This movie about three young people making a whole world out of movies, sex, and parental allowances in a Paris apartment as the near-revolution of May ’68 takes place outside is not as good as it should be. It pulls its punches; it doesn’t go far enough. It may also be that when the trio finally run out into the street, the demonstration that sweeps them up feels fake not only because it’s poorly staged, but because the world that’s been left behind was so complete—and, at just that moment, so dangerous. Lead actor Michael Pitt’s thuggishly casual reading of the ’60s non-classic “Hey Joe”—not to mention the amazingly precise ’60s guitar playing by (presumably) half of his backing band, which cuts the tune down to its molecules—seems to have nothing to do with this or anything else in the film, but it sounds right.
2. Pink Nasty, Mule School (Fanatic)
From Wichita, a young woman who acts like Maggie Gyllenhaal’s characters and sings with the restraint of country artist Kelly Willis—with occasional slips into the floridness of Lucinda Williams. There’s a wonderfully thrown-away ditty called “What the Fuck”; there’s “Missing the Boat,” a disconcerting piece that takes two minutes to find its shape and when it does breaks into a realism that makes “I’ll drink beer for you, I’d have sex with you, I’ll drink beer for you” feel like a letter to someone the singer will never write to again.3. Debbie Geller, “America’s Beatlemania Hangover” (BBC News, Feb. 7)
The only 40th-anniversary-of-the-Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan tribute worth noting. As a girl in a “left-wing, atheist, divorced family” in Levittown, Long Island, “the archetype of American suburbia,” Geller has no answer when kids ask her what religion she is: “I had never even heard the word before.” She isn’t “so much bullied as barely tolerated.” But then suddenly everyone has to have a favorite Beatle, and everyone wants to know who everyone else’s is: “A girlish democracy was created.” Watching on February 7, 1964, she realizes it’s George: “During the postmortem at school the next morning, I announced my discovery with confidence. Although Paul was the undisputed favorite, my choice was accepted with respect. And no one ever made fun of me again.”
4. Bonnie “Prince” Billie, Bonnie “Prince” Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music (Drag City)
Aren’t tribute albums terrible? And this is a self-tribute album—smug versions of great Palace songs by Will Oldham, a.k.a. Palace—a whole new terrible genre.
5. Old Crow Medicine Show, O.C.M.S. (Nettwerk America)
Why people hate folk music.
6. Negatones, Snacktronica (Melody Lane)
Why people hate smart alecks.
7. T. C. Boyle, Drop City (Penguin)
Almost impossible: a novel about a 1970 hippie commune in which the author embarrasses neither his characters nor himself.
8. Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” from Live 1964: Concert at Philharmonic Hall–October 31, 1964 (Columbia)
Everyone who’s heard Dylan perform this number in the 39 years since it appeared on his Bringing It All Back Home knows what will happen when the line “Even the president of the United States sometimes has to stand naked” (as it’s sung here) comes up: The crowd will stomp and cheer to show what side they’re on, or rather what messy choices they’re superior to. But on this night Lyndon Johnson had yet to be demonized. Nixon had not been elected. Ford had not replaced Nixon, or Carter Ford, or Reagan Carter, or Bush Reagan, or Clinton Bush, or Bush Clinton. No one had heard the song before—and it’s so strange to hear the line produce only silence, as if it’s not obvious what the line says.9. “The Fog of War: Robert S. McNamara and Errol Morris in Discussion,” University of California at Berkeley (Feb 4)
Throughout a long talk arising from Morris’s 2003 documentary The Fog of War, moderator Mark Danner pressed the former Secretary of Defense—under Kennedy and Johnson the tribune of the Vietnam War—to apply his conclusions from that time to the present day. Again and again, McNamara—at 88 in frightening command of his faculties, vehement, direct, lucid, at times even monomaniacally focused—ignored the question, dodged it, refused it, denied it. Finally Danner announced that he would read the “Eleven Lessons” from McNamara’s 1995 In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam: “I’ll ask you while I do so,” he said, “to keep the present situation in mind.”
One by one, the items went off like small bombs: “‘We failed to…We failed to…We failed to…We failed to draw Congress and the American people into the pros and cons of a large-scale military action before it got underway…We did not realize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient…We do not have the God-given right to shape other nations as we choose…'”
“When I read these lessons again I felt a chill go through me,” Danner said. “I was in Iraq. In October, reporting…they seemed to reflect with uncanny accuracy–it’s for that that I’ve tried to push you, not only about–” McNamara cut him off.
“What he has done,” he said to the audience, “is extract those lessons from this book. The lessons are in there…I put them forward not because of Vietnam, but because of the future!” He turned to Danner: “You want me to apply them to Bush. I’m not going to do it.” He turned back to the audience, full of people who decades ago fought him with everything they had. “YOU APPLY THEM TO BUSH.”
10. New York Times, “Music Albums Chart, Billboard/Soundscan, February 9 through 15″ (Feb. 23)
#1 Norah Jones, #2 Kenny Chesney, #5 Josh Groban, #6 Harry Connick Jr., #7 Evanescence, #10, 2004 Grammy Nominees compilation—it’s probably pointless to read anything into this sudden domination of comfort, balm, reassurance, and acceptance at the start of an election year. At least I hope it is.
City Pages, March 3, 2004