Wednesday, October 16, 2019

JOKER: aggravating brilliance

Image result for joker rotten tomatoes


First, Joker is thematically a blend of two Scorsese movies, Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, something that co-writer and director Todd Phillips readily admits to. He's admired character study films like those from the 70s and the 80s, and it was his intent to do a psychological portrait of a complex and manifestly unhinged comic book villain in the same way. The King of Comedy underpinnings is very apt for this character who has been erasing and reconstructing the separations between comedy, tragedy and outright evil for the better part of eighty years in the comic books. Even with the conspicuous nod to Scorsese's style of giving us a Taxi Driver like a study of the making of a what we would now call homegrown terrorists--contemporary echoes of the Alt-Right neo-Nazis and the lesser antagonisms of Antifa on the left readily come to mind as the story unfolds--Phillips has his own approach in creating the slow, subtle evolution of this title card man. Visually, the movie is something else again, with New York City standing in for the mythic Gotham City--I haven't seen the grit, graffiti and architecture/neighborhood magnificence that is the Big Apple used this marvelously in some time. 

The cast is perfect for the disturbing and violent nature of this film. And get this, although there is no Batman, this is within a world that very probably does or eventually will be populated by DC's costumed heroes. But this is a standalone character study, and what they've is impressive indeed, and even brilliant in a peculiar, discomforting way. I liked it quite a lot. don't think its quite the masterpiece DC fans want it to be, but it is a finely made film that creates a mood and twists it ever so much through the film's length as we see an already on-the-edge character step closer to an abyss and he finally falls in. As Joker/Arthur is in every scene, nearly every shot, I take the story to be a stream of delusions, some situated in what appears to be Arthur's rat-race life, and others that are obviously grandiose, malevolent fantasies. Director and co-writer Todd Phillips did a superb job of managing the "untrustworthy narrator" device, of taking the audience along a path of events where are expectations are eventually unmoored by contradictory incidents. 

Phillips shows a knack throughout Joker of keeping us guessing, revealing unexpected bits of information that genuinely surprise. Phoenix deserves at least an Oscar nomination no less than Heath Ledger did. For the violence and politics, the animus toward the rich in Arthur's fevered perception hasn't an explicitly political bent, by design, I believe. The people, as they are, simply are tired of being crapped on and, like Arthur, are raging violently against the machine. And the film is beautifully, evocatively, amazingly shot--I have not seen New York City photographed this effectively in a motion picture for quite a while. And, of course, there are many who dislike this film intensely. That's the kind of movie they intended to make. I believe. 

There are hundreds of movies that have come out in the last 30 years or so that are insanely more violent than Joker--think of the Die Hard franchise, for example, or virtually Tarantino's entire body of work--but is the film that has people talking, upset, fretting. It was a strategically brilliant move to furnish this tale with a confirmed "reality, a center both writers and the audience can refer back to regain their bearings before going forward to see what develops with some idea of "what's going on". This film is wholly unreliable as a dependable account of what actually happened to this man and this city in this imagined universe, and as more is revealed, that what had been taken for granted is indeed not the case but rather its center opposite, audience reaction, or at least mine, tended toward the antsy, anxious, nervous. Even in its slowness, the film gave you no room to relax. You might consider it analogous to watching a time bomb in a crowded public space, aware that it's going to go off at some time, yet you do nothing, just watching, waiting, become slightly insane with expectation. When it finally does go off and you see the bloody death, destruction, carnage that is the consequence, uncensored, unfiltered, there is no catharsis as, say, a bullet in the skull of a generic bad guy in a Die Hard film would provide. For me it was oh shit, there it goes, here we go, this awful, oh god...

