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Song of the Day (10/31/09: Halloween Edition) October 31, 2009

Posted by monty in music.
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Is there any band that says “Happy Halloween” more than Bauhaus?  Whether or not you agree with the Godfathers of Goth label they got tagged with, there’s something undeniably creepy about their music, and it’s never been better illustrated than on their quintessential track, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”  This is the reunited band performing it in classic style – frontman Peter Murphy dangling upside-down, batlike – at my spiritual home, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

And, just for the novelty value, here it is again, performed by Murphy, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, and TV on the Radio.  Enjoy.

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Seven Years of Letters October 31, 2009

Posted by monty in books.
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chapter 1

I’ve never been particularly inclined to write a novel before.  I like writing, and I’ve certainly played around with short stories and poetry, but the commitment I think it would take to slog through a novel has always been daunting to me.  I’m kind of lazy, and the work ethic I know it would take to be a novelist – on top of the work ethic I already have to have as part of my job – has been about as appealing to me as going outside and licking the sidewalk.

But here’s the thing.  A little over two years ago I wrote the first fifty pages of something that could be a novel.  It features a kid named Garrett.  I shared it with a good number of people, and its popularity surpassed anything I could have anticipated.  These were people I respected – acquaintances, yes, but not many of them friends, and very few of them would have felt obligated to pat me on the back the way some people might.  Ten days ago I shared it with some new people, and they enjoyed it, too.  I posted an excerpt of it on this very blog not too long ago.  You can read it here.

In the two years since I wrote it, I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out where to go next.  I’ve considered and discarded a lot of ideas, some because they didn’t seem very entertaining, some because they weren’t very good.  And I have to admit that the weight of expectation has settled heavily on my shoulders.  People like the story in its current state so much that I feel the only realistic outcome of further writing will be disappointment.  I can’t be unveiled as a fraud and a charlatan if I don’t try.  I can coast on those 50 pages for the rest of my life, if I want to.

Earlier this week, though, I think I figured out where to take it next.  I think.  Maybe not.  But it seems more promising than anything else I’ve come up with, and I’m suitably excited about it to feel like I want to at least give it a shot.  I don’t necessarily feel any more confident about my ability, but I figure if I wait to feel confident, I’ll never get anything done.

This development just happens to coincide with the beginning of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which starts tomorrow and runs through November 30.  I have no idea when or how this got started, but there’s a website that sponsors a novel-writing contest.  The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel (roughly 110 pages) during the month of November.  You write it on whatever software you wish, update your daily word count on the site, post excerpts, and then upload the whole shebang at the end.  I think you get a certificate if you complete the challenge, but obviously the real reward is just the act of finishing the novel.

My thought, as of Saturday afternoon, is to take the plunge.  It’s 30 days.  I can fake a work ethic for one month, I think.  You can’t use any writing completed previously, so I have to figure out how to make my continuation of the established story a logical place to begin.  I think I’ve got it worked out.  And even if I don’t, this will be good for me.  I’ll post it here as I write it, just to keep myself honest.  The main thing, though, is simply to keep moving, keep writing.  Or, as screenwriter William Goldman says, just get the fucking train over the mountain.

Here we go.

*****

Current listening:

Jenny lewis rabbit fur coat

Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins – Rabbit Fur Coat

Black Heart of Mine October 31, 2009

Posted by monty in movies.
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3 comments

halloween

What would a Halloween edition of Three Seconds of Dead Air be without a horror movie countdown?  It’s a little cutesy, but it gives me a chance to revisit some of my classic and more recent favorites (and also allows me to figure out what I’ll be watching later tonight).  I don’t have any rigorous criteria for the list, but I did have a few guiding principles:

1) I confined myself to movies I actually own.  Rather than have an incomplete list because I forgot a title or two, I decided it made more sense to simply rely on what I owned.  So, no Poltergeist or Rosemary’s Baby, even though they’re very good.

2) I tried to stick with “traditional” horror movies, as opposed to movies that bleed (har har) into action or comedy or science fiction.  So that means no Alien or Shaun of the Dead or The Thing. (This is a fairly malleable criterion, though, as one or two inclusions on my list will make clear).

3) For no good reason other than I feel like it, I’ll be lumping together foreign films and their American versions, as well as original films and their remakes.  I often find I like both iterations of a movie, and sometimes for completely different reasons.  Rather than take up two spots, I combined them into one.

4) I’m crap at ranking things, so my list is alphabetical, as opposed to in order of preference.

