Friday, March 29, 2013

Blog programming will resume

March has been a busy and confusing month for me with work demands, attempts to penetrate the welter of Facebook and Twitter (in search of new blog readers, but also reconnecting with old pals and because, I am learning, social media can be such pure distraction), and perhaps most excruciating, an upgrade to my computer system. The result has been a slowdown, well nearly a complete stop, to blog posts in the past few weeks. Regular blog programming will resume next month, starting Monday if all things come together right. Expect some reduction in output as I find my feet, with posts coming at a weekly pace or even slower for awhile. Trying to judge which of my various projects to focus on among the movies, albums, songs, books, and whatnot, this also seems a reasonably good time to throw a question out there. Anything you want to see more of or less of? Please feel free to let me know any time, but maybe use this as an opportunity to say in comments now. Thanks to all readers for regular visits. It's much appreciated. Carry on. I hope to be back on Monday (and that's no April Fool's joke).

Monday, March 18, 2013

Savage Art (1995)

The thing I like best about Robert Polito's biography of Jim Thompson is the light it sheds on Thompson's work. What I consider the best of that work—A Hell of a Woman, say—is not necessarily as celebrated as a few, and one in particular: The Killer Inside Me. Granted, Savage Art is a biography, and Polito's critical assessments have to be extracted. But until this I had flailed away at reading Thompson without direction, and often disappointed. Thompson's catalog runs to 30 or better titles, and there are some fairly stinkers in the mess. I know because I read two of them—The Alcoholics and The Criminals, bought for their titles obviously. I was thus happy to see Polito dismiss them quickly, which had the effect of making me more inclined to believe him generally. And he's a good writer in his own right. Thompson lived a singularly depressing life, but Polito's own hard-bitten voice keeps things moving along. Lots of interesting stuff about Thompson and his life, of course. I wasn't surprised but still fascinated to learn that Thompson was a binge writer, locking himself away for intense bursts of work. His best usually has that magical quality of first drafts that somehow came out just right (see also: Sherwood Anderson, Philip K. Dick). It's so rare and unusual it's something to appreciate itself (for all his reputation for that kind of thing, for example, I think Jack Kerouac managed it only once, with The Subterraneans). Polito has also proved his critical bona fides with the two great Library of America volumes, Crime Novels: American Noir, so one always feels in good hands, and Jim Thompson is obviously right in his wheelhouse. Thompson himself is about what you would expect him to be from reading the novels, a leathery old drunk with a marked edge of desperation. A faintly Bukowski type of character, alcoholic and impoverished for much of his life. All that anxiety in the novels had to come from somewhere, of course, and Polito neatly catalogs it from start to finish. I thought the saddest part of Thompson's life, the way Polito tells it, was that Thompson always felt strongly that his work was not recognized for what it is, Stanley Kubrick's late interest notwithstanding. Thompson always held out hope for it—how could he not? At this point, I'm not sure you can overstate his position to the second half of the 20th century, in terms of the fascination for human depravity that wears a crime fiction mask. Polito and this book steered me to most of my current favorites by Thompson. For that alone I love it.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Conet Project (1997)

Jeff Tweedy's inspiration for various facets of the Wilco album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—including the title—provided a fascination for many. I understand it was even a bit of a fad some 10 or 12 years ago, used in the Vanilla Sky movie and championed generally by the likes of Tweedy, Devendra Banhart, so on so forth. Now I've had my own infatuation with it. Released as a 4-CD set, with something in the neighborhood of 150 separate tracks, it's culled from hours and hours (and hours) of tape recordings of the mysterious broadcasts on so-called numbers stations (Wikipedia: "shortwave radio stations of uncertain origin believed to be operated by government agencies to communicate with spies 'in the field'"). Most often it's just voices, speaking in many different languages, saying numbers (usually, though not always, one voice and one language per broadcast), in any number of accents. Sometimes it is letters of the alphabet, or words. All kinds of voices, young and old. Sometimes there is music. Sometimes there is only music. Various beeps and tones flutter around in peripheral audio. Some of the electronic ambient noises remind me of Sonic Youth breaks (or Wilco's, for that matter). It's raw, hot, unfiltered, staticky, and riveting. For me, the attraction is how unsettling it all is as documented reality. They sound like broadcasts because they are broadasts, they sound like humans because they are humans, but they also sound unhuman and meaningless in the totality (achieved in seconds of play) of the bland recitations, which nonetheless proceed with purpose. There's a sense of a thousand people hearing, a hundred thousand, a million, but few who understand. At this point, as classified intelligence, no doubt the value is nil—on a par with most email or motel registries from 20 years ago. Yet its power to exclude remains strong. One always feels on the outside; it must tap directly into a portion of the brain that directs paranoid thinking. The conspiracy feeling is strong with these. It's just hard to know what to make of them, but for a long period I compulsively kept coming back to hear more, and I still love hearing them emerge out of the shuffle stream. They have the sound quality of late-night AM radio between the stations, fading in and out, cutting in and out, hissing—which I suppose is a nostalgic pleasure for me there. But there's a weird and undeniable urgency to it too. Here.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Weakerthans, "One Great City!" (2003)


