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Washtenaw Flaneurade
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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19 July 2011
Leaves of Gloom
Now Playing: Cousteau--"How Will I Know"

My first years in Ann Arbor (c. 2002-05) weren't--despite the presence of some great work friends--terribly happy ones, but one place that always served as a silver lining for my existence was the downtown Borders on Liberty Street between Maynard and State. That location was the "flagship store," the whole business having been started by the Borders brothers a block away about thirty years before I moved to Ann Arbor. I had grown enamored of Borders during my time in Akron (1999-2002), especially as I bore a grudge against Barnes and Noble for being unjustly fired from my supervisor job in 1998, and I was delighted to find my new favorite such a central and long-standing landmark of my new town's erratically--if smugly and expensively--beating heart. Though my appetite for owning new books as opposed to reading them had declined considerably in that time for reasons stated in previous posts, I spent a lot of time and money there, and was happy to do so.

It's surprising how many fond memories I have of the place: acting on recommendations from the New York Times Book Review (which they used to sell separately--and I used to buy religiously--for 75 cents), one of which was Alan Furst's Dark Star, wolfishly devoured in one of the darkest corners of Conor O'Neill's on a busy Friday night; moping around aimlessly after a nasty day at Chateau Fluffy and learning to my retro delight that Asia of "Heat of the Moment" fame were playing live upstairs; meeting a lovely lady downstairs for one of the first actual dates I'd arranged in half a decade; and, of course, numerous crushes on the staff. There are probably others I can't remember right now, but it was always there, a dependable place to browse and learn. It was certainly representative of a big box chain, but I suspect I would have preferred it to rivals like Barnes and Noble or Books-A-Million even without my regrettable experience with the former. There was always a comfortably shambolic feel to Borders that would have been anathema to Barnes and Noble, at least, and I don't think I ever had a genuinely bad interaction with a worker there. Especially in downtown Ann Arbor, many of the people had been there forever, even after the labor troubles of the middle aughties (which had a lot to do with the foreboding management changes), and for me at least, the "flagship store" might as well have been one of the many independent bookstores that dotted the local landscape (and was certainly preferable in atmosphere and lack of hostility to a place like David's). It helped that people like that tremendously dour gentleman who used to tend bar at the Del Rio worked there.

Last night's news, that Borders was liquidating and that all stores would gradually shut down through August, wasn't exactly unexpected, but I think people like me were holding out for some kind of last-minute solution. A lot of good people will be without jobs, and a culturally vital (if greatly ailing) downtown space will be lost. I was going to post a review of one of the books I recently bought there, but it's too depressing even for that. I'm there or pass by almost every day, and to think that it'll be gone is... unthinkable.

Thank you, Borders workers, and the best of luck. 

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 8:26 PM EDT
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14 June 2011
The Five Days of Michigan
Now Playing: The Doobie Brothers--"What a Fool Believes"

Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story (2010): It was probably fitting that my first serious foray back into recreational fiction would be a critically acclaimed, unusually effective sci-fi satire that mirrored many of my own recent irritations with modern culture. Shteyngart's third novel was the June offering for the University of Michigan Fantasy/Sci-Fi Theory Reading Group--an assemblage which I'd occasionally considered joining but had never gotten around to finding--so the choice was in many ways already determined (I didn't end up going for various reasons, maybe wisely). I really had no idea how things would go down; I'd heard of Gary Shteyngart, as an entertainingly acerbic chronicler of immigrant life (Soviet Jewish in particular) in the new fin-de-siecle America, and what I'd heard had intrigued me enough not to form any prejudices, as I might otherwise against the This American Life and McSweeney's run of literati (my experience with Sarah Vowell, not to mention general principles, should have warned me off such intransigence). His earlier novels, The Russian Debutante's Handbook and Absurdistan, had a generally high reputation, and I reckoned that if I dipped my oar back in the waters of contemporary fiction, it might as well be in the company of this guy.

A decade or two in the future (I think), Lenny Abramov works as a lifestyle headhunter for a biotech corporation that specializes in prolonging the lives of the wealthy and powerful, with an eventual eye towards upgrading to de facto immortality. For the past year, he's been knocking around Europe on special assignment with little to show for it until he meets the vivacious young Eunice Park at a Rome party. Instantly besotted, he can't get her out of his mind on his return to the States, even with the pressures of his job, the ambiguous attentions of Joshie Goldmann--his "charismatic" boss--and the neverending assimilation problems of his own cranky immigrant parents. His transatlantic correspondence with Eunice runs into problems when she returns to the States, largely due to issues with her own cranky immigrant parents (in her case, Korean Christian). Their relationship faces a number of problems: a twenty-year age difference, clashes of temperament, combative friends and relatives, their bizarre motives for getting involved in the first place, and their existence in a horrifically commercialized world all the more appalling for being a worryingly close extrapolation of our own.

The United States is governed by the "Bipartisan Party" with a puppet president and a Defense Secretary controlling the real power. He, in turn, must answer to the Chinese Central Banker, as the country is effectively mortgaged to pay its debt. American troops are fighting in Venezuela and former allied blocs in Europe are clamoring to decouple from long-existing strategic alliances. The political horror goes hand in hand with the consumerist nightmare of contemporary culture, as practically everyone stays nearly all the time on their "apparats" (think more sophisticated and powerful iPhones), and the citizenry are largely defined by their occupations (Media, Credit, Retail) and credit status ("Low Net Worth Individuals," or LNWIs, are kept effectively segregated in ghettos and slums). Lenny faces the same shady issues normally found in older male relationships with younger females, but in this case against a cheerfully grim backdrop of political and societal collapse. The story's epistolary delivery exemplifies the differences between the two: Lenny's tale arises from his old-fashioned, hand-written diary (text is frowned upon in their world, apparently due to the smell), while Eunice's emails and archived chats tell her side of the relationship. Unsurprisingly, they both learn a great many things about their relationship and their world as each are rocked by crisis after crisis. The story never quite loses its sense of humor even as it grows increasingly somber, and there are some rather bravura descriptive setpieces (one in particular put me in mind of Cloverfield, of all things).

Shteyngart's connection with my own worries was startling and a little unnerving. Barely two blog posts after I implicitly kvetched against the unstoppable columns of Internet culture, he's delivered the perfect satirical blow. Often satire can be too overblown, too off in its pacing or emphasis, or simply too gratuitously nasty. Somehow, though, Shteyngart manages to weave through any number of roadblocks. The novel follows in the great tradition of writers like Yevgeny Zamyatin, George Orwell, J.G. Ballard, and Margaret Atwood, in which the projected dystopias really have easily identifiable roots in their contemporary societies (and are in some cases barely distinguishable from them). In many ways, like Ballard, Shteyngart is exploring his fears in a world where many of them have already been made flesh. It may explain, too, why the satire's so unexpectedly well-balanced. Jim Munroe's Everything In Silico tried something similar several years ago, but I found it unsuccessful, maybe because it was too close to a cyberpunk aesthetic. There's the occasional cartoon villain in SSTLS, but the major relationship, between Lenny and Eunice, is well portrayed, and Eunice comes through as a believable young woman trying to redefine her humanity in a world which has little use for it (though there were a few close calls). If I have any criticism of the fundamentals, it's that Eunice is slightly less the equal partner in the narrative, though admittedly Lenny's had twenty more years' worth of rumination. All in all, it was a fantastic reintroduction to contemporary fiction, and an encouraging sign for someone like me to continue participating in both consuming and creating same.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: 14 June 2011 8:45 PM EDT
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31 May 2011
Lewis Mallard, Wing Commander
Now Playing: St. Vincent--"Just the Same But Brand New"

One thing that I miss about my former situation at work, besides knowing that I'd be able to sleep in almost every morning, regardless of whether or not I actually did so, was the camaraderie with my fellow workers. There's plenty of that (and increasing) in my present situation, but the evening shift was considerably enlivened by the fact that we were all "creatives" in one way or another. I wrote fiction, another was a musician, and another has gone on to great success as a burlesque MC. Conversations, especially with "J" the musician, were not only generally entertaining but often educational. It felt good to be able to bounce ideas off each other; I felt there was a fair degree of cross-fertilization underway. Their examples inspired me to keep going myself. I'll still see them at work, of course, and J and I had a brief discussion recently that confirmed me in a decision I made some time ago. He had heard an interview on NPR with a writer commenting on the fact that there now might actually be more writers than readers, and that the writer knew or had heard of a college-level creative writing teacher who required students to not only read twelve new books a year, but also to buy them and present the receipts for course credit. It was a drastic but understandable method to keep aspiring writers involved not only in contemporary creative currents, but also the industry in which they hoped to make inroads, however small.

