Friday, January 31, 2020

“Wither (sic) Liberalism?”

Seems to be the question of the week, brought to us by the mere existence of some books currently in market. I will, for the most part, give these books a pass. But I am grateful to the reviewers, not just for their criticism but for their pointed calling-back to Great Essayists of Yore (GEY).

“Does liberalism have its roots in the illiberal upheavals of the English Reformation?” asks Keith Thomas, after surveying several books making claims of same. GEY hat-tip: Richard Rorty.

Over at The Point Jon Baskin’s Friends Like These takes the (figurative) shoes to Adam Gopnik. GEY hat-tip: Lionel Trilling. Baskin also roasts Ben Lerner and the “New Historicists” who were coming into vogue just as I was leaving academia. GEY hat-tip: Coleridge! And since you’re already at The Point, go on and give Denis Johnson’s God by Aaron Thier your attention. Unless you’re not into Johnson. In which case, give some thought to James Duesterberg’s Bad Infinity: The endurance of the liberal imagination. GEY: Trilling — again. So, you know — maybe dust off that old copy of The Liberal Imagination?
Oh, there you are!
The flip-side to the “Whither Liberalism” question: Hold up, am I a Conservative now? Tribeless in an age of tribalism, by Adeline Dimond.

Which brings me full-circle to Keith Thomas’s Rorty quote:
“Some cultures, like some people, are no damn good: they cause too much pain and so have to be resisted.”
An increasingly tough call to make, these days.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Ghost Light

While writing the previous post, it occurred to me there is now another variation of “band product” available — YouTube concert videos. These usually have more in common with bootleg recordings of same, but there are increasingly more professional varieties to be had.

PopMatters sent me to this video of a first set by Ghost Light, a band that was new to me. It’s surprisingly pro, but not too flashy. I queued it up, my expectations low. Honestly, I can count on one hand the number of YouTube concerts I have watched to conclusion. Throw in a band I’ve never heard of? The odds were low.

Within five minutes I was thinking, these guys build songs the way I like 'em. Twelve minutes later there was no question I’d be watching to conclusion.

I hate concerts with no seating. I hate standing there, feeling the hot coals of my plantar fascitis slowly creep-roast from my instep up into the fibres of my calves, while the kids surrounding me are happily bouncing around. It is a mighty precious band that could entice me onto the floor for an hour-long show. And Ghost Light could do it — if only they performed north of 49.

And while you’re here: Bowman smoked me out on some questionable claims I made regarding a recent Ry Cooder album. You should check out the post for the comments alone.

The aging palate — recorded albums: studio or live?

I recall eavesdropping on a conversation between two high school classmates. They’d just seen Harlequin, Winnipeg’s own arena-filling rock band, in concert and were sorting out which songs sounded most like they did on record.

That epitomized my official thoughts on what rock music ought to be, at the time. I figured the studio release must be the ideal version of the song — after all, every single element that went into the song was 100% in the artist’s control, was it not? Thus the extent to which the band reproduced the sound recorded was, quite naturally, the extent to which they put on a good show.
Paul Simonon, clearly frustrated he is not getting that posh studio sound.
It only took a few, choice, small-venue concerts for me to recant of that particular bias. Still, the bands I dug the most were adept manipulators, who understood the studio album to be one “product,” a live concert another, and a recorded live release something else still. A concert bootleg might be revelatory, but only in the way Joyce’s unpublished work is revelatory of Finnegan’s Wake.

Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense was the ideal. I loved the studio versions of those songs, but the versions in the movie brought something new to my appreciation for them, as did the visual spectacle. And David Byrne’s instincts for the initial soundtrack were spot-on — it was better for the soundtrack to be evocative of the movie, rather than extracted from the visuals and presented as a half-portion of the thing itself.*

During the child-raising years most of my music listening was conducted through two speakers in the kitchen. And I generally preferred studio work — if the volume is loud enough to cut through the sizzle of minced garlic and anchovies in a pan of hot olive oil you can catch some surprising nuances and subtleties laid out on the, uh, reel-to-reel.**

These days, however, I typically reach for recorded live shows. The “live” sound is so much better than it used to be, for one thing (thank you technology). Also, these hairy old ears aren’t catching nearly as many studio layers as they used to — making the pared-down sound of a recorded single take a better match for them.

