The Hazards of Love

In my experience, The Decemberists are one of the most divisive bands played widely in indie circles. To be clear, they are a band followed passionately as an originating of the indie niche, and quite often reviled as the artistically-overbearing parents of indie music as a whole. Even people with the most musically-diverse taste (acceptors of dance, hip hop, folk, gypsy, funk, et al.) will despise the band. Fairly, The Decemberists are not the easiest band to adopt. Colin Meloy's voice takes getting used to in a music climate that has very few nasal-wail style singers. The instrumentation is always diverse, and reminiscent of sea shanties, polkas, and loads of organ. Especially in an era in indie music noted with either electronic manipulation or guitar/drum heavy pop-rock, The Decemberists stand out as a band holding to their original folksy framework, but constantly redesigning the sound styling inside. For those fans who jumped onto the bandwagon (though more appropriately their wagon would be some kind of zeppelin or ancient wooden helicopter) via radio play of The Crane Wife, the new release The Hazards of Love may not fill the singles quota, may disappoint, and will likely create a new level of divisiveness: Old Decemberists v. New Decemberists.

Always known as high-concept, The Decemberists build a taller ladder and compel you to climb up to the "Do Not Stand On this Step" step at the very top to digest the rock opera that is The Hazards of Love. Split among 17 tracks the tale unfolds with an unnamed narrator describing the sad circumstances of his lost love, presumably Margaret, who loses her love William to a magical curse by The Queen. That's just the beginning, as magic, monsters, and Rake (a villainous and gaunt character) takes Margaret captive. The Hazards of Love is a grand fairy tale, dark and loaded with horrors. The opera feels distinctly 1800s, and played out visually, for me, as a sepia-toned silent film dealing in various levels of browns and blacks... heavy to the imagination, and entirely beautiful. The band's execution, the arrangement and the vocals by Meloy and Becky Stark are nothing but exemplary. Hammond organs, thick bass, piano and synthesizers fill out the traditional guitars and solid percussion. The album, and the story are polished and without holes or logical breaks. Essentially, when you start listening to The Hazards of Love you board an amusement park ride that is difficult to disembark from halfway through. (There should also be a sign before the ride: "You must be at least this into fantasy rock/opera to ride")

The concerns for the album come out of its cohesiveness, just as so many of its virtues are born. It is a quintessential album. A handful of songs can be broken apart from the whole, but the tone and feeling of the work in its entirety is essential to its charm. In a music-consuming world where individual tracks are purchased, and the album is drifting away, The Decemberists take a chance/make a statement here. An album can be like a film or a book. An album can generate a story that needs to be heard from first track to last. Many newer fans might be dismayed by the lack of a "Summersong" or "The Perfect Crime #2". There are no clear singles on The Hazards of Love, but that isn't really the point. It is meant for total consumption, not for mass fandom. This has translated into mixed reviews and concern that the band is not just feigning pretension, but actually is pretentious. Any good art, very honestly, requires some pretension. A great album may not have fun hooks and choruses, but still--in its genuinely serious passion to tell a story--succeed. Meloy and The Decemberists took a chance with The Hazards of Love, both at alienating their fan base, and putting cracks into a porcelain legacy, but it was a chance that needed taking in a time when the bulk of indie music seems set to merely parrot the successes of the 60s, 70s and 80s.
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Book; Counter-book 3: Philosophical -isms from "athe" to "zion"

Even beginning to compare two texts with two different goals and two disparate-but not diametrically opposed-arguments incorporating religion, reason and humanism, written by authors/philosophers with very dissimilar styles of voice presents a daunting task. Luckily, like Rudy's empowering love for Notre Dame football, my love for a good Book; Counter-book knows no challenge too great. And with that supercilious boast I intend to pit God Is Not Great by the great atheist/journalist Christopher Hitchens and Straw Dogs by John Gray. [The philosophical text, rather than the classic Sam Peckinpah western. (An idea perhaps more intriguing for a blog than this one, to be sure.)] The challenge in refereeing a duel between these two books is that each wants to say essentially the same thing about humanity, leaving me torn in an almost parental trap because Gray and Hitchens posit their arguments in disagreeing (at times) ways.

