2009 - %3, March

March Really Madness

| Thu Mar. 19, 2009 2:52 PM PDT
The Big Dance started today. The week has been a frantic rush to fill out brackets, to winnow 128 teams (there's also a women's tourney going on, people) down to the champions come April. For a break from the careening Dow, people will glue themselves to their screens throughout the weekend watching young athletes try to make up for their schools lost endowments by getting deeper and deeper into the tournament. We'll all hope for a Cinderella story to cling to, to help us believe that miracles are possible. I once played in the dance (and two years later my team made history by being the only #16 seed to ever beat a #1) and for a long time I watched every second of every game, till I wanted to stab Dick Vitale's eyes out (there's only so much Dickie V. one can take). These days I'm more distracted, and much less enamored with the ritual, since it's more commercial than collegial. I'm sure I'll still shed a tear come One Shining Moment (I always do), but for now I am keeping my distance from the sports bars.

If you are too, or if you're a tourney junkie who can't get enough, there's still more fun with  brackets to be had. Check out this Bracket of Evil. Credo Mobile's creation is more of a Sour Sixteen, but it's still fun to consider who's more vile, Ann Coulter or Fox News, AIG or Blackwater? Pick your winners (losers?) and those with the most votes move on to the next round. One glaring omission is Dick Cheney, but that's likely because he'd win the whole thing in a blowout.

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New Music: PJ Harvey & John Parish

| Thu Mar. 19, 2009 1:46 PM PDT
It's hard to believe that it's been 16 years since English rocker PJ Harvey's Rid of Me shared a "for my walkman on the bus ride to work" cassette with Nirvana's In Utero. That was a good tape, if a little emotionally rough for 7:30am. I was going to say that since then, Harvey's never quite reached for the explosive energy of early tracks like "50 Foot Queenie," and this track opens with a mellow tempo and languid guitar riff, but then the chorus kicks in with devastating lyrical candor and melodic tension, and I'm not so sure. "I'd like to take you to a place I know," she declares, as the guitars rear up behind her, "my black hearted." There's a Sonic Youth-y balance of melancholy and squealing noise here (thanks to longtime collaborator Parish, who wrote the music) as well as the off-kilter, shambolic rhythm of Pavement's "Rattled by the Rush," but no-one has a voice like Polly, knife-edged and perfect, intoning, "I think I saw you / In the shadow." Aaagh, okay, yes, yes you did, that was me, sorry. Harvey's new album, A Woman A Man Walked By, comes out March 30 on Island. "Black Hearted Love" is on iTunes or listen below.

New Music: Phoenix

| Wed Mar. 18, 2009 2:12 PM PDT
Okay, this song has been available on the French band Phoenix's web site for a couple weeks now, but it's taken a few listens for it to become my favorite tune of the moment. "1901" kicks off with a bit of Bloc Party-style dramatics, big synth-y bass notes and echo-y radar blips acting all spooky and stuff. But it gets more complicated, the dark underpinnings supporting a song that quickly becomes joyful, ecstatic even. The lyrics don't give anything away—the chorus' repeated line, "Falling, falling," seems to contain both senses of the word, "head-over-heels" and "from a great height." This mixed up combination of emotions doesn't really have a name in English, I don't think, but it's all too common: a tossed salad of ecstasy and agony, nostalgia and contentment that a lot of great pop-dance-rock music seems to inhabit, like LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends," Silversun Pickups' "Lazy Eye," Arcade Fire's "Rebellion (Lies)." Phoenix's "1901" may be too much plain old fun to enter that pantheon of greatness, but right now its three glorious minutes feel like the first sign of spring. Listen and download a high-quality (hooray!) 256 kbps mp3 of "1901" as well as the multitrack files at the band's web site, or listen to a YouTube stream below. The band's new album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, will be out May 25. Phoenix - "1901"

SXSW Dispatch: Gadflies, Meet Beekeepers

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 7:49 PM PDT

Sheerly Avni is a film and culture writer guest-blogging for Mother Jones from Austin's South by Southwest Festival. Read her first and second dispatches.

First They Came For the Bees

The Last Beekeeper, a moving 66-minute documentary that follows a year in the lives of three professional beekeepers, was never intended as a commentary on the recession. But it's difficult to watch these three very different Americans struggle to make it, and not think about how many other people in the country are suffering the same defeats, regardless of their professions.

The American dream at its best is predicated on the belief that hard work, honesty and passion will bring you success, or at least survival. What the beekeepers discover, in Montana, South Carolina, Washington, and California, is that the dream is a lie.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking protagonist is stoic Brian, who hides his pain and financial losses from his wife. It's a scene almost certainly being replayed in countless homes across the country. The film doesn't push the allegory, but it doesn't need to: It's not just the bees who are dying.

