Archive for March, 2007

In Praise: Tom Brosseau at Astor Place Hair

My phenomenal friend Ben and his friends Hope and David shot a video of Tom Brosseau singing the traditional folk song “Darling Corey” (aka “Darling Cora”) in Astor Place Hair Salon. The Astor Place video and this one of Brosseau singing “Amory” on St. Mark’s Place are affiliated with Blogotheque’s Take Away Shows.

Both videos are brilliant, but the Astor Place video is especially so. I’m going to sound like a reviewer of the sort that annoys me, but I love so much about what Ben and his buddies have captured: the indifference — or only mild curiosity — of the barbers, hairdressers, and patrons; the venue, the bare presence of folk music at Astor Hair; Brosseau’s voice and the way he sets down his guitar mid-song and simply roams the salon, singing “Darling Corey”; the man caught touching the deserted guitar. The show makes my skin tingle.

Ben sent along the lyrics to “Darling Corey.” There seem to be a few different versions. Here’s the version Brosseau sings:

 

Oh, the last time I saw Darling Corey,
she was sitting on a bank on a field
with a 44 around her
and a banjo on her knee.

Wake up, wake up, my darling.
How can you sleep so sound?
Highway robbers are coming
to tear the old fieldhouse down.

Oh, go dig a hole in the meadow.
Oh, go dig a hole in the ground.
Dig a hole in the meadow.
Let me lay pretty Corey down.

Go away, go away, my darling
and bring to me my gun.
I got no mind for trouble
but trouble just now begun.

Oh, the last time I saw Darling Corey
she had my 45 in her hand,
saying I’ll kill them highway robbers,
if they leave here with my bed.

Oh, go dig a hole in the meadow.
Go dig a hole in the ground.
Dig a hole in the meadow.
Let me lay pretty Corey down.

Go away, go away, my darling.
Quit your hanging around my bed.
Whiskey has killed my body.
Pretty women will kill me stone dead.

Take off, take off in the ocean.
Take off in the deep blue sea.
Go and bring to me my Corey,
wherever she may be.

Oh, go dig a hole in the meadow.
Go dig a hole in the ground
Dig a hole in the meadow.
Let me lay pretty Corey down.

Wake up, wake up, my Darling.
Go and do the best you can.
I got me another woman.
You can find you another man.

Oh yes, oh yes, my darling.
I’ll do the best I can.
But I’ll never give my pleasure
to another gambling man.

Oh, go dig a hole in the meadow.
Oh, go dig a hole in the ground.
Dig a hole in the meadow.
Let me lay pretty Corey down.
Let me lay pretty Corey down.

I almost forgot: speaking of Astor Place, the salon also plays a role in The Survival of the Wildebeest, an upcoming film about another gem of a friend and artist, Stu.

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The Earrings of Madame de…

After having all but half an inch of my previously long hair cut off today (had to squeeze that in somewhere — it’s on my mind), I went to see Max Ophuls’ 1953 The Earrings of Madame de… . I sat in the second row and did not have to worry about my hair blocking the view of those who sat behind me because my hair is really, really short — I look a little like a schoolboy and now feel I should make a point to wear flowing, delicately printed t-shirts; flats that show toe cleavage; subtle jewelry; and dark lipstick. And earrings — yes, earrings.

I went to see The Earrings for no good reason other than the rhapsodic reviews Anthony Lane, Andrew Sarris, and a few others (I hestitate to call any of these guys critics — they just write reviews, really) have written about the film. I’m a sucker for so many things, but especially for glowing reviews from wannabe highfalutin reviewers. Unless you’re looking for entertainment a la 300, it’s hard to resist praise like this:

When people have asked me to name the greatest film of all time — in my humble opinion, of course — my instant answer has been unvarying for the past 30 years or so: Madame de…

– Andrew Sarris

Should the day ever come when movies are granted the same respect as other arts, The Earrings of Madame de… will instantly be recognized as one of the most beautiful things ever created by human hands.

– Dave Kehr

So much instantaneity associated with this film.

So I saw it, short hair and all, and thought it was lovely — especially the costumes and the earrings. There are some fantastic aphoristic lines about love, unhappiness, coincidence (I noticed that most of these are spoken by Charles Boyer’s character). And the actors — especially the one who plays the Italian baron — are really good with the littlest gestures: I’m thinking of a moment when the baron is angry and isn’t in a position to express his anger; he fidgets and softly hits a table with his fist. It’s a peripheral gesture — perfect for the moment.

But I said lovely, not orgasmic. Why do reviewers have to talk about films like this one the overblown way they do? What cinematic values are they trying to uphold? Who are they trying to make feel small, special, coarse? What good does it do to tell an audience a film is “quintessential” (Hoberman at the Village Voice)? Quintessential to whom? If you like what?

I’m not trying to write a film review — or, gulp, film criticism — here. I’m just wondering what got me into the theatre in the first place and why reviewers approach their work so reductively and why I take even some of them at their word.

