Friday, March 11, 2005

Success, in spite of itself

"I have seen movies under lousy conditions and still loved them."

--Roger Ebert

This quote reminds me of the time I saw The African Queen in a screening presented by a tiny film society at the University of Chicago. The society was called, if I remember correctly, Outlaw Films, and it was the successor to the displaced Law School Films, which screened classic Hollywood movies in the auditorium of the lawyer factory. Both societies were shrinking violets compared to Doc Films, the campus's most prominent film group (and a superb one).

But I love watching old movies, so I sought out this African Queen presentation, which took place in a lecture hall in the biology building. Everything went wrong: two people showed up, the projector was missing at first, the print was a mess, the screen was too small, and the sound came from a single speaker all the way across the huge room from the image.

And the movie was great. I resigned myself to a unique experience (it pays to keep an open mind at student screenings), and even under those circumstances, the film was as delightful as everyone knows it is.

And look, I was so annoyed by The Phantom Menace that a few weeks before it came out, I wrote a snarky letter about it to The New York Times.
A convert

I share Brian's enthusiasm for the new Star Wars movie--up to a point: I must confess, Brian, that I likely won't catch the screening at midnight May 18. But I have seen the theatrical trailer a couple of times now, and I find it stirring.

This surprises me a little. I loved the original trilogy as much as any kid at the time (I was six when the first one came out), but as the excitement surrounding Phantom Menace built to hysteria in the spring of 1999, I found myself less and less interested in the new films. I have this near-fatal contrarian streak, you see, and I all too often fall into the trap of pooh-poohing that which is new and popular, because it is new and popular, and then eventually coming around. Other examples: Pulp Fiction, Post-It Notes.

I wrote about my thoughts at the time in an e-mail to a friend, part of which I'd like to share with you. The message is dated March 24, 1999, and in it I describe a St. Patrick's Day party I attended, at which
the fun was dampened somewhat by my principled attempt to explain to an assistant district attorney why Star Wars is undeserving of all the love and devotion it receives. He wasn't buying and mocked both my criticisms and my acknowledgements of the movie's strengths.

Me: It's badly written and acted.
He: [Sneering] It's modern mythology! It's a GREAT movie!
Me: It's derivative. It recycles cliches.
He: [Sneering] Have you ever heard of CAMP?
Me: No, never, and it's not camp. The special effects are pretty good though.
He: [Sneering] "Pretty good." So what movies DO you like?
Me: Um, Potemkin?
I was shameless even then, but anyway. I was prepared never to see Phantom Menace and to go on loathing it, but when it opened the following May, the magazine I worked for took an office holiday for lunch and a matinee. Never one to pass up free food and entertainment, I tagged along, and...

...I loved it. In no small part because I had such low expectations, certainly, but I thought Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace was terrific, and even thought-provoking, in its way. I saw it twice again that summer. I was excited all over again to see Attack of the Clones in 2002, and when Ereck and I went, I relished filling him in on all the developments from the first installment, which he hadn't seen.

And so I find myself a Star Wars contrarian all over again: moviegoers and critics have been almost universally disappointed by, yes, the acting and the writing of the new films, but I think they're marvelous, gorgeous entertainments. I won't be at Revenge of the Sith opening night, and probably not even opening week (I like to let the hoopla die down a bit), but I'll be there soon enough and, if recent experience is anything to go by, cheering every frame.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A critic speaks

The New Yorker
magazine has mounted a tour of college campuses, and this week the show stops at the University of Wisconsin, here in Madison. Today I went to the arts critics event, which promised to be a panel discussion with David Denby (film), Nancy Franklin (TV) and Sasha Frere-Jones (pop music). But when I arrived, a young man with a clipboard told me that Franklin and Frere-Jones were still in New York, grounded by a blizzard, so the panel would be just Denby and James Baughman, director of UW's department of journalism and mass communications. I wasn't too disappointed: I enjoy Franklin and Frere-Jones, but I wanted mostly to see Denby, whose books American Sucker and Great Books I recently read and admired.

The Fredric March Play Circle in Memorial Union was full when the event got underway at noon. Buchanan began with a brief pr�cis of Denby's career, and then asked a series of questions, most of them relating not to film criticism as such but to the movies in general. Which was just fine: Denby knows a lot about the business and was thoughtful (and enjoyably cranky) in discussing it, especially the crassness of the studios' marketing techniques.

And he did say many interesting things about writing, as when he urged budding movie critics to "keep reading, to keep it fresh and keep yourself alive, and try to keep the copy alert." He also had funny insights into the world of The New Yorker ("They fact check everything, including the poems"), and he noted that he sometimes has more difficulty getting into screenings than do his competitors on television: "It's like the studios say, We're not going to let this overeducated pissant in New York--or an even better educated pissant in London, my colleague Anthony [Lane, The New Yorker's other film critic]--ruin this movie.'"

After 45 minutes or so, Denby took questions from audience members, who mostly wanted to know what he thought about this movie or that director ("There was a great critical debate about Brian De Palma"). I asked him about how he writes: does he always start writing with a lead? Does he procrastinate? He said that for movie reviews, he usually starts by simply typing impressions, more or less at random, and a review eventually emerges. As for procrastination, he said he procrastinates on books and long articles, but not movie reviews.

When I raised my hand, Baughman called on me as "the gentleman in the turtleneck." I'm so ashamed...

