THIS JOURNAL DOCUMENTS MY INTAKE OF ONE BOOK, ZINE, CD OR DVD A DAY. RATINGS ARE: ***** = Godhead, **** = Great, *** = Good, ** = Fair, * = Why Bother?

Monday, November 4, 2013

Those Photogenic DC Punks

Washington, D.C.'s late-70's/early '80s punk scene wasn't really my thing. I hated hardcore, straight-edge and all that sweaty-crewcut-moshpit-shirtless-B.O.-vapor-lock boys club business (where were the girls, fellas?) and was more into the area's pop (Tru Fax & The Insaniacs, The Razz, Tommy Keene) and surf-psych-garage bands (Slickees Boys, Wanktones, Insect Surfers).

Yet history seems to gild this scene and this era, especially in print. There are now at least three books paying tribute to the scene that spawned Bad Brains, The Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Government Issue, No Trend, Fugazi, Henry Rollins, Dischord Records and their ilk.

The latest is Hard Art, DC 1979 (Akashic Books, 2013), which collects the punk pics of Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post photographer Lucian Perkins, with narrative by Alec MacKaye (Ian's brother) and an essay by Henry  Rollins.

I saw this at the Towson Public Library and picked it up because I actually recognized some bands (Slickees, Bad Brains - the latter reigning as hardcore gods in these books), clubs (Madam's Organ - a true shithole that my old band Thee Katatonix once played at), and people (Sab Grey, Tommy Vacant, Anne Bonafede) I knew slightly from Oddfellows Hall and Marble Bar daze. Plus, these type books tend to go out-of-print rather quickly.

Sab Grey and Tommy Vacant make the DC Scene

"He's Tommy, Tommy Vacant - and he don't care!"

Hard Art - taking its name from DC's Hard Art Gallery on 15th Street - is a quick flip-through "read," but its true value is that editor Lely Constantinople has identified all the peeps appearing in the pics. Priceless! Helped jog my memory banks from "Hmmm, he looks familiar..." to "Wow, it's Tommy vacant!"

The other DC Punk books of note are Mark Anderson and Mark Jenkins' detailed Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital (Soft Skull Press, 2001; reprinted by Akashic Books, 2009)...

 ...and a previous photo book (also featuring Anne Bonafede, btw), complied by Sharon Cheslow, Cynthia Connelly and Leslie Clague, called Banned in DC: Photos and Anecdotes from the DC Punk Underground (79-85) (Sun Dog Propaganda, 1988).

Banned in DC (Caroline Records, 2003) is also the title of a hardcore punk and reggae songs by Bad Brains.

There are other mentions of the scene in other hardcore punk books, including a chapter in Steven Blush's American Hardcore: A Tribal History (Feral House, 2001; expanded 2nd edition 2010) (also the title of a documentary film about the scene), but these three stand as the best DC-specific ones. (By the way, Steven Blush is a dick: he calls Tru Fax one of "the stupidest bands" while Tommy Keene is merely "woeful" in his esteem. Apparently anything remotely resembling melody or tunefulness is considered sissified and bourgeois, while tuneless cacophonous noise is revered as bold and manly. And these guys wondered why chicks didn't dig hardcore!)

Of course, in another medium, there's the Kickstarter-funded documentary-in-progress, Scott Crawford and Jim Saah's Salad Days: The Birth of Punk Rock in the Nation's Capital slated to come down the pike sometime soon in 2013. Two trailers of this documentary - which looks at DC's '80s hardcore scene and features interviews with John Stabb, Ian Mackaye, Henry Rollins, Dave Grohl, and Alec Mackaye - have been released so far. A nation's capital awaits!

Oh, and once again this look at DC Hardcore will feature the photogenic fanboy-turned-bandboy-turned-novelist (Skinhead Army) Sab Grey (Iron Cross) in action. In fact, below is a pic of Sab back in the day with Iron Cross, followed by a picture and trailer of Sab being interviewed today.

Sab Grey of Iron Cross

Watch Sab Grey being interviewed in Salad Days.

Sab Grey today (hey that rhymes!)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Pratt Sale Rack Books: Literary Finds for Cheap-ass Minds!

Give me your tired, your poor
Your discarded books yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of a teeming collection
Send these, the dog-eared and discolored to me
That I may plop my quarters on the checkout desk!
While “The Rack” at Nordstrom’s might be more famous, “The Rack at Pratt Central” has just as much value – at least to book lovers. Tucked away around the corner from the Computer Commons area in the Central Library’s main hall, it’s easy to miss this selection of discarded books (and some audio books-on-tape) that is split into Fiction and Non-Fiction shelves. But it’s well worth a look for the discerning bibliophile. I’m in the process of moving, so the last thing I need to do is add more books to the stacks of boxed books already in my living room. But as a book-loving hoarder, I simply can’t resist – especially at these prices (25 cents for paperbacks, 50 cents for hardbacks). Sure, there’s a lot of junk mixed in, but like the saying goes, ya gotta kiss a lotta frogs before ya find your prince. And where else for a total cost of a buck can one find such esoteric treasures as this recent Four Score:

Venus Envy:A History of Cosmetic Surgery by Elizabeth Haiken (Johns Hopkins Press, 1997, 370 pages). We live in fast-paced, high-tech times where change is constant – even with one’s own body. Be it face lifts, nose jobs, breast implants, liposuction, collagen injections or gender changes, surgical alteration is now an accepted part of American culture. I love this book because it dedicates whole chapters to “The Michael Jackson Factor,” “Beauty and the Breast,” and even my favorite Twilight Zone episode, the 1960 broadcast of “The Eye of the Beholder,” which addressed the difference between what society considers beautiful and repellent.

Beauty truly is in the "Eye of the Beholder"
(Click here to watch the complete "Eye of the Beholder" episode on Hulu.)

The VillageVoice Anthology (1956-1980): 25 Years of Writing from the Village Voice, edited by Geoffrey Stokes, an out-of-print collection that contains Mark Jacobson’s fascinating “Paranoid Notes on the Strange Death of Bruce Lee” (Village Voice, December 4, 1978; also available in Jacobsen's own anthology Teenage Hipster in the Modern World). According to The Grand Masters’ Theory, Bruce Lee was murdered (killed by the “Iron Fist,” an ancient assassination technique known only to elder martial arts teachers) to stop the Third World Alliance he was forging through his films with “inferior, potentially mindlessly violent people” (e.g., Americans) who were not to be trusted with the ancient martial arts secrets revealed through his jeet june do style of kung-fu. Here’s an excerpt:
“To any student of paranoia…the Third World Alliance Theory had to seem tenable. After all, times were changing…It was every man for himself…Kung fu could be the ultimate weapon of these times, and Bruce Lee its Messiah. And before Lee was finished preaching in the drive-in and sleaze Temples of the Inner City, Western civilization could go down the tube in a flurry of sidekicks and nunchakas. Would the CIA allow a menace to exist? Obviously, something had to be done.”

