Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Best of 2012.

"Go ahead, make my chair."

Much to the Mayans' chagrin, the world moves on from 2012 to 2013.

Here were the things that made it worth living through:

Best Film: Lincoln.

What happens when the greatest living director teams up with the greatest living actor to tell the story of America's greatest-ever president? Something close to perfection. By focusing in on Lincoln's struggle to get the 13th Amendment passed over a precious few weeks, Lincoln tells the story of an entire man's life & the modern nation he helped bring into being. The lines blur between history, drama, comedy, & tragedy in a way that few films have been able to achieve. & at the center of it all is Lincoln, who plots, plans, theorizes, schemes, schmoozes, & charms his actions into a singular gesture of political genius.

Best Movie: Argo.

Films aside, it's been a great year for movies—The Avengers, The Hunger Games, & Dark Knight Rises all somehow lived up to their hype & more, but for me, Argo stood above the rest as a testament to great movie-making. It probably has to do with the fact that, at its center, Argo is a love-letter to the movie industry. In spinning an essentially-true tall-tale about a government agent who frees a group of Americans in Iran by posing them as a film-crew scouting a sci-fi B-movie, actor/director Ben Affleck never lets up as he takes you along for the ride—& near-failures—of his elaborate sting operation. Many critics have noted that the movie also sets up the modern Middle Eastern world, but would anyone care if it wasn't super-fun to watch? As the man said, Argo f_ck yerself.

Best Television Show: Community.

2012 has been a renaissance year for the art form known as the sitcom. Parks & Recreation is the most charming, New Girl is the most improved, Happy Endings is the most consistent, but Community is most progressive, which for me is why it takes the cake. Not since Seinfeld has a mainstream sitcom pushed the boundaries as much as Community, & its 2011-2012 third season was its weirdest & most wonderful yet. Each episode was often little more than a shell for a 22-minute experiment: One episode was a spot-on send-up of Law & Order, another had the characters breaking out into song Glee-style, & yet another took place entirely inside a video game designed in the 1980s. But standing above them all was "Remedial Chaos Theory," in which the episode reveals 7 different alternate realities unfolding depending on who answers the door to get a pizza. Yeah, like everything else in Community's self-referential little world, it has to be seen to be understood, but once yer in, you are in.

Best Song: "We Are Never Getting Back Together" by Taylor Swift.

Every once in a while, an instant anthem comes out that captures the imagination by knocking down walls simply by existing. Here we have a country star-turned-pop diva, embracing her stardom with a knowing wink to the hipsters who she'll never be cool enough for, & beating/joining them with a sound, look, & video that sounds like it was masterminded by Wes Anderson's kid brother. The video is the stunner—a rare one-shot masterpiece (check my list of the best ones here)—walking the line between sleek pop & cool rock in a wholly stylish & stylized way. Oh yeah, & the fact that it was sinking into the national consciousness right around the time when Mitt Romney was breaking up with the Republican Party didn't hurt.

Best Book: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham.

Disclosure: I have not read this book. But it's about Thomas Jefferson & by Jon Meacham, so what's not to love? Plus, it's got "Art" in the title. Love it already. All I need to do is finish my copy of Goodwin's Team of Rivals & then read Chernow's Washington: A Life (which has been on deck fer a year now—if only I could read as fast as I could spout Elvis fun facts!), & then I'll go out & buy my copy. & then read it. But aside from that minor detail, this book is phenomenal.

Best Stage Performance: Death of a Salesman, with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Disclosure #2: I did not see this play. But I have a good friend who saw it & said it was great. I think this is the greatest play in American history, so I know I woulda loved it. Plus, it had the creepy cult dude from The Master & Spiderman from Spiderman, both of which I did see this year. The Master was pretty f_cked up, but Hoffman is compelling as always, & Spiderman was great, although truth be told I could watch a movie featuring Emma Stone reading a phonebook & I'd probably be just as contented. Now how can we get Emma Stone into a production of Death of a Salesman...?

Best Game: Angry Birds.

There are two types of people in the world: People who are addicted to Angry Birds & people who've never tried playing it. Cuz once you start, you can't stop—it's SOOO much better than thinking.

Best Website: Twitter.

"Hey there newspapers, TV, & radio punditry! Sorry I took all yer jobs! I am all-powerful! I'd write more, but I only have 140 characters!"

Best Reissue: Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968.

What's the most influential rock album that had never before been available as a stand-alone CD? Nuggets. Masterminded by Lenny Kaye (guitarist & leader of the Patti Smith Group), this was a collection of garage rock that took the music just to the cusp of punk, yes, but it was also a freakshow of hits, misses, & rarities culled from the cutout bins of rock & roll—a fuzz-tone medicine show put on by all of the losers, fakers, wanna-be's, one-hit wonders, & no-hit wonders that took the chance at 15 seconds of fame in the spotlight. Despite making every definitive Rolling Stone list from the '80s onward, the album was nowhere to be found until Rhino reissued it as the first disc of a four-disc boxed set in the mid-'90s. Now for the first time, you can get it just by itself, & bask in a weird, weird underworld of '60s rock that wouldn't be caught dead on a Time-Life informercial.