Just because I made a big deal out of the song "Nightime" by Big Star, and just because I'm about to do something like that for this great song by the Weakerthans (from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), that doesn't automatically mean I love songs because they use the word "hate" with such conviction. But it certainly doesn't hurt. And it doesn't hurt that I think I know something of where chief songwriter, singer, and guitarist John K. Samson might be coming from. For at least the three minutes this lasts the focus of his loathing, and a very pure version of it too, is the city of Winnipeg. Some places are cold—they're cold even when they are warm for others, and some places feel like they are always cold. Samson runs down some good details in the verses—mostly he puts the sentiment in the mouths of others, a clerk at a Dollar Store counting Loonies, a commuter stuck in traffic. But in the end it seems to be coming more or less from Samson: "... our Golden Business Boy will watch the North End die, and sing 'I love this town,' then let his arcing wrecking ball proclaim, 'I hate Winnipeg'"—taking dead aim at a great Manitoban symbol with naked scorn and derision. On the other hand, it's 10 years later and Samson is still living in Winnipeg and by all indications reasonably happy—married, solo career, etc. So we all grow up, I guess that's the lesson here, and a good thing. But we pass through times, through moods, through sour days or hours, when we feel like this song too. It's almost exhilarating to hear it expressed so purely.

Friday, March 08, 2013

The Insider (1999)

USA, 157 minutes
Director: Michael Mann
Writers: Marie Brenner, Eric Roth, Michael Mann
Photography: Dante Spinotti
Music: Pieter Bourke, Lisa Gerrard
Editors: William Goldenberg, David Rosenbloom, Paul Rubell
Cast: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Debi Mazar, Stephen Tobolowsky, Colm Feore, Bruce McGill, Gina Gershon, Michael Gambon, Rip Torn, Wings Hauser, Nestor Serrano

At some point I think I might have to face up to a certain middlebrow orientation. With movies, my focus tends to be on narrative. Imagery, music, performance, and all the trappings are fine and good, but I tend to start with certain demands of a story—organization, clarity, and purpose at the very least; stakes I can connect with and tension with that would be nice too. Most problematically, particularly in these fictional ripped-from-the-headlines exercises "based on reality" and/or the message picture bald, I further expect that it comport with my own sense of reality and values. When it doesn't, I start to have problems. I think, in fact, this may stand in as a reasonably good definition of the middlebrow.

I say this by way of introduction to my favorite picture by director Michael Mann, which is so comically right on target in its messaginess—who, even in 1999, was left to defend the enormity of Big Tobacco?—that I can even laugh at it myself. Michael Mann likes to do things big and he's very good at it. He's also an aesthete, practically an abstract artist in the way he uses the big-screen canvas to paint glossy photorealist portraits of cityscapes, cars, long freeway lanes, beautiful women, and powerful men. It occurred to me when I was revisiting The Insider recently that it is also the only Mann I have seen on the big screen. It could be that's the reason it's my favorite. But there are actually many reasons to like The Insider.

Thursday, March 07, 2013


The letter E is the most frequently used letter in the English alphabet by a wide margin—12.7% of all letters. No other letter cracks even 10%. Without it, we would have to speak Nglish. Some want to do without it, you know—some refuse to acknowledge the awesome power of the letter E. They're called lipogrammatists, and spend their time doing things like concocting entire novels specifically omitting it (Gadsby, a 1939 novel by Ernest Vincent Wright, perhaps the best-known example). Elvis Presley, of course, recognized E as the king of letters and used it for his first initial. (In fact, Elvis is arguably the more supreme king because he could have dumped it and gone as Lvis, whereas the letter E really needed the support in the mid-20th century, before electronics breathed new life into it. More on that in a moment.) The letter E is also highly intelligent. Everyone knows that E = mc2. As a vowel, not only does it take on all the usual burden of these overworked signifiers for vocal intonations—playing it long, short, and all manner of gently keening and/or grunting sound in between—but it furthermore signs up for a giant portion of work in a "silent" role, sitting at the end of a word to tell one how to elongate the vowel in front of the consonant in front of it. This busy beaver is also seen taking position behind certain consonants to soften. (Examples: use, wide, gently, entire, recognize, certain, supreme, have [kind of], done [well, not exactly], gone [oh, forget it]). We liked the lowercase version of the figure so much that we turned it upside down to indicate the schwa, an "uhh" sound that could itself be the most frequently occurring vocal sound in the English language. Pay attention to how much people say it all the time, within or without words. Well, the electronics industry really did the letter E a big favor, didn't it? In the past 20 to 30 years it has taken on a high profile as one poster child for computer and online culture, perhaps most notably as "email" (does anyone spell it with the hyphen anymore? that would be an N-ormous relief). I've even had periods when I've personally considered E among my favorite letters. Certainly I can say that it is my favorite vowel by a good sight. Because of the mysterious Great Vowel Shift, which set in along about the 14th century, and proceeded inexorably across the next three or four centuries, it sounds more like the I of most European languages and less like the way we presently pronounce A, which is the sound other European languages make with E. So confusing. How do these things happen? Something to do with the Black Death, I understand (note to self: avoid). Now here's something strange. The letter E does not appear in the standard letter-grade alphabet, which of course goes A, B, C, D, F. I do recall hearing an explanation once that it formerly used to indicate "E for effort" but was still a failing grade, a kind of de facto F+. After the way I complained about the D, can you imagine what I would have to say if that was still going on?

