Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Movies: The Namesake

I resent films that are engineered to make me cry, particularly when they are long and lackluster.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

50th Anniversary! Movies: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

First, allow me to congratulate myself, as all hoity-toity publications do, on my 50th blog entry. Here at Dahlhaus, now an established and worthy vehicle for my intermittent vituperations, we are looking forward to a long and rosy future. That aside, onto the grist.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a completely implausible but quite fun shoot-em-up Hollywood detective tale, featuring the usually-the-same but almost-always-excellent Robert Downey Jr., the usually-great-despite-being-in-shitty-movies but somewhat-disappointing-this-time Val Kilmer, and some hot girl (Michelle Monaghan). RD Jr., as Harry, is a somewhat unsuccessful AV thief living in New York when he accidentally walks into a movie audition and is invited to LA for a screen test. Kilmer, as Perry, is a gay private eye/consultant who sometimes takes actors along with him on jobs to train for their roles. Monaghan, as Harmony Faith Lane (her screen name is Alison Ames. . . oughtn't it be the other way 'round?), is a smart and beautiful wannabe actress who has so far only managed to land one beer commercial.

As the plot comes around, we discover that Harry and Harmony knew each other as children (surprise!) and Harry has always been in love with her. Then some people get shot, and then Harry gets beat up and then more shooting, and then wait—Harmony's dead, but wait—no, it was just her little sister who's dead, and then Harry gets beat up some more and there's more shooting, and Perry and Harry argue, and Perry doesn't want to be part of the case but he gets dragged in anyway, and somewhere in there is an evil older actor or producer or some such who is causing all of these shootings of young lasses (oh, did I forget to mention the body in the lake and the body in Harry's shower? Same body: pretty girl, no underpants), and then they all have a car chase, and then everybody almost dies, but in the end, all three heroes live, and Harry and Harmony live happily ever after, with Perry too, who hires Harry as an official sidekick. Whew!

Anyway, the only thing particularly. . . particular about this movie is the (already dated) post-modern narration, in which Harry admits from the beginning that he is telling us a story via film, and occasionally "stops" (of course, he's not really the one doing it) the film, rolls back a few frames, and tells us that he's being a bad narrator, or that we should have noticed this or that detail, or that the end of the movie is silly. Of course, we are still to read him as Harry (we're not watching the commentary, that is, of RD Jr.), and so while the movie is flush with its moviehood (and being set in Hollywood helps), suspension of disbelief is still very operative, and ironically, or un-ironically, or post-ironically, no new territory is really carved (the way it is, for example, in Stranger Than Fiction). Still, fun to watch, but not a must-see. Also, the opening credits are nicely done, if a bit Bond/Hitchcock rip-off-ish.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Books: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

'If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,' the Walrus said,
'That they could get it clear?'
'I doubt it,' said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

Without my ever knowing it, Lewis Carroll has been my greatest poetic influence. I had always blamed my propensity for silly rhymes on Dr. Seuss, but I've now been set aright, after reading this positively delightful pair of volumes.

I've little mind for psychedelic (eat me), Freudian(down the hole), or Marxist (off with her head!) readings, though there isn't anything wrong with argument for its own sake, so long as one doesn't take oneself too seriously. Alice takes herself rather seriously, but the characters she finds in Wonderland and Looking Glass World take themselves even more seriously.

The characters I like, particularly the Hatter (in situ of a never-ending teatime), and the wordplay is quite fun, if simpler than I expected, punning with homophones and parts of speech (when asked whether she sees anyone coming down the road, Alice responds, "Nobody," and her interlocutor remarks on the keenness of her eyesight, as he can't see this Nobody. This gag evolves when the messenger arrives and is asked whom he passed on the road. He replies, "Nobody," but when he is chided for being so slow, he replies, "Nobody is faster than I," leaving his superior to challenge how he could have passed Nobody if Nobody is faster.)

My favorite parts, though, are the poems (except Jabberwocky), which rhyme and tell silly stories and are most often bastardizations of other rhymes (e.g. Twinkle twinkle little bat/how I wonder where you're at). The Walrus and the Carpenter, quoted above, is the best, and tells the story of how a Walrus and Carpenter trick four Oysters into becoming their meal. Carroll's meter is near-always perfect (and the one time it isn't, during the last line of Humpty Dumpty, Alice remarks that the line is too long), and he fits dialogue into his rhymes with natural, easeful rhythm. Jabberwocky, of course, seems meaningless, and is therefore not as fun, although it is quite redeemed when it is translated for Alice by Humpty Dumpty ('Twas brillig and the slithy toves: "brillig" means four o'clock; "slithy" means 'lithe and slimy'; "toves" are "something like badgers, something like lizards, and something like corkscrews.")

Additionally, I had the luck of getting an illustrated copy from the library, and the book oughtn't be read without the illustrations, for, as Alice says at the beginning, what's the point of reading a book without any pictures or dialogue?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Movies: Zwartboek (Black Book)

I'm generally not a fan of war movies, but I went to see this anyway, knowing little more than that it was about World War II, was in Dutch, and featured a pretty girl (Carice van Houten, who turns out to be much more than just a pretty girl).

