Category Archives: Movies

1001 Books and Movies

A series of books has recently been released, listing the Top 1001 Books, Movies, and Paintings to _____ before you die. Obviously I don’t want to list all of them here, but you can find the complete list of books and movies on various blogs (with the movies list updated every now and then). It’s fun to go through and see exactly how many of these works you’ve read or seen, so that’s what I’m going to do here. Feel free to post your own lists in the comments! Continue reading

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Getting Through the Former World

Australia

Largely because of its long geographic isolation, Australia has a lot of unique, endemic species, and some of the particularly charismatic ones have become symbols of Australia. Kangaroos, Koalas, Cassowaries, the world knows about all of them, and you’ll find them in all the major zoos (except the Cassowary, which is very difficult to keep in captivity). Some of those charismatic species I’ve already seen, but many I haven’t.

Kangaroos – The Red Kangaroo is the really large one that everyone’s seen in zoos. I haven’t seen that one, it largely lives in the desert interior, so maybe I’ll see them at Alice Springs after the program. But I have seen its smaller cousin, the Grey Kangaroo. I’ve also seen a lot of the other large marsupials, including Agile Wallabies and Mareeba Rock Wallabies, which live in the drier regions. The only one I regularly see in the rainforest is the Red-legged Pademelon, which is cinnamon colored, with brighter rufous-red legs. The cool thing is, they look exactly like kangaroos shrunk down in the dryer, they’re the size of our cottontail rabbits back home, proportioned like kangaroos! During the day it’s really hard to get a good look at them though, they’re extremely skittish, and will hop away long before you know they’re there. But during the night they’re very active and they’re everywhere, you just need to bring a spotlight out into the dark. The other cool ‘kangaroo’ I’ve seen is the Lumholtz’s Tree-Kangaroo, probably the most well-known denizen of the Atherton Tablelands where I’m studying.

Cassowary – pwned

Koala – I have no chance of seeing this in the wild, I’m not going to the right parts of the country. So the only experience I’ll have with these is that scarring experience in Kuranda.

Wombats, Echidnas, other assorted marsupials – probably not likely, but honestly I haven’t done the research to find out.

Emu – on our two trips into the appropriate sorts of habitat, no luck. This may be difficult until I get to Alice Springs, and even then it’s not a lock. I’m crossing my fingers.

Platypus – On the evening of the first of March, we went to a local farmer’s property to learn about rainforest restoration. As a bonus afterwards, we stopped by an overlook on the Barron River to look for platypus. They’re really tough to spot. Two individuals popped their heads above the water for a breath, and were gone a second later. So all I saw was the bill. The things are a lot smaller than you probably think too. But at least I can say that I’ve seen platypus in the wild now.

Hungary

Instead of heading to the pub to celebrate my 21st birthday last night, I watched the film Werckmeister Harmoniak (Werckmeister Harmonies). On paper, it’s about a small Hungarian town, torn apart by a mysterious circus that features a giant dead whale. That makes it sound almost like a comedy, but that’s the furthest you could get from the truth. Werckmeister Harmoniak is slow, tragic, moving. It’s also one of those pretentious art films that looks really beautiful, but whose main point sails over your head. I don’t have a clue what Bela Tarr, or the original novel’s writer, was trying to say. My guesses on the theme range from the Soviet occupation, the false optimism of capitalism, revolution in general, or the dark side of human nature. I really don’t know. I doubt I ever will, even if I watch the film ten more times.

Despite that intellectual confusion, Werckmeister Harmoniak is possibly the most beautiful film I have ever watched, in terms of cinematography. In the Mood for Love doesn’t even hold a candle to Werckmeister Harmoniak, something I didn’t believe was even possible. Shot in black-and-white, every image slowly soaks into the consciousness, and stays there. I could turn off the subtitles, mute the sound, and Werckmeister Harmoniak would still be a powerful film. If you want to see a really beautiful movie, watch this.

Deep Underground

I’m finally on the verge of finishing John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, a tome which has taken me nearly a month to get through. It’s a collection of five books about American geology, and American geologists. But this is not a geology textbook; I doubt I’ve learned all that much about rocks that I didn’t already know. This is a collection of thoughts, stories, anecdotes, ideas about geology, and the people who study geology. Over the past few months, John McPhee has grown to possibly become my favorite author, fiction or non, and as his supposed masterwork, I had to get to Annals at some point.

Book One, entitled Basin and Range, deals with the series of mountains and valleys found in Utah and Nevada known as the eponymous Basin and Range, and follows Princeton geologist Kenneth Deffeyes through the rock. It started off fairly slow; I honestly wasn’t all that interested in the Basin and Range geology itself. What really got to me was the history of geology, as presented by McPhee, as the book began to wind down. Those portions of the book were among the best writings I’ve ever seen out of him. Unlike the typical McPhee book, which I always feel start off brilliantly but then run out of steam, Basin and Range built to a magnificent conclusion, and is one of the most striking works in McPhee’s catalog. Highly recommended.