I don't entirely buy this view. Even from my sub-bottom-feeder perspective, publishing has made a number of its own mistakes, and there are more than a few success stories that highlight ways out of the corporate minefield which has, largely for technical reasons, become such an obnoxious object of scorn for many aspiring writers (and readers). My own two published stories were brought out by an individual in another country who I'd never met (Chris Wood of British Horror Films), who published them in an anthology through Lulu simply because he liked the kind of stories that came out on his web forum. I also consider it highly unlikely, physically or otherwise, that there will be more writers than readers for a very long time. Maybe in MFA programs, but doubtfully elsewhere. The imbalance is probably growing, though, and the thought made me question further my own creative priorities. I've written previously on my decreased reading due to increased writing, but that isn't the whole story.

One of my literary heroes, Michael Moorcock, gave an interview about ten years back for Mojo in which he encouraged budding fantasy writers not to read fantasy, as much of that genre was conceptually enslaved to the half-century-old techniques and concerns of a reactionary Oxford English don who only did what he did because he found the Norman Conquest an unparalleled linguistic tragedy (I'm embellishing just a little, but it's accurate in general). While this advice was largely given for ideological reasons, Moorcock was also keen to ensure that budding writers of his ilk had a wide grounding in different types of literature (I think he mentioned Angus Wilson and Elizabeth Bowen, among others). At the time, and since, I chose to focus on the no-man's-land between the genres that people like Dunsany, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith had explored so brilliantly well before Tolkien (and Neil Gaiman since, with mixed results), but I fear I may have taken Moorcock's advice a little too much to heart. I grew into the kind of automatic curmudgeon I'd always distrusted, and almost completely threw over contemporary fiction of any kind (minus a few favorites, like Laurie Notaro or Alan Furst) for "the classics," whatever those are. The only time I generally came into contact with anything post-1980 was in the pages of the New York Times Book Review (when Borders still carried it). Recently, with my drive to build an artist's portfolio of sorts for myself, I started to slide off reading altogether, occasionally nipping into a non-fiction work that looked particularly interesting (Colin Tudge's The Bird and Alan Taylor's excellent reexamination of the War of 1812, to name two). For someone like me, who had once prided himself on reading hundreds of books a year, it was a bizarre turnaround.

I've been writing stories and working on a longer project now since the end of August, and have written over 100,000 words in doing so. It went very well for much of the time; I wrote or finished seven stories and made considerable headway on the projects. Towards the end, though, it's become rather wearing. I've been forcing myself sometimes to make my quota (at least 2000 words a week), and there have been a few shameful occasions when I've failed. I don't want to end up producing knowingly substandard work through a misguided sense of artistic duty. It's helped that the writing has considerably enlivened a traditionally drab and dismal season; I came close to utter despair my first few winters in Ann Arbor, and though having a social life generally took the sting out of them after 2005, there was always the threat that the black dog would return, a threat that was soundly neutralized by the sense of purpose and accomplishment I had this winter. This weekend I start a break which could last well into the autumn (although even now I've planned a "working vacation" in the late summer, in honor of one recent idea which I've arbitrarily decided needs to be written next to a pool as much as possible). Much of this break, I suspect, will involve reading. I still have a pile that needs to be broken (including The Tale of Genji, Don Quixote, and long-awaited revisitations of Thucydides and Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy), and even then I shouldn't let that interfere with my rediscovering the contemporary (I've recently made stabs with Lorrie Moore and Denis Johnson). I've had enough grounding in the "classics"; it's time for me to act my age in the best way and realize that a love for one doesn't have to preclude an interest in the other. I knew that once and it's high time I knew it again.

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985): I felt I owed it to the memory of the 1980s, as I would miss June's Plastic Passion, to watch Madonna's big-screen debut one evening. It seemed especially pressing as I can no longer tell her and Lady Gaga apart (I understand this is a big worry for people). After I finished, I couldn't believe how I'd let such a lovely, funny genre-blending film escape me. Director Susan Seidelman began her career with the low-budget Smithereens, about punk and new-wave culture in New York during the early 80s, and Desperately Seeking Susan bears unmistakable imprints of that same culture. Richard Hell shows up in a small role, as do a great number of later cinematic luminaries of the 1980s and beyond--John Turturro, Anne Magnuson, Giancarlo Esposito, Laurie Metcalf and others (there are even echoes from earlier avant-garde periods, as Peter Maloney, who appeared in Brian DePalma's films of the late 1960s, as well as 1969's magnificently scattershot Putney Swope, appears as magician Ian). New Jersey housewife Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) becomes obsessed with the frequent mentions of "Susan" (Madonna) in the personals section of her paper, and eventually tracks down the mystery woman to a rendezvous at Battery Park in Manhattan. What follows involves eternally entertaining plot devices such as mistaken identities and jewel thieves, all at the service of one woman's self-discovery. Madonna's first film sees her at her freshest; she came out of the same New York bohemian milieu (albeit as a transplant from Michigan, including a stint in my own present city) as Seidelman's earlier work, and her exploding celebrity at the time helps her adopted culture to galvanize the film's aesthetic and style; these were 80s I could get behind (I couldn't get "Into the Groove" out of my head for several days afterward). Though Madonna's casting was doubtlessly a big draw and "Susan" is in the title, the film's focus is Roberta's transcendence of her suburban lifestyle and mindset (it's refreshing that husband Gary, though somewhat caricatured, isn't a complete douchebag--Mark Blum played a similar though less sympathetic role in the same year's Crocodile Dundee). I'd forgotten how affecting a screen presence Arquette was; luminous, feisty, independent and determined. She apparently still keeps busy these days, but it's great to see her at the beginning of an interesting career in Susan. We don't learn much about what makes Roberta tick (she mentions "dreams," but they're never spelled out in the slightest detail), but then again, she hasn't been given much chance to find out, and the possibility that she might soon have time makes for a happily exciting notion.

Iris Owens, After Claude (1973): After Claude marked the start of my attempt to get back into buying and reading books on impulse again. I had a long and fraught history of such in my younger days, but had scaled down drastically in my thirties for various reasons I may already have mentioned--now, happily, space rather than finance plays the major role in this restriction. There's a larger post in the dilemma, but I'll stick with After Claude for now. The grimly hilarious account of one woman's breakup and near crackup in boho Manhattan, After Claude almost instantly took pride of place in my heart next to satirical masterpieces like A Confederacy of Dunces and Lucky Jim. The comic vision is equal to the former and the prose has maybe even greater belly laughs than the latter. After Claude defiantly claims its own identity, though; Iris Owens was a ferociously uncompromising female writer of postwar America (and Europe, where she dabbled in pornography--"porn" sounds so post-her) who never quite realized the promise some saw in her and likely didn't care. At a time when second-wave feminism was in full swing, Harriet was an annoying, unstable, toxic heroine who would hardly have offered an inspiring example to anyone. The plot is fairly simple. Harriet is dumped by her French boyfriend Claude and sent away from their apartment in Greenwich Village. After a series of stratagems to win him back (or at least to restore the status quo), she ends up at the Chelsea Hotel where she falls victim to a weird cult partly led by Roger (who acts on the orders of the even more mysterious Victor, a name which I just realized has a great deal of similar significance for me). Harriet narrates throughout, and her disdain and sarcasm are inexhaustible and unstoppable; the first half of After Claude has a railroad tempo that's hardly noticeable until it's almost over (when Harriet reaches the Chelsea). Seeing the diatribes and put-downs rendered in such plain type on the page put me in mind of Laurie Notaro; I wonder if she's a fan. I won't try and single out a particular zinger; they seem to blend into themselves to make it nearly impossible.* The final third is strangely downbeat, quite unlike Confederacy or Jim. I never got the feeling that Harriet really learned anything or that she's headed for better things; it's a strange kind of comic novel, in my experience (I should definitely read more; again, for another post), but all the more bracing (and Harriet all the weirdly nobler) for it. The experience of reading was strange in itself; Harriet's struggles with Claude came in the intervals of the Tickled Fancy Burlesque Company's show at the Blind Pig; patrons must have thought the frequent outbursts of laughter from the guy in the corner pretty peculiar, if they noticed at all. The madcap histrionics and bitter wit well matched my friends' antics on stage. The next morning, wrapped in the comforting arms of a deliciously mild hangover, the alternately amusing and creepy account of the Chelsea Hotel perfectly fit the gray morning outside and the occasional nagging feeling of another weekend almost gone. Though I can't promise such an aesthetically perfect reading experience for others' introduction to this terrific novel, nobody should let the possibility of its absence stop them.

