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Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Monday, December 16, 2013

Seeing the Diamond Beneath the Paste

Latest viewing experience: D.E.B.S.

The trailer is a bit of a bait and switch; what we really have here is a cheerful lesbian coming-of-age story. The superspy stuff is an overlay. The two lovers are, respectively, a superspy and a supercriminal who are supposed to be thwarting one another, not sneaking around and dating, and the tale of treachery and betrayal serves as an objective correlative for the socially imposed tensions of the love that still dare not speak its name in many quarters. It's a nifty idea, this stitching together of different misbehaviors to illuminate the unnecessary dangers of same-sex love, but what makes sense in theory fails in practice because the superspy genre elements mostly just lie there. Lots of candy colors and outsized props strive for cartoonish low camp but just look stagy, and the writer-director doesn't generate any thrilling thriller tension. Cat-and-mouse sequences are carpeted with techno music that's clearly meant to drive the energy, but someone chose chill house music instead of edgy tracks, so the chases are way too relaxing. In one scene there's an extensive establishing shot of a fancy restaurant that mimics the upward tracking shot of the opera house in Citizen Kane, showing us just how immense and fancy this restaurant is, but then the scene that plays out is a conventional restaurant scene that makes no use of all that fanciness. Then there's a long sequence in which the protagonists navigate a road-to-the-batcave route to a secret exclusive dangerous nightclub... that just seems like any old nightclub. People dancing, hanging, having fun. Lots of mohawks and spikes, but it still seems as safe as an after-church reception. 

 So why am I hammering on this mediocre movie? I watched it because the writer-director, one Angela Robinson, wrote (several years after making D.E.B.S.) some of the best episodes of True Blood. Her scripts blended and interconnected comedy, action, drama and suspense with acrobatic alacrity. She earned her money and how. Her scripts were jim dandy. Alan Ball (The auteur of True Blood) and company saw and nurtured something in Robinson that, on the basis of D.E.B.S., most of us would never have guessed was there. How does one spot the potential lurking behind a failure? Clearly the producers of a campy vampire soap opera know something about talent spotting that eludes most of us.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Studio Albums of Yes, Part 2

Fragile, 1971.  If you can't imagine any Yes album being essential, this one just might change your mind.  Band tracks are interspersed with short solo pieces, and while the solos are hit and miss, they demonstrate what each member brings to the mix.  Lead singer Jon Anderson's tape-loop-heavy concoction demonstrates, probably, a fondness for Revolution #9, but maybe also Steve Reich; Anderson's pseudo-koan lyrics are front and center. on those tape loops.  Bassist Chris Squire's spot may be more notable for the work ethic involved in multitracking a zillion bass lines than for anything else.  Keyboardist Rick Wakeman tries to do a Wendy Carlos thing with some Brahms, demonstrating that he should probably create, in Brian Eno's phrase, frames for other peoples' pictures, (as he did with his delightful piano work on David Bowie's album Hunky Dory) rather than pictures of his own (bear this in mind before buying any of Wakeman's showoffy solo albums).  Guitarist Steve Howe does a lovely tribute to Jose Feliciano.  One of the things I find most invigorating about Howe is that he crafted a rock guitar sound that was rooted in everything BUT the blues.  Drummer Bill Bruford's brief burst of rhythmic danger is titled "Five Percent For Nothing" in honor of a former manager with a contractually obligated cut of the band's take, but it could be titled "Audition For King Crimson," the edgier band for which Bruford would soon leave Yes.

But the group efforts are what make the album.  Roundabout is the signature song, but South Side of the Sky, which could have coasted all the way on its rollicking riffs, includes a lyrical (but lyricless) piano-and-voice interlude and some thoughtful lyrics about death that I still find reassuring.  Long Distance Runaround could almost pass for a Thelonius Monk composition.

Close to the Edge, 1972.  When I discovered this album I spent a lot of time around high leafy trees, craggy cliffs, organs, choirs, sailboats, yellowing fantasy paperbacks, bibles and Beatles albums, sunbeams and moonmist.  This album seemed to pack it all together in 40 minutes of Stravinsky-loving symphonic rock.  The cheerful obscurantist lyrics bring a bit of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons to the mix, and some lines wouldn't seem out of place in John Ashbury.  If you only buy one Yes album, this is the one.

Tales From Topographic Oceans, 1973.  An Anglo attempt at a Bitch's Brew that seems to go down smoother with stoners than it does with the rest of us, this blend of english folk and Epcot multiethnic jazzless jazzing around is 2 LPs long, but doesn't have 2 LPs worth of inspiration; merely 2 LPs worth of ambition (and rawk star ego).  I can relate.  Its repetitions have grown on me over the decades; by turns simpleminded and convoluted, struggling for expansiveness yet bound up in indulgence, it mirrors my own mind.

