Wednesday, August 31, 2005

So long as I'm talking about my wife...

There aren't many performers/celebrities I've ever been smitten with, but Michelle Shocked is one who qualifies. My condition first took hold of me in '86, when I watched some BBC interview footage with this shrimpy punk-folk kid in a field (this was on Canada's The New Music, the superior pre-cursor to Much Music, the Canadian "answer" to MTV). She had undeniable spirit, and a low Texan drawl which offset the high sweet tone of her singing. I kept an eye out for her in the more off-beat record stores of Winnipeg, and finally found, and purchased, a copy of the infamous Texas Campfire Tapes.

That little record set something of a studio precedent for her. The sound quality was crummy - if 18-wheelers roaring through the middle of a song isn't bad enough, the tape is recorded at a speed that shoves it all up a tone or two into the stratosphere. There was no denying this kid had the goods. The trouble was, this production only kinda-sorta delivered them.

And so it was with the next few discs. Her talent was frequently a hinderance as well: she'd absorbed way too many musical genres to stick with a single one for a whole 40 minutes, and her early albums would jump from sound to sound without much (or any) transition between. Of the early discs, the one I still like best is Captain Swing. It also has a nifty anarchist aesthetic that appealed to me at the time. The fall she came through Toronto, downtown telephone poles and construction boardwalks were papered over with CS posters, one of which I peeled and stuck to the wall of my basement hovel, the better to enjoy Shocked's sassy wink.

The other discs are played rarely, if at all. I lost track of her where-and-what-abouts until just the other day, when I picked up a copy of Paste magazine (to see if there was anything by Phil in there). Turns out Ms. Shocked has recently divorced her alcoholic husband, and, in one of those post-divorce fits of energy, turned out not just one but three new albums in one go.

This level of productivity usually inclines me toward caution. I would likely have risked money on Don't Ask, Don't Tell - "a rock album, full of guitar and guts" - then held off on the others until a couple of spins had assured me of overall quality. This is one option; another is to go for the smashing value package (she's called it Threesome, which no doubt adds some unwanted salt to the ex's margaritas).

I've finally given all three a spin, and whaddaya know: I loves 'em all! This is exactly the studio product I've been waiting for. Mexican Standoff is a trip, Don't Ask Don't Tell is almost too upbeat and deep-down groovin' to be a divorce album, and Got No Strings...

I could see where the last item might be a stretch for some listeners, because it's a collection of lovingly rendered Disney "classics" - Wish Upon A Star, Spoonful of Sugar, Bare Necessities etc. Friends and family members who have tired from my repeated spins of Stay Awake, however, realize just how deeply this effort appeals to me. (digression: If you want "quirky" - or "uneven" - then Stay Awake is it. It served to introduce me to some terrific talent, though: NRBQ, Syd Straw, Bill Frisell and Ken Nordine were all delivered to my ears for the first time via SA.) I still recommend Threesome, because even if GNS doesn't turn your crank (and it just might) the package price is a terrific deal.

As for my wife, my oldest daughter duly noted that Ms. Shocked bears a passing (if somewhat wonky) physical resemblance to my gorgeous beloved. And if the music is any indication, I think there's a similarity of spirit as well.

(I can't seem to find the review in question, but Paste has a Michelle Shocked feature story here.)

My wife's job

Two months ago my wife was in India, checking in on projects her organization provides funding and support for. She was also in Tsunami country; at some point (post-Katrina) I'll pass along a couple of stories she came home with.

Journalist Lorna Dueck tagged along for part of this journey, and wrote a Globe & Mail column she dubbed A war for the soul of India's hospitals. She writes, "If we help save the dying missionary hospitals of the Third World, we'll also learn much about the pitfalls of for-profit health care."

The piece is provocative and compassionate. I think it gives the reader some workable ideas about what can be done to make the world a better place. It also gives the reader an idea of what my wife's job is about.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Fifteen Fave American Films From the Past Seven Years

Terry Teachout has an intriguing list, which seems to be in "article-steeping" mode. Here are his fifteen (correction: 20 runners-up - thanks, FCB):

About Schmidt(!)
Being John Malkovich
The Cooler(!)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind(!)
Garden State
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou(x)
Lilo & Stitch(!)
The Limey(!)
Lovely and Amazing(x)
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World(!)
Me and You and Everyone We Know(x)
The Secret Lives of Dentists(x)
Sunshine State
The Tao of Steve
The Whole Nine Yards(x)
Three Kings

"x" means, "I haven't seen this." "!" means, "Amen, brother!" I'm tempted to comment on all the ones I've seen, but I don't have the time. Instead, I'll focus on two I think are particularly noteworthy, and add a third title no-one seems to have seen.