Recently I wrote a cover story for Isthmus newspaper about Barnstorm, the University of Wisconsin Press' new collection of short fiction by Wisconsin writers. The article is now up on the web, and you can read it here.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Waka waka

As you probably realize, I love lists of things. So here's a list.

Video games are huge business these days, but I'm not sure they've ever been as thoroughly mainstream as they were during the fad of ca. 1980-1983. Here are four songs from the early 1980s about video games; all are by prominent artists, and none is by a novelty artist. (Sorry, Buckner & Garcia fans.) Have any big stars done songs about video games recently? Setting aside for the moment the matter of music in video games, which complicates things.

Lou Reed, "Down at the Arcade" (1984)
The Dazz Band, "Joystick" (1983)
Cameo, "Let's Not Talk Slot" (1983)
The Pretenders, "Space Invader" (1980)

The Pretenders song actually is an instrumental, but its inspiration is clear. The track even features sound effects from the game Space Invaders, which was also immortalized by a certain Uncle Vic in the minor novelty hit from 1980, "Space Invaders."

An honorable mention goes to the Who's 1982 album It's Hard, the cover of which features the obscure Atari game Space Duel. It also seems important to mention that in 1983, Journey unveiled its eponymously titled arcade game.

Monday, March 07, 2005

The pipes, the pipes are calling

Dan Rather signs off tomorrow, March 8, as anchor of the "CBS Evening News." Dan Rather is my hero, and I will miss him--though when it comes to evening news, I'm more of a Peter Jennings man. (I think Anderson Cooper is super hot, but his show is trashy. As for Brian Williams, I now ignore NBC news as automatically as I ignore Fox News.)

All that established, I wanted to share with you this transcript of Rather's interesting and poignant appearance on "The Late Show With David Letterman" last week. The link is to a page on a feeble anti-Rather web site, and I don't want you to think I endorse that rot. But I enjoyed the transcript.
Tip of the hat

Garry Trudeau looks at an important recent event in today's installment of "Doonesbury."

Sunday, March 06, 2005


Like members of the Darling family on "The Andy Griffith Show," I'm extremely sensitive, and music often makes me cry. So here are some performances (mostly recorded, though one important one was live) that have brought on the waterworks. The list began to get unwieldy, so I broke it down into rough categories. I'm not entirely satisfied with this taxonomy, but it'll do.

Having compiled this list, I must say: Tito, bring me a tissue.

Death and dying
Gilbert O'Sullivan, "Alone Again (Naturally)"
Liza Minnelli, "Cabaret"
The Carter Family, "Cyclone of Rye Cove"
The Verve Pipe, "The Freshmen"
Roy Acuff, "The Great Titanic"
Tanya Tucker, "The Man That Turned My Mama On"
TLC, "Waterfalls"

Sad people
Liz Phair, "Divorce Song"
The Beach Boys, "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)"
Julie Andrews, "Feed the Birds"
Robbie Fulks, "Forgotten But Not Gone"
Dixie Chicks, "Goodbye Earl"
Alanis Morisette, "Hands Clean"
Bette Midler, "Hello in There"
Tammy Wynette, "I Don't Want to Play House"
Toby Keith with Sting, "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying"
Kelly Clarkson, "Low"
Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow, "Picture"
Tammy Wynette, "She Didn't Color Daddy"
Fountains of Wayne, "Stacy's Mom"
The Oak Ridge Boys, "Y'all Come Back Saloon"


Flatt and Scruggs, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown"
Morris Stoloff, "Moonglow / Theme From Picnic"

Religious fervor
Tanya Tucker, "The Baptism of Jesse Taylor"
Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, "Fondue Friends in Switzerland"
Red Foley, "Just a Closer Walk With Thee"

Sheer ecstasy
The 5th Dimension, "Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In"
Chicago, "Beginnings"
Madonna, "Express Yourself"
Shelley Duvall, "He Needs Me"
Tanya Tucker, "I Believe the South is Gonna Rise Again"
Las Ketchup, "The Ketchup Song (Hey Hah)"
Tanya Tucker, "Let Me Be There"
Madonna, "Like a Prayer"
Frankie Yankovic, "Pennsylvania Polka"
Blossom Dearie, "Rhode Island Is Famous For You"
The B-52's, "Roam"
Tanya Tucker, "San Antonio Stroll"
Willie Nelson, "Somewhere in Texas, Pt. 1"
Tanya Tucker, "Song Man"
Madonna, "Vogue"
Susannah McCorkle, "Waters of March"
Olivia Newton John, "Xanadu"

Judy Garland, "Better Luck Next Time"
Patsy Cline, "Faded Love"
Conway Twitty, "Fifteen Years Ago"
Shelley Plimpton, "Frank Mills"
Tanya Tucker, "Horseshoe Bend"
Dolly Parton, "I Will Always Love You"
Judy Garland, "It Only Happens When I Dance With You"
Elvis Presley, "Kentucky Rain"
Waylon Jennings, "The Last Letter"
Rod Stewart, "Mama You Been on My Mind"
Judy Garland, "The Man that Got Away"
Rosemary Clooney, "Memories of You"
Dolly Parton, "Most of All Why"
Madonna, "Sooner or Later"
Martin Price, "Sooner or Later"
Patsy Cline, "Sweet Dreams"
Hank Williams, "Wedding Bells"
George Jones, "You Oughta Be Here With Me"
Patty Loveless with George Jones, "You Don't Seem to Miss Me"