Relayer, 1974.  This album cast a spell on me once, and I came to regard it as the last Great Yes Album.  Now I see the seeds of everything I don't like about Yes sending up shoots here.  The lyrics are plainspoken but banal (We go sailing down the calming stream/Drifting endlessly by the bridge... did they hire Thomas Kinkaide as a consultant?) and the straightforward ideology (war is bad, mystical illumination is good) doesn't enrich the music the way the bewildering lyrics of prior recordings did.  Perhaps the irritable public reaction to Topographic Oceans put them off modernist verse.  Much of one song is just a syke-a-delick guitar solo, skillfully done but not an interesting solution to an interesting problem.  There's a lot to love, though.  The music is lush yet jarring, Telecaster instead of Les Paul, jazz touches instead of classical flourishes.  It's producer Eddie Offord's last full album with them, and he weaves a rich tapestry of layered sounds.  The closing sung passage has incomprehensible lyrics (by which I don't mean I defy anyone to explain them, but that I can't make out the words) that weren't documented on the lyrics sheet; a welcome final burst of inscrutability.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

The Studio Albums of Yes, Part 1

I'm going to comment on each of Yes's studio albums.  It's my blog, and my life, and this is what I choose to do with it.

Yes, 1969.  I've read multiple testimonies that the original lineup of Yes could delight crowds, but this album doesn't reflect such power.  In an interview (Source: something I read somewhere) guitarist Peter Banks said that neither the producer nor the editor assigned to work on the album was accustomed to working with rock bands, and kept telling them to turn it down.  They refused to believe that if you're playing rock loud, you're doing it right.  Perhaps this blunted the results.  There is something this uneven but charming post-Beatles recording does demonstrate, though: one of Yes's big breaks came when Sly and the Family Stone couldn't make a show, and Yes filled in.  Even though Sly Stone has more funk in his earwax than Yes has in its entire discography, the two bands had more in common than is obvious.  Sly's band was integrated along racial and gender lines, while Yes was all white guys, but both bands integrated an array of popular musical modes into ambitious, multifaceted songs without seeming like dilettantes.  

Time and a Word, 1970.  Guitarist Peter Banks told interviewers that he had a quarrel with the producer of this album; being a young man Peter did the only honorable thing and threw a guitar at the guy.  It's no surprise that large chunks of Peter's guitar work got replaced with orchestration on the finished album. and that Peter was fired.  According to Wikipedia, his last band was named Consolation in Isolation, which was also the title of an instrumental he recorded a couple decades before his death.  We can surmise he had a tougher life than he might have had if he hadn't thrown the guitar.

The Yes Album, 1970.  New guitarist, new producer, new success.  I used to assume this was the first really successful Yes album because of guitarist Steve Howe, but now I think the arrival of producer Eddie Offord was the exponential upgrade.  Offord midwifed their best work.  This time out, Yes expanded their ambitious suite song structures and crafted some of their concert chestnuts, like Starship Trooper, which ends on a riff that can be expanded, inflated, and fiddled with all night.  One can measure Yes's artistic decline by how long and bombastic Starship Trooper became in concert.  My favorite ditty from this album is Perpetual Change, which mixes its musical themes, tempos and moods with aplomb, and includes some of the most cogent, tough-minded lyrics they'd ever write.  Tough-minded lyrics were not to be a Yes mainstay, but they did it once.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Casual Maxx Squad: Some leftovers from a misspent decade.

That's from a comic book titled The Maxx, issue #10. It's the first issue I bought; the first comic I bought in my college career. That image tells you why. Lushly pretty, dense, narrative art with a cartoony base. It suggested ways of blending traditional comics and fine art in ways I'd never seen before. Further, the story, despite walk-on appearances by a boo-hiss supervillian and a superhero (drawn in a hybrid of 90s superhero muscle-mass and early-comics bigfoot comedy), focused on a normal girl's childhood trauma, and the way it shaped her as a grownup. This blend of nerd-friendly tropes and Bergmanesque thematic concerns instantly turned me into a Maxx fan. I returned to the comics shop to buy issues # 1-9. Had I been better educated in recent comics nerd material I would have known that the lovely page there was not exactly unprecedented; a fellow named Bill Sienkiewicz had set the example for this kind of cartooning with his Klimt-goes-Pomo art for comics miniseries such as Electra:Assassin and Stray Toasters.  But knowing that wouldn't have blunted my appetite for more Maxx.

So what does that pretty page and that nice daddy have to do with the story?  Not much.  Daddy's of dubious dramaturgical importance to the story:  It's a pretty basic childhood trauma narrative.  Girl rescues crippled bunny, tries to nurse it but it's too far gone, Mommy kills the bunny, and the girl's traumatized for life.

