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A Change of Venue May 13, 2011

Posted by monty in Uncategorized.
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Attention, subscribers and other regular readers:

I’ve picked up stakes and moved to a new blog.  An explanation is available there, so make haste and navigate your way to Warehouse: Songs and Stories.

And, when you get there, remember to click the “Subscribe” link on the left-hand side of the page.  Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you over there.



The Night Will Always Win March 3, 2011

Posted by monty in personal.

Tomorrow I make the long drive from Atlanta to Columbus, Ohio, most likely to see my mom for the last time.

It seems harsh to say she’s dying, even though she certainly is.  And I don’t mean that in the existential, “we all start to die as soon as we’re born” way. And I don’t mean it to be melodramatic or hyperbolic.  After battling cancer since 1995, she decided five days ago to forego any further treatment and turn herself over to hospice care.  I know I need to prepare myself for what’s going to happen – soon, much too soon – but I still feel the need to soften the blow.

Her story, briefly:

In 1995, shortly before I moved to California, she was diagnosed with peritoneal cancer.  It’s uncommon, but similar (as I understand it) to ovarian cancer.  Her doctors discovered it when she went in for routine hernia surgery, and they found it at such an early stage that everyone was hopeful for a full recovery.  She had surgery, followed by chemotherapy.  Distance afforded me a sort of comfort: I was on the other side of the country, and I don’t think I ever had a complete picture of just how difficult this treatment was for her.  Hair loss.  Nausea.  All the usual suspects.  But within a year or so it appeared she had beaten it.

And that’s the way it continued for a dozen or so years.  Cancer was a spectre that hovered on the periphery, an unwelcome guest that lurked just outside the door but never quite crossed the threshold.  There were semiannual checkups with an oncologist, but the results of her bloodwork always came back looking just fine.  A lot happened in this time.  My brother got married and went to grad school, then to law school.  I taught high school, then returned to grad school myself.  My mom and dad both retired and began traveling regularly, around the U.S. and to Ireland.  They became obsessive walkers, going out once or twice during the day, and always making sure to find time for it on their travels.  They volunteered through their church, doing immeasurable good for people in their community who were without family and resources themselves.  If possible, they were busier in retirement than they were when they were teaching.

A little over two years ago, though – just as I was finishing up my Ph.D. and looking for teaching positions back east – my mom suddenly found herself suffering from shortness of breath.  It first manifested itself during her walks with my dad.  She couldn’t go as far, had to stop and sit for a while. Soon, even walking from one room to another required that she sit at the midpoint to recover.  After a trip to the emergency room, it turned out that her hemoglobin levels had plummeted, and she had to undergo the first of what was to become a dozen or more blood transfusions in the next 18 months.

As it turned out, there was tumor growth in her intestine causing internal bleeding.  The situation was dire, and the prognosis wasn’t good.  She went back on an aggressive form of chemotherapy, and, amazingly, it worked.  She had to alter her diet substantially, and her plans now had to constantly revolve around her chemo schedule, but for most of the last two years she’s been in decent health.  She and my dad were still able to do some traveling – to California to see me receive my degree; to Atlanta a couple times after I had moved into a new place and taken a new job; and, most significantly, to Zion National Park in Utah, where she was actually able to do some hiking.  My nephew was born a little over a year ago, so my parents sold the house I grew up in and moved to a condo in the suburbs of Columbus so they could enjoy being grandparents.  I was just a drive away, and in a good relationship of my own with a girl my parents adored.  The family was as close as it had been in 15 years.

Two weeks ago, she started suffering from symptoms of jaundice.  My dad immediately took her to her doctor, and we got the kind of news that we had been dreading all this time.  The cancer had spread to her liver and become more deeply entrenched in her intestine.  There were things she could do – emergency stomach surgery, some hyper-intense form of radiation – but it was made pretty clear that it would only be a stopgap, a temporary way of prolonging the inevitable.

Four days ago, she decided that hospice was the best route.  She’s tired, and I understand her decision.  She’s lived with this for years, had several different abdominal surgeries, done the bloodwork regularly, endured the transfusions.  She’s tired, and I think the prospect of subjecting herself to another surgery or as many as 15 debilitating radiation sessions is just too much to bear.  I can’t be mad at her.  It would be selfish.  But the hurt – the sense of loss – is just starting to seep in around the edges.  Day to day, my biggest task is just holding it together.

In many ways, I’m as sad for my dad as I am for my mom.  They started dating when they were teenagers, and now they’ve been married for over 40 years.  This can’t be how he envisioned them ending up, and I can’t imagine what this is like for him – to lose someone who’s been with him for all but the first 13 years of his life.  But this teaches me what marriage is all about.  This is, as they say, where the rubber meets the road.  To care for your wife in her last days.  To see her across to the other side.  And to do it without flinching.

I talked to her on the phone yesterday.  She still sounds good, still has her sense of humor.  I don’t know how she does it.  Is it easier for the person who’s leaving than for those who are left?  I do a good job of talking to her, I think.  Keep it light.  Focus on me.  Be funny.  Is that dishonest?  Should we say the things we’re supposed to say at this time, or is it more important to try and keep the darkness at bay?  I honestly don’t know.  Nothing about it feels right; it’s all varying degrees of wrong.

And of course there’s the guilt.  One or two visits a year for nearly fifteen years.  All the times I dodged phone calls because I wasn’t in the mood or didn’t have anything exciting to talk about.  The stupid childhood rebellions and the things I said that I didn’t mean.  As the clock ticks down, I’m suddenly faced with an inventory of regret, and I realize that all the clichés are true.

