Thursday, January 18, 2007

Archives Project: STL #5

Title: Wronk! Top 20 Guitar Albums.
Description: A response to Mojo's Top 100 guitar albums
Date: 29 July 2003

Oh, Mojo magazine, how I love thee in thy rock snobbery. I'm a little surprised to see Beck and Captain Beefheart on the list, and sort of embarrassed that Jimi Hendrix tops it. I'm feeling too dull to revise it now, but maybe soon.

I'm sure that "rock critic" is a terrible job. Sporadic employment, hours listening to mediocre albums in order to write reviews no one will more than skim, poor pay, no health insurance. But, more than anyone else, they do get to make lists. No other kind of writing privileges the list like rockcrit: lists of fives, twenties, hundreds, even the occasional thousand, on any topic. I love the elegance of the list, and the assurance that not only can the things of the world be objectively quantified, but can then be contained by round numbers. There's even a website devoted to rock lists [offline in 2007], suggesting that others share my obsession. The latest rock list to capture my attention is Mojo's Top 100 guitar albums, packaged with the last issue as an independent booklet. Although Mojo really knows their stuff, there's always a burning need to argue with any list (that satisfying authority I mentioned is clearly an illusion). In this case, it's the exclusion of the prototype of the "guitar album" Led Zeppelin II, the template for all hard rock guitar heroics. Clearly, I must make my own list, if only to defend the honor of Jimmy Page.

When writing a list, you need to start with ground rules. With me, I always quibble with the semantics of the category. What is a "guitar album," and how should it be judged? An album is not simply the contents of a vinyl lp or a cd, but must be conceived of as a unity by the creators. This eliminates most of the pre-rock era, based on singles and live performance. That's fine, because no other genre ever exalted and mythologized a single instrument to such an extent. I've decided to limit my list to rock music since the mid-sixties, which is an ample field. (I do regret the exclusion of Robert Johnson, Elmore James, and others, but rules are rules). But while rock is largely guitar-based, not every album can really be considered a guitar album. The pleasure of the album must be intrinsic to the pleasure of the guitar sound, which will vary among listeners. Therefore, it's not right to include an album featuring guitars simply because it's a good album. For instance, I love Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville. It's got perfectly good guitar, but the guitar sound isn't a decisive factor in my enjoyment of the album (though even as I write this, the opening chords of "Divorce Song" ring in my head). My final rule is that no guitarist be included more than once. This saves me the embarrassment of ranking Back in Black, High Voltage, and Highway to Hell 1-2-3.

Having limited the field, I must devise criteria. Some technical competence should be exhibited, though I wouldn't want to differentiate between Ywngie Malmsteen and Steve Vai. As the saying goes, "it's only rock and roll," and more important than technical ability is an appealing sound, which might be something you've never heard before, or the joyous perfection of something you've heard a lot of. My ultimate criteria are simple: that I like the album a lot, and I the way the guitars sound is a significant aspect of what I like.

And so, without further ado, I present the list:


20. She Hangs Brightly (1990)/ Mazzy Star: One thing that appeals to me in music is texture. I might be starting an architecture-y jig here, but in this example, I mean the lovely result of David Roeback's thick, round guitar entwining with Hope Sandoval's narrow, delicate voice. It's not a strict dichotomy, male-female or otherwise, as both are shades of darkness.

19. Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos (1998): Ribot is probably best known as Tom Waits's main guitarist, especially for his exceptional work on Rain Dogs. On this album he finds a Latin groove with his own band, including John Medeski on organ, on a tribute to Cuban bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez.

18. Days of Wine and Roses (1982)/Dream Syndicate: I chose not to worry about influence with this list. If I did, these third-generation Velvets wouldn't have much of a chance. But since I didn't, I can recommend Karl Precoda and Steve Wynn's clashing, feedback-drenched duels that form the basis of songs like "When You Smile." The recent rerelease includes alternate takes that I like as much or more than the studio versions.

17. Moving Pictures (1981)/Rush: Rush may be known as a musicians' band, but it's the drummer and bass player who usually get the attention. Moving Pictures is thought to represent the transition from the live-oriented prog rock of the seventies with a new studio-polished contempo version. Alex Lifeson fits right in to the fabric, devising ingenious solos on Tom Sawyer, the instrumental YYZ, and the infamous Red Barchetta.

16. Toys in the Attic (1975)/Aerosmith: This sounds like music you wouldn't need long fingers to play, but I'd take it over a stackful of Eddie Van Halen records any day. I was planning on commenting how nobody's ever noticed how funky Aerosmith is, especially Joe Perry's playing, but then I remember somebody did notice: Run-DMC. While on the topic of 80's rock-rap cross-overs, let me give a shout out to Slayer's Kerry King's guest solo on "Fight for Your to Par-tay." It's a shredder.

15. Mellow Gold (1994)/Beck: Beck's known as many things: ironist, synthesizer of junk culture, post-modern gadfly. You don't often see mention of his guitar playing, but I love it on this album, especially the ZZ-Top under-water impression (Mountain Dew Rock).

14. Sign of the Times (1987)/Prince: I questioned my rule about guitar being integral to my enjoyment of the album. While I love this album, it's Prince's attention to and control of detail that captivates me. But his guitar playing is a crucial aspect of that. On the few guitar rave-ups (like Your Got the Look, I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man, The Cross) he shows complete command of rock guitar vocabulary, from power chords to funk lines to feedback, all almost too well polished. Yet even on tracks where the guitar is less prominent, it provides crucial (there's a Princian word for you) color. Consider for instance the title track, where the guitar comes late with an offhand three note figure, almost a throw-away, before continuing with a gripping, rhythmic solo. While this is one of those albums where Prince did everything himself, he's employed other talented guitarists at times. My all-time favorite solo is Wendy ("Yes Lisa") Melvoin's minimalist groove on "Kiss" from Parade, an album which does not otherwise extensively (crucially) employ guitar.

