Monday, December 29, 2014

My Two Cents about Big Eyes

I loved Big Eyes.  Dare I say this is Tim Burton at his subtlest and most mature?  Big Eyes is a stunning, subtle period piece.  Burton could have easily gone way over the top and turned this into a kitsch fest.  But he restrained himself, and this is good. Big Eyes, will definitely have a broader appeal than something like Ed Wood.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved Ed Wood, but Burton’s approach to Big Eyes will draw a bigger audience to the Walter and Margaret Keane story. Walter Keane came to fame in the 60s as the painter of sad forlorn girls with giant eyes.  As it turns out, the paintings had been painted by his wife Margaret, and he was taking all the credit.  Scoundrel! If the goal of Big Eyes is to help shine a light on the wrongs suffered by Margaret Keane, then this more mass appeal approach is the way to go. I heartily approve.

That's Not Funny, That's Sick by Ellin Stein

Just finished barreling through That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, a history of The National Lampoon.  All told, it’s a fascinating read.  The National Lampoon sprung out of the college humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon. College humor mags had been kicking around since the 20s, but as the 60s rolled along they were primed to take advantage of the 60s cultural zeitgesit.  The college humor magazine was a great format to poke fun at changing societal values.  Magazines like The Lampoon were in a great position to take the piss out of both sides of the cultural divide.  Juvenile, puerile, but intellectual, The Harvard Lampoon and its ilk spoke to a younger, increasingly cynical, anti-authoritarian generation. Recognizing that their generation’s worldview was not being expressed by other magazines, a group of Lampoon graduates decided to take The Harvard Lampoon national.

Anyone interested in comedy and satire in print, TV, and movies will find many points of entry here.  As The Lampoon gained its footing as a satire and parody mag, it also began producing stage productions and comedy albums.  People getting their start in various Lampoon endeavors include SNL stalwarts, Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Dan Akyroyd, SCTV lynchpins Joe Flaherty and Harold Ramis, directors Ivan Reitman, John Landis, and Christopher Guest, to name but a few.

For me, the book was most interesting when discussing how The Lampoon fit into the broader comedy movements of the 60s and 70s. The Lampoon isn’t seen in a vacuum. That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick looks at how The Lampoon related to other magazines like Mad and The Realist, and to comedy troupes like Second City, The Committee, The Credibility Gap, The Firesign Theater, and Monty Python.  Likewise, as The Lampoon embarks on video projects, we see how they fit in with more political video pioneers like TVTV.  If anything, I would have loved to see an even broader view of the comedy landscape.

The book also takes a long look at the early years of SNL and the careers of Chase and Belushi, in particular.  These were great sections of the book, but part of me felt like it was a little bit of a cheat.  Granted, Chase, Belushi, and SNL writers Michael O’Donoghue and Anne Beatts came through The Lampoon, and Donoghue and Beatts were absolutely central in both the development of The Lampoon and early SNL, but the book seems to veer away from The Lampoon and capitalize on the notoriety of its more popular, younger rival in SNL for long periods of a time. 

That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick does have its rough patches.  It often wanders away into contributors’ non-Lampoon projects for stretches, and it could also be tighter. It doesn’t always find the right balance of Lampoon history and in-depth descriptions of particular articles and issues.   Regardless, it charts a progression of art, politics, and culture from the early 60s through the early 80s, and does so through the lens of comedy movements and satire, shining a unique perspective on those eras.

Monday, December 15, 2014

112 Words about Peter Mattheissen's The Snow Leopard

I know so many people who love The Snow Leopard.  I’ve been meaning to read it for years.  Should I feel bad for not feeling the same way?  I finished it, but it was a bit of a slog for me.  Matthiessen recounts his travel to the Himalayas with zoologist George Schaller.  Matthiessen yearns to see the snow leopard.  Saunders is there to document the rutting habits of the blue sheep.  There is the outward journey and there is the inward journey.  Much discussion of Eastern Religions ensues.  It was interesting, yet not so engaging.  Yeti were discussed and I even found my mind wandering then.  That can’t be a good sign.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Post In Which I Defend Dave Grohl and Sonic Highways

Lots of backlash directed towards Dave Grohl’s Sonic Highways doc on HBO.  The complaints seem to be:  
a) The Foo Fighters suck. 
    b) Dave Grohl conflates his importance in rock history by placing himself next to   those more worthy of adoration (e.g. Paul McCartney, Joe Walsh, Rick Nielsen,  Buddy Guy).  

c) This documentary project is a nothing more than a cloying, self-serving attempt to sell records.

I can’t get behind the backlash.  

Though I’m not a fan of the Foo Fighters, I actually have a lot of respect for Grohl.  This is a guy who seems genuinely humbled by the success he has had.  He seems to have a clear sense of where he’s from and who were seminal influences in his life.  He seems genuinely interested in shining a light on and paying his respects to those who paved the way for his success.

What this means, is that you have a national show on HBO where a decent amount of time is spent talking about post-punk, hardcore, and the American underground scene of the mid-80s.  Why people from that scene feel a need to trash talk Grohl seems nothing short of bizarre.

I’ve only watched two episodes of the series so far, but the Chicago episode spends lots of time giving Steve Albini his props and showcasing the likes of Naked Raygun.  Let me say that again.  Naked Raygun!  Naked Raygun, a band that for all intents and purposes is a footnote in rock history, not only gets a ton of exposure on an HBO show, but they are afforded the same respect as blues legends like Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters.

