All posts filed under “Music

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Ketchup

Once school lets out, I start consuming culture faster than I can respond to it, so I need to quickly catch up with notes on a few books and movies.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016). I was really disappointed by how disappointing this was; it sounded so terrific in the reviews. The fantastical/speculative elements don’t engender much surprise, the characters are wooden, the set pieces go on too long and belabor their points, the movement through time and space is frequently herky-jerky and confusing, and worst there’s an air of bland, austere dutifulness hanging over the whole enterprise. I don’t think I’m someone incapable of appreciating a novel of ideas, but I guess I do like a little style thrown in after all.

The Sympathizer, Viet Tranh Nguyen (2015). This was terrific, a timely tour de force for our era of heightened consciousness about who gets to speak for whom in literature. This slyly provocative novel features a double agent whose identity, politics, and identity politics are so scrambled he himself can’t say where he really belongs. The subtle arguments about nationalism, culture, and determinism come wrapped in a crisp, lively, dead-on rendering of the period. Smart and fun so rarely go hand in hand.

Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad (2014). Enjoyable and informative; I knew Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys suffered from mental illness, but I had no idea that he was so cruelly manipulated by his manager. Big props to the art director here; the movie’s a joy to look at and makes you feel like you’re in late 20c L.A.

Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch (2016). Jarmusch’s love letter to the greatest rock and roll band of all time. A bit more my speed than the Beach Boys. Iggy for President! He’s like if Bernie Sanders jumped into the mosh pit. You hear “I Wanna Be Your Dog” about a thousand times over the course of this movie and it is AWESOME every time.

Twentieth Century Women, Mike Mills (2017). I don’t know how he does it, but he does — this movie is as sweet and wistful as can be, and somehow less triggering than Beginners, which apparently annoyed me pretty bad. Do all the grand emotional turbulences between kids and parents, parents and lovers, kids and kids really just amount to a bunch of well-off over-educated white people wringing their hands? Yes, of course. But feelings are still feelings, people! Did you know Mills is married to Miranda July and they have a son named Hopper, who’s five? Once he’s old enough to skateboard over to Frances Bean’s house for a cup of matcha, that kid is going to be the most indie kid who ever lived.

Shame, Steve McQueen (2011). This Paul Schrader movie was somehow directed not by Paul Schrader but by Steve McQueen. Of McQueen’s three features to date (the other two are Hunger, about Bobby Sands, and 12 Years a Slave, about Solomon Northrup), this is the only one I’ve been able to bring myself to watch, and that’s saying something, because this one’s not exactly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. McQueen sure has a thing for abuse. Shame features a kind of sexual shark, played by Michael Fassbender, who very literally has one thing on his mind. We see him have every variety of modern urban intercourse and none of it seems much fun at all. Predictably, he fails to get it up only once, when he meets a person — a charming and ingenuous co-worker — who registers on his tiny consciousness as a subject rather than an object. It’s all profoundly sad, but I’m not sure it’s profound.

South and West, Joan Didion (2017). You only need to check this out if you’re interested in the rural South and/or you’re a Didion fanatic; I’m both. This isn’t even really a book, it’s just a bunch of jottings Didion made on a one-month road trip from New Orleans, up through Mississippi and Alabama, in the summer of 1970. There are flashes of insight, and some classic Didion images, but most of it is pretty shallow and predictably stereotypical. I find this oddly gratifying, that the South seems to have stymied my hero’s normally inexorable acumen . . .

I’m remembering that last year at this time I was reading the Ferrante books and it was perfect. I miss them.

I’m also reading essays on photography by Robert Adams; I’m not so sure about them. He’s a bit given to hagiography of his heroes. The more I read prose by photographers the more I realize that it’s awful rare to find a photographer who can write for a damn.

 

 

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Just Kids, Patti Smith (2010)

8b1087fc_9780060936228_custom-a17e6811a0d8658b75998dc86873b2a4b060d9f2-s6-c30-1.xxxlarge_2xPatti Smith offers a self-portrait of the artist as a young woman, and the story of her famous friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, with appealing simplicity and humility. It’s always been what’s vexed and excited people about her, I think–the contrast between the primal wildness and impiety of Smith’s art and the sober, earnest, humble artist behind it. And then of course Mapplethorpe, whose work was so violently and willfully misunderstood and misrepresented that it may never recover and be seen for what it actually is.

Smith’s prose style is almost naive in its simplicity; she reports on the mad rituals of the 70’s downtown tribe without a trace of sensationalism. Not that the book’s a dispassionate ethnography, though–there’s not much reflection or analysis at all. It sounds more like Smith was a stranger in that strange land, just trying to survive and do her art. It mattered to Robert to see and be seen. To put it mildly. But not Smith; she was happy to have a job at a bookstore, a donut for breakfast, and paper to write or draw on.

