Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Five Favorite Reads of 2011

The top five stand-outs in a year of pleasurable reading:

#5 -- The Financial Lives Of The Poets by Jess Walter. My review.

#4 -- What Happened Later: A Novel by Ray Robertson. My review.

#3 -- Bangkok 8 by John Burdett. My review.

#2 -- The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Here's my review. I loved this book, which is in fact the direct progeny of my favorite read this year:

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Happy 50th, Binx (and girls).

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Approaching Christmas Eve As The Perpetual Newcomer

I have issues with Christmas Eve, particularly the church service. That's the service when I discover that I, my wife and my kids, who have lived in this village for 14 years, are newcomers. I know because I'm told so. The sanctuary fills with people who make this their yearly service, and to whom I, the regular attender, need introducing. Pleasantries get exchanged, and inevitably I hear, “It's nice to see new faces.”

Indeed, Christmas Eve is the one night I wouldn't mind hanging out with my peeps, the Mennonites, if only because we know how to sing. If we must sing hoary old Christmas carols, let's at least dress 'em up with competent four-part harmonies. Alas, my closest tribe of robust singers is a three-hour drive away, and taking pleasure in a once-a-year appearance there would be too bitter an irony for my taste. Instead, it's the local United (formerly Methodist) Church for me, where the musical mode is what you'd encounter at any mainstream Protestant congregation: songs with which I'm unfamiliar, being wheezily sung in lockstep unison.

Yet here I was last Saturday, surprised to find myself actively enjoying the Christmas Eve service. Preempted from my usual pew, I sat in an unusual spot in the sanctuary, and discovered a bizarre convergence of acoustics and sound-system manipulation uniquely attuned to the choir, so I was able to hear the harmonies of the songs being sung. And I was charmed by the unfamiliar carols, including this one:

All Poor Ones and Humble

All poor ones and humble
and all those who stumble
come hastening, and feel not afraid;
for Jesus our treasure,
with love past all measure,
in lowly poor manger was laid.
Though wise men who found him
laid rich gifts around him,
yet oxen they gave him their hay,
and Jesus in beauty
accepted their duty, contented in manger he lay.
Then haste we to show him
the praises we owe him;
our service he ne'er can despise;
whose love still is able
to show us that stable,
where softly in manger he lies.
The Christ Child will lead us,
the Good Shepherd feed us
and with us abide till his day.
Then hatred he'll banish,
then sorrow will vanish,
and death and despair flee away.
And he shall reign ever,
and nothing shall sever
from us the great love of our King;
his peace and his pity
shall bless his fair city;
his praises we ever shall sing.
Then haste we to show him
the praises we owe him;
our service he ne'er can despise;
whose love still is able
to show us that stable,
where softly in manger he lies.
Words: v.1 Katharine Emily Roberts 1927, alt, v.2 William Thomas Penmar Davies 1951
Music: Welsh carol, harm. Erik Routley 1951

The final four stanzas are the chorus, and both times as I approached, “Our service he ne'er can despise,” I choked up.

Since then I've mused over the words and tune, trying to understand exactly what hit the emotional sweet-spot for me. Usually it's my own cynicism I'm choking on whenever I encounter a Disneyfied Nativity Scene; oxen offering up their hay to the Christ child gets me wondering if we won't soon encounter Sleepy, Dopey, Doc and Grumpy among the fabled wise men (who never made it to the manger in any of the gospel accounts).

The second verse is a howler, alright. So it has to be the first and the chorus that caught and kept me off-guard. Married to an ancient Welsh tune, in which the harmonies are easy to hit, the word that, “Jesus, our treasure, with love past all measure . . . our service he ne'er can despise,” was a welcome Christmas message to my ears.

God knows my idea of service is a cautious and miserly bit of business. My bristling hesitance to greet the village's seventh generation — “new faces” to me — is just one example. But these are the small acts on which we slowly build what community we can, hoping against hope that even this frugal service might ne'er be despised.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Of Christmas Music, And Enduring Favourites

I'm keen on novelty Christmas collections. Ever since the Ultra-Lounge series came out, their Jingle-Bell-heavy selections are an inescapable element in my December playlist. Esquivel's Merry Xmas From The Space Age Bachelor Pad is also a frequent partner in aural crime. I'm even perverse enough to include the odd selection from Eban Schletter's Cosmic Christmas. This year to round out my collection I finally picked up Surfin' Christmas: 12 Yule Tide Classics by The Wave Benders, whose Dutch nationality only compounds the novelty of Dick Dale-style carolling. It's adroit, wipe-out free fun, and it works.

Closer in spirit and execution to Verve Remixed Christmas is this year's Santastic 6, marshaled together by beat-obsessed DJs still hip to the scene. Santastic 6 is a mixed bag of tricks, lacking the uber-polish of Verve's studio product, and striking the odd dud note (if you get the joke just reading the title, there's little point to listening to the entirety of “You're A Loser, Newt Gingrich”). But overall it's a raucous beat-heavy mash-up extravaganza. My personal favourites are Atom's “Wonderland Walker” (Peggy Lee vs Fats Domino vs Bjork), Danny J's mash-up of Danny Elfman and The Supremes, and Martinn's delirious “Blenda Ree” which pulls together Brenda Lee, Golden Earring, Bananarama and the Greenhill Dixieland Jazz Band.

Also, be sure to give Mojochronic's provocative “Merry Christmas 2U” a listen. He cuts and pastes elements from our largest stage-hungry pietists (U2 and MercyMe, for starters), producing a version of "Silent Night" and "Little Drummer Boy" that is surprisingly rousing. I thought his clincher, using the penultimate verse of Greg Lake's “I Believe In Father Christmas” as a benediction, struck me as weirdly flat-footed — a moment when the artist resorted to a sophomoric piety of his own. We all know people whose Christmas mode is to smile as they take the centre of the floor and announce, “It's nice we're all having fun, but let's not forget . . . ” In Mojochronic's case, he doesn't want us to forget It's all make-believe. Yeah, yeah: thanks Dad. Now can we get back to the fun?

With that one exception, these songs are meant to inject the not-unpleasant element of surprise into your Christmas Party Playlist (and if the final minute of “2U” bugs you like it did me, the issue is easily remedied using Audacity). I'm grateful to say, “Mission accomplished.”

Say, maybe next year these hepcats will put their grubby pawprints all over She & Him's Christmas offering, and transform it into something I'll actually play!

