By David Ross. YouTube is the most irresistible seduction of them all. Holding temptation at arm’s length, we say, “I’d like to, but I shouldn’t.” YouTube turns even our conscientiousness against us. In so many cases, we really should. Morally, spiritually, intellectually. A case in point is “The Riddle of Poetry,” a lecture delivered by Jorge Luis Borges at Harvard University in the fall of 1967 and spring of 1968. It’s so full of grave wisdom; its language, so austere and precise, is a moral lesson unto itself. Live in the spirit of Borges’ prose seems to me a reasonable credo. Among other things, “The Riddle of Poetry” conveys what it means to be a gentleman of the mind – or rather what it meant, for the type is extinct. Borges’ comportment – his code of intellectual order and etiquette – now seems as quaint and remote as bending at the waist to kiss a gloved hand.
Posted on March 9th, 2012 at 8:39am.
By David Ross. Devotees of Kerouac will remember his little homage to blind Anglo-American jazz great George Shearing in On the Road:
“Shearing came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard. He was a distinguished-looking Englishman with a stiff white collar, slightly beefy, blond, with a delicate English-summer’s-night air about him that came out in the first rippling sweet number he played [ ...]. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass-player hunched over and socked it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that’s all. Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to ‘Go!’. Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. ‘There he is! That’s him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!’ [ ...] When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. ‘God’s empty chair,’ he said.”
The above clip, a torrid version of “Lullaby of Birdland,” makes the theological point. Here’s another, very different version of “Lullaby of Birdland,” at once silky and propulsive, with Peggy Lee gamely gliding through Shearing’s harmonic obstacle course.
For more impossible pianism, see Oscar Peterson here.
Posted on Feburary 9th, 2012 at 10:43am.
By David Ross. The dynamics of rock and its offshoots are very strange. Young men make a ruckus and recede into burnt-out abeyance or empty iconicity. Why should this be? The law of diminishing returns does not especially apply to painting, poetry, or fiction. Milton began Paradise Lost at age fifty. Yeats did not begin to write his greatest poetry until roughly the same age. Yeats’ late poem “An Acre of Grass” indicates his geriatric ferocity:
Grant me an old man’s frenzy,
Myself must I remake
Till I am Timon and Lear .
Why do bluesmen deepen and roughen and come to perfection, while rockers become parodies of themselves? Drugs take their toll, I’m sure. It may also be that rockers’ aesthetic aspirations merely euphemize the deeper lust for fame and fortune, upon achievement of which the creative apparatus begins to shut down.
Flamenco’s great guitarists shame the oligarchs of rock. These liver-spotted old men play with immense pride and passion, confirming what Hemingway says in Death in the Afternoon, his treatise on Spanish bullfighting: “In Spain honor is a very real thing. Called pundonor, it means honor, probity, courage, self-respect and pride in one word. . . . Honor to a Spaniard, no matter how dishonest, is as real a thing as water, wine, or olive oil.” The Spanish flamenco guitarists of the previous generations were full of honor in this sense. Like the great toreador Maera, they “gave emotion always” as a matter of their own arrogant mastery. Can we say the same of any member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Sabicas (b. 1912) is my ideal; so too Carlos Montoya (b. 1903), despite occasional errant notes (for Sabicas, see above; for Montoya, here and here). They represent precisely the “old man’s frenzy” that Yeats has in mind. Coincidentally or not, both were of Romani origin.
The great Flamenco guitarists of the younger generation – Paco Pena (b. 1942), Pepe Romero (b. 1944), Paco De Lucia (b. 1947) – are astonishingly virtuosic, but cooler and more clinical, less evocative of old Spain as I imagine it. Fair or not, I see conservatory practice rooms instead of sun-baked streets, dusty markets, girls parading in the evening. What’s lacking is swagger, sensuality, the manly disregard that purifies Maera in Hemingway’s telling:
He was driving and the bull was driving and the sword buckled nearly double and then shot up into the air. As it buckled it dislocated his wrist. He picked the sword up in his left hand and carried it over to the barrera and with his left hand pulled out a new sword from the leather sheath his sword handler offered him.
