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with a whimper

Well, 'round our way, 365 dreamt-of review posts turned into 100 hoped-for posts (not that I mentioned it), turned in to a scant 86, for a variety of reasons, including the add'l chaos introduced into what I laughingly call my workflow by the long delays in getting our (Bree's and my) co-op in Jackson Heights completely squared away, my inability to bring along to So. Cal. some things I wanted to write about over the holidays, a symptomatic relapse of my Dragnet (radio version) addiction when I discovered that nearly every episode is available at, and, I think most decisively, my inability to say - at least in this venue - one think about a given piece of work without it leading to several other observations, comments, etc. -- and ramifying onward from there.

Oh, sure, I could try to stick to the pith, could write, say:

[8x] Slajov Zizek, Violence (2008, Profile). Anti-foundationalist potboiler.

without going on and on about (i) what's wrong with that Adam Kirsch review, (ii) Kirsch's rightness, whatever his motivation, in pointing out the odiousness of Z.'s structuralist-inflected treatment of homosexuality as "inversion," (iii) the hit-and-missness of Z.'s pop instancing this time out, (iv) the tension between Z.'s strategy of make explicit the unappealing logical consequences of certain seemingly inoffensive starting points, a strategy in which I do, actually, recognize what I think of as philosophy being done, and his seeming lack of interest in avoiding self-contradiction at any level other than the most local, or (iv) how puzzling the discussion of not-voting is, read against a recent TLS piece which invokes Kant (or maybe even Rawls), in suggesting that, upon the election of Obama, "Whatever our doubts, for that moment each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity." (Would he have said this whatever the outcome of the election?)

I had some other last thoughts for the year, mostly about the president-elect and Bon Iver, but it's now seven minutes to midnight, and there are other ways I'd rather spend them. I don't know what, if much of anything at all, will appear here in 2009 -- except possibly to a top-ten for Dragnet beginners. Health to you all.


[79] Synedoche, New York (2008, Charlie Kaufman). As attempts to plumb the human condition by Hollywood/indie straddlers go, this is preferable to I Heart Huckabees: faint praise. Though one can admire the relative economy by which Kaufman gets through his narrative, his fabulism (here derived from Albee’s Tiny Alice, among other things) is not strictly necessary as a device through which to explore the perils of attempting to represent “everything,” as the onscreen appearance of the first page of Swann’s Way should remind anyone who recognizes it. To state the obvious, it’s all too-telling that the central characters attempts to “understand” his life focus entirely on the private (sexual intimacy and physical ailment), while the social is apparently neither here nor there; there’s even a thumb on the scale in the demonization of other ways of living one’s life via the daughter’s lesbianism and sex-work. (Note also that money is essentially “no object” for anyone involved, though this is at least wittly foregrounded by the patently irreal suggestion that a single “genius” grant would fund a seventeen-year theater project.) Why must Representative Man be a schlubby white guy in his 40s? Though I take it that has someone who is supposed to be a sophisticated working artist who has presumably been exposed to all sorts of ideas need his entire life to come to the epiphany that other people are not “extras”? Why the hell is Emily Watson so willing to strip for him, as if we were stuck in the mid-century novel of male existential crisis and self-discovery through hotties. Philip Seymour Hoffman goes through his paces reliably, though I think he has the clearer and ultimately less interesting set of acting tasks than does Michelle Williams, whose considerable charm in particularizing her character is what this movie really deserves to be remembered for. (I also liked the burning house trope, which isn’t hammered to death.)

BTW, Stephen Colbert is at his sharpest in this interview w/ Charlie Kaufman; though Colbert’s position is ostensibly that of his anti-intellectual neo-con character, what’s really at issue are the merits of Cartesian representationalism (esp. as an account of perception) vs. some form of “direct realism.” “This is what living in your mind gets you”; i.e., homuncularism.)

