Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ubik (1966)

Ubik is difficult to summarize inasmuch as it is a maze contraption built out of tentative interdependencies of conceits, concepts, and metaphors. Pronounced "YOU-bick" because it derives from the word "ubiquitous," here is the first problem. What is Ubik? I don't know. It appears to be a manufactured product. In the world of Ubik, corporations are everything and corporatism is a way of life. That vision is as deeply embedded into the proceedings as any. So Ubik is a product—it is a miracle product—literally a miracle product. It is 1992 (the book was written in 1966, published in 1969) and society appears to be organized along two axes: corporations which fight for control of markets (in everything, including an afterlife of specific tiny proportions) and a spectrum of human psychic capability. At one end of this spectrum are mind readers, future seers, spoon benders, and such. At the other are "inertials," who obstruct the psychic abilities of others. Inertials are organized into "prudence" corporate entities—a flavor of insurance company with a pronounced security component, analogous to the Pinkertons of another era. In Ubik, people are generally paranoid about the advantages enjoyed by psychics, reacting with fear and hostility. Inertials can help to control that. This is at the macro level. Down on the human scale, as always, people in Dick novels are just trying to get along, make a living, live their lives, and stay out of trouble. Which is not easy when one is hectored all the time by marketers. Not only phones but refrigerators and even doors are coin-operated in this world. There's definitely a noticeable and strange kind of religiosity beginning to enter into Dick's writing here, with the afterlife hedged a bit as fading electric discharges from carefully preserved brains. In fact, in the end the novel appears to be a story exactly about that afterlife, though it's not information to which the characters, much less the reader, are particularly privy. So really weird things happen here—I mean really weird—such as at one point the entire time frame itself pulls up stakes and begins to lurch and lumber uncertainly into the past. Calculations about travel require consideration for the expected level of technology upon arrival, such as for example whether the internal combustion engine will be available for use. Really weird and really well done. I'm tempted to turn around right now and go through it again.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Selma (2014)

UK / USA, 128 minutes
Director: Ava DuVernay
Writer: Paul Webb
Photography: Bradford Young
Editor: Spencer Averick
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Andre Holland, Omar J. Dorsey, Alessandro Nivola, Giovanni Ribisi, Colman Domingo, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Keith Stanfield, Dylan Baker, Tim Roth, Lorraine Toussaint, Wendell Pierce, Cuba Gooding Jr., Martin Sheen

Late in 2012, days or even hours after the election of Barack Obama to a second term as president of the United States, it became apparent very little was going to be done in the coming four years. Opponents of Obama, never that inclined to accept the legitimacy of his constituency, simply refuse to accept the legitimacy of him. And though they uniformly and indignantly deny it, even as they hit the forward button on the latest email collection of watermelon jokes, their decision to continue criticizing and obstructing Obama at every turn has much less to do with the content of his character (let alone the policies, which all too often originated with them in the first place) and everything to do with the color of his skin.

Just so, the second half of Obama's presidency has morphed inevitably into a long and painful stasis of enforced meditation on race relations in America, focusing on issues such as gun violence, police brutality, drug laws, and the persistent racial inequities of the criminal justice system. Hollywood has chipped in too, churning out an informal trilogy on the subject in the form of Oscar-bait: first there was Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, which focused on the enormous difficulties of putting a legal end to slavery. Then there was 12 Years a Slave, which provided a useful profile of exactly that slavery. To nitpick a little, I think 12 Years should have come first, not just because an honest movie about slavery was so grossly overdue, but because it puts into appalling relief the urgency of ending slavery as an institution, and thus the shame of the politicians in Lincoln who resisted it even for a minute, let alone more than two centuries to that point. Last comes Selma, advancing the timeline of this narrative a full century, for a look at how slowly and insignificantly anything is changing. This little snapshot of progress is exactly what Martin Luther King meant when he said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Emphasis on long.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Underworld (1997)

