Tuesday, December 5, 2017

from 1978, MY AIM IS TRUE by Elvis Costello

Image result for my aim is true elvis costello ted burke
MY AIM IS TRUE--Elvis Costello

Among the miscellaneous debris The Seventies have given rock and roll is the chance for a new artist to regurgitate and , at times, imaginatively retool the many over-incubated cliches of Pop and rock music .Older critics who long for their youthful heyday (first cigarette, first sexual encounter, first visit to the doctor’s office without informing one’s parents) as something in the vanguard of the movement, a ...fresh and invigorating voice that outlines the future of rock and roll.. ." We seem stuck in a state, perhaps permanently, where we have given way to unavoidable nostalgia and have taken to wallowing in recollections of an Ideal Past. This is Fall-From-Grace stuff, a perverse funk for a generation that barely has the right to call itself middle age; as it has for some years now, we continue to search for the next Dylan, the new Hendrix, the next Beatles; overpraise and hyper critical rejection are the two polarities the new blood is greeted; the middle position did not hold in these surmising discussions. Bruce Springsteen combines elements from Phil Spector records, old rhythm and blues tracks, and basic 4/4 backbone of rock and roll ,wrapping a Dylanesque ,free-associating surrealism around it.

 The result is a pastiche of styles that sounds forced.The motivation is obvious to a disinterested observer, but Springsteen’s movements do not move me beyond recognizing that his is influences will remain hipper than he could hope to be. What constitutes the ephemeral, mystically conferred essence of hip on someone, I admit, is a mystery that is and will remain the subject of engrossing discussions and debates that will not find resolution. But I know it when I see/hear/read it, and Bruce Springsteen appears fated to remain an earnest hipster, another face in the chorus protesting the same hard knocks and cold soup. Patti Smith wants to merge early Sixties rock, ala Stones and "Louie Louie" with the legends of dead poets, sounding in the end merely silly. 

Tom Waits combines black jazz hep jive with Jack Kerouac, and sounds stupid.From this parade of pretenders, the more jaded among us are leery of anyone trying the same thing. My Aim is True by Elvis Costello, takes one by surprise. Like Springsteen, the backbone 01 Costello's music is old rock and roll. But apart from that, they differ radically. Springsteen has a tendency to stretch his material to the breaking point, pouring crescendo upon toughness, and Costello's sing• crescendo. verse upon verse, ing, similar to Springsteen's trying to create an epiphany but more tactful, is full of that never culminates into pro- bouyancy, emotion and conviction. Costello, though, is without any overkill. What he loves about tin pan alley, the Brill Building , the hack songwriters of all callings, genres, convictions, was their mastery of craft. Mr. Costello knows when to be poetic and deliver a sequence of lyrics that manage to weave narrative elements and spare details that contain a beginning, middle and end, his poetry, though influenced by Dylan and John Lennon, is under control; he doesn’t mistake a verse as an occasion for wildly opaque analogies, but for vivid items that logically follow one another in tone, temper, plot; one might not make sense of the songwriter’s word use, but you have a sense of the narrator’s situation, an element that makes this artist’s songwriter all more seductive and alluring.

The stripped down to a vernacular (songs number twelve in all on the disc, unusual for a rock disc, and each exist as polished lyrical gems of a cynical, penetrating working class intelligence. Costello's strength, a virtue that Springsteen, Smith and Waits lack, is his ability to use rock cliches for their full value. Instead of brandishing them like a set of museum pieces that one is supposed to bow to in historical awe and respect, Costello gets the heat to the meat. The make takes ownership of them and does with them as likes.The rockabilly stuff is done with a verve that equals Buddy Holly, his use of reggae captures the required anguished, sinister mood, and his boogie material does a lot more than plot the course for the band. His lyrics, though, are imbued with a seventies sensibility, an awareness of absurdity , works minor miracles with the clichés. Though not notable for originality or innovation, My Aim Is True is an honest piece of work, and Elvis Costello has an intelligence that can develop into something more complex and rewarding. My Aim, for now, suffices as an excellent example of how old forms may be revitalized, even reinvented from scratch, with the basic elements and energy renewed, if for a time, and be metaphorically capable of making the vulgarity , self-seeking and tangible afflictions that make life a cruel waiting room all melt into air and make you happy for the voice you hear next to you and the voice he or she is singing, grateful for the breath your taking, and feeling fully alive , if briefly, knowing that you and yours are not the only ones seeking transcendence. That is what great art does, if briefly.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Two short tales of two snap shots with no moral of the stories (so far)

This, I believe, is the best photograph I have ever taken. A black and white photo of a tv screen with the sun-glassed mug of the late George Michael toothfully smirking into the drive-through vacuity of a southern California Mexican restaurant isolates the compulsive idiocy of our look-at-me ethos that will have us all buried in the walls of suburban condos, with only a thin sheet of drywall separating us from the waiting hell of dry donuts and porno jazz soundtracks in an empty food court.

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Over the years I rode the bus several times a week with this fellow, who, I realized, was bit of bore who liked to engage in a form of passive-aggressive bragging, dropping odd things about himself in conversations he lured other bus riders into. This included exaggerating his abilities absurdly. He wrangled me into listening to one of his bits of grandiloquent self-praise once and mentioned he was multilingual. I said "Really", honestly not caring. He went on, offering more non-essential information,'Well actually, I sing in 6 languages." 
"Do you speak and read 6 languages?" He paused, then continued, seeming annoyed. 
"No , I sing opera and I sing in Latin, Italian, French, German..."
"And you don't speak or write or read in those languages?"
 "No, but what I do is an unusual skill..." Now i wanted to end the conversation. "So you're singing phonetically is what you're telling me..."
"Yes". "Well good for you, that must be hard t do, but it's not so special. Kinda so what?, in fact. " He rose out of his seat a little. 
"Sit down, Mr. Souffle" I said. 

He sat , I got off the bus. In the intersection two guys had gotten out of their pick up trucks during the red light and we punching and grabbing each other awkwardly. When the light changed, they got back into their trucks and sped away, presumably to the next traffic light for round two.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Justice League is a fun super hero film and Zack Snyder is a great director. There, I said it

Justice League
Well, yes, this is too predictable, perhaps, but I saw Justice League, directed by Zack Snyder, and yes, predictably (perhaps) I enjoyed the film quite a bit. I will skip the usual apologies fans of the film have made in the face of (predictably) negative reviews to the work, the "it's not a perfect film, it has some problems, but it's lighter, has great character interaction and there is good humor in it to..." I read that so many times this last week in comment sections following printed and on line reviews that it's become something like the lines of dialog in a favorite movie you see over and over and over again and yet again after all those times, where your lips move in sync with the characters on the screen as they mouth them. I say that because that while I agree with the sentiment, my principle reason for enjoying the film is because I think Zack Snyder makes enjoyable comic book movies; he understands comic book aesthetics more profoundly than any other director currently working , definitely more profoundly than critics and a good many comic movie enthusiasts give him credit for. 

Without going into his body of work for a lengthy, film class lecture kind of thing where you might think that I expect you to take notes , I'll assert plainly that Snyder succeeds, to my satisfaction, because his movies resemble the florid, visually stunning, sense jarring, thematically complex and often incomprehensibly plotted graphic novels that have emerged as a seriously considered format in the industry. Man of Steel, Sucker Punch, Batman v Superman , derided by reviewers and crabby fan boys for being too long, too slow , too dark in tone , theme and actual color scheme and and unrepentantly grim in pessimistic in outlook, are elements that have impressed me with what's going on with the level of storytelling across all the comic book publishers of note, but DC especially.

One of the reasons I like Zack Snyder movies, especially his comic book adaptations, is that they play on the screen fairly closely to the experience of actually reading comic books. Flashy cuts, extended action sequences that are supposed to be at high velocity but which are slowed down effectively to create tension, stunning , effects laden vistas that provide the grand off-planet elaborations of a Jack Kirby--Snyder pretty much does all this and does in a dark/grim tone that has been the DC Comics world view for decades. Plot holes, lack of Strindbergian depth in characters, murky plot lines, unclear villian motivation? The lauded comic books from which Synder draws his ideas are guilty of all this, famous for it actually. What he does with Justice League, even in its comprimised and truncated state, is wonderful entertainment, a fast headlong dive into action, banter, visual splendor, with out a wasted moment. There are faults to find, sure thing, you betcha , you bet, but an application of an over prescribed skill, the willing suspension suspension of disbelief, helps the more finicky among us to enjoy the film while it's playing. I recieved my money's worth.

