Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Genius arising from limitation



Artistry is only incidentally related to sheer technical virtuosity; technique is merely the formalized and acquired skills of how to do some particular thing. Talent, on the other hand, is what you do with the technique you've worked hard and long to attain, IE, create art. Artistry , it seems to my thinking, is one having mastery over the chops they do have and having the ability to exploit those elements in expressions that continue to surprise over time.

Dylan was not an especially impressive guitarist, harmonica player and was, in many ways, highly affected as a lyricist, but there was a manner in which he brought those things together and created something , a way of writing songs, that achieved singular stature. What he had brought together by dint of his influences from folk, blues, and literature and the non-virtuoso elements of his musicianship brought something into the popular mind that had not been there before.

Others are able to step away from their highly regarded technique and move toward more primitive sorts of expression, as in the case of Picasso , who through his experiments with Cubist perspective and inspired emulation of types of African sculpture, among other things, he was instrumental in changing the way art is viewed and discussed. Importantly, artistry , in its most intense and purest form, free of current fashion and critical perspective, changes the conversation.

Coltrane advanced further into rapid, technically demanding improvisation and left us with long solos that stand nearly by themselves as independent art works while Miles Davis reduced the number of notes in his solos and geared his compositions and arrangements toward sparer, more modal means and changed the course of music internationally for decades to come. Artistry is not just knowing how, it's knowing what you want to do at the moment the idea hits and having the means to execute those notions.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The heart loves what the heart loves


Over on a discussion board dedicated to the subject of Modern Blues Harmonica, a member posted a well-worn topic as to whether white people have the right to play the music of black people, aka The Blues. It's well worn and has been discussed, but it is not worn out by any means, given that even to this day Americans don't know how to discuss race relations and agree on the seemingly simple principle of Liberty and Justice for All. Touchy subject here, but I would say the issue whether white people have a right comes down to this: perhaps not, due to a long history of white racism that foisted slavery, genocide, discrimination and abject poverty upon black people. Blues was created as an expression of the experience of subjugated African Americans. BUT, and this a big one, how are you going to stop those white musicians who've loved the blues as they were growing up, who were moved by the power of the music to pick up instruments and learn from the records they heard? People love what they love and will do what they need to do to have that person/place/thing/art form in their lives because any of those elements (in this case, the music of the blues) is a right fit for an individual's personal experience, regardless of race. 


Declarations and nuanced moral arguments to the extent that white people as a whole have forsaken the right to play a music that moves them greatly because the power structure in place and the institutions that enforce its will and traditions have brutally oppressed black people as a whole does not prevent white musicians from picking up a guitar or a harmonica or a saxophone and playing songs by black blues masters or from creating their own music, reflecting their own experience , strength and hope. The heart wants what the heart wants, and I am grateful that the likes of Butterfield, Mayall, Clapton, Bloomfield preferred to engage the music they loved by playing it and not treating it like it were a museum piece they were not worthy of touching. Things in museums are dead things, and the blues is a living testament to human resilience. It is a form of speaking truth to power; the need to do so is not ethnically exclusive. Music writer J.Marks, in a book he wrote called "Rock and Other Four Letter Words" had at least one useful remark, to the effect that while America has been/is a country where the races segregate themselves by choice or other reasons, but even in that isolation from one another, our music still mingle together and transform and change and grow and create new ways of expressing the mood, the art, the temper and tempo of the current situation. Right, it seems, has nothing to do with it. People are going to play what they feel like playing regardless of who created it. That is the nature of human beings, which is the nature of art-making itself.

Friday, April 3, 2015

About Steve Kowit

Writer Steve Kowit enjoys a poetry reading in this 2008 photo.
photo by Dennis Wills
Wednesday was April 1st, known to us all as April Fools Day. It's the same day that commences the start of National Poetry Month, a four-week span selected because of the famous T.S.Eliot's line from "The Waste Land" that "...April is the cruelest month..." Thursday, April 2nd was the day Steve Kowit, a great poet, a genuinely principled moralist, a quick-witted spirit of irrepressible good humor and no one's fool by any means, died. The irony of how a day dedicated to practical jokes, a commemorative poetry month selected for a line written by a reactionary, racist, dour by nonetheless brilliant poet, and the passing of one of the most jubilant poets and exuberant personalities collided the way they did is inescapable, I suppose. But rather than inspecting and interpreting too closely. It's better, more appropriate, more helpful to remember Steve Kowit as a man of many gifts, interests, passions, commitments, from his work in which he superbly fused the vernacular of street rhythm with the careful and skillfully off-center ear of a jazz improviser, his genius as a teacher where he combined that rarest thing, honest and productive criticism intended to make a poet a better writer. As a writer, he was loquacious who favored long lines, unexpected examples of what he was talking, odd turns of thought and colorful phrase-making and high octane similes; for all is the love of  chatter, though, there was cultivation, a genius for getting to the point in the seemingly effortless rhythm of a musician as he ad-libbed fine musical phrases and elegant filigrees over either the most accelerated or most relaxed of tempos. 

