Thursday, January 29, 2009

My booky wooks

I've never done a Books of the Year. Mainly because I don't read all that many newly-released books in a Calendar year, I think. I tend to read far more widely, lots of "classics", a bit of non-fiction, some genre stuff, then by the end of a year what I read and when all blurs into one long reading experience without beginning or end. I also tend to avoid writing at length about books, an English Lit degree and the hours of deconstruction and essay composition that entailed being at least partly to blame.

But this year I read a bit less, for various reasons. Still more or less a book every ten days or so, but thats well down on how much I used to read. And it means I remember what I read when more clearly. Including some fine novels published in the last year.
So, in no particular order:

The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
An intimate epic chronicling the life of an obese second generation Dominican immigrant in New York and the Dominican Republic, this masterpiece more than met the expectations of anyone hoping for great things after Diaz's extraordinary collection of stories, "Drown". Narrated by a friend whose cultural touchstones all emanate from geek culture (there are continual references to superhero comics, sci-fi movies and the Lord of the RIngs), Diaz demonstrates the richness of his talent in every facet of this book. The voice is vivid and original and utterly convincing, the narrative unexpectedly gripping and finally moving, the tone and sense of place perfectly judged and evoked. But it is the books scope and ambition, the way it includes a history of the Dominican Republic in the Twentieth Century and a torrid family saga while never losing its focus on Oscar and his search for love, that is most impressive.

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
This was the favourite for the Booker until it failed to even make the longlist. Too good for the Booker, then. A rambling narrative concerning a Dutchman (spiritually and emotionally) lost in Manhattan after separating from his wife and young son and his encounters with a Trinidadian full of plans to make Cricket a global sport, the beauty of this novel is all contained in O'Neill's achingly lovely writing. His prose is luminous, poetic, and yet effortless in that inimitably American way best displayed by the work of Updike, Roth or Bellow, say. From a writer born in Ireland, raised in Holland and living in the US, the warmth and panoramic vision of a World still off balance in the years after 9/11 is impressively, even soulfully conveyed. O'Neill's voice is assured, measure, confident, precise. The kind of book I wanted to go on reading, not because I wanted to know how the story ended - its not that kind of book - but because the prose gave me so much pleasure.

Lush Life by Richard Price
Always the most literary of the "holy trinity" of Big Crime Novelists who work on "The Wire" (the other two being George Pelecanos and Denis Lehane), it finally struck me who Richard Price's writing reminded me of whilst reading this novel, his eighth.
He's like Jay McInerney with vastly different subject matter. And less pretension. This dense, telling novel is a police procedural, a portrayal of a couple of different strata of New York society and a political commentary on the state of modern America, focusing particularly on its racial politics and class tensions. Three drunken young men are robbed at gunpoint one night. Only one of them challenges the gun pointed at him and dies. Price then plunges us into the lives of the police investigating this murder, of the teenaged killer, and of the ageing hipster who survived and witnessed the violence. It never feels like a straight crime novel, with Price always just as interested in the milieu his characters move in as he is in their movements toward a resolution. New York is the main protagonist - its tenement walk-ups, its boho bars, its bodegas - and he paints it as vividly and completely as anyone ever has.
Price's dialogue is unparalleled - funny, realistic, brilliantly captured, with a rhythm all its own.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
Bolano is probably the hottest author in the literary media right about now. Full page adverts for his (latest and final) novel 2666 in all the broadsheets, a three page article in the Guardian book supplement, mentions on every book-blog of note. Why? Well, he is dead, for one thing. The media loves a posthumous success. His life - arrested in Pinochet's Chile, a "literary Terrorist" in Mexico, a junkie/poet/odd job man in Catalonia before he gained any literary success at all - reads like a tall tale, romantic and fascinating. And then there is his writing. His sudden appearance in the English-language scene was startling, because he arrived fully formed, with a unique and brilliant style and his own themes and obsessions already well developed and fixed in place. I read his short story collection "Last Evenings on Earth" in hardback a few years ago and was stunned by it and its portrayals of poets and lost men in Mexico and Spain, obsessions and disintegrating relationships, all told in his sonorous, deceptively readable voice, and sought out his other early, short novels. "The Savage Detectives", originally published in Spain a few years ago, is another thing entirely, an epic novel with distinct sections, imposingly dense but breathtakingly brilliant. It begins as the diary of a young poet in Mexico City in the 1970s, then becomes a history of two of his friends - told by a host of narrators they have encountered as they travelled across the globe over the years - before rewinding to focus on their experiences of searching for a reclusive poet in Mexico in the 70s. I have not finished it. I read 100 page sections, its density exhausts me, and I put it down for a few weeks before returning to it. But what a pleasurable way to read a book, knowing its there, waiting for me all of the time, and that Bolano will never let me down. And I still have 2666 to read...

The Delivery Man by Joe McGinniss Jr.
A debut novel. Concerning a group of friends in their 20s in Las Vegas becoming involved in prostitution and smalltime crime. Written with a feel for mood and emotional chill which is stunning. The hero, the delivery man of the title, is a young Teacher with dreams of being an artist, slowly poisoning his own life through his old friendships and his inability to shake them off and move on. The sense of inertia and powerlessness are terrifying. The portrait of the MySpace generation is alienating and yet feels true. The prose - flat and precise, punchy and somehow blank - develops its own poetry, until it is almost hypnotic, the ending ghastly yet compulsive.

