Sunday, September 30, 2007

Parsing Greil Marcus Parsing Eminem (and other tangents)

I remember seeing Greil Marcus and Anthony DeCurtis, being interviewed on MSNBC on the issue of Eminem's sick-fuck psychodramas and the failure of nerve on the part of rock and pop critics to call him on the sham, and neither was forthcoming with anything particularly intriguing about the matter. Marcus sort of murmured some mysterious, vague things from his Hegelian shroud, while DeCurtis managed to sound like a nervous, nominally liberal parent who's desperate to stay relevant in his kid's lives. Both sounded like they were skirting the issue. Not the same thing as Lester Bangs taking on the "White Noise Supremacists", attacking the incipient racism that he encountered at the edges of a nervy rock culture. Bang's response was articulate, felt, personal, absent with the detached irony that's become the most popular dodge for rock critics and other commentators to take when there's a chance that they might have to actually say something they care about.

I've read Marcus since 1967, I believe, and I feel I do know him, in a way. Well enough to argue about music with, at least. The best book by Marcus, I think, is Lipstick Traces, when of the rare times where the diffuse nature of his wanderings catches up a subject that is a slippery as his point, the secret history of the 20th century. Linking The Sex Pistols with Guy Debord, Dada, and other instances of spontaneous reaction to the kind of psychic repression good old Frommians harp on is a series of masterstrokes from our author: the deferring of a resolution, the withholding of a thesis, served the book well, in theme and spirit; there is a sense of a dialectic occurring: it doesn't hurt that the writing is inspired.

Less useful are In the Fascist Bathroom, clogged, cryptic, terse bits of incomprehensibility that seems to be an attempt to be more gnomic than Christgau at his most involuted, and Dustbin of History, essays that wander around their subjects of rock, books, the arts, with a commentary that talks around the issues rather than to them. The diffuse style, effective in previous work where there was a strong sense of a cluster of ideas being brought together, here just lets the whole thing dangle like laundry tossed over a bedpost.

The issue of Eminem is about the complete absence of an independent rock and pop commentary in the mainstream media that might have allowed some voices to challenge not just the content of the lyrics, but the entire rationale behind them: Marcus and such, from on high, prefer an indirect course in which to discuss the flow of history, or the reappearance of styles and trends within various cultural matrixes when asked about the sometimes Slim Shady: one rarely comes away with any sense that he thinks someone is any good. Saying yay or nay requires someone to make their case with examples, and it also requires the writer to take a principled stand, one way or the other. Principled stands give us real discussions, from which real understanding arises. The point is about the lack of real criticism of the man's work, and whether the supposed disguise works to any degree one can call artistic. The ass-kissing Eminem has gotten from big media reviewers implicitly states that the Life that's depicted is acceptable because it creates the source of dramatic inspiration. Besides handing Em his head for handing his fans flimsy, dime -store grittiness, critics ought to have the courage to say that the life is just plain wrong, bad, murderous, and to challenge the artist to imagine ways to change the world, not wallow in its ugliness. Critics used to discuss justice as something worth striving for, now it's buck-grabbing assholism that's defended under the stagey business of "detached irony". It's bullshit, and someone as smart as Marcus ought to say so.

Thousands of teens do take this at face value, and they deserve a more diverse, less-lock stepping troupe of critics to read. A critic shouldn't challenge to do better work? This lets musicians with the Million Dollar Bullhorn, whether Eminem, Sting, or Bono, to run their mouths without response. The best critics, regardless of their trade they critique, always take the call the artist to the carpet when less-than-best is offered, and certainly, it's well in their scope to yell bullshit when bullshit stinks up a room. better lyric is part of that equation, inextricable. the issue here isn't Eminem's perceived sins, but rather the over-all pass he's been given by big-media reviewers who offer overheated praise in place of real commentary. Rock criticism used to be critical, as in discussing larger contexts the music exists within. Good critics do this. Good critics would have done more digging in their appraisal of Em's offerings in the marketplace, rather than rely on worn-out auteur theories left over from the heyday of film reviewing. You might insist otherwise, but words inform the music and music drives the text, and both can be discussed, critiqued, analyzed--i.e., subjected to the sort of dissection that real criticism attempts -- with no disservice to the form.

The cynical among us would debunk the assertions of writers like Marcus (or Dave Marsh) who remain hung up on rock and roll symbolism and maintain that a loud guitar is a loud guitar, not a tool of patriarchal oppression. A loud guitar is a political tool of the left or the right. Woody Guthrie's guitar had the motto "This machine kills fascists" scribbled on it, Elvis's guitar was a symbolic revolt against a previous generation's sexuality, Townsend's power chords made dying young before growing old seem like an option one might consider: all these things are political in the broadest sense in as much as the move of rock and roll is to move people into some kind of state that's transforming: you want an audience to understand their world differently than they did before the music started playing. How well artists succeed at this, whatever their expressed intent, makes for valid, intriguing criticism Besides, what constitutes a music's "validity as music" has lot of things within that hazy phrase to discuss, and certainly bringing a light on the success of rendered political stances within the "role-playing" , and considering whether these things actually do anything that works musically is not beyond a critic's job description

Friday, September 28, 2007

A self-righteous snit.

Slate writer Jonah Weiner was all in a dither this week writing about film maker Wes Anderson's emphasis on white people as principle protagonists, and for what he considers the director's patronizing attitude toward nonwhite. He does a crackerjack job of working himself into an rude lather, and comes perilously near to calling Anderson racist in his movies. As evidence he cites Danny Glover's character in The Royal Tennebaums,a black man who was bookish, civil, bumbling, soft spoken and a drab, rumpled dresser, as well as the black shipmate in The Life Aquatic who plays David Bowie tunes on an acoustic guitar and sings them in Portuguese. Weiner strips his threads as he rummages through his old literature books on post-colonial theory and produces a strange, hypervenilating rant. What I sense is a bad case of someone not getting it, or at least not grasping the crisp irony of Anderson's not always successful brand of satire.

Frank Lentricchia, a renowned professor of literature and critic, wrote an article for the late publication Lingua Franca in which he bemoaned the situation of political cant trumping an analysis of what a given novel is actually about. To paraphrase, Lentricchia wrote that while he was lecturing on Don DeLillo's novel White Noise, a student complained that the book was racist. He asked what was racist about DeLillo's book. The student replied that the book was racist because there were no people of color in the narrative. Lentricchia responded by saying that the novel was about white people and the white world in which they lived, but observed that the student was unsatisfied. The inference is that the student was, for the time being, incapable of getting to the heart of DeLillo's satire, and that it would be years, perhaps, before experience chipped away at the certainity that buffers both the heart and the funny bone.

I sympathize with Lentricchia's exasperation over his nay saying student's knee jerk response to the book, and I'd advance Jonah Weiner's Wes Anderson hand -wringing article as another example of someone advancing a mouldy heap of retreaded Saidisms as thoughtful objection. Anderson is obnoxious in many ways, but what he does get right in his films is the peculiar naivete many white people display in their interactions with blacks, Asians and Hispanics, bringing with them a culturally loaded package of assumptions that aren't easily changed.

It's a low key, shoulder slumping satire that he's advancing here, reducing his Caucasian protagonists to a stylized set of minimalist ticks that expose their lack of true worldliness. That he doesn't create non white characters of heroic virtue , slowly and silently suffering the moronic jabs of their white counterparts, is pretty much the point here, and it's to Anderson's credit that he maintains the deadpan style through out his films. There is , as well, something flatly paternal in Weiner's argument, which is marmish and prim in it's lecturing mode, implying that it's immoral for a white man to create nonwhite characters who are just as offbeat, quirky and defying of stereotypes as their white counterparts. It's paternal in the sense that he is demanding that nonwhites maintain their dignity overall, that they never be cast in any sense that can be construed as ridicule. This is slave owner thinking, and that issue is not his to fight. I suspect that Glover appreciated the chance to play a character.

The point is to show up the failings of his white characters as they pursue their various delusions, whether a new claim to fortune or mythical sharks; his films are slide shows, not lectures on race relations. While I think Anderson's work is uneven, certainly, I am relieved that he has no desire to become a latter day Norman Lear.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

James Carter's crisp, serpentine saxophone work

JC on the Set
-- James Carter
w/ Craig Taborn / Jairbu Shahid / Tani Tabbal
Carter has a fat, honking sound on all the saxophones he uses, and this a good thing. He phrases wonderfully, and there is sass and a fast-quipping edge here, particularly in the galvanizing solo he takes on Ellington's "Caravan"; honks, blorts, grunts and street-crossing jabber make you think of a flurry of voices all singing into the same microphone. Ellington had made a name for arrangements that suggested "jungle sounds" ( so called by critics who at the time still couched their praise in racist vernacular) , Carter keeps his notes crisp, sharp as pressed pleat or a knife's edge, nuance and edges of melodic creation and destruction timed with the lights of the Big City, a blues full of the funk of the city. Funk Carter has, as in the fatback workout of the title track. Did I mention that he lays out and reconfigures ballads with a rare artistry?

This he does with the distanced eye of painter views a blank canvas and a palette of fresh paint. It's less important that he captures , after much labor and sweat and the simula-cara of agony, some questionable approximation of inner essences residing in the sweet notes that make up the melody than what he does to create new forms. There's a joyful aspect to Carter's playing that's perfectly contagious when he takes on the slower, more reflective tunes, and here one might guess that his soul is transformation, transcendence, recovering, a full swing of moods that he journeys through in order to regain the light of day. The playing on his exploration is marvelous, bubbling, never tentative.

Carter excels here because he isn't afraid to mess with the material; these slow pieces are less sacred objects than they are sources of inspiration. One thinks that Carter's hand will come out of the bell of his sax and pull your face into it. That's a coarse image image, perhaps, but it's another way of saying that the tone and phrasing are in your face (in the most pleasant way , of course), and is the sprite and fulsome virtuosity that won't let you ignore the grace and occasional genius emerging from the horn. The brunt of this man's playing is full bodied blues and bluster. Nice stuff.

Some Notes On T.S.Eliot On His Birthday.

T.S.Eliot wrote in a time when the Universe seemed to be rent, with heaven and hell bleeding into one another, a career on the heels of two world wars that shattered optimism one may have had for the promise of technology to replace a silent god, is hardly different that the dread that lurks under the covers of the post modern debate over language's ability to address anything material, or have it convey ideas with any certainty. There is simply the fear that the names we give to things we think are important and worth preserving are, after ball, based on nothing. Grim prospects, that, but Eliot, I think, seeks to provoke a reader's investigation into the source of the malaise, the bankruptcy of useful meaning, with a hope that the language is reinvigorated with a power to transform and change the world.
Eliot's response was real art though, and if it did turn into resignation and nostalgia for more-meaningful past times, his articulation at least provokes a response in the reader, and operates as a challenge for them to make sense of his language, and understand the complexity of their own response. This adheres to Pound's modernist ideal that art ought to not just be about the times in which it's made, but that it needs to provoke a response that changes the times: transformation remains the submerged notion.
There is beauty because there is power in the imagery and the emotion behind it and it's powerful because it rings true; a reader recognizes the state of affairs Eliot discusses with his shimmering allusions, and responds to it. The material does not lie, and he certainly isn't being false by saying "this is my response to our time and our deeds". Rather, it's more that one disagrees with Eliot's conclusion, that all is naught, useless, gone to ashes. Better that one inspects the power of the truth that is in the work and develops their own response to their moment. It's less useful to try and argue with someone's real despair. A depressed expression does not constitute lying.
Eliot was not lying in any sense of the word--lying is a willful act, done so with the intent of trying to make someone believe something that is demonstrably untrue. As the point of The Quartets and his plays have to do with an artful outlaying of Eliot's seasoned ambivalence to his time, the suggestion that "beauty lies" is specious. One has license to argue with the conclusions, or to critique the skill of the writer, but the vision here is not faked dystopia Eliot contrived to a good amount of trendy despair--that comes later, with artless confessional poets who lost any sense of beauty to their own addiction to their ultimately trivial self-esteem issues. Eliot, however one views him, sought transcendence of what he regarded as an inanely short-sighted world, and sought to address the human condition in a lyric language that has, indeed, found an audience that continues to argue with his work: the work contains a truth the readership recognizes. Eliot was following suit on the only prerogative an artist, really, has open to them: to be an honest witness to the evidence of their senses, and to marshal every resource in their grasps to articulate the fleeting sensations, the ideas within the experience.
This is the highest standard you can hold an artist to; any other criteria, any other discursive filter one wants to run the work through is secondary, truth be told, because the truth within the work is the source of that work's power. One need to recognize what it is in the lines, in the assemblage and drift of the lyric, in the contrasted tones and delicate construction of vernaculars, what is that one recognizes and responds to in the work, and then mount their response.
There is more to the Four Quartets or the plays than what assume is an admission of defeat in the hard glare of uncompromising , godless materialism--there is hope that his work inspires future imagining greater than even his own-- but I cannot regard the poems as failures in any sense, even with the admission that there is great beauty in them. Eliot renders his consciousness, his contradictory and ambivalent response to the world he's grown old in with perfect pitch, and it's my sense that his intention to provoke the imagination is a sublime accomplishment. As craft and agenda, the later pieces work.
What does Eliot's despair have to do with postmodern writers and writing? It's less about what one can call his "despair" than what his operating premise has in common with the post modern aesthetic: Eliot, the Modernist poet extraordinaire, perceives the world the universe has having any sort of definable center, any unifying moral force formally knowable by faith and good works. There is despair in the works, behind the lines--one responds to them emotionally and intellectually--and the power behind the images, the shimmering surfaces the diminished, de-concretized narrator feels estranged from, comes from a felt presence, a real personality. Eliot, though, turns the despair into a series of ideas, and makes the poetry an argument with the presence day. There is pervasive sense of everything being utterly strange in the streets, bridges over rivers, strangeness at the beach, and we, it sounds, a heightened sense of voices, media, bombs, headlines competing for the attention of someone who realizes that they're no longer a citizen in a culture where connection to a core set of meanings, codes and authority offers them a security, but are instead consumers, buyers, economic in a corrupt system that only exploits and denudes nature, culture, god.

Eliot conveys the sense of disconnection rather brilliantly, reflecting the influence of an early cinematic editing styles: Eliot is a modernist by his association with the period, though at heart he was very much a Christian romantic seeking to find again some of the scripture’s surety to ease his passage through the world of man and his material things. There has always been this yearning for a redemption of purpose in the vaporous sphere, and much of his work, especially in criticism, argued that the metaphysical aspect could be re-established, recreated, re-imagined (the operative word) through the discipline of artistic craft. Modernists, ultimately, shared many of the same views of postmodernism with regards of the world being a clashing, noisy mess of competing, unlinked signifiers, but post modernism has given up the fight of trying to place meaning in the world, and also the idea that the world can be changed for the better. Modernists, as I take them in their shared practice and aesthetic proclamations, are all romantics, though their angle and color of their stripes may vary. Romanticism, in fact, is an early kind of modernism: the short of it is that there is a final faith in the individual to design of the world, and in turn change its shape by use of his imagination
Eliot's turn to religious quietism isn't so surprising, given the lack of self-effacing wit in his writing that might have lessened the burden of his self-created dread of the modern world: a tenet of modernism, shared by any writer worthy of being called so, is that their work was to help the readers, the viewers, the audience, perceive the world afresh, from new perspectives, in new arrangements, to somehow help get to the "real" order of things behind their appearances, and, understanding, change the world again. Temperaments among poets varied as to how they personally responded to their need to live aesthetically--and in all cases, living aesthetically was a viable substitute for a religious rigor--Stevens chose his Supreme Fiction while being an insurance executive, Pond toyed with fascism and economics, Joyce opted for a life in the eroticized parlors of France and Britain, Williams found connection through his medical practice and biology, related, absolutely with his poetry. Over all, what keenly separates the modernist engagement with meaning creation was that it was the things of this world, this plain, this material reality, that were the things that would help us transform individual perception; the thing itself is its own adequate symbol. A nod to Husserl and phenomenology, the meaning of things in the world, as things, was mysterious indeed, but their form didn't come from the mind of a God who, at best, was an absent landlord. Eliot, though, sought religion, and I don't see that as a failure at all: the work is too powerful to be regarded as either a personal failure, if that's a claim one might, nor as a poet. Eliot, as you say, is a poet of ideas, among other things, but ideas are useless in a poem unless they're seamlessly linked with an emotion, an impulse, and it's possible, I think, to see where the work was going: the kind of world Eliot described, with the kind of intelligence and personality that described it, was a bleak and unlivable sphere, requiring a decision, to commit to something that supplies meaning, fits the personality that needs direction. I don't regard Eliot as artifact at all: I've commented previously on how the work still inspires readers to engage the world in new ways: he is a permanent influence on my work as a poet.

