Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Books I Read & The Movies I Saw in 2008

Books

Fiction
  1. Cousin Bette – Honore Balzac
  2. Modeste Mignon – Honore Balzac
  3. The Unknown Masterpiece & Gambara – Honore Balzac
  4. Room for Murder – Thomas B. Dewey
  5. My Fantoms – Theophile Gautier
  6. The Tragic Comedians – George Meredith
  7. To Siberia – Per Petterson
  8. Come Back to Sorrento – Dawn Powell
  9. Equal Danger – Leonardo Sciascia
  10. The Middle of the Journey – Lionel Trilling
  11. Virgin Soil – Ivan Turgenev
  12. Burr – Gore Vidal
Non-Fiction

  1. Energies of Art – Jacques Barzun
  2. The Money Men: Capitalism, Democracy and the Hundred Years’ War Over the American Dollar – H.W. Brands
  3. Landscape Into Art – Kenneth Clark
  4. The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins
  5. Complete Works: Middle Years, Volume 10 – John Dewey
  6. Bound to Please – Michael Dirda
  7. Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and Its Discontents – Mikal Gilmore
  8. English Hours – Henry James
  9. Wellsprings – Mario Vargas Llosa
  10. Edwardians: London Life and Letters, 1901-1914 – John Paterson
  11. The Rest in Noise: Listening to the 20th Century – Alex Ross
  12. Defeat: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign – Philippe-Paul de S├ęgur
  13. Havanas in Camelot: Personal Essays – William Styron
  14. The Liberal Imagination – Lionel Trilling
  15. Picked-Up Pieces – John Updike
  16. Ending in Earnest – Rebecca West
  17. A Piece of My Mind – Edmund Wilson

And here are a few (very few) of the books I never got around to finishing.


Movies

  1. Army of Shadows
  2. Audition
  3. Badlands
  4. The Big Lie
  5. Black Peter
  6. Boy Meets Girl
  7. Caesar and Cleopatra
  8. Le Cercle Rouge
  9. Claire’s Knee
  10. Comrade X
  11. Crime School
  12. The Crowd Roars
  13. The Decline of Western Civilization, Part 2
  14. Le Deuxieme Souffle
  15. Don’t Knock the Rock
  16. Le Doulos
  17. Fifth Avenue Girl
  18. The Firemen’s Ball
  19. Hard Boiled
  20. Holiday
  21. Honky Tonk
  22. Judge Dredd
  23. Kid Galahad
  24. The King of Kong
  25. The Lady Killer
  26. Late Autumn
  27. Little Miss Sunshine
  28. The Lovers
  29. Loves of a Blonde
  30. Mademoiselle Fifi
  31. Manhattan Melodrama
  32. Michael Clayton
  33. My Blueberry Nights
  34. My Night at Maud’s
  35. The Night of the Hunter
  36. Notes on a Scandal
  37. Office Space
  38. Pickup on South Street
  39. Prime Cut
  40. The Prime Minister
  41. Road House
  42. Sawdust and Tinsel
  43. Searchers 2.0
  44. Shine A Light
  45. The Simpsons Movie
  46. Sleeper
  47. Stargate
  48. Straight to Hell
  49. Strangers with Candy
  50. Taking Off
  51. Talk to Me
  52. The Tender Trap
  53. There Will Be Blood
  54. They All Kissed the Bride
  55. They Call It Sin
  56. 2 Days in Paris
  57. Two Lane Blacktop
  58. The Weather Underground
  59. Wild Man Blues
  60. Withnail & I
  61. You Can’t Get Away With Murder

Monday, December 22, 2008

Rock & Roll Death Trip

Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and Its Discontents
by Mikal Gilmore.

There is not much to like about this book, which is unfortunate. I wanted to like it. I greatly enjoyed Gilmore’s earlier book Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll and would highly recommend it. Stories Done, though, is a let-down.

To start with, the book is a bit of a rip-off. Almost a quarter of it is composed of pieces already published in Night Beat but reprinted in this volume for reasons, Gilmore tells us, of “context.” Even though the “context” of writers recycling their old material is usually that they have nothing new to say. And actually, it’s an overall lack of freshness in either subject matter or ideas which is the overriding problem with this book.

Frankly, this book feels like a morgue. Most of the pieces were written as memoria for recently dead figures from the 60s: Ken Kesey, George Harrison, Johnny Cash, Hunter S. Thompson, Syd Barrett. Throw in some other pieces about the dead Jim Morrison, the dead Bob Marley and a commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon; then drag in the corpses from the earlier book (Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Gregg Allman, and Jerry Garcia) and you’ve basically got The Rock-n-Roll Book of The Dead, only without the optimism of the Egyptian original. It’s so bad that the last section of the book is actually entitled “The Living.” The living being, in this case, the 67-year-old Bob Dylan and the 74-year-old Leonard Cohen (perhaps that section should have been called “The Barely Living”).