So, why are we made at Dave Grohl? Because he’s successful?  Because he’s taken a different path over the last 20 years than a bunch of crusty old punks who didn’t have his success?  Whatever.  I don’t have a beef.  He’s making a doc about rock history and he’s doing it from the perspective of someone my age, who has a similar set of musical touchstones.  These types of big historical rock docs have always had too much of a boomer perspective for my likes, and I’m excited to see such an undertaking crystallized through a punk rock lens.

Is this doc just a fatuous sell-job for the new Foo Fighters record? Maybe.  But what do I care?  Selling records ain’t what it used to be. If this is Grohl’s way to stay relevant and move units, so be it.  Why get mad at an artists for trying a different approach to stay in the public eye.

Like I said, I’ve only seen two episodes so far.  Will they all be decent?  Who knows.  But I hear he jams with Joe Walsh at some point.  I can’t wait.  Ya dig!

Citizen Four

I’ve been fascinated by the Edward Snowden case since it broke in 2013. Snowden revealed a bevvy of NSA documents, showing the government’s far-reaching surveillance abilities.  Particularly disconcerting was the government’s ability to access phone records and internet communications. Snowden became privy to NSA documents while working for the consulting firm of Booz Hamilton. Disturbed by what he perceived as a government overstepping its bounds, Snowden turned whistleblower.  

Citizen Four, directed by Laura Poitras, documents the days leading up to Snowden’s revelations and the aftermath.  Snowden was not interested in publishing the documents WikiLeaks-style for fear that he would reveal info that would jeopardize legitimate intelligent operations and individuals involved in such operations.  Instead, Snowden contacts Poitras, whose documentary work he respected, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, and The Guardian’s Ewan MacAskill.  Working as a team, they decide the best way to release the information.

Snowden is not only cognizant of the havoc his revelations will unleash, but also understands the personal risks.  Not only will he be cut-off from friends and family, but he’ll face treason charges under the auspices of the Espionage Act.  The film opens with Snowden’s cat and mouse courting of Poitras.  We see and hear a series of email exchanges.  Dribs and drabs of heavily encrypted information flow between the two.  Poitras is sucked in and the team assembles in Hong Kong, where Snowden has taken refuge, aware that Hong Kong is unlikely to extradite Snowden once his allegations are revealed.

This section of the film is fascinating.  The film’s subjects are strangers, undertaking a damning project, rife with danger.  Watching the group strategizing is a fascinating process.  Once the documents are leaked, Snowden is forced underground and his journey takes him from Hong Kong to Moscow.  From this point on we rarely see Snowden, most of his communication now coming in the form of encrypted emails. Snowden’s disappearance certainly has a chilling effect.  He’s at the center of the storm, yet is effectively silenced by his precarious political standing.  He’s granted asylum in Moscow, but that asylum seems tenuous at best. 

The Snowden story is fascinating on many levels.  As digital citizens, I think it’s important that we are aware of who has access to our communications. I think it’s important that we understand our conversations are not private.  We live in a digital age where we live so much of our lives on-line. I have a middle schooler. My son and his friends will live their entire lives sharing information on-line.  Their digital footprint will be huge.  What will these intrusions on privacy mean to them?  

One of the central concerns at the core of the case is whether we should be willing to give up some of our civil liberties for increased safety against terrorism. The film certainly addresses this, but if I had a complaint about the movie, it’s that due to the film’s vérité nature, Citizen Four is sometimes hard to read.  Clearly Poitras, along with Snowden, believe that the government’s surveillance and obfuscation of justice is detrimental to free speech, and that has far-reaching, negative implications.  That critique was clear to me, but I don’t know if that critique will hit home to those who might be skeptical to this line of thinking.  

Any filmmaker that takes on a controversial subject should be aware that their film has skeptics. Presumably you want to win over those skeptics, get them to change their opinions on a hot-button issue. Otherwise, you’re just preaching to the converted. Many people watching this doc are probably anti-Snowden, anti-whistleblower, and fear terrorist attacks to the point that they would be willing to give up a certain level of privacy to prevent future attacks.  I’m not sure Citizen Four’s approach is enough to get them to change their opinions.  I return to my middle-schooler.  He’s not doing anything treasonous on-line.  Why should he care if the government has access to his email?  What are they going to find out?  That he’s mad at his math teacher?  I walked into Citizen Four thinking that this film would need to be required viewing for any young person navigating today’s digital landscape.  But I’m not sure that your average teen would be able to fully understand the socio-political critique. I wanted Citizen Four to have the impact of An Inconvenient Truth.  Direct and chilling.  Citizen Four doesn’t quite deliver in that way.  That’s not how it’s designed, but I wish it had been.

Still, it’s a must see.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Birdman, Leviathan, The Big Screen

There’s nothing like seeing an amazing moving.  Nothing like sitting in a dark theater, immersed into another world.  Images, sounds and words, pushing you farther and farther back in your seat.  Or pulling you to the front of your seat.  Someone’s visions burning bright. Seeing that brilliance unfold before you.

On the other hand, there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing some mediocre piece of crap.  How many people did it take to make that?

Last week I saw two great films.  Two in one week, that’s pretty good.  Renews your faith in the cinema.

Birdman.  Brilliant.  The Writing. The Camerawork. The Acting. The Score.  A drum score!!!! Wow. Who would have thought of that?  The acting! Everyone is talking about Michael Keaton.  He’s great.  Deserving of all the praise. But how about Edward Norton? Steals the show. The camerawork is insane.  It’s no gimmick.  It creates a dizzying universe, a world spiraling out of control.  Camerawork that throws caution to the wind, necessitates fearless performances from the actors.   A universe where editing won’t save you or hide subpar moments.  The writing.  I was letting out the occasional belly laugh…while the rest of the audience remained silent.  So many great lines.  One of the best films ever about artistic ambition and artistic insecurity.  Mamet-esque. Altman-esque. PT Andersen-esque. Gilliam-esque.

