Monday, December 31, 2007

No Country For Old Men is good. It is disheartening that I'm not going to see There Will Be Blood this year. Before No Country, there was a trailer for a horror film about vagina dentata, and in the lobby a movie poster for a new Michael Haneke movie whose slogan is "you must admit you brought this upon yourself." I'm not saying the names of either of these movies because I would put them in bold for the sake of formatting and then it might seem like an endorsement.

The first half of 2007 was better than the second half, because I made movies, and my friends had yet to move away. Now, there aren't really enough people around to make a movie with, and so my life is boring and I haven't had anything interesting to talk about in terms of life experience for several months.

Happy new year, everybody. May your New Year's Eve be filled with just enough introspection to work out how to make the next year better. That level of epiphanic thinking is pretty much the perfect amount of drunk to be- The memory intact, but no sadness-dwelling.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

For Christmas, I got a copy of George Saunders' The Braindead Megaphone. I also was in a car accident, and that was pretty brutal, but I think I can skip over that. But the Saunders book now sits finished, so I might as well review it.

It is too bad, the way the book world works. The main problem with The Braindead Megaphone is the insertion of things that are clearly humor pieces, in a book labeled "essays," where the essays are really great and make a lot of smart arguments that seem to condemn the more simplistic humor pieces, such as "Ask The Optimist" or "Woof." In Persuasion Nation was similarly split between serious short stories and pieces of glib comedy. At the time, I wished he could reconcile these two sides. Now, I just think that the books need to be more carefully edited. The pieces that are weak here- well, they would've been weak if they had been in In Persuasion Nation, but they would've fit in better. Especially if the more serious pieces had been held off for another book. The book world wants what it wants, and doing what I propose would mean three books released at some point in the undefined future, rather than the one-book-every-two-years schedule which is preferable to book companies and customers. Authors too, probably: Having these sides pressed up against each other forces you to engage the scope of the author's vision, rather than just specific facets of their voice.

The reportage in The Braindead Megaphone is pretty great. Some of it was viewable on the internet- Stuff that kind of bridges the line between the straight journalism and the more humorous stuff by choosing a selectively ironic tone- This would be "A brief study of the British" I'm referring to, although "Nostalgia" which follows it in the book I would consider kin, even as it gets closer to humor writing. It's still in the vein of an essay. The piece about Dubai, or the "Buddha Boy" essay, written for GQ, are straightforward journalism, and great. The title essay makes a decent argument and would be a fine opening statement for a book of essays, and is the kind of thing that really makes me think the lesser pieces should not be included.

Then there's four parts of literary criticism: One for Johnny Tremain, one for Slaughterhouse Five, one for a Donald Bartheleme short story, and one introduction to an edition of Huckleberry Finn. These are great pieces, inspiring pieces, that make a person want to write, even as they teach lessons. They are not grouped together in the book, but they do appear in the sequence I list them in, and each brings with it a lesson. Johnny Tremain, read early, taught a lesson about the importance of language sculpting. Slaughterhouse Five is read later, and teaches a number of lessons, but one of the things sort of addressed but not brought up is how in the time since Johnny Tremain, views about how language should be sculpted had become calcified into unusable and foolish shapes. Vonnegut taught Saunders a lot. The lessons Saunders gleaned from Vonnegut and Esther Rhodes are ones I've already learned. The things Saunders talks about in relation to Bartheleme and Twain aren't as instinctual, at least not to me. Great pieces, and why have I not read Donald Bartheleme?

I didn't like Huck Finn when I read it in high school and haven't tried since. But reading these pieces and then going back to write these things I'm writing, I got mad at the way my own highly specific tastes have fucked my voice.

Oh wait: This is the only book I've read this year that came out this year. I also got a copy of Steve Erickson's Zeroville, which is an example of the problem: Both Erickson and Saunders have all their books emblazoned with a Pynchon quote extolling their respective virtues, and then I go about, mining similar vibes. Recognizing the caliber of a gun, looking down its barrel, not really able to get out of the way.

