Thursday, February 10, 2011

Teleporter Dreams (and Stranger Things)

Welcome, and in some cases, welcome back!
Great to have you here.

Let's see what's up this time...


One of My Turns
I got a number of things accomplished this morning.
I asked my doctor about a couple of medications (to see if they were right for me). I committed to a specific number for my side of my Select Comfort Sleep System. Most importantly, I finally got around to gathering up all my loose, broken and unwanted gold and jewelry and sent it off for payment.
Ah, gold. That elusive stuff that's fueled dreams, schemes and empires for much of human history is back on everyone's lips. (Of perhaps greater interest is the phenomenal rise of silver, a commodity that's doubled in price in the last three years!). There's a hedge for you, then, an inoculation against disaster. This business in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere is really heavy stuff, and one wonders whether it's just the throngs further shaking off oppressive fetters or a harbinger of greater regional unrest to come. These developments dovetail with a greater thing I'm feeling these days. It's like I can't get up in the morning without being confronted with competing groups who are anxiously getting out their own message about dissolution, disaster, apocalypse. The other day I stumbled across a website whose producers claim to have nailed down the exact date for the end of the world (spoiler alert: don't plan anything for this May 21st).
Y'know, at some point doesn't all this stuff open the door for self-fulfilling prophecies? Is doomsday that titillating? Do we need the thrill, the spike, that much? Here's the thing. After a certain point, especially in such times as these, you simply cannot worry about this stuff anymore. So - where does that leave me, and you, and the whole planet? There's really only one thing that conquers death, ruin, warnings, alerts and panics. It's life, that is to say, the stuff of life. Every little day-to-day thing that is good. Be it a seriously satisfying cup of coffee, a favorite piece of music or a violet and orange-streaked evening sky, there are things that are good. Seek them out. They will feed you, and clothe you against the dire minutiae of our world and its crazed impulses. Such small rewards make no ripples, stir no waters, and don't announce themselves over the blaring klaxons of our societal din. They aren't supposed to. But a person's claimed pleasures, their daily victories, are, when you get down to it, the makings of a tolerable, even enjoyable, life, one that no feverish prognostications can derail.


Butterflies for the Tsar
Vladimir Nabokov, his wife Vera and son Dmitri hustled on to a freighter leaving France in 1940, barely ahead of the Nazi occupiers. It was the culmination of 23 years of fleeing, the first departure having been from the chaos of 1917 Russia. They sailed for New York, where a new country awaited the writer along with new opportunities and time, at last, to relax into his various endeavors and begin the series of novels which gained him, rightfully so, the status of giant of letters. Twenty years after disembarking he began to collect various autobiographical fragments into what became Speak, Memory, a book that preserved these formative years and experiences, and it's an engrossing look into the creative process and its fruits.
He opens with a meditation on the nature of time, and of the development of his own consciousness, his own differentiation, from his parents. A harsh baptismal moment, then a walk through a lovely lane of young oaks on the family's country estate (his father wearing military finery brought out specially for the day), bring to the young boy his first taste of self-awareness, and blessedly, serene contentment and peace. Yet he notes "Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that pressed upon my life a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life's foolscap." Bliss gives way to larger awareness. The Russo-Japanese War, being waged in 1904, occurred while young Vladimir was still a preschooler, and its less-than-optimum outcome was a dim part of his youth, along with governesses, tutors, and other local figures including the working-class laborers for whom his father acted as a sort of lieutenant.
Nabokov's disclosure of his synthesia, wherein a person associates letters and their sound with certain colors, or atmospheric associations (much as in the related phenomena of "seeing" music, or "tasting" colors) apparently extends to his mother as well. The boy would sit during recitations and see only the words and the sensual impressions they left, something that greatly affected his very visual prose. He life was geared to detail, and his mother's admonition "Vot zapomni," "Now remember," leads him to reconstruct for us the countryside, the family sleigh and the footmen, the still-intact environs of beautiful old St. Petersburg.

Accordingly, his mother's hunt for, laying out for inspection and preparation of various mushrooms becomes a two-page idyll. The family's life, as befits that of true gentry, is one of breathtaking leisure. Each evening at dessert, the elder Nabokov pens the following day's menu for the butler. When the family is not at the house in St. Petersburg they're at the country home, receiving the attentions of some 50 servants. As WWI is dispatched in a dazzling, evocative paragraph, it's on to the beginnings of flight and exile.
Nabokov reckons it a time in the text for summing up, to trace a family line that reaches back to the 14th Century. This past is peopled with the likes of Chekov (from whose dachshunds come a beloved family pet), to Dostoyevsky (imprisoned under Nabokov's great-uncle in the Peter and Paul Fortess in St. Petersburg) and a man who married a friend of Pushkin. The lineage includes a strong Prussian miltary heritage, Siberian prospectors, physicians, Decembrists and a Saxon composer of note, Carl Heinrich Graun. This family - tossing off little bons mot at the dinner table and stocking their children's shelves with books fresh from British and American presses - moved in the company of tsars, diplomats, counts and princes, and Nabokov recreates this world with startling clarity. (With regard to literary pursuits, his Uncle Konstantin translated Pushkin, much as Vladimir would later translate, with commentary, Eugene Onegin).
Of the revolution that swept this world away, the writer seems ambivalent. He pines not for "lost banknotes" but rather for his suddenly, sharply truncated youth. He'd come into a bit of an inheritance, not to mention the summer home, upon turning 16.

