Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Of Walking In Ice by Werner Herzog

I hate to admit to being underwhelmed by anything Herzog, but Of Walking In Ice just didn’t do it for me.  In 1974, Herzog walks from Munich to Paris, presumably because he feels that if he does so, he can help keep alive esteemed German film critic Lotte Eisner, who has fallen ill in France.  In and of itself that’s great.  Plus the weather sucks.  That adds drama.  Along the way he keeps a journal.  It is a diaristic ramble, to be sure.   He breaks into houses along the way to sleep.  That’s kind of cool in a 70s way.  There are definitely some prime Herzogian philosophical nuggets, but for me, it was pretty darned unfocused.  What kept me going was the scant page count.  I know I will be hated and hunted down by the lovers of cinema for this review.  But I’ll take my chances.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Black Hole by Bucky Sinister

Bucky Sinister is one of my all time favorite poets, both on the page and at readings. After years slugging it out in the poetry trenches, he’s just published Black Hole, his debut novel. Exciting stuff. 

Black Hole is fantastic.  Sinister would be the first to admit that it owes a debt to Philip K. Dick.  A Scanner Darkly jumps to mind, as Black Hole is drenched in drug-fueled sadness as we bear witness to a character losing his mind, and quite disturbingly, his hold on time. Black Hole features an ageing hipster, Chuck, with an insatiable appetite for drugs.  But the drugs that he dabbles in are new designer drugs, the side effects not quite known. Chuck has not quite figured out how to grow up. He’s a 40 year old drug addict who hasn’t given up the party. His friends are either dead or have grown up, shedding their punk rock leathers for family man garages. On top of that, his beloved Mission is undergoing a rapid change. In with tech, out with warehouses, squats, and Mission eccentrics. He's at a loss how to move into middle age. He's become the weird old guy at the party. 

Chuck is at loose ends, and as he dabbles with new designer drugs, he spins in and out of control. The drugs are making him black out.  When he awakes he seems to be skipping through time.  He time travels to the near past, forced to relive the mistakes and trials of his youth over and over again. He gets opportunities to fix his mistakes, but he’s not that smart or lucky.

Black Hole is at its best when it addresses how we approach middle age, especially for those who cut their teeth in the punk universe. What happens when you recognize that the world around you has changed, but you can’t figure out how or where you fit into the new order of things? Worse yet, what if you realize there is no place for you? 

How we approach change is central to Black Hole and as Chuck grapples with change at the personal level, he is confronted with a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco. Black Hole becomes a great vehicle for exploring the current changes in the Mission.  No worries though, Black Hole is not shrill or didactic.  It’s equal parts funny and melancholy.  Sinister has been honing his chops as a stand-up comedian for the last ten years and Black Hole is full of funny.  It features a world where the nouveau tech crowd are clamoring to buy mini whales, the hottest status symbol pet on the market. It also laments a world where a crazy person, running around the Mission covered in feces, is no longer acceptable. 

Ultimately though, Black Hole is filled with longing and sadness. It’s a toast to a time gone by, a time that is being brushed under the carpet of history. It’s not a condemnation of the new Mission, but a rumination on how we experience change and stagnation. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Inherent Vice vs. Play It As It Lays

I’m on a 60s LA kick.  Just finished up Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays and Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.  Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is on deck, which could serve as a nice capper to this run.

Play It As It Lays and Inherent Vice share a frayed vision of the 60s, but the similarities stop there.  Play It As It Lays is desperate, sad, and heartbreaking. It is steeped in melancholy.  If the 60s were supposed to be liberating and life affirming, the characters in this book never got the memo.  It’s a crashing dream.  We get snippets of the life of Maria.  Model turned actress turned Hollywood wife heading for a crack up.  All the booze, the drugs and loose morals do nothing but undermine her self-worth.  It’s a haunting book.  Play It As It Lays, written in 1970, seems ahead of its time in re-evaluating the 60s or certainly poking holes in the Eden-esque 60s mythology.

Inherent Vice, on the other hand, fully plays into that myth.  Free love and free drugs abound.  Surf music is on the radio, rock and roll is in the streets, and revolution is in the air.  But this is a crime novel, so not all is well.  A Cointelpro sting, a drug ring, and a bizarre real-estate scandal threaten the stoners’ surf paradise. However, Pynchon’s characters remain oblivious to the menace, having a rollicking good time.  They all are just too stoned to be too concerned.

