Thursday, December 3, 2009

Criticizing Dave Eggers' critique of critics

For someone who seems to be a pretty genuine and decent guy, Dave Eggers inspires a weird range of emotions. I know plenty of people who regard him as the living embodiment of all that’s wrong with modern literature. I know just as many who think of him as the voice of his generation. I have mixed feelings about his work, but I definitely side more with the supporters than with the haters. I have nothing but admiration for the youth writing programs he’s helped foster across the country. I thought his A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was a very good memoir, even though I disliked its quirky footnotes and meta-textual devices. I like a lot of the work McSweeney’s has done, but I’m not much for its postmodern affectations.

Recently, though, I came across a quotation from Eggers that rubs me every which way but right. It’s from a lengthy 2000 interview in the Harvard Advocate in which a question about “selling out” prompts a passionate response. Eggers makes some excellent points about a particular, poisonous breed of hipster criticism, specifically citing an acquaintance who haughtily dismissed The Flaming Lips because one of their songs was used in an episode of Beverly Hills 90210. He rails against those who would place limits on an artist based on an arbitrary code of authenticity or assail someone’s work to gratify their own egos.

I’m with him most of the way. His irritation with the ever-hypocritical “sellout” refrain is fully justified. His tone is pretty defensive throughout, but that’s at least partially excused by the interviewer’s own palpably smug tone. But when Eggers starts taking broad swipes at the institution of criticism, he loses me in a big way. I find this comment especially galling:

“Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.”

There is so much I disagree with in that passage, I’m not even sure where to start. I guess my biggest problem is with the idea that anyone who hasn’t written a book is unworthy of criticizing someone else’s. He does acknowledge elsewhere in the interview that there are some helpful critics in the world, but still holds that “by and large, the only book reviews that should be trusted are by those who have themselves written books.” So then, if I’m not allowed to dismiss a movie without having made one, am I also unqualified to embrace it? Am I within my rights to complain about my malfunctioning DVD player even though I’ve never built one myself? Is it OK for an author to perform a satirical reading lampooning Dick Cheney (as I saw Dave Eggers himself do in Chicago a few years back) even though the writer has never been Vice President of the United States? Eggers’ stance is elitism masquerading as populism, and I find it disingenuous and insulting.

I’ve been both a working artist and an arts critic for my entire adult life. Few things bug me more than artists casting criticism by “non-artists” as irrelevant. First of all, that suggests that criticism is not, in itself, a form of art. In my estimation, a well-written, well-reasoned piece of criticism can very easily stand on its own as an artistic statement made in reaction to someone else’s artistic statement. If the film writing of folks like Roger Ebert, Nathan Rabin or Jaime Weinman is somehow invalidated because the writers are not filmmakers themselves, then I’ve wasted an awful lot of reading time over the years. (Yes, I know Ebert dabbled in film early in his career, so maybe he gets a pass by the Eggers standard.) Actually, an argument could be made that non-artists sometimes make better critics. People who work within the same discipline can be too close to the subject to view it objectively. I’ve had plenty of conversations with writers whose critique of others’ stories boils down to, “That’s not the way I would have written it!”

Eggers’ statement about his critical “rage and envy” also hits a sore spot for me. One of the most common knocks I hear against the institution of criticism is that all critics are failed artists lashing out against the world that rejected them. Maybe that was true of Eggers, but that doesn’t mean critics as a whole are a spiteful den of vipers – it just means Dave Eggers was a bad critic. As much as I like the idea of some shadowy cabal of critics plotting revenge on the art world like so many scorned supervillains, I think questioning anyone’s motives for writing anything puts one on shaky ground. Heck, half of Eggers’ piece is a defense of making art for money. Critics gotta get that dollar too!

I’ve worked with a lot of critics in my day, and in my experience there is no more enthusiastic group of art lovers in the world. One of the greatest periods of my creative life was when I worked as a music writer for Where Y’at magazine in New Orleans. On at least a weekly basis, one of the other writers would pop some hot new find into the office CD player and insist that the rest of us gather ‘round and share in the glory. Sure, Michael Dominici, the magazine’s Music Editor, sometimes used his podium to utterly savage albums he found lacking, but anyone who heard him gush effusively about relative unknowns like jazz singer Lizz Wright or swamp rock old-timer Joe Barry could have no doubt about how much the man loved music. Mike didn’t scorn or envy successful artists. He celebrated them and made it his mission to share just what made them and their work so special.

Maybe I’m misreading or oversimplifying. I know Eggers is specifically addressing people who turn up their noses at things that are perceived as too unhip or mainstream, but it seems to me that his argument also precludes artistic criticism, at least of a negative bent. Earlier in the interview, he says that “the critical impulse… is to suspect, doubt, tear at, and to take something apart to see how it works. Which of course is completely the wrong thing to do to art.” I disagree. That process describes exactly what Donna Bowman does in her exceptional, ongoing analysis of one of my all-time favorite TV shows, NewsRadio. Some might argue that Bowman’s approach is fussy and overly analytical, but no one could claim that she doesn’t truly love her subject matter. Her in-depth look at what made the show tick makes me reflect on the particular greatness of NewsRadio’s writing, cast and direction, and that only enhances my viewing experience.

In my estimation, Eggers’ stance supports the creation of art but puts strict limitations on how we should evaluate it. If every piece of art is left to bob around the world, seen but unanalyzed, does it even count as art? If we regard every creative endeavor on an even plane and keep our negative opinions to ourselves, don’t we effectively stifle an important, culture-wide dialogue? If we give the failures a free pass on the grounds of being “open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting,” don’t we do a disservice to the good and great works sharing the same stage?

Look, I know I’m getting a bit too worked up about a decade-old comment from a writer I generally admire. I really don’t intend any of this as a personal attack on Dave Eggers. He’s a sincere, hardworking writer who’s done as much good for writing in the past decade as just about anyone. It’s quite possible that his opinion has changed in the past ten years. He’s recently given a fair bit of time to The AV Club (my favorite arts publication, if my links weren’t enough of a clue), so it’s clear that he doesn’t eschew the critical establishment entirely. It’s just that I’ve seen too many artists blindly bashing critics over the years, and this piece happened to hit most of my hot buttons.

I understand that it hurts to have something in which you’ve invested your heart and soul assaulted on a public stage. I’ve gotten my share of negative feedback, and it’s never pleasant. It depresses me, angers me and puts me on the defensive. But it comes with the territory. Job evaluations are a part of every career. They help keep us at the top of our games. If my boss at my office job gives me a negative performance review, I don’t have the option of brushing it off as jealousy or ignorance or irrelevancy, even if I believe all of that to be true. Instead, I have to get my act together or risk dismissal. Criticism ideally serves a similar purpose for artists. We don’t have to take every negative word at face value, but we should at least acknowledge that there’s something to be learned from a reasoned critique. It’s just a fact that those who choose to share their art with the public will have it evaluated by the same. If you can’t handle seeing your work torn apart or otherwise “dismissed,” then you may have chosen the wrong path.

By the way, I’m pretty sure I’m authorized to make these comments, because I have written a book. Of course, my book hasn’t yet been published, so maybe I don’t make the cut. It’s a tricky gray area, that.

