Thursday, October 13, 2016

Horror Vs. Europe, Part 2.

Start here.

The Enemy by Isaac Bashevis Singer (Dark Forces) Vs. While Sleeping by Antonio Fian (Best European Fiction 2010)

The Enemy: Editor Kirby McCauley got Isaac Bashevis Singer to contribute to a grisly horror anthology! Well done. The narrator bumps into an old friend, who tells the tale of his shipboard battle against a sadistic waiter. A paranoid nightmare of refugee survivor guilt ensues. As dark as this might sound, Singer's celebrated yarnspinning style keeps the tone mercifully light; he's too confident a storyteller to burden the reader unduly. It's also rather distanced: it's all told from the frame story of a conversation between friends. The frame story, with two friends explaining themselves to each other, seems to be at least as important to Singer as the story within the story. 

While Sleeping: Imagine Donald Barthelme and Franz Kafka trying to make each other laugh, but they're both really sleepy and neither is even close to top form. Vignettes where things go horribly wrong, but people manage to contrive some absurd sense from it all. The author's note states that the author wishes he were better known for his longer work, not for these bite-sized whimsies.

Compare/Contrast: Both stories involve startling and distressing turns of events that the protagonists manage, however provisionally, to fit into a big picture sense of rightness.

Verdict: As fond as I am of Kafka and Barthelme, I can't work up much enthusiasm for While Sleeping, though it amused on a first pass. The Enemy seemed richer on a second pass. The pointless persecution which the waiter visits on Singer's hero is never stable; the pointlessly cruel waiter might be a manifestation of the protagonist's unconcious, or of evil cultural forces like antisemitism. Dark Forces wins this round.

Dark Angel by Edward Bryant (DF) Vs. The Murderer by Peter Terrin (BEF 2010) 

Dark Angel: a sociopathic modern witch revenges herself on a heel of an ex. The body-horror punchline gains a bit of resonance from the vexed portrayal of the protagonist's motivations: the ex really does deserve a comeuppance, but her supernatural payback may (or may not) be much too much, depending on one's point of view. This vexed portrayal of a vengeful woman shows her self-aware struggle against her own lack of compassion, but the prose style is flat, robbing the telling of savor. It reminds me of the moment in Our Town when the choir director chides the choir to remember that the Lord gave us music to bring folks pleasure. The Lord gave us prose for the same purpose. Bryant writes as though prose is a sorrowful obligation, but his tale could get a discussion group arguing the way Oleanna or Gone Girl did.

The Murderer. A man has murdered his neighbor. The story spirals out to reveal why and how, but also, slowly, reveals the sociopolitical environment that has made this event, and many more such, possible. Telling, specific details set this story on a much, much higher level than the thudding prose of Dark Angel. I haven't seen the Purge movies, but I suspect that someone involved in them might have read this story. As a North Carolina resident, where the socalled Bathroom Bill is a source of pride for our incurious dullard politicians, I'm delighted by this tale's dissection of how crapbrained lawmaking leading to social disfunction. So far, this is the best horror story I've read in this exercise. Catch up, Dark Forces.

The Crest of Thirty-Sixby Davis Grubb (DF) Vs. Zidane's Melancholy by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (BEF 2010) 

The Crest of Thirty-Six: Now I reckon you've heard tell of the classic film Night of the Hunter, where that Robert Mitchum fella has "good" and "evil" written on his fingers; well, as sure as molasses goes with biscuits, this here Grubb's the very soul what wrote the novel it's based on, and here he's done written us a yarn about a nervous wharfmaster and the mysterious witch-woman he's married. She's one of those shifting, liminal magic ladies that fantasy fiction serves up from time to time, and I knows some women who delight in such characters, and others what deplores them. Way I see's it, tain't no place of mine to go mansplaining one way or t'other which way you oughtta regard the situation. Also, Grubb writes in a slick-magazine version of folksy talk, and can't nobody plumb the depths of my liking for such tomfoolery, but if you cain't hardly stand such things, you might do well to put plenty of land betwixt you and this here tale.

Zidane's Melancholy by Jean-Philippe Toussaint: A tightly-packed prose poem on a real world athlete's final game, in which he finished his career by injuring another player. Athletes and artists are compared, the mysteries of perception vis-a-vis sports spectators are engaged, and Poundian footnotes abound to explain all the inside baseball, as it were, around the World Cup. It's more of a dense, wintry essay than a traditional story.

Compare/Contrast: Crest is old-school satisfying yarnspinning. Zidane is a delicate consideration of an event through multiple distancing lenses. 

Verdict: Read 'em both. If you read Zidane a second and third time for pleasure like I did despite not being a sports fan, HMU and we'll start a podcast.

Mark Ingestre: The Customer's Tale by Robert Aickman (DF) Vs. At the Sarajevo Market (BEF 2010) by Igor Stiks.

Mark Ingestre: The Customer's Tale: A young man in the Victorian era stumbles into the wrong Fleet Street barber shop, know what I'm sayin'? Although this story hails from the same era as Sondheim's magnificent musical on the same subject, it takes a different path: Sweeney Todd is a hypnotist rather than a throat slitter; the slide from Todd's customized chair to the basement happens with such mesmeric ambiguity that the unprepared reader will have no more understanding of what's just happened than the hapless customer; and Mrs Lovett is a slatternly seductress. A grotesque eroticism, no less troubling than the impending murder that our hero faces, demonstrates that great legends can be flexed in different directions. No "authoritative versions" are needed or desired; it's the rich malleability of tales like Todd's (though Todd is a minor player in this rendition, a mere gatekeeper to Mrs Lovett's lethal boudoir/kitchen/slaughterhouse) that makes them vital and enduring. Aickman's vivid depictions of settings and bodies, along with the formal yet pungent physicality of his prose, help to make this my favorite story in Dark Forces thus far.

At the Sarajevo Market: A couple visits a market in Sarajevo during its troubles in the 90s. The wares on offer have presumably been dug out of attics to raise some emergency capital, and the protagonists are mostly interested in what the merchandise reveals about the city's culture. Much bibliophiliac consideration of books for sale, and pondering of books' irrelevance to most people. Then the couples' attention turns to an antique engraved watch, as they imagine the fates of the lovers whose lives are suggested by this artifact. They give their speculative story a happy ending, but fail to bring such easy closure to their own teasing relationship, and we are left to speculate about their post-war fates just as they speculated about another unknown pair of lovers.

Compare/Contrast: The only connection I can make offhand between these very different tales is that both involve shifting and uncertain relationships in a context of broader uncertainty. Sarajevo's couple is never sure where their relationship, or the half-real, half-imagined relationship connected to an antique watch, are going, as war threatens everything and everyone they see. In Ingestre, a seduction disguises a maleviolent intent; a less subtle confusion, but if Ingestre had a Victorian smart phone handy he could update his relationship status to "It's complicated."

No, wait: both stories involve unreliable storytelling. Ingestre is an unreliable narrator for reasons that involve a frame story almost a century after the alleged encounter with Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd.

