Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Kentucky Fried Fingers, anyone?" Some Lit-Links

* When I was concluding my undergraduate Lit degree, I had a prof whose method of inquiry into the work under observation was usually to start with, “Why write like this? After all, she could write like Stephen King — if she wanted to. So why doesn't she?”

Why, indeed? Even though I was a dewy-eyed acolyte in the po-mo-giddy halls of academia, and hardly King's biggest fan, I wondered if these people actually did have the capacity to write like King. There was no denying their attempt to write differently, but I couldn't shake the feeling that some of the more contemporary among them might have done better if they'd nailed down “conventional” before committing themselves to the hairier forms of artistic endeavor.

This little flashback comes to me courtesy of today's unveiling of the new James Bond novel, Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks, “writing as Ian Fleming.” I haven't read any of Faulks' more pedigreed work, but this short profile gives me the impression he probably took the right approach to his world-famous subject. Favorite quote: “I tried to go inside Bond's head, to create an inner life for him, and I realised he didn't have one.” Bullseye! I shall join the queue of would-be readers, and if this book “works” I may just reach for something else by Faulks. By the way, which cover do you like better: the British or the American?

* Publishing's Tipping Point, as chronicled by Robert McCrum, The Observer's departing literary editor (h/t MBlowhard). Another flashback: two years ago I pompously asserted that our taste in reading material was undergoing a sea-change. Does the theory still hold? As of this morning, non-fiction has the lead over fiction by a ratio of 14:11.

* “Dad, when you were a kid, did you have Pokemon cards?” My younger daughter wanted to know, because she and her sister still find occasion to drop five dollars on a package every now and again.* I thought about it. We had hockey cards, really, but my collections were exceedingly modest. I'd get caught up in the collection frenzy of the fall, only to lose spirit by late November when I saw the hundreds of cards my friends carried with them in their Crown Royal bags. On the other hand, “We had Wacky Packs,” I said. “And I collected those.”

With a passion, I might add. The happiest day of my nine-year-old life was the day I finally completed my Kong-Fu puzzle. The stickers were all lovingly placed on the surface of my bedroom garbage can. Of course, as was the way with such things, the garbage can eventually became a piece of garbage itself, and that was the end of that — until now. Topps and Harry N. Abrams have published a retrospective (foreword by Art Spiegelman), featuring some brilliant book design by Neil Egan. Looks like it's time to make room on the coffee-table (h/t Drawn!).

*It's a curious thing, really. They don't watch the show — are actually resistant to it — but they do play a “game” of sorts with the cards. They use the characters, which come with a list of traits, strengths and weaknesses, to create narratives of their own. Quite a decent exercise for writers of fiction, I would think.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Roger Ebert & The Blogosphere Of Gloom

"If you eat four pounds of sausage, how do you choose which pound tasted the best? ... True, 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' stands alone as an action masterpiece, but after that the series is compelled to be, in the words of Indiana himself, 'same old same old.' Yes, but that's what I want it to be." Roger Ebert, here.

I was a little taken aback to read Roger Ebert’s defensive-sounding review of the latest Indiana Jones flick. Defensiveness is not a posture I associate with this man, even when he’s in frail health, so this set me to wondering.

In his original Indy blog post Ebert makes mention of the earliest online review — a “meh” from Ain’t It Cool News — then is pleased to report that the grade in Metacritic and, more significantly for Ebert, the Tomatometer are firmly in his enthusiastic camp. I did a quick check, and it’s true: in numeric terms, it would seem the critics who’ve been exposed to this latest Lucas – Spielberg – Ford production think the world of the movie. But on closer glance, even the most positive reviews all have a “Well, sure. It was pretty good. I guess” quality to them.

Ignoring, for the moment, the movie in question (which, I am sure, is pretty good — I guess) I can’t help but wonder if Ebert’s change in tone doesn’t reflect a marked change in overall perception — and not just in Roger Ebert. Ebert should be reporting from Cannes; instead he’s reporting from bed while his wife is in France. I’ve been sick while my wife has gone international. My incapacitation hasn’t been anywhere near as severe as Ebert’s, but I can attest that when you’re stuck with a limited locale and the internet as the chief (if not your sole) source of information and communication, life has a way of very quickly becoming small and petty.

