Monday, September 30, 2013

Baseball Playoffs

It has been a very good season for us Red Sox fans - AL East champions; best record in baseball (along with the Cards); best offense in baseball - solid pitching. I wish I'd picked them to win, not finish second - behind the Blue Jays? (oy.) But hey - give me credit for waffling, and give the Red Sox credit for hitting all the things I said needed to happen to win - "If Lester and Buckholtz bounce back" - they sure did (though Buckholz missed a third of the year).... "if Lackey and Dempster can be effective and stay on the field (I'm more optimistic about Lackey's effectiveness and Dempster's durability than the opposites)" - LAckey was as durable as he was effective (and he sure was effective); Dempster was durable and reasonably effective... "if Dubront can be a bit more consistent" - well - he was up and down, but his ups were up quite a ways.... The offense did drive line drives and doubles all over the place - no one (except Ortiz) really had a great year, but everyone, 12 or 13 deep, had good years... they had speed, they have a decent defense... I thought they had a "deep and effective bullpen" - thank god I was right, since half of it went on the DL. But Koji Uehara stayed healthy, and pitched a bit better than he has over his career (you know he's only once had a WHIP over 1 in his American career? has a career WHIP under 1? well under 1 - around .83? that he has 332K and 38 walks in 286 innings? this year was ridiculously good, but it's not really out of line with his career. Except for the 74 innings.) Tazawa and Breslow were outstanding. They kept it together. It's been something to see.

Well - the playoffs are here. Making predictions, in this brave new world of play in playoffs, with a wild card tie tonight and the wild card game tomorrow - might be a fool's errand, but what they hell. I can be a fool.

Boston vs. Wild Card winner - I suppose I should try to predict the wild card winner. Tampa is probably the team that should win... but I don't know. It's tough to cheer - I like the Rangers - but I like Tito too, and always pull a bit for the Indians... and running the table at the end of the year, even against the dregs (Houston and Minnesota), is something to see. Dennis Eckersly last week was saying it - all Cleveland has to do is win all their games against Houston and Minnesota and they're in - and they did it.... Unfortunately, neither Texas nor Tampa are the Astros or the Twins - and the Red Sox are another matter altogether.... My guess is Tampa vs. Boston - the Sox have been beating Tampa lately, so maybe that's good. I do think the Sox should win this - they have the pitching, they have offense, they have the ability, with Ellsbury and Victorino and Pedroia to manufacture runs - they should be all right.

Detroit vs. Oakland - Oakland is at home, but I think the Tigers take this easily enough. They have the power pitchers - a deep rotation - like most of the teams in the playoffs. They have no bullpen, but they have the bats - assuming Cabrera is playing. Oakland, I think, has a better regular season team - less power arms, less balance on the offense. Bartolo Colon, aged 40, won 18 games. My god.

The second round, then, I would expect to be Boston and Detroit - which I think the Sox can take. Getting into the bullpens of these teams is going to tip things to the Sox - I think they are all right...

In the NL - Pittsburgh and Cincinnati play the wild card game - I don't know how to pick them; I like them both; say it's the home team!

St. Louis vs. Wild Card - I would expect the Cards to take this, they can hit, they have pitching, a nice bullpen - though neither of the other teams would be an upset. I figured this division would be one of the toughest to predict, and there's not a lot separating these three teams - the Cards only pulled away at the end, and not too far...

Atlanta vs. LA - this at least offers a clear rooting interest, since I hate the Dodgers with the fires of hell, and have always liked the Braves. And with the Braves pitching, I see no reason to pick against them. Though Clayton Kershaw makes a pretty good reason....

Second round: The Braves haven't managed to figure out how to get out of the NL, and I don't expect to see it this year. The Cards, disappointingly enough, are the most likely team to get out. I would dearly love to see a Boston Pittsburgh series, though.

And now - like last year, let me take a stab at the seasonal awards:

AL MVP - Mike Trout had another mind-blowing season; Miguel Cabrera put up mind-blowing stats; Chris Davis hit a ton of home runs. I imagine the voters will give it to Cabrera, since the Tigers won... Trout is probably the best player in the league - but with his team out of contention, it's hard to feel too offended by the voters going with the OPS winner. Though - I wonder if anyone will consider Uehara and his half a baserunner an inning. Probably not with Davis and Cabrera putting up big counting stats - but still...

AL Cy Young - some nice contenders, but Scherzer's year - 21 wins, top in WHIP, second in K's - that works for me.

AL Rookie - I'm not sure - maybe I'm forgetting someone... Will Myers seems like a good choice... Jose Iglesias has a case. I'd pick Myers.

NL MVP - this is not easy - numbers were way down in the NL this year - 3 guys with 30 home runs? On the sheer stats - it might be Paul Goldschmidt's year - but MVP ought to include something about the team, and the Diamondbacks were nothing special. Personally, I think it should come down to Matt Carpenter and Andrew McCutcheon - the best players on a couple of the best teams - along with Freddie Freeman. I think I'd vote for Carpenter, myself...

Cy Young - actually, you could make a very good case for Clayton Kershaw for MVP. If he doesn't win the Cy Young award, fire all the writers.

Rookie of the Year - Yasiel Puig is probably the guy everyone will vote for - and probably for good cause. He's not far off the MVP race. But don't discount what Jose Fernandez did in Miami; aged 20. (I wasn't too far off with Shelby Miller - though he's not up to Fernandez. The NL is stocked with rather thrilling young pitchers - those guys and Patrick Corbin, and Matt Harvey, if he comes back like Strasburg did - and Strasburg himself is only 25. Though Kershaw himself is only 25, and has become as dominant as Verlander (before this year) has been in the AL...

Friday, September 27, 2013

Friday on the Road

All right - I am off on a wild goose chase, a Meeting, being held in some god forsaken corner of the Commonwealth, forcing me to rise and shine at a truly horrific hour. I must be out of the house before 6:30; I am not a morning person. Alas. But nothing is going to make me miss a Friday Music Post, nothing short of the anniversary of the Second Largest Battle of the Civil War, that is... so it goes... In any case - here we go: random 10 for this Friday...

1. Billy Bragg & Wilco - The Unwelcome Guest
2. Husker Du - No Promise Have I Made
3. The Modern Lovers - The Astral Plane
4. Buddy Holly - Maybe Baby
5. Television - Careful
6. Transit Kings - America is Unavailable
7. Ghost - Images of April
8. Roxy Music - Strictly Confidential
9. Sonic Youth - Self-Obsessed and Sexxee
10. Liars - What Would They Know

And video? if I could find the Lovers or Jonathan Richman doing it, that would be better - but Yo La Tengo, plus Roger Miller, that's a decent substitute, right?

And since I will be riding around the highways of Massachusetts - Yo La Tengo and the Feelies, doing the Modern Lovers. They look just like they could...

And we need Jonathan himself, yes?

And finally - Grant Hart live, in the present, in Brazil:

Friday, September 20, 2013

Chickamauga Day 2

(Before I start - be sure to check out Robert Bateman's writing on Chickamauga at Charles Pierce's blog. An actual professional soldier and historian, who's always enlightening...)

