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Washtenaw Flaneurade
19 July 2008
I Can Scarcely Credit That You Neglected To Tell Me It Couldn't Have Been Industrial-Strength Margarine Abruzzese
Now Playing: The New Pornographers--"Jackie Dressed In Cobras"

While Charlie Pierce certainly still needs his own blog, Ezra Klein's posts, attached to the American Prospect website, are well worth reading, on foreign policy, biking, settlement patterns, why people like myself were lukewarm on Hillary Clinton, and John McCain's scintillating opinions on Social Security.

The streets of Ann Arbor have been seized in the tentacles of the dumbest thing ever, and it's the first year I haven't staffed the Planned Parenthood booth when I've been in town (last year I spent with Jess and the gang in Marquette). With the wedding and the new schedule, I didn't know how much energy I'd have to devote to interests outside the house. Fortunately, I think I've finally gotten used to working evenings instead of days; I was able to go to my friend Nicole's birthday party Tuesday night and not bring down the festivities (at least I don't think so), so these are good signs. It's high time I got back to volunteering and giving back to the community and all that high-minded crap. I also need to start cooking at home again.

L. Sprague De Camp, Lovecraft: A Biography (1975): The literature on H.P. Lovecraft is pretty immense--he's certainly one of the most heavily examined and criticized writers in the realm of weird fiction, due to his influence, his extreme attitudes on a great many subjects, and the voluminous nature of correspondence and archival material. He was a compulsive epistler, and left reams upon reams of letters to friends, casual acquaintances, and fellow writers. Bowled over by the sheer effect of the man's cumulative body of work, as well as the informative introductions to the Penguin editions of Lovecraft's works by S.T. Joshi (who's aslso done Dunsany and the great M.R. James, for whom Lovecraft had a great deal of praise in his 1927 treatise Supernatural Horror in Literature), I decided to check out L. Sprague De Camp's 1975 biography, expecting a needed defaltion, as there's been a good deal of embarrassing idolatry around Lovecraft at least since his death in 1937. De Camp is a wonderful writer, whose early novel Lest Darkness Fall (1939) and his 1940s series collected as The Compleat Enchanter demonstrated a superb gift for rendering exquisite fantastic backdrops and plots while still keeping tongue firmly in cheek to maneuever down-to-earth characters through a spectacular story. Unfortunately, he lets himself and Lovecraft down in the biography. Lovecraft was, by the standards of his day and ours, a very strange character. Smothered by a suffocating mother, he lived most of his life in Providence, with a two-year stint in Brooklyn, never held a job, and didn't seem terribly interested in sex (come to think of it, there are hardly any important female characters in his fiction, besides the strong-willed Asenath in 1933's "The Thing On The Doorstep"). To someone like De Camp, with his engineering background and firm miring in the socially conformist culture of postwar America, Lovecraft's lifestyle couldn't have been any more foreign. Much of De Camp's biography is basically a huge finger-wag at his subject, conducted with a bizarre kind of he-man prissiness that also occasionally mars Lin Carter's 1973 "history of fantasy" Imaginary Worlds (Carter was good friends with De Camp; both contributed mightily to the "sword and sorcery" quotient of American literature during the postwar era). It doesn't help that Lovecraft's racist and anti-Semitic views, though shared by most Americans during his lifetime (though he managed to ignore the latter enough to marry an attractive Jewish businesswoman for two years and stay amicable after their divorce), were expressed in his letters to a depressingly elaborate extent (although he either disowned or moderated most of these views later in his life). De Camp goes to great lengths in (correctly) explaining the then-relative-universality of such views, but does so with an unpleasant smugness that prefigures the jackasses who pride themselves on being "politically incorrect" in our own day (when they're really just endorsing old prejudices in the guise of rebellion against nonexistent oppressors)--he certainly doesn't seem to carry on this way when examining the question of Lovecraft's possible homosexuality (at one point, he mentions that of the "big three" of the classic 1923-54 pulp Weird Tales--Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith--only Smith was never suspected of having "abnormal" sexual urges, or something of that nature). I know it was 1975 and everything, but one can use historical context as a fig leaf. It's an interesting situation, actually; a biographer writing in our day, when culture in general--and presumably the biographer--would be more hostile to such attitudes, probably wouldn't indulge in such showy hand-wringing as does De Camp. De Camp's biography is good enough to start with, i suppose, but I suspect anyone wanting a more informative or sympathetic treatment might be better off with Joshi's, which I sadly haven't read yet (he's also written The Weird Tale, an analysis of the genre in the early twentieth century, which I very much look forward to reading).

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: 18 July 2008 12:22 PM EDT
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14 July 2008
Au Bonheur des Aubergines
Now Playing: Serge Gainsbourg--"Chatterton"

Happy Bastille Day! Aux BarricadesEcrasez l'Infame! Algerie Fra--hey, wait...