I suspect this has something to do with the way written discourse is being changed by the internet. Look again at the Rotten Tomatoes page for the film: how many of those snippets prompted you to follow up for the rest of the review? The majority of sound bites, some of them not even complete sentences, are more than enough for most readers. Now how does that affect the way you respond to the page as a whole? I’m guessing it depends on your predisposition to the film. If you want to see it, it will be, “Good. Let’s go.” Or, “Kewl! Rawk on!!!” If you don’t want to see it, it’s probably, “Puh-lease.” Or, in my case, “How can your numbers be so out of this world when the tone of your bites is a nearly-unanimous ‘It’s-okay-I-guess’?!” In the main, the inner response is a primal two or three words.

A critique is different when the person writing about books, cinema, television — choose your art form — is actually out there bumping elbows with people in the industry, whether those industry people are performers, artists, technicians or financiers. It has a perspective on the end result that is by necessity larger than, say, a shut-in’s would be.

Which is all to say, first and foremost, that I wish for Mr. Ebert a full and speedy recovery. But secondly, I’m starting to wonder: is wireless, texting and all the other media-warps of the English language reducing our cultural dialog to that of a shut-in?

Some post-scripts:

Chaz, Ebert’s lovely wife, is posting some of her Cannes experiences here. They are crafted chiefly with her husband in mind. They give the reader some sense of the regard that industry folk have for the man — particularly this account of a black-tie dinner with Clint Eastwood. That same posting also, I think, goes some distance to account for why Eastwood’s above-average films have been hailed by pro-critics on-the-scene as absolute triumphs of the medium. Is it cronyism when the man is, in fact, a
mensch you truly adore?

Secondly, Ebert’s sausage metaphor is amusing, but a little thin. Apply it to another franchise, like James Bond, and it no longer fits. When it comes to the 007 films, I’ve consumed 21 pounds of sausage over the years, and will vigorously assert that the most recent pound was much tastier than the seven that preceded it. In contrast, I've watched local television broadcast the Jones movies over the last couple of weeks, and just a few minutes of each movie quickly makes it clear which one changed the way we think about sausage, and which ones had a list of ingredients that wasn't quite complete, and threw in an unpleasant substitute instead.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Parenting, And The Cycles of Affection

This was a pleasant Monday (Victoria Day, for you non-Canuckleheads) for most of us. My wife played two boardgames chosen by the daughters, then helped the younger finish her papier-mâché medieval castle. The weather was still nice, so my wife asked the girls if they'd care to help her plant a few flowers. “Sure!”

The girls' enthusiasm for this task was short-lived, however. Finally the older said, “I miss talking to Dad.” The younger did, too, so my wife stifled some impatience and reasonably said, “Well why don't you go up to his bed and talk to him, then? I'm sure he'd love the company.”

I had been walloped with food poisoning (damn that chicken salad). And so it was that I found myself bookended by my daughters, the older silently reading her Batman comics while the younger read to me from her latest Magic Kitten adventure.

Older parents will be very familiar with this little scenario, particularly with the fickle favoritism that young kids display without any self-consciousness whatsoever. But I post this little episode for younger fathers, especially fathers of daughters. For the first six or seven years of my daughters' lives, there was clearly ever only one favorite parent: mom. I could play, I could talk, I could listen — it didn't matter. “I wish Mommy was here instead.”

There are very valid biological and circumstantial reasons for this, of course. I'd remind myself of them every time I heard those words: she gave birth to them, she is a prescient nurturer, and, frankly, she is a lot of fun. And as soon as my wife returned home from work, her attention was devoted solely to the girls.

Hey, wait a sec: what about me? (pout, pout)

Since I now sit on the other side of this, shall we say, drought of affection, let me offer this word of exhortation to you young dads. I know — and you know — you love your kids, even when they're frustrating little bundles of unrestrained egoistical greed. But since it could be awhile before they demonstrate a deep and abiding affection for you (and you have finally caught enough sleep to take proper notice) make sure you keep paying attention to them. And be especially sure you pay attention to their mother.