*Oh, all right: "Claude, who had learned his English in England, spoke with one of those snotty, superior accents, stuffed into a slimy French accent, the whole mess flavored with an occasional American hipsterism, making him sound like an extremely rich, self-employed spy." And "Maxine had more accents than Peter Ustinov, but unless you punched her in the stomach, you never heard the real one."

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: 31 May 2011 5:13 AM EDT
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22 May 2011
When Potatoes Matter
Now Playing: The Dirtbombs--"Good Life"

Back during the Internet's relative toddlerhood, when I was in college during the mid-1990s, we still called the thing "the IRC," or "Internet Relay Chat." A far cry from the world-spanning Moloch of today, it was mostly chat rooms rendered in script that wouldn't have looked out of place on a TRS-80 (unless we actually used TRS-80s, which I can't remember and which probably would have been funnier). Every now and again we would get joke lists via email of the kind that still occasionally show up in people's inboxes. One of my personal favorites was one listing great ways to confuse your students (on the supremely infinitesimal chance that any of my hundred or so former students are reading this, savor that one, I guess). This was primarly down to #30 or whatever it was: "Wear mirrored sunglasses and speak only in Turkish. Ignore all questions." I still crack up over the possibilities of its applicability in everyday life.

My recent cooling period on the Internet (or, somewhat more accurately, Facebook and the British Horror Films Forum I've frequented now for eight years) has put the strategy in mind more than once. It's not just that it all seems to be taking more and more of my time and energy; I've been writing fiction pretty much nonstop since the end of August, and that's tightened things up a bit. My work schedule, too, has recently changed, though in a way fulfilling a few ambitions, with more hours and greater opportunities to learn (which are already paying off at home, although it can be a pain getting up at five in the morning for the majority of the week). For the past couple of months, my "own time" has been more and more precious to me, and I may well be blaming the Internet a little too much for my own lack of discipline. I have to ask, too, why I'm on it so often. It has become a major, practically basic feature of postmodern life, but that's no excuse for staying on past, say, two hours (I should stress that this doesn't happen very often, but it feels quite obnoxious and endless when it does). It doesn't help, either, that I feel temperamentally unsuited to much "Internet culture."  The vast majority of "jargon" irritates and occasionally enrages to a truly irrational degree. The frequency of interesting, civilized debates degenerating into atavistic, witless screaming matches may be a confirmation of some fundamentally pessimistic views of human nature, but it isn't one that I really want (or more importantly, need) to see. I don't need, for instance, to innocently call up the Barnaby Jones theme tune off YouTube in a moment of easily excusable nostalgia and find a racist flamewar going on in the comments section (I do need to refuse to find out how it started). It's at moments like those that "wearing mirrored sunglasses and speaking only in Turkish while ignoring all questions" is really the only way to go.

My disillusionment with the Internet puts me in mind of the time that I should never consider "the good old days," when I went online at the library and had the rest of the time to read, write, listen to the radio, watch movies, cook, and engage in any number of activities. I'm well aware that millions of people manage to accomplish this feat pretty much daily, but for some reason it seems to eat into my consciousness at an increasingly alarming rate. So, starting this weekend, I'm resolved to limit my access to a maximum of two hours a day, and even that's probably stretching it. This decision may force me to discipline myself and my free time and maybe even (paradoxically?) blog a little more. I have toyed with the idea of giving my Internet home an honorable end over the past couple of months (probably more seriously than I have since 2007), but I know I'll just start it back up again at some point, and it's much easier just to keep it around (I still like the title). It strikes me as a little odd that, about this same time last year, I was drifting into a total anomie, disinterested in largely everything. It was a brief yet horrible feeling, and fortunately it's been the diametric opposite recently. There's so much to do right now, and it seems like I can't quite decide on what to handle first. Books I still need to read, movies I could watch, home cooking to do, photos to take, bike trips to be taken, stories and longer projects to be edited, gardens to be planted and tended... Restricting the Internet, and taking a writing break, will help nicely.

Ride The High Country (1962): Sam Peckinpah is a director whose critical adulation I've never been able to understand. The Wild Bunch (1969) was slightly underwhelming when I first saw it, and I could never figure that out until much later (I think a lot of male viewers and critics get overwhelmed and somewhat flattered by the rampant machismo). Major Dundee (1965) offers the unique spectacle of an uninvolving disappointment with an unimprovable cast of quirky character actors of which Charlton Heston is the thespian triumph (and it's a real performance, not a "Heston"). Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) is frequently unwatchable, even if Warren Oates is strangely endearing throughout. Straw Dogs (1971) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) are both very good, and the latter has one of the best Western soundtracks ever. So it was with a mixed track record in mind that I approached Ride the High Country, Peckinpah's first Western and, as it turned out, a superb cinematic achievement. Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) is an aging lawman who takes a job with a bank to buy gold from miners in a nearby camp and transport it to safety. He enlists his old friend and partner Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott, who sounds like a patrician version of Foghorn Leghorn) to help, and en route they run into Elsa (Mariette Hartley), the dissatisfied daughter of a religious zealot (the great R.G. Armstrong). Gil feels mistreated and abandoned after his years of service to various communities, and has his own plans for the gold. What follows is a gently subtle morality play, with an old friendship tested and a new romance kindled (between Elsa and Gil's young protege Heck, played by Ron Starr). There's plenty of action, especially when the family of Elsa's intended (two of them played by future Peckinpah stalwarts Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones) get riled up, but it gets subsumed into the larger story of Steve and Gil. Their contrasting attitudes towards the hand life has dealt them make for surprisingly powerful drama, especially considering that the characters are played by two leading men who attracted criticism in their prime for being slightly wooden (Scott in particular is fantastic). The end might be heartbreaking if it didn't seem so natural and inevitable, as the mountains loom in the distance, two people prepare to begin a new life, and my take on Sam Peckinpah becomes more and more conflicted.

There will be more in the near future, but I can already feel other priorities press. A good omen, maybe.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: 22 May 2011 6:16 PM EDT
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7 March 2011
Lord Help The Mister
Now Playing: Sleater-Kinney--"Living In Exile"

One of the familial relationships that, to me, feels most alien is that between two sisters. I have a brother, and we get along fine, but I always wondered what having a sister would be like (although I now have a sister-in-law who rather wonderfully feels more like an actual sister). To be a sister's sister might be a more remote imagining for me than to wonder what it would be like to be female, if that makes any sense. So it's always interesting to see these relationships portrayed on screen, especially when it offers a blitheringly obvious way to link a few films--one all right, two terrific--that I've seen recently.

