Monthly Archives: December 2010

Blue (Moody) Monday

James Moody, the jazz saxophonist and flutist who balanced serious musicianship with a complete refusal to take himself too seriously, died Thursday at the age of 85.

As Peter Keepnews tells it:

Mr. Moody, who began his career with the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie shortly after World War II and maintained it well into the 21st century, developed distinctive and equally fluent styles on both tenor and alto saxophone, a relatively rare accomplishment in jazz. He also played soprano saxophone, and in the mid-1950s he became one of the first significant jazz flutists, impressing the critics if not himself.

“I’m not a flute player,” he told one interviewer. “I’m a flute holder.”

The self-effacing humor of that comment was characteristic of Mr. Moody, who took his music more seriously than he took himself. Musicians admired him for his dexterity, his unbridled imagination and his devotion to his craft, as did critics; reviewing a performance in 1980, Gary Giddins of The Village Voice praised Mr. Moody’s “unqualified directness of expression” and said his improvisations at their best were “mini-epics in which impassioned oracles, comic relief, suspense and song vie for chorus time.” But audiences were equally taken by his ability to entertain.

Defying the stereotype of the modern jazz musician as austere and humorless (and following the example of Gillespie, whom he considered his musical mentor and with whom he worked on and off for almost half a century), Mr. Moody told silly jokes, peppered his repertory with unlikely numbers like “Beer Barrel Polka” and the theme from “The Flintstones,” and often sang. His singing voice was unpolished but enthusiastic — and very distinctive, partly because he spoke and sang with a noticeable lisp, a result of having been born partly deaf.

The song he sang most often had a memorable name and an unusual history. Based on the harmonic structure of “I’m in the Mood for Love,” it began life as an instrumental when Mr. Moody recorded it in Stockholm in 1949, improvising an entirely new melody on a borrowed alto saxophone. Released as “I’m in the Mood for Love” (and credited to that song’s writers) even though his rendition bore only the faintest resemblance to the original tune, it was a modest hit for Mr. Moody in 1951. It became a much bigger hit shortly afterward when the singer Eddie Jefferson wrote lyrics to Mr. Moody’s improvisation and another singer, King Pleasure, recorded it as “Moody’s Mood for Love.”

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She’s just riled about Harry

The Annapurna stack of nonsense written against the Harry Potter series just grew a inch or so higher with this  lamebrained piece in The Awl by Maria Bustillos, whose attempts to turn author J.K. Rowling into a limousine liberal and secret spokeswoman for class privilege are the literary equivalent of a barroom drunk swinging at the air, imaging he’s decking everyone in the house. This, in Bustillos’ mind, is the haymaker:

. . . it is a horrible thing to be teaching children, that you have to be “chosen”; that the highest places in this world are gained by celestial fiat, rather than by working out how to get there yourself and then busting tail until you succeed. If the “special” and “chosen” and “gifted” automatically receive all the honors there are, then what would be the point of working hard to achieve anything? So it is really terrible to hear these twelve-year-old kids so smitten with the idea that fulfillment would literally fly to them out of the sky, via owl.

Rowling is a self-avowed liberal who gave a million pounds to the Labour Party in 2008, but her values are Tory through and through. In her books it is the hoary old white guys who run everything; women are popped in here and there for liberal flavor. The tokenism is unbelievable.

Bustillos is referring to the fact that Harry’s knack for surviving encounters with Voldemort and the Death Eaters have fellow witches and wizards calling him The Chosen One, to the hero’s great embarrassment. Even the laziest reader is aware that the title has an ironic twist: Harry was literally chosen by Voldemort, who in attempting to murder the infant Harry created his own nemesis. But Bustillos, like that drunk, doesn’t let a little thing like running into a wall keep her from throwing more punches.

