Monday, October 11, 2010


When I look back on my 20s, the two most important men in my life (and by men in my life, I mean artists whose work and lives I admire) will have been the two whose names I’ve jammed together in this post’s title. I’ll start this month’s entry with one and end with the other, and come to no kind of understanding about anything in between. I’ve realized that the way I think about things will probably never change. I’m trying to make the most of it. (Am.)


I’ve been much better about reading. Keeping my computer off. Happier? I find I can only read with my whole being or not at all, which I imagine could be alienating to others.

I had a major fling with Joe Brainard back in January, while reading his great life-chang— life-clarifying book I Remember, then a quick affair in March on the cozy pages of his collection New Work, and now we’re starting all over again on account of the memoir Joe, written by his lifelong friend Ron Padgett. Lately I spend most of my waking hours wondering things such as these: What was Joe Brainard doing on the equivalent day of his young life? Am I failing his example? Do the great number of our shared personality traits even mean that he is setting an example I ought to follow? Some of the answers lie within, though of course no book can be as good as having the real person next to you.

Meanwhile, I am filling in some gaping holes in my barely-well-readness (the book of interviews between Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock, which at this early stage is still working toward illumination, and the poems of Frank O’Hara, which even at a similarly preliminary stage are really wonderful, and which give me pause: I’ve never disliked poetry, only felt inadequate to the 90% of it that I find alienating, and unable to find the 10% that I don’t), reading some comics (Boy Trouble #5, an issue from a series of gay comics, including many stories that are expected and a few that are transcendent, especially a wordless 16-panel heartbreaker by series editor David Kelly, and Jim Woodring’s Weathercraft, the latest Frank story, this time centering on Manhog, and with a supposedly clarifying Q&A on the dust jacket that only serves to exacerbate the lurid mystery of the happenings in The Unifactor), and can finally report that William Kennedy’s Ironweed is a masterpiece of world literature. You knew that.


“I had to believe North Branch was better than the frozen plains of Quebec, but it was just as empty on that Sunday afternoon. Everything was closed and the streets were completely bereft of humans. I walked my bike over the cobblestones looking for HELP WANTED signs in the shopwindows. My nose had been running for the last hour, and my eyes were sore from crying. I tried hard to ignore my numbed feet and my hunger, and imagine a bright new life for myself instead.

“The diversion only lasted so long. Hope dissolves quickly in the cold. I passed the dark windows of The Record Collector and Small World Paints. Neither advertised the need for an unskilled teen. I passed a drugstore and a jeweler’s. Finally, I rounded a corner and immediately spied what I thought was a mirage. A neon pink OPEN sign in the window of a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria. The Canteen, it was called. I counted the odd two dollars and coins in my pocket. $3.63. I locked my bike to a drainpipe and brought my guitar in with me. The warm breath of the cafĂ©’s interior almost made me cry all over again, but I held myself together and sat down on a stool at the counter.

“Within seconds, a plastic menu slapped down in front of me and an overfull glass of water came after it. I looked up to see a tall middle-aged woman nudging at a pair of glasses. She wore thick bifocals. Her face was tired but friendly.”

—from Peter Bognanni’s The House of Tomorrow

This is a remarkable passage to me, putting Bognanni in league with those comics artists (Seth, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware) who are able to paint a nostalgic portrait of America with only the details of the present day. Even the patterns of the prose are very comics-like, and I could imagine a graphic novel adaptation of The House of Tomorrow in which those details following the narrator’s vision of a mirage are each granted their own panel.

It never seems like Bognanni's priority as a novelist is great prose style (story is his emphasis), and yet he often achieves just that. There are other moments in his novel where even the tiniest units of language seem unusually vivid and powerful to me. In particular: “Through me” (p. 153) made me cosmically aware of the weird fact that there are elements in our bodies that aren’t really “us”; “Everything” (p. 175) was almost like a word I’d never seen before, or at least I’d never realized how much is implied in its compoundness.


But perhaps I’m in a mood. I’ve been finding instances of great language everywhere I look recently. I worked a job last week deciphering motorcycle questionnaires, and they abounded with deliciously ambiguous poetry (“Dimmer, yellower”) and surprising aphorisms (“Illumination is important”).

More recently, I’ve been counting pedestrians in the Skyway, and am constantly reminded of the grace of walking, which must be the most divinely purposeful act that the average human performs on a daily basis. The limbo of that brief suspension between places is all we want out of life, and, unless we’re lucky enough to work in a different place and return home to a different place everyday, we only get it in travel.