Sunshine Cleaning (2008): I used to get Entertainment Weekly, and, though I just a couple of weeks ago liberated myself from its poisonous, superficial, middlebrow dreck (and those were just the film reviews), I   remember seeing Sunshine Cleaning in the reviews fairly recently. When I realized that "fairly recently" meant nearly three years ago, I figured it was safe to say that I'm getting old, and that time which seemed an eternity to me twenty, ten, or even five years ago looks like much less now. This accidental reminder of my mortality may have prejudiced me against Sunshine Cleaning. That's not to say I don't necessarily like it. Rose and Nora (Amy Adams and Emily Blunt) are two sisters living in New Mexico, Rose a single mother and Nora a directionless twentysomething. They have a quirky, endearing father (Alan Arkin, and there were many who thought he was basically repeating his performance that I haven't seen in Little Miss Sunshine) and Rose is carrying on an affair with a married cop (Steve Zahn, long may he work). Rose's son has a learning disability, but her need to get him transferred to a special school runs into financial problems. A chance remark by the cop regarding the high pay of crime scene cleaning staff gives Rose the idea to start her own business in that field, and she enlists Nora to help her do it. The plot isn't exactly Dumas. Rose and Nora confront their friends, family, and their own misgivings before finding themselves by the end of the movie. Dad gets mixed up in all sorts of ridiculous business ideas, and it's all very quirky. By far the strongest feature, and what saves Sunshine Cleaning from being one of "those" movies, is the combined power of the leading performances by Adams and Blunt and the believability of their relationship with each other. A lesser movie would have Rose ensconced in a comfortable, "middle-class" job and in a safe but boring relationship, married or otherwise, willing and able to look down her nose at Nora for not being able to hold on to a "working-class" job or relationship, especially as both, according to dominant media narratives, are in eternally plentiful supply and supremely dependable (all other evidence to the contrary, if my suppressed rant isn't obvious enough). Maybe Nora could show up and embarrass her at some pivotal moment at a company reception or christening or some such. In Sunshine Cleaning, though, Rose is a "waitress" (as they still call them in movies), a couple of sick days or a rude customer away from sharing Nora's socioeconomic status, and the change works well for the movie. Rose and Nora are a lot more alike than either want to admit, and Adams and Blunt beautifully render the ambiguity of their sisterhood (it hardly hurts that I'm more than a little in love with Adams, and my respect for Blunt has consistently grown ever since I saw her play Boudicca's daughter in that British TV movie with Alex Kingston). Though the movie itself isn't such great shakes, its portrayal of Rose and Nora's sibling relationship, and the relative realism of its context, lift it well above many of its peers.

Beeswax (2009): Andrew Bujalski is, to some, the leading light of the so-called "mumblecore" movement, and to my mind, he's one of the best directors working in this country today--if not the best. Part of my high regard stems from the instant familiarity of his dialogue and situations. There's probably nobody else living (though I hope to find others, and have noticed a fairly large contingent of IFC-looking films at the library, so we'll see) who so accurately portrays the lives of relatively "aimless," predominantly white, vaguely left-of-center American twenty- and thirtysomethings*. One could take his work, drop it smack in the middle of Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti, and that's pretty much it, to a considerable extent.** I first encountered his work in 2005's Mutual Appreciation, and seeing 2003's Funny Ha Ha further bolstered my admiration. His first two films were set in Boston and New York, and operated in an obviously quasi-bohemian setting. Beeswax, though, relocates to "flyover country," which would be more exciting to me if it wasn't set in Austin, Texas, which along with Portland, Oregon, has been sucking up the bohemian-minded since I was in high school, if not before (including several friends over two decades). Real life twins Tilly and Maggie Hatcher play, respectively, Jeannie and Lauren, two young women living in Austin with, like the sisters in Sunshine Cleaning, more similar lifestyles than one would think from their respective status. Jeannie is part-owner and manager of a small hipster clothing shop (think Orchid Lane in Ann Arbor), and Lauren is frequently employed, shall we say, eventually starting to think about teaching in Africa. The plot hinges around a threatened move by Jeannie's partner Amanda to sue Jeannie and take sole ownership of the business, while Lauren helps her sister handle her troubled relationship with legal adviser Merrill (Alex Karpovsky) and tries to fend off well-meaning family advice for both sisters. There isn't a great amount of dramatic plot here, but plenty of quiet tension and honest charm, as it feels like a chapter in the lives of two people has been boiled down into a straight, unaffected docudrama. Given the actresses' real life relationship, it's unsurprising how good they are in their roles--the Hatchers are affecting yet low-key, with (full disclosure) an earthy gorgeousness that put me in mind of several women in my own past. Though Maggie Hatcher has wonderful moments, such as her postpartum glee in breaking up with an uninspiring boyfriend or helping her sister out with an impromptu photo shoot in a rural pasture, Tilly Hatcher owns what there is to be taken from the movie's commons, finding her own kindness and good humor put to the test by Amanda's complaints and potentially troublesome workers, gently fending off Merrill's desire for their relationship to be something more, teasing Lauren over her legal advice on what to do with Amanda, and wordlessly implying the effect her own situation as a paraplegic has had on her life (a situation the movie--mostly--effortlessly downplays). Though Bujalski's films have immortalized situations like the sisters' before, Beeswax marks a new care that's taken with the visuals; every location looks authentic and lived-in, in a way that was sometimes hard to tell with the rudimentary color of Funny Ha Ha and the grainy monochrome of Mutual Appreciation. It's a wonderful movie, especially if you come across it in the library with--best of all--liner notes from Kevin Corrigan (long-time stalwart of American indie film and well-known in these quarters for playing Uncle Eddie in Grounded For Life), who waxes just a little rhapsodic about some of the performances and situations, but then who am I to gainsay him? Jeannie and Lauren's experiences (sorry, Randall in Clerks) are just as epic and timeless in their own way as some of the greatest stories and novels.

Away We Go (2009): Away We Go will always rank as one of my great surprises of the cinema. I first read about it somewhere (Entertainment Weekly, probably), and it tripped all sorts of alarms in my head: quirky hipster/slacker couple (John Krasinski seemingly having been created in some foul social lab as the perfect male type--especially the glasses), script partly written by Dave Eggers (who I knew about from his involvement with McSweeney's, the producers of one excellent national secondary school literacy program and two godawful literary anthologies--nice mix, that), Peter Travers had probably given it a thoroughly ass-kissing and characteristically inaccurate blurb in Rolling Stone... I can't remember the exact circumstances, but I think I'd sworn at some point to avoid it like the plague. I can't remember the moment or reason I'd decided to check it out--my guess is (a) mild, slightly bored curiosity or (b) "There's no way this thing can be any worse than (500) Days of Summer." Whichever it was, thank you (or, in the words of Krasinski's Office character Jim Halpert, "Congratulations, universe; you win"). Burt (Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are a couple in their early thirties living near Burt's parents in upstate New York, and Verona is pregnant. A rash decision on the part of Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara) makes them realize that they need to shop around for parental examples and a good place to raise the kid, as they both (a little conveniently?) have jobs they can always do from home. A cross-country odyssey follows, from New York to Arizona to Wisconsin to Quebec to Florida, visiting friends and relatives who may provide guidance... It started dangerously, with quirky quips between husband and wife that made me worry, but Away We Go almost instantly righted itself, and dreaded imagined trowel-loads of pointless irony were replaced by a gentle, touching rumination on impending parenthood (yet another fundamentally alien situation for this reviewer). Much of the credit must go to Krasinski and Rudolph, who make Burt and Verona one of the most all-around sympathetic and believable couples in recent cinema. They help to keep things steady through some iffy patches that seem a little unbelievable (Maggie Gyllenhaal's New Agey academic) or overly literary (a speech delivered over pancakes in a Montreal restaurant, which is redeemed by some excellent acting from the supporting cast). One of the best moments comes when Verona visits her sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo) in Arizona, and the two have a lovely moment of reconnection (and, it seems, reconciliation) over the tragedy of their parents' death. It's sisterhood, even if it's only there for a bit, and it does influence much of what follows from Verona's perspective. By the end, they seem to have settled on the answer to their question, but then they can always ask more. This was Sam Mendes' first film from an original screenplay since the hugely overrated American Beauty, and it was too bad this didn't garner the kind of Oscars that the earlier work did. From the DVD extras, it appears that he went after the kind of actors he'd always admired, and it helps that he might as well have cherry-picked my own brain: Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, the exquisite Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton, O'Hara and Daniels, and best of all Melanie Lynskey, whose ongoing role in the grotesque Two and a Half Men (relevance! today's headlines!) has hopefully left unobscured her work in such films as Ever After, Shattered Glass, Flags of Our Fathers, The Informant! and Up In The Air. I was blown away by her work in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994) and puzzled for some time afterward why she hadn't had the kind of career that co-star Kate Winslet (deservedly) amassed. It's good to see her doing so well, and she (playing the pair's college friend Munch in Montreal) probably has the most memorably haunting moment in the film. There's so much wonderful stuff here, even unintentional (?) meta-moments like Paul Schneider playing Burt's brother Courtney in much the same way as Schneider plays the kind of generically witty "Jim Halpert" character Krasinski established on The Office in Parks and Recreation (my new favorite show, incidentally). It's a great film, with an agreeably contemplative score by Alexi Murdoch, and all the more for my surprising love for it. On top of everything else, it means that I'll actually have to read Dave Eggers (and Vendela Vida) now. As I'm in the middle of a contemporary American fiction kick right now (Lorrie Moore and Denis Johnson), I suppose it won't be too much hassle.