Joker accomplishes that--blurring any finessed connections between fantasy and reality, as Scorsese provided in King of Comedy,a major influence on this film, and having the violence viscerally affect you. It was like getting beaten up in real-time. This is the product of sheer artistry. The violence is pure Guernica.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

KATE BRAVERMAN, RIP




Image result for kate braverman
Sorry to hear this. Braverman was an especially brilliant prose writer and a powerful lyric poet who could twine together the insane sweep of mythology, feminist, confessional revelations , erotic depositions and the like into a captivating , galvanic roil of language that seemed nothing less than a controlled, emotional explosion , remindful of the classic image from Apocalypse Now when a napalm strike took out a long row of trees in a Vietnamese forest. Really, her "incantatory writing" , as she called it, got the nerve endings flaring.I met her after I'd written a rave review of her book FRANTIC TRANSMISSIONS, a mesmerizing memoir if one has ever been written, something that led to a brief communication and an eventual appearance at the bookshop where I worked at the time. She was a handful to be around, I should say, and as much of a genius she had as writer and poet, there was tangible relief when she left for the evening. All said, Kate Braverman was an amazing writer who deserves a broader readership. There is more I could say about my encounter with Braverman, but lets instead consider my summary judgement on her prickly and hallucinogenic memoir Frantic Transmissions  from 2009:



Image result for Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir"Frantic Transmissions to and From Los Angeles is a memoir, of sorts, about growing up in Los Angeles, and then the eventual moving away from that famously center-less city. Writing in a high poetic and semiotically engaged style that recalls the best writing of Don DeLillo (Mao ll) and Norman Mailer (Miami and the Seize of Chicago), Braverman deftly defines isolated Los Angeles sprawl and puts you in those cloistered, cul-de-sac'd neighborhoods that you drive by on the freeway or pass on the commuter train, those squalid, dissociated blocks of undifferentiated houses and strip malls and store front churches; the prose gets the personal struggle to escape through any means , through art and rage, and this makes Frantic Transmissions not unlike Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, wherein the prodigal son or daughter deigns to move up and away from a home that cannot keep them, with only raw nerve and the transforming elements of art to guide them.

What Braverman confronts and writes about with a subtly discerning wit is the struggle of defining the place one calls home, and what roles one is obliged to assume as they continually define their space, their refuge. All through this particularly gripping memoir there is the sheer magic and engulfing power of Braverman's writing; I was fortunate to receive an uncorrected proof of Frantic Transmissions a couple of months ago, and I was knocked out by what I beheld. Sentence upon sentence, metaphor upon simile, analogy upon anecdote, this writing is rhythmic and full of stirring music. There is poetry here that does not overwhelm nor over reach; this is an amazing book, and it is one of the best books about life in Los Angeles , quite easily in the ranks of Nathaniel West, Joan Didion, and John Fante. "

Monday, October 14, 2019

HAROLD BLOOM, RIP

Harold Bloom, the Methuselah of American literary criticism, has passed away at the age of 89. Best known , celebrated and berated for his tome The Western Canon, an encyclopedic argument in defense of individual literary genius against the intimidating attacks from fresher and bolder currents in literary thought, Bloom became something a of a one-man cottage industry in his later years, producing a stream about books, some good, some brilliant, more than some so much mush, speaking of Dead White Males and the poems they wrote. I am heavily indebted to his book The Anxiety of Influence, as it gives a subtle and useful dialectical model on how great genius influences great genius that follows through the centuries, with the younger men (and women) writing superbly in another stylistic, spiritual and intellectual direction than the great poet who influenced them, desperately trying to escape the long and looming shadow.

But as that First Great Genius was Shakespeare, a genius who Bloom argued is singularly responsible, in plays and poems, for the creation of what we regard as Modern Man and Modern Literature, the sage who began the whole unstoppable progression of how modern poets would write, escape from the shadow is impossible; The Bard is Present, no matter how much one attempts to be unlike him. You can argue with his sweeping conclusions, but the book I'm thinking of, "Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human is a critical delight. It may be that Bloom is luxuriating in the laziness of a higher caliber. The difference between them is that Bloom has a thesis that he's worked with for decades, a set of subtle arguments crystallized in his landmark book The Anxiety of Influence a brief but trenchant discussion where the Professor posits that Shakespeare is the premiere genius casting a long , indelible shadow across the legions of subsequent genius that arose after his time. Bloom argued that Bard's influence is so pervasive that no poet or other literary artists cannot help but be influenced by him.
Those great geniuses who've emerged after Bard's time have either engaged their influence from him and written great works extending, modifying and altering the system of metaphor Shakespeare changed our collective consciousness with, or there are other geniuses who've emerged over the centuries who, being painfully aware of the Bard's embedded influence on how sentences about human experience have come to be written, write furiously in the other direction, against his style, assumptions and rhetoric, experimenting, taking political risks, deconstructing, inverting, abstracting and defamiliarizing the artful language in ways only a new kind of genius would conceive and execute. But here's the rub: even for those great writers who've made great art with language that artfully contains the human impulse to go beyond mere description of the world and peer at what is behind the veil of enumerated appearances, Shakespeare is present, his aesthetic, his metaphors, his language influencing new writers in one direction or the other.