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Elliott Smith, "Baby Britain" (1998)


I love the way this slips into its '60s garb so determinedly and yet manages not to be particularly heavy-handed about it, at least not so to me. It's a lovely, spirited melody delivered up in a breathy Alex Chilton hush, weaving its way around a lovely acoustic piano, jangly band, smoky organ chords at the bridge, like it's sauntering in a park on a lovely warm spring day, playing stop-motion on a hazy black and white French New Wave morning in America. The words are a bit hard to pick out, going by rather quickly, but it's hard to resist attempting to at least hum along, it's such a pretty little thing. Smith's music still tends to make me sad before anything else because of the way he went—not sure when I'm going to get past it either, because obviously there are huge depressive strains all through his work. But here, where the music seems notably cheerful, it creates a tension that can about break my heart, heard in the right circumstances. That's the main pleasure of it for me. And, given that it was the single from the XO album, I'm pretty sure they had some idea what they had too. Then again, actually paying close attention to the words (for the first time) discloses somewhat less tension on that score: "The light was on but it was dim / Revolver's been turned over / And now it's ready once again / The radio is playing 'Crimson and Clover' / London Bridge is safe and sound / No matter what you keep repeating / Nothing's gonna drag me down / To a death that's not worth cheating." Hm. Well, but anyway it sounds happy!

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Great Albums

I've mentioned before, you've seen yourself if you've looked around at the archives here, that this blog started out as a termite production dedicated to hollowing out the blasted music industry via the happy expedient of downloads, sharing a bunch of my favorites, with attempts at pungent smears of 150-word comment. Or something like that. But now the era of downloads is kinda sorta over—not really, but seems to take more work now, and I'm just as happy paying for what I want at places like eMusic and the usual used sources for CDs. Prices seem more reasonable and selection is better than ever. But it does mean there's a bunch of albums I love and have more to say about and will be revisiting. The list at the new Great Albums tab up top provides a road map of where I mean to go—at my usual sluggish pace, of course. It's more or less my favorite albums. Some of the pieces I've already written here I'm going to live with for now, and linking to them there as is. Others I reserve the right to take another run at. Occasionally, in the weeks and months ahead, on Tuesdays.

Monday, March 04, 2013


Movies/TV I saw last month...

Amarcord (1973)—Give it up for Nino Rota. I struggle too often with Fellini's style of storytelling from La Dolce Vita on, but my third (!) attempt at this proved surprisingly rewarding, much of that because of Rota's music. Also noticed when I quit struggling I like the characters and scenes a lot more. But how do you quit struggling?
Amour (2012)—Yes, admire and respect this a good deal—"like" seems the wrong word. But I don't completely trust it because I don't completely trust Haneke. I think he always means his movies to hurt, even when he adopts a topic such as this, so elaborately grave and socially responsible on the surface—how brave are the aging! It's the shallowness of the veneer that's ultimately most discomfiting. Because this is no exception. It's a horror movie as much as it is anything else.
The Battle of Algiers (1966)—I saw this in the late '90s and thought the grainy newsreel black and white was too much of an affectation, but now it seems just right, and a fascinating and intricate examination of terrorism. Interesting how one's perceptions change according to circumstances.
Between the Lines (1977)—Underground Boston newspaper and staff foibles. Cute but slight. I always think I will like it more.
The Big Red One (1980)—This often works very well but goes off the rails too, as in the madhouse scene. Why is it always a madhouse in war movies, hm? Getting a little tired of that one.
Bush Family Fortunes (2004)—Some catching up on Bush era documentaries heretofore buried in my Netflix queue. Most, such as this featuring reporter Greg Palast, are notable at this point only for occasional onset of bad flashbacks.
Bush's Brain (2004)—About Karl Rove and woefully out of date, released at a time—we can see now—when Rove was at the height of his power. I think it's very different now, but then I'm always an optimist about this stuff.
Carrie (1976)—Beautiful and operatic and weird. Things about it work and don't work, but what's good is very good, and it's not always what you expect.
Compliance (2012)—Stanley Milgrom porn, literally.
Contraband (1940)—Wow, what a contrast this makes with The Thief of Baghdad, which also came from director Michael Powell in 1940. This is written with his long-time partner Emeric Pressburger, together known as the Archers, and it's straight out of Hitchcock's British spy movies of the '30s. Enjoyed this one a lot.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Watchmen (1986-1987)

