Thursday, March 29, 2007

Engines Doth Make Fools Of Us All

Is anyone happy with the results of the Amazon recommendation engine? Every time I visit their site I hope to be greeted by Ian McKellen’s dulcet declaration, “Finally, a man of quality!” Instead I’m confronted with collateral evidence of my mediocrity.

For months, the engine was sure I’d enjoy David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. As a matter of fact I did not enjoy A History of Violence, but no matter how I varied my Amazon purchases (kidlit, rock & roll, comparative religion, shore-up-the-fences religion, existentialism, absurdism, smutty limericks, 1001 Crafts With Cheesies & Lint) the engine remained adamant: YOU MIGHT ENJOY A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE.

Fed up, I finally cut-and-pasted my blog review to Amazon and awarded this trifling film a single star out of a possible five. A day later I checked to see if my review had been posted. It had, and already “0 out of 1 customers” found my review to be “helpful”. Then I spotted another button: see all my reviews. Was there more than one? I clicked and re-discovered that some years back I’d actually written two others, and that one of those was yet another one-star stinker. This time the product in question was a CD by a group of young rockers. I now regret that nasty review. If I were to dish out solitary stars for every callow act that didn’t scratch my rock itch, I’d be throwing them about like confetti at a wedding.

Intent on bringing a measure of considered yin to balance my injudicious yang, I quickly awarded five stars to Tommy Womack’s There, I Said It! and Peter DeVries’ Blood of the Lamb. I haven’t checked to see if either of my raves have proven any more “helpful” than my pans, but the act served to salve my tender conscience.

It also got me wondering where the status of the Official Review is headed. My guess, based on a conversation about newspapers with my aunt, is: into the tar pits. We were lamenting the overall decline of newspaper columnists, and tried to name the ones we kept track of. She, a lifelong and spirited arts buff, said the only columnists she made a point of reading any more were in the finance pages. I’ve mulled this over and compared it to my own newspaper habits, and I have to submit to the logic of her choice. The columnists in the arts and culture and even the politics pages no longer seem to matter. The finance pages, on the other hand, clearly do. Is this good? Bad? Irrelevant? All of the above? Perhaps a little parsing is in order.

Good: a friend of mine used to be the dance & theatre critic for the city’s pre-eminent newspaper. We’d meet over dinner and have lengthy conversations about his role as critic. His biggest beef, he said, was with readers who wrote in and decried his reviews as “just one man’s opinion.” He held to a Platonic ideal toward which every artist and critic mutually aspired.

I could see how this premise helped him with his job, but I had my doubts. Also, I had friends in the theater world who were bending my other ear. They attested to just how nerve-wracking an opening night could be when he was spotted in the audience. A bad review had a direct effect on ticket-sales, and the season's budget allowed for only so much wiggle-room. i.e., one too many bad reviews could sink the ship.

That seemed like too much power for my friend to be wielding, particularly as he and I sparred over a given project. Why should one person hold so much sway? Why not open up the field and hear/read what other articulate people think?

Amazon has made it so. Contrast my customer review of A History of Violence with the others on the same page and decide for yourself where the truth of the film’s experience lies. There are a few well-spoken people who think the world of A History of Violence, yet there I am resolutely standing by my one star. Now compare that one star with some of my raves. I hate, hate, hate A History of Violence, yet love, love, love Gidget — sorta tells you something, dunnit? You now have two points in a matrix of information you can use to make an emotionally rewarding choice.

Back when my friend reigned as critic, I often wished our cultural discussions were public discussions. These days there are well-designed websites that perform that very function by taking the condescending sound and fury of individual critics and putting them in some context: metacritic and rottentomatoes being two of the better examples. That covers movies, television, books, rock music and video games. Now, how about similar forums for architecture and urban development?

Bad: when my friend the critic made a compelling case for his opinion, it was truly eye-opening. What the rest of us were vaguely groping for was now suddenly explicit. It was a revelation — almost a religious experience, the way the best art can be. Criticism can and should be an art, and an ideal society would give both art and criticism its proper place. We’re all seeking transformation, aren’t we? Aren’t we?