"That robust reality makes a ghost of the present," he writes from his adopted home on the other side of the globe. So great is his attachment to the past and its humble, magical objects that he's loathe to transport them from memory to page. Such items as a set of colored pencils or a beloved mirror, when interpolated into a later book, are "lost forever" to a manuscript. He realizes, though, that nothing can ever be truly lost if captured on a page, and so he zealously charts a course to populate that page. Here is sleep: a "nightly betrayal of reason," a "black-masked headsman binding me to the block," and a park: a "white lacery of berimed avenues." His initial attempts at poetry are "languid rambles," yes, but also "glowing" ranks of words, with their "puffed-out little chests and trim uniforms." Much of his meditations upon the girls he now encounters betray the onset of puberty, although ten elegant pages pass before the reader realizes this.
At eight, in a storeroom in the country home, the boy finds a trove of old books on insects and butterflies in particular, a find that coincides with his love of their capture. Barely a teen, he reads entomological periodicals in English and ponderous catalogues in German. He so relishes the solitude of this pasttime, the mental exertion, the thrill of both the chase and the capture - and if the specimen is a rarity, so much the better! His "demon," his "obession," binds him to other enthusiasts he refers to as "fellow sufferers." Lepidoptery is something that will thrill him at his core for the rest of his life.

Young Vladimir, on a wonderfully rendered train and headed south toward the sandy, salty expanse of Biarritz begins to discover the larger world. His first true affections for the fairer sex are imminent, and arrive as, fittingly, he is discovering the pleasures of poetry. Later, the little seaside girl is forgotten in favor of a certain Tamara. His breathless pursuit of her leads beyond furtive trysts spied on by groundskeepers to stolen moments in museum alcoves and darkened cinemas. Incidentally, the young aspirant publishes a collection of his writings at this point, although the ridicule of a teacher serves to forever thereafter cure him of any sort of regard for the words of the critic.
At last, the Bolshevik lunacy he's only alluded to thus far breaks into the narrative. It's onward, for a mixed clutch of Nabokovs, to first the Crimea, then Greece, then England, where the young man enters Cambridge. Cambridge: there his twin current fascinations of football and poetry overlap. He courts a number of young, slyly dancing damsels, and corrects the misinformed among his liberal schoolmates about the Bolshevik "struggle."
So are enjoined twenty years in searching exile, as part of the unmoored Russian emigre community cast abroad in Berlin and Paris. Back home the fiery flare of Lenin was giving way to the grinning wolf of Stalin, and those writers, thinkers and artists not dead or in the gulag were joylessly churning out plays and manuscripts meant first for censors' eyes. Indeed, Nabokov notes that "...the successful Soviet writer was the one whose fine ear caught the soft whisper of an official suggestion before it had become a blare." He frets a bit, later, over this period - even though he's been publishing fiction in Russian and making a name for himself (even while being without a tantalizingly unavailable readership in his homeland), he during this time devotes a great many hours to the construction of elaborate chess problems. No greater sweetness, no higher victory is there than a nettlesome series which suddenly reveals to him the kernel of its solution.
So go his fascinated days, with butterflies even on the back burner for a time. At this point we dip back to 1934 for the birth of his and Vera's son, Dmitri, and Nabokov devotes a fair expanse to Dimitri's early days. Then it's back to France, May 1940, and boarding for America. His first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight will follow in the next year, and later the dystopian fable Bend Sinister (1947), watershed Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957), Pale Fire (1962), the publication of a revised version of Speak, Memory (1966) and Ada (1969).
Perhaps one could draw the conclusion that Nabokov's old-world sensibilities, together with an early life of ease and reflection, led to his producing of such an amazing body of work. There's still the man himself, though, shepherding his prose together according to his own designs and producing brilliance, and finally it is that prose which holds us rapt.


Fierce Beauty: Contemporary Danish Cinema
Having been pleasantly surprised by so many visitors from Denmark (my ancestral homeland), I thought I'd take a look at a few of the country's films as a thank-you. So pour a tumbler of akvavit, relax, and read on.

Photographer Peter Elfelt got the ball rolling in 1896. A documentary filmmaker, he also made Henrettelsen (Capital Execution) in 1903, the first Danish feature film. Early directors of note include Carl Theodor Dreyer (who produced the chilling Vampyr) and Johan Jacobsen, who led a field which produced everything from bleak dramas to thrillers.
For a ten-year period beginning in 1965, erotic films were produced in large numbers, concurrent with other such developments in Sweden. In 1972 Det Danske Filminstitut was founded, and in conjuction with Den Danske Filmskole was a key player in developing the next wave of directors. In 1983 graduate Lars von Trier began to receive attention for his frank, controversial subject matter, and in 1987 Gabriel Axel won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for Babbettes Gaestebud (Babbette's Feast). Billie August picked up the award in 1988 for Pelle Erobreren (Pelle the Conqueror), and both of these movies made inroads in America, being widely available at US video stores.