He made what he did sound simple, easy to do, but as any with a love of music and perhaps has even achieved a level of fluidity on an instrument, the aspect of effortlessness comes with practice, practice, practice. To that end, Steve was always practicing his craft, poetry, constantly honing his chops. I had always thought of Steve's poems as perhaps the best example of someone achieving the effect of someone musing out loud, thinking out loud, taking a topic sentence, a chance remark about something he had seen, heard, caught, and taking us through the dancing and delicately spun perorations of his thought as he came finally to rest, halt, at that place where there is a pause and Steve takes a deep breath and reveals how his experience of the world was altered by the event, the conversation, the book, the thing he heard or saw and thought remarkable.

 Remark he did, and for me, he was the most intimate of poets, a writer for whom someone is being addressed, spoken to, confided in.  Even if it were merely a matter of  Steve loving the sound of his writing being resounded with the city cadences of his speaking voice, there was still the feeling that he was someone talking to you from across the table or leaning in closer to add an insight or a joke or some confidence that were for your ears alone. But for all the seeming effortlessness of making it seem as though he was talking seamlessly and without boundaries, off the cuff and unbound, Steve's writing did not, in large part, drift or wander lost in abstraction or confused association. In his workshops and the countless readings he'd given and in personal conversation, Steve talked about craft, rewriting, honing each poem until it was the most perfect expression it could be. Steve was constantly rewriting lyrics and would often introduce his poems as ones he'd been working on for months, even years. All this sounded incredible to me, a poet who was habitually writing fast and perhaps doing some minor tweaking; at first glance, all that revising seemed contrary to spontaneous expression. Later, I realized why there are so many poems that are so good. That feeling of effortlessness in his poems was the result of hard work. Steve loved poetry too much to put his least worthy efforts into the public conversation. 

Steve was a grand champion of other poets. He had an unfailing interest in others. He was the man we needed to have around when others spoke in code, euphemism, and fuzzy equivocation, Steve told his mind and cut to the chase. He said his truth, as the saying goes these days. After a pause, the conversation would begin again, invigorated by Steve's skill at pulling the covers off those things --racism, exploitation, sexual inequality, militarism--that were obscured by babble and can. He taught his students to read a great variety of poets, learn a great many techniques honed by tradition, expand their notion of what poems can speak to, and find within the styles assimilated. The techniques mastered one's own voice as a writer who may tackle the subject with wit, originality, honesty, and great beauty.


One could argue with Steve about his passionate arguments against deliberately tricky poems. He considered the worst habits of late literary modernism--I adore my Eliot, cherish my Ashbery, I am invigorated by the rigor of Silliman, Armantrout, and Perelman-- but Steve made his case with the same sort of lyricism he brought to his poems. Steve felt that beauty was the expression of experience in ways that did not obscure the event and the memory; neither theory nor sentimentality would interfere with the sweet language he used to present the travails and noise and significant and minor frustrations of existence. Steve's best writing, which was prodigious, was about love, justice, lust, philosophical ironies that reduced, for the moment, the insurmountable hackery of what life in the city throws at you. Clarity of expression was Steve Kowit's genius--as wild as his poems became, as beautifully strung out as they could get on a metaphor or a pile-up of "then-what-happened?" that had the makings of an exceptionally hirsute  shaggy dog story, Steve was in control of his instrument. He hated obscurantism and overly literary self-referencing and insisted that poetry is about the writer's engagement with the world they lived in, worked in, made love in, laughed and cried in, and not be a receptacle of meditations on its form. In conversation with him when I attended a workshop he conducted at San Diego State in the early eighties, I recall saying that he wasn't opposed to abstraction in poetry altogether. Not at all. What bothered him was the kind of writing that lay there, thick and more or less dormant, daring the reader to make sense of tangled syntax, private jokes and artlessly inserted intrusions from areas that offer more murk, not clarity. Poems either created the passion within the reader to think harder and deeper into the experience of their lives, or the poets failed in their Poetry was about the ear, not the footnote, not the end note. Poets needed to be in the world perfecting their craft, not in the study writing obscurities shared with only other obscure poets. Steve Kowit seemed like a force of nature, and even now, it's difficult to imagine a world without him.


I can still hear his voice each time we meet. I can still see him smiling, leaning in close, asking me if I was still "dry," even twenty-five years since my last drink. I can still hear him telling me to proofread my poems and prose better. I can still remember him telling me to put a volume of my work together and send stuff out to the publishers for the love of God. Life is rewarded by the energy one puts into it. "Live" is a verb, after all, and Steve's message to anyone was to for those of us with things they want to do to get out there and live a little, take a stand, start a love affair, write a poem for your parents, get a job you actually like. Good things come if you work for them.  My glancing friendship with Steve Kowit was one of my best years as a San Diego poet.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

With Great Power Comes Liabilities

New Powers, New 'Do,' 'Big Secret' in SUPERMAN #41 | Newsarama.com: 

Superman has a new buzz cut in yet the latest re-imagining of the Man of  Steel. The tonsorial  alternation that works for me. His dark blue spit curl was fine through the fifties and the Sixties and most decades since, but it was an anachronism begging to be taken to the attic.The original idea, I suppose , was to have Superman retain a genuine purity one could ascribe to strong farm boys from Kansas in o our grandest Norman Rockwell fantasies. Lately, though, the hair has fallen prey to the artist's whim. Artist Jim Lee gave him a weed-whacker shaping that made him look like a Ken doll in a tight blue suit and a red cape. From what's been revealed, the new hair cut is short, spikey, the sort of  of  styled brevity that combat veterans when they resume their civilian existence. The image above indicates a Superman who gets convincingly pissed and is ready to rattle the skyline if  gets annoyed by evil doers or bad phone reception. 

