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. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Some Quick Thoughts About TV

Peaky Blinders—Let’s talk Netflix Original deep cuts.  When I was first laid up with my bad back in December, I cruised through this British Series.  Set in the 20s, it focuses on the mean streets of industrial Birmingham.  It’s a melting pot of trouble.  Commies, cops, IRA, and The Peaky Blinders, the local gang, are all doing battle in this hardscrabble universe filled with young men deeply scarred by their experiences in WWI. It’s a far remove from Downton Abbey.  There are flashes of excitement, especially when the show gets political, as it does at the outset.  Will the factory workers fight for their rights?  Will they embrace a socialist movement? Will they embrace revolutionary moment? Or will they fall into the hands of the local gangs, offering a quick buck.  Unfortunately, as the show develops, politics become an afterthought, and the show’s plot turns toward simple gang warfare.  Not bad, I just feel that the politics of England between-the-wars carries with it a seed of originality that simple gang warfare fails to bring.  I did stick out for both seasons.

Veep—OK, I’m four seasons late to the party here, but this is brilliant funny stuff.  Never watched it, but then I shot an Evening with Veep for San Francisco Sketchfest this year and I was intrigued.  I had no idea that Armando Iannucci, one of the creative minds behind I’m Alan Partridge and In The Loop was behind this.  The writing is great, as is the acting.  Full marks here.

House of Cards—Watching House of Cards and Veep at the same time is a bit surreal, since the plot lines are nearly identical, featuring Vice Presidents climbing the ladder to the Presidency.  A shocking number of plot points start converging.  The two shows represent an interesting exercise in taking similar broad plot points and creating two very different experiences. Enough of that, let’s talk House of Cards. I loved the first two seasons.  Now that I’m more than halfway through season 3, I can’t say I’m feeling it so much.  The first two seasons focus on Frank Underwood’s rise to power.  His end game becomes clear and is the driving force of the series.  Now that he is fully in power in season 3, the show seems to lose focus.  As President he seems rudderless.  Other than maintaining power and flaunting his power, he seems adrift with no political agenda.  It seems odd to me that someone who is a career politician, who was so focused on achieving the Presidency, would get there and then have no clear policies that he wants to enact.  As the season progresses, he pushes policy through, but it all seems so reactive as opposed to proactive.  It strikes me as a bit of lazy writing.  Given the strength of the writing and acting in the first two seasons, I’ll play out the string, but I’m starting to think the five hour investment I have in front of me could be better spent. 

Girls—I’ve been mixed on Girls.  I like Lena Dunham. That said, the show, at times has irritated.  I dug season 1.  Season 2 made my skin crawl a bit.  I skipped season 3.  I’m digging Season 4.  I find myself looking forward to each episode.  Isn’t that the draw of TV?  There you have it.  Have I mentioned how every time I look at Lena Dunham, I think of 90s underground filmmaker, Sarah Jacobson?  I think Dunham, whether she realizes it or not, took the mantle Jacobson was blazing before her untimely death, and has run with it.  I think Sarah would be proud to see someone like Dunham strutting her stuff so boldly on TV. That thought makes me happy.

Togetherness—I’m a big Mark Duplass fan.  I really enjoyed the first season of Togethrness, which features a married couple moving in different directions after becoming parents.  It seems real. It seems heartfelt. It seems wounded.  The characters aren’t always sympathetic, but they are not in a good place.  The side story of the directionless sister and the best friend, who is an out of work actor, feels real as well.  What happens when you approach middle age and all your hopes and dreams seem forever out of reach?  Togetherness goes there and it’s good stuff.

Hockey—I watch a lot of hockey.  The Sharks, my team, are a bit of sideshow this year. They’re offering up as much drama as some of the shows on this list.  As the regular season comes to an end, and it becomes increasingly likely they won’t make the playoffs, I keep watching.  I suppose it’s the masochist in me.  Sports fans understand. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The One I Love

The One I Love slipped in and out of the local theaters with little fanfare, and that’s a shame.  With a little more time, it could have caught some mild indie fire. Similar to Mark Duplass’ new and highly recommended tv show Togetherness, The One I Love features Duplass and co-star Elizabeth Moss as a young, struggling married couple.  The film opens with the two in therapy where it’s quickly evident that they are growing estranged from each other.  Their therapist, played by Ted Danson, insists they go on a weekend retreat. He’s got just the spot for them.  Duplass and Moss head off for some rest, relaxation, and reconciliation. They smoke some pot, they have some sex, and things are going well until things get weird.  

Mild spoiler alert to follow.  The idyllic start takes a sudden turn when the couple realizes that they are not alone.  Worse than being terrorized by strangers, the people they find inhabiting the cottage are idealized versions of themselves.  Whenever Duplass retreats to the guest house on the property he meets a kinder, more tolerant, more sexy version of his wife.  When Moss enters the guest house, she meets a more easy going, less cynical, less bitter version of her husband. She’s reunited with the man she fell in love with years earlier. Confronted by their doppelgangers, the couple runs, but then are sucked back to explore the possibilities.  Duplass wants nothing to do with this house of mirrors, but Moss, who is clearly more wounded by their disintegrating marriage, feels that regardless of the bizarre nature of this occurrence, it represents possibilities worth exploring.

The One I Love sets a great tone.  It’s got a bit of austere sci-fi creep, with hints of The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and late night 70s B Movies like Magic.  It also owes a debt to John Frankenheimer’s Seconds.  But there’s dark comedy floating about as well. Only one of them can experience a doppelganger at a time.  They have to hash out the ground rules for this trust exercise. It’s funny stuff.  Obviously insecurities arise. Sometimes they are played for comedy, other times for melancholy.

The One I Love is streaming on Netflix and worth 90 minutes of your time.