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Washtenaw Flaneurade
29 April 2012
The Maester's Club Westeroast
Now Playing: The Horrors--"Still Life"

A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin (1996--) 

"A fantasy series for hip, smart people, even those who don't read fantasy." That appalling blurb (from The Detroit Free Press, no less--maybe it was Mitch Albom) first appeared on the back of A Feast for Crows (2006), George R. R. Martin's fourth (and much underrated) novel in his uncompleted series A Song of Ice and Fire, now filmed as the hit HBO series Game of Thrones (named after the first installment). Even had I not already gone through the first three, it irritated me and made me feel slightly uneasy that I'd taken to the series so. Martin's ongoing magnum opus has in many ways become U.S. cultural shorthand for "fantasy" in a way that Tolkien used to serve (Martin's been called the "American Tolkien," too, in a way that does him little justice). The buzz long predated the shows, to be sure, even for someone like me who wasn't paying a great deal of attention: co-workers were trading synopses, criticism, and even books when I first started working at my present job four years ago. Intrigued by the news of not only the series, but also Martin's cultural adulation by people who likely wouldn't go near fantasy otherwise (even Laura Miller seems to approve), I decided to take the plunge last year, reading A Game of Thrones (1996) on the bus ride back from Toronto. My doubts evaporated: it was superb. A vibrant, robust, detailed saga with rich characters and dialogue set in a world that was at once so recognizably generic yet utterly unique, Thrones whetted my appetite for more, and I followed suit, finally finishing A Dance with Dragons (2011) last week.

Though further familiarity with Martin's world and characters brought to light a few problems that weren't quite as obvious in A Game of Thrones, I still love it. The world of Westeros (the large continent vaguely reminiscent of Britain and western Europe, bisected towards the north by a coast-to-coast wall) is tremendously involving, and Martin's narrative device of telling chapters through the eyes or presence of a single character (by the end of A Dance with Dragons, the count's reached over thirty) works wonderfully for this complicated world and the complicated moral universe he constructs. That it's complicated in the first place is one of the series' major themes and draws: nobody's completely good or evil, just players in the game of thrones--or, indeed, the game of life (one that involves neither Art Linkletter nor apparent Gilded Age fashion icon G.I. Luvmoney).

It's a great device to hook someone like me, who largely forsook fantasy because of these reductive schemes. That notion, after all, has been paramount in "literary" fiction (sorry, Himadri) pretty much since its inception, and certainly throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Tolkienian project was partly aimed as a riposte to modernism, to be sure, and when I remember the fantasy I enjoyed as a kid, much of it followed that formula. It's hard, for example, to conjure my fondness for Katharine Kurtz's Deryni series, with their clever aping of Celtic and medieval European history and style, and to realize how two-dimensional her characters (for the most part) are. Thrones came out in 1996, around the same time I gave up fantasy. I wonder if I would have recognized its challenge back then, or if I did, rejected it as something that could be more profitably explored in a book by... any non-genre writer. Dickens. Philip Roth. Rosario Castellanos. At any rate, it seemed to answer many of the questions and criticisms I'd developed through my boyhood. There had been fantasy novels I'd read before that did present relatively complicated characters--or, taking another route, making practically all of them nasty, obnoxious or unpleasant, as in the dismal works of Robert Adams--but none with the psychological depth of Martin's characters.

The "Seven Kingdoms" of Westeros, ruled over by King Robert Baratheon since his overthrow of the mad King Aerys Targaryen, enjoy peace and prosperity--both of which we'll find are hugely relative. The Wall, overseen by the military order of the Night's Watch, protects the rich, fertile southern lands from the wildlings and barbarians of the frozen North. King Robert's Hand--essentially his prime minister--dies, and Robert asks his longtime friend Lord Eddard Stark--whose lands border those of the Wall--to come to the capital city of King's Landing and become his new Hand (in a wholly non-sexual way). The Starks view the new job with a certain degree of misgiving--"Ned" Stark has little taste for what he sees as the capital's (and the south's) enervating corruption, and a letter arrives at their seat of Winterfell suggesting that the last Hand's death was no accident. On top of all this, the Westeros-world's years-long seasons are due to change, with grim consequences; "winter is coming," as people (especially the Starks and various northerners) can't stop saying (the motto might not cause me such irritation were I not presently suffering from a near-constant barrage of tired, unfunny catchphrases at work). That's all the plot I feel I can safely deliver, but it sets up A Game of Thrones (more or less). Considering that the TV show is now well into the second book, my reticence may strike some as a little silly, but just in case, I'd prefer to leave the major plot points untouched for anyone who hasn't read, seen, or heard about it. Call it an overdue middle finger to Internet culture. The saga careens through bucketloards of violence, intrigue, suspense, heartwrenching moments, and mysterious supernatural threats which may or may not have anything to do with each other. Lots of people die, get mutilated, raped, etc. That could, of course, be a prescription for the worst kind of intellectually empty sword-and-sorcery slugfest (Robert Adams springs to mind again, heaven knows why), but the richness of the characters and of Martin's worldbuilding really militate against that. This is a series that sucks you in: I was fully prepared--indeed eager--to dismiss the hype as the online frothing of cultured elites who's been given some kind of critical go-ahead to actually enjoy speculative fiction (as per the Freep blurb earlier). 

Its many narrative virtues, at least, have rightly won A Song of Ice and Fire much acclaim and popularity. Unsurprisingly, though, for such a cultural touchstone, there's also been considerable criticism of the series' various approaches to questions of power, identity, and agency. Heady stuff, maybe, for an epic fantasy series, but game nonetheless, all the more so for its present pop-cultural prominence. The main buzz seems to concern its portrayal of women, particularly Marin's apparent fondness for rape scenes (or the casual mention thereof, and the TV show's allegedly kindred tendency to insert nudity and sexual violence). A good example is Alyssa Rosenberg's cogent discussion at ThinkProgress (in post and in comments), itself a response to Sady Doyle's ad hominem onslaught that briefly made much of the rest of the Internet look like Dick Cavett's old PBS talk show. There's also been comment on the degree to which a fantasy series so dependent on dragons as an existential threat (or are they?) should follow the historical milieu of medieval Europe (or rather modern society's perception of that milieu). Saladin Ahmed's piece in Salon is a good examination of the issue, as well as an affecting apologia for childhood fantasy enthusiasts bemused at the series' success (some of the comments aren't bad, if only for the immortal line "Thor never got as popular as Jesus, so they made Jesus white instead").

My take on these questions? It does seem to me like the sexual violence quotient increases as the series unfolds (and, perhaps, as the editors wielded less and less power over their distinguished author). There are ways to show the presumed brutality of a medieval society that don't rely so heavily on a device that starts to look--possible offense aside--lazy by Dragons. Coupled with the increasing disappointment of at least one of the series' most potentially fascinating women, the problematic treatment of female characters (both speaking and non-) is an issue that deserves at least to be taken seriously. I think the "too white" charge is a little trickier to unpackage, but I will marvel at people's zeal in defense of the series' demographic whiteness. A lot of their assumptions appear to rest on a monolithic view of Western European culture during the Middle Ages. The areas near the Wall (running with this assumption of equivalence) may have been representative of the typical Tolkienian fantasy kingdom, but more southerly places like King's Landing gave off a strongly Mediterranean, even Byzantine, vibe (a notion borne out, I think, by its somewhat stereotypical politics and by the TV show having the same idea in terms of art direction--as well as being filmed in formerly Byzantine--and Arab!--Malta). These latter would have been much more ethnically diverse than the standard picture of medieval Europe. Throw in the tidbit that Westeros is apparently supposed to be the size of South America (which would fit a Europe and a half, or maybe three or four of the western bits), and things get even weirder. 

Taking both questions a little further, I'd like to see a medieval historian's view of the series, heavily based as it appears to be on the period (and as Martin and its more zealous defenders have pointed out). My closest friend in grad school was a budding medievalist, now teaching in Arkansas with a Ph.D. from UC-Santa Barbara, and I remember well, even over a decade ago, how wrong I (and hence the general conception of medieval history) was regarding the Middle Ages, a time when, it turned out, women had many more rights, and power, than they would in the Renaissance and early modern eras, and in which feudalism (more properly termed "manorialism") was nowhere near as important as popular imagination suggested. Something tells me things have only progressed further along this line in the years since my own time in academia, and it would be illuminating indeed to hear how different the paeans to historical accuracy would sound, set against a historical analysis of the series' inspirations. None of these observations, I should add, are meant to cast aspersions on the legitimacy or quality of what I think is a terrific (if sometimes stylistically indifferent) work of the imagination, but I do think these are all questions worth exploring (the last paragraph of Ahmed's analysis puts it far better than I). That is, unless Martin gets the biology of the dragons right this time, without all that PC "science" (will no one stand against this multi-culti onslaught???).

Maybe it would help to mention things I like? Martin knows how to write a cliffhanger ending. The finishes of the last three novels are beauts indeed, and the end of Dragons elicited a startled "WTF?" that may have alarmed the creepy old bastard living next door, not that I care. His willingness to kill off central characters is technically laudable, even if it starts to seem like borderline sadism (not that I generally deny the value of a good hand-rubbing, especially if coupled with a cackle). Nobody is really safe in this world, however well they play the game. One thing I love is the prevalence of unreliable narrators. I'll try not to give too much away, but the picture and knowledge we're given of Westeros' generally situation--especially political and cultural--change over time, not only forward, but backward, altering presumptions that inform the development of the plot, and casting characters into different lights than previous. Not only are there battles, (ambiguous) adventure, and intrigue, but also full-blown mysteries that give the plot added dimensions. It's been a while since I regularly read fantasy, but I don't remember those being so important (or compelling) in any of the stuff with which I was familiar. It's also a pleasure to see possible influences of classic "weird fiction" (and favorite present-day fantasies) in the lands of Westeros (and beyond), influences that seem to arise naturally and don't feel like shoehorns. The Drowned God and his hold on the Iron Islands call to mind Cthulhu, while the curious mansions of Qarth might have come straight out of Clark Ashton Smith. Oldtown, on the other hand, evokes the academic intrigue of Ellen Kushner's Riverside, and so on. Another positive is the relatively low profile of the supernatural. There aren't wizards running around willy-nilly in starry robes calling forth "mind flayers" or some such. Whispers come of sinister doings beyond the wall, and rumors of dragons in the east, but for the most part this is all sweaty human action, with magic the province of rumor or hearsay (maybe this emphasis lends the "historical accuracy" cries some of their power). Things start to change through the series, but the narrative never loses sight of its human focus (thus far).

That the series' popularity has brought to light the pleasures and pitfalls of "nerd culture" hitting the mainstream, or that such a talked-about phenomenon doesn't actually seem to be about anything in the larger thematic sense, lies beyond my present purview, partly because I haven't quite made up my mind on either issue. One great thing, though, that the series has done is decisively rekindle my interest in fantasy. As mentioned in previous posts, I took Michael Moorcock's advice to stop reading the stuff a little too much to heart. My withdrawal had its benefits, and now it's time for confidence in my own tastes and capacities and not to worry that fantasy will somehow rot my brain. There'll certainly be a few titles showing up in later posts. Elitism can be a good thing; I've never believed otherwise, but as with all good things, there can be too much. One can even say that about fantasy series, but even with the increasing lengths of the novels in A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin has yet to reach that point in my neck of the woods (unless there isn't heavy-duty maester action in Oldtown for The Winds of Winter; then there'll be rage). 


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: 29 April 2012 5:28 PM EDT
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15 March 2012
McSweeney's Pitchfork Narnia
Now Playing: Grimes--"Oblivion"

The Magicians, Lev Grossman (2009) 

C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia (1949-55) are a classic of children's and fantasy literature and very likely special to many readers of this blog. Hence, a brief revision of the following exchange from The Horse and His Boy (1954) may help to approximate the feeling I've had over the past couple of days.

"Do you know why I tore you?" [asked Aslan]

"No, sir." [answered Aravis, an attractive teenage girl of Middle Eastern derivation, or Calormene, as close as the Middle East comes to Narnia] 

"The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother's slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like." 

"Oh, what the TITS???" [Aravis now sounds like Nick Kroll in The League, even if she didn't actually say that; valuable moral lesson aside, Aslan now sounds kind of a perv]* 

That was a good likeness of the effect Lev Grossman's The Magicians had on me when I read it. The first in what's hopefully a trilogy (The Magician King followed in 2011), The Magicians takes the tropes and effects of Narnia and pits them squarely against the neuroses and concerns of twenty-first century America. Even its flaws seemed more fascinating than foul, and I'm still trying to find a way to honestly criticize it.

Quentin Coldwater, an introverted, geeky teenager living in (where else?) New York, is a little unsure what to do after high school, and receives a mysterious application for an exclusive college upstate. He answers the summons after some tortuous context, and winds up at "Brakebills College," the first of many borderline satirical references to Lewis' successors that had me smiling a little each time I saw it. The students--primarily manifesting in The Magicians as Quentin, the shy, brilliant Alice, vivacious, toxic Janet, fey, frantically witty Eliot, and loyal, lumbering Josh--spend the next few years learning magic in a strangely English setting for such an undeniably American institution. Quentin's precocity and insecurity indirectly call up a chthonic demon that wreaks havoc on Brakebills and serves as a reminder of the outside world's dangers, one that unsurprisingly returns to haunt them. The gang endures the frenzied social dramas so common to college and then, finding themselves at typically loose and subsidized ends for Brakebills graduates, decide to go crazy in a sick loft in Manhattan. An acquaintance, punk outcast Penny, shows up out of nowhere and reveals his possession of the key to another world, a possibility frowned upon by magic's shadowy officialdom. Upon discovering the truth of Penny's words, the gang make their way to the enchanted world of Fillory, filled with talking animals, dangerous witches, and clock trees. Will their adventures bring them the wisdom supposed to accrue to questing heroes? Who is behind the grotesque depredations of the dreaded Watcherwoman? Last but certainly not least, will we ever discover the secret of waspishly sexy, made-for-Ann Arbor Janet's mysterious allergies?

