Thursday, July 4, 2013

Things I Love 'Bout 'Merka

Click to enlarge. You'll thank me.
Really, there are too many to enumerate but these are ones that come readily to mind.

The New Colossus:

"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

The Declaration of Independence.

Thanks, TJ.

The oldest living constitution on earth.

It's seen four of its French cousins come and go.


It's hard to have a more American name than John Adams. Bust seriously, our minimalist composers can beat up your minimalist composers. Philip Glass, Terry Riley, La Monte Young.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Higher Education, or "Go For It"

Illustration of me by my brother.
I graduated from Brigham Young U this month, and tomorrow is my last day as a producer at BYU Radio. So my seven-year affiliation with the university has come to a close. I'm feeling nostalgic and retrospective, and I decided to write about it.

There's been a lot of talk recently about the value of higher education, and whether it's worth the increasingly high tuition and opportunity cost. Before I start talking about my experience (which, admittedly is not everyone's experience), I'd like to like to direct you to a recent article in The Atlantic. Matthew O'Brien makes a pretty compelling argument that although finding employment is no walk in the park for anyone, it's much harder for those who don't have a college degree. While jobs for college grads have been sluggishly growing since the worst point in the recession, jobs for those without a college degree have continued to decrease. That's grim.

But I'd like to argue that the monetary investment of an education pays off in ways that can't by measured by its monetary "return." Here are some things I learned entirely during my time at BYU:

  • German
  • Latin
  • Greek
  • Hebrew
  • Guitar
  • Literary theory
  • Photoshop
  • InDesign
  • Audition
  • HTML
Here are skills that I got significantly better at while at BYU, but had begun to learn before:
  • Composition
  • Cello
  • Piano
  • Reading
  • Writing
It's crazy for me to imagine that I didn't know a bit of German or Latin before I started at BYU, two languages in which I'm pretty proficient now. I've lived in Germany and spoken for hours and hours in German, but before I started as a freshman, I'd never held a conversation in German. I've read Caesar's commentary on the Gallic wars, Ovid's sprawling Metamorphoses, and Virgil's epic Aeneid in Latin, but before I went to college, I couldn't really tell you what "E Pluribus Unum" meant.

It's crazy for me to think how much music I've heard and learned here, how many novels I've read, how many theories I've been exposed to, how much science I've come to understand. I got to play in orchestras and string quartets. I got to score a movie. And so much of what I've learned hasn't even been in class per se, but just in the environment that a university fosters.

How can you put a price tag on learning an entire language, with all that comes with it? How can you quantify the value of learning a skill like playing the cello? BYU's tuition was something like $2K a semester, and that seems pretty darn cheap.

And then for my last two years I worked at Classical 89 FM and BYU Radio. Boy, did that feel like robbery; I still can't believe that they paid me to do what I did. During my brief tenure, I got to interview these people:

  • A Malian presidential candidate
  • A Newbery Honor author
  • The chairperson of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians
  • My wildly talented and successful artist friend
And a whole bunch more. I got to spend hours talking to people whose hand I otherwise had no business shaking. To a national audience, I got to monologue, lecture, and rant about whatever topics I found interesting.

Robbery. It was robbery.

Was my tuition worth it? (For the first time, I'm going to swear on this blog.) HELL YES it was worth it. Sure I had a few crappy professors. Sure I had to jump through some bureaucratic hoops, but the benefits far outweighed the costs.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Template for Facebook Posts, or "Please Validate Me"

A lot of Facebook posts are grabs for attention. (Heck, Facebook itself was a grab for attention. Anybody else remember when it used to read "A Mark Zuckerberg production" at the bottom of the page?) At some point or other, we've all been guilty of shameless attention grabs. But if you haven't been validated recently, here are some tried and true methods to get your friends to express their "like."

The Man of Mystery

"That didn't go as expected…"
"Wonder where THAT came from…"
"Today was…interesting…"
"Best. Day. Ever."
"Worst. Day. Ever."