I’ve also learned that 6 a.m. in downtown Minneapolis is a very, very weird phenomenon. Before there’s even a glow in the east, it feels nothing like morning, instead like 15 minutes later than the latest at night you could ever possibly imagine. The people out on the streets look like they still belong to the night, and then moments later when the sun appears, either they disappear to be replaced by the morning people, or they metamorphose, but either way they are not the same. And it’s morning.


My recent fascination with evocative fragments of language is perhaps best expressed in the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who I’ve recently encountered in the new documentary The Radiant Child and his 1981 low budget starring vehicle Downtown 81. The former is a great glimpse at a brief window in time, the latter not a very good one, being one of those “scene” movies that makes everything look just so dismal and dispiriting, that fails to capture any of the poetry or music of a time and place that was certainly waiting there to be captured. It fails to even show any of the mysteriously extraneous background information (people and things that just “happened to be there”) that you find in street scene black-and-white (or color, really) photography.

Anyway, Basquiat’s graffiti and art makes me want to do something drastic, like put a large-lettered declaration across the wall of my room, perhaps each elaborately drawn letter given its own piece of pasteboard. Something like:


(something a friend said)

Winter’s Bone comes closer to Faulkner than any other movie I can think of, mostly because it doesn’t try (to come close), having such faith in the rhythms of its story and the audience’s ability to look with open eyes, and being so fearless in its confrontation of corpses.

The American, more than any other entry in the recent (unending) slate of movies about organized crime, secret agents, and superspies, indulges our fantasies about surveillance and men who know enough about the ways they’re being monitored to (sometimes) manage to go “off the grid.” Most of the movies that have been playing Uptown this fall I would dub “Google-era cinema” in this way.

Lebanon might be a great movie, but it is nearly an unwatchable one, certainly the most upsetting war movie I’ve ever seen. To film all the action through tank crosshairs, so that every human face is in imminent danger of being exploded to pieces, is to wreak psychological havoc on the audience, and reminds us that Hitchcock showed restraint (pun noted) in his narrative parameters: Rope, Lifeboat, Rear Window, none of these are so emotionally exhausting.

It’s often said that the idea of watching Andy Warhol’s films is more interesting than actually watching them. His “screen tests” (which, somewhat contrary to their name, are four minute silent films that stare squarely into the faces of Factory denizens) are short and manageable enough as to probably trump his longer works in terms of watchability. The recently compiled 13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests is a brief tour through an artful gaze, together with a soundtrack by Dean & Britta, who have managed to do something interesting with these films while avoiding the academic. Instead, these are mood pieces, interrogations of the mystery of the human essence. The soundtrack is a great success, I would say, sometimes so finely tuned as to seemingly be the thing “leading” the film, and thereby revealing faults in the images, not vice versa. But perhaps that’s only because these seem like music videos, an often corrupt art form whose defects tend to lie all on one side.

The 1930s films of French auteur (debatable, but just barely) Sacha Guitry are being rediscovered, and I’ve seen a couple. 1936’s The Story of a Cheat is truly admirable. When people say they don’t like voiceover narration in movies, I think they only mean that they don’t like when movies can’t commit to a narrative approach. Cheat commits entirely, and entirely gets away with it. The only dialogue comes during the film’s frame story, which is also a neat little ruse, providing the film with its punch line: Everything you’ve just seen is a pointless diversion. True, perhaps, but diverting only in the way the very best movies are. 1938’s Quadrille is similarly precise in its narrative devices, but it’s perhaps a bit too heavy-footed to really earn being labeled as that titular dance. What’s most interesting is the way it talks (and talks and talks) about the French as being romantically conservative, while at the same time alluding to sex much more than any American movie of the late 30s could have gotten away with.

How to Marry a Millionaire is what I might call a fashion movie, and therefore its success is dependent upon its ability to put beautiful, sometimes hideous, but always lavish things on the screen. If you’re not paying attention to the changes in wardrobe, then you’re totally missing the point. But this one’s also a sort of mild-mannered screwball comedy, and it succeeds on those terms too.

I Am Cuba makes me ask: Can a movie fail as propaganda but succeed as spectacle? It really does end up as hideous propaganda, but there are at least two hours worth of images (movement, lighting, lenses, and more) that boggle the eye, and the mind. Rare thrills, especially in 35mm.

