Wednesday, December 31, 2008
I'd also like to throw out a few thanks as we close out the year. This blog -- which is something that has been a big deal for me in the last chunk of 2008 -- is something I never really thought I'd start, so first and foremost I'd like to thank my good friend, Jonathan Lapper, for not only encouraging me to actually quit waffling and do it, but for his technical assistance and general friendship. And I'd also like to thank Dennis Cozzalio, my first movie-blog pal, for not only his encouragement, but his genuine and ongoing kindness. Further encouragement, kindness and friendship have been shown to me, one of the new guys in town, by highly accomplished veterans like Rick Olson, Marilyn Ferdinand, Arbogast, Fox, Adam Ross, Brian Doan, Ed Howard and Kimberly. And I've been further floored and overwhelmed by good words from Matt Zoller Seitz and Glenn Kenny.
So thank you again, to each and every one of you. I strive to write to the level of each of you, which is why I often find this whole blogging gig to be so goddamn hard.
Have a happy New Year, you crazy sons'a bitches!!
Monday, December 29, 2008
Thursday, December 25, 2008
However, over the years I have somehow managed to make another kind of enemy: that of the aesthetic variety. Or, at least, they claim their problems with me stem from an objective dislike of my art, but I have my suspicions that these specific bushes of vitriol have roots that run deeper, into their hearts and psyches. But that's neither here nor there. No, today I want to offer a rebuttal to the extraordinarily harsh -- but, of course, ultimately inconsequential -- words directed towards me and my life's creative work by a man who is generally regarded as one of America's "greatest" "writers", John Updike.
One year ago, I published a collection of my monologues. Currently and inexplicably out of print, the title of my collection was (is!) Speak Up! Speak Out!. In an especially brief review of the book published in The New Yorker, Updike said the title should be “Rampaging Tedium”. He also went on to say that “clearly, we are dealing here with a third-tier Eric Bogosian, as if a first-tier Eric Bogosian was somehow worth our time.” Okay, hold it right there, Psoriasis. I once wrote an appreciation of Eric Bogosian (I’m still looking for the right place to publish it) in which I said “Eric Bogosian is not just our country’s Dario Fo: he’s Dario Fo wrapped in the skin of Lenny Bruce and infused with the hot-wired, kick-ass, rage-filled savior-soul of Bill Hicks. He writes like a gutter-dwelling angel from Hell on meth!” If Updike doesn’t think someone like that is worth his time, then maybe he should go back to reading his precious Chris Bohjalian novels, or whatever the hell he reads.
Then, Updike pulls this card: “Mr. R.’s collection is a bewildering 23 pages long; the book costs an offensive fourteen dollars. That's nearly fifty cents a page.” First off, thanks for the algebra lesson, Dr. Math. Second, this is what Updike has been reduced to? Whining about how much books cost?? Whatever happened to the guy who wrote Rabbit Re-Do and The Vampires of Eastwidge? Those were pretty big books in their day, I thought. Plus, it’s not like he can’t afford it. Last I heard, Pulitzer winners rake in some pretty sweet coin.
Later, Updike blathers thusly: "Mr. R. seems to think that simplistic speech-making is the same thing as good writing. And by simplistic, I mean 'depressingly ignorant'. I have a hard time imagining even the most knee-jerk, closed-off college student would find much worth in what Mr. R. has to say in these pieces. That in itself might be forgivable, however, if the writing itself rose even an inch above worthless cliche', but it never does. He's happy to wallow in the endlessly worked-over sludge of the amateur polemicist." When I read that part, this is what I said: "Huh?" Literally, that's what I said. Since I'm sure you're just as confused as I was about what Updike thinks he's saying here, allow me to translate: "I'm too old! I don't understand! I'm on my way out!" Updike is terrified because he's part of the Old Guard, and us Young Guns (as I like to call artists of my generation and general thought-patterns) are coming up fast. He knows he's out of date, and that our Wave of Change is going to drown out his old-timey BS.
You see, there are two primary artistic media that are about to render all others irrelevant: monologues and YouTube. If I'd been able to, I never would have published my monologues, or even performed them at open mikes, or on street corners; I simply would have filmed (or, really, "videoed") them and put them right on YouTube. Unfortunately, I don't have a video camera. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is because, Mr. Updike, they cost a hell of a lot more than $14!
