Sunday, August 29, 2021

"Gazebo" (1980)

A lot of good stuff in this great Raymond Carver story—for once a story from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that was left relatively undisturbed by editor Gordon Lish. I like the setting in a cheap motel with the disintegrating 30something couple who manage it. Yes, shabby motels, drunken daze, and relationships gone bad are certainly familiar, but the way Carver handles them they are vivid and fresh. Holly and Duane are have shut down the front office for the day to hash things out with a bottle in a suite ("we needed a suite"). Holly has found out Duane has "gone outside the marriage" with the motel housekeeper and it's really the end. The story is told first-person by the philandering husband, whose relentless dialogue cues are variations on "go," e.g., "'Don't move to Nevada,' I go. 'You're talking crazy,' I go. 'I'm not talking crazy,' she goes." It is the way people tell stories (or did) but after a while it becomes a distracting tic here. I'm not even sure people talk that way anymore. The story has a strange urgency, perhaps because it is so fragmented. The couple's drunken day is punctuated by motel patrons, presumably with reservations, trying to get their attention outside the room. The story takes place across most of one day, with the single scene of a long, drawn-out talk, set off by numerous line breaks and memories. The gazebo turns up late, an extraordinary image from a memory of better times, a wonderful contrast to the dreary motel argument. Although "Gazebo" features a relationship that is ending, it is really more a study of alcoholism, what it sounds like and looks like in the wild and all the ways it moves. Drinking is what unites this couple even as it has sent their lives all to hell. They take it by the quart. "Gazebo" is so good on alcoholism it triggers me a little, recalling my own drunken episodes or those of others. There is a great tension that comes from their simultaneous final failure at managing the motel, which echoes their personal demise. In many ways this story feels like Carver is headed confidently into his best period of writing.

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

Friday, August 27, 2021

Spring in a Small Town (1948)

Xiao cheng zhi chun, China, 98 minutes
Director: Mu Fei
Writer: Tianji Li
Photography: Shengwei Li
Music: Yijun Huang
Editors: Chunbao Wei, Ming Xu
Cast: Wei Wei, Yu Shi, Wei Li, Hongmei Zhang

It surprised me when I realized that, according to the critical roundup at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, Spring in a Small Town (presently ranked #161 overall) effectively amounts to the greatest Chinese movie ever made. It's followed on the big list by Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (a very long documentary from 2002, #323), Platform (2000, #376), Yellow Earth (1984, #384), and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (?!, 2000, #391). This is all complicated by the ambiguous status of Hong Kong and Taiwan, which have pictures at #42 (In the Mood for Love, 2000), #118 (Yi Yi, 2000), #124 (A Brighter Summer Day, 1991), #192 (A City of Sadness, 1989), #194 (Chungking Express, 1994), and five more in the 300s before getting to Platform and Crouching Tiger. The latter two are credited to China, Hong Kong, and other countries here in our 21st-century global era.

The Western bias appears to be showing—Spring in a Small Town has a title and date that make it sound more like film noir although it is actually an Ozu-like domestic drama. It was released the year before the Chinese Communist Revolution, a regime that suppressed it as decadent and Western until the 1980s. In this ongoing culture war that favors Hong Kong over China in the West and domestic angst over the sweeping currents of time, it seems curious that the 161st-greatest movie of all time exists in one of the shabbiest prints I've ever had to pay for ($2.99) at Amazon Prime. Someone needs to make up their mind about whether or not this is an important and historical film.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

"The Repairer of Reputations" (1895)