Everything by Grant Morrison
That "everything" would include "Final Crisis", "AllStar Superman" and "Batman", drawn by many hands, most notably Frank Quitely and J.G. Jones. All of them Superhero Comics set in the DC Universe, which has revealed itself to be the perfect toybox for Morrison to play around with. Lets start with "Batman", easily the worst of the three titles. Here Morrison's grand plan took an age to unfold, complicated by crossovers and general continuity issues. And continuity was his subject, really - his Batman was a man who had lived through all of the Batman's comic history - the rather primitive early years, the silliness of the 60s, the darkness of the 70s and 90s, all of it, every battle, every beating, every horrific sight and encounter with the supernatural or evil or ultradimensional - and it was beginning to take a psychological toll. Somewhat sabotaged by awful art, Morrison's Batman stories betray his usual problems. He tries to do too much, his plotting feels a little haphazard, his ideas are sometimes placed on top of the narrative rather than expressed through it, but it still had its moments of absolute, shining brilliance. Not least its ending, when Batman's plan was revealed. Batman also featured crucially in "Final Crisis", which still has one issue to go. Morrison has refined his technique over the years, when it comes to these massive crossovers. Now he makes them seem almost effortless, the way he juggles dozens of characters and plotlines, the bigger picture never slipping out of focus, the satisfying genre moments always delivered. Has anyone ever written Darkseid as well as he does, or made the Anti-Life equation seem so evil and horrific? I doubt it. And still he manages to smuggle in his interests, his ideas, hard science and physics, philosophy, all bubbling under the surface of his narrative about vigilantes and gods punching one another.
"AllStar Superman" may just be the best thing hes ever done, in a way. Pure and simple and beautiful, yet complex and demanding. It works as a sublime Superman story, yet also critiques Superman stories. Superman stories are not about Superman in combat, for as many who loathe - or just fail to see the appeal of - the character point out, there is no tension in that. Superman, as a character of near-limitless means and ability, opens up the universe to a writer. He can go anywhere, do more or less anything. Yet he is human in his heart, a midwestern farmboy raised by the Kents. A good Superman story should therefore be about wonder, about awe, cities in bottles, other worlds and dimensions and concepts that strain our imaginations. Morrison wrote such a story and Frank Quitely drew it absolutely beautifully. It is, finally, magnificently moving, and made me love Superman more than any story about the character has done since Alan Moore wrote him. Morrison is the finest writer working in mainstream comics.

Sway by Zachary Lazar
This cool, black novel traces periods in the lives of Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger and Kenneth Anger, connecting them thematically, bringing in Charles Manson and addressing the legacy of the 1960s and its dark heart. The writing is so good, so convincing, that we forget who the protagonists are meant to be, and it doesn't matter. What matters is this story, the evil in it, the energy and vigour.

Inventing the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson
I read a lot of books about football. This was the best one I read this year, a history of tactics by one of the Guardian's better football hacks, who was responsible for a great study of Eastern European football a few years back. Here he traces the games development from a no-passing, all-dribbling frenzy, through the W-M and catenaccio eras, up until todays high pressure possession game, by analysing specific teams and key games. And to anyone with any interest, it is riveting - well-researched, convincingly argued, often witty and nicely written.

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow
A novel about werewolves in modern Los Angeles, who operate in little profit and blood-hungry clans. Told in verse. It works, beautifully. Because Barlow, who contributes to N+1, can really write. His work here is terse, lyrical, lovely, scary and stomach-turning when it needs to be. His characters are established and made convincing and real in short little stanzas. The pared-down feel makes it all more haunting and precisely envisioned. The plotting is simple, direct and effective. Against the odds, its a page-turner, but never a potboiler.

Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple
Lethem has addressed his love of superheroes and comic book culture numerous times in his fiction and journalism, but this is the first time he's ever actually written a superhero story. And true to form its really a story about Aspergers Syndrome and its consequences. It is also one of the most indie and interesting things Marvel has ever published, partly because Dalrymple's art is so different from anything else in the genre. But it is strangely thrilling and utterly unique.

The Portable Frank by Jim Woodring
Frank is a Fantagraphics comic by Jim Woodring which concerns...well, its hard to describe. The stories, told in a deceptively simple style reminiscent of Disney comics if they had been printed with woodblocks, are about a protagonist in a fantasy world full of bizarre, surreal creatures. Only he too is a bizarre creature, a dog (or a cat) wearing gloves (and shoes) who walks on two legs. He has a pet (or companion) which is basically a mantle ornament with a face, legs and tail. And a humanoid slave hog. There is no dialogue. There is often unspeakable violence. The plots are comic parables of struggle with hidden depths. You could probably study them for a lifetime, write dissertations, long books about their meaning. They are hilariously funny, and often eerie and scary, disturbing in their content. Deadpan, never hyperbolic, Woodring is surely some sort of genius. This collection of some of the black & white stories was published this year, but there are many other bigger, more expensive collections of the many colour tales. Buy them all. Thank me later.

Pandora in the Congo by Albert Sanchez Pinol
Catalan Pinol writes literary genre fiction. His first novel, "Cold Skin" was a horror story of amphibious humanoids besieging a tiny Island station in the South Atlantic, held off by two men. It is an amazingly creepy, strangely erotic book, full of metaphoric power and meaning, yet succeeding as a straightforward genre exercise too. This, his second, is a pastiche and critique of a certain kind of Victorian fiction. Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells and H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But it is written by a man who obviously loves those writers and the boys own glee of their best work. So it works, like "Cold Skin", on two levels - story of Victorian Explorers in the Congo and their discovery of an Alien world, and interrogation of Victorian attitudes to colonialism, race and fiction itself. It is superb.

