Sunday, September 30, 2012

Freedom (2010)

I think there's an awful lot to like about Jonathan Franzen's long-awaited fourth novel (nine years since his last, The Corrections, though he published a couple of interesting nonfiction books in the meanwhile). It's a big, lumpy shaggy dog of a story, ranging across the first decade of the new century with an almost ferocious desire to understand a time and place where, as Franzen knows well, there is still little understanding. Or too much, in its objective fulfillment of those lines from Yeats, with the worst so "full of passionate intensity" (which I hate to think where that leaves me). Call it the George W. Bush years, the Republican vision, here addressed top to bottom, starting with the title. The era provides a target-rich environment, if you will, and Franzen takes full advantage. His big novel rambles and rumbles and occasionally stings like blackberry brambles. I like the juxtaposition of the clumped-together structure with the effortless artfulness of his prose. I like the characters and their complexities, all of them. And, of course, I have a personal connection with the Minnesota/Twin Cities setting, which I think he did a really good job of getting right. I came away from it thinking most fondly and wistfully about the characters, and the little things Franzen does to make them so indelible. For example, the way Patty Berglund talks, vaguely cynical and sarcastic, distancing, even alienating. Yet I can hear her laugh as she speaks—which Franzen renders simply as "ha-ha-ha"—and in spite of everything I like her a lot. I connect with all of Walter's women, as Lalitha also seems to me tremendously vivid and poignant. The relationship that Walter's and Patty's son Joey has with his strange girlfriend/wife Connie ... I'm not sure I've ever met anyone quite like Connie in some ways; in others, I think I might have married her myself. And I would bet money they are headed for the same kind of problems, and the same resolution, suffered by Walter and Patty. You see how persistently I remain emotionally involved with these characters. I love Patty's whole jock thing, and the attendant team ethos. Sometimes the novel does feel a bit overpacked, as when members of Patty's family of origin each get fairly extended scenes toward the end. I love the way Franzen finds to many ways to tell the story, including Patty Berglund's therapy autobiography for extended passages, and the way she refers to herself as "the autobiographer." More of that distancing thing that she does, nonetheless charming. It's easy to have a lot of affection for this novel.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

VU (1985)

This was a pleasant surprise—emphasis on "surprise." I didn't know anyone who expected it or anything like it: an iconic band, whose reputation was even then still on the rise, releasing an album of material from their prime, which no one particularly knew existed. That's one reason I pasted the 1985 release date on it, rather than the more accurate 1969 recording date. I just reflexively think of it as an album of the mid-'80s, not because it sounds like one—no, in fact one of its greatest pleasures was how much it sounded just like the Velvet Underground of the '60s. But it became such an infatuation, and that coincided so neatly with my own burgeoning obsessions with the band, and I played it so much and listened to it so intensely, that now it reminds me of times in my life from 1985 and 1986. Having done a bit of revisiting of the Velvets catalog in recent weeks I can even hear now like I never have before how plainly this is a notch off of all the pillar albums. But the sound quality is so good, and the songs so fresh even if we'd already heard other versions elsewhere (six of this 10 found their way onto Lou Reed solo albums), that the excitement itself must have made up for any deficiencies objective or otherwise. The story is that internal corporate shenanigans related to the labels the band was signed with effectively put this stuff on a shelf and from there it just got lost in the shuffle. It's probably most accurate to characterize it as a rough draft for a follow-up to The Velvet Underground—a lost album, if you will, which should have bridged that eponymous third and Loaded, a complicated story of business and judgment that ultimately involves some three labels altogether (Verve, MGM, and Atlantic). Two of the 10 songs on VU go back to the John Cale days, "Temptation Inside Your Heart" and "Stephanie Says," but there's no John Cale in sight. This is the post-Cale Velvet Underground. And it is in fine form: spry, quick, melodic, mostly stripped down pretty close to the 2 guitars bass drums types of fundamentals that Reed would come to favor. "I'm Sticking With You," like "After Hours," is another showcase for Moe Tucker. There's no particular studio sheen on anything here (with the possible exception of the effects on "Ocean") but it sounds remarkably polished, which I think is at least as much about the songwriting as it is about the fact that it had become a band that at least sounded remarkably comfortable playing with one another. The only false point for me is the version of "Andy's Chest," and that's only because I know Transformer so well and to me it is a Transformer song and certainly not a Velvet Underground one. But that's a very small quibble. If it's not the best Velvet Underground album by a good ways, it still remains the one whose release most thrilled me. Taking the shrink wrap off this and putting it on for the first time is a moment I can still recall for the sheer dumb stupefaction of it.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Pulp Fiction (1994)

USA, 154 minutes
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writers: Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avary
Photography: Andrzej Sekula
Editor: Sally Menke
Cast: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Ving Rhames, Maria de Madeiros, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, Bruce Willis, Quentin Tarantino, Steve Buscemi, Frank Whaley, Paul Calderon, Angela Jones, Julia Sweeney

Well, a lot of the people born the year Pulp Fiction came out will be voting in their first election this November, starting college and families, or, perhaps, the most mature of them, even beginning to give some thought to their retirement plans. They have lived only in the world created by this nervous-talking candy-colored pastiche of post-Scarface gangster cliché (Brian De Palma's Scarface, that is) and hard-boiled detective fiction tropes, with its sweeping reinvention of indie ethos and aesthetic, which turned everything in popular culture in its wake on its head. Its impact is felt to this day, for better and for worse.