If the book’s account and tone are to be trusted, it seems pretty bizarre that these two kids managed to accomplish what they did. It helped, of course, that they had no student loans and monthly rent bills in the low three digits. These days, a jejune poète maudit wanna-be with no money, no degree, no connections, no safety net, and vague artistic goals would last about ten minutes in New York before she was forced to move back to Jersey. Five.

It’s a lovely, sweet book, but weird too. I sometimes got a little frustrated with Smith’s decorousness and discretion, her refusal (or inability) to convey, or even much acknowledge, the enormously chaotic character of the historical moment she’s writing about. But that’s also what makes the story so sweet. It’s not a cultural history of 70’s NYC. It’s just kids.

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Ketchup

KetchupCan’t keep up the full-blown posts while school’s in session. This isn’t everything seen, heard, and read this semester — just what I can remember off the top of my head.

Atonement, Ian McEwan (2001). Hundreds of terrific sentences and a lively yarn. Is it now always necessary that every novel has to be about both what it’s about and also about novelists?

Ex Machina, Alex Garland (2015). This made me so mad but now I’m having trouble even remembering it. I think it had to do with the fact that it was masquerading as being all Jaron Lanier philosophical when really it’s just about grubby horny boys wanting to look at sexy naked girls without feeling bad about it. Two choices available to female-coded beings in this world: slave or murderer. See my commentary elsewhere regarding those recent Scarlett Johansson movies; she’s the queen of this kingdom, and Luc Besson is its Don King.

Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, Errol Morris (2011). Manic, obsessive, repetitive, and great investigation of photography’s truthiness and its consequences. Particularly astute on the ways photographs can be put to use as political propaganda.

Diogenes the Cynic: Sayings and Anecdotes, With Other Popular Moralists, ed. Robin Hard (2012). I didn’t like Diogenes as much as I thought I would. His inconsistencies irritate me. Turns out I’m more of a Seneca guy. What are you going to do.

Dialogues and Essays, Seneca. Still working on this. Not as immediately accessible as Marcus Aurelius but I’m warming to it.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius. I love this like I love Montaigne; their spirits are so close. (My understanding is that Montaigne oddly doesn’t seem to have known Aurelius — a pity.) The Staniforth translation is the best. The Robin Hard one may be “better” for classicists but it’s awful for human consumption.

Welcome to Me, Shira Piven (2014). A little Truman Show, a little Nurse Betty, a little To Die For. Doesn’t quite hold together, is too one-note and too relentlessly committed to despair, but it’s still a smart movie.

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), Suzan-Lori Parks (2015). If you’re struggling to write a play about a soldier come home from a war and you find out that your favorite living playwright’s new play is titled “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” you have some kind of mixed feelings. But the main feeling here is satisfaction, since this is one of Parks’ best.  I admire her so much. I’m particularly impressed that she’s getting less and less obscure, but isn’t losing any of the fundamental ambivalences that make her work so provocative. This work is every bit as incisive and destabilizing as, say, The America Play, but I can also imagine this one put on by a high school drama club, whereas earlier work was a bit too far out for that kind of venue. Wonderful, wonderful piece; wish I could have seen it at the Public.

The Sellout, Paul Beatty (2015). Beatty reminds me of my good friend Jeffrey McDaniel, such a fecund imagination that he’ll never use one clever metaphor when three have come to mind. The novel works as a crazy comic satire on contemporary race relations, politics, poverty, capitalism, Los Angeles, and also as a sort of fictional beard for Beatty’s more essayistic commentaries on all of the above. I sometimes wish Beatty didn’t feel the need to stuff every single sentence with as many jokes as possible, but all that candy is laced with enough acid that I suppose it balances out in the end.

Also reread Roth’s The Radetzky March  and The Emperor’s Tomb this fall, for fun.  

Also reading more Simon Stephens plays.

TV: Sandy convinced me to watch Orphan Black. It’s pretty dumb but I did watch the whole thing. It’s kind of ironic that here you have a show with all these strong female characters, but only one actress getting work! Also watched the Netflix series Narcos, FX’s The Americans, and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Also re-watched the entire span of The Wire and thought it’s holding up very well. More and more, I find I watch fewer movies and more series. This depresses me a little, but I don’t know why.

Listening: Nicholas Jaar, Claude von Stroke, The Juan Maclean, Dexter Gordon, McCoy Tyner, Maya Jane Coles. Utterly in love with my absurdly expensive Spotify subscription.

Looking: Thinking a lot about August Sander’s People of the 20th Century, Sternfeld’s Stranger Passing, and this post from Blake Andrews on “docutrinity.”