Note: I briefly posted a slightly different version of this entry earlier, then took it down when I decided it needed some clarification. Apologies if that created any confusion. Though I can't imagine what confusion that would create.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Of hunting carols, Turdy Point Bucks and the cultural currency of the Upper Midwest

I have never been a deer hunter. As a matter of fact, I’ve never so much as held a gun. That made me quite the anomaly growing up in my neck of Western Wisconsin. In that particular nook of the Upper Midwest, deer season is a half-step removed from being a religious holiday. Maybe not even that – I know plenty of people who devote more zeal to buck-bagging than most folks ever do to church, state or fellow man. It was pretty much a given that the populations of classrooms and workplaces would drop drastically for a couple of weeks every November. “Gone huntin’” wasn’t regarded as a medical excuse per se, but there was an unspoken understanding.Even though I didn’t hunt, it was impossible to avoid the impact of deer season. The normally quiet woods and fields surrounding my family’s house suddenly teemed with blaze-orange blobs, their stocky frames standing in sharp contrast with the dirty white snow of early winter. Every time I left the house, the sound of rifle shots echoed in the distance, making the trek to the school bus feel like a bit like a sniper scene in some Vietnam movie. When we took our dog (a Viszla whose coat was only a shade redder than that of your average deer) out for a walk, we tied a red bandana around her neck and popped bright orange stocking caps on our own vulnerable noggins. November was an unusually tense month around the Brooker compound.

But the oddest manifestation of deer season, culturally speaking, would have to be the hunting carols. That phenomenon is exactly what it sounds like. Every year, all of our local radio stations, regardless of format, slipped two hunting-themed tunes into their regular playlists. For two weeks a year, “The Second Week of Deer Camp” and “Da Turdy Point Buck” dominated the airwaves just as surely as “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Feliz Navidad” would a few weeks later.

“The Second Week of Deer Camp” is a venerable classic, an accordion-driven, ramshackle accounting of how a bunch of shiftless hunters spend the titular time period. (Spoiler: They “drink, play cards and shoot the bull, but never shoot no deer.”) This one has been getting major play on Wisconsin airwaves for two decades now, even though the band responsible, Da Yoopers, isn’t technically Wisconsinian. “Yoopers,” in fact, is a nickname for the residents of that eerie no-man’s land called the Upper Peninsula, more commonly known as the U.P. Technically speaking, it’s part of Michigan. Geographically speaking, it should be part of Wisconsin. Realistically speaking, it’s not much more than an afterthought for anyone but the people who live there and the scads of hunters who invade its teeming woodlands every November.

Anyhow, Da Yoopers have actually recorded a fair number of musical comedy albums and garnered a cult following in the upper Midwest. “The Second Week of Deer Camp” is arguably the shiniest jewel in their crown (their Christmas carol “Rusty Chevrolet” also gets a good bit of airplay come December). An amiable romp through a drunken week when most of the sportsmen have given up all pretense of actually hunting, the song is punctuated by frequent belching, Spike Jones-y sound effects and some unfortunate outhouse imagery. The action, such as it is, unfolds over a simple accordion rhythm and is narrated in a thick Northwoods accent that makes Fargo seem subtle. It’s appreciated both by hunters who don’t take themselves too seriously and by the folks at home who always assumed there wasn’t a whole lot of deerstalking going on. It’s lowbrow for sure, but the rhymes are pretty funny and it succeeds in making a week of drinking in a cabin sound like a lot of fun.

If “Deer Camp” is the tried and true classic, “Da Turdy Point Buck” was the glitzy blockbuster. Often mistakenly credited to Da Yoopers, this laconic rap parody is actually the work of another U.P. group called Bananas at Large. A loose narrative of one hunter’s ill-fated encounter with a deer “created by God just for outdoor magazines,” this song was absolutely unavoidable in Wisconsin the winter of ’92. The cassette single – packaged in a blaze orange label, naturally – never got widespread distribution, but it was available at all of your finer gas stations and convenience stores.

The song essentially takes every element of the Yoopers tune and cranks it up a little: the accordion accompaniment is even sparer, the accent even thicker, the belching even ruder. In other words, it contains all the elements of a Wisconsin cult classic. Most of my middle school classmates (the male ones, at least) could recite the “Turdy Point Buck” lyrics word for word, adopting a deep-woods ‘Sconnie accent that really wasn’t too far removed from the way most of us talked normally. In fact, listening to the original recording now, I realize the cadence I’ve stored in my memory banks is actually that of Tim Schendel regaling me with his version during lulls in Mrs. Gatzke’s Earth Science class. I can’t deny that I loved it wholeheartedly when I was a youth, or that some of the imagery has proven remarkably enduring. Living in Chicago made me especially appreciative of the passage about the narrator’s “no-brother-good-in-law… from Illinoise.” (No offense to my actual brothers-in-law in Illinois.)

Putting it in hip-hop terms, “The Second Week of Deer Camp” is “Fight the Power” and “Da Turdy Point Buck” is “U Can’t Touch This.” The former feels lived-in and true-to-life, while the latter is just kind of derivative and silly. “Buck” is probably the more widely known amongst Midwestern rifle-toters, but both have worked their way deep into the fabric of Wisconsin’s holiest holiday.

Don’t think I’m being dismissive of either. In their own way, these hunting carols represent a unique piece of Midwestern culture. They’re a bit of a throwback to the early days of rock and roll, when radio stations were allowed to choose their own playlists and it was possible to have such a thing as a regional hit. Sure, these songs fall quite a bit farther on the Blue Collar Comedy side of the spectrum than my usual tastes, but I like having a pop culture reference point that’s instantly recognizable to every one of my rural grade school classmates and completely foreign to my big city friends. Call it flyover country all you want, but we’re every bit as capable of producing a distinctive musical mythology as anyone else is. Ours just involves a bit more beer and deer than most.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Highlights from The Trashmen's 2010 "Word a Day" desk calendar

Saturday, February 13: "Bird."

Monday, April 26: "Bird."

Thursday, June 3: "Bird."

Saturday, September 25 (Featuring special guest wordsmith Joey Ramone): "Bird."

Sunday, October 31: "Bird."

Wednesday, December 15: "Bird."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Of Virgil Trucks, the Detroit Tigers and the meaning of life

I think it’s generally agreed upon that sports metaphors are more overused than the Cleveland Browns’ punting unit. Rare is the modern business meeting that does not include a mention of tossing Hail Marys, sending in the B-team or making a game-time decision (I’ll admit to being a frequent abuser of that last one). Hackneyed or not, these metaphors serve their purpose. It’s a little easier to pretend that life makes sense when it’s framed in the context of an organized athletic competition. Plus, describing an overly complex planning session as “having 12 men on the field” will get me many more knowing nods than will comparing it to the audio track of an Altman film or the first half of The Sound and the Fury.

And sometimes a sports metaphor can be more than just convenient. I’m thinking specifically of Virgil Trucks’ 1952 season with the Detroit Tigers, a campaign that I believe may provide me with a model for life itself.

Virgil Trucks has led a pretty interesting existence by just about anybody’s standards. A native of Birmingham (reputedly the greatest city in Alabam’), Trucks was a Major League pitcher for 17 years. He played in two All-Star games, brought home a World Series ring in 1945 and almost certainly would have won a Cy Young Award had it existed in 1953, when he finished fifth in MVP voting. He also served honorably in the Navy during WWII and even has a tangential connection to the modern jam band phenomenon: Virgil is the uncle of Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks and the great-uncle of guitar-slinger Derek Trucks.

That's all well and good, but I choose to cherish one of Trucks’ more ambiguous achievements. You see, in 1952, Virgil Trucks finished with a disappointing record of 5-19. Two of those wins, however, were no-hitters. Throwing one no-hitter is a rare feat. Throwing two in a season is something only four men have ever done. And throwing two in a decidedly losing season is my new ideal.

