On “Bobby”

Bobby, the Emilio Estevez film about the day Robert F. Kennedy was killed, sets itself up as a classic Altmanesque ensemble drama. The obvious antecedent is Altman’s 1975 film Nashville, which uses the country-music capital of the world as the backdrop for a set of intertwining stories. Like that film, Bobby focuses on a single location (the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles) and features two dozen major characters in or around its sphere. Perhaps coincidentally, both films also feature presidential candidates that don’t appear onscreen (except, in the case of Bobby, as archival footage) and climax with an assassination.

What interested me about Bobby was the decision to extend the scope of the Kennedy shooting beyond the senator, his family, and campaign entourage to the rest of the hotel’s staff and occupants who happened to be there on June 5, 1968, many of whom went through the day with plenty of other things on their minds. (Freddy Rodriguez, for instance, plays a kitchen worker who’s bummed that he can’t watch Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale attempt a sixth straight shut-out that night.) Historical fiction films provide an opportunity for a writer or director to tilt the narrative prism away from the oft-told tales, and in not even bothering to introduce Sirhan Sirhan, much less examine his motivations for killing RFK, Estevez’s tack is admirable.

At the same time, most of the narratives Estevez weaves in Bobby are just as concerned with the bloated momentousness of the occasion as the ones they’ve ostensibly replaced. We get a pair of eager campaign volunteers dropping acid for the first time, a young man getting married to avoid the draft, and a Czech reporter taking a break from the tumult in Prague to request an interview with Kennedy, all of whom seem to exist for no other reason than to make the shallow point that 1968 was crazy, man. This allows the film to promote its thesis that Bobby represented a unified hope for the future, bringing the ensemble together metaphorically as well as literally, but it treats its characters as simple stand-ins for a hastily sketched zeitgeist.

Perhaps if these vignettes were more dramatically satisfying, I’d have less of an issue with them. (A well-acted, racially charged scene in which chef Laurence Fishburne presides over a table of Latino cooks is a notable exception.) But while watching the film, what I longed for, I suppose, was the way United 93 strips away all the bluster and symbolism that continue to surround 9/11 and depicts exactly what happened that clear Tuesday morning, however mundane. Or maybe the way that Nashville uses its large cast to embody the growing fragmentation of American culture, instead of forcing a hokey sense of unity at the end, as Bobby does, with a long-winded speech by someone we’ve only seen on TV.

August and everything after

Rondi Reed, Francis Guinan, and Sally Murphy in August: Osage County at the Steppenwolf Theatre.

Despite Chicago’s reputation as perhaps the best regional theatre scene in the country, I don’t make it out to as many plays as I’d like. This is undoubtedly in part because many of my cultural choices are determined by whether or not there is a pre-existing discourse surrounding the work in question. For better or worse, critics play the role of gatekeepers, and when I’m likely to stumble across only one review of any Chicago theatre production (in the Chicago Reader), I rarely get an overwhelming sense that anything is a “must-see.” Furthermore, for me, half of what’s exciting about a great work of art is the opportunity to join a dialogue, and the dialogue regarding any theatre work is necessarily limited by the few people who have access to it (a single city, a limited number of seats), not to mention the marginalized status of theatre in relation to other art forms.

(This is why I’m sympathetic to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Movie Wars [2000], a book-length harangue about how Hollywood and the media pre-determine our cinematic choices at the expense of great [usually foreign] films, but don’t entirely identify with his forlorn attitude, since I care as much about popular culture as I do about aesthetics. [The book is an instructive reminder about how popular culture, even so-called art films, is manufactured, however.])

That said, I went to see Tracy Letts’s new August: Osage County at the Steppenwolf last night on the recommendation of a more theatre-savvy friend, who after seeing it in previews, predicted it would win a Pulitzer next year (sadly, the sort of statement that heightened its relevance factor for me), and I found it a pretty remarkable piece of work. It’s a three-hour ensemble drama about an Oklahoma family torn apart by years of anger and resentment and brought together again by the disappearance of the patriarch, and Letts structures the whole thing beautifully, managing the rising tension in brief, two- or three-person interactions until it builds to a climax in a crowded, 11-character dinner scene at the end of Act II. It’s also funny as hell, and that humor is not just a welcome respite from the cruelty and melodrama but an organic response to it and a measure of the characters’ complexity.

