Laughing Matters — The Ben Stiller Show, “Kill Doug Szathkey”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I was a college radio kid and unyielding proponent of free artistic expression when Body Count’s “Cop Killer” was released. Our station proudly added the track and album to the playlist, and I and my cohorts generally took this side of Ice-T and his bandmates as right-wing politicians opportunistically condemned the rhetoric, openly and ludicrously speculating that it would directly result in murderous assaults on law enforcement officers. Even so, I recognized that Ice-T was being somewhat disingenuous when he feigned complete surprise at the notion that the song’s attacks against the police would be taken seriously by anyone. As usual for that particular year, the best, slyest commentary on that piece of the pop culture came from the sadly under-watched comedy series The Ben Stiller Show.

It is not an exaggeration to state that “Kill Doug Szathkey” is one of my all-time favorite rap tracks.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Then Playing — The Trial of the Chicago 7; Slice; Horse Girl

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin, 2020). Aaron Sorkin finds the ideal vehicle for his talky liberal indignation in the sham legal case leveled against a group of protestors who were bullied and brutalized by Chicago police officers during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The flagrant abuse of the Nixon White House prosecuting activists was compounded by the ludicrously irresponsible rulings of Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), most infamously his flagrant abuse of Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the original eighth defendant who was such a target of judicial ire that the case against him was declared a mistrial before the proceedings were over. Dramatizing these events allows Sorkin to simultaneously indulge in the courtroom banter of A Few Good Men and the political outrage of The West Wing and The Newsroom. The script is snappy and smart, but Sorkin’s direction is so flavorless that it undermines the film’s momentum, which in turn calls attention to his more manipulative structural choices. Sorkin’s good and bad instincts tangle as destructively as the hippies and cops. A cast of ringers delivers strong work, with Mark Rylance and Eddie Redmayne as the standouts.

Slice (Austin Vesely, 2018). The perils of actively attempting to make a cult film are illustrated nicely by Austin Vesely’s debut feature. In a small town with a troubled history that’s included all manner of ghouls and monsters, a spate of gruesome murders of pizza delivery people becomes fodder for political posturing by the mayor (Chris Parnell, doing his standard pompous-doofus thing) and a cause for sleuthing by both an intrepid young reporter (Rae Gray) and a headstrong woman (Zazie Beetz) with a personal connection to the ill-fated pizzeria and its employees. And Chance the Rapper (credited as Chance Bennett) show up, playing a misunderstood werewolf. Slice is bloody and rife with clumsy self-mockery, as if Vesely is actively hoping for inclusion in the roster of Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorites. A generous evaluation might deem it satire, but it’s not smart enough for that, nor deft enough to straddle the line between genuine scares and cheeky mockery. The amateurish nature of the film comes across not as a pose, but as a genuine shortcoming.

Horse Girl (Jeff Baena, 2020). Jeff Baena’s first feature credit was as co-writer on I Heart Huckabees, directed by David O. Russell. As with that delirious mess, Baena tries to build imagery out of psychological dilemmas in the Horse Girl. The first portion of the film has a nice live-in quality as it follows sad craft store employee Sarah (Alison Brie), hinting at the worries that weigh on her. Baena’s screenplay adeptly portrays small, tentative interactions between people, many of them with an aching need to find their place in the world. As Sarah’s struggles escalate, the film grows more strained, especially as Baena indulges in visuals that come across as the lo-cal version of David Lynch. Brie is game all the way through, bringing so much conviction to the role that she squeezes poignancy out of the narrative like the last drops of juice from a seemingly spent lemon rind.

Outside Reading — If We Make It Through December edition

In Praise of Phoebe Bridgers, a Thoroughly Good Celebrity by Madeline Ducharme

Writing for Slate, Madeline Ducharme offers an accounting of Phoebe Bridgers’s contributions to the culture in recent months, and it’s a welcome compendium of good things in a bad year. Perhaps making up for the inability to tour in support of her fabulous album Punisher, Bridgers has been popping up with consistently delightful side efforts, including a post-election cover of a nineteen-nineties “classic” and, just a couple weeks later, another lovely cover. Both those borrowed tunes are to benefit extremely worthy nonprofit organizations.

