Saturday, February 6, 2016

BOWIE: genius as thief

I remember a caffeine-fueled bull sessions in the Mesa College Cafeteria in the early to mid Seventies when I offered to Steve Esmedina , a Bowie partisan, that the future Thin White Duke hadn't had an original musical idea so far in his career. Blubbo, his preferred endearment, didn't argue the point, stating smartly that what's fascinating , exciting , worth talking about in hipster circles and beyond was his particular genius as a synthesizer of genres and emerging trends and taking command of the materials like any true artist would, deconstructing, reshaping, fusing styles and sensibilities together into new kinds of sounds, the influences intact and vital-- Broadway musicals, hard rock, funk and disco grooves, experimental electronics, William Burroughs and Bertolt Brecht--while having Bowie's characteristic imprint on it all. My smart ass assertion was false from the start, since what David Bowie was creating fusion music in the truest sense of what "fusion" is, taking different elements together and coming up with something new, previously unseen or unheard. I could go for the obvious Miles Davis comparison that's lurking in the wings of this career praise, but instead I'll stay with the deservedly much discussed element of style and fashion in the late artist's work and say that he was one of those creatures radiating the personality that could try on any outlandish article of fashion from any designer's rack and wind up owning the style, making it his; something of great value was added when he liked a style and wanted to work with it. 

The famous quote attributed to Ritchie Blackmore about accusations that he stole guitar riffs from black American blues artists that "the amateur borrows, the professional steals" is instructive. The amateur treats what they've borrowed with too much gentleness and respect, as though they might drop the expensive China they've dared lay a finger on. The results are a species of gutless pretentiousness that glutted an awful lot of art rock in the post -Sgt.Pepper   years, music by those who hadn't an idea what they were doing nor the imagination (or nerve)  to pretends they did. The thief likes something and just takes it without permission, absorbs into his or her being until it becomes part of their nervous system , adding their own licks, reshuffling the influx of music styles heard , assimilated, until there is a sound where constituent parts of rock drums, jazz keyboards, atonal guitar skronk, horn funk and Euro serial music emerges, a sound that hadn't roamed over the airwaves or blasted the clubs and concert halls of until the moment when the Thief, the absconder of musical forms, decides that he or she is finished in the creation and releases into the world, fresh, loud, moving as no music before it.

This is what Bowie had done, loving art enough to abuse the formalisms that defined the length and limitations of a genre and make them do more than most had assumed possible. We are living a world of music that has been formed in large measure by Bowie's decades- long search for new music he wanted to work with. This what David Bowie did. His contribution was immense, and his loss is irreplaceable.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

"HAIL CAESAR! ", a movie about Hollywood Endings

The Brothers Coen, writer/ directors Joel and Ethan, are smart guys in love with Hollywood movies, the people who make them, actors, directors and studio executives and assortment of tradesmen, call girls, corrupt cops, sycophants, idiots , fools and intellectual flyweights who inhabit this world of eccentric denizens. These are creatures managing to create the magic and myth making that has kept American enthralled sitting in dark theaters for decades, excited and inspired by images and tales that taught generations how to know right from wrong, how to love, how to be brave, when to love, when to cry, how to pick yourself up and face the new day with a smile and humming spry song as they walk with great purpose into an endless series of serene sunsets and hopeful sunrises. We know this as "The Hollywood Ending".

Hollywood producers required  endings encouraging  audiences to wallow in the fantasy of easy Happiness at the end of every critical moment , to return again, buy more tickets, eat more popcorn , and invest  further on a collective consciousness embedded by lights and shadows flashing across a silver -grey screen. Joe and Ethan Coen are all about Hollywood endings, but what in a turn in a career noted for quirk, screwball antics, unexpected departures from developed themes and genre expectations, they've made a splendid new film about Hollywood endings, Hail Caesar! Eddie Mannix, a studio executive for Capitol Pictures who heads a department that names him the head of "Physical Production", a position that essentially makes a him the studio's "fixer" who keeps the potentially embarrassing details of the lives of their stars out of the newspapers.