Borat on A Budget: The Yes Men Dream of Better News

"If a few people at the top can make the bad news happen, why can't a few people at the bottom make some good news happen?" —The Yes Men Fix the World

Fans of The Yes Men will be pleased to know that the activist prankster collective, fronted by charming shape-changers Andy Bichibaum and Mike Bonanno, have followed up their WTO-lampooning first film with a series of outrageous pranks that make "An Immodest Proposal" look like the New Deal. No spoilers, I promise, but just imagine if you could do this for a living:

  • Drive down the stock of a global corporation (if only for an hour or two)
  • Inject FEMA with a conscience
  • Introduce a revolutionary new alternative energy fuel.

Not bad for a day's work, or even five years of after-hours backbreaking toil. Although the film suffers from too much padding and a clunky narrative frame, it's still good inspiring fun. The Yes Men are committed gadflies, not auteurs, and as DIY agitprop (The Yes Men Fix the World was made on a modest $1.2 million budget), this sequel offers up inspiration for the weary and elevates practical jokes to the level of impractical, impassioned optimism. 

Whether "representing" DOW, FEMA, or the dreams of Joe Public, the Yes Men's antics are predicated on their explicit, stated belief that they are not playing hoaxes. Instead, they are giving us brief glimpses of what the world might look like if decency and common sense prevailed.

NB: Fans of Borat on a bigger budget will be pleased to hear that Bruno's sneak peak was received with raves and raucous cheers. For more on Bruno, and other highlights of SXSW, go to David Hudson's excellent blog on IFC.

Correction: No Brown/Rihanna Duet

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 1:51 PM PDT
Ugh. See, this is what I get for breaking my rule not to talk about the Chris Brown/Rihanna scandal. Turns out my post last week citing a Reuters report that Rihanna had recorded a "love song" duet with boyfriend and alleged batterer Brown was incorrect, thank whatever deity or scientific principle you subscribe to. People (I'm quoting People in the Mother Jones!) has it covered, saying that it's all a big misunderstanding: Brown and Rihanna worked on a demo earlier in 2008, vocals to which apparently just recently leaked online, causing everybody to go into a tizzy. So, score one for, you know, sanity. My apologies for being that annoying blogger guy, just re-posting other stories for their shock value that turn out not to be true. I hate that guy! I promise to post lots of stories about cool up-and-coming bands this week to try and make up for it.

New Music: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 1:33 PM PDT
While Pitchfork's positive (8.4) review compared this New York band to Ride and Peter Bjorn and John, all I can think of when I see their unrepentantly verbose name and hear their strummy, melancholy, addictive tunes is The Smiths. Actually, the delicate, often-buried vocals mean I suppose this can be called "twee," but unlike the cutesy Belle and Sebastian, there's substance and strength here. There's the driving rhythm of "Young Adult Fiction," the Hacienda beat of "Stay Alive," and the Bowie-like skip of "A Teenager in Love." While lead singer Kip Berman has none of Morrissey's penchant for drama, he does have the Mozzer's ability to find the most interesting, ear-pleasing notes, counterpoints to the major chords that surprise at first but then seem utterly natural. To anyone who lived through, I dunno, 1988, this sound may feel so familiar it may seem like a carbon copy of a long-forgotten album. But to me, it's a a glorious renewal of a lost thread in rock music: a band that uses understatement to soar. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's self-titled debut album is out now. MP3s: "Come Saturday," "Everything With You" After the jump, the video for "Everything With You"

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Ditka 237, da Russian Bear 3: Ambassador Iron Mike

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 11:30 AM PDT
In honor of St. Patrick's Day President Obama announced Dan Rooney, the Irish-American owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, as ambassador to Ireland. The merger of professional football and politics is a promising one, and Obama should look closer to home when naming his official envoy to Ukraine. Being from Chicago, Obama knows that if anyone should be our man in Kiev, it's Iron Mike Ditka.

Ditka, who is of Ukrainian descent, ushered in the gilded age of the Chicago Bears. He's one of two people to win Super Bowls as a player, assistant coach, and head coach. He runs a chain of self-named restaurants, dabbles in California wines, launched resorts in Florida, and works as a sports commentator. If anyone could tackle the challenges of running an embassy, it's Ditka. As SNL's Superfans remind us, who wins in a fight, Ditka versus god? Trick question—Ditka is god. 

SXSW Dispatch: Garbage Dreams

| Mon Mar. 16, 2009 2:35 PM PDT

Sheerly Avni is a film and culture writer guest-blogging for Mother Jones from Austin's South by Southwest FestivalRead her first dispatch here.

Part Two: One Man's Garbage Is Another Man's Prayer

The best way to introduce the documentary Garbage Dreams is to introduce one of its three protagonists, a young Egyptian named Adham, who addressed an adoring crowd last night during the film's post-premiere Q&A.

