W. G. SEBALD & PATIENCE
For me, the eyes of W.G. Sebald may convey as much about this particular author’s work as any literary analysis or critical description…melancholy, gentleness, erudition. Some of the comfort one is afforded when immersed in a book of Sebald’s may be attributed to a vaguely felt resonance of one’s own nebulous melancholy with that which pervades the books. Such is my experience at least.
Wherever readers and admirers of W.G Sebald encounter those who have yet to read him a familiar struggle invariably takes place, an effort to convey a reasonably true, reasonably informative, reasonably useful description of Sebald’s books. So singular in nature are they that the task is daunting. In the artful and innovative documentary about Sebald, Patience (After Sebald) a publisher relates an anecdote about a meeting with Sebald prior to publication, in which Sebald explained that he preferred his volume be marketed with a classification in every available category. The publisher informed him that the folks in marketing preferred a limit of four. Whether Sebald was serious or not he had a point. The books make an authentic claim to being fiction just as well as non-fiction, to being history, memoir, ethnography, architecture, geography, travel and zoology even. Really.
Yet, if this makes the books sound stuffy or pedantic they aren’t. For all their uniqueness they could not be father away from anything as self-consciously grandiose as experimental, and are in no way abstruse or god forbid avant-garde. They are as earnest as their author’s face and as gentle as the man. The focus of Patience, an unconventional documentary whose structure somewhat approximates that of the books, focusses on an early work, The Rings of Saturn, in which a narrator, fresh from some distressing event or period of personal trial decides to take a walking tour of East Anglia (the locale where Sebald lived and taught) a marshy area of coastal England.
The film loosely follows the narrator’s own route of traversal, attempting a filmic approximation of the narrator’s mixture of rumination, fluid, meticulous description, anecdote, historical background and personal digression. Photographs, which have a prominent role in the books, though used obliquely, have a significant role in the film as well, often just as obliquely utilized. The film makes mention of and marvels at the ways in which Sebald elevates digression to a refined art, the prose spilling from contemplation of the fascinating habits and unexpected splendors of herring in their habitat to the startling history behind an encountered landmark to a contemplation of a personal relationship.
Seemingly formless, negligibly plotted, the books manage to galvanize nonetheless, or perhaps to mesmerize, in large part due to the luminosity and fluency of the prose itself, a hard to pin melding of narrative, information and aesthetic elegance. There is a kind of golden filigree of language Sebald crafts with his themes of displacement and dislocation, of expatriation, voluntary and involuntary, which may explain the level of affection for the works and their unique capacity to transfix.
Patience offers a juxtaposing of commentary from talking heads, observations and anecdotes from personal friends, photographs from the books interposed with the film’s own footage recorded in East Anglia, including of artifacts and landmarks mentioned or displayed in The Rings of Saturn. Not incidental is exploration of Sebald, the expatriate himself of German heritage, in his relationship both to England and his native Germany, and as one would expect, the ways in which the books gently excavate the subject of Germany and Germans during the second World War, the heinousness it inflicted and the suffering inflicted upon its people by their own and others, narratives of fates fictional or perhaps not. It is unlikely the subject is anything other than essential to the rueful pessimism if not despondency about the human race forever seeping through.
Arguably, the film is a work of fine art itself. Perhaps my favorite sequence is one in which a segment of writing from the book is overlaid onto photography of sheep grazing and resting amid the tombstones in the cemetery adjacent to the cottage of poet Michael Hamburg as the passage is read, segueing into the poet’s reflections, the books together something akin to a poeticized education. Certainly my favorite insight from the film came from one of the commenters, I can’t remember which, who said Sebald seemed to suggest “only children have homes, not adults”. For me, that captures a great deal about the man and his sadly beautiful work.
20 RAVISHING OBSCURITIES
I should confess immediately that the title under which this piece appears is entirely dishonest, since none of the expobident (adjective courtesy of San Francisco jazz DJ of yore Miles Mellough) pop albums listed here truly is obscure. On the other hand if you’ve never heard of them I suppose they are.
For the record (cough), among the most detestable conditions afflicting mankind since the appearance of cave drawings are the incidents of creative works underexposed or under enjoyed along with suffering humanity desperate to discover fresh musical nourishment, perhaps for the morning commute. So let the healing begin now.
Thundercat, The Golden Age of the Apocalypse
Released last year, Thundercat is actually a virtuoso bass player named Stephen Bruner, most associated with the work of Flying Lotus, a genre-bending act whose precise label is hard to apprehend, but could crudely be described as avant-electronic soul-jazz. It doesn’t really matter. Golden Age of the Apocalypse is one of those, “I’m not sure what the hell this is, but it’s a thing of beauty” albums that combine unbelievable musicianship with gorgeous music. For me it has the sound of modernly refurbished jazz-soul fusion from the 1970’s, drawing inspiration from George Duke, Shuggie Otis, Roy Ayers and Return to Forever. With its stunning, fleet bass playing, lilting vocals, fluid and precise electronic honey it is flowing, unpredictable, futuristic and sweetly soulful at the same time.
Lewis Taylor, Stoned, Part 1
I’m a certifiable bore when I’ve started in on English musician Lewis Taylor, rhetorically grabbing people by the lapels and pushing them against the wall in order to preach the criminality of Lewis Taylor’s far too restricted fame. I pretty much covered it all here with the post, Where Art Thous Undercover Black Man. Still, it’s hard to find one album that is such an immersion in pure pleasure as this one, among only four Taylor released before entirely vanishing in exasperation, despite being lauded by no small number of heralded greats. A man who can play killer guitar, and other instruments well enough to fill out a band in a studio he’s not simply a gifted auteur who can meld Motown, psychedelia, West Coast harmony and dance, but an artist who can concoct absolutely stunning songs. Recreating styles and genres is a limited talent: recreating them with songs of a quality that equals or measures the original versions is exceedingly rare.
The Bird and the Bee, The Bird and the Bee
The Bird and the Bee is the duet of producer and keyboardist Greg Kurstin and vocalist Inara George. Even if she wasn’t a thrilling songbird Inara George probably would have had me at hello anyhow simply out of respect for her lineage, being the daughter of the deceased Lowell George, the core of Little Feat and a master guitarist whose economically funky and tasty playing made him one of the most renowned guitarists of all time in a band that seemed to hit every lick exactly on the money without gratuitous waste or flash. But she is indeed a thrilling songbird and on this the first of three albums so far the collaboration is stellar already. While the playing is fairly standard electro pop (no Vampire Weekend ambitions here) it essentially serves as accompaniment for Ms. George, singing some very, very good songs. Those songs are a difficult to pin mixture of Supremes, Ronnettes, jazzy Tropicalia in the vein of Flora Purim’s work with Chick Corea, and a touch of Dominique Durand from Ivy, maybe. It’s poppy, bouncy, sassy and witty…fluffy in the best sense.
Dean & Britta, L’ Avventura
Another male-female duet, this one is a married couple, Dean Wareham, founder and guitarist of the nineties band Luna and Britta Phillips, bass player in later editions of the band. As one would expect this duet’s work is more musically filled out, Wareham contributing his mid-era Velvet Underground guitar work and Phillips’ accompaniment on bass, along with dollops of strings and synthesizer. This music is dreamy and droll, metropolitan and New York-ey, svelte and shimmering. And indeed the music does suggest the sleek beauty and languor of Antonioni’s classic Sixties’ film L’Avventura.
