Monday, April 30, 2007

Archives Project: STL #13

Title: Lost in Translations
Description: On the Possibility of Adapting Harvey Pekar's American Splendor, with a Coda about a Comic Book Proust
Date: 27 September 2003

I promised you American Splendor this week, and American Splendor you shall have. I meant the new film, but despite my best intentions I haven’t seen it yet. You’ll have to wait until later for that; instead, let's go back to the source, Harvey Pekar’s comics.

Pekar’s been publishing stories about his life in Cleveland for over 25 years. With a few exceptions (most notably Our Cancer Year, drawn by his wife Joyce Brabner), Pekar’s work is anecdotal; he scripts scenes from his life working at big federal office building or driving around town, worrying about his career. I really don’t know what to expect from the film, not only because the comics collectively known as American Splendor don’t tell a particular story, but because Pekar commissions a variety of artists (the most famous being Robert Crumb) and so the comics don’t really have a visual style for the filmmakers to emulate. Ghostworld, the last big indy-comics adaptation, had both, and turned out to be a good movie and a great adaptation. Pekar’s art lies in pacing, and his best stories achieve an effect unique to comics. Part of that effect is timing. Pekar’s scripts manage reaction with panel-to-panel transitions. The final six panel page of “Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarkets,” drawn by Crumb, shows a old woman returning extra change to a negligent cashier. Harvey is a witness to this occurrence and a bystander in the depiction. None of the three changes position, and Harvey doesn’t even change facial expression. The woman returns the quarter in the first panel, and the cashier plunks back in the register in the third, even while denying her error. The last three panels show Harvey in a spotlight, interpreting the incident for us. In brief, the episode caused him to reevaluate his assumptions about old Jewish women and their pecuniary habits. In the penultimate panel, Harvey stands still, with his hands in his pockets. Finally he tells us, as a short of verbal shrug, that he thought it was “one of the most interesting incidents that [he] ever saw in a supermarket… maybe the most interesting as a matter of fact.” This timing might be compared to classic stand up comedy, waiting a beat to nail the punch line. (I realize the example doesn’t seem funny in the retelling. 'Had to be there' as they say, so go buy Bob and Harv’s Comics, still in print I believe.)

But in comics, the set up and punch line always co-exist. The impression of Harvey standing mute stamps itself on the almost identical image of him speaking. Scott McCloud talks about this effect in terms of time being translated to space, but in effect it’s a sort of vanquishing of time. Maybe this is what makes Harvey’s immortalizing of mundane moments out of time so affecting. Harvey’s most famous saying is “Ordinary life’s pretty complex stuff,” and his work has been devoted to exploring that statement. In his weaker stories, Harvey comes to some kind of conclusion about ‘life.’ His better stories usually flirt with moralizing (his frustration with his artistic career often takes the form of righteous indignation) but maintain the complications and tensions in the end. His best story, “Hypothetical Quandary,” fits this description. It’s also drawn by Crumb, though it’s a little later so it’s in his less cartoon-y ink brush style. The events of the story are typical: Harvey drives to the bakery on Sunday morning to buy some bread. While doing so, he worries. The quandary he struggles with is how he would continue his work if he becomes successful and is able to quit his day job. His increased success would sacrifice his workaday point of view. Approaching his car with his loaf of rye, he realizes it’s all hypothetical, because the publisher he’d been talking to has seemed to lose interest in him. The final two panels are classic Pekar: he silently takes a sniff of the bread and then thinks “Ah, fresh bread.” This comfort in the discovered glory of mundane life, which for Harvey Pekar includes fresh bread, jazz records, and the wisdom of janitors, is what “American Splendor” is all about. While casual readers might assume the title is ironic, it isn’t. Some of his recent work has with Gary Dumm has broadened the range of our splendor by including stories about his favorite jazz musicians. Some of Harvey's heroes died in obscurity, including Kid Oliver, a major American artist who spent his final years as a janitor in Savannah. With the steady attention further spurred by the movie, this fate isn’t likely to befall a certain retired file clerk from Cleveland.