The performances of this original cast were mostly superb, especially Amy Morton as eldest daughter Barbara, but a couple rang false for me. I hate to pick on 15-year-olds, but the high-school student who played the admittedly apathetic Jean was wooden throughout, and I wasn’t sure what to make of Sally Murphy, either. The fact that she doesn’t look anywhere close to 44 (despite the fact that she apparently is) made me wonder whether she was miscast as the middle daughter, Ivy, but then (spoilers ahead) I’m not sure I buy her childish vulnerability and her kissin’-cousins relationship with Little Charles if both of them aren’t younger and more naive. (Ian Barford’s Charles reminded me, oddly, of Ben Katz). I’d be curious to see how this is handled in future productions; at the very least, a Broadway version would expand the discourse on this finely wrought drama.

Baby name bonanza!

Much recent discourse on baby names has focused on the explosion of spelling variants within the last few decades, the tendency for Aidan, for instance, to breed Aiden, Aden, and Aydin, which then frequently surpass the original in popularity. I’d wager that this is mostly true of “new” names—those debuting after 1965 or so—where the original name hasn’t been able to establish a foothold before parents start getting creative.

The history of the name Caitlin seems fairly typical:

Caitlin, etc.

Though it’s a traditional Irish name, Caitlin remained obscure until the late 1970s, perhaps riding a wave of interest in Irishness—in 1976, the year it debuted, the female names Shannon, Kelly, and Erin were in the top 25, and Megan wasn’t far behind. Within five years, it had spawned two variants (Kaitlin and Katelyn), and two years after that, two more (Caitlyn and Kaitlyn). During the period 1994-2002, with the exception of a single year, there were no fewer than nine variations of Caitlin within the top 1000, and in 2006 the original spelling was only the fourth most popular. I was born in 1979, so it’s unsurprising that I’ve only known one Caitlin (b. 1980) and that she spells her name as such; it’s similarly unsurprising that Marissa Cooper’s little sister on The O.C. (b. 1991) goes by Kaitlin.

Obviously, variants in and of themselves are nothing new, as any Sarah who has ever been asked “H or no H?” can tell you. The difference is that, for older names, one spelling has usually dominated over time. When I was younger, for instance, I never understood why other kids would occasionally assume my name was short for Jonathan. Only Jons were short for Jonathan (or at least, there were 12 times as many Jonathans than Johnathans the year I was born), and Jons weren’t nearly as common as Johns. Similarly, Chris has long been the default over Kris (for boys, anyway), Mark over Marc, Eric over Erik, Jeffrey over Jeffery over Geoffrey, etc. I can think of only one “traditional” boys’ name with multiple spellings in which neither has clearly dominated over the past century: Stephen/Steven. Maybe Sean/Shawn, too, though neither was known in the U.S. prior to the 1940s.

For the past few years, however, Jonathan (which I realize is more than just a spelling variant) has been poised to overtake John on the Social Security Administration’s annual list of the most popular baby names, less because Jonathan is hot (it’s steadily hovered between #15 and #23 every year since 1980) than because John is not (it’s been out of the top 10 since 1987) . In fact, last year, when the two names appeared back-to-back at #18 and #19, I predicted that 2006 would reveal a reversal.

It didn’t. Both names slipped by about the same amount, and they’re currently at #20 and #22, respectively. But further down the list, I noticed that a similar milestone had taken place: Bryan had usurped Brian. Oddly enough, Bryan predates Brian within the U.S., having appeared in the low reaches of the top 1000 long before Brian’s 1925 debut. But for decades Brian was considered the dominant variant; during the period 1939-74, there were always at least four times as many Brians as Bryans (in 1952, there were 6.8 times as many).

