Saturday, July 29, 2017

Michiko Kakutani Steps Down as NY Time's Chief Book Critic

Michiko KakutaniMichiko Kakutani has stepped down as the NY Time's principle book critic, an event I say is 38 years beyond the expiration date of  her worth as a culture commentator. Her prose was remarkable for its lack of cadence or rhythm or music of any sort.She wrote to the beat of the metronome, and her  thinking followed suit, hewing to safe formulation, received, recyclings of conventional wisdom.  Her esposusals made her seem  less like  critic than it made her resemble the World's Smartest Typist. I intend no slight to competent typists, but the quality of Kakutani's praise or criticism for author were exceedingly ordinary and seemed, really, to be little more than the sort of compliments one gets from dutiful host, polite and icy, or the complaints one of your friends who has fashioned a better phrased brand of snark and sarcasm. 

Her intentions , too often, were rather obviously not critical thinking but character assassination; her repetitive riffs against Mailer, Franzen, Nick Hornby and Don DeLillo went for quite a few years; a dutiful editor at the Times ought to noted this and instructed her to (1) find some other authors to write about with a much less glaring set of preconceived judgments and (2), to start writing reviews that steered away from the short list of tropes she used without end as a means to praise or damn and instead do some real critical thinking. Kakutani was an ethically bankrupt critic of no discernible into or passion for the literary arts she presumed to judge. She was a long time disgrace to the critic's trade and craft. Banal and annoying are exactly the right words to describe her.  

Calling her a critic grossly  overstates what she did for a living, which was to produce, assembly line fashion, formulaic judgements that riled authors and readers alike for the perfunctory competence she brought to her job. In a paper otherwise blessed with the best staff of arts critics, culture writers and columnists, she was the tone deaf embarrassment.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Valerian: a movie so empty of worth you can use it for a sock drawer


Image result for valerian
Valerian is among the most boring movies I've ever seen. Two hours long, it felt like three and all the admittedly eye-popping visuals and after a short while give you the feeling of being a frog in blender, the last thing you see being a nauseating blur of bright lights and dark tones before the blades of the machine turn you into minced effluvia. 
The actors Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne are creaking and mechanical in their banter and flirting; they have the appeal of shucked corn. Luc Besson, writer and director of this protracted and expensive sedative, mistakes expense, expanse and excess as enough for a true thrill ride. For this movie, he should have his head placed against a brick so we may throw a wall at it. The primary problem with the love story, or the flirtation that led up to the eventual profession of love, was that it was a major focus in the narrative; I thought the banter was inane and repetitive; an element made more onerous by that  porcelain presence of leads DeHaan and Delevingne, who had zero chemistry. Rather than the matching the qualities we loved seeing in Tracy and Hepburn, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russel l(His Gal Friday)l or Cybill Sheppard and Bruce Willis (Moonlighting), this pair didn't manage facial expressions much beyond his responsibilities to look dreamy and hers to sustain a puckering pout. I don't insist that coherence be central to films I think are brilliant--in cases like Chandler's Big Sleep (novel and the Howard Hawks film adaptation), the author's style and ability to create a nuanced and tangible mood more than compensates for what sense it didn't make. 
Also, I am quite fond of Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, which I've seen several times; critics and movie goers lambasted its WTF plot line, but the set pieces in the films, the fantasy action sequences, are simply brilliant bits of kinetic visual art, a spectacular recreation of the sort of Jack Kirby style gatefold two-pagers that handily disorient and reorient the senses and makes you aware that this space is not where the usual laws of nature apply. For what Valerian was attempting to do, the kind of story they wanted to tell, we have, I think, is a mess of a project that fails to engage, enthrall, or convince me to forget about how long the film seems. It seemed interminable. One mind blowing visual after another just made this noisy, cluttered and restlessly frantic without any momentum.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Remembering all of nothing

Some years  I posted a poem on a well known bulletin board for an internet news magazine which provoked an unexpected response. I wrote concerning a blurry childhood memory of my Mom sobbing over a stove, the conceit being that I'd first give hints that this was going to be a melancholic memoir and then reveal, through a clever alignment of detail, that her tears were not from a spat with Dad. It was revealed by the last stanza that she' chopped raw onions for what the meal . Someone asked in a response how the memory was so clear, and I explained that the story was not wholly true; I manufactured the narrative thread I couldn't recall, and produce an entity that had a punchline, not a grievous irony. The response was fairly psychotic; I was called a liar and worse with my method revealed, and the inconsolable assailant couldn't get it through his (or her) head that not every poem is factual, therapeutic, journalistic. 

My response was defensive, of course, and typical of the accused bard.It's called imaginative literature, after all.Not a good reading habit for someone who says they love poetry. No, my friend, I didn't lie to the readers, I just told them a story.Poetry is imaginative writing, my brother, and there are those who err in reading this as an attempt at autobiography. The offended party didn't seem to accept any of this and cranked the vitriol higher, at which time I stopped talking to her (or him),You wonder what they missed in grade school when reading and writing was taught ; poets are liars by habit of mind when it comes to their craft; they make stuff up when they feel the need. Critic John Hollander has a useful essay on the matter,The shadow of a lie: poetry, lying, and the truth of fictions

That should give us something to consider.This is a slippery slope, and what it underlines it your unwillingness to admit that poetry is the practice of writing in imaginative, figurative, fictional language. Writers employ metaphors, similes, and varied tropes at times to get to what one can call the "larger" truths,"greater", which is to say that writers, poets especially, try to get at matters a straight forward prose style can't get at. The hidden moral of the story, if you will.Part of this is creating scenarios that are not necessarily factual (autobiographical) or plausible in the conventional sense. Coleridge has a useful principle he calls the suspension of disbelief, which roughly means that a reader needs to leave their suppositions and stipulations at the door as they enter into reading a poem; you need to stop arguing that a poem is obliged to fulfill your personal requirements and instead read it as is, inspect what the writer does. Bandying about words like "lies" blocks us, meaning myself, from the sunshine of the spirit.

An impatient man can't possibly get all that poets and their work have to offer. Exactly what they have to offer is debatable, but that's part of the pleasure of reading poetry,or writing it. It's better ,I think, to leave people wondering for themselves than to try to tell them the facts , Joe Friday style.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

idway cash


Staying alert and regular with The Standells and The Electric Prunes



"Dirty Water" by the Standells is, to my mind, the first bit of punk iteration, predating even the hallowed grind and gassy grint of the Stooges and the MC5 by three years. A blues riff the guitarist was more interested in making irritating than emotionally expressive, a lyric that bad mouthed the narrator's origins who other glories in how grimy and switchbladey his home turf is, a singer determined to brag, mock, leer and sneer in a decidedly juvenile manner--this was the first thing I remember hearing when I started to take rock bands seriously that seemed so sublimely obnoxious and willfully idiotic that it couldn't be anything other than an authentic expression of some righteously immature attitudes. Even today, the rusty and repetitive riff, the snot swallowing vocal, the unintentionally Kurt Weilish lyrics , sound juvenile, fresh, convincingly hubristic, a bunch of drop outs owning their limitations and happy that it leaves you irked and uneasy . This project and other efforts of the dozens of one-shot wonders who cascaded during the period--the Barbarians, The Syndicate of Sound, The Music Machine, The Seeds-- had as much to do with the creation of what we'd later term a "Punk" style, with the ratty guitars, the sub literate lyrics, the construction site style time keeping of the mostly anonymous rhythm sections as were the deservedly praised and expansively influential works of the Velvet Underground , the Stooges, or the MC5. The difference between those last three bands, household names in rock fiefdoms in every cranny of the internet, and the earlier bands emerging  from garages and basements and eventually making their into the studios of local record labels and to appearances at no age limit teen clubs and TV dance shows, was that Velvets,the Stooges and the 5 made a choice to sound and exclaim the way they did; it was a choice backed by   aesthetics and short   order versions of 20th century philosophy , a body of thought heavily seasoned with post WW2 gloom and rootlessness. The other guys just wanted to make noise and meet chicks and expressed world view not far advanced than the average   teen ager's harrowing time of extreme self consciousness and expressions of that in terms no less over the line and loudly presented. Their lives weren't so far removed from the issues Chuck Berry  might have outlined in his classic teen theme masterpieces, but only harder,ruder, with an edge that would only get more cutting with time. 



A little later in the decade, 1967, a band with an equally obnoxiously odd name The Electric Prunes had a hit with a fuzz -tone-y anthem called "I Had Too Much Last Night".  A grating distortion characterizes the ensemble,  guitar tracks played backwards looping through out the song, melodramatic from major to minor keys, drum beats more remindful of heavy shoes climbing loose-boarded stairways, the song is ridiculous in idea and execution, centering on a young man's long night of the soul as he recalls a strange dream about his girl friend. This is a garage psychedelia, or course, and it's to be expected  that the dream is described in words that are over ripe and garish, a first timer's first attempt at a serious poem without first having read Wallace Stevens .I    relate to that , as I read rather a lot of gruesome juvenilia myself after my first encounter with 'Desolation Row". Earnest rhymes and images, yes, but still pedestrian and without a credible pulse of wit. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Thank you for sharing, now go back to sleep

