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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Chicago as seen from the Lisagor awards

Posted By on 03.31.07 at 09:47 AM

The Lisagor awards, which recognize the best Chicago journalism every year, were just announced; thanks to the magic of the Internet, many of the nominated stories are still freely available. (Many are not because the Sun-Times and its STNG family, to my displeasure, don't roll like that. Too bad.)

As you'd hope, the nominated works provide compelling reading. Some highlights:

* Paul Salopek of the Tribune--one of the country's finest journalists--is nominated for his four-part series on oil, which is a masterpiece. The Trib's new media division also snagged a nomination for its Flash-based multimedia adaptation of the series.

* You may dismiss a story on the social pressure to excel at golf in the business world as lite. I wish I'd thought of it, because it's great. It's up against another Crain's piece on death in the workplace. While acknowledging the importance of the latter, I humbly submit my officially meaningless vote for the former.

* Compare and contrast: a Sun-Times reporter on death, the Tribune cultural critic on death. If I had to explain to an alien the prose style of each paper, I'd give it these.

* The venerable Chicago Reporter was nominated for stories on Harold Ickes as a CHA dumping ground and a woman caught in the middle of the CHA's Plan for Transformation. The author of these stories (who is a friend), once pointed out to me that the Plan for Transformation is an urban exodus on the scale of the Katrina displacement. It's harder to notice because it's gradual, but it's going on all around you.

* The Sun-Times has the government and politics category in its weight class sewn up, for two series on clout (only Clout's Sick List is online) and one on the state's mishandling of veterans' services. The latter is by Cheryl Reed, who does double duty as books editor and investigative reporter. 

* The Tribune's David Heinzmann is up for a story in his series on Christina Eilman, the young Los Angeles woman who was released from jail in the vicinity of the Robert Taylor Homes, where she was sexually assaulted and later fell seven stories; she survived, but suffered severe brain damage. When the vivid and bleak history of the Chicago Police Department is told, this shouldn't be left out.

* Competing with the Eilman stories for the unofficial title of most heartbreaking series is the Tribune's Throwaway Lives, on undocumented workers. Side note: the online comments section is the Abyss, but it adds richness. Dark, soul-crushing richness.

* Of course you're all wondering: how'd the Reader do? Quite well in business news: Nicholas Day on why you can't buy Bell's here anymore, Scott Eden on Chicago's first bike messenger collective, and Catrin Einhorn and Linda Lutton on the seasonal workers from a tiny Mexican town who process most of Illinois' pumpkins.

* Scott Eden got a second nomination in sports reporting for his cover story on the Chicago Griffins Rugby Football Club and the bar that exists to support it.

* Designer Godfrey Carmona was nominated for our fall fashion issue layout; the print copy's not online, but an online simulacrum is.

Coming soon (I hope): a look at the radio nominees. 

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Intuiting this year's White Sox

Posted By on 03.31.07 at 12:02 AM


The Milwaukee Brewers. For some reason, I like the Milwaukee Brewers this year.

I don't know what to base that upon, except to say that I have a good feeling about them. And what's wrong with that? The vaunted Baseball Prospectus, my baseball guidebook of choice, pegged the White Sox to win 72 games this season--which might be worrisome if it hadn't picked them to win 71 games two years ago, when they won the World Series. Even the Saint Louis Cardinals last season took the worst team they'd had in years and somehow parlayed that into the playoffs in the National League's weak Central Division and ran the table from there to win the championship.

So this year I'm picking by feel--it's as valid as any other approach--and I like the Brewers. They've been rebuilding for years, and the talent has finally arrived in the form of Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, and Corey Hart, and I think they'll get some help yet from Ryan Braun once he polishes his fielding back in the minors. I like Ben Sheets to finally put together a full season and anchor the pitching staff, and that will be enough to get the Brewers into first in the NL Central. From there, give me the San Diego Padres in the NL West, which should also produce the wild-card team in the Los Angeles Dodgers, but not until they stop dicking around with old farts like Luis Gonzalez and Brett Tomko and finally give playing time to James Loney and Chad Billingsley. For that reason, the Arizona Diamondbacks could surprise with their talented young lineup--if they get enough production from Randy Johnson (a big if for the Big Unit). Throw the Cubs into that "could" category as well, but I don't like their defense any more than their pitchers figure to. I don't like the New York Mets' pitching at all, and for that reason I don't like any team in the NL East, so I'll take the Philadelphia Phillies under the theory that I was simply a year early picking them last season. I'll take the Padres to advance to the World Series, with Jake Peavy besting Sheets, but I still like the Brewers as my surprise team. Now that the Seligs are no longer associated with our neighbors to the north, what's not to like?

