music which you more than likely own? To take it even farther, more often than not we attend concerts already with a favorite song in mind. If that song is not part of the set, we suffer some disappointment, minor as it may be.

The trick, I have discovered, is that while both attending a concert and turning on the mp3 player are both ostensibly about listening to music, the experience is completely different. A concert is immersive. It is only about the group and music. Cell phones and the other distracting accroutement of our daily lives are (hopefully) discarded to limit intrusions into the next few hours. Technics and lights and smoke machines come together to increase the suspense of an extended introduction and enhance the mood. It is something special, I believe, to simply listen to music. Far too often, and I am as guilty of this as anyone, we put music on as background noise, a rhythm to run or eat to. To actually tune in to what you are hearing and revel in the melodies and lyricism and whatever is lost in a casual listen and to enjoy it in such a forum is something special indeed. Let us not forget that the sound quality of a live performance, even on weak equipment, is many factors better than the best recording. Nothing drove this in better for me than my attempts to find a decent recording of Carmen's "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" after seeing it at the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz. I eventually came across the scene from the 1984 film version with Julie Migenes and Placido Domingo. Despite the presumably superior singers (at least more famous) it could not touch what I saw there in Munich.

There are other elements, too, of course, that make the concert a completely different experience from just picking out a good album. Most obviously, there is the sense of community, publicly coming together with others of a like mind. To find guys in Mannheim and be able to start a reasonable conversation with them over a common interest and see the lighters (put to a different use during "Mary Jane's Last Dance") come out for "Learning to Fly" and "Free Fallin'" are just cool experiences.

The rest of this kind of delves (even deeper) into reminscing and all that. If you have been bored by this post so far, nothing that remains will redeem it. In that case, I suggest you now visit Arts & Letters Daily and find something of more interest. Still I write this because these are the moments stuck out to me, that made the concert special, moments I do not want to forget. Like actually seeing Rodrigo y Gabriela play live and realizing all the more how amazing their playing was and hearing Gabriela tell the story behind "F.T.U.S.V.D." in her surprisingly small voice. Like watching the entire dance floor take five steps closer to the stage when the Young Dubliners took a break but the electric bagpipes stayed on and broke out the most entrancing solos. Like Keith Roberts inviting everyone out for a drink after the Tuesday night gig because he is so excited about opening the tour. Like seeing Josh Ritter get to play in the city that was his equivalent of Paris in school and repeatedly the lighting operator that he really did want all the lights all the way down and not bumped up until the end of his solo piece.

Recorded music is good, but it never offers memories like this.

Sunday, August 17

My dad atop Mt. Kit Carson

This photograph was taken over a year ago when my parents came out to Spokane for a little visit last summer. Little fans of the city's attractions, we spent most our time outside of it. On this day, we opted for Mt. Spokane State Park and went to the summit of its little brother, Mt. Kit Carson. Not a hard hike, it does offer a nice view at the end and is not so popular that one is constantly running into others. There is a nice breeze on those rocks too which dries the sweat right off.

Generally I am in favor of this picture. Not so much for its compositional elements, though. Excepting the very overexposed sky, which I believe is more the fault of a poor scan job than printing, I feel they are solid if not particularly exciting. Few elements make it a little boring, but there are clear lines leading to my dad and distinct fore- and backgrounds. No, I prefer this picture because it is an honest portrayal of my dad. That is what he is like: fully engaged and prepared for whatever he is doing at the moment. You can be sure that backpack is sagging because it is loaded with our lunch, snacks, extra water, rain gear, first aid kit, GPS and all else. He has all the appropriate gear (and then some) and carefully considered every piece before buying it. The clothes, from the hat down to the socks, are probably designed wick moisture right off. I bet the backpack was one personally used by Cliff Jacobson or Colin Fletcher or one of their rugged ilk. And really, at most, we might have spent three hours there.

This picture was also included as part of a set I gave to my sister as a (incredibly) belated birthday present but on-time welcome-to-college gift.

Learning Argentine Tango: Leonard Bernstein's "The Joy of Music"

Before immersing myself in the music of Tango, I wanted a firmer grasp on the art of music itself. I can read music. I sang in the children's choir at my hometown church and played French horn in the school band for four years, but music and its vocabulary is beyond me. Good grief, in my original post on the Rodrigo Y Gabriela concert, I mixed up melody and harmony. I absolutely lack the understanding to say much more than I like a piece of music. If I stretch myself, I might be able to say something about the poetry of the lyrics, but that is as far as I go. I was hoping Bernstein's little book, which I was told is very friendly to beginners, would be a good start in general.