City of Thieves by David Benioff
Benioff wrote "The 25th Hour" a few years ago. Its a pretty good first novel - assured in its voice and sense of place, full of sharp, memorable characters, and extremely tightly plotted. He adapted the book for Spike Lee's commendable film version and turned that into a well-paid career as a screenwriter which has never lived up to his novel (or the short story collection "When the Nines Roll Over" which followed it) on films like "Troy", "Stay" and "The Kite Runner". He also married Amanda Peet, the bastard. Well, just to prove he can still write, this year brought "City of Thieves," a novel set during the Siege of Leningrad, and following the desperate quest of two young military prisoners for some eggs to save their own skins. Again, that gift for voice and place was evident, again the characters were well-drawn and real. He is a natural novelist, and his ability seems to me to straddle the line between literary and popular fiction pretty evenly, meaning that he may struggle to find an audience. Which would be a shame. More novels, less screenplays - that would be nice though...

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"What art offers is space"

"Existence itself does not feel horrible; it feels like an ecstasy, rather, which we have only to be still to experience."

John Updike died. He was - until a few minutes ago when I read of his passing and my jaw literally dropped - quite possibly my favourite living author. There is a poster for the 1970 adaptation of "Rabbit, run" on the wall beside my computer. There are more of his books on my shelves than there are by any other writer.

He died without having won the Nobel Prize for Literature, something the Nobel Committee should feel great shame about. For he was one of the great writers of the Twentieth Century, both popular and prolific but never less than challenging and often profound. What he accomplished better than any other writer I can think of, put simply, was to capture what it feels like to be alive. The sensory experience of living from moment to moment, with all the flavours and sights and scents and aches and confusions and joys that entails. How it feels to drive with the radio on, the peculiar ecstasy of that, for instance. What sex is really like, in all its messy and complicated intimacy. And he did it poetically, in prose which always read like it was written by a poet, in prose that was often musical and always precise. He also managed to address wider concerns, political and sociological and cultural issues. But his better books hum with beauty, both in the style of the writing, from lovely sentence to lovely sentence, and in his appreciation for what makes life so wonderful and thrilling and sometimes terrible.

He was perhaps the greatest stylist of his generation. This was one of the great criticisms of Updike - that his writing was too beautiful. The Rabbit Tetralogy, in particular, is repeatedly accused of this. Since it chronicles the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, an American Everyman figure, from his 20s until his death in his 60s/70s, and is mostly told from his perspective, some critics feel the writing should reflect how such a man would interpret the world. Meaning without Updike's own marvelous eye and ear. But Updike shows that Rabbit is not stupid, that he has his sensitivities and obvious flaws, and his prose never gets between the reader and the character. Rather it reveals him in greater depth, I think. The criticism basically boils down to an accusation of style but not always substance. Which, in some of his work, is inescapably true. But Updike wrote so much his ouevre was always bound to be a mixed bag. There are a few duds among his more than twenty novels, the odd pedestrian short story. Style does occasionally triumph over substance. But so what? When it is such grand style, when reading it is such an intense and dependable pleasure, who cares?

Thankfully, Updike was insanely prolific. Novels, short stories, criticism - he wrote plenty of each form. I have still got quite a lot of Updike reading ahead of me. If you haven't read him and are wondering where to start, some suggestions:

- Couples (1968) Novel about a circle of adulterous middle class couples in a Boston dormitory town in the 1960s. The first Updike I read, it bowled me over with its concise vision of how people lie to themselves and each other and its frank view of sexual politics. And of course its beauty. It was quite controversial at the time of its release for its sexual explicitness.

- The Early Stories: 1953 - 1975 (2003) The depth and breadth of his control and ambition is best seen in his short stories, often perfectly formed little jewels of wisdom and compressed narrative. This collection is a brilliant primer.

- Too Far to Go/ Your Lover Just Called (1979) The Maples stories focus on a married couple through their life together, children and ultimately, divorce; and combine Updike's brilliance with longer, serial narrative, with the elegance and perfection of his short stories.

- Marry Me (1977) His rawest, most emotional work is the story of adultery and the destruction of a marriage, territory he visited again and again in his work. But never with quite this depth of feeling or despair.

- Self-Consciousness: Memoirs (1989)

- The Rabbit Tetralogy (1960-2001) Made up of five books written over forty years, the Rabbit series (Rabbit, run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest and Rabbit Remembered) is the greatest achievement of postwar American fiction, in my opinion. Funny, moving, filled with brilliant, acute characters, the books are also tightly plotted, densely imagined works about America itself and its changing culture and society. Taken together they also offer a subtle and haunting portrayal of aging and ultimately, mortality. I read Rabbit, Run in my mid-twenties, when I was more or less the same age Rabbit is as the novel begins. The perfect time to read the book, and it had a massive effect upon me.

But really, any Updike is good. even the lesser books contain their pleasures. He was incapable of writing badly. His criticism is also worth a look - he was a warm and wise and voracious reader and his insights are always useful and constructive. If you read and you haven't read any of his work, then you owe it to yourself to change that. To read him was, strangely, to be made feel more alive, such was his appreciation of the joy of living, and that is a rare gift for any writer.
He will be missed.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 20

Ah, I love Truffaut. Here he adapts a Cornel Woolrich story, throws in a little Hitchcock, adds two of the biggest icons in French cinema ever....Voila.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Screengrab - "Thats the Chicago way."