Which is a little odd, considering how grumpy I get at concerts. How many times have I announced my “retirement”? My wife took me to task on the most recent. “You’re not retired,” she informed me. “We still haven’t seen the one act I want to see live, with you — Los Lobos.”

Good point. Perhaps a beloved band performing in a spanky up-to-date theatre with actual seats will be just the thing. After all, Steely Dan was an absolute gas.

Stay tuned.

*To my earlier three categories, we could now add a fourth: the home video. I will never forget the first time I queued up Stop Making Sense on the VCR, only to realize within minutes that I was hearing elements in the soundtrack that were not present in the footage I was watching. This had escaped my notice in the immersive environs of the movie theatre. Now here I sat, slack-jawed. Nobody owed me “accuracy,” and I knew as well as any slavering fan that perfect fidelity was a dangerous myth — again, concert bootlegs are obscurities for good reason. Still, the blush of disappointment was real.

**A sit-down listen of Porcupine Tree’s Signify still retains its capacity to elicit goosebumps. But while I note that I should also say I have more love for Steven Wilson’s live version of “Home Invasion/Regret #9” — chiefly because of the rhythm guitar he provides, particularly at the 7-minute mark onward. It’s so simple, but it gives such a propulsive energy to the song. I actually miss it on the studio version.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Rattling in my brain-pan

I was sent to The American Interest twice this month. I’m thinking this may be the first time in my life I’ve given this publication my attention.

Back when the magazine rack was still a source of fascination I took note of placement — usually The American Interest was propped next to The National Interest, so I assumed, unfairly or not, that they were in lockstep with a hawkish “We don’t wanna blast 'em but it may be the only way to keep the peace” POV.

The American Interest’s purview is a touch wider than its immediate competition — at first glance there appears to be some focus devoted to cultural concerns, as well. Back page stuff, but still — some is better than none.

I say all this because, if you are also a newcomeer to TAI, their site has a firewall that will grant you one free read per month — or two, if you subscribe to their newsletter. The firewall is easily vaulted, but I’ve gone ahead and consented to the newsletter. Weigh for yourself its potential merits, or choose which of these two links, if either, is worth your further scrutiny.

5G And The Fallacies of Techno-Optimism by Adam Garfinkle is, to my mind, the must-read piece. His summary of the Southeast Asia posture toward Chinese tech hegemony is something I’ve not seen anywhere else. And by considering how we have collectively taken a knee to the Techno-Determinist gospel, he raises distressing questions the chattering classes are doing a swell job of ignoring.

The other piece is a reconsideration of Allan Bloom, which I am always up for.
Allan Bloomam I a fan? Mm, tough to say. He’d be an easy chap to “cancel” in this day and age, but that’s neither here nor there for me. He is difficult to read, and not in a way I am given to defending. But I sure do dig what he has to say about shared texts. And getting back to “cancel culture” I have to wonder what John Granger’s feelings are re: the Harry Potter series attaining shared text status among the current generation.

Finally, another “I’m getting old” anecdote: last night I had the house to myself, so I tore off the celophane to the blu-ray of John Carpenter’s The Thing — a movie I have not seen in decades. I poured myself an IPA, eased into the comfy chair, put on the headphones and hit “play.” First impression: wow, was this film way more polished than I recollected! I mean, it opens with this helicopter shot of the Antarctic crawler steaming over the snow — Carpenter’s budget must have been substantially larger than he was accustomed to. Next scene, and — huh, that’s not an actor I recall. Five more minutes and I’m realizing I don’t recognize anyone in this film. I hit pause, do a Google.