The movies are successful because of the fantasies they contain, and the actors are part of that concoction as well. Only the names the studio has given them and the back stories publicists concocted for them are allowed for public consumption, and it's Mannix's task to keep quirks, unacceptable politics and sexual preferences, alcoholism , drug addiction, religious deviation, safely sequestered far from the public view. You get the idea; in this period, set in the late forties-early fifties in the waning years of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the Movies Are American , and the Actors Are Americans. One loose thread can make this whole garment fall apart.Eddie Mannix's job is to keep things stashed where they need to be, to make problems go away, to keep the production line humming right along.

Sometimes it seems too much even for his broad shoulders, starting when the star of this religious epic in production "Hail Caesar! The Story of the Christ" is kidnapped . Mannix gets on the case of finding the missing star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), whom he suspects of going off on a bender. Whitlock, still in his Roman soldier costume, awakes from a drugged stupor , finding himself secreted in a regal beach house in Malibu perched on a rocky crag on the shore line, where he shortly meets a room full of chain smoking Marxists, actually screen writers disillusioned with Hollywood when they didn't get rich from the successful movies they wrote, seduce the shallow Whitlock with the rudiments of Dialectical Materialism and how he, a victim of The System no less than the common man on the street , can participate in his own taking and help turn the Studio's energies against itself and cause the whole enterprise to collapse. Whitlock is the not the most critical of thinkers and soaks up the Marxist cant easily. Would you like to help free the common man on the street he's asked. Baird pronounces that he's all for the little guy and that he'll ago along. Moments after he becomes a freshly anointed Communists committed to world revolution, Whitlock goes for what he knows, asserting that he ought to get a cut of the ransom from his own kidnapping.

What follows is a kind of shaggy dog story that only the Coen Brothers seem capable doing consistently well, the tale where one nettlesome situation is compounded by other pitfalls, booby traps, and situational snafus having no apparent end. Mannix, a squared jawed, forthright, dedicated man who wants harmony and and benign order in the manufacture of images, has more than the Whitlock imbroglio to deal. 

The things that go wrong resemble nothing so much as a chain collision, a bunch of small things that add to an oppressive weight: a star of Esther Williams aquatic ballet fantasies stops a scene being shot and off camera has trouble pulling off her mermaid costume because she is pregnant and unmarried. Mannix 's job is to get her married and legitimize the unborn child and have a story the public will accept. Elsewhere, a high society movie under production has no leading man with either acting chops or elegance to fill the a crucial role. Mannix is ordered to bring in an amiable and earnest cowboy star to fill the role. The problem, of course, is that the young man can't act and his drawl, sweet as it sounds, is intractable. The director , a man of high manners and worldly in ways more than could be openly discussed or depicted in the Golden Age films, tries to get the suddenly dark suited hick to enter a party, walk over to a couch when beckoned by a young ingenue and to reply to her with a simple response. This winds up with the director trying to give the uncomfortable cowboy acting lessons, face to face, trying to get the poor man to change the way to become more stylized in facial expression and vocal cadence. Each time the cowboy actor fails , the frustration increasing , the clash of culture and lifestyle providing perfecting comedy tension. The director comes to Mannix to complain, but Eddie lays down the law saying that the decision comes from the studio owners and says the director has to make good with a bad fit for the role. The director acquiesces and leaves, but Mallick wonders whether this will work at all.

The pile up continues through the film, one thing after the other, each threatening to bring down the tent. The Coen Brothers have a sure touch in the way in the way sub plots are introduced, resolved or handled, and the way they use devices to get to ideas that other wise wouldn't fit the main story line quite so neatly. This being a film about a movie about movies being made and the illusions being created, it was an inspiration for them to have a number of scenes that were a review of bits of film being edited, a cogent way to lampoon classic Hollywood genres quickly and surely. In the "Hail Caesar" sequence, there is a glorious shot of clouds back-lit with Maxfield Parrish-style sunlight, everything celestial and heavenly, but suddenly there is a card that appears reading 'CREATOR TO BE SHOT" to single that the image that follows is still pending. It's a wonderful blending of two themes the movie introduces, the first in Mannix, a religious who goes to confession , it seems, at least once a day, who prays the rosary over the problems he has to fix, with that of the apparently atheist Communist cell of screenwriters who fancy they have discovered the Science of History and who dedicate themselves to solving the ills of the world through more drastic means. 

Intriguing as well is a preview of a musical under production, a bar full of sailors who , watching the girls leave at closing time and who are going to sea for eight months, begin to moan and groan that they "won't see no dames" where they will be. This turns into a song and then an athletic dance sequence, male sailors, in full whites, dancing with other male sailors, vaguely hinting as while singing about about everything they can do with each other , but that it will be different because there won't be no dames. It is a fun,well rendered dance number, with barely contained homophobia at the root of it. It's a nice reference and tribute, I suspect, to the legacy of closeted gay writers,directors actors and actresses that worked in Hollywood for decades, adding the brilliantly coded stylistics from the diverse elements of gay culture, a monumental contribution to the art of the Hollywood movie.

Hail Caesar! is a shaggy dog story , of course, quirky , elegant, slap stick, stammering, screwball and acidly satiric at various turns of plots and subplots. Joel and Ethan Coen thrive on going against expectation , with an uncanny sense of timing of when to do so. They are adept of getting you hooked on a notions being played out on the screen and then interrupting it with zany intrusions that are their subversive way of telling us that the movie makers are only telling stories that are supported by an audiences willingness to stop arguing long enough with the ill-logic of movie's premise and enjoy the brief respite a good yarn avails us to.

The point of a shaggy dog stories is that there are not points, that once a story begins and proceeds through related incident and complication as new locals and characters of all sorts are introduced over the course of the fictional journey, one expects a great punch line, a profound moral, illustration of life - affirming platitudes, or some horrible, inevitable tragedy; shaggy dog stories aren't like that though. The end of them are usually some small pun for which the build up was more intricate than it needed to be, but that's the point. Everything winds up where it's supposed to be by forces subtler and more incidental than we can imagine. 

What the subtle forces maybe are unknown at any given point , and the Coen Brothers don't speak to that. They make movies, though, that have us laughing and scratching our heads at the same time, evidence of genius in my view. Hail Caesar! is a funny, busy, puzzling and literate screwball comedy, compelling in it's engrossing mixture of sweetness and cynicism. Very fine stuff indeed!

Friday, January 29, 2016

Nothing to say about nothing at all

Elise Partridge’s sparse poem “Chemo Side Effects: Memory” , is a telling verse of someone trying to remember the precise word to describe the slightest detail of the slightest thing and feeling as a result the mild dread that a part of themselves has gone away, vanished as would nameless leaves in a stream rushing toward a storm drain. Her language is crisp, brittle, but there is a power in the skeletal telling that more robust rhetoric would merely have blunted with their compounded comparisons; Partridge has something here akin to an artist sketch pad, getting the essence of a situation, in this case a memory lapse and a growing alarm, in a few confident strokes. It is, perhaps, a skill garnered from years of writing verse with the linguistic cleverness and gusto younger writers feel they need to do, to transfer their book reading into the tight corners of their as yet unexplored lives. Partridge’s poem here reads like someone who knows the world they have defined, formed, created to their satisfaction; the task of this poem is to observe the poet finding her place in the world, to remember the names she had given the animals, the places, the things of her life.What we observe, of course, is something like a comedy, where the protagonist is frustrated in their task and gropes about the clutter, real and recollected, in hopes that the object, the word she wanted appears suddenly, magically, like a bright, shiny coin. It’s a touching sight to imagine, not without humor: Where is the word I want?

in the thicket,
about to pinch the
berry, my fingerpads
close on
I can hear it
scrabbling like a squirrel
on the oak’s far side.
Word, please send over this black stretch of ocean
your singular flare,
your  topaz in the mind’s blank.
Thinking, remembering, the pleasure of the poet, the reader, the talker of long phone calls and timeless coffee chats, the effortless act of bringing together experience, reading, emotion into new forms and communicating new ways of witnessing the world in the community of one’s imperfect compatriots, is now work, labor, Something that was always at the ready in the notated folds of one’s mind is now missing or renamed, misplaced somehow in the archives of one’s interior life. One’s brain has become an overstuffed closet where all manner of incident, sorrow, joy, growth, frustration has fallen out of their boxes and now overlap one another in an avalanche of obscuring imagery. But there is bravery inspire of this, the sort of reaction to fear we don’t speak of that often, that of making the brain behave as we think it should, however in vain our efforts seem to be. Partridge gropes for that thing she cannot name nor tell you what it means; this is a search for the Golden Fleece, the Gold Urn, the unnamed thing whose connection to a supposed metaphysical order, would reconnect the searcher to their path, the point they were trying to make, the directions they were trying to give, the emotion they were attempting to express. This is Calvinism on the intimate scale, the thinking that if we continue the search and beseech the elements with urgent humility, magic realism will take hold and what is causing pain and anguish is massaged out of countenance.

I could always pull the gift
from the lucky-dip barrel;
scoop the right jewel
from my dragon’s trove….
Now I flail,
the wrong item creaks up
on the mental dumbwaiter.
No use—
it’s turning
out of sight,
a bicycle down a
Venetian alley—
I clatter after, only to find
gondolas bobbing in sunny silence,
a pigeon mumbling something
I just can’t catch.

There is among other elements a dream quality to Partridge’s poem, a flickering tableau that seems to shake, vibrate and spin the harder the dreamer tries to slow the activity and locate a center of their thoughts. This has the effect of picking up a thick, large format magazine and concentrating on the fleeting images and text while they speed by as you fan through the pages as you would a deck of cards. The poem goes from being a stuttering, hesitating description of stymied intellectualizing and evokes something larger, quietly horrifying as one accepts the fact that everything runs down and everything gets lost and that everything, at the end of their use, are isolated . The last stanza, with its image of things and meanings being just out of reach, the “pigeon mumbling something / I just can’t catch…” is reminiscent of the kinds of dreams, the melancholic fabulation of our lives that takes place after we drift into the thorny wilds of napping, where we are young and searching for answers and yet burdened with several decades of memories and experience; we ask the strangely familiar things in our dream state presence who we are and the name of the place we stand, but the characters, whether family or, in a tip to Lewis Carroll it seems, pigeons who can’t clear their throats and speak clearly, all with hold the information, they are mute. 

The poet’s tone, calm and vaguely bemused, and her language and phrasing, which is elliptical yet precise, musical yet aware of how silence and pauses can mold cadence and provide the power of to the bittersweet nuance of Partridge’s punch lines, work splendidly toward creating a dread just under the calm surface. But she struggles on, soldiers on, and realizes that what she is doing isn’t a destination at all, but a journey; she responds to the blockade by writing a poem that is made of the things that she came across in her determined search for that precise word that would have nailed what she had initially started out to say. She had taken a detour and wrote a narrative, another chapter in a story she is done yet done with.While Partridge’s narrator gropes for the word and, metaphorically, attempts to get her footing, we have a sense of someone climbing a sheer cliff; the suspense becomes less than the original task will be fulfilled than it is by what force of will and ingenuity can this annoying torture be overcome with some kind of grace. There is an anticipation that makes you root for the hero who must suddenly contend with a mountain, of a sort, that keeps from completing a thought.

There’s an understandable desire to have the poem speak to us in full sentences, but there is something to be said for half-sentences and the barely articulated; in a far less grim comparison, the poem reminds me of a police procedural in which we see the detectives looking at a bulletin board full of snap shots of the victims and the suspects, newspaper clippings, Photostats of canceled checks, seemingly random things linked together with circles, arrows and yellow post-it notes giving us bits of a linking narration. What intrigues in that image, as in the poem, are those key items that are missing? In this instance, there what I feel an intensive effort to go back to the moment, the very instance, when her idea, the notion she was about to speak, eludes her ready grasp and she does a quick mental rummage of the memory, rummaging clumsily among the associations that intrude on her path for right term for an idea she has likely already forgotten.

A large part of why this poem appeals to me is because it creates the idea that as she comes across an image of her past , the contexts and sensations associated with it announce them announce themselves like emphasized photo captions. At some point she is off her determined search altogether and finds herself instead following associative string of personal icons and finds herself entranced, perhaps, but the murmur of the descriptive words, presenting themselves in a what it less a stream of conscious than it is a rough, fast ride on the rapids. 