"The Untouchables" was released in the US in June 1987*. That marks it out firmly as a Summer Blockbuster, or at least states that it was intended as one by its studio. But it seems to possess an insane pedigree and class for a Blockbuster. Directed by a controversial auteur who has always had one foot in the arthouse (Brian DePalma), written by one of America's greatest living playwrights (David Mamet), with a score by Ennio Morricone, costumes by Armani and a cast including two of the Twentieth Century's great male screen icons (Sean Connery and Robert DeNiro) alongside a couple of then up-and-coming new stars (Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia), the film almost seems too good to be true. And it has the temerity to be incredibly entertaining, with two fantastic DePama set-pieces, while also slyly getting in its digs at the hypocrisy of American political policies, both in the Prohibition and (by extension) Reagan eras.

It is a film of great moments and great scenes, which lessen the impact of its structural problems. After the departure of Connery's character, the narrative never really recovers the same drive, though DePalma's Odessa Steps Train Station sequence distracts the audience in the immediate aftermath of his terrific death scene. But we are buoyed by the numerous brilliant moments we have already witnessed. There is DeNiro's baseball bat wielding "enthusiasms" speech (based on an actual Capone execution of two seditious mobsters), wherein he seems to allow himself to coast and grimace and leer, almost caricaturing his own persona to highly entertaining effect. DePalma ends the scene with a beautiful aerial shot, too. Then there is Connery's selection of Andy Garcia's character for a place on the team, baiting him with ethnic slurs, until Garcia pulls a pistol on him and sticks it beneath his chin with the words: " Its better than you, you stinking Irish pig." Garcia is shy and charming here in a way he never really recovered in his career, grinning as Connery praises him.

Then there is the gun battle on the Canadian border, in which Charles Martin Smith distinguishes himself in a berserker attack on two trucks of mobsters - DePalma depicting shotgun blasts as resulting in pink clouds of blood hanging in the air, Morricone turning in something akin to a Classical Western score, Connery ending a chase-scene with a volley of gunfire into the air and the words "Enough of this running shit." And then there is the exemplary first person POV stalking of Connery before he is assassinated, the director amusing himself with his facility with the medium itself, a filmmaker with enough maturity to take on a project like this, without the auteurist quirks and motifs of much of the rest of his work, and turn it into arguably his best "popular" film.

But the best scene is a brief exchange of charged dialogue between Connery and Costner, sitting in a church-pew, captured by DePalma in a showy two-shot. Because it demands - and gets - the best from Mamet, from the two actors, and from the Director. It sets the tone for what is to come, defines the battle at the heart of the film, and lays out the crucial dynamic between the hero and his mentor. Later, just before they bust down a door into one of Capone's distillerys, Connery tells Costner that once the door is open, there can be no turning back. But really, that moment is already passed. It came when Connery laid out the fight for him and Costner asserted his desire for it.

Mamet is a proud son of Chicago, and there is a lot of that city's working class hard-boiled straight-talking in his dialogue. But much of his work as a Screenwriter for hire feels like the hackwork that it undoubtedly is, his touch barely discernible, as if he is trying to lose what makes him distinctive, subsuming himself for the good of the project. However, there is the sense that he feels something more for "The Untouchables", key to the mythic history of his hometown as the story is. So his script is full of great one-liners, most of them given to Connery, and a couple of classic Capone monologues. It is also commendably tight and well-paced for much of its running time, excellent in establishing its characters concisely, and makes its odd conclusion - Ness has to break the rules, by murdering a man, in order to win - a crowd-pleasing moment. But the scene in question is the most concise and well-written in the film.
The dialogue exchange is as follows:

Malone: You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what I'm saying is, what are you prepared to do?
Ness: Anything within the law.
Malone: And then what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they're not gonna give up the fight, until one of you is dead.
Ness: I want to get Capone! I don't know how to do it.
Malone: You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way! And that's how you get Capone. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that? I'm offering you a deal. Do you want this deal?
Ness: I have sworn to capture this man with all legal powers at my disposal and I will do so.
Malone: Well, the Lord hates a coward.
[Jabs Ness with his hand, and Ness shakes it]
Malone: Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?
Ness: Yes.
Malone: Good, 'cause you just took one.

The scene feels weighty and important, making such a brief exchange of dialogue almost shockingly short on the page. Mamet captures Malone's aggression and vigour and Ness' impotence and frustration in just a few lines. Connery, for his part, plays the hell out of it. He steals every scene he's in - it helps that he gets all the best lines - and here Costner's Ness seems cowed, even a little awed by him. But Costner's slighly stilted woodenness actually works in the film's favour. He is meant to be stiff, awkward, a clerk at heart; despite his initial scorn for bookkeeping as a means to arrest Capone. In the final courtroom showdown, the disparity between the intensity of performance displayed by Costner and DeNiro is a little shocking. DeNiro is so much more vital, so electric, even in such a small, shallow role. Costner's voice sounds weak, he lacks conviction and passion. And yet he has some movie star quality, and holds the film together despite Connery pulling it one way and DeNiro another. Costner is the still centre, vital in such a brassy, excited film. In this scene, his key line is "I want to get Capone! I don't know how to do it." which he spits through gritted teeth, like a frustrated child. Connery's needling has bothered him, stirred him somewhat. Their dynamic works.

DePalma knows this and he shoots the scene to capitalize upon it.

