Saturday, November 25, 2006

Weed vs. Cocaine

by Steven Boone

The unrated DVD version of Dave Chappelle's Block Party left me with such dizzying mixed emotions, I was damn near seasick. My ambivalence is easy to pinpoint: Even though offstage he appears as shrewd and commanding as the producer of a cross-country, star-packed concert documentary should be… onstage he acts like he's in an after hours nightclub, buzzed on weed and Hypnotiq:

DAVE: I was at urinal and I couldn't help but notice the guy next to me. His dick was so small...
MOS DEF: How small was it, Dave?
DAVE: He peed on his balls.

Man, Dave, you invited kids, diverse Brooklynites, straightlaced Ohioans, and a sweet old lady to hear you tell dick and ball jokes? This was weed humor, something you'd have to be temporarily relieved of important brain cells not to find insipid. (And let's not even mention the dumbass story of the industrious prostitute.)

Of all the performers he thoughtfully selected in consultation with Questlove of the Roots, Dave himself seems the least in touch with the audience vibe. Yeah, he gets laughs, big ones at times, because of his natural infectious goofiness. That peanut head and cartoon geechee yowl ("Bam! Pimpalicious!") are not to be denied. But you can hear the groan, feel the disappointment when many of his jokes ignore the elevated, loving, communal mood of the event and drag us into the toilet. I thought of Chris Rock's old joke: "They ain't got nothing in a black mall but sneakers and baby clothes. I guess that's all they think we doing—runnin and fuckin!" Dave's Block Party jokes are mostly runnin and fuckin. In a setting so radically life-affirming, that shit hurts.

Sounds like I'm coming from some tightass black conservative perspective, but this is not a plea for sanitized black art. It's a lament for a brilliant comedian showing poor imagination and failing to take the pulse of a crowd that is clearly Spartacus-devoted to him. (Comedian Tommy Davison once joked about leading the black community on a protest march by singing Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." It was supposed to be a joke, at least. The vision of an artist using his instruments to break chains puts a chill down my spine and a lump in my throat.)

I wonder if Dave ever saw Rufus Thomas in Wattstax. Thomas' performance at that landmark concert in Watts, Los Angeles (the black Woodstock, the '70s Block Party) is a study in the power of pure charisma. The paunchy, balding soul jester grooves bowlegged onto the stage with his white sideburns, matching ivory go-go boots, lavender shorts and superhero cape. He coos to the afroed, platformed stadium crowd of thousands, "Ain't I'm cleeeaannn?" It ain't a question. The crowd adores him, this middle-aged fool, this lunatic. But they also respect him. With an authority I haven't seen in any U.S. president, he works the masses into a Soul frenzy with Breakdown, orchestrates a dance riot on the stadium field to The Funky Chicken, then manages to direct everyone back to their seats with a combination of G-rated Dolemite-style jive, comical rhymes and "Power to the People" exhortations. Nobody gets hurt.

That's the kind of emcee I expected Dave to be, a fool but also a leader. In Block Party, when not officially performing, his intelligence and humanistic impulse shine through. He reaches out and influences folks as effortlessly as Thomas. He shows genuine pride at booking the radical rap group Dead Prez—the sonic/social heirs to Public Enemy's righteous noise.

So why does he chose to squander this power onstage with material a middle school delinquent wouldn't carve into his desk?

I suspect a lot of black comedians of Dave's generation (which is mine too) have taken the wrong lessons from their gods, Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. For a moment, comic brilliance seemed to go hand in hand with being ready to ejaculate the terms "bitch" and "pussy" on cue. But Pryor and Murphy learned, as their careers mellowed/waned, that they were adored for their imagination, vulnerability and daring, not for their shit-talking. The "raw" talk that Eddie so admired in Richard wasn't his rudeness but his honesty. Unlike Murphy, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle also latched onto Pryor's stealthily conscientious politics. Chappelle's Show's race-obsessed sketches often play like outtakes from the old Richard Pryor Show—supported by the fact that a key collaborator on Dave's TV opus is Pryor's incendiary former writer, the brilliant Paul Mooney.

But the biggest differences between Pryor and his spawn are his sobriety and his sense of urgency. While Rock's and Chappelle's styles of delivery have evolved from sedate and measured to cartoon manic as their audiences swelled, their political intensity seems to have gone in the opposite direction. "I was in South Africa the other day," Rock would calmly, flatly mutter onstage back in the late '80s. "Or was that Boston?" Boom. A cheap shot, but loaded with thought. Now Chris screams at the top of his lungs about hack comedian topics du jour. Chappelle, who prides himself on being the least ambitious or politically savvy in a family of D.C. intellectuals, nevertheless makes trenchant social observations as if it's in the blood. Yet he prefers to lodge his grievances with Power in the guise of an aimless stoner whose goal is just to get by and get high. This persona's problem with The Law is simply that it sometimes puts up an obstacle to his good times. All the inner city horrors he describes along the way provide grotesque comic window dressing, like Pryor's winos and dopefiends. With Pryor, though, the horror lingered in memory long after the laughs.

