It’s time for a new podcast; you’ve waited patiently enough as it is.

We present another Ben Jordan retrospective.


In one take.

Give a listen, why don’t you?

(Interview with The Ivy coming soon…)

Decline and Fall

April 14, 2008

Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall is probably one of the best first novels of the twentieth century, brilliantly mixing biting social satire with bittersweet pathos. Pennyfeather’s foibles are as affecting as they are entertaining, and themes, and hints of themes, that will preoccupy Waugh throughout his career are subtly (and not so subtly) dropped into the novel. This post will not be about that book. Instead, I’m troubled by the constant use of the decline and fall narrative. It seems that just about every single article that I read these days is constructed on this most basic of organizing principles, in fields as far flung as Religious history, econometrics, and in media as diverse as journals, blogs, zines, and finger paint collages. But most of all, this malady afflicts the newspaper who, with their own demise a-hand, have decided to make almost everything about loss.

The immediate impetus for this post, which could have been written any time, was A.O. Scott’s article in the Sunday Times praising the return of Roger Ebert. Ebert is one of the best film critics of his generation, and I agree whole-heartedly with Scott, that much of the reason Ebert has not been recognized as such is his extraordinary easy-going television personality which masked his literary flair. Plus there are the movies he co-wrote with that titan of tits Russ Meyer. Though no James Agee, or Raymond Chandler (see his article on the Academy Awards for the Atlantic) for that matter, Ebert is nothing if not a master stylist. His return to film criticism is indeed something to praise, especially given his health struggles.

But the article brings with it a darker decline narrative. It seems that we are at a stage when film criticism is endangered. Film has always existed at the intersection of “popular” and “elite” cultures, and its legibility is one of its greatest strengths. It can be praised both on aintitcool and Cahiers du Cinema. Somewhere in the middle lay the newspaper/newsmagazine critic whose writing was expected to be accessible yet literate all at the same time. It was a difficult balancing act and the true masters, like Ebert or Vincent Camby or David Edelstein or Kenneth Turan, are few and far between. Scott doesn’t see too much hope for the breed. Newspapers left and right are cutting reviewer positions and the future is uncertain. Scott points to the proliferation of movie blogs, but wonders if they’re really capable of supplementing the critical voice and role of a print critic. Can they have any effect? It’s really quite uncertain.

As someone who’s tried to write literate film reviews, I can tell you that the blog medium is uniquely unsuited to it. The blogosphere is a world of hyperbole, not nuanced arguments. Hyperbole leads to google traffic; more reasoned discourse, fewer. The greatest thing that the internet offers is unrestricted access and voice; real criticism requires restraint.

By now we’ve all had time to digest the fact that Sheldon Silver single-handedly nixed Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to introduce congestion pricing in Manhattan. London and Stockholm have introduced congestion pricing to much success and it was hoped that a New York plan would similarly 1) reduce traffic 2) reduce congestion 3) provide a much needed revenue stream for the MTA 4) encourage transit oriented development, and 5) convince China of the inappropriateness of their actions in Tibet, causing them to leave Tibet, thereby producing a ripple effect whereby all hithertofore global crises are resolved including, but not limited to, a) the Iraq war b) the Clinton-Obama tussle and c) how to produce the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity required to send Marty McFly back to the future. In short, there was a lot more at stake than an increase in tolls. I’m pro-congestion pricing, but conflicted about its larger consequences. While I was in favor of the New York plan, a recent article in the Washington Post situated the New York plan within the context of the department of transportation and the changes there-wrought by the Bush administration. As the article explains:

“For Gribbin, Duvall and Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, the goal is not just to combat congestion but to upend the traditional way transportation projects are funded in this country. They believe that tolls paid by motorists, not tax dollars, should be used to construct and maintain roads. They and other political appointees have spent the latter part of President Bush‘s two terms laboring behind the scenes to shrink the federal role in road-building and public transportation. They have also sought to turn highways into commodities that can be sold or leased to private firms and used by motorists for a price. In Duvall and Gribbin’s view, unleashing the private sector and introducing market forces could lead to innovation and more choices for the public, much as the breakup of AT&T transformed telecommunications.”

In other words, the public will be removed from public transportation, and the Eisenhower legacy–to say nothing of new rail lines–will be lost.

This story alone would be worth commenting on, but it’s just one of many ways in which the Bush administration has treated previous policies with disdain and bent the public interest to its narrow private interest. Just last week, This American Life devoted a show to some of the odder ways that Bush has pushed the unitary executive theory, the same kind of charming and heartening stories that This American Life normally features except terrifying because of their actual implications. Appropriately enough, the episode was called “The Audacity of Government.”