1. Lilo & Stitch. This title keeps making appearances on this blog, for a couple of reasons: 1) my girls love it, 2) I love it even more than they do. This title alone should have prompted Disney to keep investing in cel-animation - or at the very least, in compassionate story-telling that bucks against the trends.

The overarching trend in North American children's entertainment is Smart-Ass Kids With Dumb-Ass Parents. It's entirely loathsome, and suggests at least two depressing undercurrents: the adults producing this crap feel terrific guilt over the rearing of their children; these same adults are frightened of the future and are hoping desperately that their children will bail them out of the messes they've created.

The Lilo character plays off this trend with some intelligence and insight. She's got attitude and smarts to spare, but the movie makes it clear that this is a line of defence she's adopted to deal with the immeasurable grief of losing both her parents. When the movie opens, this defence is developing fissures that are certain to lead to disaster, and the rest of the movie is a race against time and against her desperate, self-defeating impulses. This is a lovely, absorbing, funny and moving film.

2. The Cooler. I loved this film, and if you can buy into the early premise that there is actually something about the William H. Macy character that brings bad luck to the casino tables, then I expect you will love it, too.

3. If you wanted to like The Cooler, but hesitated to "buy in", you should go out and rent Diamond Men. I can't think of another movie from the last seven years that steadily builds effective drama out of a man's line of work - in this case, a travelling diamond vendor. In fact, prior to Diamond Men, the most recent example to come to mind is Save The Tiger, from 1973. If there's another example or two that fits between the extremes of this time-frame, let me know.

Robert Forster did this movie shortly after what should have been another Tarantino "breakout" role (a la John Travolta) in Jackie Brown. Forster was justly praised for his nuanced performance in Jackie Brown, and did what he could to ride that wave with his follow-up as "Eddie" in Diamond Men. Eddie is a plum role for this man, and Forster patiently paints the picture of a man who has learned the values of caution, fidelity, and respect for others. In short, Eddie possesses actual wisdom, and needs to impart a great deal of it to his new upstart partner. As life throws a few nasty curves his way, Eddie learns to cautiously indulge in a little risk-taking with love and with life.

Diamond Men, like Save The Tiger before it, has its imperfections. But like Save The Tiger its approach to real people and real work is so articulate and rare, it earns and rewards our attention with a deep emotional resonance.

Forster gives his thoughts on Diamond Men here.

Friday, August 26, 2005

California & Gramsci

Twenty years ago, I went with a friend back to our former hometown, to see if we could reconnect with a cobber we hadn't seen in a while. Our friend wasn't home, but his parents invited us to stay for supper, so we helped set the table, then pulled up chairs and sat down.

Our friend's younger brother and a classmate of his joined us. These guys had just graduated from high school. My friend and I were demonstrably wet-behind-the-ears, but these guys were still shedding afterbirth. The classmate was slight, blonde, and wildly in love with the sound of his own voice. We heard of his motorcycle exploits (no small-town 18-year-old should own a "sport" bike with 1100 ccs of motor. Nothing good can come of it), California, teachers they'd played pranks on, California, the loser girls in this town, how great California was, California beach culture, the girls, how "we gotta move to California, man!"...

I finally exploded. "Have you even been to California? Los Angeles? Venice Beach? Hollywood? It's a parking lot, 500 miles of ashpalt in any direction - except West, where you'll find the toilet you fondly refer to as 'The Surf'!"

This may have been peppered with a few expletives.

My poor hosts. Those poor kids! These unsuspecting entertainers didn't realize I'd just come back from a motorcycle trip, and that California hadn't exactly been the "highlight" (Montana was, actually - great state for bikes). The irony was, prior to the trip California had the precisely adolescent sheen my scrawny tormentor was so taken with. My experience quickly disabused me of all that. It hadn't been so much the scary, nihilistic thrills of Welcome to the Jungle as it had been the deep-seeded weariness and boredom of Ecclesiastes.

