Thursday, January 29, 2009

If you look at only one snack food stadium this Super Bowl season, look at this one

And we've now, as a country, officially reached the point where Super Bowl party foods have become a bigger story than the game.

[Via Deadspin and Holy Taco]

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Updike on Ted Williams

As I'm sure most everyone has heard by now, John Updike died today at the age of 76. It seems like we're losing our best writers.

Truthfully, I've had very little exposure to Updike. I've never read--let alone seen--any of his 60 or so published books, and I'm fairly certain that I've never read any of his short fiction. But he has published dozens of articles of criticism in The New Yorker in the thirty months I've been a subscriber, and I've been wise enough to occasionally read what he had to say. His literary criticism is what you would expect: beautifully composed and thoughtful in a way which always managed to further the conversation. I don't have particular memories of any one of these pieces, but I always felt an acute sense of excitement when I saw Updike's name in The NYer's table of contents. His presence in the magazine felt like an event. And in certain ways, Updike had as much to do with defining what The New Yorker has been about over the course of the last 50 years as anyone.

Here is one of Updike's most famous pieces, a profile of Ted Williams written during the ballplayer's last season in the majors. Just to offer a taste, here is one master of his craft describing another:
For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill. Baseball is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out. Irrelevance—since the reference point of most individual games is remote and statistical—always threatens its interest, which can be maintained not by the occasional heroics that sportswriters feed upon but by players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art. Insofar as the clutch hitter is not a sportswriter’s myth, he is a vulgarity, like a writer who writes only for money. It may be that, compared to managers’ dreams such as Joe DiMaggio and the always helpful Stan Musial, Williams is an icy star. But of all team sports, baseball, with its graceful intermittences of action, its immense and tranquil field sparsely settled with poised men in white, its dispassionate mathematics, seems to me best suited to accommodate, and be ornamented by, a loner. It is an essentially lonely game. No other player visible to my generation has concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance, has so assiduously refined his natural skills, has so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.

Reading Music

Back when I tutored at the Yeshiva College Writing Center, I attended a training session which involved working with a paper I wasn't allowed to see. The unofficial motto of the Writing Center is: We work with writers, not writing. (The official motto, according to the promotional pens, is something along the lines of: Helping writers for more than 20 years.) So this exercise made a sort of intuitive sense, helping me to focus on the writer and not on the sheet of paper which contained the writing. I remember having a tremendously difficult time with this project. I was able to converse with the writer, but I had only the most limited idea of what the writing consisted of. The fact that the writer read his paper aloud helped almost not at all. I needed to see the writing, to, in a word, read it.

I don't know if I've ever been much of an audio learner. Listening to things is great as a type of background ambiance in a whole bunch of different settings (while driving, at work, composing blog posts, etc.), but it seems woefully inadequate as a complete destination for my attention. I know that many people disagree vehemently with this assertion, and I'm OK with that. They're right: for them listening to music is an activity. For me it's not. Sometimes I wish I could do close listenings of audio works in the same way I feel comfortable performing close readings of writing or films or paintings or photographs. But it doesn't at all come naturally to me. I only like songs I've heard before which, as you can imagine, makes it hard to expand my musical tastes. And but also it flies in the face of how I like experiencing almost everything else. I do enjoy rereading, but there are dozens of books or TV shows I wish I could read or watch again for the first. I don't like listening to new music because I understand almost nothing about it the first time through. I watched the new episode of Flight of the Conchords last night with my roommate, and he mentioned that "You Don't Have to be a Prostitute" might be FotC's best song from a musical perspective, even if it was somewhat lacking in the humor department. And, to be honest, I did not at all notice anything remotely related to the music.

And all this is part of why I find this project I'm about to describe so cool. This dude at Jamsbio Magazine (and yes, this is the first I'm hearing about this magazine) has ranked every The Beatles song from #185 to #1 [via]. The list is heavily subjective and I imagine that is part of the fun of the project. I most appreciate the explanations and analyses which accompany each selection. He explains what I should be hearing when I listen to the song.

Here's an example from "A Day in the Life," ranked by the partial ranker as the #1 ranked song in the history of The Beatles:
Let’s take it from the top, shall we? As the crowds cheer at the end of the
“Sgt. Pepper’s” reprise, the gentle acoustic strumming of John Lennon is heard.
And his very first line can’t hide his lack of enthusiasm for the story he’s
about to tell: “I read the news today oh boy.” The world-weary sarcasm is
impossible to miss, even with John’s voice at its most ethereal. He then
proceeds to tell an odd tale about a man who’s “made the grade,” which would
seem to be a positive thing, at least until it’s revealed that he’s apparently
been killed in a car accident.

