Monthly Archives: August 2009

Blue Monday

Maybe it’s the sight of a devil-horned Gibson SG — the signature guitar of Angus Young and Pete Townsend — being slung by an impeccably dressed sanctified church lady, but I love these videos of Sister Rosetta Tharpe in action.

Check out those solo moves. Tharpe was already playing fierce guitar at the age of six and her voice, with its powerful resonant vibrato, grew in tandem with her playing. Tharpe’s style bridged gospel and blues, and almost from the start she carried herself with a sense of style and theatricality rarely seen in gospel at the time. Her recording career started in 1938 and throughout World War II her popularity grew to the point where she was one of only two black gospel acts to record V-Discs for distribution to soldiers overseas. But when she recorded some straight blues sides in the Fifties, her gospel base all but abandoned her and Tharpe fell into obscurity. She continued to perform, though, and by the Sixties her credibility with gospel audiences had grown enough to win her gigs alongside gospel legend James Cleveland.

Tharpe’s career is chronicled in Gayle F. Wald’s recent book Shout, Sister, Shout!

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Dennis Potter, present tense

Dennis Potter’s final interview, given only two months before his death from pancreatic cancer in June 1994, is indescribably moving to me, partly for the gallantry he displays but also for his sense of vocation. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer on Valentine’s Day of that year, but instead of maxing out his credit cards on travel and gourmet meals, Potter followed his muse to the very end. He had two plays to finish and he was going to finish them, dammit. Dennis Potter was a writer, so he wrote.

This interview, once chiefly available as an extra on the DVD version of Potter’s masterpiece The Singing Detective, deserves to be circulated far and wide across the Internet. The man’s spirit is incredible. Though visibly shrunken within his suit, Potter is beamingly happy, though from time to time he needed to drink from a flask of morphine to muffle the pain of his cancer.

We tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense. It is, and it is now only. . . . Things are both more trivial than they ever were and more important than they ever were — and the difference between the two doesn’t matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous. . . . The fact is that if you see the present tense, boy! can you see it, and boy! can you celebrate it.

It wasn’t until I saw Dreamchild in 1985 that I realized I’d been enjoying Potter’s works without linking them to their creator. Dreamchild, a lovely fantasy set in 1934, when Alice Hargreaves — who as young Alice Liddell inspired Charles Dodgson to write Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass under the name Lewis Carroll — traveled to America to receive an honorary degree from Columbia University and join in a celebration of Carroll’s centenary.

Potter shows Alice as a rather insufferable dowager, haunted by unspoken dreads. Several fantasy sequences show her reenacting scenes from Alice in Wonderland, only here the characters created for the young girl’s amusement have become vulpine and menacing, poisoned by the  old woman’s suspicion that Dodgson’s love for her was pedophile. It all builds to a moment of epiphany, couched in the memory of Liddell’s last meeting with Dodgson, in which a lifetime of fears melt away and she realizes the true helpless sweetness of Dodgson’s character. It is one of the most purely beautiful moments in film.

I’ve never really warmed to Pennies From Heaven, the mini-series that made Potter’s reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. I value it mainly for the early glimpse of Bob Hoskins, who would go on to play endless variations on his basic canny Cockney roughneck persona.

On the other had, The Singing Detective is every bit the masterpiece you’ve heard. I’m just sorry so little of Potter’s output is available in this country.

He named the largest of his tumors after Rupert Murdoch, whose newspapers regularly denounced Potter as a blight on civilization.

May we all face the end with Potter’s gallantry.

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Today’s bit of writing advice

Justine Larbalestier has something to tell all you aspiring professional writers: Don’t get too far ahead of yourself. You can’t sell people on your book until you’ve actually, you know, finished the book. (John Scalzi nods sagely in the background.) I’m reminded of Roddy Doyle’s novel The Commitments, in which a musician who has yet to write a song is worrying about the cover design on his theoretical band’s debut album.

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The Fuhrer is furious

I’ve already suggested that James Cameron, who leaned a little too heavily on a Harlan Ellison TV script while writing The Terminator, may get into the same kind of hot water with Poul Anderson’s family over Avatar, his upcoming hypetacular. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who was a bit underwhelmed by the teaser trailer.

