Friday, May 27, 2005

Legacies Grasped and (in one case) Lost

Experience, by Martin Amis

I recently scanned over an interview with David Bowie. The interviewer thought the new album was a tad cheerier than Bowie's usual fare, and questioned Bowie on it. Bowie said it had occurred to him that his kids were eventually going to listen to his stuff, then wonder why he'd brought them into the world if he thought it was such a bloody awful place. "Thanks a lot, dad!" (guffaw, guffaw).

"Thanks a lot, dad!" seems to run through every page of Martin Amis's memoir, Experience. Anyone with a passing familiarity of his father Kingsley’s work has to wonder just what sort of parent the old man made. The protagonists in his early novels are lecherous drunks; in his later novels, they’re just plain drunk. They also give voice to the gamut of British impatience with everything from babies to excitable readers. No surprise, then, to find that Kingsley’s behavior and character tested the bonds of familial love to the day he died.

The real surprise is the depth of love Martin discovers – in himself, his brother, other family members – as he recounts his father’s final days. Experience is all about mortality and helplessness. Martin’s marriage dies, while his love for his two sons grows deeper and more desperate - and more gracious. He loses a friend in a literary feud (Julian Barnes); he loses his father to years of heavy drinking. His cousin’s murder seems to cast a terrible shadow on everything he surveys. Even his mouth crumbles, and has to be rebuilt. These are the specifics of a particular midlife crisis, and they generate the usual variations of renewal: a generous reappraisal of his father, a second marriage, another child, and the late discovery of a daughter he didn’t know he had. Not an easy narrative to read (especially if you’re in the throes of a bad cold, like I was), but not nearly so grueling an experience as any of his novels. I get the sense that Martin wrote this as a note to his kids, saying, in effect, “All those gruesome novels I write? Well, this is what I really believe, through experience, and that’s why you’re here.” (Right. Thanks a lot, dad.)

The Kings of Leon - Aha, Shake, Heartbreak

Well, I can certainly vouch for the “heartbreak.” I don’t think I’ve ever been so quickly and completely disappointed by a sophomore album. If the critics are any indication, I’m in the minority, which gets me wondering who is further removed from the zeitgeist: them or me? I may not know what I like, but I know art – and this is too arty by half.

I should have been tipped off earlier. The British reviewers were especially pleased with this effort – almost always a dismal sign for a band. The BritCrits approved of the Kings’ conscientious departure from the first album, Youth & Young Manhood. Well, what the hell was wrong with Youth & Young Manhood?! These four preacher’s kids were off to a very promising start, I thought. They sold themselves as raucous backsliders, and merged a gospel-tent sensibility to New York City punk – Jimmy Swaggart comes to grips with his carnal nature, and fronts The Velvet Underground. “I don’t know what they’re talking about,” said John Hiatt of Y&YM, “but they sound like they believe it, and they make me want to believe it, too.”

From the evidence here, the Kings have lost the faith. Their songs struggle to break the two-minute mark and trip over each other in the race to reach the album’s end (36 minutes, worth less than 12). Stylistically, they’ve shrugged off anything remotely “southern” and submerged themselves further into the current “Noo Wave”. They sound like a Talking Heads cover band that can’t be bothered with anything past the first chorus. Feh. Kids these days.

On the other hand…

The Drive-By Truckers - The Dirty South

A couple of years ago, a friend asked me to grab some DBT discs on my forthcoming California visit. This was shortly after they’d released Southern Rock Opera, and despite the unanimous critical raves, there was not a single copy to be found in the city of Toronto. I went out and bought the discs, then gave them a quick spin before I handed them off.

I didn’t quite “get” The Drive-By Truckers. Their lyrics were unabashedly blue-collar, but they glinted with a discomfiting insight that probably didn’t sit well with any audience. Combine that with music that was raucous and loud, but also fond of the sort of minor-seventh-chords the West Coast grunge bands favored, and you had a package that seemed too “college” to truly rock out, and too plain-spoken to be “college”. The best of their offerings was the live Alabama Ass-Whuppin’, which demonstrated exactly why people were taking note of this band. On stage, in front of a small crowd, these guys could clearly tear it up.