Treasure the time you have with the people you love.

Tell them – repeatedly, honestly – just how much they mean to you.

Tomorrow I make the long drive from Atlanta to Columbus, Ohio, most likely to see my mom for the last time.

I’m not ready.

Come Away in the Dark December 23, 2010

Posted by monty in music.
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And now, #5 in my grab-bag of Favorite 2010 Albums:

Phantogram – Eyelid Movies

Although in the past I’ve obsessively ranked and ordered my year-end lists, part of me has always resisted it.  It seems somehow silly to objectively rank something as subjective as one’s response to art, whether it be books, movies, or music.  That’s one reason why A) I’m presenting this year-end collection of music in no particular order, and B) I’ve purposely named it “Favorite” music, as opposed to “Best.”  I currently own 444 full-length albums released in 2010.  To think I could even hope to name one as “Best” is, well, stupid.

That’s just a long way of getting to Phantogram’s unbelievable debut, Eyelid Movies. Because if I were ranking my favorite albums (and I’m not), this one would be settled firmly at #2, right behind The National’s High Violet. It’s rare that an album that hews pretty closely to the electronic genre finds its way to the top of my list, but Phantogram sidesteps the boring ol’ thud-thud-thud-squeak school of dance music to make something that, to my unschooled ears at least, sounds pretty unique.

A duo of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel, Phantogram makes something that sort of sounds like Portishead crossed with My Bloody Valentine (which, yeah, are sort of lazy reference points, but there you have it), but way funkier than either of them.  And it’s appropriate that the album be titled Eyelid Movies, because each of the 11 songs here sounds like it could soundtrack the coolest Steven Soderbergh movie ever.  And maybe that’s a better reference point for those who would get it.  Some of the songs here – “Running from the Cops,” with its propulsive beat, garbled spoken-word vocals, and angelic hook and “You Are the Ocean’s” chiming guitars and downbeat electronic melody, especially – remind me a lot of David Holmes’ unsung 2000 dynamo, Bow Down to the Exit Sign. Their music is gritty and moody, but there are also moments of transcendent beauty, such as in the skyscraping chorus of “You Are the Ocean.”

And, like Holmes’ work, Phantogram’s music defies easy categorization. Barthel’s vocals are by turns delicate and dominating, and her keyboards and Carter’s guitars mesh in unexpected and surprising ways.  It’s dance music for people who like guitars, Low-Life-era New Order, and psychedelia. And, although this strays somewhat from the spirit of choosing favorite albums, the band is ferocious in a live setting.  I saw them a couple months ago in Atlanta, and it was easily one of my favorite shows of the year (and Sarah and Josh were kind enough to sign for me the last copy of vinyl they had at the merch table).  There’s just not a weak spot on the album, and if someone forced me to choose my favorite song of the year, “Mouthful of Diamonds” would get the nod.  This is a remarkable album by any standard, but it’s even more impressive to remember that Eyelid Movies is their debut. Seriously great things await this band.

I know I’ve posted at least one of these songs elsewhere on the site, but these are two of my favorite songs from the album (although I literally could have chosen any of them).  The first is the video for the aforementioned “Mouthful of Diamonds,” the second is a live version of “Running from the Cops” (which just gave me goosebumps as I watched it.  Ridiculous).


Current listening:

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – History of Modern (2010)

A Token of Gratitude December 22, 2010

Posted by monty in comedy, politics, pop culture.
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As if I didn’t already have enough reason to love Larry David (co-creator of Seinfeld and the man responsible for the brilliant Curb Your Enthusiasm), he’s now written a hilarious op-ed for The New York Times thanking Republicans for extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

The satire will probably be lost on most Republicans, but it perfectly encapsulates the absolute absurdity of the argument that those in this tax bracket would be in any way financially disadvantaged if the tax cuts had been allowed to expire.  It’s just another example of how the GOP has manipulated the dialogue to make the average middle-class American think it’s their patriotic duty to support an upper class that couldn’t give a shit about them.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt:

It’s also going to be a boon for my health. After years of coveting them, I’ll finally be able to afford blueberries. Did you know they have a lot of antioxidants, which prevent cancer? Cancer! This tax cut just might save my life. Who said Republicans don’t support health care? I’m going to have the blueberries with my cereal, and I’m not talking Special K. Those days are over. It’s nothing but real granola from now on. The kind you get in the plastic bins in health food stores. Did someone say “organic”?

Larry David: Thanks for the Tax Cut! (The New York Times; 12/20/10)


Current listening:

Balthazar – Applause

Last movie seen:

From Within (2008; Phedon Papamichael, dir.)

Dreaming of Another World December 21, 2010

Posted by monty in music.
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Herein lies entry #4 in my random list of Favorite Albums of 2010.

Cloud Cult – Light Chasers

Strip away Arcade Fire’s bombast, self-importance, and the calculated “anarchy” of their live shows, add in a palpable feeling of optimism and euphoria (even when their lyrics are dealing with melancholy and loss), and you’ve got Cloud Cult.  A true indie band – singer/guitarist Craig Minowa started his own label in rural Minnesota in order to release their music in an environmentally-friendly way – Cloud Cult continues to hover just on the cusp of greatness with this, their seventh album.

Light Chasers is their most ambitious work yet, a song cycle purportedly about “an astronaut’s journey from liftoff to landing” (or so says AllMusic Guide).  Cloud Cult’s own website describes it as an album about the search for answers, so, yes, there’s definitely a whiff of pretension hovering over the proceedings.  But here’s the thing: their melodies are so fucking beautiful and uplifting that it’s one of those rare albums where you come away feeling like you just experienced something important.