The other matter of  Superman that 's been chewing up the bandwidth on comic book fan sites is his new power, the "Super Flare". An apparent extension of his already existing heat vision, this so called power has Superman, under great duress, expending all the solar energy stored in all of his cells at the same time. The downside, from what we've seen so far, is that results in the complete incineration of  everything around it ,and it leaves  Superman without powers.  Kal El is human, all too human for twenty four hours until he recharges and regains his abilities. We need to ask this question, though, all comic book fans in general and DC Comics partisans in particular: Is that super flare capacity really a "power" or is it a malady, something that flares up (pun intended) when stress becomes too intense? 

The difference is that a super power is an ability that the hero can control and use at will when the need arises; what's been shown so far for the power is that it is incredibly destructive when it is used (or goes off, rather) potentially laying waste to lives and property, and that it leaves Superman bereft of powers, vulnerable . We cannot assume that the super flare would always vanquish his foes. So the question becomes as to what practical use this trait is and whether it is something that Big Blue can learn to control and employ appropriately with less catastrophic results. I suspect that we've just opened the door for yet another Superman weakness, as if limitless amounts of kryptonite and undifferentiated brands of magic weren't enough. Superman too powerful? Set off the flare and lets see how he fends as a mortal. This can become a go-to device too easily. I'm interested to see what they do with the super flare, but it wouldn't be surprising that they've shot their wad.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Slate arts wonk has a fit over "Boyhood" not getting Oscar Best Picture

Oscars best picture winner Birdman: Boyhood snub is the Academy’s worst mistake in 20 years.:

'via Blog this'
This bit of sour grapes is unseemly and written in what can only be called a snit fit. The result are grandiose claims that are supported only fairly pedestrian and hastily stated opinions. Kois operates from the assumption that "Boyhood" is a masterpiece, certified, no questions asked. It's not a masterpiece, as it lags and lumbers and and is at times near narcoleptic torpor as it goes on and on to create a saga about the small things that otherwise ordinary citizens confront over a period of time. It is, or course, daring, at times engaging, but never enthralling, in my view. It is an admirable piece of work,  but awards should not be awarded merely because film makers were adventurous; the point of the Oscars , we are told, is to celebrate and make note of the best of what was written, filmed, acted, directed, scored, edited from the previous year. Movies that achieved their ambitions.  "Apocalypse Now" was an absolute mess of a film, a   beautiful mess in many ways, but a train wreck for coherence and sequencing. It was a horribly botched narrative, a string of grand standing scenes. I've watched it many times over the intervening years and enjoyed it, but over time I think the Academy used good judgement in denying it a Best Picture Oscar.  I think it suffices to say that the film makers of 'Birdman" had solid ideas of their concept and created the means with which the layered meta-narrative can be brought to the screen. There is a control of the material and an elegant, innovative execution of ideas that "Boyhood" did not have, and "Apocalpyse Now" as well. What we had last night was that rare Oscar instance, the rewarding of  high quality work. Kois can disagree with the decision, but using his platform to claim that this was the worst decision in the last twenty years of Oscar ceremonies just makes him sound hysterical, silly, trivial in his insight. This gives me no reason to read him again. As a public service, I reprint my  initial review of "Birdman" below  (also, I am too lazy to write about this film again).


This film is a about as meta-textual as it gets, concerning a actor named Riggan who, best known for portraying the cartoon super hero Birdman in three live action films, is attempting a comeback on broadway with a stage adaptation of a collection of Raymond Carver short stories, 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love".
The first inside joke, of course, is that star Michael Keaton was the first Batman in two Tim Burton versions of the DC icon, who had the oft circulated take away line "I'm Batman" when the Dark Knight introduces himself to the Gotham crime element. Keaton's character in this new film has a mind that is subdivided with conflict, a string of unresolved issues that force him to hallucinate greatly, not the least of which is a voice that rasps only to him "YOU'RE BIRDMAN", and which harshly chastises him for abandoning the super hero for the delusion that he could become part of the New York arts crowd.

That's all a bunch of shit, the voice insists, and intrudes on the actor's private moments with more berating and demands that he give up this Broadway charade and reclaim his one true calling , the man who is the definitive Birdman. The film, though, is quite a bit more than that, as it brings around a provocative stream of old associations, like an estranged daughter, an estranged daughter he's only recently reconciled with (if imperfectly), acting rivals , all of whom , between hallucinations, have wonderfully nuanced confrontations with Riggan and with each other on the irony latent in the countless attempts we make to rid ourselves of masks and present our true selves to things that matter most , such as marriage, rearing children, authentically gratifying work, only to realize that even the true self presented as evidence of no disguise is itself a mask, a disguise.