The economy and simplicity of that composition is beautiful. Both men look off to the left, complicit in their conversation. The ceiling of the Church - suggested by Connery as a location - curves above, a mural high behind. They are separated by a single stained glass window, off in the distance, its natural light glaring against the more muted shades of the church. The shallowness of field in the picture gives the scene a certain odd tension. The ceiling, though obviously high above, seems to press on the men. Their hands seem uncannily large in the foreground. Their faces - the natural focus - sit somewhere between these other visual elements, the distortion of perspective throwing off our spatial certainty, unusual in what would normally be a simple medium shot. DePalma then cuts to this shot:

Here the pressure is all on Ness, his face looming unnaturally large in the composition. Connery's Malone seems almost relaxed by comparison, though his delivery of his dialogue is aggressive, super-charged; he makes Mamet's short speech feel longer and better than it is on the page. We see other figures at worship in the shadows behind Connery, making the men's paranoia more understandable. It is odd, then, that the final "blood oath" part of the scene is its lightest, Malone adopting a jokey tone as he makes up his mind to aid Ness. Perhaps the key is the short instant between Ness' avowed desire to get Capone and Malone's "The Lord hates a coward". This is when Malone turns away slightly, considers, and decides. In effect he signs his own death warrant. Its also the moment Connery won his only Oscar, and its as if he knows it. Those last lines do have an unmistakably triumphant ring to them.

*What a classy pop culture summer that was, in retrospect. Leave aside the notable disasters (such as "Superman IV", " Spaceballs", "Ishtar", "Beverly Hills Cop 2" and "Masters of the Universe") and you have these films released between May - August 1987: "The Rivers Edge", "Predator", "The Little Mermaid", "Full Metal Jacket", "Innerspace", "Robocop"
"The Living Daylights" and "The Lost Boys". Not to mention the likes of "Dirty Dancing". A fine mixture of entertaining schlock and a couple of genuine classics.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Just Sayin

Sometimes I have something I want to share - a link, a snippet, a screengrab, whatever - but I don't particularly want to write a whole long post about it. Just a few bullet-points.

- I've seldom written about "The Wire" here because its the type of show that attracts obsessive fans, many of whom create blogs devoted exclusively to excavating its recesses, and I can't possibly hope to match that focus. In other words, there are already plenty of great blogs about "The Wire" out there, if you're interested.
Kevin Lee is a current hot topic in the filmblogosphere. He creates video pieces to critique films, narrating his arguments over instructive clips. Its possibly the best format for film criticism, and anybody whos ever taken a Film Studies course will be more than familiar with the technique. Lee is a good critic, and his pieces are generally more likely to spur somebody to want to see a film than not, but Youtube have removed all of his - several hundred - posts from that site on the grounds of copyright infringement, based on a complaint by and unnamed party. I'm sure that the videos will reappear elsewhere, but for the moment, This is a link to a series of video critiques Lee was involved in which dissect the opening credits of each Season of "The Wire", discussing visual motifs, soundtrack choices, and thematic pointers intelligently and concisely. They are great stuff and worth a look for any fan of the show.

- This Julian Lennon - yes, that Julian Lennon - video was directed by, wait for it: Sam Peckinpah- yes, that Sam Peckinpah. Its not even any good, really, as 80s in-the-studio videos go. Paycheck gig, I think, but interesting purely for his involvement:

- This is the kind of thing that usually goes in a GolGolGolGol post, but I can't save it. The best demonstration I've yet seen of just how fast football is at the highest level. One second play is at the halfway line, six seconds later the ball is in the back of the net and the away end is going mental. The fact that its all captured on a mobile phone or camcorder just adds to the verisimilitude. Ronaldo, for all that I dislike his personality, is an incredible talent on his day:

- The sub-genre of the British Crime film having splintered into sub-sub-genres (the Guy Ritchie-esque geezer caper, the Danny Dyer wannabe wishfulfillment flick, the nostalgic "hoods were of a better class in the old days" period gangster film etc) we only get a half-decent one every five years or so. But Nicolas Winding Refn is one of Europe's most interesting directors, his track record in the crime genre is peerless, and Tom Hardy looks to have finally found a role worthy of his undoubted talent:

- 2009 will be a year in which films by both Michael Mann and Terence Malick are released. There will undoubtedly be a "Public Enemies" trailer soon, but Malick is a harder sell, commercially speaking. "Tree of Life", nonetheless, sounds fascinating:

- The picture at the top? Claudia Cardinale. Just because.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 19

Yes. Terrible, indefensible stuff. But I loved it when I saw the tv movies in Cinemas as a 5 or 6 year old. In a Cinema that no longer exists. Excitement that life, sadly enough, has never quite equalled since. Even though I could see it was a lame, somehow castrated version of a character who meant more to me back then than any other. And I loved the tv show, too. But really its an embarrassing attempt to portray a brilliant character. But charming in its crappiness, in his silly hunched pose, in the terrible action scenes:


Wednesday, January 07, 2009

No Fun

Ron Asheton died. He was 60.

I love his guitar playing, especially on "Fun House", one of my favourite records, and a definite candidate for my Top 10 if such a list existed. It was the sound of his guitar that defined the way the Stooges sounded on their first two albums. More than Iggy's growls and yelps and coos, and more than the rhythm sections surprisingly funky backing, it was the primitive brutishness of Asheton's guitar, roaring away like an airplane engine throughout, that made the Stooges perhaps the scariest-sounding band of their era. He was never a virtuoso, and he even stepped aside to play bass when one did appear, allowing the more virtuosic James Williamson to take his job for "Raw Power". But that album - despite its fine set of songs - isn't quite as aurally awesome as "The Stooges" and "Fun House". Because Williamson's technical skill can't match Asheton's aggression and power. While Williamson's lightning-fingered aptitude is obvious, Asheton sounds like his fingers are made of steel when he clatters into a riff. It frequently seems like he must be playing three guitars at once. But no. Just him, and one guitar. He just means it more. He still meant it on the recent reunion album and tour. Maybe not as much.

