Paul Newman – RIP

David Thomson wrote today: “He outlived his beauty, his uneasiness and his bright blue eyes, and he came into that mixture of elegy and remorse that is the lot of most old men – if they are lucky. He was absurdly popular as a young man, and then waited or endured until that had worn off, and he could face all the abiding tests of honesty without glamour or celebrity to divert him.”

I wish the Newman entry in Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film was available online; the chapter shows how it takes death to burn elegy and remorse from analysis. Newman, Thomson argues, was too reluctant to deconstruct his image, and when he tried (Mr. and Mrs Bridge, say) he backs away from the precipice, afraid of what’s at the bottom. This is nonsense, and incorrect. The wonder of Newman isn’t that the better actor he became as an older man didn’t coast on that vinegary rasp of a voice (in stuff like For Love of the Game and Blaze, it was all we could rely on). He became the American actor’s equivalent of Luis Bunuel, creator of Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie — films created in the autumn of the writer-director’s years whose superficial superficiality bespoke Bunuel’s resourcefulness, wit, and command of craft. Their power rests on their simplicity of effect; they’re like fables told to children, delivered by adults. Similarly, in performances in movies like Absence of Malice, The Color of Money, Nobody’s Fool, and Twilight, Newman reduced his acting to the performative square root: his effects seemed larger when other actors went up against him.

I’m with Thomson on this: the early performances look gauche. The Hustler has always been compromised by the hollowness of Fast Eddie’s triumph, one with which we’re never sure director Robert Rossen wants us to sympathize or condemn (there’s a better movie about George C. Scott’s wicked Bert, a Mephisto playing with saps and frauds). Also, Newman’s Method straining is most unbecoming; the part has too many Academy Award-worthy moments of exertion. He’s cooler in the much inferior The Color of Money. When I want to remember Newman as a great actor, it’s in seriocomic roles in dreck like Absence of Malice, or worthy minor films like Nobody’s Fool or Twilight, or in part requiring delicate maneuverings between the two like Fort Apache, The Bronx or Blaze. Here’s hoping that Jeff Bridges, the contemporary American actor who reminds me most of Newman, can hold his own when he’s seventy.

The last time around, we piled up a bunch of referents and adjectives attempting to do justice to TV On the Radio’s Return of Cookie Mountain, when most of us were really trying to hide what we really thought of the album’s second half (“Peter Gabriel circa 1977 singing atop Lust for Life-esque grooves with symphonic pretensions,” I wrote in 2006, for the record).

With arrangements every bit as clotted as Cookie Mountain‘s, the new Dear Science is TVotR’s DOR move, its groove more sensuous and buoyant than I ever thought these guys capable of. Fuck Radiohead: the layering of programmed over real-time percussion, the horn sections, the oily lines of Fender Rhodes, and the full-throated vocal attack of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone evoke a party at ground zero; this thing never lets up, cedes not an inch to comprehensibility. Which is to say: I know what the songs are about, but I credit the music, not the intelligent bricolage coming from Malone and Adebimpe’s mouths. I won’t go all Greil Marcus and project the sociopolitical moment onto Dear Science, but this is clearly product meant for projection. I don’t read the title “Dear Science” as a greeting so much as an endearment: in creating a record this luxurious, this beholden to the plenitude of the modern recording studio, TVotR mourn the collapse of an economic system to which they remain grateful, even though they limn the gratitude with enough self-loathing to fund a hundred other indie-rock bands. My favorite track, “DLZ,” works because Adebimpe, summoning the John Lennon of “How Do You Sleep?”, blasts a “death professor” for the mess he’s made of things. Too scattershot to stoop to the usual indie-rock trope of confusing personal for global apocalypse (one line goes “This is the beginning to feel like the long-winded blues of the never”), it gathers its strength from an anger that’s too fierce for containment. This is the real “Wolf Like Me.”

"Foreign countries are our neighbors"

Some things write themselves.

The most succinct criticism I’ve ever read of Governor Sarah Palin is by political junkie/ILE denizen gabbneb, with whom I’ve disagreed often in the past: “basically, we’re dealing with a mental midget who thought she could just go as far as she could through sheer sticktoitiveness and people skills and managed to get far in a small, backwater pond, and now, after being thrown into a huge ocean by a guy who’s not the brightest bulb himself, is realizing that she has no idea how to swim.”

No one can accuse the John McCain campaign of boredom. Or honor. Ned’s response to the news that McCain will have is Dwight Eisenhower I-will-go-to-Korea moment of theater (worthy of Gilbert & Sullivan) is entirely correct. In bureaucracies, as I’ve observed, subordinates appear during conversations between their bosses and colleagues to score points by “being of some assistance.”