So here's a page from the first issue.  That ridiculously dressed woman is Julie, the adult version of the traumatized little girl in issue #10.  Now, this comic was written by two men: Sam Keith (the artist) and William Messner-Loebs (who's credited with the dialogue).  I don't know what their collaborative process was, but I'm guessing it was "Marvel-style," meaning they talked the story over, the artist drew some pictures, and the writer tried to come up with dialogue that matched/made sense of/made up for the art.  On this page we're confronted with a social worker who, unlike actual social workers I've known, doesn't believe in minimizing sexual cues.  This leaves Messner-Loebs with an interesting challenge; this character clearly dresses the way she does because the artist likes drawing women like this, but if you're trying to create something like a characterization, how do you make sense of this?  By making her nasty, apparently, and not in a Janet Jackson sense.  That blanket crack at the end suggests, if her wardrobe doesn't, that social work may not be the career path for her.  Issue #10, then, is what comics calls an "Origin story," the explanation of how she got this way.  She's afraid of the painful consequences of caring, so covers it up with a bitter attitude. I only have a few issues of The Maxx left in my collection.  I gave most of them away.  Notice that I haven't shown you The Maxx himself yet.  The Maxx is a pseudo-superhero who ocillates between being Julie's Spirit Animal (turns out he's a bunny beneath his mask) or the deluded homeless guy she can't help nurturing (in which case he's a human beneath the mask).  This slippage accompanies Maxx and Julie's vacillation between two worlds: the real one, and the Outback, Julie's fantasy world.  I'll not delve much deeper into that, partly because I don't remember it all, but mostly because Keith and Messner-Leobs were clearly making it up as they went and it ended up a tangle.

Eventually they ended (not resolved) the story, and the comic continued as a succession of minimally connected tales, now written in full by the artist, Sam Keith.  Let's see what he came up with!

Well alrighty.   15 years later it looks less transgressive, since every free weekly in America features Dan Savage helping people figure out diaper fetishes and related kinks, but imagery like this is still a bit much to take on an empty stomach.  Like the undigested erotic/psychological elements in the first issue, this makes me wonder what the thought process was that produced this, although in this case there's only Sam Keith to credit or blame, since Messner-Leobs had left the title by now.  Sam's put a lot of work into things like page layout; I like the way bodies are juxtaposed and intermingled in threatening/sexual tableaus, but it's unclear how positive or negative we're supposed to be about weird fetishes.  Horror, kink, and bootleg psychiatry in the EST/Dianetics mold come together in a story with none of the comic's original characters at all.  I don't have the next issue, in which this story presumably ends with an induced epiphany on the part of the kidnapped characters, or just an escape from bondage, but either way I doubt it's able to top (or bottom) that page for sheer queasy sleaze that plays on the ambiguous pleasure and terror of BDSM.  So let's skip to the last issue I have, which is The Last Issue.

Got all that?  Sheesh, look at that type.  Compare and contrast to the hand-lettering in the first couple pages I posted.  Although I wasn't aware of it at the time, I think the main reason I lost my enthusiasm for The Maxx wasn't because the lumbering improvisation of the narrative kept stumbling (Keith wound up explaining a lot of plot points in the letters pages instead of in the comic proper) or because Keith decided to take over the textual end of writing, or because the main characters disappeared for months at a time.  It was because the letterer quit and got replaced by a font, along with too much text, resulting in big indigestible chunks of wordwordswords.  Kind of like this blog...  That purple guy's The Maxx, btw.  Sometimes Keith drew him big and imposing, sometimes Keith drew him like this.  Maxx is tonally flexible in a way most costumed heroes aren't.

Anyway, the schmaltz of panel 3 is probably indicative of Keith's shortcomings as a crafter of Deep Human Narratives.  Portraying creepy horror/erotica?  He brings it.  Portraying simple happiness?  He falls back on greeting-card hand-me-downs.  This reminds me of the show Lost, which tried to turn its tricksy elements into the backdrop for O. Henry tales of human folly and growth, but lacked enough human insight to pull it off.  Lost's attempts at character-centered drama often left me wondering if the writers had ever actually met a human.

But in a panel here, a page there, Keith's outpouring of lush doodles helped me enjoy the 90s a bit more than I might have otherwise, and Messner-Loebs wrote one passage of dialogue (no longer in my collection, I'm afraid) that still matters, even if paraphrased from memory.  Maxx comforts a teenager (Sara, the brunette in the page above) with the insight that growing up is, in large measure, a matter of learning to manage pain.  That idea helped me through a lot of sorrows and frustrations.

Let's switch to a different oddball 90s comic now:

Oz Squad!  Two guys who aspire to pick up where John. R. Neill and Ruth Plumly Thompson left off, (or perhaps March Laumer was more the idea) draw upon X-Men/Teen Titans methodology to plug the gaps in their own youthful artistic problem solving toolkits, and behold the zap-kblam results.  Don't worry, Toto there's a repairable robot dog.  And all ends well, as the following panels make clear:

Hanging out at the mall, with big-headed Mulder and Scully (so 90s!) and... some other characters.  What happier ending could there be?

Yeah, suck it, McDonalds!  We're not gonna tolerate some crass corporate entity moving in on our shopping mall.  Oz Mall!  I hate to admit it, but the idea of Oz as a mall probably would have gone down pretty smooth with L. Frank Baum if he'd still been around.