Hitchens' God Is Not Great has a telling subtitle "How Religion Poisons Everything". Without even a cursory knowledge of his other works, writing for Vanity Fair, editing The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer, etc., this most recent work bludgeons you over the head with a two-by-four. It's clear what he'll be getting at, and intriguing to ask "how?". The "how" for Hitchens comes through reason and historical analysis. He breaks down the arguments and tenets of each major religion with a dry wit starting with contemporary "arguments" from the religious side. Pointing out the fallacy that one would feel safer when confronted by a group of religious men leaving a bible study, church or mosque event at dusk than a group of men who had no religious leanings comes from example. He cites the violence in Ireland, India, Iraq and other major world cities. This is only his beginning.

Moving through the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and other crimes performed in the guise of religious guidance and right, Hitchens compels his readers to use reason and value humanism as guides for their existences rather than following the archaic institutions first established to control the population and now continually perverted. Morality for Hitchens exists, but truly as part of our social subconscious, insofar as murder, theft and the like do not appeal to us inherently. He decries the belief that we need a "creator" to know right from wrong, and to act right despite "free will". God Is Not Great is such an honest and knowledge read that additional summary on my part would only detract from the power of Hitchens' words. His aim is to awaken us, all people to the ways that science and scepticism (mentioning Hume often) guide us to more valid conclusions about our lives. We are ultimately and ideally objects of pure reason, rather than supplicants to superstition and our liberation begins in acknowledging the perennial failure of the institutions to which we've grown accustomed.

While Hitchens intends to compel us to see the inherent value of humanity and science, plucking at our heartstrings with wit and example, John Gray does something nearly opposite but not quite. Gray lays out in Straw Dogs a stream of consciousness philosophical "riff" designed to illustrate the ways in which we have taken on humanism as a new religion and focused our lives on progress through science and work that he doesn't seem to believe inherently valuable. For Gray, we are essentially our most basic design: animal. Our drive to exalt morality and logic is one of the hindrances that prevents us from realizing how simple our existences can be. Gray, too, turns to Hume as an example of quality reason, but does not embrace the way he views our current societal view of science as a new advancing form of pseudo-perfection.

Through Straw Dogs, Gray is set on showing us, but perhaps not prescribing to us, that we need not exert all of our mental effort on becoming something or advancing society. He states that we are temporary and that our progress despite all of our efforts will not ensure our culture or our world eternal existence. Certainly it is bleak to consider that the efforts of a lifetime have no meaning, and that since we are merely animals there is little point beyond understanding our short time in life. Gray at times seems to boil humanity down to simple stock. And yet through all of that he calls for the embrace of reason and believes, it seems to me, that through reason we can all see and understand the fruitlessness of a life of endless struggle. Gray decries religious belief, but also the belief that humanism is a solution to it because he sees humanism as more or less a reaction to the existing error.

Gray's rambling writing/thinking style is often infuriating. It's as if he is dangling candy just out of the reach of a child for much of the book, and by the work's conclusion he has not offered a solid theory. Hitchens structure, knowledge and wit are infinitely compelling and result in a call to arms for thinking people around the world to give birth to a new Enlightenment in their individual lives. Only on one matter do both men blatantly agree. One of our greatest constraints on knowledge and human success is our need to beat death, citing Freud in each work. If we are able to let go of this desire for immortality we will be instantly and wholly unfettered in the present. Truly, we waste large chunks of our lives seeking to create a legacy or striving for science to bring us an eternity that need not come to pass.

For Hitchens and Gray, there is another (complicated!) common ground: reason. Gray understands, respects and desires its expansion, but does not see it as a solution. Hitchens exalts reason and humanism the greatest course for humanity's growth. I agree with both men for their own strengths. Reason is infinitely valuable, but as Hitchens--not at all naively--wants reason to guide us out of the present religious dark age we are regressing into, Gray does not see a solution as possible, or for that matter necessary.
Hitchens believes we are responsible for the betterment of society through reason, hearkening to Enlightenment icons like Hume, Kant, etc., but Gray feels that our interest/"need" in bettering society is individually damning. We should instead just learn to love existing as animals and be happy with the life we have. These arguments are so close to one another and yet also so far apart. Mathematically speaking, it is as if Hitchens and Gray are plotted with X, Y coordinates of 1, 1 and 2, 1 respectively, but on the Z-axis they are infinitely distant from each other.