Though he isn't the emcee at Wattstax, Pryor does preside over the event and gives it hilarious, piercing context. Stuart intercuts between the concert, street interviews with Watts residents and Pryor's color commentary, filmed in some black studio limbo. Only Pryor is visible during his segments, but you can hear others (camera crew? entourage?) dying laughing through his merciless riffs. Pryor's jabs at white supremacy and police brutality harmonize well with Chappelle's offstage banter. The distinction between their styles, their eras—between brilliant clarity and addled brilliance—is evident in the eyes: Dave's are sleepy; Richard's are startled saucers, narrowing down only to express rage.

Pryor may have done boxcars of cocaine in his time, but whatever that did to his system, it didn't dampen his fire onstage. Whatever Dave is smoking, it isn't helping him reach the bar Richard set for performers of radical imagination—a bar that at one time he seemed capable of clearing and re-setting beyond anybody's expectations.

Images from Dave Chappelle's Block Party: Unrated Version (Universal) and Wattstax-The Special Edition (Warner), both on DVD.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Pedro and his womens
by Ryland Walker Knight

The voluptuous precision of Volver

For all the expansion to be enjoyed in Pedro Almodóvar’s recent string of excellent films, his newest, Volver, is his narrowest effort since 01995’s rare misfire, The Flower of My Secret. After laboring with, and firmly executing, Bad Education’s labyrinthine noir (its convolutions span three decades of lies and betrayals and trannies and heroin) it’s fitting Pedro would scale down to a story that, at bottom, only needs five principal sets and five principal characters. Even his broadened, widescreen palate is compressed within the frame: certain close-ups of his luminous cast are shot with such long lenses that a minor movement by the actress fuzzies up her ears or her perfectly mangled coif like a distant spotlight straining to keep a stage actor lit. This technique reflects the precision one has come to expect, and take for granted, in each new joy Almodóvar gifts us.

[To read the rest of the review, click here, and you will be forwarded to The House Next Door for the full article.]

02006: 121 minutes: written & directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Goodbye Robert Altman, Hello Béla Tarr

by Ryland Walker Knight

Yesterday, around noon, I finished my mindless temp assignment early and went into my gmail to print off a timesheet. There I found Matt's email about Robert Altman's passing. My brow furrowed and my head cocked to the side. This is real? Wow. That's sad. I didn't have time to process as I was using my boss' computer (they didn't have one for me, I was constructing press release packages all day). So I left the office and walked a couple blocks to the Elliot Bay Book Company in a haze, aimless, not really processing that news about Altman. Luckily, I found the store and bought Allison an early Xmas present, which I immediately regretted having gift wrapped. The wait for the bus was interminable and windy; I drained my Nalgene bottle.

Riding through downtown I stared out the window, instead of reading like usual, and thought about what I might offer in eulogy. We turned north towards Seattle Center and the sky was black behind the Space Needle, crowded by a massive, ugly thunderhead. The rain didn't start until we were in Wallingford, turning onto 40th Street, and only got heavier by the time I paid my $1.25 and exited the bus holding my raincoat over the bag from Elliot Bay. I ran down Sunnyside and up the driveway and through the door, down home.

After peeling my layers and hiding the gift in a drawer I, naturally, went to the computer, to the internet, to Keith's moving memorial over on The House. I realized I didn't need to offer a summation of his life -- it had been done by so many already -- and offered a comment with "a few moments that illuminated him for me, raising him above the throwaway label of 'condescending hauteur':

1. First, of course, is McCabe telling his Mrs Miller "I've got poetry in me" only to be shot dead in the snow while she tokes opium in the hazy den down the hillside. Perhaps the most genuine of saddest film moments I've witnessed.

2. Lyle Lovett's resigned apology in SHORT CUTS. While it did not bowl me over as in the Carver story that inspired the film moment, Lovett's (non-)performance underscores both men's tact of taking on life. Sometimes, you swallow your monster pride and offer a small, good thing to those in need. SHORT CUTS is no small matter but there is a heart underneath its bleak posturing. I remain faithful to the Carver works but the film feels a precise conflation of the two artists, negating any niggling by the literary fan in me. Plus, the cast is damn impressive.