13. Talking Timbuktu (1994)/Ry Cooder & Ali Farka Toure: Two truly guitarists working together. Toure is often written about as a sort of "missing link" between the African griot and the American bluesman, but reducing him to a cultural anthropological phenomenon is a great injustice to a wonderful musician. Cooder's involvement in world music, between this and the Buena Vista nexus, strikes me as more ethical than other dablers. There's a real dialogue going on here, unlike Paul Simon's or Peter Gabriel's appropriations. Not that I'm particularly troubled by the latter two, but this work is more dynamic as it speaks to potential rather than existing as a static assemblage.

12. Trout Mask Replica/Captain Beefheart: I think the first duplicate from Mojo's 100. Zoot Horn Rollo and Antennae Jimmy Seimens work is dissonant, surprising, and inspired. My favorite: "Ella Guru."

11. Garage Days Re-Revisited (1987)/Metallica: Mojo picked Kill 'Em All, which is probably right, but I've got a soft spot for this one-off covers album. I tuned into Metallica after Master of Puppets was out, so this was the first album of theirs I was waiting for. (And Justice for All, their next album, was the last.) The assassination of the slow doomy intro of the Small Hours by the speed demon riff is paradigmatic Metallica texture. This album is now available with a buttload of other covers on Garage, Inc.

10. Living With the Law (1991)/Chris Whitley: I listened to this a lot working in the kitchen of a restaurant. One day my friend Jared walked in during the feedback-laden solo of "Dust Radio" and remarked "That's some burly guitar." That's the final word for me.

9. Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs(1970)/ Derek & the Dominoes: Caused a dilemma with the "one per musician rule." Not Clapton, who I hate except for this and Cream, but Duane Allman. I considered Eat a Peach, but picked this for Allman's slide on Layla's coda.

8. Let It Bleed(1969)/Rolling Stones: Keith Richards playing from Between the Buttons to Tattoo You is also an embarrassment of riches. The Richards-Jagger interplay is echoed by the lead guitar- singer dynamic in a lot of other bands (like Aerosmith, most obviously) and it's the guitarist who's the silent, dangerous author of the noise and the singer is a prolix loudmouth who adds nothing so much as visibility. God bless them both.

7. Paranoid/Black Sabbath: Another one from Mojo, the only repetition from their Top 20 Maybe it should be number 11, in honor of the volume, but I think it deserves a little better. Mojo has a nice feature in their blurbs, which is designated a "key moment" by track time. They nailed it for Sabbath: "War Pigs" 0:52, where Tony Iommi emerges from primordial ooze.


6. Sister (1987)/Sonic Youth: "Tuff Gnarl"= Portrait of the Artist. Thurston Moore's really smart and he's really fast. He's got a tuff gnarl in his head: The saving grace is a sonic pig pile, amazing grazing strange and raging. You gnarl out on my nerves; crush the cranking raunch

5. Shoot Out the Lights (1982)/Richard Thompson: The implication of the singer/guitarist dichotomy that I've invoked with the Stones and Mazzy Star is that a small drama is enacted in their interchanges in every performance. Obviously, that dynamic is missing when the singer is the guitarist, as is the case on several tracks here. (On the the remainder it's soon-to-be-ex-wife Linda, so the inherent drama is clear.) The story of the telling then is different; instead of resistance there's depth. Not to say that Fairport Convention didn't have depth, but this is a much lower place.

4. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere/Neil Young: There's a story that Neil Young wrote "Cowgirl in the Sand" in bed with a fever. Young and Danny Whitten capture that creative fever on that song and a few others.

3. Led Zeppelin II (1969): I'd begun to form a theory of guitar moments a little while before this list came out. The greatest moment of them all is when the band comes back from the radiosphere on Whole Lotta Love. After a couple of thudding chords, Jimmy Page leans back (your can hear him lean) and tosses of a quick, slightly pinched solo. A lot of pointless solos were born from this, but in the context the original is perfect--a bit of an "oh, this?" bravado before finishing the song and starting the rest of the album that created 70's rock.

2. Back in Black(1980)/AC/DC: Anybody know how to make that little lightning bolt on a computer keyboard? If this is "better" than other albums is irrelevant, as it is now and forever The Holy Writ of Heavy Metal. Everything that Living Loving Maid implied is pushed to its absurd, wonderful extreme.

1. Electric Ladyland (1968)/Jimi Hendrix: Any list not topped by Hendrix lacks credibility. I chose Ladyland instead of Purple Haze because I've heard the latter so many times I can't really hear it again, and in this double album lets Hendrix range further than he ever did elsewhere. The key moment is the "slight return" of 'Voodoo Chile' which is gigantic, immortal, anything but "slight."


Well, that's it. Someday I want to dig a little deeper into what I like so much about lists (even in books from the Bible and the Iliad to Rabelais to Gilbert Sorrentino. Not to mention pop-obsessed Nick Hornby's High Fidelity), but that can wait for another day.

I'm suspending the Cheever quote of the week until next time, but here's what else I've been up to:


Reading: Wuthering Heights, the Creeley anthology, The Business of Books by Andre Schiffren


Watching: Sports Night, 28 Days Later.


Listening: what do you think?

Archives Project: STL #4

Title: Life, the Serial
Description: STL #4: It starts with Chester Brown but ends with James Kolchalka! And makes passing references to TV in between!
Date: 24 July 2003

I've only become more attracted to the pamphlet form since writing this. Alan Moore called them "little slabs of culture you buy for pocket change," although "change" ain't what it used to be (heh). I actually got the collected Louis Riel as a gift, and it is a handsome object, but I love the sense of the story figuring itself out, and the pause and reflection represented by the back material. In my description below, "subtle and lyrical" is a personal cliche. Some of the links are probably dead.


