Sunday, April 11, 2021

Firewall (1998)

This is another solid novel in Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander series of thrillers focused around police investigations in southern Sweden, though they are nearing the end now. Mankell's strength remains his ability to concoct complicated stories with very confusing details. Eventually they come into focus in believable rather than outlandish or convenient ways. I don't read enough thrillers to know—maybe this is nothing special. But Mankell seems to be pretty good at it. Usually after the first third or so of one of these, as here, I'm convinced he has painted himself into a corner he cannot get out of, and then he does, usually in style. He pushes some elements for effect, of course, and they don't always add up entirely, but mostly they do. As you might guess from the title this one is about cybercrime. As you might guess from the publication date it almost looks quaint now. But that's only in terms of the state of the technology in the era of Windows 98. At one point, for example, Wallander learns what backdoor access means and thinks to himself he knew computers had windows but not doors. Bada-bing, bada-boom. Tip your waitress. Some of the violence once again is for shock value (literally in the case of one character who is electrocuted at a power plant, causing a widespread blackout) but mostly it's there to confuse us as much as the police, and it does work on us if not, eventually, the police. You have to accept that the villains are prodigiously resourceful comic book figures, but that's not out of reach for a thriller. Most of Mankell's character development has not seemed that inspired in this series, but Wallander's thoughts of dating again come with a gut punch this time. There are some interesting interpersonal work politics developments in Firewall too, but I wish now I remembered more about Martinsson from the earlier books. In general everyone turns on Wallander in this one. The reason is pretty good but the rejection and suspicion of him seem more overplayed. Fortunately, Mankell has many more attractive qualities, from his intricate plotting to his brooding air, with a certain stamp of Nordic noir. OK, sometimes the brooding air is overplayed too, but you can't have everything.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 (1988)

I chronically associate the "supergroup" idea with albums featuring long jams by players such as Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. But Wikipedia sez those guys are merely the source of the term when they made an album in 1968 with Stephen Stills called Super Session. The crowd-sourced encyclopedia goes on to list examples of supergroups: Cream, Led Zeppelin (!), Crosby, Stills (him again), Nash & Young, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, etc., etc., all the way unto SSAK3 last year. Fair enough, fair enough. The supergroup that the Traveling Wilburys most resembles to me is Blind Faith, with a consortium of mostly well-established if disparate players and one amazing album. I know the Wilburys have a second album, called Vol. 3 (to baffle the completists, hyuk-hyuk), but stick with me.

My instinctive resistance to supergroup projects was locked in by 1988. From the outside this looked like the usual half-baked collision of over-the-hill celebrity and tender egos and my inclination was to skip it. But at some point I saw it for cheap somewhere and thought I really oughta. The album hit me like the work of supergroups in the other sense of the term (e.g., the Beatles and the Stones) and I have been a partisan ever since. The experience was reminiscent for me, and remains so, speaking of those supergroups, of bringing Beatles albums home for the first time back in the wayback. The first sensation is pure pleasure followed by playing it a lot. In the first days and weeks with these albums you don't even particularly sort out what's good and what's better and why, you just listen to them every day, sometimes multiple times, cramming it all the way down to the brainstem until you can hear the beginnings of the next songs in the endings of the previous. As with the Beatles, you can try picking apart the constituent elements of the Traveling Wilburys but it never seems to help much.

Friday, April 09, 2021

The Master (2012)

USA, 138 minutes
Director/writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Editors: Leslie Jones, Peter McNulty
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Laura Dern, Christopher Evan Welch, Patty McCormack, Rami Malek, Lena Endre, Madisen Beaty

The Master is a great and mystifying movie, hard to say exactly what it is. Last time through I took it as a buddy movie. But such strange buddies, in 1950 USA: Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), mustered out of the Navy after World War II and a savant at mixing potions out of booze, paint thinner, and "secrets," and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the master of the title (and commander of a boat, he tells us at one point), who is the leader of a past lives regression cult called The Cause. Odds are good that Master and his movement are based on L. Ron Hubbard and Dianetics (later Scientology). But that's just context. Freddie and Master love one another with a strange ardor—wrestling around when they meet, skulking off to drink, forgiving everything always between them. All the cares and responsibilities of the world disappear in the pure presence of each other. Master can't remember when he met Freddie in a past life. The truth is neither one can even remember when they met on this plane, due to alcoholic stupor.

