Friday, July 30, 2010

Harvey Pekar: October 8, 1939 – July 12, 2010



News of Harvey Pekar's recent death has not been easy for me to digest. Now that Pekar's seemingly incessant running commentary has in fact ceased, it feels like a significant amount of air has been let out of the white balloons floating over my own head.

Pekar was the first, best blogger. He sifted through anything and everything in his search for the poetry of human value. People say he “explored the mundane,” but that's wrong: he turned the mundane on its head until it was mundanity's exact antithesis. In this, his early attempts at stand-up served him very, very well. His shticks never began with, “What's the deal with airline food?”; they began with, “Ever since I was a kid it seemed I collected something.” The details continued in a matter-of-fact exposition that disarmed and entranced. Where the hell is he going with this? became Oh my God: that's me!

I first tuned in during the late 80s at the comic book store, where I opened American Splendor and encountered this short chapter about record collecting (excerpted from Ron Mann's neat-o doc Comic Book Confidential). At the time I was gripped in a collecting frenzy of my own: comic books. When I read Pekar's confession, something turned for me, too. I bought the Pekar/crumb work, and left the men in tights alone. It's funny how your mind sometimes works.

As in the above example, Pekar's gentler observations ended with a “How 'bout that?” tone, but he was also keen on the not-so-gentle observations. If he was pissed off about something — and he was always pissed off about something — he let everybody know. If he was wrong, he wasn't just quick to admit it — he reveled in the fact, before moving on to the next outrage.

I was never a Pekar completist, nor would I recommend that route to the innocent bystander. But you can't go wrong with The Best of American Splendor (A). The movie (with Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, who are both brilliant) is a knowing, quick-witted abuse of Pekar and his material, and a lovely experience because of it. Our Cancer Year (A) is a good read, not just for cancer survivors, but anyone who's married. And The Quitter (A) is just out-and-out superb.

I rather doubt The Beats (A) will be Pekar's final work to receive printed notice, but it is a coda of sorts. For once Pekar is talking about someone besides himself, giving deft summaries of people who were bums and heels, who produced a lot of questionable work but also not a few artifacts of lasting value. If there is a “theme” that runs through Pekar's typically unblinking appraisal of this scene, it is the surprising depth of friendship that held each of these faulty and frequently cruel beings in good stead. I'd say that is the worthy epitaph for Pekar himself: a guy who could rally other people into helping him illustrate and bring to larger narrative life his own inglorious, and thoroughly American, splendor.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Comment Moderation

I've switched from "anything goes" to "comment moderation on posts older than 14 days." Regular readers are quick to pipe up, so this isn't going to affect many people -- just the anonymous ones who keep linking to off-shore "opportunities" (this post is a particularly popular target).

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"I may not know what I like, but I know art!" Further Thoughts On Video Games

Roger Ebert waves a sort-of white flag on the issue of whether a video game can be art, and scratches his head over the results of his push-poll.

It's been a month since I plugged in the PS3 I got for my birthday and played a bit of catch-up with Gaming's High Society, and I've been mulling over the "But is it art?" question. Ebert admits to two fatal flaws in his original rant: he didn't provide a definition of "art", and he is entirely unwilling to play a game -- any game -- that could potentially change his mind on the matter. To my mind the former fault is the greater. A link to Denis Dutton's criteria for art would have settled the matter in Ebert's favor.

I'm not completely on-side with Dutton, however, and I doubt Ebert is either. I'm happy to accord artistic value to Swamp Thing, a movie that amuses but does little to disturb the viewer into a heightened state of unanticipated empathy. Similarly video games: a player would have to be a morally stunted not to feel at least a little squeamish about some of the choices pointedly put to the fore in games like Bioshock and Half-Life 3. But in the main even these games are structured as a combined thrill-ride/shooting gallery. If you're not a gamer, imagine riding through Disney's Haunted Mansion with an Uzi. There is a textured aesthetic, and frequent meta-references. Video game aesthetics might not penetrate the player's consciousness to the degree that Huck Finn or Pride & Prejudice does. But is that depth necessary for something to be called "art"?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Whither Successful On-Line Fiction?