I went home to attend my dad's wedding in Baton Rouge last weekend. Usually my visits home are almost entirely family-centric, but this time proved an interesting contrast. My brother and sister-in-law were scheduled to volunteer at "Art Melt," an LSU-affiliated exhibition and festvial along Third Street downtown. They asked if I wanted to hang out downtown for a few hours while this was going on, and it was really a no-brainer. Downtown and the general area around the LSU campus are the only parts of town for which I ever had all that much time. Baton Rouge technically "dates" from 1699, when Bienville first sailed past and saw the famous "Red Stick," but the town itself wasn't much more than a fort with attached buildings (the site of a now largely forgotten battle in 1778 between Spanish and British troops, part of a campaign associated with the American Revolution, in which my Canary Islander ancestor took part) until the early nineteenth century and the layout of still-extant "Beauregard Town," where I used to live for a while.

I hadn't explored downtown in several years, and was curious to see what had happened. Back in the late 90s, downtown was a deservedly well-kept secret, with only a few places to hang out; the quality/quantity disparity was pretty intense. After the state and financial sector's work concluded for the day, the place effectively became a ghost town with a few exceptions. The Thirsty Tiger on Main (and one had to look hard to find it), M's Fine and Mellow Cafe on Third Street, and The Spanish Moon towards the head of the interminable Highland Road--that was pretty much it. It was always a kick to wander the place in the small hours of the morning, nearly able to imagine a genuinely deserted city. In the decade since I lived in Baton Rouge, I'd heard rumors that downtown was undergoing a small revitalization, and was pleased, as it's a fantastic location and if there's a city that could use a density makeover, it's Baton Rouge. After checking it out, I have mixed feelings. There are a number of new places open--bars and restaurants--but the ones open past 5 or so all seem to congregate along lower Third Street and part of North Boulevard. Bogart's, a gay bar where the Desiree's staff would frequently congregate after work, was either gone or massively overshadowed by its next-door neighbor. At least one excellent if overly "hipsterish" new bar, The Red Star (of which more later), lies near the former site of lame "alternative" coffeeshop Insomneeack's, but the establishments down towards North are decidedly more mainstream, almost aiming for a "poor man's Bourbon Street" vibe (although I may be prejudiced in that there was a major festival going on). Boudreaux and Thibodeaux's sounds like what it is, a Cajun-themed bar/restaurant with live music, poboys, and other staples. The Roux House, on the former site of M's, was inoffensive if overpriced, although the lack of character and the crap music made an unfortunate comparison with its predecessor (including the absence of the latter's gloriously certifiable owner). The less said about Happy's Irish Pub the better--it's definitely one of the most grotesque, repulsive "Irish pubs" I've ever seen. Between all these and the river lies the Shaw Center for the Arts, containing a number of galleries and restaurants including the unexpectedly good LSU Museum of Art (greatly expanded from the lackluster Anglo-American Museum that used to hide in the ground floor of Memorial Tower on campus), including Hogarth's Portrait of a Lady from around 1740, G.P.A. Healy's lovely 1845 Lady in a Black Gown, and Thomas Badger's 1820 portrait of Captain Cleves Symmes, who may or may not be John Cleves Symmes, the wacko who tried to organize an expedition to explore the earth's core well before Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs. 

So I had a nice long ramble, hitting the two State Capitols, communing with the river and discovering that they'd put a bike trail atop the levee. I'd made the mistake of entering the Roux House, drifting into the courtyard (their sole improvement) and surveying the crowd outside on Third Street, when I caught sight of an old friend of mine. I'd met this friend through my ex-girlfriend when I was home from college one summer and we got to be quite chummy over the years, taking long drives down River Road, rooting through old graveyards in St. Gabriel, and up to St. Francisville--again, rooting through old graveyards--without my ever figuring out that she had a crush on me (a real shocker that, considering my legendary--to me, anyway--incompetence at picking up signals). Now, of the surprising number of women about which this has been the case, she's way up there. She was and is really cool and I always had a great time hanging out with her. Indeed, I often had twinges while we hung out, wondering, but again, nothing ever came of it. I said hello and we talked for a while, sitting on the curb and then at the Red Star. Great jukebox (Toots and the Maytals and Joy Division both available), good beer, terrific company--one can rail about hipster bars all one wants (and I have), but when one lives in a hipster town (genuine or no), the bar's charms can seem all the more rewarding. We chatted with her friends (among them, astonishingly enough, a guy I used to live with ten years ago, in a boarding house on State Street, a time in my life which still generates great dollops of nostalgia) and we had a long, involved discussion of various sorts. While really cool, she's also genuinely admirable. She not only stayed in Baton Rouge while just about everyone else I know, myself included, hi-tailed it as far away from the place as possible once we'd gotten inevitably sick of it, but also gets involved with and fights for progressive causes, notably sensible transportation (especially bicycle use), in what's surely an unhappy environment in which to do so (and what's with this guy, incidentally?).