I found out about Watchmen in, of all places, a fanzine for mystery enthusiasts called The Armchair Detective, for which I briefly wrote book reviews in return for free books in the late '80s (such as Rock Critic Murders by Jesse Sublett, which they sent me but I never managed to finish, not because it isn't done well). The Watchmen review was buried in a column I read there regularly, "J'accuse!" by William L. DeAndrea. He was an interesting writer with wide-ranging interests, but it was unusual for anyone connected with the magazine to acknowledge a comic book, let alone discuss one, let alone rave enthusiastically about it. By the time I read the column the comic book run was over and it had been gathered into the graphic novel most of us know it by now, truly one of the great comic books (or graphic novels, if I must) we will have for a very long time. As promised by DeAndrea's review, Watchmen is a huge one. Writer Alan Moore (it somehow seems insufficient to call him just the writer, but there you go) takes the same psychological starting point as the book's virtual companion in comic book history, which preceded it by about seven months, Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns. But where Miller's Batman is a near-future tale, Moore sets Watchmen back in the "golden age" of comic books, to the very point of the original imagining, circa 1937, and reimagines it as if it all really happened, a fad of the transitional times from the Great Depression to World War II when real people dressed up in colorful costumes and "fought crime." As Miller did, Moore also wonders what kind of people they would be, and comes to essentially the same (obvious) conclusion: damaged human beings, revenge-driven psychopaths, and such. Only one character in Moore's pantheon here has super-powers, a Silver-Surfer-like figure produced as a matter of nuclear technology in the mid-'40s who is practically omnipotent. Otherwise they are well-meaning thugs or insecure but handy dweebs with maximum brain power. Moore's storytelling style is allusive and fastidiously detailed, supplying backstory via appendices to the early sections, staged as excerpts from an autobiography, published histories, odd critical exegeses, police files, and so forth. It may be a little awkward, in terms of comic-book storytelling, but it provides necessary context, and one welcomes it. I welcomed it. Also—and I think everybody talks about this sooner or later, but it's still remarkable—Dave Gibbons's illustrations are deceptively generic. By the midpoint the style becomes uncannily appropriate to the story, down to sizing and sequencing the panels. I understand that Moore has much to do with this, that he is obsessive about storyboarding every panel down to the tiniest detail. That may be so, but Gibbons is nonetheless a great choice. Watchmen is a little slow and confusing in the beginning—it's a very big story. But it doesn't take long to see it's in the hands of people who know what they're doing. Not many are better than Moore at exploiting the punctuated rhythms of comic book panels. Rhythms and visual puns are on practically every page, even as they advance the massive plot inexorably. A masterpiece for one and all. Essential.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Videodrome (1983)

Canada, 87 minutes
Director/writer: David Cronenberg
Photography: Mark Irwin
Music: Howard Shore
Editor: Ronald Sanders
Cast: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits, Peter Dvorsky, Lynne Gorman, Jack Creley, Leslie Carlson, Sam Melkin

I'm pretty sure I've seen Videodrome in the theater, but the first time I saw it and the greatest impressions it has made on me have tended to come out of the semi-degraded VHS tape versions. Back in the day, a friend of mine always seemed to know how to put his hands on them early. Of course, seeing a DVD version now one quickly notes how the whole look and feel is slanted in exactly that direction. For much of the movie, in fact, we are either watching "television," or we are watching people watching televisions. One thing it gets surprisingly right still is the sense of intimate connection that develops between people and televisions—or monitors, I guess I had better say.

In many ways indeed Videodrome appears remarkably prescient now, certainly in terms of today's Internet culture, which is at least as bewitching and entrancing as anything on TV in Videodrome. It also correctly imagined the casual acceptance of pornography we see nowadays. "Got any porno?" says Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), picking through the videotapes of Max Renn (James Woods), back at his place at the end of their first date. No embarrassment, no self-consciousness. But Videodrome is way more than a science fiction film that happened to get a few guesses right about the future—and quite a bit more ambitious than that too.