 He has, of course, taken liberties with canon and adjusted his  borrowings to fit the more narratively  constricted needs of movie making--absolutely no one can afford to adapt a comic book story line in its entirety-- but he has done so with flair and daring and has, I believe, constructed a credible, compelling, dark and grim DC universe, reflecting that company's house style, and brings us, at last, to Justice League, a lighter, yes, a faster paced, yes, a funnier, yes, movie than than the filtered strains of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche pessimism that characterized the previous films he directed. The films are an evolution of circumstances, from being hopelessness and dispirited and becoming  to actual hopeful  and  revitalized spirit .

 In short, spoiler free if you haven't seen the previous Snyder DC adaptations, these are superheros who have something to fight for,  to defend and protect the world with a conviction that, I think, is effortlessly conveyed here. Justice League moves quickly , with swiftly conveyed introductions of Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg as the team is brought together for the first time, the action sequences have a balletic beauty only Snyder accomplishes, and the interaction among the heroes , especially in how   they learn to work as a team and in the dialogue, yes, full of jokes, is attractively presented, without a sour note being heard. Justice League, I am offering in this belated note, is a good time at the movies, a super comic book movie who has, to my thinking,brought that adolescent experience of 'theater of the mind" while reading new or old comics under the bed sheets, with a flashlight, to the screen. He , like many of us, remembers that experience and does wonderful work here and else where to bring to movie theatres where you all should be , right now, watching Justice League and having a raging good escape from what  is inane and ugly in this reality.

Ironically, it's been a common complaint with Synder's super hero films, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman especially, is that they are too long and leaden in pace, and yet the relatively two hour running time of Justice League has drawn the reverse complaint, too short and too rushed, just as fervently. Obviously the nearly three hour lengths of the first two films bothered me not at all since I'm inclined to appreciate Snyder's dually Wagnerian, eye popping aesthetic, but I do think that the shorter two hours for Justice League works much to its advantage. That is to say,this film had a briskness that prevented it, for me anyway, from seeming weighed down at all. Plot inconsistencies , not enough background on the new characters, an underexplored method toward Superman's revivification --all common complaints of the new picture and, perhaps, they have merit worthy of longer discussion. 

But since this is a comic book movie geared, I'm sure, to emulate the tone and thematic depth of the DC print versions of these characters--Snyder and company are adapting a Superman and Batman et al, not Tolstoy , not Faulkner--I picked up on the dynamics of the action, which are, of course, very comic booky and an element that made this a pleasurable experience. And since this an origin story involving the creation of a long standing fictional institution and the introduction of three additional heros DC and WB want to make into stand alone franchises, we have to consider exactly how much time to dedicate to the narrative side streets and background information for the birth of the JL and who and what the new characters are about. My guess is that had what hard core fans of the individual characters considered to be a deservingly full introduction been included, the movies run time likely would have pushed past three hours. The movie would have been a slog and weighty , too much so even for my Snyder-tolerant mind set. Movies, especially super hero movies, should move, if nothing else.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

One trick phony

 The Darling
a novel by Russell Banks

Russell Banks a  novelist who gets considerable mileage out of his character's capacity to make themselves miserable, to attract misery without necessarily seeking it out, or being born into a miserable world that makes the bringing of each and every sunrise a cue to begin again for someone to arise and then debate whether to make coffee or slit their wrists.

I've read some of his novels--Affliction, The Relation of My Imprisonment, The Angel on the Roof, Trailer Park--and I have to say that while I find his prose often times gorgeous and genuinely moving, his fiction is so persistently dire, dour and depressed that it's problematic to say that I enjoyed the experience of turning page after page of seems , in hindsight, as little more than a cruel shaggy dog story. The misfortunes visited upon his characters are constant to the point that they become nearly comic in their overwrought attempt to create a saddened tone; the works are quite simply emotional melodramatic. This is less enlightening and far less artful beyond the grammatically pristine quality of the prose ; it may be much and hackneyed to expect qualities  as elemental as a moral of the story, an over arching metaphor, or just a riveting , compelling account of the hard luck  of particular characters existing, subsisting or merely occupying indeterminate space in a particular milieu. 

The Darling, concerning a rich young daughter who joins the Weather Underground during America's revolutionary mid-century who becomes involved in terrorist bombing that winds up killing people, we follow this poor soul as she flees the USA and winds up in Africa, in Liberia, where she gets a government post carrying for chimpanzees in a State Run field station. She winds up falling in love with a government minister who has taken pity on her and helps her, marries him and has sons. She becomes friends with Charles Taylor , the ruthlessly cruel President of the country and , strangely, she narrates at considerable length how she she seems to be communicating silently with the apes who are in her care. Disaster , revolution, race hatred, genocide follow , she flees back to the States and returns to her estranged parents and reconnects with friends from the political days. It was at this point where I closed this book and did not open it again, even though I was but 75 pages away from finishing. The improbable circumstances piled atop each other too quickly, too bluntly; Bank's prose stopped being graceful and tragically lyric at that point,moving in emotional impact and became labored. 

Clearly, he had too much going on and rather than cut sequences, scenarios and conceits that were't working to begin with--the kinship with the caged chimps creates incredulity, not empathy--he is reduced to hurrying through the story, to connect his plot points. In truth, there is nothing told here that could not have been done in 200 pages; we would have had a more powerful novel that might have actually destroyed you in the spot you were holding the book. We might allude to a crass metaphor, that Banks writes the way an alcoholic drinks, that once he gets one minutely detailed incident written into the narrative, he sets up the story for yet  another devastating bit of punishment, and yet more after that, and after, yet more, seeming without end. 

But the amount of things happening, the coincidences, from the heroine's early days as a Weatherman involved in anti-capitalist bombings, to an eventual return to the United States where her terrorist background becomes a secret she must account for, strained credulity no matter how hard and long I tried to suspend my disbelief. Banks' prose becomes mere padding making the page count thicker, consequently making the novel less desireable to stick with.  But we get blather instead, many long paragraphs of what reads like a twenty volume suicide note.You could here the strain and sense the tedium of a plot take its toll. This reads like a novelization of the most pathetic button-pushing mini series imaginable, circa 1973. The novel is a gargantuan bore.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Monkee Bidness

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'I disliked The Monkees from day one because at the time I was a serious teen who wanted to be Rolling Stone rock critic and considered "our music" done by "our artists" to be a new art for; following, I put together my own home made aesthetic criteria , actually a free floating borrowing of a half dozen other critics opinions and tastes, convinced that it was my duty to protect and preserve the one true and undiluted thing , the music. Let me beat to the punch regarding that last sentence: I was indeed full of myself, intoxicatingly so. Nonetheless, The Monkees were the antithesis of that; my friends and I howled and mocked and denounced the fellows as much as we could, but they sold records anyway. The synthesis of this dialectic, I suppose, was that counter-culture ideas, attitudes and styles, from fashion, music, politics and the like, had been absorbed by mainstream culture. I think Marcuse referred to the process as "repressive tolerance", the notion that the System can neutralize radical impulses in a restless and dissatisfied population merely by allowing their rebellion to express itself through institutional channels. What i do recall is that Frank Zappa, the maestro of rock avant garde and someone the pure of spirit thought was far above the temptation to sell out, appeared as himself in their one feature film "Head". It pays to remember that the Mothers of Invention were not a hippie collective in which everything was done collaboratively. The band, rather , was a business concern of Zappa's and the musicians were on salary to play his music the way he wanted to hear it. Zappa the entrepreneur appreciated , no doubt, the conceptualization and execution of the Monkees as a product created to fill an under served niche even as Zappa the serious artist dismissed their tunes.

Even in movies, the dead should remain dead

Saw’s Billy the Puppet; Han Solo; Superman; and Colin Firth as Kingsman’s Harry
So little of what passes as cultural commentary on the internet is trivial and distracting like an itch you can't scratch that it comes as (very) mild surprise that one of the opinioneers delivered a grouse worth considering. An uncredited scribe in The Guardian mentioned and elaborated on an element of many super hero films that is , perhaps, killing interest in the genre: viewers cannot depend on a character remaining dead if he or she gets killed . The story makes the point that there have been so many deaths-and-miraculous-resurrections of characters that a viewer's willing suspension of disbelief refuses to kick in; it becomes more a matter of plot mechanics than catharsis.

It is one thing that Superman, presented to us as deceased in Batman v Superman, reenters the action in the upcoming Justice League  , since DC has generally made sure the Man of Steel was represented on screen in Christ like terms since the  beginning. It just makes sense just to remain consistent with the analogue and to consistent as well with the comic book canon; Superman simply must come back from the dead. Every dead character returning to the narrative fold, though, kills the fun of these things. Which brings up the point this piece strongly suggests, the nagging question as to why audiences continue to bother showing up for these things. I know it's been predicted often,  but there is a tipping point for this material. We're saturated ,carpet bombed, pummeled with creeps in capes destroying fictional cities and a fantastic and devastating fall off in attendance looms sooner than Hollywood might think. This is to say the studios need to diversify their crops.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

"Forever Changes" was released 50 years ago!