Book Two, entitled In Suspect Terrain, follows geologist Anita Harris, and concerns itself with the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and how they came to be. I’ll be honest: this book was boring, slow, and way too long. And that’s all I really have to say. It was by far the worst McPhee book that I’ve ever read, and the only one I really haven’t enjoyed in any sort of capacity. Terribly disappointing.

Book Three, entitled Rising from the Plains, works itself around Wyoming with David S. Love, preeminent Rocky Mountain geologist. I was surprised at how linear the narrative was at times. I generally know McPhee as someone who jumps all over the map, delicately threading a narrative through that you don’t even begin to notice until the end, and that’s the brilliance of his work. In here, a lot of the book follows Love’s biography chronologically, and I’m surprised at how competent of a storyteller McPhee can be. I love his writing for the small details he notes, the absurd humor he discovers in them, and the subtle ways they are tied to the big picture, so it was interesting for me to watch him try his hand at working only with the big picture. I think he largely succeeded. His painting of the landscape around Jackson Hole was especially evocative. This is not representative of McPhee’s usual style, but it’s still a very good read that I’d certainly recommend.

Book Four, entitled Assembling California, follows Eldridge Moores around California, Macedonia, and Cyprus, in a quest to understand how California’s rocks could become so radically different from the rest of the country’s. Like Basin and Range, this one started off quite slow, as a whole lot of rocks and rocky structures were described. That’s the whole point of Annals I guess, to describe rocks, but those were probably my least favorite parts. The conclusion to Assembling California, however, was spectacular, as McPhee described tales from the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. I have never seen McPhee write so dramatically, and he pulled it off really well.

So now I’m starting on the final book, entitled Crossing the Craton. It’s very short, and from what I hear its only purpose is to settle things down after the fireworks of Assembling California. So effectively, I am finally finished with Annals of the Former World. Hurrah. McPhee won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his work on this book. In my mind, he undoubtedly deserves a Pulitzer, but maybe not for this book. In general, he spends too much time talking about rocks, when his strength is with people.

Surprisingly, I’ve found one other McPhee reader here, who’s read many of the same books of his that I have. She strongly recommended Encounters with the Archdruid as her favorite, so that will likely be next on my list of McPhee. In the meantime, once I finish Crossing the Craton, I’m moving on to The Big Twitch, the autobiography of a fanatical Australian birder. That shouldn’t take long, so warming up in the bullpen I’ve got Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which should be a good one.

From Tallahassee to the Dark Hillsides

For the first few months of its existence, this site served only as a log of my bird sightings in and around Swarthmore, remnants of which still survive in the address and the archives. This past summer, I made a decision to experiment with opening up the blog, to incorporate more of my thoughts, ideas, and occurrences. My only fear was that this would turn into an emo diary, a scenario which I wanted to avoid at all costs.

I’m not bringing this up because I’m about to go into emo mode; I might indirectly, but that’s not why I brought the history in. I wanted to mention that history because the very first non-bird-related post I ever made on this thing was a first-impression review of the Mountain Goats album Get Lonely.

At the time, I simply wrote that it sounded very different from a typical Goats album, but that I might get used to that new sound, and grow on the album. That never happened. Darnielle mentioned to a Pitchfork staffer that the only people who could fully understand the album were people who had gone through ugly divorces, or rough breakups from other very serious relationships, as those are the lyrical and musical themes which the album addresses. Thankfully I’ve never found myself in any of those kinds of situations, and subsequently the album never did anything for me. I think Pat summed it up well in his WSRN review: Get Lonely is an album that can be appreciated, but it’s difficult to enjoy, and actually, you’re probably not even supposed to enjoy it. I thought that was spot-on.

But now that I’m trying to get through my own breakup (though thankfully it was an amazingly clean one) this album is getting to me hard. I know people who listen only to happy and melodic music because they always want to feel joyful, and people who listen only to chill music because they always want to feel relaxed. I’ve never been the type to do that, I try and find music which matches the mood I’m in, to complement it and make it that much more powerful. So it means a lot to me when I say that Get Lonely is hitting me harder than any other album has at one point in time. Every song on the album, up to and including ‘Woke Up New’, is wrenching my heart apart on every listen, that’s all I can say. To me, right now, at this moment in life, Get Lonely is a perfect statement of how I’m feeling and how my days are going.

I did mention, however, that it’s only true up to ‘Woke Up New’. None of the remaining three songs do anything for me. I have a few theories on why that’s the case. First, ‘Woke Up New’ is unquestionably the emotional climax of the album, and the rest is the come-down that inherently comes off less dramatically. Second, ‘If You See Light’ is unquestionably the worst song on the album, and kills off any potential emotional impact that the remaining songs could have. Or last, Darnielle has sequenced the album chronologically/autobiographically, and the last few songs don’t make sense only because I haven’t reached that part of the recovery process.