So, here they are – My Alphabetical Top Ten (or Twelve or Fourteen, Because I’ve Combined Originals With Remakes) Horror Movies That I Own That Are Traditional Horror and Not Action or Comedy or Science Fiction.™

blair_witch_project_ver1The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) This is one of those polarizing movies, which usually means it’s doing something right.  The people who didn’t like it thought it wasn’t frightening, but the people who liked it thought it was one of the scariest things they’d ever seen.  Count me in the latter camp.  Aside from its masterful conceit – the movie is the recovered footage from three filmmakers who went missing in their search for the titular witch – the film’s naturalism (down to the occasionally obnoxious characters) made it seem all too real.  What really made the movie work, though, is the way it played on the audience’s fear of the dark and the unseen, as well as the anxiety of being completely powerless.  It’s the sense of hopelessness and desperation permeating the end of the movie that gives it its kick.  You know exactly what’s going to happen in that house, but that doesn’t make it any less effective.

dawn_of_the_deadDawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978; Zack Snyder, 2004) The original version – like all of Romero’s zombie movies – is not just a horror movie.  Yes, the gore is gruesome and shocking and plentiful, but the movie also functions as a sly satire of consumer culture.  When the survivors take refuge in an indoor shopping mall, the parallels between the shambling zombies and brain-dread shoppers are writ large.  Snyder’s 2004 reboot strips down the satire, turns the zombies into sprinters, and delivers a bare-bones monster movie whose acting is a cut above the standard horror-movie fare.  The always-terrific Sarah Polley takes a break from independent films to head up this scary, fast-paced, no-fuss zombie flick.  The fact that this is – so far – Snyder’s last decent film before disappearing up his own ass makes it all the more worthwhile.

TheDescentPoster-755748The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005) A movie that’s far scarier than it has any right to be, The Descent manages to transcend its potentially hokey premise (female spelunkers are terrorized by a clan of mutated cave dwellers) to become one of the most genuinely frightening films of the last ten years.  Like most good horror movies, The Descent works precisely because it preys on the audience’s own fears.  Marshall takes our natural aversion to darkness and claustrophobia and uses it as another monster.  The creatures don’t show up until well into the movie, but by the time they do, the audience’s nerves are already fried from anticipation and the natural stress of the situation in which the women find themselves.  The terror comes on multiple fronts, and Marshall makes it look effortless.  Be sure to watch the movie’s original, blacker-than-black ending from its European release.

evildeadjuly05The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981) I don’t know if anyone’s ever done a ranking of the goriest movies of all time, but this one has to be close to the top.  Sam Raimi’s calling card as one of cinema’s most inventive, playful directors was this creepy, gruesome take on demonic possession that also launched the career of Bruce Campbell.  Not so much a horror movie as an assault on the senses, I first saw The Evil Dead in high school and was unused to a movie sticking with me the way this one did.  The series got progressively sillier, culminating with 1992’s Army of Darkness, not a horror movie as much as a comedic riff on time travel.  The Evil Dead, if not Raimi’s definitive masterpiece, is at least the movie that most effectively illustrates what he’s capable of as a director.  As a sidenote, it was so good to see him return to this territory earlier this year with Drag Me to Hell, surely a contender for future versions of this list.

exorcist_posterbigThe Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)  Man, this movie. I don’t remember when I first watched it, but images from it are seared into my brain to this day.  One of the reasons it works as well as it does is because it takes its sweet old time getting things established.  Watching its re-release in the theater several years ago was a fantastic experience, but it struck me that this movie would never be made today.  It’s slooooow – especially as it establishes Father Merrin’s experiences in the Middle East and introduces Chris MacNeil and her soon-to-be possessed daughter, Regan.  The leisurely pace is key to the movie’s success, though, because we come to know and care about these characters.  And when it swings into action – with all the head-rotating, pea-soup-spewing, crucifix-abusing notoriety it gained – it never lets up until the final climactic moment.  I love horror movies, but there are very, very few of them that actually bother me – not just scare me, but lodge in the back of my brain for days afterward, where I worry at them when my mind is otherwise unoccupied.  The Exorcist is, for my money, probably the greatest horror movie of all time.

halloween2Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) Unfairly sullied by an abundance of inferior sequels (as well as by Rob Zombie’s pointless reboot), Halloween remains the archetypal slasher movie.  It also shouldn’t be held responsible for the raft of slasher movies that followed in its wake (and which continues to this day).  Carpenter’s original is genuinely frightening, from the big reveal at the end of the prologue to Michael Myers’ escape from the psychiatric hospital to his inevitable appearance in and terrorizing of bucolic Haddonfield, Illinois.  Throw in the bookish heroine played by Jamie Lee Curtis, as well as all the other devices that have since become horror movie cliché (Horny teens!  Booze!  Boobs!), and it’s easy to see why Halloween became the template followed by many less inventive filmmakers.  When it comes to slasher movies, accept no substitute.  Halloween is all you need.