I worry about a world without theaters.  A world where we only see movies on our tvs and our devices.  Some movies need a big screen, better allowing you to sink deep into the images.  On the small screen it’s too easy to get distracted, especially if the movie is slow or challenging.  In the theater, you’re not going anywhere.  You’re not checking your phone. You’re not logging onto IMDB to see who that bit player is, or what the running time of the movie is, or what the reviewers are saying.  You’re in the theater. You have no choice but to surrender. 

Which bring me to Leviathan.  A doc.  On a fishing boat. Poetic. Experimental. Vérité. No interviews.  Nary a word.  Just beautiful visuals. Abstract visuals. Very long shots. Very, very long shots. Long shots that are hard to read.  Water on the lens. Distorting the images.  Lots of sound.  An industrial score. A mechanical score.  Cold. Menacing.  Brutality on the sea.  A critique? A reflection of life as it is?  However you interpret it, I found it fascinating. Energetic. Daring.  Would I have lasted through the first shot, had I been watching it on tv, at home?  I’m not sure. But in the darkened theater, on the big screen, I was mesmerized.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Charles Willeford's I Was Looking For A Street

I love books set in the LA of the 1920s and 1930s.  I love hobo tales.  Charles Willeford’s I Was Looking For a Street falls right into that wheelhouse.  That said, I liked I Was Looking for A Street well enough, but I didn’t love it.  It’s a memoir of Willeford’s childhood years.  Orphaned by parents who succumbed to TB, Willeford was raised by his grandmother. Because times were tight, he spent much time at a school for boys when she couldn’t afford to keep him.  His reminiscence of weekend visits with his grandmother are particularly sweet and touching.  Though he was close to his grandma, the Depression took a toll on the family and Willeford, at the ripe old age of 14, lit out to the rail yards to tramp across the Southwest to make his own way.

Street contains a hint of Edward Bunker’s Little Boy Blue.  There’s a hint of Jack Black’s You Can’t Win.  Willeford’s writing is spare.  He doesn’t dress up the prose.  But, alas, there’s something light and surface level to the tale.  The book, which clocks in at 150 pages, feels like an anecdote rather than a fully realized memoir.  There are potent incidents, yet they don’t build in a wholly satisfying fashion.  I Was Looking For A Street is an easy read and an enjoyable read, but it left me wanting more.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Black Snow by Mikhail Bulgakov

Black Snow is one of those books that is easy to read but hard to pick up.  You know the type.  Fun, light, well-written, but for some reason you’re just not sucked in.  You look at it sitting on the nightstand, beckoning you, but you just groan and waste a little more time checking Facebook or hustling up another Words With Friends game.  Black Snow is a farce by Mikhail Bulgakov, writer of the brilliant The Master and Margarita and Heart of a DogBlack Snow is a fictionalized account of Bulgakov’s attempt to adapt his novel The White Guard for the stage at the Moscow Art Theater.  It’s clear that his experience was frustrating.  There are some funny parts, but it’s so absurd, and so many characters flit in and out of its pages, that it’s hard to care too much about the travails of Bulgakov’s alter ego Maxudov.  Without a doubt Bulgakov has many scores to settle, but perhaps the 1920s microscene squabbles of the Russian theater world don’t have the impact they should in 2014.  Bulgakov’s biggest target in Black Snow is none other than theater great Konstantin Stanislavski.  There’s something exciting about this feud and Bulgakov is merciless, treating Stanislavski like a fool. At the end of day, I wish Black Snow was more biting, but somehow it just seems silly. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, And Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie by Chris Nashawaty

Roger Corman is a legend of the cinema.  Corman started his career in the early 50s and is still active today.  Along the way he has managed to direct and produce hundreds of films, rarely losing a dime on any of them.  They were cheapies, they were B movies, they were exploitation, they were direct-to-video.  Monster movies, biker movies, and women-in-prison movies were just some of the genres Corman dabbled in during his heyday. The films had great names (A Bucket of Blood, She Gods of Shark Reef, Naked Angels), they had eye-popping posters, and the films always had great tag lines: “Their bodies were caged, but not their desires. They would do anything for a man—or to him,” boldly declares the poster from The Big Doll House starring Pam Grier.  

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, And Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie is an oral history of the Corman universe.  It’s a fun peek into the world of shoestring production, told by those who lived to tell the tale. 

Corman’s longevity was a result of having a finger on the pulse of what would sell, as well as his ability to expertly navigate the changing landscape of cinema.  He knew how to produce B movie fodder for double bills and drive-ins in the 50s.  He saw a market for biker films and psychedelic films during the rise of the counter culture in the 60s.  Once Hollywood started making his kind of sci-fi and monster movies, but with huge budgets  (Star Wars, Jaws), he knew he had to reposition himself.  He became one of the first producers to take advantage of the nascent VHS market, making straight-to-video exploitation in the 80s.  He also got in on the ground floor, selling films to cable providers in the early stages of that market. Most recently he has been working directly with cable networks like Syfy looking for low-budget, genre-specific productions.  Piranhaconda, anyone?