Verdict: Both are worth reading, but Ingestre's exploration of mesmeric gutter crime and lurid eroticism makes it essential.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Horror versus Europe, Part 1.

Everywhere I go, everyone asks me the same question: "Should I read the classic horror fiction anthologies Dark Forces and The Best of Shadows, or should I instead read Best European Fiction 2010?" I'm always embarrassed to admit that I've never read any of them... until now.

Dark Forces. A classic anthology of horror fiction from 1980, edited by Kirby McCauley.

The Best of Shadows, another anthology of horror stories, this one edited by Charles L. Grant.

Best European Fiction 2010. Another anthology, edited by Aleksandar Hemon. 

Here's the deal: the 2 horror collections, combined, have roughly the same number of stories as the European Fiction 2010 anthology. I'm going to read through the books, and pair one horror story with one European story, giving a post to each pairing. The first story from Dark Forces gets paired with the first story from BEF 2010, then the second story from DF with the second from BEF 2010, etc.

First up: The Late Shift by Dennis Etchison Vs. The Country Where No One Ever Dies by Ornela Vorpsi.

Late Shift: a (presumably white) guy and his Native American friend (who, like all Native Americans in supernatural stories, is mystically plugged in to relevant lore) bump into an acquaintance who is now working the late shift at a crummy convenience store and seems really confused by life. The protagonists do some sniffing around and discover that someone is using dead bodies, between death and burial, to do a little extra zombie slave labor in... crummy third shift jobs. The conspiracy doesn't want word to get out.

Etchison's interest in the unglamourous side of modern American life is intriguing in a Denis Johnsonish way, and his use of the zombie trope as a tool for interrogating labor exploitation (not for nothing is the zombie friend Latino) is clever, but Etchison shifts from the horror of dead-end employment to pro forma thriller stuff. If only he'd seen his better ideas through instead of coasting into routine cat and mouse claptrap. 

In one odd scene, a villain witnesses for Christianity to another villain. In some writer's hands this would just be a cheap swipe at religious hypocrisy, but Etchison seems to understand the way people who do bad things try to maintain some faith in their own goodness... as well as a religious sense of meaning to justify exploitation.

Fun bit from Etchison's bio: "He is also keenly interested in screen writing..." That's one way to hang out your shingle.

The Country Where No One Ever Dies: A confessional tale with the feel of a fable. People in Albania are too tough to die, especially mean aunts who keep picking on you about how you're gonna grow up to be a slut because your mom's beautiful and your dad left. Without being a horror tale, this is full of ambiguous intimations of death, along with youthful worries about sexuality, and ironic scrutiny of social expectations in conservative cultures. Where Late Shift plays on the alienation of modern society, The Country Where No One Ever Dies plays on the tight, tight bonds and binds of a family-rooted culture that is always watching and judging. 

Compare/Contrast: Both stories suggest a culture that has a lot of activity but that regulates that activity with constrictive boundaries and a lot of nasty dead ends. Both use understated comic hyperbole to emphasize their angry satirical points. (I insist on the validity of the word pairing "understated hyperbole").

Verdict: Etchison lets thriller rigamarole dissipate the more interesting elements of his story. Vorpsi stays locked in to her real subject, and her story stays powerful all the way through.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Memo Random; or, Blog's Not Dead

Recently I read The Call of Cthulhu for the first time since adolescence, and the first thing I noticed was how psychotically racist it is. It's hard to believe I didn't pick up on this obvious fact as a young reader, but I had a tendency to airbrush out disappointing aspects of things I wanted to love.

Some Lovecraft fans try to shuck and jive their way around the racism so as to enjoy everything that's rewarding about Lovecraft without the unpleasantness (they do similar desperate workarounds for his frequently dismal prose style). But in Call of Cthulhu there's no getting around it; racism is at the thematic core of the story.

For those of you who haven't read it, the story is one of the most complex and successful iterations of a standard Lovecraft setup: an anxious young man's uncle dies, and the young man takes up the late uncle's research into a mysterious cult that seems to exist all over the world. Wanna find your local chapter of the Cthulhu cult? Just look for some people who aren't white. If they aren't in the cult, they'll be able to direct you to people who are. The cult is an open secret to everybody who isn't white and educated; the story follows the narrator's research into this cult (research plays the same role in Lovecraft that more direct investigation does in most genre fiction, which helps explain Lovecraft's appeal to bookish nerds like me), which worships a psychic leviathan that slumbers the eons away in an Atlantis-like sunken city. From time to time the island city bobs to the surface, and cultists have a chance to go there and awaken Cthulhu; during these times of opportunity, Cthulhu's psychic dreams are broadcast around the world, riling up all the cultists and troubling the slumbers of "queer" effete aesthetes, presumably because, despite being (in many cases) white and educated, queer effete aesthetes are on the fringes of "normal" society, and in a border zone between Lovecraft's people and The Racial/Cultural Other.

Lovecraft blood libels the hell out of nonwhites, and presents Cthulhu as a source of terror to anyone who isn't a murderous human-sacrificing cultist.  The narrator's uncle died, seemingly of natural causes, after being bumped by a "nautical-looking negro" whom the narrator speculatively accuses of poisoning his uncle in order to prevent him from getting any closer to The Horrible Truth. Lovecraft never reveals exactly what Cthulhu is gonna do once it's awakened; one cultist, Old Castro, claims that cultist theology has it that Cthulhu will usher in something that sounds a bit like The Jazz Age as seen through the eyes of a blood-libeling racist, and a bit like what white nationalists, bitterly clinging to their guns and Turner Diaries, fear: nonwhites gaining more power and cultural cache than whites (One reason this story linger in the memory is its Saragossa Sea of nested narratives, with a multiplicity of narrators whose unreliability is left completely open). The story ends with a batch of white sailors massacring a shipload of cultists in one of the story's several exterminate-the-brutes racism orgies, then inadvertently awakening Cthulhu; this confrontation is memorably bananas, and the unveiling of information continues Lovecraft's clever play on the nature of research. For example, we learn the names of the 3 sailors Cthulhu scoops up, but we don't learn what happens to them afterward; as in real research, you get a surfeit of data, but not enough answers. Nerd canon has it that Cthulhu eats the sailors (leading to the internet slogan/joke "Cthulhu will eat us all," and if your response to that joke is to clutch your sides and shriek "I'm gonna pee! I'm gonna pee!" then by all means you should seek out as much Cthulhu humor as possible, because it's all that good) but there's nothing in the text to tell us what happens next. Perhaps Cthulhu adopts them as pets. That's a spinoff story waiting to happen: what it's like to be the hostage/pet of a slumbering psychic monster god.