“The one thing I used to mourn,” writes txkimmers, in her Amazon review of Porcupine Tree's The Incident, "was the fact that I probably would never love a band the way I did the Beatles as a kid, or the Clash in high school, or Nirvana.” Man, do I love her review! It illustrates perfectly how the Amazon Customer Review (the sincere ones, of course: the snow-jobs are an art-form unto themselves) can trump the “pro” reviewers by taking full advantage of three key non-pro tactics: 1) compulsive re-editing, and additional, later thoughts that reinform the original piece; 2) brazen subjectivity; 3) an artful autobiographical précis that puts it all into context.

I'm also in complete agreement with her about Porcupine Tree “bringing back that kind of rush.” Their Signify originally earned a mere “honourable mention” from me in January 2011, getting nudged out by Arcade Fire and Elizabeth Cook. But let me say this about that: Signify has been this year's most-played album by a very wide margin, out-lapping and out-lasting last year's “favourites” by an astronomical distance, and choking out all would-be contenders for this year's prize of place. And as I've slowly collected the more recent PT offerings, they have quickly joined Signify and jostled for occupancy at the front of the queue. Until I'm able to give this band the Bangsian logorrheic existential shout-out it so richly deserves, txkimmer's Amazon review will have to suffice.

Friday, December 02, 2011

The Strangest Dream

'tis the season for Christmas concerts, which our family attends on a near-nightly basis, thanks to the girls' extra-curricular bliss-seeking. The other evening included a few selections from a boys choir, ages 7-9. They're still small enough in stature to be “adorable” and of course their voices reach that light soprano that sounds so “sweet.” The first song on the menu was, The Strangest Dream.

“Last night I had the strangest dream
The strangest ever before
I dreamed that the whole world agreed
To put an end to war”

Oh, but the sentiment, expressed in such pure tones, does put the lump in one's throat.

At song's end, as the audience heartily applauded, my younger daughter gave a loud snort. “The only thing those little goofs dream about,” she sneered, “is playing Call Of Duty, 24-7.”

Hm, indeed. But where would we be without some adult superimposition?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Whither The Arts Critic?

I'm not sure I care, and I doubt you do, either.

I read, but didn't bother linking to, this Michael Kaiser lament for the vanishing day of the critic. I'm elitist enough to appreciate where his appeal is coming from, but far too plebeian in my mentality to give it any credit whatsoever. Listen, I miss Pauline Kael as much as any reader out there, but I'm considerably happier living in the current climate than I was in the climate of the 80s when I first discovered her. Kael is gone, movies don't count like they used to, and most of them suck, besides.

If the movies aren't interesting, the variety of little scenes and happenings crowding in to replace them often are. It seems like just about everything is going up for grabs — which is scary, sure, but also not a little exciting. I'm not altogether on-board with Ian David Moss's response to Kaiser, but I did resonate with this line near the end: “(Complaining about the collapsing value of the newspaper arts critic is) like complaining about the oversupply of artists — y’all had better get used to it, because it’s not going away.”


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

... KISS Me Twice ...

My parents got home from Bible Study, and asked if everything was alright. I said, “Yeah,” and kept fiddling with my homework.

“So what's the air rifle doing next to the door?” asked my father.

“Oh,” I said. I'd actually tucked it beneath the coats on the rack, to keep it from being seen, a ploy that apparently failed if you were hanging one up. “Right. I meant to put that away.”


“Ah . . . I got this weird phone call, kinda freaked me out a bit.”

“What'd they say?”

What, indeed? It was hard to explain, so I took it from the top: I was seated at the basement desk, toiling on my homework. The phone rang. In those primitive days before Call Display, if you wanted to know who was calling you, you picked up the receiver and answered the phone. In this case, my caller didn't identify himself. “How old are you?” he asked.

“Fifteen,” I said, guessing at the age of my caller and hoping to one-up him. In fact I was 12.

“Perfect. Who's the greatest rock band in the world?”

“Uh . . .” The truth was I'd only started listening to the radio, and couldn't name more than two, maybe three bands, tops. I was nervous, and lunged for the obvious answer. “The Beatles?”

“The Beatles? No, no. I'm talking about your favourite rock band, the one you listen to the most.”

“The Beatles,” I said, resorting again to the lie. I didn't yet have a favourite rock band, but would have chosen one with a “harder” sound to it than the Beatles.

“Seriously? The Beatles?”


“Oh.” He sounded disappointed. “Well . . . I was looking for KISS.” Then he hung up, and I retrieved my air rifle, lest some goon barge through the door to deal me the physical harm I had invited by giving the wrong answer to this improvised bit of polling.

With KISS you never knew. They were obviously tapping into something beyond the pale. The pancake makeup, the flash-pots. Breathing fire, spitting blood. The theatrics tended to inspire a similar degree of extremity in the fans. So far as I knew, none of my Mennonite friends listened to KISS, but there was a Ukrainian Catholic kid in my class who doodled the KISS logo on anything within reach. His locker was papered over with pictures of KISS concerts — a modest shrine compared to his bedroom back home, if you believed his claims (and I did). I wouldn't have classified my classmate as crazy, but I had read the story in the paper about the kid who took his father's shotgun to shop class and blew away another kid, later claiming he'd received direct orders from the band.

The fans called themselves an “Army” and I wasn't about to take any chances. Hence the air-rifle. Now that my father was home I figured I was safe enough. He could absorb the invasion's first salvo, while I crawled out the window and fled for my life.

That ain't workin'...

Thirty-five years later, there's a video of the band making a guest appearance on a sketch comedy show. They show up in regalia as a high-school girl's prom date. Her square parents are shocked and appalled. You can find it pretty quickly, but I'd advise against it. It's gratingly unfunny theatre, because it gets the social positioning completely ass-backwards. These days the scary, dangerous people from the fringe are Dad in his belly-cinched pants and Mom in her high-maintenance coif. The Munsters' high concept has been perfectly reversed, thanks in no small part to KISS.

Indeed the alleged “Knights In Satan's Service” aren't just identifiably human, they're struggling to keep the paint fresh on an increasingly bourgeois facade. Another round of memoirs, another season of Gene Simmons' meta-antics; costumes held together with duct-tape, an inveterate pussy-hound whose marriage is held together with the duct-tape of constructed celebrity drama.

There's the Wizard of Oz, and then there's the chap behind the curtain. Is there a curtain behind the curtain? Is there anything in the comic books that somehow peels back the vital layer and catches a glimpse of the edgy, conceptual power that once summoned an Army?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

KISS Me Once . . .

Allowing my daughters into Canada's Behemoth Box-Store of Books is a risky proposition. They know I can't tell them to cool it with the impulse purchases. But I do try to steer them toward the SALE (remainders) section of the store.

During our last visit I mentioned that a book I was interested in had been originally priced at $80, but was now available for $20. “Too good to pass up,” I said.

“Wow,” said the younger. “What book is that?”

“This one:”

A glance. “Oh, Dad . . . .”