However, Corman’s biggest contribution to cinema may be what is referred to as the “University of Corman” or “The Roger Corman School of Filmmaking”.  Corman had a keen eye for evaluating, or perhaps exploiting, talent. He routinely gave young film students an opportunity to write, direct, and act in feature length films.  In the 50s and 60s, the Hollywood system was hard to crack unless you had connections. If you were willing to work hard, work smart, and work cheap, Corman was willing to work with you, and he opened his studio doors to a bevy of passionate young folks wanting to break into the film biz. Luminaries who cut their teeth on Corman productions include Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdonovich, Martin Scorcesse, James Cameron, Penelope Spheeris, Ron Howard, John Sayles, Jonathan Demme, Jack Nicholson, and Robert Towne to name just a few.

Crab Monsters weaves together the stories of all of these major players and then some.  It’s a loving tribute from Hollywood hot shots who openly admit that they owe much of their success to the opportunities that Corman gave them, and from how much they learned under Corman’s tutelage.  Also touching was the general consensus that once these youngsters got a couple of productions under their belt, Corman actually encouraged them to leave and head on to better projects with bigger budgets.  Corman was under no illusion about the kind of work he was making. That said, what makes so many of the Corman productions rise above base levels of exploitation is that those making the films were giving it their all, because they knew the value of the opportunity they were being given. 

Though Corman’s films were exploitation and gratuitously breast heavy, Corman opened the doors for women as well.  Says Gale Anne Hurd (producer Aliens, The Terminator, Walking Dead), “At the time, he was the only person in Hollywood who would ask a woman coming in for a job as an executive assistant, ‘Ultimately, what kind of career path do you want to take?’ I didn’t think there was a career path! It hadn’t occurred to me.  And I said, ‘Roger, I’d like follow in your footsteps and be a producer.’ And he said, ‘Tremendous!’”  Many of the women and men interviewed for Crab Monsters attest to the fact that the number of women on Corman productions from directors to writers to producers to crew exceeded what was happening elsewhere in the Hollywood system.

Also of interest is that in the 70s Corman started distributing European art house fare in America.  Fellini, Kurosawa and Bergman made it to the theaters courtesy of Corman’s support.  Corman liked the films, and the ever savvy businessman in him realized that there was money to be made.

Crab Monsters is beautifully laid out with hundreds of pages of photos, posters and graphic goodies befitting Corman’s oeuvre.  Needless to say, the book is filled with fantastic anecdotes.  Death Race 2000 is one of my favorite Corman productions.  Sylvester Stallone tells a great story about straying from the script and inserting his own dialogue into Death Race, confident that he could get away with it because he knew the production was too cheap to do second takes. Stallone then credits that experience with building up his confidence to write the Rocky script.  

Corman, too, was willing to improvise in his own way.  Alan Arkush (director of Rock ‘N’ Roll High School) relates a great anecdote about Cockfighter.  The film was one of the few Corman bombs.  The opening weekend was a disaster, but Corman was undaunted.  Says Arkush, “We were on the phone with Roger and he’s saying, ‘You know the scene where Warren Oates leans back and closes his eyes? Cut in some naked nurses and some car crashes like he’s dreaming of that.’ We thought he was kidding.” Corman was not.

Ron Howard does a great job summing up Corman’s low-budget but loving ways. “I was fighting with Roger at one point on Grand Theft Auto, trying to get a few more extras in our climactic demolition-derby scene in the stands.  Everyone was supposed to be rioting.  And he wouldn’t give me more than forty-five extras.  The grandstand was supposed to seat a thousand people.  And we talked about cheating the angles.  But I kept begging for more.  And finally he just put his hand on my shoulder in a very paternal sort of way and smiled and said, ‘Ron, I’m not going to give you any more extras. But know this: If you do a good job for me on this picture, you’ll never have to work for me again.’” 

And that’s why you’ve got to love Roger Corman.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Fever by Megan Abbott

Over her last three novels, The End of Everything, Dare Me and, her latest, The Fever, Megan Abbott has become expert in mining the perilous crossing between teen and adulthood.  For her, it’s a territory where every moment is dripping with possibility, with desire, and with newfound powers and observation.  Yet doubt is also part of the equation. Friends outwardly share every detail, yet they still hold tight to their innermost secrets.  It’s a world where bold action couples with insecurity.  It’s a world of teen girls, on the brink of adulthood, inscrutable and mysterious to the boys and men in their midst.

The Fever centers on a group of 4 friends, Deenie, Lise, Gabby and Skye.  The four are seemingly tight knit, but fissures begin to appear in the group dynamic as they circle closer and closer to the precipice of sex.  After Lise has a frothing-at-the-mouth seizure in class, the group dynamic is rent.

But Lise’s seizure does more than shine light on the secrets the girls keep.  It captivates their sleepy suburb and transforms The Fever from a teen coming-of-age novel to a creepy, dystopian look at the modern day suburban experience in a post-industrial society.

Lise’s seizure is near fatal, landing her in the hospital.  Soon after, other girls begin to succumb to similar conditions.  The doctors are stumped or covering up, the school is in damage control, and as more and more girls are felled, rumors abound about the seizure’s causes. Is the school riddled by toxic building materials? The town’s once thriving lake, now contaminated, has been cordoned off to the public.  Is the polluted lake water seeping into the community’s drinking water?  Perhaps, the most disturbing and persistent rumor is that the girls have received a tainted batch of the HPV vaccine, a vaccine that the school mandated for all enrolling girls.

Teen life is hard enough to navigate without the hidden dangers waiting to blossom in the playing fields of 21st century America.  Abbott’s willingness to bring modern day dystopia to a teen novel makes The Fever a great read.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


Rarely do you hear me complain about a movie being strange, but make no mistake, Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank is a strange one.  And I’m not sure the film is better off for its strangeness. Apparently Frank is very loosely based on the Frank Sidebottom character developed by British comedian Chris Sievey.  I knew none of that going in, so my apologies if my lack of knowledge affected my reading of the film.  But hey, a film has to stand on it’s own.

Frank starts off brilliantly.  A struggling songwriter, John, tries desperately to wring songs out of his environment.  He fails, albeit in an endearing way.  He’s young, marginally talented, and he’s yearning to find his voice and find meaning in the world around him. It’s sweet. It’s funny.  It’s inspiring.  He’s a young soul searching for his people. By chance he gets an opportunity to fill in on keyboard for a traveling band Soronprfbs. They’re a bizarre, angsty, experimental noise troupe lead by a guy named Frank who dons an oversized puppet like mask.   Jon impresses and is asked to join.  It’s a dream come true.

Frank, played by Michael Fassbender, is an odd duck.  He never takes his masks off, and lurking beneath is a man with a history of mental illness.  But he’s a musical genius and a guru to the members of Soronprfbs.  He hears sounds others don’t. He finds art and music in everything.  He’s inspired by straws, by homemade instruments, by field recordings, by loose strands of upholstery. Frank is a winning film when it explores creativity, championing outsiders who find art in unexpected places.  Also, at the comedy level, the dysfunctional band dynamic is played for laughs, and it works.  It’s a great rock film at the outset.

But then the tone changes and the film’s message gets pretty muddled.  The band holes up in a remote cabin working on their masterpiece.  It seems heavily based on Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica sessions.  Frank is a tyrant, the band is isolated, starving, and Frank browbeats them into a mad perfection.  The film turns dour, never regaining its comedic lust for life or inspired look at the world of creativity.  It’s an abrupt change, it’s unexpected, and for my likes feels a bit out of control.  From this point on, it was hard for me to grasp what the movie was going for.  The film’s first act sets you up for an exploration into the creative process and then takes a right turn and looses its footing.  There are still elements of humor, but they fall a little flat amidst the increasingly paranoid mood in the room.  

The film definitely comments on a lot of topics germane to the artistic set.  Frank is commenting on the quest for fame and about those hitching a ride on the coattails of more talented folk. The film has something to say about artistic ego and about social media messing with our expectations. But I’m not entirely sure what the film is saying about any of it. 

It’s all too bad, because for 30 minutes I loved this film.  There’s good stuff going on throughout, but I just wish the film had sustained its energy for the duration.  

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Whispering Muse by Sjon

Without a doubt, Sjon’s The Whispering Muse is the oddest, little book I’ve read in a long, long time.  It’s protagonist, Valdimar Haraldsson is a puffed-up, self-absorbed intellectual who has written a 17 volume set on the correlation between Nordic superiority and Nordic fish consumption.  He is a man who cares only about eating fish, talking about fish, and foisting his theories on those around him.  He’s strange, he’s cocky, he’s pathetic, and he’s funny.  He gets invited to spend time on a Danish merchant vessel, touring Norwegian waters.  Once on ship he gets distressed due to the lack of fish on the dinner the menu. Such is the life of a man who once wrote a book called Memoirs of a Herring Inspector.  At night, one of the mates regales the guests with stories of his involvement in the Jason and the Argonauts saga.  It turns out the mate is none other than Caeneus, he who sought the Golden Fleece with the mythical Jason.  Keep in mind, the book is set in the 1940s.  It’s not quite magical realism, but the book seamlessly weaves myth and modern sensibilities.  It’s all a little bonkers. Quite often I found myself wondering, “why?”.  The Whispering Muse clocks in at a compact 130 pages, there’s not much of an arc to the story, but the writing is good, the characters keep you guessing, and it’s strangely compelling.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Black By Design: A 2-Tone Memoir by Pauline Black

In the early 80s, I loved British Ska. I couldn’t get enough of the likes of the Specials and The Selecter.  I can’t say I listen to those bands much any more and I haven’t been tempted by any of the reunion tours cycling around.  Regardless, they all have a place deep in my heart.  Out book shopping recently, I came across Black By Design, an autobiography of Pauline Black from The Selecter. I picked it up on a whim, figuring it would be a good summer read.

The first third of the book is very strong. Black’s upbringing is a truly interesting window into England of the 50s and 60s, particularly since Black views it from the perspective of a black woman.  Black was adopted by white working class parents in the 50s.  This was not a common occurrence in England at the time, and though her family was, by all accounts, loving, her black heritage was a mystery.  She was the only black girl in town and she felt the sting of racism.  However, she could share her feelings with nobody.  Not family or friends.  She was aware that her blackness set her apart from her contemporaries, but her nascent black pride could only be nurtured alone.  She was fascinated by the race issues in America and looked to the black power movement in America as a guidepost for her own behavior.  Though her parents were kind, they did not love when Pauline would assert her blackness. Once she left for college, she never looked back.

The middle part of the book talks about her time in The Selecter and the 2-Tone scene that was exploding in Coventry where she was based.  While I enjoyed this section of the book, I really wanted more.  Granted it’s a memoir, and Black talks honestly from her perspective, but I felt I wanted deeper insight into why the movement was happening, who all the players were, and what fueled the coming together and the division of the various audience groups (the punks, the mods, and the skins).   Black addresses it all, but not with the depth I hoped for.  I’d be up for a juicy oral history from all the players of that scene.

It’s also interesting to note that The Selecter’s time in the limelight was incredibly brief.  The Selecter track that appeared as a b-side on the first 2-Tone release was a hit.  But that track was really a solo endeavor by guitarist Neol Davies using the name The Selecter.  Once he had a hit, he needed a band.  The band was still being formed even though they were already in demand and on the rise, riding the coattails of The Specials.  Almost from the outset, the band is at odds with each other, fighting about producers and musical direction. The band implodes in about two years time.  The rise and fall is equal parts exciting and dour.

Black is at her best and most passionate when she talks about the difficulties of being a black artist and a woman artist.  The 2-Tone ethos was the perfect vehicle for her message.  After the break up of The Selecter she struggled finding her way.  Musical projects were mostly ignored.  She found her way to the stage and television.  She was moderately successful in those arenas. She found her way.  Not as exciting as The Selecter in their heyday, but she made inroads as a working artist.  The book, however, gets a bit dreary for my likes.  It becomes the memoir of someone struggling, but eking out a living.  The highs aren’t that high. The lows aren’t that low.  I have nothing but respect for all that Black has done, and her political view of the world is spot-on, but the writing isn’t strong enough to elevate this into a must read.  

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Ah, The Goldfinch, a 700+ page tome that many are hailing as the book of the decade and beyond. Of course there are also those that think Donna Tartt is overrated and overhyped.  Who doesn’t love a good literary dust up?  I was a big fan of Tartt’s The Secret History and just finished The Goldfinch, so I suppose I must weigh in.  This will be a pretty thin review because I don’t want to give away any spoilers.  When I read The Goldfinch, I knew absolutely nothing about it, not one plot point.  One of the big joys of The Goldfinch is how the plot twists and turns, travels through time, and trots across the globe. I was glad not to know what to expect around any corner, so I promise not to spoil.

Tartt is an excellent writer with a vivid imagination and The Goldfinch’s plot is testament to that.  The book tracks Theo Decker from teen years to adulthood.  We first meet Decker as a thirteen year old. He’s a liberal, cultured New York kind of kid.  Hints of a Salinger and Fitzgerald protagonists are in his DNA.  He’s a sensitive boy.  This is no surprise based on the prep-school milieu Tartt’s work seems to inhabit.  Theo’s mother instills in him a love of art, and much of the plot revolves around their connection to Carel Fabritius’s Dutch masterpiece The Goldfinch.  Tartt gets a big thumbs up from me for focusing her story around a piece of art.  The book makes us question the importance of art in culture, in society, and addresses how we interpret and value art.  That’s good stuff as far as I’m concerned.

But this isn’t some navel-gazing art salon universe.  Theo’s path gets violently altered at the outset of The Goldfinch, and his journey from boyhood to adulthood is painful. My one issue with the book is that for the bulk of the novel, after his life-altering episode, Theo becomes a bit of jerk.  He’s a fairly unlikeable character for much of the novel’s 700+ pages.  I have no problem with unlikeable and conflicted protagonists, but I just felt that the character he becomes for the bulk of the novel is not in keeping with the character we meet at the outset.  Similarly over the novel's final 30 pages, Theo looks back and reflects on his experiences in a thoughtful and philosophical manner.  He's regained the grace of his younger self, but it seems like such a sudden about face given the hellish path he's walked down.

Ultimately, The Goldfinch is an excellent read, so it’s a minor point to be sure, but I felt that given the grand scope of the novel and the Pulitzer Prize and all, that there was some fraying around the edges of this one.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Carsick: John Waters Hitchikes Across America

Nobody symbolizes the American Dream better than John Waters.  I’m sure I’ve said that before, but every time he makes a new movie, publishes a new book, or heads out on a new tour, I think it bears repeating.  Waters has managed to turn his perverse obsessions into semi-fame and semi-fortune.  At the time it would have been unimaginable that the guy who made Desperate Living or Female Trouble would ever sniff mainstream success. Waters has managed this feat without ever compromising or “selling out”.  In fact he seems to be getting more randy with age.  From his last film, A Dirty Shame, to his previous book Role Models, to his latest book Carsick, the tawdry tales keep getting more graphic.

The conceit of Carsick is pretty great.  Waters decides to hitchhike from Baltimore to San Francisco and document the proceedings in a book.  Carsick is divided into 3 parts; a novella where the idealized version of his trip plays out, a novella where his nightmare trip unfolds, and the final version based on what really happened.

The two novellas are pure Waters.  The novellas’ chapters recount each fictitious ride he receives along the way, and they play out like classic scenes from his movies.  In his “good ride” novella, Waters partakes in a bank robbery, becomes a sideshow freak at a hipster carnival filled with malfunctioning rides, reconnects with Edith Massey, and has a sexual encounter while in the passenger seat of a car in a demolition derby.  At 66 years of age, Waters still revels in shedding light on the weirdest subcultures and fetishes.  At one point he gets a ride from an “alternative librarian” distributing obscure genres of literature such as “womb raiders”.  “Are you familiar with that genre?” the librarian asks.  Waters replies, “You mean women who tell their husbands they’re pregnant when they’re not and then follow real pregnant ones, kill them, cut out their babies and take them home claiming they’ve just given birth.”  Carsick is a real joyride, let me tell you.

The brilliance of Carsick is that if you listed the characters he meets in the “good ride” version of his trip alongside the miscreants he meets in the “bad ride” version of the trip, you’d be hard pressed to figure out which people belonged to which novella.  Everybody seems like a renegade from a Pink Flamingos universe.  In the nightmare novella, his past literally comes back to haunt him. In one case, a killer he has made fun of in Shock Value is back from the dead, picking him up for a ride, and out to seek her revenge. It’s fun to watch Waters’ discomfort as he tangles with some of these fantastic creations.  