I'm taking the White Sox in the American League Central, but more by process of elimination than by choice. I think the Detroit Tigers' young pitching will pay the price for going so deep into the season last year, much as the Sox did last year and the Cubs' Mark Prior and Kerry Wood have ever since 2003, and now Kenny Rogers is out for three months. The Cleveland Indians and the Minnesota Twins just don't have enough pitching, although the Tribe will have enough to claim the wild card if Joe Borowski holds up as bullpen closer.

In spite of their off-season defections, the Oakland Athletics will be the best of a bad bunch in the AL West, as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim pay the karmic price for signing Gary Matthews Jr.--and for having a ridiculous name. Give me the Boston Red Sox in the East, as their pitching is better than the New York Yankees'--if  they can get the same sort of full season out of Josh Beckett I'm predicting the Brewers will get out of Sheets. I'll take the White Sox to return as champs--and win it all, because by then they'll have found a way to mix knuckleballer Charlie Haeger into the rotation to complement all those fireballing relievers they have in the bullpen. What better suits picking by intuition than to expect big things from the knuckler?


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Friday, March 30, 2007

Culture of the copy

Posted By on 03.30.07 at 09:14 PM


As the plagiarism debate rages on (or at least percolates along) over at the Daily Harold, UW film prof/scholar David Bordwell offers up a few thoughts at his own blog on what plagiarism might mean in relation to film. "It’s interesting to speculate about what a plagiarized film would be," Bordwell muses. "You can plagiarize somebody’s script by passing it off as your own. ... But can you plagiarize a movie itself?"

Bordwell thinks it'd be hard to pull off. "I might swipe a finished film’s negative from the lab and then make new credit sequences that replace the director’s name with mine. But I could hardly expect to get away with it, since nearly everybody involved would notice. Perhaps I could find an old forgotten film and then stick my name in there somewhere. Again, though, I’d have to explain how I could have been around to make that 1930s Monogram musical or 1960s Taiwanese kung-fu film. ... I’d have to tell a plausible story about how the work came to be."

But what actually constitutes plagiarism, and how do you distinguish it from, say, an ordinary homage ... or even a simple remake? "All those copies and unauthorized remakes of Hollywood films, like Hong Kong Pretty Woman and Kaante, the Bollywood version of Reservoir Dogs, might count as plagiarism. (The producer of Kaante calls it an homage [Bordwell's link].) Still, my inclination is to say that plagiarism is a difficult concept to transfer to the visual/moving image arts; its core application may be literary and ... musical performance."

Setting aside the distinction federal judge Richard Posner apparently likes to draw between plagiarism and violations of copyright (which doesn't figure into Bordwell's reasoning at all), does it even make sense to talk about a movie being plagiarized? Even shot-by-shot appropriations, like Gus Van Sant's '99 version of Psycho, don't fit the definition comfortably (whatever that definition is, but let's not go there now ...). Consider the Van Sant for a moment: the cast isn't Hitchcock's, the physical locations aren't the same, the dialogue's recited with different emphases, different inflections, and even shots literally replicating the original's don't register the same way. Or actually can't: like the scene of Julianne Moore mounting the steps of the old Bates family manse, camera pulling up in half shot as she climbs; it's exactly as Hitchcock framed Vera Miles's front-on equivalent back in 1960 ... except nobody shoots this way anymore--at least not on staircases, where sides and up angles are practically de rigueur ... and never, ever with the actor's feet cut out of the frame! It's a point about contingency/temporality that Bordwell makes well enough, if only indirectly--the copy that isn't a copy, and how circumstance (the identity of the performers, the venues, etc) inevitably colors the way we interpret what we view. But it's minuscule departures from the template (not all of them advertent) that make Van Sant's clone so interesting and, in its own small way, "inventive," like one of those old Victorian illustrated teasers: so how many apostles can you find hidden in the rocks on the road to Jerusalem?

