Outstreched arm

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

This month in music

There's a great little MST3K segment featuring Joel and the bots coming up with their own superhero/monster ideas. Among the rapid-fire descriptions, Joel throws in a particularly hilarious one: "Jazz Trio Man - he can trade fours with himself!"

I said I couldn't remember if it was monsters or superheroes they were talking about - probably both - and that's fine, since both labels apply to my subject, one Roland Kirk, a jazz genius whose music was at the same time intimidating and approachable, angelic and gutter-dirty. He played in styles ranging from ragtime to free - often on the same track. He played the sax and its various brethren, flute and nose flute - often on the same track. His three-saxophone technique, by which I mean that he played all three at the same time, appears gimmicky and silly, as do his homemade instruments (trumpophone, anyone?) until you actually hear it all. Oh, also, he was blind.

So how come you haven't heard of him? Beats me. I discovered him through Mingus, with whom he shares that clown-like attitude for which one could easily dismiss them if it weren't for their frightening musical capability and imagination. Listen to Kirk on "The Business Ain't Nothing But The Blues" from his all-flute I Talk With The Spirits; you can't help but get into the groove as Kirk shouts giddy approval of the piano intro, picks up the blues himself, and delivers a one-note solo that may infuriate you (but just try and argue with the tension/release he sets up here). His style is instantly lovable - lyrics, moans, and humming getting thrown in between and during flute notes. And this is not even nearly the best or goofiest track on the album.

On the other end of the spectrum - really, if there was such a thing as a musical spectrum, this would be on the other end - I finally got around to paying attention to Hot Snakes' Audit In Progress. It's just a half-hour punk album with songs about watching your carbs and hating couples in love, but damn does it rock. It never seems to slow down - riffs just keep mounting and the beat pounds steadily (the whole thing's surprisingly rhythmical, actually.) Maybe it's just the super-energetic, screaming delivery of the lyrics, but I found them awesome: "I'd drink piss for creative control / I'd cut off my dick for creative control." It's no-nonsense nonsense. I like my snakes hot.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Apple is God, not Google

Oh, how they laughed. "Video iPod? Who the heck wants to watch movies on a 2" screen?"

Yesterday's announcement of the new video-capable iPod was neat geek news for me, but I'm happy with my 3G iPod and I'm not looking to upgrade. But! This is still awesome in a very tangible way. See, if you use iTunes - and why the heck wouldn't you be? Get out of 1996, Winamp freaks - you can still download videos and watch them on your computer. Or, connect it to the TV and you've got the smartest PVR yet. Heck, if you get the new iMac, which comes with a remote and Apple's delicious-looking media center software, FrontRow, you're all set for a sweet widescreen experience.

I tested TV show downloads by getting the pilot episode of ABC's Lost. 42:29, 210MB, gorgeous H.264 encoding. With one click, it was downloaded over my cable connection in five and a half minutes. I can watch it on two computers all I want, free of ads. How much would you be willing to pay for this? Don't answer - it's $1.99. There are volume discounts, too - the 25-episode first season is $34.99.

Hey, I'm one of those annoying people who always say they don't watch TV. Damn, what's my excuse now?

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Wererabbit? Thererabbit!

I haven't the heart to "review" Nick Park's latest masterpiece, Wallace and Grommit: The Curse of The Were-rabbit. It's a movie I would have liked as much when I was eight as I do now. Really, compared to it, the likes of Shrek and Ice Age are super-obvious, textbook urban comedies. Park's humor is often embarrassingly outdated, but instead of being embarrassed, I just rolled my eyes for a second and laughed on. The CGI short from Dreamworks that preceded the main feature was rather confusing to me because I haven't seen Madagascar (on which it's based), but I didn't really mind it. It just had none of the jaw-dropping 3D presence of claymation. It would be unfair, however, to single that out as Park's best weapon. Both his visual themes - English country ranging from cutely ugly to ugly - and his direction are iconic in that they make you think you've seen this style somewhere else, but no reference fits better than Park's own movies.

But there I go reviewing it. Aw, just go and see it, chum.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Two observations from an IM conversation

There was a story on the news a while ago about how porn stars were concerned about the then-recent AIDS panic in the industry. So one girl they interviewed said, "Looking at it, I decided: that's it, from now on, I only do girl-on-girl action." And I thought, god bless you, porn star; that is the can-do, make-do spirit that built this great country.

So I was talking to someone the other day about all the things that "make a man" in other countries, like the singer Seal's tribe where they cut into the flesh of the boys' cheeks and rub sand in the gashes to create scars. I was thinking how American rites of passage are the best: you buy (and wreck) a car, get a fake ID, and get laid with a cheerleader on prom night - congratulations, you're a man.

// thank you, drive safely
/// Oops, turns out Seal's scars aren't tribal marks after all. Fell for the urban legend there. Pick your own wacky tradition!

Monday, October 03, 2005

RSS everything! Put a dozen in each window! RSS the maid!

