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Bob Dylan: Spinnin’ Those Cool Records

XM radioThe voice seems familiar, but the venue’s different. I’m driving down the highway, and there’s a guy on the radio talking about a record he’s about to play. I’m not sure what station’s on, but that voice…the emphasis on the last syllable of each sentence. The late-middle age growl. The cynical humor, a sardonic grin in every other word.

It’s Bob Dylan, deejay.

Then I remember. The car’s got satellite radio, XM to be specific and Dylan hosts a weekly one-hour show called The Theme Time Radio Hour on several of the couple hundred channels. This week’s installment, in honor of Valentine’s Day, centers on the heart. And it’s brilliant, half performance, half … ok, all performance. Halfway between an epic Dylan story-song and a chapter from his wonderful Chronicles book. Eclectic references – did you know that Valentines Day is named for three Christian saints? Or the riff after a Billie Holiday’s Good Morning Heartache: “I know a lot of people who’ve kicked heroin, but I don’t know many who’ve gotten off television.”
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Our Little Month-Old

Just a month ago, newcritics hit the feed-stream as an experiment: could a few bloggers come together to write about culture without killing each other. The answer, a month in, is a Beatle-like yeah. Not the bouncy 1963 “yeah!” but more a 1969-style, slouching “yeah…” Followed by “man.” Which is perfect really, because this is a secondary outlet for most of the authors here – a hang-out, a back room. We’ve got no expectations really.

What’s really, though, is the new conversation we’ve started – 15 bloggers (so far), dozens of commenters, thousands of readers. I’ll give you the basic stats: 45 posts and 181 comments, within 22 categories. More than 11,000 sessions and 50,000 pages. Small stuff still, but I’m enjoying the ride. And really, what a great lineup of bloggers. Think about the output in on month, and the variety of posts. If this was a magazine, I’d buy it.

But it’s not – it’s a blog. So you’re in charge here, to the degree I can control it. Your ideas and suggestions are encouraged. Your comments power newcritics. Roxtar says newcritics is “Slick as snot on a glass doorknob, and as cool as the other side of the pillow.” Love it! But we’re only a month old. Can’t hardly walk yet. But we’re learning to crawl. Stay tuned.

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The Fabulous Iggy Pop

Iggy PopWatching Anthony Kiedis sleepwalk through the motions while the rest of the Red Hot Chili Peppers delivered a technically brilliant and emotionally spirited set last week in Tampa, the mind of this 44-year-old rock fan turned to an elder of the genre. There were times when the lead Chili (also 44) acted like Iggy Pop, but man, he didn’t deliver like Iggy. He didn’t sell it. He didn’t leave it up there. He didn’t bleed.

Of course, the irony was rich – there were Kiedis and Flea doing their best Iggy impressions and raking in millions, filling arenas, and putting up hits all over the chart for a couple of decades.

Iggy Pop, aka James Osterberg from suburban Michigan, never put up the chart-toppers, never filled arenas, never toured in an armada of tractor trailers, elaborate staging, and handlers. Yet, four decades into his long and often strange career, Iggy Pop remains as influential as ever. Iggy turns 60 this year, the reunited Stooges have an album in the wings, and Iggy is the subject for the first full-blown, fully-researched biography of his long life. Paul Trynka, former editor of Mojo, has crafted a superb reader that captures the manic energy of “Iggy Pop,” and the restless, intellectual wanderings of Jim Osterberg. Iggy: Open Up and Bleed (due on April 17 from Broadway) explores the depths of madness and energy that have always keyed the Iggy Pop personal, melding the hypersexual wide-eyed rock-and-roll man-child with a fascinating cast of characters that tells the story of rock from the mid-60s to the latest playlists on iTunes.
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Setlist for Tonight

So much to read, so little time. Welcome to the occasional newcritics linkfest (or blog-whoring as the estimable Shakespeare’s Sister would call it). It’s three-dot time, friends. Jim Wolcott pans Woody Allen’s Scoop (“There’s a lot that doesn’t seem to have reached Mr. Magoo.”), a flick that was panned here by Lance Mannion, who gives a long and sincere thumb’s up to a celluloid winter’s tale, The Big White. Maud Newton’s not a fan of winter’s epidemics, but being laid up gave her the chance to review The Mighty Boosh, via YouTube, by way of the BBC. She likes. And if you’re got the bug, use the wifi and the day off from work to read Grasshopper’s Diary of a Heretic, a work in progress. Michael Stickings blogs a winter painting. Blue Girl loved Nora Ephron’s latest, especially the black turtlenecks. Gotham Gal pans the International Center of Photography’s exhibits. Nancy Nall thought Dreamgirls was OK, but she didn’t find the real Detroit. And the Slacktivist has a CEO’s ode to Yertle the Turtle. Oh, and Hugh Hewitt apparently thinks the widely-loved fantasy series 24 is somehow real.

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Jim Webb & Graham Greene: With a Vietnamese Baby on Your Mind

Senator James Webb invoked Andrew Jackson in his response to President Bush on Tuesday, he used a classic bit of the novelist’s art put the weight of Ole Hickory’s plain political talk at the service of criticism of modern corporate greed. It fit, but the edges were knocked off. Such is also the case with the landscape of the New Vietnam that the soldier-author chronicles in his 2002 novel Lost Soldiers, parts of which became briefly controversial during Webb’s contest with George Allen in Virginia.

Webb and GreeneWebb’s modern Vietnam is seen through the eyes of an old soldier who remains besotted with the land of his conflict, and newly enamored of a young girl who happens to be the American-influenced daughter of a communist official. The American’s job is to work with the government to repatriate the bones of dead soldiers. Suffice to say, a political complication arises. But that made-for-Hollywood plot (which ends in a Bangkok shoot ’em up) is far less interesting than the relationship between the American and the Vietnamese whose lives still revolve around the outcome of the war.

When it’s good – and at times it’s very good indeed – Lost Soldiers forms a worthy bookend to Graham Greene’s classic tale of French colonialism and American intrigue, The Quiet American.
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The Sorkin Spectacle

Lance Mannion, who graces newcritics with his presence, runs one of those wonderfully just-because online events that attracts the right crowd: I refer to his weekly live-blogging fest of Aaron Sorkin’s much-maligned Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Lance’s commentpalooza has been on hiatus with the show, but it returns to tonight and we urge visitors here to repair over there around 9:30 EDT, 8:30 Central and log on in. The banter is mostly better than the show, whose main topic is, basically, banter.

From this couch, the problem with Studio 60 isn’t so much the over-stylized walk-and-talk tic that Sorkin has developed (and patented, apparently); it’s that the show is supposed to be about a show that’s funny, about people who are funny. But they’re not. (Except for erstwhile network “suit” Amanda Peet, who is occasionally hilarious in the classic wacky-beauty way that Sarah Paulsen is supposed to be, but isn’t). Ken Levine noted this and other factors in an LA Times piece, eliciting a thin-skinned attack from Sorkin (who took Levine’s considerable writing credits in vain),which in turn prompted this blog post from Levine. Ah, Hollywood. Thy charms are many. Ironywatch: the whole Levine-Sorking-Mannion episode is far more interesting than your typical week of Studio 60! Then again, I only watch it for the blogging.

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Swedish Cop, Timeless Murder

Henning MankelThere’s a distinct darkness on the edge of the old towns along the coast of southern Sweden in the dangerous world created by Henning Mankell and inhabited by his brilliant and reluctant police inspector Kurt Wallander.

I’ve ploughed through nearly all of the ten or so Wallander books in translation over the past few months, set in Skane just across the water from Copenhagen, an area of ancient villages, flat and barren landscape, farms and beaches. They’re among the best detective books I’ve ever read, falling into the police procedural sub-genre; Mankel leads the reader matter-of-actly through the dogged, often mundane pursuit of criminals. But he has also created some of the most horrific killers ever to prowl a novelist’s page, monsters who terrorize the farmsteads and quiet flats of Skane. Continue reading “Swedish Cop, Timeless Murder”

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Executioner’s Songs

Televised executions are all the rage these days, but the long drops in Iraq brought to mind two made-for-television movies that I saw decades ago, but remain fairly vivid for their imagery and their unshaking lens. They were seen as anti-death penalty arguments on the small screen, but as I remember, both The Execution of Private Slovik and The Executioner’s Song were delivered straight up. And because we don’t televise our executions in America, they became stand-ins for what was then a raging discussion about the morality of capital punishment, as the death chamber came back into active use across the United States.
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Portraying Dr. King

KingMuch critical ink has been spilled, and deservedly so, on the merits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a writer. King was a master of the language, and indeed his use of the written and spoken word created the center of his power as a leader, and preserved his image as an icon. [I wrote about this last year on this day]. And of course, King’s image is manifest throughout the documentary arts – in spoken word recreation of his speeches, on television. But what of Dr. King as a character, as a figure worthy of potrayal?

Not much, at least that I know of. The main vehicle was Paul Winfield’s 1978 miniseries portrayal in King, which I saw in reruns on TBS a few years back. Cicely Tyson played Coretta Scott King, Ossie Davis was the senior Rev. King, veteran TV actor Cliff DeYoung was Bobby Kennedy, Heat of the Night‘s Howard Rollins portrayed Andrew Young, and Tony Bennett played himself. But I wonder, where are the other King docudramas and feature films? Has he grown too iconic to portray? Or too sainted of memory to be interesting to filmmakers? Nearly three decades after his death, is it time for a major project?

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This Anomalous Experiment

New Criticism was a movement among early 20th century writers and critics of English that argued a strict adherence to a series of absolute truths, the most important of which was that everything that can be known about a work of literature can be found in its published text. Almost a century later, technology and media distribution have changed the mean of the most important word in that description – “text.” These days, the text is never finished and it goes far beyond the written word. Further, criticism, once the province of a few well-educated, semi-cloistered academics, is now the work of the masses. Critics today must either wade into the crowd, or be left on a remote shore.

In this WordPress-powered “anomalous experiment” – TS Eliot’s description – we do not adopt the principles of close reading so favored by the New Critics of old. But there is one element of the namesake school that is the key to this group blog – ambiguity. Different critics see different books, films, television shows, music, poetry, performances in vastly different ways. Further, the best works about human life are far from absolute, even the most moralistic of tales. Here, many different voices explore iconoclastic reactions to media – and the rest of us react to those reactions. That’s the goal; we’ll see how it works out.

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