Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Andy Hallett, R.I.P.


Via Scott Tipton, I learned that Andy Hallett, who played the karaoke demon Lorne on four seasons of Angel, died Sunday night of heart failure. He was 33.

It's a measure of Angel's quirky brilliance that it included a character like Lorne (or Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan, to use his full name), whose campy humor and lounge lizard charm acted as a wonderful tonal counterpoint to the show's noirish melodrama. As a demon who could read people's auras (and futures) when they sang, Lorne was a fun twist on the detective genre's informant character, and Hallett was great with Lorne's one-liners (some of the program's best moments played his enthusiastic showmanship off of David Boreanez's deadpan seriousness, especially when the two teamed up in Season Two's "Happy Anniversary" to solve a crime on a college campus). As the show progressed, we learned more about Lorne's past, and watched as his character was slowly sucked into Angel's world, and made more cynical because of it. While always a source of comic relief, Lorne also acted as the show's quiet conscience, and Hallett was excellent at suggesting the darkness and melancholy that lay beneath his character's cheery exterior. It seems appropriate that it's Lorne who gets to voice the program's mission statement, as the gang comes back from his home world of Pylea, and he bucks up the title character:

My psychic friend told me I had to come back here. I didn't believe her. Then I realized I did have to come back here, because - I really always thought I had to come back here, deep down inside, you know? I had to come back here to find out I didn't have to come back here. I don't belong here. I hate it here. You know where I belong? LA. You know why? Nobody belongs there. It's the perfect place for guys like us.



R.I.P., Andy Hallett.

UPDATE (4/1): I don't know if this works for people without Facebook accounts, but former Angel writer/producer Tim Minear has posted a wonderful 5-minute video of some of Hallett's best moments on the show.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Undiscovered Countries


I know I've said this twice already, but does any upcoming summer movie look more fun than Star Trek? When he was here a few weeks ago, OC grad (and current Paramount trailer editor) Stefan Grube promised it would be the "best summer movie ever," and while he obviously has at least a bit of a professional interest in saying so, the film's brilliant trailers have certainly geeked me out, and activated all my dormant Trekkie tendencies. And Grube was a such a good guy about everything else that I'm inclined to think he wasn't pulling my leg, even if that inclination is fueled by hope and cinephiliac desire.

(A word of thanks here to Stefan Grube for speaking with such verve, intelligence and great humor at his lecture/discussion on March 16. I think our cinema studies program-- of which I am proudly a part-- does a good job of giving students all kinds of historical, theoretical and aesthetic context for understanding cinema, but Grube's witty anecdotes about life in the marketing trenches fill an important gap on day-to-day industry practice that I think it was really valuable for us to hear. He brought great clips, did fascinating trailer-to-trailer comparisons to show the evolution of a campaign, and was straightforward about the occasional strangeness of his job while still projecting an enthusiasm and grace about his life that I found very winning. And he really seemed to connect with the students who attended).

Trek's three trailers (which-- and I apologize if I'm incorrect-- I don't think Grube worked on) work hard to create a sense of connection across disparate groups (Trekkies, casual fans, openly hostile hipsters, curious tweens), and illustrate the kinds of marketing multiplicities Grube talked about. The first-- which debuted in front of Quantum of Solace last fall-- didn't even show the words "Star Trek" until the end, instead choosing to emphasize spectacle and non-stop action as a drawing point. The second-- a Super Bowl TV spot-- was a short adrenalin rush of sky-diving and space explosions that also began to flesh out some of the character dynamics, and introduced fan favorites like McCoy. The third pulled all these threads together while using music to make the whole thing feel awesome and epic.

All three emphasize the involvement of J.J. Abrams, whose presence acts as a balm to both Trekkie and non-fan alike. As the co-creator of Lost, Abrams comes with a certain critical and commercial cachet that's perfectly balanced on the line between nerd and mainstream. To one audience, it's a message that this cult favorite is in safe and knowing hands; to the other, it says that you can trust him to lead you into unfamiliar and perhaps forbidding lands, and to get you out in one piece.