Downton Abbey (2010): And just for laughs... my Anglophilia's taken on bit of water since I started reading the comments at the Guardian, but it's had a huge impact on my own consciousness (largely for reasons described towards the end of the last blog post), and there was probably a time when I would have swallowed Downton Abbey hook, line and sinker. The Edwardian saga of a country estate and noble family threatened with dissolution, and the ongoing travails of their servants, it was a huge success in the UK, and unsurprisingly became one of PBS Masterpiece's biggest hits in years, possibly decades. Part of this may be that it hearkens back to the days of its distinguished forbear, Upstairs, Downstairs (which was remade last year to mixed critical reaction, and will be appearing on PBS soon), and part that it portrays a settled, luxurious (for some) lifestyle (soon to fall victim to war and upheaval) in a time of economic and political uncertainty. There are, of course, a number of differences. Upstairs, Downstairs was rather more subtle, at a time when stories could proceed at a more relaxed pace, and was created by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, two English actresses of working-class origins. Downton Abbey uses the cinema shorthand of the modern age, almost every plot point blatantly telegraphed (with a few clever fakeouts) and was created and written by the excruciatingly aristocratic Julian Fellowes (writer of Altman's Gosford Park and Kilwillie on Monarch of the Glen, if you're into that sort of thing), apparently a lord as well. There was a time when I thought that the fascination in some American quarters with the British aristocracy was due to a secret discontent with democracy and a lust to be ruled, rather than governed. I still believe this to some extent, but I also think that there's a simple fascination with difference--people speaking the same language and maintaining anachronistic, seemingly ludicrous institutions like monarchy and aristocracy, are inevitably going to be of interest in one way or another. It was with this charitable view in mind that I watched Downton Abbey (amusingly mistyped Downtown Abbey by my DA-loving friend on Facebook--that would have been something to watch), and on the whole I enjoyed it. It was hard to forget that its creator and writer is associated (as a Tory peer) with the present political drive to return the UK (or at least England) to the social conditions prevailing at the time of Downton Abbey, but that perversely added to the enjoyment. There are also three sisters: languid, haughty Mary (Michelle Dockery), deceptively mousy Edith (Laura Carmichael), and inquisitive, idealistic Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), all daughters of Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) by his American mercantile heiress wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). Mary, the eldest, needs to be married off first, and Mary alternately schemes to make this happen and resents the need for it. Edith resents the attention paid her elder sister by parents and admirers and tries to make more room for herself with both, sometimes emulating her sister by using underhand means. Sybil couldn't seem to care less, being a little more worried about getting the vote than marrying into a family like her own. Into the toxic mix comes Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), a distant cousin of the Granthams who has now become the heir apparent overnight with the death of the other candidates aboard the Titanic (seriously, although they did that on Upstairs, Downstairs, too). It's all great fun until somebody loses an eye or says something like "dreadful news about that Austrian Archduke" (which practically happens, I swear, even if they probably would have been more worried at the time about the potential rebellion of Protestant Ulster in reaction to a possible Home Rule Act). It's trash, but wonderfully entertaining, and one must say that Bonneville and McGovern have fantastic chemistry. The locations are all sumptuous and sybaritically rustic, and Maggie Smith makes her largely inevitable appearance as Grantham's mother, the Dowager Countess (which reminded me of the Leonard Maltin Guide's take on Joan Collins' performance in The Bitch or The Stud--can't remember which: "a role she could play in her sleep--and does").*** The acting's generally terrific, with good turns by longtime favorites such as Penelope Wilton and Jim Carter, and it's great to see Coronation Street's Rob James-Collier (Liam Connor "himshelf") as a devious footman. All in all, it'll be great fun to follow the story into the Great War and beyond, see who survives, and what other kinds of devious plots and junior high exposition will result. If nothing else, it's been a boon for Masterpiece, and by extension, PBS, and let's hope that every little bit helps.

 *I would have said "middle-class," but I'm actually starting to buy the culturally tenuous nature of class in America, and just as I wouldn't describe myself as middle-class in my present situation, I don't think one can describe Lauren in Beeswax as such, although Alan in Mutual Appreciation and Marnie in Funny Ha Ha qualify to an extent.

**On a more upscale and blockbuster level, the first section of Cloverfield was surprisingly squirm-inducing in this manner.

***It's not that bad, but it gives me an excuse to call to mind another favorite, the review of Iron Eagle: "Not boring, just stupid."

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 7 March 2011 4:53 PM EST
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28 February 2011
Saturday Paradise
Now Playing: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band--"Night"

William Boyd, Any Human Heart (2002): My reading log that I kept for most of the 1990s records that I completed William Boyd's Brazzaville Beach on 13 July 1998. That was a difficult summer (and year) for me and it's not much of a surprise that little of the plot or themes stuck with me as I was occupied with much else at the time. I did have a lingering respect for Boyd that kept nagging at me for much of the intervening twelve years--he was a critically acclaimed British writer, much of whose work involved the interactions between Western and non-Western cultures, especially in Africa. Any Human Heart touches rather more briefly on the theme than his other work, but it was lying on the "free book" shelf at the Ann Arbor Public Library and I figured that was probably a sign of some sort (it didn't hurt that I knew a British TV adaptation--C4--was on the Masterpiece schedule after Downton Abbey). Any Human Heart poses as the collected journals of British writer, critic, and onetime spy Logan Mountstuart, and covers the 1920s to the 1980s. It's a grand, kaleidoscopic look at the twentieth century as seen through one man's wonderfully imperfect eyes, and, as some may note, bears no little resemblance in large to Anthony Powell's A Dance To The Music of Time. The resemblance doesn't last very long--Powell's alleged British riposte to the likes of Proust or Musil was tedious, meandering, and fatally quotidian, arguably the most overrated literary work I've read in a good long while (and it didn't have the excuse of being written in the 80s). Boyd's "discovery," on the other hand, is brisk, engaging, and indulges in a terrific degree of smartassery (I also can't avoid the exhilarating suspicion that he wrote it as a combined defiance/pisstake of his lauded "precursor").* Logan (LMS as he's termed in the entertaining "editor's notes") begins life as an Anglo-Uruguayan student at Oxford, experiences brief celebrity as a writer in Paris and a journalist during the Spanish Civil War (palling around with Ernest Hemingway, among others), gets involved in intrigue and incarceration during the Second World War in the Bahamas and Switzerland (crossing swords with the ex-Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson), experiences the heady rush of Manhattan life in the 1950s as an art dealer during the apogee of Abstract Expressionism, finds late adventure both as an English teacher in Nigeria during the Biafra War and a naive (?) participant in a radical left-wing revolutionary, possibly terrorist, group, and reflects on his amazing experiences at the end of his life in a remote corner of France.

