Still hangin’ out on 52nd and Broadway

The freshest undiscovered track on the Stones’ Some Girls reissue: “Do You Think I Really Care,” a country cousin to Emotional Rescue’s great “Let Me Go,” but instead of musing aloud about maybe hanging out in gay bars and moving to the west side of NYC, Jagger chases a girl he sees on the D train and Long Island Expressway, maybe stopping for pizza on 52nd and Broadway before the ride. The backing track is a marvel: Ron Wood’s unexpected slide guitar, Watts on the one, those fierce acoustic strums, and Keith yelping enthusiastic harmonies, convincing me he actually knows the location of Max’s Kansas City. And there’s Jagger, smoothly moving from sarcastic talk-speak to a fetching drawl pitched between camp and submission. He’s alive.

Longtime readers know Some Girls is my favorite Stones record. The bonus tracks confirm it.

Snowed in

Of course she loves concepts — she’s even pretty good at delineating them in song suites and such. She’s even better at coaxing all manner of aural wickedness and mystery from samplers — “Waking the Witch,” “There Goes a Tenner,” and “Get Out of My House” are miracles of Fairlight programming commensurate with imaginative daring. But when she sits at the piano and sings “This Woman’s Work,” Kate Bush projects a yearning so committed that instead of recoiling from the embarrassment I marvel how she manipulates octaves and harmonic shifts.

This gift, manifest in 1978’s “The Man With The Child in His Eyes” and as recently as 2005’s “A Coral Room,” is still there in the new 50 Words For Snow. It still pokes its head out of Steve Gadd’s subtle rolls and fills; it still creates a suspense as palpable as breath on glass in the thirteen-minute long “Misty,” a saga whose literalness puts Joanna Newsom’s epics to shame. But in “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” she tries to reconcile a story with melodramatic underpinnings and austerity, and despite another luxurious Bush vocal (note the quicksilver ease with which the stress falls on the line “I’ll tie us to-GET-her”) it’s a mite ponderous. Elton John, who sounds like a man held hostage, doesn’t help. Unfamiliar yet with the album’s longeurs, I was skeptical about “Wild Man” when The Singles Jukebox reviewed it last month; it sounded too obvious a choice for single. I was right: it’s one of two tracks below eight minutes and, importantly, with a hook: a high, scraping organ line and the epicene harmonizing of Andy Fairweather Low.

Bush fans will complain that her music won’t be sullied by commonplaces like hooks, which is fair — I rustle through most pieces of music requiring a program book and my complete attention. But for listeners for whom Bush’s piano trills and subtle arrangements — like the whisper of a string arrangement on “Snowflake” — are exactly what propel her past the flotsam of modern pop, for those listeners for whom Scott Walker and Mark Hollis are touchstones, 50 Words For Snow is an exquisite package, a masterpiece of concentration bordering on the ascetic. A good dictionary lists many denotations of “batty,” most of which apply to Kate Bush; this is a woman who imitated a donkey’s bray and wrote a juicy song about music tasting like a pomegranate inside out. Perhaps Elton, Low, and her son Bertie (on “Snowflake”) brought the frisson she could no longer generate in a band format. As for me, I’d like to think Stephen Fry assumed that reciting fifty words for snow was going to be a knee-slapper.

Justice is served: Elena Kagan

In a report card grading Elena Kagan’s first year, Dahlia Lithwick thinks the Supreme Court will uphold the Affordable Health Care Act “by a 6-3 or a 7-2 margin,” reminding us that “for every Bush v. Gore, there are hundreds of cases that are not decided along party lines, and also because party lines don’t always begin and end at wanting to embarrass the president.” Not the wiseacre observation I would have expected from Slate’s funniest writer, for whom oral arguments represent delicious opportunities to practice her talent for the Dickensian caricature (e.g. “The second case, Kentucky v. King, reads a bit like a Cheech and Chong script. The Fourth Amendment requires that the police obtain a warrant—backed by probable cause—to search your home. There are some exceptions to this requirement, which you may remember from NYPD Blue” or any description of Justice Breyer ponderously asking a six-part question.

If you listen to those oral arguments, you expect Scalia to be the standout, but this term it’s Kagan’s high, slightly pinched Manhattan tones and penchant for quick, pungent questions that demonstrate how fascinating she must have been in the classroom.