My tormentor stretched languidly, and yawned. In the middle of this he sang, "So was that where you went? Los Angeles, Venice Beach, Hollywood?" I grit my teeth, nodded. My tormentor slumped back over the table, and fiddled with his food. "You just went to the wrong places," he said. "You gotta go further south, where I like to go: Malibu, San Diego...."

Dear God, twenty years later I still want to grab this punk by the ears and give his head a shake - even though I've reached the same conclusion: I went to the wrong places. My anger, of course, is directed at the presentation (a cockiness corn-fed by his parents' money), not the proposal (there are wonderful experiences unique to California). Remove the cockiness, and I'm left with a proposition that bewilders me: what takes me so long to find the "fun" in pretty much any given environment?

I fastened myself to Gramsci's maxim the first time I heard it (in an interview with Paul Auster): Optimism of the spirit; pessimism of the intellect. I suspect, however, I let the pessimism of my "intellect" bleed too frequently into my spirit - hardly the ideal condition for appreciating the finer qualities of California.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Moody, meet Kelly

Rick Moody - the man is crazy, risky, erratic, frequently maddening, occasionally persuasive... It's taken me some time, but I'm glad he's on the scene. I think The Ice Storm is terrific, The Black Veil, not so much (though I was somewhat disturbed to see an honest-to-God "Handkerchief Moody" walking the streets of Kensington Market last Saturday), and Purple America whipsaws from one extreme to the other. His recent meditation in The Believer on The Danielson Famille - a group whose music I've never heard, and don't ever want to hear - was one of those rare, truly brilliant bits of writing about music.

But yes, he is an acquired taste. Like the rest of his friends in The Polysyllabic Spree, he's prone to frequent acts of published loopiness, and his forthcoming novel, The Diviners (no relation to the Canadian "classic" of the same name) looks to be no exception to this habit. This one-ring circus of his is further enlivened, it seems, by a last-minute change-of-heart regarding the cover art:

As I consider the above artwork (click on it to enlarge, if you must), I have to wonder if the real trouble is he didn't go far enough. Dude, if you've committed yourself to phallocentric kitsch, don't just stop with a muscular he-man holding up a womb-like "dowsing rod" while propping his foot next to an eruption: include a nubile woman (or two) gripping his legs in servile gratitude.

If the pre-pub info is accurate, it looks like Moody's choice of cover reflects ironically on his story, which (it seems) plays with the sort of masculine expectations that kids like Moody and I had while growing up in the 70s. If that is the case, he should have gone directly to graphic artist Ken Kelly, and respectfully asked him for one of his best works.

During a recent visit to Bakka Books, Toronto's pre-eminent sci-fi bookstore, I perused the covers of TOR's latest Conan spin-offs. The tradition of hyper-masculine kitsch continues, but it doesn't seem as impassioned as the stuff I was exposed to as a kid. Frank Frazetta was the artist I associated with this era, so when I returned to the weathered pulp fiction of my youth, I was surprised to see that many of the covers I remembered best were actually by Kelly.

Kelly's best stuff has a dark heat to it that is muscular, violent and not a little horny. His early "Conan" work was not the only surprise - he also did two album covers for KISS that I'd previously attributed to Boris Vallejo (who I never much liked - too cold and inert), as well as a host of "Vampirella" covers. If you ever wonder why my generation of "guys" is so confused about its masculinity, you need only look at these pages (and possibly some divorce stats) for an explanation. These pages give a succinct and single-handed account for Arnold's rise to power, our religious devotion to the gym, and the increasing trend of straight men needlessly swathing tracts of body hair from their person.

These images are risible, dumb, exploitative ... fun!(?) But if you're still intent on subverting that stuff, then perhaps Moody is your man.

Moody, meet Kelly - Kelly, meet Moody.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Guardian of Another's Faith: Father Joe by Tony Hendra, Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey

"I didn't know you were Mennonite," said my friend. He poured us both a hefty shot of Talisker, handed me a glass, and continued. "I understand the Protestant impulse, I really do. The search for, the belief in, some ideal community of believers. But ultimately the Catholic Church is there to come back to, with all its difficulties and compromises. It offers something approaching true mercy, because it's not going anywhere. Protestants don't commit themselves that way. If circumstances don't meet with their shifting standards, they leave and form a new community."