Then CNN reported this morsel:

McCain supporter Sen. Lindsey Graham tells CNN the McCain campaign is proposing to the Presidential Debate Commission and the Obama camp that if there’s no bailout deal by Friday, the first presidential debate should take the place of the VP debate, currently scheduled for next Thursday, October 2 in St. Louis.

In this scenario, the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin would be rescheduled for a date yet to be determined, and take place in Oxford, Mississippi, currently slated to be the site of the first presidential faceoff this Friday.

Delicious. It knocked this nasty bit of bad news about McCain’s campaign manager off the front page.

Since one of my jobs involves preparing young men and women for the world of professional journalism, the collapse of newspapers interests me. No question: it doesn’t look good for print. Unless advertisers heavily reinvest in print journalism, newspapers will go the way of the telegraph. Online journalism, however, is healthier than ever. If only ad/PR firms would start gearing their operations towards the growing segments of their readership base who depend on their computers for news, any news. The only people I know who still buy or subscribe to newspapers – the ones who fetishize the Sunday morning ritual of, to quote Wallace Stevens, late coffee, oranges, and sunny chairs – are those who work in newspapers.

Anyway, as a recent convert to “The Wire,” I was disappointed by how facile creator David Simon’s insights into the business were. It’s as if the unconcealed contempt that give Simon interviews their pungent kick finally crimped his art; he moralized instead of delineated. He’s too close to the material: at least when he’s dealing with the world of corners, the re-up game, public schools, and the Neapolitan intrigue of the Baltimore police force he can rely on imagination to support the facts. The Atlantic Monthly‘s Ross Douthat agrees – “a score-settling retread of Shattered Glass,” he writes. More:

At a moment of maximum crisis for American newspapers, with daily paper after daily paper collapsing into mediocrity under the pressure of collapsing revenues, David Simon decided to use his HBO soapbox to rail against … the newspaper industry’s obsession with Pulitzer-bait stories. It’s the equivalent of doing an entire season about the plight of the American inner city in which the drug war was a presence, but way in the background, and the story focused primarily on the evils of, I don’t know, check-cashing services or something.

A facile but spirited column on the similarities between the convulsions that have shaken our system and the nationalization with which the Land of Lafayette experimented in the eighties. We’re both victims of market forces:

Even in the strongest sectors in the U.S., there’s no getting away from the French influence. Nothing is more sacred to France than its farmers. They get whatever they demand, and they demand a lot. And if there are any issues about price supports, or feed costs being too high, or actual competition from other countries, French farmers simply shut down the country by marching their livestock up the Champs Elysee and piling up wheat on the highways. U.S. farmers would never resort to such behavior. They don’t have to: they’re the most coddled special interest group in U.S. history, lavished with $180 billion in subsidies by both parties, even when their products are fetching record prices. One consequence: U.S. consumers pay twice what the French pay for sugar, because of price guarantees. We’re more French than France.

With three-quarters of the year over, it’s time to list my favorite albums so far. I’ve come around to the Drive-By Truckers thing, Shonna Tucker and bloat be damned; Cut Copy and No Age are slightly overrated; and I’ve made peace with Portishead’s miserabilist maunderings.

1. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War
2. Robert Forster – The Evangelist
3. TV on the Radio – Dear Science
4. Portishead – Third
5. David Byrne-Brian Eno – Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
6. Conor Oberst – s/t
7. Hercules & Love Affair – s/t
8. Dolly Parton – Backwoods Barbie
9. Wale – The Mixtape About Nothing
10. The-Dream – Love/Hate
11. Vampire Weekend – s/t
12. Randy Newman – Harps and Angels
13. Drive-By Truckers- Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
14. No Age – Nouns
15. K’Naan – The Dusty Foot Philosopher

Out of the Cradle may be his most conventionally solid album (it’s about death and other deep subjects), and Law and Order his most Tusk-like, but I’m afraid that Lindsey Buckingham hasn’t yet recorded the great solo record we all thought he had in him (I’ve never heard Go Insane except for its clickety-clackety title track). Under The Skin ain’t much better

Norman Whitfield – RIP

The most diverse staff songwriter ever? That’s what a friend suggested when he emailed the news. From “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” to a string of ever-ambitious hits for the Temptations that are like an aural history of the post-liberal collapse. Ambition had its diminishing returns too, as his increasingly baggy mid seventies anthems show; listening to a Tempts comp from “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” through “1990” will illustrate how Nixonland succeeded the Great Society. He did funky paranoia better than Sly Stone. He did subcultural exploitation better than What’s Going On (The Supremes’ “Love Child” maybe comes closest). Fact Others Probably Knew Before I Did: he wrote “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” for Rose Royce; this kissing cousin to the masochism of “(I Know) I’m Losing You” was later slaughtered by Madonna.

My favorite ballad of the nineties, one responsible for introducing me to so many dangerous substances: shufflebeats, Neil Tennant, Bernard Sumner lyrics, twelve-string folk flourishes in postpunk contexts.