April 2001 Notebook
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Sunday, April 29, 2001

Thought I would toy around with a list of Oscar-like opinions. Went so far as to collect a list of some 180 movies of year 2000 vintage (of which I've seen 30). The exercise mostly impressed on me how little that I saw in the last year was strikingly good. Part of this is no doubt me -- my patience for movies has certainly waned over the last 3-4 years. Part may be that Wichita doesn't always bring in the most interesting movies. (Although I can't say that NJ was any better, and NJ was certainly more expensive and more hassle.)

Anyhow, this is what little I have to report:

  • The best picture was O Brother Where Art Thou? -- kinder, gentler history recast as funkier myth. I was mesmerized from beginning to end. Runner up: Almost Famous.
  • Leading actor: Ed Harris (Pollock) -- the drunken explosions were not to my taste, but the frailty of his psyche, and the release in his art, were superbly realized.
  • Leading actress: No compelling reason not to go with the consensus choice, Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich).
  • Supporting actress: The obvious choice was Frances McDormand (Almost Famous), but I also liked Rebecca Pidgeon (State and Main), Lena Olin (Chocolat), Parker Posey (Best in Show), and Robin Wright Penn (The Pledge).
  • Supporting actor: Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother Where Art Thou?) was perfect, with Jack Black (High Fidelity) for sloppy seconds.
The more technical awards are harder to assay. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a remarkably handsome movie -- it's hard to challenge it for anything from set design to cinematography. For writing I naturally lean toward the top of the list: Cameron Crowe's original Almost Famous, the adaptation of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity (incidentally, the only movie that I've read the book to since The Spy Who Came In From the Cold), and of course O Brother Where Art Thou? for most original reconstruction of ancient sources (Homer via Preston Sturges).

I'm not inclined to give myself much credit for this list. For contrast, I tracked down J. Hoberman's Top 10 list: only two movies there that I've even heard of, only one that I've seen: The House of Mirth:

It's keeping me up nights: Have I surrendered to the Merchants of Masterpiece Theater? Another unlikely literary adaptation, this Terence Davies costumer treats Edith Wharton's bleak society satire as material for a Mizoguchi geisha drama -- the tragic heroine is tricked, abused, or betrayed by almost every character she meets. Davies resists the idealizing soft-focus glamour or nostalgic, ostentatious opulence of similar period pieces. This is no fetishized lost world but one that is fiercely, uncomfortably present.

Not what I remember -- although the "geisha drama" line is shrewd, the story line's potential for nostalgia is pretty miniscule, for glamour little better. To me this played like the faded ghost of a much better novel -- not least because the reader's imagination can concoct a more intriguing heroine than Gillian Anderson can project.

Saturday, April 28, 2001

Movie: Chocolat. Contrary to expectation, the center of this film is Alfred Molina: aristocrat, civil servant, the blind and tragic victim of his own scrupulousness. Also contrary to expectation, the active force is Lena Olin, whose escape from victimhood drives Molina to breakdown. That this is accomplished through chocolate (or more inscrutably through Juliette Binoche) matters little, but seems to be the source of much confusion. The confusion is no doubt facilitated by some fuzziness in the source -- the English-speaking French, the checkered history of the church, the red pepper in the chocolate. And one would have liked to tweak the script a bit -- to make more of the Elvis-struck young priest, less of the Django-struck river rat, which might have more clear that the subversive outsiders are more occasion than cause, that the real moving force is the yearning from within -- for freedom, for comfort, for good food. A-

Monday, April 23, 2001

Got sidetracked today with picking over the Year End lists for 2000 and 1999. Filled out the 2000 reissue list -- not real deep. Added Select Cuts from Blood and Fire to the new albums list: not enough info available on where these dub cuts come from, let alone when/how many times they've been remixed. Went back over the 1999 list, adding a few more recent finds (Beck, Trailer Bride, Ali Farka Toure, Fiona Apple, Goodie Mob, and a techno comp, Y2K: Beat the Clock), and nudging Eminem and Le Tigre up a few slots.

But still, I only have 32 A-list records for 1999 (out of 118), vs. 43 (of 103) A-list records in 2000. I'm inclined to doubt that some years are better than others, but the different counts seem more than random variation. Was I too harsh on 1999? The following were more/less the best of the 1999 B+ records:

  • Blink 182: Enema of the State.
  • Joanne Brackeen: Pink Elephant Magic.
  • Cesaria Evora: Cafe Atlantico.
  • Tim Hagans: Animation Imagination.
  • John Jackson: Country Blues and Ditties.
  • George Jones: The Cold Hard Truth.
  • Arto Lindsay: Prize.
  • Taj Mahal / Toumani Diabate: Kulanjan.
  • Paul McCartney: Run Devil Run.
  • Mos Def: Black on Both Sides.
  • Dolly Parton: The Grass Is Blue.
  • Sleater-Kinney: The Hot Rock.
The only 1999 Unrateds with much of a chance to crack this list are:
  • The Dismemberment Plan: Emergency and I.
  • John Lewis: Evolution.
  • Q-Tip: Amplified.
  • The Real Hip-Hop: The Best of D&D Studios, Vol. 1.