Was that a silent, Why, I heard? Sorry. But it's still coming home with us.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Power Of Prayer

Commenting on yesterday's post, Paul raises an interesting point about the potentially fraught relationship between mentor and mentee. I suspect this might be a trait more common among dudes than gals, but usually when someone has the advantage of knowledge and expertise, it gets lorded over the wet-behind-the-ears chump standing in his shadow. Said chump is expected to put up with the abuse, a small fee for the few precious gleanings of technical insight.

As I mentioned in response, BD was not above copping a smarmy 'tude in the face of my ignorance — and neither was I, in response to his. If we knew anything, it was how to make the other rankle. And yet we became, and remained, fast friends for quite a stretch of years. When I finally married, I was astonished to see him show up at the final hour of the dinner reception, having endured a Planes, Trains & Automobiles journey to get there.

As I reflected yesterday over the various slings and arrows we endured from each other, I grudgingly had to admit to what kept us friends: prayer. From age 14 on, we were both standing members of our church youth group, schooled in the Evangelical Protestant prayer vernacular of earnest “Father God”s and “Lord, we just”s. Right from the get-go our burgeoning theologies were as divergent as our personalities.

But we could, on occasion, admit to inadequacy. That's when we bowed our heads and appealed to a Higher Power. And although I approached from the left, and he from the right, I think we felt like God was equally pleased to meet us both. “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.” Some days the assurance of those words was a profound relief.

These days my intercessory mode is more liturgical. And there are precious few people I feel even remotely comfortable praying aloud with. I haven't talked to BD in years. Would the prayer conversation continue, more or less where we left it? It seems doubtful. But there are sleepless nights when I will my words beyond the ceiling, and whisper, May it be so.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Leaves Mulched, Thanks To BD

A sunny morning, with the snow approaching (or so the weather reporter says). I figured I could put it off no longer: I went outside to start the mower and mulch the leaves.

Except the mower would not start. I primed the motor, pulled the rope . . . nothing. I pulled again, and listened closely. None of the usual “pop-pop” sounds to indicate the spark-plug was firing. I fetched my wrenches, removed the plug and gave it a cursory look. Rusty, covered in filthy oil. The whole motor could stand a cleaning, but for now all I needed (probably) was a new plug.

A quick stroll to and from the local Home Hardware, the plug was installed, the motor primed, the rope pulled. I was rewarded with a cloud of white smoke and a “BANG-BANG-BANG, MWOOOOOWER” and a mower that would now mulch my leaves.

Mission accomplished. So why bother trumpeting it? Anyone who knows anything about the internal combustion engine knows the lawn-mower is probably the simplest application to get hooked to one. Thirteen-year-old kids who fail basic math and literacy can get schooled in its maintenance and even earn decent coin from it. Replacing a spark-plug is no big deal.

Except my wife couldn't do it. I have accomplished friends who, if confronted with my mower, wouldn't know where to begin, except to throw the damn thing in the trunk of their car and drive it to Canadian Tire. I paid three bucks out of pocket for the plug; CT probably wouldn't let me leave without charging fifty. There but for the grace of God — and my high-school friend, BD — go I.

BD lived around the corner from me. When I got bored with reading and hearing the same 10 songs repeat on the radio, I wandered over to see what he was up to. It almost always involved an internal combustion engine. Sometimes it involved electronics. I accompanied him to Consumers Distributing when he bought his first car stereo, and I sat with him for a few hours while he took apart the interior of his rusty Toyota to install it.

I learned from BD that cars and stereos and, later, motorcycles weren't organic creations that had been squeezed out from between the haunches of an exotic alien species, but were in fact assembled by human hands, and could be disassembled and reassembled by human hands — my own! — as well.

I don't do it very often, especially when I realize what might take me a day to accomplish could be better done by a pro within an hour. But replace a spark-plug? I'm all over it — thanks to BD.

Another BD recollection, here.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Bangkok 8 by John Burdett

The older I get, the more prone I am to borrowing from the library before I put down money for a book. I was especially hesitant to pick up John Burdett's Bangkok 8, fearing it would be the lurid and grotty sort of “Neon Noir” that British male authors seem to revel in: a cascade of depravity concluding with collapse. (James Ellroy, who writes precisely the sort of novels I most dislike, calls this book, "The last, most compelling word in thrillers.") But the premise held appeal: a murder to solve, another to avenge, both leading deep inside the clandestine world of the illicit jade trade. Lo and behold, the local library had a copy. The price was right!

Around the 200 page mark is a scene that led me to three crucial realizations. It takes place in the back parlour of a bar owned by a Russian pimp. It is a wide-ranging conversation involving the Russian, the book's detective narrator and his American partner, and several of the Russian's bar-girls, and it is fueled by vodka. Here's a snippet, early in the game:

“Every Thai cop apart from Sonchai is a world-class businessman. You simply can't beat them. If I'm not careful they hire the girls, then fine me the price of the the girl — for trafficking in women — less ten percent for my expenses. Not Sonchai,” says Iamskoy, about me. “He's an even worse businessman than me. That must be why I like him, he doesn't make me feel inferior.”

“I wondered,” I say, sipping more vodka.

“That and the fact that he's even more of a head case than me. You should have heard our last conversation. It was like Hindu science fiction. I guess he didn't enjoy it as much as I did, though, because he stayed away three years.”

“You passed out after insulting the Buddha.”

“I did? Why didn't you shoot me?”

“I didn't think you were alive.”

“Anyway, what did I say?”

“You said that Gautama Buddha was the greatest salesman in history.”

To Jones: “I was right. He was selling nothing.”

The group explores and debates the plasticity of identity — religious, national, cultural, individual, sexual, even gender — the various interlocutors monologing with greater passion as the scene builds. I was completely entranced, and realized: 1) I no longer cared if the narrator exacted his vow of vengeance, because I didn't want the book to end; 2) I hadn't read a scene of such compelling, plot-forwarding dialogue among a group of people since Dashiell Hammett or Robertson Davies, and 3) Hold on a sec: Robertson Davies?!

Yes, indeedy. Burdett is adept at playing playing with mystery, in every sense of the word, wreaking a subtle mischief on reader expectations. The chapters are short and easily consumed, but the sense of immersion they provide is exceedingly deep. I took frequent stops, to consider how a once-alien point-of-view had just been ingested as clear common sense. Burdett accomplishes that most valuable of novelistic achievements: making the foreign seem not just explicable, but familiar.

And now I must return this copy of the book to the library, while I wait for my copy to arrive in the mail — so that I can reread this fabulous book with a keener eye, and sharpened pencil.
View all my reviews

Sunday, November 06, 2011

A Very She & Him Christmas

The CD cover shows our heroes decked out in retro hipster gear, standing before the crimson curtain, poised to deliver that retro sound we've come to expect: soaring strings with a haunting sha-boom, sha-boom chorus.

