Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Don't Read This

I'm a few days late, but Banned Books Week is currently rolling along. This is an ongoing event, but September 26nd until October 3rd truly stresses the need for all books, no matter what the content, to be available to everyone. Yes, there are thousands of books that contain "questionable material." If your personal tastes do not run down these paths, that's perfectly acceptable. However, these titles need to be out in the open in the interest of intelligence, learning, and open discussions.

Quite a few of the arguments deal with banning books in order to shield certain subjects from children. Some people may say I'm living in a fantasy world, but there should be no problem with certain subjects (sex, race, and drugs are the main ones) fostering healthy discussions. There's a whole world out there, especially literary, that can spark communication and learning. If you'd like a purely political argument, banning books goes against the First Amendment.

So read. Discuss. Celebrate the written word. I've included the Banned Books Week webpage link above. Here are two books that I've written essays on that very well may fall into the "challenged category:"

Henry Miller's Tropic Of Cancer

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian

If you have a blog or a website, please share the Banned Books link and spread the word!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Notes From a Fellini Novice

It's been awhile since my last film essay, so in some way, it feels appropriate to go all out on this newest piece. Imagine having a friend who's a major book reader, with shelves full of old and new classics, as well as some underrated and hard-to-find gems. Now, picture a friend who's a music buff, someone with an overloaded iTunes account and an impressive collection of rare vinyls. We all know people who fit these categories, but imagine if the reader admitted to having never read a play by William Shakespeare, and the audiophile slipping off some headphones and saying "Well, I've never heard a Beatles song."

Perhaps I'm exaggerating a bit too much, but then again, perhaps not. As a film critic in college, I wrote dozens of reviews and essays, interviewed quite a few actors, writers, and directors, and had an article total that measured over one hundred. As I've hinted at here, I still consider myself a film lover and student, but until this weekend, I had never seen a film by Federico Fellini. This was by no means an intentional oversight; his works simply got lost in the shuffle. When browsing at a video store or scrolling through the Netflix website, I'm usually more likely to select a film by a director I admire (hello, Kurosawa) instead of doing the more responsible action of researching films and directors I need to know. It was almost by surprise when 8 1/2 was delivered last week, and I'm glad it's the first Fellini film I've seen. He has a serious, devoted fan and scholar base, and I would venture to guess that some people might place his other works above this assumed masterpiece. I might as well start at the top and work my way down the list.

I love reading film essays, but the more I tried to remember, I realized that I knew nothing about 8 1/2 going in, save for one or two screencaps in my high school cinema textbook. Last night, I even went to Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" database, but the link to the film wouldn't work. However, I viewed this as a plus; it's very rare to go into such a highly regarded and influential work with such a clean slate and absolutely no notions or subconscious assumptions. Despite not knowing anything, there is only one potential problem--every "discovery" I made in my screening has been "discovered" literally thousands of times, and undoubtedly analyzed and documented in staggering numbers.

What struck me the most about the film was the plot, which also serves as the best way to introduce any analysis to this work. Guido's (Marcelle Mastroianni) film, and by extension 8 1/2 as whole, is literally about everything and nothing--his newest, most anticipated film is talk about with great detail, and imagined in vivid dream interpretations. If it were actually made, it would be a long epic about family, Italian society (filtered through personal relationships and a heavy dose of Catholicism), and the intangible qualities and limitations of creativity. The basis is film (in Terry Gilliam's' DVD introduction, he puts it accurately and succinctly: Fellini was making a movie about making a movie), yet one can easily substitute any means of expression, be it writing or painting, and still get a general understanding of how at times, as seems to be the case with Guido, having too many ideas and options can be just as fatal to the creative process as having none at all.

Given the dizzying sequences, the wealth of people in his life, and the pressure that he's under, it's almost shocking how casually Mastroianni portrays Guido. He snaps at people once in awhile, but for the most part, he spends a lot of screen time with an intense, but thoughtful expression, as if he's studying everyone and everything around him, or merely being an innocent bystander to his own life and looming film. At times, he almost seems bemused. This is oddly appropriate--everything is happening around him so fast that there's almost no choice but to take an emotional step back.

