Monthly Archives: July 2012

Chris Marker

I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jetee (it was a program of shorts aired on public television), but I can sure remember the impact it had on me.  In a little over twenty-six minutes, using a montage of black-and-white images with hushed narration, La Jetee was a science fiction film with as much visual ingenuity as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and an emotional wallop to go with it. It’s probably better known these days for inspiring Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, and while Gilliam’s expansion was a pretty decent job (once it got past the almost unendurable asylum sequence), Marker’s themes of memory, loss, and fate are something you have to experience for yourself.

Marker, who just died at the age of 91, led a storied life. He was a man of action (a member of the French Resistance during World War II), a man of ideas (a colleague of Andre Malraux and Andre Bazin), a novelist, and a documentarian with a highly idiosyncratic approach. Sans Soleil, a modest art-house hit in 1983, literally defies description — one can say it combines anthropology, philosophy, and beautiful imagery (along with an appreciation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a memory play hidden within a thriller), but that grocery list doesn’t really do it justice. It can be bought as a two-fer with La Jetee via the estimable Criterion Collection. If this summer of corporate blockbusters has you wondering why you were ever interested in films, some quality time with Marker’s work will remind you of just how personal and mysterious (and captivating) movies can be. 

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Am I the only one irritated by the way NBC is covering the Olympic competitions in London? Every time I check in on the TV, I see guys in Speedos snorting chlorine or members of the Little Lolita Leotard League spinning through the air. The scarcity of fencing coverage is my pet peeve, but I’ve heard fans of other sports beefing as well. I’m fine with watching video clips online, but I think the corporate geniuses are missing a trick.

People are interested in watching sports that the U.S. doesn’t dominate, you know, and fencing is awfully cool. Foils, sabres, epees — each weapon has unique qualities and rules, and there’s plenty of tension-and-release drama. Maybe the lightning-fast exchanges confuse the easily confused commentators, whereas swimming meets and beach-blanket volleyball are easy to follow and allow plenty of time for the bloviation that passes for insight with television sports coverage. Maybe somebody should tell the suits that the women in the Italian team could all pass for fashion models, and look rather fetching in their white tunics. I realize I’m grasping at straws here, but I can remember when Olympics coverage wasn’t just USA all the way. C’mon, NBC, throw me a bone. Or better yet, a blade.   

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My new favorite noir author

  • The Singer

Among other things, Cathi Unsworth’s novel The Singer does for the British punk rock scene what Harlan Ellison’s Spider Kiss did for the formative years of American rock and roll: uses a fleeting moment in pop history, described with great knowledge and appreciation for the excitement it generated, as the foundation for a gripping page turner. Ellison’s story was a study of how celebrity enabled a run-of-the-mill creep to turn himself into a genuine monster, albeit one with undeniable talent; the protagonist, a morally conflicted PR man, must decide how long he wants to wallow in his personal gutter before he is stained beyond redemption. Unsworth’s tale revolves around an even more monstrous punk rock singer, Vincent Smith, whose brief fame as leader of a group called Blood Truth ended in a cloud of violence and personal tragedy; the protagonist, a U.K. journalist trying to learn what happened to Smith decades after the fact, stands to lose a great deal more than his soul, though he doesn’t realize until too late.

All three of Unsworth’s novels to date offer very evocative descriptions of London in very specific places and periods. Her debut, The Not Knowing, centers on the Camden Town murder of a Tarantino-style filmmaker in the Nineties. Her third, Bad Penny Blues, takes off from an unsolved series of gruesomely violent murders in Ladbroke Grove between 1959 and 1965 that U.K. tabloids dubbed the “Jack the Stripper” case. And The Singer shows the punk-rock scene of the late Seventies and early Eighties moving away from its initial energy and enthusiasm. Unsworth’s background as a music journalist for Sounds and Melody Maker is put to good use here — you get the fannish thrill of seeing Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones cranking up onstage, even as the dark momentum of the story warns that something worse is waiting in the wings.

Unsworth introduces Vince Smith at a Sex Pistols gig, from the time when their infamy forced them to tour as the Spots, or Sex Pistols On Tour Secretly. Fledgling guitarist Stevie Mullin sees him with blood trickling down his face. (“I kissed Sid Vicious’s bass,” the eyes now rapturous. “Trouble was, fucker kissed me back!”) When Smith tries out for Stevie’s band, Unsworth’s description of the rehearsal captures the thrill of a group coming together in a way I haven’t seen since Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments:

From the moment they’d assembled in the garage, on Stevie’s orders later that afternoon, it was as if Vince had taken over, assumed the gig was his before he’d even sung a note. Worse still, Stevie didn’t even seem to have noticed.