With talent on hand like Phoenix, Hoffman, and director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson (not to mention a very large assortment of excellent supporting players), perhaps you can do anything and get away with it. Among other things The Master is a practical example of that. Roger Ebert wrote a review marveling at the skills on hand but unable to fathom the result. Phoenix plays it almost purely physically, as he so often does. It's as if the energy coursing through Freddie is so gripping it affects his gait and the way he talks and interacts with people. He seems to be most comfortable getting into fights, which populate this picture like sight gags. Freddie is willing to mix it up with anybody who annoys him and he's the kind of person it makes you nervous and irritable just to be around. He makes me kind of nervous just looking at this movie.

Monday, April 05, 2021

The Last Dance (2020)

It was great to get the full-scale blow-by-blow on the career of Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls. I lived through it but didn't follow it that closely—I resented Jordan a little as the immovable object standing in the way of my beloved Seattle SuperSonics (some other documentary will have to talk about the 1993 Western Conference playoffs). This 10-part eight-hour epic treatment covers all of Jordan's time with the Bulls but it's formally built around the 1997-1998 season and the quest for a sixth NBA championship and second three-peat within the space of eight years. All you have to know about Jordan's significance to the team is that the two years the Bulls missed the NBA finals are the period when he was mostly out of the game, "retired" and playing baseball. That's covered here as well—everything I could think of was covered here. That 1997-1998 season had already been dubbed "The Last Dance" by coach Phil Jackson, who had been informed in no uncertain terms at the beginning of the year that it would be his last with the Bulls. If there is a bad guy anywhere in this story it is general manager Jerry Krause, who refused to concede Jackson's ability and importance. On the other hand, it was Krause in the first place who eased Doug Collins out in favor of Jackson in the late '80s. Jackson's coaching style was more team-oriented as opposed to Collins's, whose main strategy was to get the ball to Jordan. Sensible enough on its face, but Jackson had vision. Krause made other good decisions too, starting with drafting Jordan, working the trades to get Scottie Pippen, being willing to take a chance on Dennis Rodman (quite possibly the strangest human being I have ever known of), and more. Still, at least the way this documentary tells it, Krause often seemed determined to undermine even his own greatest successes, alienating Jordan, Pippen, Jackson, and others. I had a hard time believing the success of the Bulls myself in real-time, but a lot of people in this story had a hard time understanding Jordan's greatness. Maybe the best parts of all in this documentary are the recaps and broadcast footage of the championship tournaments, when Jordan performed regularly at impossible levels. Of course, with the good comes the bad, and the flaws of a man like Jordan are all in his extreme focus on winning, easily seen in a tender and reflexive hubris. He still hates the Detroit Pistons to this day, except Rodman, and he snorts and shakes his head at lesser players such as Gary Payton or Reggie Miller who dare to compare their skills to his. I'm sure I'd be even more cocky if I were him. I was never a Bulls fan but Jordan was an overwhelming force of nature, and an awesome and beautiful thing to behold as well. This one is definitely worth the time.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Yeah Yeah Yeah (2013)