On Not Meeting Nazis Halfway by Rebecca Solnit

With great clarity, Rebecca Solnit exposes the fatal flaw in current calls for people on the left end of the political spectrum to compromise with those currently smarting because their preferred presidential candidate lost the election. The past few years haven’t been marked by delicate policy differences. It’s been a matter of one party actively encouraging hate because it’s to their benefit to do so. Any leaders who have cowardly acquiesced to bigots in recent years — including the king of the bigots still making erroneous claims that undermine democracy — deserve to be decisively, permanently excluded from the public discourse. The article is published by Literary Hub.

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Trump Stress-Tested the Election System, and the Cracks Showed by Alexander Burns

And here’s a valuable assessment of the damage being wrought to the fundamental tenets of U.S. democracy, all in the name of preserving the fragile ego of a delusional narcissist. It is a travesty that any amount of effort is being expended right now to counter the absurd assertions of bad citizens who’ve opportunistically decided that elections don’t matter if they don’t like the outcome. In the city where I live, election officials should be taking a well-earned break. Instead, they’re spending a holiday weekend hunkered down in a convention center, needlessly recounting votes as ill-informed zealots shout inane conspiracies at them. In The New York Times, Alexander Burns writes about this moment and the warnings for the future that are likely to go tragically unheeded.

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The Native People of This Country Helped to Rescue America From Its Worst Instincts by Charles P. Pierce

A thus far undervalued and underreported aspect of the most recent U.S. election is the way Native American voters came out to make their voices heard. With his typical passion and aplomb, Charles P. Pierce writes about the heroism of those voters and the organizers and advocates who helped them exercise their basic right to help set the course of the nation they have more of a claim on than most of use who cast a ballot. The article is published by Esquire.

This Week’s Model — Arlo Parks, “Caroline”

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It’s a tricky time to be an emerging artist. Arlo Parks started 2020 with a headlining tour through Europe that couldn’t be completed because of public heath lockdowns, prompting the need to find other ways to keep her name out there, performing a couple songs with Phoebe Bridgers among the most recent of those efforts. And she’s continued to seed new music into the culture, all in preparation for the release of her debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, early next year.

The latest track is “Caroline,” a new-soul, indie-pop gleamer. It’s luxuriant and lovely, containing a darker undercurrent in the lyrics that describe watching an argument unfold between two people spied on a London Street. It’s the kind of song that invites — maybe demands — attention, as the consummate craft of it is enveloping. No matter the obstacles, an artist like this is going to find a way to break through.

Then Playing — Born in Flames; Beau Travail; First Cow

Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983). Lizzie Borden’s riveting experimental film is set in a fuzzily defined near future following a revolution that presumably created a more equitable society. Instead, women are still regularly belittled, persecuted, and attacked, and different factions of feminists put further acts of insurrection in motion. Borden employs footage of real protests and uses fictionalized media reports — including fiery radio broadcasts by the burgeoning rebel leaders — to tell her story of impassioned agitation. Borden brings a thrilling rambunctious spirit to the film that simultaneously meshes with and overrides the amateurish aspects of the film’s craft. Born in Flames is a pointed, grand piece of independent filmmaking that remains resonant decades later.

Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999). Taking a loose, interpretive pass a Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, French director Claire Denis makes a film with an acute awareness of the treacherous terrain of ritualized masculinity. The narrative embeds with a Foreign Legion troop in Africa, moving with an almost hypnotic attention to the way the characters interact with one another and their surroundings. The main driver of the plot is the ill feelings — perhaps jealousy, perhaps rage over repressed ardor — that well up in one of the leaders (Denis Levant) as he interacts with a new recruit (Grégoire Colin), leading to abusive behavior. The actors are firm and focused, but it’s the imagery of Denis that bends Beau Travail into the realm of the rapturous. She caps the film with a dance sequences that is an astonishing study of the human figure, cutting against the space around it like an electrified switchblade.

