So Arlen Specter is, in the words of Jonathan Chait, an “unprincipled hack,” but in that he’s not charmless. Better an unprincipled hack than a senator with actual convictions and such (the South has senators and congressmen with plenty of those). But with news like this, I can’t imagine the modern GOP luring anyone who isn’t like this Principled Person With Convictions. 

The death of Bea Arthur has got me wondering where else to get my fill of her pert bullfrog voice and inflexible smirk besides old “Golden Girls” episodes. Pauline Kael’s review of the Lucille Ball film version of Mame (“Too terrible to be boring; you can get fixated staring at it and wondering what exactly Lucille Ball thinks she’s doing,” Kael writes, delighted. “When that sound comes out — it’s somewhere between a bark, a croak, and a quaver– does she think she’s singing?”) has got me excited.

A CD-R filled with bullfrog croaks would irritate less than Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, his English-language version of his 1997 film, which itself predates the Abu Ghraib photos by several years. Outside the work of auteur Sylvester “Sly” Stallone (Cobra and Rambo particularly) I can’t think of another filmmaker who took such exquisite pleasure in inflicting pain on his characters. “Exquitite” is right: his sets gleam with the unemphatic chic taste of Good Housekeeping. 2002’s The Piano Teacher worked because of the too-perfect casting of Isabelle Huppert, who is to mashocism what Julia Roberts is to dentrifice; beneath the undigested Freudian subtexts and stupid ideas there was Haneke’s perfect composure, the unhurried confidence with which he sustains a mood of dread. But I understand the complaints of those (many) who hated it. Cache (2005) was supposed to make us feel guilty about something, but I’m not sure what — the French treatment of Algerians? Haneke treats lacunae as reverentially as Naomi Watts does her kitchen counters in Funny Games. He’s the asshole who would blame the impulse to ask honest questions about his films on capitalism and Twitter.

It doesn’t help that Funny Games‘ cast performs like Haneke instructed them to stare at a black spot in the corner of the frame. I’ve so tired of Naomi Watts’ open-mouthed Kewpie doll routine; she either needs another comedy like I ::Heart:: Huckabees or a director more sympathetic to her gift for unearthing the hysteria in ordinarily pretty people. Tim Roth’s in this farrago too, I think. As for Michael Pitt, he’s a chubby nothing. From certain angles he looks like Truman Capote wearing an Andy Warhol mask. Shifting his weight from one tennis shoe to the other, he can’t decide what to do with his body, or whether he should be on the set at all. If Pasolini were still alive, he’d cast Pitt as a too-long-for-this-world hustler, which would at least have the virtue of being convincing. In how many movies has Pitt been the object of leers from other boys? He and Haneke are ideal partners — they each have something to pimp.

Thomas swears by the first Wendy and Lisa record — it’s one of his top ten albums, he told me once. The only post-Prince works of theirs I know is their literally unaccountable studio work (Wendy co-writing Madonna’s “Candy Perfume Girl,” fer instance). Anyway, OUT publishes the first interview (I love Barry Walters) in which their relationship is discussed without euphemism, although at this point it’s no surprise. Alex Hahn’s terrific Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince includes an ugly anecdote wherein Prince, frustrated by a session and his own weird relationship with Wendy’s twin sister Susannah, calls them dikes who’ll burn in hell or something. This exchange is telling — the politics between Prince and W&L remains, shall we say, fractious:

OUT: Won’t [Prince] be proud of you too?
Wendy: No. No. No.
Lisa: He’s not very generous like that.

That Prince is no prince won’t shock anyone; it’s the dirt they dish on Trevor Horn (with whom they produced a shelved album years ago) that shocked me:

LISA: I hate to say it, but he wouldn’t even let us eat off of his silverware on Friday because he was Jewish. It turned into this nightmare. He and his wife, oh God, I don’t want to talk disparagingly about anybody, but it made us very uncomfortable.

Yes, the audiophile/scion who produced Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Grace Jones, and the Pet Shop Boys is a homophobe.

Anyway, if someone recommends the first W&L record — or, better, sends it my way — I’ll appreciate it.

(h/t to Tal)

While Adam Lambert can’t bear the weight that Ann Powers puts on his (lovely) shoulders, she does as good a job as Tom Smucker, Peter Shapiro, and others in defining what happens on the dance floor when the spirit of communal ecstacy give us the freedom to enact roles for which we’d normally be ill-suited. As a character in my own disco drama last Friday, I know something about the pain and release of “Let The Music Play” and “Lost in Music. From the clips I’ve seen of Lambert, he looks more conscious of his potentially outsize weirdness than other “American Idol” contestants, and he’s got an audience far bigger than any his idols got at their peaks, with the weirdness to match (and not in that chemically impacted Clay Aiken way either):

The life-changing pop stars Lambert emulates, from David Bowie to Prince to Madonna to lesser lights like Pete Wentz and Lady GaGa, open up the doors to these alternate universes. Through their example — their music, their style, their way of moving through the world — admirers can dream of a life beyond the confines of their “normal” lives.

