Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Clara Revisited.

                                                                                 Williamstown, MA

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What I'm Reading: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

My 'ambivalence' to Texas  (I'm being charitable) since I moved here three years ago is well documented. For a while now I've been thinking that I should read some of the literature relating to or coming from the Lone Star state as a route to understanding it better, and who knows, even cultivating some sympathy for it. Instead, in taking on Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian you might argue that I found confirmation of my existing prejudice.

Here in Austin, we're in the grip of an unprecedented spell of 100 degree-plus days. Tomorrow we will equal the record for number of 100 degree-plus days in a calendar year (sixty-nine), with a month of summer still remaining. Most of these 100 degree days have been consecutive -  the thermometer hovers around 105 every afternoon. In this regard then Blood Meridian made perfect sense of Austin for me. Much of its three hundred and fifty pages are dedicated to magnificent descriptions of a landscape and climate that is utterly inhospitable, fit for neither man nor beast. The first half of the book takes place on the Texas-Mexico border and is filled with descriptive passages of a great barren emptiness in which no-one thrives and only scavengers survive. I don't mean to imply that Austin is full of scavengers, but certainly as an enterprise, you can see the city is flawed (Or at least, I can. Lots of people love it, apparently).

Blood Meridian is as difficult a book as I've read in a long time. I expected this - it's one reason I've put off reading McCarthy for so long, and for much the same reason I've long avoided picking-up Faulkner (with whom McCarthy is most frequently compared). I'm certainly not averse to difficult authors, but you have to be ready for them. You can't take this stuff lightly.

I was a hundred and eighty pages into Meridian before it stopped feeling like heavy lifting and clicked into gear for me. That being said, it's a book of such density that I don't imagine for a moment I've wrought from it even half of what's in there. I'm reminded of the Lars von Trier film, Breaking the Waves, which felt like literature to me when I saw it, and which I hoped to understand more fully through a second viewing. Problem is, I found the film so harrowing that I've been unable to return to it ever since.

Blood Meridian is famous for its brutality. Apparently there's a film adaptation in the works, and you can imagine Hollywood having a field day with the violence, with all the decapitation and exploding innards. One doubts that you'll get any understanding of the fact that the violence here is anything but gratuitous.  What the book offers instead, is an indelible imagining of the American frontier a hundred and fifty years ago, told in a powerful, brilliantly stylized language. As a side-note, I wonder if perhaps this is the kind of effect Hemingway was after in attempting to convey the Castilian people in his Spanish Civil War novel For Whom The Bell Tolls? 

Regardless, I do feel I have a more powerful (albeit, far from complete) idea of Texas now, and recognize something of what lies beneath the buildings and streets and freeways of Austin.

                                                                *     *     *

From Blood Meridian:

'They found the scouts hanging head downward from the limbs of a fireblacked paloverde tree. They were skewered through the cords of their heels with sharpened shuttles of green wood and they hung gray and naked above the dead ashes of the coals where they'd been roasted until their heads had charred and their brains bubbled in their skulls and steam sang from their noseholes.  Their tongues were drawn out and held with sharpened sticks thrust through them and they had been docked of their ears and their torsos were sliced open with flints until the entrails hung down on their chests. Some of the men pushed forward with their knives and cut the bodies down and they left them there in the ashes.'

Thursday, August 18, 2011

There's A Riot Goin On

                                                                                                                                    Photographer Unknown - citation requested.

'When considering the actual premise of "national security," one would have to look at a country which has descended into widespread internal chaos as being "insecure." For all the money spent on aggressive wars against ill-defined enemies in obscure parts of the world, the most dangerous threat to the actual physical safety of individuals within a country remains from their fellow citizens given a breakdown of social cohesion. It is a sign of dangerously confused priorities that defense spending is considered to be a budgetary holy grail which must be left untouched when discussing cuts to overall spending; but deep cuts to social services which directly affect the lives of millions of Americans are considered fair game. Nothing is more of a threat to the safety of Americans than a social system which will produce a generation of angry, disaffected young people and give rise to the types of scenes Britons are witnessing today.' 