I Just Want My Pants Back by David J. Rosen. This hilarious fiction paperback hooked me with its cover – yes, I judged a book by its cover! – and held my interest throughout because it documented a glib 20something world of bar-hopping, partying, texting and tweeting completely alien to mine (call it living vicariously). Narrator Jason Stride even perfectly captures the essence of  post-modern, post-irony hipsterdom in this passage: "They'd seen it all before, and even if they hadn't, they'd pretend they had...any sincere thoughts were immediately roughed up and taken advantage of...people laughed out loud a little less here, they were guarded. They didn't want to be surprised or something." Plus, the protoganist embarks on a Joseph Campbell-worthy Heroic Quest – to reclaim his Dickie slacks after a one-night stand with a stranger. The stuff of Great Lit!

Bonus points awarded for name-checking the Universal Life Church, Buzzcocks, Devo, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Dead Milkman, Bushmills, Pabst, Rushmore, Harold and Maude, and that most obscure of cult film references, Ronnie Cramer's 1991 black comedy Even Hitler had a Girlfriend!

Staying Dry: A Practical Guide to Bladder Control by Kathryn L. Burgio, Ph.D., K. Lynette Pearce, R.N., C.R.N.P., Angelo J. Lucco, M.D. Laugh at me all you want, but this is one of my most treasured finds. 

Why? Because I carry it with me whenever I take the bus to guarantee that no one sits next to me – it’s a veritable “seat saver” when combined with frequent legs crossings and facial grimaces!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Rock, Don't Run, to the Nearest Exodus (*****)

Ernest Gold's epic theme from Otto Preminger's epic 70-millimeter 1960 war film Exodus (itself from an epic Dalton Trumbo screenplay adaptation of Leon Uris's epic 1958 novel) is, well, epic. It's just so overly dramatic, like the Dragnet theme. Small wonder that Gold's song won the Oscar for "Best Original Song" and Grammys for "Song of the Year" and "Best Soundtrack Album."

Ernest Gold's "Exodus" theme (1964)

That's why I've always loved cover versions of it, and there certainly have been a lot - from Ferrante & Teicher and Edith Piaf (who added lyrics) to Ice-T, Nas and T.I, who've sampled bits of the iconic theme in between their rhymes and riffs.

I was especially fond of The Slickee Boys' rock version that appeared on their Here To Stay (Line Records, 1988) album, which featured Marshall Keith's brilliant new arrangement and blistering guitar solos. Even better was their live version, which usually ended their six-song "TV Medley" set and can be found on Dacoit's 2002 Somewhat of an Anthology CD.

Slickee's "Theme from Exodus" (1988)

But today I just discovered The Skatelites' 1964 ska version of "Exodus" on Jamaica's Coxsone Records and can't get it out of my head.(The original Coxsone label credits the band simply as "The Skatelite."). The track appears on the excellent 2004 Studio One Ska compilation CD put out by the folks at Soul Jazz Records, whose liner notes add: " Whilst Ska music became easily identifiable by playing on the off-beat (usually the piano and guitar) The Skatalites brought their wide influences into the music. Ska could include Modal Jazz, Pop, Jump Up R’n’B, Rastafarian and Burro music, US Western and film soundtracks, Easy Listening and even classical music." (Indeed, a subsequent version of another Western movie theme, "The Guns of Navarone," gave the Skatelites a minor UK hit in 1965.)

Skatelites' "Exodus" (1964)

The Skatalites at this time were Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso (tenor saxes), Lester Sterling (alto sax), Don Drummond (trombone), Johnny Moore (trumpet), Jackie Mittoo (piano), Jah Jerry (guitar), Lloyd Brevett (bass) and Lloyd Knibbs (drums). According to Wikipedia, the Skatelites broke up at the end of 1965 and split into two "supergroups":  Rolando Alphonso and the Soul Vendors and Tommy McCook and the Supersonics.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Love Comes to a Building in Hell

I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp
by Richard Hell
(Eco, 2013, 304 pages)

"This is the story of my life up until I stopped playing music and stop using drugs."
- Richard Hell

I just finished reading Richard Hell's new autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (an anniversary present from my sweetheart), which covers Hell's wild sex, drugs & rock 'n' roll adventures from the time he fled the hills of Lexington, KY in 1966 to reinvent himself in The Big Apple through his "retirement" from pop music and (more importantly) drug addiction in 1984. That's right, the book ends in 1984 when the man christened Richard Meyers finally decided to attend Narcotics Anonymous and commit himself to a comparatively healthier life as a full-time writer.

Blank Generation: He can take it or leave it each time

I have to admit that - while I was a fan both of his band The Voidoids and his abilities as a punk lyricist (for me he's right up there with Dylan, Syd Barrett, and Robyn Hitchcock as a wordsmith) - I was a little disappointed in his actual life story. Perhaps the book is just a reflection of what he wrote about his most famous song, the iconic punk anthem "Blank Generation": "...really the song was an evasion of explanation, as most attempts to write something decent are."

The rock 'n' roll part of his CV with three legendary bands (early Neon Boys/Television, The Heartbreakers, The Voidoids) and three legendary guitarists (Tom Verlaine, Johnny Thunders, and Robert Quine) has previously been exhaustively examined in two excellent oral histories - Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me (1996 - the title came from a line on an early Television poster) and Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids (1993) - and there are few surprises here. Yes, Hell and Verlaine famously loved, and then loathed, one another, as only egomaniacs seeing  mirror reflections of themselves could ("I'm like him for God's sake. I am him"); Johnny Thunders was a fellow addict, so they did lotsa drugs together, but in Thunders Hell found someone even lazier than himself, as least intellectually, and completely rooted in the old Chuck Berry-era School of Rock; and the introspective Quine - arguably the most talented and original guitarist with whom Hell worked -  was every bit as insecure and angry as Hell, but lacked his spiky shock of locks and effortless club-scene cool, so their partnership was born to lose as well. Quine was particularly miffed when Hell, at the height of his junkiedom, couldn't be bothered with playing bass (not that the world's ears suffered any from the loss). Few spoilers there, either.

Early Television was Hell-bent for leather

Hell sums up his Big Three musical collaborations rather succinctly: "I was happy for 5 minutes in Television, 10 in Heartbreakers, and 20 Voidoids." 'Nuff said!

Richard Hell and Patty Mucha

Hell comes off as unblinkingly honest in his self-examination, but that honesty reveals a fairly lazy, egocentric narcissist who was obsessed with fame and drugs and sex - and hoo boy there's a lot of the latter! Love may have come in spurts, but sex came in a tidal wave of opportunities and Hell was delighted to be awash in them. Everyone from escorts and friends' girlfriends to Claes Oldenburg's Cougar Town ex-wife Patty Mucha ("She was...a funny rich chick who liked my company and took good care of me and loved having sex"), CBGB club girl Anya Phillips (who was also stripper and dominatrix but was Hell's ties-that-bind sex slave), and even Baltimore's own Dreamland Studios starlet Cookie Mueller ("A trailer-park-style girl" and "kick-ass memoirist" with "the most muscular ass of any woman I've ever known" that Hell genuinely liked, even though he would go on to steal drugs from her in his darkest hours), who went from having sex with chickens in John Waters's Pink Flamingos to writing a health column for the East Village Eye - a juxtaposition Hell rightly finds quite amusing!

