Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tonight's gonna be a good night, but not as good as these kids'.

I don't really like this song, nor do I think that this is a super original or ambitious film technique. However, this many people having this much fun puts a huge smile on my face. Thank you, students of "l'Université du Québec à Montréal". That looked like a good night, indeed.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Array Mbira

The mbira does not get its due. What the heck is an mbira (em-BEER-uh), you ask? Exactly my point.

The mbira is a musical instrument of African origin. You might have made one when you were a kid, out of popsicle sticks. It's known by many other names, including the Likembe, the Kalimba, or (as you may know it) the Thumb Piano.

This is an mbira:

This is also an mbira (the mbira doesn't really take off 'til about 2:10. I know the sound quality on this video sucks, but it was the best I could find for this song, which is awesome):

These things sound beautiful. Why the heck do more people not play them? I have several theories:
  1. People dismiss it as either a child's toy or an ethnic novelty instrument, because…
  2. Most of the mbiras in existence suck. They have a tiny range and/or are poorly made and tuned. As far as I can tell, there is only one company that makes quality mbiras: Array Instruments (both of the above videos are Array Mbiras), and even then…
  3. To play an Array Mbira, you have to learn a totally new key arrangement (which actually kicks ass from a music theory and fingering standpoint, but you still have to learn the new setup).
So, what do you think? Will the Array Mbira eventually become known and respected by serious musicians? Or am I just obsessed with tinkly, bell-type sounds?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

TBTL: What the heck is it?

So my last post about TBTL was completely about my experience with the show. I was very emotional when I wrote it, and I now realize that I don't think I did enough to make the show sound interesting to you, my tens of readers, so let's try again.

If you want to read a better encomium of the show than I could ever write, go read this TBTL eulogy by Tom Tangney, award-winning film critic and frequent guest on TBTL. It's beautiful.

TBTL, as far as I can tell, is one of a kind. I know of no other podcast, radio show, or television show that has a heart as big. However, it is incredibly difficult to describe to someone who has never heard the show. It has been likened to Seinfeld: a show about nothing that still manages to resonate strongly with people's personal experiences. True in an abstract sense, but TBTL is nothing at all like a sitcom. It has also been described as "This American Life crossed with Howard Stern", which is accurate only in the sense that the show appeals to NPR intellect, but is free-form, humorous, and irreverent, ala Stern. However, the TAL/Stern comparison is also very misleading, as TBTL contains little to no sex talk, and is not at all set in the storytelling format of TAL.

(For you This American Life fans, Ira Glass is going to be on TBTL this Friday; and for you those of you that enjoy Howard Stern's more gritty, earthy brand of humor, Adam Carolla was on TBTL on Monday. Hmm. Maybe the TAL/Stern comparison is more apt than I thought.)

The biggest draw of TBTL, at least for me, is its friendliness. The people on the show are real friends. As friends, they have many joking, sarcastic conversations along with some meaningful, serious ones (a contrast that Tom Tangney compares to lemon meringue pie). However, it could be argued that this intense friendship dynamic is also the biggest hindrance to new listeners. Just like meeting a group of people who are all friends with each other, listening to TBTL for the first time can be intimidating. There are too many inside jokes in each episode to even count. As a long time listener, this self-referential humor is one of my favorite parts of the show, but I realize that it is super confusing to new listeners. The hosts know this as well, but they're not trying to be exclusive. They want everyone to be in on the jokes. They even created a page on the TBTL website to get new listeners up to speed on the show lingo. Unfortunately, it only covers the most frequently used terms; you're left to decipher the remaining 90% on your own.

I'm telling you, though: it's a high barrier to entry, but a high rate of return, like HBO's The Wire. Sit down, grit your teeth through a few episodes while you get to know the characters, and it might become one of your favorite shows of all time. Please, please give it a shot.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Too Beautiful to Live


I have included subtle links to this radio show on this blog before, but tonight is a special night.

I'll start at the beginning:

* * *

January, 2008:
Two long-time friends from Seattle start a radio show. They call it "Too Beautiful to Live" (TBTL for short). It's sort of their dream show – the show that both of them had always wanted to make. It's about nothing. It's a talk show, but decidedly non-political. It's two friends (both in their 30's) talking about whatever they feel is important or entertaining. They don't care if the show gets canceled after one week. If it does, then it was "Too Beautiful to Live" (also see: Arrested Development).

* * *

Summer, 2008:
I become a fan of a radio show called "The Bryant Park Project". It's an NPR show, but with a youthful, goofy sensibility. It's subsequently canceled about three weeks after I start listening.

* * *

September, 2008:
Doing some research on the then-extinct "Bryant Park Project", I find that one of the original hosts, Luke Burbank (whom I had never heard on the BPP), quit the show, moved to Seattle (his hometown), and started a radio show with his childhood friend, Jen Andrews. The show is called "Too Beautiful to Live". I listen to a couple shows and love the real sense of friendship between the hosts of the show. I like the same music and enjoy the same movies and TV shows as the hosts. I subscribe to the podcast.