The cover, alas, is misleading. A more accurate photographic portrait of the musical contents would have revealed Him in boxers and a beater, and She in curlers and a fuzzy housecoat. Stripped-down is an understatement, and the “retro” these hip-cats reach for is no older than 23 years: the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Session. There's very little instrumentation happening beyond ward's ukulele-strumming, and Deschanel very occasionally resorts to multi-tracking her voice to provide a sonic palette only slightly larger than the Junkies' singular album. This is much too muted to get noticed at Christmas parties, but it might set a pleasantly contemplative tone for late Christmas Eve eggnog sipping, if that's what you're after. I've got plenty of more satisfying alternatives for that purpose, and would have given this disc a pass if I'd been forewarned. So now I'm telling you.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Recording Artists vs. Marginal Utility

“Marginal Utility” is one of the few terms I still remember from the Intro To Economics course I took some 20 years ago. For those who can't be bothered with the wiki, here's how it works.

Let's say it's a hot day in July and you've just spent an hour mowing the lawn. You step into your kitchen, and your daughter hands you a tall glass of cold water. You gratefully accept it and guzzle it down, thinking this just might be the most satisfying glass of water you've ever drunk. She takes the empty glass from you, fills it again and hands it back. You take it and toss it back — it is, after all, a very hot day. She repeats the process, and this time you only take a sip, before putting the glass on the counter to return to later, if at all.

If you were to ascribe a value to these glasses, you might call that first drink of water a Five-Dollar Glass. You were still pretty thirsty when you got the second glass, so maybe you'd give a dollar for the refill. The third, however, rates only pennies. That decline in value is marginal utility in action.

This week I've been listening to a new album from an artist I admire and have very much enjoyed in the past. It's the fourth album of his I own, and I can tell it's terrific. The poetic sensibility remains acute, the orchestration is subtle and effective. There are people who already love this album. I might eventually become one of those people, but right now that doesn't seem likely.

It's not his fault. It's not like he got lazy and just slapped together something people have a right to ignore. I'm not going to be a dick (as I have been on occasion) and give him advice in the vain hope he might woo me back to the fold. And he will remain unnamed (you realize, of course, I might even be bluffing on the gender).

There's no delicate way to put this, but I'm wondering if the product of recording artists doesn't have a corresponding marginal utility. In fact, I'm wondering if the magic number for satisfying albums isn't three (3).

There are artists who seem to defy the odds. If my CD collection were cited as evidence, the case for Exceptionalism could be made for the Beatles, Bruces Cockburn and Springsteen, Los Lobos, Rush, Steely Dan and Talking Heads. And Megadeth. But in terms of actual play, Steely Dan is the only act who escapes the three-album fate. And that insidious, 10-year-old device — which relentlessly tracks play-count — bears this observation out.

What to make of it all? Nothing, really. The most important thing is for recording artists to proceed as if none of this mattered. There's no telling which three will make the final grade. The artist I referred to earlier put out eight(!) albums before producing the first-of-three that hooked me. Who knows? One or two Dylanesque reinventions might yet eclipse those.

But more than that, you can't argue with a live performance, which is what most albums harken back to anyway. Keep on keeping on. And please don't take it personally if I lose track of your latest greatest record.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Pleasures Of Pauline

So I've got this twitter-feed, and — what can I say? — I kind of dig it. It's not something I devote more than ten minutes of my day to. I don't have it synced to a phone or anything like that, so I don't catch more than a short burst of other people's on-line chatter. It's the equivalent of wandering into Fran's for a cinnamon bun and coffee, and eavesdropping on the young hipsters before they butt out and trudge off to their dead-end jobs.

Do hipsters have those conversations anymore, those wry back-and-forths that aspire to Oscar Wilde and his salon-set? I haven't been to Fran's in ages, but I sure don't hear that kind of chatter when I step into That Corporate Espresso Outlet. In fact, those places are usually pretty quiet, because everyone is taking advantage of the free wireless — hipster-yakking on-line, I'm guessing.

It almost beggars the imagination, but day-to-day living once defied attempts at quip-like summary. Cafe-talk consisted of a rough feeling-around for a shared DMZ that could withstand another volley or two of good-natured ideological cross-fire. When a subject completely foreign to you rolled around, you shut up and listened, asking the occasional question, and venturing forth an opinion only when you were certain the ground had more or less returned beneath your feet.

That's how we approached the movies, too, in those days. Movies commanded our attention. We sat silently in those cavernous theatres, letting the light and sound wash over us in its attempt to deluge our prepared defenses to the argument being made. And that was the thing: movies were making an argument. Most were modern in their agenda — bourgeois, if not banal — but because the medium was so sensual and the environment so hallowed, the argument was thoroughly revitalized, often flaunting its contradictions with a maddening confidence as it beat the viewer into a defensive rage, or haplessly submissive tears.

In this now-vanished world, we read the critics, the bulk of whom volunteered themselves as the public's first line of righteous defense. This movie was good and sturdy, that movie was shaky, this whole line of movies was little more than a dim shadow of something that had shone masterfully some decades back, etc. It was a rare critic who acknowledged the personal appeal every movie aspired to. That appeal might hold all the comfort and nutrition of Kraft Dinner, or it could be a powerful feast of provocation that demanded a level of attention the viewer was resistant to admit, but either way it was meant to be personal.

No-one took the movies more personally than Pauline Kael, who died ten years ago, and is now receiving her first biography and another culling and collection of her writing. When she critiqued, her launching point was sexual metaphor, after which she explored where a picture's attempted seduction either succeeded or failed. We're told Kael wrote her reviews in longhand, on a lined yellow tablet, more often than not through the night on a tight deadline — sublimation on an epic scale. When the seduction succeeded (Last Tango In Paris being the most notorious instance) her reader could expect to feel the frisson of prurient discomfort; conversely, if the seduction had failed badly, her prose was withering.

Nobody writes like that about the movies anymore, and why should they? These days we can watch movies on our phones, and most of them don't much suffer from the shift in scale. In 1973 a movie that jilted all sensibility to the degree that Blatty's The Exorcist did practically forced the viewer out into the cold, to stumble home, sit down, uncap the pen and write. A movie like 2009's The Human Centipede, on the other hand, begs for — and receives — the South Park treatment: crudely animated circles with a lewd and dismissive point of view. That's the level of argument being made; that's the level of response required.