Earlier this week, I finished Chester Brown's comic book series Louis Riel, a subtle and lyrical biography of the Canadian rebel leader. I had purchased the final two issues of the series (numbers 9 and 10) a couple of weeks ago, but didn't get around to them right away. I never had the convenience of picking up several issues of a series at once in my first life as a comics reader, when all the comics I had access to were returned after a month on the news-stand. Of course, that first life was mostly lived for the adventures of Batman and his cohort, so if a story stretched across two or more issues, I kept an eager eye out for the next installment and devoured it as soon as I got it. Louis Riel will come in book form this fall, like a lot of serialized comic book stories, but twenty yeas ago collections were all but unheard of. If you missed an issue of continuing story on the stands, you’d never know what happened. (I still don’t know how the Teen Titans got back from Starfire’s home planet.) While there are distinct pleasures of following a series (my nostalgia for the pamphlet form, the extras like letters or mini-essays in the back), I usually prefer waiting for the book collection. The dignified pace of Louis Riel encourages the slow and concentrated reading which the book form privileges, but I wasn’t sure it would be collected (Brown’s previous series, Underwater, hasn’t been), and since I admired his other work and had heard good things about this series, I bought the issues in batches.


All this is a round about way of approaching serial story-telling. Serial narrative has always been culturally “low-brow”: the television series comes to mind, and comics, and even prose fiction in 19th-20th century magazines (these can sneak up to middlebrow and even highbrow when collected as novels.) This bias arises from the scattershot quality of the work, and its clear economic motivation: if you liked this, one element of the set says, then come back next week (or month, or whatever.) But the best serial narrative makes the most of its form. We can become intimately familiar with characters, independent of the stresses of specific plots, can experience the ritual pacing of each installment, can learn to see multiple thematic strands. Even after the excitement dies down when the series is cancelled, the strengths remain. Finally, thanks to DVD (for TV series) and the growing viability of comics reprints, we have access to what had previously been ephemeral.

None of which has to do with Chester Brown. I'll eventually, get to Brown’s versatile and impressive oeuvre (later in the series), but for now I’d like to turn to one of his contemporaries who pushes the implications of serial form to its logical extreme. James Kolchaka might be considered an indy rock offshoot of what Dylan Horrocks called the New Lyricism in comics (including Megan Kelso, John Porcellino, Tom Hart, and I think he'd include Brown). Readers of alternative comics probably know Kolchaka for his Kissers or Monkey vs. Robot, or from his appearances in various anthologies. The best moments of his work, whether his story is mundane or fantastic, capture offhand moments, striking set off black background in a broad relaxed contours. In his Sketchbook Diaries (Top Shelf 2001), his style finds the perfect form. This comic/book (thick, but stapled in the middle and clearly a pamphlet) collects one year’s worth of daily comics. He states in a prefatory comic that he “wanted to explore the rhythm of daily life, to become more conscious of what it really means to live.” The sequence of usually four panel strips capture the story of his life from October 1998 to October 1999, except that as he points out, life is lived without the structures of narrative. The “story” of his year then is a record of discontinuous moments. Reading them all, one sees the “natural” patterns—anxieties over art and health, his relationship with his wife and friends, and his peculiar attitude toward things. He’s likely to attribute motive to inaminate objects, and therefore tries to make friends with various things of the world. I should mention that Kolchalka draws himself as an elf named “Magic Boy,” his wife Amy is also an elf, his friend Jason as a dog, etc. Theoretically, this “masking” allows for greater identification between character and reader, if we believe Scott McCloud anyway. But I think the universiality of the work has less to do with the depiction and more with the fact that peculiarities aside, Kolchalka captures the essence of quotidian life in his art: all the small gestures which manage the impossible negotiations between ourselves and the people and things of the world. More importantly, he shows that his daily commitment to his work, his art, is the means (and the only means) of doing so.

Any element of this series is slight, based on a passing fancy, a joke, a moment in time. But in series, they gain the texture of life itself. I agonized over typing the phrase “life itself,” which strikes me as overused and hyperbolic but I think it’s justified in this case. Sketchbook Diaries
is a major work of art.



Though I've been arguing that this series need to be viewed in a large quantity, you can see a small sampling of more recent installments online: American Elf: The Sketchbook Diaries of James Kochalka. Also see the homepage for daily installments, or to pay money to see his entire sketchbook.



/Other/

I'm reading Cheever "serially" too, pretending that I'm getting his stories in the mail and reading one before sleep most nights. So, lucky you, I'm starting the series, "John Cheever Quote of the Week": "It was getting more and more difficult for him to walk, but this pain did not change his handsomeness and seemed only to increase his vitality. When people saw him, they thought: How nice it will be to eat a cutlet, take a swim, or climb a mountain; how pleasant, after all, life is" (from "The Duchess")



Reading: Cheever, Creeley's anthology, Wuthering Heights, Modernisms by Peter Brooks


Listening: Smiths, Thelonius Monk

Seeing: Sports Night on DVD (grows on you in batches)

Improvised Blather

I'm a part-time college writing teacher. Today was the first day of my last semester at my current institution, and quite frankly I'm thinking of changing professions. I actually like teaching, especially planning course sequences and activities. I'm not so good at class discussion, and I hate reading student writing (it's bad y'all). Today in class we did the basic first day stuff, going over course policies and talking about the basic concepts of rhetoric. Because I've done this drill so many times before, I didn't prepare as much as I should have, and as a result started to ramble. When I start to ramble, I sometimes create/force connections that don't necessarily exist, and then I'm stuck with them.

My palliative for this practice is actually the blog I keep on the course site. Right after class, I revisit the territory we covered, and get to revise/restate whatever I may have said, and attempt to draw together strands of discussion. This reflective writing is probably the most important part of my practice.

In other news, I accidentally bought the "clean" version of Kelis's "Bossy."

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Archives Project: STL #3

I like this one, though I can't recall the middle piece at all.