That's the way it crumbles, Cookie-wise

"When you're young enough, you can get away with anything," Hell observes at one point. And he did, for a long time (especially with the ladies). He adds that "it's part of the beauty of rock and roll that it's about people with no conventional skill, but only assertive youthfulness, becoming fascinating."

Anya Phillips: Slave to love.

Hell was certainly a Bad Boy and dove deep into the shallow waters of the rock lifestyle. After all, as a writer, he understood that "doing bad" is what sells.

"Who's good and who's bad anyway? People like villains as often as they like heroes. Americans love winners all the more if they lied and cheated and coerced their way to the top...in America losers are considered fools if they haven't played dirty enough. Winning justifies everything." In his case, he could have added, "Being a rock star justifies everything."

And, speaking of strange fascinations...in a sign of his furry '70s times, Hell admits he really likes pubes (wonder if he subscribed to Hair To Stay?), as revealed in this passage about his girlfriend Nan: "In those days girls didn't groom their pubic hair. That was sexy - it was an animalistic sign of individuality, despite a girl's otherwise carefully managed appearance." He added (in a line destined to stick with me forever, unfortunately), "Nan's pussy...was slick, like a squeaky rubber duck."

But what's surprising is how dispassionate Hell is talking about his multiple trysts, relationships, and betrayals (Hell may have sang "Betrayal takes two," but his "one" always guaranteed a betrayal well done) - he waxes far more poetic talking about drugs (heroin, cocaine, and speed being his Holy Trinity) and his apartments. Especially 173 Elizabeth Street: "The best I ever had."

Yes, Hell got way more emo for his bare-boned living quarters - not to mention his shooting galleries, his beloved bookstores and rock 'n' roll clubs - than for any single woman or relationship mentioned in the 300-plus pages of his autobiography.

Maybe that's because, as he writes "Anything said about sex is going to push people's buttons and arouse resentments, interfering with communication...everyone's sensitive to how it's talked about, including me..."

Richard Hell's New York (New York Post)

Writing about things was easier. In fact, the New York Post even featured a list of Hell's Top 10 favorite NYC locations called "My New York," that contains some of his most inspired writing - about "broken-toothy" buildings and other inanimate objects! One of Hell's favorite spots was a weed- and graffiti-covered vacant "Mystery Lot" (as shown below) between 14th Street and 13th Street east of Third Avenue (soon to be an 82-unit, eight-story development).

Vacant Lot, north side of 13th Street between 2nd and 3rd Ave.

Here's Hell's full Top 10 countdown of favorite NYC buildings and spaces:

1. Ziegfeld Theatre, 141 W. 54th St.
“I love it! It has a huge screen, which is rare now. And the auditorium is really big — the size that you just don’t see anymore. And all the seats are really comfortable. The whole environment still has that flavor of going to see a movie where they wanted to make you feel like royalty. Beautiful lighting, curtains, the seats are plush. I saw Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ there in 3-D. The Ziegfeld was the perfect venue for it.”

2. Madison Avenue, between 59th and 86th streets.
“It’s mildly embarrassing, but I like to window-shop here and buy shoes sometimes, where it’s all the really haute designer label kind of stuff. If something takes me up to that area, I’ll usually take 20 minutes and look at it all. It’s like a beautiful walk in the woods in the winter, looking in these shop windows. Everything is sparkling and pretty.”

3. The courtyard of his grandmother Linda Meyers’ apartment building, 72 Barrow St., at Hudson Street
“I came here when I just turned 17. She would invite me over for dinner every couple of weeks. That courtyard has always been a kind of little oasis to me. The walkways are paved with shale, and there are these flower beds — filled [in season] with Life Savers-colored tulips. And a really pretty urn on a stone pedestal in the middle, and a couple of fruit trees. Going where my grandmother lived is good for my disposition, soothing.”

4. Underneath the Manhattan Bridge, Manhattan side
“For about 10 years — from the mid-’90s — I had a car here, a ’68 Plymouth Satellite, bright yellow, kind of souped-up. You could go park your car there and work on it. I might be changing the sparkplugs, replacing some part. It was all desolate. There were just these big, wide streets, vacant lots, seedy buildings. I like emptiness.”

5. Horn & Hardart, formerly on 14th Street, near Irving Place
“I was living with a roommate at 1 Irving Place shortly after I arrived here. It had a Horn & Hardart automat underneath it. I used to go in there because they didn’t have a very thorough busboy service. So I’d go in and sit down at a table that had just been vacated, and eat the food that was left on the table.”

6. Cinemabilia, 10 W. 13th St. (no longer there)
“I worked here, and I started off packing. They sold scripts, film literature — just about anything made of paper associated with movies. I got some good stills from [Jean-Luc] Godard films there of [actress] Anna Karina. I also got this amazing education there about movies, and used to enjoy Andrew Sarris’ film columns for the Village Voice. By the time I left Cinemabilia, I had a side business going writing term papers for students in his film class at Columbia. $75 was a guaranteed B+. It was significant to me because we actually got off the ground as a band [Television] when I was working there. It was the manager of the store, Terry Ork, who enabled us to get on our feet as a band. He knew Richard Lloyd, who became our guitarist, and we practiced at Terry’s loft in Chinatown. He also became, nominally, our manager.”

7. Strand Bookstore, 828 Broadway
“I got my first job there when I was 20. I packed — down in the basement, when it was just for employees — for libraries and also for private customers. The great thing about it was that the management was really kid-friendly. It tended to attract young people to work there who were artistically inclined — writers or musicians — so it was really congenial. And you got a discount on the books. I bought books every payday. It’s amazing that it hasn’t lost the kind of appeal that it had for me then.”

8. Hudson’s army-navy store, formerly at Third Avenue and 13th Street
“They had all kinds of functional and low-priced clothes — jeans, T-shirts, work boots. I got the suits that the Voidoids wore for our debut at CBGB. They were black corduroy, suits you’d imagine a miner would wear to church in West Virginia.”

9. Chinatown market area, near corner of Bowery and Canal Street
“It’s just full of life, and almost all locals, not tourists. You just feel this whole other flavor of another culture. It’s almost like going to China. All this beautiful fresh fruit and this wild seafood — half of it is alive. I was down there a week or two ago with my wife, and there was this big plastic bucket, 2-feet-high, and we glanced down and it was filled to the brim, completely thick with 4-inch-long frogs — alive. I wish I knew how to prepare that food.”

10. Vacant lot, north side of 13th Street, between Second and Third avenues (now a construction site)
“Whenever I would have to walk across town, I’d try to wrap myself down 13th Street. The lot was all overgrown. And when you were walking down 13th, the buildings that were still standing on 14th Street gave it this kind of broken-toothy kind of edge to it. A friend of mine wanted to make a movie with me — and my first idea was to do something in that lot. I put on a bunch of wounded-person makeup and staggered out from behind one of the 14th Street buildings. I have the footage, somewhere.