Last summer they released The Dirty South, and expanded their already gruelling tour schedule to include Toronto. I’m happy to say you don’t have to see the DBTs to “get” The Dirty South, because they have honed their sound and lyrics into an irresistible force. Singer song-writer Patterson Hood still supplies a nerve-shredding edge to the album’s contents, but Mike Cooley’s presence has slowly increased and given the band depth and soul. Between the two of them, they cook up an impressive creative ouevre that Springsteen is struggling to reclaim. Of course, where the Boss has to sit down and consult his muse, these guys just have to offer their neighbors a beer and take note.

There are a number of powerful stand-alone songs on this disc, but the one that stands as a centerpiece for me is Daddy’s Cup. It’s one of those Memphis tell-you-a-story songs, where the singer slurs into the last note of every line – an art detractors love to ape, but can’t possibly master. That slur communicates a casual, menacing swagger that, when done well, pulls a song taut like a bowstring. In this case, Cooley draws out the masculine appeal behind NASCAR, and subtly peels back the mixed emotions that come with any and every father-son legacy. When the song’s final note dies, there’s an off-mic exchange between Cooley and Hood. Hood points out he missed a cue. “I’m sorry,” drawls Cooley. “I wasn’t lookin’ atcha.” Hood protests it’s no big deal: “I was just listening to the story, man!” That gets a raucous laugh out of Cooley.

He knows he’s delivered the goods, and so do we. Buy this disc here, and welcome to the rock show.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Man In My Basement by Walter Mosley

The loud crack of the lock snapping shut had a pronounced effect on my self-proclaimed prisoner. His face visibly paled and he grabbed onto the bars of the door with both hands.

"I thought you wanted this," I said.

"I do."

"Then why do you look so scared?"

"I had certain experiences thirty years ago that made me nervous about close spaces and locked doors," he said.

"So then why you want to lock yourself in a basement?"

"This is a punishment, Mr. Blakey, not a vacation."

This exchange occurs halfway through Walter Mosley's The Man In My Basement. I knew it was coming (it's in the title, fer crying out loud!), but I was caught off-guard by the pleasant slow-burn of Mosley's patient set-up.

Charles Blakey is black; Anniston Bennett, his "guest", is white. Bennett, an ominous stranger, pays to be held prisoner in Blakey's basement. Clearly this is a novel with a "Big Idea" and some weighty dialogue. A lesser novelist would be tempted to cut directly to the chase, and fill in the background as the conflict develops.

Mosley, however, is a pulp veteran still intent on the steady improvement of his game. He's penned over a dozen mysteries, and a handful of other entertainments; he knows how to "boat" a reader. He reaches for the tools of his trade - physical threat, racial tensions, sexual heat - and wields them with a casual elegance. Mosley claims Camus's The Stranger as the inspiration to The Man In My Basement, and he doesn't stray too far from his idol. The novel is a hybrid of Iron John myth-making, Paul Auster existentialist fable, and Stephen King potboiler. It's also a relentless page-turner: I pretty much finished it off in one sitting.

Charles Blakey is the story's feckless narrator. He's born into middle-class comfort, and lives with an unthinking ease that eventually places him in harm's way. He isn't aware of just how much harm, until his talks with Bennett turn up disquieting details. It seems Bennett works in high circles, reclaiming wealth for powerful figures. Bennett assures him that no currency is exchanged without leaving a trail of blood and misery - a fact which Blakey becomes intimately familiar with.

It's difficult to say just what effect this experience finally has on Charles Blakey by book's end. He is certainly a different man by book's end, and he seems intent on taking a measure of responsibility for his present and his past. But is he a better person for the experience? For that matter, is the reader? These questions are difficult to answer, but it is a pleasure to have them asked in a novel as entertaining as this.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

And now for something completely frivolous...

Here's an unusual story: in 1977 a 12-year-old boy goes to the movies. He leaves the theatre, changed. He wants to see the movie again. And again - every week, if he can. And if that's not possible, he'll just settle for remembering the movie's theme song. How did it go again? Oh, yes:

Staaaar Wars,
Nothing but
Staaaaaaar Wars,
Nothing but
Staaaaaaar Wars,
All of the time...

