Thursday, October 27, 2005

Home of the not-so-handy man

Since becoming landed gentry (a house owner) I've surprised myself with my ability to actually do the odd handy-man task. I've installed toilets and dishwashers. I've sanded down, stripped and lacquered a pine floor. I've re-shingled the roof. I've even helped my wife patch up the odd stucco glitch.

My worst nightmare, however, is renovating the bathroom. And it can no longer be post-poned. We have a small bathroom on the main floor, next to the kitchen. The fella that put it in obviously thought keeping the original hardwood intact was a good idea, but I am here to testify it ain't necessarily so. No, in fact let me be plain: hardwood in bathrooms is a bad idea - as bad as shag rug in the kitchen (but not as bad as shag rug over hardwood in the bathroom).

I've watched the bathroom hardwood warp for the past year, and told myself all the lovely lies I had to just to live with my lazy-ass self. Today, for reasons I can't put my finger on, I finally rolled up my sleeves, dismantled the toilet, and took a quick peek at the warp and wobble of the hardwood. It wasn't pretty.

So now I'm looking at the house's original "sub-floor" (what was called, back in the day, tongue-and-groove pine) and wondering just how I'm going to yank out what needs to be yanked out, and replace what needs to be replaced, because I'm too bloody cheap to consult a professional!

Oh, maybe it's not too late to change my ways and pick up the phone. It is a bathroom, after all....(fade to sound of grown man weeping)

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

"Warriors! Come out to plaaay-yaaaay!"

Last night I watched the newly released "Ultimate Director's Cut!" of Walter Hill's infamous gang-flick, The Warriors (a flick I've talked about before). After fast-forwarding through most of the previews, I finally got to Hill's introduction to the new cut. His initial endorsement of the product I'd just torn the celophane from was not exactly cheering.

Hill glowered and growled something about how he normally disapproved of efforts like this, but that this product sat closer to what he had envisioned. "There may be the argument that some people like the other version better, and that's fine," he said. Then, just as I was reconsidering all the DVDs I'd passed over in favor of this one, his intro finished and faded to: the "Ultimate Director's Cut!"

Unfortunately, Hill's public second-guessing is right on the (misspent) money. Without going into the trouble of a frame-by-frame analysis of the two cuts, I'll just say that the newly added conceit of making the film a living comic book, interspliced with four-color panels and balloons like "The Baseball Furies?! Holy ****!!!", is exactly the sort of overly self-conscious distraction a cheesy thrill-ride like The Warriors does not need. I wondered what possessed Hill and company. Thankfully, a possible answer awaited me in the "bonus material" that came with this edition.

The bonus material amounts to a four-part commemoration of The Warriors, including interviews with Hill and several of the film's principals. Some of the actors in that flick looked very much like they were on the heroin weight-loss program, and I was curious to see who the film's real survivors were. Michael Beck ("Swan") reappears from out of freakin' nowhere, saying the sorts of things guys say when they consider themselves professional actors. Ditto, James Remar ("Ajax"). David Patrick Kelly ("Luther") gives deliberate consideration to his anecdotes, subtly and powerfully suggesting the man has more breadth to him than his usual wound-up psycho roles suggest. Deborah Van Valkenburgh ("Mercy") sits and smiles beatifically, a refreshing and genuine beauty who has steadfastly refused the cosmetic surgeon's blade. I found myself quite taken with this woman's manner of reminiscence; she is the most mindful of the interviews, and makes pointed mention of actors who are no longer with us, for unspecified reasons that lead one to make the obvious guess.

But Hill and his technicians deliver the real information. Not all of it is as interesting as they might think, but the documentary is tightly edited, and the self-indulgent meanderings are mercifully short. Hill marvels at the group synergy that makes a film really work, and comes up with example after example for which he takes no credit. Just one example: he gives sole credit to Kelly for the creepy taunt (see title) set to clacking finger-bottles.

Hill also seems to carry a burden of collected regrets. He casually mentions how the script called for a romance between Fox (Thomas G. Waites) and Mercy, but how it became apparent to everyone on the set that a) there was no chemistry between these actors, and b) the real chemistry was cooking between Van Valkenburgh and Beck. One quick rewrite later, Fox gets thrown in front of a subway train, and the problem is solved. Says Hill, "(Waites) and I weren't communicating very well - I've always felt badly about it - so finally I came up with a way to get rid of him."

Another of Hill's seeming regrets is the public response to The Warriors. I was a paperboy at the time; I followed all the stories related to The Warriors with keen interest. To my adolescent eye, the fights and killings that (we were told) inevitably came with the movie's screenings were of a piece with the pregnant ladies who fainted during Rosemary's Baby, or threw up watching The Exorcist (digression: I actually saw a woman faint during a scene of cinematic brutality, when I attended the opening night of Scorcese's Cape Fear. So much for the urban myth!). That is to say, the news was part of the film's sensation. Hill finds this genuinely troubling, and where someone like Oliver Stone would puff out his chest and claim this all as confirmation of his artistic genius, Hill winces and mutters the protests he's surely voiced countless times over the years.