Speaking of jazz, you may say that “improvisations” is as good a word as any to describe these pieces I’ve been writing. I decide on a few themes and subjects, then try to write my way around the points I’ve sketched out in my head. I did okay with Harv, but didn’t get to the new comic I read last week. I was going to fold in Stephan Heuet’s new version of Proust’s Within a Budding Grove (NBM 2002) into a discussion of comics and adaptation. Heuet has produced two lovely volumes based on parts of Proust’s vast novel. He started, naturally enough with Combray, but apparently skipped Swann in Love so as to focus on M’s story. A comics Proust sounds ludicrous I know, but Heuet doesn’t try to replicate the strolling 500-word sentences of the original, and instead captures the beautiful images summoned by M’s active remembering. Heuet’s style recalls the clear lines and rich colors of Tintin, though he’s a little more adventurous with Herge with his use of aspect-to-aspect transitions, expanding and luxuriating in the texture of the recalled moments. Sitting here, I can’t recall any image between young M reading the timetable and Albertine jumping over the old man on the board walk (the material covered by this album) which Heuet doesn’t replicate, though in condensing 300 pages of prose into 48 drawn pages, I’m sure plenty has been lost in translation. But if they ever make a movie of Within a Budding Grove (Raoul Ruiz has done a splendid Time Regained, by the way), I think they could do worse than adapt Heuet's version.

Archives Project: STL #12

Title: Stumbling through the dark
Description: The Jayhawks... I thought it was a comeback
Date: 16 September 2003

(Only four days after the previous post!) I remembered this as a particularly crappy post. On rereading, it's fine, so probably I was projecting the subject matter on the post.

Thought: New Weird America is the new No Depression.

My friend Sassy asked me the other day what new music I have been listening to. "Jayhawks," I said. "The album's called Rainy Day Music. It's not as good as Tomorrow the Green Grass, but it's pretty good." Sassy passed over my implied headline ("Alt-Country Pioneers Return to Form") and asked instead, "Don't they have a song about being in love with somebody's mother?"

The fact that I didn't know if I had in my possession possibly the first love song for somebody else's mom in at least ten years (since Soundgarden's "Full On Kevin's Mom" I would guess, excepting any schmaltz-y odes to "the mother of my child"), really bugged me. I'm not one to fret much over pop song lyrics, since they seldom reward sustained, out of context attention, but this seems like something I should know.** I've listened to the album several times since then, and can say with certainty that no mothers are invoked as such, much less in adoration. What I found instead was that I didn't much like this album after all.

Maybe a little history is in order. The Jayhawks were/are one of the big names in the "alt-country" movement of the late eighties/early nineties, along with Uncle Tupelo, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, and many others. The movement represented a grappling with Authenticity, reinterpreting and reinvigorating folk and country vocabulary in a rock idiom. It gave jaded hipsters an alternative to grunge, which had exploded and been taken possession of by mainstream culture. The alt-country scene up and grew itself a set of values: learn about the past, don't tolerate crap in any of its countless manifestations, and eat at diners. I know that sounds like romantic nostalgia, if not a joke, but for me it was transformative.

Alt-country was also known as "No Depression" music, after Uncle Tupelo's cover of the Carter Family's "No Depression in Heaven." It's a suitable moniker, since the music is about ghosts and revenants. The extended Carter family, Hank Williams (only Senior, if that needs to be said), and Gram Parsons are among the saints of the movement. Parsons, one of the first to draw on country mannerisms in the rock genre, has been especially important to the Jayhawks over the years. Gary Louris and Mark Olson both wrote songs you could taste the dust in, and their harmonies sounded less like singing and more like a grudging brotherhood forged from years on the road.* They took years to unfold, and I only caught up with them when they put out Tomorrow the Green Grass, which I bought on cassette (we were going on a road trip) and promptly wore out. The album leads off with their shining moment, the song "Blue," which consolidates the group's major themes: friendship, loyalty, abandonment. Among the paradigms for perfection in human achievement is the three minute pop song, and "Blue" is one of those perfect songs. You can tell from the first note, as Louris and Williams join in what would become a valediction: "Where have all my friends gone?"