 I have never seriously considered moving back to my hometown or home state for various reasons. The whole "ingrained conservative" thing was never that big of an issue (I was, after all, a captive audience for my first two decades and became known as one of my high school's "house liberals"); I'd just lived there too long and wanted to try somewhere else. Those who can't understand this can take comfort from the fact that I've never been able to fathom the need or desire to stay in one place for an entire lifespan or anything remotely approaching it. That said, my friend came closer than anyone else has--or probably ever will--in making me rethink my resolve. At the very least, I plan to keep in better touch with her. I also need to stop mentally writing the place off. In my darkest and most cynical moments, I expect that within a couple of decades, given the present habits of energy use and general attitudes, half of Louisiana will be underwater while the other half will look like the second act of A Boy And His Dog (1975). I should probably stop doing that. After all, how would I feel if people from other countries (to say nothing of online chums from abroad) wrote off the US just because of the past six years (which they probably already have)?

With all this rattling around in my brain, I was unexpectedly preoccupied when my dad's wedding rolled around. It was one of those huge family-society functions to which I used to have a severe allergy and can still only get through with the aid of certain "fluids." To be sure, this had nothing to do with my dad or his new wife. I've met her only twice but she seems really cool and is by all accounts very good with my half-brothers, whose mother tragically passed away two years ago. All in all, it was the usual whirl of mini-family reunions and commiserations with the McKay family "center-left sleeper cell and associates." Good times, all told.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 11:44 AM EDT
Updated: 14 July 2008 12:34 PM EDT
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3 July 2008
Delta Males And Duck Butter
Now Playing: David Bowie--"Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family"

Au Pair Girls (1972): The milieu of the sixties-seventies British "sex comedy" has probably become familiar to American viewers conversant with the subject via dark hints lying behind the bright surfaces of Benny Hill (which I've strangely never seen). A fellow British Horror Forum poster has dedicated much of his free time to chronicling these films--ranging from the dodgier of horror thrillers to outright porn--on, and it was through reading these reviews (I think) that I found Au Pair Girls, which sounds pretty much like what it is. Four young women--Anita from Sweden (Astrid Frank), Randi from Denmark (Gabrielle Drake, a popular actress of the period and sister of tragic folkie hero Nick Drake), Nan from Hong Kong (Me Me Ly) and Christa from Germany (Nancy Wait), fly to London to take up their titular jobs with various families. The color TV-obsessed Anita unwittingly drives her suburban employer (poor Geoffrey Bayldon) insane with lust, goes out with a sleazy cabdiver (Coronation Street's Johnny Briggs, who's surprisingly dull in this) and ends up with a fabulously rich sheik (Ferdy Mayne) who wants her for his harem. Randie's picked up by her boss' son (Richard O'Sullivan, who looks like a hilariously grimy and unwashed James Blunt in a three-piece suit), who keeps having fantasies about naked women (uh... the horror?) and soon finds his dreams becoming reality through a series of ludicrous contrivances. Things take an unexpectedly serious detour as Nan arrives at a rural manor house (which I could swear was the same location for 1974's Vampyres) and finds herself taking care of Rupert (Julian Barnes), an aristocratic family's worryingly childish son in his twenties--if any part of Au Pair Girls was going to "turn horror," it would have bene that one, as Rupert, despite his initial charm, seems to regard the world as his own personal dollhouse. Christa, meanwhile, has to contend with her employers' daughter Carol (Lyn Yeldham), an aggressively hip and shapely character who gives her "new friend" a makeover and drags her to a ghastly pop concert that was probably three or four years out of date by the time the movie was made, featuring a hideous Jim Morrison-type "singer" (reminiscent of one of the guys on the sandwich line at work) and the great John Standing as an aging hipster who views the neverending parade of nubile disco popsies as notches on his belt. As one might imagine, Christa has her eyes brutally opened to the dark side of fame... or something. After things generally go tits up--sometimes literally--the plotlines tie back together in a "happy ending" whose actual loathsomeness somehow only adds to the fun. It's an absolute howl from start to finish, Nan's rather creepy story helping to cleanse the palate between filthy hijinks and vaguely moralistic soap opera. The movie's drenched throughout by a theme song and its variations that sound like dirty airline jingles, with frantically leering camera angles that peter out after the first few minutes, the audience well and duly hooked. I love it all, but the high points? Gabrielle Drake, a genuinely likable and talented performer who manages some decent light comedy in a couple of scenes with the distraction of not having any clothes on (part of the aformentioned contrivances), and Lyn Yeldham, who never did anything after this, so far as I know, but who ends up with some of the greatest lines in English-speaking cinema, which can be ably represented by "Ricky Strange is appearing at Groover's tonight, and I'm not missing the freakout of the month for any bloody au pair!" Au Pair Girls, directed by Val Guest, was made by Tigon Films, one of the many non-Hammer horror specialists of the sixties and seventies (and arguably better in many ways than its more famous rival)--apparently they'd given up on cracking horror, despite such classics as The Witchfinder General (1968) and The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971), and underrated finds such as The Blood Beast Terror (1967), and decided to concentrate on the sex comedy stuff. It may not have turned out a very wise move financially, to my knowledge, but that productions like Au Pair Girls were left behind in the wake of their probable failure is cause for surprising thanks.

