The Riff - December 2009

Kids' Movies, For Adults

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 5:02 PM PST

A recent BBC Magazine article ponders a bunch of kids’ films that keep grown-ups interested with references to the adult world. The article seems to suggest that adults will only sit through a movie made for kids if it slips them an occasional allusion to classic film vocabulary or pop cultural effluvium. It eludes the wee ones, but tickles their parents pink! So the theory goes.

Finding Nemo, for example, has a scene with seagulls that echoes Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. (On that note, Mr. Hitchcock would like to say a few words to you.) In Wall-E, the trash-compacting robot in question has a boot-up sound like that of the Apple Mac. (Strangely, there’s no mention of his system crashing and requiring replacement every two years. Sequel?) The first Shrek movie was liberally peppered with self-conscious references that reviewers found notable. (The two-minute trailer alone cites Pinocchio, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Tic Tacs, 360-degree action movie camera pans, and Otis Redding’s version of "Try a Little Tenderness.")

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Music: Heart of My Own (Basia Bulat)

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 5:30 PM PST

January/February 2010 Issue

No, that's not Tracy Chapman, though Basia Bulat's seductive sophomore album displays a similar graceful intensity. This crafty Canadian folkie turns seemingly simple songs into engrossing accounts of desire and regret. "Don't you need me any more?" she asks in "Once More, for the Dollhouse," a spare banjo seconding her stark plaint, while on "Sugar and Spice" she announces, "I've done myself in." Elsewhere, "If It Rains" combines a sleepy groove and gospel-style backing singers to echo sultry '60s soul. Always tasteful yet never bland, Heart of My Own is a soulful antidote to the lovesick blues.

Music: Staggering (Boy Genius)

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 5:13 PM PST

January/February 2010 Issue

With their jangly guitars, headlong rhythms, and callow lyrics, Boy Genius would be an indie-band self-parody if they weren't so darn likable. Produced by power-pop institution Mitch Easter—a veteran of sessions with R.E.M. and the dB's—the Brooklyn foursome's second outing advances the enticing proposition that a toe-tapping ditty can illuminate love's complexities. Front man Jason Korenkiewicz croons, "I am so mixed up by every move you make" in "Scatterbrain"; on the title track he murmurs, "She is staggering; can't look away." Ultimate hipster move: The album is available only on vinyl, but comes with a link for a digital download.

Music: End Times (Eels)

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 4:52 PM PST

January/February 2010 Issue

Barely six months after his last album, Eels auteur Mark Oliver Everett returns with a forlorn song cycle tracking the demise of a romance. Though he's been chronicling his psychic pain since the early '90s, Everett's haunted ballads and howling rockers haven't lost one iota of their tortured immediacy, thanks to a voice that recalls the world-weariness of an old-time bluesman. End Times recounts every chapter of the story—happy moments ("The Beginning"), conflict ("A Line in the Dirt"), angry separation ("Unhinged"), and acceptance ("On My Feet")—transforming bitterness into catharsis through mordant wit that takes the edge off all that misery.

Jersey Shore: Yo, Is It Offensive?

| Mon Dec. 28, 2009 6:26 PM PST

MTV's hit reality show Jersey Shore is becoming as well-known for its brawls as its Guido accents and big hair. In addition to the infamous Snooki bar fight, the show has sparked a tussle between the show's producers and Italian-American groups who claim it perpetuates offensive stereotypes (like the use of the word Guido).

While some advertisers have pulled their ads in retaliation, cries of bias have largely been brushed aside...and at face value, it does seem silly. The loud-mouthed, spray-haired, skin-baring Jersey stereotype has endured in everything from Marisa Tomei's Oscar-winning My Cousin Vinny performance to YouTube parodies like the 25-million-hits-and-counting "My New Haircut" (warning: it's R-rated). Why put up a fuss now? Plus, caricatures are the stuff reality TV is made of: Just ask the bimbo sexual opportunists of The Girls Next Door, spoiled rich kids of The Hills, or anyone who's ever been featured on Wife Swap.