And so we return to the annoying superimposed comic book format of the "Ultimate Director's Cut!". It seems to me that any viewer with a smidgen of intelligence will quickly identify the film's stylized violence as "comic book". No-one gets walloped with baseball bat to the ribs, then climbs back to their feet five minutes later for a sprint across Central Park - right? It's like watching "Pro" Wrestling: you don't need a disclaimer to know this spectacular stupidity shouldn't be attempted without some supervision.

The Warriors is a peculiar fluke in the zeitgeist - one of those rare B-films that has social ("real life") repercussions. Perhaps Hill is trying to atone for not making his point of view on the matter more obvious at the time. Perhaps he feels particularly compelled to add the superfluous comic book frame now that a new "Warriors" video game has hit the shelves (kids, watch you don't get "bopped" while lining up at EB Games!). But when I look at something like The Warriors, and contrast it to the creaky large-screen fare he's offered of late, I have to wonder if this reticence, this "I'm playin' it safe from now on" attitude, doesn't perhaps explain why Hill can't quite get his groove back.

Seek Mr. Bleak

I try to keep a staid and tidy blog - no links to any "blue" material to be had here, thank you very much. However, I have enough friends who take pleasure in limericks and such that I believe I owe it to them to link to Bleak Mouse, whose Lust: A Cautionary Fable is a well-wrought bawdy and irreverant delight.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Moon Palace by Paul Auster

I set up the funeral by telephone, contacted a few of [Uncle] Victor's friends (Howie Dunn, the broken-nosed saxophonist, a number of former students), made a half-hearted attempt to reach Dora (she couldn't be found), and then accompanied the casket back to Chicago. Victor was buried next to my mother, and the sky pelted us with rain as we stood there watching our friend disappear into the earth. Afterward, we drove to the Dunns' house on the North Side, where Mrs. Dunn had prepared a modest spread of cold cuts and hot soup. I had been weeping steadily for the past four hours, and in the house I quickly downed five or six double bourbons along with my food. It brightened my spirits considerably, and after an hour or so I began singing songs in a loud voice. Howie accompanied me on the piano, and for a while the gathering became quite raucous. Then I threw up on the floor, and the spell was broken. At six o'clock, I said my good-byes and lurched out into the rain. I wandered blindly for two or three hours, threw up again on a doorstep, and then found a thin, gray-eyed prostitute named Agnes standing under an umbrella on a neon-lit street. I accompanied her to a room in the Eldorado Hotel, gave her a brief lecture on the poems of Sir Walter Raleigh, and then sang lullabies to her as she took off her clothes and spread her legs. She called me a lunatic, but then I gave her a hundred dollars, and she agreed to spend the night with me. I slept badly, however, and at four a.m. I slipped out of bed, climbed into my wet clothes, and took a taxi to the airport. I was back in New York by ten o'clock. Paul Auster, Moon Palace

This passage sits on page 18 of my copy of Paul Auster's incomparable Moon Palace. The preceeding 17 pages pulled me along without effort, but when I encountered this paragraph, it was the equivalent of hearing your lover sing, and realizing just how totally you have fallen for her.

I was nursing a broken heart at the time, and thought this paragraph was as sweet an ode to my condition as Patsy Cline's Crazy. The narrator, Marco Fogg, was informed of his Uncle Victor's death two paragraphs earlier. In the first sentence we get an immediate portrait of what a loser Victor was - gifted saxophonists use the entire oral cavity to influence the tone of their instrument, but Victor's bandmate, Howie, is a "broken-nosed saxophonist"; note also the "former students"; Victor's sometime lover, Dora, can't be found; and by second sentence his remains are consigned to lie next to his sister, in a scene accompanied by the pathetic fallacy of pelting rain.

Marco's broken heart plays itself out in devastating understatement. He is in rough shape at the beginning of the scene, and his state of mind further deteriorates with breathtaking speed. His intake of bourbon is ill-advised, if understandable, as is his employment of the prostitute. Between the alcohol and the woman, he flails about, trying to find his emotional footing. There is none to be had, a terrible reality punctuated by the cold factual reportage of the last sentence.

This is page 18. Marco, like so many young men his age, is adrift and this tiny episode of heartbreak launches him on a dizzying journey of loss, discovery, and recovery - an emotional circuit that is as dependable as the lunar cycle. As the novel progresses we get a nuanced picture of how our personal mythologies are forged by historical forces, and tempered by the people we love. We also get intimations of just how deeply our family history influences our actions, whether we are aware of it or not.