Feh - Catholics. You'd think the Reformation was the only time they'd been blindsided.

We bantered some more, before moving on to more pressing issues (like Joey Ramone's recent passing, and Angus Young's smashing new haircut). His critical barb, such as it was, was rather facile and common, but still had some bite to it. As I considered the merits of Catholicism versus the demerits of the endlessly fracturing Protestants, I pondered anew just what it was that compelled me to still call myself Mennonite. It basically boiled down to the deep and lasting impression made on me by one or two truly remarkable people during my youth. My first encounter with mensch (women qualify for this, too) was in the Mennonite faith apparatus. They were transformed within this apparatus; perhaps there was similar potential to be found for me.

I expect that's the way it is for most people. The deep issues of our formative beliefs aren't so easily set by clever sophistry or our own brilliant reasoning, but by the examples set by people who are undeniably mensch.

So it is with Tony Hendra, in Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul. Hendra, best-known to my generation as Spinal Tap's long-suffering manager Ian Faith, gives a moving account of a really, really good guy who meets him at a crucial juncture of adolescence (young Tony's encounter with an almost comically conflicted "Mrs. Robinson"), and serves as a quiet and persistent icon, pointing to holiness. That such a person exists within the Catholic apparatus speaks volumes - at least, it does to Hendra.

Obviously, Hendra's memoir, while easily digested, wasn't enough to compel me to forsake my Protestant apparatus. I enjoyed the encounters with Father Joe; the encounters with Hendra, on the other hand, were frequently abrasive. Hendra doesn't try to paint a flattering picture of himself, which certainly serves his larger purpose. But I wondered at times if he was really as unselfconscious as all that, or if he wasn't perhaps a bit too self-conscious in his self-portrait as impatient, thorny satirist.

Hendra's method of expressing devotion to particular forms of Catholicism can also grate. What exactly is it about Vatican II that pisses off so many Catholics? I'm as snobbish as the next guy - I'll take Gregorian chants over Kumbaya any day of the week - but c'mon, pre-V2s: lighten up! You're Catholic. At least you've got Gregorian chants!

In the end, Father Joe, not Hendra, was the person I wanted to spend time with. Unfortunately for me, Father Joe wasn't the sort of person to write books; he was the sort of person to listen and pay attention to what his friends were really trying to tell him.

If this is an unnecessarily negative review, it hardly matters. Father Joe has already had its place on the New York Times Bestseller list, an indication it has pulled in a pretty good sum of money. I was tempted not to comment on the book at all, except I couldn't help thinking of a correlating book that was so much more compelling and convincing in its exploration of the same material: those unusual flashes in humanity that point to something larger and serve to keep a person, on some level, believing. Philip Yancey's Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived The Church is compelling because of its sensitive treatment of the subject, and convincing because it doesn't look askance at these people's flaws.

Yancey exists within a tradition that is, in the most generous sense of these words, "orthodox" and "evangelical". I realize those are words likely to throw most readers off the scent - frankly, those are words that throw me off the scent. But here's where one of Father Joe's gentle corrections to Hendra-the-satirist comes in handy: "I think there are two types of people in the world. Those who divide the world up into two kinds of people ... and those who don't." Yancey belongs to the latter category. And where a writer like Hendra chafes and expresses impatience with institutions and individuals, Yancey takes a deep breath, and patiently explores the nuances of personal longing and faith - any faith.

In effect, Soul Survivor introduces us to not just one of Yancey's "Father Joes", but thirteen. The list includes a few people from Left Field (Gandhi, Annie Dillard, Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo) along with some of the usual suspects (Chesterton, Dostoevsky, Henri Nouwen). It's a compelling picture of one person's faith as received through the prism of thirteen icons. Writing books, even for the gifted, is frequently onerous work, but Yancey seems to have savoured the time he spent on this one, and it shows. His love for this book is infectious, and he closes it with a welcome challenge to the reader: Make a list of the people who have shaped your life for the better, and try to figure out why.

If you have to talk about faith (and some of us do), that is the way to do it.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Six Feet Under: "I want to do that!"