I've read Moby Dick recently. It's interesting to read it through the lens of Cthulhu, since both stories involve a quest for a terrifying ocean monster, as well as racist depictions of nonwhite sailors. Moby Dick's racism is more complex than the narrow neurotic loathing in Loathcraft (see what I did there? Aren't you glad I'm blogging again?) and Melville at least seems to regard a multiracial society as more fun than an all-white one. He adheres to white supremacy, but with less certitude than poor pitiful Lovecraft. The early chapters of Dick throb with homoeroticism, as narrator Ishmael falls in love with his cannibal friend Queequeg. (Spellcheck recognizes Cthulhu but not Queequeg, which tells you everything you need to know about The Coding Class.) If Melville was submitting his manuscript today, the savvy modern editor would insist that the rest of Dick include a whole lot less in the way of essays on the cosmic overtones of 19th century whaling practices, and a whole lot more bunk sharing between Ishmael and Queequeg. Anyway, both stories end with a long-sought Monster rising out of the ocean, slaughtering almost everyone, and escaping. In Melville the Monster is a really big and really strong version of a real creature that just wants to be left alone; in Lovecraft the creature is a chimeric made-up "gelatinous" god, which either suggests Terrifying Breaches in the Universe or utter silliness depending on one's willingness to go where Lovecraft leads. Melville is unquestionably the greater writer with greater scope to match; he is willing to rhapsodize about the joys of life and, in equal measure, stare without flinching at real horrors; Lovecraft invents horrors that aren't necessarily there.

I'm also listening to an audiobook of Lovecraft tales, and many of his stories are reversible garments. If one reads with the assumption that Lovecraft is desperately blood-libeling his monsters, smearing his racist anxieties onto his imaginary Others, then the stories are wide open to positive reinterpretations; the horror drips away. (Another Cthulhu spinoff story waiting to happen (if it hasn't already): Cthulhu as seen from a non-racist, non-blood-libeling perspective, in which the creature is revealed as the harbinger of a golden age of equality.)

 Dagon, an early embryonic iteration of the boilerplate Lovecraft narrative formula, is an effective chiller about a castaway who discovers amphibious intelligent life that appears to have religion, art, and writing of its own. The creature never threatens the narrator, merely appears and worships at a shrine, but the narrator, in telling this tale, frames it with a heavy dollop of "I'm suicidally despairing, and you'll understand why when I tell you my story." Well, no, I don't. Granted that different people respond to trauma in different ways, but suicidal despair doesn't seem like the most likely response to discovering alternative intelligent life... unless you're so super racist that you're racist against nonhuman intelligence. Sure, it'd be scary to encounter such a creature unexpectedly, but afterwards I'd think most people would say "Fire up the Bathysphere! Let's go say hi to our neighbors!"

Perhaps Lovecraft realized that he hadn't quite managed to harness his narrative engine to his neurotic thematic cargo, which led him to the healing power of blood libel. Way to problem solve, dude. Speaking of which, his story The Whisperer in Darkness is a hilarious example of what happens when someone who sucks at problem solving tries to plot a tale about an unsolvable problem. Basically, the main character's attitude is "To get away from the scary monsters, I'd have to go outside, but that ain't gonna happen." Maybe that's not so absurd; I know (heck, I've been) the guy who'd rather stay inside and be miserable than go outside and possibly find a solution to his problems, although my problems didn't come in the form of giant dog-killing bat-winged muttering crabs from space. If they had I woulda left, man.

Another intriguing Lovecraft tale: The Rats in the Walls. A cunning (and as usual, super-racist) riff on Fall of the House of Usher (of which Harold Bloom memorably claimed(on a Radio Open Source interview that I can't find online) that anyone could retell it better than Poe told it). This tale uses eclectic multi-culti architecture as an objective correlative for Miscegenation. Oh, Lovecraft. It's also a good read for anyone with house maintenance problems that extend underground.


Speaking of dodgy pulp writers, I'm listening to the audiobook version of V. C. Andrew's Flowers in the Attic. As better folks than myself have pointed out, it's really bad on a lot of levels, but I find it well worth engaging. Writer M. John Harrison once blogged (I'm paraphrasing from memory, here) that a writer/artist should give you a taste of an individual mind, and Andrews certainly does that. NO one else would say that a missing husband has "found another super-broad."  The most astonishing thing about the book, more than the creepy incest/BDSM fantasies that throb through it, is just how ANGRY it is. I don't know much about Andrews as a person, but for all her sentimentalism and tenderness, she was really mad at somebody, and she poured all that scorching bile into her writing, to jolting affect. No wonder this book found an enthusiastic audience; it's steamy and sordid and naive and viscous. What teen could resist?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Submit to Lulu

I'm fascinated by Franz Wedekind's Lulu plays, which are the basis for both the classic Louise Brooks film Pandora's Box and the opera Lulu by Alban Berg. Lulu is the kind of woman men ruin their lives for, and her romances tend to end in syphilis, suicide, or murder. She's often regarded as a femme fatale, but in my view the fatalities owe more to pre-feminist sexism than malice on her part; Lulu keeps bumping up against male expectations that she cannot/will not fulfill, and the men respond very, very badly. The play exists in several versions, since Wedekind had to rewrite his original single-play version to get past the censors, and Wedekind revised the details continually, expanding one play into two. The plays are also filled with odd details that don't necessarily advance the narrative but do lend texture to his expressionistic social critique. As a result, the material is bottomless; every engagement turns up fresh connections and possibilities.

Anyway, there's a scene in some versions of the play in which Lulu browbeats her favorite lover, Dr. Schon, into writing a breakup letter to his fiance. Lulu dictates the letter, and he writes it while moaning about how ruinous this is. Sure, it's a femme fatale moment, but Lulu and Dr. Schon have had a tortured on-again off-again relationship for a long time (he was her foster father before he was her lover; such is the ickyness of Wedekind's world). It only recently occurred to me that they may have done dry runs for this letter-writing domination before. It may be that writing (or transcribing) this letter, which destroys Dr. Schon's forthcoming marriage along with his hard-won reputation, is the most erotically thrilling moment of Dr. Schon's life. Compare and contrast to the depressing fetishes of financial domination and erotic blackmail (don't worry; this is a link to a Salon article, not a smut site). 

One big difference between the silent Pandora's Box and the Lulu plays is the representation of (big spoiler warning) Jack the Ripper, who murders Lulu at the end. In the silent film he's sentimentalized, a Nice Guy with a Hands of Orlac problem. The plays have no time for such nonsense. Wedekind's Jack (who isn't necessarily meant to be Jack the Ripper, but he is a murderer of prostitutes in Victorian Whitechapel so y'know) is pure dirtball. He haggles over the price of a night with Lulu and cuts an absurdly skinflint bargain; it comes across as low-grade sadism. Lulu gives in to this loser because poverty, prostitution, and life on the lam have left her bereft of hope and resources. No more power games; she just wants someone to hold her through the cold night, and without her wiles she's unprotected against the male rottenness she's always fended off before. In the filmed opera production starring the luminous Christine Schafer, it's suggested that Jack's haggling is motivated by anxiety rather than sadism, as if he's half hoping she'll throw him out and he won't give in to the demons driving him, which is a sensible (and probably realistic) compromise between the tortured representation of the movie and Wedekind's utterly non-romanticized Ripper. Still, as I read it, Jack's chiseling is motivated by nothing more than dull-witted sadism, and if I were directing a production, I'd want Jack to be pure garbage person; after all, he was.

