Culture Vulture

August 16, 2010

BOOKS

I’ve read two novels this summer that have stuck with me. The Imperfectionists is Tom Rachman’s first novel (Christopher Buckley gave it a rave review on the cover of the NY Times Book Review), about an English-language newspaper published out of Rome. Very interesting structure – every chapter focuses on a different staff member, each portrayed in a somewhat different, idiosyncratic style. In other words, a fantastic series of character studies. Most memorable: the low-level copy editor who’s sent to interview an aged writer to write an advance obituary, and the woman who’s the chief financial officer who encounters on a plane ride a longtime reporter whom she’s fired. And ultimately it’s a paean, and I guess you could say loving obituary, to the newspaper business, rapidly disappearing as the internet steals away everything we used to buy newspapers for.


Then there’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer (above), another fascinating structuralist novel in two parts. The first follows a hack reporter for British art magazines as he drinks and drugs his way through the 2004 Venice Biennale, where he meets a beautiful American woman and has a shipboard romance with her. The second half switches from third to first person and follows the same character on a travel assignment in India, where he ends up going native and losing his mind. Very sophisticated narrative, brilliant passages of writing. I perversely loved the way parallels the author implants in the two sections – the first section climaxes with a scene of heterosexual analingus (who knew heterosexual men could rhapsodize so lovingly about eating ass?) and the pivotal scene in the second part revolves around the narrator getting smacked in the face by the shitty tail of a sacred cow. Now those are scenes you don’t read every day….

MUSIC


I spent a few weeks this summer methodically working my way through the 19-disc boxed set of everything The Beatles every recorded. I have all these records on LP and have had them since they were first released…and yet, Beatlemaniac that I am, I got a lot out of listening to the complete works in order and reading the elaborate liner notes – not so much the original liner notes, which were rarely illuminating, but the historical notes and the technical notes. It’s astonishing to learn that the Beatles’ very first album was recorded in one day, a marathon 13-hour session, on four tracks. And that they recorded everything they were going to record in about seven years. Seven years that changed the world. I was especially intrigued to track how the original versions of these albums as they were released in England differed from the American releases. One of the 19 discs featured tiny 5-to-10 minute mini-documentaries about recording each album – there are little tidbits of information but nothing earth-shattering. A great companion for this boxed set is the soundtrack to Cirque du Soleil’s Love show, which George Martin and his son Gilles completely remixed from scratch, and the documentary film about creating that show. I guess I’m one of those people (like Allan Kozinn of the New York Times) who will never get tired of poring over Beatles minutiae. I notice, too, that my opinion of the songs has really never changed over the years – the songs I love, I’ve always loved. And certain songs I never liked and am quite bored to hear even today (“Hey Jude,” “All You Need Is Love”).


Also, this summer I’ve begun to realize the dream of a lifetime: playing gamelan. I’ve always been intrigued by gamelan, which is a kind of Indonesian orchestra consisting primarily of percussion instruments (metallophones and gongs), especially after seeing the Royal Court Gamelan from Yogyakarta, Java, give three performances at the 1990 Los Angeles Festival (including an all-night wayang kulit, or shadow-puppet play). I got the name of a local gamelan group in New York, and a couple of weeks ago I finally summoned the nerve to show up for one of their rehearsals. The guy leading the rehearsal, a young American music scholar named Jon Rea who’s spent time in Indonesia, immediately sat me down in front of an instrument, showed me how to play it, and I proceeded to play for the next three hours. I’m hooked. I want to play this music for the rest of my life! I’m just learning the basics, and it’s sent me back to listen to the three recording of Javanese court gamelan that Nonesuch Records released in its fantastic world-music series called Explorer. These recordings were made in the field by a guy named Robert Brown, and you can read his descriptions online here. And I encourage you to check out the music! I prefer Javanese gamelan, which is stately and beautiful, to Balinese gamelan, which is often faster and more aggressive – luckily, Kusuma Laras (the group I just joined) plays Javanese gamelan from the town of Solo.

ART


I’m way behind on museum shows, but I did make expeditions recently to the Whitney and to MOMA. At the Whitney my mission was to check out the show of paintings by Charles Burchfield curated by Robert Gober called “Heat Waves in a Swamp.” I’d never heard of Burchfield, who died in 1967, and was most intrigued by his efforts to represent sound in his landscape paintings (birds, insects, telephone wires). Also at the Whitney is a Christian Marclay festival, a riot of performances, installations, and exhibited objects. One curtained-off room is showing a slideshow whose soundtrack consists of two talks given by Marcel Duchamp; another room features a slideshow of onomatopoeic signs, product labels, and clothing; in the main room, one wall is taken up with a chalkboard on which museumgoers are invited to scrawl graffiti, which every so often musicians come along and play as if it were a score. I like how big contemporary art museums are spending a lot of time and energy creating shows that invite the audience to be active and alive. Another show at the Whitney, “30 Performative Actions,” surveys multimedia work that somehow includes actions, gestures, etc. I find grainy videos documenting past performances pretty dull to encounter, but I did enjoy stepping on a painting that Yoko Ono designed to be mounted on the floor for just that purpose.

Ono seems to be having a bit of a vogue right this minute – the atrium at MOMA, which recently drew gigantic crowds to observe Marina Abramovic, is currently given over to her “Scream Piece.” (above) The piece consists of an instruction painted on the wall:  “Scream. 1. against the wind 2. against the wall 3. against the sky.” Nearby is a microphone and speakers. Anyone can walk up to the mic and perform the action, and they do, all day long. It’s kind of hilarious. Two months ago there were signs all over the museum warning visitors that they’re likely to encounter naked people at Marina’s show; now there are signs everyone warning visitors that those blood-curdling shrieks they’re hearing are part of the Yoko Ono art installation. Upstairs at the “Matisse: Radical Invention” show, you can see people flinch every time a scream rings out.

I love Yoko’s conceptual art pieces – they were my first introduction to conceptual art, or performance art. When she first became famous for dating John Lennon, I was intrigued by her and (as a junior in high school) bought her book Grapefruit, which is filled with hilarious poetic instructions. My favorite back then was “Water Piece”:

Steal a moon on the water with a bucket.
Keep stealing until no moon is seen on
The water.

There’s something very sweet about re-encountering this work at MOMA. In the garden is her “Wish Tree,” where every day people are writing down wishing and tying them to the tree.

I was feeling a little tired and cranky walking through the Matisse show so I didn’t take much of it in. The magic of Matisse has never captured me, although in this show I found myself drawn to the most abstract pieces, especially “The Piano Lesson” (above). I was intrigued by some very un-typical drawings in the Picasso show. And there were some very cool things in “Contemporary Art from the Collection,” including a number of pieces by General Idea I’d never seen before (and that the museum is showing for the first time). See my photo diary entry for some things that caught my eye.

MOVIES

Andy’s writing a novel in which there’s a character who takes as her role model Pam Grier, so we decided to Netflix one of her early classics and watched Foxy Brown – a pretty cheesy low-budget blaxploitation flick mostly remarkable for its hilariously garish period costumes. Having just recently seen Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, we could see the lineage, and it was pretty fascinating listening to the DVD commentary by writer-director Jack Hill. Foxy Brown was originally supposed to be a sequel to Coffy, the surprise hit that first put Pam Grier on the map, but at the last minute the studio (AIP) decided sequels were box-office poison and Hill had to rewrite the script hastily giving her a different name.


Andy is a big fan of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six-volume graphic novel Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe, and in anticipation of seeing the movie (which opened this week) I sat down and bombed through all six volumes myself. It’s a fun wacky story about slacker kids in Toronto, just out of schools, working dead-end jobs, playing in crummy bands, having crazy desultory romances. I love the rock and roll references and the easy prevalence of gay characters. The visual style leaves something to be desired – it’s based on manga, so many characters tend to look alike. And like so many serials, the story kinda runs out of steam by Volume 6. Still, I enjoyed tapping into that world and have been looking forward to seeing the movie, especially because the title character is played by the adorable Michael Cera.

Well, it’s pretty amazing. I’d prepped Andy on Michael Cera by showing him Juno. And walking across Central Park on our way to the Lincoln Square cineplex, he gave me a brief dossier on the director Edgar Wright, whose previous movies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz managed to both satirize a film genre (zombie movies and buddy-cop flicks) while at the same time managing to be a satisfying example of it. That precis served me well in watching Scott Pilgrim, which is a crazy mash-up of video game, comic book, and slacker-crowd indie flick. In certain ways it is a critique of Hollywood action movies that shamelessly borrow/steal adrenalin-pumping moves from video games at the expense of traditional narrative. And yet Wright makes the case for the value of cannibalizing (or paying tribute to) these various genres in order to accomplish a certain kind of extremely contemporary storytelling. I’m the last person in the world who would be able to spot every tiny reference to video games (unlike Andy, who started giggling knowingly at the very first frame, the Universal Pictures logo as it might have been rendered in eight-bit sound by an early ’80s game board) but I totally dug the movie for its wild spin through narrative strategies and visual schemes. It reminded me in some ways of Slumdog Millionaire in its sheer drive and freedom. Boiling six volumes of the graphic novel down to one under-two-hour movie allowed Wright and screenwriter Michael Bacall to squeeze out some of the longeurs and generic fight scenes. The music is kinda great — although in the book Sex Bob-omb, the garage band Scott plays with seems to be pretty crummy, in the movie their songs are written by Beck and don’t sound too lame at all. And the song performed by the Clash at Demonhead, a band fronted by Scott’s ex-girlfriend Envy Adams, is terrific — I’d buy their album! Good performances all round — I was especially delighted to see Alison Pill, busy New York stage actor, playing the key role of Kim Pine (drummer for Sex Bob-omb and another ex-girlfriend of Scott’s). The character who ends up seeming disappointingly insubstantial is the female lead, Ramona Flowers (well-played by Mary Catherine Winstead), the girl of Scott’s dreams (literally) and at first all hip and groovy but ultimately kind of a cipher overshadowed by her series of evil-but-charismatic exes, each of whom Scott has to duel in order to win her hand. But maybe that’s the point — sometimes we project onto our beloved qualities that he or she doesn’t actually have, because, you know, it makes for a better story.

2 Responses to “Culture Vulture”

  1. Don Hanover Says:

    There is so much here, Don, I’ll have to come back to it again. I love how easy it is to get caught up by what you are writing about and want to know more because of the enthusiasm you are clearly feeling or not when you’re not, too.
    Thanks, Don

    P.S.
    I pulled my web site down recently when I realized that when I googled myself it came up on the first page and due to it’s very adult content needed a password which I wasn’t able to put on it since the computer I made it on had been erased and the operating system reinstalled. All or nothing, so I had to go with nothing.

  2. Judy Says:

    We’re reading the same books! I liked The Imperfectionists, and I just arrived in Varanasi (via the written page, so I didn’t read all the way to the end of your review), and I am totally super loving this book.
    I was also very impressed by Joshua Ferris’ “Then We Came to The End”. A serious and funny book by a former copywriter.


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