Whether or not we’re actively pursuing it, transformation in cultural terms is certainly taking place, and for those of us who remember the world before the web it’s hard not to get just a little worried about the overall direction. Overwhelmingly, the web’s chief byproduct is distraction: outside of porno, the most-viewed production of this past winter was a staged clip of a bride who shaved her head in a fit of pique. And what eventually usurped this video’s popularity? Footage of a troubled celebrity doing the same.

The Cultural Middle in America isn’t “disappearing”: as its prolonged adolescence grows ever longer in the tooth, it’s sinking, and it’s taking High Culture with it. There was something rather comforting about our sturdy Reviewers and their smarter, wealthier progenitors The Critics defending the cultural ramparts from uppity barbarian newcomers. One had to be incredibly vigorous and attentive to make it over the top; often the artist's only hope was in some sort of recognition taking place after death. How noble! How romantic! How deluded!! These days if you want “in” all you’ve got to do is make sure the handy-cam is on, then lose your knickers and get on with it.

There are crucial moments in a person’s life when high, middle and low are useful distinctions to make; I’m at the point where I’m sorely missing the first two categories.

Irrelevant: human beings produce. Human beings parse. It happens, and if you’re after the artistic Big Moment, you will find it. You just will.

I’ve invested energy in all these answers. On any given day you can expect me to fall into any one of these camps. I’m young enough to think a general leveling of the critical playing field is a good thing. But I’m also old enough to be increasingly concerned over our culture’s ... oh, I’ll go on and make it universal: humanity’s appetite for distraction.

Did fine art ever make us better people? It’s a difficult case to make, but I doubt I’d have trouble arguing that too much distraction makes us worse. At some point I hope I and the rest of my species can roll up our collective sleeves and do what needs to be done to pay back not just the interest but the principle of the future we’ve “borrowed” from our children. If nothing else, artistic expression and experience returns us to the common concern of our mortality — a point of view that I, for one, find “helpful”.

The Del Fuegos

Caught a touch of the "Where Are They Now?" bug after that last posting, particularly with regards to The Del Fuegos. By the time I caught up with their music (early 90s), they'd already broken up. Bummer. If 1985 produced a lonelier song than I Still Want You, I never heard it.

The All Music entry for them is typically succinct and informative. I'm particularly amused to see The Del Fuegos categorized as "Roots Rock / College Rock / Heartland Rock" The poor sods never had a chance! Wikipedia adds that drummer Woody Giessmann went on to found Right Turn, "a program offering assistance to artists recovering from drug addiction and other mental health issues" (you can't have too many of those) and that guitarist Warren Zanes is "Vice President of Education" at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (sounds like a thankless posting, but good on 'im).

Furthermore, frontman Dan Zanes seems to have launched a rewarding second career as children's entertainer. My daughters may be too old to willingly catch the infectious enthusiasm of Dan Zanes & Friends (the girls have moved on to the infectious enthusiasm of High School Musical), but I'm not. This guy cooks! Amazon here; eMusic here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Your iPod: The New "Magic 8 Ball"

Cadged this idea from Scott, using my computer's file player (Amarok, set on "random") for the "answers". Doesn't say much for my future, but it gives a person a slim picture of what's tucked away on my hard-drive. For your amusement, then:

1. How am I feeling today? (like a) Fool In The Rain - Led Zeppelin

2. Will I get far in life? Mirror In The Bathroom - English Beat

3. How do my friends see me? Shut It Tight - T Bone Burnett
"I don't care what you think
And I hope that you approve
I am just an ordinary man"

4. When will I get married? Foxglove - Steve Bell (originally by BC)

5. What is my best friend's theme song? The Boston Rag - Steely Dan (I have my doubts)

6. What is the story of my life? Psalm 63 - John Michael Talbot

7. What was high school like? Absolutely Sweet Marie - Jason & The Scorchers ("To live outside the law you must be honest, darlin'.")