This is maybe the most effective way to elicit comments because someone will rush to your post with a "OMG! WHAT didn't go as expected?!" You can then bask in the attention of a mini comment thread right on your own wall.

The BDE/Forever Alone

This one works like so:
"[Junk food] + [Junk TV] = Best. Day. Ever."
Example: "Box of Peeps + CSI: Jersey Shore = Best. Day. Ever."

One of these days, I'd love to see someone post something more along these lines:
"Ham hocks + CSPAN = Best. Day. Ever."

The Sassy Diva

The Sassy Diva unapologetically announces that she's unspecifically unapologetic and that she doesn't care what anyone thinks of her, and then sits back anxiously to see who likes and comments on her status. Ex:

"If you have a problem with my attitude, that's YOUR problem, not MINE. Don't care what anyone thinks, anyway."

Then there will be a rush of people who say, "You tell 'em!" or "We love you for your attitude, girl!"

The Jukebox

This is sometimes a subset of "The Man of Mystery," but it's whenever someone posts random and seemingly meaningless song lyrics. Ex:

"Life goes on living long after the thrill of living is gone…"
"In the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take…"
"These two sides of my brain need to have a meeting…"
"Bind me not to the pasture, chain me not to the plow…"

Note the obligatory use of ellipses at the end of the quote. These are especially necessary if you want to pull a Man of Mystery. Or you could just stick a "Best. Day. Ever." at the end and call it quits.

The Constitutional Scholar

This is usually an offensive and fallacious repost from a Facebook group with a name like "Ronald Reagan is humanity's lord and savior" or "conservatives want to execute gays…probably because their closeted gays." They usually have 1) a disturbing image accompanied by 2) an alarmingly current-sounding quote attributed to a founding father 3) a Tolstoy-length explanation at the bottom that's more ignorant and offensive even than the image. You could substitute requirement 2 for an obviously erroneous statistic.

Oh, and 4) these must be easily debunkable by a light Google search or casual trip to

The Democratizer

"Hey everybody I just entered into [some competition]. Vote on my [pic, YouTube video, etc] so I can win a new knife set!"

Guilty. I did this one once. But never again—at least not until they start offering some really awesome knife sets.

The Seeker of the Obvious

These are people who could be directed to Google for the answer to their question. A few examples:

Q: "Anybody know where I can buy [obscure item]?"
A:, Ebay

Q: "Anybody know any deals on flights from ___ to ___?"

Q: "Anybody know if there are any Sushi places in ___?"
A: Google knows.

If you really want to be a jerk (and you shouldn't), there's actually a website for this: It stands for "Let me Google that for you."

The Latecomer

Someone who took a long time to catch that viral virus. We're talking, they're just now posting links to the Bed Intruder song.

The Benign Hack

"[Insert name of hacker here] is the bestest, most beautiful person I've ever met."

The Malevolent Hack

Yup. They clicked on the "OMG, you WON'T believe what this girl wore to SCHOOL" picture of the girl whose butt is hanging out of her shorts, and now it says that they "like" this video or page or whatever. Or they signed up for that unbelievably good deal from what looked like Southwest Airlines and then lost control of their Facebook page. 

The Dispenser of TMI

You know what I mean. This is the person who gives us instant updates on fights with relatives, problems with children, and all sorts of information that make your Facebook experience that much more awkward.

The #Hashtagger


The Conspiracy Theorist

Seriously. The govment is taking away mah rahts. Also, never get a vaccination. Also, barcodes are the mark of the beast. Also, Obama is responsible for 9/11.

The Guilt Trip Travel Agent

These are images that say things like "Repost this if you love your mother." The worst I ever saw was something like, "Repost this if Jesus is your Lord and Savior. Sadly, only 1/100 people will repost this." First of all, that statistic had to have been made up before the image was posted. Emphasis on "made up." Second, my religious convictions do not mandate that I repost anything. My commandments came from Sinai, not Mark Zuckerberg and his affiliates.

The Sweepstaker

They repost some obscure product photo with the caption "Love [company]." in the hopes of being selected for a freebie.

