Monday, August 23, 2004

Tolstoy in a Tent

I'm taking the family camping in Quebec this next week, so this blog will remain untouched until we return.

In the meantime, I've received several comments from readers who have taken me to task for this posting, claiming I've not fully appreciated the nature of good concerts. I gently point out that my subject matter here is the monster we call "ROCK" (or "RAWK!", etc.). I've certainly experienced some incredible concert performances in my day, most of them slightly-to-entirely out of the "ROCK" genre. My most recent of these was just the other weekend, when The Missus & I joined friends to witness the concert dynamo, Don Ross. His albums are certainly noteworthy, but seeing the man in action is downright inspiring. Sitting in his delightful cafe, in the company of friends, all sipping Merlot, being pummeled by the riptide ferocity of his talent, I started entertaining thoughts like, "I won't just blog - I'll strive to be the Tolstoy of Blogging!"

But this next week, Whisky Tolstoy will be pitching a tent in the Gatineaus, absorbing a different elemental inspiration.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Wieseltier on Milosz

The New Republic has republished Leon Wieseltier's 1983 review of Czeslaw Milosz's The Witness of Poetry, here.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Czeslaw Milosz, 1911 - 2004

Let X make a statement
Let breath pass through those cracked lips
That man was my hero
And now that word has been taken from us

If only I had a firmer handle on the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, I'd be quoting him today. Unfortunately my brain is still mired in the pre-Cambrian silt of pop culture, taking tentative gasps of the harsh and heady air of "Culture-with-a-K", so it was the Talking Heads who came to mind when I first heard that Milosz passed away on Saturday. But that man was my hero. (Links thanks to ALD).

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Just Rock On By, Part Deux

Last Friday, The Wife and I took our kids down to Ontario Place, a typical summer destination for our family. Every year I'm struck by how expensive admission is, and how shabby the park is getting. The faithful consumer in me naively hopes my hard-earned bucks are contributing to the park's improvement, while evidence to the contrary keeps mounting. To be fair, the place was at its peak during the end of the Trudeau era, when there was lots of government money for everybody. I should also report that the Prajer girls had a truly swell time in the recently added "Go Zone" at the far end of the park.

Still, the place is a little creepy. It's noisy in an impersonal, industrial way. Where other parks pipe in canned "Dancing In The Streets" type music, this one lets the atmosphere speak for itself. For the last few years, the first thing visitors saw was a motor-boat speedway attraction. Visitors could board a well-padded, single-seat boat powered by a noisy, noxious two-stroke engine, and race with fellow novices. This attraction ran beneath the bridge that allowed you entrance to the park, forcing visitors to walk through an athsma-inducing cloud of blue exhaust. Add to that go-carts, and a helicopter that circles the park every seven minutes, and you get a lot of gasoline-powered noise. At present only the helicopter is still employed, but combine its police-state rhythms with the deep-throated burble from the marina, and you still feel like the park is located on the meridian between two freeways.

Thankfully, there are other attractions to this park. The aforementioned "Go Zone" is a fabulous treat for kids under 12. There are a number of decent thrill rides, a reasonable water park, and of course the Molson Amphitheatre, which plays host to various rock acts of the day.

We went with my sister and her boyfriend, and mostly followed the kids around from attraction to attraction. Mid-way through the afternoon, we could hear the sound check being performed in the MA. To a borderline Boomer/Gen Xer, the bass riff was unmistakeable. The boyfriend and I looked at each other and said, "That sounds like Love Me Two Times!"

Sure enough, the evening's attraction turned out to be The Doors of the 21st Century (as the helicopter took another low throp-thropping swing around the park, The Wife quipped, "They ought to begin the concert with The End."). While lining up for a plate of fries, I heard the guy ahead of me, well within the Boomer demographic, try to engage the kid in the booth.

Guy: "So The Doors are playing tonight, huh?"
Kid: shrugs.
Guy: "They've got that guy from The Cult singing for them, that nut-job - what's his name?"
Kid: shrugs. looks at Guy as if to say, "You would know that better than I." End of conversation.

There was a great deal to that conversation that annoyed me, the cross-generational attempt at "Cool Cache" being one aspect. The kid's manners could use a little polishing, but the Guy's efforts needed a major overhaul. If you really want to impress a kid, any kid, don't start from a position of authority ("I know who The Doors are, and I, like you, think this concert is lame"). Instead, get the kid to do all the talking ("So: has there been anything worth seeing at the MA this year?").

It also bugged me to hear Ian Astbury called "a nut-job." I suspect it's a verifiable fact, but I also suspect Astbury is a slightly lesser nut-job than Jim Morrison was. And, in either case, it doesn't matter to the music. There's still something rather touching, I think, about the singer of an established band from the 80s/90s, agreeing to pick up the mic that once belonged to his late hero. Whether you call it homage or fromage, it still amounts to a sweet gesture.