The early modernists rejected the romantic label--for a variety of reasons.  I'm sure they had good reasons, but Modernism, in many respects, is an old project with a new label. Can  we really place Joyce and the Futurists and Eliot and Pound and Yeats and Gertrude Stein, Hemingway and Fitzgerald in the same box?  Yes, but it is less of a box and more of a tent; there is a lot more room t

Monday, September 24, 2007

Trio Fascination

The cd Trio Fascination by Joe Lovano is playing, and it's almost enough to make you think that the morning will yield a good day after all. Foolishness, because it's the only 8:30AM, and nothing says denial like someone typing rapidly as if they're trying to keep the psychic tax collector a least three paces behind him. Mornings are the best time for writing because the mind is sufficiently empty of presumptions, leaving one free to pursue strange ideas and expressions without having to parry with the dual vanities that one might be right or wrong in the attempt to say something new. But back to Lovano, whose command of tone and vocal simulacra on his saxophone makes you think that there are conversations about good and graceful matters among the birds in the trees. He never wanders far from the blues, does not get strident for the sake of some spurious avant gard credentials; it's the playing that matters, it's the playing and the steady, perfect stream of ideas that remain with you when the session is over. Dave Holland and Elvin Jones firm up this pianoless trio, with Jones, in particular, laying out an unreal orchestration of rhythms, beats, and quirky articulated pulses; he sustains a dialogue of percussion across his dread heads and cymbals, and offers a swift and swirling set of waves for the superlative Holland to ride with his bass work, carrying Lovano to the further reaches of melody. Lovano jabs, darts, smears and mashes his lines in peculiar and angular phrases over the swing of the up-tempo numbers, and comes off as subtle, supple colorist on the ballads. This is one intricate weave of improvisation, scratchy and abrasive that lightly touches on the edge of dissonance; something about Lovano's indirect approach to a melodic inversion reminds me of the full scale stretches of spontaneous composition by Wayne Shorter in the years he succeeded John Coltrane in the Miles Davis Quartet, in that he wasn't one to fill a solo with the exhaustion of every scale and key one was capable of. Shorter used space and silences, building his solos with a majesty that made them seem composed beforehand. Lovano, a shade less verbose than Shorter, shapes, and molds his flights as well, entering a solo stretch from every vantage except straight on. This is the sound of surprise.

Friday, September 21, 2007

A beaut of poem by Paul Guest

Paul Guest has a new poetry collection that’s been recently released, Notes for My Body Double<, from which someone on an online poetry forum posted this poem. It’s a beaut:

by Paul Guest
Between Buck Owens and Vivaldi what’s left
to listen to but the stars, so I do, dialing
the radio down to indeterminate static,
what I always thought was absence, an aria
of sizzling nothingness. Instead
it’s the Milky Way radiating arrhythmia
all the way back. It’s gossip
of the vacuum. That nothing has never been
truly nothing is why I believe,
even still, in love. Beside two rivers
I have lived nearly all my life
and these beneath one sky
muttering its endless alphabet of sine waves.
Jupiter with its flock of moons
and the stone from which we hope
to squeeze one drop of water,
red Mars pulsing in the blank field of night—
I’ve wanted to leave Earth
behind, gravity’s orphan at last,
but not Earth with its two good seasons and two bad
and not its angel-winged clams
luminous in the mud bed of a river
so distant from me
I can’t remember where
that water is, except that I’ve dreamed it,
except that in it I sank
all the way down.

A wonderful choice here. Our old friend Paul Guest writes in a way wherein he manages to be a poet without obviously luxuriating in the vanity of being a poet. "Nothing" is like an inspired discourse from a friend who is moved to share what's been maturing in their thoughts for awhile; the phrases, the rhythm of the strophes, the analogies, the direct and indirect digressions are seamless. In these instances one is wise to be quiet and witness an uncommon verbal dexterity. This is a bright and wonderful weave of wonderment.

He does so by letting on an incident a young boy might do, recently informed of and intrigued by that radio signals carry out into space. Searching for life beyond our understanding on the radio dial is a marvelous idea, and Guest does well with careful word choice, sharp , precise phrasing; how he manages to avoid klutzy , pretentious language and still have this poem resound on several levels of implication is evidence of a man who understands that free-verse needs to be crafted no less than metered verse. That he does this without straining for effect, as in the now-formula ironies of Billy Collins just makes me smile.

You know all about Coleridge's notion of the "suspension of disbelief", of course, and his idea that the poet seeks a "dramatic truth", a poetic insight, quite apart from material fact. The issue isn't whether Paul Guest ignores the limits of an undetermined plausibility factor but rather he exceeds a reader's expectations as he does so.

I think he does so splendidly, and a key element of his success has been his avoidance of High Literary Rhetoric. The particular issues he leaves to the the specialists to wonder about; the Saganites and the Bergsonians can worry among themselves as to the limits of space or the capacity of the imagination to make connections beyond what's materially verifiable. This poem is evidence of what poet's don't do well often enough, musing. There isn't a phony word or emotion anywhere that I can detect. Paul Guest has managed to disarm most of us of our objections with his skill and boarded us onto this imaginative stream of associations.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

On the Road: A trip through America Unscathed by Thought

On the Road is a book one ought to read , I think, in order to know something of a part of a generation responded to the post- WWll experience, and with any luck one does not stop there, thinking they've read the definitive book of the time. Other Beat writings are more crucial, especially Howl by Allen Ginsberg, one of the great American poems of the 20th century; in line, rhythm, imagery, and the contrasting and clashing elements of rage, despair and eureka! quality laughs, Ginsberg's poem supersedes the best of Kerouac's prose and and is a fully convincing evocation of the deadened conformity of 50s culture that agitated and motivated he and his fellow writers Kerouac had some intuitive notion of spontaneous community when it came to he and his friends bumming around the roads in a variety of heisted cars, trying to live on the kind of wits that fire up only in the face of near disaster. It's the community of the foxhole, a world with a bond that's intimate, understood instantly, without words, a bond that's held onto due to the members' sense that their lives depend on it. Lives do depend on the bond, in literal foxholes, but this mindset was something Paradise and his boys carried around with them, wherever they went, a thinking that innoculated the travelers from whatever elements, textures, values the local scene might have on them.

They were always passing through, resisting change, impulsively impervious to nuance, being themselves wherever on the map they stopped for a period; these were the same personalities in Denver that started in New York, and fairly much the same assortment of tics and tells by novel's end. On the Road might be considered the first post modern novel, in that America is seen as merely stops along the way, with the final destination being the edge of the earth the characters seemed to be looking for, that blankness beyond the road signs and small town bars where the silence and serenity they sought can absorb them and quiet the chattering noise in there heads. It is post modern in the sense that for whatever adventures these guys have, no seems touched by anything except the brief satisfaction of their own drunkeness, rant or sexual release; nothing effects them, nothing changes them, they are , like all unhinged signifiers, unmoved.

It did turn into a worthwhile project for later writers to examine the surface presentation of American culture and reveal it in conflict with the collective desire for a metaphysics of presence, but Kerouac only gives a brief hint to the uglier and more comic possibilities of the terrain he happened upon.His short fall was in making Sal Paradise such a flitty motormouth, a man who notices everything about him and yet cannot describe what he notes in memorable language. This is a book about a man trying to outrun himself.

Since writers are in the habit of making up stories as a matter of habit and profession, each of them, not just the beats, "faked" everything. That shouldn't be surprising from a class of folks we look to for tales, fables, metaphors and such that we might use , in some loose way, in making our own lives fit our skins better. The question is how well ,uhhhh, how artful one is in manipulating language towards the creation of fiction or a poetry where the world as its spoken resounds with suggestion and portents of secret knowledge. Some Beat writers I like, and consider brilliant, like William S. Burroughs. He was the one stone-cold genius in the bunch, was the most interesting and successful destroyer and re-creator of literary form, and maintained what Mailer called a "gallows humor" that allowed him to explore the gamier side of human personality without mythologizing the journey. Ginsberg's early poems , as well, were filled with the bulls-eye hitting jeremiads that were such an exact fit for the condition he described that it still comes off as a fresh and blistering criticism of a culture that seems interested in no more than conformity. Fakery is what one expects and demands from creative writers. Beat enthusiasts might blanch at the notion, but comes down to the skill of the writer to get away with the imaginative tall tales he's putting forth. It's about how well controls their technique in the construction of the lie we might want to invest in for a period.