“And the wrist?” the sword handler asked.
“F*k the wrist,” Maera said.
Posted on January 10th, 2012 at 7:54pm.
By David Ross. THE PITCH: Grieving widower (Matt Damon) purchases and restores a ramshackle zoo. Surly teenage son and adorable moppet of a daughter work out psychological trauma of mom’s death, while lovable band of zookeeper misfits provides comic relief and romantic opportunity (Scarlett Johansson).
THE SKINNY: Having to choose this holiday season between a weepy Matt Damon and a gaggle of wise-ass cartoon chipmunks, I reluctantly choose the former. The group-therapy dynamic is gluey and interminable, but I don’t mind watching Scarlett Johansson lug buckets of raw meat in a zookeeper’s jumpsuit. Kids will of course enjoy the animals.
WHAT WORKS: • There are a few veiled penis jokes and booze references, and the above-mentioned moppet does use the word ‘d**k’ (they don’t make moppets the way they used to), but for the most part moms will not have to lunge in human earmuff mode.
• Matt Damon is a Hollywood packhorse; plodding along, he gets the job done, whatever the film, whatever the genre. What I take to be his genuine intelligence and good nature shine through. More than ever, he’s oddly rectangular, as if he’s made of Lego or gingerbread. The obvious analogy is to Spencer Tracy, another squat savior of otherwise mediocre films.
• Scarlett Johansson’s potbelly is long gone. Svelte and tomboyish only in quotation marks, she’s a little hard to believe in the role of zoo drudge. She’s become very good at conspiring in this kind of narrative hypocrisy. It’s not the flaunters who drive you crazy; it’s the figurative librarians in their figurative cardigans. Scarlett’s cardigan consists of her shyness and her husky voice and her imperfect features. We’re eventually blindsided by the realization of our initial error. Scarlett is such a fizzle as a model (Dolce and Gabbana) because none of this works in the context of negligee and deliberate smolder.
• The film’s only bad guy is a priggish little zoo inspector who wields his measuring tape like a sadist’s whip. The film is not trying to make a political point, but all the same it effectively silhouettes the state regulatory apparatus in its fascist aspect. Damon’s zoo owner must grovel and beg for permission to operate his business, all his dreams (not to mention his life savings) hinging on the whim of a petty bureaucrat. Matt Damon, this is what you vote for and would have us vote for! Learn a thing or two from your own movie.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK: • The dwindling imagination of Hollywood can conceive of only two dramatic premises at this point: dead spouse or dead kid. The actuarial chance of a woman dying in the prime of life is one in many thousands; the actuarial chance of a woman dying in the prime of life in the average Hollywood ‘drama’ is about 50%. In a ’supernatural thriller,’ the odds are 100%. If cancer doesn’t get her, then a wet road at night certainly will. The husband will have had a few drinks and must therefore ‘learn to forgive himself.’ This scenario is catnap to reviewers like Kenneth Turan, who know ’surprising psychological complexity’ when they see it. I, for one, am tired of being subjected to this ghoulish graveyardism. No more flashbacks of picnics in fields strewn with spring flowers! No more wrinkled wallet photos and beery viewings of old home movies! No more bedtime attempts to explain what happened to mommy’s soul while scrupulously avoiding the specifics of Christian theology!
• Likewise, I’m sick of surly teenagers. I’m sure they exist. I’m sure they secretly yearn to stop sniffing glue and torturing cats and to be told how much they’re loved by their gruff but well-meaning fathers. But none of this is interesting. Hollywood’s endless riffling of Freud for Dummies has reduced nearly all of modern American film to therapeutic mush.