 OSS 117--Cairo, Nest of Spies (2008): A French James Bond spoof set in the 1950s Middle East, based on the comic novels by Jean Bruce, sounds like it can't possibly miss, and yet OSS 117, despite being very funny, flags quite a bit and doesn't have the same comedic drive of a film like Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery.* Whether this is due to translation issues, the director's need to make some satirical political points that occasionally tend towards the strident, or the simple failure of some of the jokes, I can't quite figure out. Suffice it to say it isn't as funny as I thought it would be, but it was still worth it. Ace French secret agent "OSS 117" (Jean Dujardin) is sent by his superiors to Nasser's Egypt shortly before the Suez Crisis of 1956 to investigate the disappearance of his friend and comrade Jack. While there he deals with rival agents of various nationalities, angry nationalists of both the Islamic and secular variety, and his sexy Egyptian assistant Larmina (Berenice Bejo). Dujradin resembles a cross between Steve Coogan and Dwayne Johnson, and his manic arrogance offers a perfect hook on which to hang a spy parody, taking aim at both the conventions of postwar espionage thrillers and Western "Orientalist" assumptions concerning Middle Eastern culture. Examples of the former include visions of 117's dead partner Jack, remembered in hilariously homoerotic beach montage, 117's awful "casual"wardrobes, veiled threats between 117 and his enemies that take the form of zoological analogies (one thinks of Number One's "Siamese fighting fish" in From Russia With Love), jaunty macho laughter that goes on for way too long (in a joke used several times too often in the movie), and my favorite--as in Bond movies, people drink lots of liquor, and after a few at the Embassy, we see 117 leave the office and immediately run into a nearby door. Examples of the latter primarily concern 117's vast ignorance of Islam or Arabic and Egyptian culture, despite his alleged expertise in such matters (at the movies end, the powers that be decide to send him to Iran)--the specifics are too numerous to list. So, while not quite the brilliant satire it seems to think itself, OSS 117 definitely breaks new ground in the spy satire subgenre--considering the proloiferation of stupid, overblown action movies in this allegedly "serious" new age, a subgenre that could use a lot more films.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: 3 July 2008 1:18 PM EDT
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28 June 2008
Death To Rhubarb
Now Playing: Ludwig van Beethoven--"Marcia Funebre" from Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica")

Well, I'm still at the job--it's still better-paying, more rewarding, and more interesting. Life at Chateau Fluffy actually took a bit of a dive in terms of incident after my favorite co-worker and friend was "droped from the schedule" (again, a weasel tactic of shithead bosses who want to avoid dismissal paperwork), to say nothing of Fluffy's own long hoped-for departure. Luckily, life in my present basement kitchen promises much--my pleasant co-workers have a cool, diverse taste in music and quite a line in filthy banter, the above-stairs staff, particularly the attractive female ones, seem to regard us (well, me) as troglodytes in every sense of the word (natrually allowing for my own habitual paranoia on that score), and our kitchen manager is a sort of priapic, cycling hippie autocrat given to sayings as "I'm not wrong, I'm the boss" and who espouses quite a vocal belief in the aphrodisiac powers of organic greens, no matter how wilted, an obsession that extends to a drink he invented for the deli widely perceived as unfit for consumption by several co-workers (I'd drink it if there wasn't anything else in the house). It's a slight exaggeration, of course--the last couple of days have been rather enjoyable from that quarter. I'd gotten a creepy feeling from some of the things I'd heard about the place that it was near perfect, and I'm utterly delighted to find the same crap there that spices up most other restaurant jobs (oh, and there's no escaping World of Warcraft aficionados, either--just as well since I've had a great time with the ones I've known), which I suppose is inevitable in a place with nearly two hundred workers, six different departments, and a spotless reputation among Ann Arbor rentiers.

Of course, most regular jobs don't follow an open-book finance policy or pay you to take classes. These can be food, service, business/personal finance, or computer classes. I've had to take several to get through "orientation," a procedure that's supposed to take about two months after which one qualifies for a pay raise, access to benefits, etc. The especially informative ones, of course, were on food--one comparing and contrasting our food with similar items from around town, and one on chocolate. I'm glad I took the latter as I didn't know chocolate could be so genuinely good. I like it, but I'm not crazy about it the way I'm crazy about cheese (can't wait for that class). Fortunately, our instructor took us through the different types of chocolate we carry (one fantastic example from Sao Tome e Principe), how it's made from cacao beans (never seen a cacao bean until that moment, I don't think), what to look for, and why Hershey's is basically chocolatized vanilla. One of the things I most want to do there is learn about food, and it looks like the place won't lack for opportunity on that score.