I've only seen a couple of episodes of Lost-- I know, I know, it's on the list-- but I trust Abrams as the creator Alias (one of my favorite television shows), and as the director of the best Mission: Impossible film. In both cases, Abrams displayed a keen and imaginative sense of action and genre fun that was deeply infectious-- M:I 3 was as stylish and well-paced an action ballet as we've seen in recent years. More importantly, both texts were determined to locate the human heart amidst all the action, and to constantly remind us of the action's emotional stakes; Alias, especially, was fantastic at using spying and subterfuge as metaphors for larger questions of identity, and strained family relations.

"Family" is at the heart of Star Trek, too, just as it is for nearly every great TV show (whether that family is biological or ad-hoc), so I have great hope that Abrams will be able to rediscover that sense of playful (and more than slightly dysfunctional) family dynamics that some of the recent Trek films have lost. And if he doesn't, we still have Bruce Greenwood as Captain Pike, Simon Pegg as Scotty, John Cho as Sulu and a cameo from Leonard Nimoy to look forward to (and yes, I feel twelve again just typing all that).

For those of you who can't get enough hot Trek marketing action, Kevin Church has linked to a page of fantastic Trek posters designed for the European market. Click, and drool.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Paging Jon Stewart


The Daily Show sure picked the wrong week to go on vacation...

Via Steve Benen, I discovered that CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry had posted a fatuous "play-by-play" of his questioning of Barack Obama at Tuesday night's press conference. If you missed the conference, Henry asked Obama two leading questions about why he responded so "late" to the AIG bonuses; Obama responded, "Because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak."

In the two days since, CNN has promoted Henry as a tough-talking realist, a Helen Thomas for the millenium (even as the real Thomas looked like she could barely stifle her amused disdain for her colleagues' often silly concern trolling at the press conference). Henry's website salvo is the latest piece of this campaign, a Spy vs. Spy narrative so hilariously over-the-top in its detail that if Henry seemed even a scintilla smarter, I might suspect it was parody:

I was heading into this event with the same strategy: make news on something unexpected (I won't tell you which topics I was working on cause it would ruin the surprise for a future presser or interview with the president).

But on Tuesday night, as I sat in the front row nervously reviewing my hypothetical questions written out in longhand (decidedly old school), I kept thinking back to a conversation I had with Wolf Blitzer Saturday night at the Gridiron dinner.

He said that when he was CNN's Senior White House correspondent, he liked following up on a question the president had ducked earlier in the newser.

When you press a second time, you may be surprised with the second answer. And then rather than call on me 10th, the president called on me at about sixth.

Still early, so nobody had asked AIG yet. Plus my "sidebar" question now seemed off-point so early in a newser focused on the economic pain in the nation.

The pressure was on now because the president had called on me. Someone handed me a microphone, millions were watching, and it's scary to think about changing topic in a split second because you might get flustered and screw up.

But it's fun to gamble and like any good quarterback (though I was never athletic enough to actually play the position), I decided to call an audible.

So I went hard on the AIG question, and took Wolf's advice and followed on a couple of colleagues who got pushback from the president when they asked about how his budget numbers do not seem to add up.

The president, like any good politician, decided to pick and choose what to answer. So he swatted away the budget question and ignored the AIG stuff.

So I waited patiently and then decided to pounce with a sharp follow-up. From just a few feet away, I could see in his body language that the normally calm and cool president was perturbed.

But it's in moments like that we sometimes find out what's really on a president's mind. In this case, he's not happy about the scrutiny on AIG. So he did slap me down a bit.


Benen sums up Henry's self-regard with his typical understatement:

There are plenty of circumstances in which a professional journalist is justified in not only reporting on a story, but exploring the work that went into the story. Woodward and Bernstein, for example, not only broke Watergate, but went on to write at length about their legwork behind the scenes. Many war correspondents will do the same thing -- report on the conflict, and then later reflect on the process of reporting.

But asking a question at a White House press conference probably doesn't meet the same standard.


Even funnier, though, are the comments on the CNN article, which once again highlight the vast gap between the Bizarro world of what Digby calls "The Village" Beltway crowd, and those Americans existing outside of it. Over at No More Mister Nice Blog (from which Benen originally linked), a commenter sums it up nicely, "Really the comments in reply to that article on CNN's website are quite keen."