Plopped down in 1969, months after the Manson murders, Inherent Vice is a hazy, drug-fueled noir.  It owes a huge debt to Raymond Chandler, but floats in a psychedelic fog. I loved it at times, but at other points the haze got a bit thick.  With an intensely convoluted plot, filled with oodles of characters, the narrative slip slides around in a cloud of pot smoke, oft times obscuring the narrative.  At some level that approach leaves you with some impressionistic scenes, but with so many plot turns to keep track of, confusion ensues.  Interestingly, I heard an interview with Paul Thomas Anderson, who adapted Inherent Vice for the screen last year.  I have yet to see the movie, but he talks about using Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye as a model for his film.  This completely informed my reading of Inherent Vice.  Altman’s take on Chandler is narratively challenged and heavy on vibe.  It’s elusive and hard to pin down.  I was never the hugest fan, but the mood of that film has stuck with me years after viewing.  Though I didn’t love Inherent Vice throughout, it actually has fueled my interest to take in the movie.  It seems ripe for the screen, a dizzying visual ride, prone to slipping in and out of the narrative fold.  I can get behind that.

On a side note, I haven’t read Pynchon since college.  I loved him then, but haven’t read any of the comeback novels.  I couldn’t help being struck by how wacky and goofy Inherent Vice was.  Great heaps of Carl Hiaasen craziness abound in these pages.  So my question is whether Hiaasen’s books are hugely influenced by early Pynchon or whether Pynchon has succumbed to influences by more modern writers?  And speaking of modern influences, there a bit of James Ellroy and bit of The Big Lebowski floating around in this Inherent stew.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

The hype was thick.  My Facebook feed full of friends raving about the new Mad Max.  I saw it.  I liked it.  It had beautiful cinematography.  So many breathtaking,  impressionistic landscapes.  Perhaps they were all crafted digitally. Who cares, they were stunning artistic achievements.  There was great art direction.   I’m not a car guy, but I loved some of the vehicles.  Definitely some Big Daddy Roth inspired muscle.  There were some fun chase scenes, perhaps bordering on Hanna-Barbera Wacky Races silliness.  Was it feminist?  I suppose it was. Though, for me it was feminist the way animated kids movies are environmentalist.  In other words, some light exploration of the issues at hand.  I’m not complaining.  That’s good.  Better than the alternative.  But is this a deep movie that really talks about gender issues?  Not really.  Is it a 2 hour over-adrenalized car chase? Yup. Did I stop caring at some point? Sure. 

Did I like Mad Max?  Why not?  It had some moments. I did love the fact that the soundtrack was so loud it oblterated much of the dialogue.  I once saw Cliffhanger in Italy without subtitles.  I loved it.  Had I heard the actual dialogue, I'm sure I would have been horrified.  Did I like Tom Hardy grunting his way through the script? I did.  It reminded me of Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner.  Hardy is no Spall, but I like movies with lots of grunting.  

Mad Max was fun.  But it was no Snowpiercer, which I might argue operates in the same pedal-to-the-metal vein. For that matter, last night I watched the Rifftrax take on Sharknado, and that got much more of a rise out of me than Fury Road.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Karl Ove Knausgaard. Believe the Hype?

No question that the Karl Ove Knausgaard hype is in full effect.  The Norwegian memoirist is everywhere from guest writing spots in The New Yorker to the lecture circuit.  For those not in the know, Knausgaard has penned a massive memoir called, of all things, My Struggle.  It’s a six volume odyssey, each volume clocking in around 600 pages.  I just finished Book 2 and, if I’m honest, 1200 pages in, I’m still not sure what I think.  In fact, after Book 1, I decided that I wasn’t going to commit to the full monty.  But a couple stellar reviews by friends, and coming across it on the library shelves (shocked that it wasn’t checked out), I decided to give Book 2 a go.

My struggle with Knausgaard is this - On the one hand, he’s an excellent writer.  His prose has flow. He’s easy to read.  He continually gives great insights into the little moments of life, all the while struggling over larger philosophical conundrums.  

On the other hand, the narrative structure of these books is all over the map.  There isn’t a conventional narrative thru line.  There are thematic thru lines, but if you’re looking to sink into and be pulled along by a swiftly rushing narrative current, Knausgaard will frustrate.

Book 2 is all about parenting. Knausgaard struggles with the perception of himself as a stay-at-home father.  He struggles with his wife as they deal with parenting challenges.  Though he dives head long into parenting, it cuts against the life he wants to lead as an artist. This dichotomy is at the heart of Book 2.  He has to fight to carve out a space that allows him to write.  As I read Book 2, it vividly brought back many of the challenges and triumphs of raising young children. 

