Monday, March 26, 2012


It was an innocent time, 2005. I saw Royksopp in concert. (My review here). The soundtrack to happiness. I just figured out that "eple" means "apple"in Norwegian.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tennis as Text

Back when Roger Federer was at the peak of his abilities as a tennis player and was speedily breaking through every tennis record known to humankind, David Foster Wallace wrote a piece on Federer for the New York Times. This was in 2006, when Wallace was.... well, he was alive for a start. He was 44 years old and it had been ten years since the publication of his greatest novel Infinite Jest. An incredibly ambitious work that operates on several meta-levels between fiction and non-fiction, this book, footnoted to death, was considered by some in the list of top 100 works of "fiction" written in the English language in the previous 75 years or so. Wikipedia describes it thus:

[a] lengthy and complex work [that] takes place in a semi-parodic future version of North America and touches on tennis, substance addiction and recovery programs, depression, child abuse, family relationships, advertising and popular entertainment, film theory, and Quebec separatism... The novel includes 388 numbered endnotes (some of which have footnotes of their own) that explain or expound on points in the story. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace characterized their use as a method of disrupting the linearity of the text while maintaining some sense of narrative cohesion.

Wallace went on to much fame. He even received the MacArthur Foundation grant, the so-called genius award, but he never finished another novel. He did, however, write quite a bit of short non-fiction, including about Federer and tennis, more broadly. In 2006, I wasn't paying that much attention to tennis. I think I may have heard of Federer at the time but I'm not sure I had any sense of his capabilities or where he fit into the pantheon. I used to be a tennis freak, as in, I obsessively watched tennis on TV as a young kid (couldn't play worth a damn) but sometime during the reign of Pete Sampras, I basically lost all interest. Something about his game (or perhaps his personality) dampened my enthusiasm for the game, and if there was a sport I followed at all in the early 2000s, it was basketball, inspired to some degree by a stint living in Philadelphia and watching the 76ers. Remember Allen Iverson?

Sports writing as a genre is largely a dull breed of writing. But something about Wallace's writing was intriguing. His peculiar choice of diction, his language, his circuitous description of Federer mimicked Federer's play itself. It's supremely elegant and effective but you don't know how he did it. The essay, recently republished in an anthology was described by its editors as one that "still stands as one of the most stirring, illuminating essays ever written about the beauty of sports at its highest level." In time, Wallace's essay itself has assumed a strange iconic significance, with other people writing essays about his essay, especially after Wallace committed suicide in September 2008.

For some reason, I'm really not sure why, sometime around early 2008, I began to watch a lot of tennis. I saw the Australian Open which I think was in January and noticed this guy Roger Federer. He didn't win it, nor did he with the subsequent French Open a few months later. But soon after, there was the epic battle between Federer and his then arch rival Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. It was July 2008, and I was visiting a friend in San Francisco. It was a spectacular final that Sunday, some claiming the greatest tennis match ever played. Somebody's even written a book--an entire book!--about that match. Watching Federer that year, a year when he was ostensibly in decline, I found myself drawn to tennis again.

All sports have knowledge systems that undergird them. For the laypublic, especially men, sports operates at the level of minutae: scores, averages, statistics, and so on. There's a lot of that in tennis too, of course, but there's also an ineffably individualistic quality about tennis that sets it apart from other popular sports of today. When you are on the court, there is no one but you. There is no coach, no helmet, no protective padding, no fellow players, no special costume: it is just you and a tennis racket. There's something both humanistic and animalistic in that ritual. What I think Federer did for the game was to infuse the loneliness of the tennis player with an inextricable naturalness. People talk about his grace, and yes, he is graceful, but he also seems to operate at a level where the science of angles and velocities disappear into mystery. His playing is both mysterious but utterly within reach. He makes it look easy enough that you, yes you, could do it if you just swung the racket in the right direction.

Wallace's writing about Federer captured that quality more precisely than anything I've ever read, indeed anything I've read about any sports. There's a lovely part where Wallace notes:

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war. The human beauty we're talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings' reconciliation with the fact of having a body. 

Of course, in men's sports no one talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their "love" of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalistic fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war's codes are safer for most of us than love's. You too may find them so, in which case Spain's mesomorphic and totally martial Rafael Nadal is the man's man for you---he of the unsleeved biceps and Kabuki self-exhortations.

Oddly enough, since 2008, when I found myself interested in Federer, he has been in a slow decline. After winning five Wimbledon championships in a row, he lost to Nadal in the finals in July 2008. Coincidentally, few months later, David Foster Wallace killed himself. In the last years of his life, Wallace had struggled to finish his second novel. In a lengthy post-mortem on Wallace published in the New Yorker a year after his death, the author, D. T. Max, recalled the outpouring of sadness from the literary world at Wallace's death:

He was only forty-six when he killed himself, which helped explain the sense of loss readers and critics felt. There was also Wallace's outsized passion for the printed word at at time when it looked like it needed champions. His novels were overstuffed with facts, humor, digressions, silence, and sadness. He conjured the world in two-hundred word sentences that mixed formal diction and street slang, technicalese and plain speech; his prose slid forward with a controlled lack of control that mimed through itself.