On rats


The Nixon Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP), a private non-governmental campaign entity, used funds from its coffers to pay for, and later cover up, “dirty tricks” performed against opponents by Richard Nixon’s employee, Donald Segretti. Segretti famously coined the term ‘ratfucking’ [1] for recruiting conservative members to infiltrate opposition groups (and/or misrepresent them through false flag activities) in order to undermine the effectiveness of such opposition.

The present:

A well-known Washington lobbying firm with links to the financial industry has proposed an $850,000 plan to take on Occupy Wall Street and politicians who might express sympathy for the protests, according to a memo obtained by the MSNBC program “Up w/ Chris Hayes.”

The proposal was written on the letterhead of the lobbying firm Clark Lytle Geduldig & Cranford and addressed to one of CLGC’s clients, the American Bankers Association.

CLGC’s memo proposes that the ABA pay CLGC $850,000 to conduct “opposition research” on Occupy Wall Street in order to construct “negative narratives” about the protests and allied politicians. The memo also asserts that Democratic victories in 2012 would be detrimental for Wall Street and targets specific races in which it says Wall Street would benefit by electing Republicans instead.

According to the memo, if Democrats embrace OWS, “This would mean more than just short-term political discomfort for Wall Street. … It has the potential to have very long-lasting political, policy and financial impacts on the companies in the center of the bullseye.”

Naomi Wolf:

The mainstream media was declaring continually “OWS has no message”. Frustrated, I simply asked them. I began soliciting online “What is it you want?” answers from Occupy. In the first 15 minutes, I received 100 answers. These were truly eye-opening.

The No 1 agenda item: get the money out of politics. Most often cited was legislation to blunt the effect of the Citizens United ruling, which lets boundless sums enter the campaign process. No 2: reform the banking system to prevent fraud and manipulation, with the most frequent item being to restore the Glass-Steagall Act – the Depression-era law, done away with by President Clinton, that separates investment banks from commercial banks. This law would correct the conditions for the recent crisis, as investment banks could not take risks for profit that create kale derivatives out of thin air, and wipe out the commercial and savings banks.

No 3 was the most clarifying: draft laws against the little-known loophole that currently allows members of Congress to pass legislation affecting Delaware-based corporations in which they themselves are investors.

When I saw this list – and especially the last agenda item – the scales fell from my eyes. Of course, these unarmed people would be having the shit kicked out of them.

“The purchased acquisition of commodities”

Eric Harvey on Black Friday versus Occupy Wall Street:

You’re allowed to congeal into a mass of humanity or pitch your tent on concrete if your goal is capitalistic in nature. If in other words you’re acting as a modern consumer/citizen who defines him/herself and his/her position in society through the purchased acquisition of commodities.

If, however, you partake in the very same activities with a mindset of directly challenging the ideology of capital, and therefore the needs of a smoothly-functioning state, as the OWS protestors are, then you are subject to eviction, if not state-sponsored violence to your body. The horror of this state of affairs has been widely covered, but it boils down to the simple fact that Americans are being violently punished—ironically, by police forces clad exclusively in black—for performing democratic citizenship.

Black Friday actions don’t need to be controlled by patrols of war-ready, terror-inducing functionaries. Through the eyes of the state, those people are already controlling themselves..

Beached: The Descendants

George Clooney is barefoot for much of The Descendants, at times when the other actors’ feet are sandaled. I’ll let my one Hawaiian friend comment on the verisimilitude of Alexander Payne’s adaptation of a 2008 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings: do the white guys really wear flowered shirts and drink Budweiser? Clooney’s expertly tanned ankles symbolize everything that’s wrong with The Descendants: Payne’s habit of using bit of business — foul-mouthed children, the incessant “themed” music piping over the soundtrack, like hearing talking drums while approaching an “African” souvenir stand at Epcot — to substitute for pedestrian camera work and framing and undeveloped writing. This is a director who admitted in 2002 that what got Jack Nicholson to “understand” his grey-faced corporate apparatchik in About Schmidt was figuring out the comb over. What a line! He’s right too: Nicholson’s Schmidt starts and remains a comb over.