It's doubtful anyone younger than 45 will find much to take note of in Kael's life and work. It may seem like I'm reminiscing about those heady days when giants walked the earth, but we are living at a time when the attention Kael paid to a movie would seem wildly out-of-place. In a year when Terrence Malick's The Tree Of Life is considered the high-water mark for movies, why should a competing flick like Cowboys Vs. Aliens generate anything longer than a tweet? Pauline wouldn't have bothered with even that.

Friday, October 21, 2011

May I Taxi You To Your Next Link?

Gulp -- another Friday! I'm in constant taxi-mode, with one daughter getting schooled 20 minutes away from my computer terminal, and the other neck-deep in rehearsals for a community theatre musical located 20 minutes off in the other direction. Is there some way to blog and drive at the same time? I don't mean in the way that Jim blogs -- that's fine enough, but he got there first, and I need some way to capture the thoughts that fizz over the surface of my consciousness the way hydrogen-peroxide fizzes over the surface of a wound.

Achievement in anything requires discipline in all things, of course, and I am not quite the embodiment of that precious trait. I do have "computer time," but rather than devote that time to composition, I prefer to scour the webs for thoughts to keep the fizz bubbling. Besides, it's easier to read than to write. So, as a stand-in for my own words, here are others you might dig just as much as I did:

There is a heap of God-verbiage to be had on the web, most of it ugly as sin, minus any trace of sin's surface appeal. I've been meaning to add to it, under the dubious conviction that if we leave it all to the pros who are certain of their convictions, then we might as well write the epitaph for our species (in which case I'll settle for this one.) One Old Pro whose name keeps coming up in these free-for-alls is Reinhold Niebuhr. It doesn't seem to matter what shade of the conviction spectrum a person falls on, Niebuhr has written something to affirm the arguer's point of view. What's up with that? Jordan Smith gives a short, and possibly too tidy, answer to that question.

In response to some nameless televangelist's cash-grab, Bono famously snarked, "The God I believe in isn't short of cash, mister." The evidence for such a God was probably to be found in Bono's own wallet, the contents of which will be increased by multiple reissues of Achtung Baby, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Today listening to that band throws me into Jerry Lewis conniptions, but 20 years ago I was very much into Achtung Baby and its near-immediate follow-up, Zooropa. Those albums, and the band's live shows, seemed to channel the excitement and anxieties that attended the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the rise of global media, better than any other act on the scene. But does that necessarily mean Achtung Baby deserves the Nevermind treatment?

It is all but given that the last two publishers in the world will be Amazon and Google. Should writers wring their hands, or celebrate?

And speaking of celebrating writers, Cowtown Patty celebrates James Lee Burke's Feast Of Fools as Burke's Magnum Opus. I'm a big fan of Burke, particularly his Hackberry Holland novels. This is a Feast I can't wait to tuck into.

Finally, Terry Teachout's laudatory review of "The Agony & Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" struck several nerve centers for me. First of all, Mike Daisey's dramatic monologue exposes and flays with some mighty thorny truths about everybody's (including, especially, the evangelical church's) favorite product and brand. But secondly and not incidentally, Daisey's mode has pointed similarities to that of the late Spalding Gray, whose Swimming To Cambodia really should have placed in my Fifteen Film Faves. Gray is experiencing another, possibly final, resurgence in public attention thanks to the publication of his journals, to which Daphne Merkin applies her own particular zest of candid articulation here.

All of which leads me to think, what better, more pertinent tribute to Spalding Gray could there be than a proper Swimming treatment of Daisey's controversial performance?

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Latest Additions To My CD Collection, Courtesy Of ...

It seems WalMart is fast becoming the final refuge to which the beleaguered audiophile (at least of the Hornbyan variety) must cling: any other vendor foolish enough to stock and display CDs is too busy filing receivership papers to stay abreast of audiophile tastes.

Which, if WalMart's stock is any indication, are drearily predictable and deeply mired in the past. Pink Floyd re-re-releases, new (and old) Alice Cooper, Bob Seger live . . . flipping through "What's New," the most recent act I'm stumbling across is the late Amy Winehouse. Hey-hey, my-my: welcome to my record collection!

Some ado is being made of the latest coat of paint to be applied to the Pink Floyd catalog, particularly Dark Side Of The Moon, which is celebrating yet another anniversary. DSOTM happens to be one of the first CDs I bought when I set up my original stereo system, and it is an album that's been ripe for the attention of professional knob-fiddlers. Even so, after considering my budget, Dark Side Of The Moon was not the album I put into my shopping cart: The Wall was.

There are a couple of reasons for this. I'm a little more sentimental about The Wall than I am about Pink Floyd's most classic album. The Wall was the first of Floyd's albums to reach my adolescent ears, so it left the deepest impression. It is huge. It is hugely overindulgent, it is hugely narcissistic, it takes every grievance it has about humanity in a hugely personal way, and no stroke applied in protest of this abysmal condition could possibly be too broad for the work at hand. The Wall best embodies exactly what a Prog Rock Concept Album should be.

I'm also a sucker for reproduced cardboard gatefolds, even if the reduced size has an unfortunate bubblegum card effect on Gerald Scarfe's nuthouse artwork. But the sonic tweaking more than compensates for this bit of miniaturizing. When I first contrasted the original CDs with the new production on this collection, it was the selections from The Wall that stood out. There are all sorts of creepy little noises of things getting squeezed and/or broken that never quite made it through the surface noise of the LP, or even the original digital transfer. I don't expect to be replaying this monstrous behemoth often, but for those occasions when the daily news requires a gloomy, British yawp, I will be reaching for The Wall.

I recently advised a friend to steer clear of the new Alice Cooper, Welcome 2 My Nightmare. He didn't ask for the advice, he didn't need it, and neither (probably) do you. But he was kind enough to solicit further thoughts on the matter. So I described it as, “One of those efforts where the addition of many big names — Bob Ezrin, Steve Hunter, Dennis Dunaway, Michael Bruce, Neal Smith . . . and Ke$ha — is a sure sign that nothing is working the way it should.” And I left it at that.

The number in the title indicates this is a follow-up to a well-known and deeply loved “classick” from the 70s — Welcome To My Nightmare. The trouble, I thought, probably started there. Why revisit an album that diehard fans have committed to memory for the last four decades?

Then again, why not? Vincent Furnier has made it clear he's too canny a showman to treat any of his albums as sacred writ, so why should his fans?

After playing the sequel another time, I retrieved the old album from the back of the closet and fed it into the player. Although it has a couple of songs I frequently put on playlists (“Department of Youth” and “Cold Ethyl”) it's been years since I listened to Welcome 1 from front to back.

I now realize why: Welcome 1 isn't much of an album, either. As with most Alice albums, the concept reads as a bit of an afterthought — a sales banner slapped on a collection of backlist retreads. If some fans kvetch about it, as they do on Amazon, well . . . it's a bit late in the game for that, isn't it? Alice runs a chop-shop. By now there isn't a single song of his which he hasn't ground up countless times and fed through the sausage machine.