Leonard Bernstein is passionate about music. That much is apparent. What is unique though is his ability to express this passion on a wide variety of topics from the unique talents of Gershwin to the necessity of the orchestra conductor to the defining traits of opera, jazz and classical music since Schoenberg clearly to the layman. The writing is simple and clear. The only disappointment is that the final seven chapters are transcripts from his Omnibus television program, and they rely heavily upon musical excerpts. Obviously more than a little was lost in the translation from screen to page, but the spirit is still there. For anyone else starting with nothing but looking to begin their own journey into music, I would most heartily suggest The Joy of Music.

But there is serious thought in this book too. It is, after all, The Joy of Music instead of A Beginner's Guide to Music. In the very first chapter, I found one of the most troubling and powerful ideas with regard to art I have ever read. In the first chapter Bernstein imagines a conversation between himself and an imaginary poet. The poet makes a poorly considered remark on the hills and Beethoven, and Bernstein tears into him. Every time the poet tries to defend Beethoven's exalted place in the pantheon of composers, Bernstein matches him. The melody of his Symphony No. 7 is static. His Fifth Symphony is nothing but the same three chords and variations on them over and over again. Yet Bernstein ultimately admits that Beethoven still deserves the highest regards. As he says, "When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you're listening to Beethoven."

Music is inscrutable. We may know through and through or, in the wise words of the Oracle, balls to bones that a composition is beautiful, transcendent, perfect, and everything else good, but when it comes to the particulars, we are completely at a loss to explain why. Every attempt to explain what makes Beethoven's or any other composer's work great has to come after listening. There are no progressions of notes or tonal scales or juxtapositions of forte and piano that guarantee a beautiful work. There are no rules, and the only standard is that the work and its performance draw something from us.

I wrote that this idea is both powerful and troubling. On the one hand, it means that music and its beauty are open to everyone. Of course one with a background in music theory and history may be better able to appreciate a truly original composition. Another who plays an instrument can discern between superior soloists. This does not mean that I, with the little formal knowledge of music I have, am any less swept up in the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth. At worst, those others appreciate it in different ways.

On the other hand, if music truly is inscrutable, if our response to it is visceral, then how can we talk about it in a meaningful way? Yes, a musical vocabulary has been developed. We can talk about melody and harmony and the like, but these are nothing more than identifiers. In and of themselves, they carry no trace of quality. We may be able to better identify and explain what part of the music we are reacting to, but we still cannot explain why.

But perhaps that is not such a terrible thing. Even if we cannot wholly express our response, by no means does it suggest that we are the only ones who ever felt that way. It is just beyond language to express. Instead, upon further reflection, I find it an invitation to celebrate our humble and majestic humanity. Music is so basic and primal that we can hardly conceive of a culture entirely bereft of it, yet total comprehension of it will never be within our grasp. No matter the analysis the great symphonies are subjected to, no one will ever be able to use these conclusions to devise a program that creates comparable music. Within ourselves, humans have a creative ability which lies beyond our imagination to impart to anything else. I find that rather exciting.

Tuesday, August 5


Earlier this week I became a Washington resident. In anticipation of my coming 21st birthday and the expiration of my Minnesotan driving license, I went to the local Department of Licensing to ensure my continued legality. After cresting the one major hill between my house and the department, I realized that I had forgotten my passport. Still, I biked on in the hopes that my soon-to-be expired license was proof of identity enough. It was not. A few days later I returned with all of the appropriate documents and even a few extras, waited for over an hour, spoke with the clerk, had my photo taken and received a temporary paper license. Upon closer examination, I realized this license was also an under-21 license. Thus, I get to repeat the whole procedure in two weeks. Freak.

Anyway, like I wrote, I am now an official Washington resident. It feels strange to write that. I lived in Minnesota for roughly 15 years and have physically been in Spokane for only about two years, but my state's next big election will be between Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi instead of Norm Coleman and Al Franken. I have only spent two nights in Seattle, do not fully appreciate "You might be from Washington if ..." jokes and have little interest in Starbucks. Even if my accent is not so bad as that of Fargo's Marge Gunderson, it is not unusual, either, for people to make fun of how I pronounce long "o's" or "bag." Still, I have held two different jobs in the state, and that is enough for proof of address and residency.

For those not paying attention, I do not feel much like a Washingtonian. In its own peculiar way, though, it is a relief to have this new residency. It makes concrete a break I have known was coming since I accepted entrance to Gonzaga. I never really expected to return to Minnesota, much less my hometown, for any significant length of time when I made that decision. There was no spite in that. I am fond of Minnesota, and even Baudette despite being hours from anything. However, I wanted to leave and find something new, something different. There is, after all, a lot to the world beyond Minnesota. Then again, the decision to leave was not so hard to make. I am an immigrant from upstate New York myself and simply have no roots in the state. The only other relatives to live there followed my family.

