So who cares?
I'm just saying that this blog will expand upon ideas that are too hard to pursue elsewhere, either as a testy crack on Facebook or (worse yet) lobbed into the laps of another batch of co-workers who are baffled by anything outside their comfort zone, or who simply don't give a damn. I'll also get to natter on about books, movies and so forth that I feel are worthy of a look, and in that regard hope that some interesting conversation can be established. There's nothing better that finding a new movie or band, and I know I'm not the only one who feels this way.
So if we're all bundled up and have had a nip for the road, let's get underway.
We've supposedly pulled out of Iraq, but it's a bit too late. We were overexcited - frenzied even - while we were in there, and we've left some of Uncle Sam's pearls behind...reportedly, about 50,000 such pearls. The poor, bedraggled country is now knocked up, and within a few months we should be seeing a healthy, happy regional command outpost there, ready to charm the area and its endlessly combative inhabitants.
Now we can consistently turn our attention to the country so dusty, mountainous and full of Old Testament movie props that it makes Baghdad look like the Biltmore: Afghanistan.
If it seems intractable, if it seems endless, if it seems like a money-pit...an insoluble quagmire, that's because it is. One simple reason is the currently debauched nature of war and its philosophies. Over most of humankind's history, war was waged for many reasons, most of them shameful, misguided or irredeemably evil. The end goal remained the same, however: the utter and complete destruction of the enemy, period.
Therefore, two very shameful aspects arise about Iraqistan. We didn't go for any proper reason, and once there we didn't utterly destroy everything in our path. Stupid, disingenuous, manipulative deceit seems to govern our foreign policy, and when you apply such an approach to war you get lives wasted, blood and money poured into the sand. For nothing. The chickenhawks who've burrowed into the far Right and made cozy nests have been quick to chime in about Vietnam being past us and bristling at the mere mention of any comparisons.
As far as Vietnam goes, if Iraq was where we played out those comparisons that indeed existed (nebulous, unilateral aggression against a sovereign nation under fabricated pretenses; failure to address the subsequent enemy response, instead tying the hands of the average soldier through top-down bureaucracy; a "mission" that changed and evolved until it was unrecognizable; a populace that was largely one thing by day and another by night, with widely shifting sympathies; enrichment of the corporate war machine, and so forth), Afghanistan is where we'll establish a record for engagement in a vast, ongoing enterprise that could easily bankrupt us and diminish our armed forces' strength when we may need it most.
Oh, and when we were mired in Vietnam, we could afford to lose a million dollars' worth of helicopters a day. We were then enjoying the most freakishly robust economy the world had ever seen. Those days are long gone, and we've now got to look over our shoulder every time China farts or there's a blip in the Euro's fortunes...
You can't blame Petraeus. He's prosecuting the war as best he knows how, as a good soldier does. To expect him to wring his hands or discuss withdrawal is not in his nature, so to put him back in that position just clouds the entire discussion.
We've got to move past the mentality of waging a major European campaign, over a static, identifiable landmass, with rigid boundaries, quantifiable troop movements and Xs, Os and arrows that can be pushed and pulled around a chalkboard. It was easy to identify the German soldier: he was the fellow in the snappy Wehrmacht gray with the coal-scuttle helmet who was trying to kill you, day or night, rain or shine. He wasn't a smiling pushcart vendor by day and a stealthy, creeping assassin when night fell.
Furthermore, if we're going to continue to pursue that most dubious of Vietnam holdovers, the "train them to look after themselves" goal, we'd better drum up a better crop of candidates.
Christina Lamb recently published an indepth examination of the country's armed forces, especially its burgeoning "police" force, in the Sunday Times of London. She found ragtag bands of stoned, unbathed, largely illiterate opportunity seekers who think nothing of promptly exchanging uniforms and weaponry for money, taking kickbacks routinely and gearing their routines toward the next opium-clouded solicitation of UN troops. The icing on the cake is the open practice of donning makeup and dandying up in general as a prelude to a night of cruising their comrades.
This is all fine and well outside a war zone - hey, whatever. Knock yourself out. But is it wrong of me to expect to see ranks of soldiers locked in formation, with looks of grim determination etched into slablike, impassive faces, weapons at the ready to dispel and dispatch the frothing bogies coming over the hill? Isn't that what I, the American taxpayer am shelling out for? I'm not really thrilled about ponying up my hard-earned billions for grimacing ass-kickers with mayhem on their mind, and instead getting the cast of a Kabul summer-stock Cats.
Maybe I can just numb myself to endure several more years of occupation in that sandpit, doling out further trainloads of money so bedouins can load up on Blu-Ray players and Tommy shorts. At least - I beg - shut up with the "...fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here" jazz. Then I gotta just close up shop.
Larry McMurtry and the Printed Page
It'll be interesting to see how the Kindle (Amazon) vs. Nook (Barnes & Noble) contest plays out. Granted, they're diverting little devices, and apparently all non-copyrighted material is available free. Who knew? Now you can mull over The Prince or von Clausewitz's On War gratis. Cool! I'm still a book person, though, who's happy that the printed page is still not only alive, but thriving.