Or has he? The car-accident reading is backed by Lennon’s later interviews
in which he claimed to be referencing the death of a young, moneyed friend of
the Fab 4 a few months before “A Day In The Life” was recorded. But in the song,
John sounds like somebody who keeps changing his story in an attempt to keep the
listener’s interest. The line “Well I just had to laugh” doesn’t seem like the
proper response to a tragedy, unless the harsh truth of the situation inspired
some typical Lennon gallows humor. And as for “He blew his mind out in a car/He
didn’t notice that the lights had changed,” that sounds like an impatient fellow
honking his horn at the car in front of him, oblivious that the traffic light
was now red. The whole verse plays out like a dream, and dreams will play a
heavy role throughout the song.

This is the type of detailed, analytical music writing I can really get into.

Monday, January 26, 2009

One Reason Why David Foster Wallace Has Forever Earned My Trust As a Reader

I think a recurring feature of book reviews in New York Magazine is a purchase recommendation. Available options include some variations of buy, wait for the paperback, and don't buy. I've only read that magazine once (Hillary Clinton was on the cover. I brought it with me to Europe; that magazine has visited four countries) and I can't seem to find evidence of this feature on the magazine's truly excellent website. That is why I'm uncertain if this feature is recurring. For all I know, they might do something similar with recently released movies. I'm not sure, though. I do know that both the conception and execution of this type of literal book review is inherently shticky. The reviews were each comprised of one moderately long paragraph. The whole meat of the review was the one line recommendation to purchase or not to purchase.

Compare this to David Foster Wallace's article "Authority and American Usage," collected in Consider the Lobster, which was originally published in Harper's Magazine with the title "Present Tense." The third paragraph of the article is this:
The occasion for this article is Oxford University Press's recent release of Mr. Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, a book that Oxford is marketing aggressively and that it is my assigned function to review. It turns out to be a complicated assignment. In today's US, a typical book review is driven by market logic and implicitly casts the reader in the role of consumer. Rhetorically, its whole project is informed by a question that's too crass ever to mention up front: "Should you buy this book?" And because Bryan A. Garner's usage dictionary belongs to a particular subgenre of a reference genre that is itself highly specialized and particular, and because at least a dozen major usage guides have been published in the last couple years and some of them have been quite good indeed, the central unmentionable question here appends the prepositional comparative "...rather than that book?" to the main clause and so entails a discussion of whether and how ADMAU is different from other recent specialty-products of its kind.
I write often inside this blog about how artists create their best art when they respect the audience. A paragraph like the previous one exhibits just about as much audience-respect as there can get. DFW is being incredibly upfront about the purpose of his article.

Is this a ploy to gain credibility with the reader? Perhaps. But I think it is significant that most of this paragraph (including every word which hints to this kind of honesty with the reader) was removed from the version which ran in Harper's Magazine. I realize that this does not conclusively prove anything and may, in fact, be an indication that my gut feeling on this is dead wrong, at least according to the editors at Harper's. But so few authors even attempt a gesture like this that I find it refreshing and believable.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Two Notes on TV

  1. The Office is at its very best when Michael and Dwight are not in the office. This allows everyone else to be normal.
  2. 30 Rock tonight approached the level set by Arrested Development.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Knicks, Car Washes, T-Shirts, and You

If the relationship between Patrick Ewing and Knicks fans had to be described using only two and a half words (contractions count, for this purpose, as 1.5 words) of Facebook terminology, this connection would be defined as: it's complicated.

Ewing is undoubtedly the most talented Knick of my lifetime. (And it's not particularly close. I guess Allan Houston would have to be the second greatest Knick of the last 25 years, and his career just doesn't compare to Ewing's.) But there's still a nagging sense that Ewing never quite lived up to his potential. He never won a championship, obviously. He missed a finger roll that could have won Game 7 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals in Indiana. The Knicks went on a run to the NBA Finals in 1999 without him. It are these failings which define the Ewing Era of Knicks basketball.

This characterization is not fair, of course. Ewing was an original Dream Teamer. An eleven-time all-star. Rookie of the year winner. One of the 50 greatest NBA players of all time. An NCAA champion at Georgetown. More: If John Starks had made that buzzer-beater in Game 6 of the '94 Finals, Ewing would be remembered the way Hakeem Olajuwon is. If Starks had shown up at all in Game 7 of that series, Ewing would be one of the few basketballers to be the best player on an NCAA champion and a NBA champion.

So yes, Ewing might be the most accomplished Knick. He is certainly the best statistical Knickerbocker of all time. But there is a vague feeling of unease when it comes to Ewing's career.

There is no such ambiguity when it comes to Ewing's teammate and on-court bodyguard, Charles Oakley. Oakley was always the toughest guy in every game he played. Michael Jordan keeps him around to be the toughest guy in the room. He was never expected to lead a team to a championship, so the lack of a championship doesn't define his career like it does Ewing's. He was never in the position to attempt a game-winning finger-roll in a deciding playoff game, so he never missed one. Oakley is remembered solely for the things he did well, not for his shortcomings. And that is why Oakley might be my favorite Knick.

As a Knicks fan forced to endure the Isiah Thomas Era, I don't think I can be blamed for having greater affinity for a player who represents only the good aspects of the last really good epoch of Knicks history. (I'm not including the 1999 team because they had no chance--none--of beating the Spurs. Also, that shortened strike season was weird and maybe shouldn't be taken seriously). There shouldn't be anything complicated when it comes to my favorite Knick. And so, if anyone is already searching for birthday presents for me, you could do much worse than this official Oakley's Car Wash t-style shirt. And yes, I did compose this entire post as a way to link to that shirt.

(Somewhat relatedly, I think David Lee's unquestioned status as New York's favorite Knick is related to Oakley. I, for one, have always wanted another Oakley on the Knicks, and it looks like the Knicks may have found one. Even though Lee is a far superior offensive player now, in his fourth season, than Oakley ever was, and even though Oakley was a way better defensive player. But their rebounding percentages are pretty similar. But those who argue that Lee would better serve the Knicks as trade-bait, and that those who advocate keeping him around are thinking irrationally might not know the half of it. The irrational love of Lee might have been building for 20 years.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My 1950s Yeshiva College

I'm auditing a class at Yeshiva College titled "The 1960s: A Political and Cultural History." It seems like good fun. I mention this so that you understand why probably a whole bunch of posts from now through May will involve the 1960s.

Might as well get started now.

I imagine it must be quite strange to be teaching a class of this nature in an institution which generally subscribes more to the '50s ideology than that of the '60s.

Consider the following.

Our first order of business entailed the screening of a PBS documentary called Seeds of the Sixties. This misleadingly titled film concerned itself mostly with the '50s, and included such general popular prescripts as:
  • Obey authority;
  • Fit in with the group;
  • and, Don't even think about sex.
All these (and more!) were thoroughly rejected during the following decade. But Yeshiva College, for the most part, forgot to reject them.

This should be an interesting class.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Movies Meet Marketing

There's a great article in this week's edition of The New Yorker, dated January 19, 2009, by Tad Friend, titled "The Cobra: Inside a movie marketer's playbook." The piece follows Tim Palen, Lionsgate's co-president of theatrical marketing, and it does that quintessential The New Yorker thing of using Palen as a means of investigating the marketing of films as an industry. Here's the money quote:
One of the oldest jokes in the business is that when a studio head takes over he's given three envelopes, the first of which contains the advice "Fire the head of marketing." Nowadays, though, former marketers, such as Oren Aviv, at Disney, and Marc Shmuger, at Universal, often run the studios. "Studios now are pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates, " one studio's president of production says. "So at green-light meetings it's a bunch of marketing and sales guys giving you educated guesses about what a property might gross. No one is saying, 'This director was born to make this movie.' "
And, on the topic of trailers:
Another problem with free samples is: what if the product isn't particularly remarkable? "How many great movies are there each year?" the trailer cutter David Schneiderman says. "We're in the business of cheating, let's face it. We fix voice-overs, create dialogue to clear up a story, use stock footage. We give pushup bras to flat-chested girls, take people's eyes and put them where we want them. And sometimes it works.
OK. So we know now that the goal of films is to make money--and not, you know, be good--and that advertising lies to us.

But what do these marketing folks think about us, American citizumers? Is there room for nuance? For subtlety? For experimentation?

An unexpected corallary of the modern marketing-and-distribution model is that films no longer hve time to find their audience; that audience has to be identified and solicited well in advance. Marketers segment the audience in a variety of ways, but the most common form of partition is the four quadrants: men under twenty-five; older men; women under twenty-five; older women. A studio rarely makes a film that it doesn't expect will succeed with at least two quadrants, and a film's budget is usually directly related to the number of quadrants it is anticipated to reach. The most expensive tent-pole movies, such as the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, are aimed at all four quadrants.
Reading this article makes me question how I choose what movies to watch. I try to avoid movie reviews because I like going into the thing without previous knowledge. I want to decide for myself what worked and what didn't work. But are the trailers and commercials and newspaper ads commissioned and designed by the people trying to sell the movie any better? In a strange way, they may be. I may see the best joke in the trailer, but, after reading this article, I'm pretty convinced that the trailer won't actually have anything to do with the full-length movie.

And, just for fun, Gelf Magazine runs an occasional feature titled The Blurb Report, in which the magazine takes a look at the original context of excerpted movie blurbs. For example, here--from their Best Worst Blurbs of 2007-- is a quote attributed to Michael Wilmington of The Chicago Tribune regarding Norbit: "Eddie Murphy's comic skills are immense." And here is the complete quote: "Murphy's comic skills are immense, and 'Dreamgirls' shows he's a fine straight dramatic actor too. So why does he want to make these huge, belching spectaculars, movies as swollen, monstrous and full of hot air as Rasputia herself—here misdirected by Brian Robbins of 'Good Burger,' 'Varsity Blues' and that lousy 'Shaggy Dog' remake?"

That was just in case you still believed any form of marketing.

[Update: I didn't realize the Best Worst Blurbs of 2008 was out. But it is. Check it out, if you just can't get enough of out-of-context movie blurbs.]

Monday, January 12, 2009

Who Wants to be...Mildly Entertained?

I like movies that are either entertaining or meaningful. Sometimes the entertainment and meaning overlap in the same film, but they don't necessarily need to. But it's annoying when a movie pretends to be meaningful when it really isn't.

I'm thinking specifically in this case of Slumdog Millionaire.

I suppose you could argue that SM was entertaining, and to a certain extent I agree. But this movie has been situated squarely in the category of Big Important Film Which Should Win Best Picture Awards. After last night's Golden Globe Best Picture win, Slumdog Millionaire is well on its way to achieving this strategic situation.

Salman Rushdie, great author and David Srolovitz lookalike, was interviewed by the Carpetbagger blog on The New York Times.

“I’m not a very big fan of ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’” Mr. Rushdie said. “I think it’s visually brilliant. But I have problems with the story line. I find the storyline unconvincing. It just couldn’t happen. I’m not adverse to magic realism but there has to be a level of plausibility, and I felt there were three or four moments in the film where the storyline breached that rule.”

After a pause, he added, “And I’m the only person who thinks this.”

I'm not sure how he would know this, but I agree with Mr. Rushdie. But that's not why I didn't like the film. Let's focus instead on the overarching message of this self-proclaimed important film. The message, as best I can tell, is this: If you lead a shitty life in India, you will one day win $1 million and fall in love with the girl of your dreams. Um, sure.

Now. There's nothing wrong with that message. It's just that we already have a name for this type of thing. It's called a fairy tale. I'll let Kurt Vonnegut explain, via his essay "Here is a Lesson in Creative Writing," from the book A Man Without a Country:
I want to share with your something I've learned. I'll draw it on the blackboard behind me so you can follow more easily [draws a vertical line on the blackboard]. This is the G-I axis: good fortune--ill fortune. Death and terrible poverty, sickness down here--great prosperity, wonderful health up there. Your average state of affairs here in the middle [points to bottom, top, and middle of line, respectively].

This is the B-E axis. B for beginning, E for entropy. OK. Not every story has that very simple, very pretty shape that even a computer can understand [draws horizontal line extending from middle of G-I axis].

(Ed. Note: This image goes here in real life.)

Now let me give you a marketing tip. The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to movies don't like to hear about people who are poor or sick, so start your story up here [indicates top of the G-I axis]. You will see this story over and over again. People love it and it is not copyrighted. The story is "Man in Hole," but the story needn't be about a man or a hole. It's: Somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again [draws line A]. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.
I've quoted enough of one essay for this post, but Vonnegut proceeds to describe two similar stories, "Boy Meets Girl" and "Cinderella." And that's what Slumdog Millionaire is: a combination of "Man in Hole" and "Boy Meets Girl" for Jamal, and a "Cinderella" for Latika, all set in India, with a dance number over the closing credits.

There's nothing wrong with fairy tales: there's a reason why they have stuck around for as long as stories have been told. But that doesn't mean they should win Best Picture awards.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Who let the bulls out?

January 9 will mark the beginning of the Professional Bull Riding Built Ford Tough Invitational tournament, held in Madison Square Garden. This particular Invitational tournament will occur daily throughout this weekend, and ticket prices range from $10 to $195.

Now: I'm not going to attend any of the PBR events because I'd rather watch football this weekend. But I can't help but appreciate from afar the sheer incongruity of a Professional Bull Riding event being held in the middle of the town in Manhattan. I worked today within a block of MSG and passed, on my way to the subway, a giant 18-wheeler-style truck parked next to the "World's Most Famous Arena," which contained a few extremely-bundled-up men selling bull-riding bandannas and t-style shirts and caps and who knows what else. Country music blasted from a jerry-rigged speaker system.

Is this the greatest possible instance of transplanting foreign values? Does anyone who lives within reasonable traveling distance from Manhattan actually care about bull-riding? Or--as would be the case with me, if I would, y'know, attend--is everyone buying tickets because it seems like a funny thing to do in NYC?

If any TDS readers will attend this event, I will happily publish a report.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Narrative Voice Advice from a Famous Author

About five weeks ago I composed a post on this very here blog about a The New York Times article explaining the influence of postmodern narrative techniques on contemporary sitcoms. I thought the article was astoundingly great. (The post written by me about the article was OK; I didn't have much to add because the article was so good.) This post was notable also because it drew a comment from Ara 13, the second most famous person to ever comment on The Daily Snowman, according to the two-year blogiversarry post. Ara 13 is the author of Drawers and Boots, a book which was awarded the "Outstanding Book of the Year" prize from IPPY. Mr. 13 objects to the use of humor as a crutch, when it comes to narrative choices. I'll let him explain by quoting his comment:
I certainly appreciate the metafictional spins in comedies, but I have one gripe. Humor does not give writers a free pass to say anything without it being challenged.
We have corresponded very briefly about his thoughts on this topic, and Mr. 13 has been gracious enough to send me some advice on narrative voice. Without further ado, here is the narrative voice advice from a famous author, as promised in the title of this post:

Five Tips for writers from Ara 13 on selecting Narrative Voice

  1. Mindfully choose the tense to support the credibility desired of your narrator. Present tense offers greater reliability regarding depiction of events than a past-tense reflection, but an accurate assessment of the moral worth is mitigated in the present as the narrator doesn’t yet have the mature perspective that comes with time.
  2. Select first or third person to support the level of credibility desired for your narrator. First person allows for more uncertainty and fallibility. Third person better nears omniscience.
  3. Deliberately determine the time, place, age, gender, and culture of narrator. This will save you from unintentional anachronisms and a headache of a rewrite.
  4. Decide how to present internal dialogue so that your style is consistent. Consider using italics for thoughts, thus avoiding constantly writing “he thought.”
  5. Consider to what degree the narrator will address the reader, if any. Metaphors and similes already insert opinions in the form of a narrator’s personal comparisons; decide if you will extend this subjectivity to a direct address of the reader.

Waiting for Grandpa Simpson

I don't subscribe to the print edition of The New York Times, but I pick and choose--much the same result of my reading of the paper version, even if the method of picking and choosing is different--what to read from the website. (Make of that what you will in the context of this post.) I always make sure to peruse The Medium, a weekly column written by Virginia Heffernan in the Sunday Magazine that considers topics of concern in the field of digital media.

This week's column examines the experience of watching TV and movies on It's a pretty interesting article in general--including a decently developed consideration of what type of programming works best on this new type and size of screen--but I was most fascinated by Heffernan's take on the advertising used on the site:
An irritable thought: If advertisers are going to keep advertising, they shouldn’t advertise how little they advertise. Sites like Hulu shouldn’t count down the seconds that commercials play. An ad that keeps telling you how unobtrusive it is like a friend whose greatest virtue is that she leaves you alone. Her absence might be appreciated, but it doesn’t make her much of a friend.
Heffernan is most likely correct about the benefits of advertising with confidence, but I found the countdown of remaining commercial time almost unbearably annoying for a different reason. I just can't imagine that it's beneficial for me to have such a prominent countdown present for things which I would like to end.

My several months of unemployment have taught me a lot about rejection and waiting, and a lot about how I can and should handle rejection and waiting. And the lesson I've learned best of all about waiting is that you want to minimize the focus you place on the process of waiting. Sometimes it's best to just put on your headphones and listen to some relaxing polka music while you're waiting for the subway, because looking at your watch every thirty seconds isn't going to make the train come any faster.

But that's a hard-enough lesson to live by. And I don't need Hulu fueling my impatience by telling my exactly how many seconds I need to wait for something good to happen. Because job hunting--like most of life, I imagine--knows no schedule.