I have a sweet tooth for shows like Chris Carter's Millennium, a corny post-Lecter dollop of risible serial killer chic. Its villains are the logical descendants of the baddies in Thomas Harris's novels; they are motivated by absurdly rococo Rosicrucian schemes. Wedekind's Ripper is the antidote to all that claptrap; the dumb, reeking, jizz-stained banality of evil.

Other nasty nuggets from Wedekind's plays:

One act takes place in Paris, where we find that the upper crust men of Paree are all blatant predatory pedophiles, begging a mother they know to let them debauch her young daughter. Mom demures but keeps hanging out with these guys, who apparently debauched her when she was her daughter's age. Their subplot does not end happily.

At one point Dr. Schon's son, who grew up as stepbrother to Lulu, is lying in her lap and boo-hooing to her about how he's always yearned for her. She tersely confesses that she poisoned his mother (while Lulu was still quite young, but already in love with Dr. Schon). They are immediately interrupted by the Doctor. Despite plenty of opportunity, neither of them ever raises the issue again.

Countess Geschwitz, a wealthy lesbian, proves that a woman can do anything a man can do, including ruin her life for Lulu. She dies (of cholera in some versions/translations, but of Ripper slaying in others) after witnessing Lulu's murder, and gets the last words of the play. In the original German the last words are actually a repeated nonsense syllable, "Sch... sch..." A chilling end to a mournful play. English translators insist on rendering this as "Shit!" or variations thereon, with the exception of Edward Bond, who changes the word to "Submit..." Mr Bond is known for his angry leftist politics, and perhaps this "submit" was intended as some kind of sociopolitical protest against exploitation of women/the working class. Or maybe he was drunk that year. Anyway, the poor Countess is the only one of Lulu's circle who never betrays Lulu, even though Lulu repeatedly exploits her and tosses her aside. Apparently the masochistic lesbian is a cliche that modern lesbians are done with, but perhaps it wasn't so musty a hundred-plus years ago.

Oh, there's loads more nastiness where that came from. The Lulu plays by Franz Wedekind. Gobble 'em up. They're delicious. I named my cat Lulu.

Also, if you're not convinced that these depictions of fin de siecle decadence are relevant to today, they're a subplot about overhyped tech stocks ruining peoples' fortunes.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Some movies I've seen over the last few years

Women in Revolt: An Andy Warhol movie on which Warhol did the camerawork, but Paul Morrissey directed. I've done a bit of reading about this film, and in interviews Morrissey articulates a surprisingly conservative worldview; surprising in view of his predominantly transgendered/crossdressing cast. He intended this film (apparently made after Valerie Solanis shot Warhol) to be a satire of feminism, and it certainly mocks both radical feminists and celebrity culture. At the same time, Morrissey's process is more captious than his sociopolitics, and by allowing his performers to improvise he creates a film that incorporates a diverse array of ideas and interests, from the sneering camp of Jackie Curtis to the flawless glamour goddess riffing of Candy Darling. Warhol's cinematography is terrible by any reasonable standard, but maybe his wandering, randomly focused camera eye is an accurate reflection of Warhol's listless way of looking at life. Holly Woodlawn has an early scene where she bounces around like a jack-in-the-box, shrieking at her boyfriend, that made me convulse with uncontrollable laughter until I became frightened at my own outsized reaction.

Overnight: A behind-the-scenes documentary about the story of a Boston bartender who is suspected of being the next Quentin Tarantino, in the 90s when everybody wanted to be or have the next Quentin. He makes his movie (Boondock Saints, beloved by some) but antagonizes a lot of people along the way. After power lunching with movie stars he gets the big head and his worst self manifests. His lack of self-awareness is summed up in a scene where he rants about how being thrown out of the Miramax building proves that now he's in a power position "because now they're afraid of us." At another point he laments (all quotations from memory): "I'm Hollywood's latest hard-on, why is no one returning my calls?" Guess he forgot how long a hard-on lasts. But he got his film and a sequel made, and some people love it, so good for him.

Living in Oblivion: from that same 90s indy film boom. Catherine Keener and Steve Buscemi make a low budget film-within-a-film, and every quirk of the ensemble creative process rings true with my memories of the acting life. It's an ensemble comedy that made me want to see everything auteur Tom Dicello could throw at us.

The Real Blonde: Another Dicello film with Keener costarring (And Buscemi reprises his character from Oblivion), this is another ensemble comedy with a broader New York canvas, and a similar spacy blend of character-based gags. I thought it was a worthy followup.

Double Whammy: Tom Dicello gives up on whimsy and tries to make lurid trash, but he doesn't seem to have his heart in it, and the movie is like watching someone improvise while exhausted. Early on there's a scene where someone walks into a diner and starts shooting people; there's a gratuitous panty shot as a cheerleader crawls backward to escape the gunfire, but gets shot dead. It's all presented like an unfelt attempt at trashiness; a gloomy effort at giving the rubes what they want. The whole movie has a vibe of wanting to sell out, but not knowing how to do it with cunning capitalist commitment. Denis Leary, who played against type as a sweet guy in Real Blonde, seems becalmed in his role as a put-upon cop, left adrift by the lack of anything to do. There's a pair of callow would-be screenwriters who poke fun at all the callow boys in the 90s who wanted to be the next Great American Screenwriter but just ended up making boyish junk, and the movie seems to be a parody of their Tarantino-without-the-brains aesthetic. There's also a story about a girl who hires someone to assassinate her father, or something; some real sadness and ugliness comes through, but the film is tonally out of balance. We gave up on this one. I suspect it turns out, in a meta twist, that the movie is the product of the birdbrained screenwriting characters, but I don't expect I'll ever find out.

House Party: African-American teens throw a house party. Feels a bit like a beach movie without a beach, but lots of real talk percolates through the hip hop performances and silly hijinks. Late in the movie the protagonists, Kid and Play, get in an argument about whether or not it's manly to have sex with girls and then ditch them if they get pregnant. Neither character wins the argument; they just get frustrated with each other, exactly like all the arguments I ever had with friends in school. Also, the teens are hassled by honky cops all through the movie, but the film is bookended with a fantasy sequence in which the party house flies through the air and, with music blasting, lands on the cops like they're wicked witches. Perhaps the message is that getting a party vibe going is a workable response to authority/cultural hassles.

Melvin and Howard: an Altmanesque portrait of lower middle class American life, bookended by an allegedly (but dubiously) true story about Howard Hughes willing a big chunk of change to an ordinary working stiff. Much of the movie is really about hapless Melvin's wives, and how he loses one only to find another. Good-hearted people struggle to get by and to feel better about themselves, and the sense of Real America in the 70s takes me right back to family vacation memories. The real Melvin has a cameo, and exudes so much charm that you can see why the filmmakers believe his preposterous story.