Fellini's portrayal of women is undoubtedly a major subject in the film world, especially for anyone studying film today, with female directors and writers finally gaining much more clout and freedom in Hollywood. For anyone familiar with 8 1/2, the whipping sequence is probably the one most cited in regard to Fellini's look at women. Again, Terry Gilliam's thoughts are essential. He states that Fellini felt every conceivable emotion towards the opposite sex---love, hate, lust, confusion, respect, and objectivity. This is one of those rare, rare instances in which such a defense is both plausible and acceptable. Fellini puts his feelings on the screen with nothing hidden. If one wants to criticize the way the women are viewed, especially in that scene, it's out in the open. There's no way around it, and if it's any twisted consolation, despite their mistreatment, the women clearly gain control. The scene ends with a moving metaphorical image in which Luisa (Anouk Aimée), Guido's wife, cleans and laments the chores that need to be done. Just like in the real life actions of the film, she carries the burden of supporting Guido despite his infidelities and selfishness, but she also seems him with brutal honesty, without any shred of awe like his mistress.

This also marks the second film I've screened this month featuring a score by Nino Rota (the other being Rocco and His Brothers). The music never dominates, but serves as the perfect emotional accompaniment to the actions. Rota is still highly regarded, but while watching 8 1/2, I couldn't help but wonder if his score to The Godfather has taken away from his complete body of work. "The Godfather Waltz" and its multiple variations are stunning, yet blunt in the course of the trilogy. I feel that Rota's other scores, as evidenced in his work from the 1960s, are much more powerful on a subliminal level, blending with the scenes like the actors instead of being an obvious highlight.

Fellini does a beautiful job behind the camera, especially with close-up shots. The opening sequence is a striking example. He didn't create or revolutionize the art of the film close-up (my vote is for Sergei Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin), but uses it for the absolute effects. The camera lingers just a second longer than anticipated, thereby creating subliminal emotions, making the viewer think about a character whilst keeping up with the continually moving storyline. With such a famous film, part of the fun is picking up on some of the influences evident in films that came after. In a previous post, I commented on the dance sequence in Band Of Outsiders influencing the dance scene in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. However, the very brief character dances in 8 1/2 are much more similar to the footwork displayed by John Travolta and Uma Thurman. On a purely hypothetical note, the character La Saraghina (Eddra Gale) would be right at home in a Pedro Almodovar film (yet another filmmaker famous for depictions of women, albeit for vastly different reasons).

I look forward to viewing more of Fellini's filmography, and it's liberating to admit that I'm new to such a famous name in film (I do have a few others that I haven't seen, but they would be much too embarrassing to admit). 8 1/2 isn't my favorite foreign film, but I found it incredibly well made and evocative. For a film that's been lauded for so long, it's satisfying to discover it without any outside influences, and to therefore draw my own conclusions. With everything artistic documented so heavily, especially with the power of the Internet, moments like these are much too fleeting.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Cross Examinations

As a few of you may know, I've long been a major fan of stand-up comedy. Whether this involves some established veterans or some newcomers who only garner a few laughs on a late-night special, I'm always glad to devote at least twenty minutes of attention. The art form has exploded and developed quite a bit in the past fifteen years or so, with the best (yes, opinions will vary on these signifiers) having the chance to become A-list millionaires (see Jerry Seinfeld) and the worst sometimes being so persistent that they are at least able to maintain some exposure (see Carlos Mencia). No matter what, it seems inevitable that most comedians eventually find their way to publishing books.

It's on these pages in which even the best seem to falter more often than not. Even George Carlin's three books decreased in quality, from the excellent Brain Droppings to When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?, which was a combination of tired rantings and blatantly recopied pieces of his older works. Lewis Black's style works very well in book form, and while I haven't read his works (I've only watched clips online), a close friend of mine swears by the writings of Bill Hicks. With this range of possibility in mind, I was excited when I learned that David Cross, one of my favorite comics, was publishing his own book. His stand-up can almost feel like storytelling in the best way, and given his history of essay and television writings, I had very high hopes going into I Drink For a Reason. Now that I've finished it, I'm a little varied in my initial thoughts. His best chapters are both thought-provoking and hilarious, but he also hits the occasional stumble.