It’s really quite amazing to think of the really small things that the Bush administration has done to effect large amounts of people.

Dave Gilbert makes computer games.

For a living.

For serious.

We’ve reviewed his games before, and we like them.

You should, too.

…and here is the inaugural Yesterday’s Salad podcast: Yesterday’s Salad interviews Dave Gilbert!

Fun with Continuity

April 2, 2008

A while back, I planned on making “retcon” the word of the day. Not yet in the OED, “retcon” is probably one of the most useful words in the English language. The word, an abbreviation for “retroactive continuity” comes from that emerging English dialect, Comic Book English. From the Comics Dictionary:

“to ‘retcon’ is to change history, so that something that had existed in the continuity of the fictional universe, not ONLY doesn’t exist now, but in the fictional history, NEVER HAS existed. This can be true of an event, of a character, or whatever”

The word has occasionally snuck into general discourse, as in this article in the SF Gate where the author adopts the term to describe Bram Dijkstra’s revisionist art history:

In the useful and fast-spreading parlance of comic book fans, Dijkstra has boldly “retconned” most of 20th century American art history. That is, he’s given it a new “retroactive continuity,” rewritten it so that a discarded early movement suddenly becomes the consummation of everything that came before and a martyr to just about everything after.”

I bring this up because of this week’s episode of “How I Met Your Mother,” the best episode of the show’s 3rd season, and one of the series finest. One of the show’s outstanding features is the way it plays with continuity and the sequence of events. The show regularly tells things out of sequence, inserting small sight gags that often turn into whole stories or stories that get the Rashomon treatment much later. This week’s episode proved that point by turning a throw-off sign-off into a 30 second reprisal with reference to a website tedmosbyisajerk.com that not only works, but is accompanied by a 20 minute song written by the show’s creators. It’s a little like watching Lost only funnier, less pretentious, and not a constant test of your ability to remember random facts. Also, the characters actually interact with each other on HIMYM.

For those of you who don’t watch, here’s a quick sample.

A Return

April 1, 2008

Without adjectives. Not a triumphant one, nor an especially promising one, but a return nonetheless. In fact, I return in praise. Sure, much has happened these last few days that are deserving of a post (not the least of which are the ingenious funding proposal for the Columbus Streetcar or the incredible lack of courage that Barack Obama showed in his wishy-washy response to “pennygate-aught-eight,” or his lack of forward vision in rejecting prison island). In fact, our return wasn’t even inspired by the recent brouhaha (from the French) over the disappearance of the newspaper movie reviewer and David Carr’s aloud-pondering about the blogosphere’s abilities to provide true critical coverage (and not just mind-numbing headlines like, “300 Is the Worst Movie Ever.”) No, my return was sponsored by something much more timely: the birthday of that great scholar of Kabbalistic folkways and their reflections in numismatics, Rabbi Dr. Professor Jurgen Haverstam, DHL. So, in his honour, a review of his favourite movie: Reversal of Fortune.

Reversal of Fortune tells the obscure story of the Claus Von Bulow trial. Based on the book by Alan Dershowitz, Reversal of Fortune is almost a movie without a hero. Dershowitz (played by the excellent Ron Silver) is a flawed hero, willing to play Robin Hood (taking money from the rich to pay for his pro-bono cases) even if it means defending obviously guilty clients. While the character admits that a lawyer does not have the luxury of always defending innocent clients, and upholds the value of the system, Dershowitz attempts to have it both ways, picking and choosing morality as he sees fit, and wiping his hands of the mess later on. While not a problem when choosing a lawyer (probably a plus), it does lead to moviemaking problems. In general, the problem of having a moral-yet-morally-ambiguous lead is a microcosm of the moviemaker’s dilemma as a whole: how do we tell such a story without taking sides? How do we make Von Bulow appear both likable as a main character and detestable as a potential murderer? Thankfully, Jeremy Irons was the perfect answer. His Von Bulow is seductive yet mannered to the point that everything seems like an act. He’s been rehearsing his life like an actor rehearses his lines. We suspect him of anything and yet we also suspect that the only thing he may be guilty of is being suspicious. At this point, I’ve seen the movie twice and come to two different conclusions as to Von Bulow’s guilt. Such is the masterful way that the movie was handled, helped most notably by its stylish direction, and the always excellent Fisher Stevens. It would, at some point, be interesting to compare this film with Michael Clayton as the two offer very different looks at morality and the law. And perhaps even a structural comparison with Desperate Housewives is in order as the ABC dramedy would later adopt Reversal’s mode of storytelling.

But in the meantime I’ll content myself with wishing the good doctor a happy birthday whilst holding out hope that he will soon be featured on the excellent justcommentary podcast.