I don’t care if I sound like a snob (I can sound only so much like a snob having just suggested that the greatest film of all time according to cinephiles isn’t the greatest film of all time according to me): sometimes I wish there only critics, critics who drew my attention — and focused their own attention — on one little aspect of a film. No sweeping praise, no yeas or nays (okay, maybe nays). Just draw my attention to one little thing. And meditate on that thing, in writing, for as many paragraphs as you can. Free associate, I don’t care. Just parse the film and pick an element and make me interested first in that element as it exists anywhere and then, almost by association, in the film and then go away.

There’s a Cynthia Ozick essay in the April issue of Harper’s that calls for book criticism (as opposed to book reviews) of the sort I’d like to see with regard to film. Her sense of book criticism is a little limited, but she makes a few good points and a much-needed call to arms — or pens or keyboards.

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Mistakes Were Made

There’s a kick to be had out of the phrasing of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ mea culpa with regard to the White House’s involvement in Justice Department firing decisions. “I acknowledge that mistakes were made,” he said during a news conference yesterday.

Mistakes were made. How many English teachers have used Nixon’s acknowledgment of wrongdoing in the Watergate cover-up to teach their students the pitfalls of the passive voice? (It’s worth noting that former national security advisor and secretary of state Henry Kissinger used similar phrasing if not the passive voice in his 2002 acknowledgment that the administrations in which he served might have played some role in war crimes committed in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and South America in the 1960s and 1970s: No one can say that he served in an administration that did not make mistakes.)

You’d think Gonzales would know better than to use Nixon’s language in this setting. Or maybe you wouldn’t think that.

The passive voice in politics: something bad happened, but the perpetrators… next question!

A good time for some Life in Hell

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Where are the Robots?

“Dawn of the Age of Robots” reads the plug for the cover story of January 2007’s Scientific American. The article’s title: “A Robot in Every Home.” The cover shows a picture of a kneeling figure that looks a lot like C-3PO, but with what appear to be more numerous and flexible joints than those that animated the Star Wars character.

The article goes on to compare today’s dawn — that of the age of robots — to the dawn thirty years ago of the age of computers. Bill Gates, the article’s prescient author, describes a future in which our lives are made infinitely easier because while we slave away at the office, smart mobile devices that we control from our work PCs will clean our floors, do our laundry, mow our lawns, protect our homes, and dispense medicine to our aging relatives. Gates outlines the challenges facing the robotics field as well as its breakthroughs. Clever illustrations show hard-working robots — robots that for the most part look more like remote controlled carpet cleaners than androids and are assigned names that correspond to their functions — “laundry folding robot,” “surveillance robot,” and “floor-cleaning robot,” for example. The robot pictured dispensing medicine to an elderly woman in bed is the most humanoid and by far the most frightening; it looks as if it has other things in mind for Grandma.

I don’t mean to naysay. (And who am I to say that Bill Gates has a blurred perspective on our technological horizons?) I would love it if we could finally say we have reached the dawn of the age of robots. But this talk rings too familiar.

We’ve been anticipating the arrival of robots — robots made in our image, dammit! — for a long time now. If you’d asked me back in 1980 what role I thought robots might play in my life twenty-seven years down the line, I’d have imagined that robots would do just about everything I figured my future adult self wouldn’t want to do — clean my house, fix my plumbing, drive my car, answer my phone, go on my dates… you get the picture. But there wouldn’t be fifteen robots, each one responsible for some specialized task. That was not the promise of mid- to late-twentieth century science fiction. No no no!

There was supposed to be one robot and that robot would be like the family dog except smarter and more responsible and skilled. Where the hell is that guy? I don’t want to hear about the new dawn until there is an indifferent automaton at the foot of my recliner massaging my feet or at least a real promise of an indifferent automaton, etc. on the horizon.

Gates touches on the expectations fiction and popular culture have set and concedes when he writes that “we have a long way to go before real robots catch up with their science-fiction counterparts.” He also warns us that the robots he sees on the horizon won’t look much like C-3PO and because of this, probably won’t be called robots.

So really, Gates isn’t talking about robots. He’s talking about fancy lawn mowers. He’s talking about those remote-controlled cars I used to play with as a kid. He should have titled the article “Another Dawn of the Age of Those Remote Controlled Cars You Used to Play With When You Were a Kid.” Come on now, Bill! We covered that ground thirty years ago.

It’s been too long. Let’s get mad. I’m not sure where we ought to direct our anger. Maybe at Gates. Maybe at George Lucas. Maybe at some frustrated guy at MIT.

No more empty promises. Bring on the robots. I want my C-3PO.