This long confusing story by Robert W. Chambers is much loved and respected, it appears, showing up in anthologies and treatments of horror as a landmark. I've seen arguments for it as the first or at least an early appearance of the unreliable narrator device. Maybe—it has a lot of things going on. There's a science-fiction premise of a near-future New York City (which in this story means 1920). The US is a military power and has won a war with Germany, at least part of it fought in North America. It has legalized suicide, outlawed immigration, expelled all Jews, and relocated African-Americans to reservations, among other interesting and unexplained radical changes, on which the story feels suspiciously neutral. Our main character is Hildred, who is reading a banned play, The King in Yellow. The play also shows up in other stories in a kind of cycle, although many other stories in the original 1895 collection—which as it happens is also called The King in Yellow—are more like romances. Chambers never really wrote horror again. It's all concentrated in a handful of stories within The King in Yellow collection, which often make reference to a banned play called The King in Yellow. I hope you start to see what I mean by confusing. For further confusion, see the first season of the True Detective TV show, which name-checks random details from this story, like the place called Carcosa, which Chambers himself was name-checking from Ambrose Bierce (and H.P. Lovecraft later name-checked too, as I recall). O what tangled webs. Wikipedia discusses this story as an "anti-story," a classification of experimental literature I'm not sure I know well. Given how much I like stories, I'm not sure how much I want to know, certainly if this is the example. It just seemed like so much random nonsense. "The Repairer of Reputations" might be good for reading groups or even classrooms, all studded with bizarre detail begging to be unpacked. Both times I've ground through it I kept stupidly looking for narrative momentum because I forgot again, even when I knew better—also, the first section is energetic and enticing. But there is no momentum here by design. It's meant to confront readers and keep them off balance. And I haven't had the patience to do the unpacking. Let's consider the title. It's the job title for Mr. Wilde (which in the context of the 1890s brings Oscar to my mind, I don't know about you or Chambers) and it's not really clear what is involved in repairing a reputation, but appears to be related to organized crime, some kind of protection racket. Actually, Mr. Wilde seems like a minor character. The story ends with a note that Hildred has died in an asylum for the criminally insane, and basically that is where the trouble with the unreliable narrator business starts, assuming Hildred is the author. Yet why should we assume that? Next question for the weekly reading group. It's going to take a few months to get through this one. I can't wait to see the whiteboard.

The Dark Descent, ed. David G. Hartwell
Read story online.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

"One in a Million" (1993)


Getting close to the finish, things now start to rev up on this track in terms of tempo. "One in a Million" gets up to speed right away in the kickoff and it is real excitement, with a seductive twirling and falling-forward action and a feeling of haunted sadness. The song has roots in Pet Shop Boys material nearly 10 years old. At one time it was considered for a Take That project that never happened. I don't like to say there are weak songs on Very but if there are this would be it (it is absolutely not "Liberation," which I've seen discussed too casually that way). "One in a Million" is safely cloistered in harmless sentimental pop regions, one more gentle empathic song about unrequited love, melting into the Pet Shop Boys coy way of fuzzing up gender. The idea is equal opportunity projection: draw your own conclusions with the fantasy other of your choice. They did this over and over in the '80s and no one seemed to notice. After "To Speak Is a Sin" it's harder for me anyway to hear "One in a Million" as hetero, but their lyrical gender ambiguity stands them in good stead (I admit it took me some time to fully fathom "To Speak Is a Sin"). The focus here is one more poor sap who loves his (her/their) partner more than is returned and that's basically universal. In the days when I played this album constantly "One in a Million" always felt like a brief rest stop between the withering, sophisticated statement of purpose in "Young Offender" and the magnificent "Go West." But stick around if you're trying to save a relationship. This song might speak to you.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Who Killed Little Gregory? (2019)