BTBTW, [80]A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All, which I just caught as a rerun, is maybe a solid B+, given what the principals were attempting. The replication of bad TV direction (bluescreens, awkward cuts) is funny, as are the basic ideas behind the match-up of original songs (by Adam Schlessinger and David Javerbaum, who also did the Broadway Crybaby) with guests: Toby Keith giving voice to Bill O’Reilly’s “War on Christmas” canard, Willie Nelson as a pothead fourth Wise Man, but their execution is not as economical as one might hope. It’s pretty odd for me to see Elvis Costello aging into “a good sport” (though he’s always tended to treat himself unseriously in videos); he’s better here, anyway, than on his chat-show Spectacle, the interview segments of which are just fidget-inducing.

[81] In the City of Sylvia (2007, José Luis Guerin). Nadja meets Laura Mulvey meets Cortazar’s “The Pursuer” (in A Change of Light, I think). Gossamer-thin but for its spatial rigor; the narrative element is to a large degree an excuse for “pure cinema,” inc. some gorgeous passages of the changing reflections on passing train windows. Saved from erotic solipsism by the moment when the woman our protagonist has been stalking around Strasbourg manages to confront him, emphatically and convincingly, with just how unpleasant the experience has been for her. A studied film, but good nonetheless.

[82] Into the Net (1924, George B. Seitz): Feature apparently cut together from several NY-shot episodes of what was originally a serial, essaying a racist plot about the kidnapping of various Manhattan heiresses, inc. a very young Constance Bennett, who makes no special impression, by a generically orientalized “Emperor.” The great George Arliss arguably transcends, or at least displays some self-consciousness in, a similar role as an Oxford-educated Sikh in the film version of his stage triumph [83] The Green Goddess [1923, Sidney Olcott], from whence S.F.’s Palace Hotel’s signature salad dressing.) One moment bears mention: during a police raid on a private gambling den, a tuxedo’d worthy asks a cop (I’m paraphrasing the title cards) “Don’t you know who I am?” His respond: “Don’t tell me – you’re the Governor of Alaska.” Seen about 2 weeks before the election in a packed theater at MOMA, this nearly caused a riot.


[73] Jonathan Monk, Continuous Project Altered Daily (ICA, 2006). Catalogue of an overview exhibition by Young(ish; 35)-British-Artist Monk, with its conceit of removing and adding a few works each day of the show inspired by the title, which comes from an early Castelli show of Robert Morris’s. Which fits: Monk’s work is part of that peculiar vein of neo-Conceptualism that involves adapting or slightly varying strategies and specific works from the ‘60s and‘70s, often toward witty or more ‘personal’ ends, while retaining the ethos of ‘idea first’ and minimal facture. Martin Creed would be a kissing cousin; Christopher Williams (more systematic and less funny) a distant one. Examples: postcards mailed to places that On Kawara sent “I got up…” postcards from; a photo piece of side streets off of Sunset Blvd. in L.A. (cf. Ruscha); text ‘paintings’ reading, say, “This painting should ideally be hung near to a Sol Lewitt (cf. Baldessari, among others); and so forth. One of the cleverer and more appealing pieces doesn’t have such a specific provenance: a slide projector that displays commercial postcards of Big Ben at the times depicted on the postcards (inc. when the gallery is closed), and remains off at all other times of day. (“A stopped clock…”and all that.) I suppose I’m drawn to at least check out this sort of thing because it’s likely what I’d be doing (because it’s all I’d be capable of) if I were an “artist.” One can discern a similar impetus behind some post-Language writing, though at the moment the sense of a love/hate tussle with forbearers’ innovations is arguably stronger in literature than in visual art; take, for example, the perfectly-titled and –executed “Whole Hog,” a sort of rural de-electrification of Watten’s “Complete Thought” that occupies the center of [74] Lisa Jarnot’s Night Songs (Flood 2008). By comparison, Monk and Creed’s work seems fairly affectionate. I don’t have any off-the-cuff speculations on the reasons for this difference.