So - today is the second day of the battle of Chickamauga. The first day had brought attacks all along the lines, most of them going in on their own, really, without much coordination. Nothing had been decided - the battle would be resumed in the morning.

But first, Bragg decided to reorganize his army overnight. He appointed Leonidas Polk commander of his right wing. He appointed James Longstreet commander of the left wing. Longstreet himself arrived on the battlefield sometime after dark on the 19th - got off a train, rode some distance to reach the battlefield, and was put in command of half the army. Bragg also had the idea that they should all attack at dawn on the 20th - whether this idea made it out of his head or not is an open question. In any case, none of his generals seemed to have any idea they were attacking at dawn, though it is hard to tell if that is because Bragg never told them to or because none of them much cared what Bragg wanted. None of them, not Bragg or anyone else, seemed to have put much effort into making sure they knew what they were supposed to do.

So the fighting started back up on the 20th, at about 9:30 or so, quite a bit after dawn. It started, again, on the Confederate right/Union left. The Yankees had used the night and morning to put up fortifications along this part of the line, with predictable results. This time, some of the Rebels did get on their flank, but only a few - most of them ran into the main lines, now behind cover, and were shot to hell. That kept up most of the morning; Longstreet, on the rebel left, was in no hurry to get going, so most of the action stayed where it started. This meant a couple things - one was that the Union was able to shore up its lines on the left and deal with the rebels who did manage to get around the flank. But another was that as Rosecrans kept moving men to their left, he started to lose track of where people were. And that had consequences.

Basically, two things happened, more or less at the same time, that brought on disaster for the Union. Both, I would have to say, had been coming.... One is - Rosecrans gave a bad order. He had a reputation for losing composure in battle, and he did it here - he had been shuffling troops around the battlefield, reacting to every threat, sometimes without quite thinking about what else was happening - and he lost track of where people were. He was also dispatching orders very quickly - he wrote some, his chief of staff, James Garfield, wrote some, and other staff officers wrote others - the orders were not always clear, and the group of them were not always checking against one another to make sure everything was accurate. The specific incident went roughly like this: there were three divisions in a row, left to right, near the center of the union line - Reynolds, Brennan and Wood. Most of the fighting was taking place on the left, and troops were being moved from the right and center to reinforce the left. In the middle of this, Brennan was ordered to move to the far left to meet the threat. Someone pointed out that if Brennan moved, it would leave a hole in the line - so Rosecrans ordered Wood to move into the space Brennan vacated, to support Reynolds. The problem was - all these orders got gummed up. Brennan didn't go anywhere until his replacements arrived; his division hadn't moved when Wood received his orders to move next to Reynolds. Now - maybe another general, another day, would have decided if the order’s conditions weren’t met, he shouldn’t follow them - or would have sent someone back to HQ to say that the division he was supposed to replace was still there. But Wood and Rosecrans had been feuding, over the giving and following of orders - Rosecrans had made a point, during these disputes, that an order was an order and Wood had better follow it - so Wood was not going to take the heat here. He had an order, in writing - he would follow it to the letter come hell or high water...

...Or Longstreet’s corps. Because that was the other thing happening - James Longstreet was preparing an attack on the center of the Union line even as Wood pulled out of the line. And when James Longstreet attacked, he attacked. He had a reputation for moving slow - for having his own ideas about battles and being stubborn about them - but when he moved, he moved hard. (He was a lot like George Thomas in that.) And here - unlike everyone else in this battle, he prepared this attack: he stacked his men 5 lines deep, planning to drive through any opposition - sent them in - right where Wood used to be. That pretty much did it. They punched straight through the middle of the union line, and proceeded to rout everyone to their south. It wasn't immediate - south of the break, the Yankees put up a fight for a while - but Longstreet's men could get around behind them, and every line broke. Before long, the right side of the Union army was all gone, heading west as fast as they could go - taking with them a fair part of the army's high command. Rosecrans, McCook and Crittenden, their much more talented division commanders like Phil Sheridan and Jeff Davis (the Indiana Jeff Davis, who had only two things in common with the Mississippi Jeff Davis - his name and the fact that he commited a hanging offense during the war but didn't hang. The Indiana Davis shot a superior officer dead in cold blood in a hotel lobby, but ended up commanding a corps. It helped to be friends with governors back then.) And, we can't forget, Charles Dana, assistant secretary of war, attached to the army to spy on Rosecrans and keep him moving.... Dana ran with the rest of them, but did more harm than most, interfering with a counterattack that might have stabilized the situation. John Wilder's infantry brigade had been equipped with Spencer repeaters - they came up in the middle of this fight, and determined to counterattack. They were a brigade strong, but they could get off seven shots at a time, which gave them the firepower of a couple divisions - they were an elite unit, and might well have tipped things. But Dana thought the day was lost and demanded an escort off the battlefield - by the time Wilder had sent him along, the chance was lost.

Things were almost as bad on the union left - Longstreet's attack cut the army in half, and his men were trying to roll up to the Union left like they did the Union right - but that didn't quite work. Thomas' men hadn't moved all day - their lines were still as solid as ever. All those reinforcements, people like Wood's men, were already on this side of the battle - quite a few of them got into line along a series of hills called Horseshoe Ridge. And - as things started to fall apart, the last of Rosecrans corps commanders, George Granger, appeared with most of his men - they came in just in time to hold Horseshoe Ridge. And then?

Over and over during the war, armies who looked like they had swept the field clear, ran into a force that stood up to them and stopped them cold. It happened at Shiloh, in the Hornet's Nest. It happened at Chancellorsville, where on May 2, Jackson caved in the union right, but on May 3, both sides faced off in a day long toe to toe slog. It happened at Stone's River, first when Sheridan's division held, later in the Round Forest. And it happened at Chickamauga, on Horseshoe Ridge. The Confederates had driven off half or more of the army - had gotten behind the half that stayed - but the Union threw up a defensive line, and the Rebels proceeded to simply throw themselves at it, over and over, without any further coordination, no more attempts to get around the Yankees, nothing. There were probably better reasons for it than for most of the troubles the Confederates had - John Hood had been in direct command of the attack, and he'd been shot down, leaving no one quite in charge. Longstreet exercised very little control over this part of the battle. Bragg, obviously, played no role. It was left to the brigade and division commanders to keep attacking, and they did, but with no plan beyond attacking what was in front of them.

It was still a close thing. The rebels kept coming. There were astonishing stands made - by the 21st Ohio, say, a regiment armed with Colt repeating rifles, who held off attack after attack, all day, before being left behind, without any ammunition. Desperate charges and counter charges, dirty tricks (at one point, a Confederate unit appeared, and were challenged by the Yankees - who are you? asked the Northerners; Jeff Davis' men, came the reply - honest, I suppose, but you do recall that [Indiana] Jeff Davis commanded a division in the Army of the Cumberland?) It all ended after dark, with more confused fighting and people being captured without knowing who got them... but the Union army got away, and hoofed back to Chattanooga, where they were quickly bottled up... but that's another battle.

