cultural cocktail

musings on music, film, pop culture, literature, and whatever else is top of my mind

Monday, July 09, 2007

victory for venus

What is it that I love about the Williams sisters? Both Williams are never dull to watch. Even when their play starts off inconsistent, both women are fighters and are able to battle back to reverse what often look like dire and unwinnable matches. And they've changed the game of women's tennis, putting more power and excitement into the game since they came on the scene in the late '90s. Both athletes were waylaid by injury in the last couple of years, only to return this year seemingly fiercer than ever.

As I sat watching Serena on July 4th get beaten by the #1 ranked Justine Henin in Wimbledon's quarter-finals, I despaired, fearing the Belgian would win the whole deal (I've already mentioned my loathing for her in a previous post). But then Henin was unexpectedly upset in the semis by Marion Bartoli (a 23-year-old French player) who wiped the court with her competitor after being down a set!

Aside: I can't fathom how these players can summon the will to maintain a high level of play when they're down a set (or two, in the case of the men, who play best of five sets, as opposed to best of three for the women). To come from behind like that -- especially against the #1 player on the women's circuit is incroyable! Mais, oui!

Anyhow, Venus, fought her way through some tight matches during the tournament's fortnight (facing match point in the first round and a close match in the third round along with rain delays). By the time she reached the finals, she had a pretty easy time with Bartoli. Venus blasted her serve and got to everything that Bartoli sent back to her. That girl can cover a lot of court with her 6'1" self. The women's final wasn't chock-a-block full of suspense (for that, you just needed to tune in Sunday to watch the stunner between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer), but I was a bit anxious for Venus at the outset having watched her play in a final at the Bank of the West Open a couple of years ago, when Venus was mentally checked out in the finals against Kim Clijsters. The latter handily won.

But this was different. This was Wimbledon, the Slam that the Williams sisters started tracking back during the reign of Pete Sampras. They love the place, and are great on its grass surface. It seems to bring out the best in them.

Still, I don't know that anyone could have predicted V. would win Wimbledon this year. Sure, she won back in 2005 against Lindsay Davenport -- that one was a tight three-set battle -- but this year's victory was even more of a shocker. since she hadn't been playing that much in 2006 and came into the tournament ceded 23. (She is the lowest cede ever to win the women's title.)

So, how about this for confidence and resolve? Back in January, Venus text-messaged NBC commentator Mary Carillo and their mutual friend Renee Stubbs that she was going to win the big W. Sheer bravado? Apparently not.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

the lives of others

The Monday-morning quarterbacking at the water cooler has come and gone. Now the"real" Sopranos fans are crawling out of the termite-infested woodwork, one of who altered series creator David Chase's Wikipedia entry: “David Chase (…) is a homosexual American television writer, director and producer.” Aw. c'mon, get over it. HBO, network of the Sopranos and many other highly addictive series, markets itself cleverly: "It's not TV. It's HBO." Well, as Fresh Air's TV critic David Bianculi said (more or less) in his post-mortem of the series finale on Monday, "It is TV."

Kudos to David Chase (flanked above by James Gandolfini and Edie Falco, who play Tony and Carmela Soprano, for anyone who's been living under a rock) for making us care so much about the conclusion of Tony and his famlies' stories. And bully for all of us in getting so involved, but at the end of the day, we all have our own lives to lead. The rabid Sopranos fan who felt compelled to deface Chase's Wikipedia entry is perhaps just a more extreme version of the viewers who couldn't hang with the fact that Chase didn't fashion an ending that would give viewers a sense of finality (Some of the righteous would have been cheered to see Tony buy the farm, others may have wanted him to name names and enter the Witness Protection Program). But David Chase was never about tying about loose ends in the way many movies, fiction, and TV shows do these days. Our culture loves story (and has from time immmemorial). And why not? The neat, narrative arc is seductively symmetrical.

When the story doesn't turn out in the way we expected, we are disappointed and sometimes even a bit pissed off. I've had the experience more than once vis a vis American Idol (yeah, I know, I know), most recently when the most excellent Melinda Doolittle was sent packing prematurely. I'm not much of a sports fan, but when Serena Williams lost at the French Open a couple of weeks ago to the positively feral Justine Henin (who happens to be ranked number one in women's tennis rankings), I was peeved and felt out of sorts for the rest of the day. No matter. We choose our heroes (or our anti-heroes, in the case of Tony and company), and we want to see certain outcomes. There's nothing wrong with that, I suppose, so long as we can maintain perspective, something the Wikipedia whacko was unable to do.


Friday, June 08, 2007

unsuffer her

I first saw Lucinda Williams perform 17 years ago at Slim's, a small club in San Francisco, as part of a singer-songwriter showcase. She was one of five performers, on a bill with John Doe, Dave Alvin, Butch Hancock (a member of the Flatlanders), and Syd Straw (hullo!). Lu was painfully uncomfortable on stage back then. Back in 1990, I had already been listening to her music for a year or so, thanks to a prescient friend who had her finger on the pulse of all things alt country.