It's a story we know well—European Jews in hiding—and a story we don't know much about at all: the German occupation of Holland and the counter-strategies of the Dutch Resistance. Introduced via flashback from an Israeli kibbutz in 1956, the plot follows the pretty, perky, saucy, and quick-witted Rachel Stein during the occupation as she moves from hiding spot to hiding spot, soon connecting with the Resistance. It's not long before her good looks and chance timing, not to mention her moxie-extraordinaire, land her a post at Nazi headquarters itself as secretary cum sextoy—disguised, of course, as chipper blonde shikselah Ellis du Vries. It is here that she does her most useful work for the Resistance, installing a bug in an important office and helping coordinate plans to free prisoners quartered in the basement; meanwhile, her initial role of "service" is becoming a budding love-affair with the Hauptmeister Müntze (Sebastian Koch, of The Lives of Others), who quickly discovered her true identity, but kept her secret to himself.

From this point on, the plot is filled with delicious (as far as plots are concerned) and abominable (as far as history is concerned) twists—of double-crossing, triple-crossing, informing and worse, driven more by potential profit than to simply save one's skin, as Resistance plans are repeatedly foiled and Müntze and Ellis are sentenced to death by the Nazis. With the assistance of the only other woman at HQ, to whom Ellis has let slip at least part of her secret, the two escape and go into hiding for a brief time, until V-day brings German capitulation and Canadian soldiers parading in the streets. But all isn't well; Müntze's death warrant still stands, and the Resistance, believing that Ellis herself betrayed them, are hungry for her punishment. She is punished indeed, but this time at the hands of her ill-behaved "liberators" as a Nazi conspirator; we see women in the streets being publicly shamed, their hair shaven, dressed in rags and wearing signs that read "Nazi Whore." Ellis, who has used her body again and again to buy safety, refuses to strip naked for the amusement of drunken Englishmen and is therefore stripped forcibly, beaten, and rained upon by feces.

The seed of the "hope" of Israel was planted in our minds at the film's start, and we begin to wonder whether it isn't true that Jews indeed need a homeland where they might protect themselves from the viciously-manifested hate that targets them. And yet, our first seed of doubt is planted at this moment, when we see the liberators behaving, as an official comes to chide them, "as bad as the Nazis." The tree of doubt, however, comes into full blossom, with a trunk of hopelessness, branches of sorrow, and leaves of anxiety, at the film's very end, when Rachel wakes from her reverie to find herself back in Israel. Her husband and two children find her at the shore and walk her back to the kibbutz, which we suddenly realize she has founded herself, funded by the money stolen from her family and other wealthy Jews who were tricked into trying to cross into safe territory with all of their money and jewels on their bodies (hence double-crossing, triple-crossing, informing, and worse). As their car pulls into the gates of the kibbutz, we see young men running out with rifles and hear airplanes overhead. The fighting begins again, and, as we know, has yet to end. And that is the most horrifying part.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Movies: Casino Royale (1967) and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine

One was way better than I had even hoped and the other was way worse than I could have even imagined, but all in all, it was a good night for fit birds (or hott chix in the USA), the parade led, of course, by the stunning (despite her veritably painted-on cheekbones) Ursula Andress (whose transparent dresses sans underthings never fail to please a Film Forum audience of lonely popcorn-munching men). The greatness of the "original" Casino Royale (very much removed from Fleming's novel and last year's Daniel Craig version of the film) fills me with even more venom against the 2006 version. Why (and this applies to Woody Allen's Matchpoint, too--not even he, "star" villain (ha!) of CR67, can do no wrong) the industry remakes great movies into ugly stepchildren is beyond me.

Moving on. Peter Sellers is more brilliant than ever before. Or after. Even more brilliant than in What's New Pussycat?, his other (soak your seat silly) duet with Woody, believe it or not. His Indian accent (East, not American, although there are some of those in the movie, too) is so good that he repeats it (he knows it's so good). To be truthful, the beginning of the film, in which leaders of the world's spy industry ask the "original" James Bond to come out of retirement, is a bit protracted (probably because David Niven has absolutely no charisma), as are other scenes that he dominates (although I love the army of hot French spy girls posing as a clan of Scottish sisters who are set the task to seduce Niven's Bond). The ultimate reason CR67 is so good is that it knows precisely what the best thing is about Bond flicks—the Bond girl—and so it gives us hundreds of them, instead of Fleming's stingy one or two or three. Also, we can all thank screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz for taking that dreadfully tedious poker game and shortening it to three or four hands of Baccarat (a game that appears to take even less time per hand than Blackjack). Woot.

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine is, indeed, as dreadful a film as it sounds. Every character is hackneyed, from Frankie Avalon as the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed naivete, to the evil doctor who is building sexy automatic females (think FemBot) in gold-lame bikinis to seduce and lure into asset-usurping marriages the top executives of the world, to the doctor's screwball sidekick who suffers from kicked-puppy syndrome and never does anything right. Despite all this, there is a fantastic scene in which about ten seconds of music play in the laboratory and all the gold bikini girls come out and dance in that ever-so-particular 1960s way. It's also always fascinating to note the difference between 1960s hot bodies and 2000s hot bodies. Not a one of these girls could even get cast on Girls Gone Wild. Of course, the high-hipped, saggy bikini bottoms don't help.