The Brand New Heavies, Brother, Sister
This one fairly can be described as a lost classic from the 1990’s, song for song a tour de force and a party album extraordinaire. When the Heavies arrived they were categorized with other bands of the period like US3 as Acid Jazz, though they could more fittingly be described as hard soul-jazz perhaps (Maybe a distinction without a difference). Frankly, this album finds and plunders grooves almost to the point of orgasm. You can’t stop playing it. It should come with a warning that it should not be used in combination with drugs or alcohol, though of course it should. The principal singer, N’ Dea Davenport is truly a force of nature and a voice for the ages, while the Heavies have the tightest horns since the JB’s punctuated James Brown.
Arto Lindsay, Mundo Civilizado
You can probably hurt yourself attempting to convey the musical career of Arto Lindsay but I’ll boldly venture. He began as part of seventies Lower East Side experimental No Wave punk band DNA, worked with avant-garde sax player John Zorn before forming The Ambitious Lovers in the late Eighties, whose sound might be classified as Pop-Rock Bossa Nova Deconstructionism. The music was wildly romantic, alternating between squealing guitar and beautiful melody, a truly magical brew clearly doomed. In his solo albums since, Lindsay, who was born in Brazil and grew up in New York explores a subtle, pop-tinged Bossa Nova, alternating English and Portuguese, with Lindsay playing a brand of prickly yet lush electric guitar. Mundo Civilizado is one of his best, music that is gentle, erotic, wry, romantic and intelligent.
Style Council, Our Favourite Shop
Brit Paul Weller, otherwise known as the Modfather, followed his work in the groundbreaking band The Jam with a band that went in a (mostly) different direction entirely. Perhaps only Weller could so instinctively (it would have to be so to work) blend English mod with American R & B. This may be one of the finest incarnations of Blue-Eyed Soul ever, or at least prior to Lewis Taylor. Of the four Style Council studio albums Our Favourite Shop probably has the headiest mix of Mersey Beat, jazziness, Continental boulevard romanticism, smooth soul and Brazilian, along with acidic anti-Thatcher political critiques to boot.
Mick Harvey, Intoxicated Man
The multi-instrumentalist from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds has made two tribute albums covering the songs of Serge Gainsbourg, this the first. Unless one is fluent in French, these English versions of Gainsbough classics afford fuller access to the Gainsbourg lyrical panache. Harvey’s voice has the requisite suaveness to pull it off. Bonnie and Clyde, Harley Davidson, Ford Mustang, Lemon Incest and other favorite Gainsbourg Pop Art ditties are here. Harvey backs the songs with a rich sounding and inventively used basic combo of organ, bass drums and guitar. It’s a properly boozy and irony-soaked covering of Gainsbourg’s cocktail manic-depressiveness. You’ll be seeing Pink Elephants.
The Bogmen, Life Begins at 40 Million
This truly original band from New York has been pegged as a direct descendant of Talking Heads, and though they are produced by an original member of the Heads they are in fact sui generis. Somehow the eccentricity of the vocals and lyrics make a set of great songs even more interesting. Perhaps the association with Talking Heads is that you can picture this band playing in a small club adjacent to an art or design school and funkifying the joint out of control. This is a very supple form of ringing guitar-based rock, lyrically obscure, inventive, jumpy, melodic and lush at the same time. It’s uniquely mesmerizing and caffeinated.
This band from Nashville creates albums that are strangely sublime, to my ears beautiful downers heavy on the beauty. This is the album of theirs I like best, though it has no discernible association with Richard Nixon as best as I can tell, though you are welcome to do further exegesis on those oblique lyrics. There is a preoccupation with Americana here, though it is conveyed with the most unlikely melodies and arrangements otherwise more likely to be found on an album by Curtis Mayfield or Al Green. The singer, Kurt Wagner will outright sing at times, go sing-song at others, and sometimes veer into the most tortured soul falsetto you will ever hear. The first time around it may send you under the bed to hide, though on future listening it somehow poignantly fits the dolorous material, redolent of the dark lounge, and dejected writers crying in their beer and vodka.
Real Estate, Days
Many a band has attempted to create sun-dappled albums of quiet beauty steeped in jangly guitar and West Coast harmonies and failed, whereas Real Estate has done it successfully on their first album, and last year’s Days. Though there is nothing novel here, this is an album of gorgeously meshing filigreed guitar playing and chiming harmonies that is truly transporting. The music is meditative at times, whimsical at others, and always intricately woven. They may not be the Byrds; but they still might have appeared on a bill at the Whiskey circa ’67.
Brazzaville, Rouge on a Pockmarked Street
All you need to know about this LA band’s sound is conveyed by the album title, each of their albums bearing a similar feel as this one. The instruments all sound rich and ripe, and the vocals woozily suggestive of cheap hotels in foreign ports and the women who go with them. But this album is more intriguing than that, with strands of the political (Globalism anyone?) while also working the Beat beat. Exotic, erotic, slightly dangerous, lusciously low rent and adventurous all apply here. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.
I am Kloot, Natural History
If one were to hear this band’s music without knowing precisely what it was, one easily could mistake it for vintage material from the British Invasion. In part this is due to the absence of electronics and the vividness of its basic rock combo instrumentation. This band isn’t trying to recreate anything, it’s just the kind of music they seem to like and do well. But the singer has one of those perfect rock-ready voices, and the hard strumming guitar and hard pounding piano give the songs a timeless feel. On any given song Kloot may suggest early Zombies or certainly pre-symphonic Moody Blues. Their lyrics as well as their sound also possess a dark humor and cheekiness that nod toward Ray Davies and the iconic band the Kinks. It’s a little bluesy and a little jazzy and it’s damn good.
The High Llamas, Snowbug
Since I heard the Llamas breakthrough album, Hawaii released in 1996, and because of its Brian Wilson innovations and stylings dubbed by a critic “the greatest album Brian Wilson never made,” the Llamas have been one of my favorite bands. Early on the band’s creative force Sean O’ Hagen incorporated a great deal of electronic dazzle into the Llamas sophisticated and strikingly melodic albums. The album Cold and Bouncy was musically warm and cold at the same time with its pinpoint electric guitar and computer gurgling in service of Wilsonesque beauty. The band then moved more heavily into chamber pop, O’ Hagen arguably the best and brightest composer and arranger for strings working in pop music. Snowbug is the perfect mix of Llamas sounds and a fantastic collection of songs. There’s a mingling of strings, electronics and the nylon string guitar playing O’ Hagen features. O’ Hagen has a perfect ear for beautiful or catchy melodies and this is a cornucopia of chamber pop, Bossa Nova and innovative poppiness, complete with idiosyncratically literate lyrics.
Hobex, Enlightened Soul
I don’t know if this group is still a going concern (they haven’t made an album in a while), but the Charlotte, N.C. band fronted by former Dillon Fence guitarist Greg Humphreys can flat out produce southern-fried funk crossed with what in the southeastern United States is known as Beach Music, a brand of classic soul you know when you hear it (The Drifters, the Tams, the Embers for instance) along with a dose of deep south electric blues. One could say they’re Allman Brothers meets Willie Tee meets Johnny Winter. This album is heavier on the soul and blues end, whereas their album U Ready Man? specializes in long form boogie and Texas Pete blues. This is music that makes you sweat, one way or the other.
Scritti Politti, White Bread, Black Beer
The band’s name is a tribute to the work of Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, the group starting out in the late 70’s, early 80’s as a left-wing post-punk and ska band, though gradually evolving into experimental electro –pop. Besides its namesake, it is also recommended for having had Miles Davis cover one of its songs, and play on one of its recordings. This is another bunch very hard to pigeonhole, though its auteur Green Gartside is able to combine a very full, soulful electronic sound with intensely sweet, sexy pop melodies. This is the album with the richest set of Scritti songs for my ears, lyrically clever with a little more melancholy and brooding than previously rolled into the mix. Technically speaking this is one of the most polished albums one will ever hear, captivating simply on the basis of its sound. But when you combine the studio virtuosity with the luxuriousness of the music you have something truly gorgeous.
Kurt Weill, Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill
I’m certainly as susceptible to a great cover of an original as the next music nerd; but normally I forego tribute albums, not particularly interested in a full album of covers, preferring to stick with the artists who originated the work. This one is an exception. Though Weill’s compositions have been covered by artists ranging from Bobby Darin to P.J. Harvey to the Doors, the lineup for this collection really produces, and it should given the level of talent: Tom Waits, Van Dyke Parks, Marianne Faithful, Todd Rundgren, Lou Reed, Carla Bley, Henry Threadgill, John Zorn, Elliot Sharpe and Charlie Haden among the artists. There’s healthy representation from Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, while Mahogany, Lost in the Stars, One Touch of Venus and Happy End are represented too. If hearing this turns you into an all-black wearing cabaret communist, just go with the flow.
Field Music, Plumb
If a bastard child can have more than two parents this one is the progeny of 10cc, XTC and Squeeze, and plays a brand of smart-ass art-rock that may require a degree in higher mathematics to understand precisely how it was composed; but the result is really stirring, and precise. This band, with its ability to produce magnetically irresistible hooks and then dispense with them after two minutes resembles Robert Pollard’s Guided by Voices. But this is a very different sound, the opposite in fact, rather than lo-fi this has whiz-bang studio chops written all over it: guitars sounding so crisp and keyboards so percussive you get the feeling they’re playing this music wearing Hapsburg military dress uniforms. The music tends to flow in clipped collages, jagged, intense and catchy as hell.
April March, Chrominance Decoder
Physically and vocally channeling Serge Gainsbourg paramour and Blow-Up cutie Jane Birkin, especially when she sings in French and especially when she covers Gainsbourg, she just as easily channels Astrud Gilberto doing Jobim. Her eclecticism and unpredictability are essential to her charm, but she’s a witty and gifted songwriter too. This album is a genuine pop confection, and like March herself, ravishing. Parts of it suggest nineties French lounge DJ’s like Dmitri from Paris, other parts Sixties girl groups, others clinking glass cocktail jazz, others French Ye Ye and some of it just good old American pop. But it’s all pure pleasure.
Roy Ayers, You Send Me
Roy Ayers isn’t obscure, certainly not in jazz or soul circles. But you don’t hear a lot about him anymore, even though he was perhaps the most artful of all practitioners of the funk and soul jazz fusion movement of the 1970’s, a genre that seems to be trending heavily these days in the work of any number of current pop and jazz performers. There were certainly flashes of his style in many of the acid-jazz acts during the flowering of that genre in the nineties. With its emphasis on electric keyboards and vibes, meshed with soul horns and funky bass played with jazz virtuosity, along with the addition of Motown smooth vocals this music always struck me as a great musical merger. Ayers’ cover of Sam Cooke’s classic You Send Me is really delicious, and the rest of the album renders golden soul with fusion propulsion. It is most definitely a heavenly marriage.
EAST GERMANY AGAIN, IN WORD AND FILM: STASILAND & THE LIVES OF OTHERS
It remains slightly astonishing how little relative fanfare accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union and communist Central Europe. While the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the death rattle of the Soviet empire made splashes at the time they occurred, the fuss seemed to die down rather quickly. Americans of several generations lived in terror of nuclear annihilation as the result either of accident or war, the disappearance of one side of this bi-lateral sword of Damocles producing less demonstrable relief than many expected.
Clearly there was something telling in the fact that the American right, after politically and monetarily milking for forty-plus years a hysterical version of anti-communism that evinced little credible concern for the actual victims of repression (supporting all manner of rightist authoritarian regimes around the world) quickly lost interest in that part of the globe, resisting aid to a renewed Russia, seemingly more consumed with mourning the loss of an issue than with celebrating freedom. Certainly there is something to the twofold notion that American reactionaries never really were terribly distressed by authoritarianism, and if anything envied Soviet domination of its body politic; and that having argued for more than forty years that such a largely peaceful transition was all but impossible wished to avoid the subject.
In any case, no part of the pan-communist domain was as eerie or mysterious, no populace thought to be living so tensely, no society as fully Orwellian as the German Democratic Republic. Two superior works, Stasiland, a non-fiction, highly personal examination of life in the GDR published in 2004, along with the 2006 German film The Lives of Others offer somewhat fraternal looks at the same subject, similar yet entirely distinct. A quality they share, welcome in journalism as it is in film is the conjuring of rich atmospherics able to convey time and place with remarkable vividness and palpable texture.
The Stasi of course was the feared and fierce state internal security apparatus which controlled East German society down to the microscopic level, relying not only on a vast number of actual agents but on a staggering number of citizen informers too. This latter uncomfortable reality was what most terrified the East Germans, fellow citizens induced to spy, meaning one literally never knew whom to trust, knowing that anything one said or revealed to persons one may have had every reason to trust may eventually be passed along to authorities. One extraordinary fact presented in the book is that it is estimated there was one Stasi informer for every 6.5 citizens.
Australian Anna Funder, the author of Stasiland lived in what at the time was West Berlin as a student during the 1980s and returned in the Nineties to work in television. Essentially her curiosity about life in the East during her first stay evolved into an active quest to learn about it during the latter. If you have no interest whatsoever in the subject generally, the quality of Funder’s prose is unlikely to make a difference. But if you do have even a passing interest her intimate style and personalized account make an ideal marriage with this subject.
Her own story of living among and developing personal relationships with residents of the former East Germany is a remarkably appealing keyhole through which to examine an odd historical moment, the touches of autobiography lending her account a novelistic, idiosyncratic appeal that freshens it in unexpected ways. At times it becomes a virtual travelogue of the authoritarian, as she visits landmarks of national abomination such as the Stasi headquarters located in Leipzig, now transformed into a Stasi Museum. Throughout she relates the histories of victims and perpetrators alike, which are equally fascinating, and at times assume a macabre aura of unreality. In each case she lets them have their say. Some of the stories are stranger than others, such as that of the young agent who actually drew the line where the wall would be. Finishing Stasiland one indeed comes away feeling one has travelled into the heart of darkness and the heart of weirdness perhaps, bringing back a pocketful of insights, enlightened as well as truly affected . Funder is both a quirky and a down-to-earth guide. Delving with her into past perplexities and present realities is time richly spent.
Not so surprisingly the fictional account of this ephemeral time and place is considerably darker than the non-fiction version. The Lives of Others was written and produced by first-time director Florian Hencket von Donnsmarck, winning a slew of awards in Europe, as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. This is one of those pleasant occasions when such accolades truly are deserved.
Like Stasiland, this is a story of both the spies and the spied upon. Its central quartet of characters includes a state-approved playwright conspiring to send an exposé (suppressed reports on suicide rates in the GDR) out to the West, the prominent actress who is his live-in girlfriend, the Stasi Captain assigned to do the surveillance (audio and video) and his Stasi boss.
A German film about East Germany and the Stasi is more exceptional than one might think. According to Stasiland’s author Anna Funder in the previously non-Communist western portion of Germany there is very little curiosity about what occurred on the other side of the Wall, nor contemporaneous interest in the citizens of the former GDR, viewed as something like dolts for failing to rise up against the regime, or as poorly hicks acting as a drag on the united Germany.
In The Lives of Others there is nothing pat or reflexive, no lazy political clichés or mechanically operated characters carrying out their expected and preordained service. One of the reasons films of this sort are so compelling is that there is no need for manufactured drama: it is built into the circumstances. One of the apparent truisms pertaining to such hermetically sealed societies as this is that life in them is alternately greatly more intensified or more sterile, on a day-to day basis at times a surreal mix. Von Donnsmarck does well at capturing this dichotomy.
In some ways the drama here is a drama of the human conscience, as much as it is an examination of the psychology of pressurized and precipitous circumstances. Fortunately, even for dramatists exploring life in authoritarian nations, success, ambition, status, lust, loneliness, happiness and moral choices are thriving preoccupations no matter the ideological comportment of nation-states. But of course it is in the nature of this story that there is an additional edge and an element of profundity in our witness to the depravity of power and ideology, the sleights of artistic compromise, the price of conscience, the pervasiveness of human fallibility and human empathy.
The acting here is brilliant and the Seventies astutely recreated in all their bland, communistic squalor. Stasiland and The Lives of Others make a remarkably suitable tandem, documenting and testament to some extraordinary lives and extraordinary circumstances. They, and their time and place intellectually provoke, stirring the imagination, moral and otherwise.
THE UNPOETIC PHILIP LARKIN
On the occasion of the recent publication of The Complete Poems by Philip Larkin, as an inveterate shirker of responsibility I cannot honestly say I feel it is incumbent upon me to send a flare up alerting prospective readers to the virtues of Larkin’s somewhat overlooked pair of novels, but I’ll do it anyway.
Larkin is known as something of a poet’s poet, heralded everywhere, but probably more often read in his native Britain than the United States. I like to think of his poems as cheerfully morose, or perhaps he is witty about his moroseness in such a way it cheers a certain kind of reader up, the kind I am for instance.
The first novel of his I encountered was Jill. Normally I would flee from another British novel about Oxford, Cambridge or an English boarding school as if the Luftwaffe were on my tail. Yet this one about an insecure lad from rural England experiencing Oxford during the thick of the Second World War and inventing a girlfriend for the purpose of provoking envy and mystification among his Oxford mates offered unaccustomed promise.
Whatever is not unique about the novel’s basic circumstances is compensated by the richness of the observation and the intimacy, honesty and intricacy of the rendering of the protagonist John Kemp’s maiden voyage into the domain of serious tradition and the casually highfalutin. The telling is down to earth, yet also carries the reader along with the same nearly ethnographic fascination of Kemp himself.
The novel has many of the most desirable elements for an engaging read: class, decadence, hedonism, intellectualism, guilt, insecurity, lust, bombing runs and remarkable verisimilitude in time and place. It also shares a quality with Larkin’s second novel, which is hermetically sealing the reader within the setting, if one likes that sort of thing, which I, without ambivalence do.
The second novel, A Girl in Winter, also is set in wartime England, its young eponymous protagonist leading a life of something like genteel poverty (strong whiffs of Gissing) swamped with feelings of acute displacement and isolation, though years back she spent a summer in England as an exchange student. A non-present personage from that visit plays a role in her current situation, what turns out to be a somewhat confounding preoccupation.
Like Jill, it is one of those novels that seem at first like a lot of others, but in the end is very much one of a kind. In both books this uniqueness in all likelihood has something to do with the meticulously poetic evocation of place, perhaps what one would expect from a renowned poet, though such is hardly always the case.
As pedestrian a recommendation as it may be, scenes and images from A Girl in Winter recur remarkably often in my thoughts. The protagonist Katherine’s surroundings, in particular the peculiar, persnickety and dyspeptic staff in the library where she works lends her dislocation and alienation both an edge and a touch of the elegiac, and gives us something of a rooting interest. In the day to day circumstances of Katherine’s present as well as in the summer interregnum in the novel’s middle, the story has its own unique air of mystery.
I would go so far as to say, if it has been unclear from my perambulations so far, I am a big fan of both books.
FALK’S AND CASSAVETES’ HIDDEN GEM
The top line of every Peter Falk obituary includes the word Columbo, not surprising since the character was a bona fide pop culture icon, and the one most associated with the actor Peter Falk. But the obits soon get around to the work Falk did with his friend, the actor and director John Cassavetes. An independent director before there were independent directors (well, there may have been a few, like Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray, but at the time they were known as “B movie” makers) some of Cassevetes’ best cast his pal Falk.
The films, written and directed by Cassavetes were performed with a naturalism that made them seem practically offhand, achieving an almost cinéma vérité feel. This led many viewers to believe the films were largely improvised. But they weren’t. According to all who worked in the films, they were heavily scripted and Cassavetes’ scripts were largely followed to the letter.
HUSBANDS, which included Falk in the cast was an ensemble piece about middle-aged male angst, the story essentially three friends going on a protracted bender after the death and burial of a fourth friend. It is famously raw, and full of, well, angst.
One of my favorite Falk performances is in the Cassavetes’ film, A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE. Falk’s performance is a phenomenally finessed mixture of compassion, affection, understanding, embarrassment and frustration with his beloved, but clinically loopy wife, played by the stunningly good and stunningly beautiful Gena Rowlands.
But the hidden gem of the title was neither written nor directed by Cassavetes, though he and Falk were the featured actors. The film is MIKEY AND NICKY, written and directed by comic, writer and director Elaine May, who made her name as half of the comedy team Nichols and May. The other half, Mike Nichols went on to make a long string of critically and commercially acclaimed films, among them WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, THE GRADUATE and SILKWOOD.
The reason MIKEY AND NICKY is a hidden gem, is that the studio, Paramount, in one of those famous instances of spiteful studio infanticide, took out its disputes and gripes with director May on the film itself, releasing it to the contractually minimal number of theaters for as short a time as possible. As with so many other buried treasures, thank god for the video and the DVD.
While the film did have one of May’s wittily unsurpassable scripts, a great deal of it is said to have been improvised, May turning on the cameras and leaving them running (reputedly, even when the actors were not actually there). But written or improvised, it is one of film’s most entertaining acting pas de deux. I like to think of it as a classic of comic neurosis, Falk’s and Cassavetes’ suburban hoods, long before Tony Soprano, going toe to toe with every frailty from dyspepsia to paranoia. Their long night of hiding in a Philadelphia hotel room has a palpable claustrophobia and real edge of urban fear to go along with Falk’s and Cassevetes’ comic improvising and May’s acid and idiosyncratic dialogue.
For any who have not seen the film I won’t spoil it with further elaboration, since Netflix can spring it from obscurity in the blink of an eye. But indeed, the two lifelong friends played by the two lifelong friends is a durable testament to the talents of both.
NOVELS AND FILMS AS SUICIDE INTERVENTION
I can’t really keep you from killing yourself, besides which, I am more or less in the camp of Schopenhauer, who is of the strong opinion that offing yourself can be a perfectly reasonable call.
Many thinking people, observing the current cultural and political landscape as the lost masterpiece by a celebrated Theater of the Absurd auteur, might rightly consider the remedy of self-deliverance. Indeed, with the nation seemingly under successful onslaught by the crude materialists, dim crackers, hateful bigots, rancid philistines, callous fools, obnoxious jackasses, and legions of the non compos mentis and morally bankrupt, a book or a movie may be the only thing standing between you and a bucket of Seconal.
The Nazis are marching through the streets of Paris and Obama has accepted the Presidency of the Vichy government. Sometimes you just need a break.
To some large or incredibly minor degree all of the recommendations are political in nature or subject matter, with the idea being that besides being artistically successful entertainments, they may serve as effective antidotes to the muck of the current unpleasantness.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN – Based on the Woodward and Bernstein book, under Alan Pakula’s stellar direction, it takes you back to the good old days when powerful Republican charlatans who lied their brains out got their due comeuppance. A great film on every level: suspenseful and even informative. This was back in the era when America still had a press on the side of truth, justice and the American people… and unintimidated by the glowering reactionary powers that be.
DR. STRANGELOVE – House Republicans are arguably crazier than anybody in this movie, though here at least they are publicly ridiculed. It is entirely possible the final scene with Slim Pickens will vicariously satisfy your death wish. Funniest movie since the beginning of time.
REDS – Warren Beatty made perhaps the only big-budget Hollywood film ever made about public intellectuals and the bohemian life of thinkers, activists and artists. Spending time with politically and artistically engaged people in Greenwich Village in the early Twentieth Century is a pretty decent respite.
MALCOM X – Denzel is brilliant playing a black man with a natural understanding of how to put the fear of god into intransigent shitheads. Spike is on his game.
M.A.S.H. – The opening song, “Suicide is Painless” really hits the spot. This is a brilliantly executed demonstration of how to cope in a dangerously absurd environment, the key to which is along the lines of Hunter S. Thompson’s admonition that “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
THE WAR ROOM– This is another nostalgia trip, a documentary about the 1992 Clinton campaign, telling the story of Democrats not only practiced in the art of the bare-knuckles, but eager to fight and relishing every single day. You don’t negotiate with terrorists, you steal their issues and punch them in the face.
BURN AFTER READING– This under-celebrated Coen Brothers film is brilliantly conceived, plotted, acted and directed. It renders absurdity in Washington, DC hysterical rather than lethal.
AFTER HOURS – Scorsese’s 1980s night in hell in Soho. If you’re feeling not entirely up to the moment, this presents a more familiar and manageable kind of assault: bat guano crazy chicks and people overdosed on hipster pills.
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS – Don’t get mad, get even.
“Mother” by Maxim Gorky – Set in prerevolutionary Russia, this tale of brutality and oppression, and the bravery of overcoming it is a genuine classic of Russian literature. Sure, the opportunists and anally retentive eventually turned the revolution into an authoritarian nightmare. But its heart was in the right place initially.
“Bread and Wine” by Ignazio Silone – While the story centers around a socialist hiding out in disguise from fascists in Italy, its real story is one of humaneness transcending ideology. It is rich with living, breathing characters, whose very specific time and place is both compellingly and sublimely rendered.
“Extinction” by Thomas Bernhard – Set in a small town in the author’s native Austria, it is a crash course in the kind of bitter invective appropriate for living in a world of ascendant rubes, hypocrites and falsifiers of history.
“The Book of Laugher and Forgetting” by Milan Kundera – A primer on how to have some laughs even under the thumb of a brutal dictatorship. 2012 approaches, so read it while you can, literally.
“Under the Volcano” by Malcom Lowry – This novel has all my favorite subjects, fascism, drinking…well, all right, so my interests are limited. One of the greatest novels ever written in the English language by the way.
“The Horseman on the Roof “– by Jean Giono- The pantheist stylist Giono is always worth reading just for his singularly warm and levitating prose. This is a flamboyant, adventurous tale set among a deadly cholera epidemic. The political and cultural metaphors are there for the taking, but the book is a beautiful read either way.
“The Caseworker” by George Konrad – This is the first novel by the great Hungarian writer Konrad, and set in Budapest, it details the frustrations of a well-meaning government bureaucrat committed to doing good. There is nothing sentimental here, and it presents another very time specific place with extraordinary realism.
“A Wild Sheep Chase” by Haruki Murakami –It’s one of Murakami’s very best, and typically, presents a world as screwy as any, but pleasantly so. There may be a right-wing sheep involved. Whatever. Murakami always pleases.
LESSONS OF THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY
I’ve never thought very highly of the paintings of Julian Schnabel, finding them glib, terribly obvious, and even for New York, commercially opportunistic. He was of course the next big thing in the New York art world for a period of time, so God bless him. Naturally I had low expectations for, and in fact was hoping to detest his film THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY several years ago when it came out. But I didn’t. I thought it was quite beautiful and fully entrancing.
Schnabel made the film in France, and given that it is based on the true story of a former editor of ELLE, it made sense. Still, it’s hard to imagine a film which relies mostly on over-narration about a man who has had a catastrophic stroke learning to communicate through the blinking of his single functioning eye, and eventually dictating a memoir in such a fashion, receiving financing, in fact, receiving anything but derisive catcalls when it is pitched in the United States (perhaps it did). Though the rights to the book were purchased by an American studio, the studio sold it off to a French production company.
There are several lessons one can take from the film, and the first would be something along the lines that if you’re looking for a film of this kind, expect to watch it with subtitles. It’s not news that the European view of movies and attraction to them as a higher art form, and the prevailing American acceptance of them as product and Friday night diversion (not that there’s anything wrong with that) remain at odds. If the conclusion has to be as reductive as that Europeans are pretentious and Americans are hopelessly prosaic, put me in the European corner I suppose. If a level of cultural pretention is what is required to countenance the sort of rewards a film such as this brings, then I’m willing to own it.
Another convincing lesson surely is that almost any piece of writing can be adapted, if the screenwriter and/or director are ingenious and imaginative enough. The challenges of bringing such a story to the cinema are so daunting it’s surprising anyone would even try. Movies about writing are notoriously tedious anyhow because there isn’t anything to show, and what can be shown generally requires a hamming up so awful the result is gruesome, or so distancing it isn’t even worth the trouble. In this case, the “writer” is dictating to a stenographer with the blinks of an eye, the number of blinks corresponding to letters of the alphabet.
This process itself comprises only a small portion of the actual film, the narrative jumping in time according to moments in the memoir as Jean-Dominique Bauby recalls them, along with the visual representations of his thoughts and imaginings as he lay confined to nothing more than his own mind, his only active connection to the world his blinking eye. Of course, the rendering of the process of his realization of his true condition after waking up in a hospital bed has its own fascination. And the deftness with which Schnabel conveys the process through which Bauby learns his unique form of expression is remarkable.
The condition in which Bauby found himself is remarkably rare. It is called Locked-in Syndrome, and occurs when a massive stroke renders one entirely paralyzed, including the muscles controlling the eyes. However, the brain’s ability to think is left entirely untouched, leaving the victim literally “locked in.” In Bauby’s case, the one small miracle in his favor was the unaffected functioning of one of his eyes.
Perhaps only a painter could visually depict the inner life and the imagination cinematically with such compelling vividness and virtuosity. The film creates its own world: subdued, contemplative, dreamy, surreal and lovely. Through this contemplative painterliness comes the third lesson of the film, which has nothing to do with film world reality or the making of films. Rather, it is the lesson of the central theme, which is not simply the aphorism that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but the degree to which one’s life is lived entirely in the mind, the richness and fecundity of that life. One should never underestimate the possibilities and nearly limitless power of consciousness and imagination.
Simply in filmic terms the movie is a marvel of visual and aural stimulation and aesthetic luxury, provoking as much emotional pleasure as somber thought, with its integration of music, photography and narrative ingenuity.
Foremost, the movie is likely to cause you to reflect with appreciation on the richness and importance of your inner life, which normally, and perhaps for good reason one takes minimal account. For good or for ill, it is simply there. Or perhaps it’s not. A rueful and secondary implication in the film is the converse of the fulsome inner life, which is how hollow and vacant the absence of an active inner life must be.
It relates in a very discernible sense to the observations of the French writer and philosopher Blaise Pascal in his major work, PENSEES. He identifies with utter incisiveness and undeniable pitilessness, a truism of the human condition, which is the degree to which humans are driven to constant motion out of their fear of what they would confront, or find lacking inwardly in the cessation of movement or distraction, what they may encounter in stillness or silence. In other words, one should feel fortunate if not so condemned to a thoroughly externalized life; or for lack of a better phrase, an incessantly connected or unremittingly active life.
In Pacal’s words:
Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.
When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea, or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.
L.A. CELLULOID REALITY, AS IT WERE
The words “real” and “Los Angeles” don’t ordinarily have a great deal to do with one another, and for good reason. Aside from its famous skin-deepness, the place is the definitive urban and suburban sprawl, with very little, if anything within that mass that is consistent from one end of the thing to the other. David Ansen, artistic director of the Los Angeles Film Festival currently underway remarked to a reporter for the LA Times that several of the Festival’s inclusions are worthy depictions of the titular city. This would be films that provide some accurate or vivid or expository or palpable rendering of the city and its essential nature, as opposed to films or television shows for which it is simply the most convenient backdrop.
There are past films, which for my tastes and experience are the most redolent of the “real” Los Angeles, depicting only fragments and segments of the city, which is how the city is experienced anyhow. They are also very good films.
Three of these were directed by the truly incomparable Robert Altman. My favorite perhaps is THE LONG GOODBYE, a post-modern genre satire of noir, based on the Raymond Chandler detective novel. Instead of cool, the Philip Marlowe here is a disheveled mumbler, whose idea of himself as cool is what is cool about the film. It’s also very LA. It makes the mundane romantic and the romantic mundane. If your life in LA doesn’t flip unpredictably from one to the other, you’re probably not doing it right.
Altman’s THE PLAYER is ostensibly about the insider-ness of it all, it being the movie business. Altman incorporates the requisite schmoozing, weaseling, suck-uppery and narcissism, though the film really is the quintessential depiction of the delusional self-importance that infects people in the entertainment business like a peculiarly indigenous form of malaria. Likewise, it establishes what a pure crapshoot the movie business actually is. It is most incisive in showing how very tentative, exploitive, attenuated and distant the relationship between the movie business and creativity is, or between the Hollywood infrastructure and the creative minds it needs, and occasionally uses.
The third of the Altman films is SHORT CUTS, loosely based on the Raymond Carver story collection of the same name, and as the title would indicate, it is an episodic interweaving of stories and characters. It may be the most panoramic view of the city committed to film, conveying the diversity of the people who live here and how they make a living. It is best at conveying the way different social and cultural strata mix it up across the city, and captures the balance of the glitzy and the prosaic familiar to Angelenos. CRASH attempted a less inspired, more sociological version of the same material, but with much less artistic success.
Two films were directed by Doug Liman, who later would direct the first Bourne film. One is SWINGERS, still the definitive Youth Come to Town to Make it in the Biz film. Besides having those whiffs of recognizable reality, the writing and the acting are a certifiable hoot. The other Liman film, GO, is darker, and deals with perhaps the less aspiring and wayward brothers and sisters of the SWINGERS gang, but has a similar recognizable reality. If you were to spend a lot of nights in the clubs and bars in the Cahuenga Corridor or Hollywood proper, and allowed the goings-on of the twentysomethings you’re drowning in to pass through your skin by some osmosis, you would sweat them out as this film. It has the lovable quirk of portraying how your exploration of the Los Angeles dark side can seem like a real lark, up to the point you’re dead, or scared shitless.
BREAD AND ROSES, by the geographically unlikely British director Ken Loach, is a perfect match for the director in subject matter. The story deals with a segment of LA a large swath of the city, and certainly its more affluent, chic-intoxicated or famously non-contemplative legions neither sees, thinks about or would consider worthy of time in front of the city’s glut of cameras. It’s about the janitorial workers, mostly undocumented, who clean the city’s high-rise office buildings every night, the central plot revolving around their effort to unionize, but with sub-plots fanning out in a way that gives a real feel for the poignancy and texture of the characters’ daily lives. The telling is naturalistic and the acting unshowy and perfect. In a town that’s all about grand dreams, some of them as banal as they are tinselly, the dreams of these folks feel important and worth caring about. And in fact, the real-life counterparts of the characters here are more central and critical to the city culturally and economically than you might think, more so every day.
WELCOME TO LA made by Altman protégé Alan Rudolf is unapologetically Altmanesque, and like the master’s films it seeks the long view with another intermingling gallery of characters from a varietyof strata. It’s noteworthy for its saturated air of alternating cynicism and melancholia, romanticism and the romantically hollowed out. One would have to think Paul Thomas Anderson took a lot in style and structure from this film for his MAGNOLIA, though the latter is much more operatic than the earlier film. It’s an engagingly lyrical depiction of the inevitable sadness, loneliness, disappointment and isolation behind the glam and bravado, thicker than smog here.
CHINATOWN may be a period noir, but its screenplay is one of the several best screenplays of all time not written by Paddy Chayefsky. It was written by Robert Towne, who is in fact the next best thing to Paddy Chayefsky. He and Roman Polanski not only made one of the finest films of all time, but one of the best movies about the city of Los Angeles. That’s because its thematic core is the spiritual and thematic core of the city: power, money and exploitation. Part history lesson, part Joan Didionesque anomie, part vintage noir, it is the miracle that can make the mix of incest, image, water rights and irrigation fascinating.
SHAMPOO, also written by Robert Towne while on a remarkable hot streak, is a personal favorite. The story is loosely based on an actual hairdresser in Beverly Hills, acquainted with Robert Towne and Warren Beatty (playing the hairdresser), who pretended to be flamboyantly gay in order to sleep with the female clientele, often at their homes, and without raising the suspicions of the many husbands. Most of the “action” takes place around election night in 1968, the night Richard M. Nixon was first elected president. Observant, witty, hilarious, sweet and cynical, it is about a great deal more than its gauzy surface, somewhat in the same way that DOG DAY AFTERNOON, a classic story of New York is about much more than a bank robbery.