As I see it, in the game of life, there’s not much point in playing to win. Hard work and good intentions will only get you so far. Ultimately, the breaks are going to fall for you or against you, and you really don’t have much say in the matter. You can change up speeds, try a different grip on the ball, even file it down with an emery board in your effort to win, but the odds are that you’re going to rack up plenty of losses and no-decisions.

Some people are going to find a groove and pull off something spectacular, like Denny McClain’s 31-6 season with the ’68 Tigers. I don’t believe I know anyone personally who fits this profile, but I’m sure they’re out there. Other people are helpless to do anything but watch the losses pile up, like Adam Bernero’s 1-12 2003 campaign. This is how I picture life for that poor Star Wars kid from the YouTube video, or those guys who are always smoking cigarettes outside the weekly-rates hotel up the street from me. Those scenarios are, I think, beyond anyone’s control. Winners win, losers lose, but I don’t think many people fall completely in either category.

It seems like most people dedicate their lives to breaking even, like Paul Foytack going 14-14 for the 1959 Tigers. It’s not necessarily a bad goal. Closing out a season with 14 wins is pretty impressive. Losing 14 games isn’t great, to be sure, but at least you didn’t finish below .500. For a lot of folks, that’s enough. But me, I’m not content with aiming for the middle.

To me, what Virgil Trucks accomplished in that 5-19 effort is far more impressive. 19 is a lot of losses, and Trucks had enough success in his past that I guarantee every one of those blown games stung like hell. There must have come a point when he realized that his 1952 season was a wash-out, that there was no hope of him turning it around and posting a winning record. From that point on, I bet even the wins felt bittersweet, a reminder of what good pitching was supposed to feel like, and what it wouldn’t feel like until at least the start of the next season.

As a writer, that’s how I feel every time a rejection letter arrives in the mail, or a form e-mail from a literary agent shows up in my inbox. I count my losses with every story that writes itself into a corner, every line of dialogue that sounds embarrassingly stilted when read aloud, every scene that plays great in my head but falls flat on paper. Expand the metaphor to life in general and I could rattle off an endless litany of losses both tangible and intangible. Sure, I have some wins under my belt – more so than a lot of people, if I’m honest with myself – but most days the won-loss record feels even more lopsided than Virgil Trucks’ 5-19.

What pulls me through are those two no-hitters. Sure, 1952 was a lousy season for Virgil Trucks, but twice that year he achieved something very close to perfection. In those two games, he accomplished something that only a handful of human beings have ever done. The feeling he must have had when he recorded the last out of his first no-hitter is something few of us can conceive of. The feeling after the second one must have been indescribable.

That’s what I want out of life. I want my two no-hitters. Sure, it would be great to post a winning record too, but if tossing my gems means I lose in the long run, so be it. I will suffer my defeats with gratitude, so long as they’re in the service of two moments of ultimate, near-flawless success. Until then, I can only hope the sun keeps shining, my pitching elbow stays strong and the league doesn’t go on strike.

Monday, November 9, 2009

"Confessions of a video virgin" or "What's in the boooox?"

For someone who grew up to be a fairly devoted cinephile, I was a pretty sheltered kid. I grew up in the country, in a converted grain barn half a mile from the nearest paved road. We got four, sometimes five channels on our fuzzy 19-inch TV, depending on the weather. (Even if we’d had the money for cable, I don’t think our local provider delivered that far out.) We didn’t own a VCR until my great uncle gave us a hand-me-down RCA behemoth when I was around 12. Before that, we’d occasionally rent a video player and a stack of movies as a weekend treat. My selection was pretty limited, as my parents were very dutiful about keeping my brother and me on a righteous path and protecting us from the uglier side of the entertainment industry. There were a lot of re-watchings of the Star Wars trilogy, Yellow Submarine and old Laurel & Hardy shorts.

The point I’m very gradually getting to is that I didn’t see horror movies as a kid. The closest I came was when the local Fox affiliate showed a week’s worth of those Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy/Frankenstein/The Invisible Man movies one summer, but there wasn’t much resembling genuine scares in those. I didn’t see a bona fide horror film until my fifth grade field trip to Washington, D.C., when someone played the not particularly terrifying The Lost Boys on the bus-wide video system.

You’d think that this combination of protective parenting and backwoods exile would have kept me ignorant of the horrors of Hollywood. Quite the opposite, actually. In the grand childhood tradition of yearning for that which is forbidden, I became obsessed with horror movie video boxes. Every time we took a trip to the video shop or the grocery store, I couldn't help myself from lingering in the horror section, where out-of-context imagery from all sorts of '80s trash played hell with my fragile, Christian psyche. I had no idea what the actual movies were like – and I had no real desire to find out – but there was more than enough evil stuff going on on the covers to keep me wide awake at night, listening to the coyotes howl in the valley (seriously, we were hill people).

I was reminded of all of my video box nemeses recently when The AV Club ran a Halloween feature on “Entertainment that terrified us.” That inspired me to seek out some of the old nightmare fuel and see just how much of the terror holds up. I was plagued by dozens and dozens of covers back in the day, but these are a few that stand out as the worst offenders.


I think what got me about this one was the ambiguity of it. Whose severed hand was that? What business did it have with the residents of the titular house? How the hell did it float like that? I lost a lot of sleep coming up with answers to all of those questions. It didn’t help any that the artwork reminded me of the illustrations in those Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, another reliable source of middle-of-the-night terror. The dangling veins and tendons made me look down at my own skinny wrists and reflect on how fragile a thing the human body really was.

Current take: I’ve never seen House, but looking back, it seems silly to have been scared of anything that prominently featured George Wendt.

The Nightmare on Elm Street movies

I think most of my classmates had similarly sheltered existences, but in a school as small as Leon Elementary (Fewer than 100 students, grades 1-6), pretty much everything is a community experience. Just the images of Freddy Krueger’s claws and scars would have been enough to freak me out, but mixing them with Brian Brooks’ vivid descriptions of Freddy’s various eviscerations created a potent cocktail of dread.

Current take: I’ve seen a few of these as a grown-up. They’re pretty fun, really. Wes Craven at the top of his game can craft a damned entertaining horror flick, and Robert Englund’s performance as Freddy is deservedly iconic.


I really couldn’t tell you what disturbed me so much about this cover. There’s nothing inherently scary about it. For some reason, though, I found the image of little Drew Barrymore glaring intensely while some sort of inferno erupts behind her deeply unnerving. Obviously, something terrible has happened to push her to this point, and whatever she’s doing is going to lead to even worse things. I know some kids would have found the idea of a girl their own age being able to wreak havoc on the adult world exciting and liberating. Me, I never got the whole resentment of grown-ups shtick. Grown-ups made my meals, got me to school and kept me safe from the evils of the world. Why would I want to give that up?

Current take: I caught Firestarter on TV a while back. There was nothing to be afraid of – it’s really more of a thriller than a horror film. I was surprised at how much I liked it. I might even call it the best performance of Drew’s career.

Basket Case

Once, when I was around eight or nine, we were at my parents’ friends’ house and I stumbled upon their teenage son’s stash of comic books. The first story I flipped to involved a soldier waking up from surgery to discover that his arms and legs had been amputated. There was a full-page splash panel of the terrified man reaching his bandaged stumps up to the ceiling and screaming, “What did you do to me? I’m a BASKET CASE!” I shut the comic right there and went home that day with a shiny new disturbing image to worm around in my brain. From then on, the Basket Case box was a double-whammy for me. I was mortified both by the slimy claw creeping out of that wicker basket and by flashbacks to that unfortunate soldier in some unknown ‘80s horror comic.