 My dreams are improving, too. I found myself back at Chateau Fluffy working for my last boss (we'll call him "Biff"), moonlighting a couple of days a week in some cushy job I couldn't quite understand, as the whole place went to hell in a handbasket with Biff's wife behind the counter and an unwelcome surprise return visit from Fluffy with a bunch of friends who looked like they listed Live at PJ's as a "residence." The place actually looked really good, like a really tasteful Middle Eastern restaurant, with soft, pale stucco and a strong Moorish cast to the architecture. Unfortunately, Fluffy decided for whatever reason that I was being "rude" (with her inimitable screech when upset and I chose that moemnt to check out what happened to the kitchen. Wow! The rather cramped space morphed into a vast, cavernous structure of a medieval flavor, rather resembling the Bernadones' warehouse in Franco Zefferelli's 1973 St. Francis biopic Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Wandering around, I climbed further and further up until I found a gorgeous loggia overlooking a stunning Mediterranean harbor (hard not to associate with the vaguely Southern European city that keeps popping up in my dreams). Overlooking me? A sour-faced middle-aged duenna and her gorgeous, scantily-clad young ward (I got the impression that they were more than "just friends"), carving puppets and the latter with an enigmatic smile on her face. Hell, yeah.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:09 PM EDT
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17 June 2008
So Shallow, The Undefeated
Now Playing: MGMT--"Future Reflections"

I'm now over a month into the new job, and rather enjoying it. It was truly eerie at first getting used to not working weekday mornings. For four years, I worked a more-or-less nine-to-five Monday-through-Friday schedule, and was worried about what having my weekends mashed up might be like. Of course, the last time I worked weekends, I'd just moved to Ann Arbor and had no idea what was going on. Though I've barely seen any friends or gone to any shows, I've managed to keep busy with the old reading and writing (and recently watching old episodes of Wodehouse Playhouse--oh, Pauline Collins). After a break of two weeks during whcih I could get used to the new schedule, I started writing again with an alacrity I didn't have the last time I broke after an extended period--both fiction and a series of sixties-era British horror film reviews for an online chum's book project. I'm now on the last of three days off in a row--very rare--and am surprisingly going stir-crazy from the freedom. Things are cool.

 The business itself has a reputation for treating its workers very well. Few businesses get known for that, so this distinction in itself is one of the things that brought me to apply. Simply put, I generally work less than I did at the old job for the same amount of money, with a raise at the end of two months and probably another one at the end of six (with the chance to apply for health insurance in the meantime). The place has a codified approach to training that to some might seme a little cultish, but coming off a job with effectively no approach to training, I'm not complaining. It's a little odd, to be sure, going from a place with five or six workers maximum to one with fifty at a time (over a hundred total), but not that odd. I do prep work in a deli kitchen and get the chance to take classes offered by the company that are eventually intended to benefit the latter through educating me (food, business, etc.). So it's quite a step up from Chateau Fluffy, and I can think of few better places to wait out Ann Arbor. They wanted a year commitment, and I think I might do two, especially if I can move to one of their other businesses--preferably the bakery or creamery--and learn more there.

Super Furry Animals, Hey Venus! (2007): I held off on writing anything about my favorite living band's latest album largely because I was initially disappointed. The productive, wildly imaginative Welsh rockers have kept up a rarely less-than-excellent run over their near-fifteen years of existence, although sometimes I've had to give a few albums several listens before I finally came to love them. Such was the case with Hey Venus!, perhaps because of lead singer Gruff Rhys' burgeoning solo career (with gems such as 2006's Candylion) and other collaborative projects (such as Neon Neon, an 80s-retro outfit whose album Stainless Style is taking its sweet time in winning me over)--I worried that they might be spreading themselves too thin. Fortunately, it turned out to be just another case of needing a little time. While songs like "The Gift That Keeps Giving" and "Let The Wolves Howl At The Moon" hark back to the neo-folk stuff they've perfected on Phantom Power (2003) and Love Kraft (2005), hardr-rocking tunes like "Neo Consumer" and "Into The Night" take up a gritty style that last predominated on albums like the glorious Radiator (1997). Some, like "Baby Ate My Eightball" and "Show Your Hand," simply defy references to the band's past (or easy classification) and prove that the SFA still have what it takes (which in their case is a lot more than most) even after a decade, with not one duff album in the bunch. I look forward to their next.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 9:53 AM EDT
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9 May 2008
Shaky Happies
Now Playing: The Go! Team--"Patricia's Moving Picture"

I put in my two weeks notice at work today. I've been dreaming about doing this for the past three years--I've worked at Chateau Fluffy for four and a half--and it really feels weird, not quite what I'd expected. The decision isn't an impulsive one--that's why this has taken so long. I'll be starting Monday on the kitchen production staff of a nationally renowned delicatessen, one with its own local business empire of sorts, to which I've been applying approximately every six months for longer than I've been working at Chateau Fluffy. It's pretty much the best place to work as far as Ann Arbor restaurants go, if you're in my line, and I'm very excited and rather nervous both about the new situation and about changing jobs in general.