I have found this distance hard to mitigate and wondered if it is possible to reconcile their differences. Can we? Is it better to hope for reason to bring us a solution to human failings and religious superstition? Should we dismiss our lives as finite and see reason as the best course, but not a course to any endpoint? Gray's sense of realism is valuable. We need the guarded thinking he posits to keep us from believing so deeply that humanism, science and reason are all answers to our world's many problems. There is an episode of South Park from 2006 that exaggerates the err of leaning too hard
on (read: believing in pseudo-religiously) reason and science as truth. Cartman, unable to wait for a Nintendo Wii to come out, freezes himself and awakens in the year 2546 to find that religion is gone, atheism is standard, and the three powerful societies of atheists are at war: over the best name for their atheist group. South Park wants us to see that when any idea becomes an ideology, we humans are bound to fuck it up. (Come to think of it, Kevin Smith's film Dogma has Chris Rock's 13th Apostle saying something similar, "I think it's better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier.") Were we all to jump on board with Enlightenment, some of the people regardless of good intention will become just as absurdly dangerous and dogmatic as those people greatly perverting religion. This is not to say that Hitchens is wrong, but the offspring of his and Gray's arguments would be more evolved and more attractive than the individuals initially contributing.

Despite their incongruities and disagreements (and I would love to see these two men on a panel together discussing their viewpoints face-to-face and side-by-side) both texts implore us to cast off what religion and society have pressed upon us for thousands of years to sit up, open our eyes and minds, and think deeply about the potentials of human existence. Though what those potentials constitute is a point of contention.

I would compel anyone with philosophical, religious or ontological interests to read both of these books. Gray and Hitchens are exemplary minds and great examples of how philosophy did not end with the likes of Kant, Sartre and Nietzsche. Any ultimate agreement among the populous regarding religion, a creator, or the point of human existence is unlikely, but continuing to expand our knowledge and unleash our minds onto new challenges is an essential part of existence.
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Another Friday The 13th and Freaky Cable Ads.

Today being the second Friday the 13th in as many months has me thinking about numerology, specifically our silly superstition about the number preceding 14, and the recent mindfuck that are Comcast's new The Sims (?) inspired monotone, zombie-customer, musical ads.

On the numbers: skyscrapers, office buildings, etc., all lack a 13th floor. And in the case that a 13th Floor does exist it is in the form of a terrible early-ought movie about science and handsomeness gone terribly awry. Most airplanes, too, have no 13th row. Never has a film been made about that missing location, but you can be sure William Shatner would see wing-gremlins from 13C. Our standard system of time is established with no 13th hour... though military time, in its infinite courage, does not fear 1300 (even if the number has been altered to the quad-digital--yes, I'm fairly certain I just made that word up). Religion lauds tredecimal whether in the number of last supper diners, or unluckiness, pure luck and so on depending upon the tradition one researches.

The superstitious "bad luck" that most Americans would recognize at least anecdotally attached to "13" doesn't prevent us from dropping it entirely. A world without 13. Imagine. Of course, there would be a great deal of effort required to slide our numeric system back and negate the existence of a recognized quantity. I have 12 apples. Add one. I have ... apples. Add one. I have 14 apples. This would never happen, of course, because the reasonable and logical parts of our minds understand that the patterns associated with 13 could just so easily be found for almost every number if we were to look for it. I have 435 cents... and OMG! that's the same number of voting members of the House of Representatives!!!

The skepticism I'm demonstrating is borne in large part from God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, my text of the last couple of weeks. The book is riveting, and compels one to atheism. Hitchens is an exceptional religious scholar who knows his stuff and has seen multitudes of religiously-motivated warfare, racism and destruction. But, even for those who see a greater value in religion, and will not relieve themselves of it, I recommend the read. Be open minded and the book will inform, entertain, and inspire excellent critical thought.

Beyond 13 and the frightening consequences of religion... How spooky, and irritating are the new Comcast 3/4 overhead, Sims-style ads? All the actors sing in a monotonous drone better suited for hypnosis than advertising, and the mood set reminds me of the twin little dead girls that always make any horror movie 100 times scarier when they appear, hand-in-hand, pale-faced, at the end of the hall and ask, "Won't you come and play with us?" in unison.

Comcast, known for its terrible service and ubiquitous "Fuck the Customer" promo-pricing policy, has taken a step back by drifting from the cute pun ad campaign to this one of video game look-a-like hackery and quiet chanting. It's as if their ad execs watched the "Movementarians" episode of The Simpsons once, liked the "Na nuh na nuh na nuh Lead-er!" chant used to brainwash Homer and said, "Gentlemen, we're like Mad Men... take this genius and shoot it." Really, gentlemen? Your cable magnate really needs to come off as more hipster-interested and cool, while simultaneously continuing to sacrifice on service and nudge their prices after 3 and 6 month periods? Meh, I'm being to harsh here. Mostly the commercials are just irksome.