Over the next few months, I become a true fan of the show (a "Ten" in TBTL lingo, referring to their "tens of listeners"). I record a few intros for the show, they are used on the air occasionally. I make at least two appearances on the TBTL blog, have several e-mail exchanges with the hosts, have several of those e-mails read on the air, and become the first listener ever to pick up the phone on their "call makers" segment, in which listeners are called by the show.

TBTL becomes a huge part of my life. I feel a certain friendship with Luke (the host), Jen (the producer), and Sean (the engineer). TBTL is the most interactive, friendly show I have ever heard. They host several parties for their listeners. Unfortunately, all the parties are in Seattle, so I am unable to attend. I am about ready to schedule a trip to the Northwest to meet Luke, Jen, and Sean at the next event.

* * *

August, 2009:
I have listened to TBTL for 1 year (I listened to a month's worth of old episodes going backwards from September).

* * *

September 10th, 2009:
Luke makes a mysterious post on the TBTL blog, entitled: "Really Really Really Important TBTL Announcement Tonight At 7:20". Much speculation from the Tens ensues in the comments on the blog. Is Luke or Sean getting engaged? Is there a super fantastic event being announced for the Tens? Is the show being canceled?

I tune in live. I have tuned in live maybe once or twice before. 7:20 rolls around (9:20 pm central time).

97.3 FM, KIRO, has canceled TBTL as a radio show. It is indeed "Too Beautiful to Live". Friday, September 11th will be the last broadcast.

HOWEVER, TBTL will live on as a podcast. Monday, September 14th will mark a rebirth of TBTL. Luke, Jen, and Sean say that they have invested too much in this show and cultivated such real friendships with the listeners that the show simply cannot be abandoned. It will be different, but will hopefully retain the spirit of the old show.

I await Monday with excitement and trepidation.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

World Cinema

In 2007, the same year the Coen brothers released No Country for Old Men, they also directed a short film as part of a 60th anniversary celebration of the Cannes Film Festival. It stars Josh Brolin, playing a character very reminiscent of his Llewelyn Moss in No Country. In this short film, Brolin's charater is at a small arts theater, trying to decide which of two movies to see.

Let me take a second to give you my perspective on the Coen brothers:

I am endlessly fascinated with the work of Joel and Ethan Coen. I absolutely adore O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Ladykillers. The Big Lebowski was bizarre, but very entertaining. Fargo was profoundly depressing, but is one of those movies that I'm glad I watched once, if only once (also see: Requiem for a Dream). No Country for Old Men was brilliant, if equally grim. By no means do I love everything the Coen brothers do (Burn After Reading was one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of my life), but I'm always excited to see what they're up to next.

This short film, World Cinema, is a beautiful three minute showcase of the things I love about Coen brothers movies: brilliantly written (and often hilarious) dialogue, an intense sense of place, and characters that are very stylized but still have real depth. The Coens are able to make movies on both ends of a spectrum: completely devoid of or completely built on subtlety. This one is definitely the latter. Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Has anyone else noticed that ABC is the worst major television network out there? Everyone always gives NBC crap for getting bad ratings. Why does no one ever taunt ABC for having a lineup of terrible, terrible television shows?

Just so you can see with your own eyes how catastrophic it is, here is ABC's current lineup, in its entirety:

Shows I might enjoy watching:
  • Jimmy Kimmel Live!
  • Lost
  • Scrubs
Shows I will actively avoid watching:
  • The View
  • All My Children
  • General Hospital
  • Crash Course
  • Dating in the Dark
  • Desperate Housewives
  • Grey's Anatomy
  • I Survived a Japanese Game Show
  • Wipeout
  • Extreme Makeover: Home Edition
  • Wife Swap
  • The Bachelor
  • Dancing With The Stars
Shows I've never heard of:
  • One Life to Live
  • Better Off Ted
  • Brothers & Sisters
  • Cougar Town (it is the ladies, not the animals. I had to check.)
  • Defying Gravity
  • Eastwick
  • FlashForward
  • The Forgotten
  • Hank
  • Happy Town
  • The Middle
  • Modern Family
  • Shaq vs
  • Shark Tank
  • SuperNanny
  • The Superstars
  • V
Shows I've heard of, but couldn't care less about:
  • Good Morning America
  • 20/20
  • America's Funniest Home Videos
  • Castle
  • Nightline
  • Primetime
  • Private Practice
  • Ugly Betty
  • Who Wants to Be a Millionaire
  • World News
I believe that's just the shows that are still on the air. Let's not forget the smash-hit 2007 sitcoms "Cavemen" and "Carpoolers."

I know what I'll do. I'll try out a new metric for ranking TV networks:

Watchability ratio =

# of shows I might enjoy watching
# of shows I will actively avoid watching
(excluding soaps)

NBC: 2.25 (9/4)
FOX: 1.00 (7/7)
CBS: 0.50 (2/4)
ABC: 0.27 (3/11) (probably much lower if I knew what all the shows were)