You probably can't rent Dr. G and the BM, even on NetFlix, but that's okay because it's ultimately pretty cheesy at best (annoying at worse), but you definitely can get CR67, and if you don't, you're just a stick in the mud. Kind of like my friends who hate my blog. Witness Speaker A, who says "I'm not reading your blog anymore," and Speaker B, who points out, "Hell has frozen over; [Speaker A] and I agree!" although admitting that, since her initial complaints, things seem to have improved. You see? Squeaky wheels get entries about nose-picking.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Poem: Moisey Slayeth the Great Beast Academy

Moisey slayeth the great beast Academy
In fair May of 07 AD
Flexed his suntanned and sinewed anatomy
For Freedom and Egalité!

Born in the exurbs of Brotherland,
and raised in sweet pastures the same,
Moisey traveled across to the Westerworld
Where Fitzgerald once promised a name.

‘Twas here on the Golden Gate’s East Side
That their first encounter did come—
The beastly Academy’s rawhide
Yet unscathed by the sharp or the dumb.

It had not any inkling or notion
Of what the young Moisey could do
Complacency its only compulsion—
From centuries of pupils subdued.

They feared its forked tongue spewing fire
Of multi-syllabic cant
And they cowered wide-eyed in the ire
Of its Arm Chairman liberal rant.

Its carbuncular haunches they hated
Its scrofulous scrotum they loathed
But worse was the puss it generated
And spewed at them out through its nose.

For years they had prayed for a hero
Ever faithless one day one would come,
For their esteem had all fallen to zero
With no Coke for their tankards of rum.

Their eyes were glazed over with torpor;
Their lips dribbled drool to their chins;
They had lost their idealistic ardor;
They had lost their salacious grins.

Moisey entered the gates of the Sather
Innocuous-looking at best
No helmet atop his curls, rather
A Mamiya strung round his young chest.

But under his Led Zeppelin t-shirt
And his three year old worn Diesel jeans
Was an aesthetic, artistic convert
To the theory of meaning that means.

Yes, under his frayed Urban Outfit
He hid more than the others of kind
The Classicist’s ideal in form, and
More Greco- than Roman in mind.

“What’s this!?” he asked one female pupil
Who cowered, her face in her hands.
“What power could rob of their passion
The young women and men of these lands?”

“Tis the horrid beast, the monster Academy!
He rapeth and pillage the fair!
He swoops down into the glade Memorial
And plucks up students by the braids in their hair!”

“Truly this cannot be; you are lying!”
“You mean myth-making, and No! I am not!”
“But what could this, um, Monster, be trying—”
“He has a most sinister plot!

“He means to ensnare all the pupils—
The greatest young minds of the land—
To distract them all from their own passions,
And control all their minds with his hand!”

“This cannot come to pass,” and with
These grave words brave Moisey pursed
His budding lips in preparation for
A battle royal cursed.

He trained day in and out for years—
Took classes all the while—
Studied Academy’s power o’er his peers
‘Til he was ready for his trial.

The day the battle was to be
The sun shone unawares
For all its power, Academy
Not for earthly pleasure cares.

The beast was waiting in its lair—
A classroom down the hall;
And brave young Moisey, vicious fair
Prepared to see it all:

He turned the knob and pushed the door;
He calmly stepped inside.
The beast had not one head, but more!
Three! Brave Moisey sighed.

“Good afternoon; nice weather, yeah?”
He asked the foul enemy.
“I care not for the sun or rain,”
Said cold Academy.

“For facts, a bit; for figures, more,
So long as they can be bent.
My favorite, though, are kids like you
Who can barely pay their rent,

“And yet think that they know something
‘Bout how the world does work.
I’ll test your knowledge, quickly done,
You insolent little jerk.”

Each head had said its bit; by now,
You wonder how they looked?
The first had hair Medusa-like,
The second’s nose was crooked.

The third, I fear too dreadful—
Too odious to tell—
All that I will say here is
That Man! Its breath did smell.

But Moisey, brave, was strong and loud
With moxie more than most.
He’d learnt it from his family, proud,
Though not the kind to boast.

And with a whack! at one, and then
A smack! at the second head,
Brave Moisey focused all his strength
At striking the third one dead.

One thousand one verbal skirmishes, then
Six hundred and sixty-six blows,
Then three hundred and sixty-six slices
Cut off Academy’s leap year toes.

The beast, you could tell, he was waning,
His blood was all over the floor;
Its acid burnt holes in the lino
But Moisey could still give it more.

He wielded his trusty Mamiya,
And explained to the near-bested beast
“My passion is pictures; I’ll show you
That theories are what matter least.”

And with that he snapped the beast’s picture
And having forgotten the flash
Wasn’t off, the light then was blinding
And Academy fell with a Crash!

Yes, the power of one young true artist
His intention so innocent pure—
To dazzle with truth and enlighten—
Was the very most powerful cure,

For the sickly old slag, that Academy,
So beastly and bony to boot,
Had left in its place a young woman,
Bonny and bounteously cute.

“You’ve saved me! You’ve saved Passion!" she cried,
And with that, all the pupils poured in;
“You’ve slain it—the beast—right there it has died!
And Passion’s now all ours again!”

Monday, May 14, 2007

Movies: Zoo

Robinson Devor's documentary combines interviews with dramatic reenactments to suss out the story behind (oh, no pun intended) a Seattle man's death in July 2005, after equine anal penetration punctured his colon and instigated unstaunched internal bleeding. My movie-going partner complained that the doc "didn't answer the questions it asked, and didn't ask the questions [he] wanted the answers to," but I wasn't looking for the nuts-and-bolts that he was (the very little bit of that provided, by way of glimpses of shadowy (fake?) live footage, were more than enough for me). I wasn't looking for much of anything actually, although I'd heard that the film was quite aesthetically fine. I was simply curious.

The dead man, who called himself "Mr. Hands," was one of a group of men that regularly got together at a host's ranch in rural Washington. All from different walks of life and different parts of the world, they met on the internet and had one thing in common: an interest in and desire for sexual activity with horses. The host, a long-time ranch hand for a wealthy couple, had his own small spread with a house, an apple tree, and a few horses of his own, and he would invite fellow zoos he met on the internet for weekend parties, Christmas, and Thanksgiving dinners.

In my opinion, the doc is far from aesthetically fine. In fact, I found the visual components to be extremely distracting from the real meat of the movie: the interviews (ditto for the soundtrack). So, it could have been a great radio program. The flaw is in both intent and style; first, most likely in attempt to de-fang the topic, the doc is painted in broad, artistic strokes; this could be dooming enough, but the reenactments take their cues from the shadowy Unsolved Mysteries series, and the acting ranges from barely passable (Mr. Hands himself) to unbearably bad (the wealthy couple that employs the ranch hand). Certain inexplicable choices are made, like that of placing the actor hired to play Cop #1 on a too-small stool in the middle of a bright white screen (particularly jarring given that most of the movie is shot in night and shadow) for a completely non-charismatic and only tangentially-related 5-10 minute interview—when we see him in the next scene, stomping through the grass, we can't help but snicker at his negligible performance. The best shots are those of crisp leaves and dewy apples, but they come off looking a bit like commercial shots for the Home and Garden Network

If one can ignore these things, as well as the pulsating, melodramatic soundtrack (somewhere between Philip Glass' lesser work and Cliff Martinez's Solaris soundtrack, but of course a far shittier version of both), one can hear the voice of reason in the seemingly unreasonable. One zoo explains that they would occasionally get into conversations about the government curtailing their civil liberties, planting the small seed in our consciousness that zoophilia might be categorized under the inalienable right to privacy. At the time of Mr. Hands' death, bestiality was not illegal in the state of Washington. Because of his death, it now is, and is punishable by up to ten years in prison.

Toward the film's end, Jenny Edwards, the "horse rescuer" who agreed to play herself in the film, comes to the ranch to collect the "abused" horses. In the doc's most chilling moment, she says, "We didn't want any of these guys or their friends to come and try to buy [this horse] so we decided to geld it that night." We then see the preparations and the surgical procedure: the horse, drugged and suspended upside-down from a crane, its four legs bound together, brought into the operation room and settled on its back. And I, raised on concrete and without much of any interest in horses (since I don't eat them), was angry and sad. The hypocrisy of this horse rescuer is that she believes that by passively engaging in sexual activity with a horse, a man abuses it, but by castrating the animal, she isn't. (If, like my movie-going partner, you require a bit of nuts-and-bolts, it is, of course, the horse who penetrates the man, and the horse needs no encouragement to do it; as easily as a dog will, pardon, hump your leg, or even a chair leg, a horse will, when the opportunity presents itself, penetrate whatever is there to be penetrated).

With regard to gelding, Wikipedia says the following: "A male horse is often gelded to make him more well-behaved and easier to control. Gelding also removes lower quality animals from the gene pool; breeders choose to leave only their best animals as stallions; lesser specimens are gelded, to improve the overall quality of the breed. To allow only the finest animals to breed on, while preserving adequate genetic diversity, it is recommended that about 10% of all male horses should remain stallions." Hitler for Horses, anyone? Now, I admit, I am from the concrete jungle, and I have no reason to want to control a horse (and yes, if I had a cat, I would have it spayed or neutered, to prevent overpopulation and other such animal cruelty—however, I don't have a cat, in part because I am very wary of the domestication of animals). I am not arguing that gelding horses is animal cruelty (although, I think it may actually be, since don't see how it's so far from female genital mutilation in humans). But I'm no vegan, so I'll cease on the topic immediately.

My point, though, is that the film does ask the important questions and I think it answers in favor of the zoos, though it's arguable. Bestiality is often likened to the sexual abuse of children (the horse rescuer, in fact, invokes this, and even goes so far as to say that when she met the ranch hand, he had a "pervy vibe. . . like a child molester-type," because animals, like children, are a) innocent and b) unable to consent. That kind of infantalization, idealization, and anthropomorphization of animals frustrates me to no end. An animal behaves based on instinct, and sometimes training, and lacks the developed psyche of a child. I don't argue that an animal cannot be abused, even sexually, but I do argue that this is not a case of animal abuse. The horse's consensuality, sorry to say, is embedded in his action. While I wouldn't hesitate to recommend psychiatric counseling to the zoos, the only person I'd prosecute for animal cruelty is the horse rescuer.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Books: American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

Well, it's not Portnoy's Complaint, but it's still pretty darn good. The first quarter of the book (clocking in around 100 pages, it's a bit excessive) serves as a nostalgic, emotion-padded introduction (legacy of Proust, be damned—you don't belong in Jersey!) to what turns out to be the real meat of the novel, so it's a bit of a slow slog—this is one of those books that "it's hard to get into."