On top of this, Gilmore doesn’t have anything very original or interesting to say about his figures; he merely dishes up the accepted narratives. When he does diverge from those tired (and tiresome) mythologies the book comes alive. For instance, he makes the strong argument that it was Paul McCartney rather than John Lennon who was the more intellectually profound and adventurous of the Beatles. It was McCartney, after all, who was the guiding force behind Sgt. Pepper as well as the suite of songs which ends Abbey Road. While Lennon was mired in personal problems, McCartney was soaking in the works of avant-garde composers like Stockhausen and John Cage, and attending concerts by bands like Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine. Writing about Jim Morrison’s singing on L.A. Woman (an album he rightly calls “a fascinating portrayal of dissolusion”), Gilmore observes:
Whereas The Doors and Strange Days were largely albums about fear and loss, L.A. Woman actually seemed to live within those states of mind…In songs like the title track, you hear Morrison’s voice push apart and fray and gain a new credibility as it actually struggles not to fall apart. Morrison had always claimed that his biggest vocal influence was Frank Sinatra, and L.A. Woman, for once, demonstrated that influence, in Morrison’s determination to sing as if it were the latest hours of the night and he was sharing a few final words with sympathetic friends.
Another problem with this book is that it completely ignores anything that has to do with Blacks, Women, or Gays. It’s purview is almost entirely white, male and heterosexual. Now, as a white, male heterosexual I don’t necessarily mind that, but since the 60s was about the struggles of non-whites, non-males and non-heterosexuals for greater freedom their invisibility in Gilmore’s narrative is a major problem. Certainly, instead of Night Beat’s retreads, Gilmore could have cranked out a few original pieces about, say, what Black Americans were doing in music during the 60s. And since many of these Blacks are now comfortably dead (Jimi, Marvin, Ray) that shouldn’t be a problem for Gilmore. And, surely, he could find a place for Janis’s casket in this cultural funeral parlor.

As if all these problems weren’t enough, yet another one pops its head up; namely, Gilmore’s assessments of his subjects. He likes to gush. He has a tendency to engage in the grossest overstatement about someone’s importance, but often completely misses that person’s true significance. For instance, he says of Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:
He was a considerable cultural force who helped transform modern history as much through how he lived his life as through the words that he wrote…Whether we like it or not, we are still living in Ken Kesey’s America. Chances are, it will be a long time before the effects of his life settle enough to be fully measured or easily forgotten.
What nonsense. First off, Kesey did not “transform modern history”; very few individuals do (currently only Mikhail Gorbachev and Osama bin Laden are on that list). Kesey did, though, help to change American society for the better but that was through his writings, not through his life, and certainly not through the ridiculous and embarrassing antics of the drug-addled Merry Pranksters which Gilmore so admires. Thanks to the writings of Ken Kesey – as well as the those of Thomas Szasz, R.D. Laing, and Michel Foucault (and many others) – laws were changed in this country and now people can no longer be forcibly incarcerated in mental institutions against their will. Thanks to Ken Kesey (at least in part), millions of American will live freer lives. And that’s quite an accomplishment. Gilmore, though, never mentions it.

It’s a shame that this book is so disappointing. Gilmore is one of the best writers about Rock & Roll that we have. He is, hands down, among the best interviewers in journalism. The interview with Leonard Cohen which ends Stories Done is masterful; he creates a portrait of the man. It’s a genuine work of art. (His interviews with Jagger and Reed in Night Beat were also exceptionally good.)

Despite its many flaws, there are some touching and beautiful moments in this book. Gilmore describes getting a call from Johnny Cash in 1976 after his brother, Gary Gilmore, had been put to death for murder. Cash had spoken to Gary the night of his execution and had called Mikal simply to offer support and some measure of comfort:
I don’t know that I ever found the peace Cash wished me that day, but I know that in those moments that he took the time to speak with me, I found something that made as much difference as anything might on that impossible day: I heard a voice – from a man who had always represented courage and dignity in my family’s mind – offer a stranger understanding and kindness, without any judgments. That was more grace than I expected or perhaps deserved from somebody who wasn’t a friend in those hours, and I have always been grateful for it.

Cash didn’t have to talk to me that day. He didn’t have to talk to any of us in America about those forces or impulses that hurt and bewildered us. But he chose to anyway, and he did it not because doing so made him a better person, but rather because he wasn’t always a better person, and he knew he had to understand the meaning of that truth at least as much as the meanings of faith or piety.
For me the most effecting part of the book was in the "Acknowledgements and Memoriam" section where Gilmore tells about the gradual disintegration and death of fellow music critic Paul Nelson. The brief portrait is very powerful, made more so by the fact that Gilmore can’t load Nelson and his death with a lot of overblown significance; it’s the stark and simple recollection about a friend who went into a downward spiral and never came out.

Gilmore has always understood that the best Rock & Roll, like the best Blues, comes out of personal confusion, pain and loss as well as from the transcendence and exhilaration of overcoming them through the act of creation. It’s only fitting that the best parts of Stories Done also come from that same place. Yet I can’t help but feel that by sticking to the conventional stories of the conventional figures told in the conventional ways he is, in some way, attempting to insulate himself from this truth.

