Monthly Archives: May 2012

The painter of trite and the spectre of white

I’m reading Mat Johnson’s novel Pym. One of the characters is a fan of an artist pretty obviously modeled on Thomas Kinkade, the kitsch-sodden “Painter of Light” who recently died at 54. When the character asks a friend what he thinks of one painting, the friend replies: “It looks like the view up a Care Bear’s ass.” That line’s been cracking me up all morning. It may not be as elegant as Joan Didion’s takedown — she thought Kinkade’s cottages and houses looked so comfy that they bordered on sinister, as though they’d been designed to trap Hansel and Gretel — but it gets the job done.

As for Pym, I’m having a great time with it. The hero is an African American academic — “blackademic,” as he puts it — obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe’s enigmatic novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. His discovery of a manuscript suggesting Poe’s work was based on fact leads him to charter an expedition to Antarctica in search of Tsalal, Poe’s island of ultimate blackness, where the natives are so dark even their teeth are black. (Don’t worry if you haven’t read the novel — hardly anyone can get through it. Johnson provides a perfectly serviceable precis.) As you would expect from the author of Incognegro, Johnson turns notions about racial identity and prejudice on their heads, and the book is loaded with satirical jabs that can make you wince as often as you laugh. 

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The Weight

Bruce Springsteen found a classy way to pay tribute to the late Levon Helm at last night’s Newark show:

Sounds like at least half the people in the stadium were singing along. It reminded me that the first time I really listened to this song was when I bought Before the Flood, right at the start of what would turn out to be a lifelong Bob Dylan obsession. The album hasn’t aged well, but I will always have a soft spot in my heart for it because I realized I’d already heard “The Weight” and “Up On Cripple Creek” at some point and gotten the choruses wound into the cellular structure of my brain.

It also got me thinking of what other artists have done with the song. Aretha Franklin, for instance:

Nice little slide guitar intro from Duane Allman. Gives Aretha the perfect launch platform for her vocals.

And then there’s this version from Gillian Welch:

This is a performance from last summer, with Levon joining Wilco on the stage. At about 3:39 Levon’s voice falters and his daughter smoothly steps in to complete the verse. The grin on her father’s face speaks volumes:

Finally, a performance from The Band itself, in its prime:

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My new answering machine

Please listen carefully. Some of our menu items have been changed.

Press ONE to hear this message in Pashtun.

Press TWO to hear more choices.

Press THREE to be put on hold and ignored.

Press FOUR to wait while one of our clerks pretends to check on your request.

Press FIVE for the Dunkin’ Donuts men’s room.

Press SIX if you’re feeling lucky.

Or press SEVEN and HANG UP.

Flash and clash

<p><a href=”″>The Sword Fights of Errol Flynn</a> from <a href=”″>Russ McClay</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

This lovingly compiled selection of swordfight sequences from Errol Flynn movies is tremendous fun to watch, but it does show how by-the-numbers Hollywood could get with its blade choreography. How many recurring themes can you spot? The nose-to-nose clinch between hero and sneering villain? The attempt to add suspense by having the  hero tumble down stairs or stumble over furniture? The gallantry of the hero, who returns the villain’s dropped blade rather than put an end to it? Did every cinematographer’s contract require the use of huge shadows in the background?

Now compare all that with the emotional intensity and character revelation in this sequence:

Here is my argument for why Rob Roy is the best swordfight movie of all time, and why those duels in Errol Flynn movies never rise above standard flash and clash.

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The long hello

Publishing industry update: La Agent has had the manuscript of The New Novel out with several publishers for about four months now. No rejection, no acceptance, no nothing. “It’s very sluggish out there,” La Agent tells me. You could say that.

Come on, editors! The book is so noir, even noir would call it noir. Doesn’t that count for something?

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