Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Hypocrisy Exposed!

Credit where it's due, if Number 45 has achieved anything it is the appropriation and obliteration of any orthodoxy you'd care to name. And if you think your own favorite orthodoxy remains intact, it's probably best you think again.

"So, WP, why not lead by example then?" Indeed, what could be more revolutionary in this day and age than an earnest examination of one's own most blatant hypocrisies? Here we go:

Trade -- knee-jerk political stance: protectionist.

Back in '88 I voted against Brian Mulroney's Free Trade agreement with the United States. I even campaigned against it, ringing a few doorbells on behalf of my local NDP candidate, until despair and bitter resignation got the better of me. (My candidate lost, big-time. In fact, all my candidates have lost big time. If you're any sort of idealist at all you should come to expect it.)

Thirty years later, NAFTA looks set to be massively retooled back to something I might recognize from my youth, but reflexively recoil against in late adulthood. I've learned to live with and even enjoy the benefits brought to us -- heck, to me -- by the wide-ranging trade agreements Mulroney kicked into gear.

Am I a hypocrite? Sure. But there's one attitude in which I remain predictable -- faced with the prospect of enormous change, I tend to advocate moving forward with extreme caution. Speaking of which . . .

China -- when Stephen Harper initially approached trade with China as a human rights first proposition, I cheered -- probably the first and only time during his tenure as Prime Minister. Harper's stance changed, however, ensuring my criticism for the length of his political career.

Nothing 45 has said suggests he gives the slightest consideration to anyone's human rights, but his belligerence toward China is something I probably would have approved of in my former Prime Minister. I desperately wish 45 would tone it down, though.

Oh, the hypocrisy! But am I really to blame if I naturally worry (understatement) about a 70-year-old whose reflexive posture towards everyone is belligerence?

Russia -- born and raised a God-fearing pacifist (ask me about it sometime!) I was horrified by the Reagan administration's tack with the USSR. Always the stick, never the carrot -- was this any way to approach one's adversary, when the very existence of the species hung in the balance?

Now it's, "Nice guy. (Shrugs.) I like him." And I'm all like, "Whoah, whoah, whoah, whoah, whoah..." Hypocrisie, tu t'appelles 'Whisky!'

NATO, the EU -- NATO is a hold-over from the "Us Against Them" politics of yore (see above). The EU is the first attempt at "We're all in this together" politics of the '90s. Both have become fiscally problematic, to say the least. Currently only five NATO nations meet the investment commitments required for membership. As for the EU, where do you even start?

I'm a peace-love-and-understanding Lefty, so it's natural I support the EU and, by extension, NATO. And I suppose I kind of do, but . . . maybe I'm also a little bit of a hypocrite?

So what now?

I hardly know. It'd be nice to think our neighbor's current admin is working swiftly to secure national interests in a new, protectionist manner that more assuredly navigates the new "You're on your own" global reality. But concern for one's fellow citizens seems anathema to 45. Indeed, he exhibits all the traits of someone trapped in the advanced stages of an all-consuming addiction -- an acute state of self-preservation with eyes fixed solely on attaining the next fix. And now he's kicking out at the jury-rigged platforms that assure everyone else's stability. It's almost too dark a thought to entertain, but I have to wonder if there isn't someone waiting in the wings to stage an intervention.

Right, then. "Acknowledgement of powerlessness" . . . "Fearless self-inventory" . . . any other suggestions?

Friday, January 20, 2017

"Great: MORE Liberal Guilt!" The Rock 'n' Roll Edition

Having been lovingly raised among the pious and sincere, I was well-versed with the reasons a kid should be cautious -- if not downright frightened and ashamed -- of enjoying Rock 'n' Roll music. There was the unabashed endorsement of completely unfettered bacchanalian indulgence. We all knew where that impulse came from (it wasn't Jesus), but lest there be any ambiguity remaining we also had performers who traded in occult references and devilish artwork. Shameful stuff, all the way around.

There's no arguing with "cool," however.
Today, as we approach the rock show in our twilight years with creaking joints and ringing ears, we have yet another cause for shame -- cultural appropriation.

Alex Shephard notes that, with the recent death of Prince, the pantheon of rock survivors is uniformly pasty in colour. Jack Hamilton wrote a book devoted to the matter -- Just Around Midnight: Rock & Roll & The Racial Imagination (Harvard Press), excerpt here. Colin Vandenberg reviews it, and wonders, "Who are we, who have stolen and suppressed so much, to warn artists of colour against claiming any art as inalienably theirs?"