So…I wrote this for a laugh, and I think we've all been guilty of at least one of these. I've been guilty of several. If you, dear reader, think of more, post them in the comments and I'll curate them into the post with proper attribution. 

A Composer I Shouldn't Hate…But I Do

Franz Joseph
Some people accuse classical music of being boring, and sometimes they're right. Maybe the most boring composer I've ever come across is Franz Joseph Haydn. He taught Beethoven, who's one of my heroes, but Kate Beaton has something to say about that.

"But Michael," you may say. "You're a cellist. His cello concerti are part of the canon, and we wouldn't have string quartets if it weren't for him."

First, don't say concerti; it's pretentious. Second, I'm grateful that he kept string quartets around long enough for someone better like Beethoven to come along and perfect the art, but that doesn't mean I need to listen to them. And third, 'bout those concertos:

C major moderato. Could it be more of a snore fest? I really don't understand why anyone ever performs this piece. What is there to like? I'm listening to it right now, and I can't hum any of it back to you. It's not even that flashy for the soloist. A great concerto should tell a hero's story. This hero sounds like he's chilling at a picnic.

There are so many, so much better concertos to choose from. Even if you're not feeling up to the gargantuan might that is the Dvorak concerto, there are very playable and magnificent concertos by Saint-SaĆ«ns and Elgar. Shostakovich has a brilliant one, and John Williams's concerto is a powerhouse. Why choose Haydn? Why?

People talk about how witty Haydn is. I don't think that music by itself can be witty. It can certainly be clever, but not witty without referencing something external of itself. A melody by itself can't be funny.

Case in point against Haydn, his "Surprise" symphony. It's only funny because people kept falling asleep while listening to his music. Yeah.

National Poetry Month, or In Defense of Poems

Willie the Shake
I started writing this post at the beginning of the month, but it got unwieldy and I kind of gave up. But today on the day of Shakespeare's birth and death, I decided to man up and post. Here are my main points:

1) Currently, poetry is grossly under-appreciated and poorly taught. 2) Poetry isn't solely for emo wimps. 3) Poetry can express ideas and sentiments that just don't translate well into regular language. 4) If you like thought or language, you should like poetry.

Now, I'm well aware that the world is teeming with bad poetry. The world is also full of bad books and bad movies, but that doesn't mean you should swear off an entire medium. There are more great poems than you or I could ever read in a lifetime.

For the rest of the month I'll be posting a few poems a day that I think are great. And since today is the birthday of Willie the Shake, I'll start with one of his sonnets. But before you go dismissing his sonnets as gushing, hallow, romantic drivel, give this one a shot and see if you aren't just a little surprised:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Shakespeare is making fun of bad love poems that exaggerate the beauty and grace of the subject. The first few words set you up for yet another sappy, shallow, ridiculous poem, but then it takes an unexpected turn. The poet admits that his beloved is really nothing like these traditional superlatives. (Billy Collins uses this device to hilarious effect in his poem, "Litany.")

See? Shakespeare can be funny! He's often funny. But then just when we've gotten used to his very pedestrian view of his mistress, he surprises us again with an insightful twist. She doesn't live up to the comparisons everyone makes ("her cheeks are like roses, her hair is like gold, her voice is like music…she's like a goddess"), but her individuality is what endears her to him.

Good poem, Shakespeare.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert

He was the first film critic on the Hollywood walk of fame.
Roger Ebert, who is one of my heroes, passed away today. He was probably America's most important film critic and a force of nature on Twitter and the blogosphere. He was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer, and he's the "Ebert" in "Siskel and Ebert give it two thumbs up."

It's odd to think of how much influence this film critic has had on me. There are some obvious ways; for the past two years I've worked as a music critic, and I used his criticism as a model for my own work. I've written previously about four qualities of his that I admire and emulate: his generosity, his personableness, his enthusiasm, and his prose.