The introduction takes place in part over a high school reunion where a bunch of codgers—the narrator in particular—reminisce about their youth, and the narrator, a now-famous writer named Nathan, describes in the golden sepia of recollection his memories of "the Swede" (actual name: Seymour Levov). Swede Levov earned his nickname by being the only tall, blond, alpha-male Jew in his all-Jewish Weehawken school (in his all-Jewish town, in fact), and he was as athletically adept (all-city this, all-county that, in baseball, football, and basketball) as one would imagine he must be. Nathan has dinner with him once—a month or so before the reunion, not having seen him since high school before that—and finds that he has continued to live a perfect life—Marine served in the war, took up the family business (a glove factory in Newark), has a wife half his age and three healthy athletic sons, the four of whom he takes to dinner in New York City once a month. Nathan walks away from the meal bored stiff and certain that the Swede's life has remained as tediously picture perfect as a Life magazine spread.

At the reunion, though, Nathan discovers that the Swede has just died—prostate cancer (to which the narrator has lost his potency)—and with that news (and some more tiresome meanderings into Proustian sensory nostalgia), he decides to write the Swede's story. The story is what constitutes the next 300-some-odd pages, and it's a story packed with the detail-rich Roth we love. The Swede's life, in this story at least, hasn't been without it's bumps, the biggest his only child (preceding the second marriage and three sons by decades), a daughter, Merry (Meredith), whose troubles begin in the crib when she spends her first 18 months screaming uncontrollably, evolving into a childhood and teenage stutter, and culminating in anarchistic political rage (during Vietnam) when, at the age of 16, she bombs their country town's general store/post office, killing the neighborhood's doctor, and then disappearing.

The story is that of an entire family coping with politics, economics, society, and we learn, from the Swede's (very Jewish) father each detail involved in making a glove, and we learn, from the Swede's (Irish Catholic) wife how difficult it is to be taken seriously when one was once the beautiful Miss New Jersey, and how difficult it is to redefine oneself (she takes up a very hands-on business in raising of beef cattle, but, as she ages, still insists on a face lift). We watch the Swede's parents follow the Watergate scandal on TV, and melt with the poignancy of Grandpa Levov writing letters to Senators and CCing his politically-inclined granddaughter in hopes that she'll respect him for it. Most fascinating (to me) is that the Swede speaks in the Jewish tones of his father (and of Portnoy and his father) throughout the book, which is startling after the long introduction; we are set up to expect not exactly WASP diction, but speech more easeful, less fraught, the speech, perhaps, of The Natural, the character the introduction's Swede most clearly mirrors, before, of course, his own fall.

And even more fascinating than that (to me) is the concept of what this story (the 300ish pages) constitutes in relation to the introduction. Nathan doesn't know the Swede's backstory. They hadn't spoken since high school—and barely ever then; their dinner is their first meeting in fifty years, and the Swede doesn't say a word about having ever had a daughter. So is this story "true" (within the diagesis of the novel's entirety, of course), or is it a "fantasy," Nathan's completely fictional biography of a man into whose interior life he had no access?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Books: All Tomorrow's Parties, by William Gibson

I really must stop reading this terrible, trashy, contemporary novels. Isn't anyone writing anything of quality these days besides David Foster Wallace?

Gibson was another "mystery" recommendation (along with Bruce Wagner), probably picked up from some other book's review (e.g. "This book pales in comparison to contemporary masterpieces by William Gibson, Bruce Wagner, and their ilk."), likely from Slate (whose literary opinions can no longer be trusted). Like Wagner's, Gibson's book is all surface; unlike Wagner, Gibson isn't a skilled writer—in fact, he rather, well, sucks. He's lazy. His editor is lazy, too.

The plot has (unfortunately) nothing to do with that great Velvet Underground song. The book is set in the Bay Area, at some undisclosed moment in the future, which we eventually discover is at the brink of a new era's dawning. This new era will have something to do with the mysterious hologram pop star (no, not Jem) Rei Toi—who, by the way, is real, but simultaneously isn't, since she's a digital projection from a thermos-like projector that an ex-security guard finds himself toting around after he picks it up from a convenience-store FedEx-type spot (the store is called Lucky Dragon, and it's a chain. It sells such technological wonders as sunglasses that act as mobile phone and have interior screens with web-browsing, chemistry-set candy that you mix yourself, and self heating instant coffee and noodles.)

The new era will be precipitated by the arson of the Bay Bridge—which, by the way—hasn't had any motor vehicle traffic for years, and is now a thriving "zone" covered in make-shift housing (think Hooverville) where the police don't go, and where people eat such things as "bridge chickens." There are ten or twenty other characters, whose stories and histories intersect and reconnect, including a young woman running away from an abusive boyfriend whose girlfriend follows her around making a documentary with a flying video camera operated by a sensory glove (it's called God's Little Toy), and a terminally ill man living in a makeshift shelter (think Hooverville again) in the Tokyo subway, who can "see all the world's data" (?!) due to exposure to some mystery medication and therefore understands the ushering in of the new age (?!) and has something to do with the shipping of Rei Toi's projector to the man who picks it up at the Lucky Dragon store. If you think this is all very random and weird and disconnected, then I've given you a good sense of the book. None of the questions are ever solved; in fact, none of the questions are ever even asked, really.