Look at that lion's eyes, particularly in the second-to-last panel.  If I were sitting by a lion, I'd want it to be sedated, but that lion is BAKED.  Just another stoner at the mall.

And in closing, a quick glimpse of Casual Heroes!  As far as I can tell, only one issue ever got published.  And while it's not likely to make any nostalgia-monger's top 100 list, it's one of my personal talismans of 90s-ness.

Kirby swipes.  Bold colors.  Ripped stockings and cutoffs.  This utterly derivative title tries to goose typical superhero schtick with slacker banter, and when I close my eyes and think "90s," this is how it looks, only less aggro and no sausage lips.  In the letters page (yes, first issues had letters pages, thanks to friends of the artists) the guy behind this comic talks about swipes (the fine art of copying other artists, like oh say Jack Kirby) the way DJs talk about sampling.  It's a kind of comics bricolage, or could be if it got past this Colorforms level.

I turn 40 in a few days, and this is still what I spend my mental energy on.  Bye now.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

In Passamaquoddy No One Can Hear You Scream

After more or less enjoying Prometheus I've been watching the Alien movies, excepting the Alien Vs Predator movies because enough is enough.

Part of what makes the original Alien so great is that it's full of unfolding mystery.  The alien keeps shifting, revealing new aspects of itself and new dangers.  You can't pin it down.  It's death itself, lethal, heartless, mindless; yet crafty, unpredictable, and unstoppable.  The lesson is that the cosmos is not exactly full of love for the Human, and you shouldn't mess with some things.

Aliens retorts that you can mess with any damn thing you please, so LOCK AND LOAD.  Director James Cameron, the Vincente Minnelli of monster movies, replaces the tension engendered by the polymorphing parasite's continual astonishments with the suspense of "Who will survive and what will be left of them?"  That suspense was part of the first film, too, but here it's the mainspring.  There's a bit of an addition to the aliens' characteristics, but it's more a reasonable extrapolation of what we knew (aliens have mommies too) than the nightmare twists of the original.  Furthermore, the escalation from alien to aliens robs the creature of its dreadful uniqueness (though it didn't need to; such are the urgencies of the action genre), reducing the Cosmic Godling to creepy cannon fodder.

Alien3 offers no surprises regarding the alien creature itself, other than that it can look awfully unthreatening in 90s CGI that resembles a Colorform slapped onto the cinematic image.  Also, the Alien's POV resembles an old camcorder with dubious filters.  Director David Fincher would soon do much better.

The surprises in the film (aside from "Boo!" surprises) come from the convicts with whom heroine Ripley must work; their alien religious motivations replace the unfolding of Alien characteristics.  The alien itself is thoroughly banalized by now; the Lovecraftian awe of the original film is reduced to "There's a rabid hippopotamus loose in the high school!"  Each of these films has fine ensemble work, but all the sequels feature overt thesping, while the original was nearly Altmanesque in its casual approach to line readings, etc.

At one point in the third film, a guy refers to the alien as a dragon, which inspired me to spend the rest of the film pretending the alien is actually Pete's Dragon.

This exponentially boosted the film's entertainment value.

Alien Resurrection, the last of the Sigourney Alien films, has the look of a particularly glossy Heavy Metal magazine comic.  The unfolding mystery in this film is as much about Ripley, newly reborn from hybrid human and alien DNA, as it is about the pureblood beasts.  Sigourney Weaver's cool delight in playing a bad-girl version of Ripley is one of the chief joys I found in this film.  Wynona Ryder is, as always, fun to look at, but her bitter-pixy appearance can't quite compensate for her undistinguished voice work, especially in the context of her costars. Sigourney and Brad Dourif have marvelous vocal instruments, next to which poor pretty Wynona sounds like a randomly selected person off the street.  If only she'd brought back her comical British accent from Dracula!  Brad Dourif is one of the few actors who could pull off his scenes of sensuosity with an Alien, though that's just a warmup for later developments.

Underwater aliens are fun, and we get them here, but the real return of Alien mystery comes when Ripley is lowered into a pit of distinct yet inchoate Alien anatomy in a glorious homage to Alien designer H. R. Giger's grotesque tableaus (too bad he didn't get a check or a credit for this film tho) and proceeds to have sex with an alien.  It's all presented with White-Elephant arty tastefulness, since who could bear to watch a hard-core version of such a thing?  Somebody, probably, but no one I want to have lunch with.  The death of the offspring of this union depressed me; as cloying as the creature was, it reminded me of the death of Tink; a creature that never had a chance at life, put to death to spare it further misery.

I didn't like the idea of humans and aliens merging and mating; it further undercuts the evident theme of the original film, that cosmic indifference trumps manifest destiny.  This film returns humanity to the center of the universe by showing that we can harmonize with the Alien, but better still if we kill the product of our miscegenation (not the first time inadvertent racism has crept into the franchise, as the many critics of Aliens' black-mother-with-too-many-kids can attest).