Of course, Adolf Hitler’s an excitable sort. Here’s how he reacted to the news of Michael Jackson’s death.

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Friday finds


Two young Iranians have reworked Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of her girlhood in revolutionary Iran, to tell the story of the bloody aftermath of the recent Iranian election. The literary remix, Persepolis 2.0, was done with Satrapi’s blessing.

A town built around books and publishing? I may just have to learn Korean.

A reminiscence about Ted Kennedy that shows his quality as a progressive senator, and why it will be next to impossible to find anyone to fill his shoes. Joyce Carol Oates talks about Kennedy’s unpunished crime and search for reinvention and redemption.

As a big fan of comedian Patton Oswalt, I can only applaud the imminent release of Big Fan, the movie about a big fan of the New York Giants.

Follow David Gill as he negotiates A Maze of Death.

A good reason to pre-order that upcoming Bob Dylan Christmas record.

Reading poetry (and teaching it) in Uzbekistan.

Now I have to put Sunshine Cleaning on my Netflix queue.

Ralph Nader has written a novel? Who knew? As J.D. Rhoades notes, the book sounds like a parody of Atlas Shrugged, which places two big burdens on the work. First, Ayn Rand novels come with self-parody already installed, and second, Nader ain’t exactly the life of the party. (Quite the opposite, in fact, as we saw in 2000.)

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The Wednesday Westie

Carolyn's nonfiction pictures 019

Another-sleepy-summer-afternoon edition.

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The Pixar version

Anton Ego

A few days ago I watched Ratatouille again, both for the splendor of its animation — I love the riot of textures and metallic surfaces in the kitchen — and the generosity of its finale, in which the heroes triumph over the sepulchral food critic Anton Ego. I was also nudged by Patton Oswalt’s hilarious new record, My Weakness Is Strong, which includes a few routines about his voice work on the film, in which he played Remy the rodent hero.

But the finale written by Brad Bird — who, after The Iron Giant and The Incredibles rates second only to Hayao Miyazaki in my book of great animators — is what always brings me back to Ratatouille. Any other animation shop would have devised a slapstick comeuppance for the critic and called it a day. In Ratatouille, Remy and his friends win him over by bringing him back to himself, and the story gives Ego not only that deeply touching flashback to his childhood, but the space to offer the film’s best line:  “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” A clip is at the bottom of this post. Consider the Spanish subtitles an educational plus.

After I saw Up — which is, despite my reservations about its second half, further proof that Pixar is the unchallenged standard-bearer for animated storytelling — I thought back to the recent corporate battle between John Lasseter’s shop and Disney, the corporate parent Pixar has creatively eclipsed.

Has there ever been a more crushing confession of failure than Disney’s threat, implicit in the renegotiation of its distribution deal with Pixar, to rush ahead with a second Toy Story sequel if Pixar went with another company? Disney was frankly admitting that its movies stink, its formulas are played out and its fund of creativity exhausted — and threatening to apply all those liabilities to Pixar’s most treasured property. “Work with us, or you’ll see just how badly we can suck.” Some negotiating tactic!

Reviewing the film in The New Yorker,  David Denby makes some cogent points about the distinction between Pixar films and Disney:

Yes, there was the classic Disney group of animated features, released between 1937 and 1942, which included “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Pinocchio,” “Bambi,” and “Dumbo.” Children still love them, though this aging child doesn’t, really. The old Disney dispensation went roughly as follows: The material was largely based on fairy tales, with princes and queens and wicked stepmothers. Animals with long eyelashes engaged in gentle woodland conversation. There was much anthropomorphic charm, much sweet melodiousness, and, running through the sugar, a vinegary taste of fear, separation, punishment. The entire Bruno Bettelheim catalogue of psychological terrors churned below the surface. By now (for me, at least), the cloyingness, with its malevolent undertones, seems too calculated and heavy-spirited. But the recent Pixar films are something else. These movies are fashioned as much for adults as for kids. Set in the modern world, they are built around an exhilarating drive for achievement. A family of libertarian superheroes refuses to accept enforced mediocrity (“The Incredibles”). A talented rat wants to practice the art of cooking (“Ratatouille”). A robot saves the aesthetic remnants of a civilization ruined by excess and pollution (“WALL-E”). Some of the characters are isolated; they are all intelligent and strongly motivated. We’ve gone from psychological fable to moral fable, from fate to something like self-willed, even civic, passion.