Really, Colin? Why be so circumspect? I say be strident, dammit! Tell those coloured folk -- tell your own porcelain-skinned progeny, while you're at it -- exactly what varieties of music they may rightfully claim as their own, to the exclusion of all others. In my experience, the end result is pure gold.

Clean, innocent fun!
If I scroll through the music on my Infernal Device (13,900 songs -- or 41 days of music, and building) the group of performers is a multi-hued bunch. But, sure, the majority are "white." Perhaps it behooves me to rend my garments over this fact, but, to borrow from the preeminent moral philosopher of my time, "The ears want what they want."

If one can somehow overlook the unpardonable sin of cultural appropriation, the cross-pollination of musical modalities becomes a truly curious business to contemplate. There are blues performers of Asian descent who have a Stevie-Ray mastery of the form -- yet the thought of any of them "making it big" is laughable. Similarly, one could argue American R&B seems primed to discover and exploit the shiny delights of K-Pop -- but just how likely is that?

Some outliers I'm personally fond of: American Hardcore, a variety of punk music that could not be whiter, was pretty much kicked off by a black group -- Bad Brains -- who were universally acknowledged in the scene as the standard that everyone fell short of. Not much love for them from their own community, mind you. Prior to them was a band called Death -- same story, pretty much.

My adolescence ran from the end of the '70s to the late '80s. When I finally slouched into adulthood I identified the two brightest stars in the Rock 'n' Roll firmament -- the two performers who most obviously elevated the genre into "Art" (pronounced, "Awhhh-at") -- as Frank Zappa and George Clinton. Currently I'd say Clinton's influence has the longer tail, and not just because he's still alive. Make of that what you will.

Anyway, let's bring it back to Jack Hamilton: he notes the Stones have "done a solid" with their most recent album by acknowledging and re-introducing their (black, American) forebears to a predominantly white audience. Here I have to agree -- the first thing I did after my initial spin of Blue & Lonesome was head to our Cultural Gatekeepers and spend a few nickels on the original recordings. Currently the number of plays between the originals and the white band who covered them are neck-and-neck. Hard to say who will eventually gain the upper hand, but it could well be the paler group.

What can I say? I like the fuzz and clatter.

Endnote: RIP, William Onyeabor - musical genius,
recluse, West African industrialist, servant of Christ.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Jack Davis

My familiarity with the work of Jack Davis is predominantly MAD-related. Here is a typical example -- a Davis/Alfred E. "suit" for the MAD Card Game:
More here.
He produced a wide array of readily recognisable album covers and movie posters as well, almost always employing the inimitable "Jack Davis" caricature mode.
"It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and...
... but of course.
Prior to MAD Davis was already tight with publisher Bill Gaines thanks to an extended tenure with E.C. Comics. He did the art for a number of Tales From The Crypt, as well as various E.C. "War" titles. It's the latter that have my attention.
More examples to be had over here. They're worth a closer look. To my eye, for all the fineness of the rendering -- including an unusually forceful use of extreme black-and-white contrast -- they have troubles with a certain inertness, as well as proportionality. Good work, in other words -- but Davis' real genius was caricature, where proportionality was deliberately elastic and he could shine like no other (save his co-partner-in-crime Mort Drucker, another gargantuan talent in Gaines' usual gang of idiots).

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Car

The aspirational vehicles of my youth were largely fantasy constructs, George Barris' "Batmobile" being the prime example.
Or "Bat Car," if you'd rather.
As a Trudeau kid in the (Nixon-Carter) '70s, I devoured library books devoted to "future cars," in which Barris' Batmobile usually earned a mention (and photo), primarily for its atomic batteries and rocket propulsion. Factually speaking, there was nothing even remotely futuristic about the car itself. Barris built it in '65, using a gas-guzzling concept model (the Lincoln Futura) from ten years earlier.
A little polyfilla, a little paint...
Perusing these heavy-on-photos, light-on-text books, I did not realise just how much Barris' aesthetic modality provided the stock template for the publisher's speculations. And Barris in turn was just riffing off a modality set out by Detroit in the 1950s -- the Cadillac Cyclone! the GM Firebird! the Ford X2000! --  hastily abandoned in the wake of Ralph Nader and the OPEC crisis. The future I beheld was already nothing but "a shining artefact of the past," to borrow from Leonard Cohen.

