Monthly Archives: April 2007

Bobometry and Dylanistics

Via musician and blogger Patrick Crosley, here’s an archive loaded with Bob Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” broadcasts. Get ’em, while they’re there to be gotten. (Bird-dogged by Geoff.)

Meanwhile, for enthusiasts of The Basement Tapes and “Open the Door Homer,” here’s an obscure little item turned up by Michael Gray. Turns out that a song I’d always thought of as an off-the-cuff joke has some pretty venerable roots. Check the item for the song in Gray’s The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia to see what I mean.

The death work

Those who have just recently discovered that there are lots of Muslim people in the world, and that those Muslim people often feel whipsawed between alienation over western ways and the dodgy seductions of Islamist extremism, need to get acquainted with the work of Hanif Kureishi, who has been writing from the center of this dilemma for decades.

I was introduced to Kureishi’s work through his tart, enjoyably ramshackle screenplays for My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and My Son the Fanatic, the last of which seems downright prescient when viewed in the light of 9/11 and subsequent events. Even when films like Sammy and Rosie seemed to rattle apart rather than come to a conclusion, that was fine — it’s pretty rare to find movies that suffer from too many ideas, rather than too few. Kureishi’s range also goes beyond politics to the poignant emotional shadings of The Mother, an excellent film that ought to be at the top of everyone’s Netflix list. I remember an interview in which Kureishi said two of his favorite writers were Philip Roth and Rudyard Kipling, which tells you a bit about his orientation.

Kureishi has a taste for raw subject matter and pitch-black humor, so when the BBC decided that it didn’t want his short story “Weddings and Beheadings” read on the air, one’s first reaction was, “What did you think you were going to get?” Fortunately, the Index on Censorship has stepped forward, and you can read the story here.The story is a brief monologue written from the point of view of a videographer who, partly out of fear and partly because he can get no other work, makes videotapes of Islamist groups as they behead Western hostages. The BBC pulled it because it didn’t want to cause distress to the family of Alan Johnston, a BBC reporter who is being held hostage in Gaza. While I profoundly hope Johnston is released unharmed, I think the BBC decision is misguided, to put it charitably.

Though the particulars of Kureishi’s story are very up to date, its fundamental concerns are as old as humanity itself. How can people commit horrible acts while still thinking themselves decent? When does the urge to avoid trouble become the willingness to countenance evil as long as it targets someone else? It’s a question we have had to ask ourselves too many times already, and Kureishi’s story finds a fresh way to pose it:

It might surprise you, but we do get paid; they always give us something ‘for the trouble’. They even make jokes, ‘You’ll get a prize for the next one. Don’t you guy love prizes and statuettes and stuff?’ It’s all hellish, the long drive there with the camera and tripod on your lap, the smell of the sack, the guns, and you wonder if this time you might be the victim. Usually you’re sick, and then you’re in the building, in the room, setting up, and you hear things, from other rooms, that make you wonder if life on earth is a good idea.

I know you don’t want too much detail, but it’s serious work taking off someone’s head if you’re not a butcher; and these guys aren’t qualified, they’re just enthusiastic – it’s what they like to do. To make the shot work, it helps to get a clear view of the victims eyes just before they’re covered. At the end the guys hold up the head streaming with blood and you might need to use some hand-held here, to catch everything. The shot must be framed carefully. It wouldn’t be good if you missed something. [Ideally you should have a quick-release tripod head, something I do possess and would never lend to anyone.]

They cheer and fire off rounds while you’re checking the tape and playing it back. Afterward, they put the body in a bag and dump it somewhere, before they drive you to another place, where you transfer the material to the computer and send it out.

Often I wonder what this is doing to me. I think of war photographers, who, they say, use the lens to distance themselves from the reality of suffering and death. But those guys have elected to do that work, they believe in it. We are innocent.

Of course, the speaker is anything but “innocent,” and the story makes a point of penetrating this defense.

Kureishi is in the ridiculous position of getting in trouble for an abundance of talent. Only a born artist would want to tackle this subject; rather than let us stand apart from the speaker and condemn him, Kureishi puts us in the position of considering how far we might let ourselves go down the same road. That the story is genuinely unsettling is a mark of its artistic quality, and for that it is being penalized.