My personal dealings with fantasy literature have often been touched upon in these pixels, and The Magicians sits at a curious place in relation. I started on fantasy early, with my mom and dad introducing me to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (and indirectly to Ursula K. LeGuin, whose Earthsea trilogy I found on a dusty top shelf in our house den). Lewis and Tolkien were two of my favorites until about the end of middle school, coupled with other passions I now cringe to remember (Katharine Kurtz's Deryni series, for example). For whatever reason, I didn't tend to read a lot of other fantasy (or at least stick with it), despite an ongoing interest in Dungeons and Dragons' character-building mechanies (as opposed to the game itself) and a fascination with Arthurian legend. Eventually, partly as a result of reading an eye-opening interview with protean British writer and personal hero Michael Moorcock, I more or less gave up on fantasy altogether. Moorcock's point had been that most published fantasy basically consisted of slavish homages to Tolkien--effectively, pale imitations of a work that seemed something of a pale imitation itself. On the whole, my resolve had overwhelmingly beneficial effects, similar to those in Kevin Murphy's charmingly recounted story of shedding his servile devotion to Tolkien once someone played him all of The Clash's London Calling. I delved far and wide into literary fiction (a term understandably despised by some but whose present utility can't be denied), ranging from Aphra Behn to Emile Zola to Ishmael Reed to everywhere, tasting rich samples of different styles, different tastes, different worlds (a look here will give a few examples). I didn't give up on genre fiction--my fondness for classic sci-fi intensified and I made a few stabs at mysteries and thrillers (mostly historical, i.e. Elizabeth Peters or Alan Furst). It never once crossed my mind that I might be doing fantasy an injustice. 

It's hard to say when I mellowed. My intermittent ambitions to write something of a fantasy novel myself led me to think a good deal about the genre as a whole and some of the questions and presumptions it embodied. Exposure to the Internet certainly helped; I wouldn't have known about Jacqueline Carey's The Sundering (a pair of novels mirroring The Lord of the Rings by upending the perspective and moral focus--written by a Michigander!) were it not for my college chum Patrick. Similarly, the accretion of buzz for George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series on any number of blogs and culture websites finally got me to read A Game of Thrones, which easily defeated my hype-ready defenses. Finally, a random hunt for new stuff in the throes of Borders' demise yielded my favorite, the work of Ellen Kushner, whose universe, owing more to the buckled swashes of Dumas or Sabatini than Tolkien's hoary elfquests, showed to spectacular effect in Privilege of the Sword and Swordspoint (I've been deliberately putting off Kushner's central work--The Fall of Kings--written with Delia Sherman--in order to prolong the excitement). Hearing of The Magicians was like having the final puzzle piece fall into place.   

The Magicians' selling point seems to be the "maturation" of the "adolescent" fantasy, an idea that comes with a number of caveats and footnotes. In a sense, it's the fictional equivalent of something like Laura Miller's C.S. Lewis critique The Magician's Book, a work of or about fantasy or speculative fiction that has the right critical approach or literary cred to be acceptable to tastemaking venues like The New York Times or NPR. Like, say, the McSweeney's anthologies, it presents commercially successful (or at least vital) genres like fantasy or sci-fi (or, to a lesser extent, crime and mystery) translated through the literary talents of critically approved authors like Michael Chabon or Heidi Julavits. Grossman himself is a writer and critic at Time; while no Dave Eggers, say, he's certainly highly placed in the nation's literary strata. His earlier novel, Codex, was promising and to a certain extent intriguing, but in the end a bit of a disappointment. As a result, I didn't quite know what to expect when I first turned the pages of The Magicians. Quentin and his friends fulfill the typical roles of fantastic heroes, but in a very knowing, ironic way that could have been intolerable (and, for some people I know, was). Their interactions with magic filter through the familiar smartass weir of American young adulthood, and the dangers of the outside world, and of Fillory, receive similar treatment. It's hard to know how to get more discrete or specific without revealing plot points of a spoiling nature.

It's a little easier to pinpoint the effect Grossman's various references and influences have on the world the Magicians confront, not to mention Fillory. Brakebills is obviously reminiscent of Harry Potter's Hogwarts, though the alarming effects of Quentin's prank are more evocative of Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea (as is the existential threat that looms in The Magician King), and Ged's arcane folly in the Academy of Roke. Narnia, though, forms the primary reflection of The Magicians, with many of the plot points and setpieces blatant, intentional homages or riffs on events in Lewis' books. There's a mysterious, wintry affliction afoot in Fillory that our heroes have to correct (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe). There's a curious enchanted land full of portals out heroes must master to complete their journey (The Magician's Nephew). There's a vaguely smug noble mammal as which the divine power manifests itself (Aslan). There are four kingships at stake, one of them High, and so on. Narnia is probably the best represented in The Magicians' array of predecessors, so it's worth asking what aspects of the Narnian worldview (i.e. Lewis') The Magicians challenges or transforms. 

The question is somewhat complicated due to the existence of another fantasy series, this one designed as a (specifically atheist) riposte to Lewis' muscular Christian classic. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, consisting of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass (under different titles in his and Lewis' native country), arrived early last decade and caused quite a splash, especially in the States, due to their open denial of the divine. Pullman's a charming and talented writer--his Sturm und Drang Gothic homage Count Karlstein is a hoot and well worth seeking out--but HDM came complete with a couple of issues. First, it was explicitly a series of children's novels, thoguh some of the themes--atheism completely aside--sat a little ill-at-ease with the designation, as if Pullman was trying to woo adults to his universe and worldview in a clumsier way than, say, Rowling. Secondly, Pullman's understandable passion to combat Lewis' often saccharine, hectoring moralism (Adam Gopnik probably made up for any errors he might commit elsewhere in his superb mid-aughties New Yorker essay on Lewis, in which he made the razor insight that Aslan was more Mithraic than Christian) eventually leads him, especially by The Amber Spyglass, to be just as didactic, possibly more so, than his literary forebear and frenemy. The Golden Compass is flat-out magnificent, but the latter two suffer from Pullman's cheerleading rationalism, despite some spectacular settings and setpiece moments (Cittagazze, Mary Malone's discussion of love, etc.). Grossman's novels, on the other hand, are explicitly for adults and treat the whole question of godhood rather matter-of-factly (Arthur C. Clarke's famous dictum about science and magic from Childhood's End--published right in the middle of the Narnian procession--is quoted at least once). Of course, there are only two of them so far.

As far as The Magicians and its sequel have any kind of theme, it's the typical one often found in these stories, stretching back past literature's beginnings into myth or legend: the hero's achievement of wisdom and/or experience against incredible odds. The Magicians, though, unlike the Harry Potter series or His Dark Materials, is, once again, unrepentantly adult, shorn of the cross-generational appeal that garnered the other two such commercial success (and controversy). Grossman tends more along the line of more worldly progresses like Middlesex or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Though there are familiar sights and sounds such as talking animals and magic spells, they've been leached of their potential coziness to a degree that Rowling, Pullman, or even Lewis, for all the surprising darkness to be found in each, never quite manage. It makes Fillory an interestingly sinister place, with the heroes, at their pinnacle of success, feeling decidedly uneasy in their hard-won power and majesty.  I read the climax of The Magicians in the intermission of a local student performance of Waiting For Godot; it seemed unexpectedly fitting. 

That may be part of the point, of course. Unlike practically all his influences, Grossman is American, with little of the implied homage to such countryman genre progenitors as George Macdonald or William Morris, whose fantastical works of the late nineteenth century directly inspired both Lewis and Tolkien and which make very interesting--and dare I say enjoyable?--reading even today. That's a distinction that can certainly be taken too far. Morris the Victorian Brit, for example, was also a visionary socialist, and the recent criticism-proof swooning over Downton Abbey (guiltily enjoy it though I do) arguably points to a worrying nostalgia for aristocracy and empire among my fellow citizens (though I may be reading a little too much into that). Nevertheless, there's a bracing "colonial" willingness to forgo the pleasantries in the two books; unlike, say, Neil Gaiman, there's nothing twee in it. One or two characters even comment on the weirdly English character of Brakebills, which I thought was just as much a dig at the forelock-tugging worship of the English public school system by U.S. private schools, especially in the Northeast, as it was a comment on the often derivative, Anglophilic nature of American fantasy. Quentin and his friends believably fit into a recognizably real world at the same time they just as believably traverse the bizarre worlds that lead to their destiny in Fillory. A friend of mine condemned the post-graduate empty boozing and sex in Manhattan as "boring" (the "inspiring" material, which looks a lot like Bret Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney, certainly was), but I think the ennui is intentional, a palate cleanser before hitting the fairy dust. The Fillory adventures come almost as an afterthought to the strained achievement and dirty laundry on show in The Magicians, and from what I know of fantasy novels in general, that's excitingly unusual.

There are, of course, flaws (seriously???). Quentin is a strikingly ordinary character, shy, charming, and unreasonable all at once. If he weren't still practically in adolescence, he'd be a Nice Guy (TM) of the first water. His struggles are believable and relatable to earlier experiences. Despite all this, he sometimes tends to blend in with the other characters. All parry each other's barbs with witticisms both pop-cultural and standard that are quite plausible for their era, but which have the effect on the page of making them seem a lot samier than they probably are. Whereas in the Harry Potter novels the main character ends up far less interesting than his best friends (it's a discussion for another time, but it has a lot to do with Harry's not actually doing anything genuinely wrong), in Grossman's novels the leads are sometimes indistinguishable. It may simply be a bit of cultural satire, but I doubt it (though I'm soberingly reminded of Ken Loach's take on character consistency as rendered by Ian Hart, mentioned last post, that it's "bullshit"). The rhythm and tone, too, suffer at times from Grossman's sympathetic desire to undercut any possible hint of literal fantasy. The leads may be millennial hipster nerds rather than Enid Blyton-like drips, but the constant deflections of any sort of mystical grandeur by flip quips lose their novelty after a while and start to stick out (even so, there are a couple of instances where jokes don't actually work and yet are still funny, like Taco's bizarre "Naginta" song in The League). The ghost of gender issues arises as a result of Quentin's third-person narrator status, but I think much of the second book helps put paid to such (I'd love to see a gender critique of this thing, but I doubt I'm really the person to light the fire). The homages, too, seem a bit literally delivered at times, as if we're headed through a classic children's fantasy theme park with Louis Theroux as the tour guide. 

All that aside, The Magicians is a riveting work likely to change the way a lot of readers view fantasy literature and the "mainstream's" relation thereto, possibly more so than even the Harry Potter books. Grossman himself shows signs of the same leveling impulse in interviews that I feel in my own bones, even if I'm divided on its actual necessity (distinctions by all means, but no hierarchies!). Some have criticized the novels for implicitly mocking fantasy fans, but The Magicians' satire (if satire it really is) is pretty keenly focused on the Narnian mythos; sword-and-sorcery, for instance, barely gets a look in (though that, too, is a discussion for another time), as it's a far cry from the tea-and-scones universe of a Lewis or Rowling (or even Pullman). It does something that's needed doing for quite a while: shaking up some of the genre's conventions and assumptions while introducing a degree of literary and psychological realism with whose presence in the genre I'm unfamiliar (George R.R. Martin's work, so far, comes close but isn't quite the same). There's talk of a third novel coming up, which would be historically fitting for this genre's sea of trilogies, and I for one can't wait. 

*The Horse and His Boy appeared the same year as Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim (and a year after Clarke's Childhood's End, a somewhat neglected "golden age" for British literature?). The idea of Jim Dixon instead of Professor Diggory Kirke as the kids' initial "spiritual advisor" really ought to be a subject for a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies-style pisstake one day. "'The point about Merrie England is that it was about the most un-Merrie period in our history. It's only the home-made pottery crowd, the organic husbandry crowd, the recorder-playing crowd, the Esperanto...' He paused and swayed; the heat, the drink, the nervousness, the guilt at last joined forces in him." Further up and further in!

 


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 5:33 PM EDT
Updated: 15 March 2012 7:00 PM EDT
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26 February 2012
The Immaculate Infection
Now Playing: Trust--"Sulk"

The League (2009-) 

After seeing Portlandia, I found it grimly enjoyable to contemplate the collective worst nightmare for its characters. Among my favorite possibilities? Being stranded in a Midwestern sports bar surrounded by braying, sociopathic chaches obsessed with football as a means to social dominance. It would, of course, look like F/X's The League. It's a strange bird, this show, especially if one's used to dealing with critical darlings like Arrested Development or Parks and Recreation. It's structurally and tonally uneven and suffers from sore thumb characters and a host of other issues. Despite it all, though, it's a hugely entertaining experience.

The League follows a Chicago fantasy football league, composed of six friends who've more or less known each other since high school. Kevin (Steve Rannazzisi) is a henpecked lawyer for the D.A. whose wife Jenny (Katie Aselton) provides the brains for Kevin's outfit and concentrates on raising their daughter Ellie. Ruxin (Nick Kroll) is a lawyer in private practice, married to Sofia (Nadine Velazquez), whose hotness and non-Judaism (and ferociously annoying brother Rafi) give Ruxin perpetual headaches. Longtime league champion Pete (Mark Duplass) works in an office whose function is left amusingly unspecified, at least for the first two seasons. Divorced partly as a result of his league obsession, Pete is the closest to an audience viewpoint character--almost a "Mary Sue"--towards the beginning, but he thankfully fits into the ensemble more as the show proceeds. Andre (Paul Scheer) is a plastic surgeon who's probably the most frequent butt of jokes, especially regarding his garish, Ed Hardy wardrobe and fantasy football ineptitude. Last, and frequently least, there's Taco (Jon LaJoie), Kevin's ne'er-do-well brother, who's apparently the Kramer figure (series co-creator and writer Jeff Schaffer wrote for Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm), constantly floating get-rich-quick schemes, as well as providing a deus ex machina of general weirdness for the show's convenience. The most infuriating thing is how often the "Taco Play" works.  