This mood seems to go hand in hand with a lot of other extraneous factors--"spring in Michigan," with its occasional temperatures in the upper thirties, the continuing eulogies for Leopold Brothers'--closing at the end of the month; Starling Electric will play there tomorrow night--my desire to write every day contributing to some consciously duff work, the ongoing national political drama (I'm not a Clinton supporter by any stretch, but I don't see how having two candidates vying for a party's nomination at this late stage in the game--this would have been considered ridiculously early at one point--is any worse than simply holding an effective coronation of one almost at the outset), a dim consciousness I felt earlier this year and late last of a good many things changing--attitudes, people, ideas... put it all together and you have a very unsettled fellow. Not unhappy, just unsettled.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 3:17 PM EDT
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30 April 2008
Going With Chicken Thieves
Now Playing: Benjamin Britten--"Requiem Aeternam" from "Sinfonia da Requiem"

Giu La Testa / Duck, You Sucker! / A Fistful of Dynamite (1971): Sergio Leone's final spaghetti western is in many ways nothing of the sort. Where his earlier films--A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (1966)*, and Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)--were intensely stylized renditions of good vs. evil archetypes with the occasional lusty Sancho Panza figure thrown in**--Giu La Testa takes place in a concrete historical reality, namely, the early years of the Mexican Revolution (after Madero's assassination and before Huerta's downfall, so 1913-15).*** Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), a Tuco-like Mexican bandito (the role was originally to go to Eli Wallach), robs a stagecoach full of wealthy, snobbish passengers and tries to keep afloat during the growing institutionalized violence between the government and the rebels under Pancho Villa. Along comes John Mallory (James Coburn), an Irish explosives expert with a dark past whose contract with a wealthy German mining magnate comes to a brutal end. The two team up to rob a bank in a nearby city, only to find a hornet's nest of further violence, politics, guilt, and hard choices. Juan's avarice and understandable distrust of what happens to people like him in revolutions play well off John's tormented memories, gorgeously filmed in memorable musical flashback sequences, of what happened when he was involved with an earlier cause (this latter leading to some historical fudging, I think, on the movie's part). In many ways, it isn't so much a spaghetti western as it is a sociopolitical adventure-thriller that happens to take place in a spaghetti western-like setting. Unlike many of the earlier protagonists of Leone's films, "Juan and John" are real human beings who change and actually grow during the course of the movie, their respective cynicism and disillusioned idealism reinforced by the revolutionary goings-on of the story (if I remember right, Danny Peary likened the earlier spaghettis to ancient myth, with the gunfighters as gods who mix with mortals, their world vanishing as people increasingly lose their belief and turn to civilization, embodied in the advancing railroad of Once Upon A Time In The West). Leone's own disenchantment with the radical leftism professed by many of his fellow Italian filmmakers (I'm guessing Gillo Pontecorvo was pretty high on his list)  is reflected in the growing moral equivalence between the government and the rebels, both of which ruthlessly use ordianry people to get what they want. A major exponent of the latter is the engimatic, bourgeois Dr. Villega, played by Romolo Valli, who'd prominently figure in Vittorio de Sica's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis that same year. He continues a fine Leone tradition of strong supporting performances by great Italian actors despite their being dubbed to the gills (for instance, Aldo Giuffre in The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly and Gabriele Ferzetti in Once Upon A Time In The West). One of Ennio Morricone's most charismatically loopy scores lends the film extra dollops of humor and pathos, and it's nice to see a western of any sort treat Mexico as a real country with real problems, as opposed to the "south of the border" fantasy to replace a vanishing American frontier (even in such ostensibly critical films as Sam Peckinpah's 1969 The Wild Bunch and 1973's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid--the latter also starring Coburn).**** The recent rerelease of the film on DVD features a fantastic restoration, as well as a couple of decent documentaries with film historian and Leone biographer Sir Christopher Frayling, as well as frequent Leone screenwriter and collaborator Sergio Donati (and a number of curators at the Museum of the American West putting together a Leone retrospective).***** Giu La Testa, which must have puzzled as many Leone fans as it pleased, deserves to be remembered as one of the great westerns and great political films of the era.

*I commonly claim this as my "favorite movie," although it's really one of ten or so, as it ranks on so many "top ten lists": Westerns, war movies, soundtracks, opening shots, opening scenes, etc.

**Generally played by a distinguished American stage actor largely associated with the work of a particular playwright, viz. Eli Wallach (Tennesse Williams) as Tuco in The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly and Jason Robards (Eugene O'Neill) as Cheyenne in Once Upon A Time In The West.

***Again with the endnotes; while The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly takes place during the American Civil War, with the New Mexico Campaign of 1862 as a backdrop, it's arguable that the conflict has been leached of any real meaning so that it can stand in for any war. 

****I saw this not long after Alfonso Cuaron's wonderful Solo Con Tu Pareja (1991), which rejected nationalistic and tourist fantasies of Mexico City in favor of the growing middle-class culture that was starting to make its mark at the time (reminiscent of Almodovar's approach to Spanish culture).

*****Leone's films on DVD are an odd bunch--The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, with surprisingly lackluster extras (including a sub-History Channel documentary on the New Mexico Campaign that creepily and inaccurately refers to the Civil War as the "Second American Revolution"), went for around $25-30, as did Giu La Testa, whose extras were rather more interesting, but Once Upon A Time In The West, with several different commentaries and documentaries, including a wonderfully filmed retrospective with Gabriele Ferzetti and Claudia Cardinale, is still going, so far as I know, for $10 at Borders, making it one of the great DVD bargains--an inscrutable situation.


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EDT
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26 April 2008
Warren Is Dead--Long Live Warren
Now Playing: John Barry--Theme Music to "The Wrong Box"

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937): I gave Rhode Island's great contribution to world literature a whirl in either high school or college, and found him rather distasteful, wallowing in the kind of overwrought gloom I generally try and avoid in fiction, both in my own and others'. I think part of the problem was that I stated with "The Statement of Randolph Carter" (1919), a chilling little tale that nevertheless takes place in a graveyard, which I guess I thought was a silly, cliched idea until I started living across the street from one. I suspect this introduction threw off my reactions to his other stuff, in particular the now-superb novella At the Mountains of Madness (1931). There was also the cultish whiff about the man (hardly his fault, mainly due to the posthumous work of his collaborator August Derleth), like a darker Tolkien, that warned me away. Fortunately, that meant that I got to rediscover his stuff recently with very pleasant results. Lovecraft, now widely recognized as the greatest of American "horror" writers, wrote around sixty short stories and three novellas, just about all of which I've now read over the past couple of months. He was a central figure in the growth of what I used to call "speculative fiction" and what I now happily term "weird fiction," like most scholars (it sure sounds better), along with Britain's Lord Dunsany and the States' Robert E. Howard (of Conan fame) and Clark Ashton Smith, whose stories I've also been reading a lot lately.

 What I love most about Lovecraft is that he operated in an era before the rigid stratification of genre fiction (which, for the purposes of this discussion, means horror, fantasy, and science fiction) and wrote stories that could be placed in any of these categories, or in most cases, in all trhee. Since the early 1960s or so, most fantasy to my knowledge has been pretty much imitation Tolkien or Celtic mythology fan-fic, with not all that many writers going back to the period when one could ignore genre and write with a more fluid understanding of what was possible in stories. For my part, the chance discovery of Lin Carter's Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy (1973) at a used book sale several years ago was a major revelation in this regard. Carter's impassioned partisanship on behalf of pre-Tolkien authors like the great William Morris, Dunsany, Howard, Smith, and--especially--A. Merritt* opened my eyes to the possibilities in this kind of writing, one that pretty much bypassed the late-twentieth-century domination of genre literature and allowed greater latitude in subject and style.

As a result of all this, I was much more amenable to Lovecraft than I might have been before. I still have a hard time with some of his stuff, particularly the earlier stories he wrote when he was more under the influence of Dunsany, but that's probably because I've grown a little disenchanted with the kind of Dunsany in which Lovecraft was interested. Dunsany wrote some of the most dazzlingly baroque, enchantingly loquacious short stories ever, beginning in his early career with imaginary religious fables told in a mystical, poetic cadence (his 1905 The Gods of Pegana was probably the first instance of an invented religion for a fantastic world, a device that would later become pretty standard for most "fantasy" writers), but I've gotten rather bored with that sort of thing--it can be excessive--and greatly prefer his later, prosier, non-fantastic tales (his hilarious yarn "The Pirate of the Round Pond" beats anything by Tolkien for me). Lovecraft's 1927 novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath crowned and completed his Dunsany worship, although I found it much better going this time around (boring and incomprehensible when I first read it several years ago). Beginning around "The Call of Cthulhu" (1926), Lovecraft evolved an imaginary "religion" of his own, which wasn't based so much on actual gods (Lovecraft was a fervent materialist) but on powerful extraterrestrial and extra-dimensional beings masquerading as or mistaken for gods. The "mythos" has given rise to at least one popular role-playing game of the 80s and 90s and reams of imitative homages, and informed much of the rest of Lovecraft's fiction, including his superb short stories "The Colour Out of Space" (1927--Lovecraft considered this one his own personal favorite), "The Whisperer In Darkness" (1930), "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (1931), and "The Thing On the Doorstep" (1933), which combined traditional horror themes with more scientifically-based threats to create a memorable and hugely influential form of literary brew. While Lovecraft's ideas were fascinating and probably daunting for writers used to more orthodox forms of "supernatural horror" (M.R. James was no fan of Lovecraft's) as he put it himself in his informative and occasionally illuminating 1927 treatise Supernatural Horror In Literature, his main contribution lay in the establishment of a brooding and sinister mood, an area in which he matched and occasionally surpassed Poe, his putative idol. Lovecraft frequently reached too far in trying to set said mood (he was well-aware of this, too, as seen in his amusingly self-parodic 1922 story "The Hound"), but he always got the job done, and if you can't go overboard occasionally in weird fiction, then when is it ever possible?