But there are more subtle ways his work has impacted me. Probably the best piece I did in my stint as a radio producer was an examination of his claim that "video games can never be art." I wound up disagreeing with him on the issue, but exploring his arguments led me to a much richer understanding of video games and art than I would have come to otherwise. All the Ebert fans I've talked to since his passing have mentioned that they always valued what he had to say, even if they disagreed with him. That has absolutely been my experience time and time again.

And I feel like I need to reiterate that Ebert's writing was just so darn good. He had great insights and great skill, but he was also highly accessible. Several times when I was teaching ESL or literacy classes, I used his reviews with students to teach them about reading for tone.

I was chatting with my brother about Ebert today, and he had this to offer:
"He helped me understand that there was nothing wrong with wanting to go to the movies every damn day of my life.

"Because there's MORE there for me than 90 minutes of good times. There's whole lifetimes of thought, lessons to be learned and actions to be taken. If it's worth seeing, it's worth thinking about.

"And it's worth seeing."

I think there's an idea of critics as deeply unhappy people who derive their only joy from tearing down the work of others. There are jerks in every field, but if that's your modus operandi, you'll never be a good critic. Ebert was great because he loved movies and saw in them more than the rest of us. It was a rare gift of having a childlike adoration for the form and a keen insight into the technical and theoretical aspects of the craft.

I could ramble on and on about the things he's introduced me to via his Twitter feed, which sounds ridiculous. But through that feed I was introduced to the Italian composer Giovanni Dettori, with whom I had a rewarding professional correspondance.

Two days before he passed, Ebert announced that the would be taking "a leave of presence" from the Chicago Sun-Times due to increased medical issues. But he outlined what he still wanted to accomplish on the Web and as a writer. I was really touched by two things he said.

First: "I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review."

Once again, this is a man who may be remembered for spectacular burns, but deep down, his occupation was a labor of love.

And second: "So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."

I never had any communication with Roger Ebert, but it did feel very much like I went with him to the movies. And not only did his writing inform my own viewing experience, but it influenced the world. He has written about virtually every film of even slight importance from the beginning of cinema up until his death. His canon is a national treasure. And so I was struck by his continued optimism and hope to "see you at the movies."

I'll always see him at the movies.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The DC Metro, or "This Sucks"

I was just in DC this past weekend to visit a friend while I looked into a nearby law school. I don't know if you've been there, but DC is kind of an inspiring and inspired place. The memorials are tasteful and beautiful and appropriately grand. It's hard to not be moved when you stare Lincoln in the face and read his Gettysburg address. Patriotism rises up in you as suddenly and forcefully as a tremble.

But DC's Metro sucks. I've been on a number of Metro systems—New York, Boston, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, London, Rome, Athens, Toronto…—a whole bunch. Regular readers will remember that I collaborated with my brother on a short film that was a loving exploration of the unexpected places metros can take you. I adore and support public transit, especially the wild and wonderful bustle of a subway. I'm usually willing to forgive my inebriated co-passengers along with their oppressive body odor. I blithely skip over puddles of human excrement and rejoice at the cloud of nicotine that hovers around most metros. I'm usually giddy to hear the grating strains of a gypsy's accordion or the atonal shrieking of an amateur jazz saxophonist.

But DC's Metro sucks. It's oppressively lit by dim fluorescents, there's no relief from the dented concrete expanse, and there's the overwhelming and ever-present feeling that at any moment a shank is on its way for your ribcage.

DC's Metro sucks. The workers are cranky and unhelpful, signs informing you what to do when groped by a stranger are plastered across the walls, and the PA system periodically announces that we all need to be vigilant about abandoned bags, because…terrorists.

And DC's Metro sucks. The stops are awkwardly and inconveniently spread out, many of the entrances above ground are skeezy and more poorly lit than the subterranean dungeons they lead to, and you can never really make out what stop the announcer is saying.

But seriously, DC's Metro sucks. My day-pass kept getting stuck in the machines, the train doors take way too long to open and close too quickly, and I feel like I need to emphasize again the gloomy ennui that haunts the urban blight that is DC's sucky Metro.

It sucks.