Best Performance Art Piece: Clint Eastwood's RNC Speech.

Q: What do you get when you cross a grizzled actor, a national convention, & a chair?
A: Art. (You also get history—never before had the nominee of a national convention been an empty chair.)

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Top 5 Best Christmas Songs of the Rock & Roll Era.

Rock & Roll & Christmas music have always made for strange bedfellows.

Rock is the symbol of Dionysian excess while Christmas is the time of year for joy & peace. Throw in the fact that Christmas music is generally bright, chipper, & cheery—3 words that don't describe any of the greatest rock songs. Thus, most of the first generation of rock Christmas music ("Jingle Bell Rock," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," etc.) sucks.

However, ever since the Big Bang of Rock & Roll Christmas music—1957's Elvis's Christmas Album—there has been a surprising number of decent rock tunes to come out of the season, whether jingled or not.

This isn't a list of Christmas carols—no Elvis singing "Silent Night" or Springsteen singing "Santa Claus Is Back in Town"—these are songs from the rock era that were new at the time of recording. Hence, even Elvis's masterful "Blue Christmas" is omitted because it was a cover of a relatively-unknown country song before Elvis put it over the top.

These 5 songs stand the test of time & prove that good Christmas things can come wrapped in rock packages.

5. "Little Saint Nick" By The Beach Boys (Christmas 1963)

More than anyone else before The Beatles, The Beach Boys had an instantly-recognizable sound to their hits, a polished & professional vibe that instantly evoked surfer days & summer nights. What's so great about their first Christmas single, "Little Saint Nick," is that it doesn't sound like it's gonna be a Christmas song—those first few seconds always trick me into being just "another" classic Beach Boys production. In this way, the song reminds me of Chuck Berry's "Run, Run Rudolph" in terms of pioneering the concept that a rock Christmas song could sound more like rock than Christmas—& indeed, Berry's tune nearly made the list in this one's place. But in the end, I went for The Beach Boys because it hints at the lush, professional productions that were only enhanced by studio technology & psychedelic drugs. As such, it is a small indicator of where they were going to go. On a high-speed sled.

4. "All I Want for Christmas Is You" By Mariah Carey (Christmas 1994)

I can't stand Mariah Carey. In my mind, there are three things that redeem her: She seems to have a refreshingly healthy Hollywood marriage & family, she did a great job in the film Precious, & this song. What makes it all the more remarkable is what a recent song this is—so far, there are few songs from the '90s that could be described as "timeless." This is one. Part of what makes it hang together so well is how much it is rooted in the '50s—not in a cheap cash-in Happy Days kinda way, but in a thorough, evocative way capturing the spirit of the decade, not all that unlike from the vibe Bruce Springsteen hit when he first came out & was proclaimed "Rock & Roll Future." Like the best rock & pop music, the song feels eternally youthful, while seemingly feeling like it has been around forever. It is also, for my money, the best thing to come out of Mariah Carey's 27-octive voice.

3. "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" By Elvis Presley (Christmas 1957)

It used to be that rock was rock & Christmas was Christmas. That all changed in 1957, when Elvis's Christmas Album hit the shelves. With it, Elvis brought rock & roll—real rock, none of that Connie Francis junk—to Christmas, as well as just enough schmaltz to keep grandma happy too. For, even though there were scrubbed-up readings of "Little Town of Bethlehem" & "I'll Be Home for Christmas," it was the bold opener, a new song called "Santa Claus Is Back in Town," that set things straight. With its talk of a big black Cadillac & a pretty baby, it lingers on the edge of self-parody but is saved by the band's rousing performance & Elvis's perfect conviction (not that the two can really be separated—just listen to Elvis growl over the beginning of the killer piano solo). Everything peaks at one line, perhaps the filthiest to ever appear on a best-selling Christmas album: "Hang up your pretty stockings/turn out the light/Santa Claus is coming [cumming?] down your chimney tonight!" Not sure how that one got past the censors, but so glad that it did—"Santa Claus Is Back in Town" isn't just one of Elvis's finest Christmas songs, it's one of his most exciting & exhilarating performances, period.

2. "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)" By John Lennon (Christmas 1971)*

*NOTE: The sound quality in this video SUCKS, but the only original version that hadn't been taken down had pictures of children during war. I decided that crummy audio quality was better than kids during wartime.

"So this is Christmas." With those four words, begins rock & roll's first great existential Christmas song. It's become so overplayed & over-covered & over analyzed (of which I too am guilty, as in my article positing it being a subconscious plagiarism of Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love" here), that it's easy to forget just how much it pulls off in a few minutes of running time: It manages to be both personal (the whispered "Happy Christmas" greetings to John & Yoko at the beginning) & universal ("for black & for white", "the old & the young," etc.), optimistic ("A very Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year!") & cynical ("So, Happy Christmas."), sometimes all at once—the famous "War is over—If you want it!" refrain, sung amongst the ringing Christmas choruses, by school children who sound so earnest that it takes a listen or two to even figure out what they're saying. It's little wonder that the song ends with a happy burst of applause—if this was a show, it was a successful one, & all the reviews have been raves.

1. "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" By Darlene Love (Christmas 1963)

After spending years perfecting the rock single in 3-minute epics like the Crystals' "He's a Rebel" & The Ronettes' "Be My Baby," Phil Spector turned his attention to a rare album project. Born the day after Christmas, Spector was always very into the holiday & its music—& indeed, the tidal wave of drums, strings, horns, vocals, & bells gives his signature "Wall of Sound" an ideal canvas. So after spending months laboring over & perfecting it, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector was released: On November 22, 1963. The assassination of John F. Kennedy on the exact same day took this album as a casualty as well. As a result, the album was buried before it was even born, along with this track, its crown jewel. It would take over 25 years for it to become the hit standard that it has rightfully become when it was featured prominently in 1990's Home Alone. Luckily, the age didn't show one bit. Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" proves itself to be as timeless as any other of Spector's signature hits.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Day George Washington Died.

Today is a day that tragedy struck in American History.

On December 14, 1799, George Washington, the Father of Our Country & the First President of the United States, passed away from a throat infection in his Mount Vernon home at the age of 69.

He was the only president to both live & die in the 18th Century.

Convinced he would die at a young age like all men in his family before him, Washington not only lived, but—after having several horses shot out from under him in battle—at times would wonder if he wasn't perhaps invincible. Still, he worried about a premature death.

His fatal illness came about after he insisted to do his daily inspection of Mount Vernon even though it was cold & rainy (once a surveyor, always a surveyor, it seems).

It's tempting to look back & say, "If only he had listened to his family & servants & stayed home that day," etc., but history has a way of making our minds up for us—if only in retrospect.

Perhaps he was worried about something in particular that day; perhaps he was obsessive with his property; perhaps he sensed it was his time (or close to it, anyway) & felt he already had been living on borrowed time for too long in the first place.

We'll never know the motive.

But we'll never forget the result.

From the sketchiest flicker of psychological shadow comes the darkest truths etched in tombstone: George Washington would die on December 14, 1799.

By that point, the town of Newtown, Connecticut, had already existed for 95 years.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Top 5 Worst Christmas Songs of All-Time.

’Tis the season to hear the same damn Christmas songs over & over again.

Let’s face it, somewhere between the day after Thanksgiving & the first week of December, we’re already sick of about 95% of all Christmas music ever recorded. Even the stuff that we haven’t heard. Even the stuff that hasn’t been recorded yet.

But like Dante, we are all drawn to extremes—& even at that, we are fascinated by evil. (I mean, who actually reads any part of Dante’s The Divine Comedy besides The Inferno?) Even in the merriest time of the year, evil lurks just one step away, just like how “Santa” is an anagram for “Satan.”

With that in mind, I’d like to present a list of the Top 5 Worst Christmas Songs of All-Time:

5. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid (Christmas 1984)

Yes, this song was written & raised money for a very worthy cause—relief for the 1984-1985 famine in Ethiopia—& became the UK’s best-selling single ever up to that time & providing the blueprint for U.S.A. for Africa’s “We Are the World,” all of which takes away from the fact that “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is a very dumb song. Built on a strange premise (I mean, would the famine victims know it’s Christmas even if they weren’t starving?), it manages to feel both over-worked & unfinished, while remaining a structural mess. The words range from overdramatic (“& the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom”) to obvious (“And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime…”), until the record builds to Bono singing the cruelest words ever heard in a Christmas song: “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you!” Maybe we should be asking if the record’s producers knew it was Christmastime at all.

4. “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” by Spike Jones (Christmas 1948)

Almost as old as the Christmas song is the Christmas novelty song, which have formed a long & proud American tradition in & of themselves. Some, like Elmo & Patsy“Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” are stubborn classics in their own right, but most of them are disposable junk that should be thrown out along with the empty boxes & shred up wrapping paper. This song strikes a rare balance between the 2—a stubborn classic that nonetheless shoulda never been heard more than once (let alone a number-one hit more than once, which it was in both 1948 & 1949). Now don't get me wrong, I freaking love Spike Jones. He is an unsung pioneer of American music, boldly mixing highbrow & low, jazz & classical, comedy & pop into the likes of something both singular & timeless (just check out my American Wolf article about his masterful “Cocktails for Two” here). But make no mistake about it: “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” sucks.

3. “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms (Christmas 1957)

Somewhere between when Elvis had his first number one hit in 1956 & when he got drafted into the army in 1958, rock & roll music went from something significant & menacing to something, well, less significant & less menacing. One of the indicators of the trend was this early Christmas-&-pop/rock fusion, which took a half-decent idea & watered it down like cheap eggnog. (A similar offender would be Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” the following year, although that song sounds like heavy metal compared to this one.) There’s an annoying stench of cuteness and opportunism that undercuts any impact the song may have in favor of finger-poppin’, head-boppin’ fun. Plus I jingle hate the jingle way the jingle lyrics jingle every other jinglin’ word, all of which gives the song a poetry & grace on par with Chubby Checker’s “Limbo Rock” & Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am.” When all put together, “Jingle Bell Rock” is far closer to “Jingle Bell” than “Rock”—& that’s never a good thing.

“Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses (Christmas 1981)

There was a strange period between the Sugar Hill Gang’ “Rapper’s Delight” & Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five “The Message” where rap was seen as the cool new thing that any random (read: white) new waver could do & prove their street cred. Sadly, this was rarely the case; just check the less-than-dope skillz of Adam & The Ants’ “Ant Rap,” Blondie’s “Rapture,” or The Clash’s “The Magnificent Seven.” But in the sweepstakes of unfortunate new-wave rap music, The Waitress’ “Christmas Wrapping” surely wins the prize. Everything about it is wrong, from its rapping/wrapping titular pun all the way through the cheesy production values & deadpan non-vocals that sound like far closer to the melodic tunelessness of The Shaggs & the lyrical aimlessness of The Streets than anything Grandmaster Flash would touch with a 12-inch record. Unfortunately for Christmas, it would be another 6 long years before Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis” would give the holiday its first rap classic.

1. “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney (Christmas 1979)

How is it possible that the man behind many of The Beatles’ finest pop songs—“Yesterday,” “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be”—& the driving force behind the most memorable parts of the Beatles’ twin masterpieces—the “Sgt. Pepper” concept of Sgt. Pepper & the long medley on Abbey Road—could’ve written & recorded this, one of the most awful songs ever made? The production plays like a sneak preview of everything that would be wrong with pop music in the ’80s—sparse, echoing synthesizers that sound like a David Bowie/Brian Eno collaboration stripped for parts & run through a garbage disposal. For a song that purports to be a celebration of how wonderful Christmastime is, it sounds surprisingly cold & empty. Add to that the almost non-melody of the verse, the lazy descending bridge about the children singing, and the cloying, broken record-sounding “Simply having a wonderful Christmastime” refrain, & see if you can get it out of your head before next Easter. The song ultimately defies itself: When it is playing, it is literally impossible to simply have a wonderful Christmastime.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Legend of the Million Dollar Quartet.

The Million Dollar Quartet, l-r: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, & Johnny Cash.

On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley swung by his old label, Sun Records, where he found Carl Perkins cutting a session with a then-unknown Jerry Lee Lewis playing backup on piano; just then, Johnny Cash popped his head in while out shopping for Christmas presents, & the legend of the "Million Dollar Quartet" was born.

The truth, as it always is, is more complicated & less romantic: While the first part is essentially true, it seems like Cash was probably called in specifically from his house to complete Sun Records' rock & roll Mt. Rushmore. Also, Cash is inconspicuously absent from the recordings made that day, despite the iconic photo above & the contemporary newspaper report of the guys singing "Blueberry Hill," which is nowhere to be found.

But, as the Gods say, close enough.

The recordings that do survive of the Million Dollar Trio (if you will) are one of rock & roll's great lost founding documents, often overlooked for the very thing that makes them so fascinating: For all of the different things they sing — from "White Christmas" to "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" — there is very little of what we would think of as rock & roll. There's no "Blue Suede Shoes" or "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," & the only time Elvis does break into one of his classics, "Don't Be Cruel," it's to describe how an African-American performer sung the song better than him (the singer turned out to be a young Jackie Wilson).

Elvis imitating Jackie Wilson imitating Elvis imitating Dean Martin or whoever he had in his head the day he recorded "Don't Be Cruel" is essential listening, & should be sought out by any fan of music.

Yet it is a very poor indicator of the music made that day, which was partly blues, partly country, but mostly gospel. After blues & country, gospel music gets the short end of the stick, but here Elvis, Jerry Lee, & Carl make a case for it as being rock's great lost third influence. Check out the boys singing "I Shall Not Be Moved" — a gospel song in form & lyric, to be sure, but country-blues rockabilly in every other way, from the boogie rhythm to Carl's snapping solos:

Not only are these tapes the only known recordings of Elvis & Jerry Lee together, they are the only known records of Elvis talking freely about music, period, filled out by a stream-of-conscious playlist of illustrations. It would be like the Founding Fathers made a webcast of themselves raiding Thomas Jefferson's bookshelf. Only a lot more fun to listen to.

Monday, December 3, 2012

On Spielberg's "Lincoln."

The only known photograph of Abraham Lincoln giving his Second Inaugural Address.

An English professor I once had for a Civil War literature class told us that any historical film tells more about the time in which it was made than the time that it attempts to depict.

She used the cornerstones of Civil War film — which are also arguably the cornerstones of film, period — to back her up: Namely, the incredibly-cringe-inducing Birth of a Nation & the still-pretty-cringe-inducing Gone With the Wind. She believed that, culturally speaking, the Civil War never ended, & with each major cultural milestone, America was still trying to resolve the questions it left open. Thus, Birth of a Nation was the first film epic, while Gone With the Wind was the first modern, full-color epic. & they both had A LOT to say about whites, African-Americans, & the Civil War.

All of which is to say that I wonder what my professor — let alone D.W. Griffith or Scarlett O'Hara — would have to say about the Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln. The film is a creative crossroads of two things I've been culturally trained to be very wary of: Overhyped, "excellent" films (because they rarely, if ever, live up to their hype) & historical films (see above).

& yet, somehow, Lincoln is the exception that proves the rule. I chalk it up to the fact that you have Hollywood's finest living director (Spielberg) & its finest living actor (Daniel-Day Lewis, in the title role) adapting a slice of perhaps the best nonfiction book of the last decade (Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals). More often than not in Hollywood, too many cooks spoil the soup.

But not here.

The film is so well paced, shot, acted, written, & edited, it seems to approach the textured richness of a Citizen Kane or high-period Hitchcock. The way funny scenes transition into serious ones, the iconic into the mundane, the public into the private, was near-effortless. The film strikes the rare balance between grand, overarching narrative & meticulous, historically-accurate detail that thrills people who know next-to-nothing about Lincoln just as much as those who have spent their lives investigating his world.

For me, it was the little touches that did it. The ugly patterns on the floor where Tad falls asleep while looking at glass negatives of slaves; the parade of blankets & shawls that adorned most of the characters who passed through the drafty, half-delapitated White House (not to mention the fingerless gloves on the telegraph operators); the cigars smoked by Seward & Grant; the jewelry worn by Mary Todd; the way that the martyred Lincoln was turned sideways on his deathbed to compensate for his height.

Grounding all of this detail was Daniel Day-Lewis's tour-de-force performance of Lincoln, easily his best in a career of bests &, I believe, will earn him a third Best Actor Oscar. Lincoln is nothing but an enigma in a way that few other Americans are (off the top of my head, I'd say only Washington, Jefferson, & Elvis come close, & even then, Lincoln probably beats them); usually to play Lincoln is to be blocked by the audience's idea of Lincoln. This is what makes Day-Lewis's performance so remarkable. He doesn't fall into caricature or ignore the man for his own incarnation with the Lincoln name, he seems to embody the man in a way that is altogether astounding.

By the end of the film, the use of light & shadows was tricking me into believing that it was like old photographs brought to life, all while spinning the many moods that make Lincoln so fascinating (& near impossible to pin down): Bawdy extrovert, sullen introvert, family man, backwoodsman, intellect, charmer, trickster, & politician. The latter is the most important because it anchors all the rest. Just like the real Lincoln, Day-Lewis often overlays several of these moods at once, all brought into focus by his political genius. Over & over, his Lincoln downplays himself only to come out of the woodwork with a conviction that no one could see coming, but always seemed to perfectly summarize what needed to be done & why. It's a bit like how Columbo solves a case at the end after acting the rumpled fool or how they say Bob Dylan could write his sophisticated early folk songs after talking like a political neophyte's kid brother — it was an all-American performance of reinvention, with gestures of love, toil, & inspiration that would've made Melville's Confidence-Man weep with pride. If this is the true American, then Lincoln is its archetype. He didn't just unite the nation in the past tense, he unites it in the present.

Greil Marcus writes about going to see The Godfather in 1972 & how it was the only time he can remember a theater being split evenly between white & African-American patrons. The film seemed to speak to both groups, with its Italian-American fable for the whites, & the prototypical "gangster" story for the African-Americans, which Marcus connected to the era's high period of soul (just think of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On & Sly & the Family Stone's There's a Riot Going On! to map the limits), & would set the stage for gangsta rap two decades later.

Similarly, when I went to see Lincoln, there seemed to be just as much of an equal distribution between whites & African-Americans. Furthermore, the African-Americans would softly talk back to the film when an African-American character had a line that was a perfect twist of truth & irony. "Mmm-hmm," "That's right." It made the film feel like a very subdued church. I find it hard to believe that Birth of a Nation or Gone With the Wind inspired the same kind of engaged reaction from their African-American audiences.

Spielberg shrewdly frames the film with Lincoln's two greatest speeches — The Gettysburg Address & his Second Inaugural. The Gettysburg Address is recited to Lincoln, by blacks & whites, soldiers & laymen, the words weaving a tapestry of Americas into an America. They say the greatest sign of change brought on by the Civil War was that, before the war, people said "These United States," & after the war, "The United Sates" — if this is true, this opening scene fits right in. Plus, we see the many moods of Lincoln in a matter of minutes: In one moment, the bold leader, in the next, the slightly perturbed genius who doesn't need his fans to prove their loyalty by reciting his words back to him.


The Second Inaugural comes at the end, after Lincoln had died, when the camera went into a close up of a candle & then into what looked like an old black & white film of Lincoln talking, which then expanded to portray Lincoln in front of the Capitol giving his famous address. This ending scene was a rare dividing point in the film. Both the couple to my left (an African-American man & woman) & my wife on my right (a white woman) thought it was hokey & should've been left on the cutting-room floor. I loved it, if only because it seemed to be Spielberg addressing the Civil War tradition (which is to say, the American tradition) in film, using the flickering candle & the weird black & white Lincoln to harken back to the portrayal of Lincoln in Birth of a Nation.

It also allowed the film to end with Lincoln's greatest words — & with malice toward none, with charity for all — mixing the man & myth, fact & fiction, living life & history. Perhaps the film will age quicker than we expect it to (have you seen Glory lately?), but for the time being, it seems to bring to life a man & his time.

As a different president supposedly said about a different film depicting Lincoln, Spielberg's Lincoln seems to "write history with lightning."

Only that president was Woodrow Wilson.

& the film was Birth of a Nation.

Friday, November 30, 2012

All The President's Hashtags.

The 5 living US Presidents at the opening of the Reagan Library, 1991;
Reagan was known as "The Great Communicator" for his ability
to use social media to rally his base.

With the recent success of Obama's #My2K Twitter campaign, many assume that this is the first time a US President has used a hashtag to promote their agenda, but in fact, the hashtag is a long & proud American political tradition. For centuries, presidents have been using hashtags to rally their bases—first through printed leaflets, followed by telegraph, telegram, email, & finally, through Twitter.

American Wolf is proud to present the first time they've all been gathered in one place.

So, without further ado, here's—

A Brf Histry Of POTUS #Hashtags:

@TheWashington: #SpiritOf76
@JohnMFAdams: #XYZnot4Me
@ThomJefferson: #2xTheU@2centsPerAcre
@ConstitutionFather: #NoWayUK1812
@LastCockedHat: #MonroeDoctrine4All
@JQA: #Back2TheAdams
@OldHickory: #WeH8TheNatlBank
@LittleMagician: #DontPanic1837 
@OldTippecanoe: #2TermsOrBust
@FatherOf15: #2Legit2Quit
@YoungHickory: #GoWest
@OldRoughNReady: #OldSoldiersNeverDie
@MillardFillmore: #ISucked
@FranklinPierce: #IReallySucked
@JamesBuchanan: #IReallyFuckingSucked
@MrLincoln: #4Score7Years
@TennTailor: #PlsDoNotImpeach
@USGrant: #PopularButIncompetent
@RutherfordBHayes: #TildenWho?
@JamesAGarfield: #DarkHorseRox
@ChesterAArthur: #ImWithChet
@GroverCleveland: #IWillReturn
@LittleBenHarrison: #GrampasPride
@GroverCleveland: #2Kool2BKonsecutive
@WmMcKinley: #RembrTheMaine
@RoughRider: #TrustBust4U
@BigBillTaft: #Death2Washtubz
@ProfWilson: #14Points4USA
@WarrenGHarding: #GStands4GodAwful
@SilentCal: #_________
@GreatEngineer: #2Chickens4EveryPot
@FranklinDelano: #4Freedoms4EVA
@HarrySTruman: #BuckStopsHere
@GenEisenhower: #ILikeIke
@JackKennedy: #WhatUCanDo4UrCountry
@LBJ: #Gr8Society4All
@TrickyDick: #Waterg8Sux
@GeraldRFord: #IBegUrPardon
@MrJimmy: #Malaise4UandI
@TheGipper: #TearDownThisWall
@GeorgeHWBush: #NoNewTaxe$
@WilliamJClinton: #WeCannotFearChange
@GWBush: #MissionAccomplished
@BarackObama: #My2K

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Top 5 Ready-To-Steal "Friends" Lines.

A few months ago, my friend Margaret posted a confession on Facebook: "I stole a joke from 'Friends' & passed it off as my own."

It was a perfect miniature commentary on the blurry lines between (post?) modern American humor & culture. To wit: Despite of—no wait, make that because of—its overwhelming mainstream popularity, Friends is the antithesis of a hip show. Contemporary non-hits like Arrested Development are the stuff the hip kids get misty-eyed over; the few big-hit shows that become cool only do so in retrospect, usually through nostalgia (see: The Cosby Show).

All of which overlooks a simple fact: Friends is a very funny show. As a result, it exists in a weird pop cultural loophole: It's chockfull of great jokes that thousands of "mainstream" folks have seen, but a disproportionately low number of "hipsters" (Malcolm Gladwell might say "influencers") know. The result is an entire demographic unwittingly hungry for an avalanche of readymade product.

But where to begin? Friends lasted 10 seasons is upwards of $300 for the whole series. Well don't worry, American Wolf has got yer back. Some jokes are more universal than others; for better or for worse, I've parsed through all of the shows to compile a Top 5 shortlist of my fav instantly-ready Friends jokes that can be applied to nearly any occasion.

Oh yeah, & the first is the one that Margaret had stolen.

1. Chandler: "Oh, I think this is the episode of Three's Company where there's some kind of misunderstanding."

Mark Twain famously wrote that American humor is so deadpan that when an American tells a joke, you don't realize it's a joke until after its over. In this regard, Chandler falls somewhere between a punchier Jack Benny & a less-surreal Mitch Hedberg as a master of deadpan. This is one of his finest—& easiest to lift—jokes, because its utility is staggering. When I first read Margaret's post, this was the first joke I thought of, in part because I had stolen it myself earlier in the week when discussing The Avengers movie: "My favorite part is when the one guy fights the other guy." One friend responded with confusion: "Isn't that like, the whole movie?" Exactly.

2. Phoebe: "Did you ever see An Officer and a Gentleman?" Rachel: "Yeah!" Phoebe: "Well, he's kinda like the guy I went to see that with."

After Chandler, Phoebe has the most amount of clutch lines, only the majority of them are not universal. But this one's got the perfect setup of a commonplace expectation that delivers an odd punch you don't see coming, as well as a transferability that makes it easy to use, in places far beyond love. Example: Someone describes a brave friend. You: "I know what you mean. Did you see Saving Private Ryan? He's kind of like the guy I went to see that with." & in one instant, the familiar becomes the random, & the pertinent becomes useless.

3. Julie: "We've gotta get some sleep." Ross: "Yeah, it's really 6:00 tomorrow night our time."
Chandler: "Well, listen, don't tell us what's gonna happen though, 'cause I like to be surprised."

This is probably my very favorite line—it's not nearly as universal as the rest, but when you can work it in (usually when people are describing jet-lag), you'll sound like the cleverest guy in the room. You can also scale it down to a more-universal-yet-less-brilliant-remark with anything that has an obvious conclusion. Example: I recently posted on Twitter, "I can't wait to see the new Lincoln movie, I just hope nobody gives away the ending before I do." Wah-wah.

4. Chandler: "You're right, I have no excuses! I was totally over the line." Joey: "Over the line? You — you're — you're so far past the line, that you — you can't even see the line! The line is a dot to you!"

This is my least favorite of the 5, but still included it to reach 5 (damn you, human fingers!), because I still do use it a lot. I often drop the last part about the line being a dot & stick with the more conventional surrealism of placing a cliched metaphor as the center of a conversation, only to arbitrarily abandon it to make a point. Example: "I am so over you, I can't even see you from where I am." Again, not exactly genius, but a decent thing to say if you wanna throw an unexpected twist into what may otherwise be a blank tirade.

5. Monica: "Hypothetically, why don't I have a baby by the time I'm 40?" Chandler: "Oh dear God — this parachute is a backpack!"

& when all else fails, you have this. This is from the early episode where Ross's son is born, & Chandler offers to have a baby with Monica if she doesn't have one by the time she's 40. This, of course, leads to the above dialogue, topped by Chandler falling backwards out of his chair as he grasps furiously at his invisible backpack. So the next time you irrevocably put your foot in your mouth (ideally while sitting down), you know what to do.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Top 5 Most Bizarre Moments of the 2012 Campaign.

It's only been 10 days, but the 2012 election already feels like eons ago. The perhaps-likely win for Obama has become now-obvious, while Romney's disappearance from the mainstream Republican dialogue has been carried out with a velocity that is almost staggering.

But even as the surreal settles into the ordinary, the campaign still comes back to me in bits like a deep, long dream that stalks waking life. Like a dream, it was very weird — far more so than any other election I can remember.

Perhaps this could only be expected from the setup. On one side, you had Barack Obama, champion of all things hope & change, now trying to show that the hope had begun to deliver & that we could not risk change right now, despite the nation's economic woes. On the other side, you had Mitt Romney, a big-business Wall Street tycoon who was the exact person who was vilified in the financial crisis in the first place. Throw into the mix that Romney's signature achievement as governor, Massachusetts' universal healthcare, was the direct template for Obama's signature achievement as president, national universal healthcare, which put Romney in the position of arguing against his own achievement while Obama praised it, & you have a very strange predicament indeed.

Which in turn was only the backdrop for a non-stop parade of weirdness:

5. Three Debates in Three Phrases

Ever since MTV first reared its beautiful, frenetically-edited head, the news story has been morphing into the soundbite. This election took things one step further, turning the soundbite into a phrase that "summarized" (more like overshadowed) the 90 minutes of debating. The first, "Big Bird," was supposed to show Romney's small-government credentials but instead found him being sensationalistic (the average American pays $1.35 a year for PBS) & out-of-touch (Elmo is the new Big Bird!). The second, "Binders Full of Women," was supposed to be a passing phrase in a clearly-rehearsed story to prove Romney's cred with women, but instead stuck out like a sore thumb & succinctly summarized everything that made Romney oblivious to the very social issues he was trying to master. The third, "Bayonets & Horses" was the only pre-planned "zinger" that landed in the debates, & was Obama's sole debate catchphrase, used to show the anachronism that was Romney's vision of national defense. & with this, the evolution was complete. Soundbite, meet bit-bite.

4. Romney Proves Unqualified To Be a UK Tourist.

It shoulda been the most open-&-shut foreign policy trip either. Mitt Romney, savior of the 2004 Olympics (an accomplishment even most Democrats gave him), was going to visit the London 2012 Olympics, held in our strongest international ally & led by fellow conservative David Cameron. Instead, Romney gave an interview on the eve of the trip expressing "disconcerting" efforts made by England that implied a lack of preparation. The result was the worst American tour of England since Jerry Lee Lewis. Romney struggled to find his footing regarding the Olympics, called diplomats by the wrong title, & told the press about meetings that were supposed to be confidential. As the gaffes followed him to his scheduled stops of Israel & Poland, so too did the always-perfect tag from the Twitterverse used to document them: #Romneyshambles.

3. Obama Sleepwalks Through the First Debate.

A perfect storm of careless statements, international stupidity, & staffing blunders had taken hold of Romney's campaign by the time he walked onstage to meet the president in the first debate. Pundits on both sides agreed that if Obama could "win" the first debate, the election would be all but over for Romney. Instead, Obama choked. What everyone forgot was that Obama was never a great debater — Hillary won most of their primary square-offs in 2008 — & Romney had sharpened his skills in the two dozen or so Republican primary debates. With the assist of non-moderator Lehrer, Romney was able to bully & bluff his way through, keeping an upper-hand on the conversation in a strange mix of curt rudeness & blatant lies. For me, though, the most head-shaking-at-a-trainwreck moments for Obama came at the beginning & end: First, when he opened with a maudlin 20th Anniversary message to his wife & began his closing remarks by saying, "Four years ago, I said I am not a perfect man & I would not be a perfect president." WHAT?! Or, he coulda added, a perfect debater.

2. Romney Rejects 47% of All Americans.

There have been blunders & there have been blunders, but there has never been anything quite like Romney's infamous "47%" comment. Secretly filmed at a closed-door campaign fundraiser, the video leaked just prior to the first debate & threatened to take his entire campaign off-course. In it, he derided 47% of the population to be victims "who are dependent on the government" & believe the government has to care for them in an act of willful laziness. These are the "people who will vote for the president no matter what," Romney explained, failing to realize that the states with the largest-amount of government aid programs are in solid-Red states like Alabama & Mississippi. But what happened next made things even weirder. Forced to answer to the video, Romney held an awkward press conference in which he granted that his words were inartfully stated, but essentially true. So the man looking to lead the country secretly writes off almost half of its population & then publicly stands by this assessment. Romney didn't plan to reverse this until the first debate, when much to his shock (& everybody else's) Obama did not bring it up. It's too bad he didn't because, based on the tepid explanation Romney gave to Fox News later that night, it woulda landed a much-needed point in the president's favor.

1. Clint Eastwood Talks to an Empty Chair.

National icon Clint Eastwood gives a high-profile endorsement of Romney & is invited to speak at the Republican National Convention after making a great impromptu speech for Romney on tour. What could go wrong? Well, Eastwood could request a chair. & the rest is...history? Said Eastwood later: "If somebody's dumb enough to ask me to go to a political convention & say something, they're gonna have to take what they get." & after watching some 12 minutes of his unscripted surrealism, this may just be the only 100% true statement to come out of the 2012 campaign.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

By The People, Or: The OTHER Reason Why I Thought Barack Obama Was Going to Get Re-Elected All Along.

I realized after completing my last post about why I always thought Obama was going to win the 2012 election, I left out the one reason that had most inspired me to write the article in the first place, probably because it was the most partisan:

Barack Obama won the election because a Republican has not fairly won an election since George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988 — in other words, in the last 5 elections, the Democrats were or should've been the true winners.

Clinton's wins in 1992 & 1996 along with Obama's win in 2008 are the obvious ones. & everybody knows that in 2000, Gore got the most number of votes, but lost it in a perfect storm of Fox News, political corruption, & (most disturbingly) the Supreme Court's Gore v. Bush decision. (Which, if you don't think it's possible for something to be compelling that's written in legalese, check out Justice Stevens' masterful dissent, which concludes that the real losers are not Al Gore or the Democrats, but the people of the United States.)

Bush's "loss" to Kerry in 2004 is the kicker, & the one that'll make most conservatives roll their eyes & think you're a joke. To all the haters (as well as all the believers), I refer you to one place, which is one of the most overlooked piece of journalism of the last decade: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s "Was the 2004 Election Stolen?" from the June 1 issue of Rolling Stone, which has been reproduced on the progressive website Common Dreams & can be found here.

The 2004 election was a bitter one, in some ways just as much as 2000. But ultimately, in both cases, it seemed as though the "true" winners, Gore & Kerry, didn't really want it so much after all, & in some ways this was the hardest pill to swallow of them all. After a prolonged fight to election day, it was as though neither one had any fight left in him. If Gore hadn't dismissed all of the people contesting their votes (or lack thereof) in his waning days as President of the Senate, or if Kerry had shown the muscle he failed to in the swift-boat controversy, we might be looking at a very different chain of events.

Now, in the end, it was worth the crushing defeat of Kerry (& perhaps even Gore too) if that's what it took for us to get to Obama. With Obama in 2008, the Democrats finally had a candidate strong enough to beat the Republicans, no questions asked. & with Obama in 2012, the Democrats finally had a candidate who could campaign just as strongly as the Republicans, pulling tricks right out of their handbook: Namely, defining Romney before Romney could define himself through his tenure at Bain (this year's swift-boat, if you will) & capitalizing on the "47%" video (this year's "I voted for the war before I voted against it"), which helped to keep an upper-hand on the news-cycle.

But most importantly, in 2012 the Democrats were able to learn from their previous trials & tribulations & turn them around into a stunning mandate. Voter suppression & corruption at the polls were no match for an electorate that was diverse & well-informed. The Democrats were finally able to tap into the base they always knew was out there, & deliver on it honestly & fairly.

&, as icing on the cake, an exasperated Karl Rove on Fox News began accusing the Democrats of rigging Ohio, even after the channel's own people had called the state for Obama.

Pot, meet kettle.