3. The humor of Shelly Duvall's skirt perpetually caught in her car door in 3 WOMEN. Oh how Stanley spoiled her...imagine the roles she would have had had she not been subjected to such treatment on the set of THE SHINING. Then again, we wouldn't have the same SHINING we know and love today...but that's besides the point here. The point is there was a time when her flippant line readings meant something and this detail, observed again and again, illustrates her abilities to portray a dolt with precision and passion and empathy. Forget Pinky, it's Duvall's Millie that loses this battle.

I was sadder still. It surprised me how low I felt. I've never been the biggest Altman fan, as friends know, but recently I've acknowledged he was, as Baudelaire would say, a true poet, and we're all poorer for his passing. Now I just have to make good on that and watch CALIFORNIA SPLIT and THE COMPANY and maybe re-watch NASHVILLE at some point soon. But, first, I will undoubtedly watch MCCABE again and surrender to my emotions.

I walked to my other job in the misting rain with two hoods ontop of my A's hat, my eyes on the ragged pavement. It felt all too appropriate. Then I entered the Metro and saw the fresh delivery of The Northwest Film Forum's new Winter Schedule. Right on the front page is a splash image from SATANTANGO -- the same one that adorns the cover to Facets' DVD release (due out Nov. 28th, for those in the know) -- announcing the upcoming series, The Harmonic Resonance of Béla Tarr. You gotta be kidding me! It was my own early Xmas present. I will be able to see, at the least, SATANTANGO in a cinema auditorium for the first time. There is a snag, though, of course. My mother is due to arrive for a visit on those three days it is playing. She may already have plans to hang out with my godbrother on Saturday, so it makes sense to forfeit that day to the endeavor, but I do want to spend time with her as well, having not seen her in a year. The trick will be to convince her this is necessary for my return to school and my plans for an Honors Thesis all about sculpting in time. (Whadduya say, Mom?)

I was so giddy at this news that I didn't let the scheduling of yet another Mizoguchi retrospective after I leave another city get me down. There will be a time and a place for me to devour his oeuvre. It even made me forget about how saddened I was by Mr Altman's death until I brought it up with Mike, who just moved and does not have the internet at home yet. I decided to forgo sadness for the remainder of the shift and enjoy those around me. That's what life's for, right? Right, except for when there's a seven hour Hungarian opus to take in...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

Clouded by misdirection
by Ryland Walker Knight

Hardly Novel

Will Farrell is Harold Crick, an IRS auditor with an obsessive compulsive knack for mathematics. Emma Thompson is Karen Eiffel, a neurotic and depressive writer who cannot finish her newest novel. Harold Crick is the protagonist of Karen Eiffel’s newest novel -- supposedly an unassuming everyman, living his everyday life in an anytown, unaware of his fate. But he is fully aware because he’s been hearing Eiffel narrate his day to day torpor and she’s spot on with every minute detail, like the sound of folders pulled across one another mimicking soft ocean waves cresting on a beach. Her novel is moot if he is aware of his “imminent death” because that hideous phrase “little did he know” is simply wrong: he knows plenty. STRANGER THAN FICTION is a movie, confused about its intent and clumsily executed at that. Zach Helm is a screenwriter, clever and witty and myopic. Marc Foster is a director, quick to telegraph the screenplay in an effort to streamline while undermining his committed cast’s roundly good performances with borrowed tricks and a meticulous art direction that serves only to distract.

[To read the rest of the review, click here and you will be forwarded to The House Next Door for the full article.]

02006: 113 minutes: dir. Marc Foster: written by Zach Helm

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Disposable Youth

by Michael Strenski

Regarding the name change: goddamn right it is. Nothing is heavier than a crate of records. I am moving next week and I am not fazed by lifting a bed or shelves worth of books, it's the LPs that bring me nightmares. So does the saxophone solo in the Carpenters' "Rainy Days and Mondays", which I happen to be listening to as I type this. It's brief but just long enough to register annoyance and then linger for a millisecond more. Coincidentally, said solo is on vinyl. So if I break it down, the groove containing the saxophone will contribute to the heft of my record collection when I pack it up. My fears are compounded. I am an arachnophobic clautrophobe trapped in a closet full of tarantulas.

Speaking of fear, the latest issue of Wired has a story on what they call the New Atheism, a loose-knit group of scholars, writers and magicians (?) that feel that faith in a god needs to be more fiercely challenged in this day and age. It describes how this group is much more willing than people in the past to challenge someone's religious beliefs. "Religion is not only wrong, it's evil" is the thought behind the article. First off, I tip my hat to Wired for not only printing such a story, but putting it on the cover (and what an awesome cover it is. Check it out). Atheism is such a hush-hush topic, most people are too afraid to step on anyone's toes. It was incredibly gratifying to see a major publication going forward with a story that would go against the grain of most of civilization.