When I was a kid visiting DC, the Metro was one of the first subway systems I ever used, so I didn't know just how bad it was by comparison. Compared to the world's great capitals, DC's public transit is horrifying and humiliating. To say it's the worst metro I've been on does a disservice to the word worst as an indicator of degree. It's so bad I can't begin to think of a second-to-last. No other subway I've been on deserves that disgrace.

And who designed this thing? Dante? What about all the beautiful neo-classicism that sits on the surface of the city? Why not some of that? What happened to L'Enfant's legacy? Why must the subway be a representation of all that is awful in bureaucracy? Where are the food vendors and the drink machines? Where are the sleazy magazine stands? Where is the LIFE that should fill the heart of a city's transportation?

DC's Metro. Sucks.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Life of Pi: 100 chapters, 100 years

First, happy Pi Day 2013! This post will mostly be stuff I've written before, but this time less pretentious and esoteric. For a long time I was planning on being an English professor, and I wanted to use this topic as my thesis or dissertation or something. But since I've abandoned that route, I don't feel the need to hide the issue in stilted "academic" writing. So here it is:

Life of Pi has 100 chapters, and each chapter is a metaphor for that year in the 20th century.

When I first finished Life of Pi, I went kind of nuts with how much I loved it, so my family gave me a collection of Yann Martel's short stories for my birthday. The main story in the collection is The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (which, at one point, I could spell without Googling). In it, the two main characters start writing a novel where each chapter is a metaphor for an event in the 20th century. The story was published in the 80s, so they used an incomplete list of events or "facts." I thought that was way too nifty an idea to leave just in the short story.

Turns out, Life of Pi was published in 2001. Pi suspiciously has 100 chapters, and they frequently correspond closely to the "facts" laid out in The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. In 1903, for example, the Wright Brothers had their first flight; in chapter three, Pi learns how to swim. In 1969, Americans landed on the moon; in chapter 69, Pi shoots off a series of desperate flares. The Tsimtsum sinks in the chapter that corresponds with Pearl Harbor, etc.

The point is, Life of Pi functions on an absurd number of levels. You could go crazy trying to pick apart each chapter and what its commentary would be on all of the different world events.

At the same time, though, I think it's vital to any reading of Pi to be aware that Pi's journey isn't just Pi's. It's Martel's framing of the entire 20th century. This isn't just the story of one boy from Pondicherry trying to stay alive in the presence of a tiger. It's the story of a world trying to come to terms with its spiritual inheritance, trying to make sense of the conflicting stories that shape our reality. It's about the 100 years war of faith, reason, and modernity.

The premise of Life of Pi is so simple it can be expressed in three basic nouns: boy, boat, tiger. But the complexity of the work spirals out towards infinity, as unending and irrational as Pi's own namesake.

I love this book.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Twin Peaks, or "Nihilism American Style"

Twin Peaks is a TV cult classic from the 90s. That's pretty much all I knew about it when I started watching its thirty episodes two weeks ago. The show has been hugely influential in the TV world and traces of it can be seen in everything from The X-Files, to Parks and Recreation, to Psych. I'll be referencing details of the show throughout my post, and if you'd like to be caught up to speed without watching the whole thing, conveniently, there's a blog that pretty nicely gives a blow by blow of each episode: 

Twin Peaks jumps from mystery to horror to absurdist comedy to melodrama to soap opera to sitcom without any warning or transition. The fractured scenes and narratives make the show both compelling and unique. It has a way of sucking you in and getting in your head.

But despite the outward narrative brilliance, the heart of Twin Peaks is nihilistic trash.

By chance, I started reading Shows About Nothing at the same time I started watching Twin Peaks. It's a book about the pervasive nihilism that shows up throughout popular culture. And that's when I started noticing the moral depravity of Twin Peaks.

I guess I should define nihilism. In a nutshell, it's the philosophy that life is meaningless and that "good" and "evil" are likewise meaningless fabrications.