At the moment I am very high on Bob Stanley's massive thunk of a history of pop music. It's one of my favorite kinds of pop music book, telling the curious history of youth music from 1955 on. Nik Cohn did it. Charlie Gillet did it. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll did it. Even I did it, by way of dead rock stars. Scott Miller too! Miller and Stanley cover the greatest amount of sheer metric tonnage of years, taking their histories well into the 21st century. Miller's (and Cohn's) are idiosyncratic and rooted deeply in quirks of taste, whereas Stanley is encyclopedic. And rooted deeply in quirks of taste. Stanley also has a day job as a principal in the (essential) band Saint Etienne, which may help you know where he is coming from. I'm tempted to call Yeah Yeah Yeah the best of the class and the new standard by which all others, etc. For one thing, no book has yielded up so many prizes for me (and so tested the capacities of my streaming service—at least a quarter were too obscure even for its seemingly vast holdings) as I root-hogged down and filled my playlist to capacity for most of a year. Besides Saint Etienne Stanley has also made his way as a music journalist in London, where for years three or four or five papers spent years operating at the level of the Village Voice or Boston Phoenix in the US. He is as opinionated as anyone but somehow more mild-mannered in the expression, which helps reduce friction of any peevish inclination to quarrel with his odder lapses or views. By and large he is impeccable on the history. I learned a lot from reading this, about house and techno and rave culture, and was often impressed by the connections he can make. They were sudden little illuminations about things I've lived with all my life and suddenly saw anew: all of R.E.M. in one song by Them, all of the Ramones in one song by the Bay City Rollers, all of Electric Ladyland in the music of the Impressions. You never agree all the way with anyone, but I was happy to have some of my own eccentricities affirmed: the best album by Todd Rundgren is A Wizard, a True Star, it's impossible to overestimate Joy Division, and Blondie's Parallel Lines is life-changing. Yeah Yeah Yeah was an immersive experience for me, I just read it and I didn't take very good notes. But I think I noticed there was good stuff literally on almost every page, wonderfully thought through and argued delicately, with no doubts whatsoever about his points. Then I spent a year listening to as much of the music he writes about as I could get my hands on—some of it old favorites I knew well, some entirely new to me (e.g., see my February 2020 Top 40). In practical terms, it's a goldmine.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, April 02, 2021

Amadeus (1984)

USA / France / Czechoslovakia / Italy, 160 minutes
Director: Milos Forman
Writers: Peter Shaffer, Zdenek Mahler
Photography: Miroslav Ondricek
Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Editors: Michael Chandler, Nena Danevic
Cast: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Simon Callow, Roy Dotrice, Christine Ebersole, Jeffrey Jones, Cynthia Nixon

There is no break or intermission or anything like that in Amadeus—it's longer than 2001: A Space Odyssey, but by 1984 long movies rarely offered breaks anymore and I'd like to know why. But I had to flip my DVD over at about the 1:50 mark and I took the opportunity to make some popcorn and tidy up a little. Note that I watched the theatrical cut, because that's what I had on hand (director Milos Forman's 2002 edit is some 20 minutes longer). I noticed that in the first half of Amadeus Mozart was presented as a rock star more like 1999 Prince, brilliant, child-like, sexual, high on his own genius, and unshakably confident. In the second half, which is literally darker even if you're only talking about the lighting, Mozart has become more like such grizzled veterans just off their peaks as the Stones, Neil Young, David Bowie, or maybe Justin Bieber.

Giving in to these glammy rock star dynamics turns out to be as good a way as any for me into this one. Biopics don't interest me as a general rule, let alone about geniuses of the distant past, but I love Forman as a general rule so those two things balance out. But the focus on opera, while obviously well done and with tons of production value, tends to tilt it the other way for me. Then its obvious source as a stage production plus frankly the bonanza of a lot of Oscar hoopla (11 nominations, eight wins, including Best Picture), with all the follow-on generalized overrating (#84 on the IMDb big list), make me inclined toward suspicion. Tom Hulce as Mozart is unconvincing at best beyond a memorably irritating cackle. He's better in Fearless, possibly because it's a smaller role. But in the end, OK sure, all that genius—Mozart, Forman, Twyla Tharp again on choreography, Cynthia Nixon in a small part—weighs in and eventually you just have to give in. The movie is long but rarely less than entertaining.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

"The Million-Year Picnic" (1946)

Even though this story by Ray Bradbury appears last in The Martian Chronicles it is the first he published of that whole cycle of stories (in all their various permutations), beating the next by two years. "The Million-Year Picnic" has to count as another very early story of nuclear anxiety, published within about a year of the blasts in Japan. It must be noted with Bradbury that his science fiction can be quite soft. As soft as the dew falling in an Indiana cornfield in June, as he might say (or is it Illinois?). He's too glib about the technology and with little sense of the conditions on Mars and all the impossible time and precision required to get there. In fairness, a lot of scientists in the 1940s were in approximately the same boat about Mars. People had mostly given up on the canals idea but not entirely. For all that, Bradbury has a mood down cold here, mulling the profound sadness of our self-destructive species doing all the wrong things as usual. He tells it by showing the father and husband in a family of five (and a half) quietly shepherding them from where they landed on Mars to a safer place. The year is maybe 2026 and people in this story are able to nab rockets on Earth and head out. The man is taking pains to leave no traces behind them, even destroying the rocket they came in on, as nuclear war has virtually wiped out life on Earth but more people may be coming to Mars on these handy if dangerous rockets. This guy has some insight into human psychology but he has also allied with another family in hopes of starting a new civilization, slightly Noah style. The hubris is almost as astonishing as the finality. One of the best tricks in this story—which I've also seen elsewhere but never done quite this poignantly—is taking the idea of "Martians" and applying it to humans now living on the red planet. It's apt, but still has the power to surprise and affect. This story is before the Martian aborigines Bradbury developed for the cycle later and it benefits from that. "Elegiac" is not a term I toss around often as compliment, certainly in genre literature, but Bradbury was capable of it and could be very good at it. This is not a bad example and bears interest as an early canary in the nuclear era.

The Stories of Ray Bradbury (Everyman's)
Read story online.

Illustration, Alexander Leydenfrost, from Planet Stories, Summer 1946

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

"We Came From Outer Space" (1993)

[listen]

At this point, flying out of the relentless stomp of "KDX 125" it is likely not inappropriate to turn to the argot of the hallucinogen family as this, the shortest track in the set (though still over five minutes), may perhaps occur ideally as a peak subsides. As its title suggests, it bears vast space dotted by planets, suns, galaxies, done in keyboard figures, with approximations of celestial choir in due time. More specifically, and literally, it asks the ponderous question, "Do you know the difference between two genders?" And answers, "It came from outer space." Slot that into your headspace and figure it out. There's muttering underneath if you want to roam around in that (per internet, "With the police? / Yes, all / We're, we're just here / What is this? What is that? / – complication high of it –," etc.). The beats are tapered back, more relaxed, even as the mood elevates with the melodies and shifts. The feeling of free-floating zero gravity never entirely goes away. The question and answer and question and answer fade back. It's a good time to rest against the wall and have a drink of water. Staying hydrated is important. It may perhaps deserve to be the shortest song in this set, as it seems uncertain what it wants to do next (though that is also analogous to most immediate post-peak experience). It is somewhat cartoonish with its "outer space" title and rubbery vibe, yet in crowd and party scenes I happen to know the question/answer rarely failed to get attention, for its imponderability as much as anything else. Do you know the difference between two genders? It came from outer space. I knew someone who swore it was evidence of hidden knowledge, though I never quite understood his point. Do you know the difference between two genders? It came from outer space. Drink of water.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

"What's in Alaska?" (1972)

This story by Raymond Carver is an interesting and peculiar period piece. Written in 1972, it features an evening get-together pot party with two young couples, one with children. It surprised me because I haven't seen this kind of thing attempted often in literature. It does feel a bit like the depictions on the '60s Dragnet TV show, especially when it reminds us one couple has children (though they don't appear to be accidentally drowned in the bathtub as in the Jack Webb episode). It also trades in cliches that are cliches because so true, e.g., the ravenous appetite for snacks, the empty laughter, the disconnected conversation. Carver is as specific on the treats as he is accurate—corn chips, popsicles, cream soda, etc.—and there's also a "new" water pipe, a hookah. The only name used for what they're smoking is "stuff," which is probably wise because the attempt to choose one usually reflects more about the writer, whether it's cannabis, marijuana, grass, pot, weed, reefer, flower, or whatever. There are also strange intimations of infidelity across the couples, which felt jarring and out of place in a way, as if this unusual Carver story had been intruded upon by more typical Carver stories. So I'm not sure, overall, how well it works. But I appreciate the attempt, not least because I haven't seen it much, or at least not working so well on the social dynamics. Others such as Norman Mailer and Thomas Pynchon have addressed the issue one way or another but they haven't been as convincing on the level of social manners. There must be much more out there. For that matter, the pot party is not the only thing going on in this story, which is also about infidelity, alienation, loneliness—Carver's constants. But smoking dope is the main point in the foreground and likely what most people would say the story is about. So that's what I focus on, as the rest seems pro forma, there for the reflexive gravitas. Carver captures well the aimlessness of smoking-up conversation, quite sharply in a couple places. He's good with the constant giggling self-conscious laughter, which can break for hysterics for no apparent reason, often based on nothing or very little that is actually funny. He's obviously been in the situation and noticed things. But overall the story also misses as least as often as it hits.

Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From (Library of America)