Even when it's easy, parenting is work. You've got to draw deeply, and be incredibly patient. But good things do come to those who wait.

Supersuckers provide this summer's "Roll Up The Windows" soundtrack

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous: I suspect I may have settled on my summertime roll-down-the-windows soundtrack. Unfortunately, it's a potty-mouthed bit of rock 'n' roll excess I can't play at home. Nor would I entertain any thoughts of rolling down the windows and singing along to it as I cruise through town. I guess it qualifies as my first roll-up-the-windows soundtrack. There is no way I can discuss this group or record without resorting to the language they use, so here goes: I'm talking about Motherfuckers Be Trippin', by the Supersuckers.

I am a woefully late addition to the bleary-eyed and buzzing-eardrummed crowd of Supersuckers fans. I stumbled across their kick-ass sound by perusing volume three of Little Stevens' Coolest Songs In The World. Steven's idea of what makes for good rock 'n' roll listening adheres pretty closely to my own -- a varied combination of adolescent sensibilities that channel the Beats, Howard The Duck and Conan the Barbarian -- and I make a point of tuning in to him whenever I can. In the same vein, the Supersuckers identify what thrills them most in a rock 'n' roll record, isolate it and turn it up to eleven -- but no higher. A song like "Pretty Fucked Up" ("She used to be pretty / But now she's just ... ") hits the right notes by infusing just a soupçon of genuine shame and regret to what is at base a puerile stomp. "Bubblegum And Beer" pretty much describes the Supersuckers' ideal listener, as well as their sound. There's no shaking the influence of the Ramones, Link Wray or the stadium-sized ambition of Aerosmith Rocks or Hank Williams' inerrant, stomach-churning sense of why people drink.

These guys are the last and best of the GenX rock 'n' rollers. Listening to this record doesn't return me to my adolescence so much as it brings me back to 1994, when I was on the verge of turning 30. Quentin Tarantino was pulling us into the theaters much the same way George Lucas had 17 years earlier. Kurt Cobain and rock 'n' roll radio were still alive, if only for a few months longer. I caught Jason & The Scorchers on their final blast through the international pub scene, and when I shook hands with the band it seemed we were all encompassed by a neon-hazy twilight where a guy had to learn how to let go of regrets and take on responsibilities, even if what the crowd really wanted was another encore.

Nope. "Before you start screamin' for more / Don't let your butt get hit by that door / 'Cos there ain't gonna be no encore / Goodbye!!"

Could be. But that guitar solo is so juicy and the night ain't quite over yet. In fact it may be a hot, sunny day but if you see me driving through town with my windows rolled up, you'll know where I really am.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Myanmar and China

If you've been listening to the news at all, you will know exactly what to expect from the charities you support: Myanmar and/or China-based pleas for your money. It is worth your while to do a little research into these causes, but to also bear in mind that occasions like these can qualify as "extenuating circumstances" for some organizations who would normally not be considered "relief agencies."

My thoughts probably add to the confusion in this matter, but I raise my voice among the fray because of my wife. Three years ago she visited sites where the tsunami took a terrible toll, but nobody bothered reporting because (a) the local governing body is, by Western standards (and here I shudder) a disaster of its own, and (b) no-one from the West is terribly keen on vacationing there (shudder again). The fact remains, however, that the organization my wife works for has workers "on the field" in these remote places. And when a natural disaster of this, or any, magnitude strikes, every able-bodied person is enlisted for "relief" -- especially people with medical expertise.

These field workers are, like the people they serve, overwhelmed.

These are anxious times for us all, and finances are getting tighter for everyone across the board. But please do give this matter your serious consideration. CBM (my wife's employer) is just one worthy organization: World Vision and World Relief are two of many more. And perhaps it's worth adding that none of these are "Bibles and rice" outfits.

Post-script: wup -- I nearly forgot the Mennonites!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bach: Cello Suites, Anne Gastinel

When my friend invited me to his wedding, he mentioned that an old classmate would be playing a Bach cello suite for the procession. I remembered my classmate's technique as being capable and precise. He had a very good ear, and could produce a warm tone -- no small talents for an 18-year-old kid, but beyond that there was little to remark upon. He'd been to Juilliard since I'd last heard him play, so I was looking forward to his performance.