Let's begin then with von Trier, an auteur's auteur, a man who is periodically subject to a depression so crippling that it renders him unable to work. He began shooting shorts on a little Super-8 at the age of 11, and in 1979 entered the national film school. He made his mark while still a student, and was soon no stranger to Cannes. His first trilogy of sorts included 1984 noir The Element of Crime, 1987's Epidemic (a twist on the nature of reality), and 1991's Europa, aka Zentropa, three films that were experimental in style and content. His Dancer in the Dark, starring Bjork, anchored a "Golden Heart" trilogy and attracted commentary and love/hate furor everywhere it was shown. He further pushed boundaries with Dogville (minimal, chalk-mark stage sets with white outlines for objects), Mandalay, and The Five Obstructions, which retold 1967's The Perfect Human with various inserted impediments.
Von Trier attracted much hubbub again with 2009's Antichrist, an elemental and disturbing spectacle of madness and decay. Willem Dafoe is He to Charlotte Gainsbourg's She. After losing their child to a freak accident, Gainsbourg retreats to a deep forest (where she'd studied the previous summer), as much to gather her wits as to escape Dafoe's emotionally detached analyst. After a stunning black-and-white Prologue, von Trier unfolds this unsettling tale in three segments - Pain, Despair and The Three Beggars - which correspond to a trio of figures from the couple's apartment. Various images leap out of the screen as Dafoe is shaken by Gainsbourg's psychic retreat: a mangled crow, an eviscerated fox, and a tree that heaves in spasm as Dafoe pins his maddened woman beneath its boughs. The director pulls no punches, and includes probably the most diabolically misogynistic image ever filmed. He wants to inhabit the viewer's mind, and does so in this dark fable.
Von Trier lives and works to provoke, and accordingly he formed Dogme 95 with fellow director Thomas Vinterberg. The qualifications for a film to be so certified require it to be shot onsite, with no interference or special effects and using only such materials and props as are readily at hand, and forbidding even the later addition of music. This seeming austerity might sound off-putting, but there have been a great many movies produced under these auspices. In fact, Dogme 1 was produced by Vinterberg, and was a film called Festen (The Celebration). In it, a family gathers to celebrate the 60th birthday of its patriarch, Helge. Son Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) shakes up the dinner with a few shocking revelations. The evening proceeds, however, in spite of further disclosures (including one from beyond the grave). Vinterberg confounds expectations, and deftly controls every onscreen moment, showing what is possible through editing, pacing and slow, subtle character development.
In addition to the film winning several awards it was adapted for a number of stage productions worldwide.
Lone Scherfig's career was well established in TV and film when she began 2000's Italiensk for Begyndere (Italian for Beginners), also a Dogme film. In this wonderfully interwoven story a group of disparate, lonely people including Andreas, a pastor (Anders W. Berthelsen), a hairdresser, Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen), a put-upon shopgirl from the bakery (Annette Stovelbaek) and two buddies (Peter Ganzler as the shy Jorgen and Lars Kaalund as the obnoxious Finn) periodically gather for Italian lessons in a small hall. After the instructor dies suddenly it's up to Finn, who speaks decent Italian, to carry on. It won its share of awards from Berlin to Barcelona, and is in fact the most profitable Scandinavian movie ever made.
Ulrich Thomsen again appears in two further films, Susannah Bier's 2004 Brodre (Brothers), (remade in the US in 2009 with Tobey Maguire), and Per Fly's Arven (The Inheritance). In the first he's Michael, an army officer back from Afghanistan with a secret so dark it may destroy his family (where Thomsen receives fine support from Nikolaj Lie Kaas as brother Jannik), in the second he's Christoffer, a restaurateur living in Sweden who's called back home to handle the family business after his father's suicide. Thomsen displays a knack for seeking out roles where he may portray men with gentle spirits, yet hearts given to pragmatic hardening.
There are those directors who do painstakingly craft their images and go to immense lengths to hone their personal images. These include Ole Bornedal, who produced the gripping Kaelighed parfilm (Just Another Love Story) in 2007. Anders W. Berthelsen is Jonas, a police photographer who's heavily mortgaged, trapped in domesticity, and entertains reveries of a new life. This new life arrives in the form of the unhinged Julia (Rebecka Hemse), who is on the run - "not from a grey, humdrum existence but from a sharp black cloud." She does get away ("all the way away") and ends up with amnesia. Her car crash alone is masterful, and Bornedal sweeps us into her world from there, a world that Sebastian (Lie Kaas again), the one tie from her previous life, has gone missing, presumably dead. Jonas is blissful in "...a world beyond coffee, herring and chatter." Bornedal's juxtapostions are marvelous, with Jonas entertaining Julia while his dinner guests look askance: entertaining her as Sebastian, when Sebastian's identity is, we are shown, not up for grabs!
I was most struck by Henrik Ruben Genz's Frygtelig Lykkelig (Terribly Happy), a master class in composition and mood. Genz's previous life as a graphic designer informs his eye, and the result is brilliantly shot and perfectly paced.
Jacob Cedergren is Robert Hansen, a cop on leave from Copenhagen who's assigned to a tiny municipality out in the hinterlands of South Jutland...a place where theings are done a certain way, including law enforcement. Hansen's entanglement with a local housewife leads to trouble: he tries to put a stop to her abuse, but instead creates a brutal dilemma that draws the entire town into its path.
There is not a second of wasted film here, and to chatter on about it would only serve to belabor a singular work of art.
Naturally, with the gangster/caper/double-cross film reaching new heights of popularity in the '90s, everyone wants to have a go, and Denmark is no different. Nicolas Winding Refn inaugurated what became a gritty trilogy with 1996's Pusher. He initially filmed a short to try to raise money for a feature-length version, then decided to do it himself with whatever money he could scrounge up (before funding did in fact arrive).
We meet Frank (Kim Bodnia) and sidekick Tonny just this side of a decent drug score, and soon a simple deal falls, completely, drastically apart. After a couple more films, including 2003's acclaimed Fear X which starred John Turturro, Refn completed a very interesting story cycle with Pusher II and III, in 2004 and '05. We'll finish with a director who does shoot a nice little caper movie, albeit one that opts for a bit more complexity.
Anders Thomas Jensen wrote Brothers, and was story supervisor for Antichrist. He also won Best Short Subject for 1998's Election Night, an 11-minute nibble that starred Ulrich Thomsen. In 2000 he dropped Blinkende Lygter (Flickering Lights) wherein Torkilde (Soren Pilmark) runs afoul of a heavyweight called The Eskimo. He only wants a chance at a new beginning: at 40 he's getting a little desperate. Therefore, after ripping off the crime boss again he and mates Arne (Mads Mikkelsen, a go-to Danish actor), Peter (Thomsen again), and Stephan (once more, a funny Lie Kaas) convert a stopgap hideout - an abandoned restaurant - into a going concern.
A recurrent window motif sets up a glimpse into a key event in each man's life, with Stephan's tying the four together. They're violent, they're from violence. The Eskimo shows up, as we know he must, but the group is spared by a most unlikely savior!

