of Maine

Synecdoche, New York
December 23, 2008, 9:19 pm
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Yes, of Maine is still (not yet) working on the big year-end wrap-up, though it will – despite the glut of (to these ears) Great Albums – be pretty sunshiney, diverse, and hopefully somewhat illuminating.

In the meantime, I’ve seen a few movies. They all had their problems, but some were better than others. Here’s the first one.

Synecdoche, New York (director Charlie Kaufman)

It’s reasonable to guess that Synecdoche is intended to be Kaufman’s magnum opus – after relatively dipping his toes in metaphysics, death, people playing actors playing actors, etc., in previous films (most great: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), Kaufman goes pretty whole hog here – but with a mind this obsessive and restlessly conceptual, it’s hard to say for sure.

And those grand designs actually sort of the problem with Synecdoche. It is: phenomenally acted (by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson Samantha Morton (oops), and Michelle Williams, in particular); not nearly as confusing as the reviews make it out to be (the story has its abstract moments, but it’s almost completely linear); fixated on morose issues (death, sickness, loving people you aren’t with); and very well realized (good, sometimes great, set design).

It is also: the apotheosis of Charlie Kaufmanism. Why is this a problem? Because we already know too much about Charlie Kaufman.

Suppose a plot summary is in order. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, an ambitious/pretentious (hard to tell) stage director in the midst of a dying marriage (to Catherine Keener), with child, and what feels like a self-actualizing case of hypochondria. Cotard is surrounded by portents of doom – he sees himself in cartoons on television, his home is soundtrack by blasé readings of international disasters – and tries to “do the right thing” most of the time, but this leaves him morose and wanting. When his wife and child leave him, time in the film begins moving more quickly, spanning decades in about an hour and a half: Cotard wins a MacArthur grant and falls for a box office manager (played by Samantha Morton), and then falls for one of his actresses (Michelle Williams). Cotard sets out to make a play about “everything,” which winds up being a play about anyone and everyone he sees, which then winds up a play about characters portraying himself and the people around him managing the play about everything, and so on and so forth. What begins with good intentions – a sweeping, universal statement, theater at its most direct and pure – becomes increasingly solipsistic. (The set of the play becomes a series of sets within sets; after a while, it’s entirely removed from the outside world, which by the way is falling apart amid riots and some sort of war. Honestly, it’s all pretty neat.)

Synecdoche’s concept is certainly original and (again) well-realized, but too many of its most important tics are familiar. Morton’s character – charming, seductive, a bit dangerous – reminds you of Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine. Keener’s sort of an amalgam of her and Cameron Diaz’s characters in Being John Malkovich, ambitious but frumpy. Hoffman is often as pathetic as Nicolas Cage’s Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, without the funny altar ego. Hoffman’s Cotard Malkoviches himself later in the movie.

The film, while successful in its ambitions, is just too ambitious to be successful. Many critics have written eloquent or even moving reviews of Synecdoche, New York; these reviews invariably praise how “about everything” the film is, about you and everyone around you, how you live and act and judge and so on. It makes for moving prose, but Synecdoche isn’t confident enough in its audacity to go five minutes without hammering those themes to death. Literally. The film won’t leave you thinking about how to live a better life; it’ll leave you glad you’re not living Caden Cotard’s.


Sam Amidon and Nat Baldwin in Portland
December 18, 2008, 2:42 pm
Filed under: Hasty Music Reviews, Work | Tags: ,

samamidonHello all. Be alerted that end-of-year listmaking activities are in progress, and will be posted here…next week? Requiring more effort and self-criticism than expected…

But on that note – and to violate a tenet of this blog – I feel a need to urge my local readers to attend a couple of concerts this weekend, featuring a couple of my favorite artists of 2008.

First up, on Friday night, Sam Amidon’s at One Longfellow Square with my dear friend Cerf-Volantes. I’ve written at length about Amidon’s album here, and written more about a song he sang on another album here, but long story short: his latest album, All is Well – a set of revinvented traditional folk songs – is one of the most beautiful and accomplished albums of 2008. You’d be well served to check this bright young talent out Friday.

Best of all, I just found that the old office auction site is selling “buy it now” tickets at half price right now. Bidding ends at 5 pm on Friday, where you’ll have to get by with the also-worthwhile $10 price.

A couple other fine articles on Sam Amidon’s album, from Stylus and Pitchfork.