nightmare_on_elm_streetA Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)  It’s fitting that Wes Craven’s tour de force follows Halloween, because A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s influence has been diminished for many of the same reasons as Carpenter’s film.  An abundance of genuinely shitty sequels makes it easy to forget just how awesomely spooky and disturbing the original was.  While Nightmare is sort of a slasher movie, it goes deeper than that, plumbing the frequently surreal depths of the characters’ dreams.  And bogeyman Freddy Kruger (a child molester burned to death by the parents of the children now haunted by him) is a horror movie character fit for a time capsule.  He’s bent on revenge, but that revenge takes increasingly uncomfortable forms.  As a result, A Nightmare on Elm Street provides just as many memorable images as The Exorcist (Johhny Depp’s girlfriend being dragged across the ceiling is just one that stuck with me for a long time), and is, in its own way, just as frightening.

rec-movie-poster1[•Rec] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007)/Quarantine (John Erick Dowdle, 2008) A surprisingly creepy variation on the zombie formula, [•Rec] is a Spanish movie that tells the story of a TV film crew that gets more than it bargained for when it goes along with the fire department on what was supposed to be a routine emergency run.  Upon arrival at the apartment building, the situation quickly spirals out of control as they discover – but of course – that the building’s residents have been infected with some sort of virus that turns them into feral, zombie-like carnivores, and now the authorities aren’t letting anyone out.  Related, documentary-style, from the perspective of the TV news reporter on the scene, [•Rec] puts the viewer right in the middle of the horror, and as a result, it hits even harder.  The final sequence is, to put it simply, one of the most viscerally frightening things I’ve ever seen.  Quarantine, the American remake, sticks close to the original but manages to find its own voice and adds one or two kicky little twists of its own.  Most impressively, the final scenes are every bit as effective as in the Spanish-language original, which means, as remakes go, Quarantine is an emphatic and unqualified success.

texas_chainsaw_massacreThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) One of the other big guns of modern horror movies, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a movie I watch at least once a year, and I always feel like I need to bathe afterward.  Focusing on a group of 20-something’s on a road trip, the entire movie seems coated with a patina of grime, from the first interaction with the hitchhiker to the shots of the cattle in the slaughterhouse to the confrontation that gives the movie its name.  It’s a crude, disturbing movie that left me feeling profoundly uneasy.  It was only after I thought about it, though, that I realized how little gore we actually see onscreen.  The movie is horrific, to be sure, but most of the violence is implied, leaving our over-active imaginations to fill in the blanks.  Often incorrectly labeled as a slasher movie, it seems to me that Chainsaw Massacre actually has more in common with the recent “torture porn” movies (Hostel, Saw, etc.).  The difference, of course, is that Chainsaw Massacre is genuinely frightening without being especially graphic, while the movies that emulate it only get the graphic part right, and almost completely leave out the fright.

twenty_eight_days_later28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)  In terms of pure entertainment, it doesn’t get any better than 28 Days Later. Jim wakes up in a deserted London hospital, wanders outside, and finds that the entire city is a ghost town.  These shots of empty British streets are breathtaking, and it’s this visual panache (courtesy of Danny Boyle, one of my favorite directors, and his frequent director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle) that helps establish 28 Days Later as being more than a garden-variety horror movie.  Jim comes to discover that the population has been virtually wiped out by a virus that turns the infected into hyper-aggressive (and very hungry) cannibals.  A movie about human nature as much as it is about survival, 28 Days Later is an intense and harrowing experience.  If the ending feels a little like an optimistic cop-out, I forgive Boyle for wanting to give viewers a single ray of sunshine after the 90 minutes of pitch-blackness that preceded it.

So there you have it.  It’s certainly not a comprehensive list, but it pretty accurately captures what I look for in a horror movie.  Please feel free to argue with me in the comments.

*****

Current listening:

Delgados BBC

The Delgados – The Complete BBC Peel Sessions

Current reading:

BANR2005-full

Jeff Gordinier – “The Lost Boys” (in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, ed. by Dave Eggers)

Last movie seen:

withnail-and-i-1987-poster

Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, dir.)

Song of the Day (10/30/09) October 30, 2009

Posted by monty in music.
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Even though I take a fair amount of photos at shows, I don’t usually record videos of entire songs.  I made an exception for Elbow.  Even though it’s been a year and a half since their latest album, The Seldom Seen Kid, was released, I just can’t shake it.  It somehow manages to be majestic, melancholic, and euphoric all at the same time.  It’s not just the crowning achievement of their already-remarkable career – it’s a towering milestone by any band’s standards.  This is their song “Mirrorball,” recorded live by yours truly at Atlanta’s Center Stage Theater last August.  It’s a foggy, rainy night here in the South, and this one lets a little sunlight in.

Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough October 30, 2009

Posted by monty in movies.
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2 comments

optimus-prime-transformers-movie

As everyone knows I’m a super-huge fan of Michael Bay and the Transformers movies!  The way those robots fight is radtastic and then the one robot humps Megan Fox’s leg and the two other robots sound like black guys!  LOL!!!  And Shia LaBoof is super dreamy!  All my bffs want him to be their boyfriend for realsies! (But you can’t have him Jessikah, cuz ur a bitch! LOLOLOL!!!)  Well imagine how exited I was to discover that 30 seconds has allready been shot for Transformers 3!  It looks even better then 2 which was even better then 1 which everyone knows was the greatest movie since Pearl Harbor! So sit back, relax, and enjoy this special sneak preview!  I can’t wait!  ROFL!

* This post may not actually reflect the views of the author.

*****

Current listening:

Joseph our shadows

Joseph Arthur – Our Shadows Will Remain

Current reading:

BANR2005-full

Stephen Elliott – “My Little Brother Ruined My Life” (in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, ed. by Dave Eggers)

Last movie seen:

surrogates-poster

Surrogates (Jonathan Mostow, dir.)

Song of the Day (10/29/09) October 29, 2009

Posted by monty in music.
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The Trash Can Sinatras have always been comfort food for me.  Catchy and melancholy, the Scots churned out three wonderful albums in the early- to mid-90’s, then disappeared for eight years.  Their two comeback albums have been even mopier still – which suits me just fine – but as much as I like them, they haven’t quite recaptured the majesty of their heyday.  This song is called “Only Tongue Can Tell,” and it comes from their 1990 debut, Cake.


Call the Ceasefire October 29, 2009

Posted by monty in news, politics.
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public option

I promise I’m not being a dickish liberal when I say to the Republicans, it’s time you either show us your health care reform plan, or you concede that you really have no interest in fixing the system.

I’ve long suspected that the only reason the GOP is even paying lip service to the idea of reform is because A) a majority of the American people wants it, and B) they know Obama’s pushing for it, and they can’t reasonably oppose the Dems’ plan without at least pretending to have an alternative.  Unfortunately for the Republicans, it’s getting close to put-up-or-shut-up time.  Now that the House Democrats have unveiled their bill, the onus is on the Republicans to demonstrate that all this resistance they’ve been showing is because they have a far superior plan in their arsenal.

Of course, they don’t.  Der.

Today, Republican tool extraordinaire John Boehner finally admits the GOP doesn’t have a plan:

QUESTION: Is it your plan to have one Republican alternative that you all would get behind and endorse?

BOHNER: We have a number of ideas that we would like to proffer in this process, and we’re not quite sure how the majority intends to proceed. And so until we understand how they intend to proceed, it’s pretty difficult for us to have a solid plan.

So, in other words, the Republicans have no ideas.  None.  Zero.  Because if they had a great plan – a plan that was so much better than the Democratic one they’ve been lambasting for freaking months – surely they would have put it together by now, right?  I mean, can you imagine a better time to unveil their bulletproof plan than the very same day the Democrats unveil theirs?

What a coupe de grace that would be for Boehner!  Nancy Pelosi wheels her rickety old bones up the Capitol steps, delivers her little speech presenting her party’s dopey plan, and then, moments later, Boehner springs into action in a cloud of spray tan and Brylcreem, upstaging her with the Republican plan that fixes everything!  All that talk of Kanye upstaging Taylor Swift would be forgotten in an instant because this – this! – would become the archetype generations would call on when they heard the word upstage.

But did the GOP do this?  Nope.  Not even close.  The preface to that empty-headed little quote just above was a reporter asking Boehner if the Republicans would post their plan online for 72 hours, especially since they had excoriated the Democrats for months about their “secret meetings.”  Here’s the exchange (and please note Boehner’s eloquence and specificity):

QUESTION: Will the Republicans put their alternative online for 72 hours as well?

BOEHNER: Uh, we’ll uh, we’ll have our ideas ready. Don’t worry.

So, to sum up the Republicans’ current position on health care:

  • We hate the Democrats’ plan.
  • All those people who currently can’t afford health care will now have to wait in long lines for health care, and lines are unAmerican!
  • It’s evil incarnate.
  • It will kill grandmothers throughout this great country, robbing them of their ability to enjoy baseball and apple pie.
  • It’s socialism the likes of which we haven’t seen Hitler’s Germany.
  • (Psst!  It will kill your grandmother!)
  • Spending money for health care = bad; spending money to kill brown people = good.
  • We don’t have a bill of our own.
  • But we still hate the Democrats’ plan.

Look, I don’t even think the Democrats’ plan (at least what I’ve read so far) is all that great.  It looks to me like a neutered, ineffectual wisp of a plan that accurately reflects all the bullshit compromises the Dems have made every step of the way.  I don’t for a second begrudge the Republicans their right to oppose the Democrats’ plan.  It would be foolish and naive to expect them to agree with it.