Title: Three Imaginary Pieces
Description: STL #3: On Museum Going
Date: 16 July 2003

On Saturday, I went to an exhibit at the Austin Museum of Art called “Embracing the Present: The UBS Art Collection,” which features works from what was once the Paine Webber corporate art collection. If the pamphlet blurbings are honest, the former chairman started buying contemporary art to display at their Manhattan offices in order to convey to employees a company ethos of risk-taking and innovation. It’s grown to one of the most important corporate collections in the world, and holdings have recently been touring smaller museums. (I believe the last stop was Ft. Lauderdale; it's on the way to Phoenix.) I like to visit museums, and go several times a year, but I have a fundamental problem with them. Because I have such a poor memory, I don’t take much away from them. It takes repeated trips for me to really grasp a painting or sculpture, and I don't think I'm that unusual in this respect. For most of us, museum-going is a type of tourism (occasional and distracted, kind of like my reviews.) I have lived near enough Seattle’s Frye Museum to learn their permanent collection, but it takes time and repeated entry fees to really "read" a painting. I like books because I can own them, in more than one sense. I'm not in the position to physically own art, so frequently I’m left with imaginary works in my mind, partial reconstructions mixed with incorrect memories and constantly changing inventions. Even today, five days after the visit, I have only sketchy recollection of my favorite pieces in the UBS collection.

The first of these I want to talk about is a painting called “Chester’s Gambit” by Eric Fischl. I start with this painting because it made my own interpretive protocols apparent to me. The painting is not reproduced on his website or anywhere else I can find, so let me describe it to you, best as I recall. In the bottom right corner is a horse’s head of some kind (sculpted, it seems), a headless female torso (sculpted again), and an ancient bust of a bearded king. In the opposite corner, or a little out toward the center, are four people, looking at us: a young woman in a white gown, a middle-aged woman in simple clothes holding a baby with a paper crown, and a middle-aged man in a business suit who seems the very likeness of prosperity. There's yet another statue farther back in the corner, I think. The first thing I do with a representational painting, without thinking about it, is imagine the narrative implied by the scene. Is the woman a bride? Is the man her father, is she a trophy wife? If the latter, is the woman the maid? And to whom does the child belong? There are no answers to these questions, but in searching for clues you eventually start to consider the form of the painting. Our perspective is pushed into the corner of the room, looking over the sculptures. The horse head is strangely prominent. The horse suggests a knight in chess, and the moving at right angles, this horse might endanger either the queen in white or protect the king's bust. Is the painting simply an endgame? The dominant hue is a yellowish bronze, suggesting lateness in the day, though I can’t remember if there’s a window for the light to flow through. The game element doesn’t overwrite the potential narrative, but provides an nice route to thinking about form.

The next work I am re-imagining is a painting (of sorts) by David Salle, though I can’t remember the title. It’s actually a two part work, consisting of an oil-painting of a nude woman sitting on a chair, her legs pulled up under her on the seat, looking off toward the other half of the work: a shallow metal box painted with black house paint and perforated with a regular series of baseball-sized holes. Why this work sticks in my mind I’m not sure. There’s a nice color contrast between the pale green of the painting and the industrial black, sure. It let’s you use the words “juxtaposition” and “mixed-media” in one breath, which is always fun. Maybe what I like how it invokes the potential of art. It looks from the transparent to the impenetrable. I would like to go back to look at this work some more, but if I don't make it before the show leaves, I may never see it again.

Finally, a work I can remember the name of nor the artist’s name. It’s a sequence of small photographs (maybe two-inch square) of the interior of a studio: a chair by the window, a drafting table, maybe a telescoping lamp on the lip of the table. Each photo is labeled for a minute of the day, and the 60 photos of each hour are collected in a single frame. The hour/frames are hung eight across, in three rows, filling the wall of a room. Backing up far enough to take in the entire work, I was struck by the variation of color. Asymmetric swathes of yellow electric light bracket the sequence, which yield to whitening and darkening patterns of light and dark. It all sounds very mechanical, I know, and in fact the pictures must have been taken mechanically. Yet its effect, in suggesting the cumulative beauty latent moments of stillness, in creating complexity and scope out of simplicity and smallness, in not captured in mere description. And let me just say that in this one case at least I am sure I am not making that up.

The problem I have with museums is what they represent: the fact that art isn’t diffused through society. Few of us work in offices with non-kitsch, to say nothing of innovative work. Sadly, art is not an everyday thing--it's something you make an appointment with.



Recent

Books: Cheever (still); Best American Poetry 2002 (ed. Creeley) Appointment in Samarra; Dance of the Intellect by Perloff; Radiant Textuality by McGann

Music: revisiting Sonic Youth from 87-92 or so

Film/Video: My So-Called Life, Angel, Bamboozled

Comics Round-Up (STL 56)

Here's the first comics round-up of the new Simplest Things Last. I wrote about comics occasionally before, but didn't survey current happenings. Don't think I've done super-hero comics at all. This past year I got into following multiple super hero titles and weekly comics buying for the first time since the 80's. Although I really enjoy what's going on in the comics I'm reading, the weekly trip doesn't fit my budget or the publication schedule of what I'm interested in. I found that I would often either have to come home with one or two comics, or I'd be tempted to stretch to meet my weekly budget by trying out something new. That's fine until the occasional weeks when a lot of comics I read come out and I had to go over budget. However, this year I'm limiting myself to biweekly trips on a reduced budget. This way I will come home with more good stuff but actually spend less. Also, with the ending of Marvel's Civil War event, I'll be dropping several titles I wouldn't otherwise buy. I'm sticking with this plan at least until I get a new job.

I'll be writing about my purchases after every trip. There will be spoilers.