Three perfect minutes. That's a minor miracle and enough to keep the Jayhawks in our memories. After Tomorrow the Green Grass, Olson and Louris parted ways, with Louris soldiering on under the Jayhawks banner. Even though Louris is a stronger singer and arguably a better songwriter, the follow up The Sound of Lies is a mess. I bought in on strength of Tomorrow, but have never listened to it all the way through without getting bored. A better way to go is back, to Hollywood Town Hall, with the group and its ethic still in tact. There's more of populist feel to this record, with it's Steinbeckian observations ("The god for the rich man ain't the god for the poor"--perhaps Guthrie-esque is a better descriptor) and the distinctly anti-yuppie stance, accepting failure and deferment. Before Olson's departure, the Jayhawks were a band, facing inward and struggling together with their materials. Afterward they became an assembly.

My first few times through Rainy Day Music were unproblematic. It starts with the chiming "Stumbling Through the Dark," featuring Louris and Matthew Sweet. Sweet is a pop superhero, and the song quite nice. It admits failure and seeks intimacy, with its chiming Byrds-like guitar and gentle piano fills, not to mention Sweet's harmonies with Louris. Intimacy is a quality the best songs here: "Angelyne," and "Save It for a Rainy Day" (which includes the nice image of ex-lovers "standing outside the Chinese restaurant in the rain") Two songs urge a woman (a single mother maybe) to take off her make-up. But the balance of the songs are strangely distant, in part because the resonances on the album are just weird. Along with Parsons and "Caroline Don't," I hear a little David Bowie, a lot of generic classic rock, and even a little "Dust in the Wind." (Perhaps I'm not to be trusted on this, because I also hear the Canadian pop-metal group Triumph on Hollywood Town Hall. I'm sure it's unintentional, but on one occasion the phrasing clearly recalls "Never Surrender." I hope, gentle reader, that for your own sake you don't know what I'm talking about). Somewhat predictable and therefore even more disheartening is the Crosby Stills and Nash hash on "Madman" (which begins "Rage on, brother"!) For the most part, album sounds as fresh as you'd expect, given the appearance of two second-generation classic rockers, Jakob Dylan and Chris Stills.

Maybe if it wasn't for those three minutes eight years ago I'd find more to like. It's not that the group has grown in directions that I don't like, or that they aren't doing what they used to do. It's that "they" don't really exist any more, as a group, as friends arguing, but rather as an assembly playing out a set of possible outcomes, some of which I like and most of which I don't. Maybe they could use a few songs about falling in love with their friends' mothers.

The end result of all this is that I'm not listening to 2003's Rainy Day Music, but 1992's Hollywood Town Hall. I hadn't listened to the latter much while under the spell of Tomorrow the Green Grass, but now I find it a richer set of songs. It took me a while to catch on, but then again we've got time.

Next: American Splendor

*This description of Louris/Olson harmony strikes me as borrowed, but I don't know from where. I'll tell you if I ever come across it.

** "Stacy's Mom" by Fountains of Wayne is the song in question

Archives Project: STL #11

I'm running out of time, even as free time opens in front of me. Therefore, I'm pressing forward with the Archives Project. Though not great writing, I clearly remember the day I wrote the following. Note that my 5 gig iPod had 30 Cash songs, while my current 80 gig model has 94.

Title: Man In Black
Description: Johnny Cash, RIP
Date: 12 September 2003

If you use to a clock-radio, sometimes you wake up to very bad news: today, Johnny Cash Dead at 71. I can't say that it was a shock, like John Ritter also dying today. We've known that JC has been sick for a long time, and if anything it's surprising that he lasted four months without June Carter. Ritter was 54, felled by a heart attack. It's a shame that the two are linked in many minds as merely dead celebrities. Nothing against Ritter, who was a charming enough actor, but Cash created an body of work indispensable to American music, informed by a moral gravity and unabashed sincerity which I fear we shall not see again. Though survived by a number of children, Cash was truly the last of a line.