[75] Joseph Thomas, Strong Measures (Make Now, 2007). Highly focused Noulipean work that uses the neoformalist anthology Strong Measures: Contemporary American in Traditional Forms as sole source for various recombinations. One section reassembles single lines from various individual poems in that text to produce ‘new’ sonnets, villanelles, etc., retaining rhyme scheme (though not meter). I take it that the point is to display the constraints on content and imagery operative on a group of ostensibly distinct writers. Other sections employ selection strategies too elaborate to reproduce here; the methodological “Notes” have a MacLow-with-OCD quality. The most corrosive section is a mesostic on the title that turns the anthology’s “editorial apparatus” to so much schrapnel. The justification of the caps won’t reproduce here, but:

educaTed at san jose
eDucated at
new york aquarIum
drawn Through
cOllege, the
worLd war

a Renewal
i aM willing to bear
w. S. merwin

Interesting project, though the return on investment is not quite as high for me as in:

[76] Raphael Rubenstein, The Afterglow of Minor Pop Masterpieces (Make Now, 2007). The first half of the book consists of poems comprising n stanzas of n lines of n n-letter words, for n=1 to 8. The first, “After the Divorce: Crossing Paths by Chance in a Park,” reads, in its entirety:


The second, “Crisis”:

To be
me is

to be
an “if.”

The tours de force really start around n=5; here’s the second stanza from n=8, the pan-musical “Active Octaves”:

Eardrums register brimming airwaves carrying assorted auditory messages,
miswired receiver confuses adjacent stations: highland Scottish bagpipes
encroach Jamaican melodica virtuoso, Hendrixy feedback explodes delicate
madrigal, Liberace disrupts Tristano, yodeling mountain peasants bulldoze
Idomeneo. Antennas remotely transmit baffling episodes: Mulligan embraces
Gesualdo, bleating electric bassoons practice Ultravox classics, Veracruz
mariachi ensemble enlivens famously pathetic Nocturne, Bayreuth audience
whistles Zepplin melodies, Morrissey conducts flawless Sibelius symphony.

Degree of difficulty slightly below Bökian levels, perhaps, but still quite the feat. If the individual poems in the back half of the book are procedural or constraint-driven, it’s not as evident; they have their own pleasures, especially “Illusion is a Gangstergirl,” each stanza beginning with the titular phrase and moving out in various directions from there, one even tweaking the Oulipean (“Illusion is a gangstergirl/an anagram for ‘langourous green misprints” (just kidding). [I myself briefly thought “profiteroles” might be an anagram of “proliferates” the other day.] Good book.

[77] Dream Babes Vol. 2; Reflections (RPM, 2001). There are many, many series of reissue comps out there for those who want to delve deeper into girl-group and/or gal-sung ‘60s pop minutae than the Rhino box allows; this particular series, of which this is the only volume I’ve heard, focuses on U.K. major-label singles, largely on Columbia and Paralphone, from 62-71; like most, it’s hit-or-miss. (That said, the five mostly-French, copyright-flouting Ultra Chicks comps, if you can locate them, are invaluable for yé-yé-heads.) Stylisticall, this is all over the map, from erzats rock-and-roll (Linda Laine’s “Low Grades & High Fever,” which isn’t much beyond its title and Coasters-styled hook) to budget Bacharach (Three Bells’ “Over and Over” again). Two curiosities attempt to capitalize on then-current movies: Gullivers People’s “Splendour in the Grass” and Caroline Munro’s “This Sporting Life.” (Cf. also Don Everly’s “The Collector,” found on the Bros.’ odd Hollies-produced -----). All told, there are about four tracks here that I’d at least consider if I were compiling a personal best-of-genre playlist: Cilia Black’s precisely-sung “Work Is a Four Letter Word,”well-known from its Smiths’ cover; Jill and the Boulevards’ “And Now I Cry,” with a Duane-Eddy-meets-Yma-Sumac texture that anticipates Tarnation’s brief career; Linda Laine and the Sinners’ “Don’t Do It Baby,” which obviously but effectively repurposes the hook of “Don’t Worry Baby” in a pleasant 12-string arrangement, and (best-of-show), Patsy Ann Noble’s “I Did Nothing Wrong,” a minor-key, Hammond-rich it’s-not-what-you-think number sung and played with enough gusto to rival “You Don’t Own Me” for overheated teen drama.