What might successful on-line fiction look like? Some thoughts:

It would be serialized. Like Dickens, or any of the penny-dreadfuls, on-line fiction would probably need to be serialized. Subscriptions, or feeds, could thus be enabled.

Each episode would be short. Technology does not seem to encourage lengthy perusal, or extended meditation. The reader could easily capture the day's episode on their iPhone, or what-have-you.

Each episode would attempt to chart and excite desire. This one has always seemed like a no-brainer, but it is usually the obvious that needs expressing.

More anon, as the possibilities occur. And, as ever, throw your own thoughts into the stew.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Welcome To The Rock Show: Elizabeth Cook

It only seems to happen once every couple of years or so, but there are summers when a young woman will put out a CD that grabs me by the ears and won't let me go. I'm thinking in particular of 1994, when Sheryl Crow's Tuesday Night Music Club seemed inescapable — and I didn't mind one bit.

Elizabeth Cook's Welder
doesn't yet qualify as "inescapable" but if it ever did you'd see me standing on the bleachers, cheering (A, e).

Despite my occasional forays into the genre of country and y'all-ternative, I'm a reluctant listener at best. Cook's music is unmistakably country, but in Welder her vocal possession of the genre is so unique and unselfconscious I found myself completely on-side on the first spin. The country "method" is to hook the listener with the novelty songs and hope they'll stay for the heart-breakers. It works. Anyone who's curious should start with "El Camino" and "Yes To Booty". If that tickles the cochlea, try "All The Time", "Follow You Like Smoke" and "Heroin Addict Sister."

Or just surrender, Dorothy, and get the whole package.

Also: I'm digging Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, who I'll get back to in the next week or two. Until then, head to their website and check out the photography of Adrien Broom. Is that not the greatest Rock 'n' Roll photography since the young Annie Liebowitz slummed with The Rolling Stones?

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

"Whom Gods Destroy": Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 opens with a scene familiar to viewers of the previous films: Andy’s toys “being played” through a spectacular cliff-hanger. John Lasseter and Crew are acknowledging the obvious: “Yes, we’ve done this twice before. But let’s see if we aren’t still capable of a few surprises.” And, in fact, it did get me giggling.

Which did surprise me, frankly. Unlike most of the audience, I was not chaffing for a third chapter to this franchise. I thought Toy Story 2 was the best sequel to a brilliant first act since The Godfather II. The Toy Stories explored issues of fealty and yearning and development of character with a surprising degree of nuance, but these introspective moments never jarred in contrast to the larger madcap adventure. That they accomplished this feat twice was nearly miraculous. Why push it any further? Was there any question raised by these films that still needed to be answered?

Then again, most of the questions raised by the films had ambiguous answers tailored to the circumstances. There is a theological irony running through these films: the toys may feel their deepest yearnings fulfilled when they are being played with, but they discover their truest selves when they are separated from their godlike owners. Similarly, the madcap adventures they initiate to get back to Andy are always larger in scale and spectacle, and considerably more emotionally involving, than the zany shorts concocted by the child-god’s brain. In the first movie Woody has to learn to share his owner and be content with the possibility of Andy’s fickle loyalties. In the second, he has to relinquish the prospect of a sterile immortality for the joys of perilous engagement with Andy. What lessons remain?

Turns out Woody has to learn how to let go of the college-bound Andy, a scenario he seemed to be more at peace with at the conclusion of last movie than he is at the beginning of this one. Strangely, after several years of being left entirely to their own devices, Woody is the only toy who isn’t ready to move on. Seeing this, viewers now know the lay of the land: the toys will be separated from their joy, will initiate feats of comic daring-do to get back, during which old lessons of loyalty will be reinforced and the singular new lesson will be learned.