• Cameron Crowe, once a renegade reporter for Rolling Stone, is now so mired in Hollywood formula that he probably can’t shave without peering deeply into the mirror and pondering the toll of the passing years.
• Is there a Guinness Record for number of emotionally wringing false endings? It seems to me that We Bought a Zoo has four or five. End the damn movie already!
THE BOTTOM LINE: We Bought a Zoo connects the emotional dots in all the predictable ways. Kids will enjoy it without remembering it for very long; parents will be pleased with their own parenting (“I’m so glad we didn’t let the kids see those chipmunks”). What a film like this doesn’t teach or even recognize is the old fairy tale stuff: irony, energy, danger, mystery, the dark declivities of the true Freud – the stuff that children instinctively reenact in their games of pretend. It’s a film for an era of calculated blandness and diminished pop-cultural expectations.
P.S. We Bought a Zoo opens with a coming attraction for Big Miracle, which may be the most gag-inducing film ever released. Drew Barrymore plays a Greenpeace type who must rescue a pair of whales trapped in the arctic. She’s predictably outraged that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. don’t immediately drop what they’re doing (trying to win the Cold War) and come to the whales’ rescue. “The whales are just like us!” wails Barrymore. “They love! They hurt! They develop adolescent drug problems and wind up dating second-rate rock stars!” The whole scenario leaves me longing for the old days of Japanese industrial whaling. Incidentally, was ever a film endowed with such a preposterously lazy title?
Posted on December 27th, 2011 at 7:17pm.
By David Ross. Every ten years or so Jeff Beck emerges from manorial seclusion to prove why he’s the fifth best guitarist in history (so says Rolling Stone this month). His most recent groundhog cameo was his 2007 live set at Ronnie Scott’s in London, which the BBC, making itself useful for once, preserved for posterity. The highlights are Beck’s pair of unlikely duets with the arty poetess Imogen Heap. Always at his best with a strong vocal foil – Rod Stewart being the original case in point – Beck found his match in Heap. She’s as melodically sly as he is, and there’s something weird and entrancing about her great height and beauty – her regality – as it were stooped to the earthly traffic of the blues chestnut “Rollin and Tumbling” (above).
Beck and Heap radically reverse themselves on Heap’s own “Blanket” (here). Seeming to grow darker with each listening, the song is a confession of decadence in the nineteenth-century vein, a confession of forlorn and weary compensation for the loss of something irreplaceable. If music is the only possible sanctuary–the blanket of the song’s title–the song’s dreamy washes of electronic sound evoke the kind of world from which sanctuary is necessary: a floating world of pattern recognition and virtual light (to borrow phrases from William Gibson), of Calatravian airport terminals and glass needles spiring above Asian cities. The song’s irony is that the narrator can express her alienation from this world only in the tonality of its ennui; if music is a sanctuary, it’s a compromised one.
Posted on December 22nd, 2011 at 11:17am.
By David Ross. I have often met conservatives who lump poetry with other affectations of the urban left, like eating with your fingers at Ethiopian restaurants and bringing your own hemp-weave shopping bag to the grocery store. Who can dispute that in this perverse age they’re not entirely wrong? Who can dispute that political pose often matters far more than literary prowess? Witness the kerfuffle below (via Powerline):
First poet Alice Oswald withdrew her new book from the contest for the £15,000 award to be conferred with the T.S. Eliot prize administered by the Poetry Book Society, and now, the Guardian reports, Australian poet John Kinsella has joined her. Both poets have been short-listed for the prize, and Oswald is herself a former Eliot prize winner, so their withdrawal is something more than a mere gesture.
What is the cause that impels Oswald’s and Kinsella’s protest? Might it be the genteel anti-Semitism of the poet in whose name the prize is given? Of course not. Rather, it is the source of the beneficence that funds the award. The prize is the beneficiary of a newly-brokered sponsorship by investment management firm Aurum Funds. What’s wrong with Aurum Funds? Aurum is a specialized investment firm comprising a variety of hedge funds.