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Improvised sounds, far apart

Posted By on 03.30.07 at 05:21 PM


If anyone wonders why terms like "jazz" and "improvised music" don’t cut it, look no further than two musicians performing in town this weekend: Boston saxophonist David Gross and Denver trumpeter Ron Miles. Gross, who plays Sunday at Enemy, reduces free improvisation to its most elemental qualities. Although he has a jazz background, over the years he’s eliminated all traces of jazz harmony, melody, and rhythm from his playing. In fact, he’s one of those guys (like fellow Beantowners Greg Kelley and Bhob Rainey of nmperign) who’s managed to make his horn sound unrecognizable. For Gross, the saxophone is just a sound generator. On last year’s Things I Found to be True (Sedimental), he doesn’t merely employ extended technique--he eschews any sort of conventional approach to the instrument. Miniature scraping sounds, breathy columns of spilled air, tongue flutters, reed pops, vocal cries muffled by the tubing of his alto sax—those are just the things I feel relatively confident identifying. At other times it sounds like he’s drinking something with a contact mike attached to his throat while jiggling a crumpled piece of aluminum foil in the bell of his horn. Gross will surely test the limits of most listeners, but I really enjoy giving myself over to his alien sound world. He’ll be joined by Chicagoans Jerome Bryerton (drums) and Jason Roebke (bass); all three will do solo sets and then improvise together.

Ron Miles is best-known as a sometime-collaborator of guitarist Bill Frisell. His gorgeous tone and lyric style have been a good fit for Frisell's delicate music, restrained without surrendering strength and suppleness. He's made an equally good partner for Chicago guitarist Jason Steele—they've played together sporadically over the years (Steele's from Colorado himself) and Miles is featured prominently on Some Wonderful Moment, the new album by Steele’s group. The tunes on Moment unfold slowly and patiently, with Steele's warm chords going through loads of repetitive cycles, allowing the melodies to reach their full expositions. (There's a definite rock influence, if the group's take on the Elliott Smith tune “Alphabet Town” weren't enough of a clue.) Unfortunately the structure and pacing becomes numbingly predictable by the album’s conclusion. Billowy, arpeggiated chords from Steele and pianist Keith Johnson form the foundation over and over, as the horn players—Miles, fellow trumpeter Thad Franklin, saxophonists Josh Sclar and Tim Sullivan—elaborate on the melodies with an almost tepid moderation. They kick up some dust on some of the longer pieces, like “Unexpected You” and "No Words,” raising the volume, tension, and density, but even that feels predictable by the second listen. The group has a good sound, and Steele’s composing has plenty of potential, but he needs to try cutting loose, putting more into the performances from the start rather than saving it for the climaxes.

The Jason Steele Ensemble plays Heaven on Saturday. The following night at the Hungry Brain , Miles and coronetist Josh Berman will join Steele and guitarist Bill MacKay as part of Remington 2+2, a free improv quartet that pairs Steele and MacKay with two "mystery guests" at each show.

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"The Bruces" are sitting this one out

Posted By on 03.30.07 at 04:53 PM


It's picking up in the 35th Ward, where alderman Rey Colon and former alderman Vilma Colom are heading toward their fourth showdown in the last eight years.

Alderman Richard Mell (33rd) has brought in his precinct workers to help Colom, his protege, win back the seat Colon took from her in 2003.

For his part, Colon has picked up endorsements from every other elected official in the area, though it's not certain whether they'll br sending over precinct workers on the day of the April 17 runoff.

Which brings us to the matter of the Bruces, as they are widely known—Bruce Anderson and Bruce Embrey, two longtime independent activists who oversaw much of Colon's successful ward operation in 2003. This time around they've decamped, breaking from Colon largely on the issue of zoning: the Bruces think he's been far too quick in allowing condominium development in the area.

During the first go-round in February, Anderson and Embrey supported Miguel Sotomayor, helping him put together a decent precinct operation for a first-time candidate. Soto finished third with a respectable 20 percent of the vote, behind Colon's 46 percent and Colom's 34 percent.

