Sunday, May 31, 2009

Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the Aragon

When I bought my tickets, I had my second thoughts. Aside from a few key tracks from It's Blitz (Dull Life, Heads Will Roll) I was not the biggest fan of the mostly electronica-inspired third album of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Where's the punk? Where's the gritty cords? Where's the mosh-friendly beat? I was afraid they were going to play little of their old art-punk/dance-hall hits and instead veer into generic hipster territory. Also the Aragon is known for its terrible sound and ridiculously large occupancy (up to 4,500 people according to their website). I was even close to selling the tickets altogether.

Well, thank Moses I didn't, because this was a most terrific set. Karen O, of course, is the only reason to see them live. Within the course of an hour and a half her outfit had three evolutions, moving from a Kimono top and tiger-striped leggings to a hula-hoop coiled tank top and her infamous leather jacket-- appropriately donned during their newest hit Zero ("so get your leather, leather, leather, leather on... Your Zero"). My favorite thing abou Karen O, though, isn't her clothing as much as her enthusiasm. Spin magazine voted the YYYs at Coachella as "Best Smile" because of her characteristic grin. More than any other band's lead singer, Karen O wholeheartedly seems to enjoy performing.

The set started quietly, with the understated Runaway of their new CD, and crescendoing to Cheated Hearts and Gold Lion off the album Show Your Bones. Dull Life was my favorite, which she played fourth or fifth, but the sing-along awesomeness of Cheated Hearts was a close second ("And we're takin' takin' takin' it off, sometimes I think that I'm bigger than the sound, I think that I'm bigger than the sound!..."). The most pleasant surprise of the night was "Art Star" off their first EP, a growling Le Tigre-inspired manifesto about (you guessed it) the art world ("I've been working on a piece that speaks of sex and desperation/ I've been screwing on the tracks of abandoned train stations") that only the die-hard fans recognized, inspiring a brief moshing fest (partially launched by my friend Kirsten and I) that annoyed the less enthusiastic. And of course the YYYs played a great part of Fever To Tell: Date With the Night, Tick, Black Tongue, Maps (introduction: "Guys, this is a love song!"), Y-Control, amongt others, which have become the backbone of the YYYs' characteristic sound. Unfortunately no songs from their Is Is EP, though (major disappointment).

But WHAT A SHOW. And I didn't even notice the sound inconsistencies that the Aragon is famous for. Using equal numbers of songs per album seems to produce a sure-fire concert. Best songs of the show: the peaceful, emotive Hysteric off It's Blitz ("flow sweetly, hang heavy, suddenly complete me, suddenly complete me"), the gritty electronic- and drum-heavy Heads Will Roll, featuring some of the creepiest lyrics I've ever heard from the trio ("Off with your head, dance ’til you’re dead, heads will roll, heads will roll, heads will roll, on the floor"), and one of their closers, the mosh-prone Black Tongue, which had most of the audience screaming "Let's do this like a prison break, I wanna hear you scream and shake! Uh-HUH, uh-HUH, uh-HUH, uh-HUH!"

Oh, if only people would stop crossing their arms and sulking at concerts like these! MOVE, people!

Allow me to nurse my eardrums and bruised ribs back to shape. Next up: the Decemberists and Gogol Bordello.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Softer World

I've recently begun reading A Softer World again, which I always describe as sortofawebcomicbutnot. It's a pretty fascinating experiment: a writer (Joey Comeau) and a photographer (Emily Horne) collaborate to make miniature stories built around three polaroid-type pictures and text. It's always the same format. Only for a brief period of time was there a cohesive day-to-day plot structure. It's more of an experiment in the spinning of a tale via what is often no more than five or six words. Some of them have a dark, nearly perverse humor. Some are witty and bizarre. It's always balanced between emotive and lighthearted, and always somehow unexpected. I would say ironic, in its most basic definition-- the appearance of an unexpected result-- but even that label wouldn't suit the peculiarity of A Softer World.

Some of my favorites:

And, just for kicks, I'll throw in a postsecret:

Yay. This makes me very happy.

Office job starts tomorrow, and the week of concerts (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Decemberists, Gogol Bordello) commences! Here goes.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Summer Hours review

Good movie. It's out at the Landmark (of course) now, for all you Chicagoans. Here's the review I wrote for the Spectator website:

Summer Hours sheds light on the pains of letting go
by Julia Alekseyeva

What happens to beloved objects when we die? Do the possessions of the deceased become immortalized in memory, or fade into nothingness? These heavy-handed questions are explored in French director Olivier Assayas’s often understated but beautifully rendered film, Summer Hours (L’heure d’été).

The theme of family heirlooms might seem exclusively European and only loosely connected to the modern notion of class mobility, but Summer Hours is less about inheritance and possession and more about the actual memory of those possessions. As the film labors on, the theme permeates intensely, resonating immediately with the experience of the moviegoer.

The plot has often been described as a family drama in the style of playwright Anton Chekov—an elderly woman, heiress of her famous uncle’s expansive art collection and French country estate, suddenly dies, leaving her three adult children torn about what to do with the objects that remain. Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), the youngest, is a motivated businessman who relocated to China. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is a successful designer living in New York. The only non-estranged sibling is the eldest, Frédéric (Charles Berling), a professor of economics living in Paris.

Assayas writes in the press notes, “Charles Berling is the spokesman for my own questioning.” Of all the siblings, Berling’s Frédéric approaches the treasures of the past with the most respect and sentimentality.

As the narrative builds, the question of how the children should deal with the possessions lingers—sell the precious memorabilia, keep it for posterity, or display it in a museum. How is memory best preserved?

Undoubtedly, memory is a daunting topic for a film, which usually relies on dramatic events and artistry to hold the audience’s attention. Yet Summer Hours is able to do this without a great deal of either aspect overtaking the thematic resonance. Although the siblings differ in opinion, there is a tone of mutual love and respect—no hyperbolic drama. Music is sparse and atmospheric—an acoustic guitar or cello here and there, with no recognizable soundtrack. And unlike Assyas’s previous features like Boarding Gate, his camera contains few cinematographic tricks.

But most surprising is the film’s complete lack of montage, making the movie appear like a bona fide slice of life, containing its mundane moments as well. Assyas brings an honesty to the film, enhanced by the perfect cast and spot-on acting. Its only detriment is perhaps being too honest. A bit too drawn out to be an accessible feature, Summer Hours moves a little too slowly during sequences of nonstop dialogue.

Regardless, viewers will barely notice that there is little action to the movie at all. The film makes it clear that it is about art and its relation to memory, and, as The Da Vinci Code taught us, one cannot mix intense drama and museum collections without risking complete absurdity. Made in collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the film uses the museum well, and it plays an important role in the plot.

The film is also beautifully edited, which adds to its artistic feel. Set mostly in the heart of summertime, the colors are vibrant and sensuous. Even when discussing such melancholic topics as death and inheritance, there is a lightness and splendor, and even a certain hopefulness. Summer Hours is meditative without being pretentious, engaging without being over-the-top—it is simply an enjoyable film.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Some Thoughts for the College Graduate

I came upon this article in the American Scholar semi- by accident today, and was overwhelmed by its truth. Even though it was published last summer, it seemed to resonate so perfectly now, with some of my best friends graduating this year, both at Columbia and elsewhere. What else to think about after finals are over and all is done except, what was the point?

Full article here

Basically the article explored the unknown underbelly of ivy league academia: namely, that it simply isn't as amazing and wonderful as everyone (Stanley Fish, for example) assumes. And not only ivies, either. Consider schools like Stanford and UChicago, both of which have a similar mentality to Yale and Columbia, schools were the vast majority of students are legacies, athletes, or econ majors (insert obligatory shiver and gagging noises).

Of course, as often happens, what really resonated with me is the writer's take on class diversity. This semester I had an article on graffiti published in the Gadfly, Columbia's philosophy magazine, but the managing editor refused to publish the first drafts on account of what he assumed to be either classism or anti-Americanism (both of which might have been at least partially true). The original article questioned the interaction college students have with the "real" world, and mentioned that the majority of college students tend to be far above the average, economically-speaking. Alas, that was too socialist for the Gadfly, and the article became that much less interesting in the long run. However, it certainly is nice to know that writer/former professor William Deresiewicz feels the same:

The first disadvantage of an elite education, as I learned in my kitchen that day, is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you. Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely—indeed increasingly—homogeneous.

Homogenous indeed. In high school I was considered middling in terms of income, but in college I only knew one person who was poorer than I, and she dropped out after two years, coupled with crippling psychological complications which may or may not have been Columbia's fault. It's hard not to be classist when put into such an economically stratifying situation, in which you can't walk through campus without overhearing someone discussing their latest trip to Barbados or their family's summer beach house in the Hampton's. In the grand scheme of things, this doesn't disturb me. I live fairly comfortably in my blend of thrift store and bargain rack ensembles. What annoys me even more is the preoccupation with what is called living "comfortably," that my friends from home and I continuously scoff at:

An elite education gives you the chance to be rich—which is, after all, what we’re talking about—but it takes away the chance not to be.

Why does going to an ivy league school (or any college, for that matter) automatically produce an income-obsessed slave to Adam Smith and Ayn Rand? Unfortunately it seems to do so, all-too-often, making my absurdly intelligent graduating friends worry about not having the ideal job, or actually taking a risk... like spending a year writing poetry, or working in South Korea, like my friend Billy. My friend Rebecca and I constantly talk about our worries about getting into the perfect grad school program for literature, and at times I'm tempted to give up on it all. Why the fuss for graduate school? To prove to the world I'm smart enough? What if I'd rather work in the art world? And, even if in the art world, wouldn't I much rather work in a smaller non-profit than a pretentious gallery?

I cannot help imagining my 20-year college reunion. It becomes all too similar to an episode of Daria, except instead of the Daria I always assumed myself to be, I'm Quinn, or Daria's mother, bickering with friends. "Oh? The curator of PS1? How lovely. I, of course, always found more satisfaction working in a real gallery." "Oh but of course there's no place like Christie's. Did you hear about that piece we sold?" "Oh yes, quite, but there's nothing so satisfying as working in academia... I'm a gold nugget on CULPA now, did you know? And my fifth book is out next august..." These terrible daydreams tend to go on for a while. But nonetheless there's a truth to them. Why do we do it, instead of doing what we truly love? I was fully satisfied, intellectually and physically, working at the Landmark. Does this mean I am destined to serve popcorn the rest of my life? Do I find more satisfaction writing french papers on cinema? It's hard to say.

Here's another random part of the article:

I’ve been struck, during my time at Yale, by how similar everyone looks. You hardly see any hippies or punks or art-school types, and at a college that was known in the ’80s as the Gay Ivy, few out lesbians and no gender queers. The geeks don’t look all that geeky; the fashionable kids go in for understated elegance. Thirty-two flavors, all of them vanilla.

Vanilla indeed. Mild personalities, yes, but much of them sugar-coated. Where are the punks? This semester at Columbia I saw one person with dyed hair, and I'm just going to assume they're from NYU. It is, what this writer called, "the tyranny of the normal," this pressure to be socially acceptable that keeps me from wearing my platform combat boots that I love so dearly. If Yale is Vanilla Preppy, Columbia is a very specific brand of Hipster. Then again, I see the world with slightly different eyes that tend to (unfortunately) ignore every person I find uninteresting. Then again, Columbia is no Yale. The very essence of Columbia is its lack of normalcy; we're mostly a bunch of disaffected misfits. And I quite like that. I just wish more people came to the world with Stanley Fish's passionate intellectualism, rather than megalomaniacal Trump syndrome.

I came to college to read books. College isn't a vocational academy; its purpose is largely nonutilitarian, and that is the point itself. So, I guess what I am trying to say in an extremely un-pithy way, is that the writer of this article is right. College is there to satisfy the intellect. Treating it as a means to an end is losing the point for its creation: to find interest in the human. Mindless self-indulgence will just have to wait a while.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Break between paper-writing

"There was a funny and enjoyable 90 minute production in there–we wish we just could have seen that show."
Well said, Bwog. Varsity Show this year was not nearly as fantastic as last year's. Disappointing, really; generally Varsity Show makes me feel alive and enmeshed in Columbia tradition. Proud, almost (operative word: almost). Yet this year made me feel more detached than ever, as if I needed another reason to feel left out from school spirit hype.

In other news:

1. PUBLICATION: Another one of my poems will be published in New Poetry at Columbia! Yippedee-doo. No, really, I'm quite excited. Especially since I never thought anything I've written would be viewed as "new" poetry, although they did pick the most enigmatic and experimental piece of the bunch, which I wrote exactly a year ago. The New Poetry should be out in the fall, hopefully.

2. MUSIC: The Pitchfork and Lollapalooza lineups look fantastic this year, and I'll be gosh-darn'd it if I don't go to both of those crazy things. Money down the drain, yes, but it will be a fun summer regardless. And might even make up for the fact that I'll have to spend another gorgeous Chicago summer in Uptown instead of Greektown like I planned. More concerts I look forward to attending: the Decemberists in Milwaukee, which should be a hilarious 24-hr diner adventure, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the Riviera (I cannot even express how excited I am to see Karen O live). Also, possibly Metric at the Metro (no pun, although I wonder if they'll be investing in creative advertising with that name). That last video, by the way, is currently on loop on my playlist (I am obsessed!).

3. COMICS: Instead of writing my papers I spent all day catching up on webcomics between writing paragraphs: specifically, 8:1, set in the heart of the most wonderful city in the world (Chicago, dur). The art is also, well, art. No tablets, no photoshop manipulation. Just ink on paper. It's rejuvenating, emotive... a lot like Japanese calligraphy, actually (which I'm writing my paper on right now. Also quite obsessed).

Ahhh, skeevy Chicago diners at 2:30 AM. Nostalgia!
Ok, it's a little emo, but work with me here. Emo/punk, if such an oxymoronical classification doesn't make your little hipster head explode. Contradictions! Also the thesis of my British Modernism Paper. Gosh, I think my little English major brain just imploded.


I've seen these plastered all over SoHo. Alas, no fun for me until after finals week. Freedom is only a little over than a week away!