Thank God for NetFlix

It's a grand service, giving us a way to catch up with movies we missed in the theatres over the last four or so years without having to pay the ten dollar ticket price; a good movie is a fantastic bargain, and the experience of seeing as less good one stings less for the price we paid to see it. A report:

A bore, a protracted, gutless, unpaced bore filled with indifferent performances and a rote Ali impersonation by Will Smith that pales next to the rhyme-popping accuracy of Billy Crystal's version. I'm a Michael Mann fan, and have been a defender of his maligned masterpiece Heat, but this project misfires on all cylinders. The swelling rhythm and blues tunes as scenes go into slow motion, the powder-puff confrontation of Ali's marital transgressions, the ceaselessly mobile camera work that attempts to create a cinema verite urgency but results in making you want to close your eyes and go to sleep.
Black Hawk Down is a bad film by a good director, Ridley Scott does his best work when there is something of compelling literary interest here, i.e., characters that are written, not merely depicted as they are in Black Hawk. The Duelist, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, among his best work, achieve a suspended disbelief credibility in as much as image comes to match idea, and directing hand seems to catch some of the musicality of conflict and buried desire that gives off a sense of some larger insanity of desire that is hidden. Black Hawk is a routine war-is-hell yawner that cannot rise above its status as movie-of-the-week fodder. Scott is a fine stylist if he has the literary substance to make his approach more than just gestures and window dressing, as it is here.

The moral drift of this thing is disturbing, and the feeble little declaration toward the end that the Marine's motivation in a rudderless, under-determined mission is being there for the other guys, your buddies, does not raise the level.
I suspect Scott would do stronger, more compelling work if he were adapting a war story that had an implicit argument within it , or at least a consistent point of view that would make the visual displays fire up more than mere weirdness. It's intriguing to think what he would have done with Heart of Darkness had Copolla not beat him to it. There remain Michael Herr's brilliant Dispatches, a vivid gonzo journalism read on the Viet Nam war. Viet Nam, though, is pretty much tapped out as a film subject matter.

The camera lingers too often in Black Hawk Down, lapsing into slow motion while presumably native music blasts over the speakers, the lens frozen as though dumbfounded, an acid head who discovers his face in the mirror. it's a bad film that lacks the guts of these idealized Marines convictions. Had Ridley Scott given us something that suits the military culture BHD (the film) pretends to celebrate, something even on the level of John Wayne, we'd have a film with a narrative reason to exist.

Scott, though, is a director of strange moods and articulate passion, and his diffidence here is betrayed by unmotivated characterizations --stereotypes , really, card board cut outs --and his frequent lapses’ into fluttering slow motion , accompanied by booming music, with piercing vocals. He loves exotica, and sometimes it works, but not here, when a straight up comprehension of military ethos and genre expectations would have worked much better than this distracted, protracted performance. Walter Hill or James Cameron would have served the material better.
Saw Hart's War on a free afternoon, and it seemed that the movie could be shown in film schools as a handy guide to POW film clichés. The storylines are all transparent and grating by their mere presence, and the obviousness of how this movie is being navigated makes you think you’re being played for a fool who'd never seen this kind of thing before.

The black aviator on trial, of course, demonstrates the fullest meaning of honor and duty, the untested junior officer , of course, stands on principle of fairness, the senior US officer, of course, is a hard bitten professional soldier for whom The Mission comes first, the German Commandant is, of course, so ironic, distant, melancholic in the dispatch of his duties.

You choke on these archetypes, you groan at sequences that might have been culled from a decent genre-filler released forty years previous: I'm thinking of the whole bread/football sequence, wherein the Willis character tosses the loaf over to the Russian side of the camp after one of his men had been wounded by a German guard. The intent is to demonstrate the solidarity between an officer and the enlisted men in the face of awful consequences, but it's rather pat, pretentious, and predictable.

The performances are mechanical as well. No one is especially good here, and Willis in particular fashions that trade marked inexplicable smirk so much that you wish some one would punch him and then demand what's so damned funny.
Saw Changing Lanes over the weekend, and thought it was a decent enough Hollywood "message" film, though it had the dopiest premise imaginable. It's not that I object to happy endings -- in this case, each of the characters played by Sam Jackson and Ben Affleck realize the exact nature of their wrongs and wind up doing the right thing by the world and themselves -- it's that I want the fictional solutions to seem fictionally plausible. The concentration of the events into one day snaps credulity, and while you're wondering whether this is an alternative universe where there are 76 hours to a day, the film drags way too much in key areas. Jackson and Affleck are both quite good here, but in the crush of the events that are eating our protagonists up, there is too much reflection, too much self examination, too much fortuitous circumstance for the characters to redeem themselves. Irony is fine, but Affleck's pragmatic do-gooding at the end is too much of stretch, theatrical without being dramatic. Like the film as a whole.
Insomnia is terrific. Chris Nolan, director, has a crucial knack for getting at the character at the margins of his wits, the fractured personality who is just barely able to keep his psychic equilibrium and move forward. He did this brilliantly in Memento, expertly telling the story through jagged shards of memory that constantly reformed a narrative structure and tortured our assumptions, until there was only a complexity that was a true and achieved irony, and he does the same here with Pacino's character Dormer, the insomniac detective who is wrestling with a hideous issue of professional ethics. Suffice to say, Dormer's ability to squelch the recent events of his life, his ability to keep them out of mind, decays as sleeplessness makes his hard-boiled demeanor sufficiently crack. Nolan, wisely, thankfully, does not tell the story in the same indie-video-film school fashion that he masterfully parlayed into the riveting Memento (even he must have sensed that it was a grand sleight of hand of a device that he could sell once to an audience). Rather, he luxuriates in the Alaskan scenery, capturing the sheer rugged and brutal beauty with a big lens, composing his shots as the characters seem like tawdry and desperate creatures scrambling across the terrain with their petty intrigues while the vastness of the North suggests something greater, more lasting.

Pacino gives a splendid performance, nuanced, not chewing up the scenery nor raising his voice arbitrarily as can be his habit; he has the saddest eyes of any American screen actor, and the lines of his face are a road map of every hard and compromised choice his character has had to make. Robin Williams is fine as well, a credible foil to Pacino as the smug, smarty pants mystery writer who relishes the chance to hoist Dormer by his own slack ethical petard.

Smart script, with a number of reversals that are credible and smartly played. The pacing is remindful of Clint Eastwood in his best moments as a director. The story is allowed to develop over days, weeks. The build in the tension comes as a relief.
The Sum of All Fears was glacial, painfully slow. The film, like the novel, is a traffic jam of details and simultaneous storylines that really have no demonstrated emphasis: what they build up to, the nuclear blast that takes out a major chunk of Baltimore, comes neither as shocking nor as relief against the previous tedium. It just makes the film noisier, longer, more self-important in its post 9/11 message that the US and Russia need to become policing partners to guard against lurking terrorists. This snail paced techno thriller removes two hours plus from your life for which no refund is possible.Ben Affleck, as usual, is annoying, and for me it came while watching this wretched drama: he looks like Adam Sandler's brother.

Saw Road to Perdition and witnessed what turned out to be a significant disappointment. Director Sam Mendes seems to have spent an inordinate amount of time, energy and resources mounting the film and not enough time directing it. It has a an interesting look, particularly with its' near monochromatic hues and lighting that suggests the eye of a Dutch master, but this wears thin quickly as the plot and characterization fails to develop at either a credible pace or with interesting results. There is nothing especially awful here, just stuff that is predictable, an offense made worse by sheer lethargy. Hanks does little more than grimace, Paul Newman, performing well in the first part of the film, has little to do afterwards except sit and stare into his lap with an old man's regret. Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Jason Leigh may as well be furniture here. Not the best crime drama since "Godfather".

Missing, of course, is the script that made the difference with Mendes’s' previous effort, "American Beauty". The plot here is adequate, I suppose, for the purposes of the graphic novel it's adapted from, but on screen, as is, the storyline is little more than a thin, cracking mortar between the cut stones of a huge mansion, ornate and impressive at first view, but revealing a crumbling structure the closer one gets into it.
The Quiet American is very good, nearly perfect so far as a film that tries to communicate and convey a sense of intellectually subtle points; it achieves an elegant efficiency the Green novel had. What is pleasing is the proportion of the elements-- the "love triangle" (for want of a better phrase), the early stages of the Viet Nam war, the Vietnamese point of view-- all these are a graceful weave. It is sufficiently anti-imperialist in its base message, yet hangs on the ambivalence that nearly crucifies the lead character. Philip Noyes shows a steady, unhurried hand directing this work, a nice recovery from the previously noisy projects he busied himself with, and Michael Caine is believably perplexed by the fact of his crumbling comfort. Brendan Fraser does a surprisingly good job.

Daredevil, as it's been remarked earlier, is simply awful, and reveals in live action why the comic book never clicked for me; it's a weaker, thinner, more desperately edgy version of Batman. Relentlessly cruel, down turned, ugly in all its emotions. The problem is that this slice of costumed fantasy lacks conviction. This is simply a template that's been fleshed out until a better idea comes along.

Lord of War

I saw the film last night and found it to be pretentious and shallow, preachy in very obvious ways, with a "surprise" ending that was telegraphed from several city blocks away. The bits of dialogue between Orloff and his pursuer (portrayed by Ethan Hawke) about the relative merits of each other's chosen roles in life was half-baked and unfelt, lacking any real conviction in or twist upon middle brow clichés. The movie attempts in several ways to be a morality play, oozing with irony, but the pitch here is so determinedly at the bottom end of apprehensible emotional range that it's nearly flat lined. No one seemed to know how to direct the actors with a cheaply sanctimonious script, and the actors themselves appear to lack interest to do any free lance scene chewing.

Paddy Chayefsky, prolix screenwriter behind Network and Hospital, set an as yet unsurpassed standard on making socially-conscious movies that want to force the audience to dwell a little on the invisible undertakings involved in keeping them safe and secure. It comes down to a frank exchange of clichés and alarmist platitudes, but Chayefsky had a genius for infusing them with new phrases, coinages, and could contrive a flaming morass of cynicism that was particularly compelling despite what depth he failed to achieve. The movies were quoted, the issues made the op- ed pages and the chat around the coffee maker.

Lord of War lacks all that, and depends on a slick video-game surface while Nicolas Cage's sad puppy dog eyes gaze upon his gunning character's fatal transactions with a detachment that is supposed to make us think of a man straddling both heaven and hell, pondering which is worse. It doesn't work, though, and it's really another excuse for another movie gallery of Cage's set-mannerisms. At least he wasn't pretending to be Elvis this time out.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Metaphysics of a Language Buzz: notes on neutralized irony

The right isn't afraid to name, nor to advance their cause. There is a living embodiment of political will behind their description the current situation, and it would be Post Modern Tragedy that we've theorized ourselves into submission. The American Left certainly wasn't afraid of offending political sensibilities while there was a Viet Nam war through which the ultimately unprovability of historical determinism could be obscured by a conflict whose obscenity over rode local matters. But with the end of the war, the left here abouts receded to theory, unwilling, I think , to realize something fundamentally decent about Americans and their sense of fairness to the right cause, and it seemed to matter little to the intellectual elite to deal with practical matters of policy , county, state and federal.

The left, in general, became generalized in theory and law, and reduced everything to an eviscerated discourse of euphemistic speech that was not allowed to defile a sense of neutrality: things ceased to have names, only vague descriptions , and in this atmosphere any talk about identifying problems about what sickens the Nation became impossible . Rather than action to change social relations, real practice, a fight for change was reduced to a ideologically perplexed course in etiquette, the practice of which made humans confront each other in ways that were nervous, nervous, ultimately insane.

Gramsci wound up in prison, but he didn't write manuals for non-offensive language in the work place: he never lost his belief that theory needed to stop somewhere, that abstruse descriptions had to halt at the right juncture and some remedy, based on sane analysis, had to be effected. One's knowledge of what produces alienation and states where exploitation is possible needed to be matched with solutions.

"Guts" comes to mind, courage, old fashioned and romantic virtues , but still ways to talk about the world, the city where we might live, and within in, a way to imagine and realize the ways to make it maybe make it more workable than it was then when we entered into it, knowing only hunger and the feeling of cold earth. This is ultimately about discourse: discourse needs to go somewhere, though, needs to have results, because it is about trying to figure what ways there are that we may engage each other in ways that are honest and mutually satisfying, whatever market system you think this goal is possible under. The exact problem with postmodern theory, the intellectual and not the aesthetic texts, is that it's turned into a self-concious wallow (often disguised under the rubric of being "self-reflective") that brandishes the idea that an awareness of it's own social construction somehow advances bold, better human freedom. What it does is make the nominal partisans of just causes weak and immobile, ready to have their own conventional wisdom used against them, as they were during The Miami Chad Trials, by a foe that's true to its own cause enough to use any weapon it can lay its hands on in order to make the world theirs and sterile under one Totalizing God, who, I suspect, isn't likely to have much truck with language theory.

Myths, as well anyone can describe them, are working elements of our personal and social psychology, and whose elements are "modernized"-- better to say updated -- as a matter of course. Declaring a goal to make them relevant to the slippery degree of modernist convention sounds is an insight best suited for a Sunday book review. Jung and Campbell are ahead on that score, and Eliade certainly stresses the relevance of mythic iconography strongly enough: current gasbag extraordinaire Harold Bloom advances the case for mythic narrative ,-- borrowed in part from Northrop Frye (my guess anyway) -- in the guise of literature, constructs the psychic architecture that composes our interior life, individually and as member of a greater set of links: the stuff helps us think ourselves, personalities with an unsettled and unfastened need for a center aware of its adventures in a what comes to be , finally, an unpredictable universe.

Bloom somberly argues that Shakespeare is the fount from which mythic forms find a contemporary set of metaphors that in turn became the basis for our modern notion of dramatic conflict, and argues that Freud's genius lies not in his scientific discoveries, but for the creation of another complex of metaphors that rival Shakespeare's for dealing with the mind's nuanced and problematized assimilation of experience, the anxiety of influence in action, as process, and not an intellectually determined goal to navigate toward. The point is that modernization of myth is something that is that is already being done, a continuous activity.
Structuralism gave credibility to the notion that meaning can be found in the world through language: there is a sense of finality in the thinking , as their project was to create an anthropology that found the submerged structures of culture and language, and in doing so, discover a skeleton key for what our existence means and does. Post-structuralism, gateway to the loose cluster of tendencies and styles called "post modernism", sees the confering of meaning as arbitrary, and links itself rather direly with the school that advances us as instinct driven creatures, laboring under the comfy mysticism of Free Will.

Richard Rorty, in "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity" defines an "ironist" as someone who realizes "that anything can be made to look good or bad by being re-described" .Are postmodern writers this kind of "ironist"? No more, it would seem , than any other writer scribing under the modernist tenet of "making it new", or to another extreme, 'defamiliarizing" (from Bahktin) recognizable settings , characters and schemes in a language that's meant to provoke readers to see their world in new ways. This is a modernist habit that the new, cubist, cut-up, stream-of-conscious takes on the world will sweep away past aesthetic interpretative models and lead one to a the correct formation of the world-- there remains a faith that language and other senses can apprehend and describe a tangible , material world and capture its complex composition, a "metaphysics of presence" that art can unearth. Irony, in this sense, is usually contained within the story, a result of several kinds of narrative operations coming to a crucial moment of ironic intensity that then drives the story into directions one , with hope, didn't anticipate. Post modern writers start off with the intent of being post modern from the start, and rather than have their inventions gear us for a challenge to see the world in a truer light (contrasted against previous schools of lovely language but false conclusions), the project is to debunk the idea of narrative style all together. Irony is intended to demonstrate some flaws in character's assumptions about the world, a description of the world that emerges contrarily after we've been introduced to the zeitgeist of the fictionalized terrain. Post modern writers are ironists of a different sort, decidedly more acidic and cynical about whether narrative in any form can hone our instincts.

A break from my policy of not posting my own poems here.

What can say other than I like this one? I run myself at such a volume about the work of others that it's probably time to let others take a shot at my free verse chops. All the same, I hope you find something to like. Tomorrow, more dissonance.-tb

Can't buy me love
We think like you think
but we have the goods

and all you have is cash or credit
that does you no good

if we weren't on every corner
you drive by, leering like sirens

with signs for hardware, malt liquor
and Japanese cars that smirk

while you drift into a stupor
of brand names,

your son says daddy, please, we need a new TV,
your wife exclaims that the furniture seems

old, like your shirts, which are grey
and full of holes you dislike

but know the history of each tear in
the fabric and frayed thread in the collar,

Sweetie, give me a dollar
and pull over here

'cause I need a beer and a paper
to see where these sales will take us

when I get
wind of them,

all your money gets you things
and the middle of the week

resembles less a day to get through
than it is a hole to crawl out of ,

speaking of which,
you look like you need a ladder

to climb up from or up to
where ever it is you'd like to go,

see our ad in the Penny Saver,
clip our add from your mailbox,

cash, credit card, local checks
w/ street address and current phone,

and a photo ID showing you scowling
in cruel institutional light

where everyone looks like
they're going to jail ,

you're family will love you,
returns thirty days after purchase w/store receipt,

we love you too,
but easy there,

it's nothing personal,
it's only business.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Mary Baine Campbell's poem

A poem by Mary Baine Campbell , posted three years ago by Slate's poetry Robert Pinsky ,has elicited some vigorous responses, with my words mingling with the various choruses. Pinsky has a preference for the less obvious poems, offering instead pieces that cause no end of head scratching. Half the time I think the selections are self-indulgent gruel that are a subspecies of fraud, and the other half I defend said selections because they hit me as a unique view of a situation, an interesting vision, let us say, wedded with a style that matches the ambition and quirky desire of the writer to say something different about experience. Campbell's poem is that rarest of things I come across, a poem I am curiously ambivalent about.

This seems to be another soul who cannot get out of Plato's Cave, except that this nameless one must have done especially offensive to warrant being gripped in a vise rather than merely chained to the wall of the cavern. But it seems the same old punishments, the same tortures and teases, all those fleeting signifiers in front of him (or her), forcing all the senses onto to one set of appearances (and appearances only) so that they have to construct an idea of the world outside the cave, free of the vise, a faith, so to speak, that this vise that holds the head is exactly where it should be, doing what it must do to whom it is doing it in the framework of an infinitely larger universe , multiverse, omniverse, what have you, that is unseen.

Or it might be something else entirely, such as description of being dead, with the world burning and eroding and washing away with the monsoon as described. This may well be a poem of a great journey that starts at death and ends when a soul has reached the other side, a particular culture's conception of an afterlife. The wind , from which the head cannot shield itself from, blows over the face and whisks along whatever has turned to dust back into the unmade earth. To be honest, I haven't the foggiest what Campbell is getting at here, other than to describe the quality of being dust in the wind, but this is plainly too obscure and mannered for me to even care. It used to be that I thought it was cool to be mysterious and cool and utterly and completely baffling with my writing, but hey, I was fifteen at the time and reading too much Dylan and Jim Morrison and the cursed share of Kerouac, and it took me years to learn to stop being abstruse by design and instead become interesting by intent. That might have happened when I finally got something to write about, some comprehensible subject matter , which I managed to link up with a credible language, a combination that created whatever mystery I sought. The abstract quality is a result of writing well about something, not writing syntactically challenged pieces in a mistaken notion of what cubist writing might sound and read like.

Campbell's poem is well structured, the language clean, spare, exacting to the the objects and their qualities, but this is just too much to put together beyond saying that it seems to be out funerals, death, and the perspective of the deceased once they've left this life, observant yet powerless to intervene in the affairs of the living .There is that odd mix of regret and acceptance that mingles in the images. There's a feeling of loss that pervades the stanzas, and a feeling of powerlessness that there is nothing one can do with what is slipping from their grasp, whether youth or life itself.

There exists here a tangible feeling that the narrator is in some fixed place of observation, taking it all in, motionless and unable to speak or intercede on behalf of the world; I took this too mean that the speaker had died and was in some astral place , perhaps from a cloud, maybe from a closet as a ghost as yet unseen, because the imagery Campbell have a museum quality, implying gold ornamentation, fruits, things one employs in funeral preparations from an unspecified culture and time.

I'd read Norman Mailer's quizzical and enthralling Egyptian novel Ancient Evenings which deals quite a bit with the cult of the dead, reincarnation, and has a good amount of description of funeral preparation, all of which this poem brought to mind. But I do see the other side, the observations of one getting older who is so much wiser and suffers the eventual regrets of bad decisions, missed opportunities, consequential expressions of arrogance and pride that cannot be undone, and how all this comes to the eventual acceptance that everything in our view is somehow as it must be in the larger pattern we can only faintly imagine.

I don't want to say that this is a bad poem, since I keep re-reading it to puzzle it out a bit more. Unless it's from the pen of the insanely over rated and over cited--Kerouac, Neruda, Bukowski, insert you own pet peeve here-- a bad poem does not stay long in my thinking, and it is the easiest thing to pass on, like beer. Life is too short to deal with wooden, cryptic, stick-in-the mud language. Campbell's work has it's attractions, and I would say her minimalism succeeds to the degree that The Vise gets more than one going over. Death, though, seems to be the operative idea here--as you say, and to paraphrase crudely, life may be good and pleasantly cushioned for our narrator, but there is a defeated tone to the words, a sense that one's comfort is also one's manacle around the neck. Maybe it's the sense of defeat that puts me off about this--I am of the notion that one shouldn't require anything of a poet other than to be interesting and their work to be nothing other than good, ie, worth reading--but the lack of rage here is vaguely troubling:

It is not
That the world is unkind.
Kind hands once touched
My lips and eyes
To say whatever such
Touches say.

And every day
A spoon, laden
With softer gold
Of honey
Forces me

I would want more of a rage against the stasis, the sterility of the apparent perfection of this flesh and blood life; I would read the above lines as being something of a junkie's reverie as he nods into whatever oblivion he seeks through the needle and the spoon. Every care and dread is dissolved as a slowly corrosive bliss over takes the body and the spirit that attends to it. But this may be exactly what Campbell sought to get across in her tightly sealed stanzas, that being alive is filled with it's own kind of death, our material and mental blockades to the world, save for a noise, a chime of a phone, a flash of light in the sky at dusk that reminds us of the churnings outside the body and its republics of dulled sensation:

From all directions
Lightning tells us
What is lost
Or burnt
In the collapsing

The nod produces its own ceremonial Edens from which the glance of old archetypes, readings from the nursery or a junior college text book are conflated in a shifting illusion that replaces the substance of one's history, objectified into notions of the weather taking a personal care
of the layabout's bedding:

Tonight, a monsoon.
The diamond-fall of rain
Bruises my face
Washes honey
From it, and
All else.

This is all that can be seen, that can be comprehended through the suggested splendor or comfort the narrator cryptically speaks from, and so the poem may be ironic in that we have veiled comments emanating from what are already a veiled , not the least blinded sense of reality, and what is maddening for me is the acceptance that the speaker suggests as to what their situation is, hazy as it is. Although there is a chance that Campbell intended our subject to be alive as they recited their spare vistas, it suggests ritualized death all the same, a ceremony of surrender:

But in the vise
I can still stare --
Through brilliant
Obliterations of storm --
At what is
Still there.
Well and good, I suppose, but a bit too fatalistic for me. Fatalistic and vague. A less than perfect combination.

Fat Chance for Britney Spears

Britney Spears' performance at the most recent MTV Video Awards was, by consensus, an unmitigated disaster; she appears to have gone on to the stage the way George W.Bush went into Irag, ie, unprepared, unrepentent and delusional in the thinking that he/she had the slimmest idea of what they were doing. She was bad, of course,but the worst sin for some the numbskull gossiptistas was that was fat, a real pig, trailer trash smoking Kools by the BBQ. Well, c'mon now, let's dial it down.She wasn't fat, but she is not in the shape she needs to be in to pull off the kind of act she attempted to. Madonna, foundational diva from whom Spears and others learned their trade in sexpot kitsch, maintained herself even in her long periods off the road. Think of it what you will, but she had the body to justify the occasionally scarce clothing.

It's also worth noting Madonna continually changed her musical and visual style; even as she got older in a market that's unkind to middle aged women pop stars, she kept people interested in what she was up to. I don't especially like her work(too much surface, too little worrisome things that might make it all the more interesting), but I do respect her work ethic and the energy spent to keep matters interesting. Britney's basic mistake was to try to go with an act she had nearly a half decade ago, when she was buffed, just out of her teens, and could pull off the sleaze factor, at least up to the standard such cheesy entertainment requires.

She is not fat at all, but she is soft, sexy for a new mom, but not sexy as every male teen horndog's pin up girl. It was sad to witness, and I felt embarrassed for her. And she was wobbly, with more than her attention distracted. There's an unhealthy trend in celebrity bashing currently, with remarks aimed toward Spears by allegedly reputable media sources being mean, just plain mean. But the poor woman's showing up to a comeback gig in the shape she was didn't help her cause.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


It seems the memorials were substantially muted this year than they've been in the recent past.And where before one anticipated and dreaded the anniversary of the attack, more than a few people I ran into yesterday didn't realize the significance until it came up in passing conversation or from a glimpse of a newscast or a newsstand headline.

I suspect my anecdotal evidence is a clue to millions nationwide who started their day as if it were merely one like the day before, twenty four hours to be productive, decent, responsible, or to be miserable sons of bitches; it wouldn't have occurred to any of us to stop what it was we were doing as family members and economic citizens and just watch the streaming cablecasts of parroted opinions , or to hold a candle for hours or drive with the headlights on in a vain and empty gesture of solidarity with fellow Americans and the souls of those who were killed.

There is something perverse about expecting a stereotypically united America ritualistically reliving the shock, horror, rage and grief of 2001, a collective habit the Bush minions tried to sustain with their clubfooted attempts to keep the population in perpetual fear. There is a 9/11 burn out happening, and more of us are about getting on with the work that remains to be done; we're tired of being sand bagged, brow beaten, lectured, pilloried, and threatened on many psychic levels that Something Horrible Is About to Happen while at the same instance being entreated by the same powers to go about our business as if nothing is wrong.

It's a small wonder that the handful I met yesterday shared similiar reactions when informed of what day it was. A pause, a bowed head, downcast eyes, a hint of exasperation in the deeper reaches of the eyes. A resentment, perhaps , unshared but felt in common.

"I have a new baby and I'm starting a new job" was what one of my associates responded, "I've other things I was thinking about having to do than mark this date for crying all over again..."

We move on because we have to, and the mood now seems to be not mourn the dead but to figure out how to live life meaningful after the worse-thing-that-could-happen takes place.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Notes on a Jack Kerouac

Image result for jack kerouac
photo by John Cohen
The idea that Jack Kerouac is a great American writer and that On the Road is a great American novel has been an ongoing hard-sell by his publishers and those who own the copyrights on his books ever since I can remember. It seemed that way since I first encountered his name in high school. One read the books one was supposed to in one's teens—Slaughterhouse 5, Steppenwolf, Naked Lunch—and however much one might have changed their estimation of their youthful heroes, one was also expected to hold their first opinion of Kerouac and his particular book for all the time. One only grew to love it more over the decades, so the combination went, and it was unthinkable that a literate person from the boomer generation would have less than glorious things to say about Kerouac and the revolution he inspired. But all this is too much, and enough already. I never liked the novel; I never cared for Kerouac. However, I lied that I liked him due to peer pressure and the prospects of scoring with hip young girls I wanted to bed. It was a lie extracting a cost. Now I say that one might write an article of those who didn't care for Kerouac, thought him a mediocre scribe, a balled-up novelist, an indulgent you crossed the street if you saw him coming toward you.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac was a book I detested when I read in high school, and it remains the most overrated book by an American writer I've encountered. There are moments of real poetry here, yes, but the waxing and waning of dated and contrived hip argot were embarrassing to read through. It was during a bloody argument about the merits of Jack Kerouac's writing when the woman I was arguing with, a twenty-five-year-old who planned to be a penniless, wine drinking mooch like her hero Jack told me, "You know Ted, your very extreme opinion of him stinks of jealousy." The look on his face would be a smirk, maybe a half-grin, the eyes swimming as if in a jar of viscous fluid, with just a glint of hope radiating from his jellied irises that he might borrow some money from you. Resentment is the better term, the sort of anger arising when you realize that you have uncountable hours under siege by the Kerouac cult as the thick weave of truisms and sagging homages to the spirit of rebellion poured forth. This is all time you can never reclaim. I have no reason to be jealous of a man who drank himself to death before the age of fifty while living with his mother, and it is impossible to be jealous of a man who wrote so poorly. The truth is that after spending nearly twenty years trying to accommodate Kerouac's work by reading many of his books and a good many biographies and secondary sources about him and his fellow beats, I admitted to my innermost self that my gut instinct was right, Jack wasn't a good writer and that his continued popularity has more to do with a cultist hype that surrounds the work and persona of Ayn Rand; there's an invested interest in making sure that the author is always spoken of in the most regaling terms.

Others like me, cursed with literature degrees, broad readings, and an appreciation of craft in the service of genuine inspiration, regale him far less, finding his writings charmless, undercooked, ill-prepared, all sizzle and no steak. Those willing to say that Kerouac's oeuvre was wholesale bullshit are in the minority, as the Jack Kerouac Industry shows no sign of slowing down. Every smokestack is fired up, and what might have been clear skies are blackened all the more with his loopy circumlocutions. So much of what has passed as analysis and informed commentary on Kerouac's work has been in the form of undigested memoir and idealized recollection when the author would recall their first encounter with On the Road or The Subterraneans and how the experience changed their lives, changed the way they thought about the incident, changed the very culture of American Life. Personal anecdotes and testimonials, at best, multiplied by decades, nearly all exhibiting soft thinking regarding Kerouac's skills as a writer. Such easy estimations of whom I think are better, more extraordinary writers (Mailer, Pynchon, DeLillo, and Gaddis) would be unacceptable to the demanding reader, Kerouac's critical reputation gets a pass. My compressed gripe, grumpy autobiography, and condensed criticism are personal, sure, but no more than the love notes Kerouac receives from his fans. My squib is of no less value in this context, and it still makes a point.

And it's not all Jack, of course; otherwise, I wouldn't have included that brief bit of pretending to like his writing for reasons extraneous to literary appreciation. I was petty, vain, insecure, the whole teenage/college freshman shot, but as fucked up as I was in my nonintellectual use of Kerouac's name, it typifies what I think consumers of the counterculture name brands were actually doing, using the Beats, Buddhism, drugs and varying degrees of political cant to satisfy baser desires. In Kerouac, what people saw wasn't literature or art, but an invitation to indulge in The Fuck-Up Within.

Kerouac was still chasing after the rapid stream style of both Joyce and Thomas Wolfe; there is the quality of someone beset with twitches and jitters which is talking in a charging rush of language, attempting to get everything, everyone and every idea in the confines of a few single, very long sentences, but who hasn't the capacity to leave himself a frame of reference and imagine the qualities and textures of things apart from himself. Joyce gives us Dublin in a single day, Virginia Woolf conveyed a mind negotiating the harder edges of a real-world, and Thomas Wolfe, I think, offered a more successful record of his narrator's experience as his novels moved slowly through their rhapsodic, if glacial paces. The reader witnessed growth, ambiguity, increasing complexity of spirit, and worldview variously, and these qualities make the novels move. And dumbfounding, in the best sense. Kerouac, for me, rarely sounded as if he ever got up out of his chair, for all his rapid chatter about trains, highways, hitchhiking. The failure of his work is that he sounds like a man who's trying to convince himself that he's having a good time. All the same, the assumption is that all these varied, subjective responses to On the Road need to be positive ones and that a personal reaction, loudly and assertively put forward, is not allowed.