For my money, the story and film that still have the truest resonance of “real,” Hollywood-centric LA, is the Nathaniel West novel written in 1939, and filmed in 1975 by John Schlesinger, of MIDNIGHT COWBOY and SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY fame, DAY OF THE LOCUST. West was both a literary novelist and a Hollywood screenwriter and he nailed the place to the wall. What this place really oozes is star-blinded, illusion besotted, often pathetic and misdirected desperation, and Schlesinger captures it with bracing adroitness in this film. That mania, that inner incompleteness that seems to be the driving energy of so many who at some point came by plane, train, bus or Oldsmobile to find personal and geographic paradise, are discernible both underneath the surface and finally completely at the surface here. The dramatization of this condition only works because the seductiveness is very real, and almost everyone is to some degree susceptible. The film, like the novel has a surrealist edge and touch of grotesquery, and it’s not entirely pretty. But by god, it is LA.
Honorable mention to Dennis Hoppers’ COLORS, BROWN’S REQUIEM, based on a novel by local wild man crime scribe James Ellroy, Paul Thomas Anderson’s MAGNOLIA AND BOOGIE NIGHTS, the Bukowski-penned and Barbet Schroeder directed BARFLY, and the Coen brothers’ beloved THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and true in spirit, BARTON FINK.
TERRENCE MALICK’S CELESTIAL TREE OF LIFE
The response to works of both high art and popular art, and even to entertainment generally always will be to some extent subjective. Often, in the case of specific works or of specific artists, one approaches them with an abiding bias, favorable or unfavorable. It is with such a favorable bias that I approach any film created by Terrence Malick, long ago having fallen under the spell. Each of his four films prior to The Tree of Life: Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World, the only films released over nearly forty years of directing, has succeeded at leaving me mesmerized and infatuated. And Tree of Life is no different.
The characteristics and the idiosyncrasies of previous Malick films that made them more likely to be dependent upon subjective response than most, are here as well: voice-over narration, a reliance on visual poetry, a languorous pace, an earnestness absent irony, bereft of the self-referential aspect so commonplace in art as well as popular entertainment now; and a meditative, contemplative tone. I’m not entirely uncomprehending of the objections of Malick’s naysayers.
But I’m very glad I’m not among them. Availability to the work of this ambitious artist and to the pleasures of his meticulous and unique films is a gift I feel inestimably fortunate to have received. Malick’s films, this one especially, defy what even in some of America’s best films is an apparent sense of them as products, even if products of superior artistic quality. Beyond the works themselves, there is no doubt of course that even Malick’s films indeed are Hollywood products, if only on the basis of the reputations of the actors cast and the relative size of the budgets. But the experience of the film itself does not convey any of this commercial aspect, so typical and unavoidable in American films of every quality. In fact, they clearly defy it or elude it, and in the case of The Tree of Life, it simply isn’t present at all.
It’s very difficult to describe The Tree of Life in language that doesn’t sound grandiose or pretentious, and I don’t expect to be able to do so. All one can say is that the film concerns itself with the nature of our time on Earth in the scope of the entire cosmos, a microcosm of life intertwined with the macrocosm, with most of the pertinent questions of meaning and morality and curiosity as part of the mix. The microcosm here is Waco, Texas in the mid-fifties, the coming of age of brothers, reflected upon by one of the brothers as a middle-aged man in New York City.
On a visceral level, the film is visually and aurally staggering, and otherwise it is both emotionally penetrating and emotionally sweeping. Amazingly, in a film so unconventional, there is nothing whatsoever false in the rendering of family life, and one makes easy and strong identification with the universal and commonplace concerns and experiences of the characters. As much as Hollywood actors are always cast for their looks, here they also are chosen for the immediately acute and powerful expressiveness of the faces, particularly Sean Penn, and to an extraordinary extent Jessica Chastain, whose presence here is virtually a phenomenon in and of itself, and as much the center of the film as any one thing could be. Brad Pitt fully and convincingly embodies and humanizes the father here.
Some reviewers have referenced both Kubrick’s 2001 and the films of Ingmar Bergman in describing the film, and there are certainly obvious similarities to the former, and some of the concerns of the latter. One can note similarities, broadly speaking to European art films, from directors like British filmmaker Derek Jarman to the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. But this work, like Malick’s other films is both unique to Malick and uniquely American.
I would say to any prospective viewer: this is not a film a viewer is required to work at, not a bit. It is a film, like Malick’s others, one will either emotionally and aesthetically and intellectually luxuriate in or one won’t. You’ll feel blessed, if for you, it turns out to be the former.
TREME: A MAN AND HIS BONE
For those tempted to dismiss me for crudity, bone refers to the trombone, and the titular man plays one.
The incredible Wendell Pierce, formerly the detective Bunk Moreland on the HBO show The Wire, now portrays Antoine Batiste, hand-to-mouth New Orleans trombone player, and like the rest of the characters coping sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly with the death and devastation left in the wake of Katrina. He’s the center of the show for me. Though Treme has a large ensemble cast, when a trombone player scraping by from gig to gig is the spiritual center of a show then it has me at hello.
That’s because Antoine, despite the paltry financial reward does what he does and sticks with it, because he loves doing it, reveres the music and the history behind the music, feels connected to it, knowing deep in his soul that his role in the milieu of N’awlins musicians remains the core of his identity. And these are the sort of folks who live in the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans that is the focus of the show: lots of musicians, but also writers, chefs, DJ’s, bar owners as well as a lawyer who serves the city’s down and out.
Treme just started its second season on HBO, and it’s more of the same from last year which is a good thing. Now fourteen months post-Katrina, the picking up the pieces, occasionally literally, continues, as do, even more importantly the extraordinary ordinary lives, if you can buy that oxymoron, of the people depicted.
David Simon, the show’s creator, and a former Baltimore Sun reporter, has been the principal behind two of the best dramas ever to grace the idiot box: Homicide: Life on the Streets, based on his own book recounting his years of crime and cop reporting for the Baltimore Sun; and The Wire, for my money and that of many others a television monument, as compelling a piece of art in any form that one will ever encounter.
Simon’s overarching concern is the depiction of life in America’s big cities, in particular corners of those cities under-covered by media, and rarely if ever as much as grazed by a popular entertainment piece. The Wire’s depiction of police, educational, media and political bureaucracies in Baltimore, as well as the top to bottom organizational dynamics of America’s inner city retail drug business, rank and file policemen and rank and file drug soldiers and drug users is unlike anything you’ll ever see.
Treme at times deals too with the municipal nitty-gritty, with its mix of cynicism, incompetence, dedication, neglect, bureaucratic pantomime and sometimes downright disorienting weirdness. But its focus is the centrality of the artistic and hedonistic elements that make a city, this one in particular and perhaps even more broadly life itself viscerally and emotionally satisfying: the music, food, sex and communalism literally embodied in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.
I say up front that this is not a show for everybody simply because there is little conventional action or drama. But note the word conventional. There is a great deal of human drama as the lives of these intriguing characters play out. Music is the essential ingredient in the show, for the most part music indigenous to New Orleans, and it’s the emulsion that binds it all together. But besides the finely detailed naturalism of these day to day lives, there is surely much that is life and death in the storylines dealing with Katrina specifically, and matters surrounding it, locally and otherwise.
Besides Pierce there’s an incredible cast of actors from Melissa Leo to Steve Zahn to Khandi Alexander to David Morse to Clarke Peters only to name a few, and a gazillion cameos by locally famous, nationally famous and world famous musicians, all of their appearances woven into episodes seamlessly, unobtrusively and always flavorfully.