After the election Anderson, Embrey, and about 30 allies from the Sotomayor campaign met to talk about whom to support in the runoff.  After a spirited debate, the group as a whole decided to stay neutral. Individuals, of course, are free to make endorsements

So whom are the Bruces supporting? Embrey, who actually lives in the adjoining 26th Ward, says he's not endorsing or working for either Colon or Colom. "I've gotten calls from both camps," he says. "Vilma called me on election night promising me the moon and the stars and the sun. But I've been working against the machine for 25 years and I'm not about to change. I'm just going to sit this one out."

Anderson, who lives in the ward, says he's not working for either candidate, and he won't say who he's voting for.

According to recent polls the race is too close to call. It will probably come down to which candidate has the best election-day operations. If Mell's muscle pushes Colom over the top, Colon has only himself to blame for alienating two savvy ward operators like the Bruces.

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Stones Throw in Chicago

Posted By on 03.30.07 at 12:49 PM

It’s hard to dispute the fact that LA’s Stones Throw Records—currently celebrating its tenth anniversary—is one of the country’s best hip-hop labels. Although it still emphasizes the kind of stripped-down, no-frills hip-hop that people in some circles unfairly tag as "backpacker rap," in recent years the label has truly expanded its sound, issuing albums from genre-bending soul singers like Aloe Blacc and Georgia Anne Muldrow and a number of killer compilations (both on Stones Throw and Now-Again, the distributed imprint of funk-45 collector Egon) highlighting hip-hop's roots. Factor in the significant success of Madlib (and his alter egos like Lootpack, Quasimoto, Yesterday’s New Quintet), Dudley Perkins, and J Dilla (whose underground fave Ruff Draft was just reissued in an expanded edition) and you can see why Stones Throw is no longer exclusively thought of as a hideout for nut jobs.

Starting this Saturday, March 31, Stones Throw is kicking off a new monthly residency at Sonotheque, and the debut looks great. J. Rocc, a founding member of the Beat Junkies and one of the greatest turntablists on the West Coast, will be joined by Egon, Jamie Strong, and Stones Throw owner Peanut Butter Wolf.

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Getting down and dirty

Posted By on 03.30.07 at 12:46 PM


For most city residents it's difficult to recycle effectively. If you live in a house or small apartment building served by city sanitation crews, you're most likely going to have to take your recyclables to a drop-off center or take the chance that blue bagging will actually keep your newspapers, cans, and bottles out of a landfill. If you live in a building with more than four units, you're paying (in rent or condo fees) for a private waste hauler to take your garbage. Unless recycling is part of your building's deal with the garbage company—or you're taking it to a drop-off center on your own—it's unlikely any is happening at all.

But for those who are serious about reducing household waste and are willing to do the work themselves, the city's trying to make it easier to compost without getting busted.

Earlier this week the City Council's Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection signed off on an amendment to the city's dumping laws that would encourage people to create backyard or indoor compost out of organic waste such as food, lawn clippings, coffee grounds and filters, and vacuum cleaner bags. City officials say that as much as 40 percent of Chicago's garbage could be kept out of landfills through composting. While that figure might be high—national studies have found that more like 25 percent of household trash is made up of food and yard waste—the point remains the same. Through some simple steps, people could turn a good portion of their garbage into nutrient-rich soil while saving the money and environmental costs (including air pollution generated by garbage trucks) of burying it in dumps.

Composting isn't illegal currently, but if the full council signs off on the amendment next month the law would be clearer about the materials allowed to be used in the process. "I think some of us may have had an occasional complaint from someone questioning the composting [activity] of a neighbor," said 19th Ward alderman Ginger Rugai, who chairs the committee. 

The main concerns are that a pile of decomposing waste will stink and attract unwelcome critters. The amended law prohibits any composting that draws "insects, rodents, birds and other vectors or pests" or emits "nuisance" odors. If you compost the right way, though—grinding up the materials, keeping out pieces of meat and dairy products, covering the composting pile or container—these issues shouldn't arise, according to Suzanne Malec McKenna, a deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Environment.  Apartment dwellers can even compost in a box under the kitchen sink. "It's really a no-brainer," she said.

Last year the city distributed 3,000 composting bins, and Malec McKenna said most community gardens use some kind of composting. But it would take a citywide cultural revolution in waste reduction and recycling as well as composting to make a major impact, because Chicagoans continue to generate and bury ever larger piles of garbage. In 2005, Chicago sent about 5 million tons of trash to landfills, up from 4.2 million tons the year before and 3 million tons in the mid-90s, according to the Illinois EPA . 