Yeah, so my story's not that unusual. I would argue that I'm unusual insofar as Star Wars was my first movie experience, period, full stop. That certainly upped the ante for me, as a future movie-goer. But it's a difference of degree - I doubt I babbled any more or less coherently than my contemporaries did at the time.

I'm still fond of that moment when I first stepped into extreme air-conditioned "comfort" and watched every familiar comic-book convention get tweaked just enough to look immediate, and new. If Lucas has done nothing else, he's introduced Light-Sabres and "I am your father!" into the public lexicon. It's not quite up there with Banting and Best, but it's not too shabby, either. And while I won't be lining up with the crowds this weekend, I'll make my way into the theatre sooner or later. In the meantime, here are some choice responses to the George Lucas spectacle.

"Re-viewing the films did nothing to revise my strong feeling, though, that it's positively immoral--no exaggeration--to sink so many resources into something that's so lazily, carelessly, ineptly written. It would've taken a single afternoon to make the dialogue in Phantom Menace bearable." Go, Phil go! (Bonus! - looks like he finally posted some well-considered thoughts on the criminally neglected American novellist Richard Rhodes. Looks like I'll be heading to AbeBooks, after this.)

"I hold out hope that Star Wars is the best sci-fi of our generation—better than those listed above and, Lord knows, better than creaky old Star Trek, which met its ignoble end a week ago." Has it really come to this? Can't we all just get along, without putting the other down? Hey, at least Star Trek gave us goals with its fantasy. If we were to listen to Dale Peck, we'd be convinced that aforementioned ditty is the sound of one civilization expiring.

And finally, WIRED knows its readership: the magazine is gently critical, but chiefly appreciative of Lucas's contributions to the "WIRED World". But who would have thought Lucas's chief influences were Canadian? With a little digging, WIRED reveals Lucas's early fondness for the work of National Film Board regulars Norman McLaren, Arthur Lipsett, and Claude Jutra. This struck me as a revelation, but not a surprise: THX 1138 has more than a whiff of the early NFB aesthetic (and worldview).

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Half-Assed Answers To The Previous Post's "Good Questions"

You can take this as a prayer, if you’ll remember my name
You can take it as the penance of a profane saint -
Mark Heard

Alright, let’s see what we have here.

What regularly (or most) tempts you to second-guess/abandon the principles/worldview you hold dearest, regardless of your belief system?

We’re off to a rocky start, I’m afraid, because I’m not at all sure my religious worldview is particularly “dear” to me. The appeal almost any religion makes is immediate and intimate, but I’ll be the first to admit the Christian religion is fraught with staggering contradictions. It’s certifiably crazy, so if you’re going to be a Christian, reduce it to its core principles and go Mennonite, or Quaker. Or embrace the contradictions - all of 'em - and go Catholic.

I think once a religion takes hold of you, even a little bit, it never leaves your plasma. If you are truly intent on removing it, you commit to a lifetime of energetic argument, both silent and out loud. I’ve witnessed friends turning apostate, and, being a lazy sod, I can’t conceive of investing that much intellectual and emotional energy fighting what have become the well-defined and contradictory dictates of my heart. I also can’t commit to a rational defense of the faith. So ... I externalize. A suburban-bred Job and his unsympathetic friends over here, God over there, with no immediate resolution in sight. I cuss and rage, and every once in a while blubber out a little gratitude. A pathetic spectacle, no question, but there it is.

The principles I hold dearest are, I suppose, Christian virtues: humility over arrogance, self-sacrifice over selfishness, self-control over unchecked consumption, prayer for one’s enemies over blind hatred, etc. The extent to which I second-guess and abandon those principles is seen regularly by my family and in-laws. Contact me if you need references. Next?

What makes you want to "give up?"

The news and the Church, in roughly equal measure. Next?

What's the most hopeless situation you can imagine finding yourself in?

Losing a child. Exacerbated religious-ethnic tensions, a la the Middle-East, Darfur, Cambodia, etc. Third-World impoverishment. I find it remarkable, however, to hear quiet voices from each of those situations that, to use Sister Mary Jo Leddy's words, “say to the Darkness, we beg to differ.” Regarding the Two-Thirds World, my wife works for an organization committed to helping the physically disabled among the planet’s most impoverished people – the poorest of the poor. She usually visits a project site every year, and whenever she returns she remarks on the indescribable joy she witnesses in people we would expect to see walking around like whipped dogs. They have something we don’t, leaving me to wonder if we in the West aren’t suffering the more profound impoverishment.

