2008, We Hardly Knew Ye

3 Jan
Jason Buel

Jason Buel

It seems to be obligatory for all forms of media to release some sort of year-in-review compilation. I missed this apparent mandate that once a year each year every publication and form of infotainment must list and rank an even number (usually 10, or a multiple of it) of the most notable occurrences of the year. Nevertheless, it happens ever year and about every conceivable subject: Best Dressed of 1999, Best Travel Writing of 2008, Most Androgynous Pop Stars of 1984, Most Duly Styled Muttonchops of 1837, Beheadings You Might Have Missed in 1256, and you get the idea.

I decided I should play along, so the subject for my first proper blog entry on this site is a retrospective of 2008, a year that will likely go down in all forms of history as utterly and entirely forgettable, but still seems slightly relevant today. I’ve tried my best to stay away from any sort of ranked list or even categories and what follows is a list of my highlights and biggest disappointments in pop culture over the last year (and it was a fairly lackluster year, especially for movies, but I’ll try to focus on the positive).

Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost

Dutch-Czech-Canadian Troost is not only one of the greatest travel writers I know of, he’s a brilliant writer in general (which is convenient because, as he has pointed out, he isn’t technically a travel writer since in his first two books he actually lived in the countries he was writing about.) This book, however, is a travelogue of Troost’s journey throughout China as he is considering moving his family to the emerging superpower. Troost’s previous books, Getting Stoned With Savages and Sex Lives of Cannibals, are also great works that explore life in the South Pacific island nations of Vanuatu, Fiji, and Kiribati. The casual and introspective style of these works continues in Planet China.

The Fall

Directed by a man known and credited simply as “Tarsem” (his family name is Singh, so take that), this was one of the most astoundingly well-photographed films in recent memory. It tells the story of a little girl who meets an injured stuntman in the hospital. He makes up an epic tale that involves both of them as protagonists in order to entertain her (and when I say “entertain her,” I mean “trick her into stealing morphine for him.”) I’m listing The Fall as both a highlight and a disappointment. It was a wonderful and entertaining film and it had incredible visuals throughout. I felt like a five year-old with my jaw agape staring at the screen with eyes wide open and security blanket in hand (fortunately, I actually did have a chance to see this film on the big screen thanks to the Dragonfly Theater, Boone’s newest cinema located on Boone Heights Drive next to the bowling alley and sort of across from Burger King – go there and go there often).

So, as for the look of the film, it was astonishing and exceeded even my own lofty expectations. Those high expectations (which had been built up mostly by watching the trailer, but slightly by word of mouth) were let down quite a bit, however, by the storytelling. For a movie about storytelling, I simply expected a better script. The concept was great, complex, intriguing, but the plot simply came to a screeching crashing halt. It suspect the last third of the movie had been hacked apart and found most of itself on the cutting room floor (or a dog ate a few pages out of the screenplay). After initially viewing the movie, I thought such a slapped together, train-wreck sort of ending was intentional, attempting to comment on the nature of storytelling. I’ve come to believe that, even if that was intended, the immediate stop-then-hurry-up resolution was still extremely disappointing. Not to say the film is bad, it is amazing and certainly worth seeing, but it was still one of the biggest let-downs of the year in that regard.

Fable II

Yes, I am listing a video game. Not the most kosher thing to do in a literary/art circle, however this was certainly a highlight of 2008 in my book and the visual storytelling was better than ninety-five and one-half percent of the books, films, and television shows I saw this year. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Fable is a role-playing game where players guide a character on quests across the mythical world of Albion. The world is fairly interactive and most of the quests allow players to make decisions. Based on how one plays the game, the character will become more good or evil and more pure or corrupt. The character’s look will reflect his or her personality and other characters in the game respond accordingly (fall in love at the sight of the character, run and scream in terror, etc.) You can become an epic hero or the dark lord incarnate. Either way, the story is compelling, never exactly the same, and unfolds through cut scenes as well as the game-play itself. I have beaten the game since Christmas and will doubtless waste many more hours of my life traversing the Bandit Coast, casting spells on banshees, kicking chickens, and cavorting with drunkards and prostitutes. With the release of this game and Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008, it turned out to be a great year for games – in particular for quality storytelling and even, dare I say it, art through the medium of video games.

Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea by The Silver Jews

Singer/songwriter/guitarist David Berman is the creative force behind this alt-country band. The project originally featured Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich of Pavement (technically, Pavement was a side-project of the Silver Jews). Anyhow, Berman is a great lyricist and is actually a published poet. His collection Actual Air was published a few years ago (I just got it for Christmas and have yet to had enough time to give it proper attention, but what I’ve read so far is great – perhaps I’ll review that another time) and he’s also had work published in The New Yorker.

Getting back to this album, it’s great if you are the slightest bit inclined to alt-country. The song that the album takes its name from is “My Pillow is the Threshold” and it is easily the strongest song here. It sums up the tone and underlying themes of the album, the idea that dreaming leads us into a separate, yet entirely valid, sort of alternative existence. As far as mood goes, the album is quite a bit lighter than much of the Silver Jews previous work, and even gets a bit cheesy at times, particularly with “Candy Jail” and “Party Barge.” The songwriting is not really up to Berman’s traditionally high standard and listeners unfamiliar with the Silver Jews should start off with American Water or Tanglewood Numbers, both of which are, in my opinion, among the best albums of the last twenty years. While not Berman’s best, it is certainly worth checking out and is easily one of the highlights of the year in my book.

The Virginia EP by The National

This collection of mostly demos and B-sides from the Ohio via Brooklyn indie-rock quintet was criticized quite harshly by many critics. Pitchfork.com’s review of the EP complained that it was not cohesive and it was clear why so many of the B-sides featured on it were left off of previous albums. In my humble opinion, I feel that if a collection of demos, live tracks, and B-sides happened to be as cohesive as a band’s actual albums then 1) their albums must be awful 2) all of their music must sound the same or 3) all of the above.

Anyhow, chances are you haven’t read said review, but if you’re feeling inclined to do so, I would recommend not doing so instead. I find The National to be one of the most talented bands around and, while the dvd that comes with the EP is rather forgettable, the EP itself is outstanding and absolutely indispensable to fans of the group. The title track even features Sufjan Stevens, who has collaborated with The National quite a bit lately. So rejoice, indie-kids, and pick up The Virginia EP immediately! (but not, of course, until after you’ve picked up Alligator, Boxer, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, Cherry Tree, and The National in that order).

War Dance

I happened to stumble upon this film at Fat Cats, having heard nothing about it. It is a documentary about schoolchildren in a war-torn village in Uganda who come together to take part in a national competition of song and dance. While the film shows some heart-wrenching scenes and stories of the violence and brutality that has become almost an ordinary part of many villagers’ lives, the focus is on the power of music and the power of community in overcoming the tragedy and strife that comes with life in a war zone. Perhaps ironically, I found this to be one of the better feel-good films of the year. It is a touching story that displays the resiliency of the human spirit, champions the underdog, and explores the power of culture.

Warren Zevon by Warren Zevon (re-release)

I am a huge Warren Zevon fan, so this choice was a no-brainer. Zevon’s self-titled album is a masterpiece of pop music, though it never was exactly popular, per se. Chances are, unless you are a huge fan of Zevon, you’ve only heard his song “Werewolves of London” on some classic rock radio station, probably around Halloween. That song is not at all indicative of Zevon’s typical songwriting style, but it is a good representation of the slightly dark, sardonic sense of humor that is common in his music. Producer, collaborator, and friend Jackson Browne reffered to Zevon’s style as “song-noir.” Zevon himself didn’t care for this label since it implied a sort of one dimensional darkness – films-noirs tend to be quite humorless. The label, however, can be useful in describing elements of Zevon’s style. The zeitgeist of Los Angeles pop music in the 70’s was happy, upbeat, love-oriented. In a word: disco. In two words: easy listening. In this time of fluffy bunny bubble-gum pop, Zevon was writing songs about gun-toting outlaws, insomniacs, prostitutes, heroin addicts, outcasts, and failures in every sense of the word (the song “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” begins with the lines “I lay my head on the railroad tracks / and wait for the double E / but the railroad don’t run no more / poor, poor, pitiful me.”)

The re-release of this album, even without the bonus tracks, would’ve made my list of highlights of the year. The bonus tracks comprise nearly an album’s worth of material on their own and include demos of songs in various stages of completion, including some with Warren simply singing and playing piano. The minimalism is haunting and beautiful and allows the songs to sound more personal and introspective (not to take anything away from the finished album versions, which are also outstanding). The demo tracks, along with those released on Preludes a few years ago, allow fans to get a glimpse into the evolution of Zevon’s songs.

Zhang Yimou directs the Olympic Opening Ceremony

Granted, it wasn’t on par with so many of the other great things I could’ve listed and if I wasn’t such a fan of Zhang Yimou’s work I probably wouldn’t even have thought to include it, but the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony makes my list of highlights of the year. It was far better than any such ceremonies in the past in that it was actually entertaining to watch and maybe even involved a bit of artistry. Yimou included a Chinese folksong, whether intentionally or not, that was featured as a recurring and important theme in Tian Zhuangzhuang’s film The Blue Kite – a film that was highly critical of the Chinese communist system and earned the director a government issued ban from filmmaking for several years. If nothing more, it was really goshdarn cool to see some guy I’ve never heard of run around the side of an arena.

Anywhere I Lay My Head performed by Scarlett Johansson

As you can probably tell, we’ve now come to the section of the list that features the biggest disappointments. You might find yourself asking, “wow, Jason, did you really expect Johansson’s album of Tom Waits covers to be any good?” to which I would respond “no, absolutely not.” What I did expect, was probably what everyone else expected: a god-awful train wreck, a vanity project that would be a slap in the face to Waits and his illustrious catalogue of songs, and/or something worthy of ridicule for ages to come. It turned out to be none of these things.

Don’t get me wrong, this album was not good by any means. Would the world be better off if Johansson stuck to acting? Probably. Nevertheless, I expected to be able to listen to this album and laugh in an uproarious and conceited manner and I found myself entirely unable to do so. Her cover of “I Wish I Was In New Orleans” was actually, dare I say, rather good. Not better than the original, but actually and surprisingly worth having around. So, for simply being too good (or “too much better than I expected,” but that just don’t not quite sound right), this album makes my list of the biggest disappointments of 2008.

The Road

This one is simple: I’m disappointed because the film, that was generating quite a bit of Oscar buzz, didn’t come out. I’m even more disappointed because it apparently wasn’t released on time thanks to poor testing with focus groups, who found the film to be too depressing. So, now instead of having another A-class prestige picture adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel to enjoy and relish during Oscar season, we will likely wind up with a giant summer blockbuster (assuming anyone still cares by then) that features a post-apocalyptic utopia where Viggo travels a long distance, but eventually completes his quest, saves the day, and gets the girl. God only knows we need more movies like that. And I’m sure the version that finally hits theaters will realize McCarthy’s true vision for the work as well. Somewhere deep inside he really wanted it to be a spy-thriller that tested well with focus groups all along.

Chinese Democracy by Axl Rose and some buddies

While I fully expected this album to suck (and it surely didn’t disappoint in that respect), this album makes the list for the opposite reason The Road did. Chinese Democracy was a huge disappointment because it actually, finally came out. 2008 may well go down as the year that will live in infamy – if Axl Rose actually completed this album, that means he’s got time on his hands. He might use that time to do things! Or even stuff! God only knows the vile, vicarious nastiness that he may now release upon our planet. In all likelihood, he’ll just drink a lot, work on his rad cornrows, and train for that rematch with Tommy Hilfiger. Regardless, I’m still disappointed because now I have one less thing to make fun of Axl Rose for.

And that about wraps up the year for me. I hope you will all wait anxiously for my next post when I do the unthinkable and preview the year ahead. It may be cliché, but it’s cliché for a reason – at least, that’s what I intend to keep telling myself. Happy reading/listening/viewing and Happy New Year.

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One Response to “2008, We Hardly Knew Ye”

  1. egard January 6, 2009 at 2:16 am #

    The Fall was alright, if you’re impressed by overly-saturated colors.
    I’m glad you welcome in the age of silver-bromide manipulation, and other ‘one click wonders.’
    Not agreeing.

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