Brian/Bryan/Ryan

So why, then, did this figure start to fall in the mid-1970s? One explanation is that as Brian reached a point of oversaturation (it peaked in 1972 and held on to 8th place for much of the decade), parents who liked the name but were wary of bandwagon jumping found Bryan (and, less commonly, Bryon or Bryant) a useful alternative. Another explanation is that Bryan benefitted from one of the hottest boys’ names of the 1970s, Ryan, whose popularity can be traced directly to one man: Ryan O’Neal.

The name Ryan1 entered the top 1000 in 1946 but rose only gradually until the late 1960s, when O’Neal starred in the TV soap opera Peyton Place, and then skyrocketed into the top 100 following Love Story, the 1970 box-office smash that made O’Neal a household name. (It’s also worth noting that Ali MacGraw’s character in the film is named Jennifer, which likely contributed to that name ascending to #1 that year.) By 1976, after high-profile roles for O’Neal in Paper Moon and Barry Lyndon, Ryan was in the top 20, and it’s stayed there ever since. (Other public figures probably helped keep the name current after O’Neal’s star fell, notably Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan [played 1966-93], actress Meg Ryan, and cause celebre Ryan White, the teenager who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. In recent years, there’s also been the award-winning film Saving Private Ryan and The O.C. character Ryan Atwood.)

As with John and Jonathan, Bryan’s recent fortune has less to do with with its own popularity (it peaked, along with Ryan, in 1986) and more to do with the precipitous nature of Brian’s drop. (You may recall that I targeted Brian as a candidate for the dad names of tomorrow.) For those of us who are used to Brian as the dominant variant, however, it will be interesting to see if the new positions are maintained and how that affects our perceptions of the two names in the future.

1 Like Kelly and Shannon, Ryan is an Irish surname repurposed as a first name. It is interesting to note that all three names, though usually identified with one sex (Kelly and Shannon = female; Ryan = male), have often been given to the opposite sex as well.

2007 Pitchfork Music Festival, Part 2

My Saturday started off with Voxtrot, whose eager guitar-pop riled the early-afternoon audience but nonetheless struck me as unremarkable. Grizzly Bear were a better match for my mood, and the newly installed video screens on the side of each main stage afforded some great close-ups of Chris Taylor (also known, by Krista, as the Nordic Demon, owing to his diminutive build and severe blond brow) crouching to blow into a flute. But since I’d seen the band less than a month before, the delicate interludes and keening harmonies seemed lost amid the teeming park, and the set bore few surprises, so I wandered off halfway through.

In fact, by the time I was ready to bite into my annual Wishbone black-bean cake (with mango salsa; $5), the day felt like a bust so far. This was partially my fault. I insisted on sticking through Fujiya & Miyagi’s set, in case the sound improved, and thereby missed Battles, whose druggy, alien post-rock I’ve slowly been coming around to. I later heard that the band kicked all kinds of ass and so they’re probably my biggest regret. The prospect of some blanket time in the back of the park with friends also meant that I missed most of Iron & Wine‘s set, which ordinarily wouldn’t have have been a big deal, except that what I did see (Sam Beam leading a band on some hazy, expansive jams) made me a lot more interested in his new album than if he’d merely recorded another 40 minutes of fragile, honey-voiced folk songs.

Fortunately, Clipse made up for it. I like the dark, bare-bones Hell Hath No Fury but would probably like it more if I were actually in the habit of giving my whole attention over to full-length albums (as it is, hip-hop’s too distracting to put on while reading). Still, it wasn’t just my familiarity with the material that gave the Virginia rap duo’s set a leg up on GZA’s the night before. For one, fewer people on stage gave the performance more focus: each rapper was integral, not just some grunting hanger-on. The sound was better, too, so I could thrill in that floating harp glissando on “Ride Around Shining.” But more than anything, Clipse brimmed with charisma, from their infectiously energetic rapping to the way they soaked up the audience’s affection. I wondered what they made of the fact that what must surely have been their biggest crowd in a while was a sea of (mostly) white faces, all shouting along.