That is a rather crude summary of Bloom's basic premise and there are dozens of other notions woven through his life's work, but the point is that his a set of ideas that make the ideas tangible and convincing once the initial "aha!" of flashing insight wears off. It's not science, of course, but it is a craft, a profession, this kind of thinking, and what we have in Bloom who has taken his working theory and tested it against new ideas, new writers creating literature in cultures other what is routinely aligned in the Western Canon. Bloom, who defends the existence of the canon and wrote a book on the issue, believes dually that there are permanent genius and masterpieces of Western Literature, as he is a man who has made a career judging books with imposing standards. The standards are not fixed, though, and Bloom further asserts that the Canon is a living thing, like the American Constitution, a category of books and authors that must be continually revised as matters with human existence come to mean something different. All things said, Bloom's career as a critic was a brilliant one, and he was a joy to read and argue with as one passed through the pages of his exception-taking views.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Notes Concerning Neil Young's ON THE BEACH





ON THE BEACH--
Neil Young
Well yes, to answer a question no one’s yet asked me, I was one of those guys in high school, in the very early the Seventies, who had found their Reason to Be through a sheer immersion into the contemporary grind of rock and roll. Leonard Bernstein declared it an art form, Ralph Gleason informed us that rock and roll lyrics were the new poetry, and the larger media, Life and Time magazine specifically, uniformly declared rock music a vision of the world to come. I was all in, to be sure, 16, 17, even 18 years old, a would-be poet, a record review for school newspapers and cheaply produced undergrounds. Dylan, Mitchell, Ochs, Simon, Beatles, Stones, Buffalo Springfield, poets, prophets, philosophers all, would the models who’d be useful to gauge my own experience. Their effusions would make my evolution. It seemed like the best idea in the world. Gradually, relying on millionaire rock stars made less sense as I got even just a little bit older. My young frustrations grew faster than my admiration of the songwriters. Rather irrationally, I felt betrayed. Dylan turned to Jesus, Ochs hanged himself in alcoholic depression, The Beatles and Stones seemed distracted and distant from those of us working minimum wage day jobs to buy their records.  The Rock elite seemed addled all at once, bereft of a good lyric couplet, a chorus that could unlock emotions and private. Heroes fell from the pedestals I put them, and I took a cheap pleasure wallow in shallow cynicism. It seemed increasingly the case that pop stars, wallowing in ennui and wealth couldn’t speak clearly or convincingly about a life that confounds them. It’s a trauma that confuses many who’ve obsessed over the music and the musicians:  I no longer cared what befell them either in their lyrics or real life. At the time it didn’t take much to make me a despairing sad- sack. I was a self-made made a Grim Gus for a time, of sorts, a premature cynic in my early twenties who wanted to now speak of everything as being false. There was no one to relate to, no one speaking to the persistent chattering anxiety firing along with my synaptic patterns. Or was there? The Revolution hadn’t happened, and the promises of Woodstock were a stale joke. There was no garden to get back to.



But there was Neil Young. It was Young’s songs on the Buffalo Springfield albums I returned to over and over again, it was Young’s worrisome vocals and sparsely filled cadences I related to, it was Young’s ongoing sense of feeling overwhelmed, dumbstruck, stunned into a psychic motionlessness in the face of a  feckless reality that overturned one utopian ideal after another. If Dylan had spoken to the youthful urge to explore, challenge and derange the senses in “Mr. Tambourine Man” , Paul Simon sought authenticity  against a materialism in “Sounds of Silence”, and Joni Mitchell entreated listeners to embrace all their travels and affairs with an openness that would transform the world, Young never lost sight of himself in a world that he might not be able to transform through good intentions or a collective Good Vibe. Says Polonius to an anxious Hamlet “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man…”   This above all, Neil Young remembers his mortality and remembers dreams of a perfect world are not facts, and that he will show himself to be anything other another fellow who’s been bashed, bandied and bounced about by the unschooled churn of the world As-Is. This is what I’ve always liked about Young in contrast to his admittedly worthy compatriots, that he’s seldom if ever, sang as though speaking from On High.He was in the trenches with us, rolling with the punches. As early as his song  “Helpless” on the 1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young release Déjà Vu  , a time when the puppy-hug conceits were giving way in a time of post-Altamont , Young admits that his life is too crowded with the stress and consequences of other people’s expectations, and that he needs to return to something simpler, finer of mind before he grew his hair and ventured from his hometown in Ontario.


 There is a town in north Ontario

With dream comfort memory to spare

And in my mind
I still need a place to go
All my changes were there


 It’s a lovely, three-chord song, and the lyrics, delivered in Young’s fragile whistle of a voice,The lyrics have a plain-spoken plainness that brings to mind the idiomatic precision of William Carlos Williams. Nothing especially poetic in effort, but certainly poetic in effect, the plain and clear admission of needing to get away to a time that no exist, if it ever did. The appeals less for the message, which is one of escape from the world—clearly, no one ought to rely on lyrics as solutions to real problems—but in the way, it simply crystalizes the yearning, the fleeting thought. There is no thesis, no lesson, just an intimate revelation as the problems of the universe continue apace. There was a flurry of junkie laments and tales of ecological disaster that found their way onto the albums of politically timely artists. Young, a man concerned with the environment and the survival of the species and someone who has had experience, we assume, with the fatal travails of heroin addiction, combined both these themes in the title song of his 1969 solo album After the Gold Rush. The song is a science fiction eco-disaster fantasy akin to what Paul Kanter and Grace Slick offered up with their Jefferson Starship Blows Against the Empire album. But where Kanter, Slick, and the Jefferson Airplane entourage offered an album’s worth of Sturm and Drang about angry hippies high jacking a starship and leaving a wasted and wretched planet, Young remains the effective minimalist.  Three spare, elliptical verses vividly outlining a world that can no longer be fruitful inhabited, a ceremony sounded off, a revelation that our narrator is among the debris of a dying planet, that there is a new hope arising as spaceship arrives and the selected ones board the vessel. They are off to find a new home for Mother Nature, our narrator reveals, but he won’t be among the citizens of a New Earth.

I was lyin' in a burned out basement

With the full moon in my eyes

I was hopin' for replacement
When the sun burst though the sky
There was a band playin' in my head
And I felt like getting high…


The facts are is that Young knows that he is a man who, though blessed with the capacity to learn and imagine, lacks a clear channel to the future, that his senses are as fallible and that he is a mere mortal among the herd.  Jefferson Starship harmonizes cleverly for a skewed utopia where all our friends will be, and croon and cruise for two album sides about setting up camp on another heavenly body. Even in a fantasy, a reverie, Young embraces the simpler tale and the pitiless outcome: although his song suggests the possibility that the species will go on, the narrator is left behind, never to see the new sun.  While I find much to enjoy in Starship’s grandiosity, Young’s fatalism is all that much more powerful. Cogent, reserved, simply stated, with an ending uplifting and tragic at once.   It’s that fatalism, the lack of heroic pretense in Young’s writing that has been a major draw to his music. This isn’t to reduce the singer to a single -topic Worry Wart who can only give grim tidings to the largeness of life. Hardly a guy to roll over and go back to sleep when the stress is too much, Young’s long career has been fascinating for reasons quite a part of his admittedly occasional persona as a small voice describing the dying of the light. He has been a restless intelligence musically, as observable through his proto-grunge rock, collaborations with Crazy Horse, the earnest balladeering of love songs from deep in the heart, or his fruitful side trips into the areas of country and western, blues and soul, and digital boogie. He is not going quietly to any impending good night.