I don't have a good sense of what those first-time voters make of it now, but speaking for myself it was a big deal, even when the ruckus itself got to be tiresome. I saw it the week it opened and several more times after that and have checked in on it regularly. It's just such a kick to take the ride. Even though I know well all that is to come* (brief list beyond the fold, spoilers, folks, spoilers), once begun I still don't want to turn away from this long, brash, vivid, dazzlingly confident, viscerally gripping mash of pulp fiction tales from straight out of the Black Lizard catalog, the various storylines coexisting and connecting across a series of time cross-currents that is nearly perfectly plotted.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bongo Herman & Bunny, "Know Far I" (1971)


I found this song on an early-'90s anthology called Sufferer's Choice, which now unfortunately appears to be out of print and hard to find. The more's the pity because the whole thing is one of my favorite reggae anthologies, a fine album in its own right well worth tracking down. It sustains constant listening straight through remarkably well, and still holds up for me to this day. Most of the16 tracks were recorded in the rock steady period of the late '60s and early '70s with many well-known acts, including three tracks alone from Bob Marley & the Wailers (versions of "Trench Town Rock," "Redder Than Red," and "Nice Time"), along with the Abyssinians, Dennis Brown, U Roy, and others. Everything tends to be focused, as the title implies, on the hardships of ghetto life, although in "Know Far I" and many of them it's there mostly just in the feel (like, what's a "know far I"?). I don't know a lot more about this song than that, including much about either Bongo Herman Davis or Eric "Bingy Bunny" Lamont. What I know best is that the singer's range must be a good match for my own, because I'm nearly always moved to sing with it and I can do so with naturally occurring notes pushed right out of the bottom of my diaphragm. It's almost entirely a physical experience, except that it also touches something emotional, even profoundly felt, from where I don't know. This what I mean by proceeding by feel. "Know Far I" is built on a soulful twangy guitar figure, moody chords on an organ, gently propulsive rhythms, and that big vocal. As raw as it sounds it's remarkably poised. And it almost always sounds really, really good.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

#16: Au hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)

You don't have to be an animal lover to appreciate Robert Bresson's donkey movie, but it probably doesn't hurt. I have a feeling anyway that might be a significant piece of the huge wallop it manages to deliver for me. But this one moves in mysterious ways. I only saw it for the first time a year or two ago but have been in thrall to it since. The title doesn't translate to English well—roughly, it appears to mean "Balthazar by happenstance," Balthazar being the donkey. Accordingly, it's about as episodic in its brief running time as it can be, moving fitfully and elliptically across the life of the donkey from its early life as a colt adopted by a provincial family as a pet until its death many years later. The people in this picture responsible for it or involved with it figure large as well, notably the young girl who first cared for it, Marie. All of them tend to be weak or cruel or both, tragically so.

I also don't think you have to be Catholic to appreciate it, an overlay that I take as a bit of a red herring and mostly beside the point. I haven't seen much Bresson because of the heavily Catholic allegorical interpretations so often made of his work (which admittedly can be hard to get away from, as in the other title of his with which I'm familiar, Diary of a Country Priest). To be blunt about it and attempt to dispose the thread, Balthazar's story does not seem to me to remotely resemble the Jesus story, though some of the elements are there, as can be seen in the clips. In most ways I think it's almost naturalistic about the life of a beast of burden.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Art of the Personal Essay (1994)

This is one of my very favorite books, a desert island pick for sure, and recommended to anyone with the least interest in nonfiction writing and all that it can do, which is a lot. Editor Phillip Lopate is a tireless advocate for a specific branch of nonfiction—the personal essay, which he characterizes (correctly, I think) as "one of the most approachable and diverting types of literature we possess." He then proceeds to make his case, in a book that clocks in at nearly 800 pages in trade paperback, with a number of usual suspects: Michel de Montaigne, Addison & Steele, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Walter Benjamin, Henry David Thoreau, E.B. White, M.F.K. Fisher, Joan Didion, etc., etc. What I liked best were the unusual picks, uniformly so good that they sent me off time and again looking for more by many of the writers included—as often as not, Lopate's picks turned out to be the best of many, many lots, but don't hold that against him. I first encountered this anthology more than 15 years ago and I'm still using it as a reference. The thought and care that went into it is a constant feature. For example, the table of contents also includes separate listings by theme (ambition, city life, country living, death, disability and illness, drugs and alcohol, education, family ties, food, friendship, growing up, habitations, hatred and opposition, leisure and idleness, love and sexuality, marriage, music and art, nature, perception, politics, race and ethnicity, reading and writing, solitude, "theater, film, and other spectacles," thresholds, walking) and by form (analytic meditation, book review, consolation, diary/journal entry, diatribe, humor, list, lecture, letters, mosaic, memoir, newspaper column, portrait, prose poem and reverie, reportage, valediction). I suggest reading it cover to cover, as it hurtles through the years from ancient Greeks and Asians to latter-day examplars such as Gayle Pemberton, Richard Rodriguez, and Lopate himself (and why not?). There's also an annotated bibliography that stacks the to-be-read piles high—and, again, my experience has been that the references are as useful as the material between the covers itself. This is an absolutely solid work, with a sensibility and utility that goes well beyond its marketing thrust as a kind of freshman composition textbook. It's a big fat thing but reading it whole passed in a snap and left me wanting more where this came from. I wish he'd do another, or at least another edition of this double or triple the size. You just can't go wrong with it, really.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Velvet Underground (1969)