Great lines, though.
Cadillac Cyclone, 1959 (hate to get rear-ended by that!)
GM Firebird II, 1956. Again, note the lack of bumpers.
Ford X2000, 1958. Potential impact points again at the fore.
Among these aspirational models, my favourite of the bunch, Gene Winfield's "Spy Car," was introduced to TV viewers via The Man From U.N.C.L.E. the same year as Barris' Batmobile.
A star is born!
Rather than retrofitting a model from the past, however, Winfield created the star car from whole cloth -- or rather plastic.
Winfield, far right, introducing Robert Vaughn to the new star of the show
(note pained expression/sadistic smile).
The AMT Piranha was a nearly all-plastic vehicle -- even the frame was made of fibreglass (the motor, drive-train and chassis were another matter). This gave the show designers unparalleled flexibility to develop a car for their purposes. Mock features included flame-throwers, machine guns, rocket launchers (note the "barrel" in the open gull-wing door), laser beams, a radar screen, a parachute and "various hidden interior devices."
Or, if all else fails, open door and fire revolver.
Precious few of these features made it to the show's "bible," however, so writers never capitalised on the new "character."

To make matters worse, the car came to the show with a personality all its own, which the actors disliked right from the git-go. To begin with, one could lower oneself into the car with relative dignity, but there was no graceful way to climb out of it (a difficulty particularly critical for female cast members).
"I'll give you six reasons why I'm not getting in!"
Head-room was enough of a problem that the designers eventually "bubbled" the plexi-glass door-windows to accommodate the (frankly diminutive) statures of the show's stars, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. Worst of all, it proved to be a temperamental lemon -- McCallum says anyone looking for the car was told to simply follow the trail of oil.

Stephanie Powers, demonstrating a woman's preferred seating option.

Another lovely woman pointedly NOT inside the car.
Still, it's television, a medium with which we are so familiar, we no longer conflate projected artifice with the disappointing dross that truly sets it alight. In my mind, the U.N.C.L.E. car remains an objet de d├ęsir -- worthy of reverential contemplation, but something I should never get my hands on.


This guy bought one -- a dream come true! -- until he took it for a spin.

The AMT model is back on hobby store shelves. There is even an U.N.C.L.E. modkit. I considered buying -- but the vicarious thrill of this unboxing was enough to dissuade.

"Be photographed with Bat Car!" Fifty cents from 1966 would be roughly $3.75 today. A similar shill was parked to fleece the rubes at Toronto's FanExpo last summer -- $20 for the privilege. Another "dream" deferred, thank you.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

"Philip K. Dick is dead, alas..."

I've been returning to the work of PKD with increasing frequency of late -- a reflex that was put into play about five years ago. Most tributes to the man are of the "Wow, so prescient" variety -- not at all my take on the matter. I'd say that he, like William Gibson, grew better at recognizing just how deeply cultivated a group consciousness could be by (largely malign) influences most people could not be bothered to find names for. An adroit excavator of the ur-consciousness beneath his particular present, in other words.

The other, more common approach to Dick is to borrow his individual consciousness experiments for other, particular narrative purposes. With a little care this can net some very entertaining results (Blade Runner, The Adjustment Bureau, Total Recall do a respectable job of this exercise). More often than not, if someone heralds the arrival of "our next Philip K. Dick" this is what they're signalling.

What our "next Philip K. Dicks" are usually missing, to this reader's eyes, is his profound and dangerous capacity for empathy. I recently re-read The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, and I was struck anew by how deeply invested the author was in his characters and their choices and fates. The jaded eyes of youth, fresh from their tutorials in mimetic theory, will read differently and with their mouths (or thumbs) loudly assert otherwise. "This isn't NECESSARILY Dick we are reading/hearing here. After all, ya rube, the narrator for Transmigration is a woman."

Knock yerself out, kid. I'm here to tell you Philip K. Dick was a woman when he wrote that, and you can go fly yer pomo freak flag somewhere else.

Mind you, it's not a matter I'll duel to the death over, either. I am neither the most broadly nor deeply versed PKD reader on the web. I've read the Ubik trilogy that followed, however, as well as the bulk of his thesis. Looking back on Transmigration, and what followed, I'd say it is fairly safe for even a casual reader like myself to assert that Dick took his characters' fates personally. Whatever happened to them directly affected him -- perhaps directly affected all of humanity. He couldn't not care. He couldn't stop writing.

As I say, that is a dangerous level of empathy. Say what you will about the vertigo inducing quality of Dick's meddling with the grammar of cosmic narrative, the greater peril lay in his grokking the shared need behind our most common and desperate impulses. It is what sets him apart from his acolytes. It is what I look for when I read them, it is inevitably why they disappoint, and it is why I always return again to him.
"They're queuing up,just like he wrote!"