So, in closing, watch out for 13s and then don't worry about it. Check out Christopher Hitchens and either indulge or challenge your religious views. And keep using Comcast--they do have the best internet and cable available now--but don't condone their hipster placation.
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Words On Film: Watchmen

Last night's viewing of Watchmen on the IMAX screen off of Colorado Blvd was an experience mixed of greatness and minor disappointments. The film, in and of itself is excellent. There are some small issues I had with some of the acting, but those are hardly problems that merit some of the "Unwatchable Watchmen" talk floating bitterly around the internet. Yes, Malin Akerman's acting is less than glorious, but fairly, the dialog and characterisation of Silk Spectre II is basic, sweet and naive. She does all of these things (though missing some emotive power) well.

From this point on it is spoiler time. Hear me!? SPOILERS. *SPOILER WARNING* SPOILERS! Do not read on if you don't want to know what happens in the film, how it differs from Alan Moore's original conception and what things missing detracted from my full enjoyment of the experience.

Seriously. Stop now if you DON'T want to know.

Okay then. My first beef with Watchmen the film is the use of non-diegetic music throughout the story. It's a sound track of 60s hits like "All Along The Watchtower" by Hendrix, "The Times They Are A-Changin'" by Bob Dylan, and "Sound Of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel. None of this music occurs within the bounds of the movie. All of it is an external driving force to promote a feeling about the non-dialogued scenes in the viewer that could easily have existed without falling back on rock nostalgia. Given that the movie takes place during the mid-1980s, these 60s tracks seem even less apt. The music drums up feelings in those scenes where, if you've read the book already you already understand the tone, but not having that information they subscribe a feeling missing from the film. Much of the intricate layering in the book was nixed to keep the film to 3 hours running time, but these aspects of the narrative (including the between-issue archival works... like the excerpt from Hollis Mason's book) are imperative to feeling the weight of the time period and the impact of large panels (in the book) and shots (in the film) without dialog or sound. Specifically coming to mind is the final journey by Night Owl and Rorschach to Adrian's Antarctic lair. Entire pages of white snow and tiny figures not speaking served to build anticipation for what would be perceived as a coming final showdown. In the film, we hear Hendrix and his trademark guitar riffs to psyche us up, rather than force contemplation in the audience with silence. These choices by no means make the film unwatchable, but do reflect a need in audiences to feel powered up about superhero movies, rather than understand the sober ways we are forced to choose between good and evil, friendship and justice, individual life and life-in-general. Alan Moore's writing makes you feel heavy at the end of the movie, and these soundtrack choices undermine that feeling. Note: The diegetic music is all 80s music placed well to blend in with each scene. Giving time and place in a subtle way, and impressively so.

Issue the second (And yes, I'm being a purist geek here, so I expect disagreements. Please comment if you so desire) lies in the omissions, some minor and understandable, some major and understandable. And yet others that truly detract from the story as a whole. First, the brutality of Hollis Mason's murder at the hands of psychotic youth is gone. It was tragic in the book. It marked the death of the old mentality, the old respect of "masked heroism" and the destruction of a boundary in society wherein the elderly deserve an inherent respect. This scene removed, and the timeline changed slightly was lamentable, but not entirely crucial to the plot as a whole. Moore took so much care to create a world collapsing that the tone was unavoidable, and no less surprising. The movie doesn't have the time to make all of these layers, and ask us to peel them back to see the next.

The intertextual pieces, as noted above, were also missing. The histories of the early characters were summed in the opening sequence. Adrian's interview about marketing Watchmen action-figures was missing. Dan's telling essay about owls was missing. The interactions of the newspaper stand owner and his various customers: removed. (A choice that I understand for time reasons, but dislike because it understates the humanity of the people destroyed in the final blast.) And most disappointingly the Black Freighter comic was missing. Entirely. There wasn't even an allusion to it, or to it's value as a parallel to Adrian's descent into "madness". The best part of the Black Freighter was that the anti-hero of that pirate comic believed so much in taking actions to save his family and town that he destroyed them. Adrian's plan is much the same, as he chooses to kill for the overall "betterment" of the world. In both cases they are ultimately evil men, not by their choosing, but through their obscene zealotry. But removing the Black Freighter was necessary again for filming purposes, and small allusions would only have served to abate fans of the books, and ardent ones at that. It wouldn't have translated well, and either would have made the movie an hour longer, or hurt it by leaving other plot pieces out. Disappointing, but excusable.