It takes a real effort of will to ignore the fact that the worst characters in Rowling’s universe deem themselves elevated solely by virtue of their pure wizarding pedigrees, or that Harry and his friends are expected to work on and hone their innate gifts, that Hermione Granger achieves her skills through relentless work and study, and that the wizards who advocate co-existence and even admiration for the Muggle world are the heroes of the series. Midway through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, both book and film, the statue at the entrance of the Ministry of Magic is changed to show the great mass of lower-borns crushed to support the weight of the privileged few — a dandy visualization of the self-image of our would-be Galtian overlords. If Rowling is to knocked for anything, it’s missing the trick of showing a Ministry of Finance where investment bank wizards conjure non-existent assets that evaporate once the fee has been paid, with Gringotts demanding bailout gold because in the wizarding world, it’s definitely too big to fail.

It’s pretty hard to take someone seriously who quotes Ann Althouse as anything but the butt of a joke, but Bustillos may soon be angling for a perch in the online winger aviary. She even takes a page from Dinesh D’Souza by revealing a little-known biographical datum that serves (jab! swing!) as the key to Rowling’s character:

Rowling named her first child after Jessica Mitford, the lefty Mitford sister (as opposed to the Nazi-sympathizing ones). Rowling often says she read Mitford’s Hons and Rebels at age fourteen, and that it affected her profoundly; this book in fact provides a perfect illustration of Rowling’s political disconnect, because Jessica Mitford was the daughter of the second Baron Redesdale, a “terrific Hon,” as the Mitfords would have said. She was a super-blue-blood with rebelliously liberal views. It’s exactly this privileged, elitist compassion-from-on-high that Rowling admires and has consistently depicted in the Potter books. But the liberal values, the openmindedness, the diversity, are all fake.

Wow! So Rowling’s another one of those Kenyan anticolonialists we’ve been hearing so much about!

There are other aspects of the article that would benefit from quality time with a mop and bucket, but I’ve already given the thing more time than it deserves. Read it if you like, but bear in mind that you’ll end up learning very very little about J.K. Rowling, and more than anyone with a life needs to know about Maria Bustillos.

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The invincibly ignorant

It’s funny because it’s true.  The world overflows with “aspiring” writers who haven’t read anything in years, if not decades, but are convinced they have an idea so neato-keen that as soon as they touch ink to paper the page will fly directly to the New York Times bestseller list.

I’d say the “aspiring writer” I encounter most often is the one who thinks that because I have (a) a published book and (b) a literary agent, I can serve as a magic gateway to publication that bypasses all the hard, slogging work that went into making (a) and (b) happen. They’re the ones who shake their heads and shrug me off when I tell them to prepare a professional book proposal package consisting of some sample chapters and an outline. They say “I don’t want to do an outline. I’d rather have the book editor read the whole thing. That gives the flavor a lot better.” And I would prefer that the book editor simply send me a pre-endorsed blank check along with Shakira’s private belly-dance number,  but since that ain’t gonna happen I follow the editorial guidelines to the letter whenever I make a submission. That doesn’t guarantee acceptance, but to do otherwise guarantees rejection.

It’s hard enough making headway in this field without adding self-sabotage to the mix. That’s a lesson many “aspiring” writers need to learn. A lot of them never do, which is the reason I put those sarcastic quotation marks around “aspiring.”

Friday finds

Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson — the college cartoonist years.

What stop-motion Rankin/Bass holiday specials have to tell us about monetary policy.

Nick considers the music he’d like to have played at his funeral. My own list is less extensive: Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” and “Louange a L’Eternitie de Jesus” from Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time.  Maybe take a page from The Wire and play “Body of an American” afterward. but that’s about it.

Angelology, Gutzon Borglum, and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.

What’s your pick for the best film version of an Elmore Leonard novel? There are more of them out there than you might think.

Thou shalt not send schmucks to review stage adaptations of Philip K. Dick novels.

Now it can be told: Why Mexican potatoes are so lousy.

We can all agree that John Cleese is a creative person — right? So pour some coffee and listen to the man talk about creativity. “Boundaries of space, boundaries of time. It’s as simple as that.”

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From punditry to paleontology

Raymond Chandler once dismissed Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express by saying its solution “is guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop — only a half-wit would think of it.” This P.J. O’Rourke rant about laws banning cigarette-smoking merits the same response:

My grandmother was able to keep people from smoking indoors with one cold stare. Why would laws and parliaments and police powers and courts and all sorts of annoying and ugly signs everywhere be necessary? All this expense and exercise of power of one group of people over another – why is all this needed to achieve what my grandmother could achieve with one cold stare?