First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, 2020). As she did with the exemplary Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt sets a fiction in the barely tamed West of the first half of the nineteenth century. First Cow is set in the Oregon Territory, where Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) befriends King-Lu (Orion Lee), quietly bonding over the way they both feel uncertain of how to make their way in the rough world. A former orphan who shuttled between small-scale, temporary occupations his whole life, Otis has a facility for baked goods, and the duo take advantage of an unguarded milk cow on a nearby property to get a key ingredient for oily cakes, which they then sell at the nearby town. Adapted from a novel by Jonathan Raymond (Reichardt co-wrote the screenplay with the author), the film offers a sharp consideration of the embedded, unyielding class structure that serves as the foundation of the country. Otis and King-Lu can strive for greater opportunity and show the fortitude and ingenuity (if aided by a bit of agriculturally based petty larceny) to build their own opportunity, but they are ultimately there to be used and discarded by moneyed interests. As usual, Reichardt brings a depth of feeling to her storytelling, making a film that is piercing, resonant, and marked by modest, casual beauty.

Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Five

#5 — The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, 2019)

At the beginning of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the main characters are waiting. Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Mont (Jonathan Majors) are sitting at the side of the road, waiting for transport that never arrives and watching the messiness of the city in which they exist. They are abandoned by the systems of their community, but they are not lost. They have the ability to strike out on their own, sharing a skateboard to get to their destination as light shines down upon them.

Conceived by Fails and his childhood friend Joe Talbot, and based on Fails’s own familial experiences in the Golden City, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a remarkable portrait of a common American experience, where legacy is simultaneously a comfort and a burden, or, more precisely, a lie agreed upon that can easily become a wounding corruption. In the film, Jimmie is obsessed with a home he lost. A lavish house in one of San Francisco’s posh, historic districts looms large for Jimmie. He grew up in the handsome abode and still shares proud stories of his grandfather building the structure from the foundation up. The family lost it years earlier, victims of insidious, creeping gentrification that made keeping the house a financially untenable proposition. Jimmie and Mont look after the house on the sly, and eventually find their way inside its walls again, the friendship tested and strengthened and tested again in the process.

Talbot crafts the film with astonishing sensitivity, capturing the souls of the characters — and the soul of the city in which the film is set — as if by sorcery. Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra helps to shape images of jarring, exquisite beauty, but that is only one component of an attentive, alive cinematic inventiveness that surges through the film. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is about a great many things, the shaping of personal identity, the evolution of community, and the sprightly impulsiveness of creativity among them. It never settles for mere essay, though. Talbot, Fails, and their gifted collaborators make a film with an astounding depth of feeling, exposing the vulnerabilities of the character with piercing honesty and celebrating those some characters’ strengths with gleaming admiration. Led by an intricate and engrossing performance by Majors, demonstrating how art can be a vital expression for a person who moves on a parallel track to most of society, The Last Black Man in San Francisco delves into the personal as a means to exploding wide the universal.

Structures can be built on untruths, so Talbot’s film argues. At the same time, those same structures can provide some level of assurance, a safety zone in the ongoing, treacherous process of staking out a place in an uncertain world. The Last Black Man in San Francisco presents itself wholeheartedly, eager to find some surety in the chaos, a way of presenting a complicated, contradictory life experience so that it will make sense to anyone willing to pull up a chair and watch the show.

The Art of the Sell — “Then Came the ‘Reckoning'”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art.

Now that our regular Sunday diversion around these here digital parts has shifted to a spot on the lengthy survey where genuinely great albums are increasingly the norm, I find myself thinking more and more of the glory years of college radio. Reinvention, it seemed, could happen every time an album was retrieved from the new music rotation and the needle was placed just so. Much as I revel in the great releases from the time when I was an undergrad, I’m acutely aware that the standard bearers of college rock were already veterans by the time I first recorded transmitter readings. And I, like assuredly many before and after me, pine for the era when the titans of the left of the dial were just getting started, when no one was truly sure, for example, if the modest, jangly, verbally obscure band from Athens, Georgia had only album of note in them or if they were poised for greater accomplishments.

The music critics quoted in the ad for Reckoning, the sophomore album from R.E.M., certainly listened. I, and my compatriots, did, too.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #428 to #426

428. The Boomtown Rats, A Tonic for the Troops (1978)

The Boomtown Rats were getting big in the U.K. and it was time to conquer the bigger, more lucrative market on the other side of the Atlantic. A Tonic for the Troops, the band’s sophomore album, holds a batch of songs there were hit singles in the U.K. Among that list is “Rat Trap,” which became the first rock song from an Irish band to take the top spot on the U.K. charts. Since the song sounds a little bit like Jim Carroll fronting the E Street Band, there was entirely reasonable speculation that the group had the potential to make headway with U.S. audiences, too. With a slightly rejiggered track list, Columbia records gave A Tonic for the Troops a spirited push, touting it as an “album full of pep and vinegar” in advertisements. Unfortunately, Mercury Records, which also had a piece of the album, opted for a more unorthodox, and ultimately counterproductive promotional method, shipping double-bagged dead rats to radio station, record stores, and music journalists. The gimmick was not well-received.