In reality, it’s probably a combination of all three factors. I will note that the final song, ‘In Corolla’, sounds like it has to be the conclusion to the recovery, when Darnielle has finally gotten over his breakup, and life is back to normal. Connected to that point, it’s also the song most similar to the traditional Mountain Goats oeuvre and style. But right now, I can’t relate to it at all. Maybe in a few months, I’ll listen to it a few times, move on, and close the book on Get Lonely. But for an album intended for those poor souls coming from dark places, ‘In Corolla’ seems like an awfully out-of-place closer that’s sickening when placed next to ‘Moon Over Goldsboro’ or ‘Maybe Sprout Wings’; it’s not even optimistic enough to serve as some sort of goal or light at the end of the tunnel, it just feels wrong. ‘Cobra Tattoo’ may have been a better closer for the record. Small quibbles aside, Get Lonely is hitting me hard right now, and it’s changed my perception of what Darnielle is capable of as a songwriter.

Back to Australia

A lot of my photos are now uploaded, so I’m going to post them here in a series of short sets. Eventually I’ll get caught up with the present day, and try and post photos continuously from there. The Atherton Internet Cafe was significantly faster this past Friday than it was before for some reason, hence the successful photo uploading. Let’s hope that new speed sticks around.

Paterson Creek, which runs through the property.

Waterfall on Paterson Creek. There aren’t any land trails to this spot, so the only way to get here is by wading upstream a fairly good distance. Even further upstream there’s a few more waterfalls, but none of them are quite as photogenic.

Dan standing among the roots of the Cathedral Fig, whose canopy was posted earlier.

The Kangaroo Cafe in Malanda. Obviously that’s not a real Lumholtz’s Tree-Kangaroo up top, it’s just a sculpture.

Leeches attached: ~85
Leeches that have feasted upon my blood: 4

Stepping Over the Edge

A lot of press has recently been given to the Zoological Society of London’s new initiative, EDGE of Existence, with the EDGE acronym standing for Evolutionarily Distinct & Globally Endangered. The group plans to raise awareness for species that are, as the title suggests, extremely unique and extremely rare, and therefore worthy of preservation. Researchers from the ZSL plan to implement research and conservation actions for these species by working alongside local scientists in each species’ range.

I think that’s a great plan, certainly much more assertive and practical than the usual fundraising group whose money sits in a safe in some small office somewhere, as the website gets updated with more photos of cute baby pandas. No conservation effort can really succeed without cooperation at the local level, which a lot of these kinds of groups seem to forget. I applaud the ZSL and the EDGE initiative for taking the time to realize this, hopefully they’ll be able to follow through with their proposals.

However, though the methodology seems correct, I have major issues with the focus of the group. On their page, they’ve listed their Top 100 Focus Species, along with some general info, and how intensive current conservation efforts are. The important thing to note is that all of these species are mammals. But why? Mammals are not any more evolutionarily distinct, endangered, or ecologically important as any other group of organisms, possibly even less so than others. The obvious answer is that mammals are cute and charismatic, and therefore will draw in a lot of money and attention.

In that sense, it’s practical, but I also think it’s sending the wrong message. What’s the purpose of saving endangered species? There’s a lot of aesthetic and moral reasons, but a lot of it also has to do with the potential ecological benefit of the species. Will an ecosystem be able to survive if this species is lost? If not, then it’s obviously in our interests to save it from extinction. Here, EDGE has decided to focus on unique and rare mammals, and as I alluded to earlier, I don’t think that’s a particularly important group to focus on.

For example, let’s look at Species #10, the Sumatran Rabbit. The thing hadn’t been seen since the 1930’s, and was presumed extinct until one was accidentally photographed in 1998. We still know almost nothing about the rabbit, only that it’s nocturnal and extremely shy, hence why it’s been so difficult to find.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’d be incredibly cool to save the Sumatran Rabbit. It looks pretty freaking awesome, and its behavior is probably quite fascinating. But I have to just say straight out that ecologically speaking, I really don’t think it’s an important species. It must be a rare species because it has extremely specialized habitat or dietary requirements which have been significantly altered in the past hundred years. If we lose the rabbit to extinction, what does the environment lose? A few plants may not get their seeds spread? A few predators may lose a handful of prey items? I feel like those are probably broad niches that will easily get taken up by a similar herbivore; I doubt that the Sumatran Rabbit was the sole prey item of some Indonesian hawk, for example. When a species is this rare and specialized, I really can’t see the whole thing unraveling upon its loss.

Of course, this is all conjecture. Nobody can really quantitatively state how Important a species is, and what the costs of extinction are. But saying that the Sumatran Rabbit is more worthy of preservation than something totally uncharismatic such as, say, mycorrizhae fungi would be a difficult argument to make. But hey, it’s a complicated subject, nobody really knows for sure what the importance of each species is. I’ll make some concessions then: like I said earlier, beginning with a focus on mammals is practical since it provides cute mascots to front the organization and draw in the public’s interest. Hopefully they’ll move on to other organismal groups from there. In addition, I suppose that some conservation is better than none, so I’d certainly support EDGE over no conservation support at all. Plus, they seem to have a sound plan. That being said, I would still argue that if funds are to be allocated for conservation, there are better causes to be found. The ecological usefulness of these unique and rare mammals is fairly questionable, whereas the usefulness of preserving entire habitats through an organization such as The Nature Conservancy seems much more useful to me personally. That’s just my opinion. So, props to EDGE for raising awareness on the issue and coming up with a sound gameplan, but I’d prefer to see a more ecologically sound list of target species before I throw all my support behind it.