If you’re one of those people who can enjoy with enormous satisfaction a novel, film or television show that first and foremost thoroughly immerses you in a world that is all its own, there’s a good chance that Treme is your cup of Morning Thunder.
WHERE ART THOU UNDERCOVER BLACK MAN?
Lewis Taylor: call home. The man who snared the moniker undercover black man, in reality, a white, Jewish Brit, reputedly retired from the music business several years ago. Though recognized by the critical community in England and elsewhere, and lionized by a select group of famous and influential British artists, it’s another case of criminally under-noticed and commercially uncompensated genius. And in this case that cliché is more than highly justified.
According to rumor, he may or may not be an English plumber now. Any truth to that is belied however by the existence of a demo tape privy to a selection of listeners, of a Lewis Taylor homage to the legendary Captain Beefheart masterpiece TROUT MASK REPLICA. Apparently abandoned before it could be completed, it reveals that contrary to the assorted scuttlebutt claiming Lewis was snaking toilet pipes or writing comedy, two not dissimilar callings by the way, his intention to at the very least make music, and quite possibly record and perform it for public consumption remains extant.
And there’s a reason I really care: the music Lewis produces is of a consistently extraordinary quality. There’s certainly nothing difficult or abstruse about it. It’s melodically deadly, soulfully buttery, harmonically soaring, deeply funky and often plain gorgeous. Impossible to pigeonhole and striding genres, it’s at various times, and depending upon the album, described as psychedelic soul, a reinvented classic soul and rock hybrid, soul-inflected power pop or blue-eyed soul.
Taylor is noted for preternaturally capturing the sound and tropes of earlier decades and apparent genres, and in fact he does, uncannily so. But there’s nothing particularly difficult about simply replicating the mannerisms of any genre, nor any pleasure in hearing it. But what’s unique about Lewis is that his music not only calls a genre to mind in a dead-on and astonishing fashion, but it then quickly makes the listener forget it entirely, because the particular song is so damn good. Not only do these songs stand on their own merits, they are often far superior to most anything from any era or genre to which superficially they may appear connected. They woo and seduce. They are simply quintessential Lewis, and only that.
Lewis certainly had due cause for despair and bitterness given the horrid imbalance between his gifts and the scale of his notoriety. So I am hoping that reports of his self-inflicted career death are premature.
Naturally the appreciation of music is as subjective as anything in the world could possibly be, and perhaps the reeling off of superlatives does the disservice of raising impossible expectations. But I kind of doubt it. If you’re predisposed to like the music you likely will, despite expectations roused by hype. Or you simply won’t. But at the least you should hear about it.
MONEY MEN MILKING MAD MEN
As fictional television goes, MAD MEN ain’t bad. Matthew Weiner, a principal writer for THE SOPRANOS created the show set in the advertising world of the 1960’s with famous veracity for the details of the period, intelligent storytelling, stirring visuals and overall high quality. Apparently AMC, the cable home of the show, which has won several Emmys for Best Television Drama, as well as being a ratings success, and in fact, a signature show for the channel, is demanding a contract that will reduce costs through the elimination of a couple of characters, shrink the content of the show by two minutes in order to replace those minutes with extra commercials, and my favorite by far, increase product placement in the show.
Product placement of course is chocking fictional film and television productions with actual consumer brands, advertising that adds a revenue stream to those producing the program or film. It’s perhaps defensible from the standpoint of any producer with a quality project having difficulty obtaining sufficient financing to get the project off the ground, using it to subsidize the effort with payment from subtly adept placements.
If you’re someone who likes to laugh, in this case at the expense of a television channel and its executives, the current product placement controversy is very promising. Though in the context of contemporary stories, product placement is not necessarily problematical if it is subtle, when it comes to a period drama set in the 1960’s, the plugging in of current consumer items, and the potential for glaring anachronisms has my mouth watering already.
If it’s a little too conspicuous to have Roger Sterling texting his mistress on his iphone in 1966, there’s no reason the fabulous phone couldn’t be resting unacknowledged on the top of his desk with the famous apple logo visible for us to see. No, there wasn’t a Prius in 1966, but how about we stick one on a street down in the Village and call it a kooky public sculpture. I suppose contemporary viewers will easily enough recognize Coke in one of those old glass Coca-Cola bottles to rush out and buy some Coke. Let’s hope they’re not expecting a two liter glass bottle. You get the drift.
I suppose we can all agree the tried and trusty dream sequence is where the money really is. Don dreams he has been banished to another planet for his womanizing and weasely ways, a nightmare really of schlepping around with a gaggle of rug rats at Disney World. Or Betty Draper dreams of what life will be like for the spouses of the future, illustrated with a smoothly inserted clip of, THE HOUSEWIVES OF NEW YORK CITY…got to be bushels of brand name swag in that.
Weiner can pay me later if he uses this one, but I’m envisioning a trip by Draper and his new missus to the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal. The thing can be shot right inside the Beverly Center, and the Fair exhibit appropriately called, THE SHOPPING OF THE FUTURE. There’s a virtual mother lode of potential product placement in that baby.
Since AMC was little more than another rerun-fest in the cable wilderness until MAD MEN put it on the map, you’d think the channel would go a little easy on the show creator who finally stuffed its coffers, and cut his demonstrably successful artistic vision a little slack. Yeah, right.
I’m clearly not shooting for profundity here in discussing this, only simultaneously chuckling and despairing that the same old verities hold fast. If stability and continuity are important to you there’s comfort here. These days, when it comes to money, especially in corporate suites, enough of course is never enough. And in Hollywood, the word isn’t even listed in the dictionaries. None of this is life or death we know, though it would be nice, in this case as in many others if there were a little less conspicuous bastardization of art, even popular art such as television, in order that the rest of us are able to enjoy a little higher quality artistic experience more frequently than the moon is blue (or super-sized).
That’s my dream sequence I guess.
SO LONG, SIDNEY
One of America’s finest and most prolific film directors, Sidney Lumet died Saturday. He is destined to be remembered as one of film’s genuine greats, and his work watched avidly in perpetuity, many of his films regarded as classics of the art form.
Lumet’s extraordinary body of work includes but is not limited to: The Pawnbroker, Twelve Angry Men, Serpico, Network, Prince of the City, The Verdict, Q & A, Dog Day Afternoon, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
His films considered the preeminent realist portrayals of New York, he was a film maker who presented real dramas, the highest form of drama, human situations in which the moral consequences were concrete and profound. The telling of the stories was electric and tense.
His actors so consistently earned nominations and awards because, beyond the actors’ individual gifts, Lumet’s films were scrupulous depictions of character, in their fullness and idiosyncrasy. He was famously exactling in fidelity to the details of place, and certainly so when the setting was New York.
I still regard Network as one of the most profoundly funny and consequential comedies ever filmed, and Dog Day Afternoon as perhaps the most perfect film ever made, for the efficiency and economy with which so much substance was delivered in such a misleadingly compact and intense package. Along with Network, it was a clear vision of the transformation of news into entertainment and of celebrity sensationalism. It also is the most vividly accurate depiction of New York City imaginable, and certainly of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate malaise of the late Seventies.
You never know, but it is hard to believe there ever again will be a director who in one film making lifetime delivers such a massive and magnificent body of work, films and stories one truly never forgets and never escapes. So long, Sidney, a sublime artist