When I returned on Sunday, my luck continued. Junior Boys, boasting a live drummer and a newly svelte Jeremy Greenspan, had perhaps the crispest sound of the festival, even if it was strange to hear their frosty, often claustrophobic synth-pop beneath sunny summer skies. Then again, it lent a measure of appropriateness to their usual closer, “Under the Sun.” And it didn’t stop me from all-out dancing for the first time all weekend, nor the dude obviously on some sort of hallucinogenic drug next to me from dreamily reaching out to the verdant, full-leaved trees in the distance.

By contrast, I can think of few bands better suited to playing a warm Sunday at 4 PM than the Sea and Cake, especially since their new record, Everybody, harkens back to the more vibrant, organic feel of their early material. Indeed, new songs like “Exact to Me” came alive with the bright, meticulous interplay between Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt’s guitars, and I listened to my friend Leah shout, “They’ve still got it!” throughout much of the set. They also revisited old favorites like “Jacking the Ball” and “The Argument,” which still sounded sweet, even though John McEntire now sports a ballcap to hide his bald spot and Eric Claridge, with his goatee, shoulder-length hair, and wide girth, looked like he’d be more comfortable in a suburban meat-and-potatoes blues-rock group than in the breezy, sun-dappled band on stage.

I spent a lot of time on Sunday hanging out with assorted Pitchfork writers, bloggers, and critics backstage. I have to admit, I sort of felt like a charlatan, since the occasional singles blurbs I write don’t really compare to a position as the reviews editor at VIBE, and I’m afraid I even misled Mark Richardson (who’s an extraordinarily nice guy, by the way) as to the extent of my role at Stylus (currently, not much of one).

Still, I’m happy to have met a couple of scribes I admire, like Maura Johnston and Tom Breihan, and didn’t really mind that I was missing part of Stephen Malkmus‘s set as a result until I strolled down to the Aluminum stage and heard the closing strains of “Trigger Cut.” Malkmus was performing Pavement songs, with Bob Nastanovich on drums! I later heard that he’d opened with “Heaven is a Truck,” which I wish I’d seen, but the acoustic raggedness also sapped the songs of some of their original potency. I’m not sure I agree with Miles Raymer (whose tenure as the Chicago Reader‘s chief music critic I can’t quite get over, having first met him as a drop-out punk who hung out at a smoke-filled late-night coffee shop in Kalamazoo ten years ago) that Malkmus “sounded monumentally indifferent,” but I like his zing that the lanky songwriter has “gone from actually playing groundbreaking indie rock to merely representing the idea that playing groundbreaking indie rock was once possible.” It was a nostalgia show, that’s for sure.

I tried to watch Of Montreal for a while, but the VIP riser off the side of the stage, while affording good glimpses of the band in all its slapdash costumed decadence, faced the back of the speakers (I don’t know how anyone could’ve found this satisfying), and I’d lost the opportunity to stake out a decent spot out in front, so I waited around for the Field and then called it a day. Of the four top-billed acts on Saturday and Sunday, I didn’t watch any of Cat Power or De La Soul, and I headed out each night amid the ululations of Yoko Ono and the rousing songcraft of the New Pornographers, respectively. But I’m fine with that. Even though the swarming crowds and weak sound made this year’s festival less gratifying than its predecessors, I still saw a handful of great performances, and I have a feeling things will get better in 2008.

2007 Pitchfork Music Festival, Part 1

Another year, another Pitchfork Music Festival. But whereas I met the former two installments with unreserved enthusiasm, this year’s festival was marked by growing pains that rendered it occasionally disappointing. The main issue was the Balance stage, which replaced the tent set-up of past years as a smaller third space beyond the main stages. At first, I welcomed the news that the tent had been done away with, as its sightlines were fairly poor unless you were up close. This year, however, even if you could see just fine, the sound wasn’t always optimal. I’m guessing there were a couple of factors at work here. One, the tent, for all its problems, may have been able to contain sound in a way the open-air stage couldn’t. Two, the actual sound system was simply not equipped to deal with the larger crowd this year (the entire weekend was sold out). I’m not sure whether the speakers were small out of budgetary restrictions or out of concern for bleed into the rest of the park, but if you happened to be standing anywhere behind the sound booth, everything was extremely distant.