Current take: I recently watched Basket Case and rather loved it. It’s a perfectly sleazy little slab of exploitation cinema, the way mama used to make it.

Mother’s Day

OK, this one still makes me shiver a little bit. There’s something about the combination of that grinning, skull-faced old lady, her freakish sons and the frozen scream on the lips of that decapitated head that moves beyond horror and into the realm of pure sadism. This one didn’t scare me so much as fill me with an existential dread. I’d heard and read enough stories about real-life serial killers to know that this kind of evil did exist in the world. I was still at the age of wanting to believe in the inherent goodness of humanity, and the smirking cruelty of this video box called that into question.

Current take: From what I’ve heard about Mother’s Day – it was one of my wife’s traumatic childhood movies – it’s every bit as brutal as I’d imagined it. I like a good horror film, but I don’t take kindly to rape and torture.


Why was Xtro my number one video box bogeyman? It’s hard to say. Looking at it now, it’s by far the cheesiest of any of these images – just a badly drawn alien juxtaposed with a serious-faced little boy. I think what really got to me was that tagline. I interpreted that to mean that the boy on the box was going to slowly turn into the abomination behind him. There was something about unholy transformations that shook me to my very core. I was also frightened by the pull quote from Twilight Zone Magazine (seriously) about Xtro making xenophobes of us all. Not knowing the definition of “xenophobe,” I used context clues to surmise, ironically enough, that it was the name of an alien race. The notion of everyone I knew and loved being transformed into slathering space monsters invoked terror on par with the Book of Revelations for me.

Current take: I’ve never seen Xtro – I’m not even sure if it’s available on DVD – but I’ve heard it’s pretty laughable. I kind of want to watch it and I kind of don’t. I’m pretty sure the real thing wouldn’t live up to my nightmare visions, and some part of me wants to preserve my boyhood fear. In a weird way, it’s sort of comforting.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Five things I have never said to myself upon finishing a John Irving novel

1. "Is there a more fascinating narrative sport than collegiate wrestling?"

2. "If only he were less ambiguous about his feelings for Charles Dickens."

3. "You can never have too many queasy rape scenes."

4. "I wish there'd been a little more deus in that machina."

5. "Needs more bears."

(Photo courtesy of this interview)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

An open letter to the addressee of Young MC’s “Bust a Move”

OK, I just want to say right from the start that I’m not trying to step on anybody’s toes here. I know you and Mr. MC go back a ways, and that you look to him as something of a mentor, young though he may be. Really, I have no strong objection to any of Mr. MC’s advice. His cautions against overzealousness, overeating and vows of celibacy are all spot-on. I do feel his methods may rely a bit too heavily on move-busting, but then, I don’t move in the party-hopping, beach-going, high-class-luncheon attending circles that you do.

No, what has me concerned is your relationship with Larry. You know, Harry’s brother? I’m worried that Larry may be a little, for lack of a better word, off. Now, don’t get upset. I know you’re slated to be the Best Man in the man’s wedding ceremony, but that’s exactly my point. Best Man is a very personal position with a lot of emotional ties attached to it. Are you telling me that Larry’s closest male bond is with his brother’s best friend? Does he not have any other friends of his own? Are you and he even friends in your own right?

And let’s talk about the timing of this whole thing. Larry is getting married in five days from now. Doesn’t a five-day window seem a little narrow for nailing down a Best Man? I know when I got married, the whole wedding party was informed months ahead of time. It’s not like this is a spur-of-the-moment shotgun wedding or some kind of Vegas chapel quickie. Larry has a church reserved and he expects you to rent a tuxedo. This thing’s been in place for a while. Maybe the previous Best Man canceled and you’re a last-minute substitute, but even then it seems odd that you vaulted from not even being invited into one of the most prestigious spots in the wedding party.

That’s another thing – he wants you to make it there “if you can”? Just how non-committal is this chump? If his bride-to-be is anything like mine was, she’s going to insist on having every detail mapped out, every RSVP accounted for, every “t” crossed and every “i” dotted. His casual attitude toward your attendance – toward his Best Man’s attendance! – speaks either to a total disregard for his future wife’s peace of mind or to some deeper level of sociopathy. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for the marriage, and it certainly doesn’t make Larry seem like someone I’d want as my friend.

Now look. I know you love Harry and would never want to do anything to put him on the outs with his family. But I really suspect this brother of his has some issues that you don’t want to involve yourself with. It’s not too surprising, I suppose. After all, he was raised by the sort of parents who thought giving their sons rhyming names was a good idea. If I were you, I’d come up with some kind of excuse for the wedding day and try to avoid Larry as best you can in the future.

I mean, tell the truth – you’re really only doing this in hopes of busting a move with one of those slatternly little bridesmaids, aren’t you? Why bother with that when you’ve been doing so well in so many other, Larry-free venues? Why don’t you give that girl from the movie theater a call? You know, the one who wore that yellow dress? She seemed nice. I think she was really into you, too.

But hey, don’t let me tell you what to do. If you want to waste your time with all of that faking and goodness-saking, that’s on you. Just don’t tell Larry we had this conversation, OK? That guy gives me the vapors something fierce.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"Broke, Busted, Disgusted" or "Wolfking in creep's clothing"

NewsRadio is one of my favorite TV programs of all time, a smart, fast-paced comedy boasting the finest ensemble cast of its era. While he was never my favorite cast member, Andy Dick was a vital piece of the NewsRadio dynamic. His portrayal of reporter Matthew Brock as a childlike weirdo prone to pratfalls, freak-outs and hero-worship was off-kilter and endearing.

In the years following NewsRadio, however, Dick became primarily known as an out-of-control druggie prone to truly inappropriate outbursts in public settings. With every new drug bust or model-groping, a little bit of the shine came off of the Matthew character. By the time Jon Lovitz, of all people, gave Dick a sound thrashing for disrespecting the late, great Phil Hartman, it was difficult for me to separate the comedy from the comedian. I still love Dick’s work on NewsRadio, but when I watch it today, I can’t help but wonder how stoned Dick is in any given scene, or just how close Joe Rogan was to punching him out with the cameras rolling. Losing a TV friend like that just makes me sad, and I kind of hate Andy Dick for spoiling Matthew.

It’s not news to anyone with an awareness of the ‘60s California pop scene that John Phillips was an unconscionable bastard. It wasn’t until this week, though, that the world learned the full degree of the man’s bastardity. In rock star terms, Papa John’s descent into worthless junkiedom could be viewed as an occupational hazard. His cavalier abuse of a liver transplant he clearly didn’t deserve ratcheted up his detestability a few notches, but still didn’t place him in the upper echelons of celebrity bastards. This whole daughter-fucking thing, though – that’s pretty much one of the last remaining unforgivable sins.

Obviously, the biggest crime here is the one perpetrated by John against his daughter. If Mackenzie's allegations are true, and I rather believe they are, he took a sacred role of trust and guidance and used it to score a convenient drug buddy and sex partner. Transgressions don’t come much viler than that. But Phillips also committed a crime against his own artwork, and that of his numerous talented collaborators. As noted by my favorite pop culture commentator Sean O’Neal, from now on any time “Monday Monday” or “California Dreaming” gets queued up on a jukebox, someone’s going to make a snide remark about Phillips’ private perversions. Certain venues will probably stop playing anything Phillips-affiliated altogether, for a while at least. The sins of the father have sullied an amazing body of work, and that’s a tragedy in its own right. (As for Mackenzie Phillips’ claim that Mick Jagger had been lusting after her since she was ten – well, you’ve heard “Stray Cat Blues,” right?)