Across 16 songs (some fully formed, the others shorter sketches), the band does what it does best, mixing guitars, strings, brass, and electronics with Minowa’s delicate tenor to create songs that are both ornate and majestic. One of the most entertaining things about the band is how they make this particular quality work within the strictures of conventional rock music (in the “Unexplainable Stories” clip, watch how the song kicks into high gear at 3:25).  It’s fun, inspiring stuff, and it’s driving me bonkers that the closest they’re coming to my neck of the woods in support of this album is freaking Memphis. Disappointing, Cloud Cult.

Here are two songs from the album, recorded live at Seattle’s KEXP.  The first is “Unexplainable Stories,” the second is the gorgeous “There’s So Much Energy in Us.”


Current listening:

Lilys – Precollection (2003)

All We Make Is Entertainment December 21, 2010

Posted by monty in comedy, movies.
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When it comes to movies, we’re conditioned to respect singularity. The pop culture landscape is cluttered with the names of directors who are credited as the sole voice, the lone vision, behind their films.  This gets hammered home through trailers, commercials, and opening credits, when movies are billed as “A (insert name here) Film” or “A Film by (insert name here”).  This often gets done without recourse to logic or reality, when even marginal talents who haven’t contributed anything of real consequence to cinema history, but who also don’t write or produce their own films, are granted an authorial credit.  I don’t particularly have anything against Jon Turteltaub, but I remember being especially peeved during the trailer for his recent film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, when it was marketed as “A Jon Turteltaub Film,” as though that actually means anything to anyone.  (“The visionary behind National Treasure is directing a Disney flick marketed to kids?  Sign me up!”)

Sometimes, though, it’s earned.  In this country, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane stands as probably the most obvious example, with Welles as producer-writer-director-star of what is often considered to be the greatest movie of all time.  Woody Allen is another good example, taking a writer-director credit on all of the 42 features he’s directed, and starring in many of them, including undisputed classics like Annie Hall and Manhattan. Probably the most relevant contemporary example is writer-director Quentin Tarantino, whose films clearly boast the man’s unique visual style and verbal gameplay. Even pulpier names like Kevin Smith and George A. Romero can lay legitimate claim to singular authorship.  As both writer and director of many of their movies, there’s no denying that the end products reflect their particular sensibilities.

More interesting to me, though, is the creative partnership.  Whether it’s Martin Scorsese’s brilliant work over several movies with Robert de Niro, Tim Burton’s partnership with composer Danny Elfman (13 films), or Christopher Guest’s unparalleled troupe of improvisational comedians, I’m drawn more to the work of people who clearly inspire one another and do their best work in each other’s company. I’m sort of fascinated by things like Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost’s brilliant trifecta of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz, or even how Judd Apatow has continually worked with certain actors over the course of his career.  Interpersonal dynamics, and the process by which artists complement each other, are, for whatever reason, much more compelling to me than the notion of one person taking primary responsibility for a work of art.  I’m not taking anything away from that accomplishment (when was the last time I wrote and directed a movie?); I just find it less interesting than, say, Bill Murray showing up in every one of Wes Anderson’s films.

My favorite partnership, though, is pictured at the top of this post.  Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant – while not solely filmmakers – have done more to entertain me in the last seven years than anyone.  Their original UK version of The Office is one of the best shows of the decade, and I watch the whole thing at least once a year.  Their follow-up, Extras, doesn’t hit quite the same heights as its predecessor, but it’s every bit as entertaining and possesses some impressive emotional undercurrents  that sneak up on you when you don’t expect it.  And their podcast with Karl Pilkington is glorious in its free-associative absurdity.

I’ve detailed my admiration for Gervais elsewhere on this site, so what I really want to do is take a few moments to talk about the underappreciated Merchant.  As good as Ricky is, it’s only in his collaborations with Stephen that he truly soars.  For instance, Gervais is a fine standup comedian, but his two American specials aren’t essential viewing in the way The Office or Extras are, and Ricky’s first directing credit without Stephen, 2009’s The Invention of Lying, is certainly sly and funny, but it’s also frustratingly uneven and dips significantly in an overlong final act.  While their individual strengths are obvious – Ricky is an expert at broad comedy, where Stephen seems to be subtler, quieter, and more self-deprecating – it isn’t clear exactly what role each man takes in their collaborations.  However their responsibilities are defined, it’s clear that Gervais’ best work is done with his frequent partner.

One of my favorite things about Extras is that it allowed Merchant to introduce the character of Darren Lamb, the well-meaning but completely incompetent agent to Gervais’ character, Andy Millman.  Their scenes together transcend typical TV comedy because their interactions are based 100% in character; there’s never a sense that the comedy comes in favor of jokes at the expense of who these two men really are.  And, more importantly, each of their scenes is tinged slightly by sadness and frustration, giving the show surprising emotional heft.  Darren really wants to do well, but he lacks the necessary something (responsibility? mental acuity? common sense?) to get the job done.  Even so, there’s always the sense that the shallow and indecisive Andy doesn’t deserve someone as loyal as Darren, even though the agent is clearly not helping Andy’s career.  It’s a virtuoso tightrope act, where the viewer’s allegiances can shift within a scene, from wishing Darren would finally do something right for a change, to wishing Andy would take it easy on a guy who’s clearly trying his hardest.  I think this dynamic is mainly a credit to Merchant, who could easily play Darren as a dolt.  Instead, he comes off as a good-natured and fiercely loyal scatterbrain, whose best will just never be good enough.

