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 fa├žade 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.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Would The "Original" Conan Please Stand Up?

The new movie is a bit of a dog’s breakfast, but not so bad as to qualify for Worst Movie Of The Year (Cowboys & Aliens and Captain America would nudge Conan The Barbarian out of competition, and that's just citing examples I've had the misfortune to see). Conan's problems stem from being an origin story, which might seem like the natural place to start, particularly with a hero that most of the public is only vaguely familiar with. But exploring Conan's origins presents challenges unique to the Barbarian.

The obvious challenge applies to all origin movies: making the story contemporary without thumbing your nose at earlier incarnations. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man succeeded by dramatically linking Peter Parker’s “spider” powers to his adolescent sexuality. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins worked because the gothic spectacle of Bruce Wayne’s transformation was greeted with just the right smidgen of irony by movie’s end. And, to cite an example that sits closer to Conan, Disney’s recent incarnation of Tarzan worked (despite the presence of gorillas singing along to Phil Collins) by introducing movie audiences to the exhilarating sense of motion and spatial freedom that Edgar Rice Burroughs' books gloried in (contrast Disney’s tree-surfing with Johnny Weissmuller lazily swinging from one vine to the next). Lately filmmakers have erred on the side of caution, producing musty origin flicks that adhere too closely to stories that are decades old (see Thor or Captain America, for example).

But Conan's marketers also have to consider just which well to draw from: the original pulps, the comics, the Governator movies, the Saturday morning cartoons, the spin-off hack novels? Robert E. Howard's work appeals, since that's the embodiment that first took hold of the public imagination and never let go. But unlike Burroughs, Howard never devoted a novel's worth of print to divulging Conan’s past. Quite the opposite: the only Conan novel Howard wrote (in fact a “Kull” story Howard tweaked in hopes of salvaging a sale) occurs late in Conan’s life, when he’s been deposed from his kingdom. In the short stories when Conan or the narrator refer to the barbarian’s past, the references are perfunctory and oblique.

This isn’t entirely unusual, given the medium Howard was working with. Most pulp writers got their character’s origin story out of the way as quickly as possible, and dove into the action. Howard’s spin on this strategy was uniquely effective: make the action central, and the origin ephemeral. Drop hints, but never explicate.

The new movie explicates big time, a strategy that yields mixed results. The opening scene demonstrates at painful length how the age-old nostrum, "Show, don't tell," should probably have been reversed with respect to, “the boy was born on the battlefield.” Conan’s progress as a young barbarian, however, is successful entertainment: Leo Howard adroitly embodies an adolescent discovering how feral energy can be channeled into disciplined and fluid thrills on the battlefield.

The boy's interaction with his father, however, complicates things. The old man (Ron Perelman) is gruff and unyielding, allowing the audience to see the occasional glimmer of pleasure in his son’s natural ability, but offering no such indulgence to the boy. As I watched I couldn’t help but speculate on another reason why Howard skirted around origin stories: his own were a source of manifest discomfort, to say the least. Howard’s father was a bit of a cold fish. He kept his appearances at home brief, hectoring the young man to quit with the stories already and make something of himself, before disappearing again for days or weeks at a time to make the rounds as a country doctor. Howard’s tubercular mother was slightly more encouraging of his literary efforts, to the extent that she didn’t shut him down when he spent a night hammering and shouting out his stories. But I don’t think it’s out of line to suggest that her own struggles with isolation and alienation and deferred intimacy played themselves out to unfortunate, if unintended, effect in her relationship with her son. When it came time to face the blank page, who could blame REH for skipping origins altogether and fleeing directly to a pulp backdrop where a lone hero can express himself with complete physical, sexual and spiritual abandon?

Which raises another weakness in the movie: we don't get enough such expression. Once the barbaric mum and pop are dispensed with the rest of the flick plays, rather herkily-jerkily, as a revenge narrative. Jason Momoa is as close to a Howard embodiment of Conan as we’ve seen in the movies (personally, I’ve always imagined a juiced-up version of the late Chuck Connors) and the script has flashes of what Howard invested in the character. But as a narrative foil, Conan works best when he’s a sword-wielding trickster — akin to Yojimbo's samurai, James Bond, The Man With No Name, Han Solo and countless others — who struts into a room full of uptight citizens, and announces, “I’m here to show you how things really work.” Conan doesn’t have that environment here. Everything is already unmoored and up for grabs; consequently his dressed-up quest for revenge comes across as an almost petty affair for an epic figure to trouble himself with.

Petty, but not unentertaining. I enjoyed myself, but would advise against 3D. Conan fans and the morbidly curious are encouraged to read Michael A. Stackpole’s novelization(!), which surely aligns closer to the screenwriters’ original vision. While it, too, has flatfooted moments it yields a much more satisfying narrative and motivation than the final on-screen product. Best of all, Stackpole proves himself a capable pulp stylist, embracing its enthusiasms without overindulging its purple excesses. He's got my money if he ever decides to write a follow-up to this adventure.

The movie is likely to do well internationally, where the market for “swarthy” heroes who dispatch extremely white villains is quite large. In the meantime, who knows? Maybe in another 25 years someone will get the mix exactly right.

Logan Hill wrote my favorite review of Conan The Barbarian. Mary Scriver asks, Would You Date Conan? And for more better Conan explication ("'Splication'?"), run, do not walk, to Steve Donoghue's eloquent and incisive Cimmerian 'Stravaganza.