A few years back, I discovered Phillips’ first solo record, John the Wolfking of LA, in my local library’s CD section. I’d never heard of it before, but having a general if not passionate appreciation of The Mamas and The Papas, I figured it was worth a listen. As it turns out, it’s something of a minor masterpiece, and maybe my favorite artifact of the California country rock era. Phillips’s songwriting was never stronger than on this collection of sometimes sad, sometimes sleazy, always deeply personal pop songs. The music is fantastic, moving effortlessly from the reflective strums of “April Anne” and “Holland Tunnel” to the piano hall stomp of “Mississippi” and “Let it Bleed, Genevieve.” I quickly came to regard Wolfking as that ultimate object of hipster desire – a should-be classic album that hardly anybody else knew about.

Now I’m left to wonder just how tainted Phillips’ masterwork will be. I’m certainly not naive enough to think that all, or even most, or even many, of my artistic heroes are good people. I’m currently reading a biography of Lou Reed – my musical idol numero uno – that pulls no punches about Lou’s assholery toward just about everyone he’s ever had dealings with. That type of thing doesn’t upset me. I can fully appreciate the artwork of people who would probably bug the hell out of me at a cocktail party. Sometimes it’s fairly clear-cut – what film buff hasn’t watched a Roman Polanski movie and felt a twinge of guilt at enjoying the work of a fugitive child-rapist? Other times it’s more personal. Andy Dick’s sins clearly don’t rival those of John Phillips or Roman Polanski, but they’re almost as distressing to me because I hold NewsRadio so dear to my heart.

I’ve been listening to John the Wolfking of LA off and on since Mackenzie Phillips’ revelation. I’m somewhat relieved that the experience isn’t quite as tainted as I’d feared. It’s still a damn fine album in every regard, but I can’t help seeing it in a different light. The songwriting is personal to the point of autobiographical, so knowing that his incestuous affair was developing around the same time the album was being recorded makes Phillips’ references to secret lovers and infidelities feel pretty icky. Especially troubling are a pair of outtakes: “The Frenchman,” in which the singer warns a young girl against starting an affair with an older lover, and “Lonely Children,” just for its title.

I suppose only time will tell just how big an impact my new image of John Phillips will have on my love of Wolfking. I suspect that it will never again attain its full luster for me. Just as it’s impossible to watch Twilight Zone: The Movie without thinking about Vic Morrow and his young charges being decapitated, it will be tough to appreciate the bouncy rhythm of “Mississippi” without flashing on Phillips mounting his own drugged-up daughter. Still, I’d like to hope that after enough time has passed, I’ll be able to appreciate a tune like “Topanga Canyon” for what it is: a pleasant little ditty about a self-loathing junkie driving to the country to score some smack. Now that’s the John Phillips I’d like to remember.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

“I’m OK, you're Computer” or “Blues for Pablo Honey”

A little while back I had a conversation with my uncle Gene, a career educator who’s one of the best-read, most intellectually curious people I’ve ever met. He’d recently started reading William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, possibly my favorite novel of all time. He confessed that he’d given up on it about a quarter of the way in out of frustration with Faulkner’s circuitous, repetitive storytelling. I started to stand up for my man Bill, but when I thought about it a little, I decided to leave well enough alone. Truth is, Absalom, Absalom! is a laborious slog. I ultimately find it invigorating, chilling and fascinating, but I absolutely can’t fault anyone who doesn’t respond to Faulkner’s intentionally grueling style.

I bring this up because I find myself on the other side of the coin when it comes to Radiohead. Now, I’m somebody who’s pretty aware of the modern music scene, and I like to think I have pretty good taste. If I don’t get the appeal of a popular band, I usually just chalk it up to not being my speed and let it ride. But Radiohead is different. This is a group so universally beloved that I’ve always felt like there’s something wrong with me for not falling head over heels for them.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve never disliked Radiohead. I’ve been moderately fond of them ever since my pal Nathan picked up Pablo Honey back when it first came out in ‘94. Trouble is, I’ve never gotten past moderate fondness, so I’ve long been perplexed by the endless stream of superlatives heaped on the band. Every time I hear OK Computer referred to as the default Greatest Album of the 1990s, my brain says, “But that’s a decade that produced In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Enter the 36 Chambers and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain!” And whenever someone refers to Radiohead as “our generation’s Beatles,” my thoughts turn toward the equally adventurous but more pop-friendly flows of OutKast.

I sometimes feel like this is a failing on my part – 50 million Thom Yorke fans can’t be wrong, right? I’ve been browbeaten so many times by my friends and colleagues that I feel I have a responsibility as a music fan to teach myself to adore Radiohead. I recently took my most proactive approach to date, sitting myself down with the band’s entire discography (including a couple of non-canon selections that I happen to have in my possession) and listening in earnest for whatever it is that’s been eluding me. The results have been equal parts frustrating and illuminating. Here’s my take on every album, in order of listening.

Kid A
When I’ve felt like I was on the verge of a Radiohead breakthrough in the past, it’s usually been while listening to a track from this album. I figured that made it as good a place as any to start. I wasn’t wrong – the best parts of Kid A embody the things I like most about Radiohead. Cuts like “The National Anthem” and “Optimistic” are slightly off-kilter, intensely produced tracks that aren’t afraid to rock out. Call me pedestrian, but that’s what I find enjoyable, and Radiohead is damn good at it when they put their minds to it.

Unfortunately, a lot of Kid A indulges the other side of Radiohead – the moody, broody soundscapes that flutter interminably against Thom Yorke’s mournful vocals. A lot of people have told me that these songs are the primary evidence of Radiohead’s genius. If that’s the case, genius treads a fine line between deadly dull and painfully grating.

Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP
I like this one. I like it quite a bit, actually. It’s like a compaction of the elements I most appreciate on OK Computer. The songs are well-crafted, straightforward and flow together well. I especially appreciate the instrumental “A Meeting in the Aisle,” as Thom Yorke’s vocals are a constant stumbling block for me. The guitar work and arrangement on “Polyethylene” veer fairly close to classic rock territory, which is a welcome development in my book. There’s a cool, trance-y vibe to this EP that’s not nearly as self-serious as a lot of the band’s work, and I dig that a lot.

I’ve read this one described as the band’s overlooked masterpiece. I do not find it to be that. In fact, this is probably the Radiohead album that gives me the least to grab onto. It’s not bad, by any means. The production is elegant as always, and the electronic experimentation is consistently interesting. But at the risk of sounding like a record executive in a bad movie, “Where’s the single?” It’s not the case with every band, but with Radiohead I find that having at least one semi-conventional, stand-out track to focus on really helps me wrap my head around the rest of the album. Amnesiac doesn’t have that, and is thus my least favorite of their discs.

The Bends
Why is this such a derided album amongst the Radiohead faithful? I understand that it pre-dates the sonic experimentation that would become the band’s hallmark, but I find it to be an engaging, accessible example of mid ‘90s alterna-rock. As such, it sounds a lot fresher and more innovative than most albums of that era. I know Radiohead has a certain genius for pushing the envelopes of songwriting and sonic structure, but they also have a rare gift for cranking out great rock songs. This album is full of the latter. It also features “Fake Plastic Trees,” the first of too many slow-paced, “Moanin’ Tom” tracks. I feel these songs bog down a lot of the subsequent albums, but this one is graceful and utterly lovely.