Each season (there are two on Netflix thus far, and some of the third on Hulu) matches the football season, with the players competing for the "Shiva," a standard trophy with a picture of their high school classmate Shiva stuck at its bottom (there's also the "Sacko" for last place, with a stylized hairy scrotum dangling above). Though the fantasy football element provides the show's general structure, usually contributing the initial motivation for episodes, there's little knowledge of football genuinely required (certainly not for Andre). At heart, the show's about people trying, and failing, to "grow up," their obsession with football only providing a fig-leaf excuse for their lack of maturity. Game-inspired trades, pranks, or trash-talk, interferes with one or more characters' business or personal lives, and chaos results. That's the only formula I can really ascribe to this often problematic yet bracingly fun show.

It's hard to know where to start. For one thing, it's nice for once to see an American show not confuse maturity or character with material success. Taco's the slacker character, but in a way he's really only different from the others in that he has no steady job. Kevin's pathetic, Jenny's shrewish, Pete's smarmy, Andre's crass, and Ruxin is... sort of evil (though hilariously so). For someone towards the  lower end of the financial spectrum, it does a lot of good to see our cultural masters treated with such derision. The show, however, celebrates a kind of boozy, dudebro camaraderie at the same time that it satirizes it. Pete's a good example. Ostensibly the show's "hero" during the first season, he becomes more and more of an asshole through the second (a "change" that may have been planned all along), sinking far enough to try and give his ex-wife's boyfriend a heart attack. Though his true colors are eventually revealed (the episode "High School Reunion" delivers a great moment of self-realization--courtesy of Party Down's Martin Starr--that's typically swept under the carpet, whether by Pete or the writers), the show takes a while to get there, leading me to believe that The League's trying to have its cake and eat it (much like Portlandia). In "Fear Boner," Pete's reminiscence of a disturbing college experience lays the show's soul bare: "He was cowardly, gay, homophobic and racist at the same time: the perfect quadfecta." Pairing "gay" and "homophobic" in that negative description says a lot about Pete, of course, but maybe also a little something about the show.

Then there's Taco. I've been increasingly following The A.V. Club, the Onion offshoot that's now my go-to source on American entertainment, and one irate commenter called him a "jock's idea of a stoner." I can see where they're coming from, but for me it's more that he's just there to fulfill whatever role the show requires, regardless of character or plausibility. On the one hand, it's very true, I think, as Ian Hart put it in the Ken Loach documentary on the Wind That Shakes The Barley DVD, that "character is bullshit; people act out of character all the time," but on the other, Taco has the consistency of a Lego figurine worked by a five-year-old. One minute, he's just one of the guys, the next, he's completely ignorant of the basics of Western science, believing that free-basing Andre's coriander can cure any number of illnesses. There's been speculation that LaJoie was cast as a result of his success in the world of Internet comedy music, and it makes a kind of sense. Every few episodes, he'll wheel out a (usually funny) song, often towards the end, much like Ricky Nelson in Ozzie and Harriet, only here the intended audience are all slightly creeped out douchebags in a bar or pathologically nitpicky, potentially misogynistic fans on YouTube or the A.V. Club, rather than squealing bobbysoxers. It's more down to the writing, though; Taco's weirdness is all over the board. There's too much of a realistic strain running through the show for him to fit in the way they intend, and half the time he tends towards that sore thumb tendency mentioned earlier. In this case, it isn't so much of a "have cake, eat it" situation, but more of a laid back, shambolic approach to the show as a whole from creators and performers.

Much of the fuzzy inconsistency is intentional, and so it's hard for me to fault The League too much on that score. Rannazzisi, LaJoie, and especially Scheer and Kroll use their extensive comedic experience to develop the dialogue, much of which is apparently improvised (more on Aselton and Duplass later). Upright Citizens Brigade veterans Scheer and Kroll are pretty recognizable from elsewhere, Scheer from roles as the sinister Head Page from 30 Rock and Roman's successful former partner on Party Down, and Kroll as Pawnee shock jock The Douche on Parks and Recreation. It's perhaps little surprise that these two give the most entertaining performances. Scheer's character is almost as conceptually offensive as Taco, but he manages to make Andre funny and sympathetic as well as a thoroughly worthy punching bag. The same could be said, to a lesser extent, of many of the others; part of the show's appeal, despite its issues, is the tremendous chemistry among the cast, some of whom came from decidedly different theatrical backgrounds, but all of whom work to make the atmosphere as endearing as it is obnoxious. Happily, "endearing" doesn't quite describe Ruxin. Even given my high regard for the cast in general, Kroll owns this show. He gets all the best lines ("Kid's dumber than her parents") and sells Ruxin's frequent awfulness with a sneering charm that just makes the poison go down easier. At one point in "The Expert Witness" (just about everyone ends up in a courtroom, don't ask why), Ruxin runs into Taco (busy flirting with Alia Shawkat's courtroom artist), who hails him (inaccurate as ever): "Hey Ruspin!" Ruxin: "I don't know you here." The knife-edge between joky friendship and deadly seriousness is hilarious in a way that's... obviously? hard to explain. I was hugely excited to hear that Jeff Goldblum will play Ruxin the Elder in Season 3.

The League, in a comparison the show might appreciate, is like a Budweiser or Labatt in relation to the "higher" comedies' microbrews. Actually, that's a little unjust; it's more like a Sierra Nevada to, say, Party Down's Anchor Steam or Parks and Recreation's Bell's Two-Hearted. It's a little hard for one to appreciate after partaking of the others' more rarefied charms, but if one's in the right spirit, or doesn't expect too much, it can deliver great rewards. The frequently crass humor and infectious masculine insecurities (Aselton aside) can certainly put people off (the football references shouldn't, as the specifics aren't generally fundamental to the plot), but there's much to enjoy in the show's weird lack of ambition (or maybe a kind of ghost overreach) that somehow matches the characters' flaws and foibles. Not every show can be a Parks and Rec or Community, and plenty of slots still await between the Shiva and Sacko Bowls, even for sitcoms. 

The Puffy Chair (2005): League cast members Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton are not only married, but also appeared in this early mumblecore entry, written and directed by Duplass and his brother Jay. As with The League and other Duplass Brothers films such as Baghead (which I didn't get), much of the dialogue is improvised. I was already interested in mumblecore through the works of Andrew Bujalski at the time I learned of The Puffy Chair, and the filmmakers' background stirred my interest: both were fellow native Louisianians (from New Orleans rather than Baton Rouge), and close to my age (if a little younger). One of those thanked in the credits, in fact, was a Byron Westbrook, who I'm pretty sure was a friend of my brother's and acquaintance of mine, last I heard an experimental musician in New York (I'll be surprised if it wasn't). The Puffy Chair tells the story of musician Josh (Duplass) who takes his girlfriend Emily (Aselton) and his ne'er-do-well brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins, and there's that description again) on a road trip from New York to Georgia to deliver a recliner much loved by his father during their childhood (or the same kind, anyway, having bought one online from a collector in North Carolina). This complex set-up sparks off a fairly simple, not entirely satisfying story. Josh and Emily have problems almost from the beginning, exacerbated not so much by events as by their own fundamental inability to agree on commitment. Rhett, a well-remembered (and -portrayed) type of Southern hippie sleazeball, thinks little of wandering off and marrying sexy recluses in the woods, and Josh thinks little of acting as his best man (they play Saturday Looks Good To Me's "Alcohol" during the "reception," making me sit up like a shot--well aimed, especially as I first became familiar with the music during the time of filming). By the time they reach Josh and Rhett's parents, things have built to a really muted climax, which I won't give away partly because I'm surprised I can remember it. The Puffy Chair is an enjoyable movie, but not terribly affecting. The actors are all good, the relationships are well-written and -realized, but the story itself doesn't carry a whole lot of heft. Leonard Maltin (or his staff) wrote of 1979's Wanda Nevada, starring Peter Fonda and Brooke Shields, that "if it were any more laid back it would be nonexistent." I thought of the words while watching The Puffy Chair. Though I heartily approve of the impulses and ethos that filmmakers like the Duplass Brothers bring to American cinema, I can't always entirely approve of the results. 


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 26 February 2012 2:34 PM EST
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17 February 2012
Mountain Lion Bookpile
Now Playing: Veronica Falls--"Come On Over"

Shortly after I started blogging, almost seven years ago, I began hitting shows at Brandon Zwagerman's Madison House, a pastime which heavily involved me in local music, if only as a connoisseur. My own musical talent extends to a few songs and accompaniments on harmonica and a fearsome vocal impression of the late, lamented Bob "The Bear" Hite of Canned Heat. Nevertheless, I wound up attending the living crap out of shows in Ann Arbor and loving most every second. After a year or so of off-and-on depression, the tremendous proliferation of music in the area not only filled something of a void in my life but also brought me into contact with many of the friends I have today. Ann Arbor can be a pretty cold, unfriendly town to someone with no prior connections to the place, as I was in my first few years, and the sheer novelty of haivng a social life came as a heady, near-ecstatic rush. 

Even as familiarity bred the eventual decay of my enthusiasm, the initial pleasure I took in the scene itself and the music it provided never entirely evaporated. It certainly marked a new chapter in my relationship with music. As early as middle school, I became so bored with the current pop tunes (around 1985-86) that I largely withdrew from any interaction with such, preferring to immerse myself in the classics--i.e. the sixties and seventies--and commence my ongoing education in orchestral music. When the nineties blessedly arrived, I largely bypassed grunge and, thanks to the help of my friend Emily and others, got into Britpop, shoegaze and Riot Grrl. I mention the movements, but they all manifested largely as single bands: Blur, Lush, and Sleater-Kinney. There were still huge gaps in my own musical history and appreciation: I was almost wholly unacquainted with punk and the lore of new wave until I got to grad school, where expert tutelage was this time courtesy of my friend Matt. At Akron, I got to know of a couple of local bands (and know one pretty well). One, the House Popes, was a folk/country, Americana outfit composed largely of grad school friends and acquaintances. Another, Disengage, was a punk-metal fusion act partly led by my favorite record store clerk. Apart from them, though, there didn't seem to be much of a scene, at least one I can either remember or discern (naturally, the Black Keys became deservedly huge a couple of years after I left). The unfolding panoply in Washtenaw County, on the other hand, was heavily laden with folk and alt-country bands and musicians (with outliers such as the Ultrasounds, Starling Electric, and Saturday Looks Good To Me), and thence I gravitated, having had little interest in that kind of music before. The end of the Madison House shows, various band breakups and personnel changes, and simple shifts in personal taste, led me away from the close-knit wonder of those Friday and Saturday nights, especially when I realized that I had been caught up in local music to such an extent that I lost track of much any other music, and started hurriedly making up the omission.  

Ever since, I don't think I'd ever really gone to see a show sound-unheard at the Blind Pig. Before my local introductions, I'd gone there all the time, to hear both pop acts like Saturday Looks Good To Me and a great number of Detroit area garage acts, the latter trying to keep the vitality of the sound strong in the wake of the White Stripes' troubling "slash-and-burn" international success (probably my favorite night in Ann Arbor prior to the blog's birth was the No Fun Records Showcase Night at the Pig, 16 October 2004). During and after my... relations? with the great wave of folk and alt-country, though, I'd rarely gone to see anyone there except for the aforementioned outliers--one of which broke up, one of which went on a three-year hiatus, and one of which moved to Chicago. In the interim, my social life had gone through a few changes and I'd stopped going out as much, especially when it came to just dropping in on random acts at what was still Ann Arbor's main pop/rock venue.

That changed the other night, when Scottish band Veronica Falls came to the Pig, with San Francisco's Brilliant Colors and SLGTM head honcho Fred Thomas' latest project, Swimsuit, for openers. I'd been planning to hear Swimsuit anyway, and after hearing a few Veronica Falls songs online (they sound like a higher-fi Vaselines at times) and then learning that a few of my friends were going, decided to check it out. Truth be told, I missed my old habits just a little, and after a few months of living in a somewhat restrictive (though highly productive) hibernation, I was ready for something exactly like that. 

The night started at Jolly Pumpkin Brewery, itself a link to my past as it inhabits the space formerly disgraced (in a retrospectively hilarious way) by Don Carlos Mexican Cantina, where I worked when first moving to Ann Arbor. It's a wonderful space, home to a number of failed businesses over the years, and it's a delight to see the Dexter-based brewery finally make a success of the place. I met Shelly and Stever there, we talked horror films, music, work, and Courtney Love (specifically her grimly amusing alibi for the death of Frances Bean's pets), and then we met Josh, Carla and Rachel at the Pig. I contented myself with a couple of beers, and almost on arrival knew I wasn't going to last the night, and was perfectly fine with it. It was a strange feeling, considering how much I used to anticipate the event and then relish the crowd, the spectacle, and the music. I'd perch at a table and read or write while everyone swirled around me, and then we'd all head up to the front and listen to the band (I did it less once I actually knew people, but it's still a habit, one I highly recommend). I wound up leaving halfway through the Veronica Falls set, right around midnight. Though part of my "hurry" was down to overfamiliarity with the environment and the fact that I'd been up for almost twenty-four hours, there was another factor. "Yes, I am going now. It's after 2009."