When watching these films I don't get the impression of Danish actors as cossetted stars, living life under a microscope and being hounded from red carpet to red carpet. Denmark's filmmakers seem to want to tell a story, and they do, often with breathtaking originality of vision.
This is not to suggest that the actors in these films are some simple part of a whole - far from it - but it is refreshing to become engrossed in a story in which the cast melt into their roles. I've often lambasted American cinema (in the last 25 years at least) for churning out movies that fit easily into slots, that ask nothing of the viewer and seek to add nothing to film. Europe (and pretty much everyone else) simply present their story: elements comedic and dark, mundane and absurd appear in the course of the movie's telling, and thus mirror real life.
Denmark, then, offers the Continental and the provincial, the bleak alongside the beautiful, and delivers to the happy filmgoer an experience that is subtly understated yet elegant, provocative and quietly profound.


Into the Noose: Alice Cooper in the '70s
Now that Alice Cooper can add membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to his curriculum vitae, and as we're approaching the 40th anniversary of the landmark LP of his classic band, let's take a moment to consider the man at the peak of his powers. It's been a fascinating, bumpy road for this entertainer, a road that includes not only a life in music, stage and screen but also turns as a restaurateur, Pro-Am golfer, radio host and self-appointed addiction counselor. If we delve into the past, back beyond the '80s when he found himself lumped in with the hair-metal hordes, we arrive in the America of the early 1970s, a place where the country's kids found themselves surrounded by parents, teachers and Nixon. It was here that Cooper developed a stage show so bizarre, so theatrical, that it soon threatened to overtake the music, which is a shame: his band of these years turned out a string of brilliant albums, records that have lost none of their power, complexity and honesty.
Vincent Damon Furnier's family relocated from Michigan to Phoenix when he was just a kid, and it was here that young Vince began a musical career, in order to get some of the attention that his heroes like the Stones and Yardbirds were getting. A high-school coach saddled him with the task of organizing a talent show (with participants drawn form among the ranks of the school's jocks), and this led to the formation of the Earwigs, Vince's first band.
The Earwigs became the Spiders, then the Nazz. After gigging around the area, then moving the show outward toward the greener pastures of California, the group finally relocated to L.A. in early 1968. Their lineup was now solidified as Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce (lead and rhythm guitar), Dennis Dunaway (bass) and Neil Smith (drums). By May they'd changed their name to Alice Cooper, a name-change story that in subsequent interviews was tarted up with a lot of Ouija board/reincarnation backstory baggage, but was really only chosen because Furnier thought it was a cool name, vaguely suggestive of an archaic personality about which an elaborate image might be constructed.
The group was at the epicenter of the golden West Coast '60s, surrounded by and playing with Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Janis Joplin, Iron Butterfly, Buffalo Springfield and various other heavies. In August '68 they opened the Newport Pop Festival in Costa Mesa, and it was at this time that a talent hustler named Shep Gordon got them in contact with Frank Zappa, who was launching a boutique label called Straight. The label also featured a pack of groupies called the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously, among other variants), one of whom - Miss Christine - became smitten with the gangly Furnier, and took it upon herself to outfit the band in some properly weird outfits. Those outfits, the ongoing performances which sharpened the band's chops, and a recording deal greatly boosted the guys' confidence. At a 1969 festival in Toronto, the singer tossed a wayward chicken off the stage into the audience, and this for some reason led to tales of his biting off the animal's head and drinking its blood. Factual or not, such stories proved to be great for publicity, and proved an omen of coming stage mayhem.
The band's first album, 1969's Pretties for You and its 1970 follow-up Easy Action were not really focused, and show a band still carrying around a lot of uneasy psychedelic chops. The band's leader, who was on the verge of fully going by his outfit's name, summed up the group's vibe at this point - they "drove a stake in the heart of the Love Generation." Very well. The boys had to produce one more LP to fulfill their contract with Zappa, and it proved to be a turning point.
Producer Bob Ezrin was called in, and his work began a fruitful relationship with Cooper and the band. In late 1970 the band entered the RCA studios in Chicago and emerged with the polished, powerful sound they'd been seeking, with an album called Love It To Death. Album opener "Caught in a Dream" and "Long Way to Go" are succinct, guitar-fueled gems about the vagaries of impending stardom, but Cooper further demands - in "Is It My Body" - "...have you got the time to find out - who I really am?" A taste of the big time arrived with the #21 chart placement of "I'm 18," a tune fated to be shanghaied for the Noah's Ark of "classic rock" radio. As with most other songs commandeered by that damnable format, the song is fantastic when heard within the context of its home album. Cooper leaves it all on the studio floor, rolling out a raw-throated delivery of controlled (but only just) desperation, and his vocal makes the song.
Ezrin contributes keyboards to the sessions, most notably on the set piece"Black Juju," a riveting psychodrama where the band can really spread out and explore a theme, and the concise wig-out "Hallowed Be My Name." This sets up "Second Coming"/The Ballad of Dwight Fry," a study in strange, encroaching madness. We close with "Sun Arise," an odd choice (being a cover of Rolf Harris, the man who gave us "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport"), but which nevertheless the band nail, and with great zeal. So closes a lyrically rich record, with guitars surgical in their economy and arrangements strong across the board. It's a sonic postcard aimed at the huddled teen masses yearning to breathe free, and my pick for desert-island LP by the band.
The response to the single got the attention of Warner Brothers, who bought out the band's contract and reissued LITD. The increased promotion sent the LP to #35, and set up a US and European tour that rapidly got out the word. Arriving soon thereafter was Killer, and the lead track "Under My Wheels" dispelled any doubts or ambiguities in a blast of sax-laced bluster. In "Be My Lover," a composite band member tries to explain his life to a motel-bar acquaintance, in a song that's as wistful as is it rocking. The band serve up "Halo of Flies," like "Black Juju" another dream-state, impressionist exploration of a series of propulsive, jagged riffs. Cooper's raw bawl again appears on "Yeah Yeah Yeah" and the strings-enriched "Desperado," a rumination that he sometimes claimed to be about Jim Morrison (who'd only just died).
Here's the difference between the two, however. Morrison's theatre was broad, intense, and presented an Eros/Thanatos axis that kept both the man and his lyrics distant, aloof, inaccessible. Cooper's writing offers theatre, yes, but it's a kindred-spirit approach, one man seeking his way, clutching toward self-expression, shaping his career and art even while being immersed in the machinery of stardom.
He does plant a seed here, with "Dead Babies," and again the concept of raw shock bricks itself in as a component of his approach. The title track, a seven-minute multipart trip, closes things up on this last recorded stop before superstardom.
The timetable seemed to suggest a breakthrough album, a monster to capitalize on the band's momentum, and School's Out didn't disappoint. Demonstrating his new pull with Warners' was the record's jacket, a die-cut affair that could be propped up like an old schoolroom desk complete with opening top. The vinyl was housed in a pair of faux panties (so inaugurating a packaging effort with the group that lead to finding complete packages quite a challenge for collectors in later years). The title track leapt to #1, the LP to #2, and the ride began. With "Luney Tune" and "My Stars," the band's arrangements travel further afield, and the jailbird number "Public Animal #9" has Alice's words degenerate into a grating howl that is in fact animal.
The album's centerpoint deals with a sort of West Side Story vibe, given the subject of "Gutter Cats vs. The Jets" and "Street Fight," and thus we find Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim in the studio sharing production duties! Alice bares himself again on "Alma Mater," a bittersweet recollection of the maze of high school life, and a vulnerable moment that further strengthens the album's emotional spectrum. It was another triumph, and cause for another tour, the stage presentation for which now featured the singer - after a visual spectacle - being hanged.
By now the band's alcohol intake had reached heroic proportions, especially in the case of Buxton, who'd begun displaying the lifestyle's ravages. The band then repaired to a mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut to lay down the tracks for the next album. There were a number of guest musicians and eight engineers alongside Ezrin for the production of Billion Dollar Babies, a glittering production of Cooper baroque. Here is the band at the pinnacle of the Rock heights, soon to put a show on the road that broke all existing records, and its dazed, bleary members offer up a chronicle of those heights.
It's a mixed bag that yielded up a clutch of signature tunes, like the comic "No More Mr. Nice Guy" and leather-lunged "Elected." Alice plays to the controversy machine with "Sick Things" and "I Love the Dead," and onstage he'd gone from finishing up by being hanged to now being guillotined. It was over the top, and the band's fans, now found worldwide, demanded more. It was this pressure that led to the breakup of the original group, but they still had one more album to make together, and it proved to be their most underrated.
Late in '73, running on fumes, the guys recorded Muscle of Love. It's a strong collection, diverse and energetic. There's the sad beauty of "Hard Hearted Alice" and "Teenage Lament '74." Horns punch up the compelling "Never Been Sold Before" as well as "The Man With the Golden Gun," a deft submission for the current Bond flick (that lost out to a lesser offering from Lulu). Closer "Woman Machine" is as heavy as the swaying, Dixieland-flavored "Crazy Little Child" is playful. Then there's the title track, a rocker that blends several riffs into a gripping whole. Opening track "Big Apple Dreamin'" and "The Man With the Golden Gun" are both credited to the entire band (as are "School's Out," "I'm 18" and "Elected"), and showcase the collective might that the band accessed during this amazing time.
Solo outings and future heights of fame awaited Alice, but it was the music from this time, with this band, that cemented his greatness.