Oh yeah, car crash: First Christmas in years my mom spends Christmas morning with her two sons, and then, leaving the house to go to another family member's house, we are hit in an incident that I didn't quite witness the cause of. Suffice it to say: The car what did the crashing (oh by the way: other people completely at fault) smashed into me, backseat on the driver's side, more than anyone else in the car, although it mostly just hit the wheel on that side, popping tires and breaking an axle completely in a way that requires the car (bought my mom I think a month or two ago) to be replaced. I made fun of my mom for getting a world-fucking gashuffing behemoth, but then I didn't die after getting hit by a car. I do hope for the vehicle to be replaced by something that's less of a terrible beast, but my mom, being very uptight even after no one is hurt and is taking the way time progresses in stride, was very shook up and will probably buy an even more ridiculous thing with whatever insurance money she can muster.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Has anyone who reads this heard the band Cerberus Shoal? Not just heard of them, but listened to a record or two? They have broken up, but become a bunch of other things- They were something of a collective. Anyway, two bands to exist in their wake- Fire On Fire and Big Blood- run around putting out CD-Rs (records to come in the new year) but what I've heard, in mp3 form or on WFMU has been pretty great. The Big Blood stuff especially. They cover Can's Vitamin C! Really well!

They play folk music kind of in the vein of Comus, and I think they live in Portland, Maine. I'm under the impression that Cerberus Shoal were more on some sort of crazy Sun City Girls esque trip, but I can't confirm this. Can YOU? Can you even define what I mean when I say "crazy Sun City Girls esque trip?" Dante's Disneyland Inferno is more along the lines of what I mean, as opposed to Torch of the Mystics, but those are two records out of a very large discography.
I found something kind of interesting: a "Top 100 things" list made by Matt Groening probably around the time of the height of the Simpsons popularity. It's a sidebar. It's an interesting mix of counterculture staples that are really great (Joseph Heller!), popular culture, comics from the eighties that seemed good at the time but probably don't hold up, and esoterica from around the world- Satiyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, beloved by my friend Joel Brazzel, comes in right behind The Catcher In The Rye.

Also, yesterday I watched the Half Japanese documentary that Jeff Feuerzeig made 10 years before he made The Devil And Daniel Johnston. In the footage of the recording of a cover of "I Heard Her Call My Name" with Mo Tucker playing the drums, one of the other not-a-Fair-brother members is wearing one of those bootleg Black Bart Simpson T-shirts that I now associate with Andrew Jeffrey Wright. On this shirt, Black Bart Simpson is chasing after Black Betty Boop. One of the more famous Half-Japanese photos involves Jad Fair wearing a Destroy All Monsters t-shirt. Destroy All Monsters is a thing I think of as being a forerunner of the Fort Thunder movement which Andrew Jeffrey Wright was on the periphery of. The guy from Half-Japanese is wearing the shirt not as a reference to AJW, rather those Black Bart Simpson shirts were just a thing in the culture at the time, whereas now they're more of an element to be collaged or whatever. The Destroy All Monsters book, Geisha This, is currently available at the Picturebox site, and I very much want to buy it, but do not have the money this Christmas season. It's got a flexi-disc, when Picturebox was making the Black Dice book they wanted to put in a flexi-disc but there's only one manufacturer these days and its prohibitively expensive. Geisha This was made in 1995, one year after the Half-Japanese documentary, and probably two years after Matt Groening made his list of the best things.

Later that day, when rereading comics, I discovered that the artist Rita Ackermann (high-profile work includes the cover art to the Thurston Moore album Psychic Hearts, and an interview in the last ANP Quarterly, where I learned she's friends with Gang Gang Dance) appears in Paul Pope's science fiction comic Heavy Liquid, as an old woman, because the comic is set in the future. Paul Pope also wrote and drew Presidential candidate Ron Paul's favorite Batman comic, which I bought for a quarter a few years ago, in an example of capitalism not working.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Politics blogging: Joe Lieberman endorses John McCain for president. That won't help anyone.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The other night, at the Capitol Theatre, I projected Sean Penn's Into The Wild, which is a terrible movie. I had a weird reaction to it, one not as visceral as I get with other movies- I was actually viewing it and reacting to it largely on technical grounds. I kept on thinking, over and over again, "oh, that's a bad decision." The way the text appears on screen in yellow, the use of voiceover as this thing that seemed outside the rest of the narrative, the editing decisions. It was really not very well-made, no matter what sympathies people might feel to the subject matter. It is weird to suddenly start seeing a movie with that kind of filmic sense, that throught process. I actually felt like I could do a commentary track for it.

Today, by way of a link at the Family blog, found in a great post about Saul Bass, I ended up at a movie blog, which linked to an interview with movie critic Armond White, who I don't agree with on everything, but at least has an interesting perspective, which allows him to be right about things like Wes Anderson while being wrong about things like Billy Wilder. He sings the praises of a movie called Chameleon Street, from 1990, which, if my understanding is correct, is made by a black man, shot on video, and aspires to Orson Welles. Sounds great! Netflix has it as being out on DVD this Tuesday. Netflix doesn't have the movie Saul Bass directed about giant ants, though it does have the movie of the same title that stars TV's Dean Cain.

Tonight I projected Kurt Cobain: About A Son, which is not very good, but is interesting to me because of the footage of Olympia, shot not while Kurt Cobain was alive, but fairly recently. It includes footage of the Yes Yes, an alternative art space where I saw a lot of great shows that only lasted a year. Immortalized on film is the writing on the window in red marker "The Yes Yes needs $1500 for rent this month."

Then, I came home and watched Kim Ki-Duk's Time. Which is a good movie. It's not as transcendent as 3-Iron: there comes a point where the ending is vaguely imaginable, it's a bit repetitive (although deliberately), and maybe a tad misogynist. It's still very good, and in terms of things like shot compositions, it's probably better than any other Kim Ki-Duk movie I've seen. There's also more dialogue, I think, although I don't remember Bad Guy too vividly. Really interesting psychology, great images, and the vague impression of there being something to think about to think through the movie. Right now it strikes me as being similar in some ways to Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, although without the same depth of feeling to its plot movements. I don't know what to say about it, besides recommending it. It really invigorated my love for Ki-Duk, after not seeing any of his films for over a year, because the things I saw that weren't 3-Iron weren't as good as that first film.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Do the kids still listen to Wu-Tang? I told a guy I work with I bought the new Wu-Tang Clan album, and he was surprised they are still making music, and thought that a current album would be terrible.

He is wrong, it is pretty great, except for the track with the Beatles sample and John Frusciante and Erykah Badu. Generally, a lot of the songs where RZA playing the bass takes up a lot of the space in the mix (actually, the predominant trait to the mixes is how open they are, so maybe that is not how I should phrase that) are not as good as the ones that utilize samples- Good use of Nancy Sinatra!

Speaking of Nancy Sinatra: I bought the new Wu-Tang from a Best Buy (Loss leaders! And also it turns out there's an exclusive bonus track, which is awful on exactly two levels) because I had to do the work Secret Santa thing for someone I had never met. I found out it's someone on disability, and was glad I hadn't gotten her something embarassing, based on not knowing that fact, for example "These Boots Were Made For Walking: The Best Of Nancy Sinatra" which is not a compilation I'm certain exists. Does Nancy Sinatra have a lot of good songs? Would such a best-of be a good buy in general given the person in question is able to walk/dance? I think it probably would be.

I will be listening to 8 Diagrams a lot, but it is not going anywhere near the top ten list. Neither's the new Ghostface. And so, I regret nothing.
The floods in Washington that made national news did not actually effect me. However, I learned that the last place I used to live- a duplex in a complex, off a relatively well-traveled road- was flooded. I ran into the neighbor I shared a wall with, she told me that water seeped through the walls and into the carpet, with the back door unable to be opened, and the front door a tricky proposition. This was weird to me: Huh, there's a disaster that I averted, seemingly narrowly, although I moved out five months before.

The other night I picked up the Chris Ware edited McSweeney's 13, and looked at the Gary Panter short story, "Nightmare Studio." He mentions, in talking about visiting Bruce Tibbetts' house in a dream, "As is common in dreams about departed friends, there is water damage in the house." I lived at that house with my best friend, and left those months ago because he moved back to Alaska. There were no dreams, just the mental imagery of the house turned ruined, that rung with this resonance.

It is this talk of Gary Panter and absent friends which I might as well use to lead off this talking about Tekkon Kinkreet, which is probably the best comic I read this year.