So there it was. 34 or 35,000 casualties total, the second highest of the war. The Confederates lost more men shot, having spent two days attacking, and the end of it, relentless attacking, often against men dug in. The Union almost evened the numbers because of their prisoners. It was a very significant Confederate victory - they broke Rosecrans' army, chased half of it away, shot up all of it - they restored a lot of their fortunes in this battle. Though - well, we can discuss what happened next when we get to Chattanooga. The battle ruined men - Rosecrans was doomed, and was relieved once Ohio held their elections in a month or so, replaced by Thomas. McCook and Crittenden were soon gone. Others - Thomas particularly - were made by the battle. Some, like James Garfield, Rosecrans' chief of staff, saved their reputations by going back to he battle - Sheridan and Davis left, but did enough to try to get back to be spared the fate of McCook and Crittenden. On the Confederate side - well - that has to be another post. Bragg here won his biggest victory - but the army hadn't gotten to Chattanooga to besiege Rosecrans' wrecked army before the rest of the rebel generals were howling for his head. In that army, fighting the Union was a distraction from fighting with one another...

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Chickamauga Day 1

150 years ago today - the second largest battle of the war began. Chickamauga was fought in the north Georgia wilderness, two days of brutal, relentless mayhem, a fight with little thought put into it, that almost turned the course of the war anyway, almost accidentally.

What happened, broadly speaking? Chickamauga came at the end of a summer of campaigning in the middle of Tennessee. This was the Union Army of the Cumberland, commanded by William Rosecrans - an army that seems kind of forgotten sometimes, compared to Grant's (and later Sherman's) Army of the Tennessee, that took Vicksburg, and later Atlanta; and the Army of the Potomac, back east getting (mostly) whacked around by Robert E. Lee. Rosecrans was in the middle, charged with taking east Tennessee, Chattanooga, and menacing Georgia. Rosecrans had been in command at Stone's River - a bloodbath, where the Rebel Army (The Army of Tennessee, under Braxton Bragg) caved in the Union right, and almost wrecked Rosecrans' army - but it managed to stabilize things, and ended up almost wrecking Bragg's army, when it kept on hammering away at those stabilized lines. (One of those things you see over and over in the war - someone scores a major partial victory - at Shiloh, Chancellorsville, here, Chickamauga - but a line forms, and the attackers end up battering themselves to pulp attacking it.) Stone's River felled about a third of both armies and left them with a lot of work to do to recover. It took Rosecrans 6 months to recover - a good deal longer than Abraham Lincoln (to name one) thought it should have taken him, and Lincoln made things hot for Risecrans for a while. But at the end of June, Rosecrans moved, and moved well - in the Tullahoma campaign he managed to outflank Bragg and drive him out of the middle of Tennessee virtually without a fight. Bragg retreated to Chattanooga - Rosecrans dallied for another month of so (once more annoying Lincoln, Stanton and company) - but he finally got going, and did it again - getting around behind Bragg and forcing him to give up Chattanooga without a fight. Except that in the doing of it, he scattered his army over quite a bit of northern Georgia, and Bragg and his army decided to take advantage. They tried to catch the separate parts of the Union army, but could never get their act together - so Rosecrans was able to bring his force together neat Chickamauga Creek - where Bragg determined to attack him.

The whole of it was a fairly interesting campaign, operationally - about as much actual sustained maneuver and positioning as you would see in the war. Feint's and quick marches and races for the crucial mountain pass, and so on... Though in the end, they all came together in one place and fought a straight up brawl. Maybe even more interesting strategically, especially from the Confederates' point of view. It is hard to see much good in the Rebel's strategy in the war. It's hard to see any strategy at all, most of the time. Once in a while - Lee had a strategy, try to win one big battle, that would destroy the Union army, or cause Washington to fall, something like that - something that would cause the north to sue for peace. (Basically the same strategy the Japanese employed at Pearl Harbor - with about the same degree of success.) (That and protect Virginia, at all costs, including the destruction of the rest of the Confederacy, to put it harshly.) Jefferson Davis? He seemed to vacillate, between trying to hold everything, and trying to get that one big win - or a big political win, like invading Kentucky and convincing them to switch sides.... In practical terms, it's hard to see much that he did. Vicksburg might be the worst example - he insisted on holding it, but did not force his generals to combine or cooperate, did not come up with anything like a plan to give them a chance to hold it, let Lee tell him what he was going to do with his army, Vicksburg be damned - and so Grant took the city and an army with it. After Vicksburg, Davis still didn't quite commit to anything - he didn't force Joe Johnston (in Mississippi) to join Bragg in Tennessee, or vice versa, didn't really commit to anything. But he did, for once, make a decision, toward the end of the summer, to send James Longstreet and most of his corps west to reinforce Bragg. Lee could usually stop that sort of thing - but after Gettysburg, it was obvious he would have to stick to the defensive, and if so, he could spare some men. So off went Longstreet and his men and they arrived just in time for the battle.

And - their arrival meant that for just about the only time in the war, in a major battle, the Confederates outnumbered the Union on the field. Not that it did them an awful lot of good. On September 19, in they went. The plan was to get around the Union left, cutting off Rosecrans's retreat to Chattanooga - that was one of the plans anyway. The battle started - the rebels never did quite get on the Union flank, and a messy, hard fight developed at that end of the line. As fight grew, Bragg ordered in the rest of his army - just attacking whatever they found, basically. Both sides fed men in piecemeal, and a confusing battle developed in the woods and fields between Chickamauga creek and the main roads to Chattanooga. The fighting went went back and forth most of the day, the Confederates driving the Yankees back, then being driven in turn - though in broad terms, the Union left got the better of it, while the center and right were closer calls. Through it all, the fighting was disjointed and uncoordinated and very very bloody.

The truth is, it is hard to get a grip on this battle. You can get a grip on Antietam or Gettysburg or even Shiloh or Stone's River - show the lines, see where the attacks developed, where the reinforcements came from, where the stands were made - and put the whole thing together into a kind of flow. That's hard to do with Chickamauga. Yes - you can trace the lines on the map, but the fact is, it seems to have been fought as a series of barely connected, uncoordinated chunks. I suspect a big part of that was the terrain - it was fought across a handful of fields and clearings, hills and ridges, surrounded by dense forest that cut up battle lines, separated units, made control of anything above brigade level completely hit or miss, and often made even brigade level control impossible. There were a few battles like that in the Civil War, but not many. Stone's River was fought in forests and across hills and ridges, though not as bad as this. Chancellorsville, and The Wilderness, in 1864, were both fought in dense woodland - the latter seems to have been mostly fought in the woods, even more than Chickamauga. At Chickamauga, most of the fighting was arranged around farms and fields - but the woods kept all these fights apart....