The most offensive member of odd-numbered-year Serious Clooney Oscar Bait yet, The Descendants demonstrates how shrewdly Payne has calculated the degree to which his audience will tolerate spiky humor before (in his mind) demanding the chewy maudlin core. The movie’s “conflict” — how Matt King (Clooney) and his daughters accept how their comatose mother must die for being independent and what her father (Robert Forster) calls “tough” — is a ruse. She exists so that Clooney and kids can stick pins into her, or, in Clooney’s case, yell recriminations at her vegetative form like Marlon Brando does to his own corpse bride in Last Tango in Paris. When King learns the name of the real estate agent (Matthew Lillard) who cuckolded him, he hustles the kids and the oldest daughter’s boyfriend on a plane to, I don’t know, confront him or something. To depict a man so angry that he would make public — before his children! — the bedroom politics between him and his wife is a contrivance so unbelievable as to make Megatron’s plans in Transformers 2: Rise of the Fallen a plausible nightmare. We learn nothing about Clooney or his relationship with his children, cousins, and in-laws that the underline-with-lipstick voice-over doesn’t explain.

The movie’s other subplot simmers with more ominous portents. The King family, lords of an undeveloped, idyllic fiefdom in Kauai, are on the verge of relinquishing their claim, the sale of which will make them comfortable enough to keep their country club privileges for the rest of their lives. The voice-over makes it clear that Matt, thanks to prudence, doesn’t need the money. Yet when at a crucial point in the movie he wavers, all I kept thinking was, what about your nieces and nephews, what about your poorer relations dependent on the income from that sale? The Descendants is callous enough to expect the audience to applaud Matt’s altruism and ignore the queasy fact that Clooney and his cousinage are saturnine white guys whose interest in mixed blood and native Hawaiians extends only to patronizing local bars and applauding their house bands. Payne thoughtfully includes an early scene in which a mixed blood mom accuses Matt’s youngest daughter of sending raunchy text messages; the camera lingers on the mom’s ribbons of flesh, the bag of Doritos on the table in front of the schoolgirl. Nine years after About Schmidt and Payne still finds fat women funny (it was okay to laugh at Kathy Bates in the hot tub but not Jack Nicholson, who could have nursed several foals and puppies with those teats). Although the King family has exploited Hawaiians since the nineteenth century, Payne acts like the politics would get in the way of his Coppertoned Terms of Endearment rehash (Clooney and his vegetable wife even get a farewell scene as unconvincing as Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger’s). I wish Edward Said were alive.

So why are critics swooning for this crap? Is praising two-hour sitcoms compensation for sitting through comic book adaptations? The normally estimable A.O. Scott, in a prom invitation disguised as a movie review, writes:

There are times when you laugh or gasp in disbelief at what has just happened — an old man punches a teenager in the face; a young girl utters an outrageous obscenity; Mr. Clooney slips on a pair of boat shoes and runs, like an angry, flightless bird, to a neighbor’s house — and yet every moment of the movie feels utterly and unaffectedly true.

Which makes two of us laughing and crying with disbelief. For reason quite easily fathomable, Clooney has turned into the Teflon Actor: he’s never blamed when a movie goes sour; we’re told, over and over, to concentrate on his star qualities, his confidence. Is it because his wry, rumpled, self-effacing screen presence represents how liberal movie critics most want to see themselves? If in Michael Clayton and (barely) Up in the Air, Clooney’s talent suffered scarcely a blemish, his spongy, tentative, embarrassed work here should frighten us because it represents how Clooney regards himself. George Clooney crying is like watching a Volkswagen pull a trailer.

Singles 11/25 – Thanksgiving edition

I’m thankful that the year coughed up a single worthy of every bombastic thing written and yet to be written about it. The also-rans bloomed in Azealia Banks’ company, or maybe I was particularly compassionate.

Azealia Banks – 212 (8)
Lady Gaga – Marry The Nigh (7)
Big Sean ft. Nicki Minaj – Dance (A$$) (7)
K Michelle – Sweetest Love (6)
Gabrielle – Bordet (6)
The Internet – Cocaine (5)
Real Estate – It’s Real (5)
Perfume – Spice (5)
Tracey Thorn – Night Time (4)
Cee-lo Green – Anyway (4)
Will Young – Come On (3)

Liberal fantasies

David Frum’s latest mea culpa (he writes one every quarter, as if to remind his new audience that he’s a martyr, thank you very much) regarding how he and his power-obsessed droogs turned conservatism into a kind of necromancy is more honest than Jonathan Chait ruler-slapping the palms of liberals who merely remind each other (and Chait) that neither in foreign nor domestic policy has Barack Hussein Obama been anything than a generalist of intermittent power: the intelligent man who can do many things and who would rather do them well — like, say, killing American citizens under suspicion of terrorism — than entrust them to Bush-league incompetents.