The first episode of the show opens with the discovery of Laura Palmer's body. Initially the town of Twin Peaks is horrified and distraught over her rape and murder. But then the show systematically breaks down all semblance of good and evil in each of the characters and even in the murder of Laura Palmer itself.

In one of the must repulsive twists in the program, we find out that Laura was a wild girl who probably wanted not only to be raped but also killed. It wasn't really so bad because she wanted it. For about a week, I've tried to think of a word to describe how I feel about that twist. Disgusting and misogynistic, certainly, but I still haven't come up with the right word.

After the attack itself is robbed of morality for good or bad, we find out that the attacker wasn't really in control of himself, and so he's not to blame. It was as unavoidable as it was unfortunate.

The same goes for all of the many affairs that go down in Twin Peaks. Shelly cheats on Leo because he's crazy and abusive. Ed cheats on Nadine because she's crazy. Nadine cheats on Ed because she's crazy. Wilma cheats on Hank because he's in jail and a hardened criminal. None of these people are really doing a wrong or right thing in choosing fidelity or infidelity. Whether they are faithful to their spouses is irrelevant because all of their relationships are so far removed from anything that could be seen as normal, natural, or healthy. Their lives are meaningless.

Ben Horne
Ben Horne is maybe the most obvious example of the nihilistic thesis on which Twin Peaks rests. He begins as a purely loathsome individual. He runs a brothel, he's plotting to kill the woman he's having an affair with so he can take over her estate, he's at the center of so much fraud and conspiracy that it's almost impossible to keep it all straight. 

Ben has something of a wakeup call when he realizes he almost had sex with his own daughter in his own whorehouse. He goes temporarily insane, and when he comes to, he decides that he's going to change and become a good person. In one scene he goes through every book of scripture from all the world's religions and moral philosophies, explaining to his daughter that he's going to incorporate every bit of wisdom he can into his own life. 

Well, his first big attempt at virtue ends in the collapse of one of the only wholesome-ish families in the show (the Haywards) and his own death. The indictment against not only religion, but all moral philosophy is clear. It makes no difference if Horne is living an evil life, an insane life, or a moral life. His destiny and the wellbeing of everyone he knows is governed by sheer caprice.

Dale Cooper, coffee connoisseur
But the most devastating nihilistic thread throughout the series is the story of the protagonist, Dale Cooper. Even when we discover that he had an affair with his old partner's wife, Cooper is the only character that has anything like a shred of moral authority by the end of the show. But the things that make him a "good" person are the same traits that lead him to ruining and ending lives. His spiritual inclinations help him in discovering Laura's murderer, but they also lead him into "the black lodge" and turn him into the very killer he had been trying to stop. Ultimately his whole journey and effort was pointless, and he made matters worse simply by being alive.

I got really angry with the last episode for many reasons, some of which I'll get into later, but mostly because I really liked Dale Cooper, Dr. Hayward, Audrey Horne, and almost all the denizens of Twin Peaks. The last episode systematically tears down everything each character was, stood for, and believed in. Rather than raising interesting and challenging moral questions, the show digressed into literal and frightening nonsense until we'd been beaten over the head with the idea that life is pointless and awful. I'm going to quote directly now from the first chapter of Shows About Nothing:

If art no longer communes with the good, the true, and the beautiful and if it feels duty bound (whence such an obligation in a nihilistic world?) to inform us that its magic is merely illusory, then it loses its capacity to enchant or even pleasantly distract. It loses its claim on us.

Yup. That's exactly what happened with Twin Peaks. The show, not life, became "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

The Question of Content

While watching Twin Peaks, I thought often about the question of content in a TV show. I think lots of people would see some of the plot highlights of the show (e.g., murder, rape, demonic possession, infidelity, prostitution…) and automatically give the show a miss. But murder, rape, demonic possession, infidelity, and prostitution also feature prominently in the Bible. I don't think any of those subjects are necessarily off limits for the morally conscious or careful TV watcher.

In fact, last Saturday I had a kind of crisis. The night before I had just seen the episode where they first postulate that Laura Palmer had wanted to be raped and killed. I went to bed with the taste of revulsion in my mouth, but the next morning I woke with a start and vocally said to myself, "Rashomon!"

