Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Consumption: The Best Show on WFMU

"Hello, this is John Hodgman, here to collect your pledge."

It's disarming to hear such a distinctly familiar voice as I heard last night. I called WFMU to pledge to The Best Show, which I started listening to a couple years ago via the iTunes podcast. Since hearing just a couple of the surrealistic, long-form skits that Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster put together, (I recommend the 6/29/09 Planet GG or the 8/9/10 Big Bill & Little Bill segments from this page as entry points) I've been hooked.

I had originally planned on pledging $75, to earn the Best Show prize pack, the crown jewel of which is a 7" of GG Allin covers, cleaned up of all explicit lyrics by The Mountain Goats, Ben Gibbard, Ted Leo, and others. But earlier in the day I told Tom that I'd instead offer $1 for each new Twitter follower I gained throughout the day.  Thanks to his re-tweeting, I had 91 new followers by the time the show rolled around.   By happenstance, my phone call routed to John Hodgman's station, and after a few minutes of pleasant conversation and address gathering, the following scene played out:

TC: "I told Tom I'd give a dollar for each Twitter follower I gained during the day, so I'm pledging $91."
JH: "So are you saying that if I follow you right now, you'll up that pledge to $92?"
TC: "Well...sure."
JH: "Tom I have an idea. I'm completely willing to accept your pledge right now. But what if I were to tweet your handle out and ask you to call back in a half-hour with an updated number would you do that?"
TC: "Sure, I'd do that."
JH: "Now, are you SURE? Because it could end up being a VERY big number."
TC: "That's fine. Let's do it."
JH: "Very well. I'm going to tweet this out right now. Call back in a half-hour, and if somebody else answers, tell them you need to speak to me."

True enough, this happened shortly after:

And in turn, within SECONDS, my inbox looked like this:  (Click to enlarge and note that all occurred at exactly the same time.)

It goes without saying that I immediately realized the stunt had gotten wildly out of hand.  The power of Hodgman to inspire his followers is like nothing I could have imagined. They just kept coming.  Hundreds upon hundreds.  Some made vague threats!  Some said things in Spanish! Some brought up Edward James Olmos!  I literally counted the seconds until 9pm so I could call back and end the madness.  By coincidence John answered again.

TC: "It got a little out of hand."
JH: "Hold on.  Right after we talked I followed you and I wrote down that you were at 423, and that counted 92 new followers from the day.  Where does it stand now?"
TC: "786."
JH: "HA!  I told you it might get out of control!"
TC: "You were correct.  They won't stop either!"

As our chat continued, he told me he felt bad and wanted to negotiate a fair pledge amount, while not holding me to the strict numbers of the deal.  He then told me that he would match my amount and give the same, as he did on-air shortly afterwards.  Here's the clip, wherein Scharpling starts by chiding Hodgman for outing celebrity pledger Jason Woliner, and ends with Tom calling Hodgman "the devil" for tricking me into his plan.

Long live The Best Show on WFMU!

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Sunset Tweet (Or "A pun I immediately regret")

I'm overdue on Consumption reports! They will be coming soon. But first, a thoroughly shameless moment of fanboy bragging from tonight.

I feel so much immediate pressure!

Also, in the spirit of Arcade Fire winning Album of the Year, I'm beginning my campaign for Merge Records to repeat next year.  Vote "All Eternals Deck" in 2012!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Consumption: Ondine

Ondine (d. Neil Jordan)

Ondine is the story of an Irish fisherman named Syracuse (Colin Farrell) who catches a woman - literally - in his fishing net. After saving her from drowning, he finds that her presence on his boat has resulted in the catching of a shitload more fish. ("Shitload" is a fishing term, matey.)  Naturally, this begs the question: is she real, or a witch, or mermaid-like creature? And why is it that she's always singing a song when the fish are being caught? This well-told fairy tale gets weird toward the end, with the following overly meta scene in which the fisherman hears the familiar mermaid's song from an unlikely source:

Keep in mind that his daughter eight years old.  How many 8-year-olds know Sigur Rós?  Perhaps even a more appropriate question is this:  Have we reached the saturation point on using Sigur Rós in the climax of films yet?  Understand that they're one of my favorite bands ever so I understand the urge to go to the well repeatedly.  The music is ethereal and cinematic in scope, but just from films I remember off the top of my head, it's become an issue.

Cameron Crowe got in on the action early in 2001.

Then a couple years later, Wes Anderson broadened his Brit-pop horizons to score Steve Zissou's jaguar shark encounter.

That same year, Gregg Araki's excellent Mysterious Skin had a familiar climactic soundtrack.

Notice that these are all happening at the climax of each film? Such was the case in 2006's Penelope, a film I never actually saw, but apparently they branched out and chose Peter Dinklage to play the role of the film's little person.

Even 2010 Best Picture nominee 127 Hours makes use of Sigur Rós's "Festival" as a one-armed Aron Ralston struggles to survive the film's final moments. It's time to say ENOUGH to the filmmaking community. Ease off the Sigur Rós. If you can't find the emotional power to end your film without cheating by using the soaring falsetto of the finest post-rock to ever come out of Iceland, then perhaps it's time someone takes your music budget away. It will be returned when you've shown your responsible enough to handle it like a grown up.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bill Murray has always been a genius

From 1982:

This is the kind of stuff people just throw on their Tumblr site (oh by the way...)  but no!  It needs to be as widespread as possible.

Here's an honest question.  Is there any settting within the known universe wherein Bill Murray could walk in and NOT be greeted by all attendees as a welcome addition?  I say definitively NO.  Seriously.  Give me any possible situation:  The closing of an auto factory.  Your father's funeral.  A school board meeting.  Any possible scenario and/or setting that exists within the earth-bound universe would be improved for EVERY ATTENDEE if Bill Murray showed up.  And that my friends is the difference between Bill Murray and everyone else in the world.

Yeah, I've been drinking a little.  BUT THE POINT STILL HOLDS UP.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Consumption: Blue Valentine

Recommended If You Like:  Being reminded that anything good will someday go to shit!

I was having a decent day.  Then this movie.  Fucking hell.  Wanna kick my dog while you're at it?*

*I don't have a dog.  My dog died almost twenty years ago.  Thanks for the reminder, Blue Valentine.  

Monday, January 17, 2011

Consumption: 127 Hours and Buried

The whole "numbering of posts" idea in the subject line was not well thought out, so I'm abandoning it before it gets to be March and I'm trying to remember whether I'm Books Vol. III or Films Vol. XIV or whatever the hell it is. And now onto the claustrophobia!

127 Hours (d. Danny Boyle)
Buried (d. Rodrigo Cortes)

I watched these movies on back-to-back days last week and let me tell you this: Any romanticism I ever held dear regarding finding myself trapped in a confined space for hours on end has virtually disappeared! Both films center around one person hanging out below the earth. James Franco (whose character is based on a real person, but I'll just keep calling him James Franco) spends about 20 minutes running through the desert and enjoying a no-pants swim with Amber Tamblyn before a massive boulder alters his plans and he spends the next 127 Hours (GET IT?) screaming, reminiscing, and recording a series of progressively depressing video blogs.

When I first read about Danny Boyle choosing this as his post-Slumdog Millionaire film, there were reports that the film would feature an hour without dialogue. This piqued my interest, but apparently this plan went out the window at some point, because the film is peppered throughout with vignettes of past family and friends from James Franco's life. Shooting in one confined space also appears to cause Boyle's OCD to go haywire, as he starts cramming in jarring camera angles whenever possible. If you've ever wanted to see a extra close up of James Franco touching his eyeball while he wets a contact lens in his mouth, you're in luck. Same to those who thought they might live their whole life before seeing the flow of urine through a Camelbak SHOT FROM INSIDE THE CAMELBAK TUBE. And of course it all leads up the "thing with the arm."  For all the gimmicks that Boyle goes through behind the camera, he gets an outstanding performance from Franco that makes the film worthwhile in the end. I suppose I just preferred the possibilities within the daring sparseness of his original treatment as opposed to the hyperactive edit of the final product.

Buried, on the other hand, has no flashbacks. In fact, aside from a short cell-phone video, there are no actors on screen other than Ryan Reynolds in the 90-minute real-time sequencing. Reynolds' only communication with the outside world comes from a series of cell phone calls, which proves for a fact that I'd get better cell phone reception if I were buried in a Middle East desert than I do in my office building in Northbrook, IL. (Sidenote - it drove me insane trying to place one of the voices on the phone, before I realized it was podcaster extraordinare Stephen Tobolowsky AKA Ned Ryerson.) Nearly every review I've read of this film brings up references to Hitchcock, and indeed, this is the kind of minimilastic tense thriller that owes no small part to films like Rope in particular. While I felt more engaged overall by 127 Hours, I admired Cortes' spirit more than Boyle's. It's a ballsy move as a director to spend a full film inside a box in the ground, and like Boyle he shows a bit of camera-positioning flash by looking "through" the ground at times, but the moves always feel vital in amping up the energy of the story. And he gives the viewer a well earned "What the fuck?" moment at the end.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Consumption: 2011 Book Edition Vol. I

Ah, January! Every Christmas, I end up getting upwards of a half-dozen books, and I convince myself that the following year will be the year in which I spend more time reading and less time watching Survivor. Every year, this plan blows up. It likely will again this year. But it hasn't in the first two weeks! Probably because Survivor doesn't start for another month or so.

The War for Late Night by Bill Carter

One of the main reasons that The Late Shift was so compelling at the time was the internet's infancy meant most people (anyone who didn't subscribe to the New York Times) were reading Bill Carter's behind-the-scenes accounts for the first time. This time around, Carter was on top of every Conan/Leno development as they happened, and likewise anyone with internet access could essentially follow the behind-the-scenes ups and downs in real time as he was publishing numerous stories on the Times web site daily.

The draw of Carter's book is his ability to flesh out the private conversations and characteristics of the key players. Leno isn't a calculating villain as much as he's simply oblivious to anything other than himself. (He utters the mantra "I tell jokes at 11:30 at night" so often that you wonder if he values any other skills in himself.) Conan seems retroactively doomed from the start of things, oblivious to any issues until he was already on his way out.

And then there are the NBC execs. Jeff Gaspin comes off as the most sensible, noting that Conan had turned off a significant number of his Late Night fans (winning them back only when he went for broke the last couple weeks), while failing to attract the broader audience. Jeff Zucker avoids becoming the true antagonist of the book, but only because his shortcomings as an executive and human being are easily trumped by Dick Ebersol. Early in the book, it's pointed out that Conan delivered a handwritten touching letter when Ebersol's son was killed in a plane crash. Throughout the rest of the book, Ebersol acts like a complete asshole, treating O'Brien as a dumb rube for not taking his notes on "improving" the show, and bitching about Pearl Jam playing on his first show. (What's that? An out of touch 62-year-old man doesn't think Pearl Jam are a musical draw? Perfect.) For a guy whose main professional achievements include installing Colin Quinn as SNL Weekend Update anchor, and overseeing an Olympic games that lost "a couple hundred million bucks" for NBC, this guy sure gets upset at people who ignore his terrible advice.

While the mindset of Conan and Jay throughout is fleshed out, it's obvious that Carter was never able to talk to Letterman, as any quotes from Dave are taken directly from Late Show broadcasts, but of course it's unlikely he'd get anything better than this either way.

As far as on-air talent goes, Jimmy Kimmel ends up coming off best. He pointed out to Letterman that he thought Dave threw Jay a life preserver with the Super Bowl ad. And of course, there was this, which can't be seen enough times. WHAT'S THE BEST PRANK YOU EVER PULLED?

Carter's epilogue features an interview with Jerry Seinfeld, who says "What did the network do to him? I don’t think anyone’s preventing people from watching Conan. Once they give you the cameras, it’s on you." This point is entirely correct, though of course it's odd to hear Jerry Seinfeld using this line of reasoning, considering it took four seasons for Seinfeld to become a hit show. Had NBC followed his logic, it would have been pulled after one.  But I suppose that would have been his own fault?

From my point of view, the best all-encompassing summary of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien comes not from The War For Late Night, but from Louis CK, who hit the nail perfectly on the head.

When Letterman really wanted 'The Tonight Show' I didn't understand it because he has his own show called 'Letterman.' And when they rejected him he went and got 'Letterman' again. He's doing great. Conan had 'Conan.' Nobody really called it 'Late Night' that's how much he had made it his. That was 'Conan.' And I don't know why he'd want to give that up to host 'The Tonight Show,' which is just this old, shitty thing. Let Jay have it. It's a little presumptuous of me to tell Conan that his dreams are misguided... but they are."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Consumption: 2011 Film Edition Vol. II

45365 (d. Bill Ross and Turner Ross)

Have you ever been to Sidney, Ohio? Neither have I. It's 40 miles north of Dayton, and one of the city's most notable natives is Joey Long, who spent less than a month in 1997 pitching for the San Diego Padres, compiling an 8.18 ERA.

This is more information about the city than one would get from watching 45365, but knowledge is not the point of the film. There's no linear storyline. There's simply a series of impressionistic vignettes of Midwest America. Characters reappear in different settings, but there's no overarching theme. As a viewer, you show up in the middle of their lives, and you leave in the middle of their lives. One moment a radio DJ debates the innuendo of The Who's "Squeeze Box" with a listener, and the next an enterprising young man is convincing his older neighbor that he could get top dollar by selling the bat dung inside his barn to marijuana harvesters.

From a tonal perspective, the film draws easy comparisons to "Friday Night Lights" with the reliance on unobtrusive camera placement and natural lighting. Nothing seems contrived, from the demolition derby, to the interaction of police and criminals, to the high school girl arguing on the phone with her delinquent boyfriend. And the Ross brothers buck the current trend of making a grand political statement with the town and its residents. There's no over-the-top glorification of "Real America," and no weeping pity for the economic struggles of small towns.

45365 is a gorgeously shot 90-minute postcard.  Like most postcards, it won't change you're life, but if nothing else it brightens your day, and you feel happy it was sent to you.

Consumption: 2011 Film Edition Vol. I

One of my goals for the upcoming year is to chart, or at the very least list, the films I watch, books I read, at least a portion of the audio I consume in various formats, and any other artforms. With this goal in line, I'm labeling the effort Consumption. I'm hoping to make more frequent, shorter-in-length posts covering all topics. Through the first 11 days of '11, I've read one full book (review upcoming) and seen five films. Here's the first.

SOMEWHERE (d. Sofia Coppola)
Back in the earliest days of IFC, I remember repeatedly seeing a 15-minute short called Lick the Star that I really enjoyed. Sofia Coppola was the director and I was eager to see The Virgin Suicides when it came out on DVD, but the movie left me lukewarm. Once Lost in Translation knocked everybody's socks off (mine included), Coppola's stock was high. Then came the snore-fest of Marie Antionette, and heading into Somewhere, I couldn't get a read on whether Coppola was a director I like who's made two below average films, or a director I find overrated who started with a nice short idea, then happened to strike gold on Translation. After seeing Somewhere, I'm pretty sure it's the latter. The trailer is far more compelling than the actual film (though both contain this awesome Strokes demo.)

What's interesting is that so much of the tone and nuance that worked perfectly in Lost in Translation is repeated here, yet it completely backfires. Every time there's a silent stare between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, the ambiguity is subtle and engaging.  Given their status at strangers to each other, you never feel like you're missing out on necessary information. But when similar scenes of drawn out silence take place between a father and daughter, as they do repeatedly in Somewhere, depriving the viewer of any sense of the characters' past relationship only makes the film that much more frustrating - and not in a challenging artistic way, but in a "Why the fuck do I even care what I'm watching?" way. 

Likewise, the surreal haze that made Japan simultaneously engaging and alienating in Lost in Translation is poorly imitated by LA's Chateau Marmont. It's meant to depict the retreat and lavishness awaiting Hollywood's elite, but you can only take so much of watching Stephen Dorff silently laying down all around the hotel before you hate every room in the place and find yourself cursing the fact that John Belushi died here, yet this fictional character keeps on living just for spite. Elle Fanning and - surprisingly - Jackass's Chris Pontius are effective in underdeveloped roles, but the movie goes nowhere*, up to and including the film's climax, which again tries to recapture the magic of this scene. Toward the end of Somewhere, Dorff's character says something that his daughter doesn't quite here. We as the audience do hear him, but by this point we just don't really give a shit what he's saying.

*Nowhere, AKA the opposite of Somewhere!  If anyone needs me, I'll be waiting at the mailbox for my award celebrating artistic achievement in the field of pun-related insults.