(Oh- 1-800-Mice has been canceled as of issue two, but there'll be a graphic novel in the fall of next year. I'm going to post this as a comment in my original review, but might as well say it here too.)

It's from Japan, which is really surprising to me. Japanese comics, generally, strike me as terrible, and this is a thing I've been trying to work out the whys and wherefores of. I like Japanese movies just fine. When I was talking about this online with Bill Randall, who lives outside Tokyo and is kind of an expert on these things, he pointed out that the big figures in Japanese cinema are heavily indebted to American cinema- Howards Hawks and John Ford are respected and emulated by the likes of Kurosawa, but manga has its own lineage. Obviously, it can't really be expected that I would be into the mainstream popular stuff, but even the alternative/underground Japanese comics, which have their own separate lineage, have problems. Shigeru Sugiura, who Dan Nadel of Picturebox referred to as "the Herriman of manga" because of the whole branch of comics weirdness that stems from him, looks clip-art stiff compared to the aliveness of a Krazy Kat strip. Everything that descends from him strikes me as equally stiff- Bill Randall also says that in most Japanese comics drawing culture, copying is taught, not figure drawing- I got the implication that figure drawing isn't a big part of the Japanese visual culture at all, which struck me as really weird. Also, a lot of the manga being published right now, the stuff that's doing gangbusters in Barnes And Noble, is "unflipped"- the image progression reads right to left, even though the words, translated and in English, read left to right- which strikes me as completely counterintuitive, although it's possible to learn how to do it. (Brian Chippendale's comics read back and forth, left-to-right and then right-to-left, so your eye stays focused on panel to panel movement and never goes up from the page.) One artist doesn't have the whole page flipped, but goes in digitally to move the panels to the alternate side of each other, which I find interesting from a composition perspective. I find the whole idea of flipping large sets of images interesting from a compositional perspective. But even though Akira is flipped to read left-to-right, I still think that comic's fucking unreadable and baffling for some reason- it just puts me off completely.

Somehow, this comic got through all those filters. It didn't a couple of years ago though, when it was published as Black And White in a series of three digests that I just read the first one of. It really didn't make any impression on me then. The new printing is bigger now, which makes the images breathe, and the story is all there in one chunk. But really, my response was so strong on this reread that the fact that I didn't like it the first time is near-baffling.

The drawings are the main thing. It has a weird balance of looking like it's drawn by a little kid and being completely solid- The perspectives are skewed, buildings bend, but it never becomes confusing that you're looking at a building, even as the panel has the buildings on the side, with the composition centered on a drawing of a moon with a face on it. It's all drawn at odd angles that avoid that clip-art feeling. There's all these retarded drawings- There's one of a car that I'm particularly obsessed with, the way it looks molded out of clay. It's a deliberate choice- No. 5, by the same artist, does not have kids for protagonists, and is a lot more solid, and somehow it goes back to the level of being not quite readable of almost every other Japanese comic I've read. Osamu Tezuka's Ode To Kirihito is pretty much the only other manga I could read, and that likewise is this weird cartooning tour de force of style-switching and casual avant-garde approaches. In Japan, seemingly, comics styles that are solid are only so because they've cooled to the point of congealing.

Gary Panter's comic drawn for the Japanese market, Cola Madnes, is influenced by Japanese underground comics, seemingly, in how sparse it is, and how the figures relate to each other spacially. His ratty line is what stops it from looking like clip art and brings it back to looking like the marks on paper that all of his work looks like. When I say that Tekkon Kinkreet carries with it some of Panter's power (Paper Rad call him Gary Panther for a reason), that isn't what I'm talking about. I'm talking about that basic level of sloppiness, combined with perfectly understandable drawings, that allow drawings to shift up their style and communicate feeling.

Feeling, it turns out, when reading it all together, is what this comic has in spades. It's about, on one level, male friendships, as this sort of thing that is able to stop the natural violence and craziness of the individuals. This is true about all relationships, but in this story, it's specifically about violence. When the characters get separated, it's more affecting to me here than in Goodbye, Chunky Rice due to the way that things go badly in terms of people's actual behavior as they fall apart, rather than just pine and feel lonesome. It's also more affecting to me because of the drawing. (Goodbye, Chunky Rice is still a good comic though, with its own strengths to the drawing.)

On another level, it's about gentrification. Which is what Brian Chippendale's Ninja was about, which I've already talked about in terms of its relation to Gary Panter.

On another level, it's a fight comic. One of the things I like about Japanese comics is the terminology. Things actually get called "fight comics." The word "manga" literally translates to "irresponsible pictures," which would be both a good name for a comic shop and an exploitation film production company. I don't like how Japanese comics are mostly just broken down by genre into demographics- one for boys, one for girls, one for men, one for women. (The stuff for boys and girls is what mostly is translated and popular. American women read the stuff for girls- I'm not sure what the stuff for women even is, as I'm under the impression that even the stuff featuring gay romance designed to appeal to a female readership is technically for girls. The stuff for men is really violent.) The really weird underground stuff doesn't get broken down, I don't think. It's kind of baffling to me. Anyway, one critic, responding to another critic who was asking "wait, are there Japanese comics for adults? I know there are American comics for adults, thanks New York Times!" brought up Tekkon Kinkreet. Another critic said "No, Tekkon Kinkreet is just a marginally more sophisticated version of these comics for little boys that are really popular. You should've mentioned these comics about the bombing of Hiroshima!" I jumped in to explain the whole Gary Panter not being Chris Ware thing. Tekkon Kinkreet might not read like literature, but it does read like really great comics, which is an argument that's foreign to a reviewing culture used to saying things like "a good graphic novel can be equivalent to a prose novel." Different mediums have different strengths. I get something different out of a Borges collection than I do a P.T. Anderson movie. (Has there ever been a short film as good as the best short stories? I'm pretty sure there hasn't been.) A main strength of Tekkon Kinkreet is how the violence is drawn: Movement is captured well, generally, and so is psychological intensity. From this, some of the drawing is kind of free-associative symbolism, in a way that couldn't be done in another medium. Towards the climax, fish are just drawn flying through the air, sort of as a visual-language leitmotif that doesn't really distract from any of the other elements. Wait, flipping through it again, maybe that doesn't happen. There are drawings of fish though, thrown in as symbols in their own panels, adding to the energy of a page as a single unit, though.

Somehow, over the course of reading it, I felt it all start to add up, the weight of one drawing after another. The way individual drawings worked, added up into the way entire pages worked as a piece of design, and then intuitively by force of the narrative just got piled into this even bigger shape, that after 614 pages of skewed perspective things start to look differently. My only complaint about the book is the use of this kind of distressed font which can also be found on the cover of the last Melt-Banana album. It is about as important here as it is on that record- You're not staring at the front cover when an album like that plays.

Monday, December 10, 2007

I got into an argument on the internet awhile ago, over the nature of videogames. In this conversation, I came off as a philistine, because the argument I was making runs counter to standard party lines. I thought where I was coming from was completely understandable, but the person I was arguing with thought I was just talking crazy talk. My argument will be reiterated here.

Games don't work as storytelling mediums. They can't do what a movie does, no matter how cinematic their creators try to be. The whole nature of there being something that someone else controls works against the natural storytelling impulse, and specifically, the ability to have an ending reinforce themes.

This isn't to dismiss them as their own thing, or to say that they're useless because they can't tell a story. I think their strength is this weird meditative aspect, of doing something over and over again to get further and further. I like them as reverse Buddha Machines, designed for the eyes and hands, as opposed to being listened to. World exploration also fits into this.

The idea that as technology improves, games will become more cinematic is an awful one, completely opposed to what I find useful or interesting. Most games I like are over ten years old at this point, but that doesn't mean that the technology is a dead-end. I keep on imagining bigger worlds.

I bring this up because I had further aesthetic differences with the person I was arguing with: He wrote a thing about comics where he stated that the drawing doesn't always matter, but the writing always does. I don't know if I can get into arguing against that without parroting other people's opinions, so I'll just let it suffice to say we had different ideas of what constituted good drawing- which is a completely different argument.

On the other side of things, I had a conversation in real life with another writer. I asked her what sort of literary influences she had, and she responded by just saying that she tried to capture the way her favorite music made her feel. Which at the time, I took to mean that she didn't read very much, and a dodge of the question, but to angle for that sort of transendence is altogether admirable. I've sinced learned that she mostly writes music criticism and features, so it's not quite the same thing, but still.