One CNN commenter notes "As my son would say, you got owned"; another compares Henry to Seinfeld's George Costanza, "in the episode where he thinks of the perfect 'comeback' after the fact. Thanks for sharing. Seriously, get a grip Ed." (I find this comparison entirely apt, although Henry's overheated post-hoc reasoning actually reminds me more of Michael Scott's cluelessly self-aggrandizing interviews after one of his frequent foul-ups). Some comments are brief-- "Your question was trite"-- and others note Henry's own strange body language ("When I was watching the press conference and your follow up question, I thought you were going to get up out of your seat and slap him. You looked very upset."), while still others point to the elephant in the room:

I thought the question was delivered in a rather snide and confrontational tone for the nature of the subject matter. After all, Mr. Henry's tone seemed like he was asking the President why he kept on reading a children's book for 11 minutes after hearing that the country was under attack. Unlike that well-documented event, I do not think that the AIG raises required any immediate public reaction from the President. Did Bush get pressed about that lapse in leadership by Mr. Henry or anyone else in the lame press corp that followed Bush's lead right into Iraq?

Unsurprisingly, a note at the bottom of the piece informs us that "This story is no longer available for comments."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cover Me #9: Buy Me Some Peanuts & Cracker Jacks















Christmas In March


Whoa.

While it seems a bit cruel to do it during tax season, the news that the Warner vaults-- some of the richest in Classic Hollywood films-- could be open for "on demand" business is really exciting. I haven't had a chance to look at the list yet, but I do like the idea of more than 6,000 films eventually being available on DVD at a person's request-- it's like crafting your own cinephiliac Xanadu.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Natasha Richardson, R.I.P.



I was shocked to learn of the death of the great actress Natasha Richardson, who died late Wednesday. Glenn Kenny has a nice remembrance here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ron Silver, R.I.P.


I just read of the death of actor and activist Ron Silver this morning, after a long battle with esophageal cancer. He was 62.

In an eerie coincidence, the Lovely Companion and I just started watching/re-watching the third season of The West Wing last night (I'd seen it before, she was watching for the first time), where Silver began his four-year recurring role as political consultant Bruno Gianelli. He's great fun in the part: his acid cynicism acts as an intriguing counterpoint to the show's idealistic vision of government, and his off-kilter line reading (he rolls words off his tongue as if auditioning for the role of Satan in The Devil And Daniel Webster, and I mean that as a compliment) contrasts nicely with the more full-throated performances of his colleagues. Bruno stands out in appearance (he's the only character with a goatee, and he has a dead-on gaze and hypnotic stillness amidst all that walk-and-talk), but beneath his calculation he's really no less of a romantic about government than anyone else-- he's just willing to reach his goals by other means. In that sense, he's The West Wing's version of Sam Donovan, the unpredictable ratings guru William H. Macy played on Aaron Sorkin's first show, Sports Night; what both characters do is to prick the bubble of smugness the show's characters sometimes live within, forcing them-- and by extension the audience-- to rethink their own biases of style and viewpoint. Beneath an often off-putting exterior is a grace, wit and sometime terrifying humanity-- you just have to be willing to let yourself see it.

Letting us see it was what Silver did for much of his acting career. He was born in 1946 in New York-- his mother was a substitute teacher and his father a clothing executive. After studying Spanish and Chinese at SUNY Buffalo, Chinese history at St. John's and International Affairs at Columbia, he taught Spanish several years at Roosevelt High School in Connecticut. He worked for the government in Taiwan in the early 1970s, then started studying acting in the mid-70s. Guest appearances on shows like The Rockford Files, and McMillan & Wife led to a supporting role on Rhoda as the titular character's neighbor Sonny, and a later recurring role on The Stockard Channing Show in the late 70s (he would be reunited with Channing twice, on The West Wing, and in the TV movie Jack (2004), where he played a gay man coming out to his family).

Film and theater work quickly followed, in such productions as Silkwood, Ali and Enemies: A Love Story. He won a Tony for originating the part of Hollywood producer Charlie Fox in David Mamet's Speed-The-Plow in 1988, which lead to him taking on what I think is the role of his career: playing Alan Dershowitz in the film Reversal of Fortune.