What's refreshing is that David Cross can take (intelligent) criticisms without flying off the handle, but is unafraid to respond to misinformed critics with solid defenses of his material and opinions. In an era when any comic who speaks in more than a compound sentence is referred to as a "thinking person's comic," Cross is an actual embodiment of this description. For example, he shares his response to a blogger who referred to one of his sets as "bigoted."

"And Emily, if that was 'the most blatant display of bigotry [you've] ever witnessed in person,' then you have lived a charmed life, for sure. I think that you are being hyperbolic and overdramatic, to say the least. While it's true that I made fun of Mormons and their beliefs, you completely ignored the context in which I did it. The ENTIRE premise of the piece was first prefaced (and this lasted over a minute) by saying that, should I ever choose to run for any kind of office, that, no matter how many good ideas I might have to improve the quality of everyone's life or implement a universal health care plan etc., that I could never get elected because I am an atheist (Cross 60)."

He's not only defending himself, but he's doing so in an honest, well-written manner, backed up with facts and actual responses instead of bile-spewing indignation. Elsewhere in the book, he does emit some intense backlash, but this is reserved for people like Bill O'Reilly, as displayed in a hilarious and shocking re-imagining of his appearance on The O'Reilly Factor. In addition, I was excited that the book included his open letter to Daniel Whitney, aka Larry the Cable Guy, written after Cross was called out for criticizing the comedian and his fan base. Again, his rebuttal is intelligent and honest.

"What does it mean to 'Larry' something up? Take a wild guess. The reason you feel the need to 'Larry' something up? Because you are not that dumb. I mean you, Dan Whitney, the guy whose name the bank account is under. You were born and raised in Nebraska (hardly the South), went to private school, and moved to Florida when you were 16. This is when you developed your accent?! Not exactly the developmental years, are they? At age 16 that's the kind of thing you have to make a concerted effort to adopt. Did you hire a voice coach? Or were you like one of those people who go to England for a week and come back sounding like an extra from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (208)?"

He's also not shy about calling out other celebrities, namely Whoopi Goldberg and Jim Belushi. What elevates his critiques is that he's not doing so in some gossipy, Kathy Griffin-esque manner. He has his reasons and opinions, and they work in the context of the chapters, and not just random insults.

So far, I've offered a pretty strong recommendation of I Drink For a Reason, but as I mentioned earlier, the book does have its limitations and rough patches. He offers some fictionalized looks at his future involvement with the East Coast literary scene in anticipation of being a published author. There are also a few lists reminiscent of Mr. Carlin, including "A Free List Of Quirks For Aspiring Independent Filmmakers" and "Didja Know?," a collection of random facts. These have the occasional flash of genius, but overall, Cross's writings work much better as serious personal anecdotes and riffs on religion and American culture. However, his best fictionalized piece is his parody of Pitchforkmedia.com, which literally made me laugh out loud.

"Why not listen to Pillow Logic's new disc, Treason to Live, a wiry concept album that gives new meaning to the phrase, "Now, I've seen everything!" Ostensibly about a young girl who loses her shoes in a cockfight she mistakenly attends during Thanksgiving of '59, it's really about the universal themes of loss, angst, candy, and damp clothing (198)."

What's most unnerving is that even the best essays in this book are either much too short or seem to end in the middle of a thought. It's hard to tell if this was intentional on Cross's part, since, for the most part, there's excellent transition elsewhere. To put a brighter spin on this, it leaves the reader wanting more, especially if a piece ends just as he's hitting a groove in a given argument. Overall, Cross displays some excellent writing, despite these snags. Personally, I hope that his next book will be more essay-based, as that is definitely his strongest written medium. Thankfully, I Drink For a Reason isn't a retread of his stand-up material, but a showcase for talent that he displays on various media--on stage, on screen, and now in print.

