Monthly Archives: December 2008

Auld Lang Syne

John Fahey shows you how to ring in the New Year, from the DVD Christmas Songs & Holiday Melodies.

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Auld Tapes Syne


I hate to get all Grandpa Walton on you sprouts, but I really do think we should stop and spend some time thoughtfully chewing our beards over the news that the VHS format is about to join the dodo and the passenger pigeon on the dusty shelves of the Smithsonian. Talk about the end of an era!

It’s not that VHS was such a great format — it was clearly inferior to Betamax, and another reminder that quality is hardly the measure of commercial success — but as ubergeek Harry Knowles points out, that black plastic rectangle made it possible to buy and own the movies you loved, and that was no small thing. In fact, one could argue that the rise of VHS was almost as significant as the arrival of sound films in the way it transformed mass culture.

Up until the early Eighties, movies were like comets — their arrival was an event, you could only see them at certain times and in certain places, and when they were gone, that was that — until cable television became widespread, you could only hope to catch them chopped up on network TV. If you lived in an area with few theaters, you might not get to see certain flicks at all. (When the Amboy Multiplex, with its ten-count ’em-ten screens, rose from the Raritan River marshes in the early Eighties, I felt like Scrat the Squirrel glimpsing a giant acorn through the gates of heaven.) Movies lived chiefly in one’s memory, helped along by soundtrack albums and still images in magazines. When a particularly treasured film like, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was given a re-release, part of the experience was seeing how the actual film held up to the way you remembered it.

Owning a single movie, let alone a library of them, was a fantasy reserved for wealthy film buffs. Now I take it for granted that I can see just about any movie I want. It’s almost funny to recall how the first video stores required you to pay for membership and access to stocks that could fit comfortably within one medium-sized room.  Now I get movies mailed to me.

The ubergeek predicts that DVD will be replaced by Blu-Ray within a much shorter span of time, which may be the case. My chief impetus for getting a DVD player in 2002 was the wish to see the new extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring that Peter Jackson had produced, and it will take a similar jolt to make me shell out for another iteration of technology. I mean, I just got my first home PC in the late-Nineties and my first iPod last week, so I’m not one to stampede out the door whenever the gods of technology exercise their whims.

I do wonder, however, if this stepped-up churning of technology isn’t going to consign many films to the same semi-oblivion that existed before VHS came along. There are already plenty of movies I would love to see again that haven’t made the jump from VHS to DVD, and the replacement of Blu-Ray with some other newfangled thingamadoohickey like digital downloading will only widen that gap.

Whatever happens, though, will only continue the change that began with the VHS tape. That’s where the seismic shift occurred, and everything after that is simply another aftershock and another cultural wave to ride.

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My back pages


Here is a year-end roundup of this site’s greatest hits to date, selected on the basis of site traffic, commentary and authorial pride.

BRUNO: An appreciation of Jacob Bronowski (above), the philosopher whose work still speaks to me, as clearly and persuasively as ever, decades after my first encounter.

THE BEST SWORDFIGHT MOVIES OF ALL TIME: The hands-down, dead-cert champion click magnet, thanks to a much appreciated link from Kung Fu Cinema that continues to bring in viewers. It was written in installments, so if you want to get the build, start here, go to here and finish up here. Some commenters have noted the prejudice in favor of European-style swordplay, and I admit I know very little about the Asian styles and genres, and my predilection is for realism over fanciful imagery. This leaves out Asian entries like Hero, in which the fight sequences are rapturously beautiful without being (or intending to be) the least bit convincing. I’m always ready to hear arguments to the contrary, however.

A NOVEL DARKLY, A MOVIE DIMLY: Regarding Philip K. Dick and the film adaptation of his finest, most disturbing novel, A Scanner Darkly.

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS: This brutally witty Burt Lancaster film is one of my favorite movies, and this article about it is one of my favorite posts.

mingus_charles_450pWHAT THE CLOWN KNEW: “The Clown” is a dark little fable about show business that has the same place in Charles Mingus’ huge catalogue that “The Mysterious Stranger” has in Mark Twain’s body of work. Mingus tried to merge words and music throughout his long career; with the help of  radio personality and raconteurJean Shepherd, who at the time was the reigning king of the “night people,” he made the merger work brilliantly.

EMINENCE GRAY: An appreciation of critic and biographer Michael Gray, one of the finest writers on the subject of one of the towering artists of 20th century music.

A POET WHO KEPT HIS WORD: Kenneth Fearing’s poem “Newspaperman” inspires angry and sad thoughts about the death of the newspaper business.