Waters’ actual hitchhiking experience is a far cry from either of his novellas.  The drama and tension revolve around mundane hitchhiking concerns.  Will he get a ride?  Will it stop raining? Will he have to sleep in the bushes?  Will he ever get out of Kansas? Waters seems humbled by the experience and comes across as grateful for every ride he receives.  Sometimes he’s recognized and sometimes he’s not, but he is actually coming into contact with big parts of America that he has never dared step foot in.  He shops at a Walmart, dines at Ruby Tuesday’s, and meets people he would otherwise never come into contact with.  It may not be as dramatic as the offerings in his novella, but dare I say, it’s sweet. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Now, Voyager by Olive Higgins Prouty

I can’t get enough of the Femmes Fatales book series on Feminist Press.  They’ve been reissuing classic noir novels from female writers.  I’ve started with the books that were adapted into films.  In A Lonely Place was haunting.  Bunny Lake Is Missing was dripping with gas light paranoia.  In many respects Olive Higgins Prouty’s Now, Voyager is a departure from those first two titles.  It’s not really a noir at all, but a classic 40s romance.  The book follows Charlotte Vale, a spinster aunt who embarks on a European cruise after a stint in a sanitarium where she was recovering from a nervous breakdown.  Courtesy of her caring sister-in-law, Charlotte has a new wardrobe and a new hairdo. Over the course of the cruise she starts to regain her lost-confidence, in large part due to her dalliance with the henpecked JD Durrance. There’s honesty to their blossoming romance.  Durrance has also suffered from a breakdown in his recent past and his married life is a shambles.  Now, Voyager’s strength comes from watching our two leads crawl from the wreckage of their lives, trying to find a place for themselves amidst a world that hasn’t been kind to them.  To be sure, Now, Voyager has some dark underpinnings. Their romance seems doomed due to Durrance’s marital status, and the threat of emotional relapse gives the novel a sense of disquiet, particularly once the cruise ends and each must return to their formerly lonely lives.  The first half of the book is a carefree escapade that gives way to the book’s second half and it’s more mundane realities.  It wasn’t part of my summer plan, but, hey, I just read a summer romance novel!

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Having just read a couple of pot-boilers and more modern pop-cultural novels, I was hankering for something with more of a classic feel and reached for Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.  I loved the subtle, teen sci-fi direction of Never Let Me Go, and was intrigued by Remains.  The novel is set in the 50s, the era when England’s great houses are coming to a close.  The book follows the manor’s head butler, Mr. Stevens, as he takes a road trip through the English countryside. Over the course of the trip he reflects back on his life of service to his employer, Lord Darlington.  Though at times a little slow, Remains of the Day manages to have an impact. Mr. Stevens is a fascinating case study of a life measured by one’s service to another.  Steven’s has placed a premium on his unwavering service to Lord Darlington and the running of the manor. As the book unfolds however, it becomes evident that his Lord ended up on the wrong side of history during WWII, with a dubious political track record.  Though Stevens can be proud of his life and the way he carried himself, his life increasingly looks a bit of a sham for his slavish dedication and apologies for a Lord who has not held up his part of the social contract.   Moreover, it’s clear Steven’s has made many personal and emotional sacrifices to maintain his standing as a top butler.  Given his Lord’s shaming fall from grace, coupled by the collapse of the whole manor system, there’s no way to avoid feeling a tinge of melancholy for Stevens and the life he lead.

I imagine this is a must read for anyone enamored with Downton Abbey.  I must admit that my reading of The Remains of the Day was informed by Downton, which sadly, informs the majority of my knowledge on that slice of English history.  

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

When I was young, I loved scary books.  I even remember being home alone one afternoon while reading Amityville Horror, and being so scared that I had to go sit in my mom’s car in the driveway to finish a chapter.  My fascination with horror was relatively short lived, but in the past year, I’ve picked up a handful of titles veering toward horror, gothic, and the supernatural.  Doctor Sleep (Stephen King), Night Film (Marisha Pessl), Prayer (Philip Kerr), We Have Always Lived In The Castle (Shirley Jackson).  It’s been fun.  With that in mind, I took a stab at Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane.  It’s a short tale about a middle-aged man who returns to his hometown for a funeral.  To escape the family for a bit, he wanders to the end of the lane where, by chance, he runs into an old acquaintance. Long forgotten memories of his childhood come flooding back. The bulk of the book takes place within those memories, where, as a 7 year old, he is imperiled by a shadow world that is using his body as a doorway into our world. The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is quite moody, though not particularly frightening.  Amazon tells me that it’s geared toward adults, but to me it feels like it’s geared toward the young adult market.  I’ve got no problem with that because Gaiman is an excellent writer and the novel flows along quite nicely. For me the highlight was the frame story.  His middle-aged interactions within the adult world and his grappling with fragmented memories of his past rang true and strong with just the right amount of sadness and melancholy.

Monday, July 14, 2014

People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

I just finished tearing through People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry, a fascinating true crime read. The book recounts the case of Lucie Blackman, a twenty-one year old British woman who moves to Japan to become a hostess at a club in Tokyo. The book dives into the world of the Japanese “water trades”—the range of nightlife establishments, from refined to grubby, that cater to sexual exploration.  Blackman disappears a short time later, swallowed up by the Tokyo underworld, and Parry follows the case. People Who Eat Darkness is a great read, giving a glimpse into Lucie’s motivations for taking on such work in Japan. 

The book also spends considerable time exploring the trauma that her family and friends undergo as they search for Lucie in a foreign country with vastly different customs than their own.  As an American, one of the most compelling elements of the book is the insight into the Japanese criminal justice system. The path that the investigation takes and how the subsequent trial plays out are a far cry from how such a case would be handled in America or Western Europe.  People Who Eat Darkness was truly eye-opening on many levels.  Highly recommended.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Lime Twig by John Hawkes

As a college professor, I expose my students to a lot of culture (films, music, books, art).  From time to time, a plucky student insists that I must read a book or see a particular movie.  I’m glad to oblige, if it doesn’t involve too much of a time suck.  Recently, one student insisted that I read John Hawkes’ The Lime Twig.  He went as far as to procure it from the library for me. I’d read Hawkes’ Second Skin when I was in college, liked it enough, plus The Lime Twig was only 170 pages, so I was in.  

No question Hawkes is an excellent writer, laying out beautiful passages and turns of phrase.  The Lime Twig sets quite a mood amidst the desperate class of horse racing folk and petty criminals in post war England.  The Lime Twig is a caper about a stolen horse and the criminals and hangers on trying to get a piece of the action. For chunks of the novel however, the narrative is bit too opaque. Character motivations are often fuzzy and it’s hard to discern what’s driving the main characters.  Ultimately, I was left with beautiful scenes, but I’m not sure I always cared.  As I get older, I’ve become a little less enamored by experimental lit and novels that seem to go out of their way to hide the story.  An easy enough and intriguing read, but at times, unnecessarily frustrating.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Monuments Men

I approached The Monuments Men with a bit of trepidation.  I’m not the hugest fan of George Clooney, the director.  I love the politics of his films.  I love the intentions of his films, yet I don’t love the films.  To me they’ve come across as a bit preachy without the cinematic chops.

That said, I looked forward to a war movie about art and the importance of art in society an culture.  What’s not to like about that premise?  Ultimately, The Monuments Men experience was an odd one.  Am I glad I saw the movie?  I guess I am.  The story, about an international troop of artists and art scholars trying to save European classics from the hands of the Nazis was not a story I was familiar with.  I learned a lot.  But the movie?  Oy, what a mess. 

It was a movie that could not figure out what it wanted to be.  The tone and tenor of the piece was all over the map.  A plucky, feel-good 50s war movie? A witty, rapacious comedy a la MASH?  An emotional, Spielbergian drama?   It was a real mish-mash of styles that sadly never found its footing.

The editing was equally sloppy. There was lots of narrative confusion. In the big picture, characters are spread out over Europe on certain missions, yet they continually rendezvous and meet up.  As a viewer there’s no sense of timeline.  Did those missions take days, weeks?  Why do they reconvene only to spread back out again?  Was there a purpose to the rendezvous other than to have all the stars back together again?   And many individual scenes also seemed devoid of finesse, leaving potentially dramatic scenes flat and uninspired. I don’t want to hand out any spoilers, but one particular scene that was poorly handled was a scene in which a main character dies.  I’ll only say that there was basic narrative confusion as to the set up of the death, the circumstances of the death, and ultimately no drama to the death. 

The film was devoid of tension, which is just not acceptable for a war movie.  There should have been tension.  The Nazi occupation of France, the Nazi retreat and their scorched earth policy, the brewing showdown between the Americans and the Russian, death on the battlefield.   All those plot points are broached in the movie, but none seemed particularly urgent.  

A frustrating film to be sure.  At the end of the day, I felt like I often do when I see well-intentioned docs that aren’t well put together.  I’m glad I saw it, but I just wish there was more art in the filmmaking. 

Dream #9 and Other Thoughts About David Mitchell

I like David Mitchell. Of modern writers, I think, hands down, he is one of the best.  Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are two of my favorite novels of recent time.  Black Swan Green is a fantastic British coming of age novel set in the early-to-mid 80s and The Thousand Autumns, is a historical fiction of epic proportions that reads like a beautiful classic.

That said, I found Cloud Atlas quite frustrating. Cloud Atlas was composed of vaguely related stories that hopscotch across time and space.  Each story, in and of itself, was stellar.  However, the way the novel jumps from one story to the other, I found frustrating and unnecessarily difficult.  No sooner would you sink into a gripping story, then you would get whisked away from it for hundreds of pages. Eventually you would return to it, but the momentum was shot.  

As I get older, I’m not as interested in these challenging, post-modern styles of writing.  I want me some old-fashioned page turning.  Challenge me with ideas. Challenge me with stories and plot lines I’ve never before seen. Challenge me with daring thematic concerns.   But flashy, stylistic flights of fancy leave me cold and distanced from the story.
For me, Dream #9 falls into the Cloud Atlas camp of Mitchell’s work. There are flashes of brilliance, but ultimately it was a slog to get through.  The first 80 pages were particularly frustrating. I would have bailed if weren’t Mitchell.  The book opens with the main character, Eiji Miyake, camped out in a café at a Tokyo business complex.  He’s been estranged from his father and is now set to drop in on his father unannounced. He’s moved from rural Japan to Tokyo to bring this plan to fruition.  For 80 pages he fantasizes about how this meeting will unfold.  The fantasies are endless (80 pages worth). It’s a novel that refuses to get started.  Given the dream like nature of the opening, one doesn’t actually learn that much about the characters, their conflict, or their back story. I had to keep reading the dust jacket to assure myself I’d get out of this never ending scene. Ultimately the novel does move on.  There are some great scenes, but the book moves in fits and starts.  Similar to Cloud Atlas, I enjoyed it while reading it, but I never had much desire to pick it back up once I set it down.

I still think Mitchell is an excellent writer and look forward to the next novel, but as far as Dream #9 goes…I read it, so you don’t have to.