Mrgan.com now publishes a meta-rss feed, i.e. a feed that combines all the feeds that make up the Neven Portal. This way you can fire up your RSS reader, add http://mrgan.com?rss, and never have to see the page layouts I so meticulously prepare for mrgan.com.

I say "all feeds", but del.icio.us and Netflix are excluded for obvious reasons - they're not exactly reading material, just links.

There's always a possibility of more feeds being added. Can you recommend a free (or reasonably priced) online service you can't live without? Flickr and Blogger definitely get a thumbs-up from me, as does Netflix.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Brief History of Crime

As far as I can remember, I've only been in one physical fight, and this was in middle school. Obviously, I was on the receiving end of the beating, but it wasn't a very bad one. I deserved it, in the sense that I provoked a person I knew I shouldn't have. That doesn't justify the bully's action, of course, but it's not unreasonable to ask if there are interpersonal encounters we should view as hurricanes or earthquakes; I mean in the sense that we have precious little time to react, so deep analysis of motives and moral implications should be left for later. If you know the storm is coming, do you reason with it or get out of the way? What if you can't get out of the way? If you are attacked, do you defend yourself - and how much? How should you feel afterwards?

This is the most obvious problem presented in Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, an odd little story of an uber-nerd (Dustin Hoffman as an American math professor) who, with his trophy wife, settles down in the English country, rendered as a dirty, rotten wasteland of alcohol, ignorance, and sleaze. The locals eye his wife, and when they finally openly attack the couple, our hero emerges as a shaken but effective defender of his family. When all is done, there's an equally shaken but satisfied grin on his face - he took care of business, and damn if it didn't need taking care of.

David Cronenberg has emphasized that his new movie, A History of Violence, is in no way similar to Straw Dogs; a fair assessment, though there are shared elements. In a thematically important subplot, Jack, an all-American teenage weakling, is pushed by a bully, and finally pushes back, with a degree of violence that seems unnecessary at first (but think about it - only the likes of Arnie and Jean-Claude can get away with one-punches). After the fight, Jack doesn't openly gloat but the audience does, and Jack certainly doesn't regret it. "He was a jerk," he says of the bully, "this was the best thing that could have happened to him." Justifying violence or being honest about a situation that's simply without an outcome both satisfying and peaceful?

Jack's family becomes the subject of national news when his father, the corn-fed superdad Tom (Viggo Mortenssen) disturbs the quaintness of their farming hometown by shooting, with eyebrow-raising effectiveness, two desperate and sadistic dudes who attempt to rob his coffee shop. This raises the eyebrows of the local sheriff, but more importantly, also those of a mob boss from Philadelphia who sends some thugs down to Anytown, USA to get Tom, who, it turns out, may be a long-disappeared criminal. Poor Tom now has to protect his family, but also explain why these men are so sure of his 'real' identity. Questions of plausability are now raised both within the movie and by the movie; this is a slightly 'meta' work.

So, either Tom is a ruthless killer who turned his life around so much that his new existence is an angelically syrupy one, or he is an honest, loving man who happens to perfectly resemble "Crazy Joey" (the man they peg him as) both in appearance and, as Ed Harris, a delightfully played thug, puts it, in "being so good at killing people." Here the movie betrays its comic-book origins. I haven't read the comic this was (loosely) based on, but I get the feeling that it was more bombastic in its delivery of the answer to our conundrum.

Cronenberg is rarely so obviously dramatic in matters of plotting; he prefers to hit the gut with visuals. Here, they are reminiscent of Hitchcock's Birds in their brief matter-of-factness. They are symmetrical and interpolated with equally symmetrical sex scenes. Good ones, too. Maybe it's just me, but it's been a while since I've seen a believable, desirable, uncumbered sex act on the screen - well, this applies to the first sexual encounter in the film, in any case. The second is a rape scene, but one problematic and vacillating like the rest of the movie. By the way, don't think that I consider this a problem necessarily. I liked Eyes Wide Shut a lot - a movie whose only resolution consists of the word 'fuck' in the bare infinitive.

Much like Spider and Dead Ringers, this film is directed in Cronenberg's deceptively simple style. Individual scenes resonate more than story arcs, and there's a goofily enjoyable scene or two - most notably, William Hurt in a crucial role played with the kind of comic sensibility inappropriate both for this Thespian and his on-screen character; but it works, mate. Viggo plays Tom as a lullingly safe man and this makes the accusations raised against him not entirely convincing; again, if he's Mr. Dad, why are violent acts he's forced to commit so quick and precise? If, on the other hand, he's an experienced ruffian, how could he possibly bottle it so well for so long?

My friend Christa recently sent me a writing assignment she did where the task was to "burn a bridge", i.e. have something happen between characters that changes their relationship forever. A History of Violence features many such moments and never really resolves them. Can they even be resolved? Are there self-contained, perfectly justifiable acts of violence at all, or do extreme measures solve problems only to start something that will eventually become a bigger problem?

Hey, you tell me.