This is an incredible novel. I discovered it in 1992, while I was hammering out my own bildungsroman, which I'd set in the 60s. Since my chosen setting occurred some ten-plus years before I had much by way of awareness, I devoured anything written in, about, during the 60s. This novel, like Leviathan after it, encapsulates both the crazy promise and the emotional ruin of that era (certainly much, much better than anything Tom Wolfe ever did with his "New" "Journalism"). It also articulates with clarity and compassion the realizations that every young man has to reach if maturity is to be grasped.

I return to Moon Palace today, after reading this link ("the enjambment of fiction and reality") from Maud Newton. Auster has said that writing is the only thing he can do, that if he could not make a living from it, chances are he wouldn't be alive. It's difficult to ascertain just how much truth these "all or nothing" statements contain, but when read alongside the news of his domestic travails, it invokes no small sadness for the personal toll his literary fame (along with other factors, no doubt) has taken. The words of the critic - "Endurance, survival, reinvention; the trajectory that one does not give up, follows loss, attends to the grieving process" - sound just about right.

Friday, October 21, 2005

"Gentlemen, re-load your fountain pens! Prepare to FIRE!!"

Words, words, words. Is there any sport more enjoyable than a literary pissing match? Yep: a third party (a woman!) hosing 'em both.

"(As) if what we really need, in 2005, is two white male writers fighting over something that can't be circumscribed, much less owned."

Jess Row takes on Ben Marcus and Jonathan Franzen, here.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

American Television: Promising Origins and Pathetic Closures

The latest Blowhard, Donald Pittinger, remarks on yet another sign that a television series has "jumped the shark": the Hawaii Episode. It's been a while since I've seen a Hawaii Episode in a television series, but then it's been a while since I've watched a television series. Commercials are an irritation, and I can't be bothered to keep track of the tempermental shifts of TV scheduling - a fate which typically befalls television's most creative efforts (Arrested Development being a current example of this tendency). I'm a trailing-edge tekkie, so TiVo is out of the question. And TiVo at least makes sense; cable and satellite TV most emphatically do not. Why would anyone in their right mind pay over $50 a month for commercial television? I've got one of those quaint old rooftop antennas rigged up to receive the handful of local channels. It does the trick. I'm happy just watching documentaries on CBC and TVOntario, and renting DVDs from my local mom-and-pop shop. If I'm still awake, I might watch the news.

Our DVD rentals are as close to series television as we get, these days. We've watched the usual HBO offerings: some months back we caught up with The Sopranos, and now we're slowly working our way through Six Feet Under. I'm a sucker for profanity set to iambic pentameter, so Deadwood is likely to score big points with me. So far, the HBO formula for not jumping the shark or heading to Hawaii seems to be to keep a tight rein on its parlour dramas.

In a parlour drama, the audience is quickly introduced to the principal characters, and their charms and foibles. The characters are flawed, but loveable. You see at a glance the delicate balance they try to maintain, to keep the peace in the parlour. Then a little chaos gets thrown into the mix, usually via a love interest, a villain, or the Forces of Fate brewing just outside the parlour windows. The Sopranos is as tidy a parlour drama as you could hope to find, with tension being maintained via Carmella's religious strugglings and Tony's efforts at keeping his family empire intact (it was not always thus - their second season remains their best, with the writers and the actors taking genuine risks with the sympathetic limits of their characters).

The parlour drama is about the struggle for equilibrium, and so is one of the least risky genres of drama. The riskiest genre, I think, is the sacred quest. SF (that would be "Sci-Fi" or "Spec-Fic", to you non-geeks out there) lurvs The Quest, which is one reason why most SF shows are so crappy. If you take a big risk like that, you'd better deliver a big pay-off. Most of the time, as with The Matrix, it simply can't be done. The penny drops pretty quickly for most SF TV makers, and they subtly try to withold the finding of the Holy Grail, putting it off indefinitely, if at all possible. Or, if that can't be done, hastily wrapping it all up in an unsatisfactory manner in the last three episodes.

The X-Files is probably the baldest example of how badly awry The Sacred Quest can get. It took a season for it to find its legs, but the concept of sending out a Skeptic and a True Believer to make sense of Weird Occurrences had real appeal to it, and the first three seasons were a hoot to watch. The characters of Skully and Muldaur were developed by delicious increments from episode to episode, until, as a viewer, I reached that jackpot moment every TV producer hopes to hit: I cared more about what the episodes meant to the characters than about what the episodes meant in and of themselves.

When a series fetches that moment of genuine belief, the creators can temporarily get away with bloody murder, because logical gaps will not matter in the least to the viewer. The viewer has made that intuitive leap and joyously anticipates being caught in loving arms at the other side.

Alas, the disappointment that grows with being held in suspended animation for an unforseeable length of time! When the fourth season of The X-Files was "capped" with yet another cliff-hanger, I grew impatient. Fifth season started ambiguously, and I grew bored. I came and went, but made a point of tuning in for the season finale. "Did Muldaur commit suicide?!" Why, yes he did! By shark. In Hawaii.