I do find it odd that when I walk into my local Barnes & Noble that the first thing that I see when I walk in the door is a Nook kiosk. I mean, if all your customers buy a Nook, what about your store full of dead-tree copies?
I'm just sayin'.
I first encountered Larry McMurtry through the film adaptation of his novel The Last Picture Show (which remains possibly my favorite movie ever). From there it was on to other of his many novels and memoirs, including the drily hilarious Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. Therefore it was with great pleasure that I stumbled upon another collection of his recollections and observations, 2008's Books: A Memoir.
I had no clue that yes, he'd pursued an enviable life as a man of letters, including the penning of Lonesome Dove (considered to be a towering and evocative Western, even though it was intended to deflate the Western mythos) but that he considers himself above all to be in the book trade...a seller, hunter, wrangler of books. How interesting!
After his early years in north central Texas, following an almost-accidental exposure to a small cache of books, McMurtry discusses a move to San Francisco and his initial involvement in the pursuit of books as avocation, commodity and thrilling quarry all in one. After subsequent periods in Houston and then on the East Coast as an increasingly shrewd and repected dealer, he repaired again to Archer City, his windswept hometown southwest of Wichita Falls.
It's from there that he offers this vast life's accumulation of books, spread over four buildings, and continues to pour forth words from a serviceable old typewriter.
Now there's the mark of a writer who's stubborn for all the right reasons. We need people like him, those who care not about passing trends and dire pronouncements about dying this and declining that. Vita Brevis, Ars Longa - and McMurtry, even if it was in a roundabout, distracted way - would be the first to agree.
The Walls Have Ears
Germany's young have only to ask their elders about the ugly wall that tore the country asunder for a generation, that is, if those elders will talk about it.
Writer/director Florian Henckel von Dammersmarck appeared on the cinema scene in 2006 with his initial offering, Das Leben der Anderen, or The Lives of Others. At the center of a superb cast are an interrogator for East Germany's Staatssicherheit (State Security Agency), the "Stasi," named Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) and his boss, Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur). As there is favor to be curried in any situation in East Berlin in 1984, the two set their sights on a possibly subversive playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch).
Dreyman's girlfriend, prominent actress Christa-Maria Sieland (a fantastic Martina Gedeck) has caught the eye of a local senior Stasi official, and by creating doubts around Dreyman and many of his far-more radical colleagues, she may be more readily available. So begins this finely wrought examination of hypocrisy and naked abuse of power, abuse that becomes increasingly evident as Wiesler begins his surveillance of the playwright's home and friends.
While the film received a mixed reception in Germany - owing to several factors, including discomfort with the country's period of East-West polarity and charges of soft-pedaling the Stasi's brutality - it was a hit there regardless and went on to great worldwide acclaim, including an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, a Golden Globe nomination, and hearty receptions at film festivals from London to Vancouver to Copenhagen.
Gabriel Yared's austere score underpins the developments perfectly, and somehow manages a simmering foreboding while remaining moored in the characters' basic search for decency and meaning.
Wiesler's search quickens after his theft of a volume of Brecht from Dreyman (and his subsequent immersion in its language) that brings to mind nothing so much as Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451 - reading a furtively filched book to his wife and her friends until the women are uncomfortable, distraught and angered. Wiesler is swayed by these lives he monitors, and his position gnaws at him. It's enough to raise the eyebrows of Grubitz, who is ever the true believer and vigilant of those who'd stray.
Grubitz, in fact, is at center of the film's most subtly terrifying scene. He overhears a junior staffer telling a joke about (party chairman) Erich Honeker, joins in the laughter then coldly asks the man's name, title and department. As the man blanches in fear Grubitz erupts again in laughter.
The film's title holds, at its heart, the sad truth about totalitarianism and its obsessions: in expending your energies in pursuit of offenses real and imagined, you only lose yourself.
The "Thin White Duke" Redux
Of exceeding joy to Bowie-philes is the reissue of his 1976 LP Station to Station.
Apparently the base package comes as a 3-CD set, and includes an often-bootlegged show from the Nassau Coliseum tour stop. More tantalizing is a 5-CD/DVD/triple vinyl package that contains that material in addition to a raft of memorabilia as well, and would well justify the knocking over of a 7-11.
Bowie broke in the States with 1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, and by the time of the following year's brilliant Aladdin Sane had become certified Rock royalty. Writers and photogs alike fought for a few precious moments with David, wife Angie and even platform-booted toddler son Zowie (who these days is better known as film director Duncan Jones, which is Bowie's birth surname). Further muscle flexing occurred with an unusually strong covers album called Pin-Ups, woozily decadent Diamond Dogs and the unfairly maligned Young Americans.
It was in a coddled mid-'70s Los Angeles that the singer found himself: a little nuts, stir-crazy and helped along in his caged tension by mountains of blow. There'd be one more record before his escape to Berlin and the cleansing trio of stark recordings he'd make there. That record was Station to Station.
Sleek, anodyne and concise, the album joins Bowie with two superb guitarists, Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar, the latter of which played alongside the singer through his later early-'80s Pop breakthrough. Much has been made of the differing musical styles on hand, seeing as they include further explorations of his "soul" mood on "Stay" and the hooky classic "Golden Years," but also the wildly divergent strut of "TVC15" as well as a delicate, insistent piece like "Word on a Wing." Some critics got on board, some scratched their heads.
And what a boarding it began as. The listener hears a locomotive leaving the station, wheels grinding forward, chugging forward ever faster as it builds, and is joined first by bass and then the angular scratch of plectrum on string. Bowie primes us for "The return of the Thin White Duke," cold, detached, and "...throwing darts in lovers' eyes." His insistence grows as he develops the song's motifs, growling "...the European canon is here" as he prepares for a physical - and psychic - departure from his numbed American stasis.
The choice of Nina Simone's "Wild is the Wind" as a closer offers a laser-focus, close-but-untouchable moment, then he's away again...another dim night, another smoldering Gitane...
Rock Rag as Hagiography: Carving the Past in (Rolling) Stone
As I'm prone to trawling for stacks of magazines (as a bulwark against slow stretches at work), I recently happened upon a stack of Rolling Stone.
Like many other music & culture lovers I cut my teeth with the magazine as a teenager, along with other titles such as Crawdaddy, Circus and the wild 'n woolly Creem. Accordingly, I've followed it over the years as the content shrank and the slickness and glad-handing hero worship ballooned, seemingly with no end in sight.
The magazine was started by Jann Wenner, a Bay Area college kid who began to publish as a way to spread his enthusiasm about the new (and in 1967, Pop was absolutely new) sound. It was the kind of place where you could submit a few pieces and find yourself a staff writer, as did Cameron Crowe. Also in the firmament were Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau, Ben Fong-Torres and many other writers who made substantial contributions. There was even room for the sprawling, occasionally coherent eruptions of Hunter S. Thompson, and loads of coverage of the turbulent political and social ferment of the time.
Then came a 1977 move to New York City, just in time for a Studio 54-enamored era of seeing and being seen, and from then on the die was cast. Although there were still another 10 - 15 good years left in the old girl, the magazine seemed now to be cultivating flash, while simultaneously calcifying into a wax museum for its aging subjects.
This coincided with further attention paid to garbage that the previous staff would've roundly hooted out of play, including rapt examinations of seemingly every talentless bimbette who's shown up to a cover shoot ready to get nekkid. Where can one even start? With the listing of ringtones on the charts at the back, thus granting this pathetic trend credibility? With the breathless embrace of hip-hop, even as that movement swallows it own tail? Memo to whitebread RS: repeated references to "Fitty" gain you nothing but laughter within the cloisters of hip-hop's ruling mandarins.
Worse yet are the fall-back options of the truly lazy...the "100 Best" this or the "500 Best" that. How many times can we see Dylan, Van Morrison and Hendrix sealed anew in amber? Worse still is the new trend of having the performers emote about each others' work, where you're sure to find endless variants of so-and-so "just totally going to another place" on record x...after a while, or seen over time, the effect is numbing.
So that's where we are with this particular eminence grise...until the old guard finally all die off and we're left with 6-page feature rhapsodies about (shudder) Jack White.
TV Seasons: No More in Our Cultural Blender
We've just finished the fourth season of Mad Men, an addictive show that's not just watchable for its writing, but for its fanatical re-creation of 1960s New York City and the besotted, smoke-wreathed denizens of its advertising world. It was an enjoyable season, but truncated nonetheless, at least by traditional television standards. A strange inversion in scheduling hobbled it as well, as it began in the summer and is closing in mid-autumn.
The words "season finale" can now be chucked about anywhere, anytime, regardless of whether only six or seven shows have aired. Apparently the new format or standard is that there isn't one. Perhaps this is just pointless kvetching, but I do it for a reason.
Television was once a stable entity. That is to say, the programming season began in September and concluded in late May, making way for summer re-runs while viewers were ostensibly otherwise occupied. Shows were given a chance to build an audience - to stumble and address shortcomings. One prominent example is Seinfeld, which took two solid seasons to generate buzz. If it hadn't surely begun the trend, though, the '90s introduced the concept of the "mid-season replacement" shows, which were usually delivered en masse in order to roll the dice and hope something struck a chord.
Part of the problem was the advent of cable, and later, satellite. Suddenly there were 24 hours per day, seven days per week to cram full of...something. Although the days of a mass cultural touchstone, such as M*A*S*H or The Carol Burnett Show are gone, it's a shame that it's still tough to even cobble together a niche audience.
I remember those heady days of grade school, when the three networks showed previews of their new Fall cartoon lineups. Cafeteria discussions of the comparative merits of these lineups took on the gravitas of a UN Security Council meeting...ah, but that was another time.
So concludes this first installment. I hope it's been good to you. Peace.