OK Computer
I’ve tried OK Computer from so many angles since 1997. It means so much to so many people who mean so much to me that I feel it’s my duty to learn to love it. After my most recent round, I can report that I’m not quite there, but I’m closer than I’ve ever been. I still patently dismiss the idea of it being the best album of the ‘90s (I wouldn’t even call it the best of ’97. That’d be Built to Spill’s Perfect From Now On), but I can’t deny there are plenty of moments of greatness here. I’d even go so far as to call “Karma Police” a near perfect song, a lyrically chilling, musically enervating mission statement that deserves its iconic status.

And then there’s “Paranoid Android,” the album’s other focal point. My reaction to “Paranoid Android” kind of sums up my reaction to a lot of Radiohead: It’s peppered with bits of weird brilliance, its lyrics sparkle and it accomplishes some impressive musical feats, but it’s ultimately overwrought and overreaching. (Also, I’ve always hated the music video for some reason.) As for the rest, my reactions vary from “Hey, this is pretty damn good!” to “How long is this song again?” (The exception being “Fitter Happier,” which just plain sucks.) OK Computer still isn’t working its way into my heavy rotation anytime soon, but I’m getting less likely to skip over it when I scroll through my albums.

Alpine Valley, WI, August 2003
This is a live bootleg I burned from a friend a while back. I included it in my listening because I’ve heard a lot of great things about Radiohead’s live set. Listening to this disc, I can definitely see where they’d put on a killer show. There’s a lot of energy in these recordings, even on the slower numbers. It’s nice to hear a band with such meticulous, layered studio productions adapting so deftly to the immediacy of the live stage. It’s not an essential album by any means, but it does a nice job of humanizing an act that’s often chilly and uninviting by design. Also, I think I may prefer this rendition of “Paranoid Android” to the original.

Hail to the Thief
This one takes some knocks from the hardcore fans for being a bit more pedestrian than its predecessors, which may be what I enjoy about it. I suppose it suffers a bit from the same hooklessness as Amnesiac, though I like this one a little better. The experimentation is scaled back a bit, but it’s still nowhere near as accessible as something like The Bends. Hail to the Thief never reaches the highest heights of OK Computer or Kid A, but it also doesn’t traffic as much in the stuff that bugs me. I guess we can call it a draw.

In Rainbows
I don’t think anything is ever going to quite make me fall in love with Thom Yorke’s singing style. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something about his florid moaning that really puts me off. But I recognize that’s Yorke’s singing is an essential part of the group’s sound, and In Rainbows puts it to good use. It’s a more coherent, approachable and consistent album than anything else in their recent catalog. That said, I’m looking back at the list of my 10 favorite albums of 2008 and I really can’t see anything I’d bump off in favor of In Rainbows (Yes, I know it’s technically a 2007 release. I’m going with the physical CD version, which still gives me more integrity than the Grammys). What does it say about me that I’d rather listen to the light-pop stylings of She & Him than the universally acknowledged Album of the Year? I don’t know, but “This Is Not a Test” is sure a lot more fun to sing along with than anything on In Rainbows.

Pablo Honey
Maybe it’s misplaced nostalgia, but I like revisiting the alt-rock of my 1990s heyday. As I said, Radiohead wasn’t at the top of my list back then, but they were on my radar. Revisiting Pablo Honey today, it sounds mainly like a really good ‘90s alt-rock album. There’s not much indication of where the band would be in four short years (one point where I can understand the Beatles comparison). Honestly, I like this one quite a bit. I’d even go so far as to say that this and The Bends are my most likely candidates for repeat listening. I realize that this probably makes me quite lame.


So what did I learn from a week’s worth of Radioheadation therapy? Nothing too earth-shaking, I suppose. The band occupies pretty much the same slot it did before the experiment. I still think of them as a good group with some great songs and a fair bit of stuff I just can’t connect with. I think it’s about time for me to stop paying heed to friends who tell me, “Just keep listening and I guarantee it’ll click for you eventually.”

I’ve listened. It hasn’t. And that’s okay. I’m simply not that big a fan of Radiohead, and that’s all there is to it.

I do, however, love the hell out of Jaydiohead.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"Bird is the word" or "Lord knows we can't change"

It’s impossible to make an objective statement about what is funny. Humor is perhaps the very definition of a subjective topic, an unknowable abstract with as many interpretations as there are human beings. There are, however, some things which can be definitively declared not funny. Among these I would include certain diseases, various human-on-human atrocities and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham. And, of course, yelling “Freebird!” at a concert.

The latter is an especially curious case. It is possible to imagine a time when yelling “Freebird!” at a concert may have been amusing, given the proper context. Say you were in the crowd at a Roberta Flack show in 1975 and some wise guy took advantage of a long pause between deeply felt acoustic ballads to holler a sardonic request for “Freebird.” In that setting, the irony of his suggestion may have been enough to provoke a titter or two. After all, Ms. Flack is a very different kind of artist than Lynyrd Skynyrd. The notion of her performing a Southern-style electric guitar anthem, particularly one of such recent vintage, would have been patently absurd.

But it is no longer 1975, and very few of us are currently attending Roberta Flack concerts. (Though not for lack of trying – get that booking agent of yours in gear, Roberta!) Whatever novelty there once was in yelling “Freebird!” at a concert has long since faded away. And yet the yellers persist, not to be swayed by obsolescence or standards of civility. At any reasonably well-attended rock show, especially one at which alcohol is served, shouts of “Freebird!” are almost as inevitable as getting stuck standing next to a jaded guy in a tight t-shirt who spends half the set explaining to his friends how the band isn’t nearly as tight as the time three years ago when he saw them play to a tiny audience in a sketchy dive bar in downtown Austin. Any time a show is lagging, or just when you’ve reached the point in the evening where all the morons start yelling unsolicited requests from the back catalog, you’re going to hear “Freebird!”

I understand the thinking behind yelling “Freebird!” at a concert. It’s an instantly identifiable, solo-heavy song popularized by a band whose music is frequently enjoyed by a demographic that many music aficionados think of as socially inferior. Trouble is, it also kicks major ass.

I am an unashamed lover of “Freebird.” From the bleeding, mournful opening guitar lick to the broken weariness of Ronnie Van Zandt’s vocal to the five-minute frenzy of dueling guitars, it’s a masterpiece of ‘70s album rock. In a just world, “Freebird” would be just as revered by the cognoscenti as any of Pink Floyd’s broody soundscapes or Led Zeppelin’s derivative caterwauling. Instead, for reasons that probably have as much to do with Yankee disdain for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Southern heritage and good ole boy image as with actual musical merit, it’s become a punchline without a joke.

I’ve seen artists have a lot of disparate reactions to shouts of “Freebird!” Most of them simply ignore it. Some get upset – I once saw Eels front man E stop the show to eviscerate a heckler with something along the lines of “‘Ooh, I’m gonna go to an Eels show and yell ‘Freebird’ at the band!’ That’s awfully fucking clever, asshole.” Some put their own spin on it – David Cross used to have a bit in his stand-up act where he’d present an award to an audience member who he dubbed the one-millionth asshole to yell “Freebird” during a performance. But by far the best reaction I’ve ever seen came from Built to Spill, who simply played “Freebird” note-for-note, beginning to end. It was a thrilling performance that I suspect was wasted on much of the audience. I wish more artists – Roberta Flack, say – would take that approach. There is no shortage of people I’d love to hear covering this song, though I guess that would just make matters worse by inspiring a non-stop barrage of “Freebird!” shouts at every concert everywhere.