And - well - we're back to another of my old themes: call it the fog of war, if you want to sound high minded about it. Call it lack of battlefield control maybe... Here - I think you might want to call it incompetence and sheer bloody mindedness. There are lots of badly run battles in the Civil War, but are there any as bad as this one? It's beyond incompetence, into something like complete confusion. Rosecrans was on the verge of collapse, and screwed the whole thing up with his own carelessness and panic. Crittenden and McCook (two of the four Union corps commanders) never really did much, and disappeared when their men were routed on the second day. Meanwhile, the rebel generals were opening feuding with one another. They were a complete mess. Braxton Bragg was about as badly hated as any significant general on either side. (By everyone, from private to Lieutenant General; everyone but Jefferson Davis.) He commanded the Army of Tennessee from the summer of 1862, fought 4 major battles, Perryville, Stone's River, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga. Basically won, on the battlefield, the first three, though he abandoned the field after both Perryville and Stone's River, letting the Union claim the victory. After every one of those battles, his subordinates turned on him, openly - petitioning Jeff Davis to remove him, writing anonymous letters, or signed letters, organizing cabals.... somehow, he stayed in command - and maybe just as bad, most of the generals he feuded with (Polk and Hardee and Cheatham and Breckinridge etc.) stayed around as well. All that was bad enough - it was worse than that at Chickamauga (though it would get even worse at Chattanooga). Bragg had new generals on board - Longstreet and D.H. Hill. Longstreet didn't start causing trouble until after Chickamauga; Hill - well, he was a fine general, who had gotten himself exiled from Lee's army for his inability to get along with anyone. He came to Bragg from the Carolinas, and he brought along a full dose of his natural contrariness. He joined right in with the rest of the army in hating Bragg....

All that trouble really came home to roost. It started earlier - Bragg's attempts to catch parts of Rosecrans' army before they could unite failed because his generals didn't cooperate, no one trusted anyone else, some of them approaching insubordination, everyone moving on their own timetable. When they did catch Rosecrans and attack, the same thing happened - Bragg ordered attacks, but his underlings went where they wanted, when they wanted - when the attacks came, they were uncoordinated, behind schedule, out of place - and Bragg could do nothing to change anyone's behavior, and wasn't exactly brimming with ideas for how they should be fighting the battle. So what happened happened - a bunch of fights, all along the line, with little connection, and none of them very successful.

Now to be sure - there were exceptions to these failures. A good many brigade and regimental commanders, and a fair number of division commanders, acquitted themselves quite well, for both sides. Higher up, George Thomas, one of the Union's best generals, did his job and very well, holding on to the Union left, and the fourth Union corps commander, George Granger, would act decisively on the second day, saving the army. On the rebel side, James Longstreet mounted one of his patented devastating attacks, led, very effectively, by John Hood... But then, Hood got shot, Longstreet disappeared for much of the battle (maybe because he'd arrived on the battlefield straight from a train in the middle of the night before being assigned command of half the army), and in the end, the battle degenerated into another series of uncoordinated direct attacks on strong defensive positions - a bloodbath.

... But we'll come back to that. This note has gotten a bit out of a control - there are two days to this battle, so I think I'll finish it up tomorrow. The second day is a good deal more narratively compact, I will say that - you can make sense of it.... We'll see you tomorrow.

(I'll end with one more thing. One reason this post [posts] is [are] such a monster[s] is that it is very hard to find good information on this battle. I have read many many books about Gettysburg, and quite a bit about Antietam, Vicksburg, the 1864 Virginia campaigns, and so on - but this, the second bloodiest battle of the war - is a lot less well known. And that makes Peter Cozzens' book - This Terrible Sound - all the more valuable - a big, dense, detailed account of the fight, in all its confusion, horror and drama. All the ins and outs, from all perspectives, from the common private to all those generals ignoring orders and panicking and scheming one another's downfalls and so on. From national strategy to the men trying to scrounge water on the battlefield to how to keep a Colt repeating rifle from bursting if you loaded it with a larger caliber ammunition than it was designed for. Highly recommended.)

Friday, September 13, 2013


This month's Band of the Month brings me to college. My next door neighbor, my freshman year, was a New Jersey kid and a Springsteen fan. He had most of the records, if not all of them - though he had them on LP, and, somehow, he and I and our roommates didn't have turntables. But he had also The River on cassette, and we wore it out.

I liked Bruce before I got there - that AOR station I mentioned last month played him, quite a bit actually - especially the first record, I think, because I remember hearing Blinded By the Light, Spirits in the Night and For You more than anything else. They were great songs; and songs from The River turned up on that radio station and others, and I liked them too, without quite loving it - but I was ready for it when I got to college. My first memories of Springsteen were more ambiguous - I read about him before I heard him, and what I heard was colored by the hype. There was that Time Magazine story, which I might have read; I think I remember something in one of those educational magazines they distributed in school (one of the useful ones, with stories about Thor and Jimmy Walker, and Brice Springsteen. Also, the Democratic primary contenders for 1976 - Sargent Shriver! Mo Udall! Jimmy Carter! I wish I remembered what it was.) All this prose was very giddy. When I finally heard Bruce - Born to Run, probably on America's Top 40 - I can't say I understood the fuss. Except - it was a haunting song - that strange, pulsing drone, those murmured/growled/yowled vocals - it didn't sound world changing too me, but it also didn't quite sound like anything else I had ever heard... Anyway - that was that, for a while, until Manfred Mann's Earth Band covered Blinded by the Light - a song (the cover) I dearly loved, at that young age. Again - Casey Kasem played the original, and it was strange and a bit beyond me - but you could hear the cool in it... Over the next year or so, I started hearing more Springsteen here and there - enough to start to get it, though I wasn't a fan exactly. There was a girl in high school who was a Springsteen fan - an Enthusiast. People thought that was very strange then - maybe it was, though when I got to college, well, I became one too.

It was a communal thing - bunches of us would listen to The River, sing along, play air guitar, do what guys do... or we'd listen to the records, which took some negotiation, to find a turntable - but we must have - those records, especially Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, are as familiar to me as The River or Nebraska are. (When Nebraska came out, someone got it on tape again - and I think I must have copied it, because I listened to it for years.) It was intense - and when Nebraska came out - it got more intense. That was not a communal record (though me and the kid from Jersey would listen to it together.) I listened to it alone a lot - or maybe it's just the kind of record that makes you feel alone. I don't know. I worshipped it though - it was one of my iconic records for many years...