We were pulling out of the park just as the fans were trickling in. They were pretty much what you'd expect: lots of paunchy, hovering-around-the-50-mark guys in Starburst tie-dyed shirts; women of roughly the same age, with very long hair; bikers and biker-chicks; emaciated, dark-eyed Morrisonites in their 20s. The last group surprised me - I was sure Oliver Stone had decimated the final shreds of Morrison's appeal with his self-regarding hagiography. With the exception of these young turks, everyone had a pleasant look of cheerful anticipation.

I thought it was all delightful. People showed up just to have a gas, something that would have driven the Lizard King absolutely batty. Still, I can't help looking at a survivor like Lou Reed and wonder: if Morrison had somehow found the will to clean up, might he have gone on to compose an ode to ice cream?

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Soul of a Mann

I never saw a single episode of Michael Mann's recent Los Angeles-based TV series, Robbery Homicide Division. Apparently no-one else did, either: it couldn’t even finish its first season. Which is a shame, because L.A. seems to bring out the best in Mann.

His movies are remembered for their visual flair, which he developed episode by episode in Miami Vice. But an exercise in visual style can only generate so much passion, in the viewer and in the purveyor, and Mann's focus continually penetrates the surface of his shiny vehicles. From Manhunter, to The Last of the Mohicans, to the flashily misconceived Ali, Mann has probed the issue of loyalty with depth and subtlety. People are always sacrificing some aspect of their deepest being to gain something, be it love, money, their dreams. What, Mann keeps asking, are they losing, and what are they gaining?

This is the underlying concern of all Michael Mann's movies, but his L.A. thrillers, Heat and now Collateral, could almost pass for extended Socratic dialogues. Dressed in designer clothes you can't afford. In a nightclub you'll never get access to. Playing cool music you wish you'd discovered. And shooting these really cool guns. In other words, ripping entertainment with value.

Heat was a dynamic exploration of the conflict between Catholic and Protestant, setting up Robert DeNiro as an outlaw whose devotion to Catholic values of family, fairness, and compromise are tested to the point of ruination by the Protestant ("Method-ist") Al Pacino. Pacino's cop willingly sacrifices everything - family, compassion, love - to his dogmatic creed. When Pacino finally bags DeNiro, we get the sense that without villains, this man has nothing, either inside himself or outside. Heat has a place in my top ten favorites, and would probably have garnered Mann the same respect Scorsese gets out of critical habit, had Mann only lingered more operatically on his characters’ anguish.

Mann’s seemingly unforgivable impulse is to entertain. Collateral doesn't dig quite as deeply as Heat, but it has an unmistakable intelligence, and is every bit as compelling to watch. It should be hailed as this summer's best thriller.

Let's get Tom Cruise out of the way, first: much has been made of his playing the bad guy for a change, as if this were his riskiest venture to date. Nothing could be further from the truth; despite his stature, Cruise is a commanding figure who’s done his best work bringing a sympathetic undercurrent to characters with a natural preening arrogance.

Also: wears sunglasses well.
The real discovery in this movie is Jamie Foxx, a towering, muscular actor who possesses an easy charm. Foxx is required to work against type, and portray a gentle character, a taxi-driver named Max, who is surely the antithesis of Foxx, Cruise, Mann and no doubt every male in Hollywood: a quiet and meticulous worker, compulsively adverse to the slightest risk. The movie opens with Max driving a gorgeous attorney (Jada Pinkett Smith) downtown. He converses with her, and gradually, cautiously charms her. The sexual chemistry between the two becomes unmistakable, but the ride concludes with Max incapable of taking the logical next step of proposing another meeting – she has to return to the cab and offer him her business card. When pressed, Max admits he has dreams that are larger than the cab he’s driving. At this point, anyone who’s taken a taxi in L.A. expects the obvious - he’s written a movie, he takes acting classes – but, no: Max dreams of establishing his own taxi service to a tourist locale. This man does not belong in Hollywood.

Of course, his next rider is Mr. Hollywood himself, an immaculately dressed and coifed killer named Vincent (Cruise). Spouting nonsensical, self-regarding jargon, Vincent is a nihilistic tour-de-force, commanding and even charming a loyalty from Max that Max knows will not be reciprocated at the end of the ride. Vincent asks Max if he likes Jazz. Of course Max prefers classical music, not because of its subtlety, grandeur or depth of emotion, but because of its predictability. Vincent is Jazz. His improvisation is breathtaking; his execution(s), brilliant. For much of the movie we’re transfixed and thrilled as Vincent dispatches various nasty-looking, anonymous victims. It’s when he goes to work on the people we know that things get uncomfortable.