One more thing; most of the ensemble in this film seems to be a dry run for screenwriter Joss Whedon's nerd-favorite show Firefly.  I thought Firefly seemed like an advertisement for its own adorableness, so with this film I enjoyed pretending that it really was the crew of the Serenity getting gutted by monsters. It's a sad testimony that I have to pretend absurd things while watching films that are meant to take the burden of that responsibility off my shoulders, but that's franchise entertainment for you.

Prometheus, whatever its flaws, put the mystery back into the story by showing us Aliens that sprang from alternate hybrid pairings and, aside from certain basic hungers, are not like the on-model, canonical, in-continuity aliens that had become as exhausted as any other franchised monster.  Since the sense of wonder I experienced when the aliens came out looking wrong and strange and new is what I want from Science Fiction, I'm going to say that, for my purposes, Prometheus is the best of the Alien sequels.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Hands on Shoulders

As I approach my 40th birthday and my fourth anniversary, I recall something a friend told me on graduation day in 1996.  At 22, I was utterly out of ideas about how to make my way in the world, and I told her so.

"We'll have it figured out by the time we're 35," she said.

Over the years I clung to that like a talisman.  And at the age of 35, I began dating the woman who is now my wife.  Good stuff.


New topic: we saw a couple episodes of True Blood recently.  It's a soap about extravagant, camp vampires.  In the first of the episodes in question (Season 5, episode 3) we learn in flashback how two vampires, Eric and Pam, met; how Pam persuaded Eric to make her a vampire; why she wanted to be a vampire at all; and how they became a couple.  It's no spoiler to say that it involves some outlandish behavior, grandiloquent gestures, ultimatums, and lots of blood.

In the next episode we see how Eric and Pam formally sever their relationship.  It involves hands on shoulders; sensitive, quiet conversation; and a little tearing up.  Talk about a dropoff.

I'm an Eric Rohmer fan, so it's not like I'm averse to restrained, dialogue-driven relationship stories, but I can get hands on shoulders and restrained tears from a hundred lesser shows.  The writer or someone misunderstood what we come to this show for.

I suppose you could spin it as a demonstration of how the characters have matured over the years, but anyone who's watched the show this far know the characters have done anything but mature.  They're vicious, deadly hotheads.  That's why they're fun.

True Blood is produced by the creator of Six Feet Under, a more realistic soap that is special to me, and it had its fair share of hands on shoulders moments, but the show was calibrated that way.  For a while I was frustrated that True Blood wasn't Bride of Six Feet Under, but now I've learned to appreciate the depths that can be plumbed within the Pop Kabuki format of this show.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Food Building

In the late 90s I worked for a carpet cleaning company.  We would occasionally get sent to a town called Bessemer, which was generally the only time I ever went to Bessemer.  It was unfamiliar terrain to me, and I got lost a lot.

One day my partner and I were trying to find a house that was lost down one of the squirrelly little roads that capillary their way off the main streets through the town, and it wasn't going well.  Understand that GPS was not on the map, so to speak.  All we had was a big dusty map book, and Bessemer was shell-gaming us, sneaking that little road past us at each turn.

Eventually we'd stop at a gas station, buy some Corn Nuts (my staple diet at the time) and beg for directions.

"Just go on up that way till you pass the Piggly Wiggly..."

"All you gotta do is hang left when you see the Piggly Wiggly..."

"When you see the Piggly Wiggly, take a right..."

 Everybody's directions (And we asked a representative sampling of Bessemer residents) hinged on the Piggly Wiggly.

After about an hour of this we finally accepted that the big not-Piggly Wiggly grocery we kept passing as we zigzagged along the grain of peoples' directions must have once been a Piggly Wiggly before leaving the franchise and renaming itself Food Building or We Got Groceries or whatever.  Everyone's directions made perfect sense from there and we found the client's house instantly.  At this time Bessemer was not a flourishing economic center, and I find myself wondering if that stagnation was cause or effect of the locked-in folkways that prevented the Good People of Bessemer from informing us of the "Piggly Wiggly's" binary identity.

A few months later I was in Bessemer again.  This time I was alone, tooling around the back roads, searching for an even more obscure address.  It was night.  I got lost in the woods, and something went awry.  What was it?  Did I just veer off the road into a ditch?  Or was there a more robust mechanical failure?  You tell me.  Those vans broke down all the time; the cleaning gear was in fine shape, but the vehicles were old and strained, and at least one got towed to the repair shop every day.  Anyway, I try to remember the details of what went wrong and it's a smear.

But the van was in a syrupy ditch, and the wheels would cut no traction into that mess.  The road was virtually dirt.  It was dark outside my headlights.  Surrounded by woods, with little desperate dwellings here and there.

We had CBs that we used to communicate with base, but in that dead zone I couldn't get a signal through.  I had, as it were, no bars.  My only option was to walk till I found a phone.  I'd passed a little gas station some ways back, so I hoofed it.