The conflicted Riggan is jerked about emotionally and has several instances where the hallucinations, the warring desires, take over and the film is transformed into yet another space, a surreal terrain of tall buildings, floating, spectacles that then dissipate as the conflicted hero emerges from his melodrama and attempts to finish what he's begun, the afore said adaptation for the screen. A fine cast of characters abound here, and a superlative roster of actors to bring their quirks and vulnerabilities to the screen; Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts are sublime and each of them have solidly written, deftly directed roles.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

punk rock

Thinking about God's version of the Draft Board:
 RAPTURE
The mailman drops his parcels and falls to his knees in the middle of the street as a light comes through the clouds and makes the commotions of the city radiate   gold tones like the frozen poses of ancient photographs found under the stairs of every parent’s house that aging children have to close.  You see the mailman on his knees and wonder why he’s praying, hardly aware of the increase in light or the music that blares all the big band music of  trumpets and saxophones that disguise the grind of passing cars, it’s such a shame that religious fanatics are hired to deliver the mail, you think, so much depends  on what comes through the System, envelopes full of  what’s owed and what’s not covered by any plan  that can be written down; you run the water in the sink, you wonder where did the clouds go?  There is no rain anywhere,  says the radio announcer, and the light is tremendous all over the globe, there is not a dark corner in any corner or nook on the earth, And then the radio gives out to static, and the TV releases itself to snow, the music in the street is very loud and swinging hard to the left and the right and then right down the   middle as all the notes scurry brilliantly through the hedges  and up the driveways, into the homes with each reed instrument improvising disembodied melodies that form their own sheet music, That is a very loud set of speakers in that passing car, you think. and the radio announcer cuts through the music and says something you hear as that millions of people all over the world have just vanished in lain site under bright light and big bang music, gone in a wisp and puff of smoke,  You look at your watch and note that it’s time for lunch, the clouds have fallen over the city again, the sky darkens, the shapes of the neighborhood take on their deep hues again, saddened with history, dense in dumb witness to what never ends, You stop, look out the window; you turn off the water you ran, in the middle of the street, by itself, flat on the cement,  The mailman’s bag and his clothes,  topped by his hat, kissed by a cool breeze.

Friday, February 6, 2015


Shadows in the Night--Bob Dylan
The so-called Great American Song Book was written specifically for singers who had better than average singing voices. One needed to not only be able to "carry a tune," but have a pleasant/intriguing/personable/tonally expressive quality to their singing that would make the blend of singer and song a memorable one, or at least one that entertained. Bob Dylan, from this standpoint, is an awful singer; his genius as a vocalist was constructed on the fact that he blended his influences--rock and roll, blues, country, old-timey folk--and wrote his own songs. He created the opposite effect than the ones regarding TGASB, which was rather than melodically nuanced songs being joined with musically suave vocalists, Dylan's mirror image was that of a ruffian, a street visionary, a man with shamanistic qualities who was in touch with the wild spirit of poetry, especially the surrealist sort, and sought to capture his visions in a neo-primitive format. Smartly simple song structures and Dylan's bracing nasal sneer made it clear that he didn't carry his tunes as forced them on you.


He couldn't sing well, but he could dramatize. So we have this paradox with "Shadows in the Night," a lousy singer from a technical viewpoint taking on songs that, from a technical standpoint, are sophisticated to the extent that expectations demand a vocalist who can actually hit the notes correctly and do something stylish with them. The result here is an awful, painful album to listen to. It's that simple. I am sure there are subtly argued defenses of what's been done here. I don't buy the apologies. I think less of what's been accomplished with this record and more of what's been committed, as in sin, a crime, a horrible insult to the brain. It's one thing for rock, and pop singers noted for singing styles that even the most uninterested among our company can admit to having tuneful voices to attempt the classic songs of Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, or a Tony Bennett. It's been enjoyable, if not always rewarding, to hear vocalists as diverse in approach and grit as Linda Ronstadt (good) to Rod Stewart (awful) to Pat Benatar (middling) try and wrap the gritty edge of their usual approach to a song around the sumptuous curves and segues of pieces that beguiled radio and ballroom audiences in World War 2. It's become a career stunt for old rock and rollers to dig into the vaults and revive the songs their parents were listening to, something that no longer intrigues.

Dylan's approach might have been interesting had he done this album quite a long time ago when the raggedness of his singing still had a bit of a range, and Dylan was capable of remaining in pitch; one thinks that Dylan of the Seventies and the Eighties, with a voice that was more versatile than people like me, have admitted, could take the classic songs and truly and surely redefine their melodic and thematic essence. Dylan was not a great singer, but he had a genius as a vocalist, the same fleeting skill one regards Mick Jagger's work. He could cajole, announce, exclaim, insinuate, and fashion an effective, reedy croon to dramatize, characterize a lyric. But that is not to be, and one can only sigh over what might have been had Dylan attempted a project like this when he still had the equipment to make it credible. One can only wonder, and one is better off not suffering his dead, toneless rasp here.

Monday, February 2, 2015

2 notes: Rod McKuen, and lack of sympathy for characters one creates.