Instead he was boasting to his new friend about how they’d taught themselves a few cover versions over the summer — “Anarchy,” “New Rose” by The Damned and Link Wray’s instrumental “Rumble.” Vince decided instantly that demolishing Dave Vanian would be the best way of demonstrating his skill.

Doesn’t want to measure himself up against Johnny, thought Lynton, tuning up his bass. Kevin was so nervous it had taken him forever to set up his kit, crashing around all fingers and thumbs, dropped cymbals left, right and centre. Lynton had helped him in the end, then sullenly wired up their only vocal mic, while Vince and Stevie jawed on about the gig last night, oblivious to their discomfort.

“All right, you ready?” Stevie slung his guitar around his neck.

“Yeah,” Kevin’s voice came out high and shrill, making Vince snigger.

Lynton just nodded. I’ll show that freak, he thought. Bet he knows nothing about music.

“New Rose” had an explosive intro anyhow, drums, bass and guitar all crashing in together, and the moment the three of them got going it was like a shower of sparks went up. Stevie nailed that subverted rockabilly riff the way a surfer catches a wave. Kevin drummed faster than he’d ever managed before, drummed like his life depended on it. Lynton felt hairs standing up on the back of his neck as his fingers flew up the fretboard, finding the notes as if of their own volition.

Then Vince grabbed hold of the mic, swung it backwards and let rip a deep, almost yowling voice. That it wasn’t entirely pleasant on the ear wasn’t the point. From the moment his fingers touched the mic, Vince Smith looked like a star. He moved that microphone back and forth with a louche magnificence, like a hellbound punk Gene Vincent, already caught in the spotlight’s glare. It didn’t seem like he knew most of the words, or maybe he was just making up couplets that amused him more. But there was an aura about him that was electrifying. You couldn’t stop staring at him.

Jesus, thought Lynton, that freak is showing me. And then he had to smile as his heart filled up with the rush — the four corners had touched and the magic had come forth. They actually sounded like a band.

That three minutes was the best noise they had yet to make together. When it was over, they stared at each other, almost shocked by what they’d done.

“Oooh ‘eck.” A flushed Stevie looked round at his bright-eyed companions. “Was that really us? Shall we do that one again and prove it?”

Unsworth cites James Ellroy and David Peace as huge influences on her work, and while I can see the connection with Ellroy, I think she outdoes him in a number of crucial ways. Her fourth novel, Weirdo, has just been published, and I want to get to it as soon as I finish Bad Penny Blues.  

It’s nice to see Unsworth giving props to The Damned, a first-generation English punk band that never quite escaped the combined shadows of the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Though they blazed some trails (first British punks to score a legitimate album release, first to tour the U.S.) they were often dismissed as clowns. The singer, Dave Vanian, went in for a Count Dracula look, while bassist Captain Sensible frequently took to the stage in a ballet tutu, or nothing more than his birthday suit. Original guitarist Brian James had his broody Keith Richard/ Mick Jones look down cold, and Rat Scabies was a relentlessly pushy drummer in the Paul Cook mold.    

(Back when, if somebody asked me to define the difference between punk and New Wave, I’d refer him to “Idiot Box,” a tune off the Damned’s Music for Pleasure, inspired by their brief, unsatisfactory time with Tom Verlaine as a would-be producer. Any subtlety involved in the title, a play on the name of Verlaine’s band, Television, was abandoned with the lyrics: “Tom Verlaine, you may be art/ But you sure ain’t rock and roll . . . supersonic, oh come back soon/ Cos all we got is a Marquee Moon.” And while Brian James was nowhere near Verlaine’s class as a guitarist, he managed a pretty amusing piss-take on the maestro’s “Marquee Moon” solo toward the end.)

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Well spoken

If you are (a) a writer with a book to promote, and (b) are proud of a first paragraph you’ve written, then (c) head over to GalleyCat and make your words known. Details here.

Bridges of sighs

Apparently the Golden Gate Bridge is, along with being one of the most awe-inspiringly beautiful things ever constructed, a choice place for suicide jumpers. This fact has sparked a rather macabre series of posts at Andrew Sullivan’s site in which readers list other bridges favored by suicides. So let me offer my own tidbit: the Donald and Morris Goodkind Bridges that span the Raritan River in Middlesex County, New Jersey. Not only do they attract a fair number of jumpers, but their status has been certified by an appearance in the first season of The Sopranos — specifically, the episode “Nobody Knows Anything,” in which a crooked detective (John Heard) opts to kill himself before he can be prosecuted and disgraced. I’m sure the location was chosen quite deliberately: The Sopranos was usually very astute in its use of New Jersey scenery. We’ll just pass in silence over that “Pine Barrens” episode that was (a) shot in upstate New York, in (b) an area largely devoid of pine trees.