In my early manifestation as scruffy young bo-ho, I went with a friend to see a local, fringe production of Ionesco's Exit The King. It was, in fact, a magisterial event. Ionesco's minimalist stage instructions and absurd writing proved to be innately accessible to this little group of 20-to-30-somethings, and they put on a show that was deeply moving. When it was over, I was sold on theatre - ready to shell out regular money, no matter what risks I incurred as a naive audience member.

My friend had a slightly different response. He turned to me and said, "I want to write a play like that!"

I thought of his response last night, after I rented and watched the pilot episode of Six Feet Under, Season One. Neither my wife nor I knew anything about the show - with one exception: I know how the whole shebang ends thanks to this weekend's newspapers who gave it away in their bylines. Good grief! In an era when the civilized press typically follows the etiquette of SPOILER ALERTS, a reader can reasonably expect not to see a SPOILER on the byline! Surely God has a "special" tier in hell for editors who give in to such impulses.

Pant, wheeze.

Moving on, then: we still had no real expectations. The show caught us completely off-guard. It was remarkable entertainment that got a lot of laughs from us, much of it genuine, some of it uncomfortable. It struck a neat balance between pathos and yuks that adroitly highlighted how complex motivations make for tortured but rewarding family relations. And when it was done, I thought, "I want to do that!"

I liked the setting: if you want to explore the absurd artifices of modern life, a family-run funeral home is the ideal environment. So many facades to explore, and where better to explore the facades we erect as individuals trying to maintain dignity in front of family members and the people we hope to be intimate with? And isn't that the real "trick" to intimacy, granting each other dignity despite our most undignified flaws of character?

I'm getting lost in themes - the surest way to make art look like a pretentious bore. I also liked the show's use of mysticism: the dead father reappears every few minutes to each of the family members, to present or say something enigmatic and off-putting. This frequently contrasts with the picture the characters constructed of him while he was still alive. His appearances also highlight the treacherous balance of the relationships among the living; they all have that terrible potential of being either incredibly rewarding, or incredibly catastrophic - or both at once.

Which is all to say, as I was watching this family struggle with their grief and their grievances with each other, I was completely there.

I can't fashion and present something quite so sublime - at least, not on television. First of all, I'm not in the television industry, and from my limited experience on and behind the stage, I doubt I'd be much good at it. Like the stage, television is a "plays well with others" medium. I do alright in small groups, but the larger the creative circle gets, the smaller I tend to make myself.

I still like that "I want to do that!" impulse. That, for me, is the sign a work of art is succeeding. The painting, the novel, the play has issued such a sublime and irresistible invitation to the beholder that he dives right in, immerses himself in the creative waters and enters a state of mind that feels like it is creatively partaking in the process. And why not? It's not like the artist is doing all the work - she's suggesting just enough to get you to step in and do the rest. You're co-operating in the dance; when she starts stepping on your toes, that's when you start with the bad reviews.

And when you're inspired to step out with a pirouette or two of your own, you've just been seduced by a master. That's what good art should do, I think: seduce you off the couch and onto the dance floor.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Re-visiting Literary Loves, Part II: The Hardy Boys

In the late-80s, early-90s I seemed to regularly encounter articles comparing and contrasting the two generations of Hardy Boys. Let's call them the "Blue" generation (mine), and the "Brown" generation (my father's), after the color of their binding. When everything was tallied up, it seems the Brown generation was the better written product (indeed, the Blue generation was the result of a publishing policy ominously dubbed "The Great Purge"), and pleas were made to get this generation back in print and on bookshelves.

In 1991 this request was granted. Applewood Books, a reprint house, faithfully recreated the original editions, right down to the ad copy in the final pages (although if you do a little "Hardy Boys" web-surfing, you'll come across some mildly amusing bitching over Applewood's cover "medallion", which proclaims, "THE ORIGINALS JUST AS YOU REMEMBER THEM" - a little detail that obviously wasn't on the originals). I worked in the sort of bookstore where these editions were an appropriate item, so I ordered them and gave them a close look.

First of all, these are handsome and sturdy books. I have a copy of the re-issued The Tower Treasure. Fourteen years later, there are plenty of other hardcovers on my shelf with yellowing pages and cracking spines (British books seem especially prone to deterioration), but none of that for this baby. The pages are still white, the binding glue still malleable.