I knew most of the songs on this album one way or another but wasn't on intimate terms with the album itself until the '80s. I liked it quite a bit and have found it's one that repays going back to regularly—"the quiet one," I came to think of it, among the core of their releases (compared to "the first one," "the loud one," "the live one," "the best one," and finally, way down the line, those last two orphans). With John Cale out of the picture, Lou Reed may have felt some need to burnish the avant-garde experimental credentials with the longest song here, the talky cerebral "The Murder Mystery," which has never done much for me, except occasionally excite some degree of respect but more often impatience. But the rest is a knockout, a lot of real beauties mixed with performance standards. "What Goes On," "Beginning to See the Light," and "I'm Set Free" are probably closer to the latter, pointing the way to the kind of grooves they laid down with such reliably gentle yet firm authority in their live shows (for the evidence, start with 1969 and continue with The Quine Tapes). Because I knew 1969 before anything else, those versions are still the ones I prefer. They are, as one would expect, a little looser, more freewheeling, stretched out and taken places. They sound fine here in their "studio versions," if slightly prim and airless, but my favorites on this one are all the folkie confessional ... I'm not even sure what to call them. They're quiet like ballads, but with hard clarion edges, such as "Some Kinda Love" and "Pale Blue Eyes" (my #1 favorite Velvets song without hesitation for a time). This is kind of Lou Reed's Leonard Cohen album, and you can feel him straining for the studied literary affect in the lyrics, which actually stand up to the scrutiny if one is moved to examine them closely. They work as poems on the printed page, more or less. But they are more than that, and that is seen perhaps nowhere more clearly than in "After Hours" and especially "Jesus," which really stake out their territory and occupy it. I mean, the year is 1969, and no one is going to mistake anyone in this band for Jesus freaks or any kind of innocents even then. Yet the song "Jesus" is played so achingly straight, with such a perfect absence of irony, pulling hard against the peculiarity of the circumstances of this band doing that song. And it works to that extent, sounding almost like a cover of some old-time gospel standard. But it's a Lou Reed song too. The color scheme for the cover drips with inky black but this album may well operate like the proverbial pinprick of light within the universal blackness. For the most part I think The Velvet Underground makes a reasonably straightforward case for peace and goodness. It is at any rate another excellent way in to this great band.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A History of Violence (2005)

USA/Germany, 96 minutes
Director: David Cronenberg
Writers: John Wagner, Vince Locke, Josh Olson
Photography: Peter Suschitzky
Music: Howard Shore
Editor: Ronald Sanders
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk, Kyle Schmid

There are a lot of fundamental flaws to complain about in A History of Violence and I made this appointment largely to do exactly that. The strength of David Cronenberg's best work for me has always lain in the way it so deliberately realizes irrationality, draws from dream states of consciousness, and delivers strange, beautiful, and funny moments and images. But A History of Violence is too often easy and pat about its rationality, proceeding mechanically by the numbers. Serial killers. A mob vendetta. Corpses all over the place (though by his viscera do we yet know him). It's a weak story, predictable and filled with convenient coincidence and cliché. It makes too much sense. It's too easy to understand. The monolithic evil of "east coast organized crime" vs. the goodness of an Indiana family man. Gee, Batman, I wonder which side we're on in that one.

Before long, looking at it again recently, I found myself happily making lots of notes about the overly saccharine family scenes (Howard Shore's thick overlay of orchestral swoonings sets a real Ron Howard mood), the unfortunate Tarantino gestures such as the pro forma thrill kill pair (man and boy) in the opening sequences, lathering on "madness!" to explain various ridiculous plot developments, multiple incidents of distracting stupidity on the part of otherwise smart characters, and the general sense that it is Cronenberg bound up and muffled by some kind of psychic straitjacket. Then along comes the second half, when Tom/Joey (the Viggo Mortenson role, and "Tom/Joey" is how it is played by all concerned) drives to Philadelphia to confront his brother and then returns home again. It is an extraordinary 50 minutes or so that probably didn't need the preamble, which in the light of it feels like so much throat-clearing. I think we should just call the second half an auxiliary chapter of The Decalogue, it's such Old Testament stuff, and forget the first half.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Harptones, "What Did I Do Wrong?" (1957)


The Harptones, a mid-'50s vocal group out of New York, practically established a whole wing of the music that came to be known as "doo wop." Along with the Orioles (probably the true originals), and various forays by others, they perfected that innovation of bending a droopy-dog tempo and gospel harmonies to the burden of a soaring, deliberate vocal lead. They had a coulda-woulda-shoulda star in Willie Winfield, plus an arranger, Raoul Cita, who was built in to the act, and in their fleeting moment really nailed a sound to the floor. But the Harptones never did have a hit, not even on R&B charts. "What Did I Do Wrong?" is not considered top-tier by most among such better-known efforts as "Sunday Kind of Love," "The Shrine of St. Cecilia," and a version of "Life Is But a Dream." But I think it's a real honey, my favorite by them. It steps in with a good bit of deceptive pomp and dignity, then a pause, and then ladies and gentlemen Miss Carol Blades and the song is underway proper. As it moves in deeper, it proves to be almost a little spindly, led by Blades's big voice wielded like an instrument piercing the swirl of vocal harmonies, which alternate between thick washes lush as velvet curtains and more free-floating probing lines standing up and sitting down like big dogs yawning, and way off in the background a small band, tapped and brushed drums, a bass, a piano. It hits a real nerve on that big start particularly with the great line of the title, delivered so tenderly and with such a naked heart. For a moment it's as if the wounds themselves can be felt. "What did I do wrong?" That's the question.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tokyo Story (1953)

#17: Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

So far—well, at least until yesterday—the three of us have shown admirable restraint in using the term "masterpiece," but I'm going to go ahead and break it out for this one. Few such films so uniformly praised to the skies by critics have worked on me so powerfully and so consistently, and indeed few others by Ozu himself have either (though I still have a good number of gaps there and have seen at least one, Early Summer, that's certainly in range). It bears a poignant sadness at every point, even before the various complications of the characters begin to emerge, yet carries as well a bittersweet joy that it sustains by staying so rigorously within itself—expertly balancing carefully observed examples of kindness and indifference.

The typical knock on Ozu pictures is that they are slow and "nothing happens" (another couple of ideas that Steven beat me to in yesterday's piece on L'Avventura, followed by Phil, Jack, Dave and everybody in comments). I wouldn't be inclined to characterize Tokyo Story that way myself, but I can see how someone might. In its plot details, it's about as simple as could be: an aging couple (played with understated yet unfailing charm by Ozu regulars Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) takes a trip from their small seaside village in Japan to visit their grown children and families in postwar Tokyo. Once there, they find the children and grandchildren busy with their lives, shunting them from place to place, on day trips and at one point to a resort more appropriate for younger people, even as the children keep exclaiming how wonderful it is to see them. In conversations with one another, however, they tend to roll their eyes and shake their heads over what to do about entertaining their parents. Upon the couple's return to the village, the old woman takes ill. The children assemble for the death scene and the funeral, and then are on their ways again. The end.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s (1990)

It's possible that Robert Christgau's second volume of his record guide is actually better than the first. Some of the irregularities that weakened the '70s volume were likely as not the result of Christgau feeling his way into his ultimate format of the letter-graded, pellet-sized assessments. The writing is markedly improved and more uniformly focused in the second, it has a better sense of what it can do. But it was never going to feel like the breakthrough of that first one, and it's also arguable that the '80s albums he covered just weren't as good, in the overall aggregate, as the '70s albums (arguable, I say, though I would not necessarily want to be the one to make the argument). What I know for sure is that whereas keeping the '70s volume around only gradually disclosed all it has to offer, with this follow-up, armed with exactly that information, I felt justified in sitting down and reading it like a novel, front to back, Introduction and Gregory Abbott, Shake You Down ('86, B+), to ZZ Top, Afterburner ('85, B), and all the delicious lists in the appendices. Then I put it in one of my more convenient stacks of reference books with the '70s volume. If I say I am very fond of the range of reaction Christgau provokes in me, I really mean that sincerely. He is just a pleasure to read, to browse, and to compulsively poke through. I know he can be annoying, gnomic, and full of himself. And he is the first to note that the sheer mass of industry releases, whose growth has continued unabated throughout his career, finally ran him to ground at some point in the '80s or '90s. But if he can't realize his ambition, which is to have a little something to say about everything within the narrow range of the contemporaneous rock album, he is also as reliable as rain, pointing any number of useful ways in to nearly as voluminous an amount of cultural product by metric ton as only a few others I can think of (and they are all in other areas or more general ones, such as David Thomson's encyclopedia of the cinema, or Montaigne). I am daunted, humbled, and grateful just thinking about all the stuff I know about via Robert Christgau. He is strong in a number of areas where I am weak: folk music, African music, certain select New York City acts (Dolls, Blondie, Chic, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Amy Rigby), lots of funk, dance, and hip-hop, and all the boomer icons. Plus Al Green. You could do much worse than to assign a certain portion of your shopping dollars to tracking down his A's. He is the consummate professional in this regard, delivering what he says he's going to deliver, a consumer guide—even if he remains pointedly skeptical of the commercial infrastructure breeding and nurturing the objects of his (and our) adoration. It's that ability of his to work within this tension that might make him so effective. I have no question that he's effective. Oh, and wow, I just now noticed how beat up my old copy of this is.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

This one of course is a very big deal for many people, and I suppose I am one, but still I think there's a wide range in the specificity of experience of these things, so here's mine. I actually do remember seeing copies with the peel-away banana skin, at parties I wandered into one way or another in the mid-'70s, which were invariably dark midnight affairs, with candles and gauzy curtains and such, and at least once I was crashing it cold, so didn't actually know anyone. I wasn't particularly familiar with the album for a long time. It was the first Velvet Underground album but it wasn't my first exposure to them—that was 1969. To be honest, this album scared me a little. I always thought the seven-minute "Heroin" laid it on a little thick, and still do, but "I'm Waiting for the Man" (the strange formality of the title proper, a phrase not used in the song), "Venus in Furs," and the closing noise affairs, "The Black Angel's Death Song" and "European Son," actually scared me quite badly, the way horror movies could, somehow instantly conjuring desperate nightmare feelings. The Nico vehicles, "Femme Fatale" and "I'll Be Your Mirror," appealed to me most, as exotic, surprisingly pretty, almost soothing by comparison, yet not without hints of their own brands of malevolence. I did not own a copy of this album until 1982 and then it was a matter of profound infatuation, every day, loud, standing up, jumping around, etc. I thought it was patchy, even the stuff that I liked was patchy by styles. There were often dead spaces listening to it straight through—though not always the same ones, they shifted around some. "All Tomorrow's Parties," for one, was practically a litmus test of my own mood, finding it alternately drony and boring or a place of great power I have been privileged to visit. "Run Run Run" another reason to dance more and dance harder or an impatient "what the fuck?" This made it a little different for me from other such Albums of Great Moment, Freewheeling, Revolver, Electric Ladyland, Sandinista, so on and so forth, which more often tended to be matters of all or nothing. But there's no question this is one of the greats and totally essential. With Andy Warhol pasted all across the surface of it, like the psychedelic light show playing across the band's glum figuratively black and white visages in one of the photos on the cover, it brings an absolutely unique assortment of voices and sensibilities to bear: Nico, Lou Reed, John Cale, Moe Tucker, Sterling Morrison. In its way, and all the careful urban grit notwithstanding, it's an affair of the most blissful harmonies imaginable, in terms of bringing together such a wild array of strands quite this colorfully, a moment unlike any they ever again achieved. Which, I know you can say that about practically each and every one of the Velvet Underground's albums, and that's one of the reasons they remain so interesting, amazing, and vital.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Safe (1995)

UK/USA, 119 minutes
Director/writer: Todd Haynes
Photography: Alex Nepomniaschy
Music: Ed Tomney
Editor: James Lyons
Cast: Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Ronnie Farer, Jessica Harper, James LeGros, Peter Friedman, Mary Carver, Kate McGregor-Stewart, Chauncey Leopardi, Steven Gilborn, John Apicella, Eleanor Graham

Safe is maddeningly good at being hard to pin down. It's one of the things I like most about it, but it's also the source of its greatest weakness, which is a tendency to look like it's making broad plays for ironic laughs, particularly in its second half, finding an all too easy target in the self-actualization preoccupations and clichés of its late-'80s Southern California setting. This is unfortunate because the movie is much more often, particularly in its first half, deadly serious about articulating what I might as well call a spiritual malaise. Here it is referred to as "environmental illness," the term of art in the period of the film for an evident immune-system condition that still hasn't been scientifically validated, but has traveled under many names: chemical sensitivity, 20th century syndrome, sick building syndrome, and, currently, multiple chemical sensitivity.

I know this disease and apparently so do director/writer Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore, who plays the victim here, Carol White, in an amazing turn. This disease is there in all the scenes of Los Angeles freeway traffic, at dusk, at night, in the day, crawling along in haze. It's there in the nightmares of parking garages. It's there in the power-line towers and handfuls of parallel lines draped and running ubiquitously overhead. It's there in the interiors of the fine San Fernando Valley homes, stuffed with treated fabrics, cleaning chemicals, molded plastics, body scents, and servants in uniform. And it's there in one of the picture's canniest elements, its sound design, which simply records the ambient noise that surrounds us constantly: the drone of planes overhead, the whine of vacuum cleaners, the washes of traffic's white noise, the radios and televisions playing in the background of so many interiors, including AM talk radio in one memorable scene inside a car.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Rod Stewart, "Gasoline Alley" (1970)


This has long been a favorite for me by Rod Stewart, even for this period, which I have to admit, exhaustion notwithstanding, on the two albums Gasoline Alley and Every Picture Tells a Story it all pretty much comes in shades of excellence. We know that because people have been shouty about it for better than 40 years and also the radio bludgeoning. I don't have much to add except agreement. It may not amount to some of the outsize things people falling all over themselves have claimed for it (and him). And it may not sound as fresh as it once did—it definitely fits now with a lot of stuff recorded 1968-1972 as sounding exactly as if it were recorded 1968-1972. Maybe that's the exhaustion from the overexposure talking, but I don't think so. At the same time, it sounds positively ancient, built on an eerie vibration more apt to be found somewhere strange like a cemetery in the middle of the night. Much of that resides in the sound of Stewart's singing voice, the grain of it. But all hands know what they're doing here, and that goes for Stewart too. He's blessed with this voice, but he knows how to use it. The result is profoundly yet indeterminately authentic, conjuring impressions of Irish immigrants in the Midwest, field workers in the 19th-century South, mountain men in the Rockies in the 1840s, the Jesse James gang, so on and so forth. It's extraordinary—I seem to be falling all over myself. And I think the tension still works. Where once this confounded by sounding impossibly fresh and ancient, now the effect is achieved by sounding just a little dated (1968-1972) and impossibly ancient. This is a good trick to have in your bag.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

#18: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)

Until the legions of imitators came along in Quentin Tarantino's wake, I'm not sure anyone ever made movies the way Sergio Leone did. Now it sometimes seems like everyone does, but the original remains the best. His forte was visuals, cunningly edited—giant Cinemascope images of vast empty landscapes alternating with close-ups of craggy faces, equally vast and empty, and as imposing as mountains. Dialogue is at a minimum; long sections could probably get away with intertitles. But he was no throwback to silent movies, as his sound designs are integral to his storytelling, whether it's a windmill in need of oil, the whining echoes of gunfire, or the fly buzzing that Emily Dickinson knew. His collaborations with composer Ennio Morricone—particularly in Once Upon a Time in the West, where each of four characters arrive with individualized musical themes, which interact and develop as they do—are uniquely memorable and perhaps his single greatest achievement.

In fact, it was the theme song that drew me in the first place to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which seems to be the one I return to most. As a junior high kid I was lost in the glacial pace of this nearly three-hour picture (the back end of a trilogy with A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More), but my interest picked up considerably whenever the theme started playing again. The scene that's most striking to me now (not available that I could find on YouTube) involves a group of POWs ordered to play music to mask the sounds of torture. The song they play, "La historia de un soldado," is immeasurably sad, and even as they play it they are immeasurably sad too. The way it's staged and cut is absurd and moving all at once, a trick Leone manages to play over and over again in his pictures.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Aspern Papers (1888)

With the middle period of Henry James full upon us here I found myself thinking less of Jane Austen—though she remains at the heart, to be sure, with all the complexities of Europeanized family relations and especially romance—and more of Vladimir Nabokov. There are clearly antecedents for Pale Fire in "The Aspern Papers" with its oversized lionized hero of a 19th-century poet, Jeffrey Aspern by name, and the literary critic (who narrates the long tale but never once reveals his name) who lusts for some of Aspern's letters, which are in the possession of a broken-down ancient mistress of Aspern's living her latter days in a Venice palazzo with her hapless niece. The various intrigues between the critic and the niece remind me of those between Humbert Humbert and Lolita's mother in that novel too. But the reverberations can be felt elsewhere as well, including one scene that could have inspired significant parts of Susanna Clarke's odd fat fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. James is in full control of his powers here, letting the long sentences and long paragraphs flow like warm water into a bath. One luxuriates in the comic punch carried by a sure-handed narrative momentum. It is funny and fascinating all at once, these ribald adventures of the literary critic, and towards the end there is a flash of the ghost story in a fierce memorable scene when all has unraveled and gone wrong. What I love about stories like this and Pale Fire is how they consciously set out to transform the dreary grinding life of the literary academic (as I imagine it), recasting it as brash and heroic. At the same time it never loses sight of what it is actually about and thus often proves to be very funny for all its sly sense of its own absurdity. What I know about James for myself is that I have a real preference for these middle-period works (e.g., Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady), which are straightforward enough, or anyway with his impulses to shade and dither held in check by his equal devotion to getting a story told. "The Aspern Papers" makes evident that it doesn't have to be a story of great moment at all—no swashbuckling adventures ever, and even the greatest romances puckered by a knowing irony, even cynicism. "The Aspern Papers" is fully engaging, often very funny, and with an ending that only unfolds to even greater depths of implication.