Birds of Prey: a short-lived TV series about the bat-women of Gotham City trying to fight crime in the wake of Batman's disappearance. It's going for a colorful camp vibe with a nonthreatening "sisterhood is powerful" flavor, but it's too much a heat-and-eat TV product.. The Huntress, who is Batman and Catwoman's conflicted daughter, is a potentially compelling character, caught as she is between her parents' incompatible motivations, and resentful of both, but the actress is too much the former child pageant contestant, moeing and sparkling when she should be cutting (in several senses).

The Big Sleep: The edition we got apparently had an Original Cut on one side and the theatrical release on the other. We watched the original without knowing it, then watched a documentary that itemized all the studio-mandated changes. We concluded that the retooled version would probably be better, but lacked the will to flip the disk and almost rewatch the movie. I guess we flunked an important test of Movie Buffness. The whole experience left us as mixed up as the book left me when I tried to read it. I prefer The Long Goodbye, book and film, which seems less like the product of an elliptical random plot generator than Big Sleep.

The Yakuza: Robert Mitchum goes to Japan to help a Japanese friend fight baddies. A love triangle ensues, and stately tableaus of elegant Japanese room design keep things pretty, until the tense extended battle climax. Mitchum was ahead of his time with this Old Man Action Movie thing, and while I'm no connoisseur of action choreography I was spellbound by the finale. Like A Touch of Zen, this is an action movie that mostly plays as a talky drama into which action irrupts. I love that. Mostly I rented this to see what happens when Paul Schrader and Robert Towne work together. Not half bad. The shocking West-meets-East post-battle denouement comes as no surprise, but I don't think surprise was the point.

It Was a Wonderful Life: a documentary about homeless women whom probably no one ever expected to be homeless; functional, smart women who lost everything through divorce or economic problems, and live in cars while trying to rebuild the foundations of their material lives, almost from scratch. We see how difficult it is to maintain dignity in these situations, much less to stay employed and get one's finances in order. One poor woman rents a U Haul to sleep in, and describes it as a luxury she won't be able to afford for long. She buys a pistol because it makes her feel protected. Then someone steals it while she sleeps.

Swept Away: an Italian film in which a brutish working class guy and a high-maintenance rich lady are marooned on an island. He brutalizes her, and she falls in love with him. Then they return to civilization and her love for him evaporates upon their return to class strictures, leaving him feeling more used and demeaned than his cruelties ever left her. A woman, Lina Wertmuller, wrote and directed this; if a man had made it I'd dismiss it as a babyman "men's rights" misogynist fantasy/pity party. I suppose Wertmuller is thinking about the dichotomies between class and sex, while having nasty fun with sex and violence like movies should.

Daughters of the Dust: I couldn't really follow the plot (is that little girl doing strange lo-fi effects magic because she's the spirit of a child yet to be born? Or something?) but it's a treat to see so many gifted African-American performers working in such gorgeous photography. This movie presents us with a corner of history I knew nothing about, and is persuasively unfamiliar, yet imbued with human warmth. It immerses us in a mysterious yet utterly American cultural venue. Formalist cleverness reminiscent of Peter Greenaway's Euro-art tableaus interconnect with a humanist concern for people that Greenaway's arid highbrowness can barely understand. It's no surprise that the director wrote or cowrote two books to expand on (and perhaps clarify) this film.

Nashville: Some of the actors playing at county stardom would never have passed an audition with a real Nashville label (and the otherwise perfect Lily Tomlin's turn as a soul gospel soloist is a cringer), but that quibble aside, this movie makes a virtuosic cinematic jazz symphony out of its southern show biz milieu. Essential. And my Nashville born and bred college roommate assured me that it captures the soul of the city perfectly.

Four Weddings and a Funeral: This one snuck up on me. Effervescent charm and a tonic dose of surprising sorrow. It really replicates the sense of getting to know a group of family and friends over time.

The Spirit: There's some dazzling use of light and shade in this sinkhole, (written and directed by erstwhile comic book mastermind Frank Miller) but... remember what I said about rumors that justify themselves on the basis of how well they explain things? 3 words, in no particular order: Cocaine Miller Frank. This rumor is the ONLY possible explanation for this chiaroscuro turd. Not quite hilariously wretched enough to get me to the end.

The Singing Detective: This British miniseries reveals its nation of origin with more than accents; the darkness and nastiness goes deeper than anything American TV would have dared in the 80s. But it's not a wallow. A hospitalized pulp fiction writer takes out his frustrations on everyone around while reminiscing about his troubled childhood, and rewriting his detective fiction in gnostically autobiographical fashion. It's lucidly fragmentary and shifting, sorrowful yet full of energy. Fans of Alan Moore's less superheroic work, or of Martin Amis, absolutely must see it. Michael Gambon makes his clever but cruel character as sympathetic as can be without blunting the uncompromising critique of his failings.

Boardwalk Empire, Seasons 3 and 4: Season 3 introduces a villain of such grotesque awfulness that he makes the psychotic real-life baddies of the early seasons (Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, etc.) seem balanced and moderate by comparison. Too many scenes where we see a minor heavy who's been around but never developed in his home, surrounded by loving family, setting the table for his adoring Ma, promising to read a bedtime story to his cherubic daughter, then answering a knock at the door and getting shot in the face. I was afraid Season 4 would try to top Season 3’s Boss Monster with a villain who ate babies or something, but they took a smart alternative route with a Marcus Garvey-like prig who qualmlessly funds his activities by dealing heroin. Chalky White, the most prominent African American character in the show, owns a Harlem club and must contend with the new villain over the question of upon what plausible foundation, exactly, African-American success can be built. Also other things happen, but the struggle between idealistic yet conniving Afrocentrism Vs. All-American capitalistic compromise overshadowed the rest. As usual the look of the show is more glazed and prettified than I think works for the story, but Season 4 held my interest much better than the bang bang bang boobs bang bang of Season 3.

Girls: Everyone who hates this show is wrong. Demonize Lena Dunham all you want, but this show articulates a certain kind of entitled hipster 20something city life about as well as my actual 20s did.

The Complete Jean Vigo: this mostly-silent era French filmmaker died while he was still in his 20s, and it's a dreadful loss to cinema. There's a lot to engage with in his brief filmography, but I'd like to highlight Zero de Conduite, which follows a pack of boys at an all-boy boarding school. It's mostly like a really good Little Rascals film, but near the end a loathsome teacher blatantly gropes the most prettily girlish of the boys, right in front of an entire classroom of kids. For the rest of the film, the boy is visibly hobbled with trauma. The authority figures all enlist him to cover it up, and his desperate, profane outbursts only make the adults more confident in their dismissal of the boy's pain. So whenever some doddering authority clod gives you a load about how bishops and coaches didn't know child molesting was a bad thing until recently, point them to this film. Jean Vigo knew, a hundred years ago.