I started Any Human Heart without any grand expectations, but it's a marvelous job and well worth reading. It could have been a name-dropping nightmare ("oh, hello, Hemingway") but somehow LMS' humanity and flaws shine, however great the tarnish at times, through any possible obscurement by the great and "good." With LMS, Boyd's basically raised one of the multifarious, often anonymous supporting characters in the lives of so many famous twentieth-century artistic figures to center stage (it would be like Floyd Dell becoming the central focus of Reds). If LMS has a real-life counterpart, it would probably be someone like Cyril Connolly (who, I recently discovered, died the day after I was born), who published one novel and a rumination on failure before moving on to become one of the century's most influential critics. Boyd also identifies one William Gerhardie as a primary inspiration in this excellent Guardian interview.* LMS has much the same kind of career, but with a number of picaresque scrapes and follies that barely touched even Connolly's eventful life. It helps, too, that not only are his flaws are front and center but that he's generally honest about them. He's a bit of a womanizer and hardly ever knows what he really wants, but tends to readily admit to this, at least in his journals. Through minor triumphs and appalling tragedies, he manages to keep his wits about him and never stops enjoying life in one form or another well into his twilight years, when even his retirement sojourn in France yields one more compelling mystery. The journals are breezy, clear and incisive throughout, and Boyd's mischievous editing brilliantly fits the spirit of his fictional "subject." The "liner notes" tend to help the story along in surprising ways, and the interaction of creator and character in this way is deliciously exhilarating. LMS' central "moral," if it can be called that, is that "we're none of us the same person" (literally translated in the series, as described below), and his own life, going through enormous swings of joy and sadness, triumph and tragedy, is a very good proof of such. Most of us probably won't hit the highs and lows of such a life, but it was heartening to read, especially for one reader nearing middle age who hopefully has a while yet to truly peak.

The TV series would inevitably be a disappointment, but it wasn't as much of one as I'd feared. LMS is played by three different actors--Sam Claflin, Matthew MacFadyen, and the great Jim Broadbent--and the action necessarily clips by at great speed, with fairly sizable chunks excised (most sadly the Nigeria sequence) and certain events altered or subtly ignored (LMS' reason for moving back to London from New York). Fortunately, it gets better as it goes along, with the older, wiser, sadder LMS visibly showing both the weight and benefit of his advancing years. Weirdly, the Masterpiece promo namechecks Gillian Anderson (Mrs. Simpson) and Kim Cattrall (LMS' friend and mistress Gloria)--and even MacFadyen (admittedly familiar to Masterpiece and British TV viewers)--but not Broadbent, the only Oscar-winning member of the cast. It clicks along nicely towards the end, which is at once both heartbreaking and heartwarming, with LMS full to the brim of memories, especially of the great love of his life, Freya Deverall (the smolderingly gorgeous Hayley Atwell). Even the unexpected appearance of Myanna Buring (aaaaigh!) as a German revolutionary of the Baader-Meinhof era wasn't as annoying as I'd dreaded (I think I'm on record somewhere calling her the "modern-day Yutte Stensgaard," but that's probably wildly unjust). All in all, it certainly wasn't a match for the book (and probably didn't achieve the extraordinary popularity of the preceding Masterpiece phenomenon, ITV's Downton Abbey), but it was an affectionate abridgement by Boyd of his own masterpiece, and will hopefully get more people interested in this tremendously engaging writer, as I myself have.

Masterpiece itself was the result of an amalgamation of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!, both of them PBS staples for decades. There are now Masterpiece Classic, Masterpiece Mystery, and Masterpiece Contemporary (the latter mainly concerning itself with British imports that can in no way be considered period dramas, at least from before the 1960s or so). Watching these shows was a major part of my adolescence (not as great as Doctor Who, although the early 90s repeat of I, Claudius came pretty damn near), and, though they're a major target of those who would rid this country of one of its great cultural triumphs (and are coming close, having won a vote in the House of Representatives to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), had an enormous impact on how I saw the world. Watching shows made for a different country will inevitably change one's outlook on how one sits in the wider world, and this was never more true than of British imports on PBS. Shows like Masterpiece Theatre, privileging though they are (or have been in the past) of a certain kind of British identity (upper-and-middle-class, rural and suburban), do a great job of continuing the work shows like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood started, demonstrating to interested viewers that they aren't alone. They're special, but so is everybody else.*** Seeing people with the same language but radically different accents on a regular basis on TV helps to both consciously and unconsciously underline this reality; it "humanizes" "others," if you like. It follows therefrom that we're all in it together, facing many of the same problems, and that it therefore makes sense to work together on an equal footing. These are the messages I got as a kid and young adult from public broadcasting, and I've never seen any convincing argument against them (they also lay at the conceptual core of just about all the world's religions--one reason why I'm hesitant, devout agnostic though I've become and critic of organized religion though I've been for decades, to offer blanket condemnations of such institutions). In the world we presently inhabit, too, they stand as some of the only positive reinforcements of this same emphasis on cooperation and togetherness that have given this country some of its finest moments and greatest glories. Especially in places where there isn't access to cable TV or the internet, it's one of the only conduits for a wider culture and a showcase for differing views and voices. **** Even with the existence of cable, PBS shows personally come out on top for me largely due to their cooperative ethos (you only have to compare egregious cable cooking shows, focusing on camera-friendly primping and standards of competition that suggest the contestants haven't mentally cleared kindergarten, let alone culinary school--and let's not open that can of worms, eh?--or the vetting process, with something like Simply Ming). It's a great thing that exists in this country, this cooperative impulse, and has been trodden into the ground over the past several years, if not several decades, largely by people who can't bring themselves to believe that other people are worth anything, let alone as much as themselves. In short, PBS stands for everything that's finest in America, and it would be an extraordinarily stupid act of cultural self-harm if we let it fall into the disrepair these Tea Party-influenced legislators seem to want so badly.

*"27 November 1936: Evelyn [Waugh] was in the bar with some people and, in conversation, I let him know I'd just been in Spain and told him how impressed I'd been with the Republican spirit. He looked at me pityingly, his pale blue eyes wide and bright. 'Spain has nothing to do with you or me, Logan,' he said. And then immediately contradicted himself by asking if I'd seen any burnt-out churches. I'd seen locked ones, I said, but no signs of anti-clericalism. Then he changed the subject and started asking me questions about Aethelred and the Edgefields. Sometimes I think I'm only of interest to Evelyn because I married an earl's daughter."

**Their reviews are often shit, but they usually do good interviews.

***I've often seen the spectacularly wrong-headed accusation made elsewhere that Mr. Rogers actually encouraged self-centeredness among children by his emphasis on personal "specialness." I was well aware at the time that he was talking to many other kids just like me in that regard, and I'm pretty damn certain everyone else knew the same (just about every lesson imparted by the Kingdom of Make-Believe involved this idea, with a subtle anti-monarchist twist). When the arguments reach that level of crapitude, you can be fairly sure you're dueling with someone on bad faith.

****My friend Richard lives in California's Inland Empire, and apparently the region is already suffering the effects of KCET's harebrained decision to detach itself from the CPB and run itself largely on British imports, forgoing the kind of educational and grassroots American programming that forms much of the rest of PBS' output. That's the kind of thing we can anticipate across the country if the CPB gets defunded.


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 28 February 2011 1:16 PM EST
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19 February 2011
A Poor Judge Of A Great Masterpiece
Now Playing: Blur--"Sunday Sunday"

From the outset, it should be made clear that today's title was my college friend Will's opinion of my take on the 1961 film epic El Cid, with Charlton Heston in the starring role. The most unusual slice of 90s nostalgia that's resulted this week from my furious fit of memory-gouging, inspired by what follows...

 Sara Marcus, Girls To The Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution (2010): Riot Grrrl was a feminist movement for political, social, and cultural change that began in the early 1990s and linked the myriad concerns of many disaffected young women. It expressed itself most famously through the music of a variety of performers, most notably Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and later Sleater-Kinney (itself the product of earlier Riot Grrrl bands like Heavens To Betsy and Excuse 17), but also through instances of social connection and political action--Riot Grrrl chapters were set up in the movement's hubs of Washington, DC, and Olympia, Washington, as well as a number of other cities throughout the country. Though enormously influential on both the development of third-wave feminism and independent music, it foundered for a time on both hostile mainstream media attitudes and the internal tensions which were largely inevitable among so many passionate, intelligent, and talented individuals. Though Riot Grrrl chapters as such had gone their separate ways by the late 1990s, the movement remains a powerful inspiration and example to a great many women (and not a few men, myself included).

That, at, any rate, is a relatively neutral portrayal of a protean phenomenon that lay beneath the pop culture mainstream of my own young adulthood like a simmering fault line. I started the 1990s as a teenage boy intellectually and idealistically sympathetic to feminism but riven by the same hormonal tug-of-war that can make life at that age such a glory and a hell for young people. This conflict arguably helped to reinforce, to some extent, the same patriarchal norms that some (at least I) tried desperately to escape. I didn't encounter Riot Grrrl in any obviously discernible guise until I read a piece on Sleater-Kinney in Rolling Stone, a chance encounter from which they would proceed to become my favorite American band of the 90s, but in reading Sara Marcus' superb history of Riot Grrrl's life and times, I was struck at how many times my own life had nearly intersected with, if not Riot Grrrl, the same problems and concerns it faced.