By the way, up at the top of the post, that’s a Red Panda. I don’t usually think of things as ‘cute’ or ‘adorable’, but omgosh, I love Red Pandas. They’re so cute!!!!!!!! Okay, you can kill me now.

Some other things that have caught my attention recently:

Gave a listen to the new Bloc Party album, A Weekend in the City. I hated it. Hated it. One of the worst albums I have ever heard, and that is not a joke. I was feeling generous and give it one star on my RYM page, just because I usually reserve the half-star rating for albums that are so terrible that they actually made me angry (i.e. Fiery Furnaces), and A Weekend in the City was not that offensive. It was just really, really inoffensive, and in the worst way possible.

Bloc Party were never my favorite band, but I didn’t dislike them either. Their debut EP along with the Silent Alarm LP were filled with some really fun moments. Their brand of dance-rock was rooted in some angsty gut emotion, rich territory left un-mined by the totally mindless party fun of !!! or The Rapture. A Weekend in the City is a major stylistic change for the group, but they go in the totally wrong direction. Now, the dance-rock is left in the dust and the emotional drama becomes the band’s primary calling card, and though the band bleeds sincerity, they just don’t have the musical or poetic lyricism to pull it off effectively. Leadoff single ‘I Still Remember’ sounds like the most derivative and uninspired aspects of The Killers, Coldplay, or U2, and is now completely indistinguishable from hundreds of other Brit-rock bands. It’s time to dig this band’s grave, they’ve had their time in the critical spotlight, but that’s pretty much over now. Goodbye Bloc Party, the music scene is a vicious one and has a short-term memory, you just didn’t have what it takes to gain any staying power. I hope you enjoyed your time here while you could.

I saw a really pitiful number of new movies this year, so I tried to make amends by seeing two excellent movies last week, Children of Men, and Old Joy.

Children of Men is the new effort from director Alfonso Cuaron, previously known for his work on Y Tu Mama Tambien and, uh, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hah. Before we move on, I just wanted to state that Azkaban is far and away the best film in the series (though I haven’t taken the time to watch Goblet of Fire yet), and I don’t regret watching it four times in two days during that Nationals debate trip to Salt Lake City. Hah, okay, maybe I do regret it, but not as much as I regret skipping out on a Segway rental at that mall. Ed, wherever you are these days, curse you for talking us out of it. Though we were all bored out of our freaking skulls (I mean, it was Salt Lake City after all), that wasn’t a bad debate trip either, in hindsight.

Anyways, Children of Men takes place twenty years in the future, when the entire human race has suddenly become infertile for unknown reasons. The film isn’t too concerned with the question of ‘why’; a lot more of the focus lies on the ‘what if’ ramifications of such an event, and it’s pretty terrifying stuff. The world has fallen into chaos and anarchy, and the few remaining strongholds of civilization take increasingly desperate measures to control the population. I won’t say too much about the film, other than to state that it was consistently engrossing and brilliant, pretty much all the way through. Everything about the film worked: the writing, acting, production, pacing, and direction were all basically flawless, so all I can really say is that it was just an immaculately produced and substantive film, and I really couldn’t have asked for more. The only real chink in its armor was the ending, which everyone seems to be swarming around as its only weakness. I’m glad that it was left open-ended, but I’m very unhappy with the way Clive Owen’s character was dealt with, it seemed like such a cheap excuse for closure in that sense. But that’s a minor argument, for the most part the strengths of the film more than made up for any weaknesses, and Children of Men was the best film I saw in 2006.

While I was in Boston, I got a quick text message from Mr. Behrend asking if I was interested in seeing this film Old Joy at the Colony Theatre that night. I figured that I would probably be in no emotional shape to see a film at that time, and responded thusly. It was only later when I thought, wait, Old Joy? Why I have never heard of this movie before? Probably because Berardinelli hasn’t reviewed it, I realized, and since I agree with him on almost everything, and he hasn’t reviewed this, it can’t be good!

Then I did some quick research and realized that, wait, this might be the best movie ever. It got a lot of critical praise at Sundance, but more importantly, it stars Will Oldham, of all people? Yo La Tengo did the soundtrack? It has an 84 on Metacritic? The ingredients were in place for something special, so Mr. Behrend and I agreed to meet in a few days time to soak in the experience.

As I expected from the quick research on it, Old Joy is a very minimal and delibrately-paced film. Much of it is just composed of long shots of simple images: a sparrow perched on a branch, the lights of the city, trees zipping by the car window, clouds. All of this is used the frame the minimal story of two old friends going on a hike, and the ways the two have changed or stayed the same.