I felt like I'd been contemptuously toyed with, so I shut off the TV and left the room. I don't know how the series wrapped up some five or six seasons later. I'm told it was an honorable finish, but I don't care. I know when I'm being taken for granted, and unless you're my kid, I don't have enough life in me to indulge you.

These dark thoughts occur to me as I watch Battlestar: Galactica unfold. Because the show isn't yet on network TV, I've dropped 50 bucks on the DVDs, and am looking to drop another 30 on the next half-season. I don't begrudge the initial outlay - yet. The mini-series is fan-bloody-tastic (get your Apocalypse on!), and the first season continues to be both harrowing in its immediacy, and enticing with its foreshadowing. The show's creators are deftly exploring themes of religious claims and the activities they inspire, along with the weaker impulses of humanity and the trouble they can get us in. It's snappy, it's gritty, and it delivers. But, dammit all, they're on a quest! And as of this moment, it's anyone's guess as to whether or not the show's developers have consciously established an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

All of which gets me shouting "amen!" to Michael Blowhard's observation that the miniseries is an underrated TV genre ("A miniseries is long, but it isn't endless. It's finite - and how cool is that?"). The list of TV series that overstayed their welcome is long and depressing; conversely, the list of series that quit and left their audience wanting more is short and sweet (think, Fawlty Towers). Right now I'm in early leap mode, hoping against hope that Galactica is intent on belonging to the latter.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Smoker's Fug

It's a rainy day, so I delivered the girls' lunch at the school. On my way back, I stopped to talk with the crossing guard. He's an old union man from Oshawa, and he's always got an opinion he's happy to share. He is also a committed smoker, and I surprised myself to realize how much I actually enjoy a little exposure to smoker's fug.

It's a mustiness that, strangely enough, evokes tremendous nostalgia for me. Strange, because no-one in my family ever smoked. It was considered a bad habit, but so many of our neighbors and their family members were smokers, we just politely endured their fug, and peacefully co-existed.

Now, I'll be quick to add I don't at all pine for those days when smokers lit up in elevators and airplanes. Genuine smoker's fug gets oppressive pretty quickly. But there's a qualitative difference between that first whiff of freshly-lit cigarette, and the fug that comes with polishing off the entire pack. A friend once told me the one aspect of family travelling he enjoyed was the smell of his father's cigarettes. My friend, just a little duffer in the backseat of the car, too small to see anything but the tree-tops, would hear the clink of his father's lighter, smell that newly lit virginia tobacco, and think, "Mmm - Dad's smoking!" (Don't ask me how my friend escaped the allure of cigarettes.)

It's a little more complicated than that, for me. I think that light-up whiff probably signifies an element of danger - the sheltered preacher's kid, commingling with unsaved society. Cigarette smoke conjurs memories of a crowded town arena, watching the local team of Mennonite farmboys play the French team from five miles down the road (veischa, but the fights!). Or walking with my dad, and dropping in at the local garage so he could chat up the grease-monkeys - smokers all, the kids of parishioners who were "concerned", if not heart-broken. These guys were a deliberately rough bunch, but friendly, and I collected more than a few good jokes and juicy anecdotes from these haphazard meetings.

In the early 70s, there didn't seem to be more than three brands of Canadian cigarette: Players, Export "A", and DuMaurier. No doubt I'm wrong on that score, but those were the ones I noticed when my eyes were roughly belt-level. Of the three, DuMaurier smelt the best, and still does. When first lit, it has a mellow, dusty smell to it - not as pungent and tarry as some of the others.

As a working adult, it was usually the smokers who had the best stories - or maybe they were just different stories from the ones I'd grown up with. At the bookstore, I finally accepted a proffered DuMaurier, and was disappointed. It made me dizzy, and gave me indigestion. Worst of all, it didn't taste anything like it smelled.

Smoking kills you in a million different ways, of course, and my crossing guard friend isn't prone to viewing the habit with my outsider's nostalgia. He'd quit if he could, but he's beyond trying. Still, he's got interesting things to say, and to my mind he and his opinions exist in a sort of romantic ether known as smoker's fug.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Pulpy Pleasures

I just finished reading my sixth crime novel by George Pelecanos -- Soul Circus. This guy gets better with every book. He doesn't waste a lot of time feeling about for subject matter. The racial tensions in Washington, DC strike a consistent discordant background music to his work; for the most part, they simmer and hum without authorial comment. Pelecanos sets up one or two basically good guys with bad habits, set in the path of at least one character who is just plain mean. Between these groups are precise and evocative bit-players who are ordinary in their desires and failings. These "little people" either become the villain's next victim, or demonstrate some heroic quality that sets them apart from the miserable creatures they once were.