At sixteen or seventeen, I was involved in a counterdemonstration against Randall Terry's grotesque "pro-life" Operation Rescue outside Baton Rouge's now sadly defunct Delta Women's Clinic. The rise of groups like Operation Rescue had been a major catalyst, along with the tortured Supreme Court tale of Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, for pro-woman action and organizing, as well as the much-ballyhooed declaration of 1992 as "The Year of the Woman." In college in Virginia, I had a number of female friends who held Sassy magazine in high regard, and caught a few echoes that way; Sassy, being a young women's magazine with a relatively "alternative" approach, was one of the primary media battlegrounds for Riot Grrrl. The rise of zines and DIY publishing was another prominent feature of the movement, and I remember quite a few friends and acquaintances of mine who started their own in senior year--one of them a friend of my friend Annie's (whose name I sadly can't remember), whose concerns and pieces were squarely addressed in opposition to the dominance of patriarchal culture (reading them, I felt a profound helplessness, which was fairly educational in itself). Then there was our college's inaugural Take Back The Night rally, at which I remember hearing people I knew muster their enormous courage and take the stage to describe their rapes or abuse; I'm pretty sure the organizers were familiar or had links with the movement. Much of the movement's activity, even during its alleged decline, was centered around the DC area and Northern Virginia, and it's sad to think that the only time I ever managed to get up there during my time at Roanoke was for NORML's National Marijuana Day in 1996. All this blather is by way of expressing how tantalizingly close many of these events, discussions, and issues came to intersecting my own life and possibly changing it for the better, and this is all coming from someone--a straight white male of middle-class background--who arguably needed the movement's help the least. I think it would be presumptuous in the extreme for me to make any personal claims on its background or development, and I'm not trying to do that here. Its ideals, though, still point a way towards a better world where much of the bullshit that's negatively impacted my life in many ways (and may have done the same to people I knew who I cared about or loved, and perhaps still does) is no more, or at least has been shown to be vulnerable to challenge. I also love the music (even if the stuff I was listening to while Riot Grrrl was in the ascendant was closer to my "now playing" selection on today's blog post).

Sara Marcus, a writer and musician who had been a Riot Grrrl (and arguably still was), came to the University of Michigan to give a talk on her book (she gave a reading the next day, but I had to work). It was with all the aforementioned in mind that I went to hear her speak, on the origins of Riot Grrrl, its historical context, and its complex relations with an often hostile mainstream media. The room, a fairly decent-sized one in Lane Hall, was packed with people of many ages, which was good to see. It was an excellent talk (with great musical samples), all the more so for the questions and discussion that followed--these latter ranged from the ability of music to be political, the necessity of physical tangibility to revolutionary messages (i.e. zines vs. blogs), and some of the undercurrents that helped to fracture and change the movement. I was completely unprepared for the rush of 90s nostalgia that hit me while listening, and though I didn't need to be sold, I bought the book (a little surprised I didn't buy two), and looked forward to reading it (in between Hawthorne and Maupassant--it was an interesting time for reading) all week. I got done with it a couple of days ago, and it's fantastic.

It's great both as an even-handed, wideranging narrative of an important historical moment and as a piece of nonfiction literature. Marcus draws her personal experience into the book from the very first, describing her hellish adolescence in suburban Maryland, what Riot Grrrl meant to it, and how it changed it. The narrative runs from 1989 to 1996, examining how Olympia, with its alternative mecca of Evergreen State College, and DC, with its political and cultural resources and legendary punk and DIY scene of the 1980s, became the movement's twin nodes. Bikini Kill, achieving popularity in its Pacific Northwest scene, developed the concept of "Riot Grrrl" as a way to help young women faced with the same conflicting messages that they were, especially those powerless in a legislative sense (under 18). They, and their fellows such as Bratmobile, migrated to DC in the early 1990s as a way to harness the potential inherent in such a scene (with the help of established musicians like Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi). By 1993, Riot Grrrl had become a national phenomenon, commented on (and more usually caricatured) by major media outlets. Young women everywhere conducted meetings, went to rallies, formed bands, demonstrated, and carried out the occasional act of "culture jamming" (in one such described, a couple of Riot Grrrls went into a magazine section and slipped self-affirming, body-neutral messages into fashion rags like Cosmo or Vogue). 

By 1994, though, a number of conflicts had arisen. Bikini Kill's success put distance, however unintentional, between the movement's founders and the very women that Riot Grrrl was supposed to help. The movement's ideals, too, formed a paradoxical obstacle. Riot Grrrl was all about subverting the media, but there were times when some kind of media presence was the only way to reach women without the often privileged communication networks on which the movement had started. Privilege also played a role in the complex relations the movement explored with women of different races, sexual orientations, body types, and economic backgrounds, with a number of arguments and divisions arising therefrom (it should be mentioned that Riot Grrrl's approach, with all its faults, was a lot more self-aware in this regard than previous feminist movements). It didn't help that most interactions with the wider media resulted in grotesque misintepretations, the result of simplification and stereotype. The end is left as something of an open question--the Riot Grrrl "movement" ended in whatever "official" sense it had existed, but there are still plenty of Riot Grrrls out there, and thank everything for it.

Marcus' work has risen to one of my all-time favorites in non-fiction. It's hard to tell whether this impression will last, but it's also hard not to admire the often seamless way in which she integrates political, social, and cultural history, having to focus in one instance on the electoral politics that produced the legislative climate of the early 90s, and another on a close reading of songs like Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl" (as well as my favorite, "Alien She"), and then the same on a striking piece of confrontational art in which activist Angela Seguel posed naked with a pro-Riot Grrrl message written on her body--the mini-history of that one statement is marvelous. That particular instance also serves as a great example of how the movement influenced and helped create, to a certain extent, third-wave feminism, a more inclusive, sex-positive discourse than its occasionally puritanical predecessor of the 1960s and 1970s. Marcus sometimes makes that point directly, but more often wisely lets it arise naturally through the actions and examples of the Riot Grrrls themselves. Her style is breezy yet authoritative, with colloquialisms employed much more deftly than other writers I could name (and admittedly love, like Sarah Vowell).

I also find it remarkable how non-judgmental it all is throughout (although this tendency--constructively criticizing one's fellows without the negativity--is fairly appropriate for a history of Riot Grrrl). Nobody stands out as a "hero" or "villain," and even the most rigorous of popular histories that I've read on nearly any subject tend to get that one wrong. The only ongoing obvious villain of the piece is the patriarchal culture that made (and make) Riot Grrrl's struggles so necessary in the first place. As for heroes, Marcus makes quite clear that they all are in one way or another. Kathleen Hanna arose early as a representative figure of both Riot Grrrl and Bikini Kill (both names the brainchild of bandmate Tobi Vail), but her own frequent disavowals and colossal misgivings regarding this common human tendency effectively scuppered any claim to traditional hero status. Teen maverick Jessica Hopper, whose celebrity-seeking and association with movement-bashing Courtney Love made her a suspicious figure to many Riot Grrrls, comes across rather sympathetically, as a confused young woman trying to make the best of her situation. The links with the nearby Seattle grunge explosion of the time are interesting to note, too; Kurt Cobain was friends with the Bikini Kill members, habitually plugged the band in interviews, and was Tobi Vail's ex-boyfriend (only one reason for Love's hostility, and Vail was disappointed in what she saw to be Cobain's selling out), and his own internal tensions (DIY purity vs. rock megastardom) hold an interesting mirror to what would happen with Riot Grrrl later down the road.* It's a very understanding yet clear-eyed lens through which these stories are seen, and the difference is enormously refreshing. Marcus conducted numerous interviews with movement veterans throughout the country, and the result is a bracingly collective recollection of a transformative time in many lives. It's a marvelous work and I anticipate rereading it with pleasure.