The iconic gate from the opening of Rashomon
Rashomon is a film by the late and great Akira Kurosawa. It's the fragmented telling of a rape and homicide that happened in the forests of medieval Japan. There are two reasons why the name of that movie surfaced in my mind that morning. I love Rashomon, and in one of the tellings of the story, the woman says that she wanted to be taken by the bandit and for the bandit to murder her husband. It's a repulsive thought, but I didn't find the movie repulsive at all. In fact, I think it's one of the most elegant and eloquent examinations of human motivation, memory, and life. So why was I on board with Rashomon but so disgusted with almost the exact same scenario in Twin Peaks? I bought Rashomon on Amazon, and after watching it again, I have the answer.

Rashomon is ultimately a beautiful movie about a horrible subject. It begins with two men sitting under the ruined gate of Rashomon sharing their disbelief and revulsion at the recent events in town. One of them was even an eye witness to the incident. The facts, as they say in Pushing Daisies, are these: a notorious bandit came upon a samurai and his wife. The bandit had sex with the wife, and the samurai had a violent, unnatural death. What follows is a series of conflicting accounts of how it all happened. Each account should be definitive, since they were all eyewitnesses, but the motivations and actions of the different players couldn't be more different in each telling.

There are a few things I love about this setup. For one, it throws a wrench at Occam's razor. There is no simple explanation for what happened. For another, it opens up an engaging and complex investigation of human motivations. It becomes clear that each teller's story is tainted by their own fears, suspicions, and motives.

It's in the murdered samurai's story, for example, that his wife claims that both he and the bandit are impotent, and that she wanted to be raped by the bandit so that she could run away with him and leave her husband to die. That tells us much more about the samurai than it does his wife.

And that's the difference between Twin Peaks and Rashomon. Whereas Twin Peaks is dismissive of humans, their beliefs and motivations, Rashomon obsesses over them.

And then there's the way Rashomon ends. The two men from the opening scene, now joined by a cynical (dare I say nihilistic) wanderer, find an abandoned baby. The cynic steals from the baby and walks off saying that selfishness is the only way to survive. We're left with the priest, the villager, and the baby. The villager, who we discovered stole a dagger from the samurai's corpse, in a moment of redemption vows to take the baby home and raise it with his other children. The priest then says, almost to himself, that his faith in humanity has been restored.

Dark, but optimistic.

I started thinking of other books and movies that are dark or tragic, but that I think are great and inspiring. To Kill a Mockingbird, Nolan's Batman trilogy, Lost, even Harry Potter. These all have very dark themes and plot lines, but ultimately I think an engaged viewer can get a lot of good from them.

One last rant about Twin Peaks

Morals aside, there are some things about Twin Peaks that I just have to get off of my chest. The soundtrack for that show is unbearable. I know that the 80s and 90s were a dark time for music generally, but please explain this:

It's the worst, right? And then there's the atrocious opening title sequence.

At any given point, the music is almost pathologically inappropriate for whatever's happening on screen. I was laughing out loud for most of the first episode.

Next, I don't understand the obsession David Lynch had with Joan Chen. She's the first face we see in the show, and she really doesn't play an important role at all. But somehow she has a special title card in the opening sequence, and everyone keeps going on about how beautiful she is all the time. After she dies, we just keep hearing about her. This must be some kind of fetish Lynch had, because although she's not ugly, almost every woman in that show is more attractive than she is. I don't get it.

And last, I have a deep suspicion that the producers didn't know where they were taking the show, which is really insulting to the audience and to their profession. I'm fine with leaving some loose ends, but the last episode was just nonsense. And I hated the cheap scare tactics they used in the "black lodge" scenes. It's like Lynch just found out what a strobe light was and said, Dudes. You know what would be awesome? If we filmed an entire episode with this. I also got pretty weary of all the "scary people" trying to swallow the camera. As I was watching it, I texted my brother, "If David Lynch could put it into 3D and make fart smells come out of your TV, he would." The whole episode was full of cheap shots and scenes that were frightening only on the most superficial and shallow level.

