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.