I won't lie to you: when I read his review, I was furious. I don't mind admitting this, because I am human, and I embrace my humanity. I also acted on this anger, a fact which also fails to shame me, by sending Updike an e-mail. The e-mail consisted of simply this:
I love emoticons, because they really represent, and speak to, the full range of human emotion. They certainly do a better job of it than Updike's dried-up old books. And the proof that my e-mail struck a nerve is that not only didn't he respond, he also changed his e-mail address. Game, set, match. Also, check-mate.
So, there you go. Updike's review was like a fly on the dinner table: mildly annoying until you smash it with a magazine. After that, it's on with your life. In short, I've moved on.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Monday, December 22, 2008
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Thursday, December 18, 2008
10. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
Foster's devestating suicide earlier this year spurred me to finally take a serious stab at his fiction. Following my usual pattern, I chose a collection of his short fiction. None of you know this, but I tried to hack out a whole post about this book, but the complexities, brilliance and occasionally infuriating gimmicks defeated me. This book is unlike anything else I've ever read. In all honesty, it's also not the sort of thing that would usually be a natural draw for me. But it's also clearly the work of a man who was feircely talented, incredibly smart, and, more likely than not, bound up too tightly inside his own head.
9. The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd
This novel tells the highly fictionalized story, based on fact, of Charles and Mary Lamb, two devotees of Shakespeare in 19th century London who, in Ackroyd's version of events, became involved with William Henry Ireland (another historical figure) best known for writing, among other things, entire plays which he was able, for a while, to pass off as lost works by Shakespeare. This book is quietly and darkly observant, and, by the end, more than a little chilling.
8. The Streets of Laredo by Larry McMurtry
I put off reading this sequel to McMurtry's masterful Lonesome Dove for, well, a really long time. I mean, it couldn't be as good as that first book, could it? McMurtry's just trying to soak up more of that sweet Lonesome Dove cash, isn't he? The answer to the first question is, "No, it's not." The answer to the second question is, "How the hell should I know?" But The Streets of Laredo is pretty great, whether you think it measures up to its predecessor or not. McMurtry's prose can be lean to a fault at times, but at other times, for long stretches, you have to wonder how he's able to do so much with so few words.
7. The Hunter by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake)
Finally -- finally! -- I was able to read the first book in the series upon which Donald Westlake's ultimate legacy will be based. The Hunter is his first novel (writing as Richard Stark) about Parker, a cold-blooded, amoral thief. Parker is a true anti-hero, in that nothing that he does can be considered morally good. If he lets someone live, it's only because killing them would cause him too much hassle. If he kills someone, he does so because letting them live would cause him more hassle. He's a stone cold bastard, but he's also smarter than everyone else. Westlake is a great writer, and The Hunter is a great place to start, if you want evidence of that fact. (Note: This year, I also read the second novel in this series, The Man with the Getaway Face. It wasn't as good as The Hunter, but it's still excellent.)
6. The Man in the Ceiling by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem
The best book I read for my The Kind of Face You SLASH!! series.
5. The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith
I read this novel, my first Highsmith, around the beginning of the year, so it's hard now for me to summarize what I loved so much about it, both as a story and a piece of prose. But I did indeed love it very much. Like McMurtry, Highsmith tells her chilling story about everything going to hell for a small group of people in very spare language, completely free of pretense, which forces you to focus on what matters most: the people, and what's happening to them.
4. In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff
Another writer I read for the first time this year is Tobias Wolff. I'd been hearing about how great he supposedly is for a long time, and the sheer volume of it eventually wore me down to the point where I said, "Fine, goddammit, I'll read one of his stupid-ass books". The one I chose, one of his several collections of short stories, knocked me out. There are few writers, of the short story or any other kind of fiction, as precise as Wolff. There are even fewer for whom the word "perfect" would seem like anything other than sheer hyperbole. But Wolff acheives perfection m0re than once, in this collection alone. Here, read the brilliant Hunters in the Snow for yourself. Tell me I'm wrong.