"interlocutor" count = 3/85 pages (includes "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Music for Parties (1980)

The Silicon Teens takes the drift of the Monkees and the Archies to a logical conclusion, teaming up four people—Darryl, Jacki, Paul, and Diane, by name—who not only are not musicians, nor even human, but in fact do not exist at all. Which sure explains the lack of last names for one thing. In fact, it is a larky one-off goof project by Daniel Miller, one man alone with his thoughts in a studio, which he did shortly before starting up the Mute label, whose acts included Depeche Mode, Erasure, and Yazoo. When you think about all those things you won't be surprised to find out what Music for Parties is. Bouncy-ball synthpop covers of rock 'n' roll and/or top 40 pop standards plus a handful of originals with vaguely sinister garage gestures. So let's see here, "Memphis," "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy," "You Really Got Me," "Judy in Disguise," "Sweet Little Sixteen," do you see what I am talking about yet? It really blipped in and out fast in 1980. I found out about it when a friend pulled it out of the library of a radio station. I don't remember ever reading much about it. But I loved it immediately and intensely for a few weeks. Eventually I forgot about it until I ran across a download back in the days of mp3 blogging, and wow, flipped for it all over again. The act's biggest claim to fame has its origins on this, their only album, in the cover of "Red River Rock," which caught the attention of John Hughes, who ordered up a rerecorded version for the opening titles of 1987's Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. I like it a lot, especially the album version here (movie version can be heard here). As long as I have your attention on this matter I'd also like to commend one of the originals, the instrumental "State of Shock (pt. 2)." There does not appear to be a "State of Shock (pt. 1)," at least not on the album. It seems to me that this is as it should be. It's real outer space spy movie stuff, with lovely tones and textures to some of the bouncy-ball parts of it. Well, all parts of it are the bouncy-ball parts if you know what I mean, but it really gets itself going on a little head of steam, and builds from there. It's so easy to be infatuated with this and then forget it utterly for decades. So give it a listen now (here). You can thank me in 2044, if you remember.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Talk to Her (2002)

Hable con ella, Spain, 112 minutes
Director/writer: Pedro Almodovar
Photography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Editor: Jose Salcedo
Cast: Javier Cámara, Darío Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, Rosario Flores, Mariola Fuentes, Geraldine Chaplin, Fele Martínez, Paz Vega, Caetono Veloso, Ana Fernandez, Chus Lampreave, Esther Garcia

I haven't seen many of Pedro Almodovar's movies but they've all been reasonably good at flummoxing me, so full disclosure on that point, which is arguably in its favor. I'm not sure whether the effect is something about his work or the circumstances under which I've seen it. Certainly the day I saw Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, when it was new, was a notably bad one for me, though it had little to do with the movie. But the movie didn't help. The more recent The Skin I Live In also left me cold—too much arch concept and, as a creepshow, with the effect of an insect buzzing around one's ears after dark. Getting the insect to desist as often as not leads to boxing one's own ears, so in many ways the result is an awkward sitting tight and hoping it goes away soon, not exactly what I'm looking for in a movie.

I can see there's a lot to like about Talk to Her, even if it does surprise me a little to find it so highly regarded, occupying the critical consensus top 10 of the best movies of the 21st century (according to the list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?). The music by Alberto Iglesias is beautiful, almost distractingly so in some points. The images are nearly as alluring; Almodovar's colors may not be as saturated as on earlier pictures, but they are rich and full, accompanied by a sure hand with the staging and fluid camera. And the narrative is a kind of model of clarity, moving transparently from plot point to plot point. These formal qualities operate almost invisibly to propel the very strange story about the love of two men for women in comas—specific women who have suffered profound injuries, I should add, as opposed to some more generalized fetish—and the subsequent friendship engendered between them, a friendship marked as much by loss of identity as by love.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Ramones, "I Wanna Be Sedated" (1978)


Any of dozens of Ramones songs heard most recently could constitute my one favorite and that's the truth. So let's just call this heard most recently, even as I go ahead and say it is my favorite Ramones song. From their fourth album, Road to Ruin, it has several of my favorite Ramones features: it's about grim mental illness in a light-hearted way (cf., "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment," "Teenage Lobotomy"), it's pro-drug in an anti-drug way (or maybe make that vice versa, viz., "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue," "Carbona Not Glue," and in general all mentions of glue, plus also "We're a Happy Family," which rhymes Queens, refried beans, magazines, and thorazines), and, more broadly, it rocks up the place in an unmistakable way—"1-2-3-4 clunk-LOUD," etc. Is there anyone anywhere who still denies that this groove is, as intended, a lot of F-U-N? No doubt. I recently heard that some now consider the Stooges and the Ramones as polar era choices, two sides of a coin but you have to pick one (you know, the way people pit the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Donovan, or the Sex Pistols and the Clash). That's one to think about! I still think "I Wanna Be Sedated" is about what top 40 radio should have sounded like, at least partly, from approximately 1976 to 1984: blasts of squalling attack out of which emerge lovely Brill Building verse-chorus-verse gestures, all lurching forward in a cosmic upside-down cake of Archie comics and teenage werewolf movies. The stovepipe jean legs, black leather, and hair in the eyes, that's just style. The most salient line here goes like this, approximately: "Bamp bamp, buh bamp, buh bamp bamp, buh bamp, I wanna be sedated." Sing with. You can do it.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

#19: Drugstore Cowboy (Gus Van Sant, 1989)

Gus Van Sant has made a number of pictures worth seeing—certainly To Die For, Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, and Elephant, which Phil already mentioned—along with a bunch of clunkers and interesting failures (the shot-for-shot remake of Psycho is among the most bizarre projects by anyone in the past 20 years). But Drugstore Cowboy remains my favorite and nothing else by him has ever come close. Maybe it's something about 1989—Spike Lee also released the only movie by him that I love without qualification that year, Do the Right Thing. Steven Soderbergh and Sex, Lies, and Videotape looked like another parallel until Soderbergh started getting his ship righted in the late '90s.