But the "Jersey Guido" typecast is more deeply rooted in ethnicity and class than the typical reality TV circus, which makes the viewers' sense of superiority a little harder to stomach. It's telling that Italian-Americans are ticked about the portrayal, not the state of New Jersey. And the group tends to be lower-income and not highly educated. It's hard to imagine other reality TV shows based on that brand of bias—like, say, Harlem Ghetto or Mexican Immigrants of LA—getting a similar free pass from the PC Police.

Let's be real: The reason people love Jersey Shore is because it allows them to watch the brashness, cat fights, cleavage, and muscle tees, and think How ridiculous! Thank god I'm not like/better than that! Without the stereotypes, where would the fun come from?

Music: The Amazing Oscar Micheaux (Stace England and the Salt Kings)

| Mon Dec. 28, 2009 1:51 PM PST

January/February 2010 Issue

The Salt Kings are a scruffy alt-country quartet from Illinois; Oscar Micheaux was a legendary African American film director whose career began in the silent era. An unlikely combination, perhaps, but Stace England and company draw plenty of inspiration from Micheaux, who challenged racism in more than 40 movies. England's long-standing interest in African American history (he previously made an album about a former slave house) enriches his latest effort. In some songs, including "Veiled Aristocrats" (about light-skinned blacks passing for white), he tackles the issues head on; in others, such as "The Betrayal," he does it indirectly. Either way, the high lonesome voices and scalding electric guitars are stirring.

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The Greatest Sportswriter Who Ever Lived

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 10:44 AM PST

Lester "Red" Rodney, arguably one of the most influential sportswriters in the profession's history, who used his sports page in the communist Daily Worker newspaper to campaign against baseball's color line, to cover Negro League stars like Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, and to pioneer a brand of sports journalism with a conscience, passed away this week. He was 98.
Dave Zirin, who's written extensively about Rodney in his must-read book What's My Name, Fool? and elsewhere, remembers Rodney in a wonderful homage over at Huffington Post today, parts of which I've included here. As Zirin writes, one of the reasons Rodney was never included in the pantheon of sportswriters came down to the masthead on his paper:

If you have never heard of Lester Rodney, there is a very simple reason why: the newspaper he worked at from 1936-1958 was the Daily Worker, the party press of the U.S. Communist Party. Lester used his paper to launch the first campaign to end the color line in Major League Baseball. I spoke to Lester about this in 2004 and he said to me, "It's amazing. You go back and you read the great newspapers in the thirties, you'll find no editorials saying, 'What's going on here? This is America, land of the free and people with the wrong pigmentation of skin can't play baseball?' Nothing like that. No challenges to the league, to the commissioner, no talking about Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, who were obviously of superstar caliber. So it was this tremendous vacuum waiting."

The man who stepped into that vacuum, Jackie Robinson, would go on to become a lightning rod for the intersection of race issues and sports. Robinson fascinated Rodney, and the writer always felt drawn toward the fiery, intelligent, sublimely talented first baseman:

As Lester fought to end the Color Ban, he also never stopped highlighting and covering the Negro League teams, giving them press at a time when they invisible men outside of the African American press. But it was Jackie Robinson who captured Lester's imagination. Armed with a press pass to the Ebbets Field locker room, he saw up close the way Robinson was told to "just shut up and play" despite the constant harassment during his inaugural 1947 campaign. "Jackie was suppressing his very being, his personality," said Lester. "He was a fiercely intelligent man. He knew his role and he accepted it. And the black players who followed him knew what he meant too." ...
 
Lester would still become emotional when he recalls Jackie Robinson and his impact. "There are very few people of whom you can say with certainty that they made this a somewhat better country. Without doubt you can say that about Jackie Robinson. His legacy was not, 'Hooray, we did it,' but 'Buddy, there's still unfinished work out there' He was a continuing militant, and that's why the Dodgers never considered this brilliant baseball man as a manager or coach. It's because he was outspoken and unafraid. That's the kind of person he was. In fact, the first time he was asked to play at an old-timers' game at Yankee Stadium, he said "I must sorrowfully refuse until I see more progress being made off the playing field on the coaching lines and in the managerial departments." He made people uncomfortable. In fact it was that very quality which made him something special. He always made you feel that 'Buddy, there's still unfinished work out there.'"