Getting still closer to home, the most hopeless situation I currently find myself in is a global economy whose engine is fueled by a non-renewable resource. It is all too conceivable I could live to see the complete exhaustion of our planet's reservoirs of oil. Finding it, extracting it, refining it and burning it produces nothing of benefit to our ecosystem (feel free to set me straight on this – please!), and we are doing all of the above at an exponentially-increasing rate. What can we do to transform this situation?

What have you failed at so much that you've either quit trying or you go into that situation knowing you're going to fail?

Have I mentioned I write fiction?

What points of comparison do you use to make you feel better about yourself?

This is the one question that kind of bugs me, but I suppose I feel better when I reminisce. The last 40 years have been a delight I never anticipated – an unexpected gift in more ways than I could recount. No reason to stop now.

What are the things in your life that feel pointless, like a waste of time?

Preachers with facial hair! I jest, of course (my father sports a mustache). Time to go to work. My next entry will be frivolous, I promise.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Good Questions

Gideon Strauss links to Jeremy, who asks some excellent questions:

What regularly (or most) tempts you to second-guess/abandon the principles/worldview you hold dearest, regardless of your belief system?

What makes you want to "give up?"

What's the most hope-less situation you can imagine finding yourself in?

What have you failed at so much that you've either quit trying or you go into that situation knowing you're going to fail?

What points of comparison do you use to make you feel better about yourself?

What are the things in your life that feel pointless, like a waste of time?

Do people really distrust preachers with facial hair?

I'm not sure if I ask myself these sorts of questions too often, or too rarely. I'll consult my wife on this issue and get back to you. In the meantime, the only question I can answer with authority is the last one. Yes, people really do distrust preachers with facial hair - unless they demonstrate artistry in some field unrelated to preaching.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Spring Cleaning, To The Beat of Rec-Room Rock & Roll

The street-sweepers descended on our village last Monday - the surest sign of spring. The month of April was such a dustbowl desolation, I'm amazed the women of town didn't line the streets and greet the cavalcade of Road Maintenace Vehicles with a shower of flowers and kisses, heralding them as the liberating force they were. Heck, I nearly grabbed something from my wife's side of the closet, just to give those poor, hungover lads a thrill (the tighter the better, I say)!

No such treatment for the Sweepies. Instead, we scuttled to the Post Office and traded wry quips about their late appearance. Then we went back home and got on with the dusting, to the upbeat music of choice.

My spring soundtrack consists of one album - Rush: Permanent Waves. Alex Lifeson's cascading guitar riff for The Spirit of Radio is, to my ears, the sound of spring. It instantly summons the orange shag rug carpeting of the rec-room that belonged to my friend Craig. In the spring of 1980 Supertramp's Breakfast In America was inescapable, and Pink Floyd's The Wall was rising high, but somehow Craig had cottoned on to this weird trio from Our Home and Native Land, and that's what we listened to every afternoon when school was out. Retrieving our Sekine 10-speeds from the bike rack, pedalling furiously, deliberately spinning-out on the still-sandy corners, making like we were "Bandit" Burt Reynolds. Downstairs, into the rec-room, closing the door, turning up the cheap Philips stereo, and spinning the turntable. Giving the album cover our closest scrutiny, until the image became more indelible and sexually alluring than anything from Craig's stash of girlie magazines (a remarkable contrast to the album's asexual lyrical content - it really is music for geeks!).

Rec-Room Rock & Roll, for Rec-Room Rockers. The recent remaster is an aural delight, but I daresay it would be improved by playing it through a cheap Philips system. Hisses and pops, high trebles, non-existent bass, esoteric lyrics about commercial radio and nerdy philosophical dilemmas - that's the sound of spring, which transforms even a mundane task like dusting into a pleasure!

Monday, May 09, 2005

Guerrillas In Their Midst

My father pastors an evangelical Mennonite congregation in California, and he has quietly expressed frustration with the "Christian" media's one-note political message. Given these people's inescapable media presence, one might reasonably hope they'd acquire enough confidence to introduce some diversity, or even a little moderation, to their programming. No such luck.

I mostly ignore the so-called "culture war" being waged in US christendom. With precious exception, the rhetoric employed is shrill all-or-nothing posturing which doesn't bode well for "dialogue" - or progress. Garret Keizer's Guerrillas in Jesus Land doesn't escape this pitfall, but Keizer is aware enough to recognize and articulate the danger he courts. It's a short piece, but Keizer does an excellent job of fleshing out the ironies, disappointments and perils of being a dissident Christian in the United States. And I'm gratified to see it published, somewhat circuitously, by Christianity Today - the USA's most significant evangelical monthly.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

May is "Chuck Klosterman Month"

In the fall and winter of last year, my reading patterns were somewhat binge-like, particularly for November and December. I was reading rock genre histories which were either completely devoid of humor, or straining to generate those charmless chortles you hear from survivors of the scene ("That's when we all dropped acid; within minutes Ted was trying to dynamite fish from the stream" etc). It occurred to me that rock musicians and rock journalists have one problem in common: both want to be taken way too seriously.

There isn't much I remember from those books, except for a few odd little facts (e.g., Metallica sold more records in 15 years than the Rolling Stones have to date). Music I once loved - metal, punk - was now leeched dry of charm. I had had enough of these ponderous books, and was set to move on to the next literary, and musical, genre. Then the library called.

The book I'd requested - Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman - had just arrived.

Fargo Rock City was just what the doctor ordered. I snickered to read Chuck's defense of Hair Metal. Praising Bon Jovi, Poison, Mötley Crüe - he was being ironic, right? Wrong. While Mr. Klosterman was side-splittingly funny on this issue, he was also completely in earnest. This deft combination worked so well, by book's end I was ready to spend money on CDs I had purposely gone out of my way to avoid, back in the day.

Fargo Rock City is a wild left hook that, against all odds, hits the target. I tore through the book on a flight from Toronto to San Francisco, then bought a copy and read it again. So it pleases me to see Mr. Klosterman doing well in his chosen field as freelance writer. This month sees him commenting on style in Believer, and contributing two pieces to Esquire. Those are worth a lunch-time perusal at your local magazine stand, but the real gold is to be found in Fargo Rock City. Read it and weep, from laughter and self-recognition.

Correction: Mr. K. has become one of Esquire's contributing editors. Congrats, farmboy - kill 'em all!

Friday, May 06, 2005

Yes, it's a Quarter-Pounder: Sin City Revisited

Last week, against my better judgement, I went to see Sin City. The movie ended with me feeling so-so about the experience. Rather than give it a full review, I'll simply forward you to the Multiple Blowhards (and guests) who do a fine and entertaining job of articulating the film's strengths and weaknesses. I'll add one kvetch to the list of weaknesses: the flick was too talky. Always with the voiceover narrator, that let-me-Spillane-it-to-you prose, yak yak yak. Which can be Miller's weakness, as well - though I usually credit him with a sense of humour he may or may not have toward his own material.

The film also felt surprisingly static, for such a faithful visual translation of Frank Miller's work (the first time I read Batman: The Dark Knight Returns I dreamt for months about leaping weightlessly from rooftop to rooftop) - as Michael points out, this is probably a crippling case of being too faithful to the material. This got me wondering who the great Comic Book Directors might be. After a little head-scratching, I came up with only one name: Luc Besson.

There are other contenders, certainly: I loved Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2, and I can still summon the thrill I felt watching Tim Burton's Batman on opening night. But for all the visual gim-crackery these directors had at their disposal, there was little of that surreal "am I dreaming?" spatial sense to their movies. Like all of Burton's movies, Batman feels like it's set in a shoebox diorama (not a bad thing), and while Raimi's Peter Parker is an emotionally compelling character, the Spidey stuff has a video-game sensibility that can keep the viewer at arm's length.

