Saturday, March 17, 2012

Jeffrey Deaver: Carte Blanche (2011)

It's not really that I'm on a spy kick lately.  I don't think.  But I guess one thing leads to another...

The Tanuki has actually read all the Ian Fleming Bond novels.  It was before he took up blogging;  he even has considered going back to re-read them so he can blog them, but the trouble is, that would require re-reading them - he didn't find them memorable enough to be able to do them from memory now - and, truth be told, they weren't all that good.  The Tanuki thinks that, like some of the producers of the various filmic Bonds, Ian Fleming didn't always fully understand just what he'd created, and therefore couldn't/didn't realize it as fully as it deserved.

Nevertheless/therefore, the completist in the Tanuki has sometimes thought about reading some of the later takes on Bond, to see if later authors get it righter.  But he never has, until, sick as a motherfucker a few weeks ago, he saw the new Bondsman's new Bond on the rack at the supermarket.  Bought it, read it in one day.  Promptly forgot most of it.  The cold medicine might have had something to do with that.  But not, the Tanuki thinks, much.

The problem with this Bond is the same as the problem with Salt and, worse and more to the point, with the Daniel Craig Bonds.  Nobody's having any fun.  Nobody's having much sex.  Nobody has any glamor. 

We're in a Puritan age, and James Bond may not survive it.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Salt (2010)

And this isn't the philosophical, artistic truth of spy fiction. 

Fair enough:  it doesn't have to be.  Lord knows I like Bond films, and for the most part they're not, either.  I didn't expect it to be when I put it in our Netflix queue (which I did because we watched The Tourist last summer and liked it, although evidently not enough for me to blog it). 

But I did expect it to be, or hope it would be, at least as much of an elegant philosophical and artistic lie about spies as the Bond series is, and as the Bourne series is.  That would be fine.  And it clearly wants to be both.

But it isn't either.  To equal Bourne it would have needed (a) a story that, if not more believable, at least did a better job of distracting you from its unbelievability;  and (b) a story that tapped into current geopolitical and domestic obsessions in a meaningful way.  To equal Bond, at least at his best, it would have needed some sense that the main character takes joy in something else besides kicking ass.

We're in a Puritan age, is the problem.  Sex and intoxication - play - can only be excused if it's sublimated into things like (ginned-up) vengeance and (self-) righteous anger.  It's unhealthy, to say the least.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald: All The Sad Young Men (1926)

This is Fitzgerald's third collection of short stories, and best so far.  The most consistent, that is;  it doesn't have the jazz-age sass that the first two had in places, and it doesn't have anything quite as unforgettable as "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," but there are fewer duds, fewer things that have aged as badly as some of the things in the first two collections.  That's why it's so odd that it's not in print.  Some of the stories (I won't say the best) are in the big Fitzgerald omnibus, but like his others, this really deserves to be read as a conceptual whole.  So, library.

Second things second, then:  why are all the young men sad?  It's the young women's fault.  Best to get this out right up front:  Fitzgerald, I'm learning anew with every book, exemplified some of the worst traits of the America of his day.  Racism, chauvinism, sexism, materialism.  At his best, he can maintain an ironic distance that makes you think he's putting these evils under a microscope.  But at other times they're just there, unexamined.  I suppose this shouldn't surprise me:  what I've always liked most about Gatsby (which is, I guess, always going to my touchstone for Fitzgerald) is just how conflicted the author/narrator is about the superficial hypermaterialism he portrays.  That is, he's both horrified by it and drawn to it.  This ambivalence - this eager ambivalence - has always struck me as honest, and therefore beautiful.  It's one of my core aesthetics.

So why should it be acceptable for him to be that way about one mental vice - materialism - and not others - racism and sexism?  Because that, really, is it.  In The Beautiful and Damned, he seems at first glance to be blaming Anthony's fall on the women in his life, but any careful reading will recall how lazy and privileged Anthony acted before ever meeting Gloria.  Similarly, the expressions of chauvinism in the book are couched in Anthony's own shrivelled Waspish p.o.v., which allows us to read them as part of his moral failure. 

But some of the stories in this book quite nakedly blame women for men's downfall.  "Gretchen's Forty Winks," "The Rich Boy," "The Adjuster," "The Baby Party", "Winter Dreams" - most of the stories, in fact.  The biographical reading would note that these stories are the product of a time of trouble in Fitzgerald's own marriage - which may explain, but hardly excuses, the misogyny. 

So, that's there.  At the same time, these are among Fitzgerald's most psychologically nuanced stories - at least in their portrayal of the male characters.  All those varieties of sadness, of defeat, of failure.  Even a surprisingly sincere and effective look at Catholic guilt and apostasy, in "Absolution."  Of what I've read, this is the short-story collection that comes closest to equaling his novels.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Santana (1969) and associated tracks

It's amazing to me that the first Santana album was recorded mere months after replacing the percussion section.  Marcus Malone and Bob Livingston were out, and Mike Carabello, José Areas, and Mike Shrieve were in, and that made all the difference.  They locked with David Brown and the chassis was fixed:  the ride went from shaky to smooooooth.