But this infatuation with Springsteen, powerful as it was, did not last very long. It lasted roughly until the release of Born in the USA, to be honest. That was a record that came with very high expectations (as had Nebraska) - and it was very disappointing. It's hard to say why, exactly - there are good songs on there (the title track particularly) - but it felt wrong. It was so overproduced - it sounded normal, on the radio, in 1984. (Not a good time to sound normal.) Maybe more than that - it struck me as being a direct continuation of The River, with slicker production and fewer good songs - and it occurred to me that this was the first time Springsteen did not change with his new record. The first six were all different - they all sound different. There's obviously a lot of continuity - but still: the funky folk sound of the first one.... the more melodic, soulful, jazzy approach on the second... the epic rock and roll sprawl of Born to Run, piles of instruments all humming along.... then Darkness, while continuing some of that, moves toward a harder rock sound - think Adam Raised a Cain or Candy's Room... then The River's combination of much rootsier, rock & roll songs alongside the country/folk of the title track, Stolen Car, etc. - which gets stripped to the bone for Nebraska, country, rockabilly, folk.... all of them emphasizing different things, all of them revolving around slightly different musical styles - all of them telling slightly different kinds of stories, too. Moving toward narrative - songs like Blinded by the Light or Growin' Up aren't quite narrative at all; but every record is more story oriented, until you reach Nebraska, which plays like a set of short stories. And different types of stories - different locations (some of the records are very urban; some are very much New Jersey - some are clearly more rural, rural Jersey or PA, etc., and Nebraska is national) - different tones. Types of characters - the noirish songs on Born to Run morph into the serial killers, small time crooks, desperate auto workers shooting up a bar on a spree on Nebraska.... All that - he covers an amazing amount of ground in those records, covers a surprising amount of musical ground as well - and all that seems to be starting to spin its wheels on Born in the USA.

So he lost me. I bought the big live record that came out about that time - which, I thought, and still think, redeems most of the songs on Born in the USA... have I mentioned how much I dislike the production?... But after that - the next couple records were meh... and so? Other groups supplanted Springsteen in my heart... partly, I imagine, because I liked him in college, and I had no money in college, and so managed, despite loving Bruce, and listening to Bruce a ton - to never buy any Springsteen records until I got that big live thing - after I got out of college. And Tunnel of Love, I bought that... and so I didn't have the records around to keep going back to - not until a lot later when I made a point of getting Nebraska and Asbury Park. There you have it. He's tended to retreat in my mind more than even groups like U2, who I loved for a while, then started to love less - but I had those records (see, in college, I was the only U2 fan I knew, until I got my brothers to like them - so I had to buy their records if I was going to hear them. Other people liked Bruce - I could listen to their records.) So I didn't overlook them.

I shouldn't overlook Springsteen. My tastes have changed - he does not fit well with the things I have listened to for the last 25 years (that will be coming in this series - among the songwriting set, Lou Reed, David Thomas and Richard Thompson are going to loom large).... but he was so good in the 70s - the songs, when I listen to them now, still come back to me, how great they are, and how many different ways they are great. A song like Two Hearts or Factory plays now, and I feel what I felt then....

And now - top ten - a very difficult list to compile, for the reasons hinted at above - his consistency as a songwriter, the variety of styles he worked in... but here goes anyway:

1. Atlantic City
2. Blinded By the Light
3. Johnny 99
4. Growin' Up
5. The River
6. Born to Run
7. State Trooper/Open All Night [they are very close to the same song - same riff, one acoustic, quieter, the other fast and electric, thew lyrics echoing each other - one desperate, one hyperactive and joyful, both of them racing through the New Jersey night... though given the general tone of Nebraska, it's hard not to imagine the two of them running into one another out there... though - the mean one comes first; the happy one comes later - corrects it, maybe, who knows. I am counting them as one, no matter what.]
8. 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)
9. Two Hearts
10. Candy's Room

Video - a liver version of Atlantic City:

And Manfred Mann - which doesn't really sound much like Bruce, but gave people a taste of his songs - and is still a pretty good bit of work....

Bruce Rocks - Candy's Room:

And a draft (sounding more like The River) - Candy's Boy:

And - I guess the iconic Springsteen song, Born to Run:

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9-11 Again

Another September 11.

We have not gotten over it - we still seem incapable of undoing the damage we did to ourselves after the attacks. It's depressing - I look back at things I wrote in 2010 or 2006, and they are depressingly familiar. Very little has happened in those 12 years to move back from our initial overreactions. Looking at the rather insane overreaction to the Boston Bombing (shutting down the metro area because of a kid with a gun (maybe) and a homemade bomb (maybe)? Really? Yes; we did that), it's hard not to see a lot of hope for us. We have become very willing to turn over power to the government, police, military - not just in the first panic of the event (that's understandable, and frankly, that's what the police are there for) - but afterwards, onwards. It's hard to look at Edward Snowden's revelations, or the treatment of Snowden, or the people reporting on Snowden, or Bradley Manning, for that matter, and not despair a little. (Hopefully we can do better by Chelsea Manning at some point; I'm not optimistic.)

That's enough. I imagine I will get to do this all again next year. All I have to counter it is the thought that there are people like Manning and Snowden who are willing to act anyway; that this stuff gets aired out more than it did in the 00's; that people might start thinking about it. You never know. And, sometimes, things happen that do start to show some cracks - like the Syrian Situation. The fact that Obama put it to the vote is important - highly gratifying, too. Whatever his reasons - to avoid taking full responsibility, to buy time, to avoid the war (knowing the idiots in the house would never give him anything, even a war), or just because he's the first president in half a century or so to read the constitution - it's gratifying. And seems to have done some good in avoiding getting involved in the war.

I remarked on Facebook that everyone I knew who had expressed an opinion of the war had been against it - from the nuttiest teabagger (Obama wants to start WWIII!) to the Hippiest lefty. The polls tell the same story. So - the notion that democracy and legality might prevail (and diplomacy, internationally - though since that involves the Russians, one can't get too optimistic) is a cause for some hope. Maybe we will learn from it.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Summer Movie Capsules

I have not done this in a while, so here is a damned big post covering a couple months worth of theatrical viewings....

Much Ado About Nothing - 12/15 - Joss Whedon's modern dress version, shot quickly in one location, but coming out sleek and effortless, handsome and clever. It might be the best modern dress Shakespeare I have seen - the easiest, the least affected, with the language intact, but a straightforward performance style... This might be Shakespeare's most modern play, come to think of it - at least, it is the one that translates most readily into the modern world - those warring lovers have become the foundational myth of screwball comedy. It holds up, for sure - partly in the way it steers around the lovers - the plot concerns the juveniles, while Beatrice and Benedict carry the emotional weight, without being bogged down by the plot. It makes for a very lovely film.

Bling Ring - 9/15 - kind of an intelligent version of Spring Breakers, complete with famous starlets acting badly. About a real gang of kids who broke into stars' houses in Hollywood - particularly the cut rate kind of stars, Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, reality stars... The whole thing, I'm afraid, plays like home movies - useless hangers on stealing from talentless TV stars, filmed by (really) rich people - some of the pecking order comes through: real Hollywood royalty (Ms. Coppola) filming a bunch of wanna be's (and a kid from a franchise trying to be a real actress) playing semi-rich nobodies stealing from minor stars... Coppola is very good, I won't deny it, but this seems very empty.

