Hello, it's been a while. What's that, you haven't really noticed? No matter, take my word; it's been a while since I've written. There are many things I've been wanting to tell you about, for instance the terribly underrated Leonard Cohen and Phil Spector collaboration "Death of a Ladies Man", Fatlip's classic What's Up Fatlip 12 inch, and a long overdue breakdown of the history of MF Doom (before he gets cooties from complete cooption by indie rock kids a la Company Flow/Def Jux),. And what about Outkast or more precisely Andre's sprawling and amazing Love Below c.d.? Not to mention Eric Anderson's Avalanche LP, which I just happily happened upon in a used record store. Does it make up for passing up a rare copy of the David Hemmings/Byrds collaboration you ask? Not exactly, but Avalanche is a mighty fine record that's worth seeking out. Anyway life has had me distracted; in a good way actually, it seems that when one is in love you just want to live life and enjoy it rather than write about it. Go throw on the Carpenters "Top of the World" and you will get the aural equivalent of where my head's been of late. So
in the meantime, till some semblance of concentration returns, I thought
I'd try and get down some fragments of what goes on around here, and hopefully
hit some of the high spots along the way.
I've been slowly rereading and savoring Denton Welch's Maiden Voyage and its spot on introduction by Edith Sitwell. In doing so it struck me that Welch's charming and basically autobiographical character is a much more empathetic, sensitive and hence preferable hero for youth than Salinger's disaffectedly affected and snotty characters, especially Holden Caufield. I remember identifying strongly with Caufield at 16 and then rereading it maybe 10 years later and thinking what a whiney, narcissistic and deeply unlikeable character, or to paraphrase Jonathan Richman's description of his younger self; a guy that is having a real bad time and most of it is his own fault. Granted Salinger is a fine writer and his characters may not be as clear a reflection of himself as Welch's. But the qualities of Denton's character that Sitwell catalogues "his curious young wisdom and his occasional young silliness, his longing for affection and hatred of falsehood, his adventurousness, his enquiring nature, his courage, his fright, his shyness, his agonies of mind, his youthful clumsiness, his warm kindness, his pathos" makes him a much more vital, complex, compelling and ultimately interesting character than Holden Caufield. And there is no affectation to Welch's writing, it is completely natural and contains startling descriptive insight and agility. Certain passages strike your mind like a slap across the face and you sit bolt upright, catch your breath and read it again this time out loud to savor the sound and image so crystalline. In Youth is Pleasure, his second novel, is the best starting point for the uninitiated. It features an insightful introduction by that, on the surface perhaps, surprising fan and champion of Denton's, William S. Burroughs.
Speaking of which I recently got around to looking up 1920's gangster Dutch Schultz's last words as he lay dying from gunshot wounds in a New Jersey hospital; words which were another prime influence on Burroughs. You can find the transcription here. For those of you familiar with Burrough's work it's easy to see how this stream of conscious rant impressed and influenced him. In fact whole lines of Schultz's feverish ramble recurrently pop up in WSB's work. Dutch's last words parallel Burrough's cut-up experiments in tone and are in effect a mental cut up of his entire life. There is a good analysis of the fragments and how they tie in to events and people in his life in Paul Sann's biography of Schultz, Kill the Dutchman. Schultz's dying words are a bizarre and fascinating piece of American folklore that has provided considerable fodder for psychologist, criminologists, academics and writers over the years. Go have a look.
Elsewhere you've probably heard enough about Lost in Translation, though many of you in Europe may have not yet had the chance to actually see it. Let me just add that it deserves the praise its received. I was quite surprised by just how good it was, having been none too impressed by Sofia's debut film The Virgin Suicides (looked great but felt strangely cold and unengaging). I've been back to see Lost in Translation with different people several times now and each time enjoyed it as much, if not more. It's subtle, meditative film that put me in a wonderfully reflective state of mind that lingered long after leaving the theatre. Interestingly too, although dialogue driven Lost in Translation seems to gain as much from its character's silences and body language as from their conversation. I would be interested in finding out how much improvisation was used around the script, as the conversation appeared so natural and realistic. In any case, see it with an open mind, it doesn't grab you by the lapels or beat you over the head and that's the point really. Here's to more dialogue and character driven movies willing to risk losing the short attention spanned by taking their time to tell a story. And here's hoping Bill Murray is given the recognition that he was denied for his brilliant turn in Rushmore for this equally as nuanced performance. Alright then, onwards before I start sounding like a Hollywood columnist.
How about music? Well its mainly the stuff mentioned in the first paragraph and I'll leave it alone for now in hopes that I will eventually get around to documenting all items mentioned thoroughly in separate pieces. Instead, let me point you in the direction of the Ben Stiller Show DVD that was recently released. Brilliant stuff. Only real weaknesses here is the awfully awkward and ugly looking segues between skits and the Dweezil Zappa theme song. Otherwise you've got a young and sporting a full head of hair Bob Odenkirk (of Mr. Show fame), a very lovely Janeane Garofalo, Andy much more funny that I realized Dick and Ben Stiller (natch) doing hilariously accurate parodies of Tom Cruise, Tony Robbins, Bruce Willis and other pop culture ephemera, along with original characters you may have encountered in your own life, such as the No, No, No guy. Later episodes include the welcome addition of Odenkirk's future Mr. Show partner David Cross, mainly in the writing capacity, but also with brief cameos. It's a nice two-disc set that stands up to repeated viewings. All the cast members in the commentary seem to agree that they have never had as much fun or been as loose in their work since and it shows. Certainly Stiller has not been using his talents of late as he reprises the same character over and over in interchangeably mediocre and jejune comedies.
Another DVD that's been in heavy rotation round these parts is the Spike Jonez anthology. It's a collection of not only many of his most amazing videos (oh and it is strange to use those two words together but here it does fit), but some short films and documentaries, all of which are very enjoyable. There's also a tie in here with the aforementioned Fat Lip 12 inch. Spike not only did a hilarious video for the song but in the process wound up making a, has to be seen to be believed, revealing documentary of Fat Lip's story, much of which deals with the reasons for his falling out with the Pharcyde and the lyrics of the song in question. The other real winner on the disc is the touching and (hopefully) sincere Amarillo by Morning documentary about some kids in Houston Texas alienated from their peers by their dreams of becoming bull riders.
Lastly I should mention the Belle and Sebastian DVD appropriately titled For Fans Only. As it's been for at least the past 4 years, you kind of have to take the good with the bad with this crew. Their tendency to slide into a cloying cutesiness enough to make you long for Lafcadio's Brooklyn accent is the downside, along with the occasionally inexcusably awful tune (I'm Waking Up to Us and Legal Man to name two featured here). And just on general principle there are way too many stuffed animals being flaunted about here. Their live cover of Os Mutantes's "Baby" is a train wreck on par with Dexy's mangling of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said". On the other hand there is a nice cover of "Rhinestone Cowboy" and plenty of their best originals with appropriately low budget footage as accompaniment. When B&S is good, bout 80% of the time I'd say, they are very very good. And like the title says it's for the fans, and when all is said and done I guess I qualify as one.
© 2004William Crain