So, yes: in 1975 it may have been possible to listen, without rolling one's eyes, to Vincent Price feasting on the scenery. Children singing like brats in thrall to an evil clown probably set the teeth of Nixon-era parents on edge, too. But 36 years later, even the Steven Suite tries the patience of jaded listeners who like their nightmares to move at a snappier pace.

Which, it must be said, Welcome 2 certainly does. The ballads have more oomph, the rockers rock, and the one song which does in fact disturb (“When Hell Comes Home”) is a propulsive grinder.

All of which leaves me a little baffled as to why Welcome 2 doesn't grab me. It's compulsively jokey, but that's usually a good thing, too. In fact the punchline to “I Gotta Get Outta Here,” in which the put-upon doofus who's been singing is set straight on the facts, cracks me up (response: “D'aaaah, excuse me?”). Oddly enough, it evokes for me the singular moment I most enjoy on Welcome 1: the second bridge in “Cold Ethyl” when Cooper says, “C'mere, Cold Ethyl! What makes you so c-o-o-o-o-o-l-d-d-d?” It's a throw-away line, but he is so snotty when he says it, it slays me.

Snottiness is the purview of the young, of course, and I am slow to recommend it (listen to any interview with Johnny Rotten from the last 15 years if you wonder how entertainingly an old-timer wears it). But it is a quality that sends me back to the old albums. I love to hear it.

In fact, I'd love to hear it better. Say, Coop and Co.: since you've already got my money with the new stuff and the old stuff, how's about taking a hint from Floyd and polishing up the classicks? As is, they sound terrible. Admit it: you're embarrassed. So why not rectify the situation? You know I'm not the only easy mark for such a naked cash-grab.

The only Bob Seger album I ever bought was Nine Tonight, in 1981. “Old Time Rock & Roll” was hoary even then, but a double album of The Silver Bullet Band's greatest hits struck me as too good a deal to pass up. The album didn't get much play, but I never regretted the purchase. There was too much energy on display for me to get uppity about ten bucks lost.

Thirty years later, there is also a suspiciously fine quality on display that makes me wonder just how “live” those recordings were. I hardly begrudge a showbiz schmoe like Seger for retreating to the dugout to apply a little studio spit, especially if his LIVE competition at the time included notorious bat-corkers like Peter Frampton and KISS. But it is amusing to hear, and still (as Lester Bangs took pains to point out) delivers more than reasonable value for the frugal listener's hard-earned buck.

I must confess that when she was alive, I lumped Amy Winehouse in with Britney Spears as a tabloid performer whose ouevre would never survive without the broadsheet antics, and left it at that without ever bothering myself to listen to her music. Since her death I've had several friends press me on the matter. Her CDs are now ridiculously cheap, so I finally caved and took them home.

Now I know what everyone else knows: this young woman possessed an astonishing depth of vocal and lyrical talent. Without attempting to tweak the public chorus, I'll just add that I tend to reach for Frank before I do Back To Black. The later album skates on a very thin and brittle sheet of self-awareness that is, at times, almost too difficult to listen to in retrospect. Still, she rises above the muck with a performance that conveys genuine good humour even as it acknowledges the inescapable bonds of gravity. It is a shame we've lost her.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Writers At The Table, Approach With Caution

About a mile down the road from my house is Stone Orchard, the farm where Timothy Findley penned the bulk of his work. Findley was a significant star in the Can-Lit canopy from the 70s to the 90s, the first, brightest and possibly only age in which such a canopy could be said to exist. Being in the vanguard of the generation that came out of the closet, Findley had a unique perspective which he brought to bear on a remarkable breadth of social and personal nerve-centres. If you're curious, check out The Wars or Not Wanted On The Voyage.

Anyway, Stone Orchard was home to some lavish parties. So much of an artist's public and fiscal success relies not just on the quality of work, but also (and often primarily) on who knows who. Some artsy-types insinuate themselves deeply into a scene by throwing Gatsby-like dos. Not just artsy types, mind you: business types do this also. “Tiff” and his partner Bill Whitehead were in the business of art, and could be relied upon to host a fab shindig that invitees would never dream of turning down.

Margaret Atwood was a fixture, as were Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence. After that I imagine the party list usually read like a Canada Who's Who: Robertson Davies, Carol Shields, Northrop Frye, Peter Gzowski. Leaven the firmly established with a few gorgeous up-and-comers, and keep the linens fresh, sort of thing.

I've always been under the impression that these folks generally stayed on very good terms. They didn't review each other's work, but actively promoted it. If a reviewer got a bit uppity about someone's new novel, it wasn't uncommon for the gang to circle the wagons and open fire on the dismal nit who spoke out of turn.

Put that many writers in the same room, however, and you might as well be stuffing cats into a sack. There had to be some friction. Just take a gander at Evan Hughes' delicious portrayal of the most recent group of writers to take on and take over the American Lit-Scene. Mary Karr, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and the now inescapable David Foster Wallace are as fine a group of friends and lovers as those who drank and quarreled in Gertrude Stein's Parisian flat, with rivalries and snipes that echo into today.

It all gets me wondering. The scene-makers that gathered at Stone Orchard may have been Canadian, but they were ambitious, sensitive and prickly nonetheless. The parties took place during the free-for-all 70s, and conspicuously closed in the early 90s, when AIDS finally crashed the scene. Surely things got a bit thorny inside Stone Orchard, no? Revealing a little of the rancor and bloodletting that comes naturally to competing egos might go some distance to keep that age of Canadian letters from receding so quickly into the darkness.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Jim Harrison, Among Others

Like Pete Dexter, I too am a fan of Jim Harrison. However, it will be some time before I get around to reading the new novel. I still have his last three books in the pile beside my bed, and I am very slowly picking my way through his memoir, Off To The Side. Happily for me, Harrison rewards slow reading, which may not be the greatest asset to his book sales (although it hasn't slowed my tendency as a buyer). The other weekend I watched this documentary (trailer below) of Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison. Snyder occupies the centre of it, as he should — a lifetime (more or less) of relative self-discipline has left him verbally articulate to a degree that his more indulgent brethren (ahem) can only aspire to.

Also for your consideration: Tom Bissell's fine account of encountering Harrison, both on and off the page.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Best Game I Can Name

“So you're a Leafs fan, then?”

This is the go-to assumption whenever I tell someone I'm from Toronto. In this case, my questioner was a young guy working a zip-line in Alaska. “No!” I said. I was tempted to add that I think the Toronto Maple Leafs and their unwavering fans embody everything that's wrong with the National Hockey League, but I contented myself with, “No, no. No.”