For instance, I’d been looking forward to capping off my Saturday by dancing to Girl Talk, but from where I stood, all I could hear was various disgruntled crowd members yelling “Turn it up!” I joined the riot for a minute but soon understood it wasn’t going to get any better, so I glumly left for the night. (Actually, I ended up at my friend Becky’s karaoke birthday party, where I talked to an old high-school crush and sang “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” in half-falsetto.) In a couple of other cases, there were extenuating circumstances. Earlier on Saturday, Fujiya & Miyagi‘s excellent take on krautrock as pop miniatures was unfortunately tinny, but I’m guessing that electronic drums and constantly whispered vocals aren’t always the easiest mix in a live setting. (Backstage, Matthew Perpetua suggested that the band isn’t much more dynamic in clubs, either. Ah well, it’s still great headphone material.) And on Sunday, Brightblack Morning Light took a good half-hour to set up, and after ten minutes, their wispy, nature-worshipping psychedelia didn’t seem worth the wait. The best performance I saw on the Balance stage, then, was The Field, who threw a bone to the Pitchfork audience by mixing a few bars of Annie’s “Heartbeat” into his dreamy glacial trance. Of course, it helped that I wriggled my way to within 20 feet of Axel Willner’s laptop.

But let’s back up. I arrived at Union Park on Friday night a little before Slint were due to go on but opted to camp out for a good spot in front of the other stage instead. I’d seen Slint on their reunion tour in 2005, and even though I do admire Spiderland, I learned then that they’re a pretty static live band, and so I didn’t feel as though I was missing much. Not being all that familiar with GZA‘s Liquid Swords (apart from “4th Chamber”), I couldn’t fully appreciate the first act I caught, but I was also bothered by a mix that buried RZA’s beats below the barking of hype men and by my suspicion that GZA didn’t really want to be there. (It was hard not to be made uncomfortable by the tepid crowd response, especially after GZA announced that he’d blown off a Wu-Tang show in Amsterdam to perform at the festival; for all the hip-hop fans in Pitchfork’s sphere, though, I’m guessing that most audience members were simply waiting for Sonic Youth.) I agree with Greg Kot that Cappadonna’s fierce rhymes upstaged GZA, anyway

Sonic Youth were my favorite band when I was a senior in high school, and they’re my favorite band today (though there were a few intervening contenders). That fact, plus the knowledge that they’re capable of a truly transcendent live set (cf. Metro, 2002) meant that Friday’s performance of Daydream Nation in its entirety held a great deal of promise. Though it’s with some reluctance, Daydream Nation is also my favorite Sonic Youth album: while on any given day, I might prefer Sister or Washing Machine or even Rather Ripped, the sheer ambition and scope of Daydream creates a sense of masterpiece that’s tough to ignore.

The show itself wasn’t perfect. Kim sounded tentative on “The Sprawl,” and Thurston improvised some guitar skronk over what Matthew Stearns1 calls the “cowbell section” of “Eric’s Trip.” I know some fans reveled in the spontaneity, but I couldn’t shake the thought that the band didn’t know, or could no longer reproduce the parts, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I would’ve preferred a note-for-note rendition. But still: I got serious chills during “Cross the Breeze,” which I’ve always loved for the way it seamlessly moves from that pretty chorus-laden guitar intro to pummeling speed-metal to a moody, darting backdrop for Kim to chant over. And I got all revved up during “Hey Joni,” which means more to me now that I’m kind of in love with Joni Mitchell lately, and you know, I’m not that much of a purist that Lee can’t shout out whatever years he wants at the end. (Lee was also, as usual, totally friendly on stage, a welcome contrast to the studied Gordon-Moore aloofness.) Before the band went on, some kid asked my friend Renee and I if this was our first time seeing Sonic Youth. I quickly calculated and said, “No, sixth.” Renee grinned and said, “More than that. I’m old.” We figured him for about 20. He spent most of the next hour bopping around and high-fiving his friends. Good for him.