And don't forget, Hell even wrote a 1,000-word essay lauding the merits of "CBGB As a Physical Space" as the intro to the John Putnam (photos)  and Christopher D. Sayles (text) book CBGB: Decades of Graffiti (Mark Batty Publishing, 2006).


Hell concludes the book with this reflection:
"If I had died in 1984, at the point this book ends, as could easily have happened, there would have been left such scant evidence of me that my life would be mostly just a sad cautionary tale. It's by writing a book like this one that I am redeemed at all. My life is not different for having written this book - my life only comes into being by having been written here."

Like Ray Davies musing that "People Take Pictures of Each Other" just to prove that they really existed, I think Hell was motivated to pen this memoir so that there would be a record of his scarred, "broken-toothy"-edged existence back in the day, warts and all. Much like his beloved vacant lot on 13th Street between Second and Third Avenues - before it's bulldozed over and prettied up for a new (blank?) generation. He - and we - can take it or leave it.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Northmen, Neanderthals & Mist Monsters

Eaters of the Dead: The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan Relating the Experiences with the Northmen in A.D. 922
by Michael Crichton
(Knopf, 1976, 193 pages)

My girlfriend Amy asked me to check if the library had this book by the author of Jurassic Park and, indeed, we did. Intrigued by her description of it as the earliest written account of her beloved Vikings (who are my golden-tressed, blue-eyed ancestors), I decided to read it myself.

Crichton's novel (which was later made into John McTiernan's 1999 film The 13th Warrior, starring Antonio Banderas) is based on two primary the sources: 1) the first three chapters draw from the journals of the real-life 10th century Arab missionary, Ibn Fadlan, who is considered one of the great Medieval travelers in world history, and 2) the epic story of Beowulf, which every English major is forced to read in its original "old English" in high school. The time period and geography of both stories roughly intersect with one another in the early 10th century in Scandinavia.

Sent by the Caliph in Baghdad to visit the king of the Bulghars, Ibn Fadlan described the tribes and cultures he encountered along the way, including the earliest account of the Vikings (whom he called the Rusiya, or Rus, after a tribe he met), whose tribes stretched westward from the Volga river in Russia to the Scandinavian lands of Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Western scholars have been fascinated by the explorer's exploits ever since Richard Frye first translated his journals into English under the title Ibn Fadlan's Journey To Russia. Crichton refers to these Vikings simply as Northmen, a variation on Norsemen.

As for incorporating the Beowulf legend into his novel, Crichton has said he was inspired by a good friend's lecture on "Great Bores of Literature." While his friend considered Beowulf a dull and uninteresting work, Crichton begged to differ and insisted that the story could be interesting if presented in the correct way. The result was Eaters of the Dead, where Beowulf is represented by the valiant Norse warrior Buliwyf and his fire-breathing dragon adversary Grendel is tranformed into the savage "mist monsters" of the corpse-eating Wendol tribe.

As with major league baseball pitchers, I guess it's all in the delivery. Or, as they say in the restaurant business, presentation is everything. Because somehow Beowulf has become fodder for Hollywood-style action movies, starting with 1999's Beowulf (starring Christopher Lambert) and The 13th Warrior (starring Antonio Bandaras), and followed by 2005's Beowulf and Grendel (starring Gerard Butler) and the 2007 TV movie Grendel (starring Chris Bruno as Beowulf and CGI FX as Grendel).

But Crichton was one of the first to view the Beowulf story as something exciting. In the appendix to his novel, Crichton also tries to correct what he perceives as another misconception: that Neanderthals (whose physical characteristics are similar to that of the brutish, hirsute "mist monsters" described by Ibn Fadlan) 1) disappeared from the earth thousands of year ago, and 2) were somehow synonymous with "all that is dumb and bestial in human nature."

All we are asking is give Neanderthals a chance!

Crichton believes it's possible that a group of Neanderthals might have survived very late in an isolated region of Scandinavia and that far from being brutish, they merely may have lacked the "level of cultural attainment manifested by Scandinavians." Going by the description of the hard-drinking, hard-battling, hard-rutting Northmen/Vikings in Ibn Fadlan's narrative, the fruit hardly fell far from the tree, "cultural attainment"-wise.

After all, didn't he describe how they flavored their soup with freshly-blown snot?

Viking cuisine: It's snot what you think!

The debate and the misconceptions may never be settled by historical scholars - Crichton cites physicist Gerhard Robbins's famous observation that "strictly speaking, no hypothesis or theory can ever be proven. It can only be disproven. When we say we believe a theory, what we really mean is that we are unable to show that the theory is wrong - not that we are able to show, beyond a doubt, that the theory is right" - so it's refreshing that the author has let our imaginations be the judge in his thought-provoking fictional work.

Related Links:
The 13th Warrior (YouTube)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

You Don't Love Me Yet (****)

You Don't Love Me Yet
by Jonathan Lethem
(Doubleday, 2007, 224 pages)

I'm a big fan of Jonathan Lethem's writing, both fiction and non-fiction. We like similar things (Marvel comics, John Ford Westerns, Philip K. Dick, indie rock) and in a perfect world would probably be friends on Facebook. Though most acclaimed for his 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel Motherless Brooklyn (his take on the detective mystery, which featured a sleuth afflicted with Tourette's syndrome and reflected his love of stretching genres "to their limits and beyond") and the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age bestseller The Fortress of Solitude - which according to Wikipedia helped seal his rep among critics as "a master craftsmen of language" and led to the MacArthur Foundation awarding him a coveted "genius grant" in 2005 - I've so far only taken the back way into his books (I guess I'm working up the courage to tackle the "heavy stuff"); thus, I've read only his shorter, smaller, peripheral works like personal fave Chronic City, the short story collection Men and Cartoons, his non-fiction essays in The Disappointment Artist, and (with co-author Karl Rusnuk and artists Paul Hornschemeir, Farel Dalrymple, and Gary Panter) his revival of the Marvel comic series Omega the Unknown.

Lethem's sixth novel, You Don't Love Me Yet - a slim, 224-page light-hearted romantic comedy-style story of struggling rock bands (struggling even to come up with a name for themselves) and conceptual artists living in L.A. - continues my strategy of tackling the shorter works before attempting to scale Lethem's literary mountains. You Don't Love Me Yet received mixed reviews at the time of its release in 2007, which Lethem attributed to his novel's intentionally "silly and light tone."

Cover girl Lucinda Hoekke
The story follows the fortunes of Lucinda Hoekke, a hard-drinking 29-year-old former coffee shop wage slave who now divides her time between answering the "Complaint Line" at her pretentious ex-boyfriend Falmouth's "performance art gallery" and playing bass in an indie rock group so unfocused they can't even decide on a name. The other members of the band include skinny vegan lead singer Matthew (yet another former beau of Lucinda's who kidnaps a depressed kangaroo from the zoo where he works in order to save it from boredom); Denise, the dedicated drummer who works at the "No Shame" sex shop (which makes me think of Audrey Tattou's elusive boy-toy in Amelie);  and Bedwin, the feckless foursome's shy genius composer and lead guitarist, who is obsessed with Alex Chilton's cult '70s band Big Star and Fritz Lang's film Human Desire (1952), which he watches repeatedly. (I most related to Bedwin, not due to the genius angle - far from it! - but because of our similar reclusive social lives; I too find nothing better than staying home listening to Big Star and watching old movies. What else is there? Especially now with Me TV and This TV as home viewing options!)