Sadly, there aren't many sportswriters out there today—Zirin an obvious exception—who cover not just balls and strikes but the political and economic and social undercurrents of the sporting world. Nevertheless, Rodney showed how influential and powerful a sportswriter with a keen eye, a conscience, and a few column inches can be. For further reading on Rodney, I recommend Irwin Silber's Press Box Red.

Top 5 Christmas Conspiracies of 2009

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 12:16 PM PST

The War on Christmas died a quiet death in 2009, according to Slate's Chris Beam. He's right, to a point: The righteous anger at retail outlets that used the phrase "happy holidays" is, (mostly) a thing of the past. But in its wake a new kind of conflict has arisen, that, in its idiosyncrasies and insanity, bears witness to where the nation’s political pulse has been and is going. The War on Christmas hasn't ended. It's just been teabagged.

 

Let's roll the tape:

 

The Holy Census: This winter, civil rights groups sought to raise awareness (and allay concerns) about the 2010 Census by highlighting the role of government record-keeping in the birth of Christ (Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem for a Roman census). What could go wrong? I'll let the Free Republic respond:  "How come whenever a group of God hating, sacrilegious, communist, dictatorial, bureaucratic, evil, unscrupulous, conniving atheists invoke the name of Jesus I find myself questioning their motives?"

Music Monday: 15 Minutes With Fool’s Gold, Afro-Hebrew Sensation

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 4:30 AM PST

Luke Top went from full-time paralegal to full-time indie rocker practically overnight, crooning his Hebrew lyrics along to the electric guitar melodies and complex African drum beats of Los Angeles-based Fool's Gold. The “Afro-Hebrew” jam-band just concluded their first US tour three months after the release of their debut self-titled album, and have now returned home after securing a place as America's new favorite indie-rock sensation. In September a video of "Surprise Hotel" went viral on YouTube, they played CMJ in New York in October, and publications from the Village Voice to the Los Angeles Times have run raving reviews. The American-African rock-fusion idiom is a musical path blazed many a time before by musicians including Paul Simon and Vampire Weekend. So what makes Fool's Gold worthy of this overnight celebrity?

Perhaps it's the simplicity of their pop structures, the sincerity with which Top sings his exotic Hebrew, the call and response of the drums, guitars, horns, and vocals; or the band's ability to mirror the energy they inspire in their twisting-and-shouting audience, grateful for the opportunity to dance. Though the melding of African and American musical traditions is classic, and the practice of opening up songs into long-winded jams is an old cliché, with Hebrew lyrics complimenting distinctly African and Latin influences, Fool’s Gold’s aesthetic is nothing if not unique.

 

Midwestern Pastoral

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 1:05 PM PST

What is the Midwest? Where does it start and where does it end? Who lives there? Despite having lived in the Midwest most of my 23 years—albeit in Michigan, which can get away with the "Mid-" but scarcely the "-west"—I've struggled to answer those basic questions about a place I thought I knew quite well. I've asked fellow Midwesterners, but they offer little clarity: The Midwest starts, traveling westward, in Ohio and ends in Kansas, they say, or picks up in West Virginia (Appalachian country to me) and ends in Utah (Utah?!). That the Midwest is manufacturing country, where people make and build things the rest of the US needs (though nowadays that could define China as well). That in the Midwest, and in Kansas in particular, one friend told me, people spoke the clearest, truest form of American english, a claim I've yet to fully understand but nonetheless made me feel proud of where I came from.

For a much more eloquent depiction of my beloved Midwest, I defer to photographer Lara Shipley, based in Missouri. Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, over at The Atlantic, features a series of her photos on the Midwest, and as a completely unbiased Midwesterner, I highly recommend them to all. They remind of Robert Frank's The Americans, but set entirely in the American Midwest. The photos posted, with a mini-essay by Conor Friedersdorf,  are especially evocative of the region's economic decay, as manufacturing jobs have been wiped out and unemployment far exceeds the national average in parts of states like Michigan and Ohio. (For another great photo essay on the Midwest, be sure to check out Mother Jones' "End of the Line," a great photo essay by photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier and writer Charlie LeDuff from our Sept/Oct 2009 issue.)

Shipley's Midwest photos are quiet and eclectic, gritty and darkly funny. They're more than worth ten minutes of your time.