A Band Called Death - 10/15 - nice little documentary about a band called Death - 3 black kids in Detroit in the mid 70s who pick up where the MC5 left off. (They end up sounding like a mix of the MC5 and early Love - My flash on you, my little red book, 7 and 7 is...) They were good enough, apparently, to get studio time and consideration for a record contract, but it didn't happen. Maybe the name - 1976, Detroit, black kids - it's quite possible; they seem to have thought so.... In any case, the moment passed, they drifted off, though they kept playing. They landed in Vermont, made a couple christian records without making much impression, then the leader, David, went back to Detroit while the rest stayed in Burlington and got on with their lives. Still playing music - the two in Vermont formed a reggae band, that sounds pretty good, in a modest regional way. But then David, the oldest one, the songwriter, the visionary, died, but left the master recordings with his brother. And over time, as collectors found their single, as people put it on the internet, played it at parties (where the son of one of the brothers heard it), people traced them, and found the tapes - and got the record released in 2009, sent the 2 surviving brothers on the road, and a bunch of their kids on the road as well, as a cover version of Death... That's the story. The style - the film is all interviews, especially with the two surviving brothers, who are both wonderful. And it is such a cool story - the family, the way their parents let them play the music they wanted to, no matter how strange, the way that next generation forms a band of their own to play their father's music - there's not much style in the film, but it's such a neat story, the people are so much fun to watch and listen to, it doesn't mater. And as for the music? There is a lot of talk about how good they were, how innovative, for 1976 Detroit - how they were punk before punk... That's putting it a bit too strongly. They are very good - they should have made an impact in the 70s - they probably were victims of their time and place. If they'd come out after punk hit, especially after punk started developing outside NY in the states - if they'd come after the Bad Brains, or if they'd come in the middle of a scene, like the Bad Brains - they probably would have made a name for themselves. But they were early - especially with the name... But the music - isn't all that unusual in 1976 - even 1974, when they started. They fit rather well with their contemporaries - The Ramones, the Dictators, Rocket From the Tombs, The electric Eels... They were carrying on from the earlier hard garage bands - the MC5 and Blue Cheer, The Stooges, etc.... They just did it in isolation - and didn't go on to form other bands, like the guys in Rocket From the Tombs and some of those bands. Too bad; they were good.

The Lone Ranger - 7/15 - The bomb of the summer, but that probably isn't entirely fair. Big sprawling nonsense about railroads and silver and massacring Indians and so on.... Tonto tells the tale, in 1933; it is a tall tale - more Baron Munchhausen than conventional western. It is amusing, for all its bombast and flaws, and one notes that Gore Verbinski is making something of a career out of telling tall tales. He's tagging along after Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, in more than just casting Johnny Depp in everything.

The Hunt - 12/15 - Thomas Vinterberg's quietly harrowing film about a kindergarten teacher who is accused of pedophilia. It's a quiet, understated kind of horror film - a little girl (whose teenage brother has been teasing her with pornography on his computer) tells a story about him when he reproaches her for being a bit too friendly, repeating what she heard from the teenagers. (All set up well - the kid's parents have been taking her for granted, fighting a bit - she sees Lucas as a kind of protector, I think, and is angry when he tries to distance himself...) The other teachers believe her (as maybe they need to) - but when she tries to retract, they trap her into repeating the story. And as it grows - it grows: other kids tell stories; and things go from bad to worse. He loses everything - his job, his friends, everything except his son and a lawyer... The story finally falls apart - the kids are caught clearly making up details - and so it ends. It's not an unfamiliar story - there have been several famous instances of this happening, false accusations that start to spiral into huge conspiracies - and Vinterberg does a very good job of tracing the ways it spins out of control. He does it without quite condemning, either - the teachers clearly have to take accusations seriously, they have to protect the children - but you can see where they get it wrong, where they stop listening, where they start to decide to believe the worst. A very strong film.

I'm So Excited - 10/15 - Latest Almodovar, set on an airplane, that develops difficulties with the landing gear. (It starts with a neat little vignette of Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz as part of the ground crew - she tells him she is pregnant, and in their celebration they forget to take the chocks off the wheels...) Anyway, up in the air - they can't come down - and the plane's crew (every one one of whom is gay, though a couple of them won't quite admit it) tries to deal with the passengers - a dominatrix, a hit man, a businessman, an actor with woman trouble, a middle aged virgin who has visions. Melodrama and camp follow, comedy, lip-synching. Very light weight but amusing.

You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet - 10/15 - Alain Resnais adaptation of a play, though it's not quite that simple. A dead playwright assembles a group of actors who have appeared in his adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice through the years - they watch a video of a new performance of the play - and they start acting it out as well. The main conceit seems to be the ages of the leads: there are three sets of actors - Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi, Anne Consigny and Lambert Wilson, and Vamila Pons and Sylvain Dieuaide - playing Eurydice and Orpheus at different ages - their 60s, 40s, 20s.

Computer Chess - 12/15 - A rather wonderful new film from Andrew Bujalski. Presented like a video documentary from the 80s, about a computer chess tournament, though it's quickly apparent it's fiction. Gerald Peary turns up as a smarmy master of ceremonies, a chess master hosting the thing - Wiley Wiggins is in there as well, though the main story revolves around a couple other characters. One is Peter - the programmer for the Cal Tech team (Wiggins is a psychologist, and there's a professor who turns up late with a Russian wife). They won the year before, but are losing this time - their computer seems to be committing suicide in their games. They dig around the code looking for the mistakes, and the professor admits that his compiler adds code to the main code, allowing (he says) the thing to learn. The film sticks with Peter as he tries to figure out what is going on,a nd as he drifts between some of the other groups at the conference. There is another conference of new age therapy going on, complete with swingers; there are a couple fans, dealing drugs and hosting parties; there's Shelly, a lady programmer from MIT. Peter starts to think the computer wants to play people, not computers - things hint at the mystical... The other main character is a freelance programmer named Michael Papageorge, who spends the film in a strange kind of limbo - he doesn't have a room, doesn't have any money (a bit like Gerry and Cookie Fleck in Best in Show - Christopher Guest isn't a bad reference point for this film...), and ends up wandering the hallways of the hotel, looking for a place to crash. He has his own theories about chess and AI, that no one else takes very seriously, though he does well enough... Along the line, he buys drugs from the oddball fanboys, on credit, and ends in a loop at his mother's house looking for the money. All told - it's a neat little film, very witty, great looking, in that 80s video style, with the right kinds of angles and effects for the time as well. Very nice.

Crystal Fairy - 10/15 - Michael Cera is an American in Chile, who organizes a trip with three Chilean brothers to get San Pedro cactus to make mescaline. At a party, Cera invites a girl, Crystal Fairy - who turns up, to his dismay. They drive up north looking for cactus, running into trouble on the way - CF being a hippy given to walking around naked in their motel room. They steal cactus and Cera insists on brewing it up immediately - they take it - and wander around a beach, alternating between paranoia and euphoria. At the end - Cera apologizes for beign a jerk, and they all kind of sort it out. The two Americans are the most interesting characters - CF is a hippy, new agey thing, though she is really a dominatrix. She acts the part - over time, she reveals some of her normality - her name, Isabelle, her job, her past, her troubles, etc. Cera's character is a twit - uptight and weird, kind of a mix of an amateur druggy and something more. Very uptight. Cera himself is very good - playing this asshole; and Gaby Hoffman is fantastic as Crystal Fairy.

