Thursday, March 18, 2010

Why Should I Care? Driving's A Gas And It Ain't Gonna Last

Like much of the blogosphere, I'm in a state of shock over Alex Chilton's premature death last night.  I've been vocal about how I think he's squandered his considerable talent over the last three decades or so, but the fundamental truth is that squandering his talent was his prerogative.  When he was great - and I don't think it's humanly possible to overstate his greatness and importance to rock music - he was wholly unappreciated by the public. When public tastes finally caught up to him, he took one look at the mantle of "elder statesman of rock" and chose to Bartleby.  God bless him for his irascibility.  There was no one else like him. 

Here's some of what I've written about Chilton and Big Star at this blog:

Bach's Bottom and 19 Years: A Collection.

1970. (Here I should state that I have a bunch of Chilton's solo albums on vinyl and cassette, but I never listen to those media anymore, so I really need to replace them with digital versions.  Also: man, I was terse in those early days of my music listening project.)

Big Star.  (I beat up on In Space, which isn't as bad as I say, and John Fry - the engineer from Ardent Studios! - steps in to tell me that I'm wrong.  Sweet!)

Big Stars In The Radio City.  (In which I try to explain how sophisticated Chilton's approach to rock music was.)

I didn't know the guy.  In fact, based on his attitudes when I've seen him live (and man alive, did the guy put on some killer live shows), I assume he would have held me in nothing short of complete contempt for my starstruck fandom and my focus on the music of his youth over his more recent efforts.  But a world without Alex Chilton is a far crappier place.  He, more than anyone, should have been able to stare down his own death and simply state, "I prefer not to."

Incidentally, if I had to pick one, this would be my favorite Big Star song:

That's "Dream Lover," for anyone who reads this on Facebook without the attached video.  There's no reason in the world for this song to work.  The whole thing seems always on the verge of falling apart.  I especially love the long pause before the guitar solo and the way that none of the elements of the song seem even remotely close to the beat, and yet there's this aggregate effect that wraps the whole song together with dream-logic. It's an uncoverable song. Who could do it justice?

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Set Your DVR: TCM Goes Kurosawa-Crazy!

Akira Kurosawa would be 100 years old this month if he were alive, and in honor of the man, TCM is showing Kurosawa flicks every Tuesday.  Many of these aren't available on DVD, and even those that are available are among the best films of the 20th century.

Tonight, there's Ikiru (*****), Throne of Blood (****), The Hidden Fortress (****), Hakuchi (unavailable on DVD, I think), and The Lower Depths (which I've never seen).

On the 16th is The Bad Sleep Well (**1/2), High And Low (*****), Red Beard (****), and I Live In Fear (***1/2).

On the 23rd (which is actually Kurosawa's birthday): Sanshiro Sugata (**1/2), The Most Beautiful (unavailable on DVD, haven't seen), The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (unavailable on DVD, haven't seen), Sanshiro Sugata II (**1/2), Regrets For Our Youth (haven't seen), One Wonderful Sunday (haven't seen), Drunken Angel (***), Stray Dog (****), Rashomon (****), Seven Samurai (*****), Yojimbo (*****), Sanjuro (***1/2), and Dodes 'Ka-Den (haven't seen).

On the 30th, there's Dersu Uzala (haven't seen), Kagemusha (**1/2), and Ran (****1/2).

I seriously encourage anyone who has never watched a Kurosawa film to catch at least one of these. The guy was one of the best filmmakers of the 20th century, if not The Best. Considering that he was a Japanese man making films in the 50s and 60s, it's pretty amazing how well his movies translate to modern Western audiences, but that's mostly because he stole shamelessly from American and European directors and, in turn, some of the most influential filmmakers of today stole shamelessly from him. His films are full of beautiful cinematography and well-observed moments of pure human behavior for the art set, while still fun and witty and action-packed for more mainstream tastes.

Salon on Waterboarding

Reading about how the CIA has fine-tuned the art of waterboarding makes me sick to my stomach.  Can we, at long last, agree that this is an offense against human dignity?  Mark my words: the US will end up paying reparations to aggrieved parties for allowing this to happen.  I doubt Bush, Cheney, Yoo, or any of the others responsible will ever face an international trial for their crimes, but this is pretty clearly a conscious violation of international law.  They should be punished, but this is a stain on every U.S. citizen's conscience.

Here's Salon's report.  Read it if you dare.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Music Library: Lee "Scratch" Perry, Lee Dorsey, Lee Hazlewood

Lee "Scratch" Perry - Super Ape (1976), Roast Fish Collie Weed & Corn Bread (1978), The Upsetter Shop Vol. 1: Upsetter In Dub, I Am The Upsetter box, and Arkology box.  This is many, many hours of brainshaking k-hole-inspiring awesomeness from the superest of superproducers of Jamaican music.  Perry is so brilliant and so completely insane that it's a little surprising that more movies haven't been made of his life.  Anyway, the first two of these are later albums, steeped in dub and sonic experimentation, with a heaviness in the sound that is well matched by the silliness of the vocals.  The latter three are all compilations with a little overlap.  The Upsetter In Dub is maybe the best one-disc compilation of Perry's dub compositions, bringing in some of his strongest work from many, many artists.  I don't know the dates of most of these tracks, nor the tracks on the two box sets.  I Am The Upsetter is somewhat weaker than Arkology.  Both also focus on Perry the producer, rather than Perry the performer, which is okay.  There's some killer reggae and dub tracks on the former, but there's quite a few that don't really stand out, either.  The latter is smart enough to include the original reggae track alongside several dub tracks that build on the original, allowing the listener to hear exactly how radical were Perry's ideas about using the studio as an instrument. But the academic aspects - for me, at least - are often lost in the sweep of the great music.  If you can only spring for one Perry compilation, spend the $$ on Arkology.  Here's one of the dub remixes of Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves":

Lee Dorsey - Wheelin' and Dealin': The Definitive Collection (1961-1970). Funky singles collection from the New Orleans-based R&B singer.  Backed by the Meters for extra wallop.  Like Lee "Scratch" Perry, Dorsey was a recipient of the Clash's cultural noblesse oblige, and toured with the band in the late 70s.  Also notable for singing the original "Working In A Coal Mine."

Lee Hazlewood - The Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood (1966), These Boots Are Made For Walkin': The Complete MGM Recordings (1966-1967), Nancy & Lee (with Nancy Sinatra, 1968), The Cowboy and The Lady (with Ann-Margret, 1969), Cowboy In Sweden (1970), Requiem For An Almost Lady (1971), Nancy & Lee Again (with Nancy Sinatra, 1972), and 13 (1972).  The cosmic cowboy, that legendary figure who combines Western machismo with Boomer-era hedonism and self-expression, is a major force in Austin's conception of itself.  Although people like Willie Nelson and Kinky Friedman are often considered the archetypical cosmic cowboys, they've got nothing on Hazlewood, who brought his laconic baritone to bear on music that is undeniably Western but also garishly psychedelic and bathed in swooping chamber pop.  Hazlewood was an Okie, which may be one of the reasons that Texas failed to embrace him, but he was also an unearthly weirdo, which is most likely the majority of the problem.  Nevertheless, these albums (the MGM collection actually includes every song on The Very Special World Of, although in different order) provide conclusive proof of Hazlewood's take-it-or-fuck-off genius.  Well, I actually don't care much for Ann-Margret's voice, so The Cowboy and The Lady is my least favorite of these.  And I love the R&B-flavored horns on 13.  And "Some Velvet Morning," of course, with its woozy leaps in feel and tempo from Hazlewood's grizzly cowboy to Sinatra's dizzy flower child.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Moviegoer: January - February 2010

Just a few movies in the first two month of the new year.  These aren't all new to me, but I'm trying to keep an accurate log of all movies that I've screened.

1. The Good Fairy (1935): A
2. The Return of the Jedi (1983): B
3. Inglorious Basterds (2009): B
4. Fires On The Plain (1959): A
5. Passing Strange (2009): A-
6. Young@Heart (2008): B+
7. Performance (1970): D (I still can't stand Nic Roeg, sorry)
8. I'm Not There (2007): A+
9. Grey Gardens (1975): B+
10. Frankenstein (1931): B+
11. Capturing The Friedmans (2003): A
12. Scott Walker: 30th Century Man (2006): B
13. The Hurt Locker (2009): B
14. The Ladykillers (1955): A-
15. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009): A
16. Sleeping Beauty (1959): B+

Monday, March 01, 2010

Negative Space: Farber On Film and Inherent Vice

I wonder what Manny Farber thought about Thomas Pynchon.  There's no question that the guy had an opinion because he had an opinion about everything, although he took great pains to make his position as abstract as possible.  But Farber On Film doesn't include any of Farber's writing on art and I don't believe that he wrote about literature at all, so it is possible that I will never know what Farber actually thought about Pynchon unless Jonathan Rosenbaum or another such friend of Farber's drops by to chat.

Luckily, I have the power of conjecture and no obligations to any higher authority than the proprietor of this blog, who is, according to the note at the bottom of the page, me.  So I'll surmise that Farber read about half of Gravity's Rainbow before he got bored (too artsy, too unfocused), but he quite liked The Crying Of Lot 49 because it shared a certain willingness to parade bitingly realistic comic grotesqueries with Farber's beloved Preston Sturges, a sense of satire that went everywhere and nowhere.

Everywhere and nowhere, as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out in this long essay on Farber's prickly genius, was an insult some writers directed at Farber's criticism.  Farber's writing, like his beloved category of termite art, does tend to spill out of the frame.  His points are often so mitigated that I cannot tell whether he liked a film or not.  Maybe he himself couldn't tell.  While reading this anthology, I often found myself wondering why Farber hated a certain film so much, only to find it cropping up on his year-end best-of list.  His prose is filled with reversals, though, and all of his praise is filled with faint damnation and vice versa.  What's most interesting about this book is that Farber's aesthetic philosophy seems mostly consistent and always insightful, even if his conclusions hardly ever feel conclusive.  As he outlined in his epic essay on White Elephant Art and Termite Art (in short: white elephant art is self-consciously showy grand statement art, a la Titanic, anything with Robin Williams wearing a beard, or (in my opinion) Scorcese's bombastic later films, while termite art is economical and focused on the small moments, such as in the films of Farber's beloved Val Lewton, Werner Herzog, or Howard Hawks), Farber found more significance in narrative that doesn't try to direct the observer.

Many critics disliked Farber's thesis or were disturbed by his contrarian reviews.  For instance, there's a delightful review of Farber's essay and a lively ensuing discussion at Girish here that dates back to 2006.  Worth reading for the quotes of Farber's prose as it is for the fun in the comments.  I think it's important to realize that Farber thought that both elements could coexist in the same film.  They were categories of thought, an approach rather than an either/or dichotomy system, despite what Erik Nelson writes here in Salon.  And I suspect that he hated far fewer movies than the sharp criticism of his essays would suggest.  Movies that the man apparently couldn't stand in 1942 were praised again and again in later years.  He didn't need his criticism to be conclusive, because taste is rarely fixed.  Criticism that focuses exclusively on whether an artwork is good or bad fails both reader and writer (and I realize the irony of me saying this, but hey, I'm trying).  And yet, criticism - itself an artwork - is almost always at its best when it is itself a termite art, eating its own boundaries in the pursuit of greater human experience.

Which brings things back to Pynchon.  After I finished Farber On Film, I launched into Pynchon's latest, Inherent Vice and  read it in three days flat.  Inherent Vice is Pynchon's least ambitious novel, basically a Chandler novel (or, worse, Carl Hiaassen) as run through the Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland filter.  Which makes it, more or less, a blood brother to The Big Lebowski.  That lack of ambition awakened my newly Farberized awareness, as did Pynchon's B-movie fixated hero, Doc Sportello.  Actually, it's not just Sportello who's constantly thinking about movies and comparing them to his (fictional) life, but many of the other characters, too.  Which makes a point about how reality was becoming more unreal in the Southern California of the late 60s (the Charles Manson trial is contemporaneous with the action and constantly on the minds of all of the characters).

Unfortunately, it has nothing to add to the paranoia-as-rational-philosophy that has been an essential component of all of Pynchon's work.  The characters, like the characters of Lot 49 and Vineland, are rightfully paranoid, rightfully assuming that their hedonism is under constant threat from forces of control and money, and rightfully too absorbed by their own drama and pursuit of happiness to do anything about it.  This time period is a vital one to understanding Pynchon, and yet he'd never visited it in any of his books.  But, coming as it does between the events of Lot 49 and the events of Vineland, one could surmise what Pynchon thought of the period without actually reading this shaggy-dog tale.  Fortunately, the book is one of the funniest and breeziest in Pynchon's work, fun enough that readers don't really need to care that this story was not one that was crying out to be told.  In his novels, Pynchon has rewritten history several times over, put magic and quantum theory to good use, fought bravely for personal freedoms, and developed a narrative style more influenced by the purely filmic storytelling of mise-en-scène and montage than any prior novelist.  The guy could churn out Doc Sportello novels every six months for the rest of his life and I'd read every single one of them, laughing my ass off.

Music Library: Lauryn Hill, LaVerne Baker, Lawndale, LCD Soundsystem, Leadbelly, Led Zeppelin

Lauryn Hill - The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998). With a title borrowed from Carter G. Woodson's 1933 diatribe The Miseducation of the Negro, one might expect this album to be a little more political and less personal.  But building, I suppose, on the assumption from first-wave feminism that the terms are identical, this appears to be a fairly personal work. It's a pop album that draws on hip-hop, R&B, and gospel music.  It's also my wife's album.  In fact, you the reader may know more about it than I do.  But I like it pretty well.

LaVerne Baker - "Saved."  Great gospel track from who-knows-where.

Lawndale - Beyond Barbeque (1986). This is the woolly and heavily stoned work of a surf band that was on SST back in the day.  Having recently finished Pynchon's Inherent Vice, with its many references to pyschedelic surf bands, I suspect Lawndale would be a favorite of Mr. Pynchon's.

LCD Soundsystem - LCD Soundsystem (2005) and Sound of Silver (2007).  Utterly delightful dance music from a chubby guy in his mid-to-late-30s (hey, that sounds like someone I know!) with hilarious lyrics that dissect the life of the aging hipster.  First rate.

Leadbelly - King of the 12-String Guitar (1935).  There's better Leadbelly collections out there, but this one is okay.  Not many of his best songs, though, and that's a shame for my only Leadbelly album.

Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin (1969), Led Zeppelin II (1969), Led Zeppelin III (1970), Led Zeppelin IV (1971), Houses of the Holy (1973), and Physical Graffiti (1975). I listened to these - as well as the other three studio albums and The Song Remains The Same - practically every day for a while when I was a teenager.  And I've barely been able to stomach it since.  Coming back after 20-odd years, I hear that Jimmy Page is a surprisingly sloppy guitarist on the first three albums, but incredibly precise thereafter. The best of these is Physical Graffiti, which has elements of funk, pop, and psychedelia all in great proportion, although the album is too damn long.  And do I really need to tell you anything else about Led Zeppelin?

My photo
Cary, NC, United States
reachable at firstname lastname (all run together) at gmail dot com

About This Blog

From Here To Obscurity, founded ca. 2003, population 1. The management wishes to emphasize that no promises vis-a-vis your entertainment have been guaranteed and for all intents and purposes, intimations of enlightenment fall under the legal definition of entertainment. No refunds shall be given nor will requests be honored. Although some may ask, we have no intention of beginning again.

  © Blogger templates Brooklyn by 2008

Back to TOP