Work Cited:
Cross, David. I Drink For A Reason. Copyright 2009 by Liberal Jew-Run Media Productions, Inc. (Seriously, check the copyright page. Published by Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY.)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

2004 In Music: Recap

I'm hoping that everyone is keeping up with the almost daily music reviews at Aught Music, recapping the best tracks of our waning decade. 2005 is kicking off this week! Since this is a joint project involving several people, there are much more prolific, well-versed folks submitting their picks. Here are the reviews I submitted for 2004. Click on the links for a free listen.

1.) "How We Know" by the Thermals (from the album Fuckin A):

You spoon water like love and I will take it if you can take it...

"How We Know" is one of those infectious songs that can get stuck in your head very easily. Giving it a careful listen, however, I realize that it's probably not one of the greatest songs ever. The lyrics fill in as repetitive space holders for the throbbing beat, occasionally erupting into what feels like a jam session. There's nothing earth-shattering about this, but goddamn, it's a great song to rock out to from time to time. Hutch Harris' voice is perfect for this, and the rock-out parts sound much bigger than a trio would normally sound. One of the heavy criticisms of mainstream pop is that it's mindless and packaged to sound the same. A song like "How We Know" shows that indie rock can also have its share of mindless jams. Every genre has its share of music that simply boils down to "fun," and this song is no exception. The Thermals have written better songs, but this one always puts me in a good mood.

2.) "Soulful Shade Of Blue" by Neko Case, covering Buffy Saint-Marie (from the album The Tigers Have Spoken):

Case is one of those rare artists who can blend original material and cover songs effortlessly, with said cover songs working more as homages than new interpretations. Given her status as one of the best live performers of today, "Soulful Shade Of Blue" works on all of these levels. It's a very simple, almost quaint tale of lost love and redemption.

Dressmaker, dressmaker,
I'm singing at the hall next saturday night and he'll be there.
He's been gone for so long, I want him back again,
Make me the sweetest dress you can.

Make it a soulful shade of blue with a ribbon at the hem,
A ribbon white for loyalty to show that I remember when
A soulful shade of blue looked into my eyes
And tell him I want him back again.

Originally recorded by Buffy Saint-Marie, Case sings "Soulful Shade Of Blue" in a virtually identical arrangement, albeit with backup vocals and at a faster pace. Case's own songs are complex, metaphor-laden looks at love and life in both urban and rural settings, and this cover feels like a minimalist version of her own material. It's intentionally old-fashioned, catchy, and highlights the amazing legacy of Canada's musical history. I've seen Case perform this song twice, and it has always been one of her best staples. Everything that she stands for can be found in these two and a half minutes.

3.) "The Dark Of the Matinee" by Franz Ferdinand (from the album Franz Ferdinand):

Before Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade, it's safe to say that no band truly exploded on the scene like Franz Ferdinand, all hyberbole necessary. Their self-titled debut album did not have one throwaway track on it, with each one worthy of consideration for the best of the Aughts. I've been listening to this album for five years, and every track has gone through a spell as one of my favorites. "The Dark of the Matinee" wins, since it combines both of their sounds: hard rocking and a soft, almost ballad-like style. The lyrics are full of both meticulous detail and enough "wiggle room" to leave parts open for interpretation.

I charm you and tell you of the boys I hate
All the girls I hate
All the clothes I hate
How I'll never be anything I hate

This song came awfully close to being overplayed a few years back, and listening to it for the first time in quite awhile in preparation for this writing, I was reminded of how Franz Ferdinand combines great sounds that anyone can appreciate with subtle hints of elitism and bravado. This song has an addictive chorus, amazing lyrics, and was a hint of things to come. They've matured with their last two albums, but at the same time, this debut was pretty hard to follow.
(Note: This was part of a music roundtable with fellow blogger Rich Thomas.)