Yesterday I bought six comics. In ascending order of good-itude, they were

  • Amazing Spider-Man #537. I'm only reading this comic as a tie-in to the company-wide "event." This issue is part 6 of 7, so I'll almost certainly be dropping Spidey next month. Not that it's so bad, but fairly middling in all ways. Ron Garney's art isn't over-rendered like so much out there now, but there's at least one sequence near the beginning that I can't make heads or tails out of-- Peter Parker apparently leaves his motel room once but returns to it twice. J. Michael Straczyski's script is alright, although the conversation between Spidey and Captain America goes on for t00 long. Actually, it's not the conversation that goes on for too long, the actually interchange is great, but it's Cap's citation of Mark Twain that "voices over" a montage from Cap's career. It reminds me of those terrible back-ups in Civil War Frontline that try to make the Civil War "relevant" and "artistic." These are worthy goals, but the execution in every case I've seen is totally misguided.
  • Justice Society of America #2. I think the relaunched JSA depends on a lot of DC Universe history that I only partially know. But I like the idea, since it taps into the potential of comics stories to take place in network of events that no one totally knows. I know more DCU history than the average bear I suppose, and I was pretty excited by the double reveal at the end, (I ALREADY SAID SPOILERS) in which we learn that Starman is the old Star Boy from the future, who has escaped from the more recent future of Kingdom Come (got it?). Since the series is still ramping up, and since I liked the first issue a lot, I'll be sticking with this for now.
  • Civil War #6. On reflection, the hype influenced my rating of this book, which may be the worst of the group. There has been some good characterization and reflective moments in Civil War, but it's apparently coming to a head in a big fight. This is over next month, so I'll reserve judgment til then.
  • Phonogram #4. I've loved this series so far. It begins with the assumption that the Brit Pop movement of the mid 90's was a major locus of occult power. (Well, it begins with the assumption that magic exists and works, and if that's so then why wouldn't Brit Pop participate in it?) I love the way everything follows from this assumption, even though I'm not into Brit Pop or magic (though both seem interesting in their own way). This was my least favorite issue of the series so far, probably because it draws more directly on knowledge of Brit Pop than previous issues. (It's interesting that there's a similar network aspect to the JSA, and even Civil War.) But I love the series overall, especially the essays, playlists, and letters in the back. In deciding whether to follow a series or wait for the trade, these extras can make the difference. Since this is a 6 issue limited series, I'm in until the end and will be looking out for future work by Gillen and McKelvie.
  • The Irredeemable Ant-Man #4. The "World's Most Unlikable Super-Hero" theme could get old, but I continue to love the 16-panel grid. This is the first issue that doesn't actually have a 16 panel page, but the story continues to unfold in variations: sets of square and rectangles consisting of the basic units. Sometimes a wide box across the top followed by two four panel rows followed by another page wide box, and sometimes a full page spread. Robert Kirkman says he doesn't write in arcs exactly, but I guess that in another two issues the first story will mostly be told. I'll be sticking around at least that long.
  • All-Star Superman #6. I haven't bought this before, though I can't say why. One of my favorite artists (Frank Quitely) and one of my favorite writers (Grant Morrison) taking on the most iconic super-hero? I was sort of waiting for a collection, but this self-contained story is perfect for the pamphlet format. The story at once riffs on Silver Age tropes, recycles Morrison inventions, and is quite moving. Earlier this year, I was reading both Action Comics and Superman, since another favorite Kurt Busiek was writing them both for the big One-Year Later event. Since I thought 2 Superman comics each month was a little much, I stuck with Action for the next arc and dropped Superman. That may have been a mistake, since I had to drop Action when Busiek was replaced by Richard Donner. Superman looks really good right now, but rather than trying to figure out a jumping on point, I'm making All-Star my official Superman comic. It might not come out that regularly, but I've got five back issues to track down!
Glancing back over the list, I see that there's a clear break between the top half and the bottom half of Phonogram, Ant-Man, and All-Star Superman. The first three feel more like writers and artists serving a company style and collective decisions, while the other three all have discernible individual styles in art words and vision. Here I was getting all excited about "the network" when the best comics to me are all discrete stories with unique properties.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Archives Project: STL #2

Title: Summer Movies
Description: STL #2: Summer Movies and Guilty Pleasure: Hulk smash, motorcycle blowup, etc etc etc
Date: 3 July 2003
STL #2: Summer Movies and Guilty Pleasure: Hulk smash, motorcycle blowup, etc etc etc