[78] Gwigwi Mrwebi, Mbaqanga Songs (Honest Jon’s, 2008). Reissue of 1967 LP (originally titled Kwela) on a specialist label run out of a London record shop, by an oddly configured (2 altos, 1 sax, piano, bass, drums) group of Cape Town/Port Elizabeth expats (expect for drummer Laurie Allan, later of Gong). The credit to Mrwebi as leader is a bit misleading, as both the tunes and most of the solos are by either the other altoist, Dudu Pukwana, who first came to London with a group that also included Louis Moholo, or pianist Chris MacGregor. The tunes are riff-based (and often catchy), not much given to dramatic harmonic shifts even when they have B or C sections, and the overall approach to form and rhythm is more in line with what one associates with continental Africa than “island music.” But it’s not wildly expansive; nearly every track would fit on a 78 side with room to spare, the unsion sax lines are almost telepathically tight, and the solos are succinct. McGregor, despite occasionally sloppy execution, comes off as the most thoughtful soloist, sometimes sounding like a pianistic translator of the African guitar styles where arpeggiation is a key melodic motivator, other times veerying off into spikily linear bop territory. Not surprised at all to read (in venerable out-pianist Steve Bereford’s informed notes) that at least one player hear, bassist Coleridge Goode, later worked with Joe Harriot, who went much further-out from a related starting point – this disc is pretty surefire for any fan of Harriot, the Ethopiques series, or even the jazzier portions of the label’s London Is the Place for Me calypso comps. Would love to hear the recordings Beresford mentions of this band backing a South African R&B singer.


[72] The Captive City (1952, Robert Wise). Will John Forsythe make it out of Kensington (unsure of state), where some harmless bookmaking has metastasized into total mob control, in time up at the first meeting of the Kefauver Committee on Organized Crime on Interstate Commerce. Faintly ridiculous and 99% humorless one-honest-journalist-against-whole-town true-crimer, complete with PSA-type appearance by Sen. Estes Kefauver himself at the end: "There's no such thing as a little local vice." Narrative frame right out of Double Indemnity (story told on tape turns to flashback); one standout performance by Marjorie Crossland as a local businessman-turned-crook's ex-wife; Forsythe, at this age, strongly resembles Glenn Ford.

[73] Down Three Dark Streets (1954, Arnold Laven). Most entertaining of the several "semi-doc"s I've seen recently, perhaps because the "doc" element is fairly minimal, and despite an unwieldy plot involving Broderick Crawford's attempts to which of three open cases is connected to a fellow FBI agent's murder. Crawford, against type as a white hat, is almost as strong a centering presence (visually as well as dramatically, his bulk and slouch hat anchoring many of the shots) as Barry Fitzgerald in The Naked City, the gold standard for this subgenre. Three main female characters, one per narrative thread, are caricatures in themselves, but the strong contrasts among them are key to clarifying and articulating the structure: Ruth Roman (less interesting than in Invitation) as an "anxious career woman" and Marisa Pavan (the plainer fraternal [sororal?] twin of the better known Pier Angeli) as a "sweet young Italian wife" (sentimentally blind, to boot), do their jobs, but Martha Hyer (a little-known name with a varied career in supporting roles), the "kept mob chippie," steals the film w/ cheesecake and tart delivery of lines like: "You mind if I put something on? I don't like being stared at before lunch." One online review notes that the much better-known (but to my mind a bit drab and white-elephantine, except for Wendell Corey) Experiment in Terror is arguably a remake of the plotline involving Roman.

Pre-code Carole Lombard triple feature at Filmforum:

[74] White Woman (1933, Stuart Walker): Imagine Charles Laughton playing Mistah Kurtz, and you've got the essence of this film; his alternately mincing and enraged performance is pretty much the point. Lombard, as a nightclub singer who can't leave Malaysia b/c of some obscurely referred-to scandal involving her previous husband's suicide, is fairly peripheral, even though the movie starts off with her sultry performances of two Mack Gordon/Harry Revel obscurities (the moderately salacious "A Gentleman and a Scholar," to which I wouldn't mind finding a lead sheet to, and the more generic "Yes, My Dear"). I'd be curious to know whether the songwriters were also responsible for the pentatonic "native chants" that show up after the action moves up-river. Some dismaying sequences with a dead monkey.