And that first album, the first eponymous one.  It hardly even needs to be described, it's so ubiquitous.  It doesn't have quite the amount of ear-candy on it that Abraxas does, but if you've listened to the radio in the last forty-three years you've heard "Evil Ways," and probably "Persuasion."  It's all so familiar that it can be hard to appreciate what a daring and inventive thing it was, this Santana music.

They combined at least two strains of '60s jazz, the kind "played with Verve":  the Jimmy Smith organ-combo sound and the Willie Bobo late-Latin boogaloo sound.  Already that's a wicked blend;  to these they added an Albert King-style coruscating blues guitar, but it was playing trumpet lines as often as not.  All of that was then filtered through the San Francisco ballroom aesthetic:  jam, get weird, let the dancers work it out, amp up the colors in the emotions. 

That it all sounds so simple and obvious on the record is a tribute to how well the band knew their brief, but make no mistake, this is complex music.  The Santana musicians were probably, collectively, the best musicians on the whole scene.  I mean, Gregg Rolie should have been quaking in his boots to go up against Jimmy Smith, but he holds his own.  Mike Shrieve - Mike Shrieve was all of 20 when this record was made, but he sounds like a veteran.  Carabello and Chepito - they're the key to it all.  Most bands that have extra percussionists, they're just color;  these guys were the core.  Without them, there was no Santana.

And Carlos himself?  Well, he just basically invented his own style.  His attack, his phrasing, his very sound, though you could hear his influences, was just wholly and completely his own, and just bigger, more intense, more ballsy than anything else in town.  I really think that in '69 he was the only guitarist who could have stood on the same stage as Jimi and held his head up.  And of course Carlos would only get better from here (just wait 'til we get to 1972).

So, yeah, the first album is essential.  But which version to get?

Like the third album, it's gone through a few permutations.  In 1998 there was a single-disc remaster that added a modicum of extra tracks, from Woodstock.  This has been totally superseded, but that's the last easy decision there is to make.

In 2004 there was a two-disc reissue that looks, at first glance, like the shit.  It has two alternate takes and a studio jam from the album sessions;  it also has the first-draft sessions with the previous lineup (discussed here);  and it also has most - but, crucially, not quite all of the band's performance at Woodstock.  It's missing "Evil Ways," which the liner notes say was not performed at Woodstock, but which actually was.

In 2009, as part of the Woodstock 40th anniversary push, the complete - for reals this time - Woodstock set was released, but only as part of another 2-disc reissue of the debut album, as part of something called The Woodstock Experience.  Great, right?  Except that this edition removes all the other bonus tracks.

What's worth having?  As much Woodstock as possible, for one thing.  It's true, their performance of "Evil Ways" is pretty tentative - it's the weak spot in their set, for sure.  But come on, this is immortal stuff, history in the making - seldom has a single show done so much for an act.

On the other hand, some of the studio outtakes on the 2004 edition are eminently worth hearing.  The "Studio Jam" is my favorite:  it's an up-tempo number with Rolie on acoustic piano, kind of like seven minutes of the middle section of "Treat."  Which itself is a highlight of the album, so.

Basically, you have to get both editions.  But even then you're not, because the best single track associated with Santana '69 is the version of "Soul Sacrifice" that shows up on the original Woodstock album.  Not any of the subsequent box sets, but the original Music From The Original Soundtrack And More triple-lp, or straight CD reissues thereof.  It's edited down - 8 minutes as opposed to 11 in the complete version.  And it's spliced together with rainstorm sounds and the "Crowd Rain Chant".  This is a lie - the rains and Santana fell on different days.  But it's one of those lies that reveals a greater truth.  This is the essence of what Santana were up to in 1969:  earth, sky, water, flesh, sinew, bone, voice, and sound, all the primal elements in a tribal moment of celebratory, worshipful frenzy that somehow resolves itself into music.  It's this version of "Soul Sacrifice" that is the cornerstone of even the most modest Santana collection.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Saw this last night.  That it was playing in our area's one and only art house rather than one of the 40-odd screens of multiplexity we have nearby is an indictment of this country in this century:  there's nothing particularly artsy, off-putting, or weird about this movie.  It's just made for grown-ups.  And it's not in 3-fucking-D.

What it is, is a thoughtful, subtextful, perfectly poised film that thinks about the Cold War, about ideologies and aesthetics, about history and politics, and about personality repression.  Okay, so I've never read any John LeCarré, and I never saw the miniseries of this, so:  this is all I know about it.  But it does a better job than anything else I've seen or read of capturing the paranoia, the cynicism, the soul-twisting compromises, of the intelligence racket, and by extension of the whole Cold War era.  If you lived through it in America (and I came up during it), you know that.

This is what I mean.  Walking out of the theater, Mrs. Sgt. T pointed out to me that you can read the final scene, Smiley alone in the soundproof room, triumphant, as meaning that he was the mole all along.  Like I say, I've never read this;  I gather that might be heresy from a standpoint of the books.  But she's right:  this movie can be read that way.  Everything makes just as much sense if you assume Smiley is the mole as it does if you assume he isn't.  And that's the emotional, philosophical, artistic truth of spy fiction.

And yes, Gary Oldman's performance is amazing.