He nodded. “I'm from Minnesota,” he said, “and I just can't bring myself to cheer for the Stars. I'm not sure why it is, but they just don't excite me.”

“We grew up in Winnipeg,” said my brother, adding the unnecessary element of mischief.

“You happy to see the Jets come back?” asked the zip-line guy.

“I have friends who are,” I said. “My relationship to the NHL changed when the Jets were sold to Phoenix. I think I stopped being a fan of a team and learned how to become a fan of the game — kinda-sorta.” This is true. If a game is on, I'm happy to tune in and watch, so long as both teams are engaged. This discounts 90% of Leafs games, along with what I've seen so far of the new Jets.

I can't say I'm especially gratified to see the Jets return to Winnipeg. First of all, it really isn't a “return” in the strictest sense of the word: the Jets were sold to Phoenix, who still retain that franchise property. If that specific franchise had been sold back to Winnipeg, I might have been cajoled into a half-assed state of celebration. But there remains no-one on that team who ever called Winnipeg home for even the shortest duration. The team that, in the off-season, hoofed it out to the various satellite farming communities to play charity baseball games, the athletes who made the occasional school gym appearance to encourage kids away from drugs, etc. — that team has vanished.

What Winnipeg has instead is a team they purchased and moved from Atlanta — yet another southern city whose only prior exposure to ice was in their mint juleps. Winnipeg has purchased a re-entry into the NHL. And it has purchased, on promissory terms, several seasons' worth of NHL games which they will host. The only player to express unreserved delight at living in Winnipeg is dead. The rest of the team will have to get pointers on discretion from their colleagues in Calgary and Edmonton. There are only so many strip clubs in Winnipeg, and that is a city that thrives on talk.

I said none of this to the zip-line guy. “So who do you cheer for?” he asked.

“Whoever's playing an interesting game,” I said. “That's often Detroit. Colorado, occasionally. New Jersey. Actually, Chicago is a team that's almost always interesting to watch, even when they don't quite have what they need to go the distance. I've generally kept one eye on them, right from the 80s on.”

“I hear you,” he said. “I like Boston that way, myself.”

“Then you've had a good summer,” I said.

He grinned. “I've had very good summer.”

“I'm happy for you,” I said. And I was.

Alright, people: put on a happy face!

Image cadged from this site. Over here Ken Dryden offers some suggestions in aid of keeping the game healthy.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Monday, Bloggy Monday...

Mondays begin with resolve and end in regret. Is it sunny? This is a good Monday to start fitness walking. Are there veggies in the fridge? Let's make a salad! Particularly after a weekend of hanging with classmates and purging the collective consciousness of embarrassing moments while marinating the liver in spirits, fine wine and Pringles, Monday can seem like a springboard into vast ocean of untapped potential.

But Mondays are also unrelenting. Everyone has to get back to work, or school. The day is either too long or too short, depending on which family member has your ear at the end of it. Salads take time to compose, and don't stick to the ribs. It's already 7:00. Who's up for a quick pasta dish? And what's pasta without a glass of wine? Good grief, I'm yawning already. Tell you what: let's do that walk tomorrow.

So why not flip it around and begin with remorse, shame and/or a profound sense of personal inadequacy? Take blogging: maybe you think you're reasonably disciplined about it, you've got a gentle grip on this business of being perspicacious without slipping too often into self-indulgence. One or two postings a week, boasting a word-count carefully parsed down to 350 or so should about do it — right?

Nope. Try 1,000 words — daily. See Mary Scriver or Steve Donoghue for examples. Inspired? (Lord, no! NaNoBloMo nearly killed me!) Good! Now get to work.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Nick Lowe, The Old Magic

There's a lovely, very short bit on Nick Lowe in this week's New Yorker, which follows him as he shops for glasses. He makes mention of a clarifying moment he had as a rock 'n' roll star, I'm guessing in the late-70s, when he decided he wasn't going to be one of those aging performers aping the kids in an attempt to stay current. Instead he charted out an attitude and sound he figured he could properly wear into old age.

Having spun Labour Of Lust* through the summer months, and contrasted that with At My Age* and now The Old Magic, I would never have imagined in 1979 that the sound he was referring to would be akin to that of Max Bygraves or Guy Mitchell. But, especially in Mitchell's case, I think Lowe rather astutely latched onto a sensibility that works brilliantly. It's like he took Mitchell's approach to “Heartaches By The Number” — a weird performance in which Mitchell sounds like he couldn't be happier — and turned it inside out. Lowe also performs his narrators' voices as if they couldn't be happier, then makes it subtly clear what a shame this is.

Looks like Lowe has become the Elder Statesman of Cool.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Writer's 'n' Beans

You answer the door. It's your cousin Margaret, presenting you with a hot caserole dish for the Thanksgiving dinner. You smile, or wince, and accept the dish. “Baked beans?” you say, dreading the answer. She silently smiles — or smirks.

The family gathers around the table, the dishes are served, and everyone has to admit: those are damn fine beans. “In fact,” your husband offers, “I don't believe anyone does beans quite like our Margaret.”

“They're different this year,” says your mother. “Margaret, you've done something different with the beans.”

Again the smile/smirk. “Cardamom,” she says. “I try to do something different every year. This was the year for cardamom!” Happy laughter and smiles all around for cousin Margaret's incomparable baked beans.

Your cousin Margaret's beans are my metaphor in response to Dwight Garner's plea for our Important Novelists to step up production. I say, with one caveat, that a novel every ten years ought to be the writerly ideal, especially if the writer is really good at what she does. The list of Important Novelists whose yearly dish of baked beans wore out my welcome — incomparable though that dish may be — is a very long one, and recedes to a vanishing point as time goes on.

Garner trots out Dickens and Trollope as examples of what volubility can accomplish, but what about Thomas Hardy? Much has been made of the negative review that truncated Hardy's career as a novelist, but what if the poisonous toad who wrote it actually did Hardy a favour, making Hardy's the name that rings through the ages? If Hardy had managed a Dickensian output, would we still talk about him? Who wants to read 30 novels detailing the carnage that occurs when our flightiest romantic yearnings meet the hard whetstone of reality? No, three or four books of that nature will do just fine, thank you. And, let's face it, soul-crushing disappointment is what most Important Writers are all about. If you want to deluge the market with product, best to be cheerful and unassuming (like Trollope) or a sly crowd-pleaser (like Dickens).

Caveat: there are some Important Writers who apparently need to get three or four questionable books out of their system before they knock off something truly delicious and nutritious. T.C. Boyle comes to mind. Actually, so does Hardy. Really nobody should be actively discouraged from writing — or publishing. But even if you're an Oates or an Updike or an Atwood who can be relied upon for a delicious bowl of beans every Thanksgiving, don't take it too personally if the overwhelmed guests at the table forgo the pleasure of eating them.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Any Tears For Borders?