My problem, though, is that you can’t say you support health care reform and then do nothing to back up that statement.  We hear all this blah blah blah about tort reform and cutting overhead and whatever other ideas they have that supposedly help the consumer but which actually help the insurance companies, and I’d probably hate that plan more than the Democrats’, but at least it would be something concrete.  It strikes me that it’s hard to craft a bipartisan plan when one of the parties won’t even bring any ideas to the table.  And, in a way, it’s foolish of the Republicans not to strike when the iron is so clearly hot.  The Democrats now supersede the amoeba in lack of backbone, so for the Republicans not to approach the issue with a solid plan chock full o’ specifics seems to be silliness of the highest order.  The Democrats have proven themselves willing to roll over for just about anything in recent months, so why aren’t these supposedly opportunistic Republicans taking advantage?

The point I’m making here is that substantial health care reform in this country is doomed.  Neither side takes it seriously enough to actually do anything about it.  The Democrats will waste their 60 seats, the Republicans will bitch and whine their way to a significant number of 2010 election wins, and three years from now we’ll be back where we started.  And we’ll have no one to blame for it but ourselves.  A selfish, ignorant populace begets a selfish, ignorant Congress.

The old adage that every country gets the government it deserves has rarely been truer than it is today.

*****

Current listening:

Bruce greetings

Bruce Springsteen – Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.

Current reading:

BANR2005-full

Stephanie Dickinson – “A Lynching in Stereoscope” (in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, ed. by Dave Eggers)

Song of the Day (10/28/09) October 28, 2009

Posted by monty in music.
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I’m no stranger to listing my all-time favorite albums, but I’ve never tried to make a comparable list of favorite songs.  If I did, this one would surely be near the top.  As these things occasionally go, I discovered Australian trio The Lucksmiths less than a year before they broke up.  In that time, I’ve devoured their many, many albums and compilations, and it’s a real shame to see such a talented band go the way of the dodo.  Jangly guitars, smart-guy lyrics, catchy melodies – it’s tailor-made for my tastes and, sadly, gone much too soon.  This song is from their 2003 album, Naturaliste.  It’s called “Camera- Shy.”

Meet Me at the Lookout Point October 28, 2009

Posted by monty in Uncategorized.
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4 comments

hate writing2

And here’s where I hit the lull.

I kept a near-daily blog for almost three years, and now I don’t know how I did it.  Once I started work on my Ph.D., a combination of being insanely busy and constantly exhausted stymied any serious attempt at starting the thing back up.  I’ve tried to resuscitate the blog in various forms for the last three years, but after a few weeks I find I run out of things to say.  When I was keeping a regular blog, I either had a more interesting life, or else I had a higher tolerance for writing about myself.

And there’s part of the problem.  Every time I start  a new blog (and this is at least the fourth iteration I can recall off the top of my head) I resolve for it not to be one of those annoying repositories where the author simply recounts his or her day.  For one thing, my life is just not that interesting.  But the main thing that the “Dear Diary” bloggers fail to acknowledge is the public nature of this little endeavor.  If all you want to do is keep a running account of the weeks that make up your life, buy a journal.  There are several people of whom I’m inordinately fond, but I’m not sure I’d want to read a blow-by-blow account of what they did each day, no matter how much I might genuinely like them.  Blogging is a pretty self-centered act to begin with, and making yourself the subject of your writing is even more solipsistic.  Unless you’re Anne Frank, your life is probably just not worth documenting.

So I try to keep things interesting by focusing my lens outward, examining education, politics, pop culture, etc. (And, for the record, I don’t pretend for a second to analyze any of those things especially well.  I do what I can, but it’s strictly Amateur Hour around here.)  When I do write about myself, I try to make sure it’s not really about me, but about what I’m experiencing.  Case in point: my dissection of race relations in Georgia. I mean, yeah, on the surface it’s about me getting acclimated to my new home, but it’s more about the veiled hostility around here that no one really talks about.  And in those rare instances when it really is all about me (such as in this post right here), I at least try to be entertaining.  I don’t always succeed, but at least I acknowledge that there’s a potentially disinterested audience I somehow need to snag.

All of this meta-blathering (Whoa, he’s blogging … about the difficulties of blogging!  That’s deep, maaaaan.) is really my way of saying that keeping things fresh around here is tough.  I used to just bitch about politics and the conservative media all the time, but seriously: how many different ways can you say Fox News sucks?  And I’m not sure it’s any more interesting for me to keep writing about authors or comedians or musicians I like.  It’s interesting to me, but it actually runs the risk of being just a variation on writing about my day.  But I’ll try to find a way to keep this site entertaining and interesting, despite my lazy inclination to throw in the towel yet again.