Although it was published very near the end of the 20th century, in 1997, Don DeLillo's Underworld has already earned outsize acclaim as one of the great novels of that century. It's big, it's mythic, it's—as Wikipedia puts it—"a non-linear narrative that has many intertwined themes": nuclear proliferation, baseball, the Bronx, and a general sense of desperation and despair. It might add up, but I thought it was too much work to confirm. In fact, its willfully counterintuitive strategy of isolated incidents recounted the wrong way in time too often annoyed. There are flashes of brilliance scattered everywhere—and that's not just a pun on the mushroom clouds populating it (or should that be depopulating it?). But nuclear anxiety under the shadow of twin towers of superpowers already feels like a painfully dated trope, and the constant resort to it here is reflexive and rote. (What's weird is the original cover design, which shows a church in the foreground behind which looms a World Trade Center tower with a small airplane approaching, but that's more likely a designer Scribner's hired than DeLillo, right?) Underworld swims the waters of Robert Coover and Thomas Pynchon, remote and befuddling. It reminds me most of Coover's The Public Burning, especially when historical figures such as J. Edgar Hoover start showing up and we are afforded speculative interior views. Lenny Bruce also appears in nightclub scenes that read as built off verbatim transcripts. I guess, with Libra alone, DeLillo has already shown this bent, which admittedly can be vivid and evocative, of setting documentary passages into "fictional" context. I will say, understanding it amounts to damning with faint praise, there's no denying DeLillo's ability to craft fine sentences, with a really nice ear for the gaps and strange leaps of intimate dialogue. So maybe that's a net plus overall because it's what kept me going, and make no mistake, it is a book of over 800 pages and it can be a slog. That's the level where he reminds me of Pynchon, another craftsman of wondrous sentences that unfortunately do little to elucidate the confusing action. Where Pynchon goes to slapstick and broad humor, DeLillo pretty much stays close to the paranoiac anxiety. There's a lot of everything here except narrative momentum, which I missed.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Stone Arabia (2011)

Dana Spiotta's third novel is the first by her I've read. It has a number of things going for it: Los Angeles rock scene of the '70s and '80s, a nice coming of age story out of that scene, and the genuine feeling for a sad but enduring bond between brother and sister. In the end, I'm not entirely sure what it all adds up to, but the getting there is a pretty good trip. The narrator (mainly) is Denise, the younger sister by a few years of Nik, an eccentric rock star (qualified as "wannabe" by those so inclined), who made a tiny splash circa 1979. Now both well into middle age—in fact, Nik's 50th birthday approaches—their lives are compromised, fractured, and diminished by all the usual forces of time and indifference. Spiotta has to whip up a fair amount of fake history to fit in and around the Los Angeles and rock 'n' roll milieus in which this story swims, retrofitting it to the gap between the Beatles breakup and the assassination of John Lennon, known as the '70s. Denise and Nik were weaned on the Beatles, dipped deeply into the wells of glam and glitter, and coped with the coming of punk-rock and "New Wave," and oblivion beyond that. Stone Arabia is a short novel but it hums with activity. Denise has an ex and a complicated and disappointing love life. Denise's only daughter is a hip Millennial geek with a blog and ambitions of becoming a documentary filmmaker. Nik is a benign alcoholic and drug addict. Their mother suffers from onset Alzheimer's. Their father died before they were teens, separated from their mother even before that. Denise has no memories of him. Nik is basically the star of the show, a recluse, intensely creative still and toiling away in obscurity at strange, large-scale projects. Still writing pop songs, which in the late '70s earned him the kind of cachet enjoyed now by Nick Drake or Alex Chilton, he has spent years assembling a more experimental 20-volume CD project. And writing his own alternative meta history of his life, which he calls "The Chronicles." His sister calls Stone Arabia the "Counterchronicles." The tone has the familiar flatness of disaffected novels of the past 20 years. Much happens though little feels experienced, but it remains compulsively readable, opening into a world with peculiar levels of media saturation knowingness and a Brady Bunch innocence that effectively recall another time and place with a surprising amount of vivid force. Worth a look.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Yojimbo (1961)