Ah, but my recital of the formula is nothing new. It's not the formula that works, it's Pelecanos' touch. His dialogue is informed by the best of television and movie dialogue. It can be suggestive at times, but its function is to flesh out character, and the characters' function is to further the plot. (I'd love to check out his shot at TV, The Wire, by all accounts a gripping drama that deserved a better fate.) Dennis Lehane belongs to this category, too, but where Lehane's Kenzie/Gennaro novels occasionally trip over the expected conventions (easy coincidences, or a fantastic revelation trotted out at the last minute), Pelecanos' generic intention remains tightly focussed on bringing everything to an explosive climax.

And he typically succeeds. He has said the original Dirty Harry movie remains one of his most significant influences, and you can see it. His novels have at least one criminal who has purposely descended into deliberate cruelty, a bad guy who simply has to be stopped. If there is anyone halfway normal in this creep's vicinity, the reader takes note, and follows the emotional cues. It works, and Soul Circus finds Pelecanos in impressive form.

Another surprising page-turner is the collected Comics Journal Interviews with Frank Miller: 1981-2003. It's hard for me to put my finger on what made these long, exhaustive interviews such compelling material, but the bald fact is I couldn't put this book down until I'd read every last page.

Staying focussed on the words was hard work, sometimes -- the book is lavishly garnished with sublime examples of Miller's art, much of it expanded to a size that highlights his penchant for dramatic contrast. After the first interview (a charming portrait of a kid with a lot of sand), I checked the hour on my alarm clock, and decided I'd better look at the pictures in the morning.

He talks evocatively about his early days as a starving artist from the small town who comes to NYC with big dreams, and succeeds by sheer determination and force of talent (surprise! - he's read Ayn Rand!). It amused me to hear his early support of the arcane Comics Code. But why not? Just look at what he managed to express within its strictures!

Less than ten years on, he becomes a noisy champion of the First Amendment, angrily denouncing all attempts at censorship, including DC's empty gesture of printing "advisories" on its covers. The TCJ interviewers are a surprisingly critical bunch, and demonstrate character of their own by pushing him to more clearly articulate his consideration of the issue. It's a spirited exchange that reveals that Miller's censorship concerns are, at the outset, no more elevated than simple self-interest: he did the work, and he'll be damned if anyone tries to put the kybosh on it.

The issue of censorship continues to dog him (and he, it), and he gradually becomes more articulate in his defense. His perspective on the industry also undergoes several sea-changes. With the initial success of his Sin City books, his contempt for his roots as a "Marvel plantation worker" is nearly total. In 2003, however, we find him pining for those early days when artists ate, drank, slept and drew together (usually out of economic necessity - he and his kind were originally paid $25 a page for their work, and denied all royalties).

Not everyone will find this as compelling as I did. Some hidden aspect of my personality wanted to be a comic book artist, I guess, and anyone who is remotely curious about the (American) industry's occasional flashes of brilliance will find a great deal to feast on in this delicious book.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Pumpkin Gutting

By posting this picture of my daughters, I'm crossing a line I set for myself -- but darn it all, this shot cries for exposure! The picture is already a year old, and in another year or two they'll be strong enough to physically restrain the old man from posting their pictures. So this is it: my singular offense.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Welcome to Church, visitor!

A mention from Michael Blowhard is always a thrill - thank you! Visitors seeking my churchier musings are encouraged to check out my thoughts on being a Pastor's Kid, here. I take a stab at answering some pertinent world-view questions here. I link to a few Christian-type web-morsels that stuck to my ribs, here. Feeling ecumenical? Here's my Christmas Appeal To My Jewish Friends (and yes, they still seem to like me). Over here, I propose a Mennonite/NeoCalvinist drinking game. And speaking of Mennonites: did you know I was once Miriam Toews' neighbor? And did you know that I am personally responsible for shutting down the town's Greyhound bus station? (Nah, I was just kidding you in that last sentence - a statement I wish Miriam would have injected into her internationally feted novel, from time to time.)

And if nothing else, please do NOT miss this opportunity to purchase and read Peter DeVries' novel/manifesto of the heart, Blood of the Lamb - recommended to me by the joyously impious Darko. (I should also mention I've just started Marilyn Robinson's Gilead. Please come back from time to time if you're curious about my response.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

What should we do with this "Bond" guy?

He's a bit of rough trade, is Daniel Craig. A lot different than Pierce Brosnan—who I liked more and more, but who was fatally undermined by his too-convincing turn as the foppish Remington Steele. Timothy Dalton was peevish—the sort of Bond who'd look at his watch and exhale noisily: A good actor, but no generosity of spirit. Roger Moore was probably closest to Ian Fleming's Bond, but he had no edge—and after Connery, no edge meant no sexual threat. And as Moore got older and fatter and looked less and less like his stunt double, he became the drag-show Bond--pure camp.