I suppose it’s sort of a compliment that “Freebird” has spent 30 years as the go-to song for guys who love to yell things. You would think that over that span of time, another ironic hard rock anthem would have emerged to take its place. If it was me up on stage, I know I’d be much more insulted to hear someone bellowing “Every Rose Has Its Thorn!” at me, or “Nookie!” or “Whatever the Name of That Godawful Kid Rock Song That Mashes Up ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Werewolves of London’ Is!”

But for the time being, “Freebird” endures as the popular favorite. If anything is going to kill it off, it may be that very popularity. “Freebird!” has been yelled long enough and loud enough to push it well past cliché status. People are still yelling it, to be sure, but lately they’re more likely to be met with a groan and an eye-roll than a polite chuckle. Maybe things really are changing for the better, or maybe audiences are just all laughed-out from guys yelling “More cowbell!” That one’s never going to get old!

- Ira Brooker

(Photo courtesy of this dude.)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Four years later, still a heck of a job.

The fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina passed this weekend. A lot of good things have happened in New Orleans since then. A lot of bad things have happened too. As usual, I have plenty I could say on the subject, but I’m just going to link to the short story that’s thus far my definitive statement on it.

Six weeks after Katrina, I bought a ticket on the first Amtrak train into New Orleans since the storm. I spent a week talking to survivors and witnessing the devastation. Most of the hardest-hit parts of the city were still off-limits to visitors, but what I saw was plenty disturbing. I started writing this piece on my train ride back to Chicago after reading an article in the Times-Picayune about two women campaigning to get their mother’s remains released from a morgue. It was the most difficult thing I ever wrote, and it’s miles away from my usual style and tone, but in a lot of respects I think it may be my best work.

So then, all of that said, here’s “St. Gabriel’s Morgue.”

Monday, August 24, 2009

"Requiem for a wasteland" or "There's cheese in them thar hills"

From the steaming jungle of Fitzcarraldo to the snowy wasteland of Fargo, an impressive shooting location has been a vital element of many a classic movie. Great locations have also been responsible for classing up any number of unremarkable movies. Just look at the countless no-budget Westerns shot in Arizona’s monument valley and the mountain country of Italy. It’s a perfectly logical train of thought: If the best we can offer our audience is Lee Van Cleef shooting it out with badly dubbed Italian extras, we may as well give them something nice to look at in the background.

That’s all well and good, but I’ve always had a soft spot for filmmakers who lacked the budget or the motivation to move out of their own backyard. I’m talking about movies shot in my all-time favorite location: the arid hills outside of Los Angeles.

Now, I’ll admit that I’m a biased Midwestern boy who’s partial to verdant pastures and green, rolling valleys. I’ve seen quite a few places and still rank Western Wisconsin among the loveliest I’ve laid eyes on. That said, I’ve also been to the arid hills outside of Los Angeles. They’re not without their charms, but there is very little about the arid hills outside of Los Angeles that I would describe as especially scenic or beautiful. And yet, countless directors of the ‘50s and ‘60s dragged their barely paid crews and barely verbal actors out to the arid hills outside of Los Angeles time and time again. Guys like Roger Corman and Bert I. Gordon were such regulars out in those hills that the local woodland creatures started following them around, Snow White-style. (Though in Gordon’s case, the animals may just have been angling for future starring roles.)

Obviously, the major benefit to shooting in these hills was cost-effectiveness. They’re close enough to Hollywood that budget-minded directors could shoot all their location shots in one afternoon and be home in time for happy hour without burning so much as a full tank of gas. If you were shooting a cheap drive-in feature focused on bikers, monsters, hippies, aliens or any combination thereof, those grungy hills offered everything you needed. Also, they covered enough ground that nobody was likely to hassle you about permits and other such trivialities.

It’s also a relatively versatile landscape. The tall grass, sparse forests and rocky slopes and occasional creek beds are actually fairly distinctive, but they make a barely passable substitute for just about any terrain. I’ve seen those hills stand in for everything from prehistoric worlds to post-apocalyptic landscapes, to varying degrees of believability. (Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Mike Nelson hilariously pointed out “the famous Illinois Mountains” in Gordon’s Beginning of the End.) They’re like a mediocre impressionist – you never forget it’s him doing the voices, but you can at least sort of tell what he’s going for.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new cheapie shot out in that terrain. I suspect that has a lot to do with the rise of affordable filmmaking tools and the decline of in-theater sleaze. Today, just about any upstart with a digital video camera and a limited distribution model can crank out a straight-to-DVD monster movie full of digitally rendered effects and backgrounds. Shooting in one’s own backyard is easier than ever, and industry competition has gotten so heated that making a legit film in California is often an expensive proposition, even in the arid hills outside of Los Angeles.

In a way, that’s a shame, because it feels like we’ve lost an important element of low-budget filmmaking. But it also makes me kind of happy to know that this terrain will be forever tied to a specific age and a distinctive kind of movie. Hiking through Topanga Canyon a couple of summers ago made me feel like I was part of some zero-budget film shoot. At every bend in the path, I half expected to be set upon by acid-crazed bikers, cheaply costumed monsters or scantily clad space women. But the genres and budgets that facilitated those characters faded away as Hollywood passed on to a different age. Perhaps it’s best that the sweaty, rocky, gorgeously unremarkable landscape they called home is relegated to the same fate.

- Ira Brooker

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Talking (and talking and talking) 'bout my generation" or "A lot of people hate this hat."

I'm starting to suspect that I never had any generationally appropriate idols.

Having already written arms-length obituaries for Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson, I once again find myself faced with the death of an undeniably important artist whose work never grabbed me the way it was apparently supposed to. The films of John Hughes defined the cinematic experience for many of my agemates, the first generation to grow up in front of the VCR. Many of my friends can quote his screenplays for The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles more or less verbatim. Had I seen any of those movies at the time, perhaps I could too.

But, like so many other vestiges of the 1980s, my family managed to avoid most of the Hughes oeuvre. By the time I got around to watching the abovementioned holy trinity, I was a jaded college kid unable to see the charm in the broad stereotypes and thinly drawn caricatures my classmates grew up regarding as family. Yes, I could pick out certain moments of charm, but by and large I saw these films as dull mélanges of stilted dialogue and unlikely characterization. (Seriously, has anyone ever responded to marijuana the way Emilio Estevez does in The Breakfast Club?)

So yeah, when the topic of John Hughes comes up, I’ve always been that one contrarian jerk in the group who derides your taste and bespoils your cherished childhood memories. But even I can admit that the man had some real talent. As a writer, he penned an awful lot of crap, but he was also responsible for some damned hilarious scenes, particularly in those Vacation movies. And there are even a couple of his directorial efforts* that I hold as dearly as the rest of you – one perhaps even more so.

The first, obviously, is Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. This is the one instance where I believe Hughes’ vision of teenage life rings mostly true. There’s plenty of shaky material here, mostly involving Principal Rooney’s slapsticky pursuit of Ferris (though Jeffrey Jones does a good job with the role). Even Matthew Broderick’s smirky charm would likely wear thin if not for the support of the movie’s true hero: Alan Ruck. I can’t think of many characters who more accurately embodied the exquisite angst of teendom than Ruck’s Cameron. Whereas most American films from this era and genre come off hopelessly dated today, Ruck’s is a performance that actually improves as I get older. The look on Cameron’s face before he plunges into the pool has more to say about youth and melancholy than all the speechifying The Breakfast Club could muster, and I give Hughes credit both for creating the character and coaxing a career-defining performance out of his young second lead.