Besson, on the other hand, knows how to make space work for him - particularly apartments. The wildest example is the apartment of The Fifth Element's taxi-driver hero, played by Bruce Willis. He lives in a cramped walk-in closet that looks like it has a bad smell, but with a press of a button, a wall gives way and he's suddenly, vulnerably exposed to a vertiginous drop, a metropolitan Grand Canyon swarming with flying vehicles that follow indecipherable traffic laws. The movie is consciously over-the-top and dramatically uneven, but has a cheery sense of dislocation that keeps the viewer watching.

Again, in the opening sequence of Léon The Professional, Besson uses a gangster's luxury suite to communicate an innate sense of threat. It's not an unusual movie set-up: Léon weasels into unexpected places and coolly dispatches each bodyguard until he and the gangster are alone. Ho-hum. But watch as the suite gets darker, and the camera frames get tighter, until this gangster's claustrophobia is stifling.

My favorite Besson film, though, is La Femme Nikita (thanks in large part to Anne Parrillaud's emotionally accessible performance - a delightful surprise, given how unhinged the character is). Again, Besson uses rooms to bring drama to the script. Nikita's "graduation" dinner in a chichi restaurant flips from a glamorous night out to testosterone-charged menace when she opens her gift and discovers it's an enormous, two-fisted pistol (ah, the French and their double entendres!). Besson's sense of space gets tighter as she assassinates her target, moves from dining room to bricked-in bathroom, to kitchen in an increasingly desperate attempt to escape the armed bodyguards.

I could wax on about Nikita's final, disastrous assignment - the stifling horror she feels when the target she presumes dead thrashes in the tub (bathrooms are put to good use in this film: the place you expect safety and privacy transforms suddenly into an abattoir), but it's time for me to sign off. Besson hasn't taken on an American franchise (yet); his style is more akin to Heavy Metal magazine - one-off adventures with broadly-drawn heroes, for readers who are old enough to know better. Besson embraces this genre's cheerful absurdities and cinematically warps the frame to give the thrills some bouyancy. He also has a Frenchman's unerring discernment for female beauty - any one of his actresses can beckon, wallop and drag out my inner adolescent in ways that are entirely foreign to the Miller/Rodriguez pole-dancers.

Sure, it's still junk-food. But it's the all-important difference between a Quarter-Pounder, and a Roy-Al With Cheese.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

I've lost my faith in Iron Maiden!

Turns out the Number of the Beast is actually 616! Either that, or Izzy Asper is a pawn of the devil...

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Star Trek Retires - Finally

I haven't seen more than a handful of Enterprise episodes, the latest and apparently final Star Trek spin-off. We don't subscribe to cable, so I had to tape the show at my in-laws' house. I stopped after the very first episode. The series, which ostensibly takes place 100 years before The Original Series (Kirk, Spock, McCoy) got off to a rip-roaring start with a human chasing a Klingon through a field of corn in Kansas.

Full stop.

I loved The Original Series - I'll happily call myself a Trekkie. And while I'm not as fastidious in my Star Trek chronology as, say, Michael Okuda, I'm knowledgable enough to recognize a serious breach in the space-time-continuum when I see one. And this was a whopper.

Since I've already lost all but the few select readers who had a secret crush on Yeoman Rand (or - you tell me, Scott - Charlie X?), I'll steam ahead on short-hand: you can't introduce a Klingon 100 years before Kirk and Spock take to the skies, because in TOS they encounter Klingons for the first time - and comment on the discovery at length. It would be wrong to expect the Star Trek Franchise Managers to be religious acolytes of the show (acolytes make lousy entertainers), but is it too much to ask them to aquaint themselves with the foundational material?

Apparently the answer was "yes". No mention of the discrepancy was ever made, and the show plodded on, with the usual "warp core breaches", and shaking, and flashing, and what-do-we-do-now moments. I asked my friends about it from time to time, and was told nothing terribly new was happening. Some reported improvements, others said no - it was all very confusing, and quite discouraging.

It doesn't bother me that Paramount isn't spending development money on Star Trek. The money they did spend has been squandered for years, to the point where any Star Trek production is going to look suspiciously like a bloated cash cow. Best to let it languish on bookstore shelves for 10 years or so, like they did after cancelling TOS. Chances are the Franchise will rouse itself once again, and put together something sub-standard, but at least the buzz will be back. And that has to count for something.