So, a mission statement, if you will.  I’ll keep pottering around on here simply because I think I need to force myself through the resistance I always feel right around this time.  But having said that – and noticing that my readership has been steadily increasing – do bear in mind that I write this for an audience, and I do spend a fair amount of time crafting these little missives for others’ consumption.  If you’ve taken the time to visit my little corner of the Web (and especially if you’re a regular visitor), comments are welcome and appreciated.  I try to respond to them as time allows, and I’m genuinely interested in hearing what people think.  A dialogue is much more interesting to me than a monologue, so don’t be shy.

*****

Current listening:

weezer 12x12cs3.indd

Weezer – Raditude

Happy Birthday October 27, 2009

Posted by monty in comedy.
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3 comments

Everyone lift a glass or have a slice of cake in honor of John Cleese’s 70th birthday.

Please Hold October 26, 2009

Posted by monty in Uncategorized.
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customer service

This is going to be an exceptionally busy week for me, so my posts will be sporadic for the next few days.  I’ll try to put up one or two things to reward my regular readers (Songs of the Day probably, and any quick links or pictures that seem entertaining), but between teaching, observing student teachers, attending meetings, grading papers, polishing an article, and starting to run again, I’m not going to have a lot of time to write anything weighty.  Apologies for the inconsistency, and thanks for reading.

*****

Current listening:

Moldy peaches

The Moldy Peaches – S/T

Current reading:

BANR2005-full

Amber Dermot – “Lyndon” (from The Best American Nonrequired  Reading 2005, ed. by Dave Eggers)

Happy Punday October 25, 2009

Posted by monty in comedy.
Tags: ,
5 comments

manatee

Cinema Sunday (10/25/09) October 25, 2009

Posted by monty in movies.
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6 comments

stepfather-poster-0

As I’ve mentioned on here before, I make absolutely no apologies for anything I listen to, read, or watch.  “Guilty pleasure” is a term dreamed up by some hipster douchebag whose friends caught him listening to Justin Timberlake when he should have been drooling over Merzbow or Animal Collective instead.  When it comes to art, you like what you like.  That doesn’t mean you can’t refine your tastes, of course, but I also think you should have license to like things your friends think you shouldn’t, and not feel bad about it.

So I don’t feel any guilt at all in saying that the remake of 1987’s The Stepfather is good, trashy fun.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of pizza.  Too much of it will kill you, but taken in moderation you’ll feel nicely satisfied.  The plot, such as it is:

Michael (played by an Abercrombie automaton improbably named Penn Badgley – apparently he’s on something called Gossip Girl, which the kids seem to think is just swell) returns from military school to find that his recently divorced mother has taken up with a new beau, David, the titular stepfather (Dylan Wash, with a jawline that could slice bread).  David, it’s established in a brief prologue, moves in with a family and then kills them when they don’t become a model of domestic happiness.  It goes without saying that family therapists across the country are way bummed out by this movie.  Michael also has a girlfriend, Kelly (played by Amber Heard), whose main function in the movie is to look hot.  Imagine Scarlett Johansson crossed with Kristen Stewart, and sporting the ribcage of a concentration camp survivor.  That’s Kelly.  And ladies, is it normal to own five different bikinis?  Because that’s how many Kelly wears in the movie, apparently on consecutive days.  She also gets two scenes in her bedroom wearing a tanktop and, erm, panties, and the opening scene of the movie, sporting shorts slung so low I could sketch her pelvis from memory.  Heard, who flashed some comic chops as Seth Rogen’s girlfriend in Pineapple Express, isn’t asked to do much more here than get in and out of the swimming pool.  Shame.  Michael’s mother, Susan, is played by Sela Ward, whom I think I like, even though I can’t remember seeing her as anything other than Harrison Ford’s dead wife in The Fugitive. There are also two other disposable children, played by, probably, the offspring of the director’s friends.

Michael immediately distrusts David, what with the guy’s creepy emphasis on the importance of family (not even the Cleavers could live up to David’s standards), and the way he tries to immediately become Michael’s new BFF.  The other characters are slower to catch on.  Susan thinks David is the model family man, Son generally seems okay with him (despite the fact that David decides the best way to tell Son to turn down his video game is to nearly strangle him), and Daughter doesn’t do anything except be an extra kid and collect a paycheck.  The only person (besides Michael) to suspect David is, you guessed it, the Crazy Cat Lady across the street, who thinks she sees a sketch of David one night on America’s Most Wanted. I’ll give you three guesses what happens to her, and the first two don’t count.  The movie is predictable in a wholly comforting way: Michael becomes increasingly suspicious of David, Susan just can’t see past the hunk she fell in love with, and Michael’s dense girlfriend is too busy trying to get the two of them admitted to – wait for it – Stanford to be bothered with Michael’s crazy theories about David being a nutcase with a penchant for sharp objects.