Lucinda falls for a regular caller she names "The Complainer," whose reflections about love, sex and life amuse her. She eventually hooks up with the anonymous caller, whose name is Carl Voglesong (though Lucinda re-christians him Carl Birdkiller) and incorporates his catchphrases and stories as song lyrics for her band. His musings about having "Monster eyes" becomes, in turn, both the band's signature song and, inevitably, the band's short-lived name. And Lucinda soon becomes obsessed with Carl the Complainer, to the point where she moves in with him, while Carl soon invades her space, forcing his way into the band as its proverbial "fifth Beatle" by right of his Lucinda-lifted lyrics. Carl the Complainer has become Carl the Copyright Claimer.

Monster Eyes's successful performance at Falmouth's loft party (christened "Aparty") leads Fancher Autumnbreast (a legendary John Peel-ish alternative DJ) to book the band to perform live on his popular music radio program. But Carl disrupts their radio broadcast,with unforeseen romantic and musical consequences.

This leads into the touchy area of when imitation moves beyond flattery into the murky realm of plagiarism, which Lethem apparently believes is always a fine line for artists. (Rod Serling famously said that as a young writer, he was always subconsciously parroting Hemingway, claiming all his early stories seemed to open with variations of "It was hot.")

According to National Public Radio's Linda Kulper, this gray area that surrounds "intellectual property rights" and the artist's creative process is keeping with the focus of Lethem's February 2007 Harper's essay, "The Ecstasy of Influence" (subtitled "A Plagiarism" and later to provide the title of his 2011 non-fiction essay collection), in which he posits that imitation is not just the greatest form of flattery but "lies at the core of the creative process." So much so that Lethem announced he would "give away" the movie rights to any parties interested in You Don't Love Me Yet. (And, hey, this would make quite a good film; I can see a number of cast members of Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls fitting the bill - perhaps Christopher Abbott as the sexy Matthew and Adam Driver as the arty-farty Falmouth - and Zach Galifianakis as chubby Carl the Complainer.)

To illustrate his point, Lethem even cleverly "repurposed" John Donne's famous "No man is an island" lines from "Meditation XVII" in his essay:
All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. . . .
 —John Donne
Another case in point, Lethem adds:
In a courtroom scene from The Simpsons that has since entered into the television canon, an argument over the ownership of the animated characters Itchy and Scratchy rapidly escalates into an existential debate on the very nature of cartoons. “Animation is built on plagiarism!” declares the show’s hot-tempered cartoon-producer-within-a-cartoon, Roger Meyers Jr. “You take away our right to steal ideas, where are they going to come from?” If nostalgic cartoonists had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show; without the Rankin/Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, there would be no South Park; and without The Flintstones — more or less The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths — The Simpsons would cease to exist. 
He goes on to name-check a Who's Who of Pop Cultural Appropriators, from William Burroughs (inventor of the cut-up text technique) to Bob "Love and Theft" Dylan. His own influences for "genre poaching" include everyone from Angela Carter, Robert Altman, and Raymond Chandler to and Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, and H. P. Lovecraft (to name but a few).

Lethem's web site (www.jonathanlethem.com) further champions the principle of "fair use," the author stating that all artists should look for ways "to make material free and available for reuse."

As Hannah Gerber observed (appropriately enough in the New York Observer), "For better and for worse, Mr. Lethem is part of a vanguard of Gen-X writers whose M.O. is to put a literary gloss on their pop culture enthusiasms."

Works for me! I truly enjoyed You Don't Love Me Yet. In fact, I loved it!

See also:
"Men and Cartoons" (Media Maxi-Pad)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Twilight Zone - "The Silence" (*****)


"The note that this man is carrying across a  club room is in the form of a proposed wager, bu it's the kind of wager that comes without precedent. It stands alone in the annals of bet-making as the strangest game of chance ever offered by one man to another. In just a moment, we'll see the terms of the wager and what young Mr. Tennyson does about it. And in the process, we'll witness all parties spin a wheel of chance in a very bizarre casino called the Twilight Zone."

Me TV has been airing Rod Serling's original The Twilight Zone series in glorious black-and-white weekdays at 11 p.m. and back-to-back episodes at 11 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Sunday nights. Last night I saw that "The Silence" (a Season 2 episode originally broadcast on April 28, 1961) was airing and made sure I recorded it.

Jamie Tennyson's lips are sealed in "The Silence"

This is probably my favorite episode of The Twilight Zone and the one I remember best - because it totally creeped me out! This despite being one of only a handful of TZ episodes that contained no fantasy or science fiction elements.

And what an all-star cast: veteran film star Franchot Tone, Jonathan Harris (later to find fame as Dr. Zachary Smith on TV's sci-fi kitsch series Lost In Space), and Liam Sullivan (who was a memorable LSD guru - and obvious Timothy Leary stand-in - on the 1968 Dragnet episode "The Big Prophet").

The story concerns a talkative member of a gentleman's club named Jamie Tennyson (Liam Sullivan) whose constant chatter so annoys Col. Archie Taylor (Franchot Tone) that the Colonel offers him $500,000 if he can remain silent for one year, living in a glass enclosure in the club's basement. Tennyson accepts the "vow of silence" wager - but at what cost? And while both Tone and Sullivan are good actors, are their characters both acting in good faith?

Rod Serling's teleplay, loosely based on Anton Chekhov's short story "The Bet," is one of the classic Twilight Zone episodes, one whose ending (as one YouTube reviewer perfectly phrased it) will leave one speechless.

Silence is Golden?

According to IMDB.com, Franchot Tone filmed the episode's club sequences in the early part of production before suffering a face-injury, leaving the left side of his face was swollen. But the producers opted not to hire a new actor or redo Tone's scenes; instead, they resumed filming but only having exposed the right side of the actor's injured face to the camera, causing Tone's character to be denied eye contact while mocking Sullivan's - in effect making made his character a more complex one.

And Rod Serling's parting words?
"Mr. Jamie Tennyson, who almost won a bet, but who discovered somewhat belatedly that gambling can be a most unproductive pursuit...[For] somewhere beyond him a wheel was turned and his number came up black thirteen. If you don't believe it, ask the croupier, the very special one who handles roulette - in the Twilight Zone."
Following is a sample clip from Liam Sullivan's tour de force acid guru performance from the Dragnet episode "The Big Prophet" (originally broadcast january 11, 1968); in this clip, Sullivan gets a few head nods in during Joe Friday (Jack Webb)'s "Alcohol Vs. Marijuana & LSD" monologue:

"Marijuana is the flame, heroin is the fuse, LSD is the bomb!"

Watch the full episode at Hulu.com.

And here we have the great Jonathan Harris exhibiting the kind of emoting for which he became famous on Lost In Space:

And here's an ultra-hip Jonathan Harris "freaking out" and dancing on Lost In Space.