The Act of Killing - 13/15 - Documentary about the killers in the Indonesian genocide aimed at communists, chinese, intellectuals and so on in the wake of the 1965 coup. The film takes as its conceit the idea of having the killers restage their crimes any way they want. The main character in the film is a man named Anwar Congo, an aging gangster who was a leader of the death squads in the 60s. It is strange, then - for they are all unapologetic - claiming they were saving the country from the communists and such. On top of that, Congo and his friend Koto are huge film fans - they started as gangsters scapling tickets to American movies, and they seem to live the whole story in film terms. They pull on the style of hollywood, gangster films and war films and so on, to stage their stories. There are a number of main scenes: Congo on the roof demonstrating how he killed people with wires; Congo and Koto looking at the footage and talking about costumes; large paramilitary meetings, usually involving high officials; a visit to a newspaperman who boasts of orchestrating the killings; staged interrogations. About the middle, another killer joins - he and Congo dress as victims and talk; there is a scene by a river where they seem to come out of their shells a bit. The other man says the government should apologize for the killings; Congo talks about his bad dreams. After this, the other killer becomes more hardline; Congo, though, seems to be losing it. There is a scene of a village being burned; then a scene where Congo is - the other man says the government should apologize - Congo talks about his bad dreams - somehow this seems to send both fo them into their shells. Toward the end you get a village being burned; you have a man who had been cooperating with the killers who suddenly talks about how his father in law was murdered by the death squads. Finally - there is a scene where Congo plays a man being interrogated; he breaks in the scene - then we see him watching the footage, and the filmmaker confronts him about his feelings. And then - the film ends with Congo on the roof where he used to garrot people, trying to talk about it, and gagging... Meanwhile - along the way, there are dance routines, drag routines, Koto running for office - it's extraordinary, one of the most inventive and devastating films in years.

The Way Way Back - 9/15 - nice little coming of age comedy... a kid goes to the cape for the summer with his mother and her boyfriend. The place is hell, despite being on the beach. He finds a bike and rides around and finds an old water park and soon has a job. Sam Rockwell is charismatic, trying to kill the boredom and despair; Maya Rudolph plays his girl, with the film's writers along for comic relief. Steve Carrell, meanwhile, is the boyfriend, and a dick, and Toni Collette plays the mother... It's all clever enough, ending well, as these films do.

Despicable Me 2 - 9/15 - Someone steals a research station at the north pole, with a serum that makes things into monsters. Gru is kidnapped by the anti villain league, to find who did the deed - he refuses, but only for a scene or two. He and Lucy from the AVL infiltrate a mall to find the villain - Gru recognizes an old rival, El Macho, now running a Mesican restaurant - he tries to catch him but has no luck. Then they find the serum at a hair shop - so the investigation is called off - but El Macho did it of course. All this is interspersed with plot about dating - and in the end, Gru has to rescue Lucy and ends up marrying her. This last is a very annoying turn - she is a neat comic foil for him, competent and ridiculous, like he is, but in the end she is turned into a damsel in need of rescue. Annoying. Not that there is much story to it - mostly minion gags and dating jokes. All of it enjoyable enough, but fairly empty.

In A World - 9/15 - Lake Bell plays a woman who is a bit of a loser does vocal coaching - and lucks into a couple jobs for movie trailers. Her father of course is an old timer of voiceovers - who is grooming Ken Marino as his successor. There's the wisp of a plot involving the resurrection of the "in a world" line for trailers, for a Hunger Games knockoff called Amazon Games - the boys are after it - but she lucks into that as well. Meanwhile, she screws the voiceover jerk and flirts with a coworker and her sister almost has an affair with an Irishman. So it goes. It is episodic and a bit empty, but fairly entertaining. Bell has skills.

Prince Avalanche - 10/15 - solid indie film. A bit slow, a bit padded, 2 men working on a highway in Texas in 1988, a year after a big fire. Paul Rudd is dating Emile Hirsch's sister, and has got him this job - Lance (that's Hirsch) is a brat, lazy and rather useless, a player, of sorts. Rudd's Alvin is a fake philosopher, etc. The sister breaks up with him, since he is never home; Lance finds out one of his one night stands is pregnant. They drink and fight and sulk and bond. It's not bad, though nothing special - Green seems to be working to combine his early, Malick derived indie style with his Hollywood buddy picture stories, with some success.

World's End - 10/15 - another in the same vein from Pegg and Wright and company. 20 years ago, Pegg led his friends on a pub crawl, 12 pubs, 12 beers - it did not end well.... Since then, the rest fo the crew has grown up, but not Gary King - he gets them together to do it again. They go - things aren't great - one has stopped drinking, the others are tired of the act... but then he's attacked in the bathroom by robots and they are plunged into Shaun of the Dead, more or less. They keep on the pub crawl, fighting robots, a scheme to take over the world, etc. They are defiant, so it all ends. An epilogue that recycles the ending of Shaun of the Dead - robots assimilating into post-apocalyptic society, etc. Amusing, but kind of repetitive.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints - 12/15 - David Lowery film... Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are outlaws, somewhere in the 70s - they get in a shootout with cops, and when their friend Freddy is killed, and she shoots a cop, he takes the rap and goes to prison. The lot of them were raised by Keith Carradine, as some kind of gangster, turned into something else in his old age - he supports Mara and her kid.... Well - 4 years along, Affleck breaks out of jail and comes back. Carradine is not exactly thrilled about this... And all this while, the cop who got shot has been hanging around making doe eyes at Mara. Anyway - everyone's looking for Affleck, but some hit men find him - there's a certain amount of gunplay and everyone who dies gets to do it with a nice little speech, thought he cop might get the best line - "that man needs to rest a while." All this bears the unmistakable imprint of Terrance Malick, but like most Malick imitations, is much better than anything Malick did after Badlands. (Though not as good as Badlands.) Malick is like Woody Allen - most of his career has been decidedly underwhelming - but he has inspired reams of imitators, almost all of whom are very good. (See Upstream Color, or David Gordon Green's indy films, etc.)

The Grandmaster - 9/15 - Wong Kar-wei film that is sort of about Ip Man, the martial artist. Lush and gorgeous and slow and confusing - a simple story made to seem epic. 1936 - a northern kung fu master comes to Foshan in the south, where he plans to retire - he challenges Ip Man, who impresses him with the hope of uniting the country, the martial arts. But the master has a daughter - she manages to beat Ip Man. He promises a remarch - but the Japanese come and ruin everything. Ip and she meet later, in Hong Kong, and she tells her tale - how her father's chief disciple collaborated with the Japanese, and stole her father's good name - but she fought him in the snow and beat the hell out of him, taking it back, and then has it die with her. Ip Man, meanwhile goes on to become a famous teacher... Again - all this is gorgeous and rather inert, though with some neat fighting sequences, and some interesting ideas floating around in the middle. Wong is too good not to be worth watching, but this plays a bit desperate at times.