Was there some weird inexplicable parallel between the talents of Wallace and Federer? Probably not. But the fact that one provided a window into the beauty of the other, brought into relief for me the very primal link between words and bodies. When we watch the theater of sports, we are at once celebrating the physicality of the human body and at the same time reading the body.

Since 2008, Roger Federer has had a reasonably successful career as a tennis player. While he has never managed to (re)attain the halcyon heights of his peak level between 2004 to 2007, he remains very much in the mix as one of the best tennis players. If he has been eclipsed at the top by Nadal and Novak Djokovic, he still retains his odd capacity to create movement--kinetic beauty--on the tennis court bar none. As a 'real' person, he remains oddly sterile, someone who is probably rather well-intentioned and polite, but not terribly interesting, but more than a bit self-involved. He reminds me a little bit of people like Kanye West: incredibly talented, unduly self-absorbed, and and possessed of some questionable aesthetic choices.

In the past few months suddenly, Federer has been on the rise again. He has won six of the eight tournaments he has entered, the last won being a major tournament played at Indian Wells in California. The above picture is from the final match played last Sunday when he beat John Isner, an American player, in straight sets. Something about that picture, for a brief moment, reminded me of David Foster Wallace. If you could disassemble that picture and abstract those pieces into words, you might get something akin to Wallace's essay. Mysterious, confounding, elegant, humanistic, animalistic, contradictory, beautiful.

Read it here.

25 Most Original Films of All Time

PaperStreetCinema posted the top 25 most original movies of all time. The list (below) suggests that there's some overlap between "original" and "influential." I think it's easier to measure the latter but more difficult to measure the former. "Influential" basically means that the movie in question incorportaed stylistic features that later repeatedly showed up in later films. You could also measure "influential" by reading interviews with directors and getting a rough estimate of how many times directors tend to invoke particular movies. "Original" is a different matter. It's really about creating new idioms, new languages of film.

Here is PaperStreetCinema's list. My comments are in red.

1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
1. Birth of a Nation (Griffith) --Tied with Citizen Kane. Every movie made since Griffith and Welles has been inextricably influenced by both in equal measure. No film since has added much more to the medium than what's in these two. They are cinema's most basic building blocks.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
This would have been my number 1.
4. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
5. Pulp Fiction (Tarentino) --The most groundbreaking screenplay/dialogue of all time.
6. Star Wars (Lucas)
Influential or original? I tend to think more influential. Star Wars inaugurated the era of big budget special effects sci-fi/fantasy popcorn blockbusters. But was it original? Star Wars took bits and pieces of everything from Greek tragedies Hindu mythology, cowboys-and-Indians movies, the Bible, Flash Gordon, and Freud, added some operatic overtones, and put the whole thing in space. Maybe Lucas' genius was to mix all of this stuff into a greater whole?
7. Fantasia (Disney)
8. Rashomon (Kurosawa)
Yes, for sure.
9. Jaws (Spielberg) --one of my favorite films but I would argue that Spielberg ruined Hollywood by creating the "event movie" phenomenon (Lucas shares the blame too).
This is definitely original. I think the modern special effects thriller was born here.
10. Toy Story (Lassiter)
Good call.
11. Die Hard (McTiernan) --yes, really.
12. The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (Wiene)
13. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
14. The Last Laugh (Murnau)
15. Blade Runner (Scott)
Yes, most definitely.
16. Cleopatra (Mankiewicz) --Groundbreaking in the sense that it single-handedly ended the classic Hollywood generation.
Again, are we talking landmark or original?
17. Night of the Living Dead (Romero) The first significant independent film.
Probably my number 2.
18. Batman (Burton)
19. A Trip to the Moon (Méliès)
Yes, absolutely.
20. Psycho (Hitchcock)
21. Stagecoach (Ford)
22. Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel/Dali)
23. Metropolis (Lang)
Again, essential in the "original" category.
24. Halloween (Carpenter)
25. The Blair Witch Project (Myrick/Sanchez)
I'm not a fan of this movie but I can see this.

Others for consideration: Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick) for its ground-breaking combination of satire, apocalypse, realism, and alternate reality. Also: Alien (Scott) for its original contribution of the alien archetype, the class warfare on the ship, and grunt protagonists, etc.. Can any other sci-fi movie ever claim such originality? Other possible candidates: Manhattan and/or Annie Hall (for its combination of comedy and meta dialogue with the audience). Also The Player (Altman)? Russian Ark (Sokurov)? Rope (Hitchcock)?


For some reason, as long as I have owned music, I've fetishized the rare. Here, "rare"is a relative term, for the quality of being "rare" (let's call it "rarity") is a slippery term, often carefully constructed by corporations and faceless musical conglomerates. But conceding that the whole edifice of the music industry is built around interventions designed to create consumer demand for useless things, I'll argue that there was something oddly attractive about rare musical artifacts: b-sides, alternate versions released specially for the Belgian market, extra tracks on Japanese releases, EPs that had been deleted and never included on a proper album, singles released on 45s that never made it onto CDs, etc.

In the late 1980s, as I grew to be a collector (or maybe a Collector), these sorts of stray songs, the ones left behind, assumed a sort of mystical quality in my imagination. I had to track them all down, even if I had to make friends in Belgium. I'm thinking of bands like the Smiths who not only released albums but also numerous singles which had songs that were never included (at least originally) on the proper albums. How did bands make these choices, what to keep on the album and what to leave off? I was recently listening to one of my favorite Smiths songs "William, It Was Really Nothing" which was originally released as a single in August 1984. The song was not originally featured on any album, i.e., the only way to get it and listen to it was to buy the 45 rpm single. And if you bought the 12" version of the single, you got a special treat, two songs on the b-side: "How Soon Is Now?" and "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want." What kind of a band would relegate such fantastic songs as forgotten b-sides?

Soon enough, of course, all three of these songs appeared on various Smiths compilations (and believe me, there are far too many to recount), but every band, however famous, always had a few tracks, lost to the world, lost to the general public. You had to be a bit industrious to track these songs down. If you lived in Texas, you might go to Sound Exchange or that big store in Austin. Because these "rare" purchases were rather expensive, you felt that you had to invest some time and attention to the songs you bought, even if they were mediocre (which they were, half the time). I remember buying Love and Rockets' "So Alive" as a 45 in 1989, and listening excitedly to the b-side, "Dreamtime" an absurdly bizarre (and let's face it, bad song). If you paid a lot of money for it, you forced yourself to appreciate the b-side.

But some bands in the 1980s took a lot of care and effort into these stray tracks. The Smiths of course, whose "Jeane" (the b-side of "This Charming Man") has been lost forever but was undoubtedly one of the best songs they ever recorded. And there was a certain kind of fetishistic joy I got simply from listening to these experiments in sound from bands like the Smiths, U2, the Cure, Flaming Lips, My Bloody Valentine, and so on.

Today I present five randomly chosen b-sides from the 1980s. The first is from a classic middlebrow easy listening band (and now firmly in the playing-in-the-doctors-office-waiting-room category), Tears for Fears. In March 1985, the band released "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" (which I still love); but if you bought the 45 and flipped it over and played the b-side, what you got was a strange sound collage called "Pharoahs," a truly mesmerizing piece of 1980s-period experimental pop. If you listen to it carefully (at about 2:20), the band plays the exact guitar solo (one of my all time favorite guitar solos, actually) that is featured on the a-side. Play it. You'll recognize it. Simply fantastic:

The next one is from U2's single "When Love Comes to Town" (a frankly terrible song) released in April 1989. The b-side, however, is a song called "Dancing Barefoot," originally written and performed by Patti Smith on her album Wave from 1979. I had never heard the Patti Smith version when I heard U2 do it, and it's an understatement to say that it blew my mind. It's rare that U2 performs as a rock band--they're usually so overproduced (which I think, is the point of latter day U2)--but here they sound raw and just a band jamming, trying to find new spaces out of old chords.

The third one is a song by Siouxsie & the Banshees, originally released on the b-side of the 12" of "This Wheel's On Fire" in January 1987. The a-side was a (Bob Dylan) cover but the b-side had two originals, both of which were stellar. Here is "Sleepwalking (On The High Wire)," a strangely evocative song about God knows what. The production is dated, of course, but the mood is still powerful, emotionally taut.

The fourth one is "Erotic City," the b-side to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy" from July 1984. I couldn't find the 7" version on youtube so here is the extended version in all its seven-and-a-half minute glory. This may be the best dance song Prince ever released; it's certainly in my list of the top 10 best dance songs of all time. Unbelievable genius.

Finally, we have, as (implicitly) promised, "Jeane."

We tried and we failed
We tried and we failed
We tried and we failed

Originally released in October 1983, somehow the song got lost in the shuffle, missing a spot on various compilations. The song is ostensibly a subtle but powerful comment on Thatcherite England and the ways in which money (or lack of money) can tear even the best relationships apart. But you know, even if you know nothing about Thatcher or early 1980s England, it doesn't matter. The song just summarizes a lost cause relationship with economic precision. Here is the original version:

Here is a cover by Sandie Shaw (from April 1984) backed by Morrissey and Marr, who were big fans of Shaw and who invited her to do a cover.