Drugstore Cowboy has a little something to offer everyone—nostalgia for the post-'60s hangover, a satisfying dramatic story, a nicely ambiguous ending, great language woven all through, and some fun caper turns—but what I like about it best is how it manages to be anti-drug without getting preachy and at the same time perfectly straightforward and convincing about the appeal of the life in the first place. For all the pathetic low-life qualities evinced in the clip at the link, everything you need to know about why anyone would get involved in a life of drugs is nicely detailed there.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993)

I'm really not sure which I like more in Scott McCloud's odd little kickoff to his eventual odd little trilogy (and counting?) of comics meditations: the ideas he lays out so clearly, or what a pleasure the thing is to read. His art style is clean, cartoony, and brims with the energy of his own ideas. Page by page, it's just so much fun to read. And all these years later it's apparent that some of his ideas are slowly but surely becoming the common currency. Example: "what happens between the panels," a concept I last heard directly referenced in the 2010 movie Super (which was pretty good!). Or, "This is not a pipe," which I know started nearly a century ago with Rene Magritte, but still, McCloud really applies the fine point to it. As with most formal arguments for the legitimacy of anything—in this case "comics," a word McCloud explicitly claims for his cause here, with a definition that excludes both Warner Brothers and "New Yorker" cartoons but includes Superman, Little Nemo, and some cave paintings—there's frequently a whiff of the self-consciously defensive about it. For the most part, McCloud skirts around any air of the fanboy, by keeping superheroes in good perspective and by maintaining the generally impressive appearance of someone who really seems to know what he's talking about. So superheroes are here, but so is Tintin, and so are Japanese manga and R. Crumb and all kinds of things. I think I find McCloud most interesting on Japanese comics, because he so obviously knows and appreciates them so much. One problem—and it's all mine, none of it McCloud's—is that as much as I love this I'm not any more inspired than I was before to go plunge into what's out there. Maybe even less so, because I think I know what awaits me. My own taste in comics, I have learned, is not nearly as catholic as McCloud's, nor as passionate. No point, for example, going out and buying a stack of manga. I did that last time (Mai, the Psychic Girl). And found it dull, found myself laboring to read it. In the world of graphic novels that's what I fear more than anything, because there are so many of them now. Yes, I still find things to love. It's just that the ratio of what there is to what's worth it is not so good and seems to be dropping. Again, this is my problem, not McCloud's. McCloud has given us an amazing book here. As far as I'm concerned, he is even better than Will Eisner at this kind of cracker-barrel comic book philosophizing, simply because he tells the stories better. It may be heresy to say this is a greater piece of work than Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art, but there I just said it. I think McCloud truly pried open the jaws of the medium's possibilities here. This one is also better than his own follow-ups too, but there's plenty of room for greatness in this series, as we will see.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Squeezing Out Sparks (1979)

I don't have much sense of how this is regarded nowadays, except in my own mind, where I generally find it vaguely denigrated as overrated and/or simple critics' favorite. This is unfortunate because it is actually much better than that, although it is also somehow timebound too in a sense, fastened down there in the past of the late '70s/turn of the '80s, constantly receding. Graham Parker turned out to be remarkably easy to put away. I don't think he wrote anything even close to his early stuff from this point on. It makes me a little sad, remembering my own various obsessive periods with him, and I wonder if that isn't what draws me back to it now, nostalgia. On the level of its weirdness—the wild swings at Japanese culture and UFOs and bad relationships (with and without abortion intimacies), a surprising lyricism alternating with retreats to winning yobby throwaways, e.g., "Saturday Nite [sic] Is Dead"—Squeezing Out Sparks is still remarkably fresh. No horns on this outing, just a rock band—Brinsley Schwarz, Martin Belmont, Bob Andrews, Steve Goulding, Andrew Bodnar—hitting all their marks with precision. And going through the album again recently keeps peeling off surprises: the raw surge of "Discovering Japan," the shocking tenderness of "You Can't Be Too Strong," the plaintive declaration of "Passion Is No Ordinary Word," the poise of the big finish, "Don't Get Excited," and on and on it goes, the hits keep coming, rocking out at will with style, economy, and power. It's a remarkable set. It did win the "Village Voice" Pazz & Jop poll of its year (running away, as I recall) and even made the Billboard album top 40 (barely), and for several months was unavoidable, playing at every house party and get-together and loud. Squeezing Out Sparks is indeed, as I discover every time I get myself to return to it, a hard and brilliant thing, lean and angry and constantly insinuating. In many ways it represents a consolidation, a pulling-together (one last time, in retrospect) of the coequal powers of Graham Parker and the Rumour, in tandem, everything promised on those first three albums herewith delivered on, no denying and sign here. Play loud, as they say. Don't forget.