Monday, December 15, 2008

"He Was Enormous With a Woman"

I've recently purchased a bunch of classic pulps from a local second-hand bookstore near me and I figured that now was as good a time as any to share the covers with my readers:










This one is so over-the-top that I've included the back cover and first page as well:




And here is my collection of Wade Miller originals:


Not a pulp, but still an essential for any library:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Music and Movie Blog Round-Up

I've been too lazy this week to actually write something myself, so instead I'm going to parasitically refer over to various other art-related blogs that caught my interest:

The Bioscope has an interesting post about George Bernard Shaw’s opinions about movies as well as his career in them.

Self-Styled Siren lists 10 things she loves about old movies. I would add two more things: 1) adorable country cottages you could stay at when life in the city got too tough; and 2) fast-talking dames.

And in case you had any doubts about just how damn good Chinatown really was, check out PilgrimAkimbo’s analysis of John Alonzo’s masterful cinematography and the rule of thirds.

And finally, Michael Monroe muses on the similarity between the music of Anton Webern and that of – I shit you not – The Andy Griffith Show.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

To Siberia

Per Petterson’s newly released novel To Siberia (first published in 1996 but only now available in the US) is something of a disappointment. The first half is very good. The story is about a brother and sister growing up in Denmark in the 1930s and 40s. They have a tough, hard scrabble existence. Their father is a carpenter who “works his way downward”, as his daughter puts it. Their mother a religious eccentric who bangs away at the piano singing hymns of her own composition. Grandpa is an abusive alcoholic given to fits of rage. Suicide takes him out of the novel early. Not surprisingly, the children dream of escape. Jesper, the son, of going to Morocco and the daughter (who narrates the book yet never gives her name – her brother refers to her as “Sistermine”) of boarding the Tran-Siberian Railway and moving to Siberia.


I had read about it, seen pictures in a book, and decided that no matter when and how life would turn out, one day I would travel from Moscow to Vladivostok on that train, and I practiced saying the names: Omsk, Tomsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, they were difficult to pronounce with all their hard consonants, but ever since the trip to Skagen, every journey I made by train was a potential departure on my own great journey.
I liked the early sections of the book best. Petterson is at his best depicting the family: the cold and brutal father, the love between the brother and sister. The novel is apparently based on the life of Petterson’s mother and it has that feel of easy intimacy that one gets in a well-told family story. Petterson can sketch a character’s whole life in a few details. Here Sistermine tells us about what happened when her grandfather hanged himself in the barn:


When they cut Grandfather down they found a scrap of paper in his jacket pocket. He was wearing a white shirt and his best suit with watch chain and waistcoat, his thick hair was brushed back like shining fur, and there was no gray in it, because he had eaten bones and gristle all his life.
“Bones and gristle” is a nice touch. Even better is the reference to the Grandfather’s hair as “shining fur” as if he was just another well-groomed animal in the barn.

The Nazis invade, and the novel goes downhill. (Ah, what doesn’t go downhill when Nazis show up?) Jesper, by this point a Socialist, joins the underground resistance and goes into hiding. Sistermine weathers out the occupation as best she can. The gripping family drama is replaced by accounts of ugly encounters between the Dutch and their German occupiers. Accurate? Sure. But not very interesting. Without the relationship of Jesper and Sistermine at the center of the novel, the story becomes disjointed – it loses its soul.

After the war, the brother and sister begin to grow more separate lives. She eventually leaves Denmark and travels to Sweden where she gets pregnant. Jesper makes it to Morocco. We never find out if she makes it to Siberia.

Despite its excellent beginning the novel peters out in the end. I really didn’t care about any of the new characters who show up in the last half of the novel and if you abandon it when the Third Reich arrives you won’t be missing much.

Still, this novel is ultimately worth reading. When Petterson is good he is very good. The early chapters involving the family are vivid and masterful. Twenty years from now I’ll still be able to remember them. (The later chapters were forgotten as soon as I closed the book.) At its best Petterson’s prose is like an enforced hush. Here, for instance, is the young Sistermine ruminating about how she will adapt to the Siberian cold:

…I don’t think the cold will bother me. They have different clothes in Siberia that I can learn to wear instead of now when I have only my thin coat against the wind that comes in from the sea between Denmark and Sweden and blows straight through everything. They have caps made of wolfskin and big jackets and fur-lines boots, and lots of the people who live there look like Eskimos. I might pass as one of them if I cut my hair short. And besides I shall sit in the train and look out of the window and talk to people, and they will tell me what their lives are like and what their thoughts are and ask me why I have come all the long way from Denmark. Then I will answer them:

“I have read about you in a book.” And then we’ll drink hot tea from the samovar and be quiet together just looking.
To Siberia is not a great novel. But Petterson is, nonetheless, a great writer.