But the narrative is loose.  The book opens at a kid’s birthday party.  We’re at that party for a good 80 pages, and suddenly we slide into ruminations on Kanusgaard’s own childhood, and suddenly we careen into his first meeting with his wife, and all of a sudden we’re finding about his leaving Norway to come to Sweden.  Some of these narrative excursions are 10 pages, some 50 pages.  You never know how long of a ride you’re in for.  You never know if a thread will come back. 

For all the great writing, and there is plenty, sometimes the book is hard to pick up without that solid narrative thread to pull you in.

Will I read Book 3? It might be a game time decision.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

I Didn't Go See The Replacements

I loved The Replacements.  They were one of the most important bands in my life during my college years.  But at some point, I checked out.  Listening to them made me sad.  The I’m In Trouble 45 is one of my all time favorite 45s. I didn’t own it, but I played it on the jukebox every time I went to Joe’s Starr Lounge in Ann Arbor.  I loved Hootenanny.  I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was when Let It Be came out.  I even loved the When The Shit Hits the Fans cassette.  When Tim came out, I wasn’t ready to dismiss them solely for the fact that Tim was a major label release.  Tim has its moments and contains some great tracks, but the production is awful, as are some of the songs.  The album version of Bastards of Young paled in comparison to the live versions they had been playing prior to the release of that record.  Not that I listened to their subsequent records all that closely, but they never did it for me when friends put them on.  I guess I liked the earlier stuff, the Bob stuff.   I loved that The Replacements shook the hardcore trappings of Sorry Ma, and found their pop and rock voice.  But the poppier/rockier direction of Hootenanny and Let It Be was infused with the hardcore and metal that pulsed through their DNA. The Replacements were a band that could move from the emo beauty of Within Your Reach to the hardcore stupidity of Run It to the perfect amalgamation of noise and song in Hayday in a matter of a seconds.  There was a level of unpredictability from one song to the next.  Post Let It Be, that unpredictability and the excitement it brought disappeared for me.  Yes there are good songs in the post Let It Be universe, The Replacements always had good songs.   But that reckless rock and roll excitement was gone.  The Replacements were a great band, and then they weren’t.  And that makes me sad whenever I listen to them.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Girl In A Band by Kim Gordon

Just tore through Kim Gordon’s bio, Girl In A Band.  It’s a good read. It’s a quick read.

As a bio, it hits all the stages in her life, but it does so with a light brush.  It’s not a drama-fueled bio à la Mary Karr. It’s not as philosophical, nor does it delve as deeply and shed a light onto a specific time period like Patti Smith’s Just Kids.

At times it feels like a hit and run overview, but within that, it’s all good. The book is very much about Gordon’s development as an artist and her quest to live the artistic life.  I use the word “artist” consciously, because though Gordon is best known as a musician, it’s her interest in other art forms that serves as her wellspring.  To be fair, Sonic Youth always came across as “arty”.  I always liked that about them.  Gordon doesn’t shy away from this conceit.  Her inspiration comes from folks like Mike Kelley, Dan Graham, and Gerhard Richter.

The book is framed by the dissolution of her marriage, and that story gives the book its arc.  Gordon has moved on from Sonic Youth, is starting new bands, has re-focused her energies on her art career, and is moving towards a different stage in her life.  That change is lurking everywhere in Girl In A Band.

For those looking for the comprehensive Sonic Youth tell-all/tome, this is not it.  Gordon takes the stance that the band’s history has been well documented elsewhere.  She moves through the band’s career by devoting chapters to specific songs and/or albums that resonated with her.  It’s not the broad view that she takes, but the more personal glint into the world of Sonic Youth.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It does leave you wanting more stories and insights, but what’s on the page is strong.

Gordon is pretty open talking about the challenges and triumphs of rock and roll parenting, as well.  Though she doesn’t regale the reader with story after story, her take is insightful and heartfelt.

Finally, art is the core for her.  It informs her work as a musician and artist throughout her career.  Personally, I love when artists take their inspiration from mediums that are not their own.   This is Gordon’s m.o., so I loved that aspect of the book.  If I have any complaint is that the photos in the book aren’t that strong, and the book is devoid of any telling photos of her artwork.  As much of a fan as I am, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know her work as a fine artist.  She talks enough about it in the book, that some photos would have been nice.

Small quibbles for sure.