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What Happened, Miss Simone? Liz Garbus (2015)

nina-reelgoodGreat documentary about an absolutely fascinating character — I’m not going to say “tragic” because I’m not sure that’s exactly true. Simone was a preacher’s daughter in the Jim Crow south who very early in childhood showed such intense capacity at the piano that a white piano teacher on the right side of the tracks took her on as a project. She practiced the repertoire at the expense of all other childhood activities, as is expected of prodigies, and got herself up north to attend conservatory, but the money ran out, and she started gigging at bars and clubs. Playing pop tunes for drunks was as easy for her as it would have been for Picasso to draw caricatures for tourists on the boardwalk, and when a bar owner told her to go ahead and sing, too, she went ahead and sang. No one, least of all Simone, could have guessed those sounds were in her, waiting to come out.

From there the story starts moving much more quickly, as Simone’s career explodes. I’m not going to recount all the twists and turns — you’re going to watch this on Netflix yourself soon, I hope. I will say that the movie got me thinking a great deal about the artist’s relationship to her historical moment. Shall she seek to evade it? Engage it? Change it? I think sometimes none of these choices are really available, and history just engulfs the artist, has its way with her, and I think that’s what happened to Miss Simone.

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Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori (2012)

Some movies you know you’re going to cry through so you have to wait until your housemate’s out of town to watch them. Big Star is for me the saddest and most beautiful band that ever existed. There are many, many bands that I like more than Big Star, that I think are more accomplished than Big Star, that I would much rather listen to than Big Star, but Big Star is the infinitely dense collapsed black giant in my pop firmament. One of its polestars, Alex Chilton, has a big pop hit (“The Letter,” with the Box Tops) as a child and then commences a career that must qualify as the most varied and ambivalent wander in the pop wilderness ever. The other, Chris Bell, our American Nick Drake, desperate and desperately talented, dead at 27. There’s the diffidence of the band, but then there’s also the diffidence of Memphis, a nowhere/everywhere in American life — so full of resonance and so drained of content — that’s become weirdly symbolic for me as my years as a fake or aspirational Southerner tick by. They couldn’t have done it in New York or Los Angeles. They maybe could have done it in Chicago.

And then there’s the music, simultaneously exquisite and disastrous, filled with junk elation and pain so real it bleeds. Absolutely American in its Delta soul, and yet so far beyond any vernacular satisfactions, so utterly louche and nihilistic, that it’s probably, bizarrely, more comparable to Celine than anyone else. Compared to a song like “Kangaroo,” the Doors’ gestures at decadence seem like something out a Family Circus cartoon.

It’s a pretty good movie. Hagiographic, for sure, and sometimes the filmmakers take too much for granted that we already know the basic outlines of the story, but it’s well worth watching and crying over.

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Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul (2012)

Sugar-ManA unique story in some ways, all too familiar in others. Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, a working-class kid born 1942 in Detroit to Mexican immigrant parents, puts out a couple of solid folk-rock records in the late 60’s and early 70’s. They don’t sell, his label drops him, and he lives a life of menial labor and community activism in Detroit for decades. Unbeknownst to him, though, he’s hugely famous in South Africa, where his music is as familiar and pop-canonical as that of Simon and Garfunkel and Cat Stevens, though little is known about him personally. The movie traces the efforts of a few die-hard South African fans to find Rodriguez. Eventually, once he’s “discovered,” he tours South Africa, where he is much loved. The question of where all the money went from the hundreds of thousands of records sold in South Africa while Rodriguez scraped by in Detroit is lightly pricked but not dug into, because the filmmakers want this to be a story about Rodriguez’s mystical, totemic purity, rather than (yet another) story about a rube who got fucked over by the record industry.

However, that is the story, however over-familiar or mean, and I wish the filmmakers had acknowledged that. Rodriguez wrote smart, incisive songs about systemic oppression; kids in South Africa were inspired by his ideas; record company executives took the kids’ money; Rodriguez made nothing. That’s not a story about a guy too cool to care about money. That’s the story of a guy who got fucked over. Detroit makes and the world takes! The movie seemed to want me to feel warm and fuzzy about this story but I felt angry. Maybe I listened to Rodriguez’s lyrics more closely than the filmmakers did.

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The Sea and Cake, The Moonlight Butterfly (2011)

Some people get excited when their favorite bands try new things — they’re showing their versatility! they’re growing! — but I am not one of those people. I want my favorite bands to provide a steady supply of new songs that sound exactly like, but different from, the songs I already love. These gentlemen understand that, and they have my gratitude.

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Comfort of Strangers, Beth Orton (2006)

First time through you could be excused for thinking this sounds like background music at Starbucks. But Orton is truly protean, and here she is hitched up with the insanely brilliant Jim O’Rourke on the boards, and every song here rewards repeated listenings; they get weirder and deeper the more you listen. What I love best is the way songs just end when they’re done doing what they set out to do. That’s a hard skill for a poet to learn: When to eschew finishing in favor of ending.

I’ve loved Orton for more than a decade. I believe that if she had decided to promote herself harder, she could have been a superstar. She didn’t, and I think she’s probably stayed sane and happy as a result. I hear that she’s got a new one coming, at last, in 2012. I’m excited, but I haven’t minded waiting.