The plot, though, is not the most aggravating aspect. The most aggravating aspect of All Tomorrow's Parties is that Gibson doesn't write in complete sentences. He fills his text with fragments that don't serve any aesthetic purpose. Like this. Except to confound. Or to enrage. This, I cannot forgive.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Music: Blonde Redhead

Italian twins plus a Japanese ex-art student? Hot. Turns out they're massively talented, too. Last night's show at Webster Hall blew my mind; we got there super early and consequently were only separated from the stage by one row of people. When Kazu stomped out on stage in ankle boots and short shorts and proceeded to stand right in front of me for the whole concert, I almost got a hard-on. She is beyond supermodel hot. Just look at her legs:

Now imagine the bottom half of them. So not only is she graced with a killer hot body, and an amazing soft, sweet, high voice, and some guitar and keys skills, and mad dancing abilities, but she is tender, too. Toward the beginning of the show, she saw a cluster of us holding our ears during parts of a song and at the end asked if it was too loud (there was drum machine that was cranked so that you not only felt the base vibrating through your solarplexus, but also a distinct pain in your ear that you felt compelled to protect yourself against), patiently interpreting our shouted remarks until diagnosing the problem and turning down the offending base.

The whole band, though, was incredibly generous and gracious; they did two encores, playing in total almost two hours, and though it was clear that they were exhausted, they kept going deeper and deeper into their zone. Kazu and Amadeo have an intense closeness and chemistry on stage, often playing face to face so that they're almost touching, and once she even reached out and pulled his hair in a tough, loving gesture of expression, and then she kicked him away. Most of the songs they played were off of the new album, 23, and their penultimate (my favorite) Misery is a Butterfly, including the title track and the great song Equus (which Kazu sang, more or less, to the seated horse sculpture they had on stage behind her keyboard, which she used throughout the show as a bench, caressing it's head and ears.)

Their opening act rocked hard enough to deserve a mention as well. The Fields are four British indie rock guys and a white-blonde Icelandic fraulein at the keyboards, and based on their hard-core rockage, I will definitely be checking out their debut album Everything Last Winter.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Movies: Fathom and Danger: Diabolik

Film Forum is hosting Vintage 007 plus 60s Spies A-Go-Go through May 17. You've probably already missed these two (in the case of Fathom, no big deal; Diabolik, well, you'll just have to order it from Amazon), which is a shame.

In Fathom, Welch is a championship skydiver visiting Spain, who agrees to help two Brit-accented secret service members locate an atomic device with the codename fire dragon. Or so she thinks. No sooner has she literally "dropped in" on the bad guy that he tells her he's the good guy—an American private detective looking for the same fire dragon. She plays monkey in the middle for a while until a third man—a Russkie curio collector—enters the mix; he wants the fire dragon, too, and by now she's found out that it's not an atomic device at all, but a rare and expensive piece of Chinese craftsmanship: a jewel-studded golden dragon figurine. They all duke it out over a variety of locomotive devices: car chases, speed boat accidents, railroad shenanigans, and private jet battles, while poor naive Fathom tries to suss out who's the good guy and who's the bad.

Welch would be better off without the fake tan, fake hair, and fake enthusiasm (it's amazing that her breasts are real), and the famed green bikini scene isn't as scintillating as promised, but the plot (and this is rare for films of its day and kind) is actually mildly involving, if not with one too many turns.

Diabolik (Danger: Diabolik in the US) features John Phillip Law as Diabolik, a Eurometrosexual thief extraordinaire, who lives in an underground lair far superior to the Batcave with his kittenish lover Eva (Marisa Mell) and his 25 white Jaguars. When theiving, which is most of the time, Diabolik wears head-to-toe leather (hot!), including a mask that prevents everyone—including Diabolik-obsessed cop Inspector Ginko—from seeing his face and guessing his true identity.

The best scene mimics the political prankster phenomenon all the rage in '68: Diabolik and his girl, dressed to the mod max and sporting shades any Brooklyn hipster would kill for, stand at the back of a press conference while the Minister addresses the press, promising that Diabolik will be caught. They then start snapping pictures—and their cameras have been rigged to disperse "exhilaration gas" (to which they've already popped antidote capsules), and every non-mod character—the establishment, as it were, with their brown coats and stodgy hair—explodes into goony laughter. The second best scene comments on the times just as well, showing the police breaking up a party at a nightclub where hippies galore with painted faces and dreadful outfits are passing around a single marijuana joint. The staging is classic camp. At the end, you think that with the aid of some nasty gangsters, the police have finally trapped Diabolik, but sexy men in leather always win, and we can be certain that he will strike again.

Coming soon! Casino Royale and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine! I'll bet you can't wait. . .

Friday, May 4, 2007


I went to MoMA last weekend, and here I am in San Francisco not a week later, so the SFMoMA, of course, is a necessity. Simply walking into the lobby, it's clear that San Francisco's version of the white cube franchise has been pulled down from it's high horse, and I don't think it's because I grew up at the SFMoMA that I like it much better. Compared to it's big sister institution, of course, it's a half-pint, bite-sized, but that's part of what makes it so good. The galleries follow a logical progression, two tangent loops on five stories, wrapping around a central staircase. It's basically impossible to get lost. It's like running a track. The New York version, of course, is a gigantic cube broken into smaller cubes (the galleries, it must be said, are on the whole larger than the ones in San Francisco). Like the Met, if it has a logic to its layout, that logic is lost on me, despite countless visits. The difference is that I like getting lost at the Met--the antiquity of its collections suits the exploratory mood. At the MoMA, with it's giant, blank white walls, bright lights, and endless galleries, I feel like a ping pong ball, bouncing back and forth from masterpiece to masterpiece, completely unable to focus on anything.

