Friday, October 24, 2008

Sick Byrne: Talking Heads frontman in Cleveland

This past Thursday, I saw David Byrne perform in Cleveland, Ohio, as a part of his current Byrne-Eno collabo tour.

Here's a weird photo montage-thing from the event:

David Byrne, Cleveland, 10.23.08 from John Soeder on Vimeo.

Byrne performed songs from More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, Remain in Light, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and this year's Everything that Happens will Happen Today. I've been listening to copious amounts of Talkings Heads and Brian Eno over the last month, and the investment paid off. This was one of the best shows I've seen in the last few years. Byrne busted out a few Stop Making Sense moves, including his running-man dance during "Life During Wartime" and "Burnging Down the House."

Here's a taste, albiet from a different show:

Byrne looked twice as old as anyone else on stage, this is true, but the 56-year-old New Yorker had more than enough vitality to avoid embarassing himself. He geared the set toward his new album, which is easily the worst of the five, but he still managed to play half of Remin in Light(!), arguably the greatest Talking Heads record. Here's the full setlist, with the highlights in bold:

Strange Overtones
I Zimbra
One Fine Day
Help Me Somebody (the set's real stunner)
Houses in Motion
My Big Nurse
My Big Hands
Never Thought
The River
Crosseyed and Painless
Life is Long
Once in a Lifetime
Life During Wartime
I Feel My Stuff

Encore I:
Take Me to the River
The Great Curve

Encore II:
Burning Down the House
Everything that Happens

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Five Years

"Five years, that's all we've got." -- David Bowie

I was a freshman in college, just 18, when Elliott Smith died on this day five years ago. I remember taking the bus downtown for a 9:30 a.m. class that day. I got off the bus and had about 10 minutes to burn before "Philosophy and Human Nature." This was usual. The way the bus routes worked, I always had about 10-15 minutes to kill in the morning. So I paced to the university library, went up one floor, and found a row of empty computers. If we were in the library now, I could show you the exact spot.

Within three minutes, I hit this. My first response, honestly -- I thought it was a joke. A strange, unprovoked joke. Back then, I visited Sweet Adeline everyday; my fingers spasmed the URL and I waited for the page to load. It took a few seconds. It was like turning a blind corner.

The page appeared, not in its usual layout. An enormous photo of Elliott faded in, tagged "1969-2003." He was smiling. I clicked back to Pitchfork with violence. I read the lead, absorbed the facts in a frenzy. Every detail made the joke go away. Los Angeles, Jennifer Chiba, two-stab wounds to the chest. This was real. He committed suicide, I remember thinking. He finally did it, he actually did it, I never thought he'd ever do it, I never wanted to believe he'd do it, but I knew some day he would, or he might, and now the safety drill is real.

His last written words, scrawled on a Post-It note, made me shut off the computer: "I'm so sorry--love, Elliott. God forgive me."

I called a close friend and spoke words I never thought I'd say. Then I cried in a lecture hall with over 100 students. Then I skipped work and my afternoon classes.

I'm unnerved by how distant that day feels to me now. Five years after the fact, I remember details and breakdowns, but even my most emotionally masochistic impulses can't resusitate how I felt in October 2003. Maybe I was just a bigger feeler at 18 -- my highs higher, my lows lower. I'm not sure.

Elliott Smith left me -- and us -- with five devastating albums, not to mention two posthumous releases. I could dedicate an entire blog to those seven records, if I could conjure up that post-trauma drive to collect, buy, and write about all things Elliott Smith. The kind of drive that led me to buy VHS bootlegs and $45 tee-shirts on eBay; to amass outtakes, b-sides, live covers, and interviews; to create and update everyday a month-long countdown to From a Basement on the Hill's release date on the Sweet Adeline message boards; to care actively and deeply about not forgetting him or his music.

Now, at 23, I've amassed all I'm likely to amass. The unbridled passion is gone; what's left is a lifetime of cherishing the songs and the memories associated with them. I miss him as much as I could miss anyone I've never met. I miss knowing he's alive, knowing the sounds from my speakers are coming from a living human, not a relic from the past.

As Alan Alda said in Crimes and Misdemeanors, "Comedy equals tragedy plus time." Five years later, at least I can laugh.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Laziest review ever: W.

Sorry I've been away. It's been a very busy month. I will write more (much, much more) when the election is over. For now, here is a review of W., presented in bullets of likes and dislikes. Simple and to the point -- just how George W. likes his memos.

  • Solid acting. Brolin does a good job of avoiding caricature. Cromwell as Bush senior is just as strong; he keeps the "Daddy Issues" thread from becoming an Oedipal bore.
  • Structure. I thought the temporal back-and-forth structure of Weiser's script was effective. It accentuated Stone's central goal: to illustrate the shocking transformation of Bush the burnout to Bush the president. Placing the two time periods beside one another created an effective, funny split-screen image of Bush.
  • Entertaining. Simply, it's a slight film, and slight films don't take much of a toll mentally. The film deserves credit for presenting presidential politics in an engaging way without over-the-top imagery and historical revisionism (see JFK and Nixon) or SNL-style parody.
  • Though I liked the structure, I can't recall a single sequence in the entire film. Sure, there are scenes, but the film jumps around so much that each moment stands in isolation. Though it might sound trivial, this is a serious flaw. Almost every scene begs for a lead-in or a follow-up, to reveal how Bush prepared for or digested the iconic moments of his presidency. Stone recreates the "Mission Acclompished" moment, which is fine, but imagine how much more revealing that scene would have been if we saw Bush in the aircraft before landing. What was he thinking then? Did he have any feeling that this could be a major political blunder? In another scene, we see Bush speak to injured soliders in a hospital, a not uncommon image within the news media. The scene is meant to be tragic, but it's not much different than seeing the president speak to soldiers on CNN. If we saw how Bush responded emotionally and tempermentally to the image of wounded soldiers, however, that would be something. Would Bush lose sleep, would he be tempted to shift policies, would he care? Those are the questions I had going into the film, and, of course, Stone answered none of them.
  • Reliance on "iconic" moments. This goes along with the first point. Perhaps Stone wanted to avoid allegations of overreaching and bias to such a great degree that he decided to focus on what cannot be refuted: the images on TV. Right-wing critics can't say Stone fabricated Colin Powell's UN address or Bush's "Mission Accomplished" address. I think those moments should have been in the film, certainly, but Stone uses them as placeholders for actual insight into his characters.
  • Most scenes can be boiled down to one simple purpose. This relates to the above two faults. Becuase the film leaps so much in time, Stone essentially forces himself to cram "an important moment" in every scene. Thus, every scene could begin with a title like "Wherein W. decides the oil rigs are not for him," "Wherein W. decides he will become born again," "Wherien W. addresses the State of the Union on Iraq's nuclear ambitions," "Wherein W. is shown as a rusty, inexperienced politician," "Wherein W. decides he will run for president." Simply, W. shows us the dots in George W. Bush's life, but rarely does it connect those dots. It'd be easy to transcribe the film into a bullet-pointed PowerPoint presentation, to strip every scene of the fat to reveal an obvious plotpoint. Though I liked the film's structure chronologically, I didn't like the Crash-style development of plot and character. These moments felt like necessary pitstops in a meaningless tour of the president's life.
  • Use of Bushism in dialogue. This was just silly. Maybe a viewer 20 years from now will hear Bush's "is our children learning?" line and laugh, but Stone obviously isn't making this film for future audiences. Why else would he rush the production for a pre-election release date? As a 2008 viewer, the Bushisms have an awkward distancing effect. They're artificial and contrived, and they rupture the film's restrained tone, no less.
  • The Daddy storyline. While I don't think the Jr./Sr. relationship is an inherently idiotic narrative thread, it lacks complexity and borders on trite. I might have felt differently about this, however, if the film had ended on a different note. (SPOILER FOLLOWS) Had the film ended with W.'s reelection, that would have been narratively satisfying. I wanted a scene between W. and Bush Sr. on the night of Bush's reelection in 2004. Did either of them make explicit that W. had succeeded where his father failed? Was it the elephant in the room? Did W. no longer feel he needed his father's approval because he had done what his father could not -- namely, catch Saddam and get reelected? These elements make for satisfying, ironic closure (ironic given how W.'s second term has gone), but Stone doesn't go there. Instead, the daddy storyline -- like the rest of the film -- just slowly fades away, seemingly arbitrarily.
Final grade: B-. I don't regret seeing it. I like the idea of a slight, unambitous film about a divisive president, but the execution was just so off that it'd be a real stretch to call W. anything other than OK.