The reason the bridges serve such a grim purpose isn’t hard to see: the steel Donald Goodkind Bridge, which carries traffic south into New Brunswick, has a low railing and a relatively wide sidewalk that offers easy access. (Ironically, the Donald Goodkind Bridge’s wide footpath makes it one of the few safe places to walk along Route 1, and venturesome moviegoers use it to reach the AMC Loews megillaplex on the New Brunphuss side.) The concrete arch Morris Goodkind Bridge, which carries traffic north into Edison, is far less accommodating to pedestrians; the footpath is all but impassable, and walking the narrow shoulder would be an equally effective way to kill oneself.

There’s actually a charming backstory to the naming of the bridges. The concrete span, built for two-way traffic in 1929, was designed by Morris Goodkind, an engineer with the New Jersey Department of Transportation. The steel span, built in 1974, was designed by Goodkind’s son, Donald. The father-and-son designations were approved many years later. 

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Alexander Cockburn

Forget H.L. Mencken — nobody could do invective like Alexander Cockburn. His lampoon of the sonorously balanced banalities of The McNeil/Lehrer Report (“A Galiliean preacher claims he is the Redeemer and the poor are blessed. Should he be crucified?”) remains the definitive takedown of intellectually neutered “balance” in journalism. He dubbed Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz “Norman the Frother,” and when the pompous neocon attacked Cockburn for “gutter journalism,” Cockburn proudly ran the quote atop his Village Voice column as the “Frother Seal of Approval.” (When Martin Peretz, then publisher of The New Republic, jined the tussle on Poddy’s side, Cockburn added the quote as the “Peretz Blue Ribbon.”) But early on, as nasty as he could get, Cockburn was usually more than just a snark-slinger. When Ronald Reagan began his John Wayne strut across Central America, Cockburn used the rape-murder of three American nuns and a church worker in El Salvador as the starting point for a viciously accurate assessment of the media’s moral calculus: x number of murdered Salvadoran peasants versus y number of Americans.

Cockburn, who just died at the age of 71, brought to mind a Christopher Hitchens unencumbered by the desire to be a clubby insider. The two were stablemates for a time at The Nation, which resurrected Cockburn’s “Press Clips” column as “Beat the Devil” after the Village Voice ousted him on a hazy conflict-of-interest charge. As fellow Voice alumnus James Wolcott notes in his farewell piece, Cockburn’s career seemed to drizzle away in the Eighties — even accounting for the fact that a combative leftist with an aversion to Greater Israel militarism is not going to have an easy career, one expected more from him. He could be factually unreliable, and in some of his positions — his dismissal of global warming, for example — he was not just wrong but stupidly wrong. But his biggest problem may simply have been that he was too much his own man to fit into any slot, and when he turned his back on medialand to live in northern California, he put an end to his chances for wider influence.

 If you’re not familiar with Cockburn’s work, this lengthy C-SPAN profile will fill in some gaps. Apparently the title of his forthcoming memoir is Colossal Wreck. Now that is something I want to read.

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Friday finds

In 1957, five men stood in the Nevada desert while a nuclear missile detonated 18,500 feet above their heads. Here’s what happened to them.

What to expect when you’re expecting to die after being sucked out an airlock into the vacuum of space.

How to get around Arkham, Massachusetts, with help from H.P. Lovecraft.

You can make anything with Legos — including The Wire.

Now Zimmerman says it was all God’s plan. Which God was not specified.

Wanna be the Dark Knight? Better have some serious batbucks.

This isn’t going to be a great year for Scientology. First the Tom Cruise divorce, and now this movie, which promises to do for L. Ron Hubbard what There Will Be Blood did for oil tycoons.

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Portrait of the director as a doting dad

I never liked Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I didn’t care for it at all when it opened in 1977, the various recuts left me cold, and when I watched it again on a whim a few months ago I found myself actively detesting the thing. It was Steven Spielberg’s pet project, made possible by the phenomenal success of Jaws (a film I loved when it first came out, and continue to love to this day) and its somewhat less phenomenal success paved the way for the commercial belly flop of 1941, but I wish Close Encounters had taken the fall. Behind the whizbang effects and the golly-gee wonder of it all, it’s a pretty nasty movie. I even think Spielberg realizes that now, and while I can claim no special access to Spielberg or his thoughts, I think his reimagined 2005 version of War of the Worlds bears me out. Close Encounters is a movie made by a director who was essentially still a kid. War of the Worlds is a movie made by a man who has kids. Boy, does that make a difference.     