Yôjinbô, Japan, 110 minutes
Director/editor: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima
Photography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Music: Masaru Sato
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyu Sazanka, Daisuke Kato, Seizaburo Kawazu, Takashi Shimura, Eijiro Tono, Kamatari Fujiwara, Isuzu Yamada, Hiroshi Tachikawa

Akira Kurosawa—director, co-writer, film editor, even costume designer on this one—enjoyed his biggest international hit to that point with Yojimbo, a samurai action picture that remains uniquely modern, positioned at a unique crossroads of film history and going its own way. It serves up a cynical, comical human corruption that eventually made its way into the American Western and still strikes chords decades later. Sergio Leone adapted the basic narrative for the first of his iconic Man With No Name spaghetti westerns, Fistful of Dollars.

It's not just the Leone style of storytelling, with the unmistakable echoes in the work of Quentin Tarantino, Beat Takeshi, and so many others, that makes Yojimbo look and feel so oddly fresh today, compact and muscular and efficient. It also packs a mixed nuts assortment of strange elements that keep one off balance, even as it rollicks along. The soundtrack is jazzy and jarring, with an air of West Side Story, a '50s Broadway musical about New York City juvenile delinquents. The widescreen treatment lifts the petty level of squabble on which Yojimbo operates into an epic realm of blowing dust, scheming, and sudden grotesque death. Long shots with telephoto lens provide a fluid and gritty documentary feel and contribute to the heavy air. And with the expedient of a firearm—that's singular, as one thug only, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai from The Human Condition), is somehow in possession of a six-shooter—it even slips into moods and gestures of the Hong Kong action films that followed later. Yojimbo is so insistent on its own weirdness, with its curated selection of elements that don't quite gel, that it's the experience of seeing it and being surprised by it that most sticks.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited (2006)

Another way to explore the 33⅓ series, perhaps the most common: read the ones on favorite albums. Highway 61 Revisited has long been my personal favorite, and with the book's 2006 publication date this particular entry—by Mark Polizzotti, about whom I don't otherwise know much—is one of the earlier books in the series. I found things to like and not like. More than anything it underlines the difficulty of the project in conception. In many ways, all a writer can do is huff up and uncork the love, hopefully with a side of original research or at least insight ... if there is any left to be found. Polizzotti's footnotes for the book number into the triple digits, which says plenty about what has gone before as well as what is going on here. In particular, Polizzotti has issues with Greil Marcus's attempts to own the Bob Dylan critical enterprise. Polizzotti's complaints are valid, but Marcus's loopy takes are well suited to Dylan in general, even when they are obviously quite insane, so Polizzotti is more tilting at windmills in that regard. But there is good work here, and it all proceeds from the good faith of his regard for the album. Interestingly, even as much of Dylan's most compelling attraction lies in the language he uses, it also resists very much the language of the critic, making the critic look a little silly. Thus, even though Polizzotti obviously appreciates "Desolation Row" and goes on with great authority about it—indeed, much in accord with many of my own views on it. Polizzotti has my sympathies and I'm sure I have his. But he looks just a little silly going on at length about it. We all do. One of Bob Dylan's most confounding and terrific skills is the ability to tell almost anyone to shut up and make it stick. On the music, and on the sessions, this little book is much better, taking care of a lot of legwork and connecting many dots. That the picture created by the connected dots seems beside the point is hardly Polizzotti's fault. He comes from a literary background but wisely sets that aside for the most part here. It's not without insights—I had never before noticed the symmetry of the two vinyl sides, for example—but I think it's best only at small things, such as sorting out the producer's role among Tom Wilson, Bob Johnston, and of course Dylan himself and his process in the studio, still evolving in 1965 but very close to the enduring template that set in with the next album, Blonde on Blonde. No one can explain this album, Highway 61 Revisited—it's what I find so entertaining about Marcus's attempts. Polizzotti's book is definitely worth a look for the hardcore.

In case it's not at the library.