There is much to like and dislike in the Disney catalogue, but my biggest beef with those canonical works — many of which I otherwise admire — was to give multiple generations of viewers the false idea that they actually know the story of Pinocchio, or the Little Mermaid, or Cinderella. You could argue that the original versions of those tales would be unpalatable to contemporary audience, and you might even be right. But the Disney operation’s habit of processing folk tales and forgotten classics into contemporary Cheez Whiz has been a problem for a lot of people, starting with Richard Schickel (whose 1968 book The Disney Version was the first serious attempt to examine the workings of Uncle Walt’s dream factory), and it played a big role in the company’s creative stagnation.

Right from the start, Pixar movies have turned their backs on stale fake-folktale plots and used contemporary materials with great freshness and ingenuity. Along with that “drive for achievement” Denby notes, Pixar movies also have a much broader emotional palette, including a readiness to weave adult fears and emotions into their kid-friendly storylines. The best line in the original Toy Story — “This isn’t flying, it’s falling with style!” — was taken even further in Toy Story 2, which quite explicitly addresses fears of mortality and the decision to make the most of your time regardless of what’s ahead. Apparently next year’s Toy Story 3 will continue that line of development, and I’m eager to see where they go with it.

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Blue Monday

Watch guitarist Simon Angell build the beat for a cover of Daft Punk’s “Da Funk.” Angell’s playing is the cornerstone of Patrick Watson and the Wooden Arms, a band whose sound has been likened by Guitar Player magazine to a union of Jeff Buckley, Syd Barrett, Erik Satie, Bertolt Brecht (maybe they meant Kurt Weill), and Tom Waits. The Montreal-based group’s latest CD is Wooden Arms.

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A stumble across Abbey Road

I’ve always been puzzled by the esteem so many people have for Abbey Road, the Beatles’ swan song, which marks its fortieth anniversary this month. Aside from George Harrison’s two classics, the songs don’t exactly stick in one’s mind. John Lennon’s most memorable tune, “Come Together,” leans so heavily on Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” that it got him into legal hot water with professional barracuda Morris Levy, who owned the rights. Paul McCartney’s contributions are uniformly weak, Ringo Starr’s kiddie ditty drowns in the wake of “Yellow Submarine,” and the “suite” of song fragments on side two — that’s the vinyl edition for you sprouts — is less than the sum of its parts.

For me, the Beatles worked best when Lennon dominated the proceedings, and declined when McCartney took the reins. That’s why I think of the white album as their last great one: it’s Lennon’s record, with a disc’s worth of additions from the bandmates. And that famous cover shot of the Fabs crossing the street looks like four men playing catch-up — chasing the inspiration that had already crossed the street years earlier.

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Dream projects: Peter Jackson

This notion of linking up filmmakers with books that would benefit from being adapted into film hasn’t produced the kind of response I’d hoped for, but I post on anyway. The first four are here, and now on to the fifth.

PETER JACKSON: Dying Inside, by Robert Silverberg.

Dying Inside, published in 1972, was the culmination of Robert Silverberg’s drive to lift himself from a fast-working genre hack to a thoughtful writer who consistently stretched the boundaries of literary science fiction. His Dying Insidework from the late Sixties, beginning with Thorns, already stood head and shoulders above that of his colleagues, but Dying Inside was the perfect merger of a well-established science fiction theme — telepathy — with the kind of prose treatment found in top-notch literary fiction. SF abounds in stories of persecuted people with hidden powers who ascend to something like godhood; Silverberg stood the idea on its head by making his protagonist, David Selig, a man born with extraordinary powers, who must now cope with their loss as he ages. What makes the book engrossing rather than depressing is Silverberg’s skill at showing how the ability to read minds has warped Selig’s life: it has ruined two love affairs, spoiled his relationship with his younger sister, given the people around him a creepy sense of being under surveillance, and burdened Selig with a sense of himself as a grubby eavesdropper into the lives of others. The loss of this double-edged gift is paradoxically uplifting; unable to use his super power in any positive way, Selig now has the chance to become fully human through its loss.

Silverberg tells the story in fragmentary fashion, shifting from the first-person to omniscient third-person in response to the level of pain and embarrassment Selig feels as he looks back on his life. Not all of the memories are unpleasant: there’s a bravura sequence in which the teenaged Selig wanders a farm, idly slipping into the minds of the creatures around him, jumping from a trout swimming past to a pair of lovers in the throes of passion. At least one memory is downright thrilling:

One summer when I was eight or nine — it was before they adopted Judith, anyway — I went with my parents to a resort in the Catskills for a few weeks. There was a day camp for the kiddies, in which we received instruction in swimming, tennis, softball, arts & crafts, and other activities, thus leaving the older folks free for gin rummy and creative drinking. One afternoon the daycamp staged some boxing matches. I had never worn boxing gloves, and in the free-for-alls of boyhood I had found myself to be an incompetent fighter, so I was unenthusiastic. I watched the first five matches in much dismay. All that hitting! All those bloody noses!

Then it was my turn. My opponent was a boy named Jimmy, a few months younger than but taller and heavier and much more athletic. I think the counselors matched us deliberately, hoping Jimmy would kill me; I was not their favorite child. I started to shake even before they put the gloves on me. “Round One!” called a counselor, and we approached each other. I distinctly heard Jimmy thinking about hitting me on the chin, and as his glove came toward my face I ducked and hit him in the belly. That made him furious. He proposed now to clobber me on the back of my head, but I saw that coming too and stepped aside and hit him on the neck close to his adam’s-apple. He gagged and turned away, half in tears. After a moment he returned to the attack, but I continued to anticipate his moves and he never touched me. For the first time in my life I felt touch, competent, aggressive. As I battered him I looked past the improvised ring and saw my father flushed with pride, and Jimmy’s father next to him looking angry and perplexed. End of round one. I was sweaty, bouncy, grinning.

Round two: Jimmy came forth determined to knock me to pieces. Swinging wildly, frantically, still going for my head. I kept my head where he couldn’t reach it and danced around to his side and hit him in the belly again, very hard, and when he folded I hit him on the nose and he fell down, crying. The counselor in charge very quickly counted to ten and raised my hand. “Hey, Joe Louis!” my father yelled. “Hey, Willie Pep!” The counselor suggested I go over to Jimmy and help him up and shake his hand. As he got to his feet I very clearly detected him deciding to butt me in the teeth with his head, and I pretended to be paying no attention, except when he charged I stepped coolly to one side and banged my fists down on his lowered back. That shattered him. “David cheats!” he moaned. “David cheats!”

How they all hated me for my cleverness! What they interpreted as my cleverness, that is. My sly knack of always guessing what was going to happen. Well, that wouldn’t be a problem now. They’d all love me. Loving me, they’d beat me to a pulp.

Like Silverberg, Peter Jackson made his own craftsman’s journey upward, Peter JAcksonfrom splatter movies to the Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings films and the upcoming prestige release The Lovely Bones, which is also being touted as Oscar bait. The artistic transition from Bad Taste to The Lord of the Rings is as dazzling as Silverberg’s leap from Invaders From Earth to Son of Man. Jackson also has an unabashedly broad appetite for fantasy and science fiction, as well as en eye for talent: in Heavenly Creatures, for example, he gave Kate Winslet her first major showcase.

The glimpses I’ve seen of footage from The Lovely Bones make me think Jackson would be the one to find an ingenious and original way of visualizing Selig’s telepathic experiences. Just as importantly — perhaps more so — Jackson knows how to imbue fantasy material with well-grounded, earthly emotions. My two favorite sequences from The Two Towers — Elrond’s warning of what awaits Arwen if she stays behind, and Theoden’s recitation of “Where is the horse, where is the rider?” — have little to do with special effects and everything to do with the power of the human voice, and the savvy of a director who knows when it’s time to hang back and simply let the actors carry their scenes. To see that kind of artistry at work on adapting what is arguably the finest SF novel of the Seventies would be a rare treat.

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