That said, at the SFMoMA last night, I said, "I feel like I'm in hell," and my compatriot agreed. This was on the fourth floor, whose entirety was taken up by a Brice Marden exhibition. Let it be known that I hate Brice Marden, or at least, to be a bit less vehement, I think his art sucks. Not only is it a total sham (and that's not because I only like figurative painting or some such; there is many a minimalist that I like, and even a few color-field painters). His work, though, is beyond banal, and to see an entire floor of it (one-half large color-field canvasses, one half tangly colored net paintings) was an insult to my intelligence. The fifth floor, which usually showcases the largest and most fun contemporary art was given over to the Picasso and the Americans show that I missed when it was at the Whitney. I didn't miss much; I've always considered Picasso to be completely over-rated (excepting his blue period), and this show did little to change my mind. It did, however, include a fantastic Lichtenstein that I'd never seen before, of naked girls tossing a beach ball--well worth the trip--and also a great Wesselman: a kind of kitchen interior with a painted background, a real refrigerator door attached in relief, and collaged images of 1960s food pasted onto the table. Those two pictures made the trip, because the entire third floor, which always has great photography (I think I really do prefer photography to painting) was closed for installation, as was the part of the second floor that shows more contemporary art from the permanent collection. There were also a few great posters and things (a couch constructed from White Pages phone books) in the design section (I think I prefer design to painting, too, now, or at least, contemporary designers do more interesting work than contemporary "artists," for the most part).

MoMA back in New York had a bit more to offer this time around, if only because of the Jeff Wall show. I don't much like Jeff Wall, but maybe because my expectations were so low, I liked this show much more than I thought I would. There were, of course, plenty of weird, bad, stilted pictures--Mimic has always been one of my least favorites--but Picture for Women was better than I had imagined it could be after studying it books for so long, and the picture crafted after Invisible Man, an interior with the ceiling covered in light bulbs, is pretty spectacular. I also liked Diagonal Composition, a smaller picture of a dirty bar of soap on the ledge of a dirty sink (I'd always liked that one), and saw another few riffs on the theme, including a great shot of a dirty floor and a dirty mop, in which the structure of the spots of dirt on floor proved that Wall does have an aesthetic sensibility, even if he doesn't always use it. I also noticed that every picture that had an artificial light source (there's a great one of a 1950s interior filled with balloons reflecting the light from a jaundiced shaded lamp) worked better than the naturally, brightly-lit outdoor shots.

The rest of (NY)MoMA was tedious as usual--the ping-pong effect in the permanent collection, and a showcase of comic-related art, which was awful (and a waste of a theme. If they had done a showcase of work by graphic artists, the work would have been far superior). There were, again, a few goodies in the design section, which I had luckily heard about before and therefore sought out, including a wall of awesome Emigre covers and little corner of Helvetica memorabilia. The high-ceilinged central atrium was being installed with comical wall drawings containing socio-politico-artistic jokes--the jokes were good, but I didn't much care for his drawing style, though I guess that's less important. It's fascinating enough that it keeps the crowds all standing in the atrium, staring up with open mouths--which is good, because then the Jeff Wall show isn't too crowded.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Movies: La Doublure (The Valet)

Why are flimsy romantic comedies so much better when they're in French?

Droopy eyed François Pignon (Gad Elmaleh) is in love with the sweet Émilie (Virginie Ledoyen), but when he proposes marriage, she laughs and tells him that he's like a brother to her—and besides, having recently taken out a large loan to open a bookshop, she is too stressed to think about romance.

Meanwhile, shnozzy CEO Pierre Levasseur (Daniel Auteuil) is struggling to balance the demands of his clever wife (Kristin Scott Thomas)—who controls 60% of their company—and his stunning mistress, leggy supermodel Elena (Alice Taglioni), who is demanding that he divorces and marries her.

Their worlds intersect when a paparazzo snaps a photo of the CEO and his mistress talking on the street, into which Pignon had unwittingly stepped. When the picture hits the papers, Levasseur's wife demands the details of his affair, and, denying everything, the CEO insists that he doesn't know the leggy blonde—she's with the other man in the photo. In order to substantiate his lie, he enlists his lawyer to pay Elena and Pignon to live together in Pignon's homely, cramped apartment and conduct themselves as a couple for the benefit of various photographers and detectives. Hilarity ensues as Pignon's friends, coworkers (he parks cars at an expensive restaurant), and family wonder how he could have landed such a hot girlfriend, and as Levasseur becomes exceedingly jealous, certain that Pignon is moving in on his territory.

Pignon, however, is so heartsick over Émilie that he takes little pleasure in Elena's blonde glory, and Elena is equally as heartsick over Pignon. The supermodel (smarter and warmer than we expect most supermodels to be) speaks to Émilie on Pignon's behalf, and by the end of the film, they are engaged, her loans paid off by the fee Levasseur paid Pignon to live with Elena. Levasseur, still trying to keep both his wife (a divorce would cost him his wealth and his job) and his mistress (at least for one last fling), loses both. The good have been rewarded and the greedy punished.