The sheer popularity of the book does not confer innate brilliance upon it; this is herd-think, and it's an ironic situation at odds with a book extolling non-conformism. The attempt is to inoculate the book against criticism, whether as abrasively subjective like mine or subtler and more considered another reader might offer up. This turns Kerouac and the mindset of his core adherents into something resembling zealots. There's been a cottage industry of Kerouac biographies and commentary over the last twenty years—the bookstore I worked in before my current job had a most minor thirty recent, in secondary print sources on the man, nearly all of it subscribing to Kerouac's greatness. The recent coverage of Kerouac and the anniversary of On the Road has more or less with what's taken to be a given as to the book's high merit. It's my experience, over many years, that saying you don't like On the Road causes makes many folks give you the stink eye. Some acts threatened and treated me like I was mentally ill. And it gets somewhat predictable, speaking of which, for Kerouacians to try to get me to change my mind with the usual dogma of liberation, freedom, non-conformism, bizarrely.
This makes me suspect all the more that those enamored of On the Road from an early age did so because they wanted to be non-conformist, just like everybody else. This is hero-worship, a cult of personality stuff, and an undiluted form of celebrity obsession. It is less Kerouac's talent the readership is responding than the image he represents, carefully manufactured and maintained by publishers and the owners of his estate. A defender of the novel wrote me that "Life doesn't have any structure. It doesn't have any narrative arc. And Kerouac blows away all that rigid contrivance with one brilliant explosion of language. "I scratched an itch, considered the statement, and got long-winded all over again. Life, actually, does have structure, in the communities we create and the institutions we formulate to hold them together, and in the culture that is shared that provides a diverse citizenry with a sense that there is a purpose to where and the way we live, and that there are the means to improve, correct, or change the conditions of our lives. This is the structure. While Life has no narrative arc, by itself, literature certainly does. In the art of that narrative, the contingencies of life, all those things that one cannot predict (let alone prevent from happening) are contained in the fictive form and can be appreciated as drama, comedy, moral instruction, what have you. Literature is a means to make sense of Life, to provide resolutions to brief joys and significant traumas, and it is a way to prepare a reader for whatever strange turn one's Life might come to. It's funny that some of us get antsy when Kerouac's legacy is challenged.

One can't diminish the quality of the camaraderie, though. Their friendships were and continue to be solid and robust. I've had the good fortune to meet some Beats --Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti--and what became evident as they indulged my pesky questions was that these writers spoke to one another, and what they talked about was literally everything that came to mind. Each poet's works inform the work of the others, and all of them were quick to acknowledge the influences their friends had on the respective bodies of work. My particular gripe to the side--that too much of the first-thought-best-thought stuff found its way between book covers--this is a fellowship to be admired. On the Road is a book one ought to read, I think, to know something of a part of a generation responding to the post- WWll experience, and with any luck, one does not stop there, thinking they've read the definitive book of the time. Other Beat writings are more crucial, especially Howl by Allen Ginsberg, one of the great American poems of the 20th century; inline, rhythm, imagery, and the contrasting and clashing elements of rage, despair, and eureka! Quality laughs, Ginsberg's poem supersedes the best of Kerouac's prose and is a compelling evocation of the deadened conformity of 50s culture that agitated and motivated him and his fellow writers.

 I do acknowledge that Kerouac did have a native genius for language that, I think, was, tragically, obscured by the writer's urge to embrace experience rushing. In a hurry he was, influenced by both the elusive notion of zen to be presently (or better, be the moment) and the zipping virtuosity of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell's jazz improvisations. Up-tempo, crazy fast, instant configurations of genius adding up to a pulsing , nerve rattling kind of genius, these elements inspired Kerouac, but even at these speeds his heroes, both musicians, writers, and even zen masters, were required to take their time and learn the dictates of their disciplines; Parker's or Coltrane's or James' fluidity and near perfection of instant creation are the result of endless hours of practice and learning to go beyond one's habit of relying on easy conclusions, tired tropes or fussy, pretentious, hyperventilated phrase making and considering the sound, the effect, the expressiveness of the words their putting together. One learns, hopefully, to be elegant, poetic, and original with alacrity. Jack Kerouac could indeed be moving and genuinely beautiful in what he wrote, but these moments are exceptions--there is such a need in virtually all his work to make experience more vivid, more real with overwriting that his adventures through life seemed more strained than naturally forthcoming.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The jazz rotating in my CD player right now is---

The Stranger's Hand --  Jerry Goodman (violin), Howard Levy (harmonica, piano) , Steve Smith (drums, percussion), Oteil Burbridge (bass)

Very credible jazz fusion here, with ex-Mahavishnu violinist Goodman slicing and swirling through his improvisations with a natural swing and brick-tossing sense of rock that continues to advance the instrument in non-classical areas. But the real show here is Levy, whose harmonica playing is revolutionary--the ability to produce a chromatic scale from a diatonic instrument is hard enough, and the ease with which Levy performs makes the sounds--folksy and blues tinged by turns, with sudden flights of real register jumping complexity--makes his solos terrific. Those not enamored of the jazz rock of old won't be convinced that this disk advances anything, but this is easily the strongest fusion effort since the Dixie Dregs at their peak. Smith on drums and Burbridge on bass are wondrous as well.

Ju Ju -- Wayne Shorter (Blue Note)

Wayne Shorter -- tenor sax / McCoy Tyner -- piano / Reggie Workman -- bass / Elvin Jones -- drums

A 1964 session, sweetness and light meets fire and deep seated anxiety in seeming alternating breaths. Shorter is thoughtful, probing the moods of his ingeniously laid-out material with finesse that hints at more expressionistic playing to come--his tone always struck me as inner-directed--while the band delivers everything their names promise. Elvin Jones continues to convince that he is the greatest drummer in jazz history.

--The Uptown String Quartet (Blue Moon)

Saw these four women on CBS Sunday Morning a year or so ago, and their bringing their classical training to bear on jazz was a quirky notion that works genuinely well. Name it and the style is here, Kansas City blues to some very "out" moments, and some blues to spare, with the ensemble not seeming to try to preserve the dusty air of the chamber, nor falsely infuse their work with a creaking notion of swing. It swings nicely at that, and a bonus is a left field arrangement of "I Feel Good". It's glorious to hear James Brown in long hair circumstances.

Carry the Day --Henry Threadgill (Columbia)

Produced by Bill Laswell, with all compositions by Threadgill, this is one of those albums that make you glad there is such a word as "eclectic" in the dictionary. His multi-reed playing is sure through out the sessions, and here organizes his players in a way that make this creepily seamless, that is to say unnervingly groovy. Brandon Ross supplies some truly edgy jazz-rock guitar work--damn, this style is still exciting in the hands of the right fret man--and this features some of the freshest horn charts I've heard in years. Varied, serious, fun, exciting, arty, and yes, very well done.

The Heart of Things --John McLaughlin (Verve)

McLaughlin--guitars / Gary Thomas -- reeds, flute / Jim Beard -- keyboards, synths / Matthew Garrison --bass / Dennis Chambers --drums

Good players wasted on thin grooves--McLaughlin , like the late Tony Williams, writes riffy little tunes , with occasional "fancy" changes, that barely support the technical expertise of the musicians, who tend to over play their hands to shore things up. Despite an odd good moment here where things click, everyone sounds muscle-bound : thick, dense, slow witted. It needn't have been the case.

Getting There --John Abercrombie (ECM)

w/Abercrombie -- electric and acoustic guitars / Marc Johnson -- bass / Peter Erskine -- drums / Michael Brecker (special guest)-- tenor sax.

Sprawling , icy fusion, informed with Euro-detachment that has it's frequent moments of genuine passion and swelling originality. Aberbrombie's plays in terse note clusters, infrequently favoring the long lins over the diffuse rhythms, but he has a nice phased , electronically grafted tone whose colors add densisty where other wise there would be none. Good , probing jazz rock. Brecker's contributions could have been phoned in, though.


One of A Kind --Bill Bruford

w/Bruford--drums and percussion/ Allan Holdsworth--guitar / Dave Stewart --keyboards / Jeff Berlin-- bass

The King Crimson and sometime Yes drummer had occasional jazz-fusion sessions when he wasn't furnishing beats behind abstruse angst fantasies, and surprisingly, the music holds up well. There is not an amphetamine strain fuzz tone anywhere to be heard. What helps are good tunes, most by Bruford, that mix up funk, Zappa, and Prog-rock stylistics under unmannered conditions, allowing the instrumental work to mesh, mess around, and burn as needed. Holdsworth offers some impressive ultra legato lines, and Jeff Berlin is singular on the bass. Bruford, hardly a Cobhamesque fusion monster, lacks some the swing you might like, or even the blunt Bonham-oid pow! to make this rock harder, but he's an able timekeeper who keeps the session forging ahead.

Nothin' But the Swing--Black Note

Mark Shelby--bass/Willie Jones 111--drums/James Mahone--alto sax/Ark Sano--piano/Gilbert Castellanos, Nicholas Payton--trumpet/Teodross Avery--tenor and soprano sax

Cool jazz, in the style of the classic Miles quartets, though lacking a Coltrane or a Shorter to sear the ground with. No matter, though, as the ensemble sound is glowing and warm, with a spring to the swing, and some thoughtful solo work. Mahone has a warm alto sound, and rounded feel to this lines, and Gilbert Castellanos provides a sufficiently icy rim to this phrases: a sullen trumpeter, this man.