TV Eye, from Fun House. Especially awesome - the moment where the whole thing stops then restarts with a guitar sound like a nuclear explosion:


Monday, January 05, 2009

playlist: 2008

Or: a self indulgent list of some songs I liked last year, helping me to avoid writing about the albums. But I always loved making mixtapes, and latterly mix cds (What music lover doesn't?), and this is about as close as I get these days. It starts poppy and goes folky then briefly rocky.

Monkey - I Love Buddha
You should always start off, I think, with either a short instrumental - an overture of sorts - or with a balls out rocker. This is a short, synth-driven instrumental not unlike the waltzes Albarn used to sneak onto Blur albums between the pop singles. Only a little weirder and with an eerie quality I love. It just pulses along hypnotically in its sugar-manic way. The album it originates from is a little impenetrable, utterly nuts, but rewarding - he can still write a melody. I haven't seen the show.

Neon Neon - Raquel
"Oh Raquel, you fill me with inertia" may just be my favourite line in any song this year. And its the chorus. And the concept is great - an album made up of songs on John DeLorean's life, making this a love song to Raquel Welch. And that line may in fact be a reference to "Bedazzled". And its a sweet pop song with a great 80s-synth feel. And 80s synths were big this year. And Gruff Rhys can do no wrong.

Kanye West - Love Lockdown
What did I say about 80s synths? Kanye West goes for a vocoder, too, and a thunderous rhythm track throughout. Great song, unlike anything else he's ever produced, either for himself or anyone else.

Hercules & the Love Affair - Blind
Disco. The hook is that wimpy parpy little horn, and damn, what a hook. Hegarty has an immortal voice, and you might think it wouldn't work in this context, but it works beautifully. Singing mournful, cosmic lyrics ("As a child I knew that the stars would get brighter and we would get closer, leaving this darkness behind") over a dancefloor symphony of pumping bass and handclaps and what sound like bongos and - you guessed it - synths. Pitchfork voted it single of the year, and I couldn't disagree.

The Streets - On the Edge of a Cliff
Nobody likes the Streets anymore, it seems. Mike Skinner stopped writing songs about drugs and chav culture and started writing about being a pop star, and nobody wants to hear about that. But the most recent album is warmer and more universal, full of songs about life and human nature. Its also relaxed and mellow and possibly his best musically - some great beats and tunes. This song should be a cringeworthy embarrassment, but his gift is to make tricky subjects work, somehow, and he does it again here in a lyric about chance and life and death.

Los Mirlos - Sonido Amazonico
The albums I've listened to most this year have been compilations of vintage rock music from Nigeria (more of which below) and Peru. This comes from an album called "The Roots of Chicha"; Chicha being a sub-genre of Peruvian rock which brings together psychedelic and even hard rock aesthetics with Peruvian folk song traditions. Sounds well dry, I know, but in practice its amazing - some of it sounds a little like Mexican Mariachi music, some like Afrobeat, some like salsa, some like rockabilly, but most sounds like nothing else you've ever heard. This song sounds a bit Morricone to me, or maybe like Surf rock, with that twanging guitar. Its got mucho mojo. If you only follow one link from this post, follow this one. Go on, follow the link. Trust me.

Vampire Weekend - Mansford Roof
So punchy, so simple and evocative, such a tight groove, and yet such a lovely abundance of space in the sound. Plus the instrumental break where the chorus should be reminds me of the theme from CHiPs.

The Hygrades - In the Jungle
I bought four Nigerian rock compilations this year, and it seems silly to choose one from the nearly 70 tracks spread across them. But this one was easy to find on YouTube, and it is a funky-as-all-hell jam, and it gets across what makes these records so amazing - dozens of quality songs from 20 and 30 years ago, recorded in Nigeria, influenced by British and American rock but with a distinctively African ingredient added. I could really have chosen literally any song from any of the 4 albums, such is the depth of quality. The albums are : "Nigeria Special: 1970-76", "Nigeria 70 - Lagos Jump", "Nigeria Disco Funk special" and "Nigeria Rock Special".

El Guincho - Kalise
This Spanish dude, he likes afrobeat and tropicalia but also Animal Collective and sampling. Which means he makes music like this. Would be horrible, only he can write a song. Like this one. Which is just a stomping joyous, ridiculous beast.

Republic of Loose - I Like Music
Their latest album is too diffuse and eclectic for its own good, but it still has about 10 great songs on it, including this poptastic piece of blue-eyed psych-soul which boasts about 5 different hooks and lyrics like this: "Girl I had a goggle of girls eating my sweat while you were watching Ugly Betty last night." It also represents the first small step towards the rockier end of this particular playlist...

My Morning Jacket - Touch Me I'm Going to Scream Pt. 2
TV on the Radio get all the plaudits and the end-of-year best lists while My Morning Jacket, well, don't. Which is just plain wrong. Incorporating more influences and elements with each record while still remaining a Southern rock jam-band at heart, they release one bewilderingly different album after another. Their last, "Z", was full of r&b and hip hop production touches, obviously inspired by the likes of Prince and Outkast, and here Jim James brings that even further, employing a full-on falsetto on some synth-driven songs whilst leaving some others as relatively traditional MMJ rockers or ballads. Only this record is even more soulful than usual. This eight minute epic segues from a hushed beginning of quiet, carnivalesque synth over howling winds into a funk-pop dancefloor groover which sounds a little like Phoenix or LCD Soundsystem, all bubbling bass and echoing guitars. A power chord from nowhere on five minutes ushers in a long coda of harmony vocals and big guitars over that fading disco backing. Its great.

Erykah Badu - Soldier
Just how soulful My Morning Jacket are can be measured with the information that Erykah Badu has duetted with them live on a version of her song "Tyrone" (there are a couple of clips on Youtube). Badu has one of the greatest voices in modern popular music, and her infrequent records are always deep, funky and feature a couple of lovely songs. Of which this is a great example. A great bassline - her songs always have great basslines - and great lyrics, too. She just doesn't play the game, and you have to love her for that.

The Walkmen - Red Moon
Off their best, most mature album, this beautiful, elegiac sigh of a lovesong has mariachi horns behind slowly strummed acoustic guitars and an enigmatic, melancholy lyric. It may just be the loveliest thing on this list. It makes Bon Iver sound like James Blunt.

Fleet Foxes - White Winter Hymnal
Their songs sound like they could have been written and recorded at any point over the last 50 years. Which is a way of saying they just sound intrinsically American - a little Beach Boys, a little folk, a smidgen of blues, the Band...its another album where I had trouble picking just one song. But this moves me every time. I think its that rising cooed harmony vocal.

Shearwater - Rooks
Not many bands are obviously influenced by the late work of the mighty Talk Talk. Thats probably because what Talk Talk did was complex and demanding, and most bands simply don't have the chops. Shearwater do. "Rook", their latest record, recalls Talk Talk in its arrangements, in its mood, in its sombre seriousness. This song, however, seems a bit more like early Talk Talk in that its got a catchy pop song at its heart. A crystalline stroll of a guitar lick flows throughout, horns kick in, the lyrics flirt with apocalyptic imagery, theres a harmony chant over the otherwise instrumental middle eight - its an epic in three and a half minutes. Theres something transcendent about it, about them, about the album as a whole, too.

Sun Kil Moon - Moorestown
Ah, Mark Kozelek. You kill me every time. Perfection.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - More News from Nowhere
The greatest lyricist of his generation and his painfully tight band made possibly their greatest album ever this year, the epic "Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!", which revealed them as masters of just about every tone and mood rock music is capable of. Its corners and crevices mean that I hear something new on every listen. This mid-tempo stroll is decadent and loungey and red-eyed and hilarious and crucially, totally addictive.

Voluntary Butler Scheme - Trading Things In
"If you were broccoli I'd turn vegetarian for you." That lyric makes the song sound more twee and irritating than it is, so maybe I shouldn't have begun with it. But it has that sort of low-key, shy charm, with its casio keyboard twinkle running under an almost glam rock stomp and some relaxed guitar. He's a one-man band, literally, and this is a minor pop miracle.

Jape - Phil Lynott
No chorus, really, just the rambling story of the song and that circular guitar figure dragging us along with it. The video is an acoustic version, and the album version is slightly less spartan and much much better.

Portishead - Machine Gun
If it sounds at all like anything else, it sounds a little like the Terminator soundtrack, that unstoppable thundering mechanical stomp driving it on. Beth Gibbons voice is dwarfed by it. She sounds hopeless, defeated. Its a grim song from a grim, if magnificent, album. An album that, in the earliest days of 2009, seems eerily prescient. I love the moment when the synth (80s!) cuts in, in its strangely uplifting and beautiful pomp.

The Raconteurs - The Switch & the Spur
I haven't really liked all that much, you know, Rock music this year. Which hurts. And means that this playlist is light on riffs and guitar wigouts, unfortunately. The Raconteurs second album has riffs and wigouts aplenty, but this number is a Western mini-epic, with mariachi horns (again, hurrah) and some old testament lyrics. More Brendan Benson than Jack Black, I think, but awesome either way.

Mogwai - The Sun Smells too Loud
Mogwai do subtle, with a hint of MBV. This is the "Auto Rock" equivalent from "The Hawk is Howling", circling endlessly before drifting away.

Daemien Frost - Slut Style
Daemian Frost are a defunct dublin Post rock band who only (barely) released 2 records in their lifetime before bowing out with a virtual anthology, "Spirito Di Daemo", this year. They rocked. This has a manic energy and swagger most bands of their ilk never manage.

Elbow - One Day Like This
Stunningly obvious, I know. The opening string melody is sort of ubiquitous, now. But still majestic. Elbow have shed some of the musical complexity that made their first two records so interesting and in the process become infinitely more soulful and emotive. They never would have been capable of a song this moving and beautiful a few years ago. Now they're a little bit the thinking man's Snow Patrol, and thats a good place to be when it means Guy Garvey can get away with a refrain like "Coz holy cow I love you, lass" without it seeming mawkish or affected. The way it segues into the singalong climax is incredibly predictable and predictably incredible. The link above is to the live Glastonbury version, because watching it gave me goosebumps.

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Friday, January 02, 2009

"Theres a lot of souls" - Reflections on John from Cincinnati

- "John from Cincinnati" is the story of the Yost family, a dynasty of surfers gone somewhat to seed in a small town in Southern California; and their encounter with John Monad, a mysterious stranger with unexplained powers who, it emerges, may or may not be the new Messiah. Along the way it also takes in a couple of Hawaiian hoods, the founder of a surfwear company, a lottery winner who buys a dingy motel and a Doctor disillusioned by his experience of a miracle. It was created by David Milch and Kem Nunn for HBO, who cancelled it after a single, unsuccessful season.