With our first decisions of the day informed by this bad mood, my wife and I both put on black shirts. This is the sort of inevitable and sentimental detail that one might encounter (and perhaps deride) in a Cash song, but it seemed the proper way to acknowledge the man's life, a life that needs acknowledgment. My iPod has thirty-odd Cash songs on it; I set it to shuffle and went about my day. This is what I heard:

"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," a duet with Nick Cave from his last album, which was largely an inadequate melange of diffident covers. This is one of the exceptions, and suggests that in with his troubled faith, trust in tradition, and lugubrious baritone, Cave has learned from Cash. It also fits my mood, unlike the next "Get Rhythm" shuffle, one of the songs that define Cash's first phase as rockabilly outlaw. But with songs like "Walk the Line" he integrates moral imperatives into three minute songs. The next song, "Like a Soldier" is from the first American Recordings album, which reinvigorated his career while remaining true to his fundamental concerns, in this case, the promise of redemption ("Like a soldier getting over the war/Like a young man getting over his crazy days/Like a bandit getting over his lawless ways/I don't have to do that no more") offered equally by a good woman (as in this case) or Jesus.

If songs like "Oh What a Dream" represent the first phase of his career, and his cover of Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" the last phase, theatrical performances like "Man in Black" represent his popular but problematic middle period. His grave voice and moral stance were clearly unhip in the sixties. During this period he created a hybrid of musical theatre, folk song, and concept album. Songs like "Mister Garfield" and "Going to Memphis" follow the form of spoken, discursive introduction interpreting the song he then performs. I haven't explored this period much, unless you count the mariachi-soaked "Ring of Fire."

His claim in "Man is Black" is that his life is dedicated to the "poor and beaten down," including prisoners. The incarcerated have been demonized in our society, and all notions of rehabilitation razed in favor of punishment. His commitment is moving, and the thought of Merle Haggard in the front row listening to "Folsom Prison Blues" another argument for redemption. His interest in prison songs extended to American Recordings, performing the definitive version of Glenn Danzig's "Thirteen."

His widest success was mostly based on original compositions like "Ring of Fire," and the renewed interest in the nineties based on covers of unlikely songs. Not that covers were new to him, as Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" was a hit for him in the 70's. He dabbled with "rock" material (whatever that means-- as his joint membership in the Rock and Roll and Country Halls of Fame attests, he was instrumental to both genres) throughout his career, but his nineties experiments might have been prefigured by his 1983 cover of Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman." As with most of his covers, he finds in the song an expression of a deeply held belief. Springsteen's song expresses a respect for the law, but society's law is trumped by family ("A man that turns his back on his family/He aint' no good"). He finds similar moral truths in almost every song he sings.

I mean, of course, "every song he sang." I could go on, as I've been listening to Cash all day. Right now I'm listening to "I've Been Everywhere," a fun list song that Jennifer and I adapted on our road trip west. I might as well end with a happy memory. JC took me a lot of places, and I'm thankful for it.

Archives Project: STL #10

Title: Reading/Notreading
Description: The first milestone. Being a continuation of last week's noodlings on reading.
Date: 4 September 2003

The salutation of "Readers 57 & 58" probably alludes to whatever site meter I had at the time. This piece is okay, but I'm disappointed that I didn't get into the category of "notreading."

I ended last week's disquisition with the implication that I would pick up on the same theme, reading, this week. Sorry to say I'm not sure what I was thinking. But an implication is a promise, and I keep my promises (at least if they still interest me when they come due.) One thing I may have been alluding to is the material sensation of reading a book. I mean the heft of the book, the shape of the type. I start every year by beginning a 'big book' that I've been meaning to read, and one of the great rewards of this ritual is the joy of turning over the first page on New Years Day. It helps if you have a well-made book, like Knopf has always published, but many of the books I've read are used paperbacks which barely hold together, which have a charm of their own.

Or I may have been thinking about relating an autobiography of myself as a reader. This is one of the things that Guy Davenport does in his essay which set me thinking about all this in the first place. There are of course crucial reading events in my life, and books I associate with certain times and places. Once I wrote a comics-reading autobiography, which I may track down and post in a pinch. But even though I recognize that reading is contingent on other events in a life, its essence is in a mind confronting a text, which I think may be "purer" and less situationally bound than some would say. There's more to, say The Man In the High Castle than there was when I read it as a broody teen. In a sense, I'm still reading that book, and many others, because my engagement with it continues. Reading is continual revision, with long or short memory filling in the gaps.