It appears I have purchased the 2011 Dutch prequel to Carpenter’s classic. Dutch!

Accept no substitutes, people.

Post-script: “a note that should make everyone shriek with grief at the lost possibility” — in a galaxy where the Force was in balance, Colin Trevorrow's script for Star Wars IX would have been greenlighted.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Strange Advance, Worlds Away

I had a moment of the sads on Tuesday, as I prepped supper. Yesterday was technically the anniversary of my mother’s passing, but she died on a Tuesday evening, so that was when I was feeling it. And this song, randomly queued by my infernal device, tapped into my grief in a way I was not prepared for.

In 1984 if I was available to drop off or pick up my teenage little sister, then my mother tagged me for the duty.

I protested. When I had been her age my parents figured I could bloody well take the bus.

We lived in the western extreme of Winnipeg. I attended a Mennonite high school in the centre of the city, the one my sister now went to. The bulk of my friends lived in the eastern burgs, as did hers. Those bus rides were long.

One party I attended — in Transcona — required three transfers and two hours and fifteen minutes of my time, one way. On the ride back, a very drunk man of indeterminate age dropped into the seat beside me, said, “You remind me of my son,” then buckled over and commenced blubbering into his parka sleeve.

I reminded my mother of this and other stories I’d collected in my journeys by bus. “Tsk — such rotten parents,” my mother would say. “Now go get your sister. Please.”

My protests were more melodrama than truth. These taxi assignments weren’t interrupting anything more consequential than yet another evening with Louis L’Amour. A ride through the city on a dark winter’s night afforded me time with the car radio — strictly AM, but still not too bad, considering. Canadian radio stations were required to play a certain percentage of Canadian content (30%, in '84). Given the conditions, any Canadian possessed of enough pluck to form a band and create original work was pretty much possessed of a character that did not permit lapses into rote mediocrity — extraordinary mediocrity, perhaps, but never rote.

So even Canadian AM radio was forced to play some pretty weird stuff. Sure, the latest hit-for-tat chapter of the Burton Cummings/Randy Bachman feud was inescapable. But in 1984 Canadian AM radio also played Doug and the Slugs. Martha and the Muffins. FM, with Nash The Slash on electric violin. Rough Trade. The Payolas. Saga. Heck, even Rush had a trim AM radio winner with “New World Man.”

But in 1984 no Canadian band hit the sweet-spot for me quite like Strange Advance (site).
Enhanced by strange advances in hair care.
The moody synthesizers, the keening vocals, the fate-laden lyrics — it all spoke directly to the Byronic romanticism that possessed me at age 19. I was utterly convinced all happiness was but a prelude to inevitable sorrow. If “Worlds Away” came on whilst en route to my sister’s soirée, I could be depended upon to wail “Oh no! don’t say goodbye!” through a cloud of sub-zero condensation, utterly smitten with my gloriously tragic take on this passing moment.

Then my sister would climb into the car, and we’d drive home, silently listening to whatever.

No 13-year-old girl should be expected to take the Saturday Night Special through downtown Winnipeg — really, that is just a given. But in 1984 my mother’s concern had additional freight beyond mere common sense — Candace Derksen was my sister’s classmate.

Thirty-five years later as I’m chopping carrots the song shuttles me back to a moment when all these currents were in flux. Thirty-five years later I am “utterly convinced” of very little. But I sure don’t think of happiness as a “prelude” to anything. Sorrow reaches everyone, and often the most unimaginable sorrow hits the most vulnerable and undeserving among us.

Actually, I am utterly convinced: we have to take care.

And a little romanticism is quite fine, if it helps you in your care for others.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Vintage Whisky, 2018

I dragged my heels culling this “best of” for 2018. It was a difficult year for personal reasons, some of which I touched on, so I was slow to revisit it.