OK, these are all pretty good records. George Jones and Dolly Parton sound great, but aren't deep in content. Paul McCartney revisits the bronze age of Beatles rock & roll covers -- always fun. John Jackson is as comfy and low key as any Jimmy Rodgers devotee can get. Arto Lindsay and Cesaria Evora sound a lot like Arto Lindsay and Cesaria Evora. John Lewis is a gem in that most unprepossessing of genres: mainstream jazz piano trios. Joanne Brackeen is more roguish, less connected. Tim Hagans' fusion electronics impress as sound but fall short on substance. Blink 182 sounds fine but empty. Sleater-Kinney is more substantial, but still too shrill for my ears. Taj Mahal slips in and out. Dismemberment Plan and Q-Tip are arguably more interesting, but I lose consciousness of their sound so fast I've never felt comfortable with rating them. (Played them both today -- still no verdict.)

Maybe more time would swing 3-4 of these over the top, but that still falls far short of 2000. The main difference is jazz, and the main difference there is the saxophone. My top five 1999 jazz records are all piano records (Melford, Valdes, Taylor, Brackeen, Lewis); my top eight 2000 jazz records are all saxophone (Carter, Rollins, Carter again, Ware, Redman, Murray, Harper, with Lovano and Sanchez in B+ territory). The best saxophone 1999 could muster may have been Lovano's Friendly Fire and Murray's Seasons, but I can easily rattle off five superior Lovanos, and fifteen or more superior Murrays.

Sunday, April 22, 2001

Movie: Pollock. Splendid. So few movies seem to be able to take a real life and scope themselves to tell a meaningful story without eviscerating or aggrandizing their subject, but everything here feels right. Sure, we never really know what eats at Pollock, but we feel an awkward fragility that stops us colder than the occasional drunken outburst. Still, his art seems distinct from his demons, not stereotypically entwined. And it is the art that triumphs, most importantly by vivifying the process, and thereby the drama, of its creation. A

Friday, April 20, 2001

Back from my splurge in Oklahoma City -- a quick tour of used record shops, which netted 44 CDs. Finds included old country (Charlie Poole, Vernon Dalhart, Milton Brown), old-ish folk (New Lost City Ramblers, Doc Watson), old blues (Tommy McClennan, several Yazoo comps), vintage ska (both Intensified! comps), some Africana (Francis Bebey, Youssou N'Dour), and a couple of A-rated greatest hits comps that I'd never found used before (Joan Jett, Sinead O'Connor).

Finally replaced the big MAG DJ920 monitor which had always been fuzzy with a smaller but much sharper Hitachi CM771. Tremendous improvement, half the price.

Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Got OpenACS running on my test box here. This is a rather huge web application intended for building community web sites, like photo.net. It's going to take a while to sift through all this code, but I'm suitably impressed by Philip Greenspun's book, Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing (available online).

Sunday, April 15, 2001

Belatedly added another saxophone album to the 2000 Year-End List:

  • Joshua Redman, Beyond.
I think it's his best album ever: while Redman's much hyped early efforts were tours de force, showcasing his erudition, learning, and upbringing, and his later records were never less than enjoyable, with Beyond he seems to have finally honed his own sound: the lightness he so admires in Lester Young dancing above a firm foundation of John Coltrane.

This brings the listed saxophone albums to seven: James Carter (twice), Sonny Rollins, David S. Ware, David Murray, Billy Harper, and Redman. The most conspicuous omission is Joe Lovano's 52nd Street Themes, a Todd Dameron tribute which is longer on orchestration than on Lovano's always admirable horn. I rate it a solid B+.

Redman and Lovano have new albums. I haven't gotten to Lovano's yet, but the trio format should force him to blow -- but the several groups make it unlikely that one sideman will steal the show, as Elvin Jones did in the first Trio Fascination. I have played Redman's Passage of Time twice: not as gripping as Beyond, but full of interest.

Saturday, April 14, 2001

Movie: The House of Mirth. How awful it must be, to be rich and even a wee bit conscious, especially if one isn't very, very rich. There may be a good book in here, but Gillian Anderson never evinces the charm or wit that Lilly Bart must've been capable of in order to garner her resolute following -- she merely bores them into pathetic helplessness. B

Friday, April 13, 2001

Took a break and cooked dinner for Kathy and Linda:

These come from a cookbook that Kathy brought me, Terrific Pacific Cookbook, by the authors of my favorite Russian cookbook, Please to the Table. But where the Russian cookbook was solidly of a place -- even though I tended to pick around the edges, especially Armenia and Estonia -- this newer book is geographically flimsy. Only one of the four dishes above seems to be rooted in Asia proper: the others feel more like some Australian equivalent of California fusion.

Thursday, April 05, 2001

Movie: Gladiator. Suspiciously modern, so much so that it congratulates itself on the marvelousness of its plot. The war scenes are surprisingly brutal, not so much in their expected gore as in their deliberation. The games, however, are way beyond the pale: too much, too fast. For the historically inclined, closer to the mark on Commodus than Marcus Aurelius (the Dick Nixon of the Roman Empire: corrupt, pontificating, someone who extended pointless wars for fear of historians judging him the Empire's debacle). B+

Wednesday, April 04, 2001

We are very sad, without cat tonight. Edna, age 20 or 21, was put to sleep this afternoon, after several weeks of increasing debilitation. She lost weight, especially strength in her hind legs, which left her walking crooked, squatting with one leg splayed out. She's been agitated, restless for days. Her diet pretty much reduced to chicken soup -- she even turned down tuna water. Last time we recall her eating solid food was trout from my Chinese dinner.

We have a vet which comes to the house. This spares us the scientific precision of the most expensive animal hospitals, so it is impossible to know exactly what happened. Laura suspects renal failure. In any case, I recall that my Aunt Edith, plagued with periodic dizzy spells and tremors, was told by her doctors that she was just fine for an 89-year-old woman. Edna was all that and then some. Like Aunt Edith, she is now gone forever.


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