In the end, I don't regret watching Twin Peaks, but that's not much of an endorsement, is it?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Favorite Albums of 2012

I have two albums from 2012 that really stand out. One non-classical and one classical.

Blunderbuss—Jack White

This is Jack White's first solo album. It's interesting; you can hear a real difference between this album and his work in The White Stripes and The Raconteurs. But at the same time, you'd never mistake this as anything but Jack White. If you just hum the ostinato from "Freedom at 21," it sounds remarkably similar to the famous bass line from "Seven Nation Army." Yet the distance in mood between those two songs is chasms wide. For one, he's got much more complex drumming going on in this song than in anything he ever asked of Meg. For another, while the riff in "Seven Nation Army" felt like the footfalls of fate, "Freedom at 21" is charmingly playful.

Speaking of playful, maybe my favorite track from this album is the exuberant "I'm Shakin'."He covers the original song by Little Willie John and once again proves that he is a genius at covers. Just compare White's version of "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" with Dusty Springfield's. It puts the original to shame. Not as much with "I'm Shakin'," since I think Little Willie John actually has a better voice than Jack White. But White has so much more energy, which is kind of a mystery because White is singing only a hair faster. His backup singers help, as does the distortion in his microphone, but there's just something in the way he says "noy-vuss" that really sells it for me.

One thing that was refreshingly delightful about this album was how clever the lyrics were. I love White's work in the The White Stripes, but he never struck me as a particularly clever lyricist. So I was surprised at the witty waltz that is "Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy." Just the title is so lovable. And although this may not be Chaucer, it's still well above the mean level of songwriting flooding today's airwaves:

And that's the name of the game
Keep on stayin' the same,
Ain't nobody to blame
Nobody but the poor boy, the poor boy.

Another delight of the album is the range and mixture of styles it offers. Of course he has straightforward rock songs like "Sixteen Saltines," but you can hear that Nashville has rubbed off on him in pieces like the titular "Blunderbuss." And once again, you just don't hear much music like "I'm Shakin'" these days.

Recomposed by Max Richter – Vivaldi: The Four Seasons

As for my favorite classical album, it has to be this one. Max Richter's composition is a revelation. Note by note, he took apart Vivaldi's Four Seasons (which, doubtless you've heard before) and turned it into something modern, beautiful, compelling, and fresh. This sort of thing is often attempted, but rarely does it produce such magnificent results. Check out the first bit of Spring. Richter gives us a radiant synthesis of Vivaldi, Messiaen, minimalism, and postrock.  Every time I listen to this piece, I want to hear more of it, and that's not just because of the abrupt ending. Because of the repetition in the bass line, the piece gives you the feeling that it could keep on rising in force towards infinity. The interplay among the violins is also a treat to parse. While Vivaldi's original always suggested birdsong, here the idea is inescapable. It sounds like you've stumbled into some sort of celestial aviary, and just as you are getting a sense of the space, the vision vanishes. 

There's so much to love and so much to get lost in. The moody soundscapes in movements like Summer 2 and Winter 3 are rich and fertile. Winter 2 has all the haunting intimacy of a walk across a field of snow. And then there are the celebratory movements like Spring 3 and Autumn 3 that are bursting at the seams with pure joy.

But often I find the simplest things in his work the most compelling. Putting Winter 1 into 7/8 was no feat of mathematical or musical genius, but it gives the piece such a fresh lilt that lets listeners newly approach a piece that is so familiar.

And maybe my favorite piece in the entire set is Summer 3. I love the ferocity Richter brings out of Vivaldi's original. But even more than that, I love the mournful, exquisite violin solo that enters towards the end. It is the essence of simplicity, but in that simplicity it finds a profound elegance and poignancy.

Over the past few months I've sometimes invented excuses to give these two albums to people because I know they'll love the music so much.

Anyway, here's hoping for more great music like this in 2013.