It's really served to inspire me, too, in rather alarming ways. This year's been a pretty shaky one already, both abroad and at home, and my own resolutions to do something about lingering and negative issues in my life (obliquely described above) have only gotten stronger both through observation of the world scene and the examples provided throughout Girls To The Front. Listening to the discussion at Marcus' talk earlier this week made me wonder what's keeping me from doing what I need to do. It's a wonderfully frightening, liberating feeling and I hope it stays with me for a considerable time to come.

*As someone who largely couldn't have given two figs for Cobain or his music (and who only remembers where he was when the news came that he'd killed himself--at college one morning via the primitive pre-Internet IRC--because of the national youth freakout that promptly ensued), I came away from Girls To The Front feeling more than a little sympathy for the guy. Still not into the music, though.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 19 February 2011 12:27 PM EST
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30 January 2011
High-Octane Ennui
Now Playing: Wolf Parade--"Two Men In New Tuxedos"

I first saw Pulp Fiction in the theater in late 1994. It was a very strange time for me; I'd just gotten back to college (in Virginia) from a family funeral, it was the middle of the weekend and my friends were all off doing other things, so I found myself at looser ends than usual. For lack of anything else, I drove down to the Grandin Theater in Roanoke and saw that Pulp Fiction was playing. Why not, eh? The girl at the counter (who I recognized from campus as a friend of friends) asked me if I'd seen it before, and the sly look that passed across her face at my "no" was alluringly alarming. I went in, sat down, and was promptly blown away. I remember being a Tarantino nut for a year thanks to Pulp Fiction, even to the extent of reacting rather sharply to my John Woo-loving friend's tearing apart plot holes in her own criticism of the film (pot kettle black, of course, when it comes to John Woo, but I should have been more sportsmanlike about the whole thing). I had earlier encountered QT in Reservoir Dogs, which I'd seen with my friend Rob that summer, but somehow didn't really link the two together (it's gone steadily down in my estimation since then). After Pulp Fiction, I didn't keep careful track of the man's movements, and his screechingly annoying segment in Four Rooms--which at least has a happy ending, I guess--pretty much dampened my enthusiasm for good. Since then, he became something of an artistic figure of fun for me (even though I heard--and hear--that 1996's Jackie Brown was really good).* I had--and have--no desire to Kill Bill, and one may well ask what possessed me to revisit his work in the past couple of weeks. I honestly can't remember. 

Inglourious Basterds (2009): "Ah-haaaa! He got the spelling wrong! Oh... oh, yeah. It's '"'"'"'ironic.'"'"'"' Go to hell." On a superficial level (not that there's really anything else here), Tarantino's Second World War orgy of self-indulgence is a remake/homage of Enzo G. Castellari's 1978 actioner Inglorious Bastards, with Bo Svenson, Fred Williamson, and Ian Bannen (and just the mere typing of that cast does make me want to see it a little). Curious to see what the great middlebrow authority Leonard Maltin (formerly my film Moses) thought of it, it looks like the verdict was "great scenes in search of a movie." There's a fair amount of truth to that, although I don't think many of them were all that great. A group of Jewish GIs (including the majestically obnoxious Eli Roth, The Office's B.J. Novak, and--huzza!--Freaks and Geeks' Samm Levine), led by Appalachian mystery man Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt)--well, I wonder where that name came from. I think QT may have seen old movies before and enjoyed them. Let me start over. A group of Jewish GIs, etc. etc. are dumped into Festung Europa in 1944 to basically massacre Nazis in conjunction with the big invasion. They, and a gutsy Jewish resistance fighter named Shoshanna (the excellent Melanie Laurent, who deserved better), find themselves in opposition to the wily SS Colonel Hans Landa (the Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz), and lots and lots and lots of people get killed, including Goebbels and Hitler under circumstances that, spoiler alert, do not match the historical record. I'd heard that last bit was going to happen, and I was fine with it, in much the same way that I loved A Knight's Tale, despite the fact that people in the fourteenth century didn't enjoy Queen or David Bowie for obvious reasons. My problems with Inglourious Basterds lay elsewhere. If Donnie Darko was the kind of movie I (all other things being equal) would have made at seventeen (not necessarily a bad thing; I was fascinated as a result, probably more than the movie deserved), Inglourious Basterds is the one I would have made If I'd been pumped full of knowledge of interwar European cinema (about which people talk, and talk, and talk)? There's no real believable link between various scenes, and the vaunted "time-shift" qualities of Tarantino's script are really just a result of screenwriting diarrhea. Pitt is fun, and the acting is all generally fine (I think Roth's character is supposed to be obnoxious, and he's also really, really... from Boston). It's especially good to see Michael Fassbender (so good in Centurion, and so amusing in the great but really depressing Eden Lake) as the posh Brit agent who comes along for the ride. Not only do we get Hitler, but we also get Churchill, played by a much (personally) loved leading actor of the 60s I didn't even know still lived. Sadly, he has to share the screen with another relatively low-billed, and supremely off-putting cameo (the cameo actor probably reacting to the job with the same glee that drove QT to make this travesty). Waltz is great, but nowhere near the marvel he was touted in the media. This is understandable, I think, as his achievement is akin to dropping a live-action Paul Scofield into an episode of Jabberjaw. There's no emotional investment in any of the characters, and the standard goalpost-shifting many critics habitually do when it comes to Tarantino movies left me feeling a little depressed (albeit a lot more sanguine about my relative lack of attendance at the theater these days).

Death Proof (2007): He really ought to be doing more stuff like Death Proof. The second half of Grindhouse, his retro collaboration with Robert Rodriguez to resurrect the feel of 70s drive-in cinema (down to the "feature presentation" titles), Death Proof actually pleases both on a visceral level and the anything-goes cartoon world of Tarantino's cinematic influences. A party of young women in Texas are out on the town, and attract the unpleasant attentions of a mysterious stranger known as "Stuntman Mike" (Kurt Russell) who drives around in a black Chevy Nova with a skull on the hood. Things get hilarious, then tense, then grisly, and soon Mike's back on the road again, tangling with a new bunch of ladies in Tennessee--only this time things don't go quite according to plan. It's great, trashy fun; some of the dialogue, especially in the early scenes, is comically unrealistic, but one expects these things from QT. The film starts out purposefully grainy, and there are a few other entertaining gimmicks for "historical authenticity" (despite the film's taking place in the present) that would normally piss me off but which actually come off as rather endearing. The acting is a trip--Russell is an absolute blast, from start to finish, and the women are by and large terrific. Rosario Dawson, as ever, is a delight, and Vanessa Ferlito shines as Arlene (aka "Butterfly). There are great jobs done, too, from non-actors like stuntwoman Zoe Bell (who spends much of the film sprawled atop the hood of a car going top speed down a highway). Tarantino himself inevitably shows up (and Eli Roth), but he's less of an onscreen annoyance than usual. The visual cues to other classic films (Vanishing Point in particular) are fairly apposite for a change, and it all somehow fits together. What's dangerous about Death Proof is that it might encourage me to stay halfway interested in Tarantino's work. Though the future will take care of itself, I worry.

*Things didn't improve after I read Killer Instinct, the hilarious 1997 memoir by Jane Hamsher and Don Murphy of their time spent as producers of 1993's Natural Born Killers, which Tarantino wrote (full disclosure--I hated Natural Born Killers). Hamsher, of course, would go on to greater fame in the past decade as the founder of FireDogLake, the problematic online scourge of centrist Democrats (I have profoundly mixed feelings on FDL myself), and Killer Instinct is unsurprisingly full of incisive, hilarious critique of the way things are done in Hollywood. Even better are the various stories about Tarantino and director Oliver Stone (the latter racing around the Arizona desert in a cape to throw any drug-sniffing cops off the scent). The book was subject to a few lawsuits, and Murphy and Hamsher apparently ended their partnership not long after as a result. Unfortunate, but I'll always cherish the memory of seeing QT's note he passed to Hamsher at some kinnd of meeting or awards dinner extolling her "pretty legs" in the prose style of a not-particularly bright second-grader. The picture was captioned along the lines of "a work of Academy Award screenwriting nominee Quentin Tarantino."

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 10:44 AM EST
Updated: 30 January 2011 11:39 PM EST
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