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Washtenaw Flaneurade
8 January 2012
Going To There
Now Playing: The Go! Team--"Apollo Throwdown"

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

30 Rock (2006-)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Michael Tomasky to Steve Benen, 20 October 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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