My main problem with Old Joy is that it’s subtle, but too obviously so. That probably doesn’t make any sense, so I’ll try and explain. Before and after their hike, one of the characters rides in his car listening to Air America Radio, and it’s really the only thing going on in the picture. It’s just long shots of a person driving, and the only sound is that of the political debate on the radio. That’s fine. The problem is that these radio dialogues are obviously connected with the primary themes of the film, and it’s not really made to be subtle. We’re supposed to notice. Every subtle detail in the film is supposed to carry Important Meanings, and I don’t have a problem with that, the problem is that the filmmakers make these Important Meanings obvious, and the images lose their subtlety, and start coming across as preachy and ham-fisted. The magic of the film is in its subtlety, yet paradoxically the filmmakers have chosen to magnify its images to the point where it’s no longer beautiful. Terrence Malick’s work is an example of subtlety just for the sake of the beauty of subtlety, and though there is a message to his work as well, he doesn’t force it upon the viewer.

I enjoyed Old Joy, there were some really beautiful and evocative moments, but it really wasn’t as Important as it probably perceives itself to be. I wouldn’t mind recommending it to people though, it really was quite a beautiful work. Plus, Will Oldham and Yo La Tengo still rock.

Meanwhile, I’m going to try and fit in a viewing of Pan’s Labyrinth sometime this week. It has a 98 on Metacritic?! That makes it the 4th highest-rated film…of all time. Yeah, I need to see this. Possible report to come later. But then I get into conversations like this:

11:24:12 AM Roger: i think i’m just going to suck it up and go see it at some early showing on a weekday, alone
11:24:35 AM Roger: pretty sure i would kill the person next to me in terror if i saw it with other people
11:28:17 AM Keith: two people i know went to go see it, and they pretty much told me they were holding each other in fear the whole time
11:28:23 AM Keith: and then were kind of depressed after

Hah, that doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun. Well, better than just passively slouching in the seat and glancing at the watch, right? Any moving experience is better than none, right? I’m sure that I’ll come out of Pan’s Labyrinth completely shaken to the core, but glad that I’d seen it. I need that kind of gut check sometimes. Or, I’m just masochistic. Hah. The Australian Stinging Trees are calling to me…

YES COME HERE

Okay, and the last thing I want to note is that I’ve made some changes to the design of the site. For one, I’ve added ‘Currently Listening’ and ‘Currently Reading’ to the sidebar for no real reason, other than to just indulge my tastes. The bigger change is that I’m going to stop posting links in these posts. Funny, because that was the one condition I set for myself when I started posting about non-birding material on this blog: I was going to post links, in order to provide some inter-post consistency. But more importantly, I wanted to ground the blog and keep it from veering off into emo diary land. I don’t feel like either goal has been successful or was even been necessary to begin with, so away it goes, it was clumsy to deal with anyways. In its place, I’m posting links onto my del.icio.us page, with the most recent bookmarks conveniently appearing in the sidebar to the right. The advantage here is that links will be constantly updating, so now if you’re totally bored you don’t have to rely on my procrastination-induced and/or slow-life post delays in order to waste time on the internet. I also figure that this will take less time and effort for me, which could be important once I get to Australia and have less of both on hand. We’ll see how it works out.

One more week at home! It’s probably time for me to tie up a lot of loose ends here, expect me to be pretty busy. We’ll talk later. Though I’m sure I’ll post about the conference championship games tomorrow, and possibly about Pan’s Labyrinth, or other things, we’ll see. Man, it’s weird to close a blog post without links now, I guess I’ll just stop here? Stop.

The Year in Music, I Suppose

Last.fm provides such a great service. For those of you unfamiliar with it, last.fm basically keeps track of what music you play on your computer, and compiles your top-played artists and songs into weekly, monthly, yearly, and overall charts. Sundays are always a joy for me: I bake bread in the morning, watch football in the afternoon and evening, and check my music charts before I head to bed, all the while completely avoiding and/or forgetting about the massive amounts of work I traditionally have due on Mondays, which of course I didn’t get done on Saturday. My own charts are linked to in the sidebar on the right, though I guess I just linked to them earlier in this sentence too.

To close out the year, I was going to post my top 10 albums of the year, but then realized what a pointless exercise that’d be, seeing as how I’ve had the thing constantly updating on my RYM page for the entire year, so what’s the point? Instead, here’s the artists and songs that I listened to the most in 2006 according to last.fm, ignoring the entire month of December for whatever reason. Maybe I’ll go back and update in a few days when we find ourselves in the new year.

Top Artists of 2006

1. Yo La Tengo – When people ask me what my favorite band is, YLT are usually my default answer, so it’s no surprise that they top this list, especially since they released an excellent new album this year which I listened to quite a bit. The band has an incredible talent for being amazingly eclectic while somehow also keeping a consistent high level of quality; it’s really hard to not like them. I’m not sure if they actually are my favorite band, but at least I know that I won’t be embarrassed by that answer in a few months time, unlike…

2. Destroyer – …who I recklessly proclaimed as, “…my favorite band of all-time…” (Shaw, 2006) in a hastily written WSRN review for Destroyer’s Rubies, the new album released early this year. Really, there’s no way that they’re actually my Favorite Band of All Time. There’s just no emotional resonance in Destroyer’s music; it’s all about the clever turns of phrases and general mischief, and though that works fairly often for me, sometimes it’s really not enough. Granted, when I do get on a Destroyer kick, no other band in the world can match Mr. Bejar and his witticisms, hence the high play count, but I should know by now that the high won’t last for very long, and next week I’ll be completely embarrassed by the Destroyer-dedicated AIM/Facebook profile changes, over-exalted album reviews, and, uh, blog names. Hah. I’d feel pretty cheap if I changed the name of this thing just because of my mercurial tastes, so like it or not I think I’m stuck with it.