Sometime back in the  Seventies, Dick Cavett introduced the late Rod McKuen on his show by quoting a critic's left handed compliment regarding the writer's work, "The world's most understood poet."That was not intended as praise , and anyone in the business of writing  what's regard as serious poetry , whether a runny-nosed  Beat or a hardened Modernist , would take a the description of their work being accessible as an accolade. Poetry in the 20th century had become increasingly odd and without noticable rules, a development that marked the work of many a genius poet at the time,but the facts is that fewer people read poetry as consumers of printed books, and fewer still seemed to understand what the new scribes were going on about. 

And so, poetry became the new scripture and critics, in a sense , became the new priesthood, discoursing on texts that allow no conventional entry point in terms that were equally cryptic. McKuen dared to be direct , simple in language, easily understood, trafficking much of his writing  career in maudlin , mawkish, garish sentimentality. It worked, to be sure, as he went off to conquer the publishing world, motion pictures, the music industry. It worked and he built a huge audience that  did not read poetry nor had the slightest idea of of the medium's standards of quality might  happen to be on any  given day. He made a lot of money and in the making of his millions, he inspired young people, like myself, to become a writer myself. To be clear, it was a chorus of writers that got my fancy and stirred in me the desire to string words together and indulge in metaphor, not just the recently deceased McKuen. But McKuen was in the gallery of faces that had my attention . My tastes simply matured beyond  what he was capable of writing about. Honestly, I had a man crush on him,so to speak, as a sensitive mid teen desiring to express great things myself--he was part of the collective of Dylan, Ginsberg, Eliot and Paul Simon that made me want to say things that were significant in ways a reader wouldn't expect. 

McKuen did have a knack for slinging words--his much anthologized poem "Camera" is good at the plain-speak verse later adopted by the ever accessible likes of Billy Collins. The poem, though, was clean and lacking the sentimentalism that made McKuen a standing joke and, eventually, an overripe expression of every unconsidered emotion. I should clarify that I went the middle period Dylan/TS Eliot route in poetry and came to prefer a more surreal and harder edge verse. The change , of course, came around when I had some genuine emotional upheavals and realized that experiencing , processing and recollecting such events in the process of forming a real personality trying to engage he world wasn't as simple as McKuen's McPoems would have us think. Though I harbor a soft spot for him, I think his "poetry", such as it was, was indefensible on any grounds as verse. It scratched those places before you had an itch. I hate to seem harsh, but his writing was slick and it was awful. Now and again he could write a few lines that were acceptable because they weren't dripping with the goo of his onerously bathetic persona, but he'd soon enough lard up his line breaks with a defiantly defeatist attitude ---lost again at love, ah sigggghhhh)--and would have us believe that he spent decades turning up his collar and walking the San Francisco water front in the rain and fog, looking for bar to nurse his pain at. Though he was an influence on me as a writer, I consider his writing everything that's wrong with the idea of expression for its own sake.

_______________________
I'm not as interested in feeling sympathy for the character or having an emotional stake in their success as I am in whether the film makers keep me interested in how the activities and motivations converge to a satisfying end. Or at least one that makes sense in unexpected ways; to varying degrees both Nabokov and Updike accomplish this in their stronger novels--"Pale Fire", the "Rabbit" quartet, respectively-- and the inspection of how witless self-regarding imbeciles custom design their machinery of their own destruction is a difficult and rare hallmark for the truly subversive comedy. Coen brothers Joel and Ethan understand the need for the distance from the goings on of the chronic stupidity in "Burn After Reading" so that that their only agenda is imagine what echos in the deepest recess of any of these people's minds while they compound their ignoble fates with layers of strip-mall hubris. What the Coens do with unlikeable characters seeking their own glory isn't an easy thing to accomplish--Brian DePalma managed to turn Tom Wolf's crotchety (albeit readable) novel "The Bonfire of the Vanities" into a loose, baggy monster of a film (to paraphrase Henry James)that demonstrated no flair for comic rhythm. Had the Coens been in charge of that novel, we'd most likely be praising them as we had for their work in "No Country for Old Men", making note of their sharp eye for damning detail and skewed dialogue, and their effective use of an attentive if disengaged tone.

Friday, January 16, 2015

one or two thoughts on KIM FOWLEY, RIP

Robert Christgau said it back in 1969, reviewing his album “OUTRAGEOUS”:

 “…. Fowley is such a gargantuan shuck that he ought to be preserved in a time capsule. …” 

That line has stuck with me and characterized Fowley for decades, and now it comes full circle where we have an opportunity to examine how the Sixties counter culture produced marginal sorts who were happy to have a niche somewhere in the music greatness of others, and those like Charlie Manson who wanted to change the world into a larger version of their insane selves. It was a crap shoot either way, and lucky for us, Fowley wasn't as crazy as he pretended to be. It's always been my impression that Kim Fowley, who died January 15, 2015, preferred you spoke about him in the past tense when you were in his presence. One imagines he would have relished the chance to eaves drop on what was said at his own funeral.Only a fool too fast of tongue of slow to truth would argue that Fowley didn't have some kind of observable genius in the happenstance of his life. He was an Ezra Pond sort his era, someone with a smattering of talent themselves who had a more acute instinct for the large talent of others . It can be a tedious thing to hash through again, but it bears repeating that Fowley's greatest masterpiece was creating a series of performance oriented personas, all the extreme, gaudy, tacky, neurotic and, rather, desperate in their attempts to equal the art being produced by artists he was attracted too. 