What’s wrong with hedge funds? Well, Kinsella is a rabid socialist. Moreover, he explained, “Hedge funds are at the very pointy end of capitalism, if I can put it that way.” Former prize winner Oswald observed that “poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions.” Better for the prize money to be laundered through the organs of the state after it is levied from the benighted taxpayers who prefer prose to poetry by the likes of Oswald and Kinsella.
Looking for a little background on Kinsella, we find that he is an Australian poet who describes himself as “a vegan anarchist pacifist of 16 years – a supporter of worldwide indigenous rights, and an absolute supporter of land rights.” Land rights, mind you, not property rights. Somehow it all makes sense.
Where is the author of The Dunciad when you really need him?
Here, just for the fun of ridicule, is a wretched sonnet by Oswald:
By David Ross. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” writes T.S. Eliot in the waning lines of “The Waste Land.” Just so, Push the Movement, a strictly visual but particularly thoughtful Tumblr blog, shores its own fragments against the ruin of the postmodern twilight. Its endless stream of vintage and contemporary photos constructs an elusive, melancholy narrative that is somehow far more than the sum of its obsessions: Natalie Portman, handguns, jungle cats, neo-classical statues, nuclear explosions, plummeting people (9/11 trauma?), urban sprawl, subversive graffiti, street battles, women in the tub, crashes (trains, planes, whatever), rockets, Bob Dylan (ca. 1966), baroque architectural detail, fires and smoke plumes, Kate Moss, girls in underwear standing at windows (an Alexandrian archive of this oddly moving tableau!), tornadoes, floods, ironic signage and logos, Muhammad Ali .
I realize that there are many likeminded Tumblr blogs, but Push the Movement strikes me as subtler, better eyed, more cliché averse, more clued into a kind of sadness that one finds in the work of postmodern humanists like Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace: a sense that reality has become an increasingly attenuated and remote spectacle, a ghostly tabloidism. As DeLillo famously says of the supermarket’s myriad coded surfaces, “This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living.” Push the Movement endlessly parades its miraculous visions yet it seems to know – its own minor key suggests – that this endless stream is an act of desperation, an addict’s exercise in ersatz experience and diminishing return. This is how Wim Wenders’ weary angels see the world in Wings of Desire: as a distant miracle in which they can no longer participate. This is the cinema of the end of the world.
The politics of Push the Movement is a cool and ironic anti-establishmentarianism, but the site seems to understand that there are no real politics amid the new reality of the data ether, and the site’s irony seems to some extent turned on itself. What ‘movement,’ after all, can be ‘pushed’ by endless quotation-marked juxtapositions of other people’s experience? The 1% needn’t fear.
Note that none of the photographs have captions, commentary, or identifying information of any sort. They belong to a disembodied circulatory system in which proprietary considerations, the very notions of origin and authorship, are unsustainable. I find this anti-apparatus of anonymity one of the creepiest and most telling aspects of the site. I once sent Push the Movement an e-mail inquiring about the source of a picture I wanted to show in class (with nobody to contradict me, I call the photo “Postmodern Man on the Shores of Time, with History Weeping on his Behalf”; see below). I should have predicted as much: no response.
I became addicted to Push the Movement earlier in the year. The fineness of its visual eye attracted me initially, but the mystery of its tristesse is the real fascination. I recently reviewed the entire archive for 2011 – thousands of pictures – with my CPU wheezing and finally collapsing under the weight of what amounted to a single vast download. Context matters, but here, out of context, are a few pictures that gave me particular pause and ambivalent pleasure.
By David Ross. Andrew Rossi’s Page One (2011), a sleek, self-important infomercial for The New York Times, largely involves Times partisans whining that the dinosaur carcass of the Gray Lady is being picked clean by the mammalian swarms of the new media. There are cursory nods to the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller scandals, but essentially nothing in the way of real introspection or self-criticism. The Times‘ complaint largely goes like this: “What kind of world fails to recognize the inherent nobility of our enterprise! O fallen mankind, repent your shallowness!”