As patient and measured as an NPR host, Chait’s article contains a handful of credible counterarguments, but I can’t bother to parse them when he writes conclusions like this: “It is odd that Bill Clinton’s imagined role as ass-kicking economic savior has become the object of such extensive liberal fantasy.” Maybe in Chait’s Beltway world, bordered on one side by David Gregory and on the other by Cokie Roberts, the reanimation of the corpse of Clinton’s agenda sends tingles up the leg of Chris Matthews but not to the rest of us who hold the former  president responsible for much of our fiduciary chaos. Must I really remind Chait again of Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the sucking up to Alan Greenspan, and so on? We might still be paying for our mistakes, but in a DC culture in which malfeasance isn’t punished — it’s given an encouraging pat on the bum and promoted to work for another administration — we’ll never know. That’s partly why Occupy Wall Street commands some measure of the public imagination. We got Diane Sawyer to lead a broadcast about income inequality!

Part of my morning routine consists of reading FrumForum after digesting the last several hours’ worth of NRO-Corner posts. Reading Frum since he left Bush’s pod people White House is like gratefully inhaling rubbing alcohol after a bout of nausea. Still, anyone who cares about language and principle can’t defend books with titles like this and this.

Saran-wrapped sin: The Skin I’m In

Now I can relent: after years of accusing male heterosexual directors of worshiping their favorite ancestors like sons begging their mothers to adore their girlfriends, it’s reassuring to turn the Eye of Sotoron on a gay one like Pedro Almodovar. His second consecutive film intended as chrysanthemums for the tomb of Alfred Hitchcock, the cumbersomely titled The Skin I Live In also boasts the nouveau rich swank of Douglas Sirk, the silken perversion of French-era Bunuel, and heavy underlinings of Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae. Antonio Banderas, wizened and greyer since his last film for Almodovar twenty years ago, plays Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon so purportedly devastated by the death of his wife by fire that, like Jimmy Stewart did with that pliant neurasthenic blonde Kim Novak (who to me looked and mooed like a drag queen), he recreates her by having reconstructive fun with Vincent, the young man (Jan Cornet) who failed to rape his daughter.

Like its predecessor Broken Embraces, The Skin I Live In is as fun as an abdominal cramp. Saran-wrapped in Bryan Ferry suits and frowning like a hack actor looking for a Teleprompter, Banderas gives a lifeless performance; it’s as if his acting talent was behind Vincent/Vera’s plastic mask. You would never know from his embalmed work here that Banderas was a dynamo in the late eighties, up for any challenge Almodovar offered him. If the movie’s conceit is to work at all, we have to at least see the EKG blips of Robert’s psychosexual motives, but they remain opaque. It’s not as if I don’t admire how Almodovar expects the audience to accept the grotesqueries without making a fuss (“I thought this was supposed to be PG,” murmured the woman behind me after her mom gasped for the thirteenth time), but it mystified me how this director ignored the congeries of sexual ambiguity. Has his wife’s disfigurement and death destroyed Robert’s equilibrium so much that he’s willing to reconstruct a man as a woman? Banderas is such a zombie that the pairing of him and Almodovar stalwart Marisa Paredes (playing a domestic with secrets) creates no sparks; puttering with a lifetime of repressed love, she hurls affectionate accusations at a stranded Banderas. Unhelpfully, Almodovar’s script — the first time he ever sought help — calls for a mid-movie change of point of view that underscores the nattering, rhythmless first half. The film offers three hints of real sin: a backyard tryst in which the couple realize they’re surrounded by other humping, sucking couples delirious with the same idea; the rapidfire, too brief exchanges between a lesbian boutique employee and Vincent; and Concha Buika’s spectacular performances during a wedding. Like Caetano Veloso doing pigeon coos poolside in Talk to Her, she stops the movie cold, hinting at something far more transgressive and frisky than we’re seeing.