Lucinda has long ceased to be a reticent performer. Though Lu will never be tapped to host SNL or the MTV Awards (well, why would that ever be the case?), she seems like she's enjoying herself on stage and is relatively relaxed. She's not big on patter, but I don't necessarily want to hear musicians talk. When she does talk, she's pretty funny and dry (and this fuels my fantasy of one day getting to interview her. Now that would be cool).

Just compare Lucinda with Kelly Joe Phelps, her boring opening act, at last Thursday's show at Oakland's Paramount Theater. After my friend Dawn and I suffered through too many of his meandering songs, we skipped out to hang in the theater's beautiful lounge and bar area. The Paramount, by the way, features incredible art-deco architecture and is truly a thing to behold. Maybe it was the sound system, but I couldn't make out some of KJP's lyrics. Not so with Lucinda -- though longtime fan that I am, most are etched in my brain after repeated listenings to her CDs. In concert, Lu spits out her words, and is often powerful, raw, and vulnerable within a single song.

Thursday's show featured songs from Williams' latest CD, "West," along with tunes from "World Without Tears," "Essence," and "Car Wheels." No Lucinda oldies, i.e., "Passionate Kisses," "Sweet Old World," "Changed the Locks," or my favorite from the eponymous CD, "Side of the Road." She started things off on a mellow note with a string of four or five ballads, and I wondered if this was going to be an uncharacteristically low-key concert.

One thing I found unnerving: Lu was packing extra pounds, like a prize fighter whose muscle had gone to fat. She's always been rail thin, but no more. She had a poochy gut, and more than a bit of booty. Superficial stuff, since Lucinda proceeded to rock and rocked hard. Highlights included "Everything Has Changed," "Come On," and "Unsuffer Me," from "West," and "Righteously" and "Ventura" from "World Without Tears." With these recent CDs, Williams has simplified her songwriting (well, to my ears). There's more repetition within some songs, and the lines are often short. When Lu sings them, the effect is often incantatory, like a Southern gothic preacher who's delivering her version of gospel for the pissed off and heartbroken. Or maybe it's a countrified version of rap? When I first listened to "West," "World Without Tears," and "Essence" (the post-Car Wheels recordings), I wasn't always initially taken with what I heard (hell, I thought she might be suicidal on first hearing "Essence"). Some of the songs' lyrics felt unnaturally stripped down, but with persistent listening, their simple beauty and genius became apparent.

Other highlights: A Delta-blues tune by Little Willie Jackson and "Marching the Hate Machines Into the Sun," with lyrics by Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne and music by Thievery Corporation.

Another aside: Dawn was seeing Lucinda perform for the first time, and was quite impressed. She thought Lucinda was much more compelling on stage than on CD.

Williams told the crowd at the Paramount that she's now content and in a relationship (apparently, she's engaged to be married). Then she played a couple of new, unrecorded tunes that inspired by that happiness ("Honeybee" and "Tears of Joy"). There were some slightly nauseating lines in the former (the new love's honey dripping on her stomach), but I can deal. Lucinda has shared so much heartbreak through her songs. (Imagine being her new guy and knowing that if things go south, your idiosyncracies will be immortalized in song.) Well, I hope that this time Lu stays happy. She deserves it.


Thursday, May 24, 2007

one good turn

Couldn't resist posting another photo of the little beast.


new arrival

About a month ago or so, I succumbed to a dangerous form of procrastination, kitten porn. I came upon a photo of this little orange guy and his brother, and the wheels started spinning. On impulse, I put in an application and, to forego the tale's twists and turns, a month later, I brought home this kitten on Sunday. Rufus (not named after young Mr. Wainwright) is your typical kitten: He just wants to play, explore, play, eat, explore, play, play, oh, and sleep (not that I've witnessed much of the latter, but he's in repose here). He's quite the talker, something I've not experienced in most of my other felines. Damn fine jumper, like most four-month-old kittens.

I've given him the spare bedroom at night and while I'm at work, since my five-year-old gray tabby, Lucy, is afraid of the little fluff ball. Seems odd but one of my friends who's expert in such matters says it's not unusual. So, life has gotten a little crazier, and my houseplant (yep, singular) is a bit worse for wear, but I hear change is good.

By the way, be sure to note the pink toepads.