And speaking of career-defining, let’s talk about Hughes’ work with John Candy. Although I like Ferris, it’s Hughes’ two Candy vehicles that stand up best for me. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is almost a no-brainer: put a manic John Candy and an uptight Steve Martin in close quarters and watch the hilarity ensue. It’s a straightforward, personality-driven comedy that’s one of the few Hughes films to capture the verve of his writing in the Vacation movies. I remember liking it a lot, though I haven’t seen it in at least a decade.

But for me, the definitive Hughes film will always be Uncle Buck, a film that went considerably darker than Hughes or post-SCTV Candy had ever gone. No, it’s not a great movie, and a lot of the flaws are Hughes’ fault (Macauley Culkin’s unbearably overwritten role, for instance). But it’s also the rare Hughes’ film to occasionally drop the shiny veneer and let a bit of grime through. Candy’s Buck may be a lovable loser, but there’s no avoiding the fact that he really is a loser through and through. He’s essentially Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie (another keen Hughes creation) cast as the lead rather than just the comic relief. No other film role better utilized John Candy’s entire skill set, and he predictably turns in a powerhouse performance. Buck runs the gamut of affability, vulnerability, gregariousness, slovenliness and gluttony, with a previously seldom-seen streak of genuine malevolence mixed in. Hughes provided Candy with the part that gave us a great indication of what the big man could have done if he’d ever been allowed out of the Funny Fat Guy ghetto. If Candy hadn’t died so young, Uncle Buck suggests he might have flourished in this age of smart showcases for guys like Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen.

But I digress. This is supposed to be about the other John, the one who’s been such a constant puzzle to me. This is a man whose writing brought out the best in John Candy, Alan Ruck and Chevy Chase and yielded some of the most memorable comedy scenes of the 1980s. On the other hand, his work on offal like the Home Alone movies and worthless remakes like Flubber and 101 Dalmations also contributed to many of the worst aspects of Hollywood in the ‘90s. He’s an unmistakable influence on many movies I really dig, from Mean Girls to Superbad (possibly my favorite film of the current decade). He also, however, opened the door for directors like Allan Moyle (whose dreadful Pump Up the Volume and Empire Records are basically Hughes films made somehow even less subtle) and Hughes’ greatest protégé, the odious Chris Columbus.

I suppose that any artist will be judged primarily by his finest work, and John Hughes at his best created some iconic material that made a huge impact on a generation. It’s not his fault that most of that work never really connected with me, or that it did connect with a lot of people who made poor future use of it. Heck, if nothing else, he brought me the indelible image of John Candy leering downward, chomping a stogie, wearing a bad hat and wielding a power drill.

Still, if we’re talking ‘80s teen movies, I’ll take Heaven Help Us any old day.

* Possibly important note: I’ve still never seen Weird Science. Maybe that would be the one to win me over.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Seven lessons learned from Prince's "Graffiti Bridge" soundtrack

I’ll confess right up front that I’ve never seen Prince’s 1990 film Graffiti Bridge in its entirety. I’ve never read a single good word about the movie, and as a big fan of Purple Rain, I’ve always feared that watching the sequel would taint my appreciation of the original. (I’ve also never watched Purple Rain while even remotely sober, which may contribute to my belief that it’s a cinematic masterpiece.)

I do, however, own the Graffiti Bridge album, a weird piece of work even by Princely standards. It’s not an awful album by any means. As Prince soundtrack albums go, it ranks well below the flawless Purple Rain and the minor classic Parade (Music from the Motion Picture Under the Cherry Moon), but considerably above Batman. Whereas the first two would stand alone as excellent albums even if you didn’t know the films existed, the songs on Graffiti Bridge sound very much like pieces of a larger, disjointed narrative. It’s a mishmash of guest stars, skit-songs and tonal shifts whose whole is rather less than the sum of its parts.

Still, it’s an interesting listening experience with some scattered but worthwhile highlights. On my most recent spin, I realized that Graffiti Bridge even has a few things to teach us, some more vital than others.

Want to underline your sequel’s inferiority? Open with a weak knock-off of the original.

When Prince was writing “Can’t Stop This Feeling That I Got,” he was probably consciously trying to create a musical link between Purple Rain and Graffiti Bridge. Trouble is, he did it too well. His opening track sounds so much like “Let’s Go Crazy” (minus the awesome spoken-word preamble) that my primary reaction to it is to wonder why I’m not just listening to “Let’s Go Crazy” instead.

The concept of Prince featuring George Clinton is way cooler on paper.

There’s no question that Clinton’s brand of whacked-out space funk was a major influence on young Prince, but there’s also a considerable difference between their sounds. A confluence of these two powerhouses should have shaken the music world to its very foundation. Instead, “We Can Funk” is a pretty decent entry in the Prince dance track canon. The most Clinton-esque elements to be found are a long group chant toward song’s end and the awesome/atrocious lyric “I’m testin’ positive for the funk / I’ll gladly pee in anybody’s cup.”

Place them side by side and Morris Day can easily upstage Prince.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen Purple Rain or heard an early record by The Time, but Morris Day is one of the great showmen of his era. As wild and weird as Prince can be, Morris brings so much more manic energy to his couple of tracks, especially “Release It.” Granted he’s not half the musical genius Prince is, but when Morris starts bossing his "stellas" around and stealing nookie from his side men, I find myself wishing Graffiti Bridge had been his vehicle rather than his benefactor’s.

Once upon a time, there was Tevin Campbell.

Remember Tevin Campbell? That sweet-voiced pretty boy who ruled the R&B charts in the early ‘90s? He’s part of the bizarre Graffiti Bridge entourage, and he’s rather awesome. His “Round and Round” is both one of the best tracks on the album and a more enjoyable effort than Campbell’s future work. By this point, the Prince-Michael Jackson feud was pretty well wound down, but it would be easy to read Prince’s championing of a charismatic child star with a voice soulful beyond his years as one last shot across the bow.

Mavis Staples can do no wrong.

Prince being Prince, he probably could have recruited Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner or another top-tier mega diva to fill this role (he did allegedly pitch the part to Patti LaBelle). Instead he went with the less iconic but equally skilled Mavis Staples, and her brassy, classy presence gives the album just the boost it needs in its saggy second half. Her “Melody Cool” is an undeniable highlight of Graffiti Bridge, a swaggering slab of soul that’s one of the few blatantly cinematic moments that translates gracefully onto wax.

Prince should never dabble in hip-hop.

Sadly, Prince viewed the half-assed flow shoehorned into “New Power Generation (Part II)” not as a failed experiment in genre-bending, but as the gateway to several albums’ worth of hip-hop flirtation. It’s all pretty embarrassing stuff. “Cocaine was a thing that I took on / and Nowhere was a place that I was goin’”? Really?

“Thieves in the Temple” is no “When Doves Cry,” “Graffiti Bridge” is no “Purple Rain.”

Don’t get me wrong – Graffiti Bridge’s big single is a damned good song, maybe even a great one. But unlike its predecessor, it’s just not sturdy enough to hang an entire album and feature film on. As for the title track, it’s little more than a pleasant coda, utterly lacking in the majesty and passion of “Purple Rain.” You know that famous scene at the end of the first film, where Prince’s guitar neck erupts during the fadeout of “Purple Rain,” dousing the crowd with highly suggestive sparks? “Graffiti Bridge” is more like half-hearted wanking with no money shot.

- Ira Brooker