Still, though, I return to something that intrigues me still, a 1974 album called On the Beach, which I consider a landmark disc from the period, a confession as profound and unavoidable as John and Yoko's "Primal Scream" album Plastic Ono Band or the outsized confessions of poet Robert Lowell, Though lacking the anger of Lennon or the particular detail and depth of Lowell's incessantly detailed and personal verse, Young's work is nothing less than a stark declaration that was perhaps at the end of the line as an artist and that his interest in remaining with the rest us on this side of the dirt perhaps hung in the balance. Returning to the idea that Young is an artist aware  limits in a perilous existence, On the Beach is lament that old ideas aren’t working. By constant tone, theme and implication, this is a chronicle of someone feeling powerless over his life. Even his artistry, performing, writing, singing, becomes the millstone he must wear around his neck. The title song, doleful, a chunky strum of the guitar, is a straightforward admission of his love-hate relationship with his dedicated audience.

I need a crowd of people

But I can't face them day-to-day

I need a crowd of people
But I can't face 'em day-to-day
Though my problems are meaningless
That don't make them go away…


This is the ultimate mind-screw, being an artist who has reaped handsome reward from fans and corporation for the good work he’s done who is alienated from the gift that provided his life with purpose. He needs his audience to feel whole but loses himself in the bargain, he has achieved riches from doing exactly what he wanted to do, but feels a prisoner obliged to respond to the demands on his time, talent and soul. It’s less of a bold admission than it is one of those fantastic blurts of truth, that unguarded moment when you find yourself thinking out loud, unfiltered.

The mood remains downbeat with “Vampire Blues”, an extension of the festering resentment addressed in the title song. Young is no longer the fatally alienated superstar, but now instead of a blood-sucking creep, a user, a liar, a low grade demon who will steal your vitality, your love, your passion, who will feed upon your good graces and leave you a  charred chunk of humanity. It’s nothing personal, you understand, it’s planetary: I'm a vampire, babe,/ suckin' blood

from the earth/I'm a vampire, baby, /suckin' blood/from the earth./Well, I'm a vampire, babe, sell you twenty barrels worth…”   Young effectively reflects the world he has seen too often and too long up to this point, an existence of full of takers, exploiting resources and replenishing nothing in their wake. Implicit here is Young's idea that he is like the earth, a resource being used up and exploited to fulfill the emotional and material needs of others, with nothing left, no fertile soil, no soul, as a result. Only burnt-out husks remain of formerly glorious beauty.


The songs are a string of sharp, acute glimpses of life that has been stripped down to routine, drained of joy, passion. “For the Turnstiles” is a terse sinister conflation of sailors, pimps, touring bands and hometown heroes revolving around each other both as contrasting metaphors and real-life figures locked in a deadpan dance of entertaining the paying customer while offering mirthless smiles revealing grim clenched teeth. Everyone is paid for what they do, everyone gets what they want, everyone feels like they’ve been robbed. “Revolution Blues” outlines a diorama of survivalist paranoia, every neighborhood is a camp, no one believes a word anyone says: this is an America where whatever is going to happen will happen soon and without warning. The narrator is ready, his gun is handy, he has plenty of ammo, he has no idea what he’s defending or who he’ll be fighting. 
On the Beach is powerful revelation of sorts, both an admission from Young and his generation are no longer in the figurative Kansas anymore. In his mind, he may still need some place to be, but the record might be considered as a journal of a moment when the existence became too big and , that the dreams of utopia, peace free and justice were destroyed by assassinations, a bad-faith war that would not end and a death-trip rock festival that all but gave a lie to Ralph J. Gleason’s insistence the music would set us free if we believed long and hard enough. Young became woke, in a manner of speaking was stunned and for a while conquered by anxiety at the loss of his naivete, But with On the Beach he confronts his fear, the despair and depression and writes his way through the dilemma. No philosophizing, no rationalization, just the blunt admission that he was having a hard time of it, coupled with a coarse imagining of an America without hope or love.  In a Hollywood scenario, this would have been the point where the disillusioned artist bids farewell to all that and lapses into silence, but Young refused to become cynical; through his career he has shown himself to be one of the most interesting artists remaining of the Golden Age of California sound, a man willing to experiment, try new things, switch up styles and attitudes, explore the furthest and most resonating reaches of emotion . What I believe we have in Neil Young is one of the worthiest bodies of work any rock singer-songwriter has created over time. There is much to discuss in other essays yet to be written. He is oeuvre rivals Dylan’s. (That would be a debate worth having). But it is worth it to consider, again, On the Beach. Without this significant record, Young’s work could well have been much less endearing.


(This originally appeared in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission)