Random Pop Culture: Brian Setzer

December 17, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I caught Brian Setzer’s Christmas show last year, and I liked it so much that I am going to see it again this year.  Setzer’s big band and guitar setup reminds me of a brief, cool era of music like this:

I have previously confessed my admiration for Setzer as a genre bender, but seeing him in person deepened my appreciation. Keeping an orchestra on the road is an expensive proposition, which probably kept this performance format as a short lived niche, but a delight to see nevertheless. During last year’s show, Setzer spent an interlude with a three-man drum/base/guitar Stray Cats setup.  Once he built the crowd up to a frenzy, he stopped everything, smiled and announced:

“I get to play music with these guys EVERY NIGHT!  It’s my JOB!!!”

Which of course reminded me of my favorite Zen quote:

The Master in the Art of Living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion.  He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he’s always doing both.

It’s Bryan Setzer’s world folks- we are just living in it.

Pass the Popcorn: Fill the Void

July 21, 2013

I’m interrupting my hiatus one more time to urge you to see the Israeli film, Fill the Void.  Like a Jane Austen story, the film is a love story told within the context of a society with clear rules for behavior, a strong sense of responsibility and connection to family, and the tension of repressed emotions.

The film takes place in an Orthodox Jewish community in Tel Aviv.  Having turned 18, Shira is excited about the prospect of being married.  She spies one prospect for a match in a grocery store and excitedly tells her sister, Esther, that he might be the one.  But when Esther dies in childbirth, and her widower may move with the surviving baby for an arranged marriage in Belgium, the grieving mother proposes a plan to have him marry Shira and stay.  Can Shira fill the void of her sister?  Can she sacrifice youthful romance to marry a widower and keep the family intact?  What are her obligations to her parents, her grieving brother-in-law, and to herself?

Fill the Void is no more a critique of the Orthodox Jewish community it depicts than Jane Austen’s stories are a critique of 19th century British aristocracy.  Societies with lax rules for behavior and individuals with little sense of obligation to their families and communities would never produce the intensity of emotion and the tension of conflicting obligations found in Fill the Void or Jane Austen.  Love is about connection and without rules, family bonds, and community obligations we are more likely to have atomized individuals than loving connections.  The title of the film may not just refer to the void created by the deceased sister, but may have something to do with how love ultimately fills the voids between us.

Unlike almost every other film this summer, there is no action scene before the credits.  There are few plot developments — I’ve already told you almost the entire plot.  Instead, what you see is a superbly acted and directed intimate portrayal.  And the ending has hints of the The Graduate.  Love is triumphant but what comes next?

Robot and Frank

May 3, 2013

Now that this has officially been dubbed a “widely read education reform-pop culture blog” we had better make sure to keep up the pop culture side of the billing.  Let me do so by urging you to see the small, independent film, Robot and Frank.  I won’t spoil anything here for those who have not seen it, but I can tell you that this film is more than a sentimental depiction of an aging man’s relationship with a robot.  It raises questions about how we are defined by our memories and shared experiences.  And what happens if we miss out on those experiences or lose those memories?

But don’t get me wrong.  This is not some dreary philosophical thesis.  It’s a crime thriller, romance, and quite funny.  I particularly enjoyed this effort at social conversation by a pair of robots:

I also enjoyed the depiction of the ultra-modern hipsters who see the past as a quaint amusement rather than the repository of the memories that define us.  People like that may not have the attention span to read this far into a post (“tl;dr”), but I think they’ll recognize themselves in the character of Jake.

And Frank Langella is just brilliant in everything he does.  Enjoy Robot and Frank.

We Win Pop Culture! Also, a Podcast on Win-Win

May 2, 2013

Sci-Fi fest poster

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In a major news development, today the Heartland Institute described JPGB as a “widely read education reform-pop culture blog.” After all these years of struggling for recognition as a major voice in the pop culture world, at long last our toil and struggle has been vindicated.

Oh, and they have this podcast I did on the Win-Win report showing that the research consistently supports school choice. If you’re, you know, into that kind of thing.

Win-Win 3.0 chart

In case you forgot what that column of zeros on the right looks like, here it is again.

Random Pop Culture Apocalypse: Bon Jovi Touring Comes to Film?

April 25, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Loyal Jayblog readers may recall our last episode of Random Pop Culture Apocalypse round about the turn of the decade, which dealt with popular music. In that exciting episode we touched on how iTunes had made Alice Cooper big in Europe and how Bon Freaking Jovi and AC/DC were the top grossing musical touring acts of 2009.  Musical tastes have fractured into micro-genres, making the emergence of a new Monster of Rawk type Rolling Stones/Police/U2 type position almost impossible.  Alice Cooper said he feels sorry for acts trying to come up today because they have to compete not only against each other, but also against the past and that most of them are simply not up to it. Dinosaurs in effect have come to rule the Earth in music.

Could the same thing eventually happen in film? Hmmmm…

There is no doubt that services like Netflix are doing some iTunes to television, but I was thinking about this quote from Alice when it occurred to me that the last 5 films that I paid to see up on the big screen in a row (from first to latest) were:

Hippies had no idea what a disservice they were doing for humanity in teaching Texas rednecks to smoke dope, but at least it makes for a funny movie. Next up:

Ah, the 1990s. How we miss you. Next:

Covered this one already, great to see it on the big screen again. Next:

Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear= priceless. Finally:

I had to trek to Prescott to a film festival for the Matrix, but it was worth the trip to let the Ladner boys see it on the big screen. They seemed suitably impressed.

It remains to be seen whether or not there will be a 2013 release that I enjoy as much as the least of these flicks. Thus far-not so much. Let’s see how the summer goes. In the meantime we can hope that continued improvement in technology will make it more difficult for the studios to continue to push out mostly drek. It seems to have worked for television, which many claim has entered into a new Platinum Age, but then again maybe not.

I don’t know whether the great Jon Bon Jovi was describing the movie industry when he wrote “an Angel’s smile is what you sell/you promised me heaven then put me through hell” but he could have been- hairspray was known to inspire some far-out lyrics back in the 1980s. Rather than lament film drek and/or strike a poseur pose by pretending you liked Terrence Malick’s self-indulgent mess The Tree of Life (someone exclaimed Thank God it is over! at the screening I attended and the audience laughed out loud) the best way to deal with drek is to celebrate it when possible-and it is frequently possible.

So for now the past is beating 2013 5-0. Good luck 2013.

I. Must. See. It.

March 7, 2013

Joss Whedon has a movie of Much Ado About Nothing coming out in general release.  I. Must. See. It.

Interlude: Iggy and Kate Duet

February 16, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Random 1990 nostalgia flashback.

Vouchers from the Hell Planet

February 5, 2013

Vouchers from the Hell Planet

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

If you value your productivity, do not click here.

Also, to keep this rolling, I made this:

A Theory of Justice from Space

Your move, Matt.

Based on a True Story

January 22, 2013

Any movie that begins with the message, “based on a true story,” is in danger of engaging in bad story telling and insufficient character development.  Claiming that something is true appears to be license for lazy film-making.  My objection is not that many “based on a true story” films are barely connected to real events.  No, my concern is that because they claim to be real, film-makers think they can get away without doing the things necessary to make a great film.

Not all “based on a true story” movies are lousy; Argo, for example, tells a compelling story with well-developed characters.  But Argo’s effectiveness  is almost entirely derived from the ways the movie deviated from the “true story.”  [SPOILER ALERT] The tension-filled ending was great movie making even though — actually, because — it bore no resemblance to actual events.  And the most engaging  character played by Alan Arkin was the one almost completely invented for the movie.  In addition, we found the main character played by Ben Affleck so engaging in part because of the entirely fictitious back-story about his separation from his wife and son.  The greatness of Argo comes from its effective story telling, not from its “reality.”

Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, was a really disappointing film because it relied on its “reality” as a substitute for great film-making.  [SPOILER ALERT]  There was virtually no character development.  I didn’t know anything about what motivated the main character to join the CIA and hunt UBL.  Yes, I saw that she had a friend killed, but her obsession with UBL pre-dates that.  At one point in the movie, a supervisor specifically asks her why she was recruited by the CIA and she declines to answer.  So, I know almost nothing about her life other than that she is hunting UBL.  About 2/3 through the movie I realized I couldn’t even remember her character’s name because… well, because who cares about her?  The movie was also poorly paced, painfully slow at times, and lacking in comic relief or any other variation in tension.

The movie is gripping, but so is playing Call of Duty with my son.  Similarly, Call of Duty has no character development and maintains a numbing lack of variation in tension.  But it sure is fun while you are playing it!  It just isn’t a lasting story.  We won’t re-tell that Call of Duty match we had several years ago nor will anyone, in all likelihood, watch Zero Dark Thirty in ten years.  The appeal of it is entirely contained in the fact that it is topical.  The meaning and excitement of Zero Dark Thirty comes not from the story the movie tells but from the story that I know from the world that I impart to the movie.  When my knowledge of or interest in these current events fade, so will my (and everyone else’s) interest in the movie.  The movie requires my knowledge of current events to mask its inadequate story-telling and character development.  That’s not Best-Picture film-making.