Swimsuit was fine, stripped-down indie-pop that felt rather more introspective and spikier than SLGTM, including Dina Bankole of Secret Twins (a group I'd wanted to hear live but never did) on guitar, and was a decent entry for the local scene in this unusually global lineup. Veronica Falls was almost certainly going to be good, and they were (I felt little compunction over getting the CD even before they went on). The sound spanned decades of influence, the lo-fi fuzz of the 90s linked with pre-grunge influences like the Vaselines (the Scottish connection may have affected my thoughts on that one). Listening to it now, it gives me a pleasantly hazy feeling. It's not one that'll go up in the pantheon, but it's a great marshaling of past sounds for a present (or almost present) year. The big surprise, and one that might hit my big time, was Brilliant Colors. For some reason, they're a little hard to describe. I can only say that I danced harder at the Pig than I have in a very, very long time, and that's taking into account how little I've gone there in the past few years. I remember that the consistency of my frenzy matched a Dirtbombs show I saw there in 2005, and that hardly ever happens. They had no CDs, sadly--it's weirdly touching how many bands seem to expect everyone to have vinyl capability--but I'll be getting one soon, hell or high water.

It's unclear whether I'll make it much of a habit again. There's lots of good stuff out there if you know where to look, and most of the scene I previously frequented has relocated (their shows, anyway) to Ypsilanti, especially around Woodruff's in Depot Town. I also have to keep asking myself how vital music really is to me, or at least the kind of music you have to follow through online sources. My friend at work and I had a conversation about keeping up with the times; we hadn't really found a lot of good new stuff recently (the best stuff I encountered in last year, at least before discovering St. Vincent, consisted of new releases from existing favorite acts). Is it really that important to stay new and current? I think so, to a certain extent, if only to get the full effect of the historical and cultural moment. If you shut yourself off, you sell yourself short. Especially with longtime favorites of mine getting sweet writeups in area outlets, it's hard for me to justify losing or compromising this passion for the new that it took so long for me to discover. So there'll probably be quite a few more of these, even if I have to watch a few more sitcoms first.

 


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 8:26 PM EST
Updated: 17 February 2012 9:17 PM EST
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22 January 2012
Sound Is The Blood Between Me And You
Now Playing: The Hold Steady--"Banging Camp"

Portlandia (2010-)

My favorite American band of the 1990s was Sleater-Kinney, the lead guitarist of which was one Carrie Brownstein, on whom I developed a substantial crush at the time and since (I started listening in 1997, around the time of their classic release Dig Me Out). Sleater-Kinney (who sadly disbanded in 2005) were the longest-living, most critically acclaimed, and arguably most visible survivors of the Riot Grrrl movement, discussed earlier in this blog through the context of Sara Marcus' superb history Girls to the Front, again well worth reading. On my initial move to Ann Arbor (almost ten freaking years ago), I could only take a CD wallet containing 15 or so CDs, and chose to devote it entirely to the Kinks and Sleater-Kinney. That's how much I loved (and still love) them. As with many of the Riot Grrrl bands (and their one-time fellow travelers, Nirvana), S-K had roots in the Pacific Northwest; members had gone to the famously liberal Evergreen State College in Washington State, and the band took its very name from an interstate (not freeway--I haven't gone that Yankee) exit sign in Olympia. I've never been anywhere near the Northwest, despite a strange fascination with the place since childhood (largely due to its maritime Native American cultures). Many have shared this general interest over the years: Portland, Oregon, ever since I can remember, has rivalled Austin, Texas, as a whirlpool sucking in many of the brightest and most offbeat of my friends and acquaintances (often before occasionally spitting them back out again). Portland's reputation is all the stranger when one considers that the residents famously (and perhaps apocryphally) don't want people moving there, as too much growth might allegedly spoil the place (my chef friend James from Louisiana is, to my knowledge, one of the few non-slackerly successes). As a result, I have no interest whatsoever in moving or living there, despite its serving as home to two of the coolest women (and artistic figures) in the entire universe: Brownstein and, of course, Ursula K. LeGuin. That's okay, though, as I now have Portlandia to tell me what's going on in the twee capital of North America.

Brownstein, after leaving Sleater-Kinney, wrote a music blog for NPR that I mysteriously never got around to reading, and began to collaborate with her friend Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live fame on a TV show affectionately lampooning her famous-in-certain-circles town (spoiler alert: that's basically Portlandia). Armisen was--is?--probably my least favorite major performer (after Chris Kattan) of the third "Great Age" of SNL (1975-80, 1986-93--the greatest era--and therefore 1995-2008, assuming the latter began with the arrival of Will Ferrell--or Ana Gasteyer, in this house--and the departure of Amy Poehler). There seemed to be less to his characters, his Obama impersonation was... impersonal (and, as some have observed, racially problematic), and--though I'm probably the only one for whom this is important--he was the performer who cracked up the least during the premiere of "Debbie Downer." It probably doesn't help, to be sure, that, though I watch SNL irregularly these days (and on Hulu and Splitsider, to boot), I'm a diehard partisan of Bill Hader. Maybe his heart just wasn't--isn't?--entirely in it, because he's great in Portlandia, executive produced by SNL's caudillo Lorne Michaels for IFC. Opening its first episode, "Farm," with a gently anthemic hymn to the city, Portlandia posits the existence of a place where the "dream of the 90s is alive."

Excited as I was to see Portlandia, and as highly recommended as it came from a few friends, I found myself beset with conflicting emotions as I watched. The theme music didn't help; a pathologically chill track from Washed Out, it gave the impression of a world cast in amber, a hermetic bubble in which values that ought to stand forth proudly fold in on themselves and corrode through mutual self-congratulation. That tortuous sentence gives some idea of my uneasiness, but maybe it was just sappy nostalgia on my part. It felt very 2000, weirdly enough, a time when my major formative decade had ended and a more jaded, disastrous time was about to begin, so that might also have something to do with my reticence. Still, the idea that Portland is so unique will sit a little strange with those who live in similar enclaves (or indeed in bohemian locales and neighborhoods set in bigger cities across the country). I'm not sure that the show's sui generis feel is meant literally; something tells me that one of its initial selling points was its applicability to certain viewers nationwide (certainly those who habitually watched IFC). Austin and any number of college towns, including my own, come to mind, but then Portland seems to be more a state of mind than an actual place. 

The show's structure is fittingly vague and elusive. "Fred" and "Carrie" live in Portland as show-business refugees, years of experience under their belts, and serve as observers and participants in the bizarre tableaux the city occasionally delivers. They also play the vast majority of the sketch characters, enlivened here and there by mostly spot-on guest stars (even Heather Graham seems to fit in as an incongruously happy journal-writer lusted after by Brownstein's feminist bookstore owner). Kyle McLachlan (born and bred relatively nearby in Yakima, Washington) shows up frequently as the laid-back, with-it mayor (a phenomenon certain Michigan residents will likely recognize, even if it more or less robs me of a story device elsewhere) who decides to use Fred and Carrie as a cultural assault cadre, coming up with a theme song for Portland and developing the city's major league baseball team. Characters politely, neurotically, and ironically rampage through coffeeshops, bookstores, libraries, and "artspaces" with oblivious abandon, self-awareness a crime unthinkable. 

The sketches are generally funny, but in a way that annoyingly nags at me. It doesn't seem like they should be. Part of this, I think, is down to the show's "have-its-cake-and-eat-it" approach to the specifically Portland nature of the material. Armisen's techno-freakout in "Farm" is pretty common to the entire industrialized world, if Facebook is any indication, and the self-absorption and cluelessness demonstrated throughout the show, bohemian though it is, is hardly unique to Portland. It puts me in mind of Mike Nelson's take (in his Movie Megacheese) on Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco (1998): "It's a bizarre method of satirizing a group of people recognizable only to the eight people being satirized, though it gives me hope for my as yet unproduced film, which satirizes my old roommate Calvin. It's a scathing indictment that focuses on Calvin's annoying habit of using our hot pot to cook noodles in." Strangely, that kind of tunnelvision is pretty true-to-life for "Portlandian" locations, and so the show in some ways represents its subjects a little too accurately. It's reminiscent for me of the hooplah over the term "hipster," "finally" sinking into the non-"Portlandian" "mainstream" via certain media. Living on more than a few margins of mainstream culture myself, I've personally grown weary of the constant, hyperactive self-analysis that produces this kind of debate, and the largely skin-deep comedy that Portlandia  correspondingly produces depresses me just a little. I do like that it doesn't pretend to be anything else, but it also doesn't really add anything genuinely new to the conversation. Maybe I'm just expecting too much, or miss the 90s--some of which were actually quite horrid for me--too bad, or have simply lived in certain places just a little too long. 

And yet... "when you point, I think of a penis." There's enough gold in Portlandia to keep me watching and keep me laughing. The wrongness of some of it works in its favor; I was put in mind of Portlandia friend Miranda July's film Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005). I went into the thing largely without expectations, and thought I would hate it at one point. By the end, I adored it, and couldn't quite figure out how that happened (still can't). The emotions weren't as extreme during Portlandia, but the process (if such it was) felt similar. A case in point is the Harajuku Girls bit: two "Japanese hipsters" go to Portland as "coffee culture" tourists. They giggle and point at increasingly smaller cups of coffee to the musical accompaniment of some anime cartoon or videogame--you have to see it, which you can. To an extent, it's Portlandia in a nutshell, making fun of something with which maybe three or four metaphorical people are familiar, and like much of the show, it veers dangerously towards solipsism. Then, they try to hook up with this silent, strange-looking man-boy (dude, if you're reading, which you aren't, then believe me when I say that no offense is intended; I still get carded sixteen years after the big day, even with the Army of the Tennessee beard I'm currently wearing), and things get strangely brilliant. Somehow the stark intrusion of that one character makes it a genuinely surreal experience, instead of yet another tiresome pop culture satire. Many of the sketches that tend towards overlength and the very preciousness they seek to lampoon (which is most of them) are saved in the nick of time by these "stingers"--the dog-loving couple at the restaurant comes to mind. The pre-credits sequence for "Blunderbuss" is another great example, with a fabulous performance by "Jennifer." And then there are simply great sketches with no need for last-minute saves at all, though not many.

The show is heavily veined with music, and this emphasis generates some of its strongest and funniest moments. The episode "Aimee" sees 90s songstress Aimee Mann (a belated favorite of mine) show up as Fred and Carrie's housecleaner, whose employers alternately try to curry favor with her by ripping up images of Suzanne Vega and pinatas of Sarah McLachlan and then browbeat her to clean better. "Blunderbuss" revolves around an all-city music festival, which fends off the attempted entrances of dreamy guitarist "Sparklepony." Wonderfully played by the Decemberists' Jenny Conlee (Colin Meloy and Brownstein's former S-K bandmate Corin Tucker also show up elsewhere in the episode), Sparklepony's recurring fantasies of combing a pony arise in response to every slight and setback. In a fittingly ironic touch, Conlee physically resembles my Decemberists-hating friend in Austin, who pokes fun at my quote-marked Facebook posts and thinks Portland's most famous band of the last decade stole well-deserved thunder from Rainer Maria, whoever they are. There's a Portlandia sentence if ever I saw one.

In the end, though there's a lot of good material, it isn't a particular favorite, not when there's stuff like Parks and Recreation (April herself, Aubrey Plaza, appears a few times in Portlandia) and Community on TV (the first two episodes of 30 Rock's new season aren't very inspiring). I'm not very current with sketch comedy at the moment, and have little idea of where Portlandia stands with its comperes (The Whitest Kids U Know? Are they still around? I didn't really care for their Lord of the Rings sketch). It's become pretty popular among its intended audience, and formed the backdrop for a video from my new favorite American musician. It's funny, but it focuses on too narrow and shallow a target for it to be really satisfying. At any other time, I might have accepted it with little complaint, but considering the personnel involved, not to mention what a televisual embarrassment of riches we presently have on the networks and the Internet, I was expecting a higher game. Still, it's great to see that Brownstein is as charming and engaging a comic actress in Portlandia as she was thrilling and laser-sharp a guitarist and vocalist in Sleater-Kinney (and is in Wild Flag).

Wild Flag, Wild Flag (2011): Sleater-Kinney came to an end with the release of The Woods in 2005, which had a deeper, more obviously hard-rock sound than their previous releases. Even as their albums grew (slightly) more sumptuously produced in the early aughties (2000's All Hands on the Bad One and 2002's disappointing One Beat), there was still a lean and hungry vibe to the music that had a recognizable connection with early releases like 1995's Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out). The Woods featured fuzzed-out guitars and a marriage of punk and prog aesthetics that threw many fans off but which excited me with the potential of a new sound to revitalize one of my favorite bands. I observed at the time (thinking that the comparison had already been made, though I haven't been able to find it online) that Brownstein, a declared fan of Pete Townsend, had traded him in for Jon Entwistle. Sadly, the band called it quits and the members went their separate ways until 2010, when Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss reunited, with keyboardist Rebecca Cole and guitarist Mary Timony (the latter formerly frontwoman of the Riot Grrrl band Helium), to form Wild Flag, which played shows around the country for the next year and then released their eponymous debut, which, as one can imagine, delighted me immensely.