Impressive, but how does it read? Well, here's where things get dicey. The Brown generation employs language that, while frequently quaint, accurately sums up the scene. Contrast Brown:

While there was a certain resemblance between the two lads, chiefly in the firm yet good-humored expression of their mouths, in some respects they differed greatly in appearance. While Frank was dark, with straight, black hair and brown eyes, his brother was pink-cheeked, with fair, curly hair and blue eyes.

- with Blue:

Even though one boy was dark and the other fair, there was a marked resemblance between the two brothers. Eighteen-year-old Frank was tall and dark. Joe, a year younger, was blond with blue eyes.

Gee - hack writers really were better in the old days! Still, neither of these Tower Treasures amounted to a pleasant "blast from the past" for me. The Blue version clipped along, where the Brown version meandered and tried my patience. The Brown version also had too much "good natured yokelry" for my taste: Bayport's police are painted as impossibly inept, even corrupt; farmers are physically slow and dim-witted; townsfolk are prone to behavior that's frankly paranoid. It's "only a story", of course, and not to be confused with reality. But it is a little disappointing to have to finally resort to the Brits (once again) as the final word in children's lit.

I parked the books, and thought nothing of it, until earlier this summer when I saw (remaindered) The House On The Point: A Tribute To Franklin W. Dixon And The Hardy Boys, by Benjamin Hoff. Again, I faced a smashing product design that harkened back to a previous publishing era. And so I dished the five bucks, curious to see what the author of The Tao of Pooh had to say about The Hardy Boys.

First impression: this Hoff guy takes his Hardy Boys incredibly seriously. In his preface, Hoff talks about how "Franklin W. Dixon" transported him from the turgid confines of his sickly youth into a world of adventure, whose only required passport was rational inquiry. Fair enough. But then Hoff recounts the disappointment he felt when as an adult he read the reprinted adventures of his youth. The prose was bad, the mysteries were "solved" not by deductive reasoning but by freakish coincidences, and characters with obvious potential were left untouched and undeveloped.

At this point, my inclination would be to remark on the nature of memory, and perhaps try to chart how these slight entertainments were eventually credited with ingraining a faith in my ability to reason my way through dark and dangerous territory - what accounts for this transformation? Hoff's approach is different. The disparity between his Platonic ideal of The Hardy Boys and their real, imperfect manifestation is so great and so personally troubling, he re-fashions The House on the Cliff into the story he wants to remember.

Hoff's Hardy Boys' adventure is a spritely read, and I suppose a measurable improvement on the original. Something about Hoff's stated intention, though, really bugs me. With this one book, he's hoping to sound a clarion call to writers of youth fiction everywhere. It's meant to be an evangelical tract, calling hacks back to the faith, to craft for today's children a few of Orwell's famous "good bad books".

A worthy enterprise, certainly. But I think his attempt to enlist the Hardy Boys dooms it to failure. The fatal problem is, I have my own image of the Hardy Boys. They're adrift in the same brackish waters of WASPish nostalgia as Fun With Dick & Jane, Leave It To Beaver, and Lost In Space: the nuclear family as adventure outfit, led forward by the children, catered to by the mother, corrected by the father. Problems arise when I revisit these entertainments, because there exist disparities between how I remember them and how they actually are, as well as how they compare to the reality of their day and mine. That disparity brings the ideal into sharp relief; attempting to adjust that disparity is an invitation to trouble, not just because everyone's nostalgic ideal is to some degree unique, but because nostalgia usually highlights the moral flaws of the person who holds it.

If you're going to unfurl your nostalgia for the rest of the world to behold, prepare for laughter. Better yet, start laughing yourself. What we have here is less a Platonic standard than it is a well-wrought piece of fanfic. When taken on those terms, its addition to the ouevre is quite welcome - especially at the remaindered price.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Re-visiting Literary Loves of the Past, Part I: From Here To Eternity

Frank Wilson, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer's Book Review pages,
notes with some dis-ease
that the significant novels of one's youth do not always stand up well when re-read in maturity. I experienced this first-hand last summer when I attempted to re-read From Here To Eternity.

It had been 20 years since I'd read it last. I was conscription age, and while I thought the "Be All That You Can Be" TV ads of that era (joined at the hip with the soft-sell gay porn of Top Gun) were an unpleasant joke, FHTE offered such a direct appeal to my warped, testosterone-drenched sentimentality, it could have been effectively used to recruit me.

FHTE is a perverse work of romantic nihilism, celebrating fuck-ups of the first order. Every character qualifies as one, and every character is presented with a warped sort of grandeur. The sole exception is the cuckold, Lieutenant Holmes. Holmes is a dandy and a pantywaist who silently acknowledges that virtues such as nobility and honor are a sham, albeit a politically useful sham. And so he consciously polishes the facade; the violent men under his command obey him (usually - it's more a matter of personal honor to stoically put up with the Army's absurd command structure), but seethe with a profound and very personal loathing.

I could dig it. As a young man with no time for adult compromise, I was ready to sign on - not out of any sense of patriotism, understand, or perceived duty to anything larger than myself, but to express the full and final potential of my humanity in, as Jones said, "those greatest and most heroic of all human endeavors, WAR and WARFARE".

Dumb, dumb, dumb. Reading Jones 20 years later I could see the author was not without a sense of irony, even if he did lack all sense of subtlety. Purple prose, overwrought emotional reactions (usually by women), an unshakeable commitment to the melodramatic. And the characters... today Pfc Prewitt doesn't read as "tragically misunderstood"; he reads as a nitwit and a jerk. Sargeant Warden fares worse.

Embarrassed by this staggering lapse in my youthful taste, I let the book drop from my fingers. I picked it up again this morning, just to see if it was as bad as all that. Third analysis: not quite. I can understand why I liked it so much at the time. All that forbidden fruit, laid out like a smorgasbord: sex, violence, a Tsunami of alcohol, and always with the language - all wrapped up in a weird-o sense of masculine identity. When Pearl Harbor finally gets hit, the chief emotion expressed by these yahoos (and their women) is relief/elation, followed by contempt for the squares who are sending them out to fight. Like any 19-year-old, I was terrifically anxious and impatient. I had no memory of Pearl Harbor; heck, I had no real memory of Khe Sahn. For me, FHTE was of a piece with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - violent punk catharsis, absent a larger life perspective.

I survived the next two decades. I lived long enough to see my nephews drink up Fight Club with the sort of angry thirst I had for FHTE (curious how the Amazon customer rating for FHTE and FC reaches four-and-a-half stars, no?). And even though mid-life seems to be clearing my cultural palette of nuanced pastels in favor of the primary colors, I hold out hope that my hunger for literature will unearth a few works truly worth my reverent attention. So far, so good.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Leonard Cohen in the Finance Pages

It seems the self-professed "Grocer of Gloom" woke up one morning to find his personal fortune reduced to nickels. His attempt to suss out the details only mired him in several lawsuits, including one from former manager/lover Kelley Lynch: "[T]he suit quotes Lynch describing how Cohen demanded she discuss business matters while he soaked in a bubble bath, and how later he was somehow involved in calling a SWAT team to her home, where she was handcuffed and forcibly taken to a psychiatric ward while in her bathing suit."

I'm sure F. would have something appropriately profane to say about this bizarre and miserable spectacle. Of course, it only gets stranger.

Everybody Digs Bill Evans

Many jazz musicians resemble their music. Who could have looked more worldly-wise than Duke Ellington, or wittier than Paul Desmond? But sometimes a musician embodies a contradiction, and then you can read it off his face, just as you can see a fault line snaking through a tranquil landscape. Such was the case with Bill Evans. His shining tone and cloudy pastel harmonies transformed such innocuous pop songs as ''Young and Foolish'' and ''The Boy Next Door'' into fleeting visions of infinite grace. Yet the bespectacled, cadaverous ruin who sat hunched over the keyboard like a broken gooseneck lamp seemed at first glance incapable of such Debussyan subtlety; something, one felt sure, must have gone terribly wrong for a man who played like that to have looked like that....

- Terry Teachout, noting that today would have been Bill Evans' 67th birthday.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

"Whither The Book Review?" Part ... oh, I've lost track ...

But if the Post is going to apologize for publishing the Wiggins review on ethical grounds, I'd like to see it ask for reader forgiveness when fully vetted and unconflicted reviewers give bad books a free pass.

You only have to drop $35 on a crummy "THIS GENERATION'S GATSBY!" once to see the wisdom in this approach to publishing book reviews.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Disney eschews animation in favor of continued aesthetic and commercial torpor

There are, of course, supposedly solid business reasons for this; there always are. But for me, as an animation historian, Disney's decision to eliminate hand-drawn animation for its features is sad. It implies on the part of management disrespect for the studio's history and a lamentable lack of flexibility and vision.