8. How am I going to get ahead in life? Shower The People - James Taylor (I don't know what's creepier: the "answer", or the inexplicable presence of a James Taylor song)

9. What is the best song about me? Building A Mystery - Sarah McLachlan (Alright: "inexplicable" is wrong - these are both from my wife's side of the hard-drive)

10. How is today going to be? The Shape of Air - DA

11. What is in store for the weekend?
St Mary of the Woods - James McMurtry & The Heartless Bastards ("Where ya going with yer head hung down?")

12. What song describes my parents?
Southland of the Heart - Bruce Cockburn (I'd go with my friend's choice: Sunday Clothes by Charlie Sexton & James McMurtry)

13. How is my life going? Widows of the Revolution - Joe Henry ("We'll tell this story later on / And tell of how it made us strong")

14. What song will be played at my funeral? It Doesn't Have To Be - Erasure (I hope not!)

15. How does the world see me? Friends Again - Del Fuegos

16. Will I have a happy life? Hey Nineteen - Steely Dan ("It's hard times befallen the sole survivors")

17. What do my friends think of me? The Lone Ranger - TV Toons (The silver bullets are nice, but where are Tonto and Trigger?)

18. How can I make myself happy? Image - T Bone Burnett
i had this image of you
and you had this image of me
and your image would talk to my image
and my image would talk to your image
and somewhere along the way
our images sort of let each other down (that's it, the whole song)

19. What should I do with my life? Wondering Where The Lions Are - Bruce Cockburn

20. Will I have children?
Detroit City - Alice Cooper (ask a silly question...)

21. Got any good advice for me? (I'm Too) Busy Being Blue - k.d. lang

22. What is my signature song? Keep Your Lamp Trimmed & Burnin' - Blind Willie Johnson

23. What do I think my current theme song is?
So Far So Good - Daniel Amos

24. What does everyone else think my themesong is?
The Christmas Song - Vince Guaraldi Trio

25. What's my style? Song For A Small Circle of Friends - Larry Norman

26. What kind of lover am I? Once In A Lifetime - Talking Heads (ha!)

27. Where do I see myself in 10 years? Art Carney's Dream - The Swirling Eddies

Conclusions: you'd think Bruce Cockburn was wallowing in disc-drive memory, but in fact he accounts for three albums, right on par with Jane's Addiction who don't show up at all; Steely Dan receive representative treatment, but Jason & The Scorchers do not; the randomizer seems particularly drawn to the religious material; and how'd it manage to completely skirt the metal?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Monday, March 26, 2007

Twelve Blackfeet Stories, by Mary Scriver

When Jehovah brought back those that returned to Zion,
We were like unto them that dream.
- Psalm 126:1

And you may say to yourself,
“This is not my beautiful house!
This is not my beautiful wife!”
- Talking Heads, Once In A Lifetime

Everyone experiences moments when their grasp of reality suddenly seems tenuous. Lately mine have occurred during nighttime journeys by car. Particularly when I’m travelling a well-worn path, I’ll suddenly look around without comprehension. Did I take the turn east, or am I still driving north? Where am I? Eventually I’ll recognize a landmark, and reassurance settles back in.

The reassurance itself is illusory, of course. Taking the familiar for granted is everyone’s peculiar and inevitable act of hubris. The next visit to the doctor could change everything. So could the next trip to Wal-Mart. So much changes; so little changes.

Still, there are social systems and communal coping strategies that we rely on and place some faith in, no matter how tenuous. How was it for the Native Americans as they watched a familiar landscape they already regarded as dreamlike become surreal to the extreme, overturning and supplanting every tenet they held sacred until their very identity came into question?

The train was much bigger than it had seemed from a distance and there were clouds of steam as the engine labored to pull. He ran alongside, a bit weak from lack of exercise. Then it stopped again and a man came along with a lantern. Horse saw that the boxcars were painted with strange animals — long necks and impossible noses, strange ruffs around the neck. Extraordinary people were pictured on there as well — very fat women and men with drawing all over them. They must be very powerful.

The man with the lantern was ordinary enough. “Better get back on board, Chief. We’re only gonna be here a few minutes more. This fort ain’t big enough for the circus.”

The Indian Man got onto the flatcar, snuffing up the strange smells. A great ripping trumpeting sound came from inside the train. His heart leapt in him and he grabbed the handle of the knife in his belt. “Stumiksatosee!” he muttered. “Medicine bull.” Then he laughed. It was all part of the dream-like experience of being free again and going home.


This passage comes from Horizon, one of the Twelve Black Feet Stories by Mary Scriver. The historical setting is sometime in the mid-1800s, and the Indian Man — Horse — has just been sprung from an asylum. His sense of freedom is temporary; the people he is riding the rails with know his “home” is now a reservation. The dreamlike experience which began at the asylum and has worn down Horse with its immeasurable tedium and indignities will continue to grind on without relief.

Scriver’s stories encapsulate just over 200 years of Blackfeet history. Those two centuries prove to be an unwelcome revolution for the Blackfeet, as they’re repeatedly driven to the brink of extinction. They manage to survive, however, as does some measure of their spirit — but both are beleaguered, reconnoitering an alien reality.

This is tremendously compelling reading. Scriver knows the people and their history (the book is an exceptional value just for the Blackfeet timeline she provides in her endnotes), and her patient attention to physical detail and its effect on character heightens the disturbing, illusory quality of Blackfeet life as it’s strained to the breaking point again and again. The ordinary is juxtaposed with the extraordinary, and her characters summon what they can to deal with the roiling sea-change around them. Against all odds the stories generate a quiet sense of resolution and hope — although when pointedly set against a present-day Montana and its arsenal of Minuteman missiles these spiritual achievements seem slight and tentative. Certainly a cultivated sense of irony and a willingness to laugh will help, and as long-time readers of Mary’s blog already know, she possesses both traits in abundance.

In genre and artistic achievement, Twelve Blackfeet Stories sits comfortably next to the fiction of Guy Vanderhaege and Joseph Boyden. Along with Scriver, this is a trio of literary names I would like to see reach the same public recognition as Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry. This is a wonderful book, a charter tour of a world in which we are all, to some measure, alien. I look forward to exploring more of what promises to be a very stimulating and culturally necessary body of work.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Yanked

The previous post has been yanked, due to quality control. I'm still smitten with the notion that inspired it, so you'll be seeing it sooner or later.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Paramount Takes "Customer Service" To A Whole New Level

A couple of customer service stories, the first two from my not-so-recent past:

1) Back when I was working in the book store, we invited the local police to give us a few tips on how best to discourage shop-lifters. Two officers came by to give us the lecture, which included advice we immediately put into effect. Midway through the lecture, however, one of the officers offered this somewhat less than helpful bromide: "You basically gotta assume that anyone walking through that door is a potential thief." Hoo, boy — talk about a paradigm shift! Prior to that, I'd assumed anyone walking through the door was a potential customer for life (silly me).

2) Waaaaay back when, prior to working in the typewriter store, I worked in a camera store. Our crew consisted of two young pups (including yours truly) being "managed" by an older fella who took lengthy breaks. We're talking about a management style that was casual to the point of laissez faire. Consequently, it wasn't uncommon for us to get a little surly, a little Basil Fawlty if you will, with the occasional customer. One episode stands out in my memory of my co-worker getting huffy with a customer who'd come to make an exchange. The customer took it for a bit, then said, "You know, I have my own business, and I am here to tell you that if I took your attitude to any one of my customers, I would not be in business much longer. Now if you and I are going to get anywhere, your attitude simply has to change." He gave my friend 30 seconds of silence to digest this, then they got off on a fresh start.

Okay, now that I've regaled you with a couple of encounters that left a lasting impression on my professional demeanor ... who feels like going to a movie?

Some story, huh? When it comes to movies, music, books, etc. I'm one of those people who makes it a point to pay as I go. I have enough friends in the performing arts / publishing world to realize it's not (usually) the artist who's getting rich off the scheme, so I try to shunt the funds to them in any way I can. Consequently, I've never done the file-sharing thing, I'll take the physical book over a PDF file, even computer programs are something I'll shell out for because I figure it could mean the difference between peanuts and beer, or just plain peanuts for the artist in question. (Tangential observation: artists, particularly musicians, are some of the scurviest pirates on the planet. A sense of entitlement seems to come easily to performers.)

But the entertainment industry isn't primarily populated by performers: it's chiefly, overwhelmingly populated by business people. Given the seachange in digital media, these folks are facing some very tough questions. But rather than taking an honest stab at good answers, they'd prefer to visualize each and every potential customer-for-life with intense suspicion. I ask you: with customer service like this, how long do you expect them to stay in business?

H/t to TLD for the story. It puts me in mind of this anti-piracy send-up ad.

Monday, March 19, 2007

More Typewriters

My wife and I watched Stranger Than Fiction this weekend, a pleasant little movie that had me dabbing at my eyes when the end credits rolled. I'm among the multitude that thinks Will Ferrell could read the phone book and get people laughing, so this wasn't a difficult movie to enjoy. And lately meta-movies have revealed a flash of genuine heart within all those layers of meaning and context: contrast Stranger Than Fiction with The Purple Rose of Cairo, and you'll see the difference between a filmmaker who cares for his characters, and a filmmaker intent on hammering home a depressing point of view. So, yes: this movie receives my gentle recommendation.

It was amusing to note that the writer, played by Emma Thompson, uses an enormous electric typewriter. The typewriter packs more visual punch than a computer does, and seems to carry some residual romance with it as well. Which got me curious: how many of our current productive writers use typewriters for their work?

It is a difficult answer to discern with any authority, but myTypewriter.com — a business committed to the preservation of the typewriter — maintains a list of writers and their typewriters. I can't help noticing that most of these people are dead, and that the youngest among them made the switch to a computer word-processor sometime in the 80s (although David Sedaris might be an exception: we don't know, because his entry has been confused with James Purdy's).

I don't think I could ever compose on a typewriter. There are a number of writers who compose with pen and paper, then transpose that with either computer or typewriter — that's a process I can understand. But actual typewriter composition? Man, that smacks of an immediately permanent record. I doubt anything could constipate my writing process faster than facing that prospect.

No, give me a blank screen and a program with a "Control/Delete" option, please and thank you. I might not be inspired to write a book professing my love of the word processor the way Paul Auster did to his typewriter, but I'll be a happier camper to have around. (Tip of the hat to the first person who can identify why this picture of Papa was obviously posed.)

Sound the Bagpipes

Bearded has returned to his blog! On the downside: his godawful job is taking a familiar turn.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Fave Thing #6

There's a young guy who works at the local cafe. He pours coffee, makes sandwiches and does the dishes. Every once in a while I freak him out with stories about "the old days". Last Saturday I really put the zap on him.

"Back in the 80s," I said, "I used to work in a typewriter store."

"Oh, wow," he said. "Ooo-o-o ... maaaan!" He followed this up with a run of laughter that used to be associated with Beavis & Butt-Head (remember them?).

It's true: a store devoted to typewriters was still a viable business a mere 20 years ago. In fact the billboard on the pre-Depression-era building advertised "TYPEWRITERS & Office Equipment", but the majority of the store's floor space was given over to typewriters and as a salesman typewriters were my exclusive domain. I did quite well by them, too.

A girl about to enter college would walk through our front door with her father in tow, the man's arms straining at the sockets from the hunk of iron he was carrying. We'd give him $15, relieve him of the burden and schlep it to our repair shop, then sell him something new for ten times the amount of his trade-in.

Our trade-in policy wasn't, strictly speaking, a ruse: we did sell reconditioned typewriters for $40. There was a tiny room in the back where an old guy hunched over and painstakingly repaired these old clunkers. He could be difficult to talk to, but he did good work.

Sales of new typewriters fluctuated with the seasons, but I averaged two or three used sales a week. We could have sold ten times that weekly amount for the better part of a year before we made so much as a dint in our stock of old typewriters. The building was lousy with them.

One weekend I was told to keep my dress clothes at home and report to work in my grubbies. I spent that entire day lugging old typewriters from the basement to the third floor of the building, one typewriter at a time. After just one hour of that I thought I was going to die, but things looked worse for my partner: he was nearly twice my age, and couldn't manage more than a few runs before he had to light another cigarette. That was the only time I saw the third floor of that ancient building. Rooms that had once been apartments were now filled — to the ceiling — with typewriters. The only reason we were going to the third floor was because we couldn't possibly squeeze another typewriter into the second. The place reeked of 3-in-1 oil.

It was a musty old building with plenty of musty old charm, set among an entire block of such buildings. To the one side of us was a cavernous pool hall. To the other was an ancient drugstore with a lunch counter. If you got to the drugstore before noon, you could order a "toasted" cinnamon roll — "toasted" in scare quotes because the old gal in the powder blue uniform would split the roll, smear a quarter-cup of butter on each side, then fry those babies on the griddle for a minute before she wrapped 'em in tin-foil and presented them to you in a greasy paper bag. I'm not averse to rich foods, but I generally took a pass on the "toasted" cinnamon roll.

The shop was a couple of blocks away from the university. One of my university buddies would meet me for coffee; when we were done, he'd clap me on the back and say, "Well, Rome wasn't built in a day!" O-ho-ho: this was the frequently voiced sentiment of the dotty old matron in Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge, whose cringing son sold typewriters and silently aspired (seethed, really) to be a novelist. Among the many crucial differences between me and the son was my overall satisfaction with my job.

In fact, if anyone was in desperate straits in that outfit, it was the typewriter industry. The computer was breathing down the industry's neck, and they were coming up with absurd computer-typewriter hybrids, hoping to stave off the inevitable. If you wanted to, it was possible to spend over a grand on a deluxe office model, but not one of those typewriters was good for more than five years, tops.

In my later incarnation as a long-haired, still-scrawny boho, I thought an excellent "author's photo" would be a B&W shot of me in one of the upper typewriter crypts. I took my wife to the store (now selling computers and software), introduced her to the staff, then asked if such a photo-session might be possible. "They're all gone!" I was told. "The fire safety inspector gave us one week to get rid of them, so we got the biggest dumpster available and chucked them from the windows!"

My, but the visions that inspires. I expect 99% of the new models I sold (hollow plastic shells, one and all) have joined their company, compressed deep within some enormous landfill.

I'm still irrationally fond of typewriters, though typically of a vintage older than the ones I sold. Here's a doorstop in our house (the keys were being hammered by a visiting kid as I was typing this).



And this beaut rests in our basement.



It works, albeit hesitantly. It's just waiting for a little tender cleaning and a new ribbon. This summer, perhaps?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Piss & Vinegar vs. The Secret & Oprah

Something about early spring weather brings out the former in me, so here's this morning's link, with a quote:

"If James Frey deserved to be raked over the coals for lying about how drunk he was, doesn't Oprah deserve some scrutiny for pitching the meretricious nonsense in 'The Secret'?"

Aah, thank you Peter Birkenhead — I'm feeling better already! h/t to Maude Newton, who'd rather we were reading Drown, by Junot Díaz.

Further balm can be found here. The entire slideshow is a winner, but this is the picture that seems to be calling out to my subconscious most nights.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Those Wacky 23rd Century Federation Types

Of course, anyone who's intent on properly whuppin' hordes of Ancient Persians would be better served sending Kirk through the Guardian of Forever.



My brother calls this The-Zippered-Boot-To-The-Torso-Kick, and I have it on good authority it was first put to use at Thermopylae. A surefire contest winner you can always fall back on (so long as you're wearing a gold velour tunic).

Those Wacky Spartans

Here's a movie I won't be bothering with. And it's not just because it looks like a tediously violent, third-rate stinker; it's because the source material was weak to begin with. Frank Miller has created works I'm crazy for, but 300 is not one of them.

I can understand why Miller was drawn to the Spartans and Thermopylae. No matter how what lens you view them through, the Spartans are difficult folks to love: arrogant, paranoid, antisocial in the extreme, ruthless on the battlefield and even moreso in the delivery room — if you love the Spartans, rest assured they won't return the favor. From Batman to Marv, Miller has made a fetish of loving the unloveable, and the Spartans get Miller's full fetish freak-on.

Despite the unusual page format, Miller's work never quite flies off the page. The shadows, the exaggerated faces, the languid drapery are all there. So is the animist spirit ("I shall become a bat!" becomes "I shall become a wolf!"). It might well be a matter of my having been overexposed to Miller's cranky solipsism, but this time his final product struck me as an overt "sell", very similar to Jack Chick's pamphlets.

I think I was also spoiled by Stephen Pressfield's Gates of Fire. His novel is a well-rendered pulp masterpiece that employs some standard narrative techniques to excellent effect. Pressfield solves the problem of how to get a modern reader onside with the Spartans by giving us a narrator, Xeo, who happily devotes himself to Spartan slavery after his town falls to a band of marauders. In Pressfield's hands, the Spartans aren't a bunch of fetishized freaks, but a rigorously maintained society built in response to the volatile environment that surrounds it. Someone in Tinseltown must have the rights to the book, and that's the sword-and-sandals movie I'll stand in line to see.

Final note: I've been on the fence when it comes to Slate's movie reviewer Dana Stevens, but she won me over with her evisceration of 300. Sez she, "(W)hat's maddening about 300 (besides the paralyzing monotony of watching chiseled white guys make shish kebabs from swarthy Persians for 116 indistinguishable minutes) is that no one involved — not Miller, not [director Zack] Snyder, not one of the army of screenwriters, art directors, and tech wizards who mounted this empty, gorgeous spectacle — seems to have noticed that we're in the middle of an actual war. With actual Persians." And that's just her warm-up.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Act of Remembrance

I've got some thoughts on the topic, but haven't been able to marshal them in an orderly fashion. Happily, there are others picking up the slack:

Mary remembers her brother.

Searchie attends And I Still See Their Faces: The Vanished World of Polish Jews and recalls a visit to Tykocin — manifold remembrance.

Pattie serves up a pointed reminder.

And this excerpt from Danielle Trussoni's memoir Falling Through The Earth has lodged itself in my consciousness and disrupted many a predictable surge in its waters. Favorite quote: "I was grateful that my father had made the videotape. It was a record of my childhood free of the distortions of memory. The tape helped me to see that many of my recollections had been colored by love and anger — that I had often made my father in the image of my emotions." Emphasis mine, because boy-howdy: this father knows his soon-to-be-grown daughters will most certainly subject their childhoods to the distortions of memory.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Tommy Womack, There, I Said It

"So how you doin'?"

"I'm alright. Waiting for February to end."

"I hate to be the guy to tell you, but it's been March for a couple of days already."

"It only says that on the calendar."

Oof -- do I ever hear that. I, too, am waiting for February to end. In my case, I'm greasing the hold February has on my coattails by listening to Tommy Womack's There, I Said It.



I've mentioned Womack before. He's a Nashville singer-songwriter, who's got a firm grip on the Blues. It sounds like that arrangement was reversed for a stretch: the black dogs took up residence and fed on his soul. I wouldn't wish that hell on anyone, but he's taken the experience and knit together a musical skein of profound comfort. If you go here, you'll be treated to "Nice Day", which acts as the album's centrepiece. It's also moved me to tears with every spin. Last time I checked, the most-downloaded track on eMusic is "A Cockroach After The Bomb" -- a winner of a tune, no question. But my personal favourite off the album is "Alpha Male & The Canine Mystery Blood", a wide-ranging methodical stream - of - consciousness bit of talking blues that pulls out and lifts up the heart of desire.

There are tongue-in-cheek bits of fun, acidic observations, little pleas for help and more than a few "To hell with it all" declarations. Those of us who have followed him for a bit can view this as the latest follow-up to the giddy rock & roll reminiscences of his Cheese Chronicles. Newcomers can tuck in and savour this stew of hard-won insight.

Go on and make him a rock star. Amazon link here, eMusic link here.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Fave Thing #5

This posting promises to be a messy bit of bubble and squeak, but here goes:

While my wife has been away, I've spent the closing hours of the evening watching episodes of Star Trek: TOS. It's a pleasant way to cap off the day: a mixed diet of nostalgia, a few revelations (I'd forgotten that Shatner, particularly in the first season, was capable of subtlety), and plenty of cheese to stick to the ribs of my imagination before I lay me down to sleep.