I didn't go to a summer movie this weekend. I resisted the shiny baubles currently being dangled in front of me, called this week T3: Rise of the Machines or Pirates of the Caribbean: The Pearls of Peril. At least one of those titles is wrong, but for some reason subtitles are in vogue this summer. (They add the illusion of complexity to the one feature of the movie which least needs it.) I stayed away not because bombastic spectacle or time-tried plots offend me (they don't) but because I'm full. I'll probably see one or two of the big summer actioners, but after Hulk and Charlie's Angels in consecutive weeks, and X2 and The Matrix Reloaded a little while before that, I've lost my appetite for the particular pleasures of the summer blockbuster.
Not that each of these movies were to my taste in the first place. Of the four I mentioned, two were pleasing, one was pleasing and possibly even 'good,' and two were pretentious, boring, and bad. So in this early wrap-up of summer movies, I want to investigate what makes this type of movie pleasing or good, and think about that frequently-invoked category of "guilty pleasure" of which the popcorn movie is the paradigm.
The first summer movie came out in May. That is to say, the first summer movie came out in spring. Our need for more and bigger not only mandates that sequels of a certain kind of movie are inevitable, as are the themed junkfood and decorated umbrellas which accompany them, but that the marketing season will expand as well. If the Stanley Cup is in June, why not start "summer" in spring break? The movies imbibe excess as an aesthetic—more, bigger, longer. Not that any of this is necessarily bad; quite the contrary, excess is at the heart of guilty pleasure. Think of the first Matrix--everything is available to our heroes at any time. Not even the constraints of gravity apply. Yet in the sequel, excess does not obtain to innovation. Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker was right to observe that the sequel seems as stale as Matrix XIV (subtitled "The Consolation of Philosophy" maybe?) Both movies have their advocates, who will long and fruitlessly argue the significance of each scene. I refuse to get involved in these discussions for two reasons: a.) I took Phil 201: Intro to Knowledge and Reality a long time ago, and b.) the presence of Keanu Reeves undercuts intellectual pretension (if ever there was an argument for killing the messenger).
I expected more at the level of spectacle. Opening with the best stunt of the summer, Carrie-Anne Moss's motor cycle number, was a good sign, but the fact that they recycled this scene later in the movie a more telling one. The other scene that lingers in my mind is the 'sexy rave' in the underground city, which I remember as silly and irrelevant. That doesn’t leave much to credit this movie, and whatever goodwill I had left was gnawed away by sitting through the long credits and the accompanying bluntly spastic music, just to see a trailer for the final installment.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The first movie of the season wasn’t the sequel to The Matrix, but to X-Men. While I am conversant in the many of the sources of The Matrix, like P.K. Dick’s Valis and Hong Kong movies, I am intimately familiar with X-Men lore. The great tragedy of my early life was that I began reading X-Men just a little too late, a few months after the Dark Phoenix saga. This story existed as the myth behind the myth, a narrative of beauty and power, sacrifice and love, and something about outer space, which I learned in bits and pieces, secondhand. Therefore, the final scene of X2, following Jean’s death, of the shadow of the Phoenix moving on the water, gave me chills. But it is not solely the gratification of this geeky-insiderness (and after years of being outside, a lot of geek culture has become mainstream) that I found so pleasing about this movie. While maintaining the swift simplicity of a comic book script, the fine acting actually creates a sense of humanity lacking in The Matrix. Unlike that movie, the audience (or at least my wife and I) actually cares what happens to these people.
The movie that X2 is most compared to is Ang Lee’s Hulk, because it too derives from a 1960’s Marvel comic. I never got into Hulk comics (or the TV show), because even at a young age I could tell that while the Hulk may have symbolic value, his capacity to get into interesting situations was limited. Getting out of situations he was even more limited, as he inevitably resorted to smashing. In fact, for a time, Marvel comics made the Hulk rational and green at the same time, but that’s clearly cheating. Still, going into the movie I was hoping that the talented director would make something interesting out of the material. And “interesting” it was, in the multiframe technique as well as the content. One of the NPR reviewers said that this wasn’t a bad super-hero movie, it is a bad tragedy. All I know is that I had a miserable time. I think Lee misread the myth of the Hulk, which is discussed (among other topics) at the Comics Journal Discussion Forum. In brief, the Hulk as mytheme compounds teen angst with nuclear paranoia. A few commenters on the forum insightfully suggested that an early 60's period piece could have engagingly tapped into this aspect. In Lee's version, the Hulk is strictly "the monster inside," not enough to support the aspiration to Greek tragedy.
And a note regarding the appearance of the green giant himself. To enjoy a spectacle, you need to be able to suspend disbelief. There’s nothing “awesome” about watching a bunch of green pixels toss around the image of a tank. Keeping in step with the aesthetic of excess, this Hulk is about twice as big as the comic book Hulk. I’m not saying the Hulk didn’t look "real" (that would be stupid), just that he stuck out like a green thumb.

Or if you aren't going to suspend disbelief, then foreground it like Charlie’s Angels, which bears the appropriate subtitle Full Throttle. There’s really nothing to say about this movie—kung fu, babes, pop culture riffs. It’s critic-proof because it’s utterly transparent: I never forgot this was big dumb fun. The wire-work looks like wire-work, and the gratuitous cheesecake is unapologetically gratuitous. Even Cameron Diaz’s eyes are an obviously computer-enhanced super blue. The plot—forget about the plot. The movie doesn’t achieve the humanity of X2, but it isn’t trying to. I had a big smile all the way through it, but really can’t remember what happened in it two weeks later. This is what I guess I’m supposed to feel guilty about, but I wish the marketing wouldn't try to redeem the movie with this strong-woman-feminism pitch. Like Emily Nussbaum said in her NYT review, "Learning about feminism from CA is like learning about WWII from Hogan's Heroes."
The movie I did see this weekend may have been a summer movie once, in Hong Kong, in 1995. The first of many "Young and Dangerous" movies is about young triads (gangsters) growing up together and seeking revenge for their mentor. Like the movies I’ve been talking about, it relies on speed and flash for its effect, and in some ways it’s probably the guiltiest pleasure of all. But, like a lot of HK movies, one or two scenes transcend the rest. Nam, the coolest and prettiest gangster must crawl down a gauntlet of the gang he’s been expelled from, to suffer a beating in order to pay homage to his deceased mentor. At the end of the line, a senior gangster gives his head a final, gentle push. (I used to have a theory that the main difference between HK and Hollywood action is that the former is about the human body in extremis while the latter is about property damage.) While there’s a lot to put up with, like howlingly bad subtitles, embarrassing sexism, and simply incomprehensible humor, Young and Dangerous offers up several of these "moments out of time," as Film Comment used to say. Its technique, of overlaying a manga style drawing over a freeze frame, emphasizes this tendency. It’s one of the best things about film, how as Dick writes in Valis "the symbols of the divine initially show up at the trash stratum." If the four American blockbusters could offer me a few moments like that, I probably wouldn't be so tired, or feel one bit guilty.

Three Thrillers (STL 55)

So far this young year I've read a book, finished a TV series, and saw a movie that each could be called a "thriller" even though they're all quite different from one another.

First up, I finished watching 24, season three. I'm late to the party on this, I know. I remember watching the first episode with my wife, and remember that right after it ended we agreed we wouldn't keeping watching b/c Jack's heroin addiction and his daughter's employment at the elite task force both seemed ridiculous contrivances. Not that the former couldn't happen, but we sensed that watching the high-functioning agent wrestling with addiction while kicking terrorist ass could get silly. (The latter just couldn't happen. She's a ninny.) We were right, but the way the show careens along you hardly have time to be disturbed by the inconsistency. Based on the nature of the show, I thought that watching it in huge batches on DVD would be great, but the illogic of the plot, the presentation of the false threads, and the expository dialogue all got annoying. The show is well-made in accounting for the audience's gradual forgetting from episode to episode, but doesn't hold up that well on concentrated viewing. What really came out to me was the show's conservativism. They do superficial things to mitigate it (black president, non-Muslim villains) but it's world-view is strongly conservative, neo-con even. The "noble man" does "whatever it takes" to "protect America" from irrational "evil doers." These bad guys don't have any justifiable historical motives; in fact, history doesn't exist in 24--there's only right now. If the bad guys are irrational, it's even worse for the good guys who all go by their "gut"--they don't play by rules, but go off the grid, off protocol, off whatever-you-got to get result. What drives me crazy about the character's behavior is what drives me crazy about neo-cons--they don't actually care about any collective America, but just the perceived freedom and well-being of their immediate families. I've only watched three seasons, but the show has already used the "we've got your (fill-in loved one) so you must do as we say" device several times. I'd like to see some truly selfless, stiff-upper-lip Queen-and-Country nobility for a change, you know? There's a highly touted British show MI5 that I think covers some of the same ground. I'd like to compare it with 24 sometime.