The architecture is dependable (it's a retelling of Toy Story 2, basically), and the emotional revelations have worthy weight, even if some come with the unwanted (for me, at least) freight of blunt sentimentality. But as one wag said after viewing The Godfather III, “We all knew one of these films would have to be third best.” In the case of Coppola’s movies, that was quite a distant third. Not so much for this one, but waiting to see it on the smaller screen at home, where expectations are scaled down accordingly, might have actually been the more rewarding experience.

There is a new toy that hovers at the outskirts of the final scenes: a plushy Totoro. Chances are this is just a little tip of the hat Lasseter is giving his hero, Hayao Miyazaki. But it could also be a sign of things to come. When viewers pay admission for a Miyazaki film, they leave narrative template expectations at the door, because Miyazaki will subvert and thwart them from the moment the lights go down. Day & Night, the preliminary animated short for TS3, was a mini sermon on fearlessly exploring the mysterious and unexpected: is Pixar bracing us for a template change? I truly hope so.

Elsewhere:
discarded toys aren't all necessarily fated for the incinerator — meet Bamboo Charlie. Most reviewers are more smitten with this film than I am: Tasha Robinson is probably the clearest voice on their behalf. Plus: do you remember Lego before the Minifigs took over? Do you really? WP Flashback: bitch, bitch, bitch — what is it with me and Pixar, anyway? Is there any reason why I shouldn't just declare Monsters, Inc. to be this generation's Casablanca and leave the rest alone?

Monday, July 05, 2010

An Aboriginal Lourdes?

I was culling through old e-mails this morning, and ruefully wishing I could just post some of the exchanges I've had with readers and fellow bloggers. Iron sharpens iron, and many of these bits of back and forth have a quality and frankness that greatly exceeds what gets posted here.

I wouldn't do that without seeking permission first, of course. But I also hesitate because the intimacy of exchange is an element that gives weight to the content. Make it public, and *poof*: some of the significance disappears.

Instead, I'll post a link to an old story that I heard on CBC radio a couple of years ago, which I promptly shared with Mary Scriver, to get her thoughts on the matter. It plays like something out of Dostoevsky: aboriginals, and a few others, flock to the site of an old residential school in British Columbia, where they gather round the grave of a young woman who died of TB or pneumonia in 1949. The girl, Rose Prince, was the daughter from a line of chiefs of the Dakelh First Nation — a hunchback, remembered for being gentle and in a near-constant state of prayer. Nothing especially remarkable about her life's story, really, but when her grave was moved a year after her burial, it was reported that her coffin fell open to reveal a perfectly uncorrupted body — and a powerful scent of roses.

Cut to the turn of the millennium, and dirt from her grave is said to have miraculous properties (typically enough, some people are more blessed by this than others). A Catholic priest organizes a yearly pilgrimage to this site, and thousands gather for the Eucharist and a blessing, then take a baggy full of dirt from the site for ailing family members.

Betsy Trumpener, the woman who crafted this documentary, is of course keenly tuned in to the discordant ironies of this scene: Indians volitionally flocking to a site where they were once dragged and tormented throughout their formative years, in order to receive a blessing and . . . be healed. I found the experience of listening to it quite powerful and not a little disturbing. You can hear it here: just head to the upper right-hand corner and click beneath “Related” for the audio.

Speaking generally, there are several aspects common to most miracle stories that usually intrigue me. The first is the outrageousness of the miracle (assuming we take the story at face value). The obvious question that occurs to any listener is, “Why does one schmuck get the benefit of supernatural interruption, and not another? Why not me?” The second aspect is the politicization of the miracle: “Here's why. Now go and do likewise — or else.”

The third aspect is its tangential benefits. In the radio documentary we hear a skeptical woman's thoughts before she takes mass, then after. She believes something has happened to her — chiefly an unanticipated emotional release — and she believes it to be beneficial. That it occurred on this historically vile location is very significant for her.

Just outlining it like this can make it all seem unremarkable, but the details do provide a portrait of human frailty that I find rather endearing — so long as the politicization aspect doesn't piss one off too much.