It’s undeniably hokey – and the movie’s direction is workmanlike at best – but Walsh and Ward throw themselves into their performances with commitment and gusto (even though Badgley and Heard appear to be unable to convey any believable emotion beyond “I’m wearing pants”), and I found myself reluctantly drawn into the story almost from the get-go.  Yeah, director Nelson McCormick never met a horror movie cliché he didn’t like – cue cats jumping from out of nowhere, and at least three instances where David displays the skills of a ninja by sneaking into position just in time for one of the other characters to turn around and THERE HE IS, or close the mirror and THERE HE IS – and, as is the case with all movies of this type, the characters display an unreasonable amount of stupidity in their inability to connect the planet-sized dots right in front of them.  But The Stepfather is fatty, unhealthy, PG-13 fun, complete with extra cheese.

Trailer Report:

amelia-posterAmelia: Oscar season is always a mixed blessing.  You get the movies that you know are going to be good (The Road), the ones you hope are going to be good (The Lovely Bones), and the ones that the movie studios want you to think will be good, but which will, in fact, royally suck.  Which brings me to Amelia, The Totally True (Except for the Parts That Aren’t) Story of Amelia Earhart.  Judging from the trailer, this is one of those Oscar-bait movies: big budget, prestige cast, quasi-inspirational, and 100% shitty. You’d have to drag me to this thing, and/or pay me handsomely, to get me to see it.  Also, just going by Hillary Swank’s appearance in the trailer, I had no idea Amelia Earhart was a man.

1 SHEET MASTER_TemplateThe Blind Side: Another supposedly true story, this time starring Sandra Bullock as a saintly white woman who gets a black teenager to find the goodness inside himself by introducing him to the Zen beauty of football.  Could we pleasepleasepleaseplease stop making movies that are clearly designed to make white people feel good about themselves?  I know we all – or those of us with any sense, anyway – feel guilty about slavery and lynchings and the racial injustices that continue to this day, but portraying Sandra Bullock as a Mother Teresa figure will not absolve us for the sins of our ancestors.

The end of the year is usually my favorite season for movie-going, but these two films – along with 2012 and the sequel to the Chipmunks movie – seem to indicate that this might be a bleaker Oscar season than I’m used to.

Current listening:

Sonic washing

Sonic Youth – Washing Machine

Song of the Day (10/24/09: Saturday Extravaganza) October 24, 2009

Posted by monty in music.
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If there were ever a band that woulda coulda shoulda been bigger, its Leeds’ The Wedding Present.  Initially part of Britain’s C-86 scene, the Weddoes (as the band was called by its disciples) featured hyper-jangly, breakneck-paced guitars and the lovelorn lyrics of frontman/guitarist/songwriter David Gedge.  Following the demise of The Smiths, the band was poised to leap into the Morrissey-shaped breach as the standard-bearer for disaffected, mopey youth, but for some reason things just never quite clicked.  This, despite a trifecta of brilliant albums to close out the 80’s and usher in the 90’s: George Best, Bizarro, and one of my all-time Top Five albums, the sublime and amazing Seamonsters.

The first clip is a recent live recording of two of my favorite songs from 1991’s Seamonsters, “Dalliance” (just wait for the jump to light speed at 2:36) and “Dare.”  The second is one of their earliest singles, “You Should Always Keep in Touch With Your Friends,” collected on 1988’s singles comp, Tommy.

And, what the hell, because you can never have too much of The Wedding Present, here’s a blistering live version of “Kennedy,” from 1989’s Bizarro.  You know that part in Almost Famous when William Miller sucks up to Stillwater’s Russell Hammond by telling him that his guitar-playing is incendiary?  Just check out David Gedge from the 3:30 mark until the end of the song.  The very definition of the word.

Here, it Never Snowed October 24, 2009

Posted by monty in education.
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dunce-cap

Barack Obama’s embrace of hope and promise of change clearly didn’t extend to his selection of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.  The Secretary – the guy nominally in charge of the nation’s schools, despite the fact that he has no teaching experience himself – recently went on the warpath against schools of education, dubbing them “mediocre” and calling for – you guessed it – more accountability.

On the surface, Duncan sounds like he’s on the right page.  For instance, he’s critical of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act.  The catch, though, is that you have to read a little bit further to discover the true nature of his criticism.  Essentially, he doesn’t believe the current law goes far enough.  He doesn’t like that some schools can be punished even though their students are making steady progress (which is to his credit), but his solution to fixing NCLB?

More standards and more tests.

This is precisely the problem of having someone in a position of power who doesn’t really understand the nature of the job he’s tasked with overseeing.  This is true of Duncan, of the Secretaries of Education who preceded him, of state Departments of Education, and even – in many cases, I’ve found – of school district and individual site administrators.  As soon as you have someone overseeing education who doesn’t have substantial real-world experience in the classroom, he inevitably thinks that the panacea for what ails education lies in the ability to crunch numbers.