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 9:50 AM EDT
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20 April 2008
Now Playing: Goldfrapp--"Happiness"

Scott Smith--and Carter A. Smith, The Ruins (2006 and 2008): Scott Smith's novel fits well into the now-burgeoning "American tourists menaced by foreign things in general" sub-genre, with a cast of four attractive young collegians on vacation in Cancun who decide to investigate the recent disappearance of a casual acquaintance's brother (?). Their journey takes them into mainland Yucatan and a mysterious archeological site with a horrible secret. Once they're at the site, the locals won't let them leave... While the leads aren't really that sympathetic, their plight and increeasing paranoia is well-rendered, although the latter is done at such talky, excruciating length that it nearly neutralizes any pathos the reader might feel. It's competent enough, but I really couldn't understand what the big deal was, apart from an inventively grisly moment involving bodily fluids (yes, it's one of those). The reviews seemed to treat The Ruins as some kind of reinvention of the horror novel, when the Lost Patrol trope's old as the hills and the concept of its central threat has been well-plumbed in various ways by several writers, including John Wyndham and even yours truly (in a story I had in The First BHF Book of Horror Stories which I wrote back in 2004). In the end, The Ruins is a decent story, but the time Smith takes to tell it and the encrusted hype make it difficult to truly enjoy. Fortunately, Carter A. Smith's surprisingly not-bad movie manages a serviceable end-run around the novel's shortcomings, though the moral of the story seems to be in many ways "never go anywhere with anyone who looks and sounds like John Phillip Law." The central threat, while a time-honored trope (and deservedly so--it's creepy as hell), is brilliantly realized by what I assume to be CGI, and the circumstances surrounding it are fairly fresh. The male characters do well enough, but the heroines are as appealing a pair of horror protagonists as I recently remember. I'm willing to see just about anything featuring the lovely and fiendishly talented Jena Malone (and occasionally pay the price, as with the lukewarm Saved and the wretched Life As A House), but the gorgeous Laura Ramsey's nearly as good (better, according to the excellent review in the Detroit Metro Times--again proving its superiority to the obnoxious Entertainment Weekly), and "does terror" extremely well. In the end, The Ruins wasn't anything especially groundbreaking, but was certainly an improvement on an overhyped novel.  

V.C. Andrews, Flowers In The Attic (1979): It took me forever to get around to reading Andrews' modern "classic," probably because of its (well-deserved) hokey Gothic, Dark Shadows reputation. Now more amenable to that sort of thing, I had a crack at it after reading a few friends' negative comments. It's listed in the Ann Arbor District Library catalog as a "teen novel," and it's one hell of a kinky one. Four profoundly annoying children (the grotesquely prim cadences of the elder two reminded me of Zoey Dean) enjoy a relatively idyllic life with their hardworking father and Corinne, their princessy mother, until the former dies in a car crash. Corinne, whose extravagant lifestyle has led to a crisis in their financial affairs, takes her brood to live with her fabulously wealthy parents in Virginia. Once they arrive, however, things go sour. The grandfather, a demented old coot who's ignorant of his grandchildren's existence, informs Corinne that the only reason he hasn't disinherited her is because she hasn't had children (he'd opposed her marriage for reasons that become starkly apparent throughout the novel). The grandmother learns of the children and agrees to keep the secret, albeit by keeping the kids locked up in a set of attic rooms for what turn into years. As time goes by, the children learn that all isn't what it seems. Frequent whippings and incest can add an agreeably grotesque twist to a story, and Corinne, at least, is a memorably realized character, but it's all so overdone and unintentionally comical (and less suited to the latter than similar stories) that the end comes as a blessed relief.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:55 PM EDT
Updated: 20 April 2008 1:02 PM EDT
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9 April 2008
Ennui d'Avalanche
Now Playing: The Dirtbombs--"I'm Qualified To Satisfy You"

Pay it no mind, it's just a song.

One minute, I'm dreaming of doing the things I usually do--read, write, cook, watch movies... when an old friend/crush from Akron--"Circe," we'll call her--shows up at the door, in the midst of one of her famed "chaos road trips." We get decidedly intimate and I understandably opt to join her. Stopping at her parents' house, I discover that she's Circe's evil twin, who fights the real one and loses. I then proceed with the real Circe, only to find our bliss short-lived. Surviving a hair-raising chase down a freeway where a truck ferrying tuna salad has skidded and crashed in the midst of a driving rainstorm (rendering the freeway a raging torrent of rainwater, rusted aluminum, and tuna salad), in which I have to get out in the water and lead Circe and the car to safety (like Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen), we come to my own "house" (which I'd never seen before) where a different extended Irish-American family to the one I actually have is carrying on a wake/get-together. Circe bids me a tearful farewell, explaining that she's gotten a scholarship to study in Dublin. My pain fails to deflate even on discovering that my house is now a ski resort. Yielding to my "relatives" (who include an annoyingly bufferish old Anglo-Irish "Ascendancy" squire who probably resembles influential early twentieth century fantasist Lord Dunsany), I agree to go sledding only to find an ominous rumble start up once we get to the top of the hill. Fortunately, it didn't sound too bad, so I had the presence of mind to shout "quasi-avalanche!" just before I woke up. Thank heavens for that.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 2:25 PM EDT
Updated: 9 April 2008 2:27 PM EDT
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