At one point I passed a little watering hole.  Rough customers stood outside talking loud, then went silent as I passed.  There was a pay phone out front, but the scowls of the locals inspired me to press on.

I got to the (well lit) gas station and placed my call.  Home base told me to go back to the van and wait for the tow truck.  A handsome young man was waiting by the phone.  "Don't go back there," he told me.  "This is a BAD neighborhood at night.  I'm waiting on some friends to get me out of here.  You tell them to come here and pick you up."  (Let me point out that he was of the same race as the locals, and I was not).

Why didn't I take his advice?  Or why didn't I beg him to get his friends to drive me to my truck?  Look, if I'd been a problem solver, I wouldn't have been working where I was.  Marry a problem solver like I did (a decade later), folks, so you can learn like I have.

So the guy's friends arrived and took him away, leaving me alone outside a closed gas station.  His uneasy company had been some comfort, but the florescent light was bleak now.

A dutiful dope of a drudge, I walked back, through the dark, skirting around the watering hole.  Then I sat in the van, worried and frustrated.  Like a schmuck, I ran the engine, grinding it, the tires shrilling and spewing mud; loud, loud, worthless effort.

A tense-looking middle-aged man came out a door, glowered at me in silence for several minutes.  It was pretty late.  I prayed he'd offer me some help, but he just stood in the porch light like an icon of justifiably angry poverty.  Then he went back inside and the light went out.

Somehow I got the truck on the road.  Did I push it?  Did I rock it?  I dunno.    Was the trip complicated by a flat tire, a wobbly wheel, a twist of some snarled mechanism or other?  I got no clue.  I was frantic.  I got to a different gas station, an open one near the highway.  I contacted base (with the CB this time) and they rerouted the tow guy, who fussed at me for not staying put.

Next week I did something I'd been yearning to do for the entire year I'd worked there.  I quit.

You know why I worked there as long as I did?  Because at my interview they laid a guilt trip on me about how they didn't want to hire people only to have them quit after a month.  They expected me to work there at least a year or two.  That's why I stayed.

Suffice it to say I don't sell my own happiness so short now.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Homemade Yogurt, Water Engines, My Childhood, and Some Movies

Wicker Man.  A camp treat.  The first hour is basically an upright, uptight police officer sleuthing around a island-bound Pagan commune, and having a succession of tantrums about how not-Christian everybody is.  It’s spiced up with loads of bawdiness, Thistle and Psych-Rock music, and all the fruits of the filmmakers’ research into pagan bric-a-brac roughening the texture of a straightforward mystery plot. 

It reminds me of a family vacation way back when, touring around the coast of Maine, and we spent an afternoon at some Unitarian island retreat.  Everyone was very friendly, but I poked around the bookshop (as I was wont to do) and found a book of party games for consenting adults, or maybe it was supposed to be about spiritual/emotional growth, who remembers.  One of the activities involved openly, honestly, unhesitatingly telling everyone in the group which of them you wanted to have sex with.  Then and now, this struck me as a really dim idea, and I was relieved, years later, to find that Birmingham-style Unitarianism doesn’t involve such games (or if it did, I wasn’t invited.)

So watching this devout Christian fellow stomp around a lovely, sunny island and treat a bunch of sweetly smiling pagans like war criminals was deeply satisfying to my inner prig, just because that’s what I would’ve loved to do on Unitarian Sex Camp Island all those years ago.  Take that, nice people who make your own yogurt! 

Of course the movie ends with the Pagans turning out to be dangerous because horror movies always gotta take things to the bottom of the slippery slope.  Exorcist can’t just let the girl go through a sleazy, angry adolescent phase and then calm down, which is what usually happens in real life.  Texas Chainsaw has to turn its white trash creeps into cannibals, instead of just beer guzzlers who cling to guns and religion (in fact the Sawyer family doesn’t seem to have guns or religion, though they have weapons, totems and mummification.)  And the pagans, of course, of course, have to do human sacrifice, instead of just having psychic faires and selling homemade candles.  Such is horror.

Also enjoyed an item called Safety Not Guaranteed, which has been criticized for being yet another underweight quirky-cutesy comedy, but it stays with me for a couple of reasons.  For one, it understands that time travel is really about memory and history, and puts regret and relationships at the center of the narrative.  Some of the B plot romantic stuff seems weakly integrated into the film at first, but the end thematically unifies everything.  Second, the film’s tense, obsessive protagonist reminds me of a guy who did the tech for a theatre venue I used to perform in.  He was acerbic, scowly, and had a diagram of an engine that runs on water posted on the door of his office, with some notes on how They are suppressing this technology for their own greedy gain.  I went to his house one night with a group of theatre nerds, and he showed us his enormous collection of unopened Star Wars toys.  After that I tried to be warm to him, in my ungainly way, to show that I appreciated that he’d opened this part of himself to me, but he seemed even colder than before.  I felt I’d failed a test.  This movie is about a woman who passes the test.  

Finally, watched the first half of something called Modern Girls, a truly lousy film from the early 80s.  It’s well worth a look, though, if you’re interested in the more outrageous elements of 80s style.  New Romantic duds galore, chunky plastic jewelry, hair chandeliers, neon pink and blue on black, it’s all here.  As far as plot, thematics, character work, dialogue, all that stuff, it’s hard to imagine how it could be worse, but oh, it’s fun to goggle at.  I was a boy in the early 80s, and all that stuff was on the cultural periphery of my life.  Now it makes me feel like a kid again.  Maybe it felt similar to the people who dressed like that.  God bless ‘em.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Ewgrossorcist

One of the fascinating things about the same-sex marriage cases before the SCOTUS this week is that the anti-gay marriage crew isn't using the old-school arguments of "Ewww, gross" and "As it is written in The Book of Hezekiah, Chapter Seven, Verses Eighteen to Twenty..."  I guess those arguments don't have as much currency as they once did.

"Ew, gross" has, at various times, struck me as a robust argument regarding such topics as homosexuality, girls, and vegetables, so it's time to declare disgust and revulsion to be unreliable moral guides.

I don't want to wade into religious arguments, but I would note that the story of Sodom and Gommorah, often cited as an anti-gay narrative, is a deeply weird and difficult story that doesn't leave anyone except maybe Abram looking good.  It's kind of like a Golan-Globus movie, an overwrought caricature of the big bad city, with abject, comically demonized villains   Homosexuality sure doesn't get a clean bill of health in it, but the residents of the Twin Cities are also rapists and murderers who have ceased worshiping God.  It's disingenuous, or just stoopid, to say (as so many do) that it's the homosexuality that forced God's hand.

 So what kind of arguments are they making, there at SCOTUS?  Arguments that may seem to have that New Talking Point Smell, but if you look up any article by Maggie Gallagher from 2005 or so, you'll see the current anti-gay marriage case has been copied and pasted wholesale from there, or from wherever she got it.  Still, the fixation on procreation as the be-all and end-all of marriage makes me think the Maggie Gallagher argument on this subject may be like The Exorcist or stuff about nuns... If you're not Catholic, and I'm not, it's hard to see the point.  I think this is gonna be a win for same-sex marriage, and I'm pleased, both for the right reasons (people I care about will be able to formalize their relationships) and the wrong ones (apoplexy looks delightful on my ideological opponents).

Speaking of The Exorcist, I finally saw it, but (as I've suggested) I couldn't give myself over to it.  I can accept pretty much any narrative premise, no matter how goony, as long as the storyteller doesn't go bananas trying to persuade me that it isn't goony.  The filmmakers practically grabbed me by the lapels, screaming "No, the demon possession isn't a narrative device gesturing towards parental anxiety about their children's' pubertal misbehavior... it's about REAL DEMON POSSESSION, which is a real thing that happens!"  C'mon.  I saw a recently redone cut of the film; I understand the original release was more ambiguous.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Outside the Cage, Outside the Stage

I used to get The Actor's Nightmare all the time, as I've posted about before.  Then I quit acting, and I started to get a variant: I'd dream that I was in a theatrical production, and I wanted to get out.  I'd be desperate, not to remember my lines, but to quit the show without getting into some ill-defined trouble.

So why did I quit?  Not in the dream, but in real life?

There's many answers to that question, as there are many facets of the problem.

Recently, though, I read something that gave me a fresh perspective on the matter.  I finally bought a copy of Genesis's album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and I was eager to learn anything I could about the backstory of the album's creation.

Sidenote:  My official position is that, post-college, I'd rather listen to Coltrane go to the toilet than waste time on english art-school boys of the 70s as they churn out maximum arpeggios per square inch and lyrics that play like Tennyson freestyling; but it's all a lie, a horrible lie.  I heart Progressive Rock.  Readers may remember Genesis for Invisible Touch, but long before they crafted slick pop songs with Phil Collins on vocals, they crafted ornate fantasy ballads with Peter Gabriel on vocals and Phil on drums.

I'd resisted getting Lamb even though it's reputed to be their finest hour (or 80 minutes) since I already own a few albums by the band, and one's pretty much interchangeable with the other for a non-fanatic. This one, though, really was different.  It starts in a gritty-ish urban setting, and while it eventually gets around to the usual fantasy material, the band manages some tasty atonal free-jazz, along with some stripped-down revisions of their prior lush sound.  It reminds me more than a bit of Abacab, a later album on which they made a clean break with Ye Olde Genesis and surfed a New Wave.  And while the Puerto Rican street tough who figures as their protagonist probably wouldn't listen to the synth-heavy Anglo plunkings of this band, that's not necessarily a fault.  Pynchon's characters mostly wouldn't read Pynchon's books.