I went digging around at Netflix and turned up this five-hour French true-crime documentary miniseries about a famous case in France from the 1980s. It's pretty good. The case is a bit of a forerunner to the JonBenet Ramsey murder in the US in the '90s, with a bizarrely ritualized and still formally unsolved murder of a young child, tantalizing clues that point to an inside job, and lots of mistakes on the part of law enforcement and investigators. The Gregory Villemin murder in rural France was preceded by years of anonymous threatening letters and phone calls to the boy's parents, specifically calling out Gregory's father Jean-Marie and promising vengeance for reasons known only to the stalker. This stalker and likely murderer became known in France as "the Crow," associated with the 1943 movie Le Corbeau directed by Henri-Georges Cluozot (a good one—worth seeing!). Gregory was murdered at the age of 4, trussed up and thrown in the local river to drown, with one more letter following to his parents from "the Crow," taking credit. There are a lot of moving parts to this case, including an incompetent judge overseeing the investigation and constant media / paparazzi harassment as the case unfolds. It captured the imagination of France, with an absurd number of people wrongly certain they knew who was guilty and innocent, again much like the Ramsey case in the US. The Gregory case has a number of surprises and strange twists and turns—the lengthy running time is justified and I don't want to give too much away. It reminded me of another title that came up in the same Netflix search, The Staircase, another TV miniseries and also coincidentally a French production, though in that case the crime under examination was committed in the US. I like these forensic procedural cases because they are just so chilling and mysterious, so open to interpretation and uncertainty, often feeling impossible ever to find satisfaction from. At the same time, Who Killed Little Gregory? is quite good at raising emotions. Not so much for me because it's a kid's death—though the photos show him to be extraordinarily adorable and it's hard to think of the way he died—but because the perpetrator feels so provocatively close, likely a member of the extended family. Who Killed Little Gregory? is thus often infuriating, and even desolating, but in that righteous, satisfying true-crime way. Recommended.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Rock From the Beginning (1969)

I'm not going to attempt the convoluted publishing history of Nik Cohn's story of rock 'n' roll and, implicitly—shot from the hip as it is—early and influential essay at the rock critic enterprise. It has been sold under the titles Pop From the Beginning, Rock From the Beginning, and, most evocatively, AWOPBOPALOOBOP ALOPBAMBOOM (for Little Richard, of course). Editorial revisions appear to have gone on with every edition. The little mass market paperback with the illustration of Jimi Hendrix on the cover, called Rock From the Beginning, is the one I read in 1970. Written (mostly) in 1968 when Cohn was a jaded seen-it-all 22-year-old, its assessments are more often wildly wrong, or at least out of step with later rock critical canon (not least because so impossibly early). Nevertheless, it lit me up in the summer when I was 15 and instilled a certain set of long-lived prejudices, a tendency toward instinctive contrarianism that lives on yet, for better or worse (I'm honestly not sure which it is). Certainly Cohn's language no longer seems the freewheeling specimen of New Journalism it once did. But the orientation of swiftly moving fickle taste and self-contradiction set in deep, and I still find a likely source for fundamental preferences here. He singles out Eddie Cochran and Little Richard in the early bunch, for example, makes a lot out of the Coasters, and characterizes the Brill Building approach as "highschool." On the other hand, P.J. Proby gets his own chapter along with the Beatles and Rolling Stones (each), and the chapter on Bob Dylan is spent mostly sniffing at him with a superior air. In the end (remember, 1968) Cohn sees Pete Townshend as the single most important figure going. (There's a great anecdote about Townshend writing "Pinball Wizard" under Cohn's influence—Cohn hadn't liked much of what he heard of Tommy, still in production, and did happen to be a pinball maniac.)