Me TV is one of life's great joys for Baby Boomers like me, my girlfriend Amy and my overgrown-child pal Dave Cawley (to mention but a few fans!). Forget MTV - pfffft! - I want my M(e)TV!

See also:
Programs on Me TV (from 12 O'Clock High to Wild Wild West)

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Adventures of Freddy Lombard (***)


Chaland Anthology #1: Freddy Lombard
Written by Yves Chaland with Yann Lepennetier
Art by Yves Chaland
Humanoids/DC Comics (2004)

Chaland Anthology #2: Freddy Lombard  
Yves Chaland (Story & art)
Humanoids/DC Comics (2005)

Yves Chaland
I picked up these two paperback volumes of the Chaland Anthology series for $5 apiece at the Daedalus Books & Music warehouse outlet on Monday because, well, the ligne claire-style artwork - while admittedly derivative of Belgian artist Herge (Georges Remi), who pioneered the Franco-Belgian "clear-line" (or "Atomic") style in his Tintin comics - was so beautiful.  The stories themselves are not so beautiful, being almost an afterthought, though one at least tackles topical fare by setting Freddy Lombard's adventures against the backdrop of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution that was put down by Soviet tanks ("Holiday in Budapest").

I had never heard of the artist who created these works, Yves Chaland, but later learned he was born the same year as me, 1957, and would have been my contemporary if not for a tragic car accident in 1990 that cut short his promising career at age 33. Besides Freddy Lombard, Chaland also created the characters Bob Fish, Adolphus Claar, and Le Jeune Albert (Young Albert) in the 1980s for the weekly comics journal Spirou.

The Adventures of Freddy Lombard were the only works by Chaland to be released in English and were published here in two compilation albums - Vol. 1 containing the first three adventures ("The Will of Godfrey of Bouillon," "The Elephant's Graveyard," "Comet To Carthage"), and the Vol. 2 containing the last two ("Holiday in Budapest," "F.52") -  by Humanoids/DC Comics. They were initially released in hardback in 2003 and later in softback editions in 2004 and 2005.

Shop and compare: Freddy vs. Tintin

Yes, Freddy is an blatantly obvious Tintin clone. But unlike Herge's Tintin adventures, Chaland's Freddy Lombard stories are much more adult in nature, much looser in terms of narrative arc (stories tend to fizzle out at the end), and feature three morally sketchy characters - the beautiful Dina, the muscular Sweep (whose balding pate reminds me of Carl Anderson's mute comic character Henry or perhaps Harold of Purple Crayon fame), and the titular Tintin-esque Freddy Lombard (who sports a blond tuft of hair in place of Tintin's signature carrot-top but still favors "plus four"-style pantaloons) - who aren't exactly "good Scouts."

The Heroic Trio: Sweep, Freddy and Dina

The backstory is that they are Gypsy-esque slackers who sponge off the largess of Freddy's uncle as they travel the Continent and beyond, always struggling to find employment and make ends meet.

As an example of Chaland's mature approach to the Lombard adventures, look no further than "Holiday in Budapest" (a title right up there with the Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia" for ironic effect) and the sexual tones of its subplot involving Sweep and horny Russian operative Svetlana. In the strip shown below, the first panel showing Sweep's head entering Svetlana's coat like a  train entering a tunnel (itself a very sexual image!) is truly fantastic; I would frame this one panel as picture on my wall, as this is the one image most evocative of Chaland's style.

Svetlana wants Sweep to flex his love muscle.

Svetlana: "Where are my lovely young cheeks of bygone days?"

Svetlana calls Sweep her "Caucasian stallion," which must be a reference to the then-Soviet Union's Caucasus region because Sweep is, for some reason (printer's error?) actually inked with brown skin in this adventure (which is kind of confusing).

Some of the stories veer into downright creepiness, especially Chaland's final story "F.52," which features a "retarded child" and a married couple who may be either kidnappers or pedophiles.

"Ha! ha! She's a unicorn!" Notify the Better Parenting Council!

"This kid is retarded. Look at me, I'm normal!"

"F.52"'s oddball characters and dialogue make me think it could have sprung from the pages of Daniel Clowes' Eightball, especially in its cruel depiction of the retarded girl and her sadistic "parents" (wards? kidnappers?) on the flight.

And Freddy isn't always the protagonist in these narratives (I'd be hard-pressed to call him a "hero" - certainly not in the Joseph Campbell sense of the term) (now both Tintin and Snowy would qualify as Campbell heroes!), sometimes taking a backseat to his muscular pal Sweep and the even-keeled Dina.

Chaland's natives are restless - and sterotypical
The two examples cited above are from the Chaland Anthology #2, which I liked better than the stories in Chaland Anthology #1 and which includes over 30 pages of bonus material, including covers, short stories, and concept sketches.

But if you thought Herge's Tintin au Congo (Tintin in the Congo) was politically incorrect, your mouth will drop in Volume #1's tale "The Elephant's Graveyard," which features Sub-Saharan Africa natives drawn in a borderline-racist big-lipped style.

At least Herge's long-suppressed Congo adventure was written in the 1930s when the Congo was still under Belgium's (cruel and exploitative) colonial rule and must be viewed in the context of its times; there's no such "plausible deniability" excuse for Chaland's 1980s depictions of Africans.

"The Elephant's Graveyard" is actually the second part of two interconnected stories (the first concerns the trio's trip to Africa to track down some rare glass photographic plates for an eccentric collector). (OK, did I mention how sketchy the narrative arcs are?)
Still, despite the confusing storylines and sometimes questionable taste, there's no denying the visual appeal of this artist and his characters. Tintin still rules the Franco-Belgian comics roost as far as I'm concerned, but the "Tintin-grown-up" adventures of Freddy and his pals are well-worth a look, too.

In parting, here's a very good overview of the Chaland aesthetic from Read About Comics:
If I had to sum up the Freddy Lombard stories as quickly as possible, it would be “what if Tintin grew up?” Like the lead character in Herg√©’s famed Tintin graphic novels, Freddy Lombard travels the globe with action and adventure close behind… but there’s a more adult sort of sensibility to Chaland’s stories. Maybe it’s Freddy’s attitude of slumming his way through life, all the while still ending up in fantastic situations and adventures. Chaland’s anti-hero still brings a great deal of tension to his stories, though. The final album, F.52, was so tense that I found myself breathlessly turning the pages at 2am, unable to put the book down even though I really could have used the sleep.