What follows is a montage of some of the best of Darren’s bits with Andy.  I don’t know how well these brief excerpts will translate to someone who doesn’t know the show, so I’ve also included a longer scene, which is one of my favorites.

These scenes serve as a compelling testament to the quality of Gervais and Merchant’s partnership, but they also prove that Merchant is crucial to their joint endeavors.  In this way, Merchant looks to be Brian Eno to Gervais’ David Bowie: Gervais is capable of quality stuff on his own, but it’s only with the right collaborator that he achieves greatness.


Current listening:

Duran Duran – All You Need Is Now (2010)

Last movie seen:

The Alphabet Killer (2008; Rob Schmidt, dir.)

Stupid Republican Thing of the Day (12/20/10) December 20, 2010

Posted by monty in politics.
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In what is sure (and unfortunately) to become a regular feature, here’s the first in an open-ended series documenting how ridiculous and irrelevant the modern Republican party has become.  On a side note, anyone want to wager how many of these in an average week will involve Sarah Palin?


Sarah Palin: “Michelle Obama Wants the Government to Take Away Our Dessert!”

Okay, I’m paraphrasing, but not by much.  From CNN:

Sarah Palin is again taking aim at Michelle Obama over her anti-obesity campaign, taking the opportunity in Sunday’s “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” to land a diss against the first lady’s efforts to improve nutrition.

While making s’mores at one point during Sunday’s episode, the former Alaska governor proclaims the marshmallow and chocolate treat is “in honor of Michelle Obama, who said the other day we should not have dessert.”

It’s not the first time Palin has taken a job at Mrs. Obama over her campaign to discourage fattening foods, especially from public schools. The former vice presidential nominee told conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham last month that “the first lady cannot trust parents to make decisions for their own children, for their own families in what we should eat.”

This is how bizarre the GOP’s anti-government rhetoric has gotten, where an observation that our country – and, increasingly, our children – has become dangerously obese can only be seen as an attempt by the government to control your life.  They may not be bright, but Sarah Palin has helped the Republicans corner the market on petty and mean-spirited.  Will someone please make this woman go away?


Current listening:

Asobi Seksu – Fluorescence (2010)

Last movie seen:

Ghostbusters II (1989; Ivan Reitman, dir.)

Cinema Sunday (12/19/10) December 19, 2010

Posted by monty in movies.
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Director David O. Russell presents me with an apparently insoluble contradiction.  On the one hand, he’s directed two movies in the last fifteen years that I consider to be the very best of their genre.  Flirting With Disaster is a comedy both broad and subtle, based in finely-sketched characters as well as in the conventions of traditional farce.  This story of a man attempting to reconnect with his biological parents has one of the richest and deepest comedic casts of any movie I can think of: Ben Stiller (easily his best work), Tea Leoni, Josh Brolin, and Richard Jenkins are remarkably funny; Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal are reliably great as Stiller’s adoptive parents; and Russell made a savvy move in casting Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda against type as a pair of ex-hippie LSD-manufacturers.  It’s easily one of my all-time favorite comedies.

Similarly, Three Kings is one of the best recent war movies, and was the best movie about the Gulf War (albeit the first Gulf War) until The Hurt Locker came along.  It’s a sly little movie about a group of opportunists (George Clooney, Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg, and Spike Jonze) who attempt to get rich at the end of the war and end up as unexpected humanitarians.  In its discomfiting mix of humor, violence, and sentiment, it’s too clever and complicated to be pigeonholed as “just” an anti-war film, and what we’re left with is a keenly-observed film about human nature under duress.

So, yeah, Russell is an immensely-talented director.  But he’s also, by many accounts, a massive douchebag.  His conflicts with Clooney on the set of Three Kings are well-documented (Clooney, apparently as nice a guy as Hollywood has ever seen, charged Russell with, among other things, being in over his head, physically abusing an extra, verbally abusing everyone else, and generally being an asshole) and Clooney has vowed never to work with him again.  And then, of course, there’s his legendary freakout on the set of I Heart Huckabees.  To wit (and skip to 1:07 for the good stuff):

It’s difficult for me to completely admire the work of a guy who’s apparently sort of a dingus in the filmmaking process.  It’s not nearly the same thing as reconciling the brilliance of Roman Polanski’s movies with his other career as, you know, a child rapist, but I’d much rather the people whose work I like be kind, gracious human beings instead of immature, tempter-tantrum-throwing bullies.

So it was these reservations that I brought to The Fighter, along with the fact that I hadn’t been a huge fan of Huckabees, which seemed to me to be a movie too overly pleased with its own cleverness.  But I’d heard great things about Christian Bale’s performance, and if Wahlberg was willing to re-up with Russell after Three Kings and Huckabees, maybe he deserved another chance from me, too.  Oh, and Amy Adams.  That’s reason enough, right there.

So, first off, The Fighter is a sports movie only in the sense that Three Kings is a war movie. Simply put, it’s got other things on its mind.  Wahlberg plays Mickey Ward, a hen-pecked boxer who’s never really amounted to much. He’s managed by his overbearing mother Alice (played by a terrific Melissa Leo) and trained by his half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale, more on which later), a former fighter and present-day crackhead who constantly relives his glory days when he supposedly knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring.  It’s clear from the start that Mickey has the potential for greatness, but he’s hamstrung at every turn by his mother’s poor management.  Not helping matters is the constant drama that results from Dicky’s unreliability (as well as their unresolved sibling rivalry), which is a distraction when Mickey should have the focus of a laser.  It’s only when Dicky is arrested and Mickey falls in love with Amy Adams’ rough-edged barmaid Charlene that he’s able to extricate himself from his family and begin to train in earnest.