"I had to quit working when I was eight," he said through a translator. "I had to drop out of school at age 8 to help my family. I was ashamed of my job as a zaballeen. But after I attended The Recycling School, I also learned computers, health, and hygiene, I became very proud of my profession, and I realized that my job is as important as a job or doctor: If the zaballeen do not collect the garbage every day...cities will stink."

Adham is one of Cairo's 60,000 zaballeen,  garbage collectors who eke out a living gathering, sorting, and recycling 80 percent of the cities' waste. Until recently, their profession afforded them a modicum of economic security, if no real chance at social mobility, but as the city has turned to subcontracting out collections to foreign companies, the entire community has suffered. Director Mai Iskander spent several years following the struggles of three remarkably charismatic boys—now young men—fighting to protect their trade, all under the careful guardianship of a teacher at The Recycling School, a nonprofit dedicated to educating the young zaballeen, academically as well as professionally.

With no preaching, no lazy text placards, and a deep faith in the boys' ability to tell their own compelling story without comment, Iksander offers up a gripping account of what it means to fight for the right to work with honor, as well as introducing you to three young men you'll not soon forget. The future of their profession may be in danger—as well as their vision of all garbage as, in their own words, "a gift from God"—but this movie could help save it. 

Look out for a particularly striking sequence set on a visit to a Wales recycling factory—with Ahmad serving as both enthusiastic tourist ("Cars here stop to let you cross the street!") and skeptical pro ("No precision," he sniffs, watching shards of broken glass make their way down a conveyer belt to a landfill).

See indieWIRE for an interview with the filmmaker. 

In my next dispatch: cultural shifts in the workplace, take 42. "I guess you'll find me when you want to get wasted."—parting words of Cinematical's managing editor Scott Weinbergto two of his bloggers.

SXSW Dispatch: Email Is for Old People

| Mon Mar. 16, 2009 12:16 AM PDT

Sheerly Avni is a film and culture writer guest-blogging for Mother Jones from Austin's South by Southwest Festival.

Part One: Email Is for Old People

In a fit of pathological optimism, I opted to register for both the Interactive and Film portions of SXSW. This is like deciding to "do" both Italy and France on a five-day trip to Europe: Vertigo-inducing and ill-advised, though possible if you forgo sleep. Forgoing sleep in Austin has been easy; my hotel walls, more than three blocks away from the musical epicenter, were booming in time to the bass beat until well past 2 a.m.

And now I also have insomnia. Because not until I started passing out my spiffy new business cards in the SXSW pressroom did I discover that, despite living in San Francisco, having an iPhone, knowing some html, and maintaining a regular Facebook account, what a pathetically ass-backwards, last century, late-adopting, buzzword-clueless Internet rube I really am.

And, dear reader, or rather, user, or rather content-abuser, I hope you're a rube too.

SXSW is all about the search for the new. New music, new filmmakers, and in tech, that new "killer app," which will change everyone's lives forever. The killer app of two years ago at SXSW was Twitter. The killer app of last year was also.... Twitter. And this year at SXSW, as I discovered while trading business cards with tech bloggers and entrepeneurs too polite to point it out (thanks, Grant!), not having a Twitter account printed on my card places me firmly on the dusty, musty side of ever-narrowing bandwidth between tomorrow and yesterday.

Email addresses are obsolete; give your Twitter handle instead? It took me a while to wrap my mind around the concept—long enough that by the time I'd built my new account, I'd found out that guess what, Twitter's out now, too.

Like I said, vertigo.

In my next dispatch: Two films which premiered this weekend about what happens when it's not your email address but your livelihood that's become obsolete.

Professor Buffy, Ph.D: Vampire-Slaying in the Real World

| Sun Mar. 15, 2009 3:39 PM PDT

Journalism is weird.

Check out this HuffPo article about medieval folks' belief in vampires:

An archaeological dig near Venice has unearthed the 16th-century remains of a woman with a brick stuck between her jaws— evidence, experts say, that she was believed to be a vampire. The unusual burial is thought to be the result of an ancient vampire-slaying ritual. It suggests the legend of the mythical bloodsucking creatures was tied to medieval ignorance of how diseases spread and what happens to bodies after death, experts said...The well-preserved skeleton was found in 2006 on the Lazzaretto Nuovo island, north of the lagoon city, amid other corpses buried in a mass grave during an epidemic of plague that hit Venice in 1576."

How weird that the desecrated skeleton blamed for the worst of society's ills was female. Not. But I digress.

Wouldn't you know that Friday, as I luxuriated in the New Yorker I innocently came upon this: "In The Blood: Why Do Vampires Still Thrill?"

Ok. I smell a conspiracy, which is about as unusual as me smelling coffee or my stupid cat's litter box. Or, like, oxygen.

I'm a humorless feminist and all, but given the planet's fascination with vampires, why are the victims female while the cultural vampire sex symbols are male?

People, if we're gonna do the time, can't we at least do the crime?