Saturday, November 29, 2008

The White Album

I get a certain weird satisfaction from the fact that I'm publishing my 100th post about the white album, on its fortieth anniversary. I've listened to it many times, of course. I remember my first time: Christmas, 1986, a present from my parents. I'd been listening to the Beatles fervently, and listening to the white album was like taking my relationship with them up a notch. It is such as strange, personal album, full of the kind of things that are hard to do before people take you seriously. I mean, if this had been one of their earlier albums, it would have really put people off, I think. But coming as late in the "relationship" as it did, it worked out. I never really thought about the gradual intimacy between a band and it's fans, but that's just how it is.

For me, the heart of the album is "Happiness is a Warm Gun." It is soulful, ironic, and connects to almost all the musical styles on the album, one way or another. I often think about how the title is a parody of Charles Schultz's "Happiness is a Warm Puppy," and how strange it is that if he hadn't created that one comic that one day, it would have changed the white album forever.

It is said that once a reporter asked Paul McCartney if he had any regrets about the white album... because, surely, if the stranger, more experimental songs were removed, taking it down to a single LP, pretty much every song on it could have been a hit. McCartney replied that, "Yes, we could have done that. But then it wouldn't be the fucking white album, would it?"

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Young Fats Waller: Early Piano Solos

I picked up this neat little 10" LP at an antique store in the strip. I'd heard some of Fats Waller before, but listening to these recordings, which have a kind of innocence and purity about them, I can only imagine what it was like to hear a young man play like that for the first time. There is so much complexity and richness of detail in his playing, but at the same time it comes across as completely effortless. It almost feels like Fats himself is in awe of his talent, and maybe a little afraid of it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Lecture from Michael Keaton

Thanks to Ralph Vituccio, I had the honor of having Michael Keaton lecture to my class on Thursday. To my surprise, he was a little nervous at first, perhaps feeling pressure to talk about technology. Quickly, though, he settled down into telling stories about his creative process. It was wonderful to hear how he developed characters like Beetlejuice, his version of Batman, and the four guys in Multiplicity. This has been a week of business, contracts, and lawyers... hearing from an artist was quite rejuvenating!

In the picture, he is playing Winds of Orbis. Don't ask about Robin.

The Great Gatsby

I hadn't read this before, but I'd always wondered about it. I had heard it was about "the twenties", "Chicago", and "a rich guy who throws big parties." To my surprise it wasn't about any of those things, really. This is definitely the single most beautiful novel I've ever read. I love Steinbeck a great deal, but his work does not have the consistently breathtaking poetry of Fitzgerald's writing. Everything is described gloriously, everything seems real, and nothing, nothing, nothing is wasted. Every word, every image, seems to have five or six purposes. And though it is over 80 years old, it sounds like it could have been written yesterday. I think this novel is as close to perfect as any I have ever read. Can it be that Fitzgerald's other books are anywhere near this good, or did he sell his soul like Orson Scott Card? I guess I'll have to read some and find out.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's full name is Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. Sometimes I think a weird name is good for a person.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Madagascar 2

It was goofy and cute, and very pretty. The story is really thin, but it isn't about story -- it's about characters and gags. The characters are interesting, offbeat, and fun, and the gags are all about playing off the characters. My favorite part about it is the character stylings -- more like african carvings than actual animals. Dreamworks really gets how to make a solid family movie.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Teacher Man

I always like books and stories about teaching. I haven't read Frank McCourt's more famous books, but I was drawn to this one. Listening to him read the audiobook was a wonderful experience -- I always feel bad for people who eschew audiobooks, because they miss out on the personal encounter with the author that audiobooks make possible.

Everyone talks about the "wonderful experience" of teaching, but I liked how the book does a good job of addressing how bad teaching can make you feel. Students ignore you, they insult you, they complain about you, they disrespect you, they take you for granted, they see you as an obstacle, they lie to you, they lie about you, they treat you like an object. The teaching experience can make you feel incompetent, small, dirty, and used. Frank McCourt talks about all that in detail, but still manages to make it seem worthwhile. It's nice to know I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs

More fun songs from Shel Silverstein! It's fun to hear him sing the original version of Boy Named Sue, and the other songs are good too. My favorites were "Time" and "Daylight Dreamer"... I could certainly relate to both of them, one about getting old, and the other about getting distracted.

He always sounds like he is having so much fun!

Psychical Research

I can't remember where I found it, but I was inexplicably drawn to read this 100 year old volume documenting studies of the supernatural. It is a product of the Society for Psychic Research (SPR), an organization that is, to my surprise, still in operation today. Mostly, the book just tells anecdotes about various psychic phenomena. It contained nothing too surprising, just types of stories I've heard many times before. But I found the end of the book, about Automatic Writing, to have a surprising, poignant moment: a message from beyond the grave, transcribed by a Mrs. Holland, supposedly under the control of the deceased Henry Sedgwick, the original president of the SPR, and clearly a former friend of the author:
We no more solve the riddle of death by dying than we solve the problem of life by being born. Take my own case -- I was always a seeker, until it seemed to me at times as if the quest was more to me than the prize. Only the attainments of my search were generally like rainbow gold, always beyond and afar. It is not all clear; I seek still, only with a confirmed optimism more perfect and beautiful than any we imagined before.
I like to think that Henry is still seeking, and that every third Thursday, the former SPR presidents still meet in the next world to discuss their supernatural discoveries.

Nim's Island

This was a really nice family movie. It was thoughtful, interesting, clear, funny, and not over-schmaltzy. I was surprised that Emma (age 7) was able to follow it very well, despite there being some complications involving imaginary characters.

Watching the deleted scenes was truly fascinating! Cutting out a few scenes radically changed Nim's character, and the changes were definitely for the better! I mean, really, who has Huck Finn as an imaginary friend?

30 Days of Night

Watched this on Halloween. It was great fun! A large gang of vampires conspires to descend on a small Alaskan town just as it enters a whole month of darkness. As one of the vampires says, "We should have done this ages ago." It was weird, creepy, fun. I hear there is a sequel...

Journal of a Novel

Steinbeck is my favorite author, and East of Eden is my favorite novel. So, naturally, I was very interested in reading this diary he kept while writing it. Actually, I started reading this years ago, when I started writing The Art of Game Design. I hoped this might give me some insight to the process of book-writing, and what it gave me was unexpected confidence. As experienced as Steinbeck was when he wrote East of Eden, this diary makes clear he spent much of it terrified and uncertain. I only had to read half of this, and it gave me the confidence that I could face my fears and get the job done. And I guess I did! So, I figured I better finish reading this. It was wonderful to spend time with Steinbeck in his writing room, with his twelve sharpened pencils, and the box he lovingly handcrafted to hold the manuscript pages.

I wonder if I'll ever write another book?