3. Lush Life by Richard Price
Richard Price is one of America's greatest living writers. His mastery of dialogue is the equal of David Mamet's, and his observation of human behavior is as keen as any I've ever encountered. His last four novels can be roughly categorized as crime novels, but, while I bristle at the idea of calling them "more" than that, I would have to say that they are crime novels while also being several other things. Lush Life tells the story of a random, senseless murder and its investigation and consequences. If that sounds like old-hat to you, than you're going to miss out. Price is a genius, simple as that.
2. Old School by Tobias Wolff
Wolff is primarily a writer of short fiction, but a few years ago he did publish Old School, his "first" novel ("first" in the sense that it's actually his second, but it's the only one he's willing to acknowledge), about the narrator's experiences in a private school in the 1950s and 60s. Each year at this school, a distinguished writer is invited to speak to the students. Each year also brings with it a writing contest, the winner of which will be able to have a one-on-one meeting with the visiting author. Roughly speaking, the novel follows the narrator as he tries to win each contest, and an opportunity to meet, respectively, Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway. Wolff proves with this that he should write more novels. It's really exquisite -- beautiful and funny, and it has one of the most moving final paragraphs I've read in a long time.
1. Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy
See below. How's that for an anti-climax?
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
It was later afternoon when they set forth again, out from the town, the wheels rasping in the sand, back down the yellow road.
Night fell upon them dark and starblown and the wagon grew swollen near mute with dew. On their chairs in such black immobility these travelers could have been stone figures quarried from the architecture of an older time.
It howled execration up the dim camarine world of its nativity wail on wail while he lay there gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night like some witless paraclete beleagured with all limbo's clamor.
Monday, December 15, 2008
Sunday, December 14, 2008
A quick investigation confirmed that this was the source material of the Masterpiece Theater series, so I bought it and, at some point during the intervening years, read it. I sometimes tell people that Piece of Cake is my favorite book, but it's been so long since I read the whole thing that I should probably stop saying that, just in case a subsequent re-reading of the novel should make me out a liar. But it is a great book. It tells the story of an RAF fighter squadron, called Hornet Squadron, from September 1939, up to the Battle of Britain in September 1940. Robinson gets across what it must have been like to be a young man at the beginning of World War II, getting ready to take up one of the most insane and dangerous jobs in any military at that time, and he does so with a great deal of sardonic wit and a complete lack of dishonest sentiment.
Without even opening the book, I can still rattle off the names of the main characters (of which there are quite a few): Pip Patterson, Mother Cox, Moggy Cattermole, Flash Gordon, Moke Miller, Rex, Kellaway, Baggy Bletchley, Stickwell, Fanny Barton, Christopher Hart III (known as CH3)...I also remember, to a man, whether or not they make it out of the novel alive, and, if not, how they died. More than any other novel I know, Piece of Cake kept me completely off-balance regarding my confidence in the fate, and life expectancy, of the characters. Anybody could be killed at any time. No one was ever safe. In this sense, Piece of Cake feels like the most realistic war novel I've ever read. And it's still a very funny book, from the first page to the last.
I've since read many of Robinson's other novels. He certainly does seem to favor war novels about fighter (or bomber) squadrons bearing ironically frivolous titles (see also A Good Clean Fight and Damned Good Show), and he also really likes to write about Hornet Squadron -- apart from Piece of Cake, this squadron also appears in the aforementioned A Good Clean Fight, and in his World War I novels War Story and Hornet's Sting (and you can find Hornet's prototype in Robinson's Booker Prize-nominated Goshawk Squadron). I've read all of these, except Hornet's Sting, and I like them all, but I'll be honest and say to anyone interested in Robinson that there is a sameness to these novels that might wear on you, so if you wanted to pick just one, then go with Piece of Cake. With that novel, he was working at the height of his powers: it's his epic, and his masterwork.
Robinson does write other kinds of books. He's written a few spy novels, an American Civil War novel (Kentucky Blues), and many non-fiction books about both war and rugby. He's still writing, but his kind of fiction is apparently, and unfortunately, out of style, because he's had to self-publish his newest novel, Hullo Russia, Goodbye England, about Cold War spy-plane pilots. This guy has been nominated for a Booker, he's been adapted by Masterpiece Theater, and now he has to self-publish. I'm disgusted, but unsurprised. But oh well. I'd say that I hope Robinson isn't bitter about this turn of events, but having read a number of his novels, I think the odds are that he probably is, which is fine, because he has every right to be. After all, he's the guy who wrote Piece of Cake. Read that book, all of you. It's another great novel in danger of being forgotten.
Friday, December 12, 2008
My thought process went something like, "Say, this sum'bitch is less than thirty dollars. That's like a buck a movie. Plus also which, I haven't seen any of these, and maybe there are some hidden gems in here. If I really like only two of these movies, then I can easily justify the purchase!"
I can't honestly say I'm terribly familiar with all of the various '"sploitation" genres that are being represented on this box-set (the twenty films are crammed onto three two-sided discs), and I've long felt that I might be missing out, genre fan that I am. So I took the plunge and bought it. I'm not even going to tell you what DVDs I put back in favor of this, for the shame I feel now is too great.
I've only watched one of the movies, and that's the only one I plan on watching. That film is Max Kalmanowicz's 1980 horror opus The Children, about a small town whose entire child population -- which must be pushing double digits -- is contaminated by some toxic, gaseous disaster, transforming all of them from children into...The Children. Which might sound to many of you like a lateral move at the absolute worst, but which is in fact a quite horrifying development, as it deadens their minds and turns their hands into deadly, flesh-melting weapons. Cutting off those hands is this film's equivalent of "destroy the brain and the body dies", nonsensical as that both sounds and is. But this is a film that introduces one female character as having a sister (or teenage daughter) who seems barely conscious, and to whom she feeds codeine tablets, only to have both the codeine feeder and the feed-ee drop out of the story within minutes. Also, before all the kids come back and start burning off everyone's skin, it's believed that they've been kidnapped, and upon hearing this information, the resident Bad Mother (she's rich and has a pool and sunbathes) says, "A kidnapping in Ravensback?? How exciting!!"
The Children looks and feels like an old TV movie, and I might think that's just what it was if it wasn't for the scene where there are boobies, and the other scene where that one guy says "handjob". The TV movie feel is enhanced by the DVD quality, which is rancid. The damn thing looks like it was transferred off of a VHS bootleg. And hey, what's this? Right at the end of the film, before the credits, the picture fritzes out with that rolling distortion, bleeding into static, that you used to get with old, well-used tapes. Hmmm....
The Grindhouse Experience retails on Amazon for $34.99. It's not worth $3.49. I'm taking this turd back to the store tomorrow, where I can get trade-in credit, and hopefully I'll be able to go home feeling a little less ripped-off. Before I do, though, it occurs to me that the picture quality of High School Hitch Hikers might not be so bad. I'd better give it a look...
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Monday, December 8, 2008
Saturday, December 6, 2008
Julian Sands, it cannot be stressed too highly, stars in Boxing Helena as Dr. Nick Cavanaugh. I dearly wish there was some way to give you some sense of his line readings, but then again maybe the limits of the English language are, in this case, a blessing. Sands is through-the-floor terrible in this film, and I was all set to tear him a new cornhole, because it's high time someone knocked Julian Sands off his pedestal, but then in one scene I noticed he was wearing a hearing aid. This was late in the film, and there had never been any indication that his character was hard of hearing. So I started thinking, "Is Julian Sands deaf? Is that why he's so bad? Am I discriminating against him? Maybe he's actually a really good actor, for a deaf person. But wait, Marlee Matlin's deaf, and she's pretty good. Was she born deaf? Because maybe that's the difference. Maybe Sands..." And so on. I finally decided to err on the side of caution, and I therefore now consider his performance a courageous triumph. I have to add a little toughness to the love, however, and point out that while Sands sure as hell gives Nick Furlong a run for his money, he's still going to have to put in some hard work if he wants to get to the level of Dakota Fanning.
Anyway. Nick Cavanaugh is a brilliant surgeon who, following the death of his mother, has recently inherited his sprawling family home. He has a long-time girlfriend named Anne (Betsy Clarke), but still obsesses over a woman named Helena, played by Sherilyn Fenn. Nick's best friend Lawrence (ART GARFUNKEL!!) gently reminds him that he only spent one night with Helena, and he might want to think about letting it go. You can never ignore the advice of Art Garfunkel and still expect a heavenly light to ever again shine on your soul, but ignore him Nick does, by inviting Helena to a party he suddenly decides to throw.
Helena, meanwhile, is gorgeous. I mean, look:
I'm fucking pretty as shit