That’s one of the leading lights of conservative intelligentsia, folks, a published author and nationally recognized columnist. You’d have to have seven-eighths of your brain surgically removed simply to address that remark on its proper intellectual level.

I’m old enough to remember the days when smoking was still ubiquitous, and it was considered your problem if you wanted to have a meal or a conversation without the stench of cancer sticks filling the air. If I had a nickel for every time I heard a half-smart argument from somebody who thought I was the reincarnation of Stalin because I wanted to be able to breathe in my own fucking apartment, I could afford to buy my own island in the south Pacific, where the trade winds would carry a warning whenever an old fart like P.J. O’Rourke was coming over the horizon. Move this guy from the punditry column into the paleontology wing, that’s how fossilized these arguments have gotten.

Come to think of it, I’m old enough to remember when National Lampoon was funny and P.J. O’Rourke sounded like an amusing iconoclast, instead of a mastodon sinking into a private tar-pit of the mind. Boy, does that make me feel old!  Hey, P.J. — I’ve got a stare every bit as cold as your granny’s, but those anti-smoking laws are just the thing for bartenders, waitresses, flight attendants, and anybody who wants to live his life without getting into a battle of wills with some nicotine-ridden putz out to make a spectacle of himself.

There used to be a time when reading O’Rourke’s books had a certain low entertainment value, like watching an old monster movie in which some stop-motion dinosaur knocked down cardboard buildings. That was quite a while ago — O’Rourke’s act is even more tired than Camille Paglia’s, if such a thing is possible.  O’Rourke may see himself as The Man Who Came to Dinner, but his movie is really The Beast From Hollow Mountain, and the swamp beckons.

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Levees

Great music from Terence Blanchard.

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iPod, therefore I am

MetaFilter offers a list of links to 50 different music sites, all with free downloads. Something for every taste — really. While we’re on the subject of music, try these free downloads of the complete organ music of Johann Sebastian Bach. And while I was never one to swoon over Frank Sinatra, this interview has me thinking I should give the guy’s music another try.

If you’re going to listen to a breakdown of why Ireland’s economy went down the plumbing, make sure it’s from somebody with a Scots accent. “People want to say: look at those profligate governments, spending all that money. We’ve got to restore fiscal sanity. But it wasn’t fiscal insanity that got us here. It was private-sector leverage and the insanity of banking that brought us to this point. So the bankers put it on the state, and the state turned around it put it on the taxpayer. It’s the biggest bait-and-switch in human history.”

It’s too bad that Guillermo Del Toro had to bag out on directing The Hobbit, but he can console himself with the knowledge that now Peter Jackson is stuck with the job of getting into pissing matches with actors unions and casting agents. And the rest of us can console ourselves with the knowledge that it left him time to start a really engrossing and interesting variation on a subject that seemed milked to death.

Nucky and me

Apropos my remarks on Boardwalk Empire, somebody sent me a link to a piece that’s a couple of months old, but still speaks for a lot of naysayers:

As long as nobody’s talking, there is a restless, melancholic beauty that can make you feel like you’re watching something of substance.

But therein lies the rub: the writing so far is kind of crap, and casting Steve Buscemi as the main character Nucky Johnson will either go down as one of the most interesting risks in television history or one of the most bizarre decisions since Charleton Heston played that Mexican guy in Touch of Evil. To the first point, I love movies that minimize cussing in period pieces and take advantage of all the weird things people said at any given time. I’m sure people dropped f-bombs in the 20s, but I also bet they didn’t drop as many; why would you when you could say, “I caught that hotsy-totsy dumb dora utterly splifficated in her flivver after they gimme the bum’s rush for breakin’ out the giggle water in the juke joint. Dollars to doughnuts, she ain’t no Mrs. Grundy!” Writers need to research their periods as meticulously as any of the other artists on the set, and the amount of profanity in BE is just plain lazy, particularly given the richness of the period lexicon. It would all be more forgivable if there were some fresheness to the story, but, man, this shit looks familiar. (Couldn’t they have at least tried to make the nighttime chase in the woods a little different from the better one in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies? It’s only been a year!) It’s hard to give a rat’s ass about anything that takes place onscreen, except when MacDonald and Graham show up, which is when you wish extra hard that they had better material.

Better material? Better material? Atlantic City was the southern pole of the New York area rum line, with schooners and freighters anchored just outside U.S. territorial waters selling crates of booze as fast as the contact boats could load them. Nucky was half gangster, half booster, strutting along the Boardwalk with a fresh-cut carnation in his lapel, dispensing favors and cash, cutting deals with Warren Harding one day and negotiating gangster disputes the next. Guy hosted a mobster convention in 1929 that drew Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Thompson-toting thugs from as far off as Detroit and New Orleans. If you can’t make a great film out of material like that, you need to find another line of work.

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Frankly (Haguely) speaking

The single worst line of dialogue in all of movies can be found in the 1962 western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when a newspaper editor says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I hate the line for its smugly cynical attitude, its pseudo cleverness, and its hollow knowingness, but above all I hate it because it’s wrong. The facts are always more interesting than the legend. Always.

That’s why the more I learn about the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, the less interested I am in actually watching it. That’s despite — or because of — the fact that I’m fascinated by the role played by New Jersey and Atlantic City during Prohibition, the phenomenon of the urban political boss, and the career of Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, who reigned over Atlantic City during its hooch-soaked heyday. I’ve also written a book, The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, in which one of the key players is Frank Hague, Nucky’s contemporary and the only man qualified to best him for the title of Greatest Political Boss. All of which is to say I know enough about the subject to be interested in seeing Boardwalk Empire, and interested enough in the subject to know I’m going to be disappointed by what I see.

First of all, casting Steve Buscemi as the strapping Nucky Johnson (renamed “Nucky Thompson” in the show) is miscasting on the scale of . . . jeez, I can hardly think of a comparison. How about casting Pee-wee Herman as Jake LaMotta? How about hiring a weasel to play a bear? Buscemi’s a fine actor, but Nucky is not his role. As for Nucky himself, he wasn’t the type to have competitors machine-gunned or sent out for a swim with Chicago galoshes. If Nucky took a dislike to somebody, he would make life so difficult for that person that the offending party would haul stakes and roll out of town.

Second, the recent episode in which Hague drops in on Nucky makes it pretty clear the show is really only interested in reshuffling stereotypes about political bosses, rather than diving into the messy, contradictory, fascinating reality. The episode shows Hague (at left) smoking a stogie and knocking back bootleg hooch while a tootsie serenades him on the ukelele, preliminary to a round of tomcatting under Nucky’s genial sponsorship. This is ridiculous: Hague was a teetotaler, a lifelong hypochondriac who never smoked and frowned upon sexual vice. (Operatives in his Hudson County machine were expected to be stable family men.) He opposed Prohibition and was happy to let bootleggers pay to operate within his jurisdiction, but in his personal life Hague was a good Catholic boy.

Turning Frank Hague into a stereotypical boss is not only lazy, it makes for lax drama. How much more interesting to show this abstemious dictator willing to deal with vice-sodden gangsters, but all the while quietly judging them and making sure they paid dearly for their operations. Hague and Nucky, both pragmatists from opposing political parties, worked together on a few occasions, notably to screw over one of  Hague’s longtime political foes in a gubernatorial race. I’m not saying Boardwalk Empire should traffick in the minutiae of New Jersey politics, but when I hear one of the lines its gives to Hague —  “I’m a simple man. All I need is a bed, the love of a good woman, and an envelope about so thick” — it’s pretty clear the show is interested in Hollywood notions of political bosses rather than the real thing.

It’s an old story: Filmmakers are drawn to a historical subject because it seems tailor-made for a film treatment, but getting the film made involves so much fictionalization that the end result bears little relation to its inspiration. I’ve long thought that the purest fiction in movies is always accompanied by the words “Based on a true story,” and it looks like Boardwalk Empire follows that tradition to the letter.

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