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"Road" to be ruined?

Posted By on 03.30.07 at 11:59 AM

Indiewire's Michael Tully has posted an open letter to director Sam Mendes begging him not to follow through on his plans to shoot an adaptation of Richard Yates's classic postwar novel Revolutionary Road this summer, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in their first movie together since Titanic. "What are you thinking?" writes Tully. "Do you realize how ridiculous and wrong this concept is? Do you realize that it isn't just arrogant and idiotic, that it is an outright sin?"

I love Revolutionary Road as much as the next guy, but I can't get too worked up about someone making a movie out of it, and Mendes—whose American Beauty recalled Yates's book in both tone and content—will probably have as good a feel for it as any other major Hollywood director. So what if he turns it into a handsome piece of Oscar bait? He'll probably sell more copies of the book than have sold in the last 46 years, and more people will realize what they've been missing. One thing every writer wants, and one thing Yates sorely deserves, is more readers.

I am, however, unnerved by the idea of Leonardo DiCaprio playing Frank Wheeler, the rebel without a spine whose plans to escape his meaningless corporate job and stifling Connecticut suburb end in tragedy. The one element of Yates's writing least likely to make the transition to the screen is his grim sense of humor, and though my respect for DiCaprio is much increased after The Departed and Blood Diamond, he's no comic actor. (Some wag on Indiewire, posing as Mendes, claimed to be considering Colin Farrell as an alternative, a hair-raising prospect to say the least.) Back in the early 60s, when the novel was first optioned, one name being kicked around for the lead role was Jack Lemmon, who would have been perfect. If Mendes had any brains, he'd have gone after Steve Carell. 


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Around the web: Louis Farrakhan songs, J Dilla's spins, the Chamber Strings set up shop at Schubas

Posted By on 03.30.07 at 09:53 AM

* Clarence Page's pre-requiem for Louis Farrakhan is an old piece, but one that reminded me of a great Internet resource: Fade to Black's archive of Farrakhan's pre-NOI calypso recordings. I recommend the "Is She or Is She Ain't," the "Lola" of calypso recordings.

* I'm embarrassed to say I'd never heard of Frankie Knuckles until I started listening to the Hold Steady ("I keep trying to get people to call me Frankie Knuckles / people keep calling me Right Said Fred"). His website has a number of his holiday mixes (under "The Vault").

* The Chamber Strings will play Schubas every Monday in May; Glorious Noise has an in-depth four-part documentary on the local act.

* Peter Margasak reports that the great Stones Throw label is doing a residency at Sonotheque; check the post out for a Madlib remix of J Dilla's "The $." The Roots' site has downloads of live DJ sets by J Dilla; not the greatest sound quality, but worth it to hear a master at work as well as freestyling by some notable guests.

* WLUW's music director has a great mp3 blog; it's one thing to throw up unusual mp3s, another to lavish the critical care the three guys behind this blog do.

* Another old piece, but it ages well--Pitchfork's William Bowers on living with music in 2006, which reads like A Fan's Notes only with indie music instead of Frank Gifford.

* Chicago Opera Theater promises John Adams's latest opera in spring 2008; with the Lyric Opera's performances of the fairly new Dr. Atomic, that's two Adamses practically back to back. Wired went behind the scenes of the latter in 2005; SFist covered the premiere.

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Follow the corn

Posted By on 03.30.07 at 09:37 AM


A relatively unheralded entry in the Chicago International Documentary Festival, which starts today and runs through April 8, is Aaron Wolf's King Corn, which made its premiere earlier this month at SXSW. Taking cues from Super Size Me and The Omnivore's Dilemma, it tracks two college buddies as they move to Iowa, grow an acre of corn, and then attempt to follow their crop through the industrial food chain.

Says the PR: "Ultimately [the guys] succeed in planting and growing a bumper crop of America's most productive, most subsidized grain grown in Iowa soil, but when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises disturbing questions about how we eat and how we farm. . . . This insightful and commanding look into the use of corn--from grain feed for cattle to the main ingredient in soda sweetener--sheds light on America's addiction to frugality, where cheap food and cheap production may be costing us our health."

It screens at 3 PM Sunday (4/1) at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division. For more previews of films showing at the festival, see the Reader film critics' coverage

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