My memories of Ron Silver as an actor are bound up in this movie. It was the first thing I ever saw him in, and the part of Dershowitz-- smart, quick-witted and crude, a bundle of nervous energy who treats both the courtroom and one-on-one basketball as contact sports-- seemed made for Silver's peculiar mixture of endless energy and canny calculation. He and Jeremy Irons' Claus Von Bulow make an intriguing team-- Silver is all high-pitched righteousness, Irons all low-key cynicism (like an even more decadent George Sanders). Dershowitz constantly tells himself he's taking Von Bulow's case for noble reasons (to pursue a more general legal principle, and to fund his pro bono work on the death penalty), but the film does a good job of suggesting the lawyer's broader career ambitions; "You're a very strange man," Dershowitz says to Von Bulow, but Silver's darting eyes and cheshire cat grin let us realize that Dershowitz is not unattracted to the wealth and publicity Von Bulow's world represents. Irons deservedly won the Oscar for his role, but he wouldn't be nearly as effective without the counterweight provided by Silver.

He'd never quite have that kind of role again, although he'd continue to work steadily until the end of his life, and writers like Sorkin would give him parts that at least hinted at his potential. It's a measure of Silver's talent and professionalism that he was so convincing as the liberal Gianelli at a moment when the actor's own politics were turning rightward-- that third season of The West Wing aired just after 9/11, a moment when lifelong Democrat Silver re-registered as an Independent and began making outspoken statements in favor of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions. All of this lead to him speaking on President Bush's behalf at the 2004 Republican convention, and hosting a Sirius satellite radio show on public affairs in the last months before he passed away. The former government worker and languages teacher admitted, "By inclination I am more of a politician than I am an actor. I care more about public policy. I care more about pro-choice, the environment, homelessness, and nuclear issues than I do about any part."

Reading that list of issues, though, one begins to see that the label of "neo-con" that was attached by many to Silver's politics after 9/11 is a bit narrow. Indeed, Silver himself claimed to still be a "revolutionary liberal," and told David Frost, "I have said things that have angered both parties.... I am socially and economically still a Democrat and always was. If gay people want to get married, God bless them. I try to warn them that along with marriage comes divorce, but they don't listen to me, so good luck. On things like healthcare, I am to the left of most people...." In another interview with SkyTV just before the 2008 election, he expressed some cautious hope for Obama (while still enumerating their disagreements) and disappointment at McCain's pick of Sarah Palin as a running mate, stating forcefully that putting Palin a heartbeat from the presidency was an irresponsible act for a man with a history of melanoma. He also co-founded the Creative Coalition, an activist group of entertainment folk who worked on behalf of First Amendment rights and public education.

Some of these positions may seem contradictory, and I certainly don't agree with all of them. But Silver's gift seemed to be an ability to display and embody paradox, to suggest that every simple image has a complexity behind it, a series of often contradictory intensities. In bringing to bear upon those intensities his full concentration and power, he made American acting a much more interesting place. R.I.P., Ron Silver.

Friday, March 13, 2009

It's All Superman's Fault

Oh, sure-- Obama might be Superman, but who really suffers in this economy? The little guy.

Like this one:



(h/t Oliver Willis's site).

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Stuff I'm Watching


The first half of the semester has been a busy bear of a time, and this week I've been laid low with a bug that seems to be traveling around Cineville. Which means that the backlog of review posts in my head has yet to be cut down-- really, for months now I've been meaning to catch up on what I've been seeing in theaters and on DVD. As a holding mechanism-- and perhaps a spur for me to get to writing more expansively about them over the next month or so-- here's a list of the films and TV-on-DVD I've been catching up with, in no particular order:

The Ox-Bow Incident
Jumper
Slumdog Millionaire
Nero Wolfe, Season One
SIsterhood of the Traveling Pants 2
Deathtrap
Hellboy 2
Ballet Shoes
Frost/Nixon
Last Chance Harvey
The Incredible Hulk
Cool Hand Luke
Tropic Thunder
The Great Debaters


I've also been re-watching Sports Night-- a 10th anniversary box came out last year, and it's been fun to look at the episodes again, and to view the extras. I'd forgotten how dense with language and imagery each episode is, and it's always a pleasure to be enveloped by Aaron Sorkin's pitch-perfect screwball dialogue, and engaging sense of grace.