David Edelstein heralds the (yet-to-be offically announced) new James Bond, and neatly sums up the deficiencies of the last three, here.

It seems to me the "other" David (Denby) proclaimed that each generation took to the Bond it was first exposed to. I'm not entirely sure that is indeed the case. The first Bond I was exposed to, albeit vicariously, was Roger Moore. When I was a wide-eyed sprat, I listened as an older cousin regaled me with the closing details of The Man With The Golden Gun -- I was particularly impressed, as was my cousin, with the image of a statue slowly turning toward the villain, then drilling him with a single shot.

I didn't see a Bond movie until several years later, when my parents agreed to let me watch From Russia With Love, broadcast at prime time during a Thursday night (whenever I received approval to see something of dubious morality, my mother inevitably set up her sewing machine and got to work. Every time that blasted machine chugged away on a hem or a seam, it effectively operated as censor by running electrical interference with our little b&w TV's rabbit ears. Catching illicit thrills has never been more nerve-wracking). After all the Roger Moore photos in Time and billings in the local newspaper's "movie" section, I was non-plussed to see a somewhat "irregular"-looking Bond, as played by Connery.

This was not the only disconnect I experienced. Thanks to schoolyard hearsay, I was by now very familiar with Bond gadgetry -- wristwatches with circular saws, cars with ejection seats, helicopters that came in a suitcase, etc. This movie offered only a briefcase with a knife and a gun. I'd been told Bond was a seducer of women. This Bond was suspicious and mean, and didn't mind giving poor Tatyana, the gorgeous Russian dupe (and the sexiest of the Bond girls, for my money), what Ian Fleming would call "a smart cuff to the mouth", making do with such slight satisfactions until he could deal fatal harm to the movie's real villainess Rosa Kleb. Even with my mother's sewing machine censoring out the worst of the movie, I hardly knew what to make of this Bond. I wanted to like him, but he came across as a smarmy, bullying pussy-hound -- more or less a horrid combination of Clinton and W's worst personality flaws.

I didn't see Bond on the silver screen until I was in my early teens: Moonraker -- at that time the lamest of the Bond offerings. My friends seemed to think the previous movie, The Spy Who Loved Me, was the best of them all, and that the franchise was unlikely to ever repeat such a coup of thrills. When I finally saw it, I found my patience tested: I could buy into a high-performance car inexplicably rigged to double as a submarine, but what was an electro-magnet doing in a shark tank? Even Roadrunner cartoons had greater consistency (and entertainment value).

Still, I kept watching the Bond films, new and old, because the more I saw, the more I really, really wanted to like them. For Your Eyes Only probably came closest to my ideal, with a Bond who was still lean and had the capacity to be cruel, and who actually proved himself capable of charm and seduction. There were gadgets (sharks with homing devices!) and thrills. And yet the experience felt strangely flat.

I finally went back to the movie that got me all geared up on Bond: The Man With The Golden Gun. That flick is just plain weird. The narrative has no logical flow whatsoever. Kung-fu challenges, cosmetic third nipples, solar power that threatens to undo the world, a chaw-gulping redneck in Japan, an AMC dealership in Japan(!!) -- by the time you tally up all the absurdities, throwing in Brit Eckland and Herve Vallechez is almost like adding water to the broth. Still, in its very bizarreness it manages to highlight what makes James Bond appealing to a prepubescent kid. The adult world is freaky and deranged, making little intuitive sense, particularly where sex is concerned. There's danger everywhere, and anywhere you have rules, you have people defying the rules and gaining entire kingdoms in the process. So an amoral agent is introduced, to wreak customized havoc and bring a shard of resolution and safety to a cosmic experiment that threatens to spin out into entropy. It's so crazy, it just might work!

I doubt it matters who the next Bond is. Right now the movies feel dated and square the second they hit the screen. I think the only tactic that could inject new life into the franchise is, ironically, a return to its origins: the 1960s, when global nuclear war seemed both unthinkable and unavoidable, so we had to come up with something even crazier, called SMERSH or SPECTRE. Return to the skinny black ties, the dark suits with narrow lapels, the women with industrial coiffs. Make a commitment to nostalgia, and veer neither to the left nor right, because somewhere in that emotional quagmire is the James Bond who can once again charm, sicken and thrill a movie-going audience.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Fond of Meta-Narratives? How about "Meta-Criticism"?

For you literary types, Emma over at Maud Newton saves you a chunk of change and an hour of your time by distilling Ben Marcus' defense of "experimental fiction" in the recent Harper's. I have my own issues with Franzen, but not like this guy does.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Rock & Roll Sellouts: Who's Next?

Try to make sense of this: for the last three years, I've rather admired the cut of the Cadillac line (Escalades excepted). I think the CTS-V is a snappy-looking vehicle. Stealth-bomber reference aside, it looks like it would be both a fast and luxurious ride. I expect I'd even enjoy driving one around for the summer, if I had the bucks.

Shifting gears: I've yet to outgrow my "Led Zeppelin" phase. Bombastic, silly, entirely non-sensical (except when Robert Plant is singing about sex) it remains good music for long drives, and kitchen days. So why is it that every time I turn on the TV to see the Cadillac ad, played to "Been A Long Time" with John Bonham's signature thump-and-smash and Plant's signature yowling, I think just a little less of both Cadillac and the Zep?

Weird little conundrum, that. Conversely, after I read this LA Times piece about the feuding members of The Doors (thank you, Scott), I had a little more respect for John Densmore, Bruce Springsteen, and even (choke) The Eagles! It's not as if I think rock is some counter-cultural force, the soundtrack to the revolution, or anything similarly removed from reality. Billy Bragg used to sell T-shirts that read "Capitalism Is Killing Our Music", a clever sentiment my knee jerks in agreement with -- but I have to wonder how "our music" would fare under socialism. (It fares quite well, according to supporters of the CRTC. The argument is Canadian rock got its legs in the 70s and 80s thanks to government regulation of commercial airwaves, guaranteeing a certain percent of Canadian content. A topic for another post, perhaps.) I still think a band couldn't get any more commercial than The Eagles, but clearly the product they are most intent on selling is The Eagles, and not the Trans Am, or a feathered iPod.

It's always seemed to me that commercial use of a band's music signifies their exhaustion as a cultural force. I knew The Who were completely spent the minute they were "covered" by the California Raisins. The Rolling Stones shilling for Microsoft was a self-fulfilling prophecy for both commodities: "You got to start me up/I never start/I never start" (replace all lyrics with "Control, Alt, Delete" and you've got it right on the money!). It's been years since I've listened to U2, and when I saw Bono hawking iPods, I thought, "Swan song."

I'm probably out to lunch with that last statement. Bono obviously disagrees, and a seemingly unshakeable fan base will back him up. He claims the iPod ad is legit because the product is something the entire band is in fact excited about, and because the song being used isn't one of their "sacred" numbers. And is this ad really all that far removed from turning on the radio and hearing "Where The Streets Have No Name", followed by a 2-4-1 pizza jingle? Buy the iPod and you'll never need to hear that jingle again.

Still and all, I finally prefer it when a performer says, "My music is the superior product. I'm not here to sell pizzas; the pizza is here to sell me." Tom Waits says corporations "suck the life and meaning from the songs and impregnate them with promises of a better life with their product," an assessment that is harsh but contains an element of truth to it. But I think my pique is mostly fueled by the perception of something more basic: the lethal combo of greed and laziness. Cadillac can't do any better than cadge a song that's over 30 years old? Are Plant and company really so bone-tired they can't think of any better way to give their music airplay than to sing for a car? Self-satisfied sloth, languorous self-indulgent laziness, all of it, and it doesn't sell a bloody thing. The iPod ad in no way prompts me to give U2 another spin; I've always disliked cel-phones, and now I've cooled on AC/DC, too; and regardless of whether Bob Dylan is selling panties or bank accounts, the spectre of him as adman is just plain sad.

If you've given up on being an artist, go out and get a real job already.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Meme Post-Script

It seems I've conveniently overlooked the Five Favorite Snacks category. Like any good Mennonite, I believe that summer and sporting events were made for roasted sunflower seeds (not sure how to spell the plaut-dietsch term for them, but phonetically it sounds like "K'Naack Zote". If you say this once or twice, you'll figure it out). Now that I think of it, it's been years since I've had watermelon and strips of deep-fried, lightly salted, slotted dough called "raul-kuchen" (can't find the umlaut on my keyboard) - a combo that's tastier than it sounds. Mennonite farmer sausage is also a treat, particularly as it's manufactured in the Manitoba towns of Winkler and Grunthal. I occasionally enjoy a bag of Cheetos, and whenever I'm in the presence of an open container of Haagen-Daz Swiss Vanilla Almond, well - it's not pretty.

Usually, I snack on decidedly non-favorite comestibles, like carrots and celery.

Some highly recommended meme-responders: FCB, Darko, Cowtown Patty.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


Wup - looks like Darko tagged me. Right, then:

10 Years Ago - We'd been married for a year, and on the verge of introducing urchin no. 1 to the planet. My father-in-law experienced his first round of health alarms (it took nearly a year to determine he had a chronic form of hepatitis, because early in the analysis stage the lab dropped a blood sample, and didn't report it). I was still a bookstore guy, but I think my hair was cut to a respectable length, finally. Oh, and this was my first visit to Germany and environs, including a week in Vienna. Gustav Klimt is known for his ladies (who are lovely in their comic book fashion) but I was taken with his field of poppies.