Mark Lawson, writing in The Guardian, calls it “sentimental censorship“:

What’s most concerning is that Kureishi’s story was not written with any reference to Alan Johnston – nor, except through morbid speculation, could any have been read in at the time of judging. At least two of the judges, as it happens, have deep concerns about the currently popular genre of drama-doc. So one of the aspects of Kureishi’s story that was admired was that it so clearly created a generic situation from a specific phenomenon. No reader, listener or relative could conclude that the writer was describing any single online execution.

Indeed, what’s most striking – and, for me, honourable – about the story is that it doesn’t concentrate on the hostage or the terrorist, stock figures in fiction who raise questions of ethics and empathy when dramatised, but on the figure of the camera-operator. Kureishi speculates on how a talented, creative young man could have been diverted towards this barbaric parody of art. The story does not remotely glorify or support such actions but asks: how could people do this?

It can reasonably be objected that the relatives of current or past hostages can not be expected to relish Kureishi’s handling of metaphor and irony. True. But can a society fix its stipulations on free speech at a level set by the sensitivities of those most directly affected? Lockerbie relatives must find Airplane unwatchable; those bereaved by car-crashes could not see Top Gear without queasiness. This section of the audience should not watch, but few would suggest that such shows should be withdrawn completely from the schedules.

The Virginia Tech massacre also illuminates this dilemma. A stage version of DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little is about to open in London; Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin remains one of the country’s best-selling books. Both works turn on high-school shootings. Have those fictions become inappropriate because of recent news events? Surely fiction has as much right to explore such terrible contemporary phenomena as journalism has to report them.

If Michael Moore’s school-shooting documentary Bowling for Columbine had been scheduled to run on British TV this week, the immediate instinct would have been to pull it. But I’d argue that the film is now more, rather than less, valid. Obviously, no relatives of the dead should watch it, but they probably have concerns other than channel-grazing.

In times like these, we need to hear true artists like Hanif Kureishi.

Nothin’ but blue skies

These early spring days that take everybody by surprise are just the best. People came to work still groggy from being hammered by the nor’easter and the subsequent irritating drizzles and overcast days, then emerged at lunchtime to find blues skies above and bright sunshine all around. Nobody was dressed for warm weather. Everybody looked grateful to be able to leave their coats at the office and just feel the air on their skin for a while.

Terrible news

Michael Bishop, a fine writer who deserves to be much better known, has some awful news on his Web site: his son, Jamie Bishop, was among the people cut down in the Virginia Tech shooting rampage. Follow this link if you want to offer your condolences.

Mad about the Mob

The first few episodes in the final round of The Sopranos sound like they’re pretty good, but I was burned too many times by the wobbly third and fourth seasons to bother with getting HBO hooked up again. That’s why God invented full-season DVD box seats. You get to watch at your own pace, and in the case of The Sopranos, you get to click through the dream sequences that are one of the show’s most irritating quirks.

This Q&A session about La Cosa Nostra at the Smithsonian site takes us back to the days when J. Edgar Hoover was still calling the Mafia an urban legend — not that “urban legend” was part of the lexicon in those days. I was just a kid when The Valachi Papers came out, so it took some time to realize that getting Joe Valachi to talk about the Mob was an event on the level of the Loch Ness Monster coming to the surface for an interview with Ted Koppel:

In the past, you’d prosecute a mobster for extortion or loan sharking. That might carry a three-year sentence. To these guys, that’s nothing. They would go away, do time, their families would be taken care of, they’d come out and do what they wanted to do again. RICO took predicate acts, certain crimes, and instead of prosecuting them for individual acts, such as extortion, you lumped them under a racketeering statute. What happens then, when you start prosecuting folks, that 3- to 5-year sentence becomes 25 years. With multiple counts, it’s 100 years in prison.

In the mid 80s, with the Commission case, the major players in the New York underworld all received 100-year sentences. These guys were in their 60s and 70s at the time. People started to make deals for themselves by cooperating. Then you had mobsters turning on other mobsters. It was an opportunity for us to exploit that situation to our advantage.

Before that time, did mobsters ever talk to the FBI?

It was rare 50 years ago. In 1963, Joe Valachi, a Genovese soldier, was doing time in a federal prison in Atlanta, as was Vito Genovese. It got back to Joe that Genovese wanted him killed. So Joe sees an inmate come up to him in prison one day. Thinking it’s Vito’s guy coming to whack him, he picked up a lead pipe and beats him to death. Turns out it was just some other inmate. Now he’s facing a death sentence, and decides to talk. He’s the first really significant cooperator to come forward.

Other than that, it was rare to have a made guy talk. In La Cosa Nostra, you have made people and associates. In order to be fully made, you have to be Italian, Sicilian and male. Associates were basically anybody else—anyone who could generate money for the enterprise. We didn’t really have made guys talking until the late 70s, early 80s, when big cases started to break. The Commission case, the Donnie Brasco case. The infiltration of the Bonanno family by Joe Pistone, an undercover FBI agent, was the first ever penetration of an organized crime family by the bureau. It became known as Donnie Brasco. That gave us inroads we hadn’t had. All those things happened in the same period of time. These guys were looking at huge terms in jail, thinking I gotta do what I can.

One of the fun things about The Sopranos was the impact it had on the image of New Jersey around the world. I speak with people in Europe and Asia on a regular basis, and when the first season of the show finally aired on BBC, I got some pretty hilarious reactions to my phone calls. One guy in London asked where my office was, and when I told him Hoboken his British reserve evaporated. “Hoboken!” he gasped. “That’s where the Sopranos live!” I then had to correct him with a brief North Jersey geography lesson, describing Tony Soprano’s stomping grounds in Kearny, Newark and various parts of Essex County. All the while I could that to this guy, it sounded about as mysterious as Sherwood Forest, the Black Country and Stonehenge sounded to me.

It’s hard to imagine another New Jersey-based television show making that kind of worldwide impact. Of course, if this upcoming book leads somebody to think of a TV show about Frank Hague, my services are available.     

I have no plane ticket and I must scream

Dreams With Sharp Teeth is a new documentary about Harlan Ellison, writer, critic and social irritant. And here’s a chance to see the documentary in Los Angeles with the man himself. And here I am on the wrong coast. Guess I’ll just have to wait for the DVD.

Dylan yucks

It’s not quite as thigh-slappingly funny as the more deep-dish portions of Mystery Train, but this bit of Dylan-related confabulation is worth some grins. I give the authors bonus points for making Pete Seeger a jai alai enthusiast. 

PKD in the black

Philip K. Dick made several unsuccessful attempts to write himself out of the science-fiction literary ghetto in the 1950s and 1960s, so I can only imagine what he’d say now that the Library of America has added him to the black-jacket club. This appreciation by critic John Clute strikes the right note, I think. Here he is on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a member of the canonized quartet, which most people know only as the basis of the inferior film Blade Runner:

Note how much sadder and more savage the book is than the big noisy athletic sentimental movie. Note that World War Three is long over; that there is no future on the Ruined Earth; that any awareness conveyed of the end of the world in this book and in any Dick book is conveyed in a tone of disinteredness that burns the eye: just as in the works of J.G. Ballard, his contemporary in many ways. Note that the whole complicated quasi-thriller action of the tale takes place within 24 hours, note the professional skill of Dick’s use of this narrative device. Note that the electric pets and the androids convey a tacit pathos, because they will not last much longer than we will. Note also (in radical contrast to Blade Runner) how subtly Dick depicts the androids’ fatal flaw: that though they scatter affect over the page, they cannot viscerally adhere to their own lifelines, there is no song in the bone about continuing the gene. Unlike us Dick humans, they are not resigned to continue regardless. Note that we learn how deeply Dick loves those characters he depicts experiencing a fragile small glow of resignation.

I still hold out hope that the 1970s works, including the tragic masterpiece A Scanner Darkly will get their own set of black duds in the future.       


You know that Weather Channel program that looked so interesting, 100 Biggest Weather Moments? I didn’t get to watch it. I was too busy keeping the nor’easter from flooding my basement.

Cue sardonic laughter of the gods.

Harry Potter and the Theme Park of Doom

This story about a planned Harry Potter theme park (and the near-completion of another theme park based on the works of Charles Dickens) naturally gets me wondering about other writers whose works could support theme parks. I immediately thought of Gormenghastland, an immense castle where visitors are immediately assigned roles according to their caste and then never, ever allowed to leave.