     From a persuasive article on about the recent riots in England. I'm in agreement with much that is said here - certainly that the government's austerity measures are barbaric and punish those who are already most familiar with austerity. And I've always been baffled as to enormous foreign aid and 'defense' spending when there's rank poverty and hardship within a nation's own borders (equally prescient in the US and the UK) - how do you build a society in Afghanistan when you can't maintain your own society at home?
    And yet - Prime Minister Cameron is right when he points to a decline in moral character and poor parenting. I've seen it first hand. Where does the blame lay, exactly? I don't have easy answers - there aren't any. It's been a long, inexorable decline for Britain though, and my guess is that the foundations for the nation's current plight  can be traced back all the way to the end of the Second World War (which may make it hard to explain Germany's current social hegemony and prosperity. Then again, perhaps not. I do feel national character lies at the heart of it).
    Regardless, it may be time to abbreviate the nomenclature - it's hard to make a case for a Great Britain, just as it is for a United States.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Nothing Compares: The Artist Formerly (and Currently) Known As Sinead O'Connor

Live, Manchester, 2011

We know what to expect from the vapid entertainment culture we cultivate, and there's no surprise to the rippling affect around the internet resulting from People magazine's notably unflattering picture of forty-four year old Sinead O'Connor, published recently. The picture was taken at a music festival in Ireland, where she performed backing vocals for reggae artist Nattie Wailer. Certainly you could make a case about the sartorial choices - it is, of course, unheard of for a musician to show a lapse in self-awareness when it comes to style. But most of the snickering has to do with the fact that O'Connor is decidedly more portly than she was in her infamous youth. You can just sense the glee in certain quarters that she is no longer beautiful and youthful, that the arrogant, uncontrollable mouth from Ireland has got hers. She's a middle-aged frump, no better than the rest of us, after all...

Well, actually, she is better than most. Still.

The idea that a woman (in particular) or an artist (in general) owes it to us (their public) to age better, more gracefully than the rest of us is plainly ludicrous. But of course, there is a certain (wrongful) expectation of that in our culture - and it only goes to reinforce Sinead O'Connor's oft-displayed courage, her indomitability as an artist, that she continues to run the gauntlet of ridiculous perceptions and expectations of a largely foolish public.

I've seen O'Connor perform live a number of times. I have no hesitation in saying that she has produced some of the most electric moments I've ever seen in performance by any artist in any medium. Her body of recorded work may not be what we hoped it might turn out to be be back in 1991, but it is not insignificant by any means (I've little interest in reggae, but her 2005 album 'Throw Down Your Arms' is wonderful. I saw her perform the album at Webster Hall in NYC, backed by a magnificent, primarily Jamaican band. Patti Smith was seated beside me, leaning across the balcony, eyes closed, utterly enraptured).

More than anything, O'Connor has survived. She has survived childhood abuse, her own demons, a fragile mental health, and often vicious treatment from a media whose vitriol is frequently written in piss and just as enduring. And still she creates. Still she performs.

War - SNL

Her fear is palpable in this, the infamous SNL clip went some significant way to ruining her career. Afterwards she was slaughtered for bringing to light allegations of rampant child abuse in the Irish Catholic Church. Shamefully, few of her artistic contemporaries came to her defense, championed her right to protest. Less surprising is how few people recalled her once her allegations proved utterly founded.
Soon after, the ignorant masses annihilated her again for her refusal to have the national anthem played before a show in New Jersey - ignoring the fact that her message wasn't 'anti-American' but anti-nationalism. Likely those who booed her were the same who revered John Lennon for singing 'Imagine there's no countries/ I wonder if you can.'  Less well reported was the fact that when she sold her Los Angeles home a year or two later, unable to take the strain of living in the US any more, she donated the proceeds of the sale to The Red Cross.

O'Connor is a mother to four children. She was also diagnosed as bi-polar seven years ago. Without question, part of her weight-gain is a result of anti-depressant medication. 'I actually kind of died and got born again as a result of taking the meds and having a chance to, you know, build a life,' she told Oprah Winfrey - outing herself as someone who suffered a debilitating form of mental illness, regardless of the unfortunate stigma that sometimes accompanies such revelations. Perhaps she should update the slogan on her t-shirt - 'This Weight May Have Saved My Life' - to address ugly commentators with a subtlety they'd understand?

O'Connor has surely said and done many foolish things. Unlike the rest of us, she's done it under great public scrutiny. I don't claim to be a fan of all her music, or much of her philosophy. But I can think of few artists who've refused to compromise as much as she has. She's paid for it at times with her career, and even with her very sanity. For her refusal to compromise, for her adherence to her own truth, for her perseverance and her strength in surviving, and most of all, for her stark, often beautiful art, I think she happens to be one of the more heroic figures in contemporary music and art. Long may she continue to perform, and more, find a peaceful life.

Troy - live 1988. Awesome - in the traditional sense, rather than then contemporary sense.

Further reading:
A piece I wrote on Sinead O'Connor in 2004

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Birds

I was out location scouting yesterday beneath a split highway, South 290. Every few yards I'd come upon  a bird in a late stage of decomposition. There were many dead birds - hit by traffic above and shunted over the freeway? I have no idea. If you do, I'd be curious to know why.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Jasper Johns vs Andy Warhol

There's something slightly iconic about some of the older Target signs. I always think that Jasper Johns must see the logo and wonder where his residual fees are - although it's true he doesn't own exclusive copyright on 'target' images. I also wonder from time to time whether Andy Warhol didn't just sell the logo to the chain-store as a joke at Jasper John's expense...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Radar: What I've Been Reading (and Watching)

Tree of Life

In the age of Twitter, it's no great surprise that a film like this will tax the attention span, test patience. But then, without being tested we fail to grow.

For my money, the visually stunning twenty minute prologue is too long (and the dinosaur scene fatally distracting), and I could have done without the 'heavenly' coda...but I would defend to the death director Terence Malick's right to include them. Even without them, the movie is as sumptuously shot as any other film I can call to mind. Malick's passion for the material resonates through every single still. Perhaps it's flawed as a work of art, but it's a remarkable work of art nonetheless.

 Of course critics have a duty to judge a film on its own merits, yet given the shit that we're spoon-fed every day in film and television, I find it dismaying to read some of the vitriol aimed at Malick, and at his film. How many filmmakers today attempt such seriousness in their work?

The centre of this film is just beautiful, and the journey of the father, in particular, so deeply moving.

Blue Valentine

Actors are always talking about 'honesty' in their work, about being 'truthful.' By way of example, here is a film that's both honest and true, powered by brave, generous performances from Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. In many ways, it's as close to a Raymond Carver story as anything I've seen on film - certainly it's a hell of a lot better than Altman's 'Shortcuts,' based on several Carver stories.

Gosling's character - a man devoid of any particular ambition or talent, a man who's imagination stretches only as far as loving his wife and child but no further, and consequently a man who loses the love of his wife through his own inertia - is one I'm not sure I've seen portrayed before in quite this light. It's a very sympathetically written character, in a film that refuses to seek out more palatable romantic truths.

Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto

I stumbled upon Dennis Lehane's review of 'Galveston' in the NY Times Book Review. Lehane compared it favourably with the noir work of Denis Johnson and so, wanting an easy read for a weekend away, I made a rare foray into genre fiction: except that like the work of Raymond Chandler (whose books I love) and Dashiell Hammett, Nic Pizzolatto's 'Galveston' defies the easy 'genre' label.

Galveston has the mandatory page-turning plot, but it's also marked by taut, evocative language that instills the novel with a steady, pulsing dread. It's deeply atmospheric - a relatively small portion of the novel actually takes place in Galveston, yet I feel I have a good idea of how the town looks and smells - and a climactic scene of violence reverberated with me all through my sleep the night I put the book to bed.

Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest

Is it a great documentary? No. But for more than two-thirds of the film, it works. And perhaps the film's denouement - the inevitable egotistic squabbles of a great band who once preached 'Unity' - made it difficult to provide a more satisfying ending. More imaginative concert footage wouldn't have hurt, but then, the band's last tour was a sorrowful thing anyway. The vibe had long gone and the only thing left to play for was the loot. What does it amount to? One guy was more ambitious, more 'egotistical' than the other. One wanted it more (and was better equipped for the journey) than the other, this from the very beginning.

The Tribe, truly great album (The Low End Theory). Two or three solid albums. It's enough, isn't it?