The Passenger #2
I have Andrew Bird’s Armchair Apocrypha on all the time these days. It’s his tenth album in as many years, but the first one I’ve heard, and it’s a revelation. Bird’s classical training, wide-ranging tastes, and remarkable pop sensibility combine to make a sound that is recognizable and wholly new. It’s pop grounded in rock guitar and steeped in the modern indie softness of singer/songwriters like Sufjan Stevens and Damien Rice.
The music is vigorous, never suffocated by its sweetness. Songs seem to evolve as you hear them, melodies branching from melodies and back again, and Bird is never above interrupting the whole show for a witty aside. He’s often funny on the record, and the lyrics are consistently smart.
Bird creates beautiful sounds on the album, adding violin, glockenspiel, and his whistle to supplement the guitar-and-drums at the center. It’s actually amazing what he does with so little, testament to the strength of the songs.
I’m almost reluctant to say it, because it’s taking me a while to get through this book, and I imagine when I check in next week, I’ll still be reading it. It being Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, which I picked up with great anticipation. Longer than I expected and often more tedious than I could have thought, I can hardly sit down with it for more than a half-hour. Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy it. It’s a terrific insight into a bygone world, one in which our awed narrator meets constant disappointment in the old empires.
It is the story of the New Barbarians, a boatload of affluent Americans on a pleasure trip to the most famous cities of Europe and the Holy Land. Twain’s intent is to deflate European pomposity, and reveal to them that their antiquities and history cannot carry them into a new age. He mocks everything, except for the rare wonder, such as an ancient Roman statue or a nightly promenade in the park, with ice cream.
The book is funny and sometimes shocking. Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was one of the first pieces of American art to treat slaves as humans equal to their masters (an attitude for which it was originally banned; remarkable that now it is banned for the opposite reason: in a more conscious world, its true-to-the-times liberal use of the word nigger keeps it out of schools). In The Innocents Abroad, written earlier in his career, he often comes off as a racist, albeit an equal-opportunity one. He tears into everyone: Arabs, Turks, Italians, Greeks, consistently calling everyone filthy and indolent.
Its flaws notwithstanding (and I should not be too harsh on Twain; he seems only to be voicing the popular opinions of the age), the book is important for announcing America’s place in the world: the upstart nation, loud and brash and irreverent, whose century-long history is fresher and more important than the millennia-old Europe. It has been our opinion of ourselves ever since.
Tampopo is one of a small group of films that seem designed almost entirely out of an appreciation for food. Films like Eat Drink Man Woman, Big Night, Babette’s Feast, and this one carry such a love for the making and tasting and indulging of great cuisine, they almost always defeat themselves as entertainment, because the audience cannot wait for the tease of the film to be over and the meal to begin. I know at least one of these films, Big Night, has spawned a cookbook and an event in which a screening of the film is followed by the featured dinner at a nearby restaurant.
Tampopo is a quirky comedy made in Japan in 1985. Its title character, whose name translates as dandelion, is a middle-aged widow who has inherited her husband’s ramen house but not his skill as a chef. She can’t even cook noodles properly; it’s pointed out that the water isn’t boiling. When a taciturn trucker and noodle connoisseur shows up one rainy night and lays some truth on her, she prevails upon him to stick around and help her learn the art.
The film is buoyant and strange, one of a kind. Its director is a passionate gourmet who uses the popular medium of cinema to make an auditorium of people stare longingly at a bowl of noodles as each of its attributes is described in adjectival detail. Tampopo’s restaurant is rebuilt like a bowl of ramen: first the perfect soup, then the noodles, then the vegetables and meat.
It’s a bouncy, appetizing affair, and not the less so for being interrupted by other comical tales of fabulous food. There is the man who gives his ice cream cone to the young boy who wears a sign that reads “I only eat natural foods—please do not give me sweets” and the dying man who recounts the best meal he ever had: winter wild boar, which subsists only on yams, making its innards the most succulently flavored meat in the world.
It’s a funny, idiosyncratic film. And when it was over, I was a little bit smarter about food, a little bit more passionate about life, and a lot hungrier. I dug through my cookbooks for the perfect noodle recipe.
I am always on the lookout for good television, and this week I found a handy guide with the list of this year’s Peabody Award winners. I watched three things from the list, the first being the Martin Luther King, Jr. episode of The Boondocks, which I found funny and smart, though not that funny and not that smart. The show has always felt a little imbalanced to me, its voicework never matching up with its visual style, and it keeps me a little distant. But the episode had some interesting things to say, even if it was less clever and on-target than the best South Park episodes (a show which I’m sure hasn’t won a Peabody Award yet).
The second show I watched was the American Masters documentary on Andy Warhol, a two-part, four-hour show on the artist considered the most important of the last half-century. The series follows Warhol from his improbable childhood through his emergence as pop artist and to his two deaths—the first of which, an attempted assassination that stopped his heart for two minutes, left him uncertain of whether he had come back to life or remained dead and dreaming.
It’s a terrific documentary, informative and entertaining, and has given me a new appreciation for Warhol’s art. I get him now, I see what he did, and I am impressed. It is a powerful film that changes the way you see a man and the world.
I am currently in the middle of the BBC documentary Galapagos, an HD extravaganza that allows all the awe of those wondrous islands to come through. Having seen only one part of the three-part series, it has already become essential viewing and has sold me on the beauty of HD (which I currently experience on my computer monitor).
Strange and beautiful sights and creatures abound in the series as it describes the creation and history of the famed islands. It is one of the best nature documentaries I have ever seen. As a bonus, it has given me hope for a future in which we may appreciate animals in their natural habitats, far from the misery of zoos and circuses. Truly, the scenes in this film could not be recreated in those man-made constructs.
Having started a blog and finding it to be a fun way to spin the tedium of my days into the golden moments that, collected, make up a life, it has become my mission to convince everyone I know to start their own blogs, if for no other reason than to stop them from asking me to mention them on this site. (Hi, Coleen!)
I have even gone so far as to suggest what they should write about, such as telling my older sister that she can create one of those mommy blogs. I don’t read mommy blogs myself, but I’m sure they fill a niche.
Of course, I don’t consider Heather Armstrong’s dooce.com to be a mommy blog, as it is written by a very funny and foul-mouthed woman whose descriptions of her life and tribulations are inspiration to anyone attempting to write a personal blog. I haven’t been reading it very long, but what I have read is among the best of all the useless junk that makes up the Web 2.0.