Two Girls and a Guy: Robert Downey Jr. crafts his Tony Stark and, midway through the film, indulges in an apparently improvised acting exercise (with, perhaps, a twist of drug remorse) that has zilch to do with the romantic triangle that makes the gears turn on this one. The 90s dialogue goes for screwball pingpong by way of Tarantino archness. I like Tarantino least at his archest; ditto his legion of 90s wannabes. Heather "Rollergirl" Graham was a fascinating dud in the butt end of Twin Peaks, but she's luminous here, and seems to have handed the Awful Acting baton to her voice-challenged fellow actress in this movie, who tries to get by on hotness, and might have succeeded in a less talky pic.

The Fountainhead: stunning high camp. I don't usually say things like "Check out that dress!" but I do with this movie. To my astonishment, Ayn Rand's script actually has at least one moving passage; hero Howard Roark's reassurance of a nervous client that designing a "mere gas station" is worthy of his talents has given this lefty a bit more sympathy for Rand's views. But mostly the movie is a dingdong Mary Sue fantasy, which can be fun if you're dumb or drunk.

Capturing the Friedmans: A documentary about a picture perfect family that's brought down by the husband's penchant for child pornography and the investigation that follows. The husband is guilty of purchasing and swapping child porn with other loathsome pervs (and detectives) over the mails (in the pre-internet 80s) but the investigation homes in on his computer classes for teenagers. They hire a hypnotist to soften up the kids' brains for a load of delusional false accusations, and we get to see just how eager everyone from the police to the Friedman's own lawyer are to impose all their most lurid fantasies of subhuman debauchery onto Mr. Friedman, despite a complete lack of credible evidence that the man abused any kids under his tutelage. A bizarre witch hunt, made all the more confusing because the suspect is manifestly guilty of aiding and abetting horrible abuse; there's just no evidence that he abused kids himself, other than the grotesquely fantastical confessions of hypnotized kids.

The Blues Brothers: I'm amazed that a road movie that's almost a Wim Wenders remake of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World became such a phenom as a comedy film. John Belushi seems underused; casting such a big personality as an almost totally inexpressive character is a baffling choice. John Candy is kinda handsome. Dan Ackroyd's line about glue is a lesson in how delivery can sell a joke that would be nothing in someone else's mouth.

Hound of the Baskervilles: This is the Basil Rathbone version that thrilled me as a kid. It still delights me, because I'm thrilled by British hambones, smoky black and white photography, and atmospheric models.

Predator. A Vietnam movie in monster movie guise; the camouflaged alien killer is The Jungle, man. the camerawork is every bit as proficient as the paramilitary team it follows.  The men never upstage the jungle, and the jungle never upstages the men.  The characters and the mis en scene blend. Arnold finally defeats the monster by being, y'know, Arnold.

Enlightened: A show about a woman whose nervous breakdown has led to a fall from grace. She never seems like someone who could have achieved the position of responsibility from which she's been demoted, though, so it seems more like a film about a recent college grad trying to figure things out and establish herself in the first place. Star Laura Dern's contemplative monologues give the show some real emotional power that the often diagrammatic plots need, and her costars are all terrific. The finale complicates her struggle in diverse ways while still giving her a big win.

Waking Life: Not just a superlative coffee shop in Asheville, NC. While I'm usually no fan of blatant motion capture animation, the painterly ornamentation this movie adds to quotidian life captures the quicksilver emotional resonance that flows through life as we live it. I wanted to cohost a podcast with a good third of the cast.

Lair of the White Worm: Director Ken Russell allegedly made this goofy horror/fetish flick on the quick as part of a deal to finance a more genteel art film. For some reason it was a fixture on the role-playing nerd circuit, at least in my region. It's mostly lousy, although some of the psychedelia, ulde-Britian folk culture, and theatrical carnality you expect from Russell do make appearances, along with a portly manservant who makes the most of all his leering double entendres. I'd watch a movie about him, drawing a bath for master before locking up the chambermaids.

Shoot the Piano Player: Cheerful French cinema jazz. Anyone who thinks New Wave film can't be fun should see this. Free and assured.

Tombs of the Blind Dead: In this evening's feature the role of Franco and his supporters in the Church will be played by gross zombies. At the end the zombies leave the churchyard from which they emerged to hop a train and hit the city, using then-modern lines of transportation to bring their ancient contagion to modern Urbania, just like Franco and his fascist-coddling friends in the clergy. It's not exactly packed with scare scenes, but a couple of chase sequences (both involving women on foot trying to sneak through crowds of undead) are deliciously nightmarish.

True Blood, Final Season. Producer Alan (Six Feet Under) Ball has left the building, and the show is almost unbearable. The lady who works at Fangtasia and screams a lot saves the day, but not for long. An exhausted show.

Jodorowsky's Dune: I've never understood why so many people think that book cries out for audio-visual representation. Sandworms, sure, but mostly it's people talking about really complicated made-up sociopolitics. Great for a book, but why film it? Jodorowsky's version might have been livelier than the versions that did get made, although his dipsydoodle rewrite of the ending seems more like something out of the Heavy Metal movie than anything Frank Herbert would condone.

Cranes Are Flying: touching drama about a Soviet woman and her two lovers during WWII. Not to praise the loathsome Stalinist government with faint damnation, but the obligatory Marxist propaganda doesn't overwhelm the human insight; this story could be remade with zero concessions to Stalin and still carry a powerful message about grief and community. Spoiler warning: bereft, by the end, of both the men in her lover's triangle, the heroine recommits herself to the community, and the music swells. Pretty darn Marxist, but probably not a bad strategy for dealing with grief and loss in any political/economic context.

Veep: All insults, all the time. Even at my most cynical I doubt the toxicity in Washington is this routinely blatant at the level of basic courtesy, or lack thereof. Funny but draining. Still, I prefer it to the thinly veiled BDSM fantasy of House of Cards.

The Mighty Boosh: I used to be in an improv troop; this show is like the platonic ideal of what we were going for in our longform shows, only with fewer women (my only complaint). Two zookeepers face an array of silly problems.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Star Wars for the X Box set, who can probably follow the more kinetic action sequences better than I can. Groot's last line got a single tear from me, and proves my point about the non-Marxist applicability of Cranes Are Flying.

Anna Nicole: Mary Harron working for Lifetime isn't as terrific as Mary Harron unfettered, but this surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the famous pinup presents her as a level-, rather than empty-,  headed (when she isn't abusing substances) and caring working-class mom. I can buy it. I've known a couple of women in the hubba hubba business who were very real people behind the showbiz facade.