The Fighter is a curious movie because, as I said above, it’s not really a boxing movie.  It’s a movie about family, and how sometimes the people we love are the worst things for us.  With that as its thesis, it’s crucial that Mickey be a compelling character whom we want to see transcend the struggles that threaten to hold him down.  As played by Wahlberg, however, Mickey is hardly there.  He’s understated, indecisive, passive, constantly overshadowed by Alice, Dicky, and Charlene, who are all stronger characters than he is.  As The Fighter is based on a true story, it’s possible that this is how Mickey really is (an assumption strengthened by a clip of the two real-life brothers that runs with the end credits), but it doesn’t necessarily make for a compelling film.  This isn’t necessarily Wahlberg’s fault, who does serviceable work with an underwritten character.  I think my brother actually hit the nail on the head when he asked me, “Does Wahlberg play a character dumb enough for him to be good?”  That seems to be an accurate summation of Wahlberg’s talent as an actor: he’s great, as long as he’s not required to stretch.  And, as I said, he does decent work here as a simple guy torn between allegiances.  But if the movie had to live or die with his performance, it would be on life support.

No, the movie’s success (and it was successful, in that it was an interesting story and I was never bored) comes down to Leo, Adams, and Bale, who all give top-flight performances.  Adams’ is the least demanding of the bunch, as an unapologetic college dropout who’s perfectly happy with the life she’s living.  Leo just barely dodges caricature to find real depth as Alice, a deeply flawed (and deeply unpleasant) woman who can’t seem to reconcile her love for her sons with her overwhelming desire to take the credit for all their success and none of their failure.  And then there’s Bale.  He’s not quite as gaunt here as he was in The Machinist, but he’s lost enough weight that his face is all bony angles and bulging eyes, and he plays Dicky as a motor-mouth huckster who can sell anyone anything – and that extends to the illusions he has of himself.  An HBO film crew follows him around; Dicky seems to sincerely believe it’s about his inevitable comeback, when it’s actually a documentary about the ravages of crack cocaine.  The moment when he realizes the truth – of the documentary and of his life – is heartbreaking.

There’s enough other good stuff to admire in The Fighter to make it work (Jack McGee’s performance as Mickey and Dicky’s father; the well-shot boxing sequences), but it’s a movie battling schizophrenia.  On the one hand, Mickey’s pencil sketch of a character dukes it out in a conventional sports movie, while on the other hand, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, and Christian Bale seem to be transmitting their performances from another, better movie, where much more is at stake.  Given my own indecision about Russell’s work (and working style), it seems somehow fitting that a similar tension would be present in The Fighter.  It’s an entertaining movie that should be so much better, directed by a guy whose work I enjoy even though I wish I didn’t.


Current listening:

Violens – Amoral (2010)

Current reading:

George R.R. Martin – A Feast for Crows (2005)

Paint Out the Light December 17, 2010

Posted by monty in music, personal.
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I hadn’t intended to take quite this much time off, but I’m busy here in the frozen Midwest, visiting family, opening presents, and eating way too much. Also, I accidentally asked a recovering alcoholic if he’d ever tried Four Loko, so there’s that.

Regular programming will resume on Sunday.

In the meantime, here’s #3 in my 100% arbitrary list of Favorite 2010 Albums (but it bears mentioning that if these weren’t completely arbitrary and I were ranking them in order of preference, today’s entry would be my unequivocal #1 choice):

The National  – High Violet

I’m an unapologetic fan of melancholy.  Much of my favorite music over the years (or at least, much of my favorite music since I started listening to the stuff I currently listen to) has sported a rich vein of the stuff.  The Smiths, Joy Division, Nick Cave, Elbow, Elvis Costello, Tindersticks – for me, there’s always been a strange sense of comfort in listening to music that, to other people, often comes off like a huge bummer.

And that’s why, right now, The National is my favorite band in the universe (next to Elbow, which will undoubtedly be an entry in my 2011 Favorite Albums list).  As someone who was lucky enough to get in on the ground floor with this band, it’s been fun to listen to them mature over the course of their five albums, becoming more confident and sophisticated with each release.

For fans of the band, High Violet is an extremely satisfying collection of songs that also provides a useful entry point for newcomers.  While its stock in trade are the slow-burn numbers that make up a bulk of the album (like opener “Terrible Love,” which escalates from funereal to ferocious in the space of four-and-a-half minutes and the gorgeously bittersweet “Runaway”), High Violet is peppered with the stripped-down rockers that have arguably been the high point of previous albums.  “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is propulsive, euphoric, and one of the best things they’ve ever written.

Some have criticized the band for treading water on this album (I guess they wish there was more superfluous bleeping and blooping like the new Sufjan Stevens album, or maybe a cameo by T.I.), but to me it sounds like a sophisticated and triumphant culmination of the sound they’ve been developing over their last four albums.

Here are two songs from the album.  The first is their video for “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” the second is “Terrible Love,” taken from their amazing show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  You have to watch them on YouTube – which is sort of stupid – so click Play, then click one more link to get to the song.  The extra click is worth it.


Current listening:

Rollerskate Skinny – Horsedrawn Wishes (1996)

Walk Towards the Light December 14, 2010

Posted by monty in music.
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#2 in the totally not-at-all sequential list of my favorite albums of 2010:

Thrushes – Night Falls

If an album review even mentions the term shoegaze – or any of the familiar catchphrases often used to describe bands of this genre, such as sonic cathedrals or waves of distortion or shimmery guitars – there’s a 100% chance I’ll track the album down, and about a 98% chance I’ll like it (sorry, The Domino State).  I don’t know what it is about this style of music that always grabs me, but I never tire of it, even though it seems as though its practitioners have run out of new things to do with it.

Night Falls, the second album by Thrushes, does bring some new-old things to the table: the waves of distortion are there, as are the ominous basslines and propulsive drums that often keep songs such as these from completely drifting away into the ether.  But where traditional shoegaze often relies on murky, barely distinguishable vocals, Thrushes put singer Anna Conner’s voice right up front, and she drives the songs with some seriously powerful pipes.  In this way their music has more in common with Lush or Velocity Girl than Ride or My Bloody Valentine, and the trick is just unusual enough to seem revolutionary.

Here’s their song “Crystals” (which, besides being a killer song, has a pretty great video, too):


Current listening:

The National – High Violet (2010)

In the Distance Fading December 13, 2010

Posted by monty in personal.
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Tomorrow I make the long drive up I-75 to Ohio.  I’ll travel through the beautiful North Georgia and Tennessee mountains, across the Kentucky wastelands (a state that is, as far as I can tell, waaaaayyyy more racist than I even imagined Georgia would be), and up the interminable I-71 corridor from Cincinnati to Columbus, where, in that two-hour stretch of hell’s roadway, I will get my fill of strip malls, barren fields, and megachurches.  This will be my first Christmas since my parents moved out of my childhood home, and I’m surprised at the lack of nostalgia I feel.

I had a lot of good years in that house.  I lived in it from the age of 6 until I went to college at 18; summers for the next four years were spent there; and I visited once or twice a year for almost 15 years after that.  Even if I don’t feel a particular attachment to the house itself, I’m surprised that I don’t feel more wistful about the land that surrounded it.

Growing up, I’d disappear into the woods behind the house for hours at a time.  I’d tell my parents I was having “adventures,” and I’d go tearing into the woods with a stick as a sword, or else I’d cram my grandfather’s old fedora on my head, attach an imaginary bullwhip to my belt, and go make like Indiana Jones for a while.  I’d spend the afternoon dodging poison ivy and running myself ragged across the shifting mosaic of light and shadow on the ground.

Or I’d be out amongst the whispering stalks of corn in the field next to the house.  When I was little I’d wend my way out to the middle of the field and lay down between the rows and watch the swaying tassels superimpose themselves on the cerulean sky overhead. In the fall and winter, once the harvest was done, I’d go out into the field and scavenge.  I didn’t know what I thought I’d find, but I was hoping the tractors and combines would have churned up something valuable from the earth.

Lots of good bike rides started from that house.  The patchwork of flat country roads provided me with a seemingly endless number of routes to take, and I’d start off on my ten-speed Schwinn with no particular destination in mind.  When I think about how hyper-sensitive parents are now, it’s surprising to remember how I’d tell my parents I was headed out on a ride and then I’d just disappear for an afternoon.  Sometimes I’d explore roads I’d never traveled before, sometimes I’d ride the couple miles into town, sometimes I’d ride until something that was clearly demanding to be explored caught my eye.  I remember spotting a stream I’d never noticed before, parking my bike under a tree by the road, and then following the stream for an hour or more until it emptied into a marshy area in the middle of a field.  I was probably 11 or 12 at the time, and my parents had no idea where I was.

I entertained friends and girlfriends there.  I went through elementary school, junior high, high school, and college there.  I parked several different cars in the driveway’s turn-around and left the house on summer mornings for half a dozen different shitty high school and college jobs.  I raked leaves, mowed the grass, and helped my dad the high school principal clean toilet paper out of the trees.  I camped in the backyard and ran through the sprinkler and its dewdrop rainbows in the front.   I shot hoops in the driveway and hit tennis balls off the garage door, hour after hour.  I discovered that if I flooded the garden in the back yard with the hose, I could make the perfect swampy battlefield for my G.I. Joes.  I chased fireflies through the velvet dusk of summer evenings and felt the frost crunch under my shoes as I trudged across the grass to catch the bus on winter mornings.

Before too much longer I will have spent more time outside Ohio than I did inside it, yet part of me still thinks of myself as an Ohioan.  Here in Georgia, whenever I hear somebody say something or act a way that sounds or looks particularly “Southern,” part of me can’t help but think, “Thank goodness I’m a Northerner,” ignoring the fact that I spent the last 15 years in California, which has its own peculiar set of rules governing etiquette.  These feelings of “Northern-ness,” the identity I have, and the way I conduct myself – all of it is inextricably linked to that house and the things I learned there as I was growing up.  In fact, much of who I am can’t be separated from where I grew up.

But for all that, I feel no particular attachment to this house, no wistfulness or sadness that I never had the opportunity to say a proper goodbye to that part of my life, the part where I learned how to be who I am.  It feels like I owe that place something.  It’s the place my parents chose to raise my brother and I, and the place where they stayed after he and I left home.  It saw us both through school, through graduation, through grad school; through my dad’s retirement; through my mom’s cancer, her remission, and the cancer’s return.  I can’t figure out if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, to want to feel nostalgic for something.  The desire to feel is commendable, but the lack of feeling seems problematic, as though I’m missing some component that other people just automatically have.  I don’t know what it means, but as fondly as I remember that place – home – I can’t help but describe it in this way, for better or worse:

My parents lived there for a time, and so, too, did I.


Current listening:

Pulp – Separations (1992)

Living With Ghosts December 12, 2010

Posted by monty in music.
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Time was, I’d compile my list of favorite albums toward the end of November and then spend the next month obsessively pruning and refining that list for mass consumption.  But now?  Fuck it.  I’m 37 and I have better things to do with my time.  For instance, as soon as I’m done with this, a bottle of pinot noir is waiting for me, along with the 1988 remake of The Blob on Netflix Instant.  Still, as important as music is to me, it’d be an oversight not to spend at least a little time recapping the year that was.  So, for the remainder of the month I’ll be sporadically naming some of my favorite albums of 2010, and then I’ll list them all in a big stinking pile of awesomeness at the very tail end of the year.  Without further ado, here’s Entry #1:

The Barlights – You Cannot Choose the Roads That Take You Home

I wanted to start with something completely out of left field, because, yeah yeah yeah, we all know that Arcade Fire and Kanye West and Deerhunter released great albums, so spending time telling you what every other music publication will tell you is sort of a waste of time.  But make no mistake: the Barlights’ album is fantastic.  It’s kinda jangly, kinda anthemic, kinda folksy, kinda soaring, and all kindsa great.  I don’t know much about the band except that they’re from Norwich, England, it looks like there are four members, and the music just sort of hits that sweet spot for me.  You ever have one of those bands that you love, but when it comes time to explain to someone else why their music means so much to you, you just kind of go, “Gah…”?  That’s what The Barlights are to me.  I’ve listened to this album a lot, but as I sit here trying to articulate why it strikes such a chord with me, all I can do is go, “Gah…,” which is no help at all.  Instead, here’s one of the songs from the album.  It’s called “Love, and Love Only.”  Enjoy.


Current listening:

The Lightning Seeds – Jollification (1994)

Last movie seen:

The Ghost Writer (2010; Roman Polanski, dir.)

This Is Where it Gets Good December 11, 2010

Posted by monty in education.
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I tell all my methods students that teaching isn’t about instant gratification. I tell them that if they want a job where they’re immediately going to see the effects of their work, teaching isn’t it.  You plan, you instruct, you cajole, you cheerlead, you give endless feedback and encouragement, and you do it all with the blind faith that what you’re doing is going to pay off in the end.  If you need to see immediate dividends, find something that involves applause.

I tell them that what passes for instant gratification are the little victories: seeing students get interested in a book, noticing progress in their writing, listening for moments of insight during class discussion.  You become highly attuned to those triumphs, and you modulate your definition of what constitutes success.  You know you won’t often be thanked for what you do, but in some ways that’s okay, because teachers – the real ones who’ve gotten into the profession for the right reasons – know it’s a calling, and that they do this because they couldn’t picture themselves doing anything else.

But the funny thing is, sometimes gratification does happen.  Often it’s delayed, but that doesn’t make it any less sweet.  Case in point: the photo above.  This was taken a few weeks ago at the annual National Council of Teachers of English conference in Orlando.  While there I presented a session with three of my former student teachers (pictured above), who are all teaching in their own classrooms now.  It was great to reconnect with them, but it was also inspiring to see that they’ve turned into the kind of teachers I knew they would – teachers who are intelligent, compassionate, and thoughtful, and who are truly making a difference in the lives of their students.  And to hear all of them say they benefited from the class in which I taught them was just icing on the cake.

And in extremely rare instances, there is instant gratification.  My semester ended last week, and I input final grades yesterday afternoon.  Last evening, I received this email from one of my students:

I just wanted to thank you for being such an inspiring professor. You went beyond just teaching us the material. I feel like you did everything you could to help us become good teachers. You made yourself available for us, and I could tell that you were really sincere in wanting to help us. You offered honest advice, like telling us how to make up stories if a smelly kid stands in front of the air conditioner. :) Seriously, your stories about your experiences with teaching, and your advice about teaching in general, gave me a well-rounded perspective about what teaching is like.

I actually didn’t want to be a teacher anymore going into this class at the beginning of the semester, and now I’ve regained my desire to teach. You definitely played a role in my change of heart towards teaching, along with the experience that I had in the Internship.

I just wanted to let you know that you impacted my life in a good way, and I really appreciate it. You also modeled the type of teacher that I want to be. I’ve had great teachers before, but I’ve never had one that’s made me think ‘I hope I can be as good of a teacher as they are one day’. I know that sounds kind of mushy, but it’s true. You are personable, but not overly friendly. You are knowledgeable, but not preachy. You are experienced, but you acknowledge that your experiences aren’t the only relevant ones. Overall you exemplify the balance that teachers should have.

I could go on but this is getting a little lengthy so I’ll bring it to a close. Pretty much: thanks for being an amazing professor. Your efforts did not go unnoticed.

I shouldn’t have to point out why this is such an extraordinary message to receive.  As teachers, it’s always nice to receive validation that what we do seems to be working, but beyond that, you can’t underestimate the rejuvenating power of a little gratitude.  The next time I grow whiny and neurotic and self-defeating on here about my choice of profession, someone remind me of this post, and the photo and message that accompany it.  This is why I do what I do, and, as always, the students make it all worthwhile.


Current listening:

Beulah – The Coast Is Never Clear (2001)

Friday Funny (12/10/10) December 10, 2010

Posted by monty in comedy.
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I’ve had tickets for nearly four months, but tomorrow is finally – finally! – the night to see Louis CK.  I hesitate to use terms like “favorite standup comedian ever” (too hyperbolic by far), but he’s damn close.  Here’s one of my favorite bits.  Enjoy.


Current listening:

Big Troubles – Worry (2010)

A Darkness Rises Up December 9, 2010

Posted by monty in movies.
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Neil Marshall has had a very curious career so far, but I kind of like it for its eccentricities.  His 2002 debut, Dog Soldiers, was a cool little low-budget horror flick about werewolves terrorizing an unarmed group of soldiers in the Scottish highlands.  He hit the next one out of the park with The Descent (2005), a claustrophobic thriller that I routinely name as one of the best horror films of the last three decades. Where a lot of directors, fresh off a huge success,  might be happy to plow the same furrow, Marshall delivered Doomsday (2008), an ambitious action flick about a post-apocalyptic society that sprang up in the wake of a worldwide pandemic.  It was an odd film in tone and subject-matter (it’s a medical thriller; no, it’s a rescue movie; no, it’s got … knights?), that was an ambitious failure, but which I still can’t avoid watching whenever it turns up on one of the movie channels.  The one common thread that runs through these films is that Marshall has an outsize vision – he’s credited as the director and sole screenwriter on all three of them, and as each one has increased in scope, it’s hard not to fault his ambition and his desire to chase whatever narrative obsession is currently intriguing him.

And that brings us to Centurion (2010), another of Marshall’s curious diversions that has little obvious similarity to any of its predecessors.  Set in Northern Britain in the 2nd Century, Centurion details the tension between the Roman Legion, led by Emperor Hadrian (yes, that Hadrian), and the Picts, a tribe of early Celts who, if the movie is anything to go by, favored animal skins and poor hygiene.  Early in the movie we see the Picts destroy a Roman garrison and take a lone hostage: Quintas Dias, played by the reliably great Michael Fassbender.  In this skirmish the Picts are established as a ferocious enemy, easily capable of besting the more heavily armed and armored Roman soldiers, and never settling for just stabbing a guy when they can impale him through his mouth or cleave his head in two with an axe.  If there were sensitive poets among the Picts, they were saved for another movie.

In York, the Roman 9th Legion, led by Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West – McNulty, for all you fans of The Wire) is preparing to move against the Picts. Before they do, they’re assigned a Pict scout – the beautiful mute Etain – to help protect them against the enemy.  It’s during this march that the 9th Legion discovers Quintas (who has escaped from the Picts), and finds itself besieged and routed by the Picts, who were working in collusion with the traitorous Etain.  The bulk of the movie is then taken up with the efforts of a ragtag band of surviving Roman soldiers, now led by Quintas, to find its way back to York and the Roman army while evading the Picts that are chasing them.

Marshall’s decision to go the historical fiction route seems odd since his previous films have all dealt, to one degree or another, with elements of horror or fantasy.  Centurion, by contrast, is a straight-up action movie in its first third, and more a chase film for the remainder of it.  In this way, the movie suffers some by comparison.  It was hard not to compare the early moments – and especially the vividly shot battles – with other Roman and Celtic action flicks like Gladiator or Braveheart, and, whether intentional or not, there were definite shades of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the soldiers’ struggle to return home.  Etain possesses preternatural tracking abilities (much like Lord Baltimore in Butch Cassidy) that allows the Picts to remain perpetually on the Romans’ heels, and there’s even a daredevil leap from a cliff into the raging river below.  The similarity was so heavy that at one point, while the Romans are hunched behind rocks on a hillside, watching the Picts draw ever closer, I was half-expecting Quintas to turn to the guy next to him and ask, “Who are those guys?”

Even though Marshall’s jones for historical fiction seems out of place with his previous efforts, I’m certainly not slighting his interest in giving it a shot.  In fact, the movie eventually won me over.  For one thing, the movie’s about as panoramic as it gets, bursting with stunning wilderness images: mountains, moors, rivers, forests, snowfields – they’re all captured beautifully by Marshall and cinematographer Sam McCurdy.  In the Britain of Centurion, the North is bleak, unrelenting, mysterious, and breathtaking.  There’s also a bravura sequence where the 9th Legion has to defend itself against huge balls of flame that suddenly come bounding down a hillside out of the mist. It is, in short, a movie that’s beautiful in its desolation and violence.

The acting is more or less what you’d expect.  A bearded West hams it up nicely as the gruff and inspiring Titus, his English accent about as convincing here as his American one was in The Wire (but miles better than his ridiculous attempt at a New Yawk accent in Punisher: War Zone).  Fassbender lends the movie some much-needed gravitas as the soldier who’s charged with rescuing the men of the 9th, but who really just wants to go home and turn his back on the war.  Olga Kurylenko glowers convincingly as the fierce Etain (it’s unfortunate that, as a mute, she isn’t really asked to do much more than ride a horse and not talk).  And the unfortunately-named Imogen Poots (the daughter in 28 Weeks Later) has a nice turn as a Pict who’s been accused of witchcraft and cast out of the tribe.

There’s some final silliness at the end, with superfluous double-crossery and treachery, but here’s the thing about Centurion: it passes the time, and does so entertainingly.  It’s a well-made B-movie, and while I’m all about encouraging movies to strive to be Great Art, I also think there’s a place for movies that want to do no more than give you a good time for 90 minutes. More important still, I’m excited to see what Neil Marshall will try next.  He’s done horror, post-apocalyptic thriller, and period piece, and he’s done all of them convincingly (if not always 100% successfully).  I could see a Danny Boyle-like future for him, if he’s given the chance to hopscotch from genre to genre as it interests him.  I like directors like Marshall – even when his movies are noble failures, they’re always ambitious, and they’re never not interesting.

(Sidenote: Did this ever play in U.S. theaters?  I don’t remember hearing about it, but as I no longer live just up the road from Los Angeles [where all films eventually go], it wouldn’t surprise me to hear it enjoyed a short run somewhere.)


Current listening:

Bruce Springsteen – Devils & Dust (2005)