Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Eisner/Miller? How's about: Weingarten/Varley?

"Just two good ol' boys..."
I can’t recall when I read this book — probably about 10 years ago. And my recollection of its content is patchy — justifiably so, because the chatter is forgettable. I gave it away and moved on with life.

Still, there’s a moment midway through the book that does stand out. Frank Miller describes fellow industry provocateur Todd McFarlane as that kid in the classroom “who carves a swastika into the desk” just for the hell of it because he doesn’t care what anyone thinks. This summary gets a rise out of Eisner’s wife Ann, who blurts, “I can see that!”

I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Will Eisner was one of the greats in the American comic book industry. Everything he drew was in a league of its own. But more than that, he had an exceedingly keen business acumen — a rarity among the artists who bumped elbows with him. The Schusters and Kirbys and Kanes of his world lamented comic book work — they were slumming it, doing the only work that paid (and paid poorly) while in their heart of hearts they yearned to be artistes. Eisner saw no shame in the work, but kept his eye on the point of profit and never left it. Giving away all rights to a character you created? Unthinkable.

Eisner did alright — when his future father-in-law hired a detective to see if this man-about-town was keener on the family fortune than he was on the daughter he was courting, it came back a nothing sandwich.

As for Miller — if you have to ask (hey, even if you don’t!) go here.

The interview takes place over a weekend in 2002. Miller’s description of McFarlane is punky — Miller is notoriously thick in these matters, but who the hell says something like this in a Jewish household? That the Eisners respond with amusement speaks volumes to the relationship they have with Miller.

And Ann — how remarkable that she knows exactly what is being said here. At this point the Eisners have been married over 50 years. A spouse could be forgiven for losing interest in the family business after a few decades. But Ann is more than just in sync with what Will is doing — she not only knows about McFarlane, she seemingly KNOWS McFarlane. McFarlane is a relative upstart. Eisner likely has zero business relations with him, unless it’s discussion over a Spirit figurine. And yet Ann knows.

Further in the conversation Eisner and Miller discuss the dollars-and-cents business of comics. Eisner points out Miller’s unique benefit — You married your colorist; In your case your wife does the colors. Until reading this book I had no idea Miller tied the knot with 80s/90s colorist phenom Lynn Varley.

Lynn Varley — the prestige work speaks for itself. But what that woman could get a five color press to commit to pulp paper is just this side of miraculous.
A quick Google search reveals the situation changed since the interview. Eisner died in '05, Miller and Varley separated later that year. The explosive success of the first Sin City movie, followed up with 300 seems to have set Miller off the chain.

In that light one almost wonders if Eisner wasn’t gently suggesting to the younger man Guard this bond — guard it with your life. Eisner was too soft-spoken to be so blunt. Neal Adams, arguably the greater mentor to Miller, is characteristically more to the point.

I keep thinking of Ann. “I can see that!” Yeah, I’ll just bet — that and a whole lot more. Where Miller and Eisner drift off in dozey reveries I daresay Ann Weingarten Eisner could have dished the real dirt and left this reader more to remember.

Ann Weingarten Eisner/Lynn Varley — I would pay real money for that.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Rattling in my brain-pan

Some pieces what’s got me cogitatin’ this week:
  • “It’s strange that we now see America threatened by a plague. Because without plague, America, as we know it, would not exist.” Thus begins Andrew Sullivan’s survey of the plagues that shaped human history, over at New York magazine.
  • “What good is it to speak of leaps of religious faith without first speaking of leaps into more immediate paradoxes, into the uncertainties of story and human subjectivity?” At The American Interest Mike St. Thomas reviews a book I very much look forward to reading, Christopher Beha’s new novel, The Index Of Self-Destructive Acts.
  • “The so-called Culture Wars are less a war against Christianity than a civil war between Christian factions.” Ed Simon considers the scope and penetration of Christendom while reviewing How The Christian Revolution Remade The World by Tom Holland, at LARB.
  • “While Galloway and others see mass delivery of content through online platforms as the solution to the real problems of overpriced and underperforming institutions, Hitz sees such platforms as the catalysts of opinionization and anti-intellectualism. Indeed, the metamorphosis of college education into an enormous Zoom meeting is incompatible with Hitz’s brand of intimate thoughtfulness, for in her eyes the internet is ‘a cesspool for the love of spectacle’ and a ‘bottomless temple of lurid fascination.’” Charles McNamara reviews Lost In Thought by Zena Hitz over at Commonweal. Say, you’ve already dropped in on Michial Farmer’s spritely chat with Hitz, have you not?
  • And finally: “No wonder, then, that the dominant online mood is one of resentment that spills over into bitter conflict. The game is signalling to most of us that we are losing.” Hey, any tip o’ the hat to René Girard is the sort of confirmation bias I will affirmationally and biasedly confirm! Geoff Shullenberger at The Tablet.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Bob Dylan, ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’