So the question that was asked of me recently , yesterday in fact, was whether I considered myself to be on my next leg of life's journey, or the last leg of the trudge. What brought on the question was  two significant milestones came and went by earlier this week, the first being a routine promotion in the ranks of early senior- citizenship by my turning 65 years of age, the second being the miraculous achievement of 30 Years of consecutive sobriety. Grouse as I might, my dismay at getting older, of garnering more birthdays while I'm still able to breathe, is because of what happened the day after my natal birthday 26 years ago,which was to finally just abandon the jail cell we call the ego and admit that nothing I was doing was working out and that, in short order, I would face the likely prospect of joblessness, homelessness, and a likely death. That hasn't happened yet and to this day, despite my frequent eruptions of personality (materializing the form of tantrums, arguments, curmudgeonly lectures and unexpected flair ups of tasteless repartee) I am awe of what happened to me two and a half decades ago; to this day, again, I haven't quite figured it out other than I stumbled into a community of sober people whose collective experience matched and exceeded mine and that they had found a solution to their alcoholism and addiction with a spiritual means that they gladly shared with me. This is not to say that I got religion and that's my intent to preach--I am loath to be lectured to, and I remain agnostic with regards to the consolidated concepts of organized religion--but I think it suffices to say that I've adopted a set of principles that have kept me on course for a good number of years through celebrations and tragedies, good news and bad news and no news at all. I look around and find myself blessed with friends, fellowship, good health, a personality that is happier more often than it was no that long ago. What a strange ride it's been, what a wonderful journey it remains.So , back to the question,am on the next leg    or on  my last leg? A dime store adage, apropos of nothing perhaps, "there are no facts about the future". Well, there are no facts about the immediate future, since all of us succumb to the Large Nap sooner or later.  And quite dispite my basic depressive nature and tendency to drift  toward the grim and the  gory , I have a rich sense of humor , or so my friends say,  and I cannot take my gloom or my fatalism too seriously. I am an optimist because it's required to live meaningfully. So this is the next leg in the journey, which implies more turns of the road to come. At this point I am pleased to be alive  to ponder the question.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

a program note on a music I dislike

I despise smooth jazz, which is not to say that I dislike jazz  performed with smoothly demonstrated technique. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John  Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard,  et al are "smooth" in the utmost execution of their respectively impressive techniques, which means, for this grouch at least, that they can summon their best abilities at will and spontaneously compose harmonically, rhythmically and euphoniously nuanced improvisations upon a suitably provocative melody or composition. 


That inadequate sentence does not take into account what is now a substantial history of development in jazz, which has became much more than dance music, as all manner of mood, emotion and states of being have found profound and exciting expression from the hands of various masters who've come along over the decades to forge new paths for the form. "Smooth jazz", as I mean it, is an Industry marketing term, a genre that strips elements of jazz, blues, funk, soul to the simplest technical components and proffers mid-tempo instrumentals that are melodically constricted; no strange chords or transitions, no thematic development. The solos, in turn, don't strike you as improvisations at all--to use a horrid cliché-- every solo sounds like the one before it and the one coming after it. 'Smooth jazz", as I define it, is not about a command of one's technique, but how little of one's know-how a musician utilizes in search of sounds that are merely marketable. 

We have, in essence, another case where perfectly useful words are corrupted and meant to convey the contemptible instead. "Smooth" need hardly be synonymous with "mindless". I would quince my thirst for what's smooth in the Pat Metheny Group, who have interesting compositions, or good old Chet Baker, both in the tradition and an improviser with the best muted trumpet tone this side of Miles.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

some words for Charles Simic's poetry


TO BOREDOM
I’m the child of your rainy Sundays.
I watched time crawl
Over the ceiling
Like a wounded fly.
A day would last forever,
Making pellets of bread,
Waiting for a branch
On a bare tree to move.
The silence would deepen,
The sky would darken,
As grandmother knitted
With a ball of black yarn.
I know Heaven’s like that,
In eternity’s classrooms,
The angels sit like bored children
With their heads bowed. -
-Charles Simic, New Yorker 12/10/07

A fine, chiseled ode here. Boredom is those moments when you find yourself that seems to make you heavier with a lethargy that seems to have grown hands attached to big, brawny arms that grab you around the chest and drag you to the floor;ennui turns to terror, as you're too lazy to fight and a passing thought turns into a concrete, concentrated panic over teh notion that the floorboards and checkerboard tile might fall away and the metaphorical hands and arms would drag to a hell where every second of the eternity to come is the precisely the agony you felt on the worst day you ever had while wandering those years in the material world. Time stands slows to an inch worm's slither and there is the feeling of being suspended between dimensions. Charles Simic is a great poet and gets it right about heaven as well; eternal perfection is without dynamics, variation, a constant state of equilibrium.



Don't name the chickens, says poet Charles Simic, because doing so is to find yourself leaning  into  a perceptual left hook. . As the poem details, in  details inspired by the spare , weathered cadences of WC Williams, chickens in the barnyard are not really the kings of their domain as folk tales and cartoons would suggest, but merely a creature inhabiting a niche on which some things depend on; lording or majesty have nothing to do with it.  We have the terrain Simic sets up  beautifully, a small niche in the natural order  that is overlaid with expectations that suit the man or woman gazing from a window, from the porch, on their way to the barn to repair  a machine.

  

Don't Name the Chickens

Let them peck in the yard
As they please
Or walk over to stand
By the edge of the road.

The rooster strutting about
Will keep an eye on them,
Till it's time for them
To step under a tree

And wait for the heat
To pass and the children
To return to their toys
Left lying in the dust.

For, come Sunday,
One of the chickens may lose its head
And hang by its feet
From a peg in the barn.


This is beautifully done, I believe, a  cold and crackling laugh coming from the throat, and winding up echoing through the nose, a  combination of  bemusement and revulsion with  the vanities  citizens dress themselves in, the  idea that persists even on the most micro level, that the events of the day revolve around them.
Naming creatures implies ownership, that the animal given  a Christian assignation is now part of the family, like the dog or the cat, embedded in the good graces of human social structure until death , a natural death. But again, the power to name things and bestow upon them the complexities of far reaching relationships with kindred human significants are projections of  our collective ego, personalized, brought down from the global to the specific, the back yard, the barnyard.

Charles Simic's poems appeal to me for the same reason you might like a wisecrack someone makes as they recall an incident that  turns into one of  life's little lessons:  whether lost car keys, spilled milk, or walking around a department store with you fly open, a terse, casual summary, vaguely self mocking, with an odd detail tossed in for texture, makes the phrase memorable . We can each supply our own example of things a friend has said we wish we could claim as our original wit. Simic, here, has a poem, The Red Alarm Clock, I wish I'd written.



Red Alarm Clock

"I want to sail down the Nile
At sunset
Before I die,"
You said once, Cleopatra.
The room, I recall,
Had a plank floor,
A narrow bed, and a window
Facing a brick wall,
Plus a chair where I kept
A pint of bourbon,
The coffee cup we used as an ashtray,
And a red alarm clock.



This is a perfect snippet of a longer conversation, the start of something that makes you lean closer for the juicier parts, the contrasting accounts of what was said and done and how both the narrator and the "you" remember each other's response. It is a vivid, brief, alluring tease of a poem that does not drift off as would a conversation between two people fade as the couple walked further up the sidewalk from where you stood. It is cut off, rather, bright, loud, full of hard things, a tangible place. A room with a skinny bed, a window that gazes upon the grain of brick wall, a chair used as night stand to hold pint of bourbon. Simic has the particulars of a James M. Cain novel, he all but suggests a lustful reunion before and the beginning of a bittersweet dissection of an ended affair in the rumpled afterglow.

 It's not unlike some smooth camera work; you can feel the lens slowing panning the stark room,  ending up in on the coffee cup --the additional bit of it being "used as an ashtray" is a precisely brilliant fit for the situation evoked here--and the red alarm clock,  uncluttered with poetic language, it's color alone setting the tone of  an urgency both these characters would rather ignore. The clock, though, is enough to bring home the fact that the clock is ticking all the same and that  time runs out for everything, even regrets and reunions. Simic  concerns himself with neither the back story nor the tale that continues after the last line, he focuses on this slice and creates, I think, a set of particulars that create a mood, if not a meaning. 

The feeling of  that time has expired is made more tangible even by the way the narrator says, lastly, at the end of his sentence, as throw away detail "...and a red alarm clock ."  Unfreighted with meandering metaphors or latch key similes to ham handedly imbue the object with intangible qualities, Simic prefers the physical over the literary and lets the situation as described create the mood from within it's parts; the phone is mentioned,the color is emphasized, like something remembered , suddenly, brutally, an intrusion of truth that seeps into a conversation that reminds you that yes, whatever was the case before is done with and now is the time to move into respective horizons
.