Five Years Ago - Urchin no. 2 was now a year old, with urchin no. 1 adjusting beautifully (after a few bumps). We took them to the prairies that summer, to attend a cousin's wedding, and stopped at West Hawk Lake, where my family used to spend the summers when I was a whelp. The little general store was still intact, but I was gobsmacked at just how small it was. The way I remembered it, the room stretched on until the curtains drew back to reveal an enormous wall festooned from corner to corner with every imaginable comic book (those corruptors of innocence - again!). In fact, it was no larger than our current walk-in closet.

One Year Ago - Last summer was so beautiful. Cool, for the most part, with only a two-week stretch of oppressive heat. My wife had friends from Hong Kong who were renting a cottage on Lake Huron. Our little visit was my highlight of the year, I think. I didn't really know these people, but the conversation started when we stepped out of the car and introduced our kids to theirs, and it didn't stop until we were back in the car again, heading for home. Magic.

Yesterday - Laundry, and a little discussion with my youngest about the inappropriateness of "penis talk".

Five Songs I Know All The Words To - I hardly know where to go with this one. Five songs that play constantly in my head? These days the girls are listening to Demon Lloyd Webber's Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat 24/7 - I could sing the whole damn score from start to finish, if you kept my whistle wet with Bowmore Darkest. Five favorite songs? Five songs I can play on guitar and mumble to a living room audience? As my grandfather was fond of saying, "Now we're cooking with gas!":
Passin' Through - Dick Blakeslee (as adjusted by Leonard Cohen)
I Still Miss Someone - Johnny Cash
Time - Tom Waits
Psycho Killer - Talking Heads
And Can It Be That I Should Gain? - Charles Wesley, Thomas Campbell

Five Things I'd Do With 100 Million Dollars - Oog. I'm not going to do the math on this one, so let's just assume 100 Mil = no money worries. Even so, I don't like the number because given our families and our life expectations, the number is too outrageous and would introduce all manner of grief. Assuming we could bypass the emotional turbulence, here's what I'd enjoy doing:
1. Dumping a bunch of cash on my wife's organization, because they do good things with it; also dumping a bunch of cash on the Mennonite Central Committee, because they also do good things - and, having worked for them, I know how absolutely crazy it would make them if they were suddenly beset with an enormous windfall!
2. It'd be nice to free up my wife. She loves what she does, but she gets a tad overwhelmed from time to time. Might the freedom to free-lance be an improvement?
3. I could envision a network of furnished apartments in various cities, along with the means to get there.
4. It seems to me this is actually a nightmare scenario, because no-one should just be given that much money. My thinking, naive as it may be, is if you work up to this level of wealth, you eventually gain some perspective of where you fit in the grand scheme of things, and you get some inkling of what good your wealth can do for your immediate community, and beyond. I say this because my dream job is (ahem) selling books. Yes, I now realize I enjoy selling books more than I do writing them. So I'd use some of this money to set up a bookstore and give a few people jobs. Which shows just what a lousy head for business I have, because bookstores don't make money, meaning mine would be little more than an act of charity, and a quixotic one at that. I do not deserve this money, so number four is where I stop.

Five Places I'd Run Away To (in no particular order):
Prague, Montreal, Tokyo, Santa Cruz, Tel Aviv, NYC, San Francisco, Rekjavik, ... right: five.

Five Things I'd Never Wear
Never say never...

Five Fave TV Shows
Star Trek (TOS)
Get Smart
The Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Hour
The Prisoner
Six Feet Under

Five Biggest Joys
1) My wife, which leads quite naturally to
2) "An empty head and a messed up bed" (thank you, Bruce Cockburn), which lead naturally to
3) the girls, who also enjoy
4) music and,
5) the printed word

Five Fave Toys
1) music-producing technology
2) Lego
3) pencil and paper
4) bicycle
5) my hunting bow

Tag - You're It!
Scott, you already owe me one. Besides, your blog is overdue for a little refreshment. Take your pick and start typing, dude!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Bridge With A View

Several enjoyable moments from this weekend, including the Scotch. Chief among them is The Bridge, an ancient, mostly wooden contraption that reaches from the shore to a small island. The lads like to sit on this bridge all day Saturday, weather permitting (it did). Those of us who use the sauna also use the bridge for diving (those dives are getting shallower - in the past 17 years of global warming, I've witnessed the depth recede some six inches). And one of us, who doesn't much like crowded cabins, even prefers to sleep on it under the stars, when at all possible.

This was my sunrise view.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Weekends and Whisky

The weekend is over; the week has begun. As is typical of Mondays, I have little to say about the weekend past. Come Wednesday, that might change. I will say, however, that the real discovery for me this weekend was Bowmore Darkest. That little malt was so tasty, in fact, that I didn't mind this year's absence of both Dalwhinnie and Lagavulin.