Someone hook this boy up with the Scissor Sisters, please.

At the Supreme Court today, justices wrestled with the question of whether a strip search of a thirteen-year-old at a public school for Ibuprofen was constitutional. Stephen Breyer brought the laughs:

“In my experience when I was 8 or 10 or 12 years old, you know, we did take our clothes off once a day, we changed for gym, OK? And in my experience, too, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear.” Breyer hesitated as he realized what he said as the courtrooom erupted in laughter.

He quickly recovered and added: “Or not my underwear. Whatever. Whatever.”

Yeah, whatever.

Oh, look: Nora Ephron still thinks that Mike Nichols makes movies for Intelligent People. “One of the main things about Mike’s movies is that, with a few exceptions, they’re all really smart movies about smart people,” she avers. “They’re about something. And he’s funny. You’re certainly not going to lose a joke. And if there’s one hidden, he’ll find it.” The director of Charlie Wilson’s War, The Birdcage, and What Planet Are You From?

This guy’s wise ass tone — an irony fashionably distant enough to flatter the watchers of clever sitcoms — is TV incarnate, for better or worse.

The latest subject of George F. Will’s ire: denim. So Tory he makes Samuel Johnson look like Clement Atlee, George the Bemused doesn’t like the faceless humanoids out there wearin’ Levis and Gap:

Denim is the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy’s catechism of leveling — thou shalt not dress better than society’s most slovenly. To do so would be to commit the sin of lookism — of believing that appearance matters. That heresy leads to denying the universal appropriateness of everything, and then to the elitist assertion that there is good and bad taste.

He’s got kids. He’s never seen teenagers comparing loose and easy fit? Or those two globules punching through a girl’s chest?

Playground Indie and Its Malcontents

Exile produces silence more often than cunning. After two months of not publishing a single rock review (this should change very soon) and compensating by listening to more indie than ever, I’ve left amused by the suspicion that as the market for rock writing collapses the polarization between the pop world and indie expands. It’s a strange world when Flo Rida and Animal Collective debut high on the same chart, separated by sales of a few thousand, and their partisans can’t shake hands across Flyoverland. This is a landscape in which Billboard confirms the hegemony of the Pitchfork ethos. I know colleagues who drool over Ghostface or Lil Boosie as much as they do over Animal Collective or Dirty Projectors. They’re smart enough to note their differences and intentions, yet unwilling to examine what accounts for the championing of artists determined to make clear statements to a recognizable public and artistes who speak for and to a cult that won’t look past its own biases.

Spending fruitless hours agonizing over Fever Ray, Grizzly Bear, and the increasingly paradigmatic Animal Collective was instructive. That age is much more than a number explains only the half of it. In the case of Animal Collective, I hear a half-understood but determined effort to approach the guilelessness of the young adult sensibility. AC wants domestic bliss to resonate like the unmediated wonder of thirteen-year-olds making sense of their bodies. But a twentysomething isn’t a pre-teen, and if you’re still having trouble figuring out the difference, you need to find another analyst. I expect bands to realize that confusion is sex — as X, Springsteen and Yo La Tengo’s own explorations uncovered. But they didn’t dumb down their approaches to get at higher truths; if anything, their albums showed that human drama often can’t accommodate them. For artists ideals are fine, but they’re a burden too, maybe a luxury, and an economy increasingly hostile to the pursuit of venalities puts a greater demand on clarity than Animal Collective are prepared to give. As for the other two, Grizzly Bear and Fever Ray live in a world I don’t recognize: it’s retrograde in a hostile way. Fascinated by their adolescent grievances, they perform a shadowplay illuminated by a light that’s dim and wrongly colored, intended to show their music in the most attractively disfigured way.

It isn’t so dire though. Fumbling through Dirty Projectors’ predictably named Bitte Orca, I heard a lot of too-pretty harmonies and ambitious, not-quite-there arrangements and not enough of the peculiar androgynous subtexts that impressed me when I saw them at Pitchfork Festival last summer (it’s as if Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie took turns changing into one another and took turns harassing an equally protean Lindsey Buckingham) . Then, in “Two Doves,” Amber Coffmann or Angel Deradoorian, I can’t tell whom, lets this out: “Your hair is like an an eagle/ your two eyes are like two doves/But our bed is like a failure.” Buttressed by fingerpicked acoustic guitar, foiled by string swells, these are pretty good verses, especially after the girl demands an open-mouthed kiss at the beginning of the song. Bands uninterested in expressing emotions are often perplexed about how to express them; here’s an example of how to do it right.

Anyway, Christgau’s review of two new charity comps helmed by indie/Pitchfork all-stars articulates the dilemma of how to size up songs of experience performed as songs of innocence. To put it another way, it’s the best example of how an old guy, with characterstic good humor and common sense, scrunches his eyes real tight to evaluate an ideology as alien as Arianism.