One of his proposed solutions to “fix” schools and schools of education?  More specific test data so that a student’s score can be traced back to individual teachers, and then further back to where that teacher was trained.  I have absolutely no problem with accountability, but the problem for me is the notion – which too few people seem willing to challenge – that student success can be accurately and solely determined through standardized tests.  In Duncan’s perfect world, a student’s performance on a test – which can be affected by a wide range of factors, many of which have nothing whatsoever to do with the student’s teacher – can be used to judge whether that teacher is doing a decent job, and whether the school that trained that teacher is worth its salt as an institution of higher learning.  It’s a ridiculous notion.

Let me give you some practical info, based on my own research.  Setting aside the more commonly-known problems with standardized tests (test bias, test anxiety, limitations in assessing critical thought, etc.), the real issue comes down to how accurately the tests assess the standards they purport to be assessing.  I looked at California’s STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) system, given each spring, and which contains subject tests that are supposedly tied directly to the state’s content standards (the state-mandated statements that dictate what students should learn in each grade).

I analyzed the test items that were identified as assessing student knowledge of the Literary Response and Analysis standards (those standards that deal with reading literary texts – novels, poetry, drama, etc.).  At the 9th grade level, only 25% of the questions (4/16) were, in my judgment, accurately evaluating the standard they claimed to be (a thorny issue that I’ll unpack more completely later).  At the 10th grade level, nearly half were acceptable (8/17); a better statistic, to be sure, but not nearly good enough when these are supposed to be bulletproof tests that assess student knowledge and teacher performance.  More troublesome is my finding that nearly a third (30%) of the questions actually assessed a skill other than the identified standard (such as recognizing vocabulary in context), and exactly a third were so flawed that I couldn’t tell what they were assessing.

Do you see the problem here?  For Duncan and his disciples, test data is what drives their evaluation of students, teachers, and schools.  But how can that data be used in good conscience if the tests themselves are only acceptable a third of the time?  I know I examined only one particular subset of questions and standards, but when you take into account other factors, like the fact that the California writing standards are assessed solely through multiple-choice questions – as opposed to, you know, writing – it’s not hard to see that this is a far-from-ideal system to evaluate student performance, let alone teachers and teacher-training programs.

The other issue at play is that of the content standards themselves.  In my analysis of California’s twelve Literary Response and Analysis standards, I found that ten of them were substantially flawed to the point where they were virtually untestable, unteachable, and – most importantly – uninterpretable.  And remember that these are the statements supposedly governing what kids learn.  If we were to pretend for a moment that high-stakes standardized tests were the perfect vehicle to assess students and teachers, how could we reasonably assume the test-makers themselves to construct a valid assessment based on such problematic standards?  The short answer: we couldn’t.

This is why the brand new Common Core standards being developed at the national level should be looked at suspiciously.  Like California’s, they’re being written externally, with little or no actual input from practicing teachers or experts in the relevant fields.  Instead, they’re being developed by three companies – Achieve, Inc., ACT, and College Board – that also play a role in the testing business.  So, to compound the lack of subject-matter expertise, we also have a significant conflict of interest.  It’s good that the National Council of Teachers of English roundly criticized the draft standards in a recent review, but more educators and professional organizations need to push back on these standards, and push back hard.  I’m not anti-standards, but if we’re going to make them, let’s make them right, and have them made by people who actually know what they’re doing.

So this is what’s at the heart of the Arne Duncan Problem.  A man who thinks we can standard and test our way out of whatever educational problems we have, but who doesn’t seem to put much stock in the educators who will be most affected by his mandates.  This is why you don’t put someone who’s never actually been a professional educator in charge of our educational system.

Obama, sadly, has fallen in line.  What was his rhetoric during the campaign?  Reward good teachers and punish the bad ones.  And how do we reward good teachers?  Pay them more, based on their students’ test scores.  The whole thing is a ridiculous mess, and it reflects what I think is the real problem at the root of all this: a general bureaucratic mistrust of the experience and expertise of educators, which robs them of the ability to play a role in creating the very policy that they’re expected to follow.

* NOTE: I have a wealth of data to support the claims I’m making, especially as they pertain to California’s standards and the new Common Core standards.  The data was omitted for the sake of readability.  For anyone interested in learning more about standards and testing than you’ve ever wanted to know, leave a comment and I’ll be happy to chat.

*****

Current listening:

Oasis be here now

Oasis – Be Here Now

Current reading:

BANR2005-full

Aimee Bender – “Tiger Mending” (in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, ed. by Dave Eggers)

Last movie seen:

stepfather-poster-0

The Stepfather (Nelson McCormick, dir.)