The aliens in Close Encounters look harmless enough when they finally come out of that big mothership, but throughout the film their treatment of those humans unlucky enough to catch their attention ranges from criminally careless to downright sadistic. They are particularly brutal with single mom Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), snatching away her toddler son after an extended bout of psychological torture, but they also do a pretty thorough job of messing with Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), planting a vision in his head that ultimately destroys his marriage and family. And then there’s the collection of World War II airmen who were snatched out of the sky and held captive for decades because . . . well, because the aliens thought it would be fun, I guess. When they are finally returned to Earth, the airmen haven’t aged a day, which should be a great comfort to them when they try to look up their family and friends, or find work with generation-old job skills.  

But none of this would occur to a boy wonder filmmaker. He was probably thinking of the toddler boy who wanted to play with the fun aliens. He certainly didn’t spare a thought as to why a species that mastered godlike technology would reveal itself to mankind in the middle of nowhere, issuing an invitation in the form of a vague mental image more apt to land the invited in the insane asylum. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a nice tease of a title, but in this case it would be more appropriate to go with something like Douchebags from Outer Space.  

Credit the aliens in War of the Worlds with honesty: they’re not on Earth to make friends or trade smiles with Francois Truffaut. They have come to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and it looks like their bubble gum ran out sometime back in the Pleistocene, or whenever it was they buried their three-legged ass-kicking machines. When I argue the virtues of this flat-out frightening movie, I come up against the same kind of resistance I get when I talk up Lord of War. With the latter, some people just can’t get past their dislike of Nicolas Cage; with the former, they’ll have nothing to do with Tom Cruise. But Cruise, like Cage, is an underrated actor — go watch Magnolia and tell me that isn’t a fine performance — and in War of the Worlds he is quite good as a father trying to keep his kids safe and sane as all hell breaks loose again and again.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the tormented mom simply looks relieved when the aliens return her kid — caught up in the coolness of it all, we’re supposed to think. See, the aliens are nice after all. They just wanted to make her life a complete and utter hell for a while, until the special effects finale was ready. A real-life mom would have made sure her kid was okay, then stepped up and given one of the aliens a knuckle sandwich. When Tom Cruise’s character gets close to the War of the Worlds aliens who made off with his daughter, he spoon-feeds them some payback with a clutch of grenades. In other words, he acts like a parent. That’s why I prefer the malign War of the Worlds to the benign Close Encounters. The guy who made War of the Worlds knew a thing or two about life, and what it’s like to be a doting parent in troubled times.  

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Thanks for nothing

Serving as a Pulitzer Prize judge, particularly in the fiction category, sounds like one of those honors one is better off declining — like stepping up as a volcano virgin, taking first prize in a hitting-yourself-on-the-head contest, or being the guest of honor at a stabscotch marathon. You get the privilege of reading through a few hundred entered novels and short-story collections, and then wonder if the people in charge will simply ignore your award recommendations, as just happened this past April.

I got my first look at the downside of being a Pulitzer picker courtesy of novelist and Rutgers academic Julian Moynahan, who was on the fiction panel for 1982. He and his fellow jurors had waded through the mass of entries to arrive at three finalists: A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike. The Pulitzer Prize Board upended their recommendation and gave the award to Rabbit Is Rich instead of Stone’s extraordinary novel. (The linked New Yorker piece says the jurors give three equally ranked nominations, but Moynahan made it pretty clear the jurors wanted Robert Stone to get the award.)

“They gave Updike his gold watch,” Moynahan grumbled. I couldn’t argue with him. A Flag for Sunrise still packs plenty of punch three decades after release, while Rabbit Is Rich faded away as soon as the standard-issue raves from the critical amen corner took their place of honor in the recycling bin. As for this year’s non-award, I dunno. Giving the top prize to a posthumously published novel cobbled from the late David Foster Wallace’s working papers would have been a bit unseemly as well. The opening paragraph of The Pale King, which the author cites as a miracle of prose, strikes me as a lot of grad-student overwriting — it doesn’t need to be edited so much as weed-whacked. 

Apparently, the other two finalists had problems of their own: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams was actually a Paris Review novella published in hardcover ten years after the fact, and Swamplandia! was tyro work in danger of being overpraised. Maybe no award was the best award after all.

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