I could just say that Wild Flag is a mixture of the two aforementioned S-K "sounds," but that would be overly simplistic and probably unfair to the band's two non-alumni (Helium had quite the following in the 90s, and Timony and Brownstein have worked together before in side projects like The Spells). It does seem a blend of S-K's professionally seasoned take on the brash, cocky, and urgently necessary challenge of their native musical culture with the timeless appeal of classic rock (the beginning of "Glass Tambourine" almost sounds like it'll turn into a 70s AM classic). Allmusic critic Heather Phares puts it better than I could here, and I think the takeaway idea is that Wild Flag doesn't feel like a rehash. It's a glorious rejuvenation of 90s attitude for a 10s audience that badly needs it (and yes, simply typing that makes me feel very old). "Romance," the first track, cracks in with a radio-ready pop onslaught that left me happily reeling, and the feeling lingers throughout Wild Flag. "Racehorse" comes close to some of the grinding power of The Woods, but feels very much of the moment. The whole album feels like a united front of everything that was good about its influences, and generates a weird aura of invincibility that feels wonderful this morning. Keep your eyes on these ladies, for they bear aloft a glorious banner. 

All Over Me (1997): The Sichel Sisters--Alex and Sylvia--put this little gem together in the immediate aftermath of Riot Grrrl (or at least its music), and future Wild Flag guitarist Mary Timony's band Helium gives a performance near the end of it. The two apparently never made another feature film, which is sad, as All Over Me's a wonderful evocation of the decade, a touching love story, and an inverse celebration of New York (IFC cinema!). Teenagers Claude (Allison Folland) and Ellen (Tara Subkoff) practice guitar and discuss putting a band together. A gay tenant moves into Claude's building, impresses Claude with his lack of concern for other people's judgments, and instills a weird sort of confidence in Claude's more closeted friend and co-worker Jesse (My So-Called Life's Wilson Cruz). Sadly, he also comes into contact with Ellen's thuggish boyfriend Mark (Cole Hauser, who inspired similar loathing in the underrated Pitch Black a few years later), and the results drive a nasty wedge between Ellen and Claude that brings out hidden facets of their personalities. Claude becomes fascinated by the dashing Lucy (The L Word's Leisha Hailey) and Ellen starts to wonder whether her feelings for Mark are worth the appalling price of being with him. All Over Me came out a couple of years after 1995's flashier, more publicized Kids, but it's a much better movie, dealing with similar themes without the sensationalized pomposity of the other (I saw Kids director Larry Clark's thematic followup Wassup Rockers--an Ann Arbor Film Festival featured work--several years back, and it was awful). The homophobia briefly touched on in Kids becomes a central feature of All Over Me, and it's sobering to think that Matthew Shepard's murder took place after All Over Me came out. This isn't a film playing it safe and easy with the issues. The pace and writing flow very well, the music's terrific (the early S-K song "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" on Claude's headphones), and the performances engaging. The big ones here are Folland and Hauser. Though both Folland and Subkoff are good, Folland has the more interesting story, as the "plainer," more introspective partner in the friendship, and she really brings out her character's inner fire, especially when All Over Me's defining event forces her to face off against her friend. It's doubly arresting to watch her quench that fire while learning how to handle her new relationship with Lucy. Hauser, in contrast, manages to render what could have been a cartoonish ur-douchebag dramatically compelling while leaving hardly any redeeming features. I normally frown upon wholly one-dimensional characters in "realistic" films, but somehow Mark seems to work in context. I'm not sure I've despised a character in a movie so much since Eric Colvin's "Man" in the experimental 2006 British horror film Broken. All in all, All Over Me (didn't mean to do that, but leaving it there)'s a great little film in so many ways, not least for giving the viewer a permanent visual entree into a past era, whose many positives are kept alive, however problematically, by bands like Wild Flag and shows like Portlandia.


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 22 January 2012 11:23 AM EST
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8 January 2012
Going To There
Now Playing: The Go! Team--"Apollo Throwdown"

My hibernation this year (complicated by the sight several minutes ago of goldfinches outside my window) coincides with the availability of any number of great or interesting-looking TV shows on Netflix streaming, and one of the ways in which I intend to beat the cold this year is to catch up on several. First up is a show that I quite enjoyed some time back but inexplicably fell out of watching.

30 Rock (2006-)

Former Saturday Night Live performer and head writer Tina Fey pitched 30 Rock as a semi-autobiographical look at a comedy variety show on NBC. Soon after its greenlighting, it went on to become a "tentpole" (to quote Tracy Jordan) for NBC's legendary Thursday night lineup, a time and place defining the national form since the mid-1980s heyday of The Cosby Show and Cheers. Critically acclaimed, steeped in NBC lore, and strong enough to not only survive but also obliquely comment on threats like low ratings, NBC's purchase from GE by Comcast (the latter indirectly responsible for this blog!) and a number of threatened departures by star Alec Baldwin, it's now entered a sixth year with no apparent plans to call it quits. Besotted like a great many others with Fey's wit, comic timing, and quirky sex appeal, I made sure to check it out when it first emerged, despite reservations over the likely avalanche of self-referentiality. 30 Rock began at the high-water mark (God willing) of hipster snark, and I was worried that it would grow too toxic too quick. If anything, the opposite proved true; for all its cleverness, the show is often strikingly old-fashioned. My relief may have made me a little complacent, and my decision not to "digitize" during the 2009 changeover led me away from the show until my hibernation this winter and decision to further explore the sitcom.

Liz Lemon (Fey), veteran of Chicago's famed Second City improv troupe, is head writer for The Girlie Show, a Saturday Night Live simulacrum on NBC (in Manhattan's Rockefeller Plaza, hence "30 Rock") suffering from low ratings. Her hangdog producer Pete Hornberger (Scott Adsit) generally lurks on hand to help with the increasingly diva-like behavior of star (and Liz's friend from the old days) Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), as well as the obstreperousness and laziness of the writing staff, including metaphorically basement-dwelling slob Frank Rositano (Judah Friedlander) and snooty Harvard man James "Twofer" Spurlock (Keith Powell). Any menial jobs can be easily delegated to pathologically cheerful page Kenneth Parsell (Jack McBrayer), a starstruck transplant from the Georgia hills (with an increasingly mystifying story arc). The template shatters when GE decides to make its child company pay a little more of its way and sends husky-voiced executive shark Jack Donaghy (Baldwin) to shake things up by personally supervising the show, hiring variably certifiable black comic Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan)--star of Fat Bitch and Who Dat Ninja?, accompanied by stalwart entourage Grizz (Grizz Chapman) and Dot-Com (Kevin Brown)-- to boost ratings, and renaming the show TGS with Tracy Jordan. Jenna feels threatened by Tracy's popularity, Liz frustrated with Jack's interfering, and things surely can't end well.

Five years later, TGS is still on, having successfully weathered a hundred episodes, the same writing staff, a few new (fake) cast members, an abortive Janis Joplin (or "Jackie Jormp-Jormp" due to rights restrictions) biopic, Liz's near-transformation into a ghastly, The Rules-spouting daytime thug, something like eight jillion of Liz and Jack's boyfriends and girlfriends, and NBC's sale to "Kabletown." The only apparent wrinkle is that Jack's wife, MSNBC conservative commentator Avery Jessup (a hilariously waspish Elizabeth Banks) has been detained as a spy by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il (Margaret Cho, in what I thought a hilarious reference to Team America: World Police). Answers to any lingering questions will begin to arrive this Thursday night at 8 pm Eastern. The road in between felt like a long, funny rollercoaster, with steady heights towards the beginning and regular peaks and troughs ever after. I watched all of 30 Rock on Netflix starting around Christmas, and the experience--one continuous story, anchored around a few main characters, over almost 102 half-hour episodes (the 100th being the hour-long exception)--left me more than a little exhausted. After each bout, I would feel that maybe 30 Rock was starting to grow stale and tired, but on each return, I was surprised at how much I wanted to see the storylines resolved, and how much I wanted the characters to be happy (a forlorn hope--none of these people will ever be happy, apart from Kenneth, and he has little choice in the matter).

The witty, touching relationship between Liz and Jack lies at the show's heart. It's little surprise, as one of the most successfully portrayed platonic friendships in TV history centers around two of the most endearing and complex characters on American television at present. Liz, the liberal, metropolitan single woman in her thirties, has little in common with Jack, the conservative, high-flying aspiring plutocrat hitting his half-century, but they both come to respect and even love each other in ways that feel neither stale nor contrived. It seems to start out with Liz recognizing Jack's essential loneliness (like Stephen Root's Mr. James on NewsRadio, he seems to get a kick out of hanging around the show that doesn't exist in his "outer life"), and Jack recognizing Liz's (often quite explicit) potential for ruthlessness. Both, too, are transplants in New York, Liz from Pennsylvania's coal country, and Jack from South Boston. Their pasts often come back to haunt them in various ways, e.g. Liz in visits from her father (a perfectly cast Buck Henry) and Jack in an unexpected dalliance with a high school classmate (a "wicked haahd" Julianne Moore). There are strong roots, but it's hard to describe the flowers as they develop. For me, it's enough that they're there. The perfect casting of Fey and Baldwin certainly doesn't hurt; both have won well-deserved Emmys for their work on the show, and it's all doubly entertaining for those who remember Baldwin's hilariously intense work in action films earlier in his career. By the time Avery suggests that maybe they're both too involved in too weird a way, "Liz and Jack" is far too elemental a concept to ever destroy.

As with the American version of The Office, one of the show's great strengths is the length to which it explores the talents and backstories of the supporting cast. Jane Krakowski--though cast in place of first choice, Fey's SNL castmate Rachel Dratch (who shows up in assorted parts throughout the show, especially in the first series)--is brilliant as Jenna, using her Broadway background to give TGS' original star just the right blend of actual talent and comical self-delusion (she would have been perfect as my former boss Fluffy, even if the latter looked more like Greta Gerwig--if the mumblecore goddess tried out for one of those Real Housewives reality shows). On paper, Tracy Jordan is largely a collection of insane speech, but Morgan somehow manages to knit it together to make it seem like it comes from a real character. The closest thing to a "Mary Sue" on the show is Pete, but Adsit's manic melancholy drives that one south double-time, especially given the existential sadness that lies in his forced catchphrase. Kenneth (McBrayer is arguably one of the show's breakout performers) can be seen as both a celebration and criticism of Southern mores, and a cautionary tale against watching too much television. Even the minor supporting characters shine. Twofer's opening discomfort with Tracy's hiring (a proud black Ivy Leaguer, he resents what he sees as Tracy's reinforcement of negative black stereotypes--the latter bad enough to provoke Tracy's claims that the NAACP tried to have him assassinated) eventually leads the show to humorously explore racial issues in comedy. Frank's unhygenically dissolute lifestyle conceals a surprisingly ambitious past revealed in an unexpectedly touching (if part-ironic) episode in which his mom tries to interfere in his life once again. Dot-Com's position in Tracy's entourage conceals an extensive background in classical drama. In a great moment, Tracy freaks out when Dot-Com auditions for an opening on TGS because, in a long ago performance of Chekhov's The Seagull at Wesleyan Art Space, "he became Trigorin!" I wouldn't be surprised if that was a Python in-joke. By the end of the fifth season, though, my personal favorite (and unexpected crush) was the silent yet formidable Franco-Dutch Sue LaRoche-Van Der Hoot (Sue Galloway), whose backstory is so ridiculous that I don't want to potentially spoil it even in writing about a show with such an endless variety of gags and stories.

The care for the characters is all the more impressive when it's considered that they're all basically cartoons (almost literally, in Kenneth's case). My friend Tara watched the DVD commentary for an episode in Season 3 guest-starring Alan Alda, and he observed that all the characters basically speak and act directly from their subconscious. The result, as one might imagine, is a gloriously satirical view of the world, with a sharp edge that sets it well apart from a show like Parks and Recreation (with a vaguely "Liz-Jack" relationship in Leslie and Ron that feels different largely for that very reason). Where the characters of Parks and Rec are just barely positive (even Jean-Ralphio), those of 30 Rock are all just barely negative. They're all vaguely venal or delusional enough for their follies to define them, and as such, it's all a perfect metaphor for America in the aughties.

The satire extends to the show's wider universe. There's probably no other show that better portrays the fundamental absurdity of American life over the past decade. FOX shows like Arrested Development and The OC (both set in Newport Beach, California) lacerated the extremely wealthy in various ways, while NBC sitcoms like Parks and Rec or Community (Donald Glover, who plays the latter's fallen sports star Troy Barnes, was a story editor, writer, and occasional performer for 30 Rock) explore the lives of the middle and working classes through the framing devices of small-town government and continuing education. 30 Rock, on the other hand, sits at the nexus of entertainment and politics, embodying the general character of American life in the G-Dub and Obma years. The TGS crew's postmodern illusion of "soft" power is consistently outmatched by the real power of Jack's political connections, and the results are depressingly hilarious to behold. The absurdity of corporate politics constantly arises with every mention of NBC's immediate organizational superior: the Sheinhardt Wig Company. The fundamental intellectual bankruptcy of modern American conservatism exposes itself when Jack briefly serves in the Bush administration, and his department turns out to be a fly-by-night outfit where his colleague "Cooter" (Matthew Broderick) firmly denies the existence of water leaks that are plainly visible. The show's politically liberal critique lasts into the Tea Party era, when Jack sponsors likeminded goon Steven Austin (John Slattery) into running against troublesome Congresswoman Regina Bookman (Queen Latifah), and his white knight takes to building couch forts in his office and suggesting the reintroduction of slavery. 

 At least one commentator on Cookdandbombd (an Anglo-Irish comedy web forum), though, accused 30 Rock of being conservative, in that it preached knuckling under and following the status quo. This is true in the sense that 30 Rock will never be, say, a film by Ken Loach or John Sayles, but it does pretty well for what it is (hate that phrasing though I do). If anything, it's all the more realistic in portraying a world in which Jack's values generally win out, and in which good (or -ish) people have to make do. One aspect of Liz's framing is a case in point for this complexity. There's been criticism I've seen on other sites (can't remember where, probably CAB or Jezebel) where Liz's alleged "unattractiveness" comes in for brickbats. Fey herself is gorgeous, and the idea that a simple pair of glasses makes one an ugly duckling is indeed straight out of She's All That. The question, though, is pretty directly addressed early on in Season 1, when Liz goes with boyfriend Floyd (SNL's Jason Sudeikis) on a visit to Cleveland (a fun moment for this former Akron resident). People start to ask if she's a model and tell her to eat more. Jenna's take? "We're *all* models west of the Alleghenies, Liz." It's a great satire on elitist arrogance and the bizarre tightrope that women have to walk (Liz's presence in the age old narrative "family or career?" is reflected in the ludicrous aesthetic demands society makes on women). Everything in New York becomes more extreme, and this surrealist contradiction-heightening gives 30 Rock its special tone and makes it the brilliant, occasionally infuriating embodiment of NBC that will return this Thursday.


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 8 January 2012 3:33 PM EST
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30 December 2011
Mumblecore Navidad
Now Playing: Scott Walker--"Montague Terrace (In Blue)"

Winter's setting in, and a new year (perhaps the last one, if your name's "Eight Deer Lord" or some such) looms. I'm warily hopeful for Sunday's arrival, which will hopefully begin to see a payoff for what's been a very busy year. I supervised a garden, worked my day job, wrote ten stories, edited a longer project, began another, visited another country (if "only" Canada) and actually saw two movies in the theater--Attack the Block and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. I've gone out a lot less and saved a bit more, though still fully able to enjoy great times with wonderful friends. I switched shifts at work and did a lot more actual cooking there, though I miss the valuable cross-pollinating cultural influences of my two former shiftmates, both of whom shuffled around at about the same time. I haven't kept up with new music or art as well as I have in the past, though I'll chalk this up to my work habits as much as my reduced access to the new. The year, as a result, seemed to pass awfully quick, world events such as the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement helping it along.

I turned thirty-seven last month, and though I reckon I've got a good couple of decades left (barring the vagaries of geopolitical conflict, sociopolitical corrosion, and environmental depletion, each one likely moving more and more towards some appalling synergy--i.e. if I'm not killed in a food or water riot), I feel the need to grow more discriminating in my activities and cultural intake. As an occasionally very wise co-worker of mine once put it, "I'm too old for stuff that sucks." My hibernation last winter was a great success, and I'll be trying something similar in the next few months. Music to hear, books to read, TV and films to watch (especially the former on Netflix streaming), food to cook, and above all stories to write and share (and even sell, to the few venues still going in for that kind of thing). I've been promising myself to do that since I was first--and last--published, five years ago, and now that I'm almost at fifty stories, I really have little excuse left to get my ass in gear. The next year promises to be very interesting in many ways, whatever happens outside the confines of my now-beloved garret.

The quiet exhilaration I feel has been strengthened by recent forays into films and TV, in which I'd slacked considerably over the past year in favor of my own creative process. Catching up on Parks and Recreation, Party Down and Community whetted my appetite for more, and I'm now in the middle of 30 Rock, with How I Met Your Mother, My Boys, and several web series to follow. It's an exciting enough time to be watching television (arguably the dominant American art form, having taken over from cinema sometime during the last decade) that I'm almost tempted to get one myself just for their being so damn cheap (we have a communal TV in the house, but I decided not to get a digital tuner). I'm worried, though, that I'll turn back into the couch potato I could so easily become before the late 1990s, and that all my ambitions for the next year will be thwarted. There'll probably be a lot more handwringing, and my growing interest in certain sports (in 2010 it was soccer, this year it was baseball and football; I expect hockey and basketball to get their hooks in me next) and the approach of the Olympics (which would be more compelling were they the Winter Olympics and therefore more likely to include Maelle Ricker, Cindy Klassen or Ashleigh McIvor) will probably induce me to cave at some point in the next couple of months. At any rate, I guess it'll be interesting to see how that transpires.

The Internet, of course, makes it "worse." Just as my creeping interest in sports is intensified by instant access to the stats and standings of every major sports league in the world, as well as liveblogging and occasional video and audio hookups to certain matches and games, it's easier to follow the big picture of the best writing and performing, and the frequently incestuous nature of its development. There are few better examples of these twisted connections than American comedy, which can be ably followed on Splitsider. I write variably humorous speculative fiction, but tend to be more interested in the "humor" side when it comes to influences. The emphasis is partly due to my overriding love of early twentieth-century "weird fiction" (i.e. Lovecraft, Smith, and arguably Burroughs, even though I haven't read much of the latter) which I still consider my primary literary touchstone. I've strayed away from a lot of contemporary horror and sci-fi, largely because they've often tended to split from each other so decisively. It's hard to ignore, though, the vitality of modern comedy, especially in an era with such kaleidoscopic variety and defiant vigor. A good case in point is the career of indie film director (and fellow native Louisianian) Mark Duplass, who started out making acclaimed little flicks like The Puffy Chair (2005) and Baghead (2008) and moved on to comedic acting performances in Greenberg (2010) and the fantasy football sitcom The League (2009-). The web of connections, both in terms of acting credits and general themes, extends far in Duplass' case, and the same is true of a number of others, to the extent that it all seems like a unified whole, if you squint really, really hard. The sense of being a spectator of a genuine movement is an exciting thing, which I'll hopefully be able to discuss later. For the present, though, there are movies to watch.

 Sorry, Thanks (2009): Almost by happenstance, I've become something of an aspiring connoisseur of the so-called "mumblecore" movement, as exemplified by Andrew Bujalski and, yes, the Duplass Brothers, and now continued by the cinematic directorial debut of Dia Sokol, formerly producer of two of Bujalski's films (2005's Mutual Appreciation and 2008's wonderful Beeswax, and coming from a behind-the-scenes career in reality TV, of all places). My fondness for the things surprises me a little; I can well see how the aesthetic might put people off. I've written before about the basic setup: somewhat directionless twenty- or thirtysomethings living in urban areas, liberal, culturally aware, and despite or because of the signifiers, largely powerless (or at least portrayed as such). For someone like myself who ticks more than a few of these boxes, it can be both hilariously familiar and uncomfortably close to watch films of this sort. Max (Wiley Wiggins, probably best known as young Mitch in Dazed and Confused) and Kira (Kenya Miles) have a "morning after" moment in San Francisco's Mission District (refreshingly non-northeastern for a change) and the film's scope gradually widens to reveal the scope of Max and Kira's ambitions, desires, and how those affect others, in particular Max's painfully sweet girlfriend Sara (Ia Hernandez). It's a small, offbeat film that genuinely earns its quirkiness for a change, by leaving this viewer unsatisfied in a good (or at least artistically valid) way--the same, after all, can be said for all the film's characters. Kira's trying to recover from a breakup and find a low-level job despite being "overqualified" for the ones available. Sara, never terribly comfortable with Max's apparent distance from both her and himself, is saddened to find him drifting farther and farther away throughout the film. Mason (Andrew Bujalski himself), Max's entertainingly abusive best friend, is constantly frustrated by Max's charming, gregarious idiocy.

Max is the most interesting character, or at least the one with the most screen time and personal connections, and I found it a very low-key indictment of the film's world that things emerge this way. He's charming and sleazy at the same time, and it's a credit to Wiggins that both qualities come through equally strong. In many ways, he's a typical "Nice Guy (TM)," saying all the right things and projecting the right sensitivity and humor, but operating with a fundamental disrespect for his partner. It's refreshing, though, that he's not creepily possessive; his foibles seem activated more by ennui and boredom than anxiety (working in a senator's office, his opening pitch to two aspiring interns is bleakly hilarious). Kira, freshly out of a breakup, is out for simple companionship (and something less than what her admirer Simon can offer), but can't stop running into Max wherever she goes. Her own life, in contrast to Max's, is full of anxiety, much of it frustration from her last job and hoping to finesse her approach just right for a low-level copy-editing job (Kira has her own great workplace moment, giving classic stock answers for her job interview with a lack of conviction perpetually threatening to break through the surface). Miles gives Kira a loose yet slightly uneasy charm, the soul of someone adrift and wondering if the slinky thing before them is a rope or a snake. The supporting characters are rather less fleshed out, with the notable exception of Sara, portrayed with deceptive cuteness by Hernandez. Her own self-realization (at least in relation to Max) doesn't reach full blast until the end, but when it does, it's a doozy, and perfectly rounds out Sokol's quietly brilliant little work.


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 9:25 PM EST
Updated: 30 December 2011 9:28 PM EST
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30 November 2011
Red Stick Railing
Now Playing: Best Coast--"Crazy For You"

Last year, the growth of security theater around the already pallid corpse (for me) of American air travel--in other words, the new TSA regulations--drove me to promise myself that I would give the allegedly pallid corpse of American rail travel a shot next year. I'd been mulling over the idea in any case for a few years, and found the extra irritation of the TSA (potential, as it turned out in my case) simply the straw that broke the camel's back. I'd taken the train a couple of times as a kid, from Baton Rouge to Memphis and back again to visit my uncle, and a couple of times as an adult, once from Ann Arbor to Royal Oak (a Detroit suburb, for you non-Michiganders) for my friend's wedding reception, and from Ann Arbor to Chicago and back again for my aunt's graduation from Methodist seminary at Northwestern. All trips were quite pleasant (and inexpensive, at least the more recent ones), and fairly short (though the Royal Oak trip was only the start of my odyssey that day, a bracing hike and bus ride through one of the first major American metropolitan areas to have been planned with an eye towards making pedestrians obsolete).

This year's Thanksgiving trip would be a different matter altogether. I'd board in Ann Arbor, take the "Wolverine" train to Chicago, have a three-hour layover in Union Station (site of the famous Brian DePalma Potemkin ripoff in The Untouchables, which had once been my favorite movie in middle school), and then take the "City of New Orleans"  (famously celebrated by Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson) from Chicago to Hammond, Louisiana, a trip lasting through the night and much of the day. From this last named, seat of Tangipahoa Parish, and a pleasant town (one of probably more than a few "strawberry capitals") north of New Orleans and east of Baton Rouge (and best of all, south of Tickfaw, one of the greatest place names in human geography) which I got to know quite well during the horrible city directory job I had right after college which helped kill my first car (among other things), my people would pick me up and drop me off, as it's only a half-hour drive from Baton Rouge. The other possibility was going all the way into New Orleans and then taking the bus to Baton Rouge. The pickup seemed simpler, all agreed.

Louis CK's great riff on air travel is well-taken, but I've been growing disillusioned with the medium for a while. Planes have shrunk to tin cans, airports have lost their cosmopolitan flair, at least for me (the airport always used to be my favorite part of the trip), and last but not least, the round trip shuttle from Ann Arbor to Detroit Metro Airport usually runs around $100 ($45 each way, then tip). Add to that an airport tax running somewhere around $50-65 and there can be a fairly hefty financial argument for rail travel. My ticket actually cost a few dollars over the cheapest available airfare, but there was all that stuff I didn't have to pay, and the lure of adventure (or at least unfamiliarity) offered by the train that the plane (something that admittedly, pace Louis, "flies through the air... incredibly") didn't really conjure anymore. So, mindful of the issues, I committed myself, and set off the 21st of November, traveling across the country to my boyhood home.

I doubt I'm spoiling this for anyone, but it was fantastic. It'll be a good long while, hopefully, before I see the inside of a plane again. Where to start?

1. The scenery was a huge selling point. It's a fine and memorable thing to see the earth from 30,000 feet up or however high you fly, but it does start to get samey, especially if you follow, as I have for the past decade, a well-worn groove between the Great Lakes and the Gulf Coast (flying from Akron to Santa Barbara to visit my friend Karen, she of the aforementioned wedding reception, was an eye-opener--not only was it my first experience of the Pacific, but also my first exposure to proper, stereotypical mountains, with snowcaps, edges, and everything). Forest, rivers, farmland, lather, rinse, repeat. It makes a colossal difference to see it all from the window of a train. The beginning and end of my trip were especially noteworthy, as I previously had quite different experiences of those landscapes.

Some of you will know the beauty of Ann Arbor's parks and waterways, especially the Huron River, and there was a special pang I felt on leaving the station and traveling alongside the last named for a few minutes, as work and weather have prevented me from doing the old cycle photography for a couple of months. Having ridden to Dexter last summer, and having ambitions to visit Chelsea the same way (the latter not the bloated English Premier League soccer giant but a small town in western Washtenaw County), there was a bit of a thrill in seeing the towns (and inoperative rail stations) on the way west. South Mississippi was another case; on our yearly family trips to visit grandparents in Jackson, we would always travel north along I-55, noting the signs for various towns along the way--Brookhaven, Hazlehurst, McComb (the last named the site of Robert Moses' insanely heroic work in educating and registering voters in the early 1960s). The way was pretty quick, but it never really gave you more than the "18-wheeler view"--gas stations, a McDonald's, and various "gas, food, lodging" signs. The train gave you the lowdown on each postcard-pretty, "Rose For Emily"-like location, city halls, grand, decaying houses, and spruced up, largely unused train stations rolling unobtrusively past amid the kind of landscape that easily cozens gullible Hollywood filmmakers into thinking "maybe it wasn't so bad after all."

All that leaves aside the natural beauty showing up in pretty unlikely places. The endless Southern drill of pine trees, spread needles and rest areas coating I-55 between those aforementioned towns gives way just off the road to a mess of marsh, farmland, and forest in which hawks and egrets cavort unmolested, the latter taking long, flaxen dumps into still, shimmering ponds. The same goes for much of Indiana's Lake Michigan coast (extending into southwest Michigan along the St. Joseph River, site of Spain's brief, hilariously abortive occupation of present-day Michigander turf at Niles--a fittingly Catholic irruption, being just down the river from South Bend and Notre Dame), abruptly shifting from the industrial Moloch of Hammond and Gary into a patchwork of greens and golds studded with ponds, inlets, and the kind of weird, dream-like horizon that you often see far to the north of the Lower Peninsula. Then there's your David Lynch form of natural beauty. I fell asleep before Memphis on the way down (though it came in half-hour increments, from what I remember), but was able to catch the dawn and sunrise on the way back amid the comfortingly bleak prairies and corn plots of central Illinois, feeling time stretch forever and eternity beckon, especially if you're listening to the right music.

