Monthly Archives: April 2009

The Wednesday Westie


Lazy morning It’s-too-rainy-to-bother-getting-up edition. If you like these Westie pictures, here are some links to rescue groups that can hook you up with dogs every bit as cute.

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Film buffs beware

Film buffs who aren’t already in bankruptcy court may quickly find themselves there courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection, a new program of bare-bones DVD-R releases of films that have gone out of print or are unlikely ever to get proper DVD treatment. Think of it as the anti-Criterion: you order a title from the Web site and Warner ships you a freshly burned copy with a plastic case and no extras aside from the theatrical trailer, if available. The film will, however, be in its proper aspect ratio, the kind of detail not always attended to in the movie marketplace, even on regular DVD editions.

A random trawl through the decade-by-decade listing turns up lots of intriguing stuff: Laurence Olivier in The Beggar’s Opera, the John Gay play that provided the scaffolding for the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera; Steve McQueen’s bid for Serious Actor status in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People; George C. Scott’s directorial debut, Rage, in which a rancher is stricken by accidentally released nerve gas that has also killed his son and livestock, and sets out to do as much damage to the military as possible before he too succumbs; George Roy Hill’s last film, The Little Drummer Girl, a John Le Carre adaptation I’ve long wanted to give another look.

I’m not sure the world needs another look at Luciano Pavarotti’s bid for film star status in Yes, Giorgio — I was one of the few who saw the thing, and I still have the occasional nightmare from the experience — but I’d be interested in seeing if One Trick Pony is really just a Paul Simon vanity project or a coulda-been contender.

Unfortunately, I think a Jackson a pop is too steep a price for this kind of thing, but Glenn Kenny has already surrendered his credit card to the inevitable, as has Mark Harris.

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Ballard bundle

I see that The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard is finally going to get a U.S. edition: 1,200-plus pages encompassing 92 stories. Meanwhile, the jg-ballardexemplary fan site Ballardian has links to obituaries and appreciations, as well as reactions from Ballard’s friends, admirers and colleagues, including Michael Moorcock, Christopher Priest and Toby Litt. And in this interview, Ballard talks about his admiration for William S. Burroughs. Curious to think that Ballard and Burroughs each saw their most infamous novels — Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Ballard’s Crash — turned into David Cronenberg films that were ultimately best remembered for their outrageously creative soundtrack music by Howard Shore. And here’s a list of Ballard novels that almost but never quite became movies, including an adaptation of The Unlimited Dream Company that would have starred Richard Gere, and a list of pop and rock groups that cite Ballard’s work as an inspiration.

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Riding the rails

So now I’m a train commuter. It became official yesterday evening when I stepped off the Northeast Corridor local, stepped up to the NJ Transit ticket window and bought a monthly rail pass for May.  

The whole thing started a couple of weeks ago when the valiant Subaru developed transmission trouble and I had to decide if I wanted to plow another several hundred dollars (at least!) into a road-weary vehicle with over 222,000 miles on it. I started training up to Hoboken, and was startled by how simple and effective it is to take the connection through the Secaucus station. This morning the Subaru was towed off to charity heaven. Great car, but a decade-plus of rush hour driving is going to have its effect on any brand.  

Most importantly, I feel like I’ve gotten two hours or so of my life back. Even with a CD player to calm the savage beast, the morning and evening drives home absolutely sucked. Now I can read, listen to the iPod or just alpha-wave it staring out the window. Much better than hating life for two hours a day. I’m convinced that a measurable number of my gray hairs are attributable to years of dealing with motorized commuter suicide commandos on the Turnpike, or doing the red tail-light boogie in miles-long traffic jams.

Maybe I’ll be singing a different tune when the summer heat comes on strong and those NJ Transit railcars turn into rolling sweatboxes, but right now this is the better way to live.

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Blue Monday

As the self-applied label “gypsy jazz guitar” makes clear, Joscho Stephan wants to be seen as the next Django Rheinhardt, and there’s no denying he has the technique to make the comparison stick. The tune up top is “Django’s Tiger,” and like the one below, “Limehouse Blues,” it shows that Stephan has earned his reputation as the Lightnin’ Licks Kid.

I don’t listen much to Stephan right now, because the crowd-pleasing Speedy Gonzales stuff gets tedious after a while. The soul part of the jazz equation isn’t quite there yet. But the clip below, which shows Stephan stretching out on the Duke Ellington standard “Caravan,” have enough wit, energy and creative spark to keep me from writing Stephan off as an empty flashmeister. The guy’s got some surprises in him.

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J.G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard died this morning at 79. He was probably best known for his novel Empire of the Sun, a supremely tough and well-wrought tale drawn from his childhood in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, which Steven Spielberg made a brave attempt at adapting for film. I grew up on Ballard’s science fiction work, particularly the mind-warping stories in Chronopolis and Vermilion Sands, but it became clear pretty quickly that “science fiction” was simply a default designation: stories like “The Drowned Giant,” or “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As a Downhill Motor Race,” or “The Voices of Time” were sui generis, and Ballard’s work answered to genre conventions only at its weakest.

The violence and alienation in his work put him closer to William S. Burroughs than Robert A. Heinlein — in fact, Burroughs wrote the preface to The Atrocity Exhibition, an outrageous collection of stories and story-fragments Ballard called “condensed novels.” When David Cronenberg adapted Ballard’s difficult and rather repulsive novel Crash into an equally difficult and rather repulsive film, all you could do was marvel at how it had taken so long for the two to come together.

Ballard was better understood and more widely celebrated in the U.K. than the U.S., but I hope the interest stirred up by his death leads to more of his work becoming available.

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The speed of hype

Thirty  some-odd years ago, if somebody had told me that Bob Dylan would be following up his masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks, with an album of songs mostly co-written with the director of Oh! Calcutta! . . . well, I might just have held back from buying the record, or even taken a pass. Lucky me – I knew next to nothing about Desire, which I snapped up as soon as it hit the racks at the Sam Goody in the Garden State Plaza, and thus ensured myself a nice stretch of time in which I could get to know the songs and judge them for myself.
That’s why I’m not terribly upset by the news that Dylan’s upcoming disc is largely a songwriting collaboration with Robert Hunter. A lot of Bobcats are very upset about this. Yes, Hunter’s fingerprints are on “Silvio” and “Ugliest Girl in the World,” but he also co-wrote all of American Beauty, including “Ripple,” my most favorite Dead song ever. I’m not quite ready to dismiss Together Through Life as, in the words of one blogger, Down in the Groove Revisited. Especially since the freakin’ record isn’t even out yet.
The Internet has made a lot of great things possible, but it’s also exacerbated one of the worst aspects of our hype-sodden culture: our ability to screw ourselves out of the chance to experience a new work of art with clear ears and fresh perceptions. It’s not simply a matter of fan sites and gossip sites getting ahold of things in advance; the record company is happy to use the Web to increase the already appalling speed of hype.  I’m not pointing fingers, either — I’ve had plenty of lapses on my resolve to avoid reading or listening to anything more on Together Through Life until I could bring the actual disc home and listen to it.

Maybe it’ll be great, maybe it’ll be terrible, maybe it’ll be off and on. Dylan has released many albums that fall into each of those categories. But I’ve promised myself to step back from the hype and, to the extent it’s possible, simply approach the record on its own terms. I owe myself that much, and if you’re a Dylan fan you might want to consider doing yourself the same favor.

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Friday finds


Good morning, class. The question before us today is: When Satan and his rebel angels were ejected from Heaven, as described in Paradise Lost, how far did they fall before cratering in Hell? Assuming, of course, that the plummeting angels were subject to conventional rules of physics regarding terminal velocity. Hmmm, let’s not see the same hands all the time. Interesting calculations. You in the back there . . . you say the premise is flawed? Okay, forget about Paradise Lost. Let’s talk about Beowulf versus the Nazis.

How E.M. Forster predicted the Internet, as well as the financial crisis.

Baseball puts me to sleep, but I’ve always appreciated Yogi Berra’s gift for saying things that at first sound ridiculous but, upon reflection, become shrewd and funny: “It gets late early out there,” “You can observe a lot just by watching,” and “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” which uses only 11 words to convey a library’s worth of meaning. So I just might chill out with this new biography of Berra this summer.

A tribute to Richard Amsel, movie poster artist extraordinaire. If you’ve looked at one-sheets for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Chinatown or Murder on the Orient Express, you’ve seen Amsel’s work.

Move like Seamus, tour New Mexico like Geoff.

Adventures in the screen trade: Intro, part one and part two.

“Authors on tour usually exhibited what seemed best behavior in Seattle, perhaps a result of the city’s enthusiastic embrace of writers or maybe just relief to be at such great distance from New York City’s publishing epicenter. Even those authors with fearsome reputations seldom lived up to advance billing, including John Irving, Norman Mailer, Stephen King, Alice Walker, Anne Rice and Martin Amis, who, to my utter surprise, described our interview in a New Yorker essay on his American book tour, including one of my rare agent provocateur questions (‘Are you an asshole?’).”

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Sic transit gloria

There’s a story I remember from my schooldays that may actually be true: that whenever a Roman general entered the city in triumph, there was always a slave placed nearby to remind him, “Remember master, you are mortal!”

After looking at this list of Pulitzer Prize-winning novels that are now pretty much forgotten, I think maybe every novelist who wins a Pulitzer should be assigned an assistant who tells him, “Remember James Gould Cozzens!”     

Of course, Cozzens wasn’t forgotten so much as terminated with extreme prejudice by Dwight MacDonald, whose famous essay “By Cozzens Possessed” tipped a dump truck-load of ridicule over Cozzens’ reputation and then drove back and forth to tamp everything down.

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Me again

Jersey City magazine has a package of stories on the theme of “Industrial Artistry,” in which Yours Truly can be found talking about the oddly monstrous kind of beauty represented by the Pulaski Skyway. There’s also some neat artwork that I might want to get repro rights on if The Last Three Miles ever gets a revised edition.

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