The second thriller is a classic, one of Graham Greene's "entertainments," Loser Takes All. I read the entire book in one two-hour sitting--I guess that's why they call it a page-turner. There's a particular kind of thriller--normal guy thrown into extraordinary circumstances, his mettle is tested, and he returns to normality. This book fits that formula, though it's all done believably--he's unexpectedly thrown in with the very wealthy, is nearly broke without his expected source of money, but through his resourcefulness gets some money. He could exact revenge with this money, but instead preserves his marriage and is on his way back to quotidian life at the end of the novel. It's really well-done and enjoyable, and I look forward to reading some more of his entertainments like The Stamboul Train, A Gun for Sale, The Confidential Agent, The Ministry of Fear, Our Man In Havana.

In scratching out these two uninspired paragraphs, I've come across a thesis that "thrillers" are inherently conservative: there's something bad out there, and we want to go back to the way it was before. The third thriller I'll talk about is a good deal more complex than either of these, and though it clearly desires to "go back" from where things are at the start of the movie, I don't think dubbing it "conservative" would be very accurate. I was quite taken with the detail and technique of this movie, so plan on seeing it again. It clearly recognizes itself as an important work of art--even the screen-filling title card at the end says as much. The set pieces--two car chases and an amazing battle sequence--are amazingly well done, and the soundtrack, which incorporates a high tone evoking tintintabulation, mentioned in the movie as a dying frequency, supports the subject of the movie. I'll watch these details more closely on my next viewing.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

STL #54: Reading Wang Wei

One thing I like to do is compare translations of poems. It doesn't matter if I know the language at all or not: the exercise helps me identify specific poetic qualities and refine my own preferences. Some time ago I did a big project of comparing several translations of Tu Fu. I happened to pick up a selection of his fellow Tang dynasty poet Wang Wei's poems by David Hinton, so I thought I'd try again. My range of comparison is much smaller. I only have the Hinton and Cyril Birch's Anthology of Chinese Literature on hand. I'll start with "Deer Park," which Hinton calls Wang's best-known poem. Hinton also provides a crib of the ideograms. Part of the trick to translating Chinese is figuring out how the signifiers go together. The first two lines of the four-line poem go something like this: "empty mountains not see people/only hear people voice echo." Hinton goes into some detail about how he gets from there to "No one seen. Among empty mountains,/hints of drifting voice, faint, no more." He uses the passive voice to create ambiguity as to the actual subject of the sentence. C.J. Chen and Michael Bullock seem pretty sure about the subject. They translate these lines as "On the lonely mountain / I meet no one,/ I hear only the echo/ of human voices."

I don't know who's more accurate. The latter is easier to resolve, with "I" taking control of the imagery. It is also a bit more consciously "poetic" with the repeating long o sound that evokes solitude to our ears. Hinton's lines are maybe better-made, tightly knit with n and m sounds.

The second half goes like this: "return light enter deep forest/ again shine green moss (on/ascend)." According to Hinton, "shine on" is redundant in Chinese, so he renders it "Entering these deep woods, late sunlight/flares on green moss again, and rises." This is hard to parse without his rationale, but let's compare to Chen and Bullock: "At an angle the sun's rays/ enter the depth of the wood,/ And shine/ upon the green moss." This is clearer, but slack from the three prepositional phrases. They intensify the unity of the n sound (which oddly Hinton finds as well). Hinton opts for a more ambiguous rendering again, and provides a reasonable Buddhist rationale in his introduction. The rising light is an event in the empty mind perceiving the "empty mountains." Between these two, I must say I prefer the Hinton as richer and more sophisticated.

While I like approaching translated poems by comparison, this particular poem doesn't mention the most notable feature of the "content" of the poems--the continual reference to the "bramble gate" of his or another's yard. Of the 100 poems in the selection, 22 refer to a yard gate, and a handful more use "gate" for a mountain pass. Most of these gates are Wang's own bramblewood gate, usually closed. Hinton explains that the closed gate is a Buddhist symbol for shunning the false world of sensation, and it points to what I think is the big difference between Wang Wei and Tu Fu. Wang is a hermit, Tu is an exile. I've thought of writing a novel based on Tu Fu's poems (there's a clear narrative of his final river journey). It could even be a screenplay, incorporating his cultivated personality and imagery from poems, but I don't see a similar narrative thread in Wang Wei. While there are poems of him making journeys and talking to friends (responding to P'ei Ti in several poems), he always returns home. While I know and like Tu Fu's poetry better, I relate to this aspect of Wang Wei more.

Archives Project: STL #1

Since the first post was so short, I'll now repost the designated #1 of the first series of Simplest Things Last. There's a lot of linking in here, a practice I think I fall away from later. Mechanical errors will be silently corrected when I find them. I still like some of the observations and turns of phrase, though the last line makes me cringe.