Fowley was someone who, like thousands of others at the time, were trying to berserk themselves into genius who, despite hard work and an unblinking commitment to the mask he was wearing, never convinced anyone that there was anything there but an egocentricity that was oddly ingratiating Fowley , I suspect, knew that we were onto his game from the get go and let it remain as such. Fowley was someone who wanted to leave his mark on history and didn't quite much care what damage to his reputation he suffered in doing so. It wasn't damage at, I think he'd have explained to us, since this was a reputation he was reputation he was creating in place of one that didn't exist in the first place. What he wanted was to be known, to be creative, to be a part  of the throng at the higher creative plain. He wanted to leave his mark on history, not change it, not destroy it, not change to course of things to come. He desired to be in the perennial now of whatever was intense at the musical time and space, and to have a sufficient version of his cover story to accompany. He was man who lived his life in the present tense. 

What is remarkable is that he remained in the game as long as he did. Fowley was a fake, which was the source of authenticity. He decided to "act as if..." and never stopped acting.I regard Fowley's whole life as being something like Kafka's Hunger Artist; the man who refuses to eat draws a crowed around him, and it's that artist's job to keep the crowd distracted while maintaining his cover. Fowley kept the mask on but remained an approachable anomaly . No easy thing to do.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My favorite films of 2014


Now is the time of year when we are glutted with lists extolling the best and worst happenstances of the year gone by and there is, after one or two lists of verbal fireworks in the form of inapt metaphors, inept similes, and indiscreet opinions about the personal lives of actors, directors and writers one has never met, it all becomes a persistent noise in the background, like the sprinkler system the spurts on through the day and into the night at the house next door. All the opinions about best and worst movies, spoken at a pitch that nears hysteria and utter, complete, incalculable irrational .
Pretty much everyone has a the same views on the same films, and the best any of us can do is play around with the wording, scramble the choices as to what column they fall into, yay or nay, perhaps do something "daring" by including what we, who collectively regard ourselves individuals with refined tastes and idiosyncratic smarts, select an obscure movie that very few of one's tent-pole addicted brethren would have recognized. In that last instance, a fine argued case for a movie no one you know personally has seen leaves with the duty to over explain the films context , style , and of breaking the news that there are people in capes, no super powers, no destruction of a major American city.
Trust me, I have tried that ploy, I have tried to enlighten the masses with my peculiar selections for the latest and greatest films to be made and released in the 365 days now behind us. It's a grim lesson. Well, not grim, just depressing in a minor key: no knew what I was talking about, nor cared. But the joy of these lists is that it is a grand excuse to hear yourself write , construct absurdly long sentences and make like a dime store Mencken and toss a bit of snark to the rubes and rubettes who are just passing by the soda fountain.
In any case, my best films of 2014:
1.NIGHTCRAWLER: I've already sung praises and lavished ham-fisted metaphors enough on this film, but it bears repeating that Nightcrawler is one of those debut films from a newly minted director, in this case seasoned screenwriter Dan Gilroy, where everything a solid,tense, noirish thriller ought to do. Gilroy has assembled a crackerjack cast and proceeds with a tale of a marginal character , a petty thief with disturbingly skewed frame of mind, who stumbles onto the world of "nightcrawlers", the freelance videographers who respond to police calls and film the worst of what happens in a city like Los Angeles after dark; murders, car crashes, fires, assorted human tragedy.
The film resembles, in theme, Martin Scorsese's masterpiece Taxi Driver, but this film is wholly his own and Gilroy establishes his own personality on this thriller. Los Angeles is seen mostly at night, a tarnished jewel glistening in the distance as we view it from the dank, shadowy vantages of service alleys, side streets rolling down dry, cottage dotted hills, the rooftops of slum neighborhoods. The camera placements and the editing are sublime; Michael Mann, himself a master of interpreting L.A. after dark, would find much to admire in this vision. Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, the titular nightcrawler, has a field day with his twitchy character who speaks and reacts in phrases and ways that make you think of someone who hasn't a center of being but is rather playing a role for the moment that will be sustained until it stops working, a moment after which anything can happen. Nightcrawler kept me rapt. A fine thriller, wonderfully done, splendidly acted.
2.BIRDMAN: This film is a about as meta-textual as it gets, concerning a actor named Riggan who, best known for portraying the cartoon super hero Birdman in three live action films, is attempting a comeback on broadway with a stage adaptation of a collection of Raymond Carver short stories, 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love". The first inside joke, of course, is that star Michael Keaton was the first Batman in two Tim Burton versions of the DC icon, who had the oft circulated take away line "I'm Batman" when the Dark Knight introduces himself to the Gotham crime element. Keaton's character in this new film has a mind that is subdivided with conflict, a string of unresolved issues that force him to hallucinate greatly, not the least of which is a voice that rasps only to him "YOU'RE BIRDMAN", and which harshly chastises him for abandoning the super hero for the delusion that he could become part of the New York arts crowd. That's all a bunch of shit, the voice insists, and intrudes on the actor's private moments with more berating and demands that he give up this broadway charade and reclaim his one true calling , the man who is the definitive Birdman. The film, though, is quite a bit more than that, as it brings around a provocative stream of old associations, like an estranged daughter, an estranged daughter he's only recently reconciled with (if imperfectly), acting rivals , all of whom , between hallucinations, have wonderfully nuanced confrontations with Riggan and with each other on the irony latent in the countless attempts we make to rid ourselves of masks and present our true selves to things that matter most , such as marriage, rearing children, authentically gratifying work, only to realize that even the true self presented as evidence of no disguise is itself a mask, a disguise. The conflicted Riggan is jerked about emotionally and has several instances where the hallucinations, the warring desires, take over and the film is transformed into yet another space, a surreal terrain of tall buildings, floating, spectacles that then dissipate as the conflicted hero emerges from his melodrama and attempts to finish what he's begun, the afore said adaptation for the screen. A fine cast of characters abound here, and a superlative roster of actors to bring their quirks and vulnerabilities to the screen; Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts are sublime and each of them have solidly written, deftly directed roles.
3.GONE GIRL: "Gone Girl", for all the intimidating hype, is a terrific piece of work, deftly, skillfully, subtly directed by the increasingly estimable David Fincher ("Fight Club", "Zodiac", "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"). Without going into plot detail and risk spoiling the film for others, lets say here that this is an intricate thriller, a murder mystery or sorts, a black comedy, a tale that evolves from a sort of "Peyton Place" situation of inane passion and betrayals but begins to morph into a taut, edgy thriller and into a dark, bleak comedy. As I said, this is a tale with lots of detail and surprises, but Fincher has a master's control of the material--use of flashbacks and shifting from points of view add texture and bring you in further into this seductive drama-comedy. We do not lose our place anywhere in the telling.
Fincher, like Alfred Hitchcock before him, has a sense of how to introduce complexity in a film at precisely the moment when you think you've accurately assessed where the plot is going. Especially pleasing is the lack of any rickety deus ex machina, the blatantly mechanical plot device in the form of a stock character or clichéd situation that appears only to initiate a generic and predictable twist in a genre thriller. "Gone Girl’s changes, cogently devised and deftly deployed, arise organically from the terrain of lying, cheating and infidelity that's already been established. This is a movie that lots of surprises and one in which you have to admit that didn't see coming.


Finding Vivian Maier

4.FINDING FOR VIVIAN MAIER: I saw this film and was thoroughly engrossed. Vivian Maier is such an enigma that she may well inspire continued speculation as to her personality and motivations as her renown grows.She was a housekeeper by trade, someone born in the United States yet feined a foreign accent and fictionalized her background, a woman without an observable social life of her own, an intensely private person who worked for several employers for several years a piece but about whom they couldn't recollect much at all. She was, though, a superbly gifted photographer who had a camera always at the ready where ever she went, taking a picture with an old, conspicuous camera when ever an image, a face, a spontaneous arrangement of objects presented themselves to her. She was a master of the art, as the film reveals in a generous representation of her photography.
The mystery of Vivian Maier unfolds with the discovery of literally thousands of undeveloped rolls of her photos at an estate sale; the purchaser of the photos processes some rolls and is flabbergasted as to the high quality of the work. Who took these photos? Why are so many rolls left undeveloped and nearly lost forever? Who is Vivian Maier and what compelled to live a life as a house servant when she had talent that equaled, on her own terms, the best work of photographers of great fame and praise.
This is a fascinating film, a discovery and appreciation of previously unknown master of photography, but also a mystery story. More is revealed about Maier, but the more we learn about her, the more questions we are inspired to ask. Her black and white photography are simply stunning and really do, as the experts in the film insist, match up with the best photographers of the period. It's an engrossing documentary on a fascinating subject.
5.GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL:Wes Anderson's deadpan absurdity works again. If you're an Anderson, you get the humor and the genre mashups the director brings to the screen: there is something quaint , lovely but a bit frayed into the worlds he to let his imagination move into for a period, while we're laughing at the off- kilter rhythms of the laugh lines and admiring his remarkable sense of art design, there's a sinister world lurking underneath the universe of his whimsical creations.