I ordered Rough And Rowdy Ways after reading Nick Cave’s generous response to inquiries re: Bob Dylan’s lead single: “Murder Most Foul.” The gist shared among enquirers and Cave seemed unique — it appears Dylan is once again tapped into something that registers.
Wrapped in nostalgia.
Dylan has always had a peculiar relationship with nostalgia. He’s reflexively sentimental, but also reflexively contrarian, so the two polarities consistently seesaw in his better songs. There’s a lot of that here. Lyrically, Rough And Rowdy Ways is straight Dylan-the-Lion-in-Winter material.

But the performance is the real surprise. To my ears, he’s singing like he means it.

Sincerity isn’t exactly anathema to Dylan, but it is rare. It makes the album pertinent to the shared moment, I think. Most of us are wrestling with nostalgia and a reckoning with what truly was and is — turns out a little empathy is a welcome solace when sorting through these thorny matters. The album likely will not receive the repeat play that Time Out Of Mind and “Love & Theft” enjoyed in this house — Rough And Rowdy Ways is not quite as rough and rowdy as I prefer my Dylan to be, finally. But it is a lovely album to meditate on, as this particular summer recedes to cooling.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Wither (sic) Liberalism — TIME OUT!

First, a spoonful of sugar: Michial Farmer’s conversation with Zena Hitz (Lost In Thought: The Hidden Pleasures Of The Intellectual Life) will do you more good than anything you are about to read below.

Alright, now that you’re braced . . . 

Never say “never,” but I believe with this post I shall put a cap on the matter of my concern for liberalism, its methods of consideration, and the precipitous erosion thereof. The subject is threatening to become not merely a central concern, but THE central concern for me and this blog, and I won’t have that (because it’s not — but don’t let any of that discourage you from commenting).

Here’s how it shakes down:
"Andrew! Hey, Andrew! Me next, me next!"
On that last matter Fredrick deBoer framed it as an East-Coast Media vs. Silicon Valley scrap, in which 24/7-ironic ECM twitterers have not the slightest ken to appreciate West Coaster commitment — actual, sincere commitment — to planting a flag up the beach and defending it. I would go further and add that the ECM either does not appreciate the eviscerating effect its spotlight has on its caught-in-the-wrong-intersection subjects, or they know but do not care.

Full disclosure: I’m mostly ambivalent about the SSC project — my presuppositions launch me in a markedly different direction than do theirs (for starters, “Rationalist”? — good luck with that). However, I deeply admire their rigour and good manners. Trolls set up camp in the comments, receiving nearly inexhaustible patience as they attempt to lance the chosen argument with one bad-faith rhetorical ploy after the next. Good manners, patient consideration, careful elucidation — qualities we could all stand to emulate, particularly in these times, no?

Lili Loofbourow wonders to what effect.

I read “Illiberalism Isn’t to Blame For The Death of Good-Faith Debate” and nodded along throughout. I even murmured, “Yikes, that’s me!” at one point. Then she wrapped it all up with her conclusion and — honestly? — only Nietzsche has left me feeling this vertiginous:
“I don’t know how (or if) we get sincerity back.”
Well. In all sincerity I then submit: this isn’t a right-or-left liberal/illiberal woke or tribal thing — it is quite plainly just the latest instance of the Internet gaining its unfeeling mastery over yet another beleaguered member of our groping, simian species.