I met him just before the wedding took place. We shook hands and caught up a bit, then he set up his instrument and did some warm-up exercises. The wedding proceeded flawlessly, and when it was time for the procession, he went to work.

I'd never seen or heard anything like what came next. He took sharp, deep breaths before each musical phrase and then threw himself into the playing and tucked himself right into the back of that instrument as if he were making love to it. As astonished as I was by his technique, I was even more surprised at the tears that were flowing down my cheeks. This was an incredibly evocative performance.

At the reception, I approached him at the bar and asked him about it: who was his teacher? what was the theory behind this technique? how did he know how deeply to breathe and when? "Oh, the breathing," he said. "Well, I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."

I figured this was either a trade secret, or something a little too strange to explain over drinks. Since I'm not much of a classical music buff, his technique wasn't something I encountered again until 20 years later when, out of weariness with the listless shape of current rock and roll, I began exploring classical options at eMusic. I do like Bach, and am especially fond of the Cello Suites after enjoying Yo-Yo Ma's TV series exploring the same; eMusic offered these suites performed by Anne Gastinel. I scrolled down to the comments, and noticed: "Gastinel's version of the 'suites' is very inspired and soulful. She brings the notes alive with her inner energy, she sighs, breathes deeply while playing." Well, boy howdy! I hit "download."

At some point in his program, Yo-Yo Ma points out that Bach's mathematical precision presents the player with the temptation to aim for technical virtuosity, at the expense of its organic soul -- the music, really. Gastinel locates that soul, and moves with it. With her performance, she plumbs new depths in this formidable, renowned music -- surprises, like the erotic charge within this ancient expression of worship, abound. If my saying that seems crass, the actual performance is anything but. Listen and judge for yourself: eMusic and Amazon.

As for "the breathing," even this worldwide web of ours has little to report -- except for this and this. Fearsome secret, indeed.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Rio Bravo: Comfort Food Cinema For Lost Boys

"I once made the mistake of asking Quentin why he liked Rio Bravo so much. He just went on and on, opening with, 'You know ... I didn't have a father.' I thought, 'Uh-oh'" -- Elmore Leonard, here.

If Leonard can't quite see why Rio Bravo is such a big deal to some viewers (particularly to boys without fathers, it would seem), neither can I. It strikes me as a by-the-numbers Howard Hawks' effort: introduce hero in a scene that establishes his predicament, move to scene confronting hero's moral vulnerability, inject intermission scene with comic dialog between cronies, interrupt laughs with scene where hero proves himself capable. Lather, rinse, repeat.
"Ricky, don't lose that number..."
As for the performances, John Wayne is interesting to watch only because he seems to be improvising his mood for each set-piece. He's uncharacteristically light in this film -- in one scene he sternly admonishes his younger deputies, in another he literally skips across the floor on his toes after giving "Stumpy" (Walter Brennan, chewing the scenery with a brio that defies send-up) a smooch on the noggin. Hawks doesn't give Wayne anything to really brood over, so Wayne has no center of gravity (unlike The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, True Grit or even The Shootist). Angie Dickinson begins with some substance as a woman dealing with a reputation that's been established for her by someone else, but is reduced to a drunken flush of girlish vapors. Dean Martin declared this to be his toughest role ever, a statement which requires about as much consideration from the viewer as Martin gave to any of his other roles. Someone else was in that movie too, another singer-type* ....

Still, I'm the guy who likes Gidget, so if someone like Charles Taylor stands up and says says, "If I were asked to choose a film that would justify the idea of America, it would be Rio Bravo," I'm all ears. Via ALD.

Post-Script: were I to choose an over-the-top Western that embodies the idea of America, it would probably be Vera Cruz. When I saw it as a kid, I tried to grin like Burt Lancaster for weeks afterward.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Spring Is No Time For Blogging

But for your amusement, I leave you with a Guinness ad.
I'd love to be on that creative team, if only to expand my music collection. Link from Bearded, who's gone from not composing to actively decomposing.