At the same time it is strange to declare myself a citizen of Washington. At the very least, I have another eight months here before graduation, but a year or two of volunteering overseas is definitely on mind after that. And after that? I do not know. I have a general preference for those states with four seasons and distinct winters, but more than likely, I will follow the job opportunities. Over the course of my travels this past year I do not even find it so hard to envision a future where I do not live in the United States. The future is wide open, and it seems presumptuous to even change my residency when the current situation is so temporary.

What does this all mean? Not much. While Minnesota may not be my home now or anytime in the near future, I know Minnesota. My driver's license may say something different, but there will always be the rider "... but I come originally from Minnesota." If we are to dip into cliché, a Washingtonian by name but Minnesotan by heart.

What I am more curious about is how long I will consider myself a Minnesotan, an American. How many years will I have to live in another state, another country before that becomes my home and part of my identity? Or can any number of late years ever overcome those formative ones of youth and adolesence? Those are questions which only experience will answer, utterly unanswerable in this blog now. I have reached a limit.

Friday, August 1

Considering "The Dark Knight"

I was not really interested in posting my thoughts on this latest entry into the Batman franchise at first. Really, what more was there to say? I was there on opening weekend and enjoyed the movie an awful lot. The pacing was frantic in the best possible way, the imagery was terrific and the acting, especially that of the late Heath Ledger, was spot on. What impressed me most, perhaps, was how the movie made the most of the briefest, most understated scenes. When Wayne turns his scarred back past the camera, when the Joker rides through Gotham, his head outside the window and the street lights glowing something like a carnival behind him, I caught my breath. But Rotten Tomatoes currently provides links to 235 other people who think the same thing and have communicated the sentiment with greater eloquence and a superior background in film.

Then I came across these two articles, one an opinion found in The Wall Street Journal and a feature in Spokane's The Pacific Northwest Inlander, on consecutive days. For those lacking the will to read the pieces themselves, let me summarize the most important points. In the Journal, Andrew Klavan argues that the hero of The Dark Knight is a metaphor for the Bush administration which has been forced to take morally questionable actions in its defense of America and been declared vile for performing them. In the other article, Steve Schneider suggests that Batman and Harvey Dent represent the literal black and white halves of Obama and his politics of hope.

Something had to be written. Thus, the post.

Both articles take The Dark Knight in unexpected directions. Both articles do so with more-than-competent writing. Both articles, unfortunately, are also trash. Klavan's interpretation offers far more self-justification than any analysis of the movie. Klavan takes a very simple and clear theme of the film, the need for evil to sometimes be committed in pursuit of good, and applies it to a modern situation, President Bush and his War on Terror. There is nothing wrong with the appropriation. The problem lies in the application. Why Bush? Why not Steve Jobs? I hear the man is a jerkwad, but he does turn out some terrific products. The extent of Klavan's reasoning is that the Bat signal kind of looks like a "W."

Schneider's article just confuses me. "... Our collective anxiety over the resurgent politics of hope."? Obama is the freaking presumptive Democratic nominee. If America' citizens were really that bothered by the core of his campaign, why did they vote for him in the first place? Because they thought he looked good? I doubt it. And do you really want to compare your favored candidate to Dent and Batman, characters who respectively go insane and become a fugitive?

It is obvious that neither man is truly interested in engaging the film, merely looking to justify their ideologies by finding them in the film and wallowing in the typical citizen's supposed agreement as demonstrated by Knight's record-breaking box office returns.

Big whoop.

Rebuttals to the articles were not the main point originally. By themselves, they really are not worth the time. Who cares if two politically-minded writers drag some pop culture by the barest threads into their arguments? I do not, and I wrote the stupid post. What these articles represent, the elasticity of interpretation, does, however, matter to me. I thought I would write some grand indictment of the deconstruction which allowed these interpretations to arise, but once I thought about it, that post became far more difficult. The Dark Knight is not an ambiguous movie. There is evil, there is good and the difference between the two is obvious because death is always on the line. Evil crosses that line without a thought, and good, though it may be tempted, stays on the right side. Where does the ambiguity arise that two men are able to interpret the film in such radically different ways? It does not. Then again, neither article provides a convincing argument, much less a valid one. What I needed to accept is that people will do stupid things and look for reasons in the wrong places. Bigots will base arguments on Biblical passages, and Al-Qaeda terrorists will find inspiration in the Qur'an. It hardly means they are right. It is no different for Klavan, Schneider and The Dark Knight. All we can do is be reflective and retain the ability to discriminate between the good and true and the false.