This post doesn't quite work. It exists largely because I am putting off writing a post about Taiyo Matsumoto's Tekkon Kinkreet. I feel obligated to do it at some point because comics bloggers started linking to me, so I should up the comics-content accordingly, but I don't want this to be about comics exclusively, or predominantly, and actually I don't even read enough for this to be updated regularly were that to become the case. I think my goal is to try to talk about all sorts of different artistic mediums, like it's all some sort of vague toolkit, for people trying to take one medium and bend it towards being like another, to achieve some sense of transcendence. The only issue is talking about everything like that, angling towards transcendence without a really emphatic focus, will probably end up with a lot of kind of vague and inarticulate writing. (My Tekkon Kinkreet review, for instance, will be focused on the drawing, but I am without the aid of a scanner to actually make my points lucid.)

So, okay, let's talk about Steven Millhauser. Which I've done before. Bill Boichtel, proprietor of a comics store in Pittsburgh, said that "In the literature, film and-- perhaps especially-- the comics of the last few decades, we can’t help but notice faint hints of flavor, subtle aromas, and distant echoes which seem, now, after becoming familiar with it, to have somehow emanated from [Edwin Mullhouse]." (He also recommended another book of prose I'm reading right now.) I can only vaguely understand where he's coming from with that, but it's still more sensible than this quote, from I think The Washington Post, that shows up on a lot of his books, saying that his writing doesn't "just aspire to the condition of music, but actually achieves it," which is completely insane for all but the most synaesthetic of us. That said, I kind of think Millhauser's stuff works like visual art- Partly because of the way he talks about art, but mainly due to how the nature of the ideas of fantastic world building that form the basis for the majority of his stories would make sense worked out in an installation context.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Hotel Chevalier short that shows before The Darjeeling Limited is interesting in that it doesn't show a lot of what is typically associated with Wes Anderson's style, the things that people are criticizing as tics. It's not crazy art-directed, it's not really all that quirky, etc. It could be said to signal a new direction, if anyone thought he was going to go that way, but I don't think anyone thinks he is, because that's a terrible direction, and Hotel Chevalier really isn't very good. It's important for context later on in The Darjeeling Limited.

Matthew Perpetua said the smartest things about The Darjeeling Limited, or at least the things that I was thinking about: Hey, here's a movie about rich kids, because Anderson's art-direction-driven style makes the most sense in a movie about rich kids, which I have no problem with, and also that's what the Coppola family members who cowrote the script know. Although, it's also worth noting that the movie doesn't have enough Bill Murray in it: The best scenes have Bill Murray in them. There's two of them. Oh, that first scene, with moving cameras? That's an interesting way that Anderson's style could evolve in a positive way. So nice and brisk coming out of the claustrophobia of Hotel Chevalier, shaking off its boredom.

I also liked the way the soundtrack was largely pre-existing Indian music. That showed signs of growth, although it was held back by the use of that song Jason Schwartzman plays on his iPod (it gets heard TWICE in Hotel Chevalier, right? At least!) (and in terms of art direction- eek, an iPod? The Royal Tenenbaums had things like electric tie racks) which brings us back to the world of expected Wes Anderson soundtrack choice music.

I did like the "I like how mean you are" bit at the end of the movie, which does require the setup in the short, making the short necessary. Also, the very presence of the short preceding the feature signals an interesting artistic choice/possible new direction. Certainly, these are minor deviations, but I still think they're valid.

I still think The Life Aquatic was better, and I think it's unfair to compare it to anything before The Royal Tenenbaums. Is it the weakest? Yeah, probably, but who cares, that's not the point. It's comparable to Lost In Translation in some of the themes it deals with, and it's way better than that, and isn't what really counts in art the strength in the way in which things are articulated, rather than how something fits into an oeuvre?

The answer is yes, but I don't think I have anything to say about the themes in question. Nor does any other movie critic in America, besides that Fluxblog piece I linked to, and that piece gets distracted, so there we are. The Darjeeling Limited is a thing that exists, and has its pleasures.