EVEN THE EVIL: What fallen chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer had in common with Icelandic outlaw Grettir Asmundarsen. Maybe that sounds like a stretch, but gimme a little benefit of the doubt on this.

ALL THINGS FILBOID: The genesis of the Bugs Bunny Appreciation Society was an article on the unlikely spot where Termite Terrace overlaps with the work of Hector Hugh Munro, aka Saki.

SUZE ROTOLO, SCENE STEALER: The deranging process of achieving fame, described by someone who was there to see it happen.

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Blue Monday (Watching the Sligo River flow)

I’m trying to master (or at least approximate) one of my favorite John Fahey songs, “Sligo River Blues,” so far without a whole lot of success. It’s interesting to see how many other people are drawn to the tune.

Here’s a lovely, subdued version:

This isn’t so much a cover version as a reinterpretation — quite a pretty one:

Download here to listen to the man himself play it.

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Friday finds

Dances With Mermaids has been playing her favorite songs from the Lord of the Rings films in preparation for our usual Christmas season marathon viewing — the story is, after all, a pre-Christmas Christmas story. And as “Gollum’s Song” was playing the living room, I came across this piece about why Guillermo del Toro is the perfect choice to direct The Hobbit and Hobbit 2: Electric Boogaloo. I never doubted it for a moment: Pan’s Labyrinth (above) and The Devil’s Backbone show del Toro has no peer as a creator of dark fantasy, and his tough-mindedness will be needed to trim the twee from Tolkien’s book. And I can’t wait to see what the mind that conceived the Pale Man is going to do with Smaug.

Between this book and this book, Charles Dickens is having quite a year.

It appears that all those aspiring authors who thought their good writing would be enough to land them publishing contracts should have been posting YouTube clips instead. It was a pretty nice clip, though, I have to admit.

Life imitates Withnail and I. For that matter, so does Wayne’s World 2.

Finally, someone has taken a fresh look at one of the most famous murder cases in history.

While I’ve been working through my list of Approved Authors for 2008, Madame Mayo has posted her favorite reads for the year. She’s got a book of her own coming out this spring.

BlogBud Joseph Z. is preparing to issue a collection of the best posts from his site. More on this as it developes: meanwhile, here he is reading one of his poems. He admits to using haftarah cantillation instead of the trop for Torah reading, but I think we can cut him some slack this time.

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Fairytale of New York

Love me some Pogues any time of the year, but this is their Christmas classic.

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A Kurelek Christmas


The old Life Science Library series was one of the milestones of my youth, and the volume on psychology, The Mind, was the book closest to my heart. Not for the explanation of psychoanalytic theory, most of which flew well above my young head (and many of which would probably sound pretty quaint today) but for the section on madness and art.

I still remember the series on the insanity of Louis Wain as revealed by his paintings of progressively more spiky haired and menacing cats, but the show-stopper was a two-page reproduction of The Maze, a painting by William Kurelek that served as an examination of the artist’s lonely childhood on the Canadian prairie: abuse at the hands of a father who considered his son’s artistic interests too effeminate; relentless bullying and violence from his peers; an overwhelming sense of isolation, all compartmentalized as chambers of a cut-open skull lying on the high plains.

fairwarningI’m apparently not the only one fascinated by this painting: portions of it served as the cover art for Fair Warning, the black sheep in the Van Halen album catalogue (the record started as an Eddie Van Halen solo project, and Eddie’s frequent descriptions of himself as a borderline nutcase make the choice of artwork even more interesting); and the work served as the centerpiece for a 1970 documentary about the life of Kurelek.

Kurelek apparently worked his way back from the brink through a conversion to Catholicism, and he developed a career as a children’s illustrator and painter. These images from his series on the Passion According to Saint Matthew show the same eye for detail displayed in The Maze.

Here’s a video clip based on Kurelek’s series of paintings that transplanted the Nativity to the plains of Canada:

The idea of art therapy and redemption through art may seem quaint, but in Kurelek’s case it seems to be a very real thing.

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The Junky’s Christmas

Or, a heartwarming story from William S. Burroughs:

Ave Verum Corpus

Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, with Leonard Bernstein leading the Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, in a 1990 recording.

Ave verum corpus natum
de Maria Virgine,
vere passum, immolatum
in cruce pro homine,
cuius latus perforatum
unda fluxit et sanguine,
esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine.

Or, if you prefer the translation:

Hail, true Body,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Truly suffered, immolated
On the Cross for man,
Whose pierced side
Flowed with water and blood,
Let it be for us a foretaste [of heaven]
In the trial of death.
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