However, I'm taken aback by the chatter surrounding the proposed Star Trek film: namely, a prequel that chronicles the early adventures of Kirk / Spock / McCoy. This skirts dangerously close to parody — but then that's what the franchise has always done best, so why can't I join the falderal? Placing the vertically-challenged Matt Damon as “Kirk” next to the military bearing of Gary Sinise (“McCoy”) and the willowy Adrien Brody (“Spock”) is visual comic genius. What's not to love?

Well ... the voices, for starters. This trio of characters has been lampooned by so many improv groups, it's impossible to consider anyone attempting to do a serious job of it. Then there's director J.J. Abrams, whose track record elicits a perpetual chorus of, “Not bad, but I expected it to be better.” No, the whole proposal prompts me to search the farther reaches of cinema for a viable alternative to the franchise's usual ham-fisted tactics.

So why not animation? The last attempt might have been flat-footed, but there's been so much technological progress since then that I honestly believe a decent script and the right director (Brad Bird, maybe) just might give this nigh-unto-dead franchise a set of legs that could carry it into the 22nd century, if not the 23rd.

Then again, maybe not. There's some indefinable quality in animation that tends to set audiences at an emotional remove. Has anyone shed a tear during an animated film? If so, which films are we talking about: Dumbo? Bambi? Hm. Dim prognosis, indeed.

Still, someone should take this concept to the drawing board, and I nominate Ken Steacy. His sketchbooks are cheerfully optimistic, sensuous and lush without being overindulgent, and he's got a Tom Swift sort of enthusiasm for big technology. He's the man to get this thing off the ground.

Which brings me to Favorite Thing #5: Artist's Sketchbooks. Particularly comic book artists. Going through a few hundred Flikr slides (here and here) inspires me. It gets me thinking, “Why can't I do that? Or something like it? Why don't I quit with the Googling, scrape an edge to my pencil and start scribbling? Eh? Why not?”

H/T to Drawn (I might as well come clean: this is the page that got me excited about Steacy's ST potential). Also to DP Blowhard for this link. (Frankly, I'd hesitate to call Will Eisner “mediocre”: if you wonder what a back alley in the Bronx smells like, just read one of his books — you will taste the stench in the back of your mouth.)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Fave Thing #4

"You weren't that fond of it when I first brought it home," said my wife.

No, I guess I wasn't. I thought my instructions had been clear. I was thinking about stir-frying. I'd read an article written by some guy who said American stoves weren't constructed to properly heat a wok. He said anyone with brains knew the best way to stir-fry vegetables or anything was to use a large, flat cast-iron frying pan. He sounded like he knew what he was talking about, so I described the article to my wife and asked if she'd look for one in the discount store on the way back from work.

We'd been married for a month or two.

She phoned me at work to say she'd found a cast-iron pan. It wasn't exactly like I'd described, but she thought we'd use it just the same. Besides, she could always take it back.

"Great," I said. "Buy it."

When we got home, I stared at the chicken-fryer. "That's not really what I had in mind," I said.

"But don't you think we'd use it for other dishes?"

"Well," I said, "it's not really what I had in mind."

"I can take it back," she said. "I just figured we'd use it for other dishes."

There didn't seem to be any good reason to abandon my passive-aggressive strategy just yet. "We probably will," I said. "Let's keep it."

It's become my favorite pot. It is one of two pots we own that gives a dish the sort of character you want in a dish. Two or three times a month I'll roast a chicken in it. When it's done, I'll remove the bird and stir up some schmaltz for the wild rice. Whatever is left on the carcass is used for chicken stock. The chicken stock is used for risotto, which I make in the self-same pan.

The pan is also good for Bourbon n' Beans, and a host of other dishes. It's a great pan. We use it all the time.

As for the stir-fry advice, Mr. Magazine Article Writer didn't know what he was talking about. If you want a good stir-fry, nothing beats the hefty cast-iron wok her sister gave us -- the other indispensible pan in our collection.