The narrative that forms is piecemeal, seemingly related, people, places, things and the reflexive grasping for parts of the anatomy twirled and twined and otherwise spun together in a rush of sensation that reveals nothing, finally, other than all the compartmentalized detritus we have organized and placed in the mind’s cold storage easily enough becomes chaos and clutter again with the right provocation. Partridge’s intention, I think, is not create meaning or provide a comfortable lesson to be derived, but rather the sensation of an experience that, by definition, defies language’s ability to fully express.There is much here to discuss , I think, but I will say that I am in awe at how sharp a scene Elise Partridge has drawn with such a superb word selection and construction of phrases. There is modern jazz here, Miles Davis/Chet Baker, confident masters of their craft who know when to leave spaces, silences, who know how to build toward surprise.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The rocket's red glare

 This is one of the many crank rant poems I used to enjoy writing when the combination of coffee and cigarettes had sufficiently charged me and reinforced what my ego demanded a clean and sober artist must be in order to be interesting, expressive, a hat full  of cornball gestures: the personality I'm trying to project here is, please note, fictional and the intimations of wild things having happened with serio-comic consequences are created from whole cloth as well. This might blow my reputation as a poet who recounts hard living in funny and bittersweet couplets and rhythmically charged lines that simulate the rapid eddies of a Freddie Hubbard solo. Well, it might threaten what street cred if I had a reputation more expansive than friends, estranged drinking buddies, a few associate professors and members of my family who like what I do no matter what it is I put on the dinner table. I make stuff  up in half the stuff you'll find in my various chap books, anthologies I've been included in, the various blogs I fill with words that yammer and shriek a loud, if vaguely articulated discontent. 

Discontent with the skin I'm wearing, more than likely, as this current sheath is wrinkled, getting flabby and the joints ache worse than the linger effect of losing whatever person, place or thing that truly mattered to your existence. But don't think this a dishonest poem; I disagree with the notion that poetry in this age requires the poet to expose their darkest don't-tells. Poetry will not change behavior and will not make you feel better about being a shit heel; that is what therapists are for. 

This , I think, is worth reading for the same reason some recent science fiction movies are worth seeing because the computer generated animation sequences are  as spectacular as the stories that justify their use are insipid. This is honest poem because the attitude, the language, the tone that waivers between confirmed don't-give-a-goddamn and the  congealed frustration that threatens to become something louder ,  vulgar and violent. They ring true for me and reflect those days a time ago where going insane seemed a viable an option as any young alcoholic artist and poet could choose. Thankfully, I have survived the logic of the heated impulse and stayed around long enough to enjoy a more modest means of getting to the point. --tb


 The rocket's red glare

how drunk could be get
before we began to
look attractive to the
flies that buzz around
our heads ,

the broad strokes
of red
and henna coded clouds
that set the horizon on fire
as the sun sinks
just a tip under the
blurred line of the planet
where earth and sky
are a duo
that play one masterful rondo
after another
one of us stands up
to God and his
whispering minions
that he is tired of
suffering the results
of a good idea
gone to bullet bursts
and fist fights over the change left
on cafe tables.

i raise my head from my palms,
stop studying the way
my shoe laces are
coming untied,
i gather a sense that
there is more to life
than gas , food and lodging
but would settle
for any thing
because i had
none of the above
and no love for curbs
and the drainage dreams
they inspire,
i ask

the other one of us
was still
drinking as he careened up the street,
one side to the other,
all the billboards
should read "tilt",

he yells at a passing bus,
i laugh, Jesus what a jerk,
i will take the bus
and play music in my skull
until it comes,
i will be serene and lean
on the vernacular
that's so spectacular
when I'm in the bag
and full of mean remarks,

i will behave,
i will be silent,
nothing will upset me,
i am invisible on the bus line,

but even as my mantra
is uttered and folded
into a vest pocket of the soul
over where the heart still beats
with what remains of
my sense of my self and
virtues beyond the
bulge of my wallet,
a car approaches
through the intersection,
it veers closer,

i sing to the streetlights,
the fixtures on the power lines,

the car slows down,

i'm on the twelfth chorus of "Cherokee",

something breaks in my lap
and then I am wet
with water
neither painful nor holy,

the car speeds away
into the slim v perspective
that runs right to the water's edge,

i am wet
yet am i blessed
in such a state,
i hum another chorus,
my lap drenched
with tap water and
bits of burst balloon,

and now it's dark
after eight pm in July
when the fireworks go off
from the end of the pier,

where i wanted to be
to make a phone call
under the rocket's red glare.