Oh yeah but anyway, when they played this stuff live Gabriel put on a big theatrical show, with costume changes and stuff.  So poking around for info on this stuff, I found this website.  It's got a quote from Gabriel's wife at the time, pilfered from an authorized bio of Peter by one Spence Bright.  Take it a way, Peter Gabriel's ex-wife!

"He was angry, and it was a very powerful performance. He totally opened himself and put himself on the line to the world, but he wasn't in his relationship with me. I would say to him, 'Why can't you be like that for me?' I remember sitting in the audience and feeling completely turned on by this guy who I was married to. But he was not able to be that person outside the stage. And that is what has slowly broken down over the years, being able to take that part of himself into his everyday life."

So.  Back in 2000 or so, I was in a play which included a bit of flirting between my character and another.  The stage manager mentioned to me that I became a different person in that scene; "Your whole demeanor is different," she said, and she was right.  I became utterly free and open and flirtatious, in a way that was barred to me in offstage life.  The stage was a safe place to play at such experimental things as "flirting".  It would be years before I decided to take that onstage demeanor into my real life.

I few years ago I concluded that I couldn't sustain that energy, that power, in real life while bringing it onstage at the same time.  In performance situations (including auditions) I became enervated, lacking the will to give my first fruits to the 25-year-old white boys who handle the casting-call scut work in most regional theatres.  I had somewhere better to put my energy, my openness, my Eros.  I put it into my marriage.

Not long ago I dreamt of attending the theatre.  I was a cheerful audience member, enjoying a mysterious pageant upon the stage.  The actor's nightmare has been replaced by the audience member's sweet dream.

*  *  *

And speaking of sweet dreams, here's an old Yes song (more prog rock, I know) featuring Peter Banks on guitar.  Peter was the first of many people to leave/get fired from Yes, and is now the first former Yes member to die.  His death is more melancholy than the death of many other Yes people will be, because he never got to taste much success.  I've read a few interviews with him, and he seemed painfully aware of the missed opportunities in his career.  He made some interesting recordings, though.  Sweet Dreams.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Furies in Revolt.

Recently enjoyed a few movies.

The Furies stars Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Houston as daughter and father on a ranch, and if you're not leaping right this moment to add it to your Netflix queue on that basis alone then I don't know what's wrong with you.  Walter Houston's character is an icon of everything wonderful and terrible about the manifest destiny man.  Barbara, in the manner of daughters everywhere, dates a guy her dad can't stand, and there is drama!  There is also cruelty and payback, as Barbara and her on-again off-again city sharpie boyfriend scheme to rip Walter off.  I enjoyed watching the forces in play ping-pong off the walls at each other.

Mr. Arkadin, the Comprehensive version.  This is a lesser-known Orson Welles movie available in about 5 versions for some reason.  The story is a daffy thriller, and the style is peculiar... Welle's usual virtuoso stuff is all over it, but it seems a bit jerry-rigged as well, with a charming clunkiness counterbalancing the lusher elements.  For example, there's a bunch of sequences where the camera whips away from the action to end a scene, and I imagine it was supposed to be one of those whipes, you know.   But instead of blurring as the camera veers away, everything stays super-clear, so you see that the camera is whipping around to a parking lot or some other irrelevant detail, where Welles may have wanted no details at all.  It's fun that way.  If they ever make a Live-action Ranma 1/2 movie it should feel like this.

Women in Revolt.  Can someone explain to me why Paul Morrissey doesn't have a big a fan following as John Waters?  The three drag personalities at the center of this film are a near-perfect comedy trio.  Holly Woodlawn is manic and bizarre (she made me laugh till I was almost sick); Jackie Curtis is a flip verbal pugilist, and Candy Darling channels the glamour girls of midcentury tinseltown with a blend of archness and sincerity that I find absolutely beguiling.  Andy Warhol's cinematography is terrible, but this is one of my favorite viewing experiences of the year so far.

Also, I hated Peter Jackson's Hobbit.  I'll talk about that next time, maybe.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Only Thing I Intend To Write On This Unless I Think Of Something Good

When I was in high school I had some friends who were Communists, outspoken Reds who enjoyed shocking people (this was the late 80s, early 90s, when Communism was a much spookier thing to many people) with their scandalicious stance on political economics.

Last I checked, they grew up to be committed Republicans.  Having tried on a pose to see if it fit, they retained the interest in politics while discarding the elements they had come to regard as unsuitable.

So let's talk about Holmies, the teen girl fans of James Holmes, the former grad student who shot up the movie theatre and rigged up bombs in his apartment.

Like most people who've thought about the situation, my first, second, third, fourth and fifth reaction to this particular fandom was YUCK.

And it's fair to say that if James Holmes had been a 50-year old black guy, the Holmies wouldn't have looked twice at him.  But some of them might grow up to be people who will.

Maybe some of them will grow up to work with Amnesty International, or domestic Prisoners' Rights groups that strive to ensure prisoners have access to legal recourse, counseling, education and employment.

They are practicing love for the despised and unloveable.  They are prepping to be angels of mercy for people the rest of us would just as soon bury.