Less pleasurable? This news. Really, Jon Favreau? Really? Lost In Translation aside (and admittedly that's a pretty big aside), can someone explain the enduring appeal of Scarlett Johansson's blank expression to me?

Puppet Show

Even Elmo can't withstand the madness of the Office star:



Come and play, everything's a-ok!

(h/t to Andrew Sullivan's site.)

Dark Brilliance


Schulz City: That Yellow S.1 by ~ninjaink on deviantART

(click on the link to enlarge)

Jean Luc Pham and the artist known as ninjaink pool their talents to craft an homage/parody of both Frank Miller and Charles Schultz, finding that uncanny place where the neurosis of the latter becomes the nihilism of the former.

It's also just really funny.

(h/t to my student Mike Migdall, who sent me the link. Thanks, Mike!)

Walker, Texas Jack-Ass



Methinks Chuck Norris took one too many blows to the head back in the '80s.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Swingin'


Mention Alan Moore to a comics fan, and the images that come to mind are probably pretty dark: the Comedian being thrown through a window at the start of Watchmen; the twisted politicians and equally problematic anti-heroes of V for Vendetta; the ghoulish tour through a dystopic London in Moore's Jack The Ripper masterpiece, From Hell. These images come to us in narratives that play with comic book time and space, that want to rethink tropes of reading and seeing, and use their eerie surfaces as generic lures for the reader.

But who says revisionism and formal play has to be dark? By 1993, Moore himself was a bit disturbed by what Watchmen had wrought: not the explosion of comic book innovation he'd hoped for, but books which ignored Moore's and artist Dave Gibbons' textual radicality and instead simply recycled the "gritty" characters and violent scenes with none of Watchmen's irony (thus proving, as Dorian mentioned the other day, that Rorschach really is a parody of comic book fans and authors). In response, Moore engaged in the most creative of penances: by crafting the delightful miniseries 1963 for Image Comics. Designed as both a tribute to and parody of the Marvel Comics of the 1960s, it's full of the same kinds of intertextual pleasures that other Moore texts provide: the knowing parodies of genre, the clever page designs, and the wraparound "paratextual" elements that make the entire book an art object (in Watchmen, this included a parallel pirate comic narrative that ran at the end of some issues, derived from a book within the main story; in 1963, it's fake "Bullpen Bulletin" pages-- here called "Sixty-Three Sweatshop"--made-up letters pages, and parodies of the old "Mighty Marvel Marching Society" that played up the former's militarist undertones). But because it comes to us in a much brighter and wittier package, its tone is much subtler: we're having so much fun reading that it takes us a minute to realize the complexity of Moore's project.

If you grew up reading Marvel in any period, but especially if you're familiar with the mid-60s brilliance and hucksterism of Stan Lee, 1963 should feel strangely familiar. There's "Mystery Incorporated," a pastiche of The Fantastic Four whose name reminds readers that the fearsome foursome were themselves pastiches of the earlier Challengers of the Unknown; "The Fury," whose name is reminiscent of a certain Marvel super-spy, but who is actually a play on heroes like Spider-Man and the Black Panther (Nick Fury is parodied in another feature, "Sky Solo, Lady of L.A.S.E.R."); a Thor parody called "Horus, Lord of Light"; and my personal favorite, "Johnny Beyond," a play on Dr. Strange whose beatnik image acts as a reminder of the Greenwich Village that would've surrounded the Marvel Dr. Strange in the 1960s, and becomes the launching pad for some funny cultural critique when Johnny is suddenly time-warped into a yuppified, 90s Village:



The miniseries has fun with its format, toggling between standalone issues for a given character, and "split-screen," half-and-half shared books reminiscent of the old Tales of Suspense. This means none of the characters wear out their welcomes, while allowing Moore and his artists (including Dave Gibbons, Rick Veitch, and Steve Bissette, all of whom are given playful monikers reminiscent of the old Marvel credits) to quickly weave an interconnected universe of heroes and villains that acts as a playful commentary on narrative continuity, fan obsession and editorial fiat ("Affable Al," as he calls himself, crafts a persona in the paratextual materials that's a sharp critique on Stan Lee's tendency to hog the spotlight).