Sub-Urban Word of the Day

A few months ago, I signed up for Urban Dictionary’s word of the day. I already subscribe to Dictionary.com’s word of the day and while I find it edifying and all that, I figured too much Dictionary.com might not be a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong: Dictionary.com is the bomb. It reacquaints me with words I pretty much know (the phonetic spellings sometimes reveal that I’ve been mispronouncing words and the definitions often reveal that I’ve been misusing words, so many words); it introduces me to words I’ve never before heard or read. And the sources from which Dictionary.com gleans examples of featured words used in context: totally eclectic and intriguing. Take yesterday’s word of the day — profligate — and the second of four examples of the word in use:

Life had to be challenged, attacked every instant, with reckless speed in a Ferrari, with profligate spending, with unrestrained sexuality, with artistic ambitions as monumental as they were impractical.

— Tag Gallagher, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini

I should have known better, but before reading this short excerpt, I’d had no idea Rossellini was such a stud. No, I can’t say with certainty that the excerpt refers to Rossellini, but hopefully my point isn’t lost. All I’m saying is that Dictionary.com offers a good service that trolls far and wide for some great examples of words in use — examples that give me a sense of the possibilities of language, of connectedness to other writers and ideas, of the depth of the English language. Dictionary.com’s word of the day. It’s good stuff.

But it’s pretentious good stuff and if you’re interested in language and writing, it’s probably wise to have one ear tuned to the OED (let’s imagine for a minute that Dictionary.com is an arbiter on the order of the Oxford English Dictionary, though it’s not) and the other tuned to the IRT — tuned, in other words, to the subway, the street, the language as it is actually spoken rather than as it should, according to dictionary editorial boards, be spoken. The difference I’m referring to is the one over which descriptivists and prescriptivists sometimes argue — in the world of lexicography, descriptivists being those who think dictionaries should describe how the language is used and prescriptivists being those who think dictionaries should prescribe how the language ought to be used.

I don’t remember the first time I turned to Urban Dictionary, but I do remember one of the first times. I didn’t know what hyphie really means (not sure what’s dorkier — not knowing or looking it up) and didn’t expect to find a definition in any of the standard dictionaries. Urban Dictionary came through and in fact the definition that has earned the most votes of approval of the eight definitions posted to date makes for a good example of what’s so fantastic — or what used to be so fantastic — about Urban Dictionary. Here’s the definition:

1. hyphie

West Coast/Bay Area’s way of being crunk

What’s great about this definition is that in order to find out what the urban word in question means, neophytes have to turn yet again to UD to find out what the hell crunk means (I’m not entirely out of it, I knew crunk). At its best, Urban Dictionary is self-referential like that. I’m guessing that’s why when contributors add definitions to the site they are prompted to post synonyms and associated words, as well as tag words that appear elsewhere in UD. Ideally, Urban Dictionary describes — liberally describes — a whole new language, one that the OED can’t much help decipher and one that only UD itself can unlock.

But things seem to be changing over at Urban Dictionary and what strikes me as a great democratic, descriptivist experiment is becoming bogged down by rules, political correctness, and extensive oversight. There are now editors who review contributions to the site. Sure, just about anyone can sign up to be an editor. But not all contributions even make it to the editors; some submissions are cancelled by the UD Stasi before they get to the editors. In UD’s defense, its editors did let through a definition of a term describing those in charge of submission cancellations: check it out.

In any case, Urban Dictionary is getting less democratic — and its new practices seem to be more than just a response to site misuse (e.g., using the site to talk smack about unfamous people). No, UD is slowly cleaning up and making pretty — and becoming less anarchical, less rebellious — less urban — in the process.

If the new (I’m not sure how new) editorial practices aren’t a clear sign of UD’s turn, subscribe to the site’s word of the day listserv and see how unbelievably staid, mind-bogglingly boring, and nauseatingly cute the emailed daily words are in comparison with old UD postings of the hyphie variety. Yesterday’s UD word of the day? Not dickwad, not krump, not R. Kelly’s Grandma, not p poppin.

Yesterday’s Urban Dictionary word of the day was Zoom Zoom Zoom. Here’s the leading definition:

In conversation it is an expression which follows a particularly good but lighthearted insult in order to emphasize the caliber of the remark. It is similar to the way that a person would use the word burn. Though the phrase itself was first made popular by the Mazda auto commercials, this particular usage was popularized in the popular television show “Scrubs”, where it is often accompanied by a short “Zoom, Zoom, Zoom” dance.

Mazda commercial? “Scrubs,” a popular television show, as a popularizing source? Sounds pretty suburban to me.

Profligate has a hotter definition than Zoom Zoom Zoom — there’s no getting around that. The comparison is unfair. But still: there’s something about the meaning of profligate and the examples Dictionary.com offers — there’s a sexy kind of restraint there. It’s a restraint that makes Zoom Zoom Zoom and UD’s punctiliousness (er… I think that’s the right word) — as heard in the phrase “in order to emphasize the caliber of the remark” — sound especially off-key. (Burn earns UD points in the self-referential category, but not enough to compete with Mazda, “Scrubs,” and the overall tenor of the definition.)

Maybe this is the difference I see illustrated in March 1st’s words of the day: Dictionary.com knows what it is and Urban Dictionary has forgotten it’s an urban dictionary.