As good as Chaland’s stories got the further he went along, it’s the art that had originally caught my eye. Chaland’s clean lines will once more evoke the name of Herg√©. There’s a certain amount of menace that I found in Chaland, though, that I don’t remember in my friend’s Tintin albums. Maybe it’s the stories themselves, but Chaland is able to make just about any situation menacing, from a trip into the jungle to tanks rolling through Budapest. Everything is painstakingly drawn, and it’s easy to see why Chaland’s often referred to as an “artist’s artist”; the number of people who were picking the Chaland Anthology line in French who couldn’t read a single word says something about the power of Chaland’s gorgeous inks. As an added sidenote, the rich colors in these albums (especially the reds and purples) are really gorgeous, bringing an added dimension to the work.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Film Snob's Dictionary

The Film Snob*s Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of Filmological Knowledge
By David Kamp with Lawrence Levi
Illustrated by Ross McDonald
(Random House, 2006, 114 pages)
* Film Snob (n): reference term for the sort of movie obsessive for whom the actual enjoyment of motion pictures is but a side dish to the accumulation of arcane knowledge about them.
Of all the books I picked up during a recent book-hoarding spree at the Daedalus Books & Music warehouse outlet in Columbia, MD, none was more prized than this snarky little tome by the same author of my equally-prized The Rock Snob's Dictionary. (Visit snobsite.com - "the online site of cultural snobbism" - to see these titles as well as the similary-spirited The Food Snob's Dictionary and The Wine Snob's Dictionary.) Yes, I am a film snob and yes, I too once toiled in a video store where film snobs (and film geeks, like Quentin Tarantino) are weaned.

The Film Snob knows "insiderist arcana"!
The film snob is a sub-niche of Hipsterdom ruled by "proprietary knowingness,"  in which the pleasure one takes from watching movies "derives not from the sensory pleasure of watching them, but also from knowing more about them than you do, and from jealously guarding this knowledge from the cheesy, Julia Roberts-loving masses." It is this refusal to educate or share their "insiderist arcana" with the Stupid and Ineducable Masses, the authors argue, that sets the film snob apart from the film buff - the latter described as "the effervescent, Scorcese-style enthusiast who delights in introducing novitiates to The Bicycle Thief [sic] and Powell-Pressburger movies."

Though it's organized alphabetically, like a dictionary, and doesn't have to be read start-to-finish, I am enjoying it so much, that I probably will read it that way. One thing is does do is close the knowledge gap and level the playing field so that, in the words of the author, "No longer must you suffer silently as some clerk in a 'Tod Browning's Freaks" T-shirt bombards you with baffling allusions to 'wire-fu' pictures, 'Todd-AO process,' and 'Sam Raimi.'"

I love the introductory essay by the authors, especially the following section (in which one could substitute "AV Librarian" for "surly video store clerk"):

Who Is the Film Snob?
The archetypal Film Snob is familiar to anyone who has walked through the doors of an independent video store and encountered a surly clerk - hostile of mien, short on patience, apt to chastise you for not intuiting that Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket is in the James L. Brooks section "because Brooks was the movie's executive producer!" Perhaps this clerk has a shelfful of his own recommendations on display - David Cronenberg's Scanners, the complete filmography of Steve Zahn, the Italian women-in-prison pic Women of Devil's Island, and, oh, The Human Tornado, the second of the raunch Dolemite features that starred the blaxploitation comic Rudy Ray Moore in the 1970s. As you walk up to the counter with your copy of Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, this clerk heaves an audible, exasperated sigh, dutifully but contemptuously processing the transaction and sending you on your way with your wretched cinematic piffle.

Before video players and pay-cable movie channels, the ranks of such Snobs were thin. Film buffs enlisted in campus film societies or went to repertory cinemas for their old-movie and foreign-film fixes, or simply watched whatever faded offerings were indifferently shoved on TV via the Late Show, the Million Dollar Movie, or some other grim rubric. [For me, it was WBFF Fox 45, which screened all the Bergman and Fellini movies late at night - because they were "European" and hence "mature-themed" - in the 1970s!] Diehard cineasts who wished to watch one film over and over again really had to work at it, attending the same theater for several consecutive days, or gaining access to a projector by joining their school's AV club (and thereby consigning themselves to leper status socially). But the rise of VCRs and such services as HBO and Cinemax in the late 1970s and early '80s effected a huge change, enabling multiple viewing and wholesale absorption of a film's content and technique. Youngsters who sat impatiently through HBO's airings of Peter Bogdanovich's wilderness-period film Saint Jack (1979) because the cable guide promised "nudity" and "situations" soon found themselves contemplating Bogdanovich's camera angles, Ben Gazzara's line readings, and cinematographer Robby Muller's lighting. Lo, Film Snobs were being born."

Typical entries:
Cahiers du Cinema. The single greatest force in inviting ridicule of French intellectuals as absurdist twits. Founded in 1951, the still-extant Paris-based monthly first attracted American attention when, in 1954, it published Francois Truffaut's AUTEUR THEORY. Subsequent issues built mytholgies around such red-blooded Americans as DON SIEGEL, SAMUEL FULLER, and NICHOLAS RAY, puttingfar more thought into analysis of these directors' B pictures than the directors had put into making them. Cahiers du Cinema also abetted the French mania for Jerry Lewis, deeming him "le Roi du Crazy."
Facets Video. Comprehensively stocked video shop in Film Snob–choked Chicago, renowned for its array of foreign titles and Francophile pretensions; it prefers to be known as a “videotheque,” not a store, and its adjunct theater—which offers “cinechats” with such visiting directors as GUY MADDIN and PETER GREENAWAY—is called a “cinematheque.” Arguably the only video shop with a self-imposed mandate to turn impressionable children into Film Snobs, Facets offers a Future Filmmaker Membership that allows kids to borrow such titles as City Lights and Silas Marner for free.

Film Comment. Smug, aggressively elitist bimonthly magazie published by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Where Snobs go to read (or write) dithery articles about BOLLYWOOD and despairing critiques of popular cinema.

Movies vs. Films (Know the Difference!):
It's a MOVIE if  it makes the cover of Premiere.
It's a film if it makes the cover of Cahiers du Cinema.

It's a MOVIE if it's black-and-white because it's old.
It's a FILM if it's black-and-white because it's Jarmuschy.

It's a MOVIE if it has T&A in it.
It's a FILM if it has penises in it.

When Billy Crystal gets the urge to direct, he makes a MOVIE.
When Clint Eastwood gets the urge to direct, he makes a FILM.
It's a MOVIE if its makers slipped lots of amusing stuff into the end-credits so you'd stay behind to watch them.
It's a FILM if it's end-credits are normal, boring end-credits, but everyone around you stays to watch them anyway.

Bruce Willis, a MOVIE guy, gained FILM credibility by being in Pulp Fiction. Steve Buscemi, a FILM guy, gained MOVIE  credibility by being in Armageddon.

It's a MOVIE if there are black people in it, unless the black person is Forest Whitaker or Jeffrey Wright.
It's a FILM if it there are Asian people in it, unless the Asian person is Jackie Chan or Jet Li.
A John Grisham novel becomes a crappy MOVIE.
A Garbriel Garcia Marquez novel becomes a crappy FILM.
It's a MOVIE if its male lead is hurled through plate glass.
It's a FILM if its male lead has sexual urgings for young boys, his sister, or his mother.

The Coen brothers are MOVIE buffs who make FILMS.
It's a MOVIE if it's preceded by a trailer for the latest Jerry Bruckheimer epic.
It's a FILM if it's preceded by an announcement from a pear-shaped, balding man down in front who identifies himself as "Michael, the programming director."