4.) "Bukowski" by Modest Mouse (from the album Good News For People Who Love Bad News):

Yes, yes, yes. The obvious choice would be "Float On," and while that is one of the great songs of this decade, I've always had a soft spot for "Bukowski." When I first listened to this song, I immediately assumed it was a fun homage/criticique of the notorious author, but in fact, it's much more. Charles Bukowski is merely an example in the lyrics, which are much more profound than they appear at first. The song is an open-ended question of problem of goodness combined with human nature. In essense, nobody is spared, not even God:

If God controls the land and disease,
keeps a watchful eye on me,
If he's really so damn mighty,
my problem is I can't see,
well who would wanna be?
Who would wanna be such a control freak?
Well who would wanna be?
Who would wanna be such a control freak?

Issac Brock's scratchy, guttural voice is pitch-perfect for the tough questions of this song. The music is somewhat jarring, at times sounding like a mash of notes that get jumbled, but right themselves just in time. It's not a particularly easy listen, since the lyrics are sometimes rushed and mumbled, and the instruments (especially the banjo sequences) almost sound angry in some way. However, despite appearing cynical, the song works as an almost metaphysical query. If this is true, then it works like a Bukowski short story: underneath the hard exterior, there are some intelligent ideas and sympathetic questions.
(Note: This was another roundtable with Rich Thomas.)

2005 kicks off this week. I'm very excited about reading the submissions, since I think that 2005 was arguably the best year of the Aughts. Keep reading and supporting everyone in this endeavor!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Ahead Of the Times

In recent months, I've written quite a few essays on books by international authors. While these make for a broad canvas, I realized that a few groups haven't been as well represented in my studies. To put it bluntly, there's an occasional (albeit unintentional) glut of "middle-aged white men," so I wanted this next post to focus on a female or black author, and I decided to revisit the works of Nella Larsen (1891-1964). In college, I read her novella Passing as part of an African-American literature course. The beauty of Larsen's bibliography is that she tends to fall under the radar from time to time, or rather doesn't seem to receive as much attention and study as her Harlem Renaissance counterparts. Her contributions (at least the published ones) can usually fit into a slim volume, but this minimum quantity is absolutely usurped by the sheer emotion of her prose. Some writers, both past and present, may rely on casual metaphors to examine race, sexuality and other human conditions. Nella Larsen, via Quicksand's protagonist Helga Crane, opts to shout the problems of early 20th century America as loudly and clearly as possible.

This novella is small, but contains staggering events and questions, some articulate, some hazy. Helga Crane is a woman who's modern and proud beyond most 1920s expectations. The story begins with her last day as a schoolteacher down South, and the problems with her surroundings are presented very sharply.

"This was, he had told them with obvious sectional pride, the finest school for Negroes anywhere in the country, north or south; in fact, it was better even than a great many schools for white children. And he had dared any Northerner to come south and after looking upon this great institution to say that the Southerner mistreated the Negro. And he had said that if all Negroes would only take a leaf out of the book of Naxos [the name of the school] and conduct themselves in the manner of the Naxos products there would be no race problem, because Naxos Negroes knew what was expected of them (Larsen 37)."

The racism of this passage seems obvious by today's standards, but one can imagine some people of the era, both black and (mostly) white, reading along and nodding in agreement. Rightfully, Helga Crane wants no part of this condescension. As a black woman, she's a part of two minorities, and as the tale progresses, her intelligence and sheer force of will immediately transcend sex and race. Yes, these prove to be the two main sources of the prejudice she faces, but one can tell that, just by her immense pride, she would also face tension as a white male in that era. She does not suffer fools or insulted intelligence with any patience. This theme, coupled with the racism in her school's mission, leads to the first of her many travels across the world. She moves to Chicago to find her white uncle, but is immediately turned away by his wife. "And, oddly enough, she felt too, that she had come home. She, Helga Crane, who had no home (63)."

The above sentence is one of many intentional contradictions in Larsen's writing style. On the very same page, she writes: "After a slight breakfast she made her way to the library, that ugly gray building, where was housed much knowledge and a little wisdom, on interminable shelves (italics mine)." These slight movements of phrase and opposites blend well with the contradictions of Helga's life. As much as she feels entitled to a life on her own terms, the prejudice around her forms a barrier that she fights against for most of the book. Her attempts to find a sense of happiness and a true home are met with opposition, forcing her to move to a new place in hopes of finding stability. She even moves to Denmark to live with her extended family and to escape racism in America. She rejects a marriage proposal from an eccentric white painter, which for a young woman in her twenties is viewed by others as social and financial suicide.