Those were the top two artists of the year for me by a very wide margin, so in a distant third are…

3. The Mountain Goats – just a consistently rewarding band that I always seem to come back to. ‘Song for Mitch Williams’ is not included in this count, and probably never will be, sadly.
4. Tom Waits – I’m not counting Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards on any of my year-end lists, since I really can’t decide if I should categorize Orphans as a compilation or as a new release. I’m just going to play it safe and count it as a compilation. Anyways, most of this year’s plays came from a Bone Machine and Closing Time kick over the summer, I’ve only been able to slog through the entirety of Orphans once or twice.
5. The Decemberists – At one point The Crane Wife was something like the 5th best album I’d heard this decade, you’d have to dig back into the blog’s archives to find that post for me. In any case, that’s definitely not true anymore, it’s fallen pretty hard. This high play count is an artifact of that initial obsession with the album, and the subsequent revisiting of the band’s back catalog.
6. Pas/Cal – The new Dear Sir EP was a little inconsistent, but I’m still in love with this band, and played their other two EPs in bunches. The forthcoming debut LP Citizen’s Army Uniform is due to be released sometime next year, and so I’m sure this band will show up on this list again at the end of 2007.
7. The Replacements – If Last.fm could somehow include all the times I played Let it Be as I drove around over the summer, this would be much higher.
8. The Toms – I’m very pleased that this band showed up so high on the list. Probably the token ultra-obscure band that I’ll be pimping from this list.
9. The Beatles – This will undoubtedly move up with the December update, so stay tuned. Is there anything else I need to say about this band “The Beatles” ?
10. Teenage Fanclub – I’ll admit, as much as I love the Fannies, I’m kind of surprised that I played them this much. I only have three of their albums, one of which I don’t particularly enjoy, and one of which I don’t recall listening to at all this past year. So have I seriously listened to Songs From Northern Britain that much? Interesting. With the December update, I’m sure that Talking Heads will probably bump these guys down.

Not bad. Now…

Top Songs of 2006

1. The Pipettes – Pull Shapes
Oh my goodness. Completely embarassing. Just look at the band’s picture. Does this band look like something I’d normally enjoy? I really wish my top song could’ve been some black metal band like Drastus; maybe I’ll play nothing but one Drastus song for the rest of today and tomorrow to save my integrity in the December Update. But alas, for now at least, I’m stuck with these women wearing matching polka-dot outfits, singing songs about how much fun it is to dance with cute boys. I’ll grudgingly admit for now that ‘Pull Shapes’ is one of the most perfect pop songs I’ve ever heard.

2. Voxtrot – Trouble
This probably got pushed close to the top just because of two consecutive nights when I had this song on repeat, you know how those nights go I’m sure. Anyways, I don’t think I’ve listened to the song since then. I mean, I still don’t think it’s a bad song, but I probably wore it out on those two long, dark nights (as opposed to the short, sunlit nights of the Arctic and Antarctic regions, I guess).

3. Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out of This Country
Still a great song. Not quite a Study Abroad Anthem like the title would seem to imply, the lyrics are a little screwy, but the song’s music is completely addicting to me. I just wish that I wouldn’t get addicted to stuff that was so fey.

4. The Replacements – Alex Chilton
Songs released in 2006 dominated the top of these charts it seems, so here’s the first ‘oldie’ on the chart, and a fine song it is, probably the only Replacements tune that everyone can agree on, a true stone-cold classic of the rock music canon.

5. Pas/Cal – C.A.U. (Sans Muscle)
Not my favorite song off the Dear Sir EP, but it was the one song I had in advance of its real release, and so I really played the heck out of it, way before the EP proper showed up in my mailbox.

6. The Only Ones – Another Girl, Another Planet
I’ve decided that this is the best rock song ever. I consulted Pat and a few other trusted WSRN tastemakers past and present, and they all agreed. ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ is the best song in the history of rock music, and that’s no exaggeration.

7. Paul Westerberg – Love You in the Fall
This is off Westerberg’s soundtrack to the animated film Open Season. I really like this song for some reason. It’s really MOR and mindlessly fun, and somehow I haven’t gotten sick and nauseous over the syrupy over-production yet. So I feel really guilty for liking this, but gosh guys, it’s so good.

8. Pas/Cal – Little Red Radio

This is my favorite track off the EP, it’s only below C.A.U. due to the aforementioned reasons.

9. Destroyer – European Oils
The ‘fucking maniac’ line and the subsequent rockout continue to slay me without fail, every time I hear this song. One of the best moments in music that I’ve heard in ages.

10. Teenage Fanclub – Speed of Light
Where did this come from? I guess I really have played Songs from Northern Britain a lot, but I would’ve expected a song like ‘Mount Everest’ to appear on these charts, not ‘Speed of Light’, one of the more average tunes on the record. I faintly recall one night where I played this song a lot, but this much? Not sure.

So that’s what Last.fm sez were my favorite artists and songs of 2006. Outside of playcount, the master top albums list is still located at RYM. I also tried to compile a list of favorite movies, but I just realized that I really haven’t seen any movies this year. Unless I’m missing something, I’ve only seen…three. Well, regardless of what else I see, I doubt anything will top The Departed, which continues to slay my mind. I really need to see it again.

I’ve got some other completely separate issues to address. First is my spelling. I’ve always been a great speller. Yet for some reason, this entire semester, I’ve been spelling the words ‘separate’ and ‘correlate’ incorrectly. With ‘separate’, I use an e in the place of the a, while with ‘correlate’ I can never remember if there’s two r’s or if there’s two l’s, or both. I never had trouble with the words before. Strange. I guess it’s part of growing old, you know.

Second, I was reminiscing recently about the infamous Harvard Debate Trip of my junior year of high school. At the time, it was a really miserable experience, in hindsight the whole thing was completely absurd and hilarious, I love laughing about it, and it’s one of my favorite memories of high school.

One thing I remember is that for a good period of that long walking tour in subzero temperatures, The Dismemberment Plan song ‘The Ice of Boston‘ was stuck in my head, for fairly obvious reasons, and I’m pretty sure Bryson was groovin’ to it too. The cover of The Ice of Boston EP features this shot of a building at night, and I always wondered whether or not it was some sort of Boston landmark, and I remember searching for it during our walking tour. I may have even found it, maybe in the Boston Commons area? But at that point I may have gone crazy from the cold, and I probably couldn’t even lift my head anyways, haha. Anyways, I revisited the song just now, and man, it hasn’t aged well. It’s so awkward and emo! How did I not notice this at the time? Probably because I was in high school. Yeah, that’d explain a lot. Anyone recognize this building? It’s probably not even in Boston, I’m sure.

On another note, now that I’m home, I’ve finally got some time for reading, so I’m now working my way through Against the Day. I’m 80 pages in right now, and surprisingly, it’s actually…readable? Coherent? Accessible, even?! I’ve been told that there’s some impenetrable morass to come ahead, but so far, this isn’t Pynchonian at all, it’s quite a breezy and fun read, though some of the language is still distinctly Pynchonian, plus the occasional bursts into song and dance and such. Not sure if I like it so far, but we’ll see, there’s still a lot of pages left to be turned until we reach the end.

And finally, I’m reading my high school’s newsletter right now, which just arrived in the mail, and I see that this year they held a Dark Ages Bazaar, to complement the Renaissance Faire later in the school year. A Dark Ages Bazaar?! The whole concept is incredible. I think they just called it ‘Y1K’ in past years, but I like ‘Dark Ages Bazaar’ a lot better.

Also, I just remembered that back in 10th grade when I was in the Renaissance Faire, I got to play the part of Machiavelli, of all people. Brilliant. I think I tricked the pope into giving me thousands of dollars and being my patron, after Lorenzo de Medici rejected me. I think I also stole some rare jewel from the English queen, and Lorenzo de Medici got beheaded just because he ratted me out, while I got off the hook without a scratch. Seriously brilliant.



I can see them getting along quite well, really.

On with the links, then:

  • A biochemist claims that he’s discovered the chemical basis behind the unique sound of a Stradivarius violin. Legit or not?
  • Noka chocolate is the most expensive chocolate that you can buy, but is it worth the cash? This devastating expose by some chocolate-obsessed blogger is a great read.
  • This Japanese arcade game tests how hard you can kick.
  • Dean Karnazes just ran 50 marathons in 50 days. What.
  • Rob Cockerham of Cockeyed.com discovers how different Omaha is from California. I love these travelogues, another great read, Cockeyed is just a great site in general, mad props.
  • PC Magazine gives out its list of the Top 10 Wired Colleges. Hey, is that…Swarthmore checking in at number four? Funny that they don’t mention our DC++ hub, yet they pimp the SCCS Video Pit, which has never even been used by anyone that I personally know.
  • More people are posting their year-end mixes.
  • I really enjoy Running From Camera

    The rules are simple: I put the self-timer on 2 seconds, push the button and try to get as far from the camera as I can.

  • That’s pretty much it. I hope the past year has treated you all well, and that the coming year proves to be even more memorable for you. Good luck with things.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

Saw the original, extended 1976 version of the classic Cassavetes film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie last night. It blew me away completely.