Except, of course, for Elena. Levasseur is clearly no catch, particularly not for the young, beautiful model, but she loved him nevertheless, and her sadness is palpable. I guess we're expected to get over that easily; after all, she is a supermodel. Can't be too hard to find a replacement sugar daddy.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Books: Umbilicus Cut: The Adventures of a Wandering Phallus, by my dad

If you like the sound of this book, too bad—you won't be able to go buy it or check it out of the library or read it online. It's an unedited manuscript—roughly 350 pages—existing only as two paper copies (one of which is on my desk, recently photocopied from a garage-aged first edition) and, perhaps by now, one electronic scan encrypted into a Bay Area PC. Attempts were made, I understand, to publish it in the early 1980s (it having been written in that time, or perhaps the very late 70s), but these attempts failed, and since that time, I've only known of it by rumor—something of a suburban legend in our household. When I was very young, it was just "Dad's book," (usually spoken of by my mom, not without some derision). When I was old enough (18? 20?) it was given a name, or at least a summary of content (again by my mom, and again dismissively)—"The Tale of [his] Wandering Penis." I've made a joke of it countless times, using it as an example when explaining to friends the level of conversational intimacy into which my mother invites me regularly. But now, by the collision of two curiosities (mine and my father's), I have a boxed photocopy of the manuscript, which I've read, highlighted, and scrawled across.

Because the book is, in part, a (semi-?) factual, memoirish account of the few years preceding my birth—because the book contains "confessions" (often of a sexual nature, but not always) by my father, and descriptions of friends and family members (and his relationship (or non-relationship)) with she would become my mother, I wonder whether I should write here about it in a strictly literary way, as if they author were a person completely unknown to me (it seems that would be most. . . judicious), or whether I should engage with it on a personal level, as a means of entry into my father's personality, history, desires. (In a way it's impossible not to, and I can't imagine he would give me the manuscript for any other reason). I was surprisingly impressed with portions of his narration; this will likely come off as condescending and cold, but I am that—particularly when speaking of or with him: I never realized he was this smart. (I will backpedal in a moment—sit tight.) It is because of this. . . surprise? confusion? that his narrator, so transparently his own self, is so distant from the actuality of the man I know today and identify as Dad.

The book opens very strongly, and continues, despite its confused trajectory and disorganization, to show flashes of utter brilliance (hence, I never realized he was that smart). Most of the brilliant things include Pynchonesque ditties, DeLillo-like lists of products (mind you, UC precedes White Noise by roughly five years), and Rushdien magical realism (radio-wave receiving nose, meet talking penis). The usually weaker portions include Bukowsian beat chronicles of days spent in San Francisco's bars, talking to women, going to parties, smoking grass. The beat narration isn't at all completely unsalvageable—there's a vivid flashback chapter set in South America and strong, evocative descriptions of the crumbling Chinatown rattrap—a residential hotel—where he lived while he wrote. These sections aren't far from the spirit of Fante in their excitement and their frustration and their struggle; my mother had pegged my father's book as a rip-off Henry Miller, but his discussions of sex acts are far too tame, and he lacks the self-aggrandizing tone by which Miller is identifiable. The most explicit description, in fact, that he includes of a sex act (in the "straight" beat sections, that is) makes use of himself and a male feline (it's rather short and rather well done, believe it or not).

The book, again, is poorly organized. Two plots (maybe more, but there are only, at least, two distinct styles of narration, and two "worlds"—one in which penises talk and one in which they do no such thing; one in which Beebis (the penis) abandons Zeke (the man, now a woman, with a writerly comfort with intersexuality not otherwise found until Middlesex), and one in which Al fumbles around the Bay Area looking for women and work) don't exactly intertwine so much as intersect, skittishly. They parallel each other enough that I wonder whether his intention wasn't to do something akin to the treatment in The Grapes of Wrath, in which the chapters toggle between a metaphoric tortoise's struggle across a dusty road and the protagonist's family's struggle across the depression-era country. The result, whatever the intention, is more of a Lynchian intersection, in which characters are doubled, but not precisely, where events repeat themselves, but not in the same way, where deja vu persists, but nothing fits when you go back; there is no code book because there is no code. Although I am plenty impressed by parts of this book, I'm not impressed enough to imagine that my father is presaging Lynch. Presaging Eugenides, sure; DeLillo, maybe; but not Lynch. (I will, though, have to give him assigned movies; he might rather like the crazy bastard.)

There are, of course, more and more and more specificities; I could easily describe scenes in the magical realist section, like one in which Beebis, the happily disembodied penis, is treated to a luxurious "meal," in which his current concubine sits on a cushion at a table covered with small bowls containing myriad sauces, and she dips him into each one, and licks him clean—the list of flavors and textures is one of the high points (and the mental image is inspiring enough that some renegade cartoonist might want to make this into an animated feature for adult audiences). Rather than list the prime blocs here, I would rather refine the manuscript (beginning with great cuts; more toward the end than the beginning, where it just peters out with a whimper rather than tying itself up properly) and then reassess its viability. My father told me that he'd love to have it published. Maybe it will make it onto LuLu one of these days.