"Tameness returned to Helga Crane. Her ironic gaze rested on the face of Axel Olsen, his leonine head, his broad nose--'broader than my own'--his bushy eyebrows, surmounting thick, drooping lids, which hid, she knew, sullen blue eyes. He stirred sharply, shaking off his momentary disconcertion.
In his assured, despotic way he went on: 'You know, Helga, you are a contradiction. You have been, I suspect, corrupted by the good Fru Dahl, which is perhaps as well. Who knows? You have the warm impulsive nature of the women of Africa, but, my lovely, you have, I fear, the soul of a prostitute. You sell yourself to the highest buyer (117)."

In addition, even in Denmark, she feels like a circus attraction, constantly regarded and stared at by people unaccustomed to seeing a woman of mixed race. This leads to a move back to America. While these moves are necessary in the course of the novella, they almost become a distraction. Several years are fit into the course of a few dozen pages, and one wonders if Larsen would have been better off writing Quicksand as a full novel as opposed to a novella. These stark transitions become much more obvious in the dizzying conclusion, as Helga marries a preacher, has children, and almost dies from childbirth. Throughout her life, she's sworn off having children, but not for personal or feminist reasons.

"How stupid she had been ever to have thought that she could marry and perhaps have children in a land where every dark child was handicapped at the start by the shroud of color! She saw, suddenly, the giving birth to little, helpless, unprotesting Negro children as a sin, an unforgivable outrage. More black folk to suffer indignities. More dark bodies for mobs to lynch (104)."

This idea of not wanting children to grow up in futile, racist environments has been written about in much more depth by Toni Morrison in recent years. In the case of Helga Crane, this is almost confusing. If her stated desire to not have children was in line with her fierce independence, it would fit her character with better clarity. This is evident in her later marriage and child-bearing, "expected" activities for young women which make Helga unhappier than ever. She's trapped by a husband whom she doesn't love and children she never wanted. At her wit's end, she lashes out at the ultimate white male figure: the "White God."

"She couldn't, she thought ironically, even blame God for it, now that she knew that He didn't exist. No. No more than she could pray to Him for the death of her husband, the Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green. The white man's God. And His great love for all people regardless of race! What idiotic nonsense she had allowed herself to believe. How could she, how could anyone, have been so deluded? How could ten million black folk credit it when daily before their eyes was enacted its contradiction? Not that she cared about the ten million. But herself. Her sons. Her daughter. These would grow to manhood, to womanhood, in this vicious, this hypocritical land. The dark eyes filled with tears (157)."

This is Nella Larsen at her best. There's no shame, no equivocation, and no acceptance of unecessary hardships. Helga gives up her ideals for what society expects, and it almost kills her. This reminds me of a quote by Muhammad Ali, both poetic and quite relevant to Helga's problems: "You don't want no pie in the sky when you die; you want something here on the ground while you're still around." This is what makes Larsen an essential voice in black and feminist history, demanding equality with no insults or strings attached. As much as I hate to close on a negative note, Larsen's formats are her ultimate undoing. With so many issues and sociological debates present, she simply packed too much into a confined space. Quicksand should have been a novel instead of a novella, as I mentioned above. This also goes for her short stories, which end up being too shot. In the stories (namely "Sanctuary") , there's just as much at stake that ends up not being expanded. As opposed to Quicksand, she left her short fiction to the imagination when it deserved more insights. For someone as talented as Larsen was in her prime, one can only imagine her putting said skills to better use in more appropriate layouts. Quicksand is still relevant today, and still feels like it carries the weight of a Shakespearean tragedy. For better or for worse, depending on your opinion, it leaves the reader wanting more, in simply terms of quantity.

Work Cited:
Larsen, Nella. The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen. Anchor Books Edition, 2001.

"You Against You" in Hobart; "I Don't Want to Pry" in Pidgeonholes

Hey y'all. I'm a little late posting these, but I was fortunate to have two new publications this week, working in new genres, a...