The article for the most part though was a huge letdown. The writer Gary Wolf turns the ideas behind New Atheism into a personal quest for a label he can get behind. Throughout he brings himself into the story, for example when he visits an evangelical church hundreds of people deep and is actually somewhat moved, or a monthly meeting of atheists that barely scrapes fifty that he ducks out of when he feels that the struggle for community gets a little pathetic. In the end, after detailing the purpose of New Atheism (basically humans need to wake up and stop investing time and energy into the fantasy that is religion, for it is detrimental to our future), he flat out calls the New Atheists and their ideas absurd. For most of the article he sounds lucid and in control but by the end his logic falls out the window and he seems to be backtracking, for fear of.... stepping on anyone's toes, which is the whole point of the article. What is wrong with purporting the truth? I know, I know, the idea of God is unprovable, but I don't see why in a nation where fundamentalist Christians run the country and where each and every one of us regardless of our religion or lack there of are constantly subjected to faith solely of the Judeo-Christian variety, where people claim to be agnostic simply because they don't want to offend or claim to know everything, why shouldn't people speak up???

I stopped believing in God around the time that I realized that Santa Claus was a sham. I was really young. I played along for my little brother's sake and continued to pretend that Santa was the one that ate the milk and cookies and left the big boxes under the tree. I didn't want to destroy my brother's childhood. This is different. We are adults now, we should be ready to defend ourselves. I have usually shied away from in-depth discussions regarding my lack of faith mostly because I know that there is very little chance of changing one's opinion on such a topic. It is so ingrained in people from birth that it becomes harder and harder to shake as the years wear on. But, and this is something that has been slowly dawning on me for awhile now, there is still that glimmer of a chance. I am not going to put anyone down or tell them they're stupid if they believe in God, some of the people closest to me in my life have some sort of faith and although I do not and cannot agree with it, I am not going to love them any less. I just think that atheists should stop hiding in the shadows and come forth with their opinions.

At times the Wired article makes it out to seem like if you come out and say that you are an atheist or are willing to challenge someone's ideas or beliefs then you are automatically a first-rate asshole. That's simply not true. Why can't one respectfully and civilly engage in discussions regarding thoughts and beliefs? I think we need to start with those agnostics.

Another thing regarding the name change, my boyfriend and I were talking it over whilst watching "Hedwig" for the umpteenth time and eating Popsicles, and we decided we preferred the old title more.

Regarding the future

Bop bob a lu bop a wop bam boom!
Twistin the night away!

So here we are, a day early, with a new name and address for the blog--and a new House and Senate for our country! Dance party!

I'm off to the San Juans for the weekend but early next week look out for a review of STRANGER THAN FICTION, which will also be posted on Matt Zoller Seitz's ever-impressive & ever-expanding blog, The House Next Door, where I've been offered a semi-professional, weekly outlet for my attempts at criticism. (I plan to cross post the reviews here, too, on Vinyl Is Heavy, to keep production up at "home" as well.) I'm kind of third string right now (I don't get to review THE FOUNTAIN or CHILDREN OF MEN for The House so keep checking here for those) but there should be some good ones ahead, like VOLVER.

Take care. I'll be watching whales, not movies, for once, and trying my best to stay warm in the yurt.

-- Ryland Walker Knight

whale watching

Monday, November 06, 2006

Regarding a name change

by Ryland Walker Knight

For a while now I've been teased about the name of this blog. It was an inside joke to begin with and now it seems like quite an obvious joke to any strangers. Yes, there are only young men participating in the erratic posting.

Anybody who may visit this site should be forewarned: the name of the blog, and its address will be changing at the end of the week. A Sleep Over will become Vinyl Is Heavy, appropriating the title from my abortive attempt at a first novel all about media-inlfuenced, angsty young adults.

To a new, brighter future with less sexual innuendo and, hopefully, more regular posting.

Friday, November 03, 2006


by Ryland Walker Knight

The stage was set: viral advertising and google videos as primers, I was ready to go on the sexytimes journey across America with wild and crazy guy BORAT, Sascha Baron Cohen's greatest invention. I had committed to staying up late for the midnight staff screening. I got a good ammount of alcohol in me, enough to bouy me through the short running time. The auditorium was packed with drunk theatre employees. After a half hour of movie trailers and Stella Artois ads the movie started and I was laughing immediately. The theatre was howling. In another half hour I was asleep.

02006: 84 minutes: dir. Larry Charles: written by Sascha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham & Dan Mazer from a story by Sacha Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Anthony Hines & Todd Phillips.