Amen to that, Mr. Canemaker (link from ALD). When I consider the successes among Disney's recent cel-animation offerings - Lilo & Stitch, Tarzan, The Emperor's New Groove - I can't possibly imagine how these stories could have been better served by CGI. These three movies so successfully integrate the element of surprise (in the Emperor's case, with a devilish, manic genius), their stories are perfectly served by the 2-D medium.

I suppose I'm enough of a latent Catholic to feel some sorrow (and irritability) at an institution's decision to forsake the anima that got it up and running. Still, just because the suits at Eisnerland have forsaken the faith, doesn't mean the spirit is fated to die. Hayao Miyazaki was asked by Entertainment Weekly if he thought CGI was "going to destroy 2-D in the end?" His response: "I'm actually not all that worried. I wouldn't give up on it completely. Once in a while there are strange, rich people who like to invest in odd things. You're going to have people in corners of garages [making 2-D animation] to please themselves. And I'm more interested in the people who hang out in corners of garages than I am in big business."

Artists, to your garages.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Taking a short pause for technical matters

With a little luck (and techno-perseverance) I'll be back to full blogging capacity in the next week. I'll be jury-rigging a computer salvaged from a dumpster (thanks, Tom!). The BIOS seems to have been compromised, but I should be able to run LINUX on it. Should - we shall see.

Saturday, August 06, 2005


The morning newspaper depressed me more than usual today. 60 years after Hiroshima. The Globe & Mail gave an account of some of the Canadian PoWs "held" by the Japanese from the Chinese conflict. They all confess it's difficult feeling too badly about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, since the atomic bombs brought the Pacific War to an abrupt conclusion and effectively saved their lives. (Personally, I could further argue that those bombs saved the life and some shreds of my great-uncle's soul, who fought in Europe and was determined to transfer to the Pacific when Berlin fell, because he was not at all, let's say, "confident" he could adjust to civilian life after all the carnage he'd witnessed and taken part in.)

So, here am I, an Anabaptist compelled to follow through several generations' worth of pacifist experiment to its inglorious conclusion. A civillian with a limited experience of violence (but enough experience, I think, to agree with Gandhi's sentiment that no-one should bother with pacifism if they haven't taken up arms first). I understand that the Japanese atrocities in China were horrific, and had design and scope that defied mere "cruelty". But the numeric logic of war still bothers me. It bothers me that the only conceivable way one group can put a stop to another group's atrocities is to answer back in the language of attrition.

It's been recently pointed out that the canard, "There are no foxhole atheists," is a myth - that the reality is in fact quite the opposite. And I suppose that informs some of the despondence I feel today. Here beneath the shadow of weapons of mass destruction, are we all merely potential casualties, or the final orphans of God?

Thursday, August 04, 2005


Screaming actors, it seems, can be easier to deal with, perhaps because they are not always famous for their brains. Many years ago, I read a story about how Roger Moore (a nonscreamer) took a younger actor aside and suggested he stop attacking everyone on the set. “I'm not in this business to win a popularity contest,” the screamer fumed. “I just want to be a good actor.”

“Well, you've failed at being a good actor,” Moore replied reasonably. “Why not try for the popularity contest?”

Point taken. But what would Mr. "James Bond" think of my parenting style? (Link from Volokh Conspiracy.)

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Memo to Jon Stewart: Unfortunately, fewer laughs = less love

I'm gratified to see I'm not the only one who thinks the ominous new decor to Jon Stewart's Daily Show has taken a toll on its esprit. Whoever piped up and said, "If it ain't broke, break it," must be seriously back-pedalling right now.

Birnbaum & Vowell: IT

One reason I like writing nonfiction is [that] it's all about the implausible. It's all about Lincoln's kid being there for the first three assassinations. Or Lincoln's son's life being saved by John Wilkes Booth's brother on the train tracks. All these weird coincidences. And bizarre occurrences. With nonfiction it's like, "Holy cow, I can't believe this thing happened!" Whereas fiction seems to me, for it to work, it actually has to seem kind of plausible. Which I would find incredibly difficult.

Sarah Vowell, interviewed by Robert Birnbaum for Identity Theory