As the movie progresses toward its inevitable confrontation, Max gradually, painfully learns how to merge risk-taking with some cautious improvisation of his own – surely a metaphor for those of us trying to navigate a post-Enron work environment, one which seems geared to reward the treacherous and treasonous. Vincent’s final rallying cry is, “I do this for a living!” – a creed that has no value outside of the ironic. It’s the diminutive Max who locates what’s worth living, and dying, for.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Might We Re-Direct Your Attention From Nicholson Baker To ... Ladies And Gentlemen, Mr. Leon Wieseltier!

You could say that Nicholson Baker, the only fiction writer I know of who’s had a novel sent up on Saturday Night Live, has a knack for attracting the spotlight, but you'd be doing "understatement" a disservice. Still, there aren't many avenues left for novelists seeking fame and fortune, and even controversy is an increasingly fickle route - just ask Brett Easton Ellis. But where Ellis's humorless, workmanlike prose fails to lift his subject from the gutter, Baker's prosaic mastery does just the opposite. Baker might ham-fistedly seize the spotlight with his subject matter, like a kid taking a barrel over Niagara Falls, but he finesses it with spectacular prose that defies gravity. He doesn't just survive the plunge; he swims back to the top and takes a bow.

I haven't yet read his latest novel, Checkpoint, but here's another understatement: the premise of listening to a protagonist justify and outline his plot to assassinate George W. Bush makes me a little uneasy. Is this the level to which the interaction of politics and literature has descended? Thankfully, we have Leon Wieseltier's review of the book, and the controversy, for The New York Times Book Review. Registered users of the NYT website can read it here. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

A Few Short Reviews

Movies

Spider-Man 2
Taking The Wife out to the movies is a rare experience, given the age of our children and our "remote country lifestyle," so when we do make a night of it, we work hard to agree on the movie. We figured we had one shot at a summer movie on the big screen, and threw our lot in with Spidey.

It was a good choice. Thrills, chills, suspense and spectacle - the best of the superhero sequels even managed to bring a tear to my eye during its more poignant moments. Director Sam Raimi devotes the majority of the movie to the travails of Spider-Man's alter-ego, Peter Parker. Thanks to Toby McGuire's comic timing and well-honed moony-eyed shtick, it quickly becomes clear why Spider-Man is the most compelling superhero from an extremely large herd: Parker is a genuinely sympathetic shmuck, whose insecure personality never entirely disappears when he muscles up and puts on the union suit. Contrast this with the Batman/Bruce Wayne split, or Superman/Clark Kent: Batman's utility belt has more personality than Bruce Wayne, while the illegal Alien Kent is more compelling than the invincible Superman. Marvel Comics reconfigured the equation, got it right, and set it out in bold type on the cover of every issue: "Peter Parker Is: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN." Amen to that.

Videos
The Station Agent is not to be missed: a poignant reminder that sometimes it's the annoying people in your life who keep you sane. Speaking of which...

Books
The Princess & The Whiskheads: A Fable by Russell Smith. What are we to do with this Smith guy? On the one hand, his day-gig with The Globe & Mail sets him up as the secular fool - delivering stentorian proclamations to his fellow victims of fashion; earnestly treading water in the hip-chic vortexes of Toronto the Good, then toweling off to deliver the temperature of the water to The Nation At Large. On the other hand, this callow knob furrows into the corner booth of an Italian café the rest of us haven't yet discovered, unfolds his iMac and bangs out peerless, spot-on fiction. How Insensitive, Noise, and Young Men are all solid, good reads, which find Russell impressively channeling different muses, from Waugh to Cheever, while adding a soupcon of personality that leaves you wondering if you aren't finally seeing a bit of the Real Smith at last.

But on the other hand again, he writes and publishes a weird and wankerish little book like TP&TW. For the first 50 pages, the set-up is lushly surreal, not unlike Jeffrey Ford's divine Dali-of-the-Pulps, The Physiognomy. Then things quickly get didactic, as The Moral Of The Story is delivered with heavy-handed earnestness and aristocratic good will. Smith can still be forgiven, for three reasons: the hardcover is a cheap find in most remainder bins, the book is mercifully short, and two of the seven woodcuts by Wesley W. Bates have a pleasant, shadowy eroticism. A thoughtless consumer could almost be excused for razoring out and framing these exceptions, but you won't catch me advocating such a barbaric practice.