Jeering Amazon reviewers are all over Cohn and this book for being so wrong about so many things. But I recognize and appreciate his skepticism about the evolving conventional wisdom, which was then deifying Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and other now-usual suspects, while artists like Larry Williams and Del Shannon were slipping down the memory hole. I read this book a few times when I was 15 and 16 and absorbed much of it at cellular level. Coming back to it decades later in my 40s it more annoyed me and I was embarrassed not only for it but for myself for ever liking it. Now I've reached a kind of Baby Bear middle. There's no sense to make of Cohn's taste. It is all pure response, contradictions bursting out like time-lapse flowers popping into bloom. One minute the Beatles are brilliant and historical, the next they're not all that, and then back again. He dismisses Rubber Soul and Revolver. He judges Sgt. Pepper's their best. The White Album, Abbey Road, and Let It Be came out later—they were freaking still together when he was writing! Cohn struggles for consistency even as he rails against it, grappling with these strange mysteries—why do some things sound good once and then never again, why do the opinions of others matter so much, why does everybody like something I can't stand, why can't I like it if everybody else does, and other conundrums about life and pop music. Really Cohn might have had it right with the title Pop From the Beginning. The book is not just about pop (from the beginning of the rock era anyway) but it is also '60s-style pop itself in its approach and attitude, caught in the flickering intense ecstasies of right now. And notwithstanding the later marketing ploys of Jimi Hendrix on the cover and appropriation of the word "rock," which by 1969 had achieved ascendancy over rock 'n' roll itself, not to mention pop. As if to prove the point, here is Cohn getting Hendrix wrong but also right in a way, simply by focusing so intently, elliptically, and self-consciously: "[Hendrix] was a conman, a black cliché, but it finally didn't matter much; he freaked out regardless, and he was real excitement." I'm going to start using "real excitement" as praise as soon as I possibly can, because he packs everything into that.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Erpland (1990)

Every now and then I get sentimental and like to recall the origins of this blog in 2006 and 2007, as an "MP3 blog" with dangerous illicit downloads and such. Google delisted me along with all the rest of us and I'm not sure I've ever made it all the way back. But don't worry, that's all behind me now. I pay Napster $10 a month to do it for me (≠ endorsement). Ozric Tentacles was one of the bands I had never heard of until these downloading days, which introduced me to many acts I had never heard of, for example Spock's Beard, 8 Days in April, and Chicken Shack. Most seemed to fall close to prog and/or metal designations, which says something that still surprises me about my taste as filtered by the internet. Many of these strangers were better than I expected, sometimes by a good deal. But mostly I was busy at the time with other priorities so it took me a while to get to them. I still don't really know Ozric Tentacles well. On this early album they are a synthy instrumental British prog unit playing somewhat in the tradition of Genesis (minus the folklore elements). The obvious peers are more from central Europe, notably Mannheim Steamroller and Tangerine Dream. At 73 minutes, Erpland is plainly a product of the optimistic new CD era. With 12 tracks averaging over six minutes each, it's heady and indulgent. At its best it is like a psychedelic Steely Dan without the sneering cynical lyrics (arguably the Dan's best point), or aimless and freewheeling jam fragments like the Todd Rundgren's Utopia album. At its most pablum Erpland is easy listening elevator stuff, a little too close to Mannheim Steamroller for my comfort—actually, I just learned this minute, Mannheim Steamroller is a US act from Nebraska. Don't be fooled like me by the German word. Erpland has been a fun album to finally get to but I must say it's not giving me a lot of incentive to pursue Ozric Tentacles further. I can report I had the same experience with Spock's Beard, which leans more into metal. I'm sorry to report 8 Days in April (krautrock) has never been available on streaming as far as I know—I happen to know it's the best of this bunch. But Chicken Shack is on Napster—I took a couple songs and may be able to report back more later. Meanwhile, this blog turned 15 this month. Happy blogiversary to me!

Sunday, August 15, 2021

"The Father-Thing" (1954)