2. The culture made a fascinating study. Rail travel used to be a huge deal in this country (and hopefully will be again), and in a place as big and diverse as the U.S., it's hard not to fall victim to certain myths. It was definitely a worry for me, as I knew more than my share of train fetishists in grad school. I can scarcely think about railroads without thinking of "them" (love them though I did) happily moan "choo-choo trains"(half-jokingly, I'm convinced) at the mere mention of their beloved transportation medium. As a result (?), the people-watching wasn't as rich as I thought, but after twelve hours, it'll get a little old, I don't care how vitally human and life-affirming you are. I'm pretty sure there were a couple of suggestive glances here and there, but I'm notoriously bad at identifying and interpreting such, and it was hard to tell in any case when the only thing on most people's minds was sleeping more than an hour at a time. Socializing was limited, but necessary when it came to the dining car, as there were many passengers and limited seating. I wound up striking up a conversation with Marty, a friendly glazier from Springfield, Illinois, who had heard of my workplace and was heading for New Orleans for a family-free holiday (on culture shocks and Ann Arbor: "I went to Illinois, so having a winning football team was a culture shock"). The food was all right, though inevitably overpriced (still, they served food, planes, did you hear that?), and the burger I ate stayed with me for a long time. Beer (basically Bud and Heineken) was the same, though it really didn't cost much more than it would at, say, the Alley Bar. Still, I'll definitely have to plan more carefully in that area next time (which I started to on the Wolverine my way back, forgoing food and grabbing sodas at the CVS by Union Station).

Things reached their peak late at night on my thirty-seventh birthday, which was also the first day of my return trip. I had brought my laptop, and the train didn't have wi-fi (which was usual, except for short routes and easily covered areas, like the northeast corner handled by the high-speed Acela). This was something approaching bliss, to be honest, even if the great British Horror Films "Agadoo Cup" had just started (of which more below or possibly later this week?). I was still able to listen to my music and transcribe stuff I was writing, mainly for a few longer projects (I wrote much of the original of this post between Dowagiac and Kalamazoo). Sitting at a table in the "Sightseers' Lounge" (an observation deck just before the dining car that allows substantial views both sides and above), typing away furiously after I finished a page (I generally try to write manually before typing, especially for these projects, though sometimes, as with this post, it's a little impractical), digging the Edward Hopper-like solitude passengers implicitly request at that hour and usually get, despite the cackling little kid playing Uno with his mom and brother (replacing the other cackling little kid playing Travel Scrabble with his grandma), letting the mood carry me on, the Stygian darkness of western Tennessee rolling by out the window (it may be different during the day), I wrote almost four thousand words that day (mostly that evening, as I was wrestling with The Tale of Genji for much of the remainder), comfortably busting my earlier record. It was a great birthday, all told, though I promised myself more physical pleasures the next day. Speaking of which...

3. The Chicago Layover! I had tried to avoid laying any plans too grandiose for two to three hours free in downtown Chicago (each way!). So when your only stab at megalomania in that regard is a possible visit to the Art Institute, I think you're in pretty good stead. We rolled in around five on the 21st, and after I regained my bearings regarding Union Station, I took a hike down Canal, then Madison Street, wondering how long it would take me to reach Michigan Avenue and possibly the lake (about fifteen, twenty minutes, it turned out). I already doubted my chances of hitting the Art Institute at all, so I simply redoubled my steps and ran right into Reckless Records, a local store with a few locations around the metro area. After finding the Go! Team's new album, Rolling Blackouts (which I've seeking out for a while), I started back towards Union Station, where the line for the "City of New Orleans" resembled the exit visa-seekers' procession in Casablanca. On the return journey into the station, we had our own form of architectural tour contrasting the magnificence of the Loop with the institutional decrepitude of the South Side. As the great skyscrapers slowly came into view, the increasingly cloudy skies actually rendered them more impressive than they might have been on a sunny day. Storing my luggage, I set off for breakfast at Lou Mitchell's, less than a block away. It's a little sad to hear on your way north that "limited breakfast service will be offered" only a couple of hours before Kankakee, knowing that Lou Mitchell's awaits at trip's end, especially when it takes the form of a turkey sausage omelet with gravy and hash browns, city sophisticates (poisonously?) glittering even at half past nine on a Saturday morning, and a little girl giving her too-boisterous uncle a deserved stinkeye.

Lou Mitchell's--and indeed downtown Chicago in general (at least the few streets I walked that day)--startled me with friendliness and familiarity. This impression may be somewhat illusory. A friend sojourned there for a couple of years and went through a nasty depression before returning to Ann Arbor, and I myself got a rather cagey response when complimenting a fellow shopper at Reckless for buying Jules Dassin's 1950 noir classic Night and the City. Even given that wealth of anecdotal evidence, it felt open and accessible in a way I doubt New York ever would (though I haven't been there in ten years, and then only a day). Toronto was the same in many ways, even with that extra Canadian distance. Something to do with the Lakes, maybe? It helped that I was able to stroll through so much cultural history during a walk of just a few blocks, architectural and cinematic above all. Architectural placards (very prestigious stuff in Chicago) stood out in a way I hadn't noticed the last time, and I got into it to the extent of accidentally interrupting an architectural tour at Adams and LaSalle. "Where's the Rookery?" asked some guy in passing. "It's around the corner!" I replied, pretty much exhausting my twenty-second-old knowledge. It turned out, of course, that the guy was leading a tour and the line was part of the spiel. Very briefly chastened, I wound up turning on Michigan, taking a good long optical whiff of the majestic skyline (the Art Institute opened way too late for me to go, especially with that line that suspiciously resembled something out of Casablanca), and then taking a plunge through Grant Park, whose historical importance as the site of the 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention has since been eclipsed for me by its importance as the focal point for Haskell Wexler's magnificent Medium Cool. Walking up to the Chicago River's series of bridges (uh... the opening to Perfect Strangers?), then back down and along Madison (ducking inside Reckless again), looking down LaSalle and remembering the first great confrontation in The Untouchables, wondering how much territory out of my walk Ferris, Cameron and Sloane might have covered in forever deleted or lost scenes from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, deciding to track down as many great unseen Windy City films as I could... it was a fantastic morning, and only really started raining once I got back to Union Station. I bounded inside, down the DePalma ripoff steps, and then to retrieve my luggage and head for the gate, where I found that the line for the Wolverine had exhausted my limited repertoire of cheap Casablanca comparisons.

Thanksgiving itself passed pleasantly and without incident, which was something of a surprise as my brother and sister-in-law were out of town on the day visiting friends in Texas. It was good to see the family, eat and drink, and once more take stock of how much my hometown has changed since I was born and grew up there. As my brother drove me from Hammond, the forests and fields had been cleared more and more with empty lots waiting for McMansions and McMansionettes to sprout. The city itself was thronged more and more with big box shopping centers and developments upon developments, spreading out from a relatively rejuvenated city center struggling to keep control of the exurban centrifuge. I never paid much attention to urban planning issues when growing up, and now that life in Ann Arbor has necessarily whetted my interest, I wonder if the frenzy for development was always there, some neo-"New South" thing that I'd hardly ever noticed due to my fondness for Baton Rouge's more senior districts, like downtown and the area around LSU (not to mention my old neighborhood, which I'm guessing doesn't look all that different). The last time I'd hit the place and veered outside family gatherings, I had been more than a little surprised by the changes in the riverside downtown.

Probably the biggest single change for me to face was the disappearance of Village Square, an old-school strip mall relatively near my neighborhood off College Drive and the site of so many formative experiences and distinctive small businesses. Elliott's Books, where my dad would buy us a book every week when we were kids (and who claimed with partial conviction that their downfall was due to the establishment of my former employer Barnes and Noble nearby). K&B, local branch of the New Orleans-based drugstore giant whose signature logo and ice cream were an indelible part of local culture, and where I worked the glorious summer of 1994. Frumbrussels, the painfully cute candy store where I developed an infernal crush on lovely, lace-curtain Deadhead cashier Julie and wrote a godawful story about it, later published in my college literary magazine (there was a larger one later partly concerning her which wasn't as bad, but still a trial). Last but not least, Coffee Call, Baton Rouge's home of beignets, where my family would eat most Sundays before church, and which I would later treat as my own Cafe Deux Magots--as, in my defense, would many, many others--in the infant glory of my nicotine habit, indulging in reading, writing (the likes of which I cringe to remember), visiting with friends, an hour debate on "Westerns vs. musicals" with a girl named Thais, the incongruity of my K&B workclothes in said setting, the gradual realization of hippies' drawbacks from watching artist Dan, the general thrill of starting to make my own life, and a weeklong fling with the wacky, ravishing Nicole the aforementioned summer, a fling well over by the time we organized a convoy to Lollapalooza at New Orleans (and therein lies a tale). In retrospect, it may have been unsurprising how eerily the memories clustered there, for it was a lovely place I didn't truly appreciate until I moved away. Unlike many strip malls, it was built with a sense of character, its central structure bisected with an L-shaped, verdant expanse of grass and flowers, occasionally spanned by the odd arched bridge, covered to create a strangely Japanese feel. On warm summer nights, when the intense summer heat of the Louisiana day had hoiled off and the kids, myself included, got friskier and rowdier, it could seem like a punkass version of The Arabian Nights, or did to my old suburban self. A few years ago, the central structure was completely torn down and replaced by a Wal-Mart; that didn't really hit me until last week.

A weird ambition of mine that's been building for a couple of years is to return for a week sometime and try out a "normal" visit, one that isn't for a wedding, funeral or holiday. You would have to pay me a great deal of money to live anywhere in the South again, but if I had to, Louisiana would probably be the state and Baton Rouge the place. For my money, there's more interesting history, culture and music than elsewhere in the region (and vastly better food) and my personal background might make an easier adjustment (though the opposite could well be true). That, at any rate, was my position until last week. It would be interesting to see if it still holds in the face of the preschool local political trends that have swept the country and have probably hit the South worse than other (though they didn't exactly have to hit very hard). For example, will the public institutions and transit systems measure up against places that believe more in government? Is Eddie Money still available on an hourly basis on the radio station whose call sign I've thankfully forgotten the same way that Dave Matthews still is at Ann Arbor's WQKL? There's information available, but I'd be curious to see how much feels familiar to me and how much I now need to learn. I expect one thing I won't need to learn is that Baton Rouge will always be a part of me, even if I'll likely never again be a part of Baton Rouge.

Apologies for that annoying "stinger" ending. I'm not being ironic; it just seemed rather pat, but I can't quite think how else to end it. Happy December.

 


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 1 December 2011 12:14 AM EST
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21 October 2011
Commercial Lives of the Mexican Walrus
Now Playing: Arrah and the Ferns--"Science Books"

"I have trouble keeping lunch down when I read these jeremiads about how sad and mysterious it is that our institutions of government are failing. It's not a mystery. One side wants them to fail [italics mine]. And there's very little the other side can do about it, beside point it out, which the president has started doing--and now he's the one being divisive! They've turned the world inside out."

Michael Tomasky to Steve Benen, 20 October 2011.

That statement had to be gotten out of the way, as it really can't be made enough. For the past couple of years, I've noticed people on Facebook and elsewhere complain about the lack of political bipartisanship on the national (and state, for that matter) level, often with grotesque handwringing and complaints regarding "politicians on both sides of the aisle." This is bullshit; I'll be the first to moan about the shortcomings of liberals and Democrats, but generally because they're becoming less liberal and less Democratic. The reason? That's what is actually happening with many of them. The Overton Window has shifted dangerously to the right in this country and there are still people who think "both sides need to come together," ignorant despite the evidence that one side has no interest in doing so, and that the other side will never be able to do enough of it to satisfy them, no matter how hard they try (and they've done plenty in the last few years). It's one of those  tiresome questions or complaints that are constantly made despite a fairly simple answer, rather like "why do you still watch that show if you actually complain about it or have problems with it?"* It's a bit of a rant, of course, but I've had it up to here with this pathological goal-shifting. Nobody likes to be seen as "ideological," but everybody is in one form or another, regardless of degree. Boston politics and sports writer Charlie Pierce is terribly inspiring in this regard (despite his frequent if entertaining slides into polemicism and his laugh on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me):

"It will be the policy of this blog not to treat ignorance with respect simply because that ignorance profits important and powerful people. It will be the policy to operate on the principle that, while there may be two sides to every question, rarely are they both right. If this blog sees a man walking down the street with a duck on his head, it will report that it saw a man walking down the street with a duck on his head. It will not need two sources for that. It will not seek out someone to tell it that what it really saw was a duck walking down the street with a guy on its ass."

I hardly ever write directly on politics because I get too furious and because there are much better writers for it out there than myself. You may, of course, riposte with my lack of expertise on writing, films, music, etc., but I still feel, in my Paleolithic way, that politics (in its "pure" form, if there is such a thing) is fundamentally important in a way that the others aren't (no matter how often they all converge). Thank you. Now that I've gotten all that out of the way, we can move on to more subjective ramblings and musings on those aforementioned "less important" things so dear to my own heart. 