John Wick

6.JOHN WICK: A terse and true addition to the "payback's a bitch" genre, Kennau Reeves as the titular character, a hit man who has retired from his trade and is in a state of grieving over his dead wife until he is, well, fucked with by the son of the State side Russian mob. We know what happens next, with John Wick digging up the tools of his trade, the idea being like that of "Shane" where the former gun fighter takes his guns out of the saddle bag, and prepares a one man assault against a massive crime organization. It's been done to death, seemingly , premise that is the mark of a straight to video Steven Segal film, but co-directors Chad Stahlski and David Leitch keep this film tightly reined in, efficiently introducing a couple of new ideas here and there, but mostly sticking close to the idea that makes the genre so compelling, that the bad guys, despite their advantage in numbers and fire power, are going to pay for the sins they've committed with their lives. To cut to to the chase, this film works because it's a stylish and unapologetic shoot-em-up; the close quarters gun fights here are enthralling and show a strong influence of Hong Kong martial arts films. As with the exquisite movements in the combat scenes in the Christopher Bale science fiction thriller "Equilibrium", we have a fine illusion here that gun play can , like sword play , be artful, suggestive of dance. It's nonsense , of course, but there is something to be admired with the aesthetic the film makers brought to this violent enterprise and how well they pulled it off. Reeves, rest assured, has his Disney robot mannerisms put to good use here.
7.CAPTAIN AMERICA:WINTER SOLDIER: I am just a bit tired of the Mavel Universe, but Captain America continues to be a fun project. In this case, the bastards at Hydra turn out to be everywhere and the Captain finds himself neck deep in the dark world of conspiracy and secret agendas. This is one property I hope Marvel doesn't lard up with too much noise from the rest of the MCU. The Captain needs movies that can stand apart from the confusion that is already ruining what was once a font of good fun.
8.LIVE, DIE, REPEAT (EDGE OF TOMORROW): Really, this movie should have been a hit, an inspired take on the eternal-recurrence theme of "Groundhog's Day" ; instead dealing with a romantic comedy as the motivation for the activity to follow, we have an alien invasion and the fate of the Earth dependent on the exits and re-entrances on one precise and critical moment in time. Bad title, terrible re-titling, poor marketing, all of which is a shame considering that was the best science fiction movie of the year and was artfully efficient in all departments: taut, well acted, sweetly edited, all elements, from exposition to special effects, in line with enhancing the excitement.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

NIGHTCRAWLER


Nightcrawler, the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy , is akin to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver in it's close observance of titular characters of no observable depth of integrated personality who improvise their world views and philosophies on the fly. The shred goal of the men in both of these films is that they are at the frayed ends of the society they live, seeking either to have it fit and serve their erstwhile agendas or disrupt, disturb and injure in some fashion that comes with a warning. In Taxi Driver Robert DeNiro plays a sociopath who transfers his feelings of impotence and inadequacies onto the oppressive demands of the consumer culture; driving a cab through New York at night, he roams among the hookers, pimps, drug dealers who he finds disgusting and nurses an attraction-repulsion with those he perceives as rich and powerful , a class he wishes to both be a part of and wishes to destroy as well. Feeling that he's been dealt the rawest hand possible by powers on high, he vaguely plots to make something happen, something that would both change the way things are and define him as someone to be noticed and respected. In the course of Taxi Driver, effectively maneuvered by director Scorsese , Travis Bickle, DeNiro's emotionally unassimilated character, morphs from a sad and comic figure to someone who becomes menacing; the feeling that something will eventually , sooner than later, go wrong with this scenario is unavoidable.

Nightcrawler is another cool, restrained, artful study of a marginal personality attempting with their self-invented methods to define himself in a world that knows him not. Jake Gyllenhaal is a petty thief named Louis Bloom who hustles his way into the world of being a free lance news videographer, the sort of dude who waits in his car ,listens to a police scanner awaiting the announcement of a bloody auto accident, a robbery, a murder, plane crash and then responds so that he can film it and sell the morbid footage to a local news channel. Gyllenhaal has, like DeNiro, a sort of charisma that he oozes and applies effectively in the role, a wide smile, wide, attentive eyes and a patter borrowed from self-help books and on line encyclopedias. This a beautifully shot movie, a grand picture of Los Angeles after dark, with sharply drawn contrasts; the color scheme is gorgeously dark and makes the city's nocturnal side, shot from hill tops, side streets, alley ways and four ways stops, glisten even still like a display of expensive diamonds. Gyllenhaal's character is, to be sure, a sociopath, someone of no real concerns for the world other than his ability to negotiate a better position for himself; as the character rises in his new profession of filming the bloodiest events after hours , we witness him manipulate, twist, apply his creepily persuasive talk to gain his way. He displays a mastery of his character that is unnerving to see unfold, where different situations we see him learning how to coax responses he prefers to come from people, going from botched negotiations when trying to get a price he wants for stolen metal material , to getting low balled on a price when he sells his bike to a pawnbroker.

He learns from his mistakes by obsessively analyzing the words he chose in those situations and scours the internet courses to study research about human behavior and taking business classes where he appears most impressed by the lessons that instruct him in strong, goal oriented business language. His life becomes dedicated to a business plan that he has adopted as a philosophy and perhaps a substitute for a moral compass; when confronted with objections , protests and criticisms of his rationale and activities and results of plans that hadn't gone well, Gyllenhaal responds with a firm, calm response that is denial couched in the rhetoric of mass market motivational books.
The effects are frequently comic , as the character baffles and bamboozles others, but there is a sense of thing culminating in an oncoming catastrophe. Gilroy, directing his own script, has a the right touch for establishing the growing sense of unease; even as the story accelerates and the danger becomes more intensely presented, the film is steady in the pacing; there is the sense that your watching an accident about to happen and there is nothing you can do to stop it. A large part of the horror is when he we realize that we are watching a man who is without compunction, remorse, or any sense of moral right or wrong. He is a monster, a real monster, with no agenda other than achieving his ends. This is a fine motion picture, wonderfully filmed, acted, edited. One looks forward to more movies from Dan Gilroy.