The Conversation Continues
I'll never forget the blankly grinning mannequins, some years ago in an ad in Us magazine, who reflected warmly that "...the line between entertainment and information is blurring, and so what?" While it is true that the industry has gotten very chummy with sidebars, bullet points and whittled-down "paragraphs" of easily digested pablum, there are still a few publications out there that expect, even require you to engage yourself. Perhaps pre-eminent among these defiant holdouts is The New York Review of Books, a magazine that seeks to continue the conversation of the mind, even in a time where active thought is seen as an impediment. Enough boring proselytizing, however: let's just look at the mag in question.
It was founded in 1963 by a group of NYC literary industry figures, who felt that a serious, consistent organ for substantial reviews and essays did not exist. A city printing strike was impetus for the title's launch, as it put the Times at a standstill. This early founding group - Robert Silvers, Barbara and Jason Epstein and Elizabeth Hardwick strove to publish material from the best writers and critics of the day, including a few from outside the establishment or, indeed, the country. the purpose was, and remains, a conversation about books, and the cultural, political and historical worlds those books seek to comment upon.
Over time, it has gravitated between true-Left leanings and a general universal approach, although the instability and tension of the last ten years has created in the paper a vocal, sustained critique of US policy, domestic and especially foreign. After Barbara Epstein's death in 2006, Silvers remains as sole editor, a position he holds in great understanding of the magazine's tradition and standards. Accordingly, a look at the February issue shows a publication as diverse, as challenging as ever.
Let's begin with a (literally) far-out piece - Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg on Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's The Grand Design. Weinberg first lays out the mechanics of one of the duo's key models, the multiverse, and presents their arguments for such a system, of which universes such as ours are but fragments. In so doing he provides an overview of familiar concepts such as string theory and dark matter, but also newer, still-developing ideas such as the theory of chaotic inflation. He takes Hawking to task for a few historical errors involving work presented by Archimedes and Copernicus, and does make note of the great man's complete and total dismissal of any sort of "design" behind the vastness of deep space, or humankind and its thinkers and seekers, for that matter.
After a piece that is - for the lay reader such as me - fairly heavy sledding, Weinberg concludes that he need not concur with Hawking and Mlodinow to appreciate their work, and so it should be.
Next up, law and philosophy professor Ronald Dworkin presents an excerpt from his recent book (Justice for Hedgehogs), in which he discusses the pursuit of a Good Life. After drawing a distinction between ethics and morality, he proceeds to reconcile the two (in a sense of personal duty to oneself and others) with the search for a fulfilling life. Dworkin sees, as an outgrowth of personal responsibility, the obligation to live a good life, to strive toward whatever ends will achieve this. For him, the material evidence left by a writer or artist (for example) is not the important thing. It is the fact of those creations' existence, the energy required to produce them...indeed, his words hold out great hope for those two occupations, as he posits "...even an unrecognized...achievement makes a life a good one." Additionally, though deeds may produce a life of subjective value, he states clearly that the Aristotlean ideal (a life of contemplation) is desirable - objectively good, of objective value. Strong words - wise words.
Jason Epstein (again, one of the co-founders and a man whose many other accomplishments include the founding of Library of America with Edmund Wilson) is on board to review John B. Thompson's Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. He does discuss the book, but he also provides a fascinating look into his own years at Random House, when the culture of publishing was in a far different place. We're given a timeline of sorts, beginning with the ubiquity of books (and bookstores, and a culture that valued both) in America's midcentury cities. Large, independent stores where relationships were cultivated were overtaken by chains which may or may not have room for backlists of any depth. Malls, mergers and a decline in stores staffed by readers led to the current climate of publishing houses approaching the surviving few chains on bended knee, big-gun A-list offerings in hand.
Epstein rightly ascribes the role of provider of depth to Amazon, and though he soundly spanks e-books and other non-print media early in the piece, is speculating on the future of such phenomena as self/POD publishing by its end. He provides excerpts from Thompson that offer up such revelations as a) books are critical parts of our lives and b) they and the places that house them will always be with us. Regardless, any discussion about the state of the industry, even if it reveals white-knuckle trepidations and flagging backlists, will always be welcome...and necessary.
The arts are of course well represented. NYU professor Thomas Nagel reviews Tony Judt's posthumous The Memory Chalet, a collection of essays about the critic's life and beliefs, dictated by Judt even as his body wasted away under the ravages of ALS. Nagel ponders these theses and places them within the framework of Judt's life - the old-style social liberal convictions, coming as they did from an unapologetic meritocracy (something he feels the US, like the UK has done away, with disastrous results), and especially his complicated search for his own identity, as a man born Jewish but who wrestled his whole life with Zionism in its various modes and expressions. Nagel gets in the man's head a bit, and leaves us with an appreciation for this most remarkable memoir.
Willibald Sauerlander, former director of the Central Institute for Art History, Munich, discusses a collection of Dutch portraiture currently on loan to the city's Alte Pinakothek, a rare loan that depicts a city moving away from occupation, war and religion and toward a new, business-driven world of prosperity and industry. Architectural historian Martin Filler, in reviewing a number of works by Glaswegian (by way of Liverpool) architect James Frazier Stirling, affords us a look at the combative postmodern world of this field, with its snares and bitter rivalries. Most rewarding are two books that introduce unfamiliar characters with rich, troubled lives.
First, Stanford's Robert Pogue Harrison discusses Canti, a newly translated selection of poems by Giacomo Leopardi, a man revered in Italy but fairly obscure elsewhere. This extraordinary figure (who died in 1837) mastered Greek, Latin and Hebrew as a teen before moving on to the life of an autodidact, and moreover, one who wrote poetry. Harrison describes Leopardi's numerous physical afflictions (which led to a metaphysical, cynical despair), then moves to an analysis of the difficult job before translator Jonathan Gaslassi. The translator faces the gulf of hewing to the true nature of the poet's words as he converts them to another language, but Leopardi also aggressively used parole (older words with broad, often instinctive possible meanings) as opposed to termini (very specific, concrete words). Leopardi's confrontational vision sought transcendence, and he got his back up against the temporal and finite. In this respect, his countrymen honor him for precisely the right reasons. Second, poet and editor Adam Kirsch considers several works by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard: a new translation of My Prizes: An Accounting, Prose, and Ritter, Dene, Voss. We meet Bernhard, a writer and playwright active from the mid '60s through the early '80s. Kirsch shows us a man who meets life at every turn with disdain, criticism, and enough stagy ennui to place him squarely with the Exis, were he French. Bernhard made a habit of biting the hand that fed him, as evidenced by My Prizes, from 1980. He writes a blithely pointed essay around each literary prize he's won, and reserves a special sneer when describing his hasty purchase of this car or that home, gestures of provocation that also bespeak constant self-invention. That we probably wouldn't have been able to hold a conversation with Bernhard is beside the point. He bears, in one way or another, a closer look from the American reader.
Wrapping up the issue's cultural coverage are various volumes on the natural world, a smattering of Houdini biographies in honor of a new traveling show, and Geoffrey O'Brien's review of Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan. I must say at the outset that I'm no fan, and find Sinatra to be one of the most absurdly deified performers of the last century. I care not for glad-handing, rapturous accounts of the glory years of the lunatic asylum known as Las Vegas, nor its alcohol-sodden, orifice-plumbing Rat Pack of yesteryear. It was therefore with some disdain that I approached this piece, which traces the singer's first flush of success, ca. 1938-1947. Kaplan deftly retraces this rise, and I was at least glad for the few glimpses into the offstage Sinatra that O'Brien selects for comment, such as the singer's disciplined approach to learning his craft and his love of reading.
Less appetizing were revelations of his offering to be a fink for the FBI, re: "subversive" elements (one supposes hanging out with mobsters gets a pass). I already knew him to be an early and vocal critic of rock 'n' roll. I had to re-read phrases such as "...the disciplined release of an unfathomably powerful force" a couple of times in disbelief, but was generally edified and yes, a bit intrigued by the piece.
Moving onward, pleasant variety again presents itself in the form of Max Hastings' review of C.J. Chivers' The Gun. It's the story of a weapon that's been the bane of Western armies for over 60 years, one that was the principal weapon of choice in 46 out of 49 major conflicts of the '90s, a rudimentary rifle so simple that children can operate it (as they sadly so often do): the AK-47. Hastings balks a bit at Chivers' retracing of the machine gun's lineage in general, back to Gatling, then forward to the Maxim/Vickers, then Lewis, through Thompson and finally to the offerings of Hugo Schmeisser. It's through a late-WWII design of the latter's, the MP44 Sturmgewehr, that we meet a poster boy for Soviet arms development, Mikhail Kalishnikov.
The designer's resulting rifle, which worked even under appalling conditions, is contrasted by Chivers with the miserable performance of the M-16, whose sorry record began in the rice paddies of Vietnam. Hastings provides insight into the book, while pondering other such technological comparisons over time. (He certainly chose a book with an influential topic: the History Channel, in one of their addictive specials on the top rifles of all time, rates the AK with top marks in all categories. And apropos of nothing, I recently killed a little time with an issue of Shotgun News, an all-around firearms title, where I was transfixed by a lengthy piece on the weapons of the Spetsnaz. The stars? A vast series of modified AK-47s!) Interesting stuff.
Orhan Pamuk puts in an appearance here to discuss Europe and its relationship with its immigrants, and writers Michael Tomasky and Garry Wills both offer studies of Obama, which bracket two resonant pieces concerning our recent past. Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, in "Who's Afraid of the Palestinians?" study the current relationship between Netanyahu and Abbas, as well as the Obama adminstration's seeming paralysis in moving the discussion forward. Such Palestinian gambits as unilaterally declaring statehood prick up the ears of other nations, and force Israel's hand, yet the writers note that restricting voting saps the country's democratic instincts, while a compromise-state would dilute, perhaps irreparably, its Jewish nature.
Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is discussed, as regards his approach to the problem - an abandonment of Arafat-style "bleeding wound" theatrics, while focusing on day-to-day improvements in his peoples' lives and government. Agha and Malley then arrive at the thorniest ongoing problem on the table: the dependence of Israel on the US (a blank check, it may be fairly said), and the influence of external states upon the Palestinians. That is where they find the two nations at the moment. Israel, sensing a looming "delegitimization" in the eyes of the region and Europe, and Abbas's potential loss of control as the last man with the credibility and expertise to effect a solution.
Finally up is Harvard professor Roderick MacFarquhar's review of Franz Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962. In addition to the Cultural Revolution (that imprisoned or slaughtered outright anyone that got in the regime's way, the Great Leap Forward - a systemic attempt to implement a series of dreadfully bad decisions - was responsible for the deaths, by conservative estimate, of 30 million Chinese. Dikotter traces this movement to an emulation of Kruschchev's industrial boasts, though China had little of the USSR's resources or industrial infrastructure.
Mao put in place several ruinous policies: he broke up existing farming collectives, and families, to create utopian "communes," thus creating shortages that compelled people to panic and eat everything in sight; diverted rural labor toward the factories, ensure crops that rotted in the field; had peasants operate pathetic backyard "foundries" that created an unusable product, and had local farming directors (those who weren't toadying up by overfilling quotas, thus starving their local citizenry) adopt radical new or experimental tchniques, most often with horrible failure as a result.
MacFarquhar's conclusion that this book, which goes beyond any other in, for example, the treatment of the young, the women and the old left at the tender mercies of the regime's enforcers, is the new standard on the subject is absolutely correct. Here, then - a sample issue and its contents.
The magazine, not content to rest on its laurels, has spawned British and Italian editions, as well as a book-publishing arm with three imprints to cover reprints, translations, collections and children's books as well. It's not a "gimme" read, something to flick through at the DMV.
It's, thank God, far more.
Muck, No Diamonds
We are, 60 years into TV's reign, standing before a trough...a pile of corn shucks, a salt lick and a few apple cores are almost all that remain of a onetime bounty of decent programming. We can thank the slavering poltergeist of "reality" TV for the blight, and it looks as though, with these shows multiplying like mushrooms in a dank cellar, this is much of what we'll be served from here on out.
How did we get here?
First came the "marquee" shows, when the phenomenon was fairly new and such programs developed followings. Things like Survivor, The Apprentice, Trading Spaces, American Idol, Cops, Big Brother and The Bachelor grew fan bases that followed their subjects' exploits raptly. Yet these initial offerings generated imitators, which assume that if one thing in a subject area is a hit, why can't they all be?
People are fascinated by food, so they're given not only No Reservations and Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, but also Man vs. Food, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and two standoff diner contests - Food Feuds and Food Wars. If Iron Chef will make it, why not Chopped? If martians land tomorrow, will they see a raft of shows about not only cakes, but for-chrissakes cupcakes, and scream off back into space?
If viewers were fixated on Antiques Roadshow, why not brawn it up a bit with Pawn Stars, which begat not only Hardcore Pawn and Storage Wars, the latter of which features...cutthroat bidding on abandoned storage spaces. Completing the obsession with the ephemera of America's past are American Pickers, Oddities and a late entry called Cash & Cari.
So much of the problem stems from a simple thing, and that's networks getting away from their primary mission statement.
MTV could be showing music videos this minute, instead of the parade of bottom-feeders it normally airs. Yet they got in bed with the devil in 1992 with the inaugural season of The Real World and haven't looked back. And VH-1 gets no slack: it couldn't even stick to its MTV-lite rockumentaries, instead unleashing such fare as The Surreal Life, which led to Flavor of Love, Bret Michaels' Rock of Love, and so forth. (I also don't need swine like Mo Rocca smarmily analyzing the cultural vibes of decades in which he hadn't been born yet).
TLC may once have offered something remotely about "learning," but now it's a festival of My Strange Addiction and Say Yes to The Dress. And oh, how the mighty have fallen: Discovery now numbers Pitchmen among its Dirty Jobs and Storm Chasers, and Bravo - once the province of fine movies and provocative, intelligent series - now seems to be a procession of brassy power-queens slapping down chastened simps like misbehaving puppies. At least E! never had any pretense toward substance, but their propping up of Kendra and the unspeakable army of Kardashians is so offensive that no amount of Joel McHale or Chelsea Handler's bile can wash out the taste.
After the gaggle of competition shows (singing, dancing, if you're lucky, "with the stars"), the game show lives on, not just as Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader and Cash Cab, things that offer a bit in the way of trivia, but also Deal or No Deal, essentially a bimbo-augmented Price is Right.
Younger view-pods aren't left out, either. If the Kinder tire of "rocking out" with the Nick or Disney crews (as dissected last post), there's always Destroy Build Destroy, wherein Andrew W.K. guides two teams of teens through various challenges, and Silent Library, where two smirking teams try not to laugh as their fellows are subjected to various painful indignities. If those are too taxing, there's Dude, What Would Happen, which features three special-needs youth ostensibly acting out their every feverish whim.
It's as if no vicarious desire is unavailable - I can watch Bear Grylls tame the wild, and lap up Ax Men, Ice Road Truckers and other sagas of peril and exhiliration. If I'm sated with real-life exploits, it's back to not only a tawdry roster of celebrities, but also their wives. If I don't give a damn about the power-brokers' Real Housewives of Fill-in-the-Blank, why do I care about the spouses of rock stars, or NBA players, or (*gulp*) BMX racers?!
At least with these "wives" trying to pass themselves off as normal you'll still get catfights, but fewer instances of Jersey Shore-style instances of drunken, mascara'd strumpets alight in a hot tub and demanding "...put it in my aaaasss..." There seems to be a few of these hosts who don't want to be caught out by sudden shifts in popular tastes: witness Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy and Adam Richman's The Traveler's Guide to Life. Those guys are protecting the brand, to be sure.

Look, I've already wasted more time on this crap than I'd planned, and it matters not anyway. It's cheap to make, people climb over each other to appear on its shows, and the shows generate rip-offs and spinoffs so fast that the networks can now simply say "Next, on an all-new ---" without you, the target, doing a lot of wondering about a show you're pretty sure you've never seen.
If you need to see addicts, addicts in rehab, people hoarding string, or cats (or whatever floats their boat), midgets or polygamists or tiny beauty contestants ruthlessly pimped out by craven, sad parents, it's there.
Just turn it on.

Well, there's two down endings in a row. I'll try not to make it a habit. Maybe I've purged myself a bit - maybe next time we can find something decent on the box! Regardless, once again, many thanks for stopping by.



No comments:

Post a Comment