It's a FILM if it's from the Indian subcontinent, even if the people in the Indian subcontinent think it's a MOVIE.

Tom Waits will never, ever star in a MOVIE.
Tom Hanks will never, ever star in a FILM.
Surprisingly, no mention of Rainer Werner Fassbinder is to be found here. Hmmmm.

See also:
snobsite.com (the online site of cultural snobbism)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Men and Cartoons

Men and Cartoons
by Jonathan Lethem
(Random House, 2004)

I have been a fan of Jonatham Lethem ever since I read his 2009 novel Chronic City, which starred the one-of-a-kind brilliant eccentric Perkus Tooth (who in turn reminded me of a one-of-a-kind brilliant eccentric librarian I worked with). Set in Upper East Side Manhattan, Chronic City unraveled a tale of a circle of friends that included a faded child-star actor (Chase Insteadman) whose astronaut girlfriend is lost in space, a cultural critic squatter (Perkus Tooth), a hack ghost-writer of autobiographies (Oona Laszlo), and a city official blowhard (Richard Abneg), joined together by their love of smoking pot and online bidding for chalices.

I subsequently picked up a collection of his non-fiction essays, The Disappointment Artist (2006), which Lethem described as "a series of covert and not-so-covert autobiographical pieces." I was impressed by his love of Western pop culture - especially the films of John Ford ("Defending The Searchers") and John Cassevetes ("Two or Three Things I Dunno About Cassevetes") and the science fiction worlds of Philip K. Dick ("You Don't Know Dick") - and realized we had a lot in common in that regard.

Like Michael Chabon, Lethem's work is also clearly influenced by his love of comics (hey, he wrote a novel called Fortress of Solitude!) and nowhere is this more obvious than in the nine stories collected in Men and Cartoons. This short story collection is written in a variety of styles and, while I prefer his narrative fiction ("Vivian Relf," "The Glasses," "Planet Big Zero") more than his sci-fi fantasies (the Dick and Haruki Murakami-flavored "Access Fantasy" and "The Dystopianist"), the pieces informed by his love of Marvel and DC comics - the geeks who dressed up as superheroes in "The Vision" and the actual all-too-human titular superhero in "Super Goat Man" whose powers do him no good (he rescues a paper clip!) - are the ones that stick with me most.

THE VISION: Described as "a story about drunken neighborhood parlor games, boys who dress up as superheroes, and the perils of snide curiosity," this story name-checks both The Vision and The Scarlet Witch, two superheroes originating in Marvel Comics. The Vision was actually created by the writer-artist team of Joe Simon (Superman) and Jack "King" Kirby back in 1940 when the "Golden Age" Marvel line was known as Timely Comics, but later resurfaced in the late '60s in Roy Thomas and John Buscema's The Avengers and continued in different permutations up through the present. The Vision's wife was the Scarlet Witch and the short story makes interesting use of their union in its story about a superhero-worshipping nerd who grows up and finds companionship in the world of fantasy role-playing.

ACCESS FANTASY: Described as "part social satire, weird detective story," this one reminded me most of the Philip K. Dick influence, though it's not among my favorites. In fact, I found it taxing and predictable, though I liked its vision of a world in which people are divided into privileged apartment dwellers and "Road Warrior" commuters trapped in endless traffic jams. The commuters all have VCRs in their cars and watch tapes advertising apartment complexes; in one, the narrator thinks he spots a murder (this reminds me of Decker spotting the Replicant Zhora out of the corner of a Polaroid he enhances in Blade Runner - which of course was Riddley Scott's adaptation of Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"). He meets up with an attractive model and together they go around as flesh-and-blood billboard advertisements for beer and pens. Until they knock on one door too many.

THE SPRAY: Another sci-fi rumination described as "a simple story about how people in love deal with their past." In the future, police use a spray at crime scenes to see what's missing - the items people lost during break-ins, supposedly the things they value most. The spray turns an empty space where a TV set was, for example, into a salmon-colored representation of the missing boob tube - one you can put your hand through, because it's an illusion. But it's a simple matter of time before a playful couple try it on themselves to see what they're really missing, which turns out not to be material possessions but their former lovers. Awkward!

VIVIAN RELF: This is rightly described on the book jacket as a "tour de force about loss" - even though it's loss of a connection about disconnection. Doran Close meets a girl named Vivian Relf at a party and both parties are convinced they've met before, but they haven't. In fact, they have nothing in common except that they keep running into each other as the years progress. For the narrator, each "strangely haunting" encounter becomes a missed opportunity that comes to define his life. Brilliant.

PLANET BIG ZERO: The narrator's boyhood friend grows up to be an aimless slacker who comes back t o visit and rekindle their friendship. The narrator tries to reconnect by featuring his friend in his weekly comic Planet Big Zero, to disastrous results. You can't go home again. Even in comic strip panels.

THE GLASSES: My favorite. Reminds me of work! A simple story about two opticians playing Good Cop/Bad Cop with a dissatisfied (worst-case complainer) customer. A battle of wills in which an angry man who insists there are scratches on his lenses sits with his hands at his sides for as long as it takes ("I got all the time in the world!") while observed by the doubting opticians ("We've got forever. We'll wait it out") who insist he's scratching the glasses with his hands. Kafka could have written this one! Truth is stranger than fiction and this at times surreal situation is exactly the kind of stuff that goes on in real life, albeit it touched with only a slight exaggeration that lands it in the realm of fiction.

THE DYSTOPIANIST, THINKING OF HIS RIVAL, IS INTERRUPTED BY A KNOCK AT THE DOOR: My least favorite story, this "Borgesian tale that features suicidal sheep" won a Pushcart Prize when first published in Conjunctions. A little too long-winded for me, though the talking sheep angle made me think back to Murakami's Wild Sheep Chase.

SUPER GOAT MAN: Described as a "savagely funny expose of the failures of the sixties' baby boomers, and of their children," the story tracks the career of a minor comic book superhero named Super Goat Man. Super Goat Man battled minor villains like Vest Man and False Dave until the day he gave it all up to live in a hippie commune and fight the system through non-heroic social activism. He eventually ends up getting a chair at an East Coast college teaching something called "Dissidence and Desire: Marginal Heroics in American Life 1955-1975." But the narrator has always resented him and the era he represented, cruelly and jealously rebuking him at the end when it's revealed that his wife once had an affair with the horn-rimmed, cloven-hoofed hero.

THE NATIONAL ANTHEM: Name-checks James Carr's "The Dark End of the Street" as an adulterous couple's theme song for their shared extramarital deceptions. Made me think of the great version of this song by Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Bob Dylan's "Ninety Miles an Hour (Down a Dead End Street)" also gets mentioned. It's an amusing story, nothing more.

All in all, this collection of Lethem's short stories highlights his ability to write in a variety of styles, with his love of sci-fi, hard-boiled detectives and comic books more than evident. Still, I like it when his stories stick to the real world, which is why "Vivian Relf" and "The Glasses" were the most rewarding to me, although "The Vision" and "Super Goat Man" certainly are memorable musings about the influence of fantasy-based pop culture on Baby Boomer geeks like myself.