The most Moore-like of all the gestures is one that happened by accident: the series actually never ended. The final issue was designed to lead into an annual that would time-warp the "1963" characters into the 1993 Image universe, but various personal and business problems meant that the annual was never written. Although it happened by chance, it's actually my favorite moment in the whole series; by forcing the reader to complete the story in his or her imagination, Moore and Co. stumble on the great secret of superhero serials: their open-ended, "Exquisite Corpse"-like appeal to future generations of comic book fans and artists, each of whom will build on what came before and establish new paradigms for readers and writers. As far as I know, 1963 has never been collected, and it can be difficult to track down (but it's well worth looking for). But I do wish some enterprising writer or fan would pick up the threads of Moore's project and carry it forward. In an age of Civil War and Final Crisis and 65 Wolverine titles, I'm kind of curious to see what new bind Johnny Beyond has gotten himself into.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Our Town



Frank Rich has an interesting piece in today's New York Times about the ongoing economic troubles of the country, and it's very thoughtful and well-written. But what really grabbed me was the first half, which uses a reading of Our Town (and a brief review of a recent revival of the show at a Greenwich Village theater) as the jumping-off point for larger musings about how much the country has (and hasn't) changed since Thornton Wilder's masterpiece debuted in 1938.

I'll admit that I was one of those people who'd read the play as, in Rich's words, "a permanent yet often dormant fixture in our culture, like the breakfront that’s been in the dining room so long you stopped noticing its contents." It wasn't until i saw a live production of the play in Gainesville a few years ago that I really understood its strange and haunting power. It's such a rich mixture of sentimental narrative and avant-garde staging, conversational phrasing and lyrical speechifying, broad tableau and small character detail: the whole thing becomes an unsettling dreamscape of shifting and never-fully-realized perspectives (which is, of course, the play's whole message).

I suddenly understood the tonal and structural connections between this piece and Wilder's Skin Of Our Teeth, which I'd read as a very precocious teen. Our Town's radicality came from finding the depth and surreal longing within the idealized small town: it wasn't a critique of small-town mores so much as a deeply sympathetic but clear-eyed reading of everything that's lost and gained in the passage of a single moment, that moment captured in a fracturing of time and space. In that regard, it might be the most emotionally involving embodiment of the theory of relativity ever seen on the American stage (a theory worked out, intriguingly, in the same time period of 1900-1915 within which the play is set).

Like Wilder, Rich wants to bend time and light to create parallels between our present moment and a past one, to suggest what is gained and lost. He does so with great skill, but what I really came away with from the piece was the reminder of all we've lost since Rich gave up the drama desk at the Times. I like his opinion pieces, but when he writes of theater (here, in his older Times reviews, or in the magnificent memoir Ghost Light), his work becomes so much more passionate and poetic, feels so much more engaged and personal. Like Emily Webb, he's a ghost watching his past, and he can't look at everything hard enough.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Oh. Dear.



(h/t to Steve Benen's site for the image).

Meanwhile, Digby fisks the rhetoric.

End-Of-The-Work-Week Mental Health Break



Tres NSFW, but very, very funny.

Trekkied



I am totally geeked out for this movie. Even the One Tree Hill-like Kirk doesn't bother me-- I mean, he's supposed to grow up to be Shatner, so it's not like over-emotive melodrama isn't a logical acting choice.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Power & Knowledge



What really struck me watching the clip is how similar the CNBC reporters seem to the Daily Show "reporters," only without the self-awareness.

I Found Grace Inside A Sound

Can I get enough of Edge's ringing guitar, Bono's emotive yelping and Adam Clayton's supple bass lines?

No-- no, I cannot. And neither can David Letterman, apparently, since he's having them on every night this week. Here are clips from the first two shows:

Performing "Breathe":


Performing "Magnificent":


(h/t to Crooks and Liars for the "Breathe" clip).