“Don’t you think it common to smell of ourselves?”

This line is lovely even out of context, and it provides the key to Black Narcissus, the Powell/Pressburger masterpiece that, in its visual splendor, and perhaps in its thematic elements, is like The Wizard of Oz for adults, or, I should say, for adults exclusively. It is about a nun who goes to the Himalayas to escape her deep wants, but when she finds that she still smells only of herself, she must purge her ghosts, in the form of her double. I’ve been wondering if a similar approach to The Tales of Hoffmann (the Powell/Pressburger splendorama of four years later) is possible, but it’s hard to say, as I can’t understand operatic vocals, and I had neither DVD subtitles nor the printed libretto to aid me. And yet, Hoffmann works well enough as a silent film with musical score, and I would venture that if Hoffmann never purges his own ghosts, it is only to his benefit, as he is a poet.

The Social Network was great, but I don’t feel I need to add to the conversation, except to offer this clever alternate title I came up with: What We Talk About When We Talkabout.


Check out my reviews of new albums by Weezer and Sun Kil Moon and recent performances by Laura Veirs, Arcade Fire, Pavement, and Billy Bragg. But that’s not all…

Sweden update: Robyn and El Perro Del Mar had somehow never rated too high on my list of the best Swedish musicmakers of the current century, but, on the basis of the tip of the Robyn iceberg and the entire ‘berg del mar, I’m coming to see both as major songwriters. In the spirit of their fellow countrymen, they are much better at updating old musical trends in clever and delicate ways than their American and British peers.

I am late to the party, but the songs on Hunx & His Punx’s Gay Singles are remarkable mostly for the way that it’s unnecessary to rewrite the lyrics (replace the pronouns) in one’s head to have them aimed at a different recipient.

I haven’t yet found a review of Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest that is the least bit adequate to the band’s allure and intelligence. The Pitchfork one, while ascribing motives to the album that I just don’t hear, at least not more so than I do anywhere, did however make me think momentarily about my earliest musical interests and my progress since then, so I’ll use this awkward segue as an opportunity to mention…

The Posies’ Every Kind of Light (their 2005 album, purchased used in anticipation of the new Blood/Candy), the rare album that strikes me as one I would have found totally rad as a 6-year old, and which I’m able to find equally rad, for the same reasons, as a 23-year old, while also keeping an ironic distance from that same 6-year old, whose mind I can think about, even tap into, but never reclaim as my own. If that makes sense.

Anyway, some things I would like to address in a future Halcyon Digest review:

1. The superlative album cover. I didn’t love it at first, questioning the odd framing of the transvestite midget, but the ample negative space becomes more beautiful every time I see it. Of course, the photograph is not the band’s own (a George Mitchell, rather, from 1983), but everything they touch turns to rad, as if their bodily oils are chemical baths of Intense Emotion and Innate Cool. It’s an appropriate photo, too, since it’s possible that Halcyon Digest has everything to do with limb length and cross-dressing and looking heavenward. (The lyric sheet is also a great achievement.)
2. What is implied by a Deerhunter jam. “Desire Lines” is this album’s “Nothing Ever Happened,” but there is something almost esoteric in their restraint, the denial of total jam.
3. The way that Deerhunter become balladeers of greater strength with every passing year. Soon my mom and I will be able to share them the way we share R.E.M.
4. The way that Lockett Pundt sounds like an Everly. Now that he has found the confidence to S-I-N-G, this can be known.
5. The way that they’re no longer privileging one of their influences above all others, the way they did The Breeders on Microcastle.
6. The way that they’re still the greatest band currently working in America.
7. The lyrics, which could be placed in the emotional category “despair without despair.” Fitting that the band’s anthem for the semi-tragic figure Jay Reatard is called “He Would Have Laughed,” Reatard being another songwriter whose scary, lonely lyrics never seemed like harbingers of a sad demise, and still don’t. The difference being that Deerhunter are also very romantic.

If I can figure out what all this adds up to (besides the obvious, a great album), I’ll write my review.

*Erstwhile film critic Glenn Kenny does these on his excellent blog Some Came Running, so I thought I’d give one a try (though mine is more of an aside, given that it’s embedded within a single, much too long post).
**One of my readers suggested I start a new blog about my temp work assignments, but I’ll just lump it in here with everything else.
***I feel such a child still, in this world only to find things I like, and then rip aspects of them for my own purposes.

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