Horror folks and weirdniks want badly to claim Philip K. Dick, and this story is one of their primary items of evidence. Personally, I think "The Hanging Stranger" is his great horror story. But Dick always seems to me a certain epitome of science fiction, even when his stuff is making me nervous, so I'm generally not that interested in the categorizing conversation. Case in point, I found this story in an intriguing anthology published in 2000, My Favorite Horror Story, edited by Mike Baker and Martin H. Greenberg. The premise (which really should be repeated every 10 or 15 years) involves asking contemporary horror writers to pick a favorite short story. The result features a bunch of same-olds but that's OK with me—they're all pretty good or better. This story was the choice of Ed Gorman, who I don't know well. In his introduction, Gorman explicitly denies the obvious connection with Jack Finney's Body Snatchers, the novel that provided the basis for the movie(s) Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But "The Father-Thing" does have a lot of elements in common with the movies and they are likely in Finney's novel too. The novel was serialized the same year "The Father-Thing" was published but I'm taking it more as one of those "in the air" things, which happen. There are more or less aliens from outer space in both, replicating humans evidently, purpose unclear. In the Dick story they might be from another dimension, or they could even be some exotic terrestrial insect, which would put it more squarely in the realm of the weird. Anyway, the story has been so oversold by Gorman and others that perhaps inevitably it disappoints a little. It's a simulacrum story at its core, division of remote-controlled doll. Dick keys it sharply on parents and what they are to children, a mix of gods and monsters, telling it from the point of view of an 8-year-old who believes he has witnessed something that means his father is not what he appears to be. Dick shifts the pronouns for Dad to it/its, a simple way to keep readers nervous, even as we attempt to discount the 8-year-old's ideas. A creepy centipede is featured in the last third, which seems to be an attempt to push it more into the rational and assert its fantastical reality with explanation, but in effect it siphons away energy. To me the critical point is that something so profoundly familiar might actually be something profoundly strange—not a bit comforting if you are 8, and a hard idea to shake once it's in your head. Ray Bradbury's "Mars Is Heaven!" version from 1948 altogether made a better job of that, approaching it from a slightly different direction. But I'm not going to argue with the enthusiasm of Gorman and others. "The Father-Thing" is definitely worth a look—another nice point is that Dick makes a Black kid one of the heroes of the story without making a big deal of it. But hey, don't miss "The Hanging Stranger" while you're at it.

My Favorite Horror Story, ed. Mike Baker & Martin B. Greenberg (out of print)
The Philip K. Dick Reader
Read story online.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

Turkey / Bosnia-Herzegovina, 157 minutes
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Writers: Ercan Kesal, Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Photography: Gokhan Tiryaki
Editors: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Bora Goksingol
Cast: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Ercan Kesal, Taner Birsel, Firat Tanis, Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan, Murat Kilic, Kubilay Tuncer

I like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia quite a bit—it's possibly my favorite "once upon a time" movie of all time, which is saying something ... another list below—but I'm dutybound to report that the first time I saw this long, slow, mesmerizing movie was at a public theater under unusual circumstances. It was the official closing picture of the 2011 Olympia Film Festival. The house was packed but it was more in anticipation of an after-party event. This crowd in these uncomfortable seats were not necessarily up for a long, slow, mesmerizing movie. In fact, someone just behind me heaved big sighs and muttered on the regular and checked a phone every time the scene shifted to one more very long shot of a long lonely road with cars crawling down it. It was thus harder to enjoy it but I did, and I enjoyed it again the other day when I streamed it at home (though it's probably seen best on the biggest screen possible without any carpers in attendance).

How slow is it? It's over two and a half hours but there are so many long takes and so few cuts that you could probably number them the way people do with some Bela Tarr movies. The action (such as it is) takes place across about an 18-hour period, from dusk to midday the next day, and it often feels like real-time. It's a crime picture, even a kind of police procedural, but we learn very little about the crime. The first hour and a half is spent with various officials—Mr. Prosecutor, a strange doctor, a police chief and his crew, two low-wage "diggers"—roaming in a convoy of three vehicles over the vast and empty countryside. They are looking for something. We don't learn definitively until an hour and a half in that it's a corpse they're looking for.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

"The Night-Doings at 'Deadman's'" (1874)