While I was watching the film, I noted that really, there’s no plot whatsoever except for the titular killing, which only takes up about 20 minutes or so in the middle of the film. The rest of the film is just empty dialogue to build character, or to settle things towards the end. And the dialogue really is empty. There’s a completely random anecdote about girls eating gopher tails, for example (srsly, wtf). This is no Waking Life, where every line of speech builds towards some Greater Artistic Truth, and it’s not even like the esteemed Chinatown where seemingly every other line is some sort of sarcastic gangster comeback. And when it comes to portraying everyday life, at least the block residents of Do the Right Thing play off each other and have genuine dialogue. Life in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie takes place in the business world, where people use speech to give orders or status updates, and nothing more.

Yet despite the overall lack of plot or interesting dialogue, I was somehow absolutely engrossed in the film, and I realized that it had to be the direction of Cassavetes. The acting was fine, and the cinematography was quite good, but they couldn’t hold up the film by themselves; somehow every aspect of the film just clicked together perfectly, making an extremely well-made movie, and that has to be the role of the director.

A few years ago (sorry, I don’t have any sources on hand for this), a growing debate emerged out of Hollywood pitting the directors against the screenwriters, specifically regarding who should get the lion’s share of praise in the credits, the press, and the awards ceremonies. Obviously the directors have the upper hand at this point, as you always see titles such as A STEVEN SPIELBERG FILM on posters and trailers, with the writers receiving little or no mention. The question was whether or not this bias towards directorship was indicative of the true balance of power within the making of a Hollywood film.

In the past months, I’d been leaning more towards the side of the writers, as films such as Chinatown, Being John Malkovich, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind blew me away with taut and inventive scripts that probably could’ve been made into brilliant films by any competent director. If a script is written, and actors interpret their roles based on said script and perform in front of the cameras, where exactly is the role of the director? In my mind, probably due to my lack of experience in the realm of theater, I saw them only as weak consultants pacing on the sidestages, occasionally giving advice regarding role interpretations, camera shots, and movement about the set, but nothing major. I felt that a good script could inspire brilliant performances from the actors, and render the director obsolete.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie changed my mind on this debate completely. It’s really quite an uninteresting script, yet Cassavetes is able to transform it into a beautiful, landmark film in cinematic history. Other than that bizarre gopher story, I’m really not sure if I can recall a single line of dialogue from the entire film, and the same is even somewhat true of the camera shots or the acting. Yet somehow, the film as a whole created an indelible impression on my mind.

Looking back on my film collection, I notice that there a few other films I love that have with relatively weak scripts that are saved by brilliant direction, such as Jean-Luc Godard’s groundbreaking Breathless, and my favorite film 8 1/2 somehow makes this cut as well. I can’t believe it at all, but really the script for 8 1/2 really isn’t too great either; it’s quite messy and unorganized in fact, when I look back.

And when I spoke of the great scripts of Charlie Kaufman and Robert Towne earlier, I seemingly overlooked the fact that Chinatown was directed by the unbelievable Roman Polanski, responsible for another weak-script-turned-amazing-film Knife in the Water. That movie takes place almost entirely on a small boat, with two men staring each other down, you can’t get more spartan (and awesome) than that. Kaufman’s two films have been directed by relative newcomers with little previous or subsequent directing experience, so I can’t make any complete judgements on their directorial abilities, though both Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry have shown amazing skills in the music video world. I now have to say that perhaps I overestimated the writers and underestimated the directors. Certainly writers still play a crucial role, but I have to give the directors their credit where credit is due. Thank you Mr. Cassavetes for your beautiful film, I really hope to see more of your work in the future. Rest in peace.

Links:

  • Thomas Pynchon has a new book available for pre-order, scheduled for arrival on December 5th. I’m floored. Interestingly, Thomas Pynchon provided a synopsis for it, but I now notice that Amazon has taken it down! Doesn’t matter, I want the book. [Edit: synopsis now posted below links]
  • A thief in Germany steals the judges’ keys.
  • “I still don’t understand what I’m being charged for and who is charging me,” he said. Kent Hovind, who often calls himself “Dr. Dino,” has been sparring with the IRS for at least 17 years on his claims that he is employed by God, receives no income, has no expenses and owns no property.
  • A letter from inside Beirut.
  • WHERE MY SHIPS AT?! The two cyclones in the Pacific completely make this for me. The Great Lakes, too. [Edit: suddenly, there’s only one cyclone! And check out all the ships above the Arctic Circle, and around Antarctica. What a great site.]
  • And finally, the top 10 unintentionally worst company URLs.

Edit: Here is what Pynchon initially wrote on the Amazon preorder page, taken down for unknown reasons. Perhaps it’s not authentic? It sounds authentic enough:

Spanning the period between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, this novel moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.
With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.

The sizable cast of characters includes anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics, and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses, and hired guns. There are cameo appearances by Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi, and Groucho Marx.

As an era of certainty comes crashing down around their ears and an unpredictable future commences, these folks are mostly just trying to pursue their lives. Sometimes they manage to catch up; sometimes it’s their lives that pursue them.

Meanwhile, the author is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they’re doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur. If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction.

Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.

–Thomas Pynchon