Friday, July 10, 2020

R.I.P., Google Play Music


I received an unhappy, but not unexpected, email the other day — Google Play Music is shuttering and giving it up to YouTube Music.
There are features to YTM that recommend it above GPM. YTM’s graphic interface is a sexy beast, where GPM’s has been a stodgy old “meh” right out of the gate. Also, YTM has seamless access to YouTube proper, which offers inexhaustible troves of delights. Just one example, if, in my newfound love for Ghost Light, I want to compare and contrast concert performances like their delightful Cervantes double-set to their equally delightful available-on-YouTube ONLY double-set at The Independent, San Francisco it can be done with a simple click or tap — no extra tabs to keep open, no painstaking search engine queries, just pure joy.

But YouTube is a streaming service — full stop. And I am loathe to stream music.

There’s the issue of what streaming nets the performers who provide the content, for starters. But, more selfishly, streaming rarely offers good quality sound. Much of that has to do with the technology on my end — very few phones, tablets or laptops have a DAC that brings out what’s actually available in the sound files being played (old Neil is right). And yes, you can download and install better DACs, but then lag-time becomes an issue.

Google Play Music had two features I took advantage of — downloads and uploading

With regards to downloads, in the main I prefer to buy CDs directly from the act, but there are occasions where downloads are the only option. GPM’s soundfiles were surprisingly respectable and inexpensive. YTM doesn’t offer downloads, so my next go-to will likely be HDTracks.

As for uploading — I took it for granted, because I rarely streamed my library (it was handy when we were travelling, or visiting family). And yes, I have my digital music library on two separate hard-drives and spread across several portable players. But it was a comfort to think that the hard-to-find out-of-print stuff was secure yet easily accessible in some corner of Google’s massive cloud. And there were albums that I personally remastered and stored there, including the entirety of Citizen: Steely Dan — which sounded great in 1993 but, 27 years later, could stand a serious reengineering.

Google assures me my music lye-berry will be seamlessly transferred to YouTube’s acreage in the Google cloud. We shall see. I have to wonder if YouTube’s algorithm won’t sort through my id tags and decide, “Oh, Citizen: Steely Dan. We have that already. Just bin these files and give him access to ours.” It would be the logical thing to do, but it’d set me out.

Anyhoo, these are admittedly trifles in the current environment of mass discomfort and discombobulation. But sometimes trifles can be welcome diversions, too. So on that note: thanks for reading!

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Wither (sic) Liberalism, cont.

Further hand-wringin’:
  • Did (Mattress Performance Artist) Emma Sulkowicz get red-pilled? — Sylvie McNamara is nonplussed at NYMag.
  • “Our conversation reveals four problematic recent norms in academia” — Bruce Newsome at The Critic.
  • “I don’t know how to argue in America anymore, or if it’s even worth it” — Jacob Siegel at Tablet.
  • “Can we just proceed by acknowledging what literally everyone quietly knows, which is that the dominant majority of progressive people simply don’t believe in the value of free speech anymore?” — Fredrik deBoer has a modest proposal. (update: it appears Mr. deBoer has removed the content. I'm sorry to see it, as it did nudge my thoughts in helpful directions. Some content, but not the whole quote, available here).
  • And, just for shits and giggles, The Letter.
Casual observation, made from a morning of scrolling through my social media feed: Reflexive Righties LOVE this relatively recent development among We The Left (and increasingly Left Behind).
"...oh well, whatever, nevermind...."

Monday, July 06, 2020

Independence/in dependence

When I was a five-year-old I wished our family was American.

I told my father. He said: “We are American — we’re North American!”

Hogwash. America had a beautiful flag. Ours was weird. The Maple Leaf? What was that supposed to mean to a kid parked in the butt-end of Manitoba? The only Maple we had was Manitoba Maple — a weed more than a tree, really.

America had a great national anthem. Canada’s paled in comparison. “With glowing hearts we see thee rise” — those words didn’t make a lick of sense to a five-year-old. “But the rocket’s red glare/The bombs bursting in air” — that was more like it!

Five-year-olds in 1970 were well aware that America had all the good television. Before we got to the spectacular razzle-dazzle of Sesame Street we had to sit though Chez Hélène, The Friendly Giant, Mr. Dressup. Canadian five-year-olds didn’t have to take a nap in the afternoon — we’d been snoozing all morning.

Even sliced bread was more interesting in America than Canada. They had Snoopy on the bag!
Now, more than ever.
And although I did not understand precisely how this could be the case, I knew the reason why America was so snazzy in contrast to pallid Canada — they’d declared independence from Britain. Canada hadn’t. In fact, it wasn’t clear just what Canada’s relationship to Britain was. Except it was weird. In a boring way.

In 1970 the Kindergarten half-day began with us singing “O Canada” and concluded with us singing “God Save The Queen.”

“Mom, why does the Queen need saving? Is she sick in the hospital?”

“Well, that’s not really what ‘save’ means in this context . . .”

“Is it dangerous for her to live in Canada?”

“The Queen doesn’t live in Canada. She lives in London, England.”

“Then how is she the Queen of Canada?”

“She’s not the Queen of Canada, she’s . . . it’s complicated. You’ll understand when you get older. Say, isn’t it almost time for Mr. Dressup?”

Complicated? Actually, it was just plain weird. That was Canada, all the way around — weird, in a boring way.

Fifty years later our nation’s relationship with “Mother England” is still weird, but the history of it makes damnable sense. In 1870 my forebears understood the British were the ones making Canadian soil available to them for our families and farms. When they sang “God Save The Queen” they meant it. But Mennonites also have a long history of being driven off land that’s suddenly valuable to people with armies. 150 years later we’re coming round to the realization that perhaps Britain’s claims on our behalf and benefit were just a touch presumptive.

Americans gained independence. That’s clear thinking. I envied that.

But what are we ever, finally, independent of? What does manifest independence even look like, except an open grave? To be alive at all is to be in dependence of a dynamic network vastly beyond our capacity to ever fully apprehend.

“The digital age is built on the backs of runaway systems” — Jazzman Ted Gioia reflects on the wisdom of Gregory Bateson, extoller of the feedback loop.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Rattling in my brain pan

  • Emasculated: The problem of men writing about sex by Luke Brown (at TLS, here) has me mulling. 
  • “It is precisely because of my attachment to the power of data collection that I’m unconvinced video footage can solely, or even primarily, lead to meaningful change.” I am also mulling over Mimi Onuoha’s When Proof Is Not Enough: Throughout history, evidence of racism has failed to effect change at FiveThirtyEight, over here. I was struck by the phrase “meaningful change.” Hardly the first time I’ve encountered it, but it has me speculating just where meaning is to be found, or best cultivated, in these matters.
  • Shifts in consumer behavior have been gnawing away at the classic enclosed suburban mall format for many years; then the pandemic completely upended in-person shopping. Converting commercial real estate to housing may be the best use of land in such an over-retailed country. Big shopping centers tend to be centrally located and connected to transit.” The Dying Mall’s New Lease On Life: Apartments is Patrick Sisson’s proposal, at Bloomberg CityLab, here. Hey, maybe we can repurpose a few empty churches that way too?

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Jay Scott’s Vietnam

Re-reading Jay Scott nearly 30 years after his death in 1993, it is striking to see how forcefully he grappled with the Vietnam experience he saw depicted in the movies. It was, he acknowledged, invariably the American experience in Vietnam — and he sounded the alarm, again and again, on this reflexive solipsism, even as he recognized and applauded the necessity of its expression.

From my 2020 vantage point — as a man whose life now exceeds my role model’s by 11 years and counting — the intensity of Scott’s focus on these movies reads as the painstaking formation of a moral core, one which will not absolve Scott or his readers of guilt, but which nevertheless insists on an informed sense of mercy as well.

I currently do not see any of the remaining big critics writing at this level of ambition, with this degree of acknowledged shared humanity — though I am happy to be directed and corrected in this proclamation.

The text from the above photo:
To judge The Deer Hunter solely as a movie is to judge it an honourable failure with redemptive sequences of great power. But to judge it as part of a cultural process is quite another matter. 
As I watched the “God Bless America” conclusion, feeling slightly sickened by Cimino’s avoidance of a moral statement, I remembered a high school friend who left home the same time I did. I went to college. He went to Vietnam. We were friends, but we had argued — I enthusiastically, he reluctantly — about the war. I came home at Christmas in a jet. He came home in a shoe box. Hank was serious in his support of what we called the U.S. involvement. He has been dead for ten years. Now, a movie is weeping for him and for the thousands like him. It weeps in a way he, and they, would understand. One does not have to agree with The Deer Hunter to sympathize. One does not have to like it to recognize its value.  
February 17, 1979 

Friday, June 26, 2020

“When they said ‘repent’/I wonder what they meant?”

“I’ve seen the future, brother/It is murder.”
Paul gives consideration to a change of concerns, as he has experienced it, and casually flips-off the Gray Lady by conclusion.

I read it several times. Before I went to bed, I wrote down, “Jay Scott was the first celebrity death to hit me hard.”
What can I say? I'm a sucker for smoking jackets and turquoise jewelry.
When I got up this morning I expanded on that for a few pages. By the time I turned on the computer I realized one reason why Paul and I seem to be talking at cross-purposes is I am more reflexively prone to sentimentality, which might not be very helpful.

But let’s get it out and see what happens.

Thirty years ago Jay Scott was the chief reason I bought The Globe & Mail on Fridays and Saturdays. The chief reason, but hardly the sole reason. The Arts & Books section also ran weekly columns by Stan Persky, Robert Fulford, John Bentley Mays. Those are just the names I immediately recall. It frequently ran pieces by Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, John Irving, Timothy Findley — etc. The kids in short pants included Russell Smith, Lynn Crosbie, Mark Kingwell, Leah McLaren.

Scott stood out as a sensualist with a piercing intellect — a near perfect balance for a film critic. I wanted to write like Scott did, and not just about film — about everything.

Anyway, here we are. I won’t comment on my own writing except to say the stuff I’m proudest of feels to me like it attains something of what Scott was about.

This won’t be that. But I miss settling into my IKEA Eames knock-off, fresh coffee in one hand, newspaper in the other, positioning myself in the morning sunlight and perusing every single page of the Globe & Mail’s other sections before unfurling Arts & Books at the very end. All the other pages in the newspaper felt like a warm-up run for the main event.

I still have an Eames knock-off. Coffee is still a habit, and the Saturday Globe & Mail still has a section devoted to arts and books and tchotchkes and shit. They call it “Distractions” or something like that. Needless to say, it’s an emaciated version of what used to be.

If it were to fold, would I miss the Globe? Well ... kinda. My wife likes the crossword puzzle, and I enjoy pulling the page out of the newspaper for her, just before I bin the rest of it. But otherwise, no. Reading it just depresses me, and not only because it’s a shadow of its former self. I can tell where its writers are going within just a few sentences. The element of surprise is long gone, the potential of revelation rare to the point of near-extinction.

The truth is I already miss the Globe.

And I’m increasingly missing the New York Times.

The Globe, the Times — in the 90s it felt like I’d left the Sunday School classroom and arrived in another chamber where I could more freely explore what it felt like, and what it meant, to be alive at that particular moment. That earlier list of names — obviously the preponderance is largely male and entirely pasty-skinned. But it is also remarkably Queer, and seems at least pointed in a promising direction.

In this moment, to be alive is to feel the inexorable pull not to the Sunday School classroom, but someplace considerably less forgiving. And maybe that is where humanity is required to be at this particular moment. Our home and host has an astonishing capacity to forgive our transgressions against it, one we have long taken criminal advantage of. And this doesn’t begin to address people we have held in similar contempt. Humility, contrition and repentance are unfashionable words, but they seem to be what is called for.

Reading the newspaper pages, or social media blurts, I am not at all confident we have the foggiest idea what humility, contrition and repentance even look like. Never mind forgiveness. Or atonement — one of Madeleine L’Engle’s favourite words. At-one-ment,” she would stress, again and again.

Atonement. Maybe it looks like this?