Sunday, May 20, 2007

it's always Monk time

Last night I went to hear Jason Moran (my favorite musician, pictured above) re-create Theolonius Monk's 1959 Town Hall concert. Along for the ride were T.S. Monk (son of Theolonious) on drums and Taurus Mateen (bass player in Moran's trio, the Bandwagon), along with seven musicians on a variety of horns -- from French tuba to trombone to sax to trumpet. Actually, it was more like a re-imagining than a performance that hewed to the original. Moran created some looping sections based on old tapes of the original concert that had been recently discovered. Each member of the horn section had a brief opportunity to show off his stuff while a bit of the loop played behind him. It worked, though by the seventh solo, I wasn't as enamored of the idea. Better was when the group of 10 took on those great original tunes (Crepscule with Nellie, Monk's Mood, Off Minor, Little Rootie Tootie, et. al.) and Moran-ized them. That translated to adding a lot more notes to the originals. That's what Jason Moran does: He packs a lot of playing into his music, but somehow all those notes makes a complex, beautiful collage of sound.

Nonetheless, as a longtime devotee of Monk's music, I gotta say this: These are not tunes that can be improved upon. Along with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Theolonius Monk was one of the great musical geniuses of the 20th century. But Jason and T.S. Monk had a lot of fun with playing these gorgeous works, and it was a thrill to hear them live. Credit must go to Duke University and SF Jazz, which have commissioned Moran for the task. Makes perfect sense. Monk was a great pianist of the 20th century, and Moran (who is incredibly impressive and smart), is one of the greats of this young century.

T.S. Monk told a great story about his father. Theolonious never pressured him to go into music. In fact, he never asked him about it all. When T.S. turned 15, he began to be interested in playing. So, Theolonious called up his friend Max Roach and asked him to show his son the ropes. For five years T.S. played drums in the family's apartment, and he says his father never asked him how it was going. Then, five years later, Theolonius needed a drummer and asked his son to sit in. Just like that. Trial by fire. But also a really cool example of parenting.

I was lucky enough to interview Jason Moran last fall. To read that article, past this URL into your browser


Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Warning: Loss of ironic detachment.

You know what sucks? America. I realize I can only blame myself for getting pulled in by American Idol (yep, I succumbed to another season), but c'mon, people. It will be a teeny-bopper finale with Blake Lewis (okay, he's 25) and Jordin Sparks (17, immensely likable and impressive, and a solid performer). I hope the latter wins, 'cause she's the better singer.

Does that matter? Apparently not, given the fact that Melinda Doolittle was far and away the best vocalist on the show this season, and she didn't garner the votes to get into the damn final next week. WTF? Would that I didn't care a whit about this, but I do, I do. Hope Melinda gets a big fat recording deal and sells lots of CDs. She's a classy gal. And, damnit, she can sing. Maybe this will cure me of watching this addictive crap.


Sunday, May 13, 2007

scary movies

Forget about the summer scare flix. Last week at the San Francisco International Film Festival I saw "Strange Culture," a documentary by Lynn Hershman Leeson. Leeson, a Bay Area filmmaker, tells the unresolved tale of professor Steve Kurtz, an artist who awoke one morning in 2003 to find his wife, Hope, dead. The two had been collaborators in an experimental art collective that had been working on an installation about bioengineered food. When the paramedics showed up, they saw Petri dishes in the couple's home, suspected the Kurtzes of bioterrorist activity, and contacted the FBI. In no time flat, agents in HazMat suits had entered Steve Kurtz's home, and left with his wife's body, his computer, and books. Kurtz is still awaiting trial. He's low on legal fees, and his life is in limbo. Leeson takes an experimental approach to tell the story: Tllda Swinton plays Hope Kurtz, Josh Kornbluth is enlisted as a colleague of Kurtz at SUNY Buffalo. Both Kurtz, who must avoid topics directly related to the trial, and an actor playing Kurtz have roles. Though it might sound confusing, the film never is hard to follow. What is difficult to grasp, however, is why the U.S. Justice Department is out to destroy an innocent man. Perhaps Kurtz's art might cause American consumers to question the "wisdom" behind GMO foods (backed by the very powerful agriculture lobby)? Like so many modern-day tales of come-uppance, this one has yet to reach a conclusion.

I watched another powerful documentary last night, "Jesus Camp," that's as scary as anything I've ever seen. While they might not be on most liberals' radar, evangelical Christians are busy at work planting seeds for the future. Their cultivation efforts are focused on young, susceptible children who are vulnerable to their brainwiashing tactics. It's an awful thing to behold. The film's focus is Pastor Becky Fischer's "Kids on Fire Summer Camp" in North Dakota. Many of the kids who attend are primed by their parents to ridicule Darwin's theory of evolution, and see Christ as their savior. They pray before taking their turn at the bowling alley, proselytize to strangers, and learn most of their lessons at home (53% of them are home schooled). What makes the film especially powerful is that filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady bear witness; they know that their story is powerful in and of itself and needs no editorializing. In fact, the only voice of sanity they include is that of Mike Papantonio, a famous trial attorney who takes on the fundamental Christian movement on his Air America show, "Ring of Fire." "Jesus Camp" was nominated in the best documentary category at this year's Oscars. It's a good reminder that ignorance -- or at least unawareness of what the extremists are up to -- is not bliss.