A House On The River, by Nessa Rapoport. This is a terrific little memoir. Rapoport is a New Yorker, 40, with child, taking a houseboat with other family members to a Canadian locale that triggers vivid childhood memories. She measures the distance between her adolescent yearnings and the adult reality, and cautiously assesses the journey ahead, including mortality - her own, and that of loved ones. A beguiling and poignant read, perfect for the closing days of summer.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The Spiritual Health of Nation States

When they said, "repent"
I wonder what they meant

The Future, Leonard Cohen


I am indebted to the Chronicle of Higher Education and its sister site, Arts & Letters Daily, for articulating and exploring Evolutionary-Biology. Evo-bio attempts to account for concepts like aesthetics, spirituality and religion, are (at least at these sites) thoughtful and precise, debatable and provocative. Articles like this one are typical, giving a biological and psychological rationale for the development of religion, and accounting for characteristic similarities in the different world religions. And even though I am existentially at odds with my evo-bio contemporaries, I type the following, in the hope that, from the shallows of my naiveté and superstition, I can perhaps return the favor of illumination and encouragement in some small way.

I am a North American mortal: the recent alerts add to my already anxious state, and the noxious quality of global chatter does little to soothe me. The other weekend, our family met with some friends from Hong Kong, who were cottaging at Lake Huron. Over the prototypical cottage meal of burgers and beer, we were told of how, following 9/11, Chinese Internet chat-rooms were filled with anti-American rhetoric. The Chinese government finally shut down these sites, thinking censorship was the fastest way to deal with the scourge of hatred toward its largest trade partner. Unfortunately the bile rose elsewhere - i.e., the street - so the sites were back up within a week. My friend said the next step the Chinese government took was, essentially, a propaganda blitz attempting to evoke empathy for the stricken Americans. Chinese citizens, who had for generations been subjected to "Yankee Running Dog" rhetoric, reacted with understandable surprise and confusion. My friend couldn't comment on the effectiveness of the blitz, but he was quick to say that Chinese ideas involving nation states are of necessity in constant flux.

Shortly after that conversation, I read this piece by Sasha Abramsky, who notes that anti-Americanism is now commonly expressed among the Western World's literati, in terms that are emotionally charged and inflammatory, if not always articulate or rational. Abramsky laments the declining global currency of the "idea" of America; an idea that almost singularly crossed cultures and inspired entire generations.

It seems to me, after reading Abramsky, that this "Ideal America" is a concept in line with religious concepts, particularly as evo-bio types parse them. Most secular citizens are committed to some idea larger than the individual. In the case of the Ideal America, the individual is duly required to pony up a degree of faith, sacrifice, legal observance and allegiance. To call this Ideal America a god would legitimately raise the hackles of monotheists (and I don't make the analogy to be scandalous), but a wholly secular citizen might, after some qualification, shrug and concur.

Journalist Michael Kelly once clipped that Americans had lost sight of something every 12 year old in Bosnia knows: that there are some things worth killing and dying for. Abramsky despairs, as do I, at witnessing a growing tide of people who have taken Kelly's sentiment to heart, and are committed to killing and dying in an effort to bring down both the reality and the idea of America. But if the idea of America is to regain its moral value, I think it could benefit from grafting a few other religious commitments: namely, repentance and atonement.

At this point, even I, the descendent of a long line of pulpit-pounders, involuntarily shudder. And who wouldn't cringe at pulling these angry words out of the carnie revival tent? "Repent" has been recklessly flung about, its currency cheaply spent among a shifting populace of superficial pietists who are happiest when they're miserable. But I think there is still some coin to be found here; anyone who has invested seriously in a marriage could frankly admit that words like repentance and atonement, however archaic, still have heft and value. Adamant insistence on one's own rectitude is often the short path to disaster. Humility is still the virtue in shortest supply, not only in myself and others, but also in our nation states.

In my childhood, the common environment for this sort of soul-seeking required "every eye closed, every head bowed." The reality, at least with me, was every hackle raised, every mandible clenched. So let's take a deep breath, step back from the emotional tangle of our current environment, and look at an incident that still manages to achieve some consensus: Vietnam. If the majority of Americans can concede that Vietnam was, to put it gently, "regrettable," can our nation state not muster up the moral courage to seek some measure of atonement with the Vietnamese? Starting with re-opened trade relations seems like a win-win no-brainer - a small step, that I would hope might lead to something more significant: say, committing ourselves and our resources to addressing the effects of chemical and biological warfare on succeeding generations of Vietnamese children. As a republic, we decry any ideology or system that willfully inflicts harm on innocents - any step we take to redress our own history of these offences would be significant.

In my day I've eaten some crow - I expect to eat more once this gets posted. It's not pleasant, but it's been good for me, so I would, perhaps foolishly, encourage our nation, the "real" America, to strive for the Ideal America: to humbly seek atonement. This would surely restore some global currency to the Ideal America. It might even buy the real America a few cautious friends, and some much needed time.