Austenland - 9/15 - Keri Russell as Jane Hayes, an American obsessed with Jane Austen and Mr. Darcy (the Colin Firth version in particular.) This schoolgirl obsession has persisted into 30s spinsterhood, to the point where she finally decides to sink her life savings into a vacation at Austenland - an immersive regency era theme park. She goes, meeting Jennifer Coolidge on the way, playing a Jennifer Coolidge character; at the place, Jane learns that she has the copper package - which means plain frocks and a room in the servant's wing and a backstory as an orphan named Jane Erstwhile. Well - there's another rich girl on hand; there are 2 gentlemen (Colonel Andrews and Mr. Nobley, who is playing Darcy in this show.) There's also an irreverent stable boy, who takes Jane into his confidence. Jane despairs and almost goes home, but decides in the end to have fun, and with JC's help starts living it up. Another man now - a west Indian sea captain - who may be after her, though Georgia King's character wants him... etc. The plot is apparent more or less from the start - the stable boy is as much an actor as any of them and so poor Jane is let down again... But Nobley turns out to be a history teacher and nephew of the owner, slumming as one of the boys (he's almost a customer, actually, being as enamored with the past as the ladies) - he loves Jane, though she doesn't believe any of it - there is a big fight in an airport, with one of the best lines in the film - Martin is from New Zealand (it's Bret McKenzie), and Nobley makes fun of him - "couldn't get a part in the Hobbit?" And so - Jane goes home and Nobley comes for her - happy endings all around!

I will add - that Jerusha Hess seems to have picked up on Jared's themes, his obsession with artists - though I suppose this has been their themes all along, as they cowrote the other three films. They are all four, then, about artists, dreamers, people inventing themselves - so is this. Jared has been something of a low-rent Wes Anderson, low-rent both in a kind of pejorative sense (he;s nowhere near as good), and a descriptive sense - his artists tend to be trashier, wrestlers and junky writers and amateur dancers.... But like Anderson, the Hess's have stayed close to that basic theme, the idea of making yourself, through art. This film is pretty much more of the same. It is more conventional, more normal looking - Jared has cultivated a mix of Anderson's flat compositions and a kind of deliberate do-it-yourself look... Truth is, I rather like their films.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Friday Music September

Starting to cool down out there - quite pleasant, down in the 50s. This is my favorite time of year - once the humidity drops off, and those cooler, drier days you get in autumn come along. Very nice.

For music this week - I'm glad I declared the second Friday of the month as my Band of the Month day - I've been woefully lazy for the last week or so. Last weekend's weather was perfectly awful - pouring rain and hot and humid and gross, and it sapped whatever ambition I might have thought about having out... As good an excuse as any I guess. In any case - this week is just another random ten week - maybe iTunes will come up with something interesting:

1. The Decembrists - the Rake's Song
2. Shonen Knife - An Angel Has Come
3. Jeremy Enigk - Wayward Love
4. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention - Flower Punk
5. Madonna - Take A Bow
6. Iron & Wine - Rabbit will Run
7. Jay Farrar - Chorine My Sheba Queen
8. Puerto Muerto - With a Little Help From My Friends
9. John Coltrane - Lazy Bird
10. Danielson - Hoseanna in the Forest

Quite a collection - definitely on the obscure side. Video? Let's try - live Madonna? Admittedly, not something I post a lot of...

Iron & Wine, live:

And - not the song in the list, but another Danielson song, with a video - why not?

Finally - can't embed it, but if you're looking for half an hour of Art - here's Frank and the Mothers live, 1970. Enjoy.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

On Syria

I am not sure what I think about our (possible) impending interference in the Syrian civil war. I suppose my first and strongest reaction is to think this is a very bad idea. Terrorism (or Strategic Bombing, which is hard to distinguish from terrorism) doesn't work very often - it's hard to see what this attack would accomplish. I can see the point of punishing the use of chemical weapons - though as this post at The Edge of the American West points out, it's not clear why using chemical weapons is such a departure in the context of the violence and suffering already underway there. (Do I have an answer? maybe - something about the efficiency of non-conventional weapons; the idea that combining the callousness of widespread conventional warfare with the lethality of poison gas - or worse, nukes - opens the way to something even worse. The problem with this argument is more that the use of bombs, conventional or otherwise, is already hard to find any excuse for. Just as it's hard to express why firebombing Tokyo is more acceptable then nuking Hiroshima, it's hard to say why gassing people is worse than bombing them. I suspect, if I were to reach a philosophical conclusion from this, that one reason we condemn Hiroshima, or poison gas, or suicide bombers, etc. is to avoid confronting the morality of firebombing Tokyo - or making cruise missile strikes.)

The fact that these strikes are punitive is also worrying - it's not as if we are pretending we are there to end the war, win the war - we are making a symbolic attack... Which, again, is indistinguishable from terrorism. (Maybe it is halfway there: terrorism, properly defined, probably means - attacks on civilians, for symbolic purposes. Though honestly - I don't know if those terms are linked by "and" or "or" - I am probably inclined toward "or.") And - how often do symbolic attacks do what they are supposed to do? It is hard to escape the conclusion that bombing a country is more likely to strengthen the government of that country than hurt it - that is what usually happens. If the attacks were strictly military - they might work. But if they are punitive - if we are not committed to removing Assad, come hell or high water - I'm not sure they will gain us anything. Maybe they will discourage the use of chemical weapons (and by extension, maybe nukes) - that might well be a worthwhile goal... but it might come at the expense of even more bloodshed in Syria.

That's that. It is still better not to get too involved. Much as it feels right to do something about horrible situations like Syria's, it is also sometimes necessary to recognize that we can't solve everything. And that trying to solve everything is as likely to make it worse as better. So - be glad if we don't get pulled in....

The one good thing in this mess is the fact that Obama decided to take the issue to Congress. (Here are some of James Fallows' thoughts.) It is about time, I suppose - we have seen too much drift toward executive control of war-making. The notion that the president, as commander in chief, ought to have the power to start a war is a really shocking idea - not noticeably different from the idea that a General has the right to start a war. This is not one of the Constitution's ambiguous points: Congress declares war. Since WWII, we have found more and more disgraceful ways of weaseling around that point - but that's no excuse. Make Congress take their responsibilities.

Though this raises the rather bizarre possibility that the insane Republicans in the House might save us from this disaster yet. Not for lack of love of killing - but because they don't want Obama to be able to accomplish anything.

No - I don't believe that for a second. The House may be full of idiots and cretins, working happily to destroy the functioning government of this great land - but they are good dogs when they need to be. There are some things that will bring them into line: tax cuts - bullying women and minorities - killing people. They are authoritarians and war mongers, and I can't imagine them letting the chance to kill a bunch of Arabs go by the boards, no matter how much they hate the man in charge of it all.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Happy Labor Day!

Happy labor day, boys and girls, and here's to getting the minimum wage up where it belongs - $15 is a good starting place, I guess.

I could outsource the music to Lawyers, Guns & Money - Eric Loomis has a good one up.

But I need a video, right? How about Tennessee Ernie Ford on the subject of wage slavery: