Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Movies as communal experience

On Thanksgiving night we ventured out in dense fog to see "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Visibility was near-zero, but we'd purchased the tickets online already, so there was no turning back. (Our local theatre closed this year, so the closest movie theatres are all at least 20 minutes away). We liked the movie OK, but the nervous drive, an antsy toddler sitting a few rows in front of us, and the smell of pee around the multiplex's restrooms detracted from the overall experience.

When we returned home, my teenage son said, "You know, I'd rather just watch a movie at home." He is used to seeing movies when he wants, either downloaded instantly from Netflix or from a DVD on-hand, all without having to spend nearly an hour in the car getting to a theatre and without having to deal with a restless audience.

I expressed a similar sentiment after we blew 50 bucks for all of us to see "March of the Penguins" a few years ago; I realized we could have waited a couple of months and just bought the DVD for half that price without having spent additional money on gas and parking. And, yes, I acknowledge that movie theaters are becoming scarcer because of people like me.

This is so different than how I used to be. It was nothing for me to walk in a hard rain to see a movie, or ride the bus to campus to see a movie projected on a tiny screen in a small amphitheatre. Of course, there was no other way to see movies back then—I spent most of my young adulthood without a TV in the house, VCRs were rare and the Internet didn't exist. But if I'd been able to watch those movies at home I would have missed some important experiences.

The first night I spent in Santa Cruz, a friend took me to see "The Harder They Come" at the Sash Mill, a local movie house that showed two different, thematically-linked movies every night. Just as the opening credits rolled, a group of Caucasian Rasta-farians—long, blonde dreadlocks flowing out from knit caps—got up and started dancing at the front of the theatre. And non-Rastafarians in the audience stood up and joined them. They seemed so spontaneous, so joyous, that I knew I had to live in Santa Cruz.

Perhaps I am one of the few people who chose their college based on the showing of a reggae movie. I had already been accepted at UC-Santa Cruz, but I didn't send in all my paperwork until after that night.

If I'd watched that movie on an iPod? I'm not sure I'd even have watched the whole thing—I hardly remember the plot of that movie, if there was one. Someone was murdered at some point, and there was reggae music intertwined in the scenes. But I remember the scent in the theatre that night—patchouli and hemp—and the sound of laughter. Santa Cruz was like that for me, at least initially—joyous, vibrant. That movie set the tone for my first few months there.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The shorter the better?

I know, I know, bloggers are supposed to keep their posts short—somewhere between a tweet and the length of one computer screen. But some weeks I only get to write these posts and I don't want to condense all I've been thinking about into a couple of paragraphs.

Still, I have to recognize that my most popular posts are also my shortest. I've gotten more comments and messages about the first (and shortest) post I did on depressing songs and on the one that was composed mostly of my daughter's drawing of a dying Washington Post than I have on almost anything else I've written about in the last year.

So, if brevity is what readers really want, this should be my most popular post yet.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sad songs, angsty albums, and a twilight tune

Yesterday, I promised to give my current playlist of melancholy songs, but perhaps I promised too much. My playlist is ever-evolving, my purposes changing. While I wanted to listen to depressing music this weekend, when the weather was cold, today with temperatures finally promised to hit above freezing for the first time in weeks, I find myself wanting to venture outside and to listen to something more uplifting.

Oh, well, for the next miserable or cold day, here's the playlist I was able to compile since the weekend (in no particular order, or in any order of preference). If you're wondering about inclusions, see the criteria I listed yesterday.
  • River - Joni Mitchell (Blue album)
  • Clouds - Joni Mitchell (orchestral version)
  • Amelia - Joni Mitchell (orchestral version)
  • One - U2
  • Taxi - Harry Chapin
  • How Soon Is Now - The Smiths* (video at:
  • Handbags and Gladrags - Rod Stewart
  • Dancing Barefoot - Patti Smith
  • Creep - Radiohead
  • Gethsemane - Richard Thompson
  • I Still Dream - Richard Thompson
  • Blood And Roses - Smithereens
  • John Barleycorn - Traffic
  • Somewhere in America There's a Street Named After My Dad - Was Not Was
  • All Of This And Nothing - Psychedelic Furs
  • Comfortably Numb - Pink Floyd