It was also a year I devoted an undue amount of energy trying to track how I found myself trailing so far behind anything that could be broadly considered as . . . well, relevant. Here is just one example, but I won’t link to the others. I won’t delete them either — they remain a testament to the times and to my headspace at this particular moment, I guess. But when it comes to what I posted it wasn’t as if mine was a singular POV — many others said the same thing, only better. And that is personally disappointing. I’ve blogged for 15 years and counting. When I’m not linking to other pieces I truly attempt to post original work — stuff I’m not seeing anywhere else. 2018 sometimes reads as if I gave up on this loftiest of aspirations.
There were other vistas to conquer.
NEVERTHELESS — here are a few posts that stand up fairly well, I think, insofar as summary goes.

And finally, a surprisingly pleasant memory from that year — the last time I cried (a status that abruptly changed, needless to say).

Friday, January 03, 2020

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — final take

As with the previous Star Wars movie, the plan was to see The Rise of Skywalker with one kid, then again a week or two later with the other. Priorities shifted, and the urge to see the movie dropped to the bottom of the list for urchin #2. I have zero motivation to devote time to a second, solo viewing of the movie, so here are some further thoughts, based on what I recall from two weeks ago — indeed, from even further back.

Spoilers follow — not just from the current Star Wars movie, but from the final season of Lost, the TV series that launched J.J. Abrams into the big leagues.
...never gets old....
My favourite scene from season six of Lost is only a few minutes long. The chief protagonist and his crew are running through the jungle in hot pursuit of that season’s Villainous Heavy. They burst into a clearing and unexpectedly encounter a happily married couple who had recused themselves from the action several seasons earlier, puttering about the yard in front of their Mr. And Mrs. Howell bamboo hut. For a moment everyone stops in their tracks with a “So THERE you are!” reaction. Then the Mrs. does an up-and-down take of the protagonist and says, “You still chasing each other with guns?”

“You still chasing each other with guns?” seems to have been Rian Johnson’s question. In his Star Wars Universe The New Republic was a failure of imagination and execution of Chestertonian proportions. The ways of The Force were misunderstood and misapplied. The new generation was, out of necessity, going to have to devote its energies to deepening its family ties.

These were issues of nuance that, were they to be explored and developed to conclusion, would require a subtle touch.

J.J. Abrams had been here once before. For five seasons, Lost played with and defied viewer expectations. Villains were introduced and teased apart until they were distressingly sympathetic characters. Motivations were acted upon to the final degree, and the outcomes were an astonishment nobody saw coming. Now here they all were, still doing this “Grab the gun!” monkey dance. It was time to wrap it up.

Time to throw all the toys back into the toybox, give it a hard shake — and pull out even more bigger guns than ever before.

I can’t recall who said it, but I’m thinking Locke Peterseim or Steve O’Donahue — J.J. Abrams is a devotee of the white-board. He doesn’t plot or do character arcs — he and his team do board-room improv until they settle on the five or so flashiest sequences, then tie them together with narrative threads best left unscrutinized.

If that makes it sound like I hated the movie, I’m sorry — I liked it well enough. The one thing Abrams does well is give his actors just enough motivation to successfully emote. So, yes — I was dabbing at my eyes as this character lived while that one died.

But this most recent generation of Star Wars movie actors have all signalled (John Boyega chief among them) that they are so ready to ditch this franchise. And I am cheering them on.

Give Abrams some other Cold War franchise to muck with — James Bond, maybe. I can content myself with memories, bolstered by the occasional comic book and television series.

Better explication:
  • It has to be said: my jaw hit the floor when I finally registered just how far to the sidelines Abrams was pushing Kelly Marie Trans Rose Tico. I still consider Tran and her character one of the loveliest introductions to the SWU, and this move seemed like an open concession to racist trolls.
  • To quote me, responding to Joel in the previous post: “Forty-two years and countless hours of Star Wars later, it strikes me that ‘Han Shoots First’ was the most memorable bit in the three movie trilogies — or possibly the entire SWU ball of wax, even as it continues to accrue.” Discuss!