Possibly I was thinking about the phenomenology of reading, of a mind entering a text (and a text entering a mind), that Sven Birkerts writes about in The Gutenberg Elegies. Birkets speaks of the escape to the interior that reading brings, where one forgets one's physical place in the world. But this is rarely my experience. I am always conscious that I am reading. I'm always looking at some part of a text, trying to put it together with other parts and other texts. Reading is work, very pleasurable work, not escape. Once I took a class in which a student criticized Joyce's "excessive" artifice for reminding us that we are reading, and not letting us retreating into the story. I can't imagine that Joyce would accept this as a criticism, nor can I imagine a book worth reading that doesn't assert itself as a book and therefore value its own reading. So powerful is the sway of reading that sometimes I think I'm reading when I'm not reading. In fact, I rather think I'm reading right now.

This makes the tenth consecutive week of "Simplest Things Last." I'm surprised I've made it this far, both because of the time it takes (which turns out to be not that much) and because of my reticent nature (a stronger factor than you might guess). The time really isn't that significant, and like reading, this writing is time regained. You have to steal the time away, and for me the experience of reading is fleeting. Strong reading, for me, is an act of memory, which fixes the elusive content of a book. Hence, Simplest Things Last.

In these past two entries I've strayed farther from my intent, to review specific artistic achievements, then I'd intended. So in coming weeks you can expect, O Readers 57 and 58, readings of some of the new albums and comics and everything I've got stacked up, and eventually a full explanation of my title.

movie: Guy Maddin's Dracula
books: I finished Cheever!
music: Jayhawks

Archives Project: STL #9

Title: Back to school
Description: on reading and what I really know
Date: 27 August 2003

Note how I niftily use the blank underscore to refer to my blog posts. That's super pomo, therefore super passe. I like that I say "I guess you could say I read for enjoyment, but I really read for expansion," but as I noted the clarifying phrase, "to get beyond what I know now, and nourish the intellectual resources for living," is clunky. In the closing, I note that I had been ready something "truly trashy about Sunset Strip." I have no idea what that was.

In the present, I'm faced with some serious reading time. I will have almost 3 months until my new job starts, and I seriously want to thin out my books before I move.

In my head, I write these _________ on Tuesday nights, though in the real world I've made that schedule once. Today is Wednesday August 27, the first day of classes. The first day of classes is my favorite day because of the promise it holds. On the first day of class, I get new reading lists, and visions of new things I could write and learn. Fall should be in the air, and those reading lists are the index of winter closing in, besieging me in my warm chair by a bright lamp. If I had met my schedule, it would be the night before the first day of class, and that would have seemed maybe a little possible. I live in Texas now, where school starts in August when there's no trace of fall. I don't get handed syllabi anymore; I hand them out. But I will always have my reading.

When I was an undergrad, the reading list was only a start, a skeleton to supplement. As a graduate student, I still register for classes, but at this point, I'm mostly setting my own reading lists. Sure I get some tips from my advisors (Imperial Archive here I come), but my interests and my understanding of my field largely determine what I read. Even so, that's my work. I love ol' Louis Zukofsky, but if I didn't have a stack of novels and essays completely unrelated to my dissertation, I'm sure I'd go insane. I'm also sure I'd be a make a much poorer professor if I rely solely on expertise (should I make professor). What I teach is reading in a large sense, and you need to know both hermetic poetry and propaganda (I mean good propaganda like Malevitch). If you live without Shakespeare and Buffy you live an impoverished life. I guess you could say I read for enjoyment, but I really read for expansion: to get beyond what I know now, and nourish the intellectual resources for living (ugly phrase that, and it tries to describe a beautiful idea.)

In recognition of school starting, I'll keep this one short. You'll be hearing about what I'm reading soon enough. Right now, I've got Guy Davenport's collection The Hunter Gracchus by my bed. It was his essay "On Reading" which got me thinking what I do when I open a book, which I'll pick up on next (Tuesday).

Reading: Davenport, Clark's
Farewell to an Idea, Chris Ware's ACME Date Book, a truly trashy book about Sunset Strip
Seeing: Salesmen, Bob le Flambeur
Listening: Master of Puppets! P.J. Harvey!