The frustrating, and major changes lie in the ending of film. Primarily that the film's ending portrays Adrian's plan as one to blame Dr. Manhattan for the destruction of many (not just New York) cities to unite the players in the Cold War. Making Manhattan the scapegoat for destruction felt planned only because the elaborate original story of artists and writers creating an alien menace was too hard to adapt to film. It reeks of compromise in laziness.

In the book, Manhattan loses his faith in humanity and distances himself by escaping to Mars to reconsider his place on Earth, but returns to work with Adrian--insofar as they will uphold his conspiracy. Manhattan ultimately gets the final word, in his (literally) infinite knowledge, telling Adrian "Nothing ends," thus undermining Adrian's thought that his masterstroke would prevent humanity from ever destroying itself. Manhattan is a character of complex narrative understanding in the book. He shows the reader and the other Watchmen that there is no solution to human divisiveness. Time will continue and with it the violence inherent to society. In the new ending, Manhattan leaves the galaxy before extolling that great bit of metaphysical knowledge, and Adrian's second-guessing of his decision is downplayed. Malin Akerman's Laurie then says the "Nothing ends" line to Dan Dreiberg in one of the final shots and it feels so much less revelatory coming from her than from the man who would have spoken it. The line decays from one of a supreme being speaking a universal truth into hearsay whispered half-naively by a pretty girl.

The film exceeds expectations in casting. Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach is nothing short of perfect. In look, size, and voice his depiction of the most complex character in the book is exceptional and deserving of high accolades. Patrick Wilson's Dan Dreiberg also comes off flawlessly, hitting the necessary nervous beats written into the character. And The Comedian, portrayed by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, comes off as crass, violent and flawed. His anger throughout the flashbacks is tangible. I had issue with Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan, but only irrationally so, in that the voice I always imagined for the god-like character was softer and less authoritative in the film.

Watchmen the film, does justice to Watchmen the book. While not a direct adaptation and flawed in some important spots it does not disappoint. It is entirely "watchable" despite some of the derisive buzz in media, and shows signs of great care taken by a director to adapt a complex narrative into a 3 hour movie.
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The Big Blue Button

The internet is loaded with dazzling points of fascination, whether news, video, comedy, animation, games... ubiquitous pornography... pages loaded with dancing hamsters, or that little encyclopedia that could, Wikipedia. I don't have much to say today, just a couple of links that needed sharing. One, which gave this particular post its moniker is bombombombomwooooo.com. Not merely a delightful pastime, it's also a charming piece of nostalgia from what used to be my favorite show for a day home sick from school: The Price Is Right. Anyone can use the site as an ironic, or just plain "jokily mean" way to communicate "sympathy" or "tiredness with all that damn whining" in the following situations:

- Friend is dumped by a person you knew wasn't worth their time to begin with
- Friend's favorite sports team loses a big game
- (For the ladies) Man you are with assumes he has successfully pleasured you, but sadly, has not
- Your DVR mistakenly records Land of the Lost instead of the new episode of Lost.

In each of the above cases, along with literally hundreds more, simply send the friend or unpleasing lover in question to the website and request that they push the button. (i.e. Man: "Oh, babe, I totally just rocked your world. Really. Rocked. Your world." Woman: Umm... Yeah... Let me show you something on the internet.") If you have a tiny violin to play for them I recommend tuning it in advance.

The second link for the post is Let Me Google That For You: http://lmgtfy.com/, a site that helps you to give the ultimate backhanded assist to a coworker, friend, lover, pet or owner. I know because it was done to me, and it's hilarious. Next time some one asks you a question that could easily be googled, assuming he's at a computer (I mean, let's not be a Jerk jerk, just a goof jerk) you can send him the link that Let Me Google That For You makes and watch as they he opens it and Google googles it for him. It works great with an obscure film reference, or even something about history, philosophy or geography. Really, it's the internet joke gift that keeps on giving. It's funny. It's neat. It tasty-sweet. WARNING: Actual experience may vary. Do not attempt to taste Let Me Google That For You, your PC, Mac or any component of the internet without supervision.

So, that's it. Links! Enjoy.
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