We were nervous when Chapters finally opened in downtown Toronto. Our little bookstore had recently celebrated its centenary — a narrow victory, from some vantage points, even if we were turning a profit. We were hustling just to stay relevant, never mind competitive.

The Bloor Street Chapters was the franchise's “flagship” store. The architect designed the façade to be reminiscent of an ocean liner. Obviously this store was going to be much, much bigger than ours.

It had been open for nearly a week before I mustered up the courage to check it out. It was indeed large, but still shy of the size and scale of some of the Borders and Barnes & Noble outlets I’d seen in California. I perused the stock and tried to ascertain the sales potential. Most of what I saw was backlist — books we didn’t have the shelf-space for, and wouldn’t have stocked even if we did. Backlist titles don't sell with nearly enough frequency to justify stocking. We’d just be sending them back to the publishers after three or four months of watching them grow yellow, a shabby business for both us and the publishers.

At the time, the government of Canada had just shut down a bid by Heather Reisman to bring Borders north of the 49th Parallel. The Canadian Booksellers Association was gratified; they'd fought Reisman with every resource they had, arguing that Borders’ distribution alone would be ruinous not just to Canadian bookstores, but to the entire publishing industry. I wondered if the Chapters model would be any better, but as I looked around their flagship store the one recurring thought I had was, There’s no point legislating against this. Too many people want it. Whether they could sustain it for anywhere near as long as 100 years was, I thought, doubtful. But regardless, that particular business model would just have to run its course.

The course has been run, so far as Borders is concerned. Some people are crying the blues, and I can sympathize. I’ve made purchases in Borders and Barnes & Noble. And Chapters — now Reisman's property — continues to get my money, chiefly with its remainders and magazines. But I’m not shedding any tears. I think it is a shame, in the most complete sense of that word, to see the “big” experiment fail. After witnessing the near extinction of small independents, it would have been a faint scrap of comfort to see something still standing. But so it goes. No more buffalo, as the bard has sung.

Photo, of a final stone being flung from within Borders' glass house, courtesy of Su.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Werner Herzog's Cave Of Forgotten Dreams

As we walked out of the TIFF Lightbox, where Cave Of Forgotten Dreams was playing, my wife sighed rather happily and said, “I love Werner Herzog — he's a real character. But there's almost always a point in his documentaries when I think, 'You are so full of shit.'”

Some documentaries more than others, I might have added. As he's aged, those moments are fewer, but he still retains his capacity to test a viewer's bullshit-meter. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams is no exception.

The movie is an intriguing and worthy exercise: escort a limited crew into the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave, get footage of the paintings and bring it back — rendered in 3D — to a public for whom this will be their only exposure; keep the pace languid, add some vigorous neo-classical performances to the soundtrack, interview witnesses and professionals and be sure to keep the camera rolling to catch the occasional eccentricity; keep personal commentary to a minimum; then cut and paste it in the editing room and release the final product to a grateful audience.

Does it work? The results are mixed. On a surprisingly primal level, the film is a success. The 3D rendering is the most excruciating I've experienced since the days of blue-and-red paper spectacles, yet it reveals aspects of character in the paintings which a traditional presentation would keep hidden. The lingering camera, the soundtrack's sacred keening and Herzog's wheezy monotone induce a dreamlike state — a desired effect. My wife noted how the commentators all resorted to English as a subsequent language, which brought a blunt simplicity to their analysis — also a desired effect.

At other times, when it seemed like the contours of the cave warped in an unintended reversal, the artifice of the presentation was impossible to ignore. I wasn't in the cave — I wasn't anywhere near the cave. I couldn't smell its mustiness, I couldn't feel the texture of the stalagtites and stalagmites. I was entirely at the mercy of the technology and the crew that employed it. Open the film with a statement like, “We will be the lest people to see these paintings, be-foah the cave iss closed — foah-effah,” and repeat it a couple of times, for emphasis, and resentment becomes part of the viewing experience as well.

I had to wonder if that wasn't also a desired effect. It wasn't as if an excursion to the Chauvet Cave had been a long-standing item on my bucket list, but geez-louise: greater souls than mine have chaffed under sentiments like, “I em hee-ah, where you will neffah be.” Herzog's post-script, in which he ponders just what a herd of albino alligators might make of it all, comes as very welcome comic relief.

There is something profoundly unsettling about these paintings. The mook who slapped his red-painted palm to the cave wall probably had an ego as big as Ozymandias' — or Werner Herzog's. Against all odds his statement has remained intact for over 30,000 years, placed in stark juxtaposition to the awe-inspiring portraits of the thundering forces that surround it. Like Herzog's films, it is as petty, bold, tragic, and comic a statement as anything humanity has put on canvas. God knows you've gotta be pretty full of something to pull off a stunt like that.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Player One by Douglas Coupland

Alright, so I lied — or spoke too soon, at any rate. After Generation A I was determined to never again pick up another Douglas Coupland novel. But then the CBC announced Coupland as last year's Massey Lecturer; to clinch any potential listener disappointment, they immediately added that Coupland would be “lecturing” in a novel format. Well . . . I suppose that was indeed a “novel” approach to take, if only by CBC standards.

The Massey Lectures are a platform for a Canadian blowhard-at-large to summon his (and occasionally her) most pertinent insights gleaned from a respectable life's work. This frequently requires the person to resort to, in their case, extreme truncation, often producing the most accessible and thought-provoking work in their entire ouevre. Even when the personality invited is someone I've wearied of, I make it a point to tune in, or read the essays when the event is over. I'm always grateful for the experience.

As I was this time, too — although just barely. All of Coupland's foibles and weaknesses as a fiction writer are on full display. Some years back a former copy-editor of Coupland groused (anonymously, of course) that the job had been akin to shepherding a beginner's creative writing class. With that kvetch freshly resurrected in memory, and compelled by the recent internet fixation with marginalia, I picked up my pen and treated the book as a proof-text. The exercise produced pages like this and this, and a happier feeling for me as a reader.

Do I really need to comment on content? Coupland glosses over issues of identity, distraction, consumption and the capacity for empathy, the post-Protestant religious impulse, extinction and a few other fixations that keep nagging at him, but which he can't seem to give cogent voice to except through the mouths of superficially distinct characters engaged in an extreme form of group therapy. These “episodes” suggest a solipsist narrator of particularly high sensitivity, who is continually astonished by the intrusions other people make.

Does that sound to you like a bad thing? Then you probably should avoid this book. Otherwise, take it for what it's worth. Just remember: pens are required when reading Coupland.