Do these apologists have a point? To some extent, yes. As numerous interviewees stress, aggregators, bloggers, and citizen journalists cannot cover certain kinds of news. War zone coverage, international political coverage, and intensive daily coverage of the political process require expertise and institutional funding. These are not part-time callings, nor activities that can be undertaken on the cheap. Those who bay for the demise of the mainstream media have to take seriously that news does not coalesce out of the internet ether, as it seems to. It must be dug up, run down, and eye-witnessed as mortar rounds collapse the available ground cover. This ferreting process is crucially enabled by the kind institutional pressure that only billion-dollar media entities can exert. Foreign potentates and corporate barons do not return phone calls placed by self-proclaimed smart guys in their pajamas (e.g., us). Eliciting a response requires the veiled threat intrinsic to newspapers that are in their own way players on the world stage. News depends on credentialed news people in the traditional sense: this is reality, like it or not.
On the other hand, the mainstream media, and the Times in particular, has done everything conceivable to hasten its own demise. The postmodern Times is a cavalcade of inaccuracy, omission, myopia, flagrant political bias, outrageously lousy writing, latent snobbery, and superficial urban sophistication. All the shallowness of the modern elite university has come home to roost at the Times. The worst offenders are surely the editorial sections (prose sinkhole) and the culture sections (lapdog of everything transgressive), but I reserve special ire for fellow Yalie Michiko Kakutani, the Pulitzer-winning book reviewer who’s done much to instantiate a self-important middle-browism as the default mode of the literary culture. The novelist Jonathan Franzen, for one, calls her “the “stupidest person in New York” and an “international embarrassment.” He continues, “Everyone in Europe says to me, “How can The New York Times let a person who is so patently tone deaf, who is so screechy rhetorically, so clearly unequipped to appreciate interesting books or even to enjoy them — how can that person be the lead reviewer?’” Kakutani had the chance to rise to a historical occasion following the suicide of Franzen’s friend David Foster Wallace in 2008. Her ‘appreciation’ (here) is pat and rote by turns, utterly nerveless, utterly unmoved or inspired by the circumstances. “Laugh-out-loud funny”? “Both brainy and visceral”? An opening quote from Robert Plant! Are these sophomoric clichés what the mighty New York Times has come to? Was ever an era’s chief writer so lazily eulogized by an era’s chief reviewer?
Basic points first. The Times is no longer dependable in terms of fact, grammar, or idiom (“whipping post” for “whipping boy” just this past week, as I happened to notice at the supermarket – and on the front page no less). Ponder the Onionesque aspect of this correction from July 22, 2009:
An appraisal on Saturday about Walter Cronkite’s career included a number of errors. In some copies, it misstated the date that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and referred incorrectly to Mr. Cronkite’s coverage of D-Day. Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968, not April 30.
Mr. Cronkite covered the D-Day landing from a warplane; he did not storm the beaches. In addition, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, not July 26. “The CBS Evening News” overtook “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC in the ratings during the 1967-68 television season, not after Chet Huntley retired in 1970.
A communications satellite used to relay correspondents’ reports from around the world was Telstar, not Telestar. Howard K. Smith was not one of the CBS correspondents Mr. Cronkite would turn to for reports from the field after he became anchor of “The CBS Evening News” in 1962; he left CBS before Mr. Cronkite was the anchor. Because of an editing error, the appraisal also misstated the name of the news agency for which Mr. Cronkite was Moscow bureau chief after World War II. At that time it was United Press, not United Press International.
How do you misstate the dates of the moon landing and MLK’s assassination in a single article? Don’t Times reporters have access to Wikipedia? Was the reporter in a condition of drunken mania? Were the editors? At The New Haven Register, where I spent four years as a cub reporter, three corrections within memory were enough to get one fired. Five-plus corrections in a single article would have been beyond anybody’s worst nightmare. The night desk’s sleepiest, rummiest old coot would have caught at least some of the above errata (MLK, moon landing, Telstar). I had to acknowledge perhaps three or four factual mistakes in my four-year career. Each was a humiliation, entailing a stern lecture and a day or two of frowns.
By David Ross. Bert Jansch, storied fingerpicker and warble-voiced bard of the British folk movement, died last month at age 67. He achieved quiet glory as a guitar stylist and as guiding light of the folk group Pentangle, in which he was paired with equally legendary guitarist John Renbourn.
Above, Jansch performs “Moonshine,” a lovely tune of his own composition, circa 1975. Here Pentangle performs in the lush first flush of its jazzy, bluesy thirteenth-century folk rock. Jansch is seated to the right, the bearded Renbourn to the left. Jacqui McShee could not sound or look more the part of the British folk chanteuse. Her pale, somber, chinless face is a lovely study in the art of the church altarpiece, lacking only a halo and a swaddled Christ.
Jansch’s influence on Jimmy Page’s acoustic style is unquestionable. Page’s “Black Mountain Side” from Led Zeppelin I is a note-for-note nicking of Jansch’s “Blackwaterside” (here), which appeared on his 1966 album Jack Orion. Jansch was miffed enough to consider suing Page, but he could not afford a legal crusade on a folk guitarist’s salary and let the matter drop. One can easily construe Tolkienian epics like “Stairway to Heaven” and “The Battle of Evermore” (featuring Jansch’s old protégé Sandy Denny) as grand bastardizations of Jansch’s antiquarian interests. Admittedly, Page is the more gifted musician. In this clip, he transforms “Black Mountain Side” into a frenzied druidic raga, achieving an intensity that was well beyond Jansch and Renbourn.
Jansch’s complex, open-tuned stylings equally influenced Nick Drake, the Keats of British folk, in whom the movement’s decade of research and experiment became something new and consummate. As far as I know, there is no extant footage of Drake performing live, but a tune like “Cello Song” (here) gives the feel of his exquisite little nocturnes.
To have schooled both Jimmy Page and Nick Drake is to have helped midwife the music of the twentieth century. I hope that Jansch, his work done, rests where he belongs, in some old churchyard, amid the moss and weathered stone.
Posted on November 23rd, 2011 at 11:31am.
By David Ross.The Beatles were uncanny craftsmen, but their music interests me almost not at all these days. I listen to a Beatles album once every few years. I invariably feel awed, bored, and irritated. The irritating part is the self-importance of the whole shtick (this self-importance later became fully obnoxious in John Lennon’s insufferable “Imagine”). Nobody can deny that the Beatles were peerless in their ability to craft albums, but the music itself, for all its endless melodic invention and vast tonal spectrum, so often seems hollow. The long suite that ends Abbey Road is at once the most amazing feat in the history of rock and the most abstract and elaborately empty. In the end, the Beatles’ preeminence is a Baby Boomer phenomenon. I don’t believe it will entirely survive the transition to a post-Boomer culture.
On the other hand, I never tire of the Who. I love to feel the whiplash of their sonic overdrive: the skittering cannonade of the drums, the waves of guitar thunder, the endless frisky invention of Entwistle’s bass. In terms of instrumental prowess and cohesion, the Who far exceed the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and even Led Zeppelin. The band’s defining idiosyncrasy – in many ways the secret of its success – was the unique reversal of the guitar and bass parts. So often Townsend establishes the rhythm or adds tonal effects while Entwistle carries the melodic burden. Watching the Who play live, one realizes that what sound like guitar parts – power chords, dashing melodic runs – are actually bass parts. The primacy of the bass gives the Who’s music such underlying movement and momentum. The most dynamic aspect of the music is buried deep in the tonal structure and speaks to some primal lobe of the brain, the part that remembers the pulse of the womb. Jimi Hendrix was the greatest rock instrumentalist of all time, but Entwistle may be in his quiet way the second greatest.
Above, the Who perform a kaleidoscopic mini-suite as part of the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, a 1968 made-for-TV extravaganza that also featured John Lennon, Eric Clapton, and Jethro Tull. The Stones sat on the footage until 1996, allegedly because the Who so utterly upstaged them. We now know how long it takes the wounded rock star ego to convalesce: 28 years.
Equally magnitudinous is the Who’s performance at Woodstock (see here), which somehow manages to dwarf the audience of 500,000. The Woodstock version of the “See Me, Feel Me” sequence from Tommy is a career highlight. Rarely has a band been at once so powerful and so soulful. Like no British band before them, they here enter Otis Redding territory.
Posted on November 18th, 2011 at 1:46pm.
By David Ross. I’ve always considered myself on Kevin Smith’s side. I love salty and unguarded talk. As a spigot of quotable material, Kevin Smith (see here) rivals John Mayer and Tarantino, whose brains likewise seem not to have evolved the internal p.c. censors the rest of us are equipped with. Though it may involve the lowest kind of potty humor, such talk is always close to literature in its impulse to amuse itself and flout any interfering proprieties. At the same time, I could bear only a few minutes of Smith’s stand-up film Too Fat for Forty (2010). I didn’t mind the anti-Bush jabs in concept, but I very much minded their pandering obviousness and staleness. When Red State came along soon after, I girded myself for the worst. I expected a muddle of hysterical smears: a Garafalo-meets-Tarantino gorefest.
As advertised, Red State tears into both evangelicalism and the post-9/11 security apparatus. The Reverend Abin Cooper is the leader of a small Branch Davidian-like flock whose services incorporate ritual murder of kidnapped sinners. The ATF and FBI careerists who raid his compound on trumped up terrorist charges are little better. Arguably they’re worse. Their own brand of murder is bureaucratic and amoral. They murder on behalf of their resumes and pensions. No surprises so far. Evangelicals – evil. Patriot Act and its enforcers – equally evil.
The weird swerve involves Smith’s sneaking admiration for Cooper, who’s suavely played by Tarantino veteran Michael Parks. Smith rejects the trustiest cliché in the anti-evangelical arsenal by declining to portray Cooper as a hypocrite. I was sure Cooper was going to be unveiled in an unsurprising ’surprise’ ending as a homosexual, child molester, cross-dresser, or sex-crazed bigamist. But no! He practices what he preaches. Nor is Cooper a coward, a fool, or a monster, though of course he commits terrible crimes in the name of God. Against all odds and expectations, he emerges as a seductive anti-hero who recalls no less a figure than Francis Marion Tarwater, the backwoods prophet of Flannery O’Connor’s masterpiece The Violent Bear it Away. Cooper is impossible not to like, even as he’s impossible not to abhor.
By David Ross. Erik Mongrain’s “Air Tap” (see above) is a genuine benchmark of the modern guitar. The composition is perfect, the technique largely novel. Beyond the slightly uncharacteristic “Air Tap,” Mongrain’s music seems at first merely atmospheric in the Windham Hill tradition, but his compositions turn out to be aggressively intricate and even scholarly – as it were solutions to thorny riddles of musical theory. One realizes that Mongrain has fully departed from bop and rock histrionics in order to create a new mode on an entirely different basis of order, symmetry, and almost Asian apertures of silence. If Bach had played the koto, he might have sounded something like this. Mongrain’s two albums – Fates (2007) and Equilibrium (2008) – are as deceptively understated and precisely reflective as Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (1913):
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet black bough.
I would call Mongrain a link in the guitar’s fundamental evolution. He is, of all things, a Quebecois – see here for biographical details.
Posted on October 11th, 2011 at 11:32am.