River's Edge: Dirtball Noir about a band of confused teens who don't know how to handle it when one of their friends murders another friend for no good reason, then tells everybody that he did it. Dennis Hopper shows up and, after a little scenery chewing to remind us who's boss, underplays with unexpected sensitivity and delegates the frantic overacting to Crispin Glover, whose flamboyant metalhead scuzzball is as theatrical as some actual teenagers. Director Tim Hunter went on to direct a bunch of Twin Peaks episodes, and you can see it in every shot of this movie; it's as much a Twin Peaks precursor as Winesburg, Ohio or Peyton Place.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Weepers into the Whimpering

Let's talk about some more odd 90s comics.

Seekers Into the Mystery was a short-lived Celestine Prophecy-esque item from Vertigo Comics, an imprint of DC that remains best known for the literary fantasy comic Sandman. Various other Vertigo comics followed Sandman's clever writer/rotating artists/contemporary fantasy recipe. Grant Morrison's The Invisibles was my favorite, but we're gonna look at Seekers.

I know what you're thinking-"That's the kind of pulse-pounding action I want from my comic books!" To be fair, this low-key literary approach was pretty common in Vertigo titles. The guy on the left is a guru known as The Magician who's presented as being more or less God in human form. I alway though he was modeled on Yanni, but apparently there's a real life guru, Meher Baba, who's the model, although Baba, to his credit, didn't go by The Magician. Writer J. M. DeMatteis probably meant no disrespect to the little person community by his use of the term "midget," and artist Jon J. Muth probably meant to offset any such offense by depicting the character as roughly 5-6 feet tall.

Anyway, the comic centers on a wayward writer's quest for the mystical insights The Magician seems to offer. Things come to a bad pass when he visits an ex-girlfriend who has the temerity to argue with his newfound beliefs:

Nothing says "disrespect" like dropping someone's photo in the wastebasket. Especially if you've snatched the photo out of an admirer's hands, then hoisted it like you're gonna toss it across the room... only to primly deposit it, with your EVIL CLAWS appearing in shadow. And then little devils come popping out of the wastebasket. Artist Jill Thompson (the comic had a rotating team of artists) is really quite good, (see her work on The Invisibles, which we'll talk about in a moment, or her own Scary Godmother series) but here her talents are perhaps strained from misuse. It wouldn't take a lot of revising to make this comic suitable for Jack Chick.

Let the record show that I basically agree with everything she's saying here.

Again, insensitivity aside, I think she's right. The writer presumably thinks her argument has some persuasive force, or he wouldn't have his protagonist swooning like an overwrought damsel (although to be fair I've wept at women's feet a couple of times. Builds character).

But fear not, folks, the Pantied Skeptic is about to get what she deserves. What's that, you ask? A robust rebuttal?


More like a KNIFE IN THE FACE.

This comic's low-key naturalism had its limits.

 Dramaturgically speaking, I can understand why Dematteis doesn't want to turn his comic into Oxford-style debate, but anytime your counterargument is "You need a good knifing!"... well, I'm gonna say you lost the argument by default. This comic is a tacit admission that astral projection, recovered memory, and other mystical experiences are probably glitches in our neurological operating system rather than deeper truths. Now, I'm confident that there are strong rebuttals to this philosophically materialist line of thought, but Dematteis can't or won't mount them. He is, perhaps, a philosophical materialist in spite of himself.

Grant Morrison's Vertigo comic The Invisibles, which was in some ways a model for Seekers, also pushed a mystical worldview, but was captious (and postmodern) enough to incorporate counterarguments as threads in a shimmeringly ambiguous dialogic tapestry, rather than mere problems to polish off (with a knife). Invisibles remains in print. I've probably reprinted more of the late run of Seekers in this post than DC ever will (all takedown requests will of course be cheerfully complied with).

Now let's look at an independently published (ergo black and white) comic called Starchild by James A. Owen. I dipped into Issue #12 without reading any prior issues. What's that like? It's like this:

I enjoy this inscrutable, decontextualized worldbuilding, probably for the same reasons I enjoy John Ashbury.

Full size for detail enjoyment.

True aficionados of peculiar 90s comics will detect the influence of Cerebus, which was one of the most remarkable and influential independent comics, right up until auteur Dave Sim decided to use his comic as a bully pulpit for all his deep insights, like that women are terrible. Other cartoonists stopped imitating Cerebus's lush backgrounds, vertiginous panels,  and wide-margined word balloons once they realized Sim wasn't kidding.

I love the atmospheric top panel on this page; the sense of depth and shadow, and hair. I suppose the hairy guy was trying to say "Greetings, Starchild" when he got punched, but I like the idea of a fantasy comic with a hero named Starchi. That punch is the only rough-and-tumble in the comic; mostly it's very quiet and genteel, like this:

Much of the comic consists of bushy male faces pressed close together, whispering cryptically. Like Wind in the Willows, it's a fantasy that pushes the homosocial towards the homoerotic. The only female character appears in a prose-with-illustrations section safely cordoned off from the delicately masculine main narrative. All she does is
  • Not wear any clothing
  • Step out of the wood like a newborn faun
  • Let raindrops trickle through her fingers into a brook.
Starchi & Hairhead Double Digest. Ask for it by name!

 The above page is from Eddie Campbell's autobiographical Alec stories, serialized in Eddie Campbell's Bacchus comics, and it gives  a nice sense of the comics-as-jazz-poetry vibe that is Campbell's signature. I was perplexed by his work in the actual 90s, yet felt compelled to keep buying it, saving his work up for a day when I would be grown enough to understand. Today, it's probably the indy comic of the period that affords me the most pleasure.

Manga became a thing in the US in the 90s. One of the most important publishers of domesticated manga was Tokyopop, which went out of business as suddenly as it appeared. I'm not sure why...

But I'm pretty sure that hiring bored English majors to write plot synopses, and hiring non-graphic designers to do the typeface, didn't help.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Studio Albums of Yes, Part 4.

90125, 1983.  Owner of a Lonely Heart and Leave It are the hits, as well as the tracks that find the most idiosyncratic middle path between radio-ready pop shlock and new-wave rethinking of same. The rest of the album sounds like Toto's forgotten B-sides. New guy Trevor Rabin seems to have bypassed seniority issues to become the band leader and head writer; his slick craft and harmonic cleverness annoyed old Yes fans who missed Steve Howe's folkadelic streaks and smears and strums, but it was the 80s now. People who like Toledo should check out the song Our Song, which is about how Toledo is the best city in the USA, and also music is magic. The music in the actual song sounds like a toothpaste jingle.

Big Generator, 1987. Laminated production quality makes everything sheen and sparkle. They don't seem to have worked nearly so hard on the material, though standout track Shoot High, Aim Low has a misty predawn quality that welcomes and envelops the irruptions of contrasting voices and guitars. Attempts to recreate the old Yes suites take a few pleasant chances, as on I'm Running; the title track is a gimmicked-up retread of Owner of a Lonely Heart. Holy Lamb (Song for the Harmonic Convergence) fulfills its subtitle. I got in trouble for arranging a screening of the bawdy Rhythm of Love video in my English class on some forgotten pretext.

Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, 1989. Not officially a Yes album, but a reunion of all the key members of Yes's finest lineup except the one who controlled the rights to the band name (bassist Chris Squire.) This album relies on prettiness, pastiche, fanciness and fussiness. Late-80s digital synthesizers and digital drums sparkle and shimmer and shine, while layers of acoustic and electric guitars create a glittery mobile sculpture in then-fashionable shapes and colors. Lots of work must have gone into the stratigraphy of overdubs that made this album what it is, but as with Big Generator, all that craft and skill can't compensate for banality. Bill Bruford, the member with the best taste and the most artistically rewarding non-Yes career, has revealed in his memoir that he took this assignment on the grounds that he be a well-paid hired hand, able to save his artistic first fruits for his jazz ensemble Earthworks.

But I LOOOOVED it when it was new. I had only become a Yes fan (on the basis of Close to the Edge) about a year before this album appeared, and I listened to it every day on the walk from the bus stop to the house, enjoying the way the high trees and cocky brick houses embraced the shimmery archipelagoes of arpeggios this de facto Yes was pumping out. It's music for walking around suburbs in the late 80s.

Union, 1991. Less a reunion than a shotgun wedding between two bands, each consisting of 4 ex-Yes guys and various session cats. An armada of session musicians swamps most of the album, rendering it a factory-fresh product. A solo guitar spot by Steve Howe rises above the rest, while Miracle of Life (not an anti-abortion/creationist screed as far as I can tell) hints at the next album's more dynamic sound, with an organ riff that I still burst out singing in weak moments. Otherwise, all the sheen of the previous two albums, with little personality.

Talk, 1994. Essentially a Trevor Rabin/Jon Anderson duo album. Invigorating commercial pop if you like well-oiled rock guitar machinery resting on a bed of cushiony synths and processed vocal harmonies. Rabin's predilection for bombast does no one any favors. A compositional sensibility undergirds the whole enterprise, shaping this bit to fit nicely alongside this other bit, balanced by another bit. The final big long thing seems like a demo reel of soundtrack ideas, and perhaps it worked, because Rabin makes Tinseltown soundtracks now. Takes shots at televangelists, because Yes knows no fear.

Outside, 1995. Not a Yes album. A Bowie album that completely reprogrammed my musical interests. As a result, my engagement with the next few Yes albums was diffident at best. Anyway, Outside is a Twin Peaks concept album that recasts Leland Palmer with Chris Burden, and it blends musical vocabularies with the ambitious aplomb of prog rock in better days.

Keys To Ascension, 1996. Bland new live performances of old favorites. Guitarist Steve Howe sounds like he's straining to remember how this stuff goes, and the rhythm section is sluggish. Then there's some new studio material, with some peppy sections and nicely rubbery bass. If you're sitting on the fence about whether or not to smoke crack, this album has some things to say about that. I'm not sure how many potential crack addicts were buying 1990s Yes albums, but you can't fault Yes for trying.

Keys to Ascension 2, 1997. I can't help but think this might have been a really special album, but the sound is lacking. Guitars sound tinny, vocals sound strident. One gets the impression that the band is playing and singing as well as it can, but that there wasn't enough perfectionism in the sound engineering or mixing to capture and enrich what the performers were putting out. The best Yes producers (Eddie Offord, Trevor Horn) bound the band members' efforts in a rich broth. That doesn't happen here. Everything's too sterile and lit by fluorescents.

Open Your Eyes, 1997.  A side project converted into a Yes album. Various old Yes hands and session cats are parachuted in.  I complained about the sound quality on the previous album, but KtAII sounds like Pet Sounds next to this basement tape.  Which would be fine if this came out sounding cheerfully lo-fi, like Beat Happening or something, but of course Yes isn't about to do that. Potentially charming songs are undone by cheap ornamental effects. The cover art is just the classic Roger Dean logo from the 70s on a black background, and this spirit of not trying too hard pervades the album.

The Ladder, 1999. This time out they hired a proper producer for a change, and he got a pretty good album out of them, though sadly the effort literally killed him. A genuine spirit of enthusiasm and esprit de corps suffuses the album, and they perform with a verve they haven't shown in years. That said, I heard one song from here (If Only You Knew) on a soft rock station. It fit right in. Clearly, ambitions have settled, over the decades, into something more humble than the starry-eyed dreams of yesteryear.

Magnification, 2001. Working with an orchestra and an Emmy-award winning composer, Yes steers clear of the bombast and cheap prettiness that such a combo threatens, and produces some music that relies on restraint instead of the usual claptrap. Once I accepted that they wouldn't be taking advantage of the opportunity to channel Stravinsky (a key Yes influence in the 70s) I found that this one stuck to the ribs more than anything they'd released in many a moon. But only I bought it so they stopped recording new albums for a decade. Anyway, the last song on it, Time is Time, sounds like a lost track from The Yes Album 30 years before. A nice way to end.

But it wasn't the end.

Fly From Here, 2011.  I saw the boring video for the boring song with the new lead singer and passed on this one. The first Yes album I've shunned.

Heaven and Earth, 2014. Listened to a sample of this item with the NEW new lead singer. Sounded like an Air Supply tribute band that over-relies on synths. Pass.

To make up for punting on the last two Yes albums, here's a bonus round.


Symphonic Music of Yes, 1993. Should be titled Steve Howe with Bill Bruford and an orchestra that's not too proud. More Mantovani than Stravinsky. Only Mood For a Day, Steve Howe's beloved Jose Feliciano tribute, survives, because it gets a very different treatment, with a chamber orchestra adding sharp counterpoint instead of drizzling mayonnaise all over it like the rest of the album do.

Tales From Yesterday, 1995. My parents had a tribute album dedicated to Elton John that had an all-star cast. Yes's tribute album does not have an all star cast. It has once and future members of Yes, like they had to throw their own birthday party. Robert "has worked with some other prog rockers" Berry does a rendition of Yes's 70s signature song Roundabout that turns it all angular. Not my style, but I admire the willingness to take chances and reinvent a chestnut. Steve Morse's rendition of Mood For a Day doesn't reinvent; it's just lovely, like a fine cup of tea on a sunny, frosty day. Pickup band Stanley Snail (after Yes Lyric "Cold stainless nail" and featuring Zappa associate Mike Keneally) does a note-for-note of Siberian Khatru, and their fiery investment makes it sing. Other note-for-notes on the album just sit there. Original Yes guitarist Peter Banks demonstrates that he can still play sharp-edged but melodic rock guitar and will someone please hire him. (Poor Peter.) Spurned Yes keyboardist Patrick Moraz improvises on a Yes melody as only a Swiss jazzman can. Steve Howe teams with Annie Haslam (of prog act Renaissance.) Phrasing has never been Yes frontman Jon Anderson's strong suit, but he sounds like Billie Holliday next to Haslam's cloth-tongued realization of Turn of the Century, a pretty if drippy retelling of the Pygmalion myth.

I've been hard on Yes, but I'll always love them. Close to the Edge is perfect.  Goodnight.