On Saturday, upright bassist Nat Baldwin – who served time gigging with Department of Eagles this year – is in town for the winter and playing at Field, on India St. That’s an early one – 6:30 pm – and a cozy evening of string music. I’m sort of co-hosting the show, so we’ll be whipping up some hot chocolate or toddies or something for you, and we ask you donate some cash ($5, ideally) for Mr. Baldwin and the other artists. Baldwin’s 2008 album, Most Valuable Player, has also been getting some Best of 2008 love. Read a nice entry (with 5 mp3s) here at the #4 slot, and here‘s my article about the album.

Hope you can make it to one or both. You’ll be glad you did.

Roberto Bolano, 2666
December 11, 2008, 1:21 pm
Filed under: Words | Tags: , ,


Let’s work our way to summarizing comments here. And before I wear you out, if you’re looking for a great beginner’s guide to the awesomeness awaiting you in this book, read Jonathan Lethem’s review.

Left thinking about: the five sections, all somewhat distinctive stylistically, that just end; how we learn everything about the life and nothing about the work of the fictional author that motivates much of this tale; the characters all searching for clues – to the whereabouts of a lost writer, to the murderer(s) of hundreds of young women in northern Mexico, to their sexual and romantic needs and desires, to how to escape squalor and grief, to the importance of identity, to the symbolism of their dreams – which, in many cases, they find and lead to nothing.

Most of all, it’s Bolano’s craft more than his story that resonates. There’s something inherently contradictory about his style. His sentences won’t stop you in your tracks. You won’t find yourself highlighting virtuoso moments very often. He’s not one for adages, morals, or grand statements. His series (plural) of ideas don’t culminate in a-ha moments or philosophical revelations – when they do, they’re usually comically naive.

At the same time, Bolano’s syntax is so distinctive and (more importantly) intuitive that you’re unlikely to forget many of his sentences upon a rereading. If they’re, line by line, unmemorable, they’re a perpetual motion machine of details, asides, and insights. His rhythm is addicting; it’s difficult to stop reading 2666, because you want the high to be the same the moment you jump back in.

Try this two-sentence paragraph out, from “The Part About the Crimes”:

For many days Juan de Dios Martinez thought about the four heart attacks Herminia Noriega had suffered before she died. Sometimes he thought about it while he was eating or while he was urinating in the men’s room at a coffee shop or one of the inspector’s regular lunch spots, or before he went to sleep, just at the moment he turned off the light, or maybe seconds before he turned off the light, and when that happened he simply couldn’t turn off the light and then he got out of bed and went over to the window and looked out at the street, an ordinary, ugly, silent, dimly lit street, and then he went into the kitchen and put water on to boil and made himself coffee, and sometimes, as he drank the hot coffee with no sugar, shitty coffee, he turned on the TV and watched late-night shows broadcast across the desert from the four cardinal points, at that late hour he could get Mexican channels and American channels, channels with crippled madmen who galloped under the stars and uttered unintelligible greetings, and then Juan de Dios Martinez set his coffee cup on the table and covered his face with hands and a faint and precise sob escaped his lips, as if he were weeping or trying to weep, but when finally he removed his hands, all that appeared, lit by the TV screen, was his old face, his old skin, stripped and dry, and not the slightest trace of a tear.

Okay, let’s assume you thought that was awesome. (You were right.) But what happened here? Nothing that didn’t happen in that first, short sentence.

What does that second sentence do to enhance the first one? Emotionally, for Juan de Dios Martinez, almost nothing. His inability to cry is affecting, but all we’re told aside from that is in what settings he’s thinking about Herminia Noriega. Bolano makes no assumptions about Juan’s psyche.

What else do we learn? Indelible tics of Juan’s behavior, things about his daily routine. Bits about Santa Teresa, the fictional city much of the book is set in. Just this broad series of adjectives – “an ordinary, ugly, silent, dimly lit street” – is extremely evocative, and the description of television personalities, “in Spanish or English or Spanglish” speaking “unintelligible greetings,” brings up the murky mélange of life on the border. The not much of this sentence still seems widely encompassing.

It’s one of hundreds of such sequences in 2666. They add up to nothing like a resolution, but they encapsulate generations, cultures, nightmares, and the author’s boundless energy and ambition.

Just to be clear…
December 9, 2008, 5:38 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

There will never be a Sorry dude. post about Fleet Foxes. That’s one critical consensus we will not be getting behind.