[75] Sinners in the Sun (1932, Alexander Hall): Poor girl (Lombard as a department store dress model, a vanished profession on which numerous films of the period depend) decides between poor guy (mechanic Chester Morris, long before the Boston Blackie cycle, acting with his chin) and rich guy (the forgotten Walter Byron, a Zachary Scott type). Has a certain frankness about 'modern' relationships (Morris is a chauffeur/gigolo for much of the movie; Lombard is to be 'passed on' to a pre-stardom Cary Grant once Byron goes back to his wife), but, eventually judges these, and their attendant glamorous trappings, unsatisfactory. One minor character suicides; if this film had been made after '34, though, just about the entire cast would have to die for their transgressions. Despite the somewhat overdetermined quality, a higher-than-usual proportion of scenes land, esp. Morris's party dialogue with a more experienced fellow kept man, played campily by (I think) Russ Clarke. Interestingly indecisive between silent/talkie modes of story telling: one the one hand, there's an unusual emphasis on overheard dialogue ("And they have the best pretzels there...": "There he sat, just spearing his peas."); on the other, much material is covered by proto-Vorkapechian whirl-of-the-demimonde montages.

[76] Virtue (1932, Edward Buzzell). Deservedly better-known than either of the other two, evoking much genuine sympathy on both sides of the central relationship between Pat O'Brien's cynical hack and Lombard's redeemed-by-love ex-pro. Great repartee: "Hey, my face is all right." "Yeah, it's all right for you -- you're behind it." I'd be surprised if silent star Myra Methot (Bogart's first wife), by this point an aging kewpie, was ever better used in a talkie; even ever-doltish Ward Bond is tolerable here. Not as visually distinctive as Me and My Gal, the early Wellman I raved about a few posts back, but similar in its resolute attention to the small-bore concerns of its characters. (Side note: throughout all of these, one can't help but be a bit distracted by the harsh make-up treatment, esp. at the eyes and eyebrows, given Lombard; she doesn't really become iconic until such styling went softer later in the decade, which also helps her play innocents (Godfrey, Nothing Sacred) more winningly. This isn't usually the case, but I'm mildly interested in reading a biography -- my impression is that she was a good egg.)

(Seen a few days later): [77] Made For Each Other (1939, John Cromwell). Melodrama w/ rom-com pacing. Some early sections anticipate the better-written [78] The Marrying Kind (1952, George Cukor), the kind of movie that could make you resolve to treat your sig. other better. (Saw that for the first time this yr., so it counts in the count.) But by the last third, you're better off attending to the increasingly expressionistic cinematography and prod. design (Wm. Cameron Menzies) than the story. Lombard and James Stewart give it their best shot, but when a prayer to Jesus saves their dying baby, it just about kills the movie (and my appetite to stick around for another soaper, In Name Only w/ Kay Francis).

[79] Richard F. Snow, The Funny Place (J. Philip O'Hara, 1975). Oddball volume of mostly narrative verse employing Coney Island, the "funny place" of the title, as the site and occasion for a sort of American mythopoesis. George C. Tilyou and other sub-Barnum enterpreneneurs figure as characters; the central sequence is an impressively handled chronicle of a major 1932 fire. What pulls the book forward is largely the tension between the ennobling pathos of Snow's technique (moderately high diction, rhythms based in blank verse) and the points scored about modernity and the Old World v. the New. On Tilyou:

He met McKane one swelling afternoon:
"You could have had a European Spa."
"But this is not a European place."

(Another key line: "The American century came first in toys.") Impulse-bought b/c it was edited (i.e. selected) for something called the "J. Philip O'Hara Poetry Series" (no relation, apparently, to Frank) by John Ashbery, who contributes a one-paragraph introduction (he calls the poet's music "light classical," and does not mean it as a slight). I presume the mild perversity of the project was an attraction; one certainly can see JA being drawn to a book including a section that opens "Some postcards:"; there may also be a link with the loose handling of pentameter in "Self-Portrait."