It’s possible that the Boomtown Rats’ momentum was slowed by the ill-advised mailing, but it’s more likely that the album was discombobulating to North American radio programmers. Sure, there were those elements of the bold-showmanship rock that Bruce Springsteen was slinging to slowly mounting mainstream attention (in addition to previously mentioned “Rat Trap,” the thumping “Joey’s on the Street Again” could have made the most jaded Stone Pony audience beam). More of the record twisted up punk snarl with power-pop theatricality in a manner that wasn’t exactly revolutionary but still stood out as an oddity. “Me and Howard Hughes” has the hard-candy verve of a Rocky Horror number, “Don’t Believe What You Read” is boisterous and sassy, and “She’s So Modern” is best described as greasy glam. Even the cuts most obviously indebted to punk, such as “Blind Date,” operate on their own, scene-immune plane.

A Tonic for the Troops might have been a disappointment in the U.S., but the Boomtown Rats were an emerging force back home. They kept plugging away making barbed, pointed music. In fact, the next single they released after this album was one of those songs that secures an act a permanent place in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll.

427. Bruce Woolley & the Camera Club, Bruce Wooley & the Camera Club (1979)

Bruce Woolley was having a difficult time finding his place in the music industry. A precocious songwriter, Woolley had a frustrating stint as a writer for a publishing company that farmed out his compositions to other artists. Feeling his tunes were being butchered, he joined up with other musicians to set up a band, working with a couple different crews simultaneously. The group he stuck with was dubbed the Camera Club, and they released their debut album in 1979, billed to Woolley with the Camera Club as his backup group. Titled English Garden in Woolley’s native U.K., Columbia Records decided that there weren’t enough Anglophiles buying records in the U.S. The album became a self-titled effort in North America and was adorned with a sleek, new wave–style cover.

Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club could be proffered as a means of explaining new wave music to the uninitiated. The pogoing “You Got Class,” brisk and nervy “Johnny,” and race car–sleek “You’re the Circus (I’m the Clown)” are textbook examples of the way smartly attuned artists were refining pop music with precision, discovering edgier, bolder approaches that still respected — reveled in, really — the appeal of a really, really good hook. “English Garden” is a slice of artful space age pop, but the bulk of the album has a razor-cut directness to it. It clicks and sparks with delighted invention.

The most famous song on the album was taken from the other band Woolley briefly worked with at about the same time he launched the Camera Club. Woolley teamed with Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes as they were developing a band called the Buggles. Though Woolley parted ways with the duo, he figured the material he worked on with them was fair game for his other group. One of those songs was about performers getting pushed by new technologies that didn’t necessarily play to their strengths. Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club deliver their version of “Video Killed the Radio Star” with a bounding energy and slight undercurrent of punk brashness that recalls the music of the Cars from about the same era. The Buggles decided to record their own version of the song, with a little more polish, and it worked out fairly well for them.

426. Game Theory, The Big Shot Chronicles (1985)

“I always consider myself doing something weirder than any band on Earth,” Scott Miller told Spin magazine at around the time that The Big Shot Chronicles, Game Theory’s third full-length album, was released.

It might be true that no one else at the time was framing a love song the way Miller does on the piercingly beautiful album closer “Like a Girl Jesus” (“Brightness as pure as December sunshine/ And like a girl Jesus she makes it mine/ Without a doubt, puts herself down on the line/ And like a girl Jesus she’s undefined”), but most listeners likely heard the material on The Big Shot Chronicles as well-established pop forms rendered with exquisite expertise. The band went through major tumult, and Miller, the frontman and chief songwriter, wound up as the only original member left. He reformed the group to suit the directions he wanted to go in, and went about crafting jangly, bright tunes with dazzling hooks. Elevating the songs further, the Miller and the rest of Game Theory worked with producer Mitch Easter, the moment’s undisputed master of presiding over college rock classics, to make a spinning treasure.