Homeland is a much better version of Zero Dark Thirty.  It is better because it has well-developed characters about whom I care and because it is intentionally crafted to be properly paced.  It doesn’t have to worry about being true.  It can just be good.

It’s true that Zero Dark Thirty is popular, but then again so are reality TV shows and they suffer from many of the same defects.  If the Real Housewives of New Jersey were a scripted show, no one on Earth would watch it.  But the show is quite popular because it claims on some level to be “real.”  Everyone understands that it isn’t fully real.  But it is a little bit “based on a true story.”  And because of that, we accept its lousy story-telling and ridiculous characters.  We do that because we are actually imparting to it knowledge of other real people that we know who we think may resemble the characters in some ways.  We provide the context to make the stories work in reality TV.

Lastly, let me mention another recent film that claims to be “based on a true story,” The Way Back.  Despite claiming to be real, the movie works well with an engaging story and set of characters.  But as it turns out, the events on which the movie is loosely based are actually fiction.  According to IMDB:

The film is based on a memoir by Slavomir Rawicz depicting his escape from a Siberian gulag and subsequent 4000-mile walk to freedom in India. Incredibly popular, it sold over 500,000 copies and is credited with inspiring many explorers. However, in 2006 the BBC unearthed records (including some written by Rawicz himself) that showed he had been released by the USSR in 1942. In 2009 another former Polish soldier, Witold Glinski, claimed that the book was really an account of his own escape. However this claim too has been seriously challenged.

I don’t see this as an indictment against the film at all.  It was a compelling story that sold over 500,000 copies and led to a good movie because it was intentionally crafted to be a good story.  Life rarely gives us that in its reality.  That’s why we have imaginations to shape, combine, and alter our real experiences.  In some sense, every story is “based on a true story.”  The important thing is whether those stories are good, not whether they are true.

[Edited to add paragraph on Homeland]

The Best Group You’ve Never Heard Of — The Vulgar Boatmen

October 7, 2012

The late 1980s/early 1990s band, the Vulgar Boatmen, had a very small cult following — so small that I’ll bet you’ve never heard of them.  Why they never became better known and more successful is a mystery that is part of their attraction and was even the subject of a documentary film. But once you listen to the clips in this post, I challenge you to name a better band that no one else on this blog has ever heard of.

Here is the Vulgar Boatmen’s title song from their 1989 album of the same name — You and Your Sister

The story of the Vulgar Boatmen is as odd as their inexplicable lack of broader success.  The core of the band were Robert Ray, an English professor at the University of Florida, and his former graduate student at Indiana University, Dale Lawrence.  Ray “holds a PhD from Indiana University, an MBA from Harvard, a JD from the University of Virginia, and an AB from Princeton” and is the author of four books on film studies.  Lawrence was once a member of the punk band, Gizmos, and has since headed the touring wing of the Vulgar Boatmen.  Ray and Lawrence composed their songs in the 80s and 90s by mailing audio cassettes to each other between Indiana and Florida.  It all sounds crazy, but the results are beautiful, like this classic — Drive Somewhere

This is like most Vulgar Boatmen songs.  It’s about driving, girls or some other everyday activity.  It’s simple and repetitive, almost to the point of absurdity.  But the tiny variations, layered guitars, and occasional viola make the Vulgar Boatmen a worthy successor to the Dadaist composer, Erik Satie. One critic captured the group’s sound well, saying:

the nebulous group’s ability to grasp and shape simple elements into three-chord (often two-chord) songs of delicate grandeur is unmatched by any of the countless groups that have attempted the same feat. With Lawrence and Ray’s high, clear voices singing intimately unrevealing lyrics about people and places, always raising more questions than they answer, the Vulgar Boatmen are as American as an Andrew Wyeth painting and as evocative as a Robert Frost poem.

They’re also pretty awesome live.  Here are they are in a 1992 concert singing Wide Awake:

And here is a live performance of Katie.  All I know is that it curves and shakes.

But don’t despair.  The Vulgar Boatmen are still out there, at least with Dale Lawrence at the helm, with the very occasional performance.  Here they are in Chicago last year singing Wide Awake.  Notice that these lyrics are different from the earlier live version I clipped but the same as those on the studio album version.



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