Favorite moody/melancholy albums from my past:

Wave - Patti Smith
Low - David Bowie/Brian Eno
Joshua Tree - U2
Shoot Out the Lights - Richard and Linda Thompson

And the exhilarating/depressing video I mentioned yesterday? Johnny Cash performing "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails. It's a stunning marriage of music and imagery, and particularly poignant since Cash knows he's near the end of his life when he made it. It's heart-wrenching to hear him sing about his "empire of dirt" since he's sitting in his house amid memories and accolades. But it's also exhilarating, for me, because it offers a summary of a creative life that few people get to leave behind. And I'm not even, usually, a Johnny Cash fan.

It's on YouTube now at: - but if it's not there in the future, you should be able to find it by googling ("Johnny Cash" and hurt video).

[I found this on my own, but it's also listed near the top of Spike TV's 11 most depressing songs of all time.]

An antidote of absurdity

The antidote to depressing music?

Anything by P.G. Wodehouse. I most enjoy hearing or seeing Wodehouse performed instead of just reading his stories quietly. For this, I most highly recommend the "Bertie and Jeeves" PBS series from years ago, or listening to an audio book read by a talented voice actor. I've been listening to "Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves" in the car, read by the wonderful British actor Jonathan Cecil, who manages to create unique voices for a multitude of upper-class British nitwits as well as a credible American accent. It's had me chortling every few minutes and finding reasons to drive so I can hear more of it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Perhaps a better word for it is "melancholy"

In my last post I asked the question: "What is the most depressing song ever?" The post title itself reveals my problem with writing late at night. My use of language diminishes as the evening goes on, leaving me with only a limited number of adjectives to call upon.

I think the more appropriate word for what I am looking for is "melancholy"—not depressing or, for that matter, morose or morbid. In other words, I like to listen to songs that let me experience a temporary gloominess, not songs that make me want to go stick my head in the oven.

But my criteria are more specific than that. These are some of the things I've ruled out in compiling my current playlist:

• Songs from the lovesick, unless the experience shared in the song is recognizable, and speaks of more than mere narcissistic longing—U2's "One" meets this criteria because the "we" in the song seems universal and not just limited to one couple/one frustrated man.

• Songs that speak of personal tragedy yet are more cathartic for the singer than evocative for the listener, e.g., "Mother" by John Lennon, listed on another web page that polled readers about their favorite depressing music.

• Songs with gloomy lyrics but happy music. On that same web page, people voted for "Luka" by Suzanne Vega. Yes, the subject matter of child abuse is depressing, but the music itself is a little too upbeat for my purposes. Likewise, the subject matter of "Layla" is a little depressing, but the music rocks (and it really could be categorized as a lovesick song).

• Songs that create bitterness or anger, no matter how beautiful the melody or poignant the lyrics—I can't include Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" because I find it too upsetting.

• Songs that are so depressing they cause me despondency and despair, e.g., "Gloomy Sunday."

• Songs that are schmaltzy or cloyingly sentimental. In this category, I'd put Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again, Naturally," which surprisingly is listed among some people's favorite depressing songs on other web sites. Yet, I'd include Harry Chapin's "Taxi," perhaps because I've always had a certain fondness for Harry Chapin, having seen him live and upclose when I was in college, and also because I like the cello in the song even if the recorded song's orchestration veers towards the overly sentimental.

But the other reason that "Taxi" makes the cut is that I've realized, in compiling my playlist, that one of my favorite themes (currently, and ongoing) is the dashing of the wide-eyed hopes of youth. Is there anything more melancholy than this? Richard Thompson's "Gethsemane" is a perfect example of this, as well as Joni Mitchell's middle-aged rendition of "Clouds."

Perhaps the overall theme here (which includes this optimism-dashing) is the unfairness of life—which, for my listening comfort, cannot include songs about brutality, hatred or helplessness.

Of course, your criteria may be different. Maybe you're without a mate and loneliness is the more compelling theme for you. Or you're young and you don't want to hear anyone sing about the dashing of dreams because you're optimistic it won't happen to you.

But if you, too, long for songs of middle-aged and middle-class malaise, as well as songs that sound deliciously gloomy, tune in tomorrow for my current (short) playlist, as well as a list of sad albums I remember fondly from my own youth, and the most depressing/exhilarating music video I've ever seen.

Friday, January 8, 2010

What is the most depressing song ever?

I am a big fan of depressing music, especially on long winter nights. While other people might crave Christmas music come early December, I long for sad songs.

Why? Maybe because feeling depressed in a concentrated way, for three or four minutes, makes me feel better afterwards. It's not catharsis, exactly, more like a lifting of spirits similar to taking a painful and accidental weight off one's foot or pouring alcohol into a cut and then washing it off.

I listen to depressing music until the days start to get noticeably longer, usually around the end of February. Right now, my two favorite depressing songs are "Gethsemane" by Richard Thompson and "Both Sides Now" by Joni Mitchell (sung not by the golden young woman who wrote the song, but the world-weary, too-many-cigarettes-throated singer she destined herself to become).

Sure, there are probably bleaker songs, but bleak isn't the same thing as depressing. [For example, see the lyrics to "End of the Rainbow" by Richard Thompson, or listen to it on YouTube.] There's no hope at the end of bleak, just more bleakness.

I'd like to extend my current playlist beyond these two songs, so let me know what your favorite depressing music is.

[Note: To view my current list of depressing songs, as well as my vote for the most depressing video ever, see the post: Sad songs, angsty albums, a twilight tune and an antidote of absurdity; to view my criteria for depressing songs, see the next post: Perhaps a better word for it is "melancholy".]

(FYI, Joni Mitchell doesn't start singing in this video until 44 seconds in).

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The incredible shrinking Washington Post

Recently, my daughter asked where the Washington Post Style section was. "It's right there," I said, referring to the thin pile of pages she had already picked up.

"No, I mean the whole section. I want to read the comics."

"That is the whole Style section," I said.

"What happened to it?" she asked.

"Well, the Washington Post is dying," I said, then trying to correct myself, "—it's shrinking."

Without saying a word, she got a piece of notebook paper and started drawing. I found the picture above a little later, after she'd gone on to something else.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

An unintended vacation

I haven't updated this blog in nearly two weeks, mostly because I was on vacation and, prior to that, hurriedly getting ready for Christmas. During vacation I had limited access to a computer—there were eight of us in one house vying for time on the computer. When my turn came it was always with interruptions as people walked into the bedroom/study, or usually with the feeling that someone was hovering nearby, ready to pounce on the keyboard if I even left for the bathroom.

I am sorry that we have become so tied to our computers, but I realized something important about myself: I only like to write when no one is around. Not just in an empty room but in an empty house, if possible. If that's not possible, I want to have time/room to myself with boundaries clearly demarcated. (However, I have been able to write in coffee shops, sitting by myself and intent on my work because there is no one there to interrupt me or ask me to do something for them.)

I wrote half a blog post but then couldn't finish it because the ending required that I slide into deep thought to gather my thoughts in a circular way. With people talking around me, my thoughts just kept skidding and going in obvious and superficial directions, so I gave up. I surrendered to the holiday or the idea of holiday, knowing I could make up for it later. I wrote part of a short story in my head, while trying to go to sleep at night, ready to dictate it through my willing fingers in a few days.

This recent experience has made me admire Jane Austen even more. The biography, Jane Austen, by Carol Shields, which I skimmed through last year, said that Jane would write while others conversed around her, and was quick to hide her work if anyone came into her room. She had little time for solitude. (For more, see Jane Austen paragraph in QACW). Of course, Jane Austen didn't have children and there were servants around to clean and cook. But it makes me a little sad for her that she hid her writing from her family, that it was just something she did on the side, as a hobby, and probably wasn't taken seriously at first. If she had been a man, I imagine he might have asked for and gotten time and space to himself even from the beginning. And he wouldn't have been considered an asshole for making such demands, even if he turned out to be a lousy writer.

I know this last paragraph should come to some kind of conclusion, but I have a kid here tap-dancing and talking to me about one of her Christmas presents, so I'll just have to end it where it is.