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Horizon Lines


There's an interesting piece in today's New York Times about the genesis of the latest U2 record, No Line On The Horizon, which comes out Tuesday, but has been available for free streaming at the band's MySpace page for the last week or so. My impressions of the album are mixed so far-- I need to really sit down and listen to it when it's officially released this week, to get a full feeling for it-- but I've been intrigued by how the album's been received in America and Britain. In terms of qualitative judgment, there's no real difference so far-- Uncut, MOJO and Q in the UK, and Rolling Stone, EW and the Times in America all seem to love it (some of these responses have been linked at the band's website).

But the British articles frame the album as a return to the band's experimental period, between Achtung Baby and the highly underrated Pop. They happily toss around words like "offbeat", "departure" and "speculative" as positive adjectives, whereas in the American context, those terms seem to be taking on a perjorative connotation, or a least an air of skepticism. EW's music critics are generally smart and open-eared, but Jeff Jensen's review, despite giving the album an A-, is a revealing set of panic moments:

The warning has been sounded. ''Danger! Danger! U2 are experimenting again!'' This is not exactly welcome news for those who remember the band's attempts at reformulating their cathedral-rock sound with of-the-moment trendiness (Zooropa, Pop) as something to be endured, not embraced, and who had been thrilled by their return to ''old-school U2'' on 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind. Only once, with Achtung Baby, have Bono and Co. ever stretched far and found glory.

So, we disagree on Pop and Zooropa, but what really intrigues me is the subtle use of "those" in the second sentence; what Jensen really means, as the rest of his review bears out, is "me," but he seems to need to frame his own preference in the second person-- the implied community that chooses to read U2 in a rather narrow frame of "authenticity."

Jon Pareles' article in the Times, while not a review, further builds this myth by suggesting that "Once the band reached the arena and stadium circuit in the 1980s, it stayed there. It has had no lineup changes, no breakups, no reunions and no catering to nostalgia." It's a definitive statement that works to recast the last ten years of the band's career, which to my ears (see, Jeff? First person isn't so hard) have been all about nostalgia. The straight-ahead, three-chords-and-the-truth rock of All That You Can't Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb were purposely designed (the band freely admitted when they were released) as auditions to once again be "the biggest band in the word" after the artier digressions in the 90s; they evoked precisely the intended, Pavlovian response from critics who will always hear guitar chords as somehow more meaningful than dance beats. In addition, the band released three greatest hits collections and numerous DVD concert packages, a sure sign of creeping Jaggerism whose most egregious moment came on their 90s greatest hits disc, which chose to radically revamp several songs from Pop in the style of ATYCLB. The gesture stripped those tunes of their ambiguity and mystery in favor of a simplistic 4/4 rhythm that further reinforced the myth of "RAWK" realness. It was shameful, really.

There's nothing wrong with Dismantle or All That You Can't Leave Behind-- I love them a lot, actually-- and I admire the band's desire for bigness, its generous wish to spurn hipster distance and reach as many people as possible (Pareles quotes Bono in the interview: “I’m interested in commerce,” he said. “The excuse for bigness is that songs demand to be heard if they’re any good. And without the kind of momentum of being in a big rock ’n’ roll band, you won’t get your songs heard"). And the more conservative thread Jensen follows is hardly unique to him (oddly, for a form that is, in many ways, the fastest-changing and most modern of all media, pop music continues to be framed by critical discourses that seem trapped in a vision of '68 glory, that look for their meaning in lyrics when they should be looking in timbre).

It's those horizon lines of criticism that fascinate me, the ways they suggest that conventional wisdom and herd mentalities aren't limited to politics. And they feel especially relevant to U2, not only because they are one of the biggest bands in the world, but because from ZooTV onward, that question of framing and image has been woven into both their stage shows and their music. Another quote from the Pareles piece:

One theme that runs through the songs, Bono said, “is the ability to surrender, to give yourself, whether in reverie or revelry. And the journey of the artist is surely the journey away from self-consciousness.” He paused and smiled ruefully. “Fame is all about self-consciousness.”

It strikes me that criticism is balanced on that same horizon line, between self-conscious distance and ecstatic release (again, it's less about the idea than the timbre). Is it possible to find a form that can capture in its critical explorations the feel that Pareles finds in U2's music, a tone that is "determinedly intuitive: a collation of momentary impulses and collaborative sparks" rather than tired, overarching thematics?