Saturday, March 06, 2021

What’s new in SWU

Participating in a Star Wars movie seems to be quite the liberating experience — after the fact. If there is one actor associated with any portion of this enormous franchise who has not, once all the receipts have been tallied, talked trash about their installation into the franchise firmament I’ve yet to make their acquaintance.1

And I don’t mean to make that sound like a bad thing — it’s just remarkable, is all. Any of these principals walking off any other project will smile and deliver the Entertainment Tonight talking points: “Such an incredible experience!” “I think what we did here was unique.” “It was a dream to work with these people!” etc. With Star Wars we get Carrie Fisher saying things like, “George Lucas ruined my life,” and we still feel like she’s holding back.2

Over at Mel Magazine Tim Grierson surveys the post-production fallout and flat-out declares what seems to be the niggling thought in the brain of every Star Wars fan: The New ‘Star Wars’ Trilogy Wasn’t Worth It.

He makes a compelling case — and I am 100% in that group of viewers disappointed by the sidelining of every single POC character, putting the emphasis on a Rey and Ren storyline of dubious value. But does it render the entire exercise null and void?

Here’s an alternative possibility — since we’re still talking about it four years later, maybe people will come around on The Last Jedi. And maybe that will generate storylines people want to see.

Though, honestly, what do I know? At this point I am forced to admit I am completely out-of-step with what Kids These Days expect from the SWU. For instance, it seems universally accepted that Solo was a well-deserved failure. I disagree. It had its weaknesses — binning the entire first act would have improved the film immeasurably — but to my eyes it still rates as the most entertaining SWU flick since The Empire Strikes Back. But I repeat myself.

In other SWU related reveries, I bought J.W. Rinzler’s The Making Of The Empire Strikes Back.

Why, you wonder? And why so late? Well ... the Kindle version had been on my Amazon wishlist since its release. (Long pause.) If I had had the remotest inkling that the window would close on the Kindle purchase ... well, I now have my regrets.

I don’t exactly regret purchasing the book, however. It is a pleasure to read, narratively taut, gossipy where it needs to be, and super-informative. Lovely pictures, of course. But wow it’s a monster. And I don’t need that.

Anyway, it will be a snap to finish. And already it has disabused me of a conviction I’ve held for decades: that pulp writer extraordinaire Leigh Brackett was almost solely responsible for what worked in the story. Rinzler makes it very clear, with physical evidence, that Brackett’s influence on the final script of TESB could best be quantified in the negative. She wrote the first draft, which Lucas then utterly covered with red ink. Lucas definitely knew what he did not want to see, and this script was largely it. Indeed, reading the pages provided I wondered if she’d even seen the earlier movie. An unlikely possibility — and an uncharitable thought. Unbeknownst to the Lucasfilm bunch Brackett was in an advanced state of Stage 4. That she was able to hammer out a cogent script at all indicates a heroic intensity of focus.

When she died before rewrite, Lucas took over. And what we see is a remarkable convergence of his script with director Irvin Kershner’s invitational attitude toward his actors’ ideas — aided by uncountable others who threw in their best to make the film be what Lucas, and we, needed it to be.

1 Although, now that I think of it, Ewan McGregor has been a remarkably magnanimous statesman for the SWU.
2 My favourite response from the current principals is Oscar Isaac, saying the only way he’ll ever re-enter the SWU is “if I need to buy another house or something.”

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Treasure Of The Broken Land: The Songs of Mark Heard by Various Artists

In contrast to Orphans Of God, an earlier Mark Heard tribute album, the artists collected for this 2017 album are A) of a piece, and B) carefully marshalled into cohesion by producer Phil Madeira.

A) The Artists. When I first encountered the track list I was familiar with enough of them to recognize a universal bent toward Americana. Heard was contrarian to his core and would likely bristle at being thus pigeon-holed. And, fair enough: his final album was driven by a recent obsession with the electric mandolin and has a track or two that could qualify as Celtic Death Metal (he’s not here to defend himself, but any of his many devoted fans are free to call me out on this). Regardless, the musical vein Heard mined was indeed Americana. To continue the metaphor: sanding down a little of Heard’s aural prickliness burnishes the natural lustre of his work. These were the right people for the job.

B) As was producer Phil Madeira. The album is a finely wrought whole — an outstanding anomaly among tribute albums. A handful of tracks graduated immediately to my current playlists — Birds of Chicago, Lily & Madeleine, The North Mississippi All Stars, Buddy Miller and Over the Rhine are particularly stellar interpreters. But there is not one track I would ever dream of cutting from this line-up. I enjoy listening to this album from beginning to end.

This might just be the best possible introduction to the music of Mark Heard. Or, for those who never quite cottoned to his voice and delivery, it might be the best vehicle with which to consider his work. It is, finally, a lovely and perfectly tailored tribute to a challenging and sometimes difficult artist.

Further links: I have meditated on Mark Heard before, here and here. The Christian Humanists devoted a podcast to exploring a (dubiously edited) “Best Of” album over here. And I am indebted to movie critic Christian Hamaker for introducing me to this album.

Comic Books: Digital FTW

This image, lovingly curated from the digital version of the second Hellboy omnibus, exemplifies one reason why I think digital comic "books" are superior to their physical ("analog") counterparts. I don't have the physical product to compare, but I'm willing to bet there isn't the same manipulation of depth of field in the analog book, originally published in '98.

Its aesthetic success in this case is debatable, but I'm still impressed with it. HB is, by virtue of his coloration, more often than not the centre of attention in every frame he occupies. During early days in this series creator Mike Mignola struggled with this challenge, and not always successfully. A frame like this is an example where HB really should not be the focus, quite literally -- it is his BPRD partner, a homunculus named Roger, who is experiencing the disquiet of the larger scene, and who will direct the action subsequently. "Fading" or blurring HB helps place Roger in the fore, and directs the eye appropriately.

Again, in this case the technique is a touch clumsy. But it is still an improvement on the print version.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Why We Can’t Wait by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Why We Can't WaitWhy We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the mid-1980s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” was required reading in a required Rhetoric course for first year University students in Winnipeg. An excellent choice: in the letter the “how” of King’s appeal cannot be separated from the “what” — it is a raw, elegant, and forceful demand for the listener not just to take action but to join King and his allies in their particular fight for freedom.

King situates the letter at the centre of his book. The first third of the book lays out the social context that eventually imprisoned King and inspired his letter. The final third points a way forward to freedom in America — here it is striking to note how vigorously King argues on behalf of collective labour.

In the main, King writes to set down his side of the story in this particular civil rights conflict, not just for posterity but to persuade the moderates urging caution and arguing against his radicalism. In his efforts to persuade, King does not often name his moderate opponents — a charitable move that leaves the door open for conversion, but which also slackens the force of the narrative.

It would be a mistake for the reader to expect the entire book to speak as powerfully as the letter does. King’s choices are pragmatic, even virtuous, standing as an example to emulate. King’s letter demands response; King’s book requires consideration.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Whither “Transgressive Art”?

In the summer of '90 I took a third-year Uni course in 20th Century Canadian Literature. Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers was required reading.

Suitable for framing — or wrapping fish.

Let’s see: misogyny, pedophilia, perpetual gas-lighting among the protagonists (to say nothing of the author’s stance toward the reader). And “cultural appropriation” is almost too gentle a term for what that novel does with Mohawk Catholic Saint and icon Catherine Tekakwitha. Other trigger warnings apply, but you get the idea. If there is a university on the continent which has this book on a current undergraduate syllabus, I will eat Werner Herzog’s other shoe.

As for the work itself my appetite for this sort of thing is not much whetter than it is for Herzog’s shoe. But I’ve some appreciation for the attitude that insists on granting the permission to transgress. Over at Paul’s place we mutually puzzled over Kurt Vonnegut’s willing forgiveness of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a transgressive writer who never troubled himself to apologize or in any way atone for his earlier enthusiastic embrace of Nazism. My suspicion was that Céline’s transgressive art was atonement enough for the likes of Vonnegut, who viewed human willingness to wage war as the greater transgression by far. For Vonnegut, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Reed and many other “fans” of Céline it was Céline’s eagerness to speak the unspeakable that recommended him. Céline’s transgressiveness serves, in this view, to highlight human frailty — even human preciousness.

I will grudgingly sign on with that POV, though I’ll also be grateful to never read Céline — or Beautiful Losers — ever again.

But it is worth noting, yet again, that transgression sure ain’t what it used to be. Cohen’s novel remains, for the moment, in print. But it goes without saying that no prestige press would touch its like today. Currently Bruce Wagner — a midlist author from my generation whose subtle compassion for his grotesquely flawed characters and their entwined fates has earned him a secure readership — has had his most recent novel dropped for containing a protagonist who refers to herself as “fat,” even aspirationally so. (cf., Air Mail; interview.)

I closed my John Wayne/Gina Carano post with, “This doesn’t feel necessary.” I could append that to this, but instead will direct you to Laura Kipnis’ Transgression: An Elegy — a long-read I cannot recommend too highly. Her capacity for indulging the transgressive work of others is much greater than mine, and her meditation on what has changed, and why, makes for truly excellent reading.

Oh, and also this: transgression, for kids, is catnip. They're drawn to it — always have been, always will be. Here in Canada there aren’t many places for college kids to indulge in Spring Breakers levels of bacchanalia, but Whistler, British Columbia certainly qualifies (NSFW, possibly) — so much so that even Americans come up en masse to get their Break on. And I am struck by an observation made by a Canadian in Whistler’s service industry — “I very much doubt this bunch voted for Hillary.”

Who knows but that a future “Céline” does not currently reside within “this bunch”?

What accounts for the change? The “fitness” edition.

“Fitness” is a relative term. My physical condition could certainly be better — my doctor would like me to lose about 30 lbs, so I’ve agreed not to consult her again until absolutely necessary. And to be fair, my physical condition could also be a whole lot worse.

My COVID exercise routine has been a tad more disciplined than it was prior to lockdown, particularly in the winter months. I have a resistance trainer clamped to the bicycle, and I do not at all mind heading into the basement, donning the shorts and cleats, then opening the window and pedaling myself into a dripping sweat.
"Pedal into the light!"

The ritual of it actually reminds me of my hockey playing days, which I miss terribly. The play, the change-room bonhomie — all a receding memory. But again — to be fair — I do not miss the back pain, which after a Sunday night game was extending further and further into the week. My stationary bicycle may be a lonlier variant, but I still get the workout, a bit of aerobic catharsis, and the coveted endorphin rush.

I also try to adhere to a resistance routine — bodyweight and light free-weights. But my motivation for this workout is somewhere well below zero.

This is a change I never expected. From 16 years old until some point in my early 40s working out with weights was an actual passion. I loved it. The 90s introduced the “Split routine” — I could work out with weights every day of the week (except for the mandatory recovery day, boo!). Aerobic exercise was the motivational challenge back then. Bike to work, walk to the grocer’s. That was about it.

For all this, I was never a particularly “strong” or muscular guy. I had tone, but couldn’t bulk up to save my life. Not that I didn’t try. I had my creatine and powdered protein phase. And at 38 I adhered to a draconian regimen that finally nudged me into the 200lb Bench Press Club.

At that point I realized there was nowhere to go but down. In subsequent years I swapped around various push-pull routines and kept at it. But the days of the One Rep Max were over. Eventually a couple of minor injuries brought another reality to bear — I was now required to apply awareness and care to these routines, lest a workout injury sideline me permanently.

Pedaling is still a relatively carefree pleasure. Headphones permit me to listen to music as loud as I like. And I try to nudge my aging bod through a limited push-pull session at least once a week. But finding motivation for the latter is the real workout.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Retreating from the sands of Iwo Jima

I’ve been thinking about John Wayne, lately. Or thinking about how my thinking about John Wayne has shifted over the years.

Had you asked me, when I was 18 years old, what I thought of the man I’d likely have said, “He’s a joke,” or if I was feeling ornery, “A sick joke.”

That was 1983, and I was watching Ronald Reagan play nuclear brinksmanship with the U.S.S.R. The POTUS was CLEARLY doing a bad impression of the late actor, and the people who’d voted him in were licking it up with a spoon. I was still a kid. It didn’t seem right. I wanted a more reasonable world than the one I was just developing a picture of. This was politics as B-grade cinema. Wayne was emblematic of the problem — hence, I felt hostility to the man himself.

As I and the world survived a few years longer I read several short accounts of the man, written by people whose politics were fairly similar to my own — Roger Ebert and Joan Didion. I expected a savaging. I read two singular accounts of two very smart and erudite individuals who’d been thoroughly charmed by The Duke.

Reading Ebert and Didion I had to conclude that had I been present at the same table there was a real possibility I too might have swooned. More, it was impressed upon me that this was a possibility not to be ruthlessly quashed, even with people whose politics I considered abhorrent — it’s not like Ebert and Didion left the table having changed their minds about Vietnam.

Ebert and Didion’s affection for the man nudged me toward a more generous stance. Wayne’s work was worthy of consideration and even respect, as was the man himself. Be critical, but take care with it. There may be an element of humanity in all this that catches you by surprise.

John Wayne would not do well in the current environment. Hell, he didn’t do well in his own environment. His convictions re: Vietnam and “Women’s Lib” were wildly out-of-step with the broader culture even in an era as saturated in pitiless violence and reflexive misogyny as 1970s America. But his movies got made, and even lefties could admit to the emotional sway in a send-off flick like The Shootist.


John Wayne’s grandson, Brendan Wayne, works on The Mandalorian. To nearly all intents and purposes he IS the Mandalorian. He has a lovely story about a moment when Billy Dee Williams, curiously enough, channeled the Duke and got the boy moving the way he was meant to.

I haven’t seen so much as a Mandalorian GIF (true say). But everything I’ve read about the show indicates it’s right in my wheelhouse. From '77 to the present I’ve maintained the most compelling elements in the SWU are, in descending order:

  1. The cynical pirate and his trusty, hairy mate
  2. The bounty hunters
  3. The Empire
  4. The Rebels
  5. The Jedi
  6. The Ewoks

It very much sounds like Jon Favreau and company came to a similar conclusion and got the mix right.

It also sounds like Gina Carano was a significant element in this mix.

To be clear, Gina Carano is no John Wayne.

Though I've no doubt she'd be every bit as fetching in this outfit.

For all his political grandstanding and incorrect opinion-spouting, at the end of the day Wayne made it clear he was finally an actor, and if you needed an actor, of all people, to reassure you of your own political convictions you were that much the lesser for it.

Carano on the other hand is a fighter first, and an actor ... well, being an actor is somewhat further down her list of priorities. Indications point to her spoiling for a fight with the Mouse. And the Mouse don’t fight — the Mouse makes situations disappear.

So Carano has had a short and limited role in a show I will never see. And still I’m sad. It sounded like a good role with real potential. The only thing I’ve seen her act in is Haywire, and I thought she was terrific. It sounds like she was terrific in this. From here on out her projects are likely to be on the same level as the Baldwin Brothers. I think we’ve all lost something here. And it doesn’t feel necessary.