The Big Shot Chronicles is a survey of every sound college radio programmers found irresistible in the middle of the nineteen-eighties. “Here It is Tomorrow” swirls and careens with power-pop energy, “Never Mind” unleashed delicious dueling guitars, and “Regenisraen” has a gloomy, moony vibe, like the Church without the hint of slightly haughty mysticism. “I’ve Tried Subtlety” is a chunk of great bar rock, and “Erica’s Word” lopes along with marvelous, head-bobbing verve. Both “The Only Lesson Learned” and the tender-hearted ballad “Too Closely” sound like they could have slotted onto a less ambitious version of Fables of the Reconstruction, the R.E.M. album released that year that was their first outing without Easter at the helm.

The album drew rave reviews and quickly outpaced earlier Game Theory albums in sales. Like other artists claiming lots of college radio airplay at the time, Game Theory seemed poised for a breakthrough. That fed into a major burst of ambition when time came to record the follow-up. For their next record, Game Theory would go big.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

Outside Reading — The Unreal World edition

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The kids aren’t alright: How Generation Covid is losing out by Federica Cocco

The cataclysmic failure of national leadership — and, to a more varied degree, state and local leadership — has wreaked havoc on communities coast to cost, including especially devastating effects on the economy. The pain is spread disproportionately, with individuals just out of school and trying to enter the workforce facing special impediments. Writing for Financial Times, Federica Cocco draws on the the reflections of several of these millennials and Generation Z members from all around in the world. In this country, they’ve spent their entirely lives subjecting to a string of cruelties almost entirely traceable to the bad, deeply irresponsible decisions of older generations: active shooter drills, endless war, the Great Recession, the student loan crisis, devastating slashes to education budgets, and gaping income inequality. They have gotten an astonishingly bad deal from a country that prides itself on its exceptionalism.

It’s Time for Democrats to Tell Trump Supporters the Truth by Charles P. Pierce

Writing for Esquire, Charles P. Pierce unleashes appropriate fury on the notion, floated this week, that president-elect Joe Biden will opt against pursuing justice against the miscreants who spent four years in the White House flagrantly violating laws while dismantling the government for profit. In a way, I find it perversely admirable that Biden is still devoted to the idea of developing national unity, but it’s also deeply frustrating that he and his cohorts don’t recognize that his noble aspiration is severely undercut by the mass of Republicans cravenly enabling daily blasts of dishonest rhetoric that take a dull, rusty hacksaw to the already weatherbeaten stilts upon which the nation’s teetering democracy stands. There has been brazen, constant criminality done all across the current executive branch, and it was, by definition, done in the name of U.S. citizens. It’s long past time to acquiesce out of the fear of angering the delusional cult members who still support the red-hatted buffoon. It’s time for Democrats to stand for something and speak hard truths rather than bowing to political opponents who ruthlessly demonize them.

Dewey Defeats Truman (1997) by Thomas Mallon

Taking his title — and likely inspiration — from the most notorious newspaper headline of all time, Thomas Mallon crafts a novel about small-town life in mid–twentieth century America. Ahead of the 1948 presidential election, the Michigan community of Owosso is in a flurry because Republican candidate Thomas Dewey, the town’s most famous native son, seems poised to win the highest post in the land. That’s the backdrop for a twisty tale of overlapping modest dilemmas traversed by a menagerie of homespun characters. There’s nothing monumental about the work, not in its construction nor its unfussy language. It does have the sturdiness of time-tested fiction with a distinct Midwestern flavor. Dewey Defeats Truman is the epitome of the Good American Novel.

This Week’s Model — Cloud Nothings, “The Spirit Of”

“The Spirit Of,” the new track by Cloud Nothings, cracks open my id and sluices in everything my younger self ever wanted in a song. It’s guitars and drums and bass, and producer Steve Albini making a lovely smear of it all. Lead singer Dylan Baldi delivers basic lyrics like an incantation of angst (“Who am I to be? I’d rather have fallen”) until the litany becomes overwhelming, his voice as ragged as a flannel that was the sole garment worn during a long, hard winter. And it gets all it’s work done in two and a half minutes, making it a model of rock ‘n’ roll efficiency.

The Shadow I Remember, the new album from Cloud Nothings, is scheduled for release in February 2021.