This story by Ambrose Bierce is only about seven printed pages. But that's long for him and it feels long, partly because it is unusually packed with incident and partly, I suspect, because Bierce was closer to the start of his career, in his early 30s, and not yet entirely comfortable with the genre work. The language is clear and precise as usual in his compressed journalistic style but feels somewhat labored. It's almost clunky, chiefly intended to be humorous in a sardonic way, sending up what were already cliches of stories of the supernatural. The result is something that feels close to the busy-busy style of director Sam Raimi's original Evil Dead movie (also something of a lampoon, remember, even at that point in the franchise). So we have Bierce's dry title along with the subtitle, "A Story That Is Untrue," tipping us off from the start. Deadman's Gulch, the setting, is an alpine region in the depths of winter—the Northern California Cascades, I believe. Shanties and even trestles are buried in snow. It is storming on this night. An isolated mountain man, Hiram Beeson, hears a knock on the door of his tiny cabin late one night. His visitor is a man who says nothing. He might be a hallucination. Beeson begins talking to him. He has a story about a Chinaman who died in the winter when the ground was too frozen to bury him and the corpse had to be stored under the floorboards of the cabin until spring. Beeson says he also cut off the Chinaman's pigtail and attached it to a beam in the ceiling, which he points out to his visitor. There it swings, firmly fastened. Why he cut off the pigtail is not clear and perhaps was a mistake, because "According to the Chinese faith, a man is like a kite: he cannot go to heaven without a tail." There's quite a bit of setup going on here as you might see but the payoff is practically inspired. The corpse under the cabin keeps raising the door in the floor, looking for its opportunity to snag the pigtail. This floorboard business is one of the things that reminds me of The Evil Dead. After Beeson and his silent guest go to bed (the guest with his revolver conspicuously handy) things start to happen. The animated corpse makes its move for the pigtail. A fourth character shows up, with a dramatic sparkling entrance down the chimney out of the fire. "From San Francisco, evidently," Beeson thinks. A brief interlude of mayhem occurs and some explanation follows. It's a little scary but mainly it's funny, as the po-faced absurdities pile high. It's full of nice effects too, a bunch of great scare strategies, but it never quite takes itself all the way seriously. You wonder whether Bierce was maybe struggling with himself about writing horror in this earlier part of his career. Most of his best stuff wouldn't even start for another 15 years or more.

The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce
Read story online.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Top 40

1. Kings of Leon, "Echoing" (3:37)
2. Eve 6, "Black Nova" (3:27)
3. Vampire Weekend, "2021 (January 5th, to be exact)" (20:21)
4. Cheap Trick, "Light Up the Fire" (2:53)
5. Rita Payes, "Nunca vas a comprender" (4:05)
6. Roisin Murphy, "We Got Together" (5:10)
7. Tkay Maidza, "Shook" (2:42)
8. Les Amazones d'Afrique, "Love" (3:23)
9. Frankie Valli, "Can't Take My Eyes off You" (3:23, 1967)
10. Lady Gaga, "911 (Sofi Tukker Remix)" (3:46)
11. Janet Kay, "Silly Games" (3:53, 1979)
12. Audrey Nuna, "damn Right" (2:44)
13. Replacements, "They're Blind" (4:41, 1989)
14. King Crimson, "21st Century Schizoid Man" (7:22, 1969)
15. King Crimson, "Epitaph" (8:46, 2016, Live in Vienna)
16. King Crimson, "Red" (6:15, 1974)
17. King Crimson, "Starless" (12:24, 1974)
18. King Crimson, "Thela Hun Ginjeet" (6:26, 1981)
19. Donovan, "Isle of Islay" (2:23, 1967)
20. R.L. Burnside, "It's Bad You Know" (4:58, 1998)
21. Foals, "In Degrees (Purple Disco Machine Remix)" (6:36)
22. Disclosure, "Energy" (4:53)
23. Idles, "War" (3:07)
24. Stormzy, "Vossi Bop" (3:16)
25. Bob Dylan, "My Own Version of You" (6:41)
26. Fontaines D.C., "A Hero's Death" (4:18)
27. Arturo O'Farrill, "Baby Jack" (7:22)
28. Ranveer Singh, "Asli Hip Hop" (1:40)
29. Garifuna Collective, "Black Catbird" (2:45)
30. Eminem, "Darkness" (5:37)
31. Mike Casey, "No Church in the Wild (Radio Edit)" (7:13)
32. Seshen, "Take It All Away" (3:26)
33. Rita Indiana, "Mandinga Times" (3:31)
34. Sault, "Strong" (6:18)
35. Zhu, "Sky Is Crying" (4:24)
36. Allman Brothers Band, "Mountain Jam" (12:10. Live from Warner Theatre, Erie, PA, 7-19-05)
37. Allman Brothers Band, "Mountain Jam (Reprise)" (9:30. Live from Warner Theatre, Erie, PA, 7-19-05)
38. Cecil Taylor, "Charge 'Em Blues" (11:06, 1956)
39. Cecil Taylor, "Steps" (10:20, 1966)
40. Cecil Taylor, "Rick Kick Shaw" (6:05, 1956)

thx: Billboard, Spin, Skip, Dean, unusual suspects

Monday, August 09, 2021

Dennis and Lois (2019)

The story of Dennis Anderson and Lois Kahlert and their mutual lifelong love affair with live rock music felt almost precious in synopsis and I put off taking a look for months. Now I'm sorry I did so I looked at it two times in a row to make up for that. It's nothing less than thrilling. Between them Dennis and Lois have seen (and have the receipts for) Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Stones, Little Stevie Wonder ("when he was little") and lots of Motown artists, James Brown, the Shirelles—it's quite an amazing and long list. They met in 1975 at a CBGB show with Richard Hell, Talking Heads, and the Ramones. The Ramones was their first mutual love affair—they found they could be helpful by running the merch table for the band, selling t-shirts and memorabilia. The ever-evolving shift in their priorities across their impressive clubbing career (they claim 10,000 shows) is perhaps signaled best by their vanity license plates: first, RAMONES, which were constantly being ripped off and having to be replaced. Then MEKONS, which Jon Langford in interview here wryly notes have never been ripped off. There is an interesting missing piece in the adventures of Dennis and Lois, from about 1965 to 1975, with no mention of the Velvet Underground, New York Dolls, or other NYC artists of the period—strange gap. By the 1980s their interests lay squarely in British indie trends, focused especially on Manchester, where they followed Joy Division into New Order into Happy Mondays into the Stone Roses. Happy Mondays wrote a song about them in 1990, "Dennis and Lois"—it's on Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches. By then the couple had inserted themselves into the indie traveling circuit, offering floors of their home in Brooklyn for touring bands and even more often traveling along with them to work the merch tables and see great shows four nights a week or more. This is their life. (Are they independently wealthy? Their house is full of collectible toys, but how they survive is never explained.)

By the 1990s and since then their taste has evolved into shoegaze permutations, some of which I know, barely, e.g., Doves, and much of which I don't know at all, e.g., A Place to Bury Strangers, John Grant, or Fat White Family. All of it heard in the movie sounds wonderful and excellent, although that does remind me of one weak point here, which is there appears to be some licensing problems. The Ramones loom huge in the story of Dennis and Lois, it's their main working preoccupation for more than 10 years starting in 1975. But there is no Ramones music in this doc—there's some Ramones-like generic riffing that accompanies that part of the picture, which I noticed more going through it the second time. But let that be the takeaway: this documentary was literally so thrilling, with so much useful information (the epic story of Frank Sidebottom!), and with such solace and sensitive understanding of the life-affirming powers of live music, that you don't always notice things like Ramones music missing in action. Dennis and Lois was shot and put together before the pandemic—there's a next chapter to be heard from Dennis and Lois, if we ever get to the end of this. Even as is, the two in these scenes from maybe circa 2017 already look like grandparents, which is charming and also weird. No one knows it better than Dennis and Lois themselves but they also know why they are where they are and as such stand as a certain kind of role model for the pursuit of something I abandoned myself in my 50s. Kudos to them. Long may they rock. They stand to the mosh and the crowd surfing and the dancing and all the rest, like they were born to it. They seem to have great taste too. Remarkable stuff.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

An Event in Autumn (2004)

This is by far the shortest Kurt Wallander tale by Henning Mankell outside of the short story collection The Pyramid. An Event in Autumn came six years after the previous Kurt Wallander novel proper (1998's Firewall, followed the year after by the story collection and then a Linda Wallander novel in 2002), a fairly long gap for this series, which came at the rate of one per year in the '90s. It's typical of a Wallander story, complex with dogged police work. Daughter Linda is on hand, a police officer herself now. Many of the police characters are still there, though not all. I missed one in particular, a woman detective, gone without explanation. (There's one more Wallander to go, published five years after this. Maybe she'll show up again.) I didn't feel like Mankell's heart was much in this, though he's always good enough to enjoy reading. The most interesting part of the edition I read was an essay from 2013 called "Mankell on Wallander," in which he wanders through the facets of the series. He probably stopped the series at about the right time—there's something increasingly missing in these last novels. He wrote a lot of other things as well and had a career in theater too. He's definitely out of the groove in this one. The irascible coroner Nyberg is reduced to a stereotype, or even more so, as there was always some of it in his antics. It's a cold case—even the 25-year statute of limitations in Sweden for murder has passed. All they have to work with is the skeleton of a human hand found buried on a piece of property. The case goes back to the chaos of World War II but doesn't feel particularly significant or insightful. Maybe Mankell was not as good at shorter lengths, as the stories in The Pyramid are similarly weaker and unfocused. That said, I still enjoyed An Event in Autumn even if it felt a little like paltry portions—not length so much as development of Mankell's various social-realist themes, about the police, about government, about democracy and society. Sometimes in the series the ambitions can set things askew. The Nelson Mandela one (The White Lioness) felt to me more like a Ludlum type of thriller. But I enjoy Mankell's meticulous plotting always, wrapping his social critiques around police investigation. He touches on much of this in the essay. The original title translates in Swedish to Hand (Handen) because of the starting point for this mystery. It seems weird to me to change it to An Event in Autumn for English. It's set in the autumn, but what's wrong with the author's title (or is it even his?)? Go figure!

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Sunday, August 01, 2021

The Conquest of New Spain (1568)

Translator and editor J.M. Cohen's 1963 treatment of the 16th-century account by Bernal Diaz of Hernando Cortes ("the Killer," per Neil Young) is a highly readable account of how Montezuma and Mexico were brought down. It's unusual militarily, given that Montezuma's empire was populous and Cortes had a force of only about 400 soldiers. Cortes was also slightly on the run from Spanish authorities, setting out before the Spanish crown knew all the circumstances of his mission and the region. But stuff like that—he hurried up the takeoff because he knew they'd stop him otherwise—is how he pulled it all off. Basically he went into the outlying cities and regions under Montezuma's control and made his allies there, then worked his way in until he was in the heart of the city and managed to capture Montezuma himself and hold him hostage. This is no black-and-white moral tale. Cortes was ruthless and brutal, but Mexican culture of the time by this report was rife with human sacrifices to their gods. Cortes and the Spanish empire objected to this, a clear case of pot calling kettle black at best. There is plenty of darkness to go around here. Diaz was a soldier whose adventuring in the region predated Cortes, and he was there for all of the Cortes mission. In his old age Diaz wrote The True History of the Conquest of New Spain as a rebuke to previous accounts he thought were wrong—exaggerated, distorted, confabulated, and just inaccurate. Apparently he went off on some real screeds on the point, as Cohen often steps in to summarize some of these tangents. The result is a pretty good blow-by-blow of how it happened and how Cortes pulled it off. I was notably struck by the way European colonialists operate. They just showed up in these places and acted like they were running them. They pacify the natives with beads, and if that doesn't work they go to the brutality. I was amazed, actually, at how far they could get with beads. It's probably not even necessary to say it's a portrait of a very different world. Even with Cohen's pains at trimming it can get to be a little slog—the final series of battles is endless and verges on tiresome. Still a remarkably fun read overall.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.