- The credit sequence is beautiful. Right from the first shot, where we follow a bubble from beneath as it breaks for the surface of an azure ocean. Grainy vintage surfing footage of the golden age of surfing is edited together for maximum effect, and together with Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros laid back shanty "Johnny Appleseed", it sets the tone immediately - elegiac, nostalgic yet suffused with the rapture of surfing. Especially great: the boldness of the title, held back until tight at the end of the sequence, after almost all the credits have passed. And then: huge lettering against those blue waves.

- Bruce Greenwood is always great. Always. He possesses a certain sourness; as if he is bitter about the passing of what were once obviously a sort of dashing matinee idol's good looks. It makes him great in roles where he plays up jealousy, rivalry, where he is up against a less complex sort of masculinity. But he does have those good looks, the suggestion of inner nobility. He has played JFK, after all. He is perfect as Mitch Yost, patriarch of the shows central family, the Yosts; fallen Golden Boy. A busted knee destroyed his own (now legendary) surfing career, and he is furious about his son's fall into drug addiction and fiercely protective of his grandson. He surfs alone, for the love and purity of it, conflicted about so much in his life, stubborn, principled, angry, a bit pompous. The scenes where he is tempted by the nostalgic adoration of a young "fan" are beautifully played. His amusement and suspicion, and the way his vanity allows him to fall for it.

- David Milch's dialogue is unlike anything else I've ever heard. Complex, rambling, tangential, purple, can be hard to divine his characters central point, such is the effusive nature of their monologues. Soliloquays, really, is a more accurate word. And they all speak differently - the dialogue is obviously Milch's, but they have distinctive rhythms and patterns, vocal tics and riffs. John's parrot-like recording and playback is used hilariously, his timing always perfect. Even when we witness a Stinkweed corporate retreat of sorts, the jargon-loaded shoptalk sounds like Milch-speak - semi-abstract, flat verse, its meaning elusive.

- Some of John's parrot-speak: "I'm gonna bone her and then break her jaw." "Stare me down? Stare me DOWN?" "I don't know Butchie instead."

- Luke Perry, redeemed. What is it Milch sees in aging, former hearthrobs? Ian McShane in Deadwood, Greenwood and Perry here? He sees depth, and he brings it out. In episode Seven, another familiar face had me furiously racking my brain for where I knew him from. That faded pretty boy look, stubble and longish hair made it difficult. Then it came to me - he was Zack, the lead character in "Saved By the Bell". His name is Mark-Paul Gosselaar, most recently seen (by me, at any rate) in "NYPD Blue" a few years back. Milch gives him a couple of intense scenes with Perry, as if he's making some point. In 20 years, expect Zac Efron in a gritty cop drama created by Milch.

- What is the show about? Its pacing is so relaxed it takes 5 episodes before that begins to come into focus. Which is probably what doomed "John from Cincinnati" in the States. It defies categorisation. Its comic, dramatic, yes. A spiritual parable? Yes. Family drama? Yep. Surf-noir? In parts, sure. It expands as it progresses, too, with important new characters emerging as late as the sixth episode. As in Deadwood, the comedy slides in when least expected. Surrealism, too, is always a hard sell. It frightens people. Here there is surrealism aplenty.

- What really doomed it, however, is that it is not "Deadwood". The perception amongst the fans of that show is that Milch killed it in his haste to start on this show. "Deadwood" fans are devout. I get it. Much as I loved "John from Cincinnati", I would much rather have seen another Season of "deadwood". Or even one of those tv movies rumoured at one point...

- The sixth episode, which climaxes in the extraordinary, semi-impenetrable communal dream sequence when John addresses most of the cast in a great rolling monologue heavy on symbolism and thematic pointers, is the make-or-break moment. You'll either love it or hate it. Nothing else on tv has ever been remotely like it.

- Those themes. Commerce as a new religion, the internet as a sort of bible, with marketing, consumerism and faith all somewhere in the mix...this may be the most dense television series I've ever seen, in terms of allusions and suggestion. I have the suspicion that a second viewing would make so much more sense. Yet it doesn't wholly work. Milch and Nunn's world is perhaps the wrong shape for the issues they wish to address - too knotty and awkward in its mix of tribes and genres, too clumsy in its sometime symbolism. The ambition, though, is breathtaking. To even attempt such a massive statement. Milch was obviously on a creative high after the slam-dunk success of Deadwood.

- Luis Guzman!

- It accords surfing an incredible respect. The show shuts up - a rare pause in the Milch-babble - and bears witness to the beauty of figures cutting across waves. Its always presented as a transcendent activity. In episodes 8 and 9, a newly invigorated Butchie surfs alone, an acknowledgement of his recovery. And the show is silent in a sort of awe. All we hear is the endless roar of the ocean, all we see is him against the horizon.

- Rebecca De Mornay. Older, a kind of fragility having entered into her beauty, is still absolutely smoking hot. And a cracking actress. There was always something fearsome about her, she seemed like a lioness. Ferociously willful and unbending. Her most famous roles - in "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" and "Risky Business" - both make use of this quality to a certain extent. Here Milch makes her the ballbuster of ballbusters, her self-hatred vented onto the rest of the world in bitter, choked little eruptions. But her vulnerability is plain, her terror and sorrow. She wears this desolate expression when she isn't breathing fire. There is a moment late on when she looks at her seemingly redeemed, recovering son with a mixture of love and pain and bafflement that is just beautiful. Why was she never quite a major star?

- It may just be the most original show in the last half-decade of TV. Its indescribable. Its lack of a simple, tie-everything-up-neatly ending just makes it the kind of work you can endlessly theorise and argue over. Which is a good, increasingly rare thing.

That credit sequence: