Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Who: Live At Leeds

Everything good you've heard about Live At Leeds is true;  everything bad you've heard is a lie.  It's essential.

Essential, but oddly enough, I think pretty much any version would do.  I haven't sprung for the recent 4-disc Leeds'n'Hull binge, and I probably won't.  I never got the old 2-disc "complete" Leeds, either.  I find that the 1995 expanded 1-disc set is brilliant, but even then, the tracks I always go back to were (mostly) on the original vinyl.

And they're mostly the covers.  "Young Man Blues," which - if hard flexed cord-tight muscle had a sound, it would be it.  It's a perfect example of how the Who could punch you in the face harder than any metal or punk group could.  It's not about volume so much as it is about rhythm and attitude.  (Love the sonic ambiance on this record, too:  you can just feel the cavernous space of the hall, the draft coming in through the doors, the heat of the spotlights.)

And "Shakin' All Over," which proves that, well, maybe it is about volume as much as it is about rhythm and attitude, but only if volume is made not by turning the amps up to 10, but by pounding your instruments as hard as you can.  Like, Entwistle mashes his bass strings so hard that his notes have the percussive power of a piano.  His fingers are hammers. 

And throughout - to continue the muscle idea - the instrumentalists play with the suppleness and unity of a single limb, bones muscle and sinew all working together.  Not mechanically, but biologically - the Who's sound, live, was incredibly human.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Asabuki Mariko: KikoTowa

This is the book that shared the 144th A-Prize with Nishimura Kenta's Kueki resshaKikoTowa きことわ by Asabuki Mariko 朝吹真理子.  Why do I do this funny thing with the capitals in the romaji?  Because the book comes complete with its predetermined foreign-language title, in small print on the cover:  Kiko et Towa.  That is, the two main characters' names, Kiko and Towako, have been combined into one cutesy noun:  they are, collectively, KikoTowa.

That's never made explicit in the book, actually, but thematically that's certainly part of it:  Towako especially keeps having dreams or half-dreams in which she sees her hair and Kiko's merging into one, connecting them.  Symbolically the frontier between them is constantly threatening to dissolve, allowing their identities to merge.

So, the book is about two women who were friends as children, twenty-five years before.  Towako grew up and still lives in Hayama, a beach-town south of Tokyo known as a retreat for the wealthy;  Kiko's family owns a summer house there and used to visit every year.  Towako and Kiko were constant companions every summer, and then Kiko's mother died and they stopped visiting Hayama.  Now, 25 years on, Kiko comes back down to oversee the dismantling of the house - they're selling it.  Kiko and Towako are reunited and share their memories of childhood.

Is all that really happens in this book.  It's uneventful, to say the least.  Which is not in itself a damning circumstance:  there's a lot of potential there for poetic reveries on aging, on summer beach-resorts, on girlhood and womanhood.  And Asabuki tries - her language leaves me cold, but I can imagine how many others might find it evocative.

But somehow the whole thing falls flat for me.  Just now, writing what I did about the motif of identity-merging, and the setting, and Hayama (nice place:  I've been there), I felt a glimmer of interest.  Like, I might want to read that book.  But in fact I have read it, and it's... Well, it made me feel like I did when I was reading the last two Ishiguro books I read:  like maybe this whole literature thing just isn't for me.  Like maybe I don't even like books.

I think part of the problem might be that the thing just needed an editor.  It goes on far too long.  At 141 pages in hardback, it's on the long end for an A-Prize story, but more importantly I think that all the length makes problems out of what would have been non-issues, or even strengths, in a shorter work.  Nothing happens:  fine, this is J-lit, we expect that.  But it's easier to deal with nothing happening for 20 or 40 pages than for 140.  Dreamlike time-confusion, carefully constructed wispy poetical atmosphere, interplay between reminiscence and right-now:  all of this is easier to sustain in a short story than a novel.  And if the author is determined to draw this out over a longer work, than it needs (I think) some sort of deeper structure to hold it up - some kind of subtext (I didn't detect much in this book), or a variation in tone, some sort of darkness or tension or something.

Then again, I never got past the first 114 pages of Proust, either.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Suetsugu Yuki: Chihayafuru (2007-present)

Another one that I'm the last in the neighborhood to read.  Mrs. Sgt. T got hooked on this, and before I could get around to reading it, our copies of it started making the rounds of our friends.  I finally got my greasy littles on it a couple of weeks ago.

The title is Chihayafuru ちはやふる, which pretty much defines the concept of untranslatable title.  It's a "pillow-word," one of those lexemes that Japanese poetry has been dragging along as a patrimony since time, literally, immemorial - long enough that scholars have been unable to agree on exactly what they originally meant.  Poets tend to use them more for impact and decoration than sense, although since pillow words tend to be associated (in the manner of the poetic epithets in other traditions) with particular words or classes of objects, they do have certain vague connotations.  "Chihayafuru" (also pronounced "chihayaburu") tends to get used with "god."  In some contexts I tend to translate it as "almighty," for obvious reasons, but that wouldn't work so well here, for a couple of reasons.  First, because its use here is meant to conjure up dim memories (the farther out of high school you are, the dimmer, chances are) of a very, very famous poem in which this is the first line;  and, second, because the main character's name is Chihaya.  Untranslatable.

It's a comic about karuta:  a card-matching game involving the poems of the famous 13th century anthology A Hundred Poets, One Poem Each (Hyakunin isshu).  "Famous" is an understatement:  Japanese kids are expected to memorize this in high school.  The game depends on having it memorized.  You kneel down front of a bunch of cards on which are written the second halves of the poems and somebody reads out the first lines.  You try to be the first person to grab the right second-half card.  And so on.  Most people play it a few times during Japanese classes in school, and maybe at New Year's.  But, as most people probably don't know until they encounter this manga, there's a competitive karuta scene.  That's where this story is set.

It's a little hard to classify. The art (flowers and lens flares everywhere) and the (after a brief prologue) high-school setting, complete with Young Love stories, mark it as a shōjo manga.  The venue where it appears, however, is Be Love, a mag ostensibly aimed at adult women.  And the way it depicts the competitive karuta play lifts extensively and knowingly from sports comics - not by any means exclusively a male genre, to be sure, but enough so that at one point one of the characters makes the meta remark that "some people say this is a boys' comic".

That's a lot of the fun of it.  The main character, Chihaya, is a figure of amusement precisely because here she is, model-pretty (it's a major plot point), with a hobby that most people would probably consider fairly feminine (classical poetry being rather flowery), but she approaches it with all the killer instinct and athleticism of yer typical jock.

And that's pretty much all there is to say about the comic.  It's enjoyable - I've stuck with it through 14 volumes (well, I'm waiting to get my hands on the 14th) so far.  Not particularly deep, but clever and well crafted.  Attractive secondary characters, introduced at almost a fast enough clip to keep the old ones from getting stale.  Well-drawn, dynamic game-play sequences, dragged out to impossible lengths (a single tournament can comprise a whole volume of the manga, and spill over into the next).  A background story arc (a love triangle between childhood karuta buddies) that provides occasional tears amidst the laughter (well, "tears" - I don't think the love triangle is working more than gesturally).

Fun.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The amazing Charlatans

If you loiter in the perceptive doorways of San Francisco psychedelic rock for any length of time you'll run across mention of the Charlatans - like a half-torn away scrap of a concert poster on an alley wall, they hover there, so faint and faded that it takes real effort to make them out, but so eye-catching that you can't quite look away.

Well I'm here to tell you, my friends, that the Charlatans are eminently worth checking out.  Yes it's true that if you go by what's available on silver disc or empty-three they're still more ghost than flesh and blood, more rumor than documented fackshual hiss-tow-ree, but what a ghost! and what a rumor!

I won't run down their story here.  It can be read up on elsewhere on the web, as written down by those more knowledgeable than I.  I'm just going to talk about the music.

There are only two Charlatans discs that you can get.  Only two that exist.  The first is called The Amazing Charlatans:  it's an archival release from 1996 that picks up, evidently complete, the various demo and single sessions that the Charlatans did between their founding and their one-and-only album.  These sessions consist of:  an August 1965 demo session for Autumn Records;  aborted sessions for an album for Kama Sutra Records in early 1966 (only a lone single was ever released);  a demo session at Golden State Recorders in July 1967;  and an early 1968 demo session at Pacific High Recorders.

This disc documents the classic line-up of the Charlatans:  George Hunter, Mike Wilhelm, Mike Ferguson, Dan Hicks, and Richard Olsen.  Actually that's what the disc claims, but in fact the 1968 demo already sees Ferguson replaced on piano by Patrick Gogerty and Hicks replaced in the drum seat (he moved to guitar) by Terry Wilson, so in fact the disc documents (a) the classic lineup and (b) an underdocumented transitional lineup on the way to (c) the lineup that made the Charlatans' one-and-only album.

That album constitutes the other disc, the other piece of music you can get your hands on, under the Charlatans name.  They finally made their debut album, their vinyl bow, in 1969 with an eponymous album that documents lineup (c), which was Wilhelm, Olsen, Wilson, and Darrell DeVore.  Not the classic lineup, in fact only 50% the classic lineup, and this fact among others has led to the record's dismissal as a Pale Shadow of the Charlatans That Were, a ghost, a rumor, et cetera.

And yes, friends, it is true that the Charlatans as documented on the archival disc are a much more iron-clad and diesel-fueled motive force than the quartet that tried to bring that force to bear in 1969.  Which is to say that the Amazing disc is, taken in toto, almost enough to make you believe that the ghost is flesh and blood, that the rumor is proved - and in places on this disc, the music's corporeality is beyond dispute.

The Charlatans' finest moment comes from the 1967 demo sessions:  a six and a half minute long take on the traditional "Alabama Bound."  If you do nothing else today, listen to this track.  Loud.  It is a perfect six and a half minutes of music.  Take it apart and you'll find that each component is a microcosm of perfection unto itself.  Dan Hicks's drum part, as powerfully driving and elegantly controlled as the snap of the reins on a team of horses pulling a stagecoach across the desert.  Mike Ferguson's piano part, conjuring images of cool dark saloon melancholy while billows of dust pass by in the sunstruck street.  Richard Olsen's bass, commanding, thundering, and yet unobtrusive, standing glowering in the alley framing everything with its gaze but never filling the emptiness.  The same can be said for the vocal harmonies:  they're ghostly,  they're - roughhewn doesn't begin to do them justice - they're the voices of a parcel of ranch-hands, half-drunk, looking for trouble, but lacking a leader, and this very leaderlessness, this centerlessness, is, again, the key to the track:  the track is full of music, but also of a vast, echoing emptiness, as wide open as the West itself.  And clattering around in this emptiness you have Mike Wilhelm's guitar, alternating between Byrdsy jangle and real C&W leather-and-brass twang, and the coup de grace, George Hunter's psychedelic autoharp.  It's like the little Appalachian accent that reminds you what the cowboy did before he came West.

Put it all together and you have a macrocosm of perfection for us all:  a record more visual than cinema, more aromatic than smellovision, and incidentally a perfect little essay on what it was about the Charlatans that inspired the San Francisco groups, and what it was about the San Francisco groups that tantalized the rest of the hip world.  Viz., a vision that encompassed frontiers both geographical and pyschological, musical and lyrical, contemporaneous and archaic, stylistic and substantive and transsubstantiational, a sound that at its least evoked and at its best realized that vision, and oh yeah, you can dance to it too.  If you're not bopping along to that ending vamp, if you're not feeling the pound of the hoofbeats and the rattle of the stage, the rush of the audience and the swing of delight (to cop a phrase), well, you probably haven't read this far.

They never equaled this record.  The Kama Sutra sessions contain a short early take of "Alabama Bound" that hints at where they'd later take it, and the 1969 album contains a nearly note-for-note remake of the 1967 version that nevertheless manages to sink the ship.

But there are quite a few tracks scattered between the two discs that are almost as good as that, and that, my friends, is not nothing.  To start at the end, the 1969 album has a lengthy take on "Wabash Cannonball" that's quite worthwhile, a shotgun wedding of Chuck Berry and Maybelle Carter.  That guitar is played by Mike Wilhelm, and the guitar isn't even as impressive as his voice, which is as raw and brawny and drawling and sleepy-eyed a piece of rawhide as punk ever chewed on before Tony Kinman came along.

Wilhelm also sang what should have been, but wasn't, the band's debut single in 1966, Buffy St. Marie's "Codine."  You're beginning to get the picture now, I think:  this band could slug it out with the best of 'em.  It's just a crime that they never quite made it into the ring.

A couple more arguments.  I wish I could link you to one of guest vocalist Lynne Hughes's two outings with the band, "Devil Got My Man" and "Sidetrack."  They were recorded during the Kama Sutra sessions and feature the band playing very convincing blues behind a female belter even more stone-faced than Signe and almost as powerfully sexual as Janis.  What ever happened to her?

And of course we have to mention Dan Hicks's stuff.  He'd go on to greater fame as, well, Dan Hicks, but he was a pretty good Charlatan, too.  Check out "I Got Mine."  Heh.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Alan Moore and David Lloyd: V for Vendetta

Picked this up at Powell's, figuring it was time I started giving myself more than a nodding acquaintance with some of the English language graphic novel landmarks.  I expected great things from this.

And I have to say, I was a bit disappointed.

Art:  I like the mostly outline-less heavy black art.  It has something of a German expressionist woodcut feel to it.  I hate the pastel colorings, though.  It's an interesting idea, but has nothing at all to add to this particular story.  (I know that it was originally published in b&w and it was the American reprint that added the colors, but it was Lloyd himself who did them:  I don't blame Vertigo.)

Story:  A classic, to be sure, with that familiar literate pithy excoriating Moore writing.  But to be honest, as a script it got a little talky in the last third, not to mention preachy.  The ideas were pretty clear already, and V eventually goes from being a charismatic enigma to an annoying blowhard.  (I grant that part of this may be Moore's intention.  But I doubt all of it is.)

Overall:  This suffers from a known issue with ambitious graphic novels where the script and art are by different parties:  both are trying to raise the stakes independently, and they do that by each honing their individual craft, and in the process destroying a lot of the comics-ness of the thing.  (I think McCloud talks about this, although not w/r/t this title.)  That is, Moore's writing is brilliant but way too much for the medium - too many words, too much literary posturing.  I have fewer issues with Lloyd's art (color aside), but I feel like he's trying to cram so many panels into each page to keep up with Moore's monologues that the stories can't really get going in a comics way.  Thus, script and art are independently quite fine, but for me at least don't really fuse together in the way that the best comics do.

But then again I'm probably spoiled by manga.  I mean, I guess I was expecting this to be, according to the hype, one of the most sophisticated, complex, and adult comics of all time.  But there are a half-dozen things running in Morning alone right now that beat it on those counts.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Nishimura Kenta: Kueki ressha (2010)

Nishimura Kenta 西村賢太 shared the 144th Akutagawa Prize (for the 2nd half of 2010), with his Kueki ressha 苦役列車 (Train of hard labor). 

It serves me right.

All along in my reviews of these things I've been throwing around the term "I-novel" loosely, far too loosely for my own good.  What I was trying to say with it was that A-Prize novels tend to fall into a first-person, confessional mode that is one of the hallowed literary conventions of modern Japan.  This mode is sometimes associated with something called the "I-novel" or shishōsetsu 私小説 (or watakushishōsetsu).  But, strictly speaking, the shishōsetsu was a much more limited and strictly definable phenomenon of the naturalists of the early 20th century - and the odd thing is that many of them didn't write in the first person.  They went through the pretense of putting their navel-gazing in the third person, leaving it to the readers (and the journalists) to piece together the I-ness of the thing through matching thinly-disguised details in the text with the documented life of the author.  I mean, they weren't fooling anybody, but this is what they did, and it shouldn't be conflated with the larger phenomenon of first-person confessional slice-of-life novels in modern J-lit, which owes a lot to but isn't completely identical with the shishōsetsu properly speaking.  I conflated it.  My bad.

This kind of clarification (okay, confession) becomes necessary at this point because Nishimura Kenta is self-consciously trying to bring the shishōsetsu idiom, narrowly defined, into the 21st century.  In fact he's so open about his devotion to this idiom that he was instrumental in getting one of its more obscure practitioners, Fujisawa Seizō 藤沢清造, back into print. 

His story is confessional - oh boy is it confessional - but it's written in the third person.  More than that it's written in a prose style that's instantly recognizable as belonging to the naturalists of the early 20th century. 

The story is about a teenager named Kanta (not Kenta) in the mid-1980s who has dropped out of school after junior high to live hand-to-mouth as a day laborer.  He's estranged from his mother, and his father is in prison for sex crimes.  Becoming known as the family of a rapist ruined Kanta and his mother, and is largely responsible for Kanta's miserable existence, or at least that's how Kanta sees it.

If you know anything about the tradition that this story is an homage to, you'll expect the story to detail a miserable personality and its obsessions with sex, violence, and unreasonable grudges that doom the protagonist to failing at life, and that by rubbing the reader's face in the sheer squalidness of life the writer is hoping to arrive at some sort of ultimate truth, if only by forcing us to confront certain existential tragedies.

That's exactly what Nishimura does here.  Over a hundred and forty pages we follow, in minute detail, Kanta's days working as a seafood unpacker, missing his rent, sleeping with prostitutes whenever he gets enough cash, skipping work whenever he gets enough money to eat for two days in a row, seemingly never showering, and creeping out more normal people who try to befriend him.  And he can't figure out why he's all alone.  Must be his father's fault...  (Needless to say, the details of Kanta's life match up quite well with Kenta's.  Notoriously, in his post-A-Prize interview, when asked what he was doing when he got the call saying he'd won, he said, "I was just about to hit a sex club."  Coming from Murakami Ryū this might have been edgy or cute, but Nishimura made it sound just kind of matter-of-fact, like the old sexual harasser in the office who can't figure out why pubes on a Coke can don't make the ladies swoon...)

At first I thought this was going to be a parody.  His emulation of the old prose style is pitch-perfect, and there is a mildly interesting disconnect in reading it applied to '80s things - imagine Sōseki describing vending machines and you'll get an inkling.  But by the end it was clear that Nishimura wasn't up to anything new at all.  In short, he's just trying to bum you out, just like his idols. 

The o-make story here, Ochiburete sode ni namida no furikakaru 落ちぶれて袖に涙ふりかかる (Broken down, with tears falling on his sleeve), is if anything even more unpleasant.  It joins Kanta two decades later, in something close to the present day, when he's scraping by as a writer of shishōsetsu.  We spend the first half of the story getting detailed, vivid, and yet somehow dull descriptions of how he has to piss into a plastic oolong-tea bottle because he's thrown his back out and can't get out of bed.  Halfway through we realize he's waiting for the announcement of a literary prize that he's up for.  We then get a prodigious outpouring of bile on how he knows that it's unbecoming of him to want the prize so desperately, but he wants it anyway.  (Okay, so that's kind of interesting to someone who's interested in the idea of literary prizes.)

So, obviously I didn't enjoy these stories.  So what?  I'm not sure so what.  I don't have to enjoy them to see literary value in them.  So do I?  See literary value in them?  Usually I'm game for that question, but I feel like to try to answer it with regard to Nishimura would just send me off into the night looking for an oolong-tea bottle to piss in and muttering about the impossibility of defining literary value.  If you're really, really in need of having your face rubbed in the misery of existence, then Nishimura's probably doing something valuable.  But otherwise this book is a just a wallow in a particularly grotesque kind of self-pity, unrelieved by any humor, couched in a prose that's trying really really hard to be as ugly as it is.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Flappers and Philosophers (1920)

The best thing about Fitzgerald's first short-story collection is its title.  Seeing it, and knowing of Fitzgerald's reputation as poet laureate of the Jazz Age, and maybe being familiar with his later knowing, sympathetic portraits of wild women and enchanted men, you're probably going to expect a completely unbridled, unsobered-up collection of hot jazz fantasias.  Specifically the title seems to suggest that the collection will present a contrast between the body-centered concrete liberation represented the flapper and the mind-bound abstract repression represented by the philosopher, and that this contrast will redound (scandalously) to the Flapper's benefit by suggesting that she is the true Philosopher (in the sense of having the most persuasive access to Truth and Understanding).  The title does all this (for me, anyway), and what's even more exciting is that it does it all with such perfect music in the language - the three words of the title.  I mean, think of the orthography and how it relates to the sounds.  In the word "flapper" an "f" sound like an "f" and a "p" sounds like a "p":  straightforward, honest, no nonsense, intuitive.  In "philosopher" a "p" is denatured, abstracted by an "h" until it stands in for a displaced "f":  letters are one or two steps removed from their reflexive, direct sounds.  They're processed through the brain, rather than proceeding naturally from the lips.  The words work, in this instance, like the readings they're meant to evoke.  "Philosopher" is fake nonsense:  "flapper" is real.

I wanted to read that book.  Unfortunately, Fitzgerald's book only has a couple of stories worthy of that title.  "The Offshore Pirate" and "Head and Shoulders."  The latter really does translate the ancient mind/body split into contemporary (Jazz Age) terms, with its pairing of a Broadway ingenue and a Yale prodigy who in the end switch places.  The former presents a really indelible sketch of a flapper, Ardita, "slender and supple, with a spoiled alluring mouth and quick gray eyes full of a radiant curiosity," who is seduced by, or maybe seduces, a modern-day pirate.  Despite the condescending O. Henry twists at the end, these stories display the kind of louche brassiness that one might expect from the title of the book.

But the rest of the stories are not that.  At their best they're deft character studies (like "The Ice Palace" or "Bernice Bobs Her Hair"), and at their worst they're alarmingly conventional ("Benediction," "The Cut-Glass Bowl").  Either way, they're much more mundane than I've come to expect from Fitzgerald.  Middle-brow magazine fodder, which is I guess what they were.

David Fincher's The Social Network (2010)

Just got around to seeing this, right on time.  Don't have much to say except that, despite all the acclaim it got, I guess I was still doubtful that much could be made of the story, and that I was wrong.  It's a serious movie - if only because it lays bare, in an artful way, the obvious metaphors inherent in the whole thing.  I mean, what we all realized, in that three or four year period in which we all joined Facebook, was that the site was not at all redefining the way we interacted, but rather was codifying and making explicit what was already happening in our lives.  The movie brings that out nicely.

It reminded me of one of my college roommates, a history major who used to tutor freshmen.  I'd lie on my bed half-reading and half-listening to him, and one day he told a freshman, what you have to realize is, everybody who ever lived is basically driven by a desire to get laid, and that includes famous historical figures.  It all comes down to sex, and sometimes food.  Later I realized it was hardly an original argument, but it was the first time I'd heard it, and it made a big impact on me.  This movie gets that.

My other reaction to the film was one of total wonder.  I was at Harvard during the years when this all happened, but I was totally oblivious to it.  I was a grad student, and at least in my department that seems to have meant being almost totally estranged from the undergraduates.  I'd teach them, but I never really understood their world.  I have no idea, therefore, if this movie gets that right.  Hell, I didn't even join Facebook until it was opened to everyone, and then only because I heard about it from family members, not fellow Harwardians.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Wong Kar-wai's 2046 (2004)

This is the first Wong Kar-wai joint I've been disappointed by.  Knowing that this was a loose sequel to In The Mood For Love, which I loved, I was expecting great things.  And there are some great things here, but the whole thing isn't a great thing.

Visually it's impeccable - but that kind of goes without saying for Wong and Doyle by now, doesn't it?  They're expanding on their '60s-style-and-texture fetishes of the previous film (there's a shot with a green-tinged Faye Wong in the foreground and a green naugahyde chair in the background shadows that just knocked me out), and adding to them a deliriously mod futurism.  The sci-fi elements in this film, while a disaster for the story, allow them to cut loose with some near-Barbarella level visual play.  Someday I'd like to see them cut loose with a full-on sci-fi flick - I'd expect something along the lines of Fifth Element, style style style.

Unfortunately, the gynoid and Train to the Future bits strike me as silly in unintended ways - Kimura Takuya looks particularly lost in these scenes, and at one point Faye Wong actually starts moving in stop-motion, like every ten-year-old does when imitating a robot...

As for the rest of the film, well, it just didn't do it for me.  Maybe it was unfair to compare it to In The Mood For Love, because in comparison to the clear emotional through-line in that film, in this one the emotional arcs seemed muddled to me.  Maybe it's because Tony Leung's character's motivation was left unclear right up until the end.  As Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki summed it up, it's a movie about a guy who can't get over a past love - but we don't learn that he even had a past love until ten minutes before the movie ends.  Of course if we believe that this is really a continuation of In The Mood, then we already know that - but there are enough shifts to leave us in doubt about that at first, I think.

Maybe I'm just getting impatient with the director's prioritizing of visuals and mood over story;  I know that's his bag, and I expect it.  But in what I consider his best films, the intimations of story that do sneak in support the visuals, and the whole thing comes together.  Not so here.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Groovy Talkin' Verve (or, Talkin' Verve: Groovy!) (1998)

This set tries to answer a serious question in a fundamentally unserious way.  At the same time, only different:  it documents some artists trying to answer a serious question in ways that range from serious to un-.  Viz.

The rise of rock over the course of the '60s seemed to threaten to, and in fact by the end of the decade did, displace the mainstream of American pop.  From the '20s through the '50s, if I have this right, that mainstream had been a course defined, broadly, by jazz.  Pop singers like Sinatra had roots in jazz, and sang in a style that drew its rhythmic pulse and melodic impulse from jazz.  Popular music in America in this period swung, to a greater or lesser degree.  Jazz therefore had a natural "in" with pop, because it shared this basis in swing;  jazz was therefore able to enrich its repertoire with pop music, because the pop music of the period was so influenced by jazz.  The mutually-reinforcing cult of the "standard," right?  Pop music lent legitimacy by its adoption into the jazz world, which also legitimized jazz by situating it in close proximity to "standard" pop songcraft.  Tin Pan Alley and 52nd Street shake hands and both agree that each other was the shiznit. 

In the '60s (started in the '50s, but didn't hit until later), mainstream pop stopped swinging and started rocking.  We're not just talking the British Invasion, either:  Motown's beat wasn't a jazz beat.  Stax's beat wasn't a jazz beat.  And jazz suddenly found itself in danger of becoming superannuated.  Its standards were sounding old-fashioned.

There were lots of ways of phrasing the questions raised by this.  Could jazz appropriate contemporary pop songs like it had "standards"?  Could Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards tunes, or Holland/Dozier/Holland or Hayes/Porter songs, be jazzed up the way Rodgers/Hart or Cole Porter songs could? Could attempts at doing that result in serious music, or only kitsch?  Was jazz as a musical idea separable from the swing beat?  Could jazz continue to evolve?  Was rock intrinsically nothing but greasy kid stuff played by "non-playing motherfuckers" (in Miles Davis's inimitable characterization), or was there something there?

Verve, as we've seen, was already all about what the Village Voice would later (probably more retrospectively than it knew) call "pazz & jop".  So it was natural that the label would at least be willing to experiment with the New Rock, at jazzifying it, or at rockifying jazz - natural that the label would be in the forefront of that effort, which would have been perceived as an imperative by artists for every label.  So the question this set should be asking is, how did Verve do it?  And how well did Verve do it?

The problem is, I don't think the compilers were interested in answering any of those questions seriously, or in examining how the artists they're dealing with tried to answer them.  Because most of what's here is just here for a laugh, and the things that actually work, musically, that inspire grooving rather than goofing, work in ways that go unexplained by this compilation.

The compilation draws from a surprisingly small number of records released between 1965 and 1971 on the Verve, Mercury, MGM, and MPS labels.  Over a third of it is made of Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery selections, which makes sense, given how close those gentlemen stayed to pop in their Verve years, but these selections don't provide any revelations (except possibly for pointing out how bad a singer Smith was - he vocalizes on "Dock Of The Bay," and you wish he hadn't).  Add in a trio of Quincy Jones numbers and a pair of Willie Bobos, and over half of this disc is both literally and conceptually redundant with other items in this series.  Okay, fair enough, they probably didn't expect anybody to be so dumb as to get all the volumes...but some of the other cuts on here are good enough to make you wish the compilers had looked a little harder, thought a little bit more seriously about what they were doing.

The most ear-opening numbers are three tracks from the atrociously-titled Blood, Chet And Tears, a 1970 record that was Chet Baker's only outing for Verve.  We get "Vehicle," "Evil Ways," and "Spinning Wheel."  These work for much the same reason that Astrud Gilberto's take on Chicago's "Beginnings" works:  they draw from the most jazziest strain of contemporary rock, and they take it seriously.  Chet's playing well, the arrangements are forceful (very close to the originals, though), and you don't get the feeling that anybody involved is looking down their nose at the songs.

Which they wouldn't have necessarily had to do...  I'm no expert on any of this stuff, and I haven't yet started to seriously explore fusion (the elephant in this particular room), but it seems to me that a lot of the problem with the way jazz artists dealt with the rock threat stemmed from a general unwillingness.  Like, there were enough kids in rock bands in 1970 who listened to jazz, and who really wanted to expand their own music, that you could have imagined a serious rapprochement.  But instead most artists and producers seem to have taken an attitude of, "Shit, do we have to play this rock shit?  Okay, let's get it over with.  What're the kids listening to?  Beatles?  Rolling Stones?  'Tequila'?"  And then they just dash off whatever Stones title is selling best at that particular moment.  Instead of taking the time to realize that artists like Santana, Chicago, the Allman Brothers, King Crimson, and yes the Grateful Dead were thinking seriously about how to bring elements of a jazz sensibility into a rock context, and meeting them halfway.  (To this day, Santana's early '70s records get treated as "rock," and not jazz.  Why is that?)

Then again, sometimes the least serious intentions can still result in great music.  Oscar Peterson, in a quartet also featuring Ray Brown and Milt Jackson, provides a rendition of the Stones' "Satisfaction" that clearly doesn't take the tune at all seriously, but it's a complete gas.  Everybody solos at breakneck speed and within about thirty seconds you forget what tune you're listening to and just dig the improv.  Which is what tended to happen to standards anyway.  So.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is The Night (1934)

Where do you go after Gatsby?  I went where Fitzgerald went, and frankly part of me wishes I hadn't;  Tender is the Night is such a different book, so much sadder.  More than anything it made me want to rush back and read his earlier, lighter things.  Flappers and Philosophers is next.

Other than that, I can't figure out how I feel about it.  Conventionally, probably.  I mean, I expect most everybody feels that the opening chapters, when we see the Gausse's crowd through Rosemary's eyes, gradually leading up to her/our encounters with Dick and Nicole Diver, are the most memorable. And it's no coincidence that those are the most Gatsby-like chapters, full of rich and beautiful people doing things that only rich and beautiful people can.

Once we start to see life from Dick and Nicole's perspective, they lose a lot of their appeal.  Which is, of course, part of Fitzgerald's brilliance in this book:  he's destroying their glamor for us, by showing us the insecurities and instabilities that lie behind it.

But that's not quite right, because if he had effectively destroyed their glamor for me, wouldn't I remember the opening scenes a little less fondly?  And yet a passage like this one floors me still (p. 21 of the Scribner paperback):
Simultaneously the whole party moved toward the water, supper-ready from the long, forced inaction, passing from the heat to the cool with the gourmandise of a tingling curry eaten with chilled white wine.  The Divers' day was spaced like the day of the older civilizations to yield the utmost from the materials at hand, and to give all the transitions their full value...
I mean, no matter how much skepticism Fitzgerald turns toward this kind of luxurious living, it's still what he's best at describing.  Maybe he's good at it because he's skeptical of it, but as Greil Marcus once wrote about somebody else in a different context, I think Fitzgerald's attitude toward it is a loud yes and a quiet no, rather than the other way around...

In that passage I love, by the way, how he translates all of the Divers' pleasure-taking into foodie terms.  They consume their days with the discernment and deliberation of a gourmet.

There's another metaphor he uses for it, at least twice, that of curating.  On p. 258, describing the Divers moving back to the Riviera and the obscene number of possessions they take with them, he notes that "Nicole was capable of being curator of it all."  And then he proceeds to list them all.

You see this term popping up these days, too.  I don't know if Fitzgerald invented this usage, but it's a brilliant one in his book, because it perfectly captures the self-absorption of the hedonist who in his/her mind gives his/her material indulgences the dignity of scholarly or aesthetic pursuits.  That is, there are certain objects, and certain collections of objects, and certain settings for those collections, that require and deserve the kind of discernment and care that justify the term "curator" - but your luggage ain't it.  Your iTunes playlist ain't it.  Your spice rack ain't it. 

My blog ain't it.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Dillard & Clark: "Bowed My Head And Cried Holy" (1969)

About ten or twelve years ago I developed a real obsession with Byrds spin-off bands.  It started back in high school, really, with CSN(Y), when like most fans I realized that the quartet's paucity of releases could, and indeed really demanded to, be augmented by solo and spinoff records.  When I realized that CSN(Y) was half Buffalo Springfield anyway, my eyebrows shot up, and when I realized that they also had Byrds DNA, well, my little mind was blown.  It wasn't until much later, though, that I seriously began collecting.

When I did, I started with the Byrds, and like anybody with ears, I fell in love with them for their own sake.  But, like most collectors of this scene do, I soon realized that some of the most interesting work to fall off the whole Byrds/CSNY/Buffalo Springfield family tree came from some of the more obscure acts.  Which brings us to Dillard & Clark.  That's original Byrd Gene Clark, teaming up with Doug Dillard (whose namesake bluegrass act is another minor but rewarding limb on the tree) for two albums of country-rock-pop-soul-Cosmic American Music in 1968 and 1969.

Okay, I've just invoked the spirit of Gram Parsons, and any D&C fan will inevitably claim that they were doing what he did, but with less fanfare and notoriety.  It's not quite true.  Yes, they were wedding country and rock, broadly speaking, just like he was, and they were doing it in 1968 just like he was.  But the important distinction to be made is that they were wedding different kinds of country and rock.  The country that Gram was arguing for was honky-tonk, whose wry drunken outlook matched perfectly with the stoned hippie pop-rock that the McGuinn-led Byrds were doing - so perfectly that it looks obvious in retrospect.

The country that Doug Dillard is bringing is bluegrass:  something a little more back-country, and a little less easy to mingle, than honky-tonk.  And Gene Clark was never much of a rocker - he was a sensitive balladeer.  He took to rock, but through folk:  his talent, probably more than anybody's at the time, was perfectly matched to "folk-rock," however you define it.

What I'm saying is that the things D&C were doing, the ingredients they were playing with, were probably a tougher sell in 1968 than what Gram was doing, and even now what they came up with doesn't sound obvious in any way.  And I say that as a big Gram fan - I don't mean to disparage the Burritos one bit.  But what D&C did was something special, too.

Their first record, 1968's The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark, is usually pointed to as the most successful.  Perhaps not coincidentally, it's the one where Gene Clark's influence is most audible.  It's mostly a collection of soft, moody, haunting folk-rock tunes with some unexpected but totally appropriate bluegrass touches.  It really makes for something new, but something as natural and beautiful as the sun burning through the mist in the woods on an autumn morning.

Famously, Gram Parsons kind of lost interest in the Burritos for their second record, leaving second banana Chris Hillman to pick up the slack.  Oddly, the same thing happened to D&C:  the second record (1969's Through The Morning, Through The Night) is much more of a straight bluegrass affair, which suggests that Dillard was the main mover.  But for my money it's just as good.  And if Gene's style was getting submerged in Dillard's, he's just as big a presence in the songwriting.

In fact the most traditional-sounding original on the record, the gospel-bluegrass "I Bowed My Head And Cried Holy," is a Gene Clark original.  You'd never know it.  It's a Jesus-praisin' fast-pickin' raveup that sounds like it roared right out of the Ozarks, and Clark sings it without a lick of his usual self-consciousness. 

Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be on youtube in any other version than this cover by an Italian bluegrass band.  But it's well worth seeking out the record.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Ukiyoe at the Portland Art Museum

Huge exhibit of Japanese woodblock prints going on now at the Portland Art Museum.  It's called "The Artist's Touch, the Craftsman's Hand."  They have a magnificent collection - not quite MFA-level, perhaps, but pretty damn good - and they've got a very large selection on display right now.  More than enough to intoxicate you, if you're at all prone to near-drunken ecstasy when looking at these things.  I am.

What's really nice about this show - I mean, beyond the amazing numbers of rare (even unique) and magnificent prints - is how it's arranged.  Rather than a chronological approach, they've laid it out thematically - a few rooms of kabuki-related prints, a few rooms of beauty prints.  And so rich is the collection that this gives them the chance to feature some really unusual stuff.  There's a whole room of prints depicting the 1923 Kantō Earthquake, for example. 

In short, it's extremely educational, as well as being just damn beautiful.  We've only been once, and for not nearly long enough;  we're going to swing an overnight trip sometime soon.  It's a show worth immersing yourself in.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Akazome Akiko: Otome no mikkoku (2010)

This appeared in the June 2010 issue of Shinchō 新潮, and was published in book form a month later.  It won the 143rd Akutagawa Prize, for the first half of 2010.  It's by Akazome Akiko 赤染晶子.

The title is Otome no mikkoku 乙女の密告, a title which poses a couple of translation problems.  Otome is easy enough:  you could go with "virgin," but that would be overdoing it a little:  "maiden" works pretty near perfectly.  Mikkoku, too, is straightforward enough:  as a verb, it means "to inform on" someone.  How do you get both of these elements into the title, though?  The Maiden's Information doesn't work at all - sounds like "girl data" or something.  The Maiden Informant is about as close as I can come, even though it sort of telegraphs the ending.

First things first:  it's told in the third person, and while the author herself, like the protagonist, studied German in a foreign-languages university, it doesn't feel particularly shishōsetsu-ish.  It's more adventurous, IOW, than the typical A-Prize winner, I felt.

It's about, then, girls, "maidens," at a gaidai 外大, a Japanese college that specializes in the teaching of foreign languages.  This one is an all-girls' school, and the girls in question are studying German.  And this year their prof, a German named Bachmann, has them reading The Diary of Anne Frank.  In German, although it was originally written in Dutch.  The novel comes with a Works Cited list in which Akazome cites both the German and Dutch editions, and makes it clear that all translations from the diary that appear in the text of her novel are by herself, from the German.  And excerpts from the diary play a pivotal role in the story.  The maidens are preparing for a speech contest in which they're supposed to recite passages from the diary, from memory.  The main character, Mikako, has to confront a particular passage that she keeps forgetting, and explore what it is about the passage that throws her.

Akazome's technique in this novel is interesting.  I don't speak German, but I'm pretty sure that the particular prose style she's employing is meant to read as if it's translated from the German.  Certainly it reads like translationese, with much more prominent uses of subjects and objects than normal Japanese prose displays;  it feels like a student translation, where the student is trying to prove to the teacher that she understands the original by accounting for every element of it.  Student translation is, I think, the key:  the result isn't anything like the famously convoluted translationese of Ōe, but rather an almost obnoxiously clear, terse, repetitive prose.  Very effective.

Syntax, as well as grammar, plays a large part in this, and primary among the syntactical choices is that of using the word "otome" for "girls."  That is, every place in the novel where a normal prose stylist would write "shōjo 少女" or simply "onna no ko 女の子," Akasome uses the older-sounding, stiffer-sounding otome, with its undeniable overtones of virginhood.  I suspect that she's intending this to be a student translation of fräulein.  That is, she's giving us the flavor of a class in which the teacher addresses the students, and has them addressing each other, as fräulein, but rather than giving us the German word in katakana, she's giving the textbook translation of it.  And, due to the translationese grammar that she's employing, the word gets repeated again and again and again.

The effect is to thematize the state of being "otome," and indeed from very early on Akazome's narration starts speaking in general terms about the habits of mind and behavior of "maidens."  Susceptibility to rumor, fastidiousness about reputation if not behavior, cliquishness:  these are all qualities that characterize the otome, we're told.  This aspect of the book is fascinating to me, because Akazome is talking about the much-explored, much-discussed shōjo of contemporary Japan, and yet she's not quite, because she insists on calling them otome.  She's defamiliarizing the concept so that we can look at it anew, and she's also pointing out how much our thinking about human nature gets embedded in particular expressions, resulting in a tendency to essentialize.

In fact, by writing in translationese, and exploring the girls' relationship to the German text they're immersing themselves in (more on that below), the story is really about how language shapes us and controls us.  It sets boundaries for what we can say and how we can say it, and therefore what we can think and how we can think it.  And these boundaries - these languages - are narrower than we may think, because they're less a matter of national languages and more a matter of much smaller communities:  college classes, cliques.  And the boundaries are exportable.

The other way that Akazome gets at this theme, besides through her own language (which, she's forcing us to realize, isn't really her own), is through Anne's diary.  First of all we're made aware of the barriers that lie between the characters and it:  Mikako grew up reading it in Japanese, and now she's reading it in German, but she's constantly aware that it was written in Dutch, and she uses the Dutch title, Het Achterhuis, to remind us of that.  In spite of all that distance, Mikako has always felt an intense identification with Anne - more of an infatuation, actually, so that studying the diary as a college student is an intense emotional experience for her.

The passage that gets her is one in which Anne expresses a desire to become Dutch - to leave her Jewish identity behind and become, as Mikako conceives of it, the Other.  And yet at the same time she (Anne) fully owns her Jewish identity.  It's clear that Mikako is deeply affected by anxieties about identity - not so much national as insider/outsider identity.  The damaging effect (on a maiden) of rumor and innuendo, of ostracization, is a major theme of the story, and Mikako seems to be thinking through these issues in terms of Anne's ethnic and national identity.  Is conforming to the group a way of denying yourself?  Is standing up for your individuality the same as "informing" on yourself - reporting yourself as Other and therefore submitting yourself to inevitable ostracization or worse?

I confess, first off, that I haven't read Anne Frank.  I mean to, but haven't.  That said, this aspect of the novel struck me as a bit murky.  It may be that Akazome is trying to suggest that Mikako herself doesn't have the vocabulary (as limited as her language is in this particular semiglot community) to really think through these issues.  In any case I admire how the story raises them but I'm not sure it handles them as well as it could have.

And then there's the issue that comes up whenever a work of fiction decides to deal with the Holocaust.  Is it dilettantish and insensitive to connect Anne's sufferings with those of college girls in affluent, free Japan?  Or is it a tribute to the universality of Anne's experiences?  Does the book do justice to the gravity of the history?  Does its (possible) failure to do so say something else about otome, or this particular community of them?  Do we, alternatively, admire the otome for so far transcending their own culture as to relate so intensely to Anne, on such a universal human level?  Or is the point that they're not relating to the real Anne at all, but only to a version of Anne that they've claimed, or created, for themselves as the model of all otome?

One of the best A-Prize books in a long time.

Fairport Convention: The Deserter (1969)

Once or twice a year - always in the autumn, usually around Samhain - I go back to my old Fairport Convention albums.  I have the three they did with Sandy Denny in 1969, which I find so heart-thumpingly transporting that I've never been able to bring myself to explore the band or the singer any farther.  Nothing else could possibly compare.

Of the three, I agree that Liege & Lief is the best of them.  (However you wouldn't want to live without "A Sailor's Life" from Unhalfbricking or "She Moves Through The Fair" from What We Did On Our Holidays.  You need them all.)

What I can never decide is which song on L&L is best.  It's one of those records:  each song on it has its day, from the pagan invocation of "Come All Ye," which convinces you that, with a little help from Sandy, you could indeed "raise the spirits of the earth / and move the rolling sky," to the appropriately murderous guitar-fiddle wild ride that ends "Matty Groves," to the incantatory canter at which they take "Tam Lin."

But lately it always seems to be "The Deserter" that gets me deepest.  It's the lament of a poor man caught up in the hellish samsara of the draft, a plaint that says man should not have to kill his fellow man and any regime that makes it so perverts humanity, an an observation that it's the way of the universe that mercy and cruelty so often alternate, one leading to the other.  The arrangement and musicians' work provide a perfect setting for this argument, delivering us a world of cyclical recurrence that nevertheless keeps building the tension with each iteration.  Tension and release, tension and release, just like the narrator's alternating bondage and escape;  tension is a mad sawing at the fiddle, release a gentle striding into rhythm.  But of course it's Sandy Denny's vocal that really drives the arrow home:  her cold sensuality, an icicle dripping grief and pain yet catching in its prism the very sun that destroys it.  Her voice is just otherworldly.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels (1995)

Even if you don't know that Fallen Angels (1995) grew out of what was meant to be a third story in the previous year's Chungking Express, you may find yourself making connections between the two films.  Common settings (the Chungking Mansions), similar structures (two parallel love stories only tangentially related, only this time they're intercut rather than back-to-back), recurring motifs (canned pineapple, blonde hair) take you there.  And thematically this feels very tied to its predecessor, with its emphasis on relationships doomed before they start by - what, ennui?  Modernity's anomie?

I think the film may be less satisfying on its own, though, then it might have been as a third part of Chungking Express.  I gather that the hitman's storyline here is what was planned for Chungking, which suggests that the other storyline, about the mute played by Kaneshiro Takeshi, was new for this film.  I don't think the two mesh very well. 

Visually, of course, they do because Doyle and Wong are mainly interested, here, in exploring neon-smeared nightscapes rather than telling stories.  But tonally the Kaneshiro storyline is just too light, too goofy;  in theory it probably sounded like it would be a great counterpoint to the hyperviolence of the hitman storyline, but in practice it just gives you whiplash. 

The dual storylines do, however, set off one of the great scenes in Wong's oeuvre, when the woman from the hitman storyline and Kaneshiro's mute finally come together, uniting the two halves of the movie.  They get on his motorcycle and ride off through the same tunnel we've seen Kaneshiro zoom down two or three times already, but this time he emerges from the tunnel, while we hear the woman's voice in voiceover talk about feeling closer to this man than she's felt to anybody for a while, and then the camera's gaze turns up at skyscrapers leaning against a gray dawn sky.  It's the first daylight we've seen in the film, the first semi-open sky, and the sense of release and relief are a powerful payoff.

(As usual, the film is most satisfying from a purely visual standpoint.  The big-city-at-night shots are the equal in atmosphere and beauty of anything ever accomplished.  The combination of omnipresent blackness and lights of sickly intensity and unnatural hue stays with you.)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Nakamura Hikaru: St. Oniisan (2007-present)

A student of mine turned me on to this manga.  I turned my wife onto it, and she turned some friends onto it.  So we have a regular little St. Oniisan fan club here on the banks of the Willamette.  But I never got around to reading the whole series until a couple of weeks ago when I was sick and it was the only thing I felt like reading.

The author is Nakamura Hikaru 中村光.  The title in Japanese is Saint Oniisan 聖☆おにいさん, but it comes with its own author-specified English title, which shows up on the cover:  Saint Young Men.  I actually hate it when manga do this:  the pre-supplied English titles are almost always geared toward the Japanese audience, meaning they work for people with only a vague grasp of English (sometimes they work quite well from that perspective), but they're lousy when read by a native English speaker.  "Saint Young Men" is a lousy title.  Anything would be better.  How about "Holy Bros"?

But that's the only thing about this series that misses.  Everything else is pure comedy gold.

The gimmick is that, shortly after the millennium, Buddha and Jesus decide they need a vacation, so they come to earth - Tokyo, to be exact - and take an apartment together.  If that sounds like a variation on a classic joke set-up - "so Buddha and Jesus walk into a bar, and Buddha says..." - that's because it is.  It's a killer premise, legendary from the start - be honest, you smiled the second you read my explanation of it.  Already you're imagining the possibilities.

And it gets better, because he's imagined Jesus and Buddha not just as fish out of water, divine personages in modern Japan, but freeters - dudes in their early twenties, aimless and underemployed.  There's a wicked subtext about the superfluousness of religion in contemporary Japan, and the sheer numbers of young people falling through the cracks in the system, and oh yeah, the witty observation that Jesus, as traditionally depicted, kinda looks like a modern hipster - skinny, long-haired, with a wispy beard.  Buddha, too - looks surprisingly convincing in a puffy North Face coat.

What's amazing about this series is that it lives up to the premise.  Nakamura's six volumes in, and so far he's managed to keep coming up with new jokes.  A lot of them are of necessity variations on familiar themes, but still he's managed to introduce a new twist every time you think the well's about to go dry.  It helps that he's willing to introduce new characters - we get Jesus's homey Uriel and Buddha's boy Brahman, for example, each one of whom brings in train a whole new set of associations to exploit.

I guess what I'm admiring is the craftsmanship.  Nakamura had an inspired idea, but what's making it work is his mastery of all the comic techniques you could think of.  This series is like a textbook of comedy, everything from complicated visual puns to low comedy, character-driven humor and off-the-wall gags.

What it's missing is a hard edge, but I don't think that's a bad thing.  There's plenty of blasphemy in here, but it's all so good-natured and light-hearted that it's hard to imagine anybody getting too het up about it.  Maybe Rick Santorum, but nobody sane.  In fact, somewhat surprisingly given that it's about young men in their early twenties (well, not really), there's been no mention at all of sex.  Nakamura's keeping it family-friendly.  Which ends up giving the whole series this really benign glow.  I'm not saying it's exactly faith-promoting, but it's not trying to grind any axes either.  It's just fun.  Endlessly fun.

EDITED 11/26/11:  I refer to Nakamura Hikaru as a "he."  In fact Nakamura Hikaru is a "she."  Imagine my embarrassment.  Feel free to doubt anything I write about anything from here on out.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

All the President's Men (1976)

Can't remember why I put All the President's Men (1976) in the Netflix queue, but at the same time I can't figure out why it took me so long to get around to seeing it.  I have a mild fascination with this period of American history, and films about it, on top of which one of my favorite cinematic tropes is the jaded, corroded Washington informant as embodied by Donald Sutherland in JFK and William B. Davis in The X-Files, and of course the granddaddy of them all is Hal Holbrook's Deep Throat

IOW, it's an important film politically, but also a satisfying film artistically.

But I think my favorite scene, at the moment, isn't one of Holbrook's, but Dustin Hoffman's conversation with Robert Walden, playing Donald Segretti, a low-level operative in Nixon's dirty tricks team.  From the Mouth-of-Sauron smile he flashes when he opens the door to the way he sits cross-legged in his lawn chair, Walden gives us a guy who's still half a college kid at heart, a naughty frat boy only partly grown up, just wise enough to know that what he's done is no prank, is serious shit, but just foolish enough to try to convince himself that it was all just fun and games, and just young enough that he probably half believes it.  Panic and cockiness, regret and disbelief and perverted pride in his own badness, all painfully evident.

Who knows if this accurately represents the real-life Segretti, but as a character in a narrative, as a work of art, it rings true:  I've known people like this.  Young Republicans so sure of their own smartness and their savvy about the System, and so confident that they're serving the side that secretly controls everything, that they feel they can get away with anything, but still young enough to worry that maybe they can't, or that they might actually care that you think they're serpents.  They're usually right about the first, and they usually get over the second.  But not always.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ikeido Jun: Shitamachi Rocket (2010)

Ikeido Jun 池井戸潤's the author; Shitamachi Rocket 下町ロケット (literalishly "Downtown Rocket", although Seidensticker is probably right that "Low City" is better) is the title.  It was published in book form in late 2010 (after having been serialized in Shūkan Post 週刊ポスト, a general-interest newsweekly) and won the Naoki Prize in summer 2011.  There was no A-Prize awarded this summer, so I picked this up instead.  Thought I'd have a go at a Naoki Prizewinner for a change.  I've read a few over the years, but accidentally:  despite my interest in the A-Prize, and in popular fiction of some varieties, I've never taken on the Naoki challenge.

This one is a keizai shōsetsu 経済小説, what's usually called in English a "business novel": a good description, if an inexact translation.  I freely admit (this is me, freely admitting it) that I don't know much about this genre.  Think a novel set in the business world, then imagine what genre conventions might arise?  I.e., not a mystery or a thriller or a love story that just happens to involve people with jobs, or a backdrop of high finance, but a novel in which the ups and downs of business deals are meant to provide the main narrative interest?  At least, that's what's happening in this one.

It was interesting to notice my reactions to it, because I went into it having intentionally read nothing about it.  All I knew was the title, and some vague recommendations I'd seen in an ad on a train:  I wasn't expecting it to be a "business novel."  I had no expectations at all, other than (this being ostensibly popular fiction) readability and an interesting plot.  And some kind of excellence somewhere, this being a Naoki winner and all.

So I'm going along, reading through it, and it's following all the ins and outs, ups and downs, of a small-to-midsize manufacturing company in an unfashionable district of Tokyo, and it's going into such details about their deals - a patent-infringement lawsuit, a countersuit, a negotiation over licensing, a subcontracting proposal, all dealing with valves and other engine parts - and there's not much else going on, and I was about halfway through before I remembered, oh yeah, there's a genre for this.  That's when I stopped expecting anything more to happen.  And sure enough, nothing more happened:  we just kept following Tsukuda Manufacturing's efforts to convince the behemoth rocket-engine maker Empire Heavy Industries to let them supply them with a particular valve, when Empire would rather just license the technology.  That's the story:  little company convincing big company that it can do the job.  In the end, the rocket launches with Tsukuda's valves aboard, and everybody's happy.

Knowing nothing about the genre it supposedly so excellently represents, I can't say anything about how it does or doesn't deal with its conventions.  What it felt like to me from the very beginning was a Japanese TV drama series - keeping in mind that, like HBO series or most British series, Japanese dramas begin with an end in mind.  Also keeping in mind that I love a good TV drama, in this case I don't mean it as a compliment.  It felt formulaic - odd how you can feel that even if you've never encountered the formula - and shallow.

Formula:  the Little Company that Could.  Again and again we have scenes and encounters designed to remind us that Tsukuda is an old-fashioned, familiy-oriented, craftsmanship-rich company that's trying to do business in a world increasingly filled with financial and legal predators, and still dominated by snooty Big Firms who disrespect the Little Guy.  And of course the Little Guy comes out on top.  There's even a scene where reps from the Big Firm are inspecting the Little Guy's manufacturing setup, and we learn that Tsukuda Inc. sometimes makes their precision high-tech rocket valves by hand, by feel, rather than with machines calibrated to the micrometer.  (Maybe that's how it really works, but to me the scene was as risible as the one in the third Matrix movie where we see our future tribal people making high-tech machine bombs with mortar and pestle.  The Old Ways...)

Shallowness:  The main character is Tsukuda himself, son of the guy who founded the company, an ex-academic rocket scientist who took over the family business when his dad died.  Also Tsukuda had been associated with a failed rocket launch and hounded out of academia.  So of course he's having to adjust to the business world, and also redeem himself by being associated with a successful rocket launch.  Fine.  He has a family - a mother who was once pretty involved in the business herself, an ex-wife who stayed in academics and divorced him because he didn't (wtf?), and a teenage daughter in a rebellious phase.

Here's what I mean about shallow.  Tsukuda's back story exists entirely so that we can see him discover that there's meaning and satisfaction to be found in running a company well - people always suspect, half accurately, that he secretly misses the hallowed halls of etc., but in reality he's finding that helping his company succeed, his employees take pride in their work, etc., is a good life for him.  Has intrinsic dignity.  And I don't disagree, but jeez, how hackneyed is that?  Especially in a business novel - it's like having your detective in a mystery novel learn by the end that, "gee, I really like solving mysteries."

And the women in his life exist entirely to forward his story.  His mother exists solely to reassure Tsukuda that he's not neglecting his teenage daughter by spending so much time at work.  His ex-wife exists solely to get us to feel sorry for the lonely, misunderstood middle-aged salaryman.  And his daughter exists solely so that at the end she can give him a bouquet and say, "well done, Dad."  Sniffle.

I want to say it's a novel resolutely devoid of subtext, but that's not quite right.  It's just that the subtext is so incredibly (a) obvious and (b) old-fashioned.  In 2011 we're still celebrating the Little Company that Could?  Still celebrating the sad-sack salaryman as the repository of all that's good and holy in modern Japan?  Especially in light of the trenchant critiques of the work world that have appeared in recent A-Prize winners (by women, significantly), this seems either incredibly reactionary or almost poignantly naïve, like the antidote to companies wrecking the economy is just celebrating the idea of a company that doesn't...

On the other hand, it really was readable.  Ikeido's prose is chock-full o' clichés, but at least they make the writing go down easy.  And the plot really did move right along, hitting the right emotional notes at every turn. That bouquet...

I'm not surprised to learn that it actually was made into a TV show.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Asano Inio: Oyasumi Punpun (2007- )

The other Asano Inio title I've read is Oyasumi Punpun おやすみプンプン, which started in 2007 and is still going on, up to 11 volumes at the moment.  I read the first three volumes back when that's all there was, and never went any farther.  Reading Nijigahara makes me want to go back to Punpun to see if it got better.

Here's what I wrote in my pre-blogging days:
Punpun is a fifth-grader in an abusive home.  His father gets sent to prison for beating his mother almost to death, then they get divorced;  his mother’s not too nice either;  her slacker brother Yuichi moves in and sort of takes care of Punpun.  Meanwhile he has a crush on a girl at school, Aiko, who’s also in a scary family—her mother’s a cultist, and drags her around proselyting.  Aiko wants to run away, and makes Punpun promise to come with her, but he has to stand her up when his mother attempts suicide.  Then we skip to two years later, Punpun’s a seventh-grader, Aiko hasn’t talked to him for two years, but he still has a crush on her.  She, however, is going out with the captain of the badminton team, who Punpun is kind of friends with.  Meanwhile, we start to follow Yuichi more, as he meets a cute ex-nurse who likes him;  he starts to tell her about a traumatic event in his past, when a sixteen-year-old hottie from an abusive household made a pass at him…  And that’s where Vol. 3 ends. It’s a well-told story so far, with just the right number of minor characters, and a lot of dysfunctional-family stuff that’s handled with an appropriate dull ache.  By the end of the third volume, though, it’s starting to lose focus—the whole Yuichi bit feels like we’re moving sideways rather than forward.  Maybe Asano doesn’t know where he’s going with this after all.
What makes it special, though, is the art.  Everything is in a super-realistic style except for Punpun, his parents, and his uncle, who are drawn in thick, childish lines, and who in fact don’t look human at all:  they’re drawn like lumpy birds, or stick figures with sheets on and pointy noses.  Like something a kindergartner would draw.  Nobody else interacts with them any differently because of this, so clearly what we’re dealing with here is an expressionistic way of depicting Punpun’s (everybody else has normal names, by the way) sense of alienation.  A striking visual metaphor, and it creates any number of interesting and suggestive situations. There’s a whole overlay of God stuff, too, as Punpun, in his adolescent gawkiness and horniness, thinks he can see God—who looks like a grinning hipster.  We’re not sure yet quite what this means—make of it what we will, I guess—but it’s part of a consistent metaphysical questioning by the characters.  It’s a serious manga, about serious themes.  That’s why it disappointed me when in the third volume it began to feel like the author was just spinning it out, creating saleable variations on the basic situation, rather than leading us through a story he’d planned out.  Abuse and depression are not really the stuff of episodic manga—I want to know he has an idea to resolve things, not necessarily with a happy ending, but with something other than “This week on the Suicidal Depression Show!”

Asano Inio: Nijigahara horogurafu (2006)

The author is Asano Inio 浅野いにお. The title is Nijigahara horografu 虹ヶ原ホログラフ (translatable as Nijigahara holograph, Nijigahara being the name of the town where it's set). It was serialized in the "subculture magazine" (trendspotter central) QuickJapan between 2003 and 2005 before being published in one volume in 2006.

The title is never explained.  It's that kind of book.  If I had to guess I'd say it that (a) the word "holograph" is being used as it sometimes seems to be in Japanese, as a mistake for "hologram", and that (b) Asano's trying to suggest a parallel between the way holograms create the illusion of three dimensions in two, i.e. seem to rotate as your perspective shifts, and his narrative technique here, which involves gradually and piecemeal revealing the identities and relationships between characters, on two timelines ten years apart, so that your understanding and sympathy changes with each chapter.  It's that kind of book.  (I'd also entertain the idea that he's using the word "holograph" according to its proper meaning:  I don't suspect that this manga is autobiographical [I sure hope not], but it may be told, arguably, in the first person, something that isn't always and immediately apparent.  It's that kind of book.)

I've read one other title by Asano (I'll blog it soon), and was impressed by his art and his serious themes, but not by his storytelling.  Here it all comes together.  This is a masterpiece.  As a narrative it's as fragmented, multiperspectival, and time-ruptured a story as any postmodernist could wish for, and yet despite its refusal to resolve itself into any final form, it's curiously satisfying anyway.  It's not about teasing you.  It's about fragmentation as a way to emotional truth, about the possibility that the only possible response to existential horror is myth and wonder.

The plot, as you might guess, can't easily be summarized, partly because you can't be exactly sure what it is.  But it concerns a group of people in the small town of Nijigahara (Rainbow Meadow).  One timeline follows them when they're all in the same 5th-grade class, and another timeline follows them all 11 years later.  We meet some of their parents, teachers, and some of their families.  But the narration is cagey about names - only gradually do we become aware that all the characters we're following in one timeline match up with those in the other timeline, and how.

But by the time the book ends, not only have we made all the connections (we think), but we've also learned how grotesquely they're all linked by horrible things:  suicide, murder, child abuse, rape, stalking, bullying, assault with deadly weapons.  We see a scar, then learn how it was administered, then realize we've been sympathizing with the administerer.

Thematically, then, I guess you could loosely say it's working the rich seam of anxiety about Kids These Days, with their bullying and their tempers and their shut-in tendencies.  But it goes so deep, and is so determined to invest all this melodrama with metaphysical significance, that it hardly reminds you of the typical social-issue story.  As this very perceptive (and much more coherent than mine) pair of blog posts on Manga Bookshelf Transmissions suggests, it's really trying to make its own myth about familial love and redemption, about where it all went wrong and how it might have turned out if it hadn't.

Yeah, I won't say any more than that.

(Hey.  I wasn't the first to blog in English about this.)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Cal Tjader: Talkin' Verve (1996)

Taken from albums Tjader recorded for Verve between 1961 and 1967, produced by Creed Taylor.

Read that Wikipedia article.  What Bert Gambini says about CTI is something:  "It's that temporal stamp that I interpret as an asset, not a liability."  That's something I think I've been trying to get at, without achieving quite that conciseness.  But that's it.  I don't often cringe when I see something that's outré in its epitomization of a past era.  I may laugh, but usually it's a sympathetic laugh, and if you can make me laugh you've mostly won me over already.  In other words, maybe I believe that if it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing.


So anyway, I don't know CTI records yet, and though I lived through that era I was too young to be aware of its jazz, but I think I know what it sounds like, and it makes sense as a natural progression from what Taylor was producing at Verve in the '60s.  Basically he was doing stuff that hit what he considered to be the sweet spot between jazz and pop.  That is, music with the virtues of pop - accessibility, tunefulness, emotional directness - and the instrumental richness of jazz.

If today that sounds like a formula for elevator music, that's because two or more decades of smooth jazz have ruined the concept.  (It may surprise you, if you've read all my Talkin' Verve reviews, to learn that I take a back seat to no one, except maybe Pat Metheny, in my hatred of Kenny G.)  But I don't think the idea of a jazzy pop, or a pop-inflected jazz, is intrinsically a bad one.  It certainly could never replace challenging, avant-garde jazz, but they could coexist.

Anyway, that's kind of what Verve was about from the beginning, and certainly during the '60s under Creed Taylor.  And Cal Tjader, as exemplified on this disc, is a perfect example of just how pleasant a thing that could be.

So there's Latin underpinnings on basically everything here - bossas, afro-cubano, mambos.  It's not hot'n'greasy like Willie Bobo's stuff, though;  it's cool.  Like a caipirinha.  I guess that's inevitable, being as how Cal's instrument is the vibes, but it's not just the sound:  Willie's all about the groove, and the instrumental lines tend to be almost tight enough to qualify for the Commitments' definition of soul vs. jazz.  Cal's records are full of improvising:  they're all about the solo, the instrumental interplay.  This loosens them up, and if it lowers the temperature, it also deepens the groove.  There's some seriously soulful stuff on here.

What, as they say, 's not to love?