1Stearns wrote the 33 1/3 book on Daydream Nation, and while he gets some decent interview material from Lee and Steve, the majority of the book is annoyingly hyperbolic, full of gushing purple prose. And when he drops that act to do a track-by-track critique, his lyrical exegeses are tenuously drawn. Not recommended.

Or, Chipotle Nation

David Kamp’s The United States of Arugula is a supremely engaging account of how this country, over the past 50 years, has been transformed from one that routinely touted artificial flavoring as food’s next frontier to one in which fast-food giants must offer fresh, exotic greens in their salads to keep up with consumers’ palates. As someone who has noted with wry amusement how specific ingredients (e.g., asiago, chipotle*, and pomegranate, in succession) have become trends everywhere from four-star restaurants to frozen-food aisles, and who has welcomed the presence of stores like Trader Joe’s that offer high-end fare at low prices, I found the subject especially compelling.

But Kamp structures his book almost exclusively around personalities within the food establishment (the first third focuses squarely on the strong-willed triumvirate of James Beard, Julia Child, and Craig Claiborne), and while I don’t doubt his cavalcade of chefs, critics, and cookbook authors was highly instrumental in shaping American cuisine (and to be honest, all the attending backstage gossip is part of what makes it so readable), I sometimes wished more attention had been paid to the broader sociocultural changes that allowed for such figures to take hold. Things like the rise of the middle class in the post-WW2 period, the effects of globalization, etc.

One part that did strike a chord was Kamp’s mention of the emergence of “lifestyles” in the 1970s, i.e., individuals defining themselves more and more by their consumer tastes, which he notes as contributing to the yuppie interest in gourmet trends in the following decade. I’m sure that I didn’t think much about food until I converted to vegetarianism in 1998 and started shopping at co-ops and places like Whole Foods in part out of practicality (as they had friendlier selections of frozen and ready-to-eat foods) and in part out of a desire to be seen as socially conscious.

But lately, thanks to books like Kamp’s—and, to a greater extent, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I’ve been reading concurrently—I’ve been thinking more about the soy nuggets I consume. It’s amazing that I can get this sort of thing at my local grocery store, but when I note all the maltodextrin and other additives on the nutritional label, I wonder what kind of progress we’ve really made. Which is why one of the most attractive figures in the book is Alice Waters, the guiding light of Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse. While her history of serving rich French delicacies is not always compatible with my pesco-vegetarian palate, I admire what is perhaps her greatest contribution to the food world: an emphasis on keeping ingredients local and whole.

*which my mom still endearingly pronounces to rhyme with “total”

Copyediting pop

So now that “Big Girls Don’t Cry” (perched this past week at #3) is Fergie’s second-biggest single from The Dutchess, can I just say how much the line “I’m gonna miss you like a child misses their blanket” bothers me? Not just because Everything But the Girl rocked a far more lovely and potent metaphor for missing someone, but good God, that “their” just screams to be fixed. I know it’s increasingly treated as standard spoken English, and I’m not saying she should get all proper with a clunky “his or her,” but what about just “her”? It makes the image more specific, anyway, like maybe that child is Lil’ Stacy Ferguson and her present-day longing is compounded by some wistful memory of youth. Shit, even “its” would do.

Even notwithstanding this grammatical mishap, I prefer the two singles that didn’t crack the top five. The electro spelling bee “Fergalicious” and the lush, fame-dizzy “Glamorous” (the latter of which reminds me of “Cool” and “Luxurious,” those two underrated late singles from Gwen Stefani’s first album) both trump the treacly “Big Girls” and the squawky “London Bridge” any day.

EDIT: In comments below, Al Shipley schools me on the actual Fergie chart positions, which for some reason I was remembering all wrong. “Glamorous” reached #1 and “Fergalicious” #2.