Given the near-seven years of this blog's existence, a gap of a month or two is hardly something over which I or anyone else should really get "het up." Nevertheless, it always feels a little awkward when I jump back in the pool once more, and never more so than now. Usually I'll have listened to new music, watched new movies, or read new books, and will happily natter away about them. This autumn, though, there's been very little of that. I started writing again in late September after a break of a few months, and I've been a lot more productive than I expected, having knocked down a story, gotten halfway through another, and already embarked on yet another, longer project. In between, I've been editing a few other things and investigating potential venues for whatever work I eventually send out. The latter line I've been pushing for years, but I'm finally at the point where I've got enough work to submit without feeling embarrassed. The venues are a problem, though. In this day and age, they rise and fall like a cybernetic literary Whack-A-Mole, some completely shutting down and others simply not accepting fiction contributions due to volume of submissions (and others springing up out of nowhere).

It's really enough to make one consider the whole self-publishing route. Considering the rate and manner of change in media consumption these days, that option grows more attractive by the week. Established writers (including two I greatly respect, one of whom I've already quoted in this very entry) have trotted out the old Samuel Johnson chestnut, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."** I used to let that line bum me out, but then slowly realized that the Great Cham lived towards the beginning of a literary culture that's now undergoing what I reckon is a sea-change (he also wilfully failed to understand George Berkeley, even if his mockery of American colonists' slaveowning hypocrisy is one of my all-time favorite verbal putdowns). My two published stories appeared (several years ago) via Lulu; why oughtn't others? At this time in my life, I'm starting to see more hidden opportunity in this uncertain literary universe than cause for despair. A good thing? I intend to try the more traditional routes to exposure first, but the alternative no longer appears the unthinkable disgrace it once did.

Inspiration's important, too. My new-ish (six months old) work schedule has partially separated me from my creative colleagues, but we still find time to talk fairly regularly about each other's work. There's also a great deal to be found in fellow bloggers (it gets alphabetic towards the end, though that wasn't the intention)...

Rare Oats: My wonderful friend and former co-worker Tara moved to Chattanooga last year, and has been posting from there ever since, both about life as a transplanted Michigander in the South (the amusing reverse of my situation, being an assimilating Michigander from the South) and about her rapidly progressing pregnancy. Great stuff on life, politics, and culture.

The Argumentative Old Git: My BHF chum Himadri, ensconced in England's Home Counties, started this arts beacon some time back. The most erudite blog I've ever read and a constant inspiration to me, in literary terms, not to forsake the old in pursuit of the new. It wasn't an implicit admonition that took long to accept, but certainly in this rapidly-changing day and age, the survival of any kind of cultural "canon" can only be a good thing, so long as we don't deny other works of quality.

Red Stick Forward: My brother and his wife returned to our hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana several years ago, armed with a snarky wit and incisive political instincts. What else to do with those but start a blog, I ask you? It languished for a while, but is now back with a happy vengeance. Even those not from this country will probably be familiar with Louisiana's bizarre governmental reputation, and the "Red Stick" is particularly instructive, sitting at the meeting place of so many different areas--North and South Louisiana, Protestant and Catholic, Florida Parishes and Trans-Mississippi***, the (much) Greater New Orleans Area and the rest of the States, etc. Also proof that the South hardly lacks its share of sensible progressives, even if they have their work cut out for them, to put it mildly.

Squirrels In Love: Other friends make me look like John Frickin' Henry when it comes to blogging. Take Amy, for example, one of the nicest, sweetest people I know. She really needs to get back into gear, alternating gorgeous musings and fables which, though long-awaited, are always worth it. Hopefully she'll update more frequently in future.

Stanger Lore: Jim, another BHF chum, hails from the London area (or Brighton, can't remember which) and has recently updated--thankfully--sharing the burden and delight of being an aspiring writer in the strange, inchoate culture of which I've previously written. It's always good to know there's at least one more out there, especially one with as big a heart and compelling literary impulses as he.

Sour Salty Bitter Sweet: My friend Margot rides forth mercilessly dissecting cherished myths and notions about food, eating, and culinary culture (occasionally my own) and thank everything for it. A cultural scholar at the University of Michigan, she's been working on these issues for her dissertation (hopefully to appear as a book), which are elegantly and usually convincingly played out in the blog (which I really need to read more often).

Banjo Pickin' Girl: My friend and former co-worker Leeann has been teaching English in Costa Rica for the past year and has been blogging about it with unvarnished charm and considerable humor (I had the honor of seeing her at Open Mic Night at the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase and she was easily one of the best performers--not meant as faint praise, I hasten to add). One hopes she'll return to us soon, no matter how interesting the culture or wildlife.

Buxusartis: There's a certain deli somewhere in America which receives food (and food-related) products, many of which are kept in boxes with interesting or noteworthy designs on them. One fine fellow I happen to know has started a blog devoted to these (accidental?) masterpieces, including avocado mascot Nacho Macho, the notorious "Walrus of Michoacan." It's an idea that will hopefully last some time, especially if the sweet potato fine "De Chene Boys" show up once more.

Other literary inspirations have been coming out of the woodwork--or Netflix, anyway. Ever since Deadwood, I've been involved in the American national sport of processing TV through box sets and blocks of episodes--generally through Netflix, and now through Hulu. I've finished Deadwood, The Wire, Party Down, and Veronica Mars (for my money the best American network show of the 2000s), have caught up with Parks and Recreation (for the most part), and am cracking down on Community and Breaking Bad. For some reason, it took until a few hours ago to realize what literary inspirations these shows could be, especially Party Down, which strikes closer to my own personal experience over the past ten years so than any show I've ever seen. I'm still wedded to prose, but the idea of writing teleplays may well lie down the road, especially in this era of DIY film and YouTube. The answer, I suppose, is to keep it diverse, reading both "literary" and "genre" fiction (not really believing in the existence of either) and watching quality TV in an effort to stay in the cultural current. All in all, I reckon I'll be pretty busy this winter, which is probably a good thing as it's likely to be a hard one. Maybe we should move to Tuvalu? In any case, stay safe and warm, and hopefully there'll be more regular foolishness and merryandrewdom from this end.

*A situation which may be familiar to old-school Doctor Who fans in particular. See "Davies, Russell T." and especially "Moffat, Steven."

**The Google search to make sure I got the quote right (there's irony there somewhere if I think hard enough) yielded this refreshing article from a couple of years ago which brilliantly encapsulates the present writing environment (that I've been able to discern) in the relevant paragraph towards the end.

***I'm pretty sure that's really just a military term from the Civil War, but reckon it applies fairly well in this situation.


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 8:32 PM EDT
Updated: 24 October 2011 5:50 PM EDT
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5 August 2011
Hallelujah Hosers
Now Playing: ELO--"10538 Overture"

John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806) was the first Governor of Upper Canada and the effective founder of Toronto, establishing Fort York and designating the embryonic settlement the capital of the new territory (split from Lower Canada, or Quebec, after the growing number of English-speaking Protestant settlers complained about having to live under French law and allegedly dominated by Catholic priests) in 1793. He's probably best known besides for being the first British colonial official to abolish slavery in any capacity, and for his wife Elizabeth, whose diaries apparently figure large in Canadian literature for their early impressions of "British North America." As of the 1st of August of this year, John Graves Simcoe became my freaking hero.

My dad is a member of the American Bar Association, who for some reason were having their annual convention in Toronto this year, and invited me to join he, my brother and sister-in-law, and my half-brothers there for a few days. I hadn't had a "Great Lakes vacation" in four years, and my fondness for the country's music and fascination with the mysterious giant to our north pretty much made it a no-brainer. I'd been toying with the idea of heading through Toronto to Georgian Bay for a couple of days, but this would certainly do nicely. I read some Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro for a little literary background (Atwood's The Robber Bride for Toronto, and Munro's The Beggar Maid for the country in-between, the latter festooned with rolling farmland and spinning windfarms). I got there on July 31, had dinner with the gang, and woke around 4:30 that next morning for what would be one of the great days of my recent life.

Simcoe Day is August 1, honoring the city's founding and its occasionally befuddled founder (whose story is touched on in Alan Taylor's superb The Civil War of 1812). As a result, I got into Fort York (still largely preserved despite the American Army's torching the place in 1813--the stunt that got the White House burned in revenge a year later) free, touring the buildings and watching flag parade. Somehow the "free" part came to symbolize that day, which I spent all across the city--the Distillery District, the University, Little Italy, Ossington, and probably a few other places I've forgotten. Toronto, as unsurprisingly as my gushing can make it, I found a wonderful place, shambolic and even ugly in places, but all the better for that. It's said to lack a real center and even an identity, but then the same has been said for Canada in general, and both have thrived and earned my own admiration despite (or because of?) these alleged lacks. There was a real friendly vibe to the city, which was both classically (stereotypically?) Canadian and thrillingly cosmopolitan; Toronto's long been one of the most multicultural cities in the world and it's very evident everywhere. It didn't feel all that weird to be an American there (even with the farce in Washington underway at those very moments, touched on at the Handsome Furs show Tuesday night); every now and again there were jolting reminders that one was actually in a foreign country, but I have to wonder if I got away with my "disguise" (screwing up on the College St. streetcar doors and not knowing Steamwhistle only made pilsners my two main "mistakes"). It all seemed so unimportant when I was having such a great time.

Monday was a case in point. I started at Balzac's, a coffee shop in the Distillery (which, like another establishment I could name elsewhere in the Great Lakes, seemed to favor all-black attire and took its monicker from a nineteenth-century French author), ambled down the Esplanade, skirted the heart of downtown, hung around Fort York, visited the Ontario Legislative Assembly (out of session), the slightly underwhelming Royal Ontario Museum (of course, I was pretty exhausted by then, which might have had something to do with it), had calamari at a terrifyingly enthusiastic Japanese izakaya, then took the streetcar (the Toronto Transportation Commission deserves odes--and has probably gotten them) west into Little Italy to visit No One Writes To The Colonel, a lovely bar (with probably the best lighting I've ever seen in one), based on owner Marty Smits' joint of the same name back in the old country (Latvia) which was hosting the Short and Sweet film series, sister to similar events in London and Capetown. I chatted with bartender Anna and a couple of the regulars, and then settled down to a batch of diverse little flicks which I sadly had to desert halfway through. If you're ever in Toronto, I highly recommend it, for the friendly neighborhood feel and especially for the St. Ambroise Apricot Ale, the best new beer I had during my trip (I'd made a point to check out some of the "vintages," and that was certainly the most memorably). Afterward, I went west again, getting off at Ossington and walking about twenty minutes to Communist's Daughter, a charismatically divey little place maybe twice the size of my room (named after a song by Neutral Milk Hotel, probably the most popular and influential band ever to come out of Ruston, Louisiana). I'd struck gold again; bartender Michael was celebrating his birthday and there was a festive atmosphere among the regulars, especially after some musicians appeared for an impromptu show (I discovered them to be the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, who have their own page on CBC 3). I contributed to thwarting the B-side of Radiohead's In Rainbows being played, of which I'm very proud. I was pretty well tuned up by then, and left a mawkish note of thanks for the bar in general. I then went to the wrong bar and figured it was probably time to head home, crammed with the unforgettable image of a late summer evening on College Street with bicycles thronging the streets and one of the most genuine, laid-back urban communities I'd ever encountered.

The next day was a little more restful, with a visit to High Park and the rare native savanna of pre-European Ontario, save for tiring through the Art Gallery of Ontario and the increasingly samey Quebecois folk paintings of Cornelius Krieghoff (1815-72; it might have been a little more interesting to see just a sample of his sketches of the Second Seminole War, in which he served during his brief career as an American). The unbeatable collection of the "Group of Seven" (the early twentieth century bunch who tried to liberate Canadian art from European slavishness by stressing the country's natural beauty) and Emily Carr (and the unjustly neglected Kathleen Munn) more than made up for it, though. I had resolved early on that I couldn't leave Canada without seeing a cool band (the Lemon Bucket Orkestra being completely unexpected), as they're now, for me, as emblematic of the country as the Mounties, and went to see the Handsome Furs and Parlovr at the Horseshoe Tavern, more or less the Blind Pig of Toronto (it's about triple the size, from what I could tell). The show was fantastic (I hadn't paid much attention to Parlovr before, but they were marvelous), I didn't indulge nearly as much as the previous night, and it even served as a little taste of Montreal for one American who never wound up making it east of the Don River. Just to be in the same room with someone who had been in Wolf Parade--now sadly disbanded--was thrill enough. Add a leisurely amble along Queen Street West beforehand and anything that happened the next day would be a foregone anticlimax.

It would have been the case anyway as it was completely overcast and I used the time to check out the Islands. The bike rental place was closed, but I got to wander around a bit, get a few nice shots of Lake Ontario, and in general soak up the atmosphere. I also got to wander around the first floor of the CBC building and thrill to the idea that Tom Allen might be broadcasting at that very moment (shame Julie Nasrallah's show comes out of Ottawa). That night, we all went to the top of the CN Tower for dinner (my vertigo proving less of an issue than I'd feared) and I found myself rather thankful that the day hadn't been nicer, as I'd have been sadder to leave (my return to Ann Arbor was less depressing than I'd figured, largely because it isn't another city of similar size and because our bus from Detroit was an hour late). Now I can't decide whether I want to go back to Toronto or check out Montreal next. Either way, it certainly won't be the last time I go back to Canada. Even if customs prove douchier than they did on my trip (I got through fine, but some of my fellow passengers had problems), it's well worth the risk.*

*The Canadians were professionally perfunctory, the American who searched my bag on the way back was pleasant, but his colleague who checked my passport... "Zingerman's... that's quite a famous delicatessen, is it not?" For some reason, the precise diction of the last few words made me wonder if it was he who was shamming and not (potentially) me. A weird educational moment, to say the least.


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 8:22 PM EDT
Updated: 5 August 2011 11:09 PM EDT
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