Sorry dude.: LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver
December 9, 2008, 5:22 pm
Filed under: Hasty Music Reviews | Tags: , , ,


Sorry dude. is (potentially) an occasional column where I apologize for publicly or privately criticizing art that turns out to be pretty good.

I guess I have Kermit the Frog to thank for making me finally appreciate Sound of Silver. Kermie’s video lip synching along to album closer “New York I Love You” (it’s not on YouTube anymore, presumably you can find it elsewhere) was pretty great, but had the consequence of making me appreciate that song a little more and finally giving Sound of Silver a front-to-back listen.

My embarrassing (and, it seems, legendary) reaction to the video, by the way: “…nothing makes me feel as warm inside as a wide-open muppet mouth.”

The consensus pick for the Best Album of 2007, Silver‘s first single, “North American Scum,” remains irksomely self-conscious; James Murphy’s lazy drawl is, one supposes, actually intended to sound like the ultimate example of the hipster cliche, but that doesn’t make the schtick funny. Or tolerable. The loud, vaguely unenthusiastic girl harmony backup sends me over the edge every time.

Elsewhere, things are pretty good, and surprisingly consistent and digestible for a longish album made up of nine longish songs. “Time to Get Away” has proven its utility on the dance floor, “Someone Great” and “All My Friends” are legitimately excellent and intelligent pop songs (the latter won me over late last year – not that I told anyone – after I heard this cover by the Main Drag). Ditto the title track and “Kermit I Love You.” “Us v Them” is still annoying though. Anyway, keeping this abbreviated, sorry dude.

p.s. Fingers still crossed that, in ten years, everyone will realize that this was actually the album of ’07.

Chris Adrian, more books
December 8, 2008, 3:31 pm
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It’s been up on the web for a while now, but I finally got around to perusing the NYT’s 100 Notable Books of 2008 yesterday, and was pleased to see Chris Adrian’s recent book of short stories, A Better Angel, on the list. As you may recall, I ditched this blog for a couple months to write a very lengthy review of it (which I may post soon, once I abandon the idea of submitting it to other publications). The title story, one of the better ones in the collection, is freely readable here.

In other news, the Literary Event of the Season is now complete. Commentary coming tomorrow or Wednesday.

Arthur Russell, Love is Overtaking Me
December 5, 2008, 4:47 pm
Filed under: Hasty Music Reviews | Tags: , , ,


“Old music” and I have settled our disputes, and had a pretty nice year. Maybe I just found my niche. (More likely: the illusion of “discovery” weighs heavily on my likes.) Love’s Forever Changes is a new, perhaps permanent addition to my Best Albums Ever list. There’s more I can’t recall offhand, but discovering Arthur Russell has impeded any progress I hoped to make getting through the canon of notable 2008 releases. Fortunately, the deceased songwriter-composer actually has one, and it’s a beaut.

I’ll spare the career-summary for a while (writing at length about him in a couple of months), but two good places to start are (I assume) this New Yorker profile I haven’t read yet and the documentary Wild Combination – an excellent counterpoint to the largely nauseating hero-worship doc genre –  released this year and just out on DVD. (More on that when I write the other stuff; it’ll be screening at SPACE early next year, so locals are advised to wait until that event to see it. It’ll be worth it.)

Long story short, Russell was a songwriter/composer far ahead of his time, best known for his cello music and disco-pop songs (an obvious inspiration to Antony and the Johnsons, Kelly Polar, and others). Love is Overtaking Me, surprisingly, is a collection of mostly folk songs. Upon further research, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there are some traditionals here, but Russell owns them well. His voice and his composition is warmer here than his most famous material, and he mixes sadness and catchiness really well. Love is Overtaking Me is almost unabashedly MOR, Sunday-morning folk. From an email I wrote earlier today: It’s like my semi-cheesy semi-awesome cozy Sunday morning album dream come true.

You half-expect Russell to begin most of the songs with an achy, spoken-word plea: “Baby, you know I’ve been missing you and I hope you’ve been missing me, but there’s just one more thing I needed to say.” (On “What It’s Like,” he actually sort of does.) “Hey! How Does Everybody Know,” scratched-up and fuzzy with age, has winning backup harmonies, and stuff like “I Forget and I Can’t Tell” stinks of ’70s Dylan in a wonderful way. There are some more expected (read: experimental) pop and cello tracks thrown around, like the moaning, urgent “Eli,” but Love is Overtaking Me adds a welcome dimension to the work of a legend long overdue, and my favorite find of the year.