Title: There are no languages here. Only dialects.
Description: STL #1: On the short fiction of two very different writers, John Cheever and Paul Bowles.
Date: 30 June 2003

I’ve had two big short story collections staring down at me from the top bookshelf for a while now. Recently I’ve taken them down, one after the other, and cracked them open. First I read The Stories of Paul Bowles (Ecco Press, 2001), and now I’m making my way through The Stories of John Cheever (Knopf, 1978). Both books are literally “big,” in the sense that either 700 page volume is hefty enough to stove in my nose if I were to nod off in bed. They both represent big literary impacts as well. Before a reading, Richard Ford said Cheever’s ubiquitous collection was known in his circle (which included Raymond Carver) as “the big red book” and was for them a sort of bible. Ford went so far in his homage as reading Cheever’s “Reunion” before his own story of that title, something I have rarely seen in a reading. Unlike Cheever, Bowles’s fame is due mostly to his novels, especially The Sheltering Sky. But Wendy Lesser, editor of The Threepenny Review, Gore Vidal, and other have eloquently argued the import of the short stories.

The two writers seem to exist in entirely different worlds, even though they were contemporaries (Bowles lasted a little longer, 1910- 1999; Cheever lived 1912-1984). Bowles, the proto-Beat, represents the exotic and experimental in the collective literary imagination. His stories appeared in cutting edge periodicals like the New Directions annuals. I happen to have New Directions 11 (1949) which features, along with Borges,WC Williams and the sadly forgotten Lorine Niedecker, one of Bowles’s early stories. But while Bowles bespeaks the hip and bohemian and cutting edge, Cheever is synomonous with the straight bourgeois New Yorker magazine, the most frequent publisher of his work. To commuters reading the magazine on their way home from work, Cheever’s characters must have seemed to mirror their lives and anxieties. One could no doubt abstract a broad sociology of the 1950’s from the writers, covering both the raw and the cooked, the hip and straight.
Because of my training in lit crit, I instantly went for an unlikely thesis, that Cheever and Bowles aren’t as different as they seem. I postulated readers of both New Directions and The New Yorker coming home from the city, or going out to the desert, finding the same existential despair in both. And to be sure, existential despair was the lingua franca of Western writers at the time. But really, only bad writers are ever similar to one another in the end and, say what you will, neither the laureate of the upper-middle class nor the Tangier visionary are like anyone else—and certainly not each other. Compare two early stories: Bowles’s “A Distant Episode,” in which a linguist is abducted in North Africa, gets his tongue cut out and becomes enslaved as a “holy maniac,” is a literal world apart from Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” a family drama set in a “Laud’s Head” (Cape Cod?) summer house which culminates in a half-hearted assault of one brother on another, and the resulting rupture. The differences are significantly deeper than plot and setting. For example, the trans-cultural dynamic is completely (and always) missing from Cheever. Cheever, I think, is trying to capture a broad dynamic by studying one small element, like the brother Lawrence in the story, who misinterprets a family backgammon match. Bowles, on the other hand, lives in an uncentered world as an expatriate in a land with “no languages, only dialects.” This last phrase, though literally impossible, might be a nice motto for twentieth-century American literature.

Bowles disdains extravagant figures like Cheever's “the girls’ perfume smelled like strawberry jam.” This simile is from another story, but Cheever is an exemplar of what later became the crafted “workshop” story. I somewhat sheepishly admit that I prefer the bard of the UMC; while reading Cheever I am constantly impressed by the snap of particular phrases, or the aptness, both in the careful observation and the timing of revelation, of certain details (through the first third of this collection at least). Sometimes annoying in early Cheever is his recourse to big S Symbol—because the family is decaying, the ocean house is not only being eaten by termites but is slowing slipping into the sea to boot! I hasten to admit that Bowles’s unadorned language can be devastating: “The next day was an important one in the Professor’s life, for it was then that pain began to stir again in his being.”

Perhaps a fuller analysis might reveal stronger parallels between these writers who seem to speak completely different dialects. But dialects enrich our language. We have Cheever searching for closure, resolution, and the mot juste in postwar America, while we have Bowles unflinchingly facing the silence and violence at the disjointed fissures of the world.


Remembering Bowles

You may be able to read a pop-up excerpt of Bowles.

Archives Project: First Post

As I mentioned, I'll be reposting older posts so that I'll have them collected in one place. The following is the first post from my first version of STL.

Title: "And then went down to the blog"
Date: 24 June 2003
Coming soon to this space, a weekly (or semi-weekly, or occasional) review of arts and culture. These mini-essays will be quick takes on what I've being reading, watching, hearing, etc. I'm simply trying to record my impressions without committing to a big undertaking or alternately losing them to time.

 
My concept of blogs and first blog posts hasn't changed much. I still want to blog more formally than most, and still on cultural topics. It's still implicitly a supplement to my awful memory: if I write up my thoughts I'll be more likely to have some handle on these things I find so important and spend so much time with. The rules are very loose and indistinct compared to my first post of this series. Formulating rules is something I have students in my writing classes do a lot. It gets them to think about goals and genre expectations. With goals in mind, you can then deduce what actions you could take to reach them.

Note on the title: A very humble allusion to the first line of Pound's Cantos. I love that book, but I no longer expect to imitate its scope in a blog (if I ever did).

Note on tagging: I opted for "old" to avoid confusion with the archives of new posts that I'll be making. "Series1" refers to the first go at blogging; "series2" will be much shorter.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Rules of the Game

This is the third blog-project I've started. The first Simplest Things Last began in the summer of 2003, and lasted about a year, and I flirted with a project called "Elevens" last year. You'll see content from both those projects republished here, since I'll be losing the server space where that material is stored soon. This first post is to formulate the goals and rules for this incarnation, which I hope will last.

Goals

  1. Catalogue my intellectual pursuits by reviewing various "cultural artifacts" like movies, books, and comics.
  2. Articulate my critical perception of the world, especially in regard to aesthetics and information literacy.
  3. Archive past writing from the aforementioned projects.
Rules

  1. Make one substantial post a week, on Tuesdays if possible.
  2. Archive one previously written post per week, on Thursdays if possible.
  3. Tag each post.
  4. Review each quarter's posts